Ryan felt himself rolled onto his back and his shirt torn open. Rough hands touched the seeping wound, making him wince, and a viscous liquid was poured over it The liquid brought instant relief, though he could still feel the large chunk of flesh missing.
‘Sir, are you conscious?’
Taylor. It was Taylor.
He grunted, feeling the emergency pack begin to work its literal magic.
‘Where did she get the weapons, sir?’
‘Me,’ he choked. ‘She got them from me.’
‘But sir, you surely-’
‘She wanted into the weapons locker…she’s been researching…’ He opened his eyes and stared at the fuzzy shape of Taylor. The world was a lot darker than it should have been. The world was a lot more distant than it should have been.‘What’s the damage?’ he heard himself ask – even in this state, he was following protocol, he was trying to take charge, he was doing his duty.
The larger agent shook his head and faltered for a moment. ‘We’re completely disabled. I put us into lock down, to try and keep her contained, but Chaos help us if her interests turn outward and she shifts away.’
‘Some got out, some-’ The combat agent looked away for a moment, and he knew what had happened to the rest. ‘Ryan, you know what has to be done.’
‘No!’ He struggled to sit up, but Taylor pushed down on his chest. ‘You can’t-’
‘Ten people are dead already,’ Taylor said, his voice devoid of emotion. ‘We have to stop her. We don’t have a choice.’
‘Love her. I know, sir, we all know. But she’s not…You didn’t fall in love with a murderer, and a murderer is what we have to destroy. I’m sorry sir, but there is no choice.’
‘You don’t have to. You couldn’t anyway. I’ll do it.’
He reached for Taylor as the larger agent stood, and walked toward the door, but his hand gripped nothing but air as he blacked out again.
He stared down at his recruit. ‘Come on Stef, wake up.’
Her lifeless form gave no reaction.
‘Don’t make me-’
‘Make you what, Ryan?’
‘Are you following me, my Lady?’
‘I’m only watching when you come here.’
‘How can I-?’
‘I’m not going to let you bring her back so that you can banish her to an oubliette.’
‘What if she goes mad, like Carol did?’
Human lips twitched into a smile. ‘She has an advantage there, she was already mad.’
‘If you want guarantees of what will happen in this world, talk to my sister.’
‘I can’t have it happen twice. People died because of my decisions last time, and another was left incomplete. I can’t let it happen again.’
‘If you truly are this worried, then let her come to me, but don’t let her come back only to be locked in a prison, you aren’t that cruel, or at least, I hope you aren’t.’
‘I’m not,’ he said, unsure of who he was trying to convince.
‘Then don’t let yourself believe that what you’re thinking is even a choice. A few days ago, you sent a creature to me to get her heart back, what’s changed?’
‘I don’t want history to repeat itself.’
‘History doesn’t, people do.’
[Agent Ryan, this is Recruit O’Connor.]
He looked to Death and she gave him a slight nod before she turned to regard his recruit’s body.
[Go ahead, Recruit.]
He heard a toilet flush on his recruit’s end. [Sir, did you know that Agent Emily is-]
[Sorry, Emma, is interviewing the whole team. Office politics give me the shits, but she’s apparently asking lots of questions about you.] There was another flush. [Just thought I’d give you a head’s up.]
[And you’re currently hiding in the bathroom to tell me this?]
[Sorry sir, some of the Solstice training stuck.]
[Thank you, Recruit, I’ll deal with it.]
[What…exactly do you want me to do?]
He sighed. [Ignore your Solstice training, tell the truth.]
The connection was severed. ‘That woman gives me a headache,’ he muttered.
Death was gone – he was alone with the corpse and his piles of paperwork again. A laughter resounded through the empty apartment, and he walked from the bedroom out to the living room. Refusing to get his hopes up again, he followed the sound.
A translucent red Stef stood in the centre of the room, swaying to some unheard music.
‘I’m not going to be fooled again,’ he said to Death, who was watching the dancing girl. ‘It’s not a soul, what is it?’
‘An aspect. Haven’t you seen one before?’
‘I wouldn’t have had to ask,’ he said as he rounded the red ghost of his recruit. She was younger than the corpse in the other room – he guessed somewhere in high school. What she wore was nothing like in her wardrobe – a red dress, but everything about her was red so it was hard to be sure. Her hair was up, and make-up graced her face, making her seem uncomfortably grown-up.
‘So naïve,’ Death said, but her voice was light. ‘They’re scraps of thoughts made whole, incomplete dopplegangers.’
‘So, she’s thinking-’
‘They are memory, not true consciousness.’
Stef twitched and reached for her hair before pulling them back down and balling her fists at her side. He recognised the look on her face – she wanted to run, whatever she was doing, wherever she was, it wasn’t something she had done willingly. It had to be some kind of school dance, but he assumed that all his little hacker girl wanted to do was be locked away somewhere coding while devastating the local supply of baked goods.
‘The other one spoke to me. Sort of.’
‘They’re of the moment that they are, and this one, nothing more. They don’t know what came before, or what’s to come.’
‘Does there have to be a reason? Things don’t always happen for reasons, Ryan, sometimes they just happen.’
‘Yes, my Lady.’
The red Stef walked through him, shuddered for a moment, then continued across the room and through the wall into the kitchen. He followed her, unsure of what else to do.
‘Do you see them a lot?’
‘They’re not of me, nor are they of my sister. If anyone, they’re of my youngest sister. They’re not altogether common, but mostly mortals can work their problems out from the inside, instead of resorting to externalising their thoughts into incomplete forms.’
‘Does she realise she’s doing this?’
‘There’s no “her” to realise anything. She won’t remember anything you say to them.’
She walked through him again, but this time turned and seemed to focus on him. ‘You don’t look like the school ghost,’ she murmured before losing focus on him and walking back to the centre of the lounge room.
‘She keeps thinking that I’m the ghost,’ he said.
‘That is how you appear to her.’ Death paused for a moment. ‘Are you going to give her to me?’
‘Ryan!’ Death snapped. He drew back and shook his head. ‘According to their customs, you’re responsible for her. More so because she cannot make any decisions for herself right now. Accept it, or send her to me, those are your only two options.’ Her expression changed as she picked up the strand of his unfinished thought. ‘Your creators are the ones with a “policy” of non-interference. I am not acting above my station, I am fighting no harder than Fortitude does for his children.’
‘I meant no offense, my Lady.’
‘You never do.’
‘What if someone else sees the aspects, what do I-?’
‘They’re tied to her body, they won’t get out, so strike that worry from your mind.’
‘That only leaves a dozen others.’
‘You should go deal with your headache, so that you can concentrate on the important things.’
‘Emma would have my head if she knew what I was doing. I can’t imagine how Taylor will react, he-’
The hall was quiet except for the soft trickle of liquid falling through the hole in the floor. He pressed one hand to his healing wound and continued down to the hall.
It was all red.
The floor was covered in blood, the walls had strains criss-crossing them, even the roof had been splattered.
Some of it had begun to turn dark – becoming the ash it would be in an hour or so – whatever had happened was long since over and done with.
Taylor hung from the wall – pinned to it like a butterfly with fae knives. He was dead, there was no question – he was reading as gray on his scanner. There was no movement from the body, no breath, no struggling, no pulse.
He put a fist through the wall, then concentrated on the body. He’d never seen a dead agent before. Dead demons, yes, dead fae of all types, yes, even a dead goddess – so much as they could be dead, but never one of his own kind.
He swallowed – shocked that how fresh the memory was, even after all of this time. ‘He would do everything in his power to remove me from the Agency, and the world.’
‘And is that of concern at this very moment?’
‘No, my Lady.’
‘And what is?’
‘Getting that woman out of my Agency so that I’m still in charge when my recruit wakes up.’
‘Good,’ Death said, and faded from view without further ceremony.
He reached for the red Stef’s hand, the concentration it took stilling all other thoughts, and finally felt something solid in his hand. She looked up, this time unable to stop herself from focussing on him. ‘Hurry up and come back,’ he said with a smile. He lifted his hand, pulling hers up and spun her – the skirt of her dress twirling along with her, making her seem like a little red top. She giggled as she came to a stop, stumbling on the short heels she was wearing. She courtesied, took a step toward him, then disappeared in a mist of tiny red sparkles.
‘I’ve done my part,’ he said, looking through to the corpse in the next room,‘now please, wake up. I can’t help you if I get recycled.’