11 – Cruel World

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He couldn’t breathe.

Every breath felt mechanical. Felt artificial. Felt unreal.

Curt stared at the footpath, at the dirt, at the worn patches in the concrete, touched by thousands or millions of shoes, and did his best not to think.

And as much as he tried to clear his mind, every breath brought screaming static. Every breath brought up memories, made assumptions and inferences about what would happen to a recruit in the hands of a sadistic Solstice.

There was a scream in his chest, and he wished it would crush his heart.

He squeezed the Genie phone in his hand and watched his knuckles go white. Every second counted. Every second meant-

No other recruits from Queen Street were still MIA, but it had been a joint operation, and he hadn’t had the time or presence of mind to check the lists from the other local agencies.

More than that, there had been a lot of fae in the area – and not all of them would have made it home.

With how late it had been, it was likely that anyone taken prisoner would have just been thrown in a cell for the night.

Overnight capture teams loved leaving presents for their morning interrogation counterparts. Still, it was more than that, more than just a lack of someone willing to take a knife to a suit in the middle of the night.

Leaving someone in a cell overnight allowed the fear to completely take over the mind of anyone staring at a brick wall covered in old, dried blood.

Gave the hopeless time to scratch a message into the floor with whatever debris had been left by a previous occupant.

And it was popular entertainment.

There was a certain type of…connoisseur amongst the Solstice, who loved nothing more than watching the raw footage of a prisoner being held overnight.

Of watching screaming defiance turn into despair, then acceptance as their thoughts and fears broke them before any bastard had laid a hand on them.

He looked at the phone, eyes blurred with tears or rage, and willed Carmichel to send an update. To let him know he was seconds away. To send a “I’m here, where are you?” text so that he could- So that he could breathe. So that he had help. So that-

So that he could have hope.

It was the best possible scenario that a captured recruit would have been left for the morning crew. And, logically, there was a good chance that’s what would have happened.

A good chance, but it wasn’t the only possibility.

Fae were fae, and it was the primary mission of the Solstice to destroy anything non-human.

But there were so many Solstice who saw the Agency – who saw recruits – as something even worse. Humans who had chosen to side with monsters were the worst monsters of all.

Part of the information compartmentalisation that had kept him loyal had kept him in line. Made him someone willing to take a knife or a pipe to a monster…was that they had only ever shown him monsters.

They had only given him things with tentacles or too many arms to interrogate. They had only made him kill things that in no way bore a resemblance to anything you could think of as a person.

And it had made sense. You killed monsters. You saved people. It had been clear cut. Simple. He’d felt like a…if not exactly a hero, then someone who was doing their best to protect humanity.

The Agency had been…a bogeyman. Something he’d consumed more through memes and secondhand information. He’d known things, but knowing was different to understanding.

It was one thing to think about inhuman things that wore human faces and protected monsters. It was another thing to deal with agents as people.

It was one thing to think of recruits as traitors, collaborators, something no better than the monsters with the dozen eyes and teeth that could rip flesh.

But then he’d come face to face with a recruit, and none of the information compartmentalisation could compare with what he was seeing.

It was one thing to think about recruits in the abstract. It was another thing to stare into the eyes of a woman who had silently given birth in a cell. A new mother, holding a child she knew would be killed as soon as anyone knew it existed.

He’d saved the child. He could assume what had happened to the recruit.

A message appeared – Carmichel saying he was just a few minutes away.

There were too many variables. Too many- Anything could have happened. Anything could be happening.

Stef had gone missing in the blackout caused by the mirror exploding. It had been powerful enough to shatter windows and shake a bin full of pallets and construction waste. It would have been more than enough to knock out, or at least impair, one small nerd.

That meant that she probably hadn’t fought back. Objectively, that was a good thing – recruits that were too much trouble to capture were just shot on sight.

You didn’t want to take the chance that their agent would show up while you were fighting with them, so they were just put down.

That meant she’d lived long enough to get thrown into a van and transported to processing.

From there, it was a matter of the work ethic of the overnight crew, if there was someone who really felt like testing mettle with metal; or else someone who saw a helpless recruit in cuffs and knew there was more than one way to fuck the System-

He bent over and puked bile into the gutter.

All of this, any of this, could be happening as he stood on the side of the road.

All of this, any of this, could be happening while Ryan sat in his office and did nothing.

He wiped his mouth and took a moment before standing straight, woozy from both vomiting, and the probably-should-have-seen-the-Parkers still-bleeding gash on the back of his head.

He’d had worse, much worse. A little cut like this hadn’t even been an opener for Petersen, who didn’t feel as if he’d really started a session until there was at least one broken bone.

He hadn’t survived Petersen. There’d been so many trips to the Adelaide infirmary to bring him back from “just barely dead” to “alive enough to be tortured again”. He hadn’t survived, mentally or physically, and that was just at the hands of one bored monster.

Petersen, at least, had been acting alone – whoever had Stef would have friends egging him on, a Greek chorus of suggestions of what cruelty to perform next.

A car pulled up in front of him – not one of Carmichel’s usual understated-yet-elegant cars he drove himself – this was a tough-looking four-wheel-drive. Both the driver and passenger wore casual clothes. Still, they had the same look that a lot of combat recruits did – that no matter what they wore, they always seemed to exude the aura of being in a military uniform.

Carmichel jumped from the rear passenger side door and clamped a hand on his upper arm as soon as he was close enough. ‘Here? Or do you need privacy? What do you need right now?’

He sank against Carmichel, allowing himself one tiny moment of despair, the scream in his chest turning against a sob.

‘Help,’ he said to the man who’d been his first friend in this new, post-Solstice life, ‘I need help. Office. We need- Privacy.’

Carmichael squeezed his shoulders, then pulled him into the car. He said something to the driver, who pulled off, even before Curt had pulled the door closed.

‘I brought backup,’ Carmichael said, ‘thought it was best to have all hands on deck. What can you tell me, kallabrae?’

Kallabrae. A term of affection for a younger sibling. Translated, it meant something like “of all my siblings, I dislike you the least”. The word was generally used with the same kind of older-brother love that lead you to grab a sibling and noogie their head.

And Carmichel was the closest thing he had to family.

He’d saved Carmichel’s life, and in return, had asked for language lessons and friendship. Something to ground him. Something that represented his attempt to make progress in this new life. Something that was in line with the ideals of a recruit, without being directly tied to the Agency.

Too many people took too much for granted. And he never, ever let himself take his friendship with Carmichel for granted. He never asked too much of his friend. Never forgot to give his thanks, or to check in, even when he wasn’t asking for a favour.

He’d already lost too much to squander one of the few good relationships he had, with one of the only people who truly knew how rotten he was.

Ryan knew and would always hate him. Magnolia knew, and he’d earned her trust. Carmichel knew and called him brother.

Raz didn’t know. Raz thought he was some blameless redshirt. And Stef would have been put in the same boat as Raz – it was dishonest, but it was survival.

He’d never have wanted Tara to be disappointed in him. Although Stef wasn’t different in the same way Tara had been, she’d still brought out the same big brother instincts that had been dormant for so long.

Carmichel squeezed his hand. ‘Curt?’

He’d tried to practice what he was going to say, to lay out the facts in a dispassionate and sensible order for the maximum of clarity, for the best efficiency.

But now, in the moment, his mind and mouth were barely working.

‘A friend.’ Inaccurate. Presumptuous. ‘She’s gone missing.’ Wrong. ‘She-’ He swallowed and tried again. ‘A recruit colleague of mine went missing last night. I think Solstice got her.’ He looked Carmichel in the eyes. ‘Agency’s not doing anything.’

Carmichel nodded and handed him a tablet. ‘Name. Description. Whatever detail you can give me.’ Carmichel handed him a water bottle. ‘Breathe, kallabrae, I’ll do everything I can.’

He required Stef’s file and handed it over with shaking hands. ‘This is everything.’ He leaned his head against the window and slowly sipped from the bottle of water. The label on the bottle slipped between English and Glyph as he focussed on it, trying to let it be the only thing in the world.

Carmichel’s office was a good half hour out of the city. A room in a suite of private offices used by fae who needed to do business on Earth, but didn’t want to use either the Local Court facilities or pay the expense of space in the middle of the city.

By the time they’d reached the office, Carmichel had already made a half-dozen calls, each one a jumble of words he’d been unable to take in.

The driver parked, and Camichel led him like he was a sleepwalker, through reception, down the hall, and into the small nest of rooms. His security stayed in the outer office seating area, while they retreated to the large main office.

‘No luck yet,’ Carmichel said as his wings unfurled. The night he’d had saved Carmichel, those beautiful wings had been barely more than bloody scraps of skin.

Carmichel had been unable to fly without a kite rig for months, and even now, they bore the scars and prosthetic patches that would likely remain for the rest of his life.

‘Solstice?’

‘You can check yourself, and I encourage you to do so, but they’re saying they don’t have any recruits.’ Carmichel handed him a phone. ‘But you know more secret passphrases than I do, so try, I’ve got a few other avenues I want to explore.’

Curt took the phone, and retreated to one of the other rooms in the suite – this one far less well-appointed, which had a much more basic table and chairs.

Hands shaking, he laid Carmichel’s phone on the table, then withdrew both his Agency phone and his own Genie-branded phone from their usual pockets.

The Genie phone had been one of Carmichel’s “thank you” gifts for saving his life. The phone, the flagship model at the time, would have been more than enough in conjunction with the language lessons that he’d asked for. Still, it had been far from the most generous thing that Carmichel had done.

There was a knock at the door, and he jumped. Carmichel’s driver looked at him through the glass and waited for a nod for him to enter. When the nod was given, the driver brought in a tray of food – all of it fae, probably procured from the cafeteria that the office suite ran.

He nodded his gratitude, and the driver left without a word.

He had to make the phone call, to confirm what Carmichel had found out, but-

Every second where it wasn’t confirmed was one more second before hope died.

He stared at the sandwiches for a moment, mesmerised by their mundanity, and wished Stef would poke her head around the door, and ask for an explanation of the Fairyland meat industry.

And he wished, desperately, that all of his actions that morning had just been about her.

In a large part, they were, or at least, they were at the centre of the complicated web of actions, inactions and mistakes he was weaving.

She was a friend – as much as he could talk around the word, as much as he wasn’t sure how she’d felt about him, they’d been acting like friends. And he didn’t want a friend tortured and killed.

But it was also so much more than that. It was what her disappearance represented.

She’d spent three days bouncing around like a little kid. Spent every hour fascinated by the smallest stuff, all while trying to impress Ryan like he was her favourite teacher or one of her parents.

She was gone, and Ryan didn’t give a shit.

She was gone, and it meant nothing to the agent.

And if Ryan couldn’t bring himself to care about someone like Stef, then- Then- Then he had no chance. Whatever second chance Ryan was mandated to give him, he’d never be able to expect more than the bare minimum. He’d never get recognised for his achievements, never feel like he had a real place there.

It just gave more credence to how he’d always felt untethered, without a real place there – if Stef could come and go without leaving a ripple, then he was just existing. Just going through the motions without making a wave.

‘I’m sorry,’ he whispered as he put the wrap down, feeling guilty for examining his own life instead of confirming his friend’s death. ‘I’m sorry, Newbie.’

He grabbed his Genie phone and dug into the bottom layer of some carefully-disorganised porn to find a selection of filenames that, taken together, gave him the phone number he needed to call.

He set his phone aside and dialled the number on Carmichael’s phone. He assumed that Carmichel had done all the fancy things to the phone that meant that calls were untraceable or routed or whatever wouldn’t bring a bunch of Solstice knocking on their door.

He waited through forty-five seconds of what sounded like a dead end, only to hear the cheerful music of what seemed to be a hotel reservation service. The music cut after a moment, and there was more silence. He searched his memory, then barked the Russian word for “home”.

The Agency had their terms and phrases, things that only made sense when you wore the suit.

The Solstice used Russian as part of their vocabulary – a few words sprinkled here and there showed whose flag you apparently flew.

A woman’s voice came on the line. ‘What city, please?’

‘Brisbane.’

‘Are you interested in hearing our deals for the weekend?’

Sometimes it was fun to play along, to see how far the main call centre staff could push their imaginations to come up with hotel-related metaphors.

It wasn’t the kind of morning to play.

‘Inventory query from the special event last night.’

The operator gave a disappointed “hmm”, and the hold music returned.

He’d had his own call centre role. Most members of the Solstice did something mundane in addition to their more active role – either working help organise things for Solstice operations, or working in one of the companies that helped pay for their activities.

He’d been a member of shipping & freight – so most of his calls were pissed off Solstice admins and middle managers wanting to know where their crate of weapons or light bulbs had gone.
It had been easy enough – and if he ever had a non-Agency career, was actually something he could put on a resume, as “terrorist” and “secret agent” weren’t things you could really list on your LinkedIn profile.

The hold music continued for another three minutes. The phone couldn’t be tracked, so he had no worry there, but there was always the possibility that the call recipient would get spooked and not answer at all. If that happened, he’d either have to hope Carmichel had another burner, or risk using his Agency phone.

The hold music finally dropped away, and a man spoke. ‘Animal, mineral, or vegetable?’

‘Suit.’

‘Nothing new in the catalogue–’

‘Recruit,’ he said bluntly. ‘Did anyone local get a recruit last night?’

‘Kills only. Between the suits and the fae, nothing brought in is still breathing.’

Kills only. He hoped that meant that she’d fought back. That she’d bunched up whatever strength her tiny five-foot-nothing body could muster, and tried to escape.

He hoped it had been quick. That maybe she hadn’t even seen it coming. That she hadn’t had time to be really afraid.

His stomach clenched. ‘You sure?’

‘Yeah,’ the man said. ‘And I also checked outside the local area in case something got misclassified. Who wants to know, anyway?’

‘You know this is better when it’s anonymous. Thanks for looking.’

‘Keep strong,’ the voice said, then the connection cut.

Numbly, he placed the phone onto the table, next to the tray of food and automatically smoothed the lines of his suit – he had to look perfect, after all.

Anything less wasn’t acceptable. Anything less meant he wasn’t grateful that the Agency had given him a second chance. Anything less than perfect could give Ryan a reason to–

His skin itched. Still-recent memories of being tortured were all too easy to call to the surface. He slowly patted his body down, feeling the uninjured skin beneath the fabric of his uniform. He was fine. He was breathing. He could see the sun.

He was fine, and Stef was dead.

Knowing she was dead was different to having a chance.

He wondered briefly if Ryan had called in himself, made his own queries, and made peace with the situation in the early hours of the morning. It wasn’t impossible, but it was unlikely. Making his own inquiries wasn’t the correct procedure, and Ryan stuck to Duty like a lover.

And now, he had to go back, pick up his paperwork, and continue working like none of this had happened.

It would hurt for a few days, but self-preservation would take over, and he’d numb himself to everything again. Until they decided to release him, he had no choice but to be as much of an automaton as they were. As much of an unfeeling bastard as-

He stood and kicked a hole in the wall.

His foot cried out in protest as he kicked the wall again and again, but the pain made him feel human.

‘Fuck!’ He punched the wall. ‘Fuck! Fuck! Fuck!’ bloody marks covered the wall as he punched the wall, pretending it was Ryan, that it was Petersen, that it was whoever had put a bullet in Stef, that it was-

The world wasn’t fair. The world was cruel. It didn’t always have to be so cruel.

He punched another hole in the wall, something behind the plasterwork cutting a deep gash.

He collapsed and hated himself for the tears.

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It started with a bang; not an explosion but atoms accelerated toward infinity. That was the end of my so-called ‘ordinary’ life. Fate guided me into the line of fire the same day a madman sought revenge for his bruised ego.

Once upon a time there was no such thing as Glimmer Girl, or even Kaira Cade. This is my story.

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lightdefender

That . . . could have gone worse?

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