Scan after scan. Blood, hair and various biopsies. Tests that focussed on her human self. Tests that focussed on the solid chunk of magic in her chest.
The kitten pillows helped somewhat with the hollow, voidy feeling inside her, but just a bit. They weren’t a long term solution, but they helped in the really bad moments.
It was like getting used to a weird texture or taste when you had no choice but to endure it. When she’d tried to verbalise it to Jones, she’d simply nodded, commented “bad stim, gotcha,” and promised to keep the heartbeat pillows coming whenever she needed them.
With movement, it was still basically house arrest – the lab, her office and her dorm room. In a weird way, it was almost like being back in her pre-Agency days, where the walls of her apartment tended to be all she saw for days on end.
At least there was the cool magic window, which could give her any time of day at any location on Earth with the tap of a few buttons.
Some were preprogrammed loops, but as she dug deeper into the options, she found that some were basically live webcams of her selected location.
Mostly though, she kept it on one of the space loops or warm morning sunbeams.
As much as she hated the outside world with the power of a thousand suns, the gentle light from a single sun was nice sometimes.
And it almost became a ritual for Merlin to join her in the afternoon for a sacrilegiously casual high tea, where they both sat on the floor and yoinked sandwiches from a multi-tiered silver serving stand.
It was weirdly calming to be around Merlin. Part of it dredged up memories of being at the kiddie tables of various weddings and events her parents had dragged her to, where she got to look good simply by virtue of being next to children who had to be persuaded that drawing over the tablecloths was a bad idea.
And some of it was the impression that he’d had even more of a fucked up life than she had. There was a story or twelve behind the innocent eyes and oversized clothes. Still, she was sure she hadn’t unlocked enough friendship points with Jonesy to even bridge that conversation yet.
All that she knew was that they had both been lucky enough to get second-chance parents, and both of them were far better for it.
She munched on a cucumber and bacon sandwich, leaned against the window wall, and went back to reading through the forum that belonged to the self-titled “mirror mutants”.
It had given her relief beyond words to find out that she was far from the only one who’d had a “reflective encounter”, as most of the mutants tended to call it.
There were several threads that amounted to “tell us your superhero origin story” or “describe your powers, and would you swap with the person above you”.
With super “officially mostly dead” mode engaged, she was stuck with read-only access. Still, even with a layer of separation, there was camaraderie to be had.
‘May I come in?’
Ryan’s voice from the door that went from her office to the lab.
She looked up at him, finished the last bite of sandwich, and tilted her head. ‘You have an open invitation, or have I not made that clear?’
‘It’s polite,’ he said.
‘He’s very polite,’ Merlin confirmed, then blew bubbles in his milkshake.
She patted a spare patch of floor. ‘Business or snacks?’
‘The former, unfortunately.’
‘Okies,’ Merlin said and started to gather up his things.
‘I don’t have any more blood to give Jonesy. She’s been a goddamn vampire today.’
‘A necessity, unfortunately.’ He stopped short as Merlin gave each of them a squishy hug before heading out through the lab.
‘So if it’s not blood, what am I in for?’
‘Finish up your lunch while I explain,’ he said.
She ticked a little salute and crammed two more tiny sandwiches into her mouth.
‘I’m fairly sure that you never got a chance to question the organisational structure of the Agency at large. You know here that I’m interim director-’
‘Yeah, I don’t know who you report to, or whatever.’
‘For most day-to-day operations, it’s a relatively linear structure. Agents report to directors, directors to regional directors, and so on. Most of the time, you only deal with one rank above yourself.’
‘Okay, got it so far.’
‘Situations that aren’t everyday…’ he trailed off and indicated to her. ‘A different hierarchy is employed. For your particular case, a man named Enforcer Crawford was brought in. It’s a simplistic analogy, but you can think of enforcers as internal affairs. Unlike someone in the linear order, they’re independent to the Agency where the case is. Impartial. Generally impartial. Crawford knew Reynolds, so it’s very likely that things fell in their favour more so than if someone else had taken the case. The same with Jane being my advocate.’
She contemplated the tiers of leftover pastries. ‘That, um, sounds a bit like corruption. Just a tiny bit.’
‘Perhaps,’ he allowed. ‘Whatever Crawford decreed was backed up by whomever he reports to, so what happened was within the letter of the law. And I can’t say that I’m ungrateful that things had a good outcome.’
‘Okay, so… what’s happening now?’
‘Crawford needs to meet with you, and discuss what comes next. He’ll be here in an hour, so I wanted to give you a head’s up of what to expect and to get ready.’
She shot to her feet, tugged at his shoulder. ‘Come on, then, you’re a quicker vending machine than typing everything out.’
Her feet carried her into her dorm room, where she grabbed a few things from the wardrobe and dumped them on the bathroom vanity.
She came back out into the main room and pointed back to the bathroom. ‘Fresh uniform, fresh shoes, please.’ She walked in and closed the door three-quarters of the way, chocked with a slipper so that she could still hear him.
‘Keep going,’ she said and started to strip out of her soft pants and t-shirt. ‘What do I need to know?’
‘He’s a reasonable man,’ Ryan said. ‘That much should be obvious.’
She kicked her dirty clothes into an empty space next to the shower, then quickly scrubbed her face before wiping it with one of the Agency’s signature truly fluffy towels.
‘What does he expect me to say?’
Socks. Pants. Fresh camisole tucked into pants. Shoes.
She looked at herself in the mirror. Her hair was damp from where she’d washed her face, and-
This was precisely the kind of meeting where Stephanie-mode would be beneficial. Prim. Proper. Put together. A perfect pull-string doll that only said the right things.
She walked over to the door and cracked it open, now decent enough that the block wasn’t necessary. ‘Vending machine?’
‘I need some makeup. I don’t know if there’s a basic kit requirement or whatever. Foundation, powder, nudes palette, that kind of shit.’
‘Is that what you want, or what you think is expected?’
‘You’ve got eyes, right? If I’m gonna go to a meeting that’s going to decide the rest of my life or whatever, then- Then I gotta be better than this.’
‘You’ll need the rest of your uniform, and doing something with your hair wouldn’t go amiss, but-’
‘Jonesy wears makeup, Jane’s stunning, you look like someone ran handsome-dad-dot-exe and I’m- Like- A fucking gremlin.’
Ryan grabbed her arm and led her to the chair at her desk. ‘Sit,’ he said.
‘Yessir,’ she grumbled, then felt the sour look on her face fade as he started to brush her hair.
‘Crawford knows the results of your few days as a recruit. He knows how you scored in the placement tests. He’s got personal statements from the agents who interacted with you. Do you think a little lipstick will matter one way or another?’
‘It does in the real world.’
‘Things are a little different here,’ he said as he brushed her hair back, jerking her head a little with each pull. ‘Do you think I judge Jones’ ideas and input by how fashionable he looks on any particular day?’
‘Probably not,’ she admitted as he clipped it all back with a slim butterfly clip.
Hair in place, she felt a tingle on her skin as her shirt, tie and vest materialised.
Ahead of her, a full-length mirror appeared.
‘You look fine,’ he said as she stood to inspect herself.
She still looked like a gremlin, but…a tidy one, at least.
‘Fine,’ she said. ‘I’ll defer to your wisdom. What’s he going to ask me? What answers do I need to cram?’
Ryan cocked his head towards the door, and she followed him back out to the office, where a number of folders had appeared on the round table.
‘I know Jones has given you access to some information about your peers, but I think laid out like this might make some of the numbers more obvious.’
She cracked the corner of one of the files, which contained a list of names. ‘Are one of these “taken behind the chemical sheds and shot”?’
He sat opposite her. ‘The threat of the mirror hasn’t gone away. It’s currently being used in a benign way, but anyone could take it and use it against us or the world. That’s something that has to be taken into account, so as a baseline, you’ll need to make some rather binding agreements not to act against the Agency’s interests.’
‘I mean, I figured that was step one of being a recruit.’
‘It will be down to his judgement, but some of the people here are grey-listed.’ He held up a hand to forestall her question. ‘People like Solstice are black-listed, essentially amounting to “shoot on sight”, those who are deemed to be active threats to the Agency.’
‘Ipso facto, grey list is a step down from that?’
He nodded. ‘People who could become threats, or who have been threats and granted conditional leniency. It varies from person to person and the specifics of their history, but more or less it’s a “strike” system before they’re put on a black list. You’ll find most ex-Solstice recruits are on the grey list. Some earn their way off it, others remain on it.’
‘The fuck was his-’ she snapped her fingers. ‘Curt. Is he on a list?’
‘Yes, he’s grey-listed.’ Ryan looked awkward for a moment. ‘After you’re done with Crawford, there’s a few other things we need to discuss, but let’s focus for the moment.’
‘Me, focus?’ She tried to avoid his stare. ‘Okay, trying.’
‘First, I think he’ll ask you a question, one I think is a foregone conclusion. Do you want to keep working with us? As a recruit, or in another capacity, as he deems fit?’
‘Yeah, of course.’
‘The leads us to, generally, one of three categories. Those that remain fully human, those that are partially augmented, and those that are fully converted into agents.’
‘The- Fuck- What?’ she asked, sentences fighting for space in her brain and mouth.
Ryan gave a nod, as if such a small feature was an appropriate way to acknowledge the mind fuck of the century.
‘I mean-’ Thoughts were still fighting for space. ‘Uhhhhhh-’ she closed her mouth as the sound degraded into verbal static.
A small smile settled onto his face. ‘I’m happy to say that this is almost the exact reaction I expected.’
‘More info now, pls.’
‘It’s unlikely that you’ll get to choose which of the three paths he ultimately decrees, but the fact that you’re open to-’
‘Do you know how cool it would be? I mean, I figured I would die before uploading brains became a thing, and- Okay, well, technically I did, but- I mean, like, plugging me into the fucking Matrix to let me jam with the console cowboys in cyberspace is pretty much my dream.’
Immediately, she shut her mouth and stared down at the table, at the files in front of her, opened the closest one and started to read through the names.
‘I wish you wouldn’t do that.’
‘Sorry, I get carried away, and-’
He reached across the table and laid a hand on hers. ‘Not the excitement, the way you shut down afterwards.’
‘It’s a-’ She tried to focus on the names, but they blurred. ‘I’m not supposed to speak out of turn. I’m supposed to stay where- Where I’m expected to be.’ She slipped her hand from under his and started to press her fingernails into her thighs. A little pain in exchange for concentration. A little- ‘If I do something unexpected- I mean, James locked his library most of the time so I didn’t get into the good books. There’s no point in getting excited cause either it won’t happen, or it’s something I’m not supposed to-’
She kept staring at the table. ‘Sorry.’
‘Stef, look at me.’
I’m scared to.
‘Alexander hated every mention or indication that I was artificial, as it made him feel less than human. You…I feel as though if you found one of the emergency dump tanks of blue you would go for a swim.’
‘I’m pretty sure I could use the require app to get an old-timey swimsuit.’
‘I mean, do you want to tell me the precise coordinates of these vats or-’
‘You’re deflecting, Recruit.’
‘And you’re being too nice, Narc.’ She lifted her head enough so that she was looking at his chest. Looking him in the face was too much right now, so this would have to do for a compromise.
She rested her face on her hand. ‘You don’t- I don’t think you know how fragile this all feels to me. Like I’m on fucking glass – ice – something that’s going to shatter and I’m going to be worse than before- I had balance before. It wasn’t great. But- But I was used to what I had. If I lose what I have now-’ Tears blurred her vision. ‘I’m not that strong.’
‘I hope you know me well enough to know that I’m not a cruel man.’
‘It doesn’t seem to be part of your programming.’
‘I can’t promise what will happen today, tomorrow, or in the future. I know a lot of parents make the promise that they’ll never leave – that’s always struck me as a cruel promise that only sets their children up to take their loss all the harder when it happens. Life’s fragile. That’s not something I need to tell you. I won’t promise you that I’ll be around forever. I can’t promise that life will always be easy. What I can say is that I can foresee very few reasons I would choose to leave.’
He stood, rounded the table, and knelt beside her, slowly spinning her chair so that she was facing him. ‘We’re both taking a chance, but so few people get a second chance at a family that I think it’s a gamble worth pursuing, don’t you?’
She leaned forward, wrapped both hands around his neck, and planted her face into his shoulder, the hug of a small child hoping a parent could protect them from the world.
The hug of someone who desperately needed to hope that happy endings – or at least happy beginnings – existed.
‘Okay,’ she said, her voice shaking, ‘I’ll try. I promise I’ll try.’