Curt slipped the gun into his pocket – the pocket of the stolen clothes – the pocket of the gifted clothes. Clothes that belonged to a Solstice. Clothes being worn by a Solstice.
He managed to meet Magnolia’s eyes without betraying any emotion. If the world was spinning towards Duty, towards what was right, she would take out her knife and slit his throat, then get Stef to safety.
‘O’Connor,’ Magnolia said, her voice the same as it ever was. Mags at work was…a study in everything a recruit was capable of being. Not necessarily what a recruit should be, but what potential there was.
Magnolia’s gaze stayed with him. ‘Mimosa,’ she said, not even bothering to look directly at the only important person in the hallway. ‘Can you walk out of here on your own?’
He nodded. ‘Just point the way to system territory.’ The Agency was here. Stef would be safe. Grigori – to his chagrin – would likely live as well, but all that mattered was getting Stef out of there. Away from the place that would come back and haunt her nightmares, like Petersen’s dark room did for him.
Magnolia signalled to two of the combat recruits with her – by their uniforms, they were local, not part of Magnolia’s usual team – and they came to the front of the group: escorts back to the real world.
‘Grigori?’ Magnolia asked, some sliver of emotion in her voice.
He’d had two chances to kill the agent. Two chances to do the thing that would begin to put the situation right. He’d missed both chances, and there was nothing that could fix that.
Curt jerked a thumb over his shoulder. ‘In there. We don’t have the tools to free him.’
Magnolia nodded, and pressed a hand to her headset. ‘Sir. My location.’
Magnolia’s words parsed in his mind – the fact that she was there was unusual, but she was still a recruit – even if her value to the Agency far, far surpassed her rank as Aide, but she was still a recruit. There was a difference in sending a recruit into a blackout zone to allowing an agent to enter – not that anyone could ever really tell Taylor what to do.
Behind him, Stef screamed, and the world tilted.
His hand jerked as he tried to release the knife he wasn’t holding. He’d been hearing her scream for an hour, but this time, it wasn’t him who had elicited the sounds from her.
He spun and threw his hands forward, pushing the combat recruit away from her – and breaking the contact between the recruit’s hand and Stef’s shoulder.
‘Don’t. Touch. Her,’ he ordered, his voice clipped, barely making its way out of his throat.
Stef fell forward, the collapse utterly boneless, completely without control – there was no attempt to catch herself, no stumble-step as she tried to tried to regain her balance. She simply…slipped, her head cracking the wall before she collapsed to the ground.
Magnolia’s hand was on his shoulder, a strange echo of what had just happened to Stef. ‘O’Connor,’ she said, the inflection in his name, the tone of his voice, demanding an answer as to why Stef was curling into a fetal ball, an agent crying in front of a half dozen recruits.
‘An agent in Solstice territory,’ he said, unable to bring himself to say the word “torture”, unable to push his own culpability past his tongue, ‘what do you think happened to her?’
‘You two need to evac,’ Magnolia said, absorbing his information without comment.
‘Do you really think she can walk?’ he asked, his voice finally cracking.
Magnolia snapped her fingers to the left of his face, and pointed at the escorts. ‘Agent. Stretcher. Now. Potential grievous injuries. Be. Gentle.’
Curt turned to watch the escorts, ensuring that neither of them – both women, from the small patches of their faces that he could see visible through their heavy-duty masks – touched Stef more than was absolutely necessary.
The escort to his right reached an arm up and over her shoulder, and there was the sound of velcro as she pulled something from her back. The escort took a step back, and flicked the item she’d retrieved.
It was a stretcher – a portable, emergency version – thin metal rods telescoped from one thick end, extending a dull blue concertina-folded centre section – though it was as thin as a first-aid-kit space-blanket, he had no doubt it would bear whatever weight was placed on it.
The other escort recruit grabbed the thin ends of the telescoped rods, and together, they laid it on the floor, then lifted Stef bodily onto the stretcher, before counting to three in Russian and lifting her from the cold floor.
Without further delay or ceremony, they began to walk her towards safety, and he followed, unsure if he deserved the safety of system territory and the bright lights of the Agency, but still too numb to ask Magnolia to kill him.
After five minutes – and passing Taylor with another group of recruits – they came up into the dark, dead night and the frigid air of freedom.
Their escorts led them to a circle of bright emergency lights, and the world swayed as they were shifted.
In the tiny fraction of time before he properly reintegrated, he already knew where they would appear – the infirmary, and as the world became clear, the vision of the Parkers, along with the familiar smell of antiseptic and recycled air proved him right.
Parker-1 immediately stepped to the side, going towards the bed that held Stef – and he had a second to process that as strange – she was an agent, she should have gone straight to Jones, and the healing powers of a tank of blue – before Parker-2 pushed on his chest, prodding him back towards a spare bed.
‘I’m fine,’ he croaked.
‘I’m sure,’ Parker-2 said, ‘and you’ve got your medical programming hidden up your arse?’
‘Doc,’ he said, the word coming out as a plea.
‘You’re my patient, that doesn’t mean you get to try my patience. You’re covered in blood, now-’ Parker-2 shoved on his chest, and he was forced to lay down on the infirmary bed. ‘Let me tend to you already, you stupid fuck.’
Stef’s blood. He was covered in Stef’s blood. Parker-2 would see that and do the right thing. He’d been a Solstice and he’d harmed an agent. His life was forfeit and-
He needed to explain, to warn, to tell Parker-2 what he was about to scan. ‘Most of it isn’t mine,’ he said.
‘And Mimsy isn’t my patient,’ Parker-2 countered swiftly.
There was the sound of scissors as the doctor began to cut his clothes away.
‘I hurt her,’ he said, and hot tears ran from the corners of his eyes and into his ears.
Three words. It was always the sentences that contained three words that were always the hardest. “I love you”: words spoken to his girlfriend when she’d come to him with a positive pregnancy test, words he hadn’t been sure of at the time, words he wasn’t sure he’d ever meant. “I give up”: words screamed in the lobby of the Adelaide agency, as he held an infant he’d cut from its mother. “She raped me”: words in the dead of night, spoken to Carmichael, when he’d finally been able to accept the truth of what Petersen’s wild fairy had done to him.
“I hurt her”: words that were going to end his life.
‘Nothing some blue can’t fix,’ Parker-2 said in what was, for the caustic doctor, a gentle voice. ‘Once you get an agent home, if they’re breathing, they have a good success rate for recovery.’
‘And an agent’s emotional state?’ he asked, trying to keep his words as level as possible.
‘Do you know how blue works, Recruit?’ Parker-2 asked, and Curt finched at the use of his title, more out of shock that it still applied than Parker-2 simply referring to him by his first name, as was far more normal.
‘If you give me five minutes, I can get Raz up here to give you a lecture.’
Parker-2 pinched the bridge of his nose, which turned blue for a moment, as if to unnecessarily illustrate that he was made of the stuff. ‘My fault, I should have asked a more specific question. Do you know what it does for emotional states?’
Curt tried to keep his face neutral. This was one of those areas where there were multitudes of Solstice propaganda: get blue in you and your emotions are theirs. Blue killed emotions. Blue brainwashed you.
Going straight from Solstice to recruit had never let him objectively observe a person in their pre-and-post blue states. And he had no wish to examine his own emotional state – that way lay madness.
‘Agents are born to a Duty,’ Parker-2 recited, as if from a textbook or holy scripture. ‘We could not do that duty if we were human in every way. Our thought processes aren’t human. We aren’t human, despite our casing, despite the relationships we maintain, despite how…sometimes some agents can even fool themselves. I can’t – we can’t – we’ve never had that privilege or that curse. Being twinned, we always know we are apart.’
‘Agents experience emotions in a different way, it’s how we are able to do the job we are made to do. An agent can love, can hate, can have all the surface appearing of being an ordinary person. We aren’t. Blue allows us to normalise far more quickly than anyone this side of sociopathy. An agent may grieve, but it doesn’t stop them from going to work the next day.’
Curt sat up and grabbed at the rags that Parker-2 had cut away from him, and brandished them towards the medical agent. ‘This is Stef’s blood. You know what I used to do. That’s what I did to her.’ He felt the tacky blood beneath his fingers, and more tears streamed down his face.
‘Yet,’ Parker-2 said, prodding a finger into a bruise on Curt’s side. ‘Somehow I feel compelled to give you the benefit of the doubt.’ Parker-2’s hand wrapped lightly around Curt’s shoulder. ‘There was massive trauma here. I can see the holes in your blue where it’s resyncing your medical data. Gunshot?’ Curt nodded. ‘Yet I don’t see a scratch. Agency hands didn’t do that. Solstice don’t go in for medical magics that heal that cleanly. I do, however, know an odd-smelling young agent with the power to do this.’
Curt looked up, squaring his shoulders and straightening his back so that he was close enough for Parker-2 to kiss, the agent’s grey eyes staring into his. ‘Breaking your Hippocratic oath, there, don’t you think, doc?’
‘Hippocrates can suck my dick,’ Parker-2 said, ‘and she is not my patient, you are.’
Curt maintained eye contact with Parker-2 for a long moment, trying to ascertain exactly what the doctor wanted him to say. ‘Yeah. It was Stef. I knew she had traces. I didn’t know she had as much as she did. I got shot. I told her to get out. She fixed me.’ His head dropped, guilt hanging around his shoulders like a dead albatross. ‘She wasted a wish on me. That’s- That’s not something-’ He squeezed the strips of his clothes until his knuckles went white. ‘I didn’t deserve that. I don’t deserve-’ He let out a long, breath breath. ‘Why- Why the fuck am I still a recruit? Why hasn’t someone dragged me off- I forfeit my life, and I’m okay with that exchange.’
‘That’s not up to me,’ Parker-2 said. ‘And I will sure as hell fight anyone who tries to take you away.’
‘I’m not entirely sure you would have a snowball’s chance,’ a woman’s voice said.
Curt looked up, saw Jane, and let his head drop again. ‘I apologise for my state, ma’am.’
‘Oh god,’ she said, an adoring tone in her voice, ‘he’s precious, isn’t he, Parker? I can’t go a week without someone slurring me for being a lesbian, and he’s apologising because he’s not wearing a bloody shirt?’
Curt blushed, but required a T-shirt, thick enough to hide the evidence of his tattoos, without the presumption of being allowed to wear a uniform. She was here to take him to some kind of tribunal, or just to a quiet corner where he could look through a window one last time before nine millimetres of justice did away with him for good.
Parker-2 turned, the action putting himself between Curt and Jane. It was- It was almost a protective action. He had to be misinterpreting. That wasn’t something-
‘Don’t touch him,’ Parker-2 growled.
Curt felt his eyes go wide as he looked up at the back of Parker-2’s head, and the strands of silver that wove through the man’s brown hair. It was one thing to make grandiose statements, it was another thing to-
He pushed himself off the bed, and scrambled to get in front of Parker-2 without crashing into Jane.
‘I’m ready, ma’am,’ he said, raising his voice over Paker-2’s protests. ‘I accept whatever-’
‘I’m checking in on you,’ she said, her voice the measured calm of a teacher dealing with a disruptive pupil. ‘As I assumed you’d been left alone, given that everyone is-’
‘Has someone to look after,’ he said, not meeting her eyes. A thought occured, and he almost hated himself for it – even now, he was trying to be the perfect recruit. ‘Did someone retrieve Dmitri?’
‘I believe your combat aide and her agent are on that task.’
He almost smiled at her wording – ordinarily, it would be “agent and their aide”, rather than the other way around. Magnolia deserved the respect she was getting, and he was glad of that. At least there would be one competent person in the agency left when he was gone.
He did his best to look ready to die. ‘Where to, ma’am?’
Jane’s brow wrinkled, and in doing so, highlighted a small scar above her left eye that he’d never noticed before. ‘I think I misunderstand your question, Recruit.’
‘Recruit, I’m about to take the testimony of two agents, I very much doubt that after that, you’ll be required. If there is conflict, or their stories differ too greatly, you’ll be brought in to give your version of events, but until then, I would suggest getting some rest.’ She smiled. ‘I daresay that Agent Mimosa’s time doing external training under the wing of the pompous Tsar has come to a close, so there’ll be a day or two before she’s reassigned, and only then will she know if she needs an attendant.’
Curt stared, wondering if he was comprehending her words. ‘But ma’am,’ he said, even though he felt on the edge of screaming, demanding his punishment, needing someone to cry “monster” and come after him with pitchforks. ‘Ma’am,’ he said again, trying to put his words into some kind of order that would make sense outside of his own. ‘Ma’am, after what I did-’
‘I’ve been listening to you two speak for the last few minutes,’ she said, a blush darkening her brown cheeks, as if she were admitting some wrongdoing. ‘May I?’ she asked, reaching a hand towards his shoulder. ‘I know your relationship with agents isn’t the strongest.’
He nodded mutely, and watched as she put a hand on his shoulder, the centre of her palm resting where the gunshot had been. ‘I can feel it,’ she said. ‘There’s a certain tingle to mirror magic, once you’ve used it, you never forget it.’ She snapped a hand to her right, making a “shut it” motion to Parker-2 as he opened his mouth to ask a question. ‘And I can’t- Whatever you did, if someone made a wish for you, then some of the fear in your eyes needs to go away.’
Jane removed her hand. ‘Go get some rest, Recruit, and that’s an order.’