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located in Present Day, a part of The Other Kind of Roommate, one of the many universes on RPG.

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So I’m think-king,” he said from where he kneeled beside the girl, “while I don’t regret you ripping a hole through the truck… probably, you shouldn’t’ve ripped a hole through the truck.‘Cause the Cubans were in it, and they had heard the tantrum. He put a sing-songy twist at the end of it – all of this was fucking fun.They’re absolutely telling Caprice.” HA HA! HA HA HA HA-HA!

“Goddammit.” She was doing that thing the French taught her: crossing her arms in a tangled wall. The Agents bred it into their Pain Eaters to keep them off-balance and not kill anyone. Danielle used it to last through conversations she really felt should stop. It was basically the same, except she didn’t have Agency conditioning, so watching her stay calm with only tips she bummed off the France branch was – pthhhhhhhthrrbrrbrr. Lookit her face. Lookit her face! It was so red – lookit how red it was! She was a ghost and she looked like her face was melting and next he thought of sauce and tomatoes he was hungry, he was hungry he could kill them, he could do it it was easy, he could reach he could eat he would eat “What’s the worst they can say?”

'Help, help, we’re in exactly the danger we signed on for’?

“Works for me. Settle it.” The Cubans were chattering in the front seats. Dalton stretched his arm and banged beside the jagged tear split between them. He yelled something, or else just yelled, and they quickly went Cuban-quiet. Now they were background noise. “Did she say anything good?”

She wants to kill us; that’s something,” he answered. “You didn’t catch it?

“I barely understand when you talk.” This was true. Danielle knew a whole ten phrases and all of them were how bad she was at English. She understood it well enough – save for ‘I like butt’. He’d had her repeating it perfectly to welcome guests until an aunt she’d tried to impress told her what it was. His arm still hurt. “No ‘or’?”

Dalton’s job was obvious. He was fluent because he’d paid attention in school. It fell to him to translate what the American whined. He didn’t hold it over her head, he just mentioned it when she was up an extra peg. Right: in short, the point of his involvement was making sure she never overshot into Ultra Bitch. Super Bitch was fine – she was their second-favourite – but Ultra Bitch had an ego that spread like fire and no one was so dumb as to call her out while her temper flared. She was a warrior queen, a stallion amongst ponies. This one time, when they were nine, he’d told Danielle she could fly if she ate a handful worms ‘cause worms became butterflies, which sat his job description as The Mighty Runner of Interference. She united the scattered branches but he helped enough survive to be united. They were welcome, by the way. He wasn’t always intangible. His knee still hurt.

I figured…” more blood more blood more blood more blood more blood “You normally don’t…” Negotiate or care. That was a gift from Charlotte: if it was meant to be, any measure that would have to be taken either already was or was the next natural step. His sister’s demands – ‘who are you, why are you here’ – by and large fit what the other person thought reasonable to trade, or they waited five minutes and something changed and oh, suddenly the captive was willing to have it on the table. Ta-da: Charlotte! So whatever was on the other end of ‘or’ didn’t need to be explained. It would come. And Dalton got to dodge a terrible joke. “I was gonna punch her.” Punch her. Kill her. Punch for food food was chained it was chained in front and under his nose he could smell it it was delicious he was starving he starved he starvedI don’t have to punch her.

“Might smarten her up. I’m not dragging live weight to Union. Not if it doesn’t talk.” Dead was alright. She got as much or more from pawning a corpse. Good ones kept the Cubans busy for almost a day. “I want this done before the checkpoint.”

Fine, fine. He cracked his knuckles and got his Smarten Up Fists ready.

Boss!Kill.’Ey, boss!” He took too long. The Cuban pulled its head inside the cabin again. “’Ey! ‘S’not ‘er, it’s t’e ot’er one!” And straight back: “‘Eeeeeeeeey, ot’er brot’er! Whatchu doin’, man – wha’s gon’ on, ‘ow’s life? Where’s your sister – she floatin’ ‘round ‘ere?” With – just – the stupidest grin. Dalton chose not to answer. This moron didn’t care. His mood instantly withered. “‘An’ ‘ow’s our senorita – how y’doin’ in ‘ose chains, girl?” Its black eyes had settled on the captive as a break from squinting at the trailer’s shadows.

What do you want… you?

He didn’t know their names. They never stopped long enough to be asked.

Me? Wha’ – you t’ink I wan’ somethin’?” The Cuban laughed. “Man, I don’ wanna die – you think I wanna die? I don’ wan’ nothing – look at you! You’re big an’ scary an’ you got ‘at – fuckin’ – like – slobber goin’ on, like –” He wiped his chin. “Yeah! No way – no way, I don’ ever interrupt someone scary like you. T’at’s not me. Dalton. Dalton – man, I fuckin’ swear, ‘at’s not me.” Five seconds went by of it staring at him. The Cuban’s neck bobbed along with road. Its arms pinched over the edge of the hole like legs tucked to a small body. With dark hair, gangly wrists and a long, yellowed nail jutting from its left pinky, the shrivelled brat was a pigeon incarnate, home to roost. Dalton hated pigeons. “‘S Caprice. King Caprice – you know, he’s jus’ – yapyapyapyapyap – all t’e time ‘f you let ‘im. He’s like, ‘I wan’ t’is shit righ’ now,’ an’ I’m all, ‘No, King, y’fuckin’ crazy, King, Dalton’s in ‘ere an’ he’ll fuckin’ kill me,’ an’ he goes, ‘I’ll fuckin’ kill you,’ an’ you know Caprice, I’m like, ‘Okay, King, you’re in charge, don’ tell anyone I don’ earn good shit’. Me ’n’ Laro – Laro’s drivin’ so ‘e sent me ‘ere – we talked an’ we’re wit’ everythin’ – we love you, Dal, an’ all you Vikings – but Caprice, ‘e’s got a message, an’ he don’ like what ‘e been hearin’ outta chicka-wow-wow. T’at’s you, girlie.

I mean, I don’ know ‘ow ‘e found out – Caprice, ‘e’s jus’ fuckin’ everywhere, but he knows, you know? An’ not t’be rude or nothin’ – ‘cause we love you Vikings,” the tweaker promised, possibly mercifully wrapping up. “We love you, but King Caprice tol’ me t’say t’at if missy ‘ere does true on ‘at fuckin’ boom’f ‘ers – like, boom, t’at fuckin’ explosion, she said – man, is she f’real? ‘Cause ‘e says if she does good on ‘at, he gon’ carve it out your ass, an’ if he carve it outta your ass, ‘e gone’ carve it outta my ass. T’is is his truck an’ ‘e wan’ it back wit’ its tires an’ teeth, Dal.” … Was… Did it stop? Dalton wasn’t sure. What he unpacked from the blather was – “Oh yeah, an’ t’e cell team called ’r… somethin’. Fuckin’ Nightstalk – ‘at fuckin’ Brit – ‘ey, Laro! Tell bitchy-queen t’calm ’is ass – she’s not even in ‘ere!

What the –

Nightstalk called?” He reared up. “For what?

I’unno.” The Cuban yawned at its perch and shrugged. “‘E said somethin’ like ‘is guys gotta pro’lem – but you know t’em Kingdom kids: ‘Why you gotta touch my shit all t’e time – man, ‘m British, you fuckin’ Cubanos, you don’ know who y’dealin’ wit’, we know people, fuck t’is shit, man’ – an’ me – ‘s like, ‘t’ey give me such crap, Dal, an’ t’e rest’f us, an’ bitchy-queen’s t’e fuckin’ worst ‘cause ‘e’s no diff’ren’ even after t’e boss beat ‘im. Man, you gotta talk t’your sister – ‘cause, you know, I’m happy t’ey gotta home ‘n’ all, but you fuckin’ wanna talk about attitude, you talk ‘bout them. It’s nuts. It’s fucked.”

Nightstalk called with a problem,” Dalton’s plate-like teeth grinded. “Why didn’t you start with that?

Caprice wanted ‘is first.” He soaked inside his rage and all the Cuban offered was another, even less satisfying bounce of knobby shoulders. “‘Sides, bitchy-queen wanted Danielle. You’re not Danielle, man. Laro, right? El no tiene cojones – not like her anyway, ah-ha-ha! No offence, Dal.

Blood. He wanted blood. He craved blood he needed blood. The pressure in his brain was swelling. His vision blurred his breath grew hoarse his eyes sharpened on the flesh he craved. He blinked it away. It returned. He blinked it away. More red. More red. Red red red red red a stream of it of redDanie–

“Noope, not coming out. Wasn’t worth it the first time,” she said. “Won’t be worth it the second.”

But I’m starving,” he whined.

“Good.” Danielle’s fingers were at her temples, massaging the indents with tight movements. “When you eat one of them, the other’ll shut up. Although with my luck, you’ll give him more to ramble about.”

Get it together, she was telling him, get it together, pull it together, Dalton, strain. She carried the bulk of this for weeks. He could last an hour for her sake. Then she would let him switch. Later. ‘Settle this’, she’d ordered. ‘Settle them.

Dalton’s stomach groaned.

Give me,” he snarled, “the phone.

Don’ get mad at me! I’m only tryin’ t’help. I’ll hol’ it f’you – ‘ey, ‘ey, ‘ey, no, I’ll hold it. Caprice don’ wan’ t’is girl killin’ ‘is car an’ I don’ wan’ you crushin’ up my phone. ‘Ey, speakin’f the girl though, Dalton – don’chu ‘ave an interrogation or –” he cracked his fangs at the pigeon’s moulting face “Okay, okay, calm down, holy fuck! Okay! Screw it, y’wanna talk t’bitchy-queen, ‘s’cool! Man…

“Danielle?”

Nightstalk’s voice rang clear. A sudden… thrill… whisked over him. Nightstalk. HA-HAHA. Nightstalk! Next to Scissor, Night was the best to piss off! The bastard took everything personally and already Dalton tasted impatience hovering above leashed frustration!

No. Me.

“Dalton?” Such displeasure! “She’s – oh, you’re still –” That fumble was Night ‘composing himself’. It wouldn’t do to be ‘unprofessional’. The guy worked for a gang of mercenaries, anarchists and drug runners; provided he made it a day without shanking anyone, he held his spot at the top of the civilized pyramid. Night didn’t realize nobody cared, least of all Danielle, who he badly hoped to impress. Dalton was not a close second. Like Scissor, their dislike was mutually acknowledged. “Oh.” Twat. “This is important. I need to speak with her.”

HAHAHAHAHA!

No.

Instant offense. Dalton felt delightfully wicked. In his mercy, he pat the captive girl roughly on her head. She was being a good prisoner to wait like this.

“You didn’t ask her,” Nightstalk snapped. “Ask her!”

What an attitude. The Cuban bobbed in agreement, language barriers be damned.

Alright, alright. Dalton obliged.

Danielle. Night says he’s got a problem.

“Oh boy, I’ll bet.”

HAHA!

She doesn’t feel like chatting,” he relayed. “That’s still a no.

Sqqqqqqqqqqrrrrrrrrrp.

There was the glorious sound of Nightstalk’s hole puckering closed. Dalton howled in laughter. These Kingdom scraps couldn’t get it. They liked their old ways of ‘the queen served her people’. They expected to access her as a basic right. Welcome to the Nordics, pricks. The lion pride served Danielle – and Danielle didn’t wanna come out. Dalton was shocked she’d bothered with the Cubans at all. Well, lesson learned, it appeared. He was gonna bite off the pigeon’s hand within the hour. It hung there waiting.

“Fine,” Nightstalk did slllloooowwwly concede. “How long do I wait?”

‘Til she does feel like it. That’s my guess.

“Dalton.”

Yes, dammit, the girl! He felt rude. He hated when people underestimated his threats; ignored completely probably wormed itself under the child’s skin.

Sorry, sis. Night, get back to Charlotte.” But he wasn’t done! His jaw ached as it crashed together, trying to find something – anything – it could eat or mock. “We –

“It’s Buzzy. Buzzy – and Alexander – mostly Elias – but it’s Buzzy in the thick of this,” their chivalrous fellow blurted. Oh my. That wasn’t composed. It didn’t sound composed in the slightest. Dalton should kill him for not being composed it would be hysterical “She broke him. She was disconnecting Charlotte and she shut Elias’ cell shut off. She screamed and – and Scissor panicked and attacked me thanks to her!”

Even Scissor was sick of him. If this was English, the Cubans would’ve had a comment or sixteen.

“I hope he’s not saying that’s the bad news.”

‘Cause Danielle liked most of what was in there when he told her.

No Elias leaves less to track,” he realized. “We won’t need to replace the French guy!

“And Buzzy’ll kill herself in grief!”

Right. There was also that.

HAHAA-HA-HA!

My sister lent ears to your mewling, Night,” Dalton said. “She smiles upon your tidbits.

“She’s not supposed to smile! She should be concerned!” On he mewled. “Buzzy’s place wasn’t anywhere near me or Scissor. She shoved into our mission, seduced him, attacked me through him, and in the middle of it she breaks the thing Danielle specifically ordered not be touched!”

“I ordered no prisoners.”

“Wh-what?” Dalton relayed his sister’s sentiment twice. “Oh.” Night sounded trapped. He couldn’t pretend he hadn’t heard. “I… well – Magnus was the one to physically pick them up.” HA! AH-HA! “I caught them but he could’ve… But Buzzy,” he Britishly sobbed. “She’s not sad. She can’t simply switch between forlorn loss and being okay in a matter of hours, but she’s all over Scissor. I am asking, as a formal request, for Danielle’s permission to restrain her. She’s obviously done something – it’s not right!”

He makes this shit up,” Dalton swore. No branch fucking worked like this, ‘requesting permission’ like a knighted pig. He was glad the Kingdom was dead. It took effort grabbing the stick from the Germans’ ass; imagine yanking the sceptre from these cheeks. “Buzzy’s not that smart.

“No,” Night readily agreed, “but she thinks she is, and she would never hurt Elias. Maybe she helped with the transfer or… well – we don’t know who’s in Alexander.”

“End it,” Danielle said. Dalton waved the phone away. The Cuban closed it mid-“It could be Lamarre! Or Patten!” and nestled into the cabin, home for now. “He’s got half a decent point.” Oh, it killed her to say that.

You’re thinking Lamarre’s in Alexander?

That could be why – “I don’t give a fuck who’s in him, we have him in chains,” she rattled off. “What matters is why they bothered.” Her arms tightened across her chest and her weight shifted to a leg. “Ask her.”

Do you want that punch?” She shrugged. ‘Either way.’ Dalton pounded on the girl’s ribcage. The blast ran through her collarbone. He could see the skin ripple from the impact of his fist. “Let’s hope you explode as fast you complain and not as fast as you think, otherwise I’ll have Alexander stuffed inside twelve boxes and mailed to every continent before you even light your fuse.” She didn’t have a bomb. Magnus checked before he put her in, and Dalton, reserving his faith for a child-breaker’s judgement calls, checked again. It was where half the girl’s bruises had come from. “Some friend to get him killed demanding if he’s been killed. Be smart. If you’re gone, how will he survive? I thought that’s why he brought you.” Or, as Danielle most definitely heard, “It is time now to wake and think of your duty. How he will bleed when you abandon him like a fish.” She made broken English sound fancy. “If it’s still him. That’s your new question,” Dalton continued in English, babbling growls and accent and all. “You were found by him and a transfer chair. Why did Alexander make the trip?” ... Um... Drooling. Pressure. Famine. He lagged behind. “Why’s this the part that matters?

“Because it’s short.” Captives liked giving long answers, he sleepily recalled her explaining once. It gave them more time to bullshit a smart lie. “And after five years, he picks today to swap back into his body? No. How long has this been their plan? What prompted it?” She was much better at catching this stuff while switched-out. “And stop drooling.”

He got a little on the girl. Yick. He wiped it off. Or patted it in. Who could tell?

I’ll find you a rag from somewhere. Eventually. On the bright side,” he smoothly comforted, “I’m not eating you.

* * *


“Hello? Hello?!” Dammit! Damn that stupid, fucking Viking! Dalton hadn’t asked Danielle. Danielle would have never hung up on him, but here he was, putting away a phone wailing piteously in its dead dial tone. He sucked down a ball of resentment, seething because of it, and then he... and...

“You’re so right! He is like a cow.” That voice was like raking a cheese grater down his spine. “He chews his own vomit and serves his shit in a pie. Ooh – you’re so clever!” Her blue eyes batted a hurricane in her ‘lover’s’ face. Scissor swooned, delighted. Then she noticed Nightstalk was watching her and snapped, “Can I help you? He’s always staring at me – he’s such a creeper.”

He tensed his jaw. Scissor only met her four months ago and swore he was in love with every scrawny bit of her. That’d been day one. Day two had been a nauseating love affair, day three had been a weird break up, day four was some ridiculous Romeo and Slutiet drama, and whatever else they could think of, Nightstalk had a front seat to it. Buzzy lacked the barest shame and Scissor demanded a babysitter. Nobody wanted this job. Half didn’t think anyone needed to do it. As much as he enjoyed working with the Nordics, they were buried in their faults. Subtleties were lost on them. Minor issues shored up around their feet and they took notice just when it all went to merciful hell. It was more fun for them to fix a big problem than constantly play janitor to the small stuff. Well, being a janitor was an important role somebody had to swallow. It was up to him, was it? Fine. He would sort it himself.

“Night,” Scissor called, vacationing from his girlfriend’s tongue, “what did Danielle say?”

He made out to reply but her mouth had the edge of always hanging open.

“Danielle doesn’t talk to anyone after she’s switched,” Buzzy drawled, lazing on her pet. “I bet Dalton hung up on him.”

Scissor used to think for himself, if anyone could believe it. Now, instead, he shrugged as if ‘yes, that makes sense’ and abruptly decided, “I’ll ask at the checkpoint.”

“I managed it,” Nightstalk bit off. “She told me she was looking into it.”

“And that she’s buying him a pony,” the brat giggled.

And that she appreciated my initiative,” he corrected. That stopped her. Buzzy gaped at him with the disgustedly bored expression she always tugged on when someone set the story straight. He hadn’t, not really, since Dalton didn’t pass the message along, but if Danielle spoke with him, it was roughly along the lines of what she would’ve said. “It’s more than she’d tell you.”

Buzzy blinked and turned her eyes away – up, like they were caught mid-roll – and twitched the corner of her lip into a scandalized sneer.

“Okay, sooooooo... You’re the cow now, ‘cause that’s bullshit. Danielle’s never appreciated – like... anyone. Ever. She’s not gonna start being grateful for you. She doesn’t even like you.”

Scissor didn’t say a word because he had his hand under her shirt. Some friend!

“She likes me better than you,” Nightstalk reminded everyone.

“Oh my God, are you serious? Whatever – I don’t work for her!” Buzzy twisted her feet to rest more snugly on the back seat’s window. Besides flipping her stupid, blonde pigtails and their stupid, pink bows, it was the greatest dismissal in her arsenal. She was fully reclined and ready to doze. He hoped the seatbelt tangled around her neck. “I’m here because Cryptic asked, not because she likes me.” Her voice sparkled like a princess. He hoped the seatbelt cut her head off. “It doesn’t matter if she does anyway, ‘cause if she wants to stay in my branch’s good graces, she has to treat me like an angel.”

Nightstalk was sure angels weren’t as big of whores.

She was the worst insult of this trip. Bad enough he’d been assigned to out-of-the-way work – technically the entire point of being here, but wrangling a stasis cell wasn’t nearly the badge of honour it should have been – but to then be walked over by this Russian harpy... She’d even forced herself into their truck. It wasn’t a ‘truck’ truck, because they were riding with the convoy – at the back – rather than the big Macks, but it was still reserved for the SCR team. Nightstalk was riding as the passenger and Scissor should have the back to himself. It hadn’t even been a question. Buzzy simply walked in, claiming the beige and pleather 4x4. The Cubans were meant to run those controls. It was his hard luck that the first time he wanted one to run a mouth at her, he got the truly silent driver. It wasn’t fair.

Glue! Glue was friends with Magnus, and Magnus said he would end up driving Alexander’s body!

“I have to make a second call,” he announced, accepting that they didn’t care. Glue would care. She hated the whisper of Alexander’s name. She would check on that note, if she didn’t as a favour. He remembered being on good terms with her, and Nightstalk couldn’t think of anything that changed. Carefully he let a cloak of shadows surround his head. He wanted to mute the sound and dampen the morning sun they were driving into. The back of his mind wondered how CryShadow was getting along with the daybreak, but it was probably under someone’s car, either enjoying the ride or shuffling under the shade. Its scream... Nightstalk shivered. “Glue? Glue, are you free to speak?”

Did Patten weep like a whore when Lady Pimp died?” There was a question he wasn’t asked every day. “I’m busy, Night.

“Glue. You recognized my voice.”

He liked that.

You’re the only prick with English as his mother tongue who’ll speak Swedish to another Anti with English as her mother tongue,” she replied, not as unkindly as it appeared. Glue was a stiff woman. Friendlier than this meant she was skinning an Agent. “I recognized the over-doing it. What do you want?

“I need you to check Alexander for...” For... “... tampering.” And yes, he’d returned to his native speech. He didn’t see why it was a problem when they all spoke it now. He’d had to insist with Scissor and his girl, who’d insisted the other way for the full trip to Charlton. If they’d been overheard in the halls or garage, it was much less likely with Swedish that – but Scissor hadn’t cared. “The Russian insisted she help. After we were nearly caught waiting for her, she sent Scissor to attack me and botched Elias’ cell somehow. Not that I’d feel bad to see him suffer well overdue mental trauma, but for our sakes, we should be sure it is still Alexander.”

“If it’s not?”

“All the good graces in the world won’t stop what I’ll be sure Danielle levels at her,” Nightstalk promised.

He could hear her confliction. She must have known Danielle wasn’t already backing this, or he wouldn’t have been the person calling. But she hated Buzzy too, and Alexander most of all. Nightstalk swallowed in his throat.

“Night,” Glue began, “what’s the goal here?”

“I want to keep our new branch safe.” ‘New’ wasn’t the best word. The Nordics adopted them a few years ago. “Also, I’m sick of Buzzy’s face. She’s the shining example of what’s wrong with the Union. The others caught desperation in the air and they’re taking advantage of it – the Russians, the Cubans, not the Germans but purely because they’re in more dire straits than we are. The Nordics are supposed to be noble. I’m tired of Buzzy putting her feet on our window and smearing our good name with her snark. She did this on a whim!”

“And in return, you’ll risk breaking an alliance on your own whim?”

Glue seemed halfway amused. It was hard to tell with her. Was that condescension? She didn’t normally talk down.

“If Buzzy has actively participated in whatever happened to Alexander before we found him, the alliance is broken already. I’m simply bringing it to light.” She was quiet. The silence was as stony as she was. “I’m serious. I’m not going to stand here and let her and the rest of them make fools of us. I didn’t join for th– ”

“You’re fucking mental.” Crap. He’d lost her. “Are you telling me this is about honour? Did you forget how that turned out for us the last time?”

“I was there –“

“The Americans,” Glue snarled, laying into the word, “clipped off Kevin Wald’s head and dropped us on Arthur – who, though there should be no need to reiterate, wasn’t so much a coward as he was a snivelling traitor. There’s been no honour left, and you’re mental – unequivocally mad – if you think you’ll scrounge it out from amongst them.” He swallowed again. His mouth was strangely dry. “Danielle took in those of us with anything left to give and shared a chance to finish the war. That’s where your honour lies, not fighting your best mate’s girl.

“They aren’t together,” he protested.

“Nightstalk,” she gnashed, “if your only interest is in saving face from Buzzy, I can’t help you. I joined to stop the Agency from murdering innocents.”

“I did, too – of course I did, but don’t you think that’s harder with people like her around?” There was frigid nothing. He closed his eyes in a merciful plea. “Does that mean you won’t check?”

“Fuck off.” ‘Not for you’ was the whisper underneath. “I’ll have Alexander sorted when the day fucking calls for it, not to gather evidence for your one-man execution.”

Probably at the checkpoint. Yes, the checkpoint!

“But you’ll at least let me know what’s happened,” he begged for the future.

The wailing dial tone returned. Suddenly angry, he jammed the miserable plastic in his pocket and pulled back the shadows. Buzzy’s harpy laughter instantly returned. He scowled deeply as it paraded through his ears.

Ugh, he’s back.”

“Hey, Night! Any use?”

“Yes,” Nightstalk said quickly. Too quickly. He smoothed his features over. “Yes, it went well. I heard what I needed to hear.”

It was the truth, he admitted sullenly. He had heard. He squinted into the morning, settling into a private world of thought to sort this himself. From the giggles in the back, the muteness at his side, and the abandonment at his pocket, he saw his lonely road ahead. Somebody had to save them. Once more, Nightstalk accepted the chore thanklessly. They would appreciate it later. This time, he knew they would.

* * *


It should go without saying we won’t allow food on the premises, either. This is expensive equipment. We can’t have schnitzels or borscht breaking it. Punishment for failing to adhere to this includes detainment, suspension, loss of pay – ‘cause you’ll be the ones covering repairs – or termination. Depending on how we feel about what you broke, that termination’ll be less of the paper kind and more of the type with lead. Any considerations or unreported changes to the plan have to be authorized by Dr. Grace Li. But don’t bother. She’s not authorizing anything.

SO IT APPEARED.

NO FOOD, NO DRINKS, NO PETS, NO WOOL, NO PHONES, NO CAMERAS, NO UNREGISTERED CHEMICALS, NO MAGNETS, NO SHOES THAT SCUFFED, NO PERFUMES, NO MUSIC, NO UNMARKED BAGS, NO PURSES, NO UMBRELLAS, NO WIRES, NO LOOSE AMMUNITION, NO NAKED BLADES, NO FLARES, NO SPONGES, NO METAL GROOMING SUPPLIES, NO SCREWDRIVERS, NO RAZORS, NO CLIPPERS, NO CLIP-ON EARRINGS, NO FOLDERS LARGE ENOUGH TO CONCEAL A WEAPON IF HOLLOWED OUT, NO BOOKS OF OTHERWISE SIMILAR DIMENSIONS, NO FLASHLIGHTS, NO OUT-OF-SEASON WEAR, NO KEY CHAINS, NO REMOTE CONTROLLED DEVICES, NO TIMED DEVICES, NO DIGITAL WATCHES – SHORT OF ‘NO CLOTHES’, GRACE LI HAD DENIED EVERY POSSIBLE ITEM ON PAIN OF INSTANT EXPULSION FROM HER BUILDING. IT COULDN’T HAVE BEEN A MORE HOSTILE SIGN FOR VISITORS THAN IF SHE HAD OUTRIGHT BANNED THEIR LANDING.

THE STAGE WAS SET FOR THE TIP OF THIS ICEBERG. MADELINE’S HANDS SQUEEZED THEIR OPPOSITE ARMS. THEY WOULD DESCEND SOON, WITHIN MINUTES NOW, BUT THE SOURED MILK OF APPREHENSION HAD ALREADY CURDLED IN FEAR INSIDE HER STOMACH. SHE WAS SCARED. SHE WASN’T SO YOUNG THAT SHE GAVE IT AWAY AND MARCH’S BLANK EYES GAVE HER A LOOK TO REFLECT, BUT SHE FELT THE PAIN INSIDE HER STOMACH. SHE TRUSTED EVERYONE TO DO THEIR JOB, BUT SHE DIDN’T BELIEVE SHE WAS SAFE. IT WOULD KEEP HER ALERT. LI WAS RUTHLESS AT THE FIRST TWINGE OF INSUBORDINATION, AND MADELINE DIDN’T HAVE THE WEEKS TO TRUDGE THROUGH QUESTIONING. AT LEAST PATTEN PICKED HIS BATTLES. HIS S-1 COULDN’T LET ANYTHING PASS WITHOUT A DAMN COMMENT.

MEANWHILE, THEY HAD TO SUFFER THIS INVALID. THE ONLY SECTOR MORE UP THEIR ASS WITH REGULATIONS THAN S WAS THE AGENCY’S INCONTINENT GRANDFATHER: R. SHE WAS SURE HER KITTY KNEW THE HISTORY BACKWARDS AND FORWARDS, BUT SHE WAS SATISFIED BY, ‘FIRST THEY WORKED TOGETHER, THEN THEY STOPPED’. EXCEPT THEY HADN’T REALLY WORKED TOGETHER. THE AGENCY WAS THE DARK HORSE EVEN AMONG ITS KIN, AND THE SPLIT, OUTSIDE THE A-RANKS, WAS SO LIGHTLY REGARDED THAT THREE MEMOS WENT OUT BEFORE THE PUBLIC SIDE ACKNOWLEDGED THERE WAS A NEW GROUP AT ALL. AGENTS WERE DEADLY, DANGEROUS PSEUDO-ASSASSINS TALLYING BASTARDIZED LEAPS IN HUMAN ADVANCEMENT, BUT THEIR LOW-PROFILE ATTITUDES MADE IT IMPOSSIBLE TO EARN RESPECT. THEY WERE STILL MERELY SPECIALIZED R’S TO MOST, AND SO WHEN THEY WERE ADDRESSED, OTHER SECTORS USED SMALL WORDS. WAS IT ANY WONDER WHY PATTEN WAS CHERISHED? THE AGENCY HAD A PUBLIC CHAMPION NOW, ONE TO HOLD SECRETS IN THEIR PLACE BUT MESMERIZE THE AUDIENCE WITH HOW MUCH HE COULDN’T SHARE. DESPITE HER HATRED OF THIS COMPANY’S VERY SOUL, MADELINE HAD FELT A SLIGHT CONTENTMENT THE FIRST TIME SHE’D DENIED A C-RANK BITCH ACCESS TO HER FILES. SHE HAD PRINTED THE POLITICALLY VICIOUS LETTER SHE WAS SENT. IT HUNG ON THE WALL IN CHARLTON. SHE WOULD NEVER SEE IT AGAIN.

“STEWART,” SHE SAID FLATLY. “WE ARE HERE. DO NOT FORGET WHAT WAS TOLD TO YOU.”

AND THE DOG...

THE SICKLY THING HAD FAINTED EARLIER, BUT SHE KNEW A PRETENDER WHEN SHE SAW IT. HE WAS PLAYING DEAD. FINE. THAT WAS NOT A CONCERN. HER QUESTION WAS WHETHER HE COULD PLAY SHUT YOUR FAT MOUTH. WOULD IT DO HIM GOOD ANYWAY, ASSUMING ‘GOOD’ WAS CATCHING HER WITHOUT EXPECTING TO LIVE? MADELINE DID NOT KNOW. MARCH WAS... OFF. THE DOG WENT IGNORED. WAS SHE ABLE TO STOP ANYONE LIKE THIS?

USBs¸ CDs, DVDs, whatever you save stuff on, are especially banned. You are not permitted to take anything with you. If we could, we’d wipe your memory, but we can’t yet. Trust me, we’re working on it.” THE IMBECILE PAUSED WITH A SHUFFLE OVER THE MICROPHONE. SHE WORKED OUT THAT TWO ESCORTS WERE THERE TO MEET THEM. MADELINE HADN’T HEARD THE OTHER SPEAK, BUT GIVEN WHAT THE FIRST GRUNTED AFTER THESE BRIEF CONFERENCES, SHE GUESSED THE SECOND WAS THE SMART ONE. “‘Working on it’ is a figure of speech. Or maybe it’s not. You aren’t authorized to ask.

THANK GOD FOR THIS QUALITY. ELMIRA WAS MEANT TO HAVE EMPTIED ITS SECURITY AS PER THE PROTOCOL SHE SPENT YEARS WRITING IN. SHE WAS WORRIED THE REMNANTS WOULD CAUSE THEIR OWN PROBLEMS. NOT LIKELY. BUT THEN, LI WASN’T A WOMAN TO LEAVE HERSELF – HER WORK – UNCARED FOR. SOMETHING ELSE WAS THERE, BIGGER THAN THE TINNY VOICE PIPED IN THROUGH THE HELICOPTER’S SPEAKERS. SHE DIDN’T PLAN ON RUNNING INTO IT WITH THE RUSSIANS NEARBY, BUT ALL THE SAME, THE UNKNOWN SPOILED HER CALM. THAT, AND SHE JUST ADMITTED TO COUNTING ON CRYPTIC TO SPARE HER FROM LI’S RESERVES. PERHAPS SHE SHOULD HAVE STAYED... BUT THEN SHE REMEMBERED HOW NORDICS ENDED FIGHTS. IF THEY DIDN’T BURN THE BUILDING, THEY POISONED THE AIR WITH THE CHARRED FLESH OF ANY CREATURE THEY DID NOT ENTER IN WITH. SHE HELD PROPORTIONED FAITH IN DANIELLE PERSONALLY. THE NORDIC BRANCH, DANIELLE’S POWERS, HER BROTHER AND ALEXANDER, MADELINE DID NOT. AT THE MINIMUM, THE RUSSIANS WOULDN’T GET CONFUSED AND KILL HER. SHE CHOSE THE BEST PATH. IT SAVED HER FROM ARGUING ABOUT ‘ALEXANDER’S PRESENCE AS SABOTAGE’ WITH A HULKING, SWEDISH MESS OF TRUST ISSUES. PATTEN’S SPIES WERE A MINEFIELD, TOO. SOMETHING WAS MISSED. SHE WAS NOT ALLOWED TO MISS. IF ANYTHING HAPPENED, THE CRUSHING GUILT TO FOLLOW WOULD BE IRREPARABLE, AND THE GERMAN BRANCH WASN’T STUMBLING ON A THIRD CHANCE.

... about the escort.

I know what I’m doing, Horton. Learn something,” THE FIRST BARKED. “And as for the escort process, understand that we are your lifeline. This area is under total lockdown.” UNOFFICIALLY. SHE IGNORED IT. “Anyone we do not have attached to our waists will be shot and killed on sight. Any sudden movements or wrong turns or fingers getting itchy to touch will be repaid by the full force of our Agency wrath.

THIS WAS AN AGENT. THAT MAN HAD IMPLIED HE WAS AN AGENT.

WELL... THEN.

THIS WAS WHY THOSE UNDER A-10 WERE A DAMN EMBARRASSMENT TO THE WHOLE ORGANIZATION: THEY WERE INDISTINGUISHABLE FROM AN R-RANK. ANY AGENT WORTH SOMETHING WOULD BE PAST THAT LINE BY NOW. CANNON FODDER, THEY WERE LABELLED. DISPOSABLE BRUTES THEY THREW AT THEIR ENEMIES UNTIL A SIDE RAN OUT. THEY WERE LOYAL TO A PAYCHECK AND POINTED A GUN THE RIGHT WAY FORWARD, BUT THEY DIDN’T MATTER. THEY MERELY PREFERRED TO THINK THEY DID. THIS PLACE WAS RUN BY LESS THAN TWENTY PERCENT OF THE HANDS THEY EMPLOYED. HER NEW ABSENCE AND MARCH’S IMPENDING DEPARTURE WAS GOING TO BE A SORE LOSS.

Washroom breaks are scheduled and timed. It’s your responsibility to use these facilities when they’re offered, because we aren’t stopping every hour to wait for you to freshen up. Failure to adhere to these requirements ends in swift and merciless discipline. This is all explained in those forms you had to sign to get in here. We’re here to keep this lab safe from you. We are extremely talented at that.

IMAGINE WHAT LOSING THEIR CAT WOULD DO.

... the forms when... otherwise they...

IT WAS A PIPE DREAM. DAMN JEAN FOR STARTING IT... NOW SHE COULDN’T CAST THE FANTASY FROM HER HEAD.

JEAN WAS BIASED AT ANY RATE. AS A PAIN EATER, AS A FRIEND, AS AN EMOTIONALLY BONDED SPIRIT, MADELINE MORE THAN ONCE HAD QUESTIONED WHO WAS TRULY GROOMING WHOM. OBVIOUSLY HE SWORE TO HIS STORY’S TRUTH AND KEPT TO IT, BUT IF THE MAN DIED A YEAR LATER INSTEAD OF DAYS AGO, WHAT WOULD HE HAVE DIED AS? LAMARRE SEEMED MORE OF AN AGENT THAN EVER. HIS VOICE LINGERED IN HER EAR FROM THE PHONE CALL. IF JEAN HAD BEEN RIGHT, THERE OUGHT TO HAVE BEEN LESS RESISTANCE, NOT MORE. IT WAS ALL WRONG.

That’s it,” THE SPEAKERS CRACKLED, FINISHING A SHORT DIATRIBE ON HAVING THE PROPER FORMS ON HAND – OR FACE DEATH. “We’ll have a car to your landing zone shortly.” LANDING ZONE? WHERE WAS THE LANDING ZONE? “You’ll be forty minutes out. Naturally, Dr. Grace Li doesn’t want you arriving at the lab. You’ll have to be driven.

MADELINE PROCESSED THIS.

FUCKING LI.

“LAND THE HELICOPTER ON HER ROOF,” SHE COMMANDED THE PILOT. “SHE’S AN S-1.” AND MADELINE HELD SOMETHING THAT TRUMPED A RAGGED PACK OF GRUNTS. “I HAVE PATTEN’S GIRL.”

* * *


“You’ve never worked with goggles, have you?” As in, alongside someone using them. “It’s not the same as a masked suit,” Jason said. “The focus is completely different.”

He couldn’t snap. He wouldn’t. Ten variations of ‘What a bitch’ rocked his mind the second she screamed, but he held them in since that wouldn’t help. It took more effort than he thought. Her attitude was pissed him off – what was wrong with her? She was an A-5! Forget the drugs he’d given her – it was impossible to make it to his rank without an ounce of self-control, but shouting back wasn’t going to bring it out in her. There was too much hostility surrounding them and he had to turn the tension down. He took a breath, let his head clear before he spoke, and then tried to do the thing he’d always sworn he was: be professional. The other suit worked for Eric. Jason liked Eric, but A-1s carried rings of doom. He’d felt it. Whether or not she’d only seen him, he guessed it would feel worse working for the man. He was going to be patient. But firm. None of him was happy about this, but unlike Quin, she was a direct peer. He practically owed her the benefit of doubt, so he’d started to explain himself.

“You have it easy. Masked suits search, find and report.” Scout and Outs, they weren’t cleverly called. Masks were what everyone thought of when suits earned a mention. “You’re eyes. You go into dangerous areas, but you don’t have to work at creating a story. You just tell the story you see. And put up with fabric scratching your face every day.” He hated those masks. They were like steel wool on his skin. The difference they made in fading, though... He needed the itchy boost to reach the places where he could do his job. “I have to stitch clues together and recreate scenes using whatever I can dig up. I’m required to answer those impossible questions no one can, like if a psychic who doesn’t know she’s psychic will turn on us or the odds are that she’ll find protection from a guy who happens to be an expert in killing us.” Side note: pretty good odds, actually. “You use fading as a weapon. I use it as a defence. You use information as trivia. I use it as life blood. You get into places I would never think of risking. I break into data no one should have access to.”

It was the line between ‘their drugs’ and ‘his drugs’. Masked suits’ calmed them down. They had fanciful potions of blind courage and stupidity, depending on the strength. Suits with goggles got assigned cocktails of Ritalin and caffeine on steroids. They didn’t just have to be awake for analysis. Their analysis was all they were allowed to think about. If goggled suits didn’t overdose, they died because they starved. The Agency called this a good work ethic. It made them sitting ducks during reconnaissance, though, which was why the masks were sent in. They lived a loose hunter/gatherer set up. Jason probably could’ve been spared a lot with someone else to do the scouting for him. But then he never would’ve been assigned to this case because his Lead wanted someone to do both alone.

“I’ve had a really shitty, last few days.” It was a bit of an understatement. “I’m tangled with Alexander and the Agents who run his secret case – well, the last one, anyway. The second Agent died and his boss is blaming me for it. I had my goggles stolen and that put me with withdrawal until an hour ago. It’s not gone because my target reset them –” He felt the sting of anger and pushed through it. “– but I’ve gotten a third of my old settings back in place. I’m on a plane that’s following a flight plan from Hell because we aren’t there, and it’s all to stop my Lead from doing something she hired me to help her do. Anything I try is going to annoy Eric, and I can’t afford to have that happen.”

He just realized what he’d said. Oh God. He was working against an A-1. He was gonna be sick.

“I...” Buckets of nausea poured over him. “If you can’t give me answers, let’s try cooperation. We’ll – just... give it a shot.” Or however many it took. Jason knew this girl knew more. He wasn’t asking the right way, that was all. “Can we try that? Truce?” He did save her life. “Then maybe we can start again. You’ve got a lot of rumours, and that’s perfect – I can use those. Maybe you can tell me about the other side of things. What does he do with people he doesn’t like?” An A-1 was an A-1, after all. Even Eric had to have a few enemies. “I want to hear what to look out for. And I can share what I know.” He could always tell her what he’d saved her from. His goggles had to have something else about it.

But fat chance she was getting any boost. He told her what it cost. It wasn’t charity.

Keeping a straight face and talking softly, his best swing at swing ‘pleasantly neutral’, he finished with an open-ended, “So?”