Stef found the gym easily, aside from the fact that the doors were labelled, it was the biggest room she’d seen yet – even bigger than the warehouse testing room. Typical gym equipment occupied the middle of the room, to the left there was a shooting range set into the wall, and to the right was other equipment – sparring mats, balancing beams and the like. At the back were a set of bleachers, bookended by vending machines.
And I’m supposed to do what exactly?
An arm wrapped around her shoulder, and for one moment, she considered flipping whoever it was and stomping on their face. ‘Don’t be scared, newbie,’ one of the boy recruits – the one who had tried to defend her n00b status – said. ‘None of this equipment has eaten anybody for ages, and Taylor’s not here, so you’re not gonna get thrown out a window.’ She shook his arm off, and stepped back, out of arm’s reach. ‘And if you’re going to train change out of the suit.’
‘Not scared,’ she replied, ‘assessing. As to changing, what’s the point?’
This seemed to confuse him. ‘To be comfortable?’
‘Do you go into the field in what I’m wearing, or what you’re wearing?’
‘We train in training uniforms, but, pun intended, suit yourself. Curt, by the way.’
‘Sorry if my manner offends.’
‘I meant, it’s my name.’
‘Ah.’
‘Now, did you pass the bonus round of your tests?’ He noticed her confusion. ‘Did you shoot, kill or otherwise maim someone?’
‘Yes. It was the logical thing to do at the time.’ She enjoyed the look on his face. ‘If you’re asking if I know how to shoot, not really, point-blank is easy for anyone.’
He swept his arm wide and walked over to the shooting range. ‘Standard paper targets,’ he said, ‘when you want something more complex, go into the holodeck. Sorry, the training simulator. You can set the level of difficulty, though it doesn’t let you do a mission more than once.’
‘Just like in real life.’
‘You’re unlikely to run out of missions though, I think there’s maybe two dozen recruits in history who have done them all.’
‘A lot are similar, and you’re graded on each of them. Just remember, all results get CC’d around, so don’t go in with the intention of losing. Looks bad for you.’
She nodded.
‘And…if you’re planning on sticking around, we might want to know who we are. Me Curt, remember. The girls are Enid and Lisa,’ he said, pointing, ‘if you want to be nice, you could pick up a bit of AUSLAN for Lisa.’
‘I’ll go find my year eight dictionary…’ she muttered.
‘Brian is the one with the General complex, he thinks he’s in charge. When you get to be the one who’s been here the longest, you’ll feel that way too.’
‘How long is longest?’
‘Just on two years now. The others are Quart, Lee and Stag – used to be small time crooks, don’t listen when they talk big. And Red, well, his granddaddy was some sort of demon or spirit. Has a tendency to burn things when he’s being careless. Not people, though, don’t worry.’
She attempted to file all of this away, then just gave up.
Curt leaned against the edge of the shooting range. ‘Come on, give it a try.’
She walked over, and after a couple of tries, pulled her gun from its holster, and aimed the gun at the target and pulled the trigger. It missed terribly, and she pulled the trigger again.
The gun failed to produce another bullet, and she lifted it, looking at it to see if it was jammed. There was a scream from her “assistant” and the gun disappeared from her hand.
‘That’s a fucking gun, newbie!’ Curt said, trying desperately to keep his calm. ‘You understand that, right, gun? Gun. There are ways to treat it, and ways to check what’s wrong with it. Looking up the fucking barrel to see if it’s jammed is not one of them!’
She threw her hands out, throwing away the gun that was no longer there, and held onto the side of the shooting range. The world spun, and she wondered if it would reflect negatively on her if she passed out.
‘Yo, newbie, you ok?’
She heard a squeak on the floorboards, and she paused in her coding for a moment before continuing. The floor squeaked again, then the wardrobe door was perforated by a rain of bullets. She had a split-second to worry about the blood dripping into Frankie’s keyboard before all went black.
‘Newbie?’
The wardrobe door was pulled open, and the huge and intimidating shadowy form of the narc looked down at her. She saw him lift the gun, and didn’t hear the shot before all went black.
‘I didn’t meant to yell at you.’
The narc pulled from her the wardrobe and threw her out onto the floor, Frankie slid away from her grip, and she was shaking too badly to stand.
‘Speak!’ the shadowy narc demanded.
‘Woof!’ It had been a stupid impulse, one borne of fear, not of thought.
A bullet slammed into her shoulder, and she heard herself scream. The narc’s heavy shoe slammed down onto the wound, and there was too much pain to even think. She beat on the leg, ragged sobs interrupting her screams.
‘I said speak!’
She managed a whimper, and he aimed the gun at her. She didn’t say anything, and he fired. Time slowed, and she saw the flash of the muzzle and the bullet on an inevitable path toward her head. There was a hot spot of pain on her forehead as it hit the skin, a longer lasting pain as it drilled through the skull, then sharp flashes of pain as memory and knowledge were burned away. There was a wet splat from beneath her as it exited her brain and made a mess on the floor. She felt her head bounce a little, and then there was only coldness.
She ran. Away from the shooting range, and out of the gym toward the lift. She wanted to scream, to cry, to collapse fetal on the floor, or to slam her head against the wall until everything made sense.
Instead, she calmly pressed the button for the lift and waited for it.
Where are you going?
I don’t know.
Go back to your room, sleep it off.
I was gonna die.
I know, I was there. But you’re ok now.
I can’t handle this.
I’m surprised you’ve gotten this far, if you calm down, maybe you can get a little further.
‘Newbie!’ His voice echoed, so he must have been in the doorway to the gym. She didn’t turn to look at him. The doors to the lift slid open, and there were running footsteps behind her. She jumped into the lift, and punched the button for the doors to close, but Curt closed the distance too quickly.
‘This,’ Curt said as he leaned against the wall of the lift, ‘is your first day, did you expect it to be easy? Come on, it’s like the first day of a new job. Except with more guns.’
‘I don’t have a job.’
‘First day of uni.’
‘Don’t go to school.’
‘What the hell do you do, then?’
‘I’m a hacker.’
Curt sighed and shook his head. ‘I’m not usually one to question…but what the hell are you doing down here then, it’s not the like tech department’s full. You can ask for a transfer, you know.’
‘I didn’t get much sleep last night,’ she said, keeping her expression as neutral as she could, ‘and last night was kinda busy for me.’
‘Yeah, surviving a Solstice massacre isn’t exactly easy, I get that, and the people who commit them are whack-jobs.’
‘I think all Solstice are.’
‘No, a lot of them do it to protect someone, or genuinely think they’re doing a good thing. Kill the freak, protect your family, it’s an easy decision to make.’
‘You-‘
‘I’m not extra-credit, newbie, I’m ex. I got brought round to the right way of thinking and got given a second chance, and a relocation to boot.’ He pressed the button for the ground floor. ‘Now, it’s not quite lunch on your first day, this is generally about the time when people go and get drunk.’
Her brain, still unable to reboot, managed a sentence. ‘I don’t drink.’
‘Yeah, you look as likely to get drunk as the guy who recruited you. What do you want, then?’
I wanna go home. I wanna go back to sleep. I want this to all be some sort of dream.
No, you don’t.
‘Don’t tell me what I want!’
‘I didn’t newbie,’ Curt said as the doors slid open, ‘I asked.’
‘Food,’ she managed.
The lift slid open, and having nothing better to do, followed him into the lobby. The lobby was small, the colour scheme was blue – this was expected. The potted plants threw her for a loop, as did the secretary.
‘Signing out, recruits?’
‘Hey Natalie, yes,’ Curt said as he accepted the clipboard.
The secretary gave her a smile. ‘Good morning Stephanie, welcome to the Agency.’
‘Stef,’ she corrected on autopilot. She dated and signed the form on the clipboard. ‘Do I ask the…’
‘No,’ Natalie said, ‘I’m not an Agent, of a similar nature though. Have a good time.’
‘Come on newbie!’ Curt called from the door.
She blinked as she stepped into the sunlight, and for some reason, half-expected the building to disappear, or switch to the other side of the street, when she turned back. It didn’t, and she followed Curt through the throngs of morning commuters and shoppers. She looked up into the bright sun, but couldn’t see the zeppelin – it had faded, or was just hiding beyond sight again. People bustled past her as though she didn’t exist.
She curled her toes inside her sneakers, feeling the mundane reality of her dirty shoes calmed her somewhat. It stopped the world spinning, just a little, just enough for her to walk.
After seeing the zeppelin, and listening to Ryan talk, she had expected to see more ghosts, to see them walking through people on their own, personal funerary marches. Wisps of memory and dream, remnants of a dead world.
Maybe even Mela. Not that she had any idea what the Beast’s Beauty looked like. The beast…he deserved a happy ending – assuming that assuming happy endings existed. She tried to keep up with Curt, but kept stopping, looking around, trying to see the city with new eyes, expecting to see things she hadn’t seen before. It was disappointingly normal – maybe all of the differences were more evident at night.
‘Hurry up newb!’ he called as the light flicked from the green-walk-man to the flashing-hurry-the-hell-up-man. He stopped and waited for her to catch up. ‘Stop dawdling.’
‘I’m not,’ she muttered.
‘You’re looking for…well, for things you didn’t know existed twelve hours ago, right?’
‘More like thirty-six.’
‘Knowing this stuff doesn’t lift some sort of curtain off the world, then every other barista has purple skin and half of the businessmen are actually spirits. There are plenty of non-humans walking amongst us, but most of the time, they’re really hard to spot. There’s no masquerade to drop, seeing one thing isn’t a free pass to seeing everything, it doesn’t work that way.’
‘Oh hell no,’ she said as Curt entered a shop. ‘No.’
‘What’s wrong newb?’
‘This place is an affront to the purity of coffee.’ She looked up at the sign. ‘And it’s named after a Battlestar Galactica character. I never liked that show. Even if it did have Ben Cartwright in it.’
‘It’s just Starbucks. Now, stop making a scene.’ He walked into the stop, she stared at the pavement. The pavement was good, it was safe, it was normal, it didn’t use Italian sizing and strange flavourings.
However…the smell of what remained of the coffee’s purity was too much to resist.
A girl with auburn hair brushed past her, carrying some sort of iced concoction.
‘Hey,’ she said to the girl. ‘Is that good?’ The girl stopped and turned back to her, a confused expression on her face. ‘Drink. Icy thing. Fray-pay. Is it any good?’
‘Ah. Frappe,’ the girl corrected. ‘It’s quite good. Not this combination though. Orange and raspberry do not mix well with peppermint.’
‘Thanks,’ she said. The girl gave her a nod, then walked away.
‘Newb!’ Curt stood at the register. ‘What do you want?’
She looked to the girl behind the counter. ‘I’d like a…just a mocha please. The big size. Large. Lots of chocolate.’ Curt translated this into barista-speak and the girl nodded.
A few minutes later they had their drinks. She stared at hers like it might explode. She hoped it would explode.
Curt sipped at his concoction. ‘It’s not evil.’
She stared at the mocha. ‘Everything is evil, nothing is innocent.’
‘Does it get tiring being you?’
‘Humans tire me out.’
‘”Humans”?’ he echoed. ‘You talk like you’re not one of us.’
She took an experimental sip. ‘Just because I didn’t know what “dancer” meant doesn’t mean I’m entirely normal.’ It was true, not in the way he thought, but it was true. It certainly perked his interest.
‘Parents? Grandparents? Something happen to you?’
‘Mysteries remain that way for a reason. Don’t you want there to be a little mystery in life?’
He shook his head. ‘No. I lived with mystery for too long. I like things to be simple and clear. Knowing this stuff…it messes up your world view for a while, you don’t know who to trust and who not to trust, who’s on your side and who is only playing the part. One simple opinion can break couples apart. Destroy lives. Nearly get you killed…’ he trailed off and became very interested in his coffee.
She shrugged after a moment. ‘It’s better to have an opinion than be a sheep.’
‘People shouldn’t die because of opinions,’ he said quietly.
‘No. No one should die because of a wrong opinion.’
‘Truth is subjective.’
‘No,’ she said as she pushed the cup around with a single finger. ‘It’s really not.’
‘Sure it is. Objectively, you were hanging out with Solstice, hiding from an agent, and not being the most helpful when he confronted you.’
She choked on her mocha.
‘What, you thought he’d get me to be your camp buddy without telling me what happened? I’m ex-Solstice, so I’m his favourite little bitch boy, I’m on permanent probation, so he always gets me to help the newbies out.’ He made a finger gun and pointed it at her. ‘Objectively, he should have drilled your skull. Objectively, you’re too much of a risk to recruit. We should both thank the gods they’re not unfeeling robots. Now, you still want food?’
She nodded.
‘Ok, I know a place, just promise not to puke on me.’
(Link below is broken, please use the following to access the next chapter while we fix it).
18 – Best Laid Plans