The morgue was cold.
Ryan looked at the wall of identical doors. Only three were in use, the others were simply waiting for bodies. He stepped past the first two doors, not bothering to look at the names, and found the one that had labelled itself with Stef’s name. She didn’t belong there. She wasn’t dead.
A message appeared in his HUD. [Sir, are you ok?] Jones.
He gave a short, mirthless laugh and it echoed off the cold metal that surrounded him. He stared at the question for a moment, unsure of how to answer it. He opened it to reply – text only, he needed every second he could steal before facing his colleagues. [Send recruits to my last location, there’ll be shards of mirror in the area.]
Jones gave no further reply.
Ryan stared at the drawer containing Stef for a moment, manic panic rising in his chest. He wrapped his hand around the handle and opened the door, listening for any tiny signs of life before he grabbed at the shelf and pulled it out. Stef was still dead. Her uniform was bloody and dirty, eyes still staring at nothing, the mirror in her open chest catching the dull fluorescence of the morgue’s lights.
He spun at the sound of a door, his hand going automatically towards his gun.
Parker-2 stood silhouetted in the door to the rest of the infirmary. ‘Sir?’
Stef screamed.
Ryan whipped back around to look at her. Her body was rigid and tense, unmoving except for her screaming mouth. Her eyes still stared, dead and unseeing, at the ceiling. She gave a racking cough, and this seemed to free her body, the rigidity disappearing in favour of thrashing. She twisted and went over the side of the shelf, but he caught her before she could crash to the floor.
She fought his grasp, hands beating against his chest.
‘Stef!’
Her eyes opened even wider, still unseeing, then she blinked and her brow furrowed as she focussed on him.
‘Ry- Ryan?’
She took deep breaths, then went limp in his lap, both of her arms wrapped around one of his. He cradled her, feeling her tiny body shake, and tears against his sleeve as she buried her face in his upper arm.
‘What. The. Merry. Fuck?’ Ryan looked up and saw the shocked face of Parker-2, his arm held out to stop his twin from entering the morgue. ‘Boss, I don’t usually mind when I get resurrections in my infirmary, but what the fuck just happened?’
Ryan looked away from the doctor, and down at Stef as best as he could as she clung to him. He scanned her, hoping for a heartbeat, but saw nothing but the inert lump of mirror – which, far too whimsically, had formed itself into a heart shape, rather than making an attempt to mimic the organ it had destroyed.
The enormity of what he had done struck him again. Using mirror and having it disappear was one thing, using mirror and having evidence was another issue.
‘Stef?’
She gave a whimper.
Ryan stood clumsily, the girl still clinging to him, and he gently set her on the shelf, peeled her hands away, and put his hands on her shoulders. ‘I need you to stay here. I will be back.’ She reached up for the hand touching her right shoulder and clung to it. ‘This is important. I need you to trust me.’
He turned and looked to his doctors. ‘Watch her. Keep her in here, and do not let anyone else see her.’
‘Boss-‘ Parker-2 started.
‘We understand,’ Parker-1 said, and stepped past his twin. ‘Do what you need to do.’
Ryan lifted his hand from Stef’s other shoulder, required his jacket, and awkwardly, one-handed, wrapped it around her shoulders. ‘I will be back.’
She looked up at him, her eyes red and puffy from tears. ‘Stay?’ She looked so much like she had done as a child. Leaving her then had been a mistake, leaving her now wasn’t. Leaving her now was the only chance she had.
He shifted to Jones.
Ryan watched the screens for a moment, unwilling to interrupt – he was intent on saving on precious life, but it was far too counter to his duty to interrupt another agent, divert attention that could lead to other recruits dying.
Jones walked among his recruits – stopping to look at one monitor or another, or to offer advice.
[What’s up, sir?]
Ryan faltered, then switched the conversation to video. [I need your help.]
Jones quirked an eyebrow. [You’re going to have to be a bit more specific.]
[My recruit. Stef.] He stared imploring at Jones, thankful that emotions displayed while in communication mode didn’t translate to the real world. [She’s the one-]
[She made the big badda-boom?] Jones interrupted, his face a mixture of horror and awe. [It-]
[It killed her, Jones.]
All of the humour slid away from the agent’s face. [Ryan, I’m sorry.] Ryan watched as Jones paused to laugh with a recruit. [But I don’t see how I can help.]
It was only four words. It was four words that may mean a death sentence. Four words that could condemn Stef back to the fate she’d escaped. [I made a wish.]
Jones stopped circling the room, and looked at him, the same expression in the real world as in the communication window: shock, horror, fear, and a tiny touch of awe, though that may have been wishful thinking. The expression disappeared from Jones’ face in the real world, but remained in the communication window. The technical agent seemed struck dumb.
Ryan wished for anything to fill the silence.
[And?] Jones asked after a moment.
Ryan swallowed. [She’s alive. She’s with the Parkers-]
[That’s not a good idea, sir.]
[She still has mirror in her, Jones.]
The communication window disappeared. ‘Sacha,’ Jones said, walking to a tall recruit. ‘Take over for me?’ The recruit nodded, and Jones strode at Ryan. ‘Sir, with me.’
Ryan followed Jones back to his lab. ‘I’ve got two questions for you, Ryan.’ He looked up. ‘Did you try wishing away the extra? I’ve got the Parkers streaming me a scan, just go back up there and wish away the extra, and then this isn’t a problem.’
‘It brought her back, if I-‘ Ryan cut himself off. It would be dangerous to make another wish.
‘I understand,’ Jones said kindly. ‘But sir, the alternative is just ask risky.’
‘What alternative?’
‘Please try option A first. You wish it away, then this never happened.’
Ryan felt sick. ‘I wished for her to live, if it was simple, it would have repaired the damage and- It wouldn’t have stayed inside her. I won’t take the chance that I’ll kill her by trying to save her.’
Jones leaned against the bench in the middle of the room. ‘Sir, if you don’t, the least of what will happen is the Enforcers getting called. We can only bullshit for so long before this is reported.’
‘Jones, please.’
‘Sir, you’re not being rational. You know what the rules are like when it comes to mirror.’
‘I had to save her,’ he said, the words tumbling out.
Jones smiled. ‘That was my second question. You want to save her?’
‘Yes.’
‘Do you trust me?’
‘Yes.’
A stack of paperwork as long as Ryan’s forearm appeared, with hundreds of coloured flags hanging from the edges. ‘Sign where there’s blue, initial where there’s red, sign, initial, rank and title where there’s green. Trust me, you do not have time to read it, sir. Just sit, and wear out a pen doing this as fast you possibly can.’
‘But what is it?’
‘Do you want her to live?’
‘Yes.’
‘Are you ok if her quality of life sucks for a bit?’
Ryan looked down at the papers. ‘Jones-‘
‘It’s an experimental protocol for…pretty much this situation. For when a recruit comes into contact with mirror and it’s unable to be removed for one reason or another.’ Jones stood straight, and tugged on the black comic-book shirt he wore. ‘I need to stress to you sir, that this is far from a guaranteed outcome. This protocol has only been used a few times, and it was never for the quantity of mirror that’s in your recruit’s chest. Tell me you understand the risk to her, and to yourself.’
‘I do.’ He signed the top sheet. ‘But what will happen to her.’
‘This strips recruit status and reclassifies her an experiment. You know where I have to put her. I’ll put her as far away from the others as I can.’
Ryan looked at Jones. The basement, though safe and relatively benign, was still a horrific place. It wasn’t where she belonged. ‘Surely you don’t have to.’
‘Staying true to protocol right now is the best course of action.’
Ryan signed the next page. ‘But a life in there-‘
‘It’s not a life in there. It’s life as an agent.’
Ryan’s hand froze mid-signature. ‘What?’
‘Don’t mistake me, sir, she’ll still primarily be an experiment, with all of the shit that comes along with that. But if everything goes ok, and, well, I’m running it, so you know it will, she’ll be out and about, and be a living, breathing field test for this. Agency policy on mirror is clear, but it’s just as clear that because of that policy, we give up a major advantage. There’s been agents wanting to use mirror so long as there’s been agents, sir, you know that.’
Ryan stared, Jones’s words washing over him. Finally, Jones seemed to notice. ‘TL;DR, sir, “Agent Stef” if we get the ok. If that’s what you want, then keep signing.’
‘I can’t make that decision for her!’ Ryan said. He looked around, trying to process everything. ‘I can’t-‘
‘You’ve already made a bigger decision on her behalf tonight. It’s this, try to wish it away, or run for sanctuary with one of the Courts.’ Jones looked around the lab, looking anywhere but at Ryan. ‘What happened with Carol was not my fault, I swear to you, sir. I-‘
‘I have never thought it was, Jones, that isn’t my argument. I have to ask her, I won’t just choose this for her.’
‘Then be quick, sir, please.’
Ryan pressed a hand down on the paperwork and shifted it to his office, looked at Jones once more, then shifted back to the morgue. Stef sat cross-legged on the shelf – which now had a thin mattress on it, giving her some distance from the cold metal, his jacket still wrapped around her. She rocked back and forth slowly, her hair hanging over her face.
‘Stef?’ She started at the sound, and looked up, her eyes wild and still red from tears. ‘Stef, I have to ask you something.’
She shrank back into the jacket a little. ‘What happened?’
Guilt panged in Ryan’s chest. There’d been no time to talk, no time for conversation, no time for the word “dead” to come up. ‘You’ve got a piece of mirror in you,’ he said, trying to sidestep the biggest issue. ‘Where your heart should be. I’m afraid of wishing it away in case-‘ he stopped.
‘I died, didn’t I?’ Her voice was hollow, distant, scared. ‘But- But there was nothing. I didn’t see-‘
‘You stopped breathing for a few minutes,’ he said. He sat beside her on the shelf, and she leaned against him. ‘Yes,’ he said slowly. ‘You died. But you’re here now.’
‘And that’s a problem, isn’t it?’ She pushed a hand out from the too-large jacket to show him a bloody hand. ‘If there’s mirror- Then- Then don’t you have to wish me away?’ She whimpered and clung to his arm. ‘I’ll close my eyes, just please make it fast.’
Her face pressed into his shoulder, and he felt the wetness of more tears. ‘I just wished you back, Stef, I’m not going to wish you away.’
She sat up, and gave him a confused look. ‘What?’
‘I said, I’m not going to-‘
‘Not that part,’ she said, ‘the other part.’
Some of Ryan’s panic slid away. ‘I made a wish,’ he said, and that time, the words were a lot easier. ‘Because you needed me to.’
Stef looked panic-stricken. ‘But you’re going to get in trouble. Just wish me away so-‘
‘Stef,’ he said.
She went still. ‘Yessir.’
‘I didn’t expect there to be mirror left, I thought it would have repaired the damage.’ Memories of the night he recruited her flooded into his mind, and he gave a slight smile to the reflection of circumstances. Again, there were three choices, three very different paths. ‘I could try and wish away the extra, but I don’t know what that will do to you. Jones has offered me another possibility, but there is also the option of sanctuary with one of the Courts, the Lost and the Mad always have room for more, and you’d be out of the Agency’s jurisdiction then.’
She shrugged off his jacket and pressed a hand to her chest. ‘It- It doesn’t hurt. But- But I’m- If you tried to fix it, you might wish me away?’
‘I don’t know, but-‘
‘What’s Jonesy’s option?’
‘You’d be an agent.’ Ryan stopped and immediately regretted his wording. Experiment. She’d be an experiment first, and only an agent if approved, an outcome that was far from a guarantee, if the initial experiment was approved at all. ‘You’d be an experiment,’ he said. ‘I don’t know the details of it, Jones hasn’t had time to explain it, and I cannot promise that it will be pleasant, or something that you’d want. I also imagine that what you’d have to give up-‘
‘I haven’t even been here a week, I don’t know how to be a recruit, why would you make me an agent?’
‘Because recruits are expendable,’ Ryan said, hating himself for the words. ‘So if the experiment fails, it’s seen as no great loss. As you are, under Agency policy, your life is forfeit, so in this case, it’s the more pleasant of the options, should you want to remain at the Agency.’
‘Where else would I want to be?’
The words were said without hesitation, there was no hitch in her voice, no hint of reservation, just a tone that he had asked a very stupid question. ‘You won’t have any rights, Stef, you’ll be a test subject.’
Uncertainty crept into her expression. ‘What do you want me to do?’ She stared down at her knees for a moment. ‘I don’t want to be a burden. If you want me to go be a bell-ringer and get sanctuary somewhere else, then-‘
‘I just want you to be informed. It’s your life, Stef.’
‘I want to be here,’ she said in a small voice, ‘please, if I can. I want to be here.’
The words were so counter to anything Alexander had ever said. Alexander had never wanted to be in the Agency, even for a night, let alone, staying when the consequences would be less than pleasant, or outright- No. The experimental protocol would be accepted. It had to be accepted.
Ryan ruffled Stef’s hair. ‘You can’t stay here,’ he said, ‘and I have to leave you alone while I do the paperwork.’
‘I understand.’
He held her hand, and shifted to the basement. He was grateful that he front room was mostly empty of experiments – empty tanks and enclosures sat waiting to be filled. She gripped his hand, her head turning to try and take in all of the detail. A few words, starts of sentences slipped from her mouth, but nothing he could respond to, nothing he had time to answer.
He found an empty glass enclosure in the far aisle, where the closest experiment was an aquatic agent in a tank that seemed content to swim laps all day. He pressed a hand to the control panel, and a door slid open.
Stef stepped over the threshold and into the holding cell without being asked. ‘You- You’re totally going to explain all of this when you get a chance, right?’
‘I promise.’
He looked in to the empty area, and required a bed, a fresh set of clothes and a bar fridge with refreshments – it was the least he could do.
‘Ryan?’
He looked to her.
‘I’m sorry,’ she said, and flung her arms around him. ‘I’m so sorry. I- I didn’t mean to! I’m sorry!’
Ryan crouched so that he was level with her. ‘Young lady.’ She pulled away and wiped her nose on the back of her sleeve. ‘Everything is going to be all right, I promise you.’
‘O- Okies.’ He touched a large red button on the control panel, and it sealed her in. She pressed hand hands to the glass. ‘Don’t-‘ She stared at the floor. ‘Don’t forget about me, ok?’
Ryan stared, unsure of how to reassure her, of how to comfort her without staying. ‘Hold out your hands.’ She stepped back from the glass, and cupped her hands. He required a bag of cookies, and smiled.
He took one last look at her, then shifted away.