Curt blinked a few times, forcing his eyes to adjust to the black and empty room – the sim had disappeared, leaving nothing but his fellow recruits. The door was open, and Magnolia stood there like an angry, sexy goddess, one hand pointed out to the gym.
The look on her face told him that she was disembowelling every last one of them with her eyes.
‘Bleachers,’ she snapped once they had all left the empty sim room.
Curt moved up to the third row – close enough to look like an attentive recruit, far away enough from the back where Brian and his mob sat.
Magnolia paced for a moment. ‘Which one of you fucks nuked the agency?’
No one spoke.
‘I know who it was,’ Magnolia continued, ‘I just need you to own up in front of the people you murdered.’
Curt turned to look at Brian – if there was one person who would nuke them out of laziness, he was the likely culprit. Brian for his part, looked innocent.
Someone on the far side of the bleachers stood. Harris. ‘Me. Us. It was us.’
‘Front and centre,’ Magnolia said.
Three recruits stood and stood in front of her. ‘I need you to explain, in the smallest of terms, with the smallest of words, why you nuked the agency, you limp-dicked morons.’
Harris looked like he was going to puke and the two recruits with Harris looked just as nauseous.
Curt leaned back, required room-temperature water and slowly sipped it while Magnolia paced and waited for an answer.
‘We thought it was a win,’ Harris said. ‘We thought it’s what we had to do to win. I mean, that nuke is there for a reason, right? Did we kill it?’
Curt dismissed the water from his hand and tried to keep his posture nonchalant.
Magnolia’s answer had confused Harris. ‘What? But if we nuked it and still didn’t kill it, then it was a no-win scenario, right?’
‘It was already dead.’
‘What do you mean, already dead?’ Harris demanded.
‘Clean out your fucking ears. It was dead. You sacrificed an entire Agency for no reason. You murdered the recruit population and the remaining agents, and that’s without counting the collateral damage incurred due to the reduced Agency presence in the city whilst the team is built back up. I hope to god my life is never dependant on your decisions, Harris.’
‘Who killed it?’
Curt silently begged Magnolia to keep his name out of it, but she was pointing at him before the prayer had left his head. ‘O’Connor took it out.’
‘Finished it off, maybe,’ Brian said. ‘I fought it.’
Curt flashed a quick look at Magnolia and she caught his gaze for a brief moment.
‘I don’t believe I actually have to say this,’ Magnolia said, ‘but you never, ever enact a final solution such as that unless there is no choice. You people are fucking morons,’ she said, looking back at Harris and his team. ‘Did you stop to think that-’
‘If it was dead, he should have told us!’
Magnolia stared at her tablet for a moment. ‘Less than twenty second passed before O’Connor went to the PA system. Your team gave no warning, no indication that you were about to blow the building.’
‘If we’d given a warning, it could have come and stopped us.’
One of the creases in Magnolia’s brow disappeared. ‘Fair point, but it’s taken you long enough to bring that up.’
‘Long enough?’ Harris screamed.
‘If you stated over an open channel that your intention was to nuke the building that, of course, would be stupid, and a move born of desperation. However, you also have to weigh whether or not your enemy could trace the signal in time to react, or know where the nuke was – the one we have in storage can be triggered remotely, so only a fool would detonate whilst sitting on it.’
Harris went red.
‘And a cowboy hat too,’ Magnolia said, ‘amazing. You think this is a game.’
Harris stared at the floor. ‘It was sitting right there. I couldn’t resist.’
Magnolia looked at the bleachers. ‘How would you alert your peers that the nuke was about to go off?’
‘Reference Billy,’ Brian said, making sense for once, ‘who else but us is going to know that Billy is a nuke?’
This earned a nod from Magnolia. ‘Start on the standard exercises. Harris, you and your team, stay behind when we’re done.’
Curt stood and jumped from the bleachers as the recruits dispersed to the standard activities – the shooting range, gym equipment, running laps in small groups. He moved to the gym equipment, climbed onto a bike, selected a random video on the bike’s display screen and began to mindlessly peddle.
Five hundred metres in, more of the recruits had taken up their stations, including a two of Brian’s friends on bikes to his left.
As with everything, there was protocol. He took his hands away from the bike, required over-sized headphones and slipped them over his head – this made him easier to ignore as they felt that he wasn’t listening in on their conversations. Things couldn’t be further from the truth though – the headphones did their best to amplify all external sounds – a toy that Raz had proudly shown to his favourite “agent”.
He slowed his peddling and made motions indicating he was syncing the audio from the bike with the headphones, then resumed peddling as the others began to talk.
Brian himself stood by the shooting range, spending more energy on posing than on practice.
Brian wanted to be an Aide, there was no pretence about it. He felt he was owed the privilege for being one of Field’s longest serving recruits. Five years was a decent recruit career, but so far as Curt could find, Brian had never made a formal application – he seemed to expect Ryan to come crawling after him. Entitled prick.
Magnolia circled, her gaze snapping from one recruit to the next, staring at them like they were prey – it was halfway between terrifying and arousing. He smirked. Pretty much everything about Magnolia was halfway between arousing and terrifying.
Arousing was her confidence, her snark and the things she did with her tongue. Terrifying was that she was better at causing pain than he was, and the fact that she’d built a sim-demon deliberately to invoke Stef’s look.
She turned her predatory gaze on him and he kept his expression neutral. She inclined her head and he hopped off his bike.
Curt followed her across the gym and into the tiny office at the back – where she took people who needed to be praised or berated in private – generally those who failed so bad it was worth discussing whether or not they belonged in a different department, a different Agency or a different line of work.
Magnolia closed the door and he leaned against the wall.
‘Top marks, O’Connor,’ she said.
‘You didn’t need to pull me in here to-’
‘Which is surprising, I thought you’d wimp out when you saw-’
‘I figured that was a little extra-special test for me,’ he said. ‘I’m glad I can still surprise you. So what’d you really want?’
‘Do you want some free advice?’
‘Sure,’ he said in a level tone.
‘You can accept, without question, that I know things about the situation that you don’t.’
He nodded. ‘You’ve got the benefit of aide clearance.’
She leaned back on the table, swinging her legs in an uncharacteristically uncertain way. ‘Just because an experimental protocol gets approved doesn’t mean that the experiment-’
‘Stef,’ he said, not quite able to meet her eyes. She wasn’t “the experiment”, not “the situation”. ‘Stef. Not- This is a person we’re talking about, Mags and-’
‘And both of us know exactly how much the Agency cares about people,’ she said. ‘There’s no guarantee she’s going to be running around again. In fact,’ she looked away, ‘I’ve got every reason to believe that this experiment won’t end well. Make your peace with that and move on.’
Even telling him this much was probably skirting close to breaking protocol – he couldn’t ask for more information, even if he needed it. ‘Why is this-’ He swallowed. ‘Augmentation is a known thing, it’s common, it’s everyday. Why would it be- What’s so different-’ He stopped. ‘I mean, I know that there were…certain reflective properties involved in her resurrection, but that should be all sorted out by now, right?’ He made every attempt for his words to sound earnest, like he believed what he was saying, even though he knew that the truth was probably far less simple.
He watched Magnolia’s face carefully. She was good at hiding her emotions – apart from those in the angry spectrum – but she was far from the single-minded “psychotic bitch” that many recruits viewed her as.
‘Stop acting like an idiot,’ she said. ‘You suspect more than you’re allowed to know. I don’t discount your intelligence, so kindly treat me with the same respect.’
He met her gaze and gave a slow shrug. ‘Sorry, Mags, I’m not used to dealing with smart people. I’m not trying to stick my nose where it doesn’t belong, I’m just trying to keep an eye out for her. The Agency is capable of- You know what they’re capable of.’
She nodded and slipped off the desk, put a hand on his chest, and kissed his cheek. ‘I do. So stop expecting a happy ending.’