Stef looked down at where her arm was strapped to the chair that wouldn’t have looked out of place in a sci-fi torture scene. ‘Are you a Bond villain?’
Jones looked at her, took a moment to pull his goggles up on his forehead and put down the wrench that glowed blue at the end. ‘Whatever do you mean?’ he asked, an absolute shit-eating grin on his face.
She looked at the machine that had appeared in the lab and had taken over almost all of the free space. Easily six feet tall, something that looked weirdly…mechanical compared to the usual, space-age, Star-Trekky minimalist design of Agency tech. Bulky, grey, lots of blinky lights that couldn’t possibly indicate anything useful.
The weirdly intimidating cousin of Donatello’s coffee-making machine from the old, old Turtles cartoon. But instead of dispensing something useful like coffee, this – as he had briefly demonstrated – shot out lasers.
‘I’m still-’ She winced as he adjusted something, and the machine clunked, and she was sure, growled. ‘Not sure…How is this different from what Mags, Taylor, and Grigori are doing?’
‘Has he hit on you yet, or has he left you alone? I should have warned you. I’m sorry.’
She blinked. ‘Taylor barely vocalises when I’m in the room and-’
‘He used to be more fun,’ Jones said as he put the wrench down and popped the goggles off. ‘I’m sorry you never got to meet the old him.’ He waved a hand. ‘I can already see your question. Long story short, let’s just say we had to do a system restore, and the save point was next to useless. But believe me, he did use to speak in full sentences. And no, I meant Grigori. He’s an incorrigible flirt.’
The tall blond had kissed her hand like some Edwardian gentleman but had otherwise been entirely professional. Even with her limited experience – no experience – she was sure there’d been no flirting in her direction.
‘Jonesy, I shower like every other week. No person in their right mind is going to flirt with me.’
‘For a rancid little goblin creature, you are cute, Spyder.’
She blushed. ‘Now, mad science? You already got to murder me once. Was that not enough?’
Jones flicked a switch, and the giant machine began to hum. ‘The flamidimiser is not for murdering, sweetie.’
He picked up a brick-thick manual from the table behind him and tossed it to her. On the cover was “Flamidimiser” in giant block letters, like it was an evil Ikea instruction guide.
‘Flaa-mid-ee-miser,’ she said, sounding the word out. ‘Okay, if not murder, what?’
Jones rubbed his hands together, then lifted a pointed finger. ‘What the Combat team is doing is important, but it’s also literally and figuratively the brute force technique. It’s throwing as many stimuli and situations at your body as possible, with little regard for how you put yourself back together when it’s done. You’ve seen that you only get alerts when there’s an issue with your body prime respawning after a test, the rest of the time, it just repops, and they continue on.’
‘So, shotgun versus scalpel?’
‘Yes and no? This is actually making sure that all your respawns and your recoveries are working as intended and that all their tests aren’t brute-forcing bad pathways in your regenerative code.’ He smiled. ‘Don’t worry, you won’t need the remote body for this. None of this will hurt.’
A red line appeared on her wrist. ‘That’s the guide. You ready, 007?’
‘For Queen and country,’ she shouted, perfect RP dropping into place.
An electric blue laser shot out, one solid line, then blinked off a moment later…her hand was simply not attached anymore.
Jones stepped up, grabbed the hand and tossed it into a bin beside the chair. ‘Now, I’ve engaged slow mode,’ he said, grabbing the tablet, ‘and it’s running a deep scan as we go.’
The end of her wrist, which mercifully wasn’t bleeding, started to glow blue. The blue light brightened at several points, which began to draw a wireframe version of her hand.
Immediately, she snapped an image in her HUD and saved it to share later.
As soon as the wireframe was complete, her skin appeared.
Huh, I wonder-
She lifted the hand that wasn’t currently strapped to the chair and poked into the hand that had been a Tron extra just a moment before. Her still-respawning hand collapsed and deformed at the pressure like a balloon.
‘Oh, oh, eww, that is weird!’ she said, wiggling uncomfortably on the chair, the sensation feeling somewhere between hitting your funny bone and a deep, unreachable itch.
‘If you would please,’ Jones said, lifting her hand away. ‘You’re impeding science.’
She watched as the hand popped back into shape. ‘Why did it do that?’ she asked, her voice strained.
‘We’re the men in black,’ he said. ‘At least half of everything we do is to minimise our impact on civilians. Therefore, looks can override function. If a civilian watched you grow back bone then muscle then skin, or watched blue build itself like a T-1000, they’re going to freak. It’s much easier for someone to rationalise that they were wrong about seeing an injury if, in the blink of an eye, you appear to be whole again. Anything they happened to see in that second or two can be pushed away as hysteria.’ He poked the back of her hand, and this time, it reacted like a hand should. ‘Meanwhile, repairs happen under the surface.’ He smiled. ‘Now, I need to do all my tests on this arm before Mags comes and steals you away for some Faraday testing.’
She looked at the Flamidimiser. ‘Does it need to look like that?’
He smiled. ‘It absolutely does not, but it brings me a lot of joy.’
It was weird how easily you could get used to things. She was barely flinching at the gunshots now. They were still trading off with each shot – Grigori for the evens, Taylor for the odds. Mags calling the literal shots after each respawn.
This first set of testing of the Faraday cage wasn’t, to her chagrin, something she’d thought of until she’d read through this section of the project documentation. In hindsight, it was one of those obvious and apparent things, and she was glad someone had thought of it.
The cage was the smart way to avoid damage to her heart and all the possible bad things that could come with that.
If a regular agent got shot with a regular bullet, even straight through the heart, it was something they could shrug off. Normal protocol had them pop out and respawn just to run a full integrity check. Still, if they were fast enough, it was something they could opt out of and just stand there, in their bloody uniform, whilst their chest wound recovered.
That wasn’t an option for her. So as soon as the cage detected incoming traumatic damage that could hit her heart, it would immediately pop her out, avoiding the chance that a bullet or knife would smash into her heart.
All good, all sensible, and had worked in every test the trio had done so far.
Today’s tests were seeing how well it worked when shifting came into play.
Because the cage was good in theory, it just had to provide the same level of protection, even as her body was being teleported away. Therefore it had to be calibrated to technically be the last thing to disappear.
So Taylor and Grigori were taking turns shooting her body in the chest, each test moving the shift cycle forward by a tenth of a second.
They passed one full second of the shift cycle, and everything was still good.
One-one, one-two, one-three.
‘One-point-seven,’ Magnolia called.
Taylor fired and-
The universe split, and- It should have been painful. It should have felt like dying. It should have-
Thoughts were impossible to gather. She had too many fingers. Feet on the wrong feet on the wrong toes on the third left leg from Tuesday and night and-
She was back in her body, and it was like trying to see straight in a moment of sleep paralysis. It was like just being adjacent to being able to see, she knew there was brightness, but the images refused to resolve.
She could hear footsteps.
‘Back, please,’ she begged, not knowing exactly why. If this was her heart – and it could only be her heart – then maybe it would lash out like the bubble that had thrown the doctor across the room.
And she didn’t want to hurt anyone.
Meaningless bright light split into multiple shadowed images, each of a different rainbow hue.
Oh…this is familiar…
The world flexed, and in the edges of the rainbow slices, she could almost see possibilities, futures, pasts, pieces of the lives of other Stefs.
Images began to collapse on each other and coalesce, making more and more sense as things became true colour again.
And with one heartbeat, one pulse that seemed to sync her with the universe, everything was still.
Ryan. Clear – but measured – worry heavy in his voice.
‘Present,’ she said, and she tried to sit up, hoping that her fingers had the right amount of hands – or however that was supposed to-
The heavy fabric of his coat brushed her leg as he knelt beside her and helped her sit up and straight.
‘Hi,’ she said as he squeezed her shoulders. ‘I’m here. I’m okay. I’m- Brain’s a little wiggly, but that’s normal for me and-’ She scooted forward so that his shoulder hold could become a hug. ‘I’m okay, dad,’ she said, hopefully quiet enough so that the Combat team didn’t hear.
He held her for a long moment, and she became certain one of thing. For as long as she might live – with heart-wish-magic and immortal-nanite-juice-immortalities dragging her through the decades and centuries – she was never going to get tired of hugs from someone who loved her.
Ryan stood, and before he could offer a hand down, she shifted so that she was standing beside him. It was only something little, but maybe enough to let him know she really was okay.
She looked towards the other people in the room. Where Grigori and Mags had been standing, free-standing, thick, transparent walls had appeared – some kind of bullet-proof or blast-proof shielding to protect them.
But only two. Either Taylor had dismissed his, or- Or he’d been the one to throw them up and had put his friend and his recruit first.
And on the ground were several small flecks of mirror, most so thin, they were visible only by the light they reflected.
‘Jonesy’s gonna-’ She waved a hand at the floor. ‘Wanna look at that. At the dispersal pattern or- Shatter pattern or- Whatever you call it.’
‘He will get to this,’ Ryan said. ‘But you need to be examined first. He looked to the others. ‘I’m sorry, this will need to be quarantined for a few hours.’
‘Not a problem,’ Grigori said, his smile broad, as he swung an arm over Taylor’s shoulders. ‘I can keep these two out of trouble.’