Stef felt her nose twitch, a moment later, the smell of coffee happily invaded and she sat up, grasping for the nearby cup.
‘I’ll have to remember,’ she heard Jones say, ‘that if we ever have to wake you up, fairy-tale-style, that all we need is hot caffeine, rather than a handsome prince, princess or primus. You’re very uncomplicated.’
She opened her eyes and took the offered cup. ‘Yeah, that’s me, uncomplicated, that’s why I’ve got so many bugs.’
Jones smiled and pushed himself back toward the largest desk in the room. One which Merlin was sitting on, his over sized lab coat hanging off the edge of the desk, nearly the ground. The little wizard didn’t look up as Jones rolled over though, instead staying enthralled by whatever was on the screen of his sticker-covered DS.
‘Move along a little,’ Jones said, gently pushing the boy’s leg.
Merlin, without looking away from his screen, stuck the stylus in his mouth, and reached back with his now free hand and grabbed the wireless keyboard from behind him, and handed it to the grateful tech.
‘Thank you,’ Jones said, moving his primary keyboard to the desk behind him before typing on this new one.
‘How long was I out?’ she asked as she finished off the coffee.
‘Define “out”,’ Jones said, pausing to look at her in the reflection of his monitor. ‘You were…conscious when you came in, don’t you remember?’
‘Not really,’ she admitted, ‘I kind of switch off and go to my happy place as soon as I see the Butcher of Seville. It’s easier that way.’
‘You were having a lively discussion about the idea of potatoes as livestock, rather than produce.’
‘That’s…actually not one of the stranger thoughts I’ve had in the past three days.’
‘I don’t doubt it. After you likened their physiology to the Kool-aid Man, you started snoring, so I let you sleep.’
‘Huh. Don’t remember that part.’
‘You weren’t cold,’ Merlin said, eyes still glued to the DS, ‘so I didn’t get you a blankie.’
She looked at the back of Jones’ head. ‘The fact that I’m here, and not with them means-’
He nodded, but didn’t turn to look at her.
‘On a scale of faceroll to insanity, how hard is this going to be?’
‘You handled the level one punishment fine,’ he said.
‘You’re about to fsck around with my brain again, please, just tell me.’
‘Any day of the week, I’d prefer the sheer torture side of things, rather than the glitches. Glitches, you can’t tell that they aren’t real, your logic warps to fit whatever scenario that you’re experiencing. Something inane, something unlikely, all things improbable that your mind would rail against under normal circumstances, you accept as truth. Absolute truth. You can’t click your heels and go home. It has to run its course.’
‘But this one should be…fairly minor, right?’
‘Yeah,’ he said, still facing his computer. ‘Level two glitches, most commonly it’s something like…capture by Solstice, or epic failing a mission leading to team member deaths, fairly everyday stuff, but worst case scenarios, if you know what I mean.’
‘So basically I’ll be me-the-recruit again,’ she said, forcing a smirk.
He swung around. ‘Ready?’
She leaned across and handed back the cup. ‘Yeah, go for it.’
He stood, pushed a small cart over to her chair and began to attach electrodes to her head. Whereas the punishment had only required four of them, this time there were eight. Eight, and a cord attached to the top of her spine.
‘I’m not gonna like this.’
‘No,’he said, ‘you’re not. Try to keep this in mind though: soon as you’re done here, you’re done for the day. It’s going to suck, but at least you won’t have…what was Taylor doing today?’
She thought hard for a moment. ‘Dropping cars on me, I think.’
Jones nodded, then sat back at his desk. ‘Three…two…one. Glitch.’
There was a sharp pain in the back of her neck, and a loud whine in her head, everything seemed to get overexposed, then she felt her head bumping against her chest. She opened her eyes, and watched blood leak from her nose.
‘I thought glitches weren’t bloody,’ she said, taking the offered tissue.
‘It’s not so much that,’ Jones said, ‘as it is that the punishments tend to make you bleed more, both take a toll on your physical systems, but the former tends to induce more psychosomatic symptoms.’
‘…I don’t remember anything.’
‘That’s because it didn’t work.’ She watched him roll back to his desk. ‘Congrats, you get a short reprieve. Try not to move though, I don’t want to have to hook you back up.’
Merlin finally looked up from his DS. ‘I won.’
Jones ruffled the boy’s hair. ‘You never did tell me what you were playing.’
‘That really is more fun when you’re playing with the IRL board,’ Jones said, ‘we could have played it better.’
‘Not that life,’ Merlin said as he clapped the hand held closed. ‘And not mine.’
Something about the way he said it made her look up. ‘Am I supposed to be confused?’
The boy slid off the desk, his oversized lab coat sliding on the floor as he walked over. ‘Was playing with other people’s lives.’
‘…I thought you were a wizard, not an evil god.’
He looked hurt at this. ‘But I won,’ he protested. ‘So so did they.’
‘Mister Potter, I’ve had cars dropped on my head today, so parts of my brain might still be lost and looking for their way home, so…mind explaining it to me like I’m a simpleton?’
Merlin sat on a freshly-required seat. ‘Well, there were these two people. I’ll call them Mr and Mrs Smith, even though they weren’t married, just the married-that-isn’t-on-paper-married. I altered the interest on their life savings just a little bit, so now they can afford everything they ever wanted.’
‘A boat shop and a puppy.’
‘Thought you were gonna say a baby. A Smithling, or a Smithette.’
‘Puppies are cheaper,’ Merlin said, then flipped open his DS again.
‘Who’s life are you going to magic now?’
‘I’m not sure I can magic anything with Solitaire,’ the boy said, digging a lollipop from his pocket.
Jones spun around to look at them. ‘Ok, I think we’re good to try again. Had to debug a few lines of code.’
‘Do I have more or less errors than Jurassic Park?’
Jones stared at her. ‘…well, at least you don’t have raptors.’
She rolled her eyes. ‘Fine, hit me.’
This time, her vision changed first – everything going like an exposed photograph until Merlin was nothing more than a burnt, frozen shadow, and then nothing. The whine was shorter this time, disappearing quickly and descending into unintelligible prattle, men talking, words unable to be understood. The pain in her neck came quick, sharp and overpowering, and she heard herself screaming.
She felt a hand on her neck, and the pain stopped. She blinked, trying to see anything. Clawed, furry hands reached for her, turning into bandaged wrapped bloody fists, before melting into the soft familiar hands of Jones.
Everything came back into focus, and she felt herself begin to slide from the chair, supported only by Jones’ arms.
‘I think,’ she whispered, tasting blood in her mouth, ‘you made it worse.’
‘Sorry, sorry, sorry,’ he mumbled, lifting her easily from the chair and placing her on the examination slab. ‘Sit here for a moment, I’ll see where I went wrong.’ A plate of cookies appeared before her, as did a DS, a tiny spider sticker on the bottom left-hand corner. ‘No need to be bored,’ he said, ‘this is going to take me a little while.’
She flipped the machine over, saw that it was Final Fantasy III, turned it back over, turned it on and began to play without complaint. After nearly half an hour, Merlin joined her on the slab, and began to help himself to some of the cookies.
‘You see and hear normally, right?’ Jones said, pushing his chair over to the slab, grabbing one of the cookies for himself.
‘There’s no possible way I can actually answer that,’ she said, brushing some crumbs from her shirt. ‘I mean, I have an idea of what is normal, but it could totally incorrect. Like, some sort of aphasia or something. I mean, I look at you, and a see a pinkskin meatbag with two arms, two legs and whatnot, when you could in fact be a tentacled Lovecraftian horror.’
‘…you know what I mean.’
‘If what I see and hear is based in the correct consensual reality, then yeah, I see and hear normally.’
‘Any changes since getting your overhaul?’
‘Other than the HUD? Yeah, they’re better. More accurate, clearer.’
‘That’s normal.’ He drummed his hands on the slab for a moment. ‘There must be something causing a conflict with your AV equipment then, which is weird, cause everything else seems to work fine. Come on, we’ll try a level one, and I’ll do a live debug, it’ll be uncomfortable, but at least I’ll be able to see where the problem is coming from.’ He smiled. ‘At least this happened here, and not out in the field. You BSOD’ing when you’re supposed to be fighting bad guys would look bad on your record.’
She hopped off the slab, and went back to the chair. Everything was hooked back up, and he went back to his computer. ‘Ok, if we get this working, I’ll shut it down as soon as you begin to glitch, then we’ll go for a clean run. This is pure bug hunting, ok?’
The pain came, but dialed down from the level it had hit before, this time, it was more like a dull ache. The whine was nothing more than an annoying whisper. The problem with her vision was a little more annoying though, it shuddered and flashed, losing focus and becoming sharp, all colours saturating beyond what was possible, before falling off some imaginary cliff and sliding down into monochrome. After only a few minutes, she felt the headache come, and it stayed. She ignored it, trying to focus on getting through this.
At least it was better than the alternative…the inevitable.
One of the cruelest theories surrounding glitches, Ryan had told her, in an effort to prepare her for what was to come, was that they were a reminder by the gods to stay humble. She wasn’t quite sure what he’d meant, and had been too tired to question it further…but the pain in her head was making her begin to understand. It was a reminder that your life was not your own. It was a reminder that your entire life was to serve the system. It was a cruel, divine kick-in-the-balls, but a very good reminder.
They controlled the horizontal. They controlled the vertical.
She sucked in a deep breath, and gripped the arms of the chair even tighter.
Then suddenly, it was over. She looked across at Jones. He hadn’t sprouted horns, nor tentacles, nor anything one would typically associate with nightmares. ‘…I’m not glitching, am I?’
‘Still nope,’ he said, his voice sounding light, but his face looking defeated. ‘Go ahead and unhook yourself.’
She gladly stripped herself of all the implements of pain and stood, feeling the need to stretch. Merlin moved away from his chair and went to lean against Jones, wrapping his arms around the agent.
‘…what’s going on?’
‘You aren’t glitching,’ he said quietly.
‘…isn’t that a good thing? Glitches, are, yanno, bad, right?’
‘It’s not a good thing,’ the tech said as he stood. ‘I can’t make you glitch. There’s something…wrong. The program won’t execute. And it’s not a bug, you aren’t running perfectly, but, if anything, that should make it easier for you to glitch, maybe harder for me to pull you out, but not harder to induce the glitch itself.’
He was pacing. He was nervous. Something was wrong. Something was very wrong.
She swallowed. ‘Tell me what you aren’t saying,’ she said, her voice shaking.
‘Stef, I’m sorry.’
‘If I can’t induce a glitch, it means…the experiment is over. It means you fail.’
‘You’re kidding. You can’t be-’ She looked at his expression, and knew that he was serious. ‘I can’t be an- Wait, does this mean we’re back to killing me again? Are you going to recycle Ryan over this?’ she felt the urge to throw up, but fought it, knowing that puking wouldn’t help her case, and that she could use it was a weapon if she needed to run. An ineffective one, sure, but one that might give anyone who pursued her a moment’s pause.
‘No, we’re not going to execute you. Ryan is safe. It just means-’
‘Just because you can’t-’
‘I don’t make the rules,’ he said. ‘But if I can’t induce a glitch, it’s also a telltale sign that there’s big problems with your code.’
‘So rewrite it.’
‘I can’t. I can do as many modifications as I like, but something like this…it’s essentially taking you back to formula. I would have to write everything from scratch. It would be months of work. They aren’t going to ok that resource expenditure, at least not at the moment.’
‘So what the fuck is going to happen to me then?’
She collapsed down into the chair. ‘I don’t want to go into storage.’
He took a step toward her. ‘I should be able to get you out in less than five years. Seven, tops.’
‘I don’t want to go into storage.’
‘You won’t even notice.’
Jones slid both of his hands into his lab coat pockets. ‘It’s not like you’ll be conscious, Stef.’
‘Dammit,’ she whispered, ‘come on, there’s got to be some other way.’
‘Yeah, sure, I can separate out your agent code from your heart, reboot it a few times, then you should be fine.’
‘…there’s a “but” there, isn’t there?’
‘That depends on you, it might strip away your soul and everything you are.’
‘…I’ll take storage.’
‘It won’t feel like anything,’ he said, a large crate appearing to his left, emblazoned with her serial number. ‘I promise.’
‘Get in the crate, Stef.’
‘Please, don’t make this any harder than it is.’
‘I don’t even get to-’
He reached for her, and grabbed her arm, his thin fingers digging into her flesh. ‘Get in the crate, Stef.’
‘Let me, let me just-’
She pushed him away, and fell back in the chair. ‘Please, just ten minutes. I need to process this.’
‘No,’ he said again as he loomed over her.
‘No!’ she screamed herself, giving him another shove. This time, he fell to the floor, and slid back, and hit his head on the desk. She felt a momentary stab of guilt as she watched him right himself and climb back to his feet. ‘No, dammit,’ she whispered, a horrid lump in her throat, ‘just ten minutes, please.’
‘You can’t do this to me without giving me a chance to say goodbye, or check webcomics, or get a drink, cause I’m really thirsty.’
‘Cause, godsdamn you, I will reach into my chest and-’She cut herself off as a large cardboard sign appeared in his hands.
It said: “It was a glitch”.
He simply shook the sign.
She let out a long breath, and slid from the chair, the electrodes all popping off her head. The floor was cold and hard, but at least it was solid, and she couldn’t fall any further. ‘Ok, so what was real, and what wasn’t, then?’
‘The last thing you said to me was that Taylor had been dropping cars on you, I believe.’
‘So it went off without a hitch?’
The tech nodded.
‘And I’m not going to get put into storage?’
‘We don’t exactly store agents in mylar bags. You’re fine. It was just a glitch.’
She nodded, but stayed on the floor, not feeling safe enough to move. ‘And I’m back in reality now?’
‘How can I trust you?’
‘You’re just going to have to take it on faith, because I’ve just found another forty-eight lines of code I need to fix up.’
She turned to look at Merlin. ‘Are you playing god?’
The boy looked up. ‘Nope, Pokemon.’
Jones handed over her laptop bag. ‘You’ve got to go back to your little cell, but since you’ve got the rest of the day free, may I suggest leveling a Hordie so we don’t have to be on our Alliance alts to play with you?’
‘You did good, Stef. The other two aren’t going to be this easy, but you did good.’ He smiled. ‘We’re done for today, I’ll send you back to your room. You’ve got a couple of hours before Taylor- Before your next session with Taylor.’
She nodded, and hugged herself as he tank appeared. She moved to the bed, and kicked the fridge open with her foot, and turned Frankie on as she grabbed a soft drink.
As Frankie booted up, she slowly reached for her hand, and pinched herself, making sure she wasn’t dreaming.