Ryan smiled as Vink’s warm hands slid onto his, and his smiled faded as he felt her trembling.
The Blank slid onto the lounge next to him, her form slipping back towards her natural state, details of her complexion slipping away, her eyes becoming even more prominent.
He scanned quickly for enemies, and saw only gala guests. ‘What happened?’
‘Code Shyla.’
‘I don’t understand.’
She reached weakly for a passing waiter, and pulled a full bottle of wine from the tray. She took a long drink, then turned back to him, her features appearing and disappearing at random. ‘Code Shyla, your girl’s Captain just told me-‘
He hurriedly ran a universal search – knowing he’d fine nothing, and watched as she took another long drink. ‘I don’t understand. What’s wrong?’ he asked her again.
‘Nothing is wrong,’ she said. ‘Wrong’s not- Code Shyla. It’s- I’m free.’
‘Blanks don’t fall, Ryan. We live, we serve the Lost, then we fall apart. We- We can be sold though. It’s not very common, but it does happen. And I was bought, but- But my new owner is me. I was given to myself.’ She threw her arms around him and hugged him as she laughed. ‘I’m- I- I don’t know what to do!’ she laughed again, her features pulling themselves from her blank slate. She sobered for a moment. ‘Did you-?’
‘No,’ he said, ‘it wasn’t me. I wouldn’t presume to do something so life-altering without a conversation.’
‘If it wasn’t you-?’
‘Stef said she had a surprise for me.’ He stood and looked across the dance floor, and saw his proud little girl dancing with Curt, mask hanging in her hand, her head against his arm, barely moving with the music. Tired, content, and in love. The music changed, and Curt swayed her to the left. She seemed to wake up a little, and stood straighter. She moved to slide her mask back on, and caught his gaze as she looked up. He smiled, and she smiled back.
‘I think we know who we can thank.’
Confusion crossed Vink’s face. ‘She’s barely said a word to me all night.’
‘It’s hard for her to talk to new people,’ he said. ‘Give her time.’
‘Time?’ she asked, a coy smile on her lips. ‘So you think I’ll be spending more time with you?’
‘A friend’s ability to require will be useful whilst you decide what to do with your new life.’
‘I could consider working for the Agency,’ she said. ‘It’s getting late, do you want to head out?’
‘Let me say good-bye first.’
He walked across the dance floor, easily dodging all of the slow-moving couples and tapped her on the shoulder. ‘I’m heading out. And thank you.’
She gave him a sleepy smile. ‘That’s all anyone is saying to me tonight.’
Curt let her go. ‘I’ll get you some water, newbie.’
‘It’s getting late,’ he said, ‘are you heading off soon?’
She shrugged. ‘Hook keeps telling me an ashreader might show up, so that would be nifty to see, even if they are nitpicky fanboys.’ She rolled her mask around in her hands. ‘Tonight wasn’t as bad as I thought, thanks for making me come.’ She hugged him. ‘Thank you.’
He kissed the top of her head. ‘I’ll see you in the morning?’
‘Just be home before your blue runs out.’
He smiled, and walked from the dance floor.
‘There’s a car waiting for us,’ Vink said, ‘did you have anything to collect?’
He shook his head, and bowed his arm for her to hold.
* * *
There was something wrong.
He required his uniform, and his gun as he stepped out of the limousine. There was something wrong with his Agency.
‘Stay back,’ he said as the driver gave Vink a hand out of the car.
‘What’s wrong?’
He stared at the darkened lobby of the Agency – even as late as it was, the lights should have been on. He opened his alerts, and saw nothing, no warnings, no alarms, every indication that things were as they should be.
Something was wrong with his Agency.
He unholstered his gun, but kept the safety on, and kept it pointed at the ground. ‘I’m going to shift you to a safe house,’ he said without turning, ‘there’ll be someone to-‘
‘The hell you are,’ he heard his own voice say.
He turned away from the Agency and saw himself. Himself with overly large green eyes, to be precise.
‘You’re not going in there alone,’ Vink’s eyes went to his gun. ‘And get me one of those.’
‘Do you have any training?’
‘Basic hand to hand defensive,’ she said, ‘it’s part of my programming, I’ve never used it, but I’m confident in my creators.’
‘I can’t-‘
‘You can,’ his voice insisted, ‘and you will.’
He required her a gun. ‘Stay behind me.’
He stared into his HUD and pulled up a listing of his people – aside from a few recruits, likely on patrol, everyone was in the Agency. He ran vitals, and they all appeared alive, healthy, asleep. [Jones?]
A voice-only response. [Sir?]
[Is there a situation?]
[No, sir.]
He stared at the empty lobby.
[Are you sure?]
[As far as I know. I’m recoding some of the lighting programs, trying to clear some of the bugs.]
Everyone was asleep. Even the techs. He double-checked the time – before midnight. It had taken bribes and stories read with the voices to get Stef to sleep before midnight, whether or not it was a night they were predicting nightmares. There was no natural way everyone in his Agency would be asleep.
He felt possibilities start to form.
He put a hand behind him, and slowly stepped back, pushing Vink back towards the street.
There was far too long of a delay before the agent’s face appeared in his HUD. [What’s up?]
[I think my Agency’s been breached.]
[Breached by what? By who?]
[I don’t know. I”m going in, give me five minutes, then declare an emergency.]
[Sure, of course.]
The lights in the lobby came up, and the door slid open to reveal Jones – his lab coat ruffled and his shirt dirty. The tech smirked. ‘Are you- Are you going to try Parker-style, sir?’
He looked to Vink, and the meaning clicked home. He kept his gun lowered, but required another one into his holster, just in case.
‘You should come inside,’ Jones said.
He stared at the tech, and slowly nodded, feeling silly for suspecting Jones of anything.
They followed the tech into the Agency, and the smell of fresh dirt hit him like a warm wave. Rich earth, turned on a summer’s day, the same smell that was there in his garden, Reynold’s favourite smell.
The reception area was empty, and everything seemed normal. The elevators, the same boring plants that were always there, giving the appearance of being just another corporate lobby, the trunk of a massive tree form, the emergency map and- His mind buckled in on itself as he took stock of the lobby again.
Plants. Elevators. Art. Emergency map. Tree.
He felt a slowness in his mind as he ran every self-check and scan that he could.
The tree was inconceivably large, a redwood, a world tree, Yggdrassil. A world tree, in his Agency. In his lobby.
‘I expected some reaction,’ Jones said.
He looked to the tech, then to the tree, and back. ‘I presume that’s Merlin,’ he said, his voice flat and emotionless.
Jones nodded.
‘So this is your definition of nothing wrong, Jones? Your ward turned has- Merlin’s- How did this even happen? Is he all right? Can he- Could it not be in the lobby?’
‘He’s dormant for now,’ Jones said. ‘He’s safe. He’s safe and that’s all that matters.”
‘Jones,’ he said, keeping his voice low and level, ‘why is he a tree?’
A branch pushed its way from the trunk, reaching like a bony hand, flowers blooming as it stopped moving.
The tech smiled at him and the question fled his mind. It was a silly question. Merlin had always-
New knowledge warred with old. Memories of-
‘What are you doing?’
Merlin was a tree. There was nothing out of place.
‘I’m not doing anything, sir.’
He convulsed, and threw up on the pristine floor.
He tried to focus on shifting, but the blackness at the edge of his vision-
Sleeping suddenly seemed like a very good idea.