An endless host of tall, cloned cedars pressed up to the edge of the tarmac, their symmetry crowding out the sky, their pointed crowns like the floor of a pit trap, drawing the rain out of the clouds. It struck her windscreen and the road on its way into the granite beneath the snaking roots and the corpses of the animals poisoned by the vegetation's engineered toxicity. She slowed, though she could make the turn into the carpark in her sleep. Cameras soaring overhead on pole mounts, motile and cyclopian, maintained their omniscience with sensors tuned to thermal signatures and movement; they followed her to the entrance, with its staged doors and mechanized rituals. Institutional paranoia had invested the facility with attributes reviled by its inmates and infamous amongst the free-living communities from which they had been excised. Its massive footings, set two metres into bedrock, and impervious construction turned back sound and excluded every circadian cue so that the concept of time and seasonality died an airless death. Heading north at the first juncture in the corridor, she blinked against the brightness of its brushed silver panelling and negotiated two more checkpoints, finding that she was the first to arrive to the briefing.
She ignored the figure sitting behind the observation window in the adjacent cell and sat down on the table by a high slit window and its view of the dull green, stable-like barracks. Its residents submitted to a search by guards, the bunkhouses stripped, spartan effects dumped in the midst of their caged yards to be soaked by the rain. The field crews were easy to distinguish from their wardens, having been ordered at gunpoint from their clothing so that they stood with hands clasped behind their thick necks against the razor-wire. Like yarded steers they bore their treatment with thwarted rancor, their undress exposing prison tattoos in black and dirty green, laced with gang code, illiterate obscenities and misshapen cartoon whores acquired in the institutions from which they had been recruited. Those surviving recent duty sported fresh contusions and taped-up fleshwounds. A few entered into abortive scuffles, grimly trading taser shots and prostration on the tarmac for the chance to express their rage. Most stood dumbly, steam rising from their shoulders while the rain dripped from their elbows, quelled by the prospect of collective chastisement via the devices buried in their mastoid processes, the scars descending from their left ears. A screaming white tone punished dissent at the behest of a radio frequency and at the discretion of their betters, and its veterans knew better than to court it openly. The sight of them recalled the thick, rank smell of their felonious mass, tainted by feedlot rations crammed with protein and dosed with prophylactic compounds.
Josephine looked away from the glass as she was joined by the head of her division. He possessed a given name, but she could not imagine a mother mustering enough enthusiasm to bestow anything beyond some arbitrary homage to undifferentiated forefathers. Behind pristine silver rims O'Connor's narrow features held an untried teenage blandness that had tailed him into middle age; in aspect, he was the anthropomorphic expression of the facility he served, thriving in its gleaming viscera. He stood still before the soundproof door awaiting the acknowledgement that always tasted so sapidly of submission and having gained it, he turned his attention to the adjacent chamber. A stout metal chair was bolted to its bare floor and an elderly woman occupied it, tightly wrapped in a thick, pilled coat of flowered green; her night gown and bed socks betrayed the circumstances of her apprehension. Sparse white hair rose in a flame shape on her head. She began to pat at it slowly, misted eyes half closed. The heavy door re-opened before Trent, shambling in his solitary, threadbare navy suit. Shaw wore his own gunmetal two piece into the room with all the poise that it required, setting down his briefcase and laying out the contents of his dossier in careful sequence.
Trent was drawn toward the window by the barrack search.
“What’re they tossing for this time?” he muttered. O’Connor replied without looking up from Shaw's material.
“Weapons hoarding in C house.”
“You expect those boys to live out there with those damn things runnin round the woods? And they all know what you're pointin them at next... that fuckin word's gone round.”
His superior smiled at his concerns.
"While their personal difficulties will always touch me deeply, I suspect their time here is more fulfilling than twenty to life in SuperMax, however brief.”
Shaw cleared his throat and closed his jacket, standing to present his findings.
“Female civilian secondaries.” he began, reaching down to tap a surveillance shot. “The maid. Susan Ellen Christabel, British national, literate, twenty-three, five three, no visible distinguishing, expired visa, no medical records, no green card. She’s a little adversarial, but at this point, I’m confident she's green.” He moved on to the next file. “Lilian Natalia Frost, native born, literate. Twenty-nine, five nine, one tattoo, trackmarks... a couple of ER visits early on, no recorded admissions for eight years. Came out of Ferngate Juvenile at eighteen... her records are sealed, but we’ll have them soon. Ferngate was high security for adjudicated minors... whatever she did, she missed the pen, but only just. We can assume there was significant violent offending in her background."
“Two prostitution misdemeanors, one for possession. Nothing recent, no meaningful time served, no warrants outstanding. I can confirm she’s still active, probably heavily connected, but we don't know which precinct she’s paying into. Sub One could be running her game now. I dumped her accounts... averaged over a six month window, she’s pulling six G a week.”
"Have you been able to do a psychometric pass on this one yet?” O’Connor’s dark eyes were hidden behind reflected streaks of ceiling light on the surface of his glasses.
“As yet there’s been no verbal... she’s an unstable alpha, highly evasive, off the scale issues around authority, narcotic use to go with... right now I can’t engage her without overstepping. I like the housekeeper a lot more for disclosure. She's totally green, cleanskin... not too sharp... she'll give us what we need when I go to work on her.”
Laying out the next group of photographs, Shaw looked to Josephine. If O’Connor perceived the intimacy already obvious in Susan and William’s documented exchanges, nothing in his face betrayed it.
“Why has there been no meaningful headway on their finances?"
"Sub one's got it locked down, solid visible means, snow-white flow... someone's burying their black market action deep."
"I want another asset recovery team on this, and I'm thinking we should use the housekeeper’s immigration status to extract her.” O'Connor remarked, re-examining the photographs. “It’s a federal beef. They'll let her slide and thank their stars no one came for them.”
Josephine shook her head.
"If they got a taste for maids and whores...” Trent snorted, looking to her as though the objection was fantastic. “There's plenty more where they came from. Pick her up and put her in the damn chair.”
“I understood my recommendations would be considered wh...”
“And that very generous leeway was contingent upon whatever you turned in.” O'Connor reminded her. They looked to Shaw together; he shrugged loosely, framing support of their superior's position and Josephine replied just as he cleared his throat to do the same.
“I’ve put three hundred hours into this site... we can't uplift the female secondaries. They’ll see it for what it is and run, and so will their associates. We can't have that kind of panic.”
O’Connor responded with a strange warning smile that was clearly audible in his voice.
“Anything else you’d like to critique, given that they're now fully aware of your outstanding surveillance detail?”
"What we have is good... we don't know why the second sub shifted to the compound, and we don't have all the relationships tied down, but we could not have asked for a better distribution... why go in and disrupt that?” she insisted.
Beneath its weathered tan Trent’s face held the congested colour of a small boy mired in defiance. Behind them, the elderly woman had gotten stiffly out of her chair and walked to the barrier that walled her from the bickering party; she knocked slowly on the glass, awaiting their attention. Trent's barely-contained disaffection distracted O'Connor from his intended monologue.
"Mr Trent, you are here as a professional courtesy..."
"What’re we gonna be using on them? Word is these freaks spit out tungsten and green-tip... what the fuck’re we supposed to do if we can’t light them up?”
“You'll get your game plan and ordinance if and when you're tasked." O'Connor scowled, irritated at the speed with which such restive apocrypha had disseminated. "And while we're on this, their classification and taxonomy do not concern you, so do not continue to promulgate misinformation. I won't warn you again."
Trent snorted back a sinus full of mucous.
“Have y'thought about how you're gonna to keep them locked down before you roll them off the goddamn truck?” he muttered. "Or are you just gonna pray nothing makes it past the Bambis?"
"We're done here." Watching Trent slap his knees and rock forward from his chair with a narrow stare, O'Connor glanced at his watch and stood up. "Work hard. I want you both back here with a whole lot more."
Trent smirked at the elderly detainee behind the partition and lifted a fist to drum a rhythm on the material that separated them. With ophidian swiftness the woman sprang from her chair and threw herself at him, mouth open wide, jaw folding back into deep creases. From her throat a thin black liquid spattered in violent emission against the glass, almost concealing the bifurcated tongue that fell over her lower lip and was sucked back with a slow, rattling hiss that did not escape the compartment in which she was sealed.
“Shit... what the hell?" he chuckled. O’Connor did not bother to look up as he walked past them.
“By-catch. It’s headed down to the labs this afternoon.”
The woman returned to her seat while her audience filed out the door, drawing back her sleeve and cleaning a bullet wound on her forearm with her curling, mallow-coloured tongue. Shaw remained with Josephine, who had made no move to leave. She began leafing through the files again.
“Bambis?” he murmured.
"Autonomous Defence Modules.”
His frowned deepened.
“You mean the...” He tipped his head in the direction of the window, with its looming backdrop of encircling trees. “I thought they were still in beta...” Josephine allowed him to speculate. “Why bambis?”
She turned each photograph the right way up as she examined them.
“Because they have no mother and live in the woods."
"We should've let them extract the housekeeper. We could sweat the whole trip out of her in five good minutes.”
"Ever seen fake Feds blooded out with their own bodyparts?” she inquired without looking at him. "She doesn't know anything worth telling. I want her there until she does."
He slid his laptop back into its case and looked toward the window, watching the barrack search as it was concluded.
“They’re going to have a hard time recruiting once this rotation's been chewed up... word is even the dry matter down at ADX Florence is getting cold feet. You have a good one."
Alone again, she stood and held the image she was studying to the daylight to confirm its minor details. Within its shiny white margin Susan and William occupied the shade of an elm, the former on a smoking motor scooter, talking to the latter as she stood and smiled back at him, opening her mouth to speak. The pleasure they took in one another glowed through their skins; Josephine set the photo on the windowsill and stepped back, hands settling on her hips.
CONTINUED NEXT WEEK
© céili o'keefe do not reproduce