The first and most important rule of any con is to always maintain the line. The one between the real world and the pack of lies you tell to pull the wool over that world’s eyes. If you don’t, you get caught.
By the time a team breaks down the door to Cy’s cubby and hauls him out of bed and into cuffs, he’s broken that rule a hundred times over. He’s lost count of how often the line blurred, how he found himself believing the fabrications that make up his identity here in the shadowy, brutal world where rebellions are fostered.
The small unit he’s called home for months feels packed to capacity and claustrophobia gnaws at Cy’s insides while he watches Zeb, the team leader, rifle through his belongings. When he pulls out a touchpad that comes to life and reveals the warning Cy coded into the system to prevent exactly what was happening, the man’s stony mask slips and reveals a world of betrayal that Cy realises is the inevitable outcome of any camaraderie they had once shared. When you don’t maintain your line, people get hurt.
Someone’s com crackles with static, and then a voice.
“The captain’s a few minutes away.”
It’s Zeb who shifts, speaks into the small black square affixed to his jacket. “We’re ready.”
Things go quickly after that. The rest of his stuff is searched, anything of interest vanishing into a large black bag. Cy tries to keep track of what’s being taken, but he’s distracted by the rough grip tightening on his shoulder, the abrupt command to get “on your knees”, accompanied by a shove that unbalances him, his kneecaps colliding painfully with the ground. He’s seen this done before, knows what comes next, but he supposes nobody’s ever had the honour of watching their captors scramble to strip a room and then place themselves around in strategic locations, as if anticipating some kind of fight. After that, there is just waiting riddled with anxiety. He’s been dreading this moment for weeks.
When the doors pull back, there is a collective stiffening of spines and curt salutes for the figure that appears. In the trenches, they keep up morale telling stories about the bold and fearless rebel leader, the one who’s gone further than most for freedom, travelled to the edges of science and warfare. They hardly look the part, but beneath all that glorious skin is the kind of technology that has yet to make it out of the depths of Internal’s laboratory. They come straight for him, and all Cy sees is their raised fist before everything goes white in an explosion of agony. When the world returns, it’s jagged as his brain tries to process the fractured feeling on the left side of his face. Ryan packs a punch, Cy thinks, the salty tang of blood coating his mouth and throat.
“You’re a real piece of shit.”
“Ryan please, I can ex—“
“It’s captain, naaier.”
Blinking upwards, Cy’s vision still warbles, so that all he can make out of Ryan is the vivid edges of them, which leap into high definition when they lean forward, bringing their face in close, close enough that Cy can see the rage burning in their eyes.
“Ryan, I just—“
“You don’t get to call me that anymore,” they hiss, in a voice so different from the one that had breathlessly whispered his name not twelve hours before that Cy’s heart contracts, and shrinks, stuttering on every third beat.
He searches for something to say, finally settling on a paltry offer: “I was going to tell you.”
“When?” In the silent confines of his overstuffed cubby, Ryan sounds raw, reaching out and grabbing the collar of his shirt. “When were you going to tell me, Cy? Before I had you scouring the space in our name? Before I let you into our system? Before you took new recruits out into the field? Before we—“
They stop. Slowly unclench their fingers and back away. Cy is excruciatingly aware of the audience, not least because he knows why Ryan stopped. Knows what they were going to say next. Knows because he sees it in the sudden softening of their features, brown and rounded, the kind of face you’d never expected a battle-hardened soldier to wear. Their hurt digs into him, battling past the place where Cy can’t seem to find the words to the tangled mess of guilt, regret and love lingering closer to his core.
“I’m sorry, Ryan,” he says, struggling to shape the enormity of his remorse. “I’m so sorry.”
His croaked apology is only met with a disbelieving sound and this time, the blow catches him on the side of the head, the ringing in his ears accompanied by steadily brightening stars gliding across his vision, as painful to see as they were to ignore.
“Did I stutter?” Ryan asks, calmly now. “I said you don’t get to call me that anymore.”
Torn between wanting to pass out or throw up, Cy only dimly hears the instructions to get him onto his feet. But his world whirls sickeningly when he’s hauled upwards and pushed toward the exit, his legs giving an ominous tremble before steadying.
“Where are we going?” he slurs as Ryan marches out ahead of him.
They pause, glance back over their shoulder at him, smile grimly. “Mr Benson wants to see you.”
At that, Cy slumps into the grip on his arms, stumbles forward blearily. Mr Benson was the one who started all of this, rumoured to be ex-Internal, a rarity — agents never went against their protocols. Meeting one of the space’s most infamous has been a dream of Cy’s since he’d programmed his first piece of hijacking software and discovered a world ruled by shadowy personalities and clean, razor-sharp code.
Now it’s happening, and all he can cling to is the freedom he once thought he didn’t believe in, and the way Ryan looked at him when he told them they were magnificent.