Four Days Later
‘Stef?’
‘Hm.’
‘Stef?’
‘Hm!’
[Young lady, I require your attention.]
[Lol, require.]
Stef dropped out of the bird/drone-monitoring program. ‘Yes?’ she said as she looked up at Ryan. ‘Something good or something bad?’ she asked.
‘I suppose that depends on you,’ he said, ‘I’m interviewing a new liaison agent and I’d like you to meet him. Jones approves and Taylor simply reiterated what he did to Clarke and-’
She stole a handful of candy from the bowl on Screen’s desk, and angrily munched on a few M&Ms. ‘Do you just want my opinion because of what happened with Clarke?’
The tech department blurred and the hall outside of the conference room appeared. ‘I want your opinion because you’re an agent,’ he said.
‘Sorry,’ she said, colour filling her cheeks. ‘I didn’t mean to be-’
‘You’ve got nothing to apologise for,’ he said, and crouched slightly. Her uniform replaced her code monkey clothes and he straightened her tie. ‘And it’s just a short meet-and-greet.’
‘Where’s he stand on, well, me?’ she asked, running her foot in a semi-circle across the floor. ‘Does he think we should just use the mirror and ditch the me?’
‘Safe to assume no,’ he said. ‘he volunteered for the position. He wasn’t the only one, but his record was by far the most impressive.’
‘Can’t we just generate a newbie?’
Ryan shook his head. ‘Liaison agents are different to other classes of agent. Whereas techs and field and combat agents, and most of the rest of us are expected to be able to take up our duties from the first day, liaison agents, because of their need to understand the public and interact with other agencies and Courts, they are generated ahead of any need, and allowed time to hone their skills. The ones not assigned to a specific Agency work to further the Agency as a whole. It’s because of this that the often work for several different Agencies across the course of their career. Jared is one of those.’
‘Agent Jared?’
‘Jared’s a first name he’s chosen for himself,’ Ryan clarified.
‘Did you ever want to do that?’she asked. ‘Or are you happy being I’m-so-awesome-I-only-need-one-name?’
‘I’ve considered it,’ he said, ‘but I’ve never felt the need. Ryan is my name, it’s who I am, I don’t need another name.’
‘What would you have picked?’ she asked. ‘And please don’t say something like John or Bob.’
‘Alexander,’ he said, ‘the name I gave my son.’
She gave a nod. ‘I’ve got no problem with Alex-based names.’
‘Ready?’
She gave a slight shrug, and he pushed open the door to the conference room.
The new liaison agent stood across the room, far too near the spot where James had shot her, the afternoon sun-
Oh my god, he’s totally posing.
She tried to hide a smirk as the agent moved away from the window. He was tall, and so, so thin. Not as bad as the Slender-man-freaks in the basement, but tall and thin and- Blonde. There was something almost familiar about the way his face was structured. She slid into her chair, still staring at the agent, trying to remember if she’d seen him-
‘Agent Mimosa,’ he said, ‘nice to meet you.’
The accent. The look. This time she didn’t bother to hide the smirk. ‘Agent Bowie I assume?’ she said. ‘I mean, otherwise you’re a hell of a fluke.’
Jared smiled. ‘I’m impressed,’ he said. ‘And you’re correct of course, I remodelled myself on him. I was generated at a time where a similar look would curry a lot of favour.’ He gave a half-bow. ‘Jared Smith,’ he said, ‘hoping to be at this Agency’s service.’
She felt her brain stop. A half dozen jokes formed, but died behind the impenetrable wall of her /serious. She leaned on the table, the cold glass soaking through the fabric of her shirt and into her elbows. ‘Could you just clarify for me that you’re Agent-’
‘Agent Smith,’ Jared said as he rounded the table. ‘one of them anyway, there’s a few of us, as there are a few Jones, I don’t know any other Ryans though.’
‘There’s only one other active Ryan, I believe,’ Ryan said.
‘Can we go back to the part where you’re Agent Smith?’
‘Stef,’ Ryan cautioned.
‘Right, right,’ she said, shaking her head at the Agent-Bowie-Smith-person in front of her. ‘Do I get to see your resume or something?’
‘Your father has all of the relevant details, but the highlights include a tour all across Europe, a few months in each country, then a long assignment in Phoenix, I’ve worked both islands of New Zealand, and shadowed the representatives of four of the major Courts.’
She leaned back in her chair. ‘Brisbane is the butt of every joke, and the Agency that even Broome gets to piss on, why on earth would you want to work here?’
‘I won’t lie and say it’s not because there’s a phoenix upstairs. You yourself are someone a lot of people in my line of work want to work with, I notice Clarke didn’t even arrange any interviews. We can use this opportunity to raise awareness and good will towards the Agency – there’s been a five percent overall increase in the number of fae recruits, I want to at least triple that. I can do that, with your help, with this Agency. I don’t piss on Brisbane, Agent Mimosa, I think you had a liaison who had no idea how to use the strength he had around him.’ Smith turned to look at Ryan. ‘I’ve said this twice already, but you’re someone I admire, Ryan. You’ve been operating beyond your capacity for decades now, and still your city survives. That’s something to be celebrated, not cause for whinging because your Agency didn’t place in the top five. So many little things could push you into the top five, and I, and my team can assist with that.’ He paused. ‘I could turn this Agency around. I could give it the reputation it deserves.’
‘That’s something I wouldn’t mind at all,’ Ryan said quietly.
‘But if they start to see us as shiny,’ she said quietly, ‘those of us that don’t perform that well-’
‘I can also protect you,’ Smith said.
Hot prickles settled in the base of her skull. ‘From what?’
‘There are still a great number of agents who want you removed from the picture – and who cite your continual existence as an unacceptable drain on the mirror.’
She folded her hands in her lap, digging her short nails into her palms. ‘Yeah,’ she said, ‘I figured as much.’
‘What I’m sure your father has told you-’
Father. Second time he’d said it. ‘Are you ok with that?’ she demanded quickly. ‘You’re using that word, I want to make sure you know what it means.’
‘It means that in one way Agent Ryan is very much living up to the agent ideal,’ Smith said. ‘In human terms, we’re all bastards, we have no true family, so the only family we can have is the one we make for ourself. We take a husband, we take a wife, we take several of each if they’re willing, or if you live long enough. That’s a family anyone gets to make, and the majority of times, the partner in your bed isn’t another agent. Agents need to count their peers as family. In the early days, it was openly encouraged, older agents to look on the freshly-generated as sons or younger brothers, depending on the age gap, to look to the others in their network and be able to call them brothers and mean it. Adoption is something that should be normal to an agent. So, no, Agent, I have no issue with it.’
Some of the fear drained away, replacing itself with another dozen Agent Smith jokes, and the burning desire to ask if Jared was a deliberate pastiche on Jareth.
‘Do you have any other questions for me, Agent?’
She chanced a look at Ryan. [It’s still weird for people to call me agent and mean it.]
She shook her head. ‘You’ve got my vote, approval, whatever.’
Jared smiled. ‘Ryan mentioned in passing that you’re a fan of children’s literature?’
‘Yes?’
A link appeared in her HUD – a requirement waiting to happen. ‘I’d be interested to know what you think.’
She pursued the contents of the requirement-in-potentia. A dozen picture books and a half dozen illustrated chap books. ‘They’re just my favourites,’ he said.
‘You’re a writer?’
‘It was something I did while unattached to a particular Agency,’ Jared said. ‘One of the Agency’s many attempts to subliminally influence public opinion. It works towards all men in suits, obviously, but we do get a little bit of a flow-on effect. These are the ones for human children of course, the ones we write for the fae are a little different, far more open, and with a different agenda.’ He folded his hands. ‘I didn’t write them all by myself of course, as with most things involving the Agency, there has to be approval by people far above our heads.’
I hate to tell you this, but I’m not sure any efforts are working. Suits means narc, scary narc, feds to run away from, that’s just the natural order of things.
She looked to Ryan. ‘Is that all you need from me?’
Ryan nodded. ‘That’s all.’ He looked to Jared. ‘If Central approves, welcome to my Agency.’
Jared pulled some paperwork from a folder. ‘I’ll just need you to-’
She shifted back to the techs, and grabbed Raz as he walked towards the snack table. ‘Viruses!’ she shouted, lifting the tech off his feet. ‘Viruses on Mars! The Goblin King of the Matrix!’ she let him go and collapsed into a chair. ‘Where’s Agent Wesson? Was “Agent Ziggy” already taken? Do you gripe at Solstice while they’re tied to chairs? Have you ever chucked someone in front of a train? Say disease! Say disease! Is that your real accent? Where the hell are you from anyway? Why’d you pick Bowie? Are you-?’ she slipped off the chair, giggling, a half dozen techs staring slack jawed at her.
‘Someone broke Spyder, Jonesy!’ one of them called.
Raz stood over her, a large bucket in his hands. The tech upended the bucket, and she found herself drenched in blue liquid. Blue liquid, but the wrong blue for blue. She lifted her hand and licked it, tasting blueberries. ‘Nom?’
She looked at the techs above her.
‘Are you glitching?’ Sacha asked, his serious tone voice-over-audition-material as usual.
‘How can you tell the difference between the dream world and the real world?!’
Another bucket of blueberry flavoured water was dumped over her head, thoroughly soaking her this time.
‘Does this usually happen in your dreams?’ Raz asked before Sacha pulled him back.
‘Smith!’ she said, slipping in the water as she stood. ‘Smith!’
She required a fresh uniform, then refreshed her skin, then required another uniform. ‘Ok,’ she said, addressing her peers, ‘it’s not for certain, but we might be getting an actual Agent Smith coming to work here. And, my gods, do you know how hard it is to sit there and not make Hugo Weaving jokes? Except…’ She pushed through the techs and pointed a hand at the wall of monitors, streaming an image of Smith from her mind straight to the screens. ‘Except I couldn’t make all the Matrix jokes cause my brain kept getting stuffed up with Bowie references. And his gorram name is Jared, how is that not Jareth? I take cake over sex and I swear I’ll probably accidentally look at his crotch!’ she dropped into a chair, the streaming image dropped from the main wall of monitors.
‘What role will he be filling here?’ Sacha asked.
‘Clarke’s replacement,’ she said. ‘If all the paperwork and whatnot goes through.’ She looked around the room. ‘Jonesy still not back?’
It was Gilda who replied this time. ‘No, not yet.’
‘He was due back an hour ago.’ She shook her head. ‘Has anyone died on my watch yet?’
‘Only in PvP,’ Raz said.
‘Good.’ She looked around the room, pointing to techs in turn. ‘Ok, you three are off shift as of five minutes ago, GTFO or at least drop out of the monitoring program. You and you, eat something, at least attack the snack table. You, Gilda, did you send my rogue her level eighty armour yet?’
‘No ma’am.’
‘Take an extra half hour for lunch and get that done?’
‘Yes ma’am.’
She looked around the faces. ‘Where’s Screen?’
A half dozen guilty faces looked back at her.
‘Oh, come on, you said that no one had died on my watch yet!’
‘She’ll back back in a minute!’ Raz said.
She let out a breath. ‘Ok. Good. So long as she’s not dead. Or a zombie. Or something else bad that I’m not thinking of.’
‘She’s in the library!’
‘Raz, you would be horrible in an interrogation. I don’t care if she’s in the library. Ok, back to work or lunch or whatever.’
‘She’ll be back in a minute!’
She stared at the nervous tech. ‘Which library?’
‘Raz, you should stop talking,’ Sacha warned.
‘Our library, ma’am,’ Raz said.
‘Ok, ok, everyone back to work.’ She left techs, and walked from the large room towards the library, containing nearly complete collections of the big two, the not-big-two-but-more-awesome, manga, and required collections of webcomics with no official paperback version.
She put her hand to the library door handle, but stopped as she heard steps behind.
‘Thank you.’
The words of gratitude had come from a voice that usually needed to be coaxed onto the tech floor, or at least given a valid reason to visit.
She swung herself against the wall as the door opened, and Curt stepped out with Screen. He embraced the cuddly tech. ‘Same time next week?’
‘Lolhi,’ she said, and the pair jumped apart.
Curt stared, his hands immediately going behind his back.
She smirked. ‘I think, according to tropes, I’m supposed to scream, slap you and accuse you of being an infidel?’
‘Of infidelity, newbie,’ he corrected. ‘And…are you?’
‘YES BECAUSE IF YOU HUG ANOTHER GIRL IT MEANS YOU’RE HAVING A SEXY SEXY SEX AFFAIR AND…something?’ she asked, smirking. ‘My Padawan and one of the first people at the Agency to be nice to me, colour me, yanno, not worried. Why are you down here, though?’
He brought his hands to the front, and brandished several volumes of BPRD. He nodded at Screen. ‘She’s my dealer.’
‘And you’re dealing him Dark Horse?’
Screen smiled. ‘Approved?’
‘Of course.’ She nodded. ‘You have the bridge, Number One,’ she said, ‘I need to talk to the junkie.’
She waited for Screen to leave, then shoved Curt back into the library. ‘Ok, Padawan, spill?’
He set the comics on the nearest shelf. ‘You want me to be a nerd,’ he said, ‘so I’m trying.’
‘You could have told me!’
He shrugged. ‘I wanted to do it on my own so- I wanted to have a bit of a running start. And it’s not like I mind reading comics. I started with Hellboy, because I wanted something I was at least a bit familiar with, and it’s appropriate, given what we do. Came down here, because the human recommendation is better than the internet. Got through Hellboy, then she insisted on Sandman, so now I’m onto BPRD, then I’ll switch back to the other Sandman stuff, then it’s either Y or Invincible, she’s literally going to flip a coin.’
She felt warm.
‘You’re doing this for me?’
Warmth ran through her body, her toes tingling.
He ran his fingers over the cover of the top graphic novel. ‘I was. But- But now I think I’m doing it for me too.’
He ran his fingers up her arm the way Taylor tended to do to Magnolia when leaving the room, and for the first time, she understood the little smile the magpie always seemed to have. Marshmallow +2.
Sweat formed under her hairline, and she felt it drip down her neck.
‘I thought being a geek meant giving up stuff, but- But it doesn’t seem to be.’ He smiled. ‘I like-’ Worry crossed his face. ‘Hey- Hey newbie?’
‘What?’
‘Are you ok?’ he asked as he looked into her eyes.
Eyes she was somehow level with.
She was warm. She was floaty.
‘Oh, fuck.’
She grabbed his arm, hearing the fabric of his uniform singeing, and shifted him to Ryan’s office.
The library caught fire around her, and she heard the phoenix screaming in her mind – angry this time, not hungry.
Her HUD went haywire, the fire burning through her blue even as she tried to shift.
Her skin burned, melted, and tried to heal itself.
‘Godsdammit!’ she screamed, focused, and shifted, finding the room ablaze, far worse than any previous time.
[Something’s wrong!] she screamed at Ryan, barely able to focus on her HUD. [Get everyone out, get everyone out!]
[Stef-?] he started to ask, but her HUD disappeared.
The phoenix turned to look at her, and she screamed as everything turned to flame.