29 – The First Note, The Last Thought
‘And she was the turtle all along!’
Ryan stared at his director. ‘Sir?’
There was a look on Director Reynolds’ face. It matched specific facial profiles that he saw on Reynolds’ face throughout the day. A microsecond later, he deduced that Reynolds was expectant. He expected something of Ryan, though he was unsure what.
He kept his eyes on Reynolds and looped the audio from the last section of their conversation. It seemed unrelated to the as-yet-unstated reasons for them standing on the Agency roof.
Something was wrong.
It was inconsistent behaviour. A rooftop was sometimes a location to meet with fae or to get a view of the area immediately surrounding the Agency; however, it was predominantly for show. The roof was as much a part of the Agency as any other room. It was all System territory; the same rules applied on every square inch.
The expression Reynolds wore changed – expectation became disappointment. ‘It’s a joke, Ryan,’ Reynolds said, gently slapping his arm. ‘You’re supposed to laugh.’
‘I didn’t see the humour, sir. I apologise for–’
‘I have to keep reminding myself you aren’t a newborn, but you certainly act like one, Agent.’
‘Sir, can I ask what we’re doing up here?’
‘There’s something you need to see. Can’t you feel it? Can’t you hear it?’
He concentrated and listened, fixing his eyes on the shadowed brick of the building next to the Agency. There were the usual night sounds – all within typical parameters. Everything was in order.
‘Nothing, Ryan?’ Reynolds asked after forty seconds.
‘Nothing out of the ordinary, sir.’
Reynolds gave a small laugh and leaned his forearms on the safety wall of the roof. ‘I’ve heard it said among the fae that if you can’t feel this, it means you have no soul…because you need a soul to hear it. It’s nonsense, of course, but people do find their ways to be cruel.’
‘We’re agents, sir. We don’t have souls.’
Reynolds stood straight, brushed brick dust from the arms of his suit, then placed his hands on Ryan’s shoulders. ‘Listen to me, newborn – really listen, because this is important. Souls are inertia, and they are self. We don’t have the inertia – we get that from the System – but the self, the important part? Of course we have that. We are reasonable, thinking, people. We have thoughts. We have feelings, wants, needs, and fears, so by every measure that counts and by every damned god, we have souls, Ryan, and I won’t let you think otherwise.’
A question formed. An opinion. An impertinent response to what his director had said.
Impertinence was against the spirit of Duty. It was against the System to question authority, to argue with those in power above you, but Reynolds thrived on chaos and discourse.
He gave the thought voice. ‘If you recognise what we have, sir, is there a need to call it by name? We do not have souls in the technical sense, and that would be what a lot of people gauge–’
Reynolds grabbed his hand and held it like human parents did with their children. ‘This isn’t a fight you’re going to win, Agent, so give up now. Close your eyes and listen. You’ll hear it. I promise.’
‘I gain no extra auditory benefit from–’
‘Shut your damn eyes, Ryan.’
There was no need to argue with a direct order, even if it wasn’t a standard instruction.
He closed his eyes and listened.
Reynolds squeezed his hand. ‘You’ll understand in a moment. Listen. What do you hear?’
Horseshoes striking the street and the sound of wheels. The faint sounds of a man drunkenly singing. Noises so familiar and ordinary that he was able to quickly filter them. There was nothing that needed his attention. Nothing that warranted the disruption to their schedule.
A woman was singing.
He pulled away from Reynolds and gripped the safety wall. Long, perfect notes came through the night, so loud and beautiful that it was impossible to think that he hadn’t heard them earlier.
Beautiful. A subjective term. He considered the descriptor and allowed it. His ears tingled, and he drew in a sharp breath as the music seemed to sink into his chest.
Background thoughts considered the use of a sonic weapon. More immediate thoughts recognised the sensation as benign, even if it was overpowering.
‘Death,’ Reynolds answered. ‘She’s singing for a world about to die.’ Reynolds reached down to him. ‘Come on, son, there’s so much more to see.’
Ryan suppressed a cry of pain as Stef’s head crashed into his chest. That pain was bad, but secondary to what was happening with their hands.
He tried to flex his hand, tried to pull it away from hers, tried to do anything to break the connection, but-
He couldn’t even move a single finger. Emergency protocols had stripped control away. His system had found a source of blue, and it was going to drain every nanite to keep a Director alive.
The protocols didn’t care that he wanted to scream, that he’d do anything to stop it from draining Stef and take away her own chance at surviving until rescue came.
All the protocol cared about was the hierarchy. Directors were far more critical than recruits. For the code, it was a simple equation.
His HUD – a mess of error messages, injury reports, and a countdown timer – showed the emergency connection, the estimated volume of blue that could be extracted. After the anticipated amount appeared, a calculation appeared, showing him how many seconds it would buy him.
All recruits had a small amount of blue in their bodies – it connected them to the System, allowed them to be tracked, allowed them to require, to be easily targeted for shifting, for their vitals to be assessed. All small, necessary actions that were an everyday part of the Agency life.
Blue also helped stabilise an injured recruit – and she was giving that up for him. Giving up precious seconds of her life. Moments where a rescue team could get to her before she went to Death again.
Without hesitation. Without asking for anything in return.
Her hand twitched, and her grip went slack, the emergency programming deeming her as drained of all usefulness.
In his HUD, the countdown timer recalculated based on the actual volume. She’d bought him just over thirty seconds of life, pushing his countdown time to just over a minute.
She was so still. So quiet. So cold.
Unconscious and dying without a fight.
Bleeding, without a chance to- To cry, to pray, to do the hundred tiny things that you had to do whilst your last seconds were ticking away.
He was so numb, he couldn’t even feel if she was breathing.
He felt tears on his cheeks. ‘I’m sorry.’
He lifted his bloody hand and brushed the hair back from her face and laid his hand on her cheek. Four seconds disappeared with the action, but if it was the last kind thing he could do, he had to.
His timer dropped under a minute.
Sorry. He was so sorry. And he didn’t have the breath to say it the hundred times it needed to be repeated.
He lifted his other arm, wrapped it around her shoulders, and held her close.
It hurt to cough. It hurt to breathe. Everything hurt.
He stared down at his recruit, trying to ignore the countdown timer in his HUD.
The number was already too low, ticking away only seconds until his predicted death. He tried not to breathe, tried not to aggravate wounds that would worsen with the slightest provocation.
But…there was nothing to save the seconds for.
There was no point in ten more seconds of life if those ten seconds were spent in silence, without hope or prayer, regrets building faster than he was losing blood.
‘On the smallest farm in the world,’ he began. Words hurt. Breathing hurt. And she was unconscious- But if there was any chance that she could hear him, any chance that she could slip away while listening to a fairy tale, any-
He coughed and sprayed red droplets into her hair.
He’d been stupid. Selfish. This was all his fault.
He’d been responsible for her death, and the last words she had said were ‘thank you”.
The words to the story started to-
He couldn’t remember anything.
The story. The first story that had come to mind. A farmer wishing for family, for a child, for-
The pain didn’t-
All he could taste was blood.
In his HUD, the countdown timer flashed, indicating he was out of calculable time. Any second beyond this was something stolen from Chaos with chance and luck and-
She was so cold.
The next line. He had to remember the next line. The story was-
‘It all began with a flower.’
He couldn’t breathe.
Aw… Poor Ryan.
He needs like, so many cuddles.
Have to stop reading these at work. (I won’t. But I should.) Hard to work a call center while choking up.
The blue enacting this prioritization makes perfect, brutal sense. Refactoring this scene to highlight it is harsh and cold and cruel to all involved.
I love it. ’nuff said.
You’ll be safe after…chapter 35? Probably? to start reading at work again. 😛
Origin of this scene and the new blue thing?
So I was playing with this all-new, all-different rewrite before we did the relaunch, trying to see if doing something way-ass different would solve my “meh” feelings I had at the time. In this version, instead of Dorian & code, it was a Solstice experiment that Stef was invited to, under the guise of testing new VR equipment.
Blah, and stuff happens, Stef gets infected with a virus made of bastardised agent code, and it’s killing her, so she gets augmented in Book #1.
So when I was scratching out chapters to see how this would play out, the idea of directors being able to indirectly cannibalise their underlings came to mind, and I let it stay in this rewrite because I love how cold and calculating it is. It makes sense, even as it breaks your heart.
You weren’t kidding when you said there would be crying.
I almost think it’s sadder than the previous chapter – Stef just goes quietly, without thought or regret, Ryan’s alone with his thoughts of failure, unable to do anything to save either of them.