Stef grunted as she tried to get comfortable – there was something wrong with her pillow. It was warm, yes, and comfortable, it just wasn’t familiar. She curled her hand into a fist and tried to mash the unfamiliar lumps into place, only for this to be met with a grunt of pain.
Pillows in her house generally being of non-speaking variety, she threw herself back from the grunting pillow, losing her balance and nearly falling off the edge of the bed before being caught with strong hands.
‘You should probably open your eyes,’ Ryan said.
She did as she was told and blinked a few times as her eyes adjusted to the light – she was on her bed – well, mostly, two strong agent hands were the only thing stopping her to crashing to the laundry-free floor. He steadied her and she crawled back to the safety of the middle of the bed, one hand landing in a pile of paperwork. Ryan resumed his former position on the bed beside her, lifted the paperwork – and her copy of Wind and the Willows – onto his knees and smiled.
‘See, I told you that you would be all right.’
She lifted a hand to her head, and nodded. ‘Yeah, I do feel a lot better.’ She gave him a confused look. ‘Was I using you as a pillow?’ He nodded. ‘Sorry.’
‘It wasn’t the first time I’ve been used in that capacity, and I doubt it will be the last, so don’t worry about it.’
‘How long was I out?’
‘Only three hours.’
She folded her legs beneath her. ‘Ok, first thing’s first, can you help me cash in my life insurance policy?’
He flipped open the top folder of his pile of paperwork. ‘According to this, your family already did.’
Her shoulder slumped. ‘You’re shitting me.’
‘They also took the contents of your bank account.’
‘Wonderful. They’ll waste it on one party. What the hell am I supposed to do now? Oh wait…’ She held out her hands. ‘Money, money, money, require: money.’
He silently swore as she looked up at him with a confused look on her face. ‘Did I forget the magic word?’
‘The ability to require is severed at death. It’s a security protocol.’
‘Ah,’ she said and looked up at him. ‘In that case, require: coffee.’ She stared at him until a white mug appeared in his hand.
‘Thanks.’ Her stomach growled and she barked at it after she downed the mouthful of coffee. ‘Since I seem to have puked out the contents of my stomach, can I fill it back up? Cause if this is one of those “you can’t eat” deaths, I’m going to off myself with a spork.’ A sudden, and very uncomfortable look crossed his face. ‘Yeesh, sorry, didn’t mean it, and it’s not like I’d really use a spork, there are much more efficient ways.’
The uncomfortable look disappeared, but in its place was an expression far more neutral than she was used to. ‘You’re hungry, of course, it’s natural, I’ll require whatever you want.’
She shook her head. ‘No, I want to go out. I’ve been immobile for a month, and if I’m saying that I want to get out for a while, then the situation is pretty freaking dire. I just want to go down to Chinatown and grab something. I think my legs can carry me that far. I think.’
‘If they can’t, I’ll be there.’
‘K…’ she mumbled as she pushed herself off the bed and stumbled toward her wardrobe. ‘I can live with the funky new chair, but what did my wardrobe door ever do to you?’
‘I had to remove it.’
‘Can I have it back? It defeats the purpose of hiding in a wardrobe if you don’t have a door to close behind you.’
He snapped his fingers and it was replaced.
‘Now, um…’ She looked down at herself. ‘I don’t know if you awesomed these clothes on me or if you saw my shame.’
‘I’m an agent, we’re gentlemen by default. You-‘
‘I meant my scars,’ she said quietly. She shook her hands. ‘Not the point. Get out of my room so I can get changed.’
‘As you wish.’ He rose and walked from the bedroom, closing the door behind him.
I-
You’re alive.
I can’t-
You’re awake.
She walked over to the wardrobe, undressing herself on autopilot.
This can’t-
You’re fine.
She held a hand to her bare chest, feeling the lack of heartbeat.
I’m going to-
You’re alive, you’re awake, you’re fine.
‘Pants,’ she said aloud, ‘pants are definitely needed.’ She groped at the high shelf and pulled down a pair of faded black cargo pants.
I don’t have a heartbeat.
Maybe it’s beating so fast it just seems like its standing still.
Don’t you dare try and fool me with science.
Was worth a try.
She turned her head to look at her collection of shirts – a strangely ordered collection of shirts. ‘Oh, bugger…’
She walked over to the door, and stared at where she thought the agent would be on the other side. ‘Did you organise my wardrobe?’
‘Yes,’ came his answer from the other side of the door.
‘Why the hell would you do that?’
‘I was…bored.’
She wished her stare could penetrate the door. ‘How am I supposed to find anything now? I mean, it’s not like I plan what I’m going to wear, but if it’s organised, then how am I-?’
‘You have four seconds before I require a shirt for you.’
‘You wouldn’t.’
‘Four…’
She silently counted down as she stared over at her organised wardrobe. ‘See, knew you wouldn’t-‘ Something brushed against her skin. Something awful.
She dropped to the floor and tried to pull the horrid thing off, but the complicated top stayed obstinately on. Ribbons criss-crossed with other ribbons, preventing her from escaping it. Ruffles scratched at her neck, fashionable frills mocking her as she still failed to escape the horrible thing.
Worst of all, it was pink.
‘You’re evil!’ she screamed at the closed door. ‘Four seconds is like…’ Something unfamiliar escaped her throat. A laugh, a real laugh – not one mocking herself, not one mocking someone else, but a real laugh.
You’re laughing?
I’m alive, I feel-
‘-good. I feel good.’
She stopped tugging at the ribbons then leaned back against the door. ‘Can I please have a real shirt now?’
The pink abomination was replaced with a plain gray t-shirt. She nodded, stood and pulled the door open. ‘Where did you find that…shirt?’
‘It’s the magenta-‘
‘Call it what it was, it was pink.’
‘Magenta.’
‘Narc.’
‘-version of something Magnolia wore last week.’
‘Ok, ready.’
‘Are you sure you’re feeling up to this?’
‘Peking duck is calling. Plus, I’ve been dead a month, the sky might have turned red or something in my absence.’
‘Speaking of which…’ he said as he reached into his pocket. He handed her his sunglasses. ‘You should wear these.’
She slipped them on. ‘Any reason?’
‘You haven’t opened your eyes in a month, it’s possible that sunlight could temporarily blind you.’ He snapped his fingers and they disappeared from the apartment.
The hustle and bustle of dinner-time Chinatown met her eyes as she blinked. ‘Now where?’ he asked.
‘This way,’ she said as she started toward her favourite restaurant. After a moment, she froze, unable to move.
He put a hand on her shoulder. ‘Are you all right?’
‘Have you ever stayed up for four days straight doing a hack, so strung out on coffee that you can feel it bouncing around in your veins, that you lose yourself? That…you catch a glimpse of yourself in the monitor and wonder if that’s the real you, and you’re just the shadow? And that as soon as this little glimmer of light goes away that you’ll disappear forever?’
‘No, but I was once caught in a blackout zone and injured to the point where my memories began to fragment…and I wasn’t sure what was the memory, and what was really happening to me.’
As uncomfortable as it made her, she leaned back against his hand. ‘I want to be numb. I want to feel something that’s as strange as what’s happening to me. I want coffee.’
A hand appeared over her other shoulder, a plain white paper cup of coffee in it. She gratefully took a sip, then grimaced. ‘How many sugars is this?’
‘More than enough.’
‘It only tastes like eight.’
‘Which is more than enough.’
She shrugged. ‘Not if you’re me.’ Falling silent, she quickly downed the rest of the coffee. ‘Ok. Better. Not completely better, but better enough.’
She began to walk again, then nervously grabbed his sleeve as he fell into step beside her. Everything was so…new. She could feel the concrete under her feet, the gentle breeze was the strongest thing she’d ever felt, all the sounds were as strange as if she’d never heard them before.
It was like being a tourist in her own body.
All she wanted to do was run back to her unit, lock the door and stay there forever. Surely it was safer than feeling like the only black and white thing in a technicoloured world. She felt out of place. Out of time. Out of her mind.
‘The only other time,’ she said as she stopped to fiddle with her shoe. ‘That I’ve ever felt like this is the morning after that hack. Or afternoon. Whenever I woke up from the mini-coma. I came down here.’ She pointed the McDonald’s. ‘And went there. I wanted food. I was out of food, and I didn’t trust myself to even boil water.’
‘It’s fast food,’ he reasoned. ‘How hard could it be to-?’
‘I tried to order food. I ended up sprouting Beowulf instead.’
He stopped walking. ‘Since this is you, I have to ask-‘
‘Old English,’ she said, anticipating the question. ‘They thought I was a tourist.’
He smiled and shook his head. ‘Did your “breakfast” eventu-?’
A bullet silenced him.
She watched as he fell to the ground, almost in slow-motion, his face slamming into the cobbled brick before he unceremoniously broke apart and disappeared, leaving only a few blue sparks for a split second.
This, Spyder, is the part where you run.
She looked over to where the shot must have come from.
Aren’t I running?
You’re being a target, that’s what you’re doing. Run.
She shook her head, snapping herself awake, ran a few steps and threw herself behind one of the large stone planter boxes.
Yeah…this isn’t much better. Run…more? I know it isn’t an activity you enjoy, but this is one of those times where you have to listen to me.
The ground shook as an explosion rocked the upper part of the mall. Ryan reappeared, and ran towards it.
Get up.
She got to her knees and looked over the planter box – two Solstice were dragging a screaming young man down the mall. He was doing all he could to impede them, but the kidnappers were much stronger – practically carrying him between the two of them.
No. Don’t.
She turned and looked at the store behind her, lying near the door was a short length of thin pipe – the kind used to help open and close the roller doors – she scrambled across and grabbed it, took a few quick, sharp breaths and ran after the Solstice.
You’re going to-
Don’t want to hear it.
Since when the fuck is Stef Mimosa a hero?
…wanting to beat people with pipes is being a hero now? Order my cape!
She swung the thin pipe and hit the first cultist – he shouted in pain and released his grip on the young man – the second cultist tightened his grip on the boy and kept running. She lifted the pipe and hit him again, and this time, the pipe bent.
‘What’s your fucking deal?’ he yelled as he tore the pipe from her hand. He raised a hand to his head, but his expression changed when he looked up at her.
Remember that thing about running?
‘Recruit.’ He said. ‘Shoulda fucking known it.’
Thinkthinkthink! ‘Kidnapping people is bad, lol?’
He grabbed her by the shirt, punched her, pulled the sunglasses from her face and let her fall. ‘These are recruit glasses.’
‘No, they’re knockoffs!’ she said, grabbing her bleeding nose. ‘Bought them at the market for ten bucks.’
‘Then I guess it doesn’t matter that we just set off a blackout bomb.’ She couldn’t keep the horror off her face, and his expression changed from anger to victory. ‘Don’t lie to Solstice, recruit. Only makes us enjoy the kill even more.’
Require: gun.
Damn.
Require: gun.
She tried to push herself up, but earned a boot to the face for her trouble.
Require: gun.
The cultist pulled out a gun.
Not exactly what I had in mind.
‘Ry-Ry-Ry…’
The cultist lifted the gun.
Gods, no!
‘Pl-ple-please…’ she lifted shaking hands. ‘Ple-ple-please-pl-please please don’t.’ Her legs felt like ice – she was sure that even if she’d been able to stand, that she wouldn’t have been able to run. ‘Please don’t.’
‘You’re a recruit.’
‘I’m not, I’m not, not-not-not, pl-please don’t.’
Require: gun. Require: gun. Requirerequirerequirerequire…
The cultist shook his head. ‘Not gonna let you live, just so you can kill me.’
You’re so pathetic. You should have run.
She took a deep breath and lowered her hands. ‘Can I at least stand up?’
‘No,’ he said, and fired.
She saw the muzzle flash, and felt the impact. Unable to control herself, her head dropped back.
Gotta get up…why aren’t you telling me to get up?
Spyder, you can’t feel your legs.
A dark spot appeared in her vision, and everything began to go gray.
Oh.
That’s it? No screaming, no crying, no-
Shut it.
-no bargaining? Come on, Spyder, react!
…why?
There was one bright spot left in her vision, and she clung to it.
Because you’re going into the darkness, and that’s going to be it.
I know that.
Be scared already!
No, you can be the scared one this time.
There’s nothing irrational about-
The bright spot began to grow dark.
I brought this on myself.