Director Costigan’s office looks exactly the way I would have imagined. The decor is richly appointed but dated. The furniture is flashy but inexpensive. The high-status windows have shades over them that, no doubt, not only block visual but a wide range of spectra, and also dampen any vibrations that might be read by laser.
Between and around those windows is the normal brag wall of executives, military leaders, and, it seems, quasi-military executives. Certificates and diplomas. Costigan with the US President. The last three US Presidents. No, four, more, but at some point he transitions into his old Sergeant Stronghold outfit (and the photos change to black and white), and the subjects spread out to include fellow Silver, then Golden Age metas. There are also some Halcyon mayors, a number of US Senators and other federal pols, three UN Secretary Generals, Henry Kissinger, Bing Crosby, John Wayne, Jerry Lewis, Madonna, and … Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn?
Okay, he gets credit for that one.
Costigan is munching pistachios and trying to look like a hard guy. The room smells of old cigar smoke. Nothing in the ash tray. Is he trying to quit? I’ll count my blessings.
I’m sitting in an office chair, on the opposite side of his desk. Parker is beside me, keeping up that damnable stiff upper lip. Ours are simple; his is big and elaborate and probably armored against a shot from outside.
I had been awakened out of a sound sleep. “Director Costigan wants you,” said some AEGIS functionary. Basic Interrogation Technique 3A: wake up someone at an odd hour, bustle them into your office, give them the hairy eyeball for a while, wait for them to quiver and break.
Sorry, Director. Father did this a hell of a lot more effectively. I smirk, though there’s nothing to laugh about Father’s methods.
Costigan looks annoyed, but continues, voice like a thick gravel road. “We’re contemplating a conditional stipend for your service to the agency – conditional upon your continued good behavior regarding agency interests.”
So they’re going to pay me for being a good little AEGIS weapon? Well, that beats making sandwiches at City of Gyros. I don’t pretend it will earn me much more than that, though. Still … “Does that come with medical, because this nation’s health care system --”
Parker clucks her tongue, and I cut off. Fine. Part of it was yanking Costigan’s chain. Part of it was a legitimate concern. I don’t have some regenerative healing factor, or access to one of father’s medbays. If I get hurt, I’m going to want to see a doctor.
Costigan’s frowning more, but he grabs another handful of pistachios, and pops one in his mouth. “You are a contract agent. We’re reviewing certain commercially available insurance for minors --” He seems to enjoy stressing that word. “-- and will make arrangements once those are identified.” Another pistachio. “On the question of lodging, you have been given a small number of options, appropriate to your stipend. First. As with most agents of your junior stipend: dorms, semi-private rooms, shared with other agents. There is a curfew, with monitored entrances here on campus.”
Oh, no, no, no. I have no desire to be rooming, semi-privately or not, with a bunch of junior AEGIS agents. Whether squeaky-clean uber-serious law enforcement obsessive-compulsives, or yee-haw good-ol-boy jackbooted thugs, that is not a crowd I want to hang with.
Or, as a more legitimate argument, “That might make it a challenge to operate as flexibly as the Agency has wanted.” Dorms, curfews and vigilante heroics don’t exactly mix.
“Option two,” he continues, “the agency will provide you a limited amount of additional stipend for room and board with certain approved individuals.”
So much for a place of my own. I figured they wouldn’t let me on that loose a leash, but I’d hoped …
“Currently the list is one: our good Agent Parker, who, it turns out, has a spare room in her duplex.”
I slowly turn to look at Parker. She has additional creases in her cheeks. Is she biting her tongue, or searching carefully for a cyanide capsule?
For a moment, I’m seriously tempted, if only to see which of us went postal first. The thought of living under Parker’s roof is both horrifying and intriguing. And, to be honest, it would still beat the hell out of the white cell. But …
Costigan is still talking between pistachios. “If your team had anything along the lines of rooming at their base … but they don’t, they don’t even have a base, so that’s off the option list.”
I’m not sure at living at the Menagerie’s base would be all that cool, either. On the other hand, it’s not like anyone else would be –
Of course, do we even have a base?
Jason was kind of – what, “hosting” the team? – until Vector did that bombing thing. We haven’t really met anywhere, unless you count that future swamp base where Bot lived. Which, um, smelled like ass. So no, there. But that’s also the future, so …
Do we have a base? If we had one, would folk not …
… tell me?
Apparently I’ve been sitting there thinking too long, because Costigan makes a broad gesture. “No need to decide this very second. Take the weekend. A lot on your mind right now. Understanding there’s a dance tomorrow night. Yeah, that should be fun.” He makes a shooing gesture. “Off you go, skitter-scat.”
I forego a parting bon mot. There’s too much to think about, and, I realize in a rare moment of lucidity, yanking Costigan’s chain right this moment is probably not the pragmatic move.
* * *
Once the door is closed, I stop and turn to Parker. I have my serious face on and, remarkably, I feel serious, too. “Agent Parker,” I tell her, “I don’t want to put you in a difficult situation.”
She meets my gaze with placid control. “Don’t worry about it. The request was made. There’s no reason not to … I am your handler, after all, and this would hardly be a ground-breaking arrangement. I’m sure we can reach a modus vivendi.”
What would living with Parker be like? I imagine her duplex – everything prim and proper, ship-shape and Bristol fashion. Understated elegance. I’d fit in there like a giraffe would. Using a parquet dining room table as a workbench, hearing her go full Queen Victoria we-are-not-amused … there would be some entertainment value just for that, but –
I realize I don’t want to invade her space and disrupt her life. Not in that way, at least. And I certainly don’t want to have some parental figure hovering over me, offering unsolicited input, watching my actions, judging them, judging me …
“Well,” I say, after a moment, “it would be better than dorm life.”
She raises an eyebrow. “I’m not sure if you would be a good influence on some of our younger agents.”
“Or vice-versa. Frankly, though, you’re in desperate need of socialization skills.”
I roll my eyes. “And you’re the one to teach me?”
That draws a thin smile. “I’m demonstrably a poor Pygmalion. I’m merely agreeing with you that the dormitory would be a poor choice for you at this point. But there are a few other options beside my flat that might better serve you.”
“Do you have a suggestion that might be acceptable that the Director didn’t mention?”
“Actually, you might consider …”
* * *
I sit at the library table, Daph across from me.
“You might consider Summer Newman.”
I haven’t had the talk I need to have with Summer, to be sure. I’ve started to try to broach something, but – I’ve stopped myself from texting an apology four times, which is ridiculous. This is something I need to do in person, no matter how uncomfortable.
But there’s a difference between apologizing, making restitution, and … moving in with someone?
On the other hand – what other choices do I actually have? Parker is there as a fall-back (though, her words aside, she seems no more enthused by the prospect than I am).
Does the team have a base? Are we actually getting one? Is anyone planning this? Right, like this is a team full of strategic thinkers and planners. Okay, Leo, maybe. Or Aria. Harry might come up with something if prompted, but he’d need a push to make it happen.
Summer would know, though. She’s practically a team member, and she’s thick as thieves with Aria and Leo and Otto. Yeah, that’s the solution. I can ask Summer about that, rather than Parker’s hair-brained suggestion.
(All right, to be fair, Parker is not hair-brained. Which would indicate the idea has more reasoning behind it than immediately obvious. Of course, Parker is of only human intelligence. But highly experienced. More to the point, though, her judgment may be toward different ends than mine. File that thought.)
I’m pondering this, even as I scribble notes for the history paper due next week (“The Persistence of ‘Panics’ in American Economic Cycles and the Myth of Capitalistic Competency”), even as I realize that something is very off with Daph. She’s more quiet than usual, except when she blurts out something sarcastic and/or off the wall and/or speaking quickly. Nervous? Pensive?
I point this out to her.
“Really? Gosh, no, everything’s fine, top of the world.” The tone is more belligerent than the words. She slams down her pencil. “Except …”
I sigh, set down my pen.
“Let us say you are a forward-thinking, assertive woman.”
“For purposes of argument, certainly.”
“Forward-thinking, assertive. You have a boy you want to have ask to a dance. And they are clueless to the point of world-ending catastrophe to the clues you are dropping in their lap like freaking anvils. What do you do?”
I think of Jason, and can’t help but bark out a laugh. The fulminous glare from both Daph and a nearby librarian quell the impulse, mostly.
“I’m glad it’s all so _amusing _to you.”
“If he --” This is clearly about Marion. “-- can’t spot a clue – then force a clue upon him. Sweep out his legs, sit on on him, and tell him directly.”
“You’re talking metaphorically, right?”
“Sure, that works, too.”
She rolls her eyes and shakes her head. “What if any number of romantic comedy cliches were to come true and thus ruin everything? What if I’m better off not knowing his feelings about me?” She shakes her head again, then looks at me, holding up one finger in a “Eureka!” pose. “Ignorance is bliss.”
“No, ignorance is clearly anxiety.”
“Yes, that, too.” She growls. “What if – maybe if I wrote an anonymous note, and had you slip it into his bag …”
“If we are fearful of movie cliches, then obviously he would spot me putting the note in his bag and think I was the one enamored of him. Hilarity ensues. No anonymous notes.” After a moment, I add, “Not that he would ever spot me.”
At that moment, I get a text message.
We are gathering for team business.
I’m both relieved that I can bow out of Daph’s hormonal breakdown and apprehensive to do so.
Where? I text.
Blintzkrieg, after my shift.
So … not an emergency, then. But I’ll still have to take the bus. The V-cycle is great, but it’s not really street-legal, nor inconspicuous. That means I need to get going.
“Bat Signal?” Daph asks as I look up.
It took me a few times of that sort of question to realize she didn’t actually know about my extracurricular activities. It’s just how she talks. “Yeah.”
“Okay. Okay. I’ll take your advice. I’ll talk to him. Ask him.”
“Good. I’m sure if he has even half a brain in his head, he’ll --”
“If he says no, you have to go with me. To the dance. It will be a happy, fun, definitely non-Lesbian couple of girls going together to the dance. Also I will cry.”
Yeah, I haven’t told her about the real crimp in that plan. “I … already have a date. For the dance.”
“Of course you do,” she says, flinging up her hands. “Tell Mr. Bat Signal he’s lucky.”
I don’t correct her as to who was texting. I gather up my notebooks into my pack. “Let me evaluate some tactical options for you,” I tell her.
“I love the way you talk.”
As I’m exiting, I spot Marion at other end of library. clustered around a microfiche viewer with friends. They’re all laughing.
I detour and inform him that Daph is at a table in the stacks, and has a question for him. Now.
Then I exit, my good deed for the day complete.
* * *
I spend the bus ride thinking about what I want to ask Summer.
I need to say something. I denied her humanity in error. Whether or not the reasoning in that judgment was good or bad, encountering the ghost of Otto there in the AltFuture!Sepiaverse (oh, my life is complicated) demonstrated that Leo’s creations have souls.
That makes them something very different from simple machines. Very, very different. It makes them people, and makes my action a grievous sin.
Let me explain further.
The greatest crimes committed by humanity have always had something in common: the denial of human status to individuals or groups of individuals. The Third Reich’s extermination of Jews, gypsies, gays, developmentally disabled, political enemies … all was grounded on a belief that some lives were worth more than others, and that some groups were not, in the end, humans. The same can be said for the institution of chattel slavery in the United States (and elsewere) – or that nation’s treatment of its aboriginal population, or treatment of immigrants from Asia, or from anywhere else that was seen as Other, as Different.
Around the world and across time. Ghettos. Enslavement. Forced Assimlilation. Pogroms. Genocides. Ethnic Cleansings. All start with the demonization, the de_human_ization, of the target population. _They’re not like us. They aren’t really humans. They’re fiends. They’re beasts. They’re little more than animals. How we treat them doesn’t matter. They don’t really feel pain. They don’t really understand death. Killing them is a mercy. Killing them is a necessity. Killing them is a holy cause, right and fitting before the deities that share our prejudices.
Even my father, who claimed to be a protector of humanity, was ultimately willing to devalue lives. Acceptable losses. Collateral damage. If they’ve chosen their side, they’ve removed themselves from moral correctness and any expectation of civilized treatment. Enslaving, crippling, experimenting, killing … all for the Greater Good – which meant, of course, denying the “Lesser” Good.
There is no difference between those attitudes, and how I was evaluating Summer, or her kin. No, I didn’t snuff out their existences – but more because I hadn’t had to, because I hadn’t had the opportunity or the reason. Yet. I would have, and not given it a second thought.
And so I would have murdered. Again.
That is my sin, no less real for never having occurred.
How do I make amends for that? I cannot, not really, any more than for those other sins. I can only change, be different, be better, act with the knowledge I have, not be confident in my ignorance. Not let myself make the same error again. Make it up to Summer, and Aria, and Otto, whether or not I explain why.
That said …
Parker’s suggestion is still absurd.
Just because Summer is human, in a profound and existential fashion, doesn’t mean she isn’t potentially a threat. There are any number of meat-based humans whom I would never dream of living with. Gregor. Ivana. Callado. Miklos. Adrian. White Lotus. I’d as soon sleep with a scorpion in the bed.
(Part of me wishes I could swallow my pride, my fear, my whatever-the-hell, and ask Jason. Because I’m 89.3% certain he’d say yes, and 54.8% certain we could convince Costigan. But that path is even more fraught than dossing down in Parker’s spare room.)
So I can’t ask Summer for a place to crash. That’s crazy talk. I can ask her about the base, though. And maybe she has some other ideas.
I realize I’m about to miss my stop, and get up, heading for the bus door.
* * *
The doors chimes as I enter into Blintzkrieg. My eyes scan around the room, out of habit. I know Summer is there, I know Charlotte is there, but I don’t focus on them first. I look in the corners, the sides, the places where people don’t look when they are too focused on what’s right in front of them. That’s what kills those people, nine out of ten times.
Eventually, yes, there’s Summer, behind the counter, getting an order ready for a customer, though she spares me a smile and a wave. And there’s Charlotte, in a booth, looking … shaky?
Yeah, that’s not good.
Before I dive in, I ping Daph again. “Sitrep?”
_That’s not helping.
I can only assume things are going … in some way … with Marion.
I sit down across from Charlotte. I can’t tell at first if she’s corporeal or incorporeal. Although it’s odd that when she’s incorporeal, she can still sit down on things.
She blinks. “Oh, Alycia, hello.” Her voice is too fast, too falsely cheerful. It resembles, oddly, Daph’s.
_Really? Another emotional crisis? Is friendship some sort of karmic penance for me?
I clench my teeth lightly. “What do you need help with, Charlotte?”
She hems and haws and looks embarrassed. “Well – um – somehow I’m going to a dance. With a boy.” Christ on a maglev, that’s what all this is about? Then she goes on, “I couldn’t really get him to understand, and he was so polite, but so … persistent.”
I frown. Charlotte can be a terrifying force of un-nature when she chooses to be. That someone could cow her this way into going on a date is appalling (and says some very dire things about her upbringing). “And who is this person?”
"The Plasma Prince?"
She nods, unhappily.
That guy is such a tool. Fine. Charlotte has a problem. Let’s fix it. “Do you need me to make sure he can’t go to the dance?” I don’t anticipate trouble making that happen.
That was apparently Summer’s cue to come in. “We’re here to talk about a continuum of responses,” she says, cheerful but slightly chiding.
I give her a look. “I am thinking of a continuum: unconscious, locked up, crippled …”
Summer says, perkily, “We’ll wrap that up under Things Alycia Wants To Do and go past them. Charlotte, if you don’t want to go, you don’t have to go.”
“But – that would be rude.”
Fine, whatever. I wasn’t talking about killing the creep. There are, as noted, any number of non-lethal ways to address the issue, some not even involving hospitalization and physical therapy. Intimidation might have included on the light end of the continuum, except that the dolt has too large of an ego to intimidate.
Summer (and I) get the rest of the story, which Summer apparently actually witnessed: Pietro spotted Nono Rodriguez at the shop, and intended to ask her off to the dance. Charlotte shooed Nono out the door and then decided to throw herself on that grenade – bravely, if unnecessarily. Someone needs to teach her how to say no and make it stick. Badly.
But when we get to that point, Charlotte suddenly pivots. “I – I actually kind of want to go.” At our apparently matching expressions, she adds, “And there’s nothing really wrong with him. Nobody’s really told him not to be that way. So maybe I can help.”
Because “I can fix the boy” is always the surest road to happiness. Summer is trying to offer support the way she always seems to, offering to help her buy a dress and all that. And then she’s turning to me for me to say something.
“If you want to go,” I say, “then that’s fine. And it’s a good opportunity for you to --” I pause, then go on. “-- to learn how to … assimilate into the local social conventions. Learn what being … a modern teen woman in North Carolina is like.”
That’s uncomfortably close to my own situation. Maybe there are more reasons for me to attend this outing than finally figuring out what’s going on with Jason.
Summer is looking at me in comforting appraisal. “So? How many dresses are we buying?”
I shift, uncomfortably. I haven’t mentioned my attendance at the soiree to anyone. But explicitly lying about it would be admitting too much. “Yeah. I … um, I need to buy … a dress … too.”
“And how about you, Summer?” Charlotte adds eagerly. “You need to come to the dance with us, too. Please!”
I’m irked that Summer seems as reticent about the matter, having no date, as I am about admitting I have one, but I try to do my best to say the obligatory encouraging things about her as seem to be expected, mirroring Charlotte’s support for her, and her for me. The irritation goes away and, in fact, everyone seems to be in better spirits by the time we’re done. I’m not altogether certain why, but I have problems enough understanding the inside of my own head, let alone those of a ghost and a robot. Even ones as special unique as they are.
* * *
Dress purchasing comes and goes. I spend most of the funds Jason texted me on something that I hope will reward his aesthetic investment in doing so. I still feel strangely … inadequate, having to ask for that charity (for caritas it is, even if he claims it is drive by his own eros) was deeply disturbing. I am used to either having what I need, or doing without. Being given something feels unnatural, and a risk of a dependence I’m unwilling to have.
And then the blur of sartorial activities segues into personal grooming. Somewhere along the line we have been joined by various of the “Ponies” social group that both Charlotte and Summer (and, for that matter, most of the others) all seem so close to, and together we tramp into a beauty shop called “Want of a Nail” (the resourcefulness of the merchants of Halcyon to come up with witty business names ever cheers me) for “mani-pedis” and hair styling.
And, yes, as I told Jason, I understand the operational importance of such grooming. I don’t understand, though, the endless cycle of giggles and squeals and behavior better suited to nine-year-olds from a group of high schoolers.
The nail people tut-tut over mine, given their condition (I do hands-on tech work, mechanics, and martial arts training; short nails with dirt under them are a mark of pride), as well as the calluses I have in the expected spots. They propose adding artificial nails, which I reject. For Italian ambassadors I have to extract intel from, yes. For Jason Quill, no.
The girls do talk me into colored nail polish. Given the Valentines Day festivities, they persuade me to do them in red, as my dress is all-black. I select something approximately blood-colored, and that is greeted with still more squeals. As is the decision that, no, my straight hair needs some waviness added to its length.
I sigh and endure.
One bright spot – one of the leads at this particular salon goes by the Pony nickname of Duskshine, and she’s responsible for makeup, primarily. I’m not quite sure how we get there, but the conversation turns into use of commercially available makeup for urban camouflage, particularly how to use it to foil facial recognition systems. We exchange tips, and I do actually find myself laughing at least once. I give her my – Alice Chan’s – mobile number so that she can text me (since I’m not on whatever Pony channel network app they use, nor to I really want to be. I most especially do not want to know what Pony name I would be given).
At long last, we spill out onto the street, all of us made more aesthetically pleasing for our dates and fellow dance attendees. Duskshine had given us a group discount, which meant that the leftover money I had from Jason’s donation was more than able to cover my share.
There is still laughing and giggling as we turn to head up the street, and my eye catches on Summer. She’d participated in the revelry inside, but hadn’t participated in the grooming – nail trimming and the like are either (truly) superfluous for her or unlikely to be successful without lasers and a diamond lathe.
Now’s the time. I don’t know when there will be a later opportunity, and I want to have the housing thing pinned down by the end of the weekend.
I maneuver over to her, and take a deep breath.
_[Continued here.] _
author: *** Dave H.