A piece of buttered toast. A piece of toast with jam.
An attempt to make his mornings different from how they had been things had been with Victor. He still woke afraid, woke expecting another day of pain, of being used and treated like an object.
He ate the buttered toast, and the pigeons arrived.
He ate the jam toast, and non-bird company arrived.
Agent Jake, flanked by two security officers who seemed to be almost in grayscale compared to the aide-agent.
Twin agents – the first twins he’d ever encountered, as there were none within the Phoenix network – with silver hair, not the graying hair that people often referred to as silver, but deliberately colored, metallic sheen silver.
Silver hair matched their silver ties, marking them as operatives of Central. This dearth of color, along with standard black blazers and white shirts, made them seem strange compared to the relative brightness of Jake with his blond hair and Southwest red pops of color.
‘Thank you for your cooperation,’ Jake said as he stepped into the room, the security officers at his heel.
Jonathan nodded, letting Jake know he wasn’t going to fight. He’d known this was coming, had been waiting for it since the moment he’d woken up in Paulson’s tank.
The security officers were for show, really. It would take just a couple of commands from anyone acting on the Regional Director’s behalf to incapacitate him.
Necessary or not, they were good social engineering and were sure to take the last wisps of fight out of those teetering on the edge of combating the inevitable.
He deserved all the pain that was coming, and no amount of fighting, wishing, or praying could do anything to minimize what was coming his way.
Jonathan dismissed his plate, turned to the pigeons, spread one last layer of premium bird seed, then stood, walked over to Jake, and nodded his consent to the senior agent’s authority.
The shift was immediate, and the location that appeared was as stark and sterile as he’d expected.
A white room far too large for the furniture it contained, lit by unnecessarily harsh lights. All subtle touches to turn your stomach, to know that this was a place without honor and that it was only the lucky ones that would leave here without the specter of execution hanging over their results.
Of all the nightmare futures that Victor had proposed as ways Jonathan’s life might end, interrogation had rarely featured. Part of it was surely to do with the fact that Victor had almost always imagined a personal hand in his future, in what would happen to him if he misbehaved.
What had happened hadn’t been in Victor’s plans – as far as Jonathan knew, Victor had always planned on…being the victor. Of outsmarting the Agency he was supposedly serving, of proving his methods too useful to be criminalized.
Victor had spun threats of selling him on the black market, trading him for Solstice prisoners, or stripping out chunks of his operating system and placing him as a voiceless doll in Duty or Duty Bound.
Whatever the Agency would do to him couldn’t even measure up to the mildest of Victor’s threats. Or the punishments already enacted over the years.
In the center of the room was a low bed, at the head of which was a strange-looking but fit-for-purpose chair.
Jake put a hand on his shoulder and asked kindly if he would lie on the bed.
He nodded and moved towards the bed. Surely, taking these steps himself would count for something, that he was willingly accepting what was going to happen rather than being wrestled into place by the silent twins.
It had to count for something.
Jonathan had held a hand to his heart for a moment. He felt the coin and the candy wrapper, the two treasures he’d taken to carrying, in case they had decided to skip this step and take him straight to the crystal chamber for execution.
One of the walls of the white room was mirrored, hiding any number of observers in an observation gallery, and he hoped there weren’t that many here to observe his- Questioning.
He lay on the bed, and a moment later, sections extended and shot soft, padded restraints across his body at seven different points.
It was sensible, some part of his mind said. It would stop him from flailing, from hurting himself or the interrogating agent.
Jake came to stand at his shoulder, beside the chair where the Regional Director would sit, and explained the situation to the few agents in the room and whoever was in the gallery.
Somewhere just out of his field of view, the doors swung open, and the near-silent footsteps of the man who had named himself after a ghost crossed the floor.
Director Adams loomed over him, stared at him for a moment, but said nothing.
“Sorry” wasn’t a word to be used in this situation, and it would have been hollow if Adams had used it. This was being done because there was no other choice. Whatever chance of a kinder outcome had been decided against long ago when their forefathers had designed the original agents.
Adams settled into the strange chair, one designed to allow the man to lean forward without tipping and to be braced for the duration of the questioning, making the situation as comfortable as possible for the interrogator.
Jonathan tensed his chest and held onto the sensation of a coin and a little bit of trash as Adams rested his arms and positioned his hands against Jonathan’s temples.
Once again appropriate to his name, intangible, ghostly copies of Wraith’s fingers pressed into his mind, reaching deeper than his physical fingers, extensions of his blue, seeking the connection that-
The white room ceased to be.
Jonathan woke to the taste of blood.
Warm blood poured down his throat like one of the many times his nose had been broken.
Sometimes, Victor wanted to remind him that Jonathan’s good looks were there to please Victor alone and that they could be taken away at a whim.
Sometimes, Victor just liked to bruise him and make him sit in the corner, a still life in shades of purple.
If that’s what was happening, then- But Victor was-
The flow of blood suddenly stopped and was replaced with a headache.
If he didn’t get up, didn’t get out of the way, didn’t find-
Jonathan forced open his eyes and wasn’t sure what he was looking at.
There was…something above his head. Something that was equal parts sky and ceiling, but in a way that shifted and changed every second.
The sound of a door opening, then slamming shut, shook the “roof” and it settled into an ordinary patch of ceiling like was all over the Phoenix Agency.
He sat up and-
Once, he had been witness to a conversation between Victor and some of Victor’s acquaintances where a fairy man had recounted a tale of dying, of going to Limbo and walking through the forest there.
What had stood out the most, the fairy had said, was that the trees seemed copied and pasted, that once you left the arrival clearing, it was endless, regimented rows of identical trees. Something so alien it would even fail to appeal to most perfectionists.
Some of the trees, though, changed when you approached them, seeming to be nothing but clones of their brethren until you were within a few feet. Others were identical until you touched them. Some always remained the same, part of an indivisible crowd.
He now knew what that must have felt like.
He was sitting on his bed in his little, soulless room. But rather than walls, on every side, there was simply another copy of his room, and beside those copies, more copies, on and on, until even his better-than-human vision failed him.
Jonathan stood and looked down at his shirt, expecting blood. He’d felt blood, and he’d been bleeding, but…his uniform was clean and pressed, definitely not clothes that had been slept in.
Not that he would have slept here because here was a nonsense place, a-
Far closer than should have been possible, a door opened, then slammed.
He looked around. There were no doors anywhere, no walls, nothing but endless copies of- They weren’t identical. Not quite.
Ahead and to his left, many rows over, there was a change. The position of the plant on his display shelf. When he’d moved it and hidden the coin beneath its rocks.
Automatically, his hand went to his chest, where he’d put Joel’s coin and-
His arms curled around himself as he understood where he was and what was going on.
Blood pooled in his mouth, then turned to ash, then nothingness as it spilled from his lips and onto the sub-standard linen of his bed.
Jonathan stood and began to walk through the copies of his room, seemingly one for every day of his life.
Occasionally, an unseen door would open and close.
Sometimes, he would hear voices.
Every minute or so, some new pain would wrack his body, doubling him over to throw up black bile and blood, or his heart would try and rip itself from his chest, or he would feel something in his back crack and repair.
Some days were identifiable, like the moment he’d moved the plant. Still, most of the rooms were the same, a shameful reflection of how boring and empty his life had been.
The rows of rooms, like Limbo, went forever, far beyond even the thousands of days of his life. Maybe it looped infinitely, locking him in, keeping him away from wherever the opening and closing doors were.
The inner space of every agent was different, But often there was a theme of doors and hallways. Memories apparently neatly organized, a metaphor made somewhat real, somewhat manageable for the interrogating agent.
It was possible to pull memories like video files, and that would often suffice when entering things into evidence for lesser crimes.
The problem with even footage ripped straight from the mind was that it only displayed what had happened, and not why.
And when a Director had gone rogue after inventing new crimes, the why would hold a lot of weight.
Any memory that Adams touched, any information he sought out, he could live that moment as Jonathan had done, could feel and rethink everything that Jonathan had.
He hoped for pity. He feared disgust.
A few rooms ahead, he saw disturbed sheets and dried blood. One of the mornings that- One of the too many mornings.
Jonathan backed away, looked at where the door to his office should have been, closed his eyes, and walked forward.
There was the faint echo of wood grain as he passed through something that hadn’t been there.
The quality of the air changed, felt more contained, and things no longer felt endless on all sides.
‘Please,’ he whispered under his breath and opened his eyes.
His office, every boring inch of it, had replaced the infinite limbo of bedrooms.
Jonathan stepped forward, and- The room- He quickly stepped back, feeling like he was doing something against the rules, and he had a lifetime of understanding when he was doing something against the rules.
He leaned his head forward a little, and the room shuddered again in a way he could barely comprehend. Unlike all of his bedrooms spread out over a space seemingly the size of the Earth-
Here, every tiny movement of his head seemed to reveal a slightly different version of his office, like a hundred lenticular layers all on top of each other, every slight angle revealing another day.
In some, he could see versions of himself, frozen in time, memories waiting for exploration.
In some, he-
There was a weight in his stomach, and he doubled over to vomit. More blood. Bile of every hue. His beating heart.
He fell to his knees, unable to take his eyes off his heart as it continued to beat, bleed, and function on the bile-splattered carpet.
Victor’s hands were on his cheeks, and-
The darkness was welcome this time.
A labyrinth of hallways floated above his head, and he fought to breathe in the blue surging over him like ocean waves, unable to find peace. His heart had been replaced with the sound of a door slamming. All he could feel was pain in every nerve ending, with no respite or relief, no matter how much he screamed or wished.
Somewhere to his right, coming ever closer, were the inevitable footsteps of Victor.
To his left, pieces of the restaurant where he had first met Joel tumbled like broken, disconnected video game assets, free from gravity, freer than he would ever be.
He drowned in blood, in blue, and in misery.
Hands on his temples, and the feel of ghostly fingers leaving his mind.
The bright lights of the interrogation room and freedom from his own mind.
Director Adams, shaken, pale as a Wraith, came into his red-tinged field of vision.
‘You won’t,’ Adams said slowly as Jake steadied his boss, ‘be punished for his crimes. You’re dismissed.’ Adams looked up at Jake. ‘See, he’s taken care of.’
The twins appeared, walking in perfect synchronicity, and led Adams away, even as Jake helped Jonathan sit up.
‘Sleep off the pain,’ Jake said, ‘it’s the only thing you can do.’
Jonathan coughed blood onto the other agent and flinched, waiting to be hit, to be punished, to be-
The world rolled a little as Jake shifted them away from Central.
The firm, perfunctory cushioning of the bed he’d been lying on for- It had seemed like hours and forever, but he knew there was a great degree of time dilation when this type of questioning was carried out.
It was too stressful for an interrogating agent to be under for too long, and that was always held as a concern, even if the pain of the…interviewee was always far worse.
Jonathan looked to his HUD, and tried to focus, even as all the pain in his body begged for relief. Twenty-five minutes. Long for a session like that, but not the endless hours it had felt like for him.
Jake moved to adjust the pillows under his head, and he tried to work out where he was. Phoenix, for sure, he was sure of that, but he couldn’t string the thoughts together to open his map and-
There was a lamp next to the soft bed he lay on, and the rich design brought him the truth, the guest suite, the one reserved for deserving people, not for-
Jake put a hand on his forehead, as he had done the day this started. ‘Sleep.’
And he had never been more glad of rest.
The pigeons pecked at their morning feed, and Jonathan watched, an uneaten bagel on the bench beside him.
The Agency was still a ghost town, though daily visits with Vincent made it a little less lonely but worse in other ways.
It was strange. Any given sentence out of Vincent’s mouth sounded like the man he’d known. Then, like a video missing frames due to bad buffering, there’d be gaps where in-jokes or old references would go.
Vincent was at least no longer under guard and had been allowed as much freedom as reasonable, which wasn’t much. However, Agent Jake had assured him that they were rolling restrictions and would lessen as each day passed.
It just wasn’t feasible to allow an amnesiac to roam the streets, especially when he didn’t know all the dangers to him.
All of Vincent’s operational information was intact, so there had been no awkward reintroduction to the world as it was, no need to go over who the Agency were, why they were fighting the Solstice, or how to act around civilians.
And as proved in the infirmary, Vincent hadn’t lost his ability to fight. However, there was a current order to have him go through the recruitment tests to establish a baseline.
Overall, the Regional Director’s office was leaning toward treating Vincent like any other recruit who had undergone a similar trauma.
The fact that they were doing that, that they were going to be kind to the one actually innocent person involved in Victor’s schemes, had made his testimony worth it.
He fed the birds, he ate the bagel, and he imagined what it was like to have hope.