The Grey Edge: Chapter Thirty-Five

‘You’re sure you want me there, sir?’ Curt asked as he looked up from the folder.
‘I am fairly certain I requested you,’ Ryan said with a slight smile. ‘Having an Aide increases our presence, but doesn’t make us look threatening, and they’re already going to be wary enough.’
There was nothing wrong with appearing harmless – they were responsible – for a given value of responsibility – for the death of one of their politicians. Tact was needed. Sympathy was needed. A show of force might seem hostile, might seem as though they had planned the Matriarch’s death.
‘They blame us,’ Curt said bluntly.
He gave his Aide a nod. ‘Yes, but at least they’re willing to meet, they’re willing to hear our side of the story.’
‘Unless they’re going through it for the formality.’
‘If they want to go against us,’ he said, ‘they wouldn’t bother with formalities. The situation with the magpies is delicate, what happened was their fault, but Magnolia’s involvement makes things…’
‘Fuzzy?’ Curt suggested.
He gave a nod.
‘Still,’ Curt said, ‘I don’t have the experience for this. Paperwork, sure. Babysitting Stef, sure. Organising the schedules, the training, all fine, but I don’t know anything about negotiation.’
‘Consider it a learning experience,’ he said, ‘you don’t have to participate, just watch and learn. In all honesty, it’s likely going to be a case of both of us staying on the sidelines while Clarke does all the work. They want the meeting here, and my presence so that they know it’s official.’
‘And you’re sure-‘ Curt began, then shook his head. ‘I was going to ask if you were sure Stef wouldn’t mind, but I think I’m finally learning better.’
‘This isn’t the kind of Court business that interests her,’ he said, ‘now if this were the Lost, then she’d be attending, she’s one of theirs after all, even if she’s Found, they don’t cut ties like some Courts.’
Curt nodded. ‘It’s hard to be lost around here.’
‘When it comes to the Lost, it’s generally the parents that are to blame,’ he said, ‘it’s not hard to be a good parent.’ He looked at the small framed photo of Stef and Buttercup on the edge of his desk. ‘It’s not-‘ He looked up at Curt, and cut himself off, seeing the boy’s professional demeanour gone.
Curt looked away from him, and began to shuffle through the files in his hands.
He wasn’t the only father in the room.
‘I’m sorry, Curt.’
‘Sir, you didn’t-’
‘I’m sorry, Curt,’ he said again.
Curt was quiet for a moment, then looked up. ‘Does my new clearance mean I can leave the state, sir?’
He shook his head. ‘No, it hasn’t been two years yet.’ He held up a hand as Curt began to argue. ‘You can’t leave the state on your own, you can, however, if you have an agent with you.’
‘Like Russia,’ Curt said. ‘I-’
‘Like after we’re done with the Salmon,’ he said with a smile. ‘Consider it an apology for how unfair I was to you.’
‘It wasn’t unfair, sir, I deserved it.’
‘You deserved the scrutiny, not the lack of encouragement, or the lack of appreciation. I didn’t want to believe in a rehabilitated Solstice, because I didn’t want that trust to be violated.’
‘It only has to be for a few minutes, it’s not like I can talk to her or anything.’
‘After the meeting,’ he said, ‘I’ve got a few hours free… thanks to you.’
‘When are they due?’
He called up his clock. ‘In a few minutes, we should head to the conference room.’
‘I’m surprised,’ Curt said as he gathered up his folders and stood, ‘that they didn’t expect us to go to them.’
‘That is what they wanted,’ he said after shifting them both to the conference room. ‘Clarke convinced them otherwise. We have a friendly enough relationship with them – or at least we did before this – but still, no meeting that can possibly be held in system territory should be held elsewhere. That’s the policy, that’s what we have to adhere to.’
He sighed and moved to the window to watch the traffic below. It was calming. It was people going about their normal lives.
It meant they were doing their job.
‘We’re all together too precious with ourselves,’ he said. ‘We protect ourselves far too much. There’s a difference between being sensible and being reprimanded if we go ten feet into a blackout zone to rescue a recruit.’
‘I’ve always wondered… with the restrictions, why isn’t entering Fairyland banned?’
‘It may as well be,’ he said, ‘by entering Fairyland, you’re agreeing to being left for dead should anything happen.’
Curt stared at him for a moment. ‘How is that different to choosing to go into a blackout zone?’
‘Bureaucracy and the likelihood of something going wrong. Fairies, for the most part, are fine with the Agency, and even those who have negative feelings aren’t going to attack an agent without provocation.’
‘Is it also a numbers game, sir?’
‘Given the population well exceeds a billion, that’s a fair assessment, Curt.’
[They’re coming up now, sir,] Clarke said.
[Acknowledged,] he sent back as voice only, then broke the connection. He moved away from the window, straightened his tie and took his seat at the head of the conference table.
‘They’ll be up in a moment.’
Curt, to his left, nervously squared a few files, then played with his expensive-looking pen.
After a few more minutes, the Salmon delegation entered – another Matriarch, if Clarke’s information had been right, half a dozen guards, a nervous-looking young man and a tall man sporting an oft-broken flat nose in an ill-fitting suit.
It wasn’t fair to listen to stereotypes. If stereotypes were to be believed then he was nothing more than a…a machine, not a person. Some stereotypes, however, had a basis in reality – and wombats working for a family other than their own was one of them.
Especially wombats that looked as though they could give Taylor a decent beating.
But Taylor wasn’t there, and if things turned violent, they would have to rely on Michaels, and he wasn’t…For good and for ill, he wasn’t Taylor.
It was so strange to notice Taylor’s absence.
[He’s been civil so far,] Clarke sent back, while he continued to show each member of the delegation to their seats. [Do you blame them for bringing a bruiser?]
[I’m worried they’re looking for a fight.]
[Again, can you blame them?]
The Matriarch sat at the opposite end of the table, and he gave her a polite smile, unwilling to speak out of turn. Clarke sat halfway down the table, between two of the guards, and opposite the large wombat man.
Curt continued to tap his pen, then let it disappear as it quickly became the only sound in the room.
There were only around ten thousand true psychics in the world, but he was sure that every one of them would have agreed with the feeling of dread, and the distinct impression that it was not going to be a civil meeting.
‘I think a round of introductions is in order,’ Clarke began, ‘This is Matriarch Mikri-Peterson. Matriarch, this is Director Ryan. With her are-’
Lines of contempt crossed the woman’s face. ‘There’s no need to introduce everyone else, clerk, and if it’s all the same, I would prefer to deal with Reynolds.’
He was glad that he had thought to adjust the amount of emotion he displayed, as he was sure that his look of shock would not have endeared them any to the angry Matriarch.
‘Madam,’ Clarke said slowly, ‘Director Reynolds is unavailable.’
‘I thought you were serious about this meeting achieving a favourable outcome,’ she hissed.
‘Reynolds cannot be here,’ Ryan said, ‘I’m afraid that I’ll have to do.’
‘Reynolds, judging by the stories that our last queen told us, is a man you can trust, I have no such assurances about the rest of you.’
‘He chose me as his successor,’ he said, trying his best not to sound defensive.
‘He retired?’ the Matriarch spat.
‘Do you remember when Evir of the Lost was taken?’
The Matriarch leaned back in her chair for a moment, then nodded. ‘I’ve heard the story.’
‘Reynolds was taken at the same time. The Lost weren’t the only ones to suffer casualties or…losses of more than just their people. I knew Reynolds,’ he said, ‘I was generated less than a year after he was, and I can promise to show you all the courtesy he would.’
The Matriarch stared at him, like one of the techs attempting a particularly difficult piece of mathematics or magic, or like Stef attempting to choose just one item in a bakery to buy.
Mikri-Peterson’s painted lips curled in a cruel smile. ‘You’re the Dusker.’
‘I am not.’
‘You are,’ she said, raising her voice, ‘you’re that gods-be-damned Dusker.’
He watched as all the eyes in the room slowly turned to him.
‘I am not,’ he said again, keeping the anger out of his voice, ‘I was generated from his template,’ he said, unable to shift the uncomfortable feeling of being forced to speak about himself. ‘However, I am not him. I am Agent Ryan, Acting Director of this Agency, and I am not a Dusker.’
‘You are at fault for the murder of one of our Matriarchs, and we are seeking retribution.’
‘We would like to explain the situation-’ he began.
‘You’ve had time to explain yourselves, you invoked courtesy, we gave it to you, and now things will happen how we wish.’
Clarke put on his best submissive face, turned and looked at the Matriarch. ‘Madam, we can-’
She reached into her purse, and placed a small, oval object on the table.
Had he been human, his heart would have skipped a beat. Still, he felt his throat constrict, and his expression, no matter how limited the emotion he was allowing through, become very much less professional.
The device looked very much like a Faberge egg. Small, smooth, painted blue and gold.
The device looked very much like one that could take out half the Agency without much trouble.
In a split second he processed two commands.
Alarms sounded, and he heard the internal structure of the Agency changing, going into lockdown.
‘Matriarch-’ Clarke stuttered.
‘All three of you know what this is. If you move, if you require, if you shift, I will set it off. If you speak out of turn, I will set it off. I felt that this was the only way we could get some honest answers out of the Agency, if I was not allowed to deal with Reynolds.’
The bomb…the…fae equivalent of a small-yield nuclear device, could not be shifted from the room, could not be disarmed before it was set off, and- And there was no guarantee the lock down procedures would be enough to contain it.
He blocked an incoming communication, and looked back at Mikri-Peterson. ‘You,’ the Matriach said, ‘clerk. What are you thinking right now?’
‘That,’ Clarke swallowed, ‘that there is some way we can work this out.’
‘He’s lying,’ the nervous-looking young man said. ‘He’s saying what’s expected of him, not what he’s thinking.’
The Matriarch ran her fingers over the explosive. ‘I want honesty. And allow me to mention that I brought a reader.’
Clarke’s expression became indignant. ‘I wish that I had jacked off this morning, that’s what I’m thinking, happy?’
The Matriarch turned to the young man, and he nodded. ‘That’s the truth.’
‘Was that hard, clerk?’
‘And now he’s thinking about auto-erotic asphyxiation.’
The Matriarch turned her gaze on Curt. ‘You, Recruit, what are you thinking about?’
‘That I wish I knew the right thing to say or do so that I could be the hero for once.’
The reader gave a nod, and the Matriarch turned her hateful look on him. ‘And you, Dusker?’
Hot pain burned in his mind, and he could feel the reader clumsily intruding in on all of his thoughts. ‘I’m thinking of just how easily I will act contrary to my duty.’
‘Elaborate,’ she snapped.
‘As soon as I saw that, I initiated a lock down. Everyone in this room will die if you set it off, but hopefully that will be the extent of the casualties.’
The pressure in his mind increased.
‘That’s my duty, but it isn’t what I did first. The first thing I did was shift my daughter out of here. The lock down I put in place clears the Agency of personnel, but with such a number of people being shifted out of here, there can be a lag, and I didn’t want her being left behind.’
‘Sex, love and narcissism,’ the reader said, ‘the agent’s full of guilt, but not for Matriarch Besper.’
‘That’s your professional opinion?’
‘I think they may be worth hearing out,’ he said. ‘But only if you wish, Matriarch Mikri.’
She looked at each of them in turn. ‘I will hear you out,’ she said as she slipped the explosive back into her purse. ‘But my reader will stay and keep you honest.’