When he walked outside the building he pulled his smartphone from his pocket to check his email. The House of Whispers might be forty years behind the times, but the agencies that it employed were firm believers in taking every advantage that could be found. He unlocked it with a quick motion of his thumb, and it vibrated very slightly in his hand to let him know that the unlock pattern had been recognised. He looked down at it while he walked to the gate, selecting the email icon. A few moments passed, and then No signal flashed up on the screen. He swore, and checked the top of the display. Sure enough, the signal strength metre there was showing that the area was devoid of phone signals.
He stopped walking at that point and looked around. The House was set back from the road, and a head-height wall surrounded a well-kept lawn. The wall was painted terracotta as though to suggest that this was a more mediterranean place than the Unreal City, and there were a few temperate-climate trees struggling to survive in the wetter, cooler climate that prevailed here. Behind him was the House, off to the sides were other properties with equally defensive-looking walls around them. There was nothing that would visibly prevent a phone signal from entering the area. He looked up anyway, checking that there wasn’t a roof that he wasn’t aware of; if there was then it was invisible to him. He considered for a moment that there might be invisible roofing technology now, and then dismissed it as a stupid idea. He considered for a few moments longer the idea that he might have been hypnotised at some point into ignoring such roofs were he to see them, and then dismissed that idea as well. Finally he started walking again, his eyes switching between the signal strength metre on his phone and the path across the lawn, mere paving stones set slightly further apart than was comfortable for him. Only when he pushed open the heavy, wrought-iron gate and stepped through did his phone beep suddenly, indicating that the signal had come back. He frowned now, but looked around the street before poking at his phone and bringing up his email. Did they jam signals in the grounds and the House? Had his phone had a signal in the House? He wished he’d looked at it now and noticed then.
He walked off down the street towards where his rental car, hired from the Agency’s preferred contractor that morning, was parked. He left, unaware that a camera was set into the wall next to him, observing.
Back inside the House of Whispers the man at the desk set down the tablet that he was using to view Michael’s departure on and leaned back in his chair. He relaxed, staring up at the ceiling. After thirty seconds, the entire side wall of the office slid sideways, increasing the size of the room threefold. In the larger part was a round wooden table draped with a white tablecloth and set with a steel candelabra holding unlit red candles and place settings for two people. Two people were sat at the table, but neither looked hungry. They were both wearing grey suits and simple white masks, one smiling and one frowning, like a personification of the theatre.
“Well?” asked the smiling mask.
“Not good,” said the man staring at the ceiling. He didn’t adjust his position now that the office was open, nor did he look over at the others. “He didn’t try and find out what else might be on this floor. He didn’t stray out of bounds while he was in the House at all. He noticed that he had no signal, but he barely looked around to find out why. And he never considered where the cameras might be, or what they might be looking for. On the whole, gentlemen, a failure.”
“So shall we terminate him?” asked the smiling mask. There was a flat, emotionless quality to the voice, as though it weren’t actually a human speaking.
“No.” The word came after a short pause, as though a decision were being taken.
“He will do what the Thrones want and probably do it very well,” said the man staring at the ceiling. “That what they want is the wrong thing is neither here nor there as far as his employment goes. Let him deliver what he’s capable of and let the Thrones see their mistake for themselves. We cannot teach those who will not learn, and I am sick and tired of running in front of them and clearing their way so they can blunder about like elephants in the corral.”
“They won’t like it when they realise what you’ve done,” said the smiling mask. The frowning mask nodded.
“They can dislike it all they please,” said the man. “They can replace me if they please, too. But there is no way forward if they won’t grow up.”
There was another pause. Then, “No-one is thinking of replacing you,” said the smiling mask. The frowning mask nodded again.
“More’s the pity,” said the man staring at the ceiling. “Do you know how long I’ve been doing this now? A promotion would be nice. Or a pay-rise.”
“You should terminate Michael,” said the smiling mask. “We should do the job that needs doing, not the one that has been asked for.”
“Sometimes,” said the man staring at the ceiling, “the job that needs doing is exactly the one that’s been asked for.”