Tiny hands touched his right shoulder, and a small head rested on them.
Jones looked up, unsurprised to see Merlin, goggles pushed up onto the top of his head, his expression one of exhaustion. ‘Going to get some sleep, sweetheart?’
Merlin nodded his head, then lifted his head and hands away from Jones’ shoulder. ‘I’m tired, Mumma. More than I should be.’
Jones spun on his chair to look at his son. ‘Do you want to sleep in your bed, or in your box?’
Jones stood. ‘Let’s try your room, all right? You’ve slept in your box every night this week.’
Merlin stared. ‘I want my box.’
There were many sentences that brooked no argument, and that one was near the top of his list. When Merlin wanted his box, he got his box.
Jones pushed his chair to the side. ‘Need some water?’
Merlin’s head shook.
A third shake.
Jones leaned down and kissed Merlin’s head. ‘Off to bed, then.’
His son yawned, smiled, and crawled under his desk and into the large cardboard box there.
Jones knelt and watched the boy pull his blanket up over himself. Merlin reached a small hand up and touched the cardboard. The mass of glow-in-the-dark stars sprang to life and cast a small, comforting glow over him.
There was something troubling the boy – that much was blatantly obvious, but Jones couldn’t push. If he did, it might trigger another episode, one where the boy began to speak in languages so dead that he couldn’t translate them, or fall all the way through the building and hide in the basement, amongst the abandoned experiments.
‘Goodnight, Merlin,’ he said.
He pulled himself back to the desk, shook out his fingers, and tabbed back to the program he’d been tinkering with. And upgrade for the emergency calls system – anything to help avoid occurrences where his recruits had to listen to people die.
The current program operated like a lot of tracking software. It listened for keywords and made a prediction about which possible solutions could work. It was good – and it was already better than its original incarnation, which had only kicked in after the calls had been routed.
Techs before his time had already implemented a system to listen to every emergency call that was placed, sometimes saving the precious seconds that were needed to save a life.
Many of the human call centres had the ability to transfer a call to the Agency. The current system of upgrades that the Central team were working on was mapping out decision trees for when the system could yank the call of its own accord, so that there would never be the chance of some new operator getting confused by the request – or demand – to transfer a caller to some agency they’d likely never heard of.
In essence, all the improvements to the software focussed on getting calls to recruits more quickly. There were also various, city-specific mods that local techs tended to make, looking for pieces of phraseology to indicate a location, which helped in narrowing locations.
Jones loved that his local lexicon had to include the phrases “the Gotham building” and “the Batman building” to describe a green monolith that wouldn’t have looked out of place as a place for a posing Dark Knight.
The entire response unit needed an upgrade. Recruits – human, fae or, half-agent – were excellent, but paled in comparison to how fast the system was capable of figuring things out.
The recruits would always be needed – until the System decided to move to an entirely agent-based system – to provide a comforting voice, to calm someone down, or take a last request or a last goodbye.
Until Central took the function – which was proving ever-unlikely – he had to find options, and the most logical path was to use the code the Agency as a whole spent the most time improving, that of an agent.
Jones scrolled through a list of options for pieces to yank from the collective unconscious.
Fortunately, he was spoiled for choice. The Agency appreciated Combat and Technical, but the majority of agents could still be classified as Field – whether it was a “true” Field Agent like Ryan; or someone from an Outpost, as Outposts rarely had a specialised Tech or Combat officer.
He filtered the list to include only agents recycled within the last twenty years.
The more recent, the better – at least, if the necessary components were still there. There was a direct correlation between how recent an agent had been recycled and the likelihood that they had originally been created with components recycled from other agents.
Older agents – especially those generated up until 1910 – had a high frequency of including components from previous blue-and-ash constructs. Ryan was an ever-present reminder of that, even if his dusker “DNA” rarely shone through.
The early agents, as always happened with pioneers, were rife with issues and originality.
For every misstep that the then-new-generation programming had taken, there had been three steps forward in creating the true agent template for the second generation.
It was a testament to the Agency and to the agents themselves that nearly half of that first generation were still in service – some still in their original positions. Some had risen to a directorial position or transferred to Central.
And some took “retirement” – going into positions that left with little-to-no work to do, like Applebaum. It still surprised recruits that “the cranky old bastard in Lost and Found” was a living treasure, a tangible piece of history that was far more than his outbursts at recruits who played Hide and Seek with the help of his departmental shortcuts.
Of the other original agents – over a quarter were dead, and the rest had fallen, for one reason or another. Falling wasn’t unreasonable, was the natural reaction to a life of service without end – though it was treasonous to even think that.
A little more freedom would inspire a lot more loyalty. Fixed-term contracts – even something as extreme as a century of service – would likely halve the number of agents who chose to fall overnight.
For the moment though, he needed to work within the confines of what was available to him.
Jones needed a field agent who hadn’t somehow coasted through their term of service. He selected an agent at random – Agent Murdoch – and looked through their Field credentials and basic statistics.
Murdoch’s file was suitably impressive, if a bit basic. He didn’t seem to have done anything truly impressive with his life – he had a decent track record of missions and assignments, all with the little indicators that the success rate was well within tolerance.
An agent with a good track record – one recycled “recently” – both good elements, and both required for what Jones wanted – but both factors begged a question: why had he been recycled in the first place?
Jones pulled up Murdoch’s main file and looked for the final entry – recycling judgment.
Selling contraband. Jones felt his nose wrinkle. Usually something so minor didn’t result in recycling. Agents were treated as valuable property – even if, in reality, they were a functionally endless resource – so “minor” behavioural problems didn’t usually carry the death sentence.
It was, after all, far easier to remove the problematic parts of an agent than to generate a newborn that would take years to get up to speed.
There was, unusually, no reference to the item in question – and Jones didn’t feel the need to request it. If it had been something severe, something truly unforgiveable – even after handing the agent a death sentence – then the man’s code wouldn’t be in the collective unconscious. It would have simply been gone.
Jones pulled Murdoch’s files and began to scroll for the pieces he wanted to download.
It really was only when experiments – or applications of using components of the collective unconscious came right up against the border between “morally questionable” and “wrong” –
that the decision had to be made by the higher-ups.
An error beeped at Jones, and he flinched at the sound. He hadn’t taken the time to require himself a set of headphones or mute the sound. He lifted his hand, his mind ready to call up his favourite set of headphones, and stopped himself short.
The boy was asleep, likely already dreaming – it was one of things that they had shown conclusively when they’d done the original battery of tests on the boy: when he slept, he dreamt for at least ninety-seven percent of the duration.
Another thing they had found were that the boy’s dreams were infinitely malleable. A conversation regarding horror movies with one of his recruits whilst Merlin had slept beneath his desk had caused the boy to wake in a fright, screaming about murderous clowns to the point where he was unable to calm down. Only after clown-proofing the entire building – including the Combat floor under the guise that it was protection against fae attacks – had the boy been able to sleep again.
Most of the other attacks hadn’t been that bad, but any sound that was made near his sleeping body could be integrated into his dreams, so Jones was careful to keep the lab as silent as he could. Normal noises, like keys being pressed and mice being clicked, seemed to have no effect, but he had no idea what his playlist of comedy skits on YouTube would do Merlin.
Even sounds filtered through a headphone could reach him, so Jones took a moment to synchronise himself up with the computer – it was easy enough to do, using a sub-function of communication mode – and made sure that all sound was routed through his auditory senses, rather than appearing in the real world.
That would allow Merlin to sleep, and it was a lot less distracting than watching videos directly through his HUD. Jones needed something in the background to keep him from being bored, not something to pull him away from his work entirely.
Two hours and countless videos later, he rose and stretched. He let his glasses disappear so that he could rub at his eyes, and he ran a hand through his hair.
The program was far from done. It was simple enough in concept, but it still only did what the current version did. The new one had to be far more comprehensive, had to be able to interface seamlessly with other systems – especially systems from outside the Agency – and had to run better predictive algorithms.
Well, after a short break, a drink, and a quick peek into his favourite game developer’s servers anyway.
He required back his glasses, his eyes taking a moment to refocus, before he sat back down at his computer. He leaned back on his chair and moved to save the program again – just in case anything had happened to it in the few moments he’d been away from the keyboard –
The program had changed.
He stared at it for a moment, comparing it with the code he knew he’d written. The changes were subtle, but all through the page that his screen displayed. He blinked, and the more changes came. This was the Agency, so of course, strange things happened on a daily basis, but this was different.
He tried to close the program, but his cursor stayed frozen in place.
After another quick blink, something strange appeared on his screen – a snake, a snake made of code. It rose up from the bottom of his screen, slithered through the characters, pushing the carefully typed code out of the way without care. It gathered itself in a large circle, taking up nearly the whole screen, its rough edges catching onto pieces of code and as it settled into place.
He sat, dumbfounded, unsure if he should try to communicate – and unsure as to how, as he wasn’t quite sure what the disturbance was. None of the monitoring equipment hidden in the walls had pinged anything strange, or given any hint that there was an intruder. There were, of course, a few ways to circumvent Agency security, but he doubted that some being would take the time and effort to breach their security, just to mess with a program that he’d only taken a few hours to create.
That meant one of three things: One, that it was something powerful enough and bored enough to breach their security just for a cheap laugh, like a god or demon. Two, that it was an entirely unknown type of life form – unlikely, but just possible, if it had been created by one of his peers. Three, that it was something from within the Agency itself, and that usually meant only one thing – or rather, only one person.
He touched his desk and required away the piece of bench covering the box that Merlin called home. The green light of the glow-in-the-dark stars was still visible, a little touch of magic making them glow long past the point when they should have dimmed.
Slowly, the faint green glow became red. Jones fought the urge to require the lights on. He needed to protect the boy, to keep him safe from harm – real and imagined – but at the same time, they needed to find out all they could about him – for his own good. There were still so many unanswered questions and X-factors surrounding Merlin.
The red glow pulsed, then exploded. There was a rush of colour and sound, like when a blackout bomb exploded; but instead of the cold rush of time and then nothing, the red wave coated his laboratory in unfamiliar scenery. The room around him was only a projected image, he found out, as he looked down to see his own chair and found himself apparently sitting on thin air.
He slid off his chair and crouched in front of the box. The code-snake slid beside him, into the box, and under the blanket. There was an inhuman squeal from the box as it flew up and across the room – a sound of breaking glass as it knocked something-or-other from one of his shelves – and then Merlin’s blanket came flying at him.
The blanket covered Jones’ head for a moment. He quickly tore it away, the blanket he could feel in his hands not matching what he saw.
The blanket he felt was the familiar, soft blanket that had lived under his desk for over a year now. The blanket he saw was rough-looking and covered in what he was sure were bloodstains.
Jones sought to move toward the boy, to help him, to protect him from whatever the danger was, but found himself frozen in place. The bloodstains slid from the blanket and onto his hands.
His bloodstained hands slammed onto the floor and pinned him in place.
Merlin writhed in place on the ground, and Jones saw the snake wrapped tightly around his arm. The boy tried to fling it off but didn’t seem to be able to control his body.
The snake whipped its head around and took on a new appearance. It was no longer a creature seemingly made of stray pieces of code made real – it was a real snake, fierce and flexing. It latched onto Merlin’s wrist, undoubtedly driving venom deep into his veins.
The boy gave another inhuman squeal. The snake shook, then broke apart.
The remnants of the code-made-real imprinted themselves onto the floor as shining black letters. Merlin sat up, cupped his hands in front of his mouth, and threw up into them. The boy gagged for a moment, thick, sticky liquid pouring out between the cracks in his fingers. He gave a small whine, and then blew a long breath onto the puke, which immediately turned to dust.
The particles amassed in an almost orderly cloud in front of the boy, who lifted his hands, conductor-like, then quickly drew symbols into the dust, both hands expertly drawing and redrawing a plethora of unknown signs, before the dust turned to seeds and fell into his open hands.
After a moment, Merlin collapsed like a rag doll. The red scenery seemed to bleed from the walls into an ugly pool, then it slowly dissipated – that, or it fell through the floor onto some Field recruits.
The bloodstains on Jones’ hands dripped away, and he found himself able to move again. He crawled forward and reached for Merlin, who whimpered like the child he had never been allowed to be. The boy curled himself up into a ball, first reaching for his missing blanket and then, not finding it, requiring a new one. He clutched the blanket as though it held some solace that would shield him from what happened.
Jones reached forward and touched the boy’s shoulder, not sure what to say, not sure what to ask, just waiting for him to speak.
That was the way it always had to be. Jones had seen Merlin’s nightmares before, the ones that were projected around the laboratory, the ones where the horrors from the boy’s mind would manifest enough for him to understand a little of the boy’s terror, and enough for him to hate the boy’s parents even more.
The creatures in his nightmares were just that – creatures. It was his parents that were the true monsters. Jones tried his best not to think about them, to just enjoy the boy’s good days, but every time something like this happened, every time that Merlin would do something inexplicable without realising it, or bend another Agency system to his will with barely a thought, he had to wonder if his parents had indeed known what they were creating, what they had crafted.
Merlin didn’t flinch away from the hand Jones placed on his shoulder, as he had done for the first six months he’d been in the Agency. It could have been worse – it should have been worse. The boy had been locked away from all contact for the majority of his young life. He should have been unable to handle as much as he did, do as much as he did, or communicate on the level that he did. It had taken time, but the Tech Department had brought him out of his shell. Now he just retreated there when his past came back to smack him in the face and disturb the life he had now.
The boy lifted a trembling fisted hand and pressed it toward him – Jones opened his hands and let the boy deposit its contents there: the seeds. Everything else from the illusion had disappeared, but the seeds had stayed.
Jones flinched and bit back a scream as he felt the seeds, some deep part of him knowing it wasn’t his own horror, but an overflow from Merlin. They weren’t hard and dry as they should have been. They were soft and wet and…covered in blood. His hand spasmed, and the seeds fell to the ground.
In one smooth motion, he grabbed Merlin’s hand and turned it palm up to see if what he suspected was the truth.
The boy’s hand was a bloody mess. There were tiny pockmarks, each the size of one of the seeds, and blood poured freely from each.
Jones applied as much pressure to the wrist as he dared before moving forward, grabbing the boy, and shifting them to the infirmary. He gently set the boy on the edge of the nearest bed, keeping pressure on the wrist so the boy didn’t lose even more blood.
‘You’re Tech, Jonesy,’ said Parker-2. ‘Your guys aren’t supposed to bleed.’
Jones said, ‘He’ll need–’
The doctor lightly slapped his hand away. ‘It’s a flesh wound. I know what it needs. Now move back so I can do what’s needed.’
Without anyone to hold it, Merlin simply let the hand flop onto his knee, and he bled over the end of his lab coat. He didn’t react; he didn’t speak. He just looked out with dead eyes.
A second later, though, he drew in a sharp breath and required his goggles back over his eyes.
He moved back and leaned against the next bed while he watched the doctor work. A hand on his shoulder made him jump.
‘Jonesy, sheesh, lay off the caffeine,’ Parker-1 said. ‘What happened to the little wizard?’
‘It was nothing,’ Jones lied. He did that a lot when it came to Merlin. What he desperately kept to himself, just so he could protect the boy from everyone else.
Some things were just too dangerous to let other people know. Some things would just turn people against the boy. Some things would make some question the validity of his sanctuary within the agency walls.
‘Just an accident.’ A nice, simple lie. A nice, neat addition to his not-quite-tangled web of lies surrounding the boy. ‘He should have been wearing protective gear. It’s my fault. I should have insisted.’
If there was any amulet, any magic, any protection Jones could put into the walls to keep the nightmares – and the boy’s parents – away, he would have done it, but there were some things that Kevlar-weave and headgear couldn’t protect a person from.
‘Jesus, don’t be so hard on yourself,’ Parker-2 said. ‘It’ll be a bandage, a skin swatch, and some meds. It’s nothing. I mean, if you put this on the Magnolia scale, it’s probably an oh-point-five?’
‘I’m not used to my people getting injured,’ Jones said honestly. Honesty was good; it helped to keep the lies hidden.
‘He’ll be fine,’ Parker-2 said sarcastically. ‘If I can yank bullets out, I can put a Band-Aid on.’
Jones wished he could just switch himself off – or to be like a newborn agent, when system regularity and dedication to Duty far outstripped any exploration of emotion. Newborns never felt a parent’s worry; newborns never tripped emergency subroutines to stop themselves from showing more emotion than was wise.
‘There. Done!’ Parker-2 said with an exaggerated flourish after he finished wrapped the bandage. ‘And, no, I didn’t forget.’ He pulled a huge green lollipop out of thin air and handed it to Merlin, who clutched it limply.
Jones sniffed the air. ‘…What flavour is that?’
Parker-2, the taller of the two doctors, tried to look innocent. ‘Green flavour?’
Jones took two long strides forward and carefully pulled the lollipop from the boy’s limp hand. ‘I know what absinthe smells like, Parker.’
He required a more traditional lollipop and held it up in front of Merlin.
The boy slowly lifted his head to follow the lollipop, then reached for it with his good hand.
He lowered his head and bit into it, suckling on it like a toddler with a teething biscuit.
‘You know the drill,’ Parker-2 said. ‘Pain meds will last as they need to, and just keep an eye on it – you know, just in case.’
The “just in case” was something that the Parkers only ever added when Merlin was injured or needed some sort of medical treatment. Even something as simple as some cold medicine was met with a “Keep watch, just in case.” “Just in case” it didn’t take. “Just in case” it had an adverse reaction. “Just in case” it did something weird, and they had to take note of it.
It was “just in case” because with every other member of their agency, they knew what they were dealing with. They knew the physiology inside and out; they knew what drugs worked; they knew what medications and procedures a body could handle.
Merlin, on the other hand – no one knew what he was or what his body could handle, so every treatment was met with trepidation. For most things, they played it safe and treated him like a fourteen-year-old human boy – which at least part of him was.
‘I’ll keep both eyes on him,’ Jones said, but the attempted joke fell flat and was only met with a half-hearted shrug from the doctor.
Jones walked to his son, lifted him, and shifted back to his lab.