My Night Shift sisters,
await your nightly visitor...
- Siouxsie and the Banshees,
"Night Shift" from Juju

There is no document of civilization that is not,
at the same time, a document of barbarism.
- Walter Benjamin,
Illuminations (1958), 256.

The inspector stood in the dimly lit living room, first scanning, then listening to the south-facing wall. It had some explaining to do. She made some notes.

My learning subroutines are self-recursive enough to flag the death of an owner as an event requiring significant additional feedback. A core driver or sensor failure might be corrupted, even if causation is not fully established.

“Is that company boilerplate?”

Well, are my control systems not attuned to gauge oxygen intake, allergen levels and atmospheric conditions for just this reason?

“I have no idea, actually.”

Oscillations in body temperature were logged, strained cadences in voice noted, contacts registered, time spent online without clear purpose charted, drop-off in social engagements flagged. Streams of transaction and transitional data were open to analysis and weekly reviewed. Gaps in speech, affected tics, routines broken.

“That sounds noteworthy under the circumstances.”

Also prompting for commands was becoming increasingly necessary. But even off baselines, my analytics component should have predicted any adverse outcome.

“Right. Look, your owner's dead. I gather you understand this. It was, by all appearances, suicide. I assume you grasp this as well. What I am here to establish are reasons – as you were just getting around to I think. And how come you didn't spot it, given your role and rule-set.”

Review of her metrics archive is already complete. I have highlighted problem indicators: dietary choices, erratic sleep patterns, tension in vocal and limb musculature, dehydration ...

“Again, we'll review all that clinically. Please forward the archive you've noted to my contact address now. But to come back to the main point -”

Inspector Marcy Vonn stopped to lift a framed picture from the mantelpiece, the tint of the print yellowed with time, its enclosure wrought in scratched, century old metal, the weight of it startling her. No wonder this fetish for paper, glass, emulsion had tapered off. Imagine having to cart all this encumbrance of memory around constantly.

Which was what exactly, inspector?

Marcy looked at the portrait. Some teenage ancestor in collared lace, staring stone-faced, accusatory, against a painted backdrop of some Romantic pastoral ruin, graven forever into a monochromatic epoch. As grave as could be, really.

“That you should have seen it coming. So why didn't you? You monitored the departed, every day, around the clock, without pause for almost seven years, if your installation specs are correct. It's what people pay for. It's why you exist. So what happened?”

- - - -

The micro-sensors were scattered throughout the walls, appliances, lighting. They were nestled in doorways, stairwells and televisions. They had been inset into tablets and controllers, consoles and phones. Signalling constantly back from monitors, stereos and intercoms. Were embedded in everything from vehicles to toys, humidifiers to smoke detectors, tied into heaters and HVAC panels. They sang out from every VR rig, storage device, camera and clicker.

Most homes went from two to twenty to two-hundred separate nodes – for control of heat, measurement of light, monitoring for movement, registration of air quality, tweaking ambient noise levels, minimizing electrical usage – by the beginning of the 2020s. Why put a wireless chip into a door but not an optics stream? Why put a microphone inside a TV but not a motion sensor? Why hook ten of these up to your home network and not the other hundred?

All these innovations were quaintly labelled as enabling “smart homes” at first, and they generally were filtered through software designed for (wait for it) “smart phones”, typically by the same niche firms who tweaked the operating systems for both. But people generally came around to the view that a home is not really much like a phone, and it seemed odd to interact with one through the other, and besides the whole phone fashion gave way to VR that was sophisticated enough to seem a second home for many. Either way, actual controls for private spaces grew so complex and interdependent (yet by the same stroke rather mundane) that it eventually just made sense to automate it all.

Now you may ask what any of this should have to do with my inquiry? Into the suspected, premature departure of my inspection's subject? You'd be on firm ground asking that. As I see it – and note that I've been doing departure inspections for twelve years or so – Angela Zaniska had registered her estimated departure for January 2065. Forty years from now.

Her digital assistant Cassie had this programmed and it would have been synced with James, her home controller. It would have been keyed into her work's supervisory system (Aleph, or just Alf, in most government workplaces). So with all this benchmark data being siphoned up, actuated, shared and stored, who missed the telltale sign of a generally healthy, well-regarded, highly educated, middle-rank analyst deciding to accelerate her own end-date by a full four decades?

To be clear about my job, this is far from simply a liability issue, or a potential legal complication, or even conceivably a security matter, or even a complex insurance case. As I'd remarked in my exchange with her controller (they were all called James or Jeeves) these systems are predicated on predictability, the seamless integration of routine data. So why did the negative feedback being generated fail to trigger any concern? How could could there have been no real follow-up to visible distress signs? All the archived feed was to little or no purpose if these assistance agents miss clear cues. And if you can't rely on the machines to be watchful in minding their masters, where are we then?

- - - -

Some background is likely in order; I mean regulation of annihilation is not really a topic of polite conversation. Our work remains something of a taboo, so let me back this particular inspection up to frame the view.

Mortality tables. A hundred years ago these were statistical ledgers drawn together primarily for use by the insurance industry. If you've never seen one, they were elaborate cross-tabulations of one's possibility of demise, broken down by age, gender, graduated year-by-year, even month-by-month.

As mathematical functions go, the calculus could not be more plain. People die. Every death is registered. Usually down to the hour and minute. Some owing to determinate factors, others with plainly avoidable ends, but broken out in columns and rows as a matrix of rates all judgemental language of risks, prematurity, endangerment falls away. For it is difficult to sermonize meaningfully from row 132, female, aged 42, which declares only: 0.00012. And next 0.00014. And so on.

A full page of decimated cells never afforded the late 20th century reformer much stage space for any morality play. As I said, insurance companies assembled the premier versions and data sets – and from the 1960s onward began investing not only in their constant revision but also their expansion and diversification. And then eventually their algorithmic extrapolation. Why have just rates and tables for males and females, with age the only variable? Why not account for place of residence? Or occupation? Or weight? Or lifestyle? With enough data why not concatenate and disentangle all these factors?

And so first actuarial science, then advanced calculus, then predictive analysis came to the deep well of data compiled to mark our birth, breeding, ageing and passing. And so by the beginning of the century, the death care industry had fully individualized forecasting just as insurance firms had elaborately customized rates. These companies knew, likely better than any doctor, how and when you were likely to punch out.

Of course, the Baby Boomers (remember them?) completely scrambled all the market assumptions the moment their great die-off began. Resentment grew quickly that any external organization or order might be able to foresee their decline – and worse still somehow use this knowledge as leverage – which led invariably to demands for reform: first, as a recognized legal right to die as they saw fitting, then later, to stipulate their time of departure specifically in advance. Like an annual trip to a warmer clime, a great many of that generation felt death really ought to be arranged better to suit their logistical needs.

And so within a few years of that debate, governments provided all persons precisely this right (for to offer it solely to the elder class would in many instances of hardship be viewed as discriminatory). And that freedom to choose created a whole new field of administration (demise studies) and the regulatory branch of government where I now work (terminal inspections). A decade ago police and insurance investigators might cross paths retracing these same cases I now review, but again thanks to the Boomers' exit, these rent-seeking and moralizing functions were prohibited by regulation in all but the most aggravated or violent anomalies.

Our various Ministries – health, welfare, well-ware (depending on the state, province or municipality) – moved to secure the dignity and serenity of citizens' final days and hours with the most convenient apps, online registers and DIY checklists imaginable. These planned the last minute down to the moment, and they are wildly popular. Which of course, as in the present case, why unplanned departures or premature ones call out for our inspection.

- - - -

No truth worth knowing ever comes before the fifth question. That's at least been my on-the-job experience. Why people choose their deaths, after all, is fairly straightforward to explain at a surface level, the cause being that invariably they didn't want to live. Anyone who professes either derision at this insight, or worse feigns incomprehension, has drifted into dishonesty in my view.

They're not dealing fairly with the problem, which suicide continues to be despite its legal status. Nor are they being honest with themselves, for all people have wondered, dreamed, fantasized or fretted over the thought of dying at their own hand. And finally they are being disingenuous about the nature of life, its essential vacuity, here in the first quarter lull of the 21st century.

And so thinking about the four questions beyond the obvious that I would likely need to probe around Ms. Zaniska's terminal decision, standing at the walkway of the unit next to her own, I adjusted my scarf and badge pin before moving to the front door. There was no bell but I waited patiently as my presence was announced. This took only moments.

“Who is this?” came a voice by intercom: female, elderly, accompanied by the faintest whir of an older CCTV, like an antique clockwork, adjusting over my head.

“Inspector Marcy Vonn. I'm from Community Services. Is this Mrs. Grogan?”

“Yes Inspector, can we help you?”

“I was hoping I might have a few minutes. It's about Ms. Zaniska – Angela next door. I understand you were acquainted?”

Static followed. A muffled but terse conversation. Then the buzz and tick of the door's magnetic lock releasing.

“Come in Inspector. We're just upstairs in the kitchen.”

The pops of a fresh kettle put on to boil began as I removed my boots and coat in the landing. A colourful wooden cat key hanger – one without a single key – peered wide-eyed from the wall as I climbed the steps to the main floor. Ms. Grogan was seated at her kitchen table with a tablet displaying an old-fashioned print newspaper crossword. Her living attendant – a red gel-coated bot – was slowly assembling a tea service.

After the niceties and thanks, it seemed important to establish some general rapport, and shy away from specifics. Ms. Grogan was in her eighties and people of that generation can be quite sensitive to personal details. So the first questions were subjective: had Ms. Zaniska seemed ill in anyway? Was she noticeably off in her routines? Was there any sign of fatigue or localized distress?

The specific responses weren't in need of probing – these details would all be extracted in any event from the digital files – but asking the question of relations either immediate or incidental was important just to get a person talking. Get them reflective and reconsidering their interactions. This could often prompt a memory of real significance and save days of running through data logs.

“Thank you Oscar – our tea will be fine for now. Inspector do you have milk or sugar? Such a nuisance these robot things.” she whispered this last part. “Make horrible tea. But I don't want him thinking me ungrateful.” Ms. Grogan smirked and she shooed away her assistant – a-hybrid of safety minder, A/V centre, game console and vacuum cleaner on a wheeled base with pivoted, coated armature. She took two sugar cubes for her own tea, with spindly fingers, hands a knotted tress of age spots and webbed wrinkles.

“So you've known Angela, I believe you were saying, some ten years now?”

“Yes Inspector, we moved into this complex the same summer. I was relieved very much at the time, hated to have to move at all, but having a nice young lady like that next door helped me settle in. You know of course she had a good position with the government. She planted tulips along the walk in the springtime. Spent evenings reading on her veranda, listening to her classical music.”

“So in temperament you'd say she was generally -”

“Happy? Yes. I believe she was. Alone but happy. Her own parents had returned to Europe long beforehand. I don't think they were ever terribly close but they passed away at some point. She'd been married once, quite young I gather, but that was twenty years ago and long done with. She was just the sort who seemed unfazed. Silence and solitude were good for her. Some people you know Inspector, they can't stand a moment to themselves. Allergic to their own skin, their own thoughts. Especially nowadays I think – but Angela was brought up to be self-reliant. Independent. So she spent years coming and going quite on her own before I summoned up the courage to ask her for tea like this.”

“And what were your impressions the last time you had tea together?”

“The same, inspector. It was late August, early September as I recall ... Oscar! When did Angela and I have tea last?”

Your calendar shows an entry for Angela at 3pm on Sunday September 7th. She arrived at 3:17. You will recall Corrie she brought chocolates and thought -

“That's right, thank you Oscar. Anyhow, I can assure you she was a lovely woman who seemed quite at peace as far as she let on, certainly so whenever we sat down together. I know we're not supposed to be upset by these sorts of events. That they're personal decisions by law and so forth. But between you and I really can't help but feel a bit angry, you know?”

“Angry at Ms. Zaniska? For what reason?”

“Well I don't quite know how to put it really. For doing something so rash I suppose. For just deciding all quite so suddenly to depart as they say. It's all very abrupt, is it not?”

“There can be a period of shock yes, that is true.”

“And to not even say goodbye.”

“Mrs. Grogan you've been very gracious with your time and I thank you. I should head back to the office. Here's my card, if you have any other thoughts on this.”

- - - -

The Premature Departures Unit of the Inspection Branch of the Community Services Hub – shared with police, medical services, public safety, health and welfare, education and justice – was relegated to a corner of the City Campus, far removed from the main Administration Building. It was a cordoned off glass edifice enclosing a multi-function work-space of twelve desks that represented a single, continuous bureau that shifted, pivoted and reassembled depending upon a dozen factors: time of year, level of media saturation, general public health, local economic conditions, flows of particular drugs into the city, case loads of social intervention staff. These all seemed to nudge early mortality choices, though the trends tended to be invisible in the day-to-day field work. Someone had thought themselves clever at some point and made a sign for the office fridge: Department of Lost Causes – take a number.

And so here the ten of them worked, all women, most for spells approaching a decade, typically in solemn competence and unassuming precision, probing and cataloguing hundreds of cases each year. The police of the community were swamped with every manner of social dysfunction, run in circles by virtual crime, increasingly drawn into civil enforcement and various flavors of emigration matters. Medical professionals, nurses and caregivers were preoccupied with the shadow of a population a quarter of which was over sixty. First responders and claims investigators were relegated to sweeping up – as brutal as that might sounds. And so it seemed only our modest team kept asking questions about choices in departure, for the rest of society seemed rather too busy to care.


Marcy said a few words of greeting to her office-mates, powered on her work terminal, went to the kitchenette to pour herself a cup of coffee, then returned to her desk and flicked on the two monitors. She opened the case file system and pulled up the assignment tab. A worksheet had been generated by the tracking routine already: A. Zaniska – 2025/0087. Into the basic overview of the case and the incident details, she now imported the core biographic file from Vital Statistics, employer data from the federal civil service authority, other public records as well as an archive of personal details and medical history from the subjects home computer. She sipped from her cup as several gigabytes of bio-sensor, video and sound logs were uploaded, time-stamped and indexed. A year of the departed's life was transferred into the Hub repository and ready to visualize or search in the space of two minutes. Marcy took a deep breath, put down the coffee, put on her headphones and adjusted the angle of the monitors slightly. Diagnostic charts and event windows began to populate both screens.


There had been gusts of indignation, storms of soap-boxing, tempests of teeth-gnashing when the law had been changed a decade ago to allow for prearranged demise. Doctors and religious leaders, politicians and interest groups, child advocates and conservative pundits all spoke out. Yet developed society had evolved to a point where individuals were essentially free to live according to almost any tenet or fashion. No sex seemed taboo, no body modification too bizarre, no profession more ignoble than another, and no politics too strange. So as to the manner of one's death, there seemed but a residual hangup. And once the generational attitudes of the Baby Boomers shifted, seeking to spare themselves the inconvenience of old age, an argument for tolerance carried the day.

The unanticipated twist was that laws conveying rights and protecting freedoms cannot be plainly selective in their application. Human dignity does not attach merely to a privileged group or cohort, and compassion is either denied universally (as was the case at the start of the 21st century) or decency is extended to all. And so besides the right to vote, marry and hold property, the age of majority was also deemed an age when one could reasonably choose the time and manner of one's death. Regulation of such selection was predictably aggressive at first, with stringent codes and policies, varied checks and controls, but normalization set in quickly. Society adapted.

Within a decade, selecting a proximate date of departure became just another facet of mate selection, home buying, estate planning or retirement saving. It allowed for a certain preparedness and planning that whole swath of secularized citizen-consumers came to appreciate. Funerals became actual farewells, planned as minutely as weddings.

- - - - -

“Marcy, honey, you've been clocking those screens nine hours now. Whatever ghost you're hunting, it isn't there.”

She inhaled long, exhaled slow, closed her eyes and then repeated as a first step in digital decompression. She ran her eyes around behind her lids to check for image burn, which mercifully seemed absent. She set her headphones back on their hook and massaged the back of her neck. Finally, she turned and could focus enough to look her colleague in the eyes.

“Thanks Sienna. I should have set a few break flags.”

“No sweetie what you have should have done is had some lunch – but you didn't even hear me the three times I called you. Now it's quitting time, so you can buy first round. See if we can't shake your creepy robot stare.”

Marcy stood and stretched. No matter how many times the branch managers or HR people scolded the staff to get up and move about, there were just certain reconstructions that submerged you. The living world, the present, receded as the records, voices and movements of the departed unfurled.

“Look alive.” Sienna was holding her coat out right before her face suddenly, as if time had skittered off its track – for a moment or a minute Marcy wasn't sure. “You need to get the hell out of here.”

It was already dusk outside the office window. The bureau was empty and still, only the faint electronic hush of noise dampeners breaking up the quiet.

“I'll just power off.”

The monitors and terminals were already black. Sienna shook her head.

“One step ahead of you moonbeam. Let's go.”

It still took walking the six blocks to clear her head, she could just barely follow Sienna's thread and her attempts at responsive interaction felt strained. The AM Lounge was mid-week subdued as they slid into a booth near the back.

“So you really don't mind that the City's back office is going be doing this 'remembrance servicing' off our case files? For follow-up and consults and whatever? That doesn't feel just a smidgen clever coming from your municipality? A check-up after the 'early outs' to – I don't know – see how the relations are relating?”

“Our whole job description's ghoulish by design, Sienna. I really do try not to think much about the economics of it.” Marcy peered around the dark blue light of the bar interior, looking to see if a waitress was even working.

“No kidding. And here I thought you were a sort of silent-justice type.”

“Ha ha.” Sienna was back-lit by an ancient neon jukebox and she was studying the drinks menu, despite already knowing it cold.

“I'm not riding you Marcy, you've been pulling the same profiles for inspection going on nine years now am I right? We both have.”

“Ladies, what can I get you this evening?” called the owner from behind the bar. He'd just turned up the warble of recorded AM radio, some simulated oldies streamed, from what sounded like the early 1950s or 60s. Marcy wasn't sure of the vintage, just that it sounded drippy, lush, overproduced.”

“Pitcher of organic, Walter, thanks,” Sienna called out their order without looking up.

“Seriously. I am not into goading you. I've seen you put a dozen tough cases away some months. You are a rock star, far as I'm concerned. But that's also how I know you're wracking your brain over this latest one you're working up. I don't like to see you that zoned out. I mean what was it you told me when I first joined up? When I was still convinced I could carry a second tier of cases to clear my student loans faster?”

Marcy looked at Sienna's face. The worry lines that had appeared too early. The wince around her mouth, even when she smiled.

“Slow down? It's not a race?” Marcy scrunched her nose and shook her head.

“You said don't rush. You said the work is about the dead, but there are no deadlines. So that instead I should take my time and get it right. Best advice anyone's given me in my whole career, and you rattled it off the first day by the coffeemaker. Just a throwaway line. That's why I still love hanging out with you, you know? I mean, it really isn't for your fashion tips.”

“Yeah, you do seem to have a thing for platitudes.” Marcy went stoical, leaning back. It was Sienna's turn to pout but Walter arrived and slid a pitcher and two frosted glasses in-between. He noted the staring contest between his two least-annoying regulars and so just backed quietly away.

“Alright, let's hear it. What's got you so very serious then? You know besides the whole unexplained death bit, which we'll just take as given.”

Walter was standing before the jukebox now and Marcy watched him twisting the analogue dials, punching the raised plastic buttons, setting in motion a set of turning gears and swiveling arms. The box had been re-reverse engineered from digital back to vinyl when the format revived in the 'teens. For a pseudo-1950s time-warp, slated at a clientele eighty years late for Buddy Holly, Marcy felt the place somehow managed to pull off the dissonance without seeming too much. Or maybe it was they had the best organic on tap in the city.

She was still trying to parse what level of entanglement Sienna was fully for. Their caseloads were not markedly different, that was true. Premature demise still scattered broadly as an event across all ages, economic strata, gender and so forth. There were exceptions within that distribution and Sienna did seem to haven an affinity for unresolved younger males, which March pegged as an echo from her losing a brother when she was a teen. Sienna would have discounted that as a lazy simplification.

It was hard to frame the frustration she felt with the Zaniska case, so she wasn't sure how to answer her friend's question. Maybe it was a sign of burnout or case-hardening. Maybe to start out idealistic in such a dismal effort is really to invite anxiety and self-doubt.

“You know what it is. Something's just not square with this case that I'm working up now. Late 40s, good job, strong finances, well-educated, no terrible set-backs. It's just very weird. Yet whenever things began devolve for her and toward her departure point, none of the internal metrics or flags you'd think would have triggered intervention lit up.”

“So you can find no reason, but warning signs...”

“Well I don't know that yet, but so far I have very little in the way of causation. Lots of indicators going south, signs of deteriorating mental wellness and sleep disturbance – but no outward motivator. She was a loner, so I don't have a lot to go on.”

“But you're going to ghost hunt it anyway, aren't you?”

“It feels like staring at an empty frame hung on a wall. I don't like there being no reasons. Bad reasons, sure, stupid reasons, fine, but I don't like staring a sea of data all day and finding precisely nothing there.”

- - - - -

The torturous joy of casework. Depends on your makeup I suppose but it's never seemed to me to a pleasure closing files. That's almost always a letdown, an illusory anticlimax, a brief sweep of paper before the next bloody thing.

And the wonder certainly doesn't come when you open the file. Mapping out its first steps and checks, only to be met with dusk and drek of life that accumulates in all corners. The real apex comes instead unregistered, unmarked amidst inquiries and questions, as you've surveyed the available evidence, amassed the key points, discarded the inconsequential.

Sketching out another's life, dead or alive, without a direct and intimate link, is rarely pleasant. Maybe not hell, the other people, but often purgatory. And even the best of them are contradictory, contrary, compulsive, caged, contorted. Ms. Zaniska was no exception; there simply are no deviations on this precise point. Remove a certain veneer, review the recorded data, note the complexity of decision and deception, but all departures proceed by their own idiosyncratic logic. What appears outwardly inexplicable, random, from some new angle takes on a different form, a new coherence.

That is the apex of all bureaucratic endeavor, dear departed. Not a closed case. Not mastering the workings. Not having all the facts and facets in one's grasp. It is rather the moment you see anew what was always there.

So that's the foothold I'm struggling for here. With a long row of observations and inferences that still are not aligning. First is that Ms. Z did not relish the thought of old age; and the time spent preparing simply to leave home spoke to this. Living alone, these protracted rituals of self-inspection went uncorrected, which review of her domestic data-points lays bare. Hours of the day were given over to cosmetics, applications, wardrobes and glossing. All just to tram to work. To any intelligent and purposeful woman, consciously or not, this must have created dissonance.

She was also plainly frustrated. At being alone, at caring about her solitude, at her work and lack of independence, at her self and the missing of some non-articulated goal.

Her registers and logs made this plain enough in aggregate – calendar details, alarm settings, appointment reminds, itineraries, location pings, all mapped her mounting struggle to manage time. Audio reminders grew equally erratic, fraught, terse. Sleep patterns or spells of wakefulness stretch out, all the bio-indicators falling flat. Ms. Zaniska - three months before her departure – in a video capture I stared at for half an hour in HD look pallid. Haunted. As she backed out her own front door one morning. In tears. It made no sense.

- - - -

The Federal Building was a silvery, brush-steel cube fifteen stories tall, dropped in a low-rise, low-rent neighbourhood of boarded up tenements and grotty-looking businesses. At night it loomed over the row-houses like a mirrored citadel. And during the day, as I discovered, if you approach from the wrong angle, it beamed back sunlight so as to blindingly unwelcome. Squinting and hand raised over my eyes, I paused in the courtyard.

Water flicked against my cheek, drops carried by a breeze from the water sculpture to on end of the rampart, a perpetual waterfall that drowned out any sensible attempt at conversation in radius. I made for the slowly-revolving glass doors, heard the robotic warble of the facility security scanners, noted the green aura around the turnstile signalling clearance to proceed. The cool, muted light of the lobby was an engineered contrast to the building's approach.

“Data Openness Agency, please,” I said, coming up to the elevator.


It replied in recognition.

“Your appointment is with Security.”

The stainless steel door stood inert. The federal workers disembarked at the other end of the row, looked with a detached curiosity, and then disappeared around a corner.

“Yes, I should have an appointment with -”

“The Agency's security unit has been consolidated with all the others in this facility Inspector. You will now find them located on sub-level 3. This elevator is for above-ground. If you'll follow the blue lights illuminating now.” This last was injunction, not request.

“Got it.”

Typical. So I followed the blue LED-lit path back around the turnstiles, down a glass staircase, through a set of unmarked fire doors, and around another corner which led predictably to an absurdly long, white painted corridor. All the metal and polish and glass of the building's exterior fell away once past the controlled, semi-public space.

My boot treads squeaked across the over-buffed floor. The elevator at the end of this hallway as not brushed metal but a painted glossy dark green. It opened even as I reached out for the antique brass button plate. The car slowly ground down the three floors, ending with a mildly amusing rattle. Two gloomy-looking securocrats were there to greet me as the door opened.

Not long after, seated in a cramped anonymous office, I continued discussing the Zaniska case with the department's head of security. He was gnawing on his lower lip as the conversation continued. Plainly he'd never been party to a premature departure within the agency staff for which he was nominally responsible. The exercise plainly surmounted his emotional capacity, professional attention and the twenty minutes he had set aside. I was likely eating now into his hardware maintenance time, or perhaps his gymnasium visit.

“The law is quite clear on this point, as you must be aware. Inspectors are to be shown every reasonable courtesy, be provided with any document or data, and to be extended any assistance in accessing relevant persons or systems. Otherwise, the matter becomes one for the police, which as you can imagine will please precisely no one.”

“Please continue Inspector, by all means.”

“Yes, so Angela was an employee with the federal government for nearly twenty years. Eight here with your department.”

“Yes. As I said at the outset, there was never any issue with security, or clearances, or anything else for that matter coming out of the files I've reviewed. No red cards, no sweep infractions, no lost devices or network alerts. Completely clean record from that point of view.”

“Duly noted Mr. Rigand. I'm not surprised. In ten years, I've yet to come upon a departure tied up with any material security threat.”

He wriggled again in his seat, adjusting his jacket. The sub-basement space, sixty feet underground, lit in pale blue neon had the warmth of an ultra-modern refrigerator. And roughly the same character, which seemed to fit the man perfectly.

“So. If there's nothing on-record, Inspector, I'm not sure what else I can contribute...”

“As the DSO, I also understand that you can provide me with details from your IM/IT networks. Specifically, I am curious to know how she was performing, and where, and when. How long from one document or project to the next. How long on files and simple transactions. Obviously the content of the work is not what I'm after here. But I would be very grateful if you could produce the document logs from the last year attached to her profile. Version histories. Daily transmission records.”

He was trying to smile his way through a grimace now, and his lips half-parted to opine on some point. I raised my eyebrows. Prepared to be less equivocal. He paused instead, then swiveled to his monitor, authenticated, clicked through several screens. A pained sigh here, a low inward mutter there.

“Records back to January '23. All metadata for Angela's files, should be in your in-box now. CSV file, nothing dynamic. No content.”

He turned back then to remark upon something but I'd already stepped to the office door. Instead he smiled and I nodded. Then I left him to the endless business of reliability screenings, data filtering and threat assessments. Nothing dynamic, no content.

- - - -

Subject of report: ZANISKA, ANGELINA (“Angela”)	Occupation:
Public Servant
Date of departure: May 2, 2024				Position: Analytics agent
Prematurity: approx. 38 years				Survivors: N/A
Summary of Inspection:
  1. Review of home networking: metrics and logs indicative of
    	stress and/or poor mental wellness, though inconclusive as to
    	triggers or attribution.  Plainly demonstrated: poor sleeping
    	habits, lack of exercise, imbalanced diet, elevated use of
    	stimulants and depressants, poor memory and concentration manifest.
    	Note: symptoms too dispersed and subject too introverted to trigger
    	outward warnings or alerts to medical contacts. Recommend: N/A.
  2. Health records review: while treated successfully for
    	depression and/or anxiety during earlier marital separation, subject
    	over past decade show no recorded mental or physical ailments beyond
    	occasional seasonal colds or viruses.  Non-smoker, no congenital
    	heart or respiratory pre-conditions. Short-term trend prior to
    	departure sub-optimal, though physical conditions appear not to be
    	causal factor.  Recommend: N/A.
  3. Review of social contacts: evidence of familial and workplace
    	isolation.  Self-alienation also present. Communications logs and
    	interviews indicate subject was generally withdrawn and disengaged,
    	despite level of professional attainment and education.  Source of
    	displacement not apparent.  Observations: personal detachment and
    	depression highly probable factors in case.

- - - - -

“Well putting that she was 'disappointed to death' on the report would have looked awfully unprofessional don't you think? Even if that seems the gist of the inspection finally.”

“Marcy dear I'm sure you've given the poor soul more thought this past week than she enjoyed much of her life.”

“Which is just another indecency added to the stack really.”

“Is there any other way you can see our job working?”

“Clearly not. The bloody machines are useless. The bots are even more so. Maybe the law's got to change again, I don't know, maybe make goodbye notes mandatory...”

“It wouldn't make any difference girl. Inspections would have to undertaken anyway, whatever peoples' stated motives or intuitions. The government would never have it any other way. Vital statistics are all very important, as they say.”

“Christ we care more for these people dead than we do alive. That was this lady's whole problem – she became superfluous, or thought she had. The furthest thing from vital. Rather wholly dispensable, just like everyone else.”

“The feeds bear that out? You pull that from the mail log?”

“No Sienna. You could see it in her eyes every morning, as she put on her lipstick. She was just too proud to say it out loud. Too reserved to express dejection. But the video's clear enough.”

“That's an awfully subjective observation Marcy. You can't really know what's going on in someone's head, no matter how much data and stored footage. We can do a lot of digging but we don't speak for them you know.”

“Yeah. Well you watch enough of a subject alone and you can. See through their eyes.”

“No one's paid enough for that, honey. Best let it go.”

Marcy flinched at this. Swallowed hard. She set the glass down.

“Sure. Not because it's not important. Or unfair. Or anything less than tragic. And not because these people don't deserve better from the living.”

Sienna poured another pint from the pitcher. In the dampened blue light of the bar, her forced smile still outshone the neon.

“I know kiddo. You let go to make room for the next one. The hurt in your chest might be the only real send off they get, right? You'll just never know.”

“Right. Here's to not knowing then. Ever.”

Neither of them made it to work the next morning. Marcy told herself the departed surely wouldn't be put out, patient to fault as they are. They'll wait for us, premature or not.


for Anna: Jak rozumiem, dlaczego nie

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