Curt moved through the Field Operations floor, barely aware of his movements. Everything was…strangely disconnected. As if deciding that today was the day he was going to die had already made part of his soul slip free of his body.
As if whatever made him…him was already gone, and he was nothing more than impetus, instinct, and a few last wishes made flesh.
The elevator took precisely 7.83 seconds to appear once he hit the call button. It was a bit of social engineering the Agency did in order to keep their recruits…human, in a strange way. It was long enough of a delay to make it seem normal, without being long enough to really notice.
He rode up to the main Tech floor – the one Jones called home, and managed to walk through without more than a few calls of greeting to “Agent C”. Whatever Raz believed about him, the other recruits knew he was nothing more than human, but the nickname had stuck.

If he was an agent, maybe he could deal with what he’d done. If he was an agent, maybe he could rely on blue and programming to catapult him forward to a place where he was okay with the fact that he’d come within inches of murdering an innocent woman.
Another innocent woman. It wouldn’t be as though Stef was the only life he’d destroyed.
Nameless, sometimes faceless, fae that he’d killed. That he’d tortured, rent into small pieces because sensible-seeming men had told him they were monsters.
According to all regulations, he could make this request of Raz, or whoever was his active operator at the moment. Given the circumstances, it seemed right that he ask Jones. To ensure that the Agency knew where he was, where he was going – even on top of the filed travel plan, it would show that he was doing his best to live out his last day as a good little recruit.
He knocked on the door to Jones’ lab, and Jones called for him to come in.
Curt pushed open the door, and froze.
Jones was aiming a gun at him. The standard, lightweight 9mm that most sensible Field recruits used, unless they were trying to measure their manhood by their weapon, and insisted on using something like a Desert Eagle.
Of all the agents in the building, Jones hadn’t been on the list of people he thought could pull the trigger.
It made sense though – Jones would have seen the extensive damage he’d done to Stef, if only by proxy of what had to be replaced with system-compliant flesh, or resynced blue.
Jones would have known what he’d done. Killing him was a simple, logical calculation.
‘Do it,’ he choked, and closed his eyes.
‘All right,’ Jones said brightly.
The shot was loud, though thanks to one of the blue tweaks that altered recruits’ bodies, there was no ringing in his ears, no temporary deafness. There was a loud noise, and then-
And then sound continued.
Curt opened one eye, and watched Jones ejected the clip, and laid the gun down on the bench.
‘Um, sir?’ he asked. He opened his other eye, and stared at the agent, unsure as to why the Tech would have fired a blank at him. Jones was jovial for an agent, but random I’m-going-to-murder-you pranking had never seemed to be part of his repertoire.
‘Did you two know what you had?’ Jones asked mildly.
Curt considered the question for a moment, then realised what the gun was. ‘Is that Stef’s magic gun?’
Jones nodded. ‘This weapon is a most remarkable thing. It has perfect aim, the bullet curves to where the shooter wants the bullet to hit, not where they’re aiming. I’ve tested it up to twenty-five metres, and I’m worried that if I was to do longer-range tests, that it would still be accurate. If that proves true, then this gun – both of these guns – are amazingly powerful, and I’m not sure I’m comfortable with others knowing that they exist.’
‘I’ll keep my mouth shut, Agent.’
‘I know, Recruit,’ Jones said. ‘Now, was there something that I can do for you? You tend to go through Razputin, it’s rare to see you here unaccompanied.’
‘I’d like to request a shift,’ he said.
‘Raz usually takes care of shifts for you,’ Jones said, before his eyes took on the glazed look that indicated he was interacting with his HUD.
‘I felt it was best that an agent know I was leaving-’
‘You’ve already filed a travel plan, Recruit, is there some reason you’re-’
‘You know what I did, Agent,’ Curt said, looking at the floor. ‘I’m not going to do anything that-’
‘Recruit,’ Jones said. ‘Enough said. Where do you want to go?’
Curt pulled a card from his pocket – the card had an address, parsed as a shift link – and handed it to Jones.
‘Cairns?’ Jones enquired. ‘Strange choice of a day trip.’ Jones’ green eyes zeroed in on his. ‘Or are you going to see your mother? If it’s the latter, we can make this shift more accurate,’ he said, as he shook the card.
Curt pressed his curled index finger to his mouth, and nodded.
‘Now?’
‘Yes please,’ he said.
The world twisted, and a sedate office building came into view. He let out a long breath, and walked up the short flight of stairs.
Curt pushed on the door, and walked into the small lobby. The desk was older in style than the one Natalie lived behind, though the rest of the area was fairly modern – surrounded by posters of the various medical technologies that the company made and sold.
He pasted his best Field Recruit smile onto his face and smiled at the secretary, then flipped open his ID before she had a chance to ask him what he needed. ‘Trisha Leadmont, please.’
The secretary gave him a worried look. ‘She’s not in trouble, is she?’
‘No ma’am,’ he said, doing his best agent voice, ‘she’s not.’
‘One minute.’ The secretary slipped her headset on, and clicked her mouse a few times. ‘Trish? You’ve got a guest in reception. Sure. Sure.’ She smiled, and put the headset back onto the desk. ‘Do you want a water or something?’
‘No, I’m good,’ he said with a casual smile.
He moved away from the desk and stood in the corner, near the vase of false flowers. After a few minutes, he heard heels clicking on linoleum, and he turned to see his mother.
Trisha Leadmont, née O’Connor, stopped short, the friendly smile on her face dying as she recognised him. She raised a hand to her mouth as she took a few steps closer. ‘Curt?’
‘Hey mum,’ he said, letting his voice be as cold and bitter as it had been in Russia.
The woman in front of him deserved no kindness, no quarter, none of his remaining good thoughts.
He tried to calm himself down, pulling himself back towards something approaching agent-neutral. ‘I need to speak with you,’ he said.
She finished closing the distance between them. ‘What are you doing here, Curt?’
‘I need to speak with you,’ he repeated. ‘Could we go outside?’
She nodded, looking uncertain, unsure, and confused beyond anything he’d ever seen.
He turned, and walked out of the building, and heard her heels click as she followed him.
The air was hot, muggy, and it made his breathing even harder than it had been.
She looked him up and down. ‘You’re looking well, Curt.’
‘I want the box of Tara’s things.’
His mother looked confused for a moment, then her face took on a sad cast. ‘I don’t know what you’re talking about, Curt.’
Curt swung his arms behind himself, and tried to embody the shadow of Ryan he always tried to be when dealing with civilians. It wasn’t an intimidating pose, just one that brooked no shit. ‘You kept a shoebox of Tara. Pictures. Drawings. Not the drawings she liked, but drawings all the same. I know you kept it. I used to look at it when you were passed out.’
His mother suddenly looked frightened, and she looked around, trying to see if there were any of her coworkers around. ‘I got help,’ she said fiercely. ‘I got help, Curt. Three years sober.’
‘That wasn’t a lot of help to me,’ he said. ‘So. The box. Where is it?’
‘I don’t have it anymore,’ she said. ‘It was too painful to keep.’
‘Bull,’ he snapped. ‘I don’t care what you’re telling yourself. You kept it. She doesn’t mean anything to you-’
He wasn’t even surprised when she slapped him. ‘How dare you?’ she demanded. ‘I don’t care if you’re an adult now, I’m your mother and you will respect me.’
‘You were never her mother,’ he said, forgoing the impulse to reach up and touch his face where she’d slapped him. ‘You never did anything for her. You- You never-’
Trisha took a moment to compose herself. ‘I thought if I treated her as normal, she would-’
He growled and stepped into her space, allowing his posture to take on all the intimidation of Taylor about to murder a Solstice. ‘One more damn word, and I’ll-’
She slapped him again. ‘I don’t have what you’re looking for. And I want you to leave.’
He spun on his heel, and stormed away. She had always been awful. Had always been less than he’d needed in a parent. Had never looked after Tara in the way she’d needed. Severe autism, and their mother had never taken the time to do the least that would make Tara comfortable.
***
Curt stared at the plates. ‘You did the carrots wrong.’
‘I wasn’t supposed to be cooking tonight,’ she said, ‘blame your father.’
He bit the inside of his cheek. ‘I’ll fix it,’ he said, picked up the two plates, and fled from the kitchen. He stared at the plate, taking stock of everything else – at least it was the right plate, the pink one, with the flowers. The sausages were okay, one of the ones on his plate was even curved the way she liked. The gravy was all wrong though – it was touching the potato and peas, unacceptable.
He placed the plates on the low card table. ‘Not yet.’
Small hands grasped for the plate anyway.
He dug into his pocket and handed her a purple pen. ‘Not yet.’
The pen was taken from his hand, the cap was placed neatly to the left of the colouring book, and she went to work with the new colour, filling in the petals on the flowers.
He set about cutting up the carrot into small slices and tossed the ones that were too far from perfect circles back onto his own plate, transposed the sausages, then cleared away the gravy-contaminated potato.
He took one more look at the food, decided it was good enough, and pushed it toward her.
She finished colouring in the last petal, recapped the pen, then put the book in the small basket beside the table.
‘Tara.’
She didn’t look up.
‘Tara.’
He lifted a hand, and brought two fingers close to her face, trying to make her focus. She caught his eyes for a brief second, then looked away again. Good enough, it was a good effort. He handed her the fork, and she began to eat.
Headlights swept across the room as his father pulled into the driveway. There was a two-minute lag before there was the sound of a key in the door. His father always sat there, in the car, in the dark, when he got home, he said it was to clear away the day so he could enjoy being home…it wasn’t an excuse he believed. Whenever he peeked through the window, his father would always be sitting there, his head against the steering wheel, just…sad.
The door was shut, and he watched his father pass through the living room, a bag of fruit in his hand – the best stuff, and also the stuff about to go rotten. The best stuff went in their school lunches, the nearly-bad stuff was dessert, or tossed into the worm bin in the backyard.
Each of them got a kiss on the head as he passed through. ‘How was school?’
‘Great,’ he said. The answer was always “great”, no matter how the day actually had been – except on Tuesdays, on Tuesdays his dad was always in a good mood, so he was ready to listen to if school had been crappy or actually great. It wasn’t Tuesday.
His mother brought in the other two plates, and a bottle of wine.
His parents sat, and ate in silence.
He looked back to Tara, who smiled – not at him, but it was a smile all the same.
***
Beeping shook Curt from his memories. He looked around, half-expecting a bomb, though the rational side of him recognised the particular beep of the Agency headset.
His hand buzzed, and he found his headset there – he slipped it into his ear and and pressed the primary button ‘O’Connor.’
‘Just checking in,’ Jones said. ‘Call it gut instinct.’
Curt started and looked around – across from him was an ibis with a few darker feathers on its chest, creating the vague impression of a tie. ‘Hello, Agent,’ Curt said levelly to the drone.
‘We have her address on file,’ Jones said, forestalling anything else Curt may have said.
‘Are you condoning breaking and entering, Agent?’
‘You know who you work for, right?’ Jones asked with a carefree laugh. ‘You don’t want to know what my kids are doing right now. I mean, the least of it is completely wiping six people from all recorded history.’
‘I…don’t even want to ask,’ Curt said. He considered the situation. ‘Sure. Sure. If you’ve got her address, shift me there, but then, could I request some privacy until I call in for a shift back?’
‘Of course, Recruit,’ Jones said, and the world slipped askew.
The home in front of him was completely unremarkable. An old Queenslander – a house on short stumps, with a verandah at the front, allowing for the maximum amount of breeze and escape from the oppressive summer heat. Red and white, it looked like a hundred thousand other houses in suburbs everywhere.
He swung his head left and right, looking for any sign of a vehicle parked either on the property, or in proximity that would mean someone was home. He saw nothing, so he pushed open the gate.
And then the dog attacked him.
There was a whirl of fur and barks, as a tiny dog – some kind of mutt that was at least part Maltese – came at his leg again and again, giving him tiny, playful bites that were might of an incitement to throw a ball than an attempt to drive an intruder off.
He crouched, and scratched the dog under the chin, making calming noises to shush the small mongrel.
The dog calmed, rolled over and, kicked its legs in the air. Curt stood, and approached the house, on higher alert than ever, in case the tiny dog had a larger friend.
There were no other surprises as he walked up the stairs. He lifted his hand and waved it as he approached the door, a simple requirement unlocking the door in an unobstrusive way.
He stepped inside, and the world seemed to sway uncertainly – almost like a shift, but his feet stayed just where they were. Nothing magical had happened, but he still felt like he’d stepped into a parallel world.
There were photos all along the hallway that greeted him, interspersed with the occasional piece of cheap art from a department store.
His mother smiled from the photos, as did a light-skinned Aboriginal man, and a girl who had to the man’s daughter – who looked somewhere around Curt’s age, though the college graduation photos had him lay a mental bet that she was probably a few years older.
It was like a world where he had never existed – where neither he or Tara existed. It was a world that his mother had crafted with her new family. None of the photos showed his step-sister’s mother, it was a carefully edited history. A blended family too perfect for words.
The first room on the left was a sun room, containing nothing more than a couch, some storage boxes, and an abandoned acoustic guitar.
He ignored his step-sister’s bedroom, and continued on until he found the master bedroom. If his mother had kept the box of Tara’s things, it would be closest to her. His mother didn’t care about Tara, but she would have kept the box, and whatever small part of her had ever been his sister’s mother would want it close.
He opened drawers in turn, not quite sure what he was looking for. It wouldn’t be anywhere obvious. Wouldn’t be somewhere that her new husband would come across it every day.
Almost unconsciously, he swung his head towards the sliding doors of the wardrobe. The wardrobe, as many built-ins did, ran the length of the room – one mirrored door, one plain door. He slid the closest door open, unsure of what he was looking for, then moved down to the other end of the wardrobe and opened this one as well.
He felt the Eureka moment as a wall of shoe boxes looked back at him.
A car door slammed somewhere close, and he started, knowing that even if the car was a neighbour, he didn’t have forever – at some point, his mother or her family would be home.
This was a his last day of magic – using it to his advantage was the best, smartest course of action.
Hand movements were uncessary when it came to requirements, but there was still some weird need to accompany some with a flourish – whether it was too many Harry Potter movies, or just the pop-culture-knowledge that magic usually looked fancy, sometimes his hands moved of their own accord.
He swept his arm wide, requiring each shoebox to turn to glass. It was far more fairytale than he would have liked, but it gave him the quickest view into all of the boxes, and if he was wrong, he had an entire house to search.
He took a step closer, and lightly skimmed his fingers across the glass boxes as he searched for contents that weren’t shoes. Far fewer of them contained shoes than expected – there were boxes of jewellery, of old bills and tax documentation – he even found his parent’s wedding album. Part of him wanted to take the time to flick through it, and see what his mother had kept.
He pulled the album box free. ‘Require,’ he said aloud, ‘digitise contents. Save to my personal drive.’
There was a beep in his earpiece, indicating the command had been actioned, and he slid the box back into place. It was a less effective version of the scanning that the Tech recruits did for crime scenes, but as he wasn’t trying to solve a crime, it would do.
At the very bottom of the wall of shoe boxes, there was a box that contained some papers, and a smaller box. He pulled it roughly out, tore away the glass lid, which landed on the bed, and looked into the smaller box.
Inside the box-within-a-box were three photos of Tara, and a single mother’s day heart.
Tears streamed freely as he touched his fingers to the photos. After Tara had died, his mother had systematically taken away all traces of her. By the time he and his mother had moved into the apartment after the divorce, the only pieces of Tara that he had left were the few pictures he’d smuggled from the trash. And to this day, those pictures had been the only times he’d been able to see his sister.
He tucked the photos into his vest, but left the paper heart behind, then returned everything to the way it had been, and stomped from the house, half-hoping he’d run into his mother on the front path, but the street had been as quiet as it had been when Jones had shifted him in.
Curt stumbled as he walked from the footpath to the street, the slight dip in height spilling him forward, his grief-induced uncoordination spilling him forward. He threw out his hands and braced his fall, his face missing the road by inches.
For a moment he stayed like that, his legs twisted, his hands pressed into the burning hot road, tears spilling down his face.
There was a car horn and he pushed himself back, landing with a heavy thud on his butt. He stood quickly, his hands hurting, still burning, and required his car, not caring who saw it appear from the ether, and pulled the door open, his foot slamming down on the accelerator even before he had the door closed.
Require: auto-drive.
He pressed his head to the steering wheel, feeling the car shift and turn as it drove itself on – without a destination, it would fall into a pre-programmed circuit of the city. He pressed his foot harder, and felt the car speed up – auto-drive didn’t take steering directions, but it did take speed inputs, and right now, he needed to be going as fast as he could, trying to outrun his family, his memories, and himself.
After a few minutes, he came back to himself, and he lifted his head a little.
Require: auto-drive; Brisbane.
He needed to be alone. He needed to cry. And after an hour, he could call for a shift, but he needed to be moving towards the only place he could reasonably call his own. The Agency wasn’t home, it never had been, it never could have been, but it was at least his.
He pressed a hand to his heart, to the photos there, and let himself cry every tear he’d ever held back for the sake of appearances.