As psychedelic as it was, it was a fact. As Constance opened her eyes, she saw the sun slowly rising over Tonga’s postcard perfect seas. It was sound tracked by the Beatles. Here Comes the Sun. Constance pulled herself upright, as the chorus played warmly. A bird was sitting on the edge of the hut window. She was sure it was watching her.
Constance let the soundtrack play through her mind, glancing over at the bed opposite. Toa was sleeping, snoring, a noise that rudely interrupted Ringo and John as they chorused in the morning. Constance stared at him for a moment, glancing across his hard, exposed body.
‘Even if I did go for that’, Constance thought, as she set her feet down on the hard, wooden floor. ‘He doesn’t. How could it work? Or is he willing to get married on just the feelings we have alone?’
Those enough were strong. Toa was right. They had been through a lot together. More than any other agent and handler, Constance was willing to bet.
Agent and handler.
The bird kept staring at her as Constance thought about caff again. A morning instinct, that always set the service nearest her onto the boil. She could smell the soft, bitter touch of the flat white already preparing itself. The bird hoped a few steps over to the right.
‘Since when do I have a soundtrack?’ Constance wondered, briefly. She was curious what would come after the track about the sun. The credits and details of it shuffled in her lower vision.
The weather was fine. Long range forecast didn’t note any decernable change. Constance half expected a frame to pop open with the local news, but was thankful when nothing did. She took up her caff. Almost too perfect. But what cup of caff wasn’t at this time of the morning.
Here comes the sun, little darling. It’s alright …
Constance shut the soundtrack down, almost expecting a whole lot else to come down with it. Nothing faded other than the music. A line of data about the weather trickled in her lower vision.
The bird cocked its head slightly, and then took to flight.
Constance took another sip of her caff, and took up the slick sheets. Maybe it was just the fact she was so away from things at the moment. That’s another thing she liked about Tonga. It was just so quiet. So few people. There were better places for real tourists to be, so much easier to get the hyper real version of it all, straight from your home set. No reason to actually go there.
Constance remembered the last mission as she looked at Toa. She studied the brief, scratchy hair on his chest. The way his chest rose and fell with his breath. The only noises now were the soft sound of the water washing onto the beach. And the sound of Toa’s snoring.
‘How much of the last mission was real, girl,’ Constance found herself asking. She let just a little of Toa seep into her inner thought. ‘When exactly did tech services put you to sleep?’
When did you wake up?
Constance drunk more of her coffee, feeling the sensations of the wooden floor against her bare feet. She should shower, of course. Or maybe a morning dip in the sea. She set aside the slick sheets again, the data there fading totally and vanishing from existence. Constance stepped out, leaving Toa sleeping as she walked towards the beach, coffee cup in hand.
‘If I’m awake, then why am I listed among the dead? Or is this just another elaborate test?’
Constance felt a horrible chill pass over her. Toa wasn’t her handler. He couldn’t be. She’d never have feelings like that for a handler. Maybe another agent, that seemed to make more sense. But handlers never got that close to their agents. Two agents got that close. Two agents who had been to hell and back together.
Constance stared towards the beach, finding her feet no longer carrying her. She stood there, feeling the soft sand. The gentle wind.
‘And if I’m dead, and I’m not awake and this is all some hyper reality, then he’s dead too.’
You shot him.
Constance felt the grim sensation of realization pass over her, and it hurt like hell. She set her cup of caff aside on a stump that seemed almost too perfectly placed by her path. Her heart thumped as she walked out onto the beach. The bird was watching her from the lower branch of the last tree there before the golden sands stretched out towards a flawlessly blue sea.
‘None of this is real, girl. You’re dead, and so is he.’
But if that was true, then where the hell was she?
Constance thought back over all the truths that she had stayed up late digesting. She had some ideas of who might be the leak. A short list of sorts. None of them were particularly high ranked, and all were handlers. In one scenario she found herself implicating an agent and handler pair who had entered the agency about the same time, and only now found themselves assigned to each other.
Crunching the numbers. That’s what Toa had called it. And if she crunched enough, she’d come out with the answers. Just like some damned computer.
Why was her name on the list? She wasn’t dead. She was here. It was a clerical error. Maybe that itself was some strange test. They were in the grips of a Code Black. These were dangerous times, that called for curious measures. She stepped onto the beach, feeling her feet sink into the soft, warm sand.
‘Maybe there’s another Agent Constance. Maybe someones trying to point me towards discovering something about myself. About the Agency. Isn’t that what this is all about? Discovering truths to save the Agency?’
Constance’s sarong tugged in the warm breeze as she stood on the beach, staring out across the sands. She thought of the last time she had looked over these waters, from the benches atop the Taranaki Arcologies. She half expected to see the suit standing there, getting his feet wet, trying to convince her to change sides. She half expected to see Toa walking up out of the surf.
Time for the last dance, girl.
‘Why do I always end up coming back here?’
The bird touched down on the beach near her and looked up at her curiously. It studied Constance as Constance studied it. It cocked it’s head again.
“What do you think?” she asked the bird. Constance was scared of thinking that she expected it to reply. “Dead or alive?”
The bird didn’t answer.
‘Maybe I’m dead, and Toa’s not. Which would make this all some half life, just like Ubik. And I’m dreaming all this from my own special little place. Maybe I should just marry Toa and be done with it.’
Toa was standing beside her and it felt almost like a dream, before she woke up. The sun touched his bare skin and make it look like mahogany. He smiled, his features rugged from lack of shaving. At least he’d left those damn shades back at the hut. Constance hated when he hid his eyes. Those eyes that she had lost herself in more than a few times.
“How real can hyper reality get?” she asked, casually. Toa had his hands shoved into the pockets of his baggy camo shorts, barefoot and looking the part of tourist. He shrugged.
“Real enough if you want to believe in it,” he replied. He was just pulling the party line on that one. “Your mind can even overlook the glitches if you’re deep enough in it.”
“Am I dead?”
Toa glanced at Constance with a look somewhere between bemusement and concern. “What you mean, girl? You look pretty healthy to me. Why?”
“My name was on the list of agents who had been eliminated.”
Toa scowled and looked out over the sea. Constance noticed that the bird was gone again, and she didn’t remember when it had taken flight. “Would be pretty hard for that to be the case, ’cause we standing here talkin’ ain’t we?”
“Pretty sure of it.”
Constance knew Toa was always the pragmatist. He lived in base, hard realities. Hardly ever went in for anything hyper. When he wasn’t skating the edges of other peoples lives for the Agency, he was a pleasurist. One that believed that nothing replaced the reality of two hard, real bodies against each other.
“Ever have one of those mornings where you wake up and question what’s real?”
Toa didn’t answer for a moment, like he was considering the question. “All the time. We’re agents. Which lives are even our own? Who am I today?”
“I hope you’re Toa Carter,” Constance replied, with the touches of a smile. Carter smiled back, the first real smile she had seen out of him since the start of the assignment.
“I hope I am too.”
“Why don’t we go back to Skycity,” she remarked. The breeze against her face was still warm, almost enough to make her want to stay forever. “Or somewhere in the Republic. Anywhere else but here. I can’t work here. It’s just not the right place for it.”
“Sure. No problem. There’s nothing in the Code Black protocols that stops us from doin’ that.”
“When are they wanting my recommendations?”
“Soon as you can get them, of course,” replied Toa. Constance was already turning to head back to the hut. Carter was close at her side. They looked like a couple, Constance thought. “Sooner the better for Faye.”
“Isn’t that always the way?”
Constance wondered how far she could push things, still not willing to shake the thought entirely that some of this might not be true. She wanted to read over the truths again, and see what the facts were. Then she’d decide what was real or not. She didn’t look up the beach, even though she knew she was being watched. The bird wasn’t watching her this time. It was a man in oriental garb. Constance ignored it, and pushed her hand into Carter’s. He looked surprised for a moment, and then went with it, his big hand warm in her grasp.