He cut her, and she screamed.
He dragged the knife down her chest, and cut deeply into her distended belly. She shook, still alive, despite the blood slicking his hands, the floor, the walls, the ceiling. Everything was dripping with blood, and she was still alive.
He dropped the knife, and it shattered like glass on the floor.
Her stomach shook as the agent crawled his way out of the woman, covered in blood, screaming, laughing, rapturous.
The agent pulled himself free of her, and everything disappeared.
The agent stepped forth from the darkness. Petersen. Gleaming and clean, grinning, wrathful.
He looked down at himself, and saw blood.
The agent stepped forth, wrapped a hand around his throat and then pulled away, pulling loose a string of words and blood.
He looked down at his naked, blood self, and saw patches of skin missing where the words had been taken. Bloody holes down to the flesh spelling out “liar” “bastard” “murderer”.
He screamed in argument, but Petersen simply turned away tugging the string as he walked.
He unravelled, spinning and being dragged along, his skin rent from his flesh, one word at a time.
The agent loomed over him, blurring, becoming every person he’d ever met, every person he’d ever fucked, every person he’d ever killed.
Curt opened his eyes.
He felt the familiar, white-knuckled grip on his blanket, the sick feeling in the pit of his stomach. The anger. The shame.
He pulled himself out of bed, stumbled to the door and pulled it open. The bright lights of the hall woke him a little more. No one was around at this hour, no one ever was.
He walked down two short hallways, then through the sliding door of the infirmary. The Parkers were clothed, for once.
‘Your patient!’ the shorter of them called from his desk, and the taller walked out from one of the walk-in storage rooms.
Parker looked at him, and waved him over to the closest bed. ‘Here I was thinking I’d only have hangovers to cure tonight.’
He sat on the bed and rubbed the sleep from his eyes. ‘You need to adjust the dosage again. These ones were working, I thought they were working. I need to be able to sleep,’ he said.
A clipboard materialised in Parker’s hand. ‘How many did you take tonight?’
‘I-‘ He shut his mouth. Shower, pills, bed, that’s how it worked, that’s how it always worked. That’s how it worked when there wasn’t a hacker in his bed distracting him from his routine. ‘Fuck.’
‘Too many?’ Parker asked, his look intense, probably scanning him, ‘or too few?’
‘Sorry,’ he said, ‘I messed up.’
‘That’s not an answer, Curt.’
The doctor leaned closer, cocking his ear toward him. ‘One?’
‘None.’ He looked up. ‘I forgot.’
Parker tapped him on the head with the clipboard. ‘They don’t work if you don’t take them. Stop wasting my time, recruit.’
‘What the hell time is it?’ he asked.
‘Too late to have chemical-assisted sleep, just try and make it through till morning. You can take a nap tomorrow when no-one’s looking. What made you forget?’
‘No one gets away with lying in my infirmary.’
‘I was busy.’
‘Stef.’ He resisted an urge to slap himself. ‘I meant- She stayed the night- I-‘
‘It’s just sex, boy, relax. But your pills don’t work unless you take them.’
‘I know. I know.’
‘Now, is there anything else I can do, or are you going to leave so I can get back to work?’
‘How much trouble is it to get rid of my tattoo?’
‘You finally what to get rid of that eyesore?’
‘Yeah. I do.’
Parker looked around the infirmary, then looked back. ‘What tattoo?’
‘You know-‘ he started, then lifted his shirt. It was gone. ‘It’s that simple?’
‘It’s just ink,’ Parker said, ‘that’s all it ever was, recruit.’
He ran a hand over the skin. It tingled a little, felt new, felt good. ‘Yeah,’ he said, a lump in his throat, ‘just ink.’
‘Get some sleep, Curt,’ Parker said, ‘we’ll be waking the informant in the morning, so hopefully you’ll have leads to work from, and you’ll be useless if you’re tired.’
He gave a nod. ‘Night doc.’
He stood, and left the infirmary, walking back down the quiet corridors and into his room.
Stef sat, illuminated by the light of the toy magic wand in her hands, worry clear on her face. ‘I would have followed you,’ she said, brushing sleep-tousled hair back from her face, ‘but you went to the infirmary, so I didn’t. Are you ok?’
‘You have your nightmares,’ he said as he closed the door, ‘I have mine. I forgot to take my sleeping pills, that’s all.’
‘Do they work?’ she asked.
‘In a way,’ he said as he got back into bed. ‘I still have the dreams, but at least I sleep through it. I hate it, but I guess at least it means I still have a soul.’ He tugged on the blanket. ‘Come on, come under, I’m not getting up yet.’
She put the magic wand on the bedside table and moved, pulling the blanket over her legs, but didn’t lie down. ‘Jonesy’s still way behind,’ she said, ‘I’ve been up for a while making birds. You go back to sleep.’
‘So long as you aren’t tired tomorrow,’ he said. ‘Lie down at least? You may as well be comfortable.’
She didn’t argue, and laid down.
‘May I?’ he asked as he moved closer.
She nodded, and let him hold her. She turned her body and backed up against him, letting him spoon her. Safe. It felt safe. ‘Night,’ he said, closing his eyes.
* * *
Stef let herself relax a little as his breathing grew regular with sleep. Nightmares were something she could sympathise with, and as bad as hers were, at least she couldn’t remember the imagery. Even if it was hell, an hour of screaming, wretched pain half the nights of the week was a small price to pay for being able to wake up the morning after. Any price was worth it, because it let her live.
She opened up her eyes, her HUD resuming exactly where she’d left it off, halfway through making a bird. She completed it, then worked on a two hundred more before she saw a popup announcing Jonesy was back online.
She pinged him, but instead of a response, she was greeted with an invite to join a group chat. Fifty, sixty, no, seventy-five others had apparently pinged him at the same time.
[I’ll make this simple,] Jones said in text only. [Press 1 for overclocking drives.]
She sent  and watched as the group chat filled with ones.
[Ok, they’re coming now,] Jones’ text read. [If that’s all, leave the channel so I can deal with everyone else.]
She dropped from the group chat, and waited patiently for the drives to appear in her hands. Three of them, just as before. She slowly extended her arm, making an effort not to disturb Curt, required away her sleeve, and pressed each drive to her skin. The tips glowed blue, and her skin did the same for a moment as they fused to her. Each appeared as an icon in her HUD, and she activated each.
She dropped back into the bird-making program, and set about sending more and more of the drones out.
Curt shifted a little, curling his body tighter, crushing her against him. Another nightmare, probably. She looked to the clock in her HUD. Three-thirty. If she woke him now, he probably wouldn’t go back to sleep. She dropped back out of the birds and reached for the hands wrapped around her middle and stroked them. ‘Shh, it’s ok, shh.’
He relaxed his legs a little, but kept his grip around her like she was a teddy to keep away the monsters, some sort of totem against the nightmares.
The previous night hadn’t been planned, had just been something that had happened. It had been weird to sleep in a bed, weird to curl up next to someone who wasn’t Ryan, but it hadn’t been unpleasant. Unusual, but not unpleasant. It was-
Christ, would you stop paddling up denial and admit you like it?
I like it.
Was that so hard?
‘You know it was,’ she whispered.
Oi, back in the here, Spyder.
Tears dripped down her cheeks. It’s like playing pretend.
This is the only way I’m ever going to be in a boy’s bed, but at least now I know what it’s like. And it’s nice. And I get to pretend for three seconds that I’m a normal girl. Don’t worry, I’m not mixing fantasy with reality, I know I’m here to be the Wendy-mother, but it’s almost like peeking into another dimension where I’m not some freak, where someone would actually want me.
She turned off the overclocking drives, wanting to save them for later, and they pinched against her skin again as they came loose.
Peter wanted you.
He would have loved any girl. It’s irrelevant anyway, I’m not going to Neverland, I like it here too much. She lifted a hand and brushed the tears away. I wish I was a real girl.
No you don’t.
I want to wish I was a real girl.
You used to wish you were Stephanie as well, where do you think you’d be now if you’d made yourself someone you’re not, Spyder?
Miserable. Or a princess. Maybe both.
And that’s better than being an agent?
Of course not. It’s just…it’s just all that outside-looking-in crap. Even Taylor found someone who can put up with him, and he’s Taylor, why the hell does he deserve to be happy?
Happiness you facilitated, don’t forget that.
Oh, that was entirely selfish, you know that.
I’m not ungrateful for what I have. I’ve got a job, I’ve got family, I’ve got purpose, all of that was unthinkable six months ago. I’ve got so much and now I want more, I guess some of that spoiled brat stuff stuck with me.
So go hit on a tech, or join an online dating thing, if you want something, then you’ve got to start somewhere. You can’t do code without typing, you can’t have-
But I don’t want it. I want- It’s the idea. I like the idea of it. It’s like the princess movies, you totally ship it, even if it’s illogical, even if it wouldn’t work in real life, even if they’re getting married after the first date. It’s all so unattainable and stupid when you try to add reality to the situation. It’s fanciful ephemera before you grow up and realise the truth.
So you’d rather be a coward than take a chance.
I’m talking to a voice in my head at four in the morning, how the hell do you even begin to broach something like you on a first date? Do you wait for the second date? Third date? Spill it while I’m acquiescing to sex? Tell them while being dragged down the aisle?
I’m the least of your problems.
No one would want me. Hardware faults, software faults, I’m not worth the trouble.
You’re not going to listen to me even if I argue, are you?
Absolutely not. She closed her eyes. Besides, I’m content to play pretend.
He cut her, and she screamed.