Stef tried to scream. She tried to shout. She tried to smile. She tried to cry.
Her body refused to move.
Curt stared down at her, the best thing she could have seen. ‘Newbie?’
‘She’s awake.’ Merlin’s voice. ‘She can hear you. And me. But she’s thinking about you.’
Wizard! Yes! Awesome! Not awesome! Why can’t I move?
Her eyes started to dry out.
‘Are you ok?’ Curt asked, squeezing her hand. She could feel, but she couldn’t move. Weird. Contradictory.
Merlin leaned over her head from behind her, blocking her view of Curt. ‘Are we going to tell you everything, or are you going to tell us everything?’
I can’t move! Why can’t I move?
It was like the weirdest kind of itch, the absolute need to move, to- She was breathing. She was breathing on her own, there was no mask on her face. She concentrated, feeling breath rush over her tongue.
She tried to stop her breathing. It took concentration, but she interrupted the autonomic pattern. More concentration, and she was able to move her tongue.
A blink took every ounce of strength she had, but her world righted a little.
Sorry, what? It’s weird to- She concentrated, and stared into her HUD – all of the functions were still there, the system was still there. There were alternatives to letting the little wizard dig around in her brain.
She felt the weight of a speaker on her chest, and synched it up with her HUD.
‘There,’ her voice said, coming through the speaker, ‘that’s a little better. HUD FTW, right?’
Curt stood and looked at someone else in the room. ‘Is this on the plan for waking Agents?’
‘Yes, Agent C. Access to the collective unconscious has been blocked, because a couple of Agents tried to push their minds there, and things didn’t go so well, HUD-to-external-speaker doesn’t seem to have any problems though.’ Raz paused. ‘The longest anyone has been awake is forty-five minutes, so brevity is king here.’
Curt looked back at her. ‘Stef-‘
‘I think I got a better deal than Neo,’ her voice said through the speaker as she concentrated on trying to make her mouth work. ‘At least I’m not naked and covered in goo.’
‘Don’t give people ideas, ma’amy ma’am,’ Screen said from somewhere.
Curt squeezed her hand. ‘So- So you know what’s going on?’
‘Absolutely no fucking clue,’ she said. ‘I’ve got a sample size of two, if Taylor was even real, and we basically went through glitches-‘
‘Every Agent is stuck in a shared dream,’ Curt said.
‘The fuck do you mean every Agent?’ she demanded, the speaker going crackly for a moment.
He put his ultra-serious face on. ‘I mean every Agent. Every Agency. The whole world. Some are missing, some are dead, and none have managed to get back up, just- Just paralysed and awake like this, newbie.’
Oh, gods.
‘Newbie?’
‘Ok,’ she said, the speaker being able to replicate the wibble in her mind. ‘This is what I know. Me, Taylor, both had nightmares or glitches. You can pass from one area to another, he came into my…dream area, if we’re calling it that. It takes…effort to be able to ignore the dream reality. It’s like a glitch, you can’t tell it’s real. Taylor is Taylor, he decided to-‘
‘What’s his condition?’ Magnolia. Curt was pulled out of her vision, and Magnolia appeared, a lot closer to her face than she felt comfortable with. ‘What is his condition, Mimosa?’
‘He’s a psychotic T-800, as usual.’
‘Mimosa,’ Magnolia growled.
‘He had a nightmare about losing you that was so bad he offed himself.’ This made Magnolia back off a little. ‘You’d better not die for real, else I think we’ll all be fucked. He also made me eat myself.’
‘Kinky,’ Magnolia said with a raised eyebrow. ‘I didn’t know you were so flexible, Mimosa.’
‘Huh?’
‘Newbie, explain what happened.’
‘If you die, or get killed in your spot, like, everything disappears. The buildings stay, but pretty much everything else disappears. Only the environment loads, the other assets disappear. Also, if you die, you respawn, but your dead body stays. There was nothing to eat, so…extrapolate…’
‘Oh, god,’ Curt said, ‘are you ok?’
‘I’ve said-‘
Someone slapped her across the face. Her vision stuttered for a moment, changing from Mags and Curt to Taylor and back again. Huge hands gripped her shoulders and shook her. Taylor hit her again.
‘Stoppit!’
He let her go, and she fell to the floor, the wind rushing from her lungs.
‘You were non-responsive,’ he said calmly, poking the fire with a stick. ‘Your turn. Wake me at eight.’
‘I-‘
He grabbed her by the collar and lifted her from the floor. ‘Don’t argue.’
‘I woke up,’ she said as she dangled from his hand.
He glared. ‘Yes. I know. Because I hit you.’
Her ears still rang from the blows – he’d hit her really hard this time. ‘Not- Not here,’ she said as he dropped her onto her feet. ‘There.’ Her head spun. ‘Reality. Home. Agency.’
‘What are you talking about?’
‘I woke up for reals,’ she said, ‘when- I went to sleep here, I woke up there-‘ She raised a hand to her head, and felt blood. ‘Jesus, how hard did you hit me? I think you have to stop hitting me in the head. God-‘ Her head spun again. ‘Were- Were you trying to kill me? Actually, do kill me, it might make me-‘
‘Did you see Magnolia?’ He had the voice of an angry god. There was a hand on her shoulder, and she couldn’t wriggle out of it. ‘Did you see her-‘
‘Yeah- But- I think I need to sit down-‘ She tried to sit, but he held onto her, his other hand raising to grip the back of her head.
Wait, what are you-
The hand came off her shoulder and pressed against her head.
Oh, god, no!
‘No, no, no!’ she screamed, even as she raised her hands to try and pull his away. ‘Please, don’t-‘
Heat seared her mind as he tried to force a connection. She started screaming, and shaking her head to try and throw him off. It was impossible- It was-
Everything turned to pain.
Her legs gave out, but he held her up.
There was the weird shadow sensation of fingers in her brain – they weren’t really there, but it was the only way to interpret the searching, questing so-real-not-quite-real feeling of an attempted Agent mind meld.
She puked, chunks of her own half-digested flesh flying out to onto his uniform.
He shook her head in frustration, and pushed her to the ground.
She threw up again, tears of relief coming unbidden at the respite from the pain, and the fingers in her brain.
He came down on top of her, crushing her to the ground. Both of his hands grabbed her head, and for a moment, he simply held her, hands squeezing as if considering popping her skull.
She felt the fingers in her mind, and gave up trying to struggle.
It hurt. It hurt so much.
It was angel magic, one of the few things that went above teleporting and conjuring. Last resorts to use in dire situations. Wings for escape, words to bring down rogue agents, mind reading for when the truth was worth the cost.
It wasn’t something to be taken lightly. It wasn’t something you joked around with. It was the worst side of angel magic.
It was something you used on your enemies when lives hung in the balance.
It was something you used on traitors.
It was something you used, when Duty demanded it.
Red obscured her vision as he clumsily tried to force himself into her.
Decision or not, she was screaming, she was trying to move, but it was like being under a cement truck. He had her entire body pinned. Controlled. Helpless.
It was easier to use on an Agent – blue made the connections easier, it still hurt, and it was still messy, but the blue at least served to facilitate it, to dull the pain, if only by the tiniest amount.
Humans had no protection.
And she was nothing but human.
Breathing became hard.
There was an audible click as the connection finally slipped into place.
There was a half-second joyous relief from pain, and then everything dropped away.
All awareness of the world slipped away as he pulled her into her own mind.
She opened her eyes, and found herself staring at glow-in-the-dark stars. Her wardrobe. Her wardrobe in her apartment. A safe place. Alexandria was there. She lifted the doll and hid her face in the red curls.
Taylor was in her mind, there was nothing she could do about that.
Mind space was weird. It never had a set look, or a set way of operating. Everything was literal though – all awareness of the outside world disappeared, so you were free to walk and to move. It felt like, for a given value, reality.
’You have to get out there. The sooner he sees what he wants. The sooner he’ll leave.’
’I can’t.’
Spyder-
What if he hurts me more?
Alexandria was pulled from her hands, and her own hands reached down for hers.
It took a moment to look up, to see herself. Her self that wasn’t self. Her other self. Her bolder self. Her wiser self. The voice in her head. Her. Her-not-her.
’Well, this is weird.
Her other self nodded. ‘I know.’
She grabbed her hands and stood. ’Can- Can you come back in here? Um- You know what I mean- I’d rather not give him more ammunition.’
Her other self quirked an eyebrow, then faded into mist.
So, um, you in here?
You do realise that in here is the same as out there for the moment, right?
Yeah, but appearances are everything.
She slowly walked out of her old bedroom, past a Frankie in sleep mode, and her usual assortment of snacks. She popped a piece of chocolate into her mouth, then opened the bedroom door.
The door disappeared as soon as she opened it, folding in on itself until it disappeared.
A cube, blue and white and silver, hung suspended in the air of the next room, slowly morphing and flexing like a living thing. The cube grew extra sides, folded and unfolded.
The air was filled with the sound of a wine glass rim, and the occasional snatches of static.
Yeah, that’s about what your brain looks like.
Taylor was punching it.
Memories broke off as shattered panes of mirror.
He stepped on each as they fell, and snatches of memories projected into the air.
Death. Chaos. The firestorm that had been holding the phoenix. Ryan. Close ups of suits that had to be hugs.
‘Stop it, please.’
Her voice was so tiny in comparison to the sounds of the room – of her mind – and of Taylor’s sounds of frustration.
Tread carefully, please.
Can’t I go back to hiding till he’s done?
Taylor looked up, and saw her. ‘Where. Is. She?’ He stalked towards her. ‘Your mind is disorganised. It is unacceptable!’
She could fight. He’d hurt her. She could struggle. It would hurt worse.
He hit her, and the static grew louder.
‘I’ll try!’ she shouted as he raised his hand again.
Magnolia. Focus on Magnolia. The cube stopped spinning, and one side turned into a circle and slowly turned to face them. The side became a screen, and a hundred images of Magnolia filled it. Smirks. Insults. Cruelty.
Taylor grabbed a handful of her hair, and growled.
Magnolia. Recent Magnolia. Newest memories.
The screen flickered, and replayed the brief moments she’d seen Magnolia.
‘Again.’
Halfway through the memory this time, he reached out to the screen, and touched Magnolia’s face.
‘Is. That. All?’
‘I was only there a few minutes!’
‘Unacceptable,’ he snapped. ‘You learned nothing of value. You told them nothing!’
He glared at her, then the world disappeared. There was an uncomfortable, almost sticky feeling as the connection broke, the feeling that the not-real-fingers had chunks of her brain on them.
He took his hands away from her head, and let himself fully collapse on her, his chest crushing her face.
She cried, and slowly tried to extricate herself from under the agent, but her hands refused to work correctly.
At least twenty minutes passed.
The wiggling must have bothered him though, and he rolled to the side, allowing her to get free, then he stood and glared down at her. ‘You didn’t learn anything,’ he snapped, blood from his nose dripping down onto her. ‘I have no intel to work with!’
Only one thought could solidify in her ravaged mind. ‘You’re worse than Clarke.’ She curled in on herself, and cradled her head.
There was blood coming from seemingly everywhere. The taste of it was in her mouth, it covered her cheeks, and there were still streaks of red in her vision.
‘Clarke assaulted you, this was information retrieval. If you’d known anything.’
She closed her eyes against him, the last defence she had left.
‘This was so you could see Mags,’ she said, unable to stop herself. ‘This had nothing to do with Duty. Don’t-‘
His foot pressed into her side. ‘Shut up, Mimosa.’
‘The worst part is,’ she said, tears dripping onto the floor. ‘I would have let you. I would have let you! I get that you love her, and that you wanted to see her, I get that! I would have let you see her! You didn’t have to- You just had to give me a minute to prepare! I wouldn’t have fought you, you didn’t- You didn’t have to violate me like that!’
She had to leave. Staying was dangerous. Staying would get her hurt more. He was dangerous. Hitting people as a form of communication was okay when those people were a) Agents or b) Magnolia…not weak human hacker girls who probably already had a concussion.
He was strong. Too strong. He was scary and strong, and still probably grieving, despite confirmation his wife was alive.
He’d kill her. By accident or by malice, he’d kill her.
And she had people to get back to.
She stood on shaky legs. ‘I- I have to find somewhere to take a shit.’
‘Use the other room,’ he said, his expression back to its default glare.
‘Um,’ she said quietly, ‘no. I’ll be back in a few.’ She looked around the room – supplies didn’t exist in the silent apocalypse, and it would be suspicious to take too much. The food was impossible, the water was impossible.
She snatched up her bag. ‘Gotta have something to wipe with,’ she said, then turned for the store’s open door.
Anyone was better than no one.
Anyone was better than no one. Safety in numbers. It was dangerous to go alone.
I am likely to be eaten by a grue.
Taylor was the stuff of nightmares, but he’d been getting better. He’d still randomly hurt her, or “test” her if she had to come down to the Combat department. He still hated her, but he’d managed to call her by rank once or twice…so he at least hated her like he hated other Agents, instead of as the freak-thing that she was.
She dropped to her hands and knees and started to cry.
He’d saved her.
He’d stopped Clarke from absconding with her drugged body. He’d saved her. If he hadn’t- There were thoughts her mind couldn’t have, and those were on the top of the list.
This dream had been a backslide into caricature, into the terror that haunted the shadows of Agency corridors. It wasn’t fair.
She let her body collapse onto the floor.
If he killed her, it didn’t matter. If he left her there, it didn’t matter. If the dreams collapsed, it didn’t matter.
He picked her up.
He was going to snap her spine. Crack her over his knee like a piece of kindling. He put her down on something soft – his jacket, and moved away.
Consciousness and coherence sharpened and dulled in uneven waves – there was no sleep, but there was some form of relief. He hadn’t hit her again, and he hadn’t started to cook her – yet.
The pain faded, due likely in no small part to the three injections he jabbed into her rear – all three done at points where sleep had been the closest.
She sat up – it was hours later, evidenced by the sun being up.
Taylor sat in the doorway, chewing on a piece of the jerky. There was a pad on his knee, and a pen in his hand that looked so tiny compared to the massive fingers.
Fingers that had been in her brain.
She winced, and felt her heart skip as he turned to look at her.
Getting Taylor’s attention always felt like being noticed by a turret, or a sphinx, or a dragon. It was attention you didn’t want. Attention that likely meant pain was to follow.
He moved forward, grabbed one of the bags of water, and laid it on the floor beside her. She slowly sat up, trying not to make sudden movements, trying to not make him angry. She unscrewed the lid from the bag, and gratefully gulped down the water. If he’d poisoned it, at least she wouldn’t die thirsty.
She took a look around – the fire had long since died, the pouches and kits had been cleaned up, and the bags had been packed.
‘Pain?’
She concentrated for a moment, then shook her head. All of the pain was gone – there didn’t seem to be any bruising on her face, the weird fingers-in-brain feeling was gone. ‘No,’ she said quietly, ‘I’m ok. What’d you give me?’
‘Fae. Limited med kit. Seemed prudent to heal your injuries. I still have blue.’
‘Th- Thanks. That’s-‘ She looked down at the floor. ‘Thank you.’
‘You. Could have been fake.’
‘Huh?’
‘There was a chance.’
She considered this. ‘But you figured out this stuff first, why’d you think-‘
‘Couldn’t assume anything.’
‘Did giving me a concussion or three help?’
‘Magnolia was real. The first you I saw was real. There are no rules. There can be no assumptions. Everything- I had gained no new information that a glitch could not have used.’
She tilted her head at him. ‘That’s actually a fantastic point. If our sample size is true for everyone else, then everyone is experiencing an alternate reality, glitch reality, whatever, but it can only be based off what they know. That’ll probably be a good way to root out the PC in a sea of NPCs if we don’t know whose dream we’re in.’ She paused, and put her hands against her head, unwilling to forget the violation. ‘But- So, digging around in my brain convinced you?’
‘That was not Duty. That was not information retrieval. It was wrong.’
‘If you’re going to apologise, then actually say that you’re sorry!’
‘I’m sorry, Agent.’
Tears welled up again. ‘I would have let you see her, I really would have. Just- You didn’t see anything else, did you? Not, like, personal stuff? And did you have to punch my brain?’
‘It was resisting me.’
‘No shit, Sherlock. You didn’t do any permanent damage, did you?’
‘Mild confusion for a limited period at most.’
She tried to smirk. ‘I’m always mildly confused.’ She wrapped her hair around her fingers. ‘You didn’t say what convinced you yet. I mean, everything that I saw with Mags could have been a construction of your brain, not that I want you treating me like shit again, I just need to know you’re convinced.’
His expression was unreadable. ‘You think I’m a volcano.’
She blushed and hunched her shoulders. ‘Well-‘
-you kinda area.
‘It is not an epithet I would extrapolate you using to refer to me. It is not something I would create as part of a glitch.’
‘You could find that, and you couldn’t find the memories of Mags?’
‘Specific memories require cooperation or a tracing program. It’s easier to find thoughts that relate to yourself.’
‘I’m- I’m really not cool with the fact that you were in my head. My head is-‘
‘Your insanity is a matter of Agency record. I was not looking to exploit you. I have no interest in your thoughts. I needed to confirm a theory.’ He paused. ‘I needed to see Magnolia.’
It was as much of a resolution as they were going to get. Asking for another apology was dangerous. He wouldn’t have wasted limited medical supplies if he was going to hurt her again. Probably. She was safe. Probably.
‘You could have tried going to sleep yourself, you know.’
‘No. Waste of time. We need to find the others, and to get out. That is all that’s important.’
She rubbed her fingers together. ‘How do we proceed?’
‘I know where the next barrier is. We move in, gather supplies if possible, find the agent, and repeat.’
She hugged herself. ‘If I go to sleep again, I’ll try and do better. Communicate more info. Do- Do you want a message or anything from Mags?’
He went silent or so long that she got up to grab her bag.
‘No need,’ he rumbled, ‘she already gave me one.’
‘Um, I was there, she kinda didn’t.’
‘We have non-verbal methods. She used one method. Blinks. She likely assumed I would get the information-‘
‘Which is why you’re perfect for each other.’ She adjusted the shoulder strap of her bag. ‘What did she say?’
Taylor glared. ‘This is an emergency situation, Mimosa, where she had little time to communicate vital information.’
Stef looked down at Taylor – sitting on the ground, he was actually shorter than her for once. ‘She said that she loves you, didn’t she?’
He grunted. ‘As I said, vital information.’