Special Agent Alan Grant is dead. His body is placed on an autopsy table, his upper torso split open, the gaping crack in his chest held apart with an old, dented rib spreader. Plastic bags filled with his organs, each clearly labeled and marked with permanent black marker, sit in a pile on a small wheeled table to the left of his head. His lifeless eyes are still open, and wide dark stripes—something called tache noir—spread across the whites of both eyes.
Special Agent Alan Grant is alive. He’s a tall, thin man, clean-shaven, dressed in a black suit (rumpled), white shirt (rumpled, collar unbuttoned), black tie (pulled open and hanging loosely around his neck), and a long black trench coat (strangely unrumpled) that comes down to his ankles. His dark hair is slicked back away from his face, revealing dark eyes that narrow as he stares at his corpse on the autopsy table. His mouth, usually turned up in a smirking, crooked half-smile, shows no trace of mockery or amusement. A fine layer of sweat covers his forehead.
“They really did a number on me, didn’t they? I mean never mind shooting me in the back, these guys scooped my organs out of my body. And put them in little baggies.”
“How does it feel?”
The woman standing to his right is shorter, Asian, with slightly reddish skin. Her long black hair is pulled back into a simple ponytail, but strands have fallen out and hang along her face on both sides. She pays them no mind. She is also dressed in a black suit (not at all rumpled), white shirt (neatly pressed, collar properly buttoned), and black tie (pulled up tight and hanging properly), though she doesn’t wear a trench coat. She is not sweating. She never sweats.
She is also a Special Agent. She is, in fact, Alan Grant’s partner.
“It pretty thoroughly sucks, Hu.” Grant shakes his head. “It makes me want to drink. A lot.”
Special Agent Lijuan Hu smiles slightly. “You always want to drink a lot.”
“Point,” Grant says. “But… oh, Christ.”
He turns away from the body and rubs his eyes. Hu frowns slightly. This isn’t Grant’s usual behavior. She’s been his partner for years, so she gets to see a few more sides of him than most of the rest of the world, but this is more than he likes to show willingly, even to her.
“Grant… Alan.” Hu doesn’t like using his first name. It’s too formal.
Grant half-turns toward her. “Sorry. This is just… fucked. It’s fucked.”
“Obviously. I’m not gonna get you to stop thinking about it, so at least think about it out loud.”
Grant laughs, and to Hu’s relief the side of his mouth curls up, just a little bit. “Yeah, OK. I ever tell you about the first time I actually died like this?”
“A little,” Hu says. “You were sixteen or something? It’s why you can’t go past five locations.”
“Ah, the stupidity of youth…” Grant’s mouth twists into a sneer. “Yeah. So… when I was thirteen I figured out how to flip into two places at the same time. There’s a trick to it—it’s all in the timing—and after I did it I was knocked on my ass, because I couldn’t understand what I was seeing. I mean, I was seeing two different places at the exact same time. Think about when two people are trying to have a conversation with you at the same time—in a really noisy room—and both of them assume they’re the one you’re paying attention to. It’s like that, only with everything.”
“I want to hit someone just thinking about it,” Hu says.
“That’s why I like you,” Grant says. “Anyway, it took some time to figure out how to process everything. Even when I thought I’d have a handle on it, there’d be situations where I’d turn to walk through a door only to realize—after I ran into a wall—that the door was in the other location.”
“Yeah. That kinda shit is great when you’re thirteen. I was The Kid Who Ran Into Stuff For No Reason.”
Hu laughs out loud.
“It got a lot better as soon as I sorted it all out. I don’t ever want to go back to being stuck in one place, Hu. I don’t know how the rest of you do it. It would make me crazy.”
“Too late,” Hu says. “So you’re thirteen and you’re in two places at the same time.”
“Yeah,” Grant says. “And it’s fun. I mean, talk about having the perfect alibi, right? But I’m an ambitious kid—under the right circumstances—so I want to see how far I can go. I try to figure out how to be in three places. Takes a while to get the timing right, and then, just like before, I need to take a while to process the third location. It takes longer, because I’m processing three separate locations instead of two, and there’s an even longer period where it feels like I’ve got it but I keep getting my wires crossed. Finally I get it sorted, and it turns out that being able to be in three places is even more awesome than being in two.”
“I see where this is going,” Hu says.
“Yeah, I kept pushing myself to add more locations. Thing is, it took longer each time. So three years later I’m trying for location number six. I manage to get all six locations sorted, and I convince myself I’ve got a handle on the disorientation… but I’m dead wrong. One day I turn in the wrong location. In one place I run into a telephone pole. In another… I trip over the side of an overpass and fall in front of a tractor trailer.”
Hu’s eyes widen.
“The driver freaks—I can’t blame him, you don’t expect a kid to drop from the sky right in front of your rig—and he tries to turn, but all that does is jackknife the truck and cause it to roll on top of me. That’s what kills me. And Christ, Hu, that hurt. A lot more than getting shot in the back. To have this thing roll on top of you and tear you to pieces… I don’t really know how to describe it. I wasn’t thinking any more, but my nervous system hadn’t cut out, so I could still kind of feel what was going on, and I was aware in five other places. I could actually feel this huge metal thing grinding me to pieces.”
“That’s… sick,” Hu says.
“It gets worse. At that point I’m really disoriented, and then I start to feel myself letting go. Not the dead place—it’s like I’m holding on to that location with all my might. But one second I’m in my bedroom, and then I’m not there any more. A second later I’m doing laps in the community swimming pool, and then I’m not there any more. Public library—gone. Alley behind the supermarket—gone. Suddenly it’s just me in the high school bleachers with a bunch of friends, and dead-me crushed under tons of rolling metal, and I can feel myself starting to let go of the me that’s still alive.”
“But you didn’t,” Hu says.
Grant shudders. “It was really, really close. I don’t know, chalk it up to being stubborn, but I forced myself not to let go at the bleachers, then forced myself to let go of the corpse. And I fought myself the whole way. It was like the only place I really wanted to be was the place where I wasn’t anymore.”
“Why would you want that?” Hu asks.
Grant shrugs. “You know how Collins is with heights? Put her on a balcony and she’s five steps away from the rail, because if she gets any closer she’s got this little voice in her head saying ‘jump.’ It was like that. But it wasn’t whispering, it shouting at the top of its lungs. Man, that screwed me up. My friends on the bleachers thought I was having a really bad trip.”
He turns back to his body, gazing at his dead face.
“I had to start all over after that. Re-learn two locations. Then three. Then four. Then five. Never did make it to six—mental block, or something…”
Hu looks down at the corpse of her partner and tries to imagine what he’s feeling. She’s so used to seeing Grant all over the map—literally all over the map—that the corpse on the table doesn’t affect her any more than any other random cadaver on a slab. As far as she’s concerned, that’s not Grant, because he’s standing right next to her, talking to her. But to him it is.
“How bad is it, really?” She doesn’t bother to make it sound like a joke.
Grant laughs, voice sounding hollow and thin as it echoes off the autopsy room walls. “It’s pretty bad. I haven’t slept in two days.”
“Why?” Hu asks.
“I’m afraid if I fall sleep I’ll…” Grant points to himself, then makes a poofing gesture with his hands. “It almost itches. I mean death shouldn’t feel like anything, right?”
Hu shrugs. “Depends on what you believe, I guess.”
“Well I don’t see a white tunnel. Or a red one, either. It feels like nothing, but… nothing feels like something. Christ, that sounds really stupid.”
“Grant.” Hu looks straight at him. “Just let it go. You’ve already been tagged and declared dead. Just… let it go.”
“Boss wants me to wait a little longer,” Grant says.
“Too fucking bad for him.” The anger in her voice is unexpected, and Grant blinks in surprise. “He doesn’t understand. If he did, he wouldn’t have asked.”
Grant looks at his corpse again. “Yeah?”
“Jesus, Grant, you are the weirdest mix of maverick and good soldier…” Hu grabs his hand and squeezes. “Focus on that. Don’t screw this up. Hold on to the hand. Hold on to the place where you feel the hand. Let go of the place that doesn’t feel the hand.”
Grant stares at her for a minute, hope and fear flashing across his face as he wrestles with himself.
Maybe literally, Hu thinks. I have no idea how that works with him.
Finally Grant nods. He turns back to his corpse and regards it for a moment. “I am never gonna get tired of not looking at you,” he says.
His hand squeezes hers, just for an instant, then the corpse on the table blurs and disappears, followed by the quick patter of empty plastic bags falling as the organs they once held disappear as well, knocking them off balance and sending them to the floor.
Alan Grant sighs, shuddering in relief. “Thanks,” he whispers. He doesn’t let go of her hand. “I owe you. Big.”
Hu grins. “You’re good for it.”
He lets go of her hand, looking a bit sheepish, and then tugs at his already too-loose tie. “I need a drink.”
“You always need a—” The door to the morgue opens and Special Agent Phillip Henry, their boss, walks into the room. He stops in the doorway, words dying on his lips, as he stares at the empty autopsy bed. He looks at Grant, who stares at the floor guiltily.
“I told him to,” Hu says.
Special Agent Henry switches his gaze from Grant to Hu. He’s a tall man, almost as tall as Grant. His skin is very dark, and his hair is cut down almost to his scalp. He’s also dressed in a black suit (crisp), white shirt (crisp), black tie (crisp), and on top of that he wears a pair of dark-tinted sunglasses. The sunglasses make him look like the ultimate G-Man stereotype, though they’re actually an act of courtesy on his part. Like Hu and Grant, Agent Henry is a metahuman: he can instantly tell when someone is lying… and when he makes eye contact, the person is incapable of lying at all.
Agent Henry nods once. “I’m sorry, Alan. I shouldn’t have drawn this out as long as I have.”
“It shouldn’t be too hard to sell the idea that someone wanted to steal the corpse of the agency’s most powerful teleporter,” Agent Henry continues. “That may actually work to our advantage. I’m convinced there’s a mole in Division M.”
Both Grant and Hu look alarmed.
“It’s not on our team,” Agent Henry continues. “I’m sure of that. It’s part of the support staff, but I can’t look too closely without people asking questions. This gives me an opportunity to dig deeper.”
“How is the team?” Hu asks.
“They know everything,” Agent Henry says. “I’ll need to fill in Sky Commando next. As far as the rest of the world is concerned, Special Agent Alan Grant is dead, and his partner, Special Agent Lijuan Hu is on leave due to trauma.”
“It’s because you’re a girl,” Grant says.
Hu snorts. Grant is definitely feeling better now.
“OK, boss,” Hu says. “You got us out of the public eye. So what exactly is it you want us to do?”
“Help Travers,” Agent Henry says. “He thinks he knows where the Next Big Thing is going to happen, and he wants to be there when it does. I want you with him to keep him safe, and to make sure the right side comes out on top.”
“Which side is that?” Grant asks.
“That’s your call,” Agent Henry says. “I trust you and Hu to figure it out.”
“OK,” Grant says. “Where exactly is Travers going?”
A long silence follows.
“Shotgun,” Grant says.