It wasn’t that Taylor didn’t talk, but his words seem to take a longer path than most other people she knew. And whatever he was about to tell her, it was going to be difficult.
And it was her job to make the difficult things easier.
Magnolia set her workbook aside, stood, then took three careful steps down the bleachers, bringing her face to face with her commander.
A face she threw a punch at.
He automatically grabbed the fist, yanked on her arm, making her twist and follow the movement so that it wasn’t wrenched from her shoulder.
‘Ryan had a recruit.’
He released the fist, and she spun, boots leaving a mark on the honey-coloured wood of the gym floor, and adjusted her posture to prepare for his counterattack.
She easily dodged his first punch, braced and took the second, allowing her to get close enough to elbow him in the gut. This earned a grunt of approval, and he took a step back, inviting her to attack him.
Kick. Punch. Block. Easy moves. An easy routine. This was as easy as breathing for both of them.
And, pulled from some enormous depth, more words came.
‘Good recruit.’ A compliment for someone outside of their division was shocking enough to let him get hold of the back of her dress and tear out a section. ‘Died.’ He dropped it, the black cloth fluttering to the floor. ‘Became an agent.’
One of his thick arms clotheslined her to the floor, her head hitting the floor with enough force to leave her seeing proverbial stars.
He stepped into her field of vision, stared at her for a moment, then offered his hand – he’d won this round, and nothing needed to be said. She gripped his hand and jumped to her feet.
‘Whitman. She. Glitched.’
Whitman. Not a name she recognised. Not one she’d ever seen on a historical organisation chart – though she’d only made a cursory examination of those. So far as the changes she’d observed for their Agency, there was the obvious change from Director Reynolds to Ryan; and the change in the Tech Department from Samuels to Jones after Samuels had been captured and killed.
It was possible – probable – that whatever had happened, whatever miserable part of their Agency’s history he was about to tell her had led to records being scrubbed – or at least made higher clearance than what was afforded to her as an aide.
The second thing he’d said though…that didn’t make immediate sense, and her brain was already scouring her limited tech knowledge for an explanation.
A glitch. Glitches, like “require” and “shift” had a different meaning once you stepped through Agency doors – it wasn’t just a random error, didn’t just mean some bit of code was doing something other than intended, they meant nightmares.
Agents didn’t dream, she knew they used to, but at some point it had been taken away. They could sleep – and most did every night, but it was empty rest, no weird visions of your brain puking up what you had been thinking about.
And while they didn’t usually come during sleep, glitches were the kind of nightmares you would only wish on select enemies.
As she understood it, an agent would simply be going about their day and suddenly be in a nightmare. It was always a smooth transition, with nothing to indicate that their mind had slipped out of reality and into the worst things they could imagine.
In the real world, their body would be on the ground, fallen where they stood when the glitch occurred.
In their mind, every sensory input the same as real life, things would slide from normal to bad to worse. A simple workout in the gym could become a fight for your life as the Solstice attacked, the building blew up, or creatures from deep and weird parts of Faerie came to eat you.
And you could feel every bite as they ate you alive.
Most of the time, an agent would simply wake up screaming, easily understanding what they’d experienced wasn’t real, and be back to normal soon enough.
Sometimes, there were real-world consequences – nothing so banal as “you die in the dream, you die in the real world”, but a glitch showing a loved one betraying you could lead to taking swift action before you had a chance to reconcile fantasy and reality.
Something of that calibre had happened to Jones at some point. All she knew was that Jones had glitched, then walked into a blackout zone and tried to blow his brains out.
Block. Punch. Kick.
‘Glitched, but…Acted in the real world.’
This sent a heavy weight to the pit of her stomach. An agent fighting against a nightmare, fighting for their life, would be a force to be reckoned with.
She punched, and he sidestepped, raising a hand to stop her from continuing her attack. He adjusted her arm a little, grunted in approval, then stepped back to his original position. She reared back her arm and punched, taking the incremental change in angle into account, and landed a satisfyingly heavy blow straight into his solar plexus.
‘Weapons training. Fae blades. Cut a recruit who got close. He assumed accident. No report.’
It was easy enough to imagine. There were unwritten – as well as very clearly written – rules about approaching people who were handling weapons. Precautions were taken, but you couldn’t account for every possibility, especially when fae weapons were involved.
And if some careless recruit had gotten close enough to be within her stabbing range, it was easy enough to imagine them going “shit, my bad” and heading to the Parkers to get a light flesh wound dealt with.
‘Another recruit injured. Ryan attended. She attacked him. Grievous injury.’
Counter. Counter. Attack. Duck. Attack.
‘One recruit dead. Lockdown. Another recruit. More injured. Combat responded. One agent dead. Threat terminated.’
“One agent dead,” three simple words, said without emotion. Three words to explain how his world had changed forever. How he’d died, for fuck’s sake.
You weren’t supposed to die within safe walls, you weren’t supposed to bleed out at the hands of someone you thought was an ally.
Agents weren’t supposed to die.
They did, of course they did, but it was still somehow a shock every time one of them didn’t get back up.
Except… that one dead agent was staring at her, brown eyes appraising her reaction.
Someone else might worry what their face was giving away, she knew herself too well, knew when she was under control, versus when she was letting weakness show. And – outwardly at least – she was what he needed right now. Sturdy. Steady. Not reacting.
She didn’t know if he talked about this with Grigori, if he talked to anyone about it – she suspected he didn’t.
It was arrogant to think that she knew him better than agents who had known him decades longer than she’d been alive, but with each little moment she shared with him, it was an arrogance she felt more and more secure in.
They knew the man he’d been. The dead agent. She was the one who spent most of her hours in his orbit. Knew him moment to moment and day to day. Grigori cared, and cared deeply, but with an entire country to run, he could only spare so much time.
Ryan, Jones…didn’t spend any longer than necessary in the same room as him.
She needed to give him a reaction. Needed to acknowledge what had been said. Needed to show him that his secret had landed somewhere safe. That she’d been worth trusting.
There’d been a loss. One agent had died, and the man they’d resurrected wasn’t the same as the one who had died. People were still mourning that loss, while…seeming to blame Taylor that he wasn’t what they had expected.
She ducked under a punch, then swept his legs out from under him, and pressed a heavy combat boot onto his chest. ‘That was the beginning, wasn’t it, sir? Tell me what else I need to know.’
She only caught a fleeting glimpse of his expression before he shifted out from under her boot, his body reintegrating behind hers, thick arms pulling her into a chokehold, keeping her pinned against him with no effort.
That one glimpse though had been enough to tell her she’d had the right reaction, asked the right question, pushed the conversation ahead in the way he’d hoped for.
If it had been anything other than perfect, she wouldn’t be feeling his heart beat against her back. He would have left, without an excuse, without a word, and something between them would have been broken forever.
‘Ryan deemed it an unacceptable loss.’
She broke out of his hold.
Move. Countermove. Their own form of dancing.
‘Whitman. Beyond restoration. The other…Ryan ordered the Scholar.’
Another deliberate choice of words. “One dead agent”. “The other”. Not “him”, not “me”, words that completely severed the connection between who he’d been and who he was now.
Amongst the misery of the story though, she allowed herself one tiny internal smile. Another deliberate choice – “Scholar”, his sometimes nickname for Jones. Somewhere between a term of endearment and a disparagement. A dubious honour that only Jones seemed to have earned.
It was, in its own strange way, cute. If such a word could be thought within ten kilometres of Taylor.
‘Minimal data recovery.’
It was surprising when agents died – even though most recruits knew that their immortality was conditional, most recruits had no idea how fast agents “rotted”, and that was by design, the less the Solstice knew, the less they could exploit those that they captured.
There was a reason that agents were referred to as constructs of ash and blue.
The blue was obvious, the ash, less so.
In a blackout zone, any bit of an agent separated from the body would turn to ash in just a couple of hours, the nanites fulfilling one of the few tasks they could follow through on when separated from the System.
This fact, at the least, was so well known among the Solstice that they used it as the test of whether or not someone was an agent or just a recruit. Blood sourced from a cut – the tradition was a long cut from temple to chin – splashed across a white sheet. If the blood turned black and flaked to ash, then no amount of bullshitting for sympathy could win.
Not that being a recruit was any better when you were in the hands of the Solstice – most hated human recruits more, seeing agents as innately evil, born monsters with no choice to be otherwise…but humans who chose to ally with them, they deserved less than no mercy.
What wasn’t as well advertised was that the mind of a dead agent went faster than their body.
Oldest memories, base programming, core bits of their OS, they went first – on the fairly decent logic that if an enemy was somehow able to halt the cascade rot or make a copy of a dead agent’s data that enough bedrock programming would be gone by the time a tech could be summoned.
That, in turn, would make drawing out any useful data more trouble than it was worth.
Weave. Dodge. Three steps back. Two steps forward.
An agent wasn’t some off the shelf computer. As much as the Solstice thought they were robots, interchangeable as any piece of technology, each of them was a unique and technologically beautiful creation.
It was the kind of thing Screen could go on about for hours.
And so long as Screen offered soft boobage to lay upon, she could listen to her techie bestie talk about anything.
If you were able to do a partial data recovery from a dead agent in some secret Solstice lair, it wouldn’t be as easy as plugging in a clean copy of the OS to plug the gaps.
That would provide some functionality, probably grant access to some very simple data, but with how agents were layer and layers of complexity, unique constellations of matrices interacting in ever so slightly different ways for each and every suit, it wouldn’t give them what they needed. Wouldn’t reactivate an agent’s personality, wouldn’t give access to memories, wouldn’t give the secrets to bringing down the Agency.
All of these facts. All of these bits of information gleaned over years of taking in bits and pieces of what Jones had said, lectures she’d attended as part of her ongoing Aide training, and sparkly-eyed admiration from a half-naked lesbian. All of it merged into the bleakest and saddest origin story for the man in front of her.
Three steps forward. Two back. A pivot to avoid a hand grabbing one of her braids.
A man, a man loved by colleagues and friends, had died. And Ryan, injured, maybe near death himself, had thought with his heart and not his head. He’d ordered Jones to play Doctor Frankenstein and scrape…something off the floor and bring it to life.
And as every second passed, every second spent reacting to tragedy, every moment given to triage was more and more of that dead man passing into nothingness, going beyond where Jones’ tech could reach.
There was never a chance that the agent who opened their eyes would be the same as the man who had closed them. Maybe with a mirror wish, maybe if someone had spun the stars and heavens to undo such a loss.
In the cold, sterile walls of an Agency, even with all of Jones’ admittedly fabulous technical prowess, even if Jones had coded his fingers down to the bone, it had been doomed from the outset.
They’d made a new man, one with traces – probably single-digit traces – of who he’d been before, and blamed him for not being their dead brother, friend and colleague.
It was heartbreaking, and if she showed anything on her face, he’d never tell her anything more.
‘Combat agent operational nine days later. Data recovery augmented with external files.’ He turned from her, his body language telling her their their spar was over.
She wanted to hold him. Wanted to take his face in her hands and acknowledge the unfairness of the world. Wanted to rage against Ryan in his stead.
In some world, maybe he would want that. In some world, he wouldn’t have divulged trauma like a Vulcan reading off the driest of boring statistics.
He was strong. He could bear the world on his shoulders. And she was sure, if she touched him, he would shatter.
He’d ended the story and turned his back. The next move was hers. And the wrong move, the wrong word-
Some kind god smiled, and an alarm on her phone sounded.
‘If you’ll excuse me, sir,’ she said, quickly stepping towards her phone and workbook. He didn’t need to know what the alarm was for – she existed so he didn’t have to know what alarms were for. She dismissed the notification – a scheduled meeting with O’Connor that could easily be pushed back a couple of hours – and gathered her things, her body on autopilot.
‘Magnolia.’ Her name as a soft rumble.
‘Sir?’ she said, facing him, her expression not showing anything other than perfect, business-focussed aide.
He didn’t always formally dismiss her, they were so far beyond that, but sometimes, it was his way of saying “goodbye” or “thank you”, acknowledgement in a safe form.
She gave him a smile, one that was carefully calculated and crafted to portray “normality”. To show him that nothing had changed, that she was still his Magnolia, ready for the next order, the next mission.
Whatever they had behind them, forward motion was the only thing that mattered.