Ryan sat at his desk, the heels of his hands pressed into his eyes.
Whatever relief the tank had brought in the morning, it had well and truly worn off.
The oubliette key sat on his desk, as much an object of temptation as drugs to a recovering addict.
He had to go back – he had to check on Stef. He had to figure out a way to monitor her condition, he had to encourage her to come back from…wherever she was.
He couldn’t go back – seeing Carol had been hardship enough, and she had been asleep. Seeing her awake would hurt even more.
There would be the want to throw open the door, to bring her back to the world, and damn the consequences. Even the prisoners in Central’s prison had some form of contact with the outside world. In the oubliette, there was nothing.
Nothing for Carol, and nothing for Stef if she woke up.
When she woke up.
When she crawled back from somewhere not even Death could describe, and breathed life back into a body that could have started rotting by now.
He fumbled with the drawer of his desk and pulled out a cheap fairy scotch – one whose effect on him was weak enough so that he could function, but strong enough to give him the effect he needed.
The first time he’d needed to dull himself with alcohol had been after Carol, when he’d sat with Taylor’s corpse, still covered in blood from more sources than he could identify. He’d asked Jones to bring their friend back to life, and the tech had agreed.
He’d passed out in the corner of the room, the empty bottle in his hand, the stench of death all around him.
He’d woken in a tank, his injuries seen to, his dirty clothes vanished to the void.
For one so young, Jones had handled the incident with surprising grace and competence.
He searched his mind, targeted Alexandria with a ping, then shifted Stef’s doll into his hands.
He took a quick drink of the scotch, lifted the key, then shifted from his office.
Ryan reintegrated in South Bank, walked quickly past some civilians, and down the short flight of service stairs that led to the fairy stairs. He opened the door, and stepped in. They were a well-travelled set of stairs, though usually quiet this time of day. He started his descent towards Fairyland, listening as much as he could for any signs of fae – great or small, but there seemed to be none about, not even any misicks in the slides above his head.
He thrust the oubliette key forward, and it opened with the usual ceremony.
Ryan quickly entered, and pulled the door closed behind him, before anyone could see – the chances of repercussions were low, but with how rare it was to see someone using an oubliette, it would draw questions he had neither the time nor patience to answer.
He let his eyes linger on Stef for a moment, and placed the doll at the foot of her bed – there seemed to be no change in her condition, then looked across the wall of glass he’d erected to the woman he’d wanted to spend decades with.
He crossed the barrier to Carol’s bed.
Carol lay asleep, like a fairy tale princess waiting to be woken. She was as beautiful as she had been before-
Before everything had gone wrong. Before she had walked into his office and cut his chest open. Before she had killed his recruits. Before she had killed an agent that had been as close as a brother.
She moaned and rolled over – her soft blonde hair falling over her eyes. He leaned over and kissed her forehead – afraid of waking her, but unable to stop himself all the same.
His heart thudded in his chest, trying to break free.
She roused, and his heart skipped a beat. He prepared himself to run, to hold her down, to scream apology and beg forgiveness.
He held his breath as she opened her eyes.
They were as beautiful as he remembered.
She smiled, then fell asleep again. He stepped back, the lump in his throat nearly choking his this time, and stood still as tears ran down his face.
There was so much he wanted to say to her, so much he wanted to apologise for, but he knew she wouldn’t be able to understand most of it, even if she recognised him.
That was what he feared the most, for her to look at him without knowing who he was, to not remember everything they had shared.
‘I love you,’ he whispered, then backed away across the clear barrier to Stef.
Ryan looked to the ceiling of the oubliette, and as he thought of it, it changed to mimic the sky he had left – the deep vibrancy of afternoon sunlight, and pink highlighted clouds.
He stared at the hunk of mirror in his recruit’s chest and the slowly dying daylight that reflected off of it.
The sunlight caught on the surface of the mirror and swirled across it in ways that certainly weren’t natural, beautiful and mesmerising for certain, but not natural.
The occasional spark of sunlight slid from the mirror, falling through the air like a tiny golden soul for a moment before disappearing.
It was one of the myths told about the world that that those sparkles were the source of Starbright. It was a falsehood, and most people knew that, but it was still a nice story – and sometimes a nice story was preferable to the harshness of reality.
Thinking of Starbright in terms of its appearance, of its sparkle and mass of rainbow colours distracted one from thinking about its inextricable link to dead children.
He sighed as the guilt returned, it had disappeared for a moment, but there was it again – as real and aching as when he’d found her on the roof, as when Taylor had pushed her aside in the ice-cream store, or when he’d held her tiny dead body.
Ryan shook his head, trying to distance himself from the guilt, reminding himself that everything – for the most part – had worked out for the best.
If she’d been younger the first time, young enough to become one of the Starbright children, then she would not have experienced any of the pain that her life had brought her, and it would not have led to her dying alone. She would have had a year of innocence, of fun, of everything a child could hope for.
Everything a child could hope for…but it was by no means a full life. And here he was, cheating her of a full life again, even if- Even when she woke up, things weren’t going to be easy.
The last vestiges of sunlight died away, and another thought filled the oubliette with the harsh, sterile lighting of the Agency. It was impersonal, and could disturb Carol, but he needed as much information as he could if he was going to help.
Daylight was bad enough, but under the harsh scrutiny of an incandescent bulb, she looked far more like the corpse that she was.
In the afternoon light, it was easy enough to imagine that she was just sleeping – or in a coma. The judgment of the light bulb left no room for those weak imaginings. Greyness had slipped into her skin tone, just a tinge, but it was enough to set it apart from the normal pale hacker pallor.
He hadn’t expected it, and it did nothing but worry him further, if that had happened, then it couldn’t be too long before rigor set in, or until she began to rot, or until it was time to stop fooling himself and let her go.
He sat on the edge of the bed and uselessly checked her vitals.
He slowly pushed one of her eyes open and flicked a penlight across it; there was no reaction, and he closed the eye again.
There was no breath, no air circulated through her lungs, and none escaped her mouth.
He kept his fingers against her neck for five solid minutes, just on the off-chance that the suspension had slowed her pulse that much.
Sitting so close to her, he couldn’t help but look at the heart – a warped reflection stared back at him, occasionally making movement that he did not.
She hadn’t begun to rot – that was the only positive element that he could glean from the situation. Whatever was keeping her suspended was keeping her body from falling apart while its life force was missing.
There was no smell, aside from the “hacker funk” that seemed to pervade the tech department.
Looking back down at Stef, he knew what had to be done. He had to catalogue. He had to understand. He rounded the bed, bent down and pulled her up into a sitting position, he requested more pillows from the oubliette and rested her back against them.
He finished unbuttoning her bloody shirt and vest, dropping them to the side of the bed. He touched her undershirt, and imagined it clean – and the oubliette made it a reality a moment later.
He requested a wet washcloth and wiped away the obvious dirt and dust on her arms and face.
He cleaned the cuts on her hands, and bandaged them – noting their position, size and state – none of them had begun to heal as yet, presumably, they’d begin to heal when she woke up. If she woke up. When she woke up.
He pushed the undershirt up a little, cleaning the dried blood from her stomach, and dabbed at the fresh scar – where she’d been shot.
Ryan pulled away from the scar. It didn’t stand out against the others, just another in the collection. It was different from the other those, this one was his fault.
She had willingly placed herself in a position to be injured – or killed – just to protect him.
He was an agent, he was supposed to be the protector.
He could have fought, even with a bullet in his lung, it would have been a short and pointless fight, and it mostly certainly would have led to his death, but he could have done it. He should have done it.
He’d been selfish, he had taken her, despite her test scores being that of a tech recruit.
She’d remembered him, against all odds, she’d remembered him. She had been living proof that something that he had done something good. She also hadn’t been afraid of him, she hadn’t listened to the other recruits, when they’d repeated the rumours and the lies.
All the recruits feared Taylor – but that was his intent, and made no protestations. He liked recruits to be scared of him, he felt that it kept them in line.
Jones…well, it was hard for them to be seen as scary, and Jones loved the recruits – befriending them, and treating them as equals.
His recruits, however, saw him as far too serious, far too severe. They heard the rumours and expounded on them, no matter what was done to stem them – mercy killings were seen as cruel executions, his by-the-rules interrogations were seen as “being the bad cop”.
And certain memories were never forgotten. “Oh, did you hear? His girlfriend went crazy and he killed her.” The facts were incomplete, the incident classified, the memory painful and the truth devastating, but that nugget remained in the mortal memory, passed from recruit to recruit. “Man, if he could kill her, how safe do you think we are?” Ugly rumours and the human habit of siding with their own kind made it hard for him to connect with his recruits.
He smiled at Stef – supposing that it was the fact that she found it hard to get along with the rest of the human race that had given them something in common.
He gently rolled Stef onto her back, brushed her hair out of the way and plucked a few splinters from the cuts. He then dressed the small cuts, and got to work on the ugly jagged cut from the mirror.
The mirror itself no longer protruded from her back as it had done when it had killed her, but the cut had remained. He cleaned it as best as he could, then covered it with gauze and taped it down.
He required an Agency-blue pyjama top and pulled it over her, one arm at a time, feeling as though he was dressing a child.
He quietly buttoned it up and placed her back against the pillows. He moved down the bed and removed her dirty shoes and socks – still unconvinced that her ability to seemingly generate dirt wasn’t somehow a fae power.
Tearing open the left leg of her pants, he dressed a small cut, then quickly replaced the pants with a pair that matched the pyjama top.
He removed the extra pillows and covered her with the blanket. Now, now she just looked like she was asleep. He required away the dirty washcloths, then placed her dirty clothes and shoes into an evidence bag, and placed it under the bed – just in case they were needed for later.
He tucked the doll under the blanket with her.
He squeezed her hand for a moment. ‘Come back Stef, come home.’
Ryan checked her vitals once more, then left the oubliette and shifted back to his office.
He sat at the desk and leaned his head back.
He dropped into communication mode, then opened up his mainframe access. Sparks of blue and white swam in his vision as his muted view of his office disappeared.
He blinked to readjust his vision – now he could see all of the crystallised files floating around him. He wasn’t used to it – he rarely had to access the knowledge of the collective unconscious – normal file searches were enough, or were easily found.
‘Mirrors,’ he said aloud.
The files spun, then a few broke free of their companions and fell down to his eye level.
‘Mortals animated by mirrors,’ he specified. Two of the five folders remained, the others dissipated and reappeared in the “sky” high above him.
He opened the one on his left and stepped back. The image of a tall agent, wearing a suit that was at the height of its fashion a few hundred years ago, paced back and forth for a moment, then stared straight ahead.
‘As previously reported, we lost the mirror. There was a storm, we were outnumbered. We lost the whole thing. Some halfbreed fae captured it. They created a warrior. It was…powerful. It killed half a dozen agents. Completely destroyed them. There’s nothing to be recycled, no memories to be had.’
He scrolled through the file, and the image stopped and started accordingly. It wasn’t what he needed.
‘Require: physical copy of file, discard from current search.’
He opened the file directly in front of him.
A pretty young woman appeared in front of him. ‘Aide Anne-Marie, filing report in place of Agent Lambeau. As has been reported, Agent Lambeau confiscated a piece of mirror from an evidence locker and used it to wake his sick wife from a fae-induced coma. This would not have warranted as severe punishment as was given, had it worked properly. He was not careful in his commands, and woke up more than her lost mind. It copied over memories and languages from the dead world – Micerin – and this drew leeches to her.’
The image of the Aide hesitated for a moment before continuing. ‘Micerin was an advanced world – approximately relative plus three, so we had a number of leeches. Fortunately, void mutations rendered most of them…easily dealt with. The leeches believed Mrs Lambeau to be an incarnation of their world’s god, and agreed to follow her. An operation was planned, and they were all destroyed, and Agent Lambeau recycled. Several sections of mirror were recovered from Mrs Lambeau and placed in deep storage, in case there were repercussions. Only myself and the director know this, as well as the agents who have accessed this file, total now: forty-seven. Your access date has been recorded. Further information can be found in this file’s attachments.’
‘Require: physical copy of file, discard from current search.’
He opened the third file. A glassy-eyed tech agent stared out into the mainframe. ‘The following is a compilation of information gathered from Solstice sources and raids. It deals with their experiments with the mirrors. This file is best viewed in physical format, because as lovely as my voice is, most of it is charts and dates. It’s worth noting, however, that to our knowledge, none of these experiments were successful. Peace out.’
‘Require: physical copy of file and all attachments. End search.’
Snapping his fingers, he snatched her file from midair and read over the information he’d already viewed a dozen times over. There was no close family for them to contact – not even any currently in the country.
There was no publicly submitted will, and she had no lawyer on file.
It seemed that after death, Stef had simply ceased to be. No will, no bequests, no requests. No funeral arrangements.
Like a dead agent. Like a world after a mirrorfall. No imprint on the world after the memories faded.
‘I’ll remember you,’ he said. ‘It’s the least I can do.’
[table id=15 /]