‘So, you’re sure I can’t sleep with you.’
Stef stared across at the agent. ‘…yeah.’
‘Clarke…’ Ryan warned.
‘Fine, I’ll have to get to know you the boring way.’ He flipped a salute. ‘I’ll look forward to the fascinating reports.’ With that, he shifted away.
‘I…what the…who was he?’ she stammered, resting her head on the conference table. ‘And is he always like that?’
‘No, unfortunately, most of the time, he’s worse. He came to see me about a week ago, caught me while I was sleeping and felt it pertinent to tell me that I’m “cute” whilst sleeping. Clarke is good at what he does.’
‘And what he does is a lot of women?’ she joked, a blush crawling over her face.
‘Something like that. It’s his method for doing work. Don’t worry, he won’t bother you with that line of questioning again, it’s how he meets people. Next time, if he’s making you uncomfortable, turn the conversation to Surprise Fiction.’
‘He a fan?’
Ryan smiled. ‘He’s the producer. It was his idea, and it’s saved us on more than a couple of occasions.’
‘So he does think with both of his brains?’
‘Sometimes. Just…never have a conversation with him about poker.’
‘Do you trust me?’
‘I’m fairly certain I would to take you to Jones and get him to reset you in some capacity.’
‘Ok, fine, fine, I won’t.’
Ryan looked at the file in front of him. ‘This is difficult, organising times for you to meet everyone. Mr Applebaum should be easy though.’
‘Generally you can find him in Lost and Found.’
‘Oh him, I met him, when I pulled the macro trick.’ She grinned and slapped her hands to her chest. ‘You know, “this is lost property”-’
The conference room disappeared, and the Lost and Found room came into view, a tiny pop-up on the bottom of her HUD informed her of the same information, and she waited for the lights to flicker on.
She wandered toward the glowing green EXIT sign and saw the old man – Applebaum – in the little office, lying back in his chair and snoring.
‘I should sign out, right?’
He sat up like a shot and handed her a clipboard. ‘You can’t keep doing this, Missy, not unless you’re drunk, it’s too much work for me.’
She stuck her hand out. ‘We’re ticking boxes to make sure I meet everyone. Stef Mimosa. Agent.’
He waved a dismissive hand and took the clipboard back. ‘I know, says so right here,’ he said, tapping the side of his head. ‘Don’t you have somewhere to be?’
‘Um, probably,’ she said.
Shift: conference room.
The basic shift processed in two seconds, and she found herself standing behind her chair. ‘You can cross him off,’ she said, ‘introduction out of the way.’
‘Indeed. We’ll probably go visit the outpost Agencies next week, just so you don’t get overloaded.’
‘Only little ones, the outposts aren’t that far away.’ He flipped a page. ‘Though you’ll have to do a few practice interstate and international shifts.’
‘Do I get frequent flier miles?’
‘Sheesh, joking. Don’t pull dad!face on me just for-’
‘I think Jones made a widget to track the number and distance of shifts, if that will do. It’s a low priority though, and you’ll have to make sure it’s compatible with your version of the software.’
‘Cool.’ She spun on the chair. ‘Who’s next?’
‘You!’ a voice shouted.
She froze in her chair.
‘You!’ the voice shouted again.
Her chair was spun and she was pulled from it and lifted from the ground. She prepared herself to be shouted at, to have her neck snapped or for someone else to-
She stared in a smiling face. ‘It’s really you?’ the blond agent asked as he held her aloft, hands under her shoulders, appraising her as one would a stinky toddler. He looked past her. ‘This is her?’
‘Stef, this is Agent Grigori,’ she heard Ryan say.
He bounced her up and down. ‘It’s very nice to meet you,’ he said with a grin.
‘Grigori put her down.’
The agent stared at her. ‘You’re the one Emma made all the fuss about? The one that generated all those reports and paperwork?’ He lifted her higher. ‘But you’re so tiny!’ he said with a laugh. ‘We have mice bigger than you in Russia, mice!’
‘Fine, fine,’ the apparently-Russian agent said, dropping her back into her chair. ‘Good to meet you anyway,’ he said as he slid into a chair halfway up the table.
‘So I’m guessing,’ she said to the newcomer, ‘that you don’t exactly share Emma’s point of view on things?’
‘It was not your fault, so you can hardly be blamed.’
She took a small piece of paper out of her pocket and made a mark on the right side, then stuffed it back in her pocket and out of sight.
‘Notes?’ he asked.
‘I decided to keep a running tally of everyone who thinks I’m an abomination. You’re in the minority at the moment.’
‘Another?’ he asked with a smile. ‘Wonderful.’
‘Well there are less than a hundred thousand agents, so that’s one, and it’s a minority you share. And-’
‘Grigori,’ Ryan said, ‘not that we don’t appreciate the interruption, but we…don’t appreciate the interruption, you know what the first week of a newborn is like.’
‘Of course, of course,’ he said, waving a hand, I’ll cut to the chase then. She’s got to do external training, just like a regular newborn, correct?’
She looked across at Ryan, rapidly searching her memory for any mention of external training, but nothing came to mind. [This something I should remember?]
[No, no. I haven’t brought it up yet.] He looked across to her. ‘To make sure you can interact with other agents and other recruits, rather than having you get used to only working with one set of people, the second week of any newborn’s life is spent at another Agency, under the direction of another agent.’
‘Did you pick somewhere yet?’
‘I was thinking of asking Williams, have her-’
‘Tag along with a Madchester-stalker? Pah!’ Grigori turned to her and spun her chair. ‘Allow me to state my case,’ he said, his face nearly split with a grin. ‘Do you want to make boring reports about crazy people all day or help me fight frost giants?’
‘I’m better at the boring stuff,’ she admitted, ‘I’m not so good at the fighting.’
Grigori held out a huge hand. ‘Give me your ID.’
She reached into her pocket and fumbled for her ID. ‘Here,’ she said as she handed it across.
Grigori flipped the leather holder open and pointed to something. ‘Just like I thought, it says field. That means you have to be at least a little good at fighting.’ He lifted her arms and shook them. ‘Are you telling me Jonesy didn’t program and kick-ass into you?’
‘He gave me the impression that it was hard enough to get my feet to point in the same direction.’
Grigori turned to Ryan. ‘You didn’t let her fight yet?’
Ryan pointed to the folder in front of him. ‘This afternoon, we’ve got to do this in order otherwise things will spiral out of control, and this isn’t the easiest week to begin with. I mean, shifting was bad enough.’
She hung her head in shame. ‘Wasn’t exactly my fault,’ she mumbled, ‘it was only my third go!’
‘What…happened?’ Grigori asked.
She kept staring at her knees. ‘I went out the window. I was trying to go across the room, and I…went a little far.’
The Russian laughed and clapped her on the back, nearly sending her flying from her seat. ‘It’s ok, everyone’s done that at least once.’
‘Yeah, right,’ she said darkly. ‘That’s the kind of thing people say but don’t really mean it.’
He stopped laughing. ‘Fine, I’ll say it with the caveat that it’s usually on purpose. Myself, I’ve done it on numerous occasions, because…well, if you hear a husband coming home and you don’t want to explain why you’re in bed with his wife, sometimes it is easier to go out the window and to worry about your clothes after you’re safe, than to risk fighting a man whose only crime is not being a living sex god like myself.’
She peeked up at Ryan though the hair over her face. [Tell me that all agents aren’t…um…]
[Obsessed with procreation?] he replied. [Clarke and Grigori are two notable exceptions. However-]
[If the door to the infirmary is shut, knock before entering.]
[I don’t want to think about the implications of that.]
[Probably worse than you’re imagining.]
[I’m not imagining anything, I’m really trying to think about puppies!]
[There is a story, I’ll tell it to you later.]
Grigori clapped his hands together and laid them on the table. ‘So how about it?’
Ryan stared at him for a long moment. ‘I’ll consider it. You might not be the only one to make an offer, Grigori, and she doesn’t have to start for nearly a week.’
‘Fine, fine,’ Grigori said, patting her on the head and leaving the room.
She ran her fingers through her hair, and attempted to straighten it. ‘He was um, different.’
‘He’s a good man, and he has a much harder job than I do.’
‘I get the feeling there’s a “but” in there somewhere. Hell, he doesn’t want me to off myself, so he’s already in my good books.’
‘Knowing who his best friend is…I’m not so sure I should let you do the training with him. Besides, safer is better, you’re still learning your way around your own body. And Madchester would be right up your alley.’
‘Because I’m nutso crazy as well?’
‘They serve a similar purpose to the Lost, where your Captain is from, it would be a safe course of study.’
‘Sounds a lot less painful than fighting frost giants. Those are…a big problem?’
He nodded. ‘They’re surprisingly numerous, Grigori treats dealing with them as almost more of a hobby than a job.’
She lifted herself a little, trying to look at the piece of paper that was dictating her life for the day. ‘What’s next?’
‘Meeting the other recruits.’
‘Oh. Wonderful.’ She spun on her chair for a moment, rotating three times before he stood and stopped it. She craned her neck and looked at him. ‘Can’t we just skip that part?’
‘Just start you working without letting them know who you are?’
She smirked. ‘Sounds good. Can we do that?’
‘What the heck are we telling them anyway?’
‘You’ll see. I’ll do all the talking, just smile and nod.’
‘Are you sure we have to do this?’
He spun her chair towards the door. ‘If you agree to meet with them, it means you’ll be able to order them around.’ He held a hand out to her. ‘Think of everything you’ve been through, is this really that bad?’
‘It’s people, I’m no good with people, and these people didn’t like me that much.’
‘You could always hope that they don’t remember you. It’s been weeks since you were a recruit, maybe you didn’t make that much of an impression.’
She held up crossed fingers. ‘Here’s hoping,’ she said as she followed him out of the conference room. They took the elevator down one floor, and exited out onto the field floor.
‘They should all be waiting,’ he said, ‘I asked them to meet us in the mess hall.’
She saw a shining beacon of hope. ‘Could you give me one minute?’ she asked, running ahead of him toward her one chance of an exit.
‘No,’ Ryan said as he grabbed the back of her vest and steered her away from the bathroom. ‘That only works once.’
‘But I need-’
‘You’re an agent, no you don’t.’
‘The last time I let you hide in the bathroom, you were in there for nearly twenty minutes. You’re an agent, no more hiding in the bathroom.’
‘Recruits really aren’t that scary.’
She smirked. ‘You thought I was scary.’
‘No, I thought you were an intrusion on this reality by some sort of chaos-inducing piece of dream, or a demon trick, I wasn’t scared of you.’
She stopped walking and stared at him. ‘You really thought that?’
He gave a nod.
‘That’s…kinda cool. Fine. Recruits, bring ‘em on.’
‘No shifting away.’
He pushed open the door to the mess hall, revealing the same group of recruits that she’d been a part of – minus Enid of course. A few of them sat at the table, eating lunch, two more sat on a couch, sharing a bag of chips, the tall one with the red hair stared at a crossword pinned to a message board and Curt lurked at the back of the room, leaning against a cupboard, a cup of coffee in one hand, a report in the other.
‘Sorry to keep you waiting, recruits,’ Ryan said, addressing the room.
She felt the physical macro take effect straight away, and all traces of emotion leave her face.
‘I’m going to teach you a trick,’ Jones said.
‘I think I’ve almost got the friends list working, what’s next?’
‘It isn’t always easy being an agent, even for those of us born to it. Sometimes you’re expected to be an emotionless robot, no matter what you’re feeling, sometimes you have to work for the uniform, and keep going no matter what. Sometimes you have to be the brave face even if you’re crying.’
‘You gave my emotions an off-switch?’
‘Not quite,’ he said, ‘I’d never do something so cruel. This is the next-best thing though, it turns off all display of emotion. You’ll have a straight face even if you’re loling on the inside, a serious face no matter how disgusted you are, and a sensible narc face even if you’re upset.’
A message window appeared in her HUD, with a purple link.
‘Click that,’ he said, ‘remember how to unpack the addons?’
She watched a small progress bar load, then both the message window and the link disappear. ‘How do I do it?’
‘It’s another command, and for ease, I macroed it as “slash-serious”. Activate it, and it’ll appear as a toggle, when you’re safe again, just toggle it to off, and your face will be back to showing your real emotions.’
She hung her head. ‘I guess it’ll help me pretend I’m a real agent.’
Jones smiled. ‘Everyone uses some version of this, whether it’s manually toggling each option, refusing to show emotion at all, or just running the macro. Sometimes life is easier if your heart isn’t worn on your sleeve. It’s an advantage of not being human.’
‘…don’t suppose you’ve got a voice-mod so I can talk like a Dalek?’
‘I’ve never found the need for a full voice-mod, come see me when you’ve got some free time and I’ll show you some neat tricks.’
All of the recruits stared at her, not one hint of recognition in their faces – rather, all of the recruits except for Curt stared at her without recognition. He looked at her for the briefest of seconds, his hand clutching his coffee cup tighter before looking away.
‘This the newest member of Agency staff,’ Ryan continued, ‘Agent Mimosa.’
One of the boys at the table – Brian, if her memory served – gave her a second look, then a light flared in his eyes. ‘Sir, wasn’t she-?’
‘Yes,’ Ryan said, ‘hopefully some of you remember her as Recruit Mimosa, she was here approximately six weeks ago, just before the last Mirrorfall. We apologise for the deception, and for introducing her as a recruit to you all, but it was necessary for her task.’
‘Which was?’ Brian asked.
‘We knew one of you was in collusion with a court, to the point where it was beginning to compromise us. Traditional methods could not be employed, as it would tip off the traitor, and they would simply seek refuge with the court – as Enid Prest has done with Madchester. Now that the issue has been dealt with, Agent Mimosa is joining us full-time as the secondary field agent.’
Brian stepped forward and held out a hand. She stared at it for a moment, then shook it. ‘I guess I should thank you for not hitting me harder, ma’am,’ he said. ‘Sorry for how I acted, but I didn’t know who you were.’
‘No apology needed,’ she said, doing her best to copy Ryan’s narcy voice, ‘I was playing a role, and you were doing your duty.’
Red turned away from the crossword. ‘You had a first name,’ he said, his brow crinkling, ‘Susan, Sarah, something like that?’
‘Stef,’ she said.
‘Infiltration agents are granted a first name, as well as a surname,’ Ryan supplied, ‘otherwise their cover would not work as well.’
One by one, the other recruits came to greet her, shaking hands and reintroducing themselves – treating her better than when she’d been one of them, there were no derisive looks, no suggestions that she go hang out with Jones, no bets on when she was going to drop out or die.
Curt shook her hand, nodded and simply said “ma’am” before returning to his leaning cupboard, both the coffee and file abandoned.
‘That’s all for the moment,’ Ryan said, ‘you can return to your assignments or your rec time.’ He turned and walked out of the room, and she followed quickly. [See? That wasn’t so bad.]
[I guess not,] she said. She turned back to the mess hall and saw Curt standing at the door, staring after them. [I hope not.]
[Come on, you’ve got a little homework to do before we can get anything else done today.]
[Yessir,] she said, catching up to him.
‘So, you’re sure I can’t sleep with you.’