Stef stepped of the elevator and onto the tech floor – the surprisingly quiet tech floor, there were no recruits milling about in front of the lift, nor half-in-half-out of their dorm rooms.
She headed for the games room – as it seemed to be the most likely place for a raid to take place, and she wasn’t disappointed – she pushed the doors open, and found twenty recruits sitting at desks with Jones, another half dozen or so sitting on couches, and four sitting around a table, eating solid food, discussing the game.
Jones grinned at her, and pointed to a spare computer. A couple of the techs turned to look at her as she sat, and the girl with the purple hair that had sat behind her during the mirrorfall operation tilted her head. ‘I thought you were supposed to be dead. Grats on the res?’
‘She’s an agent,’ Jones said. ‘Sorry for the white lie, we had to. More importantly, she’s a gnome rogue, so we won’t be suffering a lack of single-target DPS anymore.’
The techs seemed to accept this without question, and she logged into her account, selecting her gnome from the character list. ‘So what are we doing?’
‘Old world raids,’ Jones said, ‘classic fun for some, actual gear for others. It’s alt-night.’
She accepted the group invite, and waited for the summon.
Four hours later, she looked across at Jones. ‘I’m tired,’ she said, ‘sorry, I’m out for the night.’
‘But we’re going to-’ the purple-headed girl – Screen – started, then slumped. ‘Fine. Nighty-night ma’amy ma’am.’
‘Night,’ Jones said as she left the room.
She started to walk to the elevator, then stopped and shifted to Ryan’s office. He looked up at her from pile of paperwork, and she grimaced, and held up a finger. One quick shift later, she was outside his door, then raised her hand and knocked.
‘Come in, Stef.’
She pushed the door open. ‘Sorry, still getting the hang of that. And I’m tired, which is the point.’
‘What point?’
‘Weird question, where do I sleep? I mean, you said I will, and that I’ll probably need like six hours, but you didn’t actually say where. I went by my old room before, and it’s all blank, and waiting for a shiny new recruit, so I’m guessing not there. Do I like…go home for the night, then come back at breakfast time?’
‘It’s really up to you,’ he said. ‘Some agents, like myself, just sleep on the couch in their office.’
She sat on his couch, laid her head on the arm and stared across at him.
‘Other options?’ she asked.
‘Some don’t keep a piece of furniture around for it, instead just requiring a bed every night. Others maintain a room of their own – so I could get you another dorm room if you wish, accessible through a door in your office. Others, but a lot fewer, maintain an off-site home, go home in their off-hours, and return in the morning.’
She yawned. ‘That what you did when you were married?’
‘Yes,’ he said, ‘it was. I’d finish up my work for the day – which was a lot easier back then, as I wasn’t acting director,’ he gestured to the paperwork littering his desk, ‘less of this to do. I’d have dinner with my family, spend some time with Alexander until he was ready for bed, spend the rest of the evening with Eilise, sleep, then come back here in the morning.’
She yawned again. ‘Ok, couch, I’ll go with that. Does it have to be a certain type, like, does it have to be a clone of this one?’
He stood from his desk, walked over to her, and handed her the pillow to appeared in his hands. ‘If you’re tired now, sleep here tonight, work out more permanent arrangements tomorrow.’
She took the pillow. ‘Sure that’s ok?’
He gestured back at his desk. ‘I’m not going to be getting any sleep anytime soon. Sleep. Need a blanket?’
She nodded, and a blanket appeared on top of her.
‘Night,’ she said, pulled the blanket up to her chin and closed her eyes.
She opened her eyes, and her HUD informed her that it was 8:27am.
‘I think that was a little more than six hours,’ she said as she sat up.
‘It will normalise,’ he said. ‘How do you feel?’
She required the blanket to disappear, and swung her legs off the couch. Other than the uncomfortable feeling of having slept in her uniform, and having tangled hair hanging over her face she felt…normal. She stared at her crumpled uniform, and quickly required herself into a new one. Freshly pressed pants, new shirt, new vest, and new sneakers ready to be covered in dirt.
‘Like…awake,’ she said. She blinked a few times. ‘I’m just…awake. Dammit, what’s going to be my excuse for drinking coffee as soon as I get up now?’
‘A bad habit,’ he said as he walked over. ‘That’s what the rest of us say.’
‘Coffee’s a bad-’
‘No, no,’ he said as he sat on the couch beside her. ‘Eating, drinking, breathing, they’re all bad habits, or addictions that we shouldn’t develop. The best of us never do.’
‘You seem like a pretty good narc, but even you had waffles yesterday.’
He shook his head. ‘I’m not one of the best of us,’ he said, his jacket disappearing as he leaned against the back of the couch. ‘I’d recycle myself if I had to be like them.’
‘Sounds serious.’
‘The best of us are to be envied, and to be pitied. They are agents who, by birth or by training, never fell into frailty. They don’t love. They don’t have friends. They never speak using their mouths, instead-’ [Every word they say is through communication mode.] ‘They don’t recruit, seeing it as unnecessary. They don’t eat, drink, or breathe. They don’t blink. They are as perfect as the day they were born, and stay that way. Because they don’t have distractions, they are better at their jobs than any of the rest of us could ever be, if efficiency could be a fault, they would be efficient to a fault.’
‘So…basically they’re the scary robot agents that the Solstice think you all are.’ She paused. ‘That we are all are.’
‘So were they the guys that came and dragged me away?’
‘No, those were Enforcers. They’re essentially just agents, but with less…utility, and more authority. They’re tougher because they have to be, but the difference is, Enforcers are still capable of compassion, hence why we’re both still alive. Had it been one of the best of us overseeing…all of that, you wouldn’t be itching for your morning coffee and I wouldn’t be drowning in paperwork.’
She looked past him, at his desk. ‘How much of that is mine?’
‘Yours is in your office.’
‘All of what I have to do?’
‘Everything that only you can deal with. There are some that I can do in your place.’
She stood and walked over to his desk. ‘Which ones?’
‘You have enough to deal with, it’s only your first week.’
She stared at his desk, and saw a pile, each with an attached post-it note bearing her agent serial number. ‘Wouldn’t it have been easier to write my name?’
‘I wrote your name on the ones I sent to your office,’ he said. ‘Which you also have to do.’
She picked up the folders. ‘I plan on abusing the help of my camp buddy,’ she said with a grin. ‘Besides, you haven’t gotten any sleep yet. The worst I can do is screw them up, and you were planning on doing them anyway so let me try.’
‘They’re all fairly simple.’
‘So what’s the harm? What else is on the magic agenda for today?’
He required the agenda. ‘More combat training, there are a few specific scenarios I want you to run, and then some more precise shifting, which will come in handy.’
‘If I let Curt beat the hell out of me, will it let you get a leg-up on all of this?’
‘It would, but-’
‘The one piece of advice from…from James Mimosa that I decided to hold onto was this: Don’t be afraid of someone you can fire. And I can fire him, right?’
‘You’d have to-’
‘Just say yes.’
‘Good,’ she said, poking her tongue out.
Shift: Recruit O’Connor’s current location.
A bright, clean, airy room met her eyes as the world blurred back into view. It was a familiar layout, albeit a little different to what she was used to.
‘This is,’ she said, ‘the boy’s bathroom isn’t it?’
There was a groan from one of the stalls. ‘Ma’am…are we alone?’
She looked left and right, the urinals weren’t in use, and the other stalls were open and unoccupied. ‘Seems so.’
‘Newbie,’ Curt said, ‘you might not be human anymore, but certain rules still apply like…no girls in here.’
She blushed. ‘Sorry, I just shifted to where you were.’
‘Guess I should be thankful that you aren’t in here with me,’ he said. There was a flushing sound and he opened the stall door. ‘You wanted me?’
She held up the pile of paperwork. ‘I need help with this.’
‘Are we going to war?’
‘I don’t think so.’
‘Are we about to be invaded and this is the paperwork to release the ultimate superweapon from the tech department?’
‘…I’m pretty sure it isn’t.’
‘…so why are you still in the boy’s bathroom?’
She shrugged. ‘I’m here now, it doesn’t smell, and there’s no one else in here, so who cares?’
He dried his hands. ‘Reprimand me for this if you want, but I have to ask: is there something wrong with you?’
She stared at him. ‘You gonna help me with this or not?’
His face became a little more serious. ‘Wait, I was joking, is there-’
She put the folders on the sink, and held up her left hand. ‘One the one hand, I could say that, yes, I have voices in my head.’ She held up her right hand. ‘One the other hand, I could be trying to save face about being the boy’s bathroom.’
‘MPD, schizophrenia or something else?’
She raised her right hand higher. ‘It was the bathroom thing, I’m still-’
‘Forgotten already what I did for a living?’
‘We aren’t having this conversation.’
He took the top folder. ‘Then what conversation are we having?’ He flicked through it. ‘Oh, this is easy.’ He took the second one. ‘Yeah, I can teach you this.’
‘I’ve got these, and another stack in my office.’
‘I’ve just gotten done with training, mind if we grab some food while I teach you how to do your job?’
‘Not in the mess hall,’ he said, ‘you should stay as far away from the other recruits as possible until you’ve got a handle on this. Unless you want to walk around with your emotion-display turned off all the time, even then, your words might give you away.’
‘I spent four hours with the techs last night, nothing bad happened.’
‘Yeah, but that’s the tech department, you tell them what you really are, they wouldn’t blink. They’d just think it was awesome, look at the way the techs treat Jones compared to how our guys treat Ryan. They find out what you are, they won’t just shake your hand and go back to playing WoW.’
‘So where do you want to go then?’
‘I know it’s not even nine AM yet, but I’m really craving a burger. Hungry Jacks, the one in the mall, we can hide downstairs and do the paperwork, shouldn’t have people bothering us till lunch.’
‘I guess that’s cool.’
She fixed the location in her mind, and shifted. The world came back into view, the clean and almost empty restaurant bright, clean and ready to serve the hungry recruit…the hungry recruit that wasn’t there.
She spun slowly in a circle, much to the amusement of the counter staff, then quickly hopped out of the restaurant, and shifted back to the Agency.
‘Forget something, newbie?’ Curt asked, leaning against the sink and flicking through one of the folders.
‘Sheesh, give me a break. I’ve been able to teleport myself around for like a day, I’m not perfect yet.’
‘Can you remember me this time?’
‘I’ll…try,’ she said, grabbing a hold of his sleeve and shifting again.
This time, he came with her. He passed the folders to her. ‘You, tell me what you want, then go grab us a table, and try working on the top one.’
‘Burger. Fries. Coffee.’
‘Well, you’re easy pleased.’
She shrugged and headed down the stairs into the empty bottom level. She selected a booth, set the folders down, and pulled the top file off, and flipped it open. The form identified itself as a S-127 – Confirmation of default weapon.
As she looked down at the form, an option came up on her HUD. [Prefill information Y/N?] She selected Y, and half of the form was neatly filled in with carefully typed letters. Her name, serial, rank, Agency location, all of the usual stuff at the top.
The second half of the form, however, stayed empty. The first field asked her for her chosen default weapon. She smirked, wondering what the form would make of it if she listed “girly gun”.
Require: gun.
The gun appeared in her hand, and she laid it on the table the make and model appearing on her HUD. She copied down the information, then looked at the next field – a series of three check boxes: competency achievement attached, competency already on file, in training. She checked the third one – figuring that being able to aim didn’t quite count as being competent.
A blue jacket was dropped on the table, then a barely-balanced tray was placed down in front of her.
‘Please tell me,’ Curt said as he slid into the other side of the booth. ‘That I didn’t just see what I think I saw.’
‘I’m halfway through this, is this good, Y/N?’
‘Newbie, is your gun seriously lying right there on the table?’
‘Do you know we’re in public? And that despite pretty much authority to do anything, we try to keep under the radar?’
‘Yes and…yes.’
‘Do you think flashing your piece is the best way to keep under the radar?’
‘The answer is no, isn’t it?’
‘Do I ask why you have your gun out?’
‘I needed to know the specs so I could fill in the form.’
‘You don’t even know the kind of gun you’re carrying?’
‘I’ve kind of been calling it the girly gun, didn’t think there would be a quiz.’
He sipped at his soft drink, and spun the form towards him. ‘That’s why you don’t get to check off the competent box. You will have to though, otherwise you’ll get in trouble. You’ve got to be able to, well, correctly ID the gun, shoot it, change the clip, clean it, take it apart and put it back together. I’m sure we’ll get to it at some point.’ He picked up some fries. ‘But please, dye rounds when you’re around me, I’m not a big fan of body armour, but you make me feel like I need it.’
‘Compliment or complaint?’
She pulled her burger from the tray. ‘This is pretty easy.’
‘Others can be a lot more complicated. Then we get into report writing, that can take a bit to get used to, you need to include certain details in certain ways, some things need photos, some things you have to wait on the CSI guys, or the techs, yanno. So, if you get chased for a report, make sure you chase the people you’re waiting on.’
‘Should I be making a lame pun and putting on my sunglasses?’
He stared at her, unwrapped his own burger, bit into it, and continued to stare. ‘…you never did get a tour of the Agency did you?’
She pulled the coffee from the tray. ‘I kind of died before I got the full Agency experience.’
‘Funny, some people say dying is the full Agency experience, but those some people are generally jaded assholes.’ He chewed on his burger for a moment. ‘So you did die.’
She choked on her coffee.
‘You’re going to have to work on your gag reflex, newbie.’
‘I’m not asking for anything I’m not allowed to know, but that reaction just told me one thing.’
‘Yeah. I died. Wasn’t pleasant.’
‘Heard it’s a mindfuck trying to get back, and that most don’t make it.’
‘True on both accounts.’
‘What high school did you go to?’ he asked as he pushed her fries at her.
She opened her mouth to answer, then closed it. ‘I’m an agent, I didn’t go to high school.’
He gave a golf clap. ‘Better. Now that that’s out of the way, real answer?’
‘A boarding school that may as well have been hell itself. Hated it there.’
‘Sheesh. Reform school or something, you that much of a terror when you aren’t…being like this?’
‘Being like myself?’
‘Some people are crazy as teenagers, just trying to figure you out.’
‘Should probably start with a Rosetta stone and something that can break 4096-bit encryption.’
He leaned back against the back of the booth. ‘I’m just trying to help, can’t help if I don’t know a thing about you. Three things about me, two truths, one lie: I have a two-year-old daughter, I speak three languages and I never had a dog growing up. Which is which?’
‘Well, you said you had a kid, so that’s probably true, unless you’re tricking me and she’s older. The dog thing is probably true, and the language thing is a lie?’
‘Keeping three languages in your head is hard for most people, and I never had a dog either?’
‘Not bad. Why couldn’t you have a dog?’
‘Parents were paranoid about it breathing on something wrong. Having me around was bad enough, and I didn’t have a tendency to pee on the rugs.’
‘Your family’s wealthy. Statement, not question.’ He looked down at the paperwork. ‘Sign that, and you’re pretty much finished with this one.’
She slowly chewed on a bite of her burger. ‘What else did you deduce, Holmes?’
‘It’s elementary, my dear newbie. This is what I’ve got so far: You went to boarding school, not cheap. Parents worried about a dog trashing the place. You’ve got dual citizenship, here and the merry old mother country, and sometimes, just sometimes, you sound like a bit of a brit.’
‘Try as I might,’ she said, letting her mother’s accent slip into her voice, ‘sometimes it just sticks.’
‘How rich?’
‘Pretty much insanely. Can the conversation topic change now plz?’
‘You’ve got to do your three things.’
‘One: I actually met Ryan twenty years ago. Two: Before I came to the Agency…I once killed a man in self defense. Three: I conned the bank out of ten grand.’
He let out a low whistle. ‘All of those are good.’ He slapped his hands together. ‘Ok, number one is true…love to hear the story if I can, but you didn’t twitch. Two…nearly had me going, but that’s your lie, and…you did actual criminal hacks? You hacked a bank?’
‘Close your eyes.’
‘Because I’m going to do something I hate, but it’ll be worth it.’
He rolled his eyes, then closed them.
She concentrated, and required an outfit that nearly burned her skin. ‘Fine, open, get a good look.’
He opened his eyes, and just stared at her.
She smiled a perfectly innocent smile. ‘What?’
‘…you look like a girl.’
She brushed some hair behind her ear, and adjusted her pink headband, then brushed some imaginary lint from her pink babydoll shirt, looked down at the sensibly-cut pink skirt, and clicked together the pink flats. His jaw dropped when she lifted the matching purse up onto the table.
‘All I had to do,’ she said, letting the accent slip back into her voice, ‘was run up a whole bunch of charges on my card, and proxy the transactions so they didn’t show as coming from my IP, get the packages delivered elsewhere, and then go cry to the bank manager about how some bad men were stealing the money my dear grandmother gave to me.’
He continued to stare at her, then looked away, and had some of his soft drink.
One thought had her back in her uniform. ‘Only did it once though, didn’t want to push my luck, and I just needed to stretch my inheritance a little further, didn’t have the client base I do now.’
‘…so other than sit in a dark room, eat ramen and troll 4chan, what exactly did you do, Miss Hacker?’
‘…I’m not exactly proud.’
‘Hey, come on, you know what I did for a living, this just makes it far.’
She pulled a few of the fries out of the container, and ate them slowly. ‘Mostly,’ she said, ‘I took advantage of stupid, vengeful teenagers. For fifty bucks a pop, I would hack their ex-significant other’s MySpace, Facebook, Livejournal, whatever, and let my mad as hell customer go to town. The passwords of teenagers are the easiest thing in the world to crack. I did some other stuff, but mostly it was that. I mean, I tried all the big hacks, FBI, CIA, all of the TLAs, but mostly for shits and giggles. I like playing with code, I like being a code monkey…just couldn’t bring myself to be stuck to a chair for eight hours a day.’ She sipped her coffee. ‘I mean, I voluntarily sat in my chair for, yanno, twelve, fourteen hours a day, but that was for me. Job is different.’
‘You mean, like the one you have now?’
‘If you think about it, I haven’t even been at this gig for a week. It’s still all shiny and new.’ She lifted the next folder and flipped it open. ‘What’s this one?’
He tilted his head and looked at the form. ‘Default clothing settings. It’s like how require: jacket is different for me than it is for you.’
‘It’s a form to record my size?’
‘It can get a little more complicated than that, depending on how clever and prepared you want to be.’
He looked across at her. ‘Ok, so you don’t wear the jacket. I’m guessing that’s a pretty permanent choice?’
‘So long as most of me is covered, I don’t feel the need to wear a jacket that weighs probably a good portion of what I do.’
‘The vest has pockets though, empty yours for me.’
‘Why? Have I been naughty?’
‘Just do it.’
‘I required this uniform like three seconds ago, there’s nothing in my pockets, aside from maybe lint.’
‘Not a good time to show you this, then. Ok, for me, my jacket always comes with two spare clips of ammo for my default weapon, swiss army knife, and two thousand in cash. You can set your clothes to always carry certain items, or supplies of certain items, so that it makes your life easier.’
‘So, my pockets could always be full of chocolate-coated coffee beans?’
‘…it’s supposed to be for on-duty kind of stuff.’
‘Is me functioning good for when I’m on duty?’
‘Caffeine is required for that!’
He sighed. ‘Fine, check off the item of clothing, then list what item in what pocket.’
‘Hey, stop being grumpy,’ she said, snagging the last of the fries, ‘you get to beat me up later.’