(Written by Kidman, Carmen, and Vic. Edited by Kidman. 'Combined with Edge of the Earth')
Kidman was on the roof, as usual. No one else came up here and it had a wonderful view of the moors. Everywhere in the moors had a wonderful view of the moors. She felt safe here, where she could see everything and no one could see her. There was a time when this base saw more action, many years ago, mostly training. She had been trained here. She once thought to finish it and go on to be an agent like the others, go out and pock the walls set by law-enforcement with rainbows.
But she had never been able to take that last step, last steps.
That would mean going....out there.
The wind tugged at her hair. It always amazed her just how much stronger the wind was up here. It was only a two story building. It took very little to move into the current and be swept away. She had been careful to avoid it but knew if she wanted to remain in this group, she would have to do something to benefit it. There were all kinds of cracks to be filled and Kidman schooled herself in the art of odd-jobbing. Back when this base had been useful, she had been useful, but both had faded with time.
"If I could just stay here forever... "
Carmen wasn't a fool. Of course she knew this place was still occupied, even if she wasn't familiar with who did so. Someday the remaining stragglers would be sorted and reapplied where they could be useful, mixed back into the fold.
Kidman hoped it never came.
'I was so tired, Carmen, I'm so scared, of everyone. I don't exist outside of here....'
She paused, squinting into the growing dim. One by one the field lights flickered to life, the halogen hum her friend. Earlier she had attempted to speak to others, just in case she was placed back in the world. Just to see what it was like.
It had been daunting.
'Has it really been so long?'
"I should have been a doctor. I should be, yes? With this gift of mine. I would go to medical school and learn how the system works, how the chemicals interact, how the polypeptides align. Perhaps I could cure something, forge an antibody from a disease. I could and I should. Whenever someone fell off a roof or Ivy broke one of us in half, I could fix it. I would have to practice, train, suffer for it, but at least I would, could be something. If I wasn't so scared..."
Kidman looked at the scars on her hands, ghostly lines on ghostly skin. The never seemed to fade. She wondered if they were as noticeable to others as they were to her. She never told the truth when asked about them. She didn't lie; no, she was unable to lie, but simply brushed it aside. The questions stopped eventually and she let her short past fade into her comfortably dull routine. She almost never thought about any of it anymore...until recently.
Something was moving in the wind, and it was gaining on her.
'borrowed' Bell 212 painted to match an Italian Police Helicopter was dropped
off in Slovenia and exchanged for an Airbus A318. Vic "The Slick"
Fumigalli was able to pay for this on credit, since VILE was known for being
good on their word. He knew he did a great job, but from the singular look on
Carmen's face, he wasn't sure if one mistake was going to spoil this for him.
VILE agents sat dotted about the plane, most were asleep as the bird glided northward. Vic glanced at Carmen. As was usual with most short flights, she was awake.
"Should we talk about this?" Vic said as he stood next to her seat, "You remind me of an angry version of yourself."
"Did you send for a transport to pick up Kidman?" Carmen asked instead, ignoring his inquiry.
‘She's asking about work, that's good.' Vic thought. "Yeahum... got that taken cared of."
"Perfect. And no, this isn't the time to talk. We'll go over everything after we reach the safe house." she replied, dismissing him.
Vic complied and went back to his seat, then stretched himself out and took a nap.
Kidman looked at the letter in hand, then back at her cipher, and the letter again. There was no use checking it a third time. It said what it said, and really, she couldn't be completely surprised.
It was a long time coming.
She spent the next day in a state of constant bombardment. Shelf upon shelf of dusty memories and emotions rained down upon her at every turn, each demanding space in her tiny knapsack. Truth be told, she wanted to leave it all behind. How could she hope to stand before the Lady buried under so much debris?
'I should have cleaned this out years ago, but it was so much easier to pretend it wasn't there...' she thought now as she sat huddled against the pre-dawn chill. The transport would be here soon. She swore she could hear the engine's murmur on the wind and a speck came into view. It suddenly dawned on her that she would be interacting with a new person; whoever it was piloting, and a new sense of urgency took her.
'I have to make a shell. Who will I be? What can I maintain the easiest? What would give me the best advantage? Why is this even necessary? Because this is another person, or because this is a person closer to the center? Good god, I forgot, there is no hierarchy. That's what Mr. Kerr had said. I have to make a whole person! I...I don't even know how to begin.'
Her thoughts were interrupted by the roar of the helicopter and the rush of wind against her face. She couldn't help but feel a thrill in it, but as the door opened a burst of fear sprinted out in front.
'This copter leads to Carmen. You're in over your head.'
The moment of doubt turned over into rebellion and she thought on it no further as she quietly took her seat.
The pilot glanced at her. "You been here by yourself this whole time?"
Kidman watched her home shrink and fall away below her. "It wasn't always empty, but yes, I suppose I am the last one."
"Why didn't you ask for a new position earlier?"
She had no answer for that, not one she wished to say. "How long until we get there?" she asked instead.
Mercifully the pilot didn't press. "A few hours."
The girl nodded and let her head fall back against the seat. Now that she was in the air she felt...lighter. Long ago she used to ride in the back of transport copters as they brought supplies up from the channel. She had planned to learn how to fly one herself, but then...
The grass was bright green below and the sun was hot. People were everywhere, yelling, laughing. There was a crowd, gathered around some beautiful machine. So much fanfare!
"The leader is here! Our leader is here! Look, girl, look. Our leader!"
She could barely see her but she could feel her, hear her. Awe, and then, inexplicably, terror.
"She's coming, she's coming!" They cried around her. The noise grew louder, the colours brighter, garish, and the girl grew smaller, grayer. At last she turned to flee, but hands grabbed hold. The light was almost upon her-
"Hey! Wake up! You having a nightmare or something?"
Kidman awoke with a start, her seat belt clenched in her hands. "Oh, I, I'm sorry. I must have fallen... how long was I asleep?"
"The whole trip, but you didn't start fighting 'til now. Don't worry; base is just down there. You'll be off in a few."
"Thank you..." was all she could manage to say.
The A318 eventually landed on a small stretch of old road among former farmland. Those that exited the transport with her scattered as soon as they reached safety. This would strictly be a drop-off; the plane will leave by morning to be exchanged with another source of transport. All VILE members disembarking here would remain at the nearby facility until further notice.
Carmen departed the plane in full regalia, the color-changing Alexandrite gems about her neck alternating between aqua green and violet as they reacted to the varying light sources. A navy blue woven bag was draped over her right shoulder; one of the few indicators that this was present-day. Even the foggy fields around her looked convincingly antiquated. Due to the expedited nature of the retreat from Venice, backup wardrobes had been omitted, and so she now dragged, with some difficulty, the weight of the beaded dress as she maneuvered down the flight of stairs in her laced boots. For the masquerade the thief aimed for authenticity, and while she looked like a queen, she hardly felt like one as she stepped off the perilous metal ramp.
Bright white lamps in the airfield lit a path to the current temporary base of operations; an old compound not far from some marked swamp grounds. Within peripheral vision, Carmen spotted a pale face peering at her.
‘Yes', she recalled, ‘this one.'
She turned towards the girl and smiled warmly.
"Come with me," she called in her calming contralto. Her hand moved out to Kidman with the palm facing downward as if she expected it to be held but continued on ahead, leading the young woman to a private room.
Vic shot a quick glance at Carmen's action and scratched his head instinctively. He couldn't stay long; he had to go visit his Ma soon, but he might as well stay long enough to see what Carmen wanted with this kid.
Kidman gazed numbly at the halos in the mist. Her heart was exhausted and sought an empty space, but even in the calm of twilight she could not hold onto peace.
Carmen was coming.
She had hoped that Carmen would have already been there, already involved with something, leaving it to someone else to direct the girl where to eat, where to sleep. She was still just a grunt, she reasoned. There would be no reason for the Lady to address her directly unless it was necessary and most likely as part of a group. However, if she was just arriving now, she would be sure to note all that surrounded her.
‘Including me. No, she won't notice me. It will be fine, just fine.'
A shadow of a thought drifted up to the surface. ‘You're afraid of her.'
Kidman blinked. She poked the statement and it gave forth the same threads of fear she felt from the dream she had had on the way over. The one she had had so many times before but failed to understand. She brushed it aside.
‘I'm not afraid of Carmen. I'm just nervous. Anyone would be. She's Carmen. Besides, the summons means nothing. I'm just being pulled back into the fold, is all. Re-consolidation.'
The voice beneath her just laughed, tugging at the dark corners of her mind as it did. Then it jabbed her in the side.
‘Look up. She's here.'
A dual rush of excitement and fear washed over the girl as the glare of headlights poured down upon the path below.
‘She's human. She's not an image, she's a person. She bleeds and cries and brushes her teeth like everyone else. That's the magic of it, that someone could weave such high fantasy out of a mundane world. Don't forget, don't lose sight, or all is lost.'
Still, the urge to hide was strong enough that Kidman shrank into a corner as she watched the plane land and the tens of people spill out from it into the fog.
‘She's not there,' Kidman thought with a clash of relief and disappointment, but the last figure to leave brought her back to full attention.
"mother of god..."
The words slipped from her lips as Carmen descended the ramp dressed in a way she couldn‘t comprehend.
‘What is she...? Why is she dressed like...? Are you taunting me? Your presence wasn't enough to crush me, you had to dress like that?'
The thoughts made no sense to her and she couldn't find the means to interpret them over the loud, singular plea from her consciousness for her to stop staring.
‘Stop staring, stop staring, goddamn you, stop staring! She's going to notice, she's going to-'
The Lady looked her way and the world froze in stark relief.
"Come with me."
‘That voice...' Kidman thought as the woman reached out to her through molasses.
Carmen didn't wait. There was no reason for her to wait. She had made a command. There was nothing else but to follow, and yet, the girl could not move.
‘What does she want with me? What could she want with me?'
Tears stung her eyes as she felt the stares fall upon her, all asking the same.
‘What are you doing? Follow her!' A voice screamed inside her.
The sun was hot and the grass was green, and all around the colours grew garish. The light grew near and she was graying... no, not graying but fading, translucent, and fragile.
‘I can't, I can't! She, she‘ll see right through me!'
With a sudden jolt her vision became clear. It wasn't Carmen that she feared, but what Carmen could easily do. What perhaps only Carmen could do.
‘You knew this.' she thought angrily at her subconscious. ‘You knew and you let me come anyway. Why? Why are you killing us?'
‘Killing us?' her soul raged back. "I'm saving us! You're the one that buried me. I saw a second chance. You have two choices now, both of which may end terribly, but which would you rather have? Dying alone and wasted, or dying after having lived?'
Kidman felt herself fall away as she watched Carmen walk ahead into the mist. This was perhaps her last and only chance to salvage some meaning to her life.
"I joined you because I believe in your unusual heart. I have to put my faith in it now." she whispered to her retreating figure.
She closed her eyes and followed.
The long and dreary hallway echoed with the sound of Carmen's alternating heels, nearly drowning any noise made by her follower. This rhythmic tempo grew louder as they moved deeper into the base, away from the clamour at the entrance. In front of an imposing steel door, the resonance ceased and the air filled with cold silence.
Carmen's voice penetrated the stillness.
"It's too quiet around here." She said as she unlocked the door with a simple key.
Inside, a warmly carpeted hallway extended into a bedroom with antechamber, one promised to VILE's ringleader. Carmen left the door open after walking through, the beat of her shoes now dampened by the softer floor. She pulled her bracelets off as she walked, the left one first, then the right, and discarded each onto the carpet, followed by her earrings and necklace. By the time she reached the large leather chair in the bedroom's sitting area she had left behind a veritable trail of accessories. Last to leave her was the woven sachet, which she placed beside her as she sat down.
The thief exhaled melodiously into the evening as she rested on the furniture. In sharp contrast to the pleasant quietude, her mind was overflowing with thoughts. Everything led to the golden Mask of Helen, and the operation that surrounded it.
Her eyes focused on the pale face in the room with her, and she leaned gently forward to study it further. When she had first discovered a name on her roster that ACME had yet to acquire, she thought it would be to her advantage. Yet seeing the girl now, Carmen realised that she may have been too hasty. Whether or not Kidman would play a role in her new game with ACME would be determined in the next hour, but first, a formal introduction.
"Hello Kidman," she said with a smile. "Do you know who I am?"
Every step had echoed in the girl's mind, the tick of a clock counting down to something massive, waiting to envelope her as she traveled further into the darkness.
The urge to pick up after the woman as she dropped her things was surprisingly strong but Kidman fought it off. Cleaning was a nervous habit she couldn't indulge at the moment. Now she stood before her, caught in a three-way battle of wills, her fear, her anger, and Carmen.
"Hello Kidman," Carmen said with a smile. "Do you know who I am?"
The girl looked at her, puzzled. Was this a trick question? "Yes...?"
"Very well then, do you know why you're here?"
"In this room? No...n-not at all, no."
'Good god, her voice...'
Carmen smiled, a glint in her eyes. "Have you seen the news yesterday evening? Particularly one about a new year celebration in Venice?"
Kidman felt she might burn away under her intensity. "No, I, I don't generally follow...I-I'm sorry, was I supposed to?"
Something kicked her in the shin. ‘Stupid! Don't act so feeble. Feeble people are useless.'
Carmen seemed unperturbed. "Ah, no matter. I'll tell you of it. There's a man, Kidman, named Chase Devineaux. Are you familiar with that name?
"Not... so much." Kidman murmured and looked at the floor "I've been rather secluded as of late..."
Then her attention shifted.
"Is he dangerous? To you?"
Carmen laughed at the mention of ‘dangerous'.
"Let's just say he's equivalent to ACME's... lucky charm. He's proven rather... effective. He returned to ACME not long ago, and already it has caused complications for us."
Kidman felt herself relax just a bit. '...her laughter is beautiful....'
"Are you looking to steal him, then?" she asked without thinking and immediately chastised herself.
The woman let it pass. "Ah, no. While that's not often a problem, I foresee a direct setback. We used to be... friends, he and I. I feel he knows me, perhaps a little too much for comfort."
The idea of anyone knowing Carmen well enough to be troublesome bothered her.
"Can anyone really know anyone?" she said, again without thinking and clapped her hands over her mouth.
‘What is wrong with you?'
‘I just, I want to talk to her, like-'
Carmen paused briefly and Kidman cast her eyes to the floor once again.
"I'm sorry... It's... been a while since I've been around...people."
"Yes..." Returning a kind smile, the woman accepted that apology, "Now, the reason you're here, is that I may need a 'lucky charm' of my own."
Kidman's heart jumped in her chest. ‘Me? Useful to her?' "But I... How?"
"Mm, precisely. You're not at all ready."
The girl looked away. ‘Now that you've seen my decrepit state... No, I can't, I can't lose this. I need to, I have to, even if it to use my body to prop open a door.'
"I could be." She said, her voice calm with resolve. This was the path she had chosen. There would be no more running now. "What is needed of me?"
Carmen drew a long breath.
"I'm going to be taking ACME Tower... from its foundations." She said solemnly, for the first time solidifying her intentions.
Kidman cocked her head. "Why ever for? Could you not just steal its contents?"
"One would think, but I need to get rid of the C-5... among other things."
"For reverse engineering?"
"I don't want the technology this time, I want it gone."
Kidman wanted to ask why, but decided against it.
"It could take many months," Carmen continued, "but during all this, I want you to complete your exercises."
"Will I be with other people for these exercises?
"Yes, there will be others."
A flash of old memories, happy memories filled the girl's head. The thought of returning to that comradery, that atmosphere she had lost so long ago, outweighed the fear she had of being out in the open again. Exercises were generally not considered ‘fun', but for girl it was almost exciting.
Carmen recessed further in her chair. "Tomorrow I'm leaving with Vincent and I won't see you until after the tower has been stolen and then returned to ACME, but I'll be following your progress."
"I'll do my best." Kidman said as she stuffed her fear of failure in a corner. She would deal with it later. Then she paused. Carmen was right there, in front of her. After all these years...
The woman was somewhat surprised. "Mm, don't thank me yet. We'll speak more on this when you're ready."
"No... I mean... for what you have given me already. Sanctuary."
Carmen nodded politely as she made a mental note to tell Vincent to keep a watch on all trainees. "I haven't given you anything I wouldn't want for myself."
Kidman wanted to say more but her survival instinct stopped her. "I should... I should go then..."
Carmen studied Kidman again, unsure of what she's seeing, and the girl's mind seemingly filled with astraddled fear. 'No, no, don't look through me!'
The headache that had plagued the woman all evening returned before she had the chance to note that it was momentarily gone. Carmen briefly closed her eyes as she recoiled with pain. "Yes, and ask someone to bring me water and a some codeine? Please."
Kidman's attention snapped back. "Oh! Are you hurt?"
Carmen laughed listlessly at the oddly hopeful comment. "I've been flying too long, and I need to deal with a lingering headache."
The girl's mind immediately switched into a different state, mapping out how and what would be needed to alleviate the pain.
'No, damn it. Get out of here!' screamed the voice inside her.
'But, but I can fix it!'
The thief noted the girl's hesitation and it occurred to her that she might need to clarify her statement. "Kidman, you may go now."
"Yes! Yes, I'll get that, straight away, yes." Kidman stuttered thankfully. She took one last look at the woman in the chair, wanting to remember her as best she could for the coming months, then bolted from the room.
Vic walked down the hallway from the other side of the facility, a metallic container in hand. As he came up to the door of his boss's den-of-the-day, he saw the kid Carmen had met with run out in the opposite direction. The con man unconsciously scratched his head again as he knocked against the doorframe.
"Can I come in?" he asked, his eyes already far inside to where Carmen rested in the leather armchair. "I got you something to drink."
"Shut the door on your way in." Carmen spoke without looking at him, her concentration remaining upon the task of unlacing the Venetian boots that were suffocating her legs.
Vic stepped in, careful to avoid the abandoned jewellery and stopped at the dividing line between the bedroom and whatever room it was in front. Some V.I.L.E. agent might run in to help Carmen with her shoes, but Vic knew better than that. She was the kind of gal who needed a lot of space. If it wasn't his business to sit next to her; he liked to stay a respectable distance.
Carmen thrust her footwear to the side and gave the con man her attention. "You said you have water?"
Vic entered and handed his leader the stainless steel canteen. "It's elder flower. One o' the doctors said you should have some sugar."
Carmen accepted the vessel and placed it compliantly on the low table next to her ottoman.
paused a moment in thought. "You know, that kid, she entered to be a
lackey. You know that, right?"
"I do know," the thief replied, "but people change status all the time. You saw her supervisor's reports? She was doing very well... and then she suddenly stopped."
"So you want me to put 'er back into the fray with the other four noobs?"
"I've spoken to her as motivation; the rest is yours. I want the full report after, then have Rosso recommend one of the four to me."
Vic took note of everything and nodded. The one newbie deemed best suited would get the promotion. He was almost certain it wouldn't be Kidman.
"I got one more thing," he started, "Prospects on a new talent, goes by the name Kerr, when I get more info, I'll set that up and you get to d'cide."
A knocking at the door indicated that the order of painkillers and water had arrived. Vic Fumigalli accepted the delivery.
Carmen imbibed the elderflower drink, its saccharine warmth soothing but acted as an instant reminder that she was tired. She placed the drink down and stood up
I need to sleep. We'll review in the morning."
"Still want the codeine?" Vic asked
"Leave it." She replied with an air of finality. "Goodnight."