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Episode 2.08.5: Sign over everything

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Episode 2.08.5: Sign over everything

It is a thumbscrew.

Its hatred makes it clairvoyant.

I can only sign over everything,

the house, the dog, the ladders, the jewels,

the soul, the family tree, the mailbox.


Then I can sleep.


Maybe.

—Anne Sexton, "The Other"

Philadelphia, Wednesday, May 13, 2009, 0745 hours EDT

Cornelius Wilson never used to make breakfast. Hell, he didn't use to get up before noon. But as hard as he found it to get out of bed some mornings, if Jamal didn't get his toast and orange juice by seven am sharp, he'd come in the bedroom and get them both up. Cornelius thought that was kind of cute, to tell the truth, but once Felicia started on the night shift, he'd started setting a clock. By now he'd trained himself to get up while it was still on vibrate, pulling on clothes by feel. It wasn't so bad once he'd splashed some water on his face. A man could even get to like it, sitting across a table from his son, buttering crisp white toast still warm from the coils, flicking on the tv to catch the weather and decide if they needed their jackets before they headed out.

Maybe he liked mornings so much because he'd never used to. It was a part of him that didn't overlap with his old life, so it couldn't bring back memories. He hadn't left it behind altogether. Sure, he'd gotten off the street, but the street was still where he came from, his blood, and he wasn't ever going to forget that. But mornings were his.

He was wiping away the toast crumbs, singing along with the radio while Jamal beat his fists on the table, trying to keep time (kid was born to be a drummer) when he heard the phone. He reached automatically for his hip pocket, flipped the phone around, let his hands unlock the keypad. There wasn't a text message. Not on this phone, anyway.

The other phone was way at the back of a drawer. Not that Felicia didn't know. She wasn't happy about it, but they both knew they needed the money. No, he kept it there so he didn't have to look at it himself.

Rush order SSC under the hedge

The text came from an unknown number, but they always did; everyone in the business used disposable phones nowadays. SSC was St. Simon the Cyrenian church, only a couple of blocks away. He thought through his schedule; Jamal had to be at kindergarten by 8:30 and he had to be at work by 9. It would make more sense to make the drop first, but he wasn't going to, not with his boy right there watching. They could probably make it if they got to school a few minutes early.

ok usual rate

Five hundred bucks would kill off the rent for next month and take a sizeable bite out of the utilities.

"All right, little man," he said. "Let's get going."

He tucked the other phone back into the drawer and tiptoed back into the bedroom where he kept the gun locker. Sometimes he saw crime reports on the news, wondered if he'd hooked up a killer with a deadly weapon. He hoped not. Most of the fools in Cal's crew didn't need a gun in the first place. They just wanted to feel badass.

Most. Not all. He brushed the thought away. They needed the money.

Ames, Nevada, 1030 hours EDT

There hadn't always been so many colors. Sure, she'd been able to see them where they were brightest, on pages the anomaly had actually touched with its own red-gold fingerpaint. But they were only the high points of the pattern. The picture didn't make sense without the rest of the spectrum, the swirling browns and purples of depression, the slick chrome yellow of arrogance, the hazy magenta of lust. The colors were brightest around the anomaly, of course, but the anomaly didn't cause them, the way they'd all thought. The colors came from pain.

In the back of her mind, a voice was telling her that she shouldn't look too closely. Shouldn't scan, filter, aggregate, archives-newspapers-blogs-journals-tumblrs-videos-tweets, plot them like a diagram, turn the colors into current and voltage, watch power flicker across the circuit. It might be Esther Falkner's voice, she thought. Always telling her what she should do, never what she wanted to. She ignored it. The colors were mesmerizing, immeasurably promising. It was a machine, she thought, a computer, and all the hurt and misery and crime was just current flowing from point to point, information passing on. Everyone a piece of the system, executing their own little fragment of the program.

Except she couldn't remember her own function. It was important. There were people she was meant to hurt. People she shouldn't. It was right in front of her, but she'd lost something. She couldn't read the code anymore, and without her instructions, she knew she was making mistakes.

If she zoomed in, she could make out the tiny flare of color that burned around Michael Randall Cross, of Des Moines, Iowa. The posts were new, posted barely an hour ago, and Predator Watch wasn't most peoples' breakfast reading. But there were already a few comments. The videos, especially, had attracted attention. A few PredWatch regulars had already pressed play. On average, they'd gotten forty-six seconds in before they hit the mute button, a minute twenty before they closed the browser window. In accordance with site policy, three moderators had tried to take the videos down. So far, they hadn't been able to. People wanted to ignore the things they let each other do. But if they couldn't hear the signals, the program wouldn't run right.

She remembered the garage door opening and the oak-green Audi rolling down the driveway. And then Cross stepping out to wave the big maroon pickup truck out of his way. She remembered him looking at her, his mouth half-open to say something that would, no doubt, have been unbearably, fatally dull. Can you please move your car? Do I know you? You're holding a gun, aren't you?

She couldn't remember what happened next. She was trying, but all she could bring to mind was a stacatto rattle of piano keys and Amanda Palmer's voice: It's. Not. The. Way. I'm. Meant. To. Be.

She'd posted the videos herself, hadn't she? The PredWatch pages were the bright, pretty shade of arterial blood, laced with a filigree of shining gold.

Philadelphia, 1000 hours EDT

She could see it coming, but there wasn't a thing she could do about it. There were just too many words that would set them off. One of them was throb, and here it was, right in the middle of Macbeth's speech to the witches: "my heart..." Ms. Schulman paused heavily at the end of the line. I could read it better, Rachel had time to think. You're not meant to wait that long at the line breaks.

"Throbs to know... Is something wrong?"

Kyle was stifling a laugh. He'd glanced over at Connor, who smiled and looked at Steve, who lacked even the most basic forms of self-control and looked at Rachel. The girls hid it better, at least in class. But she could hear Deanna behind her, whispering something to Claire, and Erika was blushing and looking guiltily away from her.

It was ironic, really. She'd written her stories for people to read them. Done her best to use exactly the right words. She'd done research, even--- because no matter what Kyle and his friends thought about her, she wasn't the kind of fifteen-year-old who knew about this sort of thing first-hand yet. She'd had to wait for her parents to both leave the house at once, because even if it was Wikipedia, they were still the kind of pictures she wasn't supposed to look at. Daddy wouldn't like it.

If anyone else had given her fic this kind of attention, they'd have been best friends forever. As it was... she wasn't sure how often a typical high schooler heard the word pulse. Or throb. Or, God help her, cupola. She felt like it was every day.

One time would have been too many.

Kyle passed her in the hall after class. "Wittenberg," he said, already beginning to chuckle at his latest punchline, "If I tell you I'm a wizard, will you help me polish my wand?" She kept walking. He put his hand on her shoulder, ran it lasciviously down her arm. Don't react, she thought, but despite herself she twitched away.

"Oh, you know you like it," he said, in that fake-offended tone he liked to put on.

If I were a wizard, she thought, and imagined a jet of green flashing toward him.

George Washington University, Washington, DC, 1030 hours EDT

Tricia Andreoli didn't use Powerpoint. But in some of her lectures, she did like to play videos. The syllabus said today's topic was "The Anti-War Movement in Popular Media" and there was a playlist of images, sound clips and video cued up in the university's course management system. She logged in at 9:59 and started to step through the clips at 10:22. Sixteen of the thirty-two registered students were using laptops. Ten actually taking notes, four mostly idle, one playing Centipede. One Freecell.

The number of note-takers went down slightly for Joan Baez. Further down for Country Joe McDonald. Up to nineteen for Kent State. Back down for the And Babies poster.

At 10:59, the playlist switched to the immolation of Thich Quang Duc in the courtyard of the Cambodian embassy. This wasn't one of the scheduled videos: it appeared with an "automatically recommended by our search algorithm" caption. Tricia let it play anyway, standing silent for nearly two minutes before pausing it to add historical context. Five students made notes. Ten let their computers idle. The remaining laptop user lost four games of Freecell in a row, after which their system suffered an unexpected hardware failure.

When the class was over, Tricia unpaused the video. The monk knelt, unmoving, in the center of the flames. It took nearly ten minutes for the fire to die. At 11:19, Tricia placed a call to Daphne Worth's cell phone. There was no reply.

Philadelphia, 1120 hours EDT

Amelia met Sujit on the Extensive Effects message boards, and for the first few months she hadn't even realized he was local, let alone another UPenn student. They'd started sharing their work back in October, when she'd gotten most of the stained glass window codes, but he'd been the one who realized the digits were a phone number they could call for the next mission instructions. They'd met in January. Nowadays they worked all the clues together.

The game was about a Spetsnaz commando and a cute Turkish reporter and probably alien abductions--- though Sujit was still holding out with the minority who favored mole people. His metalworking hobby had turned out to be relevant, and there'd been a tricky code based on organic chemistry that she'd worked for five hours straight while he brewed coffee and ordered pizza. By now, they were in the top ten or twenty teams for every clue. For the chemistry one, they'd been the first ones to the drop site and the game designers had worked their PCs into the canon.

This morning's message hadn't looked like one they would crack. The main clue looked like some kind of religious thing. Amelia hadn't been to church since high school, and she'd never asked, but she suspected that Sujit could out-atheist Richard Dawkins. But there was also a page of numbers, and she'd dimly remembered that St. Simon had something to do with the Stations of the Cross, so they'd read some Wikipedia and she'd noticed that the number of digits on the page was a multiple of fourteen.

"Coordinates," said Sujit, "it's a scavenger hunt", and she'd already written some custom scripts to decrypt geocodes, and then it must have been their lucky day, because all the grid points were right here in Philly, circling a block near the middle of Point Breeze, and guess which church was right in the center? Win: they were made of it.

She downloaded the instructions to her phone while Sujit grabbed for his car keys. Pick up the parcel, write an address and some cryptic words on the packaging, instructions for the drop would come later.

"Figure we'll be the first team there?"

"Not if you drive." They ran for the car.

St. Cloud, Minnesota, 1330 CDT

Falkner sat ramrod straight in the shotgun seat, eyes on the road. She had that tightness in her face that meant extreme, crushing exhaustion. Hafidha could sympathize. "Pass me that box of Hershey bars," she said. "All jamming and no calories makes Jack a dead boy."

"Erik," said Falkner. "Not Jack."

Hafidha looked sharply over. "What would you know about that?" she asked.

"Everything," said Falkner. "Or did you think it was an accident?"

Hafidha grabbed for the box of Hershey bars herself. It was the economy size, and there were four empty ones just like it stacked up in the passenger seat. She was going to have to stop for supplies again soon. She slit the wrapping with a long, carnelian fingernail and bit two squares neatly from the end. She had decided to let them melt slowly on her tongue, making the food last longer, but as the sugar hit her system, she felt a surge of raw need. She crammed the rest heedlessly into her mouth, swallowing without tasting. In the rear-view mirror, there were stains around her lips, the color of stale blood.

"Hah," she told Falkner jauntily. "I've got a box of Hershey bars and a six-pack of Mountain Dew on that seat says you aren't sitting there after all."

"Oh, Hafs." The voice she used for her daughters. No condescension, but no room for compromise, either. "You have to do better than that."

Circuits balance. Kirchoff's first law: current in equals current out. And where the system wasn't working, components heated up, burned out from the strain. Cross, Talliwell, van Metre... And me, sooner or later. The program would find a way to repair itself. She could feel the strain building up around her. She wanted to be a useful part of the system again. She was trying. But nothing fit. If she could just see the whole circuit, all at once... But it wouldn't fit in her head.

Falkner turned toward her, her eyes softening slightly. "You need to hurt more," she said.

"Hurt more myself? Or hurt more people?"

Falkner didn't answer. She didn't need to. Hafidha had the answer right in front of her. It was written in the license plates of the cars that passed her, in the timestamps of messages on her twitter feed, in hospital admissions and suicide notes, in Arctic ice melting and Indian farmland drying up and the casualty figures of all this morning's battles that would never make this evening's news.

And sometimes she got a flash of the answer and she remembered how it felt to be in the right, to be carrying out her instructions, and she did her best, she hurt the person she was meant to hurt and it felt good, it felt right, but only for a second and then everything was dark and confusing and impossible again and Not. The. Way. I'm. might have been the wrong person, shouldn't have after all. She broke everything she touched, trying to fix things and probably just messing them up more while Esther-Daphne-Chaz (even Chaz) would look tolerantly on and wondered why she couldn't get it right, everyone else got it right and what was wrong with her?

What was wrong with her?

In Delia, North Dakota, Solomon Todd had just bought lunch from a convenience store. Large bag of trail mix, two sodas, three coffees to go. Five sandwiches: three turkey, three ham. Too few? No, Chaz wasn't with them. Where was he? Sandwiches. Probably bad ones. White bread, moist insipidity of cling film and convenience store cooler drawer. She wanted one. She'd have to stop soon.

Worth and Lau. The plane had picked them up in Cincinnati. But Lau was a vegetarian, wouldn't eat a turkey sandwich if her life depended on it.

She glanced over at Falkner again. "They're following me."

Falkner nodded curtly. "Indeed." Her tone was matter-of-fact again, the lieutenant confirming that yes, the enemy was allowed to shoot at you. With real bullets. "They know what they have to do. And so should you."

Hafidha looked over at the shotgun seat. Stacked with boxes, cans, wrappers. Empty. Through the window, a dusty highway shoulder littered with fragments of blown-out tires.

"You're not really there," she said. "Just a few stuck pixels waiting for a refresh."

"Don't believe everything you see, girl." It wasn't Falkner's voice any more. It was hers. "There's a bug in your code."

Philadelphia, 1500 hours EDT

The boy in the seat behind her spent the bus ride home whispering suggestions about what he and Rachel could do as soon as they got to his stop. He wasn't very imaginative, she thought. Most of his ideas were cribbed from Kyle, and he repeated himself a lot. She shrank down in her seat and thought that her life wasn't even close to fair and tried to concentrate on the story she was putting together for a couple of friends on the forum.

It was Wednesday, so Mom would be working a full day. If she got home soon, she'd have almost two hours before she got home and Rachel had to get off the computer. She kept the story files in a hidden directory nowadays, and wiped the browser history and the cache every time. Too little, too late, she supposed. Mr. Staley should have covered browser caches and logging out of public machines in his computer class, instead of teaching Word and Excel to kids who'd been using computers since they were ten.

She shouldn't have tried to write in school. But she didn't want to let down her friends by not posting enough, and she couldn't write at home most days. Daddy would want to know what she was doing. She'd used to have a computer of her own, an old laptop of Mom's. But she'd been listening to music and turned up the volume too loud, and he'd come into her bedroom and kicked a hole in the screen. Since then, she was meant to use the computer in the living room, where they could keep an eye on her.

She logged in: one new message, from HalifaxHazel. Hazel was her best friend on the forum, which she supposed meant her best friend, period. They'd never met in person, although she wondered if she might go to Canada someday for a visit. Not anytime soon though. She wasn't sure it would be worth trying to explain to Mom and Dad how she'd managed to make a Canadian friend. Even if she didn't say anything about slash fic, they'd probably think she was weird for spending so much time on the internet.

Hey, WittyKitten. All psyched for the book release in July? I noticed that a bunch of theaters are reshowing the old movies cheap... this one's near you, right? Rachel figured Hazel would have found a theater all the way across town; they'd discussed their home towns, but never in very specific terms. But the link pointed to the one she normally went to, only fifteen minutes on the bus line. Chamber wasn't one of the better movies, but Alan Rickman had a lot of screen time, and she and Hazel had both decided they'd watch him do pretty much anything. Let me know if you're going! <3 HH

If she were quiet during dinner, Mom would probably let her go to the movies as long as she came straight home afterwards. Maybe the day wasn't a total loss after all.

Washington, DC

If you had the time and the computer power and a lot of illegitimate access privileges, you could make a neat little graph of what bands Gail Petoski liked to listen to. Up till November, the lines would be jagged and unpredictable. Gail had an abiding love for internet radio and an extensive personal collection.

On November 17th the graph would flatline. In fact, there would be no music at all till Saturday, November 28th. Then a single datapoint: "Charlotte Sometimes", by The Cure, played at 6:30pm. Then flatline again.

The next day the line would climb again, reaching an all-time high, the kind of peak that would lead a competent analyst to check the underlying data to make sure it wasn't glitched. Such an analyst would find that Gail had woken at three am and listened to The Cure for four and a half hours.

Over the last five months, she'd played The Cure twenty percent more than any other band. She'd listened to "Charlotte Sometimes" a total of fifty-six times, a record that ended abruptly in late February when she deleted it from her collection and banned her internet radio service from playing it. Between January and March, she'd listened to nine and a half hours of music between two and four am. These incidents were highly correlated with calls and visits from Hafidha Gates, and the graph tapered out again in late March, when the calls stopped coming.

Over the entire five-month period since November, the trend was back toward baseline.

On May 13th, "Charlotte Sometimes" reappeared in Gail's collection, marked as 5 stars and added to a selection of random playlists. If you had access to her webcam, you could watch her collapse at the keyboard, sobbing helplessly. It was supposed to get easier. She'd thought it was getting easier.

outside Alexandria, Minnesota, 1430 CDT

Cattails waved in the breeze. Blue water glittered. Minnesota was pockmarked with lakes, the highway weaving between them or reaching across on squat girdered trusses. There was information in the interlocking structure of the girders, but under the structure was water, and every time Hafidha tried to concentrate on the bridges, her gaze was drawn down until she imagined herself wrenching the wheel to one side, sending the truck over the edge into the cool emptiness underneath.

There were signs for Lake Darling, Lake Le Homme Dieu. Messages, if you could read them. They pulled Erik down beneath the surface. They hid him from you. Minnesota was the Land of Ten Thousand Lakes, and all the lakes were messages. But there were too many and her mind was still too small. She kept on hurting the wrong people.

She was drawing processing power from two university clusters, a bank and a small but ambitious start-up in Silicon Valley. (Sysadmins who didn't install the latest security patches were practically volunteering their servers.) Otherwise she'd have to stop every fifteen minutes for another bucket of fried chicken and french fries. Her lips and teeth felt greasy. There was a rancid bitterness on her breath. She was trying to ration her drinking. If she let herself drink as much as she craved, she'd have to take too many bathroom breaks, and she couldn't spare the time.

They were chasing her. She couldn't see them; they weren't using phones or credit cards. But they'd filed an all-points bulletin on her truck, so she knew there were hounds on her trail. The system, trying to fix the bug, but she needed more time and then she'd remember and everything would be okay again.

She wanted her friends back. If Daphne were here now, she'd put her arms around her and tell her everyone made these mistakes sometimes. If Chaz were here, he'd tell her the key to the code, because Chaz never forgot things like that.

Or maybe she was too far gone for that. Maybe they'd just look at each other and she'd see the message in their eyes, bug in the program, block in the circuit and then they'd take her away and lock her up where they could cut her open and try to figure out where she'd gone wrong. Why she couldn't understand.

But she'd get better. She just needed more time, and for that she'd need to stay away from them for a while. Mulder says: Trust no one! She needed to work faster. If she made sure the right people suffered. If she saved them from the one they were hunting.

Or maybe they were the ones who should suffer. So many times they could have been drowned-stabbed-poisoned-shot and she had saved them. Perhaps it was their turn.

That's not true, she thought, and had a sudden ugly flash of Chaz lying in a hospital bed, putting a good face on it because he knew she was watching. Clenching his hands under the thin hospital sheet, forcing the fear off his face as he turned towards her.

He deserved it. Why shouldn't he be afraid? You're both monsters, so why should he be fixed while you're broken? How would he hold up if you flayed open those scars on his back and wrote out Erik's eulogy in warm sweet blood? Not so well, huh?

Hafidha forced herself to inhale, hold the breath for a second, let it out slow. When had she started to think like this? She couldn't remember. It made her feel sick. She wondered if she'd feel better if she pulled over and let herself vomit, but she couldn't. She was afraid she might starve to death before she could recover the calories.

Another convenience store. She stepped out to gas up the truck, nearly stumbling as the blood flowed back into her legs. The air outside the truck was clammy and moist, the sky blank, depthless gray. To the west the horizon was overwritten with darkness.

The clerk at the counter tracked her as she wandered the shelves, picking up packages. She scanned the bar codes with her eyes, calculated and optimized. X dollars, Y calories equals T minutes of driving.

"Where'd you get that coat?" he asked. She looked down for a second. She was wearing a wasp-waisted gray trench coat lined with scarlet silk. It didn't seem to be helping: she was freezing. Had been for hours.

She stared blankly back at the clerk: Henry Ecklund, from Avon, Minnesota. High school drop-out. One arrest for marijuana possession. One for vandalism. Both cleared from his record last year, when he'd turned 18. 89% probability he was gay: link analysis of his Facebook friendships. Why had he dropped out? Medical records, emergency room admissions... 2005, a broken wrist. 2006, four stitches for a facial laceration. They wouldn't be isolated occurrences. There would be a pattern, small incidents before big ones. She pulled class rosters, cross-correlated attendance records with office referrals, suspension records.

Her purchases took up most of the counter. She waved at the gas pump outside. "The dark red one?" he asked.

She nodded. "He hasn't suffered enough," the bug in her programming whispered. "He still thinks he can forget."

"Michael Bergson," it prompted her, feeding her lines. "Remember him? Sure you do... He hasn't forgotten you either. He's registered with a local cruising site. His last date went to the hospital with kidney damage. But you're still the one he remembers. The best one, the one he can't recreate no matter how hard he tries. It's on you to deal with him. Nobody else is going to. You should use a knife. Make it last. Make him understand what it feels like."

The bug is a memory leak, she thought. It wants to let the past out into the future.

She walked back to the truck, the air swirling around her as the edge of the storm blew in. Had she spoken to the clerk or not? She couldn't remember. Notes on a piano, the sound of the wind rising. She smelled rain.

Philadelphia, 1500 hours EDT

The thing was, he knew Kyle was a jerk. A funny, handsome, talented jerk, but still a jerk. He'd told him to back off a couple of times. Reminded him that his jokes hurt people. But Kyle just said that some people were oversensitive and how was he meant to know they'd take the things he said out of context?

A month or two ago Marissa had told him Kyle knew perfectly well what he was saying. That he liked hurting people. But Connor didn't believe that. They'd grown up together, after all, K-and-C forever. They'd been best friends.

They weren't anymore. Connor felt kind of bad about that, like it was his fault they never really talked the way they used to. He wasn't going to let Marissa pull them even further apart. Guys--- decent guys--- didn't let their girlfriends do that.

Marissa had posted a Facebook invitation for a two dollar second-run movie. Not that either of them were into Harry Potter in particular, but she'd read all books, and he'd at least read the first couple. A bunch of people were going to go: Erika, Hideo, Denise.

He checked the invitation. Marissa hadn't put Kyle on it. Maybe Connor would let that slide this time. He could say he hadn't checked. Anyway, if he was going to go out tonight, he'd better get his homework done for tomorrow.

The discussion group for chemistry was usually a dead zone. But apparently this week's homework had been difficult for a lot of people. There were three or four posts by people who were apparently struggling with problem 7: potassium hydroxide reacting with CO2. He pulled the worksheet out of his notebook. Strange; there were only six problems on his. Probably cut off in the copier. Mr. Chen was very excited about chemistry, not so good at noticing, well, anything else. He and Kyle had pretty much free reign in that class. Last semester Kyle had stolen a ton of magnesium ribbon and lit it off in the parking lot the day before winter vacation. "We're finally free for a month," he'd said. "What's an independence day without fireworks?"

Connor shook his head. Just do the problem. H and OH make H2O. K is positive. C is negative. And when they bond together, what do you get?

He logged back onto Facebook and added Kyle to the invitation. Marissa was just going to have to deal, that was all. She had her friends, he had his. What was wrong with that?

Idlewood Psychiatric Institute, Ashton, VA

None of the patients--- (Don't say inmates.)--- at Idlewood were ever going to live normal lives again. That was a given. It was for their own safety, not to mention the safety of other people. But Dr. Ramachandran and the rest of the staff did their best to provide connections to the outside world.

Susannah Greenwood was taking courses by correspondence. Biology, economics, women's studies. Hakes read biographies.

They had not given Jessica Kelly a dating site profile.

The first few emails had ended up in the spam filter. The next one--- when Dr. Ramachandran found out which staffer had read it over and decided to deliver it to the patient, that person was going to be fired so fast they'd have scorch marks on the soles of their shoes. Thinking that made him feel better. But it didn't solve the real problem, which was figuring out where the profile had come from in the first place.

Jessica herself hadn't written it. First and foremost, her internet access was carefully restricted, filtered to a small, unthreatening list of sites. Of course, the anomaly was called that for a reason. Strange things were known to happen.

But even if Jessica's manifestation had somehow changed to allow her to post such a thing, Casey Ramachandran was morally sure she wouldn't have written this. Jessi Kelly was the kind of girl--- (Woman. Twenty-six years old, this year.)--- The kind of woman who wanted men to like her. Smiled up at them, touched them on the arm or the shoulder, leant forward attentively when they spoke to her. If she'd written a dating site profile, she would have said she was looking for the one, the perfect white knight who had to be out there somewhere. She would have said she wanted someone strong and loving to take her home, because she knew how to appreciate him and listen to him and take care of him forever.

The site said OneJAtATime was laid-back and looking to take it slow. Let's meet up and take it from there. Her body type was listed as slender. The photographs were recent, and flattering. Digitally retouched, Ramachandran thought, a touch of softening over those death's-head cheekbones. Made a note to call Stephen Reyes and get the ACTF to figure out what was behind this.

The profile had been up for eighteen hours by the time they'd found it. Only one email had actually been printed and given to Jessi (thanks be to everything sacred), but there were twenty-three in the inbox. He had read them all. They hadn't looked anomalous. As far as he could tell, this was just what men on internet dating sites were mostly like.

He rubbed at the spot on his temples where the headaches came from. Some days he wished he could just pick himself out a room in the hospital wing, lock himself in and let the rest of the world be someone else's problem forever.

Western Minnesota, 1620 CDT

Between Alexandria and the North Dakota line, there was nothing at all for over a hundred miles. She fought her way through the black curtain of the squall line, slowed down to 40 mph as rain drummed a vicious backbeat into the windshield. I'm under water, she thought. Down under the surface where no one can get me. But so cold, and so lonely.

She turned up the heat again. The windshield was beginning to mist up, but if she turned down the heat, she got the shivers, starting down at the base of her spine and rolling up toward her shoulders and then down into her hands on the wheel. She worried she'd shake the truck off the road. Had to stay in control or they'd catch her.

On the other side of the storm, it was quiet and gray again: the dead level of the prairie. She'd grown up looking at mountains, jagged cliffs rising from the Pacific. This kind of country gave her the creeps. There was nothing to hide behind. She scanned the horizon, worried she was being watched, but what was watching her was the system, and it was bigger than the horizon, bigger than everything, still streaming through her head, archives-newspapers-blogs-journals-tumblrs-videos-tweets in a waterfall of color.

In Fargo, North Dakota, a blogger had posted photos of the Celebrity Walk of Fame on tumblr. Bill Gates had left his handprints in concrete. The next panel over had a signature she couldn't read. The handprints below were filled with bright blood, brimming with it, only the surface tension keeping it contained.

She zoomed in on the image, searching for other pictures of the same spot. CSI aside, there were limits to what you could do with a single image. But that wasn't a problem. The internet was full of images, and Hafidha Gates had never met a haystack big enough to hide the needle she was looking for.

Have to do better. Have to make the right people suffer.

The letters flickered, gold and red, as more images came in. That was an A, surely? And a confident, cursive y. A name she knew. The North Dakota ritual suicides case, in 2007. But she was too late. There was an autopsy; she pulled it up. Cause of death: multiple gunshot wounds. Left hand, right eye, chest, chest again. Todd's work, precise and unhurried, even with a gun he'd been holding to his own head ten seconds before. She'd read his report.

Her jaw clenched. She'd wanted this one herself. It would have given her something to do in Fargo. She wanted a reason to get off the highway, out of the stark nakedness of the landscape. Never mind. There were still messages to send, videos to post, records to alter. With every one, she felt a warm swell of satisfaction that faded too quickly into sour nervousness. Had she made another mistake?

Soon, she reminded herself. Soon she'd have her chance to fix things. Her hand at her left hip coiled and uncoiled over the snap of the holster.

Philadelphia, 1830 EST

Rachel used to like previews. Nowadays she made sure to get to the movies just a little bit late, so she could slip into the theater when the lights were already down. She sat at the back, near the end of a row. Nobody laughed at her. Nobody touched her. Harry Potter had an invisibility cloak. She used to have one too; it was called being a normal person. If she were a wizard, she'd have a cloak like that and she'd never take it off.

Better just to enjoy the movie. You went to the movies to forget about your life for a while, not to obsess about it all over again. She'd just sit and watch for the parts with Alan Rickman, and wonder what kind of wizard she'd get to be if she woke up one morning to find a magic letter with her name on it.

She'd go away to school and live in a dorm with Hazel and SlithyTove and the rest of the writers from the forum. CeridwensShadow was definitely too old to be a student, and Analemma had an eight-year-old son, but they could be professors. There was still teasing and bullying in the books. But if it got too bad, you could duel them with your magic, throw curses at them until they left you alone.

And living at school meant living away from home. Not that she didn't love her family. Daddy cared about her and wanted her to make good decisions, and he got mad when she didn't, which was only fair. But everyone made some bad decisions sometimes, and other people still got to have wall posters that didn't get torn down and favorite t-shirts that didn't get ripped in half.

Just watch the movie. Nearly three hours here, completely alone. Safe. Maybe she'd be the other kind of wizard, the Dark kind. The kind that went out at night and wasn't ever scared, because what could they run into that was scarier than they were?

Rockville, MD

The analyst Hafidha Gates had once upon a time been engaged to marry was named Michael Tessaro. He lived in a four-bedroom house in Rockville, Maryland, married on the rebound to Jennifer Tessaro, nee Anderson: white, six years younger, BA in communications from Penn State, not currently employed or looking for work. They had three children (Michael, 4, Emily, 3, Ethan, 8 months). And a dog, a cocker spaniel named Brownie, because (the picture caption pointed out helpfully), she was brown.

To all appearances, they were happy. Healthy, comfortable, bringing in a reasonable salary and supplementing it, when needed, from their carefully-administered stock portfolios. They'd taken a bit of a hit in the crash, but they talked about their losses in terms of college funds, not this month's bills.

All this, she thought, could have been mine. How did I pass it up?

Michael was writing reports on Darfur for the CIA. They had recommended he make regular appointments with a therapist; he had done so. The therapist's notes indicated that he felt it was important to keep himself objective about the events he covered, that he was proud to contribute to national security, and that he felt fine, really, but knew it was important to take care of himself properly. If the boss thought the job might be a strain on his mental health, he supposed he should go ahead and take the appropriate precautions.

If he missed Hafidha Gates, Princess of Parallelograms, Sister from Another Planet, the Original Steppin' Razor, the profile showed no sign of it. He was, as far as she could see, perfectly in balance: hurting nobody, hurt by nobody. He didn't stay awake at night. He didn't hear voices.

If he had, she thought, he would probably tell them to be less emotional and keep more regular hours.

She was never going to go back. That wasn't a resolution; it was a fact. She was overclocked and underarmored. She was sharper and faster and prettier. She was never going to sign the Superhuman Registration Act. She could kill you with her brain. She was bigger on the inside. She'd seen attack ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion. If she'd ever been boring, boring would've been cool.

When she died, she was going to leave behind her Vincent Black Lightning, 1952. Either that or a big fucking crater.

Philadelphia, 2130 EST

After the pickup, Amelia had gone to the lab while Sujit went off to class and then the coffee shop he claimed to do most of his work in. She'd been planning to check the message board for speculations about what was in the package. But then Hongyang had asked her to look at some of her new results, and they'd spread out the charts across her two monitors and started arguing about the proper branching model for cancer cells and how it would have to change once they got serious about modeling metastasis. That had been exciting, but it also made her feel behind on her own experiments, and then Professor Chmela wandered into the office and everyone suddenly got very industrious.

Sujit, on the other hand, had been busy. "Check out our new instructions. We're dropping the package with this girl."

He flashed a blurry image, taken from a sharp downward angle that Amelia figured meant a security camera: black hair in a mid-length braid, dark blue windbreaker. Her face was pointing away from the lens.

"I posted to the board and nobody else has seen this clue yet." He grinned.

"Isn't she a little young-looking?"

"Well, that's what I thought. So I did a little looking around." Sujit had that tone in his voice that he got when he'd done something especially clever. He took a sip of his cappucino.

"Dude, spill!"

He turned his laptop triumphantly toward her. "Turns out she has an IMBD page. Corinne da Silva. Nineteen years old in real life, but she plays young a lot. Couple of TV roles, advertising..."

Amelia looked down the page. "And Extensive Effects ARG, playing Rebecca Winton. A new NPC! Nice catch. I assume you Googled the name?"

"Well, as you might imagine, there are a bunch. But only one of them has a twitter feed that retweeted one of Irem's posts from last month. The one that led to the Clockwork Forest arc."

Amelia smiled wryly. "I should tell Finetti what you spend your time doing. If you worked this hard on your diss, you'd probably have tenure by now."

"Eh, what she doesn't know won't hurt her." He took another sip of his coffee. Amelia was about to head for the counter and order one for herself when both their phones rang simultaneously.

New message from EE: No text, just a geocode and a time.

"We've got ten minutes," said Sujit. "It better be close by."

Amelia was already typing into her GPS interface. "Just about... eight minutes away. Six if you drive. Funny, it's like they knew where we were coming from."

It took Julius Wittenberg a good long while to even figure out what he was looking at. He'd sat down at the computer, figuring he'd check his mail and read the news for a few minutes. But as he opened the browser, the "recent sites" tab caught his eye.

The crystal of doubt, Adventures in the graveyard, Conversations with the giant squid. He clicked through. They were stories about that wizard school his daughter was obsessed with. He'd thought there were four or five novels. But apparently there were people so desperate for more that they'd written their own. WittyKitten, he was fairly certain, was his own daughter, which was a stupid waste of her time; if she didn't want to spend her evenings studying, she should make more friends at school like a normal kid.

He'd tell her so when she got home. Make sure she stayed away from the computer from now on.

There was an index of the collected works of WittyKitten. Mostly little snippets, it looked like, a couple of hundred words each. He skimmed down the list of titles: a load of stupid made-up words, as far as he could see. On to the news, then.

As he slid the mouse toward the navigation bar, a window flashed up on the screen.

New comment on story: "Past midnight: mature audience, Snape/Hermione". Kyle says, "SO hot, girl, where did you learn to... [click to read more]

It took him another five minutes to read the story. Then he called Miriam up from the kitchen and made her read it too. She kept trying to say it was "natural exploration", "that age when they get curious", that kind of stuff. It was enough to make a man sick. It was pornography, that was what it was, and if his daughter thought she could sneak out in the evenings to go "exploring" with this Kyle person she'd met over the internet of all places, well, she better learn fast.

He'd been curious at that age, sure. All boys were. But that just meant they were on the lookout for whatever they could get from a woman, and his daughter wasn't going to go into the business of giving to them. There was a word for girls who did that. There were several words. If Miriam didn't want to hear words like that said about her daughter, she should have taught her better to begin with.

Now it was his turn, and he was going to tell her what he thought of her and this "Kyle" of hers, and she was going to listen. And then she was going to come home this instant, no matter what she was doing. Then they'd see about a suitable punishment.

Rachel's phone went off just before the end of the movie. It was on vibrate; she pulled it out to check who had called. It was Daddy, and she knew better than to hang up on him. Well, she'd seen the end once already. She slipped out into the lobby to talk to him.

By the time he hung up she was in tears.

She was going to lose her computer access. She was never going to speak to Hazel again. And that was just the beginning of the punishment. She was sure Daddy would think of more once she got home. He hadn't ever hit her before. But he'd always said he would, if he had to.

She had always been afraid to ask what might make him have to.

It had been Kyle's fault, he'd been very clear about that. Kyle had been sending her messages, commenting on her stories. (She'd wiped the cache, hadn't she? How had it even... Never mind that, the damage was done.) And just as she thought that, Connor and Marissa and their usual group of friends walked out of the theater door, laughing and joking with one another. Kyle, as always, playing Connor's wingman, trailing him on whatever side Marissa hadn't taken. He looked up and spotted her, and she could see the lights in his head come on as he tried to come up with another one of his jokes.

She cursed herself for crying in public. Crying made the invisibility cloak turn off.

Behind her, an unfamiliar man cleared his throat. Dark, Indian-looking, wearing a rumpled shirt and holding a brown paper package. Next to him stood a woman with freckles and blue highlights in her blond hair, wearing what looked like a lab coat. "Amazing acting", she whispered conspiratorially, and winked at Rachel.

"Do I know you?" she said. The man just thrust the package into her hands. She looked down at the address.

Ms. R W

Standing outside auditorium 4

Ritz Theater

Philadelphia

Pennsylvania, United States

Like the magic letter from the books. Only not good enough magic, because although the package was surprisingly heavy for something so compact, she was sure it wasn't going to get her out of the trouble she was in. This was real life, after all.

"Hey, Wittenberg!" Kyle had finally found his punchline. "Wanna ride my broomstick?"

She ripped through layers of packaging, trying to ignore him, and the pistol dropped neatly into her hands.

Philadelphia, 2215 EDT

There were a lot of eyewitnesses and none of them had seen anything that made a goddamn bit of sense. Christy Slack and her partner had been first on the scene, and she'd practically had to fight her way through the mob of people who claimed to have seen it happen so she could get inside and confirm that the killer wasn't still in there.

Tyler, with his blocky ex-marine build and bullhorn voice, had herded everyone outside. He and a few other officers were stringing crime scene tape, shouting at potential witnesses not to leave until Homicide could show up and take names.

Slack had checked the victims. The medics might as well wait until they'd finished clearing the theaters, she figured. "Five of them," she reported back. "No breathing, no pulse. And not a mark on any of them."

Bill Tyler's dark bulldog face was hard to read, but she thought he'd taken that hard. She tried to remember how old his kids were; his youngest might be around fifteen. If it were Ellie lying there... I'm never letting her out alone. Not ever. She shook her head. "Hell of a world, huh?"

"Not a mark? I thought they were shot." Tyler might be shaken, but there was still an armed suspect out there somewhere.

"I didn't see any blood," said Slack.

"Okay, let's get a description out." He raised his voice. "Hey! Anyone who saw the killer clearly, please come over here now. We need to get a description, and we need know what kind of weapons this guy's still got."

A blond woman with blue-streaked hair stepped forward, looking back to beckon the dark man standing next to her. "We've got pictures," she said. "Which is a long story." She let out a sigh, clenching her eyes shut for a second. She was shivering slightly, Slack noticed, a shock reaction. The man nodded soundlessly, opening a battered laptop to call up a portrait of a dark-haired girl who looked about fifteen. Tyler was already on the radio, filling in the description.

"We need to know what she's carrying," Slack said, making her voice steady and gentle. Marine voice wasn't always the right approach.

"We--- she had a---" The blond's voice shook. "She had a gun. But I didn't hear any gunshots. Just flashes of green light."

Metigoshe Indian Reservation, 2200 hours CDT

To: HalifaxHazel. I don't think I'm going to be able to post anymore. I don't want to tell you what happened. If you knew you'd be sorry you were friends with me and I couldn't bear that. Just pretend I'm invisible, ok? Love 4ever <3<3<3 WK.

The forum post oozed with anomalous color, and in the back of Hafidha's head, the bug made a painful hacking noise. After a second she realized it was laughter. It had worked hard to make this happen.

"You worked hard," it countered. "I was just cheering you on. But credit where it's due, and I think this one's yours."

Hafidha tried to remember putting this plan together, but she'd sent so many messages since this morning. It had fit into the program somehow, she thought. She'd had to hurt them for a reason.

"Don't you get it?" The bug's exuberance was rich and rancid like spoiled butterfat. "The program doesn't just run on pain. It is pain. That's what the system does."

That couldn't be the key. It was still just out of her reach. She'd figure it out; she had to.

"Darling, you're adorable sometimes. But you know there isn't really any plan, don't you? You're just seeing patterns because that's what you do."

She'd spent all day hurting people. People she loved. People she didn't know. She felt sick, and the worst part was, she knew she'd feel better if she could let the current flow for just one more minute. She needed to do it again.

"Pick someone," whispered the bug, low and urgent. "Someone who deserves it."

Felicity Tabor: 22 years old. White. Blond hair dyed black. Skinny, but weren't they all. Manifestation: poisoning. A monster and a murderer. Ironic how she kept running into those.

"You know how this ends," said the bug. It was using her own voice again. She wanted it to stop. She grabbed for a handful of dreadlocks and pulled, no, not enough, clutched her fingernails into the soft flesh of her throat, squeezed at the skin until it broke, licked the bitter tang of iron from her fingertips.

Be Chaz, she thought. She could bear it if it came from Chaz. She wanted to see him sitting in the shotgun seat next to her, but all she could manage was the voice.

"It'll be all right, Wabbit," he said, so calm he might even have meant it. "I'll take care of you. I'll take the pain away."

She thought: He'll kill himself, too. I can't ask him to do that. It would be the worst thing I ever did, and I would miss him so much and he'd never be able to forgive me.

"What does that matter if you're both dead?" asked the bug. It was using her voice again. There was an answer, she knew there was, she knew. But she couldn't remember what it was.

Playlist

  • The Cure: Plainsong
  • Royksopp: Tricky Tricky
  • Joy Division: Interzone
  • World/Inferno Friendship Society: Addicted to Bad Ideas
  • Bat Boy, The Musical: Comfort and Joy
  • Sleater-Kinney: Jumpers
  • Elliot Smith: Junk Bond Trader
  • The Dresden Dolls: Girl Anachronism
  • Joy Division: She's Lost Control
  • Wild Beasts: Underbelly
  • The Smiths: Meat is Murder
  • PJ Harvey: Kamikaze
  • The Cure: Boys Don't Cry
  • Amanda Palmer: The Killing Type
  • Wild Beasts: We Still Got the Taste Dancing on Our Tongues
  • Kenna: Hellbent
  • David Bowie: Queen Bitch
  • They Might be Giants: Ana Ng
  • Health: Goth Star
  • Beth Orton [sTaTe remix]: Blood Red River
  • Fever Ray: I'm Not Done
  • Pictureplane: Post Physical