illustrated by Distressed Egg
Ári sits in a small, windowless room, staring at a picture of a fallen log in a forest meadow hanging on the wall in front of them. The lights in the room are dim. There’s a low table with a glass of water on their right. The door is closed, but not locked. Electrodes are glued to Ári’s arms and forehead, with wires trailing out under the door. The walls of the room are black, made of thick, corrugated soundproof foam.
It doesn’t matter. They can still hear the thoughts of the Facility’s researchers through the wall, clear as a bell. Ári doesn’t even have to try at this point.
Mostly the researchers are thinking about Ári’s mental and physical state, but this focal point is wrapped in the usual background chatter — what they’re going to have for lunch, what’s currently pissing them off, what they plan to do tonight after they get off shift. Beneath that, Ári can feel the researchers’ subconscious urges writhe and hiss like restless snakes. What they think their coworkers look like naked. What they wish they looked like naked. Who they fucked last, and who they’d fuck next. Stranger things, occasionally, but Ári’s been hearing ambient id radiation like this for a long, long time. One gets used to it.
Ári sips from the water and concentrates on the picture in front of them. It’s a mass-produced print, the kind you’d see hanging in a doctor’s office as a cheap decorative afterthought. Their breathing slows. In the picture, dappled light slants through the leafy canopy, illuminating the meadow in a warm golden glow. There are butterflies flying around the half-rotten log, small white ones, feeding on the flowers growing out of its dead husk. In the background, almost entirely in shadow, a doe stares back reluctantly.
The researchers’ thoughts have fallen to a low hum in Ári’s mind. Ári focuses on the log, on the meadow, on the trees. The meadow is somewhere high in the mountains; there’s a chill in the wind, and nearby, the sound of running water suggests a small, twisty creek. The doe is gone and the sun is setting, but the evening birdsong echoing through the trees is characteristic to eastern North America. Somewhere in the Appalachians, probably. Shenandoah, if they’re lucky. This next bit can get annoying if long distances are involved.
Ári stops focusing on the meadow as part of the picture and starts considering it as part of a larger forest, the forest a blanket of growth on a valley, the valley a divot in a timeworn mountain range stretching lazily from north to south. Two valleys over, a highway traces the contours of the landscape; a road sign to the side of it reads WASHINGTON DC – 131 MI. Ári breathes a sigh of relief. This is Shenandoah, or near enough, and Ári can just follow the road from here.
Inhale, exhale. Three breaths later, Ári is downtown.
Buildings. Cars. Planes taking off from Reagan and Dulles to the south and west. Trains rattling through tunnels deep beneath street level. Electrical wires, crackling with energy. Pets, strays, feral animals, pigeons crowding every flat surface. And people, teeming, uncountable, buzzing with life. Ári isn’t really focused, so it’s like standing at the bottom of an ocean, the current of thoughts constantly crashing against them from every angle. This is why Ári prefers starting in non-populated areas — it gives them time to adjust. The chances of finding anyone in this overwhelming endless din are absurdly high.
But not impossible. And Ári remembers the sound of his thoughts, from the last time, and the time before that. All they have to do is clear their head and think of him — obliquely at first, using vague glances and scraps of memories — then slowly bring the idea of him into clearer focus.
A nondescript glass and concrete building. No signage on the outside. Dark, mirror-tinted windows. There aren’t many people working this late, so this beehive is mostly empty. Seventh floor. East face, window office. It looks like he’s moved up in the world since Ári started working him over, which is good for the Facility — people who are content with their jobs are less paranoid, which makes them easier to influence. Or so the theory goes.
At the moment, though, Liam seems restless, agitated. His skinny shoulders slope with exhaustion, and his glasses are pushed up high on his forehead beneath a mess of dark, curly hair. He rifles through papers in a file cabinet drawer, squints at them, double-checks them against a topographic map unrolled across his desk. He’s thinking about having a cigarette outside, but there’s no time. New title, new responsibilities. And he’s felt… distracted recently.
Ári glances at the map, the papers. Red arrows and geometric symbols are spattered across the map, with a big cluster around a large circle in the northwestern corner. The coastline is instantly recognizable to Ári, like a letter of the alphabet.
It’s where the Facility is.
Ári can’t afford to break their concentration and pull away, but they can picture the researchers outside their room crowded around the monitoring console like flies on meat. They can imagine how much sweat must be pouring off those normally stony faces. No one was supposed to know. The Facility had gone through great pains to erase their existence.
Ári waited. A second later, a window opened in their mind, and three cold facts slithered in:
The windows of this building are strong, but not impenetrable.
Liam’s office is full of objects that are either sharp or heavy. Many are both.
Liam’s performance at the Agency has been uneven lately. Coworkers suspect mental or emotional instability.
You know what to do.
So that was why they had re-assigned Ári to Liam. After the discipline, after the formal dressing-down in front of the Administrator. They still remember the creases of his kindly old face rearrange into a disappointed wince when Ári’s Group Coach told him about the kind of dreams they’d been having. Dreams can be conduits, and extended contact can lead to dangerous levels of feedback between an operator and their assignment. There wasn’t really any need for the Administrator to hide his emotions from those under his care, and feeling stripped of his favor was almost worse for Ári than the months of drugs and correctional training that followed. Almost.
Of course the scum had to drive the point home one last time. Clean up your own mess. Don’t get involved. Desires are the most dangerous of traps set by the earthly plane.
Liam slaps his face a couple times, takes another long sip of coffee. He’s finally gotten a foot in the door, but now he only has one chance to prove something important to the Agency higher-ups. He can’t quite explain how he discovered the blank spot on the map where a town used to be, but any attempts to research it seem to spiral away into nothing. None of his usual contacts can dig up anything worthwhile — some of them even seem angry at him for bringing it up. It’s like trying to grab smoke. And he suspects people around the office are starting to think he’s cracked. Even Ári can feel his mind — his beautiful mind, smooth and glassy in some parts, soft and vulnerably twitching in others, shaped by a lifetime of triumphs and tragedies — start to shrivel with fear and overexertion. It won’t be long. The Facility has already hurt him too much, without his even knowing it, and Ári was their accomplice. And now the Administrator wanted them to finish the job. You know what to do.
That seals it. Tonight is the night. There will be hell to pay, but that can be dealt with later. Ári reaches out and gently, cautiously caresses Liam’s consciousness. They have been an unseen ghostly hand for too long, ramming ideas and orders into him under the Facility’s orders. Tonight is between them and Liam alone.
Liam whips his head around, panicked. There’s no one there. He stares at the air vent above his head; Ári can hear the words guess I must be hearing things from within his mind.
“Who’s there?” Liam jerks out of his chair, lunging for the door. There’s nobody in the hallway outside, and the lights are off. Somewhere, distantly in the building, the drone of a single vacuum cleaner runs repeatedly across a patch of carpet.
remember me, liam?
This is the really tricky part.
Ári reaches out, as carefully as they can. Liam’s body is a system, a network of nerves sending information back and forth inside a meaty shell. If they can touch those nerves just right, send just the right stimuli into the shimmering filigree of electrical pulses on his hand… God, it had felt so natural during their REM cycle.
Liam feels someone grasping his left hand. The hand grasping his is soft, warm like a fever, and clings to him firmly but not tightly.
from your dreams?
There is no one else in the room. Liam’s left hand is empty. He screams.
ssh! don’t draw attention to yourself
Liam feels another warm hand on his face. There’s the sense of his personal space being invaded, of someone leaning in very, very close to him. He waves his right hand through the air in front of him. It doesn’t catch on anything. “Great,” he mutters under his breath. “I’ve finally lost it.”
Ári frowns, blushing in embarrassment. They’re going to have to be a bit more… forward.
maybe this will help
Liam’s eyes close reflexively as a pair of lips press against his, burning like coals. The lips taste sweet and a little electric, like bourbon cut with ozone. Dredged up from the depths of his unconscious, memories surface inside Liam’s mind: late nights, sweat-drenched sheets, a passionate tangle of bodies in the dark, his tongue on their skin, their breath on his throat. It had seemed so real at the time, more vivid than any wet dream he’d ever had. But every time he woke the morning after, the bed seemed even neater than when he’d climbed into it. It didn’t add up. Until now.
“Oh my god, it’s you.” Liam pulls away from the nonexistent kiss. “Are you… are you a ghost or something?”
kind of? it’s a little hard to explain. sorry if i scared you
“It’s okay, I’m just, um. Just rapidly adjusting to new perceptions.”
tonight might be the last time i can visit you, liam
“Why? What’s going on? Did you… want to head back to my place first, or–”
Another hand grabs hold of his hip and pulls him forward. An achingly warm shiver blooms and expands inside of his chest, like ink in water.
i’m not actually sure how much time we have left
“Is everything okay? Is there any way I can help at all?”
why tell you when i can… show you?
The lights in the office flicker off. The only source of illumination in the room now is the reflection of the setting sun in the glass facade of the building across the street, painting everything in a faint, otherworldly reddish-orange glow.
“Where do you want me to start? I don’t really know how to…”
ssh. close your eyes
“I thought you were going to show me something.” Liam smirks in what he figures is Ári’s general direction.
well like… not literally, ha. vision is actually the one of the senses i’m worst at
The warmth in Liam’s chest seeps into his legs as Ári gently guides him over to the desk. He feels weak, light-headed, as he feels Ári’s weight press into him. He isn’t sure whether his body is acting entirely of his own accord as he lies down on top of the topographic map, knocking a magnifier lamp and sundry desk appliances to the floor. Part of him is still aware he’s alone in the room, but when he closes his eyes… he can feel Ári there, certain as gravity. He can reach out and glide across the crests and shoals of their supple back with his hand, feel them trace a lone teasing finger across his bare chest. He’s trying to remember when he took off his shirt when Ári tweaks one of his nipples, causing him to gasp.
“Hey, easy! God, you’re making me so…” The map shifts and slides under Liam’s twitching hips.
oh, i’m sorry. did that bother you? There’s a sound like papers rustling that, with a little imagination, might be construed as a giggle. Ári unbuttons their own shirt a bit lower. i know those aren’t even your biggest weak spot.
“Yeah, well, you should at least warn me before you just–”
Those burning lips again, right on his neck this time. Just beneath his tender skin sizzling under Ári’s kisses and playful bites, Liam’s blood pounds through his veins faster and faster. He hears every rapid heartbeat like all the doors of his mind are opening and slamming shut, over and over, faster and faster, until he can barely think straight.
are you doing okay? i can take it slower.
“Please!” Liam pants. “It’ll take more than that to… to get the best of me!”
oh! is that permission, then?
“Ha! I’d…” Gasp, moan. “I’d like to…” Whine. Wriggle helplessly. “I’d like to see you try.”
i was hoping to hear that. just remember: you asked for it, tiger.
It feels as if the volume on Liam’s sense of touch is cranking up to an unreasonable level. He is acutely aware of every drop of sweat on his body, every hair standing on end. He can feel the loops and whorls of Ári’s fingerprints as they hold him down, peaks and canyons of swirling flesh. His sensitive areas crackle like fireworks, and his neck feels like a white-hot collar of flame, stoked by Ári’s torturous lips. He cries out, shock and discomfort melting into pleasure. His right hand lifts and starts to travel down between his legs, but is abruptly caught.
nice try. but i’m not letting you down there just yet.
Liam whimpers in frustration. He’s so close. One touch–
not until you call my bet, anyways. Liam can definitely tell Ári is grinning at him.
“God… fine. Yeah, okay. You wanna talk weak spots?”
Liam reaches up and runs his hyper-attuned hand across the side of Ári’s face. It’s impossible for him to tell what Ári looks like, but he has some ideas — smooth skin, thick hair shaved down to fuzz, cute little connected earlobes. The laugh lines around Ári’s mouth and eyes feel soft and fresh, not worn in, but Ári sounds about as old as Liam is. Maybe they just haven’t gotten a lot of chances to break those in yet. Liam outlines the edge of Ári’s lips before sliding a finger into their mouth.
…ah. oh, i SEE. that’s not FAIR
“Turnabout’s fair play… ‘tiger’.” Liam slowly, delicately runs a finger across Ári’s teeth, pausing to caress and tease their small, pointed canines. “And what a big, dangerous tiger you are…”
oh no. liam, no, how DARE you
“What are you gonna do? Sink these babies into some fresh meat?” Liam slides another finger into Ári’s mouth. The bulb in the lamp on the floor flashes brightly for a split second before exploding. Its thick magnifier lens cracks. “Or do you just want a taste?”
Ári is blushing and breathing heavily, squirming in their seat as they brush the shattered glass off their lap. Water drips into a messy puddle on the floor. There’s some sort of commotion growing outside the door, but Ári is not available at the moment.
Liam feels Ári grab his wrist and guide his fingers deeper into their mouth. Their tongue, warm and wet and silky, runs across his fingers, over and over, rhythmically, in sync with Ári’s hips bucking and grinding into Liam’s. Liam exhales, long and low, and moves a hand from Ári’s back down to the tight, churning curves of their ass.
did i say you could touch that yet?
“Do you really want me to stop?”
no. but i think you need… to learn some manners…
Papers swirl around the office as if caught in a maelstrom as Ári’s free hand shoots up and grabs Liam right on his burning neck, pinning him down like a trapped animal. They’re squeezing the breath out of him but stopping just short of hurting him, just the pressure, the pressure making it so he can’t think, he has to focus on his breathing, and his movements, pulling Ári’s ass closer towards him, feeling wet rub against wet, their halting excited breaths matching his, his fingers deep in their throat, their fingers tight around his, grinding faster, deeper, harder still, barely hearing the windows creak and blow out as a flower of scorching, purifying light fuses them together at their sexes, locks them into a perfect blazing eternal moment, and they ride it, they leap into the flame together and their bodies burn and boil away into nothing and they can’t feel anything anymore but the bliss, but the sheer howling crashing fucking ecstasy of each other’s embrace.
Ári arches their back, moaning and digging their nails into the shredded vinyl padding of the chair. Electrodes, toasted and fizzing like slices of sausage, crinkle and fall off of their body. There’s a mad banging and shouting at the door, but it’s pointless — the deadbolt has already melted inside the lock, and it’s not like Ári can hear them anyways.
The impassioned screams coming from the jagged hole in the office building merge and peak as a single piercing thought, expanding outwards and leaving a sear mark on the mind of every living thing in a three-mile radius. Two seconds later, the power grid for a third of the city blacks out.
And the District dreams tonight, the kind of dream you don’t dare tell anyone about, but that you never forget.
Liam groggily claws his way back towards full consciousness, buffeted upwards by the sounds of tinkling glass and a vast chorus of car alarms. He keeps his eyes shut. As long as he can still feel their warm body in his hands, he can feel alive.
“I didn’t… I didn’t even know your name until now… Ári.”
yeah… wow. i’ve never felt feedback like that before. i could see into you, like not from the outside, but really deeply…
“Me too! Like I finally know who you…”
A series of images flashed through Liam’s mind. Drugs. Conditioning. Years of isolation. White robes, or lab coats, he wasn’t sure. A smiling older man’s face twisting into a grimace. A building tucked away on a stretch of coastline as recognizable to him as a letter of the alphabet.
“…Oh my god. You’re what nobody wants to talk about. This compound… the Facility… that’s the blank spot on the map.”
“So this whole time, while I was trying to find out the truth, I was just…”
you were being manipulated. sometimes by other operators. mostly by me. for what it’s worth, i’m sorry.
“What do you mean? You don’t have to be sorry for anything! It’s these people who are using you as some kind of… of dumb tool, as a means to an end!”
they wanted me to… oh, god. i was supposed to kill you, liam.
“But you didn’t. You’re so much more than a weapon, Ári.” Liam stumbles off the desk, picking his shirt up off the floor and shaking the debris out of it as best he can. “Don’t worry. I’m coming to get you!”
there’s nothing you can do! you have no idea what the administrator is capable of!
“I’ll take my chances. Besides,” Liam says, glancing back at the splintered wreckage of his office, “it can’t be half as bad as what the Agency will do to me if I stick around here.”
Another ghostly chuckle, this time a little shakier, shot with fear. i guess there’s really no turning back, then. why don’t we try to meet halfway?
“But how will I be able to contact you?”
don’t worry. i’ll be watching.
Liam heads down the elevator and leaves the building, heading the opposite direction from the oncoming sirens. He melts back into the city’s vast ocean of humanity, churning and restless in the humid night air.
Ári is staring at a charred, fading picture of a fallen log in a forest meadow. No, not staring anymore. Only looking. They stand up.
Just before the Mediators finish blowtorching the door open, it blasts off its hinges and slams into the opposite wall. The fluorescent lights above them flicker and burst, and the banks of delicate monitoring equipment short out one by one, popping like firecrackers. The chief Mediator’s baton melts and fuses to his glove before he can even finish raising it; he screams and struggles to rip the glove off as Ári steps out into the hallway.
“Where the hell do you think you’re going?” he shouts.
Ári turns their eyes to meet his. They’re a foot shorter than him, but as his feet take one step, then another back towards the wall without any command from his brain, he feels incredibly small.
His subordinates groan in pain on the ground around him. Ári doesn’t move their mouth, but the words clatter into his mind as if they were cast in lead.
Out. For a walk.
The wall at the end of the hallway tears and bursts outwards like paper. A cool salty breeze from the sea mingles with the scent of burning wreckage.
I may be a while.