He forced himself to flip onto his back, his legs protesting with another wave of nauseating pain.
He planted his hands in the earthy floor and pulled himself back against the bloodstained table – there was no use in spending energy and processing power on keeping himself level, when bracing himself was relatively easy.
T-shirt. Uniform pants. Most of Jones’ tricks and fixes resided in his lab coat – he didn’t take it off enough to set things up any other way.
Even the last time he’d been severely injured – Taylor, the impressive tank that he was, had only thrown him through a few walls. He hadn’t shredded his legs, and Jones had his emergency blue and a belligerent Taylor to carry him back across the border back into system territory.
He looked down at his legs. By turns, the damage was minor, scratches and scuffs, to severe, with several chunks of flesh and muscle missing, exposing the white bones beneath.
His HUD was full of information. It had automatically set about doing its best to stem the flow of bleeding, even if it couldn’t do anything to fix the damage.
There were innumerable issues – logical, ethical, and moral – with what was proposed for the 2.0 agents, but they would at least have the ability to heal themselves.
Older models, meanwhile, were left to bleed and die.
Old or new, some technologies were available to anyone with cash or the ability to require.
Jones adjusted himself slightly and pulled his mobile phone from his pocket.
He stared into his HUD for a moment, flicking through the duty rosters, to check who was acting as de facto aide whilst he was out of the building – an “officer of the day” position.
He flicked into his phone’s contacts and dialled the number that would route him straight to the recruit’s earpiece.
There was ringing – something that was strange to him. Some agents chose to implement a dial tone, ring, or hold music whilst they were waiting for a communications connection; he had never felt the need.
‘Sacha here,’ the recruit answered a few second later.
‘Recruit,’ Jones said, trying to keep at least some of the pain out of his voice. ‘Would you kindly organise an extraction for me? As soon as you can, if you please.’
‘What’s the situation?’
‘Not to put too fine of a point on it,’ Jones said, trying to sound glib, ‘but I believe I’m bleeding to death.’
Sacha shouted a few commands to recruits around him, his German accent becoming a little thicker with stress, then asked, ‘Sir. It’s a blackout. What’s your countdown clock say?’
Jones checked his HUD. ‘It’s not immediate. I do not need on-site treatment. Just a twenty-metre extraction, because I can’t climb stairs right now.’
‘Acknowledged, sir,’ Sacha said. ‘I’ve got two combat recruits inbound. ETA thirty seconds.
Is there anything else to be aware of?’
‘Hopefully not,’ Jones said. ‘But I’ll keep this line open, just in case.’
There were rushing footsteps from somewhere above his head – two sets of combat boots, if he wasn’t mistaken – and he allowed himself a single, quick, sigh of relief. ‘Sounds like backup’s here.’
Magnolia appeared at the top of the stairway – a clomp of boots and a swish of skirts. She came into view, descending the stairs with her favourite knife at the ready, her eyes darting around for targets to slash and stab.
As she came off the stairs, she walked to the middle of the room, knife still at the ready.
‘Clear,’ she shouted.
A second set of boots came down the stairs – these were attached to Hewitt, who had an emergency kit slung over his shoulder.
‘Just get me upstairs,’ Jones said as Hewitt approached. ‘I can deal–’
‘Sir, I’m not comfortable moving you like this,’ Hewitt said, indicating to his legs. ‘Some of these are bad. Unless you believe we’re about to be compromised, let me work.’
Jones closed his mouth and cooperated as much as he could as Hewitt expertly doled blue onto the worst of the bleeding holes in his legs, then slapped on several blue-backed patches onto the wounds of secondary concern.
‘Ma’am,’ Hewitt said. ‘We’re right to go.’
Magnolia sheathed her knife – an act she didn’t look happy about, then came over to Hewitt as they helped him to feet that were no longer cooperating.
Hewitt slung the emergency kit back over his shoulder, and drew his gun, taking two steps away to take point.
Jones had a single moment to wonder how they expected him to get up the stairs, before the world tilted as Magnolia threw him into a fireman’s carry. ‘Mind your head, Scholar,’ she said as they started up the stairs, his dishevelled hair threatening to catch against the rougher patches of the wall.
Three minor scrapes later, they were at the top of the stairs. She levered him off her shoulder and onto a trolley. Two more combat recruits wheeled him from the house, and a shift processed.
Jones smelt agency air for a moment, before another shift processed, putting him in a blue tank – there was no need for the full tank, but he wasn’t about to argue with an opportunity to be fully submerged in blue.
If you got almost any agent drunk enough, they would always say the same thing, that full submergence in blue – especially after major trauma – was about as close as an agent could get to a religious experience.
Jones took in a deep lungful of blue, imagining that he could feel it coursing through his veins, and acknowledged that it did feel almost holy. A rebirth. A memory of the womb no agent had ever had.
And it was birth that provided the simplest, truest explanation of why they, as a people, almost universally had this reaction to being thrown into a vat of the nanites they were made from.
Almost every agent was initially brought online in a tank – it was a safety measure, for the tiniest fraction of a fraction of a percentage where something went wrong during generation, and additional blue was required – such as when twinning occurred.
That precaution, therefore, meant that an agent’s first memory was of being surrounded by blue – at having the utter peace provided only by those brief, precious seconds of consciousness before understanding.
The moments you had to understand that you existed, that you had come into the world, to marvel at each of your first thoughts as you used words and concepts you’d never heard of, but you understood.
And after the momentary peace, the OS would load, and you truly became an agent, truly became your Duty.
Submergence was the closest you could get to returning to those perfect, heavenly seconds.
Jones’ face touched air, and he realised that the tank was being drained.
He adjusted his posture and fully slipped beneath the blue again for one more moment, before he accepted that his moment in nirvana was over.
It surprised him somewhat when he saw Magnolia standing over his tank, instead of one of his recruits. ‘Magnolia?’ he asked.
She took a step closer and handed him a spare pair of his glasses. ‘I’ll be your nurse today,’
she said, a confident grin on her face.
He accepted the glasses and put them on, his eyes adjusting to compensate for viewing through glass – he had perfect vision either way, and the glasses were nothing but an affectation, but it was one he valued.
‘Magnolia,’ he said, doing his best to ignore the fact that he was without clothes in front of a recruit. He quickly required a shirt and boxers – as that would still allow enough room to work on his ravaged legs. ‘We don’t have a staff of three in this agency. We’re not an outpost. I have recruits who can do this.’
‘I work the most with–’
‘The most,’ Jones agreed. ‘Not the most competently. You’ve refused to go to Academy classes to get licenced on the more advanced equipment. First aid – you’re probably second to me in this agency. Proper fixes… No, Magnolia, you aren’t as good as you think. Taylor doesn’t mind scars. I do.’
Magnolia lifted a small, handheld flamidimiser and clicked it on, the blue laser beam glowing in the rough shape of a blade. ‘Yeah, but none of your other nurses need to know what happened as much as I do.’
A rare feeling of stupidity ran through him, and he felt his cheeks burning. Merlin. It was Merlin she was worried about, not him. And it was her right to worry about the boy – Merlin was his son, but Magnolia also treated him like family.
She knew enough about Merlin’s powers that if she had ever wanted to cause trouble, she was more than capable of it. The most anyone else knew was that he could read minds – a dangerous, uncommon trait – but one that at least was recognised and normalised.
There was nothing normal about being able to walk through walls or able to do the myriad of other things that Merlin was capable of.
The Agency had very severe views on mirror and wouldn’t hesitate to act, if they ever realised that there were pieces from a dozen mirrors laced into Merlin’s spine.
Magnolia didn’t want to cause Merlin harm. She wanted to protect him. And to protect him, she needed to know what had happened in the house where he had been born.
Four words would cover it. ‘His mother was there.’
Magnolia’s eyes narrowed, hate burning in them. Her mouth twisted. ‘What did that fucking monster want?’
Jones rubbed the back of his neck. ‘To remind us that he’s not safe, that he’ll never be safe, and that there’s nothing we can do about it.’
Magnolia worked on his wounds in silence for a few moments, each movement methodical and exacting, if not gentle.
‘When they come for him,’ she said at last, ‘everyone is going to find out what he is. You’ll have a lot to explain, if you live through it. You could tell me now. It’d be one less person you have to tell.’
She was asking for the truth. Asking, not demanding – a surprising gentleness from her.
He put a hand on hers. ‘I’m not sure there’s much I can tell you that you haven’t already guessed.’ It was far from the truth, but he’d had practice making it sound genuine.
She shook his hand away. ‘I have no idea what he is. Other than adorable. And someone to be protected. I love him like a brother, but I want to know if he’s going to explode one day.’ She looked away. ‘If he’s someone I might have to fight.’ There were tears in her eyes. ‘I– Couldn’t–
But if it meant saving lives–’
‘I don’t know the full extent of what they did to him.’ This, at least, was a truth. ‘He’s demon; he’s human; he’s dead magic; and there was some measure of wishing involved in creating him.’
‘All that I know,’ she said, throwing an empty of packet of blue in the tray. ‘Scholar–’
‘If it came down to it,’ Jones said, taking his glasses off and looking her in the eye, ‘whose side would you be on? Ours, or your commander’s?’
Magnolia looked away.
She loved Merlin like a brother, but she would always defer to Taylor. She was dedicated to him as much as it was possible to be dedicated to another person. Her Duty, to speak in Agency terms, was to her agent, not to her agency.
‘You know where I would fall,’ she said, looking back to him, her face as controlled as it ever was. ‘The question is, are you going to fall?’
That was another question she’d never asked him.
‘Magnolia,’ he said, his voice grave, ‘my Duty is to the greater good. I intend on serving that greater good until the last of my days.’
She narrowed her eyes again. ‘That’s not a “no”, Scholar.’
‘Though we are flawed, the Agency serves the greatest good,’ he said, almost surprised at how honest he was being with her. ‘Until something comes along to supplant them in that service, this is where I will remain.’
Suspicion remained on her face. ‘And you’ll protect Merlin, no matter what – correct?’
‘My child is my priority,’ Jones said. ‘And I don’t care what that woman thinks. I am never going to let him go. I’ll protect him to my last.’
Magnolia put a hand on his shoulder and squeezed. ‘Good,’ she said, the tone half-pleased and half-admonishing. ‘Any less, and I’d probably have to kill you.’