“Agent Aird. Rank: A-6. Acting Lead. Suit Status: Special. Age…” Xander walked off with the ID. “Doesn’t say.” He flicked the plastic at the ground and got back to walking with his ‘cereal’. “I bet you’re old enough to know about Goldilocks.” He made another pass by the Agent. Then another. And another. The light from the wall-hole teemed with expectant shadows. “Or there’s Snow White, Hansel and Gretel, Pinocchio… Really any fable where some bitch kids start their shit at a private residence.” Around and around, cutting a deep path through the rubble. “I think you can guess what happened next.”
“It’s been a while,” the Agent rasped. Xander’d dropped it on a mountain kicked together from broken chair legs. Since then, it had to balance while straining against the chains that bear-hugged its ribs. “If my memory serves…” Puff. “… they each had…” Pant. “… happy endings.”
“Why? ‘Cause they lived? Oh, suit.” Xander sucked back more spoonfuls of Corn Flakes soaking in orange juice. Alex didn’t even know they had juice. “Nine times out of ten, you walk into a house made of candy, you better hope your parents abandoned you. That way, when they have to lie about how you died, you’ll get a better epitaph than ‘was retarded’.” He sipped his juice-flakes. “I’m sorry – ‘special’. Can’t believe you put that on a card.”
“The titles,” it wheezed, “are assigned to us.”
“Which explains why it’s so modest.” Around and around, like the Agent had dripped blood in the water. Xander lingered at its blind spots when he wasn’t carving sharp circles by its face, not giving it a chance to focus before he strolled past. “Special, special, special. That’s new. So what did they title the other suits? Bullet sponges?”
“Seriously? Shit, that’s meaner.” His cow-ish chewing was the only sound covering their footsteps and its ragged choking. “Alright. Screw those masked jerks. Sure, they have the same bulletproof, shockproof, fireproof, wizard-proof, camouflage tights and do the same amount of nothing, but they don’t wear goggles and don’t kiss nearly as much ass.” Xander tapped its head with his spoon like a fairy godmother. “You are gonna need tongue to smooth this one over, though. I’d pity you if I wasn’t already sure you’ll enjoy it. Fuckin’ suits.”
Alex had no idea what started them again. After forty dead and two years as a no show, he’d figured they got the message: so long as he had Xander, the suits’ little camouflage trick – the ‘fading’ – wouldn’t work, to the point that he switched back to sleeping with his eyes closed. He’d recycled the headspace into self-soothing techniques. Happy thoughts netted more mileage than nervous stretches of insomnia whenever ‘Xander has control’ and ‘Agents’ turned up in the same breath.
This wasn’t his show. Alex watched carefully, trying to take notes on what it said before its neck got snapped, but he couldn’t say anything. His body wasn’t his right now. He was better for it. Agents occasionally had good information, and the chances of Alex wringing it out of them compared to Xander’s were…
“I don’t enjoy –”
“I’m sorry, did a fucking A-6 start talking back to me? Did an A-6 try to tell me what he does or doesn’t enjoy?”
Yeah. So Alex stayed out of it, letting Xander handle this like he’d handled all the other ones. Today’s happy thought was that he owned plenty of bleach and garbage bags. They also had the community Purell can downstairs. The thing was two-thirds acid, good for burning fingerprints.
He wasn’t stupid. He knew what Xander did, and recognized that a few ‘ohm’s weren’t going to cleanse Alex’s soul, but they needed this. He used to bet his life on a one-size-fit-all solution: run, which – fine, was morally better, but where did it get him? Caught. No matter what, the Agents were always right behind. Xander’s method skipped that forever. Less Agents. Fuller intel. A life where he fought back.
There’d been nightmares at first, at the sight of… everything. His insomnia got worse. Xander had to talk him through the logic: if he wasn’t controlling his body, then it wasn’t technically Alex hurting anyone. The exact words were more like, ‘Blow me. You didn’t do dick’, but it still let him sleep at night if he didn’t pick at it.
Practice made perfect.
“Relax, suit,” Xander ordered. “I’m not gonna kill you.”
He was lying. Its eyes swivelled to follow him as he walked by again. It didn’t get a good look, which was the point of moving around, because it would have seen Alex’s cheeks raised in a blatantly bullshitting grin. Instead it croaked, “Will you –” Cough. “Will you be… documenting this?”
“Right. That.” He shrugged, scraping the bowl. “Well, if you wanna take the coward’s way out, I guess I could just kill you. But that’s a lot of paperwork, and it’d be funnier to hear that my boss washed all your precious work climbing to A-6 right into the shitter. And then you’ll probably kill yourself anyway.”
The Agent waited for something. Across its face was a web of pieces slowly fitting together, and when the one it needed didn’t show up to finish the thought, it prodded with a tight, “Unless?”
“‘Unless’. You think I’m negotiating? You think I’d – what, cover my eyes and ignore my duty to report you by blaming some A-8 instead? That if you start talking real goddamn fast and explain why the fuck you intruded on a DTD site, I might hear enough to consider deceiving the very hierarchy we’re conditioned to show debilitating obedience, all so they don’t rip those magical leotards off your tiny, soon-to-be-demoted limbs?”
“Or…” Its lips were almost blue from the lack of airflow. “… I go back… without my goggles… and say you… threw them –” Cough. “– as a punishment. I don’t care… if you’re… an A-5 –” Cough, cough. “Good luck –” Cough. “– explaining that –” Cough, hack. “– to my A-4 –” Cough-cough-hack-cough-hack-cough-cough.
A-5, huh? I’ve been called worse. Out loud, after chucking their last bowl somewhere in the room’s debris, Xander said, “Touché. Pick your scapegoat.”
“Can you untie –”
The new look on its face told them it hadn’t expected any better. Shifting awkwardly on Mt. Chair Leg, it drank in the fist-sized holes and bits of wood still decorating their walls, then murmured, “This… is a DTD site?”
“Welcome to a real case, suit. That aroma of cat piss and old farts is the smell of the big leagues. Maybe you’ll get to go on one someday.” He never stopped circling. Even in the passenger seat, Alex felt dizzy. “Talk. Why’re you here?”
The Agent’s mouth pursed, but eventually said, “I’m on an investigation.”
“No. With –” It puffed. “With one other. We… separated.”
“You ran your mouth off,” Xander translated. “Fuckin’ suits. What’s the investigation?”
“It’s –” Cough. “It’s classified.”
“It’s… above…” The Agent stopped to suck down as much of a breath as it could manage hogtied. “It’s above an… A-5’s authority. What I can tell you… is that our main team… noted disturbances… in the area.” Three guesses who that could be. “They’re affecting our case… and the main can’t afford… to be sidetracked. The case lead… had to call in another group to handle it. All of them… have the information I have… that you don’t.”
The Agent was really trying to hype this.
He has to. If I’m ‘not convinced’, I’m gonna turn him in and he’s gonna lose his suit.
Not even loud enough to call it whispering, Alex asked, “Is that bad?”
The only thing worse is a goggle suit losing their goggles. They go fuckin’ insane, Xander chirped. It’s too cute. But yeah, they’ll kill themselves. You’ve seen it.
Right, right – I’ve seen it, back at my ‘birth’. When Alex went crazy, blacked out for a month and woke up with a sociopathic voice in his head. My version’s shorter. Anyway, shut up. “Alright, suit. I’ll bite, since I apparently have to ask: what information?”
“That this address,” it said, “is listed on our files… as our address. Our target… is supposed to live here. For… whatever reason… that’s wrong.” It took another break, shaking its head like it was fighting sleep. “Now… I… could tell my lead… and be praised for… for correcting the mistake. That’ll save some time for us but… for a DTD site, with – uh… delicate operations in place… this is another hundred and twenty Agents… who could wander in after me. Think of the trouble you’d save… your lead if you…”
Xander slowed down, and Alex saw his eyebrows drop. He must’ve been frowning now. Sure enough, he heard his other self say, “The fuck?”
“You would save… your lead… plenty of trouble –”
“Not that, dipshit. The number. You’re saying there’s a hundred twenty people here?”
“Two teams… of sixty,” the Agent replied. “One for the main team. One for the… response force… to the external threat.”
Wait. What external threat?
Xander had a different question.
“Since how long?”
“Since,” it puffed, “July.”
Three months. That was when the swarms started.
Seriously, what external threat?
“Your mountain rights have been revoked,” Xander said. With a kick, he knocked half the rubble away. The Agent dropped off and smacked its shoulder on the floor, beating the sound of its skull thudding off the linoleum by a decibel. A blast of air choked out of its throat. “The one fucking job you suits have is keeping facts in order. This is the second time you fucked it up.”
“What,” it gagged, wheezing even harder on the ground. “What –”
“Don’t shit in my sock and call it a hamster, Aird. There’s not a hundred twenty guys here. I counted fifty-eight. You know what’s not fifty-eight? A hundred twenty.” Xander casually buried the Agent under the rest of the chair leg pile. “Hey. It’s okay. Not everybody’s meant to have a suit.”
“Th–“ Hack-hack-hack-cough-hack-cough-cough. “There were two teams of sixty sent –”
Outraged, it barked, “The external threat… could have impacted their numbers –”
I’d be the first to take credit but I didn’t off that many. To the Agent, Xander spelled out, “Other than a DTD, there are no targets worth a team of sixty. Maybe for your fuckin’ external threat, but not your actual target. That’s an army.” A small army. Which would be dead if you let me go outside, Alex. “Aw – I ruined my trench! Now I can’t keep walking. Fuck you for that too, suit.”
“I didn’t make a mistake,” it swore. “She might not be a DTD, but it should mean something… when I say… my work… is… being sanctioned… by the NCA…”
“Ran out at the end, huh?”
“You could untie me,” it snapped at him.
Alex focused very hard on thinking, ‘What’s the ‘NCA’?’ He did it on a loop, hoping Xander noticed one of them.
National Cell Archive.
Shh. “Considering those valuable NCA’s lab rats are best known for licking Cheetos dust off of their keyboards, no, it doesn’t mean anything.”
“The project.” The Agent had flopped back onto its stomach and took a second to look proud of itself. Then it shook off some of the rubble by wiggling its shoulders and waited for some noise of recognition over what it’d said. There wasn’t one. “The commissioned project.” Alex and Xander both stared until it added, “The A-1 commissioned project. My target’s a part of it.”
“Some of our jobs involve work, suit,” Xander said. “I can’t be on a first name basis with every shenanigan.”
It screwed its face up.
“I can’t divulge those details. They’re classified. Even for an A-5.”
“Okay.” Xander cleared a space to sit. With his full attention on their captive, he politely said, “You have two options. The first is where, now that I realize our case will be seen as intruding on an A-1’s territory, even though we were fuckin’ here first and were actually intruded on, I leave you for my DTD to find but blame it on your external threat.”
“It’s classified for me, too,” the Agent blurted, not waiting around for option two. “I’m from the NCA and the most I know is that the project exists and that my target belongs to it – but I assumed you heard of it.”
“Ohhhhh! So when you told me, ‘It should mean something that the NCA is watching my target’, you were bluffing. Well, Aird,” Xander detailed, “I’m bluffing that I’m not going to punch you in the face.”
“I wasn’t –”
The Agent took its hit better than Alex usually did.
Don’t feel bad. Suits get punched all the time, and you have the fists of a prepubescent girl.
“I wasn’t bluffing,” the Agent spat. “My target’s powers haven’t manifested, but her latent ability warrants the size of the main team. It comes down to belonging to the A-1 project.”
“Fascinating. I’m gonna punch you again, this time for taking so long to get to that.”
“I’m happy to have been of help,” the Agent answered, spinning each word as ‘go fuck yourself’. “Let me up.”
“Tell me where your target is,” Xander said instead.
It mentioned a ‘she’ before too, didn’t it?
No. Alex was hearing things.
“‘Cause if she’s still in the area –” Xander said ‘she’. Xander had also just said ‘she’. A thousand red flags shot up in Alex’s head. “– then she’s still my problem. Where’s your target, and then I’ll let you leave.”
They needed to talk. Right now – him and Xander had to talk, because who the hell was ‘she’?
“It’s…” The Agent frowned. “It’s classified.”
Oh, for God’s sake. “You don’t have to give me every detail, suit. Hell – if it saves you from crapping your pants, I don’t even need to have an exact location. Mostly ‘cause sixty bucks says you’re wrong. Again.” Xander had enough eye contact to end this conversation permanently. He didn’t take it. “You just put an A-1 project on my boss’ list of shit to dance around. Active avoidance of your target’s hotspots, along with you people updating your fucking addresses, is my fastest mitigation strategy.”
Who was ‘she’, who was ‘she’, who was ‘she’ – Xander couldn’t ignore him forever, so who was ‘she’?
The Agent bit its lip, silent for what felt like hours.
“I can’t guarantee this is accurate,” it finally replied. “I’m on a separate investigation –”
Xander punched it in the head for a third time. The Agent didn’t like that nearly as much as the first two, and it didn’t like the first two. It worked up a storm, turning purple.
And you, settle down in there. It’s not your turn.
At Alex’s first thought of the word ‘But’, he felt a massive mental pinch. He decided to settle down.
“Coffee shops. Art stores. Cliffs overlooking a sunset. Soup kitchens,” the Agent listed at last, now that it’d quit yelling about its treatment. “Anywhere an artist’s stereotype would go. Are you satisfied?”
It is nice knowing she’s too poor for Pequods. And to the Agent, Xander asked, “Am I gonna get a tip-off from visible patrols?”
“Plainclothes patrols. Small clusters. She isn’t aware we’re here, which is why we have to manage our distance.” It shifted uncomfortably. “And latent or not, her powers are triggered by physical contact.”
“Was that so hard?” The Agent looked ready to explode. Ignoring it, Xander got on his feet and… actually started unlocking the chains. “When you’re out, go to the window and show me how you climbed up.”
“I could describe –”
“I did not say ‘describe’. Get off your ass, move your twiggy legs and show me.” Xander yanked the restraints, giving it a last rattle before setting it free. “Fuckin’ suits. God forbid your day involve effort.”
As the chains fell off and the Agent was distracted by taking real breaths, Alex reached out to quietly check, “You’re not really…” Letting it live. “Are you?”
I’m making him stand beside the wall-hole.
That was a ‘no’, right?
Since Xander’s only response was shaking his head, it didn’t matter that the Agent got the next word. It tripped clambering to stand, awkwardly balancing on chunks from the table, then nodded at the chains and muttered, “You’re good with those. Disturbingly.”
“Takes a lot of idiots with no survival instinct. You should see what I can do with handcuffs.”
It didn’t look like it wanted to know and Xander didn’t elaborate. Instead, he shoved the Agent towards the window and had it kick a vague path through the mess. Bits from the old TV stand crumpled under their heels as they came to edge of the wall – and the hole that’d been smashed through.
Alex didn’t relax until the Agent leaned outside, not positive on what to do and even telling them as much.
“There’s not much to show. I climbed up and in.” Its back was angled away from them. Xander stepped ever so slightly behind. “This was due to faulty intel. Our files said room #616. This is room #616.”
“How’d you climb the brick?”
It scoffed and turned back to flex its hands at them.
“The way any suit would. Gloves. Special suits are assigned the type to attract magnetic fields in steel girders, which is why the holes from the claws that deployable suits still use aren’t there. The forces pull through the wall.”
Somebody rented Mission Impossible.
“Bullshit those things support your weight. If you found a key to this place, I will eat your family.” Xander paused. “Within the confines of protocol, obviously. I write really mean letters.”
The Agent had had enough of being picked on.
“Okay,” it said, clipping the word. It did something that a flicked a blue glow across the palm of the black fabric. “Watch.” And it leaned out so far, Alex couldn’t see its head. “As expressed, the magnetic fields allowed me to climb up.” It tugged for proof. “There’s no key.” Tugged again. “Only this.” Tugged once more. “Like I informed you.” Xander grabbed its legs. “Whoa – what are you doing –”
“A lot of idiots, no survival instinct.” He pitched its kicking legs out the window. “That’s three times you’ve fucked up fact-checking. You’re crazy bad at your job.”
“Pull me up,” the Agent screeched, anchored to the wall by its right hand. Alex watched it tangle as Xander reached outside after it. “We had a deal – you were letting me go!”
“Yeeeah. I think I’m gonna go with the ‘leaving you for my DTD’ scenario. Hi, by the way.” With all its flailing, they managed to snatch – well, Xander did – its other arm. “I’ll borrow your gloves forever, though. You won’t mind for long. You…” He started picking at the flap on the left glove. “… are gonna be having too much fun cannonballing into the trash that I pushed right there for these laughably frequent encounters.”
“‘DTD’,” it shrieked back. “‘Trash’?”
And you didn’t wanna move the dumpster. ‘How many times could it happen, Xander?’ He went after the anchored glove, picking at the flap on that next. “Yes, suit. The trash. No mess, easy clean up every Thursday… You’re not my first rodeo.” The flap was coming undone. “But I’ve gotta say, I’ve never had a guy wander in on me by accident. You hit the jackpot on Murphy’s Law.”
“We can talk about this!”
Alex… felt a little sick. There were red marks being scratched in skinny trails across the wall, and it just occurred to him that with all their fighting these past months, no one was going to think twice about the yelling now.
He sincerely hoped.
Fuck, these are on tight. They better fit. They heard a snap. Got it.
Five storeys left. Four storeys.
Before you talk, shut up and let me enjoy this. BLAM. Yes! Fuckin’ fuck yes – look’t that shit! Perfect goddamn landing. The dumpster lid slapped down and blew out a cloud of dirt over the nestled garbage bags. Except for the bang, no one would suspect a corpse. I love suits. You can’t get that anywhere else. Then he sighed. Alright, fine, go.
“‘She’, Xander,” Alex barked. Pain sparked through his jaw. “Were you grinding my teeth?”
“We talked about that!” Never mind. He wanted the truth first. “Who’s ‘her’? What’s going on?”
God, the whining… Xander fiddled with his new toys while dully answering, Logic dictates ‘her’ is the chick his team is after.
“It was supposed to be after us,” he hissed. “That’s why I’ve been hiding. The swarms, the ambushes?”
The hundred fuckin’ times I told you to go outside? Were you not watching me play Agent? Explain how that worked if the suit knew who you are.
He backed from the hole in the wall, trekking through rubble to find a pile flat enough to sit on without being stabbed.
“This is the worst thing that’s ever happened to me.”
“Second worst, whatever. I just found out I wasted a month of my life for nothing.”
You wanted less Agents after you. Good news, these aren’t. That’s why this date is perfect. I get my latté, I can check if there’s still heat and if there isn’t, we disappear. Why aren’t these fitting your hands?
“We’re their external threat.” He didn’t want to be on their radar at all, but at least as a side focus, he was… something. “We can’t ‘disappear’ from another sixty – ow!”
God-fucking-dammit, we found the one suit with girlier fists than you. Xander whipped the black gloves at the ground. He said nothing about the chunk of flesh he’d shredded on Alex’s skin. And no, we’re not the external threat. These people have their own party going on without us for once. Assholes.
“We’re not their target or their side-quest?”
Yeah. It sucks. Not that I care or anything. ‘Cause I don’t.
“No – it’s not…” He gave up. He didn’t matter in this. If he’d never attacked, they would’ve never noticed him, so she, the girl downstairs, had legitimately… “Huh.” Alex sat straighter. “This is just a date.”
Oh my God, like I’ve been saying.
“But now I have a dead Agent under my exploded window. If somebody sees glass –”
My gloves don’t fit! I am having a bad day. I don’t need your shitty, non-problems, too. For once, enjoy the morning without anybody chasing you. He felt his teeth grind. Fucking suits.
‘Enjoy the morning’. He almost didn’t understand. This was like a vacation from… well – his life.
“I guess we’re doing this,” he said.
His rash didn’t itch quite as bad.