It was a spectacle, but it was the best chance they had.
Ryan paced along the small space in front of the observation deck chairs. Below them, the Parkers continued to prep Stef – who seemed more and more disconcerted with every moment.
‘She’s completely unremarkable.’
He paused in his pacing and turned to Crawford. ‘Sir?’
‘Mimosa. There’s nothing special about her. She’s not part fae. She’s not part agent. She doesn’t appear to have achieved anything of note. She’s a victim of remarkable circumstance, but nothing more. Is this– I understand you are placing yourself in a paternal role, but tell me how you honestly think this will end.’
‘I hope that my doctors can–’
‘And if they can’t, Ryan?’
He tried to feign ignorance. ‘Sir?’
‘If, in an hour, there is still mirror in that young woman’s chest, what then?’
Ryan looked to the ground for a moment. ‘I saw the potential outcomes in the experimentation protocol. I know what the options are. Most of them– Most of them aren’t merciful, sir.’
Crawford stood. ‘That is your fault. That is her fault. If she were– If she was a recruit with years of service, or an aide, or someone who had shown promise and loyalty and dedication to the Agency, there would be more choices.’
‘If, in other words,’ Ryan said, ‘you saw her as remarkable.’
‘At the moment, I do not see anything worthy of even a passing comment. If you had placed her in Technical–’
‘Then none of this would have happened, sir, I’m aware.’
‘Would you be happy to have her as a field recruit again?’
‘Would you be happy to have her as a field agent?’
‘Y–’ Ryan shut his mouth, realising what the enforcer had asked. ‘Sir?’
‘You said you’ve seen the protocol. You know it’s a possibility. How do you think she’d fare as an agent?’
Ryan sat. The chance of becoming an agent sat both as one of the best opportunities presented by the experiment protocol’s options, and as one of the worst. As an agent, she would be far more protected than as a recruit, but it came with a lot more strings attached. A life as an agent was a life of being controlled – of Duty and of service without end.
A recruit could run without going into withdrawal, but it was also a lot easier to get rid of a problematic recruit. Most actions against an agent had some oversight.
‘I have acknowledged to Jane my selfishness in Stef’s departmental placement, but it was not entirely without–’
‘Careful with your words, Agent.’
Ryan closed his mouth and considered his line of reasoning for a moment. ‘Her placement in Field was not warranted, but it was not entirely unreasonable. I approved of the way she handled the hob scenario during the recruitment tests—it spoke well of her, that she didn’t immediately jump to conclusions when dealing with fae. She’s inventive and–’
‘And still far more of an asset to Technical.’
‘I could train her, sir.’
Crawford raised his eyebrows for a moment, then turned his head to look back through the observation window, not saying anything more.
Ryan wondered for a moment if he was expected to fill the silence, or if the enforcer was done with him for now.
His words has done nothing but cause trouble, so it was likely best to not speak, unless spoken to. He chose to continue the silence.
The Parkers were prepping a tech department laser, a handheld version of the large flamidimiser that graced Jones’ lab.
The laser hovered over Stef’s chest, the Parkers pausing for a moment.
If they cut into the heart, she would die.
The heart contained all of her memories, her soul, her– Her. It contained her.
There was no way of knowing what would happen if they started to cut into the mirror. No way to know if they would be cutting away memories, emotions, or–
If they cut the mirror, they could kill her.
If they cut into the mirror, they would be cutting into–
The doctor pushed the laser towards the mirror.
Ryan closed his eyes and made a wish.
There was a whine, a wave of pressure, then the sound of glass shattering. Ryan’s arms automatically rose as shards started to pierce his skin – the remains of the observation window.
He felt a large piece of glass slip into his chest, and for one mad moment, he wondered if it was the mirror, moving to a new host.
Klaxons started to sound, and he opened his eyes. He was vaguely aware of that he was bleeding, but the pain was distant – system territory damage, nothing life-threatening.
Ryan forced himself to stand and open his eyes – he flicked immediately to the upper right of his HUD and saw a full-strength system signal, likely the one thing to be grateful for.
He shook himself, small shards of glass coming loose from his suit even as the wounds healed.
‘Agent?’ Crawford’s voice.
‘Fine, sir,’ he said. ‘Yourself?’
Crawford stepped up the empty holes where the windows had been and looked down into the operating theatre. ‘Agent, you should come here.’
Ryan took one step forward, then had to stop as Taylor reintegrated in front of him.
Magnolia was behind her agent, next to Crawford.
‘Sir,’ the recruit said, her voice intense.
Taylor turned, his broad back blocking the view down into the observation window.
‘What the fuck?’ Magnolia asked.
Ryan took two paces to the left, saw the woman step up onto the window bracket, then jump down into the operating theatre.
Crawford turned to him, disappointment heavy in his face. ‘It appears not to have worked.’
Ryan moved forward and saw a slowly shrinking rainbow shield surrounding Stef. The doctors were slowly getting to their feet – with Magnolia standing between the Parkers, checking them for injuries.
The cold fear that had settled in the base of his neck told Ryan that he had done this.
There had been no explosion when Jones had taken a sample. There had been no shell, no bubble keeping Stef safe.
He’d wished, and she’d reacted.
Ryan sagged, simply standing and breathing whilst the Parkers fixed the room below. He had done this. He had made things harder and potentially–
‘What,’ Taylor said, the word barely discernible in in amongst the growl of his voice. ‘Are you doing?’
The klaxons abruptly died. ‘Agent Taylor, at this point, it does not concern you,’ Crawford said.
‘That triggered lockdown!’ Taylor shouted, his hands balled into fists. ‘Destroy it!’
‘Agent, calm yourself,’ Crawford said.
If it had been anyone but Taylor, Ryan would have stepped in, would have tried to calm the situation, would have tried protect a friend and colleague. With Taylor, he would give the man room enough to hang himself with his words and his fury.
‘Destroy it!’ Taylor roared again. ‘It’s contraband. It’s–’
Crawford stepped right up to Taylor. The enforcer had to look up at Taylor’s face, but he seemed unimpressed with the other man’s bluster – bluster that sent recruits screaming and even gave most agents pause.
Magnolia reintegrated in amongst their group – Taylor had shifted her; it wasn’t a fade – and turned to Crawford. ‘Sir. We saw nothing like that. Though we did not make attempts to interfere with the mirror, she did not project any sort of protection against other physical attacks.’
Ryan clenched his mouth shut, stopping himself from demanding to know why they’d attacked an innocent girl, and precisely how–
This was neither the time nor the place, and any outburst would make Crawford view him – and by extension, Stef – less favourably.
‘Ryan, come with me,’ Crawford said, then shifted them.
The operating theatre – which was still in the process of repairing itself – appeared as they reintegrated. The Parkers stood near the wall, scanning each other, spots of blood still on their uniforms.
Stef lay, still strapped to the table, the rainbow shield still entirely gone.
Crawford lifted a hand, and her restraints disappeared. She sat up, hesitating with each move, as if she could anger someone in the room.
‘Did you do that, Miss Mimosa?’
Stef pressed her hands to her knees, her fingers slowly tapping out a pattern. ‘Objectively, of course I did. I mean, I don’t think “Go magic bubble – go!” is exactly a requirement that anyone here has…or that the doctors would use on themselves.’ She cringed and looked towards the Parkers for the moment. ‘But to answer the question you’re actually asking. No, I didn’t do that on purpose. I made no wish – even though I’m pretty sure I have to be purposely touching it, and not just my chest guts, to make one.’ She slumped, and her head hung low. ‘I didn’t want that to happen.’
‘I think I did it,’ Ryan said.
Crawford turned to him, anger on his face.
Ryan steeled himself. This bit of truth would put them in no more danger than they were in already.
It was nothing that Crawford couldn’t guess at, given enough time. He kept his gaze on Stef for a moment more, then looked to Crawford. ‘The wish for her life – I…I made that wish. I’m wondering if her heart is going to make every attempt to ensure continuation,’ he said, invoking the Agency-sanitised phrase.
Crawford folded his hands behind his back, his face a cold neutral again – no clues evident as to his thoughts.
‘We will try this again,’ Crawford said, his voice low and measured, ‘Miss Mimosa, you’ll be unconscious for this next test.’ He paused for a moment. ‘Given what we know, and what the mirror represents, there is a chance you will not wake up again. You may have five minutes to make your peace with that.’
Crawford raised a hand, and Ryan felt himself being shifted again. This time, his office appeared, Stef beside him.
She moved to sit on the couch, drawing her knees up to her chest. ‘You– You can make wishes without touching it? I can’t even do that, and it’s in me.’ Her hands slapped lightly against her legs. ‘And I tried, I really did. My first night in the Local Court, before I knew about the gruel dispensers, I got really hungry, so I dug in with a bit of metal so I could touch it and wish for some food.’
Ryan’s heart sank, and he desperately hoped that she was lying. ‘I didn’t know,’ he said, eschewing yet another apology for a simple truth. ‘If I’d known–’ He bowed his head. ‘I’ll find– I had no intention of–’
Stef slumped. He saw shards of silver, and for a moment, nothing made sense.
She slipped sideways, her head crashing onto the spare seat of the couch, an exit wound in her chest.
She’d been shot. Someone had shot her. Someone had–
There was a hole in the couch. Someone had shot through from the empty room beside his office.
There were pieces of her heart on the floor. Small pieces of mirror, like glitter, covered his shoes.
He had no emotional reserve. No energy left to scream or cry or rush to her side. He felt hollow, a train on an unknown track.
Crawford shifted in. Ryan looked up, too numb to react.
‘Now,’ the enforcer said. ‘Now we’ll see.’
Jones appeared. He began to pick up shards of Stef’s heart and place them in a clear container.
‘That’s enough,’ Crawford said, after only a few seconds. ‘Stand back now.’
Ryan took a few steps backward and sat on the edge of his desk, bracing himself with his hands.
The shards on the floor turned liquid, took on the appearance of small pools of mercury, and began to flow towards Stef. The pieces in the container made attempts to crawl up the sides of the plastic, but they stopped as Crawford placed his hand in the liquid silver.
A look of concentration came over Crawford’s face, and Ryan knew the mirror was tempting the man to make a wish. When you touched mirror, the potentiality bit – a small, silent begging that seemed to tug at your soul. Small pieces of silver that could become anything needing to be something.
Ryan drew in a breath and realised that of the three times he had touched the mirror, the driving need to wish had only been there the first two times. The first and the second wishes for her to live.
The third time, after dredging it up from the river, there had been no impetus on him to wish. The mirror – the heart – had been settled. Its wish had been made, and that wish had been the life of one young woman.
The pieces on the floor crawled and floated towards the exit wound, disappearing into the chest cavity. After a moment, the wound closed. All was silent for a moment.
Then Stef seemed to explode a hazy blue duplicate burst from her skin, screaming, its hollow eyes twitching and seeking.
‘Arcane mother of Chaos,’ Crawford swore, squaring his shoulders at the image.
Ryan blinked. It wasn’t the blue of the Agency, or the blue of an aspect. It was the blue of a soul.
After a moment, it fell back into her body, and she opened her eyes.
Her hands flew her to her chest. She sat up, pressing back her back into the couch, trying to crawl away, before hitting the arm and curling in against it.
Ryan looked at Crawford, who was watching her closely.
‘You want me to fill the silence again, don’t you?’ she asked, her lip wavering, but managing to keep her expression level. ‘Okay. A question. Who the fuck just shot me?’
‘I believe Taylor let his aide take the shot.’
Stef sighed. ‘How can someone that pretty be that violent?’ She looked down at herself. ‘Could someone require me a new shirt, please?’
Ryan blinked. She was strangely…unperturbed by the turn of events.
Stef turned to Jones. ‘Did you get all the data you needed from that, or are we going the best two out of three?’ She turned to Ryan and gave a lopsided smile. ‘Scientific method. I wouldn’t be me if I didn’t approve.’
Jones and Stef were shifted away. Ryan turned toward Crawford.
The container of mirror was now empty, and the enforcer held a glinting piece of mirror, styled into a knife.
Despite his position and role, Ryan had rarely imagined a violent end to his life. He focused on the reflected fluorescent light, and knew, from a deep place, that if the enforcer struck, then it was because he deserved it. ‘Sir–’
Crawford grabbed Ryan’s tie and pressed the knife to his cheek, the tip breaking the skin. Ryan felt a small but steady stream of blood running down his cheek, but he made no attempt to move from Crawford’s grip, lest the enforcer cut him further.
‘You’re no idiot, Ryan. You can see what this is.’
‘I can, sir.’
‘And what I wish is an honest answer from you.’ The enforcer paused. ‘What do you want? In all honesty, with no pretence, serving no duty but your own self-interest – what do you want?’
‘If she didn’t need the mirror, it would have disappeared! It would have ejected what wasn’t necessary. And if you try to remove more, I– She might not die, but what might she lose?’ He looked at the knife. ‘What did she lose to create that? Memory, dream, part of who she is? Life isn’t worth anything without self–’
Crawford pushed on the knife, and Ryan winced. ‘What do you want, Agent? Of all the protocol possibilities and your own ideas, what do you want?’
He had to tell the truth. ‘Augment her. It’s in the protocol.’ He took a deep breath. ‘It protects her as much as it does the Agency. The mirror will be contained, controlled, but she will be safe.’
Crawford’s eyes seemed to drill into him. ‘She’ll be property of the Agency.’
He felt a tiny speck of resolve. ‘We. All. Are. Sir.’
Crawford withdrew the knife. ‘Agent it is, then.’
Ryan blinked. ‘You could augment her, but leave her as a recruit–’
‘I’m not going to fully augment a human, Ryan, only to make them a recruit. Full augment, full responsibilities. It would be a waste of time to–’
‘Yes, sir,’ he said quickly, knowing he had to allay any fear of going against duty.
‘Train her. If she survives the process, she’ll be put on as your secondary. She’s your responsibility; she’s your liability, and if you are so averse to picking an aide, then consider her a helping hand.’
Hope finally started to burn away the fear. ‘Sir–’
‘Ryan, this is as reasonable as I can be. It’s either this, or I get rid of the issue altogether. Even mirror melts when you–’
‘I want you to work with Jones. I want an experiment outline, based on the existing protocol, by tomorrow, with a full write-up by the end of the week.’ Crawford flipped the knife in his hand and pushed it at Ryan, handle-first.
Ryan stared for a moment, then took the offered blade – and felt nothing but dead, required mirror under his fingers.
A test, as everything in the Agency was.
He met Crawford’s gaze, and the enforcer smiled at him. ‘I respected Reynolds as a director, Ryan. I told him I would look after you. Consider this the one favour you get out of me, because this will take a lot to justify to my peers.’ The enforcer looked away. ‘If you are the man that Reynolds believed you to be, then you will make the most out of this opportunity. I’d wish you luck, but wishes caused this problem to begin with.’
‘Yes, sir.’ Ryan swallowed. ‘Thank you, sir.’
Crawford touched his shoulder. ‘Go see to your child, Ryan.’ The enforcer smiled once more, then shifted away.