Wasted Fish: Chapter 2
“Welcome to Manticore- prepare to be brought close to death. This is the place where we save the world, so we can’t have any weak links. From now on your only goal in life is to assist us as we break you so that we can remake you as a better member of the team.”
A hand went up in the back of the small room and Andy voiced everyone’s thoughts, “You’re trying to be funny, right? ‘Cause you’re kind of confusing us with your serious face.”
“Or perhaps you are confusing yourself with your biased assumptions? I am not the kind of person who is funny.”
Amelia giggled in the back, but was silenced immediately by the death in Beth’s glare.
“Before I expound upon the fascinating history of the organization I am required by that history to deliver a rather lengthy and boring speech and you are required to pay attention. Try to stay awake.” Beth waited a moment before launching into the speech which she had memorized years before. “This is Manticore, where legends are real. The stories may vary, but several things remain true throughout the ages about Manticore. We are as strong as the lion, as swift as the eagle, and as human as humans can be. Like a trumpet, our message will be heard. Sometimes, however, the best way to spread a message is through secrets. This is Manticore, and our secret is now your life.
Perhaps you think that this is just like the FBI, or will be as thrilling as the CIA. Unfortunately, you are wrong. We do not operate under the law, which is why we can get things done. We know everything about everyone and everyone is a suspect in everything. If someone dies, we clean up the mess. If someone lives, we deal with it.
But we are not here because of death; we are here because of life. We are here because of our friends, family, and even enemies who need protection. We are not here to make a better home for our future, but to ensure that there is a future for them.
There are many enemies of life in the world around us, and we stop them before they can stop us. We do not swear loyalty to our country because even the land we stand upon can sometimes stand for death. As the earth decays underneath our feet we must stand ready to seek higher ground if the rivers of life should sweep away our trust.
Because trust is everything. Manticore is built upon trust and each member trusts the other so completely that we never even suspect there to me moles in our midst. Perhaps this is blindness, but we prefer to think of it as a pre-emptive strike. If we trust you completely, you in turn are unlikely to betray us.
Betray us and you betray life. Betray life and you are death.”
\___ *** ___/
“Alright class, let’s begin with assignments.” Beth stood facing the four recruits in a large room filled with Manticore agents. “Each of you will spend your first two years tailing a mature agent and learning from them. As there are, of course, strong family connections between some of you, you will be required to be matched with someone you do not know. You will each be allowed to choose three agents who you would like to be paired with from anyone in this room. You will notice that none of them are division heads and none of them have a single specialization. This will allow you, and require you, to experience multiple elements of our work here before you decide which are to specialize in.
Of your three choices you will be allowed to rank them according to preference. Unfortunately for you, it is rare for a recruit to ever be paired with his or her first choice. This is due to the agent’s preference. If he or she does not feel it would be beneficial to either of you for a pairing to be initiated, they can deny you with one word. You will have thirty minutes to mingle with the agents and ask them questions as you make your decisions. Your time begins now.”
It was a mad scramble among the recruits to find the best agent in the room. Their movements and gestures told their life stories as the children sought the person they wanted to spend two years following. Amelia Hill began with the ugliest women in the room. She seemed to be looking for someone to look up to, but stand above. There was no sure pattern to the specialty choices she made, which indicated she either had already decided her path, or she didn’t care where it led. The petite girls red hair bobbed around behind her life sparks from a fire and her energetic voice gave Beth a headaches. Like a doll with her pale porcelain skin, Amelia introduced herself with a loose and elastic handshake which bounced back up into the air as she jumped into her questions and dialogue. Her tactic seemed to be less about what she thought about the agents and more about what they thought about her.
Andy Smith, confirming her suspicions like a true politician, abandoned his family trade and searched out biggest agents in the room. Shaking everyone’s hand and rubbing everyone in all the wrong places, Andy left a trail of angry and seething agents who felt like their rights had been violated in some way or other. In the last few minutes of their half-hour he moved closer and closer to Beth until he was standing in front of her.
“I recommend you take this time to inspect your choices.”
“Ma’am, I am. You are the head of Manticore, are you not?”
“That is fairly common knowledge.”
“And what do your duties involve?”
Beth saw his angle, and she liked the kid for his ingenuity. Unfortunately, she didn’t approve. “Go spit out a river of lies, sprout.”
Smiling as if he had actually won the battle, Andy walked back into the crowd.
John Bergin didn’t even attempt to speak to any more than the same three agents. Like clockwork he timed his interaction in his head so that he spent exactly fifteen minutes with the first agent, discussing mainly computers and families. When the fifteen minutes were over he excused himself politely and moved to speak with the next agent. His clear second and third choices received ten minutes and five minutes in which time he convinced them that he would be an interesting tail. His attempt seemed to be that of the fox, swishing his fur in their faces and then counting on their help.
Jethram Athanasios stood by Beth’s side for the first several minutes, and he was beginning to annoy her.
“You’re supposed to be interacting with the agents.”
“I was under the impression I was already tailing you.”
“An interesting deduction. I was thinking more along the lines of you doing my boring work for me and bothering someone else in your free-time. Perhaps though, as you will have little time to learn from others anyways, I might consider the prospect.”
“So, I don’t know much about Manticore, but I do know about the families. Which one are you from?”
“Aren’t you from a family? ‘Cause I was under the impression anyone with any power here was from one of the families.”
“I do belong among the families, but my past is complex.”
“Oh.” He looked at her with new curiosity, which was not what Beth had intended. “So is Beth short for Elizabeth or something?”
“Something.” Beth wanted to turn the questions around on Jethram. “Who in their right mind would name their kid Jethram Athanasios? What does that even mean?”
“My mom was actually very much in her right mind when she named me, but I changed my name recently. Believe it or not, my name was even stranger before.”
“Like that’s even possible.”
“Jethram means unending and Athanasios means immortal, or life. So basically my name means unending life. Kind of silly, I know, but it kind of has special meaning to me.”
“Life is overrated.”
“What about your whole speech? You know, we are life and we protect it?”
“Yeah, just because you protect something doesn’t mean you believe it’s real. We’re all dead in the end.”
“So, what does that mean?”
“It means I’m only here because I have nowhere else to go.”
“That’s not really true. I mean, you have all the funding you could ask for and an entire family of identity thieves who could give you a new life. If you really feel that way, why don’t you leave?”
“Listen kid, I don’t know why I even started to tell you anything about myself. Could you just shut up now?”
“But we were getting on so well!”
“Really, kid? You need to learn when to stop. Now would be about the right time.”
“I think life is one of the most important things in the world.”
“Okay kid, shut your grimy pie hole and stuff a smelly sock down your throat. Your mind is irritating me beyond belief.”
That shut the boy up for a moment, but it hurt Beth greater than she let on. If Beth had to pick a family for Jethram Athanasios to join, it would be the Johnsons. There had always been something about that family which pulled at people’s hearts and got them to open up their souls. Perhaps that was what made them such good leaders, and that was why Beth both hated and loved this kid. He reminded her of happier times, but the happier times ended.
Beth was as close as she ever got to delight when the thirty minutes were over. The names were collected and the agents were dismissed to the back corner of the room. Beth took the slips of paper and glanced quickly through them. One of them was simple- a first choice match. John Bergin’s technique had worked better than she had expected.
“John Bergin will be paired with Michael.”
There were no signs of appreciation or acceptance from either, but the first-choice pairing suggested at least one of them was ready to pump his fist in victory. Moving on, Amelia had listed her three choices in alphabetical order and both her first and second choices rejected her. Apparently pretty faces intimidated others even if that face was only eleven years old.
“Amelia Hill will be paired with Jo.”
Jo gave Amelia a little nod as the tiny girl bounced into the air and clapped her hands. Apparently she was just excited to be paired. Next was Andy Smith, and none of his choices accepted him. Either the boy didn’t care or he didn’t understand what it meant to work on a team. This led to a unique situation where Beth had to choose her own pairing. She glanced momentarily around the room and picked out the most mature and trusted agent present.
“Andy Smith will be paired with Kay.”
Sighs of relief went throughout the room and surprise slipped from Kay’s throat. Ignoring him, Beth went on to her final decisions. Jethram Athanasios- who would he be paired with?
“Jethram Athanasios will be paired with Beth.”
There was complete silence for a moment, and then everyone seemed to unanimously understand what had just happened. Jethram Athanasios was just assigned to the leader of Manticore. Jethram Athanasios was now in training for a governing role. Jethram Athanasios, a boy with no ties to the families, had taken the first step towards sole leadership of Manticore.
“All agents who did not receive a tail will now return to your normal duties. Those who did receive a tail will remain. I would like to speak with each of you individually before classes commence.”
Turning without another word, the grand magnanimous leader of the Core brooded her way into a separate room. Michael, Jo, and Kay all followed her and stood as close to the door as could be managed. They had all been agents long enough to know when to avoid their glorious leader.
“You may think that you will have the easiest time of the other agents, seeing as you were his first choice and he was yours, but you are wrong. John Bergin’s tests proved him to be manipulative and controlling. It was not coincidence that he chose you first and you the same. Do not give into his pushing and always follow the rules. You know general protocols for recruits- follow them.”
“Yes ma’am. I think we’ll get along well.”
“Not too well, I hope.” Beth grasped her hands behind her back and began to pace the room in an attempt to relieve some of the pressure in her head. “Jo.”
“You also have a seemingly simple and yet deceptively manipulative recruit. I watched her choices and I saw through her innocent face. She is truly a Hill and she knows how to play a role well. If, by some chance, she was being sincere and not tactical in her choice I expect you to remain professional in your conduct. There will be no truth-or-dare in Manticore. Am I understood?”
“Beth, I would like to protest my placement as the boy’s babysitter.”
“Noted, and denied.”
“I am speaking to you as a friend. Please. I wasn’t even in there for the pairing, I was there because you asked me to help evaluate.”
“Yes, and now you are paired with a recruit.”
“And I should not be. Especially this recruit.”
“And why is that?”
“You know why. That kid purposefully made sure he angered all in the room except for me and you. He meant to. I think he wanted to be paired with me.”
“He’s a Smith- they know people. Perhaps he thought it would be a way to earn your attention?”
“Well, he sure got it. But I need you to take control of this situation. You are the only one who is available that I trust not to get overheated by any remarks he might make. I hope you can keep a level head around him.”
“Fine, but I don’t like it.”
“I would be surprised if you did.”