‘Nurg,’ Stef muttered as she knuckled the sleep from her eyes. The urge to go back to sleep was strong, but the strange urge to get up and do something was stronger.
Damnit, knew they’d be programming me in my sleep.
You’re paranoid, you know that, right?
She pushed the blanket back, not bothering to be surprised that she was no longer on the roof’s edge – knowing that if she’d slept there, then she would have woken up in a morgue. Except that she wouldn’t have.
The fact, however, that she seemed to be wrapped in Ryan’s jacket, was a little strange, and made extracting herself from the sheets even harder. Shaking herself and the sheets like an angry child, however, she managed to pull herself free, and stop herself before falling from the bed.
Require: chair.
With considerable effort, she tossed the jacket onto the chair, unsure if she should return it, or just banish it back to where it had been required from. She stood on unsteady legs and crossed the room, one hand on the wall for balance. The cool tiles in the kitchenette did nothing but annoy her.
Require: fluffy slippers.
Fluffy white slippers appeared on her feet. She slapped at the kettle until it went on, and dug the instant coffee and sugar out of the cupboard above.
Require: chocolate.
She crumbled four squares into the cup and munched on the rest while she waited for the water to boil. She made the mocha on autopilot and sat on the end of the bed.
Require: more chocolate.
She stared at the mocha. ‘You aren’t going to work fast enough, are you?’
Require: caffeine IV.
Nothing happened. She made the request again, but again, the coveted lifeline failed to appear.
‘Crap.’
A gulp of the burning liquid began to dredge her higher functions from unconsciousness. She let her head droop, and tried not to fall back on the soft bed, no matter how inviting it was.
There was a knock on the door, and she jumped, spilling some of the mocha over her knee.
‘Owie…’ She looked up at the door. ‘I have a license to kill, you know!’
There was a click as the door unlocked and Curt poked his head around the corner. ‘Yeah, but you’re not supposed to use that against people on your team.’
She required herself into her uniform, and felt the coffee stain on her skin evaporate. Curt, dressed in a sweaty training uniform, shook his head disapprovingly at her suit. ‘C’mon newbie, no-one’s gonna get mad at you if you don’t walk around in full dress the whole time.’ He gestured at his own uniform. ‘This is really comfy.’
She stared at him, shrugged, and drank more of her mocha.
He looked past her for a moment, likely at the jacket, and gave a shrug of his own. ‘C’mon newbie, you missed training, you can at least take some pot-shots at the paper targets.’
She required her drink away – there were worse things to do first thing in the morning than fire weapons. And guns were loud – she was sure they would drown out at least some of the sounds he made. He insisted on making those. Mouth words. Mouth words aimed at her.
He whistled at her like a dog, and she followed him out, wondering if she could get away with making the roof collapse on his head.
They slipped past the mess hall, and the rest of the recruits, who were noisily eating breakfast and laughing at some joke. Once into the gym, she found she had a question of her own. ‘Is it your job to baby-sit me right now?’
‘Not specifically,’ he said as he approached the range and required his gun – a make a lot more solid-looking than her own girly gun. ‘Why?’
‘Why aren’t you eating breakfast with them? It’s where you were yesterday.’
He took aim at the paper target and fired off three shots. Two to the chest. One to the groin. ‘You remember that thing I told you yesterday?’
‘The Solst-ass thing?’
‘It makes them uncomfortable, really uncomfortable. I’ve got the approval of multiple agents to, well, be alive, and to be serving here. I might be on perma-probation and half a step from the grey list, but they accept me for what I am, and are giving me a solid second chance. Recruits, on the other hand, always look at me funny, like the don’t know if I’m going to snap or not, like they can’t trust me. Like they don’t want to trust me.’
One shot the shoulder. One shot the neck. One shot to the heart.
There was a sound of thunder, and somehow, she just knew that everyone else was dead.
She looked up at Curt. Hanging around Ryan was beginning to make her less scared of people taller than her, but this guy…The Solstice at the mansion had committed mass murder for no good reason, and would have killed her with the rest.
And right now, the ex-Solstice had a gun. One he was very proficient with.
He finished emptying the clip, and turned to look at her, as he ejected the clip into his waiting hand, disappointment flooding his face as he looked at her. ‘Oh c’mon newbie, not you too. You’re cuddly with an agent, how the fuck can you be scared of me?’
Her cheeks flushed with memories of her weakness – of needing a hug after confessing her childish thoughts, and of practically throwing herself at Ryan after waking up in the infirmary. She grimaced, not knowing that it was so obvious how weak she was, but, by the same token, Ryan didn’t seem the kind of person to bad mouth a person behind their back, no matter how-
‘How’d you know?’ she asked at last, folding her arms across her chest.
‘I was gonna get you to run laps with me last night, but you were unavailable.’ He slammed another clip into his gun. ‘I’m safe, ok? Do you really think he’d hesitate to cap me if I put a foot out of line? So, come here, pull out your girly gun and shoot, you need the practice.’
She required her gun, visions of dead hackers dancing in her mind.
‘Tell me that you never killed a bunch of people for no reason.’
‘I didn’t.’
‘What did you do then?’
‘I was just a red shirt. Never did anything of importance.’
‘How’d you get your second chance?’
‘You might be a newbie, but it has to have filtered down that the Solstice will kill anybody, even babies.’
‘Yeah.’
‘Yeah, well, I rescued one. I just picked it up and ran, all the way to the Adelaide Agency. Just threw myself on the floor, in front of their Natalie – Cynthia – and gave up.’
Somehow, this only made her hate him more. Starfish. She lifted her gun toward the target. It’s only the starfish story. Made a difference to that one kid, but what about the rest. What about the rest?
‘No,’ he said as he looked at her stance. ‘Feet wider apart. You need to be solid to take a shot. No good taking a shot if it’s just going to throw you off-balance, it’s stuff like that that gets you killed.’
She lifted the gun again and fired – this time, the bullet very nearly hit the target.
‘Better than yesterday at least. Seriously, don’t look up the barrel of a gun, not unless you mean it.’
She nodded.
He leaned against the side of the range. ‘So last night…’
‘I feel stupid for falling asleep,’ she admitted.
Curt shrugged. ‘Some girls do, it’s not like it’s a big deal.’ He moved a little closer though. ‘Inquiring minds, however, want to know how it was.’
The phoenix was there every time she closed her eyes, phantoms of its soft plumage graced her hands and memories of nothing but air beneath her feet made her giddy. It hadn’t been a corporate building and the functional conjuring of weapons, it had been magic, the kind that had made her hide in wardrobes for an escape out of the humdrum. She looked over at Curt – she’d be damned if she’d say that to him. ‘Awesome,’ she said – it conveyed what it needed to, without making her sound like a weak little girl, ‘it was awesome.’
‘That’s all you’re going to say?’
She shrugged. ‘I was flying, what else is there to say?’ She took another shot, and it hit the edge of the paper target and she allowed herself to grin at the small victory.
He made a neutral noise. ‘Explains a couple of things at the least.’
‘Hm?’
‘Your aim seems to have improved,’ he said.
Phantom pain echoed in her shoulder. ‘Yeah, well, what we were talking about wasn’t the only thing to happen last night. And…I think I finally grokked onto the fact that I need to learn to shoot straight. Running laps though, not gonna happen.’
‘”Injury” or not,’ he said, wiggling his fingers, ‘there’s only so much training you can get excused from. You want otherwise, you go upstairs.’
She gave him an incredulous look. ‘Getting stabbed in the shoulder an damn near bleeding to death gets me sarcastic air quotes? Sorry, I’ll get shot in the head next time.’ She made a quick requirement. ‘It’s probably minor on the weekly injuries list, but it bloody hurt, ok?’
‘Huh.’
‘What?’
‘Nothing,’ he said quickly, ‘I thought you were getting special dispensation, cause of, yanno. Stabbed, huh? Welcome to the Agency.’
She scaled back on the amount of sound that her ears were able to take in, then turned back to the paper target, wishing that it was as easy as auto-targeting and hitting a familiar little button. Curt was still making mouth words, but she managed to not hear most of them.
She put her gun down, flexed her left hand, feeling the impression of the gun still there, then lifted it again, and shot – what had been intended as a headshot slamming into the paper target’s shoulder.
You really suck at this.
Curt echoed the voice’s opinion. ‘Newbie,’ he said loudly, cutting through all of her ability to block him, ‘maybe you should-‘
‘Already gone,’ she said, requiring her gun away, and heading for the door, for the lift, for the tech department.