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Ryan knocked on the door of room thirteen.
There was no response.
He knocked again, harder, and still received no response.
He unlocked the door with a thought, knocked once more, then slowly pushed the door open, as to not spook to the young woman. He stepped into the room, leaving the door open, and looked around.
The quilt and pillows were a mess, but there was no obvious potential recruit in the bed. Idly, Ryan looked towards the built-in wardrobe but heard a soft snore before he could investigate the likely hiding spot.
He looked to the bed again. Fingers extended past the end of the bed, and he could just make out the shape of the girl in amongst the folds and lumps of the quilt.
Ryan crouched at the foot of the bed and lifted the thin quilt up. Her head was at a precarious angle, not entirely off the edge of the bed like her hands were, but it looked uncomfortable all the same.
Her hands slowly grabbed the air, like a child stirring during a nap, like Alexander in his crib. He stared into his HUD and changed the schedule – pushing the recruitment tests forwards another hour – and lowered the quilt again, so she could sleep.
He walked to the door, stepped out to the hall, and locked the door behind him; then shifted to his office. He sat at his desk, spread two copies of her file across his desk, and stared back into his HUD. He brought up a list of his recruits and selected one from his list. [Curt?]
Ryan waited a moment for it to connect and for the recruit to respond.
[I need to see you. When do you have time?]
‘I’m actually right outside your office, sir.’
Ryan unlocked the door with a thought. The young man walked in, his uniform neat and clean. ‘What can I do for you, sir?’ Curt took a step closer to the desk and seemed to notice the folders. ‘New recruit?’
‘Yes.’ Ryan indicated to the spare chair. ‘I’ll need you to peruse the file in the next few hours.’
Curt sat, adjusted his jacket, then lifted the file and flicked through it. ‘Sir?’
‘There’s no copy of the testing results.’
‘We had to delay them,’ he said. ‘But given the circumstances of her recruitment…’
Ryan paused – there was an apparent reason he was asking Curt to be involved, but at the same time, it always seemed awkward to say out loud.
Curt saved him the embarrassment. ‘Solstice involvement?’ Curt flipped back to the front of the file. ‘Is this-‘ he ran a finger down the page. ‘Recruited last night? I haven’t had time to look into the operation, but Raz told me something happened. He likes to keep me informed when he can. He was in one of the clean-up teams. I understand we’re providing medical care for a number of civilians.’ Curt flipped a page. ‘Not this one?’
Ryan shook his head. ‘She was lucky enough to avoid the brunt of the attack. A simple treatment, already provided.’
‘That’s lucky,’ Curt said levelly. ‘I understand there were a lot of- I never took part in anything like this, if Raz relayed the situation correctly. I never had to deal with civ- Human civilians.’ There was a momentary look of panic in Curt’s expression, and the young man quickly buried himself in the file again. ‘But if a team goes after civilians en masse like this, they do a thorough job. Someone squeaking through like this is- Statistically unlikely unless they planned for it.’
Ryan nodded. It was a quick and accurate assessment. It was elementary but still worth voicing. ‘I appreciate that, Recruit,’ he said. ‘But I am confident that she’s not a plant.’
Dorian’s word had been enough to trust that she was an innocent party, but if there had been any lingering doubt, it had been firmly assuaged by his observations minutes earlier – any deliberate plant by the Solstice would surely not include an operative who made structurally-unsound pillow castles.
‘As you say, sir.’
Curt read some of the second page. ‘There’s preliminary notes from Agent Jones, regarding data provided. Looks like she’s on track to be a Tech. If that’s the case, I can still do the welcome tour, Agent Jones doesn’t mind help in that arena, Mags on the other hand…’ Curt smiled to himself. ‘No indications she’s Combat-bound?’
‘I don’t think so,’ Ryan found himself saying automatically. Unless she was hiding some very non-obvious combat abilities, he was sure of his opinion that she wouldn’t be one of Taylor’s recruits; but it was dawning that he had missed something far more obvious – that she’d be one of Jones’ recruits.
And that wouldn’t be a bad thing – Jones’ recruits regularly topped the results of “satisfaction with your agent” polls that were sporadically run to measure morale and harmony amongst the recruit populations.
She had remembered him, and that was special beyond words. It was a momentary connection to be sure, but it was almost if though that one interaction two decades ago had left more of an impact than he had on his own son’s life.
It would have been a pleasure to mentor someone so excited by magic.
‘Technical seems most likely,’ was all he would allow himself to say.
She remembered him. Against all the odds, against all logic, she remembered him. It should have been impossible. Agents weren’t made to be remembered, Agents weren’t supposed to have an impact that resonated twenty years later. He wondered, whimsically, if she still had the doll.
‘Is the follow-up scheduled, sir?’
‘I expect testing and outfitting to be done by eleven,’ he said. ‘You can take her on a tour after that, then lunch. I’ll pencil the follow-up for two this afternoon.’
‘That’s all, Recruit.’
Curt tidied the folder, snapped a quick salute, and quickly left the office.
Ryan turned and stared out the window, letting the memory of his first meeting Stef stream in his mind. He skipped past his mistakes – past all the moments where a quicker step would have caught the Solstice before they’d broken into her house, past the feeling of holding a tiny, dead child. He filtered out the view, his office, and all of his HUD menus, letting the memory fill his vision.
She’d died, because of his mistake. She’d fallen through death’s realm, seen the grey land, played with Limbo. Duty had told him the right choice had been to let her go, to allow Death carry her away, on to whatever was next. Duty had told him that it wasn’t his fault, that civilians died, and that the focus had to be on saving the next one.
Duty had been wrong, it had been the right choice to let her live. Seeing her smile had been proof enough that it had been the right choice.
The memory ended, and he turned his chair back towards his desk and the file on his desk.
His recruits were aloof towards him, and he accepted that. He didn’t demand respect like Taylor, who transferred recruits who didn’t treat him with the proper deference. He couldn’t become easy friends with his recruits like Jones. They treated him politely, kept him at a distance, unable to include him beyond what was necessary. They didn’t smile and joke with him, preferring to socialise with their fellow recruits, and each new recruit was pulled into that way of thinking. Ryan was someone to be respected, to be obeyed, and to greet in the hall, not someone to joke with or chat with.
Recruits he’d known for years didn’t smile as quickly as a girl he’d aimed a gun at, even if she’d given small, scared smiles. Recruits he’d known for years didn’t skip over his title and just call him “Ryan”.
The recruit he spoke with the most was an ex-Solstice turncoat Ryan only had in his agency out of a sense of duty, and even then, he trusted Curt as little as possible without having him constantly monitored.
Distance might not be a bad thing. She would surely come to him for more information, for the full story of their meeting, and the smiles would disappear once she realised the depths of his incompetence. Once she understood he was responsible for the fact that she had died; and that he’d made a such an important choice on her behalf, a choice that could have left her lost forever as a ghost.
It could have all gone so wrong, it hadn’t – he hadn’t regretted it then, and he didn’t regret it now. She had lived, and grown up to be smart enough to work on code that Jones had three of his recruits puzzling over.
Ryan smiled to himself, then shifted back to the door of room thirteen.
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