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Masks 35.4 - Morale Budget [Cutscene]

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Agent 1337 has pretty well got this "accountability" thing figured out. The higher-ups just want regular reports on what the Menagerie is doing. A rough slurry of SIGINT (they don't call AT&T the Death Star for nothing), HUMINT (bribing students for juicy Gardner Academy gossip), OSINT (the Harry Gale stalkers on Tumblr who still update regularly), and FININT (Sysco sells Jason his stress-eating and comfort foods) pours into the AEGIS computer system. Trends are established. Machine learning algorithms figure out whether a deviation is normal or not. The highlights are extracted. 1337 even wrote a program that analyzed every JHHL memo from the last five years, picked apart the text, and constructs plausible-sounding reports to send upstream to Waters and Costigan. 37 is really proud of this information-processing pipeline. The lessons AEGIS teaches are dry and dull, to be sure, but predictability is the mother of automation. It's left the agent with two problems. The first is the occasional time when Costigan asks a question about something the computer wrote, and 37 has to scramble to read the report before answering. The second is the utter soul-crushing despair of having to actually read teenagers' messages to each other, because that's the one thing the automation can't just neatly summarize. Danger Will Robinson is off with Ro-Bae the Robot watching a movie? No problem. Amari annihilated a heavenly host of robots but took a little sister's plush dragon toy to the face? All good. But these chat logs! Fortunately, there's a way to stay sane. 37 has realized the real power of bureaucracy: at a certain level, once you roll up all the line items and expenses and details into a bottom line and get that signed off, that bottom line becomes just one more line item in someone else's budget. It's like some kind of weird financial Matryoshka doll, and like any good system, 37 has figured out how to hack it. There's a line item type just called "morale budget". For the grown-ups, normally that means the Friday benders or expensing team lunches at the Cowl. Alcohol is pricey, 37 doesn't drink, and the right rollups still get approved. That's why, as of today, 1337's collection is complete. JList finally came through. There was a trip down to a local PO box involved, but who cares. Agent 1337 is now the proud owner of: One (1) official Mercury action figure, with high-speed kung fu grip. One (1) official Jason Quill action figure, with three tinny prerecorded voice clips that 37 has resolved to hack the shit out of. One (1) GI Joe "Baroness" action figure from the first movie, standing in for Alycia Chin. One (1) Cartoon Network Steven Universe large plush, standing in for Concord. It has a star, okay? Close enough. One (1) one-sixth scale "Ghost" doll, from Dark Horse Comics. 37 is privately sure Charlotte Palmer wouldn't wear this outfit - it's not even a shirt, more like a pair of very thick suspenders. One (1) "Koji Kabuto" figure, from some goddamn old Japanese thing, standing in for Leo Snow, JESUS CHRIST THIS THING WAS A HUNDRED BUCKS. One (1) Hot Wheels car, to be Otto. Now that guy's forum PMs have been interesting lately! Two (2) Nier: Automata figurines, fresh from JList, to act as Aria and Summer. 37 carefully puts the tiny plastic swords away first. Time to get down to business. The SMS exchange is up on the laptop, and 37 has a foot petal wired to the mouse wheel for easy scrolling. That frees up both hands to... operate the dolls? No! To engage in a simulated re-enactment of a vital conversation between a powerful and influential Halcyon City figure, and an apprehended terrorist fugitive who has been giving up useful intel at a frustratingly glacial rate. Yes. This is important work. Another conversation - a memo from Parker, on her debrief of Alycia Chin after the nuclear reactor incident - is up in another window. We debriefed a volatile teenage girl about an incident happening inside a decommed nuclear reactor, where we sent her with live ammo and orders to kill or subdue one of her own teammates, in the middle of a robot invasion. If I didn't joke around like this, I'd run out of this building screaming. ALYCIA New Phone Who Dis-- I mean, Hello Hero JASON (smug) Well, I'm super bored, on my private jet full of stripper stewardesses, and the pole-dancing is getting dull. Say, do they keep you in handcuffs or anything? Please say yes. To prom, that is. Come to prom with me. ALYCIA Up your nose, you capitalist pig. I won't be bought and sold at auction like a piece of meat. But just so you know, prom is this disgusting display of the inherent objectification of women, focused on female marketability, rather than the historically hetero-normative exclusion and queer-shunning ritual it actually is! 37 discovers a fascinating new detail of the Baroness doll's articulation, and uses it to bonk the Jason doll on the head. JASON (woke) Well I guess that's a good point. But since I'm the protagonist, you have to come to prom with me. I mean, who else is there? ALYCIA Well, I guess I could ask Leo Snow. He dates robots, who clearly aren't real, so I'm gonna challenge his perverted and misogynistic attitudes by showing him what a real girl can do when she sets her mind and body to it! Mostly the body. JASON Alycia?! You wouldn't dare! ALYCIA (rolls eyes) Obviously I'm not doing any of that, moron. I just like fucking with your head. Besides, I actually have some god damn social awareness and I made a few friends at the library who share it, so I'm gonna nerd out with them that night! Go ask your stupid holographic girlfriend to prom. The entrance alarm sounds - the door is about to open. 1337 throws the action figures across the computer desk in a blind panic, and with a brief feeling of relief sees them disappear down behind it. Fuck. I'm gonna have to dig those out later. "Hey kid," comes Waters' voice. "Uh. Hey boss." 1337 turns very, very nervously in the desk chair, and stares. Did you see anything? But the senior agent's face is wrinkly and unreadable, as always. "Thought you'd wanna talk about what's comin' next." Waters pulls a spare chair over, removes the pizza boxes from it and sets them delicately on the floor, and settles in with the gravitas only an old guy can bring to the act of planting one's ass in a seat. "Well..." 37 admits to some curiosity, given what happened. "Yeah, I guess I am." Waters nods, and pulls out a notepad for inspection. "Best guess is that Rosa Rook is takin' a dive for her involvement in the Rossum matter. What with you hackin' her files and everything, if we get her - and that's a big if - we figure she'll lighten the pressure on ya. When you came to us, she was actively huntin' you. Her and Rossum. We didn't realize the significance of the data you found at the time. Now some of it is comin' together." 1337 nods along, very unsure of where this is going. "Anyway, what I'm sayin' is..." Waters leans back, just far enough for the chair to start creaking. "You might not have to be buried so deep in AEGIS in awhile. There's a chance you could, y'know, come out a bit. Not sayin' I want you leavin' the agency. Just that, for example, you might not be on full time Menagerie monitoring duty any more. You could pick your own assignments. Have a little more freedom. Get some acknowledgement for the time and effort you've put in. Make a name for yourself. Again, not sayin' it's going to happen. But something to think about, should it come to pass." 1337 turns, silent and shocked, and looks confusingly at the gap between desk and wall where the action figures fell. Waters' heavy hand comes down on one shoulder. "Think it over. I better get going. You've done a good job, gimmicking up the thing that produces those computer generated reports, but we like to hear what you think every so often, okay? Come up to my office some time, let's catch up." Oh shit, he knew? Of course he knew. He always knows. The door closes. Waters is gone. And 1337 is alone again, with a room that's covered floor to ceiling in Menagerie history. What... what do I think? What do I want to do? Since when did AEGIS start asking questions like that?
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More to come today
1.  Ah ,  Ghost ... 2. Delightful. 3. Oooh, intriguing!
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The Satellite of Love is an atrocity, frozen in a moment of perfection. 1337 usually doesn't have to do this - find missing stuff, that is. There's a desk to pull out, but that's blocked by the minifridge. The minifridge power plug won't reach, so the bookshelf - full of the Rainbow Series as well as more recent and more esoteric technical manuals and heavy, heavy material the organization has dumped here for storage - has to move. The alternative is to jimmy up some kind of reachy grabby arm and start fishing. Time to practice ventriloquism in the meantime. JASON Alycia! I can change! I can become more woke! I'll come nerd with you guys at the library instead. ALYCIA Fine. We'll find out how socially aware you are. What was the Boxer Rebellion? JASON It's the reason we wear briefs. ALYCIA How about the Holodomor? JASON That's the big guy in Game of Thrones, right? ALYCIA See, you don't know how to talk to an educated girl at all. JASON You're the only girl I ever really wanted to talk to, though. And I don't know this stuff because you were never around to talk with me about it. This gets Agent 1337 to stop and slowly rise from the floor, then flop into the chair. Right in the feels. What have I been doing? Spying on the Menagerie. Why? My bosses told me to. Why? Because I understand them, because I'm another kid in dire straits, just like them. Where does that go? Sympathy for them. Won't that compromise my ability to effectively spy on them? Yes. Waters once explained the AEGIS mission: "Think the unthinkable, do the unforgivable, face the fire, keep them safe." When 1337 asked "who's them", Waters just replied with a kind, almost pitying look. "Everyone." Do the unforgivable. What's the unforgivable here? Read the private communication of two lonely kids. Is it doing any good to the world? No. It's just nonsense about their feelings, their friendship (though probably neither of them would call it that), their situation. What if there's some good to be done? Think the unthinkable. What if... we let Alycia out a little bit more? She's fitfully cooperating with Parker, but look at what happened in the field. Faced with a take-down order, she did the "right" thing, even though it got her chewed out (reading between the lines from Parker's memo). She's cooperating with strangers she's known for days, at most. 1337 knows that she and Link have been talking at school. Assuming it's not about the "ask Leo to prom" scenario (not even 37 thinks this will happen - for that matter, nobody else is going to ask him either if he keeps being so intense and moody), they're talking team business. She doesn't like robots. Hates them, for good and sufficient reason. But she's still talking to a builder of robots. Face the fire. It's time to really write a report. 1337 sits down, and in the stilted and formal language of AEGIS official paperwork, starts to compose a message to sell a very simple premise. "Alycia Chin needs a morale budget".
1. Hey, I beat Jason on the Socially Aware quiz! (Though I had not heard the term Holodomor,  albeit was quite aware of the event.)  1a. Actually, Jason would know about the Boxer Rebellion (if only because 55 Days in Peking  was one of Rusty's favorites). But I love the 1337 headcanon answer. 2. I am now seized with dread over someone having the idea of a Girls Night Out "Morale Booster" event for Alycia. Especially if she starts to get into it. 3. Good stuff. And a nice shift for 1337 from amusing and useful NPC to someone I want to know more about.
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*** Dave H. said: I am now seized with dread over someone having the idea of a Girls Night Out "Morale Booster" event for Alycia. Especially if she starts to get into it. This post can provide official AEGIS support/justification for "Alycia gets more freedom from Parker", in whatever incarnation or form you decide that should take.