“Judgement is the ultimate reason we are here. Without it as our goal, we have neither purpose nor destination, as ephemeral as ashes in the wind. If we lose sight of our pursuit of the truth we may as well cease to be.” Vic’s construct body exhaled a plume of fake smoke that matched the cigarette in her hand, though someone looking closer might have noticed how the glow at the tip was just a dot of light and not a real ember. The city glowed like a nebula outside the high-rise window.
“You’re so full of shit,” I said, and my own construct’s mouth turned up at the corners.
Vic’s body—it was easier to think of it as just Vic while on assignment—scoffed at me and made a face. “Let me have my fun, Ace,” she said. “You have your gardens, I have my monologues.”
I did my best to puppet my body into an incredulous expression. “And yet you say you never had the chops for Shakespeare.”
“Quiet, you. The mark’s getting closer.”
We arranged ourselves so we looked like we were discussing hostile takeovers or offshore accounts or whatever it was people did in fancy-dress parties in glass-paneled skyscrapers, my hair perfectly groomed and her eyes just the right side of sharklike. Our evening wardrobe probably cost more than some households made in a year. We looked like golems spun from pure avarice. We looked like everyone else at the party, which was the point.
Our mark was not one of the morass of interchangeable revelers, but an intense-looking young man serving long-stemmed glasses from a silver tray. Vic and I accepted one each, pretending to drink them; it wasn’t that we were concerned about getting tipsy, as anything we put into our constructs vanished into the voids tucked inside them, and more worried that taking too much, even from things freely given, might risk upsetting the delicate nature of the arrangement. Besides, it made it far easier to work if we didn’t have to constantly flag down someone for a new set of props every five minutes.
We waited until we had privacy again before reaching out to the residue of emotion left on the glasses; luck was with us and the server had been the one to pour them in whatever prep area they’d set aside for the party. I studied the trail my glass left like a metaphorical hound scenting for its quarry. I found what I wanted quickly and once I began to absorb it I could tell Vic was preparing to do the same. This would require a great deal of concentration, so we fell into an automatic conversation that was the perfect match for this sort of thing. We could have been excellent movie extras. I stared out through the window and ignored my loaner senses for my real ones.
Pero, as always, had been correct. I could smell frustration, hear the fraying of nerves, piece together a few muted bits of the puzzle that was why he did what he’d done. That emotional aftertaste informed everything; we knew what had happened, of course, but arbitration requires understanding the why as much as we are able. It’s hard not to run my tongue along the film of anger this sort of thing leaves on the inside of my mouth whenever the mark has a certain special sort of personality. You could say I have a sweet tooth.
He hated his job and his boss, he worked too much despite this, he still loved his ex, he’d driven them away with both too much work and too much overflow of loathing of said work, he needed badly for something in his life to change, he’d made excuses for everything to keep from having to change. He wasn’t a bad person…ah, but he wasn’t a good person, either, now was he? Edge case. No wonder they’d brought us in.
I watched the mark slip through the crowds like a clownfish through an anemone’s tendrils. He had momentum enough to make it through another night of bowing and scraping with champagne in hand. We knew him a little better now, about all the movies his film school ex had shared with him and how he was considering getting a cat. He hated everyone at the party but had nice plans for what he’d do after it was over. Things being what they were, the party would never be over.
Vic caught my eye and I nodded; we were on the same page now. As soon as the server was coming around for another pass she took a key from her pocket, stuck it into the empty air, and turned it until it clicked. We stepped out of color and time for the next stage of our assignment.
He—Charles on his license, Chaz to people he liked—was still caught in the movement of sublime machineries when we put our hands on his shoulders and yanked him out of the works. He didn’t notice how out of character this was for us, since nobody ever did. We arranged ourselves nearby before he’d totally realized what had happened; I hissed unpleasantries at Vic for some insult or another I refused to explain, allowing her the opportunity to throw her drink in my face, which resulted in me dropping my own, and we exchanged tense words while making sure to stand in just the right way to keep Charles from leaving. It was carefully orchestrated chaos.
“Excuse me,” said Charles once we had proven we wouldn’t be letting him squeeze by any time soon. “I need to see to the other guests. May I get you a towel, ma’am?”
I dabbed at the front of my outfit with a handkerchief. My blouse was remarkably waterproof but some of the ruffles would need tending to in the bathroom, or at least would look that way until we were left alone again and I could quickly wick away the moisture to storage. “It’s fine,” I said. I turned to face him with a harder look. “And it’s ‘sir.'”
“I’m very sorry for the misunderstanding, sir.”
Charles adjusted his grip on his tray. By then he had shaken off most of the lingering fuzzy-headedness; you could see it in his face when he tweaked to how nobody else was moving, much less still in color. He hid a fidget. “If you will excuse me, please…?”
“You haven’t been feeling very well, Charles,” said Vic, who has a knack for breaking the news. He didn’t ask how she knew his name. “You’ve been going too long without tending to things you should, and you’ve not been treating yourself very kindly. Things have gone awry as a result. We’re here to help fix said things up a bit.”
Now that we weren’t quite so in the thick of things it was much easier to feel out every little emotion that rippled out of Charles and around us. Angels? was the best way to summarize one. Demons? Aliens? were two more. He was confused and worried, but not actually afraid. The fury that lingered on him like perfume probably contributed to that. “Who are you?” he asked us after another beat.
“We are agents of a higher power, but I assure you it is not the one you think,” I said. I hid a smile as his thoughts rummaged through a variety of answers, only some of which came close. I try not to be a puckish little thing while on duty and it’s so hard sometimes. My face a mask of serenity, I continued. “Can you tell us why we might be here?”
“I’m dead, probably.” He was very calm about it. Most people were, these days, thanks to enough stories about this sort of thing. Pero thought it was tacky, but I didn’t. It made the work much easier.
I shrugged. “Yes and no. As my partner says, things have gone awry.”
“So I’m…not real right now? Is that what you’re saying?” He looked more relaxed than most of the snippets of memory we’d seen him in that evening.
“That’s certainly one way to put it.”
“So no matter what I do, these fucks can’t do anything about it?”
“So long as you remain in this place outside of the mechanism, that’s correct.”
Charles put down his tray. We didn’t stop him, nor did we object to him picking up one of the glasses—still full of champagne or something very much like it—and smashing it on the ground. The carpet briefly flushed with the color of the drink before fading back to desaturated nothing, though were anyone to touch it they’d find the spot damp. He tried to reach for another one but cut himself on one of the broken shards, causing him to yelp and suck at his bleeding thumb.
“Ow! I thought you said I wasn’t real? That sure as shit feels real to me.” Data bloomed out of him in a garden of flowers, that syrupy anger coating recollections of past injuries and the idle thought of causing me physical harm. I didn’t pay it much mind; he had many such thoughts, and while he might disable the body I wore he would have to try much harder to actually hurt me.
Vic, once again better with words, spoke up. “If you weren’t able to think, or feel, or sense, you would run the risk of no longer being you. We are here for a reason, and it is far beyond simply measuring the movements on an EKG or the fathomless depths of a dream.” Work would be so much less interesting without her input. She softened her features as best she could, her body easing from financial predator into something similarly-shaped but far more approachable. “We are here to observe what you do here. You are welcome to ask things of us for the duration. We, in turn, are welcome to courteously refuse.”
Charles grunted and examined his thumb. The cut was already gone. He made a thoughtful noise up in his nose before taking a seat on the arm of a large white leather couch with three unmoving partygoers seated at the opposite end. “So did I get hit by a bus or what?” he asked.
“No. You are not wholly alive, but neither are you wholly dead.”
“That doesn’t really answer my question.”
I smiled. “No, it does not.” Charles emitted crackles of butter-toffee frustration in response and I had to struggle to keep my host body from openly salivating. Some of my associates in this field believe it’s important to be the path of least resistance, always being forthcoming and helpful, but I personally find I get a more well-rounded understanding of a mark if I make them work for information. Perhaps I’m a bit cruel for it, but if Pero has ever had any objection to how I do things for him he’s yet to make it known.
“So you’re not going to grant me genie wishes, huh?”
It was Vic’s turn to shrug. “We are not opposed to requests, so long as you aren’t opposed to rejection.”
Charles went from upset to worried. I would hesitate to call it desperation, but maybe if you took that word and watered it down until you were left with the feeling of a deeply lonely person afraid they might have lost a chance at connecting with someone, maybe then. This, too, was illuminating. “Can we just, uh, talk for a bit, then? I haven’t been talking to many people outside of work and I think it’s making me go a little…something.”
Vic nodded. “Yes, we can certainly do that.”
They talked and I listened, coaxing more details out of what was going unsaid. One version of Charles would leave after the party, accidentally take too many pills for an ongoing condition, and never wake up. One version of Charles would leave after the party, go to bed, and show up for work the next day like normal. One would take a knife from the kitchen and not leave the party, nor would some of the other guests. One would find a better job and donate to charity. I squinted into the middle distance. There were too many wildly different variations for things to be natural; most people didn’t have this much potential murder, self-injury, or otherwise mooshed up with so much else. Charles was not a model citizen by any stretch of the imagination but something was definitely wrong with the data.
I gestured to Vic with a quick spike of chemicals. She pretended to ash her cigarette. We both knew what to do in situations like this one.
The conversation began to subtly nudge towards more private matters while Vic and I oozed pheromones. Charles looked delighted at the attention, and given how easily he took the bait he’d been lonelier than he thought.
“What do you people do for a living, anyway? Are you brain cops?”
“You could say we are troubleshooters. We do appreciate you cooperating with us.”
I dug in with metaphorical claws. Something was clouding his life with unlikelihoods that blazed as bright as any expected outcome, but this sort of something is like water, taking the basic shape of its chosen vessel. The vessel it had chosen was badly in need of rebound sex. We could work with that.
“Are you two, you know, a thing?”
“My partner and I have worked together for a very long time. We’re compatible in a lot of ways.”
It’s difficult to say what an ariel is, aside from a spirit of the air. Intangible is a good word for it. Most are carefree creatures, while some work for greater causes if given proper motivation, but every so often one attempts to break everyone else’s hard work. These rogue elements tend not to have much practice at it, or we wouldn’t notice them in the first place, so much like placing a fulcrum and lever to shift a boulder, you just know where to push and how to pop them out of places they oughtn’t be.
“Are you a lonely person at this time in your life, Charles?”
In my line of work I’ve found the average being trying to hitch a ride in a body not its own does not bother asking the body’s owner first. This creates a certain disconnect. Constructs are different, lacking motivations to clash with whatever might be using them, but situations where the agency is involved rarely ever involve such situations, and in all my years on the job I could count the number of incidents involving a construct wearer on the fingers of one hand. Charles, I verified, was no automaton with a serving tray, and so I silently conferred with Vic on the best way to proceed. We needed to loosen the connection between intruder and host. The easiest way to do that would be through proper administration of an orgasm.
“You’ve been trying not to look directly at my breasts. I appreciate that.”
“Uh. Sorry, ma’am. Sir? I don’t know how I should talk to you people.”
“You don’t have to call us anything, Charles. And you don’t have to look away, if you don’t want to.”
Vic usually handles this part because I’m honestly pretty bad at it, no matter what kind of personality I’m working with. She’s told me she doesn’t mind, so I take her word for it. She has more of a taste for longing than I do, anyway. This does not, of course, mean I cannot play a part, and sometimes the best way to convince an uncertain party to go along with things is through sheer excess. We did not choose constructs that were conventionally attractive on accident.
“Seriously? You’d both…?”
“We aren’t opposed. It would actually be a distraction from things, you could say.”
“Then yeah, I would! There’s a spare room this way, past the foyer…”
Vic and I chatted privately while our loaner bodies frolicked. We aren’t unused to physical intimacy while on a job, but I personally find it dull and Vic isn’t very invested when presenting a female persona, so sometimes one must do anything to keep from drifting off while a construct does what it was made to do. We try to keep these facts to ourselves to keep from hurting anyone’s feelings. Energetic sex, sometimes with more than two parties involved, is an excellent fulcrum for dislodging the most stubborn obstacle, and even if it was a strictly social thing, it’s rude to be uncaring.
Assorted orgasms, both real and simulated, occurred. Vic and I shared triumphant fanfares of waveforms when we verified our work. Pero would be very pleased with us, indeed.
Charles had lipstick prints on his chest and inner thighs. Some were the metallic copper Vic wore, others were the red I’d chosen to contrast with my body’s dark facial hair. Being emotionally uninvested didn’t prevent us from being thorough. If we were to step back out of that timeless place he’d have no way to conceal what he’d been up to. “You can call me Chaz,” he said, his grin weary.
I patted the side of his sweat-sticky face. “We aren’t friends, Charles.”
He wheezed out a laugh. “Sorry.”
Vic took her key from wherever she’d hidden it. Charles didn’t even flinch when she inserted it into his chest. “Thank you for working with us, Charles,” she said. It was important we both used his name. “We’ll be fixing things now.”
“Am I going to be all the way dead?”
“We can’t answer that,” she said, with the kindest smile she could manage with her shark-eyed self. “But wherever you’re meant to go, you won’t be held back anymore. Are you ready?”
Charles folded his hands behind his head and hunkered down into someone else’s duvet. We’d somehow managed to keep most of his clothes on. “I got laid by two creepy pretty people after a six-month drought. I think I’ll be okay wherever I go.” He tapped the key in his chest. “Go ahead.”
Cleanup was very simple: Vic turned the key and everything fell away into the void, our bodies and Charles included, save for the one little flaw that we’d dislodged. I held the naughty little stowaway tightly.
“Gotcha,” I said. The ariel squirmed, straining to make itself like the wind, but I have been doing my job for a very long time, and with Vic at my side we didn’t have a problem. We returned to Pero’s doorstep right on time with both key and anomaly in hand.
Pero sat at his desk in his office as he always did, his client—a too-tall figure wreathed in shadow and black fabric—standing in front of him. I can’t tell clients apart that much since I almost never deal with them myself, but it was presumably some sort of deathly aspect. Given how many weird little twists and turns the ariel had thrown into the potential lives of poor Charles, I was hardly surprised to see some sort of entropy critter here at our little agency.
It seems they have returned, said the reaper-or-shinigami-or-what-have-you.
“As I expected. It seems the problem was one of their kin making mischief. We’ll take care of that, then. Let the little one go free, darlings.” He picked up a white glass orb from a stand on his desk, stood, and held it out to us. Vic and I released the thing, which remained stock-still, helpless in the face of the sphere. We were no strangers to its lambence—it glowed, of course—but it’s still quite a sight no matter how many times I’ve come back home to report on a job done right.
Pero studied the ariel with a critical eye, which was quite the feat given how we are invisible beings by nature. He tutted. “It seems this one’s quite feral. No doubt summoned up before it was weaned, then ill cared for by whomever called it into a tree or a corpse or what have you, assuming they didn’t abandon it entirely. We’ll rehabilitate the poor thing.”
That was not part of our agreement.
“No, of course it isn’t,” said Pero. “This I do out of common decency.” He took a ribbon out of his desk drawer and tied it in a bow. The room shivered. We could feel the absence of our pseudo-sibling as Pero sat back down. “There, now it’s tied to my estate. Once it knows not to put trousers on its head we can set it free back into the ether. Maybe give it a job if it wants one.” He chuckled to himself. Neither of us had ever been feral, but we hadn’t always worked for Pero, either, so it was a good enough joke.
The client didn’t so much as emote, though I could sense some level of professional respect between it and Pero. It slid him a signed scrip across his desk. Our agency is generally never so gauche as to take material goods in payment, but abstract concepts can be neatly summarized on paper, and are generally far easier to transport that way. Things are in order once more. We will be in touch should we require such services again, it boomed. Then it hesitated. We are impressed that your agents were able to complete the task so efficiently.
Pero chuckled. He looks like a younger man, early thirties or so, but his nature is disarmingly avuncular in spite of that. “I strive to always work with bonded pairs of ariels,” he said. “The level of intimate understanding they have with one another is crucial for achieving the best results.” He stroked the top of the orb in its stand, causing Vic and me to purr like a pair of box fans in spite of ourselves. We had definitely done something above and beyond the call of duty if he was rewarding us in front of a client; the man is very stingy with his pets and pats.
“If your people are ever in need of further contracting, we’d be happy to work with you,” said Pero. “I need to debrief them shortly, but if there’s anything else we can do for you, please, say the word.”
That will be all. Thank you for your time, said the figure. Then it simply wasn’t there. Deathly types tend to be that way.
Vic brushed against Pero’s cheek. It—we prefer to discard genders when not playing a role—placed its key on top of the scrip. “We must have been on a bigger job than we thought if you’re being so nice to us,” it said, doing its best to snuggle without having anything to physically snuggle with. We do our best within our natural limitations.
Pero twiddled the orb again and Vic and I sighed with pleasure. “Oh yes. Once the little breeze you brought in learns its name it could be very valuable,” he said. “Perhaps as a guardian, perhaps as an advisor. Perhaps as another agent, if it likes, but even if it’s simply content to be an unaffiliated member of the Invisible Choir it’s the most interesting ariel I’ve encountered since I met the two of you.”
“Even though it’s feral?” I asked.
“Oh yes. I’m sure you and your fellow wisps will be happy to help it get its head on straight, such as it were.”
I tied myself in excited knots. The last time I’d helped orient a new member of the agency, Pero had been so pleased with my work he’d doubled the resources allocated to my garden. I might not be able to touch the plants I tend there, but being able to exist near them has been wonderfully soothing after difficult assignments. That, and there was that other thing about them, the one that we couldn’t do on our own.
“Will you walk in the gardens with us later?” I hoped I didn’t sound too greedy. Pero’s a very busy man, there’s no doubting that, and one could argue the satisfaction of a job well done was all that a spirit of the air such as myself needed. He took his hand away from the sphere. I couldn’t taste what he was thinking, but I feared the worst. I backpedaled. “Of course, if you’d rather not, we understand entirely—”
He held up his hand for silence. Vic and I watched, anxiously, as he returned the key to its place on its hook among the many others he owned, then studied the piece of tied ribbon thoughtfully before tucking it away in a drawer. Said bow would likely remain there until we’d rehabilitated the new ariel, maybe longer if necessary. Pero had experience in dealing with our kind. “I’ve given both of you so much,” he said, looking right at us. “Vic, your recordings and your radios. Ace, your groves and gardens. And now you ask me to walk with you?”
I would have gulped, had I a throat. “Yes, sir.”
He opened a door leading deeper into his estate and beckoned to us. We drifted after him obediently. “I try not to play favorites among those in my employ,” he said. He talked as he walked. “It’s bad for morale, and sends the false message that an agent can only succeed as much as my personal fondness for them allows. Unprofessional in every way. Conversely, I also don’t like to give the impression that I don’t enjoy the company of my agents.”
We weaved through a hallway whose dimensions made little sense. I sometimes helped dust it if anyone had a spare construct put together. The double glass doors at the far end of the corridor opened when he drew near, revealing the gardens beyond; it was a place meant for me, but it was still part of the grander estate, and we all knew whom the estate called master. It was open to a sky—not the sky, not here—and the stars twinkled overhead. If he didn’t have time for us that night I imagined I could find comfort in drifting with the evening mist that hung over the flowers.
“Are you fond of this place, Vic?”
“Yes, sir. Not as much as Ace, but I like being here, especially if we’re together. It’s nice.”
“Now, do you mean Ace or the garden?” asked Pero, and he winked. That alone was enough to make us unclench ourselves. If he was in a joking mood he wasn’t upset with us at all. He strolled along a walking path I’d meticulously arranged a few instances ago. We eddied after him, sometimes looping around his fingers when he placed his hand down like a child dipping their fingers over the side of a slow-moving boat.
“I said I try not to play favorites, and that much is true, but you two are some of my dearest little spirits, and I do want you to be happy. This way, please.” He walked around a gazebo and through a length of ivy-wreathed arches I’d been toying with, then took a left at a sundial I didn’t remember placing. There was something wrong about the path above and beyond my spotty memories of making it. Like there was a layer of gelatin on everything that tinged the whole world, perhaps. Still, Pero seemed unconcerned by it, so I did my best to follow his lead.
The path led to a little waterfall grotto that I knew I hadn’t made since it didn’t match the rest of that part of the garden, but the feeling of quiet and privacy that thrummed within said quite a lot. “Consider it a couple’s hideaway,” Pero explained. “No one can get in, or out, without being one of you two, an invited guest, or myself. Vic, I was certain you would be able to enjoy making and listening to your recordings here, as well. You can adjust the volume on the water if it ever interferes with sound fidelity.”
“Thank you, sir,” I said, counting the facets in the overhead quartzes. I’d never been able to get them so fine. Reverse-engineering that would keep me in rainy-day projects for weeks, easily.
“Ah, but that’s not why I brought you here.” He seated himself in a chair that hadn’t been there a moment ago. “Vic, my dear, would you care to bring me what’s next to your vinyl player?” Said player turned on as soon as he mentioned it, filling the air with soft, pleasant music.
Vic produced a key neither of us had seen before. It looked similar to the ones we used for work, but much fancier, with what looked like a pearl set in one end. I swished myself in an excited figure eight. Pero must had been planning this for quite a while.
The key itself opened what looked for all the world like a music box with my name on it. I couldn’t see what was inside, but I heard Vic gasp with delight before a sudden, pleasant tingle ran down my entire not-quite-body. It was a little like being rewarded through Pero’s orb, but I would have felt that thing through three feet of lead; I was positive he hadn’t brought it with him. I didn’t have time to ask again before I brushed against the quartzes again and scraped myself. I scraped myself. Usually ariels phase through anything, with neither wall nor gate nor endoplasmic reticulum halting our progress, but for want of a better word I had bonked some portion of my person on the ceiling. I was startled, yet intrigued.
“You see how it works?” said Pero to Vic. It nodded. “Now, do what you like with what I’ve shown you. Ace, my dear, would you curl up with me, please?” He patted his lap. We are not lap animals, our kind, nor pets of any sort, and I must be certain to not give the wrong impression: I did this because Pero is Pero, and we respect him deeply, and he selflessly offers himself as a conduit by which we can do that which we normally cannot. One gains a greater appreciation for those who allow thirsty spirits to possess them in creative ways when one develops a sexual thirst that refuses to be slaked by the usual methods.
Normally we simply ride around inside of him during our walks, however. The lap thing was new. I wasn’t quite sure how large I was—how big is an idea?—but I did my best to wind myself up enough to fit. I could feel the warmth of his body through his suit and the texture of the fabric. It was intoxicating: tactile sensation without the need for a host! When he ran his hand along me I feared I might die from pleasure. I squirmed and gasped. Pero simply continued what he was doing as though I were a sleeping cat, not a representative of powers unfathomable and judicator of reality.
“You may want to turn it down a bit,” he murmured to Vic. It twiddled something inside the box and suddenly I didn’t feel quite so much like I was being wrung like a wet towel. I sighed with relief. Pero did not stop petting me, so I cuddled against him as best I could and savored the sensation of sensation. All of us who work for him love him at least a little bit. Curled up in his lap with his hand stroking the concept of my side, my other half operating a device he’d made that made that act possible in the first place, I felt very much like he loved us back.
The warmth of his hand was so close. It was different from earlier times I had ridden along with him as he touched himself, in no small part to my lack of erogenous zones as traditionally defined, or how I wasn’t confined in a claustrophobic physical form, or how Vic wasn’t riding along with me. Different did not mean unpleasant. I could feel the oils in his skin drift through the air I occupied. I would be hard-pressed to give up the sugary flavors of discord, but if leaving it behind meant a lifetime of enjoying the tang of his goodwill I’d swear off sweets in a heartbeat. I’ve even told him as much before; he can’t hide how flattered he is by this, not from creatures such as we.
I could have luxuriated that way for hours had Vic, ever mischievous, not turned up the intensity again. It was so much and so sudden that I yelped. Pero didn’t stop. I shifted in place and his hand followed. Vic cackled. It clearly knew what it was doing. Vic is terrible, sometimes, and things simply wouldn’t be the way they are between us if it wasn’t. I still cursed its name even as Pero lazily stroked me a final time.
Understanding the concept of an orgasm is miles away from having one proper. It didn’t match up with those I’d witnessed while wearing a construct body at all, similar to how a bright light is perceived differently based on whether the viewer uses the naked eye or is wearing deep-tinted glass. I’m fairly certain I embarrassed myself with the sounds I made as I clung desperately to Pero’s button-up shirt. I could feel those buttons just as I felt a powerful jolt of euphoria. Later on I would start keeping a spare button in my personal effects as a reminder.
“Had a good time, did we?” asked Pero. He gave me a pat on the effectively-a-head, this time using a feather-light touch that managed to avoid the worst of whatever that little box was doing to me. I felt like a dollop of pudding. At least I was spared the indignity of looking like one, too.
There was plenty to think about as I came down. The box was a decidedly welcome gift, but how had it worked? It had behaved much like Pero’s orb had in that it allowed the intangible to feel things. This was different from the orb in that I had been touched, not simply stimulated from afar. The box was unassuming, but the key—
That was when I realized just how clever Pero could be in the name of employee satisfaction. The key was one of his own keys, that kind of key, the sort we could touch ourselves, the sort that could unwind the mechanisms of reality and lock them back together again, and what I had taken for a pearl was a tiny orb of its own. It was no wonder that the two combined had such a powerful effect on me, teasing aside. The possibilities abounded.
I thankfully remembered my manners before getting too lost inside my own head. “When does Vic get a turn?”
“Whenever you place the key in the side of the box with its name on it,” he said. Sure enough, on the opposite side of the room sat a little box, identical in every way to the one with my name on it save for its own inscription. “Let me show you how it works….”
We learned a great many things that evening, and eventually we even got around to our debriefing once the overall novelty wore off and we were content to braid ourselves around one another to let Pero pet us more easily. There was so much work to do. I was better with training so I’d be working with the feral spirit the most at first, while Vic would be my assistant on the logistics side and take over basic communication lessons once we got the poor thing talking. The matter of where it came from in the first place needed to be addressed. Someone would have to cash the scrip the deathly envoy gave us, someone else would have to take over cleaning the reading room since its usual attendant was on vacation, and either of the above would need to go grocery shopping for a party Pero was hosting in a week.
“Will you forgive me if I excuse myself, my wisps?” he asked us once I’d grudgingly agreed to take on yet more cleaning duties. “I love you both, but there’s other agents I must speak to before my day is done.”
“When do you want the key back?” I asked, briefly scanning the grotto for where it had put itself. Vic had been twiddling it. Ariels are notorious twiddlers.
“Oh, it’s yours. You might find that there’s a matching one right where you forgot to look.”
We nearly bolted from where we lay with surprise. A pair of keys meant that both boxes could be active at once, and if one box was enough for one of us to touch the world and be touched in return, then two…two was very promising, indeed.
“I’m sure you’ll figure out what the rest of the box settings do,” Pero continued, pleasantly. “For now, you know the important ones. Close the box and remove the key if you need to reset things. You’ll know which fits where. Ace, Vic, I bid you goodnight.” We were so caught up in what he’d told us we barely had the sense to say goodbye.
I had known Vic for a very long time, and been bonded to it benevolently for nearly that much, and for that entire period we had not been able to be more than emotionally intimate with one another. Sometimes we would pair constructs together, but after a while it felt like a ghoulish puppet show, and sometimes we would hide inside a willing host—such as Pero—who would pleasure themselves and therefore us, but I had always felt a twinge of jealousy at the thought of how easily something as simple as an earthworm could feel the presence of those around it. An ariel can hold another ariel fast to keep it from moving, and little else; this is helpful for dragging feral or otherwise unwilling subjects home, but neither of us found comfort in the mimicry of hugs we attempted. Our kind are known to agree to all manner of things if we think we’ll get some form of sensory feedback out of it. We grow to accept that we experience the world through a cottony fog.
Two boxes in a grotto in a garden in a house in a place outside of time were enough to change that.
The second key was physically identical to the first. I could tell where it was meant to go by intuition more than sight, and while Vic was usually the one to handle these things for our assignments I still knew how to pick it up properly. Had I hands, they’d have been shaking with excitement. I dragged the orb-end of the key along the edge of Vic’s box and drank in the sound. “Are you ready?”
Vic boiled with thoughts and chemicals. “As I’ll ever be,” it said, and tapped the top of my own box.
We turned the keys as one. The feeling of color and time falling away happened again, this time in reverse. I could feel—actually feel, not just sense—Vic as it passed through me, and from the sound of things it felt the same. I wanted to laugh, or maybe cry. I wanted to yell at Vic for already trying to bury the needle on my box again. I wanted to write a very long letter to Pero to tell him how grateful I was for him. I wanted to call up our fellow pair-bonded ariels and ensure they had keys to their own boxes. I wanted to be very cruel to Vic and listen to them sing my praises louder each passing second.
I settled on holding Vic close and simply existing in the same place as it and its beloved vinyls. We agreed we could both build from there.
One must never underestimate the value of employee satisfaction.