In response to the question of what Alycia’s been doing at the Quill Foundation:
“Lycia.” His voice is soft, almost inaudible. It’s also coming from way across the bed, because while Jason can sometimes be an idiot, he’s also a hyper-genius and only needs to dodge a reflexive attack once to learn his lesson.
“Time to get up.”
“My brain says otherwise. I trust my brain.”
“I have a surprise.”
I count to one hundred in Hindi-Urdu. “I’m assuming you’re the ghost of the Sepiaverse Jason Quill and therefore have no idea why that is as far from a reason for me to want to get up as could be conceived.”
“No, this is a good surprise. You’ll like it.”
“The only good surprises are scientific discoveries that I make. The other surprises are almost always bad surprises.”
“This one’s different. I promise.”
“You promised I’d like fried twinkies.”
“This is better than fried twinkies.”
“That is a remarkably low bar.”
“C’mon, Alycia. If you don’t like this … you can choose what we do for the rest of the day.”
That opens up a broad vista of entertaining possibilities, possibly tinged with revenge for being awakened before my alarm. I roll over, fix him with one eye. “You may have cause to regret that.”
He grins, that big, toothy grin that I love. Idiot. “Nope. You’re going to love it, and then you’ll have to apologize for doubting me.”
My snort is half-hearted. “I guess we’ll have to see.”
It’s Saturday, so the Foundation floors of the Quill Tower are quiet. There are IT folk on duty somewhere, a few offices lit up with people burning the weekend oil. Probably not altogether a Western “rat race” scenario; most of the Foundation folk seem to actually find their work inspiring and worth the occasional weekend activities.
We’re headed toward Jason’s office in the northeast corner. He’s got an amazing view of the bay from there, not to mention Memorial Park, the Lightning Tower, and taxpayer boondoggle known as Excelsior Stadium.
Jason doesn’t spend a lot of time in his office, except when he has to pursue actual Foundation business, talk in person with his lawyers, meet with the Board, etc. He’d rather spend time in the lab, working through the warehouse project, showing up at Foundation charity sites, or even doing some field work – some occasional heroing (from which he is officially retired, but that just makes it fun for him), or some weekend research junkets (thus the giant silver statue of a gorilla head the size of a Volkswagen Beetle down in Lab 4B, found last week in that weird cave on the north slope of Kilimanjaro).
It’s a busy schedule, but we’ve found ways to make it work with my own – AEGIS and Menagerie work, occasional volunteer assists down in the warehouse (my previous stint as “Alice Chan” revealed any number of areas where efficiency can be improved; also, quite a few crates that need investigation). And I usually accompany Jason on his mini-safaris (I was the one who actually found that gorilla head statue … and, I hasten to note, was the one smart enough to not remove the gem in its forehead, unlike someone I can name and have teased mercilessly about it since).
Things are good. Busy a lot – though quiet and therefore boring more often than I’d like. I feel like I’m not tackling the Big Issues as much as I’d like. I’ve been feeling a bit … at loose ends. I just haven’t figured what to do about it.
We stop a bit short of his office. He holds up both hands, facing me. “I was trying to figure out the cleverest way of doing this. My first thought involved a blindfold.”
I ignore the slight jolt in my gut. “Yes, that’s not going to happen.”
“I now, I know. We’ve talked about that. It was a dumb idea. I’m not even going to ask you to close your eyes.”
I force a half-smirk. “I have been known to close my eyes in your presence, Jason.”
“And you snore, too. But I know you don’t like being asked it. I learned that lesson. So I just thought I’d skip the cute part. Or some of it, at least.”
“You got me awake and out of bed. There better be more to it than ‘cute parts.’ If I wanted that, I’d have stayed at home and chatted with Summer all night instead.”
“Okay. So I want you to promise, you will withhold judgment until I’m done with the presentation.”
I cock an eyebrow. “Every word you say just damages your case.”
“If this presentation involves PowerPoint – or that QView knock-off you guys licensed out …”
“No! No, this will be purely verbal … with a single visual.”
“Fine. I will say nothing until you signal you’re done.”
Jason gives a fist pump, takes my hand, and leads me on toward his office.
Except we stop short, as he leans against the outside glass wall and gestures to my left, to the office behind him. “Ta-daah!”
Beyond the glass fishbowl walls – adjacent to Jason’s own fishbowl – is an office.
And it’s lovely.
I don’t say that lightly. I’ve been in a wide array of offices in my life, even some I’ve been invited to. This is by no means the largest (a toss-up between Father’s “Mission Central” in the Paris catacombs and the Chairman’s inner sanctum in Beijing), but it’s not a salaryman’s cube prison, either. It looks like maybe the adjacent office was scavenged for its space, leaving plenty of room for a desk tucked into a bookshelved corner, a conference table, some low couches, and a padded area that might serve the occupant for a gym mat or a small sparring circle.
The decor itself strikes me first as Japanese Modern, spare and clean and full of horizontal planes and vertical splashes of color. Minimalist, but each element creating a harmony. Then I spot some Chinese elements, and a bit that resembles tribal art I saw in Botswana, and a pattern to the carpet that, very subtly invokes Mayan engravings.
I stop breathing for a moment. My eyes narrow, and my face turns to Jason, who’s grinning so hard his head is liable to split apart. “And this is --?”
He steps away from the glass, so that I can see the placard:
A CHAN | VP, SPECIAL PROJECTS
The smile has gotten even wider. “Paperwork is all in place, waiting for your e-signature. Memos will go out to all personnel on Monday.” He raises up his hands in triumph. “Ta-daah!”
I look at him, and I’m angry enough to want to disappoint him, and in love with him enough I hate to do it. But I’m also practical enough to know it has to be done.
“A simple answer, Jason. N-O. No. Would you rather hear it in Chinese? Which dialect?”
“I understand what the word means. I don’t understand. Make it ‘Why?’ instead of ‘What?’”
A deep sigh. He doesn’t understand. He should, but … I go for the light and easy answer first. “I’ve already worked here once and the benefits weren’t that great. More importantly, I already have a job.”
“AEGIS? We can work around that. Flex hours. You can QChat into meetings when you’re on missions. Easy enough. So what’s the real reason?”
Oh, good. Now he’s angry. “Let’s go into your office, Jason.”
He looks around. There’s nobody on the floor here to overhear us. So he jumps to the wrong conclusion. “What, you can’t stand the sight of your office? Did I do that crappy a job with the design and decoration?”
I close my eyes. He decorated it himself. Of course. That just makes it harder. “Actually, it’s stunningly good, Jason. I am truly touched by how you captured an aesthetic that would directly appeal to me.”
“Well, clearly it doesn’t --”
“Jason, if it were furnished in milk crates and doors on sawhorses it wouldn’t make a difference. Just – I have a point to make, and I can make it better in your office.”
“Fine.” It’s clearly not fine, but I realize I need to help him understand this. I’m abruptly no longer angry. But this is all making my point, too, or one of them.
“Have a seat,” he says, with mildly snarky politeness. It is, as I say, a nice corner office. The decoration is very different from the one he designed for me. Warmer. More Mid-Century. The support column by the window has a light walnut paneling. Photos of a space station are on one wall. Another, a painting of his dog. A model of the Dragonfly hangs from the ceiling in one corner. No brag wall. No large images of people, except for a small group shot of himself, Amir, his father and his bodyguard (nore nerve, or sentimentality, than I have). That’s in a frame, sitting on his desk. Next to it, a photo of me, from the prom.
He drops down heavily into his chair behind his desk. The work surface is neater than you might think if you’ve seen his room, but messier than you might expect from the head of a major research and/or charitable organization.
I sit myself down in a comfortable, unstylish guest chair.
“Well?” he asks. His voice is sullen.
Mithra give me strength, he’s making it difficult. “I like your office, Jason. It’s … very you.”
He examines the statement, clearly looking for a veiled insult. At last he allows, “Thanks.”
“Very different from your father’s.”
One can always get Jason off-track by bringing up his father. It’s a weakness we share. “Yeah, Dad never quite got past the College Academic Aesthetic. It was all modern, but still felt like it should have a couple of retorts bubbling on the credenza and that wacky prototype computer system hissing and buzzing on the desk.”
“It was also on the other end of the floor. Southeast corner, I believe.”
“Yeah. Crappy view.”
“Is that the only reason you put your own office here?”
“Well, yeah, of course. I wasn’t going to take his.”
“Only the kind that remind everyone of him, and why I’m just here because of him.”
“Jason, that’s ridiculous. It’s fair enough only from a narrative standpoint – you would probably not be working for the Quill Foundation specifically, let along running it, if you were not your father’s son, existential questions aside. But you are certainly qualified to succeed – arguably as smart --”
"I’d make the argument. And certainly wiser, despite the age difference. More humane. More imaginative. There’s no reason you should not be the head of the Quill enterprise."
“You know that, but you’re prejudiced. I run into too many people who assume otherwise, that I’m only ‘qualified’ because of what it said on Dad’s will.”
“So, to conclude, you couldn’t stay in your father’s old office because it would remind people you only hold your position because of your relationship to him, not because of who you are.”
The fen drops. He is a hyper-genius, after all.
"Oh. Oh." He gives a soft whoosh of breath. “That wasn’t what I --”
“Well, yeah, actually, it is. It’s what you intended. You love me --” I’ve gotten so I can say the words without stumbling all over them, at least on the outside. “-- and you thought this would be a cool thing for me.”
“I did it because I think you can do it. I mean, you haven’t even seen the position write-up --”
“But it was for me. Because of me, and who I am to you. That was the trigger, the entry point, my foot in the door. If I weren’t someone who could do this, you’d have found me something else … clipboard carrier, or tea cart lady or something. And people will know that. They know about our relationship, even if I’m Alice Chan to them. But even for the people who have encountered me, who know what I can do … I’d still be first, and foremost, Jason’s girlfriend, whom he got a job here. There would always be that resentment. That disrespect.”
He shakes his head, but not in denial. “Yeah. I understand.”
“I know you do. And I understand your feelings about it, too.”
I was raised from birth to be the heir of my Father, even if I only first met him at age 9. But there were those who never considered me worthy. Every time I stumbled. Every time I failed. Every time someone thought, “I could do that better.”
Or, for that matter, those times when I achieved, excelled, won some hard-fought scrap of praise from Father – the result, instead, was jealousy. Even irrational, there was that belief that my achievements meant nothing compared to my blood.
And, for long periods of time, I believed the same thing.
I’ve set that aside. I won’t invite it to return.
“I understand you,” I continue, “but – that’s not the only reason.”
Jason leans back on his chair, eyes closed. “Ugh. How else did I blow this?”
I smile at him. “You didn’t ‘blow it.’ You just didn’t think it through. It was remarkably … sweet. Really. But …”
“I don’t want to work for you.”
The anger flares up again, though not quite as high. “Well, thanks.”
“I don’t want to work for anyone, Jason. I’m not a good employee. Ask Parker. I’m surly, I’m undisciplined except at what I want to be disciplined about. I don’t work and play well with others. Tell me I’m wrong.”
“Right. So what happens when I have a position that answers to you? And you feel the need to give me an order about something I disagree with?”
“I’m not planning on giving you orders, Lycia.”
“Except I’d be working for you. I’d be a vice president, sound the trumpets. There’s a table of organization, with you at the top and no place where a line doesn’t put me under your direction. You, the Board, whatever – when push came to shove, I’d be compelled to comply to orders, be they explicit commands or strategic plans or even just wheedling.”
“Well, it’s not like I’d be some sort of tyrant, bossing you around.”
“True. But in some ways, that would make the first problem, the nepotism, even worse. ‘Look what she gets away with. I’ll bet it’s because she’s sleeping with him.’ But even in that case, inevitably, we’d have a disagreement about how the Foundation or some part of the organization should be run, about something you wanted, needed, me to just go along with and do. And I’d be your employee.”
He nods, slowly, with reluctance. “And we’d get in a huge argument, and then I probably would be stupid enough to to actually give you an order I’d know you wouldn’t obey. And then you’d quit. And …”
“… and, and, and. And how could we keep that separate from the rest of us? The part I’m much – much more interested in than having a pretty office. I don’t want to do anything to risk what we have.”
A sigh. “I understand.”
“Certainly not for the mediocre salary the executive band staff here pull down.”
“I’d make more money knocking over Deja Brew outlets. At least I could get a decent espresso there.”
“Hey! We’re a non-profit --”
“I really appreciate the offer, Jason, the way it was intended, and the way it was presented. But I won’t work here, as hired staff or as leadership. The risk to my self-esteem and, as importantly, our relationship, is just too high.”
Jason gives me a crooked smile. “Well, when you put it like that, I can only support your decision.”
I smirk. “As well you should, hero.”
“Yeah. Well, I admit it was a selfish idea, too. I want you here.” At my expression, he goes on, “No, really. I’m better when you’re around. And I enjoy working with you.”
I feel like the tension has been suddenly ratcheted up a tick or two. “We – we do make a good partnership. And – okay, I admit, I have kind of liked the Foundation stuff you’ve asked me questions about, or dragged me into. The technical issues. And even some of the planning questions.” I snort, softly. “For all his sins, Father did give me a sense of mission. And I’d like to do more with my life than hit things really hard. Even if they are things that need hitting.”
He nods, vigorously. “That had been my thought about the VP of Special Projects role. No staff. It was intended as kind of a trouble-shooter thing, tasks without a particular portfolio, a springboard to launch you at specific problems when they come up. It’s something – you’re someone – we can use around here. Except I understand why you don’t want to be on the payroll and feel like you’re stuck --” He stops, suddenly, swiveling to look out the window.
I glance that direction so as to ensure it’s not an impending attack he’s spotted, then I take in a breath to comment, but he holds up a finger to silence me. I choose not to take umbrage. After a moment, he smile, turns around to me, and leans back in his chair, reaching up to fold his hands behind his head. “Your boyfriend is a genius.”
“So rumor has it,” I reply.
“The problem is the structure. Hiring you in general, having you answer to me – non-starters, obviously, in retrospect. So we make you a consultant.”
“A … consultant.”
“It lets you be completely ad hoc, zeroed in on things where we need you and that you’re interested in. No worries about being a hire, we can even set up the contracts the way you like them. You can walk whenever you like from a given task order if you don’t like how it’s being handled. And no chain of command – you’re here to advise, not comply.”
I slowly shake my head. “I’d still be being hired because you know me.”
He waves his hand in dismissal. “We hire consultants all the time for specialized knowledge it doesn’t make sense to keep in-house. And a lot of it’s done based on relationships, and a lot of it is rehiring for good work done. Adding you to the mix won’t cause an eyebrow to rise, Heck, if you want really avoid conflicts of interest, you can work for free --”
“Not on your life. That sort of labor is valued even less. I have a rate sheet – I’ll send it to you.”
“Wait – you have a rate sheet?”
“Anonymized consulting services aren’t very common, but they do exist. I haven’t had much chance to build much of a practice over the last few years – my life hasn’t been very settled, and my time has been pretty taken up – but I do have standard contract terms I can provide, too.”
“So you want to do this anonymously?”
“Not on a bet. It would make going out to lunch with you a pain in the ass, and I want to do that without a bunch of spycraft distraction. And demonstrating my personal value will be a lot easier on a consulting project basis than as a permanent hire.”
“I – guess so?”
“Yes, you are a genius. Happy?”
He smiles. “Ecstatic.”
“I can’t use that office, of course. It’s far too nice for a consultant, and I refuse to share it. So that gives us something to do for the rest of the weekend.”
“Plan how to take some square meterage from one of the residential floors to fit that office in. It’s too pretty not to use, and if I’m going to be consulting, I want a space outside the Foundation floors I can call my own.”
He makes a face. “I – gah, that’s going to be a lot of work.”
“It’ll be fun.” I rub my hands together. “I like this arrangement better, anyway. Rather than a specific role, I get to play chief advisor to the head of the Quill Foundation. The eminence gris. Power behind the throne. And I get a sweet new office – very tastefully decorated – out of it.”
“I’m not sure that’s quite what I had in --”
“It’s perfect Jason.” I smile at him as he squirms slightly. “I apologize for doubting you. It was a nice surprise.”