Curt opened his eyes as his alarm sounded. Even if it was becoming more regular, it was still a pleasure to be woken by his alarm, not by nightmares breaking through the drugs that were supposed to keep him asleep.
There had been nightmares – he didn’t get a night without them – but they were of the incoherent variety, stupid, messed-up imagery that was far more irrational than anything. He was already having trouble remembering anything from them.
The fear in his chest would burn away as the sun rose higher – it would be a good day. An all right day. A day where he could suitably act like a recruit.
The lights in his room came up, and he looked into each corner for Petersen, just in case.
He threw back the sheet – one that was only moderately wet with sweat – and walked to his shower. He rinsed, then required himself into his uniform, tidied his hair into something vaguely fashionable – the kind of style that was expected from him, from his age and demographic, the kind of thing that added a layer of invisibility in front of agents. The more he was like the expected, the less they would see the real him.
And the less they saw the real him, the more days he’d live.
His foot still twinged from where Ryan had slammed it in the door, a reminder to–
He felt his thoughts hesitate as he walked into the main room of his quarters. There wasn’t anything he would have done differently. He’d acted with the best information, and the best intentions at every step – and it had still led him to hell.
They were going to make her an agent, and there was no guarantee at all she’d be the same person.
He wasn’t even sure he was the same person, and he’d only been partially augmented. Just enough to keep him breathing, to keep him back from a death that would have stopped Petersen’s fun.
It would make more sense if she wasn’t the same person. The Agency as a whole, and the Brisbane branch in particular, could abide a useless recruit, could ignore someone who likely seemed, to all objective eyes, completely ill-suited to the uniform.
He closed his eyes and sent another prayer to nowhere.
His eyes caught on her laptop bag as he opened them, and hoped that whatever sentimentality had convinced the higher-ups to let Ryan and Stef live had enough respect for her life to keep her intact. Saving her from death just to rip out her soul seemed like a cruelty the Agency was all too capable of.
There was a ping in his ear as his headset went off.
‘Curt?’ Ryan’s voice.
He stood straight, even though the agent couldn’t see him. ‘Sir?’
‘My office, Recruit.’
The line went dead without a goodbye, and he hurried to leave his room.
The agency floors were huge – it was something either commented on immediately by new recruits, or something they completed glossed over. Normal buildings, even large normal buildings, had to stick to some sort of sense of scale and sensibility.
Agency buildings weren’t limited by anything so sane.
Field’s primary floor held forty-five sets of quarters, though a good number of them weren’t occupied. These took up a large L-shaped section of the floor on the side away from the windows that looked down onto Queen Street. Each of the quarters was a decent-sized studio apartment – except for those recruits who had specifically requested more space, or a double-room, though the doors into each remained a regimented ten feet apart, as if the rooms inside were tiny.
There were the common rooms, the mess hall, the gym – which was ludicrously huge all by itself – and easily a dozen meeting rooms of varying sizes, along with the main conference room.
He had, however, long ago mapped out the most efficient path to Ryan’s office, and proceeded there – at something halfway between a brisk walk and a jog, quick enough to be there as expected, slow enough not to mess up his uniform.
Curt slowed when he was a few metres from Ryan’s office door, ran a hand up his chest to smooth his vest and shirt – wishing for the millionth time that he didn’t have to wear the waistcoat – walked up to the door, and knocked.
There was an immediate click as it unlocked, and he walked into the room without delay.
Ryan stood in front of his desk – directly in the centre, piles of paperwork to his left and right. ‘You applied to be my aide once,’ Ryan said.
Curt felt his heart jump into his throat and tried not to give a reaction. Jane had intimated that he was being considered for the position, but given everything the previous twenty-four hours had brought, it had seemed unlikely that anything would happen.
‘Yes, sir,’ he said, falling back on the appearance of respect to fill the silence.
‘I don’t want you as my aide,’ Ryan said, and the world seemed to go flat again. The agent folded his arms. ‘I respect your ability, and your service.’ He closed his mouth, unwilling to say anything further.
‘But,’ Curt said, knowing the agent wanted him to say it. ‘Appointing an aide requires a certain level of trust, and I have–’ He bit back on a hundred things he could have said. ‘And I have done nothing to earn that as yet. I understand, sir. How can I be of assistance?’
It was a performance, and he suspected that Ryan knew as much, but it was a pantomime that needed to occur. Ryan was often truthful with him and had even expressed some truly raw and secret things – the twin points of being beaten and being told about the agent’s wish on the mirror demonstrated just that.
But the majority of the time, Agent Ryan was an agent – far more so than any agent he’d ever met.
Agents weren’t human, and that was so very easy to see. It didn’t take long amongst the Solstice to learn to pick them out of crowds – there were common things that every agent did, elements that had be amongst their base code, things that marked them as brothers, even more so than just brothers in arms.
It went beyond the assembly-line gestures and movements. It was in everything they did, and the way they thought.
Oftentimes, agents seemed to be either over-exaggerated, or under-exaggerated humans. Some emotions would run stronger than others, or rule over actions more heavily than they would in a human.
Taylor, for example, was a ginger version of the Hulk, but there still seemed to be something…far more human about him than Ryan. Taylor was monosyllabic, unreasonable, and frighteningly violent – to everyone, up to and including Magnolia – but his thought patterns seemed almost more discernible than Ryan’s.
Ryan retreated behind his desk, sat in the intimidating leather chair, and pointed to the paperwork. ‘Frankly,’ he said, more of his normal emotion back in his voice, ‘I’m inundated, and the situation with Stef isn’t going to make that any better. I need help, and I’m sure we can come to some reasonable–’
Ryan was willing to offer him a bribe – and aside from a way out of the Agency, there was only one thing that jumped immediately to mind: the absolution and knowledge that he hadn’t ruined Stef’s life.
He couldn’t look too eager, though. He stepped forward. ‘I know how to do all of these, sir. Obviously I don’t have the authority to sign off on them, but I could process them to the point where they only require your approval.’ He began to thumb though all of the piles, and he recognised each form as it met his eyes. ‘Yes, sir,’ he said. ‘This won’t be a problem.’
‘I understand that this is a day off for you–’
He gave the agent a small, professional smile. ‘Frankly, sir, I wasn’t planning on doing anything productive. I’m happy to put myself on the schedule for today.’
Curt began to do some perfunctory sorting as he slowly counted down from ten. ‘Sir, there is something that I’d like you to consider something in return.’
Ryan kept his face neutral. ‘What?’
‘I want to see Stef, sir.’ He felt his shoulders slump, and he tried to adjust his body to stay firmly in “Recruit Curt” mode. With Ryan’s eyes on him, it was getting harder and harder to push back the knowledge that the man had seemed perfectly willing to beat him half to death the day before.
Ryan stared at him, then he folded his hands on the desk – a default move. A default move Curt had done his very best to copy during interrogations and questioning sessions.
It was probably one of the things that helped Raz believe that he was an agent.
‘No one can see her at the moment,’ Ryan said, his voice neutral. ‘The augmentation process will be done in a couple of days. When she’s available…’ He trailed off, then looked up. ‘Recruit, your cover story only applies to your peers.’
He took an involuntary step back from Ryan’s desk, a cold feeling settling into his chest. It was a reasonable request. Everyone had the right to know what kind of a monster he was. It needed to be hung on a sign around his neck so everyone knew how to judge him.
His tongue fumbled in his mouth for a moment. ‘Yes, sir. That’s fine, sir.’
It was a small grace to be allowed to tell her himself.
Ryan looked at the paperwork. ‘I’ll shift this to Meeting Room Eight. Just contact me if you need anything.’
Curt snapped himself taut and gave a sharp nod. ‘Yes, sir. It’ll be done by the end of the day.’