Ryan stared at the drone, each second as slow as eternity.
Between each eternity, he felt like he could still see like Death. Could still see all the possibilities and consequences as part of him tried to calculate which was the best way to go. And he knew, that in a hundred other worlds, other Ryans were just as frozen, just as overwhelmed by the decision.
With each breath, a new reality was born. Doppelgangers who ran for Faerie. Men who snatched up another shard of mirror to wish their way out of it. Agents who were frozen by the gaze of the drone.
Reynolds had always described him as careful – a stark contrast to Rhys. His former probably never lived in a moment of indecision, probably never-
A rectangle of lights lit up on the bottom of the drone – the small cargo area, and he automatically reached his palm out as the doors slid open. A headset fell into his hand, and he numbly fit it into his ear.
‘Don’t run, Director.’
Three words that made his choice for him. Three words that showed how much Jones trusted him. An ordinary director, a good director, one who would never consider falling for any reason, would spend an hour chewing out a subordinate who even suggested that they were considering such an action, such a treasonous affront to Duty.
Good agents didn’t fall. Good agents didn’t even think about falling. You lived for your Duty, and took all your fulfilment from that.
Good agents didn’t make wishes with mirror, either, but in that regard, he’d long since been tainted – as enabling a wish was probably as bad as making one yourself.
He’d never regretted it. The action had felt like one of his first real choices. One of the first things he’d done to try and break himself out of the newborn mould, out of the shadow of Rhys.
Enabling a wish had been one of the first things he’d ever done, and now, making a wish might be one of the last.
No title, but the deference was still there. Jones, always polite, always respectful. Respectful, even now, when a lesser agent would be reporting their director to Central, just by how things looked – vying for leverage even before understanding the situation.
He knew – he trusted – that Jones wasn’t doing that.
But that still didn’t really improve things, the reprieve of a few seconds meant everything right now, but would mean little in the long run. It was delaying the inevitable, and he couldn’t even think fast enough to make these extra moments count.
No clever defences came to mind. No citations of Agency procedure that would allow for what he’d done.
There was nothing but the truth and the girl who lay dead at his feet.
He started to lift his hand towards his ear, noticed it was trembling, clenched it for a moment, then touched the button on the headset. ‘I’m here, Jones,’ his voice flat, resigned and waiting for whatever would come next.
He’d made a choice. Made this choice, and now whatever happened wasn’t up to him.
‘The closest edge to the blackout is about a hundred and fifty metres, but I wouldn’t suggest-’
‘It won’t be necessary.’
‘Director-’ Jones began, his voice pleading. ‘I-’
‘I’m not running,’ he said, the choice solidifying as he said the words.
He could run, and it might work out. There were some things in his favour. He had Fairyland citizenship, done as part of a pilot program decades ago to try and more fully integrate the Agency with certain Fairyland government departments. With that citizenship, he’d be able to access some benefits.
And there were always people looking to hire fallen agents. People who would barter for secrets and insider knowledge. Others who wanted the noted reliability of an agent working for them. Niche markets who simply wanted agents around for the aesthetic.
He’d be able to find his feet. He could find a job that would pay well enough to allow them to live comfortably – but all of that was predicated on surviving withdrawal.
It all hinged on living through the hell that was every last drop of blue becoming fully and finally inactive. The most hopeful estimates were that forty per cent of agents trying to fall survived, with the actual numbers probably depressingly lower.
And if he died, there’d be no one to look after a comatose girl.
He knelt, lifted Stef’s dirty hand from the ground and kissed it. ‘Please, this isn’t one of those times you can sleep in.’ He wrapped her in his jacket and settled her onto his shoulder, his heart heavy at how still she was, how much it felt like he was carrying a corpse home.
The edge of the blackout was too far – he couldn’t safely carry her that far without the chance of interference. It would only take the jacket slipping for a moment for a careful fae to notice the shine of mirror.
There were a dozen more shards of mirror on the ground around where her body had lay – he picked up the closest, caught a glimpse of his reflection, then stood.
In a hundred worlds, he was making a decision that would change his life.
In those hundred worlds, there would be Ryans who wouldn’t live till morning. Stefs that would never open their eyes again.
And even with mirror, there were only so many consequences he could escape.
Stronger men, smarter men, could likely come up with the perfect sequence of wishes to lead to a perfect storybook ending.
All he wanted was for things to go back to normal. To the new normal that he’d had for a few blessed hours.
There was no right decision, so as he had always done, as Reynolds had always chided him for, he made the safe choice, and put his faith in the Agency, in the only life he’d ever known.
He took a moment to clear his mind, then gently squeezed the shard of mirror and made two wishes. The first: that all unused pieces of mirror would disappear; and the second, that they would be transported back to his office.
The world warped before his eyes, turning to rainbow at the edges, like the border he’d seen around Stef’s new heart. The scene in front of him then split, like the world had blinked, and the texture of the ground changed beneath his shoes, from hard concrete to soft carpet.
He held Stef tightly for a moment, hoping that if it was the last hug he ever gave her, that some part of her would know it, then laid her on the couch.
He took a few steps, then collapsed heavily into his desk chair, his hand already drifting towards the drawer that held a bottle of Scotch.
Before his finger had even brushed the handle, there was a knock at his door.
He looked at the door, raised a hand to his ear, removed the unnecessary headset, and looked at Jones’ contact card in his HUD. [Come in,] he said.
Jones opened the door, slipped in, and closed it quickly – there would be no recruits right outside, but for the level of secrecy required, it was appreciated.
‘How can I help, sir?’
‘I made a wish,’ he said, his voice hollow, ‘and she won’t wake up.’
There was a rush of air as someone shifted in – Parker-1. ‘I got an alert that there’s a dead recruit in here. That-’ The doctor turned, saw Stef, and immediately knelt beside the couch, reaching to open the jacket with one hand, a monitoring electrode in the other.
Panic rose as Parker-1 flipped back the jacket. Trusting Jones was one thing, the Parkers were another, and-
A shimmering bubble exploded from Stef, throwing Parker-1 across the office, where he slid inelegantly to the floor, the monitoring electrodes still gripped in his hand.
‘What, and I ask this sincerely, the fuck,’ Parker-1 asked, his voice deadpan, sounding far more like his twin for a moment.
Ryan stared at the bubble as it pulsed, beating in the exact way that Stef’s heart wasn’t, an opalescent oil slick of purples and golds, a shifting rainbow that seemed to threaten, even while being beautiful.
The mirror had- Either it had seen Parker-1’s approach as an attack, or- Or it wasn’t going to let anyone near it, and if that was the case, then-
Jones moved forward and helped Parker-1 to his feet. The tech spoke quietly with the doctor for a moment, then Parker-1 shifted away.
‘I’m sorry,’ he said belatedly, his mind feeling rusted slow, thoughts clunking and grinding, with no real forward momentum.
With Parker-1 gone, the bubble seemed to settle somewhat, the shifting colours now almost…benign, the natural shift and slide of colours on soap bubbles, rather than magic that would throw a man across a room.
Jones approached his desk. ‘Sir, do you trust me?’
‘We need information, we need to know what’s going on, I need to know what’s going on, so that if there’s anything I can do to help her, I can do it.’
‘I trust you.’
Jones turned away, then approached Stef and her bubble. Jones knelt, and slowly reached a hand towards the shifting, shimmeringly purple surface of the bubble. ‘I thought you played a rogue,’ Jones said as his fingers brushed the bubble, ‘after this, I think you need to play a priest.’ The bubble didn’t throw Jones back, as it had done with Parker-1. Jones looked over his shoulder. ‘If I’m right, sir, it’s you doing this. Trust me, so I can help her.’
He looked from Jones, to Stef, to his desk, then back at his tech. If he was a good director, a good agent, he would have treated Jones like his child, just as Reynolds had been a father to him. In a perfect world, they would have been family, but in this one, they were barely more than co-workers.
But, he had no reason to distrust Jones, and a million little reasons to give him his trust.
Slowly, he nodded, and the bubble dropped away.
Carefully, but quickly, Jones placed monitoring electrodes on her, just as Parker-1 had been trying to do, then Jones retreated back a few steps and looked at the monitoring details on a tablet.
‘Sir, this would be a lot easier in my lab, do I have your permission to-’
Jones approached his desk. ‘And you need to self-report to Central, now, you need to show as much willing as possible. You’ve got my word no one will take her without your say so, but you need to bring them up to speed now, so this is kept as above-board as it possibly can be.’
He nodded, numb, and already feeling as though he was heading for the gallows.
With a nod, Jones and Stef’s body disappeared, leaving him alone. He couldn’t to take a full breath, couldn’t think. He was as frozen and as overwhelmed as when he’d first seen the body and the pool of blood.
So many mistakes, his life was nothing but an expose on his faults, and even in such an uneven life, this was sure to be a highlight of incompetence.
The last small piece of unused mirror sat on his desk, just beyond his fingertips.
It was nothing to look at, one tiny piece of mirror, like someone had smashed a compact without cleaning up all of the pieces, but it somehow made a weight in the world, drawing attention to it.
There was a reason that pieces of mirror didn’t go undiscovered for long. The fragments called out, without sound and without a voice, making their presence known, alerting the world to their potential.
He’d once heard someone remark that the third wish paid for the other two – it might have been in reference to the story of the monkey’s paw – an “old” story that was in fact, younger than he was, but it didn’t quite align with the classic tale.
In that story, the third wish undid the second, but the consequences of the first wish remained.
The third wish paying for the other two, to him, had always meant that the status quo was returned. That the wish-maker got to peek at the results of wishing things were different, seeing the unintended consequences, then returning to how things had been. It left you happy with your circumstances, which, although not perfect, didn’t twist your wish, didn’t grant it in the cruellest way possible.
Mirror wishes were different. In the same way that Death and her sisters could see your thoughts, in the way that requirements were shorthand for what you imagined, mirror wishes usually didn’t go wrong.
There could be unintended consequences, but there wasn’t a payment extracted. You didn’t wish for money, only to have that money come from a settlement as the result of a dead child.
He wanted things to go back to normal. Or…what was going to be normal. Wanted time to roll back a few hours to stop himself from taking her into an operation well above her field rating.
But there were so many things that could go wrong when you brought time travel into the equation.
Beyond the countless unintended consequences, that came with casting new ripples into a pond; as he understood it, all wishes that had to do with going against the flow of time, or interrupting time had to be facilitated by Time himself.
And whereas Death was ultimately fair, even if that fairness meant that kindness wasn’t always possible, Time was a monster. Time would take the route of the monkey’s paw whenever possible, twisting and interpreting a wish for the worst possible result.
Jones was right though, the sooner he self-reported, the better it was going to look, and he needed every bit of goodwill that the Agency was capable of.
He stared into his HUD, scrolled through little-used menus and found the option to contact Central. He flagged the message as important and requested both an Enforcer and an advocate for himself, someone impartial who would try and interpret policy and procedure to his benefit.
With unsteady hands, he opened his bottom drawer, pulled out an old bottle of Scotch, and poured himself a glass.
The rock had been thrown into the pond, now there was nothing to do but wait and see where the ripples went.
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