As it usually did, the half-size mirror appeared on Curt’s wardrobe door. He looked himself up and down, one last final check before going on a mission. Pants, freshly pressed, well freshly required, so they looked freshly pressed. Shoes shiny with polish he’d applied himself.
Shirt, vest and tie all in their proper positions, nothing out of place. Shoulder holster and spare ammo, enough to survive a quick trip through a blackout zone or to fight his way out of a dozen different scenarios. He lifted his jacket from the back of his chair, and with a thought, powered down his computer.
He slipped on his jacket and completed the guise of a proper little recruit. The look of someone with nothing to be ashamed of. The look of someone with something to be proud of. Not a look that an ex-Solstice should be able to pull off. Not a look that he, with all the whispers in his direction, should have been able to wear so easily. But it was. Most of the time it was.
A thought had his headset in his hand, which he slipped into his ear and activated. ‘Who’s on channel with me?’
Dead air was his only response.
He lifted his car keys from the desk and walked from his room, slamming the door on his way out, the sound echoing down the empty hallway.
‘Oi, geek squad, quit it with the WoW and get on channel with me.’ He punched the elevator button. ‘Or I’ll get your boss to suspend your account.’
‘Geez,’ a tired-sounding girl said, ‘you haven’t even signed out yet.’
‘Doesn’t matter,’ he said as he stepped into the lift. ‘Mission start time is mission start time.’
There was the sound of liquid being slurped up a straw. ‘Dude, you aren’t even out of the building, and this is hardly a mission, it’s a stupid follow-up, you don’t even need someone on channel with you.’
The lift slid open again and he walked into the large garage. It was mostly empty space, most of the recruits didn’t like to keep a car, happy to require a new one whenever it took their fancy, only the occasional rev-head spent any time down there, upgrading cars with parts and additions that would have taken them a decade to save for in any other life.
There was also a blocked off section, with unknown contents. Some theorised that it was Taylor’s secret torture room, others suggested that it was where-
‘Why is your car black?’ the tech recruit in his ear said. ‘It’s so boring.’
He pressed the unlock button on his key chain and slid into the driver’s seat. ‘It’s anonymous,’ he said, ‘it-’
‘If it’s anonymous, where’s your Guy Fawkes mask?’
‘Who are you anyway?’ he asked as he started the car.
‘Screen,’ the girl replied. ‘Haven’t been on-channel with you before.’
‘Where’s Raz?’ he asked, wishing for his usual tech-in-the-ear, instead of the likely pain-in-the-ass.
‘It’s his day off,’ the girl said as he drove out onto the street. ‘And no, I can’t go get him, Jonesy worked him to the bone yesterday. Super-secret-special project.’
He stopped for a red light. ‘What,’ he said as he required himself a coffee, ‘like half of those special-ed-special projects he has you do half the time? I mean, the Tetris thing didn’t work out so well…’
‘We’re still working on that,’ Screen said defensively, ‘it needs more testing.’
‘So how are you gonna save the world this time? Mario Brothers?’
The girl giggled, and there was another slurping sound. ‘Oh, you should see what we’re doing with that… But this, this is something different. He’s actually letting us play with agent code.’
He shuddered, and put his coffee into the cup holder. ‘I always find that disturbing. It’s hard to reconcile, don’t you think?’
‘Shrug,’ the girl said, ‘maybe you need to spend more time up here, it won’t bother you so much after that. Programs are people too. Gods make the angels, and god-tech is like, five billion years more advanced. Don’t worry, be jealous. I mean, wouldn’t you like YouTube in your head?’
‘Not really, there’s no porn.’
He made a left turn. ‘Tell me at least you read up on this mission before jumping on your computer.’
He heard the shuffling of papers. ‘Yeah, you’re going to check out the freaky-ass mansion that had the starchild living there. Don’t see why though, we already did a check. It was fine.’
‘Protocol demands a second check. If they had a leech there, it might mean that something else is going on.’
He heard her munching on something. Likely chips. ‘It still isn’t much of a mission. Why do you need eyes and ears?’
‘Because we’re not the only one who does follow-up checks.’
‘You want to catch a Solly and earn brownie-points!’ she squealed.
‘Ouch. Volume, Recruit, can you at least act like you’re taking this seriously?’
‘I will when you give me something to serious at. BRB bio break.’ The line went dead and he sighed, wrapping his hands tighter around the steering wheel.
‘Curt to Jones,’ he said in a loud clear voice. There was a click in his headset, then a moment of quiet static.
‘Sir, can I get a replacement?’
‘No,’ Jones said, ‘I’ve only got three people awake down here, and Julie’s looking after Fredericks. Screen’s fine, just relax.’
‘I’m trying to be professional here, and-’
‘If you get into trouble, she’ll show you how good she is, until then, just remember that you’re dealing with a tech, not one of your colleagues.’
‘Calls you Agent C behind your back and pretends that he’s working for the MiB. You don’t notice because you’re too focused. Relax, Curt, it might be good for you.’
‘Who’s choice three? Or isn’t there one?’
‘This is the Agency,’ Jones said with a laugh, ‘there’s always a choice three, but in this case, it’s unavailable to you.’
‘Yes,’ Jone said. ‘Sorry, you know how she feels about Solstice, even redeemed ones.’
He fiddled with the air-conditioning. ‘Fine sir, is she back from her break?’
‘YUP!’ Screen shouted in his ear.
‘And now I’m deaf,’ he muttered.
‘I think the Parkers can fix that,’ the girl said, and there was another long slurp.
‘Is there anything on the tech records that didn’t reach downstairs about this place?’
‘Nope. Really old, sometimes rented out. Had never been on the radar until Agent Ryan went there, killed a bunch of Sollies and recruited that short chick.’
‘Mimosa,’ he said on autopilot. Fear rushed over him – there was no reason he should have remembered that. No reason to remember a recruit that had been at the Agency for less than a week. No reason to think about a girl who couldn’t even shoot straight. ‘I mean, I think that was her name.’
No reason at all, except that she hadn’t been just some random recruit. Just some random recruit wouldn’t have shown up again after being reported dead. Just some random recruit wouldn’t have been unconscious on his boss’ couch. Just some random recruit wouldn’t have dragged Merlin down from his home in the tech department.
‘Yeah, it was,’ the tech said, ‘but her hacker alias was so much cooler…Spider-girl or something. Total fanboy. Dead fanboy though. Shame. This would be so much more fun if it was a comic-verse, then we could have our own Jean Grey. Or Wolverine. Wait, no, I think Taylor’s Wolverine. He does the grrrrrr just right. You can be Nightcrawler if you want. You won’t even have to change your name. Much. How do you feel about the letter K?’
‘…so there was nothing else?’
‘Nope.’ He heard some keys clacking. ‘This is the second follow-up,’ the girl said slowly, ‘it’s got a risk factor of less than three, you could have given it to one of us.’
‘Technically,’ he said, then instantly regretted it. ‘But you guys never want to leave. I mean, except for the few of you that are CSI wannabes, I’ve never seen you out in the field, and those guys hardly count cause there’s always protection around.’
Screen was silent for a moment. ‘It’s scary outside,’ she said, her tone a little strained, ‘more so for some than others. Besides, if we took your jobs, you’d have to be in here eating chips, drinking Dew and learning to play WoW.’
‘I’d rather not.’
‘So stop trying to give your work away.’
‘I wasn’t,’ he said as he looked around, uncomfortable at being in unmoving car. A car was a huge target, one easily hit, even from some distance. Worse yet, any of the pedestrians could be packing. Any of them could have been Solstice. Fae…it was easy to spot fae most of the time. There was some clue, if you were trained to see it. Hair just the wrong shade, a face that didn’t quite add up, the tendency to eat concrete or talk to trees whilst looking for a distant cousin.
Solstice, on the other hand, could have been anyone. It was so easy to convince anyone on the street to take up arms against the unnaturals, against anything non-human, against-
A horn blaring pulled him from his paranoia, and he stepped on the accelerator, rocketing him through the set of lights.
‘BRB,’ Screen said again, and again his headset went dead.
Glad of the reprieve, he focused on getting to the mansion.
He parked his car a block back from the mansion and stepped out into the afternoon sun. ‘Recruit,’ he said, ‘are you back yet?’
‘Now I am!’
‘Good. Eyes and ears all up?’
‘Well, you haven’t been talking to yourself, and yeah, your camera’s up. Nice clouds.’
‘You sure this isn’t your agent code we’ve been playing with, Agent C? Seriously, Magnolia isn’t this tightly-wound.’
‘I’d like to argue that. And, besides,’ he said as he started up the slight hill toward the mansion, ‘doesn’t she always get Merlin?’
‘Nope, not alllll the time. Sometimes she has to put up with one of us plebs.’
He avoided the front gate, instead walking along the fence line and with a little effort, though a thorny bush. Once satisfied he was out of the view of the front door, and the road, he required away a section of the fence, stepped through, and required it back into place.
Four running steps had him behind a low row of hedges. He crouched, then lay on his belly, peeking through the few holes in the dense hedge.
‘You know,’ the tech said in his ear, ‘the “eyes” part of eyes and ears doesn’t work so well when your cam is pointed at leaves.’
‘Shut up for a moment, I’m just checking out things first.’
‘Be nice to your operator, otherwise I won’t get you an exit and the agents will get you.’
He looked away from the mansion for a moment, trying to decipher the geek-speak. ‘You do realise,’ he said as he required himself a pair of binoculars, ‘that Matrix references don’t really work when we’re the ones wearing the suits, right?’
‘Fifteen seconds, not bad, sure you don’t want to trade in the suit for a lab coat?’
‘You’re the boss…’
He stared through the binoculars, scanning for any of the usual threats: snipers in the windows, signs of rigged explosions, hostages. Nothing, just a large, quiet house. He swung them around to look at the surrounding gardens, still nothing, just flowers and grass and-
‘Recruit,’ he said, ‘can you zoom in on that tree?’
‘There’s a lot of trees, be more specific?’
He stared at the tree. ‘…how about the one with the bloodstain on it?’
‘Move your head a little to the left.’ He did as told. ‘Up a bit.’ Again, he complied. ‘Good, now recite the alphabet backward.’
‘Dammit, be serious.’
‘It doesn’t exactly take much concentration to zoom in. Keep your head still.’
‘That won’t be a problem,’ he said as he felt a gun being pressed the back of his head.