‘Tell me about him,’ Stef said. ‘Or – or them. So I can know what mistakes to avoid. James, my – my father. He never told me what I did wrong. I never knew why I was wrong, or why he wouldn’t let me fix it. I just– If you’re going to give me this chance, I don’t want to fuck it up.’
Ryan stood and offered his hands down to her. ‘Why do you assume you’re at fault?’

She grabbed his hands and let him pull her to her feet. He moved to the couch, and she followed, sitting cross-legged, her back against the arm. ‘Because it had to be me. He’s – he’s a professional. He’s always good with his clients, and he loved my mum so much. He would buy her presents, just because he saw something pretty, or send home so many flowers that the help were actually allowed to take the wilting ones home.’ She flicked her shoes. ‘So it’s not like he was some psycho or something. So – so if he could treat everyone else good, ergo I’m the problem.’
‘And why did he sell your pony? What could a child possibly have done to deserve that?’
She folded in on herself. ‘I was bad.’
‘I loathed to throw out Alexander’s toys, and I could require them back if he missed them,’ he said, his hand flexing, grabbing at invisible toys.
She stared down at the leather of the couch. ‘I was bad. Okay?’ She looked up, but he just sat patiently. ‘I was sick. He was going to some fancy client dinner. I puked on him. Made him late for his dinner.’
‘That wasn’t your fault.’
‘I could have turned my head. Swallowed it. Choked on it. Not gotten sick in the first place.’
‘I could never do something that cruel.’
‘What, you never punished your kid?’
‘Never so disproportionately. Alexander was a good boy,’ he said. ‘I didn’t have many discipline problems with him. I had more disagreements with his mother over bedtimes and pocket money and such than I had problems with him.’
‘Why couldn’t you show him magic?’
‘Because Eilise wanted him to be normal. She thought magic was dangerous. She thought it could wait until he was older. He saw too much anyway. He knew he wasn’t entirely human, but he resented that, so whatever little chance I had to show him this world went away. There are festivals where the fairies paint the sky, let children ride on clouds and where they can dance with auroras. I couldn’t take him to that, but I could take him to the Exhibition every year, buy him show bags and let him play the games.’
She pressed her fingertips into her knees. ‘Does – does the cloud festival have show bags too?’
He looked down at her. ‘Do you want an answer, or do you want to find out when I take you in a few months?’
‘You can still back out,’ she said haltingly. ‘You don’t have to do this.’
‘I’m out of practice, but I would like to try.’
‘Where is he now? I mean– He’s not, um… Is he?’
Ryan gave her a confused glance. ‘Dead? No. He’s old enough to be your father. I know where he is, but I haven’t spoken to him in…’ – he went quiet for a moment – ‘sixteen years. He was twenty-six. It was his wedding. His mother and I divorced when he was eight. Eilise had remarried by the time he was ten. I visited on weekends, as was allowed by the divorce, until he would make excuses, or other plans. Every weekend became every fortnight, every month, every three months. I still sent him presents on every holiday. I paid for his tuition. I did all that I could, even if he didn’t want me in his life. He’s still my son, and that means something. I always thought we could reconcile, that we could have some sort of relationship.’
‘I’m sorry.’
‘He would visit here on occasion, but he’d always leave here with a new car, or a debt cleared. Requirements. A second’s thought for me, and some small acceptance of magic on his part. It was something. I thought it was something.’
Require: coo–
She stopped herself. Cookies couldn’t fix everything.
She shuffled across to his side of the couch and wrapped her arms around his again. ‘I’m sorry.’
He leaned his head against hers for a moment. ‘He put his wedding notice in the paper. No invitation. I wasn’t overly surprised, but I attended anyway.’ He paused to give a wry smile. ‘Shifting comes in handy, if you take my meaning. And at a wedding, a man in a suit is more invisible than usual.’
She required two cookies and handed one to him.
‘He saw me, but he didn’t acknowledge me. He introduced his stepfather as his father, and I knew it was time to stop trying.’
She sucked on the cookie for a moment. ‘You could have adopted.’
‘I considered it,’ he said, ‘but with all of my duties, I didn’t think I’d have sufficient time to spend with a child.’
‘Whereas at least hackers don’t need diaper changes?’
He smiled, then took a bite of his cookie. ‘Something like that.’
‘I’m still scared,’ she said, letting go of his arm but leaning against him. ‘I still think I’m gonna fuck everything up. I– I still don’t want to be responsible for other people.’
‘I’ll still ask that you try,’ he said. ‘You can handle the software just fine.’
‘Yeah, but this morning wasn’t real. It’s applying it to real situations that–’
‘For tonight, you’re just backup,’ he said. ‘And you won’t be moved to a more active role until you’re ready for it. As for your Field work, you’ll always have at least one other recruit with you.’
‘And I can always throw Curt at the bad guys and run away.’
That comment earned her another smile as Ryan ate the rest of the cookie.
She undid her laces and retied them so that they weren’t pinching her feet anymore. ‘Sure you don’t want me to come tonight?’ she asked. ‘Yanno, give it a try?’
‘It’s above your field rating, Stef.’
‘I know.’
He was silent for a moment, then turned to look at her. ‘Do you promise to do exactly what I ask you to do, when I ask you to do it?’
‘Yes.’
He was silent for a moment more. ‘If I feel you’re–’
‘Yeah,’ she cut him off. ‘You can send me home. But please. This stupid apocalypse thing is why I’m here, so can’t I see it through?’
‘If you agree to go the gym and do target practice, at the very least.’
‘Agreed. Anything else?’
He gave her an uneasy look. ‘I would prefer if you watched with the techs.’
‘Please. I wanna be good. I want– I want to– I want to try.’
He ruffled her hair. ‘Then go to the gym. I want you to be able to defend yourself.’
‘Thank you.’ She brushed cookie crumbs off her suit. ‘Can you call the Boy Wonder and get him to meet me there?’
‘Curt?’
She nodded and stood. She hugged her arms around herself. ‘That– That did happen, right? I didn’t hallucinate it?’
‘Stef.’
‘Yessir.’
I’ll make you proud of me. I’ll try, anyway.
There was a blank look on Ryan’s face for a moment, then he looked up. ‘He’ll meet you in the gym.’
‘Thank you. I really mean it. For everything.’
He smiled, and a whole colony of warm fuzzies reappeared.
She found the gym without getting lost or requiring the Marauder’s Map. There was a scattering of other recruits there, using various pieces of equipment; a few stood at the shooting gallery, chatting.
Curt beckoned her over to the holodeck. ‘No,’ he said, holding up a hand before she could say anything. ‘Just wait a minute.’
She stared into space and waited as he played with the holodeck controls. He gave a flourish with his right arm, and the door slid open, and he ushered her in with a sharp nod of his head.
She stepped through…into the gym. She stared at the door of the training simulator, having the strange impression of being caught between two mirrors – the same image either side of her. The door slid closed, breaking the illusion.
Curt moved across the floor of the sim gym and took a seat in the bleachers. ‘Whatever this is,’ he said, taking off his jacket and folding it beside him. ‘It’s a bad idea.’
‘Huh?’
His training uniform replaced his suit, but his expression remained the same. ‘Whatever we’re doing,’ he said. ‘There’s no way it’s–’
She climbed on the first row of the bleachers. ‘What the hell do you think is going on?’
He pointed an accusatory finger. ‘You’re supposed to be with the techs, training for tonight. Instead, Ryan calls me and asks me to make sure you can shoot straight. I can do basic math, newbie.’
‘I want to come tonight.’
‘You are going to get yourself killed,’ he snapped.
‘Ryan said it was all right.’
‘You want to be Field, fine, I can handle that. I’ll talk you through the morning sims; I’ll point you at the right resources; I’ll help you be a proper recruit. Mirrorfalls are serious fucking business. Half of what we do is serious fucking business that newbies have no business being anywhere near.’
‘Helped you this morning,’ she mumbled.
‘And that sim was rated a two,’ he said, nearly shouting.
‘I want to go. If you don’t want to help me learn to shoot, I’ll–’ Redness clouded her vision.
Something stung her eyes, and she stumbled. She pressed fingers to her face, trying to clear the sticky mess away from her eyes. A hand shoved her shoulder, and she fell backwards, the window whoffing from her lungs as she landed. She thrashed, trying to see, trying to regain her balance.
‘Stop.’ Curt’s voice, from somewhere above her. ‘Hands.’
She stopped moving and held up her hands.
He grabbed them and pulled her to a seated position. ‘Just stay still, okay?’
The redness disappeared, and she blinked. ‘What the hell was that?’
He held up his gun. ‘Paint round.’
‘That wasn’t fair.’
‘And teaching you how to shoot isn’t going to help you avoid getting shot,’ he said. ‘The people who are stupid enough to go against the Agency tonight aren’t going to be playing fair, and they aren’t going to be using blanks.’
She pressed her hands against the floor and realised that it was squishier than expected. She looked down and saw a thick blue practice mat. ‘The same is true any time we go into the field.’
‘And do you want to be the one who gets between some desperate fae and a wish that could cure his kid’s cancer? Or make a copy of some guy’s dead wife? Mirror raises the stakes for everyone. Desperation–’ He sat down on the mat beside her. ‘Why the hell did you ask Ryan for this? I get that you want to impress him, but how impressed is he going to be if you end up a statistic?’
She stared at the floor. ‘You said you didn’t second-guess him.’
He stood. ‘Oh don’t pull that. You have to know this is stupid.’
‘Are you going to teach me to shoot or not?’
‘It’s not offence I’m worried about,’ he said. He holstered his gun. ‘It’s defence. Shooting at people can be as much of a deterrent as actually hitting them, but none of that is going to matter if some asshole knifes you in the back.’ He paced for a moment. ‘You really should think this through. I don’t care if you’re a genius. This is fucking stupid.’
Ryan thinks I can do it.
‘You gonna help me or not?’
He stared, then walked back over the holodeck door, and grabbed a tablet from a small holder, then returned to the bleachers. An angry look had settled onto this face. ‘I’ll do as I’m ordered, but we’ll do it my way.’ The gym blinked and fizzed, equipment disappearing into nothingness. A street appeared. Cars dotted either side of the street, parked and empty.
‘Um?’ she prompted.
‘Think of it like laser tag,’ he said, then looked at his gun. ‘Well, paintball. I’ve got it set to cycle through system conditions and blackout conditions at random. Go down to that end.’ He pointed. ‘Five minutes to prepare, starting now. Go on the signal.’
She walked down the street. There was a decent field to play with: one long section of street and an intersection, the cross street sections each going at least a block.
Stef turned – she was no longer able to see him – then walked up the door of one of the buildings lining the left side of the street, required the door open, and walked up the narrow set of stairs until she reached the second floor.
The sim was comprehensive, and the second floor of the skinny building was an accountant’s office. She required the door open, then walked through the office to the windows. She required the windows to be slightly tinted, so that it would be harder to see into the building from street level.
A siren sounded, either the “go” signal or a warning to evacuate, and she knelt next to the windows, peering out into the street.
Five boring minutes later, she required a cookie.
Something hit the back of her head, and she fell to the floor, the cookie landing beside her.
‘That’s one,’ Curt said, offering a hand. ‘Did you seriously not notice me?’
She grabbed his hand. ‘I’m going to guess you shifted in, or did something tricky.’ She required away the paint, and replaced her uniform.
‘Came down from the roof,’ he said.
‘How’d you know where I was?’
He smirked. ‘I followed you.’
‘You said I time to prepare!’
‘I never said I wasn’t going to follow you, just that you had time before I attacked.’
She grimaced. ‘Fine. What now?’
He levelled his gun at her. ‘Now we continue. Bang, you’re dead. Bang, you’re dead. Bang, you’re dead.’
‘Hey, wait.’
He raised his eyebrows. ‘I’d rather not waste rounds. Bang. You should be running. Bang.’ He pushed his gun at her. ‘Run, newbie.’
‘You’ll shoot me in the back.’
‘Of course.’
She took a step back.
Require: brick wall.
A solid wall of red brick appeared, running from one side of the office to the other, barricading him and blocking his shots.
An earpiece appeared in her hand, the blue light glowing.
She fitted it into her ear, then tapped the button. ‘What?’
The brick wall disappeared. ‘Nicely done. However, you should only do that when there aren’t civilians around, or if you have no choice, else we’ll have complicated questions to answer.’
She kept her eyes on him but required a foot-high, two-foot-long brick wall between them. ‘Does that earn me a ten-second head start?’
He levelled his gun again. ‘Ten, nine, eight…’
She turned and ran from the room, catching her breath at the top of the stairs. She heard him swear as he tripped over the low wall, then she bounded down to first landing.
Getting rid of the stairs would be too obvious.
She heard him run out of the accountant’s office.
She closed her eyes and concentrated, trying to make her strange requirement as clear as possible. He appeared at the top of the stairs and saw her. She dropped as he took a shot.
His feet hit the stairs, one foot punching through the balsa wood.
He swore, grabbed at the railing, and launched himself towards the landing.
He landed heavily, his feet catching on the bottom of the stairs, collapsing more of the balsa wood construct.
She aimed her gun at his head and pulled the trigger. Orange paint exploded in his hair, and he held up his hands in defeat.
‘Truce.’ He shook his head and sat up to lean against the landing wall.
She required a Coke and leaned against the wall across from him, breaking off a chunk of the remaining balsa as a trophy.
She chewed on the straw for a moment. ‘See? I’m not entirely useless.’
‘You’re clever,’ he said.
‘You said I was an idiot.’
‘You can be both,’ he said with a shrug. ‘This isn’t the movies, newbie. One good practice session doesn’t mean you’re ready for the real thing. One montage worth of training isn’t going to be enough.’ He held out his hand and made a face. ‘See? If you’d been a little later doing this, the blackout would have stopped you, and these would be your brains on the wall,’ he said, dragging his fingers through the orange paint.
She looked to her Coke, pulled out the straw, then offered it to him.
He took it, chugged the rest, then dropped the empty can. ‘Red shirts are a joke, yeah?’ he said. ‘Remember, every red shirt was a real person. All of them grew up, applied to Starfleet, believed enough in the Federation to get on a ship, hell, were good enough to be assigned to the flagship, and all of them died pointless deaths, forgotten by the time the next ad break came on.’
‘Then it’s a good thing I’m wearing blue.’
He stood and offered a hand down to her. ‘Come on. Let’s get you shooting.’
[table id=15 /]