Heed the Hand That Feeds

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Quick Tips for Raising Red Hounds

1. Provide a safe living environment without any meaningless distractions!

Elizabeth Cooper-Hughes stared out the window of a creaking minibus as it lumbered through an old growth forest. Trees loomed high over the heads of her tiny cohort, just as unaware of the intruders as the deer lingering in their path. She stared out that window for the better part of two hours they stopped, and started, and turned, and stopped again. Nothing but trees out every window. Nothing but trees until there was suddenly more.

The bus passed through a wrought iron gate. Elizabeth winced. Looking at it felt like thumbs pressed hard against her temples. Beyond it, an edifice of concrete and glass loomed just above the treeline. Looking at it hurt too. A new prison no matter the angle she chose. The bus disgorged them all onto the pavement like a bird feeding its young.

The St. Eustace Academy of Public and Private Service. The name was repeated again and again as she stood in a solemn row of students at the induction ceremony. Public and private service. Public and private service. As though service was the only thing expected of her. Maybe it was. Her parents hadn't said anything before the bus arrived. They were just like that lately. Elizabeth hadn't said goodbye to them in return. She had always been that way. The principal spoke solemnly about the blessedness of work for the good of mankind, droning on for what felt like hours. Classes began later that day.

The school wasn't much different in the end. Math. Science. Languages. Most of the teachers had vicious scars and missing limbs. Desks were bolted to the floor. The doors locked from the outside. Things quickly settled into a normal routine. Running laps around the building was a pleasant diversion. Hitting classmates' padded bodies was a welcome distraction. If the school intended to wear students down so much that they couldn't possibly cause trouble, it succeeded thoroughly. If only it could wear out her roommate even more.

Elizabeth lay on the lower bunk of her room's bed and listened to the pitiful whimpers coming from above. She covered her head with a pillow. She stuck her fingers in her ears. She did both and hummed loudly. The wracking sobs still broke through her defenses.

"I didn't kick you that hard," she said quietly.

More sobs.

"Just say if it's too much on the mat."

And more.

"It's not like I'm trying to hurt you."

"Mom…" whimpered Tess. What reply could she give to that?

2. Create interesting challenges relevant to future work!

Elizabeth ended up in the nurse's office again and again with hours missing from her mind. Days, sometimes. Weeks, occasionally. Other things quickly filled the gaps left behind. She lost a day and remembered a handful of French adverbs like they were seared into her brain. She lost a week and the series of motions to perform a shoulder throw became a new gospel. Others had the same experience. Rumors about the collective forgetting festered in the student body. The ones with the biggest mouths always forgot the most. Karma, or something like it. Elizabeth kept to herself more than most, but not so much that she failed to notice other students vanishing.

Just two or three of the cohort went missing at first, then ten or eleven. Her roommate vanished, then one of her few friends. When asked, the instructors all said the answers would appear when she was ready. They shouldn't have phrased it as a challenge. Picking the lock on the teacher's lounge was no different than breaking into a convenience store. Breaking into filing cabinets posed no more challenge than a cash register. The rewards were somewhat less satisfying.

A security guard caught her carrying a giant stack of manila folders. Elizabeth bristled at the way he shouted, just like she bristled at all the cops who had ever done the same. He grabbed at her uniform. She bit his arm. He pushed her head away. She kicked up into his crotch. He sprayed a violently green can at her face. Unconsciousness came crashing down.

The familiar ceiling on the nurse's office hung low. Sleep came as the lights flared brighter. A woman stared right into her eyes. Sleep swept back over her right after. Elizabeth eventually woke in the councilor's office, slouched in a comfortable chair. One of the instructors was there in her place. Mr. Parsons stared at her and stroked the long scar that wrapped from one missing ear to the other shoulder.

"It's been years since anyone was so direct." He hid his disappointment better than teachers past. A wasted effort. Why should any of them hide it, when she made such little effort to sound remorseful? Why should she make an effort, when their disappointment came regardless?

"Don't bother calling my parents."

"'I wasn't planning to. You're Elizabeth, right? Or are you the Lizzy?"

"Elizabeth."

"Wouldn't dream of it, Elizabeth. We still need to talk though. Tell me, why the break-in?"

"No one would tell me what's going on."

"I didn't mean it like that. Didn't you notice any of the other clues? On the grounds? On the intranet? In any gossip? You were awfully straightforward about it."

"That stuff's complicated." She wiggled her hand ambivalently. "I'm only good at simple stuff."

"No, no. You're saying simple, but I know you're thinking stupid. School makes it feel that way sometimes, but it's wrong. You're not stupid, you just like doing other things. Being more energetic. Using your hands. It's a teacher's job to help you find the best ways to learn. So, Elizabeth, would you like to take more interesting classes?"

She nodded and expected them to try calling her parents anyway.

3. Encourage success by rewarding it with appropriate prizes!

Elizabeth got a new room in a new building and new classes with new classmates. The instructors told her to hurt them on the mats. She beamed when they submitted first. The instructors gave her a pile of metal parts and demonstrated how to assemble a gun. Her chest puffed up after finishing first. The instructors opened the cleaning closet and said to make something dangerous. She accidentally blew the windows out of the classroom, but she held herself high all the same. Things came naturally for the first time in her short life. That they were violent, scary things was of no consequence. Elizabeth had realized long before that adults were terrible hypocrites when it came to that sort of thing. At least they were being honest now about what knowledge would be useful in the future.

The sum of her injuries over those two years: seven broken bones and countless fractures, thirteen burns of varying degrees, three serious puncture wounds, one electrocution, and one severe case of poisoning. Hints of strange things floated at the edges of her awareness throughout the rolling days of excitement, but investigating proved fruitless. Just a few messages to instructors from the nameless foundation that paid their wages, and that fact was hardly surprising. The whole student body had heard it being vaguely referred to.

Elizabeth did well enough to get moved into the advanced placement program, and then well enough there to be selected for a special studies track. Men and women in gray uniforms sat in on classes and watched their practicals intently. Other students theorized that they worked for this military, that spy service, or even some mysterious business. One classmate insisted that the Illuminati was involved, and everyone laughed at him. Elizabeth knew the truth would be more interesting by far. So long as she didn't forget it, at least. That experience persisted, but she learned not to worry over it.

4. Break up monotony with unexpected situations!

A rainy day in the middle of October proved her prediction right. After several hours in a cramped and windowless van, the class of twelve emerged into an underground parking lot. The spots were mostly filled with unremarkable sedans and boxy trucks. Nothing that would stand out to anyone. She watched a single smoking cigarette in an overfull ashtray while waiting for the elevator. Giant fans whirred overhead. Another elevator disgorged a group of tired men and women in beige jumpsuits. Classmates chattered about the last test. When their elevator finally arrived, everyone rushed in at once. Standing without someone's elbow being jammed into someone else's appendix proved difficult.

"You've all done well," said Mr. Greene. His version of glowing praise. "Not a fuckup left in the bunch. So now you get to know what the big secret is. Anyone who doesn't want to see the big secret?"

"Do you have to kill us after?" asked another student. A boy who smiled too much for his own good.

"Tanner doesn't want to know," said Mr. Greene. "Anyone else?"

Everyone within reach punched Tanner.

The elevator opened, and the group was whisked through a maze of white corridors. Loudspeakers made impenetrable announcements, requesting that Security Director Gutiérrez report to SHC Block 3, announcing a VAC-5 medical warning, available staff report to stations, and most dramatically that they should Shelter in place. 7799 phase shift in effect. Shelter in place. 7799 phase shift in effect. Shelter in–

The corridor twisted by 90 degrees. Elizabeth saw herself seeing herself from behind. She took a step forward along the new wall. Every color died in that instant. Bones and blood and shadow all looked the same as shoes and shirts and teeth. A cricket sitting atop her teacher's heart chirped loudly. Someone barfed. It smelled like wildflowers.

Reality shuddered back to normalcy after a minute that lasted centuries. Her fellow students looked as shaken as she felt. Someone barfed again. It didn't smell floral this time, and a second student followed suit. She felt the same. Worse, maybe. Shaken in a way she didn't have the words to describe. Undermined. No one else showed a sign of it after cleaning up though, so she couldn't either.

"Get it out of your system," grunted Mr. Greene. "Nothing to be ashamed of. You'll have to get used to it though. Plenty of stuff in the world like that. Let's take a little tour."

Elizabeth's group followed him through those blinding corridors like a train of ducklings trailing their mother. The sight drew a few curious looks from white-coated researchers and camouflage-uniformed guards, but they were hardly the strangest sight in the place. Her world expanded by even increments while watching through reinforced windows and security cameras. Hand-sized spiders were imprisoned in small aquariums, struggling sluggishly in liquid suspension. A single bathysphere hung above an endless well, window opening occasionally to disgorge tiny bones from a fleshy interior. Shadowy ivy grew in single planter fenced by brilliant light. Tendrils dissolved every time they reached out, but it tried its luck against those glowing restraints all the same.

More sights came after that. More and more, stranger and stranger. The world felt awfully frayed by the end of the tour, the edges rougher, the borders jagged. Everyone sat on the floor in an empty auditorium as Mr. Greene paced. Left to right, as spoke about the things they witnessed. Right to left, as he told them about the things they didn't see. Back and forth, as he made the offer of forgetfulness and a normal life. Back and forth again, as he spoke of the people fighting to save the world from these nightmares, and about how each of the collective students could save it too. By the time he finished speaking, Elizabeth was vibrating in her seat. Stirring up teenagers never took much effort.

5. Curate a balanced diet and provide plenty of toys for dental health!

Her days changed after that. Not dramatically, but noticeably. Gone were the already-scant lessons about world history. She learned the Foundation's history instead. Gone were the baseline classes on math, and English, and civics. She was fed a diet of stories about the genius, bravery, and integrity of the brave overseers who led it. No names, of course, but the instructors were happy to bunch them all together. The Overseer Council solved problems. It provided direction. It knew everything, saw everything, and would eventually succeed in protecting everything. The overseers were visionaries, prophets, and guardian deities, all shrouded from the eyes of the unworthy. The attentive students were promised that they would one day enter the knowing ranks of the worthy, but only after proving themselves.

Elizabeth fumed at the intransigence of the Foundation's adversaries during those lessons. She seethed at their atrocities. Disaster gnawed at the world only because so many were utterly committed to the wrong ideas. The Serpent's Hand, too wedded to absolute freedom at absolute risk. The Chaos Insurgency, driven by imagined grudges and contagious delusions. The endless stream of fools wringing money from the strange and dangerous, as if it was a simple investment opportunity. Instructors showed her photos, and videos, and after-action reports, and Elizabeth wrapped her heart in them. After all, what reason did she have to doubt the hand that offered so much kibble? They weren't like past teachers at past schools, who could only offer praise or scorn, and whose only reward was continued attendance. The Foundation offered her something bigger. Something greater.

So Elizabeth worked, and studied, and trained. She fought, and fought, and fought. First in carefully ordered drills, then in ones with real risk. She did all that, and then suddenly graduated from the St. Eustace Academy of Public and Private Service. A sudden event with little fanfare. They sat under a few streamers, ate a few cakes, and said no tearful goodbyes. Each and every member of her class assumed they would go right to work for the Foundation, doing whatever needed doing. A reasonable mistake, but a mistake nonetheless.

After the festivities, she was led into a quiet room and given simple instructions on where her education would continue. Her friends' paths led through the governments of one nation or another. Her own efforts earned a trip to USSOCOM with a new name, a fabricated record, and a memetic trigger that would assuredly send her into a coma at the first mention of the Foundation or its secrets. None of that was very concerning. If they wanted her to learn, she would learn. If they wanted work, she would work. If they wanted tricks, she would perform.

6. Once they kill on command, you can be sure they'll do so again!

Elizabeth did a stint in the Occupied Korean Administrative Zone, then a few more up and down eastern Eastern Europe. Demolitions, mostly, flavored with the occasional abduction. Soon, she was shunted to the unassumingly named Special Task Force for Efficiency Optimization. Assassinations, largely. By a different name, but assassinations nonetheless. Her first killing left a sour taste at the back of her mouth, but it vanished by the second. She never justified that absence. Better to ignore it. Better to forget it entirely. Elizabeth excelled at that.

She put bombs under cars, and put bullets through windows, and pressed drugged rags against mouths, and crossed borders with new detainees, and planted incriminating evidence, and erased her own tracks, and crashed drones, and poisoned drinks, and blew up bridges, and buildings, and people, and shot, and killed, and killed, and killed. A war started all around her. That was fine. One side won swiftly. That was fine too. All she cared about was earning a return to the Foundation's nest. All she wanted was a place with the heroic overseers in the quest to save the world.

And for so long, it felt like she had failed.

She served, and served, and served, and did each and every trick her training covered. No secret messages for her arrived. She excelled, and excelled, and excelled, and no transfer back occurred. How many medals would she have earned if they could be given? How many times did she have to perfectly accomplish her assignments? Elizabeth kept up her faith as best she could, but there was always that festering doubt when she crawled into bed. That lingering sensation of being cast aside. She had failed yet again, but unintentionally this time. Not like how she gave wrong answers to spite teachers, but against her best efforts.

It hurt in a way nothing had before.

When Elizabeth received word through secure communication channels that she had finally attracted too much attention, it hardly felt monumental. Just the final sign that she had failed to prove herself worthy. The flight back across the ocean was numb. The drive down to Florida was worse. Any debriefing she got wouldn't be in MacDill, not with how far afield she ended up. She posed a lingering embarrassment at best, or a dangerous liability at worse. Instead, they would meet in a dark parking lot somewhere. The edge of a swamp, maybe. Her contact would probably try to kill her. She would kill them instead. Life was like that.

She waited at a picnic table right outside the Lower Hillsborough Wilderness Preserve. Heavy waves of heat and humidity rolled through the air, carrying along a hundred shrill bird calls with them. Her sweat soaked through her shirt, which advertised a band she'd never heard play. 'Eat the Government' felt appropriate for her new life of running from one.

A stranger approached after nearly half an hour. He wasn't terribly imposing. Not with his messy hair, tourist clothes, and scratched sunglasses. That only meant a basic sort of competence. Elizabeth couldn't feel any sort of threat in how he held himself either. That posed far more danger. She tensed as he sat on the other side of the table. Too unassuming. Too confident. She had already been outplayed. As good a reason as any for ending up like this.

"Who do you work for?" she asked, expecting a kinetic answer.

"The Foundation. We've missed you."

She would have sobbed if she was someone else. She would have cried joyful tears, and relieved ones, and a hundred others. Because Elizabeth was herself, she only allowed a smile. The man recoiled at its sight.

7. Don't forget to occasionally reinforce past lessons!

Hours later, she sat at a different table. A white table in a white room. A narrow one with a single other guest, an individual with a black bag over their head and restraints on their limbs. Not an entirely unusual situation.

Mr. Greene entered through the room's sole door. A surprise, but not enough of one for her face to show it. The severe man gently placed a handgun on the table. Grip toward her. Barrel toward the faceless prisoner.

"This man betrayed the Overseer Council," he said simply. Flatly. It was obvious what he expected. What he wanted.

Elizabeth shot the prisoner twice.

Weren't tests supposed to be challenging? True, in recent years she usually had an idea of what her victims had done to earn their fates. They were terrorists, and criminals, and particularly fearsome opponents of one agenda or another. Sometimes they got a chance to fight back. Sometimes they even made a good show of it. All the same, this felt no different from the rest. No, not exactly. It felt better. She did a good thing. She disposed of her heroes' enemy. She finally proved herself.

"Good job." Mr. Greene put a hand on her shoulder. The warmest gesture he'd ever made. "Welcome to Alpha-1, Elizabeth. Let's go get you a new name."

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