01 – Uncertain Parameters

‘What’s that movie?’

Magnolia tried to twist her head towards Screen but was met with a soft wall of boob.

There was a laugh from behind the wall of boob. ‘You’re going to have to be a little more specific,’ Screen said. ‘There’s at least…three movies that exist.’

Magnolia sighed and curled up on top of her best friend. There were few softer places in the world than on top of the cuddly Tech, and definitely none in this Agency. She tried to reset her train of thought. ‘The cock is bad. Something like that.’

Screen laughed, and the mirth rippled throughout her entire body, rumbling her like the best kind of earthquake. ‘Zardoz,’ Screen said. ‘The penis evil. The gun is good. Why on Earth are you thinking about that?’

She moved her head up a little and squished her head between Screen’s ample boobs. ‘I always think of it when I’m here.’

‘Something about my tits makes you think of Sean Connery in a G-string? Babe. I’m not sure I’m flattered.’

She squished Screen’s boobs again. ‘The boobs are good. The boobs are great. They’re so good they make me monosyllabic.’

Screen pulled her into a soft, sweet kiss. ‘Okay, I’ll take that as a compliment.’

Magnolia breathed in long, slow breaths for a few minutes. ‘I need to get up. Soon. Don’t let me go to sleep.’

Screen’s fingers started to carve patterns in her hair. ‘What’s on your dance card for today?’

Magnolia sighed, but this time in exasperation. ‘Meeting with Ryan. We’re getting a new recruit.’

Screen made a confused noise, and the hum vibrated her chest. ‘I’m guessing that there’s something extraordinary about that? Special circumstances? Transfer? Fae contractor?’

She paused – there were certain details that she knew, even if only a few. It wasn’t precisely her job to discuss things with the Techs, but with how poorly-run their Agency was run, there was no harm in disseminating some information ahead of the official schedule.

‘Definitely unusual,’ she said. ‘Transfer from Adelaide.’ That part wasn’t too unusual. Inter-Agency transfers were normal – maybe not for them, there weren’t too many people who wanted to transfer to an Agency that was largely, though not universally, thought of as one of the worst in the country. People transferred out of Brisbane, but not many chose to transfer into their network.

‘Tell me the other shoe already,’ Screen said, sensing her hesitation.

‘Ex-Solstice.’ She patted Screen’s left boob. ‘Don’t ask for details, I don’t know any, that’s what this meeting is for. I know Adelaide. I know ex-Solstice. I only know that much because that’s what Ryan has told Taylor. We didn’t get a choice, just a head’s up.’

‘That can’t be doing any good for your tactical assessment stuff.’

‘No shit,’ she said without rancour. ‘I already have a headache, and this bullshit hasn’t even started.

She kissed Screen again, then slowly extricated herself from the bed and dressed.

There were a lot of ways to cheek, disrespect and piss off Ryan that Magnolia enjoyed. It was too great of a temptation, given how ineffectual he was. At most, he was decent as a figurehead, someone who had to deal with the shitstain-in-a-suit that was Clarke, but otherwise, not someone worthy of any respect.

Their Agency was like a car that had been through some expensive chase sequence in a movie, with all of its doors and windows crushed, that somehow continued to operate.

One day, it was inevitable, a group from Central would descend and take it apart piece by piece.

And on that day, she would either have to drag Taylor into Faerie to save his life or watch him die for his Duty. Either result wasn’t an ending she was looking forward to; but as time progressed, it seemed like those were the only paths at the end of their road.

Hopefully, they would die in glorious battle, before paperwork demanded their lives.

She looked up at the boardroom’s simple clock.

There were a lot of ways to cheek and disrespect Ryan. Being late was not one that she regularly engaged in. There were only twenty-four hours in the day. Twenty, if she got her usual four hours of sleep. Less if she was feeling weak, or needed to recover from an injury bad enough to have one or both of the Parkers threaten to put her into a coma for her own good.

She didn’t schedule every moment, as much as people tended to think that she did. She didn’t mind that impression of her – at least it was a lasting impression that was something other than “heartless bitch”. Plans were made, meetings were scheduled, but it was stupid and useless to try and plan every moment.

Meetings ran overtime, emergencies happened, and sometimes you needed five minutes to either bash your head into a wall or get slammed into one by a good looking acquaintance.

Ryan was late, and that was the perfect cherry on this shit sundae that was this meeting.

She refused to waste time though. Her workbook lay open in front of her, showing the current slate of leave requests that she needed to schedule in. She pulled the top form out, and flipped the workbook closed – the folder had insert panels on the back and front, which were supposed to hold simple title pages, but more and more, they seemed to attract detritus from her friends.

In the front pocket was indeed a title page, showing the combat logo of a blue circle enclosing a smaller grey circle. Alongside the logo were the month and revision number of her custom paperwork. On top of this though were several photo booth shots of Screen and Sacha, a beer mat signed by a cute fairy singer/songwriter that had appeared at the local pub, and a small square of Tabita silk cut into a heart, its tingling magic long since gone.

The back cover was entirely the domain of Merlin – who treated the pocket like some children treat the door of a fridge – a place for artwork to be lovingly displayed, and she took each piece with joy, allowing him to switch in and switch out pieces, so that he had control over what was shown to the world.

And giving that little, wonderful, boy any and all agency he could handle was so important.

Her life had been a basket, a park and a blanket short of a picnic, but Merlin had been dealt an even worse hand. She’d been made to suppress who she was on so many levels, he’d been tortured since the day of his birth.

And from the moment she and Taylor had pulled him from the blood-stained basement, and the cardboard box that had been his whole world, Merlin had fixed her in his mind as a hero, a saviour, and most importantly, a sister.

So now, at least on a weekly basis, Merlin would thrust a collection of crayon drawings or carefully-coloured-in pictures in her direction, simple joys that he’d never had a chance to partake in before his life in the Agency.

She had a lot of problems with Jones – less so than with Ryan – but his mothering skills when it came to Merlin were beyond reproach. Jones was an excellent mother, to whatever Merlin was – a question she refused to let herself dwell on, lest it become a question of where her Duty lay.

Merlin was special, Merlin had powers, and if the Agency officially knew about that, then they might label him a danger.

And no one was going to take her little brother away.

The door opened, and Ryan finally walked in.

Magnolia slipped the leave request form back into its plastic sleeve and slapped the workbook closed. ‘Director,’ she said, wedging as much sarcasm into the word as was possible in three syllables. ‘You’re late.’

Ryan paused before closing the door, stared blankly at her for a moment, closed the door, then took up his usual seat across the table and to the right of her.

‘Do you want me to talk first,’ he asked as he straightened his papers in front of him. ‘Or do you want to barrage me with questions?’

There was one logical question to open with. ‘Was it good?’

‘Was what good, Recruit?’

‘The cocksucking you got to agree to this bullshit.’

Ryan’s face was flat. ‘Recruit.’

Magnolia licked her lips in a way that she tried to make as lewd as possible. ‘Cause if that’s the price of doing business, and making my life easier, then unzip.’

Ryan shuffled the papers again. ‘You know I don’t appreciate that kind of talk, Magnolia.’

‘You would be so much easier to get along with if you got laid once in a while, Ryan.’

Ryan slid a slim file across the table to her. ‘His name is O’Connor. Petersen in Adelaide recruited him. There’s limited information about his period there. From what I can read between the lines, Petersen didn’t seem to be planning on keeping him long term.’

Magnolia tapped her fingers on the blue folder, noticed that her nail polish was chipped, and required it refreshed. Black polish with a feather design on each index finger. A little bit of girlishness to help centre her thoughts.

‘I see three reasons for that. One. Petersen does habitual catch-and-release of likely Agency candidates. I don’t see that being likely, because those agents tend to have pathways if they’re of that mind. Two, he’s doing it as a favour to someone. Also unlikely, because I’ve never heard of this asshole, and I guess you haven’t either. Three, there’s a lot left off this transfer report, and whatever that means, it’s going to end up shit for me, because I’m going to be the one dealing with it.’

‘He’s not going to be a combat-’

‘Most new recruits are still my problem, Ryan. You pop up like an army tent once in a while, but-’

‘Do you want to peruse the file while I’m here?’

‘What did he used to do?’ she asked as she opened the file.

‘That answer will depend on who is asking the question,’ Ryan said. ‘He is one of those Solstice that we’ve allowed a nicer cover story than his actual background.’ He leaned forward and tapped the file. ‘If any regular recruit were to ask – you’re the only one here with clearance to know otherwise-’

‘Shocking, but if you were ever to get your head out of your ass and get yourself an aide or an adjutant or something-’

‘Non-Aide recruits will see him as a regular Solstice operative. Someone unremarkable. Maybe in the motor pool, perhaps just one of their call centres, there is some truth to the latter, I believe.’

‘And for all of us without the wool over our eyes?’

Ryan pushed across another folder. This one was slightly thicker than the woefully-incomplete new recruit folder. ‘I’m not up to date with their new favourite euphemism,’ he said as she opened it. ‘But the word “torture” will suffice. Given his background, I’m going to exclude Petersen’s recruitment being personal or sentimental.’

She opened the folder – which thankfully contained no visual aids. Solstice torture was messy, even for someone as used to blood as she was. Instead, the folder was clinical, text excerpts of statements apparently taken by Petersen. There was a page of links to further information, and the full versions of statements.

‘How many cold cases were they able to close?’

‘I don’t think that was on Petersen’s radar. I’m still not sure of his reasons for recruiting this-’ He paused, looking for an appropriate term for a Solstice-piece-of-shit, ‘young man.’

‘Did Petersen tell you jack shit about this situation, or is this recruit, who was-’ she looked at the recruitment folder, ‘two weeks ago actively engaged in trying to kill everyone wearing our uniform, just turning up like the worst basket on an orphanage doorstep ever?’

‘I know very little about the situation,’ Ryan admitted. ‘There was a public request for assistance sent to all the east coast Agency networks, as there often are when there are issues with placement. Most often it’s someone like this,’ deliberate pause, ‘young man, but it can be other troublesome employees like contractors or Blue Earth expatriates who want nothing to do with their former cells.’

‘You get more information from a Tinder bio.’

‘You know we’re not well thought of,’ he held up a hand to forestall any relevant interjections from her, ‘please, whatever you’re going to say, you’ve already said it. Doing small favours like this is…makes us looks as though we’re making an effort, a little bit of good PR, as Clarke would put it.’

‘That’s not the worth of bringing in someone dangerous. Read the statistics,’ she said, barely keeping her voice level. ‘When shitheads like this go rogue, it’s recruits they kill first, unless they’ve got a target, and frankly, no one here is important enough to be on a hit list. It’s not going to be you who gets it in the neck if he’s a plant.’

‘I understand your point of view, but if we didn’t give out second chances, Aide Hammond, you’d be in a cell yourself.’

She let a genuine smile curl onto her face. ‘If he looks at me funny, Ryan, I will stab him, and I will dump the paperwork on your desk.’

‘I imagine you will, Recruit.’

She let her gaze drift back to the folder with the interview excerpts. ‘If Adelaide did nothing with this information, can I assume it’s going to be your first priority?’

She saw Ryan slump a little in his chair and felt as though she’d won a small victory. ‘Shall I put that on my action items, then, Director?’ she asked, coating the words with venom. ‘See, I told you he was going to be my problem.’ She flipped through the excerpts, trying not to take in the detail – that was going to be a horror-show for future-Magnolia to deal with. ‘There’s easily a dozen cases here, and probably a lot more that weren’t discussed or recorded. That’s a lot of closure we can bring to families.’

‘If that’s something you’ve got time to do, I would appreciate it.’

‘I don’t have the fucking time, but I guess I’ll have to make it.’

Next: 02 – Operational Boundaries

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