The instructor's office was a bland cube of white walls, a single door, and a desk so uncluttered that it appeared no one had ever before used the room for anything but brief, uncomfortable interviews. Markov walked around the desk and seated himself, motioning for Steven to do likewise. When the door whistled closed behind them, the older man inhaled to speak but the student cut him off. "I didn't mean to disrupt the classroom or begrudge my lesson, CED Twelve Markov."
Waving a hand dismissively, Markov also interrupted, "Stop." Steven sat back in his chair and waited for what he surely thought would be a reprimand and stern chastising on the importance of a good Commonwealth education. The older man removed his head-mounted microphone and set it down out of the way. "My name is GCED Thirty-Two Markov, but I'd like for you to call me Markov in private like this, Steven, when other citizens aren't listening."
Hitting him like a thunderbolt, he finally started piecing together what had been going on all day. Markov was a high-ranking member of the Global Counter Espionage Department, an elite branch of Commonwealth law enforcement that regulated covert activity around the world. Most citizens didn't even know it existed. "What do you..."
"Want with a student?" Markov smiled and stood up and sat casually on the corner of the desk. "You've noticed that you're somewhat different from the other students, from everyone else your age, right Steven?"
"You keep calling me that, I-"
"It is your name, is it not?"
His throat was dry, making his voice waver uneasily, "Only the matron back at the dorm calls us by our first names."
Frowning, Markov rolled his head back to look up at the ceiling lights, "We'll have to make a note of that, thank you." Reasserting himself to the young man, he continued, "Steven, have you noticed that you're different from other citizens?"
Not knowing how to respond, he ventured, "Yes, somewhat different. I mean, not entirely. I obey the doctrine, I sanitize regularly, and I love the Commonwealth." Unsure as to whether or not he had provided the right answer, he waited through a few excruciating moments of silence.
Markov suddenly belted out a hearty laugh, a rolling display of mirth that made Steven jump upright in his chair with surprise. He continued for what seemed like forever before drying his eyes and clapping the student on the shoulder, "Quoted right from the plaque near the door of this very building, excellent!" He chuckled for another few seconds before sitting back down in his chair and tossing his data pad onto the table. "I want you to look at this, Steven."
The digital readout displayed what appeared to be a security camera feed replaying a loop of about five seconds worth of footage. It panned quickly from left to right across a street corner scene somewhere in Commonwealth Prime, a busy district with at least fifty citizens and robots visible. Shadows passed quickly overhead as hover vehicles raced above the pedestrian traffic, security forces marched in unison, and the bland uniforms of the citizenry made them blend together to form one flowing mass of people, like an enormous blanket with numerous individual legs.
Steven studied the video for three loops of the feed, then looked up at Markov expectantly, "What am I looking for?"
Markov leaned back and clasped his hands behind his head, "You tell me."
The younger man tilted his head slightly in confusion, then answered without looking back down at the data pad, his eyes locked onto Markov's the entire time, "There is a flicker in the northwest street lamp, two citizens are wearing the wrong day's uniform, and the robot cleaning the windows of the dark gray building is missing a brush on its lower right appendage."
Raising his eyebrows in applause, Markov leaned forward and admitted, "Nicely done, Steven, nicely done." Something about his posture or choice of words betrayed his disappointment, though; Steven noticed it immediately and told him what he knew he wanted to hear.
"At time index 14:32:52, the man standing on the northeast street corner facing south with the dark hair and blue uniform is not a citizen."
Markov grinned from ear to ear and snatched the data pad, inspecting it for himself and pressing his finger into the screen to pause the display at that exact moment. "How did you come to that conclusion?"
Answering flatly, Steven explained, "He stops at the street corner and looks in both directions, when any citizen would be familiar enough with the flow of ground traffic to know that every block alternates right-of-way. There is no need to stop when heading in that direction from that corner." Markov looked up with doubt in his eyes, but Steven wasn't finished yet, "His uniform has only one replaced button, but regulations clearly state that all buttons are to be replaced if one malfunctions. Also, his eyebrows have not been trimmed according to sanitation standards in at least a few weeks." Stopping for a moment to make sure he didn't overstep his bounds, he concluded, "The man is obviously not a citizen."
Markov nodded and cleared the image before setting the tablet back down on the table. He launched into a startling dissertation, "Before you were born, Steven, your biological parents were selected to be part of a very exclusive group of loyal citizens, those with a unique combination of hereditary traits and life experiences that would make them ideal for producing... special children. For your entire life, your nutritional supplement pills have not included some of the basic... mood stabilizers that make our great civilization possible, which you have probably already noticed by now."
"How would I-"
Continuing without hearing out the interruption, Markov went on, "For example, I know you detest the lessons you receive here at the crèche, you look for excuses to alter your routine even temporarily," he smiled, "and you have an uncanny knack for pinpointing disorder, don't you?"
Steven wasn't sure if he was supposed to be excited or frightened, but something about Markov's demeanor hinted at the former. "Yes."
Taking a deep breath before pushing himself back from the desk, Markov stood and motioned for Steven to do the same, "You are to begin reporting to sector nine, building sixteen, floor five, room six hundred twelve from now on at eight hundred hours, do you understand?"
"Finish the rest of today's lesson here, but tell no one of this conversation or where you are being transferred."
"I understand, Markov." Steven left the room and closed the door behind him, his mind overflowing with a sense of revelation, like the heavy curtain of the government had been pulled back just enough for him to see light on the other side. His entire life was about to change and he could sense it.
As soon as the door closed, Markov pulled out his personal communicator and brought it to life with the push of a button and a single high pitched beep. A voice drifted in over the connection, demanding, "Status?"
Pulling the data pad over next to him on the table, Markov activated the screen again and inspected the image. "Secondary objective completed, GCED 1 Lesuvo was successfully activated."
"Understood and noted for promotion. The primary objective?"
Markov pushed the screen with two fingers and stretched them apart, causing the image to zoom in on the face that Steven had identified as a non-citizen. "Fugitive identity confirmed, it's Vanik."