Tricia had worked in a number of weird places, but this one took the cake. If they had tried to schedule her here permanently she would have walked out, but this job was only for another two weeks and then she could go back to Whittier or Fairbanks or somewhere and pick up seasonal work. The Pacific Academy was in the middle of nowhere, in fact she wasn’t entirely sure where it was, which was just icing on the weirdness cake.
The weirdest part was the nineteen students. Tricia’s job was to cook and clean and set nineteen places at each meal. The students would come in after she had laid out their places. In theory she was never meant to see them face to face, which was also weird and Tricia would have called the police or Child Protective Services or someone, only there was no cell service out here.
So Tricia would set the places, leave, and come back exactly sixty five minutes later. Each plate would be cleared, no vegetables pushed under edges, no food thrown, no mess. There was no difference between the way the students ate, either. Usually some people push all the food to one side, or turn their plates a certain way. All nineteen students did it the same way.
So Tricia got curious. She started moving around a little more than she was supposed to, and occasionally caught a glance of one person’s face. She kept getting the same person, though. It was uncanny. Whenever she was able to peek through a doorway or see through a not-quite closed window she would see the same girl’s face. How could she always see one person, never anyone else?
Tricia heard someone enter, which was weird, it was nearly ten pm. Generally nobody came before six AM or after six PM.
Whoever this was, they marched in like they owned the place. Tricia was in her bedroom, door closed, doing absolutely nothing that could upset anyone. To complete the illusion she closed her eyes and laid down on her bed. But they probably wouldn’t come in here anyway—
The door slammed open. “Are you the cook?” A low, powerful male voice asked. The light around the intruder obscured his face entirely, but highlighted his hair.
“New orders. Breakfast at 4 AM, no lunch, dinner at 5 PM. Clear?”
He closed the door and Tricia laid back, laughing. Like she was going to sleep now. Tricia wasn’t Augmented, but humans are already able to see through walls, especially walls they know well. She could hear the bossy man walking down the hall, and in her mind she could see him, in a uniform, with his assistant next to him, walking and taking notes as Bossy gave orders. When Bossy was around the corner Tricia got up and dressed in her work clothes quickly. She had a legitimate reason to head to the kitchens. And in times like this, when something is changing, sometimes people see what they aren’t meant to see. How else does anyone learn anything?
Tricia walked down the hall, following Bossy, but not closely, and only so long as he was moving along a path that would get her to where she was ostensibly going.
“…doubled. We don’t know if Zero is coming but we don’t want her getting anywhere close,” Bossy was saying.
“As for the subjects here, we want them on extended midday duties, always active, and never more than three of them in any one place, except at meals. Triple the guards on meals. And get them all out of bed now. We’re moving them to the south bunks.”
That was Tricia’s cue. She ducked into a supply closet and grabbed a number ten can of green beans, then kept her back to the door, looking at the other foods. Green beans weren’t breakfast…so she grabbed the orange juice mix as well. There. Now she was just planning ahead. She could pretend she hadn’t heard anything, and she was allowed to be out out of her bunk at this time of night, the “campers” were all meant to be in bed, so if she was doing legitimate food prep—
“How much did you hear?”
Tricia spun around, barely stifling a scream, then calmed down.
“Oh, it’s you, Mr. Pierce. I—I didn’t hear anything. I was just told that breakfast was going to be early from now on—“
“And you decided that tomorrow’s menu was green beans and OJ. Classic. Okay, listen, shush. I need to figure some things out.”
Julian retreated into the weird distracted trance of a person who is seeing images on an Augmented HUD.
“They’re moving the campers to the south bunks.” Tricia said and Julian came back.
“Who said that?”
“The…bossy guy who told me to make breakfast early tomorrow. He also said something about never having more than three of them in a group at one time, I think? And triple guards at mealtime.”
Julian nodded, but his face grew tighter. “Blast,” he said quietly. Then he looked at Tricia. “What did you say you did here?”
“I’m the cook.”
Julian smiled. “Meaning you have access to the kitchen and dining room. Awesome. Trish, right?”
“Tricia,’ said Tricia.
“Quite so. Okay. Perfect. Listen, you know the bossy guy?”
“No but it sounds like you do.”
Julian looked at her blankly for a moment and then laughed. “You’re right, I do. Or I thought I did. Listen, do you want to know what’s going on here? Like, what’s really really going on?”
“Good. But I can’t tell you right now. But soon. I’m so glad I met you here Tricia! Now. This is important: go back to bed. In the next day or two we’ll need to talk.”
And she went back to bed.