Ryan shifted back to his office, and sat heavily on his chair, watching Stef sleep for a moment. The stress was gone from her face, the tension from her body – the tests were over, and she was an agent. She’d put up with everything asked of her, and passed with as high-flying colours as the limit testing would allow.
It had to be done. There was no choice.
It had to be done, and now was the best time to do it.
The sooner it was done…the sooner it was over.
He pushed himself away from the desk, bent low and rummaged in his bottom drawer. Amongst a few of Alexander’s drawings, a box containing his wedding ring, scraps of paper containing phone numbers he’d long committed to memory, there was a bottle. He poured himself a shot, and drank it down, savoring the burning feeling in his throat. Pain. There was a lot of pain to come.
He looked across at her dozing form, asleep under his jacket like she’d been after watching the phoenix’s visit. He slammed down another shot, despairing at how low the bottle was – not that there were many occasions where he needed alcohol that could affect him, but it was nice to have the option there. The unicorn wine in his vault didn’t count – that was a drink to be had at celebrations, to be enjoyed, not some bitter liquid to be used to drown one’s sorrows.
A quick trip to any market would solve the problem, but that presumed the time to stroll through the various temptations of a faerie market, to stop and browse through trinkets, to taste foods foreign and familiar, or to watch displays of impractical magic, far from the threat of Solstice.
He took a third shot, threw the bottle back into the drawer and walked towards her. He lifted her slightly, sliding himself in against the arm of the chair, requiring a cushion, placing it across his legs and letting her head rest on his lap.
He braced himself against the solid couch, wishing that there was any alternative to this. There was no argument to be made: it was an order, more than that, it was a condition of her survival. If he couldn’t do his duty, then it might cause the whole experiment – her whole life – to be reviewed. That was something he would not allow, no matter the cost.
Brushing a few strands of hair back from her face, he smiled down at her as she stirred and opened her eyes – blinking like a newborn. ‘Hey,’ she mumbled, raising a hand to wipe the corner of her mouth.
He let his hand rest against her temple, his fingers splaying over her forehead. ‘Just one more nightmare, Stef,’ he whispered as he dove into her mind.
The reaction was instantaneous.
She began to scream, bucking and spasming as his mind fought to make contact with hers. Arms flailed with uncoordinated attempts to bat his hand away.
He raised his other hand to her head, doubling the connection attempts, and slowly, the connection was made, and she snapped almost still, her bottom lip trembling, and her breathing irregular.
He forced himself to close his eyes, and with a single selection on his HUD, he crossed the connection he’d made, everything fading to blue-tinged silhouettes for a moment. His vision readjusted itself quickly enough – and he found himself in a circular room, covered on all sides by doors.
He stood up from the crouch he found himself in – appreciating and detesting the ability to walk around another’s mind. It made the non-linear task of stripping out memories easier, being able to see the connections in a three-dimensional space, but it also gave him a presence in the other mind, making him feel like the intruder he was.
He unpacked a zipped file – the exact date and time parameters of what he needed to delete, and see the program free, watching particles slip under the circle of doors, and through the walls to seek out anything related to the past week.
It was so much easier to accomplish this in an agent’s mind, which was organised to a point, structured, and came with time stamps. Purely human minds were harder, though generally only a very few memories were being sought, for destruction or viewing, and there were ways of moving through the disorganisation of the human mind. He wasn’t very good at it, a fact he carried with pride. Others saw their ability to efficiently violate another’s mind as a point of pride. Those kind of agents weren’t worth his time.
In an eye blink, there were two girls – no, two Stefs – on the floor in front of him, both with their backs to turned to him. One was on the floor, head hung low, the other knelt behind her, arms wrapped around her shoulders.
‘Something’s wrong,’ the one on the floor said.
‘I know,’ the one kneeling said, ‘just relax, we’ll figure out what’s wrong.’
‘It’s another glitch, isn’t it?’
The kneeling one shook her head. ‘No, Spyder, it isn’t, I’m here. I’m not here in your glitches. Whatever this is, it’s real.’
‘Unless I’m glitching about you.’
The kneeling was rounded her twin and sat on the floor in front of her. ‘Do you really want to start that?
‘Then give me something better to do.’
‘Stef.’
The kneeling one snapped her head up to look at him, staring at him with a face only half in colour. The left side of her face was true to life, with as much colour as his little hacker girl tended to have, but the right side of her face was simply a muted monochrome. ‘How did you get in here? You aren’t one of us, and-’
‘Magic,’ he said simply, ‘I used magic.’
‘You could have just asked,’ the sitting one said, still not turning to look at him, ‘what was on my mind.’
‘That would not have sufficed,’ he said as he took a step toward her.
‘I think I’m in a lot of pain,’ she mumbled, ‘but then again, I’m not so sure. What…what’s going on?’
‘And why are you in here?’ the bolder of the two demanded, standing and walking towards him.
‘It isn’t easy to explain,’ he said as a glowing dot appeared under his foot – the first tracer had come back with a memory.
‘Try using your words.’
He crouched to grab at the dot, staring at the line it drew in the wood towards one of the doors. ‘I can’t-’
‘Why are you hurting me?’
‘Answer her,’ the Stef in front of him demanded. ‘You owe us that much.’
He pulled at the edges of the dot and made it larger, a fragment of a repeating memory playing within the two-dimensional surface. ‘I have to wipe your memories.’
‘What?!’
‘I have to, Stef, I’m sorry.’ He made a move toward the much weaker half, but the bolder half jumped in front of him, her bland garment morphing quickly into a uniform.
‘You talk to me!’ She ordered. ‘You have anything to say, you tell it to me, you keep going, and you’re going to break her. I’ll tell her what she needs to hear, but don’t force any of this on her.’
‘As you wish.’
‘Explain it. Justify yourself to me!’
‘If I don’t do this,’ he said, ‘I might lose you forever.’
‘No, not good enough, tell me why.’
He looked away for a moment, then turned his gaze back to her. ‘At the end of the day, we are all expendable, any life within the Agency can be taken away with one order. You, your situation is even more precarious, because, to them, you’re just an experiment. This is part of the procedure, part of what I had to agree to. This is my role to play.’
‘Why erase our memories?’
‘The reasoning for you being able to stand before me right now, to live, is flimsy enough. If it had been received by a less-sympathetic being, we probably wouldn’t have survived. I contravened my duty, protocol, and a dozen rules to bring you back to life. I was out of place. I was out of line. I get some leeway by a near-perfect record, but not enough not come under suspicion.’ He stared at the ground as more particles returned more memories. ‘They need to know that if you should…fail, that I won’t hesitate to execute you. That, although I lapsed, I am still perfectly capable of doing my duty. Doing this, causing you this pain, is a show of good faith on my behalf toward that end.’
‘But…we’re going to lose an entire week.’
‘You lost a month when you died,’ he said, forcing a smile on his face. ‘This year already looks very strange to you, after this though, everything will work towards normalising. Becoming the new normal.’
‘Was everything you said this week-?’ the one on the floor began.
‘In a minute, Spyder, this is more important.’
‘No, I can-’
‘Why is it so important that we lose this week?’
‘Because the limits tests aren’t about what you can become, they’re about what you are right now. How you handle…what you handled, to see if when you’re pushed past your limits, you snap and become a liability.’
‘We understand that, why do you think we…Gods, this is the most resilient she’s been in her life, and we went to private school. We understand why-’
‘None of that matters,’ he said, ‘if you can remember it, know what we’re capable of, what lengths we go to test our people…The thought is that you it might incline you towards betraying us.’ More particles swirled beneath his feet. ‘And you would have to sit across a conference table from a man who brutalised you for a week. How would you be able to handle working with a man who dropped a Buick on your head, threw you into a furnace and…tried to murder you.’
‘He already did.’
‘Right,’ the bolder one said. ‘Wait, did Jonesy tell you about that? After the contemplace, we woke up in your office, firstly to pseudo-groping by your resident wizard, then-’
‘Yes. That. That isn’t getting wiped. Just this week. So far as you know, all you’ll remember is stepping into the crystal chamber, then whatever you see when you wake up. Nothing in-between.’
‘Hey…’
The bolder Stef retreated to the girl on the floor, and helped her to stand. This one wasn’t wearing her uniform was, instead, the rumpled clothes she’d been in the night he’d pulled her from a wardrobe. ‘So everything you said this week,’ she said, her other self standing behind her, hands protectively on her shoulders. ‘Was it…was it all just to make me shut up, and easy to handle? I get a hug, and I’m placated, it’s a lot easier than actually dealing with the shit I went through.’
‘Every conversation I’ve had with you this week,’ he said, standing his ground. ‘I will have again. I couldn’t let things be unsaid, even if I knew you wouldn’t remember them.’ He looked away. ‘I have to take the chance you won’t react in the same way, or that something will scare you, and that we won’t have what we managed to build this week.’
‘Gods, you’re an idiot.’
‘What she said.’
He managed a smile. ‘Will waffles again suffice?’
‘Yeah, they’ll do.’
‘Forgive me?’
‘It still hurts.’
‘I know.’
The bolder twin sat the meek one down, moving close to her and pressing her head up against her twin’s.
‘You’re forgiven.’
He steeled himself, and crushed the memory in his hand. With a thought, the others began to rise up out of the floor, and he destroyed each and every one in turn, whether they were a moment involving pain, or a happy moment.
Slowly, the particles began to disappear, growing sparse as he destroyed more and more memories. At long last, only one memory remained.
‘Stef, come here.’
The two disparate halves had merged into one messy girl, one, half in hacker sleepwear and half in uniform. A vest hung open over an oversized top. A tie drooped loosely around her neck, covered in crumbs from snacks he hadn’t seen her consume, and uniform pants were crumpled beyond repair. Feet in dirty sneakers – despite the lack of dirt in the not-quite-real environment – dragged along the wooden floor as she approached.
‘I’m scared,’ she whispered.
‘I know.’
He let her cling to her as he destroyed the last trace of memory. His arms fell as she disappeared, and he hastily exited back across the link and broke all connections. Her mind was her own again. He let his own mind adjust to being in the real world again for a moment, a self-diagnostic immediately starting on reflex, just in case of any “contamination” from the link, or from residual memories that had crossed over. Everything came up clear, he blinked, and he looked down at the girl unconscious in his lap.
Her face, and the pillow her head rested on were both soaked with blood. Parts of it were dry, ugly patches, making her look as though she’d- He stopped his thoughts, unwilling to imagine her in any more pain. Most of it was still wet through, glistening blood the clear sign of the pain he’d inflicted.
He started as a dry patch suddenly became wet, quickly scanning her to see if the damage was-
Another damp splotch appeared in the centre of a dry patch, and he was easily able to label himself the culprit. More tears dripped off the edge of his chin and onto her face, and he lifted a hand to wipe them away, then retrieving the handkerchief from his pocket to dry his face.
‘Sorry,’ he whispered, before moving the handkerchief to her face, and attempting to clean the blood away.
Her face presentable, though a few stains remained, he stood, easily lifting her unconscious form. He shifted to the lab that had almost been a second home to her, and laid her gently on the table, content to leave he in the care of Jones and a dozing Merlin.
One shift later, he was back in his office. A thought retrieved the bottle from his bottom drawer – the levels of liquid being so low, he didn’t bother with a glass, it would only be a wasted requirement. A further thought replaced his couch with one that wasn’t covered in his recruit’s blood.
He emptied the bottle, placed it on the floor beside the couch, and laid down to sleep – dreams that wouldn’t come couldn’t shroud him in false happy thoughts, but a few hours of unconsciousness, a few hours of not having to consider his actions might suffice.
He closed his eyes and let himself sleep.