The Esc key felt terrible. It was the curse that came with using the keyboard as a pillow. Stef looked up, wondering where the giant fly was that had woken her. She sleepily required a larger-than-normal flyswatter before working out that the noise was coming from the roof.
Oh god, we’re being invaded. Hackers and laptops first!
Some semblance of sanity crept into her mind, and she turned to look at the her Frankie’s clock. The digits cut through her sleep-addled brain and she stopped looking for giant flies. It wasn’t a creature from a Z-grade sci-fi movie, it was a signal to be awake.
She blinked and looked away from the clock, the half-finished algorithm staring disappointedly back at her. Disappointed that she’d given into her physical need to sleep, instead of doing her hackerly duty and finishing it. It was going to be left naked and confused until she had time to get back to it, and no one likes to be naked and confused. ‘Later,’ she promised the code, ‘later, once I actually remember what you’re supposed to do.’ She pushed down Frankie’s screen and let him get some sleep – he’d had a hard night, and just as his Esc key had hurt her, she was sure that her head had hurt him.
‘Nurg,’ she muttered as she knuckled the sleep from her eyes. The urge to sleep hit her again when she saw the big, comfortable bed. The giant-fly-slash-alarm however, did a lot to deter her from slumber.
She focused on the digits again. Six. Five. Seven.
She slammed the lid of her laptop closed and ran for the door. She had set the alarm for twelve minutes ago. She’d slept through twelve minutes of incessant buzzing.
You needed the sleep Spyder.
She nearly threw herself into the elevator when the doors open, and had to juggle with her laptop before hitting the button for the tech department.
Please don’t fire me, please don’t fire me.
She ran a hand through her hair, and wished she could require a fresh uniform – she could be late, but late and rumpled would look bad for her. The doors opened with a ping, and she ran out onto the floor, before realising that she had no idea where to go. She knew where the games room was, she knew where Jones’ office was, and roughly where their mess hall was, but none of those seemed likely mission locations.
A hand grabbed hers, and she shrieked out of impulse. She looked down and saw Merlin, who grinned up at her. ‘You were very nearly almost late, Squishy!’ he said as he pulled her down the hall. ‘Quick, quick, everyone else is already in the command centre.’
‘We have…a command centre?’
He ran, and she allowed herself to be dragged behind. Two doors down the hall, he stopped, grinned and grabbed the handle.
She stopped in her tracks. ‘I kind of expected…’
‘Did you really want to run any further?’
‘Me neither!’ He pushed on the door and grinned, pulling his goggles down onto his face.
She stepped into the doorframe and dropped Frankie. She stared at the room, then slowly sank down to join him. She thumped her chest to get her heart restarted, but there was nothing she could do about her bugged-out eyes or the foolish grin on her face.
The room was large – twice the size of the games room, and had a desk for each tech recruit – exactly the right number, so far as she could tell. Each desk had three large, flat-panel monitors on them, two keyboards, a mouse, a graphics tablet and a set of headphones. The entire far wall was nothing but a screen, footage and files that scanned across it like montage.
It was beautiful.
Merlin tugged gently on her hair. ‘Get up Squishy!’
‘Ooo-kaaay,’ she slurred. ‘I think I can do that.’ She numbly grabbed at Frankie and pushed herself up, feeling the sting on her wrist as she put her weight on her hand. Merlin pointed to one of the spare desks and she sat down.
The screens immediately came off screensaver and her own face stared back at her, it beeped and logged her in. ‘Facial recognition,’ she muttered, ‘why am I not surprised?’
There was a cough from behind her and she swiveled on her chair. One of the tech recruits, a girl with frizzy purple hair, handed her a bag of M&Ms. ‘Pass them forward,’ she whispered.
She poured some of the chocolate into her hand. ‘Why do I feel like I’m sneaking snacks into a test?’
The girl giggled. ‘You’re kidding right, newbie?’ she pointed to the side of the room, where Jones appeared to be supervising a snack table. ‘He knows what makes us tick.’ She felt a sudden affection for the technical division.
Supplied snacks versus carrying a gun…snacks…guns…
Don’t try and figure it out, just don’t.
‘You’re technically field, right? That’s what the truth mill says.’
‘”Truth mill”?’
The girl shrugged and pulled her headphones off. ‘Why bother with rumours?’
‘Hm…actually, that’s pretty smart.’
‘Field division doesn’t supply cookies like we do. Come to the tech side, we have cookies. Field’s ok, it’s not like they’re completely anti-cookie like combat, but still, they think there’s better stuff.’
‘Like pie?’
The girl shook her head. ‘Pie is also good. But you’re on the cookie side of the room.’ She indicated to the other row of desks. ‘That’s the pie side, do you need to swap?’
She shook her head and the purple-haired girl nodded and went ducked back down and began to type. She poured out some of the M&Ms onto the desk, then called out to the recruit in front of her and passed the candy along.
Grabbing the mouse, she opened the only program on the desktop and waited for it to log her in.
The centre screen showed scrolling surveillance footage on six small windows – they changed every ten seconds. Most of them showed nothing interesting – she could see vague shadows in a few of them, but not much else.
The screen to her left showed a map of the area, with small moving gray, white and blue dots. She twitched the mouse and moved it around, and the map allowed her to zoom in and change the perspective.
The screen on her right remained curiously empty until she clicked on one of the gray dots. The right screen then filled up with the information and vitals of “Recruit Teague” from the combat division. Half of the surveillance windows went dark, leaving only the ones that were getting shots of the recruit in question.
‘Getting the hang of it, recruit?’ Jones asked as he stood in front of her desk.
She tapped the monitors in turn. ‘Google Earth, voyeur-tastic and Skype?’
He smiled. ‘Basically.’
She drummed her fingers on the laminated surface of the desk. ‘Ok, well, I know what it is, what do I do with it?’
‘Keep an eye on the surveillance footage, and warn the recruits when you see someone in their area that you can’t identify. Not everyone is guilty – some choose to observe it out of respect for the dead, others are simply civilians in the wrong place at the wrong time.’
The sound of the bullet roared in her ears – it wasn’t the muted little pop that it was on television, it was something loud, something real. Something dangerous. It didn’t matter. She looked out the corner of her eye at the narc as her jammed her head between his gun and the wall.
Nothing Freudian there, no…
Wrong place, wrong time, Spyder, just hit the keys. Just hit the keys.
She gave him a wry smile. ‘I know a little about that.’
‘Really? The way you’ve taken to the job and the uniform it would appear you were born for the job. Though…it seems a little worse for the wear, and you haven’t even been out in the field.’
She looked down at her rumpled shirt. ‘I pissed off Agent Vesuvius, so I’m impotent unless I’m on a mission.’ Jones snapped his fingers and a fresh uniform appeared on her. ‘Thanks, now I feel less crummy.’
‘Just for your information,’ he said quietly. ‘Taylor rarely comes onto this floor, so it’s rather easy to keep out of his way down here.’
‘You trying to recruit me? I mean, I was already half-won over with the cookie argument.’
‘With the scores you received for the tests, you are more than welcome to do this side of the mission, rather than the field, even when you’re more experienced. With the scores you received for the tests, you really should be one of my recruits.’
‘I didn’t shoot the hob to bits, I got points for that.’
The slight agent shrugged. ‘I’m not arguing with your field aptitude…’
‘Then what?’
Another shrug. ‘Everyone finds their own way here, there’s a place for everyone, scholar, warrior and tactician. And hacker. And geek. And criminal.’
She clicked off the recruit and let the scrolling surveillance return. She conjured the image of dancing bunnies with machine guns and felt her calm return. ‘So I don’t go demanding sitreps and the like do I?’
‘No. Only contact them when you have something you need-‘
A dark, furry shape crossed in front of one of the screens.
‘Astrin?’ She clicked on the window, but he was gone.
‘The leech?’ Jones asked as he rounded the table.
‘I think so, how do I rewind this?’
He leaned forward and pressed the F6 key – a small menu appeared and she stepped it back frame by frame. She stopped when the dark shape filled the frame, then adjusted with the levels so that it was more visible.
‘Confirmed?’ Jones asked.
‘Yeah,’ she said softly, ‘that’s him.’ She swallowed. ‘Just a leech. Just a problem.’
‘We have to look after our own. Duty first. We have a responsibility to the people of this world, just as the agents of his world had a responsibility to his world. Worlds live, worlds die, and on very special occasions, worlds are born.’
‘Circle of life, hakuna matata and all that.’
He nodded and moved off toward Merlin, who was sitting on the floor in front of the wall-screen, working with one monitor, a PDA, a set of headphone and what appeared to be a set of runes.
She turned back to the main screen and clicked through the footage, trying to catch another glimpse of Astrin. He was nowhere to be seen, strange for a creature, a beast, as large as him, but there were enough dumpsters to hide in and behind that she wasn’t surprised.
Clicking through all the recruits in turn, she found that the combat recruits were in much worse shape than the field recruits, yet seemed to be ignoring the pain. And the bleeding. And the occasional broken limb.
‘Masochists,’ she muttered as she swallowed a handful of M&Ms. The chocolate helped her mood, but didn’t help with the surreal feeling that the command centre gave her.
She grabbed mike on the headphones and opened a channel to all of the combat recruits. ‘Fly you fools! Get out of there! Sitrep! Sitrep! I don’t even know what that means! Get to the choppppppper! Snow shovels on special in aisle five…’
Shit Spyder, are you capable of taking anything seriously?
She pushed the headphones down so that they hung loosely around her neck, pushed the main keyboard forward and rested her head on the desk.
She scratched at the itchy wounds, and traced her fingers over the bandages. They were technically self-inflicted wounds – she just hoped that there was no mandated therapy sessions that came along with being one of the MaWiBWaB – they’d have a field day with her.
A pair of feet shuffled up to her desk, grabbed her head, then let it drop onto something soft. She raised her head so she could look at the object. It was a small pillow emblazoned with “*headdesk*” across the centre, then in smaller text in the bottom right-hand corner, it announced that it was copyright to the tech department.
‘Thanks,’ she mumbled as she dropped her head back down.
With the concentration of recruits in the area, not to mention Ryan and the volcano, the odds were that Astrin was going to die. She felt guilty, and she didn’t know why. If she’d cracked the code sooner, everything might have played out differently – he might have found his peace, instead of chasing a shadow.
If things had played out differently, you could be dead.
Or rich.
Or dead.
If things had played out differently, they might not have trashed my apartment.
It got Alexandria fixed, stop complaining.
‘Wibble,’ she muttered, then looked back up at the screens in turn. The minutes wore on and she got more comfortable with the program – it was strangely intuitive, but each time she saw something of note, one of the other tech recruits beat her to it.
She scanned through all of the recruits in turn, occasionally checking on Taylor and Ryan as well. What she saw of Taylor gave her all the more reason to stay away from him – if he used half the violence he was using in the field in an actual interrogation, she wanted to give him no excuse to ever let him lock her in that small room again.
She had no wish for her arm to be torn from its shoulder.
The screen on the left went blank for a moment, then refreshed itself. A large ring had been greyed out. She went to raise her hand, but it didn’t matter – everyone else had already noticed. The greyed out ring went up onto the main screen. ‘Blackout bomb. Did anything see who did this?’
‘There was Solstice activity in E5 less than two minutes ago,’ one voice said.
‘It could have been on a timer,’ the girl behind her postulated.
There was one gray dot ostensibly blinking in the building. Jones pointed to the screen, and it split into three – Enid’s profile appeared on the right, then suddenly disappeared.
The map took over the screen, orientated itself to show a building, then became a zoomed-in bird’s eye view – it showed that Enid had moved into a room affected by the blackout.’
She tore her eyes away from the main screen and brought up all the surveillance of the building.
‘No Solstice!’ someone reported.
‘No backup,’ she heard Merlin say.
‘One leech,’ she said as Astrin crossed her screen.
Jones turned back to look at her, then brought it up on the main screen. He looked to the right-hand side of the screen and her profile appeared again. ‘No heightened stress levels or irregular breathing, BP and heart rate are normal for this situation. She doesn’t know.’
She watched Astrin as he turned away from the camera, stretched his malformed body, then scraped the floor with one of his monstrous claws, he then headed in Enid’s direction. ‘But he does,’ she said, unable to stop herself from stating the obvious. She gave Jones an expectant look. ‘Well, are you going to let her die?’
A gun appeared on the table in front of her. She pushed the chair back, dropped the headphones to the desk and grabbed the gun. ‘Can I-?’
‘Yes, I’ve reinstated your ability to require.’ He gave her a nod and the world blurred. She blinked and waited for her eyes to adjust to the dimmer lighting, gripped the gun and ran towards the barrier of the blackout. She knew that this was one time when running was necessary, even for an out-of-shape hacker.
She could hear the sounds of battle outside – shouts, screams, shots and the like, but the rest of the night was strangely silent. The air felt electric, like the moments before a storm. She skidded to a halt when she saw Astrin – he wasn’t hunched over, he had extended himself to his full height.
There wasn’t the mystery or wonder of finding a beast while on the search for Dorian Gray’s bedroom. There wasn’t the foolhardy bravery that came with sleep depravation. There was nothing, just a monster seemingly intent on killing one of her comrades.
Lifting the gun, she squeezed off a round, but missed. He spun to look at her, but instead of charging like she expected, he ran into the room with Enid.
Note to self: more shooting practice.
She fired a couple more shots at his bulky body as she came to the doorframe, the edge of safety. She hurriedly required another gun, jammed it into her waistband and stepped into the blackout zone.
Enid was holding him at bay simply by aiming her gun at him.
She fired and this time, he charged. Enid squeezed off a couple of shots, even if they hit him, he seemed to ignore them. She fired again, just as he reached her, right in the chest, he stumbled and slammed into her.
It was like being hit by a tonne of bricks – the thin wall crumpled, and she saw stars. ‘Get him off me!’ she screamed as he shook himself and scraped at the ground with his claws, trying to regain his footing.
‘Monster, get off her,’ Enid’s frighteningly calm voice ordered.
Astrin retreated a little. ‘You shot me,’ he growled.
Enid stared at her, then dropped a grenade, a rippling green wave exploded from it. ‘There. Better. Now we’ll have time to talk.’
Shit. Shit. Shit.
She slowly pulled herself from the wall, and yanked out a large piece of wood that had gotten lodged in her arm.
‘Drop the gun, newbie.’
She let go of the gun, and it clattered to the floor. She slid along the wall, careful to keep the spare gun out of sight.
‘Don’t make any sudden movements, newbie.’
‘Wasn’t exactly planning on it.’
Astrin’s blocking the door. The window is tiny and the glass is thick. Don’t know how far the blackout reaches.
Yeah, you’re screwed.
That means you are too.
‘You shot me,’ he said again.
‘Had to. You’re a big thing, suck it up.’
She swallowed. ‘Solstice?’
‘Unlikely.’ Enid looked to Astrin. ‘Get out of here. You know where to go.’
‘So if not Solstice, then who?’ she asked as Astrin left the room, freeing up the exit.
‘The Solstice are a bunch of self-important assholes who think they’re a much bigger threat than they actually are.’ She looked around for a moment, then fixed her gaze back on her. ‘He just wants to find his wife, you know.’
‘I know.’
‘He’s just a starchild, they’re to be pitied, they’re to be helped. He’s not about to be hired as an underwear model, but…’
Do me a favour and don’t listen to her.
‘Where’d you get the grenade?’
‘A nice, neutral third-party, just wanted to breathing space so we could talk.’
‘There’s people dying outside these walls, who’s going to help us if someone comes after us?’
‘The bomb’s going to wear off in five minutes, just keep nice and quiet and no one will even know we’re here.’
‘So what, this is all altruism? You just want him to…’
‘If he gets the mirror, he can hide, they won’t even know he’s here. Like, he could even disguise himself as a human if he wants. Can’t you let him have that?’
‘One extra keystroke can spin a program out of control. One missed command can ruin a hack. One extra kilo can sink a ship.’
‘How did you even find him?’
‘Field reports are good for bedtime reading. I like mirrorfalls, there’s always so many stories, so many opportunities…’
She forced a smile onto her face. ‘I’m glad someone’s helping him.’
‘You can help him too.’
‘Just keep your mouth shut about this. If you’re careful, there’s always loopholes.’
Duty first.
Are you-?
Shut up.
‘The girlfriend,’ she asked as she pushed herself away from the wall a little and held her hands behind her back. ‘What’s her name? I mean, “Belle” would be a little too much to ask for at this point, but…’
‘Wife,’ Enid corrected gently. ‘And her name’s…if I get the pronunciation right, A’na’shon.’
‘A’na’shon?’ she repeated, and Enid nodded.
She pulled the gun from her waistband, lifted it and fired.