Ryan watched the ghosts drift past his window. Two indistinct adults floated, far enough away that they were barely more than wisps of fog. Three children – two girls, one younger boy – ran around on the air in front of his branch of the Agency, running up invisible hills and tumbling down.
Memories, of his son rolling down hills, played in his HUD. There had always been grass stains, and they had always been worth it – each streak of green had been a badge of honour, of fun, proof of an afternoon well spent.

The three ghost children held hands and spun in a rough circle before splitting apart, their arms straight out from their bodies as if they were imitating planes.
It was common to call them ghosts, and the word fit them – intangible visions of the dead – but the truth was kinder than the mad non-existence that true ghosts were made to suffer. They were snatches of memory, peeks into a dying world. The strongest memories, the best memories, moving photographs to be seen one more time.
One of the children came running right at his office, a little boy that seemed to be mostly thick jumpers and oversized boots. The boy’s arm passed through the window before he turned, zooming back towards his sisters.
Without warning, the family faded from view.
Ryan watched for a moment more, then moved back to his desk and the far-too-large piles of paperwork.
A ping from Jones appeared in his HUD, and he opened the video chat. [What can I help you with?]
[Who have you got available at the moment?] Jones asked.
Ryan opened the recruit schedule. Of the recruits on shift, four were on patrol – or should have been, anyway. Their location still showed them in the agency. A five-minute delay was acceptable – even ten minutes could be a perfectly understandable hold-up. Half an hour was unprofessional.
He sent them an automated reminder, then flagged their late start on the schedule. As he flagged it, a reminder popped up, showing that it was their second warning in a month.
With an apologetic look at Jones, Ryan made a quick note to reassign them to a daytime schedule.
He looked at the rest of the schedule, then closed it. Sometimes, it was easier to take charge than to prompt recruits to do their jobs. [I’ll investigate it.]
That statement seemed to surprise the technical agent. [Sir?]
[What’s the situation?]
[It could be nothing,] Jones said. [Solstice chatter, but it’s in the same area for that leech Magnolia’s been chasing, so that makes it interesting. We’ve got a location.]
[Drone surveillance?]
[Shows nothing,] Jones said. [But it’s a big place, so that means nothing.]
A file transfer appeared in the HUD, and Ryan opened the picture.
[Really nice-looking place,] Jones commented as Ryan examined the picture of a mansion. [It’s historically listed, privately owned and occupied, but it does occasionally rent space, which seems to be the case now, if my kids hacked the right files.]
[I trust your recruits. Anything to indicate Solstice?]
The tech scratched his head. [Shells and dummy corporations, so it’s a strong possibility. Don’t know what they’re doing in such a swanky place though. It’s–]
[As you said, it could be nothing.] He looked to his desk. The paperwork could wait another half hour. Some of it had already waited three days. Another minor delay was nothing. [I’ll handle it.]
[Yes, sir,] the tech said, and the connection broke, closing the window.
Ryan looked at the image, and he pulled the location link from it, turned the link into a shift command, and watched as the world blurred around him.
His office disappeared, and the mansion appeared. There were lights along the driveway, but the house itself was silent and dark. He shifted forwards a few metres, into a pool of shadow that would hide him from anyone looking out the windows.
He listened as he slowly looked around the garden – he heard nothing but the usual night sounds – then looked to the mansion again. He scanned it for life signs, the world dropping into blue outlines. He saw seven life signs, nothing but vague blue outlines at this distance – five moving, one motionless, and one–
One disappeared.
Ryan pulled his gun from his holster, flicked the safety off, and shifted to where the life sign had disappeared.
When the world came into focus, he almost wished it hadn’t.
The room bore some superficial similarity to one of the group rooms on the tech floor – four long benches, each holding a half-dozen computers. Snacks and drinks sat near most of the machines, the strange fuel of those who spent the majority of their time interacting with a screen.
That was where the similarities ended.
The room was full of bodies, of bullet holes and blood.
He sent a silent prayer to whoever wanted to hear it and moved carefully through the room, looking for any survivors that his HUD had somehow managed to miss.
The silence of the room was broken with a sudden movement – a body to his left surrendered to gravity and slipped from their wheeled chair. The chair slipped sideways, and Ryan reached out to stop it, his hand coating with blood.
He looked down at the body. It was slight, small, hardly a target at all, and still they had died. Two shots to the back – they hadn’t even had a chance to run.
He wiped his bloody hand on his pants and shifted to the closest moving life sign. He appeared a few feet in front of a man pushing a trolley loaded with computers. The Solstice raised a gun with a blood-covered hand and started to shout curses at him. Ryan stopped the angry tirade with two shots. The Solstice touched a hand to his bloodied chest, then fell to the ground.
Another shift, another body. Another shift, two more bodies.
Ryan scanned the mansion again – two more life signs, one still immobile. The other was moving. Either could be a survivor; either could be a Solstice. He shifted to the moving one, and the Solstice managed five insults before he was silenced.
He took a moment to collect himself, then shifted to the final life sign.
Confusion rolled over him.
The room was small, dark, and without any sign of an occupant. He turned in a slow circle, taking in the still-made bed, the empty desk, and the small stack of dirty plates on the chest of drawers.
He aborted the next scan when he heard breathing.
The sound was barely there – if he’d been human, he wouldn’t have heard it. He turned to the wardrobe and pulled on the heavy handle.
The owner of the last life sign sat in the bottom of the wardrobe, in complete darkness, save for the light from a laptop screen. Keys clacked softly beneath her fingers, and the breathing suddenly became a lot louder, a lot more frightened. Obviously Solstice, though – absorbed in work, not asking if he was there to save her.
He let the door go, and it slowly fell swung outwards on its hinges to bang against the body of the wardrobe, the loud sound making the girl flinch.
He cleared his throat, just in the very unlikely possibility that she was unaware of his presence.
She continued to ignore him.
It was a nice change of pace from the others. She hadn’t drawn a gun on him, she wasn’t insulting him, and she wasn’t sprouting their false – and, frankly, stupid – ideals.
She still ignored him. It was laughable, in a strange sort of way.
Ryan cleared his throat again, and that time she glanced at him, turning her head from the laptop for a brief second. Her eyes fixed on his gun, and she turned away with a slight shudder.
The glance was enough to run a facial recognition search.
The search ran quickly enough. It loaded, showing her name, age, a lack of previous known Solstice activity – and strangely, a cross reference to himself.
He stared at the cross reference, then looked to the girl, unable to place her in his memory as witness or suspect, then opened the file, curiosity more important than their quiet stand-off.
His gun wavered a little as he looked at the file, his own incident report slowly scrolling by, thumbnails of photos sitting to the right. It wasn’t possible. It didn’t make any sense. It made the situation a lot less laughable.
He looked into the wardrobe again, at the little girl he’d carried back from Limbo, at the young woman working for his enemy.
Duty. He had his duty.
He adjusted his aim and fired.
[table id=15 /]