Aid: 5.3

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Sixteen years ago, Asset Twenty Three:

“We can get out of here. I know we can. Together.”


The air vent was sticky; hot wind blowing constantly through a space so cramped that even she, the smallest of the children, could barely fit inside it. Twenty Three ignored the heat, and focused on keeping her breathing even. Trainer Sloan was about to leave for the night, and he always left his keycard in the second drawer of his desk. She just had to be still for a few more minutes.

She was sweating, droplets of liquid soaking into the joints of her fatigues, making them chafe. Some of it was from the heat, some from the stress. This was their only chance; they’d be moved to the new facility soon.

Through the slats in the heating vent, she watched as Sloan signed off his computer, stood up from his desk, and stretched. Twenty Three scowled. She didn’t like Sloan. He was fat, and loud, and he always got so angry if her scores dropped on any of her exercises. Sloan was mean.

Twenty three breathed a quiet sigh of relief as the man finally made to move towards the door, stowing his keycard in the drawer and grabbing his coat off the rack, just as planned. Twenty Three waited until a few seconds after the door had swung closed behind him, then set to work at the screws that bolted the heating vent into the wall.

For the longest time, figuring out a way to unbolt the vents and sneak into the offices had been the biggest obstacle in their plan, but then the beating night had happened, and unscrewing them by hand had ceased to be an issue. She was stronger now.

Twenty seconds of effort later, she was out of the sweltering vent, and in the office. She didn’t waste her time. They had to be quick here. She moved to the drawer, grasped the handle, and pulled.

It didn’t budge. From her new perspective, she was able, for the first time, to see the stainless steel lock embedded in the drawer’s front end.

“Crap.”

Okay, Twenty Three. Time to think. You can do this. Twenty Four’s counting on you. Make a plan.

For almost seven seconds, the girl wracked her brain. Her first idea was dumb. Really, incredibly, dumb. She didn’t have time to think of anything else. She moved to the door, cracked it ajar, and poked her head out into the unfamiliar hallway.

More office doors. No people though; not for now, at least. No cameras, either. She counted that as a blessing, and closed her eyes.

Footsteps, moving away from her, to the left, then down a bend. More to the right, these ones moving towards her. The ones to her left were heavy; more weight sitting behind each impact against the carpet. Without even a second of hesitation, Twenty Three began to run.

The footsteps behind her were drawing closer now. She glanced behind herself, and saw an unfamiliar figure rounding the bend in the hall. She had a second, at most, before they saw her. No time to think.

Twenty Three glanced around herself, and dove for the first cover she could find. An ornamental flower pot sporting a large, plastic molded fern; fake leaves branching in every direction at once. She landed, caught herself, and curled into as tight of a ball as she could be.

Too slow. She’d been too slow. She knew it. Whoever it was had to have seen her dive. She’d failed. She closed her eyes, didn’t even dare to breathe. One second. Two seconds. Three…

The footsteps were heading right for her. For the first time in her short life, Twenty Three found herself in prayer. Not to god. What little education she’d been given with regard to God had said that he was reserved for people better than her.

In lieu of God, Twenty Three prayed to the small things. She prayed to Twenty Four. She prayed to watching the stars together through the window of their cell. She prayed to making faces together when their instructors’ backs were turned. She prayed to the happy things.

The footsteps drew nearer still.

It took everything the girl had to resist the urge to bolt; just to sit there, shaking silently, and hope for fate to save her.

By the time the footsteps stopped, they were barely a yard away. She prayed harder.

Three… Two… One…

On the other side of the flower pot, she heard a door creak open, and her pursuer’s footsteps moving further away.

She didn’t allow herself a moment to be relieved. She didn’t have the time. Slan’s footsteps were growing more and more distant by the second. She ran. Keeping low, keeping quiet, Twenty Three pursued that man faster than she’d ever moved before.

She caught him in a foyer, heard the low murmur as he spoke to a woman behind a desk, leaning casually against the counter.

He’d always told her she was a clumsy little creature, but he didn’t even notice when she swept the keys from his pocket. She took no time to gloat, however. The moment she had them, it was back to the office, as fast as she could go.

Drawer open. Keycard retrieved. Drawer locked back up again. She left the keys on top of his desk. Hopefully, he’d just think he forgot them. Then, she got back inside the vent, and set to work screwing the frame back into place against the wall. She was running late. Her detour had cost them almost a minute. Twenty Four would be wondering where she was. She did her best to ignore the heat as she crept her way back through the ducts towards her partner.

The warden was easy enough to dodge as she made the short trip back through the common area to her cell, doing the best she could to act like nothing was wrong. She didn’t like the warden. His breath smelled of fish when he leaned in close.

No sooner had she made it back through the door than something struck her in the side, and she felt something begin to wrap around her, binding her tightly. She was wound up so tightly that she was already filling her lungs to scream before her brain kicked back in, and she recognized him.

It was Twenty Four, his breathing was ragged. She hugged him back.

“What took you so long!?” the boy asked, his voice an urgent whisper. “You were gone ages!”

“Fattie’s desk had a lock on it,” she muttered, patting her partner gently on the back to calm him. “Grabbed his keys. We’re okay.”

In the back of his throat, her partner let out a growl.

“I hate him,” he muttered, giving her another quick squeeze before he pulled away. “I hate him so much! He doesn’t even let stealing from him be easy!”

At that, Twenty Three let out a giggle.

“He’s Fattie,” she answered. “It’s his job to make things suck.”

Twenty Four grinned.

“Well, anyway. You got the card?”

“Yup!” she nodded. “You did your bit?”

At that, Twenty Four’s grin widened.

“Yeah. I found us some big winter coats and a bunch of socks. If we wear enough, we should be okay outside without shoes; even in the snow. I even managed to sneak some food.”

“Okay,” Twenty Three nodded. “That’s everything. Now, we just gotta do it and we’re free.” Saying those words, the girl felt something, like a buzzing in her stomach. It felt like fear, but more charged, more excited. Their freedom was so close. She dug the keycard out of her pocket, and passed it across to the boy.

Much as she hated it, Twenty Three knew that this part of the plan had to be Twenty Four’s. He was the one with access to the ever crowded laundry rooms. Now, all that was left was for him to sneak through to the exit with their supplies, get past the gate, and use the card to open up a path for her to follow. She’d know it was her chance when he signalled her through the window.

There were few words exchanged in the moments before he took his leave. Just a second of awkward silence, followed by the tightest hug they’d ever shared.

“Stay safe, okay?” she said, her heart already thudding in her chest.

“Course I will,” he mumbled back. “… Just three more minutes, kay? Three minutes, and then we’ll be free.”

Twenty Three had nothing to say to that. She could hardly even believe it. She nodded into her partner’s shoulder.

“… You gonna let me go, then?” he asked, his tone just a little light; joking, in spite of it all.

“No,” she muttered back, before pulling away. She sniffed. “… See you soon.”

Twenty Four nodded. Then, without another word, he slipped through the door, shutting it behind himself with a quiet thud.

Twenty Three took a deep breath, and forced herself to be calm. Well, she tried, at least. Within a few seconds, she was pacing. Then, she was stretching; running on the spot in the middle of the room, just to dissipate the nervous energy.

This’ll work, she told herself. It has to.

After a little over a minute, she gave up trying to play it cool, and gathered up her things, before moving across the room, and climbing up to the window sill to wait.

The next two minutes were the longest she had ever felt. Longer by far, however, were the two minutes after those, and the next.

And the next.

At first, Twenty Three was merely scared. Maybe he’d been caught. Maybe the card had failed. She pushed those thoughts down, and kept her gaze affixed to the snowscape beyond her window.

After ten minutes, however, when no alarms were heard, and none of the adults came in to snatch her, she felt a different kind of fear.

What if he’d left her alone? What if he’d just gone through the gate and ran? What if he hadn’t thought of her?

She pushed those thoughts aside. No. This was Twenty Four. He was her partner. He was her soul. He was her friend. They’d been together since before she’d had memories.

She didn’t want to die alone.

She was still watching through the window long after the night had come. She didn’t look away when the sun fell. She didn’t look away when the dinner call was sounded. She didn’t even look away when she heard the door opening behind her, and two of the grown ups came in to deposit something heavy on the sheets of Twenty Four’s bed.

She didn’t look away when the tears began crawling down her cheeks.

They left him on that bed all night.

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Dissonance: 4.1

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Author’s Note: Alrighty. Again, apologies for the late publication. I’m starting to sound like a broken record on that. Today, as well as starting arc number four, we are also continuing the linkthroughs into Revfitz’ ‘Everybody Dies’ collaboration. This time around, we have 1953 by A.M. Thorne. That said, on with the chapter!

Caleb:

The goblins moved in fast and low; four of them, each with blades held at the ready. He watched from his perch above them as they moved to surround the small flock that had gathered itself on the rooftop, occasionally squawking at one another, their cries oddly warped.

Caleb grunted. It made sense that the government would want to contain the hunting birds quickly. Now that the things were without a beastmaster, they’d probably resort to attacking at random, and that wouldn’t do anything to help the already fragile balance of secrecy. He allowed himself a grim chuckle at that idea. How in the hell they were going to explain away the events of the last few days was anyone’s guess. For now, though, that wasn’t a concern. He just needed to catch some birds.

Below him, the goblins fanned out, blades at the ready, just a second from their ambush. Caleb couldn’t help but grin when he cast his first spell, a simple noise maker, loud enough to send the flock fluttering free of its roost. He crouched down, peering over the lip of his rooftop, and watched the goblins scrambling to dispatch them all before they fled. He grinned a little wider. They didn’t even manage half.

The birds took to the air, and he readied his second spell, pinpointing a trio of the creatures whose trajectory should bring them just inside his range. He waited a moment, aimed, and took his shot.

The first flew true, and he felt his mind link itself to that of the hawk, seeing it seem to spasm for a moment in the air before resuming its flight. The same was true of the second. The third, however, went wide, the bird changing course in the half a second it took for the spell to connect. He cursed quietly to himself, then returned his attention to the two he’d managed. He needed to be quick, subjugate them in the few moments he had before they left his range once more and the connection severed. He pushed at their minds and felt resistance, the tiny minds scrabbling against him like claws digging into his brain. He grit his teeth and pushed harder.

It wasn’t too difficult to remove the birds from the swarm. He just flew them up high enough for the evening gloom to hide them, before guiding them straight back down towards him. He stooped down, picked up the pet carrier he’d been provided for the purpose, and opened the latch. He flew the first one, a robust looking male, down into the carrier and was about to do the same for the female when he felt the creature’s senses finally kick into gear inside his mind, his spell connecting up the last of the links between them.

It was a very strange feeling. He’d dealt with enhanced senses for most of his life, but what this bird could smell… It was overwhelming. Like the smell of grease when he was hungry, but a hundred, even a thousand times more intense, and it was everywhere. In the shock of it, he took a few seconds to even realize that the second bird hadn’t landed in the carrier, missing the entrance by at least a foot. He shook himself.

“Wow,” he muttered. “You guys are intense. No wonder the boss wants you so bad.” The birds, of course, said nothing, the male standing stiff as a board on the thinly padded floor of the carrier, the female sitting on the ground by his feet, staring off into nothing. He gazed down at it for a moment, considering; then he swung the carrier entry closed, and flicked the locks into place. “Screw it. What the boss doesn’t know won’t hurt her. Always wanted a familiar.”

He bade the hawk to flutter up onto his arm, its talons digging painfully into his forearm as it settled. He grunted. That was the one problem with the leashing spell, it didn’t exactly afford finesse in the things he took command of. This close to, he could smell himself through the hawk’s unnaturally powerful senses, that incredible hunger piercing once more into his mind at the scent. He laughed. The bird thought he smelled delicious?

“… Yeah. I’m keeping you,” he smiled. “You’re weird. Like me.” With that, he stooped, setting the pet carrier down on the ground beside him, and raised his hand towards its head. For a moment, a part of him thought he shouldn’t do it. The spell took too much energy, and his supply was limited enough already. It would make the next few days harder, having to wait for the trickle the overseers allowed him to replenish his reserves. He pushed the doubt to the back of his mind. Screw the overseers. They didn’t own him. No one did. He held the hawk very still, not even allowing it to breathe as he pressed his fingertip against its beak. The transition worked better that way. Then, he let off his spell, and felt the energy leak out of his body, practically draining him dry. The hawk shifted, the space around it warping and hollowing; becoming abstracted. He felt its talons recede from around his arm, followed by a sensation like a hundred marbles rolling across his skin towards his shoulder. When it stopped, the hawk was gone.

Caleb took a moment to admire his new tattoo, pulling back his sleeve to examine the hundred or so stylized feathers now etched in black all along the skin of his arm, running from the base of his wrist to well up along his torso.

“I should have been an artist,” he murmured. “You look awesome on me.”

The self admiration was disrupted rather when his phone rang, jerking him back into reality in the most unpleasant manner possible.

It was his boss on the line. He knew that immediately, because he’d assigned her the most annoyingly bad song he could find as a ringtone. It was still better than actually listening to her talk.

He pulled the phone from his pocket and, with a sigh, lifted it to his ear.

“Caleb here.”

The boss was on good form today. He almost missed the tiny note of irritation in her tone as she spoke.

“Asset Thirteen, have you obtained your targets?”

“One of them,” he lied brightly, slipping into an irish lilt as he spoke; that accent always seemed to annoy her the most. “Male. Seems healthy. Tried for a female too, but she got awa-”

“That’s fine,” she cut him off, her tone bored. “Another asset has managed to obtain a female. Transport the package two blocks west of your current position. Your handoff point is a woman in a purple scarf. You have six minutes.” Then the line went dead.

He gazed at the phone for a moment, then slid it back into his pocket with a shrug. It was a shame. He hadn’t even had a chance to start being really annoying yet. He rolled his sleeve back down to cover his new tattoo, and picked up the pet carrier, its solitary occupant still standing stiff as a board inside it. Then, he crossed to the edge of the rooftop, and glanced down. The goblins were long gone, but it was a solid six storey drop to get down to ground level, and he didn’t have the magic left over to shield himself from the fall. He glanced back at the fire escape behind him. No. Too easy. He wanted to be moving right now.

‘Welp,’ Caleb grinned. ‘Guess it’s time for some mad parkour skills.’

He crossed to the westernmost side of the rooftop, his eyes falling upon an ugly four-storey building on the other side of the street. Perfect. He backed up a few paces, braced himself, and threw himself into a full sprint before launching his body over the edge.

There was something unnaturally thrilling about the sensation of free-fall; a sense of speed and a rushing of wind that seemed to make a few moments last a good deal longer than they should. He watched the roads shoot along beneath him, then turned his eyes to the rooftop he had targeted. He’d gotten it just right. He angled himself backwards slightly in the air, holding the pet carrier out to the side, before hitting the rooftop at the very edge, the soles of his feet striking the exact point where roof met wall. He allowed his legs to bend slowly into the impact, absorbing the force of the fall while his own forward momentum carried him forwards into a roll. He tucked low, holding his body in a ball and letting his speed push him onward, before springing back to his feet and setting off for the next building along. It felt good. Going fast always helped to soothe.

It was over all too quickly, though. A few short jumps and a brief run, and it was over. He was out of levels to drop. He found an alleyway to descend to ground level in, and finished the trip at a brisk walk, his eyes peeled for the hand-off asset.

She didn’t take him too long to find; a brown haired young woman in a thick coat standing against a lamppost, a purple travelling scarf wrapped tight around her shoulders. He recognized her. The same woman he’d been assigned to ever since his deployment to the Americas. He shook his head. She couldn’t be that cold. It was still summer.

“Hey, babe!” He called, giving her a wave as he jogged the last of the distance between them. “What’s a cutie like you doing alone on a night like this?”

The woman turned, got her hand halfway up to return the wave, then aborted the attempt with a snort as his words reached her.

“Wow. Such a smooth talker. You ever flirt with girls your own age, Thirteen, or am I just special?”

“What can I say?” Caleb shrugged. “Girls my age don’t do it for me. Not enough boob.” He raised his free hand to the air in front of his chest and made a few squeezing motions with his fingers. “Besides. Maybe I just save it for the best girls.”

“Yeah, yeah,” she chuckled. “Give me the package, kiddo.  I wanna look it over before the deadline hits.”

“Sure, whatever.” Caleb held the carrier out to her and she took it, peering through the bars at the solitary occupant.

“… You’ve been free-running again, haven’t you?” She sighed.

“What makes you say that?” He asked, trying to keep his voice playful. “I promised to stop that last time, remember?”

“So then why does the capture look so beaten up?” She replied, pivoting the cage to show him the interior, the hawk inside now rather bedraggled after its assortment of falls. “And while we’re on the subject, you’ve gone and given it catatonia again. You need to get better with capture spells, Thirteen.”

“Can you please stop calling me that?” He groaned. “It’s Caleb, okay? Why do you even care? It’s not like it matters as long as they get the package, right?”

“It matters, Thirteen,” she ignored his long sigh at her use of the word. “Because if I can finally teach you to start cooperating, then maybe they’ll start treating you a little better. Don’t you want that? You know they give the good assets better food, right? Maybe you can even get a decent bed every once in a while.”

He gave his response to that with a huff.

“Yeah, no.” he replied, not looking at her. “Call me stupid, but I’d rather be Caleb.”

He couldn’t bring himself to look at her in the moments that followed, just glaring at his feet. After a few seconds, her phone rang. Her voice was cold as she answered.

“This is asset Twenty Three. I have received the package. Delivery will proceed as planned.” There was a short beep as the line disconnected.

They stood there in the dark for at least a minute, him staring at the floor, able to see her gazing at him in the corner of his eye.

When she finally spoke, her tone was soft.

“Are you gonna walk me home tonight? You know I like the company.”

He opened his mouth to answer, but nothing came out. He shook his head.

In his peripheral vision, he saw her step forwards for a hug. He didn’t back away. He tried not to blush too hard as she pulled him close. Enhanced senses sucked sometimes; they made it harder to ignore how nice she smelled.

“Hey,” she murmured. “Don’t sulk at me. You know I only said it cuz I care.”

“… That mean I finally get to cop a feel?” He asked, only mostly joking.

“Dream on, kiddo,” She flicked his nose with a fingernail. “Get back to your place soon, okay? Curfew’s in an hour tonight.”

“I will. Thanks.” With that, he broke away, turning quickly so she wouldn’t see the red on his cheeks. Probably not fast enough. He hated being fifteen; hated it with all his might. “Later, Twenty Three.”

“Later, Thirteen.”

In spite of his promise, he didn’t head back to his cage straight away that night. Instead, he dawdled. He had a brand new familiar to test out, after all.

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