Paxton was unsurprised when Meyer called him in.

“What the blazes is this nonsense with the analysts?” the head of the Agency yelled, a vein throbbing at his temple as he leaned over his dark-wood desk, his hands leaving damp prints on the glossy surface.

Paxton did his best to look contrite. “They’re on edge. They feel the extra surveillance in the wake of Emerson is uncalled for.”

“Emerson! Wish I’d never employed that fool. What do they expect, when he’s been tampering with the Voices?”

“But we have no solid evidence, sir.”

Meyer glared at Paxton, paused for a moment. “You’ve been here, what, six years?” It was eight, but Paxton knew better than to argue. “You’ve done well to become my assistant, but you’ve still got a lot to learn. A situation like this, we can’t afford to wait for evidence. We need to be pro-active. You’ve heard the rumours about the man, right?”

“I try to avoid rumours.”

Paxton looked at the sweat stains on his supervisor’s collar. The man was out of his depth, had been ever since he took over the Agency. He only got the job, apparently, because of his friendship with the Primacy. Some said the friendship was inappropriately intimate, but Paxton didn’t repeat that. He didn’t spread rumours.

There were many rumours about Emerson, and Paxton selected the most obvious one. “That he’s consorting with an Anchorite?”

“And the rest‌—‌passing on delicate information, subversive activities. It’s tantamount to treason, and the Primacy isn’t happy. He wants results, and he wants them yesterday.”

Paxton nodded. “But it’s all circumstantial, sir.”

“Doesn’t stop the fall-out. You’ve met his wife, right? Pleasant woman, important position in the council, but she’s at breaking point. It’s affecting morale throughout the Citadel, and we need to stop it. If that means keeping tighter reins on the analysts, then so be it.”

“But they feel restricted…”

“So what? None of them have been accused of anything. If they’re doing nothing wrong, they have nothing to be concerned about.”

“But there have been‌…‌comments. Suggestions.”

Paxton had been an analyst for three years prior to his promotion, so he knew how delicate the work was. Alone in a pod, monitoring the streams of communication flying around the Citadel, always careful to avoid being influenced‌—‌or of influencing others. It was understandable how the situation set everyone on edge.

Including Meyer. But the man had no idea how to deal with a crisis. If Paxton were in charge, things would have never reached this stage.

“The Primacy won’t let us call off the Emerson investigation,” Meyer said, a pitiful note of desperation in his voice. “So I need ideas.”

“From me?”

“Of course! Why else would I call you in? Your results show high levels of imagination, so make use of it!”

That was true, but it wasn’t something Paxton shouted about. The pre-acceptance Agency tests were rigorous, and too much ‘freedom of the mind’ was frowned upon. Paxton had fought hard to prove he used logic to keep his imagination in check at all times.

And now, it appeared, Meyer was desperate enough for Paxton to exercise that freedom.

“Support and Welfare should keep the analysts calm,” he said. “Have you spoken to Fallon?”

“Of course I have. Stupid woman says there’s nothing she can do. Which reflects badly on me.” The man sighed. “They don’t respect her anyway. No experience of their job.” His bitterness was undercut with resignation.

Paxton waited, and only spoke when Meyer sighed once more. “One idea does come to mind, sir,” he said, keeping his face as neutral as possible. He wouldn’t smile until the time was right.

* * *

Paxton talked to each analyst individually. He sympathised with their situation, said he understood how hard it was to remain distant when monitoring, how easy it would be to upset the balance. He calmed those who were nervous, and he told the most militant just what they needed to hear.

And Voices stopped their accusations of Emerson, because it appeared that the man’s wife was behind the rumours. She’d felt betrayed, not so much by her husband’s infidelity, but by the fact that he chose one of those people. They rejected everything the Citadel stood for, and by association so did the traitor she’d married. She was determined to make him pay.

The Voices agreed with her, but they were also angry that things had gone so far. What were the Agency playing at, letting Emerson continue in his job while he sold the Citadel out? Weren’t they supposed to have safeguards against this kind of thing?

The people deserved answers. Whoever was responsible needed to be held to account.

* * *

“Sir, I have the Scanlon report.”

“Thank you,” Paxton said, waving a hand at his assistant. “I appreciate your promptness, especially so late on a Friday. Enjoy your weekend.”

“Thank you, sir.”

When the door had closed, Paxton allowed himself a smile as he ran his hands over the desk. That hideous monstrosity of Meyer’s was gone, replaced by this sleek, functional piece. More in keeping with how he intended to run things.

Of course, when the Primacy offered him the position, Paxton initially argued against it. He was saddened by Meyer’s resignation, and was thankful to have worked under such a great man. And when he allowed the Primacy to wear him down, Paxton lamented how the clearly untrue rumours about Meyer had caused so much upheaval. He assured the Citadel’s leader that he would not be drawn into commenting on them, not even for the Voices.

He didn’t spread rumours. There was no point.

Not when, with a little imagination and a few well-placed words, it was so easy to start them.

This story was written to coincide with the release of the anthology The Power Of Words, a collection of four stories inspired by the First Amendment. Paxton is one of the main characters in my story, Ghost Stream.

If you’re interested in this anthology, check it out on Amazon.

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