I am a professional stick watcher, and I love my job
The following article was featured in the October 2014 issue of the Foundation Employee Magazine. The author, D-5209294, provides an interesting and deeply personal perspective of what it’s like to oversee the preliminary identification of Class-E anomalies.
Some names and facts have been altered so that this piece could be made available to the general Foundation employee community.
They’re letting me write now. Gave me a Hewlett-Packard laptop with Microsoft Word on it and everything. What's truly impressive is that it only took them a week to process my request. People around here complain endlessly about how "you'll just be told 'no,'" and how "they never give you anything," but the simple reality is that if you’ve paid your dues and filled out your paperwork correctly, the Foundation doesn’t mind making some concessions now and then.
I am a professional stick watcher, and I love my job a little bit too much.
To put it a bit more formally, I am a Preliminary Identification Supervisor at Site-313. For the benefit of those of you who are involved in other operations, I’ll go ahead and give a brief overview of how the preliminary containment process works. After field agents have confirmed the presence of anomalous activity on a scene, a preliminary containment task force is deployed. This task force consists of two teams: Isolation and Identification. Isolation sets up a perimeter around the presumed location of the anomaly, and Identification is responsible for figuring out what the anomaly actually is.
I’ve been working in Preliminary Identification since 2002. It’s rare that I get to interact with anyone other than my handlers and co-workers, but after being in this business for over a decade, it’s become clear that personnel members from other areas of the Foundation hold a lot of misconceptions about what it’s like to work in Prelim ID. I’m writing this article in an attempt to clear up some of these misunderstandings.
Many people seem to be under the impression that we’re nothing more than monster bait. They think we’re just a bunch of expendable Class-Ds who do nothing but wander around stupidly until the monsters jump out and attack. This is completely untrue; most of the field agents who arrive before us can spot an aggressive living anomaly within minutes. When that happens, my team isn’t even needed.
The best way for me to go about explaining what we actually do is to describe what a typical day on the field looks like. I’ll go ahead and use today’s assignment as an example, since it’s still fresh on my mind.
Every assignment begins with one of my handlers giving me a manila envelope with my Class-D personnel number stamped on the front in red ink. Inside are documents pertaining to the case, and if I'm lucky, a handful of photographs. The initial batch of files never spends more than one or two lines describing the actual anomaly, which is natural, since nothing else is known about it at that point. The envelopes I receive are the only existing documents relating to that anomaly at that moment. I’m told that most of the photographs included in my briefs are taken no more than ten minutes before the time I receive them.
Today’s envelope contained an automatically generated profile of the anomalously affected individual (i.e. "the victim"), Miranda Baclaran, a 27-year-old graphic designer from Connecticut. She was born in California to two immigrants from the Philippines. She lived alone. She had been living in her current home for two years and working at her current job for three. Medical history, work background, ancestry, and other potentially relevant details are also included. I am expected to have read and memorized the bulk of this information by the time I arrive at the scene. A list of the victim's credit card transactions from the past six months was also included, but I am not required to memorize these.
When I enter my transport vehicle, I’m handed a secondary file with details on what actually happened.
At 2:48 in the afternoon, the victim's neighbors called the police, reporting loud screams coming from inside her home. They were worried that her ex-boyfriend had returned and was attempting to murder her. When the police entered the victim's house at 3:02, they discovered that her biological structure had been anomalously altered. Their frantic and confused phone call to their superiors triggered the automated notification system on the Foundation Surveillance Network, and field agents from the nearest Foundation outpost were dispatched to begin preliminary isolation of the victim’s home and confirm the influence of anomalous activity on the victim.
Confirmation was very easy in this case. Comparing the victim’s face to the photo on Miranda’s driver license showed that it was clearly the same person, but her sensory organs had been drastically altered. There were tongues flapping wildly underneath her eyelids, and every two minutes she regurgitated eyes the size of tennis balls that she claimed she could see out of. She didn’t know what had done this to her.
My team’s job was to find out.
Usually it’s some sort of object. Sometimes it’s another person, or even the victim themselves. Sometimes it’s a word or phrase the victim heard over the phone or on the television. Sometimes it’s the stretch of land the victim was standing on. Sometimes it doesn’t seem to be anything at all, and the case is marked as an Anomalous Event. But usually– in fact, almost always– it’s an object. A thing.
It would be very convenient if they were big, scary, blatantly paranormal things like ancient talismans or porcelain clown dolls or books bound in human skin, but anomalies like those almost never show up, and when they do, we don't have the clearance to get anywhere near them. Virtually all of the anomalies I've identified over the years have been perfectly innocuous and ordinary in appearance. That's what makes our job so difficult. Out of all the various things the victim owns and has been in contact with, any one of those things could be the Thing. As you can imagine, finding the Thing among hundreds of other things can be an absolutely massive task.
Some of you may have heard that Identification utilizes high-tech devices called Kant Counters to locate anomalies. These devices are indeed real and also incredibly useful. When calibrated properly, a Kant Counter can instantly pinpoint the location of an anomalous object in an airplane hangar full of junk. The Kant Counter is, without a doubt, a miracle of modern science.
But like so many other miracles of modern science, Kant Counters cost a fortune and are only given to a select few. So without the aid of any high-tech gadgets, the majority of Prelim ID teams have to search for anomalies old-fashioned way, which is by poking everything with a stick until something eventually pokes back.
On today’s assignment, my sticks were named Thomas, Jonah, Shelby, and Bridget.
A lot of folks believe that Class-Ds are only allowed to refer to each other by their personnel numbers. This may be true for on-site facilities, but it’s rarely the case with off-site jobs. In order to work together quickly and efficiently, we need to call each other something, and when you’re pressed for time like we are, nobody expects you to waste precious minutes and mental energy on memorizing a random string of numbers.
The five of us arrived at the victim’s house at 4:39 that afternoon. We rolled up to the building in a local police car and stepped out dressed in local police uniforms. Many of you may find this surprising; people tend to have this mental image of Class-Ds as a bunch of tattooed thugs in orange jumpsuits. In actuality, most of us look like normal, everyday people, which works to our advantage on the field.
Presenting a façade of normalcy is an essential part of preliminary containment, and it’s hard to do that when you have a bunch of guys in orange jumpsuits being escorted out of armored vehicles. That’s why we’re also given the freedom to drive and move around without a handler. This might sound like a glaring breach of safety, but it’s actually very rare for anyone to try to run. The Foundation trusts us to do our jobs, and we trust the Foundation to quickly dispose of us if we try anything funny.
After we met up with the guys from Isolation and confirmed that the area was secure, we briefly exchange names and set to work. The “sticks”– an affectionate title given to my colleagues –went inside and did their initial poke-over, touching everything in the building. Anomalous materials often transmit their effects via physical contact, so poking is usually the fastest way to find an obvious anomaly. I never enter the building until the initial sweep has been completed, just in case the anomaly is memetic or cognitohazardous.
If the anomaly isn’t identified during the poke-over, a more thorough investigation is necessary. This was the case today. I entered the building, double checked that everything had been properly poked, and began instructing the sticks to interact with objects in various ways. Clothes were put on. Appliances were activated. Chairs were sat in. The sticks interact with everyday objects in everyday ways, trying to find the anomaly by triggering its effects. My job is to come up with things for them to try and to monitor them for signs of anomalous exposure. It’s a job that requires a lot of creativity and attention to detail, but thankfully, these are areas in which I happen to excel.
If you ask me, I think that stick watchers deserve more recognition from the greater Foundation community. Clearly I'm biased in this regard, but you see, we have to think of every conceivable way a human being can interact with any given object in an area, and we have to do it fast. If the anomaly isn’t found within the first few hours, the perimeter has to be expanded, more teams have to be called in, and every object in the building that isn’t bolted to the wall has to be sealed in an individually marked biohazard bag and shipped to the nearest research site for more thorough experimentation. This is obviously very expensive and time consuming, so the Foundation puts a lot of pressure on Preliminary Identification to find the anomaly as quickly as possible. If a stick watcher calls for a bagging and the research center discovers that the stick watcher missed something obvious, the stick watcher is retired soon afterward.
I’ve been a stick watcher for about a decade now.
It’s the simple triggers that most watchers tend to miss– the triggers that are subtle enough to be easily overlooked, but logical enough to seem obvious once you know what to look for. Sometimes the effects are logically associated with the object, but not always. The trick is to be patient and avoid rushing through the process.
A few months ago I was told to find an object that caused a person’s hand bones to shoot out the ends of their fingers. I started by instructing the sticks to interact with hand-associated things like gloves and bracelets. One of my sticks tried on a watch, and after experiencing no effects, began to take it off. I told them to keep it on and fiddle with the dial. Lo and behold, their phalanges blasted out their fingertips. Under my supervision, it only took eight minutes for my team to identify the anomaly. My handlers recognized this achievement by granting me a dozen new DVDs and an honest-to-goodness philodendron for my living quarters.
Watchers have to be incredibly thorough when giving instructions. Every potential trigger has to be considered.
Don’t just lie down on the bed. Fall asleep on it.
Don’t just drink tap water from that mug. Brew some coffee or tea.
Don’t just look at the tabs they have open on their web browser. Check their history.
Use the pen to draw a picture.
Use the pen to write a poem.
Use the pen to write a greeting.
Use the pen to write on the back of your hand.
Use the pen to write on someone else.
Click the pen incessantly for twenty seconds.
It may sound tedious, and sometimes it is, but there’s always something uniquely fascinating about it, too. Every new anomaly is a puzzle waiting to be solved, and solving the puzzles is immensely gratifying. It certainly isn't boring for the sticks. They aren't briefed on the nature of the anomaly they’re looking for. That lingering uncertainty is enough to keep most of them on their toes, but it still doesn't spook them nearly as badly as telling them what their potential fate might be.
Janice, for instance, wouldn’t have worked nearly as quickly and efficiently as she did if she’d known there was a chance that clicking that pen would cause her internal organs to liquefy.
During today’s investigation, I instructed Shelby to collect all of the victim’s make-up and then apply it to her own face. Lipstick. Eye shadow. Eyeliner. Foundation. Blush. All of it. Then I told her to wait. Fifteen minutes later she had about a dozen tongues dangling from her nostrils, each of them roughly three feet long. Overall identification time after I entered the building was just over nineteen minutes. If the anomalous effects had triggered immediately, my time would have been four minutes and thirty-three seconds. It would have been a new personal record. I wasn't too disappointed, though; there will be other opportunities in the future.
I never identified which particular variety of make-up did it, but I didn’t have to. I just told Bridget to seal all the make-up in some biohazard bags and then I called it a day. We’re not required to find the exact anomaly. We’re just the preliminary identification team, after all. Narrowing it down to a reasonably small collection of items is usually good enough for my superiors. After all, to conduct a proper test, you’d need to try each type of make-up on a different Class-D, and I didn’t have enough colleagues on hand to experiment on.
There are plenty more test subjects where they came from, though. The folks at Site-313 shouldn’t have any trouble narrowing it down.
If I sound like I’m not particularly upset by what happens to my teammates, it’s because I’m not. Don’t just chalk that up to me being a heartless Class-D criminal, though. I’m deeply sympathetic to the innocent victims of the anomalies we find. The reason I don’t grieve my fellow Class-Ds is because I know that all of us did something to deserve our position.
I don’t remember what crime I committed to earn my status as a Class-D. My earliest memory is waking up at Site-313 and being told that my memory had been wiped. Sticks don’t get wiped, since some anomalies are triggered by a person’s memories. Supervisors like myself aren't required to expose themselves to anomalous effects, so all nonessential memories are removed as soon as we begin our jobs.
I don’t know how the Foundation decides who will be a stick and who will be a watcher. I really don't. There is, in all likelihood, a selection process that the Foundation uses to choose supervisors. But however likely that is, the fact remains that I don't know it. And this might sound strange, but out of all the horrors I have to put up with, that’s the thing that keeps me awake at night.
When you work for the Foundation, you grow accustomed to not knowing things. There are a million little mysteries you’ll never learn the answers to. I’ll never know who I used to be. I’ll never know what my family was like. You might expect those would be the mysteries that haunt me, but I stopped caring about my past completely after the first few years. The question that burns in my mind is why I’m a watcher and not just a stick.
My counselor says that it’s survivor’s guilt. That makes sense. Watchers just watch the sticks poke things. Watchers just watch when the things poke back. Watchers just watch as sticks get brutally murdered and transformed into terrifying monsters. Watchers just watch as sticks lose their minds, lose their souls, and lose their humanity in hundreds of different ways.
When I saw those tongues squirming out of Shelby’s nose, I suppose my first thought should have been, “My god, that poor woman!” But it wasn’t. I hardly felt any horror or pity at all. I just felt the same thrill and satisfaction that I imagine most people probably get from solving an especially challenging crossword puzzle or Sudoku.
I know this is going to sound horrible, but after all these years, I honestly don’t care what happens to the sticks anymore. And I’m perfectly fine not caring.
So yeah, probably not survivor's guilt.
I’ve been doing this long enough, and if I’m a Class-D, it’s entirely possible that the same mental or social disorder that led me to commit my crime in the first place is also keeping me from experiencing any remorse at the loss of my co-workers.
I’m not bothered by the fact that I don’t care. I’m bothered by the fact that I don’t know why I was selected to be a watcher instead of a stick. Or, to approach it from a slightly different angle, I'm bothered by the fact that I don’t know if the Foundation knew I’d love my job so much.
It’s like an unfinished identification mission. I might find a correlation between an item and an effect, but sometimes I simply cannot find a trigger, or even determine if there is one. Once I’ve left a scene, I’m off the case. If they do end up finding the trigger during their lab experiments, they won’t tell me what it is. I’m just left wondering, and that drives me up the wall.
I don’t need to know what the trigger is. I just need to know that one exists. I need to know that someone touched something or used something that they shouldn’t have. I need to know that there’s a reason. I need to know that there’s a cause. I need to know that the victim did something, even something totally innocent, which led to their fate.
Because if they didn’t, if something bad just randomly happened and there’s no cursed doll or haunted dishwasher to blame, then the woman with tongues running down her face was the victim of some cosmic joke. It would mean that someone suffered simply because the universe had gotten the urge to screw someone over for absolutely no reason, not even an arbitrary one.
I want to believe that the Foundation knew I’d love my job, or at least suspected I would. I want to believe I was chosen for a specific reason. I want to believe there’s a trigger.
If I wasn’t chosen by the Foundation, then that only leaves two other possibilities. One possibility is that I ended up here, in this job that’s heaven for me and hell for any rational person, completely by chance, and my happiness is the result of a one-in-a-million fluke of probability. If there are infinite monkeys on infinite typewriters, I’m the monkey who typed out Shakespeare.
The other possibility is there is a sapient, unseen force orchestrating what goes on in the universe, and that force occasionally decides to make innocent people suffer and criminals like myself perfectly happy for absolutely no reason whatsoever.
I don’t know which one it is. What’s worse, I don’t know which disturbs me more. And yes, I realize that the most probable explanation is that the Foundation simply deemed me a good fit for the job, but the fact remains that I. Don't. Know.
I’m under quarantine right now. They always confine me for observation after I’ve been around an anomaly. Since I never make physical contact with anything on the field, the only things they really have to worry about are slow-acting cognitive and memetic hazards. The odds of me being affected by either of those are incredibly slim, and if the anomaly has a dormant period of over a month, then the initial victim will have probably already infected half the population anyway. As long as I still seem reasonably normal after a few weeks, they’ll put me on another team and give me another assignment.
When that happens, I’ll enter another strange building. I’ll find another strange artifact. I’ll solve another mystery. I’ll discover another new anomaly.
And for one brief moment, I’ll know something that the Foundation doesn’t.
I hope this gave you a better understanding of what it's like to work in Preliminary Identification. Thank you for reading.