Stormy Note: So I’m going to go through the scratch I have for IOI, and upload the pieces that are closest to being done – it won’t make it a proper and full book, but it’s something while this hiatus is going on.
Note for this chapter: Once they got the kid back to the Agency, they induced a coma, so they could play with his code without it having too much of an impact on him.
Someone was talking to her. It didn’t matter. The was code, and somewhere in that code was the missing pieces of a small boy’s soul.
There was no Ctrl+Z on life, but code was supposed to be make sense. This was supposed to be a puzzle they could put back together. They knew what the picture was, they had the edges and the corners, but…the picture refused to resolve. And if they didn’t-
Someone said her name again.
Code had always made sense. Code had always been the one thing that had made sense.
Stef plugged in another algorithm. It was one she’d already tried. Second time’s the charm. Second time had to be the charm. Something had to work.
There was a hand on her shoulder.
Part of her ran through the catalogue of people who had permission to touch her. It wasn’t Ryan. Wasn’t Curt. Wasn’t- The hand was large. Big. Huge. And-
She shook her head, and minimised the multitude of windows that had been swimming through her HUD, then spun on her chair, the hand coming free as she did.
Even if they had some kind of truce – he’d apologised for trying to kill her; Taylor and Ryan were something approaching civil most days.
And it was still terrifying to be in a room alone with him.
No matter how long she lived as an agent, Taylor would always be bigger, taller, stronger, and able to rip her heart out without a second thought.
‘Y-yes, sir?’ she asked. Politeness was always a good play. Be respectful. Might make the lion less likely to bite.
Taylor was wearing a blue tank top. His shoulders were each probably bigger than her head. There was a smear of blood – probably Magnolia’s – across his stomach. He didn’t have any visible weapons – aside from his entire body.
He didn’t say anything.
‘Sir?’ she prompted again after a moment.
‘Don’t give up.’
The only three words that would have surprised her more would have been “I hate punching”.
Taylor took a step back as she stood – even standing, he loomed ridiculously tall over her. He looked to the comatose body of Austin. ‘Don’t- Memory is- Self. If it can be reclaimed. Do it.’
She looked between Austin and Taylor. ‘You did okay,’ she said, her voice quiet.
He moved to look down at Austin. ‘I adapted,’ Taylor said. ‘There was still a loss. I am not who I was. People miss…him. I would have been- People mourn for him. If you can- Help him avoid that. Do it.’
She closed her eyes, expecting her next sentence to result in her face being pancaked. ‘Jonesy couldn’t fix you.’
‘It’s- Different,’ Taylor said, his words measured. ‘This isn’t death. If you- If you can. Do. This is a Scholar problem, you’re a Scholar.’
‘I’m not Tech, Taylor, I’m just a nerd.’
He turned to her, his expression clearly calling her an idiot. He pointed at Austin. ‘Scholar problem.’ He pointed at her. ‘Scholar.’ His hand dropped. ‘Try. Mimosa.’ His eyes met hers for a moment, then they fuzzed as he shifted from the room.
Stef lifted the travel mug of coffee – something Curt had wordlessly handed to her that morning after she’d spilt an entire cup of coffee on the bed – and wrapped her lips over the edge, absorbing the remains of coffee flavour as her eyes focussed on nothing.
A thought topped up the Bulbasaur travel mug, and she enjoyed the renewed tingle of warmth under her fingers, and the scent of sugared caffeine reaching her higher brain. She raised it higher, putting herself eye-to-eye with the Pokemon on it, before she hung her head and shifted to the hall outside Ryan’s office.
You always knew you were going to ask this.
Ryan’s door was open as she walked up to it – one of her so-called Field colleagues was standing there with a form – someone who still managed to get the memo about going to Curt, rather than bothering the Director with something petty.
Not that you know it’s petty.
I’m making a calculated assumption.
I’m making a calculated assumption you’re about to walk into that wall.
Stef pulled herself up short, just as her shoulder brushed the doorframe. ‘Thanks,’ she mumbled, then adjusted her angle and continued into Ryan’s office.
She took up her usual seat on the couch, unable to muster even 0.5 metric fucks about her appearance – she was already ignored by most of the Field recruits, looking like shit wasn’t going to tank her stock below its already rock bottom levels.
The recruit left a minute later.
Somewhere outside herself, she heard Ryan close the door, then felt his presence as he sat on the couch beside her.
There had been so many good conversations here. So many stupid conversations. So many serious and silly, and everything inbetween.
And now she was going to ask him a question she’d never asked him before.
She stared ahead, not feeling quite connected to her body – it was a weird feeling, and old feeling – the Agency had her more able to deal with stuff, there were fewer days when she had to hide in a closet away from the world, fewer days when-
‘Do I make a wish?’
Her voice was flat. Dead. It was a question to the universe, without emotion, without inflection.
‘I’m a walking deus ex machina. I can fix with this kid with one little cut and one little wish.’ Her voice hitched. ‘I feel like I should. I feel like I have to. I feel bad for not doing it already.’ There were tears on her face, but she could barely feel them. ‘I feel- I’m feeling so much I’m hardly feeling at all, and I know that in about a second, my heart is going to completely break.’
Ryan lifted her left hand, and held it sandwiched between his two hands. Big hands. Warm hands. He was so much more of a person than she was. So much more sensible.
She tried to connect her brain to her body, tried to banish the free-floating feeling, and looked to him. ‘Tell me what to do, dad.’
‘I feel like another father would remind you that you once told me you had no interest in saving the world. Instead, I will say this,’ he wrapped an arm around her, and drew her head to his chest, holding her together, filling in another little bit of the gap left of a life without the love of a parent. ‘You cannot, no matter how much you should wish to, save everyone. It’s something that takes a long time to come to grips with.’ She felt his chest vibrate with a chuckle. ‘I’m not entirely sure that, deep down, I have come to terms with it.’ He mussed her hair gently.
She made a weird, half-laugh, half-choke sound. ‘I’m kinda proof you think everyone can be saved.’
‘But I’m not actively saving everyone. I don’t have room in my mind or my heart to save everyone I come across. For every person like yourself, or like Raz, where a small kindness on my part has changed a life, there are a thousand people I have walked past.’ He was quiet for a moment. ‘Any parent would ask you to save their dying child. Any spouse would ask the same. I believe your mind might be without bounds, sweetheart, but the same cannot be said for the number of wishes you can grant.’
‘What happened to that young man is unforgivable, but it something he can eventually move beyond, should you and your Tech compatriots not be able to bring back what was lost. The soul is a formidable thing, and I think he may be able to find his sense of fun again.’
‘Don’t make a wish,’ she said flatly, wanting to ensure that she was understanding him. Even as plain as he was being, she needed to have it laid out bare, with nothing to hide behind.
She felt his head move, and after a moment, she lifted her face to look at him. His eyes swam with compassion, but his face was set. ‘Don’t make a wish. It’s selfish, but I don’t want to lose my child, so that another may be found.’
Stef rested her knuckles beneath her chin. ‘Will you ever tell me to?’
‘I dread the day I have to, but I cannot pretend that I don’t think it will happen. With the way our world is, there are a incalculable reasons that may warrant risking a wish.’
‘Needs of the many?’
‘Something like that, sweetheart.’ He kissed the top of her head. ‘Please, take a short break.’