November 2nd

Curt looked up when he heard standard-issue shoes stomping up the hall. Ryan, his expression stern, walked straight past him without a look.

‘Sir–’ Curt said as he clambered to his feet.

Ryan opened the door to his office without acknowledging him.

‘Sir, I just need a moment,’ he said, rounding Ryan so he could put a hand on the door to stop it from closing.

Ryan stepped through the door into his office – still paying no attention to him. Curt thrust his foot forward, wedging his shoe in the frame, even as Ryan tried to slam the door shut. He winced, knowing it would bruise.

‘Recruit,’ Ryan warned. ‘If you–’

Curt pushed himself forward, only leaving six inches between himself and the agent. ‘I thought you cared about Stef, sir.’

It was a stupid thing to say. It was bold. It was an impetus to action.

It was probably the only thing that would make Ryan listen, and he was running out of time until Stef got scared and ran – if she hadn’t already.

The Agency only had a little pull with the Local Court, and less with the Fairyland police. If she left the Court, she was probably gone forever, unless Ryan was willing to pay for a private detective.

Ryan went from stern to furious – an expression he’d never seen on the agent’s face before, not even when he’d essentially accused the man of murdering Stef through negligence.

The agent flung the door open, grabbed him by the shoulder, and threw him into the office.

Curt had pushed. He’d put himself in the firing line.

Ryan slammed the door so hard that it likely would have come off the hinges.

The agent towered over him. ‘What did you say to me?!’ Ryan crouched, grabbed him by the vest, and threw him against the wall.

Curt slammed into the dark blue plaster, leaving an impression, and crashed onto the carpet, crumbling plaster falling onto his back. He closed his eyes – his only defence against the violence of an agent.

Ryan grabbed a handful of his jacket and pulled him up onto his knees. ‘What did you say?!’ The agent picked him up and slammed him against the wall again, his shirt ripping as Ryan twisted his grip.

Curt heard Petersen laughing, and his bladder let go.

Ryan wasn’t Petersen. He’d had to believe that. Ryan wasn’t Petersen. He’d always been reasonable.

Ryan was an agent. Petersen was an agent.

He was Solstice, and he was going to die.

Curt let his head loll to the side, let his body go slack, and waited for Petersen to finish the job he’d started.

Petersen let him go, and he flopped bonelessly to the floor, only vaguely aware that he was crying.

He was weak. He was pathetic. He was stupid to think he had a chance. It had always been going to end. Death had been inevitable. He’d just had a moment of sweet freedom to make it all the worse.

He curled into a ball. Petersen hated it, but he couldn’t stop his body from trying to protect itself.

There was a hand on his shoulder, and he knew he was screaming.

Petersen retreated, walking towards the windows.

He was going to get a gun. A knife. A chain. Some toy to make it more fun.

Curt was going to die, and it was going to hurt, but at least it would finally be over.

He wept, barely breathing between choking sobs. If he was lucky, he’d hyperventilate and die before Petersen could cut into his skin again.

Light flooded into the room, and he looked towards it, trying to see the sky one more time – but his view was blocked by another building.

It was still freedom. It was still something to look at other than the agent.

Petersen laughed, a knife twirling in his hand.

Ryan stepped forward, blocking his view of the window. Curt blinked, trying to make sense of everything. Ryan took another step forward, and he scrambled back on his hands and knees, needing to escape the agent – even if that agent wasn’t Petersen.

‘Curt,’ Ryan said gently.

Curt slammed into the couch, unable to back away any further.

Ryan knelt in front of him.

Curt trembled, unable to control himself.

Ryan reached for him.

‘Don’t touch me!’ Curt screamed, needing to fight back somehow.

Ryan immediately stood and backed away a few feet. ‘Can I shift you to the infirmary?’

‘No,’ Curt shook his head. ‘No, no.’ He shook his head faster, trying to clear his thoughts, trying to focus on what was important. He’d come in with a purpose – and that purpose hadn’t been pissing his pants.

He felt his cheeks burning in shame, and he required a fresh pair of pants.

He struggled to get to his feet, then immediately fell down onto the couch behind him.

‘What did you say about Stef?’ Ryan asked, his voice back to agent-neutral.

Curt took in a deep breath. Newbie. He had to help newbie. ‘I know where she is, sir. She said– You think she’s dead–’ He took in another breath. ‘But she’s not. She’s okay.’

Ryan wasn’t Petersen. Ryan wasn’t Petersen.

His foot throbbed from where it had been caught in the door.

Ryan wasn’t Petersen.

He could feel cool air sneaking in through the rips in his shirt.

He shouldn’t have said anything. He should have lied. Helped her stay away from the Agency. Not help her get back on Ryan’s radar.

The Agency was–

He raised his hands to his face and wiped at his eyes.

Ryan took a step closer, Curt bolted upright and backed away towards the door. ‘Stay away,’ he whispered. ‘Please.’

‘Where did you–?’

‘The Local Court. I told her to–’

‘Your information is inaccurate.’

Curt swallowed. ‘Why would I lie?!’

Ryan held up his hands. ‘I believe you, but your information is no longer accurate. She isn’t– I know where she is.’

Curt stared at the agent, trying to figure out what he meant, then slowly raised his hands and began to brush some of the plaster out of his hair. ‘What? Did you come in two minutes behind me and–’

‘I didn’t. Taylor and Magnolia did.’

‘Did they–?’ Curt dropped his hands. ‘Jesus, is she okay?’

‘She’s here. She’s– “Fine” is a relative term.’ Ryan hesitated for a moment. ‘She’s going to be augmented. She’s going to be an agent.’

Curt stumbled forward, away from the wall, and rested his hands on the arm of the couch. He took in a long breath, then sat heavily on the couch, hanging his head in his hands. ‘Sir, I don’t think I heard you.’

He required his hair clean and tried to puzzle through what Ryan had said; trying to determine if he’d hallucinated anything that Ryan had just said.

Ryan backed away, walking back to his desk, and Curt looked towards the door longingly for a moment. He could run, but Ryan would shift him right back.

He lifted his head a little and tried to do a basic damage assessment: His foot was going to bruise horribly, though that was an easy fix for the Parkers. His head hurt, but it likely wasn’t a concussion. His back ached, but a couple of painkillers would sort it.

Assessment: he would be fine, so long as Ryan allowed him to live.

There was a hand near his face, and only shock kept him from screaming.

The hand held a glass, full to the brim with clear brown liquid and ice cubes.

Ryan was offering him a drink.

Curt reached up and took the tumbler. ‘Thank you.’ He needed to remain polite, couldn’t chance angering the agent more. The agent controlled the situation. The agent always controlled the situation. A momentary kindness didn’t prevent a later cruelty.

Mags and Taylor had found Stef. That seemed plausible. They often did prisoner transport to the Local Court, taking it as one of their duties rather than delegating it to recruits.

Mags and Taylor finding Stef – that could have been a case of combat training, bad timing, or anything else. Plausible.

Bringing Stef back to the Agency – consequence of a plausible occurrence. Any KIA found wandering would be brought back for questioning and commendations or incarceration.

Newbie. Augment. Agent.

All logic fell apart with that statement.

He sipped at the drink – it tasted thick, rich, and vaguely of lemon.

‘An agent?’ he asked after half the glass was gone. ‘Sir?’ he added, not really feeling the word, but needing to maintain the appearance of a good recruit.

Good recruit. Good boy. Sit. Speak. Require. Roll over.

Newbie. Augment. Agent.

Ryan required an armchair and sat across from him. ‘Curt, you’re injured–’

‘I’ve been in punch-ups before. I’ll live.’

‘Recruit–’

‘Tell me about Stef,’ he said, keeping his voice level.

Ryan tilted his own glass of alcohol around, his gaze focussed on the ice cubes. ‘I told you I made a wish. To try to bring her back. It worked. It just took a lot longer than anyone would have ever thought.’

Curt nodded. ‘Yes, I picked up on that.’

‘It has…’ Ryan trailed off and focussed on his drink for a few long moments. ‘It’s altered her physiology a little, and the Agency doesn’t feel comfortable having her as a normal recruit. They want to be able to control the situation.’

‘What, has she got superpowers?’

Ryan snorted, then smiled. ‘She wishes.’

Curt felt himself relax a tiny bit. Ryan wasn’t Petersen.

Ryan gave a shit about the newbie.

Ryan wasn’t a monster.

Curt’s head still ached.

He thought about the situation for a moment. Only one thing would make it make sense. ‘Does she still have mirror in her?’

Ryan’s head snapped towards Curt, the anger reappearing for a moment, before it disappeared, his face going blank. ‘I’m sorry,’ Ryan said. ‘I am…compromised by this situation. Thirty minutes ago, I didn’t know if either of us were going to live. A threat of execution does tend to– I’m sorry, Curt, and I would understand if you want to file a formal–’

‘No,’ he said quickly. ‘No, sir. I–’ There were words to be said, even if he didn’t feel them. ‘I forgive you. I just want to understand what’s going on, so that I can help in the best way that I can.’

‘Yes. There is still mirror inside her. This is something I am trusting you not to spread around. It’s trace amounts, and it appears to be doing nothing, but we do not seem to be able to separate it from her. She is, for all appearances, just human, but the Agency cannot take that chance.’

‘Will Agent Jones be able to augment if that’s the case?’

‘He assures me that they will. It will just be a careful process.’

‘What are you telling everyone else?’

Ryan gave him a hopeless look, and he knew the agent wasn’t faking it. ‘I don’t think anyone has thought that far yet.’

An aide would help an agent. An aide would provide potential solutions.

Curt leaned forward, placed the glass on the carpet, and lightly clasped his hands together. ‘If you tell everyone that a recruit with less than a week’s experience has been augmented, you’ll have rioting in the streets. It will piss everyone off, sir, and disrupt operations to a degree that I don’t think this agency can handle.’

Ryan looked at him but didn’t say anything.

‘There are, to me, two obvious solutions. Either you say she was an agent all along and that you were just testing new… Infiltration agents have different modes, right? Call this the insane hacker mod, and get people to fill out a survey as to whether or not they were fooled.’

‘And the second?’

‘Say she was a half-agent and that this was an inevitability all along. People don’t get mad when half-agents get augmented, because they’re biologically halfway there anyway. And the rank thing… Keep her out of a position of direct authority over the recruits, except when she’s interacting with them. That’ll smooth out the transition a little. People have to defer to her when she’s in their face, but she won’t assign missions or anything.’

‘Those are both good ideas,’ Ryan said.

‘Thank you,’ Curt said.

‘Curt,’ Ryan said, his voice heavy.

If there was any fairness in the world, Ryan wouldn’t ask the question he knew the agent was about to ask. If Curt deserved anything, it was the freedom to never talk about Adelaide ever again.

‘Sir, with your permission–’

‘Curt, what did they leave off your transfer report?’

Curt bit the inside of his cheek until he tasted blood. ‘A few things, Agent,’ he said carefully. ‘But nothing that warrants discussion.’

‘Curt–’

He stared at the wall. ‘There are interpretations on the liberties that an agent can take when interrogating a prisoner.’

‘Curt–’

‘Would you still like me to function as’ – he paused, working the words over in his head – ‘as Agent Mimosa’s guide when she’s on duty again?’

‘If you are amenable to that situation, then yes.’

Curt gave a stiff nod, then stood.

‘I am sorry,’ Ryan said, ‘that the agents in Adelaide did not treat you with respect. I understand the circumstances of your surrender were not ideal, but you saved a child from becoming a starbright, and that’s to be commended.’

Curt felt himself sag, barely able to hold himself vertical. No one had ever said that before. The focus, deservedly so, had always been on his murder of a pregnant woman, not the rescue of the child. There had been no way to save her, no possible solution that would have allowed him to hide her long enough to get near a vehicle, not even if she’d been able to stand. With the broken legs her captors had given her, saving her had been even more impossible.

Rescuing the child had been the only option.

‘I never–’ Curt started. ‘I never saw the child again.’

Ryan stood, a photo appearing in his hand. ‘This is the child now.’

Curt looked down at a happy little kid, smiling wide whilst being pushed on a swing, brown eyes bright, wavy hair blown up by the wind. ‘May I keep this?’ he asked, pulling the photo towards him.

‘Of course.’ Ryan took a step towards him. ‘Recruit?’

‘Sir?’

‘Did Stef–’ Ryan hesitated. ‘I haven’t had a chance to ask her. Did she say why–’

Curt tried to keep his face neutral. The compliment had been a bribe. The photo had been a bribe. Tit for tat. Truth for truth. ‘She thought you abandoned her.’

Ryan didn’t try to hide the sadness on his face.

‘I told her she was an idiot, sir. You care, it’s demonstrably obvious.’

‘Thank you, Curt.’

Curt gave a stiff nod. ‘If I’m excused, sir.’

‘Of course,’ Ryan said, and Curt walked out into the hall.

The agency halls were comforting. They’d never been comforting before.

He was outside of an agent’s office. He was out in the open. Public. Not as likely to be killed in clear view.

Curt took a breath, then ran for the safety of his room.