Stef looked back at the brick wall, sure of three things. First, she was sure that the sound of flesh against flesh was her buzz-cut opponent slapping himself in the head. Second, she wasn’t the ruler of the universe. Not yet. Third, the volcano-slash-agent was likely strong enough to push the wall down on her head, and leave her as some sort of meaty hacker pancake.
Knowing that she couldn’t stay behind the wall forever, she placed one hand on the cool brick for strength, then walked out, trying to keep her expression as neutral as possible. Ryan’s face was unreadable – though amused, if she had to guess. Her opponent had his head hung, her method of approaching the test seemingly having caused his brain to reset.
She turned to Taylor. Pompeii was about to blow. Say something. ‘Was that satisfactory?’ He gave her no reply. ‘You never said to go over, just to get to the other side. Was it a misunderstand, sir, or was it open to interpretation?’
Taylor tensed, and as he did, he seemed to get bigger. He turned and stalked from the room without a word. Confused, and desperately hoping that he wasn’t going to get a gun, she turned back to Ryan. ‘Was that…a pass or not?’
‘A pass,’ Ryan confirmed as he walked over to her. ‘Though,’ he said, dropping his voice, ‘my suggestion would be to give Agent Taylor a wide berth from now on.’
‘I just asked for clarification.’
‘You acted outside of expected parameters.’
She signed. ‘Um, if you haven’t…’
‘Trust me, Miss Mimosa, I have noticed. Outside parameters for you seems to be normal.’
She smirked. ‘I think there was a compliment somewhere in there.’
He looked up, so that he could address the buzz-cut as well. ‘The next test is through those doors,’ he said, pointing to the far end of the room.
‘Please tell me you’re not locking me and the ADFA dropout in a room with knives and we have to fight for the honour of being accepted?’
He gave her another strange look, as if he couldn’t quite believe…well, her. She wondered if it was too late to toss a “sir” onto the end of her last sentence when he spoke again.
‘Jones is administering the next test.’
This brought a smile to her face, and she was less worried that the volcano known as Taylor was going to be waiting behind the door with some sort of large hacker-killing assault rifle. She grinned at the agent, then skipped past the buzz-cut into the next room.
The next room was much smaller, only containing three desks. Two contained desks and the third was empty. Jones stood, leaning against the desk at the front of the room, and motioned to the desks. She chose the one on the left, and a quick swish of the mouse killed the screen saver and brought it back to life.
It was a custom OS, and this only surprised her a little. The theme kept the colours of the rest of the Agency – black and blue, and a brief thought had her wondering if whoever devised the colour scheme was an abused spouse crying out for help. She dismissed the thought, and fought the urge to click on icons, instead looking at the agent for instruction.
‘In front of you,’ the tech agent said, ‘is a simulated system for you to breach. You have thirty minutes to get as far as you can.’
The buzz cut raised a hand. ‘This isn’t what I signed up for.’
Jones stared back. ‘All potential recruits are tested on all facets. It helps us decide where to place them.’
‘Well, I guess this is what you’re for,’ the buzz cut said to her.
She glared back and clicked into the test. Twenty minutes later, she’d cracked the entire system open, and was rewarded with a large image of a smiley face. Rewards such as those made life worth living.
She looked over at Jones, who was reading from two blue folders. Likely their profiles. After a moment, he looked up and met her gaze. ‘Finished?’
‘Of course.’ She shot a withering look at the buzz cut. ‘And by the number of pop-ups I’ve been hearing from over there, I’m assuming he’s using the internet for what Avenue Q says it’s for.’
‘Am not,’ the buzz cut said quickly.
‘Do you even have any idea what I said?’
Jones indicated to a door. ‘You may both proceed.’
The next room was amazing – the first few feet was simply the same white-gray floor as the previous rooms had been, but a few metres in, it blended into concrete and broken tiles. The outside of a warehouse was visible, and above, there was a night sky.
Ryan stood at the point where the gray floor began to segue into concrete. She smiled as she saw him, and the expression froze there after she noticed the guns in his hands.
You. Calm down. Now.
He’s got guns again.
Is either pointed at you?
‘The building,’ Ryan said, apparently not noticing what had to have been a manic smile plastered onto her face, ‘is split into two halves. There is a door on the left and a door on the right – in each half there is a creature. I expect you to consider the situation, and take appropriate action.’
The buzz-cut took his gun with a curt nod, and headed off to the door on the right-hand side of the warehouse. The agent turned to her and handed her the gun, pushing it into her loose grip. He smiled to her, and pointed to the warehouse.
She exhaled a long breath, then made her way across to the warehouse. The door wasn’t locked, and swung open easily when she pushed on it. She wished she had a holster, but one didn’t appear, so she tucked it awkwardly into her waistband. This was yet another thing they made look easier on television. Television was evil.
The building was lit well, though all of the pipes and large metal containers reduced the effective visibility. Having seen the beast, it worried her a little as to what other things existed, and which one of them was hiding in the dark, waiting for her. Ghosts, werebunnies, mermaids, vampires. She hoped there weren’t vampires – simply so she didn’t have to make it a personal vendetta to exterminate every single velvet-wearing emo one of them.
A laughter rang through the room – it wasn’t a particularly evil laugh, but at the same time, it was vaguely unnerving. Not human. The voice behind it was too melodic, too modulated. That erased the possibility that they were using existing recruits in sheets to jump out and say “boo”.
Gunshots broke through the relative silence of the building. The lack of a bloody hole in her posterior told her that it was buzz cut. Something screeched overhead and she spun. A dark, fuzzy shape ran across some pipes and jumped down behind a metal shipping crate. She heard a shout from across the divide, and more firing, but she fought the urge to reach for her own weapon.
Assess the situation meant have all the knowledge before making a move.
It didn’t mean shoot first and ask questions later. There might be girlish screaming and a mad fumble for a gun, but that didn’t…Her mind went blank as she saw dark, glittering eyes staring at her from a pool of shadow. The shape laughed again. Up close, the laughter was unsettling – it was the exact kind of laughter you didn’t want to hear coming from a dark alley at night.
No badge. No back up. No frame of reference.
A lack of data always managed to piss her off.
‘My name is Spyder. I…’
It lunged at her.
She didn’t scream, that was something was sure about. Screaming did nothing except give an attacker satisfaction. The fuzzy shape with the glittering eyes knocked her to the ground, and she had the uncomfortable pleasure of looking up on it with her gun digging into her back.
The safety’s on, right? Right?
If anyone could shoot themselves in the back, it’d be you. That…unique mix of talent and utter stupidity.
She focused on the creature. It was male. His hair was looked like a muppet reject. It was a creature of dirty white and black. The black leather it wore was sprinkled with small pieces of glass – sewn in as decoration, rather than the evidence of a defenestration. Its face was wrinkled, like a apple left in the sun.
‘I’m…’ she began, after she wheezed a breath back in.
It took a swipe at her, it’s long fingernails cutting into her shirt, though not deep enough to draw blood. ‘Intruding. Brooding. Confusing. This is my home, you’re not a gnome. Did you have a key. Do you know me?’ It’s voice was wild, untempered, raising and falling like the roar of a crowd.
‘Didn’t need a key. Had permission.’
‘You’re not nice, have to pay the price. Have to pay the penalty, you shall see…’
‘Is it your intention to rhyme?’ she asked as she attempted to sit up.
A small fist punched her in the face and she was knocked back down. ‘Intruding, brooding girl. Bad!’
You forgot mad.
It jumped onto her middle, and this time, she screamed in pain, sharp shoes scraped her stomach and only dug in further when she tried to move away. It was smaller than a human man – a rough guessed placed it at about two-thirds of a textbook son of Adam – and much lighter than his size betrayed, but it was still an uncomfortable experience.
She tried to push him off, but long fingernails flicked at her wrists. ‘Should make you a statue, like that, will you? Put you in a cave, be your grave? Always watching, never moving, what you get for intruding.’
‘Unless,’ she said through gritted teeth, ‘you have some biological imperative that will explode your head unless you do, quit with the rhymes!’
He ran his hand up her face. ‘Moody prudey. Toasty roasty.’
Assess the fscking situation.
I wanna shoot the annoying thing…
That’s what the push-up-drunk guy did.
I have no desire to be a hacker kebab.
‘What are you?’ she wheezed.
‘Bob, Bob, Bob, not a Bob, hob.’ He looked down at her and licked his lips. She slowly slid her hand to her side, wondering if she could get the gun before it struck.
If it strikes.
I thought you hard-erased the optimism from you brain.
…so did I.
‘Hob. Like a brownie? Household spirit?’
‘Kitties and tigers, broody prudey.’ It jumped off her laughed again. ‘Kitties and tigers, guess which I am?’
Assess the situation.
‘What are you doing here?’
‘Always here. Always in the city. Like it here. Belong here.’
At least it didn’t rhyme this time.
…did you just…?
‘This is your home?’
His dark eyes showed no emotion – at least none that she could recognise – as he stared down at her. ‘And my meal.’
Aren’t I supposed to have some sort of chocolate to offer? Isn’t that how it’s supposed to go?
You haven’t been attention to your own diet, you are made of chocolate and you bleed coffee, you’re a walking, talking mocha.
I hate it when you’re right.
‘This is so messed up.’ She looked up at the hob and giggled. ‘You’re completely ridiculous.’
The hob snarled.
‘What do you eat when you can’t get hacker?’
She snorted. ‘That explains the smell.’
‘Moody prudey was doing what she was told to do. Have you attacked any civilians?’ The hob shuffled, then shook its head. ‘Actively working for anyone…evil?’ Another shuffle and head shake. ‘Affiliated with the Solst-ass?’ The anger on its face gave her the answer for that one.
She slowly stood. ‘I deem you not a threat.’
The hob gave another high-pitched laugh. ‘Moody prudey thinks that makes all the difference?’
She looked around. ‘Yes.’
The gun was on the floor – and she wasn’t so sure in her conviction to turn her back whilst unarmed. She kept eye contact, knelt, picked it up and backed away from the hob. It stayed there, watching her, then retreated into shadow itself.
She released the breath she’d been holding for half a minute, then ran from the building.