Flash fiction

The paranoia was returning with the work overload. Isabelle’s head throbbed with pain and her eyes were loosing their focus. She had been given so many types of intelligence feed to research that she was convinced her supervisor was trying to break her. And now he had started recording her hesitations as evidence of incompetence.

“Could I have a ten minute break?” she asked him. She stood to go to the restroom and stumbled over her own feet. “Sorry. Everything went fuzzy for a few seconds.” She made it to a glass of water, took two pain relief tablets and sat on the settee with her head in her hands.

“Isabelle, are you alright?” Her supervisor’s voice was unusually deep for such a thin man.

“The suggestions from the artificial intelligence engines are driving me crazy – they did not match the research, and they misunderstand the Preacher.” She had long suspected that her supervisor trusted the artificial intelligence more than her. Her fears toggled between being fired or being moved back into the research pool. She knew it was paranoia and there was nothing she could do to stop it.

“Perhaps we should reduce your responsibilities.”

The pain increased. “Please, no. I’ve worked so hard to learn these systems. And the urgency is still there. We have to find a way of stopping the Preacher from radicalising Muslims into violence.”

“Take the afternoon off, get better; and in the morning we’ll talk about it.”

The “we’ll talk about it” fed the feelings of paranoia. She headed downstairs and past the internal security checks that marked the Secure Area of the building.

As she headed towards the exit she noticed someone moving through the light security of the visitor’s wing. The man’s badge had a bright red Contractor label. She paused and followed him into the room marked OSINT. The Open Source Intelligence room had lines of computer workstations, each partly shielded from the next. She hunted for a free one that was not going through its “rebuild sequence” of cleaning a previous visitor’s research tasks.

OSINT covered the kind of intelligence gathering available legally to the public and private sector, if people knew where to look. Isabelle’s interest was in the information available via the world-wide web. Such access was largely blocked from within the Secure Area.

“Do you need help?” the curator asked. No. Isabelle could have done this from home, except that she would never have dared use a personal computer where she might be traced.

She searched for information about the Preacher. She included the pseudonyms he used to search his favourite blogs, chat rooms and social media accounts.

“You ought to take a break,” the curator’s voice cut through her concentration. “I recommend a glass of water every two hours.”

Water. It reminded Isabelle of her headache. No headache now. She was entirely focussed.

She re-entered the Secure Area just as most people were leaving. Her supervisor was still at his desk. “Why are you back?” he asked.

“I’ve been with the OSINT team. I found something,” Isabelle announced. “And I’m feeling better.” She wondered if he thought she had been faking earlier.

“OSINT cuts no ice here, unless there’s strong providence.” Providence was the jargon for proving the author was genuine and reliable.

“I can replicate the findings from our systems, now I know what I’m looking for.” She tried to smile but she was too tense. “The Preacher – he’s not the big threat. It’s this man.” She handed over a piece of paper with the man’s name and details. “He recruits online, grooms his targets, then passes them on. He’s off our radar because he seems to know what our research looks for, and he knows we ignore most OSINT.”

The supervisor did not smile with his mouth, but with a tilt of his head and a softening of his expression. “Drop your other tasks and focus on this target.” It was the closest he ever got to a compliment.

Isabelle nodded. At least for the time being, the feeling of paranoia had gone.