The code was beautiful, and it was the exact thing she needed.
The last hour had been far, far too much for one stupid hacker to handle. Agent Volcano and the pretty bird, death threats, surgery, getting shot, and–
Her leg wouldn’t stop bouncing, taking the leading edge off her panic. If she started to scream, she would never, ever stop. One person wasn’t supposed to go through this, and even if they did, it wasn’t supposed to happen within such a short span of time.
‘Take a look at the next line,’ Jones said, so much calmer than she could ever be.
She forced herself to focus and tapped the down arrow once, bringing her attention to the next line of the code.
Agency code. System code. Beautiful, half-magical, post-singularity miracles in nanite form.
She took one hand and pressed it to the cold lump in her chest, idly wishing for a lifetime to play with the code.
‘Now the next line.’ Jones’ voice was as calm as the better class of schoolteacher – someone patient, only interested in their student learning something new.
There were a lot more symbols in this one. The code was a mix of plain English, standard computing characters, and what she now knew to be System symbols: part ideograph, part macro, all shorthand.
Jones reached a finger towards the line, and the first System symbol appeared in a popup, along with a new set of code – the macro that this symbol performed.
She took a breath and managed to fill her lungs.
They looked over the next symbol, and the next, then the next line of code. She still didn’t understand any of it, but the very edges were beginning to make some sense.
Her body seized and tried to spin around, but she came off the stool as she did. Jones caught her – his skinny nerdy body was evidently a lot stronger than hers – and she scrambled to feet, kicking the stool out of the way as her foot tried to get twisted in it.
She stood and faced Ryan, the momentary anti-panic buff from the code fading as she looked up at his face. It was narcy calm. Either he was doing his usual neutral face, or he was deliberately not showing emotion. Stupid agents. Stupid agents with their stupid faces.
Ryan – either reading her face or her brain – held up his hands. ‘We’re fine.’
“Fine” was a dangerous word, especially when his definition of “less than pleasant” was “I’m going to shoot you in the fucking head”. ‘Define “fine”,’ she said, trying to copy his agenty neutralness.
Jonesy took a few steps towards Ryan. ‘Sir, do you want the space?’
‘For a few minutes, if you don’t mind.’
Jonesy shifted away, leaving just a slight blur in the air as he did.
Is that a purposeful particle effect, or–
Ask someone later.
Ryan still hadn’t said anything.
It was something bad. One of the bad ends. One of– She was going to die, again. And this time, probably, she wouldn’t come back.
Wanting to live was still such a weird feeling.
‘You haven’t acted like a dictionary yet,’ she said as she hugged herself – if he was being neutral, then he probably wasn’t going to offer hugs. ‘I need you to define–’
The agent – the angel, the man who wanted to be her father – stepped forward and put his hands on her shoulders. Comforting. Warm. ‘“Fine” means…fine. We’re safe. And you–’
Stef expelled a breath so deep she was sure it had been hidden in a third lung. Safe. “Fine” might have wiggle room, but “safe” didn’t. Whatever the terms of “safe”, it was still time to breathe and relax, to know that there wasn’t a magpie-girl hidden in the walls aiming another shot.
But, with all that said, she was still an Agency problem. They couldn’t just let her go.
‘Could we sit for a moment?’ he asked.
She could feel the panic starting to return. ‘Just tell me what’s going to happen!’
‘I will explain everything, if you sit down, Agent.’
He squeezed her shoulder, but she barely felt it.
What did he just say?
What the ever-living fuck?
‘W–’ –hat did you just say? ‘Ho–’ –w is that even possible? ‘Do–’ –you know who you’re talking to? ‘Don’t–’ –you know I’ll just mess this up?
She pointed her eyes at him, her body feeling floaty. ‘Huh?’
Ryan reached for her, wrapped his hand around hers, and gently pulled her until she found the stool beside him. She focussed on the counter opposite them, trying to count the electrical outlets and– And every object she could until she could focus on something else.
‘Crawford asked me to look at the available options, and he asked me what I wanted. This…this is by far the best option that was available. I don’t know the specifics yet – we haven’t written up the specifics yet – but–’
Her brain felt as if it were twirling in her skull. ‘I need you to back up about eight million steps.’ Breath was hard, as hard as it had been whilst the volcano and the magpie had been staring down at her. As hard as it had been whilst Magnolia had wanted test her healing ability again.
Punches healed. Burns healed. Stab wounds healed.
And once, her snapped neck had healed.
Her small degree of immortality had seemed to disturb Taylor – or, at least, his face had made the “Who farted?” expression – and they’d left her alone after that.
He had been hoping she would die. That much was obvious.
She opened her mouth and pinched the back of her hand until she forced herself to take in a deep lungful of air. ‘Why the fuck am I becoming an agent? I get that recruitment is a little bit rushed, to probably the benefit and detriment of everyone involved, but this is–’ She dipped her head to the bench and shook it. ‘I guess there’s no backsies, right?’
If this was his definition of “fine”, then he needed to download a new dictionary.
‘Ryan, this is not a great idea.’ She looked away from him. ‘I mean, I’m–’ She looked back down at the safe, non-judgemental bench. ‘Me. I’m me. I was shitty as a recruit. There’s no way I can–’
‘I’ll train you,’ he said. ‘We’ve got all the time in the world to–’
‘And I keep failing performance evaluation after performance evaluation? What happens when they realise that I’m just some crazy girl?’
Crazy. She was crazy, and she had to keep saying it. He knew. She’d told him, and yet he seemed to be completely fine with ignoring the truth of the situation. He kept not judging her. Not ridiculing her. He kept accepting her, and that wasn’t right.
‘Stef, I didn’t have the opportunity to ask you before the decision was made, but– But there are a lot worse things that could have happened.’ He reached for her, but she leaned away, needing not to be comforted.
He didn’t get it. He wasn’t getting it.
A recruit, as much as she’d seen, was a position without power. There was the pseudo-authority to yell at muggles and keep them out of the way, but within the Agency itself, there was a power structure, there were people in charge, and there were people looking out for your mistakes, ready to step in if – or when – you fucked up.
Agents were the responsible pillars. Agents couldn’t be… She couldn’t be one. The world wasn’t that stupid.
‘This, at least, gives us time. You will not have all the responsibilities of–’
Stef gripped onto her pants, and tried to hold back on the urge to hurt herself. She couldn’t be an agent.
I have– ‘persistent auditory hallucination which– Which– That I can’t live without. I should be locked away and forgotten about and–’
Don’t get mad at me.
That’s not my function, Spyder.
She forced herself to look at Ryan. ‘Do you have a lot of suicidal agents?’
Agents were perfect program people. Maybe it was possible for them to get a little sad, or be a little stupid – or a lot, when it came to Ryan’s decisions about her – but there couldn’t be any bit of code that allowed for the kind of hollow desperation that led to–
‘Agent Jones once tried to kill himself. He suffered through a devastating glitch–’ His lips pursed. ‘A glitch is essentially a nightmare for an agent. They feel completely real. Sight, sound, taste. There’s no way to tell they aren’t real. And due to the fact that the majority of them essentially extrapolate from a real-life scenario, it’s also impossible to tell when you’ve woken from one.’
‘That’s, um, really, really shitty.’
‘He’s never shared what he saw, but he shifted to the edge of a blackout zone, walked in, and– Taylor saved him. I haven’t requested a new tech agent, so why should I request a new recruit?’
But I wouldn’t be just your recruit anymore.
‘But you can’t be so good as to accept this– Accept me? You can’t just– You should surround yourself with people who are just as awesome as you are.’
‘Until you came along.’ He lifted a hand towards her shoulder, and this time she let him touch her. ‘No one used that particular appellation towards me.’
Something about the formal-ish wording and the humility in the acceptance of the compliment slid past the barriers she was desperately trying to keep in place. She sniffled, the tears on their way, and wasn’t at all surprised that he pressed a perfectly folded handkerchief into her hand.
‘But you are awesome,’ she said, trying to keep the words going to keep the tears away.
He held up his hand, and his skin disappeared, leaving nothing but the same flowy, swirly blue he’d shown her one ridiculously early morning.
‘This disgusts some people. And more are unnerved by the concept that we aren’t real people. Neither of these things bother you.’
She reached for his hand, touching the blue, pressure from her fingertips sparking light blue and white in momentary flashes – indents from fingers on an LCD screen.
‘This is what you’re going to be,’ he said.
She made a small noise, then looked up. ‘You know I’m going “That is so fucking cool!” over and over in my head when you do this, right?’
She touched his hand, wonder sparking in her mind as the pressure from her fingers changed the shade and intensity of the blue.
‘You saved my life,’ Ryan said. ‘And you’re one of the smartest people I’ve recruited – and I’m including those that are now techs.’
But you’re field… ‘You recruit techs?’
‘When I find someone with recruit potential, it’s not always for their field strength. And a few times, it’s been by accident.’
‘How do you accidentally a whole recruit?’ She coughed before he could query her phrasing. ‘Yanno, how can you accidentally recruit someone?’
‘Have you met Raz? He’s one of–’
She had a quick image of one of the recruits Curt had introduced her to. Short. Cuddly. Asian. As cool as his namesake, even if he made her wonder if Curt really was an agent. Curt was serious enough to be an agent. She wasn’t. ‘It’s hard not to notice we’ve got a couple of Psychonauts upstairs.’
‘I beg your pardon?’
‘I don’t often take patrols–’
‘Unless you’re placating some stupid recruit.’
‘But sometimes, when I have the occasional lull between paperwork, I enjoy walking around the city. I make an effort to know it as well as I can. It is the focus of my Duty, after all. It was–’
She pulled her hand away from his. ‘Stop it,’ she said. ‘You’re doing that thing where you make everything okay! I’m trying to be morose and miserable here!’ She leaned back. ‘So much as I’m okay to talk to you, that doesn’t mean I’m okay for anything else.’
‘Do you trust me?’
‘Yeah, of course, but–’
‘Then just trust me,’ he said, his voice heavy with dad!wisdom and care. ‘I know you can do this. I know you don’t believe that you can, but I would ask that you give it a try first, please.’
She nodded and leaned her head against his shoulder. ‘Well, what now?’
He let out a breath. ‘I…don’t honestly know.’ He leaned down and kissed the top of her head.
It wasn’t the first time he’d done it, and – unless she died on some operating table or other – it wouldn’t be the last, but it still brought a smile to her face. It was a tiny gesture of affection, given completely freely. A smile, completely unbidden, came in response.
Jonesy appeared, holding a large glass bowl. He placed it down, and she rose a little to peer inside. Pieces of pinky-orange sunset-coloured fruit flesh stared back, with a texture somewhere between a nectarine and an apple.
‘Eat,’ Jones said. ‘You’ll feel better.’
The quote stood out immediately. ‘Isn’t this supposed to be chocolate, Professor Lupin?’
‘It’s better than chocolate,’ Jones said, ‘I promise.’
She raised an eyebrow and took one of the larger chunks. Her fingers immediately got sticky. She experimentally sucked on her piece – it was mealy and grainy, but the overabundance of juice made up for what might have been an awful and dry experience.
The flavour was different. Indelibly fruity, but almost like honey, as well.
‘Sir?’ Jones asked.
‘Agent, I don’t know what comes next. Obviously, this is different to– I don’t remember much about that process.’
‘In most Agentification processes–’
She held back a snort. ‘Jonesy, is that really the word for this?’
‘No, but it’s the one I choose to use.’ He gave a gentle cough. ‘Most times, it’s easy. We recycle the person, strip out of the mind, and completely ignore the body. Your heart…complicates things, so we’re going to go a little slower. We’re going to induce a kind of coma, placing your mind in the collective unconscious whilst we augment your body. We should be able to pull you out in a few days.’ Jones looked from her, up to Ryan. ‘The sooner we start, the–’
Of course my heart complicates things…
‘Yes,’ Ryan said, ‘of course.’ He looked down and caught her eye. ‘Are you ready?’
She shrugged and wiped her mouth with the back of her hand. ‘Since you two are basically speaking Greek, literally over my head, I have no idea what I’m saying “yes” to.’
Jones turned and, with a wave of his hand, magicked away half of the cupboards on the wall and revealed a secret room. ‘Through here, if you please.’
If he required that room…it would be a literal Room of Requirement.
And proud of it.
She pushed the rest of the fruit into her mouth and skipped after Jones.
The Required Room was much smaller than Jones’ office-lab, about the size of the main room of the recruit quarters. It had the same look, though – metal and wood benches, industrially gunmetal-grey walls, and bright lighting.
There was a pedestal in the centre of the room, holding what looked like half of a plastic coffin – a foot tall, half-filled with blue, and just the right size for a stupid hacker.
She felt her skin tingle and looked down to see a bright white set of scrubs on her body.
‘Into the tank, if you please,’ Jones said.
If she stepped forward and tilted her head, she’d be able to lean her nose on the top edge of the plastic tank. There was no obvious ladder, and the mirror – so far as she knew – hadn’t given her a double-jump.
There was only one logical thing to do. She turned to Ryan. ‘This has never, ever worked, but–’ She lifted her arms. ‘Up, Daddy! Up!’
Ryan smiled and lifted her, and she had a small rush of childlike glee.
‘Lift your feet, young lady.’
She tucked her feet up and moved them to position them over the lip of the tank. She sat, touching the edges of the thick plastic, wondering if a lid was going to fall and lock her inside, like a really weird insect in a jar.
Ryan let her go and stepped back, out of Jones’ way. Jones came back with…some kind of mad-science-hat. A neural cap made of interlocking tubes of blue.
I shall call it Squishy, and it will do science to me.
It fit over her head and smelt strangely like a bathing cap.
‘We’re going to induce– Your body will essentially be in a coma state whilst we fully augment it. When you wake up, your body won’t be human anymore.’
She reached up to touch the cap, half-expecting it to shock her with static electricity. ‘Fine, but what about my mind?’
‘Your mind will be going to the collective unconscious,’ Jones said. ‘It is where all of our pieces come from, and where all of our pieces end up.’ He hesitated for a moment. ‘I’m…not sure how conscious you’ll be. It is – to my shame – a little bit of an inexact science. It is not meant for holding patterns. Usually it is a discrete, direct download or upload. The UC isn’t meant for playing “Hold my flower, baby” with a full consciousness.’
The half-formed information washed over her, giving her even more of a clue of how much she didn’t know. ‘And for my birthday, I want a full agent wiki.’
Ryan took a step closer to the tank. ‘When you wake up,’ he said, ‘you’ll have one in your mind.’
‘How long? How long till I wake up?’
‘I’m hoping just a few days,’ Jones said. ‘A week is my worst-case scenario.’
Relief came from the back of her mind. ‘That– That isn’t so bad. I’ve been unconscious longer.’
Jones started to play with a tablet. ‘‘I have to warn you, this is probably going to hurt, and I apologise for that.’
Blue materialised in the tank, immediately soaking her pants. It was strangely tepid, though, and didn’t leave her shivering.
‘I need you to lie back,’ Jones said.
Stef looked behind herself, saw a headrest covered in a black lattice of plastic shapes, and aimed her head for it as she lay back. The blue in the tank ran in waves, like playing in a bathtub – and just like a bathtub, some of it splashed over the side.
She suddenly felt a flash of shame for all the work she’d made for the maids.
Ryan took her hand, and she squeezed it in return. ‘Okies, I’m ready.’
After a moment, Jones spoke up. ‘Sir, I’m going to need you to let go.’
Ryan squeezed her hand again, imparting one more second of comfort, then let her go. It was sensible that he would let her go; it made sense that there had be a sterile environment.
All the same, she stretched her fingers, trying to grab his hand one more time.
There was nothing but air.
She sighed and let her hand fall into the blue. ‘Fire when ready,’ she said, trying to sound five hundred percent more confident than she really was.
‘Here we go,’ Jones said.
Sound rushed into her mind, a church bell tolling right beside her ear. Noise loud enough to shatter her mind.
It tolled again, and the feeling in her feet disappeared. Another toll, and her hands. Her legs. Her arms. Her whole body.
It rang again. She heard a thousand voices whispering. Agents.
The bell sounded once more, and all she saw was blue.