Brisbane, 1905.

‘And she was the turtle all along!’

Ryan stared. ‘Sir?’

There was a look on his Director’s face. It matched certain facial profiles that he saw on Reynolds’ face throughout the day. A microsecond later, he deduced that Reynolds was expectant. He expected something of Ryan, though he was unsure what.

Ryan kept his eyes on Director Reynolds, and looped the audio from the last section of their conversation. It seemed unrelated to the as-yet-unstated reasons for them standing on the Agency roof.

Something was wrong. It was inconsistent behaviour. A rooftop meeting – sometimes a location to meet with fae, or to get a view of the area immediately surrounding the Agency; however, it was predominantly for show, the roof of the Agency was as much a part of the Agency as any other room. It was all system territory, the same rules applied on every square inch.

‘Ryan?’

‘Sir?’

The expression Reynolds wore changed – expectation became disappointment. ‘It’s a joke, Ryan,’ Reynolds said, gently slapping his arm. ‘You’re supposed to laugh.’

‘I didn’t see the humour, sir, I apologise for-‘

‘I have to keep reminding myself you aren’t a newborn, but you certainly act like it, agent.’

‘Sir, can I ask what we’re doing up here?’

‘There’s something you need to see. Can’t you feel it? Can’t you hear it?’

Ryan concentrated and listened, fixing his eyes on the shadowed brick of the building next to the Agency. There were the usual night sounds – everything was within usual parameters. Everything was in order.

‘Nothing, Ryan?’

‘Nothing out of the ordinary, sir.’

Reynolds gave a small laugh and leaned his forearms on the wall of the roof. ‘I’ve heard it said among the fae that if you can’t feel this, it means you have no soul…because you need a soul to hear it. It’s nonsense, of course, but people do find their ways to be cruel.’

‘We’re agents, sir, we don’t have souls.’

Reynolds stood straight, brushed brick dust from the arms of his suit, then placed his hands on Ryan’s shoulders. ‘Listen to me, newborn, really listen, because this is important. Souls are inertia, and they are self. We don’t have the inertia, we get that from the system, but the self, the important part, of course we have that. We are reasonable, thinking, people. We have thoughts, we have feelings, wants, needs and fears, so by every measure that counts, and by every damned god, we have souls Ryan, and I won’t let you think otherwise.’

A question formed. An opinion. An impertinent response to what his Director had said. Impertinence was against the spirit of duty – it was against the system to question authority, to argue with those in power above you, but Reynolds thrived on chaos and discourse.

‘If you recognise what we have, sir, is there a need to call it by name, sir? We do not have souls in the technical sense, and that would be what a lot of people gauge-‘

Reynolds threaded his fingers through Ryan’s. ‘This isn’t a fight you’re going to win, agent, so give up now. Close your eyes and listen, you’ll hear it, I promise.’

‘I gain no extra auditory benefit from-‘

‘Shut your damn eyes, Ryan.’

There was no need to argue with a direct order, even if it wasn’t a standard instruction.

Ryan closed his eyes and listened.

Reynolds squeezed his hand. ‘You’ll understand in a moment. Listen, what do you hear?’

Horse shoes striking the street and the sound of wheels. The faint sounds of a man drunkenly singing. Noises so familiar and banal that he was able to easily filter them. There was nothing that needed his attention. Nothing that warranted this disruption to their schedule.

A woman was singing.

He pulled away from Reynolds and gripped onto the brick wall. Long, perfect notes came through the night, so loud and beautiful that it was impossible to think that he hadn’t heard them.

Beautiful. A subjective term. He considered the descriptor and allowed it. His ears tingled, and he drew in a sharp breath as the music seemed to sink into his chest. Background thoughts considered the use of a sonic weapon, but more immediate thoughts recognised the sensation as benign, even if it was overpowering.

The best course of action was to decrease his chance of being off-balance. He sat, his back to the brick, and looked up at the sky.

The moon was large, far larger than it should have been, far larger than it usually was.

‘Dammit.’

Reynolds’ voice shook him from his reprieve. ‘Sir?’

‘I’ll be back in a few, Ryan. Don’t be scared.’

‘I see no need for terror, sir-‘

‘You will.’

Reynolds shifted away, the blur in the air disappearing a moment later.

The song stopped, and the pressure on his chest disappeared. He allowed his attention to go back to the moon – it was also behaving in a non-standard way, so the logical course of action was to keep an eye on it. He stood and walked in a small circle, to see if a slightly different angle would give him further information.

He ran a quick check through his HUD of fae events to see if any festivals or celebrations were scheduled that would explain all of the out-of-sorts behaviour. Nothing. It wasn’t a mystery, just an event with delayed answers, due to his Director’s want to keep their regular patterns of behaviour…irregular and “interesting”.

The discolouration on the moon began to fade – things were going back to normal.

Ryan felt his mind adjusting to new data as the discolouration intensified in the centre of the moon’s face. A small, dark red ball. The ball shook, violently, and he began to open up emergency procedures, perusing them as quickly as he could whilst looking for other information, other signs of danger.

The ball exploded, and he began to run emergency protocols – each of which came with a swift override from Reynolds.

He stared up, and felt fear as fire took on form and a screech reached his ears.

He tried to process information.

He tried not to feel fear.

Ryan didn’t need the window in his HUD to identify a phoenix. It was impossible to go five years of life as an agent without hearing about their power, about what they could do. Their capabilities and their duty were one – they were creatures whose purpose was destruction.

He could hear the phoenix’s heartbeat. Loud. Reverberating in his chest, just as the song had done. Each beat brought the end closer.

Red, a death by fire. A planet burnt to cinders, until all were ash. Blue – flood a planet with magic so that any non-magical being disappeared as surely as if they had been shifted away. Green, for when there was a need to utterly destroy an ecosystem and replace it with a new one. Purple, to sunder the air, to take breath from all. Glittering, for when a heart worked in concert with death to consume all. More colours than anyone knew about. More deaths than could be imagined. Innumerable ways for the Agency to fail, for everyone to die.

Red phoenix. A burning death for every person he had been created to protect. A city, destroyed. His duty, failed.

His breath came in ragged gasps.

There was nothing he could do. Any warnings would be-

A hand touched his shoulder and he screamed in alarm.

Reynolds.

‘Sir!’

‘It’s not for our world, Ryan.’

Ryan felt relief, and he allowed his body to slump. It was unprofessional, as were the tears on his cheeks.

Reynolds steadied him. ‘Goodness, gods, Ryan, how could you think- Would I have ever left you alone if it had been for Earth?’

‘You gave me no information!’

Reynolds put a strong hand on his shoulder and looked him square in the eyes. ‘Agent, I thought you knew me better. If it had been for us, would we be standing here, waiting for the end?’

‘It’s a phoenix, sir,’ Ryan said as the firebird wheeled across the sky. ‘There is nothing we could do.’

Reynolds smiled. ‘I might have to take a look at your base code, agent, there’s no provision in my Duty for giving up just because it’s hard.’

‘Impossible is different to hard, sir.’

‘Not in my dictionary.’

There was a cadence to Reynolds’ words. An invitation. A chance to make up for his failing to recognise the earlier joke. ‘Not- I might have to take a look at your base code, Director, I fear your dictionary may be out of sorts.’

Reynolds gave a wry smile and ruffled his hair. ‘Not bad Ryan, you might have a sense of humour buried under all of that newborn stiffness and Dusker shit.’

‘Do me a favour, agent?’

‘Sir?’

‘Jump.’

It was an order. It was his duty to follow it. He jumped, and his feet didn’t touch back down. He looked down. He was hovering. ‘Sir?’

‘Time to fly, angel, it’s good for your soul.’

[table id=15 /]