Curt doubled over and dry heaved as they entered the world again. He had been flattened and squeezed out a tube, it was the only logical explanation. Shifting was a teleport, it was clean and simple and quick; whatever Magnolia had just done could be used offensively.
He coughed once more, then stood. Magnolia, for her part, looked as nonchalant as she usually did. ‘Told you,’ she said, then started off.
He took a moment to look around – wherever they were wasn’t a usual part of the Agency, it was darker than usual, almost dank, and while the same utilitarian clean lines and colours were there, there wasn’t the polished feel of the other floors.
Pain stabbed in the back of his neck. It was far too like the room Petersen had kept him in – though that room hadn’t had all the strange tanks.
‘Hey, Mags?’ he asked, running a couple of steps to catch up.
She was fucking with him. She had to be fucking with him. Ryan, no matter how detached he was from his recruits wasn’t the kind of man to-
There was something moving in one of the tanks ahead of him. Magnolia slowed and pointed without saying a word. He looked in, and saw a naked agent swimming in the tank. The arms and legs were longer than usual, and blue webbing ran between each digit like it was some monster from a crappy sci-fi movie.
‘Where the fuck are we?’
‘What does it look like? The basement. It’s where they keep the freaks.’
He rubbed at the back of his neck, and tried to still his fingers, tried to keep the memories at bay. ‘And what the fuck,’ he said haltingly, ‘is Stef doing down here?’
‘I just said, it’s where they keep the freaks.’
Curt clamped his mouth shut, grinding his teeth to stop himself from saying anything. He rubbed his thumb over his wrist, feeling for the tiny implant there. Enough blue to give him a shot at paralysing an agent, not enough to even try for a rescue attempt if they were torturing her.
Magnolia stopped in front of another tank, and pointed in. ‘There you go.’
He hesitated for a moment, then looked in, unsure of what to expect – a newbie corpse, shredded beyond what even the Parkers wanted to discuss; another random freak, proving Magnolia was just screwing with him; or-
He turned from the bird, and looked in.
One bed, one tiny fridge and one sleeping newbie. She looked tiny, swamped in what had to be Ryan’s jacket, but unless the definition of life had changed dramatically in the last few hours, very much alive. Breathing, drooling, with skin, though hacker pale, wasn’t corpse grey.
More anger built. She looked fine. She was alive. There was no reason for her to be off the books. No reason that everyone was saying she was dead.
‘Why is she down here?’ Curt stepped forward and knocked on the glass.
‘You’re not going to wake her.’
‘If I keep pounding, she usually wakes up.’
Mags snorted. ‘Wording, O’Connor. Look.’ He looked away from the glass, to where Magnolia was pointing, to the panel showing Stef’s face and vital signs. ‘They’ve induced-‘ she stopped. ‘She’s been required asleep, you’re not gonna wake her up by knocking.’
‘Why is-‘ he started.
Magnolia disappeared. He blinked, then ran in hand in the space she’d been occupying. His heart leapt into his throat as he heard footsteps, the soles of familiar shoes – standard requirement shoes on concrete. For a moment, he thought of grabbing his gun, but deliberately kept his hand still as he turned to face Ryan.
Escalating things faster than they were destined to would mean far fewer questions answered.
Ryan simply stared at him. The agent hadn’t bothered to clean his bloody ears yet. Curt kept his mouth shut, despite a dozen very important questions fighting to get out. Ryan’s face showed no emotion whatsoever, just like Petersen. He clamped down on his own emotions, tried to let himself slip into the quiet, professional demeanour he’d used when dealing with fae.
Each of the fae he’d dealt with had come with a laundry list of crimes, of humans murdered, all had made him angry, but anger got in the way.
This was different though.
This was the Agency abusing their power again. This was the Agency with no accountability. A recruit reported dead that might have no one else asking after her – it was all too possible for this to turn into a clean disappearance with no repercussions.
He stared at the agent, trying to glean any emotion from the man, anything to explain the situation.
‘Recruit-‘ Ryan started.
She’s not dead!
‘I found Recruit Mimosa, sir,’ he said, his voice completely calm. ‘It seems you were given incorrect information.’
‘Recruit, I’m going to ask you to-‘
‘She’s not dead, sir.’
‘Recruit-‘
He felt his mask crack. ‘She’s not dead!’ She wasn’t in chains, and she wasn’t bleeding, but it had only been a few hours, and if-
‘You need to let me explain.’
The air seemed to drain from the room as Ryan walked towards him. ‘No.’ Curt took a step to the side, to put himself between the agent and the tank. He looked at the agent for a moment more, then let him head drop, and he stared at his shoes instead. ‘Are you hurting her?’
Ryan stopped walking. ‘What- Gods- Recruit, why would you think that?’
Emotion had returned to Ryan’s voice, and to his credit, the agent actually sounded disgusted at the idea. A good sign. A good sign or a good lie. Curt swallowed, then looked up, careful to keep emotion off his face. ‘Because her room is gone and she’s not on the casualty list, by all appearances, she’s off the books. If there’s no traceability, then there’s no accountability, and when there’s no accountability-‘ He felt his throat constrict. ‘Well, you’re pretty much free to do what you want.’
Ryan stared at him for a long moment, then put a hand on his shoulder. He fought an urge to scream, or to fling the hand away. ‘Curt,’ Ryan said gently, ‘do you want me to explain what’s going on?’
He managed a small nod.
‘Why don’t we go up to my office?’
He looked away from Ryan for a moment, to Stef in the tank, still asleep, still drooling. ‘Why is she being forced to sleep?’
‘Because she needs to the rest, it’s nothing sinister.’
The tank and the basement disappeared, and Ryan’s office came into view. Ryan indicated to the couch and Curt sat. Ryan crossed to his desk, pulled a slim bottle from a drawer, then poured two measures of red liquid and handed one of the square glasses across. For a moment, he considered poison, but the clean-up for that would be more trouble than it was worth, if the agent wanted him dead, all he had to do was snap his neck.
Ryan required an armchair and sat across from him. ‘Recruit, can I ask why you-’
Curt stared at a corner of the office. ‘There were a few things left off my transfer report.’
Ryan stared at nothing for a moment, then his eyes narrowed. ‘Recruit-’
‘What’s going on with Stef, sir? She’s not dead, and Magnolia really isn’t happy about what’s going on. I’d guess augment, but that doesn’t usually warrant a cover story like this.’
Ryan finished off his own drink, returned to his desk and filled the glass.
It would be bullshit. Whatever the agent told him would be bullshit. The long pause, look on Ryan’s face, it was set dressing for an explanation that was going to be the furthest thing from the truth.
It was the same thing he’d seen a hundred times over on Agent interrogation videos – the ones were actual conversations were held, and it wasn’t just senior interrogators proving how immortal agents weren’t.
Ryan drank a second glass of the red liquid, then poured a third, then carried the bottle back, and topped up Curt’s glass.
A nice gesture, a little bit of manufactured fellowship before the lie. At least it was good booze.
Ryan settled himself back in the arm chair. ‘If I tell you she’d always been an agent, would you believe me?’
‘No,’ Curt said quietly, ‘she’s too individualised for a newborn, her speech patterns don’t have any of the usual markers, and if you’ll forgive how glib this sounds, you can’t fake crazy like that. I can pick agents out of a crowd just by watching for predictable pattens, ways you move, ways you speak, hand motions that you all seem to share. She has none of that.’
‘I thought you would say that,’ Ryan said evenly, ‘your training makes you a problem.’
His insides clenched. ‘Sir-’
‘Now, or a month from now, you would have the same issues, ask the same questions, so I would rather deal with it now.’
He was a problem to be dealt with. Agents tended to deal with their problems in very efficient ways. He sucked in a breath, and looked Ryan in the eyes. ‘Sir, I know you have no reason to trust me.’
I know what I am, you know what I am.
‘But,’ he said, ‘I don’t know how to prove myself without,’ he shrugged, ‘proving myself.’
Ryan went quiet again. ‘She died, Curt, I had to do something.’
The words were the last thing he had expected. There was no pomp and circumstance, no grandiose explanation that cast the Agency in a good light, just a few words and the beginning of the only explanation that made sense.
‘Sir?’
‘Last night, she died. She was stabbed. I couldn’t let-’ Ryan looked away, but Curt kept his gaze locked on the agent, trying to look at every emotion that was peeking through, looking for any tells that would indicate bullshit. He saw exhaustion. He saw regret. He saw distrust.
‘So why isn’t she with the Parkers?’
‘It was during the blackout. I didn’t have the opportunity to shift her back.’
‘Then how-’ Curt started.
Ryan opened his coat and pulled out a small silver packet – emergency blue.
‘But that would do nothing for a recruit,’ Curt said.
Ryan replaced the packet, then stared at his hand. ‘Directors have certain privileges that other agents don’t.’ Ryan dropped his hand and looked up. ‘Including the ability to change recruit access, and do so at a local level. I overrode her existing restrictions and forced her to become a partial augment.’ Ryan looked away. ‘It was enough to jump start her heart and keep her breathing until the blackout dropped.’
Curt’s stomach twisted. Whenever an agent did something like that, it hurt. She would have woken up screaming. She would have woken up wanting to die again. He pressed his palms into his knees, and tried not to reach for his head. ‘I see,’ he forced out.
So far, it made sense; so far, the story held. It was whatever Ryan chose to say next – lie, or truth, or somewhere in the middle, that would leave the whole affair smelling of bullshit, or ringing true.
Ryan gestured to his ears, winced, then required the blood away. ‘Directorial privileges, in this case, aren’t Directorial right – I could do it, but it was deemed that I should not have. It was acting without authorisation, and-’
‘Doing something nice for a recruit that had only been here three days.’
Ryan gave him a small smile. ‘Something like that, yes.’
Curt kept still, and silent – none of what Ryan had said actually explained anything. Augments weren’t locked up like freaks, and they weren’t summarily stripped from Agency records, the idea being, of course, that they re-join the recruit population.
‘The damage,’ Ryan said, ‘was severe. It required full augmentation.’
Curt caught the first whiff of bovine – if the partial augment had left an Agency director bleeding from several orifices, then full augmentation never would have gone ahead – unless Ryan had pushed for it, and it had been dealt with after they’d healed the stab wound.
A stab wound that killed, fine. A stab wound that could be pulled back from immediately fatal by augmenting with blue, fine. A stab wound on someone managing to draw breath by themselves, that was something the Parkers could fix. It wouldn’t have required full augmentation. He kept quiet – life was full of random inconsistencies, but cover stories tended to start with small problems, then balloon out from there.
‘So, call her a temporary augment, and drain the blue?’ he asked, forcing an innocent tone on his voice.
‘We can’t,’ Ryan said. ‘Because she was unauthorised to start with, and for-‘ Ryan mulled over his words for a moment. ‘Political reasons, she’s been pathed to full agent status.’
Curt bit down on his tongue until he tasted blood.
Bullshit. Fuckery and bullshit. A tonne of manure. A fucking manure factory. This made as much sense as a shoplifter being given the keys to a store.
Ryan was watching him carefully for a reaction. He released his teeth from around his tongue and swallowed the blood-laced saliva. ‘That’s the, ah- That’s the cover story, sir?’
Ryan said nothing for a full minute, then gave a small, defeatist shrug. ‘In fairness, it has been a long twenty-four hours.’
Curt lifted his glass and rolled it between his hands, caught his reflection in the glass, and clamped down on the urge to smack himself in the head. He looked back up, his expression neutral – it was only a theory, and even if it was right, it was information Ryan didn’t want him to know. The focus had to be on what he had been told. ‘The other recruits are getting the first story? That’s she’s always been an agent?’
Ryan nodded.
‘Good, that one is stronger, just don’t claim she’s a newborn, and get her to pull the Brit accent a bit more. Creepy, tiny English kids freak everyone out, and people won’t question her when she says she’s not human.’
Ryan actually smiled. ‘She did get offended when I called her human.’
‘Human into agent, I get that, even if I don’t know the details. I don’t need to. Sir, this comes down to an offer of help, I teach her like any other newbie, call her ma’am in front of the rest of the dicks in this department and run a bit of interference if there’s questions.’
He stared at the carpet. So long as she wasn’t chained, starved and bleeding, it didn’t matter. Whatever he was being told, or not told, she didn’t seem like she was in danger.
‘Like I said to you on your first day here, Recruit, I expect a lot from you.’
Curt looked up, and forced a smile onto his face. ‘At least I’m on your side, sir, Mags on the other hand-’
‘I will be discussing that with Taylor.’
‘Do you actually think that will do any good?’
Ryan gave a weak nod. ‘No.’
‘What happens from here?’
‘Tests and modifications and-’ Ryan paused. ‘It’s Jones’s area, I’m not across the minutiae of the process. You-’
‘I’m not going to say a word, sir, it’s not like anyone would believe me anyway.’