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

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Can't we just keep killing him? It's got to take in the end.

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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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Closing his fingers around his glass, Haccadine looks across the table at Dex. He thinks back, searching for anything that could be described as a story, and raises his drink to his lips.

"Why'd'you think Z's got you tellin' stories?"

He wrinkles his nose. "Can't be sure. The note said somethin' about.. 'facilitating group bonding'." Dex snorts. "Maybe that's just it, gettin' me to talk to people."

"Yeh? You like bein' alone usually?"

"Wouldn't say like." He takes a sip and sets his glass down again, lacing both hands, elbows on the table. "It doesn't really make much difference to me. I get along with people, yeah, but I don't start crackin' up without 'em. Part of being Crew, isn't it? You've got to learn to get on, but you can't rely on everyone else for stuff."

She catches an ice cube with her teeth and pulls it into her mouth. "Mmn. Never said I was Crew, but I interrupted, go on."

Haccadine shakes his head. "Nah, I was just thinking.." He looks away for a minute, and then a loud crunching pulls him back. "What sort of stories d'you like?"

"Real ones."

"Real ones, huh?" He half-smiles. "Alright. Don't know an awful lot of those, but how about - - 'How Haccadine ended up here'? It's a bit long, maybe, but I'm sure I can cut bits out, and I reckon it's right up group bonding's street."

"Interesting to me," she says, her fingers sliding up and down the cold dew on her glass, "what people believe about how they ended up here. I'd like to hear it. I'll keep the drinks fresh."

"Right, then. I s'pose the place to start would be- -" He's quiet for a minute, chewing the inside of his mouth and weighing up possible answers, before seeming to reach a decision. "Said I grew up in London, right? Small house, big family. I was a third child, my parents having had twins a year or two before me. They ended up with eight, so that was me for most of my childhood, always bein' told to look after the littler ones and gettin' overlooked in favour of my older brother. That's how it seemed to me at the time, anyway. Lookin' back, s'hard to be sure."

He breaks off momentarily to drink, going over things as he does. "Whatever it was, I was a right little shit." Dex laughs. "Yeh. Always getting into trouble, starting fights every time anybody gave me the slightest bit of hassle. Eventually, my mother decided she'd had enough and kicked me out. Dunno how old I was at the time, probably about fourteen, maybe fifteen. I knew some kids who went into state care, and every single one of 'em hated it."

"'Cuz 'care' is their idea of a joke," Dex says, lifting her glass to him.

"Mm. Well, I didn't want none of that, so I just started living on the streets. Plenty of abandoned buildings to sleep in, if you're willin' to take the risk and you don't mind the rats, and it's usually fairly easy to nick enough food to survive. Amazin' what some people still throw away, too," he adds. "After a while, people start comin' up to you. Gangs, mostly, lookin' for new blood to help fight some stupid turf war against kids from another neighbourhood. I made the mistake of saying 'yes' the first time, just 'cause I was hungry and they offered food, but - - I got out sharpish when they started handin' out weapons. Stupid tossers."

Haccadine runs a finger around the rim of his glass, reflective. "Eventually, I got approached by somebody different."

Dex suddenly leans back hard into the back of the booth. Christ, not a Jesus Saves lecture.

"He said I seemed tough and maybe not quite as stupid as some of the others, and he asked me if I was willin' to work. Willin' to do something with my life. Nat'r'lly, I said yes. He gave me an address, a place and a time, and told me to go alone. So, I waited until when he said, and I went to the place, but when I turned up there wasn't anyone there. I gave it ten minutes and then left, figured he'd stitched me up; but the next day, three blokes nabbed me down an alley and dragged me off to some dingy old building. Turned out it was a test, and I'd passed. That's basic'ly how I ended up in the Crew."

She nods slightly - - as if this too was a test, as if he's just passed. NoseJab used to tell stories that follow the same kind of pattern. She finds herself unexpectedly threatened by a flood of sad nostalgia, so she drops her eyes from his and empties her drink. "Thank you. We should talk more sometime, maybe not here." She gestures to the camera and pub. "But I owe you a trade, deal's a deal. Your turn for a round, though."

"Yeah. I'd be happy to." Haccadine watches her with a curious expression and then stands, going over to the bar.

Still caught in the sentimentality of comparing then and now, her gaze follows him as he gets up and goes to the bar. By the time he returns and sets her vodka down, she manages to shake it.

He seats himself with a fresh pint, attentive. "Right, then."

"Hrmm. S'only fair I give you somma' real in return, I s'pose. And stories - - hell, memories, even - - are always embellished." She pauses, smirking at her own joke. "Whether that makes 'em better or worse or more or less real.. well fuck, we'd need a lot more vodka for that discussion, plus," she lifts her glass to him, then to the camera that's been doggedly trained on them since they arrived. "We've our ratings to worry about."

She takes a good swig of her vodka, slides out of the booth, and rises, digging the fingers of her unbroken hand into her front pocket. She makes a bit of a show about how tight her trousers are and the difficulty she's having obtaining the thing she needs.

"Things. Things are real." There's a lilt of mockery in her voice. "You can count on things, unlike say, people or feelings." She lifts the marble-sized orange ball, another private joke, as it probably one of the most unpredictable things she's ever come across. Holding it between her thumb and forefinger out to him, he leans forward, curious. "This thing is an eraser." She draws an exaggerated flourish in the air with it.

"This eraser erases perception. Or t'put another way, it erases the ability for you to discern things from things, yeh." She takes another drink. "Imagine," she says, lifting her glass off the table to demonstrate, "not being able to see where my glass ends and the table begins. Or where the vodka ends and the glass begins." Another drink, and she sets it down, scrutinizing his face to see if he's following.

Haccadine swirls his glass, eyes creasing thoughtfully. "Sounds like a dangerous sort of a thing."

"Mmn," she says quieter, "I suppose it could be." She considers the orange ball for a moment before continuing her performance. "Now watch closely. I'll do this very slowly just for you. Usually it's like this." She snaps her fingers. Nothing happens.

She's silent now, weaving the orange ball in a boustrophedon path in front of herself from neck to waist.

Like a magician, she's working with sleight of hand, but with her relationship to Improbability as it is, she's using sleight of feeling. As she moves the ball - - in circles now - - she recalls an emptiness inside herself, an absence that's growing and growing. It's a feeling she wants to hang on to, but can't. As she circles the air with the orange eraser, she draws Improbability into the space in her chest. Once she feels herself blurring, she dives into the well of desire, and she slowly begins to become gossamer, then translucent, then transparent, and then she and the orange ball seem to disappear.

Slowly, as though wary of dispelling whatever enchantment she's weaved, Haccadine sets down his glass and turns his head this way and that, testing. Shuffling to the end of the booth, he stands and reaches out to gently prod the air where she disappeared; his hand passes through it without resistance. He turns to sweep the whole pub with his gaze, but nowhere does he see the telltale flash of blue. "Dex?" he tries, stepping away from the booth.

"Dex?" he calls again, louder this time. Several people turn to stare. Confused, he turns back to the booth and sweeps a hand over the seats. Nothing. He opens his mouth, then shuts it again; no point wasting his breath. If she's still here, she doesn't want to be found.

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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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In her office, Lacey narrows her eyes and leans forward as Spandex disappears from her screens. Interesting; she's seen the odd vanishing act before, but never done like that. She tracks Haccadine's response easily, making sure to capture the look of confusion on his face, and finds herself struck by a sudden pang of sympathy. Poor bastard's really jumped in at the deep end. It's tempered, though, by the knowledge that every knife held at his throat by a top-ratings contestant means more screen time for him, and more brownie points for her. Just as long as he doesn't get himself killed, she thinks.

***

"Yes, it is exciting, ma'am," Cooper says, cradling the phone with his shoulder and hitting rewind to watch Dex's disappearance for the eighth time. "I'm sending you the whole thing right now - - oh! Apologies. Ma'am, Zolotisty's back, call you.." He exhales sharply through his nose. Ogilvy'll be down here as fast as the elevator can take her. Karmic payback for lording over Lacey, he supposes.

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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 expects nothing; she lives frugally on surprise. But there are certain constants which she relies upon, constants which to her seem larger than the unimaginative pull of dusk and dawn, night and day - - like Improbability, like sound. Like being able to hear Spandex from any distance; not the breathing and heartbeating of her, but the being and the heartfeeling of her.

The last time she lost her, it was for six and a half hours. Half-feral, she didn't have the tongue of mind to articulate her panic and her fear, even to herself. It was a trick of Improbability then. Dex disguised her sound, but she was fine. Wholly whole.

She discovers now, padding muddy-legged up the PSK's porch, that she didn't need language for the emotion. Her fear of loss, paranoia-driven, is all-powerful; the dasein. The rush is almost like a bet, and she's highstakes calm as she slips into the pub.

It's just Haccadine. Zolotisty feels ill.

Though Dex doesn't need to, her compulsion is to creep on tiptoes, dash behind corners and stifle giggles. She ghosts after her girl into the pub, tempted to reach forward and pluck at her tail. Even Z's neighbourhood-watch ears are grifted. She celebrates, dancing ahead of her.

"Hullo," Z nods again to Haccadine. She passes him on her way to the stool in front of the one-armed bandit, glancing at the booth they'd been sitting in. She expects to see Dex slumped dead over the table. She expects to kill him.

"Hullo," he agrees, aware that something's not quite right with the situation but unable to put his finger on it. He catches Z's glance. "Dex isn't here anymore, I don't think. She did this thing with an orange ball and.. disappeared."

The hypocrisy and discomfort of spying on the two take seats, one two, on her shoulders, and Dex starts to slink away, forgetting again that they can't see her. She casts a guilty glance to Z's twitchy ears. They're still searching the room.

"I know she's not," Z says, scarcely hearing the bit about the orange. She takes a seat before the bandit and hooks her toes to the stool's rungs. She studies the machine's reels, imagines smashing teeth through the glass. "D'you have any spare req?" The machine takes cigarettes.

Haccadine blinks. "Sure." He turns out his pockets, comes up with a handful of tokens, and offers them to Zolotisty on a flat palm.

By the time she makes it to the entrance, the realisation of what she's done takes Dex's breath away. She spins to face Z, cupping her hand over her mouth. She can see herself in the way Z's too-polite tone is masking the promise of violence and she has no time, no chance for any emotion but the one climbing up her throat. A shriek of wide-eyed awful laughter erupts in her own ears, but Z's don't even flinch.

Z plucks a dented token from his hand. "Cheers," she says, considering it. She lifts it, lines up the rough portrait of the Watcher on its face with his own, squinting at him as she guesses at whether he'll toss his arms up when she snatches for his throat.

Probably, she decides. "Did you mind the knife."

Perhaps this is how the dead feel. Choked silence.

Haccadine hesitates, curling his fingers back over the handful of req and slipping it into his pocket. "What d'you mean? She put that away before you left."

Z crooks a smile as she unhooks her toes from the stool. She begins to stand. "Aye."

Mute and full of dread, Dex runs. She slams into Z, hoping the desperate need to stop her will bring her back into her own body. Z appears to lean sideways as though to yawn or stretch as she disappears. Dex grips tight and guns it. Z, her getaway girl.

Haccadine stands in stunned silence for a moment. A couple of onlookers turn back to their drinks as his gaze sweeps over them, but the pub seems otherwise undisturbed. When he goes to fetch his pack the booth is still empty, and he feels oddly lightheaded as he drains the last of his pint. It's like he's missing half the pieces of a puzzle, and none of the ones he's got will fit together. He sits and waits a little longer, to see if either of them will return. Then, when nobody reappears, he leaves, blinking as he steps out into the brightness of the square. Maybe, he reflects, it's another kind of test.

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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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"Again, real slow," Ogilvy says as Cooper's already partway through making that happen.

"Yes, ma'am." On a different screen, Spandex's disappearing act loops in slo-mo stop action. Their FX team couldn't have done a transparency fade any better. "Okay, here we go."

He cues up the best camera feed and they watch it frame by frame, from the moment Dex disappears until the moment Zolotisty does.

"What's that," Ogilvy says, pointing. "Can you pull in? See that - - there, right behind Z's shoulder, see that blue?" Cooper squints, rubs his eyes and adjusts the zoom. He sees nothing.

"I'm not sure, ma'am, it looks to me like the slot machine." He replays it from when Zolotisty first walked in. "Her ears are a good indicator.. and I ..they seem to be either searching for Spandex or intent on Haccadine, which implies she's not there. We'd have to get Mr. Simpert's opinion on this though."

"Mmn. They're up to something. This whole little performance of Spandex's wasn't just for that new.." She waves her hand dismissively, "ex-con from her old neighbourhood. I trust you read his file as well, Cooper. Maybe she'll pull her usual stunts and we'll get some romantic drama in this as well."

"What a bargain, ma'am." Cooper glances up at the clock on one of the screens. He's looking forward to Simpert's arrival. Two hours.

"I've got a meeting with Godard about hiring a hunting party, we'll reconvene after." She looks up at the loop of Dex's disappearance, and grins. "Impressive."

Impressive enough to make you forget about that marriage plot, Cooper thinks as Ogilvy leaves.

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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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The yawp of surprise that began in Z's throat in the pub resounds now as a snarl, echoing hollow off of the tunnel's curved walls. She thrashes, snapping and flailing, but meets only a gauzy resistance. There's no one there. Frightened and confused, she scrambles to her feet and moves, coming up against the far end of the platform. The sense of being veiled moves with her, diaphanous and close-clinging.

The crush between Z and the wall is like the crush between sheet and blanket. "Z!" Dex yells, trying to wriggle away. Her voice is no louder than a breath. Z's ears snap backward; she whirls. As disbelief becomes gravity, Dex's edges begin to return. "Z, Z, s'me, Z, s'me, s'okay." She can see Z's terrified expression through her outstretched, surrendering ghost hands.

Another transformation: snarl into whine. Z backs up a pace.

"Please Z, s'me, dex, Z, s'ok." Desperation expands the emptiness between her lungs. Her hands, cast, and arms fade again. Z recoils, tail tucked tight against her leg. "No! Fuck! No! Fuck!" The anger snaps into outlines. "Fuck this stupid fucked up bastard Joker mother-Improbability-fucker bullshit!" She stomps and the tension finds its place in her muscles, spine.

"Spandex," Z blurts as she recognizes the tantrum, snatching at her.

"Z!" Dex calls, trying to keep hope out of her voice. Yanked forward, she drops her head to focus on Z's tail, the most innocent bystander caught up in her terrible mistake. "M'sorry, sorry, god, m'so sorry." The guilt weighs on her neck, shoulders, back, stomach, and Z finally has something to dig her claws into, something to touch. Pain shoots from Dex's skin to her nape.

Zolotisty straitjackets Dex's arms to her sides with the force of her cling, mashes her nose hard into her collarbone.

Hips, thighs, knees, chest, and Z's against her, finally, close enough to feel the panicked thumping of both their hearts. "Z, s'me I'm here, I'm here."

"Don't do that to me again," she rasps when she has words. "Don't do that. Don't do that."

"Didn't know." Glad for whispering, she repeats, "Didn't.. I forgot, m'sorry." But in the nestle of relief is a seed, shining bright orange, I did it.

There's blood welling through the new notches in the back of Dex's shirt when Z finally pulls away. Her hands are shaking. "What happened. I thought - - you weren't.. I couldn't - - I would've killed him."

"You said to go talk to someone."

They almost crack teeth as their bodies collide into each other. If it's a fight that stages their grappling hands and the tangling struggle to the platform, it's not against each other.

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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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"So if they've rigged this check-in system like I'm thinking, it's not for the lark of it. It's because they're paranoid. They're waking up every morning and thinking, alright, is this the day another one of us gets clubbed over the head and carted off to Christ knows where. If we push them, they get more paranoid. If we don't push them, I think it's the same; they get more paranoid."

"Mattie."

"I'm starting to think we've put them on a very bad path, El. Something's got to give one way or another. Even if we're not pushing - - they'll push themselves."

"Matt. Matthew, baby. Look at me." Elise pushes herself up onto her forearms, sheets spilling from her shoulders. Her face is lit by the faint red glow of the alarm clock on the sidetable, and she can just barely make out the shine of her husband's eyes as he turns to meet her gaze. "You need to stop worrying about this. It's going to make you sick. Forget Zolotisty. Forget the show, just for a few hours. I haven't seen you in.. this is the first time we've had a night together in a week, and you said you didn't want sex, that's fine. But you hardly ate, you've not slept, and you've been at this since you got home. Ranting, Mattie."

He stretches his fingers to push hair from her face. "Sorry, love. I know. I'm sorry."

Elise leans her head away from his hand. "If you were worried because of the job, I'd understand. I know that. I know when you get obsessed about that. This is different."

"I'm sorry."

She sighs and tips her cheek against the pad of his index finger. He trails it down her jaw and neck, following the familiar ragged gash of the scar which runs from the hollow of her throat to the top of her left breast.

"Not taking very good care of you," he murmurs, rolling onto his side to push himself up.

"Or yourself," Elise says, but she lets him roll her onto her back, aware as always of the persistent presence of the alarm clock's red light.

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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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Dex most always kisses with her eyes open.

Something catches her attention from the periphery and suddenly her eyes are huge. She pulls Z's face towards her ear so she can see around her, and don't-panic-but smooths the back of her hair in too-short strokes. "Twist?"

"Whuh. Whassit, Spandex."

"Where are we?"

"Tunnel. Ya'si." Z blinks passively and turns to look over her shoulder. "Oh."

The platform has been extended laterally away from the canal, yawning like a cave mouth. The arches of the tunnel now come down into tiled support ribs — open-air columns now, each supporting the square-edged parachute scoops of the ceiling. The plane of the concrete floor is now only level along the edge of the canal; the rest has turned to sharp drops that dip and bowl lower than the bottom of the riverbed, then undulate smooth up along curved walls and halfpipes that flow against and around the columns.

They lace fingers and get up, leaning against each other for warmth and support. "Twist?" She left Z here for what, three drinks.

"Yeh?"

The lot of it has been tweaked around the notion of an Escher staircase. It's half-finished; the concrete and tiling runs roughshod into dirt and roots and bedrock, and the aggressive Improbability manipulation required to make all of this, much less make it stay made, has turned the water in the canal to the crushed velvet blue-black of the night sky. Whiskery fish, wraith-like, cruise quietly around in the bowls of the concrete, forming into shapes and departing from each other. Dex holds her so tight.

 
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