Ryan leaned back against the wall of the oubliette. The crystal was always cold, though still felt alive somehow – it pulsed with magic, just as a mirror did, which made sense – the mirrors were the remnants of Chaos, the oubliettes had to be of a similar order of magic.
It got easier to know where to look so that he didn’t have to look at Carol.
The one small grace he received was that she never woke while he was there. Perfect, sleeping, quiet.
Somehow, it made him feel worse.
It would break his heart to see her raving and mad. It would hurt to hear her blaming him for everything, for locking her in an unending prison, for not being kind enough to let her die.
It would kill him to hear, but part of him longed for it. There was nothing she could say that he hadn’t recited in his mind a hundred thousand times over. No insult he hadn’t used against himself. No accusation he didn’t already feel guilty for.
It would be a relief to finally hear it coming from her. But he was still grateful for every moment it was delayed.
He’d taken to sitting at the end of Stef’s bed – it had elongated slightly to allow him room without having to move her feet. With the blankets up, and her eyes closed, it was easy enough to fool himself into thinking he was simply watching over a sick child. That he was just waiting for a fever to break.
There’d been no change.
Life was moving on, as it did – paperwork had been filed, officially calling her dead. Rosters had been shuffled slightly, and life in the Agency was back to how it had been before Stef had ever stepped foot there.
Curt had inquired after her, but that had been all. No other recruit had even asked. Dead and gone, just like an agent.
He closed his eyes and wished again for her to wake up, to come back, to find her way home, whatever was needed for her to sit up and smile. For his mistake to be erased.
The door was still open – allowing him to be visible to the system, so that he didn’t appear to be having too many unexplained absences from system territory. Infrequent jaunts into Fairyland were fine, as were trips to the Local Court, but if Stef was going to…sleep for any extended amount of time, he had to cut down on any activity that looked suspicious.
There were places where he could open the oubliette in relative safety and anonymity – and one of those was her apartment. He had duty-bound reasons to be there, it wasn’t uncommon for the Agency to close out properties of dead recruits, and after that stopped being a reaonable excuse, he could simply claim to like the space – agents, after all, were allowed external properties for their downtime.
Not that there was much to like about the space – it was a simple four-room flat: bedroom, bathroom, kitchen and living area. The kitchen held little sign of use beyond an electric kettle and some basic cutlery. Empty containers were stacked beside a bin already overflowing with rotting rubbish.
He tried not to look. He tried not to judge. He tried not to infer patterns of behaviour.
He jumped in place as he heard a shot.
His gun was in his hand before he’d had a chance to think, to consider, to remember that an oubliette had to be, quite literally, the safest place in the world.
Stef was glowing.
A red glow, centred on her heart, rose up from under the blanket.
He heard a child crying.
Stef. It was Stef crying.
The glow rose and pulled away from her, forming into a translucent vision of the child he’d failed.
The little red Stef clutched onto air, and the red glow spread, forming part of a suit. His suit.
Ryan steeled himself against what was going to happen. What had already happened, so long ago.
There was the sound of a shot, and the toddler lost her grip on the agent who had been too slow to protect her.
The little Stef seemed to float, before she came to a rest near the floor of the oubliette. She sat on the never-seen floor of Death’s realm, and cried – the formless wail of a child needing to be comforted, needing a parent to chase the monsters away.
A ball, as red as the aspect, rolled in front of her, and she grabbed at it.
The ball jumped out of her hands and rolled back in the direction that it had come from. Stef got to her feet, standing on soft, unsure legs, and stumbled after it.
Her path out of Death’s realm and into Limbo made her pass from the confines of the oubliette, and he followed.
She sat in what would become her living room, and began to roll the ball back and forth with the merest impression of Limbo – barely more than a red wisp in the air.
Death appeared, and for a moment, he wondered if she was part of the illusion, but she was her customary colours, not the red of everything else.
‘What is it?’ he asked as she sat on the couch and watched the toddler play – just as he had sat on the felled tree and watched her two decades ago.
‘An aspect,’ Death said. ‘Life as long as yours, Ryan, I’m surprised you haven’t seen one before.’ He shook his head, and Death removed her hood. ‘They are different for everyone, and they are manifested by various magics for various reasons.’
‘If they’re her memories,’ he said slowly, ‘then part, at least part, of her is alive.’
Death moved to stand beside him. ‘Her strongest memories. For good or ill. In the end, Ryan, all people are, are their memories.’
Ryan thought of Taylor, and felt the familiar guilt.
‘If she’s to come back,’ Death said, ‘She has to have a framework. Her memories will be this. Life flashing before your eyes? You know of the concept?’
‘This is the grand extrapolation of that.’
The red version of himself appeared as Stef was lifted from the ground – the impression of his suit, his face, the images she had held for nearly as long as she’d lived.’
The red images disappeared as suddenly as they had appeared.
Ryan sat back, resting his back against the lumpy couch. He looked into his HUD – there was more than enough reason to go back to the Agency. To do work. To try and forget about his mistakes for a few-
‘You left the window open,’ Death said.
Ryan sat up straight, unsure of the urgency of her words. ‘I simply wanted to-’
‘You left the window open,’ she said, harsh waves of cold hitting him with each word.
‘Oh gods,’ he said, even as he shifted back into the bedroom, his words leaving a slight echo in his mind.
There was blood on the oubliette’s door. He looked in and down at Stef – her shirt was in tatters, and had chest had been ripped open, an empty cavity staring back at him – the heart was gone.
He looked around, as if in a trance, following the trail of bloody prints. The ran across the floor, up the wall and to the highset window.
Ryan felt his heart skip a beat.
A howler sitting on the window ledge. A bulging leather pouch hung from its belt, its dark, glittering eyes victorious. It flipped its hand at him, then dropped from the window.
‘Go after it,’ Death said, ‘quickly.’
He stared at the window – there were a hundred different directions it could have gone in, a dozen buildings it could have crossed into, it could have gone into the sewer systems, attached itself to a vehicle- ‘I could…find another piece of mirror. We’re still finding shards, and there are-’
She shook her head. ‘No’
‘Where do you think she is?’ Death demanded of him. ‘Where did you really think she is?’
He turned back to look at the body. ‘She’s-’
‘Everything that is, was or could be your recruit is in that piece of mirror. Everything. If you don’t get it back, you don’t get her back.’
Ryan shifted through the wall, looking for the howler as he neatly fell three stories to the ground. He landed in a crouch, slightly cracking the concrete and saw it on the building across from him.
They small fae held onto its pouch, the top of the heart just visible. It licked some blood from it before attaching it back to its belt.
Ryan fired, but the howler dodged.
Howlers weren’t very bright, but they were very agile – possessing a dexterity that put humans to shame. Physically, it was rather simian – elongated, thin limbs and a fine covering of black fur, behaviourally, it was typically fae – falling prey to the trickster streak that ran through all of them, they thrived in cities, stealing items of value, selling them for profit, keeping them for themselves, or just throwing them away when they got bored. They were all grey-listed, and all treated with caution.
As he shot at it again, it darted back from the edge of the building. He shifted up and chased it. He was fast, but it was faster, and every time he shifted to catch up, it would simply change direction, or dive off the side of the building, scrambling along window ledges and tiny hand-holds that its paws were able to grab hold of.
He shifted to the street level and continued to chase it, following the shadow. He fired again – hoping to scare it, or make it feel threatened enough to challenge him. It took a flying leap from the building, across to the next, he shifted up to intercept it, but pushed him off, raking sharp claws across his face.
He fell without grace, and an automatic subroutine realised that he was out of control, and shifted him so that he landed on his feet.
His face still bled – wounds from a fae acted just like those in a blackout zone, needing a direct application of blue to heal.
There was a screech of tires and he jumped forward as a car ground to a halt just behind him.
‘What the fuck you doing mate?’ the driver yelled, leaning out of the window.
Ryan turned to look at the man, and simply stared as he felt blood running in steady drops from him chin. He required his ID, raised it, and flicked it open with a practiced ease. The man pulled himself back into the car, reversed, then turned the car and drove back out of the quiet street.
He dismissed his ID, wiped his face with the back of his coat sleeve and winced at the pain.
The entire encounter had lasted ten seconds, but it was the ten seconds that might have cost Stef’s life.
Civilians were going to be a problem – the streets they were in now were fairly deserted, their occupants asleep or at work, but if it headed towards the centre of the Valley, then there were going to be problems.
Sightings, photos, video, questions being asked, articles in the paper – and he’d be able to do less to silence them than normal.
This wasn’t sanctioned mission, or even something he could report, there was going to be no media blackout, no cover story, no clean up crew to check for evidence.
He couldn’t ask for anything. He couldn’t give a reason for any of it.
Howlers were a nuiscance, but just that. There was no reason to pursue them when there was a far greater chance of exposure than capture.
Every part of him that yielded to Duty screamed at him to let the howler go, to let Stef go, to take this as a sign, as a chance to get back on the path he’d strayed from when he’d seen the girl lying dead on the roof.
The choice was between reverting back to the model agent he had always tried to be, and breaking even more rules to protect a young woman he, realistically, didn’t know.
The choice was so very easy.
Ryan ran after the howler.
He was on his own, and it made him feel weak – he was used to having backup, used to the Agency’s power working for him.
The howler took a sharp left turn and he followed – it was heading for traffic, for civilians, for one of the busiest parts of the city.
He stopped running and shifted ahead of it, across the main street and onto the roof a hotel across. He watched it emerge from the maze of buildings, running on all fours across one more building, then leaping down onto the pavement.
It looked around for him, then ran out into the traffic.
No one swerved to miss it – to do so would have been dangerous, but it was possible that they were just oblivious. It was one of the reasons the fae flocked to cities more than they did to small towns and rural areas – most people were unwilling to see what was right in front of their eyes, and it afforded them a kind of security. A passive invisibility that allowed them to go on with their lives without being called out for not being human.
A person in strange clothes, or with strange hair, with markings that could be mistaken for tattoos was ignored outright by people who people who easily othered both human and fae who could fall under that category.
There was the norm and the people who relied on it, and they were the peope who would always be blind to any sort of magic in their lives.
Objectively, those kind of people made his job possible. Subjectively, he pitied them. The world was full of magic, and that deserved to be celebrated, even if – and perhaps especially – because fae, for the most part, led lives that were interchangeable with humans: they went to work, they had their friends and family, they juggled budgets and yelled at television.
Cities ignored the fae, because most people had stopped looking a long time ago.
The howler was still dodging traffic.
Ryan saw a chance: a hydrant valve. He targeted it with his HUD, and a moment later, torrents of water exploded from it.
Traffic immediately stopped, and the howler was effectively hidden from sight.
It finished crossing the lanes of previously busy traffic, and looked rather pleased with itself. It scampered along the ground, but was stopped by a display in an adult store window. It leaped up onto the window and began to thump itself against the glass, emitting the howl it was named for.
Fortunately, the civilians on the ground were more interested in the erupting water to notice a mad and excited fae.
Ryan stilled himself and shifted right behind the howler. Grabbing it, he squeezed it to his chest, feeling it struggle and squirm, it bit one hand and scratched at his other, but he ignored the pain.
Reynolds had told him over and over that Rhys had enjoyed dismembering howlers and leaving them on display as warnings to other fae. He’d always thought that just another barbaric act of his former, but right now, he understood it.
He wrapped one arm around its middle, releasing the other and reaching for the leather pouch – killing it was secondary, retrieving the heart was all that mattered.
It twisted in his grip, turning to face him. It brought its face up to his and howled, up close, the sound was unbearable, loud enough to make his ears bleed. He held on to the creature as it screamed, groping blindly for the pouch.
It giggled, manic and high-pitched, and he felt liquid all seep all over him. Urine. He tried to fling it off as the acidic waste burned through his vest and shirt and began to eat into his skin.
He tried to push the howler away as it continued to urinate on him, his body screaming in pain. It gripped tight to him, but squirmed every time he grabbed for the pouch.
It howled again and he stopped fighting it. It leaped off him, bounced off the shop window, then ran down the street.
He watched it go, unable to move to go after it, blood pouring from his ears and melting flesh exposed through destroyed clothes, it bounded down Brunswick street, towards more traffic and even more civilians.
He quickly shifted to the nearest roof, away from prying eyes, questions and cameras.
Ryan stumbled and fell to his hands and knees, the pain making his vision fuzzy.
Ryan rolled onto his back and stared at Jones in his HUD. [Information control. Anything coming from my area.]
[Sir, I’m going to shift you back-]
In his HUD, Jones looked shocked. [Sir, you’re in really bad shape. I’ll get one of your teams to-]
[And you told me to tell you when you’re acting like Taylor.]
[There’s a howler exposing itself to civilians-]
‘And we have procedures to deal with that.’ Jones’ voice echoed in Ryan’s head as he heard it with his ears and in his HUD. He cancelled the video chat and looked up at the blond tech. ‘Procedures,’ Jones said as he knelt beside Ryan, ‘that don’t involve this happening to a Director.’ Ryan planted his hands and tried to raise himself up, but Jones pushed on his chest. ‘Ryan. Stop it.’
‘It’s getting away!’ he forced, balling his fists to try and deal with the pain. ‘I can’t let it get away.’
‘I’ve pretty much picked that up, sir,’ Jones said. ‘But it’s not. Merlin is tracking it by drone, and I can see it right now,’ he said, pointing to his eye. ‘It’s…trying to steal candy from a baby. Well,’ there was a pause as Jones unscrewed the cap on a large bottle, ‘a doughnut from a toddler, but that doesn’t have the same ring to it.’
Jones upended the bottle, and the pain increased tenfold.
Ryan’s mouth filled with blood as he bit through his tongue.
Though a haze of pain and blood, he watched Jones lift another bottle, and wondered briefly if he was going to die, before he saw the colour of the liquid inside: blue.
Blessed relief filled him as the blue was poured over his ravaged body. He felt pieces of muscle regrowing and skin covering him again.
‘Sir, you are going to need to come and see me when you’re done,’ Jones said in a soothing tone. ‘This is the best I can do on short notice, but it’s far better than what you could have done on your own.’
Even as Ryan relished the feeling of being healed, Jones’ actions bothered him. It was against procedure to do this. It was against the other agent’s Duty. It was-
A wheel spun in his HUD as Jones remotely started a scan.
Jones had every right to argue with him, to try and force him back to the Agency, to refuse to treat him in the field.
It was breaking the rules – an unusual action for Jones – but he was grateful.
Jones helped him to sit up. ‘There’s going to be significant integrity loss over everywhere I just treated so…do your best not to get hurt again, sir. And I’m going to have to do a major rebuild.’ Jones smiled. ‘But do what you need to do first. I’m going to pass over the drone data and pathing now, and you’ll be on your own again.’
Ryan nodded as the window appeared in his HUD, but didn’t fully comprehend the words until Jones had shifted away.
On his own.
He pushed it out of his mind, quickly scanned the drone’s feed
The howler hadn’t gotten far – it was a hundred metres or so down the street, sitting on the fence that looked down to the train tracks. It had popped the heart out of the bag again, licking away the blood and occasionally stopping to stare at its reflection when it had cleared a spot.
He required a cage around it, and it fell to the ground, screaming and trying to squeeze through the cage. He shifted down the street and grabbed it, watching the howler squirm. ‘I’ll let you live,’ he said, ‘just give me the mirror.’
‘Feck off,’ the howler growled as it practically poured itself out through the bars. It shook itself off as he tried to stand on it, then ran off. He tossed the cage to the side, hitting a parked car, and followed the fae.
It bounced on its tail for a moment, and propelled itself up onto the roof of a store as he followed beneath, pushing through a crowd waiting at the bus stop. As he pushed past one man, he was grabbed. ‘Watch it!’
Ryan grabbed both of the man’s arms and forced them away from his body. He could break them with a little more pressure. He could pull them from their sockets with a little more concentration. He could jut his head forward and kill the man if he did it at just the right angle.
He lifted a foot and kicked the man, just hard enough to free himself, and to ensure no one else would try to attack him.
This time when he tried to pass, he met with no resistance. He heard a few mobile phones dialing, undoubtedly for the police – but he knew as soon as his description was given, they’d drop it.
Stopping on the corner, he looked for the howler, it was on the roof above him, laughing and swaying.
It scrambled up the side of the nearest building and disappeared. He shifted to the roof, following it on foot, afraid of losing it – howlers had a tendency to slip away when they became bored with a situation. It couldn’t fade as quickly as most fae – they had very little magic, but it was quick enough that he wouldn’t be able to stop it if he lost sight of it for more than few moments.
He leaped over rooftops – it was something he’d done a hundred times before, but something he could never get used to, he always wondered what the people inside must think, and what strange theories they came up with to explain the noises.
Across one building, a flying leap to the next, over the top of a dozen or so parked cars – the howler showed no signs of slowing – they never did. They were almost made of energy – no chase after a howler had ever ended because it had tired, because it had given up, yes, because it had become bored, yes, but never because it had tired.
The howler flew off the edge of the building – staying aloft for longer than its gangly body should have allowed, and landed on the roof of a passing bus.
Leather pouch in hand, the howler looked back and grinned – it wasn’t tired of the chase, nor did it have any intention of giving up. It scrambled over the front of the bus, and underneath, where he could not follow.
For a mad moment, he considered following suit – leaping onto the bus, taking full advantage of what he could do as an agent, stand tall on the roof with no fear of falling, and punching through the metal to demand that it stopped.
Only a madman would enact such a plan, despite how tempting it was.
He looked forward, seeing where it would slow next, and shifted there, running out in front of as it started to slow for the lights.
His ID was in his hand with a thought – and the driver brought the bus to a stop less than a foot from his face.
The door opened and the driver poked her head out. ‘What’s up?’
‘Evacuate your passengers, quickly.’
The woman in the blue uniform stared at him for a moment, her gaze flicking from his face to his badge and back, before she climbed back inside, and the passengers began to get off.
‘Direct them down to the corner,’ he said, ‘this should only take a few minutes.’
She nodded, and started to guide the milling civilians, her phone already in her hand.
A young man with a fae glint in his eyes, dyed black hair and “fashionable” clothes glared at him. ‘Godsdamn angel, yanno some people actually have to work for a living.’
‘If you know what I am,’ he replied, his eyes glued to the shadows surrounding the bus, ‘you should have run further than the others.’
‘Why’d it have to be my bus?’ the young man whined. ‘It’s the only one I can take to work!’
Ryan took his eyes away from the shadows for a moment. ‘Do you have any idea how insignificant your life is compared to what I’m trying to do?’
‘I have uni fees to pay!’
Ryan heard his voice turn into a snarl. ‘It’s money you’re worried about?’
‘Yeah man, what else would it be?’
‘I apologise,’ he said, copying his dead recruit’s sarcastic tone.
Require: gold bar.
‘Compensation!’ the boy yelled, ‘that’s more like it.’
He flung the gold bar at the young man, knocking him to the ground. He turned back to the bus, required away his weapon and grabbed the bottom left corner of the vehicle. Putting all of his strength into it, he flipped the bus onto its side.
The howler was gone.
‘Hey Agent Arsehole, the monkey-ninja went that way,’ the young man said, wheezing as he sat up.
He followed direction the boy was looking in, and saw the howler crawl underneath a car headed for the bridge. He shifted ahead of the car, keeping an eye on the howler as the car got closer and closer to the bridge.
As the car drove onto the Story Bridge, the howler climbed from under the car and leaped onto the nearest support beam. He shifted to near the howler.
‘A trade,’ he called over the wind and the traffic. ‘Whatever you want, just give me the mirror.’
The howler made a chattering noise and grabbed its leather pouch. ‘Not a mirror,’ it squeaked. ‘It’s a heart.’
‘Immunity,’ he offered, unsure that he’d be able to carry through on the deal. ‘Blind Agency eyes to everything that you do for a year.’
The howler stroked the pouch. ‘Already have what I need.’
‘I need it more,’ he said, not caring whether or not the creature heard him. He stood, unable to keep his balance on the thin beam without a second though, the wind pulling at his jacket. ‘Changelings at least leave something when they steal a child,’ he said, ‘you’ve stolen a life, what did you leave?!’
The creature pulled on the pouch. ‘Changelings leave trouble. Howlers take it away.’
‘Give. It. Back.’
The howler put the pouch back on its belt and shook its head. ‘Angels should fly. You could catch us when you could fly.’
‘We don’t need our wings anymore. The question is, can you fly?’ This left a confused look on the howler’s face – the opening he needed.
He shifted across to the howler and – with a force that would have impressed Taylor – kicked it free of the support beam. The creature scrambled to catch hold of something, but he shifted again, caught it by the scruff of the neck and threw it free of the bridge.
He landed in front of a large truck, rolled out of its way, jumped up, then over the safety fence and up onto the edge of the bridge. The howler was still falling, trying to glide, to stay aloft, anything to prevent itself from hitting the water. He watched its position as it tumbled, jumped a little further along the bridge, then launched himself free of it.
Catching the howler in midair, he kept a tight grip on it as they hit the water – the impact did nothing to him, but it dazed the creature for a moment. He reached for the pouch, but it fought back, biting and scratching him again.
‘You should have taken the offer,’ he said as he grabbed it by the neck and held it under the surface of the river.
His legs worked automatically to keep him afloat as the creature struggled in his grip. He wrapped his other hand around its furry throat as it continued to struggle. The water churned in front of him as the creature tried desperately to get to the surface, to take a breath.
After a minute, it stopped struggling.
He lifted it from the water, the water-soaked body a lot heavier than the lithe form betrayed. He pulled it onto its back and tore its belt off – the leather pouch was gone. He let go of the body and took a deep breath, more out of habit than any real need, and submerged himself. He shrugged off his jacket and dove deeper into the murky depths of the Brisbane River.
He moved straight down – there was very little chance that a current would have taken the bag in another direction, and began to scan for it – heat signatures were of little use, but it helped him discern the basic shapes. The decrepit shopping trolley he ignored, the fish bones he ignored, but there were too many small rocks the same approximate shape as the leather pouch for him to find it quickly.
Shapes moved in the water around him – trashmaids. They’d sensed something new in their river. Two swam up beside him, their flesh the colour of the dead bodies they’d evolved from, tendrils of algae crawled up their arms and hung from their fingers. They were strange creatures – not quite real, and not quite alive, perfectly harmless – they didn’t know of, or acknowledge the surface world, content to trawl the bottom of the river for whatever they needed. The one to his left, example – a female, judging by the slime-covered bulges on her chest – had crude goggles fashioned from broken beer bottles. The one to his right had plastic bags tied around its arms – and judging from the algae growths on the plastic, they had been there for a long time.
The female swam a little ahead, rising slightly before dropping to the river floor and lifting something from the within the rocks.
He gave a shout, expelling most of his air as the female trashmaid went to open it, she looked up, her beer-bottle goggles obscuring her expression, but she proffered the pouch anyway. He grabbed it, held it close and pushed off from the river bottom, propelling himself to the surface. He took a deep breath, coughed up the water from his lungs and took another.
His grip was immovable on the pouch – but he was careful not to touch the heart inside, not even through the leather, just in case he made a wish, or a thought that could be interpreted as a wish. If the howler hadn’t already.
A lifesaving ring was thrown to his right, he turned his head and saw a slow-moving dredging boat. He tossed the ring back, nodded, and shifted away.
The first thing he saw was Death, she sat patiently, not comforting the corpse, nor whispering to it, just sitting as the guardian she was.
Stef was worse for the wear though, her skin – no longer just the pale of a hacker who wasn’t quite sure what the sun looked like – was the grey of a real corpse, her eyes had sunken a little, and her body had slumped, her limps rubbery and limp.
Carefully undoing the pouch, he removed the heart – being careful to keep his mind absolutely blank. There was no time for thoughts of what he could do with the mirror, of the other wishes he could grant, or what he could do for-
He dropped the heart to the bed before he could think her name.
The dirty, bloody, wet heart stared back at him as he let the pouch fall to the floor of the oubliette.
‘You always have the choice,’ Death said. ‘No one would think less of you.’
‘No one else knows,’ he said, crouching to look at the heart, dirty river water dripping onto the carpet. ‘So no one could think less of me.’
‘If it’s my opinion-’
‘No, my Lady, it’s not. It’s mine.’
He held up the heart, stood and took a step towards the head of the bed. He required her into a new pyjama top, ridding her of the ripped and bloody one. He unbuttoned the first few buttons and exposed the empty cavity in her chest, keeping his mind clear, he pressed the heart into the depths of her chest and stood back.
The wound didn’t change, none of the arteries made a move to attach, the heart didn’t shake and settle into position. He looked back to Death. ‘Why-?’
‘You’ve lived for more than a century, haven’t you learned patience yet?’
‘I’m sorry, my Lady.’
An alien light shone on the heart, traveling along the scratches that the howler had made and removing them as it went – the dried remains of the blood that he’d been unable to clean off were removed, and slowly, it became pristine again.
It moved a little, and embedded itself deeply in the cavity. It let out a melodic sound – like a finger running around the top of a wine glass. It beat three times, each shaking her body and she was still trembling when it stopped. He moved forward to grab her, but Death held out a hand to stop him.
‘It’s just making sure she’s all there, she was alive the first time it entered her, so it knew her extent, it had to check that nothing had changed.’
‘She’s rotting,’ he choked.
‘If she wakes,’ Death said, ‘she’ll be fine. Life in a body does it good, or so my sister says.’
Stef stopped trembling and her head slid from the pillows. ‘How much longer?’ he asked as he righted her and buttoned the shirt back up.
‘You would not make a very good human,’ she said, a smile forming on her human-seeming face. ‘They have to wait nine months for a new life.’
‘It’s not going to-’
‘Trust her to find her way home,’ she said as she shushed him, ‘you need to trust her. After all, her life is in your hands, that’s a lot of trust she’s putting in you.’ She put a hand on his back. ‘She’s fine now, as fine as she was before you left the window open. You, on the other hand…’
He looked down at himself – his uniform was still sopping wet and a mess, the water had stained it, and there was mud caught in his vest. He required himself dry and into a new uniform, then renewed his outer layer a few more times until he felt clean.
When he looked up, Death was gone.
He knelt, and kissed Stef on the forehead. ‘Come home, please come home.’
Ryan locked the oubliette.
He closed his eyes, took a deep breath, and shifted to the tech department.
Jones gave him a nod, then indicated to the usual chair. Ryan sat, and relaxed as the top half of his uniform was required away.
Jones began to scan him, and was quiet for a moment. ‘How is she?’
Ryan took a moment to respond, not fully comprehending the question.
Panic flared. Jones knew. Jones knew and everything was about to come crashing down on his head. He ran through his options, considering the shortest paths into Faerie, away from the Agency, towards sanctuary and-
Ryan dialled down his emotions and stared at Jones. ‘Jones-’
‘Sir are you really going to pull the “what are you talking about?” bit. Come on, sir, shall we not resort to tropes?’
‘How is who, Jones,’ Ryan said. There was no need to make a hasty decision until he knew he was in trouble. One shift was all he needed. One shift right to the edge of a blackout zone and a step across away from system control.
Jones hopped up onto a bench, and swung his legs for a moment. ‘Sir, there’s more monitoring equipment in this room than in any other room in the Agency.’
‘I know that very well.’
‘What obviously don’t, is that this is also the only safe place in this Agency to have a treasonous kind of conversation. Every fucking molecule might get recorded, but I filter it. What is said in this room stays in this room.’
Ryan kept his face neutral.
‘You’re safe, sir. You’re always safe here.’
‘As your Director, that’s cause enough to consider bringing you up on charges of treason.’
‘As my Director, you shouldn’t be hiding dead recruits in oubliettes. Sir.’
Ryan launched himself at Jones, who neatly sidestepped and allowed him to fall flat on his face.
‘I did say I wasn’t finished with your legs, sir.’
‘Jones, if you’re-’
Ryan felt himself being shifted, and tried to fight it, tried to force the shift to take him to a different location. He opened his eyes, expecting to see the white walls of a Central cell, but instead still saw Jones’ lab, and found himself back on the chair.
Ryan felt body freeze into place, though his head remained free to move – it was the kind of paralysis you used on an agent when you still needed to talk. Disturbingly, he hadn’t heard a word spoken. More disturbingly, his system connection was gone.
He turned his head as best as he could. ‘Jones, what are you doing?’
He could only see the technical agent from the corner of his eye – a thin shape in a long white lab coat. He heard a sigh and Jones walked forward and leaned against the wall in front of him. ‘Sorry sir,’ Jones said, ‘I had to.’
‘How did you even-’ Ryan started.
‘It’s just a technical protocol, to keep someone still if they’ve been severely injured and need delicate work done. You can break it with your level of access, but I implore you to listen to me first.’
As soon as the words left Jones’ mouth, Ryan began to search through his HUD, opening menus and options to get his body free.
He ignored Jones.
Ryan’s body loosened of its own accord, and he saw Jones frowning at him.
‘Sir, please, if three decades of service means anything, you’ll listen to me for five minutes before you go fucking up your entire life.’
Ryan forced his face to go neutral. ‘I don’t know-’
Jones sat on his swivel chair and rolled himself forward. ‘Sir, could we please speak like reasonable men?’
A dozen questions rolled around in Ryan’s mind. A hundred courses of action. Fear for Stef. Fear for himself. Confusion at still having the appearance of being free. ‘You know. What- How- What are you going to do about it?’ he demanded, raising his voice.
‘The same thing I’ve been doing, sir, nothing, unless you want my help.’
Ryan slumped into the chair. ‘How Jones? How did you know?’
Jones smiled. ‘With respect sir, do you think I suck at my job?’
‘I had drones monitoring you during the mirrorfall,’ Jones said flatly. ‘Of course I did. You’re the Director, sir. The feedback and footage isn’t immediate when they’re operating in a blackout, but I saw everything.’
‘Yes, sir, I did.’
‘Why didn’t you do anything?’
‘I did, sir. I covered it up.’
The technical agent stood and walked closer. ‘Yours was the first voice I ever heard, sir. There was the void, there was the blue, then there was you. You shook my hand, you called me by name, then you told me what duty was.’
‘I do that with every agent,’ Ryan said.
‘I’ve seen you with other newborns, and you use different words every time. You don’t have a speech, you don’t have a macro, you think about it every time, you mean it every time.’
Ryan looked away from Jones’ intense stare.
‘It’s not the rhetoric from the handbook, it’s something real,’ Jones said, finally blinking and looking away for a moment. ‘You explained duty and it made sense. You didn’t tell me what the Agency is, you told me what it should be.’ Jones clasped his lab coat and for a moment, it turned into a suit. ‘We’re a patriarchal Orwellian nightmare with less oversight than a kindergarten and who employ people who don’t require a clean uniform after killing someone. Logically, there’s no way you can make that sound ok. You did though, you told me we could be good.’ The suit disappeared. ‘Everything the Agency is to me, everything Duty is to me, is what you told me on the day I was born.’
Ryan felt a deep flash of pride. ‘If I’d known,’ he said, ‘I would have been more careful with what I’d said.’
Jones grinned, and some of the intensity dropped from his expression. ‘I’ve been waiting a long time to tell you that. It just seemed like now was the time.’
Ryan looked at the floor. ‘Now that I’m betraying everything I ever told you?’
‘I don’t see it like that, sir.’
‘Then you’re too generous, Agent.’
‘What have you really done, sir? You broke a rule. We have far too many of those, and they don’t always align with doing the right thing. The greater good is to be considered. You made a wish,’ Jones said, ‘agents have done that before, agents will do that again. You didn’t free yourself, you didn’t alter the Agency, you are making every effort to continue as per normal. That’s all the data I have, unless I’m missing something.’
Ryan looked at the walls for a moment, imagining a legion of Enforcers studying every byte of data, deciding on how painful a traitor’s death should be. ‘There was no choice,’ he said at last. ‘She died right in front of me. I had to try.’
‘And I don’t see that as going against the greater meaning of Duty.’
‘And when she wakes up? She can’t just walk in through the front doors and apply to be a recruit again.’
‘One disaster at a time, sir. Objectively, you got your recruit killed.’ Ryan winced. ‘Someone has taken issue with that. Jane’s here, sir, to do a peer-review. It might not be Stef that you have to worry about.’
‘Gods-’ Ryan said. ‘But- All I did was-’ He closed his mouth. There was no defence against what he’d done. He hadn’t even been able to fool himself, there was nothing he could say to convince anyone else. ‘I brought this on myself.’
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