This isn’t your typical novel. It’s an experiment where you, the reader, get to define your own story.
Let’s start small: we’re going to invent a character.
This character is a rebel. Raised in a secret society obsessed with rules, they’re always looking for better ways to achieve their goals. They’re smart, daring and creative… but still kind of afraid of upsetting the status quo. Especially if it draws too much attention.
Got an image of them in your mind? OK, so let’s give them a first name:
Awesome. OK. So let’s see what happens to in hir first appearance…
goes the door, but doesn't break. Sofa barricades: they work!
gives it a wary glare, then goes back to stuffing a bag with clothes. Zie's clearly in a rush, because zie looks a mess, hir shirt is buttoned wrong, and zie hasn't even explained why they're all going to die.
"So anyway," zie says, "we've gotta run. Now."
Marc and Nadia Kiesling would say that aloud if they knew 's name; or, in fact, if they knew they were all going to die. Instead, they're stuck staring in disbelief: who is this lunatic, and why is zie in their apartment, and why is zie stuffing their clothes into a bag, and who is pounding on their door, and—
"Seriously," says , "hurry!"
"W-what?" asks Marc, not unreasonably.
"W-why?" adds Nadia, flinching as the door booms again.
isn't quite sure how to phrase hir response. Zie pauses packing, looking remarkably similar to a person who is trying to decide what microbrew sampler they want to drink first.
"OK," says, then inhales, then winces: "Not to alarm you, but there's an 85% chance that you're going to give birth to the Anti-Christ in eight months."
Nadia checks her belly. At that exact moment, the door goes boom again, which is really impressive timing on the part of the universe. Like a soundtrack to life's little—
"But I'm not..." Nadia stammers, "I can't—"
"If it makes you feel any better, it was 98% this morning," says .
This does not make Nadia feel better.
Regardless, grabs Nadia by the arm and yanks her to her feet with the strength of someone who is attuned to the "all going to die"-ness of the situation, and wants to GTFO ASAP. Unfortunately, Marc is less convinced, and refuses to budge.
Boom goes the door, incidentally.
"Hold on," says Marc, "Who are you? What's going on?"
glances back at the door (boom!) and sighs.
So far so good! After reading that chapter, do you want to make any changes? If so, here's your chance:
Now let's switch gears and talk about our partner. Less cerebral than , they're very good at speaking their mind. Especially physically. They're clever and calculating, but where might talk their way out of trouble, the partner will charge straight through it, and win.
Let's define who they are:
Sound good? OK, let's see what happens when enters the story…
and the car stops hard. 's seatbelt jerks hir back, spilling hir coffee everywhere. The cup has a warning on it that alerts one to the hotness of the beverage, but there are some things that words simply cannot describe properly, like the feeling of searing coffee on one's thighs.
"Ahh!" wails . "Jesus!" zie adds, though Jesus is not, in fact, in the car, unlike: "!" who most certainly is in the car, and gripping the steering wheel furiously.
Out front, a kid with a ball stands two inches from the bumper, like an especially inept deer in headlights. He was very nearly a hood ornament, and it's possible he knows it.
leans out the window, scowl in full force.
"You're welcome!" zie shouts, though the kid is really not that far away.
He's also not moving. He may be in the early stages of shock, and—
"Any day now!" shouts, then leans on the horn until the kid scampers out of the way.
is wiping coffee off hir legs with tissues as puts the car into gear and roars down the street so as to add another vibrant layer to the lad's pending PTSD.
"I swear," mutters to hirself, "why do we even bother?"
knocks in, the door finally opens. Standing there, pasty and sinewy all at once, is a young man named Wallace Moore. Wallace is in his pyjamas, squinting at the world like he just woke up. And in fact he did just wake up, despite it being close to noon.
His eye twitches at them, but they smile pleasantly all the same.
"Wallace Moore?" asks .
"I'm... yes?" answers Wallace.
Rip goes the duct tape, and grins.
is in his living room, taped to a chair. Some might say he's very taped. Some might even say excessively taped. And yet, is still trying to think of where to put the last piece. Is it because zie likes to be thorough? Maybe. Is it because zie's cruel and vindictive? Ah, that sounds more like it.
, meanwhile, sits across from Wallace. Zie flips open hir notebook and smiles.
"Hi, so, Wallace," zie says. "My name's , this is , and we'd like to ask you a few questions."
Wallace, who is now fully awake, shoots frantic glances from to . "T-take whatever you want," he begs. "Just don't hurt me!"
snorts a laugh, turning over some chintzy art. As if they'd steal this crap.
"Let's start small," says , pleasantly. "Tell me about your father."
"M-my dad?" says Wallace, confused. "Why? Did he—"
"Just... in your own words, Wallace."
Wallace isn't sure how to deal with the mixed signals he's getting: is this a home invasion, or an involuntary therapy session? Should he be scared, or simply put off? And if hates those porcelain figurines so much, why did zie just pocket one?
"Your father, Wallace," says .
"I... I dunno. He works downtown. He—"
"Yeah, I guess."
"What's that mean? ‘I guess'?" asks, with the kindest of voices.
"He, uh, his firm had problems, so he, I mean... he works for my uncle now. Helps around the office and stuff."
nods, writes some notes. "And how does he feel about that?"
Wallace shrugs. "He doesn't talk about it much."
jots all this down. "I see. OK, and your mom?"
"She... um..." Wallace is looking at the floor, masking his shame like a lace curtain.
has opened the liquor cabinet, which is full of mostly-empty bottles. Not the good stuff, either. Zie gives a look that says: "mmhmm..."
"Does she work?" asks, cutting through the awkwardness.
Wallace shakes his head. Embarrassed.
"Would you say she's happy, Wallace?"
Wallace looks up. "With what?"
"With anything. With everything. With the way things are."
Wallace very visibly does not look at the liquor cabinet.
"Alright. So. What's her favourite kind of pizza? Imagine anything's possible, everyone gets their own pie. What's she order?"
This pops the stress, and Wallace proudly says: "Oh, Hawaiian. Easily. She loves Hawaiian."
is writing this down. "Loves... Hawaiian." Zie clicks hir pen shut. "That's great, Wallace. You've been a big help."
He looks from to and back again, confused. "So is this like... a marketing survey or something?"
"No, Wallace, marketing surveys don't usually involve taping you to a chair."
Hmm, true. "Am I in some kind of trouble?"
snorts from the back of the room. "More like you are some kind of trouble."
folds hir hands pleasantly. "Wallace, I think you probably already know this on some level, but here's the thing: you're about six days into the process of becoming the Anti-Christ."
Wallace can't believe what he's hearing. He looks confused, then panicked, and...
...and then he looks like a totally different person.
Wallace very much looks like someone who is becoming the Anti-Christ.
"You cannot stop the coming of the—"
"Actually, sorry, small point," interrupts , "but we can and we actually have. This transformation you're undergoing is actually a lot more common than you'd think."
Wallace's face drops. "It... what?"
"I mean, in the continental United States alone, we're averaging, what, an Anti-Christ candidate a day?"
"More at Christmas," says .
"More at Christmas. You know how spiders lay a ton of eggs in the hopes that one of them might survive and thrive?"
"They do?" asks Wallace, somewhat dazed.
"Yeah, they do," says . "And that's basically the Anti-Christ process to a tee. Loads of candidates, one winner."
Wallace cackles madly in a way that says he's growing into the whole Evil Incarnate schtick — though to be honest, it's kinda slow-going with loads of room for improvement. He tries all the same: "And it's me! I am the winner!"
"Well, yes and no," sighs . "You are definitely on your way."
"But on the other hand..." says , and Wallace turns to find a gun pointed between his eyes, and—
goes the gunshot in Marc and Nadia's minds.
They are, understandably, upset. Nadia is trying to push backward through the wall to escape . It's not really working out for her.
"Oh my god..." she gasps. "Oh my god!" she adds, then, upon reflection: "Oh my god!"
(Boom goes the door.)
"I feel like we got off on the wrong foot here," says . "Wait 'til you hear the good news."
Alright! We're just about done creating characters. But this next step is a doozy…
We need to figure out 's lover. Passionate and caring, they are loyal to a fault. Whatever the issue, they have absolute faith in 's ability to fix it. And, if need be, they are willing to roll up their own sleeves to help. Insofar as they can help, that is.
But it's not all sunshine and rainbows… this story needs a villain: They're not evil so much as unrepentantly strict. Deviations must be eliminated, at once. But that's not to say they're not capable of adapting… they're quite adept at integrating heresy into their worldview, if it suits them. But only if it suits them.
And what would a villain be without some muscle to execute their plans? Here, we need a (human) monster: They are 's most trusted soldier, following orders with robotic precision. They might even seem inhuman at times, but that's only because they're so conditioned to the world they inhabit, they can't imagine it any other way. Bloodbaths are natural, right?
OK, that is officially all the characters done! All you need to do now is read. However, if you ever feel like changing things up, feel free to come back up here and edit to your heart's content!
"What good news?"
asks , sitting at the edge of 's desk, eating a pogo stick.
Openly eating pogo sticks isn't really proper office etiquette, but then again this is not a proper office; it's the secret lair of the Union, which looks like steampunk Templars watched too much Minority Report and inadvertently hired a squirrel to realize their vision.
's area, the workshop, adds a pinch of "exploded android guts" for good measure. And by "good," one could infer "bad."
"What good news?" repeats , chomping away.
syncs hir phone to the computer and angles hir screen, knocking over some knick-knacks.
"We're getting results," zie says, eyes a-twinkling.
blinks. What results? Does zie care? Can't recall.
sighs. "From the algorithm. From the surveys. They're—" Zie stops, hard-rolls hir eyes, and types some commands into the computer. 's boredom is only being staved off by hir snack. "Look, OK," says , finally. "Here are the Anti-Christ candidates within a 50-mile radius..."
On the screen is a map. On the map, three dots: two green, one orange. The green ones are at 10 and 15%, while the orange one reads 36%. There is no real rhyme or reason to the placement of the dots, except if you connect them with red lines, it would make a triang— wait, no, that's probably normal with three dots. Never mind.
is not so distracted by geometry. Zie continues explaining: "Now here are the new results..."
The screen updates. There are dozens of dots. Dozens. Tons of green, and a few orange. One red. If you connected all these dots, you'd have a pretty good rendition of a lesser-known Rembrandt, as interpreted by the aforementioned squirrel.
gapes. "Holy shit. is gonna freak."
laughs, nods: "Yeah, but keep in mind these are
and not actual, um, candidates," zie says, all humble and scared. "," zie adds for good measure. "Your grace," zie adds further. "Um."
Zie avoids making eye contact, because at the far end of the room — the Grand Boardroom of the Union headquarters — are a handful of Elder Union agents who are regarding like the irritating gnat zie is. And at the fore of this unit, seated at the table across from hir, is Agent . is old, is wisened, and looks like J Edgar's point- in the Salem witch trials.
"Habitats," says, but it's more like a growl.
sinks a little lower in hir seat.
"Habitats are, uh, homes into which a candidate is likely to be born. They meet a statistical intersect—"
"Parents," says . "Of the Anti-Christ."
"Um. Yes, yes, your grace."
leans forward ever so slightly, and the temperature in the room both drops ten degrees, while feeling 150% hotter.
"And you determined this HOW, exactly?" asks.
"Oh, uh, public data sources, surveillance inputs, um, social media scrapes... and, uh, the..." Zie mutters this next part: "...candidate interviews."
"Interviews," echoes .
One of the Elders clears throat: "And what have you divined from these interviews, Agent ?"
is ready for this question; zie has mountains of facts ready to regurgitate; analyses and counter-analyses prepared for the skeptical; talking points and in-depth insights that can help hir convince a largely hostile audience of the righteousness of hir project. And yet zie leads with:
"Well, for starters, the mothers almost always like Hawaiian pizza."
The Elders chitter amongst themselves; one of the women looks guilty as all hell.
"You were warned about this, agent ," snaps the Elder. "Interference in the sacred rites is forbidden."
"But I'm just trying to improve the—"
There's a collective gasp in the room.
"One does not improve by talking," growls . "One improves by doing. The results speak for themselves."
motions to the side of the room, to Agent , who looks a lot like a professional soccer-playing tree who's going through a goth phase. Stoic. And/or asleep. "Though this would explain how Agent has managed to neutralize five candidates for every one of yours."
withers a bit at this. , standing behind hir, sneers at . Hard. "Yeah, but at least we don't desecrate the corpses..." zie grumbles.
asks Nadia, pressing even harder into the wall, because hey, who doesn't get a little antsy around desecrating corpses?
"Totally not what you think," says . " dresses them up and poses them in these Pokemon tableaus and..." Zie shudders. "So anyway, they
the whole initiative. Said it wasn't worth the resources."
is flopped on hir kitchen table like a rag doll that took too many muscle relaxants. Then again, zie has a beer in hir hand, so maybe the rag doll's just sloshed. Either way, zie looks morose and alone.
A hand rests on hir arm, rubs in a comforting way, and lo and behold, the rag doll isn't quite so pathetic after all! Zie has company!
"I'm sorry, babe," whispers , leaning in to give a kiss on the cheek. "What you do is important. You know that, right?"
sighs like zie doesn't know, which prompts another kiss.
"Your work matters," says, resting head on 's arm, so they're face-to-face. 's so damn sincere, it's like belongs in a different story. "I mean seriously, ... predicting juvenile diabetes is important."
gives an extremely judgey glare. "Diabetes?"
"Yeah, fine, I lied to my . But at least I'm not pregnant with the Anti-Christ. So, you know, glass houses and shit."
the chair behind , wrapping around hir like an extremely fit koala. rests head on 's shoulder, and exhales just like does when teaches yoga class: aggressively peaceful.
tries to take a sip from hir beer, but mostly pours it on hir arm instead.
"One does not improve by talking," says in a pretty awful imitation of . "One improves by doing. Feh. Whatever."
"Well," says , stroking 's shoulder gently, "maybe they're right. Maybe actions do speak louder than words."
"Maybe you need to *show* them what you made, instead of telling them about it. Make them see why it's so important. That way—" looks up, concerned. "Hold on, why's it so quiet?"
Nadia doesn't understand.
"Why was *what* so—"
waves her silent: "No, shh shh shh..."
And it's true: the door isn't being boomed anymore. It's quiet.
's face drops.
"You don't happen to have a fire escape in this place, do you?"
"Yeah," says Marc, pointing to the far wall, "it's right out—"
"Oooooh yeah that's not good. We've gotta go. Like now. Like fast."
Down the stairs
they go, flat against the wall, arms spread wide between them like a class of acrophobic preschoolers on a day trip to Mrs Fielding's coke dealer. goes first, Marc staying between hir and Nadia (wrongly assuming the bigger threat is the crazy person he knows), while Nadia takes up the rear, looking 900% uncertain about following at all.
And yet she does.
"But had a point," whispers, loudly.
"What?" whispers Marc.
" had a point. Dots on a map are one thing, but
one of those dots'd prove to them that I'm on to something," zie says, frowning at the dot on hir monitor like it's a puzzle that needs to be solved.
frowns at *hir* like a problem that needs to be beat with a stick. "So — if I'm hearing you right — you want to compound one forbidden act by doing another, more explicitly forbidden act."
"But we'll call it a test."
"I'm sure that matters."
"Listen, , if I'm right and this works, it'll save lives. We won't have to kill any more Anti-Christs ever again."
"Because we'll be killing their parents?" laughs. "You may want to check your math there, genius."
"No, I mean..." says, trying to pin down the words that are racing around hir mind like race cars in zero-gravity. "I mean think about it: if the Anti-Christ is a product of a certain family dynamic, and we change that dynamic before the baby's born, we should be able to—
Nadia hugs tight.
She even ropes in Marc, too. It's such a shocking thing, doesn't know how to react (aside from trying desperately not to fall down the stairs).
"You are here to help!" Nadia gushes. "Thank you!"
sighs. "Oh man. You're gonna make this awkward."
Pop goes the
seatbelt as the car stops outside an unremarkable duplex with a so-so facade and a yicky old yard. stares at it from the passenger seat. squints at it from the driver's seat, still not ready to take hir hand off the ignition.
"This feels weird," zie says, about the duplex, not the ignition.
"You said that about the first algorithm," says .
"Yeah, but that was about replacing voodoo shit with science. Weird, but good-weird. This feels like a big step backwards."
"It's still science, ," says .
"Pfft," is the rebuttal.
KNOCK KNOCK KNOCK KNOCK KNOCK KNOCK
and the door opens to and standing there like some really sinister Jehovah's Witnesses. , pleasant; , stewing. Both creepy.
"Hi, Mrs Winters?" asks . "Eliza Winters?"
Eliza Winters does not want what they're selling. For one, she's dressed in yoga clothes, is sweating, and is likely sore. Furthermore, she already owns three Instant Pots, so there's very little left for her to achieve in life.
She points at the door: "Look, the sign says ‘NO SOLICITATIONS' and—"
points hir gun at Eliza's face. "May we?"
"Yes please," squeaks Eliza.
She and head in. sighs, follows.
Tea in a nice cup,
set on the table. With a saucer, even! So respectable. Smells delicious.
"There you go," says , smiling at hir handiwork.
is similarly smiling at *hir* handiwork, which basically boils down to, as always, aggressively taping people to chairs. It's not too likely Eliza is going to be drinking her tea any time soon. Can you waterboard with orange pekoe? Food for thoughts.
"What do you want?" Eliza asks, voice trembling with fear. "We don't have any money if that's what you're—"
sets hir phone on the table, taps the circular progress bar there. 83%.
"What's that?" Eliza asks, hoping it's not credit score.
puts on hir best "calm and reassuring" voice and says: "OK, so, not to alarm you, but that is the probability that you will give birth to the Anti-Christ in eight months."
Calm and reassuring vs gestating an Anti-Christ. Kind of a wash. Eliza frowns.
"But I'm agnostic."
"Not really a factor."
"And I'm not pregnant," Eliza says, full of momentary confidence that gives way to: "Am I?"
gives her some jazz hands: "Surpriiiiise!"
leans in, whispers to : "I feel like we should've brought balloons or something."
Eliza is having a hard time wrapping her mind around this. For the first time, she seems properly bothered to be taped to a chair in her kitchen with two strangers, one of whom has a too-casual appreciation of gun safety. Eliza really wants to get free. Or drink that tea. It is getting cold.
"So wait," she says, "I don't understand. What are you doing here?" Then, a thought connects in her synapses: "Oh my god, are you here to kill me?"
"No," says , at the same time that says: "Yes," followed by an unconvincing: "I mean no."
"We're not here to kill you, Eliza," says. "We're here to work with you. We're going to find the things that make this number as high as it is, and we're going to fix them."
"So no more Hawaiian pizza," says .
"But I like—"
puts hir gun straight between Eliza's eyes. "No. More. Hawaiian—"
"OK! OK!" Eliza cries. "I promise! I promise!"
pushes the gun down, which heartily annoys . Zie didn't drive all this way to not threaten the lives of bound hostages in domestic settings!
"No no, that's not how it works," says, explaining to both Eliza and at once. And possibly hirself. It's very possible is making this up as zie goes along. "Just because she doesn't eat something, doesn't mean she doesn't still want it. It's not like it's the chemical traits of Hawaiian pizza that do it, it's—"
"The mental defect that makes her like Hawaiian pizza at all?" asks .
thinks a moment, shrugs. "Pretty much."
Eliza's rollercoaster of emotions is getting scarily unpredictable, which is never what you want in a rollercoaster, unless you're a psychopath.
"I still don't understand—"
pulls hir own chair closer, gets on hir best "go team!" expression.
"Let's start small. How are you, Eliza? Are you happy?" Upon further reflection, zie adds: "I mean aside from this moment right now. Generally-speaking, are you happy?"
"I... I mean I guess—"
"What were you doing just before we showed up?"
Eliza half-glances down at her workout clothes. Her original sweat has dried, but her new, fear-for-my-life sweat is picking up the slack.
"Pilates," she says, quietly.
"Pilates," echoes . "And how do you feel about pilates? Do you enjoy it?"
Eliza looks like she's hooked up to a polygraph. In a Russian prison. Being visited by an American consular official who keeps asking where the schematics are hidden, *where did you hide the schematics?* while darting nervous glances to the armed guards outside the door and—
"Eliza, do you enjoy it?" asks again.
"I... I suppose?" Eliza ventures.
smiles, knowingly. "Why are you doing pilates, Eliza?"
Eliza swallows a mouthful of bile. "Because... it makes me feel good?"
"Is that a question?"
"I don't know?"
gives Eliza's (bound) knee a comforting pat. , meanwhile, is losing patience, counting how many steak knives are in the drawers. For reasons, dammit. Reasons!
"Let's ask this a different way," says. "Are you doing pilates because you *want to do it, or are you doing it because you feel it's something you *should do?"
Someone should've read Eliza her rights, ‘cause she's about to sing like a canary!
"The second one..." she says, with building hysteria. "I... I really don't like pilates. I don't. It's so... it just hurts all the time, you know? It's just so *awful!*"
nods, sympathetically. "I know, Eliza. I do. So you know what? I hereby give you permission to stop."
Eliza goes wide-eyed. "Really?"
"Yes. Don't do things you hate. Misery eats at your soul, and in your specific case, possibly the world at large. Life's too short for that. Be free."
Zie smiles at hir phone. "And look, see?" Zie turns it around, and voila: 62%! "Progress already!"
Eliza starts to laugh. The stress is lifting! The roller coaster was fine after all! The Soviets didn't need the schematics! Everything is OK!
gives her a wink. "This doesn't have to be a painful process. It can be liberating!"
Eliza's smile is infectious: "That's amaz—"
POP! goes Eliza's head, and she slumps forward, dead.
and both turn, in perfect sync, to see by the back door, stowing weapon. scowls, but is livid:
"? What are you—"
"The Elders have reviewed your work and are most impressed, Agent ," says, in a very slow and methodical drawl.
"Th-they have?" asks, stunned by the revelation. Also by Eliza's sudden death, but let's be honest: less so.
holds up phone. It shows the same progress bar that 's has, but it's currently showing 0%, because, well, dead Eliza.
"Your new insights will ‘change the world', were their exact words," says, straightening jacket absentmindedly. " even smiled."
's face twists in horror. "Oh man, was it creepy? I bet it was creepy. Shiver down your spine?"
shrugs. Couldn't say. Probably can't feel spine with that giant wooden post rammed up —
"But wait," says , "the whole point of the system is to save lives."
frowns. "Is that not what we did?"
"No, you just shot an innocent woman!"
"A vessel of the Anti-Christ," corrects.
"Yes, but not necessarily," says. "If we work with them, we can lower their scores and prevent the candidate from being a candidate at all!"
is confused: "So then who do we kill?"
is too excited to contain hirself, zie just has to explain it: "No one!" zie laughs. "Don't you see? We can save the world *without*
resorting to violence,"
zie says while the Elders stare at hir like zie's extolling the virtues of recreational razor blade swallowing. , in particular, seems unimpressed. Even more than usual.
Zie bows hir head. "Your graces."
Zie sinks into hir chair, feeling slightly isolated in this hostile environment. shifts uncomfortably, standing to one side of 's chair. stands on the other side, day-dreaming of killing things, probably.
"How have we raised you so wrong, Agent ?" says, after an agonizing pause. has an answer for that, actually, but now doesn't seem to be the right time to—
"We are defenders of the innocent," continues, like 's in command or something. "We are champions of the weak. The enemy is powerful and numerous, but we hold them back through the strength of our convictions and the sharpness of our spirit."
lifts a finger to speak: "I don't disag—"
"The battle against Evil," says forcefully, "has no room for half-measures, Agent . One does not negotiate with Evil. One removes it. Eliminates it."
"You have devised a means to identify those threats earlier," says, nodding approvingly for a split second before returning to usual scowl, "but that does not lessen the urgency of our mission. We identify Evil, we eliminate Evil."
"But where does that end?" zie asks.
"With an empty map."
stands, nods to the other Elders, and back at hir: "Your advances are commendable, Agent, but your ambitions are naïve. You are hereby
removed from the project—"
"Wait, your project?" gasps, doing an amazing impression of someone who just ate a lemon instead of a Kit Kat.
sighs, nods solemnly. "I'm on administrative leave."
"AKA temporary excommunication,"
zie says as the locks click open, and the car doesn't explode. What a nice surprise!
Zie looks over the hood at Marc and Nadia, gives them a pained smile. "Means I'm in danger of eternal damnation in the pits of Hell, but otherwise
I'm not too worried about it,"
zie tells .
They're lying in bed, passing a bottle of red wine between them, which is both the sign of a strong, unbreakable relationship, and also a clear indication that said relationship is masking slovenly alcoholism. And cheap wine.
is a depressed kind of drunk, but is an angry kind of drunk.
"You're not worried?" slurs, poking in the side of the head for emphasis. "Well I* am! It's wrong!* You should file a complaint with HR!"
shrugs. "I dunno, rocking the boat tends to get you burned at the stake."
Zie gives the Kieslings a knowing nod.
Chug chug chug,
and disappears the wine. Such delicious sadness.
finishes, licks lips a little too deliberately, and says: "Want me t'go talk t'them?"
laughs. "My fitness instructor ? Probably not the best idea."
rolls over and presses face against 's cheek to say: "I can be very argumentative."
"Oh, I know."
sighs, flops down flat on the bed. "And I'll tell them how important your work is. How... you're important. You're important, . I love you so much."
says Nadia, giving a lovey-dovey smile. (Marc is busy trying to figure out the seatbelts).
"Oh don't get the wrong idea," says from the front seat. " says that a lot when drinks."
with emotion, wine glass in hand. "I love you so much," says.
The pizza guy still wants his tip.
Sucking empty wine bottles
is like trying to get blood from a stone, but it looks weirder. And yet that doesn't deter one bit.
Finally, gives up, sighs loudly.
"So what happens to the dots?" asks.
"The dots?" asks, wondering what in the hell is seeing in drunken state, and how to get some for hirself.
"The diabetical people," says. "They just... get nothing?"
goes Eliza and
in response. Not that sees it, because eyeballs are drifting in different directions.
"They get nothing good, no," mutters.
"Poor little diabetes," commiserates. And sighs. And rolls off the bed with a heavy thump.
frowns, looks over to check—
—but reaches back up, grabs the empty wine bottle, and drags it down like a monster of the deep snatching its latest victim.
stares at the ceiling, face knotted in unhappy concentration, trying to think of what to do.
What can zie do?
Dots on the map.
The only source of light in the past-midnight living room, where is sitting cross-legged on a chair, trying to make sense of life and death.
In the other room, snores contentedly, hugging a pillow tight.
looks down at hir hands. The hands that made that map. The hands that worked for a purpose, for a goal, for that strange ideal that all life is sacred. The hands that dreamed of another way, made another way, and now...
...zie looks at the dots on the map. One red one. 98%.
If has way, that dot disappears in the morning. shows up, takes two lives without any semblance of reasonable warning. A dot goes away, and the apocalypse is staved off for a little while longer.
The status quo. Two days ago, that was all that could be expected.
"Poor little diabetes," whispers to hirself.
Zie taps the red dot, and its info pops up.
MARC AND NADIA KIESLING.
frowns at it.
Phone in hand, zie pulls up 's number.
Zie stares at it.
CHUG CHUG CHUG
goes the ignition, despite all the key-turning 's up to. The car won't start. It won't even pretend to start. It's a lazy quitter, is what it is.
Zie does hir best to project serenity despite the impending doom; zie gives Marc and Nadia a confident nod. "So to be totally honest, I have no idea what I'm doing."
Or, well, not-confidence.
"All I know for sure is that I'd rather you not die for something you didn't—"
"Wait a second," gasps Nadia. "Someone's trying to kill us?"
"I thought that would've been clear by now."
Now Marc is the one freaking out: "You have to get us out of here!"
"I'm working on it!" snaps, turning the key again in case the car has had a change of heart. "I mean what's going on with this car? I've never heard an actual engine make this sound outside of movies. Why won't it just—"
"Whoooo's that?" Nadia asks in a very dread-y sort of way.
looks up to see standing in front of the car. Why is *zie* here? Did zie think the same thing as , about the sanctity of life, and is trying to—
Wait, hir holster is empty.
"Duck!" shouts. "Duck now!"
CRACK CRACK CRACK! goes the windshield, bullets embedding in the seats as and the Kieslings cower. Marc covers Nadia with his body, while whacking at with his free arm, encouraging hir to hurry the hell up and get them out of here.
twists the key again, but CHUG CHUG CHUG the damn thing just won't start!
Only one thing to do: zie pops it in neutral, takes hir foot off the brake, and...
...the car slowly drifts forward.
can barely contain hir laugher. "You're killing me, . Just—"
WHACK! goes a 2x4, and hits the hood of the car, hard. Zie bounces a little, then slides onto the ground in a heap.
Crick goes the parking brake. carefully peers over the dash to see...
. Holding a 2x4. Looking stoic as ever.
gapes. "Plot twist, everyone."
Lock the door.
Close the blinds. Close the curtains. Open the wine.
chugs straight from the bottle, standing in the corner of hir apartment, eyes locked on , who is examining a lamp.
Marc and Nadia are terrified. As they should be.
finishes drinking, gasps for breath. "OK," zie says. "So. The big question."
"Who's ?" Marc asks, subtly pointing across the room.
"That's ," replies, and Marc and Nadia immediately cringe away from .
"?" Marc hisses.
"The ?" Nadia adds.
"Yes, and I totally get what you're saying," says, hugging the wine bottle. "But point of fact, ..." Zie pauses, thinks, can't come up with anything. Zie nods to : "You've gotta help me out here, dude. What's going on?"
returns to stick-ass posture. "Your algorithm," says. "It saves lives."
"Uh huh..." says, not following.
"I would like to save lives," elaborates. "It is why I joined the Union. It is my purpose. To save the lives of the innocent."
is wagging a finger, trying to put words to hir staggering distrust. "OK, I'm not arguing the contours of your sentiment, but just to be clear: you're the guy with the all-time kill record—"
"Yes," says .
"—on the continent." Zie tries to drain a little more wine from the bottle. "I want everyone here to take note that I think is involved in some long-game scheme to betray us, and we're all gonna end up dead before the week is out."
shakes head solemnly. "I am not here to kill you."
"Well of course you'd say that."
"But it is true. I am reformed."
"No no no," says . "This is all just going to be darkly ironic later on. Stop talking."
Marc raises a hand: "Can I ask a question?"
"Yes," says , pointing to him with the bottle. "Sober thought. Go."
"If your friends are hunting us because there's an 85% chance we'll give birth to the Anti-Christ—"
checks hir phone and smiles: "Actually, 67%! Go team!"
"—what if we get that number down to zero?" he asks. "Will they stop?"
answers first: "They would have to."
"Yeah," says . "Once you clear your score, you're technically an innocent—"
"—and we cannot allow innocents to come to harm." Oddly, even saying that, sounds threatening. should totally read bedtime stories to bad children. Goodnight, moon...
Nadia is slowly inching her way to the furthest point in the room from both and . "What do you mean, you can't—"
"It's Union Rule Number One," says . "Innocent lives above all else. We're supposed to let ourselves die if it'd save an innocent's life. Remember when
the car. Spill the coffee. Burn the thighs. "Jesus! !"
"We weren't actually there."
"You're being pedantic."
"That's not what that means."
"*Now* you're being pedantic."
Marc concedes the point.
continues: " had to stop the car because zie was gonna paste a kid, and if zie pasted that kid it would be the end for hir because—"
"Killing is wrong?" asks Nadia, oh so innocently.
"Wrong, feh," scoffs. "No, it's against the rules. Killing an innocent is an unforgivable sin, and anyone who does it is condemned to Hell for all eternity."
Marc shrugs. "Well, I mean, it's not like that's really a—"
cackles loudly. "I thought so, too, until
fires hir gun, point blank range, into the head of a young woman in a bathrobe, who crumples to the ground, smoothie exploding all over the hardwood floor.
"Sarah! NO!" shrieks another young woman from across the room, falling to her knees.
Regan is momentarily confused. "Sarah—?"
And then Agent Regan bursts into crackling purple flames that, interestingly, originate in hir spleen before burrowing out through hir obvious orifices, followed by hair follicles. Hir screams are horrible, sure, but thankfully it doesn't take long for hir to be reduced to molten ash and goo all over the floor.
"And that's why
you always make sure you have the right twin," says .
"H-how did..." Nadia says, trembling in horror. "How does..."
"All I can say is you should never make a blood oath to an ancient organization you don't fully understand. They take that shit very seriously. That's why we're all so careful who we kill. The only exceptions are Anti-Christ candidates, or, kinda recently, folks like you."
This puts a damper on the celebrations. Not that there are any celebrations going on, but even so, it dampens whatever levity was in the room previously.
continues hir train of thought: "If we can just prove to that it's possible to zero out a score, and thereby turning you two into innocents again, I think it would change mind."
The way zie says it does not sound especially confident, but given the circumstances, Nadia clings to the technical meaning of the words, instead of the delivery. "Then let's get started!" she squeaks, a little too cheerfully. "I am totally turned off Hawaiian pizza now. The thought of it makes me sick."
laughs. "Nope, sorry, won't cut it. You gotta make a change for the better."
"I... I don't..."
"You don't end up raising the Anti-Christ by doing the obvious stuff," says. "It's the hidden hurts that get you. The things you don't want to admit, but carry with you anyway. You've gotta flush those suckers out. Even if you hate doing it. Especially if you hate doing it."
Nadia still looks lost, so tries another approach: "There's a thing in your life that's like... it's like a splinter in your finger, right? Not a huge one, but big enough to just be argh all the time. You can go hours without thinking about it, but then you pick something up the wrong way, and it's just..."
Nadia knows just the thing. And she wishes she didn't. She
stretches in bed,
tucked around her pillow, half-wrapped in covers, after a long night's sleep. The sun is soft and warm, there's pleasant music in the background — just the perfect volume — and the smell of fresh food in the air. Pure heaven. Pure, gorgeous heaven.
"Hello, sleepyhead," says Marc from the door, still in pyjamas and carrying a tray. Breakfast in bed! Even more heavenly!
Nadia sits up, unable to hide her smile even a bit. "What's all this?"
"A special treat for my special lady," says Marc.
"Aw, you're so sweet!" she says, and accepts a kiss. A long, happy kiss. She laughs, settles the covers on her lap to accept the tray, but he doesn't oblige. He's distracted by the sight of her.
"You look beautiful this morning," he says.
"So do you," she says with a grin.
"Why thank you," Marc replies with a curtsy. "And now for the big question. The biggest question... what do you want on your toast?"
She gives him a coy smile. "Surprise me."
"Well then," Marc says, setting the tray down and skipping out of the room with a little more glee than is legal in most parts of the world. "I will!"
Nadia laughs, picks up the coffee and takes a sip. So perfect. So calm. So heavenly.
She looks down at the plate, plotting her devouring routine: eggs, bacon, immaculately-sculpted fruit, and toast with no crust.
Her eye twitches.
With no crust.
"But you don't
like crust on your toast!" Marc says, rather emphatically, as everyone stares at him like they just found out he's a war criminal.
"No, you don't like crust on your toast," Nadia says. "I was indifferent at the beginning, but now it's just—"
raises a finger: "You're seriously talking about crust right now. On toast. Crusty toast is your greatest happiness?"
"I can't even begin to—" says, then notices hir phone: "Holy shit, you dropped 5%. I clearly do not understand human psychology. What other asinine topics bother you?"
Nadia tries brainstorming, but instead of determination and focus, she looks like she's being swarmed by invisible bees that are shouting math questions at her in German.
"I don't... I can't..."
tries to calm things down: "Shh, deep breaths. It's not about quantity, it about quality. The answer will come to you."
Nadia looks downright terrified: "But what if it doesn't?"
"It will, I promise," says, with more empathy than zie thought had in hir. "It's just a lot to process right now. I mean really, think about it: when you woke up this morning, you had no idea you were pregnant, let alone with the Anti-Christ. Suddenly, you're going to be a mother, and your baby is evil incarnate. That's a bombshell of a day."
Nadia's face changes from being overwhelmed to being hurt. A part of her's been poked that did not need to be poked; she looks ready to cry. She dashes into the bedroom and slams the door.
in the door to the bedroom, finds Nadia sitting in the corner, curled into a ball like a timid statue. She tries to turn her head away, to be alone, but she's already wedged in pretty tight. Nowhere to hide.
sits in front of her, watching quietly. Zie's not sure what to say.
"We..." Nadia begins, voice cracking. "It's not..." Sniffle. She very deliberately looks down, to avoid entirely. "I had a miscarriage. Last time. It was just on the border of... and I... they couldn't..."
rests a hand on Nadia's shoulder, squeezes gently. It's all zie can think to do.
"There were complications," Nadia says, voice a whisper. "And it took me so long to feel right again. So, so long." She looks up, daring to make eye contact. "They told us I couldn't... that we wouldn't be able to... that..."
nods, tears in hir eyes.
Nadia sniffles again, wipes at her eyes. "Do you have kids?" she asks.
"No," says . "Not really compatible with my job, and ... well, fitness instructors, right?" Zie shrugs, half-heartedly. "But we're OK with it. It's a choice and we're OK with it."
"I wish I could be OK with it," says Nadia, distant again. "I worked so hard to push that part of me away. To lock it up and forget it existed." She laughs, bitterly. "And I was just starting to forget, too, when... well, I mean seriously. I'm not just pregnant. It's not a theory. We *know the result. I'm actually *having a baby."
nods. "Feels like a cruel trick."
"It does. It really does."
"Yeah. I get that. And I don't have an answer to make it better." Zie plops hirself down next to Nadia, wraps hir arm around her. "When I started at the Union, they had this speech about knowing your place. Accepting your fate. Born an agent, die an agent. Follow the rules, do the deeds, accept the rewards, repeat. My life had a purpose, top to bottom."
Zie sighs, shakes hir head. "But then I started to realize... that's not good enough. I need a greater purpose than that. I want to do more."
Nadia rests her head on 's shoulder. "To learn who you are."
"Exactly," says . "And it's not easy. Not by a long shot. But we've gotta keep trying, right? And I mean really, at least you've got an app telling you how you're doing in life. There ain't no algorithm for my shit."
Nadia laughs, sniffles, wipes her eyes. It looks like she might be coming through the other side. Like she might be ready to live again.
"I think I know what else is wrong," she says.
Bills on the table.
Bills on the chairs. Bills on the floor. Stacked and unstacked, ordered and random, it's a mess of Marc's creation, and he's been at it for hours without making a dent. He gnaws at a pencil as he tries to put order to the chaos.
"Come to bed?" asks Nadia, at the doorway, half-asleep herself.
"Yeah, I'll just..." he says, scanning another paper and trying to wrap his mind around the numbers he sees. Final notice. Late, late, late. Interest and—
"Marc?" she asks, and he half-looks up.
"I'm just..." he says, distant.
She can see him disintegrating. She stands next to him, rubs his back to calm him.
"We can cut back," she says.
"We are cut back," he sighs. "I don't... I keep trying to find a way to make the numbers work, but they just *won't*..."
She kneels down, rests her head on his, tries to send calming vibes into his body through sheer force of will. "I can go back to work," she says.
"No," is the reply, almost automatic. "No, baby, that's not... I told you to take all the time you need, and I mean it. I can handle this. I just..." His voice cracks, tears welling to the surface against orders. "It's just so much sometimes."
She kisses his cheek, cradles him. "I can find a job. I can help."
He's shaking his head, but she won't let go. "I don't want you to do that because of this, though," he says. "I want you to do it because you *want* to do it."
Nadia wipes tears
from her eyes as the whole room looks on.
"I want to do it," she tells Marc. "Not for you. For me. I *want* to do it."
Marc steps toward her, takes her hands in his. For this brief moment, it's like and aren't even there. "I didn't... Nadia, I'm so sorry. I thought—"
"I can't stay crushed by that night forever, Marc. I can't leave it all to you. I need to fight my own battles. Fight our battles, with you."
They embrace, and it's beautiful. A deeper truth, a stronger bond, and two people learning how to love each other despite all the misery the world has to—
"You are out of pickles," says , standing by the open fridge with an empty bottle in hand.
glares at . "God, you're awful."
"The jar is in the refrigerator, but there are no—"
isn't sure what to do anymore. Vis a vis the pickles, that is. So continues to stand there, uselessly.
, meanwhile, has noticed hir phone, and hir face explodes into a smile: "Guys, that did it! That was perfect! You're at 50%! 50%!"
Nadia's confused: "But... I don't know what else I can do. How are we going to get to zero if—"
"That's up to Marc," says .
"Dude, are you putting sole responsibility for producing the Anti-Christ on your *wife?* That's just—"
"OK, OK, I'm sorry," pleads Marc. "I'm ready. Let's do it. How do we start?"
faces him, gives him the most determined face zie can muster. After Nadia's confession, zie's not sure zie can handle any more emotional trauma... but here zie goes, anyway.
"Dig deep," zie says. "Think hard. How can you make yourself happy? Even if it hurts, even if it hurts others, what would it take?"
Marc has an answer so fast, it's clear he's done his homework. But he looks torn. Tortured. Unwilling, but unable to say no. He knows exactly what would make him happy, and it's
Nadia kissing his
neck, chasing his mouth, hands peeling off his shirt as he fumbles with her jeans, pressing her against the wall and not even caring that the curtains are open and half the world can see them.
"I love you," he whispers into her ear, then bites the lobe.
"I love you too," she gasps, fingers clutching him tighter.
He pauses, voice so quiet it's almost just a breath: "Can we?"
Nadia pauses, too, bites her lip. "Now?"
"I can get the—"
"But I haven't—"
"I just really want to—"
Nadia pulls back just enough to show Marc that she really isn't keen on what he's proposing, but the sad puppy-dog eyes he's giving her are making it hard to—
KNOCK KNOCK KNOCK at the door, breaking the spell or whatever you'd call a situation like that. Softcore hostage-taking?
Marc is annoyed at the knocking. Nadia is relieved.
He answers it alone, which is probably for the best, because standing outside is a guy named Ludovic, who can best be described as an oil slick in a suit. As if that weren't enough, he's cleaning his teeth with a toothpick. And he doesn't stop on account of, you know, society.
Marc finishes pulling his shirt on, jaw tensing.
"You owe me a lot of money, Marc," says Ludovic. "Don't think I forget this."
asks Nadia, not unreasonably.
"Well now," says .
Marc steps closer,
afraid Nadia will hear. He half-closes the door to muffle the sound. Ludovic doesn't care. He just keeps cleanin'.
"I understand," Marc whispers urgently. "I won't let you down. I promise."
Ludovic shrugs. "Promises are like candy. They feel good, they maybe make you fat. And if you have too many, they kill you."
Ludovic holds out a laptop bag for Marc. It looks stuffed. Heavy and stuffed.
"No more promises," says Ludovic. "Results."
onto the couch, in shock. "Oh God, oh God, oh God..."
is trying to find the silver lining, looking back and forth between Nadia and a clearly PTSD'd Marc. "I mean, slow down, maybe it's not as bad as—
In the bag. Heroin in the bag. Lots and lots of heroin.
you officially suck, Marc," says . "Thanks a lot. Couldn't just stick to the kinky bedroom stuff, could ya?"
Nadia can't even find the words to express her betrayal. She looks up him like he's a monster. "You're a drug dealer?"
"No, babe, he just..." Marc is pleading a case he doesn't think he can win. "I just have to find buyers and—"
"That's a drug dealer, Marc," says . "That's literally the definition of a drug dealer."
"I don't believe this..." Nadia says, distant again.
"Yeah, I'm starting to regret helping you guys. Half of you, anyway."
"It gets worse," says Marc.
"*How* could it get worse?" shouts.
Marc squeezes his hands together in regret and guilt. "The heroin... I had to leave it. It's in the closet, in our apartment. But if I don't sell it, he's going to kill me."
joins Nadia on the couch. The two of them look like they regret waking up this morning. also has a tinge of regretting the full bottle of wine zie chugged.
"What are we going to do?" asks Nadia. "The only way to lower Marc's half of the score is to... sell a bag full of heroin?"
just doesn't know.
offers this happy contribution: "And while we are on the subject of obstacles, do not forget about
who is in a bad mood hirself. Some might say a legendarily bad mood, and those fools would be lucky zie is bound not to kill innocents, because zie is in such a bad mood, zie would remove their spines through the nostrils, and then beat their floppy corpses to a pulp out of sheer spite.
"I'll kill them," zie growls.
"And you did not see who struck you?" asks , from a safe distance across the room.
"No, your grace," says . "It happened too fast."
straightens jacket, speaks over shoulder to the Elders: "Agent 's excommunication is now permanent. Further, zie is henceforth to be treated as an enemy of the Union. Captured if possible, killed if necessary."
The Elders behind murmur amongst themselves. This is scandalous, really. Even worse than the time Agent Gottfried wore his outdoor shoes in the Sanctum.
turns furious gaze back to . "And you, Agent . I need special assurances from you. Zie was your partner for many years, and I—"
"Won't be a problem," says .
"But if circumstances arise that—"
"Your grace, the next time I see , extraordinary circumstances or not, I'm killing hir. You can count on it."
can't help but smile. It's a horrifying sight.
"Excellent, Agent. Excellent." begins to laugh, and the laugh takes on a maniacal quality that gets louder and more crazed the longer it goes, and soon everyone is—
" would not
laugh like that," says .
"Get your own story," snaps .
Nadia puts a hand on 's knee. " wouldn't really hurt you, would zie? Zie's your partner..."
shudders at a memory.
No more fries.
There are no more fries in the paper bag. leans over from the driver's seat to be absolutely sure, and yup, the bag is empty.
Zie looks up, sees leisurely nibbling the last fry.
freezes. What's wrong?
WHACK goes 's head, into the dashboard. WHACK WHACK—
"You told me
you walked into a bar," says , and the whole room turns to figure out who this intruder is. But ignores them all... only has eyes for . Not happy eyes, though. Hurt eyes.
"You even made a joke about it," says, setting down gym bag. "A rabbi, a priest and a medical researcher walk into a bar and the bartender says—"
"Babe, listen, I—"
"I can't believe you lied to me..."
Oh, you have no idea how deep that hole goes, .
Nadia stands, suddenly, with her hand out, trying to be a good guest despite her red eyes and wavering voice. "Hi," she says. "I'm Nadia."
shakes the hand absentmindedly.
Silence. For a little too long.
Nadia tries to fill the void with: "And this is my husband, Marc." Marc waves to , awkward as a secret drug dealer that nobody likes anymore. "And over there is... uh... ."
"Your cream cheese is expired," says .
as closes the bedroom door behind them. doesn't face , though. 's not ready for that yet. Right now, Mr Door is the only person trusts in the world, and he's not even a damn person.
"..." says, trying to assemble the right words. "Who are all those people?"
Here is the moment that has been dreading, even if only in the back of hir mind. For years, zie's gone out and zie's done things that have been unethical (to say the least) by normal standards, and carried on as if zie's a medical researcher for a nonprofit... and never faced any real scrutiny.
The truth is waiting on the doorstep, trying to get in, and zie doesn't know how to introduce it.
"You remember how you were upset," zie ventures, "about how all those dots were in the dark? That they didn't know the truth?"
frowns, looks over her shoulder. "Yes?"
"Well Nadia and Marc... they're a dot. They're subjects. My algorithm, it found them..."
gasps. "Their baby has diabetes?"
has a smile that doubles as a textbook example of suppressed guilt. "Not only that, they didn't even know they were pregnant!"
shrieks, bounds at and gives hir a giant hug that almost sends the two of them toppling over. "That's great!" laughs. "I mean, obviously aside from the diabetes. That part isn't so hot."
"Yeah, no, definitely a downer."
lets go, mind racing through everything 's seen and heard, and—
"Wait, why are they here? And who is ?"
is trying to think of how to broach this particular bombshell.
hand like it will cure cancer, and 'll get a prize for being a part of it. "Dr ," says, wildly breathless, "it's a real honour! I can't thank you enough!"
stares at , oozing discomfort. "What is happening?"
leads through the lie: "I was just explaining to how you agreed to support my research as part of your international endowment fund," zie says, very precisely so won't get lost. "Because you understand what this algorithm means for kids around the world..."
looks from to . Ahhh... gets it.
doesn't get it.
"So anyway!" says , before anyone can really think about what said. "The big issue right now is how we get Marc in the clear."
Nadia looks preoccupied. "Actually, I was thinking the bigger issue is that probably knows where you live, right?"
looks around the apartment.
looks around the hotel room.
Not as big or fancy or even liveable as the apartment, but everyone can fit (albeit somewhat cramped-like) and there's even a mini-fridge for to scour.
clears hir throat: "So the big issue right *now* is how we get Marc in the clear. And whatever it is, it better be cheap, because I used all my cash getting us this room, and I can't use my credit cards."
"We could put it on our credit card," offers Nadia. "It's the least we could do."
scowls from the fridge: "That is a terrible idea. was wise to not use cards. will be tracking them carefully."
"Zie can do that?" asks Marc.
pops open a can of chips. "By now, zie knows you better than your own wife."
"Not saying much," says .
"Can I ask a question?" asks . "Who is this you all keep talking about?"
There's a long, long silence. 's mouth opens, closes. Opens, closes. Zie's trying to think of a way to answer this that won't come back to bite hir later, but nothing seems appropriate. Maybe—
"Zie was 's partner," says , inspecting a tiny bottle of vodka. "For six and a half years." looks in the eye to deliver this next bit, for some reason: "Zie has extremely dextrous hands."
's eyes are so wide, they're in danger of swallowing forehead. turns to in shock. "Your... partner?* I thought *Todd was your partner. What happened to Todd?"
"There is no Todd..." says .
"OK, this looks bad," says .
"Why would you lie about something like that? I don't..."
"Because I knew you'd be upset I was spending late nights alone with an attractive person."
Well shit, .
make good ice packs on slapped cheeks.
is drinking a soda of own. has never looked happier. Aside from that one time with the lawnmower in the bathtub, but let's not get into that right now. Which is exactly what the woman said before pulled out the lawnmower. You know what? Never mind.
"You know a disproportionate number of violent people," says .
"I noticed," sighs .
"Should you go after ?" asks Nadia.
shakes hir head, takes the can from hir cheek to accept whatever bruising zie gets, because zie deserves it. "No, no sense going after without wine." Zie plunks the can on the nightstand. "Besides, we can use the time alone to figure out what the hell we're going to do."
raises a hand.
sighs, nods to . "Fine. Make it quick."
"I have a plan," says.
"Yes, I figured. Speak."
"It is unconventional."
"Not surprised. Go."
stands a little straighter, clears throat. "We kill Marc and Nadia."
Marc and Nadia stare like they're not sure if what they heard was a joke or not, and in either case, don't want to make any sudden moves in case it creates upset and/or violent demise.
, though, is furious. "What kind of dumbass plan is that?" zie yells.
"Your goal is noble, but the players—" motions to Marc and Nadia. "—leave much to be desired. Perhaps we will have better luck next time."
"Or, as a compromise, we kill Marc, as he is the primary contributor to the score."
"Maybe 's right," says Marc, staring at his hands like the guilty little halfwit he is. "Maybe this would all be easier if I were just dead. Take me out of the equation and—"
"No no no, it doesn't work like that," says . "You don't need to be alive to have a negative effect on your kid's life. I mean, for all we know, you dying will make things *worse*."
chews noisily. "Or," says, "it could make things better."
"But we wouldn't know for sure until he's actually dead, so that's—"
"The start of a plan."
"No, you idiot! It's not a plan at all! Stop talking! Bad monster! Jesus!"
goes back to chips, unperturbed.
, avoiding Marc entirely, looks to Nadia and says: "I didn't do all this just for you to lose your husband, moron though he may be. We're going to find another way to get his number down."
"Let's look at it rationally. Piece by piece. The answer's in there somewhere."
hir gun, whistling a tune, as saunters in, musing. Zie can muse freely because this is an imaginary world where can't see or touch hir.
"Problem one," says . ". Zie's not gonna stop gunning for you guys."
"No I won't," says .
"Shh, imaginary," says .
Marc leans in, anxious. "Can we fight back? Kill hir before zie kills us?"
laughs at this.
"Shh," warns; then, to Marc: "But zie's right. There's no way. Zie's too good an agent."
"What about ?" asks Nadia, leaning in from the other side. " could do it, right?"
says , eating chips and refusing to partake in imaginary worlds. "I cannot kill a fellow agent, even for you."
"But what if—" says Marc.
"No, 's right," says . "Rule Number Two says we can't hurt each other, either. Same general punishment, but with green flames."
Nadia isn't giving up yet. "So the only way to stop is to clear Marc's score."
"Right," says . "So..."
Open the door
to find Ludovic there, still munching on his toothpick. Imaginarily. faces him, frowning at the situation.
"The only way to zero Marc out is to take care of Ludovic."
Marc leans in: "Can we kill him?"
sighs. "No, Marc. We've been over this. Agents can't kill innocents."
"He's innocent? He's a drug dealer!"
"Yeah, but unless he's Satan's drug dealer, he's still an innocent. Capable of redemption. No agent can touch him."
"But what about you? You're not an agent anymore. You can do whatever you want!"
"Can I?" she asks. "You're suddenly a leading expert on Union rules and regulations?"
"Because if you're wrong, Marc, I'm going to burst into flames and die. And then be condemned to Hell for all eternity. So you'd better be super-certain."
Nadia leans in: "What if *we* kill Ludovic?" she asks.
Ludovic chuckles to himself.
and Marc both give Nadia a very unhappy look.
"You know what would really help your number?" asks . "Murder. Surefire way to not* raise the Anti-Christ. Why doesn't everyone do it? *Oh that's right, it's murder!"
storms off, leaving Nadia and Marc to think about what they've done.
This bank teller
has the perkiest smile of all time. There's a good chance she's actually a robot. is put off by her, but approaches the counter all the same, dragging Marc behind hir. Imaginarily, of course.
"Easiest option. Pay him back. Pay what you owe."
Zie motions for Marc to give the teller his bank card, and he does, reluctantly. The teller starts tapping at her computer like she is a four-year-old learning to play piano purely so she has an excuse to make loud noises.
Marc looks wildly uncomfortable. "OK, but we don't have enough to—"
"Listen," says , "I know this isn't fun, but it's gotta be done. Better a little financial hardship *now* than a bullet in the brain, right?"
The teller's smile changes to a scowl of abject horror. She stares at Marc, eyes so big it's like she's part owl, and takes these strange, jittery breaths as she backs away.
"We don't have any money," he says. "Nothing. At all."
"Not even savings?" asks . "Property? Assets? Investments? Something?"
Marc is about to say no again when Nadia leans in: "What about our nest egg? You said—"
Marc shakes his head
solemnly, sitting on the bed in the hotel, staring at his palms. "It's gone. It's all gone. I'm so sorry. I thought I could make it work, but I—"
Nadia is stunned into silence.
, though, has questions. Many questions: "What exactly is your thing, Marc? How do you *know* Ludovic anyway? Do you use? Or is it gambling or something? Because if this is all just the tip of the iceberg, I don't know—"
"It's not that," he says, head in his hands. "It's just life, you know? After Nadia's... after that night, I kinda lost control of things. Not for long, but long enough to..." He sighs. "Little things built up and built up and then suddenly I was so deep underwater, I had no idea how to get out without his help, and—"
Nadia is still stunned. "But we're having a baby..." she whispers.
Marc has nothing he can say to that.
doesn't have that kind of luxury.
Heroin in a bag
in Marc's arms, in his living room, weighing him down. He looks ready to break. Imaginarily, but also really.
enters, deep in thought. "So we're back to the drugs," zie says. "I don't see any way around it. They're central to all this."
Marc nods, says nothing.
"Do you think you can sell them?" zie asks.
to the gut, and a pair of punks run off with Marc's drugs.
to the face, and a wild-eyed man in a nice suit fishes a baggie of heroin out of Marc's pocket.
to the wrists, and Marc is tossed into a police car, looking tired, ragged and done.
out hir cheeks, steals a chip from . "So that's a no."
Marc stands up suddenly, looking determined and also quite a bit scared of what he's about to say: "I'll go talk to him. Ludovic. And—"
shakes hir head: "No, you can't. Not gonna work."
holds up phone. 50%. Still in the red. "You are marked for death," says. "If an Agent finds you, you will not survive."
"So what are we going to do?" whimpers Nadia. "We don't have the money, we don't have the drugs... what are we going to do?"
has an answer. Zie's just not happy about it.
Like a sea of ketchup, with a few fry-bergs floating around. Oh, also, a mangled sandwich filled with a kind of meat that may not actually be meat, topped with onions. Dab dab dab goes the fry in the ketchup, and into Ludovic's mouth.
tries not to vomit.
The diner is busy, but not too busy. Just enough people around to prevent a scene. Or to act as witnesses. And not so many witnesses they couldn't be bought off before trial.
tries not to vomit.
"And who are you again?" asks Ludovic, munching with his mouth open.
"A friend of Marc's," says, aiming to project confidence and swagger, but landing somewhere in the vicinity of constipated.
"Marc who? I know many Marcs."
"Marc Kiesling," says , and Ludovic's eyes narrow.
"Marc who owes me money," he says, and it's very clearly a threat disguised as a statement. "Does Marc have my money?"
folds hir hands on the table, squares hir shoulders. "No, Marc does not have your money."
"That was good product. He should have no trouble sell—"
"He's not selling it for you."
Ludovic sets his hands down on either side of his plate. His knuckles are big, tough, calloused. He has on a watch that looks like it costs more than the GDP of eastern Europe. He has on a scowl that looks like it's murdered most of eastern Europe in their sleep.
"So who are you, again?" he says, this time with feeling.
"A friend of Marc's," says, trying to mimic the oaf's tone, without success. "I'm here to set things straight."
Ludovic cracks his knuckles without even moving his hands. "Is that so?"
"Yes, that is so."
"And how do you think you will do that?"
narrows hir eyes, nods slightly. "By arranging a payment plan."
"That sounds like
a bad idea," says Nadia, in the hotel room, before all the ketchup.
"Yeah," says Marc. "I think he might hurt you if you—"
"Shh, no, listen," says . "Everyone likes payment plans. Creates a sense of predictability. I mean, given the circumstances, what's the alternative?"
"You die. I kill you all. All of you. Payment plan... feh! No, I kill you all."
leans forward, eyes even narrower. "I was afraid you'd say that. Option B it is."
Ludovic freezes at the sensation of something under the table, brushing his knee, and then the sound of the safety being clicked off a gun. His face settles into a serene kind of murderous.
"You come prepared," he says.
"You should have taken the payment plan," says , grinning. "Now I have no choice but to shoot you in the gut and let you die a slow, horrible death."
Rule Number One?" asks Nadia.
leans back on the hotel bed, shrugs. "I can't really kill him. But he doesn't know that, so as far as he's concerned, I'm
gonna splatter your
guts all over this place 'til it looks like a messier version of your plate, with all that ketchup, and you know what? no, your plate'd still be messier. That's just gross, man."
Ludovic inhales deeply. There's a knife near his left hand, but it's not a very sharp one. Then again, does he really need a sharp knife?
"So we have... issue," he says, calmly. "I die, you die, everyone die."
"I love that song," says, not wavering a bit. "Preschool fatalism at its best."
"What is your offer?" says Ludovic, finger tracing the edge of the knife like he's not thinking what he's thinking.
"A clean slate."
"No," he says. "He owes too much. Sell the product—"
"He won't sell the product. He can't* sell the product. Have you *met him? I don't know what you thought was going to happen, giving him a bag like that. You are a very poor judge of character, sir."
"Is very simple," says Ludovic, leaning back in his seat. "Sell the product, the debt is cleared. Don't sell the product, he owes me for heroin plus the eighty grand he borrowed, plus interest."
nearly swallows hir tongue. "Eighty thousand dollars?" zie wheezes.
"He did not tell you."
"No, no, of course he told me. We just always refer to it as eight million cents, not eighty thousand dollars. Felt, uh, smaller, the way you said it."
straight into Marc's soul: "Not small, Marc. Not small at all."
at as zie stands, slips the gun into hir pocket like nothing's nothing, and plots hir escape from certain death. And ketchup. With the emphasis on the ketchup. Ludovic pops another fry into his mouth.
"This was nice chat," he says. "Very amusing. We must do it again, no?" Chomp. Chew. Grin. "And do not think of running. After today, Marc is not someone I will forget easily."
"Don't worry," says . "We're not gonna
as far away as possible, and don't look back."
Nadia is crestfallen. "But you said—"
"I know what I said, but let's be real here, OK? The only way to get Marc's number zeroed out is to get a bag full of heroin — which can't get — and pay back eighty thousand dollars... which you also don't have. Which leaves us with — that's right! — running."
Nadia isn't having it. "But... even if we run, won't I still end up giving birth to the Anti-Christ?"
Silence. stares at hir feet.
"I appreciate what you're trying to do, , I really do," says Nadia. "But none of this matters if our baby is going to grow up to destroy the world."
"Enslave the world," says . "The destruction comes later."
Nadia takes Marc's hand in hers. "We can't run away from ourselves. We've got to fix this."
blows out hir cheeks, plops down on the bed. "Then we need that heroin."
The darling couple stand in unison, ready for action. "OK, we'll—"
"No no no," sighs . "Not you. You're still marked for death, and they'll be watching your apartment carefully in case you go back." Zie has another thought, also not-good: "They'll be watching for me, too, probably. And ... who knows what they know by now. Can't risk it."
Zie looks toward the door. "No, there's only one person who can do it..."
make good resting places, which is why is pressing forehead there with eyes closed. And/or 's given up on life.
spots , after a lot of searching around the hotel, and approaches with appropriate levels of sombre.
"Wait, you can't—"
"I know it sounds crazy—"
"How about cruel and heartless?"
shakes hir head. "If we want the bag back, we need to send someone the Union can't touch. An innocent. And right now, the only one we've got is
sniffles, bumps head against the glass. "It ate my quarter."
observes the machine. The snacks in the machine.
"It..." zie says gently, "it needs more than one quarter, you know. Nothing costs a quarter. It's not 1974."
Sniffle. "I wanted a Crispy Crunch."
"That's a good choice. Still costs more than a quarter."
slumps. "I don't have any more coins."
rubs 's back, tucks in closer. Softly. Compassionately. Like they used to be, before all the diabetes.
"Do you want to borrow mine?" zie asks.
turns, hurt and crying. "Do you say that to all the beaus?"
"What would that even mean?"
"I don't know, I'm not a liar like you! I don't go around on trips with attractive people..."
puts a hand on 's shoulder. " and I are not a—"
pulls away. "I thought I meant something to you."
"You do, babe," says . "You really do. I mean, I wouldn't be here if it weren't for you. And sure, that means I'm on the outs with some very powerful people and am hiding with relative strangers in a cheap hotel room with two single beds because I ran out of cash and—"
"Do you love me?"
The sincerity of it stuns into silence.
"More than anything," zie says, barely holding it together. "You're the only thing that makes sense anymore, ."
They hug, and it feels to like the day might just turn out fine. So long as zie stays here like this forever. Which probably not practical. Dammit.
But at least 's tears seem happier. breathes in relief.
"So," says, just as things are feeling good again. "I need to ask you something."
still work, but manages to shove it out of the way with a lot of effort. It helps that has the keys to the apartment. Breaking in is a lot easier with keys.
steps inside, looks around. Minimalist place, and dead quiet. If someone's ransacked the place, they were tidy about it. pockets the keys and continues on.
peeks in the bedroom: bed is a mess, like someone was rushed into the day unexpectedly. Clothes strewn all around the dresser.
No one there.
peeks in the bathroom: faucet dripping, sink stained. knows a great way to clean that right up, but now is not the time.
No one there.
peeks in the kitchen: a cupboard is open. Pasta inside, and not much else. The kitchen of a couple who are low on funds, and just skating by on good luck and ingenuity.
Again, no one there.
opens the closet, looks up.
Standing on toes, reaches into the top shelf, into a mess of hats and tennis gear and bags and kites and other nonsense. A shoe box falls on , but keeps feeling around. Keeps feeling around until—
—aha! works at it, struggles with it, and finally...
... pulls out the laptop bag. Looks like it's full of stuffed animals, but heavy like it's full of something else entirely.
pushes the shoe box back inside with foot, slings the bag over shoulder and, relieved, closes the closet d—
"Hello," says , eyes narrow.
barely catches breath: "Jesus, you scared me."
smiles creepily. "Sorry about that. I just heard the commotion, and had to see what was going on."
looks around the dead-silent room. "Commotion?
's smile doesn't waver. "Thin walls."
"OK," says , adjusting the strap to the bag. "Well, I've got to get going..."
blocks way with a hand on the wall. Hir head pivots ever so slightly. "I haven't seen you around before," zie says. "Are you friends of Nadia and Marc?"
tries not to look as scared as is. "Yes, we, uh, went to school together."
"Long time," says .
"Feels like yesterday."
"What's your name?"
tries to look natural as says: "...Sandy?"
"Is that a question?"
"I'm just... sorry, who are you again? I didn't catch your name."
Hir eyes, they are a-watching as zie says: "."
is stuck on that, for obvious reasons. "*?*"
"Why? Something wrong?"
"No, I... I just like the name."
's knuckles all crack. "What was in the closet?"
nods to the closet door. "Why were you in there?"
"Looking for something."
"Looking for what?"
scratches the back of her neck, wincing: "An umbrella. They let me borrow one when I need it." looks the complete opposite of innocent.
"It's not raining," observes .
"I like to cover all my bases."
grins. "Me too."
There's a long silence. Too long. Agonizingly long. Neither of them moves, and neither of them really breathes much, either.
"Well," says , finally breaking the tension. "I'd better get going. Gonna miss my bus."
moves hir arm away. Smiles. Stands aside.
passes, cautiously, heading for the door.
"Sandy!" calls , and freezes. turns, nervous. is grinning. "No umbrella?"
Exhale. OK. Exhale. shrugs. "Didn't see one," says. "They must be using ‘em."
slips past the couch and out the door like her life depends on it, leaving all alone.
Zie observes the closet. Opens it. Peers inside.
There are four umbrellas in there.
The laptop closes
and does some quick mental math before turning to Nadia and Marc, who are having some serious heart-to-heart discussions that frankly should have been had months or even years ago.
clears hir throat: "So I think I have something," zie says.
Nadia looks downright relieved. "A loophole?"
"Not exactly. A job. For Marc."
"A... a job?" he asks, and is starting to think Marc's allergic to actually earning money.
"There was an opening at this printing company downtown. Account manager. Their old one left suddenly, and they're short-staffed."
"What happened?" asks Nadia.
" happened. It was Eliza Winters, my first dot. She's dead, they need help, so I fudged a CV for you, Marc, and got you an interview."
"B-but I don't know anything about being an account—"
"You're gonna have to bullshit your way through it," says . "But based on recent experience, I doubt that'll be a problem for you."
Nadia still isn't following, though: "But how does that help? They're not going to pay him $80,000 on his first day..."
"No, you'll have to pay it back bit by bit."
finishes new soda, and raises a finger. "But Ludovic refused to accept the payment plan."
"Not Ludovic," says . "Me. You'll pay me back."
Now everybody is confused, so continues:
"I don't have enough cash to keep this hotel room another night, so whatever we're going to do, we have to do it today*. That means clearing your debt to Ludovic *today. And the only way that's going to happen is if..." Zie sighs. "I took out a loan."
"You *what?*" sputters Nadia.
"It's got a crap interest rate and since I've just lost my job, I probably can't afford it, but it's enough to get you guys in the clear. We'll figure out a payment plan later, but for now—"
"..." says , from the door. Nobody heard come in. Now, everyone can hear leaving.
"Shit," says , and chases out the door without wine.
are the social hubs of the future. Or at least that's what seems to think.
"Listen," says , finally catching up to . "I know this is hard to understand, but—"
smacks the glass, shakes the machine. 's never violent. This is kinda scary. "Where did you get the money?"
"It's one of those instant loan things that—"
"*How did you get the money, ?*"
can't make eye contact anymore. Not that wanted to, anyway.
"The condo. I—"
Now wants eye contact. wants to make sure this next part is very clear: "Don't you think maybe you should have asked me first? Just a heads-up, maybe?"
"There isn't a lot of time, babe, and—"
"Why isn't there a lot of time, ? Who are* these people? All *I know is that their kid has diabetes, and for some reason that means we have to hide out in a hotel and collect—"
holds up the laptop bag for to see, shakes it angrily. "Do you know what's in this bag? Do you?"
"Drugs!" This next part, whispers, but so loudly it barely matters: "Kilos of heroin, . I went and got it because I trusted you, but this is just... it's..."
"You didn't *what?* Know about it? Want me to know about it? What?"
"I didn't know what else to do..."
slides down, sitting against the snack machine. Wraps hir arms around hir head. Unlike the previous meltdowns we've seen, nobody tries to comfort hir.
"I'm just trying to keep my head above water," zie says, and sounds very much like zie's drowning. "Every step I take makes things worse, somehow. God, I actually understand Marc now. We keep trying to solve problems, but we only dig up new ones. Like a hydra of suckage."
Zie looks up at , desperate for forgiveness.
"I'm sorry, ," zie says. "I'm trying to do the right thing."
"I know," says , handing hir the bag. "But for *whom?*"
Marc and Nadia
are in the elevator, pressing buttons, as comes around the corner. It takes hir a second to register what zie's seeing, before bolting down the hallway and slamming hir arm between the doors before they close.
"Whoa, wait!" zie gasps. "Where do you think you're going?"
Nadia glances at the buttons, looks guilty. "We can't do this," she says.
"Do what? Stay alive? Because if you—"
"We talked about it," says Marc. "And we can't let you pay Ludovic for us. We appreciate what you're trying to do, , but it's—"
"It's our battle to fight," says Nadia. "Not yours."
slaps the "stop" button on the elevator, and gives them as stern a look as zie can, given all the shit zie's been through: "Listen, this is way bigger than you can solve on your own. I know my paying your debts isn't ideal, but—"
"We'll find another way," says Nadia.
"What other way? Because you do* realize that there are *at least two different parties that want you dead right now, right?"
Marc nods, turns off the "stop" button, solemn and serious. "You showed us what's at stake," he says. "Now *we've* got to figure out what to do about it."
"But..." says .
"We're just going to the roof," says Nadia. "To talk it over." She gives a weak smile. "Don't worry, we'll be safe."
Marc makes it clear he wants to let the doors close. really doesn't want to obey, but they're so sincere, zie just can't bear to argue anymore, so zie steps back.
The doors close.
And doesn't know what to do.
goes hir phone. BZZZZ BZZZZ BZZZZ.
sits up on the bed, looks at the screen like zie can't decide how much zie doesn't want to answer. But zie does want to answer. Zie just wishes zie didn't.
"Hey," zie says, closing hir eyes.
A sigh, then says: "Bouncing the signal?"
"How long've I got?"
shrugs. "Ninety seconds, give or take."
uses a few of those seconds to put hir thoughts in order. "So I'll cut to the chase, I guess. I kinda feel betrayed, , you know? I feel like you let me down."
"I never wanted to—"
"And it's not ‘cause you're breaking the rules. Hell, we broke the rules all the time, and it was fun."
"It's not even that you're messing with my career — and you are messing with my career, you know."
"I know, I—"
"What hurts me, really, is that you did all this, you broke the rules, you threw caution to the wind... and you didn't ask me along for the ride."
takes the phone from hir ear to check the time connected. 45 seconds. Zie's heartbroken.
"Would you have said yes?" zie asks .
Five seconds later, the answer: "I can't even remember that version of us anymore."
ignores the time, ignores it all, because zie has to say this, has to make it clear: "These people are innocent, . Whether the system thinks so or not, they're innocent. I've got to save them. I've got to."
"I know," is the reply. "That's what you do, right? You see an open door, and you look for a locked window to jimmy. You know, we had a really simple job, you and me. Kill the Anti-Christ. A to B. Black and white, pure and simple. The best gigs are black and white. No room for confusion. But you went and mucked it up, , and now I've got to kill you too."
"Just... no hard feelings, OK?"
sighs. "No hard feelings."
"I wish you'd used the door," says , and hits the red button to end the call.
Zie stares at the phone in silence.
"Zie's coming for us," says , sitting in the darkest corner, so still 's invisible. sniffles, turns away from .
"Yeah," zie says.
"Do you have a plan?"
Zie laughs. "I have too many plans, . Every idea I've had explodes in my face. And where's it got me? My hates me, Marc and Nadia are still doomed, is going to kill us all, and the only solutions I see are definitely going to make things worse, not better."
nods, then stops nodding, then sighs.
"You never went on a kill mission, did you?" asks.
" and I went on all kinds of—"
"No," says, "before that. Before your algorithm. The kill missions."
feels a little awkward admitting: "I wasn't an agent back then. Just an analyst. So, uh—"
stands, hands in pockets. "It was not like it is."
skids the car onto the lawn and bursts out the door with a gun in each hand. partner, an older with a sling cradling right arm, is close behind.
Up ahead, in the garage, a young man in a plaid shirt is crackling with energy, eyes a vicious flaming red, horns jutting from his skull as jet-black wings start to unfold from his shoulder blades.
The older agent fires a full clip without so much as a warning, each bullet striking the plaid demon in the chest. The agent drops clip, reaches to reload, but— argh! sling catches, and—
The black wing cuts in half.
ducks, rolls, comes back up with both guns ready, and
takes a keychain
from pocket, shows it to . There are no keys on it, only metal rings of different shapes, sizes, colours. Two dozen at least.
"We reacted, back then. All we could do was wait until the candidate showed himself, and then move quickly. And it cost many lives. Many, many lives. But we carried on, because it was the only way to win."
stares at the rings. So many rings.
"Your algorithm saved us. It brought order to chaos. And that is why I am here today, Agent . Because unlike the others, you do not see sacrifice as a virtue."
"I wish I could avoid sacrifice altogether," zie says. "But I guess sometimes it's a..." Zie looks up, eyes wide. "A necessary evil."
next to , giant irrepressible smile on hir face.
"I know you're still mad at me, and I know I deserve it, but I have the solution."
, despite , is intrigued.
on the counter, and the hotel clerk smiles pleasantly. "For how many nights?"
looks to for guidance.
waves a finger in the air like zie's rich and knows all the rich-person finger gestures. "The whole week," zie says, haughtily.
is extremely skeptical, to say the least. "What are we doing again?"
"A romantic getaway."
glares, whispers: "How is this making me OK with your mortgaging our home?"
The clerk finishes with the credit card, and hands it back, at which point loops hir arm around 's and drags across the lobby, toward the bar. There's a special on cocktails tonight, but more importantly, a thick wine menu.
"This is how I make everything OK!"
"I'm not that simple, ..."
is that simple, especially after two glasses of wine. leans on 's shoulder, motioning for the bartender to bring more life-blood.
downs hir third glass, because zie's got a lot to drink about.
"I've been doing this all wrong," zie says. "With you, with , with work... with everyone. I keep trying find ways to, you know, avoid the tough questions. The tricky situations. The black-and-whites."
"I don't... I don't unders—"
"I'm not really a medical researcher, ."
stares, like can't find the right words for the moment, but then half-smiles: "I was starting to feel that, yeah."
"I know this may doom our relationship and make you hate me because you'll think I'm a crank or a loon or worse, but it's a cliff I've gotta jump..." Zie takes a deep breath and says: "My job is to stop the apocalypse."
sets down glass. "OK."
holds hir breath: "Do you believe me?"
A pause. A long pause.
takes another sip of wine, then finishes the glass.
Sets it back down.
Looks at .
"So. How do we stop the apocalypse?"
grins. "By making sacrifices."
"I'm going to need more wine."
"You have no idea," says , ordering up another pair of drinks. "So the plan is simple. All you've gotta do is
and tell him the truth."
Nadia and Marc aren't quite sure how to react to this. They're not sure how to react to anything, but 's manic expression is making even the smallest of gestures seem kinda wacky.
Also, it's really windy on the roof, so maybe they just misheard hir.
"Truth? What truth?" asks Marc.
laughs, wags a finger at him. "Ah, funny guy. No, I mean the truth-truth. You've got his drugs, he can come get ‘em, but you can't afford to pay him back."
"But there's no way he'll—"
"I know, but trust me," says , unfazed, "this time
I'm going to
walk right in there, sit down in that boardroom, and make my case," says, swishing hir wine. "Put myself at their mercy."
almost chokes. The bartender gives a concerned look. "Should you really do this while you're drunk?"
"Not sure it works any other way."
takes 's hand in , tries best to convey concern, though it's not easy given how buzzy is behaving.
"And if they say no?"
"That's the beauty of it. It's
black and white
with no room for grays. Ludovic's got no other choice. Trust me, it's gonna work."
Marc and Nadia trade nervous looks. They're really not sure this is a good idea.
"This is a bad idea,"
says , frowning down at , hands in pockets. "I would rather just kill the Kieslings and try again later."
"No," says . "No killing. Just stick to the plan."
"But if the police—"
"Look, I know it's not ideal, but I promise you, they'll thank you later. Probably."
"I don't know
if I can," says Nadia, panic hitting her like a stormy wave.
"You're scared," says, full of compassion. "And trust me, I am, too. So what you've got to do — what we've all got to do — is channel that fear into something useful." Zie gives a wink. "Because otherwise, we're all gonna die! Yay!"
slaps down glass.
"I'm coming with you."
smiles so sincerely. "Sorry. I've got to do this alone." Zie pats 's hand. "Besides, I need you here, to keep things under control."
"How am I supposed to do that? I'm just a—"
"Stand your ground," says . "You're good at that."
"What if I never see you again?" asks, tears welling in eyes.
"Don't worry," says . "I'm not dying today."
"You will die slowly,"
says , verging on showing actual concern. "They will kill you in horrible ways, over an extended period of time."
"Thanks for the pep talk, buddy."
"They will make an example of you for all to see."
"OK, I get it, they're—"
"They will mount your head on a pike in the cafeteria and—"
"I'm leaving now. Not listening anymore."
"—use your eye sockets to hold coffee creamers and—"
is on the phone, alone in office, staring at an archaic map of the world with blood-red markings all over every continent, and even some in the oceans. eyes are locked on North America, but attention is clearly focused on:
"Former Agent . You're still alive."
"Yeah, about that," says , over the phone. "I request a parley."
cricks neck, the faintest of grins spreading across face. "A parley," says.
is tucked around the corner from and the bar, trying to sound confident on the phone, while also not speaking so loudly that everyone wonders what the hell zie's going on about.
"It's my right as an agent—"
"Former agent," corrects .
"—to argue my case without fear of recrimination."
A pause. A long pause. checks around the lobby, just in case someone sinister is standing nearby, ready to put a bullet in hir brain.
"Safe passage," says , in a way that sounds scarier than if 'd outright threatened hir life.
"Guaranteed under Rule Number Five of—"
"Yes, I know the rules, agent," snaps . "Unlike some, I* have no issue following* them."
"Do I have your word?" zie asks, holding hir breath.
Another long pause. Another check of surroundings.
"You do," growls.
"Great. I'll be there soon," says , checking hir watch.
"I will be waiting,"
says , and hangs up the phone.
dials another number, waits for it to connect, then says: "Zie has requested a parley. Do not touch hir until further notice."
"Shame," says , on the other end.
"But while zie is here," he says, grin returning anew, "hir charges will be—"
"Unprotected," says .
"You have a limited window, Agent ," says .
"Won't be a problem,"
says , staring across the lobby as gives a good-bye kiss, and heads out the door. "I'll get it done."
Zie keeps an eye on , pretending to read hir phone, looking like a highly suspect innocent person waiting for their highly suspect friend to meet them for drinks.
orders another glass of wine, sips it slowly.
"Come on, Sandy," says . "Where are you hiding your friends?"
"I'm texting you
the address," says Marc, clutching his phone tight and pacing around the hotel room.
checks the clip on his gun as Nadia waits by the door, not sure if she should stay or leave.
Marc looks at the phone. Disconnected. "He sounds mad," he says.
Nadia opens the door. "I hope knows what zie's doing."
The car stops
outside a travel agency with extremely outdated marketing materials and very few customers.
Inside the car, takes a deep breath, looks at hir trembling hands, squeezes them together to stop the shaking.
"Please let this work."
The glass is empty
and shoves it across the table as stands, wobbly, and gathers things. Elevators. Straight ahead. Good. can do this.
stumbles way along, completely oblivious to 's not-at-all-subtle gaze from across the room.
mashes the buttons, hits the right floor by mistake, and the doors close.
are great places to pray. Or eat. But mostly pray.
Nadia presses her hand to the glass, then her forehead to the glass, then sinks down, curled up, falling apart. She squeezes her eyes shut, so tight.
"Please God," she whispers, "please have mercy..."
goes the elevator, and leans out. Looks up and down the hall, but—
Wait. Zie sees something up ahead. Creeps forward, checking to see...
is fumbling with the door. gets it, finally, stumbles inside with a drunken: "OK, here's the plan—"
The door closes behind .
checks hir clip.
Nadia's prayer continues: "*Whatever we've done to offend you...*"
Toothpick on site
as Ludovic enters the lobby. He fixes his jacket, masking the gun he has shoved in his belt. He doesn't care who sees it, of course, but fashion is fashion.
He spots the elevators, heads off with cruel intentions.
"Whatever I need to do better..."
watch approach the side door to the travel agency. Both are twice hir size, both have at least a pair of guns each, and — if zie assumes is a scoundrel — both have permission to kill hir on sight.
"Whatever punishment I deserve..."
waits, eyes to the ground, just waiting for a conclusion, one way or another.
The first guard unfolds his hands, and—
—opens the door.
"Let me have it, but just let us live."
in Union Headquarters is locked on as zie makes the long trek to the boardroom. It's like their bodies are frozen, but their heads pivot in perfect sync with hir progress.
Zie passes hir workstation, all hir knick-knacks gone.
"I am your loyal servant, Lord."
Zie stops outside the slate gray doors. Stares at them. Wishes there was some other way, but knows there isn't.
Zie reaches out and—
The doorknob turns
and enters the room.
"*Tell me what I need to do.*"
Suitcases, water running in the bathroom.
Zie checks the silencer on hir gun. Ready.
Quiet steps along the carpet, into the main room. Head turned ever so slightly to see—
—empty. The room is empty. Zie frowns.
Into the bathroom, gun first, sweep left, then right. The tub is filling, but the room is deserted.
"Dammit, ," zie mutters.
Zie stows hir gun and storms to the door, but stops cold. Stops dead in hir tracks.
Standing in hir way is .
And has a knife to own throat.
as waits before . Before all the Elders. Zie's doing hir best to be respectful, but clearly finds that amusing.
"Former Agent ," purrs. "A parley, as promised."
Deep breath, . Deep breath.
"Thank you," zie says. "I wanted to come here and talk face-to-face. To find a way to make things work. To get on the same page."
"Indeed," says .
Nadia is huddled
on the floor, whispering to herself as Ludovic passes, storming down the hall.
"Please," she says, "please, you have to help us. Please, please help us."
takes a step closer, hand out to reach for—
jitters the blade, poking into throat. 's deadly serious, and not at all drunk. The way elbow is positioned, even the slightest shift of the door will kill gruesomely. It's no accident. It's calculated. Carefully.
"Where are the Kieslings?" growls. "Where are you hiding them?"
"In the other room," says . "But you won't find them in time."
"The hell I won't..." says, and reaches to—
winces as the blade presses harder. "You try to leave, you'll kill me," says. "Open the door, and you kill me. Touch me in any way, and you kill me."
grins. "You're not going to hurt yourself, . We both know that."
's face stays static, but nudges the knife in a bit. A trickle of blood runs down neck.
is frustrated as all hell.
clears hir throat, speaks clearly:
"We all signed up for the same mission. To stop the Anti-Christ from bringing about the end of the world."
The Elders nod to themselves, some murmur agreement. stays stone-faced.
taps hir phone, slides it deeper into hir pocket, as zie says: "I still want that. And I think you do, too."
"It is all we have ever wanted," says .
leads him down the hall, closer and closer to the door, where—
Wait, it's open already. Caught on something. Just then, shouting. Shouting and begging and...
He creaks it open, peers inside—
"Please!" cries Marc. "Please, I'm not—"
He's face-down on the desk, arms behind his back, being cuffed and shoved around as he tries to escape. But there's no escaping this. He's caught.
leans in close, pinning against the door. The knife betrays 's fear, trembling against skin.
"You're bluffing," sneers.
takes a deep breath. "Try me."
A laugh. Sharp and angry. "You don't think I can get past without killing you. But you're wrong. There are lots of ways to bleed without dying."
"So what's stopping you?"
two hands, palms up. "Black or white," zie says. "Someone told me the best choices only have two options. Black or white."
doesn't know where this is going, and—
"Shades of gray are just a distraction," zie continues, as hir phone heats up in hir pocket. "When you cut away all the nonsense, you're left with a choice. A simple choice. Black, or white."
to get free, but is slammed into a wall, hard. "No!" he shouts. "Please, wait! My wife is—"
Slam again, and Ludovic's had enough. He stumbles back, but his foot catches on something. There, on the floor, blocking the door, is the bag. The laptop bag.
He grabs it, frantic, and rushes back down the hall toward the elevators—
—right past Nadia, who is still curled up by the snack machine.
"Please help," she whispers. "Please..."
"Can you describe him for me?" asks the operator on the other end of the phone.
Nadia peers around the corner, sees Ludovic as the elevator doors close. "Yes, he's wearing a blue-gray suit, black shirt, and—"
closes both fists.
"I came here to get on the same page," zie says. "But the odd thing is, I don't think we're even reading the same book."
stands, sending chair sliding into the front-most Elders. "Agent —"
"So here's a test," zie says, pulling out hir phone—
goes the elevator, and Ludovic gasps to see—
—a handful of uniformed cops looking straight at him.
He runs for it! Around the back, shoving over hotel guests and pulling his gun from his belt and—
brushes 's cheek. So close. Too close. Zie bares hir teeth, ready to bite, aiming to terrorize, and it's working.
"I'm done playing," zie growls.
Neither of them move.
flinches. The bzzz* came from hir* pocket.
smiles faintly. "You might want to check that," says.
keeps hir gaze locked on , fishes hir phone out of hir pocket. Zie turns it on... and only then does zie let hir eyes glance down.
on the phone, and 's smile is unstoppable. Zie makes sure every last one of the Elders can see it, and keeps it held out to , so can really appreciate the moment.
"I just cleared a candidate without killing them. I defeated the Anti-Christ without sacrificing a soul. So my test is simple. It's black and white."
hir phone, slides it in hir pocket. Stows hir gun. Straightens hir jacket.
"Can I go now?"
hesitates. Thinks. Takes a sharp breath.
And drops the knife.
jerks the door open, bumping out of hir way. But before zie leaves, zie leans in close again, and whispers: "Ask hir about St Louis. Then decide if zie's worth dying for."
on the table, facing down .
"So the real test here is what you do next. What you say* next. Because it really *is black and white. Either you're in this to save the world, or you're just using the apocalypse to justify your bloodlust."
open and is surprised to see Nadia standing next to Marc, who's in cuffs, being escorted by—
, still knee-deep in fake cop play acting, jerks Marc around and says: "You have the right to remain silent. Remain silent. The end."
is really not good at being a cop.
gawks as the three of them head down the hall, where is waiting to give them all a giant, giddy hug.
addresses the crowd: "So what's it gonna be, fellas?"
looks a lot like the Anti-Christ right now. hands are balled up so tight, bones are in danger of fracturing.
"You* are in no position to dictate terms. The Union has stood against evil for thousands of years, and to presume *you are worthy of any consideration—"
"No, you're right," says . "You got along fine without me. So I guess you won't mind the roll-back."
freezes. "What roll-back?"
"Oh, I just nuked my algorithm from the Union servers. I don't think you're really mature enough to handle that kind of power just yet."
The door opens and a frantic tech stammers uselessly: "S-sir... there's been a breach and—"
giggles. scowls furiously: "You are making a grave mistake, Agent ..."
holds up hir index finger, grin on hir face. "Former Agent , actually."
And then zie swaps in hir middle finger, as zie prances out the—
"You did NOT
do that," says , from across the metal table.
and are alone in a concrete bunker of a room, looking way more tired than before, but at least they're both alive, right?
shrugs. "OK, not exactly, but it was implied in my silence. What's important is
you've got a
clean slate," zie says to Marc and Nadia, who are hand-in-hand and ready to get the hell out of this hotel, because frankly not a lot of good memories are anchored here.
Nadia gives a hug. A proper good-bye hug. "Thank you," she says, tears streaming down her cheeks. "You saved us."
"Nah," says . "You saved yourselves. I just let you know you had to."
Marc shakes 's hand, fully and thoroughly chastised. "We won't let you down."
"Yeah, don't," zie says. "And don't forget that job interview tomorrow. Just because you're out of criminal debt doesn't mean you don't have work to do. Both of you."
They nod, ready for everything that comes after.
Nadia waves as they head for the door. "Thank you, . Thank you so much. is so lucky to have you. How can not realize what a wonderful and caring and selfless person you—
"OK, stop, no.
She didn't say that," says , in the bunker.
"She might have..." says , airily, though zie recalls
next to hir as the Kieslings leave.
and thinks back. "Were you?" zie asks. "Because I remember my ** was there. Not some cop."
Zie waves hir hands, jingling hir cuffs. Wait, zie's chained to the table. Wait, the room is an interrogation room. Wait, has a badge.
This is highly suspicious.
sighs. "I keep telling you, , this isn't about you. We want . and the other Union Elders. That's all we care about."
"Well yay," says . "Still handcuffed, though."
"You don't owe them anything. You *know* we want the same thing..."
"I don't know anything anymore. I certainly don't know you."
knocks fist down on the table, gets up, heads for the door. But before leaves, she looks over shoulder. "My boss is after blood, . They need a conviction here. So if you don't help me take down the Union, they're going to take this mountain of evidence I've been collecting, and they'll use it all on you. And trust me, with what you've done? It won't be pretty."
blows out hir cheeks, slumps.
"So," zie grumbles, "what do you want me to do?"