S.H.E.I.L.D. Plane: The Conference Room
As the rest of the team left the room, Coulson put a hand on May’s shoulder to hold her back. When they were alone, he closed the door and turned to face her.
“Out with it.”
“What?” She asked.
“Let’s get it over with. I want to send a valued member of our team chasing after an urban legend based on a tip from an anonymous source. I’ve effectively committed Trip to weeks—if not months—of working undercover, as part of a plan that I don’t even know all of the parts of at a time when there are still unknown numbers of Hydra agents out there. Isn’t that exactly the type of irrational, erratic behavior that you were warned about? Isn’t this the part where you confiscate my gun and ask me to step down as head of S.H.I.E.L.D.?”
May raised her eyebrows. The corner of her mouth twitched slightly.
“Oh, so now I’m being ridiculous? Now this is funny to you?”
She sighed and shook her head. “You know this mission is risky, right?”
“But you’re choosing to do it anyway, because if this...Dollhouse,” May rolled her eyes at the ridiculous word, “is real then S.H.I.E.L.D. needs to put it out of business. And you said you have reason to trust this source?”
“I do.” Coulson nodded again. “They sent me a message a couple of months ago warning that there were malignant forces within S.H.I.E.L.D. Even within my team.”
May pursed her lips. “That’s vague.”
“I know, right? At the time, I dismissed it as meaningless. Then they sent another message. This one described the traitor on my team as a specialist, someone trained in violence and espionage.”
May looked up at him sharply.
Coulson shrugged. “Just specific enough to be completely misleading. I didn’t trust it, not really, but then we found out about your secret line and... well...you know the rest. And I’m sorry about the fallout, but you have to admit: they weren’t wrong.”
May looked away. “No, I suppose they weren’t.”
“And compared to their previous vagueness, the latest message: ‘The Dollhouse is real. Get an agent into Lindbloom Security and have them keep an eye out for Senator Clybourn,’ is almost chatty.”
“Even though it tells us absolutely nothing about what the mythical Dollhouse is actually doing or how they’re doing it.”
“Hey,” Coulson forced a smirk, “Too much certainty would take all the fun out of it. Anyway, Trip’s agreed to go in and let us know when he makes contact. Until then, the rest of us will stay focused on hunting Hydra. What could possibly go wrong?”
May rolled her eyes.
“So, what’s the verdict?” Coulson asked. “Am I a crazy liability?”
May shrugged. “Always, but not any more than usual. I figure if you’re worried about your sanity I don’t have to be. I’ve got your back, and whatever craziness follows, we’ll find a way to deal.”
“Thanks. That means a lot.” Coulson grinned and patted May on the shoulder.
May shrugged it off and bit back a smile of her own.
* * * * *
L.A. Dollhouse: DeWitt’s Office
“So, Mr. Triplett, it seems that we owe you quite a debt of gratitude.” Adelle DeWitt turned away from the window and regarded Antoine Triplett clinically. “Senator Clybourn is a valued client and supporter of our organization, and I am understand that you saved his life.”
Trip returned her gaze earnestly. “Honestly, ma’am, I was just doing my job.”
“I see. And that job was?”
“Security, at one of the senator’s events.”
“It’s quite impressive that a simple security guard was able to foil an assassination attempt that appears to have been planned by Hydra.” DeWitt raised an eyebrow.
Trip shrugged. “I was in the right place at the right time, and I do have some relevant experience.”
“Well, I suppose we must all be grateful for the fortunate confluence of events.” DeWitt forced a smile. “I assume Senator Clybourn explained to you about what we do here?”
“He said you could make my wildest fantasies come true.” The corner of Trip’s lip twitched in the hint of a smile.
DeWitt pressed her lips together. “Well, that’s rather hyperbolic, but yes, in a manner of speaking. At the Dollhouse we assist people with needs and desires that are difficult or impossible to fulfill in the outside world. In your case, the senator has arranged for you to have a series of three interactions, designed to your specifications, with the young woman—or man—of your choice. There are some limitations, of course, but they only apply in fairly extreme circumstances. We’ll let you know if any of them are relevant to your request.”
Trip’s narrowed his eyes. “Okay, I think there may have been a misunderstanding here. I have no interest in supporting prostitution. Please let the senator know that I appreciate the thought, but I really was just doing my job, and all of this…” he gestured at DeWitt and the rest of the room, “is completely unnecessary.” He turned and walked towards the door.
“A moment, Mr. Triplett.” At the sound of DeWitt’s voice, Trip paused and slowly turned around. “I’m afraid there has been a misunderstanding. Our people are not prostitutes. A prostitute exchanges sex for money. They may be reluctant or enthusiastic, but on some level they are always performing to earn their fee. That is not the case with our Actives. They are not performing. They are not faking it. Whatever you ask us for, whatever fantasies you have kept hidden all your life, the Active will be one hundred percent honest as they bring them to life for you.”
Trip crossed his arms over his chest and raised his eyebrows. “Huh. Well, I’m not completely convinced, but I am intrigued. Is this the part where I tell you my deepest, darkest desires?”
“I’d rather you didn’t.” DeWitt’s mouth twitched up at the corner. “We have an automated room set up for that. To protect your privacy, of course. We call it the Confessional, because whatever you choose to say in there will be kept completely confidential. Our computer system will process the information and forward the data to our staff as needed in an anonymous, standardized format.”
Trip chuckled. “Well, I’ve never been to confession before, but I guess there’s a first time for everything.”
“Quite. If you would please follow me?” DeWitt inclined her head and then lead the way out of the room.
* * * * *
L.A. Dollhouse: Topher’s Lab
“Boyd! Come here! Look at this!” Topher gestured frantically until Langton walked over to stand by him at his computer.
“Look!” Topher jabbed his finger at the screen. “Look at this guy! What do you make of him?”
Langton shrugged. “Not much. He’s here as a favor to Senator Clybourn, so his engagement is a top priority. We couldn’t find any information about his life prior to a few months ago, but I suspect he may be a former S.H.I.E.L.D. agent, which would explain it.”
Topher tilted his head. “Didn’t Captain America and his people release all of the S.H.I.E.L.D. data to the public? Shouldn’t that mean we know everything about him?”
“Not necessarily. All of the information was released, but this is an organization that consisted primarily of scientists, hackers, and spies. It isn’t surprising that much of it has since been scrubbed from all public databases.”
“Fair enough.” Topher nodded thoughtfully. “So the guy’s a super-spy, a super-spy that looks like a G.I. Joe. Were there black G.I. Joes? I’m pretty sure there was at least one...Anyway, a guy, with those skills, who looks like that, saves a senator’s life and suddenly gets offered whatever he wants as a reward. What do you think he asks for?”
Langton pressed his lips together. “So, you’re ignoring all of the confidentiality clauses now?”
“Come on, Boyd. You’re the head of security. You can’t expect me to keep things secure from security—that would be ridiculous!” Topher rolled his eyes. “Besides, it’s not like you won’t find out once the engagements start. Come on! Guess already.”
“I have no idea.”
“Wrong!” Topher interrupted and then paused as his mind caught up with what had just been said.
Langton crossed his arms and raised his eyebrows.
Topher glared at him. “Well, you would have been wrong if you weren’t a total killjoy who can’t be bothered to make a stupid guess! There is no way you would ever have guessed what he asked for in the Confessional.”
Langton sighed. “I supposed you’re going to tell me anyway?”
“Not if you’re going to be like that I won’t.” Topher pouted for a moment before relenting. “Fine. But only because I need someone to appreciate this. See, here’s the list of his requests, as generated by the system: kind, smart, family oriented...” He looked at Langton and waved his hands in distress.
Langton looked back at him. “I’m not sure I see the problem.”
“The problem? The problem is that it’s normal! Boring! It looks like a Christian Mingle ad written by someone’s grandmother! He wants to take her to a multi-cultural art museum for crying out loud!”
“So...you’re upset that he’s a nerd?”
“Oh, no,” Topher scoffed. “Nerds are my people, man-friend. I am totally, completely fine with nerds. We’ve worked with lots of them in the past, and most of them are kinky bastards. If anything they're a little more sex-starved and creative than our average customer. If he wanted to have sex with her on top of a triceratops skeleton, I would be totally down for that. Hell, I might want to watch. But this, this is not nerdiness, dude.
“I hate to say it, but I think he might just be a healthy, well-adjusted human being. We don’t do healthy and well adjusted! DeWitt has a whole spiel about dealing in needs instead of wants. I don’t know if this guy needs anything...unless he’s lying. Do you think he’s lying? That might make sense, but if he is, how the hell am I supposed to figure out how to set up the perfect Active for him? Don’t people understand that if they aren’t honest I can’t do my job? Do they think this all just happens by magic?” Topher’s gestures became more and more erratic.
Langton put a hand on his shoulder. “Topher. Look at me.” He waited until Topher complied. “Breathe.” Topher took a deep breath and released it.
“Boyd, I don’t think we should do this. I should tell DeWitt we can’t help him. This is totally outside our wheelhouse, man.” Topher looked at Langton pleadingly.
Langton’s eyes hardened. “Topher, this engagement is important. I’m counting on you—we’re all counting on you to make this work. Don’t let us down.”
“Important? Why? He’s just some ex-secret agent turned security guard. What’s so important about this?” Topher asked.
Langton pressed his lips together and raised his eyebrows expectantly. Topher shrugged at him helplessly.
“He’s a former secret agent who—?”
“Oh…Oh! He saved the senator! This is important because of the senator! Is the senator part of some bigger plan?”
“Topher, this is the Dollhouse. There’s always a bigger plan.”
“I guess so…but…I still don’t know what to do to make this work.”
“Well, have you watched the raw footage from his time in the confessional?”
Topher shook his head. “I thought you wanted me to respect confidentiality?”
“Watch it. If you need to, program one of the dolls as an analyst to help you read between the lines. Trust me when I say that no one in that line of work is completely well adjusted. He needs something. He may not even know what it is, but I’m sure it exists. Use as much time and whatever resources you need to make this work. Don’t screw it up.” Langton patted Topher on the shoulder and turned to leave.
Topher gave a watery smile. “But, no pressure, right?”
Langton stopped at the door and turned back to look at him. “Of course. When is there ever pressure here?”
* * * * *
Outside a Coffee Shop in L.A.
Trip lounged back in his chair and focused on his copy of Guns, Germs, and Steel. It was a beautiful day in Los Angeles. The sun was bright; a light breeze kept it from being too hot, and his cup of free-trade Columbian coffee was brewed just right. He subtly adjusted the thick-rimmed glasses with the hidden camera and comlink and smiled slightly as he heard Fitz and Simmons arguing about the validity of Jared Diamond’s central thesis.
A shadow fell over him and he looked up to see a slender, blonde, Asian woman standing in front of his table.
“So,” she said, with a twinkle in her eye and a soft Australian accent. “How’s it feel to read about why your ancestors got their asses handed to them?”
“Actually, I was thinking that, after the battle of New York, humanity as a whole is the civilization with inferior technology and weapons.” Trip cocked his head to the side. “And with our lack of interstellar travel, we probably have less robust immune systems, too.”
“Well, isn’t that a cheery thought.” The woman grinned and stuck out her hand. “Hi. I’m Sabrina Atal. I’m meeting someone named Antoine Triplett here, and he’s supposed to be reading that book. I’m hoping that’s you, otherwise your choice in reading material is a pretty crazy coincidence.”
Trip stood and shook her hand. “No coincidence. Antoine Triplett, at your service.”
“Cool. Mind if I sit?”
“Be my guest.” He waited for her to sit before seating himself.
“So, Sabrina, what deep, dark secret in your past lead you to accepting blind dates set up by a friend of a friend?”
Sabrina looked at him with dramatic faux-seriousness. “I shot a man in Reno just to watch him die.” She laughed and shook her head. “You know how it is. It’s so damn hard to find other ace people, let alone ones I’m romantically attracted to. I’ve got some feelers out on the regular websites, but no luck so far. So, yeah, if a friend of a friend says they know someone who they think would be a great fit I figure it can’t hurt to try, right?”
Trip looked confused. “Um, I feel like I missed something. ‘Other ace people’?”
Sabrina looked at him in horror. “Oh, no. Oh, fuck no! I don’t ask for much; I really don’t. I can be flexible on appearance, personality, interests, pretty much anything and everything else, but I am so done trying to date allosexuals.” She took in his shocked expression and softened slightly. “Look, I’m sorry for the misunderstanding. I’m sure you’re a sweet guy and all, but this is so not going to work, so let me save us both the trouble by walking away before we even start.”
She got up to leave, and Trip stood up with her.
“Wait,” he said, reaching out but not touching her. “Clearly I said something wrong, and I’m sorry. You can leave if you want to, but can you at least tell me what I did?”
Sabrina eased back into her seat, and Trip sat back down as well.
“Fine,” Sabrina took a deep breath, “So, short version: I’m asexual—also known as ‘ace.’ That basically means no matter who you are or what you look like I have no interest in fucking you—” she tilted her head and forced a saccharine smile, “—ever.”
Trip held up his hands. “Hey, no complaints here. I definitely didn’t come out this afternoon expecting sex on a first date. And even if we were in a relationship, I’d never want you to feel pressured to have sex.”
“Right. I’ve never heard that before—except from every allosexual I’ve ever dated.”
“And allosexuals are...?”?” Trip prompted.
“Anybody who isn’t ace. They can be gay, straight, bi, pan, whatever, but there’s some category of people out there that they’re sexually attracted to. And in my experience that means that even if they’re fine ‘taking it slow’ for a while, they eventually tire of hand-holding and cuddling and just want to get to the fucking already.”
“People you were dating said that to you?” Trip’s expression was a mix of surprise and anger.
Sabrina shrugged. “They didn’t have to. They just kept pushing for more: more tongue, more suction, more hands all over the place. When I said I wasn’t comfortable with that they took it to mean I just wasn’t comfortable enough with them yet. And when I said I wasn’t ever going to be interested in that they though I meant I wasn’t really interested in them.” She scoffed. “When I was lucky they left before things got really nasty.”
“Damn.” Trip said softly.
“Yeah.” Sabrina nodded in agreement, and then they both sat silently for a while.
Trip looked at Sabrina and smiled slightly. “I think it’s pretty damn brave of you.”
“What?” Sabrina gaped at him in confusion.
Trip shrugged. “You’ve clearly had some really shitty dating experiences, but you still keep trying.”
“Yeah, well, it’s not like I have much of a choice if I want a romantic relationship.” She sighed. “It’s not like I’m aro—though sometimes I think it’d be easier if I was.”
Trip raised his eyebrows in confusion.
“Aro? Aromantic? Someone who doesn’t experience romantic attraction and often doesn’t want romantic relationships. Which doesn’t apply to me, so I just keep throwing myself into the dating pool and trying to learn from my mistakes.”
“Still,” Trip insisted. “After the nasty breakups, making yourself try again can’t have been easy. You should give yourself more credit.”
“I guess.” Sabrina shrugged. “Though everybody has some nasty breakups in their past, right?”
“Well, not everybody.”
“Hey, I was just trying to make myself feel better, but by all means...wait.” Sabrina looked at him sharply. “Do you have a specific exception in mind?”
“Uh, me?” Trip actually looked embarrassed.
“Really? So all of your breakups were totally amicable?”
“Yes, in the sense that I haven’t actually had any.”
Sabrina looked at him in confusion. “Does that mean you never—?”
“Had a relationship? Yeah, pretty much.”
“Wait...so, are you aro?”
“What? No. Maybe? I don’t know!” Trip closed his eyes and rubbed the bridge of his nose. “You’re throwing all these words around that I’ve never heard of or thought about before. Do you honestly think I’m going to instantly label myself just so that you can decide if I’m acceptable dating material?”
“Whoa. Sorry. I get it: your identity is your business. I was just asking.”
They sat in silence again, lost in their own thoughts.
“So, uh, I’m gonna grab something to eat. Can I get you anything? Coffee? Tea? Pastry?” Trip asked, falsely casual.
Sabrina shook her head. “No. I told you. I’m not interested in—”
Trip held up a hand. “Not as a date—at this point I’m not even sure I’m interested in that. But this is my first day off in months, and I’d love it if you’d help me celebrate by having some coffee and keeping me company for a bit. Please?”
“Fine. I guess I can do that.”
“Don’t sound too excited; you might hurt yourself.” Trip grinned. “So, what can I get you?”
“Chai latte? And a croissant if they have them.”
“Coming right up.”
He returned with a tray carrying a croissant, her chai, and a salad and glass of water for himself.
“Healthy,” Sabrina observed, a hint of a smile playing across her lips.
“Hey, I’ve got to stay fit for work.”
“And what exactly do you do for a living? Actor? Model? Physical trainer?”
“Why Ms. Atal, you’ll make me blush.” Trip winked then shook his head. “Nothing so glamorous. I used to be in, ah, I guess you could call it Special Forces. But now I just do freelance security work.”
“Special forces? Is that like Black Ops or C.I.A. or S.H.I.E.L.D. or something?”
“Or something.” Trip’s smile faded and he looked wistful.
Sabrina’s eyes softened. “Sounds like you miss it.”
“Sometimes.” Trip shrugged. “I can’t complain. I’ve got a gig that pays the bills, and that’s more than a lot of people can say. But it’s pretty brainless; all I have to do is keep my eyes open and try to look intimidating. I miss having a long-term strategy, working closely with a team for the greater good, that kind of thing... But hey, it is what it is, right? What about you?”
“Well, I don’t know that I’ve found my life’s calling or anything, but I’ve been in pharmaceutical development at Rossum for over five years now. My team is chill, the benefits are top-notch, and we’re doing good work, at least in theory, so I’m pretty happy for the time being.”
“You work at Rossum? Really?” Trip leaned forward in excitement.
“Yeah. Why? You’ve heard of us?”
“Have I heard of you?” Trip shook his head. “Hasn’t everybody heard of Rossum? I swear, your company funded at least half of the papers I read during my med training. You’re at the forefront of practically every field. Doesn’t it blow your mind, knowing that you’re working on the cutting edge of medical science every single day?”
Now it was Sabrina’s turn to laugh. “Oh, man, I wish. More like slogging through the muddy trenches of bureaucracy. Most of the stuff Rossum puts out comes from small startups that have already done ninety-five percent of the work before our corporate side swoops in and buys them up. The stuff my team is working on won’t be at press-release levels of success for years, if ever, and don’t even get me started on the long, drawn-out regulatory approval process...”
“Okay, okay. I get it. I was wrong. Your job sucks.” Trip smiled, and Sabrina made a face at him. “I guess I was thinking about the geek squad I work with—well, used to work with—and I made some assumptions. You should meet them someday, though. I think you guys would really hit it off.”
“Huh. Maybe.” Sabrina fidgeted in her seat. “Hey, the food and talking’s been great and all, but how about we go actually do something?”
“You have anything in particular in mind?”
Sabrina tilted her head to the side and grinned wickedly. “Yes. Yes, I do. Tell me, Mr. Secret-Agent-Man, have you ever played laser tag?”
* * * * *
L.A. Dollhouse: Topher’s Lab
“Laser tag. Really?” DeWitt raised her eyebrows.
“I know, right?” Topher was practically bouncing in his seat. “I thought it was super fitting. I mean, who wouldn’t want to play laser tag with a real, live, secret agent when given the chance?”
The corner of DeWitt’s lip twitched slightly. “Indeed.”
“And that’s not even the best part! She totally kicked his a—” Topher paused and looked at DeWitt. “Err...butt. Tocks. Kicked his buttocks.”
“An active programed as a scientist defeated a former S.H.I.E.L.D. agent at laser tag? Topher, did you meddle with the imprint for your own amusement? I thought I was clear that this was an important engagement.”
“Yeah. Yeah. Senator Clybourn, blah, blah, blah.” Topher rolled his eyes. “I didn’t meddle,” He marked the word with air quotes. “It’s not my fault that one of the best existing scientist imprints has a serious obsession with laser tag. Well, technically it is—I mean, I designed all of our imprints—but I didn’t add it for this engagement. So, yeah. Totally accidental.”
DeWitt’s expression softened slightly. “Ah. I see.”
“Besides,” Topher shrugged. “I think the agent kinda liked it. I mean, he complained about the weight being off and the sensors being inconsistent, but he wasn’t really complaining, if you get my drift.”
“Quite.” DeWitt nodded. “So he was satisfied? Are we still on schedule for the second engagement.”
“Yup. We’re all good to go. Museum snooze-fest here they come!”
* * * * *
S.H.E.I.L.D. Plane: The Conference Room
“There is definitely something weird going on here!” Skye declared as she and Simmons strode into the conference room.
The rest of the team turned to look at her. There was a moment of silence before May said, “Care to elaborate?”
“Right. Yeah.” Skye liked her lips and then bent over to connect her laptop to the conference table projector as she spoke. “So right now Trip’s mystery date is basically our only clue to start figuring out what the Dollhouse is really doing with these people. I used the images we got from Trip’s glasses to do an image search on her, and at first I came up completely blank, which was super weird. I mean, basically everyone has some images online, and the facial-match algorithms that I was using normally have a really high success rate.”
“So, you’re saying she doesn’t exist online,” Coulson said. “Or—”
“Or all records of her existence have been systematically erased, just like I did for us. And either they retroactively erased everything from before they took her or she’s been with them for her whole life.” Skye nodded.
“So, that puts us back to square one?” May asked.
“Not quite.” Skye grinned. “Thanks to the secret bases and the info Coulson got from Fury, I’ve been able to access S.H.I.E.L.D.’s old data dumps. Did you know they’ve basically been archiving copies of the entire Internet at regular intervals since the nineties? I set up a series of search programs to find any images that match our mystery woman, but it’s going to take some time for them to run through the stored files.”
“How long?” Coulson asked.
“Uh…about a week? Maybe two at the most?” Skye guessed.
“A week? Isn’t that a bit excessive?” Fitz demanded. “Are you sure you’re doing everything possible to maximize the efficiency of the searches?”
Skye rolled her eyes at him. “Pretty sure, yeah. We no longer have access to the kind of computing power we had when S.H.I.E.L.D. was officially operational. We’re lucky we still have access to the archives, or this whole thing would be completely impossible.”
“Skye’s being modest.” Simmons broke in, glaring at Fitz. “The bundled chronological structure of the archives makes a search like this incredibly difficult. Anyone trying to do it with traditional algorithms and our equipment would take months to find anything, and that’s if they were lucky. Skye’s already found three relevant clusters of images.”
“Way to steal my thunder, Jem.” Skye made a face at her, bumping their shoulders together to soften the rebuke. Simmons stuck her tongue out at Skye, but leaned against her slightly to maintain their contact. Skye smiled down at her.
Coulson cleared his throat.
Skye looked up. “Sorry. Right. So, my programs did manage to find a couple of hits in the last few months, but this is where things get really weird. As you can see,” She gestured to pull the relevant images up onto the projection. “Here, our girl popped up on a college campus working for the CDC. That’s all well and good, there’s some overlap with the background she gave Trip so it’s pretty easy to understand how the Dollhouse could take her from one role to the other. But here,” Skye indicated an image of the same woman in a short, black wig, “She apparently was working as a safe cracker for a group of art thieves, and here,” This time, the girl in the image looked almost impossibly young and awkward with glasses and braided pigtails. “She was all over the news for having won a contest as some pop artist’s biggest fan. She was then kidnapped by said pop artist’s stalker and almost killed. The news articles give very little detail about her, except to specify that she traveled from her home in Australia for the contest.”
Skye looked around the room. Everyone else stared at the pictures in silence.
“Come on, guys,” Skye said. “Somebody say something. It’s weird, right?”
“I think weird might be an understatement,” said Coulson.
“Could she be a well-trained spy?” asked Fitz. “Coopted from S.H.I.E.L.D. or Hydra or some other organization and sent by the Dollhouse on an idiosyncratic set of missions?”
“Maybe.” May pressed her lips together. “The body language doesn’t seem right, though. In the first image, it’s completely different from the third, but in both she clearly doesn’t know how to defend herself. That degree of incompetence is almost impossible to fake that convincingly. And what would be the point?”
“Maybe,” Simmons suggested, “the actual explanation is the simplest: the Dollhouse has some technology that allows them to program their people with temporary, artificial personalities.”
Coulson raised his eyebrows. “Near instantaneous brainwashing? Similar to when S.H.I.E.L.D. gave me memories of Tahiti, but on a larger scale, actually creating distinct personalities? Is that possible?”
“In theory? Absolutely. As far as I know the technology doesn’t exist, but for a company with the right resources and no moral restrictions? I can’t rule it out.” Simmons shrugged.
Coulson swallowed and forced a smile. “Well, that’s a new, terrifying idea. Thank you, Skye, Simmons. This was very informative. Please keep us updated on anything else you discover.”
“Of course.” Skye nodded as Coulson and May walked out together.
“Well, they’re clearly off to discuss matters between themselves.” Simmons turned to watch them leave, leaning back against the table.
“Yup.” Skye turned as well.
“Hey, I’ve been wondering,” Fitz said. “What do you think Trip asked for to end up with a date who was asexual? He seemed rather unfamiliar with the term during their conversation. Did he just indicate reluctance to have sex during his encounter? Or was there something else that he said?”
“Either way, I think it’s rather admirable,” Simmons said, smiling.
Skye snorted. “Right. Not having sex with the coerced and/or brainwashed prostitute is totally admirable. It’s not, like, a sign of basic human decency. You need higher standards, Jem. Next you’ll be handing out cookies for not kicking puppies.”
“Hmmm. Maybe, you’re right.” Simmons crossed her arms and looked thoughtful. “I really do need higher standards. I should probably start by finding a better girlfriend.”
Skye laughed and pulled Simmons over to stand in front of her, wrapping her arms around the shorter woman’s waist. “Whatever. You wish you knew how to quit me.” She bent forward and kissed her on the cheek. Simmons rolled her eyes and made tutting noises but smiled as she leaned back into the embrace.
Fitz coughed awkwardly. “Well, um...I think I’ll just go see if Coulson needs anything.” As he walked down the hallway he muttered to himself, “Of course, Fitz, not having sex with a sex worker is just the obvious thing to do. Even considering it makes you a bad, bad person. Anyone who does should be ashamed. Well, that’s awfully easy for Ms. ‘I’m getting laid every night’ to say. I wonder if there’s always a direct correlation between regular orgasms with a partner and moral righteousness. Humph.”
* * * * *
The Fowler Museum, L.A.
“I can’t believe you’ve lived in L.A. your entire life and you’ve never been to the Fowler!” Trip laughed as they entered the museum.
Sabrina rolled her eyes. “We moved here from Australia when I was in middle school, and I stayed in the area for undergrad. That’s hardly my entire life.”
“Still, those are prime field trip years. You never came for a class trip or something?”
“Nope.” She shook her head. “Why? Did you come here for school on a yearly basis or something? It seems awfully small for a class full of kids.”
He thought for a moment. “I guess I only came for school the one time, and that was more a tour of the campus that happened to include a stop at the museum. But my mom brought me here all the time growing up.”
“Yeah. She’s really into history and wanted me to know mine on both her side and my dad’s side. The Yoruba collection here is one of the top three in the world.”
“Oh.” She paused for a moment. “So, your family’s Yoruba?”
“On my dad’s side. My grandparents moved here from Nigeria when he was just a kid, so he was pretty Americanized, but yeah.”
“So how come he wasn’t the one bringing you here?” she asked.
Trip’s voice was casual. “Never got the chance. He died when I was three—shot in the line of duty.”
“Oh. Man, I’m sorry.” Sabrina reached out and put a hand on his shoulder.
He shrugged. “I don’t really remember him. It’s just how things have always been, you know?”
“Yeah, I guess. So your mom raised you by herself?”
“Not completely. The whole reason we moved here from the east coast was so to live near my grandparents and have a connection with that side of the family. They aren’t much for museums, but they definitely tried to educate me about Nigerian culture.”
“Wait, your mom moved across the country to live near her in-laws? That’s intense. My parents haven’t even lived in the same country as their own parents since they became adults. The idea of my mom taking my sisters and I to live in Germany with my dad’s parents, or my dad taking us to live in Nepal? It would never happen!”
“So you’ve never met your grandparents?”
“Nope.” She shrugged. “Family always just meant the six of us: Mom, Dad, me, and my three younger sisters. I mean, I’ve seen pictures of grandparents and aunts and uncles and cousins over the years—and I think my parents Skype with their siblings pretty regularly now that that’s a thing—but growing up with grandparents that actually live in the same city as you? That’s an idea I can’t quite wrap my head around.”
“It had its ups and downs. They were really supportive, and I know they helped my mom out a ton, but then there were things like church every Sunday—they’re much more religious than my mother—and the whole dating thing.” He grimaced.
“Dating thing?” Sabrina asked. “I thought you said you’d never dated.”
“Exactly. My grandparents believe that dating should only happen immediately before getting married and having children. Dating in middle school or high school was completely out of the question. My mom disagreed with them about plenty of other things, but that one she was happy to get behind.”
“No shit, really? No dating until you were out of high school?” Sabrina gaped at him.
“Out of college. Preferably with at least one graduate degree.”
“And you just…went with it? As a teenage boy growing up in the states?”
He smiled wryly. “That should have been the first clue, right? That something was different about me? But I love my mom, and I wanted her to be happy, so I made do. I focused on things—school, sports, volunteer work—and didn’t think about it too much.”
“Huh. And after high school? I mean at that point how would they even know, right?”
“I went straight into training and then into the field. We barely had time to breathe, let alone date. I knew casual sex wasn’t my thing, and I saw too many workplace relationships go sour to want to risk that.”
“And now you’re out and have to figure out what you might actually want in a relationship for the first time in you adult life.”
He snorted. “Yeah, I guess that pretty much sums it up.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
Sabrina shrugged. “I don’t know. I guess just that it’s interesting and I’m glad you shared with me.”
“Huh,” he replied.
She bit back a grin. They walked around the exhibit in silence for a while, examining a display of West African cloth and another of South Asian pottery.
“What about you? What was your high school experience like?”
Sabrina laughed. “I was pretty much the nerdiest nerd possible. I managed to break my leg sophomore year by falling out of a tree. I’d already broken the other falling off a horse when we first moved to L.A., so that basically cemented my reputation as the giant klutz with a semi-permanent cast.”
“Ouch.” Trip made a face in sympathy.
“Yeah.” She shrugged. “Stuff got better senior year, though. I joined the swim team and was actually pretty good. Also the whole college application process suddenly made geek look a lot more chic.” She grinned. “And then I got to Harvey Mudd and life was all kinds of awesome.”
“Maybe it’s weird to ask, but when in all of that did you figure out you were—you know—asexual?”
She stopped walking for a moment and bit her lip in thought. “After the end of my second relationship. The first guy I dated was basically an asshole, so I broke up with him pretty quickly and didn’t think much of it. My second relationship, though, was with a girl I really loved. I loved talking with her and cuddling with her and even kissing her. But when she wanted to do more I couldn’t make myself be okay with it. I wanted to, but I just couldn’t. When we broke up she demanded what the hell was wrong with me.”
“And this is the one who wasn’t an asshole?”
“Hey, it was high school. She didn’t know any better. And I didn’t know how to explain it myself, so I started looking online for anyone who could relate to my experience. When I found the word ‘asexual’ I was so fucking relieved that there was a word for it, that I wasn’t the only who felt that way.”
“What were your guesses before that?”
“I don’t know…Bisexual? Introverted? An asocial freak?” She shrugged.
“So you were glad to figure out you were asexual? You weren’t worried about it?”
“Worried about what?”
“Worried that you’ll never find a romantic partner. You’ll never have kids or a normal life.” Trip’s voice was casual, but he didn’t meet her eyes.
“Hey, technically I could have kids if I wanted to, and I guess I might consider artificial insemination under the right circumstances. Adoption’s totally an option, too. And not finding the right partner is a possibility that everyone has to deal with. So ‘normal’ can go fuck itself.”
Trip huffed a quiet laugh, and his body visibly relaxed. “Yeah, I guess ‘normal’ was never really an option anyway.”
“Pretty much.” Sabrina grinned and led him into one of the film exhibits. They watched it cycle through in silence
When they walked back out Trip said, “Hey, can I ask you a question?”
“Shoot.” Sabrina mimed shooting him with her fingers, and he smiled and rolled his eyes before turning serious.
“Why did you agree to go out with me again?”
“Why not?” She walked over to get a closer look at a set of intricate puppets from Bali.
Trip followed her. “You said you were looking for a long-term, romantic relationship with another asexual. I don’t exactly meet those qualifications.”
“So?” Sabrina’s focus stayed on the puppets.
“So, that seemed pretty important to you the other day. Now it’s just irrelevant?”
Sabrina turned to face him. “It’s not…irrelevant, it’s just not the only thing that’s important. I like you. You’re interesting. You came closer to beating me in laser tag than anyone has in a long time, and when you talked about this museum you were so ridiculously enthusiastic that I had to see it. It was adorable. Even if romance is off the table, I like hanging out with you. Is that cool?”
“Yeah.” Trip nodded. “I can work with that.”
* * * * *
S.H.E.I.L.D. Plane: The Conference Room
Coulson looked at his team and crossed his arms. “Okay, people. In two days Trip goes on his last excursion with Sabrina. We are running out of time to figure out our next steps. We need to know where this woman came from originally and what exactly the Dollhouse might be doing to ‘program’ her. Skye, do you have any new information?”
Skye shook her head and grinned. “Oh, I’ve got information out the wazoo. Not a clue what to make of any of it, but I’ve got plenty.”
“Can you start with the results of your facial recognition search?” Coulson asked.
“Sure. My programs weren’t able to get through all of the archives,” May opened her mouth to make a comment and Skye held up a finger signaling her to wait. “But I did get through the past six years, which was enough time to find a stable identity for our girl. Meet Priya Tsetsang. Born to a German mother and a Nepalese father, Priya grew up in Australia and became a folk artist. She immigrated to the U.S. a couple years ago and seems to have spent most of her time traveling, hanging out at the beach, and trying to sell her artwork. All around a pretty cool chick. Then, out of the blue she starts to exhibit dramatic signs of paranoid schizophrenia. There’s no family history, no record of any predisposition in adolescence or young adulthood.”
“That’s incredibly uncommon,” Simmons said skeptically. “Schizophrenia is widely accepted to have a significant genetic component; the vast majority of those diagnosed with it have at least one relative with the disease or related symptoms. And while a sudden onset of symptoms is possible, there are usually a number of early warning signs, even if they may only be recognizable in hindsight.”
“I know. Weird, right?” Skye grinned. “We may have found her original identity, but it basically raises more questions than it answers. So I decided to try something different.”
Simmons jumped in excitedly. “I thought this bit was absolutely brilliant! Basically, Skye ran through all of our tapes of Trip’s conversations with Sabrina—”
“Jemma helped.” Skye grinned at her. Simmons shrugged.
“Yeah, I helped a bit. Anyways, we—” Simmons smiled almost shyly, “teased out each bit of information that Sabrina shared about herself—her job, family, educational background, medical history...”
“Even her accent and description of her old laser tag league.” Skye finished. “Then we ran—”
“—a multivariate search that treated each piece of information as a vector and maximized the factor alignment while minimizing the number of distinct results returned.”
May raised her eyebrows and nodded slowly. “Uh huh...”
Coulson said, “In English, please?”
“Basically we had the program try to find one or more people that matched our descriptions. It gave us back the results that managed to cover the most descriptions using the fewest people. This was the best combination.” Skye pulled up the images of three women on the table display.
“This one,” Simmons pointed to an African-American woman with intricate braids and big, brown eyes, “is Hazel Scott. She grew up in L.A. with her parents and four sisters. She stayed close to home and did her undergrad at Harvey Mudd. She went to the East Coast for grad school but moved back to L.A. after graduation to be close to her family. However, she studied physics, not biochemistry; she played lacrosse instead of swimming; and she’s married with a two-year-old daughter.”
“Aww. I bet she’s adorable.” Fitz cooed.
“She really is,” Simmons agreed earnestly.
“Moving on.” Skye continued. “Candidate number two is Rebecca Jenkins-Rye. She actually works at Rossum in their pharmaceutical research division. According to social media she is currently single, and she identifies herself as an asexual looking for the same. She also is a three-time local laser tag champion. The caveats are that she’s an orphan. She and her brother were raised by their aunt and uncle in northern Iowa. She went to undergrad in Chicago, grad school in Boston, and had never set foot in L.A. until she started work at Rossum.”
“And candidate number three?” Coulson asked.
Skye looked at Simmons and then indicated the final picture: a blonde, European woman with frizzy hair and a deep tan. “Candidate number three is named Lynn Wilson, and she’s sort of the quirky outlier. I mean, she grew up in Australia, so she’s got the accent, and apparently she broke her leg falling off of a horse when she was twelve and then broke the other leg falling out of a tree three years later, just like Sabrina said she did. Neither of the other two is on record as ever having broken a bone. She’s got nothing else in common with Sabrina at all except that, well, we transcribed all of the conversations between Trip and Sabrina, and apparently Lynn here is the closest linguistic match to Sabrina’s patterns of speech.”
“Weird.” Coulson nodded his head.
“Told you.” Skye shrugged.
“I think brain reprogramming is looking more and more like the most plausible option,” Simmons insisted. “Somehow the Dollhouse took the personalities and history of these three women, mixed them together, and put them into Priya Tsetseng’s brain.”
“Man, that’s fucked up.” Skye shook her head.
“So what’s our next move?” Fitz asked.
“We have to get her out,” May said.
Coulson said, “I want to remind everyone that Rossum’s a huge, powerful corporation, and there is a lot going on here that we still don’t understand.”
“Right. And the only way to get answers is to get this girl out of their reach and ask her directly.” May answered.
“Good. We’re agreed, then.” Coulson said.
Everyone looked at him in confusion.
“What? I just wanted to make sure we were all on the same page. Let’s do this thing. Fitz, get me a scrambled line to Trip.”
“Right away, sir.”
* * * * *
Saddleback Butte State Park, north of L.A.
“Okay,” Sabrina said, as she stopped to take another drink from her water bottle. “I know I said I wanted to spend more time outside, but I can’t say this is what I had in mind.”
Trip smiled. “Having trouble with the heat?”
“Yeah, and the dust, and the stupidly long ride to get here. Why couldn’t we have gone hiking somewhere closer to the city?”
“Nah. Nothing close to L.A. compares with this. There’s beauty in the high desert that you can’t find anywhere else. Plus, it’s not crawling with tourists.”
“You can say that again.” She laughed. “I’m not sure there’s anyone else for miles.”
Trip nodded thoughtfully. “I think you’re right. Come on. I want us to get to the top of the butte before sunset.”
“I’m coming, I’m coming.”
They hiked in silence for a while, slightly awed by the wide-open space and the idiosyncratic shapes of the Joshua trees. Sabrina began breathing harder as they started to climb the butte itself.
Finally, they reached the top and looked out at the view below them.
“Wow,” Sabrina said, and then laughed under her breath. “It’s amazing. I’m not sure what else to say...”
“Yeah...” Trip agreed, but he turned to look back over his shoulder and then looked back at Sabrina. “Hey, Sabrina?”
“Do you trust me?”
“Why?” She took a step back, away from him.
“It’s important. I’m sorry, I can’t explain right now, but...you don’t have a pacemaker or anything electronic on you, do you?”
“Just my phone.” She took it out and showed it to him. “Trip, you’re starting to really freak me out.”
“No. It’s fine. Don’t worry, just...put your phone one the ground, okay?”
She looked at him skeptically. This time he took a step back.
“Look, I’m not going to touch it. Just put it down.”
Looking up at him warily she knelt down and placed the phone on the ground. She slowly removed her hand, and he let out a sigh of relief.
“Okay. Good. Thanks.” He pulled something out of his pocket. Sabrina just had time to recognize that it was a toy joy buzzer before he pressed it. Her phone let out a whine and then a series of sharp popping noises. Then she felt a sharp, stabbing pain at the back of her neck and passed out.
* * * * *
Sabrina woke up slowly. Strong winds whipped the air, and a large black plane hovered above the butte. A door opened and a rope ladder unfolded downwards.
Sabrina turned to Trip. She had to yell to be heard over the noise of the plane. “What the hell is going on here?”
Trip grinned. “You know how I said I used to be Special Forces and you asked if I meant something like S.H.I.E.L.D.? Well, it actually was S.H.I.E.L.D., and it’s more of a present tense type of thing.”
“What are you talking about? S.H.I.E.L.D. doesn’t exist anymore! Everyone knows that!”
“There are a lot of things out there that ‘everyone knows’ don’t exist. That’s part of the problem.” Trip yelled back.
“What does that have to do with me?”
“Everything! Come on! I’ll explain inside, but we’ve got to go now! Grab onto the ladder! Please!”
Sabrina bit her lip, looked out at the desert below her, and looked up at the plane above. She took a deep breath, grabbed the rope ladder with both hands, and stepped on. Trip smiled with relief and jumped on himself just as the ladder began to retract back up into the plane.
* * * * *
S.H.E.I.L.D. Plane: The Med Bay
“What the fuck is going on, Trip? You said you’d explain.” Sabrina demanded as she followed him into the room.
“And I will. I promise, but first I need you to see FitzSimmons.”
“What’s a FitzSimmons?”
“That would be us, I’m afraid.” Simmons said gently. “Hello. That’s Fitz.” She pointed at him.
“And she’s Simmons. Pleased to meet you,” Fitz added, smiling reassuringly.
“Right.” Sabrina looked at them for a moment and turned back to Trip. “Explanation. Now.”
“FitzSimmons are our technology and medical experts.” Trip explained. “When I set off the EMP, it didn’t just short out your phone, it did something to you, too. We need them to figure out what.”
“An electro-magnetic…? That’s what that thing was? Why the hell would that fuck up my neck and nock me out?” Sabrina asked.
“Our question precisely,” said Simmons. “Now, can you please have a seat and show me where you felt the pain when Agent Triplett activated the EMP?”
Sabrina sat down in the chair Simmons had indicated. She pulled her hair off to the side and felt along the back of her neck. “I think it was...here? Maybe?”
Simmons’s fingers joined Sabrina’s and felt carefully alongside them. “Ah, yes. I believe I can feel something implanted just beneath the skin here. The EMP may have short-circuited it permanently, but we should probably take it out and have a look, just in case. And Fitz might be able to use it to tell us about the...well...you know.”
“Right.” Trip nodded. “Do you need any help?”
Simmons grinned. “I don’t think so, but it’s very kind of you to offer.”
“Any time.” Trip smiled back.
“Hey. Watch the googly eyes. She’s mine.” A new woman entered and leaned against the doorframe with her arms crossed.
“That’s Skye.” Fitz rolled his eyes. “She’s a wee bit territorial, as you might have noticed.”
Skye grinned. “I’d say I’m more...protective.” She winked at Fitz, then walked over to Sabrina and held out her hand. “Hi. It’s great to finally meet you.”
Sabrina hesitantly shook her hand. “Hi. I’m Sabrina.”
“Yeah, right...” Skye bit her lower lip and looked away.
“Anyway,” Simmons pushed Skye gently out of the way with her elbow as she carried the tray she had prepared over to the table next to Sabrina. “Skye, here, is simply brilliant with computers. She’s really been key to all of the research that we’ve done on your case.”
“My case?” Sabrina asked.
“Yes. Well, er, I mean...” Simmons looked awkwardly to Skye, Fitz, and Trip in turn and each shrugged. “Actually, I think it’s probably best if we wait for Agent Coulson to explain everything. Meanwhile, if you could just hold still...this may pinch a little.”
“Oh,” Sabrina gasped and then froze.
“Really, Simmons? You froze her? Is that supposed to help us gain her trust?” Trip asked.
“I don’t know! It’s a delicate operation, and she’s quite nervous. I didn’t want to rely on her to stay perfectly still enough that I didn’t cut through any nerves. Or do you think paralyzing her permanently would be a better way to earn trust?” Simmons snapped back.
“Jemma, chill,” Skye said. “Trip didn’t mean anything by it. He was just surprised, that’s all.”
“It’s true.” Trip turned to Simmons. “And I’m sorry. Really. It’s just...been a long day.”
“Apology accepted.” Simmons smiled. “And...” She dropped something into a large petri dish. “Here is the culprit that knocked the poor girl out.”
“Ooh! Let me see!” Fitz carried the dish to his own workstation as Simmons bandaged the wound on Sabrina’s neck.
Taking off her latex gloves, Simmons asked, “Should someone go get Coulson?”
“Actually,” said Coulson from the doorway, “I think we should all go have a chat in the main room. Skye, I’m thinking visuals will be essential for this conversation. Trip, please bring your friend. Fitz, I’m sorry, but the rest of your investigation will have to wait.”
* * * * *
S.H.E.I.L.D. Plane: The Conference Room
Coulson was the last to enter the conference room. He walked over to where Sabrina was sitting and offered his hand to shake. Sabrina took it carefully.
“Hello. I’m Agent Coulson. This is Agent May.” He gestured to his right. “I understand you’ve met the rest of my team?” Sabrina pressed her lips together and shrugged one shoulder. “I apologize for the dramatics, but I am afraid we are dealing with some very dangerous people who have very good reasons not to let you out of their sight.”
Sabrina shivered. “Are you saying that’s where that...that chip in the back of my neck came from? That someone’s been tracking me for some insane reason?”
“They’ve been doing a hell of a lot more than that.” Skye said.
Coulson put up a hand to interrupt her. “Skye, wait. Sabrina, what do you know about the Dollhouse?”
She looked at him in complete confusion for a moment, then her eyes narrowed in understanding. “I don’t suppose you’re talking about the child’s toy?”
She nodded slowly. “So, you must mean the urban legend, the ridiculous story about a secret organization in Los Angeles that turns people into slave-puppets for the rich and powerful.”
Coulson nodded. “Yeah. Something like that.”
Her eyes widened in horror. “Oh, lord. Is that what this is? Do you all work for the Dollhouse?”
“No, Sabrina, you do.”
“No.” She stood up. “No, no, no, no, no.” She backed away from him, away from all of them, until she was pressed against the wall. “What you’re saying—it can’t be true. It isn’t.” Everyone was silent. Simmons held out hand in reassurance. “This is impossible. You’re all insane!”
Skye’s face was sympathetic as she reached over to the projector’s control panel and began to pull up images. “I know it sucks, but we’re really pretty sure that it’s true. We looked you up, and there’s no record of a ‘Sabrina Atal’ anywhere. There is, however, lots of documentation of you as other people.” As Skye spoke she pulled up picture after picture of Sabrina in different outfits, with different postures, interacting with different people. Some of the images were blurry or from a distance, but all of them clearly showed the same person.
Sabrina let out a hard breath and slid down the wall until she was sitting on the floor with her legs pulled up to her chest.
“Now it’s possible,” Coulson said, “that you really are the woman in each of these pictures. It’s possible that you remember each and every one of these events, that you chose to become a spy or an actress or an exotic call girl, and that all of this has a completely mundane explanation. Is that the case, Sabrina?”
“No.” The word was just above a whisper.
Coulson’s face softened. “No, I didn’t think so.”