The room was almost full, office workers, secretaries, military officials and scientists were clustered in small groups talking casually. Map had the feeling that they had known this was coming for a long time. As he walked in and surveyed the room he noticed the woman speaking with the Administrator and turned around to face the door.
He knew they saw him, the conversations stopped, but he was still considering making a run for it. He hadn’t seen the woman since his last mission. Their goodbye had been casual, neither of them knowing it would be so long before they would see each other again.
Map didn’t know what he would say; he wasn’t sure how he felt. It was almost easier that they didn’t have a real goodbye. They weren’t friends but she was the closest anyone had ever been with Map. He even felt that he missed her though he knew he was meant to feel like that.
Slowly he forced himself to turn around, but he couldn’t manage a smile.
“Map,” the Administrator exclaimed as he headed towards the petrified man and put his arm around him. “I’m glad you could come,” he added as if Map had any choice. The rest of the group started clapping which caught Map completely off guard.
“Administrator, what’s going on?” he asked quietly to the man who still had his arm tightly around Map’s shoulder.
“Why it’s your retirement of course,” he replied loudly so that everyone could hear. “You have been one of our most successful assets. You have performed above expectations and in the continuing peace, which is in no small part in thanks to your brave actions, you have continued to serve selflessly in training your successors,” he boasted smiling to the rest of the room.
“I don’t think I fully understand sir,” Map said.
“No need to be so formal, not anymore. You can call me Tom now son.” Map wasn’t used to the familiarity and he wasn’t sure he liked it. “It is true that few, in fact almost none of your predecessors managed to survive as long as you have,” the Administrator said solemnly. “We feel it’s time you step back and that Napkin should take over your responsibilities. As for continuing training the progeny, you have been invaluable but Napkin is more than capable of handling that task as well.”
Map stood stiffly and felt the floor sink under him even though the grip of the Administrator was fast around him. The words took their time to sink in. The Administrator noticed the delay and tried to spell it out in the most gracious way he could.
“We’re rewarding you son. You can relax now,” he said clapping Map hard on the shoulder and releasing his grip.
With his speech over the Administrator left Map and joined the cluster of people he was speaking with when Map entered the room. The gathered people took the action as a signal that they could continue their previous discussions as well.
Henry, the head of Map’s science team wandered over to take the Administrator’s place next to Map. “So it’s official,” he said sheepishly.
“I suppose so,” Map managed to reply not looking at the scientist. He was still stunned from the Administrator’s words.
“I mean, we all knew it was going to happen, but, since it’s been so quiet, I thought,” Henry trailed off.
Map didn’t respond.
“Besides,” Henry continued, “Napkin has been ready for some time. But thanks to you there hasn’t been any opportunity to test him out. At least we know its official.”
“What’ll happen to you?” Map asked still looking away.
“We’ll be reassigned, the rest of the team and me. We’ll be shuffled into projects where we can be of some good,” Henry said assuredly felling like the conversation was starting to move.
“Some good,” Map repeated. “And Alice?” He asked referring to the woman who had been causing him uncertainty.
“You know Liaisons only work with one asset.”
“Yeah, but what will happen to her?”
Henry hesitated unsure of how to answer. “Her contract will be terminated and I suppose she’ll – leave.”
“I suppose,” was all Map said.
“I’ll see you Map,” Henry said sensing the conversation was over. “Just because you aren’t in charge of training doesn’t mean you can’t help,” he added before turning to join a group of his peers.
Map considered leaving again. He wasn’t comfortable with the scientists and office staff even when he wasn’t the centre of attention. He was feeling vulnerable. He wasn’t used to it and he didn’t like it. The conference room was a far cry from his usual surroundings.
Before he could move she started walking towards him. He was transfixed as he watched her deliberately make her way through the room. He was as torn as he was with his surprise retirement. He wanted to talk to her, to hear her familiar ancillary voice, he was supposed to but he hated not trusting his feelings. He wanted to run, avoid her, avoid the situation, avoid the complication. He hadn’t figured out what to do be the time she reached him. He wasn’t good with her face to face; he was used to only hearing her voice.
“Hi,” he choked out.
“Hello, it’s been a while,” she said with ease.
“You hate this don’t you? It’s ok, you don’t have to hide it. I’m not overly fond of it myself,” she said, not waiting for him to reply. “I know our situation is – different, but I hope you are able to trust me. Outside of your assignments I mean. What I’m trying to get at is I think I know what you’re feeling. As your Liaison…”
“Arbiter,” he interrupted startling himself almost has much as he did Alice.
“If you like. It fits, you’ve never had much in the way of choice.”
“You don’t have to coddle me, you’re job’s done,” Map said calmly.
“I’m about as happy to be put out to pasture as you are by the way. Besides whether I was instructed to or not I did look out for you. I may represent something you don’t like but that’s not all that I am.”
“I did,” he faltered, “I missed – not saying goodbye.”
“I think we both suspected it was the last time for us,” she said.
“I hate feeling like this. I hate not knowing if I really feel what I feel or if they made me this way. I think I should be happy. My whole life has been spent either training or fighting but,” he trailed off.
“You don’t know anything else,” she finished for him. “It was your life, it was your job, you did a lot to help people. You should feel good about that at least.”
“Sure, I do but now I feel useless; everything is a struggle now. They lapped me today,” he said the last words quietly, confessing in the person he was conditioned to trust.
“It would almost be easier if you didn’t make it so far,” she said too late to catch herself. He gave her a look that she thought she deserved. “You know what I mean. It’s terrible getting old, especially at your age.” He didn’t respond. “My story may not be as tragic as yours,” she continued, “ but it isn’t any fun for me either. I’m full of plugs and implants that are going to either break down inside me or have to be surgically removed. Either way I’m going to slowly be poisoned the rest of my life.” She could tell she wasn’t making things any easier for Map. “At least you can still look out for the younger ones. Henry told me that Ox really looks up to you.”
“He’s a good kid but it’s going to be rough for him. He cares too much. It’s going to be a hard lesson to learn in the field.”
“It may not be as much of a detriment as you think. Things are different now. You and the others saw to that,” Alice said, happy she was able to engage Map. “It must be tough not having a mentor of your own. I don’t think any of them went through this.” She went to put a hand on Map’s arm but thought better of it. “Ox is going to be fine, he had a good teacher.”
Map noticed people looking at them. He wasn’t sure why, it wasn’t unusual for liaisons and operatives to stick together, though things could be different now that he had been dismissed. Then he realized they new something he didn’t.
“You’re leaving after this,” he said.
“After this meeting. They are going to take me off base and that’s that. Our adventure is over.”
“I don’t suppose they’ll let me leave,”
“Not likely, you’re property to them. Some of them,” she corrected herself.
“It’s funny. That doesn’t bother me as much as,” he had trouble finishing the sentence.
“I know, but it’ll be a long time still,” she said trying to reassure him.
The administrator stepped up beside them. Map was concerned he hadn’t noticed his approach. He didn’t think it would be as long as Alice hopped.
“Sorry to interrupt,” the Administrator said with a smile, “but I have an important conference call starting in a moment. I wanted to tell you once again how much we all appreciate your hard work and dedication Map. The world is a safer place from having you in it.” He clapped map on the shoulder again and walked briskly out the door, most of the staff following in his wake leaving Map, Alice and a few scientists loitering in the room. The scientists seemed reluctant to get back to their work and a few of them were reluctant to see an end come to their project.
Map shifted from foot to foot unable to find a comfortable way to stand. He looked at Alice but she didn’t meet his eyes. “Good luck,” he managed to say.
“I could say the same to you but I’m not sure how helpful it would be. I know you’ll do great with what they let you.” She started to turn but stopped herself and faced him.
Map spoke first. “Thank you,” he said.
“I won’t forget you,” she said. She reached out and squeezed his arm gently. Map was stunned but before he could compose himself she turned and was gone. He saw two guards, who must have been waiting for her outside the door, turn and follow her. After a moment he went out himself, leaving the few remaining scientists with no reason to stay.