Stef shuddered as she looked at herself.
Ryan was Ryan-as-he-shouldn’t-be, this was a her-how-she-should-be. A version of her that had been through puberty. A taller, prettier Stephanie that actually looked like a girl.
He’d dreamed her perfect. He’d dreamed her as something she could never be.
She sank into the chair a little.
The other!Stef took her hand away, then moved back to lean against Ryan’s desk beside him. ‘So, you agree, twelve?’ she asked Ryan.
Ryan shook his head. ‘No, you were prettier at twelve.’ He turned his gaze on her. ‘It’s time for you to explain yourself,’ he said slowly, as if she was an idiot.
‘And if you don’t-’
‘No superfluous threats, Alex, you know better.’
Alex. He’d called other!her Alex.
After my doll or his son?
Alex gave Ryan a contrite look. ‘Sorry, dad.’
Ryan kept his gaze levelled at her. ‘Are you going to start talking soon?’
‘I’m not- I’m not sure there’s any way I can explain this that won’t sound crazy.’ She ground her feet against the carpet. ‘I- I don’t know how to- None of this is real. We’re all dreaming, and none of this is real.’
Alex slapped her. ‘Then I guess that didn’t hurt?’
‘Just because it’s not real doesn’t mean it doesn’t hurt.’ She tried to think, but quoting regulations was a lot harder when they weren’t readily accessible through a HUD. ‘Um- Rulebook. Section seven, rule twelve- No-’ Her forehead crinkled. ‘Rule…eighteen? The one about giving someone the benefit of the doubt if they pose no harm to the Agency?’
‘Generally, one has to be able to accurately quote it first,’ Ryan said, his voice the scary neutral that Taylor used sometime. The kind of neutral that was hiding anger.
‘My- My HUD isn’t-’
‘What HUD?’ Ryan snapped.
‘I’m- I’m an agent, but I’m not at the moment-’
Ryan glared, and with no wasted movement, pressed a hand against her forehead.
Stef screamed and flailed out of the chair, threw herself to the ground and pressed her forehead against the carpet. ‘Okay! Okay! I’ll talk! Just- Just- Please don’t- Not that-’
Not again. And not you.
Now you just have to think of something.
I have no idea, I have no idea-
She tucked her hands against her chest and pressed her hands to herself. ‘This is lost property.’ The shift processed, and she took a safe breath as soon as the world appeared again.
The lights slowly came up in the huge Lost and Found room – she was in an Agency, so every second was borrowed.
This was not a plan! This was not a plan! What the hell am I supposed to be-
There was a slight blur in the air as someone shifted in. Stef grabbed the closest thing on the closest shelf – some chunk of metal that looked like it had come from an engine – and swung it as hard as she could manage as Alex reintegrated.
There was one of those sounds that were far from good, and Alex went down, blood spilling from her head.
‘No smart comments about killing myself, please.’
She’s not dead, genius.
She stooped, pulled Alex’s gun from her barely-resisting hand, and put a bullet in her doppleganger’s brain.
She looked up and saw Ryan, his face a perfect picture of loss and denial.
I wonder if that’s what he looks like when I die.
He took a step towards Alex’s body, one hand reaching down, but he stopped and pulled his hand away.
He pulled his long jacket off and laid it over Alex’s body, then tilted his head to look at her. There was acceptance, then there was anger. ‘You are going to hurt. Forever.’
Dying sobers people up.
Stef pulled the trigger again – the poor angle made the bullet go into his side, but it stopped him for a moment.
I’m doing this cause I love you.
She emptied the rest of the clip into him.
There was a second of perfect, pure fear. The kind that precedes a death you know is coming, but can’t do anything to avoid. Time stretched, and she begged for her heart to finally pull free of her chest.
There was a blur in the air in front of her, and she dropped to her knees, covering her head with her hands. ‘Ascartha!’ she screamed. ‘Ascartha!’
Some part of her mind registered the irony – that the first time she was using agent magic, she wasn’t even an agent.
Agents had magic words – that amounted to no more than audio-based hacks to make an agent do something against their will: be paralysed, be muted, be…dead. Rules being what they were, she hadn’t been told most of them yet – Ryan had said it was in the “when you’re older” category.
Ryan, who now stood over her, wanting to hurt her for killing his fake daughter.
A fake daughter that was probably better than her.
‘Ascartha,’ she said again, hoping she was actually speaking out loud.
Ascartha. The one word that worked with or without blue in your system, the one word that was more word than magic.
You said “Ascartha” to another agent when they were about to go against their duty, when they were going past the point of no return. When they were turning to the dark side.
You said it to fae to let them know, that if they continued, they’d have the might of the Agency come down on them.
It didn’t stop anyone from doing anything, but it was a prayer that they would stop and think.
Ryan grabbed her, and threw her back against the closest shelf and her head rang as it smacked into the cool metal. He grabbed her again, and slammed her onto a table that hadn’t been there a moment ago.
There was a knife in his hand.
Ryan couldn’t hurt her.
Ryan wouldn’t hurt her.
He pressed a hand down onto her face, pinning her head against the flat surface of the table, and dug his fingers into her skin, drawing blood.
It almost would have been better if he was screaming, shouting, and raving. Everyone was entitled to go crazy, to go completely non-linear in the moment – to react to grief or shock in a way that was inconsistent to how they normally were.
There was nothing in his expression that indicated that his Rage of Unusual Size was unusual.
He put his hand back against her forehead, and she felt the very start of a connection. Her body seized at the prospect of pain.
‘Ascartha!’ she screamed as her body tensed. ‘Ascartha!’
‘That’s a word that means nothing to anyone but agents,’ he said, ‘How do you know it?’
Her breath hitched. ‘You taught me.’
He tangled his fingers in her hair, and slammed her head against the table with each word. ‘I. Taught. Alex.’
No one else had been so hard to sober up. Taylor had figured it out himself. The Parkers had accepted it straight away. She- She’d taken a chance because it anything was a better world than being a crazy girl hermit.
He didn’t seem to be under any pressing need to shrug off his reality.
He was still in charge of his Agency, he’d had a perfect daughter. He’d-
He dragged his knife from her shoulder to her elbow on each arm – traitor’s marks. He was granting her the tiniest benefit of the doubt – that she might have a genuine reason to know a word. A reason to know it, but that she didn’t deserve to know it.
He pulled away from her, breathing heavily. ‘Who sent you? Why not attack me directly? You- You killed her. You killed my daughter.’
I’m right here…
He straightened his vest in the same manner Picard did every time he stood up, walked towards her, and pressed both hands to her head.
She didn’t fight as he dove into her mind.
She felt herself adjust as she was pulled into her mind space. This time, she wasn’t in her wardrobe with her doll, she was lying on a floor, black and white tiles spreading out as far as she could see.
Memories projected themselves onto the roof as he rummaged. Images of Taylor, of Williams, of the camp fire, of her crazy and precise routines of her own nightmare.
She scooted back against the wall, and focused on her most important memory. The memory that meant everything, the memory that had changed everything.
Jones’ speech about the locational nature of the dreams melted away, replaced with the sound of a child screaming. Her screaming.
She looked up at the ceiling, then to Ryan, and stared as he watched the memory of himself. She focused, and kept the memory going – trying to splice in what Ryan had shown her from his perspective.
Dying, chasing a red ball into Limbo, and feeling safe squished up against a suit.
In the memory, Ryan shifted away.
In the memory, she sat lost and alone.
Please remember me.
She took her hand away from the wall. ‘Dad,’ she said slowly, ‘dad, it’s me. Reynolds, and Sol, and everything is fucked up, and you just have to give me a chance-’
For the first time, there was a glimmer of uncertainty in his expression. ‘This isn’t how this happened,’ he said. ‘I took her. They didn’t miss her, so I took her.’
‘No you didn’t, you left me there, cause you didn’t love me yet. I was just some kid, you didn’t have a reason to care.’ She swallowed, and stood. ‘Think about it, you, proper mister-agenty-proper-MiB-man, you’d have no reason to steal a baby. I say that you kidnapped me as a joke, it’s one of our memes, just like you calling me Miss Mimosa when you’re all angry and dad!facey on me. You didn’t…actually save me then, but it makes sense for you to do it in a dream.’
‘Who are you?’
‘You know me, just say my name.’
‘Reynolds?’ he said. ‘Sol?’
‘Yeah, everyone’s living out a nightmare. Jonesy said-’
‘That man is not my tech agent,’ he snapped, his face going hard again. ‘I don’t know why you’re under that impression, you-’
He seized, bent double, and disappeared. The connection broke, and after a few seconds, she saw the cavernous expanse of Lost and Found again.
She rolled on the table, regretting the action as he head spun, and saw Taylor standing over Ryan’s body, Magnolia’s bloody knife in his hand.
It was an image that should have been from a nightmare, but it was welcome. It was a rescue, not a murder.
He’d sober up. He’d remember who he was.
He’d remember who she was.
She looked at Taylor and a hundred questions presented themselves, but one quashed the others. ‘Why the fuck are you blond?’
Taylor reached a hand for her, which she grabbed and leveraged herself off the table. He pointed with Magnolia’s knife as Ryan respawned. ‘Director?’ he growled.
‘Take her into custody, Agent.’
Taylor took a moment to glare down at her. ‘You haven’t gotten through to him yet?’
‘Your method didn’t work either!’
Ryan disappeared – it wasn’t a shift, and it wasn’t a fade, it was something different. Static in the air. Taylor growled, pushed her backwards and threw a small pellet to the ground, which exploded into white powder.
She coughed, and tasted salt.
‘Left over from the jerky,’ he said, his eyes twitching back and forth, looking for Ryan.
There were no footsteps in the salt – either he was standing still, or he’d already moved out of range.
There was a hand on her shoulder, and a knife slid into her back. ‘Found him,’ she said, dropping to her knees as the hand released her.
Now? Now I think of a damn one-liner? I hate my life.
Even without a HUD, it was easy to tell it was bad. Lung. Painful. Quick enough. She tasted blood as she took a breath, then rolled onto her side.
She watched as the invisble-Ryan tracked through her pooling blood. Taylor attacked air, and managed not to get stabbed. There was fuzzy static in the air, and Ryan appeared again, his coat whipping about as he avoided Taylor’s punches.
Taylor nearly stepped on her, his huge foot coming down near her head. He grunted, and kicked her to the side, the blood facilitating a much easier slide than normal.
Ryan went down, dying, but not dead, and Taylor stomped towards her.
‘You’re dead, Mimosa,’ he said as he rolled her onto her back.
Not yet! Not quite!
‘You’re human, blue doesn’t work, and I can’t get you back to Jones in the time you’ve got left.’
What the hell do I say to that?
He pulled a needle from one of his million pockets and jabbed it into her chest. ‘Gerry’s Glue. Stimulant, painkiller. Five minutes.’ He looked at the blood, and seemed to reconsider. ‘Less.’
Ryan shook and finally died on the floor behind him, and disappeared.
Taylor stood, grabbed the same hunk of metal she’d used to take out Alex, and smacked Ryan to the ground as he respawned, leaving him dying and bleeding again.
‘He’s not sobering up, Taylor,’ she said as he pulled her to her feet. ‘You killed him, so all the NPCs are gone.’ She almost felt her brain kick back into action as the stimulant took effect. ‘He’s gonna be a danger to- To other zones- Oh god, I can’t-’ She put her hands to her head. ‘Yeah- Yeah I can.’ She looked up at Taylor. ‘Get us back to the Parkers. Lure him. I’ll be bait. Get the twins out. Collapse the zone. I’m fucking dead, it doesn’t matter, and it eliminates him as a threat.’
‘You’re…tall,’ she said, her mind spinning for a moment. ‘Like really fucking tall. How- How do you even…ground?’
He tapped her face with one finger, the gentlest way he’d ever touched her. ‘You’re asking me to kill the Director.’
‘I can’t believe-’
Taylor pulled away to half-kill Ryan again.
‘I can’t believe that whole dying thing! I’m asking you to take a chance! You owe me, so I’m calling it in.’
‘Owe you for what?’
Ryan appeared again, and Taylor shot him once, in the chest.
‘We have to go,’ she said, tugging on his arm.
They ran to the stairs, Ryan limping behind them until he fell against the wall and stopped. Going down the stairs hurt – she was on borrowed time. Time enough to save Ryan, hopefully.
Please, let him sober up. Please.
Prayers were useless. Prayers were wishes on the wind.
Sometimes just making the wish was important.
Taylor made it to the ground level exit, and let the door slam behind him as he left her alone. She coughed blood, and stopped to wipe her mouth with the back of her hand.
Can I just stop for a minute?
A door opened above her. ‘You killed her.’ Ryan’s voice floated down, even scarier with the echo of the stairwell. ‘You’ve killed everyone.’
‘They weren’t real! You’re just dreaming! I’m trying to wake you up!’
She gripped the railing and started her descent again.
The door to the ground level opened again, and Taylor stepped back in. ‘You’re too slow, Mimosa.’
He took two long-legged strides up the stairs, grabbed her, threw her over his shoulder, and ran, the world passing by a lot faster than it had been.
And Ryan was right behind them.
We must go faster, we must go faster.
Ryan, for his part, didn’t seem to notice the complete lack of people, animals and traffic as Taylor ran back towards the fog, and the Parkers’ zone.
Stef grabbed Taylor’s jacket. ‘You gotta kill him one more time, to give us a few seconds. Just before we-’ She choked on blood for a moment.
‘Stop stating the obvious.’
The fog became visible, and she watched as Ryan slowed for a moment, then stopped running and seemed to finally take in what was going on around him.
She slapped Taylor. ‘Put me down, gogogo. Hold them on the border, then go as soon as we get in.’
Taylor put her down. ‘You’re killing him.’
‘I’m not,’ she said, trying to convince herself. ‘I’m not. My duty’s to him, and this is the only way I can do it.’
Taylor stared for a moment, then pushed his gun into her hands. ‘Then do your duty, Agent.’ He turned, and ran into the fog.
Ryan stood in the middle of the empty road, looking from empty building to empty building. ‘What did you do?’ he asked as he walked towards her.
‘Do you want to find out?’
She walked backwards into the fog, ignoring the faces there, ignoring the fact that they could soon be among them.
As she’d hoped, he followed.
Come on, come on, come on.
The desolate world of the Parkers appeared, and she saw Taylor near the painted line on the ground to Jonesy’s world, the half-dressed doctors standing with him.
There was the urge to run, to leave Ryan behind, to save herself.
To be safe, at the cost of the man who’d given her everything.
‘You fucking coward,’ she muttered, then stepped back further as Ryan became visible through the fog.
She turned, and nodded.
Taylor ran first, then both of the Parkers followed.
Ryan stepped into the doomed zone, and the entrance back to his world turned to black glass, as hers had done.
‘What is this?’ he shouted, ‘what have you done?’
She took a look around, as the rest of the fog turned to glass. A prison. A coffin.
She took a couple of steps back, giving her distance in case he decided she was stabbable again. ‘Would you listen to me for one minute? Please, god, you owe me that much.’
‘Who sent you? Why are you attacking-’
‘This was a fucking rescue mission,’ she said, bending in on herself as the pain started to burn through the drug.
‘You killed my daughter!’
‘I’m right here! Ryan, you know me.’
He turned back, and saw the black glass, and rapped his hand on it. ‘This won’t hold me.’
‘It doesn’t have to,’ she said as the sun dulled, ‘not for long, anyway.’ The edges of the world started to contract. ‘Sol died. Everyone is having a nightmare. You just won’t wake up. So I had to- Everyone is saying that it’s death, but-’
‘That man who looked like Taylor tried.’
‘No, you’re immortal in your own zone, here…not so much.’
‘You’re not a very good assassin.’
She knelt on the ground, and rocked back and forth for a moment. ‘You didn’t teach me to be a killer. Duty, you taught me duty.’
‘You- You’ve trapped yourself too. Who’s ire did I earn to warrant a-’
‘You really think you’re important enough to warrant a hitman who’ll take themselves out just to get rid of you?’ She laughed, and regretted it as the pain ripped through her. ‘Daddy, I love you, but you’re the Brisbane Director, no one gives a shit.’
‘Young lady, don’t disparage your own Agency.’
The words were pure Ryan. Her Ryan. The real Ryan. She snapped her head up. ‘Are you, you again?’
He looked confused and angry. ‘That was- Those weren’t my words.’
‘No, they really were.’ She hugged her arms around herself as the world contracted more. ‘The only person you’re that important to is me. I’m not trying to kill you, I’m trying to save. I’m here- We’re here, cause I’m taking a leap of faith that this will save us both.’
‘You’re trying to confuse me.’
She shrugged, and let herself fall to the ground. The drug, and her borrowed time were quickly wearing away.
The edge of the world was ten feet away.
‘You’re trying to confuse me,’ he said again, sounding unsure of his words. ‘I know who I am. I know-’
‘It’s like a glitch, just cause you know something doesn’t make it real. I knew it was real. Taylor knew it was real. Jonesy knew it was real.’
He came to his knees beside her, holding his head. ‘Jones…after Samuels. He’s our tech… Taylor’s…’ He groaned as if in pain.
She reached a hand up onto his lap. ‘Ryan?’
Her foot went cold, and she knew it had slipped into the glass.
He raised his hand, as if to slap hers away, but brought it down on hers, and held it.
‘This is kinda like…the first time I thought we were going to die,’ she said. ‘Except it’s me with…lung, not you.’
‘The ice cream store.’
She looked up at him. ‘Ryan?’
The hard edge was gone from his face. He held her hand tighter, then hesitated. ‘Stef?’
She threw her arms around him, and he reciprocated the hug. ‘It’s okay, I promise it’s going to be okay.’
The edge of the world was close enough to see their reflections.
‘Why is it dark?’ he asked. ‘The fog was white.’
‘At the end, it’s always dark.’
He stroked her hair. ‘I’m so sorry.’
She reached out a hand as if she could hold the glass back, but it started to swallow her arm. ‘Dad?’
The glass engulfed them.
Stef shuddered as she looked at herself.