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Perrin seethed with contempt for the man who invented paperwork. Beside her on a battered table was a pile of handwritten reports. Or they might be requests, she thought, I’ve forgotten which. Every piece of work blended together after a while. She reached for the top sheet and fed it into the copy machine, a standard procedure, done every day, never faltering in its irritating simplicity.
Her fingers slid unguided over the glowing screen, touching virtual buttons in a sequence punctuated by beeps and memorized long ago: two-sided, four copies, start. One last chirping beep, as if a distressed cricket were caught inside the machine. It whirred, and four identical sheets came flying out of the slot in the side. They were hot to the touch and had the almost-sweet smell of fresh ink. A small, malicious part of Perrin’s brain wanted to rip the paper in half, which she suppressed. Each copy went into its pile and the routine began again: Feed, copy, sort, all without having to think.
Behind her, the Delta Office of Information was chaos in red and yellow. Green recruits, fresh from the Intermediate Academy, ran around delivering memos and reports to their superiors. They muttered as they went about their work, mostly about how they didn’t join the Offices to be errand boys. Between copies, Perrin grabbed one of the loudest mutterers by the shoulder. He was a boy a few years her senior and several ranks her junior, still pimply from adolescence but with the confidence of a boy who considers himself a man.
Before he could say anything or fully realize who had hold of his recently laundered uniform, Perrin told him firmly, “It would be wise to make your complaints silently, Captain Minor. I’m not the only Commander who doesn’t keep to her office all day.”
The boy forced himself to utter a half-hearted “Sorry, Third Commander Lane,” and Perrin released his shoulder. The red fabric was wrinkled where her fingers had grabbed it, but the boy did not notice and continued on his way, still muttering. Perrin made a mental note to file a reprimand form, then stopped, realizing that she was thinking in terms of paperwork. This was, a laughing Third Commander King had told her in the mess last week, the first sign that you’re turning into an Info Officer.
The copy machine stopped beeping and made a very unpleasant bee-boop sound. The screen flashed the message Perrin had come to dread: Paper Jam, Compartment 2. Perrin wrenched open the plastic door and looked into the labyrinth of wheels, gears, and unidentified thingies. A single corner of ink-smeared paper poked out from between two black cylinders. Perrin pushed up the sleeves of her uniform in a vain attempt to keep them free of ink and endeavored to force the machine to give up its captive.
“Jammed again?” asked a too-familiar voice behind her. “I’m beginning to think you do this on purpose, just to get out of copying.”-*
Perrin twisted herself around and saluted with an inky hand. “No, sir, Second Commander. It’s not my fault if this thing should have been replaced five years ago. Recommend that a request for an upgrade be filed with the Office of Technology.” More thoughts of paperwork. King certainly knew what he was talking about.
Trey Morgan smiled, but the smile did not reach his intense black eyes. “Nothing has come of the last eight requests I’ve sent to Tech, but if you care to try for a ninth, I’ll authorize it. Do you need help getting that working again?”
Perrin returned to coercing the two cylinders into releasing the paper. “No, sir. I’ve gotten pretty good at this.” In the three months since her promotion from Captain Major to Third Commander, there had been 42 paper jams, 37 of which had happened while Perrin was on copy duty. The monster of beige plastic and flashing green lights had become very familiar to her.
Morgan nodded, told her to carry on, and walked back to his office. On his way, he cast a glance at the muttering Captain Minor, and Perrin wondered how long the Second Commander had been standing unnoticed in the main Office before he spoke to her. Every now and then, Morgan did something to remind his subordinates that before he became head of the Office, he had been a very successful Intelligence Officer. Junior Officers made jokes comparing Morgan to the hill mystics who could supposedly turn invisible, and sometimes a particularly quick one would remember that Morgan’s mother had come from the hills and speculate. The more outlandish theories were often a source of entertainment for higher-ranking Officers, none of whom ever believed a word.-*
“I don’t care who his father is! I want answers, and I want them now! Shoot the man if you have to, but get me those papers!” The denizens of the Office of Information paused what they were doing to watch Alexander Caspar Black have a shouting match with his cell phone. Perrin mentally sent her sympathy to the poor soul - likely a low-rank Intel Operative - at the other end. It wasn’t easy to work under Third Commander Black.
“I know it won’t be easy, you idiot! If it were, we wouldn’t be interested! Don’t call me again until you either are dead or have those papers in your hand. Got it?” Black punched the disconnect button with such force that Perrin thought the cell phone might snap in two. When he noticed half the Office staring at him, Black gave them the sort of glare that made strong men weak in the knees.
“What are you lot looking at?”
Perrin had never seen people work so diligently.
Black pushed his dark hair out of his eyes and returned his phone to a black leather pouch at his belt. Perrin paused in her rescue of the jammed paper to look her colleague over. There was a splotch on his right leg, not too noticeable on the red uniform but very prominent on the yellow stripe, that looked suspiciously like blood. When Perrin took into consideration the fact that this was Alexander Black she was looking at, “suspiciously” turned into “definitely.” The customary dark circles under Black’s blue eyes were even more pronounced than usual.
“You look like hell,” Perrin told him.
Black leaned on the copy machine and flashed Perrin one of his sardonic smiles. “I’ve been through it. Break the copier again, Lane?”
“I didn’t-” Perrin’s retort was cut off as the paper at last came free, sending her sprawling to the tiled floor. Black grabbed her left arm. His grip was incredibly strong, with a hint of danger, as if he could just as easily break her arm as help her to her feet. Thankfully, he chose the latter. “-break it,” she finished.
“Of course you didn’t. Morgan too cheap with the budget to get this piece of junk replaced?”
“He’s tried. You know Tech.”
Black nodded. “That I do. Speaking of Tech, I need some help getting the Discoveries Report together. Could you pick up a couple of analysis sheets from Hutton after you’re done?”
“Sure.” The annual Discoveries Report was the bane of the Office of Information. Discovery Operatives from Intelligence spent months gathering information on every major scientific breakthrough in the country, sending painfully researched details back to Third Commander Black to be analyzed for risk factors and practicality before getting sent to the Office of Technology to be tied up in a mountain of red tape. And, of course, Black left everything to just before the deadline ... which was in two days. “You know, if you actually started the Report early, you might not be so rushed all the time.”
“How old are you, Lane? Thirteen?”
“Fifteen.” Perrin seemed cursed to look forever young, no matter how many stripes she had on her uniform. “And that has nothing to do with anything.”-*
“You’re 15, and you’ve been a Third Commander for, three months, is it? I’ve been head of Intel for 12 years, and I’m 26 years older than you. Don’t boss me around, kid. I perfected the art of procrastination before you started at Beginning Academy.”
Perrin shut the door on the side of the copier and pressed the reset button. Beep! The pile of paperwork - they were reports, Perrin recalled - was more than half gone; it would probably take another 30 minutes, then each copy had to be delivered by an Officer ranking Captain Major or higher to its respective place: originals to the Evaluation Office, one copy to Delta First Commander Hawthorn, one to Morgan’s secretary, one for the Deployment Office, and the final copy to Third Commander Hutton in the Sub-Office of Files and Records. All precisely in accordance with Section 57, Sub-Section J of the Laws and Ordinances of Delta Province Office of Information, which Perrin had memorized in her fifth year of Beginning Academy.
When Perrin looked back from the stack of reports, Black could just be seen as a silhouette behind the frosted glass of his office door. A single folded sheet of paper had been left on the side of the copy machine. Perrin glanced around to check for any muttering Captain Minors who might be in a position to notice anything, then unfolded it. It was in standard Office code, which any Intern knew how to read, but which somehow was still considered an effective security measure.-*
Memo from Third Commander Alexander Black, Sub-Office of Intelligence, Office of Information, Delta Province, to Third Commander Perrin Lane, General Sub-Office, Office of Information, Delta Province.
Lane - report from Capt. Maj. Westing came 0500hrs. Pass on to Morgan. Don’t use Office channels. This is big.