Curt opened his eyes, rolled over and looked to the phone on his bedside table, and grabbed it as the alarm went off. He silenced it, and the room went back to semi-darkness, lit only by the lights of the few electronics.
‘Computer, lights.’
Require: lights.
He closed his eyes as the lights came up. He lay back on his pillows for a moment, staring into his eyelids before braving the harsh brightness. He could have slept in, but there was no point – it would throw off his routine for the rest of the week, and he could always nap later if he felt the need – the day after a major operation was usually pretty dull, all non-essential activities were pushed back, and the usual events of the day, like training, didn’t occur at all.
He threw back the quilt, stood, made the bed with a thought – the other recruits had rooms that took care of themselves, but they’d only turned on the barest few basic subroutines for his room – another way of telling him he didn’t belong, that he didn’t deserve the usual comforts of the Agency, that he had to work for what he had. He went to the bathroom, relieved himself, then opened his shower door, and positioned his head under the shower and turned on the water for a few seconds.
It was enough to ensure he was awake, and to beat back any ideas of going to back to sleep. He wrapped a towel around his shoulders and let he water drip down his short hair as he took stock of himself in front of the mirror. All the scratches and bruising had disappeared, and all that remained was the well-wrapped wound on his arm. He pressed his fingertips to it, then quickly pulled them away – it still hurt.
Pain was a usual part of Agency life. Pain that lasted after a trip to the Parkers was a lot more unusual. He grabbed the front of his T-shirt and required it away, hoping again that his tattoos had disappeared overnight. He looked down at himself, saw the black ink, then required a fresh uniform. He held his breath as the fabric slid over his skin, watching in the mirror to ensure that it was black and blue, not grey. He released his breath slowly, towelled his hair, and tidied it with a requirement.
He dismissed the towel, then stepped back out to main area of his quarters.
He pulled open his fridge and looked in at the leftovers. A small baggie of candy that the newbie had shared with him, half a dozen bottles of cheap gnomish beer, a wedge of cheese he’d required on his first day to test the theory that required food never rotted when stored, and a container of brikni, probably a little past its expiration date. He reached in, touched the container and dismissed it, then closed the fridge, and required a breakfast muffin with extra bacon.
Curt sat at his desk, and tapped the mouse to bring the computer back to life. He clicked through a few standard emails – planned outages of various systems that didn’t affect him, except for the elevators, though he doubted he was going to need to use the lift at two in the morning for the next three nights. There was an invite to the tech recruit movie night of the week – he wasn’t on the standard mailing list, but Raz insisted on forwarding it to him anyway.
He finished off the muffin, wiped his mouth, then required the casualty lists. Only two deaths – both combat recruits, which was on the “acceptable” part of the spectrum, and minor injuries sustained by two dozen recruits, with only two requiring overnight observation. His arm twinged, so he set his computer to sleep again, then left his room and walked towards the infirmary.
The halls were empty, which wasn’t surprising, most of the other recruits would take every opportunity to get another hour to two in bed – whether it was sleeping, or revealing in being alive with another recruit.
Curt stopped in front of the newbie’s room. Something was wrong. He closed his eyes, then opened them again, trying to take in the image afresh. The door was the same colour as every other door, the numbers were the same.
The lock was missing. He stepped forward and ran his finger over it – the silver doorplate was there, the round handle was there, but the lock was missing. The locks meant little on their own – they were more a symbol for recruits to feel safe, no one actually used a physical key for their room. A lock on a doorplate simply meant there were user permissions set up for the room.
No lock meant no recruit was due back.
A cold feeling settled in his stomach. It was pointless, but he knocked anyway. If she was going to quit, she would have waited until the morning. If she was going to quit, she would have done it after the monster, or getting shot.
He knocked again.
They’d closed out the room overnight, when if, had she simply quit, it would have been very, very low on the list of priorities.
‘Dammit, newbie.’
He turned away from the direction of the infirmary, towards Ryan’s office. It was possible she’d quit. Possible that one of the techs had done the job of closing out the room.
He stopped, pulled his Agency phone from his left coat pocket and booted up Vox, the casual menus displaying as he wasn’t tapped on any surveillance or mission duties. The front tab showed his empty friends list, the second tab showed public chats, the third showed an available list of recruits and agents to contact.
He scrolled quickly to the M section, and saw no sign of “Mimosa, Stef”. When someone quit, there was an icon, and a redirect to a civilian email address or phone number for the following week.
The cold feeling spread. ‘Fuck.’
He knocked on Ryan’s door, and made an effort to turn his face passive. He didn’t have all the facts, he couldn’t react until he had all the facts. There was a long wait, then Curt heard the lock click, and he pushed the door open.
Ryan sat behind his desk, in the imposing leather chair, hands folded and resting on a pile of paperwork.
‘Recruit, is this anything that can’t wait until later?’
Ryan’s ears were bleeding, and the agent didn’t seem to notice. Blood caked the area, and wet blood dripped over drying rivulets before it hit his collar. Excess from at least level five punishment. He kept his eyes on Ryan’s face, pretending not to notice.
Playing dumb was a valid move. ‘I was going to take Stef on a patrol, but she didn’t answer when I knocked.’
Ryan went very still, a strange reaction, a deliberate lack of reaction. ‘I’m afraid that won’t be possible, Recruit.’ The agent looked up, absolutely no emotion showing on his face. ‘She’s dead.’
Agent passivity was frustrating. On the one hand, it meant they were displaying no emotion for a reason, on the other hand, it meant they were showing no emotion, so there was nothing to infer from, no twitches to give away a lie, no slight movements of the eye to give hints of emotion.
Curt credited himself with being able to hide his emotions, but nowhere near as good as the man in front of him.
‘How?’
‘That’s none of your business, Recruit.’
Curt considered the words for a moment. It wasn’t his business, to be sure, but an answer was usually simple enough. A gun shot. A stab wound. Solstice. Fae. Even one word answers would give some indication. Saying nothing was saying more than the agent probably wanted to say.
Curiosity warred with anger, and lost for a moment. ‘She wasn’t even supposed to be in the field, sir!’ he snapped. The stupid newbie was dead. The stupid newbie who’d actually given him a chance. The stupid newbie who hadn’t run at the first mention of Solstice. Someone who could have been a friend.
‘It was her choice-‘ Ryan started, his voice perfect and measured and even.
‘Because she wanted to impress you, sir,’ he said. ‘I didn’t see her come through the infirmary, did-‘
‘There wasn’t time for doctors to get involved,’ Ryan said. ‘Now if you’ll-‘
Curt swallowed. ‘Why isn’t she on the casualty list?’
‘What?’
‘If she’s dead-‘
Ryan rose from behind his desk. ‘Are you questioning-‘
Curt backed up towards the door. ‘No, sir, sorry, sir.’ His heart hammered in his chest. He’d made an agent angry. He fought for breath and attempted to look apologetic and humble. ‘Sorry sir,’ he said again. ‘I just meant- Well, if anyone else asks-‘
‘I’m surprised even you did,’ Ryan said dismissively as he sat back in his chair.
Curt swallowed a few choice curse words. ‘When’s she being buried, I’d like to pay my respects.’
Ryan looked up at him, some emotion showing on his face now. ‘I don’t know what the arrangements are yet, I’ll forward them if we’re advised.’
Ryan was lying. The words came too easily, too practiced, too false. If no one had asked about Stef, as his attitude indicated, there was no reason for the words about her burial to come so easily.
Something was wrong with the situation.
He pushed sympathy onto his face. ‘I’m sorry for your loss, sir.’
‘Thank you, Recruit,’ Ryan said.
Curt left the room as quickly as he could without running, and didn’t breathe until he was down near the lifts. He stopped, and forced air into his lungs. Ryan wasn’t Petersen. Ryan wasn’t going to-
Stef was dead. There was anger, he expected that. He hadn’t known her well enough to grieve – but anger was okay. Anger that she’d been taken into a field situation an idiot could tell she couldn’t handle. Anger that someone had picked such a weak target and killed her. Anger that another chance for friendship was gone.
‘Fuck,’ he said quietly, and started towards the infirmary again.
The inconsistencies were still bothersome though – there was no reason for her not to be on the casualty list. Ryan’s defensiveness was understandable, but his reactions were still strange.
The fact that an Agency director had done something to earn severe and swift punishment either during the mirrorfall, or in the handful of hours since- He was looking for reasons for her not to be dead. It was stupid. Once the anger subsided, everything would make sense.
He went through the door of the infirmary, saw the Parkers fucking against the glass window of their office, and sat on his usual bed and waited for them to finish and notice him.
A stupid, pointless death.
He heard a thud of bodies, then his Doctor skipped from the office, a new uniform over a sweaty body. ‘You are welcome to join in,’ Parker-2 said as he required away Curt’s sleeve. ‘We have included special guests on occasion, and you walk in so often it would seem to be almost deliberate.’
The words just rolled over him – his Parker’s greetings were always the same, a line about sex, or a line about death. Getting invited into a threesome was a better offer than offering up his kidneys or liver “for science”.
‘Hey, doc?’ Curt asked as Parker-2 discarded the old bandages.
‘Do you want to be distracting me while I have a scalpel in my hand?’
He looked down and saw the doctor levering away a gunky green scab. ‘I take your point.’
‘This was nasty, Curt,’ Parker-2 said. ‘Though it’s a variation on something I’ve seen before, trust me, you got the easy way out.’
He twisted his head to get a better look at the wound – what had only been a long, bloody gash down his arm was now fetid and green. ‘This is easy?’
‘It’s surface only, and I’ve halted the growth, if it had kept going, it would have slowly covered you, and would have rotted from there. We would have had weeks to remedy it. The nasty version is roots growing straight to your heart, you choke and die in a few minutes.’ Parker pulled away the last of the scab, then sprayed the area with something, coated it with cream, then bandaged it again. ‘More of the little pills I gave you last night, they won’t interact with your sleeping pills, I checked, and come back this afternoon to get your dressing changed.’
Curt nodded, then looked around the room for a moment, carefully avoiding looking at the morgue. ‘Hey, doc, how did Stef die?’
Ryan was hard to read at the best of times – the man was almost the perfect representation of what the Solstice thought an agent was – an unfeeling Vulcan. The Parkers were a lot less adept at hiding their emotions – he had seen everything from ecstatic glee to seething, vengeful hate – even on Parker-1, who was universally accepted as the “good twin”.
‘That’s not something I’m willing to discuss,’ Parker-2 said, his voice uncharacteristically even.
‘Oh come on,’ Curt replied, ‘when has the Hippocratic oath ever applied in here?’
‘Sometimes it matters,’ Parker-2 said, ‘there are things we don’t discuss. This is one of them.’
He looked past the doctor to the morgue door, and tried to replay the previous night. Neither Parker had been around when he’d been shifted back by Jones, then Parker-2 had come from the morgue, followed by Parker-1 a moment later. That was unusual – they didn’t waste time on autopsies during an operation, and anyone in there was beyond medical help.
Everything other than that had been normal, just the regular banter while getting treated, then Mags had shifted in with one of her recruits, then she’d gone to the morgue. Parker-1 had followed, and only the doctor had returned. It was, in the worlds of a Vulcan, fascinating.
Curt kept his expression neutral. ‘I was just curious,’ he said, then pushed a grin onto his face. ‘People have done weird things to avoid getting partnered up with me.’ He kept his gaze on the doctor. ‘Could you at least update the casualty list though? I didn’t know anything until I went knocking on her door.’
‘Of course.’
He looked at the morgue again. It was stupid to hold out hope. Stupid to think that there was some way to avoid the fact that she’d died for no reason. Few things were worth dying for, and an Agency career of three days didn’t deserve dying loyalty like that. It still almost smelt like a conspiracy though. Unless she’d been mutilated or savaged in a way that no one wanted to talk about, which fit for Ryan, but at least Parker-2 tended to see everything as a medical curiosity – if he had no issue discussing a recruit that had dissolved from the inside out, there was no reason to avoid telling him what had happened to the newbie, even if she’d been ripped limb from limb.
Unless it had been Solstice, and they thought he’d get off on it.
Unless it was an Agency cover-up and they didn’t want anyone looking into it.
Given how smoothly-running and consistent the Agency usually was, there was still the whiff of conspiracy. He looked to the clock that was above the three doors that led out of the infirmary. He’d ask a few quick questions of Mags, what little he could before she got enraged and ejected him from the combat floor anyway, then train and give himself the afternoon off. The newbie had given him a chance, the least he could do was ask a few questions.
He thanked the doctor who was already looking distractedly at his twin again, then left through the door back to the Field floor – no need to directly telegraph his actions if they were paying attention. He then took the long way back around to the elevators, then punched the button and waited for the lift to arrive.
Eight seconds felt like an eternity.
He hit the button for the combat floor – several levels below Field, with the logic that any attack on the Agency would come from the ground level, and therefore, the invaders would have to go through the muscle-bound recruits before hitting the Field recruits or the geeks.
The doors slid open, and he looked out at the thankfully-empty corridor – the recruits here were doing the same as the Field recruits.
Magnolia had Room One, as was tradition for an Aide. The quarters weren’t any larger than normal, just the significance of being Number One. An image of Mags wit Riker’s beard flashed through his mind and he smirked to himself.
He knocked on the door, and it swung open. Whoever had started the rumours about the Aide rooms being bigger than regular quarters had obviously never seen Mags’s room. There was a single bed which pointed directly at the door, a small built in wardrobe to the left of bed, and a doorway through to the bathroom on the right-hand side of the bed, a slight depression into the wall forming a shelf that held papers and weapons and a few knick-knacks. On the wall above the shelf was a smattering of pictures, photos and swirly, painted designs of flowers painted onto the wall. No couch, no kitchenette, no desk.
Magnolia stood, gave him a neutral look, walked across to him, then turned her back to him. ‘Unzip me?’
He almost went to argue, then unbuttoned the flap of material that covered the zip on the fluffy black dress, and ran the zipper halfway down her back. She coughed, and he pulled it down to the top of her arse. He swallowed, then pulled his hand away.
Her back still turned to him, she grabbed the short sleeves, and freed her top half, then let it slid down her body into a puddle of ruffles and lace at her feet. Only a pair of black silk panties kept her from being entirely naked. Curt swallowed again. Given how little she cared about people, it was entirely possible that she had forgotten he was in the room.
‘Hey, Mags?’
She turned to him, and he let himself burn the image of her breasts into his mind before he resumed the pretence at being a gentleman.
‘I’ve been awake for thirty-seven hours,’ she said, her voice the same usual bored tone it was generally was. ‘I still have incomprehensible amounts of paperwork to complete, so under the circumstances, you’ll do, O’Connor.’
His eyes went wide. ‘What?’
‘That, or zip me back up.’
His mind raced to think as the blood was drawn elsewhere in his body. ‘You want me on your rotation?’
This brought an amused smile to her lips. ‘Don’t get ahead of yourself, O’Connor, we’ll see how you do this time.’
‘Yes ma’am.’
‘Strip already,’ she said. ‘Do you know the ground rules?’
He kicked his shoes off, and quickly got rid of his pants, letting the end of his shirt cover him for now. He paused when taking off his coat. ‘I’ve got the Rose Room app,’ he said, ‘if you want insurance.’
‘I know where you live,’ she said. ‘I don’t need it. Don’t fucking try and kiss me, that’s your first rule, I’ve got no interest in you as a person-‘
He smirked as he loosened his tie, glad she’d let him keep his T-shirt on. ‘Come on Mags, I’m pretty interesting.’
She turned him and pushed him onto the bed, then sat on his chest. ‘If you keep talking, I’m less likely to keep you on the rotation.’
He ran his fingers up her leg, and brushed the over the fabric of the panties. ‘Yeah, but I’m so good with my hands, you’ll forget about my mouth.’
‘Don’t make promises you can’t live up to.’
He slipped his fingers inside her panties, and let them tease through her short hair. She looked down at him, bored, but he focussed on his movements.
‘You’re bold,’ she said, ‘points for that, most guys just lie back and let me fuck them.’
‘Well, if you were a nymph girl, I would, that’s just polite.’
She looked down at him, the edge of a smile on her face. ‘I fucking love fucking nymph girls.’ Wetness coated his fingers, and he slipped his index finger inside. She leaned forward, rested her hands against his shoulders and began to move against his finger. ‘So draining though,’ Mags continued, ‘I prefer the kind that stay the night. Sex in the morning is so good.’
He pushed a second finger inside. ‘You approve then?’
She glared. ‘I told you how long I’ve been up, this barely counts as morning.’ Curt felt her convulse against his hand, but she gave no indication she’d come. ‘But you’re not as bad as I expected.’
The fact that she had expected anything was news to him – the idea that she’d spent any time considering what a fling with him made him harder. She was one of the strangest things in the Agency – he’d assumed her fashion choices were a costume the first time he’d seen her. And the second. And the third. After a week, he’d seen her break a training construct’s neck, thanks to the range of motion afforded by the short skirts, and had immediately gained healthy new respect and fear for her.
He withdrew his hand and trailed his slick hand across her thigh. His moved both hands to cup her arse. ‘Mags, come here,’ he said, pressing his hands into the toned flesh. It was astounding – he had never counted himself as a butt man, and her skirts tended to hide the shape of her butt while showing off her legs, but it was exquisite. Another image, another feeling to think about in the shower.
She stared at him. ‘You think I’d let you-‘
He tried to look cocky. ‘I’ve never had a complaint.’
She scoffed, then moved forward, her knees slid over his shoulders to rest on the bed beside him. He grabbed at her panties and required them away. One question was immediately answered – her white hair wasn’t contained to her head.
He pushed on his arse, and brought her in contact with his mouth. Most girls shivered, or shuddered, or made some acknowledgement of the touch, of the feel of a tongue against sensitive flesh, but she simply took it in her stride.
He flicked his tongue across her, and she gave no reaction. Longer, slower licks, however, made her move. He buried his tongue inside her, his hands moving to push on her, to bring her closer, his fingers slipping closer and closer to-
‘Do not even think of fucking me up the arse,’ she said, and he broke from his reverie for a moment.
He sucked in his tongue, mumbled an apology, and pulled his hands away from her cheeks, one reaching for a breast, one moving in, gently manipulating her as his tongue moved again.
This time, when she came, she sounded satisfied.
She pulled herself away from his mouth, and went back to sitting on his chest, knees against his sides. It would be an excellent position to stab someone. ‘You won’t be my first port of call,’ she said, ‘but you’ve made the roster.’
She turned and laid on top of him, her thighs buffering his face. Her mouth wrapped around him, and he seized at the sudden and strong contact. Her tongue probing the slit, and the suction made him buck his hips against her, wanting to move up off the bed, trying to follow as her mouth pulled away.
Her hand wrapped around him, and he felt as though he could burst. She gripped him, and after a moment, the pressure died, his body deflating as he came. She moved her hand, for a moment more, then let him go.
He couldn’t move. A smirk slid onto his face as he let himself relax into the soft mattress. She stood, her clothes already back in place, and sat at the head of the bed behind him. ‘Do you mind, O’Connor?’ A much smaller pile of papers appeared in her hands. ‘Thanks,’ she said with a quick smile. ‘Again, not as bad as I was expecting.’
He twisted and rolled until he was lying across the bed, facing her. He required his uniform back, acutely aware he was lying in the wet spot. He wanted to return the thank you, or to compliment her, but as the seconds passed, it seemed less and less like she expected him to say anything.
She signed a piece of paper, and it disappeared. ‘Did you want something?’ she asked, leaning on her knees. ‘Or were you just knocking on doors until someone decided to fuck you?’
He tried to remember why he’d even been on the Combat floor to begin with. With the post-coital clarity, things seemed less like a conspiracy, and more like unrelated connections. ‘It’s nothing important,’ he said, pulling his phone from his pocket to look at the time. ‘Shit seems different when you don’t have a clear head.’
‘Shit is shit, and the stench comes from somewhere,’ she said, ‘talk, or don’t.’
He sat up, rolled his shoulders, and required another fresh uniform. ‘Any reason you just disappeared from the infirmary last night? Did the Parkers proposition you again?’
‘They never mean it, and fucking twins isn’t as fun as you’d think.’ Her black eyes glittered. ‘And what do you think you know, O’Connor?’
He started. The way she said it meant that there was something to know. ‘Mags-‘
The paperwork disappeared from her lap. ‘O’Connor.’
‘The newbie from Field is dead. No one will say how it happened, and she’s not on the casualty list.’
Mags gave him a disbelieving look, then she chuckled darkly. ‘I guess you’re not just a reasonable fuck.’
‘What?’
‘You are talking about Mimosa, right?’
‘Yeah.’
Mags’s face twisted into a grin. ‘Do you want to see her?’
The cold, sick feeling returned. ‘What?’
‘Did I fuck your ears closed, O’Connor?’
‘The Parkers wouldn’t even acknowledge she’s in the morgue.’
Magnolia’s face twisted more. ‘Why would she be in the morgue? She’s not dead. Yet,’ she said, adding the word seemingly as an afterthought.
He pushed himself off the bed. ‘What the fuck are you talking about, Mags?’
‘I am incapable of explaining the fuckery that is going on. You want to know, I’ll take you. You don’t want to know, then you have to buy the cover story.’
Hot prickles ran up his spine, the not-quite-grief and anger well and truly overridden by confusion. ‘I-‘
‘Oh, make a decision already.’
‘Are you fucking with me?’
‘This isn’t something I would bother to lie about.’ Anger crossed her face. ‘Trust me, this isn’t something I would bother lying about.’
He swallowed. ‘Yeah,’ he said hoarsely, ‘I think I wanna know.’
She sighed and held out a hand. ‘We’re gonna fade and it’s gonna suck. And just so you know, Ryan will be royally pissed at you if he finds out you know.’
He pushed away fear and took her hand. ‘Show me.’