24 – Ground State

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As strange as the thought was, he felt like he was going unarmed to an execution.

Not bringing a knife to a gun fight, not bringing words to a brawl, but…going naked to a place where it was almost certain someone meant him harm.

Curt looked down at himself – the choice of dress was deliberate: uniform pants, shirt and tie. Enough to show that he was still toeing the line, without being stifled by the entire uniform.

And if another fight broke out – well, it was easier to fight like this without stopping to shrug off a coat, or worry that Ryan would be able to get a good grip on his vest.

It was paranoia, was expecting the worst – but his entire life was a biography of expecting then experiencing the worst.

Inviting more pain into his life, he knocked on Ryan’s office door.

There was an audible click as the door unlocked, and sealing his own fate, he pushed it open and walked in.

Ryan sat in his high-backed chair, hands crossed on the desk in front of him – for someone likely capable of pulling a human spine out, he looked…harmless, and Curt had no doubt the look was intentional.

‘Before you say anything,’ Ryan said. ‘Let me apologise. From the bottom of my heart, I am deeply and sincerely sorry for what I did. I…know why I did it, but that doesn’t excuse that I did it.’

‘Sir-’

‘You’re well within your rights to take it further, something I won’t impede if you do. All recruits – all recruits, Curt, deserve to feel safe, and what I did violated that.’

He looked at Ryan, and saw genuine contrition there – this was a real apology, something the man had devised himself, not some copy-pasted attempt to stop a report being made to Central.

‘I appreciate that.’ He let the words hang for a moment, then sat in the chair opposite Ryan’s desk. ‘I need to ask you something.’ He looked past the agent, unwilling to make eye contact as he asked to be set free. ‘Carmichel has offered me a job working for him. He’d like to know-’ He chuckled darkly. ‘Well, the price on my head, to be frank. What it would cost for the Agency to release me.’

This was met with silence, and after a silent count to five, he looked to Ryan.

The agent looked as though he’d been prepared for a few different conversations, but that this particular question had come as a surprise.

‘Curt, I’m afraid I probably can’t give you the answer you want.’

‘Meaning?’ he asked, trying to keep his voice neutral.

‘You’re not the first or last reformed Solstice the Agency has employed. You’re…objectively on the path to becoming one of the more successful examples of someone being given a second chance. But-’

Curt pressed his fingertips into his knees, trying to keep himself as still and quiet as possible, completely neutral, so that Ryan could finish his thought.

‘A year, year and a half, isn’t a long time to an agent or to the Agency. If you were to submit this proposal, it likely wouldn’t be granted, and in fact, may be disadvantage to your ongoing career as a recruit. It would be possible, but the offer would have to be significant.’

Money, and other things that Carmichel could offer the Agency, would be more than sufficient, but rocking the boat…making an offer that might be refused, that wasn’t a situation he wanted. Staying under the Agency’s radar was a plan that had worked so far – his…blip with Ryan notwithstanding.

‘What does that mean? What-’

‘Three years would be less problematic, five would be a smooth transition away. I would ask that you consider your position, Carmichel’s potential offers, and all other factors before you formally ask me to submit this request.’

‘Another eighteen months?’ he said quietly, hating that the words had slipped out.

‘Positions like yours…there shouldn’t be the impression that they’re given freely and that freedom can simply be bought.’

‘I understand.’

‘And I understand,’ Ryan said, ‘that I’m making you feel uncomfortable. Unsafe. Proving the worst of what you think about Agents. I never meant to do any of that.’ He picked up a pen and rolled it between his fingers. ‘You- You were acting out of a place of concern for your fellow recruit, and I couldn’t-’

He stood up quickly, not willing – not able – to have this conversation right now.

‘I don’t know,’ he said, more words coming unbidden. ‘Why- Why you-’ He backed towards the door. ‘I don’t know if you did, but I spoke to a Solstice contact centre. By the morning after, everything they had in a suit was dead. Mostly the night shift is lazy, so- So-’ His back ran into the doorhandle, and he turned to exit.

The handle moved a little, then locked.

Fear locked chains around his heart, and he jiggled the handle. ‘Please let me out,’ he said, trying to keep the desperation out of his voice.

‘Curt-’

He shook the handle harder. ‘Let me out.’ Fight. Flight. Die. Worst case scenarios coming home to rest. ‘Let me out!’

Ryan said something, completely muffled by the heartbeat pounding in his ears.

‘Curt.’

He slumped against the door, unsure if he was breathing, if his heart was beating like a hummingbird or at all or-

‘Curt.’

Hot tears reached his cheeks.

‘They never had her, Curt.’

His hand froze on the handle, and he stared at the dark blue door, dumbfounded.With an act of will he wasn’t sure he’d ever be able to replicate, he flipped, pressing his back against the closed door, and forcing himself to face the agent.

‘What?’ he asked, the word half-accusation, half-prayer.

Ryan had half-risen from his chair, but slumped back down. ‘Please?’ the agent asked, indicating to the chair he’d vacated. ‘Please, this is a conversation we need to have.’

Like a sleepwalker, unsure if he could feel his legs, he made his way back to the guest chair.

‘Say that again?’

‘I know where she is. We- We never-’ Ryan stared at folded hands. ‘You’re well within your rights to strike me, so if you wish to do so-’

‘Where the fuck is she? Why didn’t-’ There was a flash on the agent’s face. ‘It’s not “didn’t”, is it, you couldn’t say anything. Why couldn’t you say anything? Why can you say- Is she okay?’

‘It was some kind of experimental weapon. Something we’d never seen before. Something that’s now wrapped in more levels of classified paperwork than I’ve ever seen.’ Ryan poured himself a drink, and after a moment, a second glass appeared and was pushed across the desk.

‘Okay,’ Curt said as he lifted the glass, ‘tell me.’

‘It took us hours to begin to understand what it had done. When we…spoke,’ Ryan said, putting a nice label on their last encounter. ‘We were right in the middle of that. As little information as we have now, I had none in that moment.’

‘Is she dead, sir?’

Ryan downed half of his drink, his eyes taking in all corners of the office before resting back on the glass in his hand.

‘I hope not,’ Ryan said, his voice catching just a little. ‘We’re not sure if or when she’s ever going to wake up. I’ve been told to treat it like someone in a coma. I’m hoping for the best, but I’m worried that hope is pale.’

There were things that the agent still wasn’t telling him – that much was neon-glaringly obvious – but in light of what Ryan had just said, that was somehow…expected. If security levels and classified information was in play, it was probably a miracle that he’d been told the little that he now knew.

It put context over what had happened – still unfair, still…a crack in the false sense of safety and security he’d been slowly building, but it at least…explained things. Explained, but didn’t excuse – even Ryan recognised that.

And maybe a regular recruit could make an agent’s life hell by running to Central, by crying to the equivalent of internal affairs, but Central wouldn’t give two shits about what he had to say.

Still if Ryan – who for an agent so old, seemed almost naive in the realities of politics and fairness sometimes – felt that there was a chance that Central might go after him, then it was a marker to hold on to. A favour to be cashed in later.

Something useful, if he was going to be stuck in the uniform for at least another eighteen months.

‘Tell me something.’

‘If I can, Recruit.’

‘Do you care about her? Like, really, really care about her?’

The answer came without hesitation. ‘Like she’s my own child.’ Ryan stared down at his desk. ‘Whatever help my position can be to her, whatever favours are owed to me, I’m going to pull to see that the best people look at this case, to…make the hope even a little less hopeless.’

‘But she’s officially dead? I’ve got Raz looking for her will for Christ’s sake. If she seemed to have any family, I would have-’

Ryan refilled their drinks. ‘A proxy in a suit, and a Solstice Lieutenant seem to be the only ones who have noticed her absence,’ he said with a half-smile. ‘Was there…anything in her papers that you found of importance?’

‘No DNR, nothing like that. Most of it was stuffy financial shit, I’ve got copies I can give you, if you want to take care of that. I didn’t feel- I don’t know how dead you want to treat her.’

‘I’m a world away from burying her, Recruit. I’m used to faint hope.’

‘Somewhere pretty,’ Curt said, staring at the carpet. ‘If you have to. The paperwork specified somewhere pretty. For her, that might be a mainframe, I don’t know,’ he forced a laugh. ‘What do I do from here, sir? What do you want from me?’

‘I want to trust you.’ Ryan swirled his drink. ‘I am aware that I’ve been treating you unfairly. I see your good work. I see your hard work. I know where you are in comparison to others who have been given a second chance. And I am forcing myself to take the first step. As much as I’ve told you, only someone with aide clearance should know, and therefore, I’m asking you not to share what you’ve learned here today.’

‘Not like I’ve got a lot of friends to fun my mouth to, sir,’ he said, pasting a self-decrepitating smile onto his face.

This brought a little look of confusion to Ryan’s face. ‘As an outside observer, I think you are more valued that you give yourself credit for, Recruit.’

‘If you say so, sir.’ He allowed himself a smile. ‘If you mean- Stef wasn’t hard to win over. It was like one of those…cat adoption ads, “I’m three fishy treats from being your new friend” or whatever.’

‘Still.’ Ryan paused for a moment. ‘Take your time, but submit your new aide application. I know you’re working on one. Finish it, and submit it, and this time, I’ll give it the consideration it deserves.’

‘Thank you,’ he said, nothing but real gratitude in his voice. After a moment, he stood, placed the glass on the desk, and extended his hand to Ryan. ‘It’ll be in before the end of the week.’

Trauma and hope fought for attention as Ryan shook his hand – voluntarily touching an agent was something he’d never get used to, no matter how long he wore the uniform, but this moment needed him to push aside his own comfort.

It wasn’t a step forward, not really, more of a reset if anything. Maybe not a reason to get rid of any of the stress on his shoulders…but at least a reason to adjust the weight.

Ryan let go of his hand, and with a polite goodbye, he excused himself from the agent’s office, so much to sort through, so much to process, and for once, even a little to hope for.

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lightdefender

Typo report!

Not like I’ve got a lot of friends to fun my mouth to, sir

run?

As for the chapter itself, that’s probably about the best outcome that could be expected from this situation? The “experimental weapon” bit is a lie, but perhaps a plausible one. And I can see why Ryan wouldn’t want or even may not be allowed to tell the truth.

I wonder if Curt will be told more once he’s officially Ryan’s aide.

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