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Stef stared down at the man’s hand, then shook it, doing her best to make it as professional as possible. One of the few skills that her family had passed onto her was the ability to give a handshake so trustworthy your clients had no problem handing over their money or their fates to you.
There were a hundred questions to ask, from the simple “don’t you have a fucking vetting process?” to “what’s the pay like?”, but for now, the man in the suit had answered all the questions that had been burning holes in her brain.
Well. Almost all. Death hadn’t been brought up yet, but fair was fair. ‘You- Um. Your turn. I don’t know what I can tell you what Dorian can’t, but- Whatever you need to know. Go.’
Ryan. The patch of blue from her dream had a name. And was a real person. And-
‘Sacha, the Tech recruit running point with Mr Gray, has managed to gather that he hired most people online, is that what happened with you?’
She nodded and haltingly retold the story about the rubber-ducky-coding forum, how Dorian had shown up on her door unannounced, and exactly how old-and-busted the code was.
‘He said it was a way to-’ running and hiding for her life had scrambled her brain, just a bit. Just a lot. ‘Said it was a way to track a dying world? Or- Something like that. That his son also came from elsewhere so jury-rigging the code might work like a GPS for the bits that come through.’
Ryan nodded. ‘His son is a what the fae call a starchild, they’re rare, those that live this long are rarer. We’ve got him on record, as refugees like him have to be aligned with a fae court. Mr Gray’s son appears to be aligned with the Plenty.’
‘And the dead world thing?’
A sombre look crossed the agent’s face. ‘Mirrorfall. The heart of a dead world is called a mirror. The easiest way to explain it is to say that if you have a piece of mirror, you can make a wish. It’s a higher-order of magic, more aligned with the primal forces, like Life and Death and such, so almost anything is possible.’ He ran a hand through his hair. ‘So it’s highly valued. Priceless. If there’s any accuracy in this program you were working on, Mr Gray stands to make a lot of money, even just selling the approximate coordinates.’
‘You’re welcome to a copy of whatever I had- I just-’ she instinctively reached beside her for Frankie, but her hands closed on air. ‘Oh. Right. I- I’m going to have to go get my stuff.’
Ryan nodded. ‘You can go with one of my recruits tomorrow after your recruitment tests. That will give Jones’ teams time to-’ He paused for a moment, seeming to consider his words. ‘Make the property presentable.’
Stef’s head dropped as she translated his words – “presentable” meaning “until they clean out all the dead bodies”. Dead bodies that she so easily could have been among. Poison, it wasn’t like you could dodge poison, you couldn’t argue with poison, you could only ingest and hope. And with her track record of being laid low even by a mild cold, if there had been more than the traces on her fingers, she wouldn’t be having a conversation with a not-figment. A real person. He was a real person.
He was real and- And something was bothering her. It was his voice that had clued her in. A voice that couldn’t have been the same one she’d heard way-back-whenever. People’s voices changed, especially over such a long length of time. Unless- She looked at his ears, no pointy tips. Not an elf. Probably. But- Dorian was immortal, and he looked normal on the surface.
‘Ryan?’ She drew her knees up to her chest. ‘Or is it “sir” now? Agent? Admiral? Grand Moff?’ She sighed and chewed on her lip for a moment. ‘I’m gonna ask something- And- And I’m sorry. But what are you?’
‘Agent,’ he said, ‘my rank and what I am, is agent.’
‘Yes – the suit, gun, and office kind of gave that away. I meant the literal what.’ She bit her lip and waved her hands. ‘If there’s a more delicate way to phrase that question, feel free to tell me. I don’t think you’re human. If you are, then sorry; feel free to shoot me. Except don’t, cause it’s a compliment.’
He smiled. ‘What are your conclusions so far?’
‘You can conjure stuff, but there’s no arcane bullshit, so I’m not expecting that this place is Hoggles. No runes, no smoke, no wand, no reagents. You arbitrarily clicked your fingers, but I don’t think that’s key – it’s no nose of Samantha. Teleportation, you can take at least one person with you, but I don’t know if it has a recharge. There’s no obvious Scotty, possibly personal, possibly some variant of shunpo. You also knew my name without stealing my wallet.’
‘I have no conclusive conclusions. And there’s been too many questions lately, so I’d just like a simple answer. Please.’
‘There’s nothing complicated about us,’ he said. ‘The full extent is that we were created to keep order. To protect. To mediate.’
Created…Like an automaton?
She cocked her head to the side. ‘Man, machine, or magic?’
He tapped her water glass and refilled it. ‘Depending on your perspective, all three, I suppose.’
‘How immortal?’ She tried to look him in the face and saw his nose wrinkled. ‘Sorry. Too personal?’
‘It’s not something we tend to discuss, Miss Mimosa.’
She looked at him, one obvious question forming. ‘You can teleport, and summon stuff, and- So why the shit- What the hell do you need humans for? Fuel? Cause I’ve got a few names if you subsist on Soylent Green.’
He gave her a strange look. ‘This isn’t usually how this conversation goes.’
She tried to steady her gaze. ‘That’s not a “no”. Look, some people just deserve to get eaten.’
He sighed. ‘Miss Mimosa. I- No. We don’t consume humans for fuel. That’s- No. You don’t have to worry about being cannibalised within these walls.’ He stared at his hands for a moment and laid them palms up. ‘It’s perspective. New priorities, new ways of thinking. Everyone has something they want to protect, and by being a recruit, you can–’
‘Oh spare me, please,’ she interrupted. ‘If I have to sign up for the whole saving the world rhetoric, then I’m out of here.’
‘You’re a hacker, Miss Mimosa. Data, information – that’s what matters to you, correct?’
There was a slight distortion in the air above his hands, and Frankie appeared. ‘Then the only rhetoric you have to believe in is your own.’ He leaned forward, and she gratefully pulled Frankie from his hands and pulled her best friend close, the warmth of his power source comforting as she cuddled him.
‘Thank you,’ she said, without looking at the agent. ‘Thank you, this means a lot.’
‘I’ve got my liaison, Agent Clarke, looking over the paperwork Mr Gray’s contractors signed, to see what you can and can’t legally share with us. Depending on what it says, and who it is backed by, we may negotiate for the data.’
‘I almost died tonight, I’m happy to share,’ she said, reaching for the clasp to life Frankie’s screen.
Ryan shook his head. ‘I’d advise against that, Miss Mimosa. If, for instance, he has it backed by the Court of Kings – the court that maintains and regulates fae law, the consequences might be quite unpleasant. Given the nature of what he was dealing with, it’s not out of the realm of possibility. No one is at immediate risk, so don’t put yourself in danger.’
‘Ok, I guess that’s fair enough.’ She stretched, then rubbed at her shoulder, then froze at the unfamiliar texture under her hand.
It’s- It’s- Oh god, it’s-
Unable to stop herself, she pulled her hand forward and looked at the half-dry bloody mess. Part of-
It’s- It’s- Oh god, it’s-
Someone had been shot behind her. She’d felt the- There’s been a shot, then wetness, and she’d kept running and-
That’s- Is that brain-
She heard herself scream.
She pushed herself up, only half-noticing as Frankie fell to the ground. There was blood and stuff on her hand and- And she couldn’t breathe- And it could have been her. And-
The world spun, everything too bright and too dark all at the same time.
And there was still blood on her hand.
And it could have been her.
Unsure of how it happened, she felt carpet under her hands, saw the blood on her hands smearing onto the pristine carpet, then felt warmth as she vomited over her hands, half-digested lunch covering the blood, in a strange battle to be the lesser evil.
There was a hand on the non-bloody shoulder – or the shoulder she assumed was free of blood, and she spasmed.
‘Don’t, please,’ she mumbled, bowing closer to the ground to duck free of his hand, to wipe her mouth on her clean hand. ‘Just- Just-’ She puked again, and watched as fat tears fell into the mess of vomit.
‘I’m sorry,’ Ryan said. ‘But please, may I help?’
She wobbled, pushed up, then fell back onto her butt, her back crashing against the coffee table, the water spilling down over her. ‘Sorry,’ she mumbled, unable to focus. ‘I messed-’
-everything up, I’m really-
‘-sorry, I’m really-’
-I couldn’t help it. I- But there’s-
‘-blood and I-’
‘Hold still,’ Ryan said, his voice a light in her fuzzy darkness. For a moment, nothing happened, then the dripping water disappeared, as did the feeling of the wet shirt against her skin, replaced with the feeling of an ever-so-slightly warm feeling of a fresh shirt.
She dug her thumbnails into the pads of her index fingers and forced herself to focus. She looked down and saw a fresh set of clothes – a grey shirt and grey cargo pants, along with new shoes.
The puke was gone from her hands, the blood was gone. The carpet was fresh again.
Did I disassociate or-
Not that I know of, Spyder.
‘Stef, are you okay?’
‘Huh, you used my name,’ she said as she touched the fresh, soft cotton shirt. ‘So I guess your summoning powers aren’t limited to water?’
‘Most objects that you can think of can be required.’ He knelt on one knee and offered his hand. ‘The floor isn’t very comfortable.’
‘You’d be surprised,’ she said mildly, her eyes tracking the shine reflected on his cufflink. ‘This carpet’s pretty good.’ She sniffed, then buried the balls of her hands into her eyes. ‘Processing. I guess. I mean- Duh. I mean- Chaos theory. If I’d taken half a step different, then- Then it would have been me shot. If multiverse theory holds true, then a lot of me died.’ She dropped her hands away when she started to see pressure-induced phosphene-fireworks. ‘I’m not usually lucky. Probably shouldn’t have been. Whoever died probably meant more than me.’ She bit her tongue. ‘Sorry. Sorry. And the carpet. I know it’s fixed. But, sorry.’
‘It’s not a problem. It’s far from the first time I’ve had to replace sections of my carpet.’ He moved his hand under hers, so that all she had to do was drop hers, and he’d help her up. ‘Crayon, spilled coffee, it’s all dealt with easily.’
She laid her hand on his. ‘Um. Coffee would be really good right now.’
He helped her to her feet, and she sat back on the couch. On the table, a single white coffee cup appeared, along with a sugar jar and a pitcher of milk. She closed her eyes, sent a thank you out into the universe, popped open the sugar, and proceeded to pour directly into the cup, ignoring the spoon that Ryan offered her.
Far, far too much sugar – which, right now, was the right amount – added to the coffee, she finally took the spoon, sat back on the couch and began to stir the life-giving liquid.
Two sips in, she knew there was a question she had to ask; and if the panic faded, so would the bravery to ask it.
‘Dorian didn’t tell me a lot. That’s why-’ She sipped the coffee. ‘That’s why I’m glad you’re ok with telling me stuff. But- But he said- He said I’d died. And- And I can’t think it’s a coincidence. And-’
Ryan sat on the couch next to her, gave her a sad look, then turned to the coffee table and tidied the sugar jar. ‘Are you sure this is the conversation you want to have right now? You’ve just been through something traumatic, and-’
‘And that’s a yes,’ she said, hugging the coffee cup to her chest.
‘The basic situation was that-’ He shook his head and went silent for a moment. ‘A member of the Solstice. Those people from tonight,’ he reminded her. ‘Took you as a human shield. I wasn’t quick enough, but I rectified the situation.’ He smiled, but it was faint. ‘I’m-’
There was a sharp knock on the office door, and it was pushed open before Ryan had a chance to respond.
Another man – maybe another agent – walked in, a half-finished cigarette between his fingers, a blue folder tucked under his arm. ‘Contract is easy,’ he said without preamble or greeting. ‘Human,’ he said the word with disdain. ‘So we’re free and clear to use the data from any of the corpses.’
Stef fought a shudder at his wording.
‘Clarke,’ Ryan said curtly.
Clarke didn’t seem to notice Ryan’s rebuke. ‘There are commercial restrictions, but we’re not in this for profit, right?’ He placed the cigarette into his mouth, and a breath made the end flare red-hot, then he walked forward and dropped the blue folder onto the table in front of Ryan.
Clarke tilted his head up, exhaled a long stream of smoke, then threw the exhausted cigarette into her abandoned water glass. He looked at the folder on the table for a second, then lifted his head and seemed to acknowledge her for the first time. He smiled in a disconcerting way, then adjusted his focus back to Ryan. ‘Is that all, Director? If so, we can both get back to who we were doing.’
Ryan pinched the bridge of his nose. ‘You’re dismissed, Clarke.’
Clarke gave a casual two-fingered salute, tapping them against his temple as he disappeared, the smell from his smoke lingering in the air like the Cheshire Cat’s smile.
‘I apologise for him. He is an odious man.’ Ryan lowered his hand from his face. ‘Unpleasant.’ He blinked a few times, then seemed to refocus. ‘It is good news though, it means you’re free to give us whatever information you can.’
Stef nodded, then reached for Frankie. ‘It’s, uh- All of my notes probably only make sense to me though. If you can get me a power cord, and some more coffee, I can notate it so it makes sense to actual people.’
Ryan nodded. ‘I’m sure my techs would appreciate that. You’re free to work here, but I need to step out for a minute.’
‘Power cord first,’ she said as he stood, then dropped her head. ‘Sorry, Frankie’s battery is a bit touchy, so I don’t want to take the chance that he drops out.’
Ryan took a step back, then pointed to the floor, where a power board and a laptop charging cord appeared. He touched the coffee table, and a full coffee pot appeared – and the dirtied water glass disappeared.
She nodded to him, then opened up Frankie, and began to look for her code files.
The first PDF opened – a scanned compilation of notes she’d made on hard copies, and she felt herself swoon again – no matter how broken the code was, or the fact that it had nearly cost her life, it was still undeniably beautiful.
Ryan stated that he would be back soon, and she nodded, her head already phasing into codemonkey.exe and the focus that came with it.
Writing notes to explain bits of the program so that other people could understand it should have been easier – there was the old saying about how if you couldn’t explain your thesis to a five-year-old, then you didn’t really understand it, but…communicating was hard.
She knew that some of the paragraphs were over-explaining, whilst others were lacking in detail that was needed. There would be follow-up questions, and hopefully, she could answer them.
She lifted her hands away from the keyboard and shook out her fingers.
‘Do you need a break?’
She jumped at the voice, then looked to its source. Ryan was sitting at his desk.
‘Hey, what’s the teleporting thing called?’ she asked as she flexed and took her fingers through a series of exercises to keep her fingers from seizing. ‘And did you do that- Um- Yanno, to scare me?’
‘Shifting,’ Ryan said, then paused. ‘I’m sorry, I’m not sure what you mean by- I’m not sure what you mean.’
‘You-’ she tried the word out. ‘Shifted in without warning.’ She shook her fingers in his direction. ‘Yanno, to spook me. Boo!’
‘I exited via the door.’ She nodded to this. ‘I also re-entered via the door.’ He gave a polite cough. ‘Over an hour ago.’
‘Oh. Ah. Huh.’ She felt the warmth in her cheeks from a blush. ‘Anyway. I need a key thing. Um.’ She held her thumb and forefinger an inch apart, trying to think of the word. ‘USB drive!’
A silver USB drive appeared on the table in front of her. ‘I’ve put together everything I had, and everything I had access to from the common drive that was set up. I didn’t get it working, but I only had the context for a few hours, so…’ She yawned as the files transferred. ‘But godspeed with it.’
‘Miss Mimosa.’ She looked up at him. ‘Since going back to Mr Gray’s residence tonight would be-’
‘A fucking nightmare?’
‘I was going to say “unpleasant”, I’ve arranged for a room here for you. Should you continue on to be a recruit, it will simply become your dorm room.’
She nodded, yawned again, and started to realise how tired she was. ‘Ok. Yeah. Sleep would probably. Yeah. Good idea.’ She closed Frankie’s lid, pulled the power cord, tucked him under her arm, then stood, and followed Ryan out of his office.
The hall outside his office was quiet, but there were sounds of life from elsewhere – it was apparent that the building wasn’t without other inhabitants. The aesthetic was very corporate – white walls, with touches of silver, grey and blue.
They went up one floor in an elevator and stepped back out into an identical corridor. The doors were closer together here though – each numbered, and some had nameplates or small whiteboards.
Stef looked from one side to the other, then stopped. ‘Um?’
Ryan, a couple of steps ahead of her, stopped and looked back. ‘Yes?’
‘Where’s room twelve?’ She pointed to the doors. ‘All the other numbers are here. But- I mean, I know I’m sleepy but-’ She looked at the doors again, trying to make sure she wasn’t blanking on its existence, which was entirely possible, given her sleepy state. ‘No, I’m pretty sure it’s missing?’
Ryan tilted his head to the side. ‘It was dissolved due to an accident.’
‘What kind of accident?’ she asked, taking a couple of quick steps to catch up to him as he pressed a keycard to the reader of room thirteen.
‘Wat.’ She said, the word dropping flat. ‘Just. Wat.’
Ryan pushed open thirteen’s door. ‘I’ll come and get you in the morning.’ He handed her the keycard, which she immediately tucked into a pocket. ‘Is there anything else you need?’
She stepped into the room, then turned back to him. ‘Food? Maybe?’
He nodded. ‘The fridge is stocked. You should be able to find something to your liking.’ He reached for the door handle. ‘Good night.’
He closed the door.
Stef looked at the closed door for a moment, then hurriedly opened it, knocking the edge of the door into her forehead as she tried to step out into the hall.
Ryan had barely moved.
‘Thank you,’ she said, looking past him, still unable to meet his gaze properly. ‘For. Yanno. Not shooting me. And explaining stuff. And. Yanno. Thank you.’
He smiled. ‘You’re more than welcome. Sleep well.’
‘Night,’ she said again, then stepped back into her room.
The cool corporate theme continued here – blue bed linen, silver lamps, and soft furnishings in greys. She moved deeper into the room to explore the amenities. The overall feel was that of a studio apartment that might be used by a junior associate for city business.
The main room was the standard mix of bedroom, living room and kitchen. A full-size fridge sat in one corner, humming gently. She walked to the right-hand side of the room, to the desk, and placed Frankie there, a small smile forming on her face as she realised Ryan had furnished her with another power cord.
She plugged Frankie in, made a comment about hungry he was, then went through the door to the adjoining room – a hotel-ready full bathroom. She reached out and touched the towels and was surprised at how thick it was – it was the kind of quality that wouldn’t have been out of place on her family’s estate.
The fridge was, as promised, stocked full of food. The freezer had a selection of microwave meals, each with a tidy and informative label – what it was, what it contained, and what diets it was safe for.
After a moment of juggling the frozen containers, she selected one of beef stir fry and one of mac and cheese, though after a minute, returned the mac and cheese – the night had been strange enough without risking cheese dreams.
While the stir-fry spun in the microwave, she opened the fridge compartment, found an acceptable selection of soda, and pulled out three cans of Mountain Dew. The microwave dinged, and she moved to the bed, food and drink in hand.
She laid the piping hot plastic container on a pillow, then made an acceptable nest with the rest of the soft pillows.
Food and drink. These were necessities. Motions to go through. It was normal to microwave food. It was normal to know you were drinking too much caffeinated sugar.
It wasn’t normal to know the feeling of blood and brain splattering on your back.
It wasn’t normal to know, without a doubt, that magic was real.
It wasn’t normal to know you’d died.
It wasn’t normal to know to meet someone who had always been just a wisp more than a memory or dream.
She looked at the food, sighed, then placed it on the bedside table, and began to slowly construct a pillow fort. There weren’t enough pillows to make anything decent, but with a few minutes’ work, she had a comfortable cave. She turned out the lights, then slid into the soft haven, lying so that her face was at the foot at the bed, her fingers dangling over into monsters-under-the-bed territory.
‘Tell me I’m safe.’
He gave you the keycard to your room. That’s a pretty good sign.
‘I’m not- Always the best at- People.’
She buried her face into the soft bed.
You’re my sensible. Tell me I’m safe.
You’re not getting any bad feelings. You know that. Trust yourself.
‘Ha,’ she mumbled into the mattress.
One second delay. One step wrong. She was alive by luck. Pure sheer fucking luck.
She closed her eyes, but sleep wasn’t coming. The phantom feeling of brain and blood hitting her shoulder kept looping, the memory playing on repeat even as she tried to banish it.
‘All children, except one, grow up,’ she began reciting to herself.
The familiar words calmed her, the comforting story, the well-trodden path – all of it so wonderfully comforting in the face of her brave, new life.
She continued the word perfect recitation, plying the sheet between her fingers, drawing a rough map of Neverland in the ripples and bucks in the fabric. ‘You always know after you are two. Two is the beginning of the end.’
There was tightness in her chest
‘Two was the beginning,’ she stumbled.
The dream was as old as memory. Ingrained as deep as bone. When her mother had been distant, or her father angry, she’d search out the room for something navy blue, something like the colour that meant safety.
She wiggled and pulled the keycard from her pocket. Navy blue, with the number thirteen in silver print. She ran her fingers over the colour, and all of her fears dropped down to their normal background simmers.
She stared at the keycard, closed her eyes, and let herself fall into sleep.
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