Battling the brother

JayUnit walked out of the room leaving the nurse Vixcin behind. She felt listless and rootless, like the first day of a vacation after school was really all-consuming. She didnt know what to do with herself. She followed the various signs pointing her toward an exit and once she was on the street she looked around. Where the hell was she and why did she wake up in slot 314 in what seemed to be a morgue? The mental image of laying on the slab wearing nothing but a toe tag would haunt her for ages to come.

She tried to grab a passing taxi but they ignored her. She spotted the tell-tale canopy of a subway station a few hundred yards up the street so she pushed her way between the faceless mass of people occupying the sidealk. Staring at the metro map didnt help her one bit. It gave a helpful “you are here” arrow but it didnt answer the question of why or what she should do next. The anger at what her body, what the weeping girl had done still stung inside her. It rose and threatened to overwhelm her. Underneath her finger the clear plastic covering the map began to soften and melt with the increase fiery heat output.

She decided to go home. Where else did she have to go? Home.

At a loss for what else to do, JayUnit travelled home. It wasnt long before she sound herself surrounded by familiar hedges and gardens. Her home was exactly where it ought to be. The first annoyance was when she went for the doorkey and found her pockets to be empty. Stupid! Memories of the morgue-like slab she’d woken up on, the nurse who’d been so helpful and the moments in between came crashing back through the fragile veneer of normality. Her pockets were empty because … her own body was laying on the operating table, naked … had she been inside her hown body there would still be no doorkey. Confusion replaced the fantasy of normality she’d been constructing.

“OK, plan B… 3rd rock from the sun.” she said to herself.

She went back along the front path and looked up at the security flood-light mounted above the front door. It’s focus seemed to be toward the left side of the path, aimed at some day lillies that had seen better days. Beside the path were white painted ornamental rocks the size of a grown man’s fist.

She counted off rocks, “One … two … three … there you are!” she turned the 3rd one over and inside a hollow was the spare door-key.

The house, as usual, was spotless. Its familiar smell and sounds comforted JayUnit at a deep level. When she’d seen the connections they had been between her family members and herself but had there been one doing to innanimate objects this house would be up there, almost a member of the family itself. JayUnit closed her eyes and listened to the ticking of the clock in the hallway, the occasional creak as the maid moved around in another room.

The house spoke to her in the language of furniture polish and old oak, “You’re the only one home right now. All is well. All is in order. Welcome back.”

She sprinted up the wide staircase, grabbed the rail at the top and swinging around the carved wooden knob on top, making the hairpin bend in record time. Her room was at the end of the landing next to the empty room her brother had vacated last year when he’d gone to University.

Eli! Sudden pain shot through her at the thought of him speaking in a voice that wasnt his own. He was out there somewhere … she paused and thought a second … he was out there in a North-Easterly direction. JayUnit took a deep breath and stepped past his room resisting the urge to go inside. The door to her own room was open. That was odd, she kept it securely closed and the maid knew better than to leave it open. She frowned and stepped inside her eyes scanning, her attitude wary.

The room looked normal enough at first glance. Her CD collection was piled up next to the stereo, it looked a little larger than usual. The bed was made. She turned around slowly. It was all here exactly as she’d left it. No. Something was missing … the “Serentiy” movie poster on the wall had been replaced by one from the TV show “Firefly”. It was subtle but unsettling. There were other changes to the CD collection to. She scanned down the stack closest to her – the European dance and New Wave bands werent prominent enough. The tone of the music was darker.

“CrüxShadows?” she said, picking up the top CD. She dropped it into the CD player and gave it a listen, picking a song at random, “Winter Born”. Electronic, dancy but with a darker edge. It reminded her of the music she’d been listening to in “The Jade Room”, a genre she’d only just been introduced to by Keisha, known as “Darkwave” or “Elecrogoth”. She like it but prefered something with less of a depressing edge. The CD collection in front of her said otherwise. A quote from “The hitchhiker’s guide to the galaxy” slipped into her brain:

Almost but not quite, completely unlike a cup of tea

Despite appearances this was not her bedroom. Had the process of being exiled changed her that much? She raised a hand to the new piercings below her bottom lip. Neatly placed and well healed. She’d never had the guts to get anything pierced before, despite how good some folks made them look, and here she was sporting a double labret.

She looked under the bed. Her stack of diary books was where it was meant to be. She pulled them out. Each of the plain black notebooks was dated on the outside cover, going back to when she’d first started journalling at age five. She picked up the first one and grinned at the first few entries

We had quiche for dinner tonight. Too much of the green spinach. Eli left more of his than I did.

She turned the page to another random entry

Daddy came home late from work tonight and missed dinner. There was a fight.

She put the book down and looked for one covering the summer when she’d been six. She knew what she was looking for – an entry where she’d drawn a large green ant on the page. There is was! The entry spoke of watching the little guy carrying a leaf bigger than he was, of the bird eating him, of seeing the green. It went on into a long guilt-trip about how she’d made the bird eat the ant. The incident was a marker for her. In the landscape of her mind it was a pile of weathered rocks on a barren hillside telling the story of ancient battles fought and won there. It was an anchor.

A more recent diary caught her eye. The cover was just as black as the others but there was something about it. The date was from 2 years ago. As she opened it a newspaper clipping fell out – there was a pocket inside the back cover filled to overflowing with clippings. She pulled them out with a sense of dread building.

The one that had fallen out showed the school wrestling team. Front and center was Keisha. The article spoke of her school reaching the nationals, on the back of an outstanding win by Keisha. JayUnit smiled. The next clipping showed the team again. Keisha was holding a trophy. They had won nationals.

The next clipping wiped the smile off her face. A mangled SUV lay on its roof in a ditch. Debris was scattered back along the road making it look like the car had rolled several times before landing on its roof. The headline blandly stated, “Local businessman’s wife and son killed in freak accident.” The rest of the story told of the wreck being found on Monday, the bodies of Eli Sachsmann and his mother being found inside. No foul-play was suspected. Eli’s father, Yochanan, confirmed that his wife had been driving Eli back to college.

“No!” JayUnit cried. He couldnt be dead. He’d been with her only a few hours ago, albeit possessed. How dare this old clipping say he was dead! She felt anger and outrage rise and heat pulse in her fingertips. The newpaper blackened around her fingers then burst into flame. She dropped it and swatted at it to put the yellow flames out. Oh well, no more lying news story!

She pulled other clippings out and flicked through them. They were in order by date. Two years ago her mother and brother had died in a car-crash. Her father had thrown himself into his work after that and news clippings told of his company growing by leaps and bounds. The most recent from only a month ago told of his private jet crashing. No! Not him as well! The clipping said that no body had been recovered, that his surviving daughter was the sole beneficiary of the estate, able to claim it when she turned eighteen, and currently under the care of her long-time guardian William McKenna. JayUnit wept.

She didnt hear the door downstairs, nor did she hear the footsteps coming up the stairs, the door opening or the girl in school uniform arriving there.

“What the hell?” Jane Sachsmann said, smelling burned paper and seeing her diaries scattered all over the floor. Sitting in the middle of them with her back to the door was a girl with dark hair cut in a short, butch style. Black Doc Marten boots, black jeans and a purple shirt much like the one she owned. The girl was facing away from the door and had her head in her hands. She rocked too and fro sobbing. Press clippings … THE press clippings … were strewn around her. She’d burned one by the look of things.

“Who the hell do you think you are, breaking in here and going through my things?” Jane demanded.

The girl didnt respond. She barely registered Jane’s existence. There was music playing – the end of the CD “Ethernaut” by the CrüxShadows. So, the intruder had rifled through her CD collection and it looked like she’d helped herself to her wardrobe as well. Jane reached down and angrily pulled the girl around to face her … and found herself staring at herself in a mirror. The bitch wore her face, albeit with the piercings she’d never had the guts to go get, was wearing her clothing and listening to her music. What the hell?

JayUnit heard a girls voice speak in surprise, “What the hell?” then a moment later, “Who the hell do you think you are, breaking in here and going through my things?” but JayUnit could only think of having lost her parents once already in a plane crash that she’d been unable to do anything about. She felt powerless. She felt insignificant and small. Now she was seeing news clippings of her father dying in a plane crash and her mother and brother ina car accident. The two realities were close but distinct. She didnt want to believe either version. The connection she felt inside told her that Eli was very much alive. How could he be dead? She was glad the clipping had burned!

JayUnit felt her arm grabbed and she was roughly turned around. The touch burned. Through tears she saw long dark hair framing her own face. Had the weeping girl come back to appologize for the exile. No, weeping girl had stolen her body and that had short hair.

“Who the fuck are you?” they both demanded.

The pain in her arm increased. The girl felt it too and snatched her hand back. JayUnit looked down and saw a trail of green fragments evaporate off as the hand withdrew. The burning sensation was gone.

Jane pulled her hand away. The sensation had been icy cold to the point of pain. Green code fragments followed her hand, evapourating back into the underlying substrate of the Matrix. She frowned and concentrated. This was a problem. She’d encountered simulcra before, McKenna had even taught her how to construct one of her own, but nothing as sophisticated as what sat on her floor. This was orders of magnitude more complicated. She concentrated on seeing the green code around her, intent on seeing lines of control and who was the puppet-master behind her mirror-image. With a shock she saw it was a stand alone sub-unit without external control. The code was magnificent!

The long-haired girl in front of JayUnit seemed to be spazzing-out – much like she used to – dissociating with the shock of seeing her sitting on the floor of her bedroom. It was clear that this room belonged to the girl and that JayUnit was the interloper here. She liked her own version of reality though, sure it fought back when she messed around with it, but she knew she had something that this version of herself didnt. A vital relational connection to a living brother. She drew strength from knowing that Eli might be posessed but her was at least alive here.

Vixcin’s words came back to her, “Welcome to the Matrix.”

So, the Matrix was laying to her. She’d see about that. A determination rose within her that she should set things right. It came with a force she hadnt expected. A connection even more vital than the one she felt to Eli. A blazing hot connection to her purpose in the same way that she’s understood the purpose of the ant. She’d been called and empowered by the divine to set things right. She was never meant to have suffered the death of Eli – his connection inside her said that – so she needed to deal with the counterfeit sitting in front of her.

Jane watched the flow of code across the sitting form of the interloper. There was a signature to the code that spoke of it being foreign. It wasnt meant to be, she could see that. Whatever it was a sub-unit of, she wasnt sure that the greater part was meant to exist either. McKenna had taught her of the occasional glitches in the running code of the Matrix. This girl was more than that though. Her code spoke of being of the Matrix yet not meant to be in the Matrix. There was a flash. The girl was gathering power; the flow of code all around them was perturbed, bending toward the girl.

Without warning the girls’s fist swung with amazing speed and connected with Jane’s jaw. All thught of the Matrix code faded from her awareness, replaced with the bland walls and floor of her own bedroom. The CrüxShadows had finished and the CD had switched over to something darker still, Rob Zombie. The blow to her jaw both hurt like hell on a physical level and an iciness flooded that side of her face. The CD blared lyrics

Time to die
Time to die
Time to die
Time to die

Silhouetting, complicating
Whom to dare – I do not care
What is form and exploration
Everything is everywhere

Increase time and spin around it
Ready for another day
Power up and memorize it
Snap the mag and blow away.

It felt good to feel her fist connect solidly with the long haired girl’s face. JayUnit smiled despite the way her knuckles burned afterward. She tried to hit her again but the element of surprise was lost. It was as though a bubble had gone up and her fist skittered off it. JayUnit remembered the club, remembered the dangerous man’s shield. More feelings of powerlessness. This was not happening! The blazing sense of purpose burned brighter fueled by anger. Some bubble in the green was not going to stop her from setting reality right!

Without thinking she reached through the green. Looking back on it afterward she realized that moment was the first time since the metalic slab that she’d even tried to use the new sense to full effect. The initial attempt had felt like someone had bathed her senses in a fire-hose of liquid fire. If the burn didnt get her, the sheer pressure upon her would wear her away. This time she simple encountered the edges of the bubble. It fully enclosed the longer haired girl. She looked frightened nursing what looked like a broken jaw. On the defensive. JayUnit felt better. She felt like she was better than this freak of nature. Not only did she have a living connection to her brother but she had the will and purpose to do what needed to be done. JayUnit concentrated on the bubble and willed it to harden. She thought of the treadmill and pushed the flow of the green on the shield’s surface to slow down, to stop.

“Yeah, got you now, dont I?” JayUnit gloated, seeing her adversary frozen and still. She stood up and walked around her. She experimentally pushed the textures in the green to move again, watching the girl’s left hand come up and extend toward the place JayUnit had been sitting. The girl was frozen with another thought. JayUnit stalked around her with angry but triumphant footsteps. She stopped behind the girl and slid her hands inside the frozen shield. Reality fought back with a ferocious fire. The ice was gone. This was like touching the portal after her car-crash. An alien touch, an alien reality, JayUnit was the interloper this time and it didnt like her messing with it.

JayUnit brought her hand close to the longer haired girls own. It was different doing it herself, without the guidance of CaraBelle, but she knew instinctively what she needed to do. She heard Vixcin’s words in her memory “You’ll not get far without being able to interact with the physical realm, or what you believe to be the physical realm that is.”

“Screw that!” JayUnit answered the memory. She glanced down at the body she’d constructed and willed it away. She waited and watched the process. Green fragments just like she’d seen after the other girl’s touch boiled off her in all directions. Moments after the mental command she found her awareness floating free again. She knew who she was without having to have a physical anchor in this reality. Memories of the ant’s purpose and connection to her own sense of purpose joined her to reality perfectly well. The link to her brother kept her strong and provided reality to her incorporial awareness. Somewhere out there CaraBelle knew she was alive and their relational connection flashed in response. This lobg haired version of herself had no such connections. None. She was simply less real than JayUnit. With that thought in mind JayUnit settled her incorporial self over the space that the other girl occupied, super-imposing herself onto her in the green. She released her grip and allowed things inside the girls bubble shield to run at normal speed again.

Jane’s face hurt like the devil but she couldnt let it distract her from dealing some kind of blow to the girl who’d hit her. She started to raise her left hand to blast her with an unformed gout of the raw code of the Matrix only to see her flicker and vanish. In that same moment sensation ceased. Awareness of the world vanished and she found herself in a black expanse face to face with the other girl.

I am JayUnit Sachsmann, daugher of Yochanan, brother of Eli … I dont give a damn who you think you are, but you’re staying in here!” she shouted, raising her hands. In response to the gesture a wall of blazing flame enclosed Jane and she recoiled from its heat. Now a prisoner, Jane sat on what she took for a floor. She needed time to think.

JayUnit opened her eyes. Her jaw hurt like the devil but she couldnt let it distract her from her purpose. She had to set things right and that meant finding her brother. She knew now that she and the body were separate entities. She stood up and looked at herself in the full-length mirror. The face staring back at her was framed in long dark hair, the body dressed in a boring school uniform. She smiled. The image reminded her of better days before the mean girls, before Keisha’s crash. The piercings were gone though. She pressed fingertips to the spots where they’d been. Smooth skin puckered under her touch and there was a brief flash of burning pain – a protest lodged by reality – and two small studs blossomed into place glowing red from the fiery transition into reality. Next the jaw. She put her hand over it and concentrated. Heat replaced the pain of brokenness. It straightened out. She wimpered as reality lost it’s grip on the injury and tried to push back. With a final grunt of effort she imposed her own will over it, the desire for the injury simply not to be winning out. After that clothing was no challenge – she simply raided the closet.

She picked out a black leather miniskirt, fishnet stockings and some calf-length black goth boots with silver buckles up the sides. A black tshirt completed the outfit: the shoulders had cut-outs with silver chains strung across them, the upper part of the shirt a spiderweb of black straps and the design on front was a goth-inspired (fallen) angel with a blood red rose in her hands. JayUnit dressed and looked around, spotting a well worn biker’s jacket cut for a lady. Perfect!

McKenna stalked the empty hallways looking for his two young charges. He’d sworn an oath to Yochanan that he’d guard his daughter even to the point of death if it came to that. Come close in fact, in the club, just one last leap freed him from the furious fist of the machine agent that had tracked them. His hands had felt tied in that reality, cut off from the support of his crew, but that had been necessary. He was back in the Matrix and he hoped, back to stay.

Ahead of him the corridor took a left turn and a sign by the ceiling pointed around the bend toward “Intensive Care”. He nodded, most likely that was where the girls were being worked on. He’d had the reverse shock the first time he’d made the transition from Matrix to the construct world they’d been liberated from. He’d spent three weeks stumbling around like a blind man. He felt input-starved in that place. The bandwidth into his brain barely registered on the scale. Like a drowning man he’d clawed his way to the surface seeking air but there was none to be found. Three weeks as his brain adjusted. It didnt dawn on him the nature of the reconstruction that had gone on in his head to support living there until he’d jacked out the first time, returning to the Matrix to check in with his crew. Reality slammed into his brain like a freight train. It was a bad acid-trip, the colours too intense, the sensations too magnified for comfort. He found himself strangely yearning to return to the construct reality to give his visual cortex a rest.

McKenna drew his twin pistols with fluid grace and pressed himself to the left wall underneath the “Intensive Care” sign. He chanced a glance around the corner. All clear. He holstered the guns and stepped around and stalked off down the new corridor.

To his left he passed a series of rooms stacked high with equipment. Each was dominated by a coffin-like tank in the centre of the room. Monitors along its surface showed a schematic view of the occupant. McKenna slipped into the last of the rooms, the screen showed a slowly rotating cut-out view of a human male’s body. Red highlights danced in various places. Not the one he was looking for. McKenna back-tracked through the other rooms. Three more tries brought up nothing. Almost dispairing he stopped by a closed door. Voices inside were speaking with some measure of urgency. One spoke with an air of authority, clipped precise tones, perhaps an Agent.

“This tank is needed – you dont have time or resources to waste on an exile. We have a scheduled arrival in two hours and it’s an important one, the first of the new range of Agents, designated Agent Johnson. Get this place cleaned up and I want the facilities ready to roll in 30 minutes.”

“Yes sir.”

McKenna ducked into the room next door and held his breath. A man dressed in a dark green suit, neatly polished dress shoes and sporting an earpiece strode past. Agents gave him the willies. Agents inside the construct seemed to be as limited as the bandwidth had been, he was sure that a trick like the last time wouldnt work out here in the Matrix. A full-power agent of the system would rip through a simultrum like so much wet tissue paper. He gave the agent time to get away before emerging and kicking the door to the room in, his twin pistols barking. The doctor and a med-tech sprawled over the tank in the room. McKenna kicked the doctor’s corpse away from the tanks control console glad that he’d not activated the shutdown and deletion of its occupant.

The rotating display on the screen was that of a mid-teenage girl. Red highlights at her shoulderblades indicated anomolous code. The readout indicated that she needed a bandwidth upgrade, a process that would take a skilled practitioner around an hour to perform correctly. McKenna had neither the time or the skill. He manipulated the touchscreen controls for the tank, seeing that the problem stemmed from a 16-fold increase in bandwidth pouring into the occupant compared to her processing ability. He had to do something, a really abominable hack to get her through, that could be undone by a skilled coder later. He brought up a display of vital statistics – 5 ft 4 in, 102 pounds, total surface area 1.44 metres squared. McKenna did the mental calculations and punched in new values – 0 ft 10 in, 2.49 pounds and 0.089 metres squared – and pushed the “execute” button. The machine responded with a bleep. He shook his head and muttered an apology. He pushed the “flush and release” button and stepped back.

CaraBelle woke from her sleep aching all over. The warm water was gone. She was standing inside the open tank next to a massive plastic structure with giant cables snaking out of it. With a start she realized it was the oxygen mask.

“Hang on a second. Standing?” she shouted. She unfurled her wings and stretched. She was wet, naked and pissed.

McKenna wasnt sure what to expect when he opened the tank. He wasnt prepared for the changeling child that shot out of the tank on glimmering wings. The wings blurred, humming, giving the 10 inch tall faerie girl a halo of refracted rainbow light. She darted out of his reach and hovered close to ceiling level. Her little face was the picture of rage.

“We dont have time to fight about this CaraBelle. I know you’re pissed as hell right now. We have to get out of here and find Jay before the Agent returns.”

Pain detonated in his head.

He wimpered in acute embarassment and dropped both his guns. McKenna doubled over with his face in his hands, groaning, crippled by wave upon wave of extreme emotion. With his face in his hands he was unable to see CaraBelle’s diminutive arms raised, eyes closed, her face a mask displaying deep concentrated effort. He collapsed to the floor sobbing. His guns and missing charges were forgotten. His entire being orbitted a black hole of embarassment and emotional pain. Tentacles of despair snaked out from the hard knot in his head pulling in even more of his awareness. Under the emotional onslaught he blacked out.

CaraBelle let her hands fall to her sides in exhaustion. It felt good to use her wings finally. She’s pushed the positive, pleasurable signals they pumped into her brain down to think about later. Positive thoughts would distract her from the outrage she felt at being summarily shrunk to her present state. She poured the memory of every negative moment into that moment of rage and anger and projected it with all the force she could muster. It landed with a pleasurable wimper from the dangerous man. He was at the centre of her bad day. Sure, Jay had coaxed her into going to the club in the first place, but it hadnt been Jay that unleashed the thousand needle punshment that woke her from the enjoyable haze she was in. It wasnt Jay that had bled in the back-seat of the car, or directed her to turn right into the street where the car crashed. Oh no. This man was the focus of all her anger and she’d let him have it full force.

He collapsed. CaraBelle fled the room sticking to a flightline close to ceiling level.

McKenna’s head was throbbing when he heard the voice. Female. Tough.

“Get the hell on your feet soldier!”

He opened his eyes to see solid shoes perfect for wearing all day on a ward. Above the sensible shoes was a nurses uniform covering some nice feminine curves. Shoulder length hair framed a face that he’d normally be happy to wake up to, but it wore a foul looking expression.

“My investigation was compromised for the sake of some crack Zion operative and the two young charges, and I come in here and find this? Damn.” she shook her head in disbelief, “If you’re looking for the pistols I have them. You have exactly eight minutes until the agent returns. Orderlies will begin arriving in three. Get the hell on your feet soldier!”

McKenna would have liked nothing better than to slam his fist into the nurse’s pretty face but he knew better. She was a sleeper agent. She was well able to take care of herself. More to the point he knew he’d only get the one shot and if he didnt make it count the first time he knew he’d be dead before getting a second chance. She had his guns and looked perfectly willing and able to use them.

Feeling like he’d been run over by a truck her pulled himself up off the floor and followed her out the door. This was not the first impression he’d wanted to make!

CaraBelle knew that she needed to find Jay, and fast. She was lost. Her perspective was all off – things looked different from up near the ceiling not to mention looking different in this new scale. Her bad day had gone from one level of monumentally awful to an enirely different level. She was getting tired and didnt want to land on the floor for fear of being stepped on. A fire door up ahead offered a perch. She landed. With the adrenaline wearing off after her confrontation with the dangerous man she’d started to get cold. She needed clothes. Something in a size … Barbie … would do. The thought of wearing clothes from a toy store annoyed her greatly.

She closed her eyes and concentrated on Jay. She wanted to know where she was. There were a few people about, most boring, some worried about their jobs. She blushed as she sensed a couple using one of the nearby store-rooms for an amourous liason. Then she recognized the dangerous man from the lingering embarassment and his companion was a lady with a certain amount of smug satisfaction radiating from her. They were moving along the corridor behind her with a speed that suggested purpose and direction. Jay was silent. Absent. CaraBelle sighed.

McKenna nudged Vixcin and pointed. Ahead of them was a firedoor above which a small naked faerie was perched. She had her eyes closed and seemed to be concentrating fiercely. He made a gesture toward Vixcin indicating that he’d attempt to grab CaraBelle. She shook her head and pointed to herself. With her other hand she started a countdown on her fingers … 5 … 4 … 3 … 2 … 1. She cast her hands forward in a grasping motion and pulled them back to herself. The faerie vanished and reappeared at Vixin’s feet.

“Team recall. Or, as some of the others call it, a televixy. Gotta love it!” She joked.

One minute CaraBelle was safely perched out of harm’s way, the next she found herself standing at the feet of the dangerous man and his accomplice. She barely came up to their knees. She looked up at them.

“I suppose this is meant to intimidate me?” she asked.

The woman shook her head, “No, it’s simply what was expedient. McKenna here tells me that you blasted him emotionally. Good job. Im sure he deserved it.”

CaraBelle laughed, liking the woman already. She gave off a pleasant emotional aura, one of warmth and companionship. Her job as a nurse was rooted deeply in her emotional life, connecting to a strong sense of calling and purpose. There was more. A connection. The woman was a part of something bigger than herself, a family, that was itself a sub-part of something she believed in with all her heart. Emotionally, she read like an open book. A simple woman who cared enough to get involved with a cause that was, at times, contrary to her nature and demanded that she do unpleasant things when needed, but ultimately she believed in the bigger picture.

“If you can read emotion, read this …” the woman closed her eyes and a wave of fear pulsed out from her. It reminded CaraBelle of the rank terror she’d experienced the day her parents had taken a detour through the meat-packing district of the city. They’d driven past the slaughterhouse and the terror of all the animals going to their death was enough to make the young CaraBelle nearly throw up. She’d had a problem eating meat ever since. The woman was terrified of something and there were overtones of urgency too, a sense of relentless pursuit, of being hunted.

The woman opened her eyes again, “You get all that?”

CaraBelle nodded.

“Good, then you’ll be wanting to follow us and not get lost. An agent is walking these halls and he’ll stop at nothing to see that the three of us are eliminated. You can either walk, fly or Im willing to have you ride with me…” the woman extended her arm.

CaraBelle surged into the air and ignored the arm. She settled on the woman’s right shoulder.

“Pieces of eight, Pieces of eight!” she called in a mock parrot voice. She sqeaked as the woman and dangerous man took off at a run, nearly falling off, grabbing onto the collar to stay put.

They ran until they found an empty office. CaraBelle hopped off the woman’s shoulder and landed deftly on the desk. The woman stepped back to the door and checked they werent being followed then closed it quietly behind them.

The dangerous man extended a hand in CaraBelle’s direction, “We both did what we had to do back there. No grudges, OK?”

CaraBelle considered the hand. She reached and grabbed what she could of it in both of her own tiny hands and shook, “OK.”

The woman spoke once the handshake was complete, “My name is Vixcin. This is McKenna. And you are …?”

“CaraBelle.” She sat down on the desk, pulled her knees up to her chest and wrapped arms around them, shivering.

The woman walked around the desk to the computer, “Let’s find your friend shall we? Most likely she was taken to one of the emergency centres for a bandwidth update. OK, EC-3 is currently in use and that lines up with a scheduled arrival. EC-2 was shut down for maintenance this morning. Looks like an emergency update was performed in EC-1.” she began tapping keys furiously, “The patient was taken to … level 22 … she’s under sedation. She’s flagged as … oh dear.”

Both McKenna and CaraBelle looked at her and said in harmony, “What?”

“It seems they’ve diagnosed a problem in transmission, we get those occasionally. Transcription errors occur but she looks to be a severe case. If she survives there might not be much left of her core personality.”

Vixcin leaned back in her seat and looked at CaraBelle, “And you, young lady, need to get dressed.”

CaraBelle looked at her with annoyance and stood up, “You think I dont know that? Think I like displaying all to the general public?”

Vixcin laughed.

“Dont laugh. This is not funny!” CaraBelle stamped her foot for emphasis.

Vixcin laughed harder. Waves of good humour rolled off her and CaraBelle felt swept up in them. The pleasurable feelings her wings had been generating rocketted out from their hiding place and overwhelmed her. Her eyes closed and she basked in the moment, a short moan of deep pleasure escaping her lips. Not such a bad day after all!

McKenna alternated his attention between the sliver of glass in the door, showing him a small view of the hallway outside, and the conversation between the two women. Vixcin was talking to the 10 inch tall faerie on the desk without a hint of disbelief. He didnt understand how she could maintain such discipline, treating the diminutive pixie with such seriousness, hearing her out and answering all of her questions. The conversation seemed to revolve around the nature of the Matrix. Vixcin was leading her somewhere, and doing an expert job of it too. McKenna nodded to himself, she’d make an expert recruiter if she wasnt working this undercover investigator stuff.

“OK, CaraBelle, I need for you to concentrate hard. Close your eyes. Good. Think of what you want to wear, that’s good …”

CaraBelle’s pink skin started to darken and solidify. No, not her skin as such, the air around her naked form thickened and took on colour.

“… think in detailed terms about your outfit, what colour, what fabric, any extra details…”

As he watched a set of faded green jeans appeared, topped off with a jade halter-top that left her back … McKenna corrected himself … her wings free.

“Good job CaraBelle. Anytime you want to change, just think and concentrate like that. Hold a picture in your mind of yourself dressed a certain way and that will be how people see you.”

CaraBelle nodded and giggled. The pants and tanktop morphed into a shimmering silk gown.

Level 22 of the building turned out to be a standard set of hospital rooms. Vixcin went directly from the elevator to the nearby nurses station and asked to access patient records. The small woman behind the desk didnt flinch, spinning the computer monitor around and handing Vixcin the wireless keyboard.

There was a furious tapping of keys then, “OK. Room 2260, the Sheridan wing. Great, thanks!”

The three moved off down the corridor past the nurses station, Vixcin in the lead. the nurse on duty never even noticed the faerie flying at ceiling level. Patients lay in beds with monitor equipment beeping happily next to them. Signs next to a few of the doors warned that oxygen was in use and prohibited smoking. McKenna scratched his head, it all looked so normal, so innocent. Why would an undercover operative as capable as Vixcin be investigating? He knew this was the gateway out of the construct but what was the connection to new agents?

The so called “Sheridan wing” was sparsely occupied; only five of its rooms were occupied, rooms 2258 to 2262.

McKenna tried to pry information out of Vixcin as they stalked the hallway but she was playing the information close to her chest, “Its got something to do with artificially extending life, all these patients are either going to die or have already died and been revived. I cant say any more, not yet, not until we have proof of what’s going on here. You my dear sir are too much of a blunt instrument to apply to this situation, a sledgehammer to crack a walnut. Tact and subtle infiltration, that’s what’s needed.”

Room 2260 was in the middle of the occupied hallway. As they entered the room a young volunteer skittered back from the bed where she’d been sitting. She looked nervous, her eyes scanning the newcomers. To CaraBelle’s surprise her gaze lingered on her.

“I … uhhh … think I’m done here.” the volunteer stammered.

Vixcin nodded, took a close look at the name badge swinging from the denim jacket of the girl, “lilTwie? Is that the best you could come up with?”

The girl’s face lost it’s innocent, surprised expression, “What would you prefer Vixy, something that says ‘contract killer for hire’? You know that I’m not cut out for this sort of crap. I’m a street operative, I should be …”

“Should be where Twie? Kicking butt and taking names? Hanging out in Mara Central indulging in some gang warfare? This is bigger than us, bigger than our faction, I needed your help.”

The younger woman sat down and ran fingers through her shoulder length dark brown hair. The more McKenna looked at her, the more she reminded him of an actress from a movie. There was an alert energy about the woman that suggested that her reaction time would put most to shame. She carried herself with the air of someone who could take care of business, now that the ‘hospital volunteer’ persona had been shrugged off.

“Look, my cover is most likely blown here by now. The controller activated me to intercept these three as they came through from the construct.” Vixcin pointed to CaraBelle, McKenna then down at the prone figure laying in the hospital bed.

“Oh crap. We have a problem, a big problem. Her records said there’d been a transcrption problem, that part of her core personality had been erased.”

McKenna nodded. Vixcin shook her head and his nod turned into a head shake as he tried to follow her thread of conversation, “No, you dont understand. This is a big bad. In my time here I’ve covertly helped a number of exiles leave the construct and make a life for themselves here in the Matrix. Exiles such as yourself CaraBelle, and your friend here.” Vixcin waved a hand at the bed.

“I helped your friend to construct her RSI earlier today. The same training I gave you CB.

CaraBelle looked confused. She moved down from ceiling level and perched on the nightstand, arms folded, face set in a frown, “RSI?” she asked.

“Residual Self Image – the projection of your own self awareness in a form that other people can interact with here in the VR of the Matrix.” Vixcin explained.

McKenna stopped her, “So you’re saying that you talked to her before they sedated her?”

Vixcin shook her head, “No. Im saying that I talked to her after they sedated her. Or, more accurately, the missing fragments of her core personality that’s now calling itself ‘JayUnit’ is at large and very, very angry if I am not mistaken. I believe the diagnosis was faulty, she didnt suffer any sort of transmission error out of the construct, it happened afterward. It’s anyone’s guess what we’ll find when we interact with the occupant of this body.”

CaraBelle nodded, “I couldnt feel her when I was looking earlier. She’s gone. I dont know who is laying there wearing Jay’s face but it’s not her. It’s like it’s empty or something.”

“Oh, great. So this isnt the real Jay?” McKenna asked.

Vixcin shook her head, “No and yes. The remaining fragments of her core personality are probably occupying this body. What level of control they have is anyone’s guess right now. This is as much Jay as the part that’s at large in the Matrix. We need to get her out of here and to a specialist. If my investigation – now Twie’s investigation – is going to turn up what I think it is, she’s in grave danger. McKenna…”

He nodded.

Vixcin and lilTwie stepped over away from the bed and started talking in urgent hushed tones while McKenna looked at the young lady in the bed. He’d sworn an oath to her father to protect her, and here she was incapacitated. This was his fault, and his mess to clean up. He began unhooking sensors and turning off the monitoring equipment. He wrapped the prone figure up in the bed sheets and tossed her over his shoulder.

“OK. Let’s get out of here.”

Vixcin shook her head, “No, you and CaraBelle get out of here. I have to continue briefing Twie here on the mission. Good luck Captain.”

McKenna nodded and turned for the door carrying Jay’s sedated body over his shoulder.

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