Phoenix Agency, Arizona, USA
If he was human, he’d be vomiting from stress.
Someone – multiple someones – called his name, but he couldn’t see, couldn’t hear, couldn’t focus. Someone grabbed his arm, and he screamed, the drying blood around his mouth cracking and pulling on his skin as his face distended. If he screamed long enough, hard enough, maybe it would all rewind, go back to how it had been before-
The someone hadn’t let go of his arm and now had a hand on his shoulder. No. No contact. No touch. He had to be- Needed space. Needed to scream until he woke Chaos, and the universe reset.
Gentle words were being spoken in his direction, and only the most distant part of him could appreciate that someone was trying to comfort him.
He heard words. Victor. Solstice. Desertion. Insistent tones demanded to know what had happened. What had triggered the lockdown. Why he had his director’s blood on him, why there were corpses. Why-
Joel was dead, and it was his fault. He’d been following orders, too scared to ever say no. And now- Some of the blood on him was Joel’s. Most of what was on his hands was Joel’s. He’d held him, his only friend, and he’d just been…gone. Nothing but blood.
And Victor had laughed.
He pulled away from the man holding his arm and shoulder, stumbled into the wall, and cried out in pain as the still-open gash made contact. Most of the blood was Joel’s, some was Victor’s, and some was his own.
And he couldn’t think. Couldn’t deal.
The world had never been a kind place. He’d known that since – technically before – he’d been born, but this- There’d been no reason he’d been kept alive. No reason he-
He threw up, crumpled onto his knees, and threw up again, bile splashing onto the spotted grey linoleum.
He was crying, screaming. He wanted to die.
A tuft of blond hair entered his field of vision, which gave him some guess at who had been speaking – Jake, from Denver. One of the aides to the regional director. Backup. Someone who could handle the situation.
Jake put a hand to his forehead. ‘Sleep.’
He barely saw the override command in his HUD before-
Jonathan opened his eyes. He was floating. A medical tank of blue. Practical, in its way, but often techs used it for its… recuperative abilities after any surgeries and repairs had been done. It was supposed to feel peaceful, to remind you of the few moments that agents – most agents – had before they truly came online for the first time.
He had no such peace to return to.
He took a moment to check himself – he’d been stripped down to his boxers – reasonable, given the injuries that tech would have had to deal with. There were a number of small patches all over his body – both ones that could be removed immediately on exiting the tank and others that were working at dealing with some of the damage inflicted by the fae weapons.
His HUD told him he’d been out for less than an hour, which, right now, seemed like an eternity. He’d been bleeding, hysterical, and of no use to anyone in the state he’d been in…but being forced aside like this felt wrong. Felt like he’d taken the easy way out.
Someone needed to- He was the only one left who could tell the truth. Victor had run. Joel was- His hands were as clean as a newborn’s, and he could still feel Joel’s blood. And Vincent – he didn’t even know what Vincent’s condition was.
He opened his Vox contact window to try and see the status of- An error message informed him he couldn’t contact the service at this time and encouraged him to try again later. A standard error message when you were in a blackout zone and even border zones like the Marches. But it was a terrifying message to see in the middle of an Agency with full System strength.
Behind the banal politeness, behind an error message that he was sure had never been designed to strike fear, was the inescapable fact that he was blocked from one of the most basic functions a HUD was capable of. Which could only mean bad things for him.
He exhaled a deep breath and sank to the bottom of the tank. He set his feet flat on the glass floor and pushed up, where he broke into fresh, slightly chilled air a moment later.
In the few previous occasions he’d had to use the tank – Victor didn’t tend – hadn’t tended? He let himself sink back into the blue just enough to submerge his face and scream into the darkness. So much to process. So much. Too much. He should have been dead next to Joel. Should have gotten killed trying to stop Victor from running. Shouldn’t still be here to deal with the fallout.
He grabbed the side of the tank, drew himself towards it, and pressed his forehead against the glass, trusting it to hold him up, even if he had no inertia to do so for himself.
He felt empty. Agents didn’t have souls; that was what everyone always said. And it was easy enough to believe – there probably wasn’t an “add soul” feature in the agent generation program. But it felt like whatever he had instead of a soul was missing. That some cruel hand had grabbed an ice cream scoop and left him hollow.
His hand slipped away from the glass, and he let himself fall. The bottom of the tank caught him like the errant trash he was, and he cried. Emotions too big to feel, from a heart he was never sure would feel right again, if it had ever felt good in the first place.
The tank wasn’t a place he’d been often – Victor hadn’t allowed him enough freedom or assigned the kind of missions with a lot of obvious risk to his person. Victor didn’t like it when other people bruised his toys.
He was not ready to face whatever awaited him outside the tank. With his contacts blocked, he didn’t dare to try anything else within his HUD – not to try a shift, a requirement, or even to check his email.
Quarantining him like this was sensible. Once the lockdown had cleared enough for his colleagues and external backup to start gathering any kind of information, they would have been met with puzzle pieces soaked in blood. Useless. Messy. Not the easiest thing to put together.
So triage had been employed, obviously. Get the injured care. Send teams after the missing. Put the dead in cold storage. Do the basics, and hope that the world hadn’t ended by the time someone was coherent enough to speak.
No one had tried to read his mind. No matter what form of unconsciousness an agent was placed under, the pain of someone forcing themselves into your brain and rummaging your thoughts like it was some infinite funhouse always cut through. Fact, not speculation, from more firsthand experience than likely any other agent on the planet. Any other agent who had ever lived. Perhaps other than Victor’s previous pets.
They would ask for his side of things.
The truth had never been a thing he’d been allowed to partake in. All he knew were the lies he was allowed to tell, the emotions he was permitted to show.
It was likely – probable – that Victor had built him in such a way that keeping him under control was easier. If he had been an agent running unaltered software, surely at any point over the last fifteen years, he could have-
He hugged himself, the one little bit of comfort Victor hadn’t been able to strip from him.
Surely, he would have said something. Would have cried out for help. Would have…held onto any passing agent and screamed about his abuse.
But he had been perfect. Smiling and nodding when expected. Only fighting when it pleased Victor that he do so. He had been made to be a tool. A complicit extra set of hands.
And now, because of his weakness, Joel was- The one person he’d thought of as a friend-
If he’d been stronger, he wouldn’t still be able to feel the blood on his hands.
There was movement outside the tank – people entering whatever lab he was being housed in. He pushed to the surface again and, this time, climbed the short ladder, dressed in the clothes provided.
His Agency’s Tech – Paulson – jogged up the stairs, tablet in hand, rattling off too many things to properly take in and hear. Results of tests and scans. How long he’d need to keep going with specific treatments. All things that sounded generally positive and generally amounted to “your life isn’t in immediate danger”.
The presence of Agent Jake the aide, and Regional Director Adams – though he insisted on being called Director Wraith – made him less sure that his life wasn’t in immediate danger. Victor had been a monster, and he’d been right there for every step – if they even had part of the story, it was surely enough to-
Director Adams, on the younger side of the agents in the network, only clocking in at around sixty and wearing the face of a man half that, stepped forward, and Jonathan reflexively took a step back.
‘I would like to give you more time,’ Director Adams said, ‘but I’ve extended all the leniency I can for now. We need to know what you know. Your Tech says you appear to be in good health, but I need you to tell me if there’s any reason we should hold your debrief here and not in the Denver tower?’
It might have been an honest question, and it might have been a trap to see what he was willing to say, to judge how loyal he was to Victor. Or, perhaps, if they knew something of what had happened, if he was unwillingly loyal to Victor.
Programming agents was a lot easier than programming humans. Still, this entire hideous affair had proved that programming humans was possible with the right lack of ethics.
His insides twisted as he thought of Joel again.
He shouldn’t have been able to call a Solstice “friend”. Shouldn’t have looked forward to their lunch meetings, but he had.
All the time, he’d been under Victor’s orders, leading him closer and closer to the lion’s maw, and-
Jonathan lifted his head, wiped away tears, and then tried to focus on the regional director, someone who he’d rarely even been in the same room with. Adams was a long way up the chain, someone who wouldn’t bother with just a Field agent unless something had gone wrong.
Maybe, if he’d lived a regular life, it might have been different. Maybe people who were more than a plaything got to interact with the rest of the Agency hierarchy, but those chances had never come his way.
‘No.’ He tried to focus, but everything was so hard. ‘No. Sir. I mean, we should do it here. I don’t know if I’m a risk. I don’t know how much of my code has been-’ he sought for a neutral word, ‘adulterated. Altered. I am not choosing to be a danger, but I do not know if I am one.’
Adams looked at Jake, and some silent conversation took place, both agents staring, eyes unfocused in a way that meant they were concentrating on their HUDS.
He was safe for now. They had put him in a tank and healed him; therefore, they needed to know what he knew, so it wouldn’t be an immediate march to the crystal chamber. His future, however, was far less certain.
If things were just, he’d be rendered into ash alongside Victor.
Jake conferred with Paulson for a moment, then moved back to stand beside Adams.
Paulson mumbled an excuse, then snapped a metal cuff around his left wrist. It was wide, about four inches, and felt artificially cool in the chill of the lab. Paulson tapped a few things on a tablet, and then a pattern of subdued blue dots and lines began to run across the surface of the metal.
‘This will take a while,’ Paulson said. ‘I’m going to start with high-level scans to look for anything obvious, then go deeper.’ He pointed at the cuff. ‘This is me tracking you and your System interactions in a safe, firewalled environment so we can additionally track what is actually happening in System transfers versus what is being recorded. You take in blue, you make a requirement, I’m going to know what is really happening so we can compare the logs.’
‘That’ll be all for now,’ Adams said and turned back to Jonathan. ‘All of the recruits have been evacuated. Anyone I don’t need right now has been remanded to quarters, and entire floors of this building are under quarantine. So, for now, we’ll use the presidential suite unless you have a reason to think that may also be dangerous.
‘That should be fine, Regional Director,’ Jonathan said, his gaze falling to the ground. ‘Victor didn’t use it often. He preferred external meeting sites or to use a less opulent space.’
Adams snapped his fingers, and the floor he was staring at went from Tech Department linoleum to black marble tile.
Every Agency had a place like this – a set of rooms that could be used for VIP meetings or accommodation – a place with a far richer taste than the corporate gray-and-red of the rest of the Agency.
There were fae alcohols kept in stock by their liaison agent. Five-star menus from private fae chefs were a phone call away. And all the touches – the decor, the subtle scents in each room, even the angle at which the blinds hung – were designed to make you feel like a king for a day.
So, of course, he felt even smaller.
Adams – he couldn’t give himself the familiarity or status needed to even think of the man by his preferred nickname – sat in a leather armchair with Jake standing over his shoulder like a slender gargoyle.
‘You need to sit,’ Adams said, ‘you’re giving a report, Agent, but we’re not going to start this as antagonists.’
Jonathan sat and endeavored to take up the least room on the couch opposite Adams’ chair.
‘Start at the beginning.’
He wanted to start at the beginning of his life, of the moments even before that, to give an extensive list of every single one of Victor’s crimes. Both those he’d been a party to and a victim of, which in some sad cases had been one and the same.
Instead, everything needed to be about this incident. The Regional Director could understand later how depraved Victor was. Still, even just this one incident would be enough to black-list him. Once death had been decided, more than that was really unnecessary.
Agents were only people at the end of the day, and people weren’t perfect. There were always stories of agents who had gone too far, of exacting revenge, of prolonged, inhumane torture of enemies, and those who had hurt family members and friends.
Some descriptions rivaled the Remington tapes, which Victor had made him watch in their entirety multiple times. Something his Director had seen as a mild punishment since it was only harmful on the psychological and emotional levels.
When it came to punishment, the Agency was – as it was in all things – efficient. Remove the problem agent, like excising a tumor, and move on.
Depending on their crime, sometimes that meant recycling, where their useful parts would survive to potentially be used for a future good. Sometimes, when they had made their evil very apparent, they were destroyed outright so that no part of them could be passed on to future generations.
‘Victor wanted a way around the issue of blue expiring in blackout zones.’ No. That had been the wrong way to start. Phrasing it that way sounded magnanimous and buried the lede on what the project had actually been. ‘Sorry. Please. Let me start again. I-’
Jake took a couple of long steps forward and placed a glass of water and a coaster on the table in front of him. ‘We understand this is difficult. Try and help us understand.’ He gave a wan smile, then stepped back, resuming his position as a gargoyle.
‘An agent can only operate in a blackout zone for a limited time. We can’t do long-term reconnaissance in either Faerie or within Solstice circles. Withdrawal or discovery, it doesn’t work. Recruits can have their blue dropped to zero, but Victor never liked relying on humans. He wanted the reliability of a program without the chance of some blood test or stolen technology outing an operative.’
Adams folded his hands in his lap. It was a subtle movement, but everything about the tense posture told him that the regional director was running ahead of the story. Putting the pieces together and starting to understand the scope of what he would have to handle.
‘Keep going,’ Adams said, his voice cold.
‘He experimented on Solstice.’ He cast his eyes down. ‘And a few recruits. Mainly Solstice. Small things at first. People who took plea deals that had been brought in for insignificant actions. Blue-borne coding that would change the brain and would last well past the point where it had turned to ash. Behaviors, triggers, missions that could run weeks after leaving System territory.’
‘Arcane mother and fucking Chaos,’ Adams muttered. ‘All right. Continue.’
‘He-’ Jonathan stopped. ‘We. We, Regional Director, we. I am complicit. I- Helped him. This was his work, but I helped him and-’
Adams held up two fingers. ‘You are immaterial right now, Agent. For this moment, you are a vehicle for information. Talk.’
‘It started small. For the plea deals, there wasn’t much room to act under the radar, as there are more people involved in the exit process, even though as Field agent, I was able to cover a lot more of his actions than if he were acting alone. One recruit, we got them to switch from coffee to tea. They haven’t had coffee since.’
‘We’ll need their name,’ Jake said. ‘We’ll need all the names.’
Jonathan nodded. ‘Insignificant things along that line. Then it was moved to behaviors. One Solstice was programmed to smoke a cigarette every day at two-nineteen in the afternoon. One was programmed to display a physical tic at the sound of a bell. Escalation on and on.’
This was all information they needed. And none of it explained the blood on the floor of Victor’s office, over his uniform, which was likely in evidence, or why an Agency director had fled for Faerie.
‘Joel. Joel Rogers. He was the first test subject for a full program. And even that was incrementally adjusted, more added over time. Go in, get information, and bring it back. Or. Put in a good word about a prisoner to help an exchange in our favor. Delay a capture process so that one of our teams could intercept. A man on the inside, and they had no idea.’ He clutched the water glass. ‘Until they did. They must have found out. Because his failsafe programming was triggered. He’s listed as CI in the drone monitoring program, so we generally know-’
Was in the monitoring program. Was. Everything about Joel was past tense now. Joel was dead, and it was his fault.
‘We found him on the side of the highway, covered in blood. Victor brought him back here.’
He was leaving out parts of the story. Details that he would need to fill in later. Need to talk about the other recruits Victor had harmed. Need to detail the fight. To give the blow-by-blow of Victor and Vincent and Joel and himself. What he should have done. How he could have stopped Victor from fleeing. How he’d been too cowardly and too frozen to do anything but weep for his only friend.
And it was too much. Already it was too much.
‘There was a fight. Joel’s dead. I- Victor knew he- Knew this wasn’t something that could be covered up. He always had plans. Contingencies. This was for the Agency, but he knew it might not be received favorably. I know he triggered some programming in the recruits he’d infected.’
‘Two heart attacks. One massive organ failure. And one recruit with hysterical blindness that was triggered while she was already fighting for her life. At least two partial augments to deal with this and whatever happens with Vincent.’
‘Out of surgery. Brain scans do not look good. Victor. What happened to him?’
At least this answer was easy. ‘Clap jacket,’ Jonathan said. A good emergency out for when you needed to be anywhere but where you were. An expensive but over-the-counter item you could buy in Faerie, and an instant ticket away from Earth, away from System territory, and anyone who might pursue you.
‘I’ve always hated that name,’ Jake said, then returned the bemused look Adams gave him. ‘What? It’s a terrible name.’
‘Any other day, I would engage with you on this.’ Adams turned back to Jonathan. ‘Specific location, or general?’
Jonathan shrugged, and he felt small. ‘He never trusted me with any information that wasn’t crucial to what I was doing, Regional Director.’
Jake stepped forward and placed a pad and pen next to the coaster. ‘So share what he did trust you with. We know the recruits that were put into the infirmary because of his escape plan, but we need to know if there are others so that we’re not caught unawares if more time bombs go off.’
Jonathan lifted the pen. ‘I’ll do what I can. But- Can I see Vincent first?’
Adams looked at Jake, then shook his head. ‘No. I’m sorry. As much as I want to, I need this information before extending you any favor. I can get you a feed of the infirmary, but right now, he’s just an unmoving, unconscious patient. A visit would bring neither of you any comfort.’
‘Yes. Sorry, sir.’
‘I didn’t ask for an apology, just understanding. An Agency director has just- These are…war crimes? Breach of statutes I didn’t know existed until I started to research them during this conversation. There is likely a team in Central right now starting a committee for this epic pile of fuck that Victor has left behind.’