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You will disappear some day like that

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You learn what you are, but slowly.
--William Stafford

Later, of course, Westen was impossible to ignore. But the first time, Tom Card barely noticed him at all. In the morning, the CIA’s newest recruits were ushered into a large featureless room. Buzzing fluorescent lights, a lot of still white air. Some benches. A total of about twenty-five people, men and women. Card and his colleagues called them ‘chickens’ because they grew up on the Farm, then spent the rest of their lives hunting for bugs. Agency humor.

The chickens settled in, thinking they’d be called to interview or something. No need for a bathroom there, or a phone, or a drinking fountain. There was a camera in the corner, so Card and the other trainers could watch them over a video feed. On the chickens’ first day, they were just pecking out of their little shells. It was the same every year.

Trainers used the waiting game to see what the chickens would do with their time. Chickens were recruited from all walks of life, from government and college and the armed forces, small towns and big cities. They scored high on paper tests. They talked a big game. It was the same every year. Card wouldn’t even look through their boring, commendation-filled files unless they did something noteworthy. Card scratched his ear and ate a piece of chocolate as the candidates stood, sat, milled around, talked to each other, rooted through their bags and purses for gum. Then as the time ticked by and no one official came to offer so much as a hello, they started to get uncertain.

Most chickens weren’t used to waiting. Card could see it in their faces: frustrated, angry, privileged little softies who wanted what they wanted right now. They were used to being complimented and patted and weighed down with awards, and there they sat instead, getting hungry or having to piss or both. A few had learned to at least mask their emotions, but not that many. Card watched the angry ones. They got together. They formed a band. They roved over and banged on the exit door. No one answered. They sat down again with their heads close together. They looked at the camera and back at one another. Card could see the leader, a young woman, pointing at the door. Chickens always went for the door.

Thing was, once you went out the door, the test was over for you. If you didn’t last very long, it didn’t mean you weren’t still involved with the program. It just meant you didn’t really pass that first test. It meant your patience needed work. That took one kind of trainer. A leader, like the young woman, would attract another kind of trainer. If she was quite persuasive and could talk a bunch of chickens out the door, she was actually very valuable. Those that let themselves be persuaded – well, missions needed tac teams, and communications people, and quartermasters. Uninteresting.

As the day stretched on, the young lady talked about fifteen folks into leaving. Card shook his head, smiling, found her file, and made some notes. The door in the white room wasn’t locked, since that wasn’t the point. About six or seven people remained. Card weeded their files out and looked through them. Yes, most of them were combat vets or former police. It usually went that way. Some cave in Kandahar, some little room in Moscow, the front seat of a car in Toronto or Pittsburgh. Card himself was taught patience in the courtyard side-room of a country house in China. Those had been some of the longest nights of his life. He could still hear the monotonous sound of the birds outside the window there, sometimes, when he dreamed.

The test lasted all day and into the night. The subjects were never relieved, never given water, never given an explanation. Some dozed in their seats; some paced the room, watching the camera. But one by one, they eventually lost patience, slipping out the door quietly, the last one leaving near morning. Which was fine, and Card felt quite smug, because he could still last longer than all of them. When the room was completely empty, he made some more notes in his files, tentatively matching trainers with the longest-lasting subjects. Things would probably switch around later; they often did. He looked up again and squinted a double-take at the camera. The whole screen was red and filled with a woven-looking pattern: what the hell? Then he realized: someone had put a hat or a sock over the camera lens. Someone was still in the room.

Card took his sweet time sauntering downstairs. When he pushed open the door, he immediately saw a kid sitting directly underneath the camera. He was a total stranger, meaning that he had come in and immediately gone under the camera and not moved out of its blind spot or spoken to anyone since then. Meaning that he had known where the camera was before he entered the room. The kid was wearing a black tee shirt, olive drab fatigue pants, and army boots. He was unselfconsciously doing close-quarters arm stretches, back flat against the wall, unsmiling (the rumor went around later that Westen smiled only once a year, on Christmas). A Miami Heat cap was hanging jauntily over the camera.

Card did him the favor of not smiling back. But inside his head, fireworks were going off and angels were singing the hallelujah chorus. This one, this kid was gold. Card wasn’t prepared for this: he hadn’t looked once at Westen’s file. He had no idea what kind of hell the kid was going to end up unleashing. He didn’t see the bullet coming for his own forehead. He just saw the waves of brutally curbed aggression coming off the kid, the closed look in his eyes: even after all this time in the white room, the kid still had control of himself.

“You Card?” said Westen.

Card couldn’t help it: he blinked a couple times in surprise and he could feel his eyebrows rise. The kid’s expression didn’t change, but Card could see satisfaction creep into that flat gaze. It was very annoying to think that Westen probably had his own set of files. Annoying, and yet exactly right. It was like going on a chicken hunt and finding a dragon in the coop.

“I am,” said Card, and held the door open. “Get your hat and come with me.”

--end--