The world was fog.
Stef stared at nothing.
Sometimes there were noises.
These feelings were too big and too…outside of her wheelhouse. She hadn’t been built to deal with shit like this. She’d barely been built to function as a person. There’d been a reason that staying inside, speaking with no-one and barely existing had been her comfortable speed for years.
Maybe it was stompy boots back to finish the job.
Doing things meant experiencing things. Meant dealing with consequences. Meant having to…
She shouldn’t have been the one to survive.
It should be her brains on someone else’s fingers right now. Except that person would have been smart enough not to touch to bloodstain, not to trigger themselves into a complete shutdown.
Heavy footsteps, loud enough to cut through the fog.
She started as a shape entered her field of view. A blurry lump of black and white and-
‘Newbie?’ the lump said.
She stared, still unable to focus, unable to lift her head.
Disappointing. Though maybe disappointing an ex-Solstice wasn’t as bad as disappointing someone who didn’t have that in their past. But it was still- Still not acting how a new recruit was supposed to act. Still probably something that would go on a report that would get back to Ryan.
Curt knelt in front of her, down on one knee, low enough to get into her line of sight. ‘Hey, are you able to focus?’ He slowly brought his hand up and pointed at himself. ‘I’m here, how can I help?’
Everything was locked too far down, too far away.
‘Gimme a minute.’
A tablet appeared in his hand, and after a moment, he spun it to face her – a soundboard, with a few large labelled icons.
There was text, but it shifted and moved as she tried to read it. The icons were easier. A water glass. A hotdog. A hospital. A bed. A house.
Slowly, he slid it under the hand she had resting on the bed beside her. All she’d have to do was move a finger barely an inch, and she’d get help.
But- But shutting down in front of someone was- Usually, if her brain broke, she could just flop out of her chair into her bed, cover herself in blankets and sleep until the world made sense again.
That wasn’t how a recruit should act.
And Dorian wouldn’t appreciate having an unannounced houseguest.
Slowly, she slid her finger to the question mark, and the tablet said “Unknown”.
‘Hey, there you are,’ he said, sounding relieved. ‘You’ve started packing, do you want me to grab the rest of the clothes from the wardrobe?’
She slid her finger onto the bright green tick, and the soundboard said “Yes”.
For a couple of moments, he busied himself with taking ratty T-shirts from hangers, folding them, and placing them into her Louis.
‘I’d suggest requiring this clean,’ he said as he zipped it up. ‘But you seem to have gone to some effort to graffiti it. Is there anything else I can do to help?’
She slid her finger onto the red X.
‘Okay, then just chill here for a bit, okay?’
She barely managed a nod as he left the room.
Slowly, she looked at the red marks on her fingers, then turned her hand over and scrubbed her fingers against the fabric of her pants.
Time passed, and a different set of footsteps approached.
She managed to lift her head and look at Ryan.
‘Would you mind if I sat?’
She made a tiny affirmative noise and shuffled over so that he had plenty of room to sit. She gripped the tablet for a moment, grateful for its help, then dismissed it.
‘What did you do to your hand?’ Ryan asked. ‘May I?’ he asked as he reached for it.
‘Not mine,’ she choked as he cleaned her fingers with a wet wipe, filling the air with the scent of artificial vanilla. ‘There was-’ She made a whimpering noise and jutted her chin towards the wardrobe.
He walked to the wardrobe and looked inside. ‘I’m sorry,’ he said as he made a gesture inside the wardrobe towards the stain – probably, hopefully, making it clean so no one ever had to see it again. ‘With the good condition of the rest of the room, there would have been no reason for the clean-up crew to look into the nooks and crannies.’
‘Sorry,’ she said as he sat down again.
‘It’s not something you have to apologise for.’
She brought her hands to her face and took in a deep breath. It wouldn’t help like a scream would, but maybe it would be enough to get through the next few minutes.
She dropped her hands into her lap. ‘It’s so stupid.’
She picked up her new phone and looked at the progress of the data transfer. ‘I know I’m not- You said there were other people who got out. So I know I’m not the sole survivor, but- But a lot of people did die.’ She looked at her pants, at where she’d wiped the dried blood from her fingers. ‘It’s just a waste that I was one of the people who lived. And-’ She groaned. ‘Please don’t tell me it happened for a reason, or-’
‘Of all the sentiments in the world, Miss Mimosa, I find the concept that “everything happens for a reason” to be one of the most disingenuous. All it seems to do is minimise the pain of someone who has experienced a tragedy.’
‘Oh. Huh.’ She tried to look at him, but failed. ‘I thought being an adult meant you had to swallow a certain number of platitudes, with that one at the top of the list.’
The data transfer window disappeared, and she disconnected the phones, then dismissed the old one, glad to be free of one more reminder of her family. ‘I just mean- Today there’s probably a whole bunch of people grieving. If I’d traded places with any of them, I would have just been one more corpse for you to chop up into Soylent Green.’
‘You keep mentioning-’ Ryan started. ‘Are you hoping to fool me into admitting that we use humans for fuel?’
She tried to smile. ‘It would be a good use of some people.’ She tucked her phone into her pocket. ‘It’s not survivor’s guilt. Probably not. This is just more…empirical. Running the numbers, there would be a net gain in happiness if-’ she looked at her fingers, where the dried blood had been. ‘If I was Soylent.’
‘You’re not suitable,’ Ryan said, ‘there’s far too much caffeine in your system.’
She looked up at him and saw him smiling. After a moment, she wiped her eyes and tried to match his smile. ‘Ha,’ she said dryly.
‘I know it might not mean much, Miss Mimosa, but I’m happy you lived. I’m sorry for the people who suffered loses last night, but your survival wasn’t meaningless.’
But you don’t even know me.
You don’t know how worthless I am.
‘But I’m nobody.’
And you don’t know how much I already owe you.
Ryan said nothing.
She curled her hands into fists, nails pressing into her palms. He didn’t want to hear her piteous statements. He didn’t need to deal with her bullshit. He didn’t-
‘You remembered me.’ His voice was quiet, like he was saying a secret or something he was ashamed of. ‘I’m not sure I’ve conveyed- Would you mind if I explained?’
She turned towards him and pulled her legs up to sit cross-legged. ‘Sure, go ahead.’
‘You made an immediate assumption that we’re the truth behind the rumours of men in black. As I said, there’s truth to that, we’re well-dressed, we deal with things that most people deem strange, and we leave little trace of our existence. Everything about us is designed to be…of little note. Our uniforms, our names, everything is to leave as little impact as possible.’
‘And you can mess with people’s memories.’
‘We can, but it’s most often a last resort. We try to allow the social engineering aspects of our appearance do the heavy lifting. It’s necessary for our work, but it means we make few connections.’
‘And you recruit jerks who somehow don’t think that you being AI is like, the coolest thing on the fucking planet.’
This earned another smile, and this time, it was easier to match it.
‘Being remembered is special, Stef, it’s a way of knowing your actions had positive consequences. With you- I took a risk in doing what I did, and for that, I’m sorry, but I felt that you deserved a chance at life. And to see you again, to get a chance to see what a remarkable person you’ve become, that’s vanishingly rare for someone like me. And so I’m grateful. So, please, don’t think that it’s inconsequential that you survived.’
‘If- If that’s the case, can you tell me the whole story?’
‘If that’s what you’d like.’
Not trusting her words, she nodded.
Slowly, he told her the whole story. The previous night’s half-sentence expanded, becoming the story of chasing a murderer, her baby-self being taken hostage and killed by a stray bullet, then his descent through death and into Limbo to carry her soul home.
So many tiny things fell into place as he talked – her recurring dream of drowning surely had to be the darkness of Death’s realm. The association of safety with Agency blue had to be him holding her tiny baby soul, protecting it against an endless void that would have turned her into a ghost.
And Alexandria, her favourite toy, something that had somehow always been more than just a china doll. A doll that sat broken on a bookshelf, the damage so recent that there was probably still shards of the antique doll in her apartment’s carpet.
‘I want to tell you,’ Ryan said, his tone sombre, ‘before you build this into a heroic act-’
‘A little- A little couple of decades too late for that.’
‘I wasn’t operating at my best that day. I’d just lost someone I loved, so- If I had done a better job, then that man never would have been in a position to threaten you. And when he- I needed to save someone. It was selfish in its own way. I don’t regret saving you, but I hope you can forgive the- The less-than-noble reason behind it.’
A lump the size of a watermelon stuck in her throat.
She started to draw a spiral on her knee with her finger. In the beginning, it had been a mantra, a magic spell, a way of keeping her words inside, of stopping herself from talking to herself out loud. It had morphed into a focus, of trying to- Of a way of trying to make the thoughts go. To give order to the barrel of snakes that operated the grey matter in her skull.
‘But it wasn’t just one time,’ she said, barely choking the sentence out.
She scooted away from him, to give him as much space from the crazy girl as possible.
She covered her mouth, unwilling to let any more words out.
-I’m not ready to-
She looked at his vest, at the colour that had always meant safety, at the- It was stupid and too personal, and she couldn’t- And it would let him know she was crazy and that she shouldn’t be- Shouldn’t be around him. Shouldn’t be allowed to remember magic, or remember him.
Everything would be okay, so long as he thought she was normal. Or maybe geeky-weird, but not crazy-weird. As soon as he figured out- But until then, for a couple of days, she’d be allowed a glimpse into a parallel reality where she had a life, where she got to do things.
So, stories of suicide were definitely off the table.
‘Just-’ she swallowed, her tongue thick, her brain racing to come up with acceptable words. ‘Because I remembered- Well. You. And mostly the colour blue. It’s always been like a personal hack. If I needed to feel safe, I’d just look for this colour,’ she said, pulling her tie out from her vest. ‘So. Um. Thanks. It doesn’t matter if it was selfish, or whatever you think, you still helped me. And doing that kept on helping me.’ She wiped tears from her eyes, and hated that she hadn’t been able to lock all of her emotions down. ‘So. Yeah. Thanks and stuff.’
She swung her legs off the bed and looked down at her feet. It was no good pretending that she wasn’t crying, but at least she could spare him from having to look at her probably-already-blotchy face.
Crying was ugly, especially when she did it.
Her parents had hated it when she’d cried – it hadn’t taken much to annoy her father, and with her mother, it simply wasn’t what was expected of a perfect little doll.
And now she was crying in front of her boss.
It was still so strange that he was real, that her dreams had an origin, that- He could have let her stay dead, could have written her off as just another tragedy, but he’d-
He’d given her her life back.
And that was a lot to take in.
‘Sorry,’ she said. ‘It’s probably just- Sorry. I’m still kinda-’
Ryan stood, then moved to sit beside her, breaking the barrier that would keep him clear of her crazy. He held up his hand, and a handkerchief appeared there. ‘You don’t need to make excuses for your emotions, Stef.’ His hand hovered in her field of vision for a moment. ‘Last night, when I touched your shoulder,’ he started. ‘I don’t want to make you uncomfortable.’
‘I’m basically a hermit,’ she said, her voice hollow, ‘I’m- I’m not used to being touched. But- It’d be okay.’
He laid his arm across her shoulders and gently pulled her into a one-armed hug. Tight enough for comfort, but not tight enough to make her feel trapped.
‘Blow your nose.’
She pressed the handkerchief to her face and blew her nose, gunking up the perfect square of linen with snot. She folded it over, and scrubbed at her eyes, trying to scare the tears back into her head.
‘It’s just…a lot,’ she said. ‘Like, you’re real. You’re fucking real. And- And I don’t want to say stuff and make you think less of me.’
‘There’s very little that could make me think less of you. Whatever standards-’
‘But you don’t know anything about me,’ she said, staring at the snotty hanky. ‘I know me, and I know I’m going to disappoint you.’
‘Let me be the judge of that,’ he said gently.
She barked a harsh, single laugh. ‘Yeah, that’s kind of the crux of the problem, mister narcy man.’
He squeezed her shoulder then released her. ‘Come on, let’s get some fresh air.’