Curt watched as Stef crumpled into a heap – she wasn’t unconscious, as he’d hoped, but she was still out of the game, she wasn’t going to be escaping any time soon.
She groaned, fingers tensing against the floor. He stared at the broken pieces of glass on the floor around her, the formaldehyde that had spilled over her, and the corpse of the dead fairy on the ground beside her.
The fairy corpse would come in handy.

Problem one, newbie: sorted.
Problem two, Grigori, still unresolved.
Grigori was a much bigger problem – he wouldn’t go down as easily, and he doubted he could take down a well-trained combat agent by himself, he would get one lucky shot…if he was very lucky, and that wasn’t very likely.
The agent, true to the Solstice axiom that “proxies only care for themselves”, was still distracted at the far end of the room. He hadn’t shouted concern, or an offer of help; nor had he noticed that one of his colleagues was in capitated and bleeding on the floor.
Curt felt a twist of disgust on Stef’s behalf, but he let the concern slip away.
He scanned along the wall, looking for what he knew to be there – an alarm button – standard issue for every single room of a Solstice facility, so that assistance could be called at the first sign of trouble.
It was there, as expected: red as a fire truck, and under only a flimsy plastic cover. He lifted the cover and rested two fingers on it, pushed it down.
Even a selfish arse of a proxy couldn’t ignore an alarm.
‘There’s no exit down this end,’ Grigori finally called, ‘you two, are you armed?’
He almost shot a sarcastic remark at the agent – for all their boasting about lightning reflexes, taking this long to do a weapons check was pathetic.
And far too little far too late anyway – response time in any well-maintained facility was mandated to be one minute or less. Which meant-
The door burst in, and three automatic weapons were aimed at him – to which, he obediently raised his hands.
He lowered one of his raised hands slightly and pointed to the other end of the room. ‘Agent down there!’ The guns were shoved at him again, so he shouted the order again, this time in Russian. Rusty as his language skills were, they listened, two of them moving through the maze of cabinets, one keeping a lock on him.
‘You. English. Who?’ the gunman asked in severely stilted English.
‘Curt O’Connor, sir,’ he said, ‘long-term deep-cover assignment to-’
There were three shots, then the sound of a man being thrown against the wall.
Grigori wasn’t going down without a fight. A shame.
‘Who?’ he barked again.
The gunman narrowed his eyes, and shoved the barrel at him – an intimidating gesture, but an unprofessional one, if he wanted to, he was now in a position to grab the gun and pull it past him, putting him in a position to fight back.
Fighting back wasn’t the plan.
Curt rolled his eyes, made a “wait” gesture and shrugged off his jacket, then lifted his shirt.
The gunman nearly dropped his weapon as he stared at his torso, and the tattoo there.
‘Solstice,’ he said, dropping his shirt.
The man muttered to himself for a moment, snatches of Russian and English coming out. ‘How?’ he finally said, finding the word.
He hated that he’d let the mother-tongue of the Solstice get this rusty. Rusty language skills. Rusty Russian – now that sounded like a drink or a sex act. ‘Assignment,’ he said in stilted Russian, ‘opportunity. Explain later. Help friends!’ he said with a point, as he heard Grigori shout in anger.
‘Armed?’
‘No. Cuffs,’ he said, spying a pair on the man’s belt.
The gunman gave him a suspicious look, in return, he simply smiled and kicked the girl at his foot.
The man took a step back, apparently having noticed Stef for the first time, fumbled with the cuffs and threw them.
With one last look, the man ran off to back up his friends and capture…or kill, Grigori. He wasn’t sure he cared which.
He grabbed a towel from one of the benches, crouched and swept the broken glass from the ground in front of Stef, then knelt in the clean spot.
There was no one watching him, at least that he knew. It was impossible to take a chance. He had to live the role, or they all died.
Three more men rushed past him, towards the fight against Grigori.
He looked down at Stef – she was still lying on the floor in a small pool of her own blood and glass from the bottle. He slapped her visible cheek, and she stirred a little – not enough to move, not even enough to insult him.
‘Hey, wakey wakey,’ he said, slapping her again, before grabbing her and pulling her into a seated position against the cupboard.
‘What…fuck…’ she said, her eyes fluttering. ‘Ryan?’
He slapped her again, a lot harder this time, and finally she opened her eyes.
‘No, not Ryan, you stupid little bitch.’
Bitch. Whore. Cunt. Words to insult, to make…victims feel worthless. To decry them for the sin of being a girl. You had to play the game, you had to use the words, or you weren’t using your full arsenal against your subject.
It went without saying that it was unusual for a woman to rise through the ranks. Women, outside of administrative and “customer service” positions within the Solstice were an oddity. So the insults stayed.
Curt dangled the cuffs in front of her, gave her a moment to follow the swinging metal for a moment, then snapped them around her wrists.
‘…Curt?’ her voice was shaky, tiny, timid – much like the rest of her. She swallowed, and blinked a few times, blood leaking down the side of her face – the bottle had certainly done a good job, or she was just particularly fragile. He hoped for the latter, it would certainly make everything easier.
There was a shout of victory, and it didn’t sound like Grigori.
‘Yeah,’ he said, grabbing a handful of her hair, ‘who’d you expect?’ Her head slumped in his hand, but he yanked her back up so that she was looking at him.
‘Solstice…’ she said slowly, the gears visibly spinning. ‘Tell me you’re joking,’ she said in a much quieter voice. ‘Please. That you’re-’
He slammed her head back against the cupboard, and she swooned, eyes closed in pain.
‘I don’t like to lie, that’s your job.’
‘He said you’re Solstice,’ someone said behind him – the English was a lot stronger, likely meaning the man was in charge. At least a Captain, if not a Major. ‘Identify yourself.’
Curt slammed Stef’s head against the cabinet again, and she fell back to the ground as he let her go. He stood, brushed himself off, and saluted the central man – who looked worse for the wear from the fight, but not down for the count, as Grigori obviously was. ‘Curt O’Connor.’
‘Affiliation? Commander? Explanation as to how the hell you got here, and with two pieces of proxy trash?’
‘Adelaide cell. Jake Parcel the last time I had contact. They were experimenting with a new teleportation magic, and it landed us here.’
‘What were you doing with them in the first place?’
‘I’m sixteen months into a two-year deep cover assignment.’
‘That is a convenient story.’
Again, he lifted his shirt.
The man handed off his gun, then pushed him back into better light, taking in the glory of the tattoo that ran across the side of his stomach and halfway up his chest, naming his accomplishments, and a name or symbol for every person he had successfully interrogated.
The Solstice commander ran a hand across the tattoo, visibly impressed. Curt allowed the Russian a few seconds of wonder, then knocked the hand away. ‘I don’t swing that way, buddy.’
‘I’m Captain Andrei Zheleznova, and I resent your implication that I am a homosexual.’
Women in the Solstice were an oddity, queer people in the Solstice were so rare they were thought to be a myth. Monsters and guys with “faggot hair” were equally likely to get beaten within any given Solstice cell.
‘A poor joke, Captain,’ Curt said, trying to look humble, ‘I apologise.’ He tapped his tattoo. ‘And with this record, how you could doubt my loyalty?’
‘You’ve broken protocol, we will have to debrief you. We will have to test you.’
‘I expect no less,’ he said. ‘Though, may as I be so forward as to suggest the test?’
‘We don’t have to follow your suggestions,’ Zheleznova snapped.
‘I’m aware of that Captain, and feel free to dismiss it.’
‘Suggest.’
‘May I have the pleasure of interrogating this one?’ he said, landing another solid kick onto Stef’s body.
‘I’m going to-!’ Stef started, so he kicked her again.
The Solstice Captain moved towards her, clicking the safety off his gun. If there was an agent, then someone who appeared to be a recruit was no fun to play with. It was a division of resources, especially for a small cell, especially when prisoners weren’t expected.
Zheleznova was going to kill her, no speech, no ceremony. Point and shoot.
He stepped in front of the Captain, his body blocking Stef’s for a moment – he didn’t look like he was protecting a proxy, but at the same time, had bought her at least a few seconds. He snatched a roll of duct tape from the bench and went to the floor in front of Stef, feeling her blood soaking through his pants to touch his knees.
If he looked back, Zheleznova would shoot them both. Play the part. He had to play the part.
He dragged her up against the cupboard, and she spat blood onto his shirt. He slapped her again, smirking as he saw the impressions of his hand begin to rise as red welts.
‘You are so dead, you are-’
He pressed a thumb into her neck. ‘I’d prefer to wait till you’re strapped down, but I can cut your tongue out now if you like.’ She shrank back, as she surely as if he’d slapped her again. He tore a long length of tape from the roll, then tossed it back over his head to the Captain.
He grinned, and she pulled back further, trying to escape through the solid wood of the cabinet. He reached down, grabbed the fairy corpse and pushed it towards her face. She slammed her mouth shut, hatred burning in her eyes as she looked him.
Curt laid the tape across his knee, and pinched her nose closed. She had to open her mouth sooner or later – sooner if he had anything to say about it.
‘Open!’ he screamed in her face. He pulled back his free hand and punched her in the gut. Her lips opened for a second, but she bit them back down. ‘Open,’ he ordered again, ‘or I’ll make you swallow worse.’ She twisted her face, and, he was sure, tried to kill him with her mind.
He had to go after what she cared for.
‘You’re going to die here,’ he said, ‘no question about it, and you’re going to suffer. The thing is, afterwards, I’ll probably go right back to Brisbane, back to your Agency, and cry at your funeral with your proxy.’ He paused for a moment, letting the image sink in. ‘The thing is, Stef, think of what I’m going to do to Ryan once I finally get my hands on him.’
‘You fu-!’ she started to scream, and he shoved the dead fairy into her mouth as she opened her mouth to swear at him.
She reared back in disgust and panic, screaming even as he held her jaw shut.
He heard a noise of approval from behind him, and had to stop himself from sighing with relief – they were buying it, it was working.
Curt pulled the duct tape up from his knee, and wrapped it around her heading, sealing her mouth with half of a fairy corpse hanging out. At least she was done talking for a moment.
He stood, and watched as she hung her head and cried.
‘Yes,’ the Captain said, ‘I’d say watching you interrogate these two would be a good way to spend the afternoon.
‘Two?’ he echoed, ‘I thought you finished the proxy off.’
‘He’s bleeding, but still in fine enough condition to make a few morale videos.’
Curt smiled at this.
Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Stef move, and he spun around to look at her – she’d lifted her hands to grab at the tape. He hauled her to her feet, and bent his head to scream in her face. ‘Don’t touch that!’
She scratched it a little more, trying to peel it free. He smirked, grabbed her hand, and broke her pinky finger without blinking.
‘Got the fucking idea?!’
She shook, and went back to looking at the ground.
The Captain gave him a fatherly pat on the shoulder. ‘I might see if I can keep you here, I don’t have a decent interrogator.’
‘There’ll have to be some perks,’ he said, spitting on Stef as she slowly sank to the ground again, trying to make herself as small as possible.
‘I am sure we can arrange whatever you desire.’
He looked down at himself. ‘What I desire is a change of clothes so I’m not wearing these proxy-conjured rags.’
‘Of course, a change, then you can get started. Which would you like to work on first?’
He looked to the end of the room, to where they had secured Grigori, then down to the newbie at his feet. ‘I’ve only worked on a couple of agents,’ he said, ‘but I’m sure I could make it last for a few days, so I think I’ll do the recruit first.’