Stef stared at her newly narc’ed self in the bathroom mirror and roughly calculated how long she could hide in a bathroom without someone inquiring as to her medical condition. It’d been fifteen minutes already. Twenty might be pushing it.
For the thirty-eighth time, she looked to the window, not quite able to convince herself that plummeting however many stories and the resultant grievous bodily harm was better than interacting with humans.
The code monkeys had been different – they’d been operating at least near her wavelength, and many had communicated at least in part through instant messaging. She didn’t expect that the recruits she was about to meet would be in that same ballpark.
She pouted and required another cookie – the bathroom was sparkly and clean enough to make her feel safe eating in there. She grinned and chomped through another cookie – there were definite upsides to being a genie and having near-phenomenal cosmic powers. She wasn’t sure, however, that being a genie trumped having to interact with humans.
I don’t wanna–
Come on, Spyder. You knew this part was coming.
The part where they turn you into a useful member of society.
Might not be like that.
You gonna chance that?
Yeah, why not?
She walked towards the door, wondering if her posture mimicked that of someone walking to the gallows. She swung the door open and found Ryan leaning against the wall, contentedly waiting for her. She opened her mouth to claim bodily dysfunction, but he interrupted her.
She went back to looking at her feet. ‘I just don’t– I’m not so good around people.’
‘You still have to retrieve your computer from Jones, if you need a valid reason to leave.’
She smiled. ‘Willingness to conspire is an excellent quality in a boss.’ She turned from him and walked down the hall towards her doom. He cleared his throat. She spun on her heel and saw him pointing the other direction. ‘Of course it’s down there,’ she said. ‘I think reality was crying out for a cliché.’
The mess hall was messy, with the other recruits in varying states of uniform. Some sat around tables; others leaned against walls or sat on couches. A quick count gave her eight girls and a few dozen boys.
First day of school jitters rose.
You say something!
Ryan said something. ‘This is Recruit Mimosa. Scored high in both field dynamics and technical aptitude.’
You’re incognito. They don’t recognise that you’re a freak. Use it!
‘Hi?’ she said with a slight wave.
She looked at the group as a whole, managing not to look directly at them. Run. She could still always run. Or beg to be sent to the techs – that would be less scary. Run. Running was a good–
‘I’ll leave you here,’ Ryan said, giving her an encouraging look. ‘Remember to go see Jones when you get a chance.’
Her heart jumped into her throat as she heard him walk away.
Alone. With humans. Humans who–
Stef looked at the recruits. Running would look bad but was the best course of action. A girl with dark, cropped hair banged an empty part of the bench and gave Stef a smile. The girl looked across the table and made fluid motions with her hands – sign language.
Stef sat down beside the girl at one of the empty spaces around the table as most of the other recruits in the room filtered out, started their own conversations, or focussed on the TV.
‘So,’ the boy at the head of the table said. ‘What’s your story?’
Voilà! In view, a less than humble vaudevillian voyeur…
No, that’s not right.
This is the winter of our distant content?
Spyder, they’re asking about you.
‘My name is Stef. I’m a hacker.’
I was hired by Dorian Gray to help a Beast find his Belle, I think a world is ending, and–
‘I was in the wrong place at the wrong time – or the right place and time, depending on how you look at it.’
The boy at the head of the table focussed his gaze on her. ‘What’s your background?’
‘I just said I’m a hacker. Code monkey. I do computers,’ she said, gesturing nervously with her fingers.
‘Let me guess: You squeaked through by not killing the hob?’
‘Well, I didn’t kill. I dunno if that’s what “squeaked” me through–’
‘Ah,’ he said, with disappointment heavy enough to kill a cat. ‘That kind of field aptitude.’ He looked at the other recruits. ‘Bets in.’
‘In days or hours, Brian?’ the talking girl said.
‘Let’s be generous,’ Brian said. ‘She’ll last the day. Unless O’Connor messes up.’
Her desire to run off and get Frankie was rising, but she was glued to the spot, wondering exactly what it was that she’d done wrong. She cleared her throat. ‘If I might inquire…?’
Brian held up three fingers. ‘You got the geeks, the black ops, and us. You never, ever get into black ops unless you deserve to be there.’
After a moment, he added, ‘I envy them. Most of the time, it’s pretty obvious who goes into the brain trust, especially if running five laps will kill you.’ He required some sort of energy drink and drank some before continuing. ‘The line between us and the geeks can get a little blurred sometimes, like if you have tactical planning abilities or some power that would go to waste in front of a computer.’ She decided that a non-committal blank stare was the best idea. ‘So, do you think you should be here, or go see Jones?’
‘I was placed where Ryan thought best. Until it is decided otherwise, I will stay.’
‘Sure you don’t want to reconsider that? Arrogance gets you killed, you know. And speaking of which, Jones doesn’t kill his recruits.’ The AUSLAN girl immediately got up from the table and quickly walked from the room.
Another layer added to Stef’s confusion – she was beginning to feel like an onion. ‘Now what’re you talking about?’
‘The guy you replaced? Ryan killed him. He was hurt, yeah, but–’
She pushed aside still-terrifying images of a scary narc pushing a gun to her head. ‘So why are you still here?’
‘The perks outweigh the constant threat of death. Taylor’s scary, yeah, but Ryan is…’
‘Is what?’ she demanded.
‘Unstable. He killed Adams. A human. One on his side. The rhetoric is that they’re supposed to protect us. He killed a damn fine recruit, and it hasn’t affected him in the slightest. Plus,’ – Brain leaned forwards – ‘there’s this story that he had a girlfriend, and he killed her, too. We don’t know how much is truth and how much is rumour, cause no one will say nothing, but if it’s true, how safe are any of us?’
‘Gotta pee,’ she said in a monotone as she stood from the table. She walked from the mess hall, towards the magic lift, into the lift, and into Ryan. She looked up at him – she didn’t bother to question why he was in the lift, considering she’d left him only minutes before.
Maybe he just likes riding up and down?
‘Does this place have a roof?’ she asked.
Of course it’s got a roof. Are you deficient?
He silently pressed the “R” button and waited for the doors to slide closed. ‘Recruit–’
‘Not yet,’ she said quietly. ‘Can’t breathe yet.’
The doors slid open, and she practically ran out. She made a beeline for the edge and held onto the railing. ‘City’s not so ugly when you see it from this height, I guess. Maybe.’
She looked out at the buildings, at the reflections in the glass, at the trash on the wind – at anything but him. ‘Did I lose my name when I signed up for this gig? And you didn’t give me a lexicon either. Are we supposed to get a handbook or something?’
‘Closer. It was so hard to breathe in there; humans make me feel like I’m choking.’ The words came out much harsher than she’d intended. ‘And I just– They’re so good at bullshit! You know, if the ability to tell the truth was removed from the world, I think like exactly seven people would notice. Seven’s a good number – days in the week, sins, colours of the rainbow, sins, lucky seven – good number.’ She held up seven fingers and stared at them for a moment. ‘Wonder if there’s–’
‘Stef,’ he said, taking a step towards her.
Least he got it right that time.
She shook herself and balled her hands into fists. ‘You’re not human.’ She let it sink in for herself for just a minute, just to make sure that she understood what that really meant. ‘You’re not human,’ she repeated. ‘You put a gun to my head. You were going to kill me.’ She swallowed. ‘Say it.’
‘Until I found out who you–’
She shook her head. ‘No. Say it. It’s not real till you say it.’
He looked away for a moment, then fixed a stare on her. ‘I had every intention of ending your life, Miss Mimosa,’ he said, his voice every bit as cool as it had been in the dark room.
‘Good. Thank you. What have we got so far? Not human. Was going to kill me. I know for a fact you murdered people last night. You pretty much expect me to handle all this stuff without blinking. And – and I think you’re secretly mad that I’m still wearing sneakers.’ She went quiet and stared out over the cityscape.
‘I hate to ask,’ he said after a moment, ‘but are you continuing this conversation in your head?’
‘No, just trying to find an eloquent way of–’ She rested her head on the railing for a moment, then turned to face him. ‘They said you killed your last recruit. I don’t know you, not really, not at all, but – I – I don’t believe them.’
He gave her his patented narc look, the one that she was sure was supposed to intimidate her. ‘I did kill one of my recruits. It was only a month ago.’
Her heart skipped a beat, but she ignored it. ‘Yeah? What’s the other half of the story?’
If there is an other half. Maybe the other recruit was a douche – you’d use that excuse to shoot somebody.
He looked unsure, hesitated for a moment, then spoke. ‘He was injured. His…his bones were liquefying… The doctors would have been unable to do anything. It was better than him suffering.’
‘Do you know for certain that they would have been unable to help him?’
‘The Parkers confirmed.’
She leaned against the rail again. ‘Enough time for a diagnosis, not enough time to get him to the hospital?’
‘The diagnosis took three seconds. Not even our doctors could have done anything in that span of time.’ He looked away for a moment, fixing his gaze at some far point on the horizon.
‘So it was a mercy killing?’
‘The other recruits do not see it as such.’
‘They’re human; they’re flawed.’
‘So are you.’
She pouted. ‘Human or flawed?’ She shrugged. ‘I guess I just have a different perspective on stuff.’
He stared at her for a moment, then buried his hands in his pockets. ‘That – that would be my fault. If not for me, then you–’
‘Wouldn’t be looking at zeppelin floating over Brisbane?’ She continued to stare at what she was sure was a zeppelin – although it could have just been the bright sunlight catching on some haze. There wasn’t a lot of detail, but it was the right shape. ‘Why is there a zeppelin?’
More importantly, where can I get tickets?
‘Mirrorfall. The mirror is the last thing to appear in the sky. The nearby worlds always see ghosts, memories and dreams from the dying world. They’re not really there; they’re just an echo. The airship is probably the last happy memory of a pilot from Dajulveed.’
‘There’s really…sad. It’s like stargazing, right? A lot of stars up there are already gone; we just see the echo.’
‘Exactly like that,’ he said.
‘Why can I see it? Something to do with you kidnapping me?’
He sighed, but he relaxed a little and moved over to the railing to join her. ‘For the last time,’ he said, ‘I did not kidnap you.’
‘But you were there when I died.’ The look on his face was enough to confirm it. ‘Yeah. I kinda thought so.’
‘Dorian told me, but how he knew, I don’t–’
‘It’s your eyes,’ the agent said. ‘Before you died, your eyes were a brighter blue. Dying and passing to Limbo gives them a touch of grey.’
She pressed fingers to her eyes for a moment.
‘I don’t know what you remember,’ the agent said. ‘But–’
‘You,’ she said, dropping her hands from her face. ‘Your voice, mainly your suit. Being in the dark. Being scared. Being sa – safe. I never thought it was real. I thought it was just a dream that stuck with me.’ She stared up at the airship, and for a moment, wondered how a monster like Astrin could drive it. ‘So tell me,’ she said as she tucked some hair behind her ear, ‘what really happened.’
He leaned on the railing, drummed his fingers for a moment, then looked down at her. ‘I was pursuing a Solstice. He went into a house for cover. No one noticed; there was some sort of party–’
‘If I was as young as I think I was, then it makes sense. They would only bring out the babies when they were being cute. Rest of the time…’ She shrugged. ‘Kind of surprised the younger generation didn’t end up all Lord of the Flies-ish.’
The agent hesitated for a moment before continuing. ‘He took you hostage. He tried to use you as leverage. I shifted you away from him, but he got desperate and fired. You died instantly.’
The half-formed memories of darkness and coldness flooded her mind. She blinked and focussed on the relative warmth of the city around her. ‘So there’s some sort of second-chance scenario built into the world?’
‘Not so much. Not in the way that you might think. And not in this case. I stopped you from passing. I begged the Lady, and I went to Limbo to see you. You chose to come back. Apparently, hugging the leg of an agent who gives you a doll is a “yes” in that situation.’
Wow… You owe your life to bribery, Spyder. You were corrupted from the get-go.
‘I still have the doll. She’s broken. Someone stepped on her.’ She turned away to look at the city again, just in case she was showing too much emotion. ‘So you do that for every fat-faced toddler that gets killed? You’re some sort of superhero who saves babies?’
‘I felt it was my responsibility to try. If I had handled the situation differently, you might not have died in the first place. You wouldn’t have your different perspective on the world; you–’
‘Would probably be dead. Past is past. Present is present, and I still don’t know what a mirrorfall is. End-of-the-world thing, I get, but…the finer points, I’m more fuzzy.’
‘The mirror is the heart of the world. Every planet has one. They’re what’s left over of Chaos – they’re his presence in reality while the universe lives.’
She held up a finger. ‘Okay, creation myth, continue.’
‘Recruit, it’s not a myth.’
‘I’m a fscking hacker. You start talking about that kind of stuff, and I’m going to call it a creation myth. Continue.’
He shook the confused expression off his face and continued. ‘Gods and demons exist, and they can die. When they die, they are buried in the heart of a world. Sometimes there is an energy left over, a resonance – and when that is the case, they can come back.’
She held up another finger. ‘Zombie gods-slash-demons, gotcha. Continue.’
‘They can come back, only so much as a ghost can; but if that happens, their insanity tears a world apart. The god – and the world they gave life to – die.’
‘Think you skipped a step there, but I think I got it… Blob of mirror equals planet. Blob of mirror plus planet plus dead god equals life. Blob of mirror equals planet plus insane god equals death. Blob of mirror leads to dead planet leads to ghosts. Vis-à-vis, blob of mirror is mirrorfall. Right?’
He gave her the confused look again, and she wondered how many of those she was going to get a day. ‘Your verbal flowchart is…mostly correct.’
She looked up at the zeppelin and watched it hover in the sky for a moment, imagining what kind of– ‘Astrin – the, um, monster at the mansion. Not trying to racist – or possibly species-ist – but his big scary claw hands didn’t exactly look like the kind of things that you use to build a beautiful machine like that.’
‘It’s safe to assume that he didn’t look that way on his world. Making the jump through the void…it mutates a person. Their mind, their body, or both.’
‘That’s the price they have to pay.’
‘Second chances for some; horrific mutations for others. Doesn’t seem fair.’
‘It’s not. It doesn’t have to be.’
‘If I have urges to kill the other recruits, do I have to transfer to Jones?’
He turned to her. ‘Will you act on those urges?’
She smirked. ‘I’ll…try not to?’
‘Those in the tech division do not usually carry weapons.’
‘I’ll really try not to. Plus I like the suit. I always wanted to be a Turk.’
He handed her a small leather cardholder. ‘Your security clearance has been activated. This has your security card, your field ID, and your credit card in it.’
‘What’s the limit?’
‘Recruit, you could require a hundred trillion in any currency into a bank account. What would the point of putting a limit on it be?’
‘I like asking questions.’
‘The mirror is falling the day after tomorrow. Solstice activity is going to be on the rise. If you are not going to give in to those urges, then you’d best go practice. It is unlikely the next person you pull a gun on is simply going to stand there and let you shoot them.’
‘Doesn’t that mean–’
‘No, you can train on your own, though you may wish to try at least being civil with the other recruits, as you will not be allowed to go on missions or patrols by yourself until you have proven ability.’
‘Couldn’t I just go with you?’
‘Not always, so go train, Recruit.’
She gave a lopsided salute, then went back to the lift.
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