Stef looked up from her draft incident report. ‘So, permission to ask a stupid question?’
Ryan nodded at her from behind his desk. ‘Of course.’
‘So, tonight. Mirrorfall, right?’
‘Correct. Do you need me to–’

‘No, no, I remember the flow chart, so much as I can wrap my brain around it.’ She stabbed a finger into the last – cold – required waffle. ‘You didn’t tell me what the big deal was yet. I mean, I get everything except what’s going to happen. I mean, is it a giant flamey planetary core we’ve got to blow up, or what?’
‘The big deal,’ he said, ‘is what the mirror is. It’s solid potential. It’s–’ He gave her a sad smile. ‘The mirror is solid wishes, Stef. Wishes from the mirror can grant you nearly anything you can imagine, and many things you can’t. And it’s dangerous because of what people could do with those wishes. A careless wish could create a weapon, or spark a war, or rip a hole in the world. It could damage an ecosystem, or wipe out a species, or spread a virus.’
‘So, lots and lots of end-of-the-world scenarios.’
‘Unfortunately, yes,’ Ryan said. ‘While most will want the mirror for their own purposes–’
‘There’s still the chance.’
He nodded. ‘So we go in, and we try to get to it first. We can’t stop people going after it, and we also can’t execute civilians who try to obtain a piece. It’s like assisting the leech; it’s not something the Agency can condone, but it’s also not something we can prosecute. So, the majority of what we’ll be doing tonight is damage control, using crowd control measures and actively trying to discourage people from pursuing the mirror. If they go against us, though – if we’re attacked – we’re free to retaliate.’
‘So you try and grab bits to put in some big vault?’
He shook his head. ‘No. Any piece we get our hands on, we have to destroy.’
She nodded.
‘The temptation is hard to ignore,’ he said. ‘Because of all the…’ He paused for a moment. ‘Because of all the good that could be done.’
‘But I’m assuming this thing is a finite resource, so it’s the same as having a genie and being unable to wish for more wishes or more genies. Whatever wishes you make, there’s always more wishes you want. It’s stupid and it’s frippy and it just feeds on itself. You fix the kid with cancer; you ignore the kids starving on the street. You fix a drought, but ignore deforestation.’ She leaned back against the couch. ‘And look at the stories. The fallout from wishes can be worse than leaving the situation as-is. Aladdin’s a street rat; add wishes, and now he’s stuck dealing with political intrigue for the rest of his life.’
He gave her a curious look. ‘You wouldn’t be tempted?’
A wish to be normal. A wish to work properly. A wish not to be crazy. A wish to bring Peter back from Neverland. A wish to start life over with a better family. Wishes made a hundred times, a thousand times, on first stars and shooting stars and with pound coins flicked into fountains.
Wishes of a child.
Wishes of a child too cynical to really believe that anything would happen, but needing to wish on every star anyway.
Stef shrugged. ‘Am I gonna lose my ability to require cookies?’
‘No.’
‘Then what would I need wishes for?’
‘You’re rather strange, Recruit.’
She required a cookie. ‘I try my best.’ She held up her report. ‘Okay, I’ve done as much as I can until we do the follow-up.’
‘The owner is going to let you in at ten,’ Ryan said. ‘Are you sure you’re all right to do this?’
She sifted through the pictures from the clean-up crew’s job, pulling the “before” and “after” shots from the extensive pile. ‘It barely looks like anything happened.’ Most of the shattered glass had already been replaced, and there was no evidence that either she or Ryan had been shot. The evidence of the clerk being shot, however, remained, even though the body had been taken away.
It looked like a robbery gone bad, not a good-guys-vs-bad-guys shoot-out.
‘I’ll be fine.’ Stef watched as Ryan lifted the next folder from a pile that seemed the same size as it had been an hour ago. ‘Seriously, can’t you get in a bloody temp to do some of that for you?’
‘I could,’ he said. ‘But I would prefer to–’ He paused for a moment. ‘I’d prefer not to involve someone in the process who wasn’t part of this agency. There are…idiosyncrasies that an outsider may not appreciate.’
‘And no one has offered to be your aide?’
‘I’ve had a few offers,’ he said as he pulled the next folder from the pile. ‘But I’ve had my reasons for rejecting each application.’ He gave a quick smile. ‘And I don’t have other commitments, as some agents do, so there isn’t an issue.’
She poked at the Os and Is in her report, tapping out binary numbers. ‘What kind of aide would you accept?’
‘I need a recruit who’s been with the Agency for more than a week.’
She shook her head. ‘Not me,’ she said. ‘Paperwork and I don’t get along. Just– Just in general.’
The narc look returned to Ryan’s face. ‘Is Curt preparing another application?’
She squirmed for a second. ‘Yeah… So if you could give me some pointers, I’d have some conversational ammunition instead of just being the stupid newbie who doesn’t know anything.’
‘You aren’t stupid,’ Ryan said.
She stared at the floor. ‘So, any hints?’
‘There wasn’t anything wrong with his last application,’ he said. ‘Submitted a little too soon, and his knowledge was lacking in a few areas, but still an application worth considering.’
‘So it’s the Solst-ass thing, and he’s wasting his time no matter what he does?’
‘An agent needs to be able to trust their aide,’ Ryan said. ‘And I don’t trust Curt.’
‘But you’re okay with me palling around with him?’
‘His history aside, he’s a model recruit. Trust is something more than that, and I haven’t been given reason to trust him.’
‘You didn’t really answer my question.’
‘I don’t trust him, but I trust his motivations. If he is reformed, as his image suggests, then I have no reason not to have him assist with new recruits. If he’s a long-term mole, then his goal is something other than murdering a single recruit.’
‘Your brain is kinda scary.’
He smiled. ‘For what it’s worth, I think you’re safe. I won’t have him as my aide, though. I’ll just reject his application as last time. I’ll reconsider it when his probation has expired.’
‘How come you’re telling me this?’
‘Because I trust you.’
She dropped her head and grinned, then looked back up. ‘I’ve been here three days. There’s still a chance I’m a bad guy.’ She wiggled her fingers in his direction. ‘Boooo, and such.’
‘Are you trying to be a ghost?’
‘I don’t know what noise bad guys make!’ She made a finger gun. ‘Mostly it just seems to be boom!’
‘Do you want to watch the training sim?’
‘Does that mean getting up?’
He gave her a full-strength narc look, then Frankie appeared on the table that had held their breakfast feast. She pulled open his lid and waited as a program loaded. Thumbnail-sized screens streamed video on the left, a larger window sat blank in the middle, and vital sign readouts sat on the right. She ran her finger across the trackpad and selected the first thumbnail – as she suspected it would, it started to stream in the main window.
‘This is a version of the interface the tech recruits use when monitoring recruits in the field,’ he said. ‘So it would be to your advantage to familiarise yourself with it.’
‘You can just give me to Jones if you want.’
‘Stef.’
‘Yessir,’ she mumbled and looked to the screen.
She pulled Frankie from the table and rested him against her knees, tilting the screen so everything was clear. She clicked through each of the thumbnails – some were feeds from earpieces, some were fixed points, and one seemed to be a roving aerial view, maybe a drone.
So far, nothing seemed to be happening.
There were three recruits in the sim – Curt and Kee and West. All were working different parts of the sim. She looked to the menu options and found a map of the sim – it was a suburban area, early evening, spread over a few streets. A few hundred houses, two small parks, and a quiet construction site. She zoomed around the map, but there was no clue as to what was going on.
‘Can sims be false alarms?’ she asked.
‘They can be,’ he said. ‘But Magnolia never uses those for training.’
She plugged in a pair of headphones and listened to the absolute lack of chatter among the recruits. Kee was walking through the streets, West was doorknocking and talking to NPCs, and Curt was in his stupid little red car driving in circles around the neighbourhood.
Stef kept the main image as the feed from Curt’s headset.
Why couldn’t the boring sim have been yesterday?
Such is life.
Curt drove past one of the little parks, slowing the car to a crawl as he looked into it. Something on the ground caught her eye but escaped his attention as he looked back to the road and drove off. She slipped Frankie off her knees and put him on the couch. She clicked on the main window and rewound the feed a few seconds, pausing where Curt had stared into the darkened park.
There were hoof prints in the mud, in shadow and barely visible, but impossible to miss if you knew the shape.
She pulled her headset off. ‘Is it cheating if I give him a clue?’
‘The headsets are closed to outside communication during sims,’ he said. ‘Sometimes there’ll be instructions from the in-sim agency, so we don’t want to confuse them.’
Her heart sank a little, but his words hadn’t sounded like a rebuke, more like a challenge.
She pressed her lips together for a moment. ‘Only the headsets?’
He nodded, and the warm fuzzies returned. ‘Only the headsets.’
‘I’m assuming the tech department has everyone’s phone numbers and our own version of Skype?’
The program loaded on Frankie as soon as the words were out of her mouth.
She found Curt in the list and sent a quick text. {Go back to the park. There’s hoof prints.}
She tabbed back to the surveillance program and watched as he stopped the car and pulled out his phone.
The view in the feed swung wildly as he looked around, then she heard him asking the other recruits if they’d sent him a text.
‘Idiot.’ She pushed Frankie on the breakfast table, slid off the couch to sit on the floor, and required a second screen so she could have the surveillance program and the communication program up at the same time.
{Park. Hoof prints. –Newbie}
He looked to the phone and then into the rear-view mirror. ‘Newbie?’
{Yup.}
He boggled at the rear-view mirror for a moment, then drove back to the park and stepped out of the car.
{In the mud. Horses in suburbs aren’t normal. Give me some light.}
He required a torch and illuminated the patch of mud.
{Keep your fscking head still.}
After he looked back from the phone, he did his best to give her a steady view.
{Unshod. Weird. Small.}
He tapped on the phone for a moment, and a reply message appeared. {Call me already?}
Stef squirmed but hit the call button in the communications window.
‘Do I even ask what you’re doing?’ Curt asked.
Other than wondering if this is cheating or just using every advantage?
‘You’re looking for a horse,’ she said. ‘It went into the park. That’s all I can tell you.’
‘How many Saddle Club books did you read as a kid?’
‘Look for patches of mud. If it was moving slowly, it might not have broken up the grass too much.’
‘Hold on.’ He communicated the pony information to the other recruits.
The light from his torch grew brighter, and he followed small patches of hoof prints through the park and out to the other side, where the trail stopped at the road.
‘What now, newbie?’
‘Try smelling,’ she said. ‘Horses smell. Horse poop smells more. Horse poop has an awesome smell.’
‘That’s more than I needed to know.’
She heard several deep sniffs, then a long string of curses.
‘If this is your definition of “awesome”…’ he said, jogging down the street and trailing off as he found a pile of poop in the gutter.
‘Light,’ she reminded him.
‘It smells like something died. Is it supposed to smell like that?’
You didn’t flinch at the corpse yesterday, and poop bothers you?
Stef stared at the pile of faecal matter. ‘I don’t care what it smells like. It’s not supposed to look at that. Get closer.’ She heard him growl, but he obeyed. ‘It really isn’t supposed to look like that.’
She heard hooves and waited for Curt to look up.
A centaur stood, sallow in the weak light of the street lamp, grass hanging from its mouth.
‘Oh this is so cool!’ She thumped her hand on the table.
‘Thanks for the help,’ he said brightly. ‘I can handle it from here, newbie.’
‘You don’t get the keep the centaur all to yourself!’
‘Newbie, drop off channel and go get ready for the follow-up. I’ve got other stuff to do this afternoon, and I don’t want to be waiting on you.’
She hung up the call and closed the communication program, but she kept the surveillance running.
‘How’s it going?’ Ryan asked.
‘He keeps promising not to be a dick,’ she said. ‘Centaurs. Good, bad, or indifferent?’
‘That isn’t a real centaur,’ he said as he came to sit on the couch behind her. He put a hand on her shoulder, and she moved back up off the floor to join him.
‘So what is it?’ She dropped her headphone onto the table.
‘There are animal fae. I assume you’ve deduced this much?’
‘Like Magnolia the magpie?’
He nodded.
‘So that’s just a horse person?’
He put a hand over hers. ‘Not quite.’
She watched the main feed as Curt approached the not-centaur, and she recoiled a little at the strange look on its face. Its eyes flared like a spooked horse, and it began to back away from him.
‘That– That’s a horse person without the person, isn’t it?’
‘Some animal families will make… half creatures like this. Mockeries and freaks. They’re sold as slaves and entertainment. It’s easy for a warden or those that act as their proxies to force human shape onto what had been an ordinary creature. Consciousness, intelligence – these are much harder to do. So, you end up with miserable creatures like this poor thing. This would have been an ordinary horse, and now it has hands and a face that wasn’t designed to eat hay and grass.’
‘So what do we do?’ She jumped at the sound of a shot. Even buffeted by the headphones, the sound was loud and distinctive.
She stared at her knees. ‘Would… Would you mind closing the window for me?’
He reached across and tapped on the trackpad. ‘We try to be kind where we can. Leaving a creature to a life like that is not kind.’
‘But they’ll just make a replacement, won’t they?’
‘Sometimes,’ he said, ‘but often enough, if a creature like that is found in the wild, it’s because its owner has become bored.’
She required a cookie and bit into it. ‘I– I– I don’t like dead ponies. Okay, I get that it’s kinder. But–’ She crammed the rest of the cookie into her mouth. ‘Sorry. Tangent. Okay, so how common is this?’
He didn’t answer her. Instead, he squeezed her hand tightly.
‘I– I– I had a pony,’ she said after thirty seconds of silence. ‘Buttercup. He got sold off for glue. But really good glue, cause he was a really good pony.’
‘Why?’
She felt her heart straining, the old memories hurting. ‘Because I was bad, and my dad needed to punish me. And just selling him wasn’t enough.’ She dug her nails of her spare hand into her thigh. ‘Because I needed to learn that actions have consequences.’
He wrapped his arm around her shoulders.
‘I’m over it,’ she said, knowing she didn’t sound convincing. ‘It was ages ago.’
She leaned against him, trying to cover the memories with hugs. Memories of apologising a thousand times, a thousand different ways. Stiff-lipped and formal apologies, crying apologies, written apologies. Letters bargaining the point, pointing out the benefits of letting her keep Buttercup. Memories of screaming and crying and begging – and getting shouted down for all three. Begging had earned a good, hard smack – one of the very few times James had hit her. Most of the time, words had stung hard enough, but begging had triggered him. Begging was unbecoming. Begging was something desperate people did, and people of their status, their position, were never desperate.
Begging meant that you weren’t able to negotiate well enough.
She’d offered her inheritance, and he’d shouted her out of his study.
It had been one of the few times mother had tried to have a conversation with her, but even then, the focus had been on how much more time she could put into ballet. There’d been a dozen new outfits and a dozen new pairs of shoes by the end of the week.
Running away in the night to get Buttercup and just ride off had been an appealing idea until logic got in the way. Genius pointed out the problems of food, of safety, of the likelihood of being found and brought back home, which would have made the situation worse.
James hadn’t even let her say goodbye. He just informed her when it had been done.
She fished her tie out of her vest and wiped her eyes before stuffing it away. ‘Sorry. Like I said. Tangent. I didn’t mean to.’
‘Stop apologising,’ he said gently.
‘I still have Frankie,’ she said, pulling out of the safety of the hug to touch the computer, ‘and I still have Alexandria, so it’s not like I’ve lost everyone I’ve ever cared about.’
‘You still have the doll?’
‘Of course I do,’ she said, daring to look up at him for a second. ‘She’s important.’
He got a faraway look in his eyes, then blinked. ‘Times like this are when an aide would come in handy. You’ll have to excuse me. I’m being called into a meeting.’
She wiped her eyes again. ‘You could be fashionably late.’
‘I’m already pushing those limits,’ he said.
Guilt panged in her chest. ‘I’m sorry.’
He put his hand on her shoulder. ‘Some things are more important.’
The guilt slipped away, and the tears dried up. ‘Have– Have fun?’ she said as she looked up at him.
‘Hardly,’ he said as he straightened her tie. ‘I suspect I’ll be playing solitaire for the majority of it.’ With a wry smile, he shifted away.
[table id=15 /]