November 14th
The rest of the Field recruits filed in over the next hour, and Magnolia slowly clustered them in small groups – one, two or three – around the taped X’s.
The door to the largest training simulator was open – the external size didn’t matter, even the small ones were capable of holding a world, but it was necessary social engineering – the big room for the big events. Three doors sat immediately inside the simulator – one open to the lobby, one opening onto the tech floor and the last was a reflection of the gym they stood in.
‘Group exercise,’ Magnolia said, ‘two grading elements – success within your own tasks and cooperation with the other groups.’ She jerked a thumb behind her. ‘You can see the three floors behind me. Those of you on white markers to the lobby, blue to the gym and green to the techs.’

Curt looked down and saw a white X beneath his feet.
‘The scenario isn’t one we’ve done before. We’ve done attacks on the Agency, and attempts at breaches.’ Magnolia turned her hand over. ‘This is the inverse – stop a threat from exiting the Agency. Lockout conditions, no external assistance, no shifting, no requiring, limited-’
Curt didn’t bother with surprise as Brian took a couple of steps off his green X. ‘That’s bullshit, when would we need to-’
‘I’m not here to answer your stupid questions, Recruit,’ Magnolia snapped. ‘We need to account for all possibilities, and there are times when sacrificing an entire agency is a better result than something escaping to the wider world.’
Brian bristled. ‘So let us fucking require!’
‘Requiring can be used against us. Shifting could release a danger. This is why lockout conditions exist. You’re on your own for this sim.’
‘Any Agent Bobs?’ someone to Curt’s right asked.
‘One, and he’s injured on one of these floors. That’s one of your choices – use your resources to assist a dying agent, or accept the death as collateral damage.’ She turned towards the recruits standing on blue crosses. ‘Field floor, your primary goal is mount a resistance to the threat.’ She turned to the green markers. ‘Tech floor, secure resources. There will be tech recruit sims; again, your play as to what you do with them.’ She turned to look at Curt. ‘Lobby – last line of defence. Stop the threat from exiting at any and all costs.’
The recruits lined up and entered the three sections of the sim.
Susan and Derek followed him into the lobby – nice enough when on their own – both had been newbies he’d looked after for their first few days until the Solstice thing had been too much for them to handle.
Both had fallen in with Brian’s group and become his lackeys.
The lobby looked the same as always – the Agency was smarter than the United Federation of Planet after all – they didn’t decide to dim the lights just because there was an emergency – visibility was very useful after all.
Susan jogged to Natalie’s desk and retrieved a tablet from there. ‘Lockout conditions in place,’ she reported. ‘What else can we do?’
Derek moved to the doors and played with a keypad until a grate slid down from the roof – a tiny extra layer of defence.
Curt moved to the wall, found a loose panel, and pulled it open to reveal the room’s emergency supplies. The tech floors had emergency stashes every few feet – the rest of the floors only had one set every second or third room. He beckoned the others over and rationed out the paltry weapons and ammunition – glad that his own supplies hadn’t been dismissed upon entering the sim.
There was one phone, which Derek took. ‘The tablet has Vox,’ he said, ‘which is pretty much useless. We don’t have anyone to call on a regular line-’
‘We could call emergency,’ Curt pointed out, ‘but it’s lockout conditions, so no one will come help anyway.’ He turned. ‘And Vox should be working, even if it’s limited to device-only communication.’
‘He’s right,’ Susan said. ‘but there doesn’t look like there’s anyone else online.’
Curt exhaled a sigh through his nose. ‘Showing an online status potentially gives the enemy information. Ping the local chat, see what happens.’
Susan lowered the tablet so that Curt and Derek could see, and sent a ping off into the seemingly-empty chat.
{Field floor, reporting in.}
{Kilroy was here.}
The responses flooded into chat and he heard Derek sigh with relief. ‘Good, we’re not alone.’
Susan tilted the tablet back and ran her finger across it. ‘I’m asking who needs medical treatment, and who can provide it.’
Derek looked around. ‘I’ll take the right side of the lifts, you take the left,’ he said to Curt.
‘Because splitting up is such a great idea,’ Curt snapped.
‘You’re not in charge, O’Connor. Take the left.’
Curt glared, but backed off – the more he gave in, the more he played up being weak, was the more they underestimated him, the more they could ignore him, the more he could fade into the background. They left Susan coordinating efforts on the tablet and split up at the elevators.
The ground floor of the Agency was far more complicated than it needed to be – though a good half of it was the lobby and a waiting room, there were also dozens of little interview rooms, holding rooms and meeting rooms. An unnecessary maze, given how few true civilians they dealt with.
He patted down his pockets and found a thick red marker. The first room was locked, so he drew an X above the handle, the second held no supplies, so he drew a large X across the width of the door, the third held supplies, so he drew a tick.
The door leading into the stairwell had blood on the handle – and the drops indicated someone had come down from upstairs bleeding, rather than retreating upstairs.
He looked at the four doors closest to the stairwell – all four had bloody handles, all four were seemingly locked. He looked at the blood on the floor – there were crime scene recruits to read spatter patterns, though watching all of Dexter meant he could fake a little knowledge and a lot of it was simple logic – standing in place had different droplet patterns to movement.
Three of the four doors had very little blood on the floor in front of them – the injured person hadn’t done anything more than jiggle the handle and move on. The fourth had slightly more blood – they’d hesitated for a few seconds.
He tried the handle again, still locked. He knocked. ‘It’s Recruit O’Connor, is there anyone in there?’
He strained his ears and heard a faint noise.
He pulled a suppressor from an inside pocket, attached it to his gun, stepped back and fired two shots at the lock. He disliked the suppressor – it made his gun far harder to hide and most people were willing to write off an ordinary shot as a car backfiring – it did have its uses though.
Curt stepped to the side and pushed on the door, just in case the occupant thought he was a threat. When there was no reaction, he peeled himself away from the wall.
‘Again,’ he stated loudly and clearly, ‘I am a recruit. I am armed. I am coming in.’
He stepped into the small, dark room and found Agent Bob, gracelessly bleeding to death against the left wall.
Curt liked Agent Bob – so much as it was possible to like someone one step up from an inanimate object whose personality changed as necessary. Bob was uncomplicated. Bob was, for an agent, safe.
Curt left the door open – there was no point in closing it, the damage made it obvious and at least this way they’d have some warning if the demon attacked.
‘Recruit?’ Bob slurred.
‘Yes sir?’
‘Are you trained in first aid?’
‘I know what to do, sir,’ Curt said as he knelt beside the agent.
It was a safe answer, and a true one without telling the whole truth – there was no point in keeping things secret from Bob – the man wouldn’t exist in an hour, and the next version wouldn’t remember anything that had happened. It still felt safer to obfuscate the truth.
Curt helped the agent to lie on ground and tucked Bob’s jacket beneath his head after extracting a silver packet. The wound to the gut was ugly, and would eventually be fatal, but he had time to save the agent.
He ripped open the agent’s shirt – it was quicker than unbuttoning the remaining buttons, and it wasn’t as though the shirt would be rescued – and upended the blue onto the worst of the wound.
The blue gel slowly sloughed out of the packet, falling in blobs.
Bob seized from the pain, but colour immediately returned to his face.
Curt stood, wiped his bloody hands on his jacket, and looked around for the room’s emergency supplies – luckily, this room contained some.
He ignored the weapons and dug deeper into the cache for the rations – among which were sealed bottles of water and a bowl.
Curt returned to Bob, tore the bloody shirt into strips, and threw most of them into the empty bowl, then wiped at the bloody area and the unused blue with the rest, then threw those into the bowl as well. He poured a cup of water into the silver packet and upended the diluted blue into the bowl. Another cup of water into the silver packet and all the dregs of blue were gone.
He soaked the bloody rags for a moment more, then applied them to the wound – whatever small chance of infection there was from the blood was a small price to pay for the use of the remaining, invisible drops of blue.
He soaked the rags again and left them lying against the agent’s stomach, then helped Bob to lean against the wall. He funnelled the remaining blue-and-bloody water into the empty bottle and instructed the agent to drink.
‘Thank you, Recruit.’
Curt smiled – niceties were another reason he liked Bob – even when Bob was the villain of the sim, he always made sure to say please-and-thank-you – which was more courtesy than he got from most agents. More than he deserved, of course, but even prisoners got the formalities of pleasantry.
He went back to the emergency panel, grabbed the weaponry and a med kit, and left them with Bob, then left the agent to his pain.
Curt closed the door as much as the broken lock would allow, then followed the blood trail up the stairs.
The blood trail let him out on one of the tech floors, he checked his guns, counted to ten, then opened the door.
Three techs were huddled in a puddle of lab coats, fear and blood. Thankfully, they were just random sim recruits, not based off anyone he knew – this made it a little easier.
He grabbed the shoulder of the closest one. ‘Which way?’
‘I don’t know!’ the tech screamed.
He left them to their fear and continued down the corridor. The tech floors, bless their paranoia, were far better equipped to deal with, if he could believe the signs, any emergency that could happen – up to and including zombie apocalypses, dinosaur incursions and the rise of the manatees.
One of the open panels held body armour. He stopped, listened for any screams, then pulled out a set that fit him and scrambled into it. It was very much like motorcycle armour, and coloured a standard Agency blue. He adjusted his holster over the top of the armour and slipped his jacket on over the top – any extra layer was an advantage.
He continued through the tech floor and finally caught sight of the demon at the end of a corridor. He shouted and it looked to him, its undersized figure clad in a hooded robe, and it ran.
He checked his weapons. He ripped one gun from his holster, and jammed the half-empty spare there – a full clip against a demon wasn’t an advantage, but it would delay the inevitable for a few seconds longer.
Curt followed the demon through a maze of twists and turns. He came across another kill – and a pool of blood that had stretched across six feet.
Curt fought to maintain his pace across the patch of tacky blood. The demon turned a corner and he lost sight of it for a moment.
He rounded the corner and found it crouching over a tech recruit – all that was visible was a lab coat. Whether the recruit was dead, alive or somewhere in-between was impossible to tell.
He ran at the demon and tackled it to the ground. Pain flared in his shoulder as they hit the ground and rolled. The demon laughed as it clawed at him, the claws bending the body armour and slicing through at a few points.
He braced himself as their scuffle ran them into a wall. The demon-
It smacked him in the head and he had a moment to reconsider the situation as he slid fully to the floor, his head on the cool tile.
Everyone was calling it a demon, but it wasn’t acting like one.
The demon turned and he watched it walk back towards the stricken tech recruit.
They had believed Magnolia, because information given at the start of a sim was usually trustworthy. The thing wasn’t anywhere near powerful enough to be a demon. Partial demon blood, perhaps, but that wouldn’t have rendered the Agency helpless so quickly.
He shook his head as he tried to stand.
There was no detail to see – it wore a rough robe that obscured most its body and the hood fell over its face. The hands were clawed and blue, but that meant nothing.
It was small for a demon. Short. Small.
Short, small and a threat from within the Agency.
He hesitated for a moment, then stood, gripped his gun with both hands and walked at the intruder, emptying the clip into its back. It clawed a hole into the tech recruit and turned, apparently unaffected by the bullets.
Curt lifted his leg and kicked the intruder in the chest. Bullets seemed to do nothing, but physical blows at least seemed to make it stop and think.
Whether or not it was toying with him was another matter.
He swung the empty gun like a club and heard a satisfying crack. Another sign that it wasn’t a demon. Demons didn’t break so easily. It swung out with its claws, both slicing deep grooves into the armour.
He grabbed at the hood and hesitated for a moment – part of him wanted to rip it back to reveal the face of what he was fighting, the larger part of him knew that he needed to use the advantage – and dragged the hood down further, obscuring its vision.
He rounded it, the leading edge of the hood still in his hand, and pounded on the back of its head, and drove it to the ground.
Curt pulled his half-empty gun from the holster, pressed it to the demon’s head and pulled the trigger until it clicked empty.
Useless. It would be as useless as shooting it in the head.
The big, oversized head.
He wheezed for breath as sweat dripped into his eyes.
The demon moved again, but the movements were slow, sluggish – he’d hurt it. He grabbed for a shoulder, flipped it onto its back and straddled it.
Fear sliced into him – it was a sim after all, not a real life-and-death scenario. He had a reputation to maintain – the reputation of harmless, of impotent. He whipped his head around as the demon clawed slowly at him – there was no sign of the other recruits.
He grabbed the hood and tore it back. The face was demonic in a generic way – blue skin and a mouth that opened with mandibles, scars on the cheeks.
It was a demon for all to see. Except the eyes. The eyes were human. The eyes were familiar.
Stef’s eyes.
It was just a sim. Even if it was Magnolia’s sick idea of an in-joke, it was just a sim.
He grabbed the training sim’s clawed hands, forced them back until he heard the wrists snap, then curled them forward and jammed the claws through its throat.
The sim of the far-too-easy-to-beat demon gurgled, then died.
Everything within the training sims was recorded and watched. They’d be watching for his reactions. He couldn’t give a reaction. Things were expected of him. Roles to be played, marks to hit.
He needed to react how they expected him to react.
Curt released the clawed hands – one sprang free of the ravaged throat immediately and fell to the floor with a wet slap, the other snagged on the fabric of the robe. He stood and kicked it – an acceptable measure of how alive something was, then ran to the nearest emergency station and brought up the announcement.
‘And we’re-’
There was a thunderous burst of noise, and everything turned white.