Ryan paused in his paperwork when Jones’ face appeared in his HUD. [Sir, could I see you for a minute?]
[Of course,] he said. [What is it?]
He placed his pen down and shifted to the tech’s lab.
Jones ignored him for a moment while he crouched in one of the lab’s corners. He looked past the tech and saw Merlin there, asleep on what looked like a large pillow designed for a dog. The tech placed a hand on the slight boy’s shoulder and shifted him away from the lab. ‘Sorry,’ Jones said, ‘he’s been working for too long. He worked through the night, even though I told him not to.’
Part of him immediately bristled at the idea of such a young person helping with the code for his child, but second thoughts dismissed – Jones wouldn’t let Merlin help if it wasn’t safe. ‘It’s fine,’ he said. Ryan turned his attention to the large table in the middle of the room, and the Stef-in-progress, which was mostly covered with a sheet. ‘Did he have fun helping with her?’ he asked as he approached the table.
‘He had some amazing insights,’ Jones said as he sat at his chair on the opposite side of the examination table. ‘So much as it sounds like PR bullshit sometimes, recruiting human really was the best thing that happened to the Agencies.’
‘Even though he’s not a recruit,’ Ryan said, then winced at his thoughtless words.
‘Or entirely human for that matter,’ Jones said, his face slipping back toward neutral. ‘But Merlin’s neither here nor there at the moment, let’s leave my child alone and focus on yours.’
Ryan looked down Stef, dead on Jones’ slab.
No, not dead, inert. Just a shell, all parts of her were scattered, disparate, waiting to come back together so she could start her new life. Still, she looked dead. Dead like-
‘This is the third time I’ve done this,’ Jones said quietly as he removed his glasses and laid them on the sheet covering Stef, ‘and honest to Chaos, I regret the first two times.’
The tech’s quiet voice halted his thoughts, and self-restraint stopped him from thinking too much on the first two times.
The overwhelming guilt, the pain, the-
Ryan marshalled his thoughts, this was different, it was such a different thing to what they had done for Carol, or for Taylor. It wasn’t going to fail this time, it was going to be fine. She was going to be fine.
Fine. She was going to be fine. Just like they thought Carol was going to be fine. Just like they thought Taylor was going to be fine.
Ryan swallowed, looking for the positive, looking for a way out of the guilt-ridden memories. Nothing came. ‘It’s different this time,’ he said, his voice weak.
Jones looked up, tears in his eyes. ‘And if it’s not?’
It had to be different.
Jones pinched the bridge of his nose, then put his glasses back on, but didn’t look any happier. ‘Sir,’ he said, as he busied himself with a tablet. ‘What happened with Carol wasn’t my fault. I know it sounds pathetic to say that, but it wasn’t. I went over every line of code, more times than I care to repeat and-’
Ryan took a step forward and put both of his hands on Jones’ shoulders, and felt the tech shaking. ‘I never blamed you, Jones. Never.’
Jones discarded the tablet and stood. ‘But she still- And I was the one- It had to be code, nothing else makes sense.’
Ryan embraced the smaller agent. ‘I trust that you didn’t purposely send my lover insane, and I trust you with Stef.’
Jones pulled away, and smiled limply. ‘Because she’s already far from neurotypical?’
‘Because you’re a good agent, and a good friend, even if I don’t deserve the latter.’ Carol was one case, Taylor was another. ‘And Taylor-’
Jones looked up, a flicker of hatred in his face. ‘I wish that man was dead.’ He rubbed his temples. ‘It was wrong. We shouldn’t- I’ve been thinking about nothing else. The agent downstairs is not our friend. Taylor was…kind,’ he said, the word seeming to cause him pain. ‘He was fun. He wasn’t a monster.’ A noise that was half a cry and half a laugh came from deep within his chest, and the tech agent wrung his hands. ‘I keep hoping that someone will kill him, and that it won’t have to be me that puts him down.’
Ryan felt automatic, almost autonomic desires to chastise Jones for speaking of killing a peer, but he pushed away his programming, and reached his hand back towards Jones’ shoulder. ‘You did better than anyone could have expected.’
‘We brought back Taylor for ourselves, because of our guilt, because we could not stand to lose him. We did not do it for him.’
‘I am not averse to playing god, sir,’ Jones said with a wan smile, ‘but-’ He pinched the bridge of his nose again. ‘If you trust me, then there’s something we need to do in order to proceed.’
Jones touched the sheet covering Stef, and a square of fabric disappeared, exposing a slowly flowing mass of blue that surrounded her heart.
‘As a scientist,’ Jones said, ‘it puts me in the uncomfortable position of having to acknowledge that I know nothing about how the mirror functions, and can never know, so I am limited to observation and testing, whilst trying to do my very best.’
Ryan felt trepidation sliding up his throat. ‘That’s all that can be expected. What- What is the issue?’
‘A demonstration first.’ Jones waved for him to follow. ‘What’s you’re about to see is a simulation, so don’t-’ Green eyes glittered. ‘Don’t freak out.’
Halfway across the small lab, a fully-suited Stef appeared. ‘At the moment, this is how she functions, at least, I think.’ Jones made a finger gun. ‘Boom!’
The simulated Stef began to bleed from the chest, collapsed to the floor and began to bleed translucent blood onto the floor.
‘This leaves her far too open to attack. She’s too vulnerable. It’s very un-agent-like. However, the thing is, this would work anywhere. It’s pure mirror magic, it doesn’t care if it’s in system territory or a blackout zone.’
The simulated Stef coughed, spasmed a few more times, then went still.
‘The other option?’
‘It’s not other,’ Jones said, ‘it’s only. We wouldn’t get final approval for her if getting injured in the field means that the Solstice have a chance at getting at the mirror.’
‘So what do we do then?’
‘We’ve got to let programming take over in this instance.’ The simulated Stef returned, and this time, when shot with the finger gun, she fell and immediately disappeared. ‘We’ve got let agent programming take over so she pops out and regenerates, just like you, or anyone else would.’
Ryan stared at the floor. ‘…the caveat to that being that it won’t work in blackout zones.’
‘Exactly.’ The tech smiled. ‘But, she’ll be terrified of blackout zones, just like the rest of us, it should make her feel more like a real agent.’ He looked away for a moment. ‘And really, when it comes down to it, it’s the lesser of two evils. It means she’s safer a lot more of the time. And it will mean less pain for her, she won’t have to go through the trauma of dying each and every time, just a nice clean break. It’ll be better.’
He nodded. ‘I trust you.’
‘Well, that’s the biggest worry out of the way.’
Jones looked uncomfortable for a moment. ‘“Off switches”’ he said.
He required himself a chair and sat. ‘A shatter sequence, I know.’
‘And we’re putting in a backup, just in case that fails.’ Jones stood, walked around the slab that held Stef, the sheet disappearing, only to be replaced by a set of hospital scrubs. He pushed the corpse up into a sitting position, and lifted the back of the loose top.
There was an X drawn on her back in pen. ‘Puncture the skin, crush that vertebrae, and a toxin will flood her. She won’t feel anything, just like she’s going to sleep, meanwhile her body, code, flesh, mirror, everything, will just melt. Only another agent can do it, so it won’t get triggered by accident.’
He stared at the X, imagining himself having to use the toxin. A small hand entered his vision, and pressed another piece of fruit to his lips. He took the piece from Merlin’s hand, then ate it, the inherent magic of the sweet fruit calming him a little.
Jones sat back down, and was immediately besieged by Merlin, who grabbed the tech’s arm and wouldn’t let it go. ‘Limiters next,’ Jones said.
‘A lot more so than-’ he cut himself off and looked at Merlin.
‘Than Carol, yes.’ Jones said. The tech looked at the loving growth on his arm and patted the boy on the head. ‘I told him what happened. He knows to keep it a secret.’
‘She was really pretty,’ Merlin said.
‘Yes,’ he said, ‘she was.’
‘With Carol,’ Jones said, ‘we tried to make her almost as powerful as a regular agent. Seventy-five percent or so. And I remember she took you in a few sparring matches,’ Jones said with a smile. ‘We’re not doing that for Stef.’
Merlin looked up. ‘Even we’re not good enough to cram kick-ass into Agent Squishy.’
Ryan couldn’t hold back a smile. ‘So what are we doing then?’
Merlin gave him an intense stare – the kind only a small child could manage. ‘What’s this “we” stuff? You gonna help us program? You don’t even game, how can you help us design her UI?’
‘She’s going to have a non-standard HUD?’ he asked.
‘Just theming it for ease-of-access,’ Jones said. ‘She’s a hacker, so she likely already thinks like she has a computer in her head, I’m designing a custom UI extrapolating from that.’
‘…but he won’t let me make it pink,’ Merlin whined.
‘…I don’t think that would that would be a good idea,’ Ryan said.
Merlin grinned. ‘But it would be fun to watch.’
‘Anyway…’ he said, looking back at Jones.
‘We’re going to top her out at about thirty percent, any more and we’re pushing it.’
‘Thirty percent,’ Ryan repeated, trying to imagine the practical applications of the number.
‘Roughly…Magnolia’s level,’ Jones said. ‘But probably not her match, because Magnolia is trained, Stef isn’t.’
‘What combat are you giving her?’
‘To state the obvious, targeting. She’ll be able to shoot straight.’
‘Well, that’s a definite improvement.’
‘As to the rest, we’re very much toning it down in comparison to what we gave Carol, a lot of it will be reflexive, rather than conscious. We’ll have to tweak everything after we get her up and around.’
He looked at the body. ‘Which will be when?’
‘Help me alter this heart of hers, and she’ll be up.’
He looked over at Jones and nodded. Jones stood, required away Stef’s shirt, and a hole opened up in his recruit’s chest, exposing the mirror inside.
Ryan looked up at Jones. ‘How do I do this?’
Jones shrugged. ‘I, er, was hoping you knew. I’ve never played with mirror magic. You brought her back all right, I thought this would be easier.’
Ryan stared at his warped reflection in the mirror, occasionally morphing into expressions that he didn’t have on his own face. ‘Wishing someone back to life, it’s a simple wish, you know exactly what you want.’
‘You ask it nicely,’ Merlin said quietly.
‘Merlin…’ Jones cautioned.
‘He and she,’ the boy said – presumably referring to his parents, ‘I saw them do things with mirrors. They only had little, little pieces, but the way they did it was always the same, they asked for it.’
Ryan knew he was hesitating, looking for any excuse not to make another wish, not to take another risk with Stef’s life. ‘I asked the last time, but this is…a lot more precise.’
Merlin put on small hand on his shoulder, and another on the case. ‘Mirrors aren’t lawyers, and you’re not making a fairy bargain, it’s like requiring, if you know what you want, it’ll know what you mean. It’s how it works for people who can’t speak, or say the words to articulate what they mean.’ With this, Merlin grabbed the fruit bowl and bit into a large chunk, the juice running down his chin.
Ryan laid a hand on the mirror heart, and asked it to allow the overrides by the agent programming. It shook for a moment, then settled. A thought put Stef in a new shirt, then he lifted a hand and held onto hers.
It felt like a good step forward. Progress.