Stef quick-stepped through the tech department, and hit the button for the elevator – which again, took exactly eight seconds before appearing. Requiring, she was used to, shifting, she was getting used to, the elevator on the other hand remained just as disconcerting as when she’d figured out that it was magic.
She took the elevator down, back to the field department’s floor, and immediately missed the tech floor – the walls here were too Spartan, not that she expected the latest update of xkcd to be regularly flashing across the walls, as it was upstairs, but something other than neat little number plates on the doors and the occasional noticeboard or emergency evacuation plan would be nice.
And nowhere had the “emergency water and sandwiches room in case you get lost” room marked on it. It had to exist, she was sure of it.
‘Hurry up newbie,’ Curt called as he exited the gym just ahead of her, a wet towel wrapped around his neck. ‘You’ve got to be faster to report.’ The towel disappeared, and a suit replaced his sweaty training outfit as he walked.
‘I was upstairs, I can’t teleport, you know.’
‘I know, it’d be marked on you file if you could.’
The door to Ryan’s office was open, and he ushered her in first – Enid and Lisa were already waiting for them, Curt closed the door behind them, and they fell into line next to the other recruits.
She took a moment to notice the varying degrees of uniform that they wore – Curt’s full, fresh uniform was impeccable, she wore everything except the jacket, but it was far more rumpled than Curt’s was. Enid wore her training uniform, a soft pink shirt replacing the normal blue one, and Lisa wore what looked like hardly more than a bra under her open jacket.
‘The leech that Magnolia has been tracking has resurfaced,’ Ryan said. ‘You’ll be moving out in five minutes.’
‘What’s the location, sir?’ Curt asked.
‘There’s a cannery up the river, near the port, we had a triple-o call routed to us – they’re evacuating now. You shouldn’t have any civilians to worry about.’ A large map appeared in his hands. ‘I’ve marked your entry points on here, and its last known location.’
Curt took the map. ‘Sit room, now,’ he said to them, and the other two girls immediately followed him out. ‘Newbie!’
‘Gimme a sec,’ she said without turning to look at him.
The door was closed, and she looked up at Ryan. ‘You know I still can’t shoot straight, right?’
‘So far as first field missions go, this one is relatively easy.’
‘Yeah, except for the fact that Astrin is big and scary and has teeth all the better to eat hackers with, and I don’t think you want us to give him tea and biscuits when we find him.’ The world wasn’t built for fairy tales, she knew that, the world wasn’t built for fair tales, she knew that as well, but this…this was just a little too unfair.
‘It’s always hard the first time.’
She pressed a hand against the side of his desk. ‘I was working for him first, you know.’
‘I know that,’ he said. ‘But there’s something you don’t understand about leeches. For every leech that comes to this world, no matter the kind of person they may be, or how pure their intentions may see, they tip the scales towards chaos. Those that escape their own dying worlds can cause the end of others. Chaos was the beginning of all things, but is also the end of everything. This world is a lot more fragile than most. Anything could tip the scales out of our favour.’
‘I…’
He rounded the desk and put a hand on her shoulder. ‘We do what we do to protect the world. So that humans can continue to be human. It’s not evil, it’s simply serving the interests of the greater good.’
‘It’s just one life…’
‘One extra keystroke can spin a program out of control. One missed command can ruin a hack. One extra kilo can sink a ship.’
‘Why aren’t you yelling at me for thinking like this?’
‘Do you think I relish taking innocent lives? To destroy those brave enough to journey between the worlds?’
‘No…’
‘I do not shy away from my tasks, but I do not enjoy them all.’
She looked at her dirty shoes for a moment. ‘I think I’m feeling respect, I don’t really know what that feels like though.’
He smiled at her. ‘Go join the others.’ She nodded, and he moved away, to sit behind his desk again. She caught a glimpse of her reflection in the mirror – and it showed her what she already knew: a hacker in a suit, something that was only supposed to happen for court appearances. The world was full of contradictions, oxymorons and inequities.
Sometimes the innocent had to die.
She turned and walked from the office, and walked toward the only other open door in the section of corridor. Astrin had to die…and she was going to be a part of that, whether she wanted to or not.
The man or the monster, Spyder, you can only choose one.
Which is which? How well do I know either?
Oh don’t start with this – you’ve known Ryan your whole life.
As a spectre in my dreams, some faint-
Angel. Just say the word.
The Beast just wants his Belle, that’s not a crime.
You’re going to give up the whole world so some freak can have his fairy tale ending? Fairy tales don’t contain clones.
Love makes people do strange things.
Like you would know.
I’m just going to pick up my gun and do my job. Come what may and all that.
Good girl.
Don’t I get endorphins?
Not this time.
She entered the sit room and found Curt pointing out various things on the map, she tuned out most of what he said, instead trying to recast Astrin as a bad guy in her mind. Imagining him as dangerous wasn’t hard – the only reason she hadn’t run screaming into the night when she’d seen him had been her lack of sleep, and the fact that running and screaming into the night would have taken far more energy than she’d had.
The jaws that bite, the claws that catch. The tear that tear flesh from bone. The weird eyes that can probably burn a hole in your soul.
‘He may be a man beneath that visage, but is also a man who was killing to eat.’
‘He eats people,’ she said quietly. The other three – well, other two, fell silent and looked at her.
‘What?’ Enid asked.
‘He eats people,’ she said again. ‘Someone told me that he was killing to eat before he found refuge at the mansion, and I was given the direct impression that it wasn’t meant in the “culling the rat population” way.’
Enid lifted one of the fuzzy surveillance photos and stared at it. ‘I’d believe it.’
‘It’s just a leech,’ Curt said, ‘put enough bullets into it, and it’ll fall down, just like everything else.’
You’re a very pleasant person, you know that, right? She looked up at him, and waited for an equally sarcastic response, then realised that she hadn’t spoken out loud.
The world blurred and spun. She fought the urge to reach out and grab something as everything came back into focus. She wasn’t sure that she would ever get used to it – fiction always portrayed teleportation as something seamless – Star Trek crews didn’t fight nausea when Scotty/Chief O’Brien/random bad guy of the week transported them somewhere. Shifting was entirely different – then again, thing in reality usually were, reality wasn’t able to gloss over the inconvenient details.
Curt slapped her on the back and earned a glare. ‘You’ll get used to it,’ he said with a jovial laugh. ‘We’re in a sub-level, the girls are above us. Like Ryan said, no civilians. However, if you like cheap canned fruit, watch out for the collateral damage.’ She looked at the ex-Solstice as though he grown a second head – he almost sounded competent, it was a little unsettling.
She looked up at the pipes and noted the lack of lighting. The layers of shadows covered more than they showed, it was going to be a nightmare to find anything.
Require: night-vision goggles.
The world was bathed in fluorescent green light, but the tangles of wires and pipes still concealed hiding spots and boltholes. A mocking laugh stripped away the joy of using a technology she’d always revered. ‘What did I do now?’
‘Every newbie FBI agent asks to see the X-Files office. Every NSA recruit asks to be reassigned to something off the books. Every member of ASIO wants to know why most people don’t know who the hell they are. Every Agency recruit requires night-vision goggles. Exactly how many time did you see Jurassic Park?’
‘Four,’ she answered in a hiss. ‘This place is the armpit of hell, conjure some spotlights, or let me use the goggles.’
The attack came from nowhere. One moment, she was fine, the next, the side of her head was stinging. ‘Did you see that?’ he asked.
The goggles clattered to the ground. ‘Exactly why did you do that?’
‘Did you see the attack coming?’
‘No, cause you smacked me in the head.’
He hit her again, this time, she saw stars. ‘Did you see it that time?’
‘Hazing. I get it. But touch me again, and you’ll lose that hand.’
He set his jaw and shook his head. ‘It’s not hazing, I’m teaching you. Goggles might help you see in the dark, but they put blinders on you. They take a lot more lives than they save.’
‘And you couldn’t have just told me this?’
‘This method is more effective.’
This method makes you look like a jerk.
‘I…’ she began, then a pipe beside them exploded. The force flung her backwards, into a guardrail and over it.
She had a moment to realise she was aloft before she fell into the darkness.