Friday night is long.
I lie on my cot and play back that debrief with Parker in my head, over and over. “We did not hire you to be an assassin.”
I’m glad of that. Truly. Killing – that’s part of what drove a wedge between Father and me.
_Blank eyes stare back at me in a crime scene photo. Screams from behind the bulkheads fill my ears, as the water roars around my feet. The man laughs and draws from his cigar as I slowly exhale, my finger on the trigger –
I start back awake. I miss not having a clock, or even a watch to be able to reference in the middle of the night. It’s disorienting, it makes the night twice as long (except when I need more sleep, then twice as short). That’s probably one of the reasons for so depriving me.
Would I have killed Rossum, if it were needful?
The calculus, as I teased Parker about, is without question. A live Rossum could end up killing dozens, thousands, millions. The nightmare of a robot empire, one mad mind ruling a globe … Does that mind slowly decay with age? Or is it transferred and forever enshrined in steel? Which is the more terrifying?
A kill shot, as a last resort, is the only logical action. The only rational action. That’s not my father’s self-serving, callous conclusion – it’s my own.
I can’t even bring myself to resent what he made of me. I am what I am. Perhaps it’s best after all that I’m locked in here.
Not good final thoughts to drift off to.
* * *
A melodious chime rings through the air, over and over, until I sit up. I do so quickly – my discipline holds that well, but it’s still annoying.
“Rise and shine, Miss Chin.” Parker’s voice comes through the cell, directionless. “You have a busy day ahead of you.”
* * *
We exit the cell block (if there are others held prisoner there, I have no way of telling in a corridor of solid doors and darkened keypads) a different direction than usual. The central corridor after the final man-trap head to the garage. To the right, offices and conference rooms (where I’ve wiled away so many hours).
We head left.
Parker is there, along with a pair of guards – these not in the black-suited mufti of AEGIS mooks out in the real world, but in tactical gear. One ahead, one behind. Both are clearly keeping an eye on me, so that Parker can stroll alongside me, unruffled.
I’m assuming this doesn’t end with a stone wall, a blindfold, and a tired trope – but our conversation the night before keeps running through my head.
Another pair of guards at another door … My escorts watch me as Parker keys in a sequence. (She blocks her hand, of course, but I get that it’s six keys, and the way her arm and shoulder move I’m fairly certain of at least four of the numbers.) A beep, a soft electronic klaxon, and a whoosh of overpressure, and the door slides aside.
Parker walks in. I follow, with my guards in the van.
“Oh,” I say, both surprised and – well, impressed. “My.”
Parker turns, an eyebrow raised.
“I’ve seen bigger and better equipped, but --” a slight upturn of the mouth “-- not for some time.”
“I think you’ll find it adequate,” she says, levelly.
“It” is a workshop and fab facility. Father had bigger ones – for that matter, I saw larger facilities poking around the Quill Block – but I’ve been doing a lot of makeshift the past few years, building stuff in auto garages and in-receivership machine shops and makeshift storage facilities and the-landlord-is-complaining flats.
Robot armatured fab and assembly lines, work benches, design tables with 3-D projection facilities, a molecular lathe, racks of materials, even such simple items as welding torches, power-hammers, sewing machines, and an honest-to-Kothar anvil and gas forge.
There are a dozen AEGIS techs, in various protective gear, scattered around the room, working on this and that. They all stop to look up at me. They all look nervous.
I smile at Parker. “I take back several things I said about you.”
“Don’t go all sentimental on me, Miss Chin,” she replies. “I said there was work to be done.”
“‘Work consists of whatever a body is obliged to do,’” I tell her. “This is play.”
“After your whinging last evening, I assure you that you are quite obliged to, as the Americans say, ‘Put up or shut up,’ Miss Chin.”
I roll my shoulders and crack my knuckles. “Then let’s have at, Agent Parker.”
* * *
It’s not quite that simple, of course. But it’s the most enjoyment I’ve had in a number of weeks, if not months.
The mutual goal is for me to, yes, put up – to finalize the kit I’ll be wearing in the field as “Charade,” both conventional and unconventional arms. My margin designs have already been partly assembled, which both saves time and (in one case of poor execution, not flaws in my plans) costs some rework effort.
The AEGIS techs aren’t hypergeniuses, but they’re quite competent, and at least as motivated as the engineers and constructors and craftsfolk I’ve dealt with in the past, most of whom were motivated by money and/or fear. The majority of these actually seem to enjoy the work, offering suggestions or bouncing ideas for improvement, a few of which actually get incorporated.
They get enough into it that, for brief intervals, they seem to forget they are working in close proximity to the dreaded Alycia Chin.
For the most part, I’m in a (close-in) supervisory role: answering questions, pointing out flaws, making on-the-fly improvements of my own, and trying to work around the age-old combat engineering conundrum of “you can have your armor with function, protection, or mobility, choose two.”
(Money and schedule play a part here, too: I have an epiphany midway through a particularly dicey bit with the combat baton construction, but fixing it would require at least a week of more detailed fabrication and probably cost close to $100,000 in a certain metal/ceramic compound. I make a mental note for release 2.)
But there are a few points where I get to actually go hands-on, at least briefly – under the close scrutiny of the guards (and the techs, I’m sure, and interested parties behind the surveillance cameras). Some delicate wiring, an extra pair of hands, tailoring a grip for my purposes – I’m not only best at it myself, but I have a vested interest in making it all be right.
It’s going to be my skin on the line out in the field.
* * *
There are a half-dozen techs of different sorts around the room, working on the various projects to outfit me – costume/armor, guns and ammo, batons, power gloves, a few other bits and bobs and gimmicks and surprises. The techs maintain identity security pretty decently, if with some awkwardness. Can’t have me learning their names, after all, since I might well creep into their bedrooms and kill them in the middle of the night.
Still, over the course of hours and many distractions, things slip.
* * *
“Patty, I need you to rerun this plaston. Wishful thinking by some of your cohorts aside, it’s about two cup sizes two large.”
The red-headed, freckle-sprayed woman makes a pssht sound, pulling up her goggles. “Figures.” She pulls up a file on the lathe. “Okay, I can make that adjustment – you still want the titanium / nano-carbon fiber weave on that?”
“Lightness, strength, unless you have something else you can spin here.”
She shakes her head. “We have some enhanced aramids which have slightly superior penetration profiles, but they’re a still bit more breakable and not as heat-resistant. I might --”
She blinks. “What did you say?”
“Do you have something better than the titanium --”
“No, before that. My --” She glances around “A – name?”
“Patty?” I smile. “That fellow with the buzz cut over by the fab table, the one with the Louisiana accent, he mentioned it.”
“He --?” She glares over at the gent in question, who’s busy pulling together a holster rig.
“Patty --” She flinches. I try to smile a bit more sincerely, and lower my voice. “Patty, while knowing your given name makes it significantly easier to fully uncover your identity, that’s not my intent, let alone anything more dire. He let your name slip in passing – saying something complementary, I’ll note – and that’s fine.” I draw in a breath, let it out. “I’m not – you’re not making armor for a bad guy, Patty. I’m not going to hurt anyone here.”
She looks at me, her face neutral, the pulse in her throat beating much more rapidly than normal. “I’m more than happy to follow my superiors’ orders, ma’am. You don’t need to tell me --”
“It’s okay if I know your name, Patty.” I force a chuckle. “It makes it easier to leave a positive comment in my customer feedback card.”
“As you say, ma’am.”
I sigh. “Go ahead and use the titanium / carbon weave.”
* * *
Parker wanders in and out over the day, inspecting the work done, making acerbic comments in my direction, checking the guards, and basically reinforcing the “Always Watching” vibe.
I remain as pleasant as I can. I’m getting what I want, in the immediate term. I’m not going to look a gift horse in the mouth when the implicit payment for that horse is still up for negotiation.
* * *
“Nope. That’s not going to work.”
I raise an eyebrow. “As someone who has ridden on this vehicle, at speed, over a variety of surfaces, I can tell you that input duct to the cooling system needs to be widened, a least to allow a variable to avoid overheating over long hauls.”
The tall, lean, dark-skinned man, in smudged, worn mechanics overalls, shakes his head. “Widen those ducts and all you’re going to do is reduce airflow into the forward impeller. That’s going to reduce speed and maneuverability.”
“Mr. Cardones, I can tell you, just looking at it, the airflow, even at high speeds, will not impact the impellers. The geometry --”
“I’ve been dealing with actual hovercraft since you grew into playing with action figures, ma’am. I can assure you, this --”
“Unless you’ve done a wind tunnel test on this particular vehicle, you’re probably not --”
“If you’d like me to ship this Vyortovian hot rod off to Arnold and have that verified, I’d be happy to, though it would mean you don’t get access to it for, most likely, four to six weeks.”
“I could ride it from here to Tennessee and be back in time for class in the morning.”
“You could, except everyone here would have to shoot you, and everyone there would, too. And, worse, you haven’t dealt with Lt. Colonel Destry, who might have objections over your trying to barge into his test queue. And dropping my name, I’ll add, won’t help you get through his door any faster.”
I look at him and smile. “Well played, Mr. Cardones.”
“I’m not about playing games, Ms Chin.”
“You are a man of great passion and determination. You’re also an idiot about that input duct.”
"And when I was your age I’d probably have said the same thing. "
In the end, I don’t note that it’s his overalls that gave away his name, because he wouldn’t care, so what would be the point.
He’s also dead wrong on the ducting (I can see it, just with my own eyeballs), but he has enough other positive contributions to the effort (apparently because he still considers this vehicle his) that I decide to just work around him, rather than through him.
* * *
I have no idea what the long-term arrangement here is going to be. I know in broad strokes what AEGIS expects from me (with a specifc demurrer of what I “wasn’t brought on to do”), but am I going to live and operate out of this base, or be set up someplace on my own, and while I look forward to taking apart the hoverbike and putting it back together, Cardones be damned, I recognize that it’s not tech that I can easily support solo without some resources I won’t find at the school metal shop.
* * *
Aside from some tech geekery, occasional neutral chit-chat about weapon and armor design, and some joking comments I make that actually draw an a chuckle (and one retort that leads to broader laughter that dies into nervous titters once they realize who they’re bantering with), it’s a fairly silent and tense situation, and even as they day wears on – and the next day begins – I still catch people watching me, waiting for the moment when I grab one of the pistols, or batons, or the vortex blaster I have no doubt smuggled in my hair or something, and begin killing them all.
It’s a bit odd instilling fear in people who are so much older than me. The irony is that I never managed to actually do it running my father’s troops. Here it happens without my actually making an example of anyone. Or even really wanting to.
Except, maybe, Cardones. His ideas on air intakes are completely wrong. There are times when having the power of life and death are – well, far too tempting.
I make a conscious choice to find this unintended fear reaction from the others amusing. I can understand why someone else might think it aggravating and/or depressing, but I decide not to take that path. When life gives you lemons, pretend they’re grenades and see if you can make people flinch.
That’s a lot easier, or less uncomfortable, course to take.
* * *
It’s not all engineering and mechanics and fabrication. As items are finished, I get a chance to try them out – some (sub-basement) pistol range work (again, under close guard supervision, even with the gel rounds), some practical trials of the costume and armor (which leads to some additional revisions), work with the baton on some training apparatus and dummies to test their balance.
It’s work, yes, but it feels good. Kata in a cell, no matter how spacious, is rarely satisfying.
* * *
Saturday rolls into Sunday. Neither day is a day of rest, which I’m quite pleased about. As far as worship goes, the gods help those who arm themselves.
Things are getting to be in pretty good shape. The costume is complete –
(I have thoughts to express some time about being a “super-hero” with a code name and costume. Not now.)
– the vehicle repainted and mods incorporated, guns and ammo figured out, batons taking one more run through the gamma kiln, and while everyone else is doing final spit-and-polish, I’m making some modifications on the power gloves.
Oh, the power gloves – my own creation, flexible capacitors pre-charged (and further tied to hypertech batteres in my outfit), capable of independent lightning blasts (sorry, Harry), super-charged punches, or discharges through the batons. They’ll give me an advantage over simple martial artistry, though one I know I’ll use sparingly in any actual conflict (my tendency being to reserve the big hits until they’re demonstrated necessary, a patience I learned beyond my father’s teachings).
The left glove is having a problem with the focal lens, a compact series of liquid-crystal circuits in the palm that transmit and/or focus the power. The right glove went fine, but I’m beginning to doubt the quality of the materials provided for the left –
Something changes in the room, a disturbance beyond the movements and dimensions I’ve come to expect. A stirring in the shadows, right – there.
Ghost Girl – Charlotte – steps out of the shadows by that rack of ammunition pods. She hesitates, seeing the othersin the room, and steps back, fading into the darkness, no longer visible but still present.
Ghost Girl is the most intriguing of the Menagerie (though, in fairness, Concord is climbing the ranks). Her powers remain undefined, but her impact on the struggle in the Sepiaverse was profound.
I’m more than happy to acknowledge her supernatural status. I’m no feeble-minded idiot who considers spirituality a substitute for science, or action, or life. But it is a complement to those things. The English dramatist Shakespeare wrote, “There are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in your philosophy.”
I don’t understand life beyond death, but I don’t question its existence, which is plainly real in Charlotte’s case.
She is due respect, for her power, if nothing else.
But why is she here? Presumably to see me. But that’s fraught with … complication. If AEGIS becomes aware that she can simply waltz into a high-security facility, it will cause further concern over the Menagerie, and endanger my own plans. And if she’s here for some compelling reason, other than a pure social call –
(Would anyone simply drop in to visit me? It seems unlikely. But I’ll accept the polite fiction for the moment.)
– then I’m not sure we want AEGIS aware of it.
I lean over to the AEGIS tech who’s handing me tools on request, like a surgeon’s assistant. “Great security here,” I say, pitching my voice loud enough to carry over to Charlotte, hopefully not enough to be obvious. “Nobody could slip out, let alone in.”
The tech looks at me, a bit of alarmed confusion (or confused alarm) on her face. “Um, right.”
I tack down a portion of the crystal, and then sigh softly as the rear door whooshes softly open, and Parker strides in. She’s frowning, which is not good, and looking around, which is even less so.
She looks at me, and after a moment I raise my face and meet her gaze as innocently as possible. _Whatever are you here for, Special Agent? Nobody here but us hard working technicians.
“All right,” she says, in a loud voice that carries over the various noises of the workshop. “Everyone out. Let’s give the young lady the room for a few minutes to commune with her …” Parker trails off.
The jig is clearly up. “… spirit guide?” I suggest.
“Spirit guide.” She meets my eyes, and not in a way that makes me feel better. “We’re going to have to talk. Soon.”
I smile. She pivots on her flats and exits.
The techs, after a brief moment of confusion, follow Parker. Let’s hear it for military obedience.
Still, nobody live-and-in-person means little in a place like this. I turn back to the workbench, and comment aloud, “It’s nice to have the illusion of privacy, even though I’m certainly under electronic surveillance.”
If GG wants privacy, I hope that’s enough to warn her off.
Apparently not. “Apologies,” comes a soft voice with a notable south-eastern American accent and an equally notable hollow ring to it. “I didn’t realize my visiting would cause difficulties.”
I about face, and see the pale apparition of Charlotte. Her face has the hauteur of aristocracy, but I acknowledge the vagaries of reading the emotion of someone who is a century-and-a-half-displaced ghost.
“Not at all,” I say with effusion, for both GG and the electronic audience. “I’m an honored guest of this fine establishment for the nonce.” I allow my native English accent to slip out on the last word, for Parker’s sake. “Though I’m afraid they look askance at people leaving, let alone entering.” A smirk. “What brings you to my humble workshop?”
“It’s a very nice workshop.”
If she’s truly a 19th Century ghost, it should be an incomprehensible one. Though – on consideration, her plantation home would have had working spaces, fabrication facilities, smithies. Some of it via slave labor, other by free craftsmen, but the principle would be the same, even if the particular tools different.
She continues, “Is now a good time?”
It depends on why you’re here. I choose, rather than warning her off, to tweak Parker a bit more. “No worries, it’s not like I had plans to be elsewhere any time soon.”
“I was hoping,” Charlotte says, “if I could talk with you about your device for entering into the Sepiaverse.”
I blink. I confess, of all the conversational item I’d have thought she’d present (an invitation to tea, a discourse on modern fashion, curiosity about my background, etc.), this was not one of them. I blame that for not immediately trying to shush her up.
“Clearly it was different than Jason’s,” she goes on, “given the side effects, or lack of them. I want to understand better, from a – well, scientifical or metaphysical perspective, how it operated, so that I can grasp how it didn’t expand the inter-dimensional damage at the hole, unlike Jason’s efforts.”
Well, that’s news to me, especially given that what I built was largely through Jason’s tech and design (with, of course, personal improvisations, not to mention improvements), but I suddenly realize the context in which we’re discussing this. “Well, boys are usually more like bulls in the china shop than girls,” I say, with a small chuckle. “But – well, now may not be the best time to talk about inter-dimensional barriers.” I can’t quite tell her to shut up, but I hope she catches on.
And perhaps she does. For all she’s out of her timeline, as well as dead, Charlotte is no dummy. “Oh, no problem, surely. It’s just some work I’m doing right now. Perhaps in a more social setting would be better. I’ll talk with Link about maybe having a team meeting.”
I have to laugh. “Golly, that would be peachy,” I say, in as vapid a teen-aged voice as I can. “We could have chips, sip soda pop, and talk about interdimensional travel until I report back here at curfew.”
Charlotte raises an eyebrow. “I do believe you are mocking me.”
I smirk. “Don’t take it personally, I mock everyone.”
“Oh, don’t worry, Miss Chin,” says Parker’s voice over the PA. There’s something in her tone which bodes ill. “We’ll be talking about external housing arrangements of that sort. Very. Soon.”
My senses suddenly focus, as my stomach knows. Fuck, I think in three languages. I’ve been twitting Parker on a regular basis about the whole prison thing, and she’s either ignored me or taken on a long-suffering exasperated air. Which, of course, has only encouraged me.
But while her words, taken in a vacuum, might sound encouraging, the tone they are delivered in are not. Indeed, I’ve heard that tone before.
I can’t help it. Chills run through my body.
“Miss Palmer,” she continues, as properly as one could possibly imagine, and as impersonally as any robot, “thank you very much for checking in, and acknowledging how valued a teammate Charade is. We will be making arrangements, as I said – as soon as we understand just what you two were talking about.”
Three more languages of profanity. I do not want to be talking with Parker, or AEGIS, about inter-dimensional travel. Forces such are they a curse on one world; allowing them to extend to other worlds, even a benighted one such as the Sepiaverse, offers them unmatched potential for abuse of power – imagine, for example, a black site prison located in another dimension.
Those chills return, harder.
“Certainly Miss Parker,” Charlotte says, quickly, if with unquestioned gentility. “Would you prefer to show me out, or shall I go the way I came?”
Parker’s voice could parch the Amazon. “Oh, by all means, come and go as you are accustomed.”
Charlotte smiles, pleasantly. “I thought it would be polite to ask,” she says, beginning to fade away.
“I appreciate the asking, Miss Palmer. In your own time.”
* * *
Part of me is terrified, if only by the specter of my father, and the power Parker wields over me – even if only one dimension is in question.
Part of me rebels with a snarl, that Parker should be so petty and thin-skinned, that she might threaten (if only by tone) my freedom.
While those two parts war, I turn to my workbench and resume working. Industriously. And quietly.
[Note: this ending was somewhat retconned by the next issue.]
author: *** Dave H.