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The archivist knew more than what she told the researcher that morning.

A man in the purple robes of a High Research Administrator strode into the anteroom of the Archives and range the bell on the counter. He had waited for months for the Archives to arrive in his home system and then had to wait for several hours in a security line just to get transport up to the ship. He had known that it was a privilege to do research at the Archives, it was the largest collection of knowledge in the Empire, but he wasn’t used to being treated like chattel. He was an important man, after all.

A small sigh rose from beneath the counter and a girl, looking no more than ten standard years, climbed into a tall chair and looked the man in the eye.

“Can I help you?” she asked in the tone children use when forcing themselves to be nice because they’re told to.

The man in purple robes looked down his bulbous nose at the girl. Even with the chair, she was over a foot shorter than him.

“I’d like to speak tot he Archivist, please.”

Be good, Cait. Said a warm and comforting voice inside her head.

The girl suppressed the urge to groan and forced herself to smile.

“You are speaking to her, sir.”

“No,” he said, “I am speaking to a child. Fetch the archivist, girl.”

“I am the Archivist,” the girl said.

“Of course you are, dear,” he said, “now go get an adult I can talk to and stop wasting my time.”

“I can assure you, sir,” the girl said with effort through gritted teeth, “I can help with any query you may have, I’m fully–”

You’re doing well, Cait. Just keep a level head.

“Child,” the man said, “stop talking and go get an adult!”

Oh no.

“Listen, you pompous screechbat cloaca, I–”

“Cait!” I sharp female voice cut the tirade short. The small girl immediately closed her mouth and sat up straight. “You will watch your language, especially when talking to Researchers.”

A woman with brown hair cut to a standard issue ear-length bob, a plain blue uniform, and a pleasant face stepped through a door which led deeper into the Archives. She turned to the researcher, whose startled expression had already begun to transform back into a mask of smug superiority.

“You’ll have to forgive Cait,” the woman continued, “she has a bit of a temper.”

“No problem at all,” he replied, “I have several nephews myself who share a similar…undisciplined attitude.”

Just let her handle this.

Cait remained at attention, but her cheeks visibly pulsed as she clenched and relaxed her jaw.

“Are you the Archivist, then?” he continued.

“Yes, I am,” she said, “My name is Nadine.”

“Excellent.” He looked sideways at Cait, “I knew she was lying when she said she was the Archivist.”

“Actually,” Nadine said just as Cait began to open her mouth in protest, “she is the Archivist as well.” She moved her hair behind her ear and her implant caught the light before her hair fell, as always, back into place.

Cait smirked at the researcher, who had risked a glance in her direction, and pulled back her own hair to reveal a similar shining implant.

Cait, there’s no reason to be smug. The voice said.

But he’s such a pompous– Cait started.

I know, but our job is to help them.

“Hmph,” he said as he resumed ignoring Cait, “I’d still never trust a child to help me.”

“And why is that, sir?” Nadine asked.

“Don’t you know who I am?” The Researcher drew himself up to look down on her.

“Of course I do,” she said as her eyes went out of focus as she accessed pertinent records, “You’re High Researcher Pedrick Nason, a specialist in the study of xeno-anatomy and military tactics. You’ve written twenty-seven articles in the last ten years and your research on the Plashaar (commonly called Digger Devils) was instrumental in the retaking of Indus VII and earned you your most recent promotion.” Her eyes came into focus again and she gave the researcher a warm smile.

High Researcher Nason swelled during the Archivist’s  recitation and smiled in a way he believed people thought modest.

“I can see you’ve done your homework, ma’am.”

She nodded once and Cait rolled her eyes.

“Now,” the Archivist said as she moved him to the door of the reading room, “what can I help you with?”

“I’m doing research on the mating habits of the Snow Stars on Berryessa II and I heard you had copies of the journals of Bixby Drax. Might I look at them?”

Cait furrowed her brow and opened her mouth to speak, but she was cut short by a hand on her shoulder. It was wrinkled and cold and attached to an elderly woman in an ornate uniform.

“Of course we have those journals. The originals, mind you, not copies. This is the Archives, after all.” Nadine held the door to the reading room open.

“Wonderful!” Researcher Nason said as he walked through the door. Nadine followed after and closed the door behind her.

Cait turned to the elderly woman, whose face looked as though it had known more than it was healthy to know.

“Hermina-ma’am?”

“Yes, Cait?” Her voice was warm and comforting.

“According to the Archive, Bixby Drax was only in the Berryessa system for a few standard weeks. Wouldn’t it have been better to check the field notes of Ix’tal Mar?”

“Firstly, not everyone can read Tu’naar. And secondly, yes it would have, but that’s not what he asked for.”

“But aren’t we supposed to help the researchers?”

“Yes, we are. And we’re giving him precisely what he asked for. Maker knows if he hadn’t been such a pompous screechbat cloaca, we’d have helped him a bit more.” Hermina smiled with the corner of her mouth.

Cait looked up at her in astonishment and giggled until her sides hurt.

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He left his briefcase in the cab

The man slammed the door of the yellow cab, wincing slightly at the accidental force of it. He walked quickly to the front window and handed the driver a crisp $100 bill from his new leather wallet. The cabby smiled and revealed his slightly yellowed teeth.

“Let me get you your change,” he said in lilting accent.

“Oh, uh,” the main looked around nervously, “just keep it, okay?”

“Very good, sir,” the cabby replied. “Have a good day, sir”

The cabby rolled up his window and pulled into the hectic late afternoon traffic. The man stood on the empty sidewalk in the middle of the business park. He loosened his shiny silk tie and pulled at his collar. He checked his watch and knelt to pick up his briefcase.

But there was nothing there.

“Oh, shit,” the man said aloud. He must have left in the cab. He was sure that he’d grabbed it. He’d opened the door, pulled on the collar of his shirt because it itched and grabbed it. Right?

But the briefcase refused to appear.

The cabby didn’t even know that he had it and was long gone, anyway. It had fallen to the floor and, because this was the suburbs and most everyone had their own car, the cabby looked forward to a long, quiet ride back to the garage.

But the man in the new and uncomfortable suit was panicking. Everything was in that briefcase. His cell phone, his documents, his presentation and worst of all—-

The man rushed into the office building he had stopped in front of. Its exterior gleamed with white and brushed steel in a design that exuded downplayed but undeniable wealth. The man pulled open the glass door by the handle and rushed to the receptionist’s desk. But the desk immediately in front of the door was empty. The man turned wildly and saw another, identical desk, staffed by a woman.

The receptionist’s hair was impossibly shiny and her makeup was applied in a way that made her seem airbrushed. She typed on an ergonomic keyboard which was invisibly hooked up to a very expensive monitor. The desk was immaculately clean and devoid of anything resembling a personal touch. The receptionist addressed the man without taking her eyes from the screen.

“Welcome to Scalable Solutions LLC. How may I help you?” Her voice was pleasant and bland like distilled water.

“I need to use your phone,” the man responded, pulling at his collar in agitation.

The cab driver navigated the streets in silence as he made his way back to the garage. He didn’t like listening to the radio, preferring instead to focus his whole attention on the road and its may dangers. He had seen too may other cab drivers cutting people off and swerving like maniacs. He preferred to play it safe. The street hummed under his tires and cars passed going both directions. He listened to his squeaky breaks and the white noise of the road. And because of this, he completely failed to notice the low humming sound coming from his back seat.

“I’m sorry, sir,” the receptionist responded, “but we don’t have a phone for public use.”

“This is an emergency,” the man pressed. “I’m supposed to have a big meeting with Mr. B—– in twenty minutes and I left my briefcase in the cab.”

The receptionist typed rapidly at her keyboard.

“Are you the representative from Paralogis Industries for the three o’ clock appointment?”

“Yes,” the  man sighed in relief.

“Have a seat, sir,” she gestured to a metal bench that managed to look both very expensive and wholly uncomfortable. “Mr. B—– will be with you shortly.”

“No!” the man burst out, his voice echoing through the cavernously modern reception area. “I can’t see him without my briefcase. Could you please let me use your phone or something so I can track down the cab I left it in?”

The receptionist stared at him blankly for several seconds, almost as though she were listening to orders only she could hear. She then reached under the desk and pulled out a sleek phone that was obviously designed to be looked at more than used.

“Here you are, sir.”

The cab driver had veered off course. He wasn’t entirely sure why he had done so. Somewhere in the back of his mind, he knew he should be going to the garage before heading home to his wife and little girl. But somehow, this didn’t matter to him just then. He felt it was more important to keep driving. He drove onto the freeway and out of town. His dispatch radio blared annoyingly so he turned it off. He was enjoying the sound of the world around him and he rapped his fingers on the steering wheel in time to some unheard tune.

The cab driver listened to the sound of other cars fading into the distance as he drove down a little-used interstate that passed through an empty expanse of land. His world was filled with the sound of his engine, his wheels on the road, the wind whipping past his cracked-open window, and the increasingly loud hum that emanated from the briefcase in the back seat.

The man in the uncomfortable suit had called eleven different cab companies and none of them had been the one he had used. They just lined up at the airport, he had thought to himself, how hard could it be?

The simple answer was very.

On the twelfth call, however, the man found the correct company.

“Yes, one of our cars went to that address earlier,” the man on the phone said. “He was supposed to come back here, but he has taken off.”

“What do you mean?” the man in the uncomfortable suit rasped desperately.

“He’s driven out…” the man on the phone paused as if reading something, “onto Highway 257?”

“Good! You know where he is?”

“Yes, yes, we have GPS on all of our cars.”

“Can you send another cab here to take me to him?”

“Of course, sir,” the man on the phone said, “it will be there in 15 to 20 minutes.”

The man in the uncomfortable suit hung up the phone and pulled his tie loose before sitting on the very fashionable metal bench.

Exactly 24 minutes later, a cab pulled to a halt in front of the building. The man leapt up from the exceedingly uncomfortable metal bench and ran do it, climbing inside without hesitation. The cab driver adjusted his mirror to better view his passenger.

“You the man looking for Amir?” he said in heavily accented English.

“Yes, and it’s an emergency, could you please hurry?”

“Yes, boss,” the man responded and pulled away at a brisk pace.

Amir, the cab driver, was pulled over to the side of the road. He had stopped several miles outside of town, he removed the briefcase from the back seat — even as he was surprised to find it there — and began walking. He crawled through a barbed wire fence and walked several dozen yards into a cow field. He had always found cows to be beautiful in their way. He smiled and waved absently to a small group of them as he walked past. The hum of the briefcase was loud in his ears. The cows sauntered lazily away.

Amir stopped, still in sight of his cab. He dropped to his knees and placed the briefcase on the ground. He was unsurprised to find a pair of complicated locks holding it closed. But, with a surety he did not fully understand, he input the right code and the locks clicked open.

The humming stopped.

A gust of wind brought the smell of cow dung and freshly cut grass to Amir’s nose as his ears rang. He took a deep breath and calmly, even reverently, opened the briefcase.

The man in the uncomfortable suit was swearing under his breath. He had missed his meeting, lost the briefcase, and he would probably lose his job. And that, he knew, was just the beginning. The cab pulled up behind Amir’s taxi. The man exited before the cab had fully stopped and ran to the other taxi, hoping to see Amir, or his briefcase, inside. But it was empty.

“Shit!” he shouted as he banged his fists painfully on the roof of the car. He turned and ran his fingers through his hair. He scanned the distance for any sign of Amir and noticed a large brown spot in the middle of the field. The man pulled at his shirt collar and walked down to the fence. He climbed, clumsily, over it and jogged toward the dark spot. Several times he stumbled and stepped in cow patties. When he came to a halt he was sweating and breathing heavily.

The man stopped at the edge of a small clearing. The grass looked dried and dead. In the middle was a pile of what had once been brightly colored clothes. They were now colored gray and brown and looked a little dirty. Other than the clothes, there was nothing. The man gingerly stepped into the clearing and brushed the clothes aside with the toe of his right shoe. They moved stiffly to one side and revealed the briefcase. It was closed and latched, but unlocked. The man carefully knelt and opened the latches of his briefcase without lifting it.

It sprang open.

Inside was a cell phone, several stacks of what had been very important documents, several pens, and a stack of folders containing informational material. The case made no noise and nothing moved. The cell phone began to vibrate. The screen displayed a familiar logo and a familiar phone number. The man in the uncomfortable suit picked up the cell phone and answered.

“Hello, sir,” the main said shakily into the phone. He listened to the voice on the other end and blood began to trickle slowly out of his left nostril. “Yes, about that. There’s been a bit of a problem.”

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