By Bryan Condon
On the Sea Lion Press Forums, we run a monthly Vignette Challenge. Contributors are invited to write vignettes on a specific theme (changed monthly).
The fourteenth theme was Succession
"Ready?" asked the soldier, and Shelby shook her head.
"Me neither," the soldier, Robinson, agreed, flipping the latch of the loading door open and dragging it open. Outside, on the concrete apron of the building, was a lone figure, their back to Shelby and the door, dressed completely in black, outlined against the vast expanse of bright ruby sunset that sprawled across half the desert sky.
"Naomi?" Shelby asked, and the figure tilted her head slightly without looking around, her gloved hands clasped in the small of her back.
"It's a wonderful sunset, isn't it, Agent Shelby?"
"I guess so," Shelby agreed, hesitantly.
"Normally, you'd have to rely on a volcano to color a sunset like this. A very large eruption - Tambora, Pinatubo, Krakatoa - filling the atmosphere with soot and making it thicker. This, though, I suppose is probably Prague. Or Leningrad. Or maybe Baltimore."
"Yeah, guess so." Shelby would have been nauseated if she'd not already thrown up twice in the last hour. "We should... we should get started."
"Right, of course," Naomi agreed, briefly lifting her wide-brimmed black hat in salute to the sunset. "Goodbye, Prague." She turned and approached the loading door, pausing a careful pace from the threshold and regarding Shelby impassively through her sunglasses.
"Would you like to come inside, Naomi?" Shelby asked, mouth dry.
"Yes, thank you." Naomi bobbed her head lightly in a nod, and stepped inside. Robinson rolled the door back closed behind them.
"We have the, ah, the conference room set up over here," Shelby said, leading Naomi around row after row of steel drums in packing pallets, stacked to the ceiling.
"'We?'" Naomi repeated, her boots tapping on the concrete much too quietly. "I understood you were the senior surviving agent on the project, and that was why I had to come to New Mexico to speak to you."
"That's... that's correct, yes." Shelby tried to keep her voice flat. "I guess it's, uh, just a figure of speech."
"People often like to say 'we' when they truly only mean 'I,' it makes them feel less alone, more powerful," Naomi observed. "I think that's why kings were so fond of it."
"Sure." Shelby had no idea.
She led Naomi to the break room tucked into the corner of the building, a cramped little space crowded full by the folding table and broken-back couch, still smelling vaguely of coffee and covered in posters about minimum wage regulations and the facility softball team. Naomi inspected one while Shelby closed the door and pretended to adjust the tape recorder.
"Why are we here?"
"To... to talk about... about your agreement with-" Shelby started, but Naomi interrupted with a polite cough.
"No, dear, I mean why are we here, in this place, and not some other place? The-" She placed a finger on the poster beside her, running it around the crest at the top. "Department of Energy is hardly part of your agency, is it?"
"Well, uh... I mean... it was the most isolated operational facility, and given the political situation, and infrastructure problems... I was already here on an assignment, and it was simpler to bring you to me than... we... that is to say..." Shelby felt herself running down, the lines coming apart in her head as Naomi looked at her, her tongue thickening around the lies.
"The Secretary of Energy recently became your President, didn't he? His faction is ascendant now, you all bend your knee to him at the succession?" she asked, and Shelby nodded, grateful to grab at anything.
"Something like that. Please... would you sit? Something to drink?"
Naomi laid down her hat, pulled off her gloves and sunglasses, neatly arranging them before her, smoothing out her coat as she settled into the cheap folding chair.
"I don't suppose I could have some of Robinson, could I?" she asked. Shelby felt the whole left side of her face pinch in an involuntary shudder, and Naomi laughed. "Coffee, then, please. I like the taste."
Shelby splashed coffee into a pair of DOE mugs and set one in front of Naomi, who wrapped both hands around it appreciatively.
"Let's, uh, let's get started," Shelby said, sitting down and poking at the tape recorder until it clicked on. "Agent Ruth Shelby, Working Group, uh... Working Group Masticate. July, um... July 16th, in conversation with... Working Group M Asset Naomi."
"Yes, hello, that's me," Naomi agreed, smiling as if the recording could see her.
"We are here to... to talk about your agreement with the government. The Office of Strategic Services. You have..." Shelby looked over at some papers stacked haphazardly next to the recorder, but they stayed blurry and indistinct, and she closed her eyes instead of trying to read. "Been working for the government for a long time, haven't you?"
"That's correct, for you, I suppose. This span of years has not been so long to me, despite how disagreeable they have been."
"Right, yes. Of course." Shelby tried some of the coffee. It was pretty bad. "A lot of your file is, uh, redacted, even at my level. But the summaries are all very positive about you and your... contributions to national security."
"Thank you." Naomi smiled again, and this time Shelby noticed she did it without showing her teeth. "It's nice to be appreciated."
"F-fundamentally, what we need to discuss, though, is how your agreement has- has been-" Shelby paused, a wave of dizziness passing over her, the image of the woman in front of her swimming, bifurcating, flowing back together.
"Yes. I have always provided my services to your government clandestinely, without overt acknowledgement. For purposes of strategic surprise and to preserve certain public fictions." She held the mug under her nose, inhaled slowly, appreciatively. "But during the present conflict, certain hitherto inactive clauses in the agreement were invoked."
"Erfurt," Shelby said.
"Erfurt," Naomi repeated, nodding. "And other places."
"And that you neutralized, uh, opposition assets of a similar type to yourself."
"Something like that. There were not..." Naomi paused, considering. "They were not elegant, but they were formidable. I haven't had such a challenge in rather a long time."
"With the fulfillment of these clauses, your agreement with the government-"
"My indenture," Naomi corrected, lightly, but with a strange pressure that made Shelby's head ache until she agreed to the correction.
"Your indenture comes to an end with the end of the present conflict."
"Yes. I understand that negotiations are currently being conducted in Casablanca. The prognosis seems positive, there being so little left to fight with or over."
"I have been directed to- to request- to request what terms you would find agreeable for continuing to work with us, with the agency, in future," Shelby said, her throat tight.
"What terms under which I would be bound again?" Naomi asked, and Shelby shook her head.
"No, no, we- the agency- we hope to find a mutually beneficial arrangement that-" Naomi set down her coffee mug with a tap, and Shelby felt her mouth close.
"No. I don't think so, Ruth. Your government made me their servant, and did with me as they wished for quite long enough. I won your war for you, and now I will take my leave." This time the smile showed teeth. "The future promises to be a rich place for me, Ruth. It was cities that were the death of my kind, you know. Too many people, too close together, too loud and too organized. Cities gave rise to the bomb, of course, that have now removed so many of them. I always knew it was a passing fad, cities."
Shelby tried to stand up, but her limbs were still, leaden. She tried to speak, and flinched when the only noise she produced was a soft whimper.
"Oh, dear, no, don't be upset," Naomi said, getting up from her seat, circling around the table to lean against it, her leg against Shelby's, leaning down over her. "This is just the natural way of things. We'll do better this time, I promise." She picked up Shelby's limp left hand, and patted it. "It's like... you know how dogs were once wolves? They were some of the most dangerous predators humans ever faced - nocturnal, vicious, intelligent. But you made them into dogs, over time. The most faithful and obedient of man's animals."
Shelby whimpered again, as Naomi brushed a strand of hair back behind her ear.
"That's what we'll do this time. No bomb, no war, no unnecessary suffering. This is just the next phase of existence Are you ready for it?"
"No." Shelby was surprised the word leaked out at all, and Naomi laughed, brightly and loud.
"Neither was anyone else, dear." She kissed Shelby's forehead, her lips shockingly cold, and a helpless shudder jerked down Shelby's whole body. "Now, is there anything else, before I can be going? I know you meant this to be a trap, and I forgive you for it. I'll forgive the twenty-two men outside as well if you'll tell them to stand down."
"Okay. Okay," Shelby agreed, her head bouncing like a ball.
"You can't kill me, Ruth. People have tried. People have tried quite a number of different ways, informed by science or religion or mythology. They've never succeeded."
"Did you think you could succeed?"
"Is there anything else I should know about?" Naomi asked, softly, and Shelby groaned, the truth sliding out around the lie.
"There's a bomb, in the tape recorder."
"Really?" Naomi raised her eyebrows, impressed. "Dedicated, aren't you? Is it going to go off?" More nodding. "Defuse for me, won't you?"
Shelby stood up, swaying slightly, her chair falling over behind her, and took hold of the machine, pulling it closer to the edge of the table, and flipped it over, exposing the sheet of paper taped to the underside. She caught a fleeting glimpse of the shape - an odd golden squiggle, surmounted by something like a question mark - and nearly vomited again. Beside her, Naomi leaned over.
"Now what is th-" She broke off mid-word, stiffening, transfixed by the sign. "You- you- the yellow-" And then she dropped to the floor, convulsing violently. Shelby tried to move out of the way, but a flailing limb caught her across the back of the thigh, and she screamed as her head slammed into the refrigerator.
The door caved in, Robinson and the others piling through, landing on the seizing vampire in a great green-grey heap. Someone else picked Shelby up and dragged her out, past the trefoil-emblazoned barrel two men were wrestling towards the break room. Someone was swearing, over and over, in a choked, gasping voice, and Shelby wanted to yell at them to shut up. Then she realized it was her, and stopped.
"Hey, hey! Look at me!" The soldier holding Shelby's shoulders jerked her upright, his exhausted, unshaven face hovering somewhere just above hers. "It's okay, you're okay!"
"Yeah, I know what you mean." He pulled her aside as the forklift rolled past, the now-sealed barrel vibrating slightly as it was scooped up and carried it deeper into the building, to the waste handling shaft, attended by a knot of Robinson's men. Shelby felt her limbs stiffen again as it drew near, and almost choked before it was passed.
"Fuck," Shelby repeated, spitting on the floor.
"Pull yourself together," he said, pushing a canteen into her hands. "Wilde is due in here from Alaska in forty-five minutes."
"He's the last one for today, right?"
Reproduction of Northern Desert Magnetic Anomaly Obelisk 16, Panel Aleph-129 (North Face) 3rd Texicanua Archeographical Expedition, 1173 Original photogram credit to Dg. Suniya Winters (deceased)
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