05 – A Step Towards an Ending
No news, it was said, was good news.
Central was taking their time to respond to his request. He’d spent a long hour in his office, alone and waiting for judgement, before deciding that if these were his last moments alive, he didn’t want to spend them alone.
Ryan had walked through the halls of his Agency, making what might be his last memories, before joining Jones and his comatose recruit in a hurriedly-assembled lab on level four. Four was primarily unused, except for a bit of secondary storage, and some supplies for “end of the world” scenarios.
It was the right choice – a safer option than having a piece of mirror close to recruits, even behind closed doors. There was very little chance that it would hurt anyone – but he also hadn’t expected it to throw Parker-1 back, so all precautions were wise, and he expected no less of Jones.
The lab space was bright and white, Stef lay on a wide examination table at the far end, dressed in a surgical gown. Two long benches had dozens of printed photos and pages of data, and Jones sat on a stool, slowly sorting through data.
There was no conversation, no questions that he could help with, no answers he could give.
He stared down at his hands, at the mug of tea that Jones had handed him sometime in the last hour, and wished he wasn’t so useless.
He spent most of his time keeping his life within precise boundaries, keeping himself where he felt capable and…content.
Contentment was something he didn’t often consciously think about. It wasn’t something you had reason to question until you felt its absence.
And it was, for an agent, something that was very much by design.
You were born into a role, you were aware of your duties and your Duty from the moment you first opened your eyes, and growth was natural. You could specialise in an aspect of your role if you showed a natural aptitude, but a wholesale change was rarer.
It was rare for an agent that was generated as technical to move to field, or for a combat agent to run field operations.
There were expectations of life as an agent, and most of the time, it was easy enough to live life within those boundaries.
Jones gently pulled the mug from his hands and replaced it with a small glass containing a sweet-smelling fae liquor.
By design, agents could adapt to changes with grace, to continue on with their Duty without significant interruption. Family, friends, love, hobbies – those were to be enjoyed, to be treasured, but Duty had to come first.
And Duty was all he’d had for a long time.
Duty and basic contentment. Day in and day out, there had been orders, paperwork, operations, routine, and a life that was nothing but the Agency.
And it had taken just a few days to show how empty those years had been.
He hadn’t had reason to question his contentment; but in an ice-cream parlour, with a young woman, nose spotted with hot fudge, he’d felt happy for the first time in a long time.
Ice clinked in the glass, and he sipped at the floral-tasting liquid.
Standard notifications continued to appear in his HUD as though the world hadn’t stopped, as if one gunshot hadn’t changed everything. As if-
In the bottom-right of his HUD, a social media alert appeared.
If – when – Reynolds woke, Ryan imagined that his director would be the kind of person with hundreds upon hundreds of connected individuals. Lists and bubbles and hillocks of carefully curated friends and acquaintances.
He, on the other hand, engaged with it for a select few people, but primarily for Alexander and much more recently, Arisa. As of her most recent birthday, his granddaughter was apparently now old enough to post online herself, rather than just appearing in her father’s posts.
Alexander didn’t want anything to do with him. Still, he’d never found it in himself to cut every tie with his son – so a few photos and posts a week kept a tiny flicker of a connection going.
And Arisa, most of her posts that weren’t pictures of herself and her friends were the incomprehensible in-jokes of children. Still, she was happy and well-cared-for, and that was the most important thing.
He opened the alert and found it to be an update on Alexander’s latest extravagant fish tank project – a fantastic construction to keep what seemed to be a veritable reef of tropical fish.
The ongoing project was impressive, but he much preferred Arisa’s updates where she stood next to the tank, gave the fish ridiculous names, and made up dramas that supposedly took place in the tank.
For years, posts from his son had been enough. Had been part of his contentment, something he’d been used to. It had been enough. He had thought it had been enough.
He looked from the drink in his hand to the- He wished he didn’t think the word “corpse” didn’t come to mind when he looked at her, but it was a word he couldn’t avoid.
He’d been content, he wanted to be happy.
Another alert appeared in his HUD – this one, rather than a gentle hint in one corner, covered everything and informed him to return to his office to meet the requested representative from Central.
His tech looked up, attention drawn away from the two tablets he was holding as he compiled information about whatever was going on with Stef. ‘Sir?’
‘Just the Enforcer, no advocate had been assigned as yet.’ He finished off the drink. ‘I guess there’s no point until they determine if-’ He dismissed the glass. ‘I’m sorry I was never what I should have been to you. I’m sorry if you feel you’ve worked without recognition. I’m sorry-’
‘I’ve never held it against you, sir.’
‘You deserve more, Agent. You’re one of the finest people I’ve ever worked with, and I don’t express that enough.’
Jones slowly put down the two tablets he held. ‘You’re not perfect sir, but there’s no one else I want as my director. Whatever I can say in your defence, whatever I can do to help, I’ve got your back.’
He stood, walked to Jones and shook his hand, then moved to the examination table and lifted Stef’s hand.
Jones had done his best – for the most part, Stef looked as though she were merely sleeping. Cords for the monitoring equipment had been slipped through slits in the surgical gown, rather than leaving the ragged wound in her chest exposed.
It was the strip of wide ribbon across her eyes that broke the illusion that she was merely sleeping.
Agents had their traditions – some were easy to understand, like the habit of forming family groups from those you worked with. Others were far stranger, and whose origins had been lost to time.
There were the traitor’s marks – two parallel lines cut down the outside of the upper arms of agents deemed to have gone against their Duty in some heinous way. It said something to the mindset of fallen agents that the marks were common as tattoos amongst those who had fled the Agency.
And it would be up to Central as to whether or not he deserved such an indignity before he was recycled, if the wish was seen as such a betrayal of the Agency.
And then there was the ribbon. This tradition lay halfway between understandable and unknown. The known was easy – it was obviously a form of shroud, but no one knew why ribbon, or why it was just the eyes that were covered.
But it was only something you did for the dead.
It was a mark of respect, something Jones had likely done without a second thought. Still, he wanted to tear it away, but seeing glassy, unblinking eyes would be worse.
‘Please,’ he whispered as he clutched her hand in his. ‘Please wake up.’
He bowed his head and shifted back to his office.
Things were already as tidy as he could make them – this would be a time when small details counted, and he needed to be as professional as possible. A requirement refreshed his uniform, and another added water and glasses to the coffee table in the seating area.
Now, the only thing that set his office apart was the unused piece of mirror on his desk.
There was a rush of air in front of him as the enforcer shifted in, and the moment almost seemed to hang as the reintegration process finished, giving him one more moment to grab the mirror, make another wish, try to change the situation, try to-
His train of thought was interrupted as he realised that he recognised the man in front of him – Enforcer Crawford.
Crawford had been at least an acquaintance of Reynolds – likely more. His director had been blessed with so many friends and lovers that it was impossible to keep track of everyone.
He was a little taller than Ryan was, handsome, his uniform black, his tie the subdued silver reserved for those who worked in Central.
He quickly bowed his head in Crawford’s direction. ‘Sir,’ he said, ‘I need to self-report a breach of procedure.’
In a few seconds, it would be real.
And it was already too late to turn back.
‘Yes,’ Crawford said, his voice neutral, ‘that was the nature of your request to Central. Please describe the nature of this breach, Agent.’
‘We had a mirrorfall operation here tonight,’ he began. ‘I used a piece of mirror.’ He looked down at the small remnant on his desk. ‘In all technicality, sir, I made three wishes, though the latter two aren’t why I self-reported.’
‘I laid a bet with your advocate,’ Crawford said. ‘Nights like this, an operation like this. It’s always a wish. Tell me what happened. Tell me what you did.’ He held up a hand for a moment. ‘If two of the three wishes are inconsequential in your eyes, tell me about those first.’
‘One was to transport myself and my recruit out of a blackout zone. You’ll understand why that was necessary in a moment. The other was to destroy every unused piece of mirror.’ He swallowed and knew that he wasn’t laying out the information in the most efficient way possible. ‘The mirror was shattered, there was no way that the Agency was going to be able to collect and destroy every unclaimed piece. That wish, at least, I feel was in line with my Duty.’
‘And the wish you’d like to report?’
‘My recruit was the one who shattered the mirror, she was in the way of- She died, sir. I made a wish to try and rectify that.’
‘Oh, Agent,’ Crawford said, his voice somehow full of judgement and sympathy at the same time.
‘I won’t apologise, sir. I-’
‘Some free advice, Agent, let your advocate do the arguing for you.’ Crawford turned his head, looking around the office in a very obvious way. ‘We appear to be alone, so where is this recruit? I need to know exactly what I’m dealing with.’
‘She’s with my tech, sir.’
This seemed to be the first thing that he’d said that surprised Crawford. ‘Why your tech, Agent?’
‘It would be easier to show you than to explain.’ He hung his head. ‘I don’t even know if I can explain myself.’ He sent a shift invitation to Crawford and shifted them both to Jones’ makeshift lab.
‘Sir,’ Jones said, then nodded to Crawford. ‘And sir.’ He pointed to Stef. ‘I can tell you a lot of nothing, but nothing useful right now.’
Crawford walked towards the examination table, and he quickly followed, unsure of what he would do if the enforcer made a move towards the mirror. Uncertain if he should warn of the bubble effects, or if he should try and control whatever protective urge had seemed to manifest it in the first place.
‘Someone,’ Crawford said, ‘start talking.’
Ryan nodded and begun the story. As he spoke, he held Stef’s hand, for whatever small comfort it could bring her.
Haltingly, he explained what he knew – what very little he knew. That despite her condition, despite the shroud ribbon across her eyes, that there was a chance that she’d find her way back, that it…wasn’t a simple wish.
‘I can confirm what Director Ryan is saying,’ Jones said when silence filled the room. ‘So much as that’s possible in these circumstances. I can tell you that this is Recruit Mimosa. There is approximately one kilo of mirror in her chest, shaped very much like a heart emoji,’ he said, holding up a scan of Stef’s chest. ‘Beyond that- I cannot tell you if she is alive or dead. There are no functions that indicate life, but- But I also hesitate to state conclusively that she’s dead, her body isn’t cooling, there’s not- So, I concur with everything my Director is saying.’
Crawford turned to Jones. ‘What if we were to remove the mirror?’
‘I do not have enough data to extrapolate what could happen, sir.’
‘Very well. Could you give us the room, Agent Jones?’
Jones nodded, gathered a tablet and a few of the printed pages, then shifted away.
Crawford walked away from the examination table and began to look through the remaining printed pages and photos that Jones had scattered along the benches.
Ryan sat in the plastic chair beside the examination table, holding his not-dead-not-alive daughter’s hand.
Silent minutes passed, with only the hum and beep of Jones’ monitoring equipment to break the heaviness of words unsaid.
‘Who is this person to you?’ Crawford finally asked as he came back to the examination table, and sat in a chair on the opposite side to Ryan. ‘I can’t imagine that you would do this for any recruit. You did get dispensation for full augmentation for another recruit a few years ago, that was a romantic relationship, I believe?’
‘Yes, sir, that’s correct.’
‘Stef is- I want to be her mentor, her father, her family. For whatever good or ill it may bring, I would ask that she be treated like my daughter in this, as I can attest that she felt the same way.’
‘I can’t guarantee that will help, Agent.’
‘Nonetheless, sir, it’s my request.’
‘Where’s your Duty, Agent?’
It was probably a question meant to throw him, meant to make him beg, but of all the things in this never-ending night, it was one of the few answers he had. He stood, and faced Crawford, not defiant, but certain. ‘Sir, I’d like you to consider how much mirror I had access to. I could have fallen, could have made myself human and gone to Faerie, I could have hidden her away in an oubliette. Of all the things I could have done, I am here, and I hope that counts for something.’
‘That’s a pretty answer, Agent Ryan, but what would you say if I asked you, to answer truthfully if you considered any of those alternatives.’
Lying was pointless. Truth, absolute truth, could be pulled from him if it was deemed necessary, and it would hurt much more than choosing to say something now.
‘Of course I did,’ he said, after the briefest moment of hesitation. ‘Wishes, possibilities, a hundred different ideas occurred. Every possibility in the world occurs when the worst happens.’
‘Agency policy is to destroy mirror, Ryan.’
‘I know, sir.’
‘We don’t break policy for recruits, Ryan.’
‘I know, sir.’
‘What do you want to happen? What do you expect to happen?’
He’d been asking himself the same questions for hours. Since he’d seen Stef lying in a pool of blood. As he’d picked up a shard of a dead world. After he’d made a wish. The whole time he’d stared at the one remaining piece of mirror that still sat in his office.
He wanted things to go back to normal. He wanted this to have never happened. He wanted a second chance.
He expected, deep in his heart, that he’d be physically restrained while technical agents from Central extracted the mirror. He expected he’d be arranging a funeral.
He expected he’d be lucky to live another twelve hours.
He met Crawford’s gaze, unable to give an answer.
Crawford stared at him, and he felt like the Enforcer was reading his mind. ‘Good,’ Crawford said. ‘At least you know the height of the pile of shit you’re in, Agent.’
‘I need to discuss this with your advocate. Someone will be along in the morning-’ Crawford paused and checked his watch. ‘Well, later this morning anyway, sometime after the sun has risen. I can’t promise you a positive outcome, and I don’t want you to expect a positive outcome.’ Crawford took a step forward, and he flinched. ‘For my friendship with Reynolds, I’ll do my best. If you have goodbyes you want to make, if you have a will you need to see to, you’ve got a few hours.’
‘Not another word,’ Crawford said. ‘For your own sake, not another word.’
Compared to the relatively neutral tone Crawford had been using, this rebuke was sharp. A warning not to press, that one more word might be the tipping point that lead to a snap decision.
And as a man already facing the gallows, he needed every ounce of leniency that Crawford and his advocate were capable of.
Numbly, he nodded to Crawford, then let his head hang.
Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Crawford shift away.
It took a long moment to lift his head again, his thoughts a jumble, his heart heavy, tears already on his cheeks.
“I could have hidden her away in an oubliette.”
Nice reference to previous versions. 🙂 I guess we don’t get the scene with Ryan chasing down a hob who stole the mirror in this version.
I’m going to try and drop in as many hints and stuff to previous versions as I can (in a sensible way, of course. Probably).
I really, really want to find some way of keeping that hob scene, or doing something like it – I still remember writing the original version years ago, sitting on Google Maps and planning the route the chase took.