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15 - Ashes, Gold and Soot
Stef looked up to Death, and gave a nervous smile.
Ryan was on his feet in a second, and bowing to Death. ‘My lady.’
She quickly followed suit, disappearing the Coke with a thought. Death smiled at them both, then her expression went serious. ‘Sit, please,’ she said, 'and listen.'
They sat, and Death moved to the centre of the room. ‘What you’ve been told is true, but incomplete. They have two phoenix chicks.’
‘The eggs hatched?’ Ryan asked.
Death was silent for a moment. ‘Phoenix eggs are…they are more of a security blanket than anything else. Phoenixes are delicate at this age, and often need to hide themselves, they create eggs around themselves to achieve that. It’s also relatively easy to break them out of these eggs, and once broken, it takes a long time to create another. They are just babies after all.’
‘Were they stolen, my lady?’ Ryan asked.
‘No, they went exploring and fell from the aviary during the last full moon.’
So, um, do phoenixes live in the moon? That’s kind of-
‘They do not, the moon is just the most common gateway.’
‘Sorry, forgot you can read minds.’
‘I realise it’s ignorant to ask,’ Ryan said, ‘but can’t you retrieve them?’
‘I cannot,’ Death said. ‘Even if they are my creatures, it’s interference, and I cannot interfere.’
‘I’ll say this out loud since you’ll hear it anyway. And I’m sorry, but my brain thinks stupid things. You’re like, all powerful, right? What’s stopping you from interfering?’
Death’s human mask slipped away for a moment. ‘The universe always ends so quickly when I decide I have the right to interfere. It is a terrible, miserable existence when you have to fear Death. I do not interfere because as soon as I decide I have the right to choose who lives and who dies, I cannot help but interfere all the time. The most I allow myself now is to facilitate people interfering with each other.’ The human mask reappeared, and she smiled. ‘And sometimes that works out for the best.’
‘What do you need us to do?’
‘The danger is not the chicks,’ Death said, ‘it is in what people will do to them. On their own, they are harmless enough – a singed garden, or the birth of some small follies-‘
‘A red and a blue?’ Ryan asked.
She rose her hand, but Ryan pushed it down. ‘I’ll explain later.’
‘If they are killed,’ Death said, ‘they will accomplish what they were born to do.’
‘We will find them, my Lady,’ Ryan said.
‘The most assistance I can give you,’ Death said, ‘is to tell you that they are both within your territory, if that changes, I will tell you.’ She gave them a nod, and walked away, disappearing on the third step.
‘Ok, so you’re going to have to-‘
There was a knock at the door. ‘Come in Curt,’ Ryan said as he looked up.
Curt walked in, am clipboard in his hand. ‘The taxi is dealt with,’ he said, then paused. ‘…ok, what did I miss?’
She shrugged. ‘End of the world, I think?’
Curt looked to Ryan. ‘Sir?’
Ryan stood still for a moment, his eyes unfocussed, then a meeting invite popped up in her HUD. A glaringly red meeting invite, with URGENT branded all across it. She expanded the invite list, and it included all of the agents and aides he was in charge of.
‘I’ll go reconfigure the meeting room,’ she said. She stood and tugged on Curt’s arm. ‘Come on.’
‘Sorry,’ Ryan said, sounding a little strained. ‘This is complicated, and I have no wish to explain it a half dozen times.’
‘It okies,’ she said as she pulled Curt out of the office. ‘See you in a few.’
‘So, explain,’ Curt said as he fell into step.
‘Not sure I can,’ she said as they rounded a corner.
‘Try, newbie, that was supposed to be a routine contact. There was blood all over that taxi, that was not routine.’
‘Phoenixes,’ she said as they stepped into the conference room, the lights immediately going on. ‘And that’s apparently bad. And the fact that Ryan is doing that quiet-deliberately-not-freaking-out thing means that we should be really worried.’ She grabbed the small tablet computer from a holder near the door and started to set the room requirements.
‘Is it a mirrorfall?’ he asked as the room quadrupled in size.
‘I don’t think so,’ she said as the table disappeared and reappeared in a long horseshoe shape. ‘Cripes, is this what a full meeting looks like?’
‘Yeah, guess so, I’ve never been to one,’ Curt said.
She tapped the screen and name cards, tablet computers and glasses of water appeared at each place, and the wall was replaced with a large screen.
They slid into their seats, and she pulled up an expanded version of the invite on the large screen – each agent and Aide was represented by a small square – coloured to indicate if they’d accepted their invite.
‘It’s got to be pretty intense if you’re pulling this together immediately.’
She turned to him. ‘Does Death usually give the Agency missions?’
‘No. No, newbie, she does not.’
‘Then use that to calculate the appropriate level of intense.’
Jonesy appeared and took his seat, quickly followed by Darren and the nice Aide Hammond, rather than the scary Aide Hammond. The scary one appeared a minute later, with Taylor, both of them sweaty and dishevelled – obviously pulled from training.
The room filled quickly, and quietly, with all of the invited Agency staff appearing.
Ryan came into the room last, closed the door, and walked to the centre of the horseshoe shape.
‘I will make this as quick as possible, I don’t like the idea of all agents being pulled away from their duties at once. Two phoenix chicks have escaped, and to the best of our knowledge, are being held by the Solstice.’ There was a murmur, but he silenced it with a look. ‘Yes, this is possible, and yes this has been verified, and I would thank you all to stay out of communication mode until I am done.’
A few of the agents managed to look sheepish, before tripping their own version of /serious.
‘A red and a blue,’ Ryan continued. ‘If either is killed, we will have failed to perform our duty, and be the shift that let the lights go out. The Agency will no longer be required,’ he said to clarify. ‘The red is the worst. Most of you know their purpose, for the benefit of the Aides and the newborn among us, red phoenixes are born to destroy. They are sent to worlds undergoing a mirrorfall, or an event of a similar magnitude, and purge the world of all remaining life – the remaining agents, the fae, the mortals, the animals, the plants. They burn the world until there is nothing left but ash. If it is released here, every living thing on Earth will die. There is no defence, and no way of fighting it. We have to keep it alive, at all costs. And I do mean at all costs. If it costs you the continent, if it costs you a million lives, keep…it…alive.’
There were mutterings of unease, and she shifted uncomfortably in her chair.
‘At least against the blue,’ Ryan said after the room quietened. ‘There is some recourse. The blue is the one most of you will not be familiar with. They bring magic and new life to a world that Life has blessed-’
This made the room loud, and arguments began to form.
‘Ignore your damn indoctrination for a moment. No matter what we have to say,’ Ryan said, struggling with his words. ‘We know the gods do not bring life to a world. Life allows it, and a blue phoenix facilitates it.’ He went still from the effort for a moment. ‘Magic everywhere in the universe is magic. Even if this chick is killed, we are safe, the fae are safe, and probably the majority of halfbreeds. For those that do not have immunity by birth, we have Contingency 32.’
The room erupted while her internal wiki loaded the contingency. There was one loud, clear voice above the rest – Clarke. ‘You cannot be fucking serious, Director!’
‘Quiet,’ Ryan said, and the room seemed to find a collective mute button.
‘Again, for the Aides and the newborns. Contingency 32. To summarise, it is a plan to inject humans with blue in order to give them immunity. It has never been done on a scale of this size. It has never been contemplated on this scale, and implementation on this scale would be, will be, logistical nightmare the likes of which the Agency has never, ever had to deal with.’
‘It can’t be done,’ Clarke said. ‘We can’t do this without exposing the world to magic, unless we want to-‘
‘I told you to be quiet,’ Ryan said, and Clarke sank back down into his seat. ‘It is an option that has to be voiced. For now, we need information, we need personnel, and we need resources. Inform all of your recruits that until further notice, they are all on active duty, all personal leave is cancelled, and they are to remain within their Agency unless directed otherwise. Activate all reserves and those on extended leave, withdraw those on study breaks and loan to other Agencies. Pull in contacts, contractors and informants, offer double the standard contract rate to all those willing to work for the duration, anything more than that, consider their skills, and submit an expense request, I guarantee I’ll pretty much approve anything. I will turn a blind eye to expense accounts and to financial requests, empty the coffers, I do not care, we cannot fail.’
‘What do-‘ Darren started.
‘For now, start with gathering your recruits and your contacts, I’ll give you further instructions as we develop a plan. Techs?’
Several agents looked up.
‘I don’t have to tell you I want eyes on everything. Increase your drone surveillance by a thousandfold.’ He turned to Clarke. ‘I want everyone the Academy can spare, and I want our military personnel on standby.’
‘You’ll need to clear that with Central,’ Clarke said reproachfully.
‘I’m headed there next, but start to organise it.’ He looked over the room, then nodded. ‘Dismissed for the moment, we will be meeting again later, so be efficient, but be quick, I want updates from everyone.’
The agents and their Aides disappeared, all except for Jonesy, Taylor and Magnolia.
Jones stepped forward first. ‘Not questioning you, sir, but I can’t make nearly ten million birds in a couple of hours, it will take time.’
‘As quickly as you can,’ Ryan replied.
Jonesy nodded, then disappeared.
Taylor stood, a quiet volcano for a moment, before he walked from his place in the horseshoe to the front of the room. ‘I can probably get you half of Russia,’ he said after a moment.
‘I would appreciate that,’ Ryan said.
‘They’ll need somewhere.’
Ryan looked to Magnolia. ‘Do you know how to reconfigure floors?’
She gave him a nod.
‘Take level three, no one is using it, I’ll set your permissions, just do a room-by-room before you change anything. Then work on the capacity for your own floor. And lay in supplies enough for a war, because that too is a possibility.’
Magnolia nodded again. ‘I do have contingencies of my own,’ she said. ‘We’ll be prepared.’
Curt rose from his chair as Ryan walked over to join them, but she stayed seated. ‘You haven’t asked me,’ she said as she looked up at Ryan.
‘Ask you what?’
‘This seems like the sort of situation where an Agency resource should be used for Agency reasons, but you didn’t ask me to yet.’
‘We can’t use the mirror for this,’ he said.
‘You just said to fuck the world if we need to, I don’t think you’re allowed to play favourites and protect me.’
‘Mirror magic won’t work, Stef,’ he said.
‘But it’s wishes-‘ she stared.
‘And if it were that simple, I’m sure Death would have given us a lock of her hair.’
‘What colour is Death’s hair?’
She thought for a moment. ‘Silver.’
‘The same silver as your heart, Stef.’
‘Her hair is made out of mirror?’
‘Yours is made of blue,’ Ryan said. ‘It’s just the different levels of magic we work at. That’s astounding to you like our level of magic would be astounding to a normal human.’
‘So there’s no point in even trying? What if I’m sneaky, and wish for the location, or like, a phoenix Marauder’s Map? Or for all of us to be teleported to wherever they’re holding it?’ She looked up at him. ‘I’m not worth more than the whole world.’
[You are to me.]
‘You were just asking me if I wanted to be an agent!’ she snapped.
‘You owe it to your duty,’ she said, ‘and so do I. We need to at least try.’
Ryan closed his eyes, and gave her a nod. ‘Somewhere safe though, with the doctors or with Jones.’
‘I think you gave Jonesy enough work. The tech channel is chatting about having to build ten million birds?’ She stared at the tech general channel in her HUD. ‘And now someone has staring copy-pasting the lyrics to that red balloons song. Why are there birds?’
‘Oblivious as people are, I think they would notice ten thousand UAVs flying around. We have bird programs we use for monitoring instead, no one looks twice at birds.’
‘Okies, that makes sense. And the Parkers will be busy prepping the infirmary for a lot more injuries than normal. And I don’t want to die in a hospital, so here or your office, your choice.’
The world blurred, and his office reappeared. ‘You can reconsider this,’ he said, ‘wait until you’re ordered to do it.’
‘If we wait,’ she said, ‘they might just bypass me and use the mirror, I’d rather show willing and do it now, so that if I’m ok, they can’t try and make me do it again later.’
‘They still might.’ He said as he sat on the couch.
‘Yeah, I know, but I really don’t want the world to end.’
‘The night I recruited you,’ he said as she stripped of her vest and unbuttoned her shirt, ‘you said you weren’t signing up for the “saving the world crap”.’
She required a scalpel. ‘Yeah, well, I grew up a bit, didn’t I?’ She smiled. ‘I’ll only make a small wish,’ she said as she cut into her chest.
‘Be careful, newbie,’ Curt said, moving to stand next to Ryan.
She bit her lip, dug into her chest, let her mind focus, then touched the mirror.
I want to know where the phoenixes are.
She felt fire, and heard something breaking. Blue and red swirled in her eyes, never mixing to become purple, felt fear, felt fire, heard something breaking. Her hands grew heavy and there was singing. She felt fire, heard something break, and everything went black.
Someone was shaking her.
‘Stef! Stef, wake up!’
Everything felt floaty.
A hand at her neck, feeling for a pulse.
‘I’m here,’ she said.
She opened her eyes, the blue and red swirl slowly dissipating. Ryan appeared in her field of vision, looking more than a little scorched. Ash and soot dirtied the side of his face, and a chunk of his hair had been on fire.
Something smelled like bacon, and the sinking feeling in her gut told her the source.
A mad-scientist-sized needle of blue was jabbed into her neck, and feeling in her extremities started to return. After the needle was tossed aside, Ryan lifted her and carried her what seemed like a long way back to the couch. The blurry form of Curt moved to her side, and hooked an IV into her arm.
She slowly sat up, and saw a mess.
The couch beneath her was melted, and the carpet beneath her feet had been on fire. The glass windows had been blown out, and a soft breeze filtered into the office. The desk was upturned, and papers were everywhere.
She slowly turned, her neck cracking into place as she did, and saw a hacker-sized hole in the wall. She stood on sore legs and saw a similar mess in the next room, and another hole in the wall, a another mess, continuing all the way down to her office, half a dozen rooms down. Doors had been required in all of the walls – all of which were open and clean compared to the mess she’d created.
‘Are you all right?’
She sat back down on the melted couch, and looked down at herself. Her sneakers had melted, her pants had large sections that had burned away, but the skin beneath was fine. The area around her heart though, was the source of the bacon smell, all the flesh scorched and ugly.
‘Are you all right?’
‘Ouch,’ she said, but it didn’t really hurt, it was a distant pant.
She lifted a hand to poke at the burn, and saw a flash of gold.
‘Are you all right?’
Both of her hands were gold, crusted in jewels like the pimped-out crown with something to prove. She flexed her fingers, and they moved normally, despite looking like the ostentatious cousin of the T-1000.
As she stared at her hands, the gold and jewels began to slough off, creating a rich puddle in her lap before solidifying.
‘Are you all right?’
The question finally registered and she looked up. ‘I think so? I think the Agency took a worse hit than I did.’
‘That’s easy enough to repair.’
‘They’re scared,’ she said as he stared at the gold. ‘They don’t want to be found, because they don’t trust anyone.’ She pushed the gold from her lap and onto the floor. ‘That was a bribe to make us leave them alone.’
‘Do you know where they are?’
She shook her head. ‘I didn’t- It’s all like after-images. I’ve got no idea, sorry.’
‘Thank you for trying,’ Ryan said, ‘it was dangerous, but thank you.’
‘That’s your way of saying it was stupid.’ She touched a hand to the burnt flesh. ‘I think this could have been a lot worse.’ She stuck a finger into her chest, healed herself, sealed the wound – for once, with enough presence of mind to heal with to work with her blue, instead of lining up to get random body parts cut off by Jonesy to be replaced with proper agenty flesh.
‘It could have,’ Ryan said.
She required a fresh suit. ‘I’ll listen to you from now on, ok? It does sorta feel like we’re going low-tech on this though,’ she crinkled her nose. ‘Low magic? Or-’
‘What can we do?’ Curt said before she could start a ramble. ‘We’re spare resources at the moment, sir.’
‘I have something I need you two to do.’ He looked to her. ‘Stef-‘
‘I’m fine, I just exploded is all, that’s nothing major. Gimme something to do.’
‘I need you two to go to fairyland.’
Curt considered this for a moment. ‘Carmichael?’
Ryan nodded. ‘We need all the information we can get our hands on, and he’s a valuable resource.’
The turned to look at her, and Curt seemed uncertain. ‘I can handle it by myself, sir, I don’t need an escort.’
‘Oi,’ she said, ‘I already caused enough property damage today, I think I’ll-‘
‘Shut it, newbie.’ Curt looked to Ryan. ‘I’ll go by myself.’
Ryan shook his head. ‘An agent needs to go with you, for the sake of legitimacy, and I can’t spare anyone else at the moment.’
She waved a hand between them. ‘Anyone want to clue me in?’
Curt sighed. ‘He’s an agent fetishist, and he’s really good at it, he’s sort of got this “gotta catch ‘em all” attitude, except “catch” with “fuck”. You go come with me, and you’re gonna look like a bribe.’
‘He’s an information broker,’ Ryan said. ‘He has an excellent network, and hiring him for the duration will be well worth the expense.’
‘I’ll go,’ she said. ‘It’s gotta be easier than exploding anyway. And I’ll have a knight in a slightly burnt suit to protect my honour.’
Curt rolled his eyes, then nodded.
Ryan walked over to his desk, lifted it and set it upright. He pulled open a drawer and pulled out a small cashbox. ‘Petty cash for transport and necessities,’ he said as he handed each of them an envelope, ‘I expect he’ll extort us on the rates, agree to it, just get him to cover us until this is over.’
There was s sucking sound as the temporary door disappeared and the hole in the wall went away. The carpet repaired itself and the couch refreshed. There was a tinkling sound as the glass in the windows replaced itself. ‘Whole again,’ Ryan murmured. ‘Good sign.’ He turned to them. ‘Curt, you know how to find him, go through the Marches, it’ll give Stef some more time.’ He handed her full IV bag full of blue. ‘Drink that once you leave the Marches, and you’ll get an extra seven hours. Try not to be that long, but just in case.’
‘We’ll be as quick as we can, promise.’
Ryan gave her a quick hug, and gave Curt a reassuring pat on the shoulder.
She grabbed Curt’s hand and shifted.