‘Commander Une would like to see you in her office,
Agent Chang’ were not the words I had been looking for from the floor
receptionist as I was on my way out of the building at the tail end of
a long day.
Have a good holiday…
Any of them would have been preferable.
Commander Une is a capable, responsible, focused leader. I have the greatest
respect for her. She is also, however, a workaholic with little or no concern
for things like ‘down time’, ‘personal time’ or
the ‘silly sentimentality’ that comes with the season.
I sighed, wishing I’d gone out the back entrance and… took
myself off to the Commander’s office. Not for the first time, I wondered
what had made me think it was a good idea to accept the woman’s offer
to step in as her second in command.
I knew I was in for a long evening when I paused in her doorway to give
a polite knock on the frame and saw the deep frown and unhappy look on
‘You wanted to see me, Lady?’ I asked, and she barely looked
up before gesturing me into her domain. It was not a good sign that her
desk was littered with spreadsheets and reports.
Even worse sign when she said, ‘Shut the door please’ as I
moved to enter the office.
I didn’t bother to tell her that as soon as the elevator at the
end of the hall arrived and the receptionist stepped on it… we would
be the only two people left on the floor.
‘Sounds serious?’ I ventured, shutting the door and making
my way over to look down at whatever she was poring over.
She snorted a mirthless little sound and sat back to rub at tired eyes. ‘It’s
always serious when agents level allegations against other agents.’
‘What?’ I grumbled, and found myself matching her frown quite
Shuffling through the papers on her desk, she handed me a memo once she
Oh my. Yes, quite serious. Allegations was actually a mild word. I read
through the printed out email in its entirety and couldn’t help it… I
That dark frown got even darker and it was leveled at me.
‘You find it amusing that two of our top agents are being accused
of cheating the certification tests?’ she growled.
‘No… I find it damn absurd,’ I replied, and tossed the
memo back on her desk.
I got almost thirty seconds of a glare that didn’t really quell
me the way it was supposed to before she gave it up with a sigh. I refrained
from reminding her that she’d told me once I had my job because she
didn’t intimidate me in the slightest.
She bent back to her papers, hunting for something else.
‘Come on Lady… Heero Yuy cheat at anything?’ I had to
tell her, though it was certainly nothing she shouldn’t have already
known. ‘Duo Maxwell lie about anything?’
She pulled out another sheet of paper and took a moment to look it over
again before handing it to me. ‘The numbers, Agent Chang are…'
I snorted. ‘Indicative of the level of incompetence of Boggs and
She ignored me, giving me a second to look at information I had already
seen, but through this new… perspective. ‘The point gap between
Yuy and Maxwell and the team that came in second is…’
‘Pretty much what I would expect between mere mortals and two Gundam
pilots,’ I said and looked up to meet her eyes with a level stare
that had lost most of the amusement. ‘This is ridiculous. I know
it… and so do you.’
There were a long couple of minutes of dead silence before she finally
gusted the sigh of Atlas and slumped back in her seat, rubbing at her eyes
again. ‘I do know it. But now… we have to prove it.’
Maxwell would have asked her if she had a mouse in her pocket, but I honestly
didn’t think she’d get the ‘we’ joke and it’s
not funny if you have to explain it.
I guess the ‘second in command’ implied the ‘we’ part
anyway. I went ahead and sat my stuff down and pulled the visitor’s
chair around to her side of the desk.
‘Let’s go ahead and pull up the recordings…’ I
began, but she cut me off with a snort.
‘I’ve gone over them a dozen times and I can’t find
any signs of them cheating,’ she grumbled, but didn’t hesitate
to reach for her mouse, waking her computer.
‘So let’s compare them side by side and see where the time
discrepancy comes in,’ I said and reached to shift her monitors slightly
so we could both view them.
There was a faint twist to her lips, only caught in a flash of reflection
before the monitor in front of her flared to life, that told me she hadn’t
thought of it. It spoke of her mindset somehow, and made me wonder… too
tired to focus? Too frustrated to really care?
I know I was having to tamp down on my own desire to simply write Boggs
a ‘bite me’ email and go the hell home. But I knew we could
not appear to be playing favorites. We had a duty to do a full investigation
even if all we were investigating was bull shit.
And if I privately thought Boggs was an entitled little special snowflake… I
felt that was nobody else’s business. The guy was good… just
not nearly as good as he thought he was.
The recording of Yuy and Maxwell’s run was minimized to her toolbar,
but she wasted no time and brought up Boggs and Gardner’s file as
well, pulling each of the recordings up to a full screen monitor.
The Preventer agent certifications tests… fondly known on the floor
as the Inferno, or… the Nine Circles of Hell… are varied, but
the final cert is a combination maze and obstacle course. The thing is
completely rebuilt from the ground up every year so there is absolutely
no advantage to be gained from having run it before.
In the five years since its inception, Yuy and Maxwell had taken the high
The two videos were still in frozen frame, showing the two teams side
by side in the ‘launch’ elevator just before starting the test
and I could already see a difference. Yuy and Maxwell were in defensive
stances, positioned to give themselves the maximum line of sight coverage
of the field as soon as the doors opened. Boggs and Gardner were still
checking their gear.
I glanced at the Commander to see if she was noting the disparity in attitude,
and she couldn’t quite help the sigh.
‘This should be… interesting,’ I opined in my most guileless
tone and I finally won a chuckle. And then she hit play.
On the monitor on the right, Yuy and Maxwell ducked immediately out of
the elevator, and I could see them doing a thorough visual sweep of the
area they found themselves in.
On the left, Boggs and Gardner were more cautious.
‘There’s fifteen seconds right there,’ I commented,
leaving off the and they’re barely started part of the statement.
The scenario this year was a simple fox and hound. Somewhere in that massive
maze was a faux perpetrator that needed to be tracked down. A perpetrator
who had hours of a head start, not to mention the help of an entire staging
This initial section was the urban area, and I saw Maxwell spot the first
sign of the trail on an over-head fire escape.
Boggs and Gardner were busily looking for tracks on the ground.
‘Mark,’ I said as Yuy positioned himself to boost Maxwell
up to reach the overhead rung, and we counted down another four minutes
before Gardner finally thought to look up.
Yuy and Maxwell had already figured out that the ladder had been jammed,
and worked their way up without. I watched Boggs and Gardner fight with
it and then argue over who was going to boost whom. We had to pause the
right video feed while we waited for the SpecialSnowflake team to catch
I rubbed a hand over my face and sighed, ‘This is our second best?
Do we really need to watch any more of this?’
I was surprised when the Commander grinned at me. ‘But this is getting… interesting.’
We continued Yuy and Maxwell’s video, watching as Maxwell took the
lead as they worked through the clues, following the trail that had been
left for them. They moved steadily, Maxwell scanning for the tracks, marks
and signs that led them, while Yuy watched their surroundings. Guarding
their progress from the very real possibility of ambush.
Boggs and Gardner worked side by side, having to point out each clue to
each other. One or the other of them would glance around periodically,
but it was almost an afterthought. I made a mental note to see to it there
were more traps next year, especially in the early stages of the course.
Our designers were obviously developing some patterns.
‘So sloppy…’ the Commander muttered, almost to herself
but I couldn’t help acknowledging the remark.
‘Like watching a high end sports car next to a… ‘ I
began, and the Commander chuckled.
‘Next to a moped?’
I reached out and paused the right video again, as Boggs and Gardner got
suckered by a false trail that Maxwell had seen and dismissed. We counted
off a full five minute delay while the SpecialSnowFlakes figured out their
mistake and had to back track to the original trail.
‘You’re too kind,’ I muttered and she laughed out right.
I spared a glance across at her and found her expression much lighter
than it had been when I’d walked into the room.
‘Lady, you’re enjoying yourself a bit much for a Commander
in charge of this sort of incompetence.’
‘Incompetence can be beaten out of a man,’ she quipped, ‘dishonesty
I snorted and continued the video feed.
We watched both teams arrive at the first tricky part of the course. The
lift platform. I’d thought the piece was an interesting test myself… on
several levels. Completely open, it’s nothing but a disk on a pole.
The agent has just enough room to stand on it, and the disk traverses up
the pole into a hole in the ceiling. There is approximately ten feet where
you are completely hanging in the air with nothing put the center pole
for support. Then there’s ten feet of a solid concrete tube that
should just about give an anxiety attack to anybody even the slightest
bit claustrophobic, before you arrive in level two of the course pretty
much blind. Once you start the lift moving… you’re committed;
you have no control over it. It was a damn tight fit.
Maxwell and Yuy realized immediately it was the transition spot. Boggs
and Gardner spent an extra three and a half minutes scouring the area for… something… a
secret door, apparently. While they were busy tapping walls and… frankly,
scratching their butts, Yuy and Maxwell moved in on the disk. They scanned
up the shaft as well as they could, then quickly shifted some gear around
to minimize their drag. They stood opposite each other and stepped aboard
the platform at the same time; it was weight activated and began to climb.
Maxwell, knees slightly bent, was pressed in as close as he could get to
Yuy, arms straight down at his sides. Yuy had one hand in the small of
Maxwell’s back, the pressure keeping them both as tight to the pole
as was humanly possible. They made themselves fit in a space that was designed
to try the nerves of a single agent.
Boggs and Gardner argued for several long moments over who would go first,
and finally resorted to Rock/Paper/Scissors.
I think the Commander choked. Or maybe that was me.
‘The problem we have here has nothing to do with cheating,’ I
muttered, and wondered what the hell Boggs would have done if the lift
hadn’t come back down.
‘I think,’ Commander Une said, her tone going contemplative, ‘we
need to reevaluate our training methods.’
I personally thought we needed to dial it back one more step and reevaluate
our recruiting methods, but I didn’t mention it.
Again, we had to pause the right screen while we waiting for our two snowflakes
to catch up. I’d long since stopped counting the time.
The second level switches rather abruptly to a wilderness setting, and
we watched Maxwell yield the lead to Yuy. They came off the lift at once,
clearing it in case it descended again, sliding around each other until
they were back to back, weapons out and scanning the surrounding faux forest.
They found the first trap and easily avoided the trip wire.
On the left screen, Gardner couldn’t seem to tear himself away from
the shaft until he was sure Boggs was on the way up, and when he finally
did turn his attention to his surroundings… he blundered into the
He at least had the sense to drop to the ground and roll away as soon
as he touched it. The paint grenade that went off spread lime green paint
quite liberally. He managed to keep himself mostly out of the line of the
spray, only getting tagged on his left arm.
There was a mandatory five minute penalty to account for ‘first
aid’ and Gardner would have a left hand handicap for the rest of
the course. Boggs cursed him rather resoundingly as soon as he arrived
on the scene. Gardner at least managed to look sheepish.
The Commander let out a rather heavy sigh. ‘I should have watched
this one hours ago,’ she finally admitted. ‘My focus was in
the wrong place.’
I watched Boggs and Gardner finally begin moving again, still sniping
at each other as they took up the trail.
‘Lady,’ I had to say, the comparison leaping to mind and demanding
to be shared, ‘are you familiar with the pre-colony comedy team of
Abbott and Costello?’
‘I am,’ she admitted, giving me a side-long glance. ‘Though
I’m surprised that you are. And while I see the resemblance… the
humor is lacking.’
‘They’d be funnier if… they weren’t ours,’ I
pointed out and she did see the humor in that.
Yuy and Maxwell had tracked their way through the jungle scenario, bypassing
the painfully obvious ‘quicksand’ bog, and not letting it distract
them from the real trap.
Boggs and Gardner fell for the red herring and there was another five
I couldn’t help leaning forward for the next part, pretty much dismissing
Boggs and Gardner, to see how Maxwell dealt with the next test. It had
been my own addition, after all.
To leave the jungle level and progress on, there is a rather complicated
lock that must be by-passed. Maxwell knelt down to do the honors, Yuy guarding
their backs as he worked. The snake… took them both by surprise.
Maxwell… loathes snakes like nobody I have ever known.
The video was angled so the face of the agent working on the by-pass was
in the foreground, the other visible over a shoulder.
When the snake dropped down from above, I could see Maxell’s eyes
dilate… and that was his only reaction. Yuy didn’t even need
to have an audible cue… something in his partner’s tension
level told him there was a problem and he turned… the snake was snatched
up by the back of the head and gone almost faster than the eye could follow.
Maxwell spared one hard sigh but otherwise never faltered. I grinned broadly,
proud as hell of him. Though I’m sure I would hear about it if he
ever caught wind of the fact it had been my idea.
That grin only widened as we watched Boggs shriek like a little girl and
flail around until he got ‘bit’.
It was a bigger penalty… a bigger handicap and really; more than
enough. I reached out and paused both videos.
‘Lady,’ I said, leaning back in the guest chair and pushing
away from the desk. ‘I think we’ve seen more than enough here;
the wonder isn’t the point spread… the wonder is that those
two idiots actually completed the course.’
She looked momentarily thwarted; I honestly think she’d been half-way
enjoying the show. ‘You have somewhere to be, Agent Chang?’ she
teased and I blinked only once before informing her… because I really
didn’t think she was aware,
‘It is Christmas eve, Lady.’
She blinked twice, and it confirmed my suspicions. ‘Why, so it is.
I suppose there’s no doubt where the problem lies… and it isn’t
any cheating. But we do have a problem here…’
I snorted at the understatement, resisting the urge to quote Maxwell’s
signature No shit? and instead said, ‘I have a thought about that.
We have two problems here… not just one.’
She raised an eyebrow and turned her chair to face me, evidence that she
was going to allow me to avoid the rest of the video for now. ‘Care
to share this thought?’
‘Problem one is the obvious… ineptitude,’ I said, hoping
I wasn’t going to get killed for what I was about to suggest. ‘But
the other problem is a one of morale. Nobody in the organization can ever
hope to be more than second best as long as they’re competing against
I could tell she agreed with what I was saying, but she frowned all the
same. ‘We can’t just exclude them from the certifications…’
‘We can if we make them trainers,’ I cut her off and watched
the gears going around.
‘Interesting thought,’ she mused, and I could practically
see her turning the idea in her hand like a shiny rock that needed to be
viewed from different angles.
‘It stands the chance of solving both problems,’ I said, not
pushing too hard, but letting her think about it.
She left me sitting for several long minutes before she finally shook
herself back into focus. ‘Interesting idea,’ she repeated,
and then smiled. ‘And we will delve into it more thoroughly on Monday
morning. As you pointed out… it is a holiday weekend.’
I took it for my dismissal, rose to return the guest chair to its proper
place, and gathered my things.
‘Good night, Agent Chang,’ she said as I headed for the door. ‘And
‘Merry Christmas, Commander,’ I replied and made my exit.
Interesting idea, all right. Interesting, tantalizing, lovely idea.
I made the walk to the parking lot, turning that idea in my own hand and
eying it from all those same angles.
Settled in my car, I pulled off the tie and unbuttoned the collar of my
shirt. Taking a deep breath, I held it for a bit, letting it out slowly.
Breathing out Agent Chang, second in command of the entire Preventer association.
Breathing out protocol. Breathing out rules, and starch, and form.
It was just Chang Wufei who took the next breath.
I pulled out my phone and called home. Smiling when I heard Christmas
music in the background when the receiver was picked up.
‘It’s Christmas eve, damn it,’ Duo said amiably, by
way of greeting. ‘And we have plans… you better have a good
‘Sorry I’m late,’ I said, ‘And I do. I’ll
tell you all about it when I get there.’
‘You on your way?’ he asked. ‘If you’re here in
the next twenty minutes, dinner will not be ruined, and Heero won’t
have to kill you.’
‘Leaving now,’ I assured him, and then had a thought. ‘Do
we have popcorn?’
‘Popcorn?’ he questioned, sounding confused. ‘We are
not having popcorn with a roast in the oven…’
‘For later,’ I chuckled and started the car, eager to get
going. ‘I’ve settled on our… Christmas eve video.’
The voice on the phone changed and Heero said, ‘Something better
than A Christmas Carol? You know Duo’s been waiting all year for
I laughed out right. ‘Oh, my video won’t take that long. We’ll
still have time for his annual Christmas sap.’
Heero chuckled in return and there was some indignant grumbling in the
‘I’ll explain when I get there,’ I assured them.
‘All right,’ Heero acquiesced, ‘we’ll see you
‘Be careful!’ Duo called cheerfully, and we signed off.
I pulled out of the parking lot, but in my head I was still turning my
shiny rock of an idea. Solve the morale problem. Solve our quality problem.
And finally get my partners to retire from the field.
It was a lovely shiny rock. A lovely idea. Damn near perfect, in fact.
Once I sold them on it, at least.
If this worked out, it just might turn into the best Christmas present
I’d ever gotten.
‘Merry Christmas to me,’ I muttered contentedly, and headed
Fiction : GW :