A stuffed alligator with googly-eyes the size of golf balls sat perched atop the bookshelf of Colonel Manu Avninder. The bookshelf itself was hand-crafted out of fine mahogany and contained a hundred and thirty-three books on its shelves, all of which were blank. A tangle of vines and creepers hung from the ceiling, bedecked with tropical flowers and clusters of nuts. One particularly large bromeliad had taken up residence on the corner of the colonel’s desk. Brightly colored frogs hopped around the office, clustering around in the rock-lined pool in the corner.
The colonel himself was sitting at his desk, sipping at a cherry cream soda. His lieutenant, a man who seemed to be constructed purely out of right angles, mustache grooming supplies, and cowboy boots, sat down on the other side of the desk.
“So who do you have for me, Hubert?” Avinder said.
“Five candidates.” Hubert handed some manila folders over the table. “Three internal, two on the outside.”
“Any good ones?” Avinder flipped through the folders, bothered now by the thought that he would only be able to take one into the Unit, and let the rest go fallow in the great file cabinet of missed opportunities and crushed dreams.
“The usual, it seems. Some good scores on the tests, a few minor talents. Nothing spectacular. Got one kid in Kentucky who can make liches out of roadkill.”
Avinder nodded, and felt a twinge of disappointment as he passed over the file. Kid was the right of it: not even out of high school yet. Some redneck necromancy wasn’t worth the shitstorm that would erupt from come from that decision.
The other candidates included the typical field agent who showed some promise on the psychic sensitivity tests, a woman from the Antarctic branch that had picked up on some of the local shoulderwoman traditions, a crippled, cancer-ridden vat-agent who had managed to recover from getting his head smashed in, and someone who looked to have learned the secrets of meth-magic. Avinder hated the fact that meth-magic was a thing, but such were the cards before him.
Redneck was out, meth-magician was out if he could manage it. The rest were…well, they were. More disappointment on the plate. He’d probably get stuck with the white bread agent. Eh, couldn’t be too hard on him. Probably a decent guy.
“Mm. Well, we’ll see where it goes from here. You have any preferences?”
“Vat guy or the one from Antarctica.”
“Cancerous regeneration or mending old pots.”
“Take what we can get, I suppose.”
“You know how it is.” Avinder stacked the folders in the corner of his desk. “The line between ‘valued agent of the Esoteric Warfare Unit’ and ‘living out the next fifty years in a solitary cell’ all comes down to whether or not Eight can get to them first without someone playing the Bowe card.”
Avinder pinched the bridge of his nose. The very thought of moderating his opinions on “General” Bowe made his head start to throb. “No, can’t lay all the blame on him. It was the shrapnel that did it. Shrapnel and ‘Nam, and a whole lot of bad circumstances.
Hubert nodded, tapping the arm of his chair.
“I’ve heard a theory that Bowe created Omega Seven as voyeurism,” he said. “Like, he had a weird obsession with the girl…dammit what was her name…” Hubert snapped his thick, callused fingers a few times. “Irene. That was it. Irene. One-oh-Five. Put her on the same team as Seventy-Six.”
Avinder shook his head.
“Nah. That’s just people shitting on his reputation. Omega Seven was just a regular old Cold War power fantasy. You know how it goes.” He cleared his throat, and resumed in a voice somewhere in the general vicinity of Richard Nixon. “We’ve got to get Seventy-Six operational before the Russians do it! We cannot stand for communist superiority!”
“We cannot allow a war-god gap!” Hubert slammed his fist on the desk. He didn’t have to change his voice much to match.
Avinder jerked up out of his chair, stiff-limbed and glassy-eyed, one arm outstretched in a rigid salute.
“Mein Fuhrer! I can walk!”
The two looked at each other for a moment before breaking out in laughter. Avinder fell back into his chair and spun around once.
“Yeah, don’t get your hopes up,” Hubert said. “The fucks over in the Coalition would never take you.”
“Is it because I’m racially inferior?”
“No, it’s because you’re a fucking wizard.”
More laughter. When it subsided, Avinder leaned back in his chair and sighed.
“I mean, Bowe was probably the biggest fuckup we’ve had since, I don’t know, Carver shooting Deeds back in ’44, but after a while you just need to move on. He’s dead. Omega Seven lasted four months and six missions, and here we are, twenty years later, still worrying about it. You’d think we’d have learned by now.”
“We’re the Foundation; when do we learn anything?”
A red circle on Avinder’s touchscreen desktop lit up, “O5-8” written in write print.
‘Ah, well speak of the devil, and he shall appear.” Avinder tapped the button. “Hey there, Overseer.”
“Colonel,” the synthesized voice croaked. “I trust you are doing well.”
“Well as I can be doing. Social or business call?”
“Business. It appears that Foster is up to her old faux pas again. She called a vote of no confidence against Overseers Five and Ten for mothballing the phlogiston biometric suite and Betamax VCH containment units.”
“That’s…that’s certainly something.”
“As such, I will not be able to get you a specialist agent. The files Lieutenant Brooks has given you are no longer options on the table.”
Dammit, that was fast. It’s like they’re stealing shitty Halloween candy from a diabetic baby.
“Do you have an alternative?”
“I can transfer an agent over from the latest batch of recruits, to be transferred out once the firestorm over Foster calms down.”
“Not sure I see the point, Colonel,” Hubert said.
“Saving face in front of the Overseers,” Avinder said. “Show that we’re not dependent upon their approval.”
“Ah. That would do it.”
“I’ll send you the required files,” Overseer 8 said. “The agent will be transferred over the day after tomorrow. Again, my apologies for the inconvenience.”
The red circle faded as the personnel file appeared on the desk.
“Guess this makes it easy for us,” Avinder said, flicking through the files. “Fucking mundies.”
Two Days Later
“Well, maybe he just doesn’t understand that I’m a subconscious manifestation of a deep-seated fear of sex. I mean, most of that is pretty obvious, I’m a swollen blood-colored penis-worm that hits on you all the time. Pretty basic symbolism there. But you can never presume that people pick up on that stuff.”
“Mmmmph,” Barcode said, her head in her arms.
“Don’t take it so personally. I mean, he’s not psychic.”
“Probably just jumped to conclusions. Saw things that weren’t there. Like me. I’m not there. I don’t exist outside of your head.”
“Well, let’s look at things one by one, okay? I don’t actually exist, do I?”
“Right. I’m just a voice in your head. And have I ever caused you anything more than annoyance? Honestly now.”
“And have you ever had difficulty in consistently and easily rejecting the annoyance that I provide?”
The worm seemed to shrug.
“Well then I don’t know what you want me to say. You know what’s up, he doesn’t, end of story. You are not being tormented by some outside force, and you and I have an understanding. I hit on you, you tell me to fuck off, I fuck off, you don’t pull me out of your skull like a worm out of an apple.”
Barcode raised her head, looking terribly glum.
“Vinnie, I can’t drink, I can’t smoke, I can’t sleep, I can’t even hole myself up in my bunk with Spleeny’s smut collection. I’m tired and I’m frustrated and I’m just sick and tired of…everything.”
“Then go out for a walk or something. Fuck’s sake.” Vinnie scurried off the table and out of sight. “Can’t do everything for you.” His voice faded away with the scuttling of his legs. Barcode stared blankly for a few moments, trying to discern the shapes that swam at the edges of her vision.
Bingely bingely beep! Bingely bingely beep!
Barcode lethargically grabbed her smartphone from her pocket. Caller ID read “10 Piece MacNugget”.
“Hey there, sarge.”
“Newbie’s getting here in ten. You ready to show her around?”
Barcode looked down at the threadbare BOB’S WHEELS AND PRAWNS t-shirt and Hello Kitty pajama pants she had slept in last night. There was a stain above the AND, though Barcode had no idea where it came from. Actually, she had no idea when this shirt had last been washed.
“Yeah, I’m good.”
Rosencrantz and Guildenstern were dead.
This was not altogether a surprising development: they died with a certain regularity, and the process had become to them, and to those around them, a matter of banality. The philosophical implications of their repeated deaths fell on uninterested ears.
Rosencrantz and Guildenstern returned to life.
“There you go, everything’s all updated. Should be smooth sailing for a few months.” Kramer sipped from his mug of hot chocolate as he tapped a few chitinous keys on his laptop. It chirped and gurgled affectionately. “Took the liberty of deleting some junk files from both of you, too.”
The twins sat up nearly as one: Rosencrantz was a bit faster, and stood up. Guildenstern rubbed at her eyes and rolled her broad shoulders.
“Many thanks, friend Kramer,” she said, yawning.
“Don’t mention it.”
Barcode walked into the rec room, looking disheveled, as she usually was. At her side was a tall, gawkish woman with a sharp face and whitish-blond hair cut down to fuzz, carrying a duffel bag over her shoulder.
“Hey guys,” Barcode said. “This here’s Lauren, she just transferred in from Nineteen.”
“Hi.” Lauren waved to the various members of Squads 4 and 5.
“No kidding?” Kramer said, leaning back in his chair. “You’re fresh off the boat! Haven’t had anyone from your neck of the woods in forever. Do they still have Nala running newbie orientation?”
“Uh, no. No one said anything about a Nala. My group was introduced by Alexandra.”
“What? Nooooooooooo!” Kramer howled up at the ceiling, shaking the fist that did not contain a mug of hot chocolate. “They got rid of mah waifu! The bastards!”
Lauren flinched back at the outburst, as if looking at a rabid, crippled pigeon.
“Oh the humanity!” Kramer continued his raving. “To strike down the classiest artificially intelligent lady of this decade! Crime of all crimes, tragedy of tragedies! I bet Alexandra is just some sort of plebian strumpet meant for mass-market appeal!” He paused for a moment, collected himself. “Well, it’s good to see you here.”
“Yeah. That’s Kramer,” Barcode said, trying to recover the conversation. “He’s the Squad 4 techie. Those two over there are the Twins, and…well, they’re the Twins.”
“So we are, friend Lauren.” Rosencrantz nodded towards the new recruit. “I am Guildenstern, and this is Rosencrantz.” He motioned to himself and then to his sister. “The easiest way to tell us apart is to ask us what we think of our Mother. I wish to fuck her and then kill her. Guildenstern here wants to kill her first and then fuck her.”
Lauren’s face of confusion and disgust was, at that moment, captured forever by Kramer snapping a photo on his phone.
“Golden,” he said. Barcode shook her head and ran rescue again.
“They’re from the Personnel Acquisition Initiative, and their mom a gigantic titmonster. Makes a lot more sense in context. Also, they’re huge liars. Rosencrantz is the brother, Guildenstern is the sister,” she pointed to the correct twins.
“Oh. The PAI is Dr. Foster, right?” Lauren said.
The Twins looked at her grimly for an icy moment.
“Doctor Tabitha Foster…” they said at the same time. Sharp pause. “Yes, I’m about to say that. Just wait, I’ll handle it.” Same time again. They paused, eyeing each other for an opening.
“Oh dear. It appears that we’re-” Rosencrantz began.
“Getting to the point in the conversation where we-”
“Start finishing each other’s sentences.”
“I think that-“
“We should keep going?”
“Of course. It is our opinion that-“
“Doctor Tabitha Foster is a pompous, arrogant windbag who is most likely going to get herself killed by doing something unimaginably stupid,” Guildenstern said, jabbing a finger.
“Her every act is little more than smug career masturbation.”
“If you were to replace every word out of her mouth with ‘Hello, I am a massive twat’, absolutely nothing about her would change.”
“I think she gets it, guys,” Barcode said, glancing around the room to see if there were any other Unit members in the room. Probably better to finish this early. This whole thing was probably a horrible idea, but in retrospect being mildly annoyed by a figment of one’s imagination was on the lower end of the weirdness spectrum. Must be why she was chosen to show Lauren around.
There was one other person in the room, an old man with Einstein hair, sitting in the corner, reading some well-thumbed paperback. The corporal of Squad 5. Tom.
“That over there is Tom. We call him That Old Motherfucker. He’s kinda been here forever.”
“Forty-six years.” The man didn’t even look up from his book. “No sabbatical, no leave.”
“Wow. That’s…kind of insane,” Lauren said.
“Ayup. I’d already been bagging spookums forever back when Smiley McGee was diddling kids and the Shitflinger was spending all of Daddy’s money on hookers and blow. Hell, I saw the Whackmaster’s gay porno back when it was still on VHS.”
Lauren glanced over at Barcode, who had a sudden inkling of what it felt like being a life raft.
“Very long story,” she said. “Don’t ask to see it, either. They burned all the copies.”
“They did.” Tom tapped the side of his head. “Last one was up here and I had Pigman Brown scrape it all out of my brain first chance I got.”
That looked to be the last straw. Barcode clapped her hands together.
“Well, I think that wraps it up for everything in here. We should probably be moving on to the caf,” she said as she made her way to the door and out into the hall. Might as well cut the girl a break. These weren’t even her squad mates.
Lauren followed behind without a word.
“Sorry to throw you headfirst into the pool like that,” Barcode said after they would be out of earshot of the rec-room. “We’re, uh, kind of an odd group in the Unit.”
“Hope we didn’t scare you too much.”
“No, you definitely did. You people are all insane.” She shrugged. “But, I guess, that’s good prep for everything out there. If it’s half as bizarre as you people, I should be immune to it by the time I actually see anything.”
“That’s the spirit.”
“Aw, you’re making friends!” Vinnie said from his spot on the ceiling.
“Fuck off, Vinnie.”
“Hm? What did you say?” Lauren looked up to the ceiling after Barcode’s glance.