‘Tell me what you need, newbie.’
It’s astounding to me that you think I know what I need.
Well, half an hour ago, you needed to die, not knowing is a step up from that.
She met his gaze, and shrugged. She pushed out of the bed, and began to pace in the U-shaped space around the bed. ‘I-I-I don’t know,’ she said. She wrapped her hands around her throat. ‘I can barely breathe. I don’t know what I need, but I know I just can’t keep waiting.’ She dug her thumbs into her windpipe, and felt pain and the tinge of fear. Agents probably were strong enough to break their own necks. One more way of killing herself. Ridding-
Stop it.
She choked herself a little more, then stepped out of the gown. The silk was too much, too touchy, too uncomfortable. It was a pretty, sexy gown for someone who wasn’t her. She paced another ten U-shapes naked while Curt stared, but not staring at her, not like a boy looks at a girl, just how a regular person looks at a crazy person. As a specimen, a subject. Something to be pitied, something to be feared. She hung her head further forward, and tried to read his expression, to see if it was the kind of look that preceded villagers with pitchforks, if it was the look of someone who had called the men in white coats. The men with the coats. The men with the straightjackets and pills and little rooms that locked you away forever, with your brain in fog. Death was better than that, death was more dignified than that, even if there was a hell or several waiting, a hell of the dead was better than a hell for the living.
She hugged herself, the feeling comforting, wanted, leaned against the window and cried.
Agents didn’t cry. Well, agents didn’t cry like this. They could cry for big, strong manly reasons like the end of the world or a stubbed toe. They could cry because of drama or a good opera. They couldn’t cry because their heads got too heavy with shit, or because the prospect of getting dressed seemed to entail entirely too much effort.
She barely felt Curt’s arms around her.
The phoenix had to go away, had to, had to. It was keeping her in a holding pattern, restricting any choice she might want to make. They’d be fine without her, even a shatter sequence preserved the mirror, even if it had to be dug out of chunks of bloody hacker. They didn’t need the hacker, they needed the mirror.
It had to be over, it had to end, the good guys had to win, and she had to do it. She had to make it happen, else-
She had to, and she had no idea what to do.
‘Tell me what you need, newbie.’
I need everything. I need nothing. I need a plan. I need to be someone else.
‘I need food.’
‘Get some clothes, and I’ll order you something from the food channel, what do you feel like?’
‘Food channel?’
‘I’ll show you, but you’ll need clothes on.’
Ugly. Ugly thing. She was showing scars off to the world, not-
‘Cause Carmichael’s out there.’ He let go of her, and walked to the cupboard. ‘I haven’t got much, I’m sorry. Your stuff’s being laundered, but it’s not due back until later.’ He held up a t-shirt and pair of boxers. ‘Sorry.’
‘Can-can you?’ she asked, staring at the clothes, not feeling strong enough to lift her arms over her head.
‘Sure,’ he said, ‘sit.’
She sat on the bed, and he knelt in front of her, slowly lifting her feet through the leg holes before sliding them up her legs. ‘Lift your bum,’ he said, and she obliged, lifting herself a little. The band of the boxers sat loose on her waist. He rolled the t-shirt and slipped the neck over her huge head. Huge head, massive head, head too full of thoughts. Stupid head, bad head. Head that needed to, needed to-
He slipped one arm into place, then the next.
She grabbed for him, pulling him on top of her, onto the bed.
‘I don’t want to go. I don’t want to go. I don’t want to go. I don’t want to go. I don’t want to go. I don’t want to go. I don’t want to go.’
I don’t want die, I don’t, I don’t! I don’t want die, I don’t, I don’t! I don’t want die, I don’t, I don’t! I don’t want die, I don’t, I don’t! I don’t want die, I don’t, I don’t! I don’t want die, I don’t, I don’t! I don’t want die, I don’t, I don’t! I don’t want die, I don’t, I don’t! I don’t want die, I don’t, I don’t! I don’t want die, I don’t, I don’t!
He slid off her, his arms wrapping around her neck, holding her together. ‘I’m here, shh, I’m here.’
‘I’m not allowed to want things! I’m not allowed to want things!’
‘You are, of course you are.’
Even if what I want is to die?
‘I want to go home,’ she said. ‘Please just take me home.’
Agency. Everything makes sense in the Agency. It was safe in the Agency.
She slumped against him, so very tired. ‘Take me home.’
He kissed her forehead. ‘Ok, I’ll get you home.’
She barely paid any attention to the car ride, to the attempts at conversation, or comfort. Miles and miles of fairy scenery rolled by, a blur a buildings, a blur of houses, all blurs, all indistinct, all as jumbled as the thoughts in her head. A shiver ran through her body as they passed into the Marches, the faint feeling of being closer to home, of being closer to a system connection giving her some traction on her thoughts for the first time since waking up.
The ill-cared-for warehouse loomed, a rusting wreck that should have been ashamed to call itself an Agency building. The car pulled to a stop right outside, and Curt pulled open the door for her. ‘C’mon newbie, one shift and we’re home.’
Some part of her heard Carmichael saying his goodbyes, and she managed to look at the fairy for a moment, but a smile was far beyond her means.
Curt wrapped an arm around her, and swiped into the building. The front area was attended for once, three of the warehouse agents looking up from a computer blaring the moans and screams of something that had to be a torture video. They all stared at her, and she lowered her head to looking back at the floor.
Please, just this once, can’t you eat me?
Patchy, dirty concrete was all she saw until there was the blue-painted section of the shifting circle there.
Her system connection flared, and she stood straight.
Everything was going to be ok.
Almost home, almost home, almost home.
Everything was going to be ok.
She wrapped her arms around Curt, and shifted home.
She required a new uniform as soon as the laggy shift finished and the smell of recycled air hit her nose. There was something wrong though, the smell seemed to be cut with some sort of-
Curt took a step in front of her, his gun in his hand. ‘Newbie, you seeing this?’
‘No, cause you’re standing in my way.’
‘Stef-‘
She took a half-step back and to the side, and saw a tree.
There was a tree.
There was-
‘You can put your gun away,’ Ryan called as he walked across the lobby. ‘It’s safe.’
She kept her eyes locked on the tree. ‘I’m- Um-‘
‘Sir?’ Curt asked, apparently equally stuck for words.
Ryan finished crossing to them, and he looked down at her, nothing but worry and guilt on his face. ‘Stef-‘
She jumped into his arms, wrapped her arms around his neck, and hung limply, her feet swinging free of the floor. ‘I’m okies.’
Liar.
‘I’m- I’m-‘ she struggled to figure out how she was feeling. Bad. Still bad. Bad but- ‘I’ll be ok,’ she said. It sounded like truth, like the best she could articulate. ‘I’ll be ok.’
Ryan looked from her, over his shoulder at the tree, then back again. ‘I loathe to do this, but there’s been some…developments.’
She disengaged herself from the safety of daddy hugs, and took a step towards the tree. ‘Yeah, okies, I- I can see.’ She looked up at him. ‘You should probably debrief us.’
* * *
Curt stared, and fell a step behind them as Ryan walked around the tree.
He knew the effect the system had on people, had heard about it from nearly his first day in the Solstice, and saw the little effects it had on people every day. People tended to grieve for shorter periods of time, to get over the loss of team mates quicker than normal. The tech department, and its paranoid, off-message or otherwise strange employees always seemed to pull it together to get their work done everyday. It might be harder to get them away from whatever game they were playing than he would have liked, but techs were reliable.
It was a horrible violation, but one you knowingly or unknowingly accepted as soon as blue got into your system. The system protected and the system calmed, balancing recruits far better than they could ever manage on their own. It was, so far as he had seen, always a positive effect – changing people ever so slightly from who they were, but always in an advantageous way. Turning a paranoid tech into an asset, a grieving field officer into someone who could go out again, or calming one of combat’s soldiers enough to redirect their rage to a punching bag, instead of a civilian.
It wasn’t something you thought about, it wasn’t something that he ever thought about, because the effect was so neutral, such a light touch that the effect wasn’t really noticeable.
He looked at Stef, the evidence of how powerful the effect could be staring him in the face.
She’d been willing to kill herself. So depressed, so empty, so completely beaten that she’d been half a word away from tearing herself apart. Every bit of light had slipped out of, leaving her-
The world blurred, taking them from the lobby to the conference room.
He watched, and she slid into her normal chair without hesitation, her movements already stronger and more confident than they’d been in the lobby. More…Stef. A required coffee appeared, and he let himself smile.
Not even five minutes back in system territory, and most of the fear, the devastation and the pain was already disappearing.
It was horrible. It was a violation. It was holding her together where he’d failed.
She pushed her chair a little closer to his, her hand finding his as the blinds went down and a video played on the main monitor. He twisted his fingers with hers, feeling them pulse with life as he tried to concentrate on the screen.
The always-clear Agency security camera footage showed Merlin standing in the lobby, swaying in time to music that no one else could hear.
‘I will warn you,’ Ryan said as the image froze. ‘It’s not pretty.’
The video resumed and-
‘Holy fucking fuck what?!’ Stef demanded, her hand detaching from his. She shot to her feet and got in his way. ‘What the fucking what?!’
He grabbed the back of her vest and pulled her back into her chair and out of his way. His mind tried to comprehend the image, but failed. He looked to Ryan. ‘One more time, if you don’t mind.’
The video rewound and then played at half speed, and even that seemed to be too fast. One moment, Merlin was swaying, the next, the boy’s body exploded, bulging, undulating roots reaching for the ceiling and the floor. His body turned into a trunk and expanded, breaking through a wall continuing to grow, bigger than a redwood, bigger than-
A shadow passed in front of the security camera.
The image broke into views from a dozen security cameras, the shadow passing in front of them in a random pattern, then each, unfailingly, blinking out.
‘We were breached,’ Ryan said. ‘As much as we’d like to think we’re operating at full capacity, we’re not, and as such, it’s easier for our enemies to break through.’
‘What got in?’ he asked.
‘A demon,’ Ryan said, another twelve camera feeds blinking up, only for half of them to be swallowed by darkness.
Four cameras showed the phoenix egg, the egg room, a view of the door, and a rotating view of the hall beyond. The door exploded in a short, violent fire, and finally they were given a view of the demon. It was surprisingly plain for something that they spoke about in whispers, and whose threat to the Agency was generally greatly understated. It was a masculine form, shirtless, the pants tailored, expensive-looking. The chest was naked and broad, blue and green and shiny like chitin. It’s face was nothing human, nor anything like any of the typical demon/devil imagery. It had horns, but they curled down, thin, and almost delicate-looking things, running down past his shoulders. Its face was something more akin a sea slug, or something that lived on the sea floor. Its eyes were featureless black spots, no lid or iris.
It saw the egg and screamed.
The floor beneath the egg exploded with the tree that had been Merlin, hiding the egg somewhere inside the trunk, growing roots grabbing at the demon, burning with blue fire at the touch, but the fire hurt the demon and the tree alike. The demon twisted, ripping roots from around him and throwing them to the floor, but the attack was insistent, an onslught of vines, leaves, and branches so thick they collided with each other and ripped holes in the wall.
Stef was alternating between whimpering, screaming and declaring how cool/awesome/bbq it was, for once, he ignored her, his eyes locked to the screen.
There had been a demon in their Agency. A gods-be-damned demon.
He’d never seen a demon, not outside of photos or video, never in real life. He’d seen shapeshifters playing at being demons, but even that was seen as bad luck, and it wasn’t a guise they held for long. Demons usually didn’t bother appearing in the world – they were more common in fairyland, but that wasn’t saying much. Gods and demons, the same beings, different politics, and names far too simplistic to describe what they were without ascribing theologic fear to both parties. Gods and demons were what they were, something far more akin to the Q than any pantheon that had existed. Beings that had had a few billion year evolutionary head start – societies that had discovered fire, the microchip, warp drive, and kept going, playing with technology and magic until the two had become indistinguishable. Agents were magic, agents were technology. Blue was magic, blue was nothing but nanites and a good colour scheme. It was all the same.
Demons had that same magic and that same tech, making reapers instead of agents, making cannibalistic monsters who-
He scratched his arm, an leaned forward on the table, concentrating on the details in front of him.
The demon fought, blasted through walls – the security cameras hadn’t been able to get all the detail, but did a decent job of showing what had happened.
It fought, and slowly, it lost, its body being absorbed into the tree that had been Merlin.
Stef collapsed into her chair, breathless as after seeing a new trailer for a superhero movie.
‘This- This is real life now. I’m completely terrified and completed awesomed.’
The fear of the demon evaporated at the sound of Stef sounding so close to her usual self. There was still a hint of the depression that had had her curled in his arms and wanting to die, but it was a faint echo of two hours ago.
‘Merlin is a tree?’ he asked, knowing it was probably the question everyone had asked.
‘Whatever he is,’ Ryan said, ‘he protected us. No one died, the phoenix is secure and the Agency is safe.’
‘Can he stop being a tree?’ Stef asked. ‘And how big is he?’
Ryan gave a slightly embarrassed smile. ‘We’re still determining his reach. He span the height of the building, with his upper branches breaking through to the roof, though we’ve altered their course and repaired the room. Down…he ruptured several enclosures in the basement, all experiments have been caged again, and then he goes into the earth, how far down we’re not sure.’
‘Did we um,’ Stef said. ‘Did we know he was a tree?’
‘We’re not sure what Merlin is,’ Ryan said. ‘He’s half-demon himself, that we’ve known from the beginning, but there are a lot of other factors that we can’t quantify – and it appears that nymph was part of it.’ Ryan looked away for a moment. ‘It also appears that I’ve been ignoring his reader abilities, something that gives me reason for caution in this situation.’
‘Again,’ Stef said, ‘can he stop being a tree?’
Ryan gave a slight shrug. ‘You now know as much as we do.’ Ryan looked to Stef. ‘I know it may be asking the impossible, but could you check on the phoenix?’
Stef spun on her chair, a pout already in place. ‘It won’t do any good,’ she said, ‘you know I’m not the phoenix whisperer or anything. If it wasn’t ok, then we’d know, wouldn’t we?’
‘Do this for me, please,’ Ryan said, ‘don’t make me order you.’
She stopped spinning. ‘You’d order me?’
‘Stef-‘
‘Dad! I just-‘ she sank lower in her chair. ‘If it sees me, it’s gonna be like peeking into a fridge, it’ll want something to nom, and I just-‘
‘Stef you know I wouldn’t ask you unless it was important. Unless it was so important that I can get past the fact that I hate myself for asking.’
She stood, pressed her palms to the table and leaned across towards Ryan. ‘Do. I. Get. Cookies?’
Ryan gave her a small nod. ‘I think I can find some suitable reward.’
She turned to look at him. ‘I’ll go check, then I’ll get nommed, then I’ll skinny dip in blue, then I’ll be asleep in your bed, ok?’
He gave her a slight nod, and she shifted away.