Stef opened her eyes. Like last time, she couldn’t move; unlike last time, she was alone.
Hello?
She required a speaker and synched her HUD with it. ‘Hello?’
There were footsteps, and Magnolia came into her field of vision. ‘Report, Mimosa.’
‘Where’s Curt?’
‘He made the argument that there was no point in having everyone tired on the first day of this, so I ordered him off to bed. What’s your status?’
‘We found Jonesy’s world. Jomesy’s got supplies and recruits working for him. A whole bunch of Agents have been through the area, and he’s got them looking for more, and he’s trying to build some sort of map.’
‘Give me a copy of it.’
She enjoyed the rendition of her groan that the speaker gave. ‘I don’t have it, he didn’t show me it. We found him, we’re waiting for the others to get back, so we’re chilling for a couple of hours.’
Magnolia glared. ‘Given the emergency situation, that’s inefficient.’
She sighed. ‘Am I going to get a “thanks for the report, ma’am” at any point during this conversation.’
‘Not likely.’
‘Could you at least pass a message on to Curt for me?’
‘I-‘
‘Taylor got the one you put in my brain, so I think turnabout is fair play, don’t you?’
Magnolia’s expression changed. ‘That was a gamble on my part, I didn’t know that he’d-‘
‘He wanted to see you. It fucking hurt. You know your paperwork, what form do I fill in to file a complaint about an Agent abusing their abilities?’
‘You don’t want to do that,’ Magnolia said. ‘He doesn’t need that on his record.’
‘And I didn’t need him in my head. Do you have any idea how fucking violated I feel? He saw my thoughts- He- He had no right!’ She wanted to cry, but her body stayed still. ‘Why shouldn’t I-‘
‘This when has it ever been to this Agency’s advantage to document half of what goes on around here?’
Something thumped the back of her head, and Magnolia disappeared for a second.
‘I’m not sure this is something I can let go. He-‘
‘I know what it’s like to have an Agent push their way in. In more ways than you’ll ever know. He is outside of his usual operation parameters. He is-‘
‘So is everyone else,’ she snapped. ‘He doesn’t get to be a bastard just because you’re not there to control him. At least I never had to pretend that Clarke was a good guy. Taylor-‘
‘Just think about it, Mimosa.’
There was another thump, and the world disappeared. She shook herself fully away, and found herself staring down at the floor, from a weird perspective.
She was being carried on someone’s shoulder.
The someone – the grunts indicated Taylor – turned down a corridor, letting her head make contact with the wall.
‘Ow!’
‘Took you long enough,’ he said, grabbing the back of her shirt and lowering her to the ground. ‘The Scholar’s scouts are back. Conference room.’
‘I was just in the conference room,’ she said. ‘That’s where we are, in the real world, all the agents from the local network.’
He stopped walking, and looked down at her. There was no growl, nothing asked, but the question was obvious on his scary face.
‘Yeah,’ Stef said, ‘I saw her. Please-‘ She backed against the wall, just in case he came at her. ‘Don’t. Not again. I’ll get-‘
‘I won’t,’ he said firmly.
She wrapped her arms around herself. ‘She’s asking me not to report you for acting like a dick.’
‘That would be…optimal,’ Taylor said slowly. ‘Do you agree?’
She stared at the floor. ‘I don’t fucking know. I’m not making a decision till we get out of here.’
She followed him to the conference room, which had been configured to accommodate over fifty agents – half the seats were full already, some with agents worse for the wear. Everyone was in various stages of dress, undress, and uniform. Some looked like they’d been through a Mad Max apocalypse, others looked like they’d rolled out of bed, as bright-and-shiny as Curt.
‘Agent Mimosa?’ a familiar voice said.
She turned and saw Williams. ‘Hey!’ she said excitedly to the Agent from Hyde. ‘Wait, what the heck are you doing in dream-Australia?’
‘Milla was visiting friends,’ he grasped her shoulder. ‘Are you all right?’
‘Much as anyone,’ she said.
He smiled, and took his hand away, and she saw white bandages standing bright against his black skin. ‘We’re in an Agency,’ she said as she gently touched the gauze, ‘couldn’t you get Jonesy to fix you up?’
‘It would help if I was an Agent,’ he said as he pointed to a couple of free chairs. ‘But I’m not. I was human in my nightmare. I’ve been treated to the best of your doctors’ ability, the bandages, as usual, are an affectation more than anything else.’
‘Was yours bad?’
He gave her a sad smile. ‘Was yours?’
‘I take your point.’
She watched Taylor go from Agent to Agent, ask a brief question, then move on.
Probably asking about Grigori.
Jones rapped a hand against a wooden lectern at the front of the room. ‘Quiet and order and all that if you don’t mind.’ There was a general settling in the room, and the tech continued. ‘Though I expect a few more back, we’ve only had forty-eight Agents return from the latest scouting trip, we’ve expanded our maps more, and woke a few more of our people up, though we’ve asked that they stay in place until we can get a more complete map in place, and some still have supplies, which is good, as we don’t know how long this area will last as we fill towards capacity.’ Jones took a breath. ‘Sorry, should have prepared a TL;DR version of that. We’ve found almost all of the Brisbane local network, a few random guests who were in the area, and we think we’ve found hubs that might lead relatively speaking, south and north, we’ve had nothing going west yet.’
A lanky agent stood. ‘Any progress on helping us wake up?’
‘Information from within and without tells us that the longest lucid period in the waking world was somewhere around forty minutes, most of the time, it’s a few seconds to a few minutes. I’ve got five agents doing sleep studies now, I’d like to triple that, now that we’re starting to increase in number. Volunteers?’
The room broke out into quiet conversations as volunteers stepped forward, or asked questions.
Stef spun her chair towards Williams. ‘Been able to go to sleep slash wake up yet?’
‘For a few minutes. I know Milla is all right, and that’s the main thing.’
‘Who is she with?’
‘She’s been brought to Brisbane like everyone else, she was with-‘ he paused. ‘I don’t think I’ve met her, there were several small children close by though.’
‘Could have been Katie, Darren has so many kids I’ve lost count. If she gets sick of kids, she can go hang out with my techs, they’re very much like your recruits, she’ll fit right in.’
‘I’m lucky,’ Williams said. ‘Mine is one of the Agencies that has no cause to be worried during all of this. We’ve never had an attempted Solstice breach. Madchester counts us among their own, so I know my recruits will be fine.’
‘I-‘ she paused for a second, but felt brave enough to continue – Williams was another agenty dad with a crazy daughter, there were a lot more thing that were safe to say around him than other agents. ‘I keep looking out for my Captain, thinking he’s going to rescue us. I was Lost, yanno-‘
‘That much could be inferred from your gala, Agent.’
She blushed. ‘All of this is about the Lost and the Agency, and I get that we’re stuck, like, somewhere that shouldn’t exist, but shouldn’t the Lost have ways into these little dream pockets?’
‘One would think.’ He paused. ‘You haven’t found Ryan yet?’
She shook her head. ‘We found the Parkers, so I’m gonna go back out that way when we’re dismissed, see if I can find him. Assuming there’s some sort of continuity between the dream time frames-‘
‘Actually, there doesn’t seem to be, from what we’ve found, it’s probably why some of the scouts are late back. While a dream-‘ a distasteful look crossed his face, ‘-while a bloody nightmare, if I can be more accurate, is in play, it’s like a glitch, the time can be real, or sped up, or slowed down. When the Agent breaks the spell, then everything seems to start running on congruent time.’ He gave a wry smile that reminded her of Ryan in one of his more playful moods. ‘Needless to say, it makes logistics a bit of a nightmare.’
‘Yeah,’ she said, ‘just a little bit.’
‘Next,’ Jones said, raising his voice for attention again. ‘Is the dead.’
The room broke out in mutters.
‘My last reported figure was somewhere above twenty-five hundred. That’s one percent of us. That is a lot of agents. I don’t think I’m the only person to have seen them in the fog, on the borders between zones. They appear non-responsive to stimuli, but I think they may still be alive, just on another level of the dream world.’
‘It’s fanciful thinking,’ an agent said. ‘You don’t want them to be dead, so you-‘
‘I’m a scientist,’ Jones snapped, ‘I accept facts, but until I have facts, I postulate theories. Most of us have seen that there’s a lot more redundancies to keep us alive than there should be – we’re immortal in our own zone, the environmental controls are always conducive to life, we’re not blocked from passing between zones. I think there’s a good chance they’re alive, because other than trapping us, there is scarcely anything malevolent about what is happening to us.’
‘Jones, mate,’ Agent Sale said, walking forward from somewhere at the back of the room. ‘I respect you, but this probably isn’t a good time for a tech to be in charge. You can organise the scouting-‘
There was a long, low growl.
All of the other conversations ceased, leaving Taylor’s ground to be the only sound in the room. He didn’t say anything when the growl stopped, instead leaving the air thick with awkward tension that no one seemed willing to break.
‘If someone wants to lead,’ Jonesy said. ‘Step up, otherwise STFU, this is my Agency.’
Jones spoke for another half hour, outlining strategies, and going over things they already knew, just to catch up those who hadn’t been in the loop as long, then dismissed the room.
‘Your plans?’ Williams asked as they watched the other agents file out.
‘I’m gonna go back through the Parkers’ hub, if this locational theory is true, then Ryan has to be out that way somewhere. You?’
‘I think I might be the only one here with any significant Court experience, so I’m going to see if we can modify some of the signals out in a way that might attract attention from the Lost, or from Madchester.’
She nodded. ‘Hey, um-‘
He squeezed her shoulder again. ‘Ryan’s going to be fine. I know, because there’s nothing that’ll stop me from getting back to my little girl, and he’s the same. It’s a fatherly thing, trust me.’
She thought of James, and tried to smile. ‘Thanks.’
‘Mimosa,’ Taylor snapped from off to her right.
‘Oh, Jesus,’ she muttered as she turned away from William. ‘Yes?’ she asked, cringing as Taylor walked towards her.
‘We’re going,’ he said.
‘We?’ she asked as Williams walked away. ‘Why is it we? Where are you going?’
‘Find Ryan. Find Applebaum. Find everyone.’
‘Why do you even-‘
‘It’s our Duty, Agent.’
She stared. ‘I don’t want to be anywhere near you.’
His expression didn’t change. ‘Do you want to find Ryan or not?’
Do I have to?
Having a tank is never a bad idea.
‘I, um, need to go get my-‘
Taylor thrust out his arm, and handed her the bag she’d been carrying since she woke up as a crazy girl. ‘It now has supplies,’ he said. ‘There are rations.’
She started to giggle, and she felt some of the tension slip away. ‘Thanks, I don’t want to have to eat myself again.’
‘I still have the jerky.’
‘Are you fucking kidding me?’ she asked, her voice getting shriller with every word.
There was a pause. ‘Yes.’
Her brain did a backflip. ‘Did you just make a joke?’
He said nothing, instead, he turned and walked for the door.
Stef grinned, and followed him out.
One assisted shift later, they were at the edge of the fog again. ‘Ok,’ she said, ‘back through to the Parkers and-‘
‘Don’t state the obvious, Mimosa,’ he said.
‘Yessir.’
It had become night in the Parker’s world. No sounds came from the warehouse as they approached, but Taylor drew Magnolia’s knife anyway.
He pushed open the door, and nodded her inside. The Parkers lay on each other, on the table in the centre of the room, barely covered by a sheet.
She focused on a spot on the wall beyond them. ‘We’re going to look for Ryan,’ she said, ‘so, remember, don’t leave the area, cause we’re using this as a transit-‘
‘We’re not going anywhere, Mimsy,’ Parker-2 said, ‘we’ve got too much catching up to do.’
Taylor grunted, and they walked back out. He pulled a spray can from one of his jacket pockets, and painted a line on the ground, indicating the way back to Jonesy’s world. He gave her a quick look, then walked into what was probably the next section.
The next section of fog led back to Jonesy’s world, so he extended the painted line.
The next section led through to a new world. ‘I’ve got a good feeling about this,’ she said. ‘We’re still in the CBD, we’re totally in the right area for this zone to have a copy of the Agency, which probably means-‘
‘You’re stating the obvious.’
‘So, um, do we just go knock on the front door?’
‘We be tactical,’ he said slowly. ‘But yes.’
They made it through the city without attracting attention – something that actually impressed her. Taylor wasn’t the hugest agent she’d ever seen – most of the combat agents tended to be on really-freaking-massive side, built like wrestlers or MMA fighters, but Taylor always just seemed so big, too big – his growl probably added a +20.
He didn’t have to interact with civilians that much – combat teams came in before or after civilians were involved – so he had very little do with “normal” people.
His recruits came in all shapes and sizes, though a lot of them were football jock big, so there was a subconscious negative size modifier there – among similarly huge people, his freakish bigness was somehow more normalised.
The Agency was there. Big, and beautiful, and real as reality. There had to be an Agent inside. And that Agent had to be Ryan. Because. It had to be him, because he had to be there.
They stood outside the same café that had served as their campsite in her dream zone, and tried to relax and look like civilians. ‘You go,’ Taylor said.
‘By myself?’
His expression stayed neutral. ‘It’s tactical. You’re Field, you should appreciate that. This gives us two chances.’
She looked around, finally able to articulate the weird feeling in her brain. ‘Everything seems normal, what’s the nightmare?’
Taylor was silent for a moment. ‘You’re being stupid, Mimosa.’
Everything can look normal, doesn’t mean that it is.
‘Sorry. Yeah. Sorry.’
‘Go.’
I don’t want to.
‘Um, k.’
She adjusted her bag, crossed the street, and walked into the lobby of the Agency. Everything still looked normal – Natalie was at the desk, the plant was in the corner, everything was normal.
Natalie looked up, and stared.
A chill ran down her back.
The recruits tended to malign Natalie as nothing more than the front desk girl, that she was a pretty face to give lost people directions, and greet guests.
It was no secret among the agents that Natalie liked the false impression.
The Agency, even with their occasional failures, had an agent fill the position for a reason. Combat training or not, the secretary was valuable – there was likely no room let over to cram combat routines in after all of the behavioural stuff. She was an expert at reading body language, facial expressions, and doing immediate threat assessments.
Curt could read faces scarily well sometimes, but he was still a hobbyist compared to Natalie.
Stef cringed at the look Natalie was giving her.
She had to stop herself from turning back and running for the door.
‘Hi,’ she said as she got to the desk, her throat dry, ‘I’d like to see Agent Ryan.’
‘Sure,’ Natalie said, her expression full of “you are so fucked”, ‘take a seat.’
I’ve walked into a trap. I’ve walked into a trap. I am so fucked.
She sat on the squishy leather couch in the waiting area, and felt her heart trying to bash its way out of her chest.
A Ryan was here. Maybe not her dad, not if for some reason, someone else had dreamed of the Brisbane Agency, but at least a Ryan was there.
An agent shifted in, and her answer became apparent.
The agent was clearly Ryan – or at least, supposed to be Ryan. He looked the same-ish. Same face, but with some indefinite harder edge. Ryan from a gritty reboot. His clothes matched the slight change – he still wore his uniform, but his long jacket had a different cut – anti-hero, rather than business man, and nearly touched the floor.
His expression flicked between amusement and hatred.
‘I’m going to give you one chance to drop to your knees, apologise, and crawl out of my fucking Agency. This joke is in poor taste, if you’re trying to insult me, I suggest you try harder.’
His voice was the same, though it was a tone she’d rarely heard – the clean, crystallised rage when he knew he was handing out righteous fury.
Fear crawled up from her chest and wrapped a frozen hand around her throat. This was not somewhere she wanted to be. She wanted to be away, get away, run away. This was not a Ryan who would put up with her.
He hit her, and nothing had ever hurt more.
Tears welled up as he grabbed a handful of her shirt, and dragged her up off the chair. ‘Let’s go somewhere and talk about this.’
The lobby disappeared as they shifted, and his office appeared.
His office was almost the same, though a few photo frames decorated the desk – a personal touch his real desk didn’t share. He threw her into a freshly-required chair, and it nearly tipped from the force.
The first time she’d been in his office, she’d been half-convinced he was going to kill her, but even two minutes out from having a gun at her head, he’d seemed…safe.
This was not a safe Ryan.
He settled against his desk, leaning forward so that he was close enough to hit her if he wanted.. ‘Who are you?’
Words finally shook themselves free. ‘You know who I am!’
‘Who. Are. You?’
Stef heard footsteps as someone crossed the carpet behind her. Someone in a uniform rounded her, and ran a hand down her cheek. ‘Me, when I was twelve, I think.’