“Life is like a dream, when that dream is driven in Diante.”
The music carried light and spacious on the quite air. Constance opened her eyes on the sea that she had dreamed about, as the car continued to weave about the cliff top roads. Did she dream about seas, Constance wondered. She sat up, thinking that the driver looked curiously like Manly.
“The new Diante, from Yobatsu Heavy Industries.”
The gentle pulse of a jingle petered out. Constance slipped on her soft slippers, staring out at the endless expanse of the Tasman. Somewhere out there, she could see the lights of ships, set down for the night. She was in the Taranaki Arcologies, of course. Where she had come after the wedding.
All I wanted was a life, girl. They could give it to me for what’s inside my head. A real life …
Constance headed over to the counter, thinking up a hot, short black. It was almost steaming on the servery by the time she got there. She thought about the Wedding. Toa hadn’t shown of course. Like she had ever hoped that he might. No. She had. Then they could both have had some semblance of normality.
A real life.
Constance clicked. She put down her coffee before she got it to her lips, feeling it touch down light against the counter. She looked up about the small, flawlessly presented apartment, doubting where she was. Manly was standing near the door. A real Manly, she noticed, not some link from somewhere else. She wondered how long she had been here, but then, that was almost immaterial. It could have been days. It could have been minutes.
“Did I pass?”
Manly unfolded his arms. He was wearing the same suit he had to the wedding, but then, had he had time to even take it off. Constance liked how fatherly he looked. That gold waistcoat under his collarless jacket was rather fetching. The color suited him.
“You have to understand, Lady,” he started, avoiding the question. “How hard it is for the Agency right now. With Biodyne stepping up its activities in the Oceania area, it’s getting even harder for the Powers That Be to keep the corps in line. Some might even say impossible, without the help of the Agency.”
“Have you come here to terminate me?” Constance asked, trying to keep the hint of fear out of her voice. She would have liked to think she would have faced it with more grace when it came, but the idea scared her shitless.
Had she managed to terminate Agent Carter? When did they slip her into their own simulated reality, and how long had she been there.
Manly was crossing the short distance of plush carpet, putting his hands on her shoulders. Fatherly in instinct. Constance thought it small comfort. He remarked, his voice small, but still strong, “No. I haven’t.”
Constance didn’t make the mistake of thinking that meant she had passed.
“What’s it come to in the Agency that you’re already doubting my loyalty?” Constance bit, trying to keep the venom out of her tone. “How much Agency time is being wasted with these tests and navel gazing?”
“It’s all necessary,” he replied, looking regretful. “But you’re right. We lose ground every time we have to do this, Lady.”
“Where’s Toa? All this. He was never ordered to the altar. That was all part of the mission.”
Manly frowned, but nodded, confirming Constance’s suspicions, “He was never doubted.”
“But I was. What a load of shit.”
Manly let her go, taking a few paces away. Constance watched him like a cat watches a mouse. “Probably best you take a few days away. The Principle thinks it’s a good idea as well. Your stipend will be shifted to cover it. Somewhere nice.”
Constance felt cold. They’d suspected her. How bad had it got in the Agency. How long had it been going on. She decided to attend to her coffee. The bitter bite of it pulled her deeper into her denial. She decided that she hadn’t passed. For whatever reason. She remembered all of the processes in the front of her mind, ready to drop Toa with an overload of his wetware. For whatever reason, she hadn’t done it.
“I’d expect that the Agency would want me somewhere close at hand.”
“You’ll be called on when you’re needed, Lady.” Manly headed to the door, glancing back towards Constance. He gave her a brief smile. “It’s been a pleasure working with you. Always.”
And that was that.
* * *
Constance breathed in the deep smells of the sea. Tonga was always nice at this time of the day, the sun swollen and gently descending into the endless field of blue. From one blue to the next, the sea accepting it, like a slow dip into a cool evening pool. Constance felt the breeze against her cheek.
All the links were gone. Even thoughts of her Agency contacts returned nothing. It was like the thought would never cross the link in the first place. It was a liberating idea, but at the same time almost disconcerting.
She’d get used to it. Adapt. After all, that’s what the legendary Template was used to. That’s what a template did.
“There’s the matter of what the Agency was doing in Biodyne in the first place,” remarked the man. He was standing just out of her peripheral, but close enough that Constance could see his plain grey suit. It did nothing for him. A suit was a suit, was a suit.
“I told you before Mr Jorgenson,” Constance replied. “I’m here on holiday, and I have no comment.”
“It’s not like you should feel any loyalty towards the group. After all, from what our contacts inside the Agency tell us, you failed a crucial loyalty test. Chances are it’s only a matter of days before the Termination is complete.”
“Let it come.”
“The fact of the matter is,” Jorgenson said, proffering a slicksheet. “Biodyne is willing to offer you a rather hefty severance package, cost of disconnection and retooling included, of course.”
“Tell us what you want.”
“Well, right now,” she replied. “I want Tonga. I used to come here as a child. I think. Or maybe it was that I was born here. I’m not so sure. Do you remember where you were born, Mr Jorgenson.”
“Of course. The European Union.”
Constance leveled a steady glance in his direction, watching the mans slightly less than perfect reception. He wasn’t here, of course. Chances are, he was standing in some high tower in the EU right now. She liked how the waves lapped up gently against his loafers. Chances were that was real leather, getting virtually wet in her own personal dreamscape.
“Is this what this is about? A real life? You want a real life? Biodyne can give you that. Just name the appointment. The fact of it is all is that my employers are very keen to a get any leverage they can in the Southern markets. You could be that leverage. What you know.”
“You have my answer, Mr Jorgenson,” Constance replied, lazing back on the park bench. It sat on the sand, like it had every reason to be there. “You had it two days ago. It won’t change.”
Constance watched a bird flying overhead, with almost rapt interest. How much would it have cost to see the real thing anyway? Interference made the scene ripple like water, and she didn’t need to look to know that Jorgenson had gone. It was a while longer before she noticed Toa though. From the direction he had come, one would have to assume he had walked straight out of the water as he headed up the beach towards her.
This Toa was real, with all his husky good looks. Constance prided herself in not falling so deeply that her brain gave up telling the difference between reality and hyper reality.
“Hey, baby girl.”
“I guess you’re here to finish things for the Priniciple.”
Toa gave one of his smooth, slow smiles. He paused just beyond her reach, just beyond the hood. He looked straight off assignment, dressed in a hugging t-shirt that showed off a beefy chest. Plain utility cargos. Another t-shirt was tied back over his bald head. He’d done the decent thing of not wearing his shades, Constance realized.
“Did I interupt?”
“Nothing that the Agency wouldn’t have been able to overhear.”
Toa stayed at the perimeter, just standing there on the sand. Big boots had left tracks that Constance noticed were starting to fade. Only so much the systems could compensate for. She looked back up at Toa and smiled. She didn’t know if it was stress, or relief or something in between.
“Would you marry me, Toa?”
Toa laughed, and Constance joined him, not realizing how stupid it sounded this time around. Last time it had washed just fine. They’d been like two teenagers, thinking that the marriage would solve everything. This time it sounded like two friends joking around.
“Didn’t go so good last time around.”
“You ever wonder about it all,” Constance said, shifting on the park bench. “I mean, the Agency. I don’t know what’s worse, working all the time, or taking time off like this.”
Toa gave a rather grim looking nod, something that showed he knew exactly where Constance was coming from. Symbolically, Constance noticed, the sun was starting to set across the Tongan vista.
“I find the downtime the hardest to take,” he remarked, shoving his big hands into his pockets. Constance thought of Toa’s little South Sector hide away. At least she hadn’t trashed it like she had first figured. It was curious to think that her pack was still sitting under his bed, the weapon still in it.
“How many tests do they have to give us?” she asked, dry. “Is this another one?”
Toa lost his joker of an expression, his handsome features straight, “Probably best to assure you’re always bein’ tested, girl. That’s how I do it. Just live and hope for the best.”
“So,” Constance said, changing tact a little. “Did I lobotize you? Do you forgive me?”
Toa paused, that smile creeping back over his face. Considering his answer, Constance though. Her hopes sunk a little. “I’d forgive you anythin’, baby girl. You know that.”
“We would have made a good team.”
“That we would have.” Toa put his big hand out to her, and she guessed he was close to touching the hood. “C’mon. Time to go. I figure the Agency is through with all the tests it wants to give you for now.”
“Time for the last dance, huh?”
Toa just offered another of those slightly grim nods. Constance thought of other things, and in response the hood started to shift up, tipping back up off the bench. About her, the Tongan vista danced and rippled, vanishing to reveal the truth. The top of the Taranaki Arcologies, and a line of benches, looking over the dark, oily seas. Toa was standing there, holding his hand out. And that was real.
“Time for the last dance.”