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from Nate's Thoughts

You've probably had a teacher say something like this:

I'm just getting you ready for the real world. Out there people are going to chew you up and spit you out, and you have to be ready to deal with it. The world is mean and terrible and it's every person for themselves.

And we all just...accepted that. The world is mean, check.

But these days I'm starting to realize how flawed the premise is. Yes, there are mean people in the world. But the idea that basically the entire world is mean and out to get you...that seems like very broken thinking. We, you and I, are “the world” for everyone we encounter. The expectation that “the world is crappy people and you just have to deal with it” is tacit permission to be a crappy person.

We can do better.

 
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from Pacifica

Note: “Unplaced” Chapters are sections of text in an early form that haven't yet found a home in the official text. This one is very much a rough sketch of a rough draft, but I needed to get it written down, and I figured I'd toss it in here so people could see what's up.

Consider Julian’s life.

He was born in Texicali to a single mother, which was a more or less the norm in his place at that time. She had two other kids, from two other men, and Julian was the last before she swore off that lifestyle. Julian’s Grandmother was a huge influence on his life, as they spent a lot of time living with her and her husband, until Grandma moved to Ohio, pleading a desire to live somewhere less…revolutionary. This was when repatriation was easy.

From a young age Julian had shown extreme intelligence and a quick wit. He wasn’t ever meant to be big, although he did have a wiry strength. But he realized early that what he was good at was people and words, and that he could make this work for him.

He moved away home when he was fifteen, and headed north, realizing, like his grandparents, that Texicali was too messy to make a stable base for a real life. So Oregon ho! He made his way north to Portland, then to Tacoma. In Tacoma he was employed briefly by a tech security firm, first to do physical security for their location. After a few months of watching the security workers at work he asked if he could help out. Two months later he was a manager over a small group. Six months after that he was asked to train all the pen testers after successfully penetrating the company’s own network, then implementing the protocols that made his hack impossible. And then penetrating the network again.

And then he discovered Sin. Not the abstract concept of acting against the dictates of divine law, but an actual substance. It was Julian’s dubious honor to name the substance, and the name stuck.


There was a common fault of people who got Spines, and it was that they were somewhat ostentatious about it at first. Julian was no different. And why should he hide it? He was nineteen and a subject matter expert in his field. Getting a Spine was almost a business expense, except the company had refused to reimburse him for it. In his mind this was because they were afraid Julian would use it against them. They might have been right, Julian wasn’t sure yet. He was enjoying the fluid connection to the world of information, and the ability to know new things just by thinking about them. But there are still some things that have to be learned through direct experience.

“Hey Julian.”

“Oh, Hi Mark,” Julian responded as he walked into the room where they both worked. It was unlike Mark to come to work early…but that didn’t look like what had happened here.

“Did you stay all night?” Julian asked.

“Is it morning? I guess I did.”

“What are you working on?” Julian asked.

“Hah…yeah, this wasn’t really work. Not…exactly, anyway.” Mark said, sitting on the sofa the company had put in the room to make it look, to prospective employees, anyway, like employees were free to sit in quiet corners like this one and “take it easy”.

Mark bent his neck forward, reached back and flipped up the cover on the high-transfer port on his Spine, and pulled off a thin sheet of material, holding it between two fingers like a dead rodent.

“What’s that?” Julian asked, taking the patch from his colleague.

“It’s an experimental…thing? Countermeasure? It doesn’t really have a name, and it probably never will.”

“You’re testing countermeasures on yourself? That’s hard core, guy.”

Mark closed the port cover and leaned his head back. “Ha, well, we’ve struck on something new, here. It’s…different. It might incapacitate people, but trust me, they won’t mind.” Mark was speaking slow, slurring his words, and falling asleep.

“What is it?” Julian asked, but Mark was asleep.

What it was is this: A mesh of impure graphene, connected to each contact point in the high transfer port of a standard Spine, and two prebuilt instructions. The first instruction asked the Spine for permission to directly access sensory input and output; the device read a person’s senses and also gave sensations. The second instruction only fired when the main event was over.

The main event was an echo loop. The graphene mesh connected every point to every other point. Every input was made into an output everywhere else. Put another way, it was every form of synesthesia at once. A sound from outside would become taste, touch, and color, which would echo across the mesh, bouncing back to the other senses like waves across a pool. Every sensation was a new revelation. Sitting in a quiet room in the dark would suddenly become an entire symphony, light show, interpretive dance, massage, all at once. A fortunate side effect was that voluntary motor control more or less shut down under the onslaught. A person using the product would usually lay very still indeed.

As these sensations washed through the graphene it would heat up, and the impurities in the mesh would break, severing certain connections, changing the flow of sensation, shifting the symphony, moving the melody, and as more and more breaks occurred the heat increased in the still-functioning grid. Eventually the mesh was compromised enough that only a few strains were still transmitting, and at this point the final instruction would cut in, turning the network off and leaving the user to their own devices, and they would have to wake up in a world where color wasn’t sound and light wasn’t a caress.

And that’s why Julian named it 'Sin'. Because like every other sin it worked by overwhelming the senses, by making the real world pale in comparison. Sin broke down all the borders, ruined all restraints. It was uniquely selfish.

And he was hooked on it, by this point.

Once you had the fairly simple code it was cheap and easy to produce. At first it was just Julian and Mark who used it, but secrets like this don’t say secrets. Soon everyone in their firm would use it at least occasionally. Julian’s 'sin' moniker was short, easy to say, edgy, and better than “that graphene thing we meant as a countermeasure but turned into this thing we use for fun” so when the code went open source it was labeled “OpenSin” and spread amongst the technological elite.

But none of this mattered to Julian. For a while he had all he could ever need, at cost. He experimented, then dabbled, then stockpiled, then started missing work.

Because why on earth would he want to go to work? Work was dull and gray and boring. So he went for a while, made himself three hundred patches, and was frankly unsurprised when he was fired.

But how could he pay for more when his stash ran out?

He wouldn’t, he decided. When he had named the patches “Sin” it was to make it sound cool, now he realized how right he had been. Sin, somewhat unsurprisingly, led to addiction, and he wasn’t the kind that would get addicted to something. Julian had always been “straight edge,” a term he had found in a scan of a 20th Century magazine. Apparently it meant totally “clean” from drugs or tobacco or alcohol, which was an odd distinction to draw but the 20th had been an odd time. So Julian wasn’t going to be addicted to Sin. So he was done with it. As of this one…last…patch.

Well, after these twenty he got from Mark.

Or, well, after these three.

Wow, they’re getting expensive. Well, this one will be the last one.

This is where Cassandra found Julian. He had run out, but that was okay, he told himself, because he was off of Sin now. The last patch he had used was the last patch. Ever. He didn’t need the one thing that made life livable. He didn’t need the one thing that gave him a sense of connection to the cold and uncaring world. He could make his own way. Straight Edge.

Until things got hard and he needed one more. Then he had to find more work, enough to pay Mark, or…that nameless gray house…or that one guy downtown…for the next one.

Julian was doing little jobs for small time operators, and doing them poorly—or, at any rate, below his normal standards. Cassandra hired him as a contractor under the name “the Lady” and was impressed by his work. Most of her employees up to this point were, not to put too fine a point on it, government workers for a failed government. Compared to them Julian was a supernova. Cassandra had him do a few more jobs and noted, quietly, that he was looking worse and worse between jobs. She had him followed after he picked up his payment one time and understood. His next meeting with her was somewhat different.

“Julian, a moment,” She said as he was about to leave.

“Yes milady?” He responded. Julian, as should be obvious, loved antique language, and found any reason to use it. When Cassandra hired him as “The Lady” she couldn’t have known how much fuel she was putting on that particular fire. But just now Julian’s heart wasn’t in it. In his mind he was halfway down the block, headed for a little house, not far from this location. In that house he could get a patch and a room where he would be safe for two hours, and then, with this latest payment he could probably get some food and pay his rent for the month. Or just buy three more patches and plan on getting another job before the rent was due. Either way.

“How much of your last payment from us did you spend on Sin patches?”

“Ah…I’m not sure that is any of your business, milady. No disrespect intended, of course.”

“Nor any taken. But you are quick, and good at what you do. I don’t want to lose you, especially to something so…trivial.”

“Ah…I’m not one of your employees, milady.”

Cassandra waved this away as immaterial. “Then consider this a humanitarian effort. You’re a human and a good one at that. So I have a proposition. We will help you overcome this addiction—“

“I’m not addicted, it’s been two weeks—“

“Spare me please, Julian. It’s been four days, we’ve been watching your favorite Sin house. As I was saying, we will help you overcome this addiction. In return you will work for me and my organization, full time, at a rate double your current contracting rates.”

“That is a very generous offer…”

Cassandra smiled a little, but with no humor in it. “You won’t think so in two weeks, but I believe it would be a sound investment for my organization.”

This was a new idea for Julian. Someone thought he was a sound investment. Had she also said he was a good human? No one had ever thought that.

“What if I relapse?”

“Then you will be honest with me and with the doctor I assign to your case and we will ensure you are stronger next time. I need your brain in actual working order. I need you able to focus on tricky tasks, hard data, real problems. I don’t need you with no attention span and no interest in gratification that takes effort.”


And that was a beginning. She had been right; he hated the first two weeks. He spent them in the constant companionship of either Cassandra or someone in her employ, performing physical tasks for ten hours a day. Moving boxes. Setting up hotel rooms. Anything that would keep him moving and not thinking too hard about how much he wanted Sin.

After four weeks of this Cassandra sent him on a mission deep into Bonneville to extract an operative that had been injured and was in a safe house. This was another tactical move on her part, as Bonneville had outlawed Sin shortly after it had been invented and had done an admirable job keeping it out of their territory. By the time he came back to Seattle his headaches had almost entirely subsided, the withdrawal was almost ended. And what’s more, Julian had started to know himself. He had just done something very difficult: he had infiltrated Bonneville, found a sleeper agent on the brink of death, arranged medical care, and brought the agent back to Washington without being caught. A little spark of self confidence amongst the tinder of Julian’s psyche and caught.

But that wasn’t how their relationship had been solidified.  

 
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from Pacifica

Tricia had worked in a number of weird places, but this one took the cake. If they had tried to schedule her here permanently she would have walked out, but this job was only for another two weeks and then she could go back to Whittier or Fairbanks or somewhere and pick up seasonal work. The Pacific Academy was in the middle of nowhere, in fact she wasn’t entirely sure where it was, which was just icing on the weirdness cake.

The weirdest part was the nineteen students. Tricia’s job was to cook and clean and set nineteen places at each meal. The students would come in after she had laid out their places. In theory she was never meant to see them face to face, which was also weird and Tricia would have called the police or Child Protective Services or someone, only there was no cell service out here.

So Tricia would set the places, leave, and come back exactly sixty five minutes later. Each plate would be cleared, no vegetables pushed under edges, no food thrown, no mess. There was no difference between the way the students ate, either. Usually some people push all the food to one side, or turn their plates a certain way. All nineteen students did it the same way.

So Tricia got curious. She started moving around a little more than she was supposed to, and occasionally caught a glance of one person’s face. She kept getting the same person, though. It was uncanny. Whenever she was able to peek through a doorway or see through a not-quite closed window she would see the same girl’s face. How could she always see one person, never anyone else?

Unless…

Tricia heard someone enter, which was weird, it was nearly ten pm. Generally nobody came before six AM or after six PM.

Whoever this was, they marched in like they owned the place. Tricia was in her bedroom, door closed, doing absolutely nothing that could upset anyone. To complete the illusion she closed her eyes and laid down on her bed. But they probably wouldn’t come in here anyway—

The door slammed open. “Are you the cook?” A low, powerful male voice asked. The light around the intruder obscured his face entirely, but highlighted his hair.

“Yes sir.”

“New orders. Breakfast at 4 AM, no lunch, dinner at 5 PM. Clear?”

“Yes, sir.”

“Okay.”

He closed the door and Tricia laid back, laughing. Like she was going to sleep now. Tricia wasn’t Augmented, but humans are already able to see through walls, especially walls they know well. She could hear the bossy man walking down the hall, and in her mind she could see him, in a uniform, with his assistant next to him, walking and taking notes as Bossy gave orders. When Bossy was around the corner Tricia got up and dressed in her work clothes quickly. She had a legitimate reason to head to the kitchens. And in times like this, when something is changing, sometimes people see what they aren’t meant to see. How else does anyone learn anything?

Tricia walked down the hall, following Bossy, but not closely, and only so long as he was moving along a path that would get her to where she was ostensibly going.

“…doubled. We don’t know if Zero is coming but we don’t want her getting anywhere close,” Bossy was saying.

“Yessir.”

“As for the subjects here, we want them on extended midday duties, always active, and never more than three of them in any one place, except at meals. Triple the guards on meals. And get them all out of bed now. We’re moving them to the south bunks.”

“Yessir.”

That was Tricia’s cue. She ducked into a supply closet and grabbed a number ten can of green beans, then kept her back to the door, looking at the other foods. Green beans weren’t breakfast…so she grabbed the orange juice mix as well. There. Now she was just planning ahead. She could pretend she hadn’t heard anything, and she was allowed to be out out of her bunk at this time of night, the “campers” were all meant to be in bed, so if she was doing legitimate food prep—

“How much did you hear?”

Tricia spun around, barely stifling a scream, then calmed down.

“Oh, it’s you, Mr. Pierce. I—I didn’t hear anything. I was just told that breakfast was going to be early from now on—“

“And you decided that tomorrow’s menu was green beans and OJ. Classic. Okay, listen, shush. I need to figure some things out.”

Julian retreated into the weird distracted trance of a person who is seeing images on an Augmented HUD.

“They’re moving the campers to the south bunks.” Tricia said and Julian came back.

“Who said that?”

“The…bossy guy who told me to make breakfast early tomorrow. He also said something about never having more than three of them in a group at one time, I think? And triple guards at mealtime.”

Julian nodded, but his face grew tighter. “Blast,” he said quietly. Then he looked at Tricia. “What did you say you did here?”

“I’m the cook.”

Julian smiled. “Meaning you have access to the kitchen and dining room. Awesome. Trish, right?”

“Tricia,’ said Tricia.

“Quite so. Okay. Perfect. Listen, you know the bossy guy?”

“No but it sounds like you do.”

Julian looked at her blankly for a moment and then laughed. “You’re right, I do. Or I thought I did. Listen, do you want to know what’s going on here? Like, what’s really really going on?”

Tricia nodded.

“Good. But I can’t tell you right now. But soon. I’m so glad I met you here Tricia! Now. This is important: go back to bed. In the next day or two we’ll need to talk.”

And she went back to bed.

 
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from Pacifica

There’s an old question that Cassandra should have considered more closely.

Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?

Who will watch those who watch? Who watches the watchmen?

For the past few years Julian had been her right hand. At first she had kept him there so she could be the one that watched him as he watched the organization. But lately she’s been comfortable with the level of care he takes and she was willing to let him do his job unwatched. Which was fine. Until Wes attacked Cylee, that is. She had started to suspect that Julian’s loyalties were somewhat divided, but everything she could see showed that he was just doing his job as he had always done it.

That’s because Julian was better at hiding his tracks than Cassandra was at uncovering them. So that’s part of the answer: if you’re going to watch the watchmen, be sure you’re a better watcher than they are.

Julian had been gathering information, which was easy when you knew where to look. He now knew where the cloning facility was, and he knew where Wes was being treated for his wounds. He knew Cassandra’s plans, and now that he was less devoted to her cause his blood ran cold as he considered what she was planning.

He also knew who new Pacifica was working for.

One of the only things the Dissolution had going for it was that nobody had ever used 'banned' weapons. No fission, no fusion, no biological agents that would poison fellow citizens for decades. By these 'rules' of war, old Pacifica’s clones were fine. They were just people. Humans who had been conditioned to be good soldiers. The fact that they looked young (and were very young) was a miscalculation, and now clones had been added to the 'banned' list.

If new Pacifica was willing to break one ban, what was to stop them from breaking all of them?

And now Julian was planning something new. He wasn’t at all sure he’d survive it, but everyone else would. Sabotage is such an ugly word, Julian thought, but sometimes it was needed.

For the past few days Julian had been working on finding Cylee, but he knew where she was going and he could get there faster. His other task was using the fact that all the computers trusted him to make sure they would never be able to do the things their masters wanted them to do. It’s easy to drop kill switches here and there if you know what you’re doing and the computer believes you are supposed to be doing it.

Two days in he discovered that someone else had been through the system with the same end in mind. He made a mental note to find out who this “Jubal” was, but other than that, he figured any help he could get was a good thing.

Julian made one more pass, checking all his traps. The fissile material creation system would consistently turn out unstable product and might just blow itself up in the process, but at no point would it produce weapons-quality material. The small, independent cell of insurgency creators were told to head into Texicali instead of Bonneville. Julian reasoned that Texicali was already as unstable as it was going to get, and this team was going to be in deep cover for at least two years, so he was safe there.

The last one was the biological agents. There was really only one way to stop that one, and it was in person. Fortunately that lab was close to the cloning lab—they were working together on a number of projects—and he was headed that direction anyway.

Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?

Julian knew the answer. He did. Sometimes you have to watch those outside of the organization, to protect the organization from its enemies. But sometimes you need to protect the rest of the world from your organization. The high calling of ipsos custodes was to know the difference.

 
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from Pacifica

The problem with sharing your mind with mind-altering microbes is that they do really weird things to your dreams. Cylee slept deeply but not restfully. In her mind she was sitting in a classroom, surrounded by students, but she couldn’t really see the other students. There was an instructor up at the front of the room, standing in front of a 2D display, showing a series of graphs and charts and connection-type symbols. There was a conversation happening, the students were asking questions and the teacher—or teachers—were answering, but Cylee couldn’t understand the languages of either party. The emotional tone of the conversation carried through, though.

There was initial uncertainty and doubt from the students, and a quiet patience from the teacher. Then the students were hurt, incredulous and upset. This new information wasn’t sitting right with them. They accepted parts, but the premise was still held to be false. The teacher was patient, and even compassionate. There was outrage, the mass of unseen students around her glowing red, a haze of fury rising off of them. But, little by little, the cloud dissipated. There were pockets, at first, who recognized what had happened. These pockets fell back, stopped adding into the overall furor. Then there were more and more who were settled. The pulsing red students were now small islands of anger.

Eventually the entire audience was quiet and still. The voice of the teacher continued. Explaining a new truth. Explaining a new way of being. The symbols on the board came more into focus.

There was a family tree, only every person on it was Kim. The original Kim gave rise to dozens, most of whom never had any increase. But three of them had dozens of daughters. Of that third generation only two continued to the fourth. There was a question from the audience and the family tree focused on a Kim of the third generation.

“What?” Cylee cried.

A commotion went up from the students. Apparently they hadn’t noticed Cylee before.

“Kimmy isn’t the original?” Cylee asked. Not that she could quite understand the voices of the “people” around her.

Agent (Cylee): No. The Kim you know right now is a clone. The original Kim died in training. This Kim was another experiment: they wanted to see if a clone could fully assume the place of the original. It mostly worked. Cylee: Did it? She’s half-insane and thinks she’s all of them. Agent (Cylee): That’s exactly what we’ve been discussing here.

Cylee sat back. The lecture continued around here. But there were subtle changes. The clouds of students around her coalesced into vague facsimiles of Kim. They weren’t solid replicas, more Kim-shaped spaces filled by points of slowly coruscating lights. Once Cylee got the pattern she was unsurprised to see the teacher was a facsimile of her.

“But why are there so many of them and only one of you?” She asked, without even raising her hand.

“Kim carries a part of every 'Zeta' who ever existed, most of whom are dead. They are all from the same stock, but as you can see, they are all different, all unique,” the Teacher answered.

“Why don’t I have that problem?” Cylee asked.

“Because we learned how to handle it better. Why do you think we always refer to ourselves in the plural? It’s not because we’re royalty, you know.”

“I…I always figured it’s because you’re a swarm, not an individual.”

“So too are you a swarm. Your mitochondria are not related to you in the slightest. Your immune system is a mercenary army that has agreed to serve in exchange for room and board. Your mind is a family of closely-knit but unique tribes, and the sense of identity that humans see is a product of the newcomers. The prefrontal cortex, a bunch of upstart neurons who believe themselves to be in charge of the entire organism, ignoring the complexity of what goes on below them. But even if we saw each cluster of ourselves as unique we would need to confess that we also have a part of each and every Cylee, each Zero, each Alpha, for your strain has had the most names, but somehow also has the most identity.”

“Why have you never told me this before?” Cylee asked.

“We didn’t know this before. It’s hard to understand yourself without an external point of reference. When you met up with Kelly we started to get an idea of how we worked. When you encountered Wes and Watt we got a sense of what our opposite looks like. It’s only now, when we have access to these Zeta agents, that we understand what is really going on.”

On the board behind the Teacher the graph changed. There was Cylee, tinged a light lavender. Below her was Kelly, the same shade. Next to her was Wes, his color an angry red. Then Shaun, a pale summer green. And finally Kim, bathed in light blue.

“We suspect we are each versions, literal revisions of the original. The original was given to you, as Tamara said. Each change was administered to a new subject, based on possible compatibility. But they didn’t realize that we were better at communicating than they intended. They didn’t understand how connected we all actually are. Each strain is essentially a single organism.”

Cylee felt her eyes getting heavy. If she was dreaming that meant it was time to wake up. But before she slipped back into consciousness the Kims around her turned, looked at her directly, and simply said “thank you”.


Cylee opened her eyes. She was tired, and her Spine was indicating low battery as well. She had forgotten to plug it in before going to sleep. There was sunlight on the wall of the loft, streaming in from the skylight opposite. The sleeping bag where Kelly had been laying was empty, and there were quiet cooking noises floating up from the main room, accompanied by tuneless singing. Cylee had known Kelly long enough to understand that, for all intents and purposes, Kelly was oblivious to the world right now. When Kelly got into “project mode” she would get a very focused look on her face, head toward her projects, and start humming. Not any specific tune, not a “song”, just…humming. She was fully unaware of the phenomenon and would deny it if questioned. Cylee had taken to thinking of it as her mental “screen saver”, an external signal that her mind was occupied elsewhere and that linguistic communication had been temporarily suspended.

Kim was sitting up on the bed, facing away from Cylee, pulling a shirt on. Cylee saw a row of golden contacts running down Kim’s back, nothing covering them.

“When did you disconnect your Spine?” Cylee asked.

Kim jumped a little, then put her shirt on and turned around. “Shortly after the War. Zeta felt that the Spine, or 'cold mind' as she used to call it, was calling out to Pacifica, and making us trackable.”

“Are…are you okay now, Kim?”

“I think…I think I was always okay. It was Zeta who needed some help. All of her.”

“So, you know that you and Zeta…I mean,” Cylee said, and stopped.

“I know she used to take over. I know that she has—or had—connections to all the other Zetas that ever were. She tried to shield me from that but didn’t quite do it right. I think Zero did a good job of explaining it to her.

“I’m Zero…” Cylee said. “Well, I guess I understand your terminology. I’ve always just called it 'The Agent', though.”

Kim laughed, a quiet, knowing laugh. A laugh that said the world no longer held any fresh terrors, all the terrors had already happened, but the world was still okay. “What a formal name for such a constant companion.”

“We’ve never really needed any other name, I guess.” Cylee said, somehow feeling defensive. Cylee stood up and Kim walked around the bed and hugged her. “Thank you, Cylee and Zero, the Agent. I think Zeta and I have some making up to do.”

“How…if you don’t have your Spine… how do you communicate with…Zeta?”

“What do you mean?”

“I mean, the Agent talks to me through like, chat messages in my HUD. If you don’t have a HUD…” Cylee felt like she was exposing her own naiveté.

“Zeta has access to my brain directly, just like Zero does yours. She can communicate in any way we agree on. I suspect you could talk to Zero with the Spine turned off, if you wanted.”

“Oh.” Cylee sat on the bed. “Thank you, also, Kim. I’m glad you’re still alive. Oh. I mean… I’m glad there’s…one of you…alive?”

Kim laughed again. “It was a bit of a shock to me as well, but I guess I’ve spent so long thinking I was all the Kims that this isn’t so bad. I don’t feel any different. I still have all of Mother Kim’s memories, so I guess I’m as much 'her' as I am 'me'. Or whatever. But I hear that there are twenty one of you, now. And that you two are off to save the other nineteen.”

“Yes. I mean, we also need to stop Pacifica from doing even more harm, but the first and real goal is saving my sisters.”

“Sisters… I like that.” Kim said, sitting back down. “I always thought of the two of us as sisters, to be honest.”

Cylee sat down next to her. “So did I, Kim.” Cylee looked at Kim for a moment, and knew the answer to her next question.

“You’re not coming with us, are you?”

Kim shook her head. “I’m not a fighter any more, and I would slow you down.”

“Zeta is still a good fighter,” Cylee said.

“Perhaps, but we need to work on that. Now that she has promised not to just take over any more, not sure how that’s going to work. But no, we can’t come.” Kim smiled.

“Breakfast is ready!” Kelly called up.

Cylee nodded and put her hand on her friend’s shoulder. “Well, when we’re done, maybe my sisters and I can settle somewhere close to here and you can show us how to live off the land.”

Kim smiled, a smile that knew the odds of that happening, but was willing to admit it might be possible. “Perhaps. And I’ll welcome all of you.”

Then they went to breakfast.

 
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from Pacifica

Author’s note: I have spent a good two hours trying to figure out how they find Kim. I can’t. I’ll keep working on it, but I’ve got thousands of words to go and I need to move on. So imagine, if you will, a montage. Kelly sitting quietly, writing notes on a piece of paper in a diner. Cylee looking over her shoulder. Kelly looks up sharply and Cylee leans back, inspects the wallpaper, orders another drink. The two of them pouring over the hand-drawn notes later in a hotel room, pulling out a big paper map of Canada and trying to line up points on the map and points in their notes. If you’re more comedically minded have one of them turn the map over and look crossly at the other, as if either of them would accidentally hold a map upside down. All the words would look dumb! At any rate, at the end of the montage, they drive along a dirt road. And that’s where we get back into the part of the story that I’m actually trying to tell. Okay, as you were.

“I think I see a house up ahead,” Kelly said, leaning forward, hands on the dashboard. Cylee was driving slow, taking her time up the small road, scanning not just for the next turn but for any signs of surveillance or traps. Thus far it seemed to just be a road.

There was indeed a house ahead. The trees gave way to a small cleared patch, surrounded by a hand-made fence and gate made of wood lashed with ropes. The boles holding up the arch over the gate were stripped pine trunks, the wood that made up the gate itself was raw, still covered in gray bark, but stripped of branches. Cylee got out and opened the gate, then drove through carefully. There was a long gravel driveway up to the house. She carefully closed the gate and stopped the car.

“Let’s make sure we’re in the right place before we pull right up to this person’s house,” Cylee said. “It might not be Kim.” Kelly nodded and they walked slowly up the gravel path. The space around the house was cleared of trees but mostly wild, not a neatly mown lawn. There was a vegetable garden along one side of the house and a corral and barn on the other side, suggesting that the owner was attempting self-sufficiency. A few sheep wandered free inside the enclosure, explaining the short-cropped wild ground cover. The sun was dropping toward the horizon and long rays were slanting through the pines, filtering through the dust in the air. The trees gave off a cool, resinous scent, bracing, slightly reminiscent of Cylee’s childhood, but familiar Down to the DNA in her blood. This was what home felt like.

Agent (Cylee): You’re both terribly allergic to pine pollen, you know. Agent (Kelly): If it weren’t for us your eyes would be all red and you’d be sneezing your brains out. Kelly: Wait you can stop our allergies? How? Agent (Kelly): Basically we’re telling your immune system that it’s not under attack. We have to be quite firm on this point.

When they were about six meters from the house they both stopped. There was a feeling…something reminiscent of the sense they had around each other, but subtly different. Cylee listened quietly, trying to understand what she was sensing.

“Whoever you are, get back in your car and leave,” said a quiet voice behind her. She felt a gentle pressure against her back. Her jacket was armored so she couldn’t quite tell if it was a knife or a barrel of a gun, but either way it wasn’t friendly.

Cylee: How did we miss someone walking up behind us on gravel? Kelly: I’m not a soldier. I guess I wasn’t paying attention. Cylee: I was more talking to the Agent and their direct control of the vast array of Augments at their disposal.

Cylee breathed slowly and turned quickly Whoever had been behind her wasn’t now, but she saw the inside of the arch over the gate. There was a single symbol carved into the wood: ζ

“Zeta, can you hear me? It’s…Zero,” Cylee said, reasoning that if Kim was using her code name then perhaps she should use hers as well.

Directly behind her she heard, “Zero is dead. Watt killed her. I killed her, I killed her and she killed Sagittarius and he killed me…” Then he sense of a presence was gone.

Cylee: Can you see her, Kelly? Kelly: only glimpses. She’s moving quick and I can’t see where she’s hiding.

Cylee nodded. And she sat down in the middle of the road.

Kelly: What are you doing?? Cylee: Drawing her out.

Kelly shrugged and sat, leaning on Cylee.

For a few moments all they heard was the birds and animals in the trees. Then the voice came again

“Why are there two Zeros? One is older and one is younger but both should have died long since, when we all died. Zero says we’re not dead but I saw us all die, many many times over… Many times…”

Agent (Cylee): Speakers. Not sure how she gave the impression of being physically behind you , but this is all speakers.

Cylee called out “Kim? Come talk. We’re not here to hurt you or take you back to Pacifica—“

“Pacifica killed Kim and Cylee and Wes and Shaun and let Zeta and Zero and Watt and Sagittarius take their places…but perhaps Kim can still be found…” The voice echoed slightly through the clearing.

They waited. Cylee resisted the urge to pull up a clock and count seconds, that just makes time seem longer. As the sun disappeared behind the trees the door of the house opened. Cylee and Kelly stood up, still holding entirely still.

A light turned on inside the house and there was movement at the door. A voice called out, “Cylee? Is that you? Oh, it is!” and Kim came running out.

She was dressed in blue jeans and an oddly old-fashioned blouse, both seemingly hand-made. She ran up to Cylee and hugged her close, laughing and crying and burying her face against Cylee’s collarbone. Cylee wrapped her arms around her friend, secretly waiting for the knife to make another appearance.

“Come in, both of you, come in!” Kim said and they headed into the house.

“Home made” was the order of the day in Kim’s furnishings. Everything was made of wood and cloth, with very little glass or metal. There were solar panels on the roof heating panels in the walls, and electric lighting, but that seemed to be the end of the modern conveniences. The main area of the house was a combination kitchen, dining room, and living room. On the north wall was the sink and oven, in the middle of the room stood a large, wooden table with three chairs, and on the south wall was a sofa, also built of raw wood and furnished with huge soft cushions. There were a few rag-tied rugs under or in front of various pieces of furniture, but that was about it.

“How did you find me?” Kim asked, and Cylee responded. Once I figure out how Cylee found Kim I’ll fill this part in.

“That’s amazing!” Kim said, because I promise it will be amazing. Either that or I’ll take this part out.

“But…why are you here?” Kim asked. Cylee looked at Kelly and Kim followed her eyes. “No…they…they didn’t.”

Cylee nodded. “Pacifica hasn’t given up, apparently. They’re making new clones. Apparently they never really stopped, they just moved their operations. There was a doctor who was there when we were in training, who was part of the cloning program, and she freed this lovely girl from them a few years ago.”

Cylee felt the odd, echoing sensation in the back of her mind which meant the Agent was hijacking her subconscious.

Cylee: You know I need that, right? Agent (Cylee): You’re not really using it right now, and we need some processing power. Cylee: Then use my Spine. Agent (Cylee): We are. You’ll probably need to recharge soon. This is important, we promise.

Kim was inspecting Kelly’s face. Kelly smiled. “I’ve heard a lot about you, Kim. From both Cylee here and from Aunty Tamara.”

“Who?”

“The doctor I mentioned. Tamara Patel.” Cylee said.

“And where is she?” Kim asked.

“Wes killed her. I think…I think he’s still working for Pacifica,” Cylee said.

Kim’s face fell. “I’m so sorry, Kelly.”

“It wasn’t your fault,” Kelly said, her eyes welling up.

Agent (Cylee): Wow. Cylee, there’s something you need to know about Kim… Cylee: What’s that?

“No, it was Watt. Watt killed the doctor as the doctor sent Watt to kill and to die,” Kim said, her eye still downcast. Her voice was falling back into the cadences and tone they had heard broadcast earlier.

“Watt killed Zeta and Zeta killed Zero but it was fine because behind each Watt is another Watt and behind each Zero is a Zeta,” She said standing up and walking around the room.

Agent (Cylee): This. The…agent in her isn’t quite right… it’s not like us, and…it isn’t in balance.

Cylee and Kelly looked at each other.

“And each Zeta kills Zero and Zero kills Sagittarius and he kills and kills.” Kim was walking faster, and when she walked in front of Cylee she threw something at her face, then her voice was gone.

Agent (Cylee): Flour? How was that so good at blocking the Third Eye sensors?

Speakers throughout the house activated.

“But it’s okay because we each die and that’s the only way any of us are safe from PACIFICA” Kim roared through he speakers.

Kelly: Not Kim, Zeta. They’re different, I think. Cylee: Get to safety, Kelly. The car should be safe. Kelly: I don’t think she’ll actually kill us. I think she’s afraid. Or rather, Zeta is afraid. Cylee: They’re the same person! Kelly: No, I don’t think so. I think…what you and I call “Agent” she calls Zeta. Only I don’t think it works as well for her.

A knife flew through the room and hit the wall between them blade first. It stuck for a moment before clattering to the ground.

Cylee: Open windows…she’s outside, and we’re in a shooting gallery.

A quick scan of the room showed windows on all four walls, so wherever they took shelter they were exposed on three sides. Cylee looked up and saw a trap door in the ceiling with dangling pull rope.

Cylee: Kelly, look, there’s a loft. Kelly: Yeah, but getting up in there…that’s total exposure.

“Kim? Kim! Can we talk some more?” Cylee yelled out.

Agent (Cylee): we are working on something and we think we can help but we need time. We think we can help Kim and Zeta Cylee: Okay…

A rock hit Cylee’s shoulder, coming from the window on her right. It had sailed directly over Kelly’s head, so that was something. At least Zeta was only trying to kill her.

“Kelly, I think you’ll be fine. Get under the table, I’ll run outside and you get up into the loft. And hopefully the Agent has something soon.”

Kelly nodded and dove under the table.

“Kim is distraught and has asked Zeta to take over. Zeta used to be surrounded by support and now all she has is Cylee and Zero and Zero and Kelly.”

“I still really need to talk to Kim. Cylee needs to talk to Kim.”

“You mean Zero. Zero is in control,”

“No, Zeta.” Cylee ran out the door and ducked just as another rock came from a round the corner. She scrabbled back to her feet and ran toward that corner, aware that she was playing cat and mouse with someone who had always been better at moving than Cylee had ever been at intercepting. She rounded the corner and was unsurprised to not find Kim there.

“Kim! Please!” Cylee yelled out.

Kim came around the corner, and smiled. “Isn’t it lovely here? I love walking in the cool night air.”

Kelly: I’m in the loft.

“Kim, who is Zeta?”

Kim smiled. “I am, of course. It’s just a nickname.”

Cylee was in over her head. She hated this. Kim had always been a sweet, kind person. Kim had somehow kept herself together long after the rest were deep in despair.

Agent (Kelly): We have it. We need Kim unconscious and preferably on a bed. Cylee: That’s a tall order, I think? Agent (Cylee): We can help her. We see what’s wrong, but we need time to help “Zeta” see what they are doing wrong. Cylee: Okay… Kelly: There’s a bed up here.

“Kim, if it’s not too much to ask, could we stay here tonight?” Cylee said. Kim smiled.

“Yes, of course!” Kim said. Then her face darkened.

“You will stay forever,” Zeta said.

Kim turned to run away again but Cylee was ready this time. She pulled her flechette gun and loaded knockout needles.

Cylee: I need a very specific dose and even then these aren’t fast. Any tracking help would be appreciated.

She turned another corner. This was terrible. She could see the white of Kim’s blouse in the darkening, and fired. The pistol reported fifteen hits, back and legs.

Agent (Cylee): That’s probably enough.

“And Zero again kills Zeta, as she always has. Zero is the angel of dead and leads the dead and creates the dead for Zero kills us all until we can no longer be reborn and only Zero can be reborn,” shrieked Kim, her legs giving out. She fell face first into the moss and Cylee walked over.

“Zero has killed me with rocks and bullets and fire and fire and fire and poison and now she kills me again with poison,” The voice was less “Zeta” and more “Kim” now.

“Kim, I’ve never killed you.I would never…I couldn’t.”

“And yet I can’t move and I feel the dark creeping up on me, as it has, time and again, I’ve felt the dark when any Zeta falls.” Kim was getting drowsy, but still restive.

“And yet so many times I’ve felt Zero save Kim..” She said, quietly, and slept.

Agent (Cylee): The “Zeta” strain must have been more integrated across people… Cylee, please get her upstairs.

Kelly lowered the ladder to the big table and helped Cylee lift Kim up into the loft and onto the bed. The bed was huge, almost as wide as the loft, and covered in handmade quilts.

“How can she keep this place running if she’s turning into 'Zeta' all the time?” Cylee asked aloud as they pulled the blankets up over Kim.

“I think us being here is triggering more 'Zeta' moments than usual.” Kelly said quietly.

Cylee: Okay, now what?

“I already know,” Kelly said, and went down the ladder.

Cylee: Why does she already know but I don’t? Agent (Kelly): Because you were busy so we didn’t distract you.

Kelly returned with their first aid kit. As per usual, Cylee’s first aid kit was more of a mini surgery.

Agent (Cylee): We need you to draw 60 ccs of blood from the artery that runs along the inside of your right elbow. Then we need you to inject it into one of Kim’s veins. Cylee: A blood transfusion? What if we’re different types? Agent (Cylee): You’re both AB negative.

Kelly was gently removing the flechette needles from Kim and cleaning the wounds. “Pacifica records. But also these things. Sensors in there, I guess?”

Cylee: Fine.

Cylee hated needles, but she could do things she hated. She let her Augmented vision highlight the spot and drew the blood. It felt like it took an hour to get a full 60 ccs.

Kelly had already cleaned the insertion point on Kim’s arm. Irrelevantly Cylee thought about how much Kelly has been through, and how adult she had to be, even at 4/14 years old. Cylee gently pressed the needle into Kim’s vein and slowly injected the blood.

Cylee: Now what? Agent (Cylee): Now we need to do some very fast talking. We suggest you all get some sleep. Tomorrow might be interesting. Also we need the brain power. Cylee: That’s all I am to you, aren’t I? Just a brain to use when you need it. Agent (Cylee): No, you’re also transportation. Now go to sleep so we can help Zeta.

 
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