Dr. Reynolds ticked off another box. "What kind of hobbies do you enjoy?"
"I take cooking classes," said Charlie, not a complete lie, "I've gotten really good at curries."
She studied him. Bald, late fifties, ill-fitting suit, with the impenetrable aw-shucks smile honed by years in the foreign intelligence field. "Nope."
"Do you own property in any of the following countries: Saudi Arabia, Iran, Qatar..."
"No, no, no, no, dude I've never even owned a car."
"Why do you want this job?"
She fingered the chain around her neck, the One True Ring cool beneath her blouse. "I enjoy a challenge."
"You'd earn a lot more working for the private sector."
"Yeah I tried the Bay Area for a while, nothing but unemployed punk libertarians who thought they could maintain a high-paying tech job AND raise chickens."
"You like the idea of being a spy?"
"No way," she said, smiling, "Killing's for boys."
Charlie walked straight home after the interview and opened her laptop to check for messages. The apartment was a concrete block with an inflatable mattress in the corner, but she got plenty of natural light and the security was excellent. Changing into pajamas, she curled under a blanket and logged in.
1 new message from CaptainSexy: Hey girl, how'd it go?
Charlie blushed. She'd been visiting regularly for the last few weeks, a kink forum where people could arrange anonymous meetings, but mostly she'd stuck to online chats. She typed out a reply about the new job, inventing something about tax fraud investigation, and thanked her for the masala recipe, to which she offered to mail a gift. It was only after she hit SEND that she looked around her empty bedroom and found nothing to give. A month of late night dirty talk had yielded very little about CaptainSexy's identity.
She greeted the front desk the next morning, and the guard tutted at the lines in her face. "Late night?"
"I had that Snow White dream again, only she had a Bettie Page thing going. Feet kicked up, ya know?" she said, crossing her arms in front of her, "I always wake up and can't go down again for some reason."
"You just ain't been kissed enough," he said, smiling as he ran her backpack through an X-ray machine, "Good luck upstairs, I hear the new administration's kinda pushy."
"I've had worse." she said, taking her bag and heading toward the elevator.
"Not that one ma'am," he said, pointing to the elevator on the either side of the lobby, "Everyone takes the one on the right."
She eyed the first elevator. "Where does this one go?"
"You can't take it."
A smile curved up one side of his face. "Because no one knows what's down there."
A level 1 security clearance got her to the second floor of the NSA tower, where each cubicle was furnished with the latest hardware and mini-fridges full of Red Bull. It also got her an asshole co-worker.
Daryl sat on the corner of the table, one sweaty hand beside her keyboard. Must've snorted some meth on the way there. "Happy New Year pretty lady. I'm going on a cruise next week, wanna be the first notch on my bedpost for 2013?"
She pretended not to hear and swung her hair in his face. "Can you look over my code? It's not compiling."
"I'm going to the Anarchist Burrito Dinner tonight, you should come." She stared at his reflection in the computer screen, and he hastily added, "I'll pay."
She sighed. None of the women she'd met in town had seemed that interesting, and she doubted anyone at this party could geek about writing facial recognition software. But she'd need character references if she was ever going to gain clearance for the really interesting stuff. "Okay."
She changed into fun clothes and met Daryl at a refurbished warehouse, where forty or so professionals rubbed elbows with college kids agitating against privatized skate parks. Daryl's friends were a mix of the two cliques, but she knew enough about video games that she maintained her geek cred without coming off as a threat. By the time the food rolled out, all the men had relaxed enough to rate her as "cute" but not dumb enough to invite for a threesome with their wives.
"Can I take your picture?" Daryl asked, pulling out his phone.
She popped a faux gang symbol and smiled. His friends all looked at one other over their drinks, and she wondered what shower fantasy they had agreed on about her. In three weeks a federal investigator would walk into their offices and they would agree that she was a sweet, intelligent, boring programmer, an ideal candidate for confidential government work.
Charlie lay in bed an hour later, the laptop warm on her thighs. She let CaptainSexy lead the narrative, role-playing the innocent schoolgirl to her hot librarian, and afterward spent an hour gossiping about their favorite movie actors. She mentioned the party, and how her image was probably floating online somewhere.
CaptainSexy: Can you find out if it's been posted?
SexBombadil: I could look. It doesn't really bother me though.
CaptainSexy: What if he photoshopped your head onto a little kid's body?
SexBombadil: If he did, he's going to wake up in the ladies restroom wearing a sequined thong and nipple tassels.
She pulled the men's business cards from her bag. Daryl was a pro and knew how to cover his tracks, but the other guys had only the flimsiest privacy settings, and five minutes work led her to a little-known forum within hush-hush topped with several disclaimers. FANTASY ONLY, BY INVITATION. It better not be kiddie porn, she thought, and hacked her way in.
The first link was a photo gallery, her portrait alongside attractive pictures of all the men's wives except for Daryl, who, not surprisingly, couldn't hold onto a girlfriend for long.
SexBombadil: It looks like a wifeswap?
CaptainSexy: Are you sure?
Charlie clicked on a recent post, where the men discussed potential meeting times and places. There was some arguing over tranquilizers, but Daryl agreed to bring the rope while another agreed to drive everyone to a strip mall on the outskirts of town. "I can't wait to sink my teeth into her." he said.
Then, not thinking, she clicked on a directory labeled 'recipes', and her hands flew off the keyboard. She twisted the chain around her neck until it bit into her fingers, suddenly cold.
After several minutes radio silence, CaptainSexy pinged her, and Charlie double-checked her encryption settings.
SexBombadil: It's not good.
CaptainSexy: Do you need to call someone?
Charlie looked at the time. They didn't like employees coming in after hours, but she knew the guard's favorite brand of jellybean, and she'd have better access to the surveillance cameras around that strip mall.
"It might be nothing," she typed, wondering if tonight might be the night to test her new software, "I know how to stay out of trouble."
Once inside her office building, she crept past the cubicles, endless variations of wall art and C++ libraries, and wondered if any of them were cannibal kinksters as well. Even Daryl had a few vacation photos framed over his computer. She made a mental note to go shopping for desk toys, and wondered what sort of things CaptainSexy liked.
The men had agreed to meet at midnight. Breaking into the strip malls cameras didn't take long, but unfortunately she could only view one at a time, so she switched between the parking lot, the loading dock, and the three storefront cameras every few seconds, and tapped into the police dispatch in case any neighbors decided to report a kidnapping.
The second hand of the clock ticked. She desperately wanted check for new messages, but didn't dare log in from her work computer. The appointed time came and went, and not a single car pulled in. Another hour passed, and taking a chance she hacked into the men's personal webcams. Two were in bed, one was reading beside his sleeping wife, and one rested his head against his fist, growing virtual corn for his level ten spellcaster.
"Well crapsticks." she said, running her hands through her hair. One by one she began closing the viewing windows, and had the cursor hovering over the last one when she saw someone beside the loading dock. A cop? She would have noticed it on the dispatch feed.
"Okay Sparky," she said, starting up her new facial recognition software, "Strap on your space goggles."
Charlie rested her chin over her crossed arms. Several still frames of the stranger's face flashed by, and rendered a freakish composite that started with bones and layered muscle and skin like a dissection in reverse. The grinning skull filled out, dark eyes, dark hair, lipstick like a slash across her pale face. The girl in her dreams. Then the computer estimated six hours until it could secure proper identification, and Charlie closed her eyes.
She was running beside a river, toward a great onion-dome palace with a single window in the highest tower. Her shadow flickered in the torchlight as she raced up a spiral staircase, which morphed into a revolving escalator so that if she stood still she found herself circling the palace in zero gravity. Dreamy-weamy weirdness. But then SHE appeared, beautiful, naked, an apple in one hand and a serpent coiled around her waist as if she'd been posed, and satisfyingly solid when Charlie reached to kiss her. The sex was inexplicable, they were both as smooth as Barbie dolls down there, but the intent was clear, and when they climaxed Snow White stretched out in a burst of light, and transformed into a pencil sketch of herself.
DING. The elevator at the end of the hall opened, and Charlie awoke as the first busload of employees shuffled in. Wiping drool off her sleeve, she checked for status updates, but only got an error message. The woman was not in the system.
Daryl strolled in around lunchtime. "What's with the Disney princesses?"
Charlie looked up. She'd already wallpapered her cubicle with several drawings of the strange woman from last night. "I'm...tweaking the parameters on skin texture, I like getting a visual before I break it down into numbers."
"She's hot, is that your sister? I got a brother, he'll be out of jail soon..."
"I had fun last night," she lied, "When's the next dinner meeting?" She didn't want to narc on a co-worker, but this would let her keep tabs on his friends.
Wednesdays became Anarchist Burrito Night, and Charlie continued her chats with CaptainSexy, trying and failing to avoid the subject of Daryl's illicit activities.
CaptainSexy: You should go to a woman's shelter.
SexBombadil: I'm fine.
CaptainSexy: What if they do it for real next time?
SexBombadil: They won't. They scheduled another "hit" for Valentine's Day, but never met. They talked about meeting at a restaurant, and didn't. It's just fantasy for them.
CaptainSexy: Be careful, I worry baby girl.
Charlie tucked that last part away to memory. Her sketches had gotten really good lately, and had gotten so far as to put one in a stamped envelope to CaptainSexy until she realized she didn't know her address. What if she lived on the other side of the world? What if she lived under a bridge and was using a library computer every night? Did Charlie really want to know?
Impressed with her attention to detail, Charlie moved up the ranks and was tasked with trickier assignments. By springtime, she had written a bonus feature that, after identifying a subject, pulled up any suspicious organizations they were connected to within three degrees of separation. If Mary Sue's bible study partner had once dated a secessionist who now printed leaflets for a charismatic death cult in Arizona, a red flag popped up in the corner of the screen. Not all of the source code was hers, the brass upstairs insisted on integrating a patch labeled "Need to Know", but the spooks sent her hundreds of unreadable files each day, and she had far more interesting secrets to pry open.
She tapped her foot in the lobby. "So how does the security work on that other elevator?"
The guard turned in his chair. "Why you wanna know?"
"They generate a four-digit number every two minutes. They call me down here, tell me the number, I tell it to you."
Charlie nodded. "What about the fire escape stairs? There's always a back door."
The guard turned back, as if a sudden chill had passed over him. "Lord I hope not."
She soon grew bored with her work, but didn't want to complain online. It could always be worse.
CaptainSexy: At least you don't have to see anybody. I hate it when clients cry, and they ALWAYS cry. "Can't I get an extension? A few more months to pay you back?
SexBombadil: You sound like Satan's secretary.
CaptainSexy: Close enough.
The office cleared out for Memorial Day weekend, and Charlie hung back to spy on Daryl. She'd been itching for an excuse to test the new feature, and once she had him on camera the program operated on it's own. She popped open a Red Bull and leaned back in her chair.
Daryl had gone so far as to gather his friends behind a girl's college dormitory, where he presented one end of a crowbar inside his jacket, but they didn't share his enthusiasm. Daryl smiled, spreading his hands like a magician about to perform a coin trick, and the men relaxed, confident that his plan would work.
A text box appeared, identifying each man by name, address, and date of birth. None of them had any red flags, and Charlie wrinkled her nose. Surely the NSA had mined their internet history?
Then the patch started up, zeroing in on each of the men's faces, and a language she'd never seen ran across the bottom of the screen like a news ticker. The light in the dormitory parking lot crackled, and for a moment it seemed as if Daryl had too many shadows. The light flickered again, faded, and when it switched back on one of the men was gone.
"What the hell..." Charlie whispered, and then soda splashed all over her lap as a giant hand flew up and closed over Daryl's head. Not his face, but his entire head, a black maw with bristle hair along the length of it's arm and nails re-shaping his skull like bread dough, folding his body over and over until he fit inside it's palm in a compacted ball of bone and gristle. The other men opened their mouths in an unrecorded scream, but did not run. If anyone in the building heard them, they did not give any sign of it. And then, once the first hand disappeared, the earth glowed beneath their feet, and they too were pulled through the very stones of the earth.
The infernal news ticker at the bottom of the screen stopped, and the parking lot appeared ordinary again. Charlie tried to pick up the phone to call somebody, but her hands shook too hard and besides, who could she call?
Someone walked on-screen, at first Charlie hoped it might be a student offering aid, but this woman dressed too professionally to be wandering around a college campus at one in the morning. She clicked a pen, checking off boxes on a clipboard, and signing her name she laid the top portion of a triplicate receipt on the ground before turning to leave. As the paper dissolved in a gout of flame, Snow White turned to smile at the camera, and gave Charlie the thumbs up.
Charlie tried logging in to wipe her hard drive, but someone had stripped her admin privileges. The office computers had no external ports, so uploading a virus from her thumb-drive was a no-go, and every programmer in the building would have access to this software come Tuesday unless she purged it first, unless she buried an axe in the gas main and boiled it out of the servers.
She snatched up her bag. The guard was still on duty, but she chucked a toilet tank lid out of the window onto his windshield, and by the time she arrived downstairs she had the lobby to herself. She carried a month's salary in cash and three passports by different names, by tomorrow she could be repairing radios in Reykjavik.
She had her hand on the glass door when she noticed something flicker in her reflection, faint as a firefly. She turned around, knowing the guard might return any moment, and watched the down arrow button on the other elevator blink.
A walkie-talkie crackled outside, and Charlie backed into the shadows as several police cars flashed their party lights. The guard spoke into his shoulder. "Station, we've got a 459 up on the second floor, request for extreme force?"
The elevator doors were cool against her back, and she felt for the button as men in uniform circled the front entrance. She endured twenty agonizing seconds as the carriage made it's way, as if rising from the basement of the world, and locked eyes with the first wave of soldiers when a bell dinged and she fell backwards onto a checkered carpet.
She stared at the ceiling, red hair fanned across the floor as the sound of police sirens faded. A few minutes later, the doors sprang apart on a waiting room, chairs lining one wall and a bank teller counter with a steel partition at the far end. A pen lay chained beside a sliding flap at the bottom. She pushed it aside and leaned down. "Hello?"
A woman answered on the other side. "Do you have an appointment?"
"I, um..." Charlie tried to collect herself. "I'm Charlie Bradbury, I'm looking for one of my co-workers, Daryl, I think he was...misplaced."
Nails clicked against a keyboard, and a yellow form slid through the flap. "You'll have to submit a request to Collections, though seeing as we've already given your friend three extensions AND we're entitled to a percentage of all pre-crime candidates..."
"He's not my friend. But he doesn't deserve this. No one does." said Charlie, an icy finger worming into her heart as she considered her next step, "I've got money, can't I just pay off whatever he owes?"
"We don't take cash."
"Will you take a secret?" said Charlie, folding her hands over her chest as if conversations and dreams and true love's kiss and all the other strange currencies of Hell could be contained there, "Will you take the memory of the only woman who ever loved me?"
There was a pause on the other side. "You'll have to add her name to the form."
Charlie looked down at the paper, and tears welled in her eyes. "I don't know her real name."
"Oh don't cry baby girl," she said, as she passed some Kleenex through the flap, "I hate it when clients cry."
Charlie's mouth fell open. "What did you call me?"
"Now, I should point out that you qualify for the employee payment plan, so if you're willing to co-sign on Daryl's debt...I actually need someone with your skill set."
Charlie's gut twisted, wondering what sort of engineering difficulties arose in the annex to Hell. "What would I have to do?"
"Oh your job title wouldn't change, the collections department would simply garnish your hours."
"You mean my wages."
A blue form slid through the flap, with Daryl's name beside a notice of completion dated for both next Monday and the year 6013. Talk about a Lost Weekend, thought Charlie. She added her signature and the form slid back.
"When do I begin?"
"I'll be with you in a minute," she said, as the elevator dinged behind Charlie, "Daryl will escort you to your new office."
Charlie turned around, and the smell of old meat hit her mid-section and rose to choke her until the air swam with black spots. Putting one foot in front of the other she walked into the elevator, keeping her eyes on Daryl's bloody sneakers.
"Hey shorty, did HR say if they were gonna hook you up with a new laptop?"
Charlie stood in the corner and shook her head. Having been stitched from the limbs of his dead friends, his head atop a trapezoidal torso with eight arms of varying length, and retaining his habit of sweeping hand gestures while holding a latte, Daryl now took up most of the elevator. "They sent me a fucking tablet. I emailed the guy, I said, seeing as I am neither your grandmother or a fascist, I shouldn't have to put up with your weak-ass operating system."
"Wow that sucks."
"Yeah well, whatever, they got us slated for extreme programming now that you're here."
Charlie swallowed. She hated programming in pairs, and the idea of Daryl watching over her shoulder for the next four thousand years outmatched any lake of fire. "So that lady who just hired me, you work with her?"
He laughed. "You know there's nobody behind that screen. They take your body if you rack up enough debt, she's just a ghost in the machine."
Charlie hesitated. "Do you know her name?"
Daryl looked at her, a third dead eye lodged in his cheek. "She doesn't have one. They'll take that too."
The elevator doors opened on an unfinished cellar, a bare bulb hanging from a cable over a metal chair. Daryl gestured for her to sit, and then with the aid of a small knife and a roll of wire, systematically removed all of his limbs to attach to Charlie. She closed her eyes against the pain, and by the time he finished she had hands on her ankles and legs around her waist, sprouting in all directions like a wall socket with too many plugs.
Okay, time to work. "Where's my computer?"
"Forget that. It's like silverware at a banquet, just gets in the fucking way." he said, and as his cursed blood crept up inside of her, her heart pumping hard for both of them, the dim lightbulb expanded into a star, and her fear left her.
Time dilated as she focused on the process she wanted, billions of calculations slowing to the speed of human thought. She flew above the cloud line, far far away from her body, where Snow White was waiting for her. And joining hands they floated in the peace of interplanetary darkness, sussing out the signal from the noise of pre-Adamite radio frequencies, the front line on an adversary that watched humanity like the last hors d'oeuvre on the cheese plate.
Part of her knew she was tethered to a monster, but she didn't care. They were together. She never wanted this moment to end.
She awoke in the lobby, the security guard tapping her on the shoulder. He held up her bookbag. "Someone dropped it in lost and found, is this yours?"
She rubbed her face, and spotted the calendar on his desk flipped to Tuesday. Her body was back to normal, though she ached as if she'd slept on a stone floor for three days. Feigning a hangover, she took the bus home and showered until the water ran cold, then spent hours deciding what to eat before tossing out everything in the fridge. She wasn't ready to check her messages yet.
Daryl still had an account with hush-hush, but the chatter was different, and whoever had replaced him to recruit fresh meat was less persuasive. CaptainSexy was online.
CaptainSexy: Hey you.
Tears slipped down Charlie's face. "You're real. You're really real. And I'm never going to see you again."
CaptainSexy: Yes you will. I left a key in your bag.
Charlie turned to her bookbag, where something bulged in the front pocket. Slipping her hand inside, she felt the waxy skin of an apple, pale flesh leaking as the cyanide first stung and then numbed her fingertips. Charlie's reflection in the monitor shifted, face lengthening, hair darkening, until her friend stared back at her. The world went silent and the cursor blinked, waiting for her reply.
"Like you said baby girl," said the ghost in the machine, as the apple gleamed in Charlie's hand, "There's always a back door."