Stef aimed her fork at the last piece of steak – for once, she’d managed to eat an entire meal, with only minimal spills on her uniform.
Ryan dabbed at his mouth with a cloth napkin – something that was strangely formal, strangely high-class, considering the low-key dinner they were having in his office.
There was something in the tone of his voice. ‘Russia, right?’ she asked, after wiping her own face, and quickly requiring a new tie to get rid of the gravy spot.
‘If you’re still willing,’ he said, ‘you and Curt will leave in the morning. External training technically lasts for a week.’ He sighed. ‘I think you need a few- I do not trust Grigori. I think the reasons for sending you to do external training, but I don’t want you to think that you’re safe.’
She nodded. ‘I figured that was the score. Any tips?’
‘Keep your eyes open, do not walk blindly into any blackout zones, and remember that home is one shift away.’
Ryan finished his meal – he always seemed to leave a few string beans for last. It was an odd trait. Something she’d barely registered until a pattern.
Look at your own plate.
On her plate, there were two lonely, uneaten beans.
She wiped at her mouth again, pressed her teeth against the inside of her lips, then laid her hands flat on the table. ‘Ryan?’
‘All agent code comes from from previous agents, right? Cause of the recycling thing?’
He gave her a thoughtful look. ‘It’s ever so slightly more complicated than that, sweetheart.’
It’s the problem of consciousness.’
‘Our kind were initially all made from scratch, a clean copy of the code each time, nothing saved from the previous generation.’
‘There’s a “but” isn’t there?’
‘A large degree of newly-generated proxies were failures. Think of what it’s like for someone born an agent – there’s nothing, then you open your eyes for the first time and you’re a fully functional, reasoning, conscious being.’
‘With a job and everything.’
‘Exactly. You are nothing, then you are are everything. You are seeing everything for the first time, but you know what everything is, you’re forming full sentences with words you’ve never used before, you’re interacting people, but you’ve never been taught how to shake hands.’
‘I never…I never thought of that.’
‘Even you must have experienced some of that,’ he said. ‘We all do.’
She nodded. ‘Yeah, a bit.’
‘That’s why so many of us would fail, it was just too much to comprehend all at once, and they’d just go mad, or shut down.’
He gave a nod. ‘Eventually, they found that using pieces from agents who had attained, and sustained consciousness helped with the process – that even if latently, unconsciously, there were parts of that new being that were used to being conscious, it made the whole process easier. It’s still difficult, but it’s no longer an insurmountable task.’
She looked at her plate. ‘So where did my code come from?’
‘Like all of us, you are a child of many parents.’
‘Is part of it yours?’
‘I hope that doesn’t distress you.’
She happily chomped on one of the remaining beans. ‘Why would it?’
‘I often feel like I have brought you into this world with little choice, little agency of your own.’ He reached across the table. ‘I don’t want you to feel as though I am dragging you along.’
She gave him a serious look. ‘Have I ever- Like, seriously, ever given you that impression?’
‘Still,’ he said, ‘I want-’
‘That fact that you even care about my feelings,’ she said, ‘speaks volumes about the kind of person- Agent- Dad- You are.’
He required away his plate, then arched an eyebrow at her. She pulled the last bean from the plate and pushed it towards him – with a little blur in the air, her plate disappeared.
‘There’s someone I’d like you to meet,’ he said. ‘I’ll be shifting us.’
The place where they reintegrated was obviously still part of the agency – the walls were the same colour, the floor had the same tiling, but it was…strange somehow. It didn’t feel…right.
It felt like a tomb – air still cycled through the circulation system, but it somehow felt dead. Like the wing of an old house where you would keep a mad cousin, or a piece of a hospital, locked off for repairs.
Ryan walked ahead of her – happily leading, and waiting for her to follow.
She expelled a short breath through her nose, then trotted to keep up with him. ‘Director Reynolds,’ he said, ‘is sleeping, and has been for decades.’ He wrapped a hand around an office door handle, and hesitated for a moment before opening it. ‘Earth was attacked,’ he said as they stepped inside. ‘It’s not a story we openly share with recruits, but it’s a story everyone eventually learns, just through osmosis.’
She followed him into the office, and there was an old man – an old agent – asleep on an ornate desk. His suit was of an older cut, and there was – against all logic of how clean the agency kept itself – a thin layer of dust over the…her mind kept trying to supply the word “body”, but he was breathing, his back rising and falling at a regular pace.
Ryan moved to the Director, touched his back, and the dust disappeared. He lifted him away from the desk, and refreshed the man’s suit, wiped his face, then laid him back down, his face perfectly matching the light indent in the green leather.
‘Please,’ Ryan said, ‘sit.’
Stef turned, and moved to sit in one of the large, overstuffed arm chairs – the leather creaked beneath her as she sat, her sneakers scuffed as she pulled her legs beneath her, but the Director made no attempt to rebuke her for putting her feet up on an antique.
Ryan sat in the chair opposite her, and leaned forward, his forearms resting on his knees, his hands clasped. ‘Would you like me to start at the beginning, or do you want to know why he is sleeping?’
‘I find,’ she said, ‘that starting at the beginning is always the best.’
Ryan looked unsure for a moment, a strangely vulnerable expression on her super-MiB-dad-person. ‘You met Rhys,’ he said, shame heavy in his voice, ‘I’m sorry you had to experience that. But everything starts with him.’
‘You aren’t him,’ she said, ‘you really really aren’t him. I don’t care what anyone-’
‘I only exist because of him,’ Ryan said. He indicated to Reynolds. ‘Director Reynolds felt…bad for him. Felt guilt that he was the one to take him to the crystal chamber. He couldn’t save Rhys, all he could do was save part of him, within the shell of a new agent.’
Stef unwrapped her legs, required a cookie, and handed it to him. Ryan reached out his hand, and looked amazed and sad as he took it.
‘It is Agency tradition to make a family of the agents around you. If you are senior enough, you are to be a mentor or a father, those closer in age become siblings. New agents need guidance, you are not unique in that capacity.’
‘Director Reynolds. He did not properly move into the role of father until Taylor was generated. Before that, he was a friend, a brother, someone who shows the way, but treated me as though I had already lived. He was always looking for signs that he had saved Rhys. The fact that I was a new person was somehow secondary to that.’
‘So my agent-grandfather was kind of a douche?’
Ryan shook his head, and finally sat back in his chair. ‘He is a good man, he was simply not what I needed him to be.’ He met her gaze. ‘And I am terrified of making the same mistakes with you.’
‘You’re not,’ she said quickly. ‘Even if you un-adopt me right now, you’re still a hundred-zillion times the dad James ever was.’
‘I have never been the kind of father I’ve always wanted to be,’ he said, ‘with Alex, Eilise insisted I be…as close to human as I could. I’ve always felt paternal towards, well, at least some of my recruits, but I have never been as directly in that role as I am with you. And I am your senior agent and your director, so I will be occasionally forced to make decisions that conflict with a father’s need to keep a child safe.’
‘IE, Russia,’ she said.
‘Precisely.’ He clasped his hands again. ‘Alexander was able to write me out of his life with ease, so I know I must have made mistakes, or I was simply not the man he needed me to be. I don’t want- If I make mistakes, I want you to tell me.’
She shifted to his side, and wrapped her arms around his neck. ‘I love you, dad.’ He stood, and awkwardly returned the hug as she continued to hang around his neck like a suited sloth. ‘Does this mean you want report cards each Father’s Day?’
He chuckled. ‘If you find that an appropriate means of measuring my progress.’
She returned to her chair, and let her gaze fall on the Director. ‘So, why’s he all sleep-face?’
‘The gods do not interfere, those that do are generally depowered – such as the man you saw on the night of the mirrorfall-’
She racked her memory. ‘The hippy?’
‘Yes,’ he said, a very dadish tone in his voice. ‘He is now functionally a rather powerful fae. Demons tend not to agree to be so stripped of power, but there are safeguards in place, and watchers, and – after all – keeping an eye for such threats was the inception of our kind.’
She looked up. ‘So where’s the shoe waiting to drop?’
‘Not all beings as old as the gods and demons play fair.’ His face went serious. ‘There is a being, someone who is generally called Sol. He decimated planets. Ate his fill. Caused mirrorfalls, and the end of civilisations.’
‘So, um, Galactus?’ There was a blank look on his face. ‘Comic thing, nevermind.’
‘He came for Earth. We – the Agency and the Lost – offered a deal. The Lost would give up their territory and provide fictions for him to consume, rather than true lives; and the agents would give up their dreams. It is why our kind cannot dream anymore – they are stolen from our minds by Sol. We feed him, so that the world survives.’
Stef rested her head in her hands. ‘That’s fucking dark, Ryan.’
‘We are protectors, Stef, and sometimes that Duty requires more than a gun.’