Parker-2 felt his eyes water. They had, as they had done, blinked on their own, and resumed staring.
^Hear me, please, hear me!^
^Gods, I can see you, I love you!^
^Tell me you can hear me!^
He stared at his twin, less than a foot away.
All he could do was stare.
It was hell. Hell. It was the one thought that had been in his head for the last few days.
Everything had been normal, and then, everything had been a nightmare. The infirmary had disappeared, and they had awoken, bound and trapped.
It had been a week, and the only part of him had been his eyes, preventing dryness, preventing blindness.
Blindness would have been kinder. At least if he was blind, he could pretend that he wasn’t so achingly close to his twin, frozen and unable to communicate.
The boxes were like plastic coffins. Simple enclosures that would break apart if you could touch them. Real coffins would have been kinder. A coffin would mean death, and death would mean that they’d be together.
One couldn’t live without the other. They were linked. They were always linked.
They had been born in each others arms – whatever quirk of the generation process that created twins still thought it was making one agent, so all the ash and blue combined in the smallest space possible.
He was always there, a presence in the back of his mind, a comforting weight on his heart. He was always there. They couldn’t be apart. They weren’t made to be apart.
^I’ve run out of jokes about distance making the heart grow fonder.^
The channel was dead. It was disturbing, it was so wrong. It was slime and sickness and nails on a chalkboard.
There had been blackout training – but there had been ways to communicate and comfort.
There had been the phoenix, and hours and hours of the channel being dead. That had been manageable, though only because they had spent the majority of the time holding each other.
In his arms. His twin in his arms.
He was the stronger one, that was what people tended to agree on, and it was a worthwhile way to present themselves to the world. Twins – there had to be a good one and a bad one. It was fun to be the bad one.
It was fun, because he didn’t have to be strong on his own.
He tried to force himself to blink, to communicate in any way.
He wished to die.
* * * * *
Stef stared at the fog as the approached it.
As if I wasn’t getting enough Silent Hill vibes.
Taylor stopped suddenly, but she managed to avoid walking into him. He pointed to the ground beneath her feet. ‘Don’t. Move.’
She nodded, and waited for further instructions. Not angering him was still the right move. Whether or not travelling with him was the right move was still up for debate. Still being debated. Still probably the worst idea.
Her head no longer hurt, but the knowledge that he’d rummaged around in her mind sat as an uncomfortable weight. He knew she thought he was a volcano, but there were a thousand worse things he could know.
There was a sharp feeling against her wrist, and she looked down to see him tying fishing wire around her hand.
‘Um-‘ she said, trying to prompt a response.
He gave a short growl. ‘When I exited my area, it disappeared. I am unwilling to be in an area whilst it is…redacted. No assumptions but-‘ he paused for a brief second. ‘Chance of death, it’s tactical to avoid risking it.’
Her shoulders slumped. ‘It’s a dream, you can’t die in a dream. I mean, you can, but-‘ A glare was enough to stall her for a moment, but no longer. ‘I have died in dreams. You either wake up, or you jump to another POV character. I had a dream where I was kidnapped, and the kidnappers blew up the hostages, and when I got blown up, I jumped to someone who didn’t get blown up-‘
‘Mimosa.’ The threat was heavy in his voice.
‘It’s still stupid,’ she said.
He stabbed his finger at the ground again, and she felt sorry for the concrete. ‘Stay, until I pull on the cord.’
She watched him walk slowly into the fog, the barrier between her dream area and whichever agent was next. Hopefully Ryan. A safe wall made of Dad would be excellent against the volcano.
With Taylor gone, the only sound was her own breathing.
It was scary.
She stared at the fog – it was the heavy, swirling kind, despite no breeze to push it around.
There were shapes in the fog, there for the briefest of seconds, then gone again. A face, a hand, a mouth.
Am I imagining things?
I don’t know.
It was like trying to see something from the parade of ghosts when it was too far away, or you were just at the wrong angle, and it looked like nothing more than a cloud.
A face solidified for a moment, then disappeared.
Oh, gods, I have to walk through that.
She dug her nails into her palms.
There was a tug on the fishing line, and she stumbled at the force of it.
She wound it in a loose circle, like a skein of wool as she walked closer to the mist.
A woman’s face slid across the fog, hollow holes staring.
Stef adjusted her bag, ducked her head, and ran into the fog.
The world on the other side of the fog, that was the first thing immediately obvious. What only took a second more to work out was that it was tiny – there was one building, surrounded by fog.
She turned to look back at where she’d come from, and saw a swirling darkness. There were faces and shapes in the darkness, just like there’d been in the fog.
She reached out and touched it, chiding herself even as her hand made contact.
Taylor roared, and she waited for unpleasantness, but nothing happened.
The edge of darkness was smooth, despite the roiling appearance, and felt like glass. She pushed on it, and felt it push back.
‘Mimosa.’ It was amazing how clear the threat was this time, even with his hands by his sides.
She pulled her hand away from the darkness, and looked at the building. ‘Wow, I wonder where the Agent could be.’
‘Don’t assume anything.’
‘There’s nowhere else anyone could be!’
He growled, and she fell into step behind him.
The world was tiny and surrounded by fog. It was bright, but the sky was hazy, hiding the sun behind a thin shroud. Desolate, it felt desolate.
Taylor kicked the door of the warehouse open, Magnolia’s knife in his hand. He’d refused to give her a weapon – though she’d taken a half-burnt stick from the fire, snapped pieces off the end until it was the right length for a wand. At best, leviosa and confundus; at worst, a weapon that could reliably take out eyes at close range.
There was a table. There were two big boxes that looked like fish tanks, each holding what was probably an Agent, if she was allowed to assume. The light in the room changed, and she looked up to see the thin sun through a skylight.
Taylor walked over to the fish tanks, stared for a moment, then punched each of them in turn. They shattered, as most things did in his wake. She walked closer to get a look at who it was – the Parkers.
Taylor braced a hand on one of the doctors, and used Magnolia’s knife to cut through the thick layers of plastic wrapped around his body, then turned and did the same to the other.
Both Parkers made feeble movements, slowly moving towards each other.
Taylor moved Magnolia’s knife again, killing each doctor in turn.
They appeared standing, between her and the ex-fish tanks, naked. They turned to each other, and-
Sex stuff. Sex stuff was definitely going to happen. She ran from the building, rounded it – getting as far from the door as possible, and sat with her back against the corrugated metal, her wand in hand.
She drew on the concrete beside her with the burnt end, leaving a trail of half-formed happy faces.
Taylor approached with the subtlety of an elephant. ‘They-‘
‘I can guess. Please don’t say anything. I don’t need to know anything. Are we leaving?’
He paused. There was a vibration of metal as Taylor leaned against the warehouse wall. ‘They appear to- They are in no state to listen to reason. I’ll try in five minutes.’
She heard screaming, and covered her ears.
This seemed to confuse Taylor. ‘You are with O’Connor,’ he said slowly, emphasising “with”. ‘And they bother you?’
‘Are you actually trying to have this conversation with me? I’m with Curt, but my with isn’t very…withing.’ Her cheeks burnt. ‘Jesus, I know you and Mags are all sex and rock and roll, but with the violence instead of music, but- Sex bothers me.’ She stood and pointed out at the fog. ‘Ok, so there has to be a locational element to this, you were right next to me, and we’re right near the Parkers, so presumably- I think this is a safe assumption, we have proof for it.’
There was only a little growl. ‘Continue.’
‘All of the Brisbane agents are together, so it’s probably based on where we were when we fell asleep or whatever, can you remember when that was?’
Taylor shook his head. ‘It’s like a glitch, there’s no demarcation point.’
She pointed. ‘Which way are we going next?’
She heard the skylight break.
How- How do-
The blacked out area from your spot only takes up a sixth of the circumference. There could be up to five other points connected to here. The doctors are happy making each other feel better, be sensible, use this as a hub so you don’t get trapped.
Huh, you’re kinda smart.
Yeah, Spyder, you are.
The wall near them began to thump, and she closed her eyes. ‘We should just leave them here. There’s got to be at least one or two more areas connected to this bit, we could-‘
‘Yes, I already thought of that.’ He banged a fist against the wall. ‘Don’t leave the area.’
The thumping stopped. ‘I’m not even going to leave his arse!’ one of the Parkers shouted. ‘Or- Or- Yeah, we could do that-‘ the voice said, trailing off. ‘I’ll leave his arse, we’ll stay in the area!’
I need so much brain bleach.
‘We should, um, take it in a round, go in one side of the dark patch, then again and again as necessary-‘
His death glare was back in place. ‘Obviously.’
She started to walk to the fog to the left of the deadened dream world. ‘Left is always right,’ she muttered.
She walked into the fog, not allowing herself to see the shapes, and the people, and refused to allow herself the thought that her face might be in the fog. Or Ryan’s.
‘Hiiiiii!’ a voice shouted as the fog thinned.
Screen stood there, waving a “welcome aliens” sign. ‘Come on, come on!’
‘Lolhi,’ she said, running up to the tech and giving her a hug. ‘You knew I was coming?’
‘Well, not just you, ma’amy ma’am. Oooh, you brought a present,’ she said, grinning as Taylor stepped out of the fog. ‘Hi sir!’
Stef looked around – they were standing on Adelaide street, and space out along the fog’s edge were tech recruits in small huddles in twos and threes. ‘You knew people were coming? You know what’s going on?’
The tech nodded. ‘The dreams and stuff? Yup. It’s Jonesy’s world, we just live in it.’
‘And you’re cool with that?’
The tech looked confused for a moment. ‘Ma’amy ma’am, think about it, I’m not sure I have the capacity not to be cool with it.’
Taylor put a hand on her shoulder, and every bad feeling she’d been keeping under lock and key pushed their way to the surface, and she froze.
Thick fingers curled into her clavicle as he pulled her away from the small group of techs. ‘If the Scholar is aware of what’s going on…why are there other people here?’
‘Because,’ Jones’ voice said, ‘there’s ways to sober up, other than killing yourself.’
Stef dipped her shoulder, awkwardly slipped free of Taylor’s grip, and ran at Jones, throwing her arms around the tech. Safe. Someone other than Taylor. Safe. Jones hugged her back, and the world righted a little.
‘It seems some dreams are thinner than others, you can shake yourself out of it, if you refuse to believe it-‘
‘Lie,’ Taylor spat, ‘I knew mine wasn’t real-‘
‘Flat denial doesn’t work,’ Jones said. ‘And come on, they’re dreams, we can’t expect hard and fast rules. Seen anyone else?’
‘Parkers,’ she said as she pulled herself away from the tech. ‘They’re…Parkering. Nobody else.’
‘Is theirs a hub or closed loop?’ Jones paused. ‘Are there other areas attached?’
‘I think so,’ she said. ‘How about here?’
‘There were four, but two have been closed off, so I’m glad for the hub. There’s only a small section of city here, but I think we should be able to hold a few, but not if our exists get cut off.’ The world blurred as they shifted back into the Agency.
Jones’ lab appeared, and he sat in his usual chair. Stef turned, and hopped up onto the closest bench. Taylor stood and glared.
‘I’ve seen sixty other agents,’ Jones said. ‘Most are moving through, trying to wake others up. We’ve been trying to send people out in a logical pattern, but it’s a little hard to map. We’ve found another couple of hubs, but most areas only seem to have one or two connections. I’m worried about people getting lost.’
‘I saw people in the fog,’ she said, ‘I mean, they could have been hallucinations, but-‘
‘We think they’re the dead. I’m having trouble coordinating with the waking world, I’m only getting a few seconds at a time, and even I can’t take in all the necessary information that way, but I know we’re up over a thousand dead, and for what little detail we can see, we’ve had some positive matches.’
‘I don’t think they’re dead,’ she said, wanting to bring the point up again. ‘I mean, why would they be dead? We’re not- Even when you get rid of everything except the environment, there’s still air, hell, we still had water. That’s either some really lucky magic, or there’s a vested interest in keeping people alive!’
You can’t order me around anymore!
‘I know a couple of people on the list,’ Jones said, ‘trust me, I’d be very happy if they were alive.’
‘You could test the theory,’ Taylor said.
‘Yeah, no. No murder or suicide in my damn lab, thank you. We have to be careful, but we have to accept possibilities.’
‘No, no one has seen him, Stef, he could be off the Parkers’ hub.’ Jones drummed his fingers. ‘Everyone should be coming back within the hour, so why don’t you both chill, and we’ll meet up in the conference room. There’s people here that you might want to see, after all.’
‘Where is she?’
‘She’s not real,’ Stef said quietly.
‘Neither was the one I lost.’
‘She’s with this dream’s version of you. If you’d like, I can get rid of him-‘
Jones’ eyes glowed for a moment. ‘There.’ He pointed, and Magnolia stood in the doorway.
Taylor turned, scooped up the magpie like he was the hero in a black and white movie, and walked out of Jones’ lab.
She stared. ‘Um. Your eyes went all-‘
‘You’ll allow me a particle effect or two, won’t you?’
‘How the fuck-‘
‘I think it’s something like lucid dreaming. I’m sober enough to know I’m dreaming, but it’s still operating under the rules of the dream, so I can manipulate it a bit. I’ve cloned my tech recruits ten times so I can watch the borders, made a laser, and laid in some defences in case things from hostile dreams can cross over.’
‘Could you, um, eye-flsashy me up a Curt? I need hugs.’
‘Just one? I could get you a baker’s dozen if you want.’
‘No- Um- Wait. I mean-‘ she pulled her legs up onto the counter. ‘Is it cheating?’
‘Do you think it’s cheating?’
‘I’m new at relationship stuff, I don’t know what I’m supposed to think.’
Jones rolled his chair closer to her. ‘Do you think he’ll think it’s cheating?’
‘We’ve never had the clone conversation! I told him he can do the sex stuff with whoever he wants, cause, yanno…the cake thing, and he doesn’t want to. So, he doesn’t do that, I shouldn’t do this. Cause cuddles for me is like the sex stuff for him. And-’ Thoughts compiled and ran through different filters. ‘But- Um- He can do the sex stuff himself, and that’s not cheating, cause why would it be- So-’ She intertwined her fingers. ‘So that would be safe.’
Jones stared. ‘A clone of yourself?’
‘I think that should be fine.’ She straightened a little. ‘Plus apparently I has a magic lap, so I should get to try that out.’
Jones’ eyes flashed, then nodded. ‘You know where your room is.’
She nodded, and quickly walked to the elevator, rode it down to the Field floor, then found herself leaning against the door to the room she usually shared with Curt.
Cloney grinned. ‘I’m Spyder, I’ll be your cuddler this evening, may I take your coat?’
‘I’m not wearing a coat, genius.’
‘Bag then, genius.’
She handed her bag off to Cloney, and walked into the room. It looked the same. There should have been differences, there should have been something indicating it wasn’t real, that it was-
Cloney jumped onto the bed. ‘So are we watching stuff, or dedicated cuddling?’
She slowly levered her shoes off. She was dirty, she was burnt. She needed a shower. She needed sleep. She took a step forward, then flomped onto the bed. ‘Just cuddles plz.’
Cloney sat, then lifted Stef’s head onto her lap. ‘You know if you sleep, you’re gonna wake up, right?’
She lifted her arms and hugged them around Cloney’s waist, like Curt did with her when he was tired or sad. ‘I know, I know, but maybe I’ll feel better anyway.’
Cloney began to stroke her hair.
‘Curt’s right,’ she said as she started to drift off, ‘this is a good spot, I does have magic lap.’