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SECURITY CLASSIFICATION: RELEASED TO PUBLIC | DATE OF REVIEW: 26.02.2098 |
AUTHORITY: WIPO | AUTHOR: S ZIZEK |
DOCUMENT STATUS: FINAL VERSION | VERSION: 1.0 |

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"On the information sheet in a New York hotel, I recently read: 'Dear guest! To guarantee that you will fully enjoy your stay with us, this hotel is totally smoke-free. For any infringement of this regulation, you will be charged $200.' The beauty of this formulation, taken literally, is that you are to be punished for refusing to fully enjoy your stay."

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SECURITY CLASSIFICATION: UNCLASSIFIED | DATE OF REVIEW: N/A |
AUTHORITY: N/A | AUTHOR: UNKNOWN |
DOCUMENT STATUS: FINAL VERSION | VERSION: 1.0 |

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Zolotisty can't think over the preschoolers-with-coconut-shells cacophony of Dex's pets' hooves echoing up and down and up and down and up and down the tunnel's canal-side platform. "I don't know," she repeats again, though there's a familiar glaze of absence in her eyes. Dex reaches for one of Z's ears to direct its attention toward her.

"Z, where. Where can they stay that the Network won't find them."

The effect on Z's pupils is immediate; they go junkie huge before contracting. Deaf to the clattering, Z mainlines on Dex's anxiety and takes a shakeslow breath. "Maybe we make a place. Maybe I can get sun underground, maybe.. I don't know. Clan hall is bad because maybe someone lets them out if they are itchy to run."

"Clan hall's bad 'cuz people start askin' questions." She doesn't continue with that line of thought, not yet, but she knows sooner or later someone will start asking questions.

"Mh." Z scrubs her face with both palms and moves to sit down. It lasts for only a moment, she's restless onto her feet again to pace back and forth across the track Gidget and Horse are trying to wear in the concrete. "Well. Maybe we just keep them with us, but." Dex's deadended disbelief comes out as a laugh. Z gestures. "Can't collar them anymore than we can collar us."

Dex crouches, and Horse and Gidget stop to look before barrelling from the far end of the tunnel toward her. They skid to a halt just out of reach, snorting and stretching their necks to make up the last bit of distance. Horse makes first contact, lookit me I'm chewing her bootlace, it's safe.

"What you two want," she says. Gidget's taken her cue from the leader and steps close enough to nibble on Dex's hair. "Few days in the sun free'n then maybe dead, or locked in here for god knows how long?" There's a scratch spot she knows and it works a charm, leaving the filly slack-necked and rubbing her top lip on the ball of Dex's shoulder.

Arms wrapped across her chest, Zolotisty looks on. She can only imagine Dex crouched again in front of her animals, except she sees Horse in splinters and Gidget gnu-split and splayed. The whorl of Improbability keeping this place hidden is still promise-ringed around her finger and she fingers it as she might a coin before a bet.

She could let it go.

They sniff and whuff, nudging each of Dex's fingers to see if there's food under this one or that one. Then one grows bored and some sort of animal electricity passes between them just before they turn like synchronized swimmers pushing off the wall to skid off again. She smiles, but her eyes brim as she watches them pace in cramped circles, over and over.

"They need to run," she says, echoing Z from months ago. "Take us, please?"

Z works the pad of her thumb into the crook of her index finger before folding her hand to a fist around her upper arm. Her throat's thick. "Yeh. Let's.. ..vineyard."

Dex stays crouched, head tucked into herself. "You need to run too." It's no clear-eyed dare and test like when they first met.

"I picked you. Com'on."

"But you're not happy."

"Trapped seems a smaller way they're bullying our lives, for now, even if it feels a cage."

"For now. This is a fight I picked, twist- -"

"And I made this place for you- -"

"To make me happy."

"Because that's what's important to me, aye."

"Wellfuck, likewise. So we've got ourselves a standoff, yeh?"

"Against them, yeh. But they win if it's us, Spandex."

Dex lifts her head. "If somethin' happened to you 'cuz of this, twist, I couldn't live with it. I can't go through with this." Quieter, "I want you out of it, I'll come with you."

Z's arms loosen finally. She closes the distance between them. "I want your hands. Com'ere."

Dex looks down at her hands - - one half hidden under a cast - - and opens her fingers as best she can and slides them under Z's. "Thank christ this ain't on telly, yeh? S'cheesy as fuck." She manages a smirk and gets a smile for it, not because it's a good joke, but because Z knows it's trying to be one. "They gave me you, they got me outta the shit that was my old life. It's okay here, all things, yeh. Maybe it's a good trade for privacy. I donno. Maybe I'm askin' for too much." She finds her good arm raised as she's turned like a ballerina under Z's hand and then they're back to front in a familiar pose - - arms carefully plaited, ear to cheek.

"We could go away," Z says, cuffing Dex's calf with her tail.

"No." The force of it surprises herself. "Fight or not fight, but I'm not running away."

"Aren't we running away from this now, though?"

Dex wiggles free of Z's arms and takes a step towards the animals. They're both tense-muscled and ears-flicking while they drink from the canal. Horse responds to her three-note whistle and Gidget skitters after him, whiskers still dripping. "Com'erecom'ere, s'okay, you'reokay," she coos.

"What happens when we quit and they hurt them for spite, Spandex."

"They won't. They don't have feelings for us, just like you don't have for like.. the fork you use for eating or for your trousers, yeh? We're commodities to them. If we make 'em money, they're happy. Shhh now com'ere."

Zolotisty doesn't know what a commodity is, but the tired derision in Dex's voice makes it an easy enough guess. She tears the inside of her cheek open with her premolars, looks down at Horse nipping at Dex's trouser cuff and Gidget's tail going 'round like an absentminded whirlygig, and she nods. "Fine. Alright. You know them better'n me." She crosses the platform and tries not to think of the giddy freedom that transformed Dex the first time they were in here together, tries not to want that. "We'll go."

"I don't know 'em, I jus'.. it's- -"

But like Dex turned toward the animals without a straight answer, Z knocks her hip into Dex and leans to lay hands on Horse and Gidget, turning them toward the Vineyard.

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SECURITY CLASSIFICATION: RESTRICTED | DATE OF REVIEW: 19.02.2098 |
AUTHORITY: NETWORK COMPLIANCE COMMISSION | AUTHOR: NETWORK COMPLIANCE COMMISSION |
DOCUMENT STATUS: FINAL VERSION | VERSION: 1.0 |

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"Well, this is a fuck-off cheery change of pace," Simpert remarks as the girls finally come into view on the rolling lawn of the Vineyard. He furrows his brow. "Almost ten minutes late but they're where they said they'd be."

Cooper grabs the nearest cam to catch as much as he can, but it's a three-quarter shot at best. Dex's face is jawtight and her gaze is to the horizon. The camera pans out to Horse and Gidget running away from them, trying for a scene from an antique Disney reel, but the mood is all wrong. Simpert catches on quickly and pretends to be the soulful minor chord string quartet, then chuffs as he gets a better look at his own charge.

"And Earsy looks grim. No prize if you can guess what that delay was, then."

"Spandex is angry about something."

Simpert's feeling more cheerful. Ten minutes missing is a new record. "Remind me, in your infinite wisdom, why Spandex brought them inside their Halls in the first place, and then tell me again that that delay wasn't about the animals."

"Oh, she's worried about the animals, but it's more than that. She can't keep them in their hiding spot. That's telling us something about it, sir. It's too small or.. it's unsafe for them in some way. Sir? What are you thinking?"

"She brought them in to keep them safe in the first place; if the hiding spot were unsuitable, they'd have made it suitable or — - titfucking Christ, they're gone again."

Cooper rests his forehead on the tips of his fingers. "We can't keep this up. I'm asking why, you're asking why, Ogilvy will be asking, the audience will be asking. I can edit it, but we're taking any chance of decent viewing out of every bloody scene."

"Like we've had those chances lately to begin with. We've got scraps."

Cooper starts dialing through their next likely locations. "And we're cutting the most interesting plot we've had in months. What if- -"

"What if what, Cooper?" They both jump in their seats. Sometimes Cooper suspects Ogilvy's a Joker herself.

"Ma'am," he fumbles.

"Did you look at Spandex's shoulders and neck? She's planning something, and you're right about one thing." She pushes his coffee cup out of the way in order to half sit on the desk near him. She's studiously ignoring Simpert, who's too tired to hide his bewilderment - - not only at the subtle snubbing, but the fact that Ogilvy is sitting. "This is a great story, and we are showing it."

Cooper feels a desperate need to shift in his chair to put more distance between them, but has no clue why. He's been trying to worm his way closer to his boss for months. He twists his neck awkwardly to look up at her. "Ma'am?"

"Shut the door, please, Cooper." He obliges, happy to reposition himself at a distance that doesn't make his chest so tight. Given the highly competitive nature of any Network job, strategic conversations like this always happen behind the closed doors of one of the black lacquered-panelled sliding doors of the conference rooms - - and yet she's letting Simpert hear.

"All of it. It'll be huge. Think of what Stone did with Mickey and Mallory. We'll find a way to get the girls to talk about the tunnel, and there's no rush, let's draw this out, build this up, bring the audience with us. Get the viewers hunting for them, god, give'em some prize if they guess the right coordinates. They'll eat it up. People love an outlaw. Imagine the press- - who's wrong here, big'ole oppressive network or that punk whose biggest worry is if the surf's any good. And 'just-for-love' Zolotisty, caught in the center of it. They're looking for a fight and we'll deliver."

Simpert's phone buzzes. Keeping half an ear on Ogilvy —- i am going to lose my job - - he peeks at the display. New text, it says. Axelsson, M. His stomach drops to his balls and he checks the two of them with a glance before unlocking it furtively.

You're under your own creative direction.=^-^= ~ MA, he reads.

Fuck me, he thinks.

Cooper's trying to keep up with Ogilvy. He hasn't heard her this excited since Dex almost sliced Tyr in half. "Yes ma'am, but.. I'm sorry ma'am, but until one of the girls speaks about wherever it is they're hiding, how does the audience distinguish between the usual cut to another contestant, and them disappearing?"

"Likewise DICE doesn't know they've not gone to the banyans, or the warehouse, or the beach, or the jungle," Simpert adds, wooden. "It's not uncommon for them to go away for a week or two without remark. Nobody to ask them, on screen."

Ogilvy juts her chin to one of the larger screens above Simpert. "Look for them now, Cooper."

By the time Cooper leans around her to reach for his toggle, his dark eyes are kindling with admiration and enlightenment. CHAK CHAK CHAK. Empty, all of them. The fast paced futile search through their usual locales signifies that they're missing.

"And if that's still too subtle for our dear audience, it's nothing a speculative post on DriveHype or an opinion piece in the Risorialist can't fix." She stands. "No more worrying about fixing continuity. Your new mission is to make this un-missable. We've just got go-ahead for a naturalized retraining team to start hunting for their hiding spot. I'll forward their schedule for your screening. And that warehouse meeting with Ebenezer? They won't book a time with him, Spandex is much too paranoid for that."

"Ma'am?" Simpert dares to cut in, setting aside his phone. For the first time since she entered their office after her lunch with his boss, Ogilvy sets eyes on him. He wets his mouth, then indicates the phone with a slight nod.

"She's set you free, Simpert?" A look passes between them. They need each other.

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SECURITY CLASSIFICATION: UNCLASSIFIED | DATE OF REVIEW: N/A |
AUTHORITY: N/A | AUTHOR: UNKNOWN |
DOCUMENT STATUS: FINAL VERSION | VERSION: 1.0 |

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Z thumbs tears from Dex's cheeks, holding her still to kiss her forehead and eyes. "Let's get the books, aye?" She pulls back, studies Dex's face and sighs through her nose. "But also, later. Com'ere." She steers Dex away from the platform, away from the canal. "Com'ere," she says again, softer, "lemme give you touches."

"No, Z." Dex steps back. "We're done. Done with them. They can have you or me, but not us. We're keeping us." Her eyes clear as a plan starts to take shape, and her voice finds its strength in her stomach again. And Z, Z's eyes cloud with uncertainty, and she says nothing, waiting.

"Up there, no talking, no touching, nothing. If you didn't know, you'd think we were strangers. They can't have us no more, we're not for sale."

"Fine," Z says, hardly above a murmur. "But I have you now, Spandex."

"No, Z," Dex repeats. The gossipy ear twinges away from her, and she self-consciously lowers her voice to match Z's. "All the nows."

"Com'ere."

"Mmn. If you've got a chip could you hear it?" Dex doesn't realise how tight her fists are, though the dull ache in her shoulders and neck is becoming strangely comforting, like an unwanted guest reminding her how good it is to be alone.

"I don't know," Z says, stretching out her hands. "I don't hear foods after I've chewed them. But I have had things in me, like a bullet piece once, and I could hear that."

Dex takes them and steps into her. "Elias then, to be sure, yeh?"

"Yeh." She raises their hands, lacing their fingers as she studies the curve of nail against claw, then the spill of hair across Dex's forehead. Then she lets go their hands to palm Dex's shoulders, trying to pull her toward the bed.

"Now's better'n later." She noses into Z's neck to nibble promises for later, but she's no better a liar with her body than she is with her words. A push-away nose, then, "Gon'a bring him here?"

Their eyes finally meet. "I can't bring you to my dens anymore."

"Z," Dex says, but the sigh on the long 'e' is windless, no trace left of the brief storm of her conviction.

Zolotisty kisses the underside of Dex's chin and steps back, gone.

Dex needs to sit down.

 
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