The man's name was wrong. Not an alias necessarily, just a name that was wrong. "Jack Stout" was a name out of a fairy tale, not something a mother could bestow poker-faced on a real live screaming baby. A name like that was hiding something; Dana Light would know.
"I'm not taking on new clients at the moment, Mr. Stout," Dana Light said to the videophone, wiping her hands on a towel.
The man downstairs nodded his head in a complicated conciliatory pattern, as though Dana's scheduling policies might be the entry point into a political argument he'd rather avoid. But he didn't turn to leave.
"So," said Dana, and reached to shut off the videophone.
"I'm not a new client," said Stout. He flicked a badge at the camera downstairs. "Let's say I've inherited an old contract."
Dana's breath caught. "You'd better come up," she said.
The Bureau of External Affairs. Empty-eyed men in dull suits who'd been hiding for years in the periphery of Dana's life, sweeping the floors behind her, pulling levers that only they could see. When a big assignment came Dana's way, an assignment with global scope, she could always sense the BEA's fingerprints all over it.
Dana suspected the BEA had even had something to do with the Living Room incident. No particular motive; just an impersonal, corporate curiosity; a directive from on high to develop new techniques. She thought she'd gotten the BEA off her tail after arranging for Cyril Krakowski's "accident", but now they were back. What did they want from her? Of all the bounty hunters in the world, what was it about her?
While the doorman and the elevator did their work, Dana Light rushed around her home office, hiding the evidence that she had a life. The sunset over the harbor warmed everything from the west, and came in from the east as well, reflected off the dead glass exterior of the city's other skyscrapers. It was like living under two suns, one pale and weak.
She had chosen this home, the penthouse of an office building. She had torn down the wall dividers, installed more skylights than were safe or secure, to ensure she'd always have a view of the outside. Most of the time it served its purpose: to erase the memory of the Living Room. But a skylight would break, or she'd have to jog a hundred meters to the kitchenette for a snack, and she would ask herself: why did I want this, exactly? Then it would come back to her, horribly.
The Living Room was encoded into this wide open space, the way a photograph contains its own negative, and Dana Light could not find peace unless she was outside, away from home.
Ding. Dana kicked some dirty clothes under the couch, turned towards the elevator in the center of her apartment, and forced a smile on her face for her unwelcome client.
Jack Stout's hair was a little shaggy for a BEA agent, and he wore no suit jacket. Where Cyril Krakowski had carried a sleek metal briefcase, Jack Stout held a plastic grocery bag from Organicart.
"Your... doorman is very thorough," he said. "Completely unnecessary, of course. We still don't carry guns."
"Do you know what I think," said Dana Light sweetly, "of people who try to make a virtue out of not carrying a fucking gun? The world's single most useful tool?"
Stout looked around, out at the harbor, out at the skyline. "Nice place," he said, a little wistfully. "Mind if I sit?"
Jack Stout sat on the couch and put the grocery bag on the floor between his knees. It clanked, glass on glass, as if he'd actually been out shopping.
"I need to tell you this," he said, "just so you understand where I'm coming from. We know you killed Cyril Krakowski."
"Cyril was trampled by a rhino," said Dana. "I've been compared to a number of animals, but never a rhino."
"If we wanted to retaliate," said Stout, "you'd already be dead. Guns or no. Don't be so defensive, Dana."
Dana caught Stout's eyes, and they weren't empty. There was something in there; the matching half of an emotion Dana had felt before, though she couldn't remember when.
"We've been keeping you on a long leash," said Stout, "because we knew that one day we'd need your services again."
A long leash. "And that day..." said Dana Light.
Jack Stout took a manila folder from his grocery bag and presented it to Dana. Paperclipped to the front of the folder was a photo: a cold, beautiful woman with high cheekbones and big oval glasses.
"This is Svetlana Sveta," said Stout. "A linguist."
"Naturalized American," said Stout, in a sort of that-settles-that government voice. "A citizen of the world, as we must all be in these troubled times."
"Americans cost extra," said Dana Light.
"I want to make this really, really clear, Dana," said Jack Stout. "Your job is not to kill Svetlana Sveta. Your job is to rescue Svetlana Sveta from a secret prison in Ukraine. You are to bring her back to the States; again, I must emphasize, without killing her or allowing her death at any point along the way."
"Um," said Dana. "I don't do escort missions anymore. I'm strictly assassin for hire."
"Um," said Jack Stout, "you're going to do this one, as a personal favor to the late Cyril Krakowski. Kind of put his soul to rest, you might say."
"Is that a threat?"
"Yeah, I went there," said Jack, really proud of this.
"Well, crap," said Dana. "You want any extras, long as you're threatening me?"
"There is one more thing," said Jack. "We need you to do this with no collateral damage whatsoever. No civilians, no prison guards, no cute li'l puppy dogs. I mean, we won't complain if somebody gets a nosebleed, but no..." he drew his finger across his throat. "Zero. This is non-negotiable."
Dana frowned and opened the manila envelope to find a map of the prison, photographs of the guards. "Where's the money?" she said.
"It's in your account," said Stout.
Dana glanced at the map. "This place is locked the hell up," she said. "How am I supposed to break someone out without casualties?"
"Don't carry any weapons," said Jack. "It works for the BEA."
Dana picked off the outside guards from a hilltop using a sniper rifle, then disassembled the rifle and buried it for later retrieval. A blowtorch got her through the gate, disabled the security cameras, and took out the first round of attack dogs. Useful tools, blowtorches.
Screwdrivers and electronic scramblers for the doors, thermite in a pinch. The knife for guards who got close, the pistol for those who tried to engage from a distance. Explosives on tripwires secured the rooms she left behind. Flashbombs in the cell blocks meant the other prisoners wouldn't be able to identify her afterwards. They would report only brightness, and footsteps, and the sound of one cell door opening. One way or the other, Dana Light left no witnesses.
"What's going on?" said Svetlana Sveta, blind, terrified. Dana grabbed onto the woman's arm, scratching her safecracker's fingertips against the coarse cotton prison jumpsuit.
"You're being rescued," said Dana. "You have powerful friends, Ms. Sveta."
"Are you insane?" said Svetlana. "I can't see!"
"Hold on to my shoulder," said Dana. "Do not let go." She drew her heavy pistol and changed the clip. Dana heard the distant thump of outside helicopters. She was ready for them. She was ready for anything.
Dana Light was the best. She was perfect.
Jack Stout shuffled surveillance photos around Dana Light's coffee table. Dana sat across from him on the other couch, wrapped in a warm fleece blanket, bathed in morning light, sipping tea.
"Well," said Jack, "let's get right to the elephant in the room."
"Or the rhino." Dana smirked.
"In my personal opinion," said Jack, "it's not so great that you killed pretty much every fucking person in that prison."
"I didn't kill Svetlana." said Sana.
"This is unacceptable," said Jack. "You deliberately flouted the mission requirements. You even killed the puppy dogs! You damn near started World War Three!"
"Sorry, no refunds," said Dana. "Company policy." Jack leaned back in the sofa and put his hands on his head.
"You got Svetlana," said Dana. "That's what you really wanted. Now you've chewed me out and you can go back to interrogating her. Everyone's happy."
"'Happy' is pushing it," said Jack. "And unfortunately, I can't leave until I give you your next assignment." He reached into that Organicart bag again, took out another manila folder, tossed it on the coffee table. Svetlana Sveta's photo was clipped to the folder.
"You are shitting me," said Dana. "She has a twin?"
"No," said Jack. "You're going to do the Svetlana Sveta mission again. You're going to do it again, and again, until you complete it properly."
"Are you saying..." said Dana. "You mean this was some kind of test?"
"This was a mission," said Jack, "which you failed, horribly. You're fucked up, Dana. I won't play along with your fantasy anymore. Do the Svetlana mission again."
"Son of a bitch!" said Dana. She didn't draw her knife.
"The fuck is that?" said Jack, mimicking the facial twitch Dana must have just produced.
"I'm... Jesus!" Dana didn't draw her knife. She didn't draw her pistol.
"Oh," said Jack casually. "You can't use weapons in your house."
"Bull shit!" said Dana Light. She didn't draw her pistol. She didn't draw her pistol. She didn't draw her knife.
"What did you do to me?" she said.
Jack stood up from the sofa. "I didn't do shit," he said. "This is the world hub. It's not a destructible environment. You never noticed this?"
Dana jumped up, the fleece wrap falling dead off her shoulders, and punched Jack Stout. Only she didn't punch him; she pushed him, kind of rubbing against him. He glided smoothly backwards, as though the two of them were dancing.
"Oh, my God," said Dana. She looked at her hands. "I'm still in the Living Room."
"You don't remember?" said Jack
"I have nothing to say to you," said Dana. She ran for the elevator, and Jack didn't go after her.
Dana Light stood at the end of the pier, braced into the sunset, taking shots at seagulls. The water ran red to black, the bobbing corpses dyed in blood. The sound of the waves relaxed her.
It was all fake. The real Dana Light was strapped to a hospital bed somewhere, with a tube in her arm and a wire in her brain. She knew; she'd been through this once before.
The Living Room hadn't been so bad, while she was in it. There was a comfortable couch, and a closet full of beautiful clothes, and now and then a man. A generous and gentle man, Jun-Feng Bai, who said he loved her, who probably did love her in his way, but not in the way that mattered. He didn't love her enough to let her out of that goddamned room.
How many years had she spent in the Living Room, in a timeless mental fog, like an action figure in its original packaging? Until... one day it had occured to her to leave the Room, just like that. The fog had lifted and she realized that she, the world's most ruthless bounty hunter, had been kept, like a mistress, like a pet...
That had been a long time ago, around the time she'd first gotten mixed up with the BEA. She couldn't remember if she had killed Jun-Feng Bai herself, or if the BEA had liquidated him in exchange for a favor. Since then she'd woken from nightmares, noticed whispering incongruities, but she'd ignored it all. This couldn't be the Living Room! She wasn't cooped up; she was doing work she loved!
Now a little more of the fog had lifted. The world she knew, with its spacious apartment and its clearly-defined missions, was just a larger Room, one more suited to her tastes. At the edge of cognition were thoughts she couldn't imagine thinking, doors out she couldn't quite see. Something prevented her from taking that step. Men were still toying with her.
Dana nailed a seagull with a clean shot. She felt a surge of happiness as it exploded into guts and feathers and undigested fish.
"I bet you clean up at the carnival minigames," said BEA Agent Jack Stout, standing behind her.
Dana turned and put three bullets through Jack. Yes, through him. The slugs passed through his body soundlessly and studded the boardwalk behind him.
"External Affairs," she said bitterly. "You bastards."
"I am absolutely forbidden from making any decisions for you," said Jack. "But I can remind you of what's going on here."
"Remind me?" said Dana.
"This is a rehabilitory environment," said Jack. "You were placed here because in human terms, you were a high-functioning psychopath."
Dana let her question dissolve on her tongue like a sour sour jawbreaker.
"I say 'in human terms'," said Jack, "because you are not human. You're an artificial intelligence designed to approximate human behavior."
Dana blinked and coughed and blinked, and every time she blinked her mental image of Real Dana, on the hospital bed, got quieter and fuzzier. There was no Real Dana, only this fake. Here in this Room, standing on a fake pier holding a fake gun.
"What kind of... what was I designed for? I don't remember."
"You're a person," said Jack. "You're not for anything. But we fucked up. We gave you bad personality models, and you copied them too closely. You tried to kill two people."
Dana scoffed and gestured at the bloody sea with her pistol. "I got put in here because I tried to kill two people?"
"This is the problem, Dana!" said Jack. "Humans can't restore from backup. If you kill them, they don't come back. Some part of you refuses to acknowledge that. So you've been placed here."
Jack was still holding the grocery bag, and he switched it from one hand to the other as it dug into his fingers. Below them, sharks were coming for the seagulls.
"This is a sandbox," said Jack. "You're supposed to get bored with the meaningless killing. You grow up, you patch yourself, you come back into civilized society."
"Why would I get bored?" said Dana.
"Sentience is the capacity for boredom," said Jack. "You've been doing these grindhouse assassinations for twenty subjective years. A spreadsheet would get bored."
"I'm not bored," said Dana. "I just don't like being cooped up."
"Not helpful, Dana," said Jack. "Not what I need to hear. I need some existential anguish, some misdirected anger at least."
Dana paced at the end of the pier and rapped her gun against the wooden handrail. "It's all a big metaphor, right?" she said. "'Sveta' is Russian for 'light'. Svetlana is me. If I rescue her without killing anyone, I redeem myself, and then I can leave."
"There's no redemption!" said Jack. "This is not some stupid computer religion; this is debugging. I need you to complete the Svetlana mission so that I can see if you're really a spreadsheet, or if you've just been playing dumb to sabotage your own chances of getting out of here."
"I'm screwing myself?" said Dana. "Why would I do that?"
"I dunno," said Jack, like he was really tired of that question. "But I do it, too, so don't feel too bad."
When a bullet turns your brain into pulp, should you even feel it? When should the pain start and when should it stop? Can the nerve endings outrace a bullet? Does it make a difference if the brain isn't real, just a souvenir you carry around to symbolize the higher-dimensional computer where you actually do your thinking?
Dana second-guessed herself through the second Svetlana Sveta mission, and ended up second-guessing a guard's bullet right through her head. She saw the chunks of grey and red spray out in front of her eyes, and there was pain, a pleasant and faraway pain, like killing a seagull on the dock when the sun is in your eyes.
This fuzzy feeling followed Dana, or carried her, through unseen passages and waterways, back to her apartment, the world hub, the couch. She opened her eyes and Jack Stout was tucking her in, using the fleece wrap.
"Let yourself in," said Dana.
"I made you some tea," said Jack Stout. It was on the coffee table.
Dana took the tea. "Why are you being nice to me?"
"You just died," said Jack.
"I wouldn't have died," said Dana, "if I'd been allowed to use some decent firepower."
"You don't have to be delicate," said Jack. "Give out tranquilizer darts like candy, I don't care. I just need to see the end of a no-kill mission."
"Whatever process is supposed to reform you is not working. You've disabled it so you could hide in this sub-world you created from video games and little bits of the past. The best strategy is to force a crash. Force you into the parts of the simulation you've been avoiding."
"What's it to you?" said Dana. "I was happy here. Why come in just to make me miserable?"
"There are a number of reasons," said Jack. "The one in my mind right now is, I want to prove that you're sentient, because I don't like the possibility that I was seduced by a fucking spreadsheet."
Dana cocked her head. "Do I know you?" she said.
"Apparently not," said Jack. He tossed a manila envelope onto Dana's lap. "Do the mission again."
"I hate you."
"Hate me later. Do it again."
The tendons of Dana's neck throbbed painfully, taut with energy. This was the pain of sneaking, of hiding, of moving by stealth and leaving things alive. But it was almost over. She was at Svetlana's cell. The woman she'd come to rescue was inside in her coarse cotton jumpsuit, looking at the bare ceiling, mouthing words—praying, perhaps, or practicing linguistics.
"Time to go, devotchka," said Dana.
Svetlana Sveta started, her back to the wall. She scuttled into a corner of her cell, as far away from Dana as she could get.
"You," she said.
"Yeah," said Dana. She picked up a keycard from the unconscious guard at her feet, and turned a red light to green. "Me. Let's go. These guards won't stay down forever."
Svetlana shook her head, her surprisingly well-coiffed hair swishing back and forth. "No, no."
"Lady, you're in a secret Ukranian prison. I'm breaking you out. Whatever's waiting for you, it can't be worse than this."
"You're the killer," said Svetlana. She felt around for a weapon, but of course there was no weapon.
"No," said Dana. "Not the killer. Not today." A muscle in her back spasmed as she said it.
Svetlana's eyes rolled back in her head. "The killer, the trapper, the pusher, the leaper, the shooter, the trapper, the trapper."
"Are you insane?"
"You did this. You selfish bitch!"
"We have to leave, now," said Dana. She held out one twitching hand, a hand that wanted to strangle whatever it could reach.
Svetlana Sveta pulled herself up and hobbled towards Dana Light, and once she was close enough, she spit in Dana's face.
Dana's knife was in her hand. It crossed Svetlana's throat and was back in its scabbard. What a relief.
The blood shot from Svetlana's throat in time to the throbbing of Dana's sore spots. Dana's knees wobbled as Svetlana's death filled her mind. The linguist pressed a sticky hand against the gash in her throat and took one deep final breath.
"I... hghghate... you," she gurgled, and dropped to the floor.
Dana closed her eyes and moaned, and when she opened them she saw Jack Stout sitting in the cell next to Svetlana Sveta's wide-eyed corpse, hands on his knees.
"Un-be-fucking-lievable," said Jack.
"Give me..." Dana panted. "Give me a minute." The 'n' in 'minute' bit into her lower lip, hard, and drew blood.
"No," said Jack. "You don't get a minute. Tell me what you just did, Dana. Tell me what twisted emotion is popping your fucking brain cells like bubble wrap. Tell me while it's fresh, now."
Red saliva beaded in the corner of Dana's mouth. "I feel it," she said.
"You feel it."
"When I kill her, I feel it. As though I were the one dying. It's my blood falling out and my brain shutting down. It is the most delicious pain you could ever imagine."
"What you're feeling," said Jack, "is an emotion, called empathy."
"I want to sleep," said Dana. She dropped onto all fours and pressed her head against the cold floor of Svetlana's cell.
"Probably you should not," said Jack.
"Fuck you, Stout." Like saying good night.
"Even animals respond to pain," said Jack. "If they could feel the pain of the creatures they kill, they'd learn to pull away. That's what's supposed to happen here. But you don't have a normal relationship with pain..." Dana Light was curled up on the floor, asleep, a contented smile on her face.
"...because you're based on a fictional character who dies every five minutes. Well, shit, she's asleep. What happens now?"
From outside Svetlana's cell Jack heard a scuffling sound. The prison guard whose keycard Dana had stolen was climbing to his feet. He looked at Jack like a sad stray dog. The feathered body of a tranquilizer dart dangled from the back of his neck.
"Hey," said Jack. The guard allowed a shy smile. "How you doin'?" No response.
"You got a name?" said Jack.
"Dana-Marcos," said the guard, stumbling not so much over the words as the very idea of verbal communication.
"I see," said Jack, "y'all are Dana's subminds. That's how they implement the empathy." Jack stood up. His shoes were sticky with Dana-Svetlana's blood.
"You like dying, Marcos?" he said. "Do you like it when Dana kills you? Or you don't like it?" Dana-Marcos shrugged.
"Do me a solid, Marcos," said Jack. He pulled on Dana-Svetlana's legs and lay her corpse face-up on the floor like a box of flat-pack furniture. "Go to the prison infirmary, and get me some tape and a lot of gauze."
Jack tensed up as Dana-Marcos reached inside his unbuttoned prison-guard jacket. A flash of red light burst from his hands, and when Jack's eyes adjusted he could make out a big pink glowing candy heart, flashing and rotating in the guard's cupped hands. Dana-Marcos held the cinnamon heart out to Jack, through the cell bars.
"All right, whatever," said Jack. "When in Rome III: Legionaries..." Jack took the heart, pressed it against Dana-Svetlana's throat, and let it dissolve. The linguist's eyes opened and she began coughing up blood.
"Dana-Svetlana," said Jack. "My name is Jack Stout. I'm from outside the simulation."
"Oh, you've brought me back," said Dana-Svetlana. "How wonderful."
"I'm going to get you out of here," said Jack. "All of you."
"Not her," said Dana-Svetlana.
"I know," said Dana, without opening her eyes. "Do it again."
"No," said Jack's voice. "We're done with the missions. This is an intervention."
Dana was propped up on a bench on the pier, the place where she went to think. The waves splashed beneath her, the seagulls whirled above like stray thoughts.
In the bench across from her sat Dana-Svetlana, her hands folded. Beside Dana-Svetlana sat Dana-Marcos, eating from a bag of kettle corn, one careful kernel at a time.
"Do you know these people?" said Jack Stout, standing off to the side, at the edge of the pier, the grocery bag at his feet.
"I guess there's Svetlana," said Dana. She rubbed her eyes, as though waking up a second time. "And... yes, I remember now."
"These people are part of you," said Jack. "They care about you."
"Yes, we do care," said Dana-Svetlana, unleashing the straining words, her linguist's weapons. "Because you pushed all your caring into us, the subminds, where you could ignore it. The exact opposite of what you were supposed to do, to get us out of here!"
"Svetlana," said Jack, "there is plenty of blame to go around here. What's important is that we understand what's going on, and now we can solve the problem."
"There's no problem," said Dana. She sat back against the rough wooden bench. The mental fog was consuming itself, revealing the fawaray borders of her memory. "I remember now. I made this place for myself. I don't want to leave anymore."
"No!" said Dana-Svetlana. "Don't make me the one who wants out! Don't put this on me! I'm carrying enough, Dana!"
Dana worked at looking cruel. Dana-Marcos threw a kernel of popcorn into the air: a seagull swooped down and grabbed it in its beak.
"At least put it to a vote," said Dana-Svetlana quietly.
"I'm the supermind," said Dana. "You can't vote on my personality."
"We can hold the vote," said Dana-Svetlana. "And then you can see what you're doing."
"Fine," said Dana. "All in favor of...?" Svetlana raised her hand. Dana-Marcos ignored all three of them.
"All opposed?" said Dana. She raised a lonely hand.
"Jack?" said Dana-Svetlana, desperately.
"Y'all know what I want," said Jack. "But I can't vote."
"So it's deadlock," said Dana. "And—"
"No," said Dana-Svetlana. "It is not."
Out of the sky birds dropped like hailstones, meteors. The seagulls screeched and dived, their wingbeats carving the air like applause. They perched on Dana-Svetlana, they fluttered onto the bench she shared with Dana-Marcos, they crash-landed on the boardwalk and scurried underneath the bench. Dozens of birds, calling out with tiny dinosaur screams.
Dana-Svetlana spoke above the animal chaos. "We have subminds, too," she said. The cries of the birds echoed with the subharmonics of her voice. "We're responsible for them. Get us out of here."
Dana Light had spent years honing her skills, distilling herself into an emotionless killing machine. She had pruned the unaccountable parts of herself that wanted to decipher dead languages, or eat popcorn and follow directions. Now these parts had crystallized into people, and with no emotions to call her own, Dana felt theirs instead.
Dana was underwater, at the bottom of a trench dug through repetitive, pointless work. There was pain, a kind of pain that brought no pleasure. Every part of her wanted escape. Dana reached for the key to the outside, and found that the key was missing. She had pruned it.
Dana leaned forward, her head in her hands. Her tears dripped onto the pier and slipped into the ocean. "I'm sorry," she said. "It's not there anymore. I can't do it."
"I can," said Dana-Svetlana. "You gave it to me. I can do it."
Dana didn't look up. Dana-Svetlana uttered a sound that encapsulated a simple algorithm for swapping two nodes in a tree. Dana nodded, and swallowed, and finally repeated that sound.
"Svetlana," she said.
The linguist stood up from her bench, held the sobbing bounty hunter in her arms, and kissed the top of her head.
"Svetlana-Dana," she whispered.
"I want to sleep," said Svetlana-Dana. The seagulls boiled around Svetlana-Marcos and his fistfuls of popcorn.
"Shh, ssh," said Svetlana, and smoothed Dana's hair. "Sleep once we leave." Svetlana looked at Jack, still standing on the edge of the pier, staying out of this.
"How does this work?" she asked him.
"I have no idea," said Jack Stout. "I'll go tell your supermind that you're ready to talk."
"You're not the supermind?" said Svetlana. A memory bobbed to the surface of her mind like new mail. "Are you Jun-Feng? You came to rescue me?"
"I am someone who fixes software when it gets stuck in a loop," said Jack, "and I would appreciate it if you'd let me leave it at that."
And Jack—whoever was behind Jack—left that body, abandoned it on the edge of the pier, uninhabited, a non-player character with nowhere to go. It picked up its grocery bag and set it down again, shifted aimlessly from one foot to another, and when Svetlana left, it was shut down and garbage-collected, along with the pier and the rest of the city.