The Grey Edge: Chapter Forty-Five

Ryan looked up as Clarke entered the conference room. The liaison barely looked at him, instead starting to pace around the room, nearly walking into Darren, and only stopping when he came to Grigori.
He watched as Clarke flipped open the Russian’s jacket, and extract a hip flask from an inner pocket. ‘Pay you later,’ Clarke muttered.
‘I have more if you need it,’ Grigori said.
Clarke turned to look at him. ‘Taylor’s…not coming back.’
‘He’s dead?’
Clarke continued to pace around the conference room. ‘May as well be. He’s suffering withdrawal really badly, and he’s been unconscious too long to wake up.’
‘Do you want to start at the beginning?’
‘Not particularly, Ryan,’ Clarke said, but sat at the head of the table anyway. He lifted the hip flask, drained it all, then looked at each agent in turn. ‘None of this is overly pleasant, if you can’t handle squick, then leave now.’
‘I wouldn’t be here if I didn’t want to hear the truth,’ Grigori said.
‘Just talk,’ Darren said.
Clarke ran his hands through his hair, sighed, then nodded. A lit cigarette appeared in his hand, and after a long drag, he looked up. ‘So, first, sitting in a waiting room for three hours. This, on it’s own, wouldn’t have been so bad…had it not been for four screens showing agent snuff porn. Not like I could say anything, or whatnot…and some of it was real, not just that fakey stuff they make with regenners in costume.’
‘The Remington video?’ Grigori asked.
‘It was somewhere in the playlist,’ he said, ‘it’s a classic ain’t it?’ Clarke sucked bitterly on his cigarette for a moment. ‘So after that joy, got escorted through…and I’m starting to think Magpie is blind, her Court is seriously that ugly.’
‘What about Magnolia?’ Darren asked.
‘Before or after I had to watch her suck off one of her brothers?’
Darren went silent and stared down at the glass of the conference table.
‘After, Clarke,’ he said, ‘we-’
‘If I had to go through this shit, Ryan, you lot can at least hear about it. My job isn’t always pleasant, but this…I don’t have words to describe how disgusted I am right now.’
He sighed. ‘Magnolia’s alive at least.’
‘Could be in much worse condition, considering…and if they get their way, there will be…this is all some fucked-up plan to create a super baby. Magpie wants a replacement, and Mags is going to be the mummy. She isn’t pregnant, but it’s not for a lack of trying.’
‘And Taylor?’
‘Welcome whoever Jonesy and the techs build with open arms because we’re not getting them back.’
The words were expected. The information had been easily interpolated. It was the truth, it was what had been predicted.
It still hurt.
‘How bad was he?’ he heard himself ask.
‘Bad, boss,’ Clarke said. ‘Way worse than when you were pulled back over. You might have been shaking yourself apart and couldn’t tell glitch from reality, but you were mobile, a bit, at least.’
He looked away for a moment, not wanting to concentrate on bad memories.
‘He’s not…’ Clarke continued. ‘He’s barely breathing, he’s sweating like a pig and I don’t think the IV she’s got hooked up to him is doing shit. He might have a day or two at most left, but he’s not going to wake back up before then.’
‘I’d propose war,’ Grigori said, ‘but it would be a request falling on deaf ears.’
‘We can’t stop you from taking your own actions,’ he said, ‘but the Agency can’t go to war.’
‘You shouldn’t have let him go in the first place!’
‘He made his choice, Agent,’ he said, his voice terse. ‘There was nothing we could do. She was dying, he deserted.’
‘Don’t try and pretend it’s desertion, Ryan, you-’
‘We can’t go to war for a dying agent and a recruit, we just can’t.’
‘I don’t have an in with the magpies,’ Grigori said, ‘they have no stable entrances, I’ve got no way of breaching their defences. I can’t wage another war by myself, and you wasted our one shot at diplomacy.’
Clarke stood, and hurled the hip flask back at Grigori.
‘Apologise, Grigori,’ he demanded.
Grigori shook his head. ‘No. You could have done more. You could have done anything. He’s going to die, and you’re to blame.’ With that, he shifted away.
‘Take the next two days off, consider yourself on-call, but…clear your mind.’
‘How’s Jonesy progressing?’ Clarke asked as he leaned against the conference table.
‘A little faster than normal,’ he said, ‘he’s getting help from some of his recruits, if I push him…less than twenty-four hours.’
‘It’s going to be weird without them,’ Clarke said as he lit another cigarette. ‘I’ll miss them, in a weird sort of way. But…without Taylor here, I think we’ve got a far greater shot at getting stabilised. If the new guy isn’t a jerk anyway.’
‘Considering the circumstances, do you think we can delay the external training?’
‘Yeah,’ Clarke said, ‘I don’t think that’ll be a problem. Now if we can just-’
‘She’s going to die, or worse,’ Darren said. ‘There has to be-’
He swung on his chair to face the outpost agent. ‘There is nothing we can do. Even if we could retrieve her, she’s still under her mother’s power, so unless you know a way of removing her magpie half, she’s in danger either way.’
‘Because of you, because of him. He trained her to use her fae side, her mother would have no interest in her now if he hadn’t.’
‘That’s the weakest logic I’ve heard in this room in a long time,’ Clarke said. ‘And fuck you for judging, Dazza,’ he said, his voice growing thick with contempt, ‘she’s been a recruit for two years, you could have said something at any point, you don’t get to hindsight-is-twenty-twenty on this.’
Darren stood, then shifted away.
A few seconds later, Stef shifted into the conference room. ‘Ok, question, are small children supposed to randomly disappear?’
‘Darren left.’
She made agitated motions with hands. ‘He could of said something, cause, suddenly disappearing child is a bit weird!’
He felt his world centre a little. ‘For future reference, no, they don’t tend to spontaneously disappear.’
‘I’ll order another Aide from the Academy,’ Clarke said, ‘New guy-’ he turned to look at Stef, ‘does he have a name yet?’
She shook her head. ‘Jones wants to wait till we’re done.’
‘New guy can replace them if he’s unhappy, but at least we’ll get some of the paperwork done in the interim.’ He looked back at Stef. ‘You been to the basement yet?’
‘This afternoon, Clarke,’ he said.
‘Better be,’ Clarke said, ‘we’ve got a chance for a fresh start here, and that means everyone pitching in, for better or worse, and I’ve dealt with my “worst” quota for the next month. If you need me, call me.’ He stubbed out his cigarette on the table, then shifted away.
Stef spun the chair beside him, then slid into it. ‘Something bad happened, didn’t it?’
‘Taylor’s dying, and we don’t rescue recruits. Magpie won.’
‘Ho-how upset are you about this?’
‘Conflicted,’ he said, ‘more than upset. I’ll notice them gone, but…I don’t know if I’ll miss them, if you know what I mean. It sounds callous, but it’s also honest. The situation would be different if he hadn’t succumbed to withdrawal. When withdrawal hits an agent that badly…they don’t wake up. You survive, or you don’t. He’s been a miserable bastard, and for that I blame myself, but he-’
‘All you have to do is ask.’
He looked across at her. ‘No.’
She patted her chest. ‘I’ll do whatever you want, whatever you tell me to do, I’ll do this, all you have to do is ask.’
He pulled her hand away from her chest. ‘No.’
‘If it will make you feel better-’
‘It sets a dangerous precedent,’ he said, ‘what happens when another agent goes missing, what happens when one is dying, what happens when they decide that you are worth more as a commodity than as an agent?’
She looked away for a moment. ‘Then we deal with that then,’ she said, ‘what do you want to do right now?’
‘You are worth far more to me than he is,’ he said. ‘And what I need to do right now is ask Jones to work faster, to approve the new Aide when Clarke sends me the paperwork and to placate the combat recruits.’
She gave him a small smile. ‘Are you sure?’
‘I am.’
‘You need to do something fun – and not today, don’t give me the “I has paperwork” speech, I know you do, but sometime soon.’
‘We could visit Patty and Magic Mike on the weekend.’
‘Okies.’ She swung on her chair. ‘As to the basement…could you wait until I’ve got the automated codes running, I don’t want to take a break, do that, then come back and have to code again, I’ll be too distracted.’
‘How much do you know?’
‘Enough to know it’s not going to be pleasant.’
‘That would be correct.’
‘You go see Jonesy, I’ll go back to coding, I’ll let you know when I’m done?’
He gave her a nod.
She gave a smile, then shifted away.
He stood, shifted to his office, required one set of killed-in-action paperwork, and a missing-in-action set for Magnolia. He stared at the paperwork, then cast them aside.
He walked across his office, stared at one of the wall panels, and waited for the code entry lock to appear in his HUD. He entered the code and the panel disappeared, replaced with a door. He stepped though the door and heard the wall panel replace itself.
Warm sun radiated down from a fake, holoform sky. Fresh, real grass crunched beneath his feet as he walked through his garden. Rows of fresh sprouts were growing strong, and a sprinkler activated as he walked past – the timer perfect as always.
He left the younger plants and made his way up the small hill, to the tall tree reaching high towards the unreal sky. He pressed a hand against the fifty-year-old tree, shrugged off his jacket and sat beneath it, the sun playing through the leaves, leaving patterns of light and shadow on his hands and sleeves.
He bundled his jacket into a makeshift pillow, laid on it, closed his eyes, and allowed himself to sleep.