‘Are you sure he’s the one?’
Stef looked across at Jones. ‘Yeah,’ she said with a nod. ‘I mean, there’s no one else.’
‘I’m still not sure-’
She spun on the swivel chair. ‘Come on, please? It’s just one more teeny favour in the huge favour Katamari that I owe you already, and this will makes things a lot easier for me.’
‘There are several better possibilities…’
She shook her head. ‘No, it’s got to be him. If I’ve got to go through this, then so does he. I mean, he’s like my only friend.’
‘And I suppose you’re making this decision for him?’
She grinned. ‘Yeah, of course, like he has a say in it anyway.’
‘Well, if you’re-’
‘I actually thought about this decision, and that’s rare for me, so yeah, I’m sure.’
Jones typed in a few things. ‘It won’t be painful, there’s that at least.’
She looked at the floor. ‘Was it painful for me?’
Jones shrugged. ‘I don’t know, but for the most part, you didn’t even have the capacity to be conscious, so I would guess not.’ He tapped a few more keys. ‘All right and…done, thought you’ll have to fill in the paperwork yourself, but I hear you’re getting a handle on it?’
‘Pretty much. Though I do find of feel like I’m back in school.’
He handed across Frankie. ‘He’s now as narcy as you. An official Agency laptop.’
She ran a hand across his lid. ‘So if I crack him open, is there blue magic in there instead of a processor?’
‘Not quite,’ Jones said. ‘But he’s been upgraded to match the specs of a normal Agency laptop, which means…everything. Remember: Only use this power for good. And for fun. And for when we need you for raids. And for distracting yourself when there’s too much paperwork.’
She smiled. ‘I think I can handle that.’
There as a knock at Jones’ door, and he spun towards it. ‘Come on in!’ The door opened, and Curt walked in. ‘What can I do for you, recruit?’
‘I was after her actually.’
‘Well, we’re done here.’
She opened Frankie, half-expecting him to be wearing a tiny suit, or for his colours to have changed the the default black, blue and white of the uniform, but there was nothing. His default dull grey and the remains of a few stickers.
‘Newbie?’
This won’t do, you need some proof that you’re a good little narc. The uniform is really kind of comfy, but people would give me weird looks if you were-
‘Newbie?’
She looked across at Curt. ‘You see these things on the side of my head? I can hear you.’
‘Morpheus and Neo are fighting in the gym.’
She slammed Frankie closed and looked up. ‘Huh?’
Curt grinned. ‘You could hear me, but now I’ve got your attention and you’re listening to me.’
‘You just said-’
‘Well, Taylor and Agent Grigori to be precise, come on, it’ll be fun.’
‘Which is which?’
His face screwed up in confusion. ‘Huh?’
‘Which one is Morpheus and which one is Neo? I’m kind of-’
He put a hand on her head. ‘Newbie. Stop thinking about it.’
She slapped his hand away. ‘Don’t touch me.’
‘Exhibition fight,’ he said, withdrawing a couple of steps, ‘you haven’t seen one before, should be fun.’
‘So what, you want to be seen in public with me now?’
‘With two agents pounding on each other? No one’s going to be taking notice whether or not you’re acting like one.’ He straightened his jacket. ‘That, and Grigori said to meet him there, and we’ll head off after that. Field trip time.’
Jones looked him up and down. ‘You’re only taking the clothes on your back?’
Curt shrugged. ‘I can require whatever I need.’
‘Still, most recruits at least take a bag with them. You’ve adapted a lot quicker than most, especially for someone…with your work history,’ Jones said.
‘Does that mean I’ll earn the privilege to have my bed make itself soon? Or do I have to-’
Stef stared at the tech as he started to laugh. ‘You’re joking of course?’ he asked Curt, still giggling. ‘Wait, Curt, are you serious?’
She stared up at the recruit. ‘I thought everyone’s beds made themselves?’
‘They do,’ Jones said. ‘But not his.’
‘I’ve been here over a year,’ Curt said, ‘I just thought that-’
‘We did it for you,’ Jones said, tapping his computer, Curt’s file appearing on the screen. ‘To help you get used to Agency life, I thought you’d gotten used to making your own bed, so I didn’t bother to change it.’
‘I don’t understand.’
Jones dragged his monitor forward. ‘When you came here, I changed a few of your settings. Turned off the self-cleaning macros in your room, so you could adjust to being here, without all of the practical magics making old hatreds flare.’ He smiled. ‘Would you like me to turn everything on for you?’
Curt went red. ‘Um, sure, if you don’t mind sir.’
Jones grinned. ‘I do mind, it’s so hard to,’ he clicked the mouse, ‘do that. Everything is on. Also, just to put your mind at rest, the security cameras do not contain lasers. Ok, a few of them do, but they’re just prototypes.’ He smiled. ‘Now go, or you’ll miss the fight.’
There was pressure on her knee, and she looked down to see Merlin resting his head there. ‘Can I go Jonesy?’
‘Of course.’
‘Sccccuse me Squishy,’ Merlin said as he crawled out from beneath the desk, over her, then righted himself with exaggerated effort. ‘Oh, hi Mean.’
Curt looked at her. ‘See, another reason you should be down here, you get “Squishy”, I get “Mean”.’
‘It’s your name!’ Merlin said, adjusting his goggles.
‘Whatever you say, squirt. Coming or not, newbie?’
‘Sure,’ she said. She looked down at Frankie, and shifted him to her office, then stood and followed him out the door, a small wizard attached to her arm.
Curt hit the button for the elevator, and leaned against the wall. ‘Where’s your popcorn bot, squirt?’
‘Not hungry,’ Merlin said, leaning against her, pressing his head into her chest.
‘Oi, stoppit,’ she said, pushing him away.
‘It doesn’t make any noises anymore,’ he said. ‘Thought it might, since you’re awake for reals this time.’
She felt Curt’s gaze on her, but she gave no reaction, and forced herself not to rely on the slash-serious command – even that would admit more than she cared to.
Merlin poked her chest. ‘I mean-’
Shutupshutupshutupshutup…
‘Okies,’ Merlin said, digging half of a muesli bar from his pocket and chewing on it.
She stared at the little wizard. Did you just read my mind?
He nodded as they stepped into the elevator.
Um, could you stop it please, it’s already busy enough in here.
He held her hand for a moment, then dropped it. She looked at her hand, and at his answer written there in black ink: “Sorry Squishy, can’t”. As she read the words, they disappeared, and leaving her hand feeling a little itchy. She scratched it, then tucked her hands into her pants pockets.
The doors slid open, and Merlin ran off.
‘Huh, combat floor, I haven’t been here yet,’ she said as she followed Curt into the gym. They climbed to the back row of the bleachers, taking a seat far away from the rest of the recruits.
‘Still not sure why we’re here,’ she said as Curt sat beside her on the bleachers.
‘Grigori promised everyone a show, he’s got to give it before we leave. I think Taylor’s kind of into the whole exhibition-fighting thing, lets him show off how good he is, remind us all what our place is.’
‘He’s done this kind of thing before?’
‘Yeah, while you were…not here,’ he said. ‘We had a visiting agent, named Emma-’
Command: slash-serious.
‘I see you’ve met her,’ he said, watching as her face snapped into a robotic mask.
‘You could say that,’ she said, her voice flat and dead thanks to the macro.
‘They duked it out, titans clashing and all that. She…to steal a tech department phrase, pwned his bitch ass. Ma’am.’
She toggled her emotions back on. ‘The whole ma’am thing is beginning to weird me out. I mean, it was fun at first…now it’s just getting weird.’
‘I can’t call you newbie in front of people.’
She looked around, the nearest recruits were three rows away. ‘Fine. But I don’t think anyone is listening to us.’
He pointed to the front row. ‘See the blonde? That’s Ana, Grigori’s daughter. She’s been around, but haven’t spent much time with her. Seems nice enough, she might be our…well me, when we get to Moscow.’
She watched as a couple of combat division guys sat near her.
‘I think this makes me a horrible person,’ she said as she rested her head on her palm. ‘But I kind of like that I can hear over vast distances now. Makes…spying on people a lot easier.’
She stared at the conversation taking place in the third row, the rest of the noise of the pre-fight gym filtering away, leaving her with almost a crystal-clear feed of the Russian agent’s daughter, and the two combat recruits.
‘No, no,’ Ana said, ‘I’ve got a girlfriend back home.’
‘You don’t look like a lesbo,’ the combat recruit on her left said. ‘Where’s your I-hate-men haircut?’
‘Actually,’ the blonde said, ‘I’m bisexual, I just happen to be with a woman right now, and we’re quite happy, though I doubt you were going ask that.’
‘Bi chicks only exist in porn,’ the recruit said. ‘Well that, and when you’re looking for a nicer word than slut.’
‘Oh shit,’ she mumbled to Curt, ‘I think there’s going to be some pre-fight entertainment.’
Without warning, Magnolia appeared behind the trio. ‘Peterson,’ the magpie said, ‘I was across the room, not sure I heard what you said.’
The combat recruit turned. ‘Bi chicks don’t exist,’ he said again, ‘they’re just messing around because they haven’t found a good enough dick.’
Curt put a hand on her shoulder. ‘Sit back,’ he said, ‘relax, enjoy the show, I’ve seen Mags handle stuff like this before.’
She watched the magpie girl lift the other recruit, carry him across the room, despite his kicking protestations, and throw him out the window. Magnolia turned, dusted her hands, walked back across the room, kissed the Russian girl, and returned to her seat near Merlin.
The room was silent for a moment, before it erupted in a cheer.
‘Number one,’ she said, squeezing Curt’s arm, ‘that was the most awesome thing I’ve seen this week, and I don’t even like her. Second, and more important-’
Curt squirmed. ‘Newbie, you’re going to give me bruises.’
‘-I’m trying to remain calm, but did I just witness a murder?’
He leaned closer to her. ‘You really don’t know anything, do you, newbie?’
‘Not really, no.’
‘Building security macro, you drop about twenty feet, then you get shifted to the infirmary. For the number of people Taylor has done that to, the civilian population would have begun to notice the bodies piling up on the footpath.’
‘…so I can try that with you later?’
‘Only if it’s an order ma’am,’ he said with a sigh. ‘Otherwise, you could just take my word on it.’
‘Fine.’ She looked over the crowd at the white-haired magpie girl. ‘She do that a lot?’
‘She’s learned a lot from her boss, she doesn’t take shit, and she’s an aide, so there’s a certain level of immunity she can act with.’
‘So you want the job so you can toss people out of windows?’
He looked at her for a moment, then looked away. ‘Listen, when he gives you the job, just let me help, ok?’
‘Huh?’
He pointed the gym doors, and the two muscle-bound agents walking into the gym. Well, Taylor was walking, Grigori was strutting, confident as a stallion out to stud. ‘Entertainment’s here.’
‘Why would he-?’
‘There are a lot of complicated things about Ryan,’ Curt said, ‘but also a lot of simple things. He likes you, he tolerates me. Giving you the aide job would give you some sort of fixed position in the Agency, rather than…what you’re doing now. And yes, one agent can be the Aide of another, doesn’t happen a lot, but there’s precedent, unlike a lot of things about you.’
‘But I can’t-’
‘Let’s just call it a hunch. I mean, I don’t care, good for him, but at least let me help out so he sees I’m still trying.’
‘But-’
‘How about we just shut up and watch these two beat the hell out of each other?’
‘Remind me, why is this fun?’
He shrugged. ‘I guess it’s the clash of titans appeal, an agent laying the smackdown on another is…pretty much like nothing else you can see. And it can get really complex, depending on how much thought goes into it.’
‘Thought? One of those guys is Taylor. He wanted to eat me alive for thinking my way out of the “get over the thirty-fscking-foot-high wall” test.’
‘Newbie?’
‘Yeah?’
‘Just shut up and watch, it’ll be fun.’
‘Did you just give me an order?’
‘Do you want to chance breaking Taylor’s concentration?’
She slumped, required a drink, and watched as the two agents began to square off against each other.
Grigori, fully clothed, was without his shirt a moment later, Terminator-like muscles on display, much to the shrieking pleasure of the some of the female recruits in the audience.
‘Well, there’s also that sort of fun,’ Curt said, an open bottle of beer appearing in his hand, ‘but I take it you’re not into that?’
She shook her head, and looked back to the floor below as the agents charged at each other. Fists flew. Kicks were kicked, some missing, some hitting their targets with brutal headlocks. A headlock or three was thrown into the mix, with neither agent missing a step, or stopping for a breath.
‘I’m sure that if I filmed this, I could sell it on the net,’ she said with a giggle.
[Shut up or I’ll tear out your heart.]
She squirmed at Taylor’s voice in her head. She looked away from the two fighting hulks, closed the communication window, and quietly shifted away. The tech department blurred into view, and she ducked into the games room.
‘Stef, did you get lost?’ Jones said, popping his head up from behind the giant screen that dominated the back wall.
‘What, this isn’t the way to the library?’
‘Sorry, no books here, just things that go be-be-be-beep.’ He dropped a long cord into a box. ‘Tell me they aren’t taking fight across the whole building again.’
‘They do that?’
‘Not in years, they’ve learned a little discipline. It get boring?’
She flopped onto the couch. ‘No, I just kind of came to my senses when I realised I was voluntarily in the same room as Taylor. Remind me not to do that again.’
‘Usually he’s focused on the fight.’
‘Yeah, well, focused or not, he had time to- Gah. Nevermind. You got FF7 here? I haven’t played that in ages.’
‘All released versions, all original discs too, not required.’
‘What’s wrong with required?’
‘Nothing, but I like to have as many originals in my collection as possible. There’s something…real and satisfying about finding a rare disc and adding it to your collection. That, and that makes it easy to buy me birthday presents.’
‘You’ve probably got like a thousand games, how do I know what you’re missing?’
He sat on the couch beside her. ‘Easy, there’s a spreadsheet on the tech department common drive. Now, what did Taylor-?’
‘Nothing.’
‘Stef.’
‘Stick and stones, yadda, yadda. Look, we’ll be leaving as soon as Grigori’s done, I just needed somewhere safe to be for five minutes, and Ryan’s been in meetings all mornings, and something about this floor just makes me feel safe.’
He waved a hand. ‘That’s just the Pax running through the air supply system.’
‘Ha. Ha,’ she said dryly. She tapped out the beginning of the Fibonacci sequence on each knee. ‘Just threatened to tear my heart out. I mean, it’s nothing, but he’s kind of scary, and I’m kind of a big coward.’
‘He’s still mad that I tricked him, and that you both lived, he’ll probably stay that way for the next decade or so. You’re free to hide here, with our delicious Pax-filled air as often as you’d like.’
‘Can I do it for the next week or so? And just pretend I went to Russia?’
‘You’re always just one shift away from home.’
‘I can see why Merlin calls you his mum,’ she said, ‘you’re all sensible and kind, just like they are in books.’
Jones smiled. ‘I do what I can.’
‘Speaking of Merlin-’ she began, as the world blurred.
The world came back into focus, with everything crystal clear, including the bear roaring in her face.