I wasn’t sure exactly what I expected to see, but there was a significant lack of white tile and floor drains and tables with straps. The place was more like one of those crazy houses built like a compound with more rooms than you could ever need and the expectation that the people living in them would rarely wear clothes, and even then, it would be uncomfortably short robes for visitors.

The shag carpet and floral wallpaper was removed and reasonable depth carpet and boring paint was in its place. No chandeliers dangled threateningly overhead, but fluorescents kept the place brighter than anyone could possibly have requested.

Computer equipment and high-tech gadgets were all over the place and there were employees of various sorts working here and there on projects I didn’t bother to try and take in as we strode past. None of them had taken the opportunity to wear long, white lab coats, which I found to be somewhat disappointing. What was the point of working for a secret organization if you didn’t get to wear a lab coat or body armor or something?

We turned into a kitchen with a sizeable island, two stoves, and two refrigerators. There was a table with a dozen chairs around it, and I tried in vain to picture villainous henchmen sitting down for a family-style dinner.

“Do people go home at night, or does everyone live here?” I asked. Tower Goddess looked at me from the open fridge and I continued, “I don’t see family pictures or photos from team-building exercises.”

“Take a seat. Do you like turkey?”

I grunted my assent and pulled out a chair to watch her make two stacked sandwiches. “What’s your favorite field of magic?” she asked. “The one you most want to use?”

“Definitely Time,” I said. “I’m sure I could be very impressive with my flirting if I could practice a few times before committing.” She snorted and shook her head. That’s right, fall for my charms, I thought.

“Your family covers most of the categories, don’t they?”

“Ah, the ‘we know about your family’ trope. Vague threats covered by general questions and comments that could be innocent enough, right?”

“I’m not threatening your family, Liz; just making conversation.”

“Lizette,” I corrected her. “Yes, my family has trios doing all sorts of things. Has my mom been calling? Any good messages?”

“She has. She doesn’t sound worried, but the last message was heavy on the guilt.”

“How does it make you feel?”

“Guilty.”

“She’s had a lot of practice. The trick is to not lay it on too thick.”

“I’ll remember that.”

“Do you have kids?”

She set a plate of sandwich in front of me and pulled out a chair of her own. “No kids.”

“Pets?” None of those, either.

We ate in silence for a few minutes. “Are the others being fed, or is this another step down the rung onto your side of things?” I asked.

She rolled her eyes playfully. “Column A, column B.”

“Great.”

“What do you think about Transport?” she asked.

“I’m a fan of getting around,” I answered easily. “Although yours are a bit loud for my taste.”

She bobbed her head in agreement. “We can’t exactly choose how it all manifests.”

“We being Nodes?”

“For example,” she nodded.

“Do I start asking about that?” I asked. “Or would that get me a demerit and sent to my cell without dessert?”

“In time. I do want you to be convinced that we’re not planning on anything nefarious so you can convince the others. Your little, angry friend especially will need some convincing.”

“I expect that’s true.” I finished my sandwich a couple of bites behind and she cleared the table and waved for me to follow again.

“The problem with the word ‘experiment’ is it always conjures up those shots you mentioned, or drawing blood, or electrocution. We have a well-stocked medical area where those things are possible, but it’s not something we generally employ.”

“Generally,” I noted.

She glanced at me. “Times have changed.”

“Since when? The Spanish Inquisition?” I joked.

“Yep. And others.” We walked down a few hallways and into a spacious room that might have once been an indoor pool before it was filled. “While we initially have to employ the tactics we used to find and collect you, people stay voluntarily. We’ve discovered a lot and the discoveries help people around the world.”

“So you are the [acronym].”

“Part of it.”

“What’s the other part?”

“Complicated.” She gestured, “Rooms like this let Instruments practice various Fields and get the hang of their abilities in a secure environment. There’s a certain level of freedom in the projects, so as long as you’re producing some kind of results, no one’s hovering over your shoulder.”

“This is a really good recruitment pitch,” I said. “Especially the way you leave out the parts with actual information so that it all sounds generally good.”

“Thanks, I’ve practiced.”

“Where’s your trio?” I asked curiously. She led us out of the practice area and through another series of halls. I wondered which of the closed doors hid people I knew.

“I don’t have one.” I frowned and she looked at me. “Don’t you want to ask why?”

“Eh,” I shrugged. “If you wanted to tell me, you wouldn’t have left that hanging. What happens if we don’t want to stay?”

“Well, you know there isn’t a magic that can manipulate the human mind, so we can’t wipe your memories.”

“Which leaves imprisonment or death,” I finished.

“You are really into movies, aren’t you?” She shook her head. “You sign an NDA and we let you go. We monitor for a while, keep tabs on your internet postings and things like that, but then life goes on.”

“Ever had any problems with people you let go?”

“Very rarely.”

“Why do they stay?”

“The money is good and they get to feel like they’re part of something big.”

“Job security and a secret government job. Who could ask for more?”

“Are you sold yet?”

“Absolutely not. Can I talk to Andromeda now?”

She leaned against the wall. “I’m going to be honest.”

“Have you not been so far?”

“Jesus,” she sighed. “Look, you’re the one my boss wants.”

“Because I’m this Node thing; a Channel-Focus mix or whatever.”

“Something like that.”

“And if I stay, I learn more about that. And so do you. Is there an expiration on the offer?”

“It’s a long one.”

“So I could stay for a while, learn some stuff, decide it’s not for me, and go?”

“HR would be pissed about the quick turn-around, but sure.”

“What’s the catch?”

She shrugged, palms open before her.

I shook my head. “Come on, Tower Goddess. There’s a catch.”

Her eyebrows rose to her hairline. “Tower Goddess?”

“Sure. You’re gorgeously enormous,” I explained. “I don’t know your name, so what else would I call you? If I stay, do I get your number?”

“You’re incorrigible.”

“That’s not a ‘no’.”

“What are you going to tell the others?”

“I haven’t heard the catch yet, so I’ll tell them the offer is too good to be true, we should sign this NDA and leave.”

“That’s it?”

I mirrored her palms-up gesture from before. “I’m not holding anything tangible here, TG. You’ve painted a pretty picture, but it doesn’t smell like roses.”

“Maybe you should talk to my boss.”

“Ominous, but okay.”

We continued to the end of the hall and stopped at a door with a space for a nameplate, but nothing was in the sliders. She knocked and opened the door, revealing a room mostly full of workout equipment, a desk, some filing cabinets, and a standing aquarium with a couple of chameleons. I’d never seen chameleons in person and was tempted to ogle them up close, but a woman I assumed to be ‘the boss’ stepped away from a filing cabinet when we entered.

“This the Node?” she asked.

“Lizette, not Liz, yes ma’am.”

“What’s the problem, Lizette not Liz?”

“Looking for the catch,” I explained.

“Christ’s sake, we want to know what you can do,” she said, standing over the paperwork on the edge of her desk. “We have funding and no subjects, so the budget’s at risk of being allocated to some other department when the contract’s up. You’re a freak and there are very few freaks like you, so forgive me for wanted to poke and prod to see if you can power a city or discover the cousin to the Loch Ness Monster at the bottom of the Mariana Trench. You want a cookie? Get the fuck out.”

We exited swiftly and TG leaned against the wall again, lips curled under in an amused expression.

“I think she’ll warm up to me,” I told her confidently.

“Let me know how that goes.”

“I bet she’s a softy on the inside.”

“You’d be the first to discover it.”

“When’s the contract up?”

“I’m not involved in that.”

“Do I need my passport for my I-9 paperwork?”

Tower Goddess chuckled. “First convince your friends to stay and help you out or sign the NDA.”

“Easier said than done.”

“You’re preaching to the choir.”

April 25, 2021

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