Ryan looked to his office door. There had been a knock. His HUD told him it was Stef outside – and she had knocked, instead of shifting in – a sign to be a little worried for her. She went through strange cycles of this – on good days, she would shift straight in, on days when she felt less good about herself – and therefore feeling undeserving of his affection – she would loiter in the hall outside his office, or insist on knocking.
He had insisted, gently but often, that she was always welcome.
Jones stood in the doorway of the workroom, watching Tamarai working through the evidence in this sim. Merlin sat on a large cushion, methodically working his way through a lollipop half the size of his head.
Merlin knew he was there – he’d felt the boy’s mind touch his as soon as he’d come up to the floor. From what emotion leaked from his son, Merlin felt disturbed, but from looking at him, he was putting up a front, perhaps acting happy for Tamarai’s sake.
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.
From the outside, the house looked perfect.
A well-designed home, light brick with wood accents, and a cute little fence. The hedges were shaped, and flowers flourished in the gardens. Chimes that looked as new as the day they’d come out of the box hung from a hook near the door and lightly tinkled in the breeze.
It looked normal.
And bad people could never live in a house that looked normal. Child abusers could never live in affluent suburbs with tended gardens.
Sick, perverted monsters wouldn’t have chimes.
It took Merlin fifteen minutes to stop tensing in his arms.
As he had always done and would always do, Jones held the child until the fear subsided to what they unfortunately had to accept as “normal” levels. A background radiation of fear.
Something they couldn’t avoid; something that was only natural, with Merlin’s life.
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?’
The first thing Stef saw upon reintegrating was Jones smiling. She stood at the long metal bench, her hair held up by a purple hairclip that seemed to be projecting holographic flowers into her hair.
She gave a happy sigh. Jonesy was so pretty when presenting as Andrea. Boy!Jonesy was pretty too, but always seemed like he was just on the tipping point where he could become a pretty boy anime villain.
‘I want to poke your hair,’ she said, drifting towards the tech.
‘Poke at your own peril,’ Jones chided gently. ‘And besides, you two have work to do.’
The hour before and the hour after midnight were always the quietest in the tech department.
Jones walked his usual late-night circuit around the floor, more of a habit than an actual need. An excuse to stretch his legs – to spend some time away from his lab and his desk, if not away from his work.
All his current work sat in minimised windows along his HUD task tray – unless it was something that the Agency didn’t need to know about, it was automatically synched. Backups upon backups upon backups; changes made in-HUD or by keyboard were executed, recorded, and logged.
He stopped by one of the window seats, and he brought up his email as he sat. The transparency was such that the city outside the window was still perfectly visible. Everything seemed peaceful, but it was impossible to be sure.