After April left, Ryan busied himself with the notes she’d given him.
There was a genuinely astonishing variety in the people present. People who had made wishes; people who’d had wishes made on their behalf; others, fewer than the other types, who were part of experiments. And lastly, those who had been in the wrong place at the wrong time.
In the research he’d done, he knew there were far more than this who’d had their lives touched by mirror. Even more than the “dusties” that weren’t present, but in many – most – cases, the mirror could be removed without lasting effects or even without conferring a wish.
He sorted the list to bring those categorised as alpha and delta to the surface. The new top of the list was a man whose notes began with a half-dozen target symbols, likely indicating that April thought this would be the subject he should begin with.
Mark Stanley. The photo showed what seemed to be an older man. At first glance, Ryan mentally placed him in his sixties, though no age was listed – and looks were forever a poor indication of age. Many agents were generated with looks that indicated early-middle age for a socially-engineered balance expectation of power and experience.
He tucked the tablet into a pocket, then crossed the room, where the man sat – somewhat unexpectedly – playing a loud, colourful game on a phone.
‘May I sit?’ Ryan asked, indicating to the empty chair across from Mark.
‘May we sit?’ Jane corrected him as she required an identical chair. ‘Sorry I’m late,’ she said, squeezing his arm. ‘But I’ve organised that thing for you. All done and sorted.’
Ryan nodded. ‘Thank you,’ he said, pouring every ounce of gratitude he could into his voice. Now – whether or not she woke on her birthday, Stef would have the perfect present waiting for her.
Hopefully perfect – a gift from a new father to undo a cruelty from her old one.
Hook had recounted the story – Stef had done something that had angered her father, some minor trespass that should have been waived away by any understanding parent.
But in the logic of an abusive man, this warranted ruining his own child’s life – selling her horse with, explicitly adding that he intended to sell the animal to the knackers for glue.
And as Hook told it, this had left young Stef inconsolable. Equestrian activities had been one small area where she’d found some genuine enjoyment in her childhood.
A hobby, an escape and a beloved animal, all ripped away without remorse.
He’d brought it up with Jane during a lull in one of their auditing meetings – that he had no idea how to go about purchasing an animal, let alone something more complex than approaching a pet store for a goldfish.
As many children did, Alexander had eventually convinced he and Eilise that he deserved a puppy.
And in one of few times she’d explicitly allowed magic to encroach on their “normal, human” life that she insisted on for Alexander, she’d asked him for a “magic dog”.
Laying in bed with him, she’d told him that one of her worst childhood memories was losing her own beloved dog to an illness, and it wasn’t something she wanted Alexander to go through.
And it was such a simple request. Though their most common drones were birds, for their observation utility, there was an entire library of program animals that could be generated.
Decorative fish that never needed to be fed; dogs and cats for the children of agents that would understand every command and never make a mess on the carpets.
So together, they had designed the perfect dog for their son. Painstakingly choosing fur colours, mixing breeds and characteristics, until they’d come to something they were confident Alex would love.
And it had been instant love between boy and dog – memories he still cherished.
He’d floated the idea of simply generating Stef a new horse with Jane, who immediately dismissed the idea. She told him, quite authoritatively, that generated horses were fine if you simply needed something to ride. Still, for interacting, she stated that, unlike many other animals, the horse personalities were never quite right.
It was then that she shared photos of her own collection of horses. A rolling collection of photos from the early days of photography to contemporary photos showing a manor estate with an impressive stable.
‘This is where we go home to,’ she said. ‘At the end of the day, when we have time off. My darling wife has her studio, her paints and ever-lasting perfect light from a wall of memory glass, and I have beautiful, walking disasters that are my horses.’
With a squeeze of his hand, she’d told him to leave all the details to her – that she could find the perfect horse to fill one of her empty stalls, and that would be there well before Stef’s birthday rolled around.
‘Thank you,’ he said again and tried to bring himself into the present and come up with some questions to ask the man in front of him.
‘Before we start,’ Mark said. ‘Ditto has made me aware of your ranks and clearances, and I’m afraid I have to warn you that there are some things I won’t be able to tell you. My age for one, my father for another.’
Jane gave a light chuckle. ‘You have to know that does nothing but make us more intrigued.’
‘I am aware of that unfortunate side effect.’
Already, he could deduce some things about Mark. With the combination of the ban on information on both his age and his father, it likely meant that Mark’s father was an older type of herald. Something older than an agent, something older than a dusker.
The Agency liked their personnel to focus on the here-and-now and heavily discouraged investigations into the past. What had come before was “irrelevant” and not worth knowing.
It was, in its way, a very strange policy. Not least of all because it could very easily lead to the idiom of repeating history because they could not learn from it.
There was also the reality that for a percentage of agents – himself included – the past was a material part of his everyday reality.
Agents – those born as agents, not recruits who had become agents during their term of service – tended to fall into two generation categories.
There were new whole cloth agents – and these were the majority – those that used recycled pieces from a myriad of dead agents, creating something entirely new from old parts.
The second were templated agents – like himself – these were the agents who bore a significant part of their code with one recycled individual.
Templated heralds could even – and often did – last across herald types. His direct former, Rhys, had been one of Brisbane’s duskers, and by all accounts, an altogether unpleasant individual to deal with.
Reynolds had been the man’s reluctant executioner – it had been deemed that duskers had reached the end of their usefulness. One by one, all of them had been replaced by fledgling agencies and their relatively young agents.
Partly from compassion, to see some of the man live on, and partly for an instinctual knowledge of the city, Reynolds had asked for his new field agent to be templated from the departed dusker.
And he knew – partly from a gut feeling and from things Death had said to him, that he was not the first link in the chain.
But that past was forever lost to him, pieces of history and lives that he’d never know.
‘I was dying,’ Mark said, beginning his story. ‘Nothing of man or fae could heal me. I died, and there was still no answer. I went to Limbo, and my father instructed me to wait there, for as long as I could, at the Lady’s pleasure, of course.’
A question formed – and since it didn’t touch on the Agency, it was likely safe to ask. ‘Was she- the Lady of Limbo, in your time, did she appear as a child?’
‘Black and white like a photo, and dressed in a simple dress, yes. Unlike her sisters, I believe her appearance tends to stay relatively consistent.’ Mark put down his phone and required a soft drink in a tall glass. ‘And I wandered- Child. You’ve seen her, then?’
Ryan nodded. ‘Yes. A few times.’
‘Do you know how Limbo looks…’ Mark waved a hand. ‘When you stand in the eye, in the meeting place, and you look out into the forest, it looks like lines of endlessly exact, copy-pasted trees?’
He nodded again. Limbo could be described simply. Endless swirling clouds above that never broke into a storm, the ground covered in the smoothest, finest powder, and lines of trees, as straight as in a state forest, each an identical copy of each other.
‘Once you step past the treeline,’ Mark continued, ‘it no longer looks like an art student’s first time playing with a modelling program. Once you’re past that line, it’s your own forest, still grey, still winter-dead, but every tree is drawn from your memory. Minutes for me, and years for my parents passed.’
‘Surely your body-’ Jane began.
‘To be answered with my next breath, Agent Jane. It’s disgusting or beautiful, depending on who you ask, though I choose to see the beauty in it. My parents made ink of my ashes, and my mother painted me true to size. He put down his drink and leaned forward, exposing the underside of his forearm. Two faint depressions lay on the skin, as inconspicuous as old chickenpox scars. ‘Tears. My mother’s tears as she recreated me from memory.’ He withdrew and settled in his chair. ‘And then at every joint, my hands, my forehead, they placed a chip of mirror, and together, they wished me back to life.’
‘What was it like for you? Was it-’ Ryan swallowed. ‘Painful?’
‘Dying was, coming back- When you recover from an injury, Director, when you’ve had a limb regrow or skin replaced, the first time that new part is touched for the first time, the feeling is always more intense?’
‘Yes, of course.’
‘That, but for every part of myself, muscles to neurons. Not pain, but…shock. And it passed as soon as it came.’
‘Your longevity,’ Jane said, ‘was that intended?’
‘Not consciously. They didn’t notice at first – are either of you parents?’
‘Both of us,’ Jane confirmed. ‘You started to slow when you matured?’
Mark nodded. ‘But soon it became obvious that it was far more pronounced than the usual bonus first-generation children have, and my parents started to discuss the intent and wording of their respective wishes.’
‘And?’ Jane asked as Mark dipped into silence.
‘They had wished for life, and independently, both had wished for me to see the future. I got my first wrinkle the day man landed on the moon, and I started to finally feel my age when the millenium rolled around.’ He ran his hand over his forehead, and when he pulled his hand away, the years began to fall away as he visibly became younger. ‘I’ve got a few years yet, but I doubt I’ll see the turn of the next century.’
Jane turned to him. ‘And you, Newborn, what was your wish?’
‘Life, I just wanted her to live again. I tried- I think- I tried to keep it simple. And I’ve been scolded by someone who knows that it’s not simple. My daughter- She’s showing aspects, and the cycle is nearly complete.’
‘Some of us played with our own rainbow, others didn’t. There’s no true rhyme or reason to it. Mirrors have a mind of their own, and sometimes a soul just needs time to put itself back together.’
Mark stood and waved at Jane for her to stay in place. He extended a hand to Ryan. ‘Come with me, young man. This is just for you.’
Ryan followed Mark into a small, half-sized office for taking calls or chats away from the public space. ‘If it’s your child in question, in waiting, I need you to hear this. Hate me if you wish. I’m an old man; I can handle it.’
‘I doubt, sir, you can say anything that isn’t already one of my fears.’
‘And I’m sure your heart is guarded against most attacks, but- most aren’t prepared for betrayal.’
‘There might come a point – this isn’t a constant, but it’s common amongst us who’ve returned from Limbo and its surrounds. It is your wish, but at the end of all things, it is her life. You can force it, hold onto your wish, and ensure it comes true. Or- You can give it as a gift, and it’s up to her. Some people- Some-’
‘Stop,’ Ryan whispered and hurriedly pressed a shaking hand to eyes filled with tears. This was a fear half-formed that had haunted the back of his mind. A wish not working was one thing, but a wish rejected-
And life had offered so little to Stef. An existence so devoid of hope and love. And for as much as he loved her, a matter of hours weighed against a life that had done nothing but torn her down.
A life that had made her feel worthless. Unloved. Afraid to act without fear of admonition.
A couple of days might be too petty a weight to tip the scales compared to all of that.
The room was…not spinning, but askew from where it should have been.
Air. He needed air.
‘I- Thank you-’ he said, almost on autopilot, fumbled with the door handle for a moment, then walked into the larger room, looking for the door.
If he was in a better mind, a clearer mind, he would have shifted somewhere- But no destination came to mind. He didn’t want to be anywhere. He just needed to be away from where he was.
Strong hands slid around his arm. ‘Come on, Newborn, let me buy you coffee.’
He nodded, his head feeling disconnected from his body, and allowed Jane to guide him away from the closing walls and towards fresh air.