A long sleepless night had lead Carol to a late start, and she slumped lazily in the corner of the large grey service lift that would take her down to the Deus Ex offices. She let her tired and slightly hungover head rest against the cold metal wall, the gentle vibration lulling her halfway back to sleep. The refreshing smell of coffee drifted up from the hot takeaway cup she cradled in her hands and wrestled against her deep desire to drift off. It was an effort to bring her head up and take a sip. The compromise of keeping her eyes closed the entire time helped, and she ended up relishing in the bitter but delightful taste hitting her tongue. She hugged the cup to her chest, letting its subtle warmth fill her sad and empty heart.
For the first time in a long while she had spent the night alone in her town house. While she normally treasured time alone it was different this time. The choice had been taken from her, or rather more accurately, she had let it slip away. Despite her best intentions, her grand plan to bring everyone together had backfired. This was something that would never have happened to Sarah, and Carol was painfully aware of it. Eyes still closed, she sighed deeply letting all her pain and failure out in one loud breath.
"Looks like someone had a rough night."
The deep, baritone voice took her by surprise and slashed through her isolation and self pity. She gasped in shock, only just stopping herself from throwing the cup of coffee on reflex. "Fuck, Janus." Carol all but spat. She tried to regain some decorum by pushing her dislodged sunglasses back up through her barely presentable hair. "You can’t just do that to people you know."
She scrunched her face up at the far too calm, white haired man suddenly beside her. Dressed in his usual uniform of a plain black jumpsuit, accompanied by a well stocked cleaning cart which now occupied a large portion of the previously empty lift.
"You know, people are usually grateful for my council," Janus said turning to look at her directly. He was as unreadable as ever, hazelnut eyes shining brightly through a youthful face somehow ravaged by the signs of old age. He was aged and ageless at the same time.
"Yeah well, as a therapist I don’t particularly enjoy getting unsolicited advice from colleagues you know." Said Carol, closing her eyes and taking a sip of coffee. "Especially when I can tell they’re going to say something I don’t want to hear." She shot him a side eye but got no reaction from the god, he simply looked away to face the lift doors.
"If that’s how you feel, there’s a mess in the archives I need to tend to." As he spoke, Carol could feel the air around her warm slightly and the hair on her arms and neck stood up. A tell-tale sign of a deity about to up and vanish on you.
"No! Wait, Janus… I, I’m very hungover. Sorry," said Carol as she reached out to stop the god from leaving. "Trusting my own judgement is how I got into this mess in the first place so I could use the help. What is it that you wanted to tell me?"
Janus, god of beginnings, transitions, and doorways, did something Carol had never seen him do before, he laughed. Well, it was more of a quiet chuckle, but for him it may have well been a belly wobbling raucous howl. Carol put a hand to her chest and in half seriousness gasped, "you laugh at my pain and misery, Janus? Has my life fallen so much that it simply amuses you? I am wounded, sir. You wound me.” Her mocking tone hid the reality that indeed her life was miserable and painful, but it’s best not to admit that to yourself if you don’t want to breakdown crying in the work elevator.
It was the old god’s turn to throw a sideways glance, which had a rather unnerving effect on Carol. "I was merely reflecting that my appearance here is council enough." He said, placing his hands on the cart, readying himself to leave. "There is nothing more I could say to you that you haven’t already told yourself. You just needed a little push." The point was emphasised with the chiming of the lift announcing a stop. Its heavy metal doors slid silently open revealing the floor for Ex Gladius and their living quarters. Instinctively Carol stepped forward to leave but stopped herself short. "Hey," she said after the lift doors remained open far too long. "This isn’t my floor, Janus." But he was already gone, cart and all.
Her mind was playing catch-up as the caffeine struggled against her addled state and a very delayed thought struck her as she exited the lift. "Wait!" She yelled into the empty lift, looking up for some reason. "What do you mean there’s a mess in the archives? Janus!" Her voice echoed through the empty metal box. Instinctively she grabbed at the sunglasses perched on her head as she turned around on the spot calling out the god’s name. "What mess? Answer me damnit!" The lift doors chimed in response and slowly closed, leaving her stuck on the path she needed but dreaded going down. She put on the sunglasses to shade against the harsh office lighting of the corridor and sighed with resignation. "Time for some apologies I guess." She said to no one in particular and headed down towards the Ex Gladius living quarters.
The gruff yet absentmindedly "enter" sounded through the door to Lavin’s private quarters. Ex Gladius were often on call with a moment’s notice, and as such were afforded the luxury of sleeping quarters. The rest of the unit had to deal with the standard military bunk beds but Lavin, as Commander, enjoyed a shoebox of a room all to himself. When he wasn’t staying with her, Lavin often retired to this refuge. In fact Carol was suddenly struck with the thought that he might not have any other home to go to.
While she contemplated the unnecessary self isolation of her lover, the gruff "enter" sounded again, this time the tone suggested it was more of a command than an invitation. Carol took off her sunglasses and slid the door aside, cautiously poking her head into the room. Her face was ninety percent smile, ten percent dread. "Heeeey…" she said, elongating the vowel a little too cheerfully.
The black clad bulky form of Richard sat at his desk in an all too familiar way. Normally she’d have wandered up to him by now, running meticulously manicured nails along his well muscled back. Her bright red nail polish contrasting against the tight black tee shirt he always wore, and she would slide a hand down his front. Carol could often feel him tense up for a moment then, allowing himself to relax, he’d lean back into her touch. She enjoyed watching him switch from military work mode to the soft, gentle man she knew. Today though, today she hovered in the doorway unsure what to do with her hands or where to even look.
Between the single cot, simple nightstand, and cheap desk, the tiny room afforded no distractions, almost by design. A utilitarian room for a utilitarian man. Lavin hadn’t bothered to turn his attention away from the paperwork spread out before him, not even a grunt of acknowledgement. Was he sulking? Even for Carol it was hard to tell at times, but one thing she knew is that once you broke his trust it was almost impossible to get it back.
She rattled the takeaway cup out in front of her, "coffee?" She asked cheerfully. Lavin huffed out a dismissive "no thanks." He’s still talking to me then, she thought, that’s a start.
"Good because I drank it all," she beamed back at him, and dropped the empty container into the bin. She wasn’t quite sure but it sounded like Lavin let out the beginnings of a laugh before stifling it with a forced cough. He shuffled in his seat trying to regain some composure while doing his best to ignore her. Carol knew from experience just how uncomfortable that hard backed office chair was and if she waited long enough he’d have to turn around eventually.
She didn’t want that though, not this time. This was a situation of her own making and amends needed to be made. Shuffling in, Carol perched on the end of the cot, its ageing bed springs creaked under her weight like the rusted gate of her childhood home. The sound, while quiet, made her self conscious as it filled the awkward silence of the small room. A few weeks prior the same sound would have been cause for joy as she had once again breached the inner sanctum of Ex Gladius, and the heart of Richard Lavin. This time it made her feel like a stranger in her own home.
The bed squeaked again as Carol shifted awkwardly, trying to shake the horrible feeling that she was trespassing. Not trusting her voice, Carol cleared her throat before pushing all her nervous energy out through a deep exhale. "So…" she said, not sure where to begin. The trailing vowel extended and hung in the air between them, eventually combining with the background rattle of the air conditioning. Lavin slowly spun his chair around to face her, his face was hard and unreadable but his eyes, his eyes looked deep into her soul. Waiting. Judging.
"So," she said again, this time aimed at the floor unable to return his gaze.
"You’ve said that bit already." He said the same way he would whisper to her late into the night. Carol could feel her cheeks getting warm and rubbed her arm nervously. "What I mean is, I wanted to apologise for…" she forced herself to look him in the eyes. The deep brown of his eyes drew her in, momentarily pushing all other thoughts from her mind. No, I need to do this, she thought, putting herself mentally back into the current moment. "Richard, I messed up. I ruined everything she, I…we had. All because I bottled up my guilt and pushed you all away." Carol said in one breath, as if she could outrun the emotional overwhelm by speaking quickly.
Carol took a deep breath and drew herself up, "I’m a mess Richard. My closest friend and lover died because I fucked up. No, let me finish, please." Richard retracted the hand he had placed on hers in sympathy. His face had softened around his eyes which made things simultaneously easier and harder to say. "I don’t know how or if I will ever get over Sarah’s death…" She paused and delicately wicked away the tear drops forming in the corner of her eyes, so as not to ruin her mascara. She tried to recompose herself by pushing out a loud guttural sigh.
Richard tilted his head in sympathy like a sad Labrador trying to figure out how to make their human happy again. His kind, puppy dog eyes almost pushed her to the other end of the emotional scale and she had to stifle a laugh. It’s ok, she thought, I’m ok - deep breath. "What I’m trying to say is," she continued, "I’ve been an idiot. Yes, an idiot. I blame myself for what happened to Sarah and I’ve pushed all the people I love, and who love me back, away. When what I really needed was to draw you all in closer. I think that…I felt that you would all blame me and I would just make things worse, but I realise now that we all hurt in different ways and by isolating myself I could t help any of you, and you couldn’t help me. For that I’m sorry. Oh Richard I’m so very sorry."
Carol let go of all the tension she had been holding onto and slouched forward, emotionally exhausted. Richard was there, his hands running up her arms gently encouraging her into him. She let it happen and succumbed to the warm and strong embrace. As they settled into the awkwardly positioned hug, a sense of relief ran through her. She had been an idiot, it was clear now that her strength came from connection to those she loved. The pain of losing Sarah was so strong not because she had failed her friends, but because she had isolated herself from them.
Head on his shoulder, Carol squeezed Richard and the squeeze she felt back made her smile for the first time in too long. She opened her eyes to take in the moment, looking to the back of the room. She could almost see Sarah smiling at her, pale and hollow like a forgotten memory. The warmth of this image started to fill her chest, chasing out all her self doubt and pain. Carol blinked slowly so as to gently dismiss the apparition, but when her eyes opened again Sarah was still there. Her dead lover reached out a ghostly arm and with a shocked scream, Carol violently pushed herself away and out of Richard’s embrace.
"Carol? Are you alright?" Richard asked, as his face narrowed in concern. He gave her space to breathe and looked towards the back of the room at the empty spot where Carol’s eyes were transfixed.
"I saw her. Sarah, just now standing there." Carol’s voice was low and soft as if whispering would make things less real. Shaking her head, Carol buried her face in her hands. Richard slowly scanned the small room with his eyes but saw nothing amiss. He turned back to focus on Carol, “trauma can make us see a lot of things, love. If you were one of my team I’d tell you to go book in with…well you." He smiled softly as he gently rubbed her arms, trying to entice her buried head out and into the light. "Since you’re the one who needs help then I guess I’ll have to do." This made Carol blurt out a laugh.
"Richard," she said lifting her head up. "You do know that I have a therapist right? Several in fact," she smiled back at him and slid her hands into his, "but I appreciate the sentiment, really I do." She squeezed his rough warm hands and managed a smile on her face. "Oh I really am a mess aren’t I?"
A wry smile pushed its way through Richard’s usually unreadable face. "Well, I didn’t want to say anything." He said, bringing her hands up to kiss them softly.
Carol scrunched her eyes closed to fight back another wave of tears, she really didn’t want to cry again this morning. "Thank you for not giving up on me, Richard. Even though I probably deserved it."
Richard said nothing but smiled lovingly back at her, conveying more than words could. Together they sat in the comfortable silence, happy to have cleared the air and renewed their bond. It was the first moment of peace Carol had felt since that day in the pub. She wasn’t healed yet but it was a start. Lost in her own thoughts she almost didn’t notice that Richard had tensed up, frozen on the spot. His eyes were wide, locked on something in the hallway. "Richard?" She asked, too afraid to look behind her.
"She’s here." He replied, not moving.
The question of whom he was referring to was half out of her mouth as Carol turned around and her words were replaced with a gasp. A hauntingly transparent Sarah was standing just outside the doorway, beckoning them to follow with an outstretched hand. Carol looked back at Richard who was still transfixed on the vision.
"That can’t be real, right?" His inflection dipping from statement to question. Carol noticed his hand dropping to his side searching for a weapon that wasn’t there. She placed a hand on his arm, "I don’t think a gun is going to protect us from our dead friend, Richard."
"It might." He grunted back, having already switched his brain into Ex Gladius mode. She retorted with a dismissive click of her tongue. "This is probably some psychosomatic reaction to our shared trauma, brought on by our current vulnerable state." She reasoned.
"Uh huh. Sure," Replied Richard. "What else could it be?"
The two of them sat silently contemplating their own sanity when Sara’s visage glitched. The ghostly image broke up into lines of digital static for a brief moment before fading into nothingness. In a collective sigh of relief and annoyance they both said Aaron’s name in unison.
Carol trailed behind an irate Richard as he all but stormed through the stark white corridors of Ex Machina. She was trying to convince him to calm down and think before he reacted but it was seemingly falling on deaf ears. He only stopped when they reached Aaron’s office and it was empty. The large but stark space was occupied by a neat and tidy white desk and the surprisingly comfortable couch that Aaron usually ended up sleeping on. A thriving monstera plant sat in the far left corner under a bespoke grow lamp and water monitor. It was the only sign of life they could see through the glass wall that divided the office from the rest of the Ex Machina work space.
“Damn it,” cursed Richard under his breath. “Where are they?” He stomped around looking at every corner and in every room he could find. Carol let herself into Aaron’s office and shuffled through the few papers she could find on their desk. Unlike a cheap detective story, there were no hastily scrawled notes indicating what was going on, just invoices and reports. Giving up on the desk, Carol wandered over to the couch and flopped down into it. She closed her eyes and tried to block out the overhead lighting as the headache that had been looming over her all morning started to take hold.
Like an ice cube in the ocean she let her mind melt into nothingness as she squeezed the pressure point on the bridge of her nose, hoping to shake the building pressure in her temples. A wave of relief washed over her as the headache started to dissipate and she was left smiling to herself. The joy was short lived however as when Carol opened her eyes Sarah was standing over her. Jolted from her semi relaxed state, Carol scrambled backwards in an effort to get away and push herself upright. Panic and shock competed with the sharp return of the headache leaving her wide eyed and voiceless in the scramble.
Carol’s brain eventually caught up enough to realise Sarah hadn’t moved at all, she just stood there, staring at her. Unlike in Richard’s room Sarah was significantly less ghostlike, almost solid. Her deep brown eyes were exactly how Carol remembered them, although lacking that spark of joy that always shone through them. Taking in the rest of the woman standing in front of her, Carol began to realise that while she was an almost perfect duplicate of her friend and lover, this was but a hollow copy of the Sarah she knew.
Almost without thinking Carol had stretched out a hand to touch Sarah’s arm, hoping to make the vision real. Despite hovering her fingers delicately in the air just a hairs breath away, Carol felt no warmth, no charge, no pull towards her lost love. Maybe it is all in my head, Carol thought, just as Richard walked into the office side arm stretched out in front of him.
"Carol.” Said Richard, his tone low and authoritative. "What are you doing?" He took a few cautious steps towards them both, keeping the gun trained on Sarah.
Carol left her arm outstretched, hesitant to follow through. Thoughts of ‘what if she wasn’t really here?’ to ‘what if she was’ played through her mind. Frozen in indecision, Carol was unable or unwilling to collapse this chance beacon of uncertainty and deal with the consequences. Richard was inching closer but still remained at a safe distance, keeping the exit to his back. In that same authoritative tone he called out again. “Carol. Love. I’m going to need you to slowly, slowly, come behind me." His eyes and weapon remained locked on the back of Sarah’s head.
Hearing her name again disrupted the mental loop she was stuck in and Carol looked over to him. "Richard," she said, her voice a hushed whisper, "Richard it’s her. What…?" She was cut off as Sarah blinked away and reappeared at the end of Richard’s gun barrel, like a bad cut in a horror film. If he was shocked by the sudden movement it didn’t show, as Richard simply took a slow step backwards to keep his distance. Sarah made no attempt to close the gap instead she started to speak.
While the voice and inflection was clearly Sarah’s, the words were distinctly Aaron’s as if she was reading an email they had written. "Richard, you’re needed in the archives. Anthony is going to do something and I can’t stop him, he won’t listen to me. I think this is going to end badly." Sarah fell silent and Richard shot a confused glance over to where Carol was perched on the couch.
"What…" Richard was cut off as Sarah suddenly spoke again.
"Oh!" She said, again with Aaron’s words. "Please don’t shoot Sarah, she’s the hologram assistant I’ve been working on. Not a threat I promise!" With that Sarah shimmered away into nothing.
Richard, still staring at the spot where the hologram Sarah had stood, slowly lowered his weapon and flicked on the safety latch. He opened his mouth but Carol’s voice filled the space instead.
“Fucking Aaron!" Her face had gone red with anger and her hands were clenched into tight fists.
"I’m going to kill them, Richard. I’m going to take their stupidly brilliant mind and crush it between my hands, so help me!” Each word forced its way out of her mouth slowly, with a hate that Richard had never heard from her before, and it scared him a little.