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Tuesday, March 22, 2016

NYC Midnight Short Story Contest 2016, Round 2


Title: Vagabond

Requirements: Sci-Fi/ A Driving Instructor. An Assassination

Synopsis: An assassin walks between versions of the world, eliminating threats that might bring the walls between them down. 




There’s nothing remarkable about me. 

My story starts like this every time. It starts like this back where I’m from, a few accordion folds over in the universe. Multiverse. Whatever. Radford’s tried to explain it to me a hundred times. With the fancy board he calls out of nothing with a dramatic gesture down in the Underground. With paper napkins and shadow puppets and the smallest words he can muster, he’s tried to explain, but I don’t really get it. 

Truth be told, I haven’t exactly exerted myself. Can’t see the profit in it, when all I do is step from here to there. There to here, and I’m staring into my own unremarkable face in the spiderweb spaces of a cracked mirror, and that’s that. 

I don’t have the words for it, big or small. It’s not quite like stepping through a door. Not quite like whisking aside a curtain or blinking my way from dark to sudden light. It’s not really like magic, either, though I say that a lot. 

It drives him crazy when I do. Radford and his pale blue dotted lines. Radford and the busy hands that make his hair stand on end as he goes on and on and on. An unending series metaphors about genes and locks and keys. Thinned-out places between Versions that some of us—just a very few of us—can step right through. 

It drives him crazy when I call it magic, and there’s profit in that. Satisfaction when his eyes narrow like he can look right into me if he tries hard enough. There’s a nasty kind of pleasure in knowing he thinks I’m holding out on him the way he holds out on me every time. 

“Cascade management, my ass,” I mutter to the fractured version of my unremarkable face. 

I worry as the details filter in behind me. The sickly tan–pink tiles and the unsteady buzz of the tube lights that look like they’re on the verge of surrendering to gravity. There’s a rust-stained sink, cool porcelain under my palms, and I know right then it’s one of those. A Version where time’s been dragging its heels for who knows how long. Where absolutely everything takes forever and I’m bound to fuck up somehow. 

I worry and I wonder for the hundredth time why he sends me on these when he knows I’m bound to fuck up. The last of the Vagabonds and he knows I’m bound to say something or drop something or step from there to here at just the wrong moment. I wonder why he doesn’t send Charys or Jess or any one of the official Walkers. Rising stars who get how this works.  

I worry, and then I don’t. My gaze snags on the mirror again, and I remember even before the pop sounds just once in both my ears. Before whatever it is comes online and Radford’s voice fills my head. 

Calm down. There’s nothing remarkable about you. Head for the drop. 


*********************************************

It’s worse than I thought. Bad even for a Version like this, though I wonder how I know. My memories of every job are just sketches. Echoes after they get to them back at the Underground, and still I’m pretty sure this is worse than I thought.  

I sling the pack over my shoulder  and push through the door. There’s a too-bright sun in a hazy sky. Thick, dusty smoke on my tongue. I turn a half circle and see the world is flat all around me. A black line in the distance and a sagging canopy behind me and off to the right, with four dark shapes hulking back to back. 

Fuel station. You’ll need a car. 

That’s Radford, but not Radford in my head. Just something my mind’s bothered to hold on to. Been able to hold on to from a job or two or four ago, and who knows why the echoes always sounds like him. Who knows how it’s different from whatever sets off actual him in my head. 

The drop, Vagabond. 

That’s actual him again. One of a thousand impatient-sounding snippets he records before he signs me on and sends me off. They fill my head one at a time, and I guess he must know how that works.

Stimulus and response. There’s a dead space. Soundlessness between hard bookends. Same way you’ll find the drop. Dead space again. Now go.   


**********************************************

There’s nothing remarkable about me. 

It’s my salvation. I look lost. I am lost, but so is everyone in a Version like this. I remember that much. The way they’re all choking on the smoke-thick air. Letting themselves be tugged along by things they don’t understand. 

It’s familiar. It must be why my mind holds on to it. Because it works like that for me. I’m not a Walker. There’s no shiny silver badge of honor not quite hidden behind my ear. No parade of symbols scrolling endlessly in the corner of my field of vision to translate this Version into my vernacular. There’s just me and memory and Radford’s best guess about what I’ll need to do the job.

Guess? he snaps. Prediction. Likelihood caught in a net of endlessly sophisticated calculations.  

He’s sneering. Annoyed with me, and it’s just as likely to be him or not him. Actual or memory. Either way, I tune it out as I drag myself toward the black line in the distance. Both of him are silent until one or the other coughs up the word road. It goes with car and fuel and when the dented yellow monstrosity roars past and screeches to a stop, I remember that I hate this. 

It zips backward toward me. The dented yellow monstrosity, quick for what it is. It belches smoke and zips backward in an undulating line. It stops again, right in front of me. A massive weight on wheels that rocks forward and back. There’s a soft purr as the window descends and a voice floats out. 

“Lady. You trouble?” 

I shield my eyes with my hand. I bend my knees and lean in. The man’s face is dark and bristled. His head is wrapped in an intricate nest of pale blue cloth. The voice goes on, but I only catch every fifth word or so. My ear trips over the accent as much as the string of archaic phrases I’ve never bothered to learn. 

I shake my head. He shakes his, impatient with me, but  as far as that goes, he can get in line. I feel the tug. My feet kicking up dust as they drag closer to the car. I’m meant to get in. It’s my way to the drop and I’m probably supposed to make nice. There’s probably some trick to this, but that’s not how it is for me. I yank open the door and slide inside the car, ignoring the rapid-fire words muffled by the scarred, not-quite-transparent barrier between him and me. 

Cab, Radford supplies. Currency. 

“Money,” I blurt, proud of the old-fashioned word. “Wallet.” I produce the slim black square with a flourish. I flip it open, so the fan of green just peeks out. “City. Town. Ok?” 

He meets my eyes in the mirror. “You trouble?”  

“No trouble.” I cobble a smile together from five or six I half remember. Unremarkable iterations of myself from Versions like this. 

“No trouble,” he echoes. The car lurches into motion, even though he doesn’t believe it. 

He shouldn’t. No one should believe it. 

********************************************

Nova Driving Academy

The tug comes just as the words glide by in my peripheral vision. I’m sick with the lurch of the cab. With the thick, filthy air here, and I wonder what would happen if I fought it. I wonder if I have before. If it’s one of the memories they’ve lifted right out of my head back at the Underground. One of the things my mind hasn’t bothered to hold on to. Hasn’t been able to. 

I wonder, but Radford is clamoring.  Binary system. White dwarf. Accretion of matter. Fusion. Cataclysmic. It’s his system breaking down. Misapprehension slipping through an endlessly complex net. Nova. It’s just a name. 

The tug comes again and my palm slaps hard against the scarred plastic barrier.   The driver’s arms go stiff. His spine goes long and the cab stops so suddenly that my knees slam into the seat. I shove a fistful full of bills through an opening hardly big enough for my fingers. 

It’s enough. It has to be more than enough, but he doesn’t take them at first. The window purrs down and he sticks his pale blue head out. 

“Driving academy.” He laughs up at the sign, then back at me. “You want my job, lady trouble?” 

I mean to smile, but the tug comes again. It’s sharp this time, and it’s only going to get worse. That’s a memory. An echo and more. I reach into the pack. The pain recedes, and my hand knows what it’ll find before I do. Solid weight and the texture of a pistol grip. 

“Job?” I manage a smile this time, though he doesn’t seem to like it much. “Already got one.”

*********************************************

There’s nothing remarkable about me. Not in the spiderweb spaces of a mirror. Not swinging my legs out from behind the wheel, calling out something encouraging to the pale kid with braces who’s holding on to the passenger-side dash for dear life. 

Nothing remarkable at all, and I wonder why they want me dead back at the Underground. I wonder, and maybe it’s not the first time. 

This is the drop, Vagabond. 

I raise the gun. It’s clean shot and then it isn’t. Then it’s chaos. 

“Vieve!” The voice is a memory. The name, an echo and more. “Genevieve!”

A man slams me to the ground. Slams her to the ground, but it’s too late. My finger twitches. Once, twice. Once, twice again, and they’re both still. Red spreads wide on black. The kid in the passenger seat is screaming, and I need to go. From here to there through the thinned-out space between this Version and mine. 

I need to go, but I can’t. 

We need the body. 

It’s him. I know before I roll him off her. Off me. It’s Radford. In my head and on the ground, his eyes staring wide. 

Your body, Vagabond. 


**********************************************

“Have I done it before?” I slam him into sleek silver of the wall, my arm across his throat. It doesn’t seem to faze him, and that raises a question or two. “Do I do it a lot?”

“It’s never happened.” He looks me in the eye, but that hardly means anything. “We’ve never seen a Version where we . . .”

“Where we die together?” My voice fills the lab. Echoes off every surface. “Where I kill us both?” My arm drops, heavy with a sudden possibility. “You. Was I even supposed to . . .? Did you know?” 

“That Version of you is physiologically identical and you know we have no idea how it is you do it. How you’ve closed more potential rifts than all the Walkers put together. Without the tech. Without the regimen or the premature aging . . . ” His voice fails him.

My shoulders heave. A sob makes its way up and out, and I hate myself for it. I hate him for it. For finding me fascinating in this and every other Version.  

He starts again with no  little effort. “A casualty. Some of the models predicted a casualty.  I had to specify . . . But Gen, you have to know . . .” 

The door swings open, and I have to laugh. It’s a debrief tech. It’s business as usual, but her timing is impeccable.


“I don’t, actually, Rad.” I lift my arms. The tech lays the silvery material of the prep suit across them. “I don’t have to know a thing. Cascade management. Just the way you like it.” 

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