‘Can we, um–’ Stef started as Ryan opened the next mailbox. ‘Can we continue the conversation that sorta got interrupted last night?’
He handed her two small envelopes, and she shoved them into the PWNY Express bag she’d required. ‘But other important question first?’
‘Point the way to the next mailbox first,’ he said. She pointed, and he nodded. ‘Ask.’
‘How do we know this stuff isn’t full of face-melting acid or the plague or something?’
‘Do you want to take a guess?’ he asked as he pressed the button to cross the street.
‘Each mailbox has scanning equipment inside?’
‘So why can’t we just shift it out instead of playing postman?’
‘Part of the reason for the stable drop-off points is so that the fae have places outside of the agency to approach us. Some may want to talk but don’t want to leave a letter.’
She bit into a knuckle. ‘Permission to do a sight gag?’
He gave her his narc look, and she turned her back to him. A thought had a crudely painted target emblazoned across the back of her vest. ‘Doesn’t that also, yanno,’ – she pointed at her back – ‘this?’
He put his hand on her shoulder and gently pushed her to start her walking across the street. ‘It does, but the uniform always makes us a walking target. We do stagger patrol times, and they’re assigned to each route randomly, so that there isn’t a predictable pattern. Also, start points are varied, which further makes it unpredictable.’
She dismissed the target and nodded. ‘Okay, so, back to the other conversation?’
‘Do you need me to refresh anything?’
‘You’re a magic program person in a suit,’ she said. ‘A magic angel program person in a suit. If you could see my brain, you’d be blind cause it’s all just fireworks.’ She ground her feet against the concrete. ‘You’re gonna have to forgive me in advance, cause I am gonna ask to look at agenty code sooner or later.’
‘I can arrange something with Jones.’
‘Seriously? It’s not classified or anything?’
She stopped, realising that she was nearly bouncing, and turned to look at him. He wore the possible-sadness, possible-gas look on his face again. This time, at least, she had a theory for what was wrong. ‘No.’
He raised an eyebrow. ‘No?’
‘No-no-no, don’t you fscking dare think I’m just looking at you like my next hack. Or that I’m dismissing you. I’m not thinking you’re not people. I – I– I’m– My entire life is computers and code and all that. What you are is tech that I’m not gonna see humans come up with during my lifetime.’
A little of the narc look reappeared.
‘But you’re a people first, okay?’ Stef balled her hands into fists. ‘You’re mister-awesome-MiB-man. Okay? So can I please geek out about your tech without you thinking I’m being horrible?’
Ryan raised a hand to her face, and she immediately shut up, staring at her dirty sneakers. ‘Sorry.’
She looked back up.
His hand looked a little more blue than usual.
Stef watched as the skin became translucent and disappeared, revealing a blue hand with brighter blue streams flowing within it, like blood. She swallowed a deep breath, then reached out to touch his hand, her fingers leaving impressions like pressing into an LCD monitor.
A paranoid thought made her look for muggles. Though some of the early-early morning commuters had started their journeys to cubicle hell, there were none close, none that would see a glowy blue hand.
Ryan flexed his hand, and she saw movements within the blue.
She slowly plied and moved his fingers again, just like in the ice cream store, watching the movements within the blue glow.
‘This – this is what you are?’ Stef lifted his hand to test its transparency. ‘This is the same blue goop that saved you last night.’
‘Just blue,’ Ryan said.
‘It’s just called “blue”?’
He shrugged as skin slowly reappeared. ‘Why would it need a more complicated name?’
She pressed fingers into the flesh of his hand. ‘So why’d you bleed blood?’
He held her hand as they walked towards the next mailbox. ‘Within system areas, it’s as much truth as it is illusion. Any damage we take from conventional weapons or attacks is immediately repairable – fae weapons and attacks, however, affect us equally in system areas and blackout zones. In blackout zones, though, it’s not illusion; it’s real. Think of it as your laptop plugged into power versus surviving on its battery. It’s not entirely accurate, but it will do.’
‘But – but when Frankie runs out of battery–’
‘As I said, it’s not a perfect analogy,’ he interrupted.
She considered his tone for moment. ‘And?’
‘It’s not pleasant,’ he said. ‘Blue survives for a while when it’s cut off from the system – a day or two, depending on a few factors. Withdrawal is– A lot of agents don’t survive it.’ He squeezed her hand and pointed to the mailbox. ‘There’s two packages in this one.’
She let go of his hand and opened the large, red-fronted mailbox. One package was small and felt like a magazine; the other was large and rattled. She put both in her bag, and they walked on.
The sun reflected off a row of windows as they turned the corner, nearly blinding her.
Stef was awake, at an hour that didn’t deserve to be acknowledged, working before she’d even been caffeinated.
She required a coffee in one of the travel mugs that really seemed to be no more than adult sippy cups. It was embarrassing, but a coffee-stained uniform was at adds with the actually-give-a-damn-and-try direction the day seemed to be heading in.
‘What’s the time?’
‘Nearly five thirty.’
‘What time’s training?’
‘Seven. But you’re excused for the day.’
‘I feel fine.’
‘Going against medical advice isn’t the best idea.’
The threat regarding ripped stitches rose in her mind, and she winced. ‘Okay, so what can I do that’s useful at this hour of the morning?’
The world blurred, and his office came back into view. ‘Take the mail to Jones, then come back here. You can finish your breakfast–’
‘We didn’t actually start,’ she said with a smirk.
‘–And then write up your incident report for last night.’
‘K!’ She nearly bounced from the office, managing to remember to close the door behind her.
Same as the previous morning, half-asleep recruits were walking through the halls in various states of dress and undress. Stef carefully edited what she was seeing, purposely not seeing skin or hints of lace. Humans were strange.
Someone stood outside her door. ‘Newbie.’ Pound. ‘First wakeup call!’ Pound. Pound.
‘A second won’t be necessary.’ Stef walked up to the already bright-and-shiny Curt. It wasn’t natural to be so operational so early in the morning.
He spun quickly, almost as if she’d attacked him.
‘Glad to see you’re up…’ Curt said, his voice slowly trailing off. ‘You’re in the wrong uniform,’ he said slowly, then looked at her bag. ‘Interesting morning, so far?’
‘Tell me you actually got some sleep.’
Another shrug. ‘It doesn’t matter anyway,’ she said. ‘I’m excused from training, so you get to face squishy corpses by yourself.’
‘You can’t just–’ he started before he shut his mouth. ‘What’s going on?’
She shuffled, her hands resting on the bag. ‘Can it wait until later?’ she said. ‘I has to deliver this stuff. You can read my incident report later.’
‘When the hell did you have time to get involved in an incident?’ Curt held out his hands. ‘If you’re out for injury, you shouldn’t be carrying stuff. Gimme.’
Stef clutched at the bag. ‘It’s not heavy. And I didn’t say I was out for injury.’
‘That’s not the point!’
He smirked and made grabbing motions. ‘Bag.’
She lifted the strap over her head and shoved the bag in his general direction. ‘I gotta give it to Jonesy.’
‘I know how the mail works, newbie,’ he said as they headed for the lift. He pressed the button. ‘You didn’t break a limb,’ he said. ‘No sling, no cast. No head wound. If you’re playing hooky, that’s okay, but–’
She stared at the floor. ‘I don’t– Not now, okay?’
The elevator doors slid open. ‘You got shot, didn’t you?’
She couldn’t look up, but she nodded.
‘I think I had the same expression the first time it happened to me. I’d only been a recruit for a few weeks and I ran into an old “friend”,’ he said, wiggling his fingers with sarcastic air quotes. ‘I don’t agree with handing out a gun to every recruit without making them train first, but at least the training follows. Solstice…it’s really hit or miss, depending on who your cell leader is. Sometimes you get fairly decent training, even if it’s mostly under the guise of guys’ days out to the range; some people get hardly anything at all.’
The doors opened, and they stepped out onto the tech floor.
‘This guy was one of the latter. He grazed my arm, so that was nothing serious. Getting shot through the hand, though…’ He looked down at her. ‘That. Sucked. I thought I was never going to be able to– Yanno. A hand’s kind of useful. It was mostly functional by the end of the day, and a week of exercises had it back up to speed.’
‘This wasn’t a graze.’ She pressed a hand to the wound on her stomach. ‘Boom.’
‘What the hell did you get up to last night?’
‘Do follow-ups count as light duty?’
‘Then I assume you’re gonna get stuck doing that with me later. Can I explain then?’
They stopped outside of Jones’ lab, and she knocked. ‘Sure, newbie. Find out what time Agent Ryan wants us to do the follow-up, and we’ll book it in.’
Curt handed the bag back, then walked back towards the lift.
Jones opened the door. ‘You’ve been here two days,’ the tech agent said. ‘And you haven’t worked out you don’t need to knock?’
She shrugged. ‘It’s polite?’
‘Come on in. Find a flat surface.’
Stef upended the bag on the closest table, and he gave an appreciative smirk at the bag, then began to sort through the mail. ‘Junk. Junk. IRL phishing. Junk. Cake. Misdirected mail. Wrong agency.’ He looked up. ‘There’s nothing fun here, sorry.’
‘You said “cake”.’
Jones shrugged. ‘But we can’t take the chance on it. It’s a thank-you; we send a note of gratitude and pretend it was delicious.’
‘Noms aren’t always worth the risk.’ The tech pushed all the junk letters into the bin. ‘So you should come by early and get your workstation set up.’
‘It’s the mirrorfall tonight?’ Jones sat back in his chair and rolled back to his desk. ‘It’s a bit above your field grade, but we always need more eyes and ears.’
‘Sure – um, okies.’
‘Recruit, you look like I’m setting an elder god on you. It’s just a support role. It’s just the meatspace equivalent of calling out adds.’
‘And if I fuck something up, someone could die.’
‘Ryan’s fine, Recruit.’
Stef bit the insides of her cheeks.
‘He’s come to me in much worse states,’ the tech said. ‘And you helped avoid him getting worse. Not all recruits grok onto blue so quickly.’
‘To be fair, it does look like the goop out of a cold pack. It’s – it’s a nanite suspension, right? And it’s all undifferentiated, which is why it could seal the wound instead of just replace the blood or the skin?’
‘Correct, and correct.’
‘Why didn’t it replace the skin first? That’s what it made contact with first; it doesn’t exactly pour well.’
‘It’s easier to be more precise with the thinner concentrations, but the gel has more bang for its buck, so that’s why it’s used for the med packs.’ Jones required a beaker of thinner blue and swirled it. ‘And the nanites are smart; high-priority damage is always repaired first. No point in repairing the skin of a dead agent.’
‘They don’t self-replicate, do they? That’s why he didn’t just Wolverine and get back up?’
He smirked at her. ‘Worried about the grey goo?’
She looked down at her hands. ‘I, um, I didn’t notice getting dosed with it,’ she said, ‘or can you require it straight into recruits?’
‘I assume Ryan offered you a beverage of some kind?’
‘A couple of…glasses of water…’
A glass of water appeared, and Jones poured a measure of blue into it. He swirled it, and the blue dissipated, hidden in the water.
‘There’s a reason the Agency is always so accommodating to guests,’ he said. ‘If you set foot in here for any reason that isn’t asking for directions, you’re probably going to get dosed.’ He sipped on the water. ‘It just starts out as tracking blue – you’re hooked into the system, but only to a very limited degree, enough for us to, well, track you. If you stick around, your dose goes up and recruit privileges get activated.’
‘If I scull enough of it, do I Pokévolve into an agent?’
‘No, the system isn’t stupid. You can only be affected by enough to be a recruit. To let us track you so we can always shift you out, to monitor your vitals so we know if you’re about to run out of HP, to let you require–’
‘–To give the doctors a helping hand during surgery?’
‘Nicely deduced,’ Jones said, ‘but not as much as you’d think. A large part of what our twins do is just more advanced medical science, or it’s fae techniques. The blue gives an edge, sure, but it makes a difference less often than you would think.’
Stef leaned against the table, trying to take it all in.
‘Are you disappointed my answer isn’t “Alakazam” and “Abra Kadabra”?’
‘My laptop’s my best friend,’ she said. ‘The fact that there’s tech behind this only makes it all the much better for me. I mean–’ Stef grabbed the beaker of blue and began to swirl it. ‘I’d probably accept an owl and go to Hogwart’s, but I’d get pissed after a while that particle physics is never a topic of discussion. I mean, how many wizards know about Stephen Hawking?’
Jones pulled the beaker from her hand and upended it on the table, the liquid blue turning to gel as it touched the surface. ‘Worse yet,’ the tech said as the blue wriggled and began to form into equations. ‘Imagine if Hawking had been born a wizard.’
‘How are you doing that?’ she asked.
‘Just requiring,’ he said. ‘It’s simple enough.’
She watched as the blue slipped and moved, crawling like less talky friends of Gumby. ‘You’re a wizard, Stephen,’ she muttered. ‘It would have been horrific. One of the best brains ever, lost to potions and charms.’
‘We’re lucky that the real world isn’t so limited.’ The blue disappeared. ‘I have to farm for some mats. Are you joining us for alt-night tomorrow?’
‘Horde or Alliance?’
‘I have a gnome. Sign me up.’
[table id=15 /]
‘Can we, um–’ Stef started as Ryan opened the next mailbox. ‘Can we continue the conversation that sorta got interrupted last night?’