There was a pounding noise.
Curt rolled over, lifted his head and aimed it vaguely in the direction of the bathroom. ‘Don’t forget the hot water!’
Stef Mimosa. Agent. Super genius. Adorable hacker. Scatterbrained menace to society. The girl who could code up an Agent OS app during breakfast…but forget to balance the water temperature in the shower.
His adorkable agent.
There was another pounding. Door into the room, not frustrated slaps of the shower wall.
He tried to wake up. At least two knocks now, and Stef hadn’t answered the door. Agents didn’t sleep that heavily, and she wasn’t poking him in the back to make him answer the door.
Memories of the previous day slapped him.
He looked down to the empty side of the bed, the undisturbed blankets and the perfect pillows.
There was another knock, then the door opened.
He required a gun on instinct, then dismissed it just as quickly as Magnolia walked in. ‘What?’ he asked, subtly checking himself for wood, before knuckling the sleep from his eyes. ‘Mags, what?’
She closed the door. ‘O’Connor, I’m going to tell you something, and I need you not to freak out-‘
‘Is Stef ok?’
‘She’s fine.’
He stared at her, watching for the small movements in her face. ‘Then what’s up?’
‘If you had let me finish,’ she snapped, ‘I need you to think as I’m talking. The idiots who think they’re running the show were looking for living volunteers from the shit Agencies. Your girlfriend would be among those, if you’d care to remember.’
He stepped out of bed, his uniform appearing on his body. ‘Did someone take her?’
‘No, because I’m smart. I moved Mimosa, Ryan, and Taylor to another room.’ She held up a tablet with three life signs on it. ‘See? They’re fine? I’m going to get the techs to loop in readings like they’re dead in just a little bit. They’ve already got more than enough corpses to play with, so they’ll be safe. If they come after Jones, or the Parkers, or whoever, we have to let them take them, but your girlfriend, my husband, and the so-called Director will be safe.’
He kept his gaze locked on her. Mags was all about Duty – bending the rules for Taylor was understandable, but doing anything for Stef without a gain was suspicious. ‘Why’d you save Stef?’
Magnolia shrugged. ‘For you, idiot.’ She crossed the room, and pressed the tablet into his hands, bringing Stef’s vitals up so he could look at them: strong heartbeat, normal readings for sleep, everything within the safe ranges – and smiled. ‘You’re one of the few people in the Agency as a whole I can count on – you’re backing my plays, you’re running interference when the outposts are acting up. You’re acting like my Aide, and I appreciate that. It’s good to have allies you can trust-‘
‘Like you trust me, Mags,’ he said with a smirk.
Her full lips curled into a smile. ‘Close enough, O’Connor, close enough. You ready for Day Two of this?’
He stared down at the tablet, and at Stef’s unflattering Agency ID photograph. She was all right, and that was all he needed to know. ‘Yeah, I’m ready. Let’s try and get them home.’
She took the tablet from his hands. ‘I’m going to flip the vitals to dead in five minutes, so if you could act appropriately grief-stricken, that would be great.’
It didn’t take a lot of effort to bring up memories of losing her. Of seeing her dead in the conference room. Of watching her burn with the phoenix. Of being sucked up into the clouds.
His chest tightened.
‘That’s perfect,’ Mags said, looking at his face. ‘Just keep that up.’
He pushed a smirk onto his face. ‘I’ll try.’
‘The techs think they’re dead,’ Mags said. ‘The fewer people know, the safer they are, so just play along, okay?’
‘I’ll be fine. Now, catch me up,’ he said as they walked into the hall.
‘Absolutely nothing of consequence happened while you were sleeping. We had a few large clusters of deaths, and the death toll is climbing at a rate I find devastating for our future, but it’s still all the same as a few hours ago. We know nothing, we’re no closer to helping anyone.’
‘Any news from the Lost? Any Court activity at all?’
‘There’s a Madchester courier in the visitor’s lounge. They’re here as a personal guard for Agent Williams’ kid. They say Madhe looks after her own, I guess it’s not bullshit.’
‘And the Lost? What are our reps saying?’
‘Their best guess still is that Sol has died, they think they’re close to confirming it. What that means for the Agents is anyone’s guess at this point. There’s a somewhat dismal theory that he’s dying, not dead, and when he does die, he’s basically going to shatter their minds, take them all out in a blaze of glory with him.’
‘I don’t like that theory,’ he said as they walked into one of the meeting rooms that had been converted into an office. They could use Ryan’s office, they could use Stef’s office…but it felt wrong to offer them whilst Mags was in charge.
‘Hell,’ Mags said, lying the tablet on the table as they sat. ‘Now’s as good a time as any. Care to do the honours?’ She spun the tablet at him. ‘Just hit X.’
He pushed the tablet away. ‘Sorry. I know it’s only fake, but I can’t.’
Magnolia shrugged, and hit the buttons, and he watched as all three Agents went “dead”.
It was fake. It was just fake.
There was still the uncomfortable feeling of grief in his stomach.
‘Do you need me around here today?’
‘I know it’s your day off, but-‘
‘I think I’ve got an in with the Lost, I might be able to get us some answers.’
‘You think it’s worthwhile?’
‘I don’t think I can get anything else achieved in a couple of hours. How about it?’
She raised an eyebrow. ‘A couple of hours?’
‘Unless I find something,’ he clarified, ‘then it might be a bit longer. You’ve got my phone number, call me if you need me.’
As he said this, his phone buzzed – a short buzz, a message, not a call – but he ignored it.
‘Yeah, okay, go.’
He gave her a lazy salute, and walked out of the meeting room, and towards the lift before pulling out his phone.
{Agent C, Lost and Found! Now.}
He dutifully balled his hands. ‘This is lost property.’ The shift processed, and his eyes didn’t have to adjust to the darkness this time – the lights had already flickered on due to Raz’s presence.
He looked at the recruit as he bounced from foot to foot. He was nervous. He was really nervous.
‘I wasn’t sure that you’d come,’ Raz said, hugging his own fairy smartphone tight – the model was much sleeker than Curt’s. ‘There’s something I’ve got to-‘
‘I know, Recruit.’
‘But-‘
‘Recruit, I know-‘
‘Magnolia had me fake the life signs!’ Raz said. ‘Spyder is dead.’
Curt considered the words carefully. ‘Mags told me that she had them faked-‘
Raz held up his hands. ‘This is gonna be one of those things where we have two different conversations, and I don’t want that!’ He flapped his hands nervously. ‘Spyder and Ryan died. Dead. Just like the other agents. Then Mags said to make it was like they were living, so they didn’t get taken for experiementation, then-‘
Curt grabbed the closest shelf for balance.
‘-she’s cancelled the fake loop on Spyder and Ryan, but she’s started a fake loop on Taylor to make it look like he’s dead too!’
‘Recruit-‘
‘Agent-‘
‘I’m not a fucking agent!’ Curt shouted. ‘Now, for the love of all that is holy, tell me-‘
‘I know you’re not,’ Raz said, tears welling up in his eyes. ‘Not- Not really when it really counts, I know you’re not. But- Sometimes…some things are easier to believe. I- I can’t- It’s hard. Everything is hard. So- So when I see- You’re so much better at this than most Recruit. So- So you’ve got to be an agent, cause it doesn’t make sense that you aren’t.’
If it had been a regular day, he would have comforted the recruit. He sounded so much like-
He couldn’t breathe.
It wasn’t happening again. It wasn’t. He couldn’t lose her again.
Mags had said the techs thought she was dead. Mags had said to play along. Mags was as trustworthy as a bag of cats.
And he’d bought it.
He crouched, and pressed his hands against the cool concrete floor.
Blood pounded in his ears.
Grief wouldn’t even process. It had been easy to feel sad, even a moment ago, to recall images of a dead little hacker girl, of his friend in danger, of losing her.
And now that it was happening…it wasn’t happening.
He couldn’t feel anything.
He’d been asleep when she’d died. He’d been selfish, and bunked down for a few hours, and she’d died.
It was his fault.
‘Do you know where she is?’
‘Yeah,’ Raz said quietly. ‘Do you-‘
He knuckled his eyes and stood. ‘What do you think?’
He rolled the tech recruit in a near-daze, lights brighter than they should have been, sensations duller – everything was unreal. Raz pushed open a door, and he saw three tables inside: Ryan, Stef and Taylor.
Even this close, it still didn’t seem real. It didn’t seem like it could be happening. He couldn’t have lost her again.
He walked into the room, forcing himself closer to her corpse, and brushed a hand over her cheek, then held fingers under her nose, waiting for breath.
In the morgue, breath had been the only miracle he’d ever wanted.
He hadn’t even known he’d loved her.
No breath came now, her small chest stayed still.
Come back, please.
There was a small hand on his back. Raz. He turned and nodded at the recruit. ‘I need some space,’ he said.
‘Okies, Agent C.’
She wasn’t dead. Couldn’t be dead. Couldn’t have slipped away while he was sleeping.
He looked to Ryan – just as dead, just as inert.
Taylor was still breathing.
This didn’t surprise him in the least. He felt for his gun on autopilot, even though it wouldn’t do any good – asleep, dreaming, or whatever, an agent was still an agent, and a regulation gun in a regulation system area wouldn’t kill them.
‘O’Connor.’
Mags’ voice in the doorway. He knew without looking up that she’d be standing slightly to the left – it was stupid to stand in the centre of a doorway unless you felt safe, or unless you felt the need to make an entrance.
Magnolia rarely erred on the side of dramatics. A knife in the back was simpler. A shot from a safe distance was simpler. There was looking good – which she did effortlessly; and then there was posing for the sake of posing, which she didn’t.
He looked up, but refused to say anything.
‘I lied,’ she said flatly, ‘get over it. Most of what I said was true, even more true than I’m comfortable admitting. I did this, to her, for you. You have to appreciate my effort.’
He tried to punch her.
He’d started too far away, and even when he was having a good day, she could wipe the floor with him.
She grabbed his fist, bent his arm, and brought him to his knees. ‘You going to smart, or are you going to be a fucking moron?’
‘Yield,’ he muttered. ‘Last thing I need is a broken arm with no Parkers to fix it.’
She released his hand, then shoved him back towards Stef’s corpse, and slammed the door behind her. ‘Go on,’ she said coolly, ‘get it off your chest.’
He reached a hand back for Stef, but pulled it away immediately. ‘You- My partner died, and you didn’t wake me, and then you fucking lied about it!’ He balled his hands into fists. ‘You’re a fucking cunt.’
‘I’m nothing so sweet,’ she said. ‘O’Connor, I’m thinking about the Agency, you aren’t.’
‘Stef’s dead!’
‘That’s fairly normal,’ she said with a smirk. He drew his arm back again. ‘You’ll hit me,’ she said, raising an angry, accusatory finger, ‘and then I will slam you into the wall. I’ll break your noise, then you’ll be useless in the infirmary for a while. This Agency is being held together by a fucking wing and a prayer. I’m the wing, you’re the prayer.’
He let his arm drop like a dead weight to his side.
‘There are people I’d prefer to have my back in a fight, but right now, I’m relying on you. There’s stronger and smarter people around, but you’re the right mix, and you aren’t arguing with me, so that puts you in my good books.’ She pointed at Stef. ‘Yeah, okay, I know you’re hurting, but you can’t be right now, there’s things that are more important. You, more than anyone else, are helping me keep things running smoothly.’
‘You lied to me,’ he said quietly.
‘I was being kind,’ she said. She took a step closer. ‘I was trying to be kind.’
‘Liar,’ he snapped, ‘this worked best for you, it had nothing to do with me.’
‘I need you,’ she said. ‘I do. You’re competent. You’re good at what you do, and you’ve got the techs wrapped around your finger.’
‘Only because they love her,’ he said. ‘It’s got nothing to do with me.’
‘Curt. There are thousands of dead agents. There are factions forming. It’s very possible that we’re watching the breakdown of the Agency. I’ve been around the Agency my whole life, and this is the closest I’ve ever come to thinking that it might not be here in a week.’ She rolled her shoulders. ‘The Agency is an institution that can go away. It’s-‘
‘My. Partner. Is. Dead.’ He said, trying to believe the words. ‘How did you expect me to react?’
‘Like you don’t want her death to be for nothing,’ she said. ‘O’Connor, you’ve had a bunch of chances to take off with her, leave the Agency, go off and have messed up sex and nerd your brains out. Hell, every day she had the mirror in her chest, she could have left. You stayed for a reason. You’re off probation, if you don’t want to be here, don’t fucking be here. You’re here, that means something, so be here, and mean something.’
‘I can’t.’
‘Then what are you going to do, O’Connor?’
He punched the wall, and his knuckles split. ‘What fucking business is it of yours?!’
‘I told you. I need you. If you can’t-’
‘I can’t,’ he said, ‘I need to- I can’t tell you what I’m doing, because I don’t-‘ He pushed weakly against her. ‘Mags, let me out of here, I can’t breathe.’
‘O’Connor-’
‘I can smell her! Jesus Christ, Mags, I can- And she’s right there and- And I need to-’
He slipped to the floor, and she knelt in front of him. She gave him a harsh look for a moment, then she grabbed his upper arm, and gave him what could have been a look of actual sympathy. ‘I’m sorry. I wish you had time for grief, but you don’t.’
He felt his chest deflate. ‘Who died first?’
‘Ryan. Mimosa was a second or two behind him. Merlin wasn’t reading, so we have no way of knowing if it’s related.’ She gave him a small smile. ‘You can believe they died together if you want.’
‘I don’t want to believe she died.’
‘Yeah. There’s the theory the dead agents aren’t really dead. You want to know what I say to that?’
‘What?’
‘Taylor,’ she said. ‘You would know his history. Whitman. Jones and Ryan trying to save him. He’s not the man he used to be. Which…for me is good, I’m not sure I would have loved the man he was, I’m in love with the man he is. But that’s just it, isn’t it? Just because you can save someone, doesn’t mean you should. It doesn’t mean that what you save will be who you tried to save.’
‘All the data in their OS would have degraded by now,’ he said, recalling various pieces of information he’d read. ‘I’m not sure what they could bring back.’
He gave a vague nod, and he let her pull him to his feet.
She gave him a serious look. ‘What are you going to do, O’Connor?’
‘I don’t- Nothing-’
There was a cold breeze behind him.