Tuesday, 26 March 2019

P Squared, chapter 2

When she’s done explaining to P their role and has handed over a key to the stationery cupboard, Rina Symons introduces P to the Publications Assistant — “Pubs”, not introduced any other way — and the Quality Officer — the man, likewise. Symons tells the Publications Assistant to take P to Klaire, in the next office.


Klaire will show her around, help her to get network access, make some introductions. Klaire smiles, looks past her to the bald-headed androgyne, who is still here, as if waiting for a thing.

“You all right, Pubs?”

The Publications Assistant shrugs. “Sorry, yeah. Was a mile away.”

“OK.” Klaire stands, raises her eyebrows like she’s expecting something. “We’ll get on, then?”

“Uh, yeah. Yeah. I, ah, I’ll see you in a bit.” They go.

The door shuts and Klaire looks P right in the eye. “Watch them.”

“Why?”

Klaire bites her lip, looks like she’s holding something back. “They’re... a bit hit and miss sometimes.” She shrugs. “I say it like I see it, is all. You have to watch them. Don’t trust them with anything. That’s all.”

“I am not sure I have anything to trust anyone with.”

Klaire looks terribly sad for a moment. “You’re only here for a couple weeks?”

“Until the Engagement is over.”

Klaire nods. “Quite a few of our temps end up staying, you know,” says Klaire. “Admin was a temp. Prints, too. We’ve pretty much always got vacancies. The staff turnaround here is horrendous. Obviously. You never know. Anyway, I’m Klaire.” She puts out a hand, smiles brightly.

P takes the proffered hand and wonders if they are smiling too. P finds Klaire’s solicitude slightly confusing; as if Klaire is almost treating them like a person. It doesn’t compute.

The eight rooms of the Office wind and turn in upon themselves, connected by low, narrow stone corridors and stairs. P cannot find a right-angle anywhere. P registers cobwebs at the corners of high ceilings, wooden window frames with brass latches that look out over benches and cobbled courtyards and topiary in the shapes of fish and deformed mermaids, short sun-dappled collegiate avenues. Bare, ancient stones protrude at the joins between walls. The corridors joining the room are low, go up and down steps, round one-eighty-degree turns, branch off into dead ends.

P has perfect directional orientation, but the dataflow declares three locative errors before Klaire even gets near Admin. P, fed up, wonders if they shouldn’t turn their GPS off.

Offices have servers and workstations, dead stone fireplaces and dumb waiter hatches. Ancient carpets and swipe-card locks. Some of the staff get names: Carin, the vast, crewcut-wearing Time and Efficiency rep; Huw and Gen the Translators; Karoline the Student Liaison Officer. Some just get a title: Faculty Officer, Disciplinary Administrator; Appeals Manager; Exams Officer. P can see no reason why this should be; it has no connection to length of time here, seniority or nature of contract.
Some shake hands, some smile, some wave with phones on their ear; some blank P completely. None of the senior staff are introduced to P.

Klaire takes P up a narrow, winding set of steps up into a tower, the effect of medieval stone broken by a solid wood fire door with a flaking “FIRE EXIT: KEEP SHUT” sticker. She swipes her card over the lock; the door goes click; she leads P inside.

Admin sits in the middle of a circular desk; three server towers, no monitors, graceful, long-fingered hands hovering over two of several keyboards, straight white hair pulled back into a tight ponytail, pallid temples pockmarked with half a dozen or more input sockets, wide, round eyes, whites surrounding pinprick pupils, near-invisible grey irises. Her swivel chair turns; she faces Klaire and P. Her skin catches the light like a bee’s wing. “Hello, Klaire,” she says.

Klaire introduces; Admin nods and smiles languidly, looking, and this thought opens in P’s head like a spambot popup window, like a picture-book angel. P thinks they and Admin might have met before. They are fairly sure that Admin doesn’t know that.

“Hardlink, please?” says Admin.

She hands P one end of a long, slightly grubby pink USB cable. P flips open the socket on the side of their neck; plugs in (An external device requires access — permit?); they download the privacy policy, the health and safety policy, the disciplinary procedures, the regulations for systems use, a username and password, words flying back and forth in layers across their mind — then they freeze the display, come back into the room.

“There’s an override here,” they say.

“It’s a safety feature,” says Admin. “Your terms of contract require it.”

P sighs, permits the network access. Klaire sighs too, almost sympathetically. When they leave the room, Klaire says, “I’m sorry.”

P blinks. “I — um. OK. Thank you.”

“I just have to show you where the facilities are, and then we’re good. OK?”

The Print Room is downstairs and a couple of steps up (P’s GPS complains, tells them that it occupies the same space as the Collaborative Provision Office; P gives up and switches it off). Prints, another former temp, tall, muscular, mean-looking but softly-spoken (“He’s a pussycat,” says Klaire), shakes P’s hand and offers any help he can give. P thanks him, nods and makes interested noises while he shows P around the print room and the stationery store.

As P and Klaire leave, Prints says, “Hey, Klaire, I’d be careful in the open corridors if I were you. THR have been about.”

Klaire stops in her tracks. “Oh? What’s occurring?”

“Word is, they’re going to announce cuts in the next couple of days.”

“Shit. OK. Thanks, Prints. Right, change of plan. We’re going to go out the back. OK, Prints?”

“Fine by me,” says Prints. He waves them through, gets back to his desk.

“You’re pretty quiet, aren’t you?” says Klaire, as she and P ascend another narrow, lime-encrusted stairwell.

“I don’t want to make waves.”

“Probably for the best.”

At the top of these stairs, the door is cardlocked, made of mirrored glass. P stops to tell their GPS no, there isn’t a fault, and sees theirself reflected for the first time she can remember: a bald-headed surgery victim, their face displaying the shining, telltale immobility of heavy Botox misuse, all tight grey-white skin over cheekbones and forehead, glossy synthetic collagen-stuffed lips. A black faux-Gestapo uniform tight over a narrow chest. Input links, gently glowing inside, sprout from their neck and on their temples. Heavy podlike devices in gold and silver cover their ears completely (if there are even still ears there at all); on one of them, two yellow LEDs flash in time with one another. P sees plastic, metal, polyester. Seamless, sleek, ruined.

P looks at theirself without blinking. They wince inwardly.

The image swings away as Klaire opens the door, leading P back into the Office, behind the Quality Enhancement Officer’s desk. P hadn’t noticed this door was even here.

“Don’t mind us,” says Klaire. “Just came back to get my coat.”

“Bit of bother?” Says the Publications Assistant.

“Transhuman Resources on the prowl, apparently,” says Klaire.

“Shit,” says the Quality Enhancement Officer.

“Shit,” says the Publications Assistant.

“Bugger,” says Symons. “Here it comes.”

Publications and Quality both turn to her and say “What?” in unison, and Klaire looks at P as if to say, We’ll let them get on with this, and they head to the stationery cupboard and book out arms. P takes a light SMG.

Klaire books out a taser. P stares at it.

“You’re cleared for more than that, you know,” they say.

“Oh, I know.”

P turns back to their SMG, checks the chamber, ammunition and catches, attaches an open holster to their belt.

“I don’t like shooting at people,” says Klaire, unprompted. “Got a problem with that?”

“No,” says P. “It’s just unusual.”

“I know. Higher Education and everything. This is just a stopgap, really. I’m actually studying Criminology. Another year, I’m out of here.”

“You want to be in the Police?”

“Yep. No guns, see.” Klaire pats the side of her coat; it makes a noise like the cover of a hardback book. “Got any stopping power?”

P gently raps their stomach with her knuckles; their tunic, too, sounds hard and hollow.

“Well, OK. I’ll show you where the toilets are, then.”

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