There was a knock at the door.
Stef stared at it, wondering if she could fake sleep, disinterest, or simply hide under the covers and pretend she wasn’t home.
Get up, Spyder.
She sighed, stood, shuffled her feet into her sneakers, and tried to put a professional expression on her face as she opened the door.
Unsurprisingly, Grigori was there.
‘I thought we were done for the day.’
Grigori spread his arms wide as he stepped into the room, a genial smile on his face. ‘While you’re here, little agent, I thought I’d do my best to impart some knowledge to you.’
She gave a single nod. That sounded reasonable. It didn’t stop her Spyder-sense from going crazy. There was nothing trustworthy about the blond man. Nothing whatsoever. Everyone seemed to like him; and he had more family members than she could count.
But nothing could erase how he’d helped Taylor hurt her. Taylor at least, had seemed angry when ripping her head off, when playing football with her various parts. Grigori had- He’d managed to smile throughout the whole ordeal.
He’d – in his own words – not seen her as a person.
Dissociation that distinct was terrifying.
‘What did you want to instruct me on?’
‘Well, I could show you seven ways to have a better orgasm, but I think you’re more interested in cold, hard facts.’
She squirmed uncomfortably. ‘I like useful information,’ she said.
He began to pace back and forth. ‘History, then. What do you know about the Solstice?’
She shrugged. ‘They’re the bad guys.’
He stared at her. ‘I do hope you know a little more than that, otherwise you’re no better than the people they recruit who unquestionably kill fae.’
She rolled her shoulders. ‘They hate anything non-human with a shoot-first kind of mentality. If it’s not like them, it’s dead, no exceptions.’
‘What about where they came from?’
She gave him a neutral look. ‘I presume that’s where the history lesson is coming in.’
‘The short version is this: they grew out of KGB paranoia and hatred. That’s where the organisation skills come from – during the war, their original leaders, as well as many of the current leaders, are military. There is some access to black budgets, but mostly they’re independent from any one nation or military, though the contacts come in handy.’
‘During the war?’ she said, ‘Aren’t we still fighting them?’
‘This? Everyday? This isn’t war. This is…dealing with assholes and murderers, you’ll know it if we go to war. The whole damn world will. We barely keep things contained these days, what do you think will happen if they decide that silence stops being in their best interest?
‘Then what was the war?’
‘Back when they first started, there weren’t nearly as many of us as there are now. All we had to worry about was…the kind of thing we were designed for: fae, demons, follies, end-of-the-world-magic-apocalypses, that kind of thing. Other than for recruiting and dating, humans weren’t a big part of our day-to-day lives. We would, like we do now, get the occasional crazy cult that we had to calm down, not the bad kind of cult, not usually. More like…a guy find outs he’s one-eighth crocodile, figures out how to grow a tail at will and hangs out a shingle looking for hot priestesses to come worship him.’
‘That actually sounds amusing.’
‘I’ll send you a few archived reports to add to your you-sized paperwork piles.’ He took a drink from the hip flask. ‘So it really was surprising when humans began to attack us. Not only attack us, but be able to capture us.’
‘They had blackout bombs back then?’
‘Don’t be so surprised. The delivery systems have gotten better, but there have always been children of Time around. But there are more than a few ways to make blackout zones, not all of them are done with time energy. Some are just done with heavy concentrations of fae magic. We can’t shift around within fae territory. And sometimes it wasn’t even that complicated, they would just affect the agent, paralyse them against being to do anything, and that is a lot simpler than it sounds. It requires a lot less magic than blacking out an entire area.’
‘You fought back.’
‘Not at first, no, we had no idea what we were up against. Our friends were being taken, but we knew nothing of the group behind it, where they were being taken, or if they would be released.’
‘Did any of them make it out?’
‘Of course, they were still novices, they would use too little of a dose of a paralytic and the agent would be able to get away, or the method they had protecting an area would fail, and we’d be able to get in. But they got better, they got more and more of us.’
‘You shifted to Australia, so it’s not like you’re region-locked, so why didn’t you just shift the hell out of there?’
Grigori almost looked sad. ‘Everyone told us to. But we didn’t listen. We couldn’t. You don’t abandon your home, even when the enemy is at the gates.’ Grigori tipped his flask in her direction. ‘Being stubborn is a common flaw we all share. We learned about them, we fought back, but they had the numbers – and this was when they began to splinter, to take their cause elsewhere in the world. We…won, so that’s all that matters. Agents one, Solstice zero – the score, and the number of each left in Russia.’
‘What about Piotr?’
This got a smile out of Grigori. ‘One old man is no threat to anyone. He’s been through as much hell as I have.’
‘Yet you feel free to continually prank a guy who…seems to have PTSD?’
‘Just because I’m an angel, doesn’t mean I can’t be an asshole.’ He gave a small, deprecating laugh. ‘I heard a story once. A group of people worshipped a god that they no longer loved or needed, so they kept it in the basement, or a dungeon, as they couldn’t bear to part with it. Some elements of your life are impossible to tear away.’
‘It still means you’re being a dick to someone with mental illness.’
Actually, including you, the count is at least two.
It suddenly became obvious that during the course of the conversation that he’d moved a lot closer. Within arm’s reach.
Well, hello other shoe.
‘What do you actually want?’ she asked, feeling proud of herself for attempting to cut through the bullshit. ‘I appreciate the history lesson, but-’
‘You have a kilogram of mirror in your chest, little agent,’ he said. ‘What on earth do you think I want?’
She set her mouth into a hard line. ‘Damn well say it.’
‘I…want to make a wish.’
‘You’re just going to-’
Stef looked up at Grigori. ‘Yeah. Just no.’
She let her head drop for a moment. There were crumbs on her crumpled t-shirt, there was a hole burnt into her pants from a small soldering accident in the tech department, and her hair was all over the place. The absolute pinnacle in a lack of authority.
‘No,’ she said again, a thought replacing her luxuriating geek outfit with her uniform. A second thought dealt with her hair. Better. Not much, but better.
‘I think you’d better go back to “Agent Mimosa”, or if you don’t wish to call me by my rank, then “Mimosa” will do.’
‘Please, just let me state my case.’
She stared at the floor. ‘Get out of my room, or I’m shifting home.’
‘You don’t even know what I want it for, or what I can give you in return.’
‘I am well aware that I am the newbie, that I don’t know how anything works, or even how I work, but I’m pretty sure the piece of mirror in my chest isn’t the only one on the planet. Why don’t you take whatever you’ve got to offer and go barter for someone else’s mirror?’
‘Do you have any idea what a piece of mirror goes for on the black market? Or how hard it would be to get a piece from a court? Mirrors fall rarely, and generally the wishes are used up right away, the pieces that aren’t…those are hidden away for when they are really needed, and couldn’t be bought for the tokens I’m offering you.’
She stared at him, ‘Oh. Huh. Ok. So not only do you want a piece of mirror, you want to…offer well below market price for it?’
‘I thought once I stated my case, you would at least give me a chance. It won’t sway others that have mirror. And…according to the documentation, technically you both belong to the Agency.’
Ok, strike one for paranoia.
‘You say something that like, and you still expect me to let you state your case?’
‘What I state is simple fact, it isn’t a threat.’
Seems like a threat to me.
She stood. ‘It’s my damn life,’ she said, trying to keep her calm, trying to retain composure. ‘It’s my life. It’s my heart, it’s my soul, it’s my memories, my consciousness, my…self. It’s…me. Without it, I stop existing, full stop. I don’t get to go to Death and pass on, I don’t get to come back again, I just…end. All it takes it someone to crack my chest open and make a wish and I’m dead. I’m kind of…fragile.’
‘It’s just a small wish.’
‘And I’m just a small agent. It’s just a small heart. And it doesn’t matter, I’m not a genie, you don’t get three wishes.’
‘It’s not for me.’
‘If I give you a wish, then someone else will want one, then someone else, until I’m all used up and gone. Or…everyone will come to their senses and realise that it would be a lot better to keep it locked up in a vault somewhere than incubating the chest of a damned, stupid hacker. No. Final answer.’
You’re not bad at this.
I’m just pretending to be you.
‘I can take you to the finest restaurants in the world, I can get you unicorn wine, which would be the most exquisite taste to ever pass your lips, and one that is becoming rarer and rarer by the bottle. I can-’
‘Not interested. No wishes. There’s no magic lamp for you to rub one out on.’
‘So, what, you’re never going to make a wish?’
‘I…like being around, I’m not going to chance wishing myself away on anything frivolous.’
He slammed his fist against the wall. ‘You don’t even know what I’m asking for.’
‘And I don’t care.’
‘Agents are allowed compassion, you realise.’
‘Whatever your problem is, is your problem, take the tokens that were going to offer me, and barter for your resolution that way. I don’t know you, I don’t owe you anything, and I’m not going to risk my life for you. Because, yanno, that’s the thing, I don’t even know how many wishes I get, or what’s a little wish, and what’s a big wish. Thanks, no thanks, I’d prefer to be able to stand, think and breathe.’
‘Every other agent in Russia,’ he explained. ‘I have something there from each of them. Each of them was found, even if only a scrap, or ash in the wind, we’ve found everyone else, everyone except for Dmitri.’
‘I thought the war was over, like, ages ago.’
‘He was one of the last to be taken, but we’ve never found him, or his body, he just disappeared.’
She looked at the wall. ‘But it’s been…decades, right, what chance is there that he’s still alive?’
‘None, of course,’ he said. ‘But I need to know what happened to him. I need to know for sure that he’s gone, so that we can have a service for him, so that his family has closure.’
‘Aren’t people supposed to be declared dead after so many years? If we turn to ash, what makes you think you’re going to find anything?’
And seriously, you want me to risk my life for proof of death?
‘This is important to me, in a way you could never understand. Please, it’s such a small thing I ask of you, and you can have anything I can give in return.’
‘My name is Agent Mimosa. And I think it would be best for everybody if I did my external training somewhere else, Agent Grigori.’
He grabbed her shoulder, and she froze up. He was just as strong as Taylor. He’d already been willing to hurt her.
His other hand grabbed her other arm, and he slammed her back against the wall.
Shift. Shift home.
‘Listen to me,’ Grigori snapped.
She dug through her menus, only to see an override come in. All shifting was barred – as per order of agent in authority.
‘You are an experiment,’ he said. ‘You exist because someone took pity on Ryan. As soon as there is a disaster, someone is going to rip open your chest and fix a problem. You’re a storage case who can walk and talk.’
Let me go. Let me go.
She twisted, but his grip was iron.
‘Everyone who comes across you. Everyone who knows what you are. Everyone in the world has a wish. Everyone in the world wants something. Have no doubt, Stef, that the Agency is going to whore you out. If you’re lucky, they’ll just take your heart. If not, it’s all just so much meat.’
She spat at him, and he released his grip long enough to slap her.
Her head spun, and she pressed herself back against the wall to stop herself from slipping to the ground. His forearm pressed in a strong line across her collarbone to her neck. ‘Get used to being used.’ He brought his face close to hers. ‘The only way your life will be better is by making friends. And you give favours to friends. I want a small wish, you won’t even notice the missing silver.’ He tilted his head. ‘Close your eyes.’
Tear ran down her face. ‘Fuck. You.’
There was a flash, a blade catching the fluorescence of the room’s light, then there was pain as the knife was rammed into her heart.
He pulled the knife away, the tip gleaming with a tiny piece of mirror, a tiny piece of her heart, and she dropped to her knees. The pain finally hit, and she let go a string of loud obscenities as the hole in her chest began to close over.
The door that joined the rooms was pulled the rest of the way open, the handle bouncing off brick. ‘Newbie?!’
Shiny shoes came into her field of vision as Curt put himself between her and the agent. ‘The fuck?’ Curt said, then he was crouching in front of her, offering her a hand.
‘Sorry,’ Grigori said, ‘but once you understand Duty, you’ll forgive me.’
Curt’s gaze whipped back and forth, looking for injuries. He lifted a hand and held it a couple of inches from her face – the slap must have still been evident, but then his eyes focussed on her chest. ‘Did he just stab you?’
‘I want to go home,’ she said as she let Curt pull her to her feet. He stayed in front of her, providing a buffer from Grigori.
‘Shift us,’ Curt said, ‘now.’
She whipped through her HUD for communication mode. She pressed Ryan’s contact panel. [Help me.]
‘I want to teach you both a lesson in Duty,’ Grigori said, sliding his fingers over the tip of the knife.
The world stretched, flexed and bent, splitting into a rainbow at the edges, the room disappearing as they were wished away.
Stef stared at her HUD, and at the one warning message dominating her whole field of vision: BLACKOUT ZONE. It flashed over and over, making it hard to see anything else. She let it sink in for a moment, then closed the warning.
Grigori looked around. ‘An unexpectedly pleasant way to travel,’ he said before moving off further into the dark room. ‘See if you can find a light switch or something.’
‘Blackout is bad,’ she said to no one in particular. ‘Blackout is very bad.’ She pressed the heel of her hand to her chest, feeling for the wound, for their one viable transport out of the blackout zone, but it was closed. ‘So we’ll also need something sharp,’ she said quietly.
She stumbled through the near-dark room, keeping her hands in front of her, skimming them across tables and cupboards until she found the wall.
‘Found one,’ Curt said, and light flooded the room.
A dead fairy in a jar stared back at her as her eyes adjusted to the light.
‘Dmitri!’ Grigori yelled, running to the far end of the room.
She looked at the fairy, then up at Curt. ‘This is fucked up.’
He looked around. ‘You have no idea where you are, do you?’
‘A creepy room in a blackout zone. We’ll be able to get out of here in a minute, so-’
He turned to her. ‘This is a Solstice facility.’
‘Ok, so we need to get out of here now.’
‘How did we shift into a blackout zone?’ Curt asked, his voice tight.
He grabbed her arm, spinning her around to look at him. ‘Answer the question I asked.’
There was something in his voice that made her shudder. ‘It’s not important right now.’
He let her arm go. ‘Then I’ll just have to work it out myself.’ He picked up the jar with the dead fairy inside, swung it, and everything went dark.