Ryan stared at the text message – text was an unusual format for Jane to use for such a short message. Longer emails were common enough, but otherwise, she tended towards voice.
He took a moment to finish the form he was working on.
As much as he hated to admit it, if Jane did appoint Curt as his aide – even in an interim capacity – it would streamline things. He signed the form, touched it, and submitted it when the prompt appeared in his HUD.
The lab, which Jones had near-anonymously designated eight-alpha, sat at the top of his priority shift locations list.
Feeling able – thanks to the conversation with Wendy – to partake in just the smallest bit of whimsy, he updated the icon beside eight-alpha to match the cookie he’d sit beside Stef’s name. It wasn’t a lot, but if it was one more candlelight that would help her find her way back, one more scream into the endless void that she was wanted, that she should come home, then it was something he was glad to do.
He processed the shift, and whatever he had expected – conversation, paperwork, a mild update, a story about the old days when Reynolds had been active – what he saw wasn’t it.
Jane sat on the floor, her jacket on a chair nearby in a messy pile as if discarded quickly. Her hands reached for a red ball, a see-through red ball, in front of a see-through child.
He grabbed for the doorframe to steady himself, but his hand latched onto Jones’ arm as the tech stepped into the space. ‘Sir, what- Oh-’
It was Stef. Stef as he’d first met her, the precious toddler he’d failed, the little girl who’d played with Limbo, and been utterly unafraid of the endless grey world around her.
Unlike the child in Limbo, however, this version was see-through. The colouring was strange too – she was entirely made up of red tones as if she’d been coloured-in by a child with a limited selection of crayons.
Her tiny foot caught on the ball and sent it spinning across the lab. The ghost – echo – vision, whatever it was, of Stef, chased it, wobbling after it on tiny, chubby legs, through pieces of lab equipment, and the bed of her older self as though it wasn’t there.
‘I don’t know if you have photos of this part of her life, but it appears to-’ Jane started.
‘It’s Stef, I know it is,’ he said, standing straight with just a little help from Jones.
‘I’m tempted to say it’s a memory,’ she continued, ‘it seems to loop sometimes, but not perfectly, like a record skipping. I’ve been watching for a couple of minutes, there’s a basic path she follows, but sometimes a few seconds will loop, sometimes she almost seems aware that she’s not where she thinks she is, and I think-’
She paused, kind eyes surveying him.
‘What is it?’ he asked.
‘I almost felt something when she ran clear through my leg. I think it’s possible to interact with her.’ The ball rolled near Jane again, and she reached out for it. ‘Have either of you ever touched a ghost?’
‘Thankfully not,’ Jones said.
‘No,’ Ryan said. He thought for a moment. ‘Does a soul count?’
‘I would imagine it’s similar,’ Jane said, a look of intense concentration creasing her face. ‘Like heavy static, rather than true matter, but if you focus hard enough…’ she lifted the ball. ‘Mind over matter, or mind over…whatever this is.’
‘It’s an aspect, I think,’ Jones said.
He turned to his tech. ‘A what?’
‘My,’ Jones paused for a moment, ‘friend, Crossfade. He told me about something like this one – an old story. Someone broken into component parts, pieces of their personality, and they had to put themselves back together like a jigsaw. It’s a part of the Fairy language, with phrases like “is this your dickhead aspect?”. Clover did a modern interpretation of the story a few years ago.’ Jones shook his head. ‘What Crossfade said was that what was missing from most interpretations was that each aspect was a different colour. I think- I think that’s what we’re dealing with.’
He watched the little Stef toddle around – occasionally, she’d touch something, and it whatever it was would be visible for a moment – the fallen tree that people sat on while they contemplated their choices, a rock that caught her eye, the robe of Death as she bounced into it, and-
And for a moment, a memory of his own leg.
‘What happens in the story?’
Jones laid a companionable hand on his arm. ‘A happy ending, of course.’ He removed his hand and went to retrieve some scanning equipment. ‘Interpretations and variations occur, of course, and there’s no telling how close it is to reality. Sometimes, it’s one aspect a day; sometimes, they play out in real-time, as if in some way the lost person is reliving every day of their life before coming back for a second chance.’
He opened his mouth, but Jones held up a hand to stop him. ‘Unless some time shenanigans are going on that I don’t know about, a couple of years haven’t passed in a couple of days. We won’t know more until we get more of her ROYGBIV ghosts, but I don’t think things are playing out as slow as some of the stories portray.’
With a skill likely honed with her own child, Jane knelt and scooped up Stef’s aspect as she ran past.
‘Got you, little one,’ she whispered, automatically positioning the toddler on her hip.
For a few seconds, this seemed to confuse the aspect. A ghost of a ghost – part of it – fell away from the aspect’s body. This second spectre continued to run around the lab for a few seconds before disappearing in a wisp of smoke.
Adjusting almost immediately to her new circumstances, the aspect did the strange half-slap, half-pat against Jane’s face that indicated they liked the person holding them.
‘She’s fragile,’ Jane said as she stepped close to him, and offered him his child.
‘More than you could ever know,’ he said, his words barely more than a whisper.
The aspect wriggled, only seeming to be half-aware that it was being held in any given second.
He turned and looked to her comatose body. ‘Any changes?’ he asked Jones.
‘Nothing quantifiable,’ Jones answered after a moment. ‘Then again, we know we’re so far out of the usual bounds of what can be known that I still don’t know if I’m missing things.’ Jones put down his tablet and toyed with a bright little stress toy. ‘I may seek advice from other agents who have dealt with mirror, but I wanted to ask you before- Well- Taking it outside the family, as it were.’ Jones looked from him to Jane and back again. ‘Enforcer Crawford has essentially given us carte blanche with this situation, with obvious and reasonable boundaries. But…if we make too much noise, someone might try and scoop this project from us.’
Instinctively, Ryan tightened his grip on the aspect.
‘To outside parties, that’s all that this is, and we’ve got little enough clout as an Agency that someone could go over Enforcer Crawford’s head and get a new toy to play with. It’s the life of one recruit, sir, not a lot to pay to keep some of our top researchers happy.’
‘I’ve already thought of that,’ Jane said. ‘And I’ve forwarded Ryan a selection of the same files you’re surely looking at. I believe there’s a happy middle ground we can achieve. Particularly if we talk to some of the mirror-touched individuals themselves, rather than going to the researchers first.’
Jones nodded. ‘That would also be my preferred method of attack.’
The aspect in his arms settled, head against his shoulder, hand resting against his chest.
There were words he wanted to say. Words that were somehow owed to both Taylor and Wendy, and it made so much more sense to say them to some part of her that was awake and aware – even if in the end, it was only a memory.
He distanced himself from Jones and Jane as much as he could. A bench seat at the far end of the lab – one that had drawings and colouring-in pages hidden beneath, indicating that Merlin had been spending some time around his mother.
He sat, hands almost slipping through the aspect as he tried to keep his full concentration on the simple magic of maintaining contact.
He cupped her tiny, round face with one hand, astonished in some part of his mind that even though the static, he could feel the softness of her cheek. ‘I know I made this choice for you, but I think – I know – you would have wanted me to. You’ve seen so little of the world, and there’s still so much more left to amaze you. And to be amazed by you. There’s people who love you waiting to see you again, and people you’ll love that you haven’t even met yet. There’s a thousand things you haven’t tried that will bring you joy, and another thousand that will leave you sobbing, but it’s worth it, life is worth it. Wherever you are, come home. Whatever you-’
The static on his fingers disappeared as the aspect vanished.
‘You knew it was her,’ Jane said as she joined him on the bench. ‘No hesitation.’
‘This was the first time I met her,’ he said and pinched his nose. No tears, just the heavy feeling of hope. ‘And I can understand that if these pieces are guideposts, important memories, why this would be the first.’
‘Is this a story you’d like to tell me?’ Jane asked.
Years and years of being alone, of automatically closing himself off from those around him, formed an answer – one he bit back on, and cast aside.
If Stef, lost somewhere beyond comprehension, could make her first steps forward, then so could he.
‘I would like to,’ he said haltingly. ‘Allow me to take you to dinner. You’re a guest in my Agency, it’s the least I can do.’
‘I’d like that, Newborn. Let me know the dress code before six.’