What happens next?
I don’t remember.
I will inform the Captain if you don’t answer me.
She was lifted, then dropped in a puddle of something soft, possibly blood, possibly oil, possibly the squished remains of not-so-internal organs.
I don’t fucking remember, so stop asking me stupid questions.
Woof. Fucking woof. Happy?
Oh, let me distract you, please.
She felt a strong hand grab her by the collar and drag her. Instead of being slammed against a wall, or the floor, or dropped into a pit of spikes, she was just…dragged. She felt herself go airborne, then land, then there was a the sound of a door slamming.
Do I even want to know what this part is? Gas chamber?
Why do you keep assuming every room in the Agency is a gas chamber?
Do you know it’s not?
Then shut up.
That’s my line.
Another set of hands grabbed her, and she barely felt it. She was beyond flinching, beyond reacting to anything done to her body. She was lifted again, and she did her best to prepare for the uncomfortable feeling of hitting whatever hard surface was next.
She hit a surface, for a hard surface, it was surprisingly soft. And cushy. A very deceitful hard surface indeed. A hand touched her chest, and she waited for her lungs to deflate again. Surprisingly, her lungs stayed unmolested, and the hand simply held her in place, stopping her from falling.
The soft surface moved a little, indicating that someone else had hit it. Soft. A gym mat maybe. Being held in place so the scary magpie girl could kick her in the head again. Heels hurt when they got lodged into a softened skull.
A voice. A good voice. Not one of them. Not swearing at her. Not calling her worthless. Not predicting her future. Just her name. Just a-
She jerked her head toward the sound of the voice, still seeing nothing. That, however, was at least by choice, not due to eyes being…otherwise occupied with a round trip around the gym, or busy experiencing life under a boot heel, or simply experiencing the dissonance that came with being bifurcated by a knife on its way into her brain.
A hand touched the side of her face, but she didn’t react, just waiting for her cheek to collapse, for a finger to punch through her temple, for a second to join it, and then for her head to jerked from her shoulders and be treated like a football.
‘Can you hear me?’
I dunno. Are you really there? Is this just a trick? Am I hallucinating?
Well, you kind of have been halluncinating for most of the day, but I don’t think he’s part of it.
‘Stef? Come on, are you-?’
I’m going to let you focus again, ok?
Slowly, the world came back into focus, the induced separation from the world slipped away, and everything became slightly more real again. She hunched even further, waiting for another truck-sized fist to hit her, but no blows came. Instead, there were a pair of pants-wearing legs, the bottom of a vest, and lots and lots of buttons. She blinked, and the buttons reduced in number down to a sane amount.
Slowly, she looked up. Top half of a vest, parts of a jacket, tie, collar. So far, so good. Taylor seemed to abhor anything other than his blood-covered generic soldier’s getup. At least the magpie was interesting to look at, all those crazy ruffles and pointless bits of ribbon. And the Russian, Gregor or something got around in a sleeveless shirt, so at least you could see the muscles that were crushing the life out of you.
‘Can you hear me?’
She focused on him. Ryan. Safety. Not one of the Punch-and-Judy-with-the-emphasis-on-punch crew.
She gave a slight nod, the strange feeling of being in control of her own body a pleasant sensation. She expected her head to fall from her shoulders, or to hear vertebrae cracking, or for a vein to burst, but nothing, just a few stray strands of hair falling in her vision. Just a nod. Just a nice, normal nod.
‘Yeah,’ she whispered, her voice normal, ‘I can.’ It should have been cracked, it should have been strained, for the amount of times her throat had been torn out, it should have been nonexistent. It sounded normal to ears that shouldn’t have been able to hear, shouldn’t be attached her head, shouldn’t have been able to capture sound to transmit it to a brain that had been-
‘I saw everything,’ he said quietly, handing her a glass of water with a straw.
She stared at the glass, feeling as though she shouldn’t have been able to grip it, but her hand wrapped around the glass, and held it firm. Automatic. It was automatic. Her hands were her hands anymore, they were operating on-
She dropped her head forward and sucked greedily on the the straw, the cool water rushing down her throat, making her feel just a little human.
But I’m not human anymore.
You’ve never thought of yourself as human, don’t let it start bothering you now.
‘Why?’ she heard herself ask.
‘I can’t stop this,’ he said, ‘but I can…can at least watch over you.’
She dropped the glass, didn’t flinch at the sound of it smashing on the hard ground, and fell back against the small bed. ‘One day down. One day down. One-’
‘The other days won’t be as long,’ he said, ‘the first is always the worst.’
‘First the worst, second the best, third the nerd, fourth the…I don’t remember what fourth is. Fourth doesn’t matter, no-one cares if you come in fourth, so he doesn’t get an epithet, and it’s a he, four is a very boyish number, everything is-’
He put a hand on her shoulder. ‘You know why this is happening.’
‘I have a voice in my head, I see things that aren’t there, and I can’t act like people, but I don’t have memory troubles.’ She scratched her cheek and moved back toward the wall, a white wall, an unfamiliar wall. ‘I know why. That’s why I’m trying to hold it together.’
‘You’re going to be fine,’ he said quickly. ‘I believe in you.’
‘Uh-huh,’ she said, unconvinced.
‘It’s pointless to ask if you’re-’
I’m not ok, I’m not ok, I’m not ok, I’m not ok. ‘I’m fine. I will be. I’m-’
‘If you’re fine,’ he said, ‘why are your hands bleeding?’
She pushed herself back from the wall a little, and stared at her hands, and holes she’d been digging into them with her short fingernails. ‘Huh,’ she muttered. ‘Didn’t even notice.’ She relaxed her hands, and watched the small holes repair themselves, and for the skin to ripple and be free of blood again. All normal again. All normal on the outside. Duck on the water. Roast duck. Leftovers. Rotting leftovers. Food poisoning. Death. Not death. Never death. Immortal.
Jesus, you are really messed up.
She pulled her head back from the wall, and went to slam it against the cool surface, but a hand cushioned the impact.
‘Talk to me Stef, don’t try and bottle this all inside.’
‘If you watched, you know what happened, there’s nothing to say.’
‘What do you need me to do?’
This, more than anything, made the tears flow.
‘I want a cookie,’ she said, her voice cracking through tears. ‘Why can’t I require my own cookies?’
‘It’ll be that way during the tests, it’s the same reason your HUD is gone for the moment, the less data to dig through is the sooner that this can all be over.’
‘And cookies are so dangerous?’ She stared at the cookie that appeared in his hand, but didn’t reach for it. ‘Is it really so likely that I’ll go psycho?’
She moved her head forward and snatched the cookie from his hand, holding it between her lips and sucking on it like a pacifier, letting the sweet taste slid down her throat, absorbing its innate cookieness almost by osmosis. The cookie fell apart, leaving only one bite wedge in her mouth, the rest falling the short way to the mattress.
She stared at it. She poked it.
‘I have to do this to be a real agent,’ she whispered, ‘I just don’t want to think about it.’
‘You’re safe here, for the next eight hours, you’re safe.’
‘And then this again.’
‘No, then a few hours with Jones. To see what effect, if any, today had on you, and to make any necessary adjustments. Then, then it’ll be…Taylor again. Only for eight hours this time. Then…worse,’ he said, ‘they’ll be inducing your first glitch.’
‘I’ll have a physical blue screen of death?’
‘Think of the worst thing you can imagine.’
You mean other than all the shit that happened to me today? You mean other than accidentally causing my own death? You mean other than-
She smirked, trying to be the Stef he expected. ‘He-who-shall-not-be-named making a Metal Gear Solid movie?’
She watched his face relax somewhat, before changing straight into the patented narc look. ‘Fine, for you, a bad movie may be a nightmare, but I doubt you’d glitch about it.’ He leaned back against the wall of the tank. ‘You get trapped in a nightmare. You see people you love die, you see your city burn, your mistakes come back to haunt you. They are…unpleasant, to say the least.’
‘Unpleasant like “shooting you in the head is the less pleasant choice to recruiting you” unpleasant?’
‘…do I ask why such a thing exists?’
‘They were originally just what the name sounds like: a glitch. Uncontrolled, coming where ever and whenever without warning or apparent cause, it wasn’t later that they were adopted into the punishment regime. Natural ones still do occur.’
‘And no one ever thought to debug the agent code?’
‘People have been trying for many times the length of your life, to no avail.’ He swung his legs up onto the bed, and drummed his fingers for a moment. ‘There are a few major theories, but-’
She sat up and pressed her back against the wall. ‘Distracting me with theoretics is good right now.’
‘First among them being we misunderstand what causes them, so those that are trying to, ah, “debug” the glitches are focusing on the wrong area.’
‘You think once I’m a real agent and no miss-dangerous-loon-in-a-box I can take a look?’
He smiled. ‘I don’t see why not.’
He gently reached for her hands, and held them, wrapped a thumb across each palm. She looked down, and saw more blood.
‘I’m really not doing that on purpose,’ she whispered.
Slowly, she moved away from the corner, moved closer to him, and leaned against his arm. ‘Today was a really bad day.’
‘I know,’ he said again.
-too scared to sleep, too terrified to close my eyes in case he comes back to kill me, and kill me for good, cause surely there’s a way to do that, I can’t be that immortal that there isn’t something he can do to me that means I won’t get back up and every time it went dark I thought I was done for, and I can’t tell you that-
‘-cause I’m supposed to be-’
-turning in a real agent, and finally proving that I’m worth something, but I feel like a piece of meat that’s been chewed on my a rabid dog, and-
‘-what the hell did today prove any-’
-way? And I just want to puke, but I’m not even sure I can do that anymore, and there isn’t even anything in my stomach, and why the hell am I talking about puking? I-
‘-can’t be weak all the time else you really will-’
-hate me, and I couldn’t take it if you hate me. You can promise to look after me, but I just can’t cry whenever I want, not unless I can’t stop myself, cause I can’t, cause I-
‘-don’t want you to push me away-’
-cause everyone pushes me away. My father sold my fscking pony, I didn’t make that up-
‘-you really think I could go crying to him when I needed hugs? You think it’s easy for me to ask for comfort from anyone when I can help it?’
Slowly, she raised a hand to her mouth. ‘I just-’
Why the hell didn’t you stop me?
Because sometimes you need to talk to someone other than me, Spyder.
She pulled herself away from the agent, turned back toward the wall, laid down. ‘I need to sleep. Sorry. I’m just tired. Just really tired. I’ll see-’
She felt her head being lifted, and then placed back down on a pillow. There was a flap of cloth, and then she was wrapped in a thin blanket. A blanket, and an arm over the blanket. Slowly, he pulled her back, holding her close.
‘Go to sleep,’ he said.
‘I used to do this for Alexander when he was young, when he had a nightmare, it helped him sleep. I’ll protect you, now rest.’
‘Okies,’ she mumbled, her eyes already closed.