The Agent: Fiction from CG Inglis, Part 6
Happy New Year!
Sci-Fi-O-Rama is leaping into 2019 with the sixth installment of “A Colour Like Orange: Stories from a Broken World“, a series of interlocking stories from Toronto writer CG Inglis.
In this month’s story we follow two agents of the Institute on the hunt after a major breach in a secure laboratory. A new hole has been ripped in the fabric of reality and somebody has got to close it before it swallows the city whole.
CG Inglis takes us behind the goggles and into the hardboiled world of the Capital’s most feared authority in “The Agent“.
A sliver of darkness showed between his lips. The agent peered into the dead man’s throat, imagining she could see all the way to the pit of his stomach. Feverish work would be taking place inside him; autolysis was underway, the cells of the man’s body self-digesting. For a time, new life would flourish there, as countless bacteria proliferated blindly through his tissues. In the normal course of things, the heat produced by their appetite would warm him, his body ballooning with expanding gases. Organs liquefying, at last nothing but his bones and the three metal fillings in his teeth would remain. For nothing to be wasted was natural, and compared to what awaited the corpse, it would also be a kind of mercy.
The agent released a breath. She was seated on a high stool next to an operating table. The hard lights of the autopsy bay bleached the man’s skin. Around his neck, deep bruises marked where he’d been strangled, and the flesh at his right temple was torn, the bone beneath it crushed.
Wanted in connection with a major breach, the man had been a lab technician at one of the Institute’s research facilities. The official cause of death was traumatic brain injury suffered during an altercation with the agent’s partner. Absent from the report was the fact of his missing hand; just past the right wrist, the dead man’s arm ended in a level stump. The agent watched as her partner raised the shortened forearm to the light.
“Does that look strange to you?” she asked him. Bloodshot eyes glanced up; her partner lost his goggles in whatever “altercation” had resulted in the technician’s death. He was a large man, and bringing in a compromised lab rat should not have constituted a problem. Still, the agent had received a call around midnight to collect a body at the canal. Her partner joined her later, minus his goggles and struggling with a noticeable limp. The fact that he’d killed the man was not in itself a problem; the technician’s death had been an inevitability, and whatever information they needed could be gleaned from his corpse, but there was no question her partner had made a mess of things. The police were already at the canal by the time the agent arrived, and the press. The attention didn’t bother the Institute, but the wasted hours did, and the paperwork; in the end, gaining access to the body had required a call from the director’s office. Her partner seemed to think their superiors would overlook the incident if they managed to seal the breach. The agent was less certain, and later she’d have to decide how far she was willing to defend him. The man had always been volatile.
“Looks like a stump,” he said. His voice was flat. A nasty bruise covered the back of his broad scalp, and his lower lip was split. It was hard to believe that a slightly built lab tech had done this. Not that it made any difference how he’d come by his injuries. All that mattered was the breach.
“What are you seeing?” he asked.
“Pretty much what you’d expect.”
The agent’s goggles rendered the body in exquisite detail. She could pinpoint each of the man’s pores and every blade of stubble on his cheeks. Winter blue eyes were interwoven with hints of copper, and the results of compulsive biting showed in his ragged nails. The goggles also revealed the truth of his right arm: extending from the wrist, a vague outline of the man’s missing hand remained. Even through enhanced optics, this was a difficult fact to process. The agent found her eyes continually slipping away to rest on the metal operating table, or the sheet that covered the man’s midsection. The mind rejects a vacuum, and the dead man’s arm ended in nothingness. From the “stump”, empty veins wormed their way along his upper arm and into his shoulder. Even now they were lengthening, pushing deeper into the man’s lifeless tissue. Worms of emptiness, fingers of void. Soon they would consume him. He would not be allowed even the rude dignity of decomposition. He’d simply be gone, erased from existence.
“Hand me a pair of c-17s,” the agent said.
Her partner opened his case and removed a length of black cord similar to an AV cable. At one extreme, the cable split into a pair of needle-sharp prongs. The agent slotted the opposite end into a jack in her goggles. Carefully, she positioned one of the prongs against the technician’s severed hand, observing the soft depression in the man’s skin before the instant of puncture. As the cold metal slipped inside, a tremor passed through the agent; there was no resistance, no sense that the needle was penetrating flesh. The man’s arm might have been a sack of air.
After repeating the procedure with the second prong she nodded to her partner. From the same case the big man took a vial filled with amber liquid. He undid the stopper and squeezed several drops onto the dead man’s stump. The pale skin bubbled and hissed; translucent blisters formed, and an oily film congealed around the two puncture points.
The Institute’s work was dangerous. Its technicians were all vetted, having to pass a rigorous background check and regular psychiatric evaluations. Despite that, this one had managed to steal an experimental compound from his lab. The security footage was incontrovertible. The man had simply walked out of the building with the sample. That the Institute’s safeguards had failed so completely was itself suspicious. Both the agent and her partner were convinced their superiors knew more than they were letting on. Regardless, the damage had been done. At around six PM the previous evening, the Institute’s monitoring equipment had sounded an alarm. Though detectable, the breach’s source had proved difficult to locate. It was the technician’s body that held the key; the emptiness at work in his arm was like the mouth of a winding tunnel that led all the way to the breach. The two were connected. A cursory examination by the agent’s partner was enough to confirm this, but they still didn’t know why or how it had happened. Maybe the technician had been stupid enough to try using the substance on his own, outside the safe conditions of the lab. Whatever the cause, now that the man’s body had been recovered, they had everything they needed to proceed.
Taking a long, controlled breath, the agent flicked a switch on her goggles.
A spasm shook her body; her limbs went rigid, and the muscles in her jaw clenched. For a moment she appeared in danger of falling from the chair. Her partner watched dispassionately. An agent’s goggles granted access to alternate modes of perception, and now the void was flooding through her; she had entered the tunnel. Her chest rose and fell in shallow gasps. Beads of sweat sprouted on her shaven head. Like a crazed pianist, her fingers stabbed frantically at the air. At last she saw the breach. It formed a rough hole, its edges livid with crackling energy. Caught within it was the figure of a broken man. On the right side of his face a line was cut from forehead to cheek. Some of the tension left the agent’s body. She should have known. Releasing a ragged sigh, she unplugged the cable and handed it back to her partner with a shaking hand.
“You found it?” he asked.
With both hands she swept the perspiration from her brow. Everything around her appeared faded, the dead man’s skin as gray as a stretch of rain-washed pavement.
“Yes,” she replied. “And there’s an outsider.”
Her partner raised an eyebrow, but the agent didn’t trust herself to say more. She was angry; none of this should have been allowed to happen. Security should have stopped the technician before he ever left the lab. They were missing something, and the agent didn’t like being kept in the dark.
“An outsider,” her partner muttered. “Figures. This day just keeps getting better.”
He was already at work removing the prongs. The amber liquid had caused them to stick in what remained of dead man’s tissue. It took a hard, wrenching tug to rip them free.
The human eye, for all its sophistication, perceives a narrow band of reality. Sometimes the agent felt that was by design. In contrast, her goggles were merciless in their precision. She looked again at the technician, and faced with the emptiness where his right hand should be, her mind rebelled, struggling to fill it with words that made sense: a gap, a hole. It was not those things. The end of the dead man’s arm was an impossibility. His hand had been cut, not from his body, but out of the fabric of space and time. That part of him simply did not exist. It never had. If the agent were to go back and examine the records she would find no evidence of it. A lack in every childhood picture, every video, all the way back to the womb. But the missing hand was only evidence, not the crime; somewhere a piece had been ripped out of the world. There was a breach in the natural order, and she had a sense for the thing now. It pulled at her. The feeling was so strong she could have led the way with her eyes closed.
Her partner finished packing up their equipment.
“Let’s get out of here,” he said. “This place is depressing.”
She hadn’t always been an agent. As far as she knew, no one had “always” worked for the Institute. Everyone came from somewhere. She’d started out as a cop.
Her first year on the force was spent writing parking tickets and taking verbal abuse in the old town. One of the few perks of the job was a cafe she discovered not far from the Wine-Seller’s Bridge. The place was a literal hole in the wall, a window at the foot of one of the district’s entertainment towers serving coffee out of paper cups. The owner, a tall, easy-going man named Shen, had set up a few tables and chairs on the street where people could relax and watch the flow of traffic. The agent started and ended her shifts there, at first sitting at a table but more and more often leaning against the mould-spotted concrete next to the window and talking with Shen.
She found herself looking forward to these conversations; the man spoke well, in a soft, lightly accented voice, and seemed just as comfortable sharing a joke as a companionable silence, his tanned forearms resting on the counter as he leaned into the street with a light smile in his eyes. He had a way of making her feel welcome, as if his day had only just started the moment she arrived. Although she could tell he was interested, he never pressed the issue, and finally she was the one to ask him out. On their first date they met for coffee, and despite the irony it was very pleasant to sit at the same table and look into his face and have him look back into hers. She couldn’t remember what they spoke about; it seemed they spent the whole afternoon laughing. When he touched her hand, a piece she hadn’t known was loose clicked into place inside her. They were married the following year.
Everyone came from somewhere. She had been a traffic cop, and married once. She still wore the ring. She was toying with it now, working the slim, golden band around the meat of her finger. Her partner was behind the wheel of the car. Through the agent’s goggles, the big man appeared hard-edged and waxy. His standard-issue jacket was a black continent of synthetic folds. She could not get over the sight of his uncovered eyes. They looked like glass beads.
“You’re staring,” he said.
“You know when there’s a bad car accident, and you can’t look away?”
“Some forms of ugliness are fascinating.”
The man barked a laugh. A wedge of orange light from a passing street lamp swept over his face. Before joining the agency he’d driven a garbage truck. Everyone came from somewhere.
“You need me to turn or anything you let me know.”
The agent shook her head.
“Later. It’s not much more than a straight shot up the Avenue of Parades,” she said. The closer they got, the stronger her sense of the breach. It tugged at the edges of her mind. Everything was slightly warped, the car and the buildings lining the road, her partner’s bulk, even her own body; since her dive into the technician’s hollow arm, it was like the world’s center of gravity had shifted. All she had to do was follow the pull, as easy as tracking water downstream.
“You think that outsider’s responsible?”
“Who knows? Probably. As if the world doesn’t have enough holes in it already, they’ve got to go around ripping new ones.”
“Maybe they’re trying to get out.”
She glanced at her partner. His hands were massive on the wheel. Unbidden, an image formed of the bruises around the technician’s neck.
“You know, I never asked you,” she said.
“That’s probably for the best.”
“What happened with the technician?”
A heartbeat passed until his reply.
“He resisted arrest,” he said.
“We don’t have the authority to carry out arrests.”
He looked at her then.
“Are you serious?”
“The Institute uses the term detainment.”
“Just don’t let the bosses hear you talking about arrests.”
“Where are they going to hear that? I’m never in the office. Too busy detaining people.”
“Funny. You’re funny, you know that?”
“That’s what my ex-wife used to say.”
“Didn’t know you were married.”
The big man shrugged.
“A minor detail.”
On the day her husband died the government announced the existence of parallel realities. The two of them had been watching the news together, hands clasped on the kitchen table, trying to make sense of it all. Suddenly he was falling from the chair. She could still see him on the floor of their kitchen, still hear the dry voice of the announcer proclaiming the dawn of a new era in human understanding. She was on her knees, cradling her husband’s head in her arms. It was an aneurysm that took him. The doctors explained this to her later, and she did her best to understand, but it’s such a small thing, an aneurysm. An engorged blood vessel hanging in the brain like an overripe berry. It popped, and her husband died.
“There are no minor details,” she said.
After his death she spent a week moving from one room in her house to another. She would sit down in a chair and take out her phone to scroll through the news feeds, skimming headlines about cracks in the world and the visitors who were said to be pouring through them, and when she looked up it would be dark. She existed on toast and overcooked noodles. She was always leaving the water boiling too long on the stove, allowing it to bubble and froth over the lip of the pot for minutes on end. The whitish stains that remained on the cooking surface looked strangely familiar, like maps to locations she’d visited in dreams.
She attended a lone session with a work-mandated therapist. He only wanted to talk about her husband, which made her laugh. Didn’t he know they had bigger problems now? Their world was moth-eaten, as patchy as a frayed blanket. Things had changed. The therapist was young, fresh out of school, and he told her she could probably use a vacation. It was the first thing he’d said that made any kind of impression. The following day she handed in her resignation.
Abandoning her lease, she gave up or sold almost everything inside the apartment. What she couldn’t bear to part with (an antique dresser she and Shen had won at auction in a joke bid and which they couldn’t really afford, a coffee mug he’d given her as a present early on in their relationship, his wedding ring) she packed up and put into storage.
She had no intention of leaving the capital, let alone the country. This wasn’t a vacation; she wanted to disappear, and there was no better place to do that than in the city she called home. The first night she spent in one of the famous and expensive hotels in front of the central station. She poured a bath and stayed in the water until her fingers pruned. When she could no longer stand it, she got out of the tub and walked dripping to the window. Outside, the city sprawled like a sleeping animal. She pressed her face against the glass. Tears filled her eyes; the lights in the high rises cut as sharp as claws.
The next night she took a room in a share house. Located in an old, residential district around Acoma station, the place was not easy to find, even with a set of printed directions. The streets had a way of veering at odd, and often incongruous angles, and she soon found herself walking without any clear sense of where she was headed. The roads themselves were narrow, the houses and apartment blocks separated from one another by tall, concrete walls. Most of these were covered with creeping hydrangeas, the clustered blossoms stained orange by the towering lamp posts. Passing cars forced her to press against a wall or insinuate herself into the foliage. When at last she arrived at the address, she felt drained, as if those thirty minutes from the station had been stretched over the span of an entire night.
In front of her was an iron gate. She could only just make out a narrow courtyard between the bars. She pressed the button in the center of a small speaker, but was buzzed in without having to give her name. In the courtyard were several trees and a small pond over-grown with weeds. The air was touched by the moist scent of blooming algae.
The single-storey house stretched almost the entire length of the property. An old-fashioned, tiled roof hung low over the entryway. As she approached, the front door slid open with a wooden clack. A narrow figure stood backlit in the door frame.
“You must be the new one,” said a woman’s voice. A slim hand was extended. The woman’s skin was dark, and her nose was pierced by a small, silver ring. Her head was recently shaved, her skull beautifully, almost perfectly round.
“I’m Beatrice,” the woman said. The two shook hands.
The woman bent to take her bag. She hefted it easily, swinging it over one muscled shoulder. She offered Merit an appraising look.
“You pack light,” she said. “Not planning on being with us long?”
“I’m not sure.”
Beatrice nodded. She stepped back to allow Merit into the house.
“Shoes,” she instructed. Merit obeyed, removing her boots and placing them neatly in the pile by the doorway. Beatrice led the way along a short hallway. The polished wooden floorboards creaked beneath their feet.
“So Merit,” the woman asked. “What do you do?”
“I just quit. You?”
The other woman raised a sculpted eyebrow.
“I’m a research assistant at the Institute,” she said. “This is the kitchen.”
She waved at a cramped space with a stove and a high window. From the sink came the sound of steady dripping. The two women passed through a second sliding door and into a common room dominated by several low couches. Sprawled across one of these, another young woman, not much older than a girl, was watching TV. She wore shorts and a tank top. Her hair was piled in a loose collection on the top of her broad head. She glanced at them both but said nothing.
“That’s Sadie,” Beatrice explained. “She’s delightful, but you’ll come to the same conclusion on your own I’m sure.”
Merit said hello, and the young woman managed a half-hearted grunt. She was watching the news with the volume off. Images of protesters were intercut with a pair of talking heads in flashy suits. The caption at the bottom of the screen read “Parallel universes linked to disappearances.” Merit quickly looked away.
“There are seven of us now, including yourself,” Beatrice was saying. “All women, as you know. Well, two girls, technically. Ally and Marsh are in their senior year of high school. Twins. They’re kind of like our mascots. You’ll meet them. We’re all good people here, I think. At the moment things are more or less stable. Everyone’s been here at least six months. There are periods when there’s more coming and going. We’ll see how things go with you. Whether you’re a keeper or not.”
She laughed at her own joke. Merit ventured a smile.
“We share kitchen duty,” Beatrice went on. “Some of us have similar schedules and eat together, and you’re welcome to join us if it works for you.”
They were continuing on into the house. Merit’s legs felt heavy. One hall gave way to another. All of them looked more or less the same; narrow, wooden, off-centered.
“Your room isn’t the best, to be honest,” Beatrice said. “I’ve got the nicest room, hands down. Perks of being here the longest. If yours isn’t to your liking, you can put in a request and eventually you’ll be able to take one of the others.”
She handed Merit the key to a wooden door at the far end of the hall. The room was a modest and cheerless affair. A window above the bed let in a little light. There was a small closet and a plain, wooden desk.
“It’s perfect,” Merit said. Beatrice deposited her bag onto the bed.
“We’re having a drink in the common room,” she said. “Just opened up a fresh carton of rice liquor. Join us if you’re up for it. Come soon though, or Sadie will finish it.”
Alone in her room Merit exhaled. She thought she might stay in this house awhile.
They left the Avenue of Parades and took the south exit to the highway. From behind, a pack of bikers sped past, their headlights cutting red trails through the darkness. Merit followed with her eyes until the last bike disappeared around a corner, wishing she was half as free as them, or as young. Her partner was scowling. She instructed him to turn at the next intersection.
They made it as far as the second set of lights before they had to stop. Before them was an unbroken line of traffic. People swarmed in the oncoming lanes. In the distance, Merit could just make out two inky columns of rolling smoke. Protests like this were becoming more and more common. Releasing a tight breath, her partner slammed his palms against the wheel. Already several other cars had pulled up behind them. They weren’t going anywhere.
“What do you think they’re burning?” the big man asked.
“Cars,” Merit replied.
“It’s always cars. Lack of imagination. Why not garbage? Or money? That’d be saying something.”
“Cars are easier.”
There was a dull bang as a hand slapped their windshield; protesters continued to amble past on either side of the car. Some carried placards with various and conflicting political messages. The most common was simply a black circle scrawled in ink. A number of teenagers swept by, their faces stained with geometric designs, and one of them emptied a bottle of wine over the windshield. Thin streaks of the dark liquid streamed over the glass. Merit’s partner cursed and put on the wipers.
“Waste of good booze,” he growled.
“They can afford it,” she said. “Most of these kids are from the suburbs.”
Her partner grunted.
“Don’t they know we’re the good guys?”
“They’re scared. None of them understand the work we do. If they did, they’d be terrified.”
“Ever try explaining this gig to a date?”
“Ever try dating?”
“I’m sorry, are we on personal terms now?”
The big man shrugged.
“Women like talking.”
“Fine. Let’s keep things professional. In my professional opinion we’re going nowhere, and that breach out there isn’t getting any smaller, correct?”
She released a breath.
“See if you can pull into that alley,” she instructed.
Her partner glanced over his shoulder and began inching the car from the stalled line of traffic into the crowd. More blows fell on the hood, the doors, their opaque windows. Angry shouts were directed at them. A bottle was hurled, and bounced harmlessly from the bullet-proof glass next to Merit’s head. The crowd recognized the car. They were all standard issue, and easy enough to spot. Never shy about its operations, the Institute was a convenient target for people’s resentment. Merit understood. There were holes in the world, and millions of other realities bumping up against the one they called home. That knowledge was a trauma that might never fully heal. Meanwhile, the government had proved useless. Unemployment was rising. Everywhere things were falling apart, but somehow the Institute for Applied Research kept on getting richer. There was a time when Merit might have been out throwing bottles herself. As a cop, she never could have imagined she’d wind up working for the place. That had been Beatrice’s idea.
The two of them were together in the common room, methodically going through another carton of rice liquor. The news was talking again about people from alternate worlds. Outsiders, the authorities were calling them. It seemed they were invisible, or at least impossible to see with the naked eye. There was some evidence to support the claim they were psychic. The only thing anyone could agree on was that they were here. This had been confirmed both by the government as well as the Institute. Merit watched in numbed horror as the newscasters sat in their studio and debated the issue as if it was normal, just another piece of news like a robbery or celebrity overdose.
“You know,” she said. “When I was on the force I thought I might eventually be able to do some good. I wasn’t trying to change the world or anything. I’m not naïve, but I thought maybe I could make some kind of difference. Now? What difference does anything make? You’ve got people barging in from parallel universes and I’m going to go out there and write a speeding ticket? It’s a joke.”
“You’re worried about the outsiders?” Beatrice asked. She was looking at Merit from the far end of the couch.
“The whole thing is insane. Invisible people walking around, and we’re all just supposed to get on with our lives.”
“So what do you want to do about it?”
Merit shrugged, reaching again for the cup on the table. The liquor was very smooth. She was far enough along for things to have grown relaxed, the joints that held her thoughts together sagging nicely.
“Nothing. We can’t do anything.”
Beatrice leaned back. Her large hands were wrapped protectively around a coffee mug.
“What if you could?”
Merit’s eyes were closed. Her legs felt very good stretched across the floor.
“It doesn’t matter I guess.”
“No,” Beatrice said. Her voice had hardened. She set the mug down on the table. “This is the first time I’ve heard you talk with any kind of emotion. You know we’re hiring right?”
Frowning, Merit sat up. She glanced over at her friend.
“At the Institute?”
“Why not?” Beatrice replied. “You’ve suffered a loss, but there’s taking time to heal and then there’s whatever it is you’re doing here. You need to get out of the house, get out of your own head.”
Merit finished what was left in her glass, enjoying the warm sharpness as the alcohol passed along her throat. She sank back against the couch.
“I don’t know the first thing about research,” she said.
“I’m not talking about research. There’s a new division. An agency.”
“What kind of agency?”
Merit rubbed her eyes as she allowed the thought to wash over her.
“And what are they supposed to investigate?”
Beatrice waved a hand in the direction of the television.
“That,” she said. Merit shook her head and laughed.
“A bunch of academics versus the outsider invasion. What’s the Institute going to do, write a paper on them?”
“You might be surprised. Just promise you’ll think about it.”
The weight in her friend’s voice was jarring; Merit hadn’t realized they were talking seriously.
“Alright,” she replied. “I’ll think about it.”
The news had moved on from the outsiders to coverage of the recent municipal election. Merit pretended to pay attention. She knew her friend was right; she was wallowing. Since her husband’s death everything seemed coated in plastic. Nothing touched her. As she poured herself another glass of alcohol, the light from the TV fell on her hands and the skin of her legs and she couldn’t believe these things belonged to her. She felt broken, used up. She downed the glass and pulled herself from the couch.
“I’m going to turn in,” she said. Beatrice offered a rote assent. The hallway that led to Merit’s bedroom was dark. Her bare feet were silent on the wooden floor. When she reached her room she faltered at the door; the emptiness that awaited inside was palpable. She could taste it from the hall. It had a peculiar, rubbery quality that she spent a moment turning over in her mouth. Exhaling, she opened the door.
The dim light made the objects in the room appear like props or replicas. Sitting down at the desk, she opened her laptop and observed her hands on the keyboard; the screen’s blue gleam grazed each finger and flared at the edge of her nails. She was aware that she’d logged onto the Institute’s website. Her right hand guided the mouse. A finger clicked a tab. There was a call for applications “regardless of professional background or level of experience.” She was prompted to take part in a questionnaire.
The first questions were standard: where had she worked and gone to school, what kind of challenges had she overcome in her career? But soon the tone began to change, and the questions took the form of short narratives or parables. “A demon creeps into your bedroom during the night. You have been sleeping peacefully but now you are awake. The demon offers you three choices, to live forever, to die in this moment, or never to have been born.” Merit leaned towards the screen; as she clicked on the second option, a cleft of excitement opened in her chest. In spite of herself, she was interested. By the time she finished, the room’s darkness had softened. Pale light seeped into the room from the window above the bed. Dawn was approaching. As she at last lay down, Merit pictured a demon entering from under the door. Her final conscious thought was to wonder what it might ask.
Only a few hours later she awoke refreshed. The skin along her arm was creased with marks left by the twisted blanket, but it was her skin, her arm; they belonged to her, and were a part of her body. In the shower she luxuriated in the press of the steaming water. Afterwards she made herself a large breakfast with the leftovers in the fridge. Just as she finished, her phone rang.
“Hello?” she answered.
“Good morning,” came a voice. Soft and lilting, it was difficult to determine whether it belonged to a man or a woman. “I am calling on behalf of the Institute for Applied Research. We have received your application. Would this be a convenient time to schedule an interview?”
The address she was given belonged to a mid-sized office building about a block from Turner station. The lobby was deserted, with only a small sign by the elevators to indicate the correct floor. The elevator’s interior was shabby, the mirrored walls spotted with oily fingerprints. When the doors opened Merit stifled a gasp. The hallway in front of her might have been cut from another building. A warm light spread from softly illuminated walls; the floor was transparent, and under Merit’s feet a narrow band of water flowed between thousands of moss-covered stones. As if waiting in welcome, two people stood in front of the door.
One was a man in his middle twenties. His charcoal suit was immaculately tailored. He wore no tie, but sported the pink blossom of some exotic species of flower at his lapel. The contours of his brown head shone with reflected light. Next to him stood a woman only slightly taller than a child. Like the man, her head was shaved to the scalp, but her dress was so plain it recalled the uniform of a religious order. She reached out to take Merit’s hand. Eyes closed, brow knit with intense concentration, the woman pressed her tiny thumb into the center of Merit’s palm. A slow smile crept onto her face as she opened her clear gray eyes.
“Welcome to the Institute,” the man said. “My name is Marcus.”
Merit nodded. She could feel her grasp on the situation slipping away.
“Thank you,” she said. “To be honest, I was a little surprised to receive a call.”
The small woman’s smile widened. She shook her head brightly. Letting go of Merit’s hand, her slim fingers skipped in a complicated series of signs.
“The director would like to express her happiness regarding your decision to apply. Based on our initial assessment, you appear to be an ideal candidate. I may also add, that the people we contacted at your former workplace all spoke highly of you. As does our own Beatrice.”
Merit frowned. She knew the interview was likely to be unusual. Beatrice had warned her that the Institute had its own way of doing things, but she hadn’t mentioned anything about a call.
“You talked with Beatrice?” she asked.
“Of course. The director values the opinions of all our employees here.”
Merit looked again at the woman in front of her. Porcelain skin and childlike features made it difficult to guess her age, but she could have been no older than 40. This was the director of the Institute for Applied Research?
“It’s a pleasure to meet you,” she managed. The woman nodded, pressing a hand to her chest.
“This way please,” the man said.
They led the way along the hall. Merit focused on the woman’s back, the fragile descent of her neck into the mouth of her dress. To her right, the man called Marcus moved with the fluidity of a dancer. Their shoes clacked against the plastic floor. The procession had the weight of something reserved for the arrival of a foreign dignitary. None of it made any sense. They had spoken to Beatrice about her, but when, and why should her opinion matter? As for Merit’s former colleagues, she was surprised any of them had remembered her name. As a cop she’d been a nobody, and she was even less now, an unemployed widow with a budding alcohol problem. All things being equal, her application should have been rejected out of hand.
“We understand your confusion,” the man said. Merit shivered; it was uncomfortable to know her feelings were so transparent. “Our interview process is unconventional. But conscious minds reveal very little of their real intentions. The less prepared a candidate is in advance, the more accurate a profile we can compile. What’s more, the director believes in seeing things with her own eyes. If I may be permitted to add, her attention to detail is one of the foundations of the Institute’s success.”
“I see,” Merit replied. She couldn’t think of anything else to say.
They had stopped in front of a white door. Next to it, an electronic scanner was mounted on the wall. The woman placed a hand on Merit’s shoulder, her touch as light as a dusting of snow. The fingers of her free hand flashed rapidly. The man watched, and nodded.
“We wish to learn more about you,” he said. “The real you. If you give your consent, we will begin.”
Merit nodded; Beatrice hadn’t been exaggerating about the way the Institute operated. Nothing about this was normal.
The man pressed his hand to the scanner. Instantly, the white door slid open. The room beyond was no larger than a closet. There was a low bench, and in front of it what was clearly a two-way mirror. On the bench sat a band of metal with the look of a crown or circlet. From its side a pair of wires extended to a hub on the back wall. The flash of the director’s fingers drew Merit’s attention.
“Please make yourself as comfortable as possible,” Marcus said. “Place the band around your head and try to relax. Rest assured that you are in very good hands. The encounter will not take long.”
“You’ll have to trust us,” the man said. The director nodded encouragement. Merit swallowed. Stepping into the room, she had a last impression of the woman’s clear eyes before the door swept shut.
Merit regarded her reflection in the mirror. She was dressed simply, in a black blouse and formal pants. Her wavy hair was held up by a series of pins at the back of her head. She thought she could have used a little less eye-shadow. Her expression was reasonably relaxed. Taking a breath, she sat down and examined the band on the table. It seemed harmless enough, a simple ring of cool metal. Putting it on her head, she settled in to wait. For some time nothing happened. She looked again in the mirror, but the room’s light had dimmed, and she could no longer make out her own expression. Without warning, the hiss of venting gas issued from a point above her head. There was a scent of rotting fruit or rusting metal. She frowned, placing her hands on the bench.
“Wait,” she said. “What are you – ”
She could not locate herself in the mirror. She waved her hands in front of her eyes and saw nothing. The smell in the air lingered for a moment, and then faded. Her back was slick with sweat. She stood up, reaching for the door. Her hand passed through empty air.
Arms upraised, she stepped forward, expecting to come into contact with the wall. But there was no wall. The room had changed.
“Hey!” she called. “I’m done with this! Let me out!”
Her voice cut flatly through the empty air. She took one breath, and then another. She was aware that the room was undergoing another transition; it was not lighter, not exactly, but there was a sense of deepening space. A suggestion of movement fluttered behind her, soft as a breath of wind on the back of her neck. In the distance she began to make out a form, a hole or absence in the shape of a man. It moved closer, and now she saw a dark head and shoulders, the line of a body, and she knew with a terrible certainty that this was her husband. A wracking breath was torn from her. She reached a hand towards him; her fingers met air. The shape of her husband was no closer. It wavered some distance ahead, vague and implacable. She knew that it would continue to do so for the rest of her life.
Some time later the door was opened. The director stood in the brilliant hallway. She lifted a hand to wipe the tears from Merit’s face, smiling up at her in welcome.
After her experience, Merit was led by the director to a kind of anteroom or lounge. A cup of steaming tea was set in front of her. It was a long time before she could locate her voice. Once she did, she found herself admitting things to this strange, silent woman that she had never told anyone else. She said that since her husband died she’d been walking on a plane of glass so thin and brittle it could break at any moment. She didn’t think she was special; she knew it was the same for everyone else. Just under the surface stretched a limitless darkness. They were all one step away from falling.
The director laid her hand on Merit’s knee, her eyes shining with understanding. Just then, the door opened, and Marcus entered the room.
“Thank you,” he said simply. The flower was missing from his lapel. He looked tired, as if he’d spent a long and sleepless night. Merit began to wonder how much time had passed since she’d arrived in this building.
“Could you,” Merit began. Her mouth was dry. She took a sip of the tea and started again. “Did you see what I saw?”
The director waved the thought away with a short motion of her hand. She flashed a sign to Marcus.
“It’s better to say that your feelings were clear,” Marcus told her. “I know that sounds vague. It’s hard to take everything in, all at once. Just know that the agency we are hoping to build here will be unlike any other. Our world is under siege. It is broken, and the border can’t hold. We no longer have the luxury of believing in our own uniqueness. Combating such truths will require the utmost strength of mind. We now believe you possess that strength. If you agree, we would be happy to welcome you to the Institute.”
The director was watching her. Marcus’ wide, strong hands were folded in his lap.
“What do you say Merit? Will you help us repair the world?”
In that moment, a calm descended on her. The decision was an easy one. Their world was broken. Anyone could see that. Cracks lurked like dark smudges in the corner of an eye. They had always been there. Even with everything that came after, all the things she’d seen and done in the name of the Institute, she had no regrets. There was no other way of life for her, not anymore.
She thought about this as her partner brought the car around the side of an apartment building. She could feel the breach intensely now. It lay just ahead of them, dragging her forward. The feeling was a familiar one, and she sat with it as her partner switched off the engine and took the case from the back set. Once she stepped out of the car, a slight gasp was stolen from her mouth; the pull of the breach was almost physical, like an invisible hand, wrenching at her. Followed by her partner, she made her way down a narrow alley. A fluorescent bulb washed the pavement in yellow light, its reflection slithering over the slick material of their jackets. They entered a parking lot behind the building. In the distance, the night sky was bruised with the rumour of distant flames. Captured rainwater pooled in the cracked pavement. Beneath a rusting fire-escape a black hole was cut from the wall. Inside it a twisted man lay huddled in shadow.
“It’s here,” Merit said. Her partner followed her gaze.
“The breach?” he asked. Without his goggles, he could see none of this. Nor could he feel the breach, not having come into contact with it at the morgue. He was working blind.
“Yes,” she answered. “And the outsider.”
She took her earpieces from a pocket in her jacket. They were cold, and sat uncomfortably in her ears. Switching them on, a slight whine gave way to the low crackle of static; she had the uncomfortable sensation that millions of tiny hairs had sprouted around the earpieces, but she could hear the outsider now, the ragged exhalation of his breath rising through the wash of static. He was still alive.
Moving closer, she saw that he was thin, with a shaved head and long limbs. From his chest stemmed one of the metal posts that supported the stairwell. Blood was seeping from the wound. The rest of the man’s contorted body was fused to the wall, and wherever his flesh met brick, black veins crackled. Behind him swirled the breach. This close, Merit felt as if she stood in the midst of a raging torrent; it grasped at her, urging her forward. The breach was a portal, the door to another world, but only half the outsider had made it through. Whatever happened here, whatever he had been trying to do, something had gone badly wrong.
He lifted his head. Light from the street lamp fell on the line cut from his face. A rich purple, it ran like an incision through his right eye from forehead to cheek. Ghost-like shapes were at play in its depths. Staring at them, Merit thought how little they still understood about the outsiders. She had never seen one up close. They arrived without warning, invisible and undetectable save through an agent’s goggles, or the raw substance that powered their use. The same compound the technician had been allowed to remove from his lab, a substance powerful enough to rip a hole in the world.
The outsider blinked up at her. His eyes were glassy, his gaze unfocused.
“What took you so long?” he managed. Through Merit’s earpieces, his voice rang oddly hollow, as if he’d spoken from the end of a long hallway.
“Traffic,” she said. The outsider’s laugh gave way a fit of bloody coughing.
“That’s good,” he replied, once he’d regained control of his voice. “I like that. Been waiting all night for that line.”
“Your friend from the lab is dead,” Merit told him. The outsider was shaking his head.
“Not my friend. He’s the reason I’m here. Ruined everything, sticking his hand in where it didn’t belong.”
The outsider spat a wad of dark blood onto the pavement.
“Trying to get out,” he muttered. “Just trying to get out.”
“You couldn’t do it on your own, could you? You needed the substance from the lab. You needed the technician.”
“He wanted out too. He saw what’s coming. It can’t last.”
He wasn’t looking at her.
“This world,” he said. “It’s ending.”
“What’s he saying?” Merit’s partner asked. She shook her head.
“Nothing important,” she replied.
She adjusted a setting on her goggles. Data flashed across her augmented display. It was as bad as they’d feared. Even now the breach was growing. First it would take the outsider, and then the building behind him. Left unchecked, eventually it would swallow them all.
“This breach has to be sealed, and there’s no time to get you out of it,” Merit said. A softness had entered her voice. She reached out to wipe the blood from the outsider’s chin.
“Sure,” the outsider said. “Better that way. Don’t want to wind up one of your lab rats.”
“I’m sorry,” Merit continued. “I take no pleasure in this.”
The outsider was nodding. He was muttering to himself, his words just barely audible.
“Just doing your job. Like the technician did his job, getting that stuff out of the lab. They let him go. You know that? They let him go. They wanted this to happen.”
“Who wanted it?” Merit asked.
“Your bosses. Who else?”
“You tell me. Maybe they just wanted to see what would happen.”
Merit was silent. She’d learned to trust the director, but that didn’t mean the woman was innocent. The outsider was probably right. All of this had the feel of an experiment gone wrong. So what if someone died? In the end, that was just another data set. You couldn’t expect to fix the world without breaking a few tools along the way.
“I’ll need the vial,” Merit said.
“How much?” her partner asked.
“All of it.”
The big man opened the case and handed her the same container of liquid they’d used back at the morgue. Carefully, Merit unscrewed the cap. The outsider watched without comment. Merit could not have said what was in his eyes as she upended the vial and poured the rust-tinted contents into the breach. It might have been relief.
Suddenly he released a gasp of pain. He struggled against the metal rod that pierced his chest. His mouth opened to speak, but his voice drowned in a wet gurgle. Behind him, brick ground against brick like twin rows of gnawing teeth. The breach began to close. A hot wind poured out of the alley. Voices murmured just at the edge of hearing. With a sickening pop, the outsider’s body was severed from the wall. Merit stood up. She shivered inside her jacket. They had sealed the breach. The wall was whole. Removing her goggles, she tossed them to her partner.
“Here,” she said. “I’ve seen enough.”
The big man adjusted the strap and settled the lenses over his eyes. He knelt down to examine what was left of the outsider. His expression didn’t change. Merit supposed he’d dealt with worse. He looked at her.
“I’ll call it in,” he said. “Research will be itching to get their hands on this.”
Merit didn’t respond. She was thinking of her husband. She looked out at the night with the eyes of her body. In the distance, smoke from a burning car cut a black swath from the sky. The hole in her chest was no deeper than before.
Visit us again next month for “The Canary“, the next installment in “A Colour Like Orange: Stories from a Broken World” by CG Inglis.
Follow CG Inglis on Twitter @viscereal