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Deus ex Machin
Catie had been happy and exhilarated when she stepped into the lobby, but the sight that met her caused her mood to falter. Standing in the middle of the floor was a young man. He had russet-red hair, was small, thin, and a little disheveled. He was staring blankly into space.
With a concerned furrowing of her brows, she shut the door behind her softly. “Dray? Dray, are you alright?”
The red-haired man whipped his head around so fast she could’ve sworn she’d heard his neck crack. From behind matted hair, his eyes had glinted with madness – with the light of a great truth, Catie thought. Dread churned her stomach.
“We’re all doomed.”
“We’re all– all– ah, ah, ah, ahhhww – ”
And Dray promptly vanished.
"Stop being so difficult!"
Catie shot out of her seat and slammed both her hands, palms down, on the weathered wood. Still the little toad-like man across from her did not stop smiling.
"Patience," he chided mockingly, before picking up his glass and taking a delicate sip of brandy. His telescope eyepiece swiveled and readjusted, never leaving her face. "You would not want to do something you might regret, would you?”
Glaring viciously at the Toad, or so she'd dubbed him in her mind, Catie slowly returned to her stool, glancing around the pub to make sure that no one had noticed her outburst. The customers around her remained where they were, dull of expression and clutching mugs of beer as they murmured to each other in the dim light.
Taking a shaky breath, she jutted her chin outwards and adjusted the black scarf around her face, pulling it upwards to hide her furious expression. 'Be professional', she thought. 'John always said it makes a better impression than beating people to a pulp.'
But she didn't want to make a good impression. What she wanted was to get the information out of him and then wring his neck until he was blue for running her patience so low.
Besides, it wasn't like John had been much help.
The first thing she noticed, after she’d been left staring at the empty space where Dray had disappeared, was that had been that the cuckoo clock that hung on the wall opposite was missing. Small, tattered holes in the drywall remained where the connecting staples had been ripped out – none too carefully it would seem.
The second thing was John, examining a manila file folder as he swung idly back and forth in the leather swivel chair behind the desk. His long legs, clad in squeaky-clean patent leather shoes, were propped on the tabletop, and the sleeves of his polo shirt were casually rolled. He made no indication that he'd seen her come in.
“John… what was that?”
“Emotional overdrive. Dray’s system couldn’t handle it, so he’s going down for maintenance. Even the Machina’s creations have mistakes. You know this all already, Catie. Hand me the red file folder on the shelf, will you? It has details for the Roche kidnapper…”
Catie hesitated, then resignedly turned away. She wanted details, but she knew it was better not to demand them right away.
As she removed the file from the shelf, she realized that bookshelf was in a different place than usual. With a frown, she heaved it aside. Behind the shelf was a wreck in the wall, placed at face-level and roughly the size of a basketball. In the dent, splinters of wood and cogs were still stuck. A cuckoo clock bird was buried up to its neck in the loose debris.
The hotness of rage had spiked in her gut, and she turned to face John.
"You two had a fight again," she said flatly. A statement, not a question.
Only then did he glance up. His face was blank, his eyes hidden behind the usual sunglasses.
When he spoke, his voice was as mild as his expression. "Yes."
This simple word caused Catie to flinch.
"Why?" Her voice came out unnaturally loud, almost at the brink of shouting. Her hand tightened on the folder. "Why couldn't you just have… I don't know, done something to placate him, at least? And now he’s gone, you…" She had no idea what they'd specifically fought about, but it was the same story every single time. Dray’s ridiculous, black-and-white sense of justice and John’s indifference and purposely amoral attitude constantly collided, not uncommonly to the point of violence.
"Oh? Since when have you ever countered a diplomatically?" John turned back to his papers, calmly brushed his blonde hair aside, and flipped a page unconcernedly. "Don't preach to me. You know as well as I that nothing would've stopped him. I refuse to bend to his every whim. It’s not my fault that he was too weak to control his emotions.” The unspoken I won't apologize either hung in the air.
“He’s an android, John.”
“Even worse on his part, then.”
Her bubbly, slightly anxious mood had evaporated. She'd come to ask for their advice, but her mind was made up now.
"I have a lead," she snapped. "On… on my personal project.”
This coaxed a reaction out of John. His shoulders stiffed almost imperceptibly.
Catie raised her voice further. It bordered on trembling, like a flute being taxed to its maximum volume on low notes. "I'm going to leave. Now."
Finally, the man deigned to grace her with his full attention. There was a slightly irritated and possibly disparaging inclination to his visible features. "Don't be absurd. I can't have you leaving too. We can’t expect to stay ahead if we don’t work as a team.”
“That’s too bad.”
“Excuse me?” The Toad paused, and the telescoping eyepiece adjusted and whirred madly.
“I said,” Catie continued slowly, “that it’s too bad you’re being so uncooperative. There’s a lot we could offer each other, sir. Do you know who I am?”
The Toad laughed an unpleasant, high-pitched, nasally sort of laugh. “You? Ha! I don’t even need to know your name, although of course I do. I can tell that you’re some hotshot PI, or a bounty hunter. Either way, you think a lot more of yourself than you should. Do you know who I am?” He waved one chubby arm in a grandiose manner. “My duty is to the illustrious Machina. I am one of their blessed, a mortal chosen for their work. Look – see how I have been bestowed with their gifts.” Here the little man gestured to the telescope eyepiece. “Only the Machina and a few chosen are allowed to modify their bodies with such technology. It is truly magic! My eye can watch you through walls and tell me anything you conceal in the folds of your clothes. I have infrared vision, can detect ultraviolet light, possess the delicate movement sensitivity of a preying mantis, and can be instantly know the identity of each person I meet. There’s nothing, absolutely nothing, that can outdo the work of the Machina.”
Underneath her scarf, Catie gave a secret little smile. “I don’t doubt you.”
“You are not taking me seriously.”
Without a change in expression, John tossed the file folder onto the desk. “I’d have thought,” he said slowly, “that you, of all people, would know the danger in going after the same thing as the Machina. They will annihilate you. Anytime, anywhere, without an effort – like some god or a great author.”
“Not so. I’ll find it before them.”
“Look what they did to you, Catie.” Instinctively, Catie’s hand shot to her face. Her right cheek was a mess of scar tissue. “It’s only thanks to me that their technology has been purged from your body. Do you want a mess hunk of metal and wires in your face again? Do you want someone else to control your actions and not remember what you’ve done for days and weeks of your life? Is that it? Would you like to be taken back the facility and have your other arm replaced with a – ”
“Shut up!” she’d yelled. “Just shut your - "
“No. You shut up.” John’s voice was dangerously low. Catie promptly clamped her mouth shut. Without pause, John reached for his sunglasses and deliberately looked away, to the left and slightly down. Then he removed them.
After the briefest glance of empty sockets, twin beams of yellow light had erupted from the man’s face. A mild tremor shook the room, and when the light cleared there was a flame-rimmed hole in the cheap carpet. The beams of light had trembled and loosened, taking on more wispy shapes before curling in on themselves and retracting like two freshly fed pythons into John’s eye sockets.
The scene had been almost comical, until John turned his glowing, burning eyes on Catie.
“Do you want,” he had rasped, “to end up even worse? Like this?”
John’s voice seemed entirely separated from what Catie saw in front of her. He was speaking somewhere far away, but his words were certainly not attachable to this unworldly face with sun-filled eyes. She had wanted to look away, but couldn’t bring herself to. Deer-in-the-headlights.
Feebly, John shifted. He seemed exhausted. “If you leave, they’ll come after us all. I know too much, and so do you.” Gingerly, the man picked up the discarded “sunglasses” and put them back on. The fiery light disappeared immediately. “Dray knew something too. About you.”
At this, Catie stirred and listened carefully. John went on. “That’s what we were arguing about. He came up to me this morning, raving like a lunatic and demanding we ‘silence’ you. ‘Before we’re all dead,’ he said. Wouldn’t say why. Imagine Catie – Dray, who can’t bring himself to swat a fly, wanting you dead! The only thing that could be any motive for him to kill is his hatred for the Machina. Dray is a pretty advanced model, and should be able to perform maintenance himself, but the Machina… they can take him back pretty easily while he’s down and helpless, I’m sure.”
“So what you’re saying,” Catie interrupted, “is that if we get separated we can get picked off easily.”
Silent, contemplating moments had passed between them. Finally, Catie shook her head.
“No. I’m sorry, but this is much more important.”
Without waiting for a reply, she turned on her heel and walked away. The door clicked quietly behind her.
“I’m not trying to be ungrateful. I just need to do this.”
Leering wanly at her words, the Toad plucked a fountain pen from his breast pocket. He pulled a nearby napkin towards him and scribbled something on it with a flourish. Pushing it towards her, he said, “I’ve met you here simply to determine if it would be worth helping you. I haven’t decided yet, but you’re certainly entertaining. Meet me here.” He tapped the napkin. “Maybe I’ll have a surprise for you.”
Catie narrowed her eyes, bristling at his pompous arrogance. She snatched up the napkin and stuffed it in her own jacket pocket. This only elicited a chuckle from the Toad.
He extended his hand. “Good business,” he said with mock levity. Catie slowly offered him her gloved hand, but he pulled back, shaking his finger.
“Ah, ah, it’s not polite to shake hands with your skin covered.”
Unseen, Catie’s mouth quirked to one side under her scarf. “Oh no, I don’t think I’ll be taking off my gloves.”
Mixed amusement and irritation flickered across the man’s flabby features. “Dear, I really think you should listen to – ”
“I am not removing them.” A new tone of command entered Catie’s voice, and the Toad recoiled a little. His smug expression wavered, but he quickly recovered and leaned forward to grasp Catie’s hand. He shook it quickly, then attempted to withdraw – Catie only tightened her grip.
For the first time, the Toad’s eyes shimmered in fear. Suddenly, a look of realization dawned on his face. His hand went limp and his saggy jowls dropped in horror.
Catie allowed herself a full-on smirk. “You feel it, don’t you?” She squeezed his hand mercilessly one last time, then let go. The Toad flinched back as if from hot coal.
It was the girl who waved the dismissive hand this time. “Go on, you slimy rat. I’ll be expecting you.”
The Toad went.
Deliberately and with purpose, Catie stood and smoothed down the seat of her pants. Proceeding to slip silently through the small crowd in the bar, she made her way to the restroom. She flicked on the lights and locked the door behind her.
Spotting her reflection in the mirror, she grinned lazily and yanked off her scarf. As it fell away, a sleek plate of steel was revealed on her right cheek.
Numerous blinking lights and buttons were hosted on it, and the traces of reopened scars crowded around its sides. She briskly removed her elbow-length gloves as well. Underneath was more silver-gray material, its surface unmarred but hard and cold. Flexing her lovely metal fingers, Catie admired her newly full-functioning arms.
'I need new gloves', she mused as she tapped her thumb and middle finger together twice, opening a speaker device in her palm. 'These ones are too thin. Blew my cover … completely worth it though.'
Catie raised her palm and spoke smoothly into it. “I found the contact. ”
A pause. Then from the speaker: “Does he know anything?”
“Yes, but he can be disposed of easily.”
“And John Egret?”
“Is alone. Once he’s out of the picture, we’ll be well on our way to success. Give me a line to the boss.”
“Very well. Password?”
A secretive smile, as if at an inside joke. “Deus ex Machina.”