"One more time. Just one. Come on, girl."
Plastic handle firmly in hand, Ritchie placed one foot on top of the leaf blower. He let the pullcord out, readied himself, and pulled. The engine made no attempt to turn over. Pulled again. That time, the barest hint of life, that extra second's growling… then nothing.
Ritchie didn't want to take this piece of shit back to the motor pool. Men have a very strange way of looking at other men who openly admit an inability to resolve a mechanical issue themselves. I suck shit at engines, okay? he always wanted to say. I don't think half of you fucks can read. Let's call a truce, huh?
One more try, then. Ritchie readied himself. Pulled. Realized what was happening immediately. Couldn't do anything about it. Felt his entire mass flying backwards. Watched his vision of the leaf blower turn into a vision of the parking lot and then a vision of the sky. Hit his head and back against the concrete sidewalk.
Twitched. Didn't cry. Humiliated, yes, but still had some standards.
"Need some help, soldier?" The sun was blocked out momentarily by a silhouette. A definitively female, probably brunette silhouette. That silhouette could give a man ideas.
Oh shit, Ritchie thought. This girl's, like, 19, maybe? She's got to be one of the college kids. He tried to think of something to say. Settled for groaning.
She giggled. "Here." She reached her hand down towards Ritchie, who grabbed it along the wrist like a medieval handshake. "Up we go now. Come on."
Ritchie was surprised at how easily she helped him up. Definitely stronger than expected, he thought.
"You okay?" she asked. "I saw you fall. Looked like a nasty spill."
"Yeah, it's, uh. It's no big deal. Didn't hurt. I mean, you know, it wasn't a vacation or anything. The university doesn't provide those kind of perks." Ritchie realized that he had been sure to emphasize the low-paying nature of his job during this courtship ritual because he was an idiot. He tacked a short, uncomfortable laugh onto the end, just to remind himself that he wouldn't be successfully reproducing any time soon.
The girl chuckled warmly. "What is that job, exactly? Other than waking up freshmen at seven in the morning on days they don't have classes?"
Ritchie smiled hopefully. "'Landscaper' is the word you're looking for. Grounds department. Just getting some of these leaves out of the flower beds."
"Satisfying kind of work, is it?" She smiled, keeping eye contact.
Ritchie shrugged. "Well, you know. It's good enough money. And there are some advantages, as you point out."
The girl's eyes twinkled. "But?"
He thought about it, figured he may as well go for broke. "I have this theory. I think that at the end of the day, no matter what it is that we do, all men really just want to be heroes, you know? It's why we idolize athletes. You sit in the bleachers, a normal person, and you see this other person that's pretty ordinary, except he throws a ball well and people are cheering his name like he's saving orphans from a burning building." Ritchie looked at his equipment. "I'm comfortable, sure. But I'm never gonna be a hero."
She looked Ritchie up and down, looked at the equipment, the efficient layout of his work truck behind him. "It's funny you mention that, because I would have sworn this looked like a soldier's work. Did you serve?"
"Nah, but I get that a lot," Ritchie said. "I think my dad might have served, and I just picked up a lot of his habits."
"You think?" The girl's voice implied curiosity, but her face didn't actually seem puzzled.
"Yeah, we didn't communicate much." Ritchie started rubbing his temples; that mild little nagging headache started in, the one he got when he spent too much time thinking about the past. "He was sort of…away, you know? Even when he was there. Not a neglect sort of thing, just a…wait, why am I telling you all of this?"
"You never spent any kind of time in any military force of any kind?" The girl was no longer pretending to flirt, just making steady eye contact.
Ritchie's head was now openly throbbing. "I…uh, you don't, you know, ah, fuck… I don't know what you're getting at. There's no way that — "
The needle slipped into his neck from behind. Ritchie had a split-second to think Jesus, what an obvious distractio— before a voice right beside his ear whispered, "She's a million miles away from me."
Ritchie died. Someone else woke up.
"Separated by a hollow wooden door," replied Peter.
"Name, auth, and rank, Agent," the voice behind him said.
"Peter Xavier Avalon, Alpha-18032-Gamma-Gamma, Senior Operative," he droned.
"Mobile Task Force Omega-7, 'Pandora's Box'."
The woman behind Peter walked into his field of vision, held up a finger, moved it horizontally in front of him. Peter's eyes couldn't track it at first, but then the norepinephrine derivative included in the mnestic cocktail started kicking in, and he started becoming more responsive. "Look at me, Peter," the woman said. "Do you know my name?"
Peter took a second as the memories came back and nine years melted away. "Yes, ma'am, Dr. Jones," he said. "Sorry, I'll need a minute."
"Take your time, son," Maria Jones said. "Have a seat." She motioned him onto the gate of the truck. "That was a hell of a drug you just got hit with."
"Yeah. Yeah," Peter nodded drunkenly. "Where am I?"
"You're in the, uh…Alex, what's this college again?"
"University of Tennessee at Martin, ma'am. Small rural college town. About nine thousand students," the younger woman said. Clipped. Cool. Professional. Not flirty at all.
"Thank you, Alex." Maria turned back to Peter. "You're a groundskeeper. You've worked here for about seven years, ever since the Goodyear plant closed down. It's been nine years total."
"Nine years?" Peter shook his head. "We talked…we were just having a conversation about the amnestics and the protocols of this. You just explained the memetic activation code. You were telling me about the…the 'extremely unlikely event' that you might have to reactivate me at some point in the future. It was…" Peter gazed past Maria, at Alexandra's worried face. "It was just happening."
Maria shook her head. "Your internal clock is going to be one of the last things to adjust, and it's the hardest thing to ignore in the meantime. Put it aside for now; it'll get you mobile until you recover from the worst case of jet lag in recorded human history. We need you back, Pete."
Peter looked at his much-less-defined arms, his torso, the quite visible (though not overly pronounced) pooch in his T-shirt, felt his breathing, rotated some of his joints. "My mind feels fine, ma'am, but I don't know if this body quite has what it had the last time we talked."
"Alex?" Maria said.
Alex moved her hand to her hip in one smooth motion. A metal glimmer of light, a flicker, a whoosh, and suddenly Pete found himself holding a stainless steel throwing knife by the handle — then on his feet, ready to take down the 115-lb brunette he'd been flirting with three minutes previously.
Maria smiled. "You have the instincts. We can work the details out later. Are you with us?"
Peter looked at his body, then at the sad pile of old and worn-out landscaping gear that had been Ritchie's life. "Yeah," he said. "I'm with you."
Matthew kept blushing every time he met Pamela's eyes. It was a strange time to be getting embarrassed, but he wasn't sure how else to feel. He leaned forward and kissed her awkwardly, pushing his tongue in against her teeth. She moaned and opened her mouth more, inviting him in.
Matthew just knew that she knew something was wrong. He just knew it. But he shouldn't think about that, because that made those…those problems happen again. "Are you ready, baby?" he asked in his most seductive squeak.
"Mmm-hmm," she said, nodding eagerly. Matthew couldn't believe she wanted this (but don't think about that! he thought, thinking about that), couldn't believe someone who looked like her wanted her first time to be with someone who looked like him.
And after the last two attempts, he couldn't believe she was still interested.
A song called "The Last Polka" playing in the background, thumb and two fingers touching the open end of the condom, he pressed forward with his hips. He felt the reservoir touch her labia and bend back in (he felt everything so acutely right now), felt the tip slide across sensitive membranes, and find its way to the opening. Pamela sucked her breath in; he felt her tense up ever so slightly, even though they knew that this didn't have to hurt if Matthew did his job correctly…
Matthew pushed inside. He locked eyes with her, and at that moment, knew that he would never be that close to another human being, knew that you couldn't be that close to another human being. This was as close to telepathy as two people could share. Matthew had enough confidence to pull his hand off of his penis (can she feel it getting harder? he thought) and bring it up to stroke her hair. He kissed her again, more tenderly now.
They wouldn't be the same after this, weren't the same as they had been just a few seconds ago, not in the way that society kept insisting this moment made them different, but something had changed and they both knew it and both knew the other felt the same. They had figured out so much in the last hour, the prototype engineering problems that so many young couples are left to figure out on their own; friction, trigonometry, force. Certain gas laws came into play during the last beta test as well, which was met with laughter by both of the scientists involved in the experiment.
"What's so funny?" Pamela asked.
Matthew realized he'd been snickering. "It's…like, all of this?"
Pamela nodded at the unasked question.
"It's all worth it. Just to be with you like this, right now. It was all worth it."
Matthew watched her eyes dew up slightly, then heard a sniffle. "I'm ready, Matty. Whenever you are. Just go slow, okay?"
"Okay," Matthew said, and let his hips fall towards hers more. He pulled back after a second, and then let them fall again until they touched hers. He watched her gasp now, feeling all of him inside of her; and his eyes crossed slightly, feeling so much of her around him, and all he could hear was blood rushing through his ears, and the sound of a key slipping into a lock behind him.
The door to the apartment opened, and two women stepped inside. Matthew was simultaneously too freaked out to know exactly how to respond and too courteous to jump off of Pamela, so he turned his upper body toward the door while still inside of her. "What the hell —"
"Sorry about this," the woman said. She strode carelessly to the closet and yanked it open to find a scruffy-bearded man, his pants down around his ankles, midway through the action of trying to push himself back behind the clothes in the closet for cover.
"Oh, shit!" the bearded said. "This is, uh…"
"I don't even want to know." The woman jammed a needle in the man's neck. She pushed the plunger down with a force that was probably unnecessary. "The clock never stops, never stops, never waits,", Maria Jones said angrily.
"She's growing old, it's getting late," Noah replied immediately.
"Name, auth, and rank, Agent!"
"Noah Shepherd Chase, Sigma-38225-Eta-Nu, Junior Operative," he said, pulling slightly away from the needle.
Maria twisted it out of pure spite, then pulled it out. "Do you know where you are?"
"No, ma'am. This looks like…maybe a cheap apartment of some kind? There's screaming naked people on the bed, and I'm — " He looked down in horror the visible tent in his boxer briefs. "Ma'am, I don't think I want to know how the fuck I got here. Was this Pete again? He said he owed me one after the thing with the water hose — "
Maria slapped Agent Chase across the face. "Pull your fucking pants up, Noah. We've got work to do." She gave the terrified young couple a friendly smile. "Sorry about this," she said politely, dragging the still-confused Agent out of the apartment.
There is a sign in Bea Andrew's spare bedroom, the one she had converted into a home gym, the one with the weight bench and the treadmill and the punching bag and the sign and absolutely no other adornment whatsoever. The sign is a metal flow chart.
SHOULD YOU BE WORKING OUT? YES/NO
From "YES", an arrow leads to:
DO YOU FEEL LIKE WORKING OUT? YES/NO
From "YES", an arrow goes to "WORK OUT". From "NO", an arrow goes to "TAKE SHOWER." The arrow from this leads to:
DO YOU FEEL LIKE WORKING OUT? YES/NO
Both arrows led back to the box reading "WORK OUT".
Bea Andrew allowed herself five minutes under hot water to motivate herself to maintain her physical shape. After that, she was going to maintain that shape whether she liked it or not. She found that removing personal free will from the equation helped dramatically.
She had also found that working out helped suppress the profound anger that she felt, and this helped her take care of her daughter without letting all of the anger and frustration out on her. Bea did not believe in physical violence against living creatures.
Her daughter asleep in the bedroom down the hall, Bea undressed in preparation for yet another workout. She paused, at her chest, at what could have been either a woman's small breasts or a man's prominent pectoral muscles. Her forefinger and thumb dug into the skin of her toned stomach, pinching deep, almost into muscle. You are not a man, she thought, twisting. You are a woman, she thought, leaving another dark-purple bruise to add to the constellation beside it.
She slid out of her jeans and panties and stood in the bedroom, looking into the full-length mirror across from the treadmill. She looked at the area between her legs for just a glimpse, then looked away. You are not a man, she thought, pinching now at the other constellation on her right thigh. There is no penis there. That means you are a woman, she thought, twisting.
Bea had complete solitude in this room, but she still put on full-length workout pants and a hoodie that, in this case, hid the lack of curves. Bea was very used to hiding. She pushed earbuds into her ears, turned on an episode of Welcome to Night Vale, and began zoning out into another world while the numbers on the treadmill flashed by.
One set of arms grabbed her from behind, pulling her backwards. A needle. Some cursing as Cecil's voice was pulled out of her head. "We danced and smiled and paddled hard beneath it," a woman's voice said.
"I've got you to thank for this," Bea said, and vanished…
The body tremored, nearly seizing, for just a moment, then the eyes closed again. Maria laid them down on the floor and backed up against the wall, hands in the air.
"What are you doing?" Alex asked.
"You don't know Effy," Maria replied. "You don't want her to perceive you as a targe — "
The person on the floor erupted upwards into a jiu-jitsu stance, panting, sweating, pissed. "Who the FUCK!?"
"Effy, please," Maria said, hands raised and empty. "It's me, Effy."
Cold eyes ran over Maria's hands, feet, face, and arms. Maria was well aware that Effy had just devised four ways to kill her, three ways to put her into a coma, six ways to cripple her, and eleven ways to knock her out, all in one glance. "Effy," she said cautiously. "I need you to tell me your name, rank and auth."
Effy relaxed. "Fatimah Workwise, Delta-38344-Delta-Epsilon. Formerly of MTF Omega-7. Recently retired from the Foundation. Well, I say that," Effy said, then brought their wrist up to their ear and rotated it, listening to the cracks. "I'd say about ten years now? This is almost completely healed."
"Close," Maria said. "Nine years. We need you back, Effy. If you're up for it."
Effy looked down at the baggy outfit, was naked in two fluid motions, stepped in front of the mirror and looked up and down. Paused at the stomach and thigh bruises. "The fuck is this? Are these self-inflicted?"
"I'm afraid so," Maria said.
"What the fuck kind of false identity did you stick me with?" Effy rubbed at the freshest bruises. "And who told them they could fuck up the upholstery?"
"I told you, that's not how this amnestic therapy works," Maria said. "We give you the initial injection, you come to, we tell you your name, and that's it. Your mind makes up most of the rest of the personality on its own. Helps it maintain self-integrity and consistency. A week's worth of monitoring, and we let you go free-range to invent a life for yourself."
"So…what kind of personality did my subconscious come up with, exactly?" Effy was bouncing, shifting the weight of their perfectly athletic form back and forth, smiling.
Maria coughed. "From the outside, it seemed like a healthy enough deviation from your baseline. Seemed like the sort of thing that would help you blend in with civilian life a bit easier."
"Doc," Effy said, no longer smiling.
Maria took a deep breath. "Your new identity, uh… thought they were a conventional, XX-chromosomal woman who had experienced some sort of poorly-remembered accident."
Effy stood stock still, staring coldly. Maria tried to take another step backwards and found that she was already up against the wall, with no course of retreat.
After a moment, Effy burst into laughter, head rolling back slightly. "Oh, shit, doc," Effy said. "If I were her, I'd butcher your entire family for that travesty. I mean, a massacre. God made this shit perfectly. Have you seen this fucking body, doc?" They began doing yoga stretches, isolating one group of lean muscle after another.
Maria sighed. "Effy, everyone who's ever been around you for more than fifteen minutes has seen that. You're fairly determined to demonstrate your lack of body modesty. Would you mind getting dressed, please? We still have one more operative to unretire, and there's not that much daylight left."
"Sure thing, doc." Effy threw their workout clothes back on.
As Effy was turning the corner, a door at the other end of the hallway opened.
"Mommy?" a three-year-old said, rubbing her eyes to get the naptime out.
Effy stopped, turned to Maria. "Who's the kid?"
"You were babysitting," Maria said matter-of-factly. "Nothing to worry about. We'll get her taken care of."
Effy shrugged and continued out of the house.
The three-year-old paused, yawned. "Mommy?" she said, slightly louder but without any real distress.
"Shhh, shhh, it's okay," Maria said. "I'm a doctor. We need to just talk to your mommy for a minute by ourselves, okay?"
The three-year-old's face scrunched up for a second, looked at Maria, then the floor, then back at Maria. "Trains?"
Maria looked past the little girl and saw some Thomas and Friends train track sets on the floor of her bedroom. "Yes, darling, you can play with the trains," she said. "Mommy will be in to play with you in just a few minutes, 'kay? Make her something big, 'kay?"
The three-year-old shook her head for a second, yawned again, and nodded. "Trains," she said, decisively, and turned around to go back into her room.
Maria watched her go inside and closed the bedroom door behind the young girl.
"Dr. Jones?" Alex was frowning.
"Hang on," Maria said, pulling out a phone. She typed a seventeen-digit number in the "To:" box, tapped in the input, and handed it to Alex. "Type 'PROC 932-Montauk', ampersat, and whatever this address is," Maria said.
Alexandra tapped. "Montauk?" she asked absently.
"Containment procedures involving minors," Maria said.
Alex had heard of some excellent restaurants that can be found in larger cities if you know which alleyways have them, as opposed to the alleyways that have mostly diseased murderers. The jury was still out on this particular alley.
"Dr. Jones?" she asked nervously. "Is there a reason we're racing to this…whatever this building is supposed to be?"
"Attitude," Maria said. "Have to project a certain attitude. I don't know what your experience is with this sort of nightclub, but you'll get eaten alive in here if they smell prey."
"So walking fast gives you more…attitude?" Alexandra asked.
Maria paused for a second, blushed. "It…yes, dammit! That's part of it!"
Alex shrugged. "If you say so, Dr. Jones."
Maria walked directly up to the bouncer at the door and projected all of the "attitude" that five feet and eight inches of Ivy League-educated Chicana recordkeeper could bring to the table. "We're here for Rasputin," she said, in a tone that Alexandra assumed was intended to be "fierce", but was more accurately considered "chirping".
The bouncer looked Maria up and down, then Alexandra as well. "You got the password?"
Maria reached into her jacket and removed a stack of hundred-dollar bills, wrapped in a metal clip. "I think one of them knows it," Maria said in a tone that Alexandra assumed was intended to be "purring", and what was more accurately considered "whispering."
The bouncer took the clip, flipped through the bills to make sure they were actually hundreds, shrugged, and stepped aside. "The show hasn't started yet," he said. "You'll need to buy a ticket if you want to stay for the real thing."
"We won't be staying," Maria said, pushing past. Alexandra followed as best she could, weaving her way inexpertly around the chairs and tables. "Remember," Maria continued, "Billy's built like a tank. That double-dose of mnestic you're holding isn't an accident. If something goes wrong, he's more than capable of snapping you like a twig. We're going to have to make sure he's really distracted before…"
"You spend too much time behind a desk, Maria," a basso profundo voice boomed in the darkness.
Alex jumped, almost dropped the syringe in her hand. Maria froze, eyes wide like a rabbit facing a wolf. "Billy," she said.
A sound of two enormous hands clapping together, and the stage lights came on. Alexandra finally got to see the legendary Agent William Abrams in the flesh. He was six feet ten inches of jet black, sinewy muscle, the kind of body NFL linebackers wished they could have when they grew up. He was impressive enough seated in what looked like a wrought-iron throne in center stage, but as he stood, Alexandra was even more impressed at how gracefully he handled his eight-inch stiletto heels.
The spotlights came on. Alexandra covered her eyes for a second, looking back as they adjusted. The words "LEGENDS NEVER DIE" were emblazoned in faux-Cyrillic neon tubes above Billy's head. Billy walked with a cheetah's perfect grace across stage left to steps that led down to the main floor. Putting one foot on the first step down, he turned back towards his throne and barked something in what Alexandra presumed to be Russian.
The "wrought-iron" throne dissolved into six men, stark naked except for thongs and slate-grey body paint from head to toe. The six men went backstage, closing the door behind them.
The three of them, Maria, Alexandra, and Billy, were alone.
"Where's the needle?" Billy asked. His voice was low and mellifluous, a voice for late-night radio and old jazz records.
"I don't know what you're ta —"
"I do not have time for your bullshit equivocations, bitch," Billy snapped, hand on one hip, one perfectly manicured finger in the air in protest. "This queen is fucking busy. You never thought I was ignorant before; do not develop some kind of misconception now."
Maria could only sputter. "How…how did you bypass the amnestic block?"
Billy chuckled humorlessly. "Your drugs are fucking weak, bitch. A few interesting experiences with ayahuasca, DMT, and amyl nitrate, and my brain put itself back together. I remember everything, even without you crooning soft piano rock in my ear."
"That's impossible," Maria said.
"You told us that shit was experimental, right? Prototype amnestic technology? Guess what, Maria? Your tech needs work."
Maria was shaking from what Alexandra presumed to be some combination of fear and anger. "You…you should have told us, Billy," Maria said. "You could have been in danger. You could have revealed classified information."
Billy came toe-to-toe with Maria. This close, he was like some kind of Greek god: a Greek god in white lace and high heels. "Danger?" he rumbled. "Me?"
Maria broke eye contact first.
"So why the little well-check after all this time, hmm?" Billy asked, turning his back on the two women. "You just assumed I was still off being — what was his name? 'Damarcus Franklin'? Never letting you name a black man again, that's a goddamn fact."
"Word's come down from higher up, Billy," Maria said. "They want another shot at Omega-7. Calling it 'Project Resurrection'. A new team. MTF Alpha-9. 'Last Hope'."
Billy smiled, half sardonically, half sincerely. "Remind me later that you ain't the only person not allowed to name shit from now on. Who else is getting tapped for this?"
"High-ranking agents, the best of the best. William Lopez is on board."
"Heard of him, vaguely. Don't give a shit. Who's getting tapped that I know? I know this ain't the first visit you made today."
Maria sighed, resigning herself to the absence of information control at this point. "We have Noah, Pete, and Effy. Iris agreed to another go, too. Believe it or not, she was actually how the idea first got passed around."
Billy stuck his tongue out at the first, shrugged at the second, and smiled at the last two. "You talked Fatima into this pigshit? I'm impressed. Ain't you just the luckiest."
"You get what the mission is, Billy," Maria said, locking eyes with the towering giant. "You know several of the people. You're obviously in the sort of physical condition we need. The world is in some — " Maria stopped again. "We're in deep shit, Billy. You're one of the best we've got. Can you save our asses again?"
Billy shrugged. "The club's doing fine. Rafael can take over management. My regulars will miss these unbelievable legs, but worse things have happened to better people. And I do miss my girl Iris." Billy reached back onto the stage and grabbed a leather satchel. "Sure, Maria, you've got yourself a deal. I'm a sentimental guy. Let's go blow shit up again."