Chapter 1: This is a very clever piece of hardware
"You know," said ░░░░░░, carefully manipulating microforceps above the small silver device sitting atop the matte glass workbench, "I really have to hand it to the gorilla. This is a very clever piece of hardware."
A short series of beeps, a blue light, and she leaned back, smiling at her own cleverness. "It's a shame they sent him back to the moon."
"He always was the smart one," agreed Amélie. "I met him... a few times, before." Before Overwatch was shut down. Before its agents were decommissioned or exiled. Before many things.
"But can you make it work?"
░░░░░░ laughed. "Can I make it work. Please! Of course I can! All it needs are some tweaks to its software. And a few more functions." The Talon hacker raised some screens, flipping through lines of code. "He obviously never got to finish this code. There are all sorts of missing case handlers." And, she thought, peering at class stubs, extensions. What they don't know won't hurt them. "But the core functionality is all in the hardware. It'll be easy."
Beside them, in the corner of the room, an empty chamber flickered, and lit up, glowing right blue, then briefly yellow, then brighter, almost taking form - before, after a flash of red, it was again empty. For just a moment, if the right person looked at the right time, they might've seen a small figure in a pilot pressure suit, before it was gone.
"She keeps almost being able to land here, doesn't she?" said the assassin, who most definitely did see it. "I wonder if she has any idea what has been happening since..." She looked back to Winston's little device, and then to ░░░░░░. "How long?"
"If I had to push it?" said the hacker, "...eh, two, maybe three days. But if you want me to be suuuuuure..."
"...oh, give me a week. And unlimited access to hardware, so I don't have to waste time stealing things."
She'd lied, of course. She could write and test the software in a day. Even Winston - who was far better at hardware than software - could've done it in two or three, if the UN hadn't stepped in when they did. But it would take that long to make a second version of the hardware, for herself, which the upper-ups would find and she'd say was for testing, which was even kind of true, and a third version, for herself, which they would most definitely not find and which she would most definitively keep. As she was fond of saying, a girl always needs the latest tech.
"Very well. I'll talk to the directors, but - consider it approved. On my authorisation." She touched a panel; a door unlocked, and opened, revealing the ruins of the Overwatch research facility outside. "Don't short-cut this, ░░░░░░. Be. Sure."
That, thought the hacker, almost sounded like an emotion. Let's file that away for later. "C'mon, Amélie, am I ever not? Stop bothering me. Go outside, shoot some wings off of mosquitoes or something." She cracked her knuckles, dramatically. "Let me get to work."
Chapter 2: I don't know how much charge is left
These events occur before those of the previous chapter.
"Okay, hang back a second, I've set the lifter but I don't know how much charge is left in the battery pack..."
Lacroix backed away from the wrecked door as ░░░░░░ punched a sequence into a small handheld pad. The sound of metal scraping against metal followed a loud, low hum and electrical snap, and half the ruined door slid into the ground, and the other half bent upwards towards the ceiling.
░░░░░░ looked atypically confused at the damage. "ah... I don't..." She shook her head. Materials science wasn't really on her list of priorities. "eh, whatever. We needed it open, it's open, I'll take it."
Widowmaker activated her visor, scanning for potential targets, finding none. "We're still alone, for now." The two women stepped into the ruined research lab. "But be careful. I do not think we've done the floor any favours."
"No, I don't think so either." said the hacker, throwing a light onto the ceiling. "Do you see the accelerator?"
"Yes. It's still here. Incredible." Widowmaker retrieved the small chrono-tunneler from its storage case, and laughed a little, in her best mission-accomplished way. "It's not even dusty."
░░░░░░ frowned. "This was too easy."
Half of a smile. "Leading you down through 15 stories of collapsed building was not 'easy,' even for me."
"Yeah, well, whatever." She pulled down the light. "I don't mean to crash the party mood, you know, buuuut..." started the hacker, drawing out the u.
"Yes, we are finished here." Lacroix replaced the tunneller core into its protective case. "Let's go."
"That's not what I mean."
"No?" said the assassin, stepping back into the ruined hall.
"No." replied the hacker, following the blue woman upwards towards the next level. "I mean, don't get me wrong, this is a neat bit of tech, and I'm glad to get my hands on it. But..."
Amélie's expression didn't change, as she launched her grapple upwards through three stories of ruined training room. "We don't even know that she's not already dead."
"She probably is, you know. It's been years."
The assassin nodded, and triggered the winch. "Elle est en vie ou elle est morte. De toute façon, nous allons le découvrir."
Chapter 3: a very old code and a keypad lock
also before the beginning, but only just, and not as far before as the previous
Amélie punched a very old access code into a keypad lock, and the door opened, silently and quickly. The morning sun lit the small workroom inside, the overhead lights popping on unnecessarily. "Will you have enough room to work here? The medic can set up just outside the door."
The hacker stepped around the room, carefully avoiding one corner. "I think so. This tracking equipment needs to go - we'll need to set up the containment chamber in the corner. And I want that workbench from the main floor. The nice one, with the grey top, against this wall." She pointed towards the western wall. "It'll block the other door, but we don't need it."
She paced around the room. In the corner she avoided, a faint flicker of light, then gone.
"So let's say she's alive, and this works, and we get her back, and she survives that too... what's your plan?"
Widowmaker raised an eyebrow. "Recruit her, of course. You know that."
░░░░░░ shook her head, no. "I know you said that, but, well, I've read her files, and I have to tell you - that's hilarious."
"Not at all. If this device works as Winston believed it would, she'd become a tremendous asset."
"That's not what I mean and you know it."
Lacroix said nothing.
"What are you going to tell her? What could you tell her?"
Ah, thought the assassin, a question I can answer. "The truth."
░░░░░░ threw back an amused, you-cannot-be-serious glare. "...the truth."
"Yes. Starting with the truth about me. And about Gérard."
What?!, thought the hacker. "Now I know you have to be kidding. Mi dios, why?"
"Because that way, cherie, she'll know."
"She'll know that if I'll tell her the truth about that, I will not lie to her. Not about anything."
░░░░░░ tilted her head to the side, and thought hard, trying to figure out how Amélie Lacroix telling Lena Oxton about how she assassinated the head of Overwatch's anti-Talon task force - and her husband - could convince anyone of anything other than running away now seems like a really good idea. "'I assassinated my beloved husband but I'm totally fine with it.' That's very reassuring."
"You know nothing about him. Or her."
"I know none of this makes sense and I don't think I want to be here if she wakes up."
Amélie laughed, delicately. "The support staff will be so disappointed."
The hacker sighed. "Fine. It's all pointless anyway if the accelerator doesn't work. Help me haul this gear - we have a lot of setup to do before I can test anything."
Chapter 4: amélie, perched on a walkway
before everything else so far
The woman in blue sat perched on the walkway, still, and waiting, sniper rifle - for once - not at the ready. Across the broken strip of road before her, on the roof of the low empty building found there, a macaque sucked on a bit of orange, pointedly ignoring the seagulls settling in nearby for the night.
If he was right, thought the woman who waited, it should not take very long.
In the corner of a room visible through the open front door of that building, a small hexagonal device lay silent, looking entirely like just another piece of abandoned hardware in this place strewn with abandoned hardware, forgotten. Of course, it was not; and it, too, waited.
From the far distance, across the bay, came the noise of a freighter, anchoring down; a sharp ear could almost hear the crew talking amongst themselves as the stars came out, one or two or four or eight at a time. A small boat launched, towards shore, possibly carrying sailors on leave, and possibly not.
The macaque, finished with its fruit, climbed around the front of the building and leapt over to the cliff face, disappearing into the low shrubbery clinging to pockets of rocky, hard soil. Further down towards the beach, sandpipers briefly argued, then apparently settled things amongst themselves, leaving only the sound of waves and far-distant traffic.
The watcher touched the side of her headdress, and goggles slid quietly into place over her eyes. The device was warmer than the rest of the building, the power supply and sensors creating the smallest glow of heat - not even enough to attract the animals, but just enough to measure.
Only after the last maroon of twilight fled, and the bright nearly full moon set, only then, just visible through the entrance, did a glow arise in the deep black gloom, inside the building, past the doorway. The faintest trace of colour, a deep, dark blue - and the device reacted instantly, throwing all of the power it had in its tiny power cell into its small accelerator field. The blue glow strengthened sharply, and the woman on the walkway breathed sharply in, thinking, Now I see you, as the glow briefly attained form - and the field collapsed, power supply exhausted.
The glow yellowed, turned red, darkened, and vanished.
Hooking her grapple, the blue-haired woman dismissed her goggles and dropped to the ground below, running over to the device. Of what she'd just seen, no trace remained, dust on the floor and walls not even disturbed - but the data remained, safely tucked into a small, heavily shielded storage card.
The assassin held it up, and smiled. Now, she thought to herself, I have you.
Chapter 5: a three second lag, with glasses
later than everything else so far, and possibly later than you think
"So... you're saying she came to you."
Winston, on the far side of a screen with a three second lag, took off his glasses, and polished their lenses, looking down at his bench. "By radio, of course. But yes."
"Winston, I've... I've read up on what she's done. On what's happened. On what the UN and Overwatch and Blackwatch did, and... But..." She waved her hands around, words not coming. "What."
"It was the only chance I had to pull you back into normal time - the first chance I'd had in years." He shifted his weight a bit, leaning a little on the edge of the bench. "I was almost ready, before - I was this close." He held two fingers a millimetre together to illustrate. "I only needed a little more time, that's all. Not even budget, just time. Just two or three more days." Old frustration radiated through his otherwise calm tone.
"I was so angry when the UN swooped in and shut us down - I'm afraid I may've lost my temper." He chuckled. "I'm not saying 'excuse me' for that."
Lena Oxton laughed, and ignored her almost-mended ribcage's complaint. It'd been an effort, getting up this high. "I know, I know, Winston, none of this is your fault! I'm grateful, believe me, I really am! I just don't understand why."
The hyperintelligent gorilla leaned back into his chair, looking down. "I'm not even sure shutting down Overwatch was the wrong decision. The black ops group..." he sighed. "I wish I could say I was completely unaware, but I wasn't. I didn't know details, and things were worse than I suspected, but the honest truth is that we were... at least to some degree, we were complicit."
Lena nodded no. "That's not what I meant, Winston."
Ah, thought the scientist. "I see. I presume she's trying to get you to join her organisation."
"Ah, c'mon, big guy, I'm not stupid. Sure, she's put that out there, but that isn't what I meant either, and you know it." She waved her hands around in the air, frustrated, frustrated that words weren't coming as quickly as they should - something else that should improve over time. She shouldn't really have been climbing yet, but she missed the heights - and the adrenaline rush - too much not to. Everything gets so fuzzy at the edges, red and blue shifted, drifting just slightly back and forth, like a boat not fully anchored. "I'm a damned good pilot, Winston, but they don't have an air force and this isn't what they do. So what is going on?!"
The face on the screen scowled, and the delay seemed longer this time, somehow. "I don't know. I don't know why she did it. I'm glad she did, but it bothers me that past a point I don't care, because I'm just so happy to see you back with us again."
The pilot once known as Tracer smiled and spread her arms wide. "Aw, c'mere, y'big lug."
"I would, if I could." He smiled, wryly. "I can't even do a lot of digging from up here. Dr. Ziegler and I talk regularly - we're doing some research together on the long-term effects of artificially assisted gravity on mitochondria, I have some ideas to improve our systems - but the rest of us haven't exactly kept in touch."
"Given everything, I'm kind of surprised you talked to her - much less believed her. In your position, I wouldn't've."
"I didn't talk to her, at first. If that friend of hers hadn't managed.. do you know she started leaving messages on our internal comms? They're not even connected to the uplink. I got one in my bathtub - it took us three weeks to track down how she did it. So I decided, if she was that determined... maybe I should listen."
"That, and she threatened to start shutting down your environmental support."
"I think that was a joke."
"She told me it wasn't."
"Oh, dear." That's bad, he thought, leaned forward, and earnestly - even for him - in a low voice - even for him - continued, "Where are you? Do you need help? I can get Angela at any time. Just give me some kind of sign."
Lena laughed, and leaned back. "No, no, Winston, it's fine, honestly - now I'm the one who's joking. Look, I'm - look, I'll show you!" She picked up the comm and aimed its camera around, showing no one around her, showing the rooftops of old London, with the newer, taller buildings behind it, and then pointed the camera down a bit, showing the height of her perch.
"Is that... that's... that's Westminster?" came Winston's voice from the small speaker. "You're on top of Big Ben?! How did you...?! ...are you sure Amélie isn't there?"
Lena put the comm back into its little improvised holder atop one of the spiky ornaments of the tower roof, and laughed again. "Yes, Winston, honestly, it's just me here. Me and the pigeons! They're after my chips." She shooed one away, and distracted another by sacrificing one chip to the rooftop.
"And it's called Elizabeth Tower, Big Ben's just the bell. Honestly, luv, you're such an American - even if you are from the moon."
"But," she added, "she's been showing me a few of her tricks. And... I just needed some air. I just needed some up."
Winston looked particularly grumpily at his now-even-relatively-younger old friend, through the camera, through hundreds of thousands of kilometres, through seconds of time. "You needed some fear. Or maybe you needed to be arrested. Why aren't the police after you, up there?"
"I needed to feel like myself again. This is as close as I could come without something dangerous to fly." She smiled, and twirled a little grapple around in one hand. "And like I said, she's been teaching me some of her tricks."
"Lena..." He rubbed around his left eye with his left hand. "Just... I don't know the whys. I didn't decide to trust Amélie; it was just the only shot I had to save you, and even then - I didn't think it'd work. I thought you had to be dead. I guess... frankly, I guess I was looking for closure. I thought she'd be bringing back a body."
Lena replied, as soberly as she ever had in her life, "But she didn't."
Winston nodded. "She didn't." Not yet. "But it's what she does. The first time we trusted her, and that turned out to be a very bad idea. This time has worked out - so far. Be careful."
Lena blinked. He doesn't know. She told me, she thought, but he doesn't know. Why not? She smiled briefly, and tried to make light of it, but found she just couldn't. She wished she could hug the big ape, instead. "I will be, Winston. I promise."
Chapter 6: blue and grey and a bit too much red
before the previous, after everything else, by about a week
Nobody expected a fireball. Or screaming, or the containment chamber suddenly exploding. But it all happened nonetheless when flame, fragments of metal, silicates, plastics, and the distinct tang of burning jet fuel showered the interior of the small building.
And then a small woman in a flight suit collapsed onto the scorched floor. "Get it on her!" shouted the hacker, retrieving the second chronal accelerator from the bench behind her, throwing it towards Amélie, already there, who slapped it onto the body just as it began to shift to red.
The figure solidified, the flight suit suddenly Overwatch blue and grey and still a bit too much red, but with blood.
Mon dieu, elle est en vie! thought the assassin, as she and the medic, Taviano, pulled the young pilot - and freshly-minted accelerator - from the smoking remnants of had been a containment chamber, onto a stretcher. "What happened?!" she shouted, as the medic ripped away the shredded flight shield and threw on an oxygen mask.
░░░░░░ grabbed a fire extinguisher, swearing, spraying down equipment, "I dunno, but get her out of here, I'll take care of this little problem."
The assassin, medic, and pilot were already out the door, moving towards the emergency aid unit set up the previous night. "Vitals are good," the medic told Dr. Mariani, who nodded, "Keep an eye on lung function and blood oxygenation levels, let's get her on the table" - she grabbed the stretcher - "tre, due, uno, hup!"
It didn't take three people to lift the small woman, but three were involved nonetheless. "Thank you, Amélie - now let us do our jobs." The assassin nodded once, and backed away. "Let's get this flight suit off - can you hear me, pilot?"
Tracer's eyes snapped open, and she looked around wildly. The doctor looked at Taviano - "Sedativo pronto?" - "Sì." Buona, she thought. "Pilot, the slipstream you were flying exploded, but we have you on the ground now. I'm Doctor Mariani, I'm a field medic. Do you understand?"
The pilot's eyes locked on the doctor's, and she nodded, blinking.
"We're going to give you a little sedative while we check you out, and then we're going to transfer you to a medical unit. Do you know your name?"
Through the mask, a garbled, strained, but understandable response: "Lena. Lena Oxton."
"How many fingers am I holding up?" She held up three, and Tracer's answer was correct. Occhi non dilatati? Non c'è concussione? The mediscanner verified - no concussion. Che era un buon casco.
"You're very lucky pilot, Lena. Here comes the sedative."
Inside the building, ░░░░░░ put out the last of the fires, mostly caused by flaming debris from the chamber. Now, what the hell was that about? Everything was fine until the fire attacked... Flames doused, she opened the second door behind the bench to clear the remaining stink of jet fuel.
"Oh." she said aloud, getting it all at once, as Amélie marched back into the building. "Nique ta mère, what went wrong?"
░░░░░░ laughed, filled with the delight of success, and the assassin glared evilly. "This is not a good time to be laughing."
"Nothing happened! Well, nothing we shouldn't have expected, anyway." She swept debris off her chair and plopped down with what was left of Winston's original device, poking at it and flipping between screens of data in the air. "It was perfección! We all just forgot something very obvious."
Lacroix narrowed her eyes, smelling the jet fuel again. "...the slipstream exploded."
░░░░░░ nodded, grinning. "...when the field generator failed, sending her out of time, along with the explosion in progress around her."
"C’est le bazar."
"Hey, you're just lucky you hired me. Someone not as good might've brought back the whole thing, and then we'd all be in that tent."
She gestured. "But, don't keep me in suspense - how is she?"
Amélie Lacroix exhaled, slowly. "Alive."
Chapter 7: ten thousand metres over Greece and exploded
very shortly after the previous
This isn't Greece, thought the pilot, through the haze of shimmering blue and red and rapidly fading sedation. It... smells wrong.
She tried to open her eyes, and to a partial degree, succeeded. The sunlight from the window didn't exactly hurt her eyes, but it didn't feel right either. That's wrong too. She closed her eyes again, tried to think. The Slipstream felt fine. Felt normal. Good flight weather, dry, cool. Ground control confirmed go. Then...
...then blue and red and blue and red and red and blue and blue and explosions and flashes and flashes and flashes and so many flashes and grey and blue and red and even that woman looked blue, she looked familiar though, even at a glance, then the medics, they didn't look familiar though, then numbers and names and a sedative and black and now still more blue and more red, but not as much, and everything feels so fuzzy...
Everything, except the... bandages. Bandages make sense. But those could feel a little more fuzzy.
"È svegli.li.lia. Prendiendiendi i medico," said... someone. Medico. I got that part. Doctor. In Italian. She tried to speak, it came out strange, garbled, distorted. This must be some sedative. "It's o.o.o.kay, p.ot, l.ill, t. .tor is coming." Accent. That accent. Sicilian. "Sicily?" she tried to say, it coming out stuttery and strange, like the words she heard, though her thoughts felt mostly clear. "What's wrong with me, doc?" No better.
Doctor Mariani knocked on the door almost as Oxton spoke, but didn't stop on the way in. Lena forced open her eyes, keeping them open, seeing waving red and blue and shimmers around everything, but the pilot recognised the medic nonetheless. She said something to another woman, who had already rushed to a piece of hardware by her bed. The blurring and phasing briefly became much worse, and Lena shouted and lurched and felt a little sick, making her hurt all at once all over. Ow! Ribs? Leg? Arm? Ow! and there was a
"How's that?" said a suddenly very clearly Hispanic-accented voice.
"Much better, I think," said the grey-haired woman she had not realised was beside her, holding her arm. Lena flinched, as the older woman asked, "Let's ask our pilot. Can you understand me? How're you doing?"
Lena Oxton blinked, confusedly, finding herself sitting up, finding surprise at the stability of... everything. "That was... strange. What'd you give me?"
Dr. Mariani smiled. "Good! If strange is the worst of it, amico, you are doing very well. But lean back, please, your physical condition are not so bad as they should be, but you are still, yes, it is 'pretty banged up'? Yes."
The pilot did, for once, as she was told, glad for once to have the world not moving. "What happened?"
The doctor aimed a little light in her eyes, and poked at her with various instruments, being very doctorly in a very old fashioned way. "Your airplane, do you remember? It exploded."
"Yea, I know that part, Doc - I was there. But what happened?"
"I'm Doctor Mariani, by the way. But you can call me Geanna."
"Oh, sorry, right. Flying Officer Lena Oxton. Which, I guess you know. But. What. Happened."
Dr. Mariani didn't hesitate. "Well, we got to you on the ground, got the fire out - do you remember me talking to you in the medical tent?"
"Yea, and my Slipstream exploded and somehow next thing I know I'm in a... room? and then a tent, nothing in between but... flashes..." Flashing. Images. Strange. What? she thought, suddenly anxious in new ways.
"Yes, you were, and the mind can get very confused under stress like that. It's surprising you remember all that you do. But now, here you are, and out of danger." Her voice was calm, but it didn't help.
Tracer frowned, agitatedly, adrenaline spiking all on its own. "Yea. Here I am. Ten thousand metres at Mach 3 over Greece and exploded, and then somehow everywhere and then somehow on the ground and indoors and now here and I'm pretty sure this is Sicily, and I don't know how any of that works but I didn't even black out and I know what blacking out feels like, and something feels wrong and you're not talking about it and I want to know why and..."
The smaller woman working with the strange device next to her on the bed delinked a display and said, "I've got my numbers, I'm out of here" and exercised what appeared to the agitated Flying Officer to be the better part of valour, as the doctor continued, "You shake off sedatives very quickly, don't you?" said the doctor. "But the mind plays tricks, and it's difficult to explain..."
"...no, no, no, everything is shimmery and strange except when it's not and nothing personal doc but your bedside manner is terrible and what is going on?! and..."
"Just tell her," came another voice, French-accented, from the doorway past Dr. Mariani. "If she wants to rush headlong into this, too, then, so be it."
"Woah!" said Tracer, locking on to the voice, as the woman joined the doctor at the right side of her hospital bed.
The woman offered a cool, blue hand. "Hello, Ms. Oxton. We've met before, I believe, a few times."
"You..." The pilot's racing thoughts caught a bit of grip. "...are you blue? You, I mean, I think, do I know you, I think so, but not blue, are you really blue? I thought that was the... what is going on?!" But, shakily, she reached out as well.
Widowmaker laughed, a little, almost delighted, and took Tracer's hand in her own. "You do remember me! I'm flattered. My name is Amélie Lacroix, and I am, really, blue."
This did little to reduce the pilot's confusion, though the one clear thought in her head - my god, she's beautiful - was straightforward enough. "...why? How?"
"That," she smiled, "is a long story." Then, more sombrely, she held Lena's hand more tightly, and - looking directly into the pilot's eyes, her own clear and open - she said, "But, first, what has happened."
"It has been five years since your Slipstream failed, throwing you completely out of normal time in the explosion. You were gone, without a trace, and Overwatch presumed you lost. But Winston, he felt you might still be alive, and might yet be saved. And though he built a retrieval device, he was not allowed to try."
Not allowed to...?!, thought the pilot.
The assassin continued. "Overwatch was shut down a year later; it no longer exists. You are in my organisation's medical station in Italy, where we transported you, after pulling you back into real time using Winston's mostly-completed chronal accelerator, which was destroyed in the process. We are still making adjustments to our own version, calibrating it, so you do not disappear on us again. That is why you're feeling so fuzzy, and why everything - in addition of me - has a bit of red or blue to it."
She took a breath.
"And many things have changed while you have been gone."
Chapter 8: a fillette of chinon red, so dark, almost purple
later than anything else we've seen so far
All dialogue is in translation from the French.
«Good evening, Gérard. I've missed you.»
The woman all in black laid her lilies against the gravestone, as she did one day a year, every year. But this was not the customary day, or month, or for that matter, even the daytime at all.
«I know; I'm early. But I do not know what to do.»
She took out a small bottle of wine - a fillette of Chinon red, so dark, almost purple - and two particularly delicate glasses. One, she set on the gravestone. The other, she kept.
«I've got into bad situations before, Gérard. But this one... I'm in real trouble now.»
She poured wine for the two of them, swirling the glasses gently. A little for herself, more for Gérard, and then, on second thought, more for herself after all.
«I love her, Gérard. I thought I had turned everything down so low and far from myself that I would not see it again after you, my dearest. But...»
The woman closed her eyes, sipped her wine, and bit her lower lip, before continuing.
«I love her. As I loved you.»
She opened her eyes.
«To be honest with myself, I was almost ready for that. But then, when I put her in your place, in my memory...»
She drank the rest of her glass of wine, all of it, at once, like someone already a little too drunk, red invisible on her blue lips. To anyone looking on, she would seem a exquisitely graceful lout; to herself, she felt she could barely hold onto the glass's stem at all.
«...I do not think I could pull the trigger this time, Gérard.»
She threw her glass away, violently, the fragile crystal smashing into a thousand pieces against nearby stones. Then, she reached out, poured the contents of Gérard's glass onto his grave, and carefully put his glass back down.
«I'm so, so sorry. I did not think it was possible... but...»
A heavy breath.
«I think I love her more than I loved you.»
Water, from her eyes, for the first time in many years.
«I did not imagine that was possible. And yet I think... I think, with her... I could not do it, no matter the cost.»
She drained the dregs of the wine directly from the bottle, and, rather than destroying it, knelt down and placed it gently on her husband's grave, the water in her eyes pooling, falling, tears.
«Help me figure this out, Gérard. I don't know what to do, and I'm so afraid, afraid that this time...»
«...I would let the world burn.»
Chapter 9: en el nuevo año, busque una nueva sombra
[Not so very long after "ten thousand metres over Greece and exploded"]
Lena watched the hacker's fingers fly across the console next to her bed. Cables ran to the device strapped around her torso, and the world around her occasionally rezzed out, blue and red in surges. She wasn't growing used to it.
"So," she asked, "What's your name, anyway? I still don't know."
A particularly strong bit of blueshift, and she let out an involuntary gasp of fear.
"That... wasn't funny."
The hacker replied, "I'm not trying to be funny, don't bother me while I'm doing math in my head. Bad things could happen, you know?" as her eyes darted between six screens.
Finally, the world settled back down; ░░░░░░ scowled at the monitors, and disconnected the hard links to Tracer's chronal accelerator. "I don't like to say it, but I'm sure now. We're going to have to build another."
Lena laughed nervously, looking at the device holding her in sync with time. It never had looked entirely finished. "You mean, this one's really not quite right, then?"
The hacker looked down at the floor, to the left, to a scorch mark left from another calibration attempt - one Oxton didn't remember, and one ░░░░░░ was in no mood to tell her about. "This one, you see..." She looked back to the pilot. "You were never supposed to have it. Nobody really was. It was a test device. You were supposed to have the one Winston built, he built it for you. I built this to learn how Winston's worked, and, hey, I'm glad we had it when we needed it, but... it's not my best work."
Tracer shifted in place. "You mean it's unstable."
░░░░░░ winced a little. "Unstable is a very unpleasant way of saying it. It's not getting any worse!" At least, not quickly, she added, to herself. "It just will not get any better, and I can't fix it. I'll have to build a new one. It'll be better, I swear - but you will have to trust us maybe a liiiittle bit more."
"Then let's get started already. Build it and slap it on me, what's the holdup?" the pilot nervously joked.
"It'll have to be part of your body."
"...oh." She blinked, and thought about what that meant. "So there's really no... putting the old me back together, then."
"No. But if it means anything, I think Winston knew that, too. His accelerator was supposed to be implanted. I've learned a lot in the last couple of weeks, and now that I really understand it, it's kind of obvious. You would've had a glowing ring in your chest, like that superhero of the old movies" - she gestured at her chest, making a circle - "What was he called?"
"Dunno - never cared much for superheroes, honestly. Not unless they had airplanes. Or spaceships."
"Eh, it doesn't matter. I'm all over it. I already have a design worked out, it'll be verrrry elegant. A lot more controllable." And all but unhackable, she thought to herself. Amélie insisted. The "on pain of death" part went unstated, but understood.
Tracer huffed. "Already worked it all out amongst yourselves, then. Could've told me."
"I think I just did."
"I think if you're going to be building something that's gonna be part of my body, I have a right to know who you are."
░░░░░░ gave the pilot a long, hard look, and thought about it for a moment. Always the truth, she said. Fine. "My name doesn't matter, because after I'm done here, this girl be disappearing forever anyway."
"What?" said Tracer, blinking. "Why?"
"Because, you see, I've been noticed, by the wrong people. In my line of work... that's always, always a fatal error."
Shocked, Lena could only get out, "...I'm so sorry."
"What? No, no, no, don't be so melodramatic! I'm not going to let myself be killed, I'm far too smart for that. I'll still be out there, just, not like me, now. Improved. This version of me needs an upgrade anyway." The hacker reached out her hand as holographics appeared in the air, and the room went dark save for her own screens, casting a shadow in purple against the wall.
She leaned forward, and quietly said, with broad grin, "En el nuevo año, busque una nueva Sombra."
"Oooh, scary! Like a bit of drama, then?"
"If you think that's dramatic, you're going to love my new hair." She brought the lights back up, and folded away the PADDs.
Lena chuckled. "At least you can do something with yours. Mine just grows like this." She ran her hand through her hair. "Can't do a thing with it. Not that anything fancy would survive a flight helmet anyway."
"Huh," said the hacker. "You've tried letting it grow, of course?"
Tracer nodded. "Yeh, when I was a kid. I looked like Goku, from Dragonball."
"I'm so sorry."
"I'm so bored. You look finished, can I go back to the gym yet? I need to stretch. I get all stiff if I sit around too long."
"Sure, I'm finished here." She hoisted a small bag of gear over her shoulder. "But you need to decide."
"Decide about what?" asked the pilot.
"...the new chronal accelerator? The embedded one? We just talked about it?"
"Oh. I already did. I wasn't joking, really. I mean..." - Lena jumped off the bed, and blueblurred almost into the floor, until the accelerator stabilised again. "...what choice have I got?"
Chapter 10: mondatta (1)
[2068, and 2073, but mostly outside of time]
Venom floated over the city, over New London at night, gliding, flying down between buildings, stunting, showing off, like a small fighter jet. Oh, she thought, I'm flying again! I love these dreams.
She looped around the tallest tower, twice, buzzing windows, light glancing off every shiny surface of every new building. Out of the corner of her left eye, she saw Elizabeth Tower, and automatically veered towards it, towards home, laughing.
Drifting lower, following streets, she buzzed passers-by seemingly oblivious to her presence, and giggled. "C'mon, slowpokes, let's get moving already!"
A steady stream of Londoners seemed to be migrating to one particular square, and she flew ahead, with them, but above, a silent, invisible airplane, touching nothing, being touched by nothing except what she saw and smelled.
A rally. Mondatta! He's brilliant! Oh, I wish this were real. She'd first heard of him from the Zero Sector uprising, a few... years ago? weeks ago? months from now? Suddenly, she wasn't sure, and she pulled up atop a building, next to a particularly unobservant security post. The man pipped his radio, and turned away, just in time to be brought down - hard - by Widowmaker.
Her surprised "Oh! Hey, love, what're you..." went unheard, as the assassin ran on by, as if she did not exist.
I've seen this before, she thought. I've... seen this...
One of the flashes, when her Slipstream exploded. It came back to her, now, within her dream. A set of images, blurred together, unfolding now. But those are rubbish, really, she thought. Shock, panic, oxygen deprivation, that's all. Just noise.
She reached down, and touched the rooftop. But this feels so real. It smells so real. They're never so...
Another guard went down, another building over - quickly, all but silently. She smiled, thinking of her lover's perfect violence, and tried to zoom in with her vizor to watch - but it didn't respond. I... don't have it? She looked down, noticing for the first time the large harness over her torso, in that way you never notice things in dreams, until they're important. What is this? What am I wearing? She looked at her bright mandarin-coloured leggings. It's got my callsign on it... this must be part of the airplane?
That's when she heard the sound of her own pistols, and, almost immediately thereafter, the sound of Widowmaker's rifle. Am I here too? I can't be in my own dream, can I?
Glass breaking, the sound of her own voice, and more gunfire. She teleported a few buildings over, to where security guards were scrambling, and saw her Amélie taking them down one, two, three, four, and she cheered. Oh, nice one - go, love!
She saw her other dream self - her dreamelgänger? - leaping up over the next rooftop, catching up and firing towards her partner. She, too, teleported to keep up. Careful, dream me, she thought, she's fine, the guards are down, if you aren't careful you're going to hit...
And then Tracer triggered Widowmaker's mine, and then Amélie was standing over her prone body, not to help, but with a rifle to her doppelgänger's head. And then a flash, and an explosion, and Tracer is falling, Amélie is aiming, Mondatta is dead at Widowmaker's hand, and there is so much screaming.
"No, no, no, no, no, no - NO!" Venom screamed, in her dream.
"Oh, no, no, no no no no - WHY?!" screamed her other self, in her waking world.
"Why would you do this?!" screamed her other self, in grief and rage at the woman she loved.
"This can't happen! C'mon c'mon c'mon wake UP!" Venom screamed to herself, in her dream.
And then there is fire. Fire, and a flight suit, and she is still in the Slipstream just as it flies apart around her, and there are stars and sunlight and flame and her suit is melting and so much pain and flashes and flashes and too many flashes and no air, and she is falling into darkness...
...and then impossibly she is on the ground, and there is shouting, not screaming, and air, not starlight, and she sees her, her beloved blue spider, again, for the first time, holding her so tightly, and she tries to talk, but can't, quite, there is too much, and there is a doctor and questions and pain, but less, and she is Lena Oxton, but more, and there is a sedative, and the nightmare fades into a deep, drugged sleep, and as consciousness slips away, she fights to hold on to the one thing, the one most important thing
And then there is darkness.
Chapter 11: Un ballet d'enchevêtrement quantique, en deux parties
[after, and also before, "a fillette of chinon red, so dark, almost purple"]
"I've made him," said Venom, subvocally, over coms. Her goggles shifted in place, forming lenses, zooming in. "Right on time. He's got his best three bodyguards with him, too - guess he wanted the A team along for the ride."
"Acknowledged," replied Widowmaker, coolly - all business, inside, and out. A small part of her could still scarcely believe this was happening, but she kept it in check - pleasure before pleasure, no? "I am in position."
The three bodyguards scouted the empty restaurant storefront as a stocky man in his late 40s sat behind very strong and very darkly tinted glass. C'mon, you bastards, thought the former pilot, everything is just fine, everything is just like you expect. Take the bait.
They'd arranged a small trade, of course. A trade of extremely important data about Omnics captured from a murdered engineering delegation, in exchange for an attractively low, but still quite substantial, amount of money. Intelligent machines for cash, slaves for Renminbi on the barrelhead, who is going to be the wiser?
A job for the police, Oxton had said. We can give them what we know, a trial would be better for relations anyway. And then Amélie showed her the list of the dead from a previous investigation, and Lena knew it wouldn't.
A blink, and she's half a block away, on another rooftop. C'mon already, give your boss the all-clear and open the bloody door.
One of the guards looked up at where she'd been, seeing nothing, and looked again, and saw a subtly different nothing. Just in time, she thought, but she was wrong.
The bodyguard turned towards the car, quickly. Widowmaker's voice, on the coms: "Merde! Now he's made you. Plan B."
Bugger!, thought Venom, False start. Don't let's cock this up twice!, and she dove in, using all of her teleport charge, taking three tenths of a second to close the distance. Stinger bomb under the car, right on target. "Gotcha!" she shouted, as Widowmaker's first shot took out the first guard, and she simultaneously emptied both clips of her pistols into the second. The third - Pilar, the best of them - had her semiautomatic at the side of Venom's head, the trigger half-pulled, when the younger assassin jinked backwards in time, just far enough to reload and shoot the third down exactly as she'd shot the second.
Her stinger exploded as the car started to move, throwing the vehicle into the air, compressing it, the windows shattering outwards. "One shot..." called Venom, as she flew backwards on her grappling hook. Magnified through her vizor, she saw the shocked look on the target's face obliterated, as Widowmaker laughed delightedly in the coms, "...one kill."
"Nice one," Venom said over coms, as she reset vision.
"Get back here. This got noisy, and we need to leave - quickly."
"Already here, love." Venom leaned forward from behind the senior assassin, and gently kissed the back of Widowmaker's neck.
Amélie gasped - no one surprised the spider. No one.
[some months earlier]
"Is this some kind of would-I-kill-baby-Hitler question?"
Amélie laughed, lightly, putting down her glass of dessert wine. "Don't talk nonsense, of course not. A bébé is a bébé, innocent, and easily redirected." She picked the glass back up, and with a cool smile, said, "Although perhaps you might choose to kill its parents. Perhaps they are assholes."
Lena stabbed her fork into a second slice of bananoffe, cut a portion with a knife, and stuffed it into her mouth. It takes a lot of calories to fuel her biology now, thought the spider. "And if they aren't?" Lena asked through crumbs, voice muffled.
The blue woman shrugged, perhaps a little disappointed the ever-so-earnest Lena didn't seem to see the humour. "It doesn't matter. To elaborate, following along the lines of your question - I am not asking, 'would you kill baby Hitler;' I'm asking, perhaps, would you kill Reich Chancellor Hitler, in, say, February of 1933.'"
"Not good with dates, luv," she said, with just a trace of irony. Ah, there is hope for you yet, thought Amélie.
"I should have known, it is fitting. So," she took another sip of her Chateau d'Yquem white, "in 1933, his goals were stated, and he was just appointed the position he needed to follow them through." She gestured aimlessly with her glass. "Oh, there were arguments about what he 'really' meant, perhaps - he was an extraordinary liar. And there were those who insisted he would moderate with power. He, himself, swore his restraint. But - to a clear mind, one that can see the strands of history - everything was laid plain."
Another sip. Lena toyed with her slice of pie, cutting it into smaller pieces, thinking, and took another bite.
"A single death," said Amélie, "could've changed everything..."
Lena looked up, asked, "Had he actually killed anyone yet?" and looked back down, seemingly deeper in thought.
"Does that matter? I don't think so. But fair enough, let us say that it does. March, then, of 1933. The first concentration camp opens, in Oranienburg. All perfectly legal, all perfectly murderous, the first rendering of the first blueprint of the great slaughter to come."
Lena poked at the remaining pieces of her pie, smaller and smaller.
The assassin leaned forward. "Now it is April. The Enabling Act has passed, a bill gracing the Reich Chancellor with unlimited power - but there are still other political parties, to resist. Do you take the shot?"
Bananas. Cream. Toffee. Crust. Divided. Tracer, quiet, focused on the mess before her.
Windowmaker leaned in, still further, speaking quietly. "May, the tenth. Jewish-owned shops are boycott. The first book burnings, targeting 'degenerate' works, science. Perhaps not yet, at Oranienburg, the first death, but they will come. All legal, at least, to some degree."
"And at the heart of it all, one man. There are many others with him, but he is the genius, the crux - the one who truly matters."
With one finger, she appropriated a dollop of cream from Lena's dessert plate, lifting it from the plate. "The one whose death could change everything."
The younger woman looked up, earnestly, into the assassin's eyes. "If I know... if I really know..."
Venom took Widowmaker's hand with her own, and, with an unfocused half-grin, licked the cream off the other woman's finger.
"Everyone seems to forget..." she said, distantly, savouring the sweetness, "...I'm ex-military." She smiled broadly, eyes suddenly bright. Gotcha. "Fighter planes don't shoot kisses, luv," she laughed. "Of course I take the shot."
The assassin's refined pose collapsed completely, and a single, quiet, ha! escaped her lips. "Oh, you horrible woman! I thought we were having a meaningful conversation."
"Yes," said the spider, smiling, and feeling it, almost - but not quite - giggling as she leaned back into her chair. "You did. You have me."
Completely, she thought, sipping from her glass.
Damn you. You have me.
Chapter 12: we are very convenient people to blame
[Following en el nuevo año, busque una nueva sombra, by more than a week, but not two]
"So you're... terrorists, then?" Tracer stared at Widowmaker, mystified.
"That's what they call us," Amélie responded, lightly. "We see it differently, of course."
Tracer looked over the news reports, the government statements, the public record. "You've certainly been busy," she said, nervously. "25 assassinations in the last year! That's quite the murder spree."
Amélie's face betrayed her amusement. "Is that the current count? How foolish. No, we prune the tree, not create topiary." More earnestly, she added, "But we are very convenient people to blame."
The padd fell through Tracer's hands, as she momentarily lost anchor to normal time, the blue flash reflecting off the screen. She gasped, and tried uselessly to anchor herself, physically grabbing the bedsheets - Here. I'm here. I'm really still here. Good. Now more afraid, she asked, "Why'd you show me this?"
Amélie looked thoughtful, and checked the synchronisation panel monitoring Tracer's accelerator. Not so big an event as it seemed; fear made the young pilot drop the tablet, not displacement. But the field coil had degraded again - just a little, but it was there. I'm glad we're upgrading her soon, she thought. "It is important that you are fully informed."
"Informed that the people who pulled me back from oblivion are terrorists. And you're implanting... what are you really doing to me tomorrow?" she demanded.
Amélie smiled that cool, pleased smile she used whenever she felt something significant had been accomplished. "Et, voilà."
"A question best addressed now, rather than tomorrow, or the next day."
"We will do exactly what we have said, no less; no more. We will implant in you a next generation chronal accelerator, of our own design, and its necessary neural interface. It will do only what we have discussed. With practice, you will have absolute control over it. And that is all."
"And not some kind of bomb. Or some kind of mind control device. How could I even know?" Red outlines flashed around the world.
Amélie's face flashed with disgust, and she waved dismissively at the articles on the padd. "This contemptible trash has frightened you. I understand why. But we do not use suicide bombers; we do not use unwitting or unwilling agents; both are barbaric. We do not conceive to create terror at all; if our assassinations went undetected, our methods would be more effective, not less."
"But what would you have thought, had we let you discover these reports on your own, but only afterwards, too late?"
"I'd've known you lied to me."
"Exactement. And now, you know we have not."
"But it wouldn't matter," she protested. "You'd have me by then. I'd be one of your brainwashed agents. Or a bomb."
"Were that our goal, would we even want your permission? Would we even ask?"
Tracer tried to find a reason, and couldn't. "...I don't know."
"Indeed - we would already have done it. If not that, if it is all some other kind of trick, does showing you all this propaganda against us beforehand make such a deception more likely? Or, is it, perhaps, less?"
While Tracer thought about that, Widowmaker picked up the padd and scrolled through documents, working backwards in time, to the beginning: the Overwatch reports regarding the death of Gérard Lacroix. She pulled them up together on the screen, in columns.
"Here is what they say about me," she said, handing the padd back. "You'll note the Blackwatch and Overwatch reports are vastly different. Neither, I'm afraid, are particularly accurate, except in the one key point."
As Tracer read, Amélie continued. "Since I was very young, I have been able to feel the strands of the past, of the present, and probabilities forward... I do not pretend to see the future itself, but I see the many connected strands of where and how it can be directed, and where, without direction, it is all but certain to go."
"I read once," Tracer said distractedly, still reading, "that spiders think with their webs."
The assassin laughed, lightly, genuinely pleased. "I am delighted! You are the first to see that part of it. Splendid!" She shifted forward in her chair. "And by nudging the flow of history, we are attempting to avert a cycle of Human-Omnic wars which I am convinced will destroy most or all life on this earth. But it is for this, and for our methods, that they call us terrorists. We do not care, because we believe in our cause - and I think, methods aside, that you do as well, no? Otherwise I do not think you could've joined Overwatch and remained untainted."
"I think I met Gérard, when I met you," said Tracer. "At the Overwatch Christmas party, last... six years ago, wannit? This says you murdered him."
"Gérard," sighed Amélie, taking the padd, looking at the seven year old Overwatch photo. "My beloved, my husband. I miss you so." She handed the device back to Tracer. "I loved him dearly - he was everything to me. He was also my second in command, and my most trusted confidante - even the name Talon was his idea."
"But he was in charge of anti-Talon operations at Overwatch!"
"Delightful, is it not? It was a game for us - we fake an operation, Overwatch thwarts it, accolades are handed out all around, the budget goes up, Talon takes a share, the real plan goes by, unnoticed."
"Nice one," she said, sarcastically. "So... who really killed him?" asked Tracer.
Amélie raised an eyebrow. "I did. That is the one and only correct detail in those reports. And to be absolutely clear: it was not an accident, and if everything were the same, I would pull that trigger again."
"That's..." A series of blue and red shifts shook the pilot. "...why?"
"Because it was necessary," said the assassin, resolute.
"And why save me?" Tracer questioned, insistently.
Amélie faced the young, frightened pilot, but her real gaze aimed deeply inwards, sorting history and time and probabilities and odds and the strange, random pieces of knowledge she'd been sorting through for all of her life. "I do not expect you to understand this, or even believe it, but there is a broken strand in the web of the world - I can feel it. It has been broken for five years, and it cannot be healed by any number of exquisite deaths."
Widowmaker's focus turned back outward, her gaze firm and voice strong. "You are needed, Lena Oxton. I do not yet know how, and I do not yet know why, but your life, like Gérard's death, is necessary, and so... if I must, I will move the world to save you."
Chapter 13: Una singola figura che corre da solo, come un turista catturato sotto la pioggia
[Not so very long after "a three second lag, with glasses"; all dialogue in «chevron quotes» is translated from the Italian.]
Tracer ran in the thick December mist, basking in 15-degree weather that to a native Londoner felt almost springlike. She teleported ahead every 10 or 15 seconds or so, through pockets of light rain, well out of sight of the few farmers, fishers, and tourists of the island's south. Ahead of her, and to her right, more hills, some sharp; to her left, a long, steep slope, dropping to the distant sound of waves, the open Mediterranean far below.
The locals thought she was a bit daft, running around all the time in winter weather, but, knowing she was English, also kind of expected that. She did her best to encourage them. Her Italian had improved over the last couple of months, as she would run along the southern roads, amidst the farms, solo un altro turista. But, of course, she wasn't a tourist - not even a medical tourist, in the classic sense. No one goes to Alicudi for medical treatment. Few people not from the island go there at all.
Unless they are with Talon.
With one teleport too many, she overshot the edge of a cliff, and found herself falling, far, and fast. Unperturbed, she rewound her personal timeline, back before the last two jinks, and continued happily on her way. That time, it had been intentional.
Faaan-tastic, she thought, as she dashed across the low, wet scrub like foxfire gone mad, adrenaline and endorphins competing to see which could give her the bigger high; I could run like this forever. Her stomach growled, demanding fuel, but she kept up her accelerated pace until she felt it, all at once, all over, blood sugar collapsing, hitting the wall. She popped maltose-sweetened chocolate into her mouth, with water; the wave of glucose felt like a taste of godhood as she dove for the end of her route, an isolated house which served as entrance to the small Talon research and medical station that had been her home since the previous August.
She touched the front door, dove inside and almost collapsed, but not before checking her watch. Ha, she thought, panting heavily. Just in time. She'd broken her own marathon record, shattering the 90-minute mark - 89 minutes, 20 seconds, on hills, in the rain. Grabbing the towel she'd laid out before leaving, she hit her water bottle again, and threw more of the chocolates into her mouth.
Tavi - Taviano Bonsignore, Dr. Mariani's nurse assistant - waved from down the hallway and grinned at the runner. «Another two minute mile?» he called.
«Better!» she shouted, heading for the shower, stretching as she walked. «Under-90-minute marathon!»
The medic gave her a thumbs-up, spinning 'round as she walked by. "Stupefacente!"
"If I can't fly yet, at least I can run!" and she ducked around the door, into other, warmer water.
Widowmaker's ship landed, and departed, as Tracer dried off. The assassin got to work disassembling and cleaning her rifle, though in this case, it was more ritual than necessity. This had been a simple and straightforward kill, clockwork in execution, marked only by the pleasure of a job well done.
She was still basking in that familiar glow when Lena walked in, hair wet, mouth half-full of Italian ham and French bread. "I see we are both cleaning up after successful missions," said Amélie. "89 minutes, in the rain? Magnifique!"
Tracer bowed, and swallowed the rest of her second round of lunch. She'd been debriefed the previous night - the spider's target today had been for money, not history. But he was also, as she'd been forced to concede, 'a real piece of work - one right bastard.' And while she still wasn't comfortable with it, and didn't think she ever would be, she wouldn't shed any tears. "Another world record falls to T-Racer! If only it counted."
She hit her water bottle again, this time just sipping. "And you," she continued, nodding towards the scarcely-dirtied barrel. "One shot?"
Amélie smiled more genuinely, and more freely, than Lena had ever seen, as something buried deep inside the assassin leapt high in the air and cheered at those words. Eyes so bright they blinded like sun on the snow in winter, she answered, warmly: "One kill."
Chapter 14: Would you feel better, or worse, if I said yes?
[two days before un ballet d'enchevêtrement quantique, en deux parties, second half]
Lena Oxton leaned back on the outcropping atop the crest of the ridge of the old volcano on a cool and clear January day in the Aeolian archipelago north of Sicily. Through the aviator's glasses Tavi had brought her from the mainland, she could see Filicudi easily, to the east; beyond, the trio of Salina, Lipari, and, just visible if she squinted and told herself so, Vulcano, ever-active, roiling just before the dawn.
But her attention, mostly, focused higher. Airplanes crossed the skies around her, red-eyes from Nairobi, Numbani, Johannesburg, sometimes even overhead, mostly civilian, but occasionally, a military transport, and, very occasionally, what looked to the pilot's eyes to be training flights, probably out of the old joint forces base near Naples. "Pad your angle there, cadet," she'd say, quietly, remembering her instructor's calm voice on comms. "You're not that good yet."
But she was. And she knew it, which made it worse.
She came here more often, these days, to watch the skies and think. She was healed. She knew it. The doc had said so, yesterday morning, but Lena made up a bit of stiffness to try to delay full clearance. Why'd I do that?, the pilot thought to herself. I'm ready. I can go home. I had a life, five months ago. I could have it back.
Dark blues and reds yielded to bright blues and yellows as the stars slowly went out, overwhelmed by the new morning sun. Sure, she thought, gaze following a cargo plane making its lazy way south, Overwatch is shuttered, but I've still got my commission and my license. I can get 'em reactivated. I wasn't even around when things fell apart. They'd do me right, I know they would. She focused upwards into the bright blue morning.
I miss the sky.
She somersaulted forward, leapt up, and teleported three times, as high as she could, witnesses be damned, out over the steep slope to the sea. Then she fell more than glided, but pretended it was otherwise, until the ground came up too close, and she rewound time, back up to the top of the volcano, safe and sound.
Though I gotta admit... she thought, beaming, shivering in the rush of cortisol, norepinephrine, and adrenaline, as her body reacted to what her lizard brain was pretty sure had to be imminent death, That's pretty great too.
A private jet flew by, closer than she'd like, pilot possibly attracted by the flashes of light. Fuck it, she thought, and waved briskly at the flyer, shouting, "Heya!" at the top of her lungs. In reaction, or not, it turned away. It's time people know I'm alive.
"I need to go," the pilot told the assassin, abruptly, after their daily combat workout.
Amélie, facing her own locker, stopped, mid-motion, momentarily, then resumed dressing. "I had expected that." She put her right arm through her uniform's sleeve. The words felt leaden in her mouth as she continued, "I'd thought it would come sooner, but, still, here it is." Turning to look at the pilot, she said, almost sadly, "I agree."
Now, Lena's turn to be a little surprised, and almost a little hurt. "...you do?" as she pulled a blouse over her head, the fabric falling down over the dimly glowing blue stripes of her chronal accelerator-interlaced ribcage.
"I do. Dr. Mariani cleared you yesterday morning, I know. Sombra, I also know, would like to have another set of data off your accelerator, if you are willing, but this can be arranged quickly - just a couple of days."
Inexplicably disappointed, the pilot said crossly, "Why? Is this your 'strands of history' again?"
"Would you feel better, or worse, if I said no?"
"I'd say... really?"
The assassin shook her head, a slight nod. "I am not an oracle; I do not see all. This is an emotion, a feeling. Also, I do not think you are yet ready to join us."
Tracer pursed her lips, acknowledging the truth in it. "No. I'm not."
"I understand," said the spider. "I..." she took a long, deep breath. "I have never lied to you, and I will not begin now: I want you here. I want you on my side. But only with a whole heart, and," she waved a finger back and forth, like a metronome, "you have nothing like that at all."
"I'm a fighter pilot, luv. I need the sky."
"You are more than that now," said the spider, pointedly, "and you know it."
That disquieted the Flying Officer in some way she couldn't quite define, because she couldn't quite deny it, not completely. "I've got a few extra tricks, sure. But I'm still a pilot. Flying was always my dream, and defending the world from the air - that was my life. Your way..." she sighed, and ran a towel through her hair. "I've got to get my life back. I get your way now. I don't know I agree with it, but I get it. I just don't think it's mine."
Widowmaker slid her emotional range down, down, down, for now, but it still hurt more than she wanted. Nonetheless, she stabilised, as always. "The next ferry to Filicudi - and from there, to Sicily - departs tomorrow. If you want to be there, you can be. But I would not recommend this route; we have made arrangements, if you are willing to hear them."
"'Course you have," she smiled. "And 'course I would."
"Sombra, as I said, would like to come for a final cycle of readings from your accelerator. It will take two days for her to arrive; that will give us time to finalise our slightly more plausible route for your return, which is not by chance a return point further away. I like this facility, and would hate to lose it."
"You've thought this all out already, haven't you?"
The spider nodded, with the hint of a smile. "Of course. It is what I do; it is second - no, first, nature. The pieces are already placed."
"Huh." Tracer walked over to the eastern window, looking down the steep slope towards the sea. "You know... I'm gonna miss this island." She raised her hands, fingers against the glass. No, she thought, that's not enough. Not honest enough. "I'm gonna miss you."
Stepping up behind the smaller woman, Amélie asked, softly, "Will you then do me the honour of a going-away dinner, Ms. Oxton? Not here; there is a particularly discreet café I quite like on Salina, in Rinella. I think you'd like it, too."
Tracer looked back over her shoulder, with her famous half-grin, and said, "You askin' me on a date, luv?"
"Would you feel better, or worse, if I said yes?" asked the blue woman.
"Better," answered the pilot. "Definitely, much better."
Chapter 15: Don't Forget; I Never Do
[The day after "Un ballet d'enchevêtrement quantique, en deux parties ," second half]
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
"No blindfold?" asked Lena.
"Quoi?" asked the assassin, amused.
"Traditional, innit? Being escorted from the secret base, all that."
Amélie smiled evilly. "I still have last night's in my bedroom, if you want a souvenir."
Lena Oxton's cheeks flushed a little. "...no," she said, Yes, she thought. Wicked woman, she also thought, making this harder. She took a deep breath. "Right, then." She looked through her small bag, a worn satchel popular in South Africa some ten years before. Remnants of her flight suit, prepared to withstand forensic verification of her supposed journey. Her burnt Overwatch identity card, and a fake of her old passport. One change of clothes, old, but serviceable, from charity shops, similar to the one she wore now.
Memorised, access codes to a couple of different accounts, with enough money to tide her over for a month or two, until she could try to get herself undeclared dead. Memorised, the story about how she found herself in the Orange river, north of Waterfall Farm 497; how she swam to shore, made her way to Lutzberg, and "borrowed" two sets of clothes and a bag from a charity bin. From there, a plan to hitchhike her way to Johannesburg, courtesy of two friendly American tourists from the upper midwest, near where she will appear, tired, dusty, and hungry, not far from the British Consulate.
Two sets of clothes, a worn bag, no money - and identification. Not much. But even that, the maximum a dead person, returned to life, might be thought to have in hand.
"I wish you'd let us create a new identity for you," said the assassin. "Overwatch agents are, shall we say, still out of fashion."
"Not happening," said Tracer. "I didn't do anything wrong; I'm not gonna hide."
"Have you decided how will you explain your accelerator?"
The test pilot had no answer for that. "Not yet," she said, and it worried her. "But I'll think of something."
As headlong into this as everything else, thought the spider. "If they decide we did it, it will not go well for you. If they decide it is Omnic, things will go worse. If they decide Winston did it from the moon... no, it makes no sense, I cannot imagine how they would think that."
"Then I'm just gonna have to make sure they don't worry about it, aren't I?" Lena said. A terrible answer, and she knew it. "I'm a British subject, I've got rights. They can't just lock me away."
"Can't they?" asked Amélie. "I hope you are right." A Talon pilot popped her head through the door to the tarmac and gave the go sign, and Amélie nodded in return. "The aircraft is ready. But there is one more thing." She showed Lena a thin, palm-sized rounded metal box. It looked very much like a powder case.
"What is it, luv?" asked the pilot.
"It's a Faraday cage," - she touched a slight indentation on one side, and it opened, revealing a small device inside - "containing a retrieval beacon." She took out the beacon, with its two buttons, one on top, one on the side. "The transmitter will be good for a year. After that, it will become inert."
She pressed the side button, and a power cell popped out. "Standard KX type, you can buy them anywhere in Europe. Do not force it in backwards; that is how to destroy the transmitter. We will include the cell - but if something happens to it, now you know." She put it back into the device.
"The other button activates the transmitter. Hold it down for five seconds. The device will beep quietly twice, when it activates; it cannot be turned off, and it cannot be reused. Activate it outside, if possible, away from attention, if possible, with a clear view to the sky, if you can. But if you can't, it should still work, and if we hear it, we will still come."
"Airport security won't like me carrying that onboard," Tracer said, dubiously.
"Airport security won't ever see it. It will be waiting for you at the Palace Theatre in London, at coat check, when you land. They will hold it for two weeks. You can pick it up, or not. It's up to you." Doing this, she thought to herself, it's so much harder than I imagined.
Lena reached out for the device, taking it from Widowmaker's hand, examining it, popping the power cell out and back in. "A way back," she said, quietly.
The spider nodded, affirmingly. "Waiting for you, at coat check, at the Palace Theatre, if you want it. I hope you will."
I'd take it with me now if I could, thought Lena. I'd hold on to it and never let it go. Why am I so torn? "London. Palace Theatre. Coat check. When I land."
"When you land."
She gave the device back to the assassin, placing it in the other woman's open palm, closing the other woman's fingers around it. "Don't forget."
The beacon, though deactivated, felt electric in Amélie's hand. "I never do."
I'm not generally into writing sex scenes, so I wasn't going to? But I wanted to make damn well sure readers know that yes: that happened. Also, this begins the story's fourth movement.
Chapter 16: Have we ever encountered a Talon agent without a web?
[Some days later; a conference room, MI5's Fleet House, London]
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
"There's always a degree of uncertainty with low-resolution scans like these, of course, but it appears to interface throughout her motor cortex, not just on surface, and to be tied into reflex reaction points here," he illustrated, "here, here, and here."
"And its function?" asked the woman at the head of the conference table.
"I'm quite afraid we're not sure." the neural interface specialist replied. "It's heavily shielded. I'm not even as confident as I'd like about what I'm showing you, but it's the best we have - you're looking at composite of data from Heathrow, an assortment of scanners hidden inside CCTV, outer-ring military security, and so on. The consulate data, sadly, was unusable."
The head of the table prompted, "But it's not any type of web."
"Oh!" said the specialist. "Definitely not. We wouldn't have even these shots were it a web. Her brain would look like a big, smooth egg."
Brigadier Shukla turned to her attache. "Have we ever encountered a Talon agent without a web?"
The second lieutenant brought up the small list of scanned Talon agents. "Not that we know of, ma'am. Certainly not in the years they've been known active - no exceptions in that record."
The operations agent at the table jumped in. "They could be anticipating our analysis. Can't we bring her in, do a deep probe?"
"Sadly, no," said the specialist, shifting the primary display. "This may not be a web, but it goes quite deep, and either this is defocused, or it's surprisingly diffuse. Anything strong enough to get past the shielding wouldn't be safe for the subject."
"Damn," spat the Brigadier.
"But," he continued, "I really don't think it's Talon. They know what we have, they wouldn't let a full agent out like this. Of that much, I'm confident."
"We can't rule out her being some kind of delayed-target human bomb. of course."
"No. But explosives say the payload would be poor - there's just not enough mass, even with exotic deliverables. We think it's unlikely."
"All right, let's leave out Talon for now. Omnium?"
The Omnic specialist in the room just laughed, and then sobered immediately. "Sorry, ma'am. No, ma'am. It's not Omnic. I'd bet my life on it."
"You might well do," the Brig replied, sternly.
The specialist nodded, but held her ground. "I would walk up to this carrying known vulnerabilities and not worry. It's not Omnic."
"If I might jump in, get it out of the way," said the corporate entities analyst, "It's not Vishkar either. They don't need hardware."
"Thank you, specialist," nodded the Brig. "So. Foreign powers aside, who's that leave?"
"...aliens?" said the young, short-brown-haired agent near the end of the table, one of the Americans. "Or not aliens, strictly, but beings from other worlds, possibly multidimensionally accessed worlds," he continued, excitedly. "It's been theorised for years, and the Winston files make it clear he considered dimensional travel a distinct possibility - it's how he found the time distortion that..."
"Thank you, agent," said the Brigadier, firmly.
"It's either that or somehow Winston did it himself, from the moon," he interjected.
"Or," said his eternally-exasperated partner, "it's a foreign government."
He turned to the other American. "Come on, why would a foreign government go to these lengths for..."
"Thank you, agents," the Brigadier repeated, more firmly. For once, the Americans took the hint.
She turned back to the presenter. "So, in the opinion of your department, she is most likely not a Talon agent."
The presenter nodded. "In our opinion, it's very unlikely. This just doesn't look like their work. If nothing else, it's too flashy." He changed screens. "See all these extensions around her torso, and down her legs? They glow. Talon wouldn't do that."
"There is one other possibility," said a data analyst, flipping through pages of data. "This new actor, Sombra. I'm not sure why, but it reminds me a little of her work."
"Go on," said the Brig.
"She'd have to have a lot of help - we mostly know about her software, and she doesn't do bioware. At least, not as far as we know, ma'am. But," they looked at the display with intense concentration, "something about it just reminds me of her code."
The intergroup specialist jumped in. "She's too new on the scene for that degree of cooperation with any of our known actors. It takes time to build up those sorts of connections. She hasn't had it."
"So," said the Brigadier, "we're most likely dealing with either a foreign power - which MI6 thinks unlikely - or, god help us," - given the source, she continued with great reluctance - "Winston. Somehow. From the moon."
"Or inter-dimensional beings," said the more annoying American, from the back.
"Thank you, agent - your suggestions have been noted."
"So, Brigadier - what do we do with our little problem?" asked the Group Captain, back in the Brig's office.
"If she'd been in my Forces, I'd bring her in and disassemble her," said the older woman, quietly. "I don't care what the specialists think, I can't rule out the Omnium completely. We're one major incident away from another Omnic war, and I won't have it start on my watch."
"Yes, ma'am. But the air group won't have it. We all protect our own."
The Brig nodded, understanding. Loyalty made commands work. "So, option B. Watch her, let her roam. Don't get too close... just see what she does. It only took a week for the Widowmaker to activate, so." Speculating, she continued, "Or, perhaps she's a slow burn. Perhaps we have some time."
"That's our opinion as well, ma'am," said the G/C.
"I can't believe the consulate cleared her to fly into Heathrow. Who knows what she is now? If it's even her."
"Personal decision of the ambassador, I'm afraid," said the group captain. "Apparently, she has quite a winning personality. Hardly our fault."
"Small consolation had she taken five thousand people down with her."
"It won't happen again, ma'am. She's been listed."
"She keeps trying to come to us," the Brigadier mused.
"Indeed," the G/C replied. "You know, we could just let her."
"Let her waltz right in to some high-value target? I think not. No, keep her off, keep up surveillance, and run every piece of data we collect through deepest analysis. Let's see what we can wiggle out."
"So far, she's mostly just been trying to get undeclared dead through the military. Hardly high-value."
The Brig frowned. "No. Not even if she goes through civilian channels. No recognition, no help, nothing. Block her at every point." The Brig fiddled with her glasses, cleaning the lenses with a small, lintless cloth. "If she's alive, the Overwatch investigation is alive, and we simply can't have that fiasco re-opened."
An old photo of her flight crew awarding Lena Oxton the callsign "Tracer" spun slowly in the air.
"Assuming she's not carrying a payload, she'll need some sort of status eventually," the G/C insisted.
The older woman frowned. "Eventually. But not now. Not until we have some idea what she is - if she has to be disassembled, I don't want to do that to a legal Briton. Until we know more..." She shook her head, contemplating her options. "Official recognition is just too great a risk."
Chapter 17: the hacker and the cowboy
[similarly placed to the previous chapter in time]
"Ah'm not sure that was the best idea," the cowboy said, from Arizona, in North America, "just lettin' her waltz out like that."
The hacker nodded, from an unknown location, probably further south, but not necessarily. "I know. Amélie has been acting very strange lately. All emotional. When she first started this project, I caught hints of it and thought, 'that'll be useful someday,' but now, it's just splashing around everywhere."
"Hasn't affected her aim any, has it?"
Sombra snickered, and popped some obscenely hot bit of candy into her mouth. "Made it better, maybe. She's always been obsessive about targeting, but since Oxton showed up, it's even worse. She hits targets I can't even see."
"Means she's nervous. Did the same thing in '71."
"We were all very nervous in '71," the hacker shuddered. 2071 had not been a good year for anyone interested in not having another Omnic War.
"Yeah, but she's the only one whose aim improved." He leaned back in his chair and flipped pistols around, nervously practicing spin tricks, before turning back to the conversation. "We're dancin' 'round the point - what're we gonna do if Tracer spills the beans?"
"Oh, is that what you meant?" said the hacker, looking back at the screen. "I thought you were worried about the spider."
"I'm worried about the organisation. You keepin' an eye on Oxton?"
Sombra laughed and slid a display over. "You see this? This is a livestream of MI5's tracking feed. I'm not watching her so much as I'm watching them watch her."
The cowboy smiled and chucked. "Well, then. At least we'll know."
"I'm not worried about Lena giving us up - I don't know if she knows it, but she's tooootally in love with Amélie. It's a little scary."
"I'll take yer word on the love part, but you sure 'bout that not talkin' part? 'Cause I sure as hell ain't."
Sombra smirked, knowingly. "I've kept you in the loop, but you weren't there, and I was. Trust me, she won't talk."
"And if they make 'er?"
"Even if they put her under a deep probe, all she knows is a little house and a couple of labs, and they're scrubbed now anyway. It looks like a tourist rental. I made a nice little lease history and everything."
"If you say so," he said, dubiously.
"I even made a rental listing," she told the sharpshooter. "I can show you. It's in all the archives since last year, as of, oh, a week ago."
He waved one hand dismissively. "Yer good, ah hear ya."
"Me," she said, sending the links anyway, "I'm not so worried about what happens to our little teleporting pilot. What I am worried about is what happens to Amélie if they decide to take her lover apart."
"Gérard all over again, you mean? It's that bad?" he said, pronouncing it almost correctly, but still a bit like 'Gerald.' "That was hard on 'er, I gotta admit."
"Hard t'get worse than that," said the cowboy.
"Worse," emphasised the hacker, darkly. "I think they'd be lucky if they still had a government the next day."
Chapter 18: Brighton, on the beach
[Two and a half weeks after Lena Oxton arrives in London]
"Lena! It's been weeks - it's so good to see you," he replied, with a three second delay. "Are you okay? At least you're on the ground this time - where are you?"
"Brighton! Can't you hear - oh, I've got background noise filtering turned on, let me fix that." And the sound of the ocean appeared around her in Winston's feed. "It's cold, but I'm on the beach. Look!" She aimed the camera to the sea.
"It's March and it's not even raining! How about that," came Winston's voice, clearly, over the small speaker. "Is Amélie there? Or any of her friends? "
"Nope!" she chirped, turning the transmitter back around and walking with it. "It's just me, all by myself, kicking around old haunts."
"You're... out, then?"
"Yep. Entirely on me own, footloose and fancy free, walking the earth - or at least this beach - with no way to be found. Nobody even knows who or where I am - except you, I s'pose."
She didn't mention the retrieval beacon in her bag.
"I'm staying a couple of nights in a hostel, a few blocks in. It's cheap! And nice. But mostly, cheap."
"Off-season like this, I'd hope so." The scientist discreetly zoomed his viewscreen and scrolled around, looking for anything out of place in the background. Nothing obvious. "So... Talon just let you leave."
"Sure did. Helped me arrange my story and flew me out."
He leaned forward, and said, conspiratorially and low, "You haven't assassinated anyone yet, have you?"
Tracer laughed. "Only because I can't catch a shuttle to the moon, y'big ape. Which way do you want to go - pummellings or too much peanut butter?"
"Oh, peanut butter, definitely." He put on his best, big, toothy grin, which he let drop to a more genuine smile as a small popup window confirmed, Signal origin: south coast of England (probability 93%), Brighton Beach (probability 77%). "They really just... let you go."
"Yep. I said I needed to go find my old life, and Amélie made it happen." She bit her lower lip. "It's like she even agreed."
"Are you... alive again? Legally, I mean? Do you have money? Did they re-activate your commission?" Location probabilities climbed as more signal data arrived, and Winston dismissed the window. Good enough, he thought.
The smile Lena had been keeping propped up fell. "I'm... still working on that. After they cleared me at the consulate and helped me hitch onto a cargo flight home, I thought it would be easy. I kind of thought I'd be snapped up at Heathrow for debriefing, really. But... I wasn't. I just can't seem to get anybody's attention."
The pilot sat down on the top of a breakwater, propped up the transmitter, picked up a rock, and threw the latter towards the waves. "It's like I'm some kind of ghost."
"That's very strange," he granted. "Overwatch has been out of the news for a couple of years now, but - take it from me - the governments are still keeping tabs on everyone."
"Yeh. But it's fine, honestly!" It wasn't fine, but she managed to mean it through sheer sunny determination nonetheless. She turned back to the camera. "I've got enough money to live on for weeks - a few months, if I'm careful. So I thought, well, I just need to get out of London, right? Take a few days by the ocean, get some of that sea air. Get my head cleared up."
Partial retina image capture, said another, discreet popup. Image quality acceptable. Match probability 96%, margin of error +/-35%. "That accelerator they built you - how's it holding up?" He pursed his lips and shook his head. "I wish they'd used mine," he grumbled.
"Oh, it's absolutely wizard! Once I got the swing of it? Natural as breathing. I'll show you some time, I promise!"
Far away under the surface of the moon, in the research station now again his home, Winston the scientist studied Tracer's face for any hint, any sign, of the kind of programming he believed had been implanted into Amélie Lacroix. Face and voice analytics ran over and through every frame of vision and every millisecond of audio, searching for some hint, some breath of change, and found nothing.
Of course, they'd found nothing with Amélie either. But they'd had less reason to look.
I need someone actually there, he decided. "Lena, would you let me tell Angela you're back, and safe? I'd feel better if she checked you over herself. In person."
The pilot nodded enthusiastically, throwing another stone into the sea. "Let's! I'll be back to it on Monday, trying to get someone to listen to me. It'd be great to have someone from the old crew around to chat." She picked up a little stick of driftwood, and poked at more beach rocks, turning them over, seeing what was underneath. Generally, that meant more rocks. "To be honest, it's been kind of lonely. Funny, innit? Me? Lonely?"
"Haven't you looked up any old friends?"
"Oh, I've looked 'em up all right. It's a military life, though - most everybody I can find's been all moved 'round. Katarina's back in Norway, my graduating class have completely dispersed - a lot of 'em are in Greece, but I don't have the money to fly anywhere. The only one I found still in London was Imogen."
"That's too bad. I'd transfer you some money, if I could. But at least you found her."
"Yeah..." she said, sadly.
Adequate data received to begin deep analysis, said the popup. Winston deactivated additional notifications.
"It was..." She looked for other words to describe it, and came up with nothing better than, "...it was weird, big guy. We were great friends in flight school, and we kept in touch when I jumped to Overwatch. And now, I'm... I'm literally back from the dead, least as far as she's concerned, and she won't even talk to me."
"She recognised me, I'm sure of it. She said she didn't, but I know she did. She said she didn't even remember knowing anyone who joined up with Overwatch." Tracer looked off to the side, not liking where her thoughts went. "She looked scared, Winston. Of me."
I can understand why, he thought to himself. The woman whose death brought down Overwatch is back from the grave, hasn't aged a day, and nobody is talking about it - who knows what you are? But out loud, he said, "I'm sorry," and meant it.
"It's been five years, the world's a different place - it feels like wheels are flying off everywhere, it really does - but now look out everyone, Tracer's coming to town! I thought..." her voice trailed off.
"Those missing five years didn't sink in, did they?"
They really hadn't, she knew. Not until then. "I really miss you, big guy," she said, sad and quiet.
"I've missed you too, Lena," he answered, softly. "I can't get off this rock, but you can always - any time of the day - radio me, and I'll listen." He reached over and touched a few points on a console. "I'm sending you my 'wakeup' prefix code. It will get me up, if I'm here, and I will answer."
Her padd chirped. "Got it."
"And don't wait 'till you're back in Brighton. Any time. Day or night."
"I will, I will! But maybe not tomorrow." She shook her head, brushing off the sadness. "There's a bar just a bit down the way, and it's also just hit me that I haven't picked anyone up in a bar in over five years, and that can't be helping. I think I'm gonna fix that tonight."
Winston howled with laughter, big honking bellows. "Now that sounds like the old Tracer," he said, merrily. "But... how're you going to explain the accelerator?"
"What, you think I've got some bulky ring in my chest, like yours? These are posh, mate!" She grinned. "I figured it out on the flight north. I just call 'em bioluminescent tattoos, and all the girls will want their own."
"Heh," he chuffed. "I believe the traditional Air Force benediction is, 'Good hunting?'"
"Rwrar." She winked.
"Go get 'em, pilot. But promise you'll radio me from London on Monday."
"I will, Winston. I promise."
Winston waited 'till Lena shut down her transmitter, and then threw the whole conversation - sound, vision, raw signal, transmission detail data, everything - into deep computational processing, to send along to Dr. Ziegler. If they've done anything to you, he thought, I will find it. And one way or another, somehow - they will pay.
Chapter 19: Mercy
[Lena, in London. Day 30.]
"Hey, doc!" The pilot waved her arms, and shouted across the square. "Angela!"
"Lena!" The doctor waved back in response, and walked quickly through the thin crowd. "It... it really is you. You look almost exactly the same."
"So do you!" The two women hugged, close. "Gor blimey, doc, it's been so long. You're the first person from the old team I've actually seen in person since Greece. How's Fareeha?"
Angela hugged the pilot again, and whispered into her ear, "I am certainly being surveilled, we should get to my office at the embassy" before leaning back, taking Tracer's shoulders in her hands as if everything were perfectly ordinary. "On a mission, like always. But we're both very well, thank you. I'll be back home with her again in a few days." She showed a decorated gold band on her ring finger. "It's our second anniversary."
"Oooh, nice," said Tracer, looking closely at the interweaved inlays, the halo and the hawk. "Very nice. I'm not surprised, though - you two weren't exactly subtle." She scrounged her pockets for cash. "Let me grab something from the takeaway and we can head over to your place. You don't mind, do you?"
"Of course not! I have the entire afternoon, go ahead." She gestured to the order window. "So tell me, how is life back in London?"
Tracer frowned, and ordered a vindaloo and joined the short queue for pickup. "I'm not alive yet," she said flatly. "Still trying to get that sorted."
"Still?" asked the doctor, confusedly.
"Yah, that's why I'm doing everything in cash. It's like being a tourist in my own home town. Still living in hostels, couldn't get work if I tried, it's just every-day all-day throw myself at another corner of military bureaucracy."
"That sounds terrible. Have you tried the civilian authorities?"
"Yeh, I gave up and submitted a bunch of forms earlier today. But if I could get the bleedin' forces to pay attention, I wouldn't have to. I'm an officer! This shouldn't be so difficult."
"Surely some sort of official status is better than none," said Angela.
"Not too sure about that, luv." Tracer's curry arrived, and she grabbed it, a couple of napkins, and her tea. Turning to go, she confessed, "Honestly, outside flying, outside Overwatch... I'm starting to wonder if I ever even had a life."
"Well, I won't be able to tell you much about cholesterol levels or blood sugar, but that's not exactly why we're here, is it? You look quite fit."
Lena just smiled, happy to be looking at anyone she recognised. "Bloody hell, it's good to see someone I know. Even if you were always just 'the doc.'"
Dr. Ziegler smiled professionally back. "Before you say anything else - anything else - authorise this." She offered the pilot a padd, with forms.
"What is it?"
"It confirms that I'm your doctor. Doctor-patient confidentiality is core to my organisation and we're prepared to defend it. I assure you, whatever I see or record, it will not go to the British - or Swiss - governments. We are on Swiss soil, and I am notoriously prickly."
"Brilliant." Tracer keyed her acceptance. The form even looked like an Overwatch document. It felt like being back at old home, and her heart ached a moment for it.
"And this document," the doctor changed pages, "is not standard. But it authorises me to share your data with Winston. He has legal standing with us in ways he does not in Britain." Tracer approved again.
"Now, we may talk freely. But clothing off, please. Let's get you looked over."
Lena threw her shirt and trousers off, onto the chair, revealing the intricate pattern of bands of light, blue or red or white, flowing across her body, from upper right shoulder to lower left leg.
Angela was visibly taken aback. "Gott in Himmel. It's beautiful. You are living art."
"Clever, innit? I can control how it looks," she said, and faded it to a series of thin lines across her skin. "But I wanted to show off."
"This is what it takes to keep you in time, then?"
"S-," ..ombra, she almost said, but did not quite, "Since I got pulled back, yah. There was an earlier version that just belted on, but it wasn't stable. I kept," she shuddered, a little, remembering the feeling, "trying to phase back out of time."
"One broken strap from vanishing? That does not sound like a good solution, no," offered Angela.
"I'd've lost the plot in a month from stress and lack of showers. Can't lose this, though - it's part of me." She ran the traces through a cycle of soft, calming blues. It reminded her of No, she thought to herself, leave it. "I tell people it's bioluminescent tattoo. The latest thing, in Greece! Everybody wants them now."
"I understand why." Dr. Ziegler selected a pair of scanners. "With your permission?"
Lena hesitated. "You sure this place isn't bugged?"
The doctor smiled, and nodded. "Quite sure."
"Angela," he said pleasantly, sipping at a cup of tea, one and a half seconds ago. "How are you this fine morning?"
"Quite well, thank you. I'm in Egypt; Fareeha's just off to work. I'm ready to transmit the data, if you're set up to receive it."
"Go ahead," said the scientist.
"Sending," she said, pressing confirm.
"How was she, in person?" he asked, as the progress metre slowly climbed.
"Physically well. She's in fantastic aerobic condition. She has some new scarring - in my opinion, almost certainly burns from the explosion. She lost a toe, and broke several bones, but I see nothing to worry about. On the whole, she had to have been remarkably lucky."
"But is she still herself, to you?"
"As far as I can tell, she is. But while were perfectly friendly, before - professional friends, yes? - I didn't know her like you did. I would miss subtleties." She looked thoughtful. "Even so... even to me, she seems very lonely."
Winston nodded, sadly. "I can't even imagine what she's been going through. If I could just get down there..."
"I think that would be good, if only it could be done." The doctor paused a moment, collecting her thoughts. "But to the larger question..."
"Don't say it."
Mercy smiled, as close to wickedly as she ever came, "the ten thousand pound gorilla in the room..."
"For the last time, Angela - I am not ten thousand pounds!" he huffed.
Angela giggled, the Swiss equivalent of a guffaw, and continued, "...the hardware itself. It's extraordinary. The shielding is perfect, and where it cannot be shielded, it is too fine for nondestructive deep scans. I could get nowhere with it."
"Damn," said the ape. "So we still don't even know what it does."
"Not so," she gestured with her left hand, "we know it's a chronal accelerator. Of that, I am sure. We just don't know what else it might do."
He put more sugar in his tea. "Like mind control."
The doctor drew in a deep breath. "No, I don't think so. The brain interfacing is all motor cortex and reflex. It's meticulous work - it had to have been grown into place - and the guiding was magnificent." She highlighted some of the interface points, and at each level further down, the integration became, if anything, more complete. "It is truly a part of her, as much as any other part of her body."
"Huh." Winston peered at data sets as the first files completed upload. "Like your nanites?"
"A different approach, but if anything," said Mercy, "moreso. Whoever did this - it's not new to them. They've been doing this. They have practice."
"You could replace someone's whole brain with these techniques, couldn't you," he said, grimly.
"Certainly. But you can also do that in a chair with a combination of drugs, conditioning, and high-precision electromagnetic fields, and not leave so much evidence." She leaned forward on her elbows, towards the screen. "I know what you're thinking. Amélie had nothing like this in her brain. Whatever has been done to your friend Lena - I think her mind is still her own."
"With respect, doctor, you thought that about Amélie. We all did."
Dr. Ziegler nodded, resolutely. "I still do."
Chapter 20: the grinding stone
[Lena, alone; day 60]
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
5:30am. Lena Oxton awoke just before sunrise. Day 60, she thought to herself. Or maybe day ten.
Quietly, so not to wake her hostel bunkmates, she went to her locker, pulled out her bag, and slipped silently to the common washroom, where she brushed her teeth and hair and prepped for her morning run. Nightshirt, brushes, back into the bag, and back to the locker; beacon with her, as always, in the special strap she'd built just for it.
6:00am. Lena Oxton ran. It wasn't a jog, it was a run, an all-out two-minute-mile run, jinks coming in bursts between buildings where she wouldn't be seen, not even by CCTV. She'd memorised the route that guaranteed least surveillance, and took it without fail, twice, every morning.
Then, a more typical endurance run. An hour at a more recognisable speed, one the best-trained fully-human runners might manage - certainly nothing anyone would find too impossible, out of context. But she nonetheless slowed whenever police happened near by.
7:00am. Back to the hostel, for the allotted four minute shower. Re-up her bunk on the way in. She tried to think of it as boot camp, or aircraft carrier duty. It felt more like prison.
7:15am. Into her best outfit. If you're going to war with records, best to look like you've got some standing - even if you've been had so many doors slammed in your face that you've developed a ranking system.
7:30am. Breakfast. A century-old cafe tucked into a still-older building on the border between Westminster and Pimlico, high density, high fat, but low cost and they don't skimp on the bangers. She loved it the first three weeks, liked it the next three. This was week nine.
8am. The library. The librarians knew her well at this point, and were kind, assuming without saying that she was some sort of homeless, and probably undocumented, passport or no passport. Electronic refiling of the same sets of requests and documentation that somehow just kept going missing. (Sorry, miss, there's just no sign of it. Why don't you submit it again? ) Research, trying to find something, any case like hers, that might get her a day in court - anything that might get her heard.
Noon. Lunch. A second workout - it's Wednesday, so the corporate-sponsored free weights session; next one would be Friday. On Tuesdays and Thursdays, it's Parks Fitness. Mondays and Saturdays, anything she could find online. Sundays, parkour out on the east end, no one she could really talk to, but the closest she'd found to friends so far.
13:30. Another attempt at her should-be MP's office; barred at the door, as usual. Another attempt at Council - more forgiving, but nothing they can do - "not if it's a military matter, sorry luv." She knew better at this point to show up at a Forces station. One office visit followed another followed another, all about the same, one too-familiar blur after another.
16:45. Immigrant rights groups, free legal aid meeting, round six. Sincere, but - she's not an immigrant. And their legal assistance team are as confused as she was until ten days ago, when she ran into Imogen again, Imogen, who picked her up by the collar and slammed her against the wall and said in a low but deadly voice, "are you following me? are you following me? i don't know what you think you want but the word has gone out, you are a poison and i will not lose my career being seen with you. i don't know you. i never did. never get near me again" before storming away, diving into the nearest cab that would take her, gone almost before even Tracer could think, ...what just happened?
17:30. Dinner. Week nine. Not out of money yet, but no dessert. She missed dessert.
18:30. A long walk around town, playing her favourite new game, "spot the new CCTVs."
Now it's 19:45, as Tracer climbs up onto the hostel's rooftop to try and get a signal to Winston if the surveillance isn't too obvious, but, of course, it is. She heads back down to the common room; it's Wednesday, quiet, and there's been another incident, emergency response in Tunisia, the reporters are wondering if it's Talon and Lena wants to laugh and cry at the same time, as if her beloved spider would ever be so indiscriminate, so inelegant, so wretchedly, terribly sloppy with death.
But sloppily or not, people are still dying, and as she studies the action on screen, she thinks, We could've done something about this. Her hands tighten into angry fists. Overwatch could've, if they hadn't shut us down. I feel so useless. If... She follows the footage, overhead views, and realises she's tracking critical actors. There, she thinks, coolly. That one. Take that one person down, the whole plan falls apart. One shot...
She shakes her head, and closes her eyes. She can still see the target, clear and sharp in her mind's eye, as though through a scope, as though through her scope, as though... Hindsight, she tells herself, is always so clear. Opening her eyes, she realises no one else is even paying attention, and so she reaches up, and changes the channel.
Early to bed. Tomorrow's another day. It'll be different, right? Surely. It has to be.
Maybe I'll just sleep in.
[not gonna lie; this was a hard chapter to write]
Chapter 21: that which remains
[The day after, and the day after that]
"I think it's time," said the Brigadier. "She seems ready."
"I agree," said the Group Captain, "she should be pliable enough, now. Let's bring her in tomorrow."
MI5, Fleet House, London.
Two surprisingly fit but otherwise almost aggressively ordinary-looking people escorted Lena Oxton towards an almost aggressively ordinary-looking private office with venetian-blinded glass walls in a room surrounded on three sides by other surprisingly fit but otherwise aggressively ordinary-looking people at aggressively ordinary-looking desks.
If Pure Gym had a security division, she thought, as she was not quite shoved, but quite briskly moved through the short glass hallway to her destination, this would be it. Crikey, those are thick walls - I'm in real trouble now.
"I'm a British subject, you can't do this. I've got rights." she said to the man at the desk, after the agents dropped her into a chair and exited the room. The man actuated a control, and the blinds closed, leaving them alone. He tapped at the nameplate on his desk - Group Captain Aubrey Henderson - and said, "Salute your superior, flying officer, or I'll have you for insubordination."
Flying Officer Oxton's heart leapt and she snapped to attention and saluted. "Sir! My apologies, sir."
"Much better," said the G/C. "At ease."
"Thank you, sir!" She burst out, too rapidly, "I've been trying to get someone to listen to me for weeks, and I've had a lot of nothing back for it. You're the first person who's even acknowledged who I am! I, I, I, didn't realise I'd been reactivated!" She beamed. At last, she thought, I've got through! "Sir!" She almost saluted again.
The older man glared, and she toned it down immediately. "I know," he grumbled. "We've been following you since you contacted the consulate in Pretoria. Sit." He motioned Oxton back to her seat, and sat down behind his desk. "Quite frankly, some of us have been hoping you'd just give up and go away, back to... wherever you came from."
"...sir?" said the Flying Officer, uncertainty replacing happiness on her face, as Imogen's words spooled through her memory. "I've been missing for..."
"I know the story," he interrupted. "You've told it about half a dozen times at this point, in full, I think?"
"...yes, sir. Before people stopped letting me in. Sir."
"It hasn't improved."
Not knowing what to say, Lena said nothing.
"Look at it from our standpoint," said the Omnic War veteran. "You die in a fighter test flight, killed over Greece. We retire you, with honours. We investigate, we find out your whole organisation was a horror, ridded with... funds abuse, embezzlement, questionable human experimentation, out-and-out war crimes, and even worse. And so, we put it away." He tapped the top of his cold, metal desk. "I put it away."
Oh no, thought Tracer. "Yes, sir."
"And now, two years after we finally had it all sorted, and the press have moved on and the public have started to forget and forgive, one of the few people not implicated shows back up, out of nowhere, outside our consulate building in South Africa, with a story not even a schoolboy would believe - the prodigal daughter returns, and starts poking her nose where it isn't wanted and no longer belongs."
"What do you expect us to think? What do you expect us to do with you?"
"Sorry, sir," she said, with just a hint too much insubordination, "I thought the military might want to know one of their missing officers was alive."
Cute, he thought. "It was that ape, wasn't it. Somehow, he brought you back. From the moon." He shook his head - it still sounded foolish aloud. "I can't blame him for that - you were friends. But I can blame him for whatever he's built into you."
Lena froze. I haven't been near a military examination room, how did they know? What else do they know? She swallowed. "...sir?"
"You're a not a terrible liar, pilot, but you're not a good one either. Bioluminescent tattoos isn't the worst line..."
"Regulation-compliant within Overwatch, sir, nothing visible in uniform," she interjected, before he sternly continued "...but it's still a line. You're six kinds of wired up, and we know it."
Shite, she thought, scrambling for some way to salvage the story, "Sir, Winston had nothing to do..." That's not better, think before you talk, Oxton!
"I'll pretend you didn't say that," he said, "because the alternatives are far worse. For you."
"...sir." she said, outright afraid now. He's called me F/O, I must have some standing, I can use that, I have rights. "Has my commission been reopened, sir?"
"Not formally," the G/C replied, "which is why you're not in the brig for desertion, first, and more severe charges, later." He sighed, and leaned back off the top of his desk. "I don't think you're a villain, flight officer. The problem is - none of us really know what you are. I've brought you in to offer you a way out. I'm offering you a deal - and I promise you, it was the very best one I could make."
"A deal, sir?" she said, quietly, stalling for time and thinking quickly, I can live without the service, she thought. I can live with that. I can still do good work. There are plenty of other opportunities for a good pilot. Médecins Sans Frontières, maybe, they can always use...
He picked a padd off his desk, and tossed it towards her to catch. "Approve this. We reopen your commission and close it, this time as a medical discharge. We give you five years' back salary - more than enough to get you on your feet. You go away, again, get a job, and live a quiet life somewhere. You don't talk to the press; you don't write a book; you don't do video; you're Lena Oxton, ex-RAF, not Lena "Tracer" Oxton of Overwatch." He gestured towards the PADD. "Section IV invokes the Official Secrets Act - whether you agree or not."
Tracer shuddered at that, and it took a forceful act of will not to teleport out of the building. "You're one-thirty-fouring my life, sir?"
"No, not your life. Just Overwatch, and Tracer."
"Sir!" the pilot spat out, "This is unfair. This is wrong. You can't do this. Sir."
"Move out of London - preferably, somewhere unimportant - within a week. After that, never get within five kilometres of a military or intelligence base, unless specifically recalled, ever again."
That's a big no-fly zone, she thought. "That'll limit my opportunities as a working pilot, sir."
"Your license terminated with your death, Flying Officer, and you're not getting it back. You've been on every no-fly list in the world since you landed at Heathrow; you are grounded. Most likely, for good."
Horror flashed across Lena Oxton's face, and she bolted up from the chair. "Sir! No, sir! You can't do that to me, sir!"
He barked the words, every syllable a body blow, staccato against her frame, "I can and I have, and if you have any sense at all, your next action will be to sit back down, and your next words will be 'Yes sir, I accept, sir.'"
Lena stopped herself - barely - from screaming at the Group Captain, composed herself as best she could, sat, and managed, shakily, "...but flying... being a pilot... it's all I ever wanted. Sir."
Group Captain Henderson let his expression, and his voice, soften a bit. He remembered that feeling - love of the air, the altitude, the endless sky, the pure speed. "I know."
Flying Officer Oxton straightened a bit, and stood her ground. "I've done nothing wrong. Sir. Except die in an experimental vehicle that exploded around me. It wasn't my fault, I'm pretty sure the record shows that, and I don't see why I should lose my license over it. Sir."
"Your record does show that," he agreed, almost kindly, "and, if you agree, it will continue to do so." Then, with a harder edge, "But if you didn't think we'd find out about that device you have embedded inside you, you underestimated us badly."
Keep it together, Tracer, keep that trim tight, she thought. "I, I..." The jig's up now, but... "I need it. It keeps me from sliding back out of time. Sir."
Thank god, thought the Group Captain, exhaling slowly, she said it. "Good. You admit you know. I'd hoped you finally would." It means if you behave, we might actually honour this agreement, he did not add aloud. "But we don't know what else it does, and the only way to know, for sure, would be to take you apart, all the way down, and study what was left. The only reason we haven't done that already is that you tried so very hard to get our attention."
"Sir." This can't be happening, she thought.
"Would you rather we changed our minds about that, Ms. Oxton?"
"...no," she said, bitterly, "Sir."
The Group Captain nodded. "Then accept the agreement, and you walk out of here a civilian, and intact. We'll be keeping an eye on you, of course, but stay quiet, let people continue to forget all of this, don't do anything stupid, and we'll leave you alone." The older man - older than Ana, probably older even than Reinhardt - leaned forward, with as much compassion as he could push into his blunt, once-chiseled face, and said, "Just walk away, Oxton. This really was the best I could get you. Walk away, and go live your life."
Lena Oxton sat in the chair, suddenly feeling strangely calm, separate, isolated. This is the second time since the explosion I haven't really had a choice, she thought, as she reached out her hand and pressed her thumb against the acceptance screen. I like it this time much less.
Former Flying Officer Lena "[Redacted]" Oxton left the MI5 building for the first and last time. Money instantly appeared in a bank account, a fair and reasonable sum. Ms. Oxton checked that account, took a little bit out in cash at an access point, and treated herself to a lavish dinner, which tasted like nothing, then box seats at a show at the Palace Theatre, which left her utterly unmoved.
Then she walked, and walked, and walked, and walked, around Old London, past Piccadilly and past St. James and past Westminster and along the Thames and across and past the Tate and past the ruins of the London Bridge and back across the river and past St. Paul's and then she didn't even notice anymore, until hours later, at 3am, when she found herself in the middle of a deserted Trafalgar Square, carrying a worn satchel popular in South Africa some ten years before, with the remnants of her flight suit, her burnt Overwatch identity card, a fake of her old passport, and a change of clothes, old, but serviceable, from a Lutzberg charity shop.
There, standing between the fountains, from a small, round, metal box, she extracted a smaller, round device. Clicking its power cell into place, she held the beacon tightly against her chest, depressed the second button, the one on the top, until it beeped, twice...
Chapter 22: twenty seconds into the future
[immediately follows the previous chapter]
A violet sphere of energy burst overhead, and most of the nearby lights went out. Two sniper shots, muffled, but audible to a practised ear, came in rapid succession. A short burst of less-muffled machine gun fire - and then a small armoured ship appeared from overhead, dropping hard and fast to low hover. The large hatch on the side blew open; from inside, a masked figure shouted in a machine-like tone, "GET OVER HERE."
Lena ran. Ran, and dove, reacting, not thinking, onto the platform, and it raised, carrying her with it. As she tumbled to the deck, the masked figure said, "Trafalgar Square?! Points for style, but are you insane?" now with a distinctly Hispanic accent.
"It was either that or blow up Fleet House, mate. I thought this would be better."
"I'm not so sure."
"I could still change my mind."
"Get in the crash chair, we're moving quickly."
Widowmaker appeared at the opposite hatch shouting, "GO, GO, GO," slammed its close button, and dove into a second crash chair as the ship shot forward, horizontally, low, and vanished from sight over a partially darkened Old London.
The ship shot west, tilting upwards, pulling four Gs for 12 straight seconds, as it just cleared buildings.
"That... was fast..." said Lena from her crash chair as the retrieval ship broke towards the Channel.
"We've been keeping an eye on you," said Sombra, with some effort, from the pilot's seat.
"Several," said Widowmaker, somehow effortlessly. "No one escapes from my sight. But... Trafalgar? Êtes-vous une folle? Why?"
"I... I'm not even sure. I think I wanted to give 'em the two-finger salute. I wanted them to know."
"Well," Amélie admitted with a mix of amusement and irritation, "they certainly know now."
"Four minutes thirty seconds to international airspace," said Sombra, from the pilot's seat. "33 seconds to cloak recharge."
"I didn't expect you to bring in a bloody troop carrier. How are we not shot down?"
Sombra mocked, "World's greatest intelligence agency! Spycraft is in our blood! And they still rely on CCTV. Pathetic - they won't even be sure you're gone until we're too far away to care." As gravity returned to normal, she turned and tossed the semi-prone Lena a seemingly-random collection of electronics. "Much better. Here, a present for you."
"What are they?"
"CCTV relays, a couple of encoders - it's all stuff they were using to track you tonight. Junk, really." A chime from the console. "Cloak reactivated. 15 seconds, changing course."
"So you knew," said Lena, looking towards, but a little past, Amélie.
"We watched them watching you," said the spider, looking back, "and I anticipated, and made contingency plans. I did not know, until they took you in. I'd hoped, if you came back out, that you'd go out of town to summon us - not go as far into town as possible." She checked the tactical board visible on the wall from her crash chair, and to Sombra, said, "No one is painting us. I don't think we need to use the backup boosters." From the pilot seat, Sombra agreed. "Boosters on hot standby."
Lena's focus moved further out again. "They one-thirty-foured me. And they took my license. Amélie," she said, distantly, as the adrenaline surge faded. "They took my wings."
Amélie reached across the lengthening gap, and took Lena's hand. "That, I did not know. So that is why... all this." She scowled. "I know what it meant to you. I am displeased, but much more than that, I am sorry."
"I told you they were bastards," Sombra chimed in. "10 seconds to full cloak charge..."
"Tactical board still clear. At recloak, bring us down to noise level and evade; we should be able to demicloak the rest of our way out."
"Cloaked... dropping... we're in the muck. Stealthed."
"Thank you," said Widowmaker. But she stayed in her crash chair, counting seconds. Three minutes to international airspace. "Once we hit the channel, deploy the decoy east and drop below Mach 1 - let's take the long way home."
"I understand," said the spider, carefully. But it is unnecessary, she thought.
Tracer - no, not Tracer, she'd need a new name - paced around the small cabin, as the ship flew quiet and low over the north equatorial Atlantic, moving slowly towards normal traffic lanes, just another surplus straggler finding its way back to its place.
"I want to kill him," the pilot repeated. "With my own hands. I want it to be close, I want it to be personal, I want him to know why."
"I am hearing you," the assassin said again, soothingly. "I am listening; tell me. Tell me all of it."
The former Flight Officer raged, "They knew I was back. They knew who I was the whole time, toying with me, trolling me even, I see it now. They were watching me since I showed up at the consulate and they cut me off and they moved my friends and threatened the one they didn't and they bled me 'till I almost gave up and died and then they took me and they put me in a box and told me to go do nothing and be nowhere and they took my wings and they took my life and they treated it like some kind of favour and now I want to take them and show them what kind of favour it was."
"I believe you, and I hear you. Keep going."
"Why?!" the flyer shouted, "What else is there? The box, the glass room, it was a bomb chamber, I get it now, I didn't get it at time, they were ready for me to explode, or they were ready to blow me up, I don't even know which, they'd planned it since I reappeared, I am so angry and feel so sick..." Pain and anger radiated from her body, so clearly the assassin could almost see it, as she slammed her fists down onto the flattened crash chair, now a bench, and then sat, face in her hands. "Why?! Why would they do that?"
If she did not want to kill them, I would..., thought the spider, struggling to keep her own emotions controlled. No, she realised, I do want to kill them. Not for history. For her. "I will tear through them until not one is left standing, if that is what you truly need," she said, voice quick with her own unexpected cold fury.
Lena looked up, face wet, and the blue woman thought, She has had no one, for weeks. "I have missed you," she couldn't not continue, aloud, reaching out her hand, "more than I could have possibly imagined. May I sit with you?"
Lena grabbed Amélie and pulled the taller woman down beside her, sobbing as the dam broke, digging into Amélie's shoulder and gasping for air, just holding her, so tightly, "i've missed you so much, it's hurt so much "
"I stayed away," Amélie said thickly, through her own new tears. "I didn't want to, but I did, until you called. It's what you said you wanted." She pulled the smaller woman closer against her, holding on tight in return. "Please say it's what you wanted. Please, please, or I will burst, I..."
"It was..." Lena managed slowly, though shuddering breaths that she fought to control, "...I thought I needed..." another heaving breath, "oh god, Amélie, I was so wrong..."
"Everyone," said the blue woman, finding herself suddenly, confusingly happy, "is wrong. Sometimes. But you are not, for me. Not ever."
"Don't let go. Never let me go again."
Not unless you want me to, the spider thought. Only then. But that is not what you need right now. And the most rational part of her mind raced, I need you with a whole heart, but I need that heart to be whole, and it is tearing...
And then, with the clarity of stars in a deep black sky, she knew.
"Pilot," she said softly, "would you fly us home?"
Lena gasped, eyes instantly wide open. "..."
"Sombra needs a break, she has not slept, and we are not too far away now. Are you cleared on this kind of craft? Could you take us home?"
A final heaving sob out of Pilot Oxton, and then she sniffed and laughed amidst the crying, and for the first time in what felt like years a smile peeked through the tears falling like rain. "uh," she sniffed, and swallowed, "B, uh, B-10M class, right?" She looked around. "Yeah. I can fly her. If... if Sombra doesn't mind..."
"Sombra needs a nap," came a voice from the flight deck. The hacker, being no fool, had already put the ship on autopilot, and stood by the empty flight chair, smirking and motioning towards the empty seat. Lena stepped up to that chair, and looked back to Amélie. "Stay with me? It's been a while."
Lena sat down, put on the flight headset, and grasped the pilot's yoke. "Yeah," she said. "Let's go home."
Chapter 23: the home they'd built together
[2074, but also, 2070]
"Good evening, Winston," said the elder assassin.
"Widowmaker," said the ape, grimly, with a three second delay. "I see you have acquired Lena's prefix code."
"Thank you for responding," she said. "We have not talked in some time."
"Using Lena's code set will get my attention. Does she still have access to it too?"
The spider smiled wanly and leaned out of the way. Lena popped into view, "Hiya, big guy! It's okay, I'm here, she's using my kit."
Winston blinked confusedly. "oh! Hello! Where have you been? I hadn't heard from you in a few weeks, and then I heard about London. What exactly happened?"
"I'll tell you tomorrow, now that I don't have MI5 watching my every breath. It'll be a lot easier to get ahold of you from now on! But Amélie needs to talk to you alone, and I wanted to make sure you'd answer, so... hear her out, will ya? For me?"
Winston did not look pleased by the request. "I... what's this all about?"
"Trust me on this, Winston? It's not my place to talk about it, but... if I'm gonna catch you up, there's some things I want you to know first. And it's better from her."
Amélie, from off camera, added, "I must note you are the one insisting I do this. I am not enthusiastic. He is your friend, not mine."
Lena looked to her left, towards the off-camera assassin. "I know," she said gently. "I know how hard it is to talk about. But it's important, to me."
From the side, a quiet, "I understand."
Winston sat on the far side of the link, having no idea what to think of any of this conversation. Lena looked back to the camera and said, "Will you, Winston? Please? Hear her out. It's important."
He nodded. "All right. I don't know what this could possibly mean, but... okay. For you. But before you do anything else, before you make any more decisions... talk to me first, okay? Promise." What is going on here? he thought.
"Sometimes you're a little too protective, big guy. But if it makes you happy, fine. And... thanks, luv. You'll understand better in a few minutes." She pulled Amélie back on camera, and kissed her forehead, gently. "You can do this, love. I know it'll be hard. I'll be right outside, waiting. Signal me when you're done - or before, if you want me."
Lena Oxton stepped out of the camera's field of view; from off-screen came the sound of a door, closing.
"Well," said the blue woman, after a moment. "Here we are."
Winston looked at Widowmaker, and realised that he'd never seen her like this - not since Amélie vanished those years ago, and maybe not even then. Did... Lena reawaken Amélie, somehow? he thought. Am I not talking to the Widowmaker? Is this...
Amélie leaned forward closer to the camera, then back. "By the way, I never took a moment to thank you," she said, "for your help, in pulling Lena back into time. And that is wrong of me. I owe you, tremendously; I am forever in your debt."
That is not the Widowmaker, he thought. "...Amélie? Is that... you? Actually you?" he said, daring to hope.
The blue woman sighed. "It has always been me."
"Amélie wouldn't've betrayed and murdered Gérard. Amélie wasn't a globally-wanted assassin."
"Which," she said sadly, "is why Lena insists that I drag myself through that horrible night again." She sighed. "This is not easy for me. Please do not make it more difficult."
"I've seen all the reports - I know what happened."
"You've seen lies. I have copies as well, the only correct particular in them is that I killed Gérard, my beloved husband."
"Do tell," he said sardonically.
"I will. I presume you are recording this; I'm fine with that, because this will hopefully be last time the only surviving witness of this particular disaster testifies to what actually happened. I only ask you not to share it with others while I am still alive."
"Did you kill Gérard Lacroix?"
"Of your own free will?"
"Yes. And everything the same, I would do it again."
The blue spider took a deep breath. "A little of this, at the beginning, is from other sources. Trusted, but other sources. A small part, in the middle, is how I imagine it happened - I could smell the wine sauce, burning. The rest, I saw, or heard, or did, myself."
[Paris, 2070; all dialogue is in translation from the French]
«I tell you, he's rotten.» The Blackwatch intelligence agent flipped paper copies of files around, full of highlighted numbers, tracked money. Old fashioned, perhaps, but nobody can hack paper.
«I agree.» said the other agent. «He's a Talon mole. That's the only thing that makes it all logical. But no one else will believe it, not from us.»
«One little mistake...»
«One big mistake, we should admit that...»
«...and we have a reputation as loose cannons forever? It isn't fair.»
«I know. It's grotesque.»
The bigger, burlier agent stomped around their joint desk. «We should confront him. He'd crack.»
«And if he doesn't, he's tipped off, and we're both finished.»
«No, if we get a confession out of him, we're both heroes.»
«You saying we should just go over there and...» The agent waved his hands around, «...make sure?»
«Yes. I am. Tonight.»
«You are certain, aren't you.»
The other agent leaned forward, putting his hands palms-down on the desk. «Aren't you?»
«...yes. I think I am.»
«Then let's call in a security cordon and do this. We'll say we think there's a Talon agent shadowing the place, we want some outside protection while we go in to brief Gérard. We'll be legends.»
The agent leaned back in his chair. «Or up on charges.»
«No way. Legends.»
Amélie was late.
Amélie was never late. Gérard worried, but her emergency beacon hadn't tripped, and the lack of any concern from support meant it couldn't've gone that badly.
Ah, well, he thought, It has given the wine sauce more time to reduce. All the better. Gérard tasted a sample. Exquisite. As long as she is not too much late. He checked the carrots, roasting slowly over the grill. When all this is over, someday, he thought, I will open that cafe. Assassination may be Amélie's art, but this is mine.
I wonder if she'll come through the window again, Gérard smiled at the memory of Amélie leaping through the living room window, executing a perfect fouetté en tournant en dehors, with her sniper rifle as accessory. «I have returned!» she had announced, dramatically. «Now kiss me.»
«Ah!» Gérard had said, laughing. «You are wonderful! And early. That is most certainly worth a kiss.»
The bell rang, the front door, breaking his memories. Oh good, he thought sardonically, more Mormon missionaries. «You've already been here!» he shouted. «I am not interested in your book, thank you!»
The bell rang again. Blood of christ, he thought, settling the stove and oven, and called out, «Just a moment!»
«This had better be good,» he shouted, as he walked down the short hallway to the front door.
Amélie was late.
The mission had not gone well. They'd hit their target, but not cleanly, not elegantly. She'd been spotted, on the roof - her heat signature, that's all it could've been - before taking her shot. And while the second would be fatal, there would be fear, and pain, before death.
She did not enjoy giving pain with her deaths. Death should be exquisite, and instant. One perfect shot, annihilation, and the river of history changed - wonderful.
The troubles in her mind almost caused her to miss the security cordon around her and Gérard's townhouse, but not quite. Something is very wrong, she thought. Terribly wrong.
The warning beacon is not lit, she noticed, searching at distance from the building a block behind. Perhaps it is not so bad. Or, she worried, perhaps he did not have the chance.
She swept across the street, and closed her vizor, zooming in on faces. She recognised one face, then another - people she suspected but had not previously confirmed as Blackwatch covert agents, an outer-ring cordon. Too few for an all-out raid, but far too many for a friendly visit.
Shit. They know, she thought. They know. Her thoughts raced. But they do not know everything, or they would not have moved when I was not here. Perhaps this can still be salvaged.
She changed vizor modes. Three in front. Two in back. Three people inside, two standing, one... not. None on the sealed roof - Their mistake, she decided. Hopefully, I can make it a fatal one.
They'd have to leave, of course. They'd assumed this would happen, eventually; plans had been made.
Thoughts of the unlit beacon ate at her gut as she circled around the block to an appropriate roof.
Inside, the second agent smiled. «See?» he told the first. «That was not so bad, was it?»
The first agent frowned, wiping blood from his face. «I didn't think he could fight like that, and sure as hell didn't expect him to. It's a very good thing you had that dart prepared.»
They looked at the bloody Gérard, now splayed neatly onto the stripped bed, tied down, semi-conscious. «It's his own fault for not realising when to stay down,» said the second. «He can recover in jail.»
«Sure,» said the first. «You have that recorder ready?»
«Audio only. Keep it simple. So we had to get a little rough, no need to blow things out of proportion.»
«I am not a fool, Henri.» He touched his padd. «Recorder running.»
The first agent injected Gérard with a complex mix of interrogation drugs, and a mild stimulant. «Now, Agent Lacroix - what do you have to say for yourself?»
Blinds had been drawn on all the windows; there was no seeing into the bedroom. But Amélie could listen, from afar, with the laser microphone in her sight, and so she heard it all.
They cannot make that recording, she thought, it cannot be allowed. Everything we've worked for...
Her position worked well for audio, but not well for hitting her targets, and she was late and so there was no time left, none at all. She swung in with her grappling hook, zipping over the heads of the two back cordon guards down on the ground, attracting their attentions. Landing on the balcony, she unloaded her first clip into first agent through the antique doors she and Gérard had spent a week restoring, just that previous spring. Throwing herself through the wreckage, she destroyed the little recording padd. Hopefully not too much had been said.
The second agent was slower, still rising from his little chemistry set, crouched over Gérard's prone body, as the security cordon charged up two flights of stairs. Amélie smashed him in the face with her rifle stock, and he went down instantly. «Pathetic,» she said, before finishing him with a single round to his forebrain.
She grabbed at Gérard's arm, pulling at the ties, «Gérard, wake up, it's me, come on, we need to...» as three rounds of semiautomatic fire burst through the bedroom door, knocking it open. She flipped backwards towards the balcony, rolling, and returned fire, as one of the rear cordon shot at her from the ground below. The first of the three front agents burst into the bedroom...
...and time, it seemed to the spider, later, stopped. The web was clear; the paths forward, unavoidable. She had been imperfect, and so now she was late; now Gérard might live, and the world would die in fire, or Gérard would die, and there could still be a path to tomorrow. A crux, but one without a choice.
I will always love you, Gérard, she thought, as she finished her husband with a single shot. Perfect, but bitter, not exquisite, even as she felt history move with the pulling of the trigger, and ordinary time resumed.
Launching her hook towards the nearest tall building, Amélie hurled herself into the night sky above, and was gone.
"And after that?" asked the scientist, quietly.
Widowmaker shrugged. "It does not matter. I left. We had a emergency plan, I used it. Blackwatch fabricated a report to make themselves look better - they may believe some or all of that, I do not care. Overwatch distorted that report further, to the same ends; the final report distilled it all to me."
As soon as she'd started her story, Winston had started analytics. Deep processing would take longer, but even without that, the pieces fit - not with what he thought he knew about Gérard and Amélie, but with what he knew about the role of Blackwatch abuses in the fall of Overwatch. We were all at least a little complicit, he thought, not for the first time.
He sat, silently, for several seconds, until Widowmaker spoke again. "In the end, I cannot even say that distillation was wrong. I make no pretences about what I did. I was imperfect on my mission, so I was late; I was late, so I was faced with a choice. I chose to kill Gérard. Had I not been imperfect, perhaps the choice I faced would have been different."
"That's why," the scientist said, realising it even as he said it, "it's one shot, one kill. It's not a boast. It's a pledge."
The assassin nodded. "Ah oath. I will never allow that to happen again," she said, voice deep in melancholy. "Not ever."
Winston had been around humans his entire life. He still needed help, sometimes, reading their emotions, reading their intent. Genetically manipulated or not, he was still a gorilla, with a gorilla's body language, a gorilla's interpretation of faces and tones, and in many ways, a gorilla's view of the world, and the translation to and from human always invited mistakes, always left room for error. But even so...
"I think I believe you," he said.
"On my word alone? Thank you for that," she replied.
"I'm not sure what you told was the real story, or the whole story, but I believe you believe it."
"There is very little I can authenticate, of course."
"Of course. Is there anything?"
The assassin nodded. "A little. When I use my laser microphone, it also records, automatically, in case I miss something." Starting a file transfer, she continued, "Here is a copy of the file from that night," she said, "It is not the best quality, but it's not edited, and, as far as it goes, I think you will find that I was accurate."
The gorilla nodded as his system marked the file as received. "I'm sure I will."
Amélie closed her eyes, and rubbed her temples. "Now, if you will excuse me, I am finished, and I need to go drink far too much wine, and possibly cry on my lover's shoulder until she makes me feel better. I hate telling this story."
"It does not make you look good, no."
"No, I suppose it does not. Good night, Winston."
"Good night..." he paused, "...Amélie."
Chapter 24: anger management
The first thing Winston said, upon seeing Lena appear on his screen, was, "So, you're part of the Talon team, now. I can't say I'm happy to hear it."
Lena let out a little "heh," before answering, "It's that obvious?"
"Seriously? After London? Yes. It is. I presumed explaining that was what prompted getting me and Widow... me and Amélie to talk, yesterday."
"Yeh," Lena nodded. "I wanted you to know - really know - that she wasn't..." she waved her hands around, "whatever you thought she was. An automaton. A mind-controlled slave. Whatever," she shrugged. "And neither am I. I need to be somewhere I can make a difference. This is what I've got; I'm takin' it."
The scientist on screen nodded, three seconds later. In a thoughtful tone, he replied, "I think I believe her now. In some ways, it's harder to accept than the old neural reconditioning story. I never would have imagined who she really was, back then. The same, I guess," he added, "goes for Gérard."
Lena nodded. "She's real, all right. She always has been. And Talon is doing something, Winston, when nobody else is, not really." She beamed, despite everything. "The girlfriend part, well - that's a bonus!"
"Theoretical goals - and girlfriend - aside, they're doing things in ways I can't support."
"I know," she accepted. "I think I can help them. I think I can improve them. Maybe make Talon something you could support. I do have unique access to the top, after all."
Winston frowned. "I don't see that ever happening."
"Don't count me out, luv," she said, with her half-grin. "I've budged you on Amélie, I doubt you saw that one coming."
She had a point, and even if he didn't want to admit it, his body language did. So he huffed, and said, "You should've radioed me more often. I have some access to resources. Angela could've tried to get you out."
"I couldn't get up in the air. Or, I guess, I mean, I couldn't get isolated enough. Once I started noticing the surveillance, I started seeing it everywhere."
"It couldn't've been that bad," he grumbled.
"It was that bad. I think. They'd been grinding me down for a while, it's hard to be sure. And I wasn't gonna let myself get searched. Any chance they'd take the retrieval beacon was..." she shuddered. "No. I couldn't risk that."
"You didn't seem to have a hard time contacting me from on top of Big Ben, maybe something like that could've..."
She smirked - Elizabeth Tower, you twit, she thought, somewhat crossly - but let it slide. "Sure! When I had my grapple. I couldn't bring that back from the dead with me, now could I?" She bent over and pulled the kit up off its shelf, holding it before the camera and smiling. "Have it back now, though." She slapped it onto her left forearm, all form-fitting black and violet. "Secure. Super light. It matches hers, I like that." She twisted her wrist, completely unimpeded. "Feels nice."
"Still," he insisted, "you should've gone back to Brighton, at least, or..."
"No." Anger flashed into her eyes, hard and quick, a line crossed. "You don't understand. They'd done me in, big guy - I was falling apart."
"No. You want to know how I spent Thursday - Thursday last? I spent Thursday last in bed. I couldn't. even. get. out. of. bed," she said, hands in angry fists. "Brighton? Seriously? "
"NO," she demanded, "I can take anything but nothing, turns out. There, now you know too, everybody else does, why not you? They figured that out. They figured it out, and my own Forces used it against me. Then when they'd tipped me over, they brought me in and brought down the hammer, hoping to finish me, and I am not fucking kidding when I say it was either bring in the cavalry or blow up their fucking building, mate, and it was a fucking close call."
"I've never seen you like this, ever," he said, taken aback, "Lena, what's..."
"Aren't you even listening!?" Lena shouted at her friend, rising and slamming her hands down onto the table. "She saved me, Winston. Twice now. Not you, not Overwatch, not the RAF, she did. She caught me when I was falling, both times, not..." Lena vibrated in place, blue and red, and stripes shining through her clothes. "No. No. No," she said, to herself. She put her fists together, at her waist, and closed her eyes, and sat. "Breathe. Breathe. Breathe." she repeated, as the colours faded.
After a couple of minutes of long, silent, deep breaths, she opened her eyes again. "I'm... really sorry about that, big guy. That wasn't just misdirected, that was wrong. I'm not..." breathe "mad at you. At all. You've always been there as best you could," breathe "and without you, Amélie couldn't've brought me back." Another breath. "I had no business saying what I did just now, none at all, and I'm sorry for it..." breathe "I just get so angry, so quickly, right now." Another long, deep breath. "Amélie's trying to help me with it. I'm back to Shambali-school meditation, too." Another breath. "It's always helped me get things worked out. Helped get me under control."
Winston just stared, sadly, and then, carefully, leaned back forward, and said, "I... I didn't understand how badly they'd hurt you. I shouldn't've pushed. I'm sorry too."
The teleporter nodded, and breathed. "Not your fault, luv. They'd've had my psych profiles, Forces and Overwatch both. They," she breathed, "they probably put a team on it. Must've focused right in."
"I didn't think they'd do that," he quietly said.
A little bit of an experienced smile. "Neither did I, luv." A deep breath, and she closed her eyes again. "Guess I was a bit naive."
She exhaled, long and slow, and shook her head, blinking her eyes open. There, she thought. Centred. Much better. "I will kill them for it, someday," she said, cheerfully matter-of-fact.
"I'm sorry for that, too."
"I'm not!" she said, almost brightly. "I'm not that naive, luv. I'm not the first person they've done this to."
"...almost certainly not."
"You know, right? That neural reconditioning you talk about, with Amélie?"
"That they have it."
"That they've used it?"
"Then," she rocked back and forth in her chair, idly, "I guess we understand each other."
He nodded. "I suppose we do."
"Will you still be my friend, though?" she asked, a little hopeful, a little plaintive, a little afraid.
"Always," said Winston, firmly.
Chapter 25: "Show me," said the Widowmaker
"Show me," said the Widowmaker, pulling up video from the Tunisian incident that Lena had discussed.
"There," Lena pointed. "That one, whoever they are. Take that one down, the whole plan collapses."
Widowmaker nodded, pleased. "Yes. I saw it as well. I believe you were correct. How did you know?"
"Tactical training sticks with you. I was always good at it." She bit her lower lip. "But it's more than that... it's hard to describe, but there's a flow. Fuzzy around the edges, right? But... like a river. Or maybe a swarm. Nah - more like a river. Anyway, there's a flow. Whoever that was, they were at the heart."
"That feeling sounds familiar." She can see part of it, Amélie thought. Not the same way I do, and she's untrained, but... it's there. Let's find out how strongly. "I've assembled some other video, from other incidents. Why don't we find out if you can see this 'flow' consistently, yes?"
Lena nodded, enthusiastically. "Let's get this thing moving!"
The next video rolled. Kansas City, 2071. "There," said the younger assassin, almost immediately. "Her." The spider nodded; "Good."
The second - Banjarmasin, 2071. It took only a few more seconds. "Him," she said, coolly confident. "I concur," said Amélie.
Hangzhou, 2072. "This one, the one with the... I don't know what kind of hat that is." The Widowmaker laughed; "I don't either. But correct."
Aukland, 2073. "I... uh." The video kept rolling. Lena followed the action, but saw no flow, no pattern. Lena watched, fascinated by the chaos. "Got me here, love. I don't see it."
"Well done," replied the spider. "Correct. No single target."
Prince Rupert, 2073. Almost immediate. "That one," said the student, "with the sniper rifle. Ha, easy," and the teacher nodded approvingly, saying, "Correct, on both counts."
At thirty examples, Amélie stopped the test. "27 of 30, with no false positives, dramatically higher than would be expected of officers at your former rank. Almost as good as myself. I am impressed."
"Thanks, love." Lena closed her eyes for a moment, consciously releasing the emotional damper of the web. In another week or two, it wouldn't even take active thought. She took a deep breath and beamed, stored up emotions washing over her in a flood, and pressed herself up against her partner, nuzzling under her chin, eyes now open large and wide. "That was fun. Do you have any others?"
Amélie gasped, and bent her head forward to kiss her lover, her arms immediately around the smaller woman's body. "I have a whole training course. You just passed the final, but if this is how you feel afterwards, I will make many more."
"Good." Lena pushed Amélie backwards, slowly, slipping her hands under Amélie's uniform, sliding it off her shoulders, biting gently at her ear, and whispering, "Many more."
"Aaah!" Amélie gasped and hoisted Lena bodily up, carrying her over to the futon folded by the wall, and kicking it back open as Lena pushed her uniform further down. She all but threw Lena down onto it, leaping astride her, as Lena pulled both shoulder sleeves the rest of the way off, and the top half of her uniform fell away.
Lena pulled the spider down atop her, nuzzling at her breasts, teasing their tips with her tongue. Amélie moaned; Lena pulled her lover's long hair, and she shuddered, panting, already climaxing. Lena laughed, delightedly. "I love how easily you get going," bringing her blue-skinned lover closer again.
"I assure you," said the Frenchwoman, growling, pulling open Lena's blouse, "it is only the start."
The two women lay naked and entangled on the futon together, calm and radiant in their own momentarily private world.
"I'm gonna need a new call sign," Lena said, while lazily brushing her fingertips down Amélie's arm.
"Are you sure? You're doing a fine job of tracing right now," said her lover, teasing her partner's hair, the younger woman's head resting on her breast.
Lena pursed her lips and shook her head gently. "No, Tracer's not me anymore. Not after... what happened. I need something new."
"I'm sorry, no, of course not." The spider kissed the top of the pilot's head. This hair of hers really won't do anything else, will it? she thought. How fortunate for me that I adore it so. Running her right hand gently along Lena's back, she said, "We self-name, here. Do you have any ideas?"
"I want to throw something back in their face."
"Something other than a bomb, you mean?"
Lena chucked. "Yeh. Something other than that, I mean."
"Mmm," answered the spider, and kissed that wonderful head again.
"Imogen called me a 'poison,'" said the younger woman. "Maybe that."
"No, no, no, ma chérie, never that, not you," demurred the spider. You are not a poison, you are a... a cure, she thought, but that's hardly thematically appropriate. "A poison is passive - a poison, you bite it, you die, it has no say in the matter. Now..." she thought, "a venomous creature... it bites you, and you die."
"Huh," said the pilot. "Venomous. Venom."
"It is a thought."
"I like it," said Venom, nuzzling at her lover's breast.
Widowmaker smiled and sleepily replied, "So do I."
Chapter 26: memories of the fire
[A few days after "Un ballet d'enchevêtrement quantique, en deux parties," the first half]
"aaaaAaAAAaAAAAA NO" Lena shot upwards, blurring blue and red, teleporting right and up, across the room, almost into the wall, knocking over a lamp which crashed to the floor before she even knew she'd done any of it.
Amélie, startled in her sleep, leapt out of bed and had her rifle out and scoped before she, too, could fully awaken. But after a moment, she calmed herself, and looked to Lena, climbing down from her terror. She put the Widow's Kiss aside and calmly walked over to her partner. "You're here, ma chérie, not in the airplane, not on fire, you're with me, not in the airplane, not on fire, you're with me..."
Lena's gaze darted randomly, until she locked onto Amélie, eyes still wide, still hyperventilating.
Amélie put her arms around her beloved. "Now, I have you..."
Breathe, Lena thought, breathe, as her lover took embraced her. Breathe. This can't happen. Breathe. What can't happen? Breathe. She put her head on Amélie's shoulder. That felt right. Breathe. She put her arms around Amélie, pressing against her, that too felt right, and wonderful, breathe, like it felt when... what? Like it felt when what?
Amélie knew these nights well. They were not common, not exactly, but came often enough to have a routine. Doctor Mariani had, at Amélie's insistence, examined her beloved three times now; she'd assured her there was no physical issue either with her or her web, said that while she was not a psychiatrist, it looked to her like classic trauma reaction.
But the spider was not so sure. Something poked at her mind, something vibrated the web, just a little, like an echo of something large, long ago, or something yet to come, far away. "You're with me, you are not on fire, I have you, you are safe, it is over," she kept repeating. It always seemed to help.
"This. Can't. Happen." Venom said, quietly.
Amélie tilted her head, confused. This was new. "What cannot happen?" she asked. "Should I... should I not be doing this? Should I let go?"
"NO!" shouted Lena. Breathe. "No. Hold me. Never let go. But..." What can't happen?
She almost has something, Amélie thought. Something different. Not more of the empty echoes of things that never were. Something more. Perhaps. She held her lover tightly against her, manoeuvring them both back over to the bed, and stroking her hair.
Venom slumped. It was gone. Breathe. Whatever it was, it was gone. "Damn. I... I almost had it, that time. I think. I thought."
"You said," Amélie prompted, "'this cannot happen' ... no, that's not quite right, it's 'This. Can't. Happen.' with little pauses, like that." Amélie thought she could almost smell the scent of burning jet fuel. "The Slipstream disintegrating around you, again?"
Lena shook her head, negatively. "No. Well... not really. But sort of. That, too." And not for the first time, she did not need to say. Breathe. "But... no. The order's wrong, it's back to front. Something else."
"Could it have been triggered by the mission?" she spider worried. "Your first night out, we were successful, but it was new and explosive..."
Lena laughed. "Nah, love. That was great." She smiled, genuinely, the fear and dread quickly dispelling. "Ho, that's funny," she said, relief in her voice. "Just thinking about it, I feel better." Hugging her partner close, as the last of the terror slipped away, she continued, "...yeah. I think about being on mission with you, working together, and it's - the dread, I mean - it's just gone."
Amélie closed her eyes for a moment, and thought, if there is a god, I thank them for that. Opening her eyes, she asked, "You are sure?"
Lena nodded, eyes clear, if all too awake for the middle of the night. "fffft," she said, "I'm not complicated, love. I know how I feel. I'm sure." She looked at the clock. "Great. 3am. I've ruined both our sleeps. I'm sorry."
"Do not let it concern you, I am just glad you are feeling better." She squeezed her partner tightly, and they crawled back under the covers.
"I wish we were back on Alicudi," Lena said, wistfully, curled up with her blue lover. "I'd go listen to the waves 'til I got sleepy again."
"I know," Amélie sighed. "I miss it as well. I would come with you. We could stay out all night and fall asleep under the stars, as far as I am concerned." She frowned. "Sombra's fake listing was a little too inviting."
Lena chuckled. "Booked through August. She thinks the whole thing's hilarious."
"Of course she does," Amélie said, crossly.
"'Look! We have real vacation reviews! Ooh, they're very good!'" Venom liked the hacker, but her sense of humour could be inconvenient at times. There really was no need for registration functionality. Not that actually worked.
"At least tourist season will be over soon," Amélie said, resignedly.
"She wants a commission, y'know."
"Fine. I will charge it back to her later," said the spider. "Perhaps, 'inconvenience fees.'"
Lena laughed. "Nice."
"Roll over," Amélie said. "I'll rub your back until you fall asleep."
"...does that work?" asked the younger assassin, obeying.
The elder assassin nodded, though her partner could not see her do so. "Every time."
Chapter 27: a modernist improvisation
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
"None of these are nice people," said Widowmaker.
"Goes without sayin', don't it?" said Lena, popping a bit of handmade picture candy into her mouth, flavoured hard candies with an image running throughout, looking like little round slices of pomegranate, pips and all, made entirely by pulling sugar. "These came out great, love. I thought you couldn't cook."
Amélie raised an eyebrow and smiled. "I have some talents beyond shooting people. But this is confectionary, not cooking, it is different."
"How's that then?"
"Because I am French and know better than English barbarians about food."
Venom laughed. "Oh, right. Of course."
"But - yes, that these are bad people does go without saying. Still, moreso, even than usual, these are not good people." She threw Venom a file from her padd. "Here is a dossier on everyone I expect to attend - you should memorise it."
"Gotcha." Venom slid aside news of the latest anti-Omnic violence in North America - and the latest retaliation from Null Sector - to flip through the pages she'd just received. "Huh... Most of these... they're just ordinary criminals. Bad ones, but just criminals."
"Yes," Widowmaker agreed. "They are suppliers and sellers, not movers of history. They are without ideals," she frowned. "But we need to deal with them, occasionally, and that means dealing with their, um... muscle? Yes. Muscle. Bodyguards. I had to make an example of one, a few years ago."
"That's too bad."
The elder assassin shrugged. "Yes, I'm sure he was an adorable child with a mother, once."
Venom laughed. "And probably killed her."
"I do not have room to talk," said Amélie, pointedly. "But I do not wish to make any further examples. Bringing you, I hope, will help make that less likely."
"Really?" asked Tracer, wondering if Amélie could make these candies with maltose. Chocolate's great, but variety's good too. "Why?"
Widowmaker smiled. "Your reputation in certain circles precedes you."
Venom licked her lips. "Fantastic."
"But behave," said the blue assassin. "I'm bringing you to prevent problems, not cause them."
"'Course, love," said the teleporting assassin, cockily. "Don't I always?"
"Honestly?" asked the spider.
"Never but," said the striped assassin.
"Yes," the blue woman smiled, "You do."
"Aw," the younger assassin pouted, "You're no fun today."
"Should I start lying to you, then?" asked Amélie, amusement in her voice.
"Fiiiiiiine," Venom said, with greatly exaggerated exasperation, "I'll be good."
Over comms, the cowboy replied, "Widowmaker, McCree - I hear ya. All clear. C'mon down whenever when you're ready."
"McCree, thank you. We'll keep you looped in, but otherwise, we'll take over from here. Switching to monitor mode."
"McCree switching to radio silence and out."
The meeting had been scheduled for a large conference room on the second floor of a older, nondescript, and otherwise-empty metal building in Caracas, hosted by a trusted neutral party specialising in such arrangements. "Why are these things always in warehouses?" Venom asked, as she landed their stealthed light flyer on a rooftop two blocks away.
"Because warehouses are boring," replied Widowmaker. "Clients rotate in and out of light industrial facilities like these constantly, as companies build and fail, and so strangers are not..."
Venom broke in, "Rhetorical, love," as she unstrapped from the pilot's seat.
"Ah, of course," the spider said, opening the side hatch. "I will punish you later."
"Ooooh, goodie," said Venom.
The two assassins executed their own secondary recon of the facility before approaching, and a second facilities check before entering. "Looks clean," said Venom, from atop a building on one block; her partner agreed, from atop a building the block opposite, and they fell in together.
Most of the expected buyers and sellers had arrived already, a few early, some just entering from the lower level as the Talon pair entered from the balcony entrance above. Widowmaker spotted the Menger Group's muscle as soon as she walked in, but not Javier Menger himself. She leaned to Venom as the two descended the stairwell and said, "Menger Group, on the opposite wall, but no Javier. I am concerned. He does not miss these meetings."
Venom nodded affirmatively, a subtle gesture. Texans, she remembered from the dossier. SIG Sauer specialists and neo-fundamentalist survivalists. "One of the muscle has a much better suit than in the photos," she said quietly to Widowmaker. "Something's changed."
Widowmaker agreed. "Caleb. I've seen him - and his bodyguard - before. Javier kept them both on tight reins."
As the senior assassin side-eyed that new suit, Caleb caught her glance and bristled. "I see you brought your new guard dog," he called from across the room, a bit of extra sneer in his heavy Texan accent. "She better be well-trained."
The room instantly grew very quiet. Other groups subtly edged away from the Menger representatives.
Oh, thought the spider, how tiring. The new boss feels he must establish himself, and has chosen me. "Javier, are you here?" she called, scanning the room for the older Menger. "Is this the kind of help you've resorted to hiring these days?"
"Javier's out," said Caleb. "You aren't dealing with the old man anymore. I'm running the show now."
"That is unfortunate," said the Widowmaker, wondering how recently it'd happened. Enculer, she thought. Bizarre religion or not, he would keep his promises. Aloud, she continued, "Javier was reliable, and often pleasant. I will hope his successors decide to continue that tradition."
"That right?" said the woman with him, Haley, the bodyguard, possibly a new lieutenant, judging from the swagger. "We all thought it was time for some fresh blood. People who won't let themselves get led 'round by a pretty blue face."
The Widowmaker frowned.
Turning to Venom, Haley gazed down at the much smaller woman. "But we ain't the only fresh blood, are we? Careful, little bitch," she mocked, "don't want to get hurt playin' with the big dogs." She pronounced it like "dawgs."
They do not deserve artistic deaths, thought the Widowmaker. But examples must sometimes be made.
"Venom?" asked Widowmaker.
"Yes, love?" asked Venom.
"Sting." said Widowmaker.
"Yes, love." said Venom.
She never even appeared to move. There was a flash of light, which was actually three, and what sounded like a single shot, but was actually two. Both offenders dropped to the ground, dead, individual bullets placed precisely into the centres of their forebrains.
Instant, perfect death. Not as elegant as some, perhaps, but strong lines, and good design, a clean, modernist improvisation. Widowmaker approved. "Nicely done."
Shouts of shock echoed around the room as the bodies hit the floor, not all of those dead. Venom smiled, sweetly, and looked up to her spider. "Anyone else, love?"
"Thank you, no," said the Widowmaker. "I think that should do." She turned her gaze slowly across the room. "Unless, of course, anyone else has additional commentary to bring to the conversation?"
The room became quiet, and still.
"Then shall we get to the tasks at hand?" asked the Widowmaker. Looking past the table, she said, "I'm sure our hosts can handle the mess, can't you?"
A couple of agents in matching grey suits nodded. "Just waiting for your permission to move, ma'am," said the smarter of them.
Widowmaker chuckled. "Excellent. Please do." Turning back to the room, she said, "Why don't we get down to business?"
Chapter 28: an uncomfortable silence
[some months later]
"I see you've been racking up quite the kill list," said Winston, a second and a half before.
Venom frowned. "Ah, c'mon, luv, do we have to talk about work?"
"It's just a job to you, now?" asked the scientist on the moon.
"No," replied the assassin, "but we're just gonna have another fight." The last one had been a real row; they hadn't talked for a month, and Winston seemed intent on picking up where they'd left off. "Let's not do that again."
Winston shook his head, no. "I'm sorry, Lena, but - fifteen kills in five months?"
"Only twelve," Lena retorted. "Six by us, six by other agents, some of which never made the news. Anyone else wasn't us at all."
"Six, then," he conceded. Like that isn't enough.
Fine, she thought. Let's not pretend. "Yep! All good ones. Clean. Fast. Sharp. We've never been tighter, and it's exhilarating." She put on her best wicked smile, the one she knew sent a bit of a shiver down Winston's spine. "Each one moved the war another step back. We might not be getting ahead of that curve, but we're doin' the best we can. No regrets here."
"All on Amélie's word," he said, stiffly. "Just whatever's in her head."
"Nah," said Venom. "It's not that simple, mate. Even she doesn't trust herself that much. There's a consensus system - won't describe it, sorry, secret - and a lot of deep analytics. And..."
"Just please tell me Katus Varga wasn't one of yours," he broke in, expecting the worst. "Please tell me you aren't starting into world leaders, are you?"
Venom blinked at the unexpected question. "It's got bad enough we might have to. And I wouldn't hesitate, if that's what was needed. But... if it makes you feel any better, Katus Varga? That wasn't us."
"With her politics and that M.O.?" he asked, "It screamed Talon."
"Really! Not us." She affirmed, holding up her hands. "See? All clean. We think it was domestic. Someone who wanted to make it look like us."
"I'm a little surprised," he said. Also a little relieved, he thought. Something about the timing had felt almost sadistic, and for all Widowmaker and Talon were, they did not appear to be sadists. He did not want to see them becoming such.
"We were looking at taking out her Omnics advisor, though. Lower profile, more actual impact."
"I... don't know who you mean, offhand..." the scientist said, punching up a search on the panel to his right.
"Sándor Farkas. An academic - I think he's a crackpot, really - with some wicked nasty supremacist ideas. Also, daily access to power. He needed to go."
"Mmm," said the gorilla, having pulled him - and his troubling history - up on his own displays.
"But not her. She was too popular! Whoever did it created a martyr. Made things worse. If we find them, we will kill them."
"For killing her?" he questioned distractedly, still reading.
"For making it look like we killed her," she explained.
"Ah," he said, glancing sideways as her while reading.
"Don't like imitators in this business, luv. Can't have it."
"I see," Winston said, unhappily. "Business."
An uncomfortable nothing was said for several seconds.
Venom decided to break the silence. "We were in Naples the other day."
Winston scowled. "Taking advantage of the attack?"
"C'mon, luv," said Lena. "That's mean."
"What, then?" asked the scientist.
Lena Oxton rocked back and forth in her chair. "Can't talk about what, exactly. Not even with you. But..." she struggled with it, trying to figure out how much she could but should not say, "go give what happened a good look-over. Carefully. Watch all of it, but... focus about... 40 minutes in. Or so."
Winston hunched forward, just a little. "Ten minutes before the police suddenly cleared them all out?"
"'Bout that," agreed Venom.
"...what did you do?" he asked.
"Didn't say we did anything," said the assassin. "Can't. But..." the assassin tilted her head left and right with a tight little mostly-repressed smile, "give it a careful look. You're good at thinking, so... think about it."
"I seem to recall they had a lot of explosives they didn't use, didn't they," he proffered.
"Explosives... " Venom tilted her head, pointedly, "that didn't explode. There's a difference."
"Yes," agreed the scientist. "There most certainly is."
"Funny how that happened, innit?" she asked, "subtle" not being her middle name.
"Perhaps even strange," said the gorilla.
"Plans like that, they're goin' wrong a lot lately," she said, looking at her fingernails, then back at her friend.
"Are they?" he asked.
"Sure looks like it."
"Fascinating," said the scientist, remembering a promise made months before.
"Not sayin' anything past that, big guy. Maybe I'm guessing. Maybe they're just gettin' sloppy."
He nodded, understanding - not the specifics, not yet, but most certainly the message. "Maybe they are."
With a small sly smile let free, Venom said, "It's a funny old world, innit?"
A moment passed, a somewhat less uncomfortable silence, before Winston nodded again, this time, in agreement. "That," he said, "it truly is."
Chapter 29: a triple entente
[London. MI6. November.]
Video from the Humanity First strike in Naples rolled on the large screen, as the analyst section scribbled notes. Key sections were framed and elements highlighted from the incident which took place the week before.
"Now, until this moment, in minute 44," said the presenter, "the attack appeared to be going as we think they'd planned. They were moving through the arcade, here, in a sweep formation, when their progress forward suddenly fell out of good order. You can see the confusion, particularly these two figures, reacting to... something. We don't know what. Local police rapidly found themselves doing cleanup duty."
"A good thing, too, with the payload they were carrying," said the head of the table. "This sort of sudden breakdown - is it just me, or is it becoming a pattern?"
"The best kind of pattern to my mind, ma'am," said the woman in front of the large display.
"Yes, but only if we know why. Do we?"
"Generally? No. In this case, we think they lost comms, and fell out of sync. But we've no idea why that would've happened. And they certainly won't be telling us."
At the far end of the table, the less annoying American analyst flipped through photograph after photograph. She'd seen something, in a still photo. What was it, she thought, what was it, something faint...
More photos and video, now from minute 44, as the room discussed comms failures, a discussion she largely ignored. It's in here, somewhere, I saw it... there. What am I seeing here? She wasn't even sure herself.
"Excuse me, but... could we have item 59 from minute 43 on the large screen?" she asked, breaking into the room's conversation.
The collection of specialists present looked over, "Sorry, Agent...?" The presenter fished for the American's name, but she couldn't bring it up. "Um... certainly. Minute 43, item 59... here..." she put it on the large screen. "It's... the side of a building."
"How far in can we zoom on that second window from the left?"
The image enlarged to show the entire window frame.
"Lower half, please? Contrast enhance, gamut expansion?"
The presenter flicked controls. "Now... oh! Now I see... what the hell? Is that... someone's... back and head?"
"Someone aiming a rifle, looks like," said the tactics desk. "Someone not in our accounting."
"Is that colour correct?" asked her second. "Verify against reference." The tint shifted, brickwork used as a standard, and the Talon desk erupted in shouts as the presenter continued, oblivious to the noise, "That's... is that hair? Is it blue?"
"That, that, that that can't be her," the Talon desk second broke in, as the lead followed with, "We need that photograph and every picture of that window, and we need it right now. Do we have the other side of the building?"
"Someone verify the colour of the glass in that pane. Get someone out there to look at it, in person, we need a hard reference."
"Who is she shooting? Can we get any kind of interpolation on that?"
Systems brought up a three-dimensional rendering of the scene at that moment, and added a series of possible locations for the new actor, and possible targets, based on the one image obtained.
A small square device with a collection of protrusions hung off a nearby rooftop, at minute 41, visible, and intact, and at minute 46, visible, and destroyed.
"That," said electronics, "would be a tactical comms relay. Probably one of two. We should look for a second."
"What bet it's also smashed?" asked the tactics desk, excitedly.
As the room as a whole proceeded to tear through every photo and video segment with renewed intensity, the two reps from the Talon desk just stared at each other. "My god," said the lead. "What else did we miss? What the hell have we found? "
[Naples, a week earlier]
Kate checked her position and counted heads. Everyone who's supposed to be here, is here, in place. This'll show those fucking species-traitors. "Ready one!" she shouted, as as her team ducked behind columns and walls, and she pressed the outer ring detonator. Her team braced, ready for the impact of the explosions.
She pressed it again. Nothing continued to happen. No. No. Goddammit, Len screwed up the detonators.
"Ozzy, round one bad! Fire round two!"
"Len and Charla aren't out yet!"
"DO IT OR THIS WHOLE THING FAILS. DO IT, NOW!"
"Give them five more seconds!"
Kate would've shot Ozzy, and frankly wanted to, but he was too far away to make up the lost time. "DO IT OR I WILL SHOOT YOU MYSELF," she shouted anyway, aiming her pistol.
Ozzy was on comms, trying to raise Charla. "Shut up, I'm trying to ... god dammit! Now comms are out?!"
"NOW! THEY'RE MOVING ON US! DAMM YOU TO HELL, NOW!"
Ozzy swore, and thought, sorry, guys, and pressed the second ring detonator.
Nothing happened, a third time.
"DO IT!" shouted the team leader, enraged.
Ozzy pressed the trigger again, and again, useless. "I AM! IT ISN'T WORKING!"
Kate shrieked. It's those damned Aussies, they sold us shit goods, she thought. Shouting again, "Ozzy, try to keep the team moving forward, get the fourth ring set up. I'm going back to the second, try to reset the charges. Blow them in two minutes whether I'm here or not!"
"God speed!" shouted Ozzy.
Kate retreated around the corner back out of the arcade. Three steps out of sight of the rest of her team, there was a flash of light, a single round of automatic fire, a second flash, and she was gone.
They found some blood, a bit of flesh - more than enough DNA to identify the team leader - but they never found her body.
[Alicudi, six months earlier]
"Woah, what a mess," Lena said, looking at the latest eruption of violence - this time, in Korea.
"I know," Amélie said sadly, "Even acting as quickly as we can, everywhere we can, we can only do so much."
"You know we could step in more often," said the junior assassin.
"Certainly, in retrospect," agreed the senior assassin. "It's not so simple, in the moment."
"C'mon, love, maybe for most people," Venom countered. "Not for us."
"But that's not the difficult part," insisted the Widowmaker. "Getting there, creating a plan, executing it in real time - that is not so easy."
"Sure. We can't always act. But when we can, I want to try."
Amélie smiled. "You want to become a sort of... International Rescue, but of assassins?"
Lena laughed at the thought, and said, "Aye aye!" enthusiastically.
"But it will not change history," said the assassin, reluctantly, "at least, not often, if ever. Not as we've always measured it."
"It'll save lives," said her apprentice. "Isn't that enough?"
"Lives that do not change history," insisted the spider.
"Lives nonetheless," said her lover. "Besides, fewer deaths mean fewer relatives vowing revenge and voting for demagogues. It's got to help."
"At the margins, perhaps," the spider calculated. "It is a risk. Each time, a possibly fatal risk. Stepping in improvisationally to complex situations with live fire is not a step to be taken lightly."
"I'm good at risk," retorted the test pilot. "Won't be a problem if we're careful."
After a year and a half together, Amélie Lacroix had learned when Lena Oxton's mind was made up, and turned to face the inevitable. "You're going to do this whether I help or not, aren't you?"
The inevitable replied, "I'd much rather not have to decide 'bout that, love."
"I have two counter-conditions," said the woman of blue.
The pilot smiled. She'd won, and knew it. "Name 'em."
"First, our primary mission is always paramount. Nothing may affect or endanger that."
Well, that's easy, Oxton thought. "Goes without saying," she said. "Didn't even consider it on the table..."
"Second," the spider had started, when Lena interrupted. "No, no, love, wait. I need to make that clear: I will not risk this project. I just won't. I might argue..."
"...might and have done..." noted Amélie.
"...yeh, and likely will again. But once it's sorted? Never. I swear."
Amélie smiled, relieved in spite of herself, and reached out to touch her her partner's face, gently. "I did not think you would, but I do not leave such things unstated. Particularly not with you."
"Fair enough," Lena answered, warmly, nuzzling Widowmaker's hand, and taking it into her own. How did I get so lucky as to fall into you? she asked herself, as she did every time they fought. "Hoo. What else?"
"Second, we move only if I think it is safe and practical. I will not endanger our organisation, or myself, or you." In this, she was an anchored stone, an unmovable object.
Venom laughed again, playing the river, splashing around the rock. "I'm never in danger, love."
Widowmaker gave her a most sharply pointed look. "We are always in danger, ma chérie - do not forget that."
"Sorry, sweet," she said in reply. "Not the time to be flippant." A small surrender, wrapped in affection. "I don't forget."
"Then that is all," said the Widowmaker, lightly, relaxing. "It is acceptable?"
"More than that," said Venom. "It's a deal."
Chapter 30: mondatta (2)
[The summer of 2076]
[A Talon safehouse, some kilometres west of Trondheim, Norway]
The senior assassin walked out of her office, and found Venom in the living room, looking out towards the fjord, and mountains opposite. In front of her, both of her personal handguns lay on the table, partially disassembled.
"We have confirmed a new target," the she said, ominously.
Venom looked up. "That's off - normally, you sound happy about that." Putting the cleaning solution aside, she continued, "And normally I already know. What haven't you been telling me?"
"I've avoided talking about him. That was... a mistake, but I have been hoping I would prove wrong, and avoid this entirely." She handed a PADD, reluctantly, to Lena. "You are not going to like it. But the outcome curves are too clear. It cannot be avoided."
Venom took the screen, quizzically, and read the file header: London. Tekhartha Mondatta.
Lena felt suddenly very, very cold, and very, very still. "No."
Amélie sighed. "I knew you would say that."
"Not funny, love."
"This can't happen."
"It must," insisted Amélie Lacroix, irresistible as a raging river.
"It. Can't." stated Lena Oxton, now the boulder, now standing, standing against the flood.
Amélie threw her hands into the air, pacing around already well-worn paths in her head. "Disaster, if it doesn't. Complete disaster. Alive, he is marginally useful; dead - assassinated, by villains - he becomes a martyr, his following growing monumentally in death."
"It's not right," insisted the rock.
"You've said that before," said her river, equally insistent. "And you've changed your mind."
"I mean it this time. I know. I've seen it. I know." declared the stone, unworn and unmoved. "This. Can't. Happen."
That's disturbingly familiar, thought the assassin. "I thought we'd come to an agreement that those flashes of memory were unreliable."
The once-Tracer nodded, acknowledging that they had. "This one is different. I know my my old home, my old stomping grounds. I know the smells, I know every brick of every building on every road, I know it all. This is real."
Amélie scowled, seeking new ways around.
"Look," said Lena, "You told me once, you said, you decided to try to save me for two reasons. One, to try to recover a life rather than take one. For your own sake, to see if you could. But two - to see if one life - one life, restored - could change everything as much as one death."
The river, washing back. "Yes, but..."
The stone, "What if this is what changes? What if, because you saved me, Mondatta is saved, by me, right now?"
"That... I..." the assassin's mind raced, scanning timelines in her head, tracing strands of the web that few besides herself could see, rivulets in time. "I... how? How could that be? I do not know."
"What if it's that? " loomed the stone.
Something is there. Something I cannot see, thought the flood. This is more than I expected. Why? Aloud, she said, "I... I have to think."
Lena nodded, a little surprised she'd hit something, a little surprised Widowmaker would even consider it. "All right. How 'bout this: we run the simulations on the cluster, back to before you pulled me back into time."
"What happens," she continued, "if you didn't pull me back? What if someone else did, instead? What if nobody did? What happens here, then? "
"That..." Amélie said slowly, the river diverted, "That is a difficult task. The results are too unpredictable, too scattered, it lacks consistent meaning over such timescales."
"Yah, but this is past, not future. It's better at that."
Amélie nodded, slowly, agreeing. "And we have it for a reason. It could, perhaps, shed some light on the matter. Fine, then, we will do that. It will take some time..."
"We have some time," held the boulder, constant.
"This is true. And while the simulations are running, we can plan just the same, no?"
"Fine," said the junior assassin. "I'll treat it like an exercise. But I won't like it."
Amélie flipped through screen after screen of results. "My god."
"It's daft, innit," said Lena.
"Every run-though. Every variation. If you are not saved, if Winston saves you, if Dr. Ziegler saves you, if... apparently someone named Satya Vaswani isn't out of the question, somehow... if we postulate you somehow pop back into normal time on your own, and nothing else changes... it does not matter. If you are not here, now, Mondatta dies in a week, at my hands. It is the unchangeable constant. I have never seen anything like it."
"But not here. Not now. Not with us. Now" - Venom pulled the original screen atop the others - "now, it's a coin toss."
Widowmaker nodded. "Yes. And it makes my head ache."
"What if this is the everything that changes? "
The head of Talon thought deeply, looking for any way forward, any route that could make Mondatta's continued life more beneficial than his martyrdom, and not seeing one. "I don't like it. Something terrible is there. It feels... wrong."
"What you're planning feels wrong to me. And right here, right now, maybe I'm the crux. Maybe it's me. Not him."
This cannot be right. But... I cannot refuse her. Not out of hand. Widowmaker sighed. "Get me a path forward," she relented. "Find a way. Get me to 30% on another outcome and I will consider another plan."
Tracer pulled up a PADD of her own, and beamed, having run a set of trials on her own. "There's a 31% shot someone not us will try to pull the trigger."
"What?! " She grabbed the screen away from Tracer. "This is new, I did not have it - when did this come in?"
"While your simulations were running. Humanity First and The Human League both want his assimilationist head, remember? Latest chatter says one or the other will have another go."
"...what..." crashed the river, shaking.
"Thirty-one percent," said the stone, triumphant.
Amélie's stomach churned, an unfamiliar raging inside her. This is wrong, she thought. But there is still time.
"Agreed," said the river, surrendering, for now.
Widowmaker and Venom surveyed the crowd - large, peaceful, excited - from opposing buildings, as Mondatta moved forward from the hotel to his podium. The London security detachment had left inexcusably large gaps above the roof level - the possibility that someone else might take care of the business at hand had been the only thing keeping Amélie going.
"I've got primary and secondary coverage secured, and a mine on option C," the spider said into comms. "This feels... deeply strange."
"I've got primary and secondary on this side in sight, and if anything smells funny, I'll throw a bomb at Options C or D on this end, scatter the crowd. Even these idiots should notice that," her partner responded.
Venom's mind paced, even as she crouched perfectly still at her position, in that way only Talon agents could, and even then, only with help. I hope I'm not bolluxing things up, she thought. But I know she's wrong. I just wish I knew why.
Widowmaker held perfectly still, the spider set in her web, scanning along lines and strands and distance, trying to think about anything but what she wasn't doing. It's no wonder, she thought, he doesn't survive this anywhere else. This is inept. We should find out who got paid off - it might be useful.
Venom breathed, slowly, carefully, invisibly, her eyes briefly closed. I've been here before. I've been here before, right now. It's not deja vu, I know what that feels like. This is... mad. Her eyes opened. She's about to raise her rifle. How do I know?
Every fibre of Widowmaker's body had been screaming at her for hours. Nothing felt right. She pulled up the Widow's Kiss, scanning the crowd through the sights, and let it rest on Mondatta's forehead for just a moment. I could finish this now, she thought, finger moving to trigger, probabilities shifting, dragging her forward, she could feel it. As a martyr, he'd be so much more...
"Don't," said Venom, quietly, insistently, in her ear, over comms. "I know. I know what you're thinking. I know what you're feeling. I know. But not this time. Please. Don't."
"I... I feel like I have to," the assassin replied, voice somehow remote, even to herself. "It happens in every version of this moment. The strands of the web, they're so clear..."
"I know. But please. I'm begging you. I thought this might happen, I, I think it had to happen, and I've let us get here." Amélie heard her breathe over the comms. "I think it's why you saved me. To be here. Now. To tell you. Don't do it."
Amélie blinked. "You...?"
"I've trusted you, so many times, making these calls, even when I wasn't sure, even when it felt wrong to me, I've trusted you. This time, I know. Don't. Fire."
"I..." So simple. So quick.
"Trust me," she begged. "If you love me - trust me."
A heartbeat passed. A second. An eternity, and time stopped. Strike, sang the web to the spider, while you still can.
...thought the assassin, taking a long, slow breath of her own...
I feared this day would come. I am so, so very sorry. For everything.
She closed her eyes, and, lifting finger from trigger, slowly lowered her firearm.
"My god, you did it." Venom, over comms, unfiltered joy laced throughout her voice. "I, I didn't know if you could, I love you so much, I can't even..."
Amélie fell to the ground, sobbing. All the forward history lines showed skyrocketing probabilities of horrors every second she delayed pulling the trigger, and yet, I'm sorry, Gérard, I... I can't. It would kill her and I can't do that. I have, I have, I have failed...
"BLOODY HELL, IT'S NOT HUMANITY FIRST, IT'S NULL SECTOR! DETONATOR INCOMING!" shouted Venom, so loudly Amélie swore later she heard it without comms.
Widowmaker looked up. A Null Sector landing beam. Two thousand metres up, one of their massive, walking bombs. Eight seconds.
Without thinking, and without hesitating, Widowmaker stood and fired, even through tears hitting and destroying the guide emitter in a single shot. Two blocks away, Venom had already thrown a stinger into one of the speculative attack routes and detonated it, panicking the crowd, who scattered. The London security team rushed Mondatta back away from the direction of the explosion, into the hotel, and shelter, as the crowd fled in all directions.
A second shot from the Widow's Kiss took out the trigger mechanism. A tight cluster of six rounds of fire from Venom took out the backups.
The Null Sector Detonator fell to the ground with a deep bass thump, harmless, in front of Mondatta's empty podium.
And deep in Widowmaker's mind, the massive web of probabilities, the strands that had guided her as long as she'd been alive...
Chapter 31: the broken strand in the web of the world
Amélie awoke, and bolted upright, screaming, explosions everywhere, firestorm all around her, but not, not at all, it's Venom, they're flames, it's Lena, they're ghosts, it's her, there's fire, it's her, there's radiation, it's her, she's holding on, holding on tight, there's, there's a voice, "Amélie, Amélie, it's me, I'm here, I've got you, it's okay, we're home, we're safe, it's over, Amélie, I'm here, I've got you, you're safe, Amélie, I'm here, I'm here" but she can't understand it, it's noise, it makes no sense, and fire...
The spider's gaze darted around wildly, the web of history in her mind in tatters, torn completely Venom apart, nothing Lena connected to LENA anything nothing to grab onto except LENA IS HERE and then there is a thread, a single, bright thread, glowing, and she grabs it and holds it tight and follows it, her mind skittering desperately, and then her eyes focus, focus on her impossibly beloved Venom, and lock there, she's so bright, glowing, like the strand, like air and sky itself, and she's saying something, she's talking, follow it, follow the thread, she is there and there is not screaming and she is not dead and there is talking, and and and and beloved you're still here we are not dead and those are words and...
"...I've got you. This time, I've got you, I've caught you, you're safe, I'm safe, everyone is safe, I have you and I won't let go, I've caught you, c'mon, come back to me, love, come back..."
and she is holding me and "...you're alive..."
"I'm alive, you're alive, c'mon, Amélie, c'mon love, come back to me..."
"The whole world is alive, Amélie, we're all alive, Mondatta is alive, everyone, there's no war," - every time she'd briefly awakened before now, it had been screaming or muttering about the war - "everyone is alive..."
"...how? How?! " the spider begged, blindly.
"I think we did it, love," said the younger assassin, shakily, eyes full of tears and radiant in happiness. "The Omnium contacted the UN, they've condemned Null Sector, they want immediate talks... I don't think we started a war, I think we might have stopped one..."
"...my vizor. information. data. I need to know. What. everything. My vizor, please..."
"Here" - Venom grabbed it, and gave it back to Amélie, who put it on her head, throwing it onto raw data collection, a fleet of screens and audio all at once, one locked on Venom, the rest a cacophony of everything, to anyone else complete noise, but to Amélie, the air in which she built her everything, as she gasped, panting, almost hyperventilating, a second strand, rebuilt, a third, rebuilt, a fourth, "don't let go, don't let go," she said, "I never will," Venom replied, pieces coming together, Omnium statements confirmed, UN acceptance and a statement welcoming talks, meetings already tentatively set, Tekhartha Mondatta himself to moderate, his brother Tekhartha Zenyatta as advisor to the human delegation, and...
A singularity, passed. A zero moment, in time, the would-be end of everything...
"...skipped..." Jinked past, avoided, now gone...
...and the web reformed, anew. "...over."
"Turn, turn on... where am I?" she asked. "Are there screens? Turn them on. All feeds. All of them. I can get more that way, if we're where I think we are."
Venom all but collapsed in relief. She's back this time, she thought. She picked up Amélie's padd and brought up all the screens, filled with text and vision and too much audio for her to follow, and Amélie took off her vizor and just absorbed, enraptured, in wonder.
We skipped over, Amélie LaCroix thought, half an hour later, while still taking in the onslaught, sorting it, compiling it. We skipped over what? Over... the end of the world? Perhaps. Perhaps the beginning of the end, perhaps that... She closed her eyes, still listening, contemplating the shifts in the web that had distorted itself, abruptly, back in the summer of 2068, all those years ago, when one particular strand first broke, that strand, healed at last, that web, reshaping itself, here, now, in 2076 - finally, again, made whole.
Eventually, eyes again open, she began to speak, slowly. "I... I couldn't see it," she whispered. "I ... there was... a zero moment. A singularity, perhaps. So much worse than I knew. I couldn't see it, I couldn't see past it, I couldn't see... this, this... wonderment." Her voice shaking, she turned to her lover. "Am I alive? Is this real?"
Venom hugged her beloved spider tight. "You're alive, love. So is everyone. Literally no one was hurt. And it's all real." She sniffed, glowing now with relief. "Are you put back together enough, can you stand it if I show you just one thing?"
"Yes," said Amélie.
Lena paused most of the feeds, and threw up a single article, from the Times of London, with a frame from CCTV video showing two heroes dramatically attacking the Detonator up close and personal, mid-fall - one unknown, one tentatively identified as Lena "Tracer" Oxton, formerly of Overwatch, long believed to be dead. The caption above screamed, "THE HEROES OF OLD LONDON," and the one below, "Tekhartha Mondatta Saved From Assassination."
Heroes, the Widowmaker thought. Heroes.
The spider staggered, the impact of the word knocking her back on the couch. "This... this is impossible." She wiped her eyes, thoughts racing ahead, tracing through new threads. "There is still... there is still no guarantee. The world will still need tending, there are still strands leading to fire, but... but..." She breathed. "So fewer now..." She turned to her love, her head tilted, dismay and relief fighting for dominance within her. "...you did it. You were... you were... correct. You've..." she could barely make words, "I do not think you just stopped a war - I think you saved the world."
"No," said Venom. "Look at it. Read it." She turned Widowmaker's head back to the story, pulling herself against her lover. "We did it. We saved the world."
"But, I would have..."
"But you didn't," Lena insisted. "You saved me. You saved me twice. You did all the hard work already. All I had to do now was be there, to tell you. All you had to do was listen. You made the choice not to shoot." She zoomed the view in, just to the picture. "And then you and I both, against... all this... we saved Mondatta. Together. Two humans, two bloody assassins, saved an Omnic leader from almost certain death. And everyone in the whole wide world saw it."
"And that was all it took?" asked Amélie Lacroix, half laughing, tears spilling from her eyes.
"Just that? That little thing? Not hardly." Lena Oxton laughed as well, and kissed her beloved blue spider's tears away. "But you have to admit, it's a hell of a start."
The senior assassin sniffed, and smiled openly, and then looked back up to the story. "They identified you - not just that, they called you 'Tracer.' Does the Official Secrets Act somehow not apply here?"
Venom shugged. "Not sure. I think it would. But even if it didn't - the Forces confirmed the name. It's been up for hours now." She bit her lower lip.
"They are making you an offer, are they not?" suggested the Widowmaker.
"'Come home, all is forgiven,'" former Flying Officer Oxton replied, "that sort of thing? That what you mean?"
The senior assassin nodded. "Yes."
"Yeh. I think so," said the younger assassin, thoughtfully. "And that... that could be useful."
"So it's settled, then?" asked Amélie.
"Yes. We will host an embassy, in Moillebeau, not very far from the Palais des Nations. He will have a small embassy support staff, which will do much of the actual diplomacy with the UN. And, as it is technically Lunar soil, what he does in that facility is up to Lunar authorities, not Swiss," Angela replied.
The spider nodded, approvingly. "I understand you'd assumed success - construction is already underway?"
"It is in fact mostly complete. We have even provided for a replacement Silver-class computational cluster; he'll be bringing Athena down with him."
They didn't really have a flag, the ape colony on the moon, so they hoisted a blue banner with some of the ambassador's favourite pictographs, arranged in a grid. The dedication ceremony was brief, and formal, in that Swiss way, but pleasant, with a small, deeply curious crowd of upper-level UN functionaries and Swiss dignitaries. The ambassadorial meet-and-greet would come later, at the Palais des Nations - the original UN building in Geneva - itself.
Once the humans had left, the Lunar gorillas set about scanning the building for listening devices, and preparing it for all the usual sorts of embassy duties, all of which were new to the Lunar ape government, and all of which they had researched heavily before agreeing to this experiment. The Omnic ambassador stopped by personally to suggest a particularly poignant meeting of minds, a sort of summit of the AIs, metal to enhanced biological, different, but not in all ways, and similar, in many.
A week later, the Lunar delegation attended their first official ceremony, welcoming them as official observers to the United Nations. It was only the second such ceremony to be headline news in over a century.
Another week passed, and Ambassador Winston sat at his desk, looking out to the mountains. It's not that different a view, really, he thought to himself, more colourful, I suppose. Getting up, he loped through the doors, onto the terrace, into the sun, and looked up at the deep blue sky. But it's certainly nice to be able to go outside again.
He took a long, deep breath of the alpine air, and sneezed. Oh good, pollen season, he remembered. I'd forgotten about that. I'll have to get some antihistamines. He wiped his nose with a tissue, cleaned his glasses carefully with their special cloth, and looked again across the lake to the mountains, before saying, "Hello, Lena."
Venom, leaning against the wall behind him, around the corner out of sight, laughed. "And here I thought I'd surprise you." She stepped forward, smiling, and stood next to her friend, arms wide open. "C'mere, y'big lug."
"It's been a long time," said Winston, turning to face her. "I'm still so glad to see you."
"Still so glad to see you too, luv." The two hugged, gently, together for the first time since the day of the accident, back in 2068.
"Is Amélie with you?" he asked, not unkindly.
"Waiting for an all-clear from me," she replied. "In case, well, you know."
"It's all right," the ambassador said. "She can..."
The sound of a chain grapple from their left, and then "Hello, Winston," said Amélie, landing on the terrace, wearing an outfit strangely close to street clothes, with a large shopping bag. She could've been been a jogger, or an acrobat, if they carried grappling hooks and poison mines. Lena hopped over, stretched up, and kissed her, lightly, on the cheek, in welcome.
"No rifle?" Winston asked, genuinely surprised.
"I am never defenceless. But no. Not here, not for this."
"A gesture of... trust?" he dared.
"Yes," she agreed.
"I appreciate it."
The trio walked back in to Winston's office, through doors in a wall of thick glass, curved, flat rather than bevelled, but still strong. Another curved wall of glass, the back walls, inside, looked over a large work area, with storage units, scientific equipment, doors on either side to balconies left and right - to more conventional embassy offices, rather than barracks or flight decks. In one corner, an old-style landing capsule hung suspended from the ceiling, and on the opposite, hung a tire, lower, from a long rope.
"It was nice of the Swiss authorities to bring these back from Gibraltar," he said, quietly. "Athena, our guests have arrived."
The office and workroom brightened. A computer's voice came from one of the consoles. "Good afternoon, Lena Oxton and Amélie Lacroix. Welcome to the Lunar Embassy," she said, "...and only that, for the moment."
The three of them walked through the Ambassador's office, into the larger workroom, and down the stairs to the lower level. Winston loped over to that one particular console, and hesitated. "I can't say I'm entirely ready for this," he said, softly. "There's a lot of nostalgia out there, but..."
"I know," said Venom, the Talon assassin. "it won't be easy."
"What if it goes wrong again?" he asked, not for the first time. "It stated out as a dream the first time, too."
Widowmaker nodded, agreeing. "The problem, I think, was always in the founding - as a military of sorts, it could never not have a black ops wing. The beginning was, perhaps, the end."
Lena agreed, nodding. "And this time, it don't have to, does it? We'll take care of that. Overwatch won't be what it was, it'll be something different. Better."
"Smaller, certainly, more focused - structurally, much like Talon," said Amélie. "And, outside this embassy, just as illegal." She allowed herself a small smug smile, the thought amusing her greatly.
"Illegal, but still better. No black ops, no military. Just..." Lena waved her hands around, "just heroes."
"I wish I could have you with us," Winston said, "for real."
"You do have me for real!"
"For real," he emphasised.
Venom sighed. "Sorry, luv. This is my life, for better or worse." She winked at her beloved blue spider. "Well, for better, far as I'm concerned."
The spider smiled again, softly this time, and Lena swore she could almost see her blush.
"But I'll be here when I can."
"A link," Widowmaker suggested, amicably, "between the necessary, and the aspirant."
Winston thought about that, while Lena said, "Talking of, I'd better change. Hey, Winston, check me out!" She pressed a set of points on her grappling hook's holster, and suddenly, the violets and black changed to tangerine and yellows and whites, the word "tracer" running vertically along one leg. Looking down, she laughed at herself, as Amélie threw her an old-fashioned RAF flight jacket pulled from her shopping bag, to wear atop it all.
"So bright!" she exclaimed, throwing on the flight jacket. "It's not me anymore, if it ever really was." She spun her pistols 'round her fingers, then holstered them. "But I'm ready to play the part when called."
Winston smiled, a genuine full smile, the kind he hadn't directed at Lena Oxton in far too long. "You look good in it," he said, happily.
"The world can always use a few more heroes," Lena Oxton said, twirling in place. "Even if they're just part time. For what it's worth, I believe in that. I really do." She leaned her head against her partner's shoulder. "And I know, I've said it, over and over again, but we're all here now, so I'm sayin' it again."
She turned to stand in front of her lover, took her hands in her own, looked deep into the spider's eyes, and as soberly as she'd ever said anything, repeated, "This is a disguise. I'm not turning into someone else. Don't be afraid, 'cause it's still me. I love you. I belong with you. I'm staying with you. For good."
Amélie smiled, and brought her lover against her body, running her fingers through her partner's hair. "You do not have to reassure me, ma chérie, we have already exchanged our vows. I know." She leaned back again, hands on her partner's shoulders, and looked her over. "I do have to say, I agree with Winston - for such ludicrous colours, you do wear them well." She stepped away from Winston and Lena, out of camera range. "Go," she said, warmly. "Do what is needed."
Venom... or, for the moment, Tracer... smiled broadly, nodded, and turned to Winston again. "Are you ready?"
"As ready as I'll ever be."
Winston pressed his thumb against the left authorisation pad. Lena "Tracer" Oxton of Overwatch pressed hers against the right. In response, Athena brought up a large virtual display panel showing a globe with highlighted location markers, and said, "Authorisation received. Confirm issuance of Overwatch recall code?"
The two heroes looked at each other, nodded agreement, and, in unison, said "Confirmed."
And that's a wrap. This has been an experience like few others for me - it is literally more fiction than I've written, combined, before, in my life, and I actually tried writing fiction for real in college. I even got published once, in a little Ontario small-press magazine for a token $20 payment. But it was always like pulling teeth, whereas this was more like just trying to stay afloat on top of the tsunami as it carried me forward.
I don't know if it'll happen again, but I sure hope it does. I have a couple of ideas - one is a bit of a crackfic, the second is another serious story. Neither have jelled yet, but I hope they both do. In the meantime, I am continuing to write short pieces set in this universe.
For the record, the first person to answer is Mei-Ling Zhou. Also, the fan comic that inspired all this - or something very much like it - happened in this timeline in December of 2076.
I love my pair of assassins so much. Thank you very much for reading. I hope you love them too.