Video from the Humanity First strike in Naples rolled on the large screen, as the analyst section scribbled notes. Key sections were framed and elements highlighted from the incident which took place the week before.
"Now, until this moment, in minute 44," said the presenter, "the attack appeared to be going as we think they'd planned. They were moving through the arcade, here, in a sweep formation, when their progress forward suddenly fell out of good order. You can see the confusion, particularly these two figures, reacting to... something. We don't know what. Local police rapidly found themselves doing cleanup duty."
"A good thing, too, with the payload they were carrying," said the head of the table. "This sort of sudden breakdown - is it just me, or is it becoming a pattern?"
"The best kind of pattern to my mind, ma'am," said the woman in front of the large display.
"Yes, but only if we know why. Do we?"
"Generally? No. In this case, we think they lost comms, and fell out of sync. But we've no idea why that would've happened. And they certainly won't be telling us."
At the far end of the table, the less annoying American analyst flipped through photograph after photograph. She'd seen something, in a still photo. What was it, she thought, what was it, something faint...
More photos and video, now from minute 44, as the room discussed comms failures, a discussion she largely ignored. It's in here, somewhere, I saw it... there. What am I seeing here? She wasn't even sure herself.
"Excuse me, but... could we have item 59 from minute 43 on the large screen?" she asked, breaking into the room's conversation.
The collection of specialists present looked over, "Sorry, Agent...?" The presenter fished for the American's name, but she couldn't bring it up. "Um... certainly. Minute 43, item 59... here..." she put it on the large screen. "It's... the side of a building."
"How far in can we zoom on that second window from the left?"
The image enlarged to show the entire window frame.
"Lower half, please? Contrast enhance, gamut expansion?"
The presenter flicked controls. "Now... oh! Now I see... what the hell? Is that... someone's... back and head?"
"Someone aiming a rifle, looks like," said the tactics desk. "Someone not in our accounting."
"Is that colour correct?" asked her second. "Verify against reference." The tint shifted, brickwork used as a standard, and the Talon desk erupted in shouts as the presenter continued, oblivious to the noise, "That's... is that hair? Is it blue?"
"That, that, that that can't be her," the Talon desk second broke in, as the lead followed with, "We need that photograph and every picture of that window, and we need it right now. Do we have the other side of the building?"
"Someone verify the colour of the glass in that pane. Get someone out there to look at it, in person, we need a hard reference."
"Who is she shooting? Can we get any kind of interpolation on that?"
Systems brought up a three-dimensional rendering of the scene at that moment, and added a series of possible locations for the new actor, and possible targets, based on the one image obtained.
A small square device with a collection of protrusions hung off a nearby rooftop, at minute 41, visible, and intact, and at minute 46, visible, and destroyed.
"That," said electronics, "would be a tactical comms relay. Probably one of two. We should look for a second."
"What bet it's also smashed?" asked the tactics desk, excitedly.
As the room as a whole proceeded to tear through every photo and video segment with renewed intensity, the two reps from the Talon desk just stared at each other. "My god," said the lead. "What else did we miss? What the hell have we found? "
Kate checked her position and counted heads. Everyone who's supposed to be here, is here, in place. This'll show those fucking species-traitors. "Ready one!" she shouted, as as her team ducked behind columns and walls, and she pressed the outer ring detonator. Her team braced, ready for the impact of the explosions.
She pressed it again. Nothing continued to happen. No. No. Goddammit, Len screwed up the detonators.
"Ozzy, round one bad! Fire round two!"
"Len and Charla aren't out yet!"
"DO IT OR THIS WHOLE THING FAILS. DO IT, NOW!"
"Give them five more seconds!"
Kate would've shot Ozzy, and frankly wanted to, but he was too far away to make up the lost time. "DO IT OR I WILL SHOOT YOU MYSELF," she shouted anyway, aiming her pistol.
Ozzy was on comms, trying to raise Charla. "Shut up, I'm trying to ... god dammit! Now comms are out?!"
"NOW! THEY'RE MOVING ON US! DAMM YOU TO HELL, NOW!"
Ozzy swore, and thought, sorry, guys, and pressed the second ring detonator.
Nothing happened, a third time.
"DO IT!" shouted the team leader, enraged.
Ozzy pressed the trigger again, and again, useless. "I AM! IT ISN'T WORKING!"
Kate shrieked. It's those damned Aussies, they sold us shit goods, she thought. Shouting again, "Ozzy, try to keep the team moving forward, get the fourth ring set up. I'm going back to the second, try to reset the charges. Blow them in two minutes whether I'm here or not!"
"God speed!" shouted Ozzy.
Kate retreated around the corner back out of the arcade. Three steps out of sight of the rest of her team, there was a flash of light, a single round of automatic fire, a second flash, and she was gone.
They found some blood, a bit of flesh - more than enough DNA to identify the team leader - but they never found her body.
"Woah, what a mess," Lena said, looking at the latest eruption of violence - this time, in Korea.
"I know," Amélie said sadly, "Even acting as quickly as we can, everywhere we can, we can only do so much."
"You know we could step in more often," said the junior assassin.
"Certainly, in retrospect," agreed the senior assassin. "It's not so simple, in the moment."
"C'mon, love, maybe for most people," Venom countered. "Not for us."
"But that's not the difficult part," insisted the Widowmaker. "Getting there, creating a plan, executing it in real time - that is not so easy."
"Sure. We can't always act. But when we can, I want to try."
Amélie smiled. "You want to become a sort of... International Rescue, but of assassins?"
Lena laughed at the thought, and said, "Aye aye!" enthusiastically.
"But it will not change history," said the assassin, reluctantly, "at least, not often, if ever. Not as we've always measured it."
"It'll save lives," said her apprentice. "Isn't that enough?"
"Lives that do not change history," insisted the spider.
"Lives nonetheless," said her lover. "Besides, fewer deaths mean fewer relatives vowing revenge and voting for demagogues. It's got to help."
"At the margins, perhaps," the spider calculated. "It is a risk. Each time, a possibly fatal risk. Stepping in improvisationally to complex situations with live fire is not a step to be taken lightly."
"I'm good at risk," retorted the test pilot. "Won't be a problem if we're careful."
After a year and a half together, Amélie Lacroix had learned when Lena Oxton's mind was made up, and turned to face the inevitable. "You're going to do this whether I help or not, aren't you?"
The inevitable replied, "I'd much rather not have to decide 'bout that, love."
"I have two counter-conditions," said the woman of blue.
The pilot smiled. She'd won, and knew it. "Name 'em."
"First, our primary mission is always paramount. Nothing may affect or endanger that."
Well, that's easy, Oxton thought. "Goes without saying," she said. "Didn't even consider it on the table..."
"Second," the spider had started, when Lena interrupted. "No, no, love, wait. I need to make that clear: I will not risk this project. I just won't. I might argue..."
"...might and have done..." noted Amélie.
"...yeh, and likely will again. But once it's sorted? Never. I swear."
Amélie smiled, relieved in spite of herself, and reached out to touch her her partner's face, gently. "I did not think you would, but I do not leave such things unstated. Particularly not with you."
"Fair enough," Lena answered, warmly, nuzzling Widowmaker's hand, and taking it into her own. How did I get so lucky as to fall into you? she asked herself, as she did every time they fought. "Hoo. What else?"
"Second, we move only if I think it is safe and practical. I will not endanger our organisation, or myself, or you." In this, she was an anchored stone, an unmovable object.
Venom laughed again, playing the river, splashing around the rock. "I'm never in danger, love."
Widowmaker gave her a most sharply pointed look. "We are always in danger, ma chérie - do not forget that."
"Sorry, sweet," she said in reply. "Not the time to be flippant." A small surrender, wrapped in affection. "I don't forget."
"Then that is all," said the Widowmaker, lightly, relaxing. "It is acceptable?"
"More than that," said Venom. "It's a deal."
"I see you've been racking up quite the kill list," said Winston, a second and a half before.
Venom frowned. "Ah, c'mon, luv, do we have to talk about work?"
"It's just a job to you, now?" asked the scientist on the moon.
"No," replied the assassin, "but we're just gonna have another fight." The last one had been a real row; they hadn't talked for a month, and Winston seemed intent on picking up where they'd left off. "Let's not do that again."
Winston shook his head, no. "I'm sorry, Lena, but - fifteen kills in five months?"
"Only twelve," Lena retorted. "Six by us, six by other agents, some of which never made the news. Anyone else wasn't us at all."
"Six, then," he conceded. Like that isn't enough.
Fine, she thought. Let's not pretend. "Yep! All good ones. Clean. Fast. Sharp. We've never been tighter, and it's exhilarating." She put on her best wicked smile, the one she knew sent a bit of a shiver down Winston's spine. "Each one moved the war another step back. We might not be getting ahead of that curve, but we're doin' the best we can. No regrets here."
"All on Amélie's word," he said, stiffly. "Just whatever's in her head."
"Nah," said Venom. "It's not that simple, mate. Even she doesn't trust herself that much. There's a consensus system - won't describe it, sorry, secret - and a lot of deep analytics. And..."
"Just please tell me Katus Varga wasn't one of yours," he broke in, expecting the worst. "Please tell me you aren't starting into world leaders, are you?"
Venom blinked at the unexpected question. "It's got bad enough we might have to. And I wouldn't hesitate, if that's what was needed. But... if it makes you feel any better, Katus Varga? That wasn't us."
"With her politics and that M.O.?" he asked, "It screamed Talon."
"Really! Not us." She affirmed, holding up her hands. "See? All clean. We think it was domestic. Someone who wanted to make it look like us."
"I'm a little surprised," he said. Also a little relieved, he thought. Something about the timing had felt almost sadistic, and for all Widowmaker and Talon were, they did not appear to be sadists. He did not want to see them becoming such.
"We were looking at taking out her Omnics advisor, though. Lower profile, more actual impact."
"I... don't know who you mean, offhand..." the scientist said, punching up a search on the panel to his right.
"Sándor Farkas. An academic - I think he's a crackpot, really - with some wicked nasty supremacist ideas. Also, daily access to power. He needed to go."
"Mmm," said the gorilla, having pulled him - and his troubling history - up on his own displays.
"But not her. She was too popular! Whoever did it created a martyr. Made things worse. If we find them, we will kill them."
"For killing her?" he questioned distractedly, still reading.
"For making it look like we killed her," she explained.
"Ah," he said, glancing sideways as her while reading.
"Don't like imitators in this business, luv. Can't have it."
"I see," Winston said, unhappily. "Business."
An uncomfortable nothing was said for several seconds.
Venom decided to break the silence. "We were in Naples the other day."
Winston scowled. "Taking advantage of the attack?"
"C'mon, luv," said Lena. "That's mean."
"What, then?" asked the scientist.
Lena Oxton rocked back and forth in her chair. "Can't talk about what, exactly. Not even with you. But..." she struggled with it, trying to figure out how much she could but should not say, "go give what happened a good look-over. Carefully. Watch all of it, but... focus about... 40 minutes in. Or so."
Winston hunched forward, just a little. "Ten minutes before the police suddenly cleared them all out?"
"'Bout that," agreed Venom.
"...what did you do?" he asked.
"Didn't say we did anything," said the assassin. "Can't. But..." the assassin tilted her head left and right with a tight little mostly-repressed smile, "give it a careful look. You're good at thinking, so... think about it."
"I seem to recall they had a lot of explosives they did use, didn't they," he proffered.
"Explosives... " Venom tilted her head, pointedly, "that didn't explode. There's a difference."
"Yes," agreed the scientist. "There most certainly is."
"Funny how that happened, innit?" she asked, "subtle" not being her middle name.
"Perhaps even strange," said the gorilla.
"Plans like that, they're goin' wrong a lot lately," she said, looking at her fingernails, then back at her friend.
"Are they?" he asked.
"Sure looks like it."
"Fascinating," said the scientist, remembering a promise made months before.
"Not sayin' anything past that, big guy. Maybe I'm guessing. Maybe they're just gettin' sloppy."
He nodded, understanding - not the specifics, not yet, but most certainly the message. "Maybe they are."
With a small sly smile let free, Venom said, "It's a funny old world, innit?"
A moment passed, a somewhat less uncomfortable silence, before Winston nodded again, this time, in agreement. "That," he said, "it truly is."
"None of these are nice people," said Widowmaker.
"Goes without sayin', don't it?" said Lena, popping a bit of handmade picture candy into her mouth, flavoured hard candies with an image running throughout, looking like little round slices of pomegranate, pips and all, made entirely by pulling sugar. "These came out great, love. I thought you couldn't cook."
Amélie raised an eyebrow and smiled. "I have some talents beyond shooting people. But this is confectionary, not cooking, it is different."
"How's that then?"
"Because I am French and know better than English barbarians about food."
Venom laughed. "Oh, right. Of course."
"But - yes, that these are bad people does go without saying. Still, moreso, even than usual, these are not good people." She threw Venom a file from her padd. "Here is a dossier on everyone I expect to attend - you should memorise it."
"Gotcha." Venom slid aside news of the latest anti-Omnic violence in North America - and the latest retaliation from Null Sector - to flip through the pages she'd just received. "Huh... Most of these... they're just ordinary criminals. Bad ones, but just criminals."
"Yes," Widowmaker agreed. "They are suppliers and sellers, not movers of history. They are without ideals," she frowned. "But we need to deal with them, occasionally, and that means dealing with their, um... muscle? Yes. Muscle. Bodyguards. I had to make an example of one, a few years ago."
"That's too bad."
The elder assassin shrugged. "Yes, I'm sure he was an adorable child with a mother, once."
Venom laughed. "And probably killed her."
"I do not have room to talk," said Amélie, pointedly. "But I do not wish to make any further examples. Bringing you, I hope, will help make that less likely."
"Really?" asked Tracer, wondering if Amélie could make these candies with maltose. Chocolate's great, but variety's good too. "Why?"
Widowmaker smiled. "Your reputation in certain circles precedes you."
Venom licked her lips. "Fantastic."
"But behave," said the blue assassin. "I'm bringing you to prevent problems, not cause them."
"'Course, love," said the teleporting assassin, cockily. "Don't I always?"
"Honestly?" asked the spider.
"Never but," said the striped assassin.
"Yes," the blue woman smiled, "You do."
"Aw," the younger assassin pouted, "You're no fun today."
"Should I start lying to you, then?" asked Amélie, amusement in her voice.
"Fiiiiiiine," Venom said, with greatly exaggerated exasperation, "I'll be good."
Over comms, the cowboy replied, "Widowmaker, McCree - I hear ya. All clear. C'mon down whenever when you're ready."
"McCree, thank you. We'll keep you looped in, but otherwise, we'll take over from here. Switching to monitor mode."
"McCree switching to radio silence and out."
The meeting had been scheduled for a large conference room on the second floor of a older, nondescript, and otherwise-empty metal building in Caracas, hosted by a trusted neutral party specialising in such arrangements. "Why are these things always in warehouses?" Venom asked, as she landed their stealthed light flyer on a rooftop two blocks away.
"Because warehouses are boring," replied Widowmaker. "Clients rotate in and out of light industrial facilities like these constantly, as companies build and fail, and so strangers are not..."
Venom broke in, "Rhetorical, love," as she unstrapped from the pilot's seat.
"Ah, of course," the spider said, opening the side hatch. "I will punish you later."
"Ooooh, goodie," said Venom.
The two assassins executed their own secondary recon of the facility before approaching, and a second facilities check before entering. "Looks clean," said Venom, from atop a building on one block; her partner agreed, from atop a building the block opposite, and they fell in together.
Most of the expected buyers and sellers had arrived already, a few early, some just entering from the lower level as the Talon pair entered from the balcony entrance above. Widowmaker spotted the Menger Group's muscle as soon as she walked in, but not Javier Menger himself. She leaned to Venom as the two descended the stairwell and said, "Menger Group, on the opposite wall, but no Javier. I am concerned. He does not miss these meetings."
Venom nodded affirmatively, a subtle gesture. Texans, she remembered from the dossier. SIG Sauer specialists and neo-fundamentalist survivalists. "One of the muscle has a much better suit than in the photos," she said quietly to Widowmaker. "Something's changed."
Widowmaker agreed. "Caleb. I've seen him - and his bodyguard - before. Javier kept them both on tight reins."
As the senior assassin side-eyed that new suit, Caleb caught her glance and bristled. "I see you brought your new guard dog," he called from across the room, a bit of extra sneer in his heavy Texan accent. "She better be well-trained."
The room instantly grew very quiet. Other groups subtly edged away from the Menger representatives.
Oh, thought the spider, how tiring. The new boss feels he must establish himself, and has chosen me. "Javier, are you here?" she called, scanning the room for the older Menger. "Is this the kind of help you've resorted to hiring these days?"
"Javier's out," said Caleb. "You aren't dealing with the old man anymore. I'm running the show now."
"That is unfortunate," said the Widowmaker, wondering how recently it'd happened. Enculer, she thought. Bizarre religion or not, he would keep his promises. Aloud, she continued, "Javier was reliable, and often pleasant. I will hope his successors decide to continue that tradition."
"That right?" said the woman with him, Haley, the bodyguard, possibly a new lieutenant, judging from the swagger. "We all thought it was time for some fresh blood. People who won't let themselves get led 'round by a pretty blue face."
The Widowmaker frowned.
Turning to Venom, Haley gazed down at the much smaller woman. "But we ain't the only fresh blood, are we? Careful, little bitch," she mocked, "don't want to get hurt playin' with the big dogs." She pronounced it like "dawgs."
They do not deserve artistic deaths, thought the Widowmaker. But examples must sometimes be made.
"Venom?" asked Widowmaker.
"Yes, love?" asked Venom.
"Sting." said Widowmaker.
"Yes, love." said Venom.
She never even appeared to move. There was a flash of light, which was actually three, and what sounded like a single shot, but was actually two. Both offenders dropped to the ground, dead, individual bullets placed precisely into the centres of their forebrains.
Instant, perfect death. Not as elegant as some, perhaps, but strong lines, and good design, a clean, modernist improvisation. Widowmaker approved. "Nicely done."
Shouts of shock echoed around the room as the bodies hit the floor, not all of those dead. Venom smiled, sweetly, and looked up to her spider. "Anyone else, love?"
"Thank you, no," said the Widowmaker. "I think that should do." She turned her gaze slowly across the room. "Unless, of course, anyone else has additional commentary to bring to the conversation?"
The room became quiet, and still.
"Then shall we get to the tasks at hand?" asked the Widowmaker. Looking past the table, she said, "I'm sure our hosts can handle the mess, can't you?"
A couple of agents in matching grey suits nodded. "Just waiting for your permission to move, ma'am," said the smarter of them.
Widowmaker chuckled. "Excellent. Please do." Turning back to the room, she said, "Why don't we get down to business?"
"aaaaAaAAAaAAAAA NO" Lena shot upwards, blurring blue and red, teleporting right and up, across the room, almost into the wall, knocking over a lamp which crashed to the floor before she even knew she'd done any of it.
Amélie, startled in her sleep, leapt out of bed and had her rifle out and scoped before she, too, could fully awaken. But after a moment, she calmed herself, and looked to Lena, climbing down from her terror. She put the Widow's Kiss aside and calmly walked over to her partner. "You're here, ma chérie, not in the airplane, not on fire, you're with me, not in the airplane, not on fire, you're with me..."
Lena's gaze darted randomly, until she locked onto Amélie, eyes still wide, still hyperventilating.
Amélie put her arms around her beloved. "Now, I have you..."
Breathe, Lena thought, breathe, as her lover took embraced her. Breathe. This can't happen. Breathe. What can't happen? Breathe. She put her head on Amélie's shoulder. That felt right. Breathe. She put her arms around Amélie, pressing against her, that too felt right, and wonderful, breathe, like it felt when... what? Like it felt when what?
Amélie knew these nights well. They were not common, not exactly, but came often enough to have a routine. Doctor Mariani had, at Amélie's insistence, examined her beloved three times now; she'd assured her there was no physical issue either with her or her web, said that while she was not a psychiatrist, it looked to her like classic trauma reaction.
But the spider was not so sure. Something poked at her mind, something vibrated the web, just a little, like an echo of something large, long ago, or something yet to come, far away. "You're with me, you are not on fire, I have you, you are safe, it is over," she kept repeating. It always seemed to help.
"This. Can't. Happen." Venom said, quietly.
Amélie tilted her head, confused. This was new. "What cannot happen?" she asked. "Should I... should I not be doing this? Should I let go?"
"NO!" shouted Lena. Breathe. "No. Hold me. Never let go. But..." What can't happen?
She almost has something, Amélie thought. Something different. Not more of the empty echoes of things that never were. Something more. Perhaps. She held her lover tightly against her, manoeuvring them both back over to the bed, and stroking her hair.
Venom slumped. It was gone. Breathe. Whatever it was, it was gone. "Damn. I... I almost had it, that time. I think. I thought."
"You said," Amélie prompted, "'this cannot happen' ... no, that's not quite right, it's 'This. Can't. Happen.' with little pauses, like that." Amélie thought she could almost smell the scent of burning jet fuel. "The Slipstream disintegrating around you, again?"
Lena shook her head, negatively. "No. Well... not really. But sort of. That, too." And not for the first time, she did not need to say. Breathe. "But... no. The order's wrong, it's back to front. Something else."
"Could it have been triggered by the mission?" she spider worried. "Your first night out, we were successful, but it was new and explosive..."
Lena laughed. "Nah, love. That was great." She smiled, genuinely, the fear and dread quickly dispelling. "Ho, that's funny," she said, relief in her voice. "Just thinking about it, I feel better." Hugging her partner close, as the last of the terror slipped away, she continued, "...yeah. I think about being on mission with you, working together, and it's - the dread, I mean - it's just gone."
Amélie closed her eyes for a moment, and thought, if there is a god, I thank them for that. Opening her eyes, she asked, "You are sure?"
Lena nodded, eyes clear, if all too awake for the middle of the night. "fffft," she said, "I'm not complicated, love. I know how I feel. I'm sure." She looked at the clock. "Great. 3am. I've ruined both our sleeps. I'm sorry."
"Do not let it concern you, I am just glad you are feeling better." She squeezed her partner tightly, and they crawled back under the covers.
"I wish we were back on Alicudi," Lena said, wistfully, curled up with her blue lover. "I'd go listen to the waves 'til I got sleepy again."
"I know," Amélie sighed. " I miss it as well. I would come with you. We could stay out all night and fall asleep under the stars, as far as I am concerned." She frowned. "Sombra's fake listing was a little too inviting."
Lena chuckled. "Booked through August. She thinks the whole thing's hilarious."
"Of course she does," Amélie said, crossly.
"'Look! We have real vacation reviews! Ooh, they're very good!'" Venom liked the hacker, but her sense of humour could be inconvenient at times. There really was no need for registration functionality. Not that actually worked.
"At least tourist season will be over soon," Amélie said, resignedly.
"She wants a commission, y'know."
"Fine. I will charge it back to her later," said the spider. "Perhaps, 'inconvenience fees.'"
Lena laughed. "Nice."
"Roll over," Amélie said. "I'll rub your back until you fall asleep."
"...does that work?" asked the younger assassin, obeying.
The elder assassin nodded, though her partner could not see her do so. "Every time."
The first thing Winston said, upon seeing Lena appear on his screen, was, "So, you're part of the Talon team, now. I can't say I'm happy to hear it."
Lena let out a little "heh," before answering, "It's that obvious?"
"Seriously? After London? Yes. It is. I presumed explaining that was what prompted getting me and Widow... me and Amélie to talk, yesterday."
"Yeh," Lena nodded. "I wanted you to know - really know - that she wasn't..." she waved her hands around, "whatever you thought she was. An automaton. A mind-controlled slave. Whatever," she shrugged. "And neither am I. I need to be somewhere I can make a difference. This is what I've got; I'm takin' it."
The scientist on screen nodded, three seconds later. In a thoughtful tone, he replied, "I think I believe her now. In some ways, it's harder to accept than the old neural reconditioning story. I never would have imagined who she really was, back then. The same, I guess," he added, "goes for Gérard."
Lena nodded. "She's real, all right. She always has been. And Talon is doing something, Winston, when nobody else is, not really." She beamed, despite everything. "The girlfriend part, well - that's a bonus!"
"Theoretical goals - and girlfriend - aside, they're doing things in ways I can't support."
"I know," she accepted. "I think I can help them. I think I can improve them. Maybe make Talon something you could support. I do have unique access to the top, after all."
Winston frowned. "I don't see that ever happening."
"Don't count me out, luv," she said, with her half-grin. "I've budged you on Amélie, I doubt you saw that one coming."
She had a point, and even if he didn't want to admit it, his body language did. So he huffed, and said, "You should've radioed me more often. I have some access to resources. Angela could've tried to get you out."
"I couldn't get up in the air. Or, I guess, I mean, I couldn't get isolated enough. Once I started noticing the surveillance, I started seeing it everywhere."
"It couldn't've been that bad," he grumbled.
"It was that bad. I think. They'd been grinding me down for a while, it's hard to be sure. And I wasn't gonna let myself get searched. Any chance they'd take the retrieval beacon was..." she shuddered. "No. I couldn't risk that."
"You didn't seem to have a hard time contacting me from on top of Big Ben, maybe something like that could've..."
She smirked - Elizabeth Tower, you twit, she thought, somewhat crossly - but let it slide. "Sure! When I had my grapple. I couldn't bring that back from the dead with me, now could I?" She bent over and pulled the kit up off its shelf, holding it before the camera and smiling. "Have it back now, though." She slapped it onto her left forearm, all form-fitting black and violet. "Secure. Super light. It matches hers, I like that." She twisted her wrist, completely unimpeded. "Feels nice."
"Still," he insisted, "you should've gone back to Brighton, at least, or..."
"No." Anger flashed into her eyes, hard and quick, a line crossed. "You don't understand. They'd done me in, big guy - I was falling apart."
"No. You want to know how I spent Thursday - Thursday last? I spent Thursday last in bed. I couldn't. even. get. out. of. bed," she said, hands in angry fists. "Brighton? Seriously? "
"NO," she demanded, "I can take anything but nothing, turns out. There, now you know too, everybody else does, why not you? They figured that out. They figured it out, and my own Forces used it against me. Then when they'd tipped me over, they brought me in and brought down the hammer, hoping to finish me, and I am not fucking kidding when I say it was either bring in the cavalry or blow up their fucking building, mate, and it was a fucking close call."
"I've never seen you like this, ever," he said, taken aback, "Lena, what's..."
"Aren't you even listening!?" Lena shouted at her friend, rising and slamming her hands down onto the table. "She saved me, Winston. Twice now. Not you, not Overwatch, not the RAF, she did. She caught me when I was falling, both times, not..." Lena vibrated in place, blue and red, and stripes shining through her clothes. "No. No. No," she said, to herself. She put her fists together, at her waist, and closed her eyes, and sat. "Breathe. Breathe. Breathe." she repeated, as the colours faded.
After a couple of minutes of long, silent, deep breaths, she opened her eyes again. "I'm... really sorry about that, big guy. That wasn't just misdirected, that was wrong. I'm not..." breathe "mad at you. At all. You've always been there as best you could," breathe "and without you, Amélie couldn't've brought me back." Another breath. "I had no business saying what I did just now, none at all, and I'm sorry for it..." breathe "I just get so angry, so quickly, right now." Another long, deep breath. "Amélie's trying to help me with it. I'm back to Shambali-school meditation, too." Another breath. "It's always helped me get things worked out. Helped get me under control."
Winston just stared, sadly, and then, carefully, leaned back forward, and said, "I... I didn't understand how badly they'd hurt you. I shouldn't've pushed. I'm sorry too."
The teleporter nodded, and breathed. "Not your fault, luv. They'd've had my psych profiles, Forces and Overwatch both. They," she breathed, "they probably put a team on it. Must've focused right in."
"I didn't think they'd do that," he quietly said.
A little bit of an experienced smile. "Neither did I, luv." A deep breath, and she closed her eyes again. "Guess I was a bit naive."
She exhaled, long and slow, and shook her head, blinking her eyes open. There, she thought. Centred. Much better. "I will kill them for it, someday," she said, cheerfully matter-of-fact.
"I'm sorry for that, too."
"I'm not!" she said, almost brightly. "I'm not that naive, luv. I'm not the first person they've done this to."
"...almost certainly not."
"You know, right? That neural reconditioning you talk about, with Amélie?"
"That they have it."
"That they've used it?"
"Then," she rocked back and forth in her chair, idly, "I guess we understand each other."
He nodded. "I suppose we do."
"Will you still be my friend, though?" she asked, a little hopeful, a little plaintive, a little afraid.
"Always," said Winston, firmly.
A violet sphere of energy burst overhead, and most of the nearby lights went out. Two sniper shots, muffled, but audible to a practised ear, came in rapid succession. A short burst of less-muffled machine gun fire - and then a small armoured ship appeared from overhead, dropping hard and fast to low hover. The large hatch on the side blew open; from inside, a masked figure shouted in a machine-like tone, "GET OVER HERE."
Lena ran. Ran, and dove, reacting, not thinking, onto the platform, and it raised, carrying her with it. As she tumbled to the deck, the masked figure said, "Trafalgar Square?! Points for style, but are you insane?" now with a distinctly Hispanic accent.
"It was either that or blow up Fleet House, mate. I thought this would be better."
"I'm not so sure."
"I could still change my mind."
"Get in the crash chair, we're moving quickly."
Widowmaker appeared at the opposite hatch shouting, "GO, GO, GO," slammed its close button, and dove into a second crash chair as the ship shot forward, horizontally, low, and vanished from sight over a partially darkened Old London.
The ship shot west, tilting upwards, pulling four Gs for 12 straight seconds, as it just cleared buildings.
"That... was fast..." said Lena from her crash chair as the retrieval ship broke towards the Channel.
"We've been keeping an eye on you," said Sombra, with some effort, from the pilot's seat.
"Several," said Widowmaker, somehow effortlessly. "No one escapes from my sight. But... Trafalgar? Êtes-vous une folle? Why?"
"I... I'm not even sure. I think I wanted to give 'em the two-finger salute. I wanted them to know."
"Well," Amélie admitted with a mix of amusement and irritation, "they certainly know now."
"Four minutes thirty seconds to international airspace," said Sombra, from the pilot's seat. "33 seconds to cloak recharge."
"I didn't expect you to bring in a bloody troop carrier. How are we not shot down?"
Sombra mocked, "World's greatest intelligence agency! Spycraft is in our blood! And they still rely on CCTV. Pathetic - they won't even be sure you're gone until we're too far away to care." As gravity returned to normal, she turned and tossed the semi-prone Lena a seemingly-random collection of electronics. "Much better. Here, a present for you."
"What are they?"
"CCTV relays, a couple of encoders - it's all stuff they were using to track you tonight. Junk, really." A chime from the console. "Cloak reactivated. 15 seconds, changing course."
"So you knew," said Lena, looking towards, but a little past, Amélie.
"We watched them watching you," said the spider, looking back, "and I anticipated, and made contingency plans. I did not know, until they took you in. I'd hoped, if you came back out, that you'd go out of town to summon us - not go as far into town as possible." She checked the tactical board visible on the wall from her crash chair, and to Sombra, said, "No one is painting us. I don't think we need to use the backup boosters." From the pilot seat, Sombra agreed. "Boosters on hot standby."
Lena's focus moved further out again. "They one-thirty-foured me. And they took my license. Amélie," she said, distantly, as the adrenaline surge faded. "They took my wings."
Amélie reached across the lengthening gap, and took Lena's hand. "That, I did not know. So that is why... all this." She scowled. "I know what it meant to you. I am displeased, but much more than that, I am sorry."
"I told you they were bastards," Sombra chimed in. "10 seconds to full cloak charge..."
"Tactical board still clear. At recloak, bring us down to noise level and evade; we should be able to demicloak the rest of our way out."
"Cloaked... dropping... we're in the muck. Stealthed."
"Thank you," said Widowmaker. But she stayed in her crash chair, counting seconds. Three minutes to international airspace. "Once we hit the channel, deploy the decoy east and drop below Mach 1 - let's take the long way home."
"I understand," said the spider, carefully. But it is unnecessary, she thought.
Tracer - no, not Tracer, she'd need a new name - paced around the small cabin, as the ship flew quiet and low over the north equatorial Atlantic, moving slowly towards normal traffic lanes, just another surplus straggler finding its way back to its place.
"I want to kill him," the pilot repeated. "With my own hands. I want it to be close, I want it to be personal, I want him to know why."
"I am hearing you," the assassin said again, soothingly. "I am listening; tell me. Tell me all of it."
The former Flight Officer raged, "They knew I was back. They knew who I was the whole time, toying with me, trolling me even, I see it now. They were watching me since I showed up at the consulate and they cut me off and they moved my friends and threatened the one they didn't and they bled me 'till I almost gave up and died and then they took me and they put me in a box and told me to go do nothing and be nowhere and they took my wings and they took my life and they treated it like some kind of favour and now I want to take them and show them what kind of favour it was."
"I believe you, and I hear you. Keep going."
"Why?!" the flyer shouted, "What else is there? The box, the glass room, it was a bomb chamber, I get it now, I didn't get it at time, they were ready for me to explode, or they were ready to blow me up, I don't even know which, they'd planned it since I reappeared, I am so angry and feel so sick..." Pain and anger radiated from her body, so clearly the assassin could almost see it, as she slammed her fists down onto the flattened crash chair, now a bench, and then sat, face in her hands. "Why?! Why would they do that?"
If she did not want to kill them, I would..., thought the spider, struggling to keep her own emotions controlled. No, she realised, I do want to kill them. Not for history. For her. "I will tear through them until not one is left standing, if that is what you truly need," she said, voice quick with her own unexpected cold fury.
Lena looked up, face wet, and the blue woman thought, She has had no one, for weeks. "I have missed you," she couldn't not continue, aloud, reaching out her hand, "more than I could have possibly imagined. May I sit with you?"
Lena grabbed Amélie and pulled the taller woman down beside her, sobbing as the dam broke, digging into Amélie's shoulder and gasping for air, just holding her, so tightly, "i've missed you so much, it's hurt so much "
"I stayed away," Amélie said thickly, through her own new tears. "I didn't want to, but I did, until you called. It's what you said you wanted." She pulled the smaller woman closer against her, holding on tight in return. "Please say it's what you wanted. Please, please, or I will burst, I..."
"It was..." Lena managed slowly, though shuddering breaths that she fought to control, "...I thought I needed..." another heaving breath, "oh god, Amélie, I was so wrong..."
"Everyone," said the blue woman, finding herself suddenly, confusingly happy, "is wrong. Sometimes. But you are not, for me. Not ever."
"Don't let go. Never let me go again."
Not unless you want me to, the spider thought. Only then. But that is not what you need right now. And the most rational part of her mind raced, I need you with a whole heart, but I need that heart to be whole, and it is tearing...
And then, with the clarity of stars in a deep black sky, she knew.
"Pilot," she said softly, "would you fly us home?"
Lena gasped, eyes instantly wide open. "..."
"Sombra needs a break, she has not slept, and we are not too far away now. Are you cleared on this kind of craft? Could you take us home?"
A final heaving sob out of Pilot Oxton, and then she sniffed and laughed amidst the crying, and for the first time in what felt like years a smile peeked through the tears falling like rain. "uh," she sniffed, and swallowed, "B, uh, B-10M class, right?" She looked around. "Yeah. I can fly her. If... if Sombra doesn't mind..."
"Sombra needs a nap," came a voice from the flight deck. The hacker, being no fool, had already put the ship on autopilot, and stood by the empty flight chair, smirking and motioning towards the empty seat. Lena stepped up to that chair, and looked back to Amélie. "Stay with me? It's been a while."
Lena sat down, put on the flight headset, and grasped the pilot's yoke. "Yeah," she said. "Let's go home."
"I think it's time," said the Brigadier. "She seems ready."
"I agree," said the Group Captain, "she should be pliable enough, now. Let's bring her in tomorrow."
MI5, Fleet House, London.
Two surprisingly fit but otherwise almost aggressively ordinary-looking people escorted Lena Oxton towards an almost aggressively ordinary-looking private office with venetian-blinded glass walls in a room surrounded on three sides by other surprisingly fit but otherwise aggressively ordinary-looking people at aggressively ordinary-looking desks.
If Pure Gym had a security division, she thought, as she was not quite shoved, but quite briskly moved through the short glass hallway to her destination, this would be it. Crikey, those are thick walls - I'm in real trouble now.
"I'm a British subject, you can't do this. I've got rights." she said to the man at the desk, after the agents dropped her into a chair and exited the room. The man actuated a control, and the blinds closed, leaving them alone. He tapped at the nameplate on his desk - Group Captain Aubrey Henderson - and said, "Salute your superior, flying officer, or I'll have you for insubordination."
Flying Officer Oxton's heart leapt and she snapped to attention and saluted. "Sir! My apologies, sir."
"Much better," said the G/C. "At ease."
"Thank you, sir!" She burst out, too rapidly, "I've been trying to get someone to listen to me for weeks, and I've had a lot of nothing back for it. You're the first person who's even acknowledged who I am! I, I, I, didn't realise I'd been reactivated!" She beamed. At last, she thought, I've got through! "Sir!" She almost saluted again.
The older man glared, and she toned it down immediately. "I know," he grumbled. "We've been following you since you contacted the consulate in Pretoria. Sit." He motioned Oxton back to her seat, and sat down behind his desk. "Quite frankly, some of us have been hoping you'd just give up and go away, back to... wherever you came from."
"...sir?" said the Flying Officer, uncertainty replacing happiness on her face, as Imogen's words spooled through her memory. "I've been missing for..."
"I know the story," he interrupted. "You've told it about half a dozen times at this point, in full, I think?"
"...yes, sir. Before people stopped letting me in. Sir."
"It hasn't improved."
Not knowing what to say, Lena said nothing.
"Look at it from our standpoint," said the Omnic War veteran. "You die in a fighter test flight, killed over Greece. We retire you, with honours. We investigate, we find out your whole organisation was a horror, ridded with... funds abuse, embezzlement, questionable human experimentation, out-and-out war crimes, and even worse. And so, we put it away." He tapped the top of his cold, metal desk. "I put it away."
Oh no, thought Tracer. "Yes, sir."
"And now, two years after we finally had it all sorted, and the press have moved on and the public have started to forget and forgive, one of the few people not implicated shows back up, out of nowhere, outside our consulate building in South Africa, with a story not even a schoolboy would believe - the prodigal daughter returns, and starts poking her nose where it isn't wanted and no longer belongs."
"What do you expect us to think? What do you expect us to do with you?"
"Sorry, sir," she said, with just a hint too much insubordination, "I thought the military might want to know one of their missing officers was alive."
Cute, he thought. "It was that ape, wasn't it. Somehow, he brought you back. From the moon." He shook his head - it still sounded foolish aloud. "I can't blame him for that - you were friends. But I can blame him for whatever he's built into you."
Lena froze. I haven't been near a military examination room, how did they know? What else do they know? She swallowed. "...sir?"
"You're a not a terrible liar, pilot, but you're not a good one either. Bioluminescent tattoos isn't the worst line..."
"Regulation-compliant within Overwatch, sir, nothing visible in uniform," she interjected, before he sternly continued "...but it's still a line. You're six kinds of wired up, and we know it."
Shite, she thought, scrambling for some way to salvage the story, "Sir, Winston had nothing to do..." That's not better, think before you talk, Oxton!
"I'll pretend you didn't say that," he said, "because the alternatives are far worse. For you."
"...sir." she said, outright afraid now. He's called me F/O, I must have some standing, I can use that, I have rights. "Has my commission been reopened, sir?"
"Not formally," the G/C replied, "which is why you're not in the brig for desertion, first, and more severe charges, later." He sighed, and leaned back off the top of his desk. "I don't think you're a villain, flight officer. The problem is - none of us really know what you are. I've brought you in to offer you a way out. I'm offering you a deal - and I promise you, it was the very best one I could make."
"A deal, sir?" she said, quietly, stalling for time and thinking quickly, I can live without the service, she thought. I can live with that. I can still do good work. There are plenty of other opportunities for a good pilot. Médecins Sans Frontières, maybe, they can always use...
He picked a padd off his desk, and tossed it towards her to catch. "Approve this. We reopen your commission and close it, this time as a medical discharge. We give you five years' back salary - more than enough to get you on your feet. You go away, again, get a job, and and live a quiet life somewhere. You don't talk to the press; you don't write a book; you don't do video; you're Lena Oxton, ex-RAF, not Lena "Tracer" Oxton of Overwatch." He gestured towards the PADD. "Section IV invokes the Official Secrets Act - whether you agree or not."
Tracer shuddered at that, and it took a forceful act of will not to teleport out of the building. "You're one-thirty-fouring my life, sir?"
"No, not your life. Just Overwatch, and Tracer."
"Sir!" the pilot spat out, "This is unfair. This is wrong. You can't do this. Sir."
"Move out of London - preferably, somewhere unimportant - within a week. After that, never get within five kilometres of a military or intelligence base, unless specifically recalled, ever again."
That's a big no-fly zone, she thought. "That'll limit my opportunities as a working pilot, sir."
"Your license terminated with your death, Flying Officer, and you're not getting it back. You've been on every no-fly list in the world since you landed at Heathrow; you are grounded. Most likely, for good."
Horror flashed across Lena Oxton's face, and she bolted up from the chair. "Sir! No, sir! You can't do that to me, sir!"
He barked the words, every syllable a body blow, staccato against her frame, "I can and I have, and if you have any sense at all, your next action will be to sit back down, and your next words will be 'Yes sir, I accept, sir.'"
Lena stopped herself - barely - from screaming at the Group Captain, composed herself as best she could, sat, and managed, shakily, "...but flying... being a pilot... it's all I ever wanted. Sir."
Group Captain Henderson let his expression, and his voice, soften a bit. He remembered that feeling - love of the air, the altitude, the endless sky, the pure speed. "I know."
Flying Officer Oxton straightened a bit, and stood her ground. "I've done nothing wrong. Sir. Except die in an experimental vehicle that exploded around me. It wasn't my fault, I'm pretty sure the record shows that, and I don't see why I should lose my license over it. Sir."
"Your record does show that," he agreed, almost kindly, "and, if you agree, it will continue to do so." Then, with a harder edge, "But if you didn't think we'd find out about that device you have embedded inside you, you underestimated us badly."
Keep it together, Tracer, keep that trim tight, she thought. "I, I..." The jig's up now, but... "I need it. It keeps me from sliding back out of time. Sir."
Thank god, thought the Group Captain, exhaling slowly, she said it. "Good. You admit you know. I'd hoped you finally would." It means if you behave, we might actually honour this agreement,, he did not add aloud. "But we don't know what else it does, and the only way to know, for sure, would be to take you apart, all the way down, and study what was left. The only reason we haven't done that already is that you tried so very hard to get our attention."
"Sir." This can't be happening, she thought.
"Would you rather we changed our minds about that, Ms. Oxton?"
"...no," she said, bitterly, "Sir."
The Group Captain nodded. "Then accept the agreement, and you walk out of here a civilian, and intact. We'll be keeping an eye on you, of course, but stay quiet, let people continue to forget all of this, don't do anything stupid, and we'll leave you alone." The older man - older than Ana, probably older even than Reinhardt - leaned forward, with as much compassion as he could push into his blunt, once-chiseled face, and said, "Just walk away, Oxton. This really was the best I could get you. Walk away, and go live your life."
Lena Oxton sat in the chair, suddenly feeling strangely calm, separate, isolated. This is the second time since the explosion I haven't really had a choice, she thought, as she reached out her hand and pressed her thumb against the acceptance screen. I like it this time much less.
Former Flying Officer Lena "[Redacted]" Oxton left the MI5 building for the first and last time. Money instantly appeared in a bank account, a fair and reasonable sum. Ms. Oxton checked that account, took a little bit out in cash at an access point, and treated herself to a lavish dinner, which tasted like nothing, then box seats at a show at the Palace Theatre, which left her utterly unmoved.
Then she walked, and walked, and walked, and walked, around Old London, past Piccadilly and past St. James and past Westminster and along the Thames and across and past the Tate and past the ruins of the London Bridge and back across the river and past St. Paul's and then she didn't even notice anymore, until hours later, at 3am, when she found herself in the middle of a deserted Trafalgar Square, carrying a worn satchel popular in South Africa some ten years before, with the remnants of her flight suit, her burnt Overwatch identity card, a fake of her old passport, and a change of clothes, old, but serviceable, from a Lutzberg charity shop.
There, standing between the fountains, from a small, round, metal box, she extracted a smaller, round device. Clicking its power cell into place, she held the beacon tightly against her chest, depressed the second button, the one on the top, until it beeped, twice...
"Hey, doc!" The pilot waved her arms, and shouted across the square. "Angela!"
"Lena!" The doctor waved back in response, and walked quickly through the thin crowd. "It... it really is you. You look almost exactly the same."
"So do you!" The two women hugged, close. "Gor blimey, doc, it's been so long. You're the first person from the old team I've actually seen in person since Greece. How's Fareeha?"
Angela hugged the pilot again, and whispered into her ear, "I am certainly being surveilled, we should get to my office at the embassy" before leaning back, taking Tracer's shoulders in her hands as if everything were perfectly ordinary. "On a mission, like always. But we're both very well, thank you. I'll be back home with her again in a few days." She showed a decorated gold band on her ring finger. "It's our second anniversary."
"Oooh, nice," said Tracer, looking closely at the interweaved inlays, the halo and the hawk. "Very nice. I'm not surprised, though - you two weren't exactly subtle." She scrounged her pockets for cash. "Let me grab something from the takeaway and we can head over to your place. You don't mind, do you?"
"Of course not! I have the entire afternoon, go ahead." She gestured to the order window. "So tell me, how is life back in London?"
Tracer frowned, and ordered a vindaloo and joined the short queue for pickup. "I'm not alive yet," she said flatly. "Still trying to get that sorted."
"Still?" asked the doctor, confusedly.
"Yah, that's why I'm doing everything in cash. It's like being a tourist in my own home town. Still living in hostels, couldn't get work if I tried, it's just every-day all-day throw myself at another corner of military bureaucracy."
"That sounds terrible. Have you tried the civilian authorities?"
"Yeh, I gave up and submitted a bunch of forms earlier today. But if I could get the bleedin' forces to pay attention, I wouldn't have to. I'm an officer! This shouldn't be so difficult."
"Surely some sort of official status is better than none," said Angela.
"Not too sure about that, luv." Tracer's curry arrived, and she grabbed it, a couple of napkins, and her tea. Turning to go, she confessed, "Honestly, outside flying, outside Overwatch... I'm starting to wonder if I ever even had a life."
"Well, I won't be able to tell you much about cholesterol levels or blood sugar, but that's not exactly why we're here, is it? You look quite fit."
Lena just smiled, happy to be looking at anyone she recognised. "Bloody hell, it's good to see someone I know. Even if you were always just 'the doc.'"
Dr. Ziegler smiled professionally back. "Before you say anything else - anything else - authorise this." She offered the pilot a padd, with forms.
"What is it?"
"It confirms that I'm your doctor. Doctor-patient confidentiality is core to my organisation and we're prepared to defend it. I assure you, whatever I see or record, it will not go to the British - or Swiss - governments. We are on Swiss soil, and I am notoriously prickly."
"Brilliant." Tracer keyed her acceptance. The form even looked like an Overwatch document. It felt like being back at old home, and her heart ached a moment for it.
"And this document," the doctor changed pages, "is not standard. But it authorises me to share your data with Winston. He has legal standing with us in ways he does not in Britain." Tracer approved again.
"Now, we may talk freely. But clothing off, please. Let's get you looked over."
Lena threw her shirt and trousers off, onto the chair, revealing the intricate pattern of bands of light, blue or red or white, flowing across her body, from upper right shoulder to lower left leg.
Angela was visibly taken aback. "Gott in Himmel. It's beautiful. You are living art."
"Clever, innit? I can control how it looks," she said, and faded it to a series of thin lines across her skin. "But I wanted to show off."
"This is what it takes to keep you in time, then?"
"S-," ..ombra, she almost said, but did not quite, "Since I got pulled back, yah. There was an earlier version that just belted on, but it wasn't stable. I kept," she shuddered, a little, remembering the feeling, "trying to phase back out of time."
"One broken strap from vanishing? That does not sound like a good solution, no," offered Angela.
"I'd've lost the plot in a month from stress and lack of showers. Can't lose this, though - it's part of me." She ran the traces through a cycle of soft, calming blues. It reminded her of No, she thought to herself, leave it. "I tell people it's bioluminescent tattoo. The latest thing, in Greece! Everybody wants them now."
"I understand why." Dr. Ziegler selected a pair of scanners. "With your permission?"
Lena hesitated. "You sure this place isn't bugged?"
The doctor smiled, and nodded. "Quite sure."
"Angela," he said pleasantly, sipping at a cup of tea, one and a half seconds ago. "How are you this fine morning?"
"Quite well, thank you. I'm in Egypt; Fareeha's just off to work. I'm ready to transmit the data, if you're set up to receive it."
"Go ahead," said the scientist.
"Sending," she said, pressing confirm.
"How was she, in person?" he asked, as the progress metre slowly climbed.
"Physically well. She's in fantastic aerobic condition. She has some new scarring - in my opinion, almost certainly burns from the explosion. She lost a toe, and broke several bones, but I see nothing to worry about. On the whole, she had to have been remarkably lucky."
"But is she still herself, to you?"
"As far as I can tell, she is. But while were perfectly friendly, before - professional friends, yes? - I didn't know her like you did. I would miss subtleties." She looked thoughtful. "Even so... even to me, she seems very lonely."
Winston nodded, sadly. "I can't even imagine what she's been going through. If I could just get down there..."
"I think that would be good, if only it could be done." The doctor paused a moment, collecting her thoughts. "But to the larger question..."
"Don't say it."
Mercy smiled, as close to wickedly as she ever came, "the ten thousand pound gorilla in the room..."
"For the last time, Angela - I am not ten thousand pounds!" he huffed.
Angela giggled, the Swiss equivalent of a guffaw, and continued, "...the hardware itself. It's extraordinary. The shielding is perfect, and where it cannot be shielded, it is too fine for nondestructive deep scans. I could get nowhere with it."
"Damn," said the ape. "So we still don't even know what it does."
"Not so," she gestured with her left hand, "we know it's a chronal accelerator. Of that, I am sure. We just don't know what else it might do."
He put more sugar in his tea. "Like mind control."
The doctor drew in a deep breath. "No, I don't think so. The brain interfacing is all motor cortex and reflex. It's meticulous work - it had to have been grown into place - and the guiding was magnificent." She highlighted some of the interface points, and at each level further down, the integration became, if anything, more complete. "It is truly a part of her, as much as any other part of her body."
"Huh." Winston peered at data sets as the first files completed upload. "Like your nanites?"
"A different approach, but if anything," said Mercy, "moreso. Whoever did this - it's not new to them. They've been doing this. They have practice."
"You could replace someone's whole brain with these techniques, couldn't you," he said, grimly.
"Certainly. But you can also do that in a chair with a combination of drugs, conditioning, and high-precision electromagnetic fields, and not leave so much evidence." She leaned forward on her elbows, towards the screen. "I know what you're thinking. Amélie had nothing like this in her brain. Whatever has been done to your friend Lena - I think her mind is still her own."
"With respect, doctor, you thought that about Amélie. We all did."
Dr. Ziegler nodded, resolutely. "I still do."
"Lena! It's been weeks - it's so good to see you," he replied, with a three second delay. "Are you okay? At least you're on the ground this time - where are you?"
"Brighton! Can't you hear - oh, I've got background noise filtering turned on, let me fix that." And the sound of the ocean appeared around her in Winston's feed. "It's cold, but I'm on the beach. Look!" She aimed the camera to the sea.
"It's March and it's not even raining! How about that," came Winston's voice, clearly, over the small speaker. "Is Amélie there? Or any of her friends? "
"Nope!" she chirped, turning the transmitter back around and walking with it. "It's just me, all by myself, kicking around old haunts."
"You're... out, then?"
"Yep. Entirely on me own, footloose and fancy free, walking the earth - or at least this beach - with no way to be found. Nobody even knows who or where I am - except you, I s'pose."
She didn't mention the retrieval beacon in her bag.
"I'm staying a couple of nights in a hostel, a few blocks in. It's cheap! And nice. But mostly, cheap."
"Off-season like this, I'd hope so." The scientist discreetly zoomed his viewscreen and scrolled around, looking for anything out of place in the background. Nothing obvious. "So... Talon just let you leave."
"Sure did. Helped me arrange my story and flew me out."
He leaned forward, and said, conspiratorially and low, "You haven't assassinated anyone yet, have you?"
Tracer laughed. "Only because I can't catch a shuttle to the moon, y'big ape. Which way do you want to go - pummellings or too much peanut butter?"
"Oh, peanut butter, definitely." He put on his best, big, toothy grin, which he let drop to a more genuine smile as a small popup window confirmed, Signal origin: south coast of England (probability 93%), Brighton Beach (probability 77%). "They really just... let you go."
"Yep. I said I needed to go find my old life, and Amélie made it happen." She bit her lower lip. "It's like she even agreed."
"Are you... alive again? Legally, I mean? Do you have money? Did they re-activate your commission?" Location probabilities climbed as more signal data arrived, and Winston dismissed the window. Good enough, he thought.
The smile Lena had been keeping propped up fell. "I'm... still working on that. After they cleared me at the consulate and helped me hitch onto a cargo flight home, I thought it would be easy. I kind of thought I'd be snapped up at Heathrow for debriefing, really. But... I wasn't. I just can't seem to get anybody's attention."
The pilot sat down on the top of a breakwater, propped up the transmitter, picked up a rock, and threw the latter towards the waves. "It's like I'm some kind of ghost."
"That's very strange," he granted. "Overwatch has been out of the news for a couple of years now, but - take it from me - the governments are still keeping tabs on everyone."
"Yeh. But it's fine, honestly!" It wasn't fine, but she managed to mean it through sheer sunny determination nonetheless. She turned back to the camera. "I've got enough money to live on for weeks - a few months, if I'm careful. So I thought, well, I just need to get out of London, right? Take a few days by the ocean, get some of that sea air. Get my head cleared up."
Partial retina image capture, said another, discreet popup. Image quality acceptable. Match probability 96%, margin of error +/-35%. "That accelerator they built you - how's it holding up?" He pursed his lips and shook his head. "I wish they'd used mine," he grumbled.
"Oh, it's absolutely wizard! Once I got the swing of it? Natural as breathing. I'll show you some time, I promise!"
Far away under the surface of the moon, in the research station now again his home, Winston the scientist studied Tracer's face for any hint, any sign, of the kind of programming he believed had been implanted into Amélie Lacroix. Face and voice analytics ran over and through every frame of vision and every millisecond of audio, searching for some hint, some breath of change, and found nothing.
Of course, they'd found nothing with Amélie either. But they'd had less reason to look.
I need someone actually there, he decided. "Lena, would you let me tell Angela you're back, and safe? I'd feel better if she checked you over herself. In person."
The pilot nodded enthusiastically, throwing another stone into the sea. "Let's! I'll be back to it on Monday, trying to get someone to listen to me. It'd be great to have someone from the old crew around to chat." She picked up a little stick of driftwood, and poked at more beach rocks, turning them over, seeing what was underneath. Generally, that meant more rocks. "To be honest, it's been kind of lonely. Funny, innit? Me? Lonely?"
"Haven't you looked up any old friends?"
"Oh, I've looked 'em up all right. It's a military life, though - most everybody I can find's been all moved 'round. Katarina's back in Norway, my graduating class have completely dispersed - a lot of 'em are in Greece, but I don't have the money to fly anywhere. The only one I found still in London was Imogen."
"That's too bad. I'd transfer you some money, if I could. But at least you found her."
"Yeah..." she said, sadly.
Adequate data received to begin deep analysis, said the popup. Winston deactivated additional notifications.
"It was..." She looked for other words to describe it, and came up with nothing better than, "...it was weird, big guy. We were great friends in flight school, and we kept in touch when I jumped to Overwatch. And now, I'm... I'm literally back from the dead, least as far as she's concerned, and she won't even talk to me."
"She recognised me, I'm sure of it. She said she didn't, but I know she did. She said she didn't even remember knowing anyone who joined up with Overwatch." Tracer looked off to the side, not liking where her thoughts went. "She looked scared, Winston. Of me."
I can understand why, he thought to himself. The woman whose death brought down Overwatch is back from the grave, hasn't aged a day, and nobody is talking about it - who knows what you are? But out loud, he said, "I'm sorry," and meant it.
"It's been five years, the world's a different place - it feels like wheels are flying off everywhere, it really does - but now look out everyone, Tracer's coming to town! I thought..." her voice trailed off.
"Those missing five years didn't sink in, did they?"
They really hadn't, she knew. Not until then. "I really miss you, big guy," she said, sad and quiet.
"I've missed you too, Lena," he answered, softly. "I can't get off this rock, but you can always - any time of the day - radio me, and I'll listen." He reached over and touched a few points on a console. "I'm sending you my 'wakeup' prefix code. It will get me up, if I'm here, and I will answer."
Her padd chirped. "Got it."
"And don't wait 'till you're back in Brighton. Any time. Day or night."
"I will, I will! But maybe not tomorrow." She shook her head, brushing off the sadness. "There's a bar just a bit down the way, and it's also just hit me that I haven't picked anyone up in a bar in over five years, and that can't be helping. I think I'm gonna fix that tonight."
Winston howled with laughter, big honking bellows. "Now that sounds like the old Tracer," he said, merrily. "But... how're you going to explain the accelerator?"
"What, you think I've got some bulky ring in my chest, like yours? These are posh, mate!" She grinned. "I figured it out on the flight north. I just call 'em bioluminescent tattoos, and all the girls will want their own."
"Heh," he chuffed. "I believe the traditional Air Force benediction is, 'Good hunting?'"
"Rwrar." She winked.
"Go get 'em, pilot. But promise you'll radio me from London on Monday."
"I will, Winston. I promise."
Winston waited 'till Lena shut down her transmitter, and then threw the whole conversation - sound, vision, raw signal, transmission detail data, everything - into deep computational processing, to send along to Dr. Ziegler. If they've done anything to you, he thought, I will find it. And one way or another, somehow - they will pay.
"There's always a degree of uncertainty with low-resolution scans like these, of course, but it appears to interface throughout her motor cortex, not just on surface, and to be tied into reflex reaction points here," he illustrated, "here, here, and here."
"And its function?" asked the woman at the head of the conference table.
"I'm quite afraid we're not sure." the neural interface specialist replied. "It's heavily shielded. I'm not even as confident as I'd like about what I'm showing you, but it's the best we have - you're looking at composite of data from Heathrow, an assortment of scanners hidden inside CCTV, outer-ring military security, and so on. The consulate data, sadly, was unusable."
The head of the table prompted, "But it's not any type of web."
"Oh!" said the specialist. "Definitely not. We wouldn't have even these shots were it a web. Her brain would look like a big, smooth egg."
Brigadier Shukla turned to her attache. "Have we ever encountered a Talon agent without a web?"
The second lieutenant brought up the small list of scanned Talon agents. "Not that we know of, ma'am. Certainly not in the years they've been known active - no exceptions in that record."
The operations agent at the table jumped in. "They could be anticipating our analysis. Can't we bring her in, do a deep probe?"
"Sadly, no," said the specialist, shifting the primary display. "This may not be a web, but it goes quite deep, and either this is defocused, or it's surprisingly diffuse. Anything strong enough to get past the shielding wouldn't be safe for the subject."
"Damn," spat the Brigadier.
"But," he continued, "I really don't think it's Talon. They know what we have, they wouldn't let a full agent out like this. Of that much, I'm confident."
"We can't rule out her being some kind of delayed-target human bomb. of course."
"No. But explosives say the payload would be poor - there's just not enough mass, even with exotic deliverables. We think it's unlikely."
"All right, let's leave out Talon for now. Omnium?"
The Omnic specialist in the room just laughed, and then sobered immediately. "Sorry, ma'am. No, ma'am. It's not Omnic. I'd bet my life on it."
"You might well do," the Brig replied, sternly.
The specialist nodded, but held her ground. "I would walk up to this carrying known vulnerabilities and not worry. It's not Omnic."
"If I might jump in, get it out of the way," said the corporate entities analyst, "It's not Vishkar either. They don't need hardware."
"Thank you, specialist," nodded the Brig. "So. Foreign powers aside, who's that leave?"
"...aliens?" said the young, short-brown-haired agent near the end of the table, one of the Americans. "Or not aliens, strictly, but beings from other worlds, possibly multidimensionally accessed worlds," he continued, excitedly. "It's been theorised for years, and the Winston files make it clear he considered dimensional travel a distinct possibility - it's how he found the time distortion that..."
"Thank you, agent," said the Brigadier, firmly.
"It's either that or somehow Winston did it himself, from the moon," he interjected.
"Or," said his eternally-exasperated partner, "it's a foreign government."
He turned to the other American. "Come on, why would a foreign government go to these lengths for..."
"Thank you, agents," the Brigadier repeated, more firmly. For once, the Americans took the hint.
She turned back to the presenter. "So, in the opinion of your department, she is most likely not a Talon agent."
The presenter nodded. "In our opinion, it's very unlikely. This just doesn't look like their work. If nothing else, it's too flashy." He changed screens. "See all these extensions around her torso, and down her legs? They glow. Talon wouldn't do that."
"There is one other possibility," said a data analyst, flipping through pages of data. "This new actor, Sombra. I'm not sure why, but it reminds me a little of her work."
"Go on," said the Brig.
"She'd have to have a lot of help - we mostly know about her software, and she doesn't do bioware. At least, not as far as we know, ma'am. But," they looked at the display with intense concentration, "something about it just reminds me of her code."
The intergroup specialist jumped in. "She's too new on the scene for that degree of cooperation with any of our known actors. It takes time to build up those sorts of connections. She hasn't had it."
"So," said the Brigadier, "we're most likely dealing with either a foreign power - which MI6 thinks unlikely - or, god help us," - given the source, she continued with great reluctance - "Winston. Somehow. From the moon."
"Or inter-dimensional beings," said the more annoying American, from the back.
"Thank you, agent - your suggestions have been noted."
"So, Brigadier - what do we do with our little problem?" asked the Group Captain, back in the Brig's office.
"If she'd been in my Forces, I'd bring her in and disassemble her," said the older woman, quietly. "I don't care what the specialists think, I can't rule out the Omnium completely. We're one major incident away from another Omnic war, and I won't have it start on my watch."
"Yes, ma'am. But the air group won't have it. We all protect our own."
The Brig nodded, understanding. Loyalty made commands work. "So, option B. Watch her, let her roam. Don't get too close... just see what she does. It only took a week for the Widowmaker to activate, so." Speculating, she continued, "Or, perhaps she's a slow burn. Perhaps we have some time."
"That's our opinion as well, ma'am," said the G/C.
"I can't believe the consulate cleared her to fly into Heathrow. Who knows what she is now? If it's even her."
"Personal decision of the ambassador, I'm afraid," said the group captain. "Apparently, she has quite a winning personality. Hardly our fault."
"Small consolation had she taken five thousand people down with her."
"It won't happen again, ma'am. She's been listed."
"She keeps trying to come to us," the Brigadier mused.
"Indeed," the G/C replied. "You know, we could just let her."
"Let her waltz right in to some high-value target? I think not. No, keep her off, keep up surveillance, and run every piece of data we collect through deepest analysis. Let's see what we can wiggle out."
"So far, she's mostly just been trying to get undeclared dead through the military. Hardly high-value."
The Brig frowned. "No. Not even if she goes through civilian channels. No recognition, no help, nothing. Block her at every point." The Brig fiddled with her glasses, cleaning the lenses with a small, lintless cloth. "If she's alive, the Overwatch investigation is alive, and we simply can't have that fiasco re-opened."
An old photo of her flight crew awarding Lena Oxton the callsign "Tracer" spun slowly in the air.
"Assuming she's not carrying a payload, she'll need some sort of status eventually," the G/C insisted.
The older woman frowned. "Eventually. But not now. Not until we have some idea what she is - if she has to be disassembled, I don't want to do that to a legal Briton. Until we know more..." She shook her head, contemplating her options. "Official recognition is just too great a risk."
"No blindfold?" asked Lena.
"Quoi?" asked the assassin, amused.
"Traditional, innit? Being escorted from the secret base, all that."
Amélie smiled evilly. "I still have last night's in my bedroom, if you want a souvenir."
Lena Oxton's cheeks flushed a little. "...no," she said, Yes, she thought. Wicked woman, she also thought, making this harder. She took a deep breath. "Right, then." She looked through her small bag, a worn satchel popular in South Africa some ten years before. Remnants of her flight suit, prepared to withstand forensic verification of her supposed journey. Her burnt Overwatch identity card, and a fake of her old passport. One change of clothes, old, but serviceable, from charity shops, similar to the one she wore now.
Memorised, access codes to a couple of different accounts, with enough money to tide her over for a month or two, until she could try to get herself undeclared dead. Memorised, the story about how she found herself in the Orange river, north of Waterfall Farm 497; how she swam to shore, made her way to Lutzberg, and "borrowed" two sets of clothes and a bag from a charity bin. From there, a plan to hitchhike her way to Johannesburg, courtesy of two friendly American tourists from the upper midwest, near where she will appear, tired, dusty, and hungry, not far from the British Consulate.
Two sets of clothes, a worn bag, no money - and identification. Not much. But even that, the maximum a dead person, returned to life, might be thought to have in hand.
"I wish you'd let us create a new identity for you," said the assassin. "Overwatch agents are, shall we say, still out of fashion."
"Not happening," said Tracer. "I didn't do anything wrong; I'm not gonna hide."
"Have you decided how will you explain your accelerator?"
The test pilot had no answer for that. "Not yet," she said, and it worried her. "But I'll think of something."
As headlong into this as everything else, thought the spider. "If they decide we did it, it will not go well for you. If they decide it is Omnic, things will go worse. If they decide Winston did it from the moon... no, it makes no sense, I cannot imagine how they would think that."
"Then I'm just gonna have to make sure they don't worry about it, aren't I?" Lena said. A terrible answer, and she knew it. "I'm a British subject, I've got rights. They can't just lock me away."
"Can't they?" asked Amélie. "I hope you are right." A Talon pilot popped her head through the door to the tarmac and gave the go sign, and Amélie nodded in return. "The aircraft is ready. But there is one more thing." She showed Lena a thin, palm-sized rounded metal box. It looked very much like a powder case.
"What is it, luv?" asked the pilot.
"It's a Faraday cage," - she touched a slight indentation on one side, and it opened, revealing a small device inside - "containing a retrieval beacon." She took out the beacon, with its two buttons, one on top, one on the side. "The transmitter will be good for a year. After that, it will become inert."
She pressed the side button, and a power cell popped out. "Standard KX type, you can buy them anywhere in Europe. Do not force it in backwards; that is how to destroy the transmitter. We will include the cell - but if something happens to it, now you know." She put it back into the device.
"The other button activates the transmitter. Hold it down for five seconds. The device will beep quietly twice, when it activates; it cannot be turned off, and it cannot be reused. Activate it outside, if possible, away from attention, if possible, with a clear view to the sky, if you can. But if you can't, it should still work, and if we hear it, we will still come."
"Airport security won't like me carrying that onboard," Tracer said, dubiously.
"Airport security won't ever see it. It will be waiting for you at the Palace Theatre in London, at coat check, when you land. They will hold it for two weeks. You can pick it up, or not. It's up to you." Doing this, she thought to herself, it's so much harder than I imagined.
Lena reached out for the device, taking it from Widowmaker's hand, examining it, popping the power cell out and back in. "A way back," she said, quietly.
The spider nodded, affirmingly. "Waiting for you, at coat check, at the Palace Theatre, if you want it. I hope you will."
I'd take it with me now if I could, thought Lena. I'd hold on to it and never let it go. Why am I so torn? "London. Palace Theatre. Coat check. When I land."
"When you land."
She gave the device back to the assassin, placing it in the other woman's open palm, closing the other woman's fingers around it. "Don't forget."
The beacon, though deactivated, felt electric in Amélie's hand. "I never do."
Lena Oxton leaned back on the outcropping atop the crest of the ridge of the old volcano on a cool and clear January day in the Aeolian archipelago north of Sicily. Through the aviator's glasses Tavi had brought her from the mainland, she could see Filicudi easily, to the east; beyond, the trio of Salina, Lipari, and, just visible if she squinted and told herself so, Vulcano, ever-active, roiling just before the dawn.
But her attention, mostly, focused higher. Airplanes crossed the skies around her, red-eyes from Nairobi, Numbani, Johannesburg, sometimes even overhead, mostly civilian, but occasionally, a military transport, and, very occasionally, what looked to the pilot's eyes to be training flights, probably out of the old joint forces base near Naples. "Pad your angle there, cadet," she'd say, quietly, remembering her instructor's calm voice on comms. "You're not that good yet."
But she was. And she knew it, which made it worse.
She came here more often, these days, to watch the skies and think. She was healed. She knew it. The doc had said so, yesterday morning, but Lena made up a bit of stiffness to try to delay full clearance. Why'd I do that?, the pilot thought to herself. I'm ready. I can go home. I had a life, five months ago. I could have it back.
Dark blues and reds yielded to bright blues and yellows as the stars slowly went out, overwhelmed by the new morning sun. Sure, she thought, gaze following a cargo plane making its lazy way south, Overwatch is shuttered, but I've still got my commission and my license. I can get 'em reactivated. I wasn't even around when things fell apart. They'd do me right, I know they would. She focused upwards into the bright blue morning.
I miss the sky.
She somersaulted forward, leapt up, and teleported three times, as high as she could, witnesses be damned, out over the steep slope to the sea. Then she fell more than glided, but pretended it was otherwise, until the ground came up too close, and she rewound time, back up to the top of the volcano, safe and sound.
Though I gotta admit... she thought, beaming, shivering in the rush of cortisol, norepinephrine, and adrenaline, as her body reacted to what her lizard brain was pretty sure had to be imminent death, That's pretty great too.
A private jet flew by, closer than she'd like, pilot possibly attracted by the flashes of light. Fuck it, she thought, and waved briskly at the flyer, shouting, "Heya!" at the top of her lungs. In reaction, or not, it turned away. It's time people know I'm alive.
"I need to go," the pilot told the assassin, abruptly, after their daily combat workout.
Amélie, facing her own locker, stopped, mid-motion, momentarily, then resumed dressing. "I had expected that." She put her right arm through her uniform's sleeve. The words felt leaden in her mouth as she continued, "I'd thought it would come sooner, but, still, here it is." Turning to look at the pilot, she said, almost sadly, "I agree."
Now, Lena's turn to be a little surprised, and almost a little hurt. "...you do?" as she pulled a blouse over her head, the fabric falling down over the dimly glowing blue stripes of her chronal accelerator-interlaced ribcage.
"I do. Dr. Mariani cleared you yesterday morning, I know. Sombra, I also know, would like to have another set of data off your accelerator, if you are willing, but this can be arranged quickly - just a couple of days."
Inexplicably disappointed, the pilot said crossly, "Why? Is this your 'strands of history' again?"
"Would you feel better, or worse, if I said no?"
"I'd say... really?"
The assassin shook her head, a slight nod. "I am not an oracle; I do not see all. This is an emotion, a feeling. Also, I do not think you are yet ready to join us."
Tracer pursed her lips, acknowledging the truth in it. "No. I'm not."
"I understand," said the spider. "I..." she took a long, deep breath. "I have never lied to you, and I will not begin now: I want you here. I want you on my side. But only with a whole heart, and," she waved a finger back and forth, like a metronome, "you have nothing like that at all."
"I'm a fighter pilot, luv. I need the sky."
"You are more than that now," said the spider, pointedly, "and you know it."
That disquieted the Flying Officer in some way she couldn't quite define, because she couldn't quite deny it, not completely. "I've got a few extra tricks, sure. But I'm still a pilot. Flying was always my dream, and defending the world from the air - that was my life. Your way..." she sighed, and ran a towel through her hair. "I've got to get my life back. I get your way now. I don't know I agree with it, but I get it. I just don't think it's mine."
Widowmaker slid her emotional range down, down, down, for now, but it still hurt more than she wanted. Nonetheless, she stabilised, as always. "The next ferry to Filicudi - and from there, to Sicily - departs tomorrow. If you want to be there, you can be. But I would not recommend this route; we have made arrangements, if you are willing to hear them."
"'Course you have," she smiled. "And 'course I would."
"Sombra, as I said, would like to come for a final cycle of readings from your accelerator. It will take two days for her to arrive; that will give us time to finalise our slightly more plausible route for your return, which is not by chance a return point further away. I like this facility, and would hate to lose it."
"You've thought this all out already, haven't you?"
The spider nodded, with the hint of a smile. "Of course. It is what I do; it is second - no, first, nature. The pieces are already placed."
"Huh." Tracer walked over to the eastern window, looking down the steep slope towards the sea. "You know... I'm gonna miss this island." She raised her hands, fingers against the glass. No, she thought, that's not enough. Not honest enough. "I'm gonna miss you."
Stepping up behind the smaller woman, Amélie asked, softly, "Will you then do me the honour of a going-away dinner, Ms. Oxton? Not here; there is a particularly discreet café I quite like on Salina, in Rinella. I think you'd like it, too."
Tracer looked back over her shoulder, with her famous half-grin, and said, "You askin' me on a date, luv?"
"Would you feel better, or worse, if I said yes?" asked the blue woman.
"Better," answered the pilot. "Definitely, much better."
"So you're... terrorists, then?" Tracer stared at Widowmaker, mystified.
"That's what they call us," Amélie responded, lightly. "We see it differently, of course."
Tracer looked over the news reports, the government statements, the public record. "You've certainly been busy," she said, nervously. "25 assassinations in the last year! That's quite the murder spree."
Amélie's face betrayed her amusement. "Is that the current count? How foolish. No, we prune the tree, not create topiary." More earnestly, she added, "But we are very convenient people to blame."
The padd fell through Tracer's hands, as she momentarily lost anchor to normal time, the blue flash reflecting off the screen. She gasped, and tried uselessly to anchor herself, physically grabbing the bedsheets - Here. I'm here. I'm really still here. Good. Now more afraid, she asked, "Why'd you show me this?"
Amélie looked thoughtful, and checked the synchronisation panel monitoring Tracer's accelerator. Not so big an event as it seemed; fear made the young pilot drop the tablet, not displacement. But the field coil had degraded again - just a little, but it was there. I'm glad we're upgrading her soon, she thought. "It is important that you are fully informed."
"Informed that the people who pulled me back from oblivion are terrorists. And you're implanting... what are you really doing to me tomorrow?" she demanded.
Amélie smiled that cool, pleased smile she used whenever she felt something significant had been accomplished. "Et, voilà."
"A question best addressed now, rather than tomorrow, or the next day."
"We will do exactly what we have said, no less; no more. We will implant in you a next generation chronal accelerator, of our own design, and its necessary neural interface. It will do only what we have discussed. With practice, you will have absolute control over it. And that is all."
"And not some kind of bomb. Or some kind of mind control device. How could I even know?" Red outlines flashed around the world.
Amélie's face flashed with disgust, and she waved dismissively at the articles on the padd. "This contemptible trash has frightened you. I understand why. But we do not use suicide bombers; we do not use unwitting or unwilling agents; both are barbaric. We do not conceive to create terror at all; if our assassinations went undetected, our methods would be more effective, not less."
"But what would you have thought, had we let you discover these reports on your own, but only afterwards, too late?"
"I'd've known you lied to me."
"Exactement. And now, you know we have not."
"But it wouldn't matter," she protested. "You'd have me by then. I'd be one of your brainwashed agents. Or a bomb."
"Were that our goal, would we even want your permission? Would we even ask?"
Tracer tried to find a reason, and couldn't. "...I don't know."
"Indeed - we would already have done it. If not that, if it is all some other kind of trick, does showing you all this propaganda against us beforehand make such a deception more likely? Or, is it, perhaps, less?"
While Tracer thought about that, Widowmaker picked up the padd and scrolled through documents, working backwards in time, to the beginning: the Overwatch reports regarding the death of Gérard Lacroix. She pulled them up together on the screen, in columns.
"Here is what they say about me," she said, handing the padd back. "You'll note the Blackwatch and Overwatch reports are vastly different. Neither, I'm afraid, are particularly accurate, except in the one key point."
As Tracer read, Amélie continued. "Since I was very young, I have been able to feel the strands of the past, of the present, and probabilities forward... I do not pretend to see the future itself, but I see the many connected strands of where and how it can be directed, and where, without direction, it is all but certain to go."
"I read once," Tracer said distractedly, still reading, "that spiders think with their webs."
The assassin laughed, lightly, genuinely pleased. "I am delighted! You are the first to see that part of it. Splendid!" She shifted forward in her chair. "And by nudging the flow of history, we are attempting to avert a cycle of Human-Omnic wars which I am convinced will destroy most or all life on this earth. But it is for this, and for our methods, that they call us terrorists. We do not care, because we believe in our cause - and I think, methods aside, that you do as well, no? Otherwise I do not think you could've joined Overwatch and remained untainted."
"I think I met Gérard, when I met you," said Tracer. "At the Overwatch Christmas party, last... six years ago, wannit? This says you murdered him."
"Gérard," sighed Amélie, taking the padd, looking at the seven year old Overwatch photo. "My beloved, my husband. I miss you so." She handed the device back to Tracer. "I loved him dearly - he was everything to me. He was also my second in command, and my most trusted confidante - even the name Talon was his idea."
"But he was in charge of anti-Talon operations at Overwatch!"
"Delightful, is it not? It was a game for us - we fake an operation, Overwatch thwarts it, accolades are handed out all around, the budget goes up, Talon takes a share, the real plan goes by, unnoticed."
"Nice one," she said, sarcastically. "So... who really killed him?" asked Tracer.
Amélie raised an eyebrow. "I did. That is the one and only correct detail in those reports. And to be absolutely clear: it was not an accident, and if everything were the same, I would pull that trigger again."
"That's..." A series of blue and red shifts shook the pilot. "...why?"
"Because it was necessary," said the assassin, resolute.
"And why save me?" Tracer questioned, insistently.
Amélie faced the young, frightened pilot, but her real gaze aimed deeply inwards, sorting history and time and probabilities and odds and the strange, random pieces of knowledge she'd been sorting through for all of her life. "I do not expect you to understand this, or even believe it, but there is a broken strand in the web of the world - I can feel it. It has been broken for five years, and it cannot be healed by any number of exquisite deaths."
Widowmaker's focus turned back outward, her gaze firm and voice strong. "You are needed, Lena Oxton. I do not yet know how, and I do not yet know why, but your life, like Gérard's death, is necessary, and so... if I must, I will move the world to save you."
[This does not happen. It is not part of the fear of spiders continuity, even if Venom is straight out of there. It takes place out of time (and out of the timeline), and would roughly be Venom of 2077, and Tracer of 2076.]
"I am not your evil twin!" said Venom, popping onto the tall-chaired table outside the chippie.
"Yes, you are!" said Tracer, popping down next to her. "You're an assassin. With Talon. Evil! Also, you're in love with her." She snagged one of Venom's chips, just as her own arrived. "The most dangerous assassin our world's ever known."
"Yes!" Venom beamed, stealing a chip back. "A sexy, sexy assassin, and she's all mine, and I'm telling you - you're missing out." She popped the chip into her mouth, and, through potato, said, "Seriously, you have no idea."
Tracer laughed. "You can't even imagine how much Emily and I are in love. It's impossible! You're just too evil."
"Fffft," said Venom. "Emily's cute, I won't lie. But come on, luv, Amélie is perfection."
"If perfection means an aggressively overstyled shitehawk who loves killing people, maybe."
"Maybe," winked Venom, "you don't know anything about her. But if you're really as in love with this Emily frump as you think you are, I guess I don't feel sorry for ya after all. She probably deserves you. Tomato sauce for your haddock?"
"Tomato sauce? On fish? You daft?"
"You're so wrong about Amélie, it seemed likely."
Tracer laughed. "Oh, did I go too far? I'm sor - no, wait, no, I don't apologise to people like you, you're an assassin, and you like it."
Venom, in violet, snorted. "C'mon, you were military too, weren't ya?"
"Sure! Just like you," said the tangerine-clad Tracer.
"Everything exactly the same, right up to the Slipstream explosion."
"Mine didn't explode! I just disappeared. Then it crashed, but I wasn't in it."
"Yeah, but in my case, a bunch of plane parts disappeared, and the rest exploded. But that doesn't matter - up 'till then, everything's the same, right? We were both out to save the world, and if that means killing people, we do it, right?"
"Yeah, but not for fun. It was war, not what you do."
Venom pointed a chip at Tracer's face. "I bet my body count's lower than yours."
"What?!" exclaimed Tracer, splashing pepper on her breaded fish. "Not likely! I've barely ever killed any..." And she stopped, mid-sentence.
Venom nodded. "...anyone real." Gotcha. "Anyone human, or acting human. That's it, isn't it. Haven't you ever thought about all those other Omnic lives?"
Tracer stood her ground. "I have! But that was different. Null Sector at King's Row, every other Omnic incursion, it was open combat. We defended ourselves, and we saved lives doing it."
"Sure, I get that." Venom continued, munching on a piece of her fish. "Truth is, I even agree. But right or wrong - and I'm not saying it's wrong - how many Omnic lives did you end that day on King's Row? More than we would've, I bet. With a clean kill, we shift the future with one death. It takes you, what, five? Ten? A dozen? Two dozen?"
"My kill tally was 442," Tracer beamed, proud in spite of herself.
Venom laughed. "Funny woman. No, seriously, mate, how many?"
"Y'think I can't count?" Tracer protested, amusedly. "Four. Hundred. Forty. Two. I got a medal!"
Venom blinked, then blanched, as she realised her doppelgänger was absolutely serious, and stared confusedly at the woman who had called her an "evil twin." She put down her fish, and straightened in her chair. Bleedin' hell, she thought, as the weight of that body count struck her. So many dead. In one day. "That's, that's not killing. That's... mass slaughter."
Tracer nodded, munching another bit of fish. "It was a rout, you mean. They were throwing themselves at us the whole time. I almost died anyway - Mercy had to bring me back, once. And we saved a lot of old London."
"Yes, but..." Venom said earnestly, "Widowmaker and me..." She leaned forward again. "You don't understand. We've killed well less than half that many people our entire careers. Omnic and human, combined."
Tracer stared at her opposite. So... few?
"We'd have taken out the command corps. The rest would've been a mop-up. Most likely, the lot of 'em would've surrendered - or just left." Venom pushed aside her chips, frowning. "How many days like that you had, Tracer?"
The Overwatch agent lowered her head, but kept her eyes up, disturbed by her counterpart's reaction. "...several?"
Venom exhaled deeply, as her thoughts raced. I've stopped at a chippie with Pol Pot, she thought. "I'm... I don't even know, mate. We shape history with assassination, not snuggles, but your..." she waved her hands around, not knowing how else to say it, "exterminations... You're proud of them. You slaughter people en masse. It's..." she swallowed, hard. "Grotesque."
Tracer, firmly. "It. was. war."
"I know. And it ain't my world, maybe I can't judge. If you're Tracer, the Manic Pixie Murder Machine, that's what you are." Venom slipped off her barstool, looking grim. "But if you really think what I do is worse than that, I..."
Tracer glared at her opposite, defensive and a little angry. "What're you sayin', mate?"
Venom snapped, "What I'm sayin', mate, is that I'm pretty sure I'm not the evil reflection of you - I'm pretty sure you're the evil reflection of me." And she teleported away.
"Fine!" shouted Tracer, to the air. "Just for that, I'm eatin' your chips!" She rolled her eyes and shook her head. Assassins, she thought. Always so bloody pretentious.
"I've made him," said Venom, subvocally, over coms. Her goggles shifted in place, forming lenses, zooming in. "Right on time. He's got his best three bodyguards with him, too - guess he wanted the A team along for the ride."
"Acknowledged," replied Widowmaker, coolly - all business, inside, and out. A small part of her could still scarcely believe this was happening, but she kept it in check - pleasure before pleasure, no? "I am in position."
The three bodyguards scouted the empty restaurant storefront as a stocky man in his late 40s sat behind very strong and very darkly tinted glass. C'mon, you bastards, thought the former pilot, everything is just fine, everything is just like you expect. Take the bait.
They'd arranged a small trade, of course. A trade of extremely important data about Omnics captured from a murdered engineering delegation, in exchange for an attractively low, but still quite substantial, amount of money. Intelligent machines for cash, slaves for Renminbi on the barrelhead, who is going to be the wiser?
A job for the police, Oxton had said. We can give them what we know, a trial would be better for relations anyway. And then Amélie showed her the list of the dead from a previous investigation, and Lena knew it wouldn't.
A blink, and she's half a block away, on another rooftop. C'mon already, give your boss the all-clear and open the bloody door.
One of the guards looked up at where she'd been, seeing nothing, and looked again, and saw a subtly different nothing. Just in time, she thought, but she was wrong.
The bodyguard turned towards the car, quickly. Widowmaker's voice, on the coms: "Merde! Now he's made you. Plan B."
Bugger!, thought Venom, False start. Don't let's cock this up twice!, and she dove in, using all of her teleport charge, taking three tenths of a second to close the distance. Stinger bomb under the car, right on target. "Gotcha!" she shouted, as Widowmaker's first shot took out the first guard, and she simultaneously emptied both clips of her pistols into the second. The third - Pilar, the best of them - had her semiautomatic at the side of Venom's head, the trigger half-pulled, when the younger assassin jinked backwards in time, just far enough to reload and shoot the third down exactly as she'd shot the second.
Her stinger exploded as the car started to move, throwing the vehicle into the air, compressing it, the windows shattering outwards. "One shot..." called Venom, as she flew backwards on her grappling hook. Magnified through her vizor, she saw the shocked look on the target's face obliterated, as Widowmaker laughed delightedly in the coms, "...one kill."
"Nice one," Venom said over coms, as she reset vision.
"Get back here. This got noisy, and we need to leave - quickly."
"Already here, love." Venom leaned forward from behind the senior assassin, and gently kissed the back of Widowmaker's neck.
Amélie gasped - no one surprised the spider. No one.
[some months earlier]
"Is this some kind of would-I-kill-baby-Hitler question?"
Amélie laughed, lightly, putting down her glass of dessert wine. "Don't talk nonsense, of course not. A bébé is a bébé, innocent, and easily redirected." She picked the glass back up, and with a cool smile, said, "Although perhaps you might choose to kill its parents. Perhaps they are assholes."
Lena stabbed her fork into a second slice of bananoffe, cut a portion with a knife, and stuffed it into her mouth. It takes a lot of calories to fuel her biology now, thought the spider. "And if they aren't?" Lena asked through crumbs, voice muffled.
The blue woman shrugged, perhaps a little disappointed the ever-so-earnest Lena didn't seem to see the humour. "It doesn't matter. To elaborate, following along the lines of your question - I am not asking, 'would you kill baby Hitler;' I'm asking, perhaps, would you kill Reich Chancellor Hitler, in, say, February of 1933.'"
"Not good with dates, luv," she said, with just a trace of irony. Ah, there is hope for you yet, thought Amélie.
"I should have known, it is fitting. So," she took another sip of her Chateau d'Yquem white, "in 1933, his goals were stated, and he was just appointed the position he needed to follow them through." She gestured aimlessly with her glass. "Oh, there were arguments about what he 'really' meant, perhaps - he was an extraordinary liar. And there were those who insisted he would moderate with power. He, himself, swore his restraint. But - to a clear mind, one that can see the strands of history - everything was laid plain."
Another sip. Lena toyed with her slice of pie, cutting it into smaller pieces, thinking, and took another bite.
"A single death," said Amélie, "could've changed everything..."
Lena looked up, asked, "Had he actually killed anyone yet?" and looked back down, seemingly deeper in thought.
"Does that matter? I don't think so. But fair enough, let us say that it does. March, then, of 1933. The first concentration camp opens, in Oranienburg. All perfectly legal, all perfectly murderous, the first rendering of the first blueprint of the great slaughter to come."
Lena poked at the remaining pieces of her pie, smaller and smaller.
The assassin leaned forward. "Now it is April. The Enabling Act has passed, a bill gracing the Reich Chancellor with unlimited power - but there are still other political parties, to resist. Do you take the shot?"
Bananas. Cream. Toffee. Crust. Divided. Tracer, quiet, focused on the mess before her.
Windowmaker leaned in, still further, speaking quietly. "May, the tenth. Jewish-owned shops are boycott. The first book burnings, targeting 'degenerate' works, science. Perhaps not yet, at Oranienburg, the first death, but they will come. All legal, at least, to some degree."
"And at the heart of it all, one man. There are many others with him, but he is the genius, the crux - the one who truly matters."
With one finger, she appropriated a dollop of cream from Lena's dessert plate, lifting it from the plate. "The one whose death could change everything."
The younger woman looked up, earnestly, into the assassin's eyes. "If I know... if I really know..."
Venom took Widowmaker's hand with her own, and, with an unfocused half-grin, licked the cream off the other woman's finger.
"Everyone seems to forget..." she said, distantly, savouring the sweetness, "...I'm ex-military." She smiled broadly, eyes suddenly bright. Gotcha. "Fighter planes don't shoot kisses, luv," she laughed. "Of course I take the shot."
The assassin's refined pose collapsed completely, and a single, quiet, ha! escaped her lips. "Oh, you horrible woman! I thought we were having a meaningful conversation."
"Yes," said the spider, smiling, and feeling it, almost - but not quite - giggling as she leaned back into her chair. "You did. You have me."
Completely, she thought, sipping from her glass.
Damn you. You have me.
Venom floated over the city, over New London at night, gliding, flying down between buildings, stunting, showing off, like a small fighter jet. Oh, she thought, I'm flying again! I love these dreams.
She looped around the tallest tower, twice, buzzing windows, light glancing off every shiny surface of every new building. Out of the corner of her left eye, she saw Elizabeth Tower, and automatically veered towards it, towards home, laughing.
Drifting lower, following streets, she buzzed passers-by seemingly oblivious to her presence, and giggled. "C'mon, slowpokes, let's get moving already!"
A steady stream of Londoners seemed to be migrating to one particular square, and she flew ahead, with them, but above, a silent, invisible airplane, touching nothing, being touched by nothing except what she saw and smelled.
A rally. Mondatta! He's brilliant! Oh, I wish this were real. She'd first heard of him from the Zero Sector uprising, a few... years ago? weeks ago? months from now? Suddenly, she wasn't sure, and she pulled up atop a building, next to a particularly unobservant security post. The man pipped his radio, and turned away, just in time to be brought down - hard - by Widowmaker.
Her surprised "Oh! Hey, love, what're you..." went unheard, as the assassin ran on by, as if she did not exist.
I've seen this before, she thought. I've... seen this...
One of the flashes, when her Slipstream exploded. It came back to her, now, within her dream. A set of images, blurred together, unfolding now. But those are rubbish, really, she thought. Shock, panic, oxygen deprivation, that's all. Just noise.
She reached down, and touched the rooftop. But this feels so real. It smells so real. They're never so...
Another guard went down, another building over - quickly, all but silently. She smiled, thinking of her lover's perfect violence, and tried to zoom in with her vizor to watch - but it didn't respond. I... don't have it? She looked down, noticing for the first time the large harness over her torso, in that way you never notice things in dreams, until they're important. What is this? What am I wearing? She looked at her bright mandarin-coloured leggings. It's got my callsign on it... this must be part of the airplane?
That's when she heard the sound of her own pistols, and, almost immediately thereafter, the sound of Widowmaker's rifle. Am I here too? I can't be in my own dream, can I?
Glass breaking, the sound of her own voice, and more gunfire. She teleported a few buildings over, to where security guards were scrambling, and saw her Amélie taking them down one, two, three, four, and she cheered. Oh, nice one - go, love!
She saw her other dream self - her dreamelgänger? - leaping up over the next rooftop, catching up and firing towards her partner. She, too, teleported to keep up. Careful, dream me, she thought, she's fine, the guards are down, if you aren't careful you're going to hit...
And then Tracer triggered Widowmaker's mine, and then Amélie was standing over her prone body, not to help, but with a rifle to her doppelgänger's head. And then a flash, and an explosion, and Tracer is falling, Amélie is aiming, Mondatta is dead at Widowmaker's hand, and there is so much screaming.
"No, no, no, no, no, no - NO!" Venom screamed, in her dream.
"Oh, no, no, no no no no - WHY?!" screamed her other self, in her waking world.
"Why would you do this?!" screamed her other self, in grief and rage at the woman she loved.
"This can't happen! C'mon c'mon c'mon wake UP!" Venom screamed to herself, in her dream.
And then there is fire. Fire, and a flight suit, and she is still in the Slipstream just as it flies apart around her, and there are stars and sunlight and flame and her suit is melting and so much pain and flashes and flashes and too many flashes and no air, and she is falling into darkness...
...and then impossibly she is on the ground, and there is shouting, not screaming, and air, not starlight, and she sees her, her beloved blue spider, again, for the first time, holding her so tightly, and she tries to talk, but can't, quite, there is too much, and there is a doctor and questions and pain, but less, and she is Lena Oxton, but more, and there is a sedative, and the nightmare fades into a deep, drugged sleep, and as consciousness slips away, she fights to hold on to the one thing, the one most important thing
And then there is darkness.
"So," she asked, "What's your name, anyway? I still don't know."
A particularly strong bit of blueshift, and she let out an involuntary gasp of fear.
"That... wasn't funny."
The hacker replied, "I'm not trying to be funny, don't bother me while I'm doing math in my head. Bad things could happen, you know?" as her eyes darted between six screens.
Finally, the world settled back down; ░░░░░░ scowled at the monitors, and disconnected the hard links to Tracer's chronal accelerator. "I don't like to say it, but I'm sure now. We're going to have to build another."
Lena laughed nervously, looking at the device holding her in sync with time. It never had looked entirely finished. "You mean, this one's really not quite right, then?"
The hacker looked down at the floor, to the left, to a scorch mark left from another calibration attempt - one Oxton didn't remember, and one ░░░░░░ was in no mood to tell her about. "This one, you see..." She looked back to the pilot. "You were never supposed to have it. Nobody really was. It was a test device. You were supposed to have the one Winston built, he built it for you. I built this to learn how Winston's worked, and, hey, I'm glad we had it when we needed it, but... it's not my best work."
Tracer shifted in place. "You mean it's unstable."
░░░░░░ winced a little. "Unstable is a very unpleasant way of saying it. It's not getting any worse!" At least, not quickly, she added, to herself. "It just will not get any better, and I can't fix it. I'll have to build a new one. It'll be better, I swear - but you will have to trust us maybe a liiiittle bit more."
"Then let's get started already. Build it and slap it on me, what's the holdup?" the pilot nervously joked.
"It'll have to be part of your body."
"...oh." She blinked, and thought about what that meant. "So there's really no... putting the old me back together, then."
"No. But if it means anything, I think Winston knew that, too. His acelerator was supposed to be implanted. I've learned a lot in the last couple of weeks, and now that I really understand it, it's kind of obvious. You would've had a glowing ring in your chest, like that superhero of the old movies" - she gestured at her chest, making a circle - "What was he called?"
"Dunno - never cared much for superheroes, honestly. Not unless they had airplanes. Or spaceships."
"Eh, it doesn't matter. I'm all over it. I already have a design worked out, it'll be verrrry elegant. A lot more controllable." And all but unhackable, she thought to herself. Amélie insisted. The "on pain of death" part went unstated, but understood.
Tracer huffed. "Already worked it all out amongst yourselves, then. Could've told me."
"I think I just did."
"I think if you're going to be building something that's gonna be part of my body, I have a right to know who you are."
░░░░░░ gave the pilot a long, hard look, and thought about it for a moment. Always the truth, she said. Fine. "My name doesn't matter, because after I'm done here, this girl be disappearing forever anyway."
"What?" said Tracer, blinking. "Why?"
"Because, you see, I've been noticed, by the wrong people. In my line of work... that's always, always a fatal error."
Shocked, Lena could only get out, "...I'm so sorry."
"What? No, no, no, don't be so melodramatic! I'm not going to let myself be killed, I'm far too smart for that. I'll still be out there, just, not like me, now. Improved. This version of me needs an upgrade anyway." The hacker reached out her hand as holographics appeared in the air, and the room went dark save for her own screens, casting a shadow in purple against the wall.
She leaned forward, and quietly said, with broad grin, "En el nuevo año, busque una nueva Sombra."
"Oooh, scary! Like a bit of drama, then?"
"If you think that's dramatic, you're going to love my new hair." She brought the lights back up, and folded away the PADDs.
Lena chuckled. "At least you can do something with yours. Mine just grows like this." She ran her hand through her hair. "Can't do a thing with it. Not that anything fancy would survive a flight helmet anyway."
"Huh," said the hacker. "You've tried letting it grow, of course?"
Tracer nodded. "Yeh, when I was a kid. I looked like Goku, from Dragonball."
"I'm so sorry."
"I'm so bored. You look finished, can I go back to the gym yet? I need to stretch. I get all stiff if I sit around too long."
"Sure, I'm finished here." She hoisted a small bag of gear over her shoulder. "But you need to decide."
"Decide about what?" asked the pilot.
"...the new chronal accelerator? The embedded one? We just talked about it?"
"Oh. I already did. I wasn't joking, really. I mean..." - Lena jumped off the bed, and blueblurred almost into the floor, until the accelerator stabilised again. "...what choice have I got?"