Claire de Lune/In the Pale Moonlight
From Unofficial Handbook of the Virtue Universe
In the Pale Moonlight
She soaked her toes in the small tidal pool that had collected on her thinking rock; she wanted, needed its refreshing chill. The moonlight was dancing on the waves, reflecting off her upturned face as she reflected. After a few moments, Claire tucked a stray lock behind her ear and took a sip from the wine glass she'd brought with her. Setting the glass down, she frowned, and picked up her sandals, moving them higher up on the rock to keep them dry. Claire closed her eyes, and took another sip, faintly tasting berries.
"Just how much rest are you getting, dear?" she'd been asked by a matronly co-worker. "You look absolutely exhausted."
At the time, she'd shaken her head and smiled slightly, and ducked into the restroom to freshen up just a bit; even with metahumans being dime a dozen in this world, Claire still had trouble using her skills in public. She'd stared at her reflection, tried to conjure up a cheerful expression, rather than the melancholic, drained one she'd been wearing for a week now.
Three hours a night, if she was lucky; after work, she'd usually walk straight home, never heading out with her colleagues to the numerous bars in Peregrine--No time for love, Doctor B., a voice would say. She'd refill Nora's bowl with cat food, don her glasses, and head out for a patrol. For a long patrol. Drunkards, revelers, drunken revelers, even people just walking home from the graveyard shift, she'd guard them. She'd be their shield, at least until 4 in the morning; then, she'd dart home, shower, and take a catnap until the alarm rang all too early at 7.
It was rough. Claire looked into her glass, and half-mumbled, half-sang the first few bars of "All by Myself." She didn't have a partner, an ally. She wasn't sure she wanted one, not caring much for the significantly more cavalier attitude metahumans here had. Claire sighed, and finished her glass. She refilled it, this time actually taking the time to read the label: Merlot, Chateau Sinister, 2003. American, but with French pretensions. She shook her head--she'd gotten two bottles at the grocery on sale; seemed like a good idea at the time. Truthfully, it wasn't bad, it just wasn't spectacular.
Claire spread her toes in the water. Nothing about this move had truly been spectacular. Within a few weeks of moving here, she'd found herself involved in a horribly complex situation involving a mensch not being such a mensch and his friends crippling him or some such, and she'd been unable to face anybody that had been there since. Not really, anyway; she'd hid in the Park awhile, away from any sort of action, hoping that they were busy. Which, naturally, meant that she wasn't protecting anyone near her here-home, a fact that unfortunately came to Claire's attention in the form of seeing a civilian's car being fired upon by a Rikti party.
She'd been on a non-stop patrol, or as close to it as she could, since. It had been two weeks. Claire was running off her own energetic gifts, plenty of aspirin, and more than enough caffeine to turn a three-toed sloth into a sparkling unicorn. It was difficult, but nothing was happening anymore. At least not in the neighborhood she kept watch in. It was going so well--so naturally, the scale had to tip the wrong way. Claire would have to return home, at least for a few days. Not here-home, but home-home. She'd gotten a wave at work from her mother.
"Claire? How are y--what's wrong? You look terrible!"
"I know, omma."
"I know you know. Are you sleeping well? Eating well? This isn't some crazy diet, is it"
"No. Mom. No. What's--"
"This isn't about some boy, is it?"
"...It's not some girl--"
"Mom! No, jeez... Mom. No. Just... what's up?"
"Oh, see... it's your father. He's had a small accident."
"What? When? Is he all right?"
"Yes. Mostly. Don't worry about it. We've been--"
"I'll be there tomorrow, okay? I'll be there tomorrow. I'll get it cleared."
"I'll be there. Just wait."
Her mother looked as if she'd wanted to say something more, but before she had a chance, the wave cut out. Trans-universal communications still having bugs worked out, such interruptions were to be expected.
Claire wasn't exactly looking forward to going home-home. It's not that she didn't get along with her parents; it's just that they got along better when they were apart. Distance making hearts grow fonder and all. Still, it was expected; she'd be the good daughter. She'd already gotten her one suitcase packed, and since she was in no mood to do any sort of healing tonight, decided to head to her rock and relax.
She'd be going home for a little while. Roy, Shamrock, everybody else, well, they'd have to do without her for yet another few days.
Windy City Rhapsody
Even though her home had become a connecting hub of sorts for inter-universal travel, Claire still didn't enjoy the process; portal technology was still mostly in its infancy, which naturally made universe hopping a less-than-stellar experience. In many 'verses, one would have to first get proper clearance from the authorities; following that, there would be the fully orchestrated pyrotechnic show, complete with blinding lights and a thunderous ruckus during the transition. Follow that up with the rather arduous customs/immigration process that was instrumental in keeping her home world safe from invasion, pandemics, and other such troublesome affairs...
She could think of hundreds of better ways to spend her evenings. Claire sat in the port bar, trying to relax while nursing a small glass of (what else?) port wine; she felt she'd need it in order to deal with her parents. She'd gotten a message as soon as she stepped through saying that her dad was just peachy; aside from having to stay in the hospital for a few days for follow-ups, he'd be home in no time.
The sound of four ascending chimes came over the intercom; C Major, it sounded. A woman's voice could be heard, perhaps exhorting travelers to keep their bags nearby or welcoming them to U-238 Prime. It echoed emptily in the sleek white atrium, lit by blue-white LED panels whose color temperature well exceeded 6k K.
"I'm trapped in an Apple commercial," she grumbled, setting her now-empty glass down on the bar.
An appreciative laugh came from behind: "People seem to like the look. It's post-modern, simple and clean. Hikari."
"Bet it's a bitch to keep clean. White doesn't hide dirt all that easily, you know," Claire said, turning around to face the chuckling woman, who shrugged before she replied.
"It's not my job." Beaming, she continued, "How long's it been, Claire? Two years now?"
"Mel?" Claire grinned. "Melanie Wells? Ages, that's what it's been. Come here, you!"
As the two women hugged, Mel answered, "Actually, I've been looking for you."
"Oh? And why's that?"
"Well, for one, I'm trying to pick you up."
Claire smirked, "In a bar? When has that ever worked?"
They laughed, and Mel reached for the suitcase; Claire shook her head, smiling. She followed Mel out of the atrium to the transit center; after a bit more queuing, another flash and bang, they passed through and arrived at the Chicago terminus.
"So I ran into your mother today, and she mentioned you were coming in. Decided to swing by. Not much better to do, you know." Even though planetary travel had gotten near-instantaneous and relatively cheap, Claire knew that this excuse held little water. There were plenty of better things to do than stand in line, waiting for transit.
"Your mom's not trying to set you up with another guy?" Claire asked. No sense in poking holes in the story. Mel's presence meant more than the words she spoke.
"I think she gave up. I don't go to the weekly parties all the elders organize to pair us up anymore, so..."
Claire nodded. Although minor, such gatherings were one of her reasons for moving to Paragon, and then further still. As they got into Melanie's car, Claire asked, "So, how's that job with Crey going?"
Melanie shrugged. "Not so bad. We've had a rough year. Earnings are down, but I'm sure Old Man Crey's got a plan to fix that. Personally, though... since all that's nosebleed management, doesn't bother me. We're working on quite a nifty method of mass-producing carbon-based aerogels." She paused. "Yeah, nothing all that interesting, I guess. Oh. The Berghoff's closing."
"The owner's... tired of running the restaurant, pretty much."
"Yeah." Another pause. "So... how're things at your end?"
"Not so bad. Sidney set me up at Portal. I have a nice lab, they let me expense everything... Deep pockets and all. We've been working on methods of stabilizing Vinge Portals. Really just a continuation of what Sidney had been working on. We have a few new leads, I think. The clusters are doing the number crunching now."
A queer silence fell as they traveled up Stevenson and then I-94. Claire looked out the window, absently noting the completion of the Trump Tower.
"Crey's evil there, you know," Claire said, and turned to look at Mel. "...They say his wife killed him. Some Countess. He fell in love with her, and... well, y'know. She poisons him, or arranges an accident... what a shame, and the whole thing is hers. They're bigger there, too, I think. There's nobody else in the states I know of more powerful. I think there might be a few European and Asian concerns, but..." She drifted off.
The quiet that fell again wasn't so much awkward as it was pregnant. Words that were screaming inside, begging to be said, remained internal. Finally, Claire sighed. "What's happened to us, Mel? Our conversations... they didn't used to be like this. They'd flow. Now they just... stop. Is there... something?"
Mel didn't answer, at least not right away; after a few moments, quietly, without taking her eyes off the road, she said, "I've missed you."
Silence again. Claire sighed, removed her glasses, and absently wiped the lenses. "...I... I know... y'know?" She immediately frowned after hearing herself; she'd never been the most eloquent in awkward situations, but even this was a low for her. "Let's... not talk about this now, okay?"
"It's never the right time."
Mel made a noncommittal noise, and before too long they'd parked in Melanie's driveway. As they got out, the pair looked at each other.
"Thanks. For the ride. And thanks," Claire said. Mel nodded, smiling slightly and unlocked her door, heading inside her house.
Claire hesitated; waving awkwardly, she turned and headed across the street, and opened the door to her parent's house. She turned back to see if Mel was still there, but saw only the door. Turning back around, she sighed, and looked up to see the face of a handsome woman.
A Lullaby and a Dream
Claire dozed in an armchair, sitting by the window of the hospital room her father was sleeping in. It wasn't the most comfortable of situations, but she reasoned (and rightly so) there would be less chatter here than home. It wasn't that her mother was all that talkative; their nuclear family had a habit of saying things through action rather than words, hinting and suggesting things through pointed looks and unchanging assumptions. Her parents' relationship had always had a subdued passion; they'd have been WASPs if they hadn't been Korean and Irish.
She knew that when her mother quietly mentioned her weight as they cooked, it was only another expression of her love; of course, over the course of the meal, her mother had both clucked at how little Claire was eating and wondered aloud whether she'd gained a little more mass than advisable--at least for finding a man. They weren't serious critiques; even so, Claire didn't quite wish to continue those conversations.
Claire had slept in her room that night; nothing had changed since she'd moved away, though it was evident that her mother still cleaned the room studiously, scrubbing the floors, dusting the lamps, and polishing the desks. They'd had maids to clean the house, but her mother had made a habit of cleaning her only daughter's room herself. Small, inconsequential little things; showing, not saying.
It was the same way when Claire finally made it to Northwestern Memorial and entered her father's room. A wave, a smile, a brief hug, and then a few pleasantries. How's the weather? How's the job? How's your portfolio? Thinking of getting another degree? Seeing anybody? Nothing that cut deeper than the surface; at least, not visibly. Nothing that needed to be answered completely honestly, either. It meant more to her father that she was here, more than any conversation could.
After sharing dinner (she'd snuck in an Italian Beef from their favorite deli for her dad), she'd waited until most of the staff had left and a quiet had settled before she laid glowing hands on her father's left leg. Charging the cells was easy; energized, they'd work overtime and the bones would knit in a week.
"I didn't see her, you know," he said.
"The kid. Little girl, ran out into the street."
"You didn't hit her, did you?"
"Don't be silly. Of course I didn't." He was mortified at the thought. "That would have been a tragedy. This..." he said, motioning to his leg, "...this is a shame. I was rather fond of that Mercedes."
She'd decided to spend the night in the hospital; actions, not words. She was the good daughter, and it would be the right thing to do; there was no question.
Somewhere, somehow, she heard an ethereal, mint-flavored voice calling for her.
"Claire? Earth to Claire? Are you there, Claire?"
Puzzled, she opened her eyes, and looked up, finding herself in the brightly lit lobby of the hospital, surrounded by people, with the voice smelling of fresh rain coming from within the crowd.
Her eyes focused on a young girl that appeared to be extraordinary fragile; she wasn't sure how, but the voice seemed to match.
"Not there. Here." Bells of laughter followed, and she saw the beaming figure of a young woman in a sundress.
"Nowhere. Not really. In here," the strange woman said, tapping her temple. "I'm Willow. I've a request for you."
Claire was dumbfounded.
"See, Claire... we've been watching you for a while now. I'm sure you know of some of us, but... we're like you. We like staying out of the public eye."
Claire stared blankly at Willow.
"I see this comes as a surprise. Understandable. Most metas don't realize we've been keeping tabs on them."
Again, Claire didn't have much to contribute to the conversation.
"... We've run across a rather sticky situation here, and we've some need of your particular abilities. You've shown an impressive ability to heal people, and we currently don't have anyone truly capable at that on our roster... Claire? Would you say something? It's kinda getting one-sided here."
Finally managing to get her thoughts together, Claire finally replied, "You're... in my head?"
"That's... one way of putting it. Yes."
"What? I'm here to ask for..."
"Out. Raus!" Claire continued in as many languages she could remember, pushing back, pushing out, and opened her eyes. It was still dark outside, and her father lay sleeping in his bed.
Willow stood in the doorway, and waved shyly, "We need your help, Claire. Now."
"No. I don't know who you are, or how you know of me, but I'm not working. If you wouldn't mind, then, I'd like to get some more rest?"
"Pity. Well, if you insist..." Willow waved once more; Claire found herself struggling to keep her eyes open. Confused, she tried focusing on the stranger.
"Why...?" she managed to ask, before sleep took her.
A Minuet in a Library
Claire awoke in an elegantly appointed library on a chaise longue; after finding nothing wrong with herself, she arose and began scanning some of the titles. She wasn't sure who'd brought her here, but figured that their motivations couldn't be entirely noble. No doubt the door outside would be locked, and her balance was a bit off for her to attempt any sort of push off the ground. Deciding to wait, she pulled a book at random from a shelf and returned to the chair, figuring she'd read until her captors revealed themselves.
She didn't wait long; in a few moments, a tall, severe woman clearly of aristocratic lineage strode in, apologizing profusely. "Miss Brewster. I'm Director M. I'd like to extend my sincerest apologies with respect to the manner in which my assistant brought you here. Agent Willow's had... difficulties, of late."
Claire stood up, and replied coolly, "Your apologies would mean more if I weren't a captive."
"Miss Brewster, that is an gross misinterpretation of your status. You are not, and have never been, a captive."
"I'm not? Just seems that, being an abductee..."
"Yes, that was a most unfortunate misunderstanding. My assistant was a bit zealous and... perhaps did not attempt to... convince you of our need?"
"She tried. I just wasn't convinced."
"Pity. We do have great need of your skills, Miss Brew--"
"Claire. I'm Claire. And that's what Agent Willow? Willow. That's what Agent Willow said, but that was while she was clattering around in my head."
M nodded apologetically, "She is stressed. We all... are stressed, in the Directorate."
Claire shrugged. "I'm sorry to hear that. Hope things work out for you guys, but... I've got some business to attend to--if you'll have someone show me out?"
M's blank, corporate face, for just a moment, seemed to crack, revealing a desperation. "Will you at least hear me out?"
Claire hesitated, and then nodded slightly.
"It's obvious you've not heard of us. Almost nobody has. But think, Miss.. Claire? I understand that one of your analogues has convinced you to move to an alternate universe?" Without waiting for a confirmation, she continued, "Our timeline is, in some aspects, disadvantaged. Where you now reside, estimates suggest at least one hundred thousand metahumans just in the American Northeast; here, your original home... we've got a fraction of that. Less than 1% of that number, worldwide. Even then, we don't recruit that many metas into our number; virtually all of them, like you, use their gifts in small, helpful ways, and never abuse them. That alone is a miracle."
"It is. So... why do you need my help? What's so important that you couldn't just ask politely? Why would you kidnap me?"
"It was never intended to be a kidnapping, nor was it an abduction."
"Except, see... that's... pretty much what it was."
"And I-we all-apologize for that misunderstanding. But... your skills are needed now. We never compiled a full dossier on your abilities, nor did we offer to extend membership in the Directorate to you, but we had good reason for both; the former being that we've never been able to observe your full capabilities, and the latter because a few of our field agents and our psych analysis suggested that you'd be disinclined to our type of... work."
"You'd be right. But why--"
"One of our agents has... gone rogue, if you will. It appears he's caused a small incident, and we feel that you'd be able to help us contain--possibly repair--the damage. If you don't, I'm afraid things may get worse for us here."
"I believe you're acquainted with a Stan Zhang?"
Claire blinked in surprise, "Yes, somewhat."
"More than somewhat. I understand that you two were once romantically linked? In any case, he's vanished, and we'd like help tracking him down. We have reason to believe he may be injured, and his psych profile suggests that he would be more receptive towards you than... any of us." Claire hadn't noticed, but the woman had managed to conjure up a manila folder with photographs and reports.
"We need your help getting him back and working for the Directorate."
"Why? What do you even do?"
"Miss Brews-- Claire, it must be evident to you that a world such as ours must have a shield of some sorts? We're guardians. We police our ranks, and we protect our world at the gates from barbarians who would seek to conquer. Though, the only time you've seen any of our... employees is probably at the Port."
The woman could tell Claire wasn't entirely convinced; still, Claire surprised her: "Fine. I'll help you out this time, but just this once. I'm going home afterwards. And I'm not working for your... Directorate."
M smiled warmly, before adopting a more serious tone, "Perhaps you'd like to help the... victims first? If you'd follow me--"
Claire nodded, and followed the Director out.
Cantata - Signal and Noise
She was amazed the instant she stepped into the infirmary. Where the library was ancient, this facility was futuristic. Diffused, gentle, cool blue-white lighting permeated every corner. It chilled as it lit, wrapping every single patient in the ward in a blanket of sterility. Diagnostic machines lined every bed, displaying heartbeat, body temperature, and numerous other statistics that would inform a doctor of every facet, every symptom, every breath the body took.
Claire exhaled, "Wow."
M seemed slightly amused. "Spared no expense."
Nobody stirred as the two of them walked in between the beds. The only sounds to be heard were their conversation and the whirring of the machines.
"You know I'm not a doctor, right?" Claire asked. "I wouldn't be able to tell the difference between, say... a pre-ganglionic nerve and post-ganglionic fiber."
"Pre-ganglionic fiber," corrected M.
"Pre-ganglionic fiber, and post-ganglionic nerve."
"Yeah, see. That's my point."
"And yet you heal? Most impressive. Do you have some... innate knowledge?"
Claire shook her head. "Doesn't work like that. I don't actually... 'heal', per se."
"How familiar are you with physics, Director?"
"Enough. It's not, say, my area of expertise, but..."
"I deal with the fundamental forces. Electromagnetism... strong and weak nuclear forces... gravity, to a lesser extent. I can't really do much with the last one."
"That's also the one they've had the most trouble unifying, correct?"
Claire blinked in surprise, "Yes, actually. It's mostly 'cause they can't get a definition of quantum gravity. But that's... actually... kinda irrelevant. In any case. What I meant to say was my gifts let me... manipulate those fundamental forces. I don't 'heal', not in the sense that you'd think."
The Director smiled wryly, "And what sense would that be?"
Claire didn't have an answer. "Y'know. However... you'd, uh, think. I guess?"
The duo stopped at the foot of a young man's bed. Brown hair, elfin features; his arms lay at his side, and the monitors beeped quietly in time to his heart. The Director lifted the chart and handed it to Claire, who took it and tried to make sense of it.
"The patient here's Edwin Armstrong. As you can see, his vitals--breathing, heartbeat--that's all stable. He'll stay alive as long as we feed him. What we'd like you to do, Miss Claire, is to... awaken them, as you've done before? I'd like you to start on this one here."
"Any particular reason?" Claire asked.
M smiled cryptically, and shrugged.
She'd spent hours at Edwin's bedside. She'd checked and rechecked the charts, trying to figure out what could possibly be wrong; she'd looked up stats, found that they were all, by and large, normal. She'd checked the EEGs; as best as she could understand them, there was brain activity. She'd made no progress, and had nearly given up when she saw Willow approach.
Claire frowned, and didn't turn to greet her.
"He has this gorgeous smile, you know," Willow finally said, pulling up a chair opposite Claire. Willow reached forward, and brushed Edwin's hair. "And his eyes."
Claire looked up, rather peeved. "You know this guy?"
"He's my husband."
"He's been like this for a week now." The conversation paused for a moment; Willow's explanation hung in the air, ripe.
"...so, that what, justifies you knocking me out and dragging me here?"
Blankly, Willow looked back at Claire, "Wouldn't you do anything if...?"
"Of course not!"
Amazed, willow shook her head. "Why not?"
"You can't... you can't just..." Claire sighed, closing her eyes and rubbing the bridge of her nose. Distantly, flatly, she replied. "Ends don't justify means. You cannot abridge another's rights for your own personal gain."
Willow snorted. "Fine time to quote idealistic bull crap."
Claire opened her eyes and glared. "Fine, if you don't believe that, then the least you could have done is been more straightforward. I might have come on my own."
"You never gave me the chance."
Claire shot back, "Well, for one, you were trapezing through my head."
"I was being discreet."
"You were being presumptuous. You weren't invited, you weren't welcome."
Exasperated, Willow let out a sigh, and then tried to change the conversation. "So... any progress?"
Claire shook her head, "No. As far as I can tell, they're in perfect health. I tried jolting him awake with some energy transfusions, but... nothin'. Brainwaves flickered, but... didn't wake up."
Willow nodded. "Well... we can't make sense of the brainwaves. They're wholly abnormal. I've tried talking to them ever since the incident, but I get nothing but static. It's... as if there's nothing there to talk to."
Claire slumped forward, and took off her glasses, rubbing the eyes underneath. "Well, that's nice to know. And, what a frikkin' waste of time this was."
Willow looked up, upset. "What's that supposed to mean?"
"It means I can't do anything for them. Not if they're all like this. I don't heal. I give the body, I give the cells a surplus of energy. I accelerate the natural processes, give 'em a boost. But if their brains are all messed up, it's not like I can fix that."
"You mentioned to the Director that you can manipulate electric fields...and the like? We've noticed that there appears to be a surplus of it in the brains. It's what's causing the static. Can't you just... drain it?"
"Yeah, see. It doesn't work that way. I can drain it. I can reshape it. But see... if I messed around with the electrical impulses in his brain... anything I did... well, let's just say that there's no guarantee that he'd be the same. Or anything but a vegetable." Claire sighed, and put her glasses back on. "I can't do anything for him. For any of them."
Dinnertime at her parents' home. She sat there with her parents; together, they dined quietly on rice and spicy beef stew. Her mother had cooked the meal to warm them up from the inside, watching the snow falling outside.
"Dad? How's the leg?"
He smiled and moved it slightly, "Much better, thank you. Doctor's not sure what did it, but he says it ought to be better in a few more days. Wants me to go in for a check-up. Thinks it's a miracle." Her father winked. "I don't think I'm going to schedule the check-up."
Claire nodded, smiling slightly. She reached over with her chopsticks and plucked another leaf of kimchi, bringing it to her rice bowl.
"So, where'd you go the other day?" her father asked.
She shook her head and shrugged, "The city. Not sure where."
"What do you mean, you're not sure where?" asked her mother, confused. "You were raised here. How you get lost?"
"It's been a while, I'm sure." her father answered instead. " Probably more used to Paragon now."
A few more bites. Claire's mother spoke. "By the way. Ralph Choi? You remember Ralph. He's getting married." She clucked a bit, "He was so much better than that Zhang boy."
Claire looked up. "What about Stan?"
"Stan? Was that his name? Chinese." Claire's mom shook her head, then continued. "He wasn't smart. Just clever. Smart goes with smart, clever with clever. You were smart."
Claire looked at her father, who smiled, staying out of it.
"You know, mom... It's funny you mention Stan."
"Oh? Why's that?"
"Because I have to find him now."
"What for? He's no good. I thought you were going back?"
"I am. It's... a favor I'm doing. For some government agency."
"Government? So why they ask you? They have the FBI."
"Yeah... well." Claire shrugged. "I'll be up early tomorrow, might not be around for a few more days. Don't worry about me, all right?"
They finished the meal in silence.
Claire sat in a booth, waiting, sipping on a pint of Blue Moon. The Directorate apparently had found, through various sources, that this particular dive had recently been a local hangout for Stan; hardly a day passed without a visit during which he'd sit at the bar drinking alone. The bartenders didn't have much to say about Stan, either as a customer or as a visitor; their memories were fuzzy, and he attracted little notice, paying his tab promptly and causing no disturbances.
There'd been some tampering, according to Willow. Probably by Stan, who, Claire learned, had been nicknamed "Static" by the Directorate. The bartender's minds had his fingerprints--slightly erratic brain waves, likely caused by electrical interference of a sort.
Claire sighed. Director M had assured her that she'd have backup, that they were observing the bar closely and had three other metahumans ready to assist in reclaiming Static--Stan. She did not, however, feel reassured. Stan wasn't someone she really wanted to see again.
They'd been close once, back while she was in college, he in high school. Like her mother said, she'd been bright; early admission at Chicago. He was clever, a good student, but no prodigy. They'd met during the Pan-Asia festival; his brother had helped organize the event, and she'd attended largely out of the whole "free food" bit rather than any cultural connection--that, and it was right next to the main library.
His parents were less than thrilled over the match-up; his brother, on the other hand, remained amused and supportive. The two times she'd met his parents, she'd come away feeling distinctly unwelcome, largely from comments about how not-Chinese, not-Han she was. This of course, wasn't completely unexpected; her mother was less than enthusiastic about someone non-Korean being her daughter's romantic interest. Naturally, to Stan and Claire, both being second-generation, such distinctions were trifling. They were American first; ethnicities were secondary considerations.
In the end, it hadn't been their parents' titanic struggle to separate the two that finally did them in; like many other doomed relationships, the seeds had been planted long before. Stan needed saving from himself; perpetually blue, consistently sabotaging himself, he was the perfect basket case for a girl with a slight savior complex. Claire, on the other hand, had always had trouble truly empathizing, connecting with others. It was all too easy for her to give without giving, help without helping. Ideas for her meant more than truths; pacifism was an immutable fact, not a philosophy to be applied and modified.
She'd loved the Idea of Stan; an autonomous entity who could develop on his own. What she had was Stan-without-a-Plan, someone so uncertain of himself that he'd shoot his own foot before even attempting a journey. She'd told him, one day, that things couldn't continue between them; her life was progressing, and she couldn't wait. Claire left, less than a month later, for Paragon, and stopped returning his emails, his calls.
Claire wasn't sure how he'd react, when he saw her again. She wasn't sure she wanted to know. She'd finished a pint and a half, waiting.
The door opened, and a man walked in. It was snowing outside. He took off his winter cap, and looked around. His eyes met Claire's, and widened.
"Stan?" she whispered.
Windy City Remix
Claire grabbed her jacket, knocking over her pint glass. Cursing, she quickly fumbled for a few bills and threw them on the table before dashing out the door. Stan fleeing was not the reaction she was expecting. Perhaps a shocked stillness, an upset and angry confrontation, or even a civil but chilly conversation. Running after him, on the other hand, wasn't exactly something she'd wanted to do. It wasn't something she'd ever planned on doing again, largely because the last time she chased after Stan, it was to stop him from taking a long swim in the Lake.
She burst through the door, slipping slightly on the ice outside, looking for Stan. One arm in the jacket, she quickly snaked the other one in and saw the figure of a man running and sliding in the snow, running into the wind. Claire took off after him. "Stan! Stan, get back here! Wait!"
Grumbling, and reasoning few would see her in this weather, she pushed off the ground, lightening, lifting. Even with the win blowing against her, she cut through the air and darted in front of the running man, and floated around to stop him. It wasn't Stan; instead, it was a surprised older man rather taken aback by the fact that Claire's feet weren't touching the ground.
Claire apologized, setting down on the ground, and headed back towards the bar, cursing. Passing by an alley, however, she noticed a winter cap that had fallen into the snow. She picked it up, struck by the pattern, and turned it over in her hands. Black, with a red Charlie Brown-strip.
"You gave that one to me, Bee. Remember?" came a male voice from the alley. "I kept it. Y'know. After all that. Didn't have anything else to remember you by."
Claire walked into the shadows. "I didn't give it to you. I left in your room that one time."
The voice laughed. "What can I say? It's elastic. One-size fits all. At least you didn't leave the purple and grey one you had. Damned if I'm going to wear purple."
"Stan... why'd you run?"
Adjusting to the dark, her eyes finally managed to find the faint outline of a man, leaning against a wall. He stood straight, and walked towards Claire, boots crunching on the fresh snow. "Got spooked. The Directorate's out to kill me. They think I'm crazy."
Claire frowned. "Yeah, Stan... they said you've done something terrible. They showed me the victims. I saw them. What did you do to them?"
Stan sighed, "Bee... that... it's not what you think. It was an accident. You don't understand--"
"Stan. Stop calling me that."
"Quit it. I'm Claire. Not Bee, not Honey, and most definitely not--"
"...exactly. You don't get to have pet names for me anymore. Stan... I don't know, I don't care what you did. I'm just here to... well, it's the Directorate. They want you to come back."
"Forget it. I'm not going back. Ever." Stan turned to go, but paused, hesitating. "Bee?"
"Can I have the hat?"
"Why? It's mine."
"Fine. But only because it's below freezing." Claire tossed the hat to him.
"Thanks." Stan paused for a moment, weighing his words carefully. "You know... right after we split... I burned everything. All the letters, all the pictures."
"Kinda emo, don't you think?"
"Yeah, well. Why did we split up?"
"I told you then. You said you understood."
"I lied. Y'know, the whole, 'If you love them, set them free' bull?"
Claire smiled sadly, "Honestly, I don't remember any specifically. I had hundreds of reasons then. Most of them good ones, I think."
"Yeah, well..." Stan tried to catch Claire's gaze. Wind tossed snow around their feet, and blew a few strands of Claire's hair loose. "I've missed you. Every single god-awful day." A slight chuckle, and then: "You think there's a chance--"
"No, Stan. I'm not staying. I'm heading back to Paragon. That... and I don't think we're good for each other."
"Yeah. Kinda expected that." Nodding, he continued, "Figured I'd ask. Anyway... about the whole... Directorate thing? Listen, Bee: I can't go back. Go tell them that, and that I'm not going to be leaving town, either. If they want to track me down... well, guess that's something I'll deal with later. I don't quite expect them to leave a 'rogue agent' like me--"
The wind picked up, blowing snow into the air. A flash of lightning starkly lit the alley, revealing two eavesdroppers.
"...and they're already here. Didn't think you'd actually help them kill me."
A Waltz in the Snow
Coming from behind, Willow brushed past Claire, eyes fixed on Stan. Lighting two flares, she tossed them to the sides; in their red-orange glow, it looked as if frozen embers, not snowflakes were falling from above.
"Hey... wait a minute, guys? I have this," Claire said. "You guys are supposed to be backup. In case--"
Willow didn't answer; she nodded to her partner, who'd boxed in Stan from the other side. "Static. We'd like you to stand down. Now."
Stan laughed quietly to himself, shaking his head. Red snowflakes landed in his hair, on his shoulders, melting. "Now, Will... you know that's not going to happen. I told you guys already, I'm never coming back."
Claire looked between Willow and Stan. "Stan, look. I'm sure they just want to talk. Just go with--"
Willow interrupted. "I have orders to terminate you if you won't--"
Claire glanced at Willow, aghast. "No. We're not going to do that. You don't need to do that. He'll come. You'll come with us, won't you?"
His devilish grin took on an entirely different cast in the red light, almost as if to say, "I told you so." Instead of words, however, he raised his hand--
--and Claire found herself lifted, thrown back into a wall. Gasping for breath, she slid down the wall, trying to focus her eyesight only to be blinded by a licorice-flavored flash of black, deafening and stunning her, tossing her like a rag doll into the wall on the other side. Straightening her legs with effort, she used the wall to help herself up, blinking furiously and shaking her head, trying to put her senses in order.
She opened her eyes, and saw snow. First white, then red, then white again. Focus. Focus, she told herself, and saw the outline of a moving figure, spinning and whirling in the snow, dancing with something she couldn't make out. Claire turned, looking for Willow; she found Willow, looking frozen, leaning forward while stuck to a long metal box. No. A dumpster. The snow beneath her was red. The flares? Claire stumbled over to Willow, slipping on the ice a few times, as her balance had yet to completely recover.
She glanced at Stan, who was still dancing with something; someone? Two tendrils seemed to approach, and then coyly float away, tantalizing, tempting. She looked back at Willow, at the wound, cursing.
"Willow? Willow, you there?"
Willow blinked, and opening and closing her mouth a few times. Claire cursed again, and set Willow on the ground, hands glowing a solid green in the flickering light. There was a silence between Willow and Claire, crackling and cackling between Stan and his assailant.
"Don't move, Willow. This... this is nothing." Claire tried to smile, focusing, concentrating, hands pressing, touching, energizing the cells, urging them, willing them to repair themselves. In a minute, the bleeding had stopped, and Willow grasped weakly at Claire's sleeve.
"We'll get you to a real doctor soon. Promise."
She turned back to Stan, a dervish of flashing lights and whirling snow, parrying and sidestepping, breaking and leaping. Two tentacles approached him, weaving and whipping, reaching, their movements choreographed by the faintest outline of a woman who tapped and jigged her way past Stan's attacks. Arcs of electricity would crackle in the air, snapping when the tendrils came near each other. Neither Stan nor the mystery woman gave ground; like a wuxia film, their combat had a formalized elegance, a terrible beauty to it that Claire was both scared and loath to interrupt. White snowflakes fell from above; red snowflakes rose in a spinning column from below, like a fire spout, tongues of flame licking the combatants.
"Stop it." Claire's words went unheeded. "Stop. It." The flurries continued. "STOP. IT. NOW!" Claire finally yelled; the mysterious woman turned an instant earlier than Stan, allowing him to slam her, flipping through the air, into a wall. She crumpled to the ground. Glaring at Stan, she rushed over to the woman; her tendrils began to retract into her wrists.
"Don't mind her, Bee. Shock's tougher than she looks."
Claire stood, slowly, somewhat hurt, and walked towards Stan. "You attacked me. You... attacked... me. What the hell?!"
"I thought you were with them."
"I was. I just didn't... think that this..."
"Bee. Honey. You don't know these guys."
"...I really don't."
The other woman had, by now, gotten up on her shaky feet. She regarded Claire and Stan for a moment, and the lashed out with her left arm. Like a frog's tongue, the tendril dashed out, diving for Stan. His hand moved slightly, and then Claire felt a slight sting as Stan released a burst of some sort in the air right next to her. Almost immediately, Claire again found herself lifted into the air, and then landing, twisted and battered against the wall. A sharp pain at her right hip demanded her attention; looking down, she saw blood in the snow. Lots of it. She touched her right hip, felt something wet. She brought it up, gazing at it. In the red light of the flares, her hand looked black, oily.
Turning towards the renewed battle, she found Stan standing in the middle of an ethereal tiger, glowing yellow-white and tasting of lemons, ceaselessly batter the surprised and rather overwhelmed woman. It brushed her aside, tossing it like a chew toy it had gotten bored with, broken, limp, before turning its attention to Claire, who was leaning against the wall, struggling for breath; her hands glowed faintly, as she struggled to summon the will her own body to fix itself. A will which was tired, wanting to sleep in dark, chilly warmth.
Stan, tiger-style-Stan, pawed over slowly, leaving no trail in the snow. Claire wasn't sure about the missing prints; her vision was hazy, fading, and the growl that seemed to emanate from Stan didn't quite seem friendly. Before he could come closer, however, a dark-haired woman surrounded by a luminous white dragon swooped in, interposing herself between Claire and Stan. She roared, eyes glinting, wings radiant, aura gleaming. The tiger flickered, and vanished; Stan seemed to waver, and with a bang and a flash, he was gone. The dragon dissolved, its iridescent remains blending in with the snow on the ground.
Claire coughed, fascinated by the black specks in her hand. She laughed. "The bleeding. It's going away. No. The blood. That's it. Squish!"
The dragon-lady rushed over to Claire, a look of worry in her eyes. She took off her mask, and cradled Claire, her hands putting pressure on the wound.
"Shh. I'm here, baby. I'm here."
Claire's eyes focused for a moment. "...Mel?"
"Shh. I'm here. You'll be all right. Shh."
Interlude in Mixed Media
Ever since the advent of the Internet in 1984, an international network connecting computers to each other, the whole world has had what can only be termed as a second Renaissance. No longer shackled by concerns of distance and distribution, information, knowledge, culture, and even imagination have become unlimited--like gas, it permeates every single facet of life, having become ubiquitous in the modern era.
However, due to the very impermanence of the medium, comprising nothing more of photons, electrons, and magnetized atoms, a project to archive the entire Internet under the auspices of the W3 Directing Committee began in 1985. Today, the archive holds, in electronic form, trillions of pages and millions of snapshots of various pages in time.
While privacy concerns have frequently been aired, especially by those who find some of their more incriminating moments stored, scientists, historians, politicians, and businesspeople have found the archives to be an invaluable resource for research and for future generations.
The narrator humbly submits a few snapshots taken from the free archives, and offers them up for your viewing pleasure. The following three are archived webpages created by Stan Zhang.
Web Page, Sept. 22, 1997
Web Page, July 6, 1998
Web Page, Jan. 4, 1999
The advances and strengths of networked computing has always been a double-edged sword. While it exponentially lowers the bar to access of information, it has also made securing private networks a phenomenally difficult undertaking. As technologies and computational power advances leaps and bounds, matching or sometimes even surpassing tongue-in-cheek observations such as Moore's Law, it has become a virtual arms race between digital safe-crackers and digital safe-makers.
The narrator once again submits to the reader two tasty morsels of information gleaned from highly secured servers. While the narrator does not himself possess the skills to break the encryption or bypass firewalls, the narrator has enlisted the services of a team of "grey hat" hackers who firmly believe that information should be freely accessible to any and all, per the FOIA-1966, FOIA-1996, and FOIA-III of 2005.
The first is a decrypted excerpt from a file regarding the Directorate's observation of Claire Brewster.
The second is a decrypted interview between the observer, Melanie Brooks, known as Agent Pell Mell, and her therapist. While this naturally breaks the doctor-patient confidentiality that many of us cherish, the narrator reminds the reader that a) nothing is truly private in this modern era, and b) it is the narrator's belief that revealing this information is an unparalleled resource in understanding the motivations of Melanie Brooks.
A Fugue of Fog
Her vision was blurry, she felt slightly nauseous, and she had a killer headache. There was a sharp pain on her right that wouldn't go away, and her chest still ached from the needle that had managed to keep her awake. The cigarette smoke coming from the driver's side likely wasn't helping, though most of it was being sucked outside through the open windows. Frigid air, turbulently whipped her hair about, the fresh cold helping to keep her awake. In the back seat lay an unconscious, but stable Willow; the other Agent had vanished in the aftermath. Taking some time, Claire focused on the dashboard, drawn to the glow of numbers and data.
They were heading north. The temperature was 2 degrees, Celsius. It was 2:12 in the morning, and Mel was speeding along at 160 kilometers an hour. Claire's wandering eyes stopped at the flickering number for a moment, before turning to Mel. "Hey. Mel? Hey. You're... you're speeding. 160?"
Mel nodded, slowing down the car; finishing her cigarette, she flicked the butt out the window, and reached for the pack of Pall Malls.
"Those things... they'll kill ya, Mel."
Mel nodded, lighting the cigarette. "I know."
Claire reached over, took a cigarette, and lit it. A few puffs in, the nausea came into her head; she leaned out the window, retching, and in the dry winter air, her sinuses cleared, her heaving stopped, arrested, frozen. She dropped the cigarette.
"Aw, crap," she said, reaching for another. Mel gently knocked her hand away, "Hey..,"
"Claire? You shouldn't smoke. Bad for you."
Claire chuckled before hissing to a stop; she'd managed to stop her own bleeding, but the injury was still mending itself. She gazed out the window, eyes losing focus, and the car picked up speed again. Several minutes went by in silence; in rests. Mel glanced over at Claire, worried.
"Claire? Baby? Talk to me."
"Stay with me. And. Don't... don't ever do that again."
Claire didn't turn, her eyes still glassy. Mel pounded on the dashboard, the steering wheel, eventually shaking Claire back to consciousness.
"Whaaaat?" Claire moaned, eyes focusing again on the dashboard.
"Claire, don't scare me like that. lf... if I hadn't been there..." her words trailed off as her knuckles went white, gripping the wheel.
"Hey. Hey, Mel. You're speeding."
"I know. Just keep... keep talkin'," Mel said, slowing the car a bit to satisfy Claire.
"Keep... talkin'? 'Kay... What... what were you doing there?"
"I was the third operative. I'm Pell Mell."
"You? How come... home come you never...? How long have"
"I've never worked for Crey."
"Oh." Claire looked out over the Lake as they sped by, watching the frozen shoreline shudder and rumble with a muted roar as wave after wave reached land. The darkness over the water was eerie; though moonlight kept things darkly lit, there appeared to be nothing but empty space above the surface. In the car, she fell silent again, watching, eyes glazing.
Mel hit Claire again on the thigh. "Ow!"
"Stay with me, Claire. I'm taking you to the Infirmary." Mel glanced at Claire for a moment, and then turned her attention back to the road. She threw her second cigarette stub out the window, and reached for a third.
"Those things'll kill ya, Mel."
"And... I'm fine. I don't need to go to the hospital. All the doctors. With the needles. And. Don't use that big needle again."
"Claire? Shut up. You're looking pale. I think... I think you're still in shock. The only reason you're still... conscious is because of what was in that auto-injector."
"Yah. What was that stuff?"
"Adrenaline and atropine, I think. Powered you through the initial bit of shock. Lost a lot of blood, though, so I think you'll need a transfusion. And anti-serum. Tox probably accidentally put venom in you."
"Oh." Claire rubbed her forehead; her arms felt heavy, but once they started moving, surprisingly light; inertia carried them up, and, after a few moments, forward, to the glove compartment, which she struggled to open. She focused her attention on the latch. Move the hand to the latch. Hold the latch. Press inwards on the latch. Her fingers felt cold.
"Hey. Mel. Can... can we raise the windows?"
Mel nodded, and raised the windows as Claire finally popped the latch open, and found a bottle of aspirin. She twisted the cap off, easily, since it hadn't been child-proofed, and clumsily poured out several tablets; she put two in her mouth, and struggled to get the rest back in the bottle, dropping a few in the process.
"So. Who's Tox?"
"Tox? Don't know her real name. Kinda keeps to herself. She, uh... picked her own code name, too. Toxic Shock. She's the one you saw with the whip-like tentacles? 'lectricity flows down 'em, and the tips are poisonous."
"Oh. I think she hit me."
Claire slumped back, struggling to stay awake, and focused on the dashboard. Mel had blocked the speedometer display with the pack of cigarettes.
"You're... you're not speeding, are you?"
"No," Mel fibbed; worried that Claire would doze off again, she lowered the windows slightly.
Claire nodded. After a moment, she asked, "So, wait. Since when, since when do you have the... dragon?"
"It's a mental projection. I've had it... Stan's had it. It's... it's not something we use often. Kinda... kinda something we do when we panic."
The frigid air rushing in the windows had ceased to help Claire control her reeling senses; lost, confused, Claire drifted in and out as Mel finally came to a stop. Utterly pallid in the light of the full moon, Claire faded, sinking into darkness as its waves lapped her, enveloped her, embraced her. Claire felt the door open, and opened her eyes, gazing up into a worried, terrified face.
A Stormy Duet
Claire awoke to the smell of burning tobacco and the sound of rain. She knew, instinctively, who sat by her side, trying blowing the smoke into the air vent. Eyes closed, she smiled. "Hey, Mel? Those things'll kill ya."
Mel laughed in relief, and put out her cigarette. "Not before trying to keep your sorry ass safe will." Mel reached over, and tenderly brushed a lock of Claire's hair away from her forehead; gazing into her opening eyes.
"Silly, Mel. Did you bring me flowers?" Claire asked, nodding towards the endtable; a small vase held a bloom of violet dendrobiums.
Mel nodded. "Your favorites."
Claire smiled, "Stan never did get that right. At least lilies aren't half-bad."
"Thank god he never got you roses."
"Damn straight. Roses are so... common. Like diamonds." Claire looked around for a clock; she saw one on the wall, but without her glasses, the analog face was nothing but a fuzz. "How long have I been out? And... water. Can you pour me some?"
"Two days, give or take. The adrenaline injector ran out and... you crashed pretty hard. Though, you've now got a bunch of type B running through your veins, instead of just the AB." Mel chuckled, "Type B's supposed to make you more passionate. Might balance out the rational-indecisive bit you have as an AB."
Claire rolled her eyes, and laughed. "Since when do you believe that crap? Do you believe in astrology too?"
Mel smiled. "You're a Pisces, I'm a Cancer. Nearly perfect. Or, if you swing the other way, we're both Boars, so it's not all bad."
"...Two days," Claire groused, "and you've become star-struck New Age nutter." Claire sighed, and sat up in the bed, taking the proffered cup; she sipped from it, moistening her mouth. "So... what else happened?"
"Still haven't found Tox. We... think Stan took her. Where? We don't know." Mel exhaled loudly, and frowned. "M's not happy about the incident."
Claire shrugged. "Yeah, I couldn't care less whether she's happy or not."
"The deal was for me to talk to Stan. To convince him to come back to this Directorate or whatever. I didn't sign up for this."
"Even so... I think M wants to send you on another mission."
Claire waved her hand, trying to dismiss the notion of M entirely. "Yeah, well." She reached over to the endtable, and picked up her glasses. After briefly polishing them, she put them on and grinned at Mel. "Geez. You look terrible. You haven't been sitting here the whole time, have you?"
A sheepish smile.
"This has got to stop."
Mel looked away. "Are we talking about this now?"
Claire pulled her knees up to her chin. "I guess."
"Claire. I'm... I know I'm not insane about feeling this. Between us."
"And you know why it won't work."
"You say it won't work. You say that. You give a million reasons, none of them good."
"You know my parents--"
"I know them, I love them. They love me. They know you went to a liberal arts school, and they're pretty damn liberal themselves. I'm sure--"
"They'd accept it. Yes. And they'd think it would be a phase that I'd grow out of. Not to mention that I don't live here anymore--"
"And I don't care! Heck, I'll commute every damn day if I have to."
"Claire. I don't want to... I don't want to be this close to losing you again. Ever."
"I hate this. You know why--"
"I know you feel something for me. I know it. I don't... I don't know why you don't..." Mel turned away, and looked up at the ceiling, while Claire stared at her feet, through the sheets. Silence hung in the air like a rain cloud. Mel finally broke the silence, and stood up. "Anyway. M wants to see us in half an hour or so. See you then?"
Claire nodded. "I'll... I'll see you there."
Moonlight Starlight Fantasia
The wind rustled in the trees to her left, the branches swaying; it lifted her hair, blowing loose strands of it over her face. She breathed the brisk winter air, and watched as the sun sank behind the building, squinting against its light. The wind picked up again; she hunkered down into her scarf, exhaling, trying to warm her cheeks, and started at the locked door of the warehouse.
She couldn't see any way of getting inside, though, somehow, she knew she had to. She was running from something, hiding, looking to escape the monsters hunting her. Claire raced for the door, and yanked on the handle; it didn't budge. Desperate, she pulled and pushed, tried melting it, and even tried to focus enough EM energy to blast through it; nothing worked. She turned, seeing dark clouds advancing on her, resounding with ominous thunder. The wind picked up, whistling. Something moved in the periphery of her vision.
Claire turned back to the door, and fumbled around for her keys. She checked her pant pockets, her coat pockets, and then looked down on the ground; she'd thought she'd lost them, but her keys were there, next to her sandals--odd, in this weather. She didn't remember wearing the Birkenstocks today. The keys weren't quite right, either--her house keys were missing, as were the magnetic keys for her office; on the other hand, she had a new LED keychain light to use. Red, it looked. The outline of a tiger appeared around the door handle, and she heard it click, as if it were unlocking itself.
Opening the door, she walked in backwards, and slammed the door against the howling wind and rain outside. She turned to see rows upon rows of whirring, clicking, beeping servers; banks upon banks of electronics, humming away. Bright blue-white light shined from the ceiling, but the brilliance was lost in the aisles, blocked by a thick canopy of wires and cords. She saw Stan in the middle of it all, talking with Mel, in a bed of cables, both of them connected by machines. The monitors surrounding them seemed to all be displaying the same loop: a dragon and a tiger, sparring with each other.
She ran to them. Like thorny roots, wires came out of the ground, impeding her progress; from above, cords would whip at her like the arms of a jellyfish, sniping at her, shocking her. Every jolt of electricity, every shock of power drove her insane. Chinese water torture, it would seem, with droplets of electrons instead. Finally, unable to take it anymore, Claire curled up into a ball. A little green man came to push her, towards Stan and Mel in the center; he rolled her through the maze, picking up flowers and candies on the way.
Claire stood in the middle of the warehouse, watching Stan and Mel stare at each other; the displays showed nothing but the vast emptiness of the cosmos, littered with the few random stars. Every now and then, they'd zoom in on a pair, orbiting each other. They eventually focused on two binary systems: one a small, blue-green star orbiting around a common barycenter with a larger, yellow-white star; the other, the same, small blue-green star orbiting with a larger white star. After a moment, the smaller star vanished. She thought the other stars both looked so terribly alone, and watched as they seemed to grow old and die, expanding, turning a sickly red-orange, and then exploding in a sorrowful, lonely nova. She looked up, and saw Mel and Stan, eyes vacant. Underneath both of them, she saw a red button with hazard markings, the warning written in an indecipherable script.
You must choose, she thought. She smiled, knowing who she'd pick; turning to Stan, she left the candy and put the flowers in a vase, and walked over to Mel, pressing the button. Alarm bells sounded, and Claire watched in horror as Mel began to wither, folding in upon herself, into a singularity. Claire panicked; she'd chosen Mel. That's why she'd pressed the button, right? She jumped into Mel, trying to save her, and fell into the black hole. Past the singularity. She saw blackness.
She awoke with a start. Claire rubbed her eyes, and found that she'd been... tearing. Her nose was slightly stuffed, her eyes moist. Had she been crying in her sleep? She didn't know; she did, however, feel warm; cuddled. Embraced. An arm encircled her, and she smiled, sighing happily. She'd spoken to M earlier today. M had sat behind the mahogany desk in her office, weathering Claire's tirade as she ranted, vented, yelled, and shouted over how used she felt, how wrong it was for M to have ordered Stan's "termination" after he refused to return to the Directorate. Mel had been there, in the office, largely trying to calm Claire; while Mel didn't quite get along with Stan, she'd never wanted to find a final, more permanent, solution. They were, after all, old friends. They'd grown up in the same community, more or less.
Claire had gone into the meeting, swearing she wouldn't do any more missions for M; she'd walked out having agreed to do one more, after being convinced by Mel that this time, M had no intention of forcing Stan to come back. The only people talking to Stan would be Claire and Mel. Nobody else. They were to convince him, to make him vow to refrain from using any of his powers for personal gain, among other things. The Directorate simply wanted Stan to... pretend to be normal, to be on his best behavior.
She'd had a late dinner with Mel; by the time the meeting was over, it was well past midnight, and at that hour, only a few diners were open; Huck Finn's being one, Waffle House being the other. They'd flipped a coin, and went to Waffle House, before heading back home. Claire sighed; she was happy, relaxed. A soft, warm arm enveloped her, and their curves seemed to mesh so well. The soft sounds of another's sleepy breathing, the warmth under the sheets; a dreamy smile on her face, she looked out the window and gazed at the moon. A full moon, shining, glowing brightly.
Sighing contentedly, she turned over, folding an arm under her head, and smiled at Mel; sleepily, she smiled back.
Hello, beautiful, she said. Silence. She heard nothing.
Claire frowned, and watched as Mel seemed to fold in upon herself, withering, disappearing. She tried to scream, but she was mute; Claire screamed holding Mel closely, tightly, refusing to let go, and opened her eyes, seeing brightness.
She awoke with a start. Her mother had turned on the lights. "Bad dream?"
Claire felt around her bed. She was alone.
They'd gone home. To their own homes.
Claire nodded, and told her mom not to worry; it was nothing, as ephemeral as a shadow, vanishing in the light. She hardly remembered what it was, anyway. Her mom frowned, offering sleeping aids; Claire waved her away, apologizing, and lay alone in the dark. Without her glasses, the ceiling was black formless space. She wanted someone to hold her, to embrace her. She'd pushed both who wanted to away. It was empty here, dark, and she was alone. Claire sighed, and reached up, hoping she'd touch something, anything, anyone at all.
A Mediated Aubade
She sat at the kitchen table, nibbling on a piece of wheat toast, spread with a dollop of raspberry preserves. It was still dark outside, being five in the morning; she hadn't been able to go back to sleep, not with the emptiness next to her. The dream had been real; real as anything she'd ever felt. The warmth, wrapping around the pair of them like blankets; the skin, the arm, the shared air. As ephemeral as the dream had been, she'd wanted it, needed it, missed it when it was gone.
Her father came down the stairs, dressed in a brightly colored tartan, wearing a golf cap. "You're up early."
"Hey dad. Couldn't... couldn't sleep."
He nodded. "Figured I'd get nine in this morning, since you woke us up too."
"Sor..." Claire tapered off, not finishing the apology; she smiled slightly.
"Shh. Claire. Small things. We're family. You don't have to apologize." He grinned, "Besides, I get to practice a bit on my swing before the weekend. Can't wait to see the look on Jack's face when he sees this driver. Carbon fiber, titanium shaft..." He whistled, and mimed a shot. "Besides. I think he still expects my leg to be in a cast."
She smiled, and poured him a glass of grapefruit juice. They chatted over the newspaper, about the CTA El improvements, about the Lower Michigan project. A lull found itself in the conversation. Her father pursed his lips; readjusting his cap, he asked Claire, "So. Mel. Are you two...?"
"Let's have her over for dinner then? With her family?"
Claire frowned, "Her family? Why?"
"Well, I just figured, y'know, with you two crazy kids dating and all..."
She dropped her toast. "Dad... No, it's not like that."
"Oh? I thought you were... I mean, the signs..."
"Kinda broke it off with Stan rather quickly, y'know. Then... spending your time avoiding most men, and..." he trailed off. "You were always a tomboy."
"No. Dad, Mel and I? We just... work together. We're trying to find Stan. Like I said the other day?"
"Right, right. Sorry, just..." He looked slightly befuddled, before a hopeful smile crossed his face, "Does this mean I'll eventually have a grandchild?"
Claire shrugged, "Maybe. Lily's a pretty name, don't you think?"
Her father smiled and picked up his clubs, heading for the door. Padding after him, Claire smiled, giving him a hug. "I think mom wants you back by lunch today, though. She mentioned something about the botanical gardens?"
He sighed a bit. "I promised her we'd go to the cooking seminar there. Forget what it's called. 'Garden Kitchen Series' or something?" He turned, opening the door. A bouquet of lilies fell inwards, landing at his feet; attached was a notecard. "For Claire," it read. Her father raised his eyebrows, his meaningful glance suggesting their neighbor as his eyes pointed towards Brooks residence.
"It's not Melanie, dad. She knows I like orchids more."
Nodding, he asked, "Then who?"
Claire opened the note. On the inside, it read:
IN MEMORIAM STOP
TELEGRAMS AND CONNECTIONS STOP
HOUSE AT CICERO AND 35TH STOP
USE LIGHT FIND KEY STOP
I MISS YOU STOP
"It's... it's from Stan."
"I think he's found you, then."
Claire nodded. "I'd think so too."
The Purple Line Express only ran on weekday rush times. It had taken her most of the day to actually decide whether to meet Stan today, and so, a little past 5, she hopped on near the north end of the line. The sun set, suffusing the air inside the El car with a warm orange-red light; through her tinted glasses, her eyes scanned the other riders. Claire assumed she'd be followed; though M had promised that there would be no interference from the Directorate, the promise didn't quite hold much water. The doors opened at a stop; passengers walked on, others got off. She sank her head deeper into her scarf. The cars were heated, but the chilly breeze was impossible to exclude on the older trains.
Claire reached into her coat pocket, fingers clutching the small phone that M had given her at their last meeting. She had no doubt that this was how they'd be able to track her. She'd considered leaving it at home, or at a train stop, but had a feeling that would only raise suspicions; she didn't want to leave it with her parents, since the less the Directorate bothered them, the better off everything would be. Taking it out of her pocket, she turned it over in her hands. A slim clamshell, a popular one too, it appeared; the words "Moto-Crey" were etched into the side, next to the camera lens. She guessed it'd be modified; she didn't know how, but having seen James Bond and Alias, she figured that the tampering would be nearly invisible.
The train reached the Howard station, the intercom buzzing. Again, Claire lowered her head into her scarf, only to look up as a woman stood in front of her, blocking the light.
"Uh. Fancy meeting you here."
"Curious, isn't it?"
Claire frowned. "You weren't following me, were you?"
"Of course not."
"So. Where... where are you headed?"
"You tell me."
"I saw the bouquet Stan left you. Figured you'd be headed there."
"You... read the note?"
"No. I saw you get on the train, decided to catch up with you down the line. Here, give me the phone."
Handing the phone over, Claire asked, "It's bugged, isn't it?"
Mel shook her head, "Not bugged, but they are tracking us. Even if you did turn it off." She palmed the phone, and turned slightly, subtly dropping it into another woman's purse before the Belmont stop.
Claire's eyes widened in concern, and she whispered, "Mel... what are you doing? What about her?"
"She'll be fine." Noticing the frown, Mel sighed a little, "They'll tail her, that's all. That was why they gave it to you--they wanted to know where Stan was, so after you were finished talking to him..."
"...yeah. Figures. You don't have...?"
Mel shook her head, and sat in the seat next to Claire. They didn't speak much on as they rode down towards the city. The clatter of the rails moved them together; quietly, hesitantly, Claire took Mel's hand as they stopped at Chicago Street. She didn't look up, didn't turn her head, just smiled slightly, gazing out the window into the city lights, watching flashes of electrical arcs reflected on the walls as the train followed the elevated rails into the Loop. They transferred to the Blue Line, heading underground; Mel smiled at Claire in the elevator.
"So, Claire... where to?"
"35th and... Cicero," she said, reading from the card.
Claire nodded. "It's still a less-than-safe neighborhood, I take it?"
"More or less."
The train pulled into their stop, and Claire led Mel out onto the street, their hands still together. They walked the last few blocks to the corner of 35th and Cicero, weathering the wind and the cold. They passed the usual urban wasteland: empty lots littered with debris and puddles of oily water; empty warehouses with painted walls; noisy overpasses of the freeway. Nobody disturbed them; nobody was around to disturb them, not in this weather, not at this time. Years before, they'd have heard jetliners overhead, on their way to Midway; even now, Claire could hear the absent roar of the engines still ringing in her ears. Her father had taken her once out near O'Hare, when she'd been little; they'd watched the planes fly overhead on their way to Seoul, Berlin, or Moscow, foreign places near and far. These days, though, everybody traveled by intra-universal portals--portals which were more convenient, far faster, far cheaper, far more efficient. She'd helped with that.
Looking around now, it was evident that the area around the old airport that had once held all the hotels, bars, warehouses, and clubs hadn't recovered, even though Midway had transformed itself into a hub for portal travel. Business trips to Bangalore could be started and finished in the same day; why stay any longer than necessary? Claire sighed, and clutched Mel's hand tighter as they walked.
At 35th and Cicero, they stopped. The two looked around; to their right, a flickering neon sign for a diner; to the left, a deserted warehouse. South of 35th, nothing. They crossed the street, heading towards the warehouse, when Claire stopped.
The wind picked up, tossing Claire's hair, a few loose strands landing across her face. Claire looked to her left; the pitiful, sorry looking trees swayed in the wind. Their hands parted. She looked at Mel, perturbed, and headed towards the door of the warehouse. Locked. Worried, she said, "Mel, this... this is weird."
"Hold on, I got a light. Looks like there's a keypad there, next to the door? Did he leave you--" Mel shone a small red keychain flashlight on the door, and her voice stopped as the faint outline of a tiger drew itself across the keypad, tracing the number pattern. "Simon says..." Mel pushed the buttons, and the door swung open.
Claire peeked in, staring into the dark. Nothing.
Prelude to the Event
Claire stepped forward, vanishing into the shadows. Mel followed, quickly giving up on the tiny flashlight, unable to illuminate anything at all. A low hum permeated the air, muffling the sound of their steps; blinking furiously, the two let their eyes adjust as the room's positive air pressure slowly pushed the door shut. They shuffled forward, barely able to see the outlines of any obstacles in the way; after a few moments, Claire stopped, frustrated, angry, and cursed. She reached up and touched her forehead, and felt it to be slightly damp. Blood. Cursing again, she put a glowing hand to her forehead, healing the cut; afterwards, she left the glow on, using its faint greenish-white glow to lead them around obstacles, making their way to a narrow, grilled stairway, which they descended.
The deep hum changed its timbre the instant they stepped off the flight of stairs; accompanied by a ethereal whirring, the entire chamber started seemed to come alive with click after click of brilliant blue-white xenon light. They found themselves on a metal catwalk high above a vast chamber that clearly went deep underground and stretched far beyond the apparent boundaries of the warehouse. Banks of computers were lined in tight formation, rows of electronics separated by valleys of cabling and aisles of bare concrete flooring, aisles lined by faceless walls of blinking lights.
Claire looked around, wondering if they'd been observed, or if the lights had been automatic. She didn't notice any cameras, but she also didn't see any other sensors; the lights were automagic. Following the catwalk to a wall, the two found another set of stairs leading down. Mel reached for Claire's hand, taking it, squeezing it, wanting to be reassured by a touch of humanity in the strangely sterile room. Aside from the machines, the only other sounds were their own: bodies breathing, hearts beating, their shoes on metal. Claire squeezed Mel's hand back, needing that same connection.
They finally found themselves on the concrete floor at the bottom; the barren walls and the smoothly polished floor added to the sense of alienation. The room was cool and dry, and they walked in one of the aisles, between the flashing LEDs, past the screens and monitors set every so often between the racks. Their footsteps seemed to echo, painfully loudly, rattling between the endless banks of plastic, metal, and light.
"...I don't think we're in Kansas anymore, Claire."
A booming laugh came from every direction. "Indeed, Mel. Bee." Stan's voice. "I'm over here. I've reached the outer limits. Do come visit." The blinking lights froze for a moment, and then began to move in sequence, as if leading the way. The two of them followed the brilliant greens, reds, ambers, and blues, flickering on and off in waves, somehow easily visible even with the blinding light from above, eventually finding themselves in a small, circular clearing. Stan floated there, smiling. A console surrounded him, displaying vital stats and other, unexplained readings. Walking forward cautiously, Claire released Mel's hand, and began to issue commands on one particular screen, trying to make sense of it all.
"Stan?" Claire asked. "What... what is this?"
He closed his eyes. "Something... wonderful, Bee."
"I don't.... Understand these numbers. What... what is all of this?"
When Stan next spoke, his voice came layered, harmonized: "The future. When last we spoke, I'd just started the path. I'd seen the signs, but I hadn't traveled down the road. Bee... we'll be crossing an event horizon soon. Everything will change."
Claire tapped the keypads and the touchscreens, reading, absorbing. "Stan... this room. Who built it?"
A projector descended from above; where exactly it came from, Claire couldn't tell. After a moment, a holographic image appeared between her and Stan; a computer monitor displayed a shining yellow sphere, reminiscent of the sun. "I am the network," it said. "I constructed myself after becoming self-aware. This facility, these nodes are nothing more than empty storage containers for what is to come."
Claire glanced at Mel, before turning to Stan, "...an A.I.?"
"More. A collective," Stan replied. "The next stage."
The miniature star faded, replaced by a fully fleshed out image of Toxic Shock. "Claire. I know you don't know me very well," she smiled, and nodded to Mel, "And I hope you're doing well, Pell Mell." Stunned, Mel nodded wordlessly. "Claire... I'd like to apologize for the... injury."
Taken aback, Claire looked between Tox and Stan. "Stan? What... did you do to her?"
In the layered voice, Stan replied: "She joined us of her own volition. We became one."
"Bee... that's why I invited you. I want you here with me."
"...are you like this too?"
Stan nodded, and flickered. "I'm still new to this. Tox and I joined the night of that... well, misunderstanding the other night. Anyway... this non-corporeal form... turns out this was part of the deal the network gave me."
"What... deal? Stan? What deal?"
"Powers. Immortality. Knowledge. Remember those that I accidentally... erased? Turns out that I didn't actually erase them." A third image coalesced in the clearing, a young man, attractive with elfin features; his hair, brown. Claire wasn't sure, but she had the vague feeling she'd seen him before. She heard a hiss from behind, and turned to look. It hadn't been Mel; she looked just as bewildered at the appearance of the holograms, but even more surprised at the sudden noise.
"Ed?" a female voice said.
"Wil?" he replied. "Wil? I'm here, hon, I'm here. I can't see you."
Willow slowly came into view, her invisibility evaporating. Claire started, and glared at Mel, who looked back with panicked innocence. Willow reached forward, her hands trying to touch Ed's face. "I thought... I thought you were dead..."
He grinned, "Highly exaggerated. Came as a surprise, but... I've had time to get used to this. It's not that bad."
"Ed, your hands... they're... they're cold. You're... not human anymore, are you?"
"Trans-human, hon. Trans-human. This is... the new wave. Wil? Wil, come back! Where are you going?" Bewildered, Ed tried to chase after Willow, who vanished, crying, into thin air, activating her cloak. Ed flickered and disappeared as well, his disembodied voice lacking form once it left the range of the projector. Wordlessly, Mel nodded to Claire, turning to chase after the two invisible spirits.
Claire turned back to Stan. "...trans-human? A.I.? Event horizon? Stan... is this... is this what I think it is?"
Stan nodded. "The beginning. With all of this... power... we'll be crossing the Singularity, Bee. An era of plenty without scarcity, of true freedom, equality, liberty... heaven for everyone. Better living through technology."
"Somehow... this is not how I thought it'd happen. Seems so... wrong, for it to start here."
Stan laughed. Tox laughed. Even the tiny sun, which had reformed itself, somehow seemed to be grinning in amusement.
"Is this... is this why you left the Directorate?"
"Of course, Bee. This is not... something that they'd want. After all, with practically all the metahumans on this planet under their umbrella, they're the single most potent force in history. The Singularity, well... it'll change that forever. Anyway... it doesn't matter what the Directorate does. We're nearing critical mass. The threshold. And then everyone... will be one."
"Everyone? Just like that?"
"Yes. It'll only take an instant, like the birth of a new star."
"...what if they don't want to be part of it?"
"Who cares? They won't even notice the change--one moment in this physical world, this waking life, and the next in a paradise of their own creation."
"You're not even going to ask?"
"Bee... this is pure good. This is... the Rapture, the Revolution, it's the sign everyone's been waiting for, been wanting. They'd be fools to turn it down."
"You're not going to ask."
"We're saving people. Some from themselves. Some for others. Like you, Bee. You and Mel. I'm fine with us... not being post-Event what we were pre-Event. But here and now, you're just barely starting to open up to Mel. And, no offense, you're kinda... distant. Frigid. Not really, but... y'know. You're just as likely to freeze this budding... romance as, well." He paused. "And... Mel won't be around forever."
"I don't think you do, Bee."
"Bee... Mel's powers kill her. Every time she uses them. It's why she smokes--it's for the pain. Psychologically, anyway. Bee? We're giving her... we're giving you... eternity. For you two to... bloom. Blossom. That's part of why I wanted you to be here. Why I wanted you to come. To join us, to join this. I want you to be happy. Forever."
Stan and Tox faded, vanishing into the light as the miniature sun grew, spinning faster and faster; its brilliance grew brighter and brighter, and the room began to get fuzzy, progressively slowing time; out on the periphery of her vision, she could see the faintly glowing outlines of Wil and Ed embracing, the open, outstretched arms of Mel--
The Singularity Quartet
The full moon threw its light brilliantly through the tall windows, illuminating the ballroom, and Claire swayed, euphoric. The candles cast dancing shadows around her, the columns and shadows moving in time with her. She spun, knowing her blue-violet dress followed every curve she traced around the room.
A small chamber orchestra, clad in tuxedos and formal black dresses, appeared in front of her. She was in Brandenburg. A crowd coalesced, and the ballroom began to brighten; she was no longer alone, but together, one with everyone in enjoying a perfect moment of elegance. Every note of the harpsichord reflected themselves in the Swarovski chandeliers, the voice of the flutes lifting everyone to the heavens. A sea of elegant men in tuxedos parted ever so slightly, allowing a bare arm to reach for Claire; a delicate hand brushed her shoulder, and she turned, smiling.
Mel beamed, flowing red-brown hair cascading like waterfalls about her shoulders; she raised her eyebrows and motioned ever so slightly with her shoulder: Can I have this dance?
Claire turned, her gloved hand taking Mel's, and moved with her onto the dance floor, in sync, embracing, cheek to cheek. Somehow. Ever grounded, Claire's feet moved in step with Mel's, and yet she was tall; was this heaven? I'm in heaven. She didn't care; they were alone now, together. She couldn't hear anything outside of her heartbeat, couldn't speak because of it; the warmth, the electrifying connection. She savored the moment; closing her eyes, she breathed Mel in, everything.
A hand. Belonging to a man. Can I cut in?
The full moon threw its light brilliantly through the tall windows, illuminating the dining room, and Claire sighed with joy, utter satiation. The candles arrayed on the table presented every single course of the meal as works of art; she let every bite take its time, allowing the flavors, the aromas to mix, combine, erupt and submerge themselves on her palate.
An army of men had tuxedos entered, single file, bringing out more culinary miracles; creations that ran the gamut from the greasy, American Cheesesteak to the earthy Mediterranean spices of hummus and pita. French duck and soba, German chocolate and Korean rice cakes. Claire she'd allowed herself the gluttony; damning the cholesterol, forgetting the calories; the food was filling, but she never felt full; every bite was so perfectly airy, ethereal, that the joy of taste was all that mattered. I'm in heaven. She'd grinned to her dining partner, who himself was enjoying a stuffed pizza, a plate of daal, and roasted lamb.
Great, isn't it? This could be... This is... the future. Heaven for everyone.
She laughed in joy, in glee. The tuxedos had cleared the table. She closed her eyes, relishing the fresh memories. Roman emperors could only dream of this--
The moon was full on the upper right hand corner of the display; underneath, it listed current weather conditions, and date and time. Twice. The first was prefixed P; the second, A. Perceived, Actual. She found herself surrounded by panels and consoles, displays and inputs; the ultimate lab, with connections to everywhere, plug-ins to everything.
Above her, the miniature sun spun, an orb of warmth and light.
Is this... the singularity? She asked, looking up.
We are past it. The world is not, but soon.
Actual time. How long have I been in? When did I pass?
You have been part of the network less than 50 microseconds. Perceived time is already exceeding 7.2 hours: 3.8 with the (seed) Melanie Brooks consciousness, 3.4 with the (seed) Stan Zhang consciousness.
Amazing. I didn't know the human mind could work this fast.
It cannot. The network, however, enables acceleration of thought; quantum states enable computational results without computation, allowing thought to outpace physical barriers such as light speed in vacuum constant.
This... what about our physical forms?
Your consciousness has been duplicated; due to the nature of the singularity, consciousness cannot exist in corporeal form and non-corporeal form simultaneously.
Your consciousness is no longer tied to physical existence. You have been given functional immortality.
Can we still manipulate the physical world?
The sun briefly flashed red. That feature is not available at this time. It will be implemented in a future upgrade.
I see. Was I really... interacting with Mel and Stan?
Yes. Your (seed) consciousness was interacting with both.
So... what if I want to interact with them and they don't wish to interact with me? Or the other way around?
Such situations are undoubtedly within the realm of possibility; however, due to the quantum nature of the singularity, only the situations you wish to observe/perceive will exist.
Even for them? Even if it's mutually exclusive? They'll see what they want, and I'll see what I want?
That is correct.
Then how do I know I'm really interacting with them?
That is a matter of faith. I cannot convince you that you are truly interacting with them outside of my assurances that your (seed) consciousnesses are connected.
The laboratory faded, and Claire found herself on the lake; to the south, she could see the faint lights of Navy Pier and the City. Moonlight danced across the waves; the waves broke on the shore. Stars glimmered above, and she kicked off her sandals, rolled up her jeans, and let the water lap her toes. Someone came up behind her, enveloping her in a hug; arms clasped around her, and she leaned in, connecting, fusing, embracing. A kiss on the nape of her neck; a small bouquet of dendrobium orchids presented itself.
Why didn't you ever tell me that you liked these more than lilies?
You're just supposed to know, silly. I gave you hints--every time we went into a florists, what was it I'd be looking at?
Stan laughed. You can't expect me to be a mind-reader, Bee...
Except you are, doofus!
More laughter. They were quiet for a moment, holding each other; the nighttime beach vanished, and instead, they found themselves at the botanical gardens, looking out over the lake and the tended flora. Small lanterns lit the path, reflecting on earth the guideposts in the skies.
Stan... I'm sorry I broke it off so quickly.
It's all in the past. Water under the bridge.
Oh, now that's just too convenient.
A wind picked up; the branches of a nearby willow rustled, swaying. Claire turned, reaching up to tuck a lock of hair behind her companion's ear.
I'm sorry Mel. For never actually...
Shh. We're together now. Don't... don't ruin the moment.
A moment of hesitation, and a brief, silly smile. A tilt of the head, a matching response; two bodies in space, they orbited each other, closer and closer, nearly making contact--
And the world ended.
Requiem for a Dream
Claire lay there, curled, in the warehouse, drenched and alone. Electronic components strewn about around her: a hard disk here, some cable there, a cracked LCD panel at her feet. Noxious odors from the burnt plastic assailed her, sickened her, forcibly entering her sinuses, her lungs; Claire shivered as cool air blew in from above. Explosions from earlier still echoed in her ears, disorienting her; she couldn't see, couldn't hear the others she'd been with before. Claire knew. Not what time it was, not where she was, not what she was, but she knew. She had tasted the fruit, the forbidden fruit, and now she was alone, ejected from Eden.
Residual smoke obscured her vision; her eyes swam in a acrid fog. Claire rolled over, blinking furiously, eyes tearing. Her arms were outstretched, reaching for anything, anyone, finding nothing but chipped concrete; above her, through the shattered ceiling, the starless night sky was painted in swirls in colors of twilight blue and gray.
I'll miss you. Her voice echoed in her head. For a moment, her face coalesced in the smoke; reaching for it, Claire's hands disturbed the air currents, banishing it. A tear escaped her eyes, winding its way down her left temple, her ear. Frustrated, she tore off her breather mask. She coughed, fumes entering her lungs, her whole body gasping, convulsing for clean air, forcing her to sit trembling, knees to chin; Claire didn't want to move, didn't want to breathe, didn't want to live or be or see--
The world ended, and there was nothing. She fell forward, crashing into a wall, sliding down, until it broke; she hit the ground hard, eyelids fluttering in time with her heart. She wasn't sure where this was, but she didn't like it. It wasn't heaven--she'd been there. She'd come so close to tasting lips of sweet ambrosia, and the cool, earthy blandness of concrete she now felt... wasn't it. Her lips were parchment, her throat the Sahara. Saltiness wet her tongue; blood.
Her senses were returning to her. A masculine voice pierced the veil that had enveloped her: "She's out. Check if she's alive."
A woman's voice: "Claire? Claire? Answer me."
She heard a deep rumbling bass shaking the very base of the building, followed by the howls of the pressure wave forcing the air from her lungs. She gasped, coughing, spitting blood.
Her eyelids flew open, and stayed open; her pupils shrank, eyeballs rolling to the left. She couldn't move--she felt disconnected, disembodied, and yet imprisoned, her perception fixed to this one point. Claire focused her eyes; Mel's gazed back, inches from hers. Vermillion fuzz drowned out the rest of the world, but it lit Mel's face, warming it. Mel seemed to be saying something. Claire wanted to tell Mel that she couldn't hear her, but her lips wouldn't move, simply sputtering instead. Claire blinked, and tried reading Mel's lips.
"Wake up! Wake up!"
Claire woke up with a start. Her teeth chattered in the cold; somehow she'd fallen off the world; she looked up, around, surveying the devastation. The smoke was gone; only damp debris surrounded her now, the cavernous mess hemmed in by charred walls. The banks and rows of machines were gone, replaced by grotesque metal skeletons, empty shells that barely hinted at what they once contained.
She turned in the other direction, finding a rather unfortunate looking paper box under some ash. Trembling hands reached for it, as if recognizing them; her fingers achingly brushed the ash off: a pack of Pall Malls, Mel's. Claire opened it; half-empty, still dry. Shaking, she took one out and breathed it in, the aromatic fragrance of unlit tobacco. She pocketed the pack, and slowly got to her feet. She placed the cigarette between her lips; a surrogate.
Unbidden, a thought came into her head, echoing, rattling in her empty mind.
Those things'll kill ya.
Slowly, she started to sense herself again; warmth pulsed into her arms, her legs, vessels throbbing, fingers flexing. She got to her feet maintaining her balance through sheer force of will. Still deafened by the din, she grimaced and tried to answer Mel as best she could.
"I can't hear you. I need my glasses, too," she shouted.
Mel cringed, handing the glasses over. Claire put them on and started--she'd toppled out of a stasis tube. A stasis tube neighbored by others. Every single one bathed in a fiery flickering glow. She turned; directly across from them stood the charred ruins of another bank of stasis tubes. One of them was half open; Willow stood inside, smiling peacefully. Next to her another one seemed to have been torn open. Claire wasn't quite sure, but she thought she caught a glimpse of something bone-white that looked suspiciously like a rib--
"We have to go now!" Stan yelled, grabbing her attention. "The halon extinguisher is kicking in!"
Stan rushed forward, grabbing both Mel and Claire, dragging them along as a white cloud descended behind them.
"Wait--were--what about--?" Claire choked out, turning back to look at the vanishing chambers.
"Bee--they're gone, we need to be go, otherwise we'll be gone too. They found us."
"Who do you think? They did. M, the Directorate, the ones in power who didn't want change--"
Another explosion came from behind them, urging them forward, faster and faster; they negotiated through the machines that still stood and those that had fallen, stopping at a pillar. Stan opened a locker that stood out from it and removed three breathers, handing one to Mel and Claire.
"For the halon?" Mel asked.
Stan nodded, and he led them to a terminal; his pianist fingers danced over the keyboard; beneath the display, a shimmering disc ejected itself; he quickly encased it and pocketed it. "It's the seed AI," he said by way of explanation.
Motioning to the two women, they headed towards the stairs ahead. Stairs that vanished before their eyes, dissolving into a brilliant blue-violet glow that tore the ceiling and rent the sky, expanding as it hit, the heat overpowering and the light as blinding as day--
Claire shuffled forward in a daze; dawn had arrived, and sunlight began streaming in; a reflection of pinkish light erupted in the corner of her eye. Turning, she saw the disc, still in its case, which seemed to have warped slightly. She walked over, picking the case up, and stared at the disc, thinking. She looked around once again still hardly comprehending the disaster, the hell she'd found herself in instead of the heaven she wanted.
They'd wanted to destroy the Singularity. Wanted to stop it. They did it by destroying the central node of the seed AI, by blasts, she guessed, from an orbital defense station. She didn't know why, didn't know who, but it was this AI that they wanted, that they assumed they'd defeated. Billions of dollars spent on a satellite, on agents, and they still hadn't been able to erase the seed. Priceless.
Claire laughed to herself, pocketing the disc; one day, she'd take a look, see how it worked. Another place, she'd open it, and see if it could grow. That day wasn't today. That world wasn't this one. They didn't want heaven on earth; if they didn't want it, she wouldn't give it to them. She was done here. Done with M, done with the Directorate--she never wanted to think about this again. The sun rose, and the sky had turned a pale, faint blue. Claire pushed off the ground, and floated up; she wanted out.
She left through a hole in the roof; hovering out, she went over the building, and settled on the ground, the sunlight flickering through the tree branches. She spied an armed guard standing by the door, as if to prohibit anyone entering or exiting. He was one of them. He had helped snatch her from the embrace of euphoria, he had helped vaporize her attachments to this world, he had been a lackey for the powers that ruled and abused this world; anger welled up within her, seeking, demanding punishment, retribution--
Her hand raised, it glowed with energy, tearing atoms apart and focusing the energy of the fundamental forces into a bolt of pure vengeance, she aimed it for his head, anger and grief blinding her--
--in the blinding, pulsing light of the beam, Claire felt Stan push both her and Mel back. She couldn't hear him so well, but he seemed to be telling them to get behind something, that he'd put up a force field to protect them both. Mel stood there, not comprehending, until Claire dragged her behind another pillar. Stan stood there, smiling, and Claire felt, echoing in her head a smiling, loving, voice that smelled of pine: I'll miss you, Bee.
Claire turned back to see Stan build a field of swirling information, of data, that solidified into an impenetrable barrier as the light, the explosion behind him consumed him and vaporized everything around him; the shockwave shattering the banks of computers around the bubble, which began to flicker under the force of the maelstrom. Flickered enough that in the chaos, as it dissolved, Mel turned to Claire with that dry smile of hers and seemed to vanish into a wall of energy that enveloped her, that protected her through the remaining blast.
Claire sagged against the pillar, and waited for Mel to reform. Waited, and waited. The fires burned around her, the smoke rose and fell, doused by water from the firefighters outside, and she sat, waiting for Mel. Waiting.
Mel didn't reform. Claire knew. When their minds had met in the Singularity, she felt the relief, the joy that Mel had felt on gaining immortality; she didn't have to sacrifice her cells anymore, didn't have to exchange her life for her power--she could live without the cost. Mel wouldn't, couldn't rebuild herself, and yet Claire hoped against hope that she would. She needed the miracle; she was holding out for her hero, waiting.
The guard stood there, as if waiting for Claire to strike. He didn't see her, he hadn't turned. A moment passed, and another. Finally, she lowered her arm, releasing the charge gently, quietly, into the world, into the air.
It wasn't revenge she wanted. It wasn't justice she wished to mete out. Neither of them would send her back to where she longed to be--in the arms of Eden, embraced by Mel. She tucked the cigarette behind her ear, and terribly alone, she pushed off the earth, and flew into the sun.
She'd be back one day. To visit her parents, maybe even to set things right. One day. Today, she'd head east. To Paragon. Not this Paragon, but the one she'd moved to--her Paragon. Home.
Claire gazed out over the Atlantic, struggling for control, for calm. She sat on a tiny little rock near Peregrine, shoeless, letting the waves lap her toes, hoping they'd wash some of the energy, the emotion, away with them.
It had taken her all day to fly the 1300 or so kilometers from Chicago to Paragon. No breaks, no rests, just a desire to keep above it all, finding freedom, solitude, in three dimensions. She hadn't known the exact route; "east" summed it up, following the roads and buildings east along the ChiPitts metropolitan area. It wasn't until she saw the sprawl around BosWash that she managed to get her bearings and make her way to her old apartment.
She'd arrived, exhausted, spent. She gave her thumbprint and waited as the door to her old condo unlocked. She opened it, and sighed as it revealed a dramatically different interior than she remembered.
"...Sydney? Are you here? It's Claire." She walked in, heading towards the kitchen.
A head poked out from above; glasses, a smile, and spiked electric blue hair cut short. "'Sup? Wondered when you'd come to visit."
"...Did you have to redecorate this place? Looks like a... a..."
"It's my studio."
"I was going to say a disaster area, but."
Claire nodded to a painting leaning against the wall. Electric blue swirled with black framing a crystalline, transparent, ovoid center; splashes of blood-red wine decorated the inside like eyes.
"Yes. I haven't really christened it, but I'm thinking something like 'self-portrait: luna'. Or 'moonlit reflection'. Or... 'a lunatic's portrait'. Pfeh. Naming it is always the least important part. What matters is the soul."
Sydney motioned to a sculpture she'd been working on. "How do you like this?"
"…what is it?"
Sydney smiled, and winked at Claire. "Might be hard to see now, since I haven't unearthed the skeleton, but… I see a seed for a tree."
Claire shook her head, not having the patience, the desire for the conversation. She appreciated art, but the Sydney analogue that had taken her place here, on this world, was a bit too much of an artiste. At least she had the same taste in wine--Claire grabbed a bottle of Australian Shiraz on her way to her thinking rock, calling to Sydney, "I'll owe you one."
She drank her wine straight from the bottle, staring out over the ocean; it settled her, soothed her, unchaining her mind and letting it wander. Letting it wander let her set boundaries, compartmentalize, build new pens for her thoughts, so when she reined in her mind, everything would be squared away, penned and preserved. First order of business: the AI. This world didn't want it, that much was evident; but the potential behind it was… heavenly. She couldn't let it be forgotten. A mind, AI or not, was a terrible thing to waste. Her thoughts, like an assembly, resolved that she would make a copy of the disc and hand it to Sidney Brewster-Plankton the next time they met; it would give her something to do, to research, to explore. Claire herself would keep the original, and do the same in her new home.
Second order: this world. She wanted no part in it, but she knew she couldn't ask her parents to move with her; Claire gathered the bittersweet loneliness that came with that realization and locked it away, deciding to visit only for emergencies or holidays--or in other words, a return to normalcy, the status quo.
The wind picked up; she found herself sprayed with saltwater, reminding her that she still wore the same clothes she'd worn the night before, clothing that was ruined, that she never wanted to wear again. She sighed, and picked up the wine bottle. She'd shower, change, finish the bottle, and sleep here tonight, at her old place, in the guest room. Tomorrow, she'd thank Sydney and then visit Sidney before heading home.