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Ryan adjusted the blinds on the board room windows – the tinted glass kept out the majority of the glare. Still, it was something to fill the time, something to pass the seconds before everyone else arrived.
A meeting macro had aligned the table, set out jugs and glasses – everything was in place, except for the participants.
At his place at the head of the table sat several folders. Copies of both the basic outcomes of the night before. Under normal circumstances, these would be the meat of the discussion, as well as a preliminary folder with facts about Stef’s condition.
Jones walked in, nothing more than a tablet and a large travel mug in her hands. ‘No change,’ said, and took her usual seat.
There was a change of texture in the air beside him, and he looked to his left, seeing Jane as she reintegrated. ‘Ready, Newborn?’ she asked.
‘I hope so.’
She placed a hand on the window and peered out. ‘Can you see any churches from here?’
He tried to show no reaction.
It was an innocuous comment. Something a tourist might ask, something that would only mean something more to four people in the world and Reynolds was in no position to comment.
Jane turned to him and smiled. ‘You can do this, Ryan.’ She squeezed his shoulder, then went to sit next to Jones.
Clarke appeared, along with the phantom stink of cigarette smoke, phone in hand. He said nothing and took a seat at the far end of the table.
And with two minutes to go, Magnolia and Taylor walked in.
He gave everyone a moment to settle, to pour themselves water – or in Jones’ case, to fidget with her coffee, then he sat in Reynolds’ chair. Even after all this time, it was Reynolds’ chair, would always be his Director’s chair, and his occupation of it was nothing more than a pantomime.
‘Thank you all for coming,’ he said. He lifted the first set of folders and shifted one copy to each participant. ‘First, I’ll acknowledge the presence of Agent Jane, I know some of you are acquainted.’ He let his eyes skate over Taylor, who gave no reaction. ‘The reason for her visit will be discussed after the preliminaries.’
Jane gave him an encouraging smile.
‘Now, in terms of operation last night,’ he began. ‘I’ll ask you to join me on the first page of the report.’
The basics were dealt with efficiently. The fact that there was a guest seemed to be far more important than Clarke’s usual need to make snide comments, or tangents that naturally came from discussing particular aspects or outcomes.
As he finished with the last of the casualty lists, which included all the up-to-date details from the Parkers, he looked to his team. ‘Any questions, before I continue?’
There was a brief exchange of looks between Taylor and Magnolia. No words – they rarely spoke directly to each other in meetings. Most often, it was Magnolia being the voice for both of them, unless Taylor felt like deigning to make a point himself, which was then often backed up and expounded upon by his aide.
‘I’d be remiss if I didn’t point this out,’ Magnolia said, leaning forward, her hands folded on the table. ‘But there’s a name missing from the lists you read. Your new recruit, Director.’
‘She fucking quit already?’ Clarke asked, an unlit cigarette rolling between his fingers. ‘That’s going to look wonderful for your numbers, Director.’
He nodded to Magnolia. Curt had been the only one who had asked after Stef, so he had thought no-one else had noticed.
‘Stef is,’ he paused, gathered himself, then laid a hand on the next set of folders. ‘What we’re going to discuss next. Her absence from the casualty lists, Agent Jane’s presence, and what that means for the immediate future.’ A shift distributed the second set of folders. These were the ones with the cold, hard facts of what was going on with Stef. ‘I’d ask that you let me explain before perusing these. And that you hold all questions until the end.’
He looked to his notes one more time, held an image of a smiling Stef in his HUD, and braced himself for more outbursts.
‘Recruit Mimosa. Stef. I know not all of all you had a chance to meet her, but I found her to be a bright and amazing young woman. We know that testing results can sell a person short, as their primary use is to initially categorise someone.’
Clarke was playing on his phone. Jones and Jane were neutral – they knew what was going on.
Magnolia’s black eyes were on him, waiting for a shoe to drop.
‘I found her exceptionally curious, and that curiosity naturally extended to the events surrounding the mirrorfall. I took her to see the phoenix. She wanted to see the conclusion of all things, wanted to see the mirror fall. I took her into the field with me, as Director I…am expected to stay fairly safe during operations, so the risk was fairly nominal.’
He stared down at the file.
‘I thought the risk was fairly nominal,’ he amended. ‘We were caught in a blackout just before the shatter and separated looking for a System signal to shift out. She…was the one who shattered the mirror.’
A few more words and it would be done. ‘She was in the way of one of the shards. It- KIA.’ Three letters were more manageable than three words. ‘Instant. She was dead when I found her. No chance for medical intervention.’
‘With family, we can be more. The Agency knows this. Hierarchy makes parents and children. Peers become siblings.’ He looked at Jane. ‘Namesakes are precious gifts.’ He looked at Jones. ‘And children are treasures.’
He folded his hands.
‘I made a wish. This has been reported, this is known. I couldn’t- It wasn’t fair that an accident snuff out a life full of potential. As to her current status, there’s more on that in what I have provided, but we’re treating it like a coma and waiting for her to wake up.’
The silence was worse than the uproar he’d been expecting.
‘With respect, Director,’ Magnolia said, forming each word carefully, ‘what the fuck?’
‘No’ Clarke said, not looking up from his phone, ‘there are easier ways to get something warm to fuck.’
‘Clarke,’ he snapped.
‘What?’ Clarke asked. ‘It’s true.’ He looked at Jane. ‘And are you here to punish him, ma’am?’
Jane paused for a moment before replying. ‘One of the outcomes, discussed between Enforcer Crawford and myself was a general audit – specifically of Queen Street, though with an option to investigate the Outposts if deemed necessary. As I was Director Ryan’s advocate through the proceedings, I’ll be the one conducting this. You can all expect a number of meeting invites from myself – there will be several rounds of this. I know how unproductive meetings can be, and anything that can be an email will be an email, but I do intend on doing a thorough job. For starters, there’s only one aide at this table, and that’s unacceptable. There will be changes, and I ask for your cooperation to make this easier.’
‘You’ll have our cooperation,’ Magnolia said.
‘And my axe,’ Jones said.
‘I’m going to call this for now,’ he said. ‘Please follow up with me if you have any further questions. And as Agent Jane said, please cooperate with this audit to the best of your ability.’
After a moment of the meeting participants shuffling paperwork and making last remarks to each other, he was alone – except for one other person.
Jones wouldn’t have been a surprise, nor would Jane.
Taylor was the last person he’d expected to stay. Taylor never stayed in meetings longer than necessary. Taylor never seemed willing to be in the same room as him – especially alone – for even a second more than he had to.
‘Can I-?’ he started. ‘What can I do for you, Taylor?’
Taylor sat motionless in his chair for a long moment – not saying anything, but somehow bending the gravity of the room around him with things unsaid.
Another long moment passed until finally, words came from the silent mountain of a man. ‘You didn’t ask.’
Taylor stood, movement slow, but somehow inevitable – some great weight that had reached its tipping point. He didn’t fight as Taylor grabbed him, lifted him, shoved him into the wall. ‘You didn’t ask me.’ Each word came with a shove, and for a moment, he felt a shade of what Curt must have felt in their unfortunate encounter.
Taylor yanked him away from the wall and threw him back into his chair, which slammed against the table, his arm knocking the folders askew.
‘Don’t,’ Taylor said. ‘Not again.’ Taylor swept the messy folders off the table, and in their place, three photos appeared – all neutral, Agency personnel files. Stef, and two photos that fractured his already damaged heart.
One was of Carol. Strikingly beautiful, even in such a bland photo. The other was Taylor – the old Taylor, a man so different from the one who stood before him.
Carol. Taylor. Stef.
His three attempts to change things. His three forays against the unfair nature of life. One mirror wish, one session pleading with Death, one push of Agency technology and magic beyond what it was designed to do.
Three people he loved, three people he’d been unwilling to lose.
Two tragedies – and with Taylor’s attitude, a third that was all but guaranteed.
Taylor reached for the photo of – Ryan wasn’t sure how Taylor felt about his old self, and it wasn’t something he’d ever felt brave enough to ask. He knew there was some degree of separation. Some deliberate effort on Taylor’s part to separate who he was from who he had been – one of his first acts on being reborn had been changing his hair colour and style.
The man in the photo was blond, not the angry redhead that towered over him now.
Taylor crushed the photo in his hand. ‘I didn’t want this. You chose this.’ The photo disappeared from his hand.
Ryan stared down at the photo of Carol and watched as tears splotched the paper. ‘I’d already lost her,’ he said, forcing himself not to think about that day, about the worst day of his life. About the blood. The screaming. The-
He slammed his fists against the table and stood, coming face-to-face with Taylor.
‘I couldn’t lose my brother too. Not on the same day. Not when we could- We thought- We wanted to save you.’ He dropped his head and stared at his feet. ‘I don’t know what you would have done in my place, you were always stronger than me. Your resolve, your Duty, you were better than me. I loved you. We loved you. We thought- We wanted to save you.’
Two words tore his heart out.
One hand covered his mouth, the other weakly reached for Taylor’s arm. Taylor grabbed his hand, a grip strong enough to indicate he wasn’t welcome, without crushing it, without being violent. Restraint on Taylor’s part he wasn’t sure he deserved.
Taylor twisted Ryan’s hand and slapped it down on the two remaining photos. ‘Don’t do it again.’
With one last inscrutable look – long-burning anger, resentment, unaired grievances – Taylor disappeared, leaving him more alone than he’d felt in a long time.
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