“Let’s get down to business.”
Five slightly stunned women sit and stare as the five secret agents swarm around them upon Tiffany’s command. Taeyeon jumps in her seat when cool fingers brush against the shell of her ear, tucking her hair behind it.
“What are you doing?” she asks.
“For both your security and ours,” Seo replies, “you will be given a tracker. It is encased in the crystal stud so don’t crush it or take it off.
Taeyeon sits straight and stiff as the earring tracker replaces her own. It is fastened tight, evident by the pinch on her earlobe. Seo steps back in front of her and a smile flickers on a face. It disappears so quickly that Taeyeon isn’t sure if she imagined it but that thought is pushed out the window when Seo swaps the other earring for the tracker too.
One by one the agents return to the front where they stand watching as Hyo wrestles with Yuri’s earlobe. A couple of them giggle as Hyo curses when she drops the fastener. It must be some kind of private joke the rest wouldn’t understand.
“These earrings are specially designed to match most of your outfits. The tracker is micro-nano-technology, the smallest chip ever produced, and is capable of sending your locations to our satellite out there. You will not, at any point in time, remove them. They are waterproof; you may shower with them on.”
“What happens if they’re taken off?” asks Sunny, ever the inquisitive one.
“It sets off a silent alarm. We’ll move in. Or out.”
“Meaning . . .?”
“Depending on the situation, we’ll either rescue you . . . or kill you.”
For once, Sunny does not have a comeback for this. Neither do the other four. Suddenly, death is something real, staring them in the face. What they have been doing is dangerous, but this operation seems to top that by a quantum leap.
“You haven’t told us the real reason why you chose us,” says Yoona, breaking the silence she had been holding all this time. It is just like Yoona to pick up on the details that most people miss. After knowing her for so many years, the girls have learnt that Yoona is far from slumbering whenever she’s quiet for some time.
Tiffany smiles. “We were getting to that.” The image on the wall changes again. This time, it’s a picture of two company logos—Elgoog and Anis. “We chose you girls because we are working for the government. While we are top secret, and well trained for the operation, it’s not in our country’s best interest to have any link to this.”
“So, what you really mean,” Taeyeon begins slowly, “is that we were chosen because the blame could be put on us should anything go wrong.”
“We’ll dish out surveillance proof of your previous thefts and this will be added to your list of crimes, keeping our country clear of any accusation, yes.”
Taeyeon doesn’t like it one bit. But taking a look around, the other girls don’t seem to be disturbed by this explanation. Is it just her?
“Will you tell us what the operation is for? What kind of impact will there be after we steal whatever we have to steal?” asks Sunny, always asking all the pertinent questions.
“Good questions. Very good.” Tiffany gives Sunny a lingering smile. “Agent Amber will take those questions.”
Following Tiffany’s gaze, Taeyeon watches as a woman, slightly taller than herself and topped with a mob of short, brown hair, emerges from the corner behind the other agents. She nods at them and smiles. “Hi, I’m Agent Amber.” She lifts a hand and waves, then drops it as though it’s something she’s not supposed to do.
Feeling a grin coming, Taeyeon suppresses it and frowns to keep her expression solemn.
“I’m in charge of the brief. So here goes.” Agent Amber clears her throat and presses on the device she holds in her hand. The projector shuts down and returns to its hole in the ceiling while another hole appears in the floor. A beam of light shoots up from it and presents them with a blue 3-D model of a building.
“This is the Elgoog office. Deep underground,” she says, pointing at the model, “is their research lab.” At this point, the model expands and they are offered a zoomed-in view of the basement. Out of the four levels, two are highlighted in red. “These two levels are where the research on a mind reading chip take place.”
“Mind reading?” Yuri says with a gasp.
Agent Amber nods, her expression grim. “They’ve been developing a surveillance chip that will mess with the neurons in the brain, intercepting and affecting the electro-chemical signalling process.”
“Which means the chip will be able to read the mind by intercepting the signalling process?” asks Summer.
Agent Amber nods, while the other agents look mildly impressed by Summer’s quick grasp of the subject. “Reading and altering. Based on our intelligence, the research has not progressed to such an advanced stage. At the moment, it is at the point where they are only capable of destroying a cluster of neurons to eliminate certain memories, certain processes. It would be as good as rendering a person brain dead without giving them as much as a bruise.”
The girls exchange uneasy glances. It is quite unnerving to know that technology as intrusive and destructive as this exists in their world.
“Our government will not tolerate the development of such deviant tools on our soil. At the same time, our government cannot afford to offend the company for fear of losing the billions of dollars it has invested in our country. Not to mention the thousands of jobs . . .”
“Why does our government sound like a coward?” asks Sunny.
Seo frowns. “There’s no cowardice in trying to avoid a financial and employment crisis while preventing an extremely invasive form of surveillance.”
Sunny shrugs. “But won’t Elgoog be pissed with our country anyway? I mean, the theft is happening right here.”
“They’ll have no concrete reason to pull out,” Seo replies, her frown not letting up. “And without solid evidence, they wouldn’t want to uproot billions worth of investment. It’s really inconvenient.”
“Okay, so what are we supposed to steal?” asks Sunny.
Agent Amber presses her device again. “This.” The girls stare at the beam of light. There is nothing. Sunny voices this sentiment and Agent Amber smiles. “Look closely.”
Taeyeon leans forward and cranes her neck. Then, she sees it. So small that one would have mistaken it for a gigantic speck of dust. The mind reading chip.
Tiffany steps forward again. “Now that you’ve seen what you’re gonna steal, we’ll move on with the program.” Turning to the other agents, she says, “Send them to their rooms.”
“Rooms? What rooms?” asks Yuri as Hyo places a firm hand on her arm and tugs her up.
“The budget for this operation is pretty generous so you get a room each,” Tiffany replies. “If the room isn’t to your liking, that’s just too bad. But we’ll allow one personal request, provided it doesn’t blow the budget.”
“You mean we don’t get to go home?” Summer looks distraught. “But who’ll take care of my dogs?”
Agent Amber pats her back. “Don’t worry. We’ve got them covered. Your pups are at the dog groomer’s. We sent them to the one you go to.”
“Oh . . .” Summer calms down considerably. “Well, in that case, it’s okay, I guess.”
“Enough chat. Let’s move out,” Tiffany orders and they all get going.
Taeyeon is led to her room by Tiffany and her first reaction upon seeing the room is a nose scrounge of dislike. The room is spartan. Devoid of life. Other than a bed that looks hard instead of cushy, there is a study table, a shelf and a metal cupboard. The floor is plain concrete. Nothing cheery. Nothing fancy.
“You people can’t be serious,” says Taeyeon as she turns to Tiffany. “Why do we have to stay in here? This is as good as going to jail.”
Tiffany raises a brow. “Is that what you think? That this is like jail?”
“This is torture for us. You should know why, since you claim to know everything about us.”
“Right, you’re missing your soft linens, fluffy bed and nice wooden flooring. Well, as I said earlier, that’s just too bad. When I said the budget is generous, I didn’t mean five-star hotel accommodation. You’re lucky you have a bathroom to yourself. If the budget were any lower, you girls would be sharing.”
Heaving a deep sigh as she looks into the equally spartan bathroom, Taeyeon struggles to resign herself to her fate. Backing out of this means going to real jail but the consequence far worse than that would be incurring her parents wrath if they knew about her ‘escapades’. Why hadn’t she thought about that before becoming lil’ Robina Hood? Now, it’s all too late.
Turning back to Tiffany, Taeyeon remembers something the agent promised. “You said we could make a personal request.”
Tiffany nods. “Ask and you might be given.”
“I want music.”
Tiffany smiles right away, as though she had been expecting this request all along. “That can be arranged.” She opens the cupboard and takes out a music player. “I knew you would ask for this. I got you the same model.” Reaching in again, Tiffany turns back to Taeyeon with a cylindrical device. “And a wireless amplifier. Happy?”
“Not super. But thank you.”
“At least you’re polite, even if you lack gratitude.” The metal cupboard closes with a clang and Tiffany moves towards the door. “The rest of your stuff will be arriving soon. Clothes and other necessities. When it’s delivered, look through your stuff and let me know if anything is missed out.”
Taeyeon nods, not feeling like uttering another word. With that, Tiffany leaves the room and Taeyeon picks up the music player and amplifier. She just wants to sit down and listen to some music. Then she will think.