The Grey Edge: Chapter Thirty-Two

Stef blinked and waved a hand in front of her face, in an attempt to see past the flashing warning in her HUD.
She peered around it, closed Frankie’s lid and tried to stand.
‘Uh, is this normal?’
Clarke appeared in her HUD. [Taylor took Mags.]
Ryan’s face appeared beside Clarke’s. [When?]
[They’re gone, boss. Just now. Blackout. No trace.]
[Magpie,] Ryan said, the distaste obvious in his voice. [We need to-]
[We need to discuss this in person. Agents and Aides, ten minutes.]
The faces disappeared. ‘This is bad, right?’ she asked.
‘I hoped this wouldn’t happen,’ Ryan said as he lifted his jacket from the back of his chair and put it on, ‘But I thought it might. He wasn’t left with many avenues.’
She swung her legs off his couch and slipped her sneakers back on. ‘You don’t sound mad. Not…as mad as you should be, anyway.’
‘I wasn’t about to let him tear your heart out, we couldn’t do anything, and sensible negotiations with the Magpies aren’t possible. I’ve done worse for love, so I can’t be a hypocrite and judge him.’
‘What’s love got to do with this? It’s Taylor.’
‘It’s Taylor.’
He gave her a small nod.
‘It’s Taylor.’
‘I saw some compelling evidence this afternoon, and the Parkers are nothing if not gossip-mongers.’
‘It’s Taylor.’
‘Could you please go wake Curt?’
‘It’s. Taylor. TAYLOR. Terminators have more emotions than he does!’
He spun her towards the door. ‘Quickly.’
‘Taylor? And scary loli girl? I can…No, I can’t see that. I don’t want to see that. I don’t want to think about that. I mean…physics…AGH.’ The door opened and he gently pushed her out. ‘I need brain bleach.’
‘I’m gone,’ she said as she shifted.
Curt’s door, labelled twenty-four in the small, sensible nameplates that adorned every Agency door, stared back at her, and didn’t even have the courtesy to vibrate as she knocked. Four knocks yielded no response.
She stared at the door, then through the door, the vague outlines of the shapes inside the dorm room showing up in her HUD like an odd x-ray. His lifesign pulsed within his ghostly outline – he was there, alive, but asleep.
‘Geez,’ she muttered and shifted inside.
His pillows were on the floor, and the quilt covered his entire body, which made deciding a place to poke him awake hard. She required a long stick, stepped back and took a stab at him.
‘lolhi,’ she said, letting the stick disappear.
The quilt was thrown back, revealing his nearly-naked body. She closed her eyes, took a breath, then opened them again, and focused on his face. ‘Wakey, wakey.’
He ran a hand over his face and stared blearily up at her. ‘What the fuck are you doing in my room?’
‘Emergency, sorry, I tried knocking.’
He hung his head. ‘And I’m on painkillers,’ he said, ‘Doc must have given me a strong dose.’
‘You need painkillers?’
He made a vague motion toward the bandage on his arm. ‘I got clipped yesterday. Nothing serious.’ He pulled a glass of water from thin air. ‘What’s up?’
‘So much as I know, Mags got hit by bad magic, then Taylor kidnapped her, and now they’re both missing. We’re all meeting. And also…’
‘They’re um…’
‘Fleshing?’ she squeaked.
He gave a shrug and climbed out of his bed. ‘People have been assuming that for ages. People just figured they weren’t exclusive.’
‘Put clothes on!’
He looked down at himself. ‘I’m in boxers, newbie, settle.’
‘It’s your underwear, you may as well be naked.’
He sighed, and his suit appeared. ‘So who’s showing up?’
‘Everyone apparently,’ she said, grabbing hold of his suit and shifting to the conference room.
‘Yeah, but, everyone,’ he said, ‘or everyone, everyone, if you know what I mean. Room hasn’t been reconfigured for the outposts to be included.’ He nodded at each of the chairs, counting in a barely audible voice. ‘But there’s room for both doctors.’
‘You just woke up,’ she said, staring at him, ‘how are you functioning right now?’
‘Just because you need eighteen cups of coffee to be alert doesn’t mean I do.’
Jones appeared, his labcoat and glasses gone, a loose black-shirt-with-white-writing on it that declared him sane helping him blend in with the relatively low light of the conference room. ‘Morning.’
‘Where’s Merlin?’ she asked.
‘Agents and Aides only,’ Jones said, ‘and he’s asleep. I knew that stupid bastard was going to do this. There wasn’t anything I could do.’ Jones looked at her. ‘You, I could scrape together some reasoning for. There was nothing I could do for Magnolia.’
Curt required another glass of water, and gulped it down as Ryan and Clarke entered the room.
The doctors appeared and took their seats, holding hands beneath the table.
‘Take your seats, but not too far,’ Clarke said humourlessly as he stood at the end of the table. ‘Is everyone basically up to speed?’
‘I think we are,’ Ryan said, sitting across from her. ‘What are we doing from here?’
Clarke sat in his chair, required a bottle of gin and took a liberal drink from it before looking around the room. ‘Depends on how we want to handle this.’
Ryan pinched the bridge of his nose. ‘We-’
‘I haven’t pushed this up,’ Clarke said, ‘we’ve got a little while before the shit hits the fan. We can handle this however we want, if we’re careful, but we’ve all got to be in agreement, dissent isn’t going to get us anywhere, and we’re nowhere enough as it is, we’re down one agent who…never tell him I said this, but may as well be three, and the same for Mags. If this isn’t sorted in six hours, we’re going to need someone to fill in for him. This isn’t our immediate concern, but it’s easy, and now it’s been said, suggestions to me after we’re done here.’
She looked across at Ryan. [I don’t get it.]
Clarke, seemingly having grown the powers of a mind reader, spoke. ‘He went willingly, for those of you who don’t know, or want to ignore that fact. That’s bad for him, that’s bad for us. It’s treason, and we should be getting ready to cut ties with him, and to string him up if he shows his face in system territory again.’ The liaison agent lit a cigarette and blew out a long stream of smoke. ‘And that makes him taking Mags kidnapping, again, not good for him, not good for us. And someone told me they were fucking, true?’
The Parkers turned toward him in unison and nodded.
‘Jones, you owe me twenty bucks.’
‘Later,’ Jones said.
Clarke sucked angrily on his cigarette, stared down at the conference table, then looked at each of them in turn. ‘Hands up who wants to throw Taylor to the wolves.’
‘Clarke,’ Ryan snapped.
Clarke stabbed out the cigarette on the table. ‘Ryan, you know this is what it’s going to come down to, so what’s the point in bullshitting around? I was pulled out of bed and away from a girl with an iron grip to be here, so unless one of you is going to drop and blow me to make this tolerable, I’m not going to pussyfoot around on this. Delicacy is for nine-to-five, I figure I can speak plain here.’
‘He’s an arsehole,’ she said.
‘So that’s one vote for the wolves,’ Clarke said.
‘There’s the issue of self-preservation,’ Jones said. ‘Save him.’
Clarke nodded. ‘He’s found guilty, we’re examined, and who knows how far they’ll take it – could be bugs, could be random audits, or the could decide it’s the final straw and just dismantle this Agency and recycle all of you.’
‘All of us, don’t you mean?’ Ryan asked.
‘I can argue that I’m just the liaison, so I’m not around enough to get corrupted. Example, I didn’t exactly vote in favour of the girly there. You’re all good people, but you’re agents, present Solstice company excepted, you’re supposed to be better than people. You’re selfish, you ignore duty when it suits you, you squander resources, your output is questionable and You. Never. Get. Your. Paperwork. In. On. Time!’
‘In the long-term it’s probably better if the Enforcers get him. We try and fail to cover this up, and the internal affairs shit that’s going to come out of it…it just isn’t worth it. Us or him, people, it’s not a choice. Two-one,’ Clarke said, turning his gaze on the Parkers. ‘Doctors?’
‘We cancel each other out,’ the shorter of the doctors said. ‘Look to the others.’
Ryan folded his arms across his chest. ‘Can you blame him for what he’s done?’
‘It’s treason and kidnapping. He’s gone willingly to a hostile Court, gods know what Magpie is going to do to him, and how that is going to fuck us over. There are some things you don’t do for a piece of snatch.’
‘We should at least attempt retrieval.’
She shot him an angry look, which he countered with a smile. [He is…what he is, but he’s part of this Agency, and Reynolds won’t forgive me if I abandon him.]
[He wants me dead.]
[Think of it this way, he’ll owe you.]
She stared at the table for a moment. [Call him an arsehole, and I won’t be trouble.]
[I’ve never heard you swear, this is your payment.]
He shook his head slightly. [He’s an arsehole, but he’s our arsehole, can you accept that? He hurts you, I won’t hesitate to kill him myself, but it would be unfair to not give him a chance to change. Love can be very good for a person.]
‘Two all,’ Clarke said. ‘Guess it’s down to the Aides.’
Curt squirmed in his chair, and she fought the urge to give him a patronising pat. He straightened his tie, then looked up. ‘I trust Agent Ryan’s judgement, three-two, Agent Clarke.’
‘I also voted against house-training you,’ Clarke said. ‘Fine, rescue mission it is.’