04 - Ebb and Flow

03 – A Softened Blow

Phoenix Agency

November 3rd

Jonathan opened his eyes, and immediately looked for Victor. He’d slept without permission, and so he should expect-

The room was empty, and he was alone. And if any god listened to any prayer, he’d never see Victor again, or at least…never be subject to his whims ever again. Never be in his control again. 

He sat up, pushed the thin comforter aside, pressed his back against the wall, and looked across his room and the few items it held.

His space, but in name only. It barely contained the necessities for people to recognize it as a living space. 

It was two rooms, as most recruit quarters were – the main bedroom and living area, and the bathroom. Unlike default recruit rooms, there was no space sectioned off as a kitchenette – a tell in and of itself – Victor hadn’t taken the easy route and attached a default room to his office. His Director had made the effort to find the floorplan of a smaller, more minimal space, to remind him of what he deserved, how little he had earned. 

The single bed he sat on was jammed in the room’s far corner. To his right, and just past the foot of the bed, was the door to the bathroom, and on the other wall, directly opposite, the door into his office.

There was no door out to the hall – which wasn’t necessarily unusual, as it was an optional feature for agent rooms – but it was a deliberate move on Victor’s part to make him feel contained.

And it had worked. He’d never pushed past what parameters Victor had set for him, never tried to get help, and had done nothing except be…obedient. Had been exactly what Victor had expected and nothing more. More could have led to pain, to a life even worse, and it hadn’t been worth the risk.

The room reflected that. The furnishings were of the same quality as elsewhere in the Agency. Still, in some intangible way, they’d always felt lesser than what those around him had. Like they never shone as well, like their quality had been lowered in some way only perceptible to him. 

There was art on the walls, but they were generic three pieces from the suggested section of wall decorations in the room design software. A small wardrobe held generic required items. Nothing special. No pieces of fae-designed clothing. Nothing fancy, bought with some saved per diem, as many of his colleagues had. 

A bookcase likewise held mostly generic items. Enough to look like someone had chosen them, enough so that the room would pass with a quick glance, and no one had ever cared enough to look deeper than that. 

He had two treasures, both acquired in the last couple of months, and since placing them in the room, a heavy shoe had hung above his head as he’d waited for Victor to punish him for hoarding such contraband. 

A quarter, dirty and a little marred, that Joel had given him – change from when he’d handed the Solstice some money to buy a soda.

It had been so utterly unexpected that he’d had to keep it. A representation of a tiny moment, one of the first flashes that had taken Joel from “skeptical, cautious Solstice” who fled their meetings early, crawling out bathroom windows or exiting via kitchens after dropping a flimsy excuse to…to something approaching a friend.

One he had helped to murder.

The quarter was hidden beneath the rocks of a fake plant that adorned the bookshelf – and he’d been careful to change the plant’s position and rearrange another couple of items so that there had been a plausible reason for the rocks to look even a little different if Victor had cast an eye over the things in his room…something that had happened far too often.

Which is why keeping the contraband had been such a risk. Had probably been the beginning of something, even if he hadn’t wanted to admit it. 

It was a moot point now that everything had changed. But maybe, maybe if things hadn’t gone so catastrophically wrong, then maybe he would have been on a path to finally changing his life. To have Victor answer for all of his crimes.

Or maybe he would have simply been a coward, as he had always been, and destroyed the coin and the wrapper, too afraid of what could happen if Victor were to turn the full force of his anger on him.

The second treasure was even sadder, even more pathetic. A candy wrapper from a small piece of chocolate that Vincent had given him as they’d met to discuss an assignment. 

Twenty-five years of life, and this was all he had to show for it. One dead friend. One colleague of unknown status – over the last couple of days of debriefing, the only thing Adams and Jake would share was that Vincent’s status was “not good”. He was breathing, he was alive, but…no one had been able to confirm more than that.

Victor’s programming had been devastating, even to the recruits subject to far fewer alterations. Of those whose programming Victor had activated as part of his escape plan, one had been partially and temporarily augmented, and another had quit the Agency – though was still being treated by Honeycutt. 

The recruits who had been only subject to the minor tests – like the tea drinker he’d mentioned to Adams – were under supervision and had been offered counseling to deal with what had been done to them without their consent.  

Perhaps, if he was allowed to live and wasn’t put up against the wall alongside Victor, they might extend the grace of giving him someone to talk to. 

For right now, he knew better than to push. He knew that the only reason he was being allowed the freedom of house arrest was that with Phoenix being on lockdown and his licenses limited, there was currently little difference between his Agency and a lower-security detention facility. 

And the rooms in the lower-security facilities were likely better appointed and better decorated than his current quarters. 

He hated the room, and if he had any choice in the matter, he’d move to a different room, a different floor, a different Agency. Get as far away from his life as he could for some chance at a future.

That likely wasn’t in the cards. 

Jonathan rose from the bed, required himself into a new uniform, and noted the slight increase in activity in the cuff’s constantly-moving dots of blue as the requirement processed.

He’d grown used to the monitoring cuff, which was just as well, as Paulson had warned that he’d need to wear it for at least a week. 

Paulson’s reports were going straight to Director Adams – well, more likely to Agent Jake, who would do an aide’s job of filtering away the chaff – yet one more thing in his life that was about him but being done without his involvement.

It made sense. They still didn’t know whether to treat him like a threat or like unexploded ordnance. It would be unimaginable, truly, if Victor had not left some failsafe programming in him, one last punishment that could be set off remotely, or after his death.

Even finally separated from his abuser, he wasn’t safe. Might not ever be safe. 

He walked through his office – another place of generic art and no real signs that a full person occupied the space – and walked into the graveyard quiet of Field’s empty halls.

Jake had told him that – on the orders of Adams – all of Phoenix’s recruits had been given the option of leave. Roughly half had accepted. The others would be operating out of the network’s Outposts.

Hopefully, Jake had continued, the Solstice would be cautious about their actions, at least for a few days. Whatever had happened, whatever had left Joel shuffling along the highway like a zombie, they surely would have seen as an attack. 

Whether or not they correctly attributed it to the Agency, which he felt they had, as the logical reason that Joel’s failsafe had been activated was tampering by an outside force. And, as much as the Solstice hated magic and Agency technology with every breath, there were people in almost every cell who used it for their own ends. 

And, under torture – for torture was never a last resort for the Solstice – and with some bastardized blue or fairy magic, they could have blundered their way into turning a relatively innocent man into a killing machine.

For the very cold war they waged, it would be enough to spook them into inaction, at least for a while. After a couple of days of reflection, though, it was sadly possible they’d try and take it out on any recruits they saw, gunning for Agency personnel with even more fervor than usual. 

Just one more thing Victor had to answer for. One more sin he’d easily laugh off.

One more thing Jonathan could have prevented if he hadn’t been a coward since birth.

He’d always been alone, but the empty halls that usually thrummed with the energy of people living their lives all around him made him understand desolation. 

It felt like the world had ended. 

He walked faster, almost feeling the need to run, and made it to the lounge in under thirty seconds. This had been the heart of the Field floor and somewhere he’d never felt comfortable.

The space was large, providing both relaxation space and ample tables and benches for recruits to have small meetings or to sip coffee and work on reports. 

And its best feature was the glass-walled balcony that jutted out a dozen feet from the rest of the Agency, allowing you to get some warmth or to lie in a lounge chair and count clouds. 

Beyond the bullet-proof glass, the world hadn’t ended. He fumbled with the catch on the concertina windows and flung a section open, the panels neatly folding in on each other as they rolled away, letting the noise and smell of downtown Phoenix into the tomb that the Agency had become.

He rested his forearms on the ledge, looked down at the street below, and wished it would do anything if he jumped.

An hour passed.

A pigeon landed to his right, cooed, fluttered down to the floor, and began to look for food. 

He stood stiffly and slowly and scattered some required birdseed, silently apologizing to Paulson for the extra work reconciling the requirement log would make. 

The pigeon pecked at the seed, and he walked back into the lounge proper, sat at the bench usually occupied by recruits with laptops, and stared at the fruit bowl, wondering if there was any point in eating. 

He didn’t need to eat, and unlike a lot – most, really – agents, he hadn’t developed the habit of regularly eating. Food was mainly – as was everything in his life – something he had interacted with at Victor’s behest.

He would eat when ordered to or partake in group dinners, and like everything else, it had never been for his enjoyment. 

It was why Vincent’s candy wrapper had meant so much. It had been a gift of food, given freely, given without the expectation that it bought good behavior or silence. 

He picked up an apple. He picked up an orange. He slowly emptied the fruit bowl, laying each piece out in an orderly row, sorted by size. 

It had been out for days and was still as fresh as when it had been required – and would remain so unless the Agency lapsed out of System territory. Farm fresh, perfect produce, with no one to enjoy it.

To his right, a few more pigeons joined the first, and he added some more seed to the floor.

Fingers fumbling with the unfamiliar act, he peeled a mandarin, then slowly separated each perfect, self-contained segment and laid them in a crescent on the polished wood of the bench.

No seeds pressed against the thin membrane of the segments – many required fruits skipped the seeds, as they were just waste that would be discarded later. 

Piece by piece, he ate the mandarin and tried to enjoy the novelty. Tried to be proud that he hadn’t taken the obvious choice of either the apple or orange.

Another hour passed. Then another.

The peel had dismissed itself long ago, tidying subroutines keeping the room in order, even if there was only one person to take care of, and not the usual troop of recruits.

He was sure that the sounds of the world outside were the only thing helping him cling to sanity.

Two more hours, and the last of the pigeon holdouts had left, long since satisfied and full of all the seed and crumbs they could eat.

His HUD, which had gone into a reduced and minimized mode from lack of use – as well as his reduced permissions – resumed its normal layout, and a message notification appeared in the lower right of his workspace. 

Honeycutt. A notification that he was finally allowed to go see Vincent. 

A shift would have added more data for Paulson to sort through, and he was sure he had already burned through whatever goodwill he had with the man thanks to the multiple birdseed requirements.

And as much as he wanted to see Vincent, to at least know what state the man was in, he had just as much fear at seeing him. 

Jonathan stood and pushed the chair back under the bench, and headed towards the elevator, his pace a lot slower leaving the lounge than when he had fled towards it.

Every single possibility was bad.

Vincent could be brain-dead. With the severity of some of the other program triggers, it was more than possible. Destroying a mind, after all, was even easier than making the switch to tea.

The programming could have made him a different man, could have twisted pieces of his personality, leaving him as someone unrecognizable.

He could have been left with damage that would take partial or full augmentation to deal with. If it could be dealt with at all. As advanced as Agency technology was, even their doctors and techs had limits. 

Sometimes, a person was just gone, and nothing short of a wish could bring them back, and even then, as Victor had once told him, most wishes rarely gave what the person wanted.

It was better to deal with reality as it was than chance something worse.

He rode the elevator up to Medical, something he was sure vanishingly few people in the Agency ever did – all major floors had an entrance to the infirmary – so something this manual, so inefficient, was nonsensical. 

The main hallway of Medical’s primary floor – in truth, all of the medical floors – were far wider than those of the other floors of the Agency. They’d been designed to account for two gurneys to be able to pass each other, surrounded by attendants, without impeding either one. 

The wide sliding doors opened as he neared, and Honeycutt stepped out and motioned for him to stop. 

The Medical Agent was of a height with him, but more “handsome”, whereas he knew Victor had designed him to be far more delicate, more breakable.

Honeycutt’s name extended to his golden hair – a choice the agent had apparently made early in life, despite originally being generated with dark brown hair – and maintained a tidy mustache and beard.

And Honeycutt had a confidence, an ease, that Jonathan would have killed for. 

He tried to meet Honeycutt’s eyes but failed. 

‘It’s not good news,’ Honeycutt said, the words full of his decades of flawless bedside manner. ‘So I wanted to bring you up to speed before you saw him. Physically, he’s fine, but when it comes to his mind, it’s another matter.’

He hadn’t expected good news, and the world wasn’t kind enough to subvert his expectations. Jonathan nodded and waited for the bad news.

‘First, his semantic memory seems to be intact. He’s got no problems recalling basic facts. When he realized I was testing him, he seemed to take great amusement in asking me if he was right about certain terms for certain body parts. Which were all accurate.’

There were reasons that people spoke the way they did. Structured sentences or reports. Which facts were presented first. 

Sometimes, it was efficiency.

Sometimes, it was to soften a blow.

The fact that Vincent’s factual recall was intact was good. It meant that – whatever Victor had done – the worst-case scenario hadn’t come to pass.

‘And his episodic memory?’ he asked, still unable to meet Honeycutt’s eyes.

Honeycutt opened and closed his mouth a few times, then just shook his head.

‘What does he remember?’ Jonathan pushed as the medical agent lapsed into silence. 

‘Like I said, semantic is fine. Anything “personal”,’ Honeycutt hooked his fingers to make air quotes, ‘is just gone.’ Honeycutt looked down at the chart in his hands, at the hall, then sighed again. ‘He’s like a newborn. There’s…personality but no memory. For what it’s worth, he’s taking it seemingly in stride, but that’s probably down to the drugs and the blue. He’s going to need time to process it.’

‘Is there-’ The world wasn’t kind, but he needed to ask. ‘Any chance of recovery? Of any kind of memory? Or has-’

‘We will have to understand Victor’s coding, his processes, and precisely what it does to the mind before we can even begin to answer that. Right now, he’s got a double dose of blue running around mapping everything. I’ve tried the mildest of…what you might call nudging techniques. The Agency’s over a century old, this isn’t the first recruit with amnesia, but he’s been immune to them. And I loathe the idea of doing anything more intense until we understand.’

He nodded. Honeycutt was being responsible. But it left the faintest chance for hope, and he felt himself cleave to it, a life ring in the open ocean.

‘I have to ask,’ Honeycutt said. He pulled the chart to his chest. ‘Well. So many things, Jonathan. For right now, how involved was Vincent in what’s going on? We understand Joel was a victim, but Vincent-’

‘Innocent,’ he said truthfully. ‘Anything he did was in line with the values and standards of the Agency. He followed orders, but his part never to do anything wrong. As innocent as a recruit is, I suppose, is the best way to think of him.’

Honeycutt’s thousand other questions wrote themselves clearly on his face, and Jonathan looked down at the floor again. ‘Can I see him, please, Agent Honeycutt?’

Ten hollow seconds of silence passed, then Honeycutt turned and walked into the infirmary.

He wanted to follow.

He wanted to run.

The doors began to slide shut, and if they closed, he knew he wouldn’t be brave enough to try again. He quickly stepped forward, and they opened again, allowing him passage to the one place he needed – and dreaded – to go.

Honeycutt was standing in front of a bed at the far end of the spacious room, talking to the only occupant. Step after step, he approached, keeping his eyes on the doctor rather than Vincent. 

‘This is Agent Jonathan,’ Honeycutt said. ‘He’d like to talk to you for a while.’

Jonathan pulled on whatever courage he had and looked at Vincent. 

He looked the same, and somehow, this was almost a surprise. Tall and thin, blond, grey eyes. Vincent was smiling, but it was…off, a little left of center from where it should have been. And the eyes…there was no recognition there. Once again, he was looking at a stranger. 

‘Hi,’ the familiar voice said. He reached a hand past stacked pudding cups. ‘I’m told I’m Vincent. It’s nice to meet you.’

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  • Stormy

    She/her Bi nerd, originally from Brisbane, currently in Melbourne.

  • Shade

    Shade has a strange sense of humour. He met Stormy mostly by accident and, shortly after, wedged himself into her world like he'd been there forever. Again, completely by accident. Living in Utah most of his life, he's come to loathe snow, casserole, and traffic, and enjoys gaming, puns, and gaming puns. He intends to take over the world some day, but is, quite frankly, too lazy to do it.

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There was art on the walls, but they were generic three pieces from the suggested section of wall decorations in the room design software.
This would probably flow better with “three” and “generic” swapped. You may also want “it was” rather than “they were” since the antecedent (art) is singular. Or maybe change that to “paintings” or “prints” or something.

one last punishment that could be set off remotely, or after his death.
The antecedent to that last pronoun is not entirely clear on first read. On second read, it’s almost certainly Victor, but maybe using his name would be better?

And its best feature was the glass-walled balcony that jutted out a dozen feet from the rest of the Agency, allowing you to get some warmth or to lie in a lounge chair and count clouds.
The second-person pronoun here feels awkward.

A shift would have added more data for Paulson to sort through, and he was sure he had already burned through whatever goodwill he had with the man thanks to the multiple birdseed requirements.
It occurs to me that Paulson might actually like to have more data.

The Medical Agent was of a height with him, but more “handsome”, whereas he knew Victor had designed him to be far more delicate, more breakable.
Another ambiguous pronoun. Not really sure how to fix this one. (Third-person limited seems to contribute to this sort of thing.)

Is the original fanfic version of Vincent’s introduction still available? Obviously it’s not canon at this point, but still. Might make for an interesting bonus.


Commendations to Light for catching many glitches. One more:
He followed orders, but his part never to do anything wrong.
Might want to make it ‘was never ‘ or similar.

This explains SOOOO much, while raising many more questions.

Also, if you had put the Vincent we know on side A and side B contains a broken agency, a rogue director, and a crumbling situation ready to go nuclear…. Most of us would say A caused B, not the reverse.

To be fair to Shade, I should have expected nothing less.


Careful. “Glitch” has a specific meaning in this setting.  😉 

I know you're thinking something, Recruit...x