Ryan allowed himself to be led out of the research facility and onto the smooth pavement.
‘Come on, Newborn,’ Jane said gently as she pulled him down the street.
Behind a deli, there was an anonymous-looking service door that led to a set of fairy stairs.
There was the usual momentary disorientation of leaving a System area, though without the accompanying fear that came with entering a Solstice-created blackout zone.
There was no reason it should be hitting him hard. He had been sure that he’d gone through all the possibilities, that-
And there was nothing logical about griefs, even when your very programming was designed to make emotions as streamlined as possible.
His one saving grace was that he was with one of the few people on the planet who could empathise with his situation.
A lifetime ago, Jane had been just as reliant on a piece of mirror for a happy ending.
She pulled him into a cafe, and he gratefully collapsed into a booth.
Newborn. It was a term used by people with a dozen different meanings.
Simple and straightforward when you wanted to refer to a newly-generated agent. Someone who needed patience, who couldn’t be expected to understand the subtleties of every social interaction.
Someone who was, on paper, perfect; but not truly prepared for life.
Stef had asked him if it took a while for agents to “become people”; as blunt as the wording was, it was true enough. It took time to become more than the code you started with. For behaviours to develop. To truly be yourself.
Perfection and self could rarely exist in the same being.
Some agents remained that platonic ideal – called, with equal measures fear and respect, “the best of us”. Agents who were the kind of beings that the Solstice and their ilk assumed every being made of blue was.
Perfection in a suit, untainted by any shades of humanity.
People who didn’t have hobbies. Who didn’t blink, didn’t breathe, didn’t eat or drink. Who spoke through their HUDs rather than their mouths.
And for a time, they had looked at bringing him into their fold.
On the other end of the spectrum, away from perfect textbook behaviour existed people like Reynolds.
Vivacious, so full of life, he seemed to shine, never without a friend or lover at hand. Someone always ready for a conversation to last long into the night.
And from the moment he’d been generated, he knew he wasn’t the same kind of man as his director.
Even grading on a curve, he’d been slow to develop. Part of it was him, just something innate to who he was – proven over and over by his small social circle over his century-plus of life.
Part of it, however, was an artificial stagnation. Every time he’d expressed a behaviour or tried to break from his newborn mould, Reynolds had attributed the nascent slice of personality to Rhys.
Nothing had been “Ryan”. It was only remnants of a dead man breaking through.
And it had pushed him back into his shell.
And for years, he had stayed there. Dull. Trying to process the seeds of who he would become whilst second-guessing every new thought or desire.
If everything truly was “Rhys”, then there was no point in trying to be anything more.
He’d been…nothing. Failing every “test” where Reynolds would try to pull parts of Rhys forward; unhappy being dragged into Reynolds’ larger-than-life world.
Whenever Reynolds would invite him to an event, one of two things would inevitably happen. Either he would make dull, surface-level conversation with whatever attractive person Reynolds had arranged to be on his arm for the evening, or he would stand awkwardly in the corner until Reynolds gave him leave to escape the festivities.
Then, over a few short days, he’d moved forward, taking the first few steps to be something more than nothing.
Death had sung, a eulogy for a dead world, and it was the first thing he’d ever thought of as “beautiful”.
A phoenix had made him feel fear.
And a mirror had fallen from the sky.
Jane set a coffee in front of him and reached across the table to clasp his hands. ‘Whatever you need to talk about, I’m here, love.’
The mirror had been a shatter.
For whatever reason, there had been a lot of survivors of the dead wall fall to earth ahead of the mirror. There were always some – often mutated in body or mind as the price for their survival, but for this world, they had numbered in the dozens.
And with dozens of hands on tiny pieces of mirror, they had begun to wish for pieces of their world.
Even to this day, they still didn’t know the extent of the wishes made. Most were innocuous – seeds for trees and plants they would never otherwise see; books and histories of a world lost to the universe, for their mutations to be healed.
And for people lost to be returned.
For a reason they were eventually able to pin down to long-beloved fairy tales from their world, they had a particular way of wishing their loved one back.
From their fables, it was believed that a vessel was needed for the spirit to inhabit – so for every person they tried to wish back, someone had been snatched from the streets.
One of those had been Kay, the love of Jane’s life.
The survivors had taken her to an old church and wished back the soul of their queen.
And with that wish, everything that had been Kay had seemed to disappear. Even her human body had become a nymph, her body spreading roots into the floor of the church, alien berries on delicate branches where hair had been.
He had accompanied Reynolds to assist Jane with her duties in hunting down the other “possessed” victims hoping that something could be done.
Rather quickly, it had become apparent that there was no fix – whoever these people had been…those people had been entirely subsumed. The one Agency-sanctioned reader they had contracted to work on the case had been able to catch the faintest sense that something of the original person survived. Still, even that faded as the days went on.
And for nearly the whole time he and Reynolds had worked on finding and processing the victims, Jane had remained in the church. Staring at the woman who had stolen the body of her partner, keeping the nymph unconscious so that she couldn’t escape.
The few times they had seen her, she’d pulled Reynolds aside and gone into deep conversation with him.
The woman he’d met was gone – the inner radiance had faded. Grief had made her hollow, and Reynolds had indicated that it was only going to get worse.
When Reynolds gone to bargain with Madchester for the Court to house the victims, he’d been dismissed to do one last – and inevitably fruitless – search for leftover pieces of the mirror.
The last seven patrols had returned nothing, but it was the kind of job Reynolds would give him when time needed to be filled.
And he hadn’t minded. It was easy to be alone with your thoughts when you tried to have none.
With an empty mind, he’d wandered the late evening streets of London, covering the same precise, mechanically-efficient pattern as always.
But this time, in the cracks of a wooden pub sign, a small light had winked at him.
One tiny piece of mirror, one last, unused wish.
He wrapped it in a handkerchief, astonished at the sense of magic, of potential, radiating through the cloth.
He’d been exposed to fae magic on innumerable occasions, in a myriad of different forms. Whilst it felt different to blue, it was a bare whisper compared to this tiny sliver of silver.
According to Duty, he was to destroy it.
And for the first time, his instinct wasn’t to immediately follow his Duty.
With that realisation, his mind became a hurricane of thoughts. Going against Duty was- Wasn’t what an agent was. It meant he was flawed, meant he was-
Was finally experiencing what Reynolds had been waiting for. Was becoming what his director expected – wanted – hoped for.
In a dozen quiet moments, Reynolds had described the milestones of an agent’s life – goals that had shot by, leaving nothing but a disappointed director.
Reynolds had described two key moments – one, when you found a way to personalise your Duty. When it became more than an abstract concept and the core of your code.
For many, it was some variation on “doing your Duty to protect your friends or family”. When you had an external force to enhance something that should have been entirely internally motivated.
The second, spoken of in a tone that indicated hesitance, was the first moment you wanted to go against your Duty.
An unfair ruling from Central, some small by-law that you overlooked, or showing lenience outside of what was strictly written in black and white.
Using mirror was a little more than ignoring a by-law.
He tucked the handkerchief into an inside pocket, close to his heart, and walked on.
In a strange way, it was likely because of how he was – how much he lacked in comparison to Reynolds, to Rhys, to whoever he was expected to be – that he could have this perspective.
He was in so many ways….nothing. An agent so close to code-perfect that Central had invited him to transition away from his Field role and into some more nebulous position after his first annual evaluation.
It had meant he was so inhuman, so lacking in development, that he was a candidate for those Reynolds called “the best of us”.
A compliment. An insult.
Reynolds had begged him not to accept. Had argued that there was so much more to the world.
So far, nothing in that world had been able to touch him. There had been an invisible wall keeping him separate, disconnected and on the bench. Waiting for some unknown signal that would invite him to the experience of life that everyone around him seemed to have.
Jane’s grief had turned her into his twin.
And that wasn’t something he would wish on anyone.
One wish to undo a wish. A small reset to put back things to how they should be. One tiny piece of mirror to help Jane avoid the grey distance of his life.
At the end of his patrol – and when no more pieces of mirror had presented themselves, he’d shifted to the path that led to the church.
The church itself sat on the top of a small hill, and most of the land surrounding it was so soaked in fae magic that it was a dead zone.
No Agency personnel watched – this was a memorial service for one.
He’d walked up the hill and pushed open the heavy door.
At the pulpit, the nymph lay dormant, kept asleep and immobile by Agency drugs and fae magic.
And halfway down the row of pews on the right, Jane sat, her head hung.
It took her a long moment to react as he sat beside her, finally acknowledging his presence with a long exhalation of air.
‘Newborn, I’m in no position to do anything for you. Please. Give me the grace to-’
He’d lifted one of her stiff hands from her lap and laid the handkerchief in her palm.
Half-formed questions had died on her tongue as she unwrapped the cloth.
There was no need to ask what it was or if it was real – the magic it exuded wasn’t something you could fake.
She looked at it for a long moment, then looked up to him, soft brown eyes full of hope and fear. ‘What are you asking in return?’
Even with the pricelessness of mirror, the question had surprised him. ‘Nothing.’
‘You could-’ she started, then stopped. ‘I won’t try and talk you out of it if you’re- But this isn’t a chance most people would-’
‘You have a need for it. I don’t.’
She wrapped the top layer of silk back over the shining mirror, closed her fist around it, and held it to her heart, tears streaming down her face.
She leaned in and softly kissed his cheek, then ran for Kay.
A moment later, the trappings of the nymph shattered into petals and perfume, leaving a weeping human woman in Jane’s arms.
‘Did you ever doubt?’ he asked, ‘in the church. When you-’
‘Never,’ she said. ‘I know that’s probably not the answer you want, Newborn, but no. I knew Kay would come back to me. But she wasn’t gone, leastaways, not as far out to sea as your little one.’
‘Would you come back to a life that’s been nothing but- I’m not sure she’s- The Lost cared for her when she was a child, I’m not sure things got better from there.’
Jane added orange sugar to her coffee. ‘If things hadn’t gone how they did. If she’d come home, whole and safe, what were you planning on doing the following day?’
‘I was going to see if I could take a couple of hours and bring her-’ he looked around. ‘Somewhere very much like this. A short trip into Faerie. Failing that, perhaps the library.’
‘Both activities I am sure she would have hated,’ Jane said, deadpan. ‘Stretches of absolute boredom that would have her looking for a fire alarm to pull.’
‘I’m aware of your point,’ he said, ‘but-’
‘I don’t think it’s so all-or-nothing as you might imagine. Even in a life as you’re describing, some people hold room in their heart for change. For hope. For the day that is different to all those yesterdays.’
‘But a couple of days weighed against-’
‘All right, let me walk this road with you for a moment. If she chooses what you fear, will you regret the emotion you’ve invested?’
He wiped away tears and sought the answer. ‘Not for a moment.’
‘Then hold hope, and tell me what comes tomorrow, next week, next month. Tell me what you learned from Ditto’s strange little crew.’
A waiter delivered two extravagant pieces of cake with ice cream, and he reflected on the paltry amount of information he’d gathered before running.
‘There are more impacted than I imagined. I’m not sure anyone has an identical story, but there will be people she can talk to, at least.’
‘Did you pick up on the high level of augmentation?’
He laid April’s tablet on the table and scanned through the notes – more than half of those on the list had at least some basic amount of augmentation, and some were even full agents.
Augmentation was a routine process – generally reserved for aides or recruits with long service times. When it was seen that giving a recruit more blue to grant them some ability would be a benefit to their efficiency or increase their abilities.
Combat recruits could be augmented with a portion of speed, strength or durability – things that would help their survivability in the field. Tech recruits could get HUDs to increase their operational range. Field recruit augments tended to be more in the range of permissions and licences – such as single-location shift permissions.
Full augmentation – turning a human into an agent – was rarer but still relatively routine. The most common recipient was half-agent children – people who would take easily to the process.
Other recruits earned their way into the position – exemplary service records, people the Agency didn’t want to lose.
Often, it was something discussed ahead. Something essentially put into a living will, that if the individual suffered grievous injuries that Agency doctors couldn’t deal with, they’d make the call and begin the augmentation process.
It was something he’d only asked for once. For Carol. For a woman he’d loved. A woman he’d had to lose twice.
He looked at April’s list again and began to cross-check the entries in his HUD. About a quarter of the full-agent augmentations were “special exceptions” – agents that didn’t hold a rank.
The others held a variety of ranks – primary or secondary agents of a regular agency department, with the final few working directly out of Central.
And now, that possibility was being floated for Stef.
‘I think she’d be delighted with even a partial augmentation,’ he said, trying to shift back into a hopeful mindset. ‘She asked for screenshots from my HUD to see how I saw the world.’
Jane nodded. ‘That’s not the most common reaction.’
He picked up his fork, stared down at the cake, and felt a small smile on his face. ‘Though…I may have to find the parental controls on in-HUD games.’