05 – The Third Path

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Ryan watched as ghosts drifted past the window-wall of his office. They weren’t ghosts in the traditional sense, these weren’t the less-than-cogent spectres that inhabited the in between and lost spaces of the world; these ghosts were echoes of memories.

A mirrorfall’s parade of ghosts, one of the events that preceded the fall of the dying planet’s heart, seemed to him to be the most bittersweet – in the way of a wake, rather than a funeral. The ghosts, images of those swallowed by their dying planet, were always of the strongest memory that an individual had.

It was always amazing to see how beautifully mundane some of those strong moments could be – a family with their children, a flower and the briefest hint of perfume. Every moment was perfect to someone.

Two indistinct adults drifted past his window, far enough away so that they were barely more than wisps of fog. Three children – two in skirts and one in shorts – ran ahead of their parents, the fastest of the girls trending up as if she was climbing a hill, before tumbling back and landing at the feet of her parents.

Memories, of his son rolling down hills, cycled through his HUD. There had always been grass stains, and they had always been worth it – each streak of green had been a badge of honour, of fun, proof of an afternoon well spent.

At the time, the moments had been perfect – and they still were, in isolation, when he refused to think of how his relationship with his son had soured, then become non-existent. The memory was sweet, but the context marred it from being as perfect as the moment playing out in front of him.

The hill-climbing girl started to roll again, but this time, her trajectory brought her into his office – the silvery light of her form passing by his feet, the image of a smiling, pointed face visible for a brief instant before she disappeared.

Ryan looked from the floor to the sky again, and the rest of her family had disappeared as well. That was to be expected, the memories never lasted long, there and gone, one final chance to be seen and remembered.

[Sir.]

A video chat appeared in his HUD, the edges pulsing red, showing that it was an emergency, and Jones’ worried face backed up that his tech hadn’t used the priority indicators for nothing. He accepted the chat. [What’s the situation?]

[Direct call, known individual. Unsure of the entire situation, but people are dying in his house. Fast response required.]

Ryan tabbed to Jones’ location data – the Tech Department’s main call centre room – and shifted down there. ‘What have you organised already?’

Jones touched the side of his head, as he often did when indicating he was active within his HUD. ‘I’m scrambling Magnolia and her go-team as we speak. And- She’s away. That’s six combat recruits and Mags. The known individual – Dorian Gray, sir, yes, like the book – child of Fortitude; is in a safe room, but requests that an Agent go.’ Jones gave a wan smile. ‘You’re a better choice than Taylor, sir.’

The tech who had been handling the call – Sacha – spun in their chair to look up at Jones. ‘Mr Gray has a bunch of contractors on site, he’s saying coders for some sort of startup, he can’t give me a precise number right now, but over twenty.’

Jones put a hand on Sacha’s shoulder. ‘We need names and faces to Mags’ team.’

Sacha nodded. ‘Working on it, Jonesy.’ Sacha turned to Ryan and handed him a business card with a long code on it. ‘Shifting location for the safe room, Director.’

Ryan took the card, the code automatically translating in his HUD to show a targeted shift location, with an “accept” button floating over a map. He took a moment, nodded to Jones, then hit the blue accept button.

The world skewed as he shifted, the call centre disappearing; then the point of a sword coming into focus as he reintegrated.

Immediately, the sword was retracted – though not sheathed – by a handsome man who appeared to be in his early thirties. ‘Sorry, Agent,’ he said. ‘But I am just trying to protect what is mine.’

‘Mister Gray,’ Ryan said. ‘I’ve got combat recruits going through the house now, but you also advised us that you had staff onsite?’

Dorian Gray nodded, walked over to a table, laid the sword down, and indicated to two folders. ‘Left are my usual household staff. All but a few have already clocked out for the day.’ He dragged the red folder to the centre of the table. ‘More troublesome. IT contractors. Don’t have a photo of all of them.’

Ryan nodded, and flicked across each page, sending each photo to Jones to disseminate to Magnolia and her team.

‘Do you have any idea why-’ Ryan began as he finished with the last of the photos.

‘I didn’t see this coming,’ Gray said. ‘No background checks indicated anything worse than- Oh, one person I had a few weeks ago had some minor ties to Blue Earth, but they’re as harmless as people who believe the apocalypse is next week.’

‘No Solstice?’

‘I would never let any of those monsters into my home,’ he said. ‘I’ve been on the receiving end of their hospitality, Agent. What we’re working on isn’t strictly human, so- So it’s a possibility that someone inactive or someone with unrecorded ties-’

‘And the nature of this project-’

‘Immaterial at the moment,’ Gray said. ‘Please. See if you can help.’

Ryan nodded, then turned away and brought up the list of active recruits and pinged Magnolia. [When you have a moment, Aide, I’d appreciate an update.]

Most recruits tended to reply as quickly as they could; Magnolia…replied in her own time. It wasn’t insubordination, it was a matter of priority, and reporting to anyone other than Taylor was less important in her hierarchy than whatever was in front of her.

But with Magnolia being the only reason he had anything close to a functioning Combat Division, he gave her all the freedom he could, more than he should.

‘Solstice,’ she said, skipping straight to the heart of the matter. ‘Right language. Fuck, right tattoos on a couple of these assholes. Got dead. Got survivors. Parkers are coordinating medical across our network. Jones is waiting for the clear to deal with the dead.’ There was a shout, from Magnolia’s end, then the sounds of violence. ‘Fucking shit, Hannah, you know better than to cuff in front.’

‘Director,’ Magnolia said, finally addressing him again. ‘Can you sweep for life signs. We’re dealing with what’s visible, we don’t know who’s still around. They had blackout bombs in their van. I don’t think there’s any in the house, or they would have been used already.’

[Acknowledged,] Ryan said. It would have seemed backwards to most agents to take orders from a recruit, even an Aide, but there were cases, like now, when he was happy to act in a support capacity. It just made things…easier, than arguing with Magnolia.

He began to scan for life signs, true colour dropping from his vision, being replaced with a scanning mode that visualised like something between an X-ray and a CAT scan, the architecture of the house showing itself as thin lines; recruits showing as a solid blue, tooltips showing their ID numbers, with further options available.

There were several unaccompanied figures in the house – he shifted to the one furthest from the recruits. In his vision, the figure was shuddering, and when he reintegrated, it was easy to see why – they were vomiting.

Their face immediately matched one on Dorian’s list. He knelt and placed a hand on their shoulder. ‘We’re here to help,’ he said. ‘Hold on.’

[Parkers,] he said, opening the dual channel to his medical agents. [Another one coming your way.]

Parker-1 sent a simple text [Acknowledged], which meant that the twins were in full swing, too busy for even Parker-2 to be laconic or sarcastic.

The next life sign was of a running person. Ryan focussed on the layout of the house and shifted so that he would meet the figure just around the next hall.

‘Whoa- Whoa shit!’ the young man shouted as he crashed straight into Ryan. ‘Shit- Agent- Fuck!’

Ryan caught the young man as he tried to back away, swung him into the wall, then twisted his arm to hold him still. ‘Solstice, I presume?’ he asked, his voice level.

‘You know it!’ the young man said, surprisingly cocky.

Ryan looked the Solstice up and down, scanning for anything indicated blackout energy – but there were no holes in his scan, no fuzzy areas that he couldn’t discern – so there was no reason for the bravado.

‘Doesn’t matter what you do to me!’ the young man said, wiggling ineffectively. ‘We already got all those collaborators!’

[Magnolia.]

‘Go,’ she said – this time, responding almost immediately.

[I’ve got one for you to detain.]

‘Give me- Hewitt, you good? You can go ahead and bring Hewitt to you. Everyone else has their hands full.’

[Acknowledged.]

Once again, he brought up the list of active recruits, selected Hewitt, and shifted him in. Hewitt snapped off a sharp salute as he reintegrated – something that wasn’t required but was a common way for combat recruits to act around agents, even those that they didn’t report to.

‘He doesn’t seem to have any blackout weapons,’ Ryan said, ‘but I haven’t searched him for standard weapons.’

‘Not a problem sir,’ Hewitt said, expertly cuffing the Solstice. ‘I can take it from here.’

Ryan nodded, then shifted towards the next life sign – this one was also still, alive but not in any visible distress like the man he had sent to medical or the rest of Gray’s contractors.

Confusion rolled over him.

The room was small, dark, and without any sign of an occupant. He turned in a slow circle, taking in the messy bed, the desk-cum-tea station, and the small stack of dirty plates on the chest of drawers.

He heard breathing. The sound was barely there – if he’d been human, he wouldn’t have heard it. Whoever this person was, was hiding in the wardrobe. Impossible to tell right now – the report was that all of Gray’s contractors had been poisoned without exception – those that weren’t dead were with medical.

Solstice, however, sometimes hid; hoping for the careless eye of a recruit to pass on by.

The situation warranted caution.

‘I’ll give you until the count of five to come out. Slowly. No sudden movements.’ No response. ‘I’m addressing the individual in the cupboard.’ No response. He drew his gun; then took a step forward, required the door unlocked, then yanked the wardrobe door open. ‘Out.’

A young woman was curled at the bottom of the wardrobe, tear tracks on her cheeks – scared, but no signs of medical distress. He let the door go, and it slowly fell swung outwards on its hinges to bang against the body of the wardrobe, the loud sound making the girl flinch.

Her face didn’t match those on Gray’s list on contractors, so with that localised search failed; his HUD immediately ran a more extensive scan, looking for any System records, or failing that, any civilian records.

The search was near-instantaneous, returning a System-based result. Her name, age, a lack of previous known Solstice activity – and strangely, a cross-reference to himself. He stared at the cross reference, then looked to the girl, unable to place her in his memory as witness or suspect, then opened the file, curiosity more important than progress.

His gun wavered a little as he looked at the file, his own incident report slowly scrolling by, thumbnails of photos sitting to the right. It wasn’t possible. It didn’t make any sense. He looked into the wardrobe again, at the little girl he’d carried back from Limbo, at the young woman potentially working for his enemy.

‘Why-’ her voice was shaking with genuine fear. ‘Why are you- You shot everyone else. If you’re gonna- Just- You killed everyone else.’

Words that a civilian was less than likely to say. Words that a Solstice, having heard their comrades die would say.

Ryan reached forward, grabbed hold of her upper arm and pulled her up and out of the wardrobe – whatever this was, it didn’t make sense for her to remain in her hiding spot.

‘We give your people the chance at surrender. If you fight-’

‘How much fight can people puking their guts out have?’

Those, however, were the words of a civilian. For a moment, he tried to see the situation from her point of view, a man in the dark, pointing a gun at her. He looked to the wall, and required the light on, hoping that it would give her some comfort.

He tried to soften his voice. ‘Who are you working for?’

‘Dorian,’ she said, still not directly addressing him. ‘I’m working for- Dorian. Like all the other dead people.’

A line he wanted to believe. A truth he wanted- It was impossible that she was the same little girl, but the blue-trace records were close enough to infallible as made no difference. Still, protocol demanded that he not take words at their face value.

‘You weren’t among Mr Gray’s personnel photos.’ he said, even as he sent an image of her face to Sacha to get verification from Dorian.

She stared, almost at him, but past him at the same time; like an agent switching into communication mode with no regard for how they were presenting in the physical world.

‘Miss Mimosa?’ Usually, knowledge of someone’s name was enough to jolt them or to put them off-kilter, the young woman, however, gave no reaction. Solstice or contractor, she was in shock, and his weapon wasn’t helping things. He looked at her once more, made a decision, and holstered his weapon.

A text message came in from Jones. [Gray said she’s one of his contractors.]

At the same time, she seemed to shake herself. ‘I- Uh- Yeah- Dorian kept bugging me for a selfie but I never sent it to him. I- Um.’ She finally looked at him, meeting his gaze for the first time. ‘I remember you.’

Three words, three impossible words, and he felt his own shock mirror the young woman’s.

He must have misheard; he must have- She couldn’t remember him. She had been a baby, far too young for- There was no way she remembered him. Remembering him for one day, yes; two, yes; even a week was reasonable. Not twenty years.

‘I know you… I remember you,’ the girl said again, more sure of herself that time. None of the fear had left her expression, and belated, he realised that while he had information that verified her identity, she had nothing to know who he was.

‘Mister Gray called us in,’ he said. ‘I’m not with the people who injured your compatriots.’ She was still looking at him as though she had seen a ghost. ‘However, as we have not-’

‘I remember you,’ she said, her words so quiet even he could barely hear her.

‘Miss Mimosa, you need to come with me. We haven’t secured the entire property yet.’ Another thought hit him. ‘And our medical staff need to check you over, the others-’

‘I didn’t eat any of the pizza,’ she said quickly, ‘I wasn’t hungry.’ She looked at her hands. ‘So no ingestion, but I touched it, so if there’s contact effects, then-’ She shook her head and looked back up at him. ‘Who are you? Seriously like- Like who the fuck are you?’ She looked past him. ‘I don’t hear sirens or see lights, I- Unless Dorian knew they were going to poison us all, then your response time is-’ Her tongue went to the corner of her mouth, and she looked past him. ‘Who- Um- Assuming Dorian doesn’t have a private army on staff, then- Then who is he to be able to call in- I mean, do- Is there anything special about him?’ she asked, stressing the word “special”.

She wasn’t of his world, anyone who had even the barest interaction would know about the Agency. The way she was phrasing the question though-

‘Do you have a reason to ask that question, Miss Mimosa?’

She muttered something that sounded a lot like “magic cops”. ‘What was the- Shit- Fairytales? You want to know what I think of fairy tales?’ She tilted her head from side to side. ‘Um, in the metaphor- Got the book but haven’t read it- Fuck. I know he’s Dorian Gray and magic and- And if you’re not you’re gonna think I’m-’

‘Agent Ryan,’ he said, breaking into her train of thought. ‘From the Agency. Yes, we’re aware of who Mister Gray is. If you’re willing to accept a few things, then this process can be easier for you.’ He looked at her hands. ‘If you had contact, I would feel better if you got checked out by our doctors.’ He took a step forward and held out his hand. ‘I’d ask that you trust me, please.’

‘I remember you.’

She had no reason to trust him, and he could shift her without contact, but most people remarked that their first shift was easier when holding onto someone. Even if was just psychosomatic, any comfort that he could provide after what had undoubtedly been a traumatising event was a comfort that he was glad to give.

‘I remember you.’

A small, cold hand reached out and touched his fingertips. ‘Okay.’

[Magnolia, I’m taking a witness back. Can your team handle it from here?]

‘Yeah,’ came the short response. ‘We’re already bringing in Techs.’

Ryan looked down at the young woman. ‘Hold on.’

Her small hand tightened its grip on his fingers then he targeted the reception area of the infirmary; thought for a moment, the infirmary would be bright, loud, and full of people. Not the best destination for a first shift, especially with the apparently fragile state that the young woman was in.

Instead, he targeted his office and shifted them both.

As they reintegrated, he dropped his hand from hers but kept it close, ready to catch or steady her, as many people got disorientated the first time they were teleported – especially if they weren’t expecting it.

She wobbled a little but planted her feet, her eyes saucer-wide, small sounds of disbelief floating up and away from her. He placed a hand lightly on her shoulder – which she quickly dipped from as she turned to face him.

The girl stared at her legs as though she didn’t trust them to move. ‘No…’ She swallowed and looked up. ‘No electrical tingle to indicate machinery, no apparent loss of time – it was instantaneous. No lapse in consciousness to indicate that I was in fact destroyed upon disappearance and remade upon entry. No equipment visible, no transponder – you did that with a touch.’

He smiled. She sounded like Jones. He her stare at her hands for a solid minute before he asked, ‘Conclusion?’

‘Not technology,’ she said at last. ‘However, in light of recent events, not surprising.’

He indicated to the couch in the office’s small seating area. ‘Sit, please.’ He went to his desk, and placed his hand on his office chair.

[Doctors, when you have a moment.]

Parker-1 responded. [Yeah, I’ve got a moment to breathe, Director.]

[No he doesn’t,] Parker-2 chimed in.

[Possible poison contact on a witness. She’s close to shock, so I’d prefer to avoid the bright lights of your infirmary.]

Parker-1 made some thinking noises, then sent a list of two items in a text window. [Small injectable to null small poison traces. Cleansing cloth for anything left on the skin. Tracking blue will do the rest. Make sure she gets a drink of water.]

[Thank you, Doctors.]

Ryan cut the chat, required the items, laid them on the seat of his office chair and wheeled the chair over to the couch, where Stephanie – impossible, it was still impossible that it was her – sat, perched right on the edge, and seemingly ready to run.

He sat, and handed her the sealed cleansing cloth. ‘Use that on your hands, it’ll clean any traces of poison, then I have-’ he looked a the injectable, which looked like a thick-bodied lancet. ‘I realise that have little reason to trust me,’ he said as she tore open the cloth. ‘But I have to give you this shot.’ He held the lancet in his palm, and she eyed it carefully as she meticulously cleaned every square centimetre of her hands. ‘You’re free to self-administer if you wish, it’s a simple-’

‘Do I remember you?’ she asked, her voice wavering. ‘I mean you didn’t argue the point, but you didn’t exactly confirm it either. Do I- Do I remember you?’

‘You do,’ he said gently.

‘Go ahead then.’ She held out her arm. ‘I mean. Um. You just teleported- Fucking teleported me. And- And if you could do that and wanted to hurt me, you wouldn’t need my permission.’

He pressed the injectable to the base of her wrist and depressed the trigger. ‘Would you like a glass of water?’

She nodded, her eyes going back to saucers as it appeared in his hand – water, cold, with enough tracking blue to run a scan for residual poison and to register her with the System for the duration of her questioning and follow up.

‘I have several questions for you, Miss Mimosa-’

‘Stef,’ she said as she accepted the water. ‘My name is Stef.’

‘But I feel my questions can wait until you get a few of yours out of the way. You seem to be aware of some things, but-’

‘Dorian’s a cryptic bastard. He thought I was too weird to be a muggle so felt safe letting a few things loose. Other than the- Okay just confirmed existence of- Of- Damn you just teleported me. That’s not smoke and mirrors. I know he’s Dorian Gray or as close to it as there is, and the old guy is his adopted son who is an alien or something and- Starting from the beginning would be- Please. Do that.’

‘My name is Agent Ryan, this is the Agency. We step in with situations like this. We keep humans safe from when Faerie interferes. Or in this case- We have initial information that the people who did this had some inkling that something non-human was going on and took steps because of that. Solstice. They perceive everything magical to be a threat that has to be destroyed. And that often means humans working alongside fae, like you and your co-workers.’

She leaned forward and put the water glass on the coffee table. ‘Are you- Is there a point to you telling me this? Are you gonna flashy-thing me when we’re done? And you’re just doing this to be nice?’ She looked down at her feet, then picked up the water and slowly began to turn the glass in her hands, the water sloshing against the sides as she did so.

‘I don’t see a need to remove knowledge of magic when it’s not causing distress. If you want to remember, then you’re free to-’

‘Please let me remember!’ she said, her voice the loudest he’d heard yet, her eyes bright for a moment before she calmed again. ‘Please. And- And can you point me somewhere where I can learn more-’

Ryan smiled. ‘That won’t be a problem.’

She was the same little girl – a coincidence so unlikely he’d need a Tech to calculate the odds. But the fact that she remembered him – that was a gift beyond measure, in a way that seemed so impossible to communicate to humans.

‘I know you must be wondering what happens next,’ he said. ‘Generally speaking, there are three options – the first is that you cooperate, answer our questions, then leave; I feel that is what will happen with most of those who survived tonight. The second doesn’t apply, it’s for cases when we need information, but the person in question is Solstice or some other group opposed to us. The third-’ Eyes as bright as when she’d held her completed doll met his for a brief moment. ‘-is that rather than parting ways after imparting what information you know, you come work for us.’

She seemed to vibrate for a moment, a puppy waiting to jump on a favourite toy. ‘Um- Yeah. I-’ she stared at her hands for a moment, her fingers moving like she was making silent calculations. ‘I’d like that- Um. Choice three. A lot.’ She lifted her head but looked past him. ‘Please, if you don’t mind.’

He extended a hand. ‘I think something can be arranged, Miss Mimosa.’

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See you next time, Recruit.

04 - The Last Moment
06 - The Beginning

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I like this. I like this a lot better than the previous versions of the same scene. It never made a lot of sense that Ryan would go in to that situation alone.

One typo I spotted: “inactivated” should probably be “inactive”. CTRL-F should find it.