Map made his way out of the administration building and through the courtyard. Evidently the word had gotten out already; the normally chatty guards just looked at Map pityingly. Map tried to think about other things and remembered he had missed lunch. He was hungry but he wasn’t sure he was up for eating. He passed the mess hall and headed for the barracks. He tried sneaking though the side door, he didn’t want to see the same look the guards gave him again, but Ox was there.
Ox had been making leaps and bounds in the training sessions lately and Map scolded himself for not staying a step ahead. He wasn’t sure if Ox was getting that good or he was slipping.
“You heard,” Map said indifferently walking past Ox into the cool dark barracks hallway.
“Yeah,” Ox said. Map wasn’t used to Ox being so pacified. He usually found his excitement annoying, but he liked this even less.
“It’s okay,” Map said, “Napkin was overdue for the commission. I doubt I could still handle an attack anyway.”
They moved further down the hallway, twenty-six sparse quarters were crammed into the building and currently six were occupied. It was an unusually high number, but it had been an unusually quiet year. They made the way to Map’s bunk in silence, Map could tell that Ox had more to say but wasn’t sure how to say it, or maybe he didn’t want to insult the man he looked up to. Map was running out of patience and headed into his room. With a small desk, a bed and a locker there wasn’t much space for Ox to follow so he stood in the doorway. Map was ready to tell Ox to leave, that he was busy but he couldn’t think of what he had to do now that he had been retired. It must have showed on his face because Ox finally spoke up.
“What’s wrong?” he asked.
“I can’t think of what I should do,” Map said, something foreign creeping into his voice. He stagnated up and relied on his instinct to take over. “I do know what you should be doing though, and so do you.”
“Studying,” Ox said dejected. Ox turned and left diligently. It seemed to Map that he would always be in charge as far as Ox was concerned. He was worried how that would play with Napkin.
Map took a quick look around his room and decided he had to be somewhere else. He didn’t have any studying of his own to do anymore. He went back out into the courtyard and wandered. Without intending to go anywhere he found himself outside the hanger, the one place he had been conditioned to go in a crisis.
Alarms split the air and triggered as many automated systems in Map’s head as it did around the base. He sprinted into the hanger before remembering it wasn’t his fight anymore. It had been a long time since the alarm went off, but the hanger was full of people performing their specific tasks as if no time had passed at all.
Napkin came running in a moment later, the head of his science team coming out to meet him. His look of excitement changed to malice when he saw Map.
“What are you doing here?” he spat.
“Coincidence,” Map said coolly.
“It doesn’t matter,” the scientist said trying to get Napkin’s attention back. “This is it,” he added excitedly. Map thought it was an odd sentiment but he stepped back not wanting to get in Napkin’s way. Napkin turned from Map and headed after the scientist who had already moved deeper into the hanger.
Map thought back to his first engagement and tried to sympathize. He knew the feeling and the confusing mix of fear and excitement. He called out to the other soldier who was almost at his staging platform.
“Hey Napkin,” Map said, “Good luck.”
“Don’t patronize me,” Napkin shot back viciously then turned to face his head scientist and staging crew again. Map walked back out of the hanger and collected himself. He knew Napkin was tense, he also knew what Napkin was about to face, probably better than the younger soldier did himself. For the first time Map was glad that he was no longer the one who would go off to fight. It would probably be his last time if he were.
Map waited with everyone else. He hadn’t waited on the sidelines since his predecessor Lasso was the operative. It was an odd feeling that only two other agents had ever experienced before. Blender had been found to have a defect and was recalled from duty – he had only lived to 21. Fence had, like Map, outlived his service, but he was replaced at 24. The older generations didn’t live as long.
Map was in his small room wondering as much about what he should be doing as how Napkin was doing. A knock at the door startled him. He went to the door slowly to see who it was. His head scientist, former head scientist, was waiting on the other side.
“Map, hello. May I come in?” he asked not waiting for an answer.
“I suppose,” Map mumbled. The scientist took a seat on the bed, Map leaned on the desk across from him.
“You are probably wondering why I’m here,” the scientist said.
“Yes,” Map replied.
“To be honest I don’t really have a good reason. I wanted to see you of course, but more than that I think I am having a hard time letting go, if that makes any sense.”
Map was startled. “Haven’t you been assigned to another project?” he asked.
“Oh, sure, sure. I’m systems coordinator with the Quarter project but he hasn’t even been born yet. In fact, the head of the project is thinking of making it a girl.”
Map felt the sting of the phrase and didn’t hide it. The scientist realized his mistake.
“I’m sorry Map,” he said. It’s hard for us to see things objectively, especially when we’re in the moment. I’m just upset that my time is over. My time with you and my time as head of the project. The whole team couldn’t be more proud of you Map. Out of the previous thirteen, and in my opinion, the next few, you have not only been the most successful operative, but also the greatest realization of this entire program. We all have our moments though, don’t we,” he asked to himself. “I may not know exactly what it is you are going through, but I can’t imagine it’s all that different than the rest of the team.”
Map grunted noncommittally.
“No, I mean it. We were all fortunate to work with you. We had our glory days but now we’re considered obsolete. We’ve been relegated to lower positions on other projects. I’m Henry by the way. I’m sure you know that but we were never supposed to get close. Then again, you were never supposed to survive.”
Map didn’t respond. Henry felt the tension and continued, “Look, I don’t know if I’m making you feel any better or just insulting you, but I, we all wanted you to know that we respect you. Working as your team has been the highlight of our careers. We try to get together every week for drinks and we would like it if you would join us some time. There aren’t really any rules that apply to you anymore so we figured, to heck with regulations.”
Map wasn’t sure how to take the invitation. He felt proud without wanting to. He was considering his response when the sound of the siren broke the silence for the second time of the day.
Henry looked as shocked as Map. “A lot of firsts today,” he said.