Hello, Little Girl
rating: +60+x

We are heading for D-block, snaking through the periphery corridors to avoid the last stragglers. Annette can hold their own, but now I must be accounted for. Ears stuffed with paper towels can only hold so long. They are moving ahead of me, left hand flat against the wall, body bent into a half-crouch. Their right hand is angled ahead, and their wrist is tuned like a snake's tongue, fingers contorting, flicking, probing. Though they are moving quietly, I am finding myself having to jog.

They did not let me take the gun. That was understandable. But they must have noticed me take the bullet: either they did not mind or did not know enough. The latter is fine by me, but the former is not. It means that they are trusting or desperate. Neither possibility particularly inspires me, so I put the thought away.

Another left, then a right. Security cameras whir as we turn every corner, but I do not think anyone is left to watch us anymore.

Sure, there were the two bodies, stacked against the first door we came across — I failed to divert my gaze from theirs, and now I can't shake the sight of black eyes from my head, pupils dilated wide — for a moment I felt the chart in my head start to unfold, but I quelled it just in time.

(FEARFUL HERON, it must have been; our soldiers' proprietary stimulants tend to scream a little louder than the garden-variety amphetamines.)

Up ahead, we skip the elevator, but Annette starts for the downwards stairs and I have to pull them back up. They glare at me, glass eyes swiveling, so I gently tap on the rail with my knuckle:


Then, in slightly less broken Morse:


They cock their head, make a chewing motion with their jaw. I think for a second, compacting the message in my head before sending:


Annette stops chewing. I think they understand what I am getting at. It is not a pretty option, but it is a better one. For once, they let me take the lead.

D-block's labs go up to ground level. It gave us easy access to field testing, when we still thought we mattered, and it fit the site's pharmaceutical cover. Of course, that openness did not help us in the slightest when we became the center of it all. Those of us who knew better fled first. I do not think we need to fear the ones who stayed. It takes a certain level of self-pity to make a life out of computing path integrals over semiotic maps; we will not need to worry about our infected colleagues keeping themselves alive.

The labs, the eye of the storm. I hope I will find who I need.

Behind me, Annette's steps are measured, constant, echoing. Halfway up the stairs, the lights switch into dull emergency red. On a loose step — is it the seventh flight or twenty-third? — I trip, hands slipping on flaking rust. Annette catches me before I twist anything, and together we stagger up the last few steps, bursting through the fire doors.

As I expected, the mains are out. We had taped the windows shut in the first few hours of the complex's spread. Still, the pitch black is of no consequence, because I know where everything is.

Somewhere behind the walls is a hum. Only one thing should be running. Here is the antechamber, the reinforced central room that caps the site's central shaft, and I put my hands out, feeling familiar surfaces: the pot of the long-dead money plant, the water cooler (regrettably empty), Kelly's old desk. On the whiteboard is a patch of black mold. The chart in my head goes HZZ-ZZT for a moment; I recoil and put it out of my mind.

Beside the whiteboard is the panel for the hermetic door, its light blinking a weak red. Feeling past it, I reach for the seam, which now comes apart with little effort.

They built the cells directly below us for a reason. The complex evades pure mathematics, requires base conditions to compute. Raw subjects are insufficient. Pick a person off the streets and they have far too many dependencies installed, far too much junk data. The people were why we needed the cells; the junk data was why we needed the oubliettes.

Past the airlock, the first of them should be on my right. I hit the raised concrete block with my left shin; stifle a scream long enough to drop to a crawl and run my fingers over the surface. The metal hatch in the middle of the oubliette is cold, closed, and still. Not what I am looking for. Annette steps over me. Presumably they have caught on. I cannot see them, but I imagine they are crawling over the remaining hatches in the room (thirteen in all, and not counting the miniatures) running their hands over them, feeling for any sign of activity.

They finish quickly. A shadow — theirs — moves over the blinking red light of the panel opposite the room and slides the hermetic door open. I get to my feet — slowly, now, putting weight on my right side — and follow Annette to the next chamber.

The hum is louder here. Ten seconds in, we find its source. I touch its hatch, feel that it is warm to the touch, feel the pumps running in the space behind the wall. We have reached our destination.

Before I can tap a message, Annette grips the wheel and twists it with all their might. The hatch swings open. From under six inches of psychotropic cocktail, the subject begins to scream.

For someone that has been under for a week, she has a lot of fight left in her. (Come to think of it, it has been three days since my voluntary confinement; it must have been another seven before that when she was last left in the oubliette.) Her fluids make it hard to get a grip. It takes the two of us to wrestle her out of the hole, grabbing onto the rings on the sides of her straitjacket slicked with oily scopolamine derivative. My left side gives again and I let go, screaming. Something hits the ground. I hear a struggle, but she does not get very far; there is a sound of a joint cracking, and the screaming muffles over.

It sounds like she is yelling through Annette's hand now. Some kind of mantra, maybe something she thought of when she was under, or something programmed into her along the way.

"Helpmemynameisallisonbrownagethirtysixiliveinmiamifloridapleaseletmeoutihaveawifehernumberis eight three four two five nine one one one one one - "

Placeholder data, really; easily sanitised. There is always a bit of shame when one realises that the oubliette has really done its job. (Kill a mind to save all of humanity? That used to be the moral calculus, yes. But if nothing matters, anyway, then all acts are justified — I think to myself that it will be a great act of moral courage to be able to do anything at all.)

My first instinct is to start the job where we are and carry the result in my head. But it is growing clear that we cannot stay here for very long. The subject is only going to be more trouble the more she is lucid. I give the body a tug, then prepare to retrace my steps. Back to the first room, back to the antechamber, back to the stairs.

All I need now is a marker pen, which I can grab from the desk on the way out. A light source would help, too, as would a piece of black card, or a file. Thanks to the straitjacket, I do not think that I will need a gag or a bit.

I realise I am staring into Annette's eyes, and that they have been facing me for some time. A light glints over them.

Panel indicator light? Annette does not think so.

They dive to the right. The subject screams. Gunshot. The sound of metal on metal: is that buckshot?

Indiscriminate aim in a near-dark room: the attacker is shooting to kill. I throw myself to the ground, scrambling behind one of the oubliettes. Even through the paper towels, it feels like my eardrums have been perforated. The darkness might save us for a little while, if not for the fact that the subject has started babbling again:"-mynameisangelabrowniamthirtytwoiliveinplumwellmississippipleasedocallmyfamilyimissthemsomuch-"

Gunshot. The babbling stops. So much for Plan A.

I perceive the shape of someone at the door. Somebody about my size.

The shape clears its throat.

"Who's there?" it speaks.

I almost do not recognise the voice. "Brandt? Is that you?"

"A-hh. I know you. Jenkins. Can't w-hhelieve you're one of the lucky ones, hh-aha."

"Doctor Brandt? Project Head Brandt?" Something sounds off. I cannot tell exactly what it is through the ringing in my ears. He is breathy-voiced, that is for sure, and his words come out in soft coughs.

"Hhwoject head. Di-hrector. Site o-hhisser. Sa-hhtey and Hh-ire Co-hwand o-hhiser. Don't know, don't know how wany hh-rowotions wy now, ha-ha. They're all dead-t, ha-hhen't you heard?"

Footsteps. He is getting closer. Opposite the room, I sense Annette tensing for action. They might not know his voice, but they can recognise his footsteps. It is not hard to identify the veteran field agent's lockstep, with the caveat that he wants to be heard — or does not care if he is heard. This is Brandt, all right, and there is no question about it.

"S-hhit, I could ewen we Oh-Hhive wy now, ha-ha."

For all their aptitudes, Annette cannot sense his tone, but I can feel him just fine even in my half-deafened state. It's fear, the business end of it, the cornered fox baring teeth.

The metaphor strikes me out of the blue. That's when I get it. Of course, that's the sound: he's missing his lips. The poor sod must have bit them right off.

"Y-you're a hh-ine wan, Jenkins, hh-wut I'n sohh-wry to say I don't think it's you right there, right now."

I hear him cock his shotgun. He is headed in my direction.

This is not good. My fingers are already in my pocket before I realise what I'm doing, curling around the bullet, reaching for the electronic primer. Do not look at the flash, do not listen to the screech, count to three, clear your mind, and snap -

Gunshot. Buckshot on metal. Screaming through uncovered teeth. Annette is on him like a tiger. From the sounds of it, their fingers are in his eyes, and it hits me as slightly humorous that they do not know it is pitch black.

I pocket the bullet for another time and sprint for the opposite door, stepping in something wet as I go (Blood? Drugs? I do not care anymore). When I reach it, I throw it open, and stamp on the ground as hard as I can:

… _ _ _ …
… _ _ _ …

Which is the most succinct way I can think to tell Annette that it is time to run.

If Brandt thinks he has got himself sorted out, it is slipping now. His gunshots have saved me for now, but his screams are starting to ring of static — unintended effects of the chart resonating in my head, though it will only hold for so long — and in the darkness I think I am beginning to see the faint edges of stars.

No, not here, not now, please, hold.

Suddenly, Brandt's voice hits a crescendo, and I hear someone scrambling to their feet. Splash of footsteps on wetness. Sound of a bag being lifted off the ground. Then Annette's form brushes past me, smelling of blood; they take a hard left right out of the door. I follow them, sprinting, adrenaline dulling the pain in my side.

Behind us, Brandt's footsteps, unerring, regular.

"I see now." he says. "Annette. Of course. They'the got you, hawen't they? You are not insane, you are just co-hhn-hwelled. It is okay. Let we set you on the straight."

I do not reply. He can still see doors, and he is still lucid, and the fact he has not blown his head off with his weapon speaks volumes about his self-control. But the vial of Class-C he always kept strapped to his wrist will not save him from the complex in the end.

Through the next door, I nearly ram into Annette. It is a dead end. How could I have forgotten? Now Brandt is rounding the last corner, probably bringing the shotgun to his shoulder. There is no element of surprise anymore, and Annette cannot strike faster than a bullet.

I glance around the room. It is little more than a storage closet, just shelves and boxes, neural emulator gear and autoinjector sachets and other departmental logistics. Marker pens, too. I grab one to be safe. Above all else, what is different? What can we use? What is there? Where are we?

Silly me. I remember where we are. Faint light has been peeking in from the sides; that is why I can see. I step up to the window, and turn around.

Brandt is at the door. "Jenkins. Don't hh-anic. Don't trust thehnn. Just listen. To me."

My eyes are already adjusting to the dim. Brandt's eyes are staring straight at me, but his weapon is trained on Annette. Their body is stock-still; they are at a real disadvantage, and they know it. I will have to play my cards, now.

I reach my hand behind me. "Doctor Brandt, sir, I do not come with tricks," I say, carefully. "I will listen to what you have to say, but I do not think you are in a position to give good advice right now."

"Don't hh-ind about the HZZ-ZZT, Jenkins. As you can see, I an well under wy own control."

The static in his voice settles it. My finger tenses. I step forward, taking some of the tape with me, my eyes locked straight at Brandt's.

"I am sorry to tell you, sir, but none of us are in control any more."

Moonlight illuminates his face. His jaw is exposed, and blood streaks from what is left of his right eye. The more I look at him directly the more I realise I can't, so I turn around in a manner I hope he thinks is submissive. He swings the shotgun at me.

"Jenkins," he whimpers, "I do not think you know what you are doing."

I rip the second strip of tape off, then the third. In the window's reflection, Brandt is quivering. He is not looking at me any more. He is staring at the night sky. Disbelief dawns across his face: are those the stars I see in his eyes?

"Doctor Brandt, sir, I know you think you have got yourself in control, but - " I tell him, firmly but gently — after all, a mentor still deserves a certain degree of respect, even as they are on their way out — "but Jenkins is not my name."

I step aside to show him the true colour of the sky.

The last thing I hear as we step out into the night is the blast of a shotgun.


In the parking lot, Annette stoops to inspect the subject; the damage and the blood is enough to convince me that Plan A is a lost cause. There is simply not enough brain left to work with.

Annette's wrist begins to buzz. They are looking straight at me.


I resist the urge to look up at the sky. It is already dangerously bright, and the moon is not alone. I bend down to the body, and zip the hood of the straitjacket over the remains of the subject's face.

"There is another way," I tell them.

I am not lying. In my pocket is the bullet; in my head is the gun — the chart. Together they will be good enough for one shot. Already, two innocents are dead (for a given measure of innocent, I suppose). But if all acts are justified, then the moral calculus still holds.

I just hope that it will hold long enough until we're done.

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