Chapter 5:

Log #5


That simple instruction from Ma'am — "Find Yolanda a chance to say sorry" — weighed on my mind for the rest of the day when she came back from following Dr. Clement. It was one matter to offer an apology — but to graciously accept one was another altogether, and especially from a capable woman. That night, I fell asleep while reading online articles about how to resolve arguments with women.

The next day, I walked into the director's office with a splitting headache. Ma'am and I discussed many different matters — how to report Laboratory 1's results to the rest of the Institute and the government without raising an alarm, ways to ensure silence from the team of researchers involved in keeping our secret, the optimal time to brew different varieties of luxury coffee — but the matter with Dr. Clement was never addressed. The lack of any unease on Ma'am's face confirmed to me that there was nothing she felt the need to hide; the situation was as easy as me going and accepting an apology. It was likely that they had already discussed this while I was cleaning up the Blue Mountain brew spilled on the office floor. I sighed and kept poring over data analyses, seeing the mark of a prodigious data scientist in every declaration and conclusion. When my sleep-addled brain wandered, the memory of Dr. Clement and I saving the day together (see Log #2) would come to mind. In it, she and I were allies, celebrating a hard-fought victory.

It made the sight of her at lunch, conversing and laughing with Vanessa Atkins, even more unbearable.


Though Spencer's foot-tapping was getting on my nerves, I said nothing and tried my best to eat at least half of my egg salad sandwich. But though my stomach growled, the consistency of the filling was not unbrainlike enough for me to forget that I was the leader of a research institute doing experiments on twenty-four brains floating in a vat.

Yuck. I pulled out a packet of salted crackers and washed it down with plenty of coffee while silently freestyling over the incessant pattering of men's dress shoes on the vinyl floor.

Institute Remix

". . . And you know what Josh said after I finally made the first move and kissed him? 'Oh, that's cool.' That was it! Then he went straight back to watching the movie as if nothing had happened." I shook my head. "I never thought I would be the one making all the moves in a relationship."

"Ah, young love," said my black-haired companion joyfully.

Every time the corners of Vanessa's lips would creep up and a small giggle would escape, an uncomfortable guilt bloomed in my heart. She's a spy, I told myself again in vain. And I'm on an important mission, myself. After taking a long drink of Coke Zero, I wiped my lips with the back of my hand and went through the script I had planned.

"Say, Vanessa. Can you tell me more about making the jump from the AFMS to the Institute? It sounds like there is quite the story behind it."

Vanessa nodded. "I've been interested in doing research for a while. So after I got my leg injury, it seemed like a good time to finally make the switch."

"Did you make that decision right away?" My pulse quickened. "Did it take you long to think it through?"

"I had time to consider my options while recovering." Vanessa replied, unwavering. She took another bite of her bagel. "Eat up, Yolanda. Your food is getting cold."

I glanced at the time on my phone screen. Ignoring it, I pressed on. "And were you still with the Medical Service during that time? Were you working with them until you made your decision to come here?"

"I came here only a short while after my injury." Vanessa was still smiling, but it felt colder than before. "I did not realize that you were so curious about my military career."

"Was your injury really that recent?" By now, my heart was pounding in my throat. "It is pretty incredible that you can walk around so much so soon."

"My limp has not gotten in the way of me performing civilian duties." She put down her bagel and chuckled dryly. "This feels a bit like an interview. Am I being promoted?"

"I was also wondering—"

"I am also curious," Vanessa started, cutting me off, "as to the reason for why you are speaking to me so formally."

Ba-bump. Ba-bump. "Ah, sorry, I—"

"I recall you saying that I could speak more casually with you. That I should use more contractions and slang, that I could call you by your first name. You talked about movies and television shows, and shared funny stories to make me laugh. So I ask you, Dr. Clement: what changed?"

I opened my mouth to speak, but nothing came out. Vanessa stared me down for a few moments, then sighed.

"I was glad that you seemed to know nothing about my past. That I was just plain old Vanessa, a new colleague with an interesting choice for a past career and a bad leg to match." She shook her head. "It was nice while it lasted."

Desperately, I tried to speak up: "No, you have it all—"

"Do I really?" Vanessa's words had a razor-sharp edge. Her eyes pierced through me.. "I am sure you now have a strong opinion about me, just like everyone else. So tell me, Dr. Clement" — I winced — "which is it? Is Vanessa Atkins a national hero to place on a pedestal? Or, rather," — she leaned in — "a war criminal just like her father?"

I looked down, unable to reply. For the rest of the lunch break, I poked at my meal with a fork while Vanessa ate wordlessly across from me, as lonely as she had been the day that I first saw her in that same spot. When she finished, she checked her wristwatch and stood up. With ten minutes left in the lunch break, she walked out without a goodbye, leaving me to stew in my utter defeat.


The one time I wished Sam would barge in without knocking and talk up a storm about some sort of nonsense or another, the door to my office remained shut. Ugh, save me, Sam. Though on any other occasion the numbers on my screen would give me a heart attack, today I had more pressing things to worry about than the fate of the Institute. Quite simply, I would take a hundred more anomalies per day if the stuff with Spencer and Vanessa would just resolve itself. Even a brain tank with twelve each of Specimens 13 and 24 would be less headache-inducing than having to deal with office drama or a conspiracy theory.

What happened to losing yourself in your work? I chastised myself as I stood up and stretched. You're still too young to lose steam. But when I really thought about it, I was certainly less excited about starting work in the mornings since March. After Spencer arrived at the Institute, the pressure for me to keep Sam out of trouble has all but disappeared (aside for keeping her lousy personality in line). But away with that responsibility went the constant sense of direction that I had in my work life. While before I could be dragged into all sorts of scientific rabbit holes thanks to the force of will and painstaking, scrupulous nature of the director, I was no longer the obvious first choice of companion on those wild adventures. With a loyal, wealthy polymath taking my place as the sidekick of choice, I was back to being the plain old Head of Data Science. With a side gig moonlighting as counterintelligence, though unfortunately that would likely be gone, too.

Unable to concentrate on my work but also not in the mood to do Sudoku puzzles or other brain teasers, I stood up and stretched. Eh, maybe I'm due for a check-in on the guys in the computer room, I thought as I headed out the door. Though I was usually rather hands-off when it came to supervision of those under my direct control as long as they produced timely results, there was still a need to show them that they could not get too out of line with their afforded freedom. (An occasional bite or two from a bad bitch makes her barks that much scarier. Woof, woof.)

Walking down the empty hall, I hummed an upbeat tune — likely another Japanese song stuck in my head from second-hand anime exposure — and added a small skip in my step, wishing I was a young girl running around the countryside instead of a twenty-nine-year-old workhorse in a research institute. Absent-minded, it was only when I was at the end of the hall that I realized that someone had turned the corner and was standing right before me.

"Ah — Spencer!" I was uncomfortably greeted by a familiar face wearing a tailored suit under a lab coat. What do I say? I knew I had to make amends to him sooner or later for Sam's sake, but the thought of asking someone to forgive such a violent outburst gave me pause. To take back something I meant so earnestly at the time — does that not trample on my pride as a human being? As a woman?

"Remember when we saved the day together?"

"Huh?" I drew a blank, not expecting Spencer to speak first. He looked away with a bashful expression.

"It was that day that changed everything," said Spencer in a slightly hushed tone. "I will always treasure that memory. And for that, Dr. Clement, I thank you."

"I was the one who hit the switch in the first place!" I said too loudly before shying away. "It was special for me, too, getting to be the hero. Hey, Spencer. About yesterday, I—"

"This is for you." Spencer offered me a Thermos. "Unfortunately, it is not Blue Mountain. I hope that Kona might suit your tastes."

"I can't tell the difference anyway. It's all lost on a simpleton like me." I accepted the gift with a smile. "Let's keep doing our best together. For Sam, the Institute, and all of humanity. But one small change is in order."

Spencer nodded enthusiastically. "That is?"

"Call me Yolanda." I grinned. "But maybe not in front of Vanessa. Don't want to blow my cover, after all." Enjoying Spencer's wide-eyed look, I winked and turned around, feeling oddly inspired. "I'd better get back to work. I'll head up to the director's office after I wrap up some analyses."

"Yolanda." Spencer's voice cracked, but regained its poise when he continued. "We are on the same side, right?"

I looked back at him and laughed. "Of course we are."


If there were a word for when one simultaneously feels the warm fuzzies and the urge to vomit, it would be the perfect title for this section. But alas. Turning off the bug in the front pocket of Spencer's lab coat, I leaned back in my chair and closed my eyes. All according to plan.

A beep broke the silence. I reached forward and grabbed my phone, but almost dropped it when I saw the short message previewed on my screen:

Meet me at the usual spot at 6pm sharp. Don't be late.


By then, all the hotel staff knew the drill. As soon as I entered through the rotating doors, a young woman (quite the looker) came to escort me to the restricted staff elevator. When the doors closed, the cab started moving on its own. "Welcome back, Samantha." Normally I would seethe over the nerve of the operator, but alas, the synthesized voice betrayed its artificial indifference. At the very top floor, the rear panel of the elevator swung open, leading out to a floor with crystal chandeliers that emanated the soft light of simulated flame. A true VIP experience. I smirked, but let out a sigh. If only I were here by my own merits. Though of course, there was a reason why the club of elites would bother with making bookings here. One could imagine just how many so-called closet skeletons might be hidden inside each of the many suites. Shivering, and not only because of the AC, I marched up to a door with a vintage design and scanned my retina. Three green flashes later, I took a deep breath and turned the ivory doorknob.

I was greeted by sounds coming from the washroom — some old R&B hit from the 20s playing over the running water. Letting the door shut behind me, I shuffled over to the sandalwood dining table and took a seat. Though I was certainly used to being summoned to meetings like this at the drop of a hat, I was particularly on edge thanks to the recent developments at the Institute. Not in the mood to play some gacha or clicker game on my phone, I sat up straight and looked around the room that had become much too familiar. As usual, the room looked as pristine as if it were awaiting a new patron. Of course, the drawers of the antique dressers and the compartments behind the dizzyingly expensive paintings on the walls (including a certain stolen Vermeer) held many forbidden secrets, but I was nowhere close to brave or stupid enough to peep around. It was pretty much impossible that my every move was not being monitored by some dude in the next room over, playing cards and smoking cigars with a squad of trained killers. No way would the dickweed in the shower always be so self-assured were he not absolutely confident that I would not and could not retaliate, no matter what he said or did. Though I rarely got the better of Yolanda in heads-up poker (damn her and her lame ass GTO shit), it was still obvious to me that there was no way I could afford to call a bluff at these stakes. As the time drew long, him leaving me alone in that room seemingly unattended just felt like bullying. Yeah, yeah. You wear the pants, big guy. We get it already. I slouched in spite of myself, letting boredom overtake my initial anxiety. Yes, I'm just a lowly insect — no — even less than that. Please have mercy.

At long last, the sound of running water stopped. I straightened up and readied myself for the upcoming charade. Surely, in another timeline, I might have joined clubs in high schools, made a handful of friends, fooled around with a cutie or two, and had the lead role in a small school production. I, on that stage, might have expressed the range of the human condition and embodied the spirit of hopeful, idealistic youth. Once all evil was vanquished and all good was rewarded, I and all my fellow actors would have taken a bow, enjoying the standing ovation before the curtain finally fell and everything returned to the intended darkness of the world. Instead of struggling during those tender years and looking forward through an impenetrable mist toward the world of adult possibilities, I could have lived a normal life as a normal girl. But now, that would forever remain an outcome that was not meant to be.

And so, my performance that day — and every day — was dedicated to the kinder, better Samantha Keller that could have been but never will. With a practiced smile, I swallowed my silent elegy to the death of possibility.

Green Room

"Why hello, Sammie! Didn't even hear you come in." As soon as the washroom door opened, a chipper voice filled the room. "You should have given me a holler. Or, even better, maybe hopped in to keep me company."

I turned around. Catching a glimpse of a chiseled torso framed proudly by an open bathrobe, I immediately averted my eyes and looked down at my lap, somewhat embarrassed. There's no way he's not wearing underwear, right? Not that I was going to look up and check.

"Hi, Linus. Quite the attire you have there."

The man named Linus roared. "Seems like the young director is as prudish as ever." His footsteps approached the table, where he took a seat at his usual spot. With every muscle in my neck and face erupting in mutiny, I tilted my head up and met his eyes. Well, there goes my composure. He knew exactly what he was doing. Deciding that there was no winning, I produced a flash drive and slid it across the table.

"Here's the most recent data as of noon today," I said flatly. "Pass it over to the guys over at the Office as soon as possible. I'd rather not get a call from your boss."

"I know what you mean." Linus chuckled and pocketed the flash drive, then leaned back and ran his fingers through his damp short hair. His youthful face rode the line between handsome and punchable when he winked. "I hope it wasn't too much trouble to come on such short notice. If it makes you feel any better, I only found out about the arrangements right before you did. Man, they really caught me with my pants down. And not just figuratively, either."

By now, I knew better than to ask about the details of his life. Instead, I nodded with a knowing look, acting like I understood the full breadth of his innuendo. Then, changing the subject, I inquired: "There must have been more to this meeting than just a simple hand-off?"

Linus propped his chin on his hand and stayed silent for a moment, looking right into the blank face I was trying my best to keep. Then, he set his palms on the table and pushed himself up. I quickly shut my eyes, but not quick enough to block everything out. Well, at least he's wearing boxer briefs.

"Room service should be here any minute. I'll go get dressed into something more suitable for dinner." Linus's voice trailed as he headed to the bedroom. "The red wine should pair well with the lamb," he called out from out of sight. I did not bother responding, knowing that I was not really in a position to decline. At times like these, I take solace in the words uttered by a wise stranger on a message board: when a poultry chicken cannot escape their force-feeding, they might as well hope to be stuffed with grain instead of corn.


Being served by a charming girl with doe eyes (skinnier and taller than the girl who greeted me) certainly calmed my nerves. As did the stunning presentation of the food. With the dimmed lighting and the gentle jazz music playing in the background (performed by PetersonAI and Collierbot), I could almost forget that Linus was leering at me from right across the table, having the time of his life watching me fumble around with my cutlery while wearing a dress he had forced onto me. I would be more conscious of how much cleavage I was showing if I had any to begin with.

~~ Amuse-gueule: Gazpacho blanco andaluz ~~

"That's a great look, Sammie. Isn't it such an improvement over that dreadful attire you usually wear to formal events?" He licked his lips playfully. "I'd almost give in to temptation, if your cute little face didn't bear such a strong resemblance to your father's."

I silently thanked Dad for his genetics and kept spooning the creamy white mixture into my mouth. I made sure none got on my lips, lest Linus say something crass.

~~ Entrée: Soupe à l'oignon gratinée ~~

"This tastes fine, I guess. But it really doesn't compare to the version they serve at —"

If only I were not wearing thousands of dollars of clothing right now (Was it just something left behind by his last lay?), I would dip an entire loaf of bread into the soup.

~~ Poisson: Crostini avec un Champagne granita ~~

"Isn't it so ridiculous how people care so much about the latest gadgets? I'd rather a new rod, myself. How about I take you fishing sometime? Just the two of us, enjoying a beautiful afternoon on a yacht."

I nodded along. The texture of the fish spread would have bothered me if not for the soothing sensation of half a bottle of Languedoc. The delicious alcohol-soaked ice crystals of the granita also did their work.

~~ Plat principal: Côtelette d'agneau ~~

Linus sighed and turned to our server. "These portion sizes are too large. How unsightly. But I'll excuse it this time."

By the time the pretty girl finished apologizing, I only had a bone left on my plate. Well, that was nice while it lasted. I wiped my fingers on a wet towel and kept inhaling wine.

~~ Salade: Épinards et pommes ~~

". . . And then, you just wouldn't believe what the higher-ups tossed at me next . . ."

Pine nuts, dried cranberries, balsamic vinegar, and Dijon mustard on spinach and apples. Simple, but to the point.

~~ Dessert: Semifreddo al pralinato di nocciole ~~

It was as our server removed our plates and went to fetch our sweets and tea that Linus suddenly went from babbling about nonsense to staring me down with intense eyes.

"I'm sure you've worked out Vanessa's purpose by now."

~~ Mignardise: Petit fours avec du thé ~~

Everything pounded at once. My head from the booze, and my heart from the adrenaline coursing through my bloodstream. Even though Linus offered me his share of buttery biscuits, I could not take a single bite. All that went through my mind was one word: Fuck. Fuck. Fuck.

"Calm down, will you? Drink this to wash down your chill pill." He pushed a cup of tea toward me. "Da Hong Pao. A hundred thousand dollars per ounce. A lot cheaper with the right connections, though."

"Honestly, I'm more of a coffee person." Under the table, my hands shook uncontrollably. Was this my last meal?

"My God, Sammie. You're a mess. A hot mess." Linus tut-tutted, then spoke loudly: "This'll all be off the record, gentlemen." My eyes darted around, half-expecting someone to be right there. But of course, he was speaking to the guys tuning in. After a long silence. I spoke up:

"If you know I know about Vanessa, then—"

"You should really understand, Dr. Keller, just how the real world works." Linus smiled, but without a hint of kindness on his face. "How old are you, again?"

". . . Twenty-five."

"I'm thirty-six. Almost a middle-aged man." Linus closed his eyes. "And since I was twenty-three — incidentally, the same age you were when you become director of the Social Simulation Institute — I've been running errands for the suits upstairs. Back then, I was so young. So naive and full of ridiculous notions. I could always convince myself that I was doing the right thing, that I was a turning gear in a grand system that would shape society for the better." Linus opened his eyes again and met mine with his hardened gaze. "Since then, I've seen some shit. Too much shit. And after a while, I realized: following orders is a youngster's game."

I stared at Linus, then blinked. "Why are you telling me this? What if I'm secretly a government loyalist? What if this were all a trap? What if I ratted you out?"

He tittered with empty laughter. "Where do you think their true loyalties lie? And in any case, I think you and I both know where yours don't." Then, without a beat, he stood up and headed out. "Sober up and leave by yourself in the morning. I'll be contacting you through unofficial means."

After the door clicked shut, I polished off the rest of the wine and used the ridiculously-priced tea to wash down the small confectionaries. Then, I stumbled into the bedroom, where I threw off my dress and passed out on the fresh luxurious bed sheets. When I woke up, shivering and with nothing on except my panties, I got dressed in my clothes from the previous day and went home to get ready for work.

While I was asleep, all traces of my dinner with Linus had been cleared from the dining table. As if we had never been there, and as if everything was just a dream.


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