Stef closed her eyes, the next line escaping her for a moment. There was a noise, and she opened her eyes, and for a moment, there was a pirate standing in front of her.
‘Cap-’ she went to say to the figure, but blinked, and some of the fuzziness disappeared from her vision. It wasn’t a pirate, it was the agent.
For a moment, she was back there, in the dark, terrified, with no way of escape. Frightened, and with no obvious means to attack, she pulled the quilt over her head, and hid. Logic took over after a minute, and she pulled her head out from under the sheet.
‘Well, that answers one question,’ he said as he crouched in front of her
Confusion took over and she sat up, wrapping the quilt around her. ‘And that question was?’ she asked.
‘A disorientated Solstice wouldn’t hide under a blanket to escape an agent.’
She ran her hands through her messy hair. ‘You thought I was…’ she began. ‘Even after they…’ She looked up at him, incredulous. ‘You really think I’d meet their standards?’
He smiled. ‘I certainly hope not.’
Higher brain functions pulled themselves from sleep and the clutches of pirates. ‘You’re here because it’s morning, aren’t you?’
‘But I only closed my eyes a minute ago.’ Another thought popped into her head. ‘Shouldn’t you have knocked?’
‘I did,’ the agent said, ‘but you didn’t answer.’
‘Given the circumstances, I didn’t see the harm. It’s nine, it might be noting for reference, however, that my recruits start morning training at seven.’
She crinkled her nose. ‘Seven anti-meridian isn’t a time of day I even like to acknowledge as existing.’
‘Jones has finishes analysing the data on your laptop,’ he said, ‘and we’d like a few things clarified.’
‘Sure.’ She ran a hand through her hair again, stood, and ignored the bed, rather than making a half-hearted attempt to make it and looked up at him. ‘Am I ok like this, or are you going to awesome new clothes onto me again?’
He clicked his fingers, and a moment later, her clothes were a great deal cleaner, and a lot less wrinkled. She was also wearing shoes again. ‘Are you ready?’
She nodded and followed him through the now unlocked door, and down the hall toward the lift. He pressed the button, and a few seconds later, the lift appeared. ‘Is this a magic lift? Last night and now, we only had to wait like five seconds for it, with all the buttons inside, there’s a low statistical probability that it was that close each time.’
He gave her a strange look. ‘That’s a very astute observation.’
She shrugged, and considered telling him the truth, then decided against it – there wasn’t any reason for him to know, and it might colour his opinion of her. ‘I notice things,’ she said dismissively, ‘it’s a thing.’
He grunted and punched the button for Jones’ floor. She quietly followed him out of the lift when it opened again, through the hallway, and into the lab. Once there, he left her alone with the tech, and she answered his questions to the best of her ability, though many of them didn’t make sense, and he was reluctant to explain new terminology.
Fifteen minutes later, there was a cough behind them.
‘We’re ready,’ Ryan said.
Her stomach dropped, extraordinarily-recent fears surfacing again. ‘…for what?’ she asked. ‘We’re beyond taking me behind them chemical sheds, right?’
He looked confused, so she turned to Jones. ‘Our chemical stores are just down the hall-’
‘Not making me feel better,’ she said through clenched teeth.
‘-but,’ the tech said with a smile, ‘we don’t execute people there.’
‘Ready for the recruitment tests,’ Ryan clarified.
Pushing aside thoughts of being dragged behind chemical sheds, she stood, patted Frankie one more time, and followed Ryan from the lab like the dutiful pet she was turning out to be.
‘I didn’t get any time to prepare,’ she said reproachfully to the back of his jacket.
‘That’s the idea,’ he said without turning.
You sure you aren’t- ‘-the bad guys?’
‘What of the Solstice?’
‘Nothing,’ she said quickly, ‘just trying to work stuff out.’
They got back into the seemingly magical lift, went down a few floors, out onto another anonymous floor, and into one of the small, numbered rooms. It was small, functional, only containing a few hard, plastic chairs, a table and a plasma screen.
There was the sound of voices and she turned to look at the other side of the room – along with the plain furniture, there was a young man with a buzz cut, and a mountain.
She stared at the mountain for a moment, before realising that it was a volcano – one that looked like it was going to erupt. The volcano rumbled, it was a deep, rocky sound – one that would have made the residents of Pompeii wish they been thrown in jail. She was pretty sure it was shaking, the red on top obviously burninating fire that would-
Ryan addressed the volcano. ‘Taylor, are we ready to start?’
The volcano – the agent with red hair – grunted, his gaze drilling into her. Volcano or not, an ancient Roman jail seemed a much safer place to be. He took a step forward, and her heart skipped a beat, every bit of her imaginary Spyder-sense screaming at her to run.
He took another step forward-
-and she ran. She turned and ran from the room, down the hall, past the empty room and to the magic lift. The few seconds it took seemed to be an eternity, and she panicked as she heard footsteps behind her, the doors sliding close before a disappointed-looking Ryan could join her in the lift.
She punched the button for the ground floor – it seemed like the safest choice – and slumped against the back wall, begging her pulse to calm down. She stared at her warped reflection in the metal – there was only so much she could take, and she’d reached her limit. Monsters, were fine – especially when encountered while needing sleep. Maybe-not-fictional characters were fine – Dorian only seemed to be an enemy of decency. Tests without warning or preparation, no. Scary-looking narcs that could pass for violent pieces of scenery, no.
The doors slid open, and she ran through the empty lobby, out the revolving door, and onto the street. She stumbled in the bright sunlight, thankful that at least she recognised the street.
She mingled with the morning crowd, knowing that it was pointless – the her outfit made her easy enough to spot if they wanted to come after her – and headed for the closest bus stop. The seat was occupied by two fashionistas, so she slumped against the wall, staying out of the flow of human traffic.
The bus pulled up, and she realised that she wasn’t carrying any money. She stayed against the wall, watching the bus doors slid open and closed again, before it pulled away.
Ryan appeared in the empty place the bus had left.
She blinked, and looked up at the agent. ‘Yeah, I’m ready too.’ She looked back to the door, knowing that until she signed a blood contract that she could run at any time. Until then, there was no harm in- You’re just too lazy to run to Adelaide Street, aren’t you? No…
The volcano – Taylor – opened the door at the back of the small room, and they all followed him through. The room was significantly larger than the one they’d left. There was no plastic furniture in the room, or plasma screens, there were however, two thirty-foot brick walls.
Two freestanding brick walls.
They had no visible means of support, utterly contradicting several laws of the universe. No. I’m not saying the M word. Have to have to get used to it. I’m not going to live my life saying… ‘…that a bloody wizard did it.’ The three men all turned to look at her. She imagined smoke coming from Taylor’s ears. She shrugged. ‘Sorry. Thinking out loud.’
Taylor walked forward and stood between the two walls. ‘First test. Objective: get to the other side of the wall. There is equipment over there.’ A thick finger was stabbed towards the side of the room.
She walked toward the rack of gear, the buzz cut pushing past her as to get first choice. ‘So, you’re like the joke I’m being tested against?’ he said as he picked through the equipment. She examined a set of suction cups, and dismissed them – they were for climbing glass and smooth metal, not brick and mortar.
Witty responses failed to form, and she just shrugged.
‘Secretary?’ was his second guess. ‘They couldn’t get anyone else?’ He snatched the grappling hook from her hand. ‘I used this in basic, I know what I’m doing with it.’
‘If these tests are based on individual merits, why would they need to test you against someone?’ she asked as she turned away from the gear. All of it was useless to her, there was only one obvious way over the wall.
She ran at the wall and launched herself at it when she was ten feet away, and flew into the air as if it were liquid. The red brick and white mortar blurred as she flew past it. When she came to the top, she spun, her legs reaching over her head as she did a tenuous handstand. It felt amazing. Flipping forward, she fell to the ground and landed in a crouch. Applause came out of nowhere and she was proclaimed ruler of the universe.
She grinned at the thought, as the buzz cut grabbed his gear and walked back toward the agents. She decided against taking anything – there really only was one way over the wall for her, and it didn’t require any gear.
Crossing back across the room, she found the buzz cut already halfway up his wall, in a harness-and-pulley system. The top of the wall gave him some trouble, but he slid down the far side of the wall, then appeared, and saluted. This earned a nod from Taylor, so she stepped up to her wall.
With no gear in her hands, she approached the wall. She stared up to the top, and the heady images from a moment ago swam through her mind.
She took a deep breath, then walked around the wall.