Stef felt the spark of consciousness rip through her body and, in turn, began to feel each part of her body. Toes flexed against socks. Fingers curled reflexively against cold air. Her mouth worked, as if trying to speak words without aid from the brain, and finally, she felt her sleep-heavy eyes.
Unafraid, she opened her eyes.
A fuzzy blue world met her eyes. Insubstantial clouds flew about the sky – the seemingly low sky, the way-too-low sky, occasionally broken by the frail impression of a bird or plane. Except they weren’t birds or planes they were–
Wings, she saw men with wings.
‘Ooooh, crap,’ she said.
I am not–
I seriously doubt you’re in heaven, Spyder.
Oh hiiii, you!
She tried to follow one of the soaring angels for a moment, but the sky seemed to fuzz, and she lost track of it.
Stef sat up and patted down her chest, feeling a vest and tie. Wherever she was, she was wearing her uniform. Whether or not that was a good thing left to be seen. She shrugged off the coat, then pushed herself to her feet.
The world was a muted blue. The sky melded into the horizon, and the ground beneath her was grey – dusty, like the ground in limbo. Structures existed towards the horizon, but all that lay between were a few dead trees and large rocks.
People that were probably agents wandered all about, but none came close. Some looked like proper people. Others were far more ghost-like.
One naked man danced around a tree off to her left.
‘You’re a fool if you don’t keep that,’ a voice said, and she whipped around, surprised by the sound.
‘Huh?’ she asked, trying not to fall over her feet.
‘The coat,’ the man said, glaring at her and sitting near her on a large rock that she hadn’t noticed. ‘It shouldn’t get cold here. It does. Keep it, because people don’t share here.’
She stared at the man. Tall. White. Brown hair. A fairly standard look for an agent. The knife was less normal. The ankle-length duster was new.
He looked…angry. Severe.
She studied at his face, uncomfortable with the glare, but needing to figure out where she knew him from.
She turned away. ‘Do I– Sorry, you look– My brain’s itching and telling me I know you.’
The glare became a heavy look of disappointment. ‘You’re human, aren’t you?’
‘I was a recruit, yeah,’ she said with a hurried nod, then knelt to pick up her coat.
Do I need to apologise for that?
The man pushed himself off the rock and walked towards her as she stood back up. ‘You’re from Brisbane, aren’t you?’
She shoved her hand into one sleeve, then the other. ‘Where am I?’
He gave a quick, hateful laugh. ‘How can you not know where you are?’
‘Because the last thing I remember–’
‘Bells,’ he supplied, starting to circle her. ‘The sound of bells. And your mind going away.’
She scurried forward and sat on the rock, hoping it would stop him from walking around her, staring down at her like a meal. ‘Something like– Yeah. That.’
The man spun his knife, and it disappeared into his duster. ‘There are a few humans here. From the old days, when it was illegal to be friends with your kind. And a few, from the more recent days, for those that did something to contribute, something worth saving. I don’t imagine you fitting the latter category.’
‘Where are we?’ she asked again, not liking the shake in her voice.
‘We are where we all end up eventually,’ he said. ‘This is the graveyard for the leftover parts.’
‘This is where you go when you get recycled?’
‘I just said as much,’ he spat. ‘But you’re just passing through. That’s easy enough to tell.’
He pointed, and she looked down at her uniform for the first time. It was the right cut, the right fabric, but the wrong colour. It was grey – the grey of someone transitory, the grey of someone not where they belonged. He walked towards her and took a half-hearted swipe at her tie. ‘Congratulations, Agent.’
‘Yeah…’ she said, the weight of the thought weighing her head down. ‘Fuck. I forgot that.’
The man’s eyebrows rose a little. ‘In my day, only whores spoke like that – not that I’m deriding whores, but is it common for young ladies to speak like that nowadays?’
She hesitated, then stood. ‘I might be related to some nobility, but I’m no lady. And people can speak however the fuck they want. Jonesy said I was going to get out. How do I get out?’
He chuckled again, but this time, the sound was almost sad. He sat back on the rock and patted around his duster until he found a crumpled packet of cigarettes. ‘You’re in the same boat as the rest of us. You wait, and you hope that someone recalls you. The grey–’
‘I know what the grey means. I’m not a complete newbie,’ she snapped.
‘Grey means you’re getting out, intact,’ he said, his voice a growl. ‘They let you wear your colours when you’re marked for spare parts.’ He slapped his hand on the rock, and there was a faint slap of flesh before his hand disappeared into it. ‘And that’s what happens when you’re used for scrap.’ He stood and pointed to a fuzzy agent. ‘Those ones have had their memories mined. They wouldn’t remember who they were if you put a knife to their throat.’
She slowly sat on the rock. ‘And the naked guy?’
‘That’s just Kelvin,’ he said. ‘Play nice, girl.’
‘Why is it with agents people get reduced to a sex or a title? What does your kind have against names?’
The man growled, sounding somehow worse than Taylor, and less than a second later, the knife was back. ‘I am not a fucking agent,’ he said. The knife swung – there was no flourish, no waste of movement, just a short arc before it slashed her across the face.
The knife dug into her eyes and cut down her cheek.
Stef screamed, her arms pinwheeling backwards to get her off the rock and away from the madman.
She felt the silt cloud up around her as she landed on her back, and felt sticky blood on her face as she flipped onto her stomach, trying to commando crawl away from the danger.
A heavy foot pressed into her back, and she went dead, waiting for whatever was going to come next.
The boot ground into her spine. ‘You can’t blame me, girl. You brought this on yourself.’
The image and the voice finally crystallised.
The words. His words. The first words he’d said, the second time they’d met. Ryan.
Whoever this man was, he was what Ryan had been. His– She struggled to think of the word, but it wouldn’t come. His previous regeneration. What they’d built him from.
The boot slid up her back and pressed into her head. ‘Apologise. Apologise for calling me agent. I am not one of them. I am from before them. I am better than them.’
‘I didn’t know!’ she finally managed, her voice coming out as a scream. ‘I’m sorry! I didn’t know!’
He chuckled, and she felt sick.
There was pressure on her back as he dropped down, driving his knee into her spine. The knife touched the back of her neck.
Can I die here?
‘Open your eyes,’ he said as he flexed the blade against her skin.
‘Are you fucking kidding me?!’ she screeched.
He yanked on a handful of her hair, pulling her up onto her knees. ‘Open your eyes.’
Spyder, just do it.
She reached a shaking hand up to her face and tried to wipe away blood…that was no longer there. The man let go of her hair, and she fell forward, throwing her hands down to the ground to catch herself, her eyes opening in the process.
Eyes that were no longer cut and blind.
How is any part of you Ryan?
He dragged her to her feet by her collar. ‘Injuries don’t last long here, but I can still make you hurt.’ He started walking around her again. ‘So don’t go calling me an agent again, understand?’
‘Then what are you? You’re–’
‘You know them.’ He jerked his head upwards. ‘You’ve probably heard people use the term “angel”. We’ve had many forms. My kind was one of those forms. I’m a dusker. I’m Rhys.’
She stared down at the ground. ‘What– What do people call…people made of blue? If– If there’s angels and you and the other kinds, isn’t it like a species without a genus?’
His slid his knife away. ‘We aren’t supposed to think about the past. Only the current model counts.’ He smoothed out his duster. ‘In here, we call ourselves heralds.’
Stef backed away a couple of steps, wanting to be out his range.
‘I wouldn’t,’ he said, the slow, oily smile coming back to his face. ‘There’s worse people in here than me.’ He sat back on the rock. ‘Besides,’ he said, patting the rock, ‘I want to know how badly Reynolds fucked up my city.’
‘Who?’ she asked.
He opened his jacket, and she braced for pain again, but he seemed to think better of it. ‘Who is your director, girl?’
‘Ryan,’ she said. ‘Agent Ryan. But he’s– He’s– It’s not his real job. He’s the field agent,’ she said haltingly. ‘He’s interim director. I don’t know why.’
This seemed to satisfy him. ‘Fair enough.’ He busied himself with another cigarette. ‘And Ryan–’
‘Yes,’ she said strongly, folding her arms behind her, trying to channel as much of Ryan as possible. ‘What you’re asking. Yes. I’m pretty sure they built him out of you, or however that works. That’s why you seem familiar. You use some of the same phraseology.’
He sucked on the cigarette, then passed it from hand to hand for a moment. ‘Carries on the tradition, I suppose. I’m sure that I was a template, though I’ve been unable to find my former in here. I suppose he was Reynolds way of trying to atone for executing me. Me,’ he said, looking to the flying angels high in the sky. ‘An agent. I’m disgusted.’
‘Not you,’ she snapped. ‘Parts of you. But he’s not you.’
He’s better than you. A lot better.
Rhys stared at her for a long time. ‘He got you into this, didn’t he?’ He stubbed out the cigarette and gave his dark little laugh again. ‘Never fall in love with one of us. It only leads to trouble.’
‘It’s not–’ She stared at the ground. ‘Why does everyone assume that?’
‘Because it’s the easiest way for humans to get in trouble with angels,’ he said. ‘I mean, humans are why we have the twinning problem.’
‘We have twins. Doctors. Um–’ She faltered, and a question came to mind. ‘How– How’d you know I was Brisbane?’
He made a vague gesture with his hand. ‘In here, you can tell your own. And they tend to group like with like – default filing, I guess. I doubt it’s a kindness. Why?’
‘Did you ever meet a woman named Carol? Blonde. Pretty, like–’
‘A long time ago, not that you have much of a sense of time in here. She was contained, in a bubble,’ he said, making a rough sphere with his hands. ‘Couldn’t chat. Didn’t know what she– Also human?’ Stef nodded. ‘Also my descendant’s fault?’
‘Not sure if “fault” is–’ The look on his face warned of violence. ‘Yes,’ she said through gritted teeth. ‘She was Ryan’s fault.’
Disappointment was on his face again. ‘I never brought a human in here. He’s what…a hundred at most, and he’s already got two in here?’
‘A bit over,’ she said. ‘He said…New Year’s Day, nineteen hundred.’ She shrugged. ‘If they’d waited a year, he’d be as old as federated Australia, which would be kind of–’
‘January first?’ Rhys asked, getting up from the rock. He stepped quickly towards her, grabbed two handfuls of her vest, and dragged her up onto her tiptoes. ‘He was generated on January first?’ he snarled into her face. ‘If you are lying…’
He’s got a knife.
I fucking know!
He’s got a knife. What do you have?
She squirmed in his grip as he snarled, pulled her arms inside of her jacket, and let her arms go down to her waist – where thankfully, her gun sat in its holster. She freed it, awkwardly flicked the safety off, tilted it, and fired.
His eyes narrowed, but he didn’t let go. She fired again, and he threw her to the ground, her head striking a rock. She looked up and gave an insane giggle – like every cartoon had ever promised, she saw things flying around her head.
A foot crushed down on her hand, and she felt her gun being kicked away.
‘I’ve always found guns to be too impersonal,’ Rhys said, a hand pressed to a bloody spot on his shirt. ‘But they’ve gotten a little more efficient since my day. Don’t do that again.’
‘Why are you so pissed?’ she asked.
‘Because he was born the day after I died. Reynolds didn’t even mourn before creating my replacement.’
She pushed herself to a seated position, the pain in her head already disappearing. ‘Isn’t that the way, though?’ she said, carefully schooling herself to avoid saying “Agency” way. ‘To be, then not to be, then to be forgotten? You’re there, you do your job, then you’re not there, and the world moves on anyway?’
Rhys smiled down at her. ‘If you understand that, then I guess you have half a chance.’