Ryan finally let himself relax when he felt his little girl go to sleep, the tension seemed to slide from her, and her body relaxed. A few minutes later, she began to snore, making the usual array of “snerp”, “blort” and “eeet” noises.
Not seeing the point in wasting any time – and guarding a child was a very easy job, requiring less diligence than it appeared to. Fixing his gaze on an expanse of the blank, white wall, and calling up all of his current paperwork, he waited for the abandoned papers on his desk to digitise themselves and load in his HUD. They easily shuffled themselves in order of priority, and as suggested, he opened the top file, and began to scan through its contents.
He hated doing paperwork this way, there was something so much more real about reading through actual paper being held in his actual hands, signing his actual signature with an actual pen. Doing it this way seemed to remove him from the equation somewhat, treating him simply as something to process the forms, approve the requests, and dole out whatever punishments were required.
Doing it this way made him feel like a machine.
It also forced more efficient thought patterns, all in the name of getting the files out of his head and off to wherever they needed to go. If he was in his office, the files spread across his desk, he could turn, stare out his window for a while and just relax. Possible as it was to call up the images of that, replay old memories in a separate window to replicate the experience, or even hook directly into one of the security cameras to watch the city live, the want wasn’t there.
He made his way through to the third page of the file, made a few notes, which came out as neat font in the proper place on the file. The same thing happened to a physical file, of course, but only after it had been submitted, only after he’d written the note in the margin with a pen. Here, it was streamlined, here it was…mechanical.
Stef moved slightly under his arm, pulling the pillow more under her head. Her breathing was regular, but that meant nothing, her breathing would always be regular now, at least under normal circumstances. Normal circumstances which didn’t include a far stronger agent beating seven kinds of hell out of her.
Limit tests were a damned joke. They were required by the rule of law, of course, even useful – today’s torture had probably revealed sixty little adjustments that needed to be made to her, but they were always…beyond what was strictly necessary. Beyond what was fair. He had no right to complain though, not even on her behalf, they were both alive, and that was better than the alternative. Nearly anything was better than the alternative. And it was only a week. Only a week, then it would all be behind her, never to bother her again.
He signed off on the file, his signature appearing as his serial number, rather than a personalised inked flourish, and it disappeared, giving a friendly little beep, as though he’d just sent an email.
The next two files were relatively painless, even though a large chunk of the second needed to be rewritten for clarity, each disappeared with a little beep of their own. He opened the fourth – slightly depressed that he was still in the “high priority” territory, it was going to be a long night – he probably wasn’t going to get any sleep of his own until nearly dawn – or perhaps it would have to wait until sometime in the mid-morning, in the generally quiet hours between his recruits beginning training, and the odd request or two that tended that come in about eleven.
Screaming shook him from his paperwork stupor. The girl began to thrash around, screaming incoherent anger at phantoms. He held her tighter, whispering that there was nothing to be scared of, assuring her that she was safe, all the same techniques that had worked wonders on Alexander.
Without waking, she turned in his hold, tiny balled fists protecting her against whatever unseen terrors were causing her unrest. She screamed again, an expletive or two slipping out, planted her head against his chest – her skull connecting with a heavy THONK, before she slipped back into deep sleep.
He wanted to ask her if she was dreaming, if it was real nightmares that were causing her the terror, or if it was just some interaction of the cache clearing with whatever parts of her that remained somewhat human. For her sake, he hoped that it was a dream – not that nightmares were something to treasure, but it would mean that she’d retained the ability to dream. It would be another thing that made her unique amongst the agent population, but in good way.
He missed dreaming.
It had been the only choice that could be made at the time.
It would have been nice to have been asked. It would have been nice to have been warned. It would have been nice to have had one last dream. He wasn’t alone in his opinion, and some were far more bitter, holding onto the rage, rather than taking solace in knowing what it had saved.
The next two-and-a-half hours passed quietly, except for the occasional strange noise or whispered phrase.
Metaphorically knee-deep in a resolution dissertation involving two of his outpost agents, he didn’t notice at first. There was nothing to notice. In the short time he’d known Stef, he’d quickly come to terms with the fact that drooling in her sleep was nothing out of the ordinary, so a little wetness on his shirt was nothing that warranted pulling himself out of a particularly amusing statement from Agent Michaels and his…somewhat less than professional feelings on the situation. Michaels had felt, that even though this was an official document that was going to pass under the eyes of at least three dozen of his colleagues, that he had no pressing need to lessen his use of colourful language and…extended metaphors.
He selected several of the best sections and emailed them to Jones – feeling that this would be a good way to start returning the favour of over a decade of amusing emails. He also had no doubt that several of the phrases would end up scrolling by on one of the tech department flat screen quote boards – unattributed of course.
The sound of sniffling reached his ears, so he minimised all of his paperwork and looked down at the girl in his arms. Tears were quietly falling, the sniffling only reactionary as some slid past her nose – her breathing was still even and regular, she was still asleep.
He pulled a handkerchief from his pocket, wiping her face clean. She winced as his hand brushed her face, and she began to curl in on herself, trying to hide. He wrapped both arms around her, holding her safe.
This was something he had less experience with – Alexander’s nightmares really only required him to be there whilst he got back to sleep, it was a temporary fear, a distrust of the shadows of his bedroom, once sleep came, he was safe again, and if there was another nightmare, he could call for his parents again. His son hadn’t cried in his sleep…but then again, his son hadn’t been repeatedly beaten to death by a sadist. She continued to cry, yet never woke – and he had no wish to wake her, knowing whatever sleep she could get would be precious, and at least be a little preparation for the day ahead. The crying slowed, then stopped, and she drifted back into the safe, deep sleep.
Three hours later, he felt a tiny tapping on his chest.
‘You’re suffocating me,’ he heard a muffled voice say.
‘My apologies,’ he said as he released his grip.
He sat up, and watched her slowly stretch, then sit up herself, her head hung low, supported flimsily by her palm. ‘What time is it?’
‘I’m not sure telling you would be of any use, you probably won’t want to acknowledge it as existing.’
‘Gods, that early?’
He nodded. ‘You could go back to sleep for a while if you want.’
She looked up from her palm. ‘…I’m not tired. And that’s scary. I mean, I’m waking-up-oh-god-need-coffee-tired, but not I-need-to-go-back-to-sleep-tired.’
Taking the obvious hint, he required her a cup of coffee. She took a sip, and made a face. ‘How many sugars?’
Her face slipped into one of sheer terror. ‘…six? Are you trying to kill me?’ She lifted her hand and poked him in the arm. ‘Require: sugar.’ He added another measure of sugar, and she sipped it. Again, she poked him in the arm. ‘Require: sugar.’ Reluctantly, he added another, and after a sip, she seemed to begrudgingly accept this level of sugar. He decided against asking her if what she really wanted when she required a coffee was in face coffee-flavoured sugar, made with hot water.
She downed about half the cup before looking back at him. ‘So, if I remember right, Jones get my monkey-wrench around with my code now, right?’
‘And then I’m back to being a punching bag?’
She stared down into her coffee cup. ‘Do me a favour, don’t watch this time, ok?’
She lifted her hand and poked his arm again. ‘Require: pancakes.’
He handed her a bowl of cereal. ‘Why don’t-’
‘Because if you don’t watch, then it’s less real, and then if you come and visit tonight, which you don’t have to, just saying if-’
‘Of course I will.’
‘Just remember, you don’t have to. If you do, then, I dunno, you can take my mind off it, you can explain what Form A does, or tell me about the different kinds of fae, or, yanno, whatever stuff I’m going to need to be a real agent. Stuff so I don’t have to think about whatever happens today.’
‘All right, if that’s what you want.’
‘So long as they’re fun forms, like what I need to do to get a rocket launcher, or fun fairies, yanno, stuff that’s fun to study.’
‘I’ll do my best.’
‘Fun stuff, remember?’ She ate a few spoonfuls of cereal. ‘Not like cereal, cereal isn’t fun. But at least it’s chocolate.’ She stared at the abandoned coffee sitting on the bed beside her, then back at the bowl.
For a moment, he felt as though he were psychic, so quickly covered the top of the coffee cup with his hand. ‘No, don’t do that, I’m sure doing that would break the laws of nature.’
‘Eat your breakfast.’
Her shoulders slumped. ‘Yes sir…’ Then with a look of defeat, she went back to eating the cereal.
‘Good girl, now eat up so you can be a good, strong agent.’