There are a lot of things the Chancellorate's Security Forces won't tell you when you're considering signing up. They won't tell you about the extended shifts, the lack of sleep, or the post-traumatic stress disorder; they won't tell you about the long, slow descent into insanity that you'll suffer as a result of being forced to work so closely with politicians; and they won't tell you about the somewhat ironic lack of job security.
Agents quit. Agents die. Agents get fired because their boss is having a bad hair day. Some agents are even lucky enough to retire.
New agents are brought in to replace them. There's a lot of turnover in the Security Forces, one way or another. The speed with which new recruits are hired and trained can make your head spin. On one particularly crazy day I showed up for work in the morning as part of a team of eight, finished the day's mission as the second-in-command of a team of four, and clocked out two hours later as the leader of a team of fifteen.
The downside of the system is that you never know when you're about to meet your replacement. The upside is that if you know what you're doing, it shouldn't take you too long to start climbing the ladder.
As I mentioned at the end of the previous chapter, after the incident with Mr. Dimbles I transferred to the protective detail for the Third Assistant Under-Chancellor-in-Waiting. I only spent two months there before I took my next upwards step.
I was hand-selected by the Associate Bilateral Forthchancellor to be a personal bodyguard for her daughter, Dorothy. My duties involved accompanying Dorothy to and from high school and sitting in on her classes and cheer squad practices. It wasn't the worst position I'd ever held. Teenagers can be insufferable, but I did my best to blend in and even befriend a few of them.
For weeks, my most pressing security concern was trying to keep the teenage boys' grubby little hands away from my holster. They wheedled and whined at me, tried to bribe me, tried to butter me up. "Come on, Ms. Connolly," they would say. "You're so pretty. You're so nice. We just wanna hold your blaster! We just wanna see it! We won't do anything. We'll take you out to a movie if you let us touch it." On a certain level it was flattering to have that much male attention—being an agent hadn't afforded me much of a social or romantic life for a few years—but I wasn't yet that desperate for entertainment, so I continually disappointed them.
During my time with Dorothy I directed more of my attention towards protecting her from bullies, blondes, and bad boys than towards keeping her safe from political dissidents and assassins. The girl was much more likely to be struck by heartbreak than a bullet, especially with the desperate, headstrong way that incorrigible flirt pursued her male classmates. I think that may have been one reason her mother hired me to work with her. She was a scandal waiting to happen.
There eventually came a day, though, early one May, when I was required to put away the "don't-you-look-at-her-that-way,-punk" glare I used on the boys and the "shoulder-to-cry-on" attitude I held towards Dorothy and had to exercise my agent training in a more legitimate way.
It was the day of a big track and field meet between Dorothy's school and three of the neighbouring schools. Everywhere you looked the students were dressed in purple and gold, showing off their team spirit, and earnest-looking teenagers were running and jumping and flipping and cheering and crying and throwing popcorn at one another. It was chaos, the kind of scenario a well-trained agent really hates.
Dorothy's cheer squad was in high demand. They were being pulled all over the campus, from the track to the gym to the stands to the cafeteria. I was trekking along after them, keeping a dutiful eye out for anything unusual or threatening.
There were a few quiet minutes between the long jump and the pole vault, and the coach decided it was a good opportunity to get some photos of the cheer squad taken for the yearbook. She dragged the gaggle of girls over to where the photography teacher was taking some wide shots from a verge of grass just inside the 12-foot chain link fence that surrounded most of the school.
The girls began assembling into various team poses on the grass, formations and glamour shots and human pyramids. The school mascot, a big purple teddy bear with enormous googly eyes, was wandering by and decided to join in and ham it up with them. The group's laughing and chattering and posing began to draw a small crowd, which made me more than a little nervous.
Then Dorothy's mother showed up, her own entourage of three agents in tow. The Associate Bilateral Forthchancellor was a typical politician, which meant she was never one to miss a photo opportunity. She had come by to watch a few events from the stands, but apparently she hadn't been receiving enough personal attention up there—the Vice-Prime Chancellor of Education was hogging the spotlight, I think. She convinced the photographer to include her in a few shots and joined in with her daughter, striking what she must have thought was a comedic yet dignified pose. She looked like a turkey in a tuxedo. Dorothy was more embarrassed than the time I kicked in the door of her bathroom stall and found her taking a nap to avoid Chemistry class. She was scowling at her mom with the dark ferocity only a 16-year-old can generate.
"Oh!" said the Associate Bilateral Forthchancellor when the photographer seemed to be getting tired of her. "I have an excellent idea! Why don't I pose shaking hands with the mascot? It would look great in the papers."
The photography teacher was clearly reluctant, and seemed ready to go back to covering the sports—the discus throw was about to begin—but after some wheedling and cajoling he agreed to snap a couple of quick photos. The mascot was game for it, so they stood by the fence and struck a pose together.
The cheer squad was getting together and trundling off back to the field to cheer on the discus throwers and shot putters. My attention was turned towards fighting through the crowd to get back close to Dorothy when the shot was fired.
The Associate Bilateral Forthchancellor was the first to react, diving to her stomach on the grass and covering her head. In moments her three security agents were at her side, checking for injuries and scanning the panicking crowds for the source of the shot.
I drew my blaster and sprinted towards Dorothy, putting myself between her and the direction I thought the shot had come from. It sounded to me like it had come from underneath the bleachers. Pushing Dorothy to the ground, I stood over her and scanned the bleachers for any gleam of sun on metal that might betray the shooter.
When no further immediate threat presented itself, I grabbed Dorothy under the arms and half-carried, half-dragged her over to where her mother was being guarded by her own three agents. The teddy bear mascot was sprawled out beside them on the grass.
"Is she all right?" I asked.
"The shot missed," reported one of the other agents. "It got the mascot, instead."
Another agent was on the phone already, calling for help. I heard an ambulance's sirens start up somewhere not far off.
"Watch her," I told the other agents, handing Dorothy over. Then I knelt down beside the mascot to assess the situation. There was an obvious bullet hole at the base of the mascot's neck, right about where the head of the person wearing the costume would be. The mascot wasn't moving. I couldn't hear any breathing, but I didn't see any blood, either. "Help me get this mask off," I said, reaching to pull off the bear's head.
"No, wait!" said one of the agents. "It's, uh... We might do more harm for good! We should wait for the ambulance."
The recommendation didn't make any sense to me, but before I could retort I caught a glimpse of movement out of the corner of my eye, on the other side of the fence. I looked up and saw a man sprinting towards the road, holding a violin case.
I drew my blaster and shouted, "Hey, stop!"
He turned to look over his shoulder, saw me standing with my drawn blaster, yelped, and tripped in a gopher hole. He went sprawling and his violin case flew open. The pieces of a sniper blaster tumbled out into the grass.
I looked left, then right, and saw no quick way through or around the fence, so I jammed my blaster into its holster, took a run up, leapt up onto the fence, and started climbing. The shooter was frantically gathering up the pieces of his sniper blaster and stuffing them back into the violin case. There was panic in his eyes when he saw me climbing. He hugged the violin case shut, jumped back to his feet, and began to run again.
A black car pulled up on the shoulder of the road and honked its horn as I crested the fence and dropped hard onto the ground on the other side. Someone inside the car pushed the rear door open and a hand beckoned the runner on. He only had 50 yards to go, and I had to cover twice that distance to catch him, but I had been a track-and-field athlete myself, back in high school, and the 100-yard dash had been my best event. I dug my toes in, raised my head, and took off running.
The shooter saw me coming and yelped and stumbled again. The driver of the getaway car honked and yelled something. I was making up ground. I reached for my blaster, just in case, but he was only 20 yards away now, 10, 5...
I planted my foot and propelled myself through the air like a long jumper, piling onto the shooter and driving him to the ground. The getaway car squealed off before I could get my blaster up to take a shot at its tires.
The shooter was whimpering like a lazy kid in gym class. "Don't hurt me! ...Not supposed to catch me... Just following orders! Not my fault!"
I wasn't having it. "You took a shot at a member of the Chancellorate. You may have just killed a kid in a bear suit. If it's not your fault, then whose is it?" I grabbed him by the elbow and hauled him to his feet. His tears were turning the dirt on his face into trails of mud, but behind all the mess and the contortion of his features something twigged my memory. "Vizak?" I said. "Is that you?"
His eyes flew open. "No!" he said. "No no no! I'm not... No!"
But I was sure I recognized him now. "It is you. Pokur Vizak. We went through training together a few years ago. What happened to you?"
"I, uh... I went bad!" he declared. "Bad guys kidnapped me and brainwashed me into being a bad guy, too. Nice guys finish last! Down with the Chancellorate! I'm sad and confused and dangerous. You'd better take me to jail."
One of the Associate Bilateral Forthchancellor's agents caught up to us. "Oh!" said the agent. "You caught the guy. Uh, nice work. I guess we should, uh, bring him in, then."
"How's the mascot?" I asked.
"Oh, fine, fine," said the agent. "I mean, well, hurt pretty bad, probably. Might be dead. Ambulance is picking it up right now. Don't worry about it."
"Don't worry about it? A kid might be dead inside that suit, maybe a kid I've been seeing every weekday for the past few months, and you're telling me not to worry about it?" Grabbing my prisoner by the wrist, I hauled him back towards where Dorothy and her mother were being watched. Through the fence I saw the ambulance coming to a stop, and two paramedics stepped out nonchalantly, one carrying a stretcher. I rounded the far end of the fence, near the bleachers, and arrived as they were sliding the mascot on the stretcher into the back of the ambulance.
I handed the prisoner to the other two agents and stomped up to the ambulance. "What's going on?" I demanded. "Aren't you even going to look inside the suit?"
The paramedics looked sheepish. "Er, no need," said one. "I'm afraid it's dead, so... No need."
"It?" I was furious. "What is with you people and calling this person an it? That is a human being in there."
The paramedics cast glances at each other and at the ground. "Er," they said. "Sorry."
I wasn't appeased. Something about the whole scenario wasn't sitting right with me. The behaviour of the paramedics, the other agents, even the shooter... It was all wrong.
The paramedics took advantage of my momentary silence to begin closing the rear doors of the ambulance, but I reached out and grabbed the door to stop them. I pushed them back and climbed into the ambulance where the mascot was lying. Sliding forward to the mascot's head, I slipped my fingers around the edges of the mask and pulled on it.
"No!" said the other agents.
"Wait!" said the paramedics.
"Stop!" said the Associate Bilateral Forthchancellor.
The mask came off smoothly and fell to the floor. Underneath was a mass of gears, servos, wires, and circuit boards.
"What in the world?" I said.
Then the ambulance doors slammed shut on me, locking me in, and the paramedics jumped into the front of the ambulance, started it up, and drove off.
You won't have heard this story before. You might not even believe it. Their plan worked. The Associate Bilateral Forthchancellor was able to spin the "assassination attempt" into a ton of great press and earned three consecutive promotions in the span of 18 months, eventually spending two full terms as Unilateral Forthchancellor, directly advising the Over-Chancellor on public relations and media issues.
I could have retired young on the money they paid me to keep my mouth shut. Instead I bought a house, went back to school for a Master's degree in Security Operations, and invested what was left.
Sure, I could have blown the whistle, but it wouldn't have accomplished much. I was already feeling pretty jaded about the entire Chancellorate at that point, anyways, and to be honest that hasn't really changed. I still think the Chancellorate is filled with idiots and crooks, and I'm not the only person who holds that opinion, not by far. Nobody seems to want to do anything about it, though. Even publishing a story like this one in this book won't cause much of a stir, probably.
The next two chapters might.