1| A.R.S.A.

“ID, please,” a voice said from behind me. Of course.

I knew better than to loiter. Ordinarily I would have noticed someone approaching. But today my nerves were on edge. My situational awareness lagged because I let the anxiety of what I was about to do take the lead.

My name is Treya. My last name isn’t important.

What’s important is that I don’t vomit so they don’t cart me off to quarantine. Again. I swallowed the bile rising in my throat and turned to the officer.
“I have an invitation,” I said. “Hold on, let me find it.” My hands shook.

Calm down.

The first pocket turned up nothing – or at least nothing I could take out of my pocket at the moment. Where had I put the damn thing? Finally. Second pocket, left leg. Right where it had always been.

I handed him the tattered envelope containing the invitation card. Paper items were a rarity now and he should have held it like it was a treasure. Unlike how I held it stuffed in a pocket.

The security officer raised an eyebrow as he took it from me and held it gingerly. He opened the flap and reached inside to pinch it between thumb and forefinger, as if he was afraid of getting his fingers dirty, not as if he were afraid he’d tear it. His lips screwed around on his face as he read it over. Then he handed it back to me in the same dainty fashion.

“Get on with your business, then, and don’t loiter,” he said. Then pivoted away from me and continued his patrol down the sidewalk. I watched him until he turned at the corner and my thoughts returned to the building.

Stop procrastinating, said the taskmaster who sat on one shoulder.

But just look at it, said the other half of my conscience.

The practical side of me argued with the other side of me, the side that loved lost arts and creative expression. The things no one seemed to possess anymore.

Of course this building would be one that survived the mayhem and madness during the collapse. I remembered when it was still a concept, fresh ink drying on the canvas. What I couldn’t remember was exactly how my parents were involved in that project. Or why the University colluded with the agency occupying it now.

When the architect unveiled the plans to the University committee, it caused quite a stir. Not because the public didn’t like the design, but because of the designer’s ethnicity. But that was back when people voiced opinions. No one voiced opinions anymore. I didn’t care about the designer or other people’s opinion. I just liked looking at it.

Every time I saw it my breath caught a little. The organized chaos of it was magnificent. A fine example of asymmetrical balance with all the odd-shaped native rock in contrast to the perfect glass.

Every time I saw it, I’d look at it and marvel for a little while. Then I’d remember what it was and the wonder turned to a bitter taste instead. It was a government building, and I hated everything to do with government.

This time, though, after admiring it, I swallowed the bile creeping up in the back of my throat. And I swallowed my pride.

I put the envelope back in my pocket and pulled out my identification card, just to make sure I still had it with me. I took a deep breath and moved a little closer to my destination, then paused again.

The giant A-R-S-A acronym stretched across the entire front of the building floated on the expanse of glass. On one hand, I hoped they’d hire me. On the other, it was hard for me to believe I was actually going to ask for a position with a government agency. It went against all that had been ingrained in me since birth. That hatred had been hammered home by parents who were, themselves, too entrenched to get out of the system.

And yet, there I stood. Bentonville, Arkansas, on the front steps of the entire country’s most notorious government agency.

A pair of W1 peers came around the corner of 2nd and A-Street and headed toward me. They passed carefully, making sure to not make eye contact with me or in any way get too close as our paths crossed. I watched them continue down the sidewalk to turn again on the main stretch through town.

The thought of doing that for my living sickened me. They were surveillance. But the thought of going inside to apply for a job here sickened me too. Which was the lesser evil?

I laughed to myself. It was hubris to even think someone of my status had a choice. I was a W1 with no sense of status. I didn’t look at the ground when I walked. I looked people in the eyes when I encountered them. It was amazing I hadn’t been arrested already.

“Ratters” is how those two that just passed me were known to anyone left with even a slight sense of sovereignty.

And if I didn’t get the position I was about to apply for, it’s likely what I’d soon be called too. The bile started rising again and I swallowed hard.
A.R.S.A. agents were not a loved and appreciated bunch of folks. But the agency was headquartered in my assigned domicile and it was the best option I had. If I really could get in, then maybe I had a chance of one day getting out.

I had the invitation. It shouldn’t matter that it was a few years old and had been stuffed in my pocket all that time. A job with A.R.S.A. was a means, albeit a distasteful one, to a necessary end. If it worked.

I took a deep breath and walked up the remaining three steps. The spotless glass door parted with a barely noticeable hiss and I walked into the lobby.

Swagger, woman. Head up. Stand tall.

It was hard to look confident while every fiber of my being screamed in protest, but I gave it my best shot as I made my way over to the front desk. It was the only desk in the middle of a cavernous room of glossy granite and it was a podium, not really a desk. Or maybe it was one of those standing desks that are supposed to be healthier.

I’d heard in gossiped whispers that sometimes employees in the upper echelon got them.

“I’d like to apply for a job,” I said to the receptionist. My voice came out so strong and unwavering, it surprised me. I swallowed.

“Which position are you interested in?” She didn’t even look up at me, but rubbed her finger left to right across the smooth glass front of her device on the horizontal surface in front of her, already poised and waiting to tap. I wondered which positions she’d already assumed I’d be there for.

Her gray and silver streaked hair was pulled into a very tight bun at the top of her head. It gave her eyes an exaggerated elongated shape. As bored as she had to get in there all alone like that, she probably did it that way to keep them from being able to close if she fell asleep on the job.

“Bounty Hunter,” I replied. There. I’d done it. Finally applied for the job. That ought to jar her out of her boredom. I couldn’t help the little self-satisfied smirk I felt creeping onto my face.

Veronica Statin, according to her name tag, still never looked up but gave her spiel in a drone that implied she got this inquiry a hundred times each day.

My smirk faded a bit.

“We don’t hire just anyone as agents. And if A.R.S.A. does decide you are a good fit, they won’t give you any solo jobs until you’ve mastered the art of tracking a target. You’ll have to prove you’ll actually follow through to the end. The end means running the target down to grub stage. For a relatively young criminal, this means three incarnations. Older ones could be more. It could take three or four years to finish one case and could involve travel to distant destinations. Do you have identification?” she asked.

“Huh?”

I didn’t realize she’d stopped talking and had asked me a question. I was still stuck on the three times sentence.
Three times? People are killed more than once? How’s that possible?

“Your ID.” She sucked in and let out a breath through tightly pinched lips. “Do you have it with you?” she asked again, frowning but still never looking up. I could tell she thought I was wasting her time. She held out her left hand and continued to tap on her tablet with her index finger of the right.
“Oh. Yes. I have it.” Crazy woman. Who in their right mind would go anywhere without one?

I fished it out of one of my leg pockets. The cargo pants I’d taken to wearing, not that there was much choice in the matter, were pretty useful in that I could carry almost everything I might need for the rest of my life with me. Pockets for everything. They weren’t attractive by any stretch of the imagination, but certainly were functional and they were the required drab gray. Function counted far more than form.

She folded her slender fingers over my card and brought it into her line of vision with lightning fast speed.

Eew.

The way she snatched my card reminded me of a praying mantis. She never even looked up. I began to wonder if her hair was too tight at the nape of her neck to allow the luxury of lifting her head.

I watched as she processed it. She turned it over to inspect the watermark on back and then typed the numbers into her little sleek pad. Then with one perfectly plucked eyebrow raised, the first expression of any sort I’d seen her make since I walked in here, she reached a manicured finger to a button and spoke into her headset while handing my card back. She slowly raised her head to look at me.

The expression on her face made me think she was surprised to find someone standing there at her desk.

“There’s someone here you need to see. I’m sending her data,” she said into her headset.

She scanned my appearance and frowned. I suppose the way I looked didn’t match what she’d imagined.

“Agent Raymond Lewis is our recruiter,” she said, speaking to me this time. “He’ll receive you in a second. Leave your bag by the door over there.” She pointed to a space between two chairs against the wall adjacent to the glass.

In what seemed like no time at all a man entered the polished marble cavern through a set of double doors behind Ms. Statin’s podium. But with his white lab coat, he didn’t look anything like what I’d imagined an agent of A.R.S.A. to look and certainly not a recruiter.

I decided to roll with it anyway and be proactive.

“Hi, I’m Treya.” I put out my hand. He waved it aside nervously.

“Good to meet you, but I don’t do shakes,” he said. “Come this way.” He spun around on one heel and retreated back the way he’d come in.

The glimpse I got of his name tag confirmed that he really was “Agent” Raymond Lewis, the Recruiter. I felt my own face forming a frown and I tried to un-do it as I followed him through the burnished metal doors. They hissed closed behind me.

The doors opened into a well-lit granite-lined hallway and we took the first turn to the right, stopping at an open door to an office. This room was completely out of sync with the decor of anything else I’d seen so far. He indicated that I should enter first.

Bumping a dispenser on the wall outside the door to fill his hand with a clear gel that smelled of sanitizer, he rubbed his hands together, closed the door behind us with the toe of his shoe and flipped the switch on a white cube-shaped unit mounted to the wall with his elbow.

“Clean hands. Clean air,” he said, by way of explanation then seated himself behind his desk and pulled his mug closer.

“Would you like a drink? I have water or milk.”

Clear or white. Surely they were both ultra-pasteurized.

“Ummm. No thank you.”

“Have a seat, then.”

The options were a white plastic chair with a small table in front of it and another hard white plastic chair positioned closer to his desk, sans table. I deliberated. They both looked cold and uncomfortable.

“You’ll need the table,” he said, which simplified my choice.

Still smocked in his white lab coat, sitting behind his white desk, surrounded by pristine white walls, he looks like he belonged in a sanitarium. Doctor, or patient? I couldn’t decide.

Even his hair was white and his skin abnormally pale. The only things in the room with any color at all were his eyes, which were ice crystal blue and almost didn’t count for color. Oh, and I guess you could count the lead in his pencil and me. My dark skin must have jarred his colorless world.

“Okay then, we’ll get started. Treya… how do you pronounce that last name?” he asked with a clean white pencil poised between still moist fingers above his white notepad. I wondered why the old-fashioned technology. A.R.S.A. was supposed to be the elite in gadget utilization.

“I don’t want to use a last name. Just Treya,” I said.

He scribbled something on the pad.

Good. He didn’t object. I wasn’t sure I was “allowed” to have that sort of option.

“So, Treya Just Treya, what would you say is your greatest weakness?”

“Confrontation,” I said. “I don’t like confrontation.”

Raymond nearly choked on the milk he’d just sipped from his spotless white mug.

“Really?” He composed himself. “Assassination is a pretty confrontational career choice, wouldn’t you agree?”

I knew that would be his reaction. I also knew he’d want to know what I had seen just a few days prior, if we could just get to the point where I got to tell him my reasons for applying.

Agent Raymond the Recruiter cocked an eyebrow at me as he waited on my response. I just couldn’t get past the fact that he looked so oddly out of character in a white lab coat. He should be wearing something more… agent-like. His appearance and this setting distracted me.

Answer the man.

“My greatest strength is my ability to overcome weaknesses,” I countered.

“Yes, yes. Good answer,” he said. “But do you think you can actually git-r-done?”

The longer I had to stay in this room, the less I liked this man. There was just something surreal and disturbing in the mix between the jargon and his appearance and his position. He made my skin crawl.

“Sure,” I answered. “Sounds easy enough.” I tried to sound confident. Everything depended on me getting this position. If I could just get far into it enough to explain what I had seen, it would help.

“It always does,” he said, not skipping a beat at my hesitation. “Until you get right down to task. But find and kill this same target two or three times?” He absently tapped his pencil, point down on the notepad. “Well, that’s what makes it so hard.” He looked at me for a second, then down at the pad.

After hurriedly erasing his marks, then nodded his head while brushing away the eraser crumbs. “I think you can do it. You’ve got the right profile.”

I wasn’t too sure what he meant by that, but I suspected he was referring to the data Ms. Statin from the front desk had sent him. Since the restructuring, everyone had been cataloged and profiled. They had our DNA, our life histories… everything. Of course, we weren’t allowed access to our own files. Everyone now had clearance levels and that file was classified “Need to Know”. If I wanted to know about myself I’d have to get with the metaphysical and “look within”.


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