Ryan crouched and grabbed a hold of the corpse, closed his eyes and concentrated on shifting all of his recruits back to the infirmary. The Parkers were on him as soon as they appeared, picking up the body and putting it onto a gurney – the shorter of the two wheeled it away while his twin began to treat the others.
He caught one of his recruits, Enid, staring at the blood on his hands. ‘Sir, what did you do?’
‘What I had to.’ It was the only answer he could give. The girl just stared at him, her own minor wounds seemingly forgotten.
‘You killed him?’
‘It was mercy,’ he said. ‘He was going to-’ He could tell by the look in her eyes that his words were falling on deaf ears. ‘It was what I had to do,’ he repeated, and shifted from the infirmary.
He shook himself from his memories and turned back to incomplete letter his desk held. A condolence letter to the parents of the recruit. The wording had to careful though – he couldn’t exactly word it to say that he’d shot the boy in the head because his wounds had been too great to be healed, even by Agency doctors.
He swiveled his chair to look out the window – he needed another break from the task at hand. Not that looking out the window provided a distraction – it was more of a reminder than Jones’ predicted mirrorfall time line. The parade of ghosts had started – not that they were really ghosts; just echoes, just impressions left by the dying world from the people it had swallowed. The echo of old, alien planes flew through the night sky, some dove and rolled – the buildings around them were no obstacle for them.
There were never any agents among the ghosts – being only ash, they wouldn’t leave a strong enough impression. Either that, or it was part of the same curse that didn’t allow them to pass on, when – or if – they died.
He always took heed of the assumed relative level of technology of the dying world – to try and get an idea of when his world was going to die. All worlds died, it was an irrefutable fact. It was the how, and the when that interested him. In comparison to the technology around him, it seemed that most of the worlds died when they were older than the Earth. Sometimes, he noted as a ghostly zeppelin floated past the moon, it happened a lot sooner. Though, it was a relative assumption, given that some worlds progressed faster than other and not all suffered an analogue of the dark ages, which stifled technology and had held the world back from where it could have been.
He watched the ghosts, he always did. There was little use in learning about a planet that was about to die – at the same time, there was no harm in it. No harm in keeping a few memories of an entire world blinked out of existence.
Ten minutes later, the letter was done. He folded it and placed it in an envelope. He touched it and it disappeared, it would be delivered the next day, as would the details of the pension. Money was simply numbers, so they had no problem supplying the families – or the recruits themselves if they chose to leave – with a pension.
There was a hurried knock on his door. It wasn‘t a recruit, he knew that, there had been no footsteps preceding the knock. It wasn’t Taylor, Taylor almost always barged in, unannounced. ‘Come in Jones,’ he called.
Jones pushed the door open, the prerequisite blue folder in his hand.
‘What is it?’ he asked of the flustered tech agent.
‘A detachment of Solstice, in the same area that Magnolia’s been tracking the leech to. There isn’t a lot of chatter, but…’
He understood. ‘They wouldn’t be working with a leech, but it isn’t a good sign. Do you have an exact location?’
Jones flipped open the folder. ‘It’s a historically-listed house, privately owned, but it’s often rented out to private parties, as the case seems to be now.’ He took the folder from the tech and lifted the location from the information.
The tech agent nodded. ‘As is the usual Solstice operating procedure. Your recruits could-’
‘It’s too soon,’ he interrupted. ‘They lost Adams last night, they’d be dangerous in the field…if they were willing to go. I’ll go. I can always call for backup if I need it.’
‘Not that you would,’ Jones pointed out.
‘I’m not Taylor,’ he said, ‘I know when I’m in over my head.’
‘As you say, sir,’ Jones said, unconvinced.
He ignored the tech’s lack of conviction – stood, took one last look at the parade of ghosts outside his window, and shifted to the old house. It stood mostly in darkness, only a few lights inside betrayed any waking figures.
He gave a moment’s pause before he shifting inside. The Solstice, on seeing him, opened fire on him – he didn’t mind, it meant not having to negotiate. Their shots turned the house into a flurry of activity – all around him, he could hear people running; toward him or away, it was too early to tell. He quickly shot both of the Solstice in front him, and moved on. After a quick shift, there were two bodies. Another shift, another body.
He paused after each shift – he had to give each Solstice the chance to talk – he wanted at least a chance to discover what their mission had been, and what they knew about the leech. He raised his head when he heard gunshots – he gave a quick scan of the mansion, and the number of life signs left – the large pool of them in one of the central rooms – suddenly dropped. For a moment, he stopped, and considered the possibility that the Solstice had broken one of the rules and started to toy with teleportation magics.
Knowing them as well as he did, it was a possibility that he quickly discounted. He stilled himself and scanned for heat signatures. There were half a dozen unmoving heat signatures, all just a little cooler than the normal human body temperature.
‘Bastards,’ he whispered as he shifted.
There were three Solstice left in the room, all around him were the bodies of the the civilians they had been working with. He took a step forward, and his foot landed in something sticky – blood. Some of the civilians had tried to run, some had simply died at their computers.
‘And you call us the monsters,’ he said as he took a step forward. The youngest of the three Solstice turned and shot him – there was no pain, it was a dart, not a bullet. He raised his gun to fire, but the dart shocked him, giving the Solstice time to lob a grenade at him.
It, like every other blackout bomb, exploded with a forceful wall of green light, which made him stumble back a few steps. He stared at the Solstice through the time-distorted air and waited for their attack – he was vulnerable, he was in over his head, it was their time to attack.
They ignored him, turning their backs to focus on the computers in front of them. He looked down, and found that there was a perfect circle of clear air around his feet – he was in a protective bubble, the eye of the storm.
He reached a hand forward, and the cold of the time-distorted air burnt his hand, not enough to truly hurt, just enough to warn him that he was entering a place where agents didn’t belong. Time had not given his blessing for the agents to have control over his domain. Control over time was only something that Time, and his bastard offspring, had.
In an area affected by time – too much, not enough, or stolen seconds from another universe – they were weak, and they could die. It wasn’t a chance that most Solstice would waste – the three in front of him, however, seemed to have discounted him entirely. They’d left him neutered, but had no interest in fighting him – whatever they were doing was obviously a lot more important than fighting.
The youngest – the one that had trapped him – and the oldest, gathered one of the laptops, and a bag of disks, leaving their compatriot alone in the room. The Solstice gave him one wary look, then sat at the computer and worked with the data in front of him.
‘Talk,’ he said through the forcefield.
‘Never to an agent,’ the Solstice spat.
‘You just did. What were you doing here?’ The Solstice ignored him, sending email after email. ‘You killed all of these civilians, why?’
‘I didn’t kill nobody.’
He accepted this – he doubted that the man had actually pulled the trigger on any of them. ‘Did you try and stop them?’
‘Couldn’t have them talking,’ the Solstice said as he stood and carelessly shoved one of the dead civilians from his seat. The corpse of the young man in a ripped black shirt rocked on the chair unsteadily, then fell to the floor, the line of bullets across his chest and the one in his throat painfully obvious.
‘I’m here now,’ he said. ‘We’ll find out what you were doing.’
‘Then why bother asking?’ the Solstice said. ‘We did what we had to, Agent.’
‘You didn’t have to do any of this!’ he shouted. ‘This was murder! Why did you kill them? Why? Tell me that, Solstice!’
The man was silent for a long moment. ‘If you get killed by an agent, you go to hell.’
He didn’t bother to argue that the existence of hell, or even a hell, was nothing but speculation, as all things after this existence were. ‘And where do murderers go?’
‘It was a mercy,’ the Solstice said, ‘we did what we had to do.’
For a moment, he was stunned still – it was the same line of reasoning that he’d given his recruits for what he’d done to Adams. He shook his head and forced himself through the tiny blackout zone – he felt safe enough to do so, the man seemed to have no intention of fighting him.
The Solstice’s expression didn’t change as he stepped back back through into the safe territory and raised his gun. ‘I had a daughter once, she was killed, by monsters your kind protect. We do this so that sons and daughters make it home through the dark, and to see the end to those who would protect the unnatural creatures in the world.’
He swung his arm around, indicating to all of the bodies around him. ‘And these sons and daughters? What of their parents?’
‘Collateral damage,’ the Solstice said. He jammed his gun up against the man’s head, but the man made no move to weep or beg. ‘They left me here, they knew it would come to this, I knew it would come to this. I’ve done my part. All the people that remain in this house are ready to die for Solstice.’
‘I sincerely hope that there is a hell,’ he said, and pulled the trigger.
He looked around at the bodies, and made a silent apology that he hadn’t been able to save them. He tilted his head, careful not to take in the smell of blood and scanned the house – there were only two life signs left – one that was running through the house, and one that wasn’t moving.
He shifted to the running one first, and killed the Solstice before they could finish lifting their weapon – Solstice deserved little enough pity at the best of times, and those who would associate with leaders that would willingly kill a room full of civilians deserved even less.
That only left one life sign in the house – one last bullet and the whole mess would be over, and they’d be able to begin to piece together what had happened so that the civilian lives hadn’t been wasted for no reason.
He did wonder why the last life sign wasn’t running – surely they knew that they were alone now, and that whatever they were doing was going to be for naught. A mission that was worth dying for – he’d only had a few of those in his existence, and he’d come back from each and every one of them.
He required a new gun, and allowed himself a moment before shifting toward the last life sign. He appeared in a small bedroom, the only light in which came from a large, open window. The room’s occupant wasn’t visible, they weren’t on the bed, nor at the desk. Confusion overwhelmed him for a moment, until the sound of breathing betrayed the occupant’s position – the wardrobe.
A strange sense of wonder lessened the impact the night for a moment – it was such a quaint place to hide, it afforded no real protection, nor would it slow any agent for more than a second. It had been a desperate act, the desperate act of a Solstice on a mission worth more than their life.
He heard the tapping of keyboard keys and he took a few steps, easily crossing the small room, the floorboards creaking beneath him as he did so. The typing stopped for a moment, then resumed.
The urge to shoot straight through the door came to him, but he discounted it – he wanted the Solstice to see him, to know that they were going to die, and not have a chance to run – just like the civilians.
He pulled the wardrobe door open and looked in – hidden deep within the shadows of the wardrobe, illuminated only by the light of her laptop screen was a young woman. The irregularity of her breathing told him how frightened she was, but nonetheless, she kept her eyes glued to the screen, refusing to acknowledge him in any way.
The fact that she wasn’t sprouting Solstice rhetoric was a nice change, he hated hearing their tired and hateful opinions of the world, the mistaken ideas they had about what was natural, and what was unnatural, and what made a monster.
He took a step closer, blocking all outside light into the wardrobe. For a moment, he stood amazed that she was still obstinately ignoring him while her file loaded, giving him her basic stats. One fact stood out above all others – a cross-reference to himself, he double-checked it as her hands continued to dance across the laptop’s keyboard.
A rush of conflicting emotions washed over him, but his sense of duty overrode them all; he aimed, and fired.