Dr. Daniel Aeslinger envied his peers outside of the Foundation. They only had to deal with life in the twenty-first century eroding mankind's sanity, and he supposed that was enough to deal with as it was. Even without anomalies running amok in the world, human beings were quite capable of messing up their minds without any outside help. Mix in the trauma inherent in realizing reality was a sham, and what did you get? One hell of a challenge for people like Aeslinger.
He put down his briefcase in the spare office they'd assigned him at Site-103, and rubbed his eyes. He'd been awake for the entire flight over here, his body once again refusing to catch the sleep he so desperately needed. It always did that on long flights, stubbornly refusing to give in to exhaustion. And when he did doze off, he'd be woken by a cough, or someone talking. It was infuriating, but he refused to medicate himself for something like this. He saved pharmaceuticals for when it really mattered.
"Coffee," he muttered and went back out to get some from one of the machines in the hall.
When he came back, someone was sitting in the office chair opposite the desk. He was in his mid-forties, impeccably dressed in what looked like an expensive dark suit. He looked like he meant business, and not the "Do you sometimes find yourself in a bind because you don't have enough containers for your leftovers, ma'am?" kind of business.
"Dr. Aeslinger, welcome."
Aeslinger hurriedly put the paper cup down on a nearby filing cabinet and shook hands.
"Thank you. And you are?"
"My name is Dr. Manwell Cutler and I'm a member of the Foundation's Ethics Committee. Perhaps you've heard of us?"
Aeslinger held a straight face and then curtly nodded. "Who hasn't, Dr. Cutler? The shadowy puppet masters of the Foundation; those who ultimately control all things in this organization, from the procedures and guidelines we use to the quality and strength of the coffee-flavored water that I just got for myself. So to speak."
Cutler raised an eyebrow, but Aeslinger couldn't determine whether it was because he was puzzled or amused. Perhaps both.
"Well, that is certainly one way of looking at it. But no, they don't control everything. In fact, we prefer that the Foundation regulate itself as much as possible. However, there are some times when we need to assert some control. This is one of them."
Now it was Daniel's turn to raise his eyebrow ever so slightly.
"Oh? And is this then where you fill me in on the real reason I'm here?"
He walked over to the chair behind the desk and sat down. Motioning at the other office chair, he said: "Please, sit down."
Cutler took his seat again and smiled. "Thank you. And yes, that is exactly what I'm going to do. See, while you are here to do a psychological evaluation of certain members of staff here at Site-103, I'm afraid the plural has become singular."
"Singular?" Aeslinger said and took a sip of his coffee. "Ow!" he exclaimed and hurriedly put the cup down again. "I keep forgetting these machines serve this stuff piping hot at one Site and lukewarm at others. Dammit."
Cutler waited patiently until Aeslinger had finished fussing with his coffee cup.
"Yes. We're flying in Tennison tomorrow, he'll be taking the personnel you were scheduled to see. You on the other hand will get to concentrate on one individual."
"Oh?" Aeslinger perked up. This reeked of a challenge. "Who is it? He must be either a wreck, or very important to you."
Cutler folded his hands on his knees and smiled. It was not unlike seeing a shark bare its teeth.
"What apt characterizations, Dr. Aeslinger. Perhaps he's both. Regardless, you'll be meeting him in…" Cutler said and looked at his watch, "…approximately 44 minutes."
Daniel sighed. A challenge it might be, but it was also once again a change of plans. He wasn't good with changing plans; it meant actively working at staying alert, keeping his mind focused to deal with it. Even now he could feel his brain racing to recalculate how the day would go, like a car's navigation system frantically trying to get him back on the highway after he'd taken a detour through Weirdsville USA, famous for its three-headed cows and spontaneously combusting chick … He shook his head to clear it. Cutler was watching him with a faint air of amusement that instantly and firmly assigned him a bunk bed in Aeslinger's Camp Do Not Like.
"So, might I be allowed to know who I'm going to be evaluating then?" he ventured, trying to inject some sense of antagonism into his voice.
"But of course, Dr. Aeslinger. I'm sure that would be the very minimum courtesy you deserve."
There was an uncomfortable silence.
"And the winner is?" Daniel ventured, now actually annoyed.
"We'll call him Bill."
"So that's not his real name."
"Does it matter?"
"It does to me, Dr. Cutler. Someone's name does have some power, you know."
Cutler laughed. "I suppose it would to a psychologist. Bill will do for now, Dr. Aeslinger. Remember what happened to the cat."
"The cat? What cat? Am I missing something?"
"It would seem so. Curiosity killed the cat?"
"Oh. A proverb. Sorry. Sometimes these things go right over my head."
"Yes. Apparently." Cutler shook his head. "Well, I won't keep you any longer. I suppose you'll want to do some prep. You will find most of what you need to know in the e-mail you've just received."
"I don't have any new…"
A ping sounded from Aeslinger's mobile, indicating a new message.
"Break a leg, Daniel," Cutler said smugly and walked to the door. He stopped when Aeslinger called after him.
"You know, 'Dr. Cutler', if you're going to pretend you're on the Ethics Committee, please try to keep your pronouns straight."
Cutler turned back to Aeslinger.
"You said 'they' don't rule everything. I can't say I met a member of the O5 Council before, but I can say I don't really like the way you people do things."
"And what makes you assume I have anything to do with the Council and didn't just innocently use the wrong pronoun?" the parry came.
"No one on the Foundation's payroll could afford a Brioni suit unless they owned said payroll. Try blending in a little more next time. But then, with your latent narcissism, that's going to be hard, isn't it?"
"Touché, Dr. Aeslinger. You are as observant as they assured me you would be. Try to put that to good use, will you? You'd be doing us a favor."
He reached behind him for the door and nodded. Then he was gone.
Daniel Horatio Aeslinger desperately longed for a clean shirt. He also considered a dose of amnestics and a job as a small-town psychologist in Alaska. The bears were undoubtedly better company than his colleagues.