Ryan signed page four-hundred, initialled the next, and moved onto the next one. Every few minutes, a phrase would catch his eye, or there’d be a colourful balloon indicating a summary or an important project note. He didn’t have time to read them, but he stopped anyway.
The document would decide how Stef’s life would be handled, even if he had no time, it was better to know that he wasn’t something he would regret. Some elements had made his stomach turn, others seemed extreme, and there were things that were nothing but cruelty. He had signed. He had read and he had signed each time. Many of the elements were only for the beginning stages of the experiment – the first few weeks, the far too harsh testing phase that would determine if she was allowed out of the basement.
He hated himself, and kept signing.
A few weeks of pain would mean a lifetime as an agent. A few weeks of pain would mean a life.
Someone cleared their throat.
He started and looked up. An Enforcer stood in front of his desk – Enforcer Crawford, so his HUD informed him, and he pushed himself out of his chair to offer his hand to the man.
‘Sir,’ Ryan said, ‘good evening.’
‘Not for you, Agent,’ Crawford said, giving his hand a firm shake.
The Enforcer required himself a chair and sat, then indicated that Ryan should sit back down. ‘I can see you’re not done with the paperwork, but why don’t we talk this through, first?’
Ryan clicked his pen, then folded his hands. ‘Of course, sir.’
The truth. The precise truth with no obfuscation. It had never seemed harder. ‘You’re aware it was a mirrorfall tonight. My recruit was in proximity.’ He swallowed. Stef had been feet away, if he’d been a few seconds faster, or hadn’t lingered in the building for so long, or had insisted on staying still until the blackout fell, none of this would have happened. ‘In order to avoid one faction or another being able to claim the entirety of Dajulveed’s mirror, she shattered it. Single shot from her weapon. The mirror exploded, and one piece-‘ She’d been so still, so cold and so pale. ‘One piece entered through her chest, and exited through her back.’
Ryan stared into his HUD and adjusted the amount of emotion he was showing by another few percent.
‘On arrival back to our morgue, however, my recruit-‘
Crawford’s face was as passive as his own. ‘You made a wish Ryan?’
The Enforcer could kill him with a single word. There’d be no time to run, no time to shift Stef to safety, or to beg for another chance, for leniency or sanctuary. Ryan leaned forward. The truth. He had to tell the truth, the repercussions later could be worse. A short reprieve that held only thin hopes coming to an end was far less cruel than a life built on false hope.
‘Yes, sir, I made a wish.’
Crawford sat back in his chair and folded his arms in exactly the same manner that Agent Clarke did. ‘So let’s talk about that, Ryan.’
It had been an irrational decision. It had been a decision based nowhere in Duty, and counter to all of the directives he’d received. It was indefensible. He stared at Crawford for a moment, wondering what the Enforcer wanted to hear.
‘Why Ryan?’ Crawford asked in an almost gentle tone.
‘Her death was an accident. She- She died right in front of me, sir. I expected to simply heal the damage. If that had been the case-‘
‘I know,’ Crawford said, ‘what the Agency doesn’t know won’t hurt it. Solid logic, and it’s easy to overlook cases like that. To save a partner, a lover, an Aide. Your first mirrorfall happened when you were barely a year old, do you remember what happened with Agent Jane’s lover?’
Ryan stared slack-jawed at the Enforcer. The fact that Crawford had known when he had experienced his first mirrorfall was simple mathematics, what had happened with Jane, however, was something barely a handful of people had known about.
‘I was friends with Reynolds,’ Crawford said. ‘He was a great man, good agent, though sometimes he made the strangest decisions.’
Ryan folded his hands and set a very neutral expression on his face. His life was the result of one of his director’s strange decisions, and one that far too many commented. On.
‘Rhys was a bastard, even for a Dusker,’ Crawford continued. ‘Oh, I won’t deny his efficiency, but men like him are the reason Duskers don’t exist anymore. To template one of the first agents of the twentieth century from a man whose most noble act was coming quietly when his time came…’ The Enforcer sighed. ‘I frankly thought it was a mistake, and endeavoured to change his mind, to use a fresh template, to not recycle pieces from- I did not expect you to last you to last a decade, and even Reynolds hedged his bets as you were being generated.’
Ryan stayed silent – people – agents who knew and fae old enough to remember Duskers, loved treating him as an oddity, as a curiosity, as if he had played some part in the circumstances of his birth. All agents were made from the dead, not all were done as direct templates as he had been, and only had a handful had been templated from Duskers.
‘Reynolds was a good man,’ Crawford said.
‘Is,’ Ryan corrected, the past tense breaking him from his reprieve.
‘Is?’ the Enforcer echoed. ‘You still count him as active?’
‘Not active,’ Ryan said, ‘but not gone. He is still my Director, and the Director of this Agency. I will gladly give up this role when he wakes.’
‘I would have thought someone templated from a Dusker would want to retain the power.’ Crawford stared for a moment. ‘How much emotion are you filtering out, Ryan?’
Again, the truth was the only answer to give. ‘Eighty-seven percent, sir.’
‘More than I expected,’ Crawford said. ‘Let’s go over this again. She was your recruit for three days. I would understand the need to save a-‘
‘A child.’
Crawford stared and said nothing for nearly a minute. ‘You’ve only got one child on record, so I presume you aren’t speaking biologically.’
‘No, sir, I’m not.’
Crawford leaned back in his chair. ‘Show me some more emotion, and talk to me, Agent.’
Ryan stared into his HUD and dialled the percentages down to only fifty percent. ‘Three days, yes sir, but I met her as a child. I saved her then. She remembered. I-‘ He closed his mouth. Nothing he could say was a reason for the Agency to care. No one cared about his strange little girl, and that was at its core, the problem – if anyone had cared, she wouldn’t have needed him. ‘I feel like her parent, I care for her, it’s nothing I can explain, but it’s also nothing I’ll ignore.’ He let out a long breath, expecting the Enforcer to speak, and then nothing but sound, and then silence.
‘Agents should make family of their own kind. The old instruction the new. Fathers and brothers and sisters. This is part of our programing, Ryan, I shouldn’t have to explain that. Yet…I see no real cohesion among your agents. You and Taylor are nearly the same age, yet I’ve seen countless-‘
‘It was better under Director Reynolds,’ he said. ‘Things changed, sir.’
‘You’re putting your career, and your life, on the line for an untested recruit.’
‘I know, sir.’
‘Does she even know what Duty is? Does she even understand what you’re doing?’
A tiny amount of pride flared. ‘She is a genius, sir, she will probably understand these technical documents better than I will, once she’s given the proper context.’
‘You understand this is a different situation to Whitman. With Whitman…an agent with eighty years of impeccable service wants to make an augment of his lover, that’s not unheard of. Full agent status is far rarer-‘
Ryan took his hands from the desk, and clenched them into fists. Carol was absolutely relevant to the conversation, he had expected the Enforcer to mention her – and mention her far more frequently than Crawford had done, but he still didn’t want to talk about her.
‘Your recruit, on the other hand. Untested, untried-‘
‘She is essentially a hermit with no familial ties. She has no regular correspondence with anyone through any medium – Jones’s initial report will show that. She is the prefect test subject because no one will notice her missing, and a function person will suit this experimental protocol better than a newborn agent.’
Crawford actually smiled. ‘Very good, how many times did you practice that before I arrived?’
Ryan looked away. ‘I comprehend the dangers of the mirror. I understand Stef’s-‘
‘You’re emotionally compromised, Agent.’
‘I killed Carol, sir. I brought Stef here instead of hiding her. I do know my duty, and I do not fail to carry it out.’
‘I want to meet her.’
‘I want to meet her.’
Ryan was shifted before he could argue. They appeared right in front of Stef’s tank, and she immediately stood up, almost tripping on her feet, and walked over to the glass. She had cookie crumbs on her T-shirt. His heart nearly broke in two.
The mirror had either granted her the abilities of a reader, or else she saw her reflection in the glass, as she quickly patted down the grey shirt and stood at some semblance of attention in front of Crawford.
The door to the tank slid open and Crawford stepped in, circled her once, then looked down at her. ‘Recruit Mimosa?’
She gave a quick nod.
Crawford looked at Ryan. ‘She’s completely unremarkable, Ryan.’
A sour look crossed Stef face, and Ryan silently begged her to stay quiet.
‘What’s the grey uniform mean, Recruit?’
She started, and attempted to stand a little taller. ‘From what I’ve been told,’ she said, her voice a little more prim-and-proper than usual, a slight accent colouring her voice. ‘It denotes those with a transitory status within the Agency. Those who are not yet recruits, may no longer be recruits, and other persons of note whom Agents wish the rest of the Agency population to be able to easily identify.’
‘And Duty?’
‘The first rule. One of the three rules. It’s-‘ she faltered. ‘It is what must be done.’
‘And what’s your Duty?’
‘To- To the Agency?’
A gun appeared in Crawford’s hand. ‘I am an Enforcer, Recruit, I hold a higher rank than your Director. I am, so far as you are concerned, the voice of the Agency. I represent the Agency’s best interests.’ He pressed the gun against her chest and she grabbed for it. ‘Any orders I give supersede any given by any Agent of a lower rank.’
She nodded. ‘I understand.’
‘Shoot him,’ Crawford said, stabbing a finger at Ryan. ‘If your Duty is to the Agency, shoot him.’
‘Are you fucking kidding me?’
Ryan’s heart skipped a beat, and he felt frozen to the spot. Stef dispensed with the attempt to stand at attention, and back away a couple of steps from the Enforcer, her face a mess of confused emotions. ‘I get that this is a test, everything here’s a test, but are you kidding me?’
Admonishments stuck in Ryan’s throat. It was like watching something horrible that you could not stop.
‘I know he’ll respawn, but in the one-in-a-million chance that for some reason the Agency’s in a blackout zone, I’m not gonna take that chance. I refuse. Fail me if you want, but I refuse.’
This didn’t seem to surprise Crawford. ‘Your Duty is not to the Agency then.’
Ryan watched as Stef turned to look at him. Slowly, she raised a hand and pointed. ‘It’s to him, I guess. Whatever- Whatever you do- Anything he says, I’ll do.’ She looked at the ground. ‘Sorry.’ Stef looked back at Ryan, her eyes wet with tears. ‘Sorry.’
Crawford snapped his fingers in front of Stef’s face. ‘You understand the severity of what’s going on here. Of what he’s asking the Agency.’
‘I have the authority to execute him for this…impudence,’ Crawford said, savouring the word. ‘But I’m willing to be lenient.’
‘Just let him be ok,’ Stef said, the words coming out in a rush.
‘I will let him off with a slap on the wrist if you are no longer an issue.’
‘No,’ Ryan said, the word forcing itself from his throat. ‘No.’ He stepped forward but the door of the tank slid closed. ‘Let her take-‘
‘Ryan, it would be your best interest to shut up,’ Crawford snapped.
‘Let her take sanctuary, let-‘
The paralysis came on instantaneously, he hadn’t even heard the Enforcer speak. He couldn’t move, or speak, or even require. Ryan’s eyes stayed locked on Stef, and he desperately wished for an escape, hoping the mirror would hear him.
‘What the fuck did you do to him?!’ Stef raged, banging on the glass, then turning the gun on the Enforcer.
Ryan screamed at her in his mind, begging her to put down the gun, to wish for her own escape, to do anything to escape. He managed to refocus his eyes to look at her wrist, and saw the cuff there – however, none of the lights had been lit up.
‘Fix him!’ Stef raged at Crawford. ‘I’m a shit shot but this is point fucking blank!’ She swung the gun at the ground and fired two shots. ‘Let him go! I don’t care what you do to me, let him go!’
‘Prove it,’ Crawford said, his voice calm and even, despite the gun in his face.
‘You have a gun,’ Crawford said, his voice bored.
Stef’s whole body froze as surely as if she’d been paralysed herself.
Ryan stared in his HUD, into the disabled communication settings, and screamed at Crawford anyway.
‘Promise me,’ Stef said, her voice flat and emotionless. ‘If I’m gone, you’ll forgive him.’
‘If you’re gone, the problem’s gone,’ Crawford said.
Ryan’s paralysis broke and he stumbled forward to bang against the glass door of the tank. ‘Stef, don’t!’
She turned to look at him. ‘Thank you.’
Stef pressed the gun to her temple, and pulled the trigger. The sound seemed far louder than it should be, magnified by the weight of what it represented.
Ryan collapsed to his knees and fell against the door of the tank, his hands resting flat against the glass. Tears were held back by the emotion-limiting controls, but a frustrated scream came easily enough, though not as loudly as he had imagined.
He had tried, and still failed. He had tried, and she’d had to do worse than die. He’d failed her.
There was a knocking on the glass in front of his face. He kept his eyes closed, unwilling to face Crawford.
When the knock started to bang out the Star Wars theme, he opened his eyes.
Stef, tears streaming down her face, sat curled against the glass in front of him, her eyes wide and vacant. The door slid open. Ryan grabbed her and pulled her onto his lap, his arms wrapped around her, not caring how emotionally compromised Crawford labelled him.
‘It was a test,’ she said, her voice hollow.
‘You said yourself, just a minute before, Recruit, that everything the Agency is a test.’
‘But this-‘
‘Recruit, you’ve proven what you’ll do for your Duty.’
Stef fidgeted in Ryan’s grasp, and dropped the gun to the floor. ‘Did I pass?’
‘I will be signing off on the experiment protocol, yes.’
‘And Ryan’s not in trouble?’
‘No, he made one mistake, but then did everything according to the Agency rules. Given the gravity of the initial error, that’s commendable.’
[I expect some repercussions, sir. I did go against the directives.]
[Yes, yes, a slap on the wrist, level five for an hour, but she doesn’t need to know that.]
Ryan kept his face neutral. [Thank you sir.]
Crawford folded his arms behind his back. ‘I thought Reynolds was making a mistake, but he had faith in his decision. You’ve done him proud, Ryan, so it’s only fair that I trust your decision here.’ The Enforcer nodded to them, then shifted away.