Chapter 1: An Early Start
SUNDAY, MAY 15, 2270
12AM - RAINING
C4, SOMEWHERE IN THE SHALLOWS
The cleanest thing on the people here, tucked under ramshackle tents in the alleys between the concrete warehouses, are their masks; pale, disposable, with faint leaf-like ribbing, peaking out of the folds of grimy layers. They pay no attention to the open door, spilling yellow light into the pitch water of the canal, or the five men in black helmets flanking the doors’ either side with guns held casually. They make a point to ignore the low conversation that slips easily beneath the murmuring water.
No one notices the figure in the shimmering long coat, reflecting the environment with only a hint of pixilation and a breath of visual delay. The men in black helmets conclude their conversation abruptly when a man on the periphery gives a strangled gurgling instead of a response, the tip of a dark blade protruding from his sternum. The blade retracts, the man collapses, and there stands the figure, reaching into his coat.
The men raise their guns as three blurs streak from the figure’s hand, becoming a dagger to an airway, a carotid artery, a shattering helmet. Three men crumple as the last fires a molten streak from his gun a breath too high as the figure darts forward, ducking the shot. The gun barrel is knocked aside. A blade enters the man’s throat and greets his spine.
The figure’s mask is startling white, smooth and absolutely featureless beneath the hood, save a spatter of blood. The last man slides off the blade. The figure steps over the body and through the glowing door, cutting off sounds of confusion as it closes.
Chapter 2: Stubborn Philosophies
Sutton makes questionable career decisions
FRIDAY, MAY 6, 2270
11AM - SUNNY, POST-RAIN
O6 - CREST
FLORIDA UNIVERSITY RESEARCH CENTER
“There isn’t anything more I can do at this point, Sutton. You broke the law.”
Dr. O’Neal is a soft looking woman in her fifties, wearing a lab coat, under a semi-transparent blue smock, and a very disappointed expression. Sutton, the twenty-something sitting across from her, shies away from the look and the statement, turning instead to the plaques on the wall; markers of scientific achievement and contributions, framing a news clipping boasting BREAKTHROUGH IN MAMMAL LIMB REGENERATION in bold type. The fresh light of the late-morning sun filters through the rain-dappled window, gentle and at odds with the tone of the room.
“Breaking the law is a bit harsh,” Sutton says, shifting in their seat. “Cas-nine was never actually used for splicing, and...well, it was in our cold storage, so clearly not under the same restrictions as other vectors.”
O’Neal levels Sutton with a withering gaze.
“The samples in cold storage you took without permission? Yes, we’re allowed to store them, but there is procedure to using them, which you would’ve known if you’d done the most basic step of asking me .”
Sutton shrinks. “...You’d have said no.”
O’Neal sighs. “With good reason…”
“For political reasons.” Sutton bites back, almost as a reflex.
They sit up in their chair, fingers curling into fists in their lap. “People are dying. We should be doing everything we can to fight this, not skirting a damn party line built by fanatics-”
“You’ve been fired.”
Sutton settles back into their seat.
O’Neal rubs the bridge of her nose, taking another deep breath before continuing.
“I convinced the board not to expel you,” she says, giving Sutton a tired look. “That’s the best I could do. You were warned, and the university is not about to risk purist backlash or government fines for your little stunt.”
“Stunt?” Sutton sputters. “I was trying to save people!”
There’s almost anger in Sutton’s voice, a desperate mania to their eyes, but it fades under O’Neal’s unflinching gaze. It only takes a moment for Sutton to look simply desperate.
“You’re smart, Sutton,” O’Neal says. “But your brain isn’t worth anything in prison.”
Sutton sinks back into the chair.
“...Am I getting arrested?”
“No,” O’Neal says with almost amusement. “I managed to talk them out of that as well.”
Sutton breathes in...breathes out...leans forward in their seat and cradles their head in their hands. O’Neal watches them for a moment, then looks away, pulling out a plastic slip and a pen.
Sutton pushes their hair out of their face, sits up, and stands with a forced lightness.
“Guess that’s that, then.” They try to smile. It’s a grimace. “I’ll just, uh...see myself out.” They back slowly towards the door. “I’ll see you this fall, maybe, or…” They turn, face slipping to a blank look of defeat. “Whenever they open the schools back up…”
Sutton reaches for the door. O’Neal stands.
The door slides open as Sutton stills. O’Neal rounds her desk and walks over to Sutton, who turns only when O’Neal is at their elbow, handing them the slip.
“What’s this?” Sutton asks, glancing over it.
“An address,” O’Neal says, tucking her hands behind her. “For a lab that may be better suited to your...philosophy”
“I don’t understand,” Sutton frowns.
“As much as I look forward to seeing you in my class,” O’Neal says, turning back to her desk. “There’s no point squandering your talents until then.”
O’Neal resettles, and offers Sutton a small smile.
“I’m sure if you go, they’ll be happy to explain.”
Sutton looks from O’Neal, back down at the paper, stepping out the door. They pocket the slip as the door slides closed behind them. They give the office one more glance before walking away, head tucked.
In the middle of the lobby is a spinning info-display, air-quality info sheets that mention free disposable air filtration masks at local health centers, bold underneath a stylized leaf, and a very aggressive pro-contraceptive ad.
Sutton waves at the receptionist as they pass by the main desk then pulls a clear mask out of their bag, slipping it over their mouth and nose. Flecks of snow flutter about as they step outside under a sign reading FLORIDA UNIVERSITY RESEARCH CENTER. Sutton flips up the hood of their jacket and steps off into the bustling crowds.
The first hyperline they take is low-capacity, a spherical carriage built to hold no more than ten, filled with eleven people dressed in sophisticated navy, white, and silver business attire, wearing elaborate masks with geometric motifs. Sutton’s nose is an inch at most from the observation window, reaching up to the peaks of skyscrapers taken literally, and down to the idea of distant waves hundreds of feet below, indiscernible through the web of countless bridges spanning between the monolithic pillars.
The hyperline slides into the station.
This is the...Crest line. Now arriving...Coral Springs Station. Next stop…
FRIDAY, MAY 6, 2270
1PM - SUNNY, POST-SNOW
O8, CORAL SPRINGS - NEPTUNE
The couch sits under the wide, shuttered window, to the left of the front door, and underneath Sutton. A trail made of shoes, a coat, and bag mark the ground from the door to Sutton’s blank stare up at the ceiling.
The lock on the door clicks, the door slips open, and in steps a young woman with bright red hair cleanly layered above blonde and messily pulled into a loose bun which, when partnered with her wrinkled dress and traces of glitter, tell a story of crashing somewhere that isn’t home after a party.
“Oh, Lana, hi.” Sutton says, sitting up.
Lana looks to Sutton with a bright smile as she leans into the arm of the couch and unhooks one of her heels. “Hey! You’re home early.”
“Oh.” Sutton’s nose wrinkles. “...I was let go.”
“They finally closed the lab? That’s nice.” Lana says, having trouble with her other shoe. “I thought it was weird they kept you working when they’d quarantined the rest of campus,”
“Technically not a quarantine, that’s, uh...nevermind. What I meant was-”
“Do you get paid leave or no? How does that work?” Lana asks, walking past the couch and into a small kitchen, with a bar and two stools.
Sutton’s makes a pained expression as Lana opens the fridge.
“I...don’t think so,” Sutton says slowly, before turning to look at Lana anxiously. “But I’ll make rent! I’ll take care of it, I just, uh-”
“Oh, don’t worry about it, I was just wondering. Don’t know a thing about epidemic leave policy.” Lana waves a dismissive hand as she closes the fridge. “That’s kind of a dick move though…” She walks back past the couch, twisting the lid off of a food pouch. “Your boss better give you an amazing recommendation when you graduate.”
As Lana ascends the three steps on the other side of the front door and disappears into a room with an unmade bed peeking through the doorway, Sutton pulls the slip out of their pocket.
FRIDAY, MAY 6, 2270
7PM - OVERCAST, POST-SNOW
F6, PALM BEACH - CHAMPION
The slip reads ‘8463 SW Hillsboro Bridgeway, F6, Palm Beach, Champion.’ Sutton drops it to their side, looking up at a condemned building. The windows are dim, and the faded sign above the cloudy double doors says ‘Research Center for Genetic Development.’ A man in a blue suit walks past. A woman in a faceted mask passes in the opposite direction.
Sutton’s shoulder’s drop as they hunch forward, deflated.
“This can’t be a joke…” Sutton glances around, hesitantly approaching the double doors. “Dr. O’Neal wouldn’t do that…”
Sutton leans in to peer through the glass doors, which slip open with a whoosh . Sutton jerks away, startled. They blink, take another look around, and step inside.
The interior is the bare remnants of a reception area. It’s dark and deserted, but clean; much cleaner than the grimy windows. Sutton walks further into the space, glancing back as the double doors close with a hiss.
A small green dot blinks on the wall opposite the doors. The plain surface splits and slides back soundlessly, revealing a tall man in a white suit and a white plague mask.
“Hello!” The man says. Sutton flinches hard, turning back into the building, mouth falling open as they watch the wall close behind the man.
“You must be Sutton Riviera,” he says, stepping forward and holding his hand out. “I’ve heard so much about you.”
“You have?” Sutton asks, taking a half step back towards the doors.
“Not to worry, all good things, all good things,” he says, taking their hand and giving it an enthusiastic shake. “It’s a pleasure to finally meet you.”
“Uhh…” Sutton looks from the man, his hazel eyes twinkling through the holes of his beaked mask, to the now closed wall over his shoulder. “Thanks?”
The man retracts his one hand, before tucking both behind his back.
“My name’s Outis. I’m here to conduct your interview.”
“Yes, that’s why you’re here, isn’t it? To join our institution?”
Sutton’s frown deepens, brow furrowing.
“...The RCGD went under after Proscription?” they say, the end turning up too much to be a statement.
“Correct!” Outis nods, a smile in his voice. “We’re just using the space.”
Sutton takes a moment, looking over the chipper man and the spotless abandoned building.
“I’m…” Sutton fixes Outis with a narrowed gaze. “...confused.”
“I’d be surprised if you weren’t. Why don’t we sit and I can explain.” Outis gestures towards the waiting area in the corner, turning on his heel and going to sit, not checking if Sutton follows.
They do, eventually, sinking into the chair across from Outis, who places one leg primly over the other and resting his hands comfortably in his lap.
“Before we go any further, it’s important that you understand that we aren’t exactly a legal organization.” Outis pauses. Sutton continues to sink. “...We believe that scientific advancement shouldn’t be hindered by fallible things like bureaucracy.”
“Meaning our research is unfettered by laws and regulations made by politicians loyal only to money and public opinion.”
“...Like anti-gene modification laws?” Sutton asks stiffly.
Sutton hosts a pensive exchange between their eyes and the floor before standing.
“You know what…I don’t think, uh...I don’t think this is the place for me.” They shuffle around the chair. “I really, really appreciate the offer, but I’m gonna...I’m gonna go.” They offer another grimace. “You have a good night.”
Sutton power walks towards the exit. .
“Using CRISPR vectors to treat the ND was a unique approach…do you think your father might have lived if you’d had access to them sooner?”
Sutton stops, eyes wide like they’d been struck. They stand up straight in the doorway, rigid.
“...Cas-nine didn’t work. The scope was too narrow, too slow, not enough to save a patient,” Sutton says, their words clipped.
“It’s my understanding that the CRISPR structure is old...outdated. The only reason you had any access to it was because it’s functionally useless.” Outis becomes preoccupied with invisible lint on his suit. “It’s honestly amazing you got anything out of it. Dear lord, imagine what you could do with something that wasn’t a relic.”
Sutton takes a deep breath.
“...You have access to splicing vectors?”
“Among other things.” Sutton can feel his smile through the mask, on her still back. He had a voice that smiled.
Sutton takes another deep breath.
“Alright…” Sutton says, eyes on the floor. They shake their head and turn around, shoulders hunched in some concession. “Alright, alright, what do you want to know?”
The door slips closed behind them. Outis stands, his posture light and easy as he steps halfway to them.
“I believe that’s all we need to know at the moment,” Outis chirps. Sutton’s brow furrows.
“This is an interview?”
“I’d say it’s more an interview of us than of you,” Outis says, waving a hand breezily, before tucking both primly at the small of his back. “For your sake. You wouldn’t be here if we didn’t want you.”
Sutton nods slowly, toeing at the grooves of the still-shiny tile.
“And who are... we , exactly?” Sutton asks.
“We…” Outis waits for Sutton to look at him, eyes dancing with the evening lights slipping through the hazy door at their back. “Are Impetus.”
Chapter 3: An Offer You Can't Refuse
Frogger makes a deal
SUNDAY, MAY 15, 2270
7PM - STORM, POST-OVERCAST
F9, BOCA RATON - LOW TIDE
Typical of red-light districts, everything that wasn’t a flashy club looked condemned. Buoyed by the dirt and grim, The Nautilus is a dazzling building with a diamond-like face of twinkling little lights, its name scrawled across in glowing gold script, bathing the vagabonds and scantily dressed youth waiting to face off with the bouncer.
A tall figure in teal, dressed for a downpour, stands at a corner less than a block away, eyeing the building, arms crossed, finger tapping his forearm. Even with his face masked, he radiates a disdain that only intensifies as the lenses of his bulbous orange goggles whir into a glaring focus. He spares the entrance a breath before turning instead to a dim, narrow alley.
The teal figure enters the alley, taking loud, deliberate steps, until it opens into the dismal concrete of the building’s service spine. There’s a man seated on a crate next to a woman who stands on the other side of a closed door; both wearing simple respirators, both with weapons fixed on the teal figure as he makes his presence known, hands raised in concession. His gunmetal mask gives a faint, mechanical whir.
“Nimo’s expecting me.” The voice is monotone and robotic. The man on the crate scoffs, grip easing on his handgun as he rolls his eyes.
“Great,” the man says. “Another dickhead with a mixer.”
“If you’d like to check the guest list, the reservation is under Frogger.”
“You’re supposed to go through the front,” the man continues, glaring. Frogger tilts his head, the plastic of his semi-transparent hood crinkling with the motion.
“If you’re not going to let me in, I’ll go.” Frogger looks at the woman, who steps forward. Her eyes stay trained on his goggles as she presses the muzzle of her shotgun into his shoulder, giving him a slow onceover. She leans forward, brushing aside the hem of his raincoat and sliding a six-inch knife out of the strap on his thigh.
The man leans forward eagerly, elbows to knees. “Can I shoot him?”
“No,” she says, turning to the man and handing him Frogger’s blade. “Captain says take him up.”
The man wrinkles his nose, taking the knife and rising with a groan. He swats at a panel near the door. The panel blinks green and the door slides open to reveal a dim stairwell. The man gives a loose wave over his shoulder as he enters, and Frogger follows.
Climbing with impatience, the man reaches the top several steps before Frogger. A band of pulsating light breaks into the stairwell as the man reaches the upper landing, a flood of greens and blues. Music eagerly rattles down the exposed opening, resonating on the same frequency as bones. Frogger steps from bland steps to shining wood floors, and the door slips closed behind him.
The interior is reminiscent of a sunken cruise ship; finely carved railings, portholes to nowhere, a ballroom feel for a dance floor that had never seen a slow dance. What made the space, though, was the way the light dodged certain corners, the decorations and decals bringing to mind rust and algae when caught in peripheries, and how the smell of sweat and alcohol almost matched sea brine. Subtle, unintentional details of decay.
Devilish, wealthy men in expensive suits with sinister airs meander about with drinks and women. On the inner lens of Frogger’s goggles dance net-worths and assorted crimes--bribery, blackmail, sweatshop owner, assault (acquitted). Their hands, heavy laden with blood red jewels, almost brushing Frogger’s dark gloves as he passes.
The man with his knife, the lookout, leads him to an alcove tucked into the far corner of the balcony, a luxurious draping of damask curtains in place of a door, flanked by a muscular man in all white. The lookout raises a hand to the man in white, who reaches off to his side to pull open the curtain, eyes never ceasing their steady scan of the room.
There’s an immediate shift in tone entering The Captain’s Quarters, the subdued light becoming warm and steady. A man, mid-forties with dark hair slicked back and graying at the temples, lounges on a crimson daybed overladen with satin pillows and beautiful women wearing little besides their weary expressions.
A smile splits the man’s harsh features, heavy laden with the ghost of Schadenfreude in the raise of his brow.
Frogger gives a pointed look to a bloodstain on the floor at his feet, before the daybed.
“I hope you’ll excuse the mess, we had an...unexpected guest.” The man says, leaning into the strawberry blonde with a dusting of freckles, who whispers in his ear with her eyes fixed on Frogger. His smile widens.
“We scanned him outback-” the lookout begins, snapping his mouth shut with a click of teeth as Nimo raises a brow. The lookout clears his throat, slides Frogger’s knife through his belt, and roughly pats Frogger down.
“You’re paranoid,” Frogger says, raising his arms.
“For good reason,” Nimo responds as the lookout pulls a large knife from Frogger’s boots.
Frogger’s mask whirrs. He brushes the lookout away dismissively, who startles and goes for his gun. Frogger pulls a knife from his other boot and tosses it to the lookout, handle first. The lookout fumbles to catch it, and Nimo holds up a staying hand before he can reorient himself.
Opening his raincoat, Frogger unhooks the waist and thigh straps of his side bag, shoving it roughly at the lookout, turning back to Nimo with hands out, open palmed and placating, goggles in glaring focus.
“You called me.”
Nimo hums and waves away his entourage, reclining into the daybed as they clear out. Once they’re alone, Nimo places an elbow on a pillow and a cheek on three knuckles, tapping at his temple as he gives Frogger the third onceover of the evening.
Nimo breaks the silence with an edge of impatience. “Where are my women?”
“The A Levels, Atlantis specifically.”
“That’s all you have?”
“The dome interferes with tracking, which I need time to mitigate and you called me in early.” Frogger shifts his weight to one leg, arms coming up to cross his chest.
Another hum. A couple more taps. Nimo stands, going to an end table with fluted glasses and a crystal bottle of amber, which he uncorks. Frogger stays where he is.
“It’s The Prince,” Nimo says, pouring himself a drink.
“Inconclusive, at the moment.”
“It’s him.” Nimo turns to Frogger. “Maybe he’s finally decided to get into the market. Late to the party, and stealing my assets.”
Nimo takes a sip.
Nimo gestures to the bottle. “Drink?”
“No. Is that all?”
“What does the name Impetus mean to you?” Nimo says to the swirling liquid in his glass. Frogger straightens, earning a raised brow from Nimo over his glass.
“They’re...rogue scientists.” Frogger shifts legs. “They operate on the edge of the deep, usually keeping to themselves.”
“Usually...” Nimo presses.
“Some assassinations post-proscription, now regulated to selling ferals.” Frogger pauses. “...They’ve been killing drug barons lately.”
“Sounds like a change.”
“And you’re certain it’s them?” Nimo’s expression was dramatically doubtful. Frogger’s raincoat crinkles beneath his gloves.
“Their method is straightforward, when you know what to look for.”
Nimo gives an impatient, whirling gesture. Frogger stares at him, drums his fingers on his arm twice, before turning to the blank wall at his left, mask whirring. Nimo turns as Frogger gestures, the lights back behind his goggles. Frogger presses a button on the rim of his goggles, and the light spills onto the wall, projecting a video interface.
Nimo snorts. “A projection?”
Frogger navigates through the display, not stopping even as he looks over and fixes Nimo with a blank look, the light from his goggles adjusting to accommodate the movement, staying fixed on the wall.
Turning back, Frogger opens a file with a wave of his hand. A clip begins, a wavering timestamp reading ‘Apr 13 2264’ in the bottom corner, and across the chasm between pillars, a dark figure with a white face appears from a window.
Nimo squints. “And this is…”
“An exterior view of US Senator Devine’s bedroom the night of his heart attack.” Frogger zooms in on the figure; all black save a featureless white mask. Nimo lip curls, but before he can speak, Frogger pulls up another still. “Outside the home of a prominent purist, ilarion upton, also a heart attack.”
Another still, then another; image after image, different locations, different time stamps, same faceless white.
“Senator Veronika Duforest, purist Marijan Abel, purist Senator Sasha Peters.” Frogger stops pulling up images, shooting Nimo a glance. “All anti-splicers, all heart attacks.”
Nimo tucks a hand under his chin, considering the gallery.
“...How do you know this is Impetus’ man?”
“After the anti-splicing laws passed, a single figure in a smooth white mask massacred every blackmarket splicer and feral dealer in the deep, leaving impetus with a monopoly.” Frogger shuts off the projection with a click, bodily turning to face Nimo. “Before your time.”
“No pictures?” Nimo asked, a turn to his lips.
“Surveillance is spotty below c-levels.”
“So this is, what? Word of mouth?”
“If you expect me to explain every step of my work, this will go very slowly.”
Nimo gives an amused breath, before his expression flattens. He sighs, disappointed as he turns from the wall.
“That’s it? That’s all you have?”
Frogger turns, following Nimo’s movement.
“More than most.”
“I would hope so, as I’m not paying you for tidbits .” Nimo turns on his heel, holding expectant hands out to his side. “Come now, can’t you give me something a little more substantial?”
Frogger’s mask whirrs. “Such as?”
“ Such as... ” Nimo circles the perimeter of the room, holding up a finger and watching his loafers sink into the plush carpet. “Who’s pulling the strings?”
“That’s...an expensive question.”
“I’m a wealthy man,” Nimo says with a sweeping gesture. “And if they’re becoming more active, I’d like to know who I’m dealing with.”
“They’re targeting the drug trade, it’s unlikely that their attention will turn to pimps or mercenaries.”
Nimo’s smile is humorless. “I thought you weren’t an oracle.”
“No. I’m not an idiot, either,” Frogger says, crossing his arms again. “Impetus likes its secrecy, and has effective ways of keeping it.”
“I’ll keep it in mind.”
Nimo steps up to Frogger, hooking his thumbs in his belt loops, posture relaxed.
“I’ll give you a million for the identity of Prometheus.” He says the last word like checkmate, and Frogger stills. A heart beats once, twice…
Thrice, and Nimo smiles with an arch to his brow.
“ Ah, now you’re listening.”
“Where did you--”
“Let’s not waste more time,” Nimo says, stepping forward and holding out his hand to Frogger. “If you’re not interested, I can find someone else.”
Frogger looks from Nimo’s face, to his proffered hand. A drum of fingers.
Frogger shakes Nimo’s hand.
‘Transfer complete: $9,000.00’ floats in Frogger’s goggles. He looks past it, narrowing his eyes on Nimo as the man tucks his hands behind his back, expression calm, pleasant.
“I wasn’t finished.”
“This is bigger than prostitutes. Besides, I know the problem, and it’ll be dealt with...” Nimo turns to the curtain and gives a wave, rounding Frogger to retrieve his drink, smiling at Frogger as the entourage returns. “I’d rather you focus on my new request.”
The women return, the strawberry blonde at Nimo’s hip on the edge of the day bed, then the lookout, who brushes past Frogger to hand Nimo his things.
“As always, it’s a pleasure working with you.” Nimo turns one of Frogger’s knives over in his hand, eyeing it. “I do have one more question.”
Nimo’s attention flicks from the blade to Frogger, who drops his arms and slouch as Nimo steps into his space.
“I hope you’ll excuse its personal nature, but I’m dreadfully curious...” With his eyeline a good two inches lower than Frogger’s, Nimo couldn’t exactly loom, but when Frogger moved to take his bag and blades, Nimo held his gaze. “Do you ever get tired of playing both sides?”
“ ...Loyalty is bad for business.”
“That it is…” Nimo concedes, amused. He flips the longest blade, offering Frogger the handle. “ Still, not unprofitable, and there’s something to be said for security.”
Frogger takes back his blade and replaces it back on his thigh. Nimo offers another, then the last, and only after they’re all put away does he release Frogger’s bag.
The waist strap is enough for Frogger to turn on his heel to leave.
“Think about it.”
Frogger ducks under the curtain, feeling the smug expression he doesn’t turn to see on Nimo’s face. “I’ll keep it in mind.”
Frogger heads for the door he originally came through, only to find it locked. His mask whirrs and his shoulders slump for a moment before he recomposes, turns on his heel, steps down the grand staircase into the mess of writhing bodies.
He gets a few nasty looks as he pushes his way through the crowded dance floor. A particular rough shove jostles Frogger into a young woman with dyed hair, the under layers of platinum blonde peeking through fire truck red. A wobbly readout appears in Frogger’s goggles as she makes a shaky turn to give him a curious look: Lana Blackwell, 23 | Female | GUH, Undergrad in FU Theology Department (4th year), $234,768, Noise complaint (multiple, no charges).
“Look at you, Mr. Mysterious, keepin’ your mask on indoors. That’s bad manners, ya know,” she says, leaning through the readout with a drunken grin. Frogger leans away, dismissing the distorted readout with a subtle swipe of his hand.
“ Oh my god!” Lana laughs. “You sound like a robot!”
She steps into Frogger’s space, catching his hand before he can step back.
“That’s so cool. Do you wanna dance?”
“No,” Frogger says, trying to slip his hand out of her grip.
“ C’mooooon… I’m a lotta fun.”
Lana’s grip tightens and she moves closer still.
“I’m not here to dance.” Frogger wrenches his hand away, and Lana stumbles, surprised and unsteady. Frogger’s goggles whirr into wide focus as he catches her. “Sorry, I didn’t mean to-”
“...Are you okay?”
Lana starts crying.
“Please don’t do that.” Frogger backs off, holding up both hands like a ward.
She cries louder, drawing attention. Frogger’s gaze darts around for an exit, skipping over glances from nearby dancers, but hesitating on a couple men near the bar, eyeing the exchange with particular interest. His mask whirs as he reaches up to click a button on it’s side before bending down far enough to be on eye-level with her.
“Are you here with anyone?” Frogger asks, voice soft without the mixer, easily lost to the crowds and music but loud enough for the girl in front of him.
Lana gives him a watery frown...then shakes her head.
“Okay, think it’s time to head home?”
Lana drops her gaze to the ground, rubbing her eyes.
“Yes?” He prompts.
“I’m going to take you home. Is that okay?”
“You didn’t want to dance with me…” Lana says, face settling into a suspicious pout, but not crying. Frogger clicks the side of his mask again.
“Well, robots can’t dance.” The stilted mixer is back. “But I can walk just fine.”
Lana gives him a weak glare before her lips twitch and she starts to laugh. Frogger stands up straight as she has a little fit, putting her hand on his arm for balance. He gives her a moment, then places a guiding hand on her back.
“C’mon,” he says, leading her off the dance floor.
“Robots are-” Lana cuts herself off with a giggle. “ Wonderful dancers!”
Frogger doesn’t respond, instead sparing the men at the bar a look over his shoulder before focusing on keeping her from falling over or knocking into anyone.
They finally make it to the coat check near the entrance, manned by a bored guy with black nail polish and a nametag reading ‘Car.’ He shoots Frogger a look of disdain as they approach.
“Lana Blackwell.” Frogger says
“New alias?” Car asks, raising a brow. Frogger leans on the counter, drumming his fingers against it.
“I need her mask.” Frogger gestures to Lana, swaying at his elbow. He puts out a hand to steady her, noticing her short dress. “And coat.”
Car eyes Lana like she suddenly appeared from the woodwork. “Didn’t think you were the type to pick up drunk girls.”
Frogger drums his fingers again. “Her stuff. Please.”
Car steps into his little room with a roll of his eyes. Frogger turns to Lana, who’s blank expression has shifted into a grimace.
“You okay?” Frogger asks.
Lana turns away to vomit.
Car returns with a simple, but shiny mask and an equally shiny coat. He notices the vomit, face scrunching in disgust.
“Oh, great. ” Car drops the item on the counter. “Couldn’t wait till you were outside?”
Frogger snatches Lana’s stuff, takes her arm and leads her out of the club. They’re a good distance away when Frogger stops and hands over the coat and mask. She leans on him, heavily, trying to get the jacket on with sluggish motions. Frogger gestures, and her readout reappears. Another gesture, and it expands, showing her address (488 Valencia Tower, O8, Coral Springs, Atlas, Florida). Frogger glances over a map briefly, before dismissing it to help Lana find the other arm of her coat.
“I’m not dragging you the whole way…” He says, digging into his bag and pulling out a small, dull sphere. She eyes it suspiciously as he hands it to her, before giving him a questioning look. “...It’s candy.”
Lana’s eyes brighten and she pops it into her mouth. Frogger takes her arm again, handing over the shiny mask.
SUNDAY, MAY 15, 2270
10PM - CLEAR, POST-STORM
Frogger and Lana take an elevator up several levels, stepping out at a transit station marked M6, Frogger then leading a beeline for the hyperline platform. Lana has perked up, looking pleasantly buzzed as she meanders behind Frogger on her own.
He turns to make sure she’s still there, stopping as he notices a couple of officers approaching, a small drone hanging in the air between them. He steps back to Lana, shifting behind her as his posture becomes reserved.
“Good evening!” calls the taller of the two cops. “May I ask where you’re heading?”
“Uh…” Lana glances at Frogger almost hiding behind her as the cops stop a few feet from them. “Home?”
“You live around here?” asks the taller officer.
“Eh, sorta,” Lana says, giving a non-committal hand wobble. She leans back, pointing upward. “I live on O-eight, up in Neptune.”
Lana begins to teeter, leaning slightly too far back, and Frogger breaks his demure affection to correct her balance. The shorter of the two officers gives Frogger a look.
“Just you?” the shorter officer asks.
“Nah, rent’s too expensive,” Lana says to the sky, still. “Had to get a roommate last fall, but it’s okay, they’re pretty cool- Well, not cool cool, kinda uptight, but-”
“So you’re roommates?” he presses, actually gesturing to Frogger this time. Lana looks at Frogger like she’d forgotten he was there.
“Oh! Nah, nope, he’s just walking me home.” Lana leans towards the officers conspiratorial, whispering behind her hand to the taller officer. “Don’t tell my roomie.”
The tall officer chuckles, while the short officer continues to eye Frogger.
“And where do you live?”
Frogger hesitates, moving as if to steady Lana again, before pointing downward, earning a raised brow from the taller officer.
“Well…” The taller officer gestures over his shoulder. “We won’t keep you long. This’ll only take a second.”
The drone zips forward, hovering over Frogger and Lana’s heads, who watch it with apprehension and drunken surprise (respectively).
“Just a quick wellness check, then you two can be on your way.” The drone scans Lana, and the taller officer raises a tablet from his side, which populates with her identifying information (name, age, eye color, genetic nature, etc). “If you could remove your mask, please, Miss Blackwell.”
“How come?” Lana asks, reaching for it.
“We just want to make sure you’re healthy.”
Lana’s hands freeze. “Was there another outbreak? Oh god am I gonna get sick?”
“No no no,” says the taller officer, adopting a ‘damage control’ face. Beside him, the shorter officer readies a device with a disposable swab attachment.“Just an added precaution is all.”
“People are getting antsy, with the quarantine in Loxa last week.” The shorter officer says, gesturing to Lana’s mask. She hesitantly removes it the rest of the way.
“We’re just trying to give everyone some added peace of mind.” The taller officer adds, quickly, as the shorter officer swabs the inside of Lana’s cheek with the device. She’s quick to put it back on as the shorter officer steps back.
“I haven’t been through a sweep today, an’I came all the way from F9…” Lana says, with the turn of a question.
“Well-” begins the taller officer.
“Low level sweeps are real easy to miss,” the shorter officer answers, not looking up from the device until it dings. “She’s clean.”
The taller officer pats him on the back, somewhat roughly. “Of course she is!”
He glowers at the taller officer before turning to Frogger, switching out the swab with gloved hands, disposing of both swab and gloves in a biohazard bag at his hip, before donning another pair and pulling a fresh swab from a bag on the other side.
The drone zips around Lana, focusing on Frogger, and Lana steps out of the shorter officer’s way as the taller officer glances over his tablet. Frogger’s hands come up to his goggles, pushing them onto his head, discreetly clicking a button on the side.
“Well, Mr. Marvic, if you’d please-” The officer looks up from his tablet, stopping when he notices Frogger’s already in the process. “Oh, good on you!”
The tablet screen fizzes, distorting. Frogger keeps his face angled to the ground as he pulls the mask down around his neck. The tablet screen clears and Frogger’s face shifts from mild annoyance to wide-eyed innocence. He looks up shyly at the officers, bright red smears of pigment under each of his large, shining orange eyes with sideways, hourglass pupils.
“I thought you were-” The taller officer blinks, looking back at his tablet. “Or, no...just a glitch, I suppose.”
The shorter officer steps up to Frogger, who obediently opens his mouth for the swab. When the device dings, the taller one claps his hands with finality.
“Alrighty, you two, have a safe night!” he says, pulling the short officer along with him as he steps out of their way.
“You too!” Lana has just enough time to say before Frogger takes her hand and power walks to the hyperlift.
“Why would anyone want their kid to look like that…” The taller officer muses, watching the two stand waiting on the platform, waiting as a small rail car pulls into the station. The shorter officer shrugs, wandering back the way the officers had come.
As the rail car pulls away, Lana watches Frogger with a hazy pout as he replaces his mask.
“What’d you do to your scan?”
“Nothing,” Frogger says, adjusting his blank goggles. Lana scrunches her nose and rises shakily from her end of the small cabin.
“Yah you did,” she insists, wagging a finger at him. “I saw you.”
“You should sit.”
Lana flops down beside him. He (mostly) doesn’t flinch.
“C’mon, I’m drunk, not stupid,” she says, reaching for his goggles. “His screen went all wobbly when you pressed this-”
Frogger scoots away before she can demonstrate.
“Alright, don’t tell me…” She laughs, dropping her hand and sliding along the seat, jostling his arm as she leans back against him. He says nothing, folding his arms and looking out the window.
Lana glances at him from the corner of her eye, before reaching for the same button as before. He grabs her wrist.
“We’re alone. You don’t know me.” Frogger looks down at her, goggles whirring into a narrow focus. “Are you trying to get murdered?”
Lana grins at him. “Nah, you’re too cute to murder me.”
Frogger drops her wrist, whirring back to focus on the window. Lana turns around in her seat, bringing her legs up so she’s kneeling beside Frogger, and leaning heavily into his space.
“Tell me tell me tell me tell me,” she sings, reaching towards his face, getting louder. “ Tell me. Tell me. Tell me. Tell-”
Frogger grabs her wrist again, then her opposite shoulder as she wobbles. “You’re going to hurt yourself.”
“I’ll give you twenty bucks,” She says into his face, still smiling.
Lana smiles wider, leaning back on her knees and holding out her unrestrained hand to shake. Frogger rolls his eyes and takes it.
“Fine,” he says, taking her by the shoulders and sitting her back down on the far side of the seat. “Stop touching me.”
“So what’d you do?” She asks, scooting closer.
Frogger’s mask whirrs.
“I changed my chip readout,” he says, gesturing to the buttons.
“Woah, really?” She reaches for his goggles again.
“Yes.” He swats her hand away. “Happy?”
Frogger doesn’t answer.
Lana holds out her hand again. “Fifty bucks.”
Frogger takes it. “I’m a TO.”
“You’re a splice!?”
“You really don’t understand personal space,” he says, leaning back against the window.
“I’ve never met a splice before…”
“Most people haven’t, not up here,” he says looking away.
“Why’re you hiding it?” she asks, practically in his lap trying to catch his gaze again.
“But that’s soooo illegal…” Lana says, giving up and plopping down to lay across his legs. Frogger doesn’t move. At all.
“Yup.” Frogger isn’t moving. At all.
Lana rolls onto her back, looking up at him. “Why’d you tell me?”
“Fifty bucks is fifty bucks.”
She giggles, but doesn’t move. Resigned, he leans an elbow against the windowsill, resting his chin on his fist.
“...You should stay away from The Nautilus.”
“How come?” she mumbles, fiddling with the edge of his glove.
“It’s...a bad crowd.”
“ Aww, but I met you there, didn’t I?”
“Exactly, I keep terrible company.”
“And what does that make me?”
“The drunk girl I gave drugs.”
“Ah! I knew that wasn’t candy!” She cries, jabbing a finger at him in accusation, almost hitting him in the face.
“Just a booster, you’ll be fine.”
“It was so gross .”
“You’re not supposed to suck on it.”
“ Mm… You’re right,” she grumbles, but there’s a quirk to her lips as her arm flops back down across her stomach. “You’re terrible company.”
Contact aside, Frogger can appreciate the silence that settles as the rail car zips through the air.
Chapter 4: (No) Witnesses
MONDAY, MAY 16, 2270
12AM - RAIN, POST-CLEAR
C5, THE WEEDS
Trash clings to the side of the canal, occasionally escaping onto the walkways barely above the waterline. Spatterings of people meander about or sleep on dirty mounds of cloth against buildings. The bridges are a mix of concrete, metal, and discolored wood, shackled together in precarious arches over the water. A few lights dangle intermittently off the deck of a boat, moored at the corner with a makeshift dock, hosting a small congregation of people; men with skimming rods on the boat, while a handful of others stand just off the gangplank, peddling drugs in the boat’s wavering yellow lights and the dim blue strips along the canal’s edge.
A woman, a customer, reaches for a little baggie with one hand and extends the other to shake. The peddler pulls her close, and she shoves him, snatching the baggie and hurrying away. She passes a young man running in the opposite direction, but neither spare each other a glance. The young man makes for the gangplank, but the peddler stops laughing at the women just in time to grab his arm.
“ Woah woah woah, ‘the Hell do you-oh.” The peddler looks over the young man.
“It’s just Val.” the other peddler calls to the deck. The young man, Val, reaches for the peddlers arm as if to remove it, but stops.
“What’s with the blood?” the peddler asks, looking at Val’s hands, down his shirt that’s covered with it.
“I need to talk to Loch.” The words fumble out of Val’s mouth.
“Maybe you shouldn’t,” a skimmer says from the deck. “He’s not going to be happy with you comin’ back empty handed.”
“I need to talk to him now.” Val yanks his arm from the peddler’s grasp and thuds up the gangplank.
“Hey!” The peddler goes to grab him again, but misses, playing it off with a scoff. “Fine, whatever, your funeral.”
Val hurries below deck, pelting down the stairs to the door just at the bottom. A fervent discussion pressing out from inside.
“-bit overkill, is all I’m sayin’.”
“I don’t care! I told that whore to keep her starpiss off my turf or I’d-”
Val bursts into the meeting between three harsh looking men, the red-faced leader mid-tirade.
“Where the Hell have you been?” Loch snarls at Val.
“Poseidon’s dead.” Val says, breathing heavy, leaning against the doorway.
The room goes quiet.
“...You kill ‘em yourself?” Loch asked, glancing over Val’s stained clothes with disdain.
“What? No, I-it wasn’t just Posiedon. His men, I uh, ” Val looks down at himself, tries to wipe off the blood, only getting more on his hands. His brow pinches and his arms fall loosely to his sides. “...All of ‘em were dead. Few days, at least.”
“What about the guns?” Loch asks, leaning over the table.
“The guns, you dipshit! Were they there?”
“I-I don’t know, there was a lot of crates, didn’t look like anything had been-I don’t know.”
“Those were the guns, dumbass, why didn’t you check?” the man to Val’s right says, wacking him upside the head.
“I was a little distracted by all the dead people, Shaw!”
“This is great,” Loch says, rounding the table. The other three exchange looks as Loch leans out the door, shouting up the stairs. “Shove off, we’re heading out!”
There’s a churning sound as the boat shudders in response. Eyes fix on Loch as he circles the table once more. Above deck, the gangplank is pulled up, and the boat slides away from the canal wall.
A dark figure walks slowly to the middle of a bridge, just above a canal, and waits as the boat with yellow lights approaches, dropping silently to the roof of the wheel house as it glides beneath. A faint whining, like high pitched whales, rises from the water, slowly growing in volume.
Near the back of the boat, the peddlers watch the ripples left in the boat’s wake.
“Sirens are lively, tonight…”
Deimos slips from the wheelhouse roof to the deck.
“Mm...You ever seen one?”
“Personally? Nah, but they were all over The Swamps, got this one guy who fell in when I was...”
The peddlers’ voices fade as Deimos descends the stairs, pausing in front of the closed door at the bottom, excited murmurs from inside.
One of the harsh men from earlier answers the door. Deimos slits his throat, grabbing the collar of his shirt and shoving him into Shaw as he steps inside, sliding the door shut behind him. Deimos turns to a new man, jamming a blade through his temple. Spinning, he dislodges and slings it at the recovering Shaw. As it drives through Shaw’s forehead and into the wall behind him, Loch draws his gun.
One shot, two, both scattering in bursts of light an inch from Deimos’ face. Unflinching, Deimos slides across the table, grabbing Loch’s wrist. It cracks , and Loch drops the gun with a cry. Deimos pulls Loch forward as he slides off the table, kicking out one of Loch’s legs before bracing a hand on Loch’s shoulder, twisting the arm in his grasp and snapping it at the elbow with his knee. Releasing the wrist, Deimos plants his feet, reaches across his body to grab the sides of Loch’s head, snapping Loch’s neck before he can make more than an aborted cry.
Loch drops to the ground with a thump.
“Loch? Y’all okay in there?” calls a voice through the door.
Deimos dislodges the blade from the man’s head, letting the body drop limply to the floor as he picks up Loch’s gun.
Outside the room, past the stairs, a group of men pause their poker game to stare at the closed door with varying amounts of apprehension and sobriety, while two others in bunks rouse themselves from sleep. Weapons are drawn.
Deimos steps out, firing off 3 shots through the stair slots, dropping the poker players. Rushing the sleepers, he aims again, when an unseen drunk lets off a spray of shots from a large automatic weapon. Several burst around Deimos, flashes of rippling light, then pass over him as he drops, using his momentum to slip under the first and second bunks, turning onto his stomach as he goes.
The first sleeper ducks to avoid the unbalanced drunk’s trailing bullets, Deimos trips the second sleeper. Bullets burn through the ship deck, startling the men above.
Shoving off the ground. Deimos’ back thumps against the final bunk. He shoots the first sleeper and the drunk, stands and fires two shots through the mattress where the second sleeper hit the ground.
Deimos moves past the bunks, firing a shot into the ankle of the man rushing down the stairs, sending him tumbling down with a cry. Deimos rounds the corner, the man’s desperate shots bursting on his shield like the others, and pulls the trigger of Loch’s gun.
The bullet dissolves on the man’s shield several inches from the flinching man’s face, electricity arcing along the outline of a bubble, centered on a device at his waist. Deimos imbeds the blade in his chest instead.
Deimos kneels down to hoist the man up by the blade handle, swinging around just in time for glowing bullets to rain down the stairwell. Deimos is halfway up the stairs before the deadman’s shield dissolves into sparks, bullets scorching into the body instead. Deimos raises Loch’s gun.
The man at the top of the stairs jerks back as bullets crackle against a similar bubble-like outline, the flashes drawing the eyes of the peddlers, standing with weapons at the ready. A body bursts out of the stairwell and all three open fire as it crumples to the floor.
One of the peddlers, still at the back of the boat, gets nailed in the head with a Loch’s pistol. Deimos steps out of the stairwell, stabs the man previously flanking the door in the throat with a backward sweep of his hand and shoots the untouched peddler in the leg with the deadman’s gun. As that peddler goes down, Deimos runs over and boots the other off the back of the boat.
The whining from before increases, becoming wailing, coming louder, closer. Long, glowing tails break the water, heading for the boat. Before the peddler can crawl back aboard, he’s ripped under.
Splashing and bubbling, muffled sounds of ripping and tearing can be heard as bloody water spatters onto the boat.
Deimos watches the writhing point in the otherwise still water, and turns just in time for a bullet to whiz past him. A man steps out of the wheelhouse, unloading his clip as Deimos rushes him, the smooth ripples of the connecting bullets becoming less smooth, more static. The man backpedals, tries to reload, but Deimos knocks the gun out of his hands and into the water, still boiling with the stray glow of the sirens. Deimos grabs the man’s collar and swings him precariously out over the water.
The man stares at Deimos, clinging to his arm while his blank mask stares back; cold, but almost expectant.
It's more of a formality when the man goes for the gun tucked into the back of his pants. Deimos drops him into the water. The man comes up sputtering, kicking off the boat and reaching for the side of the canal, but is quickly overtaken by a siren that leaps for him, its humanoid face marred by its unhinged jaw full dozens of long, needle-like teeth and fleshy depressions where eyes might’ve been. The man disappears under the water. The sirens’ pitch edges towards gleeful, almost laughter as they swarm.
In the wheelhouse, Val is curled up in the corner, trembling, trying to muffle the heaving breath audible even through his mask with both hands clasped over his face.
Deimos turns on his heel and returns below deck, going down yet another set of stairs to a cramped hold full of pallets and crates. He kneels, pulling a slim device from within his coat. He turns the end and clicks on a beam of hot light, then drags it along the bottom of the boat, burning a two-foot circle into the hull. It whines, creaking as water bubbles through the incisions.
Deimos steps out onto the deck as the circle gives, the bow of the boat already dipping, and heads right to the wheelhouse. Val scrambles away as Deimos enters, attempting to hide under the control board.
“I’m unarmed! I’m unarmed!” Val is a ball of a person, knees to his chin, hands held open in front of his face.
Deimos pauses in the doorway, cocking his head to the side slowly.
“I promise, I promise, I won’t tell anyone, I’m nobody, please don’t kill me,” Val rambles. The boat creaks loudly and pitches forward, cutting Val’s words off with a yelp. Deimos glances at the back of the boat, before stepping fully into the wheelhouse and dragging Val out from underneath the console.
“ No! No, wait! Wait, please I’m not a threat I’m not, I won’t tell, please!”
Deimos drags him, struggling across the deck, reaching the back of the boat and lifting him into the air as if he weighed nothing. Val stares down at the churning red water full of eager sirens and blood and limbs. He paws uselessly at Deimos’ hold on his collar.
“No no no no No NONONO-” Deimos throws the screaming Val, who lands with a thud on the walk.
Val rolls off his back onto his hands and knees, groaning. He goes to stand, freezing as Deimos lands lightly beside him. Val looks up into the bloodstained mask, which looks down at him in turn, unreadable. The boat sinks slowly behind him, and the sirens continue to wail and thrash in the bloody water.
Deimos walks away, figure merging with the rolling fog.
MONDAY, MAY 16, 2270
1AM - CLEAR, POST-STORM
O8, CORAL SPRINGS - NEPTUNE
Frogger and Lana arrive at Valencia Apartments, Frogger practically dragging the sluggish woman and, after an arduous effort to get the door unlocked and open, they finally stumble inside.
“ Honey, I’m Ho~ome! ” Lana calls to the dark room, hanging off Frogger’s arm with a lax smile. Frogger drags her away from the door and dumps her unceremoniously on the couch. She looks around the apartment, still dark save the light sneaking between the blinds and through the still open door. “They usually come out when I do that.”
She sounded disappointed. Frogger spots a notepad on the table and goes over to it, grabbing a pen.
“What’re you doing?” Lana asks, struggling to get vertical on the couch. Frogger turns around and sticks a post-it to her forehead, reading ‘Nautilus bad.’ Lana blinks in surprise, before reaching up to take it off with a toothy grin. “Is it your number?”
“It’s a reminder.”
“Oh, boo. ” She drops the note into her lap. “Can I have your number?”
“No.” Frogger steps around the couch as Lana throws herself back onto the cushions with a loud uGH. He’s got one foot out the door when she throws up her arms.
“Wait!” It takes her a few moments to sit back up, so he leans against the door frame. When she manages, she smiles at him in triumph. “Twenty bucks.”
“Really?” Frogger says, cocking his head and crossing his arms.
“Come on,” Lana whines. “When am I ever gonna meet’a splice again? Like ever ever. Also, you gave me drugs, so I think you kinda owe me your number.”
“...Thirty bucks,” he says.
“Forty,” she snaps back.
Frogger just stares at her. Lana grins, scooting over to the other side of the couch and resting her chin on the arm rest, holding her hand out and up to him. Frogger eyes it, fingers tapping on his arm, and she makes a grabby motion. Frogger leans his head back against the doorframe, mask whirring, and offers his hand, which she takes eagerly.
She’s busy shaking it up and down in an exaggerated manner when the pocket of her coat vibrates. She lets go of Frogger’s hand and pulls out her phone, screen flashing with a text from an unknown number, simple reading ‘Stop.’ Lana laughs.
“Cool,” she says, typing a response before smiling up at him. “I’m gonna text you every day.”
“I won’t answer.”
Lana side eyes him, scrunching her nose and pinching her lips, before returning her attention to her phone.
“I’ll wear you down,” she says with finality, nails clicking on her screen. “What should I make your contact?”
She looks up to the door sliding closed, and scoffs in indignation, before quickly mashing buttons on her phone.
Frogger takes the stairs down several stories, avoiding transit stations until he’s low enough for the flickering lights to be chronically dingy. As he steps onto the lift, he pulls out his phone, dismissing a ‘did you jst batman me??’ from Lana Blackwell, and starting a call.
MONDAY, MAY 16, 2270
4AM - SNOW, POST-OVERCAST
On a dim street with an actual road, old and full of potholes, several leisurely steps are taken through a handful of dead people. A phone rings as they step over one of the bodies, going a few more steps before stopping, turning. The owner of the feet, a man in a long coat, pulls a phone from his pocket with the hand not holding a gun.
“ I need a favor.” Frogger, unmodulated.
“Well, my day was lovely, actually, thank you for asking.”
A heavy sigh comes through the phone. “Busy?”
“ Meh...” One of the bodies, not dead but wounded, crawls for a gun just out of reach. “I can talk.”
Chapter 5: A Bit of Perspective
MONDAY, MAY 9, 2270
7PM - STORMING, POST-RAIN
F6, PALM BEACH - CHAMPION
RCGD RESEARCH CENTER
Sutton enters the empty RCGD lobby, coming in from a storm. They lower their hood, shake themself off a little, and step to the section of wall Outis had exited before. They stand firmly in front of it and wait.
“...Hello? I’m, uh, here.” Sutton waits, bouncing on their toes. The rain pelts against the window.
Sutton waves their hands around, passing one in front of a section of the wall that blinks once and scans them in a flash of light. Sutton blinks in surprise and steps back as the door slides open before them. They move forward, tentatively, into a sterile interior that branches off into two hallways. There’s a faint hush as a door down the left opens, and Outis appears, in the same white plague mask and white suit, stepping out into the stark white hallway.
“Ah! Right on time, excellent.” Outis approaches quickly, holding something. “Here you are.”
Sutton looks at the plain white mask, turns it over in their hands. “What, uh, what’s this for?”
“Helps maintain researcher privacy. A more minor precaution, but I do ask that you put it on now, if you would.”
Sutton removes their clear mask, giving Outis a hesitant smile as they set the new mask over their mouth and nose. “Do I get, uh, a secret name, too?”
“Yes, you will,” he says, voice chipper, He turns and walks back down the hallway, past where he appeared to another recessed door. “How about a quick tour?”
“W-wait, what is it?” Sutton asks, quick to follow.
“Through there are the decontamination and sterilization rooms, and coming back this way…”
A dark lab with large cages featuring clear faces. The door slides open, backlighting to figures in the hallway.
“...nothing, I imagine, you haven’t seen before.” Outis finishes. The lights flicker on as he waves an arm into the room. “This is the transgenic store room.”
Sutton hesitates, but Outis waits, arm keeping the door from closing. Sutton steps inside, slowly, but with eager glances jumping from cage to cage. Once inside, Outis moves in behind them, closing off the room from the hallway.
“You’ll be spending your time in the experimentation room next door, but given your interest in splicing vectors, I thought you might be interested in seeing some of their work.”
Sutton gazes through the glass with wide eyes, light up displays within triggering as the move closer, listing subject details, heart rate and brain activity. Inside this cage is a small, scaly rabbit, it’s slit yellow pupils blinking back at Sutton. The next houses some sort of long-necked rodent, the next a squid-lizard with a shifting form. Sutton pauses at one that looks like a normal house cat apart from some off coloration and a head-crest. The feline creature raises its hackles at the attention, and a long tongue thuds against the glass, causing Sutton to lurch back.
“Cool…” Sutton says quietly, to themself, before turning to Outis. “Do you have any, uh, larger splices?”
Sutton bends down to something mammalian with an owl head, its four paws sprouting large talons.
“This is a smaller facility, not exactly equipped for large subjects in the long term, but who knows...” Outis looks down the line of cages. “Depending on how some of our more recent ventures go, you may get to see some more...advanced work.”
Sutton and Outis step into what appears to be a break room, a sink and counter where a woman leans opposite a wall of lockers. The small table in the center boasts three more people who turn as they enter. They're all wearing opaque white masks over their mouths and noses.
“Evening, everyone, I’d like you to meet Iaso,” Outis says, gesturing to Sutton. “ Iaso, this is the research team; Panacea, Hygieia, Aceso, and Aglaea.
“ Oh me, uh…” Sutton shuffles on their feet and gives half a wave. “Hi.”
“Salutations!” from the cheery woman against the counter, Panacea as Outis gestured.
“Nice to meet you,” Hygieia greets, while Aglaea gives a nod and Aceso raises a hand in acknowledgement.
“You’ll be working with these four on a treatment for the AND virus,” Outis says to Sutton, turning to leave the room. “They know the project better than I do, so I leave you in their capable hands.”
Sutton stands awkwardly as the door closes behind them. Panacea pushes off the counter and claps her hands together, drawing the attention of Sutton and the room.
“Iaso!” she says. “How would you like to see our progress?”
“Progress? You have progress?” Sutton spares a glance to the others, approaching Panacea with earnestness. “How much progress?”
There’s a smile in Panacea’s posture as she leads them from the room.
MONDAY, MAY 16, 2270
12AM - OVERCAST, POST-CLEAR
O8, CORAL SPRINGS - NEPTUNE
Somewhat surprising, Lana is sitting at the table when Sutton comes out of their room that morning. She clicks at the computer with one hand, the other doing a valiant effort of keeping her face off the keyboard, via palm to cheek.
“Morning,” Lana says, without looking up, expression dead and voice flatlining.
“Unfortunately?” Sutton asks, giving her a sympathetic smile.
“I’m hungover and I slept with no one, so yes.”
Sutton tries to stifle a laugh as they open the fridge. “Why’re you up?”
“Want ravioli, need same-day delivery.”
“Ah,” Sutton says, closing the fridge with a jug of milk in hand. Their eyes catch on the ‘Nautilus bad’ post-it stuck to the fridge door, earning a small frown before they go for the cabinet. Lana looks up from her computer.
“So what did they look like?” Lana asks, resting her chin on her hands.
“Hm?” Sutton pulling down a box of cereal.
“I didn’t hear you come in last night.”
“Uh…” Sutton mulls that over on their way to the counter. “ Oh. No, no, I wasn’t-I was working.”
“Oh.” Lana says, scrunching her nose. “You got another job?”
“...Yeah.” Sutton makes a bowl of cereal with their back to Lana. “No, uh, no paid leave from FU.”
Lana blows a raspberry, eyes returning to her computer. “Bogus.”
Her phone goes off as Sutton joins her at the table.
“Call?” Sutton asks, spoon halfway to their mouth.
“Nope!” Lana says brightly, before slipping into a conspiratorial smile. “A reminder.”
Sutton nods, getting back to their breakfast. Lana frowns at them.
“And I’m not going to tell you what it’s for so don’t even ask.”
“...What’s it for?” Sutton asks, with an endeared resignation.
“Well…” Lana breaks easily from her stoic demeanor and pushes her computer aside, resting her elbows on the table. “It’s a reminder to text this guy I met last night.”
“How drunk were you?”
“Not that drunk! I mean, I threw most of it up-
“I was more worried about the booster, wasn’t super sure what the hangover was gonna be like, and lemme tell you, it’s killer- ”
“Lana, booster? ” Sutton turns to Lana at full attention.
“Just to sober me up a little so he didn’t have to drag me.”
“It’s fine , really.” Lana waves a dismissive hand. “All he did was walk me home. Unfortunately. ”
“How do you know if you don’t remember?”
“No, I do remember, I just didn’t know if I would remember last night, so…” Lana wags her phone in the air. “Reminder.”
“...And you’re going to text him?”
“Be a waste of forty bucks not to.”
“I kinda had to pay him for his number at the end there…”
“Was this before or after the drugs?”
“Oh my god, Lana…” Sutton drags their hands down their face with a groan.
“No, Sutton, listen, you’re not letting me get to the good part.”
Sutton peeks at her through their fingers. “There’s a good part to this?”
“Yes.” Lana says, absolute. She leans forward, ready to devulge something top secret. Sutton gives her a pained look.
“Lana, we’re the only ones here…”
“Just c’mere!” Lana stage whispers, gesturing them forward.
Sutton sighs and leans forward, presenting their ear obediently for the secret.
“He’s a splice.”
Lana leans back slow, satisfied with herself, while Sutton sits up straight, tanned face ashen. “...And you’re okay?”
“Of course I’m okay, he was really nice, well-” she makes a face. “Not nice nice, but he was…”
Lana frowns at Sutton, more serious than she’d been all morning. “He was fine.”
“I just meant, well-I’ve only ever seen sirens, so…”
“God, Sutton, we’re not talkin’ ferals here.”
“I know, I just-”
“Put too much stock in the Splice Prince?”
Sutton frowns, more confused than guilty. “The...the one who lit that building on fire pre-proscription?”
“That’s the one.” Lana leans back in her chair, a touch of pride to her face. “You know, I grew up right across the canal from the pillar he burnt down.”
“It wasn’t a whole pillar.”
Lana waves Sutton off. “Pillar, level, he burnt some shit down, whatever, what really matters is the body count.”
“He didn’t kill anyone in the version I heard...”
“Really? Didn’t expect them to make it kid-friendly in The Swamps...” Lana leans back, ticking off fingers, missing the pinched look Sutton gives the table. “There was everyone who died in the fire, the scientist who sprung him in first place, and her brother-oh, the brother is the best part.”
“Pretty sure it was just a rowdy court case-”
“The Prince snuck into the brother’s house and pulled out all his teeth! One by one, before making him choke on them.”
“It happened, though! This is all true, I promise, totally kosher.”
“You scare me, sometimes, you know that?” Sutton chuckles as they push away Lana, who’s leaned progressively closer. “None of that’s really all that princy …”
“That’s more to do with where he is now, hidden away in the A levels, ruling over all splices from his sunken and decrepit kingdom in the depths of Atlas.”
“Mhm...kinda sounds like you’re the one putting too much stock in the Splice Prince.”
THURSDAY, MAY 19, 2270
10PM - CLEAR, POST-STORM
F6, PALM BEACH - CHAMPION
RCGD RESEARCH CENTER
Sutton enters the experimentation room with a rat in a clear cage, the door opening to Hygieia working intently and Algaea watching something on her tablet. Sutton glances to the wall lined with floor to ceiling cages, much like the TO store room but each has a faint yellow around the edges.
“I got another rat to replace the one we, uh, lost.” Sutton raises the cage a little for emphasis.
“Just slide it in where the other one was,” Algaea says, without looking up.
Sutton steps over to the gap in the cages. It slips in with ease. “That’s convenient.”
“Reduced chance of contamination if we never have to open the cages. Just, uh…” Algaea waves loosly over their shoulder, eyes fixed on her screen. “Click around the interface until you find the inoculate button.”
As the cage locks into place, a blue light glows around it. The rat’s life signs flicker into view, and Sutton swipes through while the rat sniffs around.
Hygieia looks up from her work. “You should show them.”
“If they’re here, they’re smart enough to do it on their own.”
There’s a hiss as a mist disperses into the rat’s cage. The blue light of the cage turns yellow. Sutton watches, slightly unfocused, as the rat curls away from the mist.
“What are you doing?” Hygieia turns to Algaea with a scowl.
“Seeing how the latest chimera are fairing.”
“Don’t you have work?”
“This is work.”
“On the current project, Algaea.”
“Look, I’m waiting for the samples to-” Algaea finally looks up, looking over at Hygieia, and giving Sutton a view of the video
“That’s The Circus.” Sutton blurts, recognizing the youtube turned darkweb interface.
Algaea spins in her chair to face Sutton, a gleam in her eyes. “You know about The Circus?”
“Well, yeah, I-” Sutton’s brow furrows. “Everyone knew a kid whose brother showed him splice fights. What’s that got to do with us?”
“Field testing for the Chimera Project, high end guard dogs. We get to see how rejects perform and The Circus pays for the show.”
Sutton moves closer, eyes on the two monstrous amalgamations doing their best to rip each other to shreds in a sandy, blood-spattered ring, edged by a cheering crowd.
“We have to fund this all somehow.” Hygieia sighs. Sutton makes a noise between acknowledgment and disappointment, eyes still on Algaea’s screen.
Chapter 6: Bread and...
THURSDAY, MAY 19, 2270
A4, OLD MIAMI - ATLANTIS
A semi-transparent reptilian splice gets its throat ripped out by a wolfish feral to the sound of cheers and jeers, fenced in with cobbled-together railings, spottily covered with worn tarps and ripped covers. Swirling around the arena, made by collapsing the floor in an old parking garage, are drones and jumbotrons, allowing better views of carnage for those on the floors above. The place is packed, feeling more so from the heavy concrete ceilings hanging low and strung with strobing, coloring lights. They flash neons--red, orange magenta--reflecting off smoke from a machine long lost to the crowd, writhing with the wild energy of a drug trip.
A screen swirls past, booming about the wolfish feral’s victory. Away from the edge, Frogger cuts through the crowd, slipping between people with animal masks, masks that pulse in time with the beat, some rags and a few risque eye covers. He breaks through beside a circular bar, one of several dotted throughout the building like crowded life savers.
Orienting himself, Frogger catches sight of a man a few stools away, with a pink mohawk and dark sunglasses and no drink. A pixelated, sharp-toothed red grin glows from his gunmetal mask as he turns to Frogger.
“Off the wagon?” Frogger asks, approaching. The man snorts.
“Only place to sit,” he says, turning. “Plus, it’s got a nice atmosphere.”
A fight breaks out in the crowd, which immediately forms a ring, egging it on. Frogger’s mask gives a short little whir. “What’d she say?”
“That she’s busy and has no time to entertain my friends. I told her we weren’t friends and I’d owe her a favor. She’ll be here in a few minutes.” He watches out of the corner of his eye as a bartender pours someone a drink. “What if she asks for a kidney or something? I can’t afford to lose another organ…”
“You sure?” Frogger asks, leaning against the bar beside him.
The man arches a pink brow over the rim of his glasses, he gestures between himself and Frogger. “Not really sensing the appreciation here.”
Frogger shrugs. “Give her someone else’s.”
The man scoffs. “ Please, flesh is Nimo’s business, and I’d rather not be in direct compeition with Captain Asshole.”
“Only indirectly, then?”
“Well…” His tone is pleased as he turns to face the crowd, eye catching on something beyond the impromptu brawl.
As the two guys go at it, grappling on the ground at this point, the click of a cane againt the hard floor somehow cutting through the cacophony. Faces turn, people parting to give a wide berth to a woman in a ringleader get-up, wielding a cane with an almost comically large gold ball. Underneath her large, dark top hat, her full-face mask is white save two red blotches on the cheeks, a pointed smile, and wide pitch black holes in place of eyes. Her blue hair fades to white at the tips.
The dark, empty sockets of her mask peer down at the two men fighting, and a localized silence seems to fall. The crowd bends around her mere presence like a physical force. One man manages to get on top of the other but notices the woman and stops. The second man takes this opportunity to reverse them, getting a couple blows in before he also becomes aware of the woman, stopping mid-punch.
“Oh.” The woman cocks her head to the side, ever so slightly. “Don’t stop on my account.”
The men stumble to their feet, eyes fixed on the Rinkleader.
“In fact, I can have you slotted for a rink, if you’d like…” She eyes one man, then the other. “Though I can’t promise you’d be fighting each other.”
“No, that’s-” the quicker man on the uptake clears his throat. “We’re fine.”
“Like hell, you piece of shit.” The other man advances with a flared temper, causing him to backpedal. Rinkleader intervenes, stepping into the angry man’s space, following as he rears back.
“Fights require mutual consent. If he isn’t willing to fight, we can find you something that is. Are you consenting?”
The man stares down at her with wide eyes, turning away with a shake of his head as he steps back.
She watches the man flee into the crowd. She eyes the remaining man over her shoulder and he shifts awkwardly on his feet before giving a stiff nod and scampering off in the other direction.
Her attention shifts to the bar, to Frogger, and as her readout appears in his goggles, it’s mostly static; Dias N. Somnis, Baron of The Circus, Rinkleader and little else. The man beside him stands and goes to her with the sharp-toothed grin of his mask and open arms, free from the crowd in the wake of her atmosphere.
Frogger follows, slowly.
She cuts of whatever brief conversation they’ve started abruptly. “You’re Frogger?”
She has no modulator, but her voice is clean and cold. Frogger nods.
“Flattered you’d put up with Reed in order to speak with me.”
The man, Reed, is about to speak when she cuts him off.
“What do you want?”
“A few answers about your business partner.”
Rinkleader thinks on this a moment, then looks off to the side, gesturing in that direction and walking off.
Frogger and Reed follow her to an announcement booth for one of the smaller arenas, between fights. It’s not closed off entirely, but a marginally quieter, with seating.
The announcer glances back, brief confusion melting into eager compliance as he hops off his seat and nods to Rinkleader as he steps away. There’s a dingy sofa in the corner, which Rinkleader sits in the middle of, fixing Frogger with the dead eyes of her smiling mask.
“You want to talk about Impetus.”
“Yes.” It isn’t a question, but he answers it anyway, ignoring the look Reed shoots him, taking the seat across from her.
“Who’s asking about Impetus?” Reed rounds Frogger, plopping down beside Rinkleader and slinging an arm over the back of the sofa behind her, his ease at odds with her rigidity.
“...A concerned party.”
“Because of Poseidon?” Reed presses.
“Poseidon, The Dutchman, Vlad,” Frogger’s focus remains on Rinkleader. “They’ve been acting out. It’s...unsettling things.”
“You want answers. What do I get?” Rinkleader asks, a tilt to her head.
“Reed’s agreed to foot the bill for whatever.”
Reed gives Frogger a sharp look, brow furrowing. “What?”
“How generous of him,” Rinkleader says with an edge of amusement. Reed shifts his glare.
“Don’t just believe him!”
The Rinkleader waves off his agitation, still facing Frogger. “Regular communication over a secure line to arrange transactions, deliveries made by semi-intelligent ferals.”
“Semi-intelligent?” Frogger leans forward, elbows on knees.
“ They refer to them as chimera, not tame but…they follow direction, perform simple tasks like moving cages and killing anything that tries to take them before payment is given.”
“Alone? No escort?”
“There’s a liason, but he talks through the chimera, never there in person.”
“A liason...so not the one in charge?” Frogger ignores the look Reed shoots him.
Frogger leans back and crosses his arms, tapping his fingers lightly. “Where do you get deliveries?”
“If you’d like to sit in, you’re free to join The Circus,” Rinkleader says with a tilt of her head. “I may not be sworn to secrecy, but meetings are personnel only.”
Frogger shrugs. “Worth a shot.”
“Then I’ve got a circus to run.” Rinkleader stands, looking at Reed over her shoulder, a touch of amusement in her tone when she speaks. “I’ll send the bill.”
Reed stops glaring at Frogger, turning to her with unpleasant realization.
“No.” Reed gets up to follow her out of the booth. “No, I know what you’re think, and no. We’ve been over this-”
“The fans want memorabilia.”
“Body parts are not collectables, I’m not going to-Di!”
Rinkleader disappears into the crowd without a backwards glance, leaving an exasperated Reed in the doorway, staring after her with hands on his hips. Frogger rises slowly, going to stand next to him.
“...She shared a lot more than I expected.”
“She probably thinks you won’t get anything out of it. Hell, I don’t think you’ll get anything out of it...” Reed’s eyes narrow on Frogger. “Besides an early cremation. Not to be on the side of caution ever, but asking those kind of question’s gonna get you killed.”
“Why tell me, then?” Frogger continues, ignoring Reed’s warning. Reed’s gaze drifts to where Rinkleader disappeared, though she’s long gone.
“...Impetus’ has been unsettling lately, maybe…” His brow furrows, a distasteful thought crossing his mind. He turns to Frogger, no trace of pensiveness. “Maybe it’s because I asked and she likes me a whole lot. ”
Reed steps out of the booth and heads back in the direction of the bar. “Thanks for throwing me under the bus, by the way. Little warning, next time?”
“Would you have agreed?” Frogger follows.
“Do I look like a charity? Pay for your own shit.”
Chapter 7: Locked Out
FRIDAY, MAY 20, 2270
12AM - CLEAR
F6, PALM BEACH - CHAMPION
RCGD RESEARCH CENTER
Sutton steps out of decontamination and takes off their hazmat suit, hanging it up and running their hands through their hair a few times before stepping out into the hallway. The sterilization room door slips shut behind them, and as they make their way to the changing room, another door opens; the procedure room, to their right. They stop midstep. They look around, confused, at the empty hallway. Slowly, they step inside. Glancing around, their eyes catch on a large glass viewing window.
In the next room is a handful of large tubes, each containing a sickly, unconscious siren. The look in Sutton’s eyes shifts from confusion to awe as they stare into the room, looking away just long enough to find the way in.
They approach in a trance, eyes reflecting the phantasmal light glowing from the containers. Shadows of the sirens’ skulls, their bones, can be seen through the skin, the pumping of their hearts and the shifting blood. Their tails shift and curl languidly, pulsing with faint light, slightly too long for the confines and so pooling like fleshy ribbon at the bottom. Sutton steps right up to one of the observation tubes.
Sutton raises a hand to eye-level with the siren, a bit of a reach, and wave it around. No response. They walk along the tubes, slow but with raptured intent, eyeing each siren up to the very last.
They brush a hand over the glass. An interface blinks on, and Sutton swipes through the displays, skimming the subject files.
TUESDAY, MAY 24, 2270
11PM - RAINING POST-SNOW
A4, OLD MIAMI - ATLANTIS
OUTSIDE OF THE CIRCUS
Frogger sits on a platform partially made of piping, secluded among other infrastructure and not meant as a perch, but suiting its improvised role. A computer rests on his lap, a small dish-like accessory pointing at the Circus a ways away.
Drunk and rowdy stream in and out of the back entrance, a picturesque embodiment of “hole in the wall;” a literal hole in the wall of the once-parking garage, strung up with lights bounding off the smoke curling from within. Rabid energy seems to seep out into the surrounding area, like the building can’t contain it.
A notification pops up in the corner of Frogger’s screen. Clicking it brings up a cluster of audio feeds, automatically playing one of the selection. Voices come through clattering movement and the sound of discharging gunfire.
“-ere’d it go?! Where is it!?”
“Tell Turso that-” The audio garbles.
There’s a thud and the feed dissolves into static. Interest caught, Frogger clicks another feed, typing rapidly. A map appears, somewhere in the swamps, ‘locating video feed’ buffering in the center.
“We need to get out now!”
“-already on the second floor-”
“It’s just one guy, we can-”
Thud. Yelling. Plasma weapon discharge.
‘Ocular implant found. Accessing…’ appears on Frogger’s screen. A video feed opens to a turned over room, three men firing at something. One takes a knife to the throat, going down. The feed turns, blinks, a gun comes up as Deimos rushes the feed. Shots flashing off his shield, he covers the barrel with his and the muzzle bursts, starting to smoke. The weapon is cast aside, just in time to avoid getting burned and not to create any space as Deimos looms in. There’s a jerking motion and the feed fizzes momentarily, falling to the side. Deimos’ feet can be seen moving on, a second body dropping into the feed’s line of sight, eyes vacant, throat cut.
Frogger pauses, rewinding back to Deimos’ mask. Staring at the figure, he sees the same mask in another outfit. He drums his fingers on the edge of his computer, dismissing the video and pulling up a list of eight aliases, all marked drugs except for Poseidon at the top, next to ‘mercenary’.
Frogger adds ‘Iku-Turso (mercenary)’ to the top of the list and minimizes the list, reopening a window of a large, 3D map of Atlas, populated with hundreds of thousands of little blips. He clicks a tag reading ‘archive,’ sets the year to 2265, and filters the results for TOs. The number of blips drops significantly, localizing into 3 large clumps, one in the northeast, one in the northwest, and one in the south. Frogger adjusts the timeframe and the clusters migrate, coming together at The Reef, curving along the southern edge of the city, around 2267.
He pulls up another menu, selects ‘Missing’ and sets the time frame to 2264 to 2270. The blips drop again. He clicks one and a file begins to open. His screen goes black.
Frogger’s fingers curl away from the keyboard, but return as a little white spider seems to descend on a thin line from the top of the screen. It lands in the center, letters appearing one at a time.
It’s been a while.
Frogger’s mask whirs. He types a response in white: Let me in. It fades to black.
The spider bounces, laughing almost. Another message appears above it.
Come see me.
The spider returns to its line and climbs up, off Frogger’s screen. As the black fades and Frogger’s previous interface returns, he’s greeted by the TC Network log-in screen. He tries to backdoor into the system, but is denied. He tries again.
On the third ‘access denied,’ he rolls his head back, leaving it leaning back against the wall he’s sitting against. “Dammit, Izar…”
FRIDAY, MAY 20 , 2270
2AM - CLEAR POST-STORM
F6, PALM BEACH - CHAMPION
RCGD RESEARCH CENTER
Sutton doesn’t notice when the procedure room door opens, busy reading the file for the siren at the other end of the line.
“Any ideas?” The voice is modulated, but light, almost natural.
Sutton whips around. Standing in the doorway of the observation room is a shorter woman, hair pulled back in a high ponytail, wearing a long white smock that hits just above her knees. She wears a plague mask, much like Outis, but her beak is silver-tipped, and her eyes hidden behind shiny black lenses. She cocks her head to the side, reminiscent of a curious bird.
“I ah-aba-” Sutton points over their shoulder at the sirens. “I, uh…”
Sutton pauses, drops their hand and takes a deep breath.
“About the sirens,” the woman says, gesturing helpfully as she approaches. “What do you make of their conditions?”
“I didn’t, um…” Sutton wrings their hands. “They’re sick.”
“Yes, that’s why they’re here.” The woman stands beside Sutton, amused. “Any other thoughts?”
Sutton across the row of sirens, then back at the woman. They point to the one just before them. “This one has abnormal symptoms.”
“How so?” The woman prompts.
“It’s in stage two without a single stage one symptom, but it is experiencing vomiting and muscle weakness, which aren’t part of any of the stages.”
“What does that tell you?”
“It’s weird, especially considering the uniformity of human cases…” Sutton frowns, giving the woman an unsure look. “The virus is presenting abnormally in all of them, actually.”
The woman gestures for Sutton to continue.
“Uh, well, there’s...Faster progression, higher rate of mutation, They’re symptoms aren’t just different from humans, but from each other. There’s some overlap but it’s almost like…” Sutton’s gaze drifts across the sirens, eyes catching on one with an arm shriveled to the point of being unusable.
“The time of infection isn’t that different, but the later ones have more typical symptoms,” Sutton continues, pointing down the line. “Those two have two infections, happening simultaneously. While these three have one.”
They look at the sirens before them, brows furrowed.
“...You think the virus underwent an antigenic shift?” She asks.
“It would...explain the variation,” Sutton says, losing conviction. “That’s assuming they even have the nd, I kind of just took that as a given, seeing as that’s what we’ve been working on...here…”
The woman crosses her arms, placing a thoughtful hand underneath her chin. Sutton shuffles on their feet, smoothing out their labcoat by wiping their hands on it.
“...Sound observations, and yes we’ve confirmed they have the nd, early strains, pre-human.” The woman looks Sutton over appraisingly. “Very good.”
“I...Thank you, I, uh, am I...” Sutton looks around, eyes returning to the woman, voice low. “Am I allowed to be in here?”
“No, you should go.”
“Right…” Sutton says, uneasy. They quickly make for the door. “Right, okay, um, thank you, uh…”
Sutton passes through the door, realizing that Outis is standing on the other side of the observation window.
“Evening, Iaso. Pleasure, as always.”
“Yes, hi, um…” Sutton meets his level gaze for only a second. “Yeah, okay, bye.”
Outis gives them a little wave as they hurry out of the room and run off down the hallway. There’s a hint of amusement in his eyes when the woman joins him, his eyes still on the door.
“Did you change their clearance?”
“I wanted their insight.” The woman says.
“You don’t think it might be a little…” Outis looks to the woman, amusement faded. “Premature?”
“We’re on a deadline. Now’s not the time to squander resources.”
The woman steps out of the room. Outis gives a quiet sigh to himself before following.
Chapter 8: Second Set of Eyes
WEDNESDAY, MAY 25, 2270
2PM - SNOW POST-RAIN
S8, OMNI - NEPTUNE
ATLAS PUBLIC RECORDS BUILDING
Frogger stands in the service spine behind the Atlas Public Records Building, holding a plain little gadget to a door. It opens to a narrow maintenance area, choked with pipes and wire, which he slips past to another door that opens for a button on his goggles. He steps into a tiny room with wall-to-wall screens displaying various places around Atlas, curving around a central area in the middle of the room.
In the middle of a semi-circular arrangement of monitors sits someone in a high backed swivel chair, typing away with two sets of hands.
Frogger moves through the room with familiarity, going to one end of the black desk, clearing wrappers and empty drink cans into a nearby waste bin.
“You’ve been stirring up trouble lately.” The typing doesn’t stop, doesn’t slow.
“For who?” Frogger asks, voice unmodulated. He sits in the space he made on the desk.
“Yourself, mostly, but that’s not too unusual.”
“You’ve been spying on me again.”
“ Again? I never stopped.” The chair spins, occupied by a woman in her late thirties, one hand resting on the desk, a set steepled, and the final of her four arms on the arm rest. Three sets of eyes blink lazily at Frogger as he brushes away her readout (Izar ETC Aranea, Atlas data-bank facilitator, static). “How else am I supposed to keep you out of trouble.”
“You just find me interesting.”
“That too.” Izar shrugs, smiling widening a touch before falling. The arms with once steepled fingers cross instead. “Your recent breadcrumbs have me worried.”
“Is that why you kicked me out of the archive?”
“Why are you looking into Impetus?”
“A dangerous one.” Izar’s gaze is sharp, but Frogger simply shrugs. Izar frowns at him, drumming her fingers on her arm. “I’m not letting you in.”
Frogger slouches. “Izar…”
“If Impetus is acting up, you of all people should be lying low, not snooping around.”
“I’m trying to do my job,” he says with a sigh.
“I’m not going to enable you getting yourself killed.”
There’s a tense silence as they stare at each other.
“...I’m going to get in.”
Izar grins, fangs at the edge of her mouth. “You can try.”
“But if you want into my archive, you’ll have to get past me first, so…” Izar turns back to her screens with a shrug. “Good luck with that.”
Frogger huffs in annoyance as her typing becomes ambient noise.
“...I have other leads.”
“I’m sure you do.”
“This is my most straightforward.” Frogger presses. “Digging around would be more dangerous.”
“Then don’t dig.” Izar hits a button with particular flourish, and an image of The Nautilus fills the screens, its glittering white face tagged with dripping red paint reading ‘NO RETURNS.’ Frogger turns away with a snort while Izar smiles at the picture. “What’d he do this time?”
“What do you mean?”
“Nimo’s trying to kill him again, so I’m curious.”
“That’s nothing new.”
“Yes but I want to know why.” The turn of her lips is playful as she looks to Frogger. “I get if you didn’t want to tell Nimo the whole story, but I thought we were closer than that.”
“I didn’t tell Nimo because I don’t have the full story.” Frogger crosses his arms. “The prostitutes obviously went through him, but I don’t know where they are now.”
“He didn’t tell you?”
“Why would he?”
“Because he’s your friend, and you’re obviously playing favorites, so…” She trails off, goading.
“Three things.” Frogger holds up a finger. “One, I don’t play favorites, it’s bad for business.”
Frogger holds up another finger. “Two, I withheld nothing from Nimo. I’ve no idea where they are.”
“Oh really? None? You couldn’t glean a single trace from The Prince’s system?”
“He doesn’t like it when you-” Frogger sighs. “No, because the asshole encodes everything in ivory. ”
“Ivory?” Izar laughs as Frogger stands, coming over to one of the keyboards. “That’s for chips, not large scale encryptions, you can’t-”
Frogger jams a button with his finger and leans back, gesturing to the screen with a stiff gesture. Izar leans in, brow raising.
“Huh, I guess you can...God, that would be tedious.” Izar leans back, considering the screen for a moment longer before grinning at Frogger. “I still think you’re going soft.”
Izar laughs while Frogger looks tired. “I’m sure if you just push a little, you could figure it out.”
“No one’s paying me to figure it out anymore, so I don’t care.”
“Hm.” Izar looks up at him in amusement. “So what’s the third thing?”
“The Prince…” Frogger punctuates this with finger quotes. “Isn’t my friend. He’s an asset.”
Izar snorts, rolling her multiple sets of eyes and returns to typing. The picture of the Nautilus disappears, replaced by the numerous live feeds.
“...They’re voting on the containment bill in two weeks,” Frogger says to the floor.
“And?” She glances at him, raising a brow. “Taylor’s a sensationalist, the other senators trust Bellinger’s practicality. If their private communications are to be believed, with her voting no, we’re fine.”
“...And if it passes anyway?”
“I’ll be fine. If need be, Null’s helping me blackmail anyone who’d give me trouble.”
“You’re working with four-o-four?”
“Hey, I may have the material, but it helps to have someone who knows the business.”
Frogger pushes off the table with an unconvinced hum, reaching for his mask.
“How about you?” Izar asks.
Frogger pauses at the door. His answer is a modulated “Fine.”
SUNDAY, MAY 29, 2270
3AM - STORMING POST-STORM
B3, KEY LARGO - THE REEF
SOUND TOWER APARTMENTS
Frogger disembarks a lift at Key Largo station, a dingy place with cracks in the ad screens lining the walls, sporting epidemic advisories, birth control ads, and purist propaganda. It’s crowded with equally dingy people keeping their eyes to themselves, their belongings close, and their walking quickly.
Making his way into the more internal sections of the pillar, Frogger reaches the bland hallways of Sound Tower Apartments. A group of kids, preteens in several layers of well-worn clothes, come running past. One bumps into Frogger as they go.
Frogger catches the kid by the back of the collar. “Hello Lucas.”
“Aye, Mr. Frogger,” Lucas says pleasantly.
Frogger pulls him back until he’s standing in front of him. He keeps hold of Lucas’ collar and holds out a hand. “Knife.”
Lucas rolls his eyes with a dramatic huff of air, hands hanging on the front on his collar. “I dunno what you’re talkin’bout.”
Frogger stares at him, hand still out.
Lucas sighs, somehow more dramatic than before, and pulls a twelve inch knife out of his outermost coat, slapping it into Frogger’s hand. Frogger flips it by the hilt and releases Lucas’ collar.
“Someone’s been standing around for the last twenty,” Lucas says, righting his numerous layers with indignation. Frogger nods and steps past him, reaching into his bag. Lucas gives a forlorn look to the knife as Frogger goes. “One of these days…”
“I’ll get someone to watch the door who won’t rob me.” Frogger turns and tosses Lucas an orange. The boy catches the vibrant fruit, eyes wide. He looks up from the orange and gives Frogger a grin behind his LEAF mask.
“Fat chance,” Lucas says, pocketing the orange and running off after the other hoodlums. Frogger watches him go, before making his way around the corner, blade still at his side.
The hall is empty save a twenty-something leaning casually against the wall near a door down a ways, twirling and catching a blade with practiced ease. They look over as Frogger approaches, each putting their respective knives away.
“Tilly.” Frogger greets.
“Frogger.” There’s a spark in their eyes. “Bit late to be getting in.”
“Bit late to be sitting outside my door.”
“Touche…” their tone is light as they push off the wall, shrugging. “Just had a couple questions I thought you could answer.”
“Ones you can’t figure out yourself?” Frogger asks, walking around them to the door.
“I mean, I could, but why take the long way ‘round?” They turn to face him. “They’ll be voting on the TOC Bill pretty soon. Given that, oh, eighty percent of the city’s splice population lives in our Reef, we’re expecting a raid.”
“If it passes.”
Tilly’s smile is humorless now. “It pays to be prepared, not optimistic.”
Frogger pauses, and nods in concession.
“We’d like to get our people out of the way, if we can.” they continue. “I’m trying to convince Jace that we need help, but before I can do that, I need to know if there’s actually help to be had.”
“And you’re asking me…”
“Would your Prince be able to lend a hand in hiding a few hundred splices?”
Frogger’s mask whirrs as he crosses his arms, leaning on his back leg. Tilly smiles like they know they’re touching a nerve.
“The Splice Prince,” Frogger says, emphasis somehow making it through the modulator. “...Has a handful of warehouses at their disposal, along with liberal use of the city’s shipping hyperlines, so...yes.”
Tilly seems pleased by this. “And he’d be willing to help?”
Frogger considers this. “...He could be convinced.”
“Excellent.” Tilly grins, offering a hand. “Pleasure doing business with you.”
“That’s it?” He asks, taking it. Tilly shrugs.
“You should know as well as anyone, never hurts to have a second set of eyes.” The transfer completes and Tilly steps away, heading back the way Frogger came.
“...You gave me fifty bucks.”
Tilly starts walking backwards. “ And I told you our plans. Equivalent exchange.”
Frogger rolls his eyes and unlocks his apartment.
Chapter 9: Observations
SUNDAY, MAY 29, 2270
4AM - CLEAR POST- STORM
M5, LOW TIDE
LOVE’S ARROW CLUB
A gaudy Vegas-style honeymoon suite, decked out with mood lighting, various shades of red, and a heart shaped queen bed. Beyond the closed door, muffled shouts, heavy items or bodies toppling to the floor, then silence. The door opens.
A man rivaling the gaudiness of the room, sporting a faux-fur coat, shades of red in the lenses of his round glasses and the flushed splotches on his cheeks. He scrambles inside, jamming his finger in the button to close, close, for the love of god -to lock the door behind him before backing away, chest heaving. He looks frantically to the rain streaked window, opposite the bed and offering a picturesque view of a hundred foot drop.
The door slides open, this time preceded by a loud THUD and accompanying sparks. In steps Deimos, who tosses a fist full of wires to the side, his outfit shifting from crimson to the pink of the room walls, save that dripping from the end of his blade. He gives a cursory glance to the room; closet, mini bar, window, burbling jacuzzi, heart-shaped bed…
Deimos pulls the wide-eyed man from behind the lip of the jacuzzi, and the water churns darker shades of red.
TUESDAY, MAY 31 , 2270
1AM - CLEAR POST-STORM
F6, PALM BEACH - CHAMPION
RCGD RESEARCH CENTER
Sutton steps out of the rat experiment room, a data tablet tucked under their arm, coming up short a lumbering figure lurches around the corner, out of the hallway. Sutton’s brow furrows as they move to follow, slowly.
They’re large, at least eight feet tall and dressed in gray, wearing helmets with semi-opaque screens. They stop guiding the hovering platform between them as Sutton rounds the corner, heads turning on long necks. There’s a low, groaning sort of hiss, and through the mask screens, the vague shadow of the creature’s face looks almost skeletal.
Sutton’s steps falter. Passing in front of the creature and platform, Panacea and Algaea pause in conversation, Algaea noticing the creature’s diverted attention, its staring contest with Sutton, and nudging Panacea.
“Working hard or hardly working?” Panacea approaches Sutton with a spring in her step.
“I, uh,” Sutton stammers, tearing their eyes away from the creature. “Is that…”
“A chimera.” Panacea nods. “I’m sure Algaea’s told you all about them, seeing as she can’t keep her mouth shut.”
“I thought you didn’t keep large splices here?”
“Not on a large scale, but we do have a few spaces for humanoid specimens.” Panacea walks back towards Algaea, towards the chimera. “Not for them, though, they’re just running delivery.”
“Delivering what?” Sutton follows hesitantly.
At the end of the hallway, on the hovering platform, are a handful of unconscious people, laid out in plain white smocks, each with some strange trait (odd coloration or texture of skin, limbs bending and jointing in odd places). Sutton notes this with fascination, before their eyes catch on the pale x-shaped scars on each splices’ temple.
“These are TOs…” Sutton stops following the platform.
“Well, we are splicers, by-and-by...”
“No, I-I-I mean, these, these are-” Sutton takes a deep breath, turning to Panacea with an edge of mania. “These are tame splices.”
“Ah.” Panacea watches their reaction from the corner of her eye. “Yes.”
“Where did you-how-uhh…” Sutton steps back.
“Calm down, just-” Panacea steps forward, maintaining the distance, hands up placatingly. “Look, we’re bringing them in for observation.”
Sutton’s face pinches, confused. “ Bringing them in? Why’re you-is this about that splice in High Water? It wasn’t even confirmed that they had the nd, why would-”
“They do.” Panacea cuts them off. The two stare at each other for a moment. “...We want to help them if we can and, well, everyone else in the process, if it works out like that.”
“...You’re testing for immunity?” There’s still an edge to Sutton’s question.
“Not testing.” Panacea holds up a finger. “Just observing.”
Sutton runs a hand through their hair, takes a long breath in.
“If we’re lucky enough to find one who’s immune, that would be a huge help, don’t you think?” Panacea presses, lowering her voice as she takes a step into Sutton’s space. Sutton’s eyes flick away, to the platform long past them, to the ground. “We could save a lot of people with this.”
“You’re…you’re right.” A breath in, then out, eyes turning back to Panacea. “You’re right. If we can observe an immune response, get antibody samples, I was just, uh...I was caught off-guard.”
Algaea watches from down the hallway, flanked by the two chimera, hands in her pockets. “Everything okay?”
“Everything’s fine.” Panacea calls back. Sutton rubs their arm as Panacea turns her cheery look back to Algaea. “First time seeing a chimera is all. You know how much of a shock that can be.”
Panacea rejoins Algaea at the far end of the hall. Sutton watches them, the chimera, the splices, disappear around another corner. A breath in, then out, before turning on their heels and returning to the rat room.
TUESDAY, MAY 31, 2270
2AM - STORMING POST-STORM
A4, THE GLADES
OUTSIDE OF THE CIRCUS
The Glades, pipe-ridden and wire framed, a choking amount of steam, machinery, and storage units. The backside of The Circus pulses in the distance, lights flashing with the vestiges of a beat. Rinkleader stands with her hands rested on the ball of her cane, talking to a man in a mask similar to hers, sans eye sockets and cut through at the mouth with a jagged soundwave of glowing green, shifting in time with his half of the conversation. A handful of other Circushands sit around, waiting.
Rinkleader turns suddenly from her companion, dead gaze out into the dimness. There’s a shuffling noise, preceding two chimera looming over a hovering platform ferrying several crates and a few cages. The Circushands get to their feet, moving slowly but surely toward the chimera with familiar caution, save one young and twitchy kid who makes for the crates. The chimera’s low hiss surprises the kid, but it’s Rinkleader’s cane, barring her advance, that stops her.
“Outis.” Rinkleader lowers the cane and steps up to the hissing chimera. “Control your pets.”
The confronted chimera tilts its head. There’s a soft crackle of static as the hiss fades.
“Their instructions are to guard their cargo. I can’t help if your helpers are overeager,” The chimera ‘says’ in the lightly modulated voice of Outis.
“Whatever their instructions, if they maul one of my people, I’m taking them as compensation.”
“That would be ill-advised, but you’re free to try.” Through the mixer, through whatever mic sits behind the chimeran mask with its skull of shadows, there’s a smile in Outis’ voice. Rinkleader stares the chimera down, empty sockets to empty sockets.
Rinkleader raises a hand, and a briefcase is brought forth, its handle placed in her waiting palm. Taking a step forward, Rinkleader holds out the case.
The chimera sways slightly, then takes the case, stepping aside. Rinkleader nods her people forward, and they’re quick to unload the floating platform. Rinkleader’s companion from earlier leans in to her side, barely a tremor from the line of his mouth. She turns towards him as he whispers, but does nothing else to acknowledge the action.
The chimera wait for them to finish unloading before moving back to the platform, guiding it back the way they came. As both sides depart, Rinkleader remains, watching the fading backs of the chimera, before turning her gaze to a platform, several stories up, overlooking where the exchange occurred.
Her cane clacks on the hard cement floor as she returns to The Circus.
Up on the platform, Frogger finishes replacing his computer in his bag, before taking off after the chimera.
The chase along piping and occasional walkway ends at a secluded industrial dock. The chimera disappears into a waiting aerosub while Frogger pulls a small drone. It descends without issue, view mirrored on Frogger’s tablet, up until he tries to send it into the aerosub after the chimera. The video feed turns to static and the drone clinks into the entry frame. One of the chimera turns, looking from the aerosub out at the dock, but does nothing as the hatch pulls closed and seals.
Frogger’s mask whirs as he lowers the tablet, doing his best to focus on the scene below as the video feed remains static. He manages to squeeze the drone out with the aerosub as it undocks, and once out in the water, the screen clears. No sub.
Frogger spins the drone around in a quick circle, freezing when the static returns. His goggles widen their focus as he starts to follow the static, occasionally losing it, only to find it seconds later. There’s a small map in the corner of the tablet screen, tracking the drone path, projecting possible turns.
After several minutes, the static clears, and no amount of spinning or adjusting the drone camera makes a difference. The drone spins again, and is met with the unhinged maw of a siren. The static returns, and Frogger greets it with a heavy whirrr from his mask, tablet dropping with his hands into his lap.
Chapter 10: Simple Politics
THURSDAY, JUNE 2, 2270
12AM - STORM
F6, PALM BEACH - CHAMPION
RCGD RESEARCH CENTER
Sutton stands with a data tablet, checking in unconscious splices while Aglaea and Hygieia chat further up the line, doing something else with the new subjects.
“Can you really call it two protests?” Algae asks Hygieia.
“I think you have to, seeing as they keep getting into fights with each other.”
A pair of chimera flank each end of the line of splices, standing vigil. Sutton struggles to keep from staring at them, settling for uncomfortable, quick side-eyes.
“But they’re both trying to stop the containment bill, so isn’t it like same difference?”
Sutton makes their way further down the line, reaching a splice with blood on their hands. Sutton frowns.
“That’s just the activists. The purists think it’s too light-handed.”
Sutton looks over the splice, finding blood seeping from his abdomen into his smock.
“And what do the purists want?” Algaea asks with a snort.
“Same thing they always want.”
“Hey, uh, guys?” Sutton turns to see if they have the two’s attention. “I think this one’s hurt.”
The splice’s eyes flutter open, barely taking in the sterile environment before going wide and frantic, bolting upright, pulling free from the insubstantial restraints and lashing out. One bloody hand hits Sutton hard in the face, leaving a smear of red on their cheek and mask, knocking them to the ground. Sutton scrambles back on the floor while the splice almost falls off the gurney on top of them.
The splice locks eyes with Sutton for a second, mirroring each other’s fear and confusion, before his attention rips towards a loud, nearing hiss. The chimera plucks the splice off the floor, violent and effortless, then slams him back down on the platform.
“Hey, hey! Don’t kill it!” Algaea runs around the chimera, pulling a remote from her pocket as it bears down on the splice. Sutton’s eyes are glued to the splice as they try to get out of the chimera’s crushing grip, barely noticing Hygieia approaching.
“Iaso, are you okay?”
“I-I-” Sutton’s hand comes up to their face, to the wet blood. “He cut me, he…”
Sutton goes quiet, eyes locked on their bloody fingers.
“You sure?” Hygieia glances past chimera and Aglaea. “It looks like it might’ve just bled on you.”
Sutton looks back at the struggling forms like they’ve been hit by a truck. Behind them, Panacea and Aceso come around the corner.
“What happened?” Panacea demands, void of any lightness.
“One of the transfers woke up.” Hygieia holds her hands up, almost a shrug.
“Abnormal metabolic rates, hard to get the right dosage, it happens.” Algaea says through gritted teeth, managing to get a syringe into the struggling splice, who goes limp. Aceso helps Sutton off the floor, gently.
“Come on.” Aceso's voice is quiet, almost lost in the residual commotion.
“Well is it right this time?” Panacea leans over the still splice, into Algaea’s space.
“ Hopefully? I don’t know, it might’ve been too high…”
Hygieia shoots Sutton a sad look as Aceso leads them away, before joining the other two. Aceso brings them into a bathroom, having them sit down before pulling a rag from the dispenser and wiping the blood off their face while they stare out blankly ahead. When he applies a little pressure, they wince. A look of fear breaks through the seeming shock.
Sutton’s hands scramble at their mask, pulling at the straps.
“Iaso, you shouldn’t take your mask off.” Aceso steps back, looking at corners like you look for cameras.
Sutton ignores this, yanking the mask away and putting a non-blood finger to their cheek, to a thin cut made by the edge of their mask. “I got cut…”
“I got-it cut me, it bled on me, oh my god- ”
Aceso’s eyes widen in understanding as he moves to reenter Sutton’s space, trying to catch their attention, hand on their arm. “You’re not sick.”
Sutton jerks away. “No! Don’t touch me, you’ll-I’m-”
“What do you mean I’m not s-s-blood, blood and an open wound, its infection rate-”
Aceso grabs Sutton’s wrist. “They aren’t sick.”
“I-I-I…” A deep breath in, then hold, then a long breath out. “...What?”
“They’re not sick.”
Sutton stares at him, unblinking. “...Then why are they here.”
Aceso stares back, shoulders visibly rising and falling with his own breaths. He shakes his head, letting go of their wrist and wiping the rest of the blood off Sutton’s face, off their hand. “Not my area.”
Sutton is silent as he fetches a bandage, let’s him place it on their cheek, doesn’t move as he stands, washes his hands, throws the rag into the chute.
He turns back to them. “Put your mask on before leaving.”
“I wasn’t supposed to know that, was I?”
“Will you get in trouble for telling me?”
Aceso looks away with a sigh, before gathering his thoughts and looking at them again. “Couldn’t let you think you were dying, and you would’ve found out eventually. You will, officially, if you...maybe don’t mention it.”
Sutton nods, eyes falling to the floor.
“...You should be careful, Iaso.”
Sutton looks up, unsure.
“Impetus likes its secrets. If you do something to endanger that, you...well, it wouldn’t be smart. Or safe.”
Sutton pauses on that, rubbing their arm. “...Thanks.”
Aceso shrugs again, then leaves.
Sutton sits, breathing in and out and in and out and in and in and in and-
It’s several minutes before they leave the room, eyes a little red and breathing mostly steady, mask in place.
A political building in Neptune, full of interns and salary workers, all in suits. It’s late, so the bustle isn’t frantic, but papers stacked high and haphazard on every surface, hiding misplaced mugs, tell of a more tense atmosphere. A belabored looking woman in her mid-60s, dark eyes and harsh lines of her face framed by graying curls, walks through the hall with authority, an assistant at her elbow.
“Senator Jania called, she’d like to meet tomorrow to discuss the Containment Bill.”
“Decline, I’m busy.”
“She was rather insistent…”
“She wants to convince me to reconsider, which I’m not going to do no matter how insistent she is, so it’d be a waste of both our times.”
The assistant frowns. “I thought she hadn’t taken a position yet.”
“She’s in Taylor’s pocket, no point meeting with her.”
“I’ll tell her you’re booked,” the assistant says with a sharp nod, turning crisply and power walking away as the woman enters her office.
The door slips closed behind her as she regards the open window with a frown. She goes to it, taking a moment to look out over the city. Behind her, Deimos moves out of the shadows, chameleon outfit shifting as he approaches.
She closes the window with a SLAM .
Light, dim. Vague murmering, speech.
“...stable…” Help me.
“....waking…” I’m choking.
“Can we speed this up?”
A child jolts upright--hair buzzed, pale and blue-lipped and wet, yellow irises holding hourglass pupils--a tube down his throat.
Frogger jolts upright, bathed in flickering blue light, yellow irises and hourglass pupils darting around while he gasps for air. He slumps forward, brow furrowed, elbows on the desk. His desk. He fell asleep in his chair at his desk in his apartment, where he puts his face in his hands and rubs his eyes.
“...the senator’s body was found this morning in her office by one of the janitorial staff…”
Frogger looks up at the numerous screens, various sizes, looming over him. ‘Senator Bellinger, found dead’ scrolls under some reporter backlit by the strobe lights of some authority. It’s ringed by screens with two maps of Atlas, the same save various clusters of light markers and timestamps, another screen details an old theatre, a designer drug, someone called “Glow Worm.” Frogger stares at the news feed.
“The cause of death appears to be a heart attack. The Senator was well known for working long hours and…”
Frogger drops his head back into his hand. Sighs.
Chapter 11: In Case of Fire
TUESDAY, JUNE 7TH, 2270
F6, PALM BEACH - CHAMPION
RCGD RESEARCH CENTER
Sutton steps out of the break room as Hygieia and Panacea leave the procedure room, heading the opposite direction and not noticing Sutton.
“...ust do it tomorrow?”
“They’re young, their immune systems aren’t as strong, and I don’t think the shock will help. I’d rather skew our results…”
The two’s voices fade and Sutton drops their gaze, brow pinched.
The sirens in the observation room are gone, replaced by an assortment of splices suspended in the ghostly light. Sutton steps up to the first, pulling up the file, quickly navigating to the infection status: incubation. Sutton moves down the line, checking each file; incubation, incubation, incubation...
Sutton stops, rereads, looks up to the black haired girl, something like fifteen, in the second to last tube. They let out a tight sigh, brushing back their hair, glancing back at the door through the observation window as they move to the last tube. This girl is smaller, her long hair alternating between ruddy brown close to the shade of her skin and a stark white. Sutton pulls up her status: uninfected.
Sutton steps back, hands clenching and unclenching, eyes darting between the two girls. They look down the line of tubes, of infected splices, letting out a small noise of distress and wringing their hands. They step up the each girl’s display, hitting a few buttons before heading into the other room
Sutton snatches a tablet off the table in front of the viewing window, turning back to the girls, who slowly blink into consciousness. Sutton presses buttons, mashes buttons, mashes more buttons, until the solution starts to drain from the first tube, then the second.
The girls come to rest at the bottom of the now empty tubes, only a moment of bleary confusion before they’re hit with an intense spray of water, washing off the fluid, followed by a strong jet of air.
A light in the observation room draws Sutton’s attention. They whip around to see Aglaea and a chimera entering, Algaea frowning when she notices Sutton.
“Iaso? What’re you-”
In a panic, Sutton rushes over to a fire alarm and pulls it. A loud blaring sounds throughout the facility. Sutton steps away as the door between tubes and observation room slams closed.
“Alert. Alert. This is not a drill. Please remain calm as the fire is located.”
Sutton starts feverishly pressing buttons on the tablet.
“Iaso! What the hell are you doing?” Algaea glares through the observation window, holding down an intercom button.
“They’re just kids.” Sutton gives Algaea a pained look, before turning back to the girls. Their tubes begin to open.
The ruddy child watches the glass lower, while the other, the black haired teen. immediately attempts to scramble over as soon as the tube is low enough. She tumbles to the ground, but rights herself quickly, growling at Sutton, baring sharp teeth, and Sutton backpedals.
“H-hey, it’s okay, I’m-”
A THUD against straining glass. Startled, Sutton turns--the alarm still blaring overhead, the building imploring everyone to remain calm-- to see the door to the observation room reverberating as a chimera throws itself against the door a second time. Sutton backs away, nearing the growling teen, who quiets, unable to keep her own attention off the chimera. Aglaea takes her finger off the intercom, but her muffled shouts at the chimera still come through.
“Stop! There’s no fire, it’ll open on its own if you quit breaking it.” Algaea turns back to Sutton, eyes solemn. “You’re going to have a lot of explaining to do.”
Sutton looks around, frantic, but the room is empty save the tubes, a couple rolling chairs, and a trash shoot at the other end. A warning on the side of the tube, emphasized with a stylized flame, reads ‘Danger: flammable.” Sutton’s face settles into unsteady determination.
They go over and pick up a chair.
“Iaso, stop before you make an even bigger mess for yourself.”
“I’m sorry,” Sutton says to the splice in the tube, before smashing the chair against the glass. It barely cracks.
They swing again, and again.
The teen backs away, confused, next to the child’s platform. The child, eyes also on Sutton’s crack cracK Crack ing, slides herself off the platform and behind the other girl.
The tube bursts, spilling viscous liquid all over the floor. Suttons hands go to their jacket pocket.
“No fire detected. Please stand by while the facility is returned to normal operation.”
Sutton pulls out a taser, stepping back and sticking the crackling device into the large pool. It flares up violently, almost catching their sleeve. They rear back, dropping the taser to avoid it.
“Alert. Alert. This is not a drill. Please remain calm as the fire is suppressed.”
The vents to the room shncK closed as dark, noxious smoke pools on the ceiling. Thumping resumes on the door as thick foam spews from nozzles in the ceiling, dosing the fire, and the inhabitants. Sutton turns to the girls, holding out a hand.
“Escape?” It comes out like a stage whisper, trying to be non threatening while still actually audible. The door cracks, and Sutton flinches, holding out their hand with more emphasis.
The child comes forward, taking the hand, and the teen follows as Sutton leads them back behind the remaining tubes, avoiding the almost contained fire, towards the garbage shoot.
Sutton opens the hatch and steps aside, helping the willing child into the chute. The teen is more hesitant.
“Fire suppressed. Please stand by while the facility is returned to normal operation.”
The teen slips inside as the door gives. Sutton scrambles into the shoot themself as the chimera charges, trudging through the foam and jamming an arm down the shoot after them. Sutton slides down just in time to avoid the swiping claws, knocking into the girls and sending them all tumbling down the steep decline.
The shaft turns, the lot of them slowing with a thud against the wall. The child continues to slide, towards a quickly approaching drop. The teen grabs her ankle, sliding again, and Sutton wraps an arm around the teen, bracing their feet on the side of the shoot.
The child hangs over the long drop, emanating an orange glow and heat.
“I forgot…” Sutton takes a deep breath. “I forgot about the incinerator…”
Shouting rattles down the shoot after them, and the two girls look at Sutton, who thinks for a few painful moments. With some adjusting, Sutton moves around the girls to the edge. They eye the drop with apprehension, then glance up to a hatch, less than a handful of feet up the straight shoot. Sutton sighs in relief.
“Oh...kay…” Sutton glances down again, bracing themself against the narrow walls. “OK, okay.”
Sutton leans over the drop, palms against the opposite wall, moving carefully to one shoulder and then carefully to their back, their feet staying on the lip. Sutton gestures for the girls to come. There’s reluctance.
“There’s-s a, uh, a hatch. I can boos-s-” Sutton closes their eyes, letting out a noise of frustration. “ Lift you up to it.”
The child moves first, cautious about the gap as she climbs up Sutton’s legs, fists in the front of their shirt then around their neck. Sutton holds her waist steady as she stands on their shoulders, pushing open the hatch and letting in a cool breeze and the sounds of traffic not far off. The hatch closes as the child tries to pull herself through. Sutton puts a hand to her back to keep her from falling, and she tries again.
Leaning far enough into the hatch this time, the childs tumbles out with an oof and a dull clatter. Sutton looks back to the teen, breathing a little heavy but keeping it even, chalking the shaking up to nerves.
“Your, uh, your turn.” Sutton holds out their arms to the teen.
“...I’m too big.” Her voice is low, weighty, but edged with uncertainty and disuse. Sutton blinks.
“You can…” Sutton shakes their head. “You’re not, you’re not-it’ll be fine.”
Her face pinches, distrustful. The commotion up the shaft grows, drawing her sudden attention. When she looks back to Sutton, it’s with resolution.
They do the same things as they did with the child, though slower and with more exertion on Sutton’s part, but they get the teen up. The child holds the hatch open as she climbs out, reaching in to take her arm, to help.
Sutton carefully rotates themself around so they’re facing the hatch, making a point not to look down. The girls peer down at her through the hatch.
“Could you two hold that open?”
The child nods with vigor, while the teen spares only one.
“Okay…” Sutton says, quietly, to themself.
They get their fingers over the lip of the hatch, and try to jump to help them pull through, but their wet shoes slip, and they’re left hanging, biting off a shout. The girls do their best to keep the hatch from closing on Sutton’s fingers, their bare feet sliding a bit on the concrete ground.
Sutton, whimpering a couple times under their breath, manages to get their feet back on the ledge. Taking it slower, they pull themself out of the garbage shoot and into a service spine. They stumble out, falling back against the wall, almost wheezing while the girls eye them, unsurely.
Sutton lets out a relieved, breathy chuckle, and the child smiles in response, hesitant grin full of abnormally sharp teeth. Both the laughter and smile pitter out quickly.
“You should, uh…” Sutton straightens against the wall. “You should probably run now.”
The girls exchange a look.
“Run where?” asks the child, voice high and airy.
“Oh, talking, yes, uh, that’s helpful…” Sutton takes a deep breath. “Home? Do you have a home? Someone who takes care of you?”
“Yes.” The child nods.
“And where are they?”
The child shakes her head, while the teen shrugs in clear frustration.
“OK...okay…” Sutton puts their face in their hands. “Shit.”
Sutton brushes their hair back with both hands, slicking it with the foam still clinging to the three of them. They look over the girls, give a distant stare back through the wall, and push themself upright.
“C’mon, we, uh…” Sutton heads for the access alley. “We should probably get moving.”
The child runs after them, clinging to their leg and causing them to teeter a bit, while the teen follows a few steps behind, getting closer as they all step out into the early morning crowd.
Chapter 12: Minor Detour
TUESDAY, JUNE 7TH, 2270
1PM - RAINING POST-CLEAR
S8, OMNI - NEPTUNE
ATLAS PUBLIC RECORDS BUILDING
In Izar’s office, Frogger sits cross legged on the daybed near the door, messing with a tablet. His mask and goggles lay next to him.
“Their instructions are to guard their cargo. I can’t help if-”
Unintelligible fast forwarding.
“...ill-advised, but you’re free to try . ”
“That would be ill-advised, but you’re free to try.”
“... you ’re fr ee to tr y .” The modulation falters.
“... free to try.”
“ That would be ill-advised, but you’re free to try. ”
Izar plants two hands on her desk. “Yay! You did it!” She spins in her chair and fixes Frogger with several looks of annoyance. “Now stop.”
Frogger looks at her, an expression of blank innocence as he slowly tilts his head and turns off the recording with a flourish.
“...you’re free to-” click.
“Thank you.” Izar turns back to their screens. “What’re you gonna do with a voice clip?”
“Jack shit.” Frogger closes the application. “Though if you let me into the archive-”
Frogger sighs, long and loud, leaning his head back on the couch.
“What, your other leads not panning out?”
“Found their drug operation sitting in a bubble of slowed nd, which is interesting but useless.”
“Why not stake them out like The Circus?”
“I thought you didn’t want me investigating.”
Izar shrugs. “And here we are regardless. I’m still curious about what you’ve managed.”
“...Unless I can figure out how to stop the video interference, I can’t tail the deliveries…” Frogger’s pocket buzzes. He picks his head up off the back of the couch, laying the tablet aside. “Not like I can swim after them myself.”
“I’m sure Thell would give you a sub, if you asked.” Izar says, with a hint of goading. Frogger makes a disgruntled noise as he pulls out his phone. There’s a new message from ‘Drunk.’
“What about their other operations? ” Izar presses.
“Hm?” Frogger hums distractedly, eyes skimming over his screen.
“They’re not just killing drug dealers anymore.”
Frogger gives her a withering look. “I doubt Impetus is genetically engineering prostitutes.”
“But they are killing pimps. And mercenaries.”
“Seeing as I’m neither, I wasn’t too worried about it.” Frogger pauses in typing. “It is annoying, though...”
“What, losing clients?” Izar’s grin is sharp.
He makes a face at her, before returning to his phone. “Not knowing why. ”
She offers little more than a hum of acknowledgement, while his brow furrows at his screen. He sets the phone aside, giving a pensive look instead to empty space as he drums his fingers on the leather beside him, then stands.
“Up for a scavenger hunt?” he asks, going to the side of Izar’s chair.
“Always.” She rolls the chair away, leaning back so he can type around her. “What’re we scavenging?”
“Some college kid. Been missing for a couple days, roommate’s worried.”
“That bored, huh?”
An image of a smiling Sutton comes up on several screens, larger than life next to a brief profile: Sutton Maria Riviera, 21 | Agender | GUH, Grad Student in FU Biochemistry Department (1st year), $37,043, No criminal record.
“Hm.” Izar side-eyes Frogger with a lopsided smile. “Not much younger than you, kid. ”
Frogger snorts, opening both the TC Network and video feed of Sutton and Lana’s apartment. Izar swats his hands away from the TC Network. “I got this.”
Frogger scoffs, but there’s a smile to it as he crosses his arms, leaning on his back leg. “I’m not stupid. You’ve too many eyes to pull the wool over.”
“You’re absolutely right.” Izar grins, zeroing in on the little Sutton blip on the 3D map. “All the same, man the camera, please.”
Frogger presses a hand to the obsidian-like surface of the desk, which blips twice, faintly, beneath the contact. He lifts his hand and starts gesturing around the screen, using a swiping motion to rewind the feed on the apartment. “When were they here last?”
“Monday, around six pm.”
The feed jumps to the date and time, and stops. Frogger places his other hand on the desk and raises it; with it comes several other nearby camera feeds. Sutton can be seen exiting the apartment, then heading to the nearby transit station. “Where do they end up?”
“I’m...not sure.” Izar leans back in her chair, a hand under her chin, a pair of arms crossed. “They leave at a similar time almost every night, but somehow disappear somewhere on the transit to Neptune...I’m intrigued but irritated.”
Frogger lets out an amused breath as he tracks Sutton’s progress, jumping from feed to feed, moving the apartment video off to the side with the hand that isn’t pointing. Sutton boards a hyperline, and Frogger fast forwards with a tilt of his hand, Sutton’s blip moving through the digital Atlas in tandem. Sutton reaches into their bag and the screen goes to static. Both Frogger and Izar sit up a little straighter.
Sutton’s blip on the map goes out.
“ Definitely intrigued.”
Frogger steps back as Izar stands, selects a few applications, pulls Sutton’s profile to center, and does a raising motion with all hands. Several windows open, running facial recognition software at stops along the hyperline.
Frogger pauses in flipping through miscellaneous documents--an obituary for an Ulrich Riviera, internal communications of the FU Genetics Department regarding indefinite leave for bereavement, recent bank transactions--to shrug at Izar, expression blank.
“Come on,” she goads. “It’s so much smoother than your set up.”
“Mine does alright.” Frogger’s tone is defensive, but there’s a hint of smile on his lips as he goes back to the documents. “Made a withdrawal this morning...almost their entire savings.”
“Sounds like they’re looking to skip town.”
With a flick of the wrist, they’re looking through the fish-eyed lens of an ATM, catching the crown of disheveled brown hair before turning to static.
“This again…” Frogger sighs.
“Aye, second time’s the charm.” Izar pulls up nearby feeds. “Let’s play follow the static.”
She waits for one of the windows to fizz, bringing it to the center, which adjusts the surrounding feeds to adjacent cameras. They jump from one feed to another as the static moves across the screens, until…
“I can see that.” Izar backtracks through the feeds, frown deepening. “Doesn’t pop up anywhere else, though.”
Izar drums her fingers on the desk, thinking, the feeds surrounding the last static frame playing on a short loop. She widens the peripheral, increasing the video of a gradually diffusing crowd.
The central feed unfizzes. There’s a beat, then another, then a screen on the wider periphery goes static, previously displaying a sparse meandering of people compared to the rush ringing the ATM. Izar smiles. “There we go.”
“Why’d it stop working?”
“I don’t think it stopped , per say…” She pulls up the intermediate feed that never fizzed. “There wasn’t any static when they got off the line, either, wherever they got off. It’s probably a tactic to keep people from doing...well, this. Whatever scrambler they’ve got, it disables when there’s enough people.”
Izar points out the back of Sutton’s head on the intermediate feed. “See?”
“Hm…” Frogger leans in, noticing two forms sticking to Sutton as they move through the throng. “Are those kids?”
“Their profile did say they had a couple siblings, maybe they’re skipping town together.”
Frogger pulls Sutton’s profile to his forefront, skimming. “Older siblings. Not younger.” Scrolling. “No cousins in Atlas, no friends with kids…”
Izar leans back on a leg, crossing two sets of arms and resting one of the third under her chin, a quirk to her thin lips. “Well...isn’t that interesting.”
“Do the kids have chips?”
Izar pulls over the Altas model. “Mmm-no, doesn’t look like it. Could be too young.”
Frogger hums noncommittally, crossing his arms as well.
Izar increases the video speed, quickly skipping from feed to feed, sometimes going to wider periphery feeds when static is lost to a crowd. Eventually, the last screen unfizzes outside some rundown building in High Water.
“I give you the Milestone Motel.” Izar holds up her hands, presentory, with a look of satisfaction. She gives him a crooked smile. “No guest registry, and they take cash.”
“...Could you do that with Impetus’ deliveries?”
Izar sits, shrugs. “Probably.”
“But you won’t.” Frogger slips on his goggles and mask.
“Nope! Now shoo, go make friends.”
Frogger makes for the door with a whir.
Frogger gives a thumbs up over his shoulder as he steps out of the room.
Frogger exits a lift on the south side of High Water. The crowd is dressed in the usual muted colors of the Swamps, clear masks that don’t obstruct expression. There’s an intense checkpoint at the door, stopping and scanning everyone before they’re allowed through. Frogger clicks a button on his goggles as he joins the line. The stream of commuters coming in and out of the station set a tone of low grumbling.
“I’m going to be late to work…”
“This is ridiculous.”
“Did they have to stick me? I hate needles…”
Frogger falters mid-step, glancing back at whoever made the comment, then to the other exits. All of them have checkpoints. His shoulders slump and his mask whirrs.
“As if we wouldn’t notice a splice walking around.” The following laugh is sharp and lost quickly to the mutters. Frogger moves towards the front of the line. An officer holds a needled device in her hand, waiting for each person to clear the mouth swab before sticking an arm. There’s one person between several officers and Frogger.
“Please step forward and remove your mask.”
Frogger moves quickly to the divide funneling people in, and levers himself over in a single motion.
An officer turns. “Hey, wait-”
One of the officers makes a grab for Frogger, which he manages to duck before breaking into a sprint. The murmuring crowd becomes a low roar.
“What’s he doing-”
“-maybe a splice-”
The officer chasing Frogger calls out. “Come back!”
Frogger’s steps falter as he notices the officers on the other end of the bridge. He glances back, then over the edge of the bridge.
“Stay where you are!”
Frogger puts a hand on the railing.
Frogger steps up and jumps over the side, landing with a THUD on the cover of another bridge, running crossways the walk he just left. He turns back to see the officers pulling guns, and runs forward along the cover, under the walk, before dropping down to another. It begins to sprinkle.
Frogger jumps from that bridge to the neighboring walk, grabbing the railing. People scramble back as he pulls himself up, stumbling as a pair of officers pelt down the stairs and push through the crowd. He runs the other direction.
A bullet zips over his head, leaving sparking residue on the wall. “...Shit.”
Frogger bolts, running low to stay below the railing, the crowd much too slow in getting out of his way. He trips, sees an officer gaining, and rolls under the railing, grabbing at the divide.
Before he can step down onto another walkway, an aerocab speeds by and he slips, clipping his feet and falling back onto a slanted overhang, slick with the now heavy rain. He slides, tries to get up but ducks another stun shot and falls off, narrowly missing several other walkways, and crashing into the water of the canal.
Officers look over the edge at the rippling water, searching for movement. It rains harder.
Frogger swims a few blocks before surfacing, dragging himself quickly out of the water. He’s phone beeps, and he pulls it up on his goggles.
Very careful. With a little spider.
He flicks the message away.
“Aye, you okay?”
Frogger glances up and goes to answer, mask sputtering out water. The good samaritan stumbles back to avoid getting splashed and Frogger coughs. Hunching over, he reaches up to his mask vents, draining them before standing. He walks off, ignoring the stares of dumbfounded pedestrians.
Chapter 13: Introductions
TUESDAY, JUNE 7TH, 2270
E8 - HIGH WATER
THE MILESTONE MOTEL
Sutton lays sprawled on crumpled sheets, still dressed and masked save their jacket, draped over a bundle at their side.
“...ite initial fears, the message was written in paint, not blood.”
Sutton blinks awake to the news report, giving a look around the closet with a tiny bed taking up half the floor. The dark-haired teen sits on the edge of the bed, in front of the tv screen.
“Regardless, the chilling words and chips of the missing victims left at the scene has called public attention to what many consider Atlas’ seedy underbelly.”
Expression pinching with bleary confusion, Sutton glances down to see the bundle at their side is the ruddy little girl, curled up under their jacket. They sit up, suddenly, jolting themself fully awake, jarring the girl in the same motion.
“ Ah! Oh, oh, uh…”
Both girls look at Sutton with wide eyes. Over the teen’s shoulder, dripping red paint scrawls across a building on the tv screen: STAY OUT OF THE WATER.
“S-sorry, just, uh, forgot where I was…”
“The chips were identified as belonging to members of a small sect of purists-” The teen points a remote at the tv, shutting it off, eyes never leaving Sutton; waiting, measuring.
There’s an awkward silence as Sutton composes themself.
“You can…” Sutton gestures to the LEAF masks the girls wear, snatched at some point from a service kiosk. “You can take your masks off inside.”
“You didn’t.” says the teen, eyes cold.
Sutton runs a hand over their face, realizing they still have the white mask on. “Oh…”
Sutton unclasps the mask, taking it off.
“Lily said we should always cover our face. We didn’t have masks before, we just did this.” the girl pulls the collar of her shirt up over her nose. “The air didn’t stink like it does up here.”
“Well, the sublevels have circulated air, so…” Sutton rubs their eyes, collecting their thoughts. “Lily, was that your-who-she took care of you?”
“She came around the TOC nursery,” the teen says to the floor.
“She’d bring blankets and nutripaks and make sure we were all clean.” the girl expands, brightly, with clear fondness.
“...And she was taken too?”
The girl turns to the teen, who just shrugs, watching her legs swing aimlessly over the edge of the bed. The girl looks back to Sutton, unsure. “Lily had a lot of errands, so she went other places.”
Sutton hesitates before continuing. “...How’d you end up in the, uh...in the lab?”
“We…” the girl looks guilty, shooting the teen furtive glances. “Lily told us to stay in the nursery because people are mean, but we went to other places...”
“We wanted to find her, so we went to the kiosk she got nutripaks from. Some guys were there, had needles.” the teen stops swinging her legs, holding very still. “You worked there.”
Sutton opens their mouth, closes it, guilt twisting their brow. “...Yes.”
“Then why are you helping.” The teen turns, catching Sutton’s gaze and holding it, ice in her blue eyes.
“I was...I thought I was helping…but, I mean, obviously I wasn’t, s-” Sutton gestures to them, at a loss, before letting their limp hands fall to their lap. “So I’m...helping you. I guess.”
There’s a heavy moment, Sutton and the teen just watching each other.
The teen drops her eyes.
“...What’re your names?” Sutton asks finally.
“She’s Wolf,” the girl says, pointing at the teen, Wolf. “I’m Fox.”
“Your names are Fox and Wolf?”
“We didn’t get names.” Wolf says, blunt.
“You didn’t get-” Sutton shakes their head. “No, that-that’s fine, Fox and Wolf...I’m Sutton. It’s nice to meet you.”
“We met earlier.” Wolf says.
“And it wasn’t very nice.” Fox frowns.
Sutton gives a small smile. “It’s just something you say…”
There’s a knock at the door and all three freeze.
Sutton holds a finger to their lips, and moves to the door. As they hesitate to activate the door’s peephole, a modulated voice comes through, muffled.
“Sutton Riviera, you have hours at most before Impetus finds you, and when they do, pretending no one’s home is not going to work.”
“...H...How do I know you’re not Impetus?”
“...You don’t. But if I were, you’d be dead already.”
“That’s reassuring…” Sutton mutters to themself, before continuing, louder. “If you’re not Impetus, then who are you?”
“Someone who can help.”
There's a long pause where Sutton wrings their hands, eyes darting around the room for a backdoor that isn’t there.
“I can go...but you don’t have a lot of time.”
Sutton stares at the door, conflicted...before finally reaching out and opening the door.
There’s no one there.
Sutton almost lunges into the hallway, whipping their head around until they catch the back of a teal raincoat. “W-wait!”
Frogger stops, turning back around.
“Wait, just…” Sutton says, stepping out of the hallway, shutting the door behind them before walking up to him. He waits, patiently, arms folded. “...You’re not from Impetus?”
“Are you a cop?”
Frogger’s masks whirs as he tilts his head, arms falling loosely to his sides. “...No. I’m an information broker with a vested interest in your...previous employer.”
“How’d you know we-I was-I was here?”
“You’re not very good at hiding.” He looks past them to the door of their room. “We should talk in private.”
Sutton takes a deep breath, face still screwed in apprehension as they nod, heading back to the room.
“Okay, okay, yeah… ”
Sutton opens the door and holds out a hand to invite Frogger inside. He steps past them, attention locking on to the girls, who stare back.
“Nice to meet you!” Fox says with a toothy grin.
Frogger turns on his heel, leaving Sutton barely any room to enter. “Why are you running?”
“I, uh…” Sutton leans back against the door. “I stole splices.”
“I can see that. Why?”
“...is that...relevant?” Sutton rubs their arm. “I mean, you said we didn’t have a lot of time, so I don’t know if-”
“...They were brought in for-” Sutton glances away, rubbing their mouth before looking back with a touch more conviction. “They were brought in for incoculation, for the nd, maybe...Maybe for vaccine testing, maybe just for observation, I don’t-I worked on treatments, on rats. TO experiments weren’t really…”
Sutton looks away again. “Not really my department.”
“Were they the only ones?”
Sutton grimaces. “No, the...the others were already infected when I...uh…”
“When they saved us!” Fox finishes, helpfully.
“That was nice of them.” Frogger turns to Fox. “What’s your name?”
“Fox,” she says with a smile.
“Nice to meet you, Fox. I’m Frogger.”
“You sound funny.”
“That’s to keep mean people from stealing my voice...But you seem nice.” He bends down in front of her, clicking the side of his mask. His next words come out clear and human. “You two from the Reef?”
Fox nods while Wolf just eyes Frogger suspiciously.
“That’s where I live, too.”
“Are you gonna take us home?”
“Mm..” Frogger tilts his head thoughtfully. “The Reef isn’t too safe for splices right now.”
“The containment bill passed?” Sutton asks.
“This morning,” Frogger says, still facing Fox.
“Where do we go then?” Wolf addresses Frogger with blatant distrust.
“I know a couple people who’d be happy to keep you safe and hidden.” Frogger looks over his shoulder at Sutton. “And someone who can get you a new chip.”
A touch of hope dawns on Sutton’s face. “So you’re really here to help?”
“I’m here to make a deal.”
“...What kind of deal?” Sutton asks, face falling slightly.
“A simple one.” Frogger stands. “I keep you alive, you tell me everything you know.”
Sutton thinks, shifting uncomfortably, then nods several times. “I can, uh, I can do that, yeah.”
“Great.” Frogger brushes past them opening the door. “We should go.”
“Now?” Sutton says with a hint of surprise.
“Like now now?”
Frogger pauses in the doorway, giving Sutton a long look. “...Now now.”
“O-okay.” Sutton grabs their mask off the bed, returning to Frogger at the door. Frogger points back into the room, and Sutton glances back, confused, to the girls, still sitting on the bed. “Fox? Wolf? We need to go now.”
Fox goes to get off the bed, but Wolf catches her collar.
“I don’t trust him.”
Sutton looks lost. “Wolf…”
“We don’t know anything about him. Hell, we don’t know anything about you.”
“I…I don’t think we have much of a choice here.”
Wolf just shakes her head, while Fox glances between her and Sutton, conflicted.
Frogger seems unfazed, still leaning against the doorframe. “You stay here, you die, or you go back to the lab and die there.”
“You could be leading us back there right now.” Wolf snaps.
Frogger pauses, then steps forward, shutting the door behind him. He pushes his goggles up onto his head. Both girls’ eyes widen, Fox’s with some excitement, Wolf still stony but wavering. Sutton shifts uncomfortably, watching his back.
“Impetus is as much a risk to me as they are to you.”
Wolf glares for a moment, before sliding off the bed and grabbing her LEAF, pushing past both Sutton and Frogger. Fox follows suit. Frogger glances at Sutton, who tenses at the sight of his hourglass pupils and red-rimmed eyes, seemingly unsure what to do with their face.
He slips the goggles back on and walks out.
Chapter 14: Below C-Level
TUESDAY, JUNE 7TH, 2270
B LEVELS, SOMEWHERE ABOVE ATLANTIS
Fox stares eagerly out of the stingy glass of the lift, zipping past connecting tubes and subs, garbage, and the occasional fish as it descends through the water. Wolf stands beside her, leaning heavily on the railing, fighting sleep, and Sutton stares through the floor. Frogger stands across from them, leaning against the wall with arms crossed.
“...Is your name really Frogger?” Sutton asks.
“Do you have...an actual name?”
“Frogger’s fine.” He continues to look out the window.
Sutton’s gaze drops back to the floor. “Okay.”
Fox turns from the glass to Frogger. “Where are we going?”
Wolf jerks up, instantly on edge.
“...Atlantis?” Sutton’s voice is small.
“Dome blocks TC signals, limited surveillance, no cops to bribe.” Frogger shrugs.
“The Reef isn’t safe, but Atlantis is?” Wolf rounds on Frogger, agitated.
“People like us need a different kind of safe.”
Wolf makes a face, but doesn’t have the energy to argue.
“...And we’re going to be, uh, okay down there?” Sutton asks.
“Don’t wander, should be fine.”
The lift stops at a run-down station on A1. The small band makes their way to a small, decrepit looking hyperline that hisses to a stop, doors squeaking open. Sutton eyes it, but eventually follows when Frogger boards without hesitation.
It zips along the city floor, sending light and gentle vibration into the water out from the once-totally-clear-but-now-not-so-much outer tube, wobbling trash. Siren tails are caught for a moment before snapping out of view.
Sutton and the girls watch in awe as they zip towards a glowing dome, rising over ten stories, warm yellow light slipping between interior buildings, fading into the cold blue deep. Frogger reclines in his seat, paying absolutely no mind.
The hyperline pulls into an even more decrepit looking station, a leak in the corner, a third of the lights out, another flickering their way out, and the last third shining through dim and grimmy covers onto dim and grimmy floors. The hyperline decompresses with a HISSSSssss... and out step the few passengers, glancing around like they’re waiting to be mugged. Frogger moves with purpose, out of the station.
Outside opens up immensely, bright and uncramped, the dome over a hundred feet over their heads, reaching between neighboring pillars and arching over the tops of old Miami buildings--some more worse for wear than others, additions being made to older structures. Sirens glow faintly, bumping against the dome as they drift aimlessly, occasionally catching on some motion and thrashing it to pieces in a swarm.
Motorcycles zip dangerously through the dark crowd, sporting more helmets than masks and spotty layers. Sutton and the girls step out beside Frogger, gaping.
Sutton’s gaze catches quickly on the bright paint on the wall facing the transit station.
NO KILLING (without good reason)
NO ASSAULT (without good reason)
“What is…” Sutton points loosely.
“Court’s the closest thing to order down here.” Frogger says, pushing into the crowd, leaving Sutton to usher the girls and follow.
“So there’s really no police?”
“Not on duty.”
Sutton looks around, disquieted and with growing discomfort as they pick out more and more figures eyeing them from the crowd. They put on the shoulder of each girl, which Wolf shrugs off. They lean closer to Frogger.
“...What counts as good reason ?”
‘Masquerade: Masks & More’ sits off the streets of central Atlantis, an old greying building of Mediterranean revival architecture sporting a rising tower, tucked between two hulking pillar bases, which offer a buffer between it and the crowds. A few people loiter around casually, chatting with each other on the steps or watching passerbys.
Sutton looks up at the building, neck craning. “This is a mask shop?”
“And more.” Frogger says, climbing the stairs.
He opens one of the large, wooden double doors, leaving it open for Sutton to catch as he continues inside, which they do, eyeing the swinging door with surprise. They pass into a foyer of classical architecture, stone pillars lining a depression stretching down the middle third of the marble floor, full of display cases. It was its own room once, walls spanning between the pillars long gone, opening the already sizable space up even more.
The display cases are full of intricate, well-crafted masks of varying styles, some even hanging from the pillars. Against the far wall, a large, solid man with dark skin, shoulder-length braids, and a squid mask sits behind a counter, dragging a pencil over the screen of a tablet.
People loiter here as well, similar to those on the steps, comfortable and casual and not a single one looking at the masks. Occasionally, one will go in or out of a door on the raised floor to the left. They are disproportionately, and more openly than anywhere else, splices.
Sutton freezes at the top of the foyer steps, processing both awe and mild fear as Frogger makes his way further into the room. Fox scampers down behind him, beeling for one of the mask cases, Wolf in tow. Frogger is halfway across the room when Sutton shakes themself out of it, one of the crowd eyeing them curiously as they slip past them and out the front door.
The man at the counter looks up as Frogger approaches, a smile in his vibrant green eyes as he sets down his tablet.
“Aye, Frogger, we weren’t expecting you.”
“Jay.” Frogger nods. “Is Reed in?”
“He’s around somewhere...” Jay says, leaning against the counter and eyeing Sutton, who’s trying to corral the girls back to Frogger. “What do you need?”
“A spare room and some new chips.”
“...I’ll talk to Thell about the beds. You’ll have to find Reed for the chips.” Jay tilts his head, speaking low and interested. “What’re you getting up to?”
Frogger shrugs. Jay sighs in amusement, turning to Sutton and the girls, who’ve finally made their way to the counter.
“I like your masks,” Fox says.
“Thanks, I make them myself.”
Wolf actually looks at Jay, brows raising a tad. “Really?”
“Cool!” Fox goes on her toes to lean up on the counter.
Jay leans over the counter to meet her. “I hear you’ll be staying with us. What’re your names?”
Jay looks at Sutton. “And you?”
“I uh...Sutton. It, um, nice to meet you.”
“Jayvyn Cephalopoda, likewise.”
“Cephalopoda…” Sutton glances around, a tad flustered. “Your masks are very nice, um...Is this a hotel?”
“You can call me Jay,” he says with a smile. “And no, we’ve just got more rooms than we know what to do with.”
Frogger walks off, making for the door on the left platform.
“W-where are you going?” Sutton asks, stepping after him.
Frogger stops, turning back with a hint of confusion. “...To get you a dentist.”
“Your guy is here ?”
“He kind of owns the building,” Jay says, resting his chin on his hands.
“Technically no one owns the building.” A very, very tall woman with a walking cane, swathed in dark flowing robes, a headscarf, and a venetian mask with a hooked nose, steps through the door just right of the desk. She looks up from the tablet she’s reading. “On paper at least.”
The woman notices the girls, and perks up, setting the tablet on the counter and rounding Jay, resting a hand on his shoulder. “I see we have guests.”
“They’re here with Frogger, they need rooms.” Jay places his hand on her hand, looking up at her warmly.
“That can be arranged.” She bows her head to Sutton and the girls. “Thelma CoWER Menura, at your service. I keep things running around here, so if you need anything, it’s best to talk to me first.”
Sutton blinks up at her. “A, uh, pleasure. I’ll keep that in mind, thank you.”
Thell turns to Frogger. “I believe Reed is in his room.”
Frogger nods in acknowledgement and continues up the left stairs, making it several steps before realizing Sutton and the girls trailing behind him. He stops.
Sutton stops too. “Are we...are we not supposed to follow you anymore?”
“You’re fine here.”
Sutton looks around as Frogger turns to leave.
“Can we...keep following you anyway?”
Frogger tilts his head, goggles whirring into focus on Sutton, confused.
“I would, uh, I would just be more comfortable with, um...if we stuck with you.”
Frogger looks from Sutton’s almost pleading expression, over to Thell and Jay.
Jay shrugs. “I’m sure it’s fine. We’ll find you when we’ve got a place for them.”
There’s a slight whir to Frogger’s mask as he looks back down the steps at Sutton. “...Alright.”
Frogger finally crests the last step and heads through the door. Sutton and the girls follow him into a sitting area made up of two couches and a low coffee table, surrounded by crates and boxes of varying sizes, stacked around the room and against the back wall. There’s a table, with a few chairs, near the back of the room as well, next to the intricate metal cage of a lift.
There’s more people back here as well, more splices, some of them even without masks on. One individual, on one of the couches, seems to have made a burrowed nest of blankets, only a glint off their eyes visible as they watch a tv along with several others. The girls give and receive looks of curiosity while Sutton wrings their hands nervously, sticking to Frogger’s back.
Frogger doesn’t spare the room a glance, just gets on the fancy elevator, waiting for Sutton and the girls before closing the gate. He pressed the top button, and up they went.
Chapter 15: Check Up
TUESDAY, JUNE 7TH, 2270
A1, OLD MIAMI - ATLANTIS
They pass through seventeen floors before rising into a large, octagonal room. Behind the lift is a mezzanine overhanging half the room, accessible via a spiral staircase against the wall to the right. Underneath the mezzanine is a door, along with a number of bookshelves and display cases; boasting models of skulls and brains, several jars of actual teeth beside various, numerous knick-knacks; a shiny sword, a tarnished crown, an ornate pistol, an old-school diver’s helmet, and, of course, a lot of books.
Opposite the mezzanine, in front of the lift, is a large screen at a desk against the wall, near a daybed with a monitor on a maneuverable arm rig. Reed’s dimmed mask sits on the desk, but no Reed.
“Are these... actual books?” Sutton approaches the shelves with reverence. “Like...with paper?”
“Most of them.” Frogger says, closing the elevator grate behind the girls.
“ Oh my god… I’ve never seen this many in one place before…”
“You’re free to read one if you want.” comes from up on the mezzanine. Sutton stumbles back, looking up to see Reed, leaning over the railing and looking down at them, a quirk to a pink brow over the rim of his dark glasses.
“But aren’t they-they’re-”
“It’s kind of what they’re there for.” Reed turns his attention to Frogger, heading for the spiral staircase. “Fancy seeing you here. What’s with the entourage?”
“They need chips,” Frogger says, unmodulated.
“Okay, and…” Reed steps up to Frogger, spending a moment in silence. “You gonna give me anything else?”
Frogger holds out his hand.
Reed’s look is withering. “Seriously?”
Frogger turns to Sutton, still holding his hand out to Reed, now a gesture to him. “Reed De La Rosa, dentist and blackmarket dealer.”
“Sutton Riviera.” Frogger says, turning his gesture on Sutton. “...intern.”
“Alright…” Reed sighs in a breath of amusement, attention turning to the haggard, uncomfortable Sutton. “Is intern paying?”
“I’m covering.” Frogger says, before Sutton can panic too much, a smidge of surprise breaks through their tense demeanor as they turn to look at him instead. Reed raises a brow, then notices Fox, staring at him from behind Sutton’s leg.
“You’ve got a big nose,” she says. Sutton looks at her, aghast.
“You’ve got a big mouth,” Reed replies, giving her a closer look. “...I like your hair.”
Fox gives a sharp-toothed grin. “I like your hair.”
Reed turns to Frogger. “They’re splices?”
“W-well I’m not.” Sutton offers.
“Obviously.” His response is dismissive, eyes sticking to Frogger. “What is this, stragglers from The Reef? What gives?”
Frogger crosses his arms. “...Fifteen.”
Reed’s eyes narrow behind dark lenses. “...I can up the cost of the procedures.”
“I’ll take them somewhere else.”
“This is not how negotiations work!”
“God, fine!” Reed throws up his arms, stalking away towards his desk. “I’ll leave it alone.”
Sutton leans over to Frogger to whisper, “This is the guy?”
“...He’s good at his job.”
Reed returns, clicking things on a tablet. “Three chips?”
“One replacement, two initial insertions,” Frogger says.
“I take it you’re the replacement,” Reed says to Sutton.
“You want to keep your memories?”
“Bad idea.” Frogger says, before Sutton can answer.
“I can’t just-I’m not gonna-” Sutton looks at Frogger, bothered. They turn back to Reed with shaky conviction. “No, I want to keep my memories.”
“I can set a deadlock if you want.” Reed finally looks up from the tablet. “Should keep out your average gang, police, the usual amateurs.”
Frogger sighs, but offers no more protest.
“The police are amateurs?” Sutton frowns.
“Oh, yeah, ” Reed’s eyes back on the tablet. “A new identity and a memory transfer with encryption will take about two weeks.”
“You know how much it costs.” He makes an offhand gesture at Frogger, and points again at Sutton. “ And I’m gonna need your current chip.”
“I mean, when do you want the replacement?”
“As soon as possible.” Frogger supplies.
“Then now- ish. I can pull it tomorrow, so don’t eat anything.”
Reed notices their apprehension, and lowers the tablet to his side. “Look, it’s a laughably minor procedure. I won’t even have to touch your receivers.”
“What’s a receiver?” Fox asks.
“What’s a…” Reed cuts himself off, face brightening. Frogger rolls his eyes with his whole head, as Reed turns to him. “They haven’t had the talk yet, have they?”
Sutton’s brow pinches in confusion. “What’s the talk got to do with-”
Reed turns back to Fox. “Tooth chips have four components--three recievers implanted here...and here.” Reed points at his temples, the base of his skull, then taps his cheek. “And finally a databank, for storing all the memories the receivers collect, and all the other fun identification stuff like your name, social security number, bank account, etcetera.”
“Why-” Wolf frowns. “Do they record memories? I thought they were only for identification stuff.”
“Well, at the height of the land crisis--”
“Let’s skip the history lesson.” Frogger says, cutting Reed off. “It’s so the government can burn the bodies without the families throwing a fit.”
“Spoilsport.” Reed mutters to Frogger, before turning back to the girls, still pretty enthused. “But yeah, pretty much. Land is a limited resource, can’t be wasting it on dead people, so the government gets the corpses to dispose of as they please, and the relatives get the literal memory of their dearly departed as a keepsake.”
“If they can afford it,” Sutton mutters, tone bitter. They look a little abashed when they realize the others heard. “The, uh, program needed to read a chip is a bit of a luxury item.”
“It’s more than most can afford.” Reed says, raising a brow at them, fiddling with a silver chain. “But the chip itself is enough. I mean, love ‘em or not, would you honestly want to see everything went on in your family’s head?”
“I…” Sutton toes the floor. “Guess not…”
“The chip’s memory archives can be read while you’re alive, if you’ve got the stuff to do it, for criminal investigation and whatnot. Make sense?”
The girls sit there in silence for a moment, concentrated looks on their faces.
“...Yes?” Fox ventures.
“You’ll figure it out.” Reed rubs his hands together. “Now, have either of you lost any of your back teeth?”
Both shake their head.
“Fantastic! So, what I’m going to do is pull out one of your adult molars, replace it with a databank--don’t worry, you won’t be able to tell the difference--do a bit of minor brain surgery to insert the mind reading chips. All told, it’ll take about six hours, but you’ll be asleep for it all, and completely fine within a month. Any questions?”
“...Is that why you have all the teeth?” Wolf asks.
“A lot of them, yeah.” Reed glances over at the jars.
Sutton grimaces. “You keep them in jars?’
“Had to do something with them.” Reed shrugs. A lightbulb goes on behind his eyes. “Hey, if you’re worried about the procedure, I can show you the odds.”
Frogger rolls his eyes and gestures the girls over to the seating area.
Sutton glances between Reed and the chairs. “The odds?”
“Look, I get it…” Reed pushes his palms to the ground in a calming gesture, walking over to the shelf. “The thought of brain surgery tends to unnerve some people, but it’s seriously rather low risk, and I have a visual aid to prove it.”
“These are…” Reed returns with two jars, placing them on the coffee table with a thunk and a ting-tang ting. “You’re odds!”
Reed points to the one almost full of teeth. “These are the ones that went off without a hitch.”
“And these are the ones that had problems.” He picks up the other one, rattling around the few teeth. Sutton and the girls look varying degrees of weirded out and curious, as he places the jar back down. “Which, in my defense, were mostly back when I was starting out.”
“S-sorry, uh,” Sutton almost raises their hand. “Are those actual teeth?”
“No, they’re tooth chips-” Reed makes a face. “Well, most of them. Some people are weird about it, and don’t let me keep their old chip.”
“ They’re the weird ones…” Frogger mutters.
Sutton frowns. “Wait, so the ratio isn’t accurate?”
Frogger side-eyes Sutton.
Reed shakes his head. “No, whenever I need one, I just use one of my own, which accounts for the real ones.”
“...Cool,” Wolf says.
“ Right? ” Reed grins. “Anyways, do any of you have a pre-existing blood problem?”
“Uh…” Sutton glances at the girls. “No?”
“Any other health problems I should know about?”
The three of them shake their heads.
“Awesome.” Reed backs up towards his desk, pointing at the girls. “For you two, I’ll only need about a week to prep everything. Don’t eat or drink the day before, you’re gonna be real groggy afterwards, aaaand…”
Reed turns his back on them, waving a dismissive hand. “Yadda yadda.”
Sutton gives Frogger a look, and he just shrugs.
“Do y’all have names or ages you want?” Reed crouches at the desk, riffling through a drawer.
Sutton turns to her. “I...don’t think your name can be Wolf.”
“Why not? That’s what I’m called.”
“You’d stick out like a sore thumb.” Reed says, still digging around. “There’s a structure to splice names, you’ll want to stick to it.”
Reed pulls out some kind of headset. “If none of you really care, I just fill something in.”
“I mean, I uh…I guess you know what you’re doing, so…”
“Whatever.” Wolf settles back into the loveseat with a quiet huff, crossing her arms.
Reed comes back over, holding up the headset. “Who wants to go first?”
Sutton frowns. “...for?”
“What do we need brain scans for?”
“ You don’t need one, I can pull the sensory calibrations from your current chip, but it’ll help with their brain mapping.” Reed turns to the girls. “So one of you needs to put this on your head.”
“What’s it do?” Fox asks.
“It’s gonna read your mind.”
Fox’s eyes light up. She glances at Sutton, then Wolf, who shrugs. Fox hops off the couch, taking the headset from Reed.
“I thought they calibrated on their own?” Sutton asks.
“They’ve got a default that adapts eventually, but it’s got a learning curve of a year or two, ” Reed helps Fox put it on properly, then points her over to the daybed. “I’m gonna put on a video for you to watch, go lay down.”
As she goes over, Reed grabs the tablet off his desk, pulling the desk chair over to the head of the daybed, and adjusting the monitor arm over her.
“They, uh, didn’t have me do anything like that when I got mine…”
“You from the Swamps?”
“Yes? How’d you-”
“Government doesn’t spend that kind of effort, especially not someplace like the Swamps.” Reed gives half a shrug, clicking around on the tablet and flicking on the monitor. Fox settles in as color goes through the full rainbow on the screen, before slowly cycling through basic shapes. Fox watches, enraptured, as the shifting light bathes her face.
So those first few years are, what? A jumbled mess?”
“Pretty much. Without preliminary brain mapping, early memories tend to have inaccurate thought processing and some confused sensory feedback. It’s a bit of a headache to watch, honestly…”
“And they don’t tell people that?”
Reed looks up at the anger in Sutton’s tone, and laughs. “You said it yourself, most people can’t afford the software to watch them anyway. I guarantee you, the only reason they give out chips below N is evidence.”
“That’s-the chips are keepsakes, not because the government thinks poor people are criminals.”
Reed glances over at Frogger, amused. “Where’d you find this one?”
Frogger’s sigh is very put-upon, but Reed waves him off when he seems about to respond.
“No, no, I get it.” Reed gives Sutton a crooked smile. “You’re right, their true motives were purely altruistic.”
He starts counting off fingers. “The tracking, and ability to confiscate whoever’s memories whenever they want, was just an added bonus.”
“Well it helps , doesn’t it? Helps with trials and missing persons a-and-”
“Is it helping you?” Reed asks, quirking a brow.
Sutton goes quiet, eyes falling to the floor, the room around them.
“Alright, I don’t know why you’re here-” He cuts himself off to give Frogger a look over his glasses, before turning back to Sutton. “And I’m not going to ask, because I understand the value of discretion.”
Frogger snorts. Reed glares at him. Frogger puts up his hands, stepping away from the couch and wanders over to the book shelves.
“...But if you were anywhere else in the city,” Reed continues, rolling his eyes. “You’d’ve been found already, by the police or whoever you’re running from.”
“W-well, if I were...some kind of criminal, that would be a...a good thing. It helps keep track of, of risks, dangerous people-”
Reed seems unbothered by the heavy silence following his comment, leaning back comfortably in his chair. “All those chips they were so kind to give out during Proscription are going to help them put every splice they can get their hands back in a cage.”
He spins the chair around, attention returning to the tablet, color coded synapses firing through the brain model on the screen. “Unless they’re here, of course, the government doesn’t do anything in Atlantis.”
Sutton leans heavily into the couch, shoulders rounding, expression pinched and troubled, but doesn’t say any more. Frogger, who’s been browsing the book shelves (collection ranging from classics to how-tos to medical textbooks), pauses at a section of books with ornate spines.
“You got new books…” Frogger says, looking over the titles.
“Yup.” Reed smiles down at the tablet. The image set changes from ‘desire’ to ‘fear’ and Fox sinks into the daybed.
“These are Nimo’s.” Frogger slides a leather bound book off the shelf. He glances over his shoulder, catching a profile of the pleased look on Reed’s face.
“ Were Nimo’s...” Reed turns slightly in his chair, looking over his shoulder with an obvious smile. “Mine now.”
Fox jolts, ripping the headphones off. Reed raises a brow at her, calmly rolling his chair out of the way as she scrambles out of the daybed. She runs behind Wolf, hiding behind her as she stands, taking a step towards Reed with teeth bared.
“What’d you do?” Wolf growls. Sutton reaches a hand out to Fox, concerned. Fox turns and buries her face in Sutton’s shoulder, who blinks in surprise. Reed holds up his hands placatingly.
“Chill, it was just mapping her fear response.” He stands, looking at the tablet. Reed pulls the monitor up, showing an image of doctors with needles. “Looks like a phobia…”
He approaches the sitting area. “We’re almost done, you just need to-”
Wolf growls at Reed, while Fox buries her face further into Sutton’s shoulder. Reed stops, rolling his eyes with a sigh.
“Hey kid…” Reed messes with his tablet, then looks at Fox until she peeks back at him. “Wanna see something cool?”
Fox gives the barest hint of a nod, and he presses a button. The walls of the room begin to change color, losing opacity. Soon, the previously-tinted windows clear entirely.
The peak of Masquerade extends past the dome, out of the water. Atlantis glows warmly from below, while sirens drift lethargically across its surface with their eerie bioluminescent tails. Lights from passing subs and walkways twinkle through the dark water.
Fox hesitantly looks up, stepping away from a stunned Sutton. She pulls off the headset as she nears the glass, handing it to Reed as she passes. Reed takes it without looking up from the tablet.
“...Good enough.” Reed holds the headset out to Wolf with a smile. “Your turn!”
Wolf, who was also staring through the ceiling, fixes Reed with a glare. She looks at the headset, glares at Reed again, and snatches it out of his hands. She continues to glare at him as she puts it on her head, stepping up to the daybed.
Chapter 16: From the Beginning
TUESDAY, JUNE 7TH, 2270
A1, OLD MIAMI - ATLANTIS
Thell leads Frogger, Sutton, and the girls along the hallway of a lower floor. It’s simple, but well kept, with warm lighting. There are several splices, chatting, nodding at Thell as she passes, and giving the others curious looks.
“There’s a bathroom down the hall, and a kitchen on the second floor.” She stops in front of a door, resting her hands lightly on the curve of her cane. “Feel free to anything not locked up or bolted down.”
A door opening down the hall catches Frogger’s attention. His gaze lands on a young woman eating a jello cup, a dash of freckles across her nose. She looks different, in dark comfort clothes with her strawberry blonde hair pulled up in a loose ponytail, compared to the done-up painted woman whispering to Nimo in his quarter’s of The Nautilus, but the panicked look of recognition she dons at the sight of Frogger is apparent.
She’s deciding whether or not to run when Frogger puts a single finger to his mask. The woman continues to stare at him, at the gesture of silence, and nods. She steps back into her room and shuts the door.
“Again, if you or the girls need anything, just let me know.” Thell continues.
Thell nods at them, then at Frogger, before walking back the way they came.
“...So we’re…” Sutton starts, watching her go. “We’re okay here?”
“Yes.” Frogger opens the bedroom door, gesturing for them to enter. They all enter, Sutton rubbing their arm.
“Okay...what about after the procedures?”
“They won’t kick you out, but you should get out of the city,” he says, shutting the door behind him.
Sutton blinks. “They’d let us stay?”
“They have a lot of rooms.”
“Ah, sweet!” Fox runs to one of two bunk beds in the room, scaling the ladder with eagerness, while Wolf walks to the bottom bunk and flops down. Fox grins down at Sutton. “I’ve never had a bed before.”
Sutton pulls off their plain mask, hesitating before giving Fox a sad little smile that doesn’t reach their eyes. It clings to their face, trying to adopt a hint of humor as they turn to Frogger. “Is this the part where I tell you my life story?”
“No, just the last month of it.”
Sutton nods, taking a deep breath. “...After I tell you, you’re going to leave, right?”
“...If you tell me everything, yes.”
“What if I don’t?”
Frogger tilts his head at them, crossing his arms.
“Not that I’d do that, I-I-” Sutton shakes their head. “What if I, like, forgot or something?”
“Thell or Jay can call me.”
“Oh. Kay, well...good…”
There’s an awkward silence as Frogger taps a finger on his arm, waiting.
“Okay, look, I’ll tell you everything, I promise, but before that could I, um...I just--how much would it be to hire you?”
“For...us. Not dying.”
“I’m not a bodyguard.”
“No, I know-well, I mean, I guess I don’t know know, but...nevermind. I just, well, I’m a criminal now!” Sutton pushes their hair back with both hands. “I guess? I don’t know how to be a criminal, I can barely lie, let alone get me and two children out of a city under quarantine. I don’t know who or where is safe, I am in way over my head, so...help?”
“...Reed can get you out of Atlas.”
“See! I wouldn’t have known that!”
Frogger sighs. “I know Reed seems...like Reed, but Thell will make sure you’re taken care of.”
Sutton rubs their arm, glancing around the room. “...Could you just, I don’t know, keep an eye out? Tell me what I need to know to make sure I don’t get us killed?”
Frogger regards Sutton for a long, silent moment. “...Why are you asking me?”
“I-I don’t know, you know things? You’re-you’re nice?”
Frogger lets out one short, sharp laugh, but quickly recomposes himself. He drums his fingers on his arm, thinking, then drops them to his sides with a sigh. “I’ll do what I can while you’re in Atlas, point you in the right direction, but once you’re out of the city, you’re on your own.”
“That’s…” Sutton brightens. “Thank you. Thank you, I-”
Sutton steps forward. Frogger jerks back, and they stop, coming up short.
“Oh, s-sorry.” Sutton holds out a hand. “Thanks.”
Frogger looks at the offered hand, sighs, and looks away. “You can pay me before you leave.”
Sutton shuffles on their feet, toeing the floor which couldn’t possibly be wood, that would be crazy, no one uses wood on floors anymore, that’s-
“ This is the part where you tell me your life story,” he says, breaking the silence.
“ Right.” Sutton composes themself. “Right...uh, well, I got fired.”