Monday, 1 April 2019

P Squared, chapter 5

(Content warning: sexual harassment in the workplace. Seriously, though, this is where the )
P sleeps — they don’t feel like they should call it sleeping, exactly, but they can’t think of any other word for it — body and mind rendered down to a notional quantum of energy and information stored in the Delivery Seed they came in, which is stored in the top drawer of the Publications Officer’s desk. P does always come out of storage feeling like they’ve slept, that’s true. But that’s countered by the length of time it takes to collect theirself, to come online, to be able to move and see and talk, by the way they’re never wholly able to be sure that they are the same as they were before they were rendered down. This second day of their assignment, P’s return to consciousness is interrupted by an Update, presumably sent back into the Seed in storage time and integrated into their HeadWares, ready for their morning programming run.

P always finds these things irritating. They slow down their rebuild. They change some small part of P’s mind without their consent (beyond, obviously, the clause in that contract they signed that allows them to do just this, that allowed them to swap about half of their brain out for hardware in the first place). And most of all, they make an unpleasant, sharp bleeping sound, like the world’s most annoying push notification.

This one doesn’t have the Agency tag on it; its sender is missing, and P’s system has inevitably concluded that therefore it was sent by P to theirself, which it wasn’t. They would know. A 3D rendering of the Publications Officer’s face revolves in front of them.

You must accept this as your secondary assignment, says the Update.

Ensure their execution by any means. Do not worry about not being caught. Their death is of an importance far beyond that of your own survival, says the Update.

Please, P. Please, says the Update. Tell them if you must about the message — I already know you will — but do not mistake this for a hoax. It’s vital. They must be executed as a matter of urgency. It is important to me. It is vital to you.
No signature. No other source. P tries to track the sender IP. Nothing: the system says it came from theirself, but P has never seen it before, and double-checking her Sent Items — P still doesn’t trust the packing process not to screw with their memory — brings up nothing.

P is disturbed by the personal nature of the Update’s end. They’re not e-mails or texts, they’re system messages, semi-automated, official-sounding. Updates don’t address you by [name]. Updates don’t plead. Updates don’t predict your actions. P wonders why the sender thinks that they will tell the Publications Assistant about this. They decides that while they are more or less certain that murdering Publications would not at this point be the correct action, telling them about it would not be a constructive or trust-building action either.

P’s vision clears; she becomes aware that they’re sitting on the floor in the corner of the room, legs apart, hands on the floor at her sides, like a children’s performer pretending to be a doll. P pulls her knees up under their chin, tries to talk, only succeeds in making her HeadWares make a beeping sound.

The Publications Assistant is the only other person in the office, half-silhouetted by bright morning sun filtering through the window behind them, the dome of their bald head, so like P’s, the only distinct part of them.

P shakes their head, tries talking again. “Where is everyone?”

Publications cocks their head to one side. “Not in yet. No one else is likely to be in for another half-hour or so.”

P’s internal chronometer flicks into being. It’s 0802. They pulls themself to their feet, lean against the wall, put a hand on the back of their bald, studded skull, feel the lack of stubble there, wonder for the first time in ages if that’s right. “Oh.”

“I wanted to talk,” says Publications.

“Uh, OK,” says P, wobbling a little.

“You should sit down. We haven’t updated your joblist yet.”

P sits on a swivel chair near Publications’ desk. Publications wheels their own chair further, puts a hand on P’s shoulder, gently, leans over close enough that P can feel the younger nonbinary’s breath on their cheek, plugs a cable into P’s skull. “I’m assigned as your mentor, you know.”

“I get a mentor?”

“Mm-hmm.” Publications, turning back to their monitor, clicks on a couple of alerts and opens up an Explorer window.

“What are you doing?” says P.

“Just a diagnostic,” says Publications.

“I did one this morning,” says P.

“Yeah, but, the Registry demands a proprietary cleanup. Honestly, nothing to worry about.”

“How did I get a mentor? I’m only on a temporary contract.”

“I don’t make the rules,” says Publications, staring at the screen, opening an application, hovering the mouse arrow over the OK button without clicking it. “You can check if you like.”

P wonders if checking and finding it’s true will make any difference, stop that sick uncertainty, that fear that someone has tampered with their mind.

They check. It’s listed in her employee record. It doesn’t make it feel better. “Is that why you’ve got access? I thought Rina was the only person here with access.”

“She gave it me.” Publications swivels back, knees against knees, stands, makes as if to adjust the cable, check some sockets. She is very close to P now, transparently makes as if to fall, steadies theirself by putting their free hand on the inside of P’s thigh. Their face is very close to P’s now.

“You know, you’re pretty hot,” they say, shifting their fingers gently.

The Publications Assistant is heavy-featured, all wasp-waisted, square-shouldered business-suit. They are not beautiful, or even pretty; they are undeniably, aggressively sexual. Their tongue flicks wetly between those glossy black lips. One of their false eyelashes has come slightly unglued at the corner. They make P’s skin crawl.

P tries to wheel the chair back. It’s wedged against the opposite desk. P tries to turns her head away. “I really don’t think this is appropriate,” they say.

“Oh. Come on, let’s have some fun,” says Publications, breathing on them again. They have one hand on the back of P’s head. “I know you don’t get any fun.” The other hand moves gently upwards. They move their mouth closer to P’s.

“Please,” says P. “This isn’t appropriate.” P shoves Publications, not too hard, but unexpectedly. Publications falls heavily back onto on their own chair, and it wheels back a few inches with the force. P tries to stand up, forgets that they have a cable plugged into their skull, falls over sideways.
Publications, shoulders hunched, grits their teeth and says, “Fuck. Well, forget it, then. Stuck-up fucking shopfront mannequin.” They lean across and clicks the still-waiting OK button on her desktop.

P, kneeling on the floor, feels a shiver run through them. They judder, briefly. And then they forget it.

“That was smooth, Pubs,” says a voice at the door.

Quality is leaning on the frame of the office door, arms folded.

“Shit,” says Pubs, “What did you see?”

“Stuff,” says Quality.

P unplugs themself, pulls themself to their feet. “Have I missed something?”

“Remember when the law would let junior staff take you to court for sexual harassment?” says Quality, ignoring her.

“Oh, sod off,” says Pubs.

“Lucky it’s not like that anymore,” says Quality.

“Sod off,” says Pubs.

“They don’t even know, do they?” says Quality.

“Sod off.”

“I mean, you could have gotten into all sorts of trouble if you’d have tried that on Klaire.”

“Sod off.”

“And oh my God, what if Symons found out? She’s got like no sense of humour.”

“Sod off.”

“It is pretty hilarious, though.”

“Sod off,” says Pubs. “Seriously, fuck you.”

“Not terribly likely, that, now, is it?”

P knows when something is nothing to do with them. They sits at their workstation, start organising their to-do list, and stop listening. But, apropos of nothing they can parse clearly, they begin to think a little about that weird little execution order, begin to wonder if ignoring it completely is really the correct course of action. They cannot pin down why, but they come to the conclusion that Klaire was probably right.

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