Integrity
rating: +16+x

David drew a cup of water from the cooler. Room-temperature, as always.

"Holy shit," a voice said.

Dr. Aktus slapped David on the shoulder as he walked around. "David? Jesus, man, what are you doing around here? How are you, dude?"

David took a sip while looking very consciously unembarassed. "Jean! Hey, man. Long time no see! Yeah, no, I'm good. Everything's good. Just checking things out."

Normal. Normal. Make this be normal.

Jean wasn't finished, though. "How's the…uh, kids, right? The wife? Sorry, it's been a while. That's why you left, right? Family stuff?"

"No, they're great, just great," David said. "I just decided I was missing out from the work around here, and I talked to my wife about it, and she agreed that I used to really enjoy what she saw me doing. She didn't understand it, obviously. Couldn't talk to her about it much. But she saw how happy I was with my work, and we agreed that as long as it didn't take all of my time away from her, she'd love to see me get involved again."

Normal.

"And your son? Kids, plural? Remind me."

"Tyler, yeah, no, he's good too," David replied, his mouth growing dryer. "He was having a lot of behavioral issues, but honestly, he's growing up a lot. He doesn't need all of my time and attention, like he used to. I'm available, I'm interested in working here again, and honestly, I think I used to be pretty damn good at this."

"I'll say," Dr. Aktus. "Hey, you going to talk to Personnel? They'll need to update the file."

"May as well," David said. "I am back, after all."

AUTOMATED REPORT FORM
DEPARTMENT OF PERSONNEL INTEGRITY

I was visiting Site-19 for a conference today, and I just happened to run into David Eskobar, you remember him? Anyway, I remember from training where we were told that if any personnel irregularities occurred, to come find this form and mention it for the record. Weirdest thing, I don't remember seeing this on the intranet last time I looked for it. Just so it's noted, I did what I was told to do.

—Jean Karlyle Aktus
Director
Site-81

AUTOMATED RESPONSE
DEPARTMENT OF PERSONNEL INTEGRITY


Mr. Jean Karlyle Aktus Director Site-81,

Thank you so much for using this form! We at the DPI appreciate all cooperation in personnel integrity management! The Foundation couldn't do it without you!

Please drop us a line anytime if the personnel named in your complaint appears again or attempts to establish contact with you.

—DPI AIAD "Meadow"

MEMORANDUM
DEPARTMENT OF PERSONNEL INTEGRITY
OFFICE OF THE DIRECTOR

TO: DANIEL XIAO, DPI INTEGRITY OPERATIVE

Daniel,

Intensify.

—Pedro


The Personnel Office was cold. You could see the air vent working overtime. Nobody could mistake this for an accident. Someone sitting in the seat David was in was supposed to think they were shivering for purely organic reasons. David knew better.

This was a formality, of course. Of course it was a formality.

"Mr. Eskobar," said the man playing bad-cop at the end of the comfortably small table. Not even bad-cop, exactly. Surprisingly-harsh-cop. "Welcome back. We certainly hope you've received all the hospitality befitting a returning employee of your rank and prestige."

That was sarcasm, David thought. "Absolutely, Mr. Xiao. It's been a real pleasure. I've just been reintegrating myself into the Foundation. Stretching my legs. Reacquainting myself with the other personnel. Old friends."

"Good, good, We just had some questions to add to your Reintroduction Form S-19. Little things, nothing major. We just like to fill in the gaps."

"Yeah, sure, not a problem," David said. "It's understandable."

This is going to go badly at high speeds, he thought.

"Okay, getting started. On your sabbatical application, you put as your reasoning for asking for leave 'spending time with family.' Is that correct?"

"It's correct that I wrote that on the form," David said, carefully.

Xiao's brows narrowed. "Interesting phrasing. Is there something you would like to add to this explanation?"

David shook his head. "No, that's a fine explanation. That encompasses all of the most relevant details. I don't see a need to go beyond that."

"There's no reason to be cagey, Mr. Eskobar. You have to understand, your departure was very surprising to us here at the Foundation. We wouldn't have expected it. We need to understand all the possible motivations at play, both to help us integrate you successfully back into the fold here and to help us help future employees who might find themselves in similar positions later.

David gulped. He felt that shivering sensation come over him, the one he was supposed to think came from the air conditioning.

Give them what they want.

"I worked here for years, you know," David said.

"Your record is clear, Mr. Eskobar. Your output is undeniable. By pure numbers, you would be considered a remarkable success as a researcher." Xiao was making notes surreptitiously, never breaking eye contact. "I'm sorry, I'm interrupting. Please, go on."

"Yes, of course, the numbers are there," David said. "But the numbers aren't really what you come to work for. Nobody does that."

"What did you come to work for, then?"

David took a deep breath. "At first, you come to work for the work. You love the work, or you wouldn't be here. But once you're good at the work, it isn't as challenging. I mean, it's always challenging, what we do here, trying to make the pieces fit. But you get better at doing it, and you get better at getting help in doing it, and helping others."

"And that's where the next stage comes in. The peers around you. Those become the people that you care about, the people you come to work with and know. And you see them with each other, the way they get along, the way they mesh, the little jokes, the personalities. The growing friendships."

Xiao nodded, but did not speak. David was already on his way to the point, so there was no point stalling.

"I didn't feel like I was ever a part of that. I watched it. I knew what it looked like when people were that close, bonding with each other over the work. And I didn't see it happening with me. It sounds so childish, I know."

Xiao kept writing.

"I was rising through the ranks, and I was becoming more competent, but I just didn't feel necessary. I didn't feel liked. And you tell yourself you can ignore it, and so you do. But then one day, you just can't anymore."

Xiao nodded.

David wasn't sure where else to go with this, so he just stayed silent as Xiao kept writing.

He got too uncomfortable to stay silent for long. "So anyway, between that and the family things I mentioned, I decided to take some time off. And then that time just kept going."

Xiao's eyebrows raised at that. "So you're saying that the reason documented on the form at present is accurate, just…incomplete?"

"Right, right. I mean, like you said, I was here for years. There couldn't just have been one reason, right?"

Xiao gave a slight grunt as he jotted more notes. "Thank you, Mr. Eskobar. We'll be in touch."


MEMORANDUM
DEPARTMENT OF PERSONNEL INTEGRITY

DR. PIAZZO,

RESEARCHER ESKOBAR HAS GIVEN TESTIMONY IN ACCORDANCE WITH DPI INTERROGATION PROTOCOL SIGMA-2. I DO NOT BELIEVE ANSWERS ARE COMPLETE. RECOMMEND INTENSIFY TO PROTOCOL SIGMA-3.

—OPERATIVE XIAO

MEMORANDUM
DEPARTMENT OF PERSONNEL INTEGRITY
OFFICE OF THE DIRECTOR


Daniel,

Intensify.

—Pedro

"…accordance with disciplinary procedure Sigma-3, you have the right to have a union representative present to assist you with your testimony. If you waive your right to a representative, this will not change the manner in which your testimony is interpreted by this committee. Any and all utterances made during this hearing will be documented and may be interpreted in favor of or against your innocence. Do you understand?"

David was now aggressively hoping that this was also a formality. "Yes."

"And do you waive your right to a union representative at this point in time?"

"Yes." There was nobody who could speak for him now. The clock on the wall ticked off the seconds.

"Please sign here." Her nametag identified her as Kennedy Davenport, whose affiliation was apparently with the "Department of Personnel Integrity", which David had never heard of, and whose title was apparently "Integrity Specialist", which David felt was a very bad sign, and who placed the plastic clipboard on the wooden table in front of David with a practiced motion that made no sound. Professional. Disturbingly professional.

David signed. The clock kept ticking.

"Very well. David Anthony Eskobar, this committee has been convened — " Davenport gestured to the rest of the table, which was empty, as she was the committee. " — to determine other possible motives behind your absence of the past three years, and to determine if your return is linked to certain individuals or groups of interest which might have played a role in your absence or reappearance. Do you wish to make a statement at this time?"

"I've said all I think I can. I don't know what this is about. You haven't told me what this is about. I've answered the questions. What else is there?"

"We need you to tell us," Davenport said. "We wouldn't be here if people didn't make a habit of lying during awkward situations, and if those lies didn't have the potential to harm or destroy the project that we are collectively building here. And if we didn't have a very good instinct for when those lies are happening. As for what the truth is, well, we've found that the easiest and most cost-effective solution is just to ask. We typically get the answers we're looking for, because we know to never, ever stop asking until we do."

David sat quietly. Somehow, Davenport sat more quietly. The clock was still ticking.

Time passed.

"This is about those junior researchers, isn't it?"

Davenport looked up. "Which junior researchers would those be?"

"They've been in touch with me while I've been gone," David said. "They contacted me. Asking about some past research that I did. They said they were working on some project that involved my research. Followed up on it."

"You're sure they were Foundation employees?"

"I mean, if they weren't, they certainly had a great deal of knowledge about my research. And several other researchers' work as well. And the names of several former personnel. I assumed they were working with other, still-employed people."

"But you disclosed details. Unpublished details about your work. Classified details."

"Oh, for fuck's sake," David snapped. "You people never gave a shit about my work. Referenced me in footnotes every now and then, maybe. Mentioned my work in passing. I know it was from pity. Not like the others. Other researchers, off in their circles, all buddy-buddy, collaborating together. Then they get attention from the other researchers, all buddy-buddy, collaborating together. A nifty little circle, huh? But I was never in the circle. Just standing nearby. Maybe thrown a bone or two, now and then. More pity."

Davenport just sat there. David had ruined himself forever with that.

"Those kids wanted to expand what I had done," David said, trying to salvage something from this disaster. "They wanted to see it go deeper. Go farther than I had gone. If they had attempted it with just the work they had, it would have ruined all of us. They would have been humiliated. So yes, Ms. Davenport. I gave them classified information. I gave them suggestions about what to look at, what connections could be made. Eventually, I even looked at their preliminary reports. Helped them with revisions behind the scenes now and then. Helped them polish their work. I didn't want…" David trailed off.

"I didn't want to see them end up burnt to ash. Like I was."

Davenport kept taking her notes.

"What is it that initiated your return to the Foundation, Mr. Eskobar?"

David was about to raise his voice again until he realized a careful distinction, which was key in interviews like this. This isn't the same question as before.

"Those researchers messaged me with thanks. They were about to go public with their work and wanted me to know how grateful they were. So I used my access codes to get back onto the Foundation intranet. I started reading some of the newest developments — have you seen the controversy about the reports on recent translunar satellites? — and I realized how much I missed the challenges of it all. I figured I hadn't done anything wrong. At least, I thought I hadn't. Suddenly, I'm realizing this may have been…in error."

Davenport's pencil kept writing. David was silent, his face now in his hands. Now, this time, he really had nothing else to say.

The clock ticked.

"I wouldn't be that hard on yourself."

David's head turned slowly as he processed this. "I'm sorry, what was that?"

"You're back now. I don't know what's going to happen to you. I doubt any of us do. But if this is a place where mistakes can be made, this is a place where amends can be made, too."

Davenport stopped writing and stood from the table while David just looked at her.

"I have all I need for my report. This committee is adjourned. We'll be in touch."

MEMORANDUM
DEPARTMENT OF PERSONNEL INTEGRITY

Dr. Piazzo,

Researcher Eskobar has been questioned per DPI interrogation protocol Sigma-3. If his responses are believed to be satisfactory, we can be said to have concluded our investigation.

—Specialist Davenport

MEMORANDUM
DEPARTMENT OF PERSONNEL INTEGRITY
OFFICE OF THE DIRECTOR


Kennedy,

Do you believe he's telling the whole story?

—Pedro

MEMORANDUM
DEPARTMENT OF PERSONNEL INTEGRITY

No.

—Specialist Davenport

MEMORANDUM
DEPARTMENT OF PERSONNEL INTEGRITY
OFFICE OF THE DIRECTOR


Kennedy,

Intensify.

—Pedro

David wished he were the sort of person who could say something cute and quippy at a time like this. He would have wanted to be that sort of person. But he found it hard to speak as the man, all six-and-a-half feet of him, shoved David's stretcher-bound face and body beneath the running water again.

"You speak," the man said in a heavy accent. "All speak."

David thought his arms and legs would break with the intensity with which he fought against the restraints. All he was, as a human being, was reduced to flight instincts and fear.

The man pulled him from the running water and raised him up. He was holding David's stretcher one-handed by a handle below David's feet, like an oblong pizza peel. He didn't seem to be straining.

David tried to shake the water out of his eyes and see as clearly as he could, without his glasses. The man had a scar above the left eye, maybe an animal bite. Bald. Dull eyes. Lined, worn face. Tanned. He was wearing nothing above the waist that David could see, except a laminate badge that appeared to be pinned directly to his chest. The badge read

"GOD"
DEPARTMENT OF PERSONNEL INTEGRITY
SUPERVISORY SPECIALIST

David gasped for air. "Your name is 'God'?"

The torturer shrugged. "What people call me. Speak now."

David shook his head desperately. "I don't have anything. There isn't anything more. I've told you everything! Please, God, I've told you everything!"

God looked away, as though contemplating something. "You polite. I like that."

He pushed David back into the water.


Time passed.


"God, maybe there is something," David gasped.

"Always," God said. "Speak."

"Please, just give me a second. Please? I just need to breathe."

God grunted what was apparently agreement. David took a couple of minutes to cough and wheeze.

"The Dodridge hearing," he said when God started to look impatient "This has to be about the Dodridge hearing."

God grunted what was apparently encouragement and shrugged his shoulders. "Speak."

"I never got over the Dodridge hearing," David said. "Tilda Moose convened it. Selected staff members to form a jury. Abuse of authority. Harassment of personnel. Conduct unbecoming. All those things."

God grunted.

"Moose, she…she came to all of us, one at a time, individually. You couldn't call it 'manipulation' or 'tampering', of course. That's what makes it effective. She just wanted to 'poll' us. Get a feeling of where we were at in our heads. She made it seem like she was so worried about the outcome. Like there was ever any doubt."

God grunted again.

"We found him guilty, obviously. And we all spoke. He was a friend of mine, and I spoke out about what he'd done. He was so sure I would be on his side, because I'd never talked to him about it before."

"You say he innocent?" God grunted. "I see lots of innocent. They say innocent, anyway. They say my name, too. Too many words."

"No, God, he did all of it. It was all true. Not a single lie was told in that room," David said.

"That good!" God said. "Lying bad! God hates lies!" He picked the slab, with David's body strapped to it, and started to slam it down on the water rack.

"No, no, no, no!" David said. "Please! I have more!"

God paused, then slowly lowered the slab. "No, not do that. Don't break rack again, boss say. This one have more. Talk more, this one."

"It was how she did it," he said. "One at a time. Whispers behind everybody's back. Low and slow. Setting the tone. Arraying the dominoes on the board. Waiting for the opportune moment. Dodridge just blundered through the situation. He was a soldier. He knew how to fight opponents. But nobody can fight ghosts, phantoms. I watched it happen, his reactions, her movements. It was fascinating. He was an asshole. He deserved to go."

"But she wouldn't just pull the trigger," David said. "She wanted it to look like the will of the people. So she brought the people to her will. One at a time. Whispers."

David was so, so very tired. He started to drift off, now that the running water was just background noise.

God gently slapped him across the face. "Not done yet," he said. "More."

David didn't argue, and now that his face was burning with the impact, the reality of the room was back in full force. He kept talking.

"I don't hate the ends, God, I really don't. We're all better for having Dodridge and his kind gone. But as long as Moose and her kind are around, it could be any of us. Once you have that kind of power, once you can justify that kind of power, nobody's safe. Right and wrong become fluid, and the crosshairs are always flickering around. First it's him. Then it's someone angry about him being gone. Then it's someone who didn't even know him. Eventually, it's anyone who disagrees with the powers-that-be. The real powers-that-be.

"And it'll never be Moose who's doing it, it'll always be the will of the people. And behind them, the whispers. You'll never hear the whispers. And the ones who do hear them won't tell you. Because they could be next."

God grunted for a final time, contemplatively. David didn't care anymore what came next. Then he felt his feet lowering to the ground as God set down the slab he was strapped to.

"Maybe you done," he said, then nodded, and walked away.

MEMORANDUM
DEPARTMENT OF PERSONNEL INTEGRITY
OFFICE OF THE DIRECTOR

Kennedy,

Your instincts are excellent as always. Interrogation protocol Sigma-4 yielded some additional answers. Thank you or your usual dedication.

—Pedro

MEMORANDUM
DEPARTMENT OF PERSONNEL INTEGRITY

Dr. Piazza,

Are we done with him, or do you need me to intensify to Sigma-5?

—Specialist Davenport

MEMORANDUM
DEPARTMENT OF PERSONNEL INTEGRITY
OFFICE OF THE DIRECTOR

Kennedy,

I'll handle Sigma-5 personally.

—Pedro

The water in the pitcher was room-temperature. Not hot enough to be warming, not cool enough to soothe. It was exactly the temperature David needed it to be.

He had one of the most unique sorts of headaches, the kind that felt like his brain had been gently spanked on all surfaces, every nook and cranny, at the same time. He felt like he could feel his corpus callosum for the first time in his life. At least, what he thought was the first time in his life.

His brain felt like someone had exfoliated it. The other man in the room was explaining why.

"Class-B amnestic treatment will do that," Pedro Piazzo said, in an incredibly gentle voice. "Take some Advil; it should fade away in the next five to six hours."

"I'm very confused," David said.

"That will happen. As a general precept of life, as well as in relation to chemical antimemetic therapy."

"You're calling it therapy now?" David asked.

"As soon as that became the accepted parlance. Just as it used to not be called 'antimemetic', because we didn't have a separate word for something that killed thoughts. If you go back far enough, none of us ever had the words we needed to describe almost anything in the world. And as we gained the words, so did we gain the power to control the world. Or at least, the part of the world we inhabited. Which, for each of us, is all that really exists."

David sat for a moment, contemplating. "This is going to seem like a non-sequitur, but is this a fucking chaise lounge I'm reclining on? What is this, suede?"

"Synthetic microsuede. Designed for maximum comfort."

"And you're sitting over there in a chair, talking to me about control," David said. "Shit. This is a therapy session."

"You're calling it therapy now?" Pedro replied, smirking.

David scoffed. His head was pounding, and somewhere deep inside of him were the remnants of some old animal fear, some fight-or-flight response trying to enact itself but never fully surfacing.

He shivered.

"You're experiencing the after-effects of massive cortisol and adrenalin release," Pedro said, as gently as possible. "We recently finished torturing you for several hours prior to the amnestic treatment."

David's shivering intensified. He thought about the version of himself from just a few hours previously, screaming. He imagined what the Foundation used for torture. Then, more perplexingly, he wondered what the Foundation had used torture for.

"Jesus," he said. "What could I possibly have done? I just walked t…" He trailed off.

"No, I just…I just left the house. I was driving up here to ask about my old job. Yeah. I remember the car being hotter than I expected."

"Tactile sensations, as well as smells, root memories deeper than we can fully destroy," Pedro said. "I really would recommend not fully exploring what you're missing."

David's shivering would not stop. "Do you have…I know this sounds silly, but do you have a blanket?"

"There's a drawer below the chaise lounge," Pedro said. "Has a blanket with the same material as the chair. Very nice. I will warn you, though, the shivering is a chemical reaction to what you experienced, not temperature-related. It will help with shock and blood flow, but that's about it.

"I should explain what it is that we do here," Pedro continued as David fished the blanked out of the drawer and wrapped himself on the lounge. "I don't want you to get the wrong idea. You haven't done anything wrong in any sense that hurts or threatens us. We aren't angry. We harbor no ill will towards you, your work, or your career prospects. There basically is nothing that your personality would allow you to do that could actually, meaningfully hurt us. What we wanted to address is your psychological integrity."

"Integrity?" David said.

"If your mind, your thought process, is a car, we are the wind tunnel. We seek to find the places where useless or harmful thoughts are creating drag and holding you back. We wouldn't have done this to you without your consent, but frankly, as per our policy and general experience with this sort of thing, coming back here was your consent. You knew questioning would happen in some form, even if you didn't know how thorough we would be."

There may well have been a great deal of anger that David could or should or might have felt under different circumstances, but as it was, he was too grateful for the blanket and the water to notice. He skipped the anger stage and tried to find understanding.

"I'm really grateful not to remember that," David said.

"Folks in your position usually are."

There was silence in the room.

"So what are we doing now?" David asked.

"That depends on you. We waterboarded you for several hours. You told us any number of things, many of them true, some of them false, probably imagined. All of them are significant to one extent or another. Even the lies you could tell us would give us information as to your mental state. But the operative who…worked with you was convinced that there was something else. Something that couldn't be asked of you. Something that couldn't be broken from you. Something you may not realize about—"

"Daddy issues," David said.

More silence.

David poured himself another glass of water, swallowed some Advil sitting in a cup next to the pitcher.

"Is this the part where you ask gently probing questions, pull details from me, build some kind of thesis to explain everything?" David said. "I think I've seen this movie."

"That's good that you've seen it, because I'm not paid to reenact it," Pedro said. He pushed his glasses up a crooked nose that looked like it had been broken a few times, especially with the scar right above his left eye. But that looks like an animal bite more than anything, David thought.

"I have to do all the work now?" David asked.

Pedro shrugged, crossed his arms.

"It isn't complicated. My biological father died when I was six. My mom hooked up with a guy. He raised me, sort of. They made sure there was food in the house. I was pretty much left alone beyond that. I don't know what sort of things dads teach their kids, but I hear that that's a common thing for dads to do. I didn't get any of that. Anything I learned came from books.

"I didn't learn a lot of social skills or practical skills except from jobs I worked. I worked hard to pick up on things, but I was always behind. Everyone around me understood all these interactions and bonded with each other so fluidly, but I was on the outside. I missed too much shit that other people got when they were kids. I never got over the frustration.

"I clung onto any older man that showed an interest in teaching me things I didn't know. Did you see who the operative was who recruited me into senior staff? Was that in my file?"

Pedro nodded.

"I revered Lament. We all did. He brought all my peers into ranking positions, and the generation before me, and the one after me. And because of that, he was hounded by all the staff. Everyone went to him with their problems, badgered him to resolve all of their disputes, look over their work before they submitted him. I wanted to be…God, I don't even have the words for it."

"You wanted to be the good son," Pedro said.

David nodded. The tears in his eyes didn't affect the tone of his voice. "I wanted to be the mature one. The balanced one. The reliable one. The one who didn't need his help, and as such, the one he thought was the best. The one he loved the best."

David stood up, paced around the room to the bookshelves in the corner, along the bookshelves on the wall to the door he walked in through, and back to the corner. "But I couldn't be that all the time. The Dodridge tribunals. The purge of all of Dodridge's friends. Hell, just the day-to-day practice of doing everything I could to stand behind a set of values I could defend to myself. It was more exhausting than I ever could have imagined. And all the while, all the staff around me seemed like they were such good friends, and yet again, I was on the outside. Just like always.

"I wanted to talk to him, talk to someone," David continued. "But I was so determined to be the one who didn't need him. And I didn't know who else to talk to. And I didn't know what else to do. So when the pressure got to be too much, I just…I just left."

David was still pacing silently once he was done talking. Pedro let the pacing continue for four, then five, then six minutes. David was obviously working through something that needed to be worked.

"I need to be the sort of person who tells people when something's wrong. I know that. I know what I need to do. I know what I need to be. And I need to be that here, first. I need to be back here. I need to finish what I started here." David came to a stop, nodded. "I need to be here. I have work to do here."

Pedro had been staring at a pad of paper while David had been talking. Finally, once David was finished, Pedro wrote some words on the topmost piece of paper, ripped it off of the pad, folded it in half, then half again. He stood up and looked directly at David.

"Okay."

David just stared.

"Okay?"

Pedro stared back.

"Okay. Go back to work. You've got a lot of catching up to do."

He handed the folded piece of paper to David, walked past him to the door, and walked out.

David held the piece of paper and kept looking around the room, confused at whatever was happening. Assuming that he was trusted not to steal anything, he turned for the door himself.

He unfolded the piece of paper and looked at the blocky, surprisingly legible handwriting.

"FUCKING FORGIVE YOURSELF ALREADY, ASSHOLE."

David shook his head, reread the text, and left the office.

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