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Reloader

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Rhett McLaughlin sat on a gray marble bench. He stared past the hills coasting endlessly up and down before him and into the blackening horizon. Thunder would roll on occasion and rattle the headstones freckling his view. It had not yet begun to rain, a small blessing for which he was quietly appreciative. He supposed that it wouldn’t entirely matter seeing that the service he was there for had ended, and the procession had parted, leaving only him and his thoughts.

 

He looked down from the horizon at his shoes, a ladybug exploring on the right. On the left was a yet unmarked mound of earth by a small willow tree; Rhett was puzzled by it. See-- the mound of earth that had been so delicately created was to cover the final resting place of what may as well have been the heart that beat in his chest. Link Neal lay beneath. Silent, pale, beautiful. In an intimate last few hours, he helped the mortuary bathe, dress, and coif the man who lay breathlessly before him, and somehow still Rhett dissociated from it all. Nothing felt real or right about any of it, and the only thing to draw emotion from him (of which there were actually two), was brushing his thumb across Link’s lower lip to remove some of the setting powder that found its way there, and the unsettling absence of feeling within the entire procession. They were all as cold as Link’s flesh.

 

He knew it would kick in. Grief hasn’t the foggiest idea regarding what’s appropriate. He reached down and gently helped the ladybug atop the mound and stood, taking one more long look at the scene that stretched out before him.

 

~

 

A few weeks later the show they shared was brought to an end after a heartfelt message from Stevie and Chase, a lovely montage of Rhett and Link’s decade plus together, and the token black end screen:

 

In Memoriam,

Charles Lincoln Neal III:

June 1, 1978 – October 15, 2023.

 

Rhett tied up some loose ends, crossed the rest of the T’s and dotted the final I’s, flipping the switch on the breaker as he left the studio for good, and locking the door behind him. He shook his head and got into his car, deciding as he put his key into the ignition that he was going to check in on Christy. He arrived at the Neal house a while later only to find it

 

completely

 

and totally

 

empty.

 

He fumbled with the keys in his pocket as he made for the spare that Link had given him years before, and his heartbeat nearly came to a screeching halt when he found that it didn’t work. He looked in the obvious hiding spots for other spares-- nothing. He went around back and looked to see if he could find a window open. There was not even a snowball’s chance that he would get into the house without some B and E, and this was beyond him to do. Beside all this, he was too disturbed to stay put any longer. He grit his teeth and tried to work back the anger as he returned to his car. Christy and Jessie were two of the strongest, most understanding women on the earth’s face. They seceded when it was clear that Rhett and Link were unable to withhold their feelings any longer, and they remained close friends and even confidants.

 

The four of them formed a parenting super-power; family pictures seemed to spawn and multiply of their own volition. All of them even went on massive multi-dates when Christy or Jessie had love interests, so Rhett could not understand why or how they could all disappear so goddamn quick. Had he been that far up in his own head not to notice his lover’s former wife and children packing and readying themselves to leave? Link’s death was sudden, so it wasn’t like he was in and out of the hospital trying to succor an infection or an illness. “Call Jessie.” He said to the hands free connection in his car.

 

“Hey,” She answered.

 

“Jess, they’re gone.” He started bluntly.

 

“Christy went to her mother’s with the kids, hon. I’m sure the last thing she wanted to do was to stay in a house right away that has Link all over i--”

 

“No, Jess. They are gone. The house is empty, the locks are changed. Gone.”

 

He heard her sigh heavily. Over the speakers, it sounded profoundly heavier. “Rhett, just go home and try to get some sleep. It’s been a rough time for all of us.”

 

“This is all so fucked up and weird, Jessie, and I am freaking out here trying to reconcile why it is that nobody else has acknowledged how-- how WRONG so much of these details are.”

 

“Rhett, I don’t have time for this. Our kids are working my last nerve, and I -still- have to get a few things done for work before I go back in next week. Go home and rest, I’m serious, Rhett. I don’t wanna have to get Chase involved, but I will. I love, you.”

 

“...I love you, too. G’night.” He disconnected the call before she could say anything else. His stomach felt sour. He pulled out of the Neal drive and headed to the flat they had once shared. Unlike the rest, Rhett felt, he would enjoy basking in Link’s memory.

 

~

The click of the key in the lock was loud to him. The door creaked louder, his shoes were annoyingly clunky against the hardwood floor. Everything was a little harsher without Link. Rhett looked around at the velvet dark, the blinds were down because initially the day had been slightly warm. He showed no interest in turning on the lights around him. He wasn’t quite ready to take in all those goofy, smiling pictures. Instead, he walked directly through the living room, through their bedroom, and to the bathroom, trusting his memory to keep him from wiping out on the ottoman. He kicked his shoes off and tossed them into the room, disrobed and threw his clothes atop his shoes. Only the moon lit the bathroom as he pulled the cord on the blinds and stepped into the shower. For a moment he stood motionlessly, listening to the water hit the tub floor and gurgle down the drain.

 

Rhett tried to swallow back the threatening onslaught of tears. He leaned against the tile wall and tried to dedicate his focus once more to the sound of the water. It was then that the sensation of a fingertip tracing his spinal column shot through him. He shuddered and spun quickly around head first, causing the muscles in his neck to scream. He had become unaware of just how much tension he was carrying. Though it was quite dark, he could see clearly that there was nothing in the room with him, there was nobody observing the water coursing down his bare back. He turned back around and began to wash his body, trying to undermine the panic that commanded control of his nerves. He rinsed the soap away and moved onto shampooing his hair. Once sufficiently scrubbed, he turned off the water and wrapped a towel around his waist. He finally turned on the light and looked at his reflection in the mirror. He barely knew the guy staring back at him. He had dark rings under his eyes which accompanied a shocking set of bags, his tear ducts exhausted. He opened the medicine cabinet and got out his beard oil, put some in his open hand, put the little bottle away, and then rubbed his hands together, applying the oil evenly to his entire beard. He smelled rugged, of wood and sage, and other very attractive aromas. At this, he felt a hand cup his cheek.

 

Rhett scrambled backward. He looked into the mirror again and there was just as much nothing as there was in the shower. He dared to laugh a little, taking a wee bit of sick enjoyment at the thought that his mind would just slip and fall and take it all with, when suddenly an incredibly provocative point in time played over his memory.

 

Connecting the wires,

You and me

 

Rhett gave into the images of the very first time he ever let down his guard. They were celebrating turning 21 together, as life had put them in separate places for just a little while, and they both wanted nothing more than to come into legal manhood together. Rhett smiled at that. It was how Link had actually coined it.

 

“Drinkin’ beers, huntin’ bucks, bein’ men.” Link mused as he cracked open a tallboy. They weren’t particularly accustomed yet to drinking beers despite growing up in the south, so Link’s first sip was comically pucker-faced. He hadn’t been anticipating the bitterness, the yeasty aftertaste-- but damn if it wasn’t cold as ice and refreshing. Rhett admired the relaxation setting into his best friend’s features. The stark contrast of Link’s dark hair to his pale skin was like white sand and night sky meeting at the horizon. He had to laugh at Link’s manly display. He seemed to be standing taller, thinking deep, testosterone inspired thoughts. He looked amazing doing it, and all Rhett wanted as he watched was to see if the feelings translated into any sort of rugged scent... if only he would just step forward and put his face into that calling nape.

 

It was as though their thoughts crashed at that second and Link took off his glasses and gently set them on the island of his family’s cabin kitchenette. “Are….”

 

Rhett made pointed eye contact. Go on… he urged mentally.

 

“Are we thinking the same thing?” Link finished. He put his beer down, his hands beginning to shake.

 

We log our desires,

To the endless sea.

 

“There are a million reasons why, if you’re thinking what I’m thinking, we should just call it an early night… why it could spell disaster...” Link’s cheeks flushed. His pupils dilated, making the slices of blue left around them that much more stunning.

 

Rhett swallowed hard. For a nanosecond he actually had no clue what to do or say. He sighed and stepped forward, and then around Link, moving to the kitchen sink. He leaned against it and looked out the window at the vast forest just yards away. He chewed at his lower lip. He could almost guarantee that Link was stuck in near-panic thought, criticizing himself, analyzing the moment, wondering how Rhett could just fake him out like that, and without another moment’s hesitation, Rhett turned around. Link stood as he supposed he would, back to Rhett, so Rhett took what he understood was his. In two long strides he was chest to back with Link, his face in the nape of his neck. He took in the scent of his best friend, he could practically feel his own pupils exploding with the onslaught of this very sweet taboo.

 

A prism of a thousand stars

Floats through the galaxy.

 

Link’s breath hitched and for a split second he tensed up, but just as suddenly, he went almost limp against Rhett’s body. He concentrated in excited fear on the tiny kisses being pressed against the back of his neck. He tipped his head back into Rhett’s fingers as they brushed their way through his thick hair.

 

A tremble from a thousand hearts

Wants to break free.

 

Am I still here-- or in a dream?

 

Rhett broke his way out of the memory. He was exhausted, shivering from the cold as he stood still with only a towel to warm him, and now erect. He dried off the rest of the way, turned the light off, and went to bed, but as his mind took that step towards dreamland, he began to feel the light dancing of warm fingertips against that spot. Yes, that spot where the hip connects to the torso and could cause the world to split in two if the timing was right. “What the fuck is going on?!” Rhett whined aloud. The touch didn’t disappear after his reaction like the last two times. Instead it moved, and began stimulating insistently what memories had left him. He was a man of science, so although Rhett was shuddering in fear, he allowed this touch that felt so right, so familiar, lifting his hands to the back of his neck and closing his eyes.

 

My last caress is traveling inside a beam,

In remote control of a body…

 

Touching you.

 

Thousands of miles away, someone sat in darkness replete, the only thing slicing through the velvet black is the glare of a computer screen. The outline of a tall, fit man with legs to the sky is on the display, his features barely visible in the darkness of the room in which he lay...

Chapter Text

 

In a room of steel

With fluorescent tubes…

 

A box. All he had in the world now is a computer, a desk, a pad on the floor for something like sleep, a few shitty, nausea inducing, flickering lights, and a toilet/sink the likes which one sees in prison, all of it in this steel box. He had been up for days coding on the computer that was so used and old that there were lines from an old spreadsheet burned into the screen. It was a wonder it even tolerated the code.

 

He had been in this “room” for at least a month. If it had been more time, or less, it wouldn’t surprise him. He wasn’t even sure that the date and time on the PC was correct. He knew a few things: when they said it was time to code, it was time to code. When they told him to get off the computer, he got off of the computer. They would toss bland food into the room twice a day, and once in a while they would order him to sleep. This seemed to take place every few days. The moment he sat in now was an off the computer moment. He had grown to hate those. All he could do was sit on his bedroll and think about home. His eyes flicked to the intercom in the corner of the room. He had become acquainted with a very slight buzzing sound that would happen when someone was about to call.

 

“CN-3445, it is now time to code.”

 

The number they had traded his name for was brutally impersonal. It irritated him more and more every time he heard it. His intolerance built to the bursting point and he talked back. It wasn’t the first time, either. “I don’t go by that.”

 

Charles, it is now time to code.” The voice complied edgily.

 

“Don’t you call me by that name, you don’t know me!” He stood up and flung the mouse at the intercom.

 

“Let us convince you that your alphanumeric moniker is likely better.” The voice insisted. ‘Charles’ backed up and sat in his computer chair, suddenly, rightly, feeling terrified. He could hear whimpering and sniffling in the background.

 

“Please don’t fight them,” a familiar female voice beseeched. He heard her squeal as though something hurt her sharply.

 

“Oh my god, Christy--” His throat felt like it was caving in.

 

“Link, just please… please do what they want. Please...” she cried.

 

“CN-3445?” The voice returned.

 

“Yes.” He complied, trying to swallow back the bile rising in his throat.

 

“It is now time to code. Run your usual protocol test first.” And with a click, he was left to do as he was told, and as an added bonus, he had to remember all the control keys to do his work without a mouse until he could piece it back together in his spare time.

Tears brimmed at his eyes and he pulled Rhett’s protocol back up.

 

Run: F://McL.stim/test

 

He watched the cursor blink against the black screen, and when the image came up, his heart swelled and deflated like a balloon. It was home. All of his creature comforts still in each and every place he had left them. The grief nearly cramped his fingers, but after hearing Christy in pain, he couldn’t stop. He couldn’t stop if they split and bled. He took just a moment to take his glasses off and pinch the bridge of his nose, rub his tired eyes, put them back on, and continue.

 

It was as it had been; Rhett was asleep. He was partially wrapped in the sheets like a greek sculpture.

He missed this man so badly it made him ache. This gave him an idea. When he ran a test on Rhett, it would stimulate a memory. Their orders were often that the memory have some sort of erotic quality. While the ‘test subject RM-3446’ (that made Link physically ill, they could dehumanize him all they wanted, but taking Rhett’s name from his lips…) was still in mourning, repeat memories of the time they shared together, intimate memories, were natural. It was their hope-- their intent that it would break down his resistance were there any, to the protocol he was “participating” in. Thereby making him easily malleable, far more receptive to the long-distance stimuli that Link was developing.

 

He had an idea, but he dared not let it show in his eyes or in his face. He was supposed to initialize good stimulus. What if the stimulus was accidentally bad but the memory was generally good? Link knew how bright Rhett always was. He swallowed hard, his mouth became dry at the thought of what could happen to Christy… dear god, did they have his children, too? If it made him a horrible person to call their bluff, well it was all he had left. He clenched his jaw and began to enter a command, intently watching his love move and shift in their bed.

 

F://McL.stim/memoChase

 

~

 

Rhett began to dream of a time at Mythical Studios. It was mundane, a moment during which Chase was helping Rhett into a suit jacket in between takes of one of their commercial takeovers.

 

“Something’s scratchin’ the living crap out of my neck, Chase, can you see what it is?” He asked.

Chase folded back the collar and reached to his kit for some tiny scissors he used to trim tags or snip threads. Link entered the room and as the scene would unfold, Chase would seem to be so focused that he accidentally flinched and gouged the back of Rhett’s neck with the scissors. “Ow! Damn, man!”

 

“Shit, I’m so sorry, Rhett, here, let me tend to that.” Chase replied. He sounded nervous, of course he would, he had just stabbed his boss with scissors. He grabbed an alcohol wipe from a spot other than their medical kit. A bandage was in the same spot. It was for easier access in case someone got poked with a sewing needle or suffered a sliver. Completely and totally innocent. He swiped the wound with the alcohol prep which hurt like the devil. Rhett tried to sit still but the unforgiving stinging didn’t seem to mask an additional sensation of gouging.

 

“What are you doin’ back there?” Rhett complained, reaching back. Chase grabbed his wrist.

 

“I’m really sorry Rhett, I promise I was just making sure that there was nothing stuck in there. I got you pretty good.” Chase put the band-aid on and smoothed down the adhesive sections.

 

Rhett sucked in a frantic breath, wide awake, and sat up. His hairline was beaded thickly with sweat. “That was intentional… christ...” He reached around and brushed his fingers against the back of his neck, feeling nothing but the tiniest scar. It wasn’t even raised enough to merit any concern, and he dropped his hand back to his side, growling in frustration. He focused his eyes on the clock across the room. It was 4 am and there was no chance he was going back to sleep now. Normally, Rhett wasn’t a coffee drinker. He preferred the nuance a good cup of earthy tea, but right then a stiff Irish coffee was to be his drink of choice. He showered and dressed semi-casually: a black pair of slacks, black socks, boots, a white button down and a belt. He rolled up the cuffs of his shirt and sat down on the back patio, watching the very beginnings of the sunrise split and peel the night sky away.

 

My bionic tongue feel,

Your taste of sugar cubes

 

He made for a sip of his coffee when he was hit with the sensation of a frantic kiss. The mug slipped from his hand and shattered on the concrete.

 

~

 

Link stiffened up and ended the Chase command. He frantically worked backwards to remove the history of it at least from his workstation. He could say it only came up because of a command search, he was a mere man after all and things slipped his mind. Nervous sweat soaked his clothes, it stuck his hair to his forehead and tried to fog his glasses. He took off his shirt and cleaned his glasses, wiped off his face and upper body, knowing they’d come for him, hoping to look far less than guilty. The door to his room swung forcefully open and a large, commanding figure stepped in. Link stood, trying to make himself look imposing. The much larger man took up a handful of Link’s hair and threw him back into his seat, tipping it over. Link’s head hit the ground with a nauseating thump and his eyes rolled around as he tried to process the agony. The man pressed his giant shoe into Link’s chest.

 

“We have been more than accommodating, CN-3445. We house and feed you, and as you can see, we take good care of your family.

 

Link instinctively put his hands around the man’s ankle, trying to lift the foot from his chest. Stars were beginning to come into his vision from the periphery.

 

“I am afraid that I have no information on how many more chances my employers are willing to give you. So straighten up--” The man punctuated the insult with a sharp and quick punch to Link’s left eye. “Fly right and you may just be lucky enough to realign things with your lovely wife.” The man lifted his foot from Link’s chest, and righted the chair with him in it like he was nothing more than a rag doll.

“Taking your current condition into consideration, my employers would like to kindly extend to you a break. Be ready when we call next.”

 

The man left the room, letting Link go about clinging tenuously to consciousness.

 

A prism of a thousand stars

Floats through the galaxy

Fine. Link thought. He closed his right eye, his left kindly closed for him by that meathead’s employers, and took full advantage of his break. Who knows when it was time to get back to the grind.

 

A tremble from a thousand hearts

That’s breaking free.

 

Am I still here or in a dream?

My last caress is traveling inside a beam

 

In remote control of a body

Touching you.

Chapter Text

“CN-3445. It is now time to code.”

 

Link’s command was met with no response. He sat, still sleeping away his punishment. His head hung back, his mouth slightly open. One could not possibly envy the crick in his neck. It had been nearly 12 hours since his last “retraining”.

 

“CN-3445, please respond. It is now time to code.”

 

Still nothing. If it hadn’t been for the ability to see his chest rise and fall over the cameras that watched his every move, they may have concluded that his punishment was far too severe. Another worker closer to his size opened the door to his room, checking his vitals. He stirred a little at their gloved touch, but fell easily back to sleep in spite of it. The large man from before was beckoned in, and they picked Link up and threw him over their shoulder. He was taken to a sterile white-tiled shower room and laid on a shower floor that was so clean it could have been eaten off of. Quite apropos. They began with cold water, and Link stirred with a squeal the likes of which inspired stifled laughter in the employees guarding the openings.

 

He hadn’t yet opened his working eye completely, but he definitely recognized the figure coming toward him. As she knelt before him and began to help him from his dirty clothes, he flung an arm around her neck, pressing his head into her shoulder, crying as quietly as he could. “Christy, I am so sorry...” he whispered.

 

“Shh… shhh… Just help me with your clothes. They sent me in to help clean you up because you wouldn’t fight me.”

 

He nodded and tried as hard as he could to stand, but his head still spun from the earlier punch-out. “Where’s our babies? I swear I will fight until I die if one hair on their heads--”

 

Christy panicked and put a gentle hand over his mouth. It was killing her to feel his lips trembling beneath her hand. “Shh… please, Link.” She began to speak to him in a dialect that they had learned while visiting his family on a long vacation in the deeper parts of the south. She told him that the kids are with his father in those same deep hills, protected like gold. In plain northern English, she added one final note in a low, insistent whisper: “The employer is everywhere and nowhere. Do you understand?” Her chin crumpled seeing the relief bleeding into the shock into the one eye he could open. He nodded and she pulled back her hand.

 

Without any further conversation she helped him disrobe, clean up, dry off, and dress back up into what was still wearable. The spinning wouldn’t allow him to do all this on his own quite yet. With a kiss on his cheek, Christy was taken away and Link was accompanied back to his box. The man who had earlier served his punishment placed a cup of coffee before him as he sat quietly in his chair. “Please await instruction.” He stated, and then left.

 

He sipped at the coffee. The first sip was cautious, and the second was more eager. Surprisingly, it was very well made and the caffeine content dulled the effects of the Mjolnir pounding his brains to mush.

 

“CN-3445?” The voice addressed him finally. It seemed to take an hour.

 

He nodded in reply. He knew full well he could be seen doing so.

 

“My employers would like to take this opportunity to apologize. It would seem that we have been far less accommodating than the situation calls for. What is the saying: you can catch more flies with honey than with vinegar?”

 

“That’s a version of the saying, yes.” He replied dubiously. A world of sarcasm bubbled on the tip of his tongue, but he held it, knowing what the wrong words can do to him.

 

“We understand that this bears the possibility of resembling a hostage situation over a business arrangement, and we would like to offer you an indefinite respite from your current conditions. Will you accept?”

 

He sipped his coffee again and savored its taste. “What are your terms?” He asked. Instead of a verbal answer, the door to his room opened and he was presented with a box that clearly contained new, clean clothes. An assistant came into the room and unplugged his workstation, picking the broken mouse up off of the floor.

 

“Please take a moment to dress,” they began, setting the mouse by the computer. Link noticed someone else come in with a handsome pair of shined shoes that they set by the box. “When you are done, come into the hall and we will show you to your new workstation. Our employers thank you.”

 

“Wait-” He asked before they could leave. They turned and looked at him almost robotically. “Who are your employers?”

 

“We do not question them, we only accept. We will see you in a moment and we will further educate you on the renegotiated terms and conditions of your work, CN-34-- Link.” An odd smile quirked up at the corners of the assistant’s mouth and left as soon as it came

 

This “change of heart” came about as very unsettling to Link, but he did as he was told, the unknown driving him to comply. He dressed into the pants, socks, and shoes and was pleasantly surprised by how comfortable and en mode their choices for him were. He was beginning to settle down until he realized something that sliced through him like an icy cold bastard sword: Link was wearing one of Rhett’s favorite shirts. His heart nearly came to a screeching halt. With shaking hands he finished dressing and slugged down the rest of his coffee, trying to calm his blazing nerves, but it was hard to swallow, the fear nearly making him drool. He looked around at his enclosure, and went into the hall. He had never seen the corridors outside of his room before and he was shocked by how elegant everything was. The contrast left him gobsmacked. Everything from the tapestries to the flooring to the fixtures had to have been astronomically more expensive than anything he had ever afforded on Good Mythical Morning.

 

“Thank you for joining us in such a timely manner, Link.”

 

He tried to avert their ungodly eye contact. “May I respectfully ask to be addressed as Mr.Neal?”

 

“If it pleases you, we would be happy to oblige, Mr.Neal.” He didn’t like the way they said it but it was better than a punch in the face. He noticed that the assistant from earlier had two assistants of his own and the three of them took note of his request on identical steno pads with identical pens. “Come, we will go to your new quarters. Are you hungry?”

 

He followed their lead up the vast corridor and at the very end and to the right they unlocked a door, pocketed the key and parted at the entry so that Link could enter before them. His jaw dropped hard as he took in his new surroundings. He expected something like a humble studio apartment with scant furnishings and a dedicated bathroom/shower scenario, but he understood clearly then and there that they hadn’t earlier grasped the importance of his work. This was beyond his wildest imagination, the finest marble counter tops, lavishly smooth hardwood floors, fine hand-crafted furnishings and a view of a lush, rolling countryside. Granted this still gave him absolutely no clue where the hell he could be, but it was a far cry from the cesspool he had been slaving in mere hours before.

 

“Gentlemen.” He offered them a seat. His mind, while plagued a lot of the time with racing thoughts, compulsivity, and perfectionism, was still a raging, brilliant machine. The gears whirred efficiently, and he began to formulate a plan, adding to it as each minute, hour, and day unfolded before him from there. The three looked at each other, seeming to brighten around the eyes as though this huge and sincere change of heart was thanks to the benignant service of their employers, and sit they did.

 

“Mr.Neal, contained within this compound are the finest scientists, lawyers, doctors, dentists, tailors, chefs, trainers, and military minds that money and influence can buy. Our employers are interested in achieving absolute control via technology. You could be providing the world with the very means to end war, as the influence of a singular nation could be expressed via non-violent means.”

 

Link bristled a bit but folded his hands in front of him, focusing his attention. “Go on.” He said, the room growing cold. As though the assistants sensed this drop in temperature, they set another cup of coffee in front of him, a cappuccino made by a world-class barista. As their conversation continued, he became uncomfortable, the throbbing settling back into his closed, swollen eye, and at the push of a button a member of medical staff entered with what appeared to be a thin, light eye patch, but it was actually an invention of “their employers”; a long-lasting time-release ice pack designed to provide chemical-free anti-inflammatory properties over a long amount of time, without any damaging aspect to the skin or visual organs.

 

“May I?” The young woman asked, waiting for his permission before applying the patch. He accepted it and the cold feeling filling his entire orbit and leeching back into his ocular nerve was enough to make him shiver with relief.

 

The assistants continued their spiel and offered him the best of resources, care, and a workable schedule that would allow him time to recover from each day’s grind. This was an enviable and suspicious 360° turnaround, and knowing that it would be the only way to stay alive, he readily accepted. He smiled on the outside, fooling everyone he interacted with. If Christy were in the room, she would see what they couldn’t. “Before this meeting comes to a close, may I ask about the accommodations being given to Ms.Neal?”

 

“While our employers understand that you may prefer her permanent presence in your quarters, they cannot afford any sort of breach of confidentiality in regards to your vision. We can tell you, however, that you can rest fully assured that she is being treated to the same resources and care that you are. Our employers hope that in the near future they can feel confident enough in your comfort to no longer need her to work as a… bargaining chip of sorts. They hope you understand. If and when this day comes, we may be instructed to discuss further arrangements where Ms.Neal is concerned.”

 

“Thank you.” Link offered, bringing their meeting to a close.

 

This felt very much like that classic Burgess Meredith Twilight Zone episode to Link. He was alone in the library of his dreams…

 

But when would his glasses drop from his face and shatter?

Chapter Text

 

“So… when do you figure you might start looking for work?” Jessie asked gently. The silence over Rhett’s end of the phone made her a bit nervous. It was never about the money. He and Link were both smart and he wouldn’t have been left without for a very long time. He had begun to show up for their kids events less and less, he had begun to drink a little more. The drinking part wasn’t as shocking as the hermitude for the simple reason that when Rhett had too much of something, he was apt to stop consuming that thing. Rhett wasn’t easily addicted to anything other than a good fragrant slice of wood. No, it was the solace that had begun to worry Jessie, and when she did see Rhett, he looked pale and gaunt. He wasn’t passing all that time sleeping, as he often spoke of the way his brain and body were revisiting memories.

 

“Jessie, please don’t worry.”

 

“You know better than that, Rhett.” She was put a tiny bit more at ease by hearing a small chuckle from his end.

 

“Yeah, I know better-” Rhett paused at the knock on his door. “Jess, someone’s here, hang on.” He set his phone down and answered the door. It was both Stevie and Chase. He greeted them with a smile, but something felt mildly off about this unannounced visit. “Hang tight just a sec, guys-” He went back to his phone. “I have company, Jessie, I have to go.”

 

“Oh, good, they got there.” She replied. “Rhett, I’m sorry, you know how busy I am and I wanted someone to make sure that you were okay. Have a good visit.”

 

“Mhm, thanks.” He said dryly as they ended the call. If he could see into the other end, he would be shocked and terrified at the fact that Jessie, upon hanging up, sat alone in a ransacked house that had been cleared of their frightened children mere hours before. She put her face in her hands and cried aloud. She knew what was to come for him.

 

Rhett invited the two of them in. The first thing he noticed was that Chase didn’t look as sweet and friendly as he had always looked for as long as they knew each other. “What brings you two by this…” He looked at his phone, “afternoon?” The second thing he noticed was that Stevie stood stiffly by the door while Chase approached.

 

“I think you may have some idea why we’re here. You were talking to Jessie just then, right?” Chase asked. He accepted Rhett’s offer of the seat adjacent to him.

 

“Stevie? Make yourself at home.” Rhett offered.

 

She smiled weakly and shook her head. “I’ve been sitting all day, I’ll stand for a bit if you don’t mind.”

 

Rhett nodded. “I get that.”

 

Chase scooted a little further forward, trying to kind of perch on the edge of his seat. He reached forward and put his hand on Rhett’s shoulder. “We’re all worried about you” he started “It’s been almost two months since Link died…”

 

It occurred to Rhett to feel insulted by this. Who the hell stops mourning in two months? Who breaks away from missing the person they would trade their soul to save in six? Eight? Yeah, maybe some people can find some way to fully go on in little time but it was different for everyone; some people never get over that hurdle. He frowned, his brow knitting. “And?” He asked edgily. His eyes shifted to Stevie’s movement by the door. Once he focused he could see that she was bowing her head so that he wouldn’t notice that she was crying as she reached behind her, slid the chain lock, and then turned the deadbolt into place. The tears just barely caught a flash of light as they fell and hit the floor. She sniffled and dabbed at her eyes with her sleeve, trying to get a grip.

 

“And you have been breaking away from your protocol ever since.” Chase continued. His grip on Rhett’s shoulder tightened.

“My what? What are you-- my what?!” Rhett began to panic, his heart seemed to take off for his throat and he began to clench his fists. He didn’t want to swing at Chase, but by god he would!

“Your protocol, RM-3446. Our employers want us to make some adjustments.”

 

The next thing Rhett knew, his lights went out and he would float there in dreamless sleep. Stevie had come around to his side during his panic and used a stun gun on her friend of nearly ten years. She tossed it at Chase who popped it out of his hands and onto the couch like an eviscerated human heart.

“This is SICK, Chase.” She argued. Stevie’s girlfriend was currently with Chase’s girlfriend on the compound. Stevie had no real clue how many people knew there was no body under that mound of dirt. As she came to learn, most could not go on without either being “convinced” or segregated entirely from public life. She tried her best to keep a stiff upper lip and go along “willingly”… she was unwilling to be swayed in the way that the corporation would choose to convince her.

 

“Won’t it be worth the end of suffering?” Chase asked without looking at her. “Help me flip Rhett over. He’s dead-weight.” He pulled a kit out of one of his cargo pockets and unzipped it to reveal a scalpel, forceps, sutures, needle, and bandage scissors with a blunted edge.

“Are you serious??” Stevie grunted out under Rhett’s weight. “Chase, there will be always some infuriating reason for someone somewhere to suffer. The company would have to create technology to erase homophobia, xenophobia, cruelty, famine, racism, etcetera, etcetera, war ending is like going to the dentist for a simple filling when half of your other teeth are broken out!”

 

Chase wasn’t listening. He had already taken a scalpel to the tiny little scar on Rhett’s neck and with a pair of forceps, he pulled a little metal chip from the once healed wound. “Gimme the reader.” He demanded. Stevie plopped it in his hand. It looked for all intents and purposes like a blood sugar monitor, but instead of a slot for a strip, it contained a spot to place the chip. He sat back on the couch and worked in silence while Stevie cleaned the new wound and kept it clean with saline for the duration of the chip’s reformatting. She rubbed Rhett’s back and tried to soothe him as he would come in and out of consciousness. “Don’t let me catch you getting more than five feet from me, either.” Chase added coolly.

 

I wanna make use of you
To catch your eyes, I know just what to do

 

Stevie looked over at what he was doing. “Is that why you’ve changed?” She asked. She noticed something strange.

 

Their employers had been watching and were as pleased with Chase’s work as they were concerned with Stevie’s remorse. Something would have to be done about this. They were not an overtly ignorant group, these mystery people, and knew to schedule Link away from his workstation during moments like these. As far as his influence stretched in this world, the moments would be frequent;it seems, though that they were just ignorant enough to think that he would adhere to this schedule. That was not the kind of worker Link was. If he had an idea that would appear to forward his development (a thing he barely wanted to call his own any longer), he would certainly sit and do something about it before the idea slipped him. Writing it down on a notepad in his quarters would potentially cause an info leak, he was only allowed to type it all into the encrypted workstation for storage on the F-server.

 

Link had never grit his teeth so hard as he watched Rhett tense, his face showing shock and devastated confusion. His stomach flipped as the whole scene played out before his eyes.

It looked to him like Chase was the aggressor, even if Stevie had to make the move, and he was ready to write him off when the thought occurred to him to zoom the camera in when he was bent over Rhett with the scalpel. Link now saw what Stevie had caught onto before-- Chase bore a fresh scar in the same spot as Rhett’s. Link deducted from Stevie’s behavior that she had been influenced not by artifice, but by fear. He logged off of the protocol. He sat on the floor in front of the bay windows and watched the breeze make the grass sway, but his mind was not on nature. He looked at the wristwatch he was recently requisitioned for a very impressive mainframe extension that took mere hours for Link to code.

 

I just give you want you want
Never ever what you need
Just give you what you want
And you'll make me succeed