Free Fiction Monday: The Voodoo Project
Rebekah uses her Sight to fight for good. She works for the Voodoo Project, although her work involves psy ops, not voodoo. She fears retirement and a normal life. So she keeps working, going on missions, never knowing when she will face her last mission…
Because she can see anyone’s future—except her own.
“The Voodoo Project,” by Hugo Award-winning author Kristine Kathryn Rusch, is free on this website for one week only. The story’s also available as an ebook through various online retailers here.
The Voodoo Project
Kristine Kathryn Rusch
Forty-five years old, prime of her life, height of her career. Maybe the best moment of her career, although Rebekah Zahedi knows—everyone knows—her career can end in a nanosecond. One false move, one miscalculation, one sleeper, and she’s done.
This time, the Company has sent her to Paris. Usually Rebekah loves Paris. Laws, voted in honor of the hundredth anniversary of the defeat of the Nazis, guarantee that city’s center will not lose its historic value. Fire? Fine, but the new building must look Belle Epoch at the newest. Height limits, design limits, all focus on the first seven arrondissements, preventing miscalculations like the pyramid in front of the Louvre, built before these regulations came into play.
But the outskirts of Paris have no such rules and that is where she’s going, a black-and-silver wedge high-rise, state-of-the-art forty years ago, ridiculous now, like a triangle out of a tactile infant’s game. Ridiculous in look, perhaps, but not in intent: the last time she went to one of wedge high-rises, it shattered as she left—glass and tile everywhere.
She survived because she felt the wave, matched the image with an image she had Seen six months before, and dove down the stairs of an ancient Metro station. Cut, bruised, shaken, but alive.
The attack hadn’t been aimed at her. The building had been a safe house, and someone had blown its cover. It hadn’t been her job to figure out who had revealed the location; she’d stopped doing that kind of interrogation years ago. Still, that kind of interrogation had left her paranoid, the blast had left her jumpy, and no amount of intervention—nano, chemical, neural—worked.
The handlers who had recruited her out of an eighth-grade science competition had warned her that eventually the emotions would crowd out the skills. The handlers had warned her parents as well, but the promise of money, of a free education, of a daughter who could use her skills in the fight for good, overcame any doubts they had.
She hadn’t had doubts then: she was thirteen, precocious, bored, and willing to take on the world, which she had done. Besides the handlers continually warned her, continually told her she had a choice. After six years, she could’ve left at any point, retired, gone to college with “normal” kids, become an engineer, a housewife, a has-been, albeit one who’d had a hell of a career, a hell of a life, before other people even got started.
But she hadn’t wanted to retire, not then, not now. Besides, back then, her handlers told her she’d probably survive in this business until she was at least fifty, which sounded to her like forever, but now as fifty looms, she realizes fifty is young and the time she thought would last forever lasted less than a nanosecond.
Soon she’ll be forced to retire, and then what’ll she do? Hide in her lavish apartment(s), shaking, afraid of being discovered?
Maybe, maybe, someone will take her out before that. She isn’t sure she wants it, but she isn’t sure she wants to retire either, become normal, live the life billions of others enjoy, because she’s been able to do her job, because she’s got eyes on the world, literally, it seems.
Only she wishes today’s job isn’t inside this building. Of course, she wishes a lot of things that will not come true: she wishes she had more time to rest from the last job; wishes she can have a real vacation; wishes she is less aware of passing time.
She wishes she doesn’t see things in layers, but she does.
Everything is a lie on top of a lie, even existence is a lie when it comes down to it: Even now, even with all the sophistication, all the science, all the understanding, no one knows exactly what perception is and what life is, and how they intertwine. Does perception guarantee life? Or does life guarantee perception? Is life, in truth, just an act of imagination?
Sometimes she thinks she knows, but mostly she does not. She rarely lives her own life. Instead, she Sees snatches of other lives—moments that have happened or moments that will happen. For her, the choice of past or future is simple. She focuses differently, the way she would focus differently if she closed one eye. If she closes her left eye, she loses perception and vision on the left side; if she closes her right, she loses perception and vision on the right side.
If she chooses the past, she Looks through a different lens than if she chooses the future. She used to wonder if her glimpses into the future were real or imagined. Then she tested those glimpses—or rather, the Company did—and whatever she saw, whatever she did not act upon, whatever she did not actively try to change—came about.
The futures she Saw that varied, that changed, changed as a result of her actions, or actions of others caused by what she Saw. It is scientific, although it does not feel scientific, has never felt scientific to her. It is, some say, a Gift. That is the old terminology, from before the days when science discovered the combination of genes that created the Gift, or the Sight, as her great-grandmother used to call it. Those with the Sight used to go mad.
Rebekah does not have the option of going mad. She cannot: the world is mad enough without her joining that particular parade.
She shakes off her unease, steps toward the entrance of the wedge high-rise, stops, looks behind her, sees an ancient Metro station, a descent to Hell, a friend used to call those places. The Metro is old and creaky—there are better ways to get around the city—but some still use it, and she blesses them. Because she now sees the Metro tunnels as her good luck charms. She likes to have Metro tunnels near the buildings she works in: the Metro has become her superstition, her safety net, her talisman.
She smiles at the tunnel opening, the stairs heading down into Stygian darkness, as if the Metro tunnel is a live thing, as if it can smile back at her. Then she taps the entrance to the high-rise, and goes all the way inside.
All wedge high-rises have the same floor plan. The front triangle is black and clear, visible and invisible. The front desk—reception in some places, a convenient computerized fiction in others—is black, behind it the elevators are clear. Glass and steel and too many reflective surfaces.
She sees herself crossing the empty lobby, a too-thin woman in black dress, sensible heels, hair pulled back. Faded prettiness, a touch of silver in her black hair, a beak nose creating a triangle on her face. Her own personal design, her personal genetics, echo the building, and that makes her uncomfortable.
Her face is undeniably that of an authoritative adult. There is nothing girlish about her, not that there ever was. As a child, adults would murmur, She’ll grow into that face, and then watch out. She didn’t know then what they had to watch out for, but now she does. The face of authority, of power, of strength, even though she does not feel particularly strong most of the time.
She takes the elevator up, does not look through the clear walls at the street below. Nor does she stare at the other wedge high-rises around her, positioned so that anyone in any of the elevators can see the passengers across the way.
She always thinks that buildings like this are a sniper’s haven: Want to pick someone off? Ride the clear elevators in the wedges, wait for your target, calculate the rise of one elevator versus the fall of the other, and shoot.
She would do that, if she could. She has a sniper’s imagination now, if not his skill. She has never tested the skill. She has never tried to figure out if simply downloading information from someone else’s brain enables her to learn what her targets/subjects have learned. She suspects—she wants to believe, really—that muscle mass and muscle memory have a place in all of this, but she knows deep down that with the right nanoprogram, the right tweaks, she can perform some of these skills. She doesn’t want the ability; she doesn’t even want the whisper that she can pull off a hundred different jobs using a dozen different skills.
She’s heard there are operatives like that, but she has not met them. She does not want to know them, although she suspects she does. Many of them, like her, started in interrogation. Then they moved to actual hands-on work, while she—she moved to a different kind of hands-on work, one that few people can do as effectively, few people want to do effectively, few people believe can be effective at all.
One of her colleagues calls her work the Voodoo Project, but it’s not really that, it’s not voodoo at all, not fictional voodoo, filled with dolls and pins and bad practices or real voodoo, all religion and belief and beyond what people can see.
But still, the Voodoo Project has stuck over the years, because the real name keeps changing—Psy Ops, FutureVision, Elite Squad-Building. Elite Squad-Building is her favorite, because it’s the most accurate and the most descriptive. That is what she’s doing, that’s all she’s doing, her and her fellow workers in the Voodoo Project. They’re building squads to send on missions that are guaranteed to succeed—or in the case of a few, guaranteed to fail.
She hates the failure missions. She only finds out about them afterwards—or she used to, back when she double-checked her findings. But she always has an inkling of which mission will be a failure mission, because she turns in her report advising against that team for that mission at that time, and then suddenly, the mission happens anyway.
Remember, one of her handlers once told her, sometimes failure is success. But she has never understood that, has never wanted to understand that, just like she does not want to understand the missions all that clearly.
She likes to think she’s saving the world, even though she knows she’s saving only a small part of it: the part that believes in the same things she was raised to believe in. She doesn’t even want to question if those things are right. She doesn’t want to question anything, certainly not now.
The elevator doors open onto the sixtieth floor which looks, she knows from experience, like the sixtieth floor in other wedge high-rises, like the fifty-eighth floor, and the fifty-sixth: black carpet (worn gray in the center, flakes attached to the bottom part of the wall), silver walls, black tables with flowers in silver vases.
Over the years, the flowers went from real and expensive to real and cheap to fake and expensive to fake and cheap. Still, the riot of color—in this case reds and pinks and greens—is what draws the eye because it’s unusual.
It also takes the focus off the apartment doors.
They’re down a triangular corridor—there are no rectangles in this building, except the living rooms in each apartment. She would hate living in wedge high-rises: she likes predictable spaces, spaces she doesn’t have to think about, spaces that disappear when the eye finds them, not spaces designed to make a person uncomfortable.
She is uncomfortable enough.
She walks down the hall to apartment 60. There are only nine apartments per floor, the perks of former luxury. It is impossible, by modern standards, to divide the apartments into small units. The French mandate the size of an acceptable apartment—a habit they got from their American cousins—and one she is grateful for.
She presses her hand against the scanner to open the door—and to send a signal back to the Company that she has arrived, and the procedure has begun.
It doesn’t matter that the team assembles two hours before her arrival, nor does it matter if they get along. The teams believe that such things matter, and some work toward unity, while others pretend they haven’t seen each other.
But the teams have no idea why they form or why they separate. They simply know that they must gather.
She knows a few things about them as she waits for the scanner to burp its latest request to the top of the queue. She knows that she will face six team members here, because she is on the sixtieth floor. If she was on the seventieth floor, she would have seven team members, and on the 100th floor, ten team members.
She knows that the ratio should be two men, two women, and two gender neutral—maybe men, maybe women, maybe transgender, but gender impossible to determine at a glance. She knows she will find a range of IQs depending on the job, a range of physical types—fighters, soldiers, nerds—also depending on the job. She will find too much confidence and not enough healthy fear. She will find mostly youth, except (perhaps) the team leader. She will find eagerness and nervous anticipation.
This apartment smells of frying burgers, American food, probably with imported beef. Beef isn’t illegal in France, but it is heavily monitored. The French do not want their meats taken from them—centuries of cooking a certain way have made them militant about their food—but they do not want to get a host of new diseases, most of them targeted to beef. The French have become cautious. Everyone has become cautious. It is a sign of the times.
Frying hamburger makes her think of home and childhood before the handlers came, before someone placed expectations on her, before she became a Guardian of the Free World. Her stomach growls, and she orders it into silence.
She does not want to lose control of this interview because of hunger. She needs to maintain her concentration.
The kitchen is to her left, separated from the living room by a bar. No one sits on the bar stools. Instead, three team members gaze out the window at the wedge high-rise behind, and three cluster in the kitchen proper.
But only one cooks. If she is to guess—and she is not—she would wager that the chef is the leader. But she knows she might be wrong. People handle their nervousness differently, and some resort to their relaxation skills. It amazes her how many covert operatives use cooking to relax. And so therefore this person might not be cooking to establish dominance, but cooking to relax.
Layers upon layers upon layers. She hates layers.
Only one team member watches her enter. This member, another woman, is of an age with Rebekah—mid-forties, strong features, trim and athletic. Another candidate for leader, or perhaps someone who works security, the one who remains constantly alert to provide protection.
Rebekah smiles easily although she does not feel like smiling, then looks at the buns open on seven plates, seven because the chef expected her. Around the plates, glass bowls filled with five different kinds of cheese, filled with fresh lettuce and tomatoes probably from the Dupleix near the Eiffel Tower, filled with a mixture of homemade sauces with dainty little spoons ready to serve (so the chef, as hard as he pretends to go to his American roots has either lived in France too long or was born here).
“Just in time,” the chef says in English. He turns toward her, smiling, holding a spatula dripping with hamburger juice.
She smiles in return, letting him think he is in charge when indeed he is not.
He is a big man, square shouldered, corn-fed the Europeans would say because of his wide face and eager, seemingly open eyes. But he has an edge, a tightness around his jaw. His hair gives him away as well. It is too styled, too neat, layered. His hair, like those sauces, like the cheeses, proves that he doesn’t pay attention to the right details. He’s pretending to be authentically American, while his errors say he is not.
He uses the spatula to place the burgers on a plate. The meat steams as he pivots toward the bar, an efficient, practiced movement. He places a patty on the bottom half of each bun.
“I’m sorry,” he says, his accent broad and Midwestern, “but you’ll have to serve yourselves.”
The language, at least, is correct. An apology where one is not needed, strictly regional. Also a habit that is very easy to learn.
Everyone else in the room glances at her, expecting her to make the decision for them. Do they eat? Do they serve themselves? Do they ignore him?
She smiles back at him, takes a plate, and moves toward the sauces, the cheeses, not really caring what she chooses, since she probably will not have more than a bite.
Instead, she watches the others.
The remaining two in the kitchen—one man, one the woman who has watched her from the beginning—are clearly hungry. They grab plates, bumping into each other as they do so. They’ve been waiting for food.
Or have they been waiting for a typically American meal? Recent imports often get tired of the French fare, so novel at first, and so rich and repetitive as time goes on.
The other three thread their way uncertainly around the wedge-shaped furniture, the deliberately uncomfortable couch, the triangular ottomans, the matching easy chairs that do not look easy at all. Two gender neutral, and the other woman. That woman is slender, feminine, frilly dress, impractical shoes, aggressively female makeup. She is almost too pretty, noticeably pretty, with wedge-shaped eyes that match the building.
The gender neutrals dress appropriately, cargo pants, loose tops, hair cut short enough to seem masculine, but covering the ears in case the ears are too dainty or not dainty enough. High collars to cover the Adam’s apple, sleeves long to cover the shape of the hands. The gender neutrals are often the most valuable team members, able to infiltrate anywhere, be anything, letting the orders dictate them instead of forcing their personalities to dictate the orders.
The three wait until Rebekah has finished decorating her burger. She has taken long enough. She needs to begin the work, much as she does not want to.
Teams never know how the examiner works. Teams have no idea whether they’re observed or their DNA is analyzed or if their past behavior comes into play.
It is, of course, none of the above.
Instead, as Rebekah heads to the living room, she brushes against one of the gender neutrals. The movement is quick, barely noticeable, and yet that is all it takes.
She knows the timing—five seconds between contact and download. Five seconds and she will know everything.
She uses those seconds to find an empty space against the wall and lean:
Woman, not transgender, lanky and lean and strong, frustrated, wishing she has a different role as she stares at the thick leaves before her. Flat, broad leaves, the air so hot that it’s barely air, bugs swarming around her, wishing she could wear lotion, wishing she could wear sunscreen, but of course she cannot.
She clutches an old AK-47, rusty, slime-covered, hands shaking, not even sure if she can use the damn thing. Weapons gone, team gone, the smell of fetid water near her, and too many flies, buzzing and swarming, whatever flies do. Too many flies means something died nearby. Either the flies are laying eggs or the eggs have just hatched.
She crouches, gently (silently) moves the leaves, sees rotted clothes, bones, a pool of slimy water filled with decomp. More flies. Blowflies. Maggots. The flies just hatched.
She should get a sample, regulations require a sample, so someone here can be identified—DNA and all that—but what’s the point? She won’t make it back, and if she does, if the gods of warfare somehow smile on her, she won’t be able to lead anyone here. She’s not even sure how she got here, not after that ambush, not after—
A snap and she freezes. She’s in the wrong position, a crouch, impossible to look up from this position, hand extended, AK-47 (old, rusted, unusable?) cradled against her body. She makes herself breathe silently, hopes her tired legs can hold her crouch long enough to seem to remain invisible, long enough to survive.
Then a rustle, and a light touch against the back of her head. Technically, she shouldn’t feel the touch at all but someone wants her to.
“So,” a familiar voice—Rafe’s—says in English, “do you want to join your friend there or would you prefer full disintegration?”
She whirls before thinking, aiming for his legs, she’ll bring him down, she’ll
And then nothing. Rebekah doesn’t close her eyes. She’s too trained for that. To the others, only a few seconds have gone by. Not enough to notice. If she closes her eyes, makes any odd movement, someone might figure out what she is doing. She has trained her features so they don’t move, no matter what she Sees. Nor does she look at the gender neutral (woman) whom she just brushed, whose upcoming death she just witnessed.
The fetid smell of that water is still in Rebekah’s nostrils even though it was not real, the smell so strong that the hamburger, still dripping juice, looks obscene.
She swallows against bile, slips around the wall back into the kitchen, sets the plate down as she reaches for a glass. She pours herself water from a pitcher with ice, making sure her hands don’t shake.
She wonders which one is Rafe.
But she cannot look, cannot ask. She’s here to evaluate, and for all she knows, the gender neutral (woman) had (will?) blow the mission herself, will flee, will become someone else.
Rebekah doesn’t even know what the mission is, really, just that this moment, this incident, this thing she Saw is somehow tied to it.
“Burger okay?” the chef asks.
She smiles again, nods, turns, accidentally backing into the other man. Mentally curses herself—she wanted a moment to recover but knows she won’t get one, so she sets the water beside the plate and braces herself against the countertop:
Airstrip, middle of nowhere, hot. Doesn’t matter how many tweaks he gets, how much he augments, he still can’t take the goddamn heat. Sun beats down on the strip, jungle encroaching from all sides. The light white, blinding. No birdsong, no wind, no sound except a faint low-pitched buzz from some kind of insane insect that thrives in this weather.
Touchdown: simple. Infiltration: simple. Waiting: Not so simple. Hard, in fact, especially when there’s no contact, when he has to hide here, at the edge of the field, in the shade, but too close to that fucking sun.
Then the ship comes, shiny, golden, he wonders how anyone approved it for this mission, considering how the light reflects off it, proving that it is not part of this damn jungle. No sound though, silent as it hovers then slowly drops down on the ancient strip.
The light on his tracker, the small device attached to his wrist, blinks once, so fast that had he not been waiting, he would have missed it. Confirmation: this ship is one of ours.
He sprints into the open—the dangerous part, his back twitching as he imagines a thousand shooters, all wanting him dead. But he reaches the ship’s side, touches the miraculous coolness, waits as the door opens—waits…
Then breathes deeply as he steps inside, out of the sun.
She can’t look at him. She wants to ask “Is your name Rafe?” but she doesn’t, of course. Instead, she picks up the water, sips delicately. The joy of this vision is that the burger looks good again. Her stomach growls, and this time, she doesn’t silently chastise it.
Instead, she takes a bite—small, but enough. The cheese is sharp, the sauce almost sweet, the burger itself better than any burger she’s had for a while. She makes herself chew, reminds herself that she is not supposed to judge or guess or make any decisions at all.
The chef picks up his own burger. He says to her, “I was wondering for a minute there if you were all right.”
She tries to compare his voice to Rafe’s voice, but knows she cannot. Even if he is Rafe, his voice will sound slightly different to her ears than it will to the ears of the gender neutral (woman).
“We’re really not here to eat,” Rebekah says, setting the plate down and wiping her hands together. “We’re here to assess.”
“Do you know what the job is?” the other gender neutral asks. Perfectly cast in the role, since the voice is gender neutral as well, that mix of alto/tenor that could be either.
“Even if I do,” Rebekah says, “I’m not allowed to tell you. Shall we gather in the living room?”
She wants them moving, wants the focus off her.
“I need to straighten a little,” the chef says.
She says, “Just make sure everything is off for the moment.”
The others sit in the living room, perch on the edges of the uncomfortable furniture. Two—the man she brushed (Rafe?) and the frilly woman—sit on the couch together as if they already know each other.
“What should we be doing?” the chef asks as he passes her. He does not brush against her. “State our names?”
“Names are lies,” the gender neutral (woman) says. And if Rebekah hadn’t already Seen her, she would not be able to tell that this gender neutral is female, any more than she can tell with the other. Which is as it should be.
“Occupations are lies too,” the frilly woman says. Then she tilts her head up at the chef, smiles (flirts), and adds, “although we know you can cook.”
“Hamburgers,” he says with an answering smile. “You know I can cook hamburgers.”
His attention is leaving her after just a moment. He’s auditioning for the role of leader, just like she’s auditioning for a more dangerous role: undercover, perhaps, all the way undercover. A woman who doesn’t mind using her body to aid her in her work.
The other man is—what?—a soldier, perhaps? Infantry, they call such men at the Company, because they are expendable.
Of course, every team is expendable. Human teams don’t get used much any more except in human situations. Now, in this endless war—a war that has extended more than a century, a war that even has historians fighting as to who started what when (did it start at the turn of the 21st century perhaps? In the United States? Or did it start before that in Afghanistan, a war with the now-defunct Soviet Union? Twenty years ago, when China flexed its considerable muscle?)—humans still have importance, just not as much as they once had. Human teams gather the best human intelligence, and she doesn’t want to waste them on a job that will destroy them, doesn’t want them to do a job that drones or robots or computer chips could do better.
She certainly couldn’t do it better. She (and others like her) can’t go undercover because those with the Sight, the Gift, whatever you want to call it—that little combination of genes fed by the right hormones and a few extra chemicals at the right time—those people spend too much time in the minds of others, and grow to empathize with those around them.
She knows her attitudes come from the minds she’s touched, but she pretends they haven’t influenced her much. She doesn’t want them to have influenced her much.
She likes to pretend she’s her own person.
“You’re not going to tell us what the job is, are you?” the other man asks, clearly irritated. She doesn’t quite recognize his voice either—the infamous Rafe? Someone else? She mentally shrugs the thought away.
“You’re assuming I know what the job is,” she says, with an easy smile. How many times has she answered these questions, in similar rooms, with similar people? Too many.
She reaches for the water glass she has carried in from the kitchen and her fingers brush against the fortyish woman’s. Rebekah suppresses a sigh. She wanted to do a bit more playing with them before she investigated another. She wanted more time.
But of course, she’s not going to get it. She sips, leans against the wall, pressing hard, braced as:
The blankness of it surprises her, and this time she doesn’t catch her own expression. She knows it changed.
She’s never experienced nothing before, although this wasn’t really nothing. It was like a mental skip, a malfunction, a computer about to fritz, a vehicle with malfunctioning propulsion.
Her brain aches.
The fortyish woman smiles at her, and there’s something in that smile, something knowing and off.
Rebekah feels an odd panic, a clenching around her heart. Her breath comes in short gasps. She’s heard of this emptiness, is told that someone who can mentally shield can do this, is told that if she touched someone like herself this would happen, but she’s touched others with the Sight, and they have futures and pasts that she can access.
What she was told was wrong. Of course, her handlers told her all of this: her handlers whom, she later learned, did not have the Sight themselves.
“Are you all right?” the chef asks her again, and she grabs his hand. She hasn’t touched him before. He actually avoided her, and she wants to know why. She clings tightly as:
Her heart is skipping now, and sweat beads on her forehead. Everyone watches her, eyes narrowed, trying to figure out what’s going on. Except the fortyish woman who is smiling and the chef whose gaze flicks to the fortyish woman.
Have they planned this? Was there something in the burger? The bun? The sauces?
Rebekah has heard of things that block Sight. She knows they are real. Chemical components that disrupt neurons, that make the brain misfire, but those aren’t permanent. There is a nanoprobe that can disrupt the unusual neural structure, but she’s not sure how quickly that activates.
She lets go of the chef, reaches for the gender neutral (woman), expects to see something—a repeat, perhaps, of those last moments in the jungle. Rebekah usually gets repeats when she touches the same person in the same situation.
But she gets that stutter—nothing. Nothing at all.
She whirls. Four of the team look a bit panicked.
And the chef, the chef is grinning, the fortyish woman grinning with him.
“It looks like we’re done here,” the fortyish says. She has a fine voice, rich and female, but deep enough to be male.
Rafe? Instead of the male name, a female nickname. No. Not possible.
The fortyish woman leans forward as the gender neutral (woman) twists her hand out of Rebekah’s grasp. As the gender neutral (woman) and the other three leave, the fortyish woman puts her hand on Rebekah’s shoulder and in spite of herself, Rebekah stiffens, braces, for the Vision that will not come.
“Thank me,” the fortyish woman says quietly. “You needed to retire anyway. You’re too old. The burnout is painful—or so they tell me.”
She smiles, pats Rebekah’s cheek.
“Now you can have a normal life.”
Then the fortyish woman leans back, slips her hand through the chef’s arm. They leave.
Rebekah is alone in the apartment, heart pounding. She almost slips to the floor, but she won’t let herself.
She grabs the hamburger, minus one bite, and the water too. She wants them analyzed.
Not that it will matter.
Because from now on, her Visions will be limited by this experience. No one will trust what she says because the disruption might happen again, or it might manifest as something wrong. It might be a complete misread.
Even if nothing is wrong with her Sight tomorrow, even if the block is temporary, the fact of this block changes everything, adds a layer.
From useful to useless in five seconds.
Like she would do with teams. Like she’s supposed to do with teams. She’s supposed to assess, judge, make a decision based on a few short Visions, as if they tell everything, as if they’re filled with truth.
She has to give a report on this team, no matter what, and she will. She’ll mention the death of the gender neutral (woman); she’ll write up the gold ship, the fact that the other man (not the chef) will be alone when the ship arrives, waiting, he says, after infiltrating.
Rebekah looks at the door, open on that cold hallway.
Good Lord, has the enemy infiltrated them? No one has infiltrated the Voodoo Project before. It’s too hard. Those with the Gift, they See too much, they know the spies from the moment they arrive.
If the spies try to train, that is.
But have they ever tried to be part of a team before? Not part of the Voodoo Project itself, but part of the team being analyzed. It’s the only way to infiltrate. It’s a sure-fire way to succeed.
And that chemical or the nanoprobe or whatever the hell they used, it prevents them from being caught, because they neutralize the only one who can find them, the only one who can ferret them out.
A sleeper somewhere inside the system, who knows how the system works, but isn’t part of the Voodoo Project.
She has to report this to her superiors, not that it will change things for her.
But one thing does matter: that woman, that gender neutral woman, will die in a jungle if someone does not stop this mission. She will be disintegrated by a person she knows, in heat and humidity, over an operation gone bad.
And she probably has no idea that this team, with its chef and its fortyish woman, flirty woman, rough man, and the other silent unknowable gender neutral, will somehow cause that death.
It is that thought which galvanizes Rebekah.
She drops the hamburger, the water, and sprints out of the apartment. There is a service elevator at the tip of the wedge, and that elevator has an override that takes it directly to the lobby.
She’s gambling that the team will stop there, discuss whether or not they’ll meet again. The team members probably wonder if the fortyish woman or the chef will tell them that they all passed the test—whatever that test is—and will send them on their way.
To do what, Rebekah does not know. She never knows.
Except she knows one will escape and one will die. She knows that much.
She finds the elevator, the override. She taps in a code—this is a safe house after all; she has codes to all of them—and the elevator plummets, leaving her stomach on the sixtieth floor, at least metaphorically. This elevator is a dark, triangle shaped box, wide enough for equipment and little else. It feels claustrophobic, not part of the wedge high-rise at all.
The elevator reaches the ground in five seconds, maybe less, and as the doors open, she sees the team split up, laughing. She sprints toward the gender neutral (woman) catches her hand, and the woman looks at her as if she’s lost her mind.
Maybe she has.
“Don’t go,” Rebekah says. “You’ll die.”
The gender neutral (woman) shakes her off, says, “You can’t stop me,” and walks out the front door.
Rebekah starts after her, realizes after a few steps that the gender neutral (woman) has already misunderstood her. The gender neutral (woman) believes Rebekah does not want her to leave the building when Rebekah does not want her to leave for that jungle, wherever that jungle is, on that trip, whenever that trip will happen, on that mission, if the mission even exists.
Like this war. Unknowable and unknown. How it started—who knows? How it will end—unknown.
It is glimpses and flashes and moments, all incomprehensible and perhaps unrelated, sometimes as mundane as a meeting in an apartment, sometimes as heart-stopping as an exploding building, sometimes as unpredictable as a cascade of events started, perhaps, by an order to go to a particular wedge-shaped high-rise on the outskirts of Paris, in a neighborhood once wealthy but no longer.
Rebekah lets the gender neutral (woman) leave, lets the team leave, lets the chef and the fortyish woman leave, knowing they’re taking her job—her life—with them.
A layer: that’s all they are. All they’ve added is a layer of doubt—the inevitable layer of doubt, Rebekah would have said a decade ago. But inevitable or not, the layer of doubt has arrived, and it trumps all other layers.
Screw the Company; she can never trust her own Future Vision again.
Past Vision will send her back to interrogation, to things more horrible than that disintegrating death in the jungle. She isn’t going there.
She’s going to have to retire, to acknowledge that her special talent has left her and she is special no longer.
She knew it was going to come. Like a future Vision, she knew this moment would arrive, and she would walk from one life to another.
She just did not believe it would happen so soon.
She crosses the lobby, walks through the main doors, and onto the sidewalk.
To her left is the Metro entrance, a flight of steps into Stygian darkness, a descent into hell.
Her safety, her talisman.
Not that it will ever do her any good again. She can’t dive down there and emerge an hour later, cut up and bruised but essentially all right.
The mind does not work that way. The future will not work that way.
She will have to build a new life, even if the Sight returns—and it most likely will. But by then, the Company will no longer have a use for her.
She has been effectively neutralized, taken out without a shot, destroyed, discredited, ruined.
And she will never know by whom, for what cause, for which reason, because such things will be Need-To-Know, hidden in the Company files, irrelevant to everyone except this team, this moment, and her future.
She wonders what was so important about sending this group off, then realizes that there is probably nothing important about this group. This was the team that could be infiltrated, that’s all. The opportunity to be taken.
The infiltrators could have taken out any operative, anyone in the Voodoo Project, anyone with the Sight.
It wasn’t personal. Rebekah herself wasn’t targeted.
She was just the victim.
And her life was changed, the way that she changed the lives of every team she touched—in a flash, in an instant, based on incomplete information, inferences, and a hint of self-righteousness.
She had been paranoid as she walked inside this building, but she is not now.
She has no reason to be.
She is done, and she knows it. Soon everyone in the Company will know it. They will say appreciative words, give her a pension, and retire her.
And she will go on with her life, pretending she had never had such adventures because she cannot talk about them with people she will not want to touch because she will not want to confirm that she is indeed useless, that her time has come and gone, and she is now waiting, like they all wait, like that man will wait at the edge of the airstrip. Maybe someone will come for them, or maybe not.
It is, they think, unknowable, and she has to go back to thinking that as well. To the life before the handlers, a life where hamburgers were part of a hot summer weekend, and a smile had no perfidy in it, to a world that exists no longer, and maybe never did exist outside of a lonely child’s imperfect imagination.
She is walking into the unknown, but it is not dark, and it is not terrifying.
And that surprises her.
She expected to be targeted and she was targeted. It has gutted her, but not disintegrated her. Maybe she is cut and bruised. But she is emerging.
She is stepping from a strange darkness into a common—and unfamiliar—light.
Copyright © 2018 by Kristine Kathryn Rusch
First published in Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine, February, 2012
Published by WMG Publishing
Cover and layout copyright © 2018 by WMG Publishing
Cover design by Allyson Longueira/WMG Publishing
Cover art copyright © Nejron/Dreamstime
This book is licensed for your personal enjoyment only. All rights reserved. This is a work of fiction. All characters and events portrayed in this book are fictional, and any resemblance to real people or incidents is purely coincidental. This book, or parts thereof, may not be reproduced in any form without permission.