Ryan shifted through the thick glass and wrapped his arms around Stef’s shaking body. She made small noises, the starts of words, but nothing coherent slipped out.
He lifted her, requiring her fresh clothes as he did, and carried her back to the small bed. He sat, his back against the cold glass, the cold girl in his lap.
So many things to say. So many questions to answer. So many truths that should have been able to wait. He stroked her hair, and waited for her to ask what she needed to.
‘He- He’s just- Why is he so- Why is he so pissed?‘ she asked. ‘You got permission, and- And that guy said that he outranks everybody, but- But I won’t even have to go anywhere near Taylor, and- And- And if I’m going to be an agent, then my field rating should go up, so he should hate me less.’
Guilt suffocated him. She thought it was her fault. He swallowed, and looked for simple words. ‘There are so many things I need to tell you, but I didn’t want to-‘
She slowly slipped off his lap and sat cross-legged beside him. ‘You were trying to be nice. Spare my feelings. Or my brain. Something like that?’
‘You’ve already been through so much tonight.’
She gave a strange, tired laugh. ‘So a little more can’t hurt.’ She lifted a hand and poked him in the arm. ‘Require cookie?’
He required a cookie and pressed it into her hand. ‘It-‘ He swallowed. ‘It’s not you he’s angry with.’
‘He kinda just threa-‘ her voice cracked. ‘He kinda just promised to kill me.’
‘It’s not you,’ he said again. ‘I- Carol. Her name was Carol. She was my partner, she was my lover, she was human, she- She died.’ Memories and old pains resurfaced. ‘I petitioned to do a full augment, make her an agent, and that’s what happened.’ He tried to distance himself, to imagine that he was talking about someone else’s life. Someone else’s mistakes. Someone else’s pain. ‘Complete success. For a while.’
Stef shuffled closer, and held his hand, and he was glad of the comfort. ‘You don’t have to-‘
‘This already effected your life more than you know, and now it’s- Something went wrong. We do not know what. We have never found out what. Jones has spent hundreds of hours going through the code. Thousands. More. She went mad. She attacked me, she killed recruits, she killed Taylor.’
Stef went so still that he had to strain to hear her breathing.
He waited for a reaction. A gasp, a comment, a judging look. Her face remained blank for a moment, then she slowly looked up. ‘If- If you’d died when you got shot-‘
He shook his head. ‘No. Taylor was an unusual situation. Agents don’t usually get revived after death, and he’s a very good example as to why not.’
She went quiet again, and this time the silence remained. The basement was devoid of the sounds that the rest of the Agency had – and what sounds there were, like the aquatic agent swimming in its tank, barely penetrated the thick glass. He was glad of the glass – it was thick enough to contain the behemoth, so it was one of the few things Taylor was unable to break. He clicked on a few options in his HUD and brought up the security options for the tank, ensuring that it was set to directorial-level access, rather than agent-level access – there were ways for Taylor to circumvent agent-level access, but nothing he could do against a director.
It was Reynolds’ job, it was Reynolds’ power, but there was no shame in using it to keep Stef safe.
‘I-‘ Stef said at last. ‘I take it back. I think I’ve run out of processing power, but my head is so full of fuck that I’m probably never going to sleep again.’
The words came out desperate, exhausted, and utterly defeated. He gave her a small smile. ‘You forget, you’re in the Agency.’
She pressed her knuckles into her eyes. ‘Unless you can require me to sleep-‘ she stopped and her eyes brightened. ‘Oh my god, seriously?’
‘With your permission.’
She settled herself back down onto the pillow, her arms wrapped around the already well-crushed quilt. ‘What will it feel like?’
He smoothed the hair back from her face, two decades had passed, but her eyes were still the same mix of fear and wonder that they’d been as a child in Limbo. ‘It won’t feel like anything.’ He queued up the option in his HUD, uncomfortable at how close it was to the options to put her into a coma suitable for storage, or to make sure she’d never wake up again.
‘It has to feel like something.’
He clicked on the option, and immediately her breathing slowed. She snorted, then was asleep.
The room was the same temperature as the rest of the Agency, but somehow it felt colder. He slipped off his jacket and wrapped it over her, and smiled. ‘Sleep well.’
He pinched the bridge of his nose, checked the security settings on the tank once more, then shifted to Jones’ lab.
Jones sat at his desk, leaning so far back in his hair that he was nearly horizontal. The bank of monitors on the tech agent’s desk held static screens of agent code, the very first sequence if he wasn’t mistaken. The parameters that would determine everything else – name, rank, status. He looked between the code pieces for the words he’d knew he’d see “Mimosa, Stef”. It was her code. She was safe. She’d be an agent.
The code blinked out, and Jones’ face appeared on the monitor. ‘I’ll be with you in a minute, sir.’
He looked from Jones’s body to the face on the monitor. ‘Where are you?’
‘Collective unconscious, just doing a bit of research, but my recruits aren’t above messing with me when I’m AFB so I keep one eye on myself, so to speak.’ Several stacks of files appeared on the desk, Jones disappeared from the monitor, then sat up, shook himself, then adjusted his glasses. ‘Sorry about that, sir.’
‘AFB?’ Ryan asked.
‘Ah, away from body, sir, they didn’t think AFK was suitable, as,’ Jones ran his hand across his keyboard, ‘I don’t actually leave it.’
The code returned to the screens. Ryan sat on one of the empty chairs and stared at it. He saw Jones looking at him, but after a moment, the tech looked away and began to slowly work through the code, changing settings, filling in parameters.
He finally, truly felt the weight of what he was doing.
‘That’s the same chair you were sitting on the last time you asked me that, sir,’ Jones said without looking at him. ‘Except last time, you were covered in Taylor’s blood, and- And it was a mistake last time.’ Jones hung his head forward, his long blond hair obscuring his face. ‘Carol wasn’t a mistake, we did everything that we- I performed to the best of my ability, but maybe if you’d had an older tech, someone with more experience-‘
‘It wasn’t your fault,’ Ryan said firmly. ‘And I’m grateful for what time I did have with her.’
He put all the honesty he could into the words – a lifetime would have been preferable to the precious few months she’d had as an agent, but Jones was not at fault.
‘Taylor was a mistake,’ Jones said, then sat straight and tied his hair back in a rough pony tail. ‘We knew it was a mistake, we did it anyway, and we’ve had to pay for it every day since.’
Ryan stared at the floor. ‘What is it this time?’
It was the same indecision he’d felt on the roof, that he’d felt with the Enforcer – the same whys and whynots, the same question of if he’d had the right to force this on her, the question of if being an agent was better than being dead.
‘You gave the finger to duty and used mirror to save a recruit who got herself killed, sir.’
The words cut into him, and he looked up, trying to mount a defence of his actions. Behind Jones, the screens had changed again, this time, they showed images of Stef as a toddler in the infirmary.
‘Was it a mistake, sir?’
A video played in the centre, a memory from the point of view of one of the Parkers. He smiled at the image of Stef, and finally felt settled. Life was life, any life was better than nothing, and he would do his best to ensure that it was far more than nothing.
‘I hope not,’ he said.
The images of code reappeared. ‘Because of the nature of the experimental protocol, we’ll be able to go a lot slower with Stef, we won’t be rushing to full augmentation, we’ll be able to do it piecemeal, and therefore keep a closer eye on integration.’
‘The limit testing though,’ Ryan looked at his technical agent. ‘Why Taylor?’
Jones required a green bottle of soft drink, then shrugged. ‘It had to be Taylor.’
‘Ryan,’ the tech said as he set the bottle down. ‘If there is one thing- Hell, the only thing that man can do is cause harm. No matter how we sold this to him, all he’s going to see is Carol 2: The Revengening, he’s already submitted a formal complaint, well, Mags has, it’s in coherent English.’
‘I didn’t see it.’
‘With respect, sir, I’d imagine they’re going to try and bypass you as much as possible.’
‘He’s already threatened to kill her.’
Jones shrugged. ‘I’m surprised it took this long.’
‘He might-‘
Jones stood and leant against the bench. ‘It has to be him. Simple process of elimination. I’m not qualified, so that leaves you, him, or one of the outposts. It’s not even in the realm of possibility for you to do what needs to be done, and our outpost agents aren’t fucking psychopaths. Darren has, what, eight kids? And Kelly loves his dog so much that I don’t think he’d be able to hurt Stef, she does bring to mind small, fuzzy creatures-‘
Ryan simply stared at the tech.
Jones drummed his fingers on the smooth surface. ‘Then there’s Sale-‘
‘I get your point, but-‘
‘Having one of your own agents do it shows a stronger commitment to your duty than outsourcing to someone distanced from the situation. And trust me, on the balance of probability, if I hadn’t assigned him to beta test her, you’d be in my tank and we’d be seeing what the rejuv properties of the mirror are.’
‘But he will-‘
Jones stared away. ‘I know. I know. But- But if it’s official, if it’s above board, if he’s got free reign to brutalise her, then all of his attention will be focussed there, and he’ll be less likely to make an actual attempt on her life.’
‘That isn’t comforting.’
‘I’m afraid I don’t have much comfort to offer.’
Ryan adjusted his tie. ‘There’s another reason I came to see you-‘
‘Sir, no-‘
‘I want it done with. It’s only an hour, I have time to go through the process, then-‘
‘I don’t pretend to know how you’re feeling, sir, but if it’s anything like I assume, then with the state your mind is in, I can pretty much guarantee that you’ll be glitching, an hour could turn into-‘
‘Don’t make me order you.’
‘It’s mandatory punishment, but you’ve got a three-day window-‘
‘For fu-’ Jones shook his head, then slapped his hands on the bench, and it turned into a small tank of bue. ‘Come on then, climb in.’
Ryan required away his vest and tie, then shifted into the tank, staring up at the bright lights above him as Jones attached a blue IV and half a dozen electrodes.
‘One hour, level five,’ Jones said. ‘Sir-’
‘It’ll be fine.’
Jones moved back to his desk, and Ryan let himself slip below the surface of the blue.
Jones’ face appeared in his HUD. [And in three…two…one…]
Ryan felt his body seize, and everything turned to pain.