There were three sharp knocks on Ryan’s door.
He quickly scanned the outside, saw it was Grigori, then required it open.
Ryan looked up from the recruit discipline report and saw the agent. He stood and shook the man’s hand before sitting back down and clearing his desk of paperwork.
Grigori took the couch, a strange expression on his face. ‘It’s because of you, Ryan, that I don’t trust handshakes as much as I used to.’
‘Are we really going to start this again?’ he asked.
‘You started it Ryan. You’re doing it again. How could you do this to him?’
He looked away. ‘I don’t-’
‘You are a good man, Ryan,’ Grigori said, ‘I have never thought otherwise, but it’s your weakness. You don’t know when to give up. You don’t know when to stop.’
‘I do what I have to.’
‘Carol, Carol I can understand,’ the combat agent said as he required a glass of alcohol and downed it in one gulp. ‘To a point anyway. You could have just let her go, but you didn’t.’
‘I couldn’t lose her.’
‘You did lose her,’ the Russian said. ‘She died. It wasn’t your fault. You did lose her. You brought her back, only to lose her again. If you had left her cold, nothing, none of this would have happened. You were married before her, a life as long as ours isn’t made to be with one person, you knew you could have found another to love.’
‘Carol was diff-’
‘Don’t you dare,’ Grigori said, shaking his empty glass at him. ‘They are all different, and any man worth his salt thinks that way, women are not interchangable. Would you have done it for Eilise?’
He thought about his ex-wife for a long moment. ‘No,’ he said at last.
‘Then why did you have to for Carol?’
‘I’m not you, Grigori, I’m not strong enough to let people go.’
‘Hence why you mutilated my best friend. How can you look at him everyday?’
‘I am not having this conversation again. This will get nowhere that it hasn’t the last hundred times. Or do you want to beat me again, make yourself feel better?’
Grigori shook his head. ‘Beating you no longer makes me feel any better.’
Ryan gave the Russian a neutral look. ‘Then, what do you want, Agent?’
‘I’d die for any of my kids,’ Grigori said after a moment. ‘But if any of them had been stupid enough to bring their death on themselves, I would have let them deal with the consequences. Do you really think she’s going to survive as an agent?’ He held up a hand, cutting off any chance of a reply. ‘Do you really think she’s going to survive what Taylor’s going to do to her?’
This made Ryan require a drink.
‘That’s what I thought,’ Grigori said.
‘So long as she physically survives it,’ he said slowly, ‘then she’ll be able to deal with it. There are-’
‘I know,’ Grigori said. ‘But that also means you have to play your part. You have to stand back and watch. Can you do that?’
‘Duty first,’ he said, then required a second drink.
‘Please,’ Grigori said, ‘stop this before it goes wrong again.’
Ryan set his face into a determined line. ‘It won’t.’
‘You’ve said that before. You thought Carol would be fine, you thought Taylor would get back a lot more of his memories. Won’t it hurt you a lot more if you have to kill her? Think of this little girl of yours, drenched in blood, so much so she can’t even see straight, innocent recruits lying at her feet, and then she comes at you, and thanks to that mirror, she can hurt you, but you hurt her first. You stop her, you slow her down, you try and get through to her, but you can’t, there’s nothing to get through to, she’s nothing but madness. She hurts you, but you’re still stronger, so you have to pin her down, and rip out her heart. You destroy every trace of her, because that will be the only way you can stop her.’ The Russian stood, extracted a hip flask from a pocket, poured what smelt like contraband alcohol into the empty glass on his desk, then looked up at him. ‘Just think about it, Ryan, it’s you who has to deal with it at the end.’ With that, he shifted away.
He stared at the glass, as if it would give him some answers, before swivelling and staring at his window. He caught slight of his reflection on the glass, his falsely passive face, the nice, neutral face that was only possible through manipulation of himself, not a face that showed what he was thinking. Not a face that showed what he was remembering.
He took a ragged breath, and quickly shifted away from his office, as if he could outrun his thoughts.
When the world became clear again, he looked around the small lab. Merlin sat at the long metal bench, a tablet hooked up to a disembodied hand – one of Stef’s hands, if he wasn’t mistaken – and was slowly poking it with a pencil.
‘Merlin,’ he said, ‘what are you doing?’
‘Fingers are hard,’ Merlin said as he crossed two of Stef’s, making it seem as though she was hoping for something. ‘I’m working on them. At the moment. Well, not this moment, cause I’m talking to you in this moment, but you know what I mean.’
‘We’ve got to switch everything across,’ he said, ‘and that’s hard to do. Haven’t had to do that before, no-one’s had to do that before. It’s new territory.’ He required a tiny paper flag and planted it between Stef’s crossed fingers.
‘I don’t understand.’
She was a lefty, and we’ve got to make her right-handed.’
‘Why?’ he asked.
Merlin gave him a confused look, then dropped Stef’s hand and sat back down on his stool. ‘Cause all the angels are right-handed.’
Ryan looked down at his hands, reeling from the fact that this had never occurred to him before. It was something so simple, something so every day that people never bothered to comment on it. ‘You can’t just flip the coding?’
‘Like a flopped manga?’ the boy asked. ‘No, cause it wouldn’t work properly, it’s easier to change her than it is the change the agenty stuff, and we’ve got to change enough of that already. Agent Squishy is really, really complicated…we could buy you a puppy instead.’
He smiled. ‘Don’t you like the challenge?’
The boy screwed up his face. ‘Yeah, but fingers are still complicated. If we’re not careful, she’s gonna be trying to pick up stuff with hands that don’t exist. And all the combat stuff is right-hand biased, and she’ll kinda need that if she’s gonna be a proper WiBWaB.’
‘Wibwab?’ he asked.
Merlin pointed at him. ‘Well, we can’t you call you a man in black, cause you also wear blue and white.’
‘You have me there,’ he replied. ‘Where’s everyone else?’
‘They’re all getting set up for the movie. Jonesy said we could take a break. Plus, most of Agent Squishy’s stuff needs a couple of hours to do stuff by itself, not much we can do.’
‘Other than sit here and poke her with a pencil?’
This made the boy pout. ‘I’m trying to figure out if we can transplant the muscle memory from one hand to the other, or if we should cut off her hands and switch them over, then glamour them up so the thumbs are on the right side, or if we do it all in the code. Are you sure you wouldn’t prefer a puppy?’
‘No, she’s much better than a puppy.’
Merlin simply nodded at this.
‘Well, if you’ve got a movie to watch, I’ll leave you be.’
‘No, you have to come too.’
‘You came down here to get away from the sad, and you promised Jonesy you would.’
He stared down at the boy. ‘How did you know I was sad?’
‘Because you’ve got robot-face on, and that means you’re either sad or mad, and Taylor’s the one that gets mad, so that means you’re sad. Besides, you promised, and you have to keep promises, otherwise you get that BEEEEEEEEEEEEP noise in your head.’
He looked away for a moment. ‘That isn’t quite true.’
‘Yes it is. Now, you’re coming. Besides, you’re on my floor and as the ranking tech in the room, I’m ordering you.’ He slipped his goggles back on. ‘Please?’ The boy held out a hand to him. ‘It’s Conan, and there’s popcorn.’ The boy slid off his seat and walked around the bench to him, his hand still outstretched.
Ryan let out a long breath and nodded. ‘Fine, I accept.’
‘Good!’ Merlin cried happily, then grabbed him by the hand and led from the lab, and away from all of the bad thoughts in his head.
He allowed himself to be pulled down the corridor and into the large common room, one that was filled with tech recruits in various states of uniform and sleepwear, many were lounging on beanbags or the large couches. Merlin dragged him through the sea of recruits, and towards the half-empty couch were Jones was.
Merlin let go of his hand, crawled over Jones and made himself comfortable on the arm of the chair. ‘Sit!’ the boy ordered.
Ryan did, letting his jacket and vest disappear as he did. He took a breath and settled back into the couch, looked at Jones’ wide grin, and returned it with a small smile.
[Something wrong?] Jones asked as the movie started.
He looked across at the tech. [Grigori’s here.]
[I know,] Jones said as he reached up to lift the goggles off Merlin’s face, allowing the boy a better view of the screen. [He dropped by and asked where her off-switch was.]
[What did you tell him?]
[The truth,] Jones said, [it’s unfortunately a matter of public record.]
A tech recruit turned around, got to her knees, passed him a huge bowl of popcorn, then turned back to the movie. He looked down at the bowl, took a handful, then passed it to Jones. Jones immediately passed the bowl up to Merlin, and then required a green bottle of soft drink for himself. [You just have to focus on what you get at the end of this.]
[I know, that’s why we have movies and games. Little fantasies and distractions, they make life so much easier to handle. You just have to sit back and watch this happen, like any of my kids that see one of their monitoring targets take a bullet, or any of them that take a diverted 000 call and hear someone die because we can’t get there in time. Endure, and in a couple of weeks, you’ll have your own little growth chewing on your hair instead of the popcorn.]
He looked up, and saw Merlin munching on a lock of Jones’ hair, the popcorn seemingly forgotten. He smiled, let the neutral mask slip away, then turned his head back to the screen and focused on the movie.