Stef looked up.
The afternoon had disappeared. She shook a little – it was getting into rush hour. Rush hour meant crowds and a crush of bodies and having to be close to other people.
Unless she took the option of the taxi. Expensive, but safe.
She got her bag together, and stood. She sighed and looked towards the Post Office, fought with her bag, and started to walk. Stupid. She was so stupid. She’d lost track of time. It was her own fault if something bad happened. She shouldn’t have gone outside. It was safer at home. Safer where she could control all of the factors.
She stared at the ground as she walked – it was the easiest way to keep track of when she was about to move from footpath to street. An extra precaution against getting run over.
She walked into someone, apologised, took three steps to the left, and started to walk again.
There were feet in front of hers. She moved, but the feet mirrored hers.
‘Mimosa!’ Loud voice. Angry voice. Familiar voice. She looked up, it was just Taylor.
She stepped around him, and walked towards the closest taxi. The Agency world was starting to drift back into the lucid world. Bad. That was bad. She had to get home before the real and the really real got indistinguishable.
Taylor grabbed her by the scruff of the neck, his huge hand holding her shirt. ‘Mimosa!’
Fuck. Sound seeping through between reality and the lucid world was normal. Once sensation started to bleed over, it meant that the lucid world was about to drop away. Taxi. Now. Home. Now.
She looked away from him as he lifted her, turning her to face him.
Other people were looking.
Oh god, people are looking, what am I actually doing? What am I doing?
She looked up at Taylor, and tried to will him away. He was going to disappear. He was going to go away. He was going to leave her alone, and she was going to try and get home as soon as she could. The check-list needed more items. Everything was no ok.
He shook her. ‘Mimosa!’
‘Stop it.’
He glared at her. ‘Stop making a scene.’
She immediately calmed, and he put her back down. He pointed at the closet bench. ‘Sit. Don’t draw attention to us.’
She sat, and hugged her bag to her chest. This was bad. Everything was bad. This was far from optimal. She was being crazy in public.
‘Do you recognise me?’
He was talking to her. He was expecting conversation. Another thing that was wrong. Taylor didn’t talk to her. Taylor didn’t expect conversation. Reality was falling apart at the seams. Everything was wrong. Her fucked-up brain couldn’t even characterisation straight.
He stood in front of her. ‘Do. You. Recognise me?’
There was no reason he should be asking that. No reason Taylor would be having this conversation with Agent Stef.
He stood there, expecting a response.
She pulled out her phone. It was a stupid, stopgap measure for the bad days. For the times she couldn’t shut out couldn’t shut out the crossover. She pretended to dial a number. ‘Yes, of course I recognise you.’
Taylor looked confused. ‘Why are you talking to a phone.’
‘Because talking to yourself is crazy,’ she let out in a whispering scream. ‘Please, please, go away.’
He pulled the phone from her hand. ‘Mimosa.’
She wiped tears from her eyes. ‘Stop it, stop it, stop it, go away.’ He put one of his huge hands on her shoulder. More sensation. Unwanted sensation. It wouldn’t have been so bad if it was Ryan. It wouldn’t be so bad if it was Curt. She didn’t mind them bleeding through. ‘Go away, you aren’t real.’
There was a sharp sensation as the knife slid into her neck. She had a moment of panic, of trying to reach up and- He yank the knife out through her throat, and she heard her body slumping on the bench.
She opened her eyes, and stared down at her bloody body.
‘Good,’ Taylor said.
She slapped his arm. ‘What was good about that? What the hell did you even do?’
He grabbed her head and made her turn. Everyone had disappeared. No people. No cars. Nothing. A crazy girl, an agent and a corpse.
She stumbled back a couple of steps, and sat down, hugging her knees. ‘Oh, fuck. Fuck. Fuck, fuck, fuck. I can’t do this! I can’t be doing this!’ She uncurled and began to slap herself. ‘Wake up! Wake up!’ She stared up at Taylor through a mist of tears. ‘What the fuck did you do? I was lucid! I was lucid! They’re going to lock me up for sure now!’
‘I can slap you much harder.’
‘Yeah, I fucking know.’
He knelt in front of her. ‘Agent. Focus.’
‘It really doesn’t surprise me that you’re the one who ruined my life. Congrats, Taylor, I’m going to be miserable forever.’
No people. No cars. Worse hallucination than normal. It would be nearly impossible to make it back home. She stood, put two hands on the bag strap across her chest and started for home. It would be impossible to catch a bus – the lack of traffic took that option, as well as the safety of the cab. Walking would take far longer, and crossing the street would provide innumerable dangers.
She walked without rhythm for twenty feet before Taylor grabbed her again. ‘You aren’t walking away.’
‘I have to get home.’
‘The Agency isn’t there.’
She went limp in his grip. ‘You- You shouldn’t know that.’ He released her and she stumbled, regained her footing and turned to look at him. ‘Why do you know that?’
His lip curled. ‘I checked.’
‘But- But you’re just-‘ She pressed her hands to her head. ‘No. Fuck. I won’t have things bleeding over the other way.’
He slapped her, and it hurt. ‘Stop. Babbling.’
‘You aren’t real! Stop telling me what to do when you aren’t real! You can give me orders when I’m an agent, but I’m not a fucking agent right now!’ She clamped her hands over her mouth. Shouting in public, even when she couldn’t see the public was bad. It was all bad.
Maybe it was time to consider meds.
Tears welled up.
‘If you think I’m a figment of yours, then think again!’
‘You’ve always been a figment, you’ve just never complained about it before.’
He growled.
‘Yeah, see, you’re even doing the growl just right.’
He hit her again. ‘Stop being an idiot, Mimosa.’
She put her hands to her face. It really hurt. Really for reals hurt. The Agency world was all encompassing, it was…real, it was reality, for as long as each less-than-lucid period lasted. There was always some tick in the back of her head where things didn’t hurt as much as they should…unless she was hurting herself in the lucid world as well. It was always somehow limited, just this side of real.
The pain in her face was Absolutely Real. Legit Real. Real like accidentally burning her hand on a hot plate. Real like not so accidentally stabbing herself with a fork. Real like any pain away from the Agency.
I give myself over to you. What the fuck is going on? You tell me what’s real.
I’m not sure even I know.
‘That isn’t an acceptable answer.’
This doesn’t feel like a hallucination.
I find that statement to be hilarious.
She looked at Taylor. ‘…Are you trying to tell me that you’re real.’
He growled, and raised his hand again.
She shied back. ‘I have every damn reason in the world to believe you aren’t real, that I am talking to thin air, do something that proves you’re real. Do something that proves the Agency is real.’
‘You know who I am-‘
‘And I know you’re a hallucination! It might be my real, real life, but I know it isn’t real! I know it isn’t!’
He kept his hand raised, but a – for Taylor – contemplative look crossed his face. ‘I’m. Real. Stop being stupid, Mimosa.’
‘Consider the evidence. Is what you say likely?’
‘But I can remember-‘
‘Glitches can do worse. Consider.’
‘It isn’t a glitch. See? Glitch, glitch, glitch.’
The sun finally slipped away.
‘I am unsure as to the circumstances. Being exposed at night is not wise. Are you armed?’
She looked at him. He seemed as real anyone in the lucid world. He was arguing for a reality that really contained the Agency, that- That it wasn’t a hallucination.
Glitches could mess with your head. Nightmares could give you a lifetime’s worth of knowledge and context for any given situation. Agents were easy enough to hack.
‘Are- Are you really, really real?’
He grunted.
‘And- And Ryan and Curt and Jonesy and everyone?’
‘Are your questions going to stop anytime soon?’
‘You’re asking me to trust you.’
‘I could leave you to die.’
She was crazy. She was really crazy. She needed meds and care and a white jacket and bouncy walls. She was talking to a hallucination. She was just some sick, sorry girl who should have actually gone through with one of her suicide attempts.
She wasn’t Agent Stef. She was shit.
Taylor made a disgusted noise, turned, and began to walk away.
She had to get home. She had to make it home despite having filtered out all of the pedestrians and traffic. She had to get to her apartment, lock the door and-
And wait for lucidity to drop away, to be surrounded by the people who- The figments in her head who-
None of it was real. Constructed family. Constructed friends. Voids being filled by puppets in her head.
Every first star of night. Every wishing well. Every fountain. Every possibly-magic lamp.
Wishes never came true.
She’s invented the mirror to have control, to be able to have whatever she’d wanted…a power she’d never needed because everything she’d ever wanted didn’t need to be wished for.
And it was gone.
It was all gone.
It wasn’t real.
It had never been real. However much she wanted it, it wasn’t real.
Taylor, of all people, had appeared like an aggro guardian angel, holding out the possibility that it was real. That this, that crazy her…was nothing more than craziness. That it really could be real.
It could be real.
She hugged her arms around herself.
It was worth the chance. Whatever the cost, it was worth the chance.
Taylor, with his stupid long legs, had already gotten nearly a block towards where the Agency should be.
He had a jacket tied around his waist – she hadn’t noticed before, it was weird. It was way too casual for Taylor. It was…completely out of character.
She stared.
It wasn’t a kind of out of character that she would have conceived for him. Saving her – the jury was still out as to whether he’d done that to save her, or to have an excuse to kill a prick. Calling her Agent – it was a statement of fact as much as it was respect. Falling in love…well, that was just the gravity of two scary violent people. Inevitable.
He stopped, grunted, turned, then glared.
‘Tell me you’re-‘
‘What is this?’ he asked. ‘What does your sick mind think this is? Why is there no Agency? What did you do?’
She faltered, and stared at the ground. ‘I-‘
Red pill time. All in, or run the fuck away. She bit the inside of her cheek, and imagined stepping through the looking glass. Any chance that the Agency was real was better of a lifetime of being sure that it wasn’t.
She was Agent Stef. She had a boyfriend. She had a dad.
She had a violent pyscho to deal with.
‘It’s- It’s like a glitch. This, whatever this is, it’s one of the worst things imaginable to me.’
‘No Agency is a glitch for you?’
She stared at her feet. ‘Well, yeah. I mean, part of it is that I’m- Is that I’m crazy enough to keep a stable hallucination going, but yeah, the most of it is that the Agency isn’t real. It’s-‘ She dug her nails into her palms. ‘It’s my whole world, why wouldn’t losing it be a nightmare?’
She considered everything for a moment, then hesitantly looked up. ‘Um, um, why are you even here? I mean, you had something like this too, right? A reality that presented itself as standard and normal with the context to back it up, right? So…so how- How come you’re here?’ She forced a smirk onto her face. ‘Did you miss me or something?’ He growled, and she took a step back. ‘You- Did you have a glitchy nightmare thing too? Is that how you knew it wasn’t real?’
He stared for a few seconds past awkward. ‘I wasn’t fooled like you.’
This, somehow, hurt more than her stinging cheeks.
He grunted, turned and kept walking. ‘Saw something impossible. Knew it wasn’t reality. Took steps to obtain further data.’
She had to run every couple of steps to keep up. ‘And- And why’d you stab me in the neck.’
‘Replication of results.’
‘You sound like Jonesy.’ This got an extra-loud growl. ‘You knew- What? That-‘ She ran the data over in her head. ‘Is it some form of solipsism? Kill the PC and all the NPCs disappear?’
‘If I understand you, yes.’
‘But that means-‘ she shut her mouth. ‘Oh gods, I’m sorry, are you ok?’
He didn’t bother to turn to look at her.
‘I mean, it’s not- But if you’ve got shit in your head that you need- I understand-‘
‘I don’t need your weakness, Mimosa. There is nothing to discuss. There appears to be immortality within your own area.’ He flashed at hand at her, and a thin cut. ‘This protection does not extend once you move into another area. Don’t get yourself killed.’
‘…says the guy who stabbed me in the neck.’
He turned and walked into a building across from where the Agency was. ‘Here,’ he said. ‘Secure enough. There are multiple exits. Near the Agency in case other Agents cross into this area.’
‘I didn’t notice in the square,’ she said as she looked around the empty reception area. ‘But all the stuff disappeared too. Not just the people. I mean, there’s buildings, but they’re empty shells. There’s not even any crap on the walls. Except paint.’ She looked up. ‘Oh, and the fancy moulding stuff. But not real stuff.’
That’s weird.
Taylor took off both jackets, and rummaged through them, took a knife for himself, and handed her a hammer with a multitool handle and a small green pouch. ‘The walls are wooden. Dismantle what you can for firewood and kindling, I’ll do the internal doors when I get back. Sufficient fuel to cook meat.’
‘Well, yeah, we’re not going to die of exposure. Inside.’ Gears turned. ‘…what meat?’
He gave her a bored look. ‘I saw animals. Could have passed from other areas. I have some rations, but it’s prudent to save them.’ He turned, and walked from the building.
She walked to the large front window of what had been a café, and watched him walk back up the street.
She swung the hammer for a moment, then started to attack the thin wood at the back of the room. A few whacks with the hammer were sufficient to break through, and a small saw in the multitool handle of the hammer helped her pull out sections. It was slow, it was sweaty, it was painful.
A pile of wood grew – enough to roast marshmallows. Small marshmallows.
Exhausted, she lay on the splinter-stricken floor for a bit and stared at the ceiling.
She cried.
It was relief. It was tiredness. It was fear. Tears for a day that shouldn’t have existed. Tears for a day she was glad had come.
The more minutes wore on, the more it seemed that this – whatever this was – was reality. That she was stuck with Taylor, and they both wanted to get to their real home. She was still crazy, but at least in a way that meant she could mostly reliably tell fact from fiction.
It mean Ryan and Curt were really real, and that she needed to get back to them.
She stood, and attacked the wall with more fervour. It was the thing keeping her stuck. It was James. It was Taylor. It was Clarke.
The pile of wood grew as it got dark.
The lights came on.
She looked around.
She screamed.
An unholy abomination stood in the doorway, covered in blood, holding a weapon.
Naked. Covered in blood, and holding a weapon.
She forced her mouth shut. Dinner with Taylor, apparently, was an experience.
She stared, her brain still stuck on every aspect of the tableau in front of her.
He was covered in blood. This was fairly common. It also meant that he had found food, which was good.
He was holding a weapon. He was Taylor, and awake, so this didn’t warrant processing.
He was naked.
She couldn’t help herself.
Scientific curiosity and the inability to control her eyes made her look at his crotch. There were many things in the world that were relative. Space. Time. Memories. Boy parts. Apparently, one person’s “zomfg huge” was another person’s “a bit smaller than average”. Curt was scary big and she was still sure that there had been reality warping involved in the one time they’d done it.
Curt was scary and big, no matter what he said. There was the insistence of normality. The gentle but firm assurance that boy parts came in many different sizes.
It was also impossible not to hear recruits speculating on the size of various agent boy parts. It was an amazingly common topic. It was another thing that proved how boring people were.
Taylor, somehow, always won. There was the assumption that he was the king of all the boy parts. That it was so large it likely deserved sentience, or at least its own suit. The recruits had their own ways of putting it. Boringer ways.
Against every instinct, she looked.
It took her a moment to see it.
It was far from the epithets that the recruits gave it. It was smaller than Curt’s. Part of her brain tried to think the words “cute and harmless” but shut down in self-defense.
He dropped a bag on the floor and she regained her sanity.
Taylor, for his part, hadn’t noticed her perving.
The bag was full of bloody meat.
The bag looked very similar to the one she’d left in the corner.
‘Huh? But that’s my bag-‘
‘It was on your body. Everything is duplicated. It’s why I have two jackets. Follow.’ He bent and grabbed pouches from each copy of his jacket. ‘I found water.’
‘Riverside thingy?’
He grunted.
‘Do you know you’re naked?’ she asked after a block. ‘It’s taking a lot of effort not to- Whywhywhy-‘
‘Same reason for hunting. Supplies could be limited. I had to gut, bleed and skin dinner. It would not be wise to scent my only clothes with that much gore.’
‘I suppose…’ She looked at the street. ‘It’s weird that the power works. I didn’t expect that.’
‘Stop expecting,’ he said. ‘This isn’t real, this isn’t a glitch. Don’t expect. You don’t know anything.’
‘I’m not used to knowing nothing,’ she said, immediately hating herself for the honesty. ‘If nothing else, yanno, I’m always smart. I always know shit.’
He grunted. ‘Do you know how to cook?’
She stopped dead. ‘Bitch, did you just make a “get back to the kitchen” joke?’
He reached out a bloody hand and slapped the side of her head. ‘Supplies. Can you make the supplies last longer?’
‘You know absolutely nothing about me if you think I can cook,’ she said as they started to walk again. ‘Campfire cook a couple of pieces for tonight, yanno, Cook until it looks ok. Make jerky out of the rest?’ She scrunched her face. ‘I…don’t actually know how to do that. I think you just dry it until it goes to shit but it’s still technically edible. Cowboys used to do it by putting steaks under their saddles. I think. I heard. I read somewhere. It’s probably wrong. Anyway. Ew. Think of the horse! Think of the blanket! Pony sweat is bad enough without meat juices!’
‘Shut up.’
They crossed towards the river, and the still-functioning water fixtures.
She took a deep breath.
‘There’s air.’
A statement of obvious fact apparently didn’t even warrant a grunt.
It was weird that there was air – it meant, NPCs or no NPCs, the who-or-whatever in control of this place was ok with the PCs living.
He handed her the pouches. ‘Water bags, fill them.’
‘I’d rather drink river water.’
‘Water bags. Fill them.’
‘You might be an agent, but at the moment, I’m not, I don’t have any blue to filter out whatever might be in this water.’
‘I am prepared. The bags are their own filtration system,’ he said tersely. He left her at the small pool feature, and moved towards the one set into the steps to wash.
She knelt, unfurled the bags, and pressed each into the shallow pool in turn.
This was the worst apocalypse ever. She was the worst apocalypse survivor ever.
She was supposed to be ok after the end of the world. No more people, survival on wits, putting video games to good use.
Preparation and accomplishments were hard when you were in a world without supplies, and your only ally was a naked, blood-caked psycho bathing in a fountain.
She tied off the first bag, and pushed the second into the cool water.
There were no-
She refused to have the thought.
‘Done?’ Taylor demanded as he jogged back up the stairs. He’d dressed. It was a marginal improvement.
She held up the second bottle, and he grunted. He lifted both bags and slung them across his shoulders.
‘Hydrate tonight. Refill in the morning.’
They returned to the building opposite the not-Agency. The bag of meat sat like a leftover asset from a zombie movie. She sighed, moved it to the far corner, and began to pick through it. It was mostly skinned – some pieces still had a slight patch here or there, but at least he’d stripped it of fur.
‘Do you have like-’
He shoved yet another pouch at her, and she opened it to find several thin-as-paper metal plates that folded out from the size of a num pad to a regular dinner plate.
‘Is this standard gear?’ she asked as she divided the cuts of meat up.
‘Fairy,’ he said as he started the fire. ‘Use the best gear, no matter the source.’ He used the fancy knife – probably Magnolia’s knife – to cut some of the broken pieces of wood into smaller pieces. He then pulled a thin sheet from the first pouch he’d given her, before going to hunt, and started to set up the fire.
Some pieces were just meat – those ones would be the best to slice up and jerk. The others, the bits with bone – they’d be messy and ick, so it would be best to eat those while they were in the relative safety of the silent apocalypse.
She packed the to-be-jerked meat back into the bag, and brought half a dozen cuts-with-bone to the fire, which was starting to crackle. ‘I need, like, forks or something,’ she said. ‘Else I’ll be cooking my own hand along with this.’ He pointed to the floor, and she saw some wire on the floor – probably from a security grill. ‘Oooh. Thankies!’
She grabbed the wire, bent the edges,and formed a crude shape to act as a cooking surface. She laid the meat on top, and smiled as it began to cook.
He laid a small golden circle on the edge of the frame, and it sucked the smoke away like a tiny, magic extractor fan…which is very probably exactly what it was.
She grabbed one of the smaller sticks of wood from the bottom of the fire, and watched as he began to decimate a door.
I’ve never been camping.
I know.
And it’s with him. Does this mean the first time is ruined?
Taylor pushed several blocks of wood onto the fire, and sat on the opposite side, staring into flame that matched his hair.
It was impossible not to ask.
‘Why red?’
He didn’t respond.
‘I know you used to be blonde. I’ve seen your not-corpse-thing in the basement. Did you just want to be ginger?’
No response.
She turned the meat with the pliers in the hammer handle.
‘Will you tell me if I guess what your glitch-thing was?’
If looks could kill…she would have been dead her first day in the Agency, but assuming auto-respawn, she would have been a carbon shadow on the wall. There had never been more murder in his eyes…even during the times he’d been murdering her.
‘I can make you stay dead,’ he said, his face lit by the fire, and the cafe’s lights.
‘You lost Mags.’
He stood up, wiped the knife across his jacket to clean it, then took two deliberate steps around the fire.
‘You are pretty much hugging that thing,’ she said, not bothering to move. ‘And you said you saw something so unreal you tested your theory by killing yourself! Now, could you please just admit it, so I don’t feel so damned alone!’ She hung her head, her hair spilling over her shoulders. ‘I hate that it’s you. Anyone else and they could make it fun. And I’m your last choice too. I am fucking dead weight to you, I know that. You’re bringing me as canon fodder and rations, I get that, but until you make me stay dead for realsies this time, could you pretend you’re something other than a brick wall?’
He seized her around the neck and lifted her to eye level. He squeezed, and her legs kicked weakly.
‘Stop. Talking.’
She nodded as best as she could, and he dropped her.
She turned the meat again as he settled back in his seat. She opened up a knife from the multitool and poked at the meat. ‘If you like it rare, it’s done.’
He took a piece, and ate silently.
She let hers cook for another minute, then grabbed the impromptu frame and dragged it out of the direct flame. She speared it on the knife and attacked the meat gingerly.
It tasted like burnt edges and not much else. It was filling, but inexpertly cooked. She scrapped at the black, burnt bits, and saw half an inch of curved line on a small section of skin.
She carefully put the piece of meat down on the edge of the fireproof sheet, and rolled up her sleeve.
Her upper arm held a scar that – although longer – looked very much like the one on the meat.
There’d been no animals hanging around Riverside. No seagulls or pigeons. Nothing big enough to get this much meat, not so quickly, and no so confidently.
There had, however, been the body of a hacker a block away.
‘Are we eating me?’
He tore the last strip of flesh from the bone in his hand, tossed the bone in the fire, then nodded.
She nibbled at her own piece again, and nodded. ‘I’m kinda delicious.’ This took the glare from his face, and he went back to neutral. ‘Want another bit?’ He nodded, and she grabbed the next closest chunk of meat and tossed it over the fire to him.
They ate in silence. When the cooked meat was gone, he moved to the bag of uncooked meat, and began to prepare it for jerking. It took salt, grunts, and silence.
She sat on the front step of the shop and kept watch…for absolutely nothing.
It was a silent apocalypse nightmare world, but somehow, it felt safe. Dead, and abandoned, but safe. The area seemed huge enough that they’d easily go unnoticed, unless someone followed the smell of burning hacker flesh, and even then, the breeze was carrying that away.
Taylor kicked her in the back, and she fell forward onto the footpath. ‘Sleep,’ he ordered. ‘I’ll wake you at three. You wake me at eight. Don’t let the fire die.’
She dusted herself off, stood, walked back into the shop, and walked back around to her side of the fire. She grabbed her bag, smushed it into a less-than-acceptable pillow, and stared into the fire.
Her knee caught fire.
She screamed, patted it out, and moved back from the fire a little.
Taylor stood in the doorway, his back against the frame, giving him equal visibility of the shop and the street.
‘She’s alive, you know. This isn’t real. It can’t be real, cause- Cause the world isn’t that cruel.’
‘Shut up, Mimosa.’
She shrugged, winced at the pain in her knee, and closed her eyes.
Sleep came slowly – every movement he made woke her back up. Every boot stomp could mean he wanted to kill her again, prep another corpse for snacking on. Every shift of fabric might mean he was leaving.
And even Taylor was better than being alone.
Unconsciousness finally dragged her down.
She opened her eyes, and saw Curt.