14 days ago.
Ryan knocked on the door to Jones’ lab, and was met with a resounding ‘COME IN!’ from Merlin. He opened the door and walked into the lab, finding the boy sitting on top of a cabinet, a bowl of fruit on his knees, and Jones intently typing something into one of his keyboards.
‘Want some?’ Merlin asked as he held the fruit bowl toward him.
The aroma caught his nose and he took a second look at it. ‘Is that-?’ he began to ask.
‘Yup!’ The boy lifted a huge chunk, licked the juice from his fingers, then popped it into his mouth.
‘Where did you get fairy fruit?’ he asked, taking a piece from the proffered bowl.
‘Magnolia,’ Merlin answered. ‘One of her brothers sent it over to her, and she really doesn’t like it, so it ends up down here.’
The fruit was cold, fresh, sweet and refreshing, perfect, as it always was. He took a second piece from the bowl without thinking about it, then turned his attention to Jones. ‘You needed me?’
Jones looked up. ‘Have another piece of fruit, it’s a lot sweeter than anything we have to today.’
Merlin dropped off the cabinet, handed him the fruit bowl, then went and sat on Jones’ knee, staring intently at the screen.
He had a third piece of fruit. ‘What do we have to do?’
‘A demonstration first.’ Jones waved him over. ‘What’s you’re about to see is a simulation, so don’t-’
‘Don’t freak out,’ Merlin supplied.
‘Yes,’ Jones said as his clicked the mouse, ‘that.’ Halfway across the small lab, a fully-suited Stef appeared. ‘At the moment, this is how she functions, at least, I think.’ He made a finger gun. ‘Boom!’ The simulated Stef began to bleed from the chest, collapsed to the floor and began to bleed translucent blood onto the floor. ‘Observations showed that if the injury was life-threatening…it had to follow through on that before she would regenerate herself.’
The simulated Stef coughed, spasmed a few more times, then went still.
‘This leaves her far too open to attack. She’s too vulnerable. It’s very un-agent-like. However, the thing is, this would work anywhere. It’s pure mirror magic, it doesn’t care if it’s in system territory or a blackout zone.’
‘The other option?’
‘It’s not other,’ Jones said, ‘it’s only. We wouldn’t get final approval for her if getting injured in the field means that the Solstice have a chance at getting at the mirror.’
‘So what do we do then?’
‘We’ve got to let programming take over in this instance.’ The simulated Stef returned, and this time, when shot with the finger gun, she fell and immediately disappeared. ‘We’ve got let agent programming take over so she pops out and regenerates, just like you, or anyone else would.’
‘…the caveat to that being that it won’t work in blackout zones.’
Jones reached over and took a cube of fruit from the bowl. ‘Exactly.’ The tech smiled. ‘But, she’ll be terrified of blackout zones, just like the rest of us, it should make her feel more like a real agent.’ He looked away for a moment. ‘And really, when it comes down to it, it’s the lesser of two evils. It means she’s safer a lot more of the time. And it will mean less pain for her, she won’t have to go through the trauma of dying each and every time, just a nice clean break. It’ll be better.’
He nodded. ‘I trust you.’
‘Well, that’s the biggest worry out of the way.’
Jones looked uncomfortable for a moment. ‘“Off switches”’ he said.
He required himself a chair and sat. ‘A shatter sequence, I know.’
‘And we’re putting in a backup, just in case that fails.’ Jones stood, walked around the slab that held Stef, the sheet disappearing, only to be replaced by a set of hospital scrubs. He pushed the corpse up into a sitting position, and lifted the back of the loose top.
There was an X drawn on her back in pen. ‘Puncture the skin, crush that vertebrae, and a toxin will flood her. She won’t feel anything, just like she’s going to sleep, meanwhile her body, code, flesh, everything, will just melt. Only another agent can do it, so it won’t get triggered by accident.’
He stared at the X, imagining himself having to use the toxin. A small hand entered his vision, and pressed another piece of fruit to his lips. He took the piece from Merlin’s hand, then ate it, the inherent magic of the sweet fruit calming him a little.
Jones sat back down, and was immediately besieged by Merlin, who grabbed the tech’s arm and wouldn’t let it go. ‘Limiters next,’ Jones said.
‘A lot more so than-’ he cut himself off and looked at Merlin.
‘Than Carol, yes.’ Jones said. The tech looked at the loving growth on his arm and patted the boy on the head. ‘I told him what happened. He knows to keep it a secret.’
‘She was really pretty,’ Merlin said.
‘Yes,’ he said, ‘she was.’
‘With Carol,’ Jones said, ‘we tried to make her almost as powerful as a regular agent. Seventy-five percent or so. And I remember she took you in a few sparring matches,’ Jones said with a smile. ‘We’re not doing that for Stef.’
‘Even we’re not good enough to cram kick-ass into Agent Squishy.’
He couldn’t hold back a smile. ‘So what are we doing then?’
Merlin gave him an intense stare. ‘What’s this “we” stuff? You gonna help us program? You don’t even game, how can you help us design her UI?’
‘She’s going to have a non-standard HUD?’ he asked.
‘Just theming it for ease-of-access,’ Jones said. ‘She’s a hacker, so she likely already thinks like she has a computer in her head, I’m designing a custom UI extrapolating from that.’
‘…but he won’t let me make it pink,’ Merlin whined.
‘…I don’t think that would that would be a good idea,’ he said.
Merlin grinned. ‘But it would be fun to watch.’
‘Anyway…’ he said, looking back at Jones.
‘We’re going to top her out at about thirty percent, any more and we’re pushing it.’
‘Thirty percent,’ he repeated.
‘Roughly…Magnolia’s level,’ Jones said. ‘But probably not her match, because Magnolia is trained, Stef isn’t.’
‘What combat are you giving her?’
‘To state the obvious, targeting. She’ll be able to shoot straight.’
‘Well, that’s a definite improvement.’
‘As to the rest, we’re very much toning it down in comparison to what we gave Carol, a lot of it will be reflexive, rather than conscious. We’ll have to tweak everything after we get her up and around.’
He looked at the body. ‘Which will be when?’
‘Help me alter this heart of hers, and she’ll be up.’
He opened up the commands to access his lock box, focused on the the case holding the heart and after entering the proper passwords, the case appeared in his hands. He popped the locks, disappeared the cookies inside, then looked at the heart. He looked up at Jones. ‘How do I do this?’
Jones shrugged. ‘I, er, was hoping you knew. I’ve never played with mirror magic. You brought her back all right, I thought this would be easier.’
‘Wishing someone back to life, it’s a simple wish, you know exactly what you want.’ He stared at his warped reflection in the mirror, occasionally morphing into expressions that he didn’t have on his own face.
‘You ask it nicely,’ Merlin said quietly.
‘Merlin…’ Jones cautioned.
‘He and she,’ the boy said, ‘I saw them do things with mirrors. They only had little, little pieces, but the way they did it was always the same, they asked for it.’
‘I asked the last time, but this is…a lot more precise.’
Merlin put on small hand on his shoulder, and another on the case. ‘Mirrors aren’t lawyers, and you’re not making a fairy bargain, it’s like requiring, if you know what you want, it’ll know what you mean. It’s how it works for people who can’t speak, or say the words to articulate what they mean.’ With this, Merlin grabbed the fruit bowl and bit into a large chunk, the juice running down his chin.
He laid a hand on her heart, and asked it to allow the overrides by the agent programming. He looked over at Jones and nodded. Jones stood, required away Stef’s shirt, and a hole opened up in his recruit’s chest. He stood, carefully lifted the heart from the case and placed it in her chest.
It shook for a moment, then settled. A thought put Stef in a new shirt, then he lifted a hand and held onto hers.
Jones adjusted the two glowing electrodes on her temples, then quickly sat back down. ‘Starting download.’
After a long moment, she opened her eyes.
She stared at the roof for a moment, an expression of uncomprehending wonder on her face – like a baby learning to focus on something for the first time. Slowly, her eyes moved, taking in the apparent endless wonder of the lab ceiling before she saw him.
She blinked twice, then sat up like a shot and grabbed him. He wrapped his arms around her as she buried her head into his chest, tiny, hot breaths sinking through the fabric of his shirt.
‘It’s ok,’ he whispered, ‘it’s ok.’
Slowly, he felt her nod, but her grip didn’t lessen. ‘Are you really here?’ she asked.
‘I am.’
‘Am I?’
‘You are.’
He pushed her away just a little, and bent down to her level. ‘Everything’s all right, ok?’
She slowly relaxed her grip, and let her hands drop into her lap. ‘Ok.’
He ruffled her hair, handed her one of her beloved cookies and smiled. ‘Welcome back.’
‘Is it for good this time?’ she asked, crumbs falling down her shirt.
She folded her legs beneath her and smiled, and seemed to deflate a little. ‘Cool,’ she whispered.
‘You even got a bit of an upgrade,’ Jones said to announce his presence to her.
She rubbed the bridge of a her nose for a moment. ‘So that angry English guy wasn’t lying? He said I was an-’ She looked up at him for a moment. ‘Seriously?’
Incredulity and excitement warred for control of her face. ‘No, seriously?’
‘But I’m a hacker!’ she exclaimed.
‘Well, it’s time for you to give up your evil ways,’ he said with a smile.
‘Oi!’ Merlin cried, ‘no fair!’ He turned to look at the boy, who was fervently pointing at the tiny white cowboy hat that was perched atop his goggles. ‘We aren’t all evil!’
‘I dunno,’ Stef said, ‘evil’s kind of fun.’ She slid off the slid of the slab, and immediately crashed to the floor, her face slamming into the cold floor. ‘Oooooouch,’ she mumbled, ‘legs are for people.’
He crouched, lifted her and sat her back on the slab. ‘Don’t try and rush yourself.’
She leaned forward, her head resting against his chest. ‘Ok…I won’t.’
Merlin pushed him back, lifted a small hammer and hit her knee with it. ‘Anything?’ he asked.
‘Yeah,’ she said as she grabbed for the hammer, ‘more ouch.’
Merlin danced back, keeping the hammer out of her reach.
‘Merlin,’ Jones said, ‘let’s give her a minute, you can hit her with a hammer later.’
Stef whipped her head around. ‘What?’
Jones grinned. ‘Just to test your reflexes.’
‘I’m not sure I like the sound of that.’
‘Trust me,’ Merlin said as he required a ridiculously long scarf, ‘I’m the Doctor.’
‘…I…’ she looked over at Jones, who simply shook his head. ‘Oh, good, cause the Doctor is Merlin, and if you’re Merlin then you could be the Doctor, and that means I would have to tear this place apart looking for the TARDIS…unless the whole building is a TARDIS, are we-’
‘Unfortunately not,’ Jones said, ‘this Agency is only a little bigger on the inside, not a lot bigger, and so far as I know,’ he said as he pulled the scarf away from Merlin, ‘this one isn’t from Gallifrey.’
Jones stood from his desk, removed the glowing electrodes from her head, and quietly ushered Merlin from the room.
He looked down at Stef, who had dropped her head and seemed to be staring intently at her lap. Slowly, spots of water darkened the pale scrubs, though she made no sound. He lifted her from the slab, required a couch, placed her on the comfortable seat and handed her a handkerchief. She opened the handkerchief buried her face in it, then blew her nose noisily.
‘Are you ok?’ he asked after a few minutes.
She brought her knees up to her chest, rested her chin atop them and shook her head. ‘Nope.’
‘You will be though,’ he said, ‘everything really is fine.’
‘But it was so bad,’ she said, nearly choking on her words. ‘It was all so bad. Everything went wrong. We were- I… I-’ she looked away for a moment. ‘Then those guys! How did it go from that to “lol hi I can haz agent status”?’
He was halfway through making a note to Jones to check her speech centre before realising that it was just Stef. He smiled, preparing himself for more wonderful confusion. ‘It all happened quickly,’ he admitted. ‘Jones managed to diffuse everything.’
‘So you’re not breaking anymore rules? I’m legal?’
‘As much as a hacker can be.’
‘I second the little wizard: oi! No fair picking on me.’ She slowly put her knees down. ‘Agent?’ she asked with a grin. ‘Seriously? Agent? A-gent. Me? Are you crazy?’
‘No, you’ll be fine.’
Her face hardened. ‘You’re setting yourself for disappointment, I hope you realise that.’
‘You haven’t disappointed me yet.’
A tiny smile broke through. ‘Fine,’ she said, ‘I’ll give it go.’
‘Should I take that as a yes?’
She nodded. ‘Sign me up.’