Stef stared.
It was a bear. A large bear. A very large bear. Roaring in her face as though she’d offended its mother. Roaring with a mouth full of hacker-nomming teeth. It reared up on its hind legs, towering over her, and she feel onto her rear, eyes still glued to the monster.
Am I supposed to curl up in a ball? Or not move? Can they smell-
‘Misha, you silly thing,’ Grigori said, neatly stepping over her to smack the bear on the nose like a naughty pet. ‘Sorry, I didn’t think I’d left her out,’ he said as he lifted the bear, cradling her like a baby.
She continued to stare.
‘Bear,’ she said.
Grigori grinned. ‘Yes, she’s my pet. Now, get off the floor. I wouldn’t have let her eat you, she would have gotten a tummy ache.’
‘That isn’t exactly comforting.’
‘You want a hand newbie?’ Curt said as he stood beside her.
She stood her eyes off Grigori and the bear whose tummy he was rubbing to look up at him. In the time it had taken for her to stare and fall onto her butt, he’d required himself into body armour and had a tranquiliser gun hanging at his side. He gave a self-conscious smile, and the armaments disappeared, becoming his uniform again.
‘Newbie?’
‘No,’ she said, ‘I like the floor. Floor good.’
Grigori put the bear, and she gently reached out and poked the bear’s foot, just to confirm that it was real. Grigori turned to his daughter, ‘Ana, put her back in her enclosure.’ He then turned and scooped her up, throwing her over his shoulder with a lot less effort than the bear. ‘You’ve got to see the whole Agency, there’s not even a liquor cabinet in here.’
‘This week,’ she said, staring at Curt as he trailed behind them. ‘Isn’t going to be big on dignity is it? Put me down!’ Grigori complied, dropping her to the floor. ‘That’s better, now, you want to meet my family first, or be shown to your rooms?’
‘We didn’t travel heavy, sir,’ Curt said. ‘We don’t have any stuff to stow.’
‘Just as well then,’ he said, ‘come meet everyone then.’
He led them into a large common room, filled with about thirty people – a good half of them bearing a striking resemblance to Grigori. He introduced each in turn, sons, daughters, their in-laws or partners, children, recruits of no relation. Twenty-seven names in less than five minutes. She smiled, glad that her HUD, and the Agency profiles that flashed up as she looked at each would help her remember who was who.
Then, he introduced them, first in English, then a second time in Russian. Her HUD translated everything he was saying, the generalised translation playing to her ears, as Jones had suggested, and the literal, word-for-word streaming in the corner of her HUD.
What did I ever do without you?
…when was the last time you needed to translate Russian?
It does other languages too!
Yes. I know. I was there, Spyder.
Grigori dismissed his family, and various recruits, then turned to them. ‘I don’t have much for you two do to right now, so Ana can show you to your rooms, then you can take a tour if you like, tomorrow, we’ll fight something big and strong. Ana?’
The girl smiled. ‘We organised adjoining dorm rooms, they’re pretty much like your rooms at home. Steffie, I hope that’s ok, we didn’t have a spare office, and it seemed like more trouble than it was worth to generate you one for a week, we did put a desk in there though. Come on, this way.’
‘…Steffie?’ she asked.
Ana grinned. ‘Sorry, but I helped Jonesy build you, so I feel like I know you. Or at least your elbow, I ran a few permutations of the joint coding, trying to make it more efficient.’
She flexed her arms. ‘Well, they seem to work pretty well, thanks.’
‘I took a few scans of my younger brother Erek, he’s twelve, and has about the same physique as you.’
This made Curt laugh.
‘Come on,’ Ana said, ‘this way. We keep as much central as we can here, well, all of dad’s Agencies really. One central gym, everyone trains together, rather than separating out the field and the combat. Us techs have a floor to ourselves though, we need the space. Blood, code, blue, it all runs together when you’re half-agent, and considering that’s a good few of us, it helps if we know what we’re talking about, also allows a lot of us to double up as medics.’
‘Half-agent physiology confuses me,’ Curt admitted, ‘I’ve never really had a chance to study it, and the only half-agent other than you that I’ve been in contact with was a baby, so not a lot to observe.’
‘It’s…complicated,’ Ana said as they rounded a corner. ‘I could kick both of your asses right now, I can tell you that much, and it’s not even a question. I can drop some literature off on it if you want, or you could talk to Wanda, my mother, she’s the resident expert. Human, of course, came in as a medical recruit, and stayed on.’
‘I might do, thanks,’ Curt said.
‘Just be careful she’s not…studying anatomy with my father, knock before entering the infirmary.’
‘Our doctors are the Parkers, I’m kind of used to that.’
Ana grinned. ‘Your doctors are fun.’
‘No, they’re crazy,’ Curt said.
‘I’m with him,’ Stef said.
‘Are you?’ Ana said, ‘you make a very odd couple.’ She poked her tongue out and ran a few feet ahead. ‘Curt, this is you,’ she said, pushing the door open. ‘And Steffie, you’re here,’ she said, opening the next door.
‘Can I come see your tech department?’ she asked.
‘Sure,’ Ana said. ‘It’s downstairs.’
‘Why downstairs?’ Curt asked. ‘Most safety regs say-’
‘We like to experiment with explosions,’ she said, ‘containing them in the sub-levels is a lot easier than blowing out the glass, and alerting the civilian population. Besides, isn’t that where geeks are supposed to be? Hiding in their parents’ basement?’
Curt stared for a moment. ‘I’m not sure this counts.’
‘Lift is this way,’ Ana said to her, ‘and I can show you how to invert your colour scheme if you like, it makes a good party costume.’
‘Wait,’ Curt said, ‘gym?’
‘Back the way we came,’ Ana said, ‘but keep going until you see the door marked gym.’
Curt closed the door to his room, and left.
‘I’m not sure he reads Russian,’ she said as she watched him turn the corner and disappear.
Ana flashed another grin. ‘With the amount of noise my brothers make in there, I’m sure he’ll figure out which room it is, even if he’s illiterate.’
* * * * *
Four hours later.
There was a knock at her dorm room door. Stef looked up from the borrowed DS and the “squish the Solstice” game that one of the techs had lent her. ‘Come in.’
Grigori walked into her room. ‘Settling in all right?’
‘Are tech departments the same everywhere?’
‘Except for the languages they speak, pretty much,’ he said, taking a seat at the borrowed desk. ‘Is it all right if I call you Stef? Fact or not, I’m having trouble processing you as an agent, I mean no offense, it’s just going to take me a little while to get used to.’
‘Yeah,’ she said, ‘join the club. I’m still occasionally fighting the urge to fun because I think the feds are onto me.’
He laughed. ‘Stef, I didn’t want to spring this on you on your first day here, but I do prefer honesty.’
She stared at him. ‘Just tell me I don’t have to fight the bear.’
‘Of course not, that would be cruel.’
‘Or-’
‘It’s really nothing at all, no, wait, that’s a lie, it’s something rather big.’
‘Um, ok?’
‘I had an ulterior motive for inviting you here for your external training.’
She stared at the blonde agent. ‘Did Taylor want you to bring me here so you could kill me?’
‘What?’
‘Just answer the question.’
‘No, of course not. I mean, he wouldn’t object if you died whilst in my care, of if I killed you, but I wouldn’t. I don’t kill innocents.’
‘Then what?’
‘I…want to make a wish.’