By the time I got home, I was too exhausted for words. Exhaustion was a bizarre sensation, one I hadn’t felt in recent memory. Part of my mind, buried in the back, wanted to find the experience fascinating, but the thing about being too tired to care is that you’re too tired to care. So tired, in fact, that I almost missed the piece of paper resting on my kitchen counter.
<Looks like the asshole fairies left behind a gift while I was out.> It had been many, many years since I’d read Alice in Wonderland, and the attention I paid was only that necessary to pass the class, not memorize it for clever quips to use decades later. <This much effort to impress me reeks of desperation.>
<I’m impressed,> Phoebe said. She was alone in the command center, as everyone else was busy with the FBI and rebuilding our strategy in light of the recent developments. <Our monitor tech didn’t notice the note until you picked it up. Their Infiltrator is the best I’ve ever seen.>
Wonderful. I read the note before touching the paper, but I picked it up and unfolded it nonetheless.
‘Excellent work. Discuss 2 days. Kyle’s Kofee. After work.’
Kyle’s was one of the places Roberto introduced me to; according to him, it was the only coffee shop in New York which had ‘American’ coffee on the menu. Kyle might also have an honorable mention in the record books for being the gayest man alive. Character quirks aside, the coffee was good.
Meeting there was yet another transparent maneuver calculated to intimidate me. The note itself was typed rather than hand written, and otherwise offered no clues to its origin. The messenger was somewhat less successful in her attempts at stealth. <Alice delivered the message. I can still detect her scent.>
Awkward as it was to discuss people by their smells, Phoebe was the one who gave me such an ability, so she would understand. <You’re not allowed to sleep with her.>
Never mind. <Phoebe, I am not going to sleep with Alice.> Shoot her in both kneecaps and leave her to bleed out in a ditch, perhaps, but not sleep with. <Look, you can’t continue assuming I’m going to have sex with every female of any significance to the mission at hand.>
<But she’s the femme fatale, and she’s shown she’s interested,> Phoebe said. <More than that, it would be a simple way to get closer to their organization so you can break it.>
Isn’t she supposed to be talking me out of it? The sad part was, I could see her logic on the second half of the discussion. If not with Alice, then one of these days I might find myself in a scenario where exploiting my sexuality could spell the difference between success and failure. I counted myself fortunate that this was not such a situation. <Wouldn’t work. She’s not interested in me, save as a tool to be manipulated. At absolute best, it would be a distraction from potentially mission-critical information.>
<So you’re not going to? Good!> Just like that, Phoebe was back to her cheerful self, while I remained confused and perhaps a little disturbed.
<Never so much as crossed my mind.> I stopped for a moment to crush the paper and toss it in the trash. <Now I’m going to bed. Please let Abernathy and the others know about the note. We’ll have to adjust our plans further.>
<I’ll leave her a note on the computer. Goodnight.>
<‘Night.> Looking back on the moment, I missed a prime opportunity to discuss Phoebe’s issues and perhaps explain how inappropriate her assumption of involvement in my love life was. Though if I were honest with myself, my attempts to let her down easy would have instead resulted in me failing to explain anything, so perhaps it was best that I could blame exhaustion.
The next couple days proved uneventful. Stormbreaker avoided being seen with me, a pattern made effortless due to our opposing shifts. Roberto and I lived in relatively simple world, full of substance abusers and lamenting how they chose to ruin their lives. We agreed that the worst of it was the ones who weren’t content without bringing others with them.
When it was time, I walked into Kyle’s with no disguise save that I wore civies rather than the uniform. For reasons I assumed were the result of some joke I wasn’t privy to, the coffee shop’s decor resembled a fifties diner, complete with red upholstered seats and checkerboard floor. A quick glance confirmed that Alice either hadn’t arrived, or was hiding somewhere.
I approached the counter, in part to avoid suspicion, and in part because if Alice was intent on playing some stupid game I’d need the caffeine. Kyle, the eponymous owner, was all smiles. “Hey, sweety, you gonna try something other than the sludge this time?”
Kyle was the reason I assumed the diner theme was a joke; everything he did seemed to be for personal amusement. “You’re right, I should try something new. How about the Texas Sludge?” For example, all coffee that didn’t have a foreign name was listed as ‘sludge’ on the menu.
Kyle brought his hand up to touch his chest, as one might expect of a southern belle. “Oh, honey, I can hear your skin screaming from here.” Objection notwithstanding, he took the order and my money with the same flirtatious smile as always. I stepped away with my drink, while Kyle moved on to the young woman behind me who must have wanted to be a rainbow when she grew up. “Oh, I love your hair! I’m so jealous!”
The rest of their conversation was none of my concern, so I found a seat in the corner. I waited and listened for soft steps of Alice approaching from behind. I relied on scent to confirm it was her, rather than take the time to look in her direction. It was a testament to Phoebe’s power that I could smell anything over the overpowering scent of coffee and other foodstuffs. <She’s right behind me.> “Was wondering when you’d show up.”
<Still can’t track her,> Phoebe said. <It’s not showing a blind spot, either. It’s detecting everything except her.>
<That doesn’t make sense,> Integral said. <Ugh. I’m beginning to suspect she’s an illusion, and that’s the reason you can detect her but we can’t. A shared hallucination which influences organics, but fails to interact with technology.>
“You one of those with eyes in the back of your head?” She stepped past me, a slow sway to her hips which served little purpose in the act of walking. With catlike movements, she slinked into the other side of the booth. In a way, she reminded me of Phoebe, only without the charm, enthusiasm, sincerity, basic human decency, or any other redeeming feature I could think of. When put that way, the only thing they had in common was that they were women who liked to exaggerate their movements as a means to highlight their femininity.
True to form, Phoebe jumped on the opportunity to argue with Integral yet again. <But that doesn’t explain all the other anomalies! Like the language bugs! And->
Professor Abernathy cleared her throat. <I’m certain we’ll get answers to those questions later. For now, it’s best to focus on what we can and cannot do, rather than attempting to explain the how and why.>
If she’s not careful, she’s going to be renamed Mom. I tapped the bridge of nose now that Alice could see my face. “To quote that one movie, the nose knows. Incidentally, I take it you coming here while he was on duty is no oversight on your part. You’re too smart for that.” Of all the lies I’ve told during this job, that was by far the largest. <Real or otherwise, we don’t need to detect her, we simply need the device to function.>
“I had to be certain you were trustworthy,” she said. “But I guess with a nose like that, you had it figured out in the first five minutes.”
Rather high opinion of yourself. I shrugged my shoulders. “You looked like you were having fun. Who am I to deny you?” I shifted my foot, inching it ever closer to hers. I couldn’t scan Alice, but I could track myself and our bug just fine. <Down my left leg and forward two inches using the angle of the arch aligned to the big toe.
Alice’s Cheshire grin returned in full force as she leaned forward, offering an opportunity to look down her shirt that I rejected on principle. “Well, if you told me that sooner, I could have had a lot more fun. You, too.”
My idea of fun will be watching you chained up and shipped off to a maximum security prison for the rest of your natural life, if I don’t shoot you first. With that thought in my mind, I even managed to give her a legitimate smile. “Sorry, but I prefer to keep my professional life professional.”
“That’s a pity.” Her smile didn’t falter for a second as she leaned back. If anything, she looked self-satisfied by the rejection, as if it confirmed some secret suspicion she had. “I suppose we should get down to business.”
Meanwhile, I watched the little bug crawl off my foot, then make its way up Alice’s boot where it vanished from my senses. “Sure.” I glanced around. “Perhaps we should go for a stroll?” I grabbed my coffee, still scalding hot, and chugged the whole cup at once. Not quite painless, but only a mild discomfort I ignored without effort. <Guess that means we’re on to plan B, then.>
<That shouldn’t be possible!> Integral didn’t quite shout, but his exasperation was a louder than necessary. <It’s pseudo-organic, and every last portion of its biocybernetics is based on blue steel! No power exists which can manipulate blue steel without giving off quantum distortions. This… this is like swimming without displacing any water!>
Alice kept her smile the whole time, as if she knew far more than she let on. “You don’t feel we’re secure, here?”
“Former military, remember? I hate sitting still too long.” I stood and made my way to the door, with Alice following behind. I opened the door, then stepped back to let Alice past. “Ladies first.”
Her short laugh might even have been honest. “How did I know you were the chivalrous type? Your mother must have raised you right.”
You can punch her later, just be patient for now. “Something like that.” Chivalry had little to do with my motivations; I needed an opportunity to visually confirm the tick-sized creature clinging to Alice’s shoestring. It was some sort of organic radio transmitter cooked up by Phoebe and Chantelle, which we had thought to be unhackable since it was a living thing rather than a machine. <I have confirmation that the tracker is alive and well on the subject.>
Professor Abernathy spoke before the argument between Phoebe and Integral could resume. <It will tire out and fall off in twelve hours regardless of other factors. Perhaps then it will become visible to tracking again?>
I took a path that led us into the least amount of foot traffic. “Our friend,” I allowed contempt to bleed into my voice. “Provided several names. Most are just two-bit trash unworthy of special mention. Other junkies, too pathetic to be a threat to anyone.” I hoped by dismissing them as beneath notice, Alice wouldn’t press too hard for names; we could insulate one or two of these scumbags with the FBI’s assistance, but to make half a dozen people vanish in addition to the three we’d already removed would stretch resources and risk discovery.
I took a breath. “The bastard I’m concerned with is a Johnathan Phillips. Parole officer, likes to use his power to threaten those he’s assigned to monitor. Fingers in drugs and prostitution alike. She made him sound like a pimp with state funding. He’s extra fond of the minors.” The story was a falsehood, built to play on the same emotional manipulation they employed on me. The man was real enough, but not one of the ones on Kristie’s list. The FBI felt he was an ally who could be trusted to work with them on this project as their bait.
“Sounds like a real piece of work,” Alice said. Her voice was cold and bitter. Something from her past?
I pushed aside my speculation; whatever happened to Alice did not justify a crusade of vigilante murder. “I’d go after him myself, but the Espers might put together the pattern. Besides, the man would be difficult to target. He spends most of his time holed up in his office. Pretending to be some feudal overlord with his own private fiefdom of convicts. I’m not an Infiltrator, I would get caught.”
“Don’t worry,” Alice said. “We can get to anyone, anywhere. The benefits of being part of a team.
“Glad to hear it.” And so we set a snare in front of the rabbit hole.