Ryan knocked on the door of room thirteen.
There was no response.
He knocked again, harder, and again received no response.

He unlocked the door with a thought, knocked once more, then pushed the door open. The quilt and pillows were a mess, but there was no obvious potential recruit in the bed. He looked around the room, and–
He heard snoring. He looked to the bed again. Fingers extended past the end of the bed, and he could just make out the shape of the girl in amongst the folds and lumps of the quilt. He crouched at the foot of the bed and lifted the thin quilt up. Her head was at a precarious angle, not quite off the edge of the bed like her hands were, but it looked uncomfortable all the same.
‘Miss Mimosa?’
Her hands slowly grabbed the air, like a child stirring during a nap, like Alexander in his crib. He stared into his HUD and changed the schedule – pushing the recruitment tests forwards another hour – and lowered the quilt again, so she could sleep.
He locked the door with a thought, and shifted back to his office. He sat, spread two copies of her file across his desk, and stared back into his HUD. He brought up a list of his recruits, and selected one from his list. [Curt?]
Ryan waited a moment for it to connect and for the recruit to respond.
[Yes, sir?]
[I need to see you. When do you have time?]
[I’m actually right outside your office, sir.]
Ryan unlocked the door with a thought.
The young man walked in, his uniform neat and clean. ‘What can I do for you, sir?’ He took a step closer to the desk and saw the folders. ‘New recruit?’
‘Yes.’ Ryan indicated to the spare chair. ‘I’ll need you to peruse the file in the next few hours.’
Curt lifted the file and flicked through it. ‘Sir?’
‘Yes, Recruit?’
‘There’s no copy of the testing results.’
‘We had to delay them,’ he said. ‘But given the circumstances of her recruitment–’
Curt gave a slight nod. ‘Solstice, sir?’
Ryan nodded. ‘We weren’t able to do a full debrief, due to the circumstances, but they were involved.’ He paused. ‘I’d also like her to go with initial follow-up today, so my preference would be for her to have one guide, no matter which department she’s assigned to.’
Curt nodded and glanced over to the file for a moment. ‘It looks like a massacre, sir.’
‘Final report from the clean-up crew was fourteen civilians dead.’
Curt sifted through a dozen photos, his face neutral. ‘I never took part in anything like this, sir,’ he said quietly. ‘But it’s not standard practice to leave survivors.’
Ryan spared a look at the picture of the girl clipped to the top of his folder. ‘I’ve got no reason to question her story.’
‘Sir–’
‘Be tactful with your suspicion, Recruit.’ He paused, unsure of how much to tell the young man. ‘I did threaten to shoot her. She hasn’t had the easiest introduction to the Agency.’
Curt gave a slight nod and flipped through the rest of the thin file. ‘All these preliminaries indicate she’ll be a tech. Agent Jones is good to his recruits.’
Of course the girl was going to be a tech. She’d held onto her computer as though it was more precious than her life, and she’d been immediately at home in the tech department. It only made sense that the tests would reflect that.
She remembered him. Against all the odds, against all logic, she remembered him. It should have been impossible. Agents weren’t made to be remembered, Agents weren’t supposed to have an impact that resonated twenty years later. He wondered, inanely, if she still had the doll.
‘Is the follow-up scheduled, sir?’
‘I expect testing and outfitting to be done by eleven,’ he said. He doubted Taylor would need more than the introductory test. Her hiding in a wardrobe was a solid indicator she wasn’t going to excel at combat, and placing any new recruit with Taylor was cruel. Her laptop and her coding had served as a résumé for Jones, so a single test would be enough; and the Field simulations were usually enough to grade any new recruit – quick thinking, reactions to fae, and holding one’s own in an unfamiliar situation. He stared into his HUD and looked at the schedule. ‘You can take her on a tour after that, then lunch. I’ll pencil the follow-up for two this afternoon.’
‘Yes, sir.’
‘That’s all, Recruit.’
Curt tidied the folder, snapped a quick salute, and quickly left the office.
Ryan turned and stared out the window, letting the memory of his first meeting Stef stream in his mind. He skipped past his mistakes – past all the moments where a quicker step would have caught the Solstice before they’d broken into her house, past the feeling of holding a tiny, dead child. He filtered out the view, his office, and all of his HUD menus, letting the memory fill his vision.
She’d died, because of his mistake. She’d fallen through death, seen the grey land, played with Limbo. Duty had told him the right choice had been to let her go, to let Death carry her away, on to whatever was next. Duty had told him that it wasn’t his fault, that civilians died, and that the focus had to be on saving the next one.
Duty had been wrong, it had been the right choice to let her live. Seeing her smile had been proof enough that it had been the right choice.
The memory ended, and he turned his chair back towards his desk and the file on his desk.
His recruits were aloof towards him, and he accepted that. He didn’t demand respect like Taylor, who transferred recruits who didn’t treat him with the proper deference. He couldn’t become easy friends with his recruits like Jones. They treated him politely, kept him at a distance, unable to include him beyond what was necessary. They didn’t smile and joke with him, preferring to socialise with their fellow recruits, and each new recruit was pulled into that way of thinking. Ryan was someone to be respected, to be obeyed, and to greet in the hall, not someone to joke with or chat with.
Recruits he’d known for years didn’t smile as easily as a girl he’d threatened to shoot, even if she’d given small, scared smiles. Recruits he’d known for years didn’t skip over his title and just call him “Ryan”.
The recruit he spoke with the most was an ex-Solstice turncoat Ryan only had in his agency out of a sense of duty, and even then, he trusted Curt as little as possible without having him constantly monitored.
It was naive of Ryan to trust the girl so quickly, but he had no reason to doubt her. Her performance in Jones’ lab was too convincing to be an act. And no Solstice worth their rank would have allowed themselves to be caught sleeping in the presence of an agent. Twice.
Stef was nothing more than she appeared: the little girl he’d saved. The little girl who had somehow kept the memory all this time. That was a conversation to avoid for as long a possible – to avoid owning up to his incompetence, telling her he was responsible for her death, telling her he’d made such an important choice for her. The consequence of his choice had been her life, and that, at least, he didn’t regret.
He straightened his uniform with a thought, and he shifted back to her door.
He knocked, and there was still no answer.
[table id=15 /]