The news hit her hard. The asset she had kept alive all these years was being made obsolete; younger ones were there to take over. With the expiration of their property would come her own, and she knew it. Liaisons only worked with one operative. Once the operative’s usefulness in the field was over, their liaison’s time with the project was as well.
Alice looked over the sea of people who were gathered in the conference room. A few had managed to approach her, making awkward small talk as they waited for the guest of honor to appear.
“So, Alice, any thoughts about what you will do now?” One of the secretaries, Mary, asked her while smiling overly politely. “It must be difficult having no real life outside of here, hmm?”
“I thought I would take some time off, maybe have a real vacation.” Alice replied as she forced a smile of her own while she gripped the glass of champagne. She had been involved with this facility for over ten years. It was her life – hell, he was her life. Now, that part of her life was ending, and she really didn’t quite know what to do with herself.
After a few more superficial pleasantries, and trying to deal with Mary’s smugness, Alice attempted to slip away from the crowds to a corner. The amount of people in the room was a little overwhelming, especially since during these last ten years, she had dealt more with disembodied voices over radio frequencies than face-to-face encounters.
“Alice!” A voice exclaimed, catching her off-guard and pulling her out from hiding in the room.
“Administrator.” She greeted the approaching man, delivering another forced smile to her superior. Alice tugged a little at her skirt, shifting on the heels she wore. She was trying her best not to look as awkward and nervous as she felt.
“Please, call me Tom. No need to be so formal now, Alice. We’re proud of all the good work you did with Map. Over ten years – that’s quite an accomplishment. Most operative-liaison teams never reach those kinds of numbers.” He continued to smile as he looked towards Alice.
“Yes Administrator,” Alice replied stiffly, “I am proud of Map and my work with him, also.” The fact was it wasn’t that most operative-liaison teams reached the decade mark; it was that they were actually the only team ever to have made it through those years. “Isn’t Map too valuable to be put out to pasture, though?”
The Administrator gave a laugh, though it didn’t quite seem to reach his eyes as he stared her down. “Alice, this is his retirement. He earned this – it’s a celebration of both of your efforts. You should-” He paused, as the man in question entered the room.
Alice followed the Administrator’s gaze, and found her operative standing in the door frame. Their eyes met, and she nodded her head, though shifted on her heels. She could feel a pang in her heart as they gazed at each other. The bond they forged over those years was something she couldn’t shake and something she would grieve now that it was over. While it was manufactured by their trainers and superiors, it didn’t make it feel any less real. Their last mission together ended with a rushed goodbye, as neither had known it would be the final one.
The Administrator quickly moved from her side, intent on closing in on Map. He gave her a rushed set of words to excuse himself, and she was left alone with her drink once more. A quiet came over the gathered crowd as the guest of honor’s presence was noticed. Clapping erupted from the silence, and Alice juggled the glass of champagne while joining in.
She watched from her corner of the room, as the Administrator spoke with Map. Alice was trying to get the courage to approach him; however, it was slow developing. The Administrator kept the conversation between himself and Map going, and as she was about to approach him, another person in the room had engaged Map in conversation.
Alice let out a sigh and moved towards the refreshment table. She picked at the crudités. Her mouth was filled with carrot as Mary decided to swoop in once more.
“Map looks pretty good for an operative of his years. It’s amazing that he’s stayed alive this long. He must have a lot of luck on his side.” Mary tittered.
Alice had enough. She placed her glass of champagne down on the table none too softly, and then stared down the other woman.
“It’s skill. Map is the best operative a liaison could have, and we made a great team. How could you understand that, though? You should ease off the alcohol. It terminates brain cells, and you appear to be working with less than a full deck as it is.”
Alice promptly spun on her heels and left Mary at the refreshments table. The secretary stared after the liaison, her jaw agape at the audacity of the other woman. Still, Alice felt she was justified in her words, and frankly she had gotten tired of Mary’s hostility. As she finished the exchange of verbal jabs she noticed Map was alone. Alice approached her operative.
Their eyes met and held as she closed the distance between them. Alice felt more nervous than she let on, inwardly she tried to remind herself to stay calm. Map was an old friend – friend? The term was both severely lacking and entirely too familiar. They worked together, however he had been her first concern as she woke, and the last thought on her mind before she slept. It was the norm, her norm, for ten years. Alice always would attempt to think of strategies she could help Map implement, how to better upgrade the systems to ensure their missions were successful. Everything in her life revolved around Map, and as she walked to him, she felt more lost than ever.
“Hi,” Map greeted her.
“Hello, it’s been awhile,” Alice gave a smile, managing to ease the nerves building inside.
“Yeah.” His reply was simple, however it carried some weight.
“You hate this, don’t you? It’s ok, you don’t have to hide it. I’m not overly fond of it myself,” Alice continued on, without waiting for his reply. She tended to talk more when she was nervous, and this was no exception. “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 interjected, catching her off-guard.
“If you like. It fits, you’ve never had much in the way of choice.”
“You don’t have to coddle me, your 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.” Alice was getting slightly heated, her feathers were ruffled from the earlier encounter with Mary, and it was influencing her now.
“I did,” he faltered, “I missed – not saying goodbye.”
“I think we both suspected it was the last time for us,” Alice replied, her tone saddened.
“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,” Alice 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 quietly, and Alice strained a little to hear his words over the noise of the room.
“It would almost be easier if you didn’t make it so far,” she said, then winced, 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.” Their age. She was inwardly reminded that they were roughly the same age, though her job was less taxing on her body than his part in their working relationship. Map 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 for the rest of my life.” Alice paused for a moment, looking over his face. She realized her reassurance wasn’t making it easier for him. “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, trying to give him a smile. She was happy to have this time with him, and relieved her effort to talk with him was not wasted. “It must be tough not having a mentor of your own. I don’t think any of them went through this.” Alice reached out, about to place her hand on Map’s arm, but quickly withdrew. “Ox is going to be fine, he had a good teacher.”
Alice paused after her words, watching Map as he looked away. She followed his gaze, and noticed a few moments after him, that people were looking at them. Alice shifted on her heels, looking down at her hands, wishing she had kept the glass of champagne.
“You’re leaving after this,” he stated, as if he had just realized this.
“After this meeting. They are going to take me off base, and that’s that. Our adventure is over.” She was a talented Liaison. Alice had hoped to find work in the private sector, once more.
“I don’t suppose they’ll let me leave.”
“Not likely, you’re property to them. Some of them.” Alice was quick to correct herself, trying to remind Map that he wasn’t simply property to everyone.
“It’s funny. That doesn’t bother me as much as-” Map trailed off.
Alice didn’t need him to finish. “I know, but it’ll be a long time still,” she said, trying to reassure him.
Just after she said that, the Administrator approached the pair.
“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.” The man clapped Map on the shoulder again, and exited the room. In his wake, the room cleared out. Map and Alice were left with a few of the others who were almost as reluctant as the pair to see this project come to an end.
Alice watched as Map shifted, though as his eyes came to her face, she looked down to her feet. She couldn’t bring herself to look in his eyes.
“Good luck,” he said.
“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.” Alice turned on her heels, about to leave his side, but stopped. She looked up at him. Before she could say anything else, Map spoke.
“I won’t forget you,” she said. Alice reached out, squeezing his arm gently. She was almost as stunned as he was; surprised she had crossed that barrier. Even if only she would remember Map, it would be one person that wouldn’t allow whom he was to disappear. She didn’t let him reply – she couldn’t. It was hard enough as it was.
Alice met the armed guards just outside of the room, who had been waiting for her. Without looking back at Map, she spoke to them.