Chapter 15: Sneaky
‘Last week,’ Aster said, apropos of nothing in particular, ‘I was trying some clothes on, so I was in this little cubicle in the fitting rooms, you know?’
‘Vaguely,’ said TM, who almost never tried anything on.
‘The curtain was drawn across, obviously, so nobody could see me.’
‘For all anyone looking at it from the outside could tell, it might just have been an empty room with the curtain drawn over. Nobody could ever have known unless they opened it.’
‘Unless they saw the curtain moving, or heard you unzipping stuff or something,’ TM pointed out.
‘I guess,’ Aster said, but TM could tell from the way she was biting her lip that she was unconvinced. A few moments of silence filled the room, like smoke slowly leaking through the gaps between the door and its frame.
‘I feel like there was something else you wanted to say,’ TM said, waving the silence away.
‘I went back to the same shop a couple of days later,’ Aster said. ‘Went back into the fitting room, and the cubicle I’d been in was occupied. Or, at least, the curtain was drawn over so I couldn’t see in.’
‘I guess that’s… good?’ TM said, trying to guess where she was going with this. ‘I mean, if it wasn’t, you’d be able to see in and watch people getting changed.’
Aster’s shoulders bobbed up and down. TM assumed it must have been a silent laugh, though her face remained thoughtful. ‘True enough,’ she admitted. ‘Although if anyone wanted people to see them getting changed, they could always just not close the curtain.’
‘I think Veggie did that once,’ TM reminisced. ‘Don’t think it ended well.’
‘It wouldn’t have,’ Aster agreed.
‘Sorry, you were probably saying something deep and meaningful.’
‘I just had this feeling,’ Aster said. ‘A really strong feeling that I was the one behind the curtain.’
‘Like, you were there looking at the occupied cubicle, and you felt like you were also the person who was inside it? The occupant?’
‘I was looking at a door behind which there was only myself,’ Aster said, which TM could tell meant something very significant, even if he wasn’t quite sure what. ‘Not in any figurative way either. It was as if it was literally true that the me who had been in that room a couple of days before was now in that room again, even though I was also standing outside it.’
‘Were you drunk?’ TM asked.
‘Might have been,’ Aster said.
By the time Veggie and Derrida made their triumphant return, some two hours later, L and Barry had more than doubled their stats.
‘Whoa,’ said Veggie, checking their sheets. ‘This is legit?’
‘Ziggy is… ridiculously fast at rolling dice,’ TM explained.
‘Fair enough,’ Veggie conceded. ‘Should have a decent shot at winning this thing now, any rate.’ He turned to Marty and Dominika, the latter of whom had taken the controller after the first hour. ‘How are you guys doing over there?’
‘Pretty good,’ said Marty. ’Started with Steel Cog Sturdy.’
‘A classic of the genre,’ Veggie proclaimed.
‘I got a couple of stages in,’ Marty told him, gesturing to the screen, ‘then this crazy woman took over and now we’re somehow on the final boss.’
‘Huh,’ said Veggie, examining their progress. Dominika was scooting about, dodging bullets and diving into a cardboard box for cover (which was proving inexplicably effective). ‘There we go,’ Veggie declared with vindication, pointing. ‘We’ve learned something valuable today: when in doubt, cardboard box.’
‘Yeah, it’s all completely worthwhile now,’ said Marty, gurning.
TM stood, edging over to Veggie. ‘Veg,’ he murmured. ‘This is what we’re doing? As training for pulling off an actual, real-life robbery?’
‘Fuck yeah,’ said Veggie, affronted. ’It’s perfect.’
TM stared at his oldest friend for a moment, then went ‘pff’ and held his hands up. ‘If you say so.’
Veggie nodded, then waved his arms in the air and yelled ‘Station swap!’ He and Derrida, following dutifully, took their seats at the table as Marty and Dominika left the warmth of the flat for the cold outdoors. TM and Ziggy took over the game station.
‘Ooh,’ said Ziggy, picking up a box, ’Silent Murder.’
‘You’ve played it?’
‘Naw, I just like the title.’ She flipped the box over, perusing the blurb. ‘“Initiate the Killing Revolution as the deadliest assassin of ancient China”,’ she read. ’Sounds awesome.’
‘Hey, Zig,’ said TM, as she inserted the disc.
TM glanced up at Derrida, who was rolling intently, and lowered his voice. ‘You know why we’re doing all this, right?’
‘Yeah,’ she said, pressing the start button. ‘Practice for the real thing.’
TM nodded. ‘You think that if we get this… moon rock… thing, it’ll help you somehow?’
She took a break from flicking through the start menus and gazed up at the ceiling. ‘I really hope so,’ she said after a few moments. ‘I mean, I’ve been loving staying here with you guys. For real. I literally wasn’t even alive before, and to be honest I can’t think of a better way to be alive than this.’
‘It’s been good,’ TM agreed.
‘The best,’ Ziggy said, and suddenly hugged him. ‘Thank you,’ she said.
‘Hey,’ called Veggie, who was carefully adjudicating Derrida’s rolls. ‘Get on with your training, bitches. This is important shit.’
Ziggy released TM and hopped over to Veggie, throwing her arms around him too. He patted her on the back, then went back to watching Derrida throw dice. ‘Love you too,’ he told her.
‘You guys are so gay,’ said Derrida. Veggie raised an eyebrow at him. ‘Point taken,’ said Derrida, and resumed rolling.
Ziggy slid back into the sofa, picking up the controller. ‘Anyway,’ she said quietly to TM. ‘This has all been the best. But… I guess that piece of space rock just really feels like something I need to be near, to have. For me. Can’t explain why.’
‘Maybe it’s a bit of you,’ TM suggested.
‘Don’t be dumb, TM,’ she admonished. ‘I’m a star. We’re massive balls of burning gas, not flipping clusters of pebbles.’
She sighed and ran a hand through her hair. TM thought he could see the colour darkening as her fingers passed along each strand. ‘It’s just gravity,’ she said. ‘Just natural forces, pulling celestial bodies together.’
‘You’re weird,’ said TM. Ziggy bared her teeth at him.
‘That’s the whole reason we get along so well, no?’
TM could not argue with that.
Ziggy started the game, which hailed its commencement with a loud sword-slash sound effect. After an opening cutscene which Ziggy accidentally skipped, a tutorial started up; Ziggy, as a loose-robed, black-masked assassin, made her way around the opening room. She was supposed to be sneaking, but for some reason was knocking over ornaments, tall candles and miscellaneous earthenware with abandon.
‘STEALTH,’ the game ordered; Ziggy made a face at it.
‘I’m trying, dork,’ she told it.
‘You have to hold this one,’ TM explained, pointing to a button.
‘Well, that’s not intuitive at all,’ Ziggy complained. Then she paused the game. ‘Hey, speaking of things that aren’t intuitive…’
’Are you going to ask how me and Veggie have managed to live together all this time and never… hooked up? ‘Cos I get that a lot.’
‘I was wondering, but nah.’ Ziggy held the controller over her mouth to muffle her speech. ‘What’s the deal with that guy Veggie really hates?’
‘What, the Swede?’
TM pushed the controller out of Ziggy’s face. ‘What’s made you ask that?’
She shrugged. ‘I was just thinking, while we were playing – I can’t imagine Veggie ending up hating anybody. Or anybody hating him.’
TM leaned back into the sofa, stretching his shoulders out like a lazy cat. Michel Furcoat sat on his head. ‘It was weird,’ he said. ‘Veg spent a while hooking up with anyone that came near him, but they were always decent. Then the Swede came along, and for some reason Veggie just couldn’t see that he was… not decent.’
‘So he was just a twat?’
‘Basically,’ TM said. ‘Veggie always saw the best in everyone. He still does, but I think it hurts him pretty hard when people disappoint him.’
‘So… when things went bad, he was upset because he thought the Swede was a better person than he was? He’d been fooled?’
‘I don’t think he thought of it as being fooled. More like wilful ignorance.’ TM glanced over at his business partner, who looked up from the table and pointed at the TV.
‘Keep playing, losers,’ Veggie instructed.
‘Anyway,’ TM concluded, as they turned back to the game, ‘it didn’t stop him choosing to believe that everyone was the best they could possibly be. It’s almost wilful, like he wants to prove the Swede wrong.’
‘So that’s why he was so happy to take me in so quickly?’
‘Might have something to do with it. He might be a bit sore about it, but he figures the best way to get over it is just to… think of everybody as amazing. And here you are, proving him right.’
Ziggy blushed. ‘I’ve never been used for revenge before,’ she said, looking pleased at the thought.
The assassin made his – or hers, Ziggy thought, what with the mask and androgynous robes and whatnot – way up the walls with more sneakiness than before, gripping the tiniest of pixelated handholds. She crept around a corner, and found herself staring at the red-armoured back of a guard.
‘You have to stab him without anyone noticing,’ TM whispered, lest the guard hear him.
‘Got it,’ Ziggy said, and pressed a button. Her assassin pulled out a throwing star and lobbed it straight over the guard’s head.
‘Wrong button,’ TM said. ‘This one.’
Somehow, the guard had failed to notice the shuriken whizzing inches above his hairline; Ziggy crept up behind him, planted a hand over his mouth and slipped a dagger into his back. He dropped, swooning awkwardly.
‘Bad animation there,’ TM said.
‘It does actually say,’ TM pointed out, waving at the screen: ‘HIDE THE BODY’, it entreated, in golden, vaguely Oriental-styled letters.
‘Aha,’ said Ziggy. She heaved the limp guard up and over her shoulder, then crouch-walked across to an incongruous wardrobe that was helpfully illuminated with a blue glow. ‘You know,’ she said as she stowed the body, dumping the hapless guard inside and closing the door on him, ‘I’m not sure how relevant this training is going to be to what we’re actually gonna be doing.’
‘I hope not too relevant,’ said TM.
‘Me too,’ Ziggy mused, making her way to the next room.
TM watched her progress with interest as she scoped out the area, producing an anachronistic pair of binoculars from within her robes and marking each guard in the room.
‘Why am I actually doing this, anyway?’ she asked, dropping from the rafters and stomping on a guard’s head until it exploded with a sound effect like someone punching a trifle. ‘I mean, I get that I’m sneaking about and not getting caught and all that jazz. But I don’t really know what my goal is.’
‘Reviewers agreed with you,’ TM admitted.
‘For the real deal, we’ve got a goal,’ Ziggy continued. ‘We just want to go get the space rock and then get the heck out, that’s it.’
‘I think you’re just an assassin who likes… doing assassin stuff,’ TM said, studying the back of the game box. ‘We can find something with a bit more plot if you want.’
‘Might be a good idea,’ Ziggy said, pulling a guard’s entire intestines out through his anus. ‘This is kinda fun, but I don’t know if it’s gonna be particularly useful.’
TM slid over to the console and ejected the Silent Murder disc, instead inserting a game titled Sliver Nucleus.
‘Whazzis?’ Ziggy asked as a heavily green-tinted cutscene launched, depicting soldiers of vague nationality going at it amidst missile strikes and secretive warfare.
‘Haven’t played it for a while,’ TM said, reading the box. ‘You are Mikkels Stormson, greatest agent of the most secret American espionage agency never to make it into the history books, and it’s up to you to prevent the nuclear war to end all wars. Which you do primarily by sneaking around and stuff,’ he paraphrased.
‘Nice,’ Ziggy grinned, adjusting her grip on the controller. ‘Sounds more like it.’
‘Zig?’ said TM.
‘This space rock isn’t some sort of nuclear weapon, is it?’
‘Probs not,’ she said, reassuringly.
TM sighed, then pressed the start button for her. ‘Okay, so this is the tutorial.’
‘I got that.’
Ziggy controlled the darkly dashing Mikkels Stormson (‘That’s a porn star name if ever I heard one,’ she said) with more proficiency than her clumsy handling of the assassin; she led him over a quick obstacle course, bounding over nets and walls, sliding under rows of wire. She came to something of a halt when she reached a room trapped with a creaky floor and hundreds of bells dangling in her way, which she had to move through as slowly and sneakily as possible to avoid tripping or making a sound.
‘I heard that,’ said the agency handler, for the eighth or ninth time. Ziggy puffed her cheeks out in frustration.
‘Want me to take over?’ TM asked.
‘Naw,’ said Ziggy, taking the controller up again. ‘I gotta learn this stuff, or how am I ever supposed to do it in real life?’
‘I really don’t think the museum’s going to be rigged with a whole room full of bells,’ TM said.
‘You never know,’ Ziggy said, and tried again. This time she cleared the room.
‘Stormson?’ said the handler, as she passed through the door. ‘Are you still – good gravy granules in heaven, Stormson, you were quieter than my Catholic grandmother at my gay brother’s wedding.’
Ziggy giggled. ‘It’s got some character,’ she said. ‘I think I like this one better.’
‘Just try to follow the plot,’ TM warned her. ‘It gets complicated reeaaaal quick.’
Ziggy skipped the next bit of plot by accident. ‘Whoops,’ she said.
‘Okay, forget about the plot for now,’ TM suggested. ‘Just… get schwifty. I mean sneaky.’
Ziggy complied, moving slowly through a series of walled gardens. She slithered up ladders and over rooftops, making less sound than an enormous stack of stereo speakers with giant bass-enhancing subwoofers and treble reverb that goes up to eleven. These speakers are, of course, switched off.
‘Okay, Stormson,’ said the handler, presumably via an earpiece. ‘See that guard on the balcony over there?’
‘Not more guards,’ Ziggy moaned.
‘You’ll need to take him out from a distance, without alerting any other guards who might be nearby,’ the handler instructed. ‘Try your tranquiliser rifle. You could always decide to just shoot him with your pistol, but that sort of noise is going to attract attention. Besides, why kill him when you don’t need to?’
‘Aww,’ said Ziggy. ‘I like this guy. He’s nice.’
She drew her tranquiliser gun, aimed and fired. The guard went limp and toppled over the edge of the balcony.
‘Well,’ said the handler in Stormson’s ear, ’at least you tried not to kill him.’
‘That’s such bullshit,’ said Ziggy. ‘Next guy I see, I’m leaving him alive, no matter what.’
Stormson slinked through another few streets’ woth of slate-tiled rooftops before stopping and staring up at a tall building.
‘Alright, this is the destination,’ the handler instructed. ‘Your target is inside: the codes to the nuclear weapons. They’re stored on a computer terminal on the fiftieth floor. You’ll need to make your way up there, then hack it.’
‘Why are there codes to nuclear weapons in some random office block in some village with hanging baskets in every garden?’ Ziggy demanded, scoffing at the screen.
‘I dunno,’ TM said. ‘You skipped the cutscene.’
Ziggy stuck her tongue out at him and waggled it about with almost disturbing levels of dexterity.
‘I will hack your building, American,’ she said, in a vaguely Eastern European accent, ‘for the right coin.’
‘That’s probably xenophobic,’ TM said absently.
‘I’m literally from space,’ Ziggy said.
TM stared at her for a moment, waiting for an explanation as to how that was a counter-argument. None was forthcoming.
‘Anywoo,’ Ziggy said, turning back to the game.
Stormson shot a rope on a hook through an air vent halfway up the building, then limbered up it hand over hand until he could open a window and enter. The entire sequence was best described as ‘mildly unbelievable’.
‘All that security and they don’t even lock their windows,’ Stormson said.
‘I was just thinking just that, Mikster,’ Ziggy concurred. ‘I like this guy.’
Stormson rounded a corner and emerged into a room with a full-wall glass window, in front of which a guard stood, silhouetted by the moonlight.
‘Thanks for facing out the window,’ Ziggy said, creeping up behind him – but, as she approached, he turned and raised his gun. She yelped and shot him in the leg, apparently acting on sheer instinct; he grabbed it in pain and fell to the ground.
‘Must have seen your reflection,’ TM mused. ‘You’re lucky this game deals with specific body part injuries, anyway. Some of these things, you shoot a guy in the foot and he goes down holding his head. It’s like Premier League football.’
‘I tried to kill you,’ Ziggy told the guard, who was convulsing in pain in front of Stormson. ‘I am sorry about that. But on the other hand, if I hadn’t accidentally shot you in the leg I would probably have tranq’d you in the face and made you fall out of the window. So… consider yourself lucky.’
She tapped a button, and Stormson smashed his knee into the hapless guard’s face. He collapsed.
‘Hey, TM,’ Ziggy said, stashing the body away in a dark corner. ‘Looks like this guy… kneeds a hand.’
‘Are you cracking one-liners now?’ TM asked, unimpressed. Stormson scampered silently up a lift shaft.
‘Heck, yeah.’ She pursed her lips in thought for a moment. ‘What would you say if, like… you were a suave international agent, and you met your nemesis on a rooftop, and you shot him and he fell off into a vat of baked beans?’
‘You’ve got to be prepared for this sort of thing,’ she said.
He pondered it. ’How about: “be careful when falling… from such a great Heinz”?’
‘Not bad, all things considered,’ Ziggy said, guiding Stormson up to the very top floor. ’What about: “looks like he’s… bean alive”?’
‘He’s bean alive?’
‘Well, he has. He’s bean alive, and now he’s dead.’
Derrida and Veggie, listening in from the table, burst out laughing. Ziggy looked as pleased as TM had ever seen her. Meanwhile, Stormson clambered out of the lift shaft into a large office room, and found himself staring into the business end of a heavy-looking pistol.
‘Stormson,’ said the man holding the pistol.
‘Ah,’ said Stormson. ‘Daniel-Dirkham Dangerously, the famed spy known as Triple-D’.
Ziggy stuck out her tongue and made a loud farting noise. ‘They ran out of actual names, huh. Also, well-written dialogue. I like how he sounded really angry and super explanatory at the same time, though.’
‘Pretty sure the big final boss is called something like Samson B. Nuclear,’ TM recalled.
’That’s awesome,’ Ziggy said, fingers dancing a mad jig as she tapped buttons in time with flashing prompts on the screen: Stormson ducked under the gun and tripped Triple-D with a powerful leg sweep. A decision presented itself as Stormson stood over his fallen opponent: ‘PRESS X TO KILL. PRESS A TO SPARE. PRESS B TO KILL (GORY).’
‘Spare,’ Ziggy decided, causing Stormson to stamp on Triple-D’s face. Painful, but technically non-lethal.
‘You might regret leaving that loose end,’ Stormson’s handler warned.
‘Fine,’ said Stormson, turning away from his fallen opponent. ‘I’ll enjoy tying it up again if I have to.’
’And there’s the smart and witty dialogue we all know and love,’ Ziggy burbled, snapping her fingers. Stormson moved over to a computer in the centre of the room – moving sneakily, despite there no longer being anyone to hide from – and hacked it with ease.
‘This is all a bit too easy,’ Ziggy said.
‘It’s only the first level,’ TM pointed out. ‘It gets harder.’
The first level of Mikkels Stormson’s grand adventure concluded as he made a note – ‘On paper, no less! What a charming, old-fashioned rogue,’ Ziggy gushed – of the nuclear launch codes, then fired a full magazine from his pistol into the computer.
‘Time,’ Veggie called; Ziggy flipped herself around on the sofa, lobbing the controller down onto the floor.
‘You guys taking over, then?’ she asked, pointing a thumb back over her shoulder at the TV. ‘Mikey Stormdude just saved the world, or something.’
‘Nice going, Stormson,’ said the handler, as if on cue. ‘Consider the world saved. For now.’
‘Oooooooooh,’ Ziggy warbled.
‘Yeah, we’ll take over,’ Derrida said, settling in next to her on the sofa with a sigh and a slump. ‘I think I remember a way to noclip through, like, half of this level.’
Ziggy stood and stretched. ‘Our turn to ninja the heck out of here, then?’ she said to TM, beckoning him towards the door.
‘I guess so,’ he said, pulling on a light hoodie and digging out the sole pair of trainers he had owned in the past five or six years. As he and Ziggy went to open the door, Marty and Dominika re-entered, red-faced and out of breath.
‘How was it?’ Veggie asked, taking his place next to Derrida on the sofa.
‘Fucking cold,’ said Marty.
‘Also, you just told us to go out there and do parkour, which neither of us have ever done before or have any kind of training in.’
‘So… good, then?’
‘Fuck, yeah,’ Marty proclaimed, headbanging. ’We were awesome.’
Veggie waved them over to the Hero’s Adventure table, where Dominika set about rolling with machine-like speed. ‘Have fun,’ he told TM, who nodded and held the door open for Ziggy. Then they went out into the night.