When the time came to choose, Netty chose the forces of Evil.
It was kind of a no-brainer, really. When she was twelve years old, her runaway clan had been decimated by a botched Good raid, a commando-errant patrol out to help rid the Detroit slum she had crashed in of Cyclone. About half the kids in the clan were Cyclone junkies; if you weren’t a Cyclone junkie, it was because you hadn’t tried Cyclone yet. Cyclone, also known as Dervish, granted the user a glimpse into the eye of God at the price of cycling tonic muscular contraction, and if you were standing when you hit up — and standing was the only way to hit up, or so Netty had been told — the after-effects of a Cyclone hit resembled a sort of eerie and violent dance. Many were the nights that Netty would hunker down in the abandoned second-story disposal bin she called “bed” and hang her head over the rusted, green-painted rim, watching the jerky and twitching shadows of her orphan family at play on the rubble below.
It frightened her, to be honest, and so whenever anyone offered her a patch, which they did pretty well constantly, Netty snarled at them and declined. She had tried polite for the first few weeks, but polite didn’t cut it in the orphan gang. It was snarling or nothing.
Netty had no love for Cyclone. Neither did the forces of OmniGov:Good, of course, and it was the latter of the two that felt some sort of compulsion to do Something About It.
So then there was the day they came to the alley, looking sharp (if not actually “resplendent”, per se) in their olive uniforms with the powder-blue helmets, and they looked over the orphan camp with Good-level pity. And they brought with them their Unimethadone and their psychologs and their friendly little “Kids! Let’s ‘Rap’ About Your Cyclone Addiction!” brochures, and one thoughtful member of Good had even brought along some big soft plush animals to play with.
Oh, and one of them brought a gun.
In thirty minutes, twelve orphans were dead, and the trigger-happy OmniGov:Good agent had been sent back to HQ for major counseling and a possible re-class to OmniGov:Evil. All because one kid in the throes had had the naked audacity to clock Mister Shooty across the jaw while telling him the most secret secrets God had been whispering in his ear lately.
There was no love lost between Netty and OmniGov:Good since that day. But OmniGov in general was a good way off the streets, if you could hack basic training. They fed you and gave you clothes and a sense that you belonged to, and were in the service of, something greater than yourself. Kind of like the orphan clan, except, well, except for the bit about food and clothes. So, Evil it was.
Clothes were a biggie, Netty thought to herself, pulling her rags close about her, the last remnants of the very same (and now quite under-sized) jumper she had been wearing the day she left home, that’s Home home, for good. The morning was chill and clammy in the secret OmniGov railyard, and threads of mist hung in the air and wove their way through the ancient and mammothine pines. The queues for Good and Evil had diverged some time ago, and now it was merely a matter of waiting and watching. When Netty strained and peered ahead, she thought she could just see the rail car where they all were bound.
An OmniGov:Good agent appeared at the side of the line, walking up and down and making a show of keeping the peace. She was a little strawberry-blonde thing, with white teeth, milk skin and a massive Kalashnikov sniper rifle with an argon-laser scope. The name “Snapper” was embroidered on her olive-drab breast pocket in no-nonsense black thread.
As the agent passed by Netty, she spat on the girl’s mirror-polished boots.
“Fuck you, Goodie,” said Netty.
Snapper stopped. In a single crisp gesture, she produced a handkerchief, seemingly from mid-air, and descended into a prim little boot-cleaning crouch.
“What, ho?” said Snapper.
“You heard me,” replied Netty. “Fuck… you.” She spat again, this time aiming for the powder-blue helmet.
With unflappable patience, Snapper rose up from her crouch, then slung the Kalashnikov and removed her helmet, giving that, too, the handkerchief treatment.
“I’d heard of spit-polish before,” she quipped, smiling easily, “but this is ridiculous!”
A few sniggers from the tall boy in line in front of her. Snapper cocked her head curiously at Netty as she strapped her helmet back on.
“Don’t know what you’re fucking around with here, Goodie,” said Netty, not meeting Snapper’s gaze. “You better skeedadle on off to your own turf. I heard Evil’s got snipers too, better ones’n you.”
Snapper bit her lip. “Okay, two things, mate,” said Snapper. “No, wait, three. First: Despite what you may have been told, OmniGov:Good and OmniGov:Evil are not always at each others’ throats. We are not constantly attempting to ‘off’ each other, nor do we spend an inordinate amount of time thinking about how to infiltrate each others’ holdfasts. OmniGov recognizes that there are some functions of government that are good, and some functions of government that are evil, and it’s just much simpler to divide the two into broad categories from the top down and work from there. It’s terribly convenient and helps in resource management. Understand?”
Netty narrowed her eyes but said nothing.
“Second,” Snapper continued. “The Railyard is neutral ground. Even in the unlikely case of open faction war, I am bound to do no direct harm to agents of Evil on this soil, and they are likewise bound to do the same for us. For Heaven’s sake, we could lose our pensions over this.”
“So what’s the rifle for?” asked the tall boy ahead of her with a smirk.
Snapper gave the Kalashnikov a quick military spin, halting it with the flat of her palm. “Keeping the ‘coons down,” she said. The boy laughed at this. Netty did not.
“Fine,” Netty said then, with a sneer. “Three?”
Snapper nodded. “Three, right,” she said. Then she bit her lip again. “Miss,” she said, after a moment, “what line do you think you’re in?”
Netty was thrown.
“Th– this is the Evil–”
Snapper shook her head. “No. Sorry. I doubt I’m mistaken on this.” More laughter from her line-mates. A stormcloud crossed Snapper’s otherwise sunny features. “All right, that’s enough from the likes of you,” she said to the others as she extended a hand to Netty. “There’s good clean fun and then there’s laughing at someone else’s misfortune, and you lot have just crossed that line. You’ll never get through week one of Good with that sort of attitude.”
The sniggering died. Snapper gazed at Netty with clear blue eyes, a near-perfect match to her polished helmet. She wiggled her extended hand a bit. “Come up out of the line, love,” said Snapper. “Let’s get you to the proper place.”
Netty refused the hand, but clambered up onto the small gravel embankment all the same. “I’ll be gone for just a moment,” said Snapper to the line of OmniGov:Good recruits. “You all don’t get in too much trouble while I’m away. It’s good practice,” she said, firing off a quick two-fingers-to-visor salute, “and by that, I do mean: It’s Good Practice.” She fixed a couple of the more flagrant laughers with a chilly stare, and then turned and began walking, leaving the crushed rock of the rail bed for the bordering mist and the pines.
“Come along, love!” chirped Snapper, looking over her shoulder. “We’ll get you to the right place i’ the end.”
Netty gritted her molars together, then squared her jaw and followed Snapper into the wood.
* * *
Snapper’s well-shined boots crunched matter-of-factly against the dense carpet of fallen brown pine needles as she led Netty through the Railyard’s median wood, her heavy rifle bouncing jauntily on its shoulder strap. For some time, they shared no words.
Then, absently, Snapper retrieved a foil-wrapped packet from one of the many little nooks in her equipment vest. It was approximately the size and shape of one of the chocolate bars Netty’s father used to buy for her when he was in a mood to apologize. Snapper gave a sharp tug at a tiny self-recycling chemical strip at the bottom of the packet, and soon her — and consequently Netty’s — airspace was filled with a mouth-watering, smokey aroma.
Snapper glanced over at Netty, and she quickly thrust her gaze downward, but it was too late; Snapper had seen her watching, had seen the look in her eyes.
“Trail rasher,” said Snapper. “One hundred percent soy protein and liquid smoke. OG:G Grunts don’t know it’s not bacon. Thankfully, my chemical strip-fu is strong, so it’s reasonably palatable.” Snapper smiled benignly and held the trail rasher out toward Netty. “Here,” she said. “You need this more than I do. Doesn’t look like you had breakfast yet.”
Netty neglected to inform Snapper that the last time she had had “breakfast”, which is to say, “anything at all to eat before noon”, was about six months ago, and that had been a dead rat. The orphan girl shook her head. “‘Mfine,” said Netty. And then, recovering her vinegar, she added, “‘Sides, you’ll be wanting something to shove up your ass. Might as well be that.”
Snapper shrugged. “To your own,” she said, taking a bite of the rasher. It sounded crunchy and hot, inasmuch as something could sound hot, and Netty willed her stomach to stop growling. “You’ll be getting plenty of the real thing when you reach the OG:E academy,” Snapper continued. “Evil’s got something of a lockdown on actual bacon, and I’ve heard they throw one hell of a brunch for you all. I’m afraid OG:G’s chicken dinner pales in comparison, although our boys do make a mean coleslaw, I tell you what.”
“Could we not talk about food, please?” said Netty.
“Very well,” said Snapper. After a moment, she folded the foil packet closed again and tucked it away in a different pocket than the one she had taken it out from.
They walked again in silence for a time.
“So you ain’t gonna say nothing?” said Netty, quite suddenly.
“I can talk about something other than food, if you’d like the conversation,” replied Snapper.
“No,” said Netty. “That’s not what I mean. You ain’t gonna lecture me about picking the Evil people?”
“I am not,” said Snapper, with a sharp and affirming nod.
“Because I got reasons,” said Netty. “Good ones.”
“Yes, I’m certain you do.”
“You’re not going to ask about ’em?”
“Nope,” said Snapper.
Another pause. Snapper performed a quick one-handed vault over a largeish pine log that had fallen into the path. Netty went around.
“Because they’re good ones,” repeated Netty as she joined back up, just in case Snapper hadn’t heard her.
“Yes,” said Snapper. “I’m certain they are. And at such a point that you feel comfortable telling me about them, I will be ‘all ears.'”
“So you ain’t gonna try and stop me or anything?”
“Good heavens, love,” said Snapper. “I’m taking you to their recruitment line! That is what you want, isn’t it?”
“Yes,” said Netty, her lip curled. “It just doesn’t seem like a very OG:G thing to do, is what I’m sayin’.”
Snapper stopped and put her hands on Netty’s impossibly skeletal shoulders. She fixed Netty with her look again. “Look, love,” said Snapper. “What’s your name?”
“It’s no the fuck business of yours, so fuck off,” Netty willed herself to say.
“Netty,” she actually said.
“Netty,” said Snapper. “One of the fundamental, if not THE fundamental, precepts or precept of Good is that you can’t force someone to it. You can force Good behavior all you like; we do it all the time, in fact. But that’s dishwater compared to a man or woman’s choice to do or to be good. We can’t force that. By definition.”
“What I mean is, the moment we try and mandate the outcome of your choosing who you are, we’re smack-solid in the other branch. I could lead you around in a circle right now and toss you on to one of our railcars, frog-marching you if needed. And don’t think that I haven’t been tempted to do just that, because I’m fairly convinced of what your true calling is. But if I were to do that, I might as well turn right around afterwards and queue up in the OG:E recruiting line. Do you understand why?”
“I made a mistake,” said Netty.
Snapper nodded quietly. “It’s not too late, Netty,” said Snapper.
“No,” said Netty, tearing herself away and stalking off into the woods in the general direction they had been traveling. “I made a mistake trying to talk to you at all.”
“Fine,” said Snapper, brownly, heading off after her. “Mind you correct a little to the left, love,” she added. “You’ll miss the depot.”
A matter of minutes later, a stocky young man appeared out of the mist and pines. His helmet and vest were night-black to Snapper’s blue and drab, and in fact the only spark of color visible on the new arrival’s uniform at all was the kaleidoscopic OmniGov patch sewn to the shoulder. The mirrored faceplate of his helmet was down, and when he spoke it was filtered through a low-power reverber.
“Agent Snapper,” said the black-clad man, with a certain degree of delicious malice.
“Agent Marley,” said Snapper, nodding sharply and flashing a quick two-fingered salute.
“The company I find myself in,” said Marley, “is fetid and disgusting. So ripe is it for change that… that…”
“That it’s positively rotten?” Snapper suggested.
“Yesss…” hissed Agent Marley.
“Gotta work on those metaphors, chum,” said Snapper.
“Exactly,” said Marley, tenting his fingertips and tapping them together. “With a figurative language-user of your caliber at my side, nothing could stand before us.” He thrust forward a hand to Snapper; Netty could see that it was gloved in a fine black chain mesh. “Join me, Agent Snapper. Join me and we will re-make–”
“Never, I’ll never join you, blah de blah de blah,” said Snapper. “If only you would use your powers for good instead of la la la la la. Look, I’ve got a new bunch of recruits back there and–”
“I LIKE TO THINK,” roared Marley, “THAT IN ANOTHER TIME, IN ANOTHER PLACE, WE MIGHT HAVE BEEN–”
“Look, this isn’t that sort of meeting!” Snapper protested, thrusting Netty forward. “Got a young pup lost her way. She wants to join up with you lot but got turned around. Be a dear and take her where she wants to go, and NO FUNNY BUSINESS. Right?”
Marley’s breath hissed a couple of times behind his faceplate.
“Because of our ancient and mutual favors,” said Marley, then, with a low bow, “I will honor your request.”
“See that you do,” said Snapper, sternly. Then, her voice softening, she turned to Netty. “It isn’t long until the next recruiting drive, love,” she said. “And you ought to be able to laterally transfer if you want.”
“The paperwork,” intoned Marley with great solemnity, “is a nightmare.”
“I imagine it is,” said Snapper. “Please, at least consider coming over to our side.”
“Fuck,” said Netty, “off.”
Snapper sighed. “You’ve got more tricks than just the one, my pony,” she said. “But you don’t seem keen on showing them at the moment. Not that I blame you, I suppose.”
“FUCK OFF!” cried Netty.
“Right,” said Snapper. “Have fun with your evil overlords, love.” And she vanished back into the mist.
Netty turned to Agent Marley. Marley extended his hand again.
“Come, my child,” said Marley. “Come see the comprehensive benefit package of Evil.”