It took a little while for the Council guard to sort out who we were. There were several terse exchanges over the radio—during one of which there was a Bronzehog 12-gauge shotgun directed at my body the entire time—but the end result was a priority medivac for us and a couple of heavy weapons teams dispatched into the quarry.
The helicopter and its stabilization charms felt like bliss. This was probably because I was already heavily overloaded on healing mojo, but no ill-effects had ever been recorded as a result of being too stable. The worst that could happen was, in doses upwards of 70,000 thaumic units, effects mirroring a very minor Cleanse.
Umberto called the helicopter to congratulate me. I don't know how he did, but when you work in predictions, acquiring a military chopper's frequency must be small fry. I yelled at the pilot who yelled at Umberto who eventually agreed to call back when I was in a better mood. And not traveling through the skies downtown.
I had really only one priority, and that was to get debriefed. If I chose to be Cleansed and it fractured my mind, all the information I had uncovered would be lost. Old Country immigrants, Outsiders willing to talk, the best way to murder a snake that could swallow box-cars like hors d'oeuvres—it would all be gone. The thrumming of the rotors was the cadence to my thoughts—and like those metal blades, all they could do was go in circles.
We arrived on the helipad of Investigations barely fifteen minutes later. Mallory and I were bundled out, handed more stabilizing charms to see us through the next few hours, and beckoned over to an area screened from the rotor wash as the chopper lifted off again.
Conrad Walton was waiting two floors down from the roof, in his private office with Jamal standing nervously at attention nearby. There was an honor guard posted outside—although the last time an Outsider had attacked our facility was more than a century ago—and he gave me a piercing look as I stepped past him and into the pleasantly climate-controlled space.
"Jason. Mallory. Do try not to drip on the carpet."
Blood and feathers were sloughing off of me in clotted chunks. A couple wads of rat-and-bird paste had already splattered on the floor by the time Walton spoke. I knew a lost cause when I heard one. "Sir, I will do my best. May I appraise you of the Abigail Swanson situation?"
"No." Walton's voice glided in between my words, cool and smooth as a razor. "I've asked Mr. Gable to take your statement on the way out."
"Oh," I hesitated, glancing at Mallory for inspiration. She just shrugged back, keeping the movements as minimalist as possible in the hopes that Walton might not notice. "Why did you have me brought here, then?"
"We have something important to discuss. How long have you been serving with us, Jason?"
I tried to remember. "A while."
"And how long has Mallory been with you?"
"Practically since I started." I could remember our first assignment clearly. We had been cleaning a Rahab out of a sewer pump.
"And you are aware that we sometimes employ and retain unusual agents, correct?"
Where was this going? "Yes, of course. Provided their flaws do not outweigh their capacity for professionalism, sir."
"You are crossing that line right now, Jason. Dancing to Analysis' tune is not how we do things here. The situation was well in hand before you decided to try and play action hero."
"Sir, Mallory and I averted a considerable—"
"Your partner is dead, Jason." He dropped his volume down low enough that the words had resonance. "Normally, I do not mind. But if your hallucination is going to assist you in breaking protocol and meddling in matters that you do not fully comprehend, then I have no compunctions about pointing the fact out to you, regardless of whether or not your personnel file explicitly forbids it."
I froze. "Mallory?"
"This bullshit again? I'm right here, Jason."
"We have been playing along with your delusion because you are an extremely effective field agent, Mr. Carol. As best as anyone in Medical can tell, you revise your memories as soon as you've made them, dubbing your dead partner into the action." Jamal wouldn't meet my eyes when I tried to look at him, instead directing his attention towards Walton who continued speaking. "It must have been traumatic, losing her. We thought we were going to lose you too when you volunteered for that second Cleanse. Instead, you came back more efficient than ever...with your own little quirk, of course."
"Why are you saying this?"
"Because your mind is already fractured, and you need to know that before you consider undertaking another Cleanse. I have the clearance to tell you things that your folder recommends I do not. Mrs. Reading doesn't have that clearance, and what you don't know could very well kill you. I think you should consider retirement from the force, Mr. Carol."
"Stop ignoring me." Mallory got to her feet, overturning her chair in the process. "Don't talk at him like I'm not here."
"Jason, I know this is hard, but this is no place for hysterics." Jamal was trying to keep his voice calm, but it wavered at the edges.
I looked over at Mallory's chair, saw that my hand was already resting on it, and froze. "If what you're saying is true, when did it happen? How did she die?"
"Routine assignment. You were infected. You brought her down."
I clenched my teeth. "And why isn't she screaming in your face for telling her that she's a lie?"
"You see her less when you're being stabilized, or when you're under considerable stress. Both are true at the moment. Take a good look at her. Is she still there?"
For a moment, there were only three of us in the room. And then there were four. And then three again. "I need to get out of here. I need to go home."
"Elevator is down the hallway on your left, Mr. Carol. Do call us when you've decided whether to undertake the Cleanse again."
I left the office in a blur.
The hallway outside my apartment had been cordoned off as a crime scene, but I didn't care. I slipped under the tape, opened the door, and let myself in. Nothing inside had been touched.
"Jason, look. We need to talk about this." I waved Mallory away. This wasn't her place. She belonged somewhere else when I was at home. She shouldn't have been haunting me like this, not when all I wanted was to curl up in a ball and sleep for weeks.
"Go away, Mal. Not now. We'll talk tomorrow." She faded away, leaving me alone with my thoughts.
And the other thing, the one that had been with me since I lost Mal, that had never been exorcised or detected or even guessed at. It had been with me in the quarry, and also at the Worthling apartments. It had guarded me more effectively than my dead partner ever could have.
It wound its way around my legs and purred, the vibrations rising up through my body. I slumped down on the couch, hovering on the semi-aware verge of blacking out. My last conscious thought was muddled, nonsensical, but I could feel the words quite clearly as they thrummed in my head.
We are becoming.