The word processor's cursor blinked accusingly at Tilda, goading her into finishing the report.
It was always the same, dull story with directorship: it's lonely at the top, and it's lonely because you're sitting on a mountain of paperwork. Things took on a lot more gravity when the lives of everyone on site (and many other nameless, faceless people elsewhere) are affected by the stroke of a pen. Her pen.
And yet it was still dull. Monotone, monochrome. Easy to forget what it meant, what you were doing. Vital that you always remembered.
There were times when you didn't want to talk to anyone about it. No, not didn't want to. Couldn't. Isolation eventually wore down anyone, even if you were well-practiced with having few friends. Yet no matter what she wanted, there were things that only others who had previously occupied the Site-19 directorial office could understand, or even be told.
As it happened, one of those people chose that moment to knock on her door. She smelled the cigarette smoke first, then looked up to see a greying man in his mid-50's standing in her doorway.
"Dmitri, good afternoon."
Dmitri Strelnikov looked at his watch. "It is six o'clock, Direktor." She could hear the "k".
Tilda double checked the time on her computer monitor. "…Damn." She paused. "Also, cigarette, Dmitri."
He nodded apologetically and unceremoniously flicked his cigarette into the hallway. Not the first time he'd done that.
"Sorry. Smoking in this room is an old habit. Hey, you should try it. Might be good for you." Not the first time he'd said that.
Dmitri settled into an armchair and looked around her office, both of which used to belong to him. "You should redecorate, too. The Brezhnev era does not suit you like it does me, Direktor."
She gave a tired smile. "What can I do for you, Dmitri?" She hesitated for a moment. "And please, just Tilda." When he'd been on this side of the desk, he'd insisted the same thing. Call me Dmitri.
"We had a shorter session today and I thought I would come see how you were doing. I say to myself, 'Maybe she needs a cigarette and I am the only one with a spare.'" He smiled broadly. Tilda had never smoked.
Shorter session. She wondered what they were having Dmitri do. He had recently been pulled out of retirement (perhaps more aptly described as self-imposed exile) and made a training officer of Alpha-9. Perhaps the training officer.
She could ask. But that would require more paperwork, if the wrong people were tapping her office right now.
Tilda was technically cleared for all of that, but the papers took a while to make their way to her desk, and even longer to climb the pile. She needed to delegate more of this, but delegation was its own paper mountain.
He was expecting a response, about the cigarette. "It's very kind of you to offer. There is still time for me to pick up the habit." She motioned to her computer and the reams of paper on her desk. "You know how it goes, though."
Dmitri ground his teeth, stainless steel glinting occasionally as he did so. A former Russian airborne infantryman, he had lost a few teeth during bad jumps and some hack Soviet dentist had replaced the missing ones with stainless steel facsimiles. "I tell you what. Leave that go." He waved dismissively at her desk. "I will take you to dinner. I know a nice place. Quiet, good food, no questions asked. They also serve Coca Cola."
Might have sounded like a joke to someone else. But it appealed to Tilda. The cursor seemed to blink more aggressively. Don't you dare, it almost vocalized. Work is more important than food.
Her work saved lives. Her work ended lives.
Dmitri was waiting. Tilda looked at him again and nodded consent. The moment they left her office, he lit another cigarette.
She couldn't decide between a Wendy's number 7 or number 8. It had been so long since she’d eaten out, even at a fast food restaurant, that she really couldn't decide. Something light, maybe? Nothing worse than working hard on a stomach that feels like it's full of bricks. A salad, perhaps?
Dmitri approached the cashier. She looked very young, with an uncertain look about her. Tilda wondered if she was in college. For some reason, that thought aroused a sympathy that bordered on pity.
"Welcome to Wendy's," the cashier said. "Would you like to try the Son of Baconator?"
"No, I do not want the pretender. I want the Baconator elder, with quadruple bacon." He held up four fingers for emphasis.
"Sir, I don't know if we can—"
Dmitri cut her off. "Is this not America? Am I still in the Soviet Union? Why did I leave?" Dmitri gave her a hard look. "Why did I leave if I must settle for the pretend Baconator."
"S-Sir it is America, but…"
"Do you want a bribe? Do I have to bribe for this?" The cashier tried to protest, but Dmitri held a finger to his lips. "Shhh, no no. Here. Look at this." He placed a crisp fifty dollar bill on the counter and slid it towards her. "For you, for you. Quadruple bacon. I want the true Baconator father. Maybe even the Baconator grandfather."
Wide-eyed and confused, the cashier took the bill and punched in the order. Satisfied, Dmitri stepped back. The cashier looked up at Tilda as if wondering what was coming next.
"I'll have what he's having."
It was unhealthy.
It was delicious.
Neither of them spoke for a great while, the taste of the cheap food and the knowledge of how bad it was for them bringing its own peculiar form of catharsis. As Tilda wiped her hands clean of grease, she had no recourse but to admit that she did indeed feel a lot better.
“So, how is training progressing, Dmitri? We’d might as well conduct a little business while we’re out,” she asked.
He moved to light a cigarette but a sorry look from the cashier stopped him. “We are moving along. I have been trying to drill them on quick threat detection and reaction.”
“How does that work?”
“They must learn that conditions can, how to say, ‘shit the bed’ in an instant. Sometimes you have mere seconds to react to a changing situation, and it will determine if you live or die.”
“I will give you an example.” He pointed with the unlit end of his cigarette towards a man who had just entered. He wore an oversized sweater that looked a bit too warm for the current climate, and his body language indicated that he was possibly nervous or agitated.
“That man there, we will call him Sweater Man.” Dmitri’s and Sweater Man’s eyes met for the briefest moment. “What would you do, for example, if Sweater Man decided suddenly to shoot up this place?”
“What?” Tilda frowned. “I would call it in, if I could, and wait. Besides that, I would probably do nothing.”
“Nothing?” Dmitri looked displeased.
“Yes.” She watched Sweater Man staring at the counter, shifting in his oversized sweater. She remembered the mountains of paperwork. Saving lives, ending lives, whether you signed this piece of paper or whether you didn't sign that one. Inaction, action. No matter what you did, so much was all the same.
Dmitri leaned forward, clearly forming an argument. But whatever he was going to say was lost when Sweater Man lifted his garment, pulled out a handgun, and fired a round into the ceiling.
Chairs squealed as frightened children and parents alike dove for cover under the wooden Ikea tables. A baby started crying. Someone spilled a drink on Dmitri’s back.
Tilda glared at Dmitri with a tone carrying less alarm and more ‘What the hell have you done?’
“ALRIGHT. NOBODY MOVE AND THIS IS OVER REAL QUICK.”
Sweater Man swept his weapon over the cashier and instructed her to begin filling a carryout bag with bills from all the registers.
Dmitri relaxed his hands, allowing his right arm to drop nonchalantly to his side, and waited.
When Sweater’s head was turned to the cashier, he nodded at Tilda and rose. With smooth, practiced motion, Dmitri’s gun hand lifted the hem of his shirt and drew his trusted sidearm. The weapon rose swiftly, meeting the target—
Dmitri slipped on a spilled milkshake. In stark contrast to how gracefully he had risen, he collapsed to the floor. His sidearm landed on the table in front of Tilda.
There were only seconds to react, but her brain still jumped through the usual hoops. This was not a choice she had wanted to make. Ideally she didn’t want to make any choice in this kind of situation, but the die was already cast.
She felt her hand wrap around the bakelite grip as she, too, rose from her seat and drew down on Sweater Man.
The sights aligned, and beyond the front blade sight she could see the target’s eyes go wide.
She felt, more than heard, the report of the gun. Her eyes flinched. She felt her hand absorb the recoil as the slide cycled backwards and chambered a new round. She watched the lacquered steel casing fly past her peripheral vision. Glass shattered and children screamed, all of it silenced by piercing, ringing tinnitus.
When her eyes focused, Sweater Man was gone. The spent casing hit the floor, and with that her hearing returned.
Dmitri stayed on the floor and lit his cigarette. “You see what I mean, yes?”
“You should have Everett look at that bruise,” Tilda said as they alternately walked and limped through the hall. The adrenaline crash was hitting her hard, and she wanted nothing more than to sink into her office chair and do paperwork again. Maybe that was the real lesson to be taken from this: an appreciation of stability and relative safety.
“No, because he will try to replace my lungs again. I told him never again, not after last time,” Dmitri said with an emphatic chop of his hand.
Finally they reached her office. She invited him in for a drink out of courtesy, but he politely declined, reminding her that she still had work to do.
A question loomed on her mind, and she teetered indecisively as to whether she should ask or not. She decided she had to know.
"Dmitri…did you orchestrate all of that?"
He gave a curt laugh. "I only wish I could have planned that. So perfect! It was complete co-insidious."
"Yes, that is what I said." He clapped her on the shoulder, beaming. "I want you to know, you did well, even though you missed. I am sure the police found him."
Despite her exhaustion she managed to crack a grim smile. “Thank you. No more practical lessons, if you please.”
“I will try to honor this request, Direktor.”
She sunk into her chair. The cursor greeted her. It had kindly remained where she left it.