Ryan stared at the feed in his HUD – the image was black, though the audio still ran beneath.
And Stef was screaming, in pain, and begging for help.
There was a crunch, and the screams stopped.
There was nothing, absolutely nothing, in the limit testing that necessitated this amount of brutality. It wasn’t disallowed, as the idea was to drive a prospective agent to their limit, but-
Stef started screaming again.
He had to stop it.
They could call him in for being emotionally compromised, they could-
He opened the door to Taylor’s office, barely paying attention to the authentication window that popped open in his HUD. He strode across the office heading towards the door to the private gym, willing to make any bargain with any devil to make it cease, but stopped short as the door opened.
Magnolia stepped out, swiftly shutting the door behind her, before he could see any of the detail of the horrors beyond. There was a drying splatter of blood on her face, and for once, he hoped that it was her own.
She gave him a disapproving look, then stepped forward, forcing him to retreat from the gym door a little. ‘Let’s take a walk, Ryan.’
‘Step aside,’ he said hoarsely. ‘I’m going to-’
Stef stopped screaming again.
Magnolia quick-stepped forward, and put a strong hand on his chest. ‘I said, let’s take a walk,’ she said, giving the impression that she was giving an order.
He made a move to grab her hand, but she pulled back. ‘That isn’t you,’ she said, her tone full of judgement. ‘Now, shall we stop you from doing something even more stupid?’
‘How dare y-’ he started.
‘And you only bluster,’ she said, scratching at the blood on her face, ‘when you’re backed into a corner. I’m giving you a way out, Director, be smart and take it.’
He looked past her, knowing he could shift into the gym.
He didn’t even need to shift in to solve the situation.
It would be so simple: target Stef, shift them both to the edge of system territory, then run for the nearest set of fairy stairs. Take sanctuary with the Lost, and hope that neither of them died with withdrawal.
It was the same choice he’d had since she’d come back to life.
It was the same opportunity he’d been ignoring.
And he couldn’t.
Whether it was indoctrination, or his own innate inability to change, there was something stopping him from falling.
He only knew how to be an agent.
Magnolia pressed a hand to his shoulder. ‘Stop watching her,’ she said, a note of kindness in her voice. ‘Stop listening. It will only drive you crazy, and you aren’t the one being tested.’
‘If I don’t-’
‘It happens, either way,’ she said. ‘There’s no reason to fuck yourself up while it’s happening. It’s not happening to you, it’s happening to her, this, this what you’re doing,’ she said, making a vague gesture towards him. ‘Helps nothing. Helps no-one, least of all her.’
‘You’re,’ he choked, ‘the three of you are-’ Words wouldn’t come, curses and epithets died in his throat, and his hand refused to reach for his gun and solve the situation one way or the other. ‘You have her blood on you,’ he managed at last, his gaze dropping to the floor.
‘Not the first time, not the last time.’
‘Walk ahead of me. Out to the hall. Keep walking, common room on the left, no one uses it, my orders.’ She raised her eyebrows. ‘And turn off the feed.’
Against all good judgment, he turned and walked from Taylor’s office. A moment later, he heard the office door close, and the thud of Magnolia’s combat boots against the hallway floor.
He turned into the common room, and sat on the couch, the weight in his chest finally bringing him down.
‘You haven’t cancelled the feed,’ she said as she closed the door to the common room.
‘How do you-’
‘Because I’ve known you for more than five minute, Ryan,’ she said as she settled into an armchair across from him. ‘We need to talk, and it’s not going to work if you keep getting distracted.’
Distracted. The word the woman chose to describe appropriate emotional reactions to someone being repeatedly tortured to death was “distracted”.
Even agents weren’t usually that cold.
‘Turn it off,’ she said, ‘I’m not saying anything else until you do.’
He closed his eyes for a moment, listened to Stef’s muffled weeping in his head, then opened his eyes and paused the feed.
‘Talk,’ he snapped.
‘Someone once told me you’re a good man, but not a good agent. I think I hold that to be one of the fundamental truths of this world. Right now, you’re not thinking as a Director, or an agent, or even as someone who understands the experimental protocol that he’s initiated.’
‘Is she an agent or a china doll?’ Magnolia snapped.
Ryan recoiled from the sudden viciousness of her tone, his back pressing against the couch. ‘An agent,’ he said after a moment.
‘Are you sure?’ Magnolia asked incredulously. ‘Because so far as I can tell, you’re taking every measure to protect her when really, there’s no point. She has to go through this. If you want her wearing a suit, this is what has to happen.’
‘You can’t believe that.’
‘I can, because I’m the only objective party in this scenario.’
Ryan felt his anger starting to bubble over. ‘You’re Taylor’s-’ he started, before shutting his mouth.
The corners of her mouth turned up just a little, a small, nasty smile settling onto her face. ‘His what, Ryan? How were you going to finish that sentence?’
He didn’t know how he’d been going to finish the sentence, the words had simply come – anger without thought.
Magnolia stood, and leaned down over him, resting her hands on his shoulders. ‘His…sidekick? His lapdog?’ Her fingers curled, and her nails dug into his skin. ‘His bitch?’
‘I would never use-’
‘I have no stake in this situation, I can see it for what it is.’ She pulled her hands away, and she returned to her chair. ‘You wanted her to live, that much can be understood. Your wish went awry, the only fault you have in that is that you used mirror against every damn bit of Duty you are made from.’
‘I’ve been cleared-’
‘Don’t hide behind policy, Ryan.’ Magnolia shook her hand. ‘You’ve got permission for her to be here. Fine. They’re making her an agent. Less fine. Take the girl out of the situation and tell me what she is.’
He felt his brow furrow in confusion. He swallowed, then sat forward, resting his forearms on his knees. ‘No, Magnolia, if you see things so clearly, you tell me what she is.’
‘Mimosa is a threat,’ Magnolia said. ‘If you take away the person, there’s a huge chunk of mirror in her chest, and people have killed for less. The Agency isn’t neutral, not by any standard, but the fae count on us not to stockpile mirror.’
‘No one knows. It’s in the records in Central, Enforcer-’
‘These things have a way of getting out.’
Ryan froze his expression. ‘Is that a threat, Recruit?’
A sour look crossed Magnolia’s face. ‘No. It’s a simple truth. The records about Whitman are sealed, but it’s been passed down from recruit to recruit, the truth remains, even if the facts don’t. And Whitman is in the past. Memories aren’t threats to the Agency. An untrained agent carrying enough mirror to put a small moon in the sky is.’
Ryan tried to keep his face neutral. ‘And none of that has to do with-’
Magnolia ran her tongue over her left hand and scrubbed at the blood on her face, then leaned forward, and pressed the bloody hand to his chest. ‘With this, Director? With why Mimosa knows what colour her kidneys are? Yes it does, and you’re a fool if you can’t see that.’
Clarity was a wonderful and terrible thing as an agent.
Agents thought faster than humans, could process more options in the background, run searches for minor things whilst getting on with their day. Actions could be pre-programmed. Fighting styles could be assisted with automated subroutines.
For every action an agent took, there was a split second of clarity knowing what action was coming next.
And for one split second, Ryan knew he was going to swing his hand, and backhand the recruit so hard it would have broken her cheekbone.
And on the edge of the split second, as his fingers twitched, he wanted to. It would be a direct action, something to- Payback. Payback and vengeance against what they were doing to Stef.
Ryan gripped his hands together, waited for the briefest moment until the urge to strike the recruit fled, then stood and rounded the couch, pressing his hands down into the cushioned fabric.
A thought refreshed his uniform, ridding himself of Stef’s blood. ‘Magnolia, it would be in your best interest to-’
Get back to work. That was his usual way of dismissing a recruit. Of asserting his authority and getting a problem out of his sight.
Get back to work meant helping to torture Stef.
‘They never figured out what made Whitman go crazy, did they?’
Ryan dialled down all of his emotions, leaving his face expressionless. ‘No.’
‘Then it’s possible that if they’d put her through the wringer, they would have found the problem before she murdered half the agency,’ she snapped. ‘The limit tests try to expose an agent to as many forms of stimulus as possible.’
Ryan fixed his gaze on the wall. ‘There are other ways-’
‘Of course there are,’ Magnolia said with a shrug. ‘But again, you’re not the only one viewing it subjectively. There are worse outcomes than what is happening now. Trust me, this is as good as the situation could be, given the circumstances.’
With that, she turned and walked from the room, her black skirt bouncing to the beat of her stomping boots.
Ryan watched her go, then hung his head and wept.