Curt stared up at the door of his room, his mind still full of conflicting thoughts and information.
His phone sat on the bed in front of him, a gallery app automatically moving from one picture to the next.
Tara. Sara. A picture of Darcy he couldn’t bear to part with. Sara again. Images and memories from better days.
His foot throbbed from where it had been slammed in the door.
He heard Petersen breathing in the corner of his room, but he ignored it.
Stef was alive. The wish that had started the agency’s audit had been successful, if delayed. She was alive…and was going to be fully augmented into an agent.
The shit-scared newbie who had died in her first week…was going to be an agent.
None of that made sense.
The Agency made a lot of decisions that didn’t make sense.
A lot of Agency decisions ended badly for people who weren’t agents.
A lot of Agency decisions turned out badly for agents.
Recruits were expendable. Recruits were cannon fodder to be thrown in front of the enemy to keep agents safe, even when everything about that seemed backwards to all logic. Soft, puny mortals keeping immortals safe.
It was something that a lot of recruits didn’t think about. It was something a lot of recruits ignored.
It was something that was never far from his mind.
Recruit, at least, was not a job for life, despite what some new recruits thought. Except for very peculiar circumstances, recruits could quit anytime they wanted.
Agent was a job for life. Agents were born into their roles. Recruits that were augmented into agent roles… He hadn’t met of any of those – not that he knew, anyway – but he assumed there was some measure of experience and choice in the matter.
An hour ago, she’d been homeless and terrified in the Local Court, scared even to talk to the man she’d killed herself to impress.
An hour later, she was being roped into life-long service to the Agency.
And part of that was his fault.
Trusting the Agency was almost always a mistake.
He picked up his phone, closed the gallery app and slipped it back into his pocket.
There was nothing to do. There was nothing he could do. Nothing except fall back into his routine. Routine was safe. Routine kept his chances of being killed lower.
He placed a hand against his chest where Ryan had grabbed him.
Curt looked to his computer. There would be emails to check, and–
Newbie and her computer.
Curt pulled his Agency phone from his pocket and opened up Vox, he flicked to the small menu of favourite contacts and selected a voice chat with Magnolia. He lifted the phone to his ear and waited for the call to connect.
‘Speak,’ Magnolia said, her tone as clipped as normal.
‘When you arrested Stef,’ he said, ‘did you pick up her stuff, or leave it behind?’
There was silence on the end of the connection.
He’d managed to silence Magnolia – a feat he took a second’s pleasure in. ‘Mags. Yes or no question.’
There was another long pause. ‘No.’
‘Where did you leave it?’
‘Fuck if I remember. One of the loading docks. There was nothing important, I don’t think. O’Connor–’
‘Not now, Mags. Later?’
She sighed. ‘Later.’
The connection died, and he slipped his Agency phone back into his pocket. He stood, smoothed down his uniform, then walked to the door.
Ryan would be waiting on the other side, ready to shoot him in the face.
He dismissed the thought. Ryan, unlike Petersen, wasn’t so theatrical – the agent had already made it clear he was perfectly comfortable with violence behind closed doors.
His foot still throbbed when he put pressure on it.
The hallway was empty as he tried to walk silently towards the lift – most of the field recruits were perfectly comfortable hanging out in the various common rooms or the gym during the day, so the quarters were usually pretty quiet this time of morning.
Curt forced himself to breathe.
He reached out and touched the button for the lift.
It didn’t come.
He tapped the button again, confused as to why the lift – which appeared on an eight-second delay each and every time without fail – hadn’t appeared, and saw that he was touching the wall, not the button, three inches left of his fingers.
A sigh rattled through his body – a heavy exhale that attempted to blow out his emotions, his fears, and his life. He adjusted his fingers and ensured that he pressed the button this time.
The lift came. He stepped in and hit the button for the CSI labs – unless he was mixing up his schedules, Raz would be there, as he usually was. The tech was only a primary monitor for Curt’s schedule, not a secondary for anyone, but a tertiary and emergency backup for a few recruits.
Raz had been a newbie recruit, and too dumb to know better than to take on the responsibility for caring for some piece-of-shit Solstice.
A piece-of-shit Solstice who Raz was utterly convinced was an agent.
The confusion had been immediate, unshakeable, and…endearing.
He stepped out of the lift and began to walk down the long hall of well-appointed labs, looking into each for the recruit. He saw other techs – some he recognised, and some he didn’t, but no sign of the Chinese-Australian tech.
It wasn’t unusual – Raz tended to work by himself, something Curt could appreciate.
Unlike his isolation, however, Raz’s seemed to be self-imposed.
Curt stepped up to the last lab, and boosted himself up on tiptoes to see over the frosted section of the glass door. He saw the top of Raz’s head bent over a microscope.
He looked left and right – none of the biohazard warnings were in place, nor any of the less-serious warnings that seemed to pop up all over the tech department.
There had been a solid week at one point, on the least-used of the three tech floors, where every door had warned of dinosaurs. He hadn’t seen one, and was sure it was something to do with the Jurassic Park marathon, but it was rarely wise to rule out any possibility within the Agency.
A smile settled on his lips, and he filed the story away to tell Stef – it seemed like the kind of thing she’d like.
That was, of course, assuming that Agent Stef was anything like Recruit Stef.
His fear finally had words.
Augmentation was commonplace, but full conversion into an agent was less common. He’d never met a convert. Most, from what he understood, were older aides – people who had shown a life of service to the Agency, where a continuation of that service was beneficial for both parties.
And that situation was the polar opposite of what was going on with Stef.
And no one could ever truly say for sure that the convert was the same person as one who had agreed to the conversion.
And none of this touched on the question of precisely what happened to one’s soul.
Curt closed his eyes, let out a long breath through his nose and adopted the agent-ish demeanour that Raz expected from him.
It was an identity borne of a misunderstanding, combined with the fact that it was difficult to show too many real emotions around agents. Those factors, combined with a recruit that was clearly neuro-atypical had blended to make him an agent.
And it brought the grand total of people who respected him to one. Magnolia saw him as useful and a decent fuck, but she’d probably stab him before going to the extent of respect.
He stripped emotions to the agent minimum – dry humour, aloof arrogance, and patronising gratitude.
Curt knocked on the glass door, and Raz looked up, a smile immediately lighting up his face.
Curt smiled back, falling into the surprisingly easy role of Agent C – stand a little straighter, control the facial expressions a little more, and clap people on the shoulder when they’d done a good job.
He had never enquired as to what kind of agent Raz thought he was. Likely a convert – a full augmentation like Stef was going to be. He couldn’t imagine that the recruit thought he was a born-in-blue agent – but it had never seemed wise to ask such questions.
The delusion had never caused anyone harm, and it would only cause Raz pain if pushed, and Curt wasn’t that kind of cruel. The belief that he was an agent helped keep Raz’s world in line, and it was a courtesy he had no problem extending – some kind of cosmic karma, hoping that in some other world, a world where a car hadn’t mounted the footpath and killed his baby sister, someone was catering to Tara’s needs.
‘Hey Agent C,’ Raz said as he opened the door. ‘What’s up? You’re not on–’
‘Just a simple favour, Recruit, if you’re up for that. Perhaps several, but that will depend on the first.’
‘Sure. Anything,’ Raz said, giving his best flirty smile.
‘I need you to shift me to the Local Court, then get me back here when I call.’
Raz nodded, sat, and pulled up Vox on his main computer monitor. There were certain functions that only tech recruits could access – like assisted shifting. Technically, an agent – Jones, in this case – still processed the actual shift, but the tech recruit gave the locations and made the request.
Jones’ processing of the shift, therefore, was just a rubber-stamping activity, just in case anything looked strange or untoward.
‘Hey, um,’ Raz said, pointing at the screen. ‘What entrance?’
Curt leaned in placing his hands on the desk. The Local Court, because it was such a well-known location, and because of the everyday Agency tasks that needed to take place, had several pre-programmed points set and ready to go.
‘That one,’ Curt said, pointing to the front door. It was as good a place to start as any.
Raz moved his mouse, his hand brushing against Curt’s in probably a not-quite-accidental motion.
Five years ago, he would have pulled away, screamed at the recruit and called him a faggot, and any other homophobic insults he could think of.
Two years ago, he would have pulled away and loudly proclaimed he was the straightest straight to ever straight.
Now, he was glad of the affection, even if he didn’t reciprocate the recruit’s obvious crush on him.
Moving past the Solstice-instilled anti-fae rhetoric had been one thing, but moving past his anger towards “the gays” had seemed so much more important. Treating humans like humans had seemed like a decent first step to working through all of his hateful thoughts.
It had been…shamefully easy to work past the hate, to understand that he was pissed at his dad, not pissed at an entire group of people.
‘Ready?’ Raz asked.
He nodded and braced himself for the shift.
The line at security was thankfully short, and he got to the counter after only a couple of minutes. ‘I need to chat with someone in security, please.’
The woman – who seemed, to the best of his ability to tell, a human woman with no fae signs at all – smiled. ‘You need a pass first. I’ll call someone down.’
‘Court business then,’ he said – it would make it his second trip of the day. He slapped his head and dug into his pocket, pulling up the pass he’d gotten when delivering the package. ‘Wait, is this one still valid?’
She narrowed her eyes, a crease forming in her forehead just below her bindi, then smiled. ‘Yes, that one will do.’ She passed a lanyard through. ‘If could wear this, please, and wait over in that corner.’
He nodded, stepped out of line, and clipped the pass to the lanyard.
The wait was short enough – a tall brown-skinned fairy with impressively large green wings popped out of a chute, landed on the ground, and started the grow.
The fairy went from the size of a Ken doll to a hair over six feet in just over five seconds – still an amazing trick every time he saw it.
The security guard fluttered his wings once, lifting him off the ground for a brief second – the wings had large metallic patches in them – a clear sign that parts of the structure had been replaced at some point, either due to damage or a cosmetic wish.
Given the scars on the man’s face, Curt doubted that it had been due to an aesthetic choice.
The fairy stared at him, his gaze drifting towards his lanyard. ‘Recruit,’ the man said carefully, just in case he’d read the rank incorrectly. ‘Is this something to do with the disturbance your people caused earlier?’
‘It is, and on their behalf, I’d like to apologise.’ He tried to remember a more formal fairy apology – or the beautifully poetic piece of hobbish that essentially translated to “oh shit, my bad.”
‘They were Combat. You’re Field,’ the fairy said, pointing towards the security office at the end of the hall. ‘Not your issue. Taylor’s known as a bit of a dick around here.’
Curt was entirely surprised by the laugh that sprang forth. It wasn’t professional, and it wasn’t good manners, but it felt good.
The fairy smirked as he opened the door. ‘Can I get you a drink? The office services team do some nice fresh juice. There should still be some left.’
“Office services” was a perfectly mundane term for what was a perfectly normal and mundane job – at least so far as the fairies were concerned. It usually took tact to explain to new recruits that “office service” jobs within Fairyland meant “office hookers”.
‘I’m fine, thanks,’ he said, taking the hard plastic seat on the other side of the security officer’s desk. ‘The woman they…apprehended,’ he said – it was a nice neutral term. ‘I believe she had some belongings with her, which weren’t brought in at the same time.’
‘Ah,’ the fairy nodded, stood and walked to the other side of the small office. A moment later, a water nymph darted out – her bottom half flowing like tentacles, a small trail of moisture left in her wake. ‘We were wondering anyone was coming back for that,’ he said as he settled back into the chair.
Curt considered the fairy carefully for a moment. ‘Given the lack of protocol followed in the situation, are you wanting to file an incident report?’
‘Brukt, no,’ the fairy said, the expletive failing to translate. The word functioned in a similar function to “shit”, but the long form translation involved the unlikely scenario of being “defecated on by a meteor”, the fae way of describing a smaller piece of meteor breaking away from the main body of the falling star.
Brukt. A bad coincidence, a belittlement, a casual swear word, and a discussion among philosophers and astronomers alike.
The nymph flowed back into the office and deposited a small plastic crate on the security officer’s desk.
‘Thanks, Megal,’ the fairy said. ‘Here,’ he said, turning to Curt. ‘Wasn’t sure if you were going to come back for this. There’s nothing much of interest.’
‘You never know what’s of interest,’ he said, trying to sound casual.
Curt stood and began to pack the items back into the laptop bag – the laptop looked worse for the wear, but it was impossible to tell what of that had been normal wear-and-tear, and what had been Mags-and-Taylor damage.
He sincerely doubted, though, that the lid was supposed to have a large crack in it.
‘Thanks again,’ he said. ‘Shall we consider the incident closed?’
The fairy stood. ‘We’ll consider the incident never started. I’m going to file it as a minor disturbance, and ignore it ever happened. It always seems to work best that way.’
Curt nodded, pleasantly surprised by the fairy’s blasé attitude – if the man had wanted to pursue it to the full extent of what their mutual protocols stated, then it would have been hours of paperwork, and getting Clarke involved.
And any day where he didn’t have to talk to the slimy creep of an agent was a good day. It wasn’t just that Clarke made no pretence that he hated having a former Solstice in the Agency. It was something else. Most people, even most agents, were easy enough to get a read on – and something about Clarke always left him deeply unsettled.
Curt lifted Stef’s bag, adjusted the strap to make it long enough to sling over his shoulder, and nodded to the fairy before leaving the security office.
He dutifully handed in his pass to the woman at the front desk and stepped back outside into the morning sun.
If he were smart, he would turn around, walk through the Court and down the extended stairs to the exit closest to the capital, then catch a bus towards Carmichael. If he were smart, he’d be a courier or a driver by the end of the day – blacklisted, but free of the Agency.
He sighed and pressed a hand to his headset. ‘Raz?’
‘One to beam up?’
‘Yeah,’ he said. ‘Bring me home.’
Raz’s lab came into view as he reintegrated in the agency. He placed the bag on the desk, careful only to slide the laptop out. Whatever else Stef had in the bag was her business, though he would throw out the Fry’s leftovers – no need to let that rot and stink during the however-long process it took to turn a person into an agent.
‘I need you to fix this,’ he said, laying a hand on the computer. ‘I trust your finesse more than I do just trying to require it fixed.’ He gave small smile. ‘I might accidentally wipe the hard drive or something.’
Agents were, if you were to boil it down, just computers. Insanely advanced collections of nanobots, but…computers all the same. Fixing a computer wasn’t something an agent would have to ask a recruit to do.
He held his expression steady, hoping he hadn’t pushed Raz out of his comfort zone, or stretched the believability of Agent C too far.
It couldn’t be helped – he wasn’t a tech, and this required a tech.
Raz took the computer, gently opened the lid, and winced as one of the joints broke free of the main body. ‘Who’s is this?’ he asked, the screen becoming new and clean under his hand.
‘A witness,’ he said smoothly. It wasn’t a lie – he hadn’t said witness to what.
‘The guts seem ok,’ Raz said as he turned it over. ‘It seems to be mostly surface damage.’ He looked up and smiled. ‘Want me to brighten up the stickers as well?’
‘No,’ he said, ‘just the damage.’
Raz turned the computer over a few more times, then closed the lid. ‘All right, seems to be functioning fine. Hard drives seems undamaged, so there shouldn’t be any data loss. If there is and it’s anything important, bring it back, and we’ll see what we can do about that.’
He clapped Raz on the shoulder. ‘Thanks. I appreciate it.’
Raz smiled. ‘Anytime, sir.’
Curt slid the laptop back into the bag and shouldered it again. He left the lab and slowly made his way back to the lift.
He could take it to Ryan, allow the agent to give it back to Stef, but there were two arguments against it. First was the obvious: whatever the minutia involved in becoming an agent, there likely weren’t going to be any opportunities to waste time on the internet.
The second was selfish, but…somehow warranted. This had been something he’d done – so it seemed pointless to give the agent the credit for the act. The thought twisted in his stomach, even while he pined for the gratitude.
If Ryan asked, he’d hand the bag over. There was no use in being a selfish prick – that served no one, least of all Stef.
The thought still refused to sit: Newbie was going to become an agent. If he started to laugh, he’d never stop. He could feel it, sitting in his chest, twisted and manic, waiting to escape. Surely something about the situation violated some cosmic rule.
It wasn’t fair.
And it was all his fault.
He slumped in on himself as he pressed the button for the lift. If he hadn’t pleaded Ryan’s case, if he had just taken her further into Faerie, she wouldn’t be getting a life sentence under Agency rule.
Ryan cared – it had been obvious since the first moment the agent had told him about the new recruit. Ryan had cautioned him to be gentle, advice he hadn’t done with any other recruit. And when Brian had decided to be a dick during training, he had known taking her to Ryan was the right decision.
Ryan was treating her like his child, and hopefully that care was enough to help her survive.
Knowing the Agency, however, it wouldn’t be.
Curt clutched the bag a little tighter as the lift door opened, closed his eyes, and sent a small prayer into the void.