Programmed to Receive
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Janice sighed as she settled back into the seat of her rental car. Behind closed eyelids, she wearily tried to wipe everything about the past several hours from her memory but found that the attempt merely recalled the tedium and annoyance with even more clarity. She slowly pried her eyes back open, took in and released several deep breaths, and started the car.

People were the problem, really. They always were.

Pulling away from the airport parking lot, she left the noise, mess, and chaos of her former fellow passengers behind to join the noise, mess, and chaos of her new fellow drivers on the highway. She knew her nerves should be jangling with every horn blast, sudden cut across her lane, and occasional traffic jam, but they had already been jangled to death during the coach-seating flight from Missouri to California and unexpected two-hour layover in Colorado.

She wanted to find a hotel. Preferably one with soundproof walls and staff that understood that they were performing their job at peak efficiency if she never even knew they were there doing it, like the deftest of stagehands between scenes, completely unseen as they restocked her towels and placed tiny mints on her pillow.

But, much to her dismay, her employers wanted her on-site immediately and for the duration of her stay. There would be no downy mattresses, no fluffy towels, no room service. There was only the red eye flight, the interminable drive, and the eventual arrival at the site halfway into an ungodly hour in the morning.

Serenity Cove Psychiatric. Janice's eyes felt like they were sliding across ice from the moment she first spied the lettering emblazoned across the building in the distance. She could feel her brain rebelling against retaining memory of the name or building, wanting simply to believe that it was some kind of normal psych ward, nothing else, not worth noting or talking about. With the practiced ease born of Foundation training, she forced her eyes to focus and clamped down on her scattering thoughts. As much as she wanted to let the sign's soothing memetic effect tell her that Site-3408 was somebody else's problem, she had a job to do.

Someone's itchy horn finger got the best of them as Janice moved into the far right lane. She fought and lost to the impulse to flip them off as they zoomed around her left side, then pulled into the short drive that led up to an automated security booth. Her Foundation ID slid easily into the provided slot, which spat it back out a moment later.

The parking spot that had been temporarily assigned to her ended up being a bit more difficult to find than she would have assumed. Her original intent had been to simply look for whatever empty spots there were in the undoubtedly overcrowded lot and check each one until she saw her number-letter combo. The hope of not actually having to look up at the aisle signs was dashed when she saw that, aside from a handful or two of other vehicles, the massive lot was entirely deserted. It struck her as a bit odd given the size of the attached facility, but she quickly shrugged it off. It was early morning. The non-essentials were probably out getting coffee and donuts.

Having finally found her spot, she pulled in, shut the car down, and threw off her seat belt and glasses. Her hands swiped across her eyes almost of their own accord as a cavern-deep yawn escaped her chest. Perhaps she could snag one of those coffees when everyone got in. She could dream, anyway. Throwing her glasses back on, she stepped out into the salty air.

The car beeped twice, loudly, when she pressed the lock button on her key fob. The sound echoed oddly across the enclosed lot, bouncing around between the evenly-spaced palm trees that were softly swaying in the ocean breeze. Her boots thumped dully on the asphalt as she made her way toward the front entrance. A warm, floral fragrance hit her, and she breathed it in, letting it suffuse her system and calm her nerves a bit.

Fewer people currently at the site was a good thing, she reminded herself. With any luck, she would be able to get in, get whatever it was she was supposed to be doing done, and get out with the minimum amount of human contact possible.

A soft whir from overhead caused her to look up. A surveillance camera bolted just above the entrance was focusing in on her. Janice didn't smile or wave, and after only a few seconds of eye contact with the lens to ensure security got a good look at her face, she dropped her gaze back down. She stepped through the first set of double doors, then the second, something that always reminded her of going through an airlock. Which, undoubtedly, the small vestibule would operate as in case of an emergency. On the other side was a large waiting room with a wide counter lining the right-hand wall.

"Good Morning, Miss Bell," the man behind the counter said, his friendly face beaming widely at her. "I hope you enjoyed your flight."

"Doctor Bell. And I didn't," she stated flatly.

"Ah, I'm sorry to hear that. Maybe the flight back will be better. In the meantime, if you'll just have a seat, Director Wilson will be with you shortly."

Janice frowned but nodded. She turned around and found that, aside from the receptionist and herself, the waiting room was entirely empty of people. Several plush chairs were arranged in rows while a few were set around small tables covered in various reading materials.

The closest table was clean, neatly arranged. Not a single corner of the rug spread out underneath it was curled up or otherwise out of order. The magazines and newspapers sitting atop it were carefully set into a precise, complex arrangement rather than simply spread out all willy-nilly. Either the man behind the counter or someone on the site's maintenance crew obviously took their job seriously. A stickler for neatness herself, Janice made sure to memorize the exact location and positioning of the local paper she picked up before settling into a chair and opening it.

She had just finished reading everything of even the slightest interest to her and had resorted to opening the sports section when one of the elevators behind her dinged softly and let out an older gentleman wearing a tailored suit and tie. She quickly stood, folded the paper neatly, and had just gotten it back in its place before he had made his way over to her. With a smile that oozed with the kind of confidence that sent Janice's hackles up, he offered a hand that she begrudgingly but firmly shook.

"Todd Wilson," the man said by way of introduction, "and you must be Miss Bell. A pleasure to meet you, and let me officially welcome you to Site-3408."

Janice took her hand back as quickly as seemed socially appropriate. "Director Wilson?" she said skeptically.

"Ah, yes," he chuckled. "Assistant Site Director, to be precise, but I'm sure even that may seem a bit unusual to you. To say 'we run things differently here' would be trite, and I'm afraid that any other explanations will have to wait until we're in a more security-controlled area. If you'll just follow me … "

Wilson nodded briefly at the receptionist as he led Janice through a nearby security door and into a wide hallway. "So, Miss Bell-"

"Doctor Bell."

The assistant director didn't miss a beat. "Of course, Dr. Bell. How was your flight?"

"Miserable."

"Ah, that's unfortunate. Can I get you anything? A bottle of water? An energy drink? Perhaps you would like to see your room before we get started?"

Janice huffed. "To be honest, director," she said, "I'd really just like to get this over with. Blind calls like this always end up being a fucking bitch, and it never gets any better by putting it off."

Much to her surprise, Wilson let out a genuine-sounding laugh and flashed his perfectly straight teeth at her in a wide grin. "Doctor, you are refreshingly to the point. I assume they didn't tell you much about Site-3408, then?"

"Next to nothing," she said. "All I know is this is some kind of experimental containment facility, which is almost always code for 'don't bother trying to read anything past this point unless you're really into black marker'. I'm kinda surprised that I got clearance to know the address instead of just showing up outside with a blindfold and an amnestic headache."

"Yes, that does sound about right, and I do apologize about having to keep you in the dark, but our situation here is a bit delicate. Thirty-four-oh-eight is one of the most technologically advanced and sophisticated sites that the Foundation has ever built."

"I'd assumed as much already," she groused. "I wouldn't be here otherwise. So, what did you break?"

Rather than answer her, Wilson turned to a door near the end of the hallway and held it open for her. "Please," he said, motioning her inside.

The room beyond was large, with a high ceiling and a small stage set up on the far side. Metal folding chairs were set up in rows facing the stage, and in one of those chairs was a man that appeared to be all arms and angles. He jumped up and span around when Wilson firmly shut the door.

"Oh! Mr. Wilson, hey, you're here! I was just-"

"Dr. Bell, this is Leroy McAllister, the head of our IT department," the assistant director said, cutting the other man off. "Leroy, this is Dr. Janice Bell, who I very much hope will be able to solve the issues we've been experiencing."

Leroy simply gaped for a moment, then recovered and stuck out a thin hand. "Hi!" he said. "Uh, sorry, I kind of lost track of time. Welcome to Site-3408."

"Thanks," Janice replied, reluctantly and only briefly taking the man's proffered hand. "So what did they break?"

Leroy laughed nervously and glanced over at Director Wilson. "Ah, well, the thing about that is … we don't exactly know. Kind of."

"Of course you don't," Janice said, sighing and pinching the bridge of her nose. The answer wasn't unexpected, simply disappointing. "Director-"

"Mr. McAllister, is the presentation ready?" Wilson asked quickly. "The glasses then, if you would please."

The technician was nodding fervently, grateful for the distraction. "One sec," he told them, then stalked over to a fold-out table sitting next to the entrance. There, several pairs of safety glasses were sitting in a thick, grey base that looked like a charging station to Janice. Leroy plucked three pairs from their cradles, handing one each to Janice and Wilson before sliding the third on himself.

Janice turned her pair over in her hands, noting the silvery contacts set into the ear- and nose-pieces.

"You are, of course, familiar with augmented reality, Dr. Bell?" the assistant director asked.

"Aside from the current generation of smartphone tomfoolery and military applications, I'm familiar with the fact that the Foundation has been developing its own system," she said. "I assume you're going to tell me that part of being 'most technologically advanced and sophisticated' is that you already have functioning site-wide AR?"

Wilson tapped the arm of his glasses and smirked. "I wouldn't presume to tell you something that you obviously figured out on your own."

Ignoring the ham-handed flattery, Janice slid the AR lenses over her own wire-framed glasses, making sure the contacts were unobstructed by her hair. Once everything was in place, she looked up, down, and to each side.

"Okay, so where's the 'on' button?"

"Let's have a seat first, shall we?" Motioning them forward, Wilson led the doctor and technician down to the front row. "We have a small presentation set up to showcase the most pertinent advancements we've included in Site-3408's construction."

"I'm sorry, director," Janice said, trying to keep her temper, "but I don't really need the press junket."

"Naturally you will be given access to all the necessary technical documentation," Wilson continued, "but it would take quite some time for you to read it all. Weeks, perhaps. This presentation was initially created for the O5 Council, Ethics Committee, various site directors, the usual suspects. Since we still have it on file, it's use here is simply convenient to introduce you to our little problem and how it could potentially turn into something more serious, as well as show you what parts of the documentation you should focus your attention on. Everyone comfortable? Then let's begin. Mr. McAllister, if you please."

Leroy, seated on Janice's right, pulled out his Foundation-issue phone and started tapping away at it. After a few seconds, Janice felt the AR frame's contacts warm slightly against her skin. All around her, the dull grey room began to fill up with small blocks of text and images. Arrows pointed her to the emergency exits. Small signs let her know that the fire suppression systems were primed and ready to activate for her safety. The wall behind the stage had lit up like a movie screen with the Foundation's logo rotating serenely in the center.

She looked down and saw small badges floating just under Leroy and Wilson's left shoulders. As she focused on Leroy's, it suddenly sprang out from his chest, rotated to face her, and expanded in her field of vision. Where before the badge had shown a few bits of general information such as his name, job class, and clearance level, the new pane she was skimming through had what she assumed had to be an abridged version of his employee record.

Leroy looked over and gave a lopsided grin when he noticed her staring at the space in front of him. "Pretty cool, right?" he asked her, then pointed down at her chest.

She looked down and wasn't entirely surprised to see that she had her own spectral badge floating a few centimeters from the collar of her jacket. Instinctively, she reached up and grabbed the badge to get a better view, suppressing a small gasp of shock when the badge actually moved. It wasn't a perfect illusion since she couldn't actually feel anything there and her fingers were phasing through it at points, but it was still one of the most sophisticated displays of three-dimensional contextual recognition she could remember seeing. After moving one of her fingers out of the way, she could easily see that the badge was her guest identification.

"All settled in, Dr. Bell?"

Janice looked over at the assistant director and let the badge fall back against her chest. "Yeah," she said, trying to sound nonchalant. "Ready whenever you are."

At Wilson's direction, an image of the site's Serenity Cove exterior popped up on the screen. "We'll spare you the full presentation," he said. "Just imagine stirring music playing over the boilerplate attempts to secure funding and allay the fears of the non-technical crowd. 3408, as you previously mentioned, is indeed an experimental containment site, one focused not simply on technological advancement, but on how that advancement can help the Foundation maintain the veil of secrecy necessary for our work.

"I'm certain you know the old saying about how three people can keep a secret if two of them are dead. Given the tools we have at our disposal, that could be amended to 'if two of them are amnesticized'. Site-3408 seeks to expand that list of tools even further, and one of the primary ways we are doing that it through the use of automation."

A montage began to play across the screen, showing a variety of automated systems. Some of them Janice was quite familiar with while others she was not.

"Of course, many containment procedures already require elements of automation," Wilson continued, "from simple systems such as drains and sprinklers to wash away various anomalous and non-anomalous substances to more complex machines designed to apply extremely precise computer-calculated levels of atmospheric pressure to an anomalous object's ever-shifting outer surface. Processes that extend outside of Foundation sites are also using more technology more often to achieve our goals. Drones exploring extra-spatial areas, webcrawlers searching the internet for memetic triggers, and much more.

"Despite this, we still have security personnel. We still have maintenance staff. Supply and logistics, constant streams of administrative busywork, almost all of it still being handled by human beings, each one of them a potential break in the veil. Here at Site-3408, we are trying to eliminate as many of those breaks as we can."

"So, what, you've got a whole fleet of Roombas?" Janice asked sarcastically.

Wilson laughed. "Something like that," he said.

"Well at least it explains why the assistant director and head of IT both have time to meet me personally. How many people actually work here on a regular basis?"

"How many humans, you mean?" Wilson looked off to one side, and it only took a moment for Janice to realize that he was looking at an employee list that she couldn't see. "At the moment we have fifteen D-Class personnel, thirteen junior researchers, seven senior researchers, twelve technicians, two security officers, two maintenance workers, and five members of the administrative staff, including myself. Site-3408 is also home base for our local mobile task force, but they have been away on assignment for the past week."

As Wilson read from the list, personnel dossiers briefly flashed across the screen. Janice hummed lightly to herself. "And I'm guessing you're not about a thousand people shy of what you should have just because the place is new," she said.

"Since the troubles started, we've actually been running at around half-capacity to keep potential human casualties down," said Wilson. "Under optimal conditions, 3408 could, in fact, run smoothly with a skeleton crew of ten humans."

A crease formed in Janice's brow. "'Humans', not 'people'." She sighed. "You had AI running everything, and you broke them."

"Ah, well," Leroy, silent for the entire presentation, suddenly interjected. He cleared his throat, looked miserably uncomfortable, and said, "Not 'broke', exactly. And not 'them'. Most of the artificial intelligences are just fine and dandy, still cleaning up and making sure the doors stay locked, stuff like that. It's just … well, here." He tapped at his phone again, causing the shifting slide of employees to slow and come to a halt.

Dispassionate green eyes stared out from a long, female face. Dark hair framed that face and fell long behind a business suit that was so perfectly cut to the woman's figure that it made Wilson's thousand dollar outfit look like it came straight off a department store rack. Janice tore her eyes away from the striking image only to find that the accompanying dossier was redacted to a fault. Only two pieces of information were not covered by blackboxes: name and occupation.

"Dr. Bell, meet Isanna Yamaguchi," Wilson said, his voice suddenly weary. "Site-3408's Director and Central Intelligence."

Janice leaned forward in her seat. Things had finally gotten interesting. "So if you didn't break it, then what exactly happened?"

"She, um … " Leroy swallowed hard. "She's missing."


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