Stef jerked awake. She wiped drool from the corner of her mouth, and sat up. Everything was how she’d left it – a semi-dark lab, Jones working on her code, and her hand blue.
Everything was so exciting. Everything was so important. Everything was…kind of boring when there was nothing to do.
‘Can you at least screen share so I can watch?’ she asked. It was the third time she’d requested – the first time he hadn’t heard her, and the second time, he’d merely responded “Soon-TM” and gone back to whatever he was doing…presumably checking the code on her pinkie.
‘Maybe next time,’ he said after a minute, as if he’d just heard her. ‘Today I don’t want you distracted.’
He swivelled on his chair. ‘Try not to move around too much, k?’
‘Some of that equipment is very sensitive.’
He pointed, and she looked down. She jumped back, making the chair shake – there was a tangle of wires coming from her chest – a couple leading to normal things, like electrodes, a few, however, disappeared into a hole over her heart.
She grabbed at the wires. It was the stupid thing to do. It was what people on TV did. It was the kind of thing that apparently made mean!Parker harvest organs. It only seemed sensible when they were in her chest.
She couldn’t bring herself to pull on them, just held them, feeling one of them pulse strangely.
‘Nononono,’ Jones said, jumping up from his chair. ‘All the no!’
Her hand froze. ‘Jonesy, what the fuck?’
‘Hands away from your chest, please.’
She dropped her hands to her side, and the wires fell back against her skin. ‘You didn’t explain yet-‘
He held his hands up in a gesture of innocence. ‘It’s just monitoring equipment. You’re a hundred different kinds of weird we know nothing about, so I’m mining every data node I can before we do anything. You might be walking around, but you’re going to need to come in for check-ups every week until I say stop.’
She slumped against the chair. ‘You really could let me help hack myself.’
‘Next time, sweetie, I promise. For now-‘ he stood awkwardly for a moment. ‘Your heart has lost some mass from our initial measurements.’
Breath turned to sharp spikes in her throat. ‘What?’ she forced out.
‘It’s only a little bit, but I think whatever it’s doing, it hasn’t settled yet.’
She gingerly touched the pulsing wire.
Am I going to disappear?
He handed her a glass of water. ‘How are you feeling?’
‘A lot worse for having heard that.’ She sipped water through the curly straw. ‘You’re allowed to lie to me.’
‘I wouldn’t.’ He hoisted himself onto the closet bench and swung his legs. ‘This might not be a bad thing,’ he said.
‘You said it was disappearing! I think I kind of need it!’
‘It’s possible the excess is rejecting itself. A piece of mirror that size, you could raise a small continent, there’s the question of exactly how much you need, mirror isn’t-‘ he hesitated for a moment. ‘Mirror isn’t conscious, but that doesn’t mean it’s-‘ he seemed to struggle for a moment. ‘This isn’t my area of expertise. There’s thoughts without consciousness, understanding without thought, it’s more than nothing, if you follow. It’s not an exact science, or even an exact philosophy, which is why I dislike trying to understand it.’ He pointed to a periodic table poster on the wall. ‘Give me elements I can quantify, and I’m fine.’
She tried to puzzle through what he’d said. ‘It’s alive enough to- To parse a wish correctly, but not to argue about it?’
‘Something like that. You shouldn’t need that much to live. I’d in fact wager that you don’t. But until it becomes a pattern, I don’t think a gram or two will endanger your life.’
She twisted her head down, trying to catch a glimpse of the mirror. ‘And if there’s a pattern?’
A beaker of blue appeared in his hand and he swirled it. ‘You’re an agent, we should be able to adjust.’
‘So what now?’
‘Now? Now I get my laser.’
‘You have a laser?’
Jones grinned. ‘That’s even a question?’
‘Sorry, my dumb.’
The door opened, and the nice Parker walked in.
‘…should I need a doctor?’ Stef asked, looking from one lab-coated agent to the other.
Parker pulled a dog-earned novel from one of his pockets. ‘I’ll be over here, reading smut, until you start bleeding.’
She pushed herself further into the chair, trying to meld with it. ‘Jo-‘
Jones looked at her. ‘Just in case.’
‘Left or right? Pick which hand you’d like me to cut off first.’
‘You’re going to cut off my hand,’ she said flatly. She twitched nervously. ‘What’s that going to tell you that a week of limit tests didn’t?’
He put a hand on her shoulder. ‘Controlled environment, versus uncontrolled environment.’ He pointed the machine. ‘Come on, be excited, it’s a laser!’
She bit the inside of her cheek and forced a grin on her face. ‘Yay?’
Parker sniggered from the corner, and she looked up. ‘Don’t mind me,’ he said as he caught her gaze, ‘this is just to torture myself with. Well, my other myself. I can rile him up, and stop him from doing anything about it.’
So…they’re both the evil twin then?
‘What?’ she asked.
Instincts kicked in and she threw her hands up. ‘Actually, I really don’t want to know, I really don’t!’
Parker opened the book. ‘The purple soldier pushed forth-‘ he said in a reading-to-the-class voice.
She felt herself relax. ‘It’s a war story, you said it was-‘
‘-broke through the resisting circle and into the unexplored depths beyond-‘
‘…he’s a spelunker?’
Parker laughed. ‘You could think of it that way.’
She looked back at Jones, who wore a strange expression. ‘So I’m taking it that reading X-rated fanfic wasn’t on your list of hobbies?’
She stared at her hands. ‘Not- Not as such, no.’
‘Good to know,’ he said distractedly, ‘there’s a few mailing lists I should take you off.’
‘-released the force of a fire hose-‘ Parker continued.
‘Is he bothering you?’
She shrugged deeply. ‘I just don’t- That kind of stuff isn’t- It’s just in a different sphere of reality to me.‘
He gave her a strange look, then brightened. ‘Shall we continue with the science?’
‘And you’re really going to cut my hand off?’
‘Of course, don’t you know anything about science?’
‘You really could have a castle and an Igor.’
‘Sweetie, you’ve seen the basement, think I couldn’t make an Igor if I wanted?’
She tried to relax. ‘Are you at least going to give me a painkiller?’ she asked as a slim machine appeared beside them.
He gave her a reassuring smile. ‘You won’t need it.’
‘Can we please just get it over with?’
‘I’m just going to restrain you, so you don’t hurt yourself, ok?’
Thick straps shot out from the chair and anchored her in place. Jones adjusted the controls, then sat back at his desk. ‘Parker?’
‘-pounded and- Oh? We’re ready?’
So not ready!
‘And three, two, one!’
The light grew brighter, and suddenly, her hand wasn’t attached anymore.
For a moment, there was a very distinct absence of pain, and then it rolled in all at once, and she started to scream.
She tried to thrash around, to grab at her stump, but the chair held her still. Blood dripped over the arm of the chair. A lot of blood. So much blood. Her hand was gone. Her hand was gone. It would never type again, her effective speed had been halved.
Tears streamed down her face.
‘Jones?’ Parker said, his voice professional again, ‘are you going to let me-‘
‘Help me!’ she screamed. ‘Fuck you, help me!’
‘No,’ Jones said sharply, ‘both of you, look.’
Stef forced herself to look at her hand, at her lack of hand, at- At blood that was no longer flowing. At a wrist that was growing new hand, chunk by chunk.
‘Oh,’ she said quietly.
Jones caught her gaze. ‘Does it still hurt?’
‘Of course it does, my hand is-!’ she started.
‘Stop, think, does it hurt?’
She closed her eyes, and forced herself to be sensible. There was a weird sensation as her hand regrew section by section, but no actual pain. She let out a long breath, and opened her eyes. ‘Ok, it doesn’t hurt. But it did.’
Jones looked at Parker. ‘You can torture your twin in person now.’
Parker shifted away, and Jones gently turned her hand over. ‘Does it feel normal?’
Nothing feels normal.
She fixed her gaze on a blank spot on the wall. ‘Yeah.’
She kept staring at the wall. ‘Yeah.’
She fixed he gaze on the wall. ‘This is too much like- It’s like what Taylor was- Didn’t you already learn everything you needed to- I don’t want to lose my part anymore.’
He put a hand on her shoulder. ‘In all technicality, it’s part of the same thing. I’m just observing your code more closely. From today onwards, though, it won’t be so visceral. For now, it’s necessary. God is in the details, we’re code, we’re all detail-‘
She followed the train of thought. ‘Are you calling yourself a god?’
He smirked. ‘I’d never be so presumptuous. Did that hurt?’
‘I said it hurt.’
‘No, not that, that,’ he said with a point.
She looked down and saw her other hand separated from her wrist.
‘You-! How the hell did you do that?’
‘Distraction is an invaluable tool in science. Did it hurt?’ Does it hurt?’
She shook her head. ‘Ok, good.’
She watched as it regrew – this process was different to the other hand, bones shot out, to be covered with flesh, which were quickly covered by skin.
‘Let’s compare,’ he said.
He sat and typed for a moment, and then brought up the results on twin monitors. ‘Control on the left, blue on the right. There’s a variance in weight for the control – the mirror healed you, which was hoped. Second test, it let the blue take care of it.’
He looked elated. ‘This is good?’ she asked.
He ran his hands through his hair. ‘It’s what we wanted,’ he said. ‘When I explained it to Ryan, I told him if this wasn’t the case, we were probably fucked unless we could hack the heart. Magic is-‘ he swung back and forth on his chair for a moment. ‘It’s kind of this fucked up, meta rock-paper-scissors game. Also, politely, the common types are RGB. Blue is ours, of course, red for fae magic, that’s more of a cultural thing rather than the magic itself being red like ours is blue. Green is time.’
‘So which beats which?’
‘Everything beats us,’ he said. ‘Time magic hands our asses to us, gift-wrapped. Red…too much of it and it interferes with our system connection, and we’re pretty much nothing without our system connection.’
‘So what now?’
‘We continue,’ he said, then stood and began to adjust the laser.
Half an hour passed.
‘No, it’s not your turn to play with the laser, Stef.’
The beam of blue light hit the neat line drawn across her wrist, and very easily sliced through the flesh again.
‘I love,’ she said as she watched the fingers of her now-unattached hand twitch, ‘that you know my question is “can I has laser” not “you didn’t learn anything the tenth time, why are you doing it again?”’
‘No can has laser,’ he said again, lifted the removed hand, tossed it over his shoulder into the bin with the other hands that had been removed. Images of her hands crawling up and out of the bin, propelling themselves across the floor like spiders flooded her mind, breaking out of the lab and desperately seeking revenge towards-
‘Much better,’ he said as he played with her newly-grown hand, making sure that all of the joints flexed in the correct direction, and were covered with the correct amount of flesh.
‘So, what next?’
He sat, laid the stopwatch down next to his keyboard and sipped his coffee. ‘Hands are a big thing. They’re crazily complicated for what they are, but at least there doesn’t seem to be any issues with regrowth. One round of taking off the digits individually, just to take sure they come back right side up in case you, I don’t know, cut one off while making a sandwich.’
‘…did you just tell me to get back in the kitchen?’
He gave her a perfectly innocent smile. ‘Of course not.’
The laser heated up again, and neatly sliced off her thumb. ‘This is really, really disconcerting you know.’
‘At least you stopped screaming.’
‘It’s a laser. It should hurt.’
Her thumb reappeared with no issue.
‘The Flamidimiser isn’t exactly a destruct-o-beam,’ he said, removing the superfluous thumb and tossing it into the bin. ‘It’s a medical instrument.’
She stared at him. ‘You made up that word.’
‘I did not.’
‘It’s seriously called-’
‘A Flamidimiser. Yes.’
Her index finger was chopped off, and she watched the detached digit with detached amazement. ‘This is all way too weird.’
‘Oh, we haven’t even started with the weird stuff.’
The image of singing groupies came to the forefront of her mind. ‘Um, what kind of “weird stuff”?’
‘Well, I’ve got to use this on your head at some point.’
[O_O] she sent to him.
[D:] ‘You are not using that on my head.’
‘I have to.’
‘I like my head,’ she stressed as her middle finger was removed. ‘I like it right where it is.’
He turned back to his computer. ‘This is the easiest way to get this done. We have to see what happens to you under certain conditions, because…well, your heart complicates things. If, for example, your arm was removed, but your hand started to regrow before the rest of your arm, that could cause problems. And these settings aren’t only for single-regrowth occurrences, it’s also for full regenerations. I know with your Taylor-administered limit tests, we haven’ seen any evidence so far, but I’d like to have a full baseline set of data before you send you on external training. Speaking of which…’
He stood, grabbed the lazer, adjusted a few of the settings and aimed it at her. A wide blue beam caught her in the chest and-
Everything was black for a moment, then she found herself floating. She looked around, but there was nothing to see but a faint blue fog. Her body ripped itself apart, but there was no sensation, just sections flowing away as if they were nothing more than wispy pieces of cloud themselves themselves. Everything spun, and her body slowly reformed, sans the lazer burn.
A loud bell tolled, the sound resonating in her mind, and she fell from the hazy place.
And then, as if nothing had happened, she was standing in Jones’ lab again.
‘Dude. You just killed me. With a lazer.’ A grin split her face. ‘That was…’
‘Yes! Except for the killing me part!’ A question occurred – one that had cropped up a hundred times when Taylor had been pounding her into pulp, one that she’d never been in a right frame of mind to ask.
‘…and why couldn’t I just sit there and fix the lazer burn? It’s not like I actually need my lungs, right? But don’t say that cause then I’ll start manually breathing and that gets weird.’
‘Whenever you get enough of a system shock, it’s easier to…respawn you. It’s a more thorough check, just in case something went wrong, it’s also a safety issue. Let me put it this way, you’re fighting…the Hulk. Now, let’s say he pulls up a street lamp and hits you over the head with it. Now, technically, you could lie there, putting your cracked skull back together, but that gives him a chance to pick you up and do more Hulk Smash with your tiny little hacker body. However, pop out for a respawn, your brain’s gonna be in one piece and you’ll be tiptop shape to fight him again. Or as tiptop as I made you.’ He smiled. ‘Safety wise, respawning also gives you a second or two to gather your thoughts, an advantage whoever you’re fighting doesn’t have.’
‘I’ll need all the advantages I can get.’
He shrugged. ‘It’s ok, you fail out there, you come here. It’s part of the plan. I wanted a bit of a backup so you didn’t get recycled or stuck in the basement. You know, like Bart’s evil twin.’ [:P]
‘Can I take a break when you’re done chopping off my fingers?’
He shook his head. ‘No, sorry, after we’re done with this round, we actually have to see if you can still use your hands. They’re going to get a rather vigorous workout.’
‘Doing what exactly?’
Her pinky was sliced off, and it rolled over before coming to a stop.
Jones smiled. ‘I took the liberty of reactivating your WoW account.’
Stef grinned. ‘Excellent.’