The last time Ryan had taken her to meet recruits, she’d managed to hide in the bathroom for nearly twenty minutes.
This time, Ryan was on her right, and Curt was on her left – the only option was to turn and run, but it was entirely likely that one or the both of them would catch her and drag her towards mandatory social interaction.
Resistance was futile.
Stef bowed her head, and focussed on looking strong, sensible and as much like an agent as she could manage.
All of the Field recruits were waiting when they stepped into the common room. Curt immediately peeled away from her left, and walked towards the back of the room, leaning against the wall, far from any of his – their – supposed colleagues.
Ryan stepped up, and cleared his throat. ‘Recruits,’ he said, indicating to her with a sweep of his palm. ‘I’d like to introduce you to Agent Mimosa. She’s currently assigned as the secondary field agent as of this morning.’
He paused, and like her, was probably looking for reactions. There were none. She was completely forgettable. It was probably some kind of minor miracle that Curt had remembered her – she hadn’t made an impact on anyone else. Usually, that was a goal achieved – here, it would likely make things far more awkward.
‘Some of you,’ Ryan said, barrelling into the inevitable, ‘may remember that she was introduced as a recruit in October.’
A recruit stood up. The jerk that she’d punched. The one who had offered to play pimp for Ryan in Fairyland. ‘That’s the bitch that punched me!’
Tried to punch. I tried to punch you.
You’d try again, wouldn’t you?
If I could get away with it, sure.
‘I wouldn’t be using slurs if I were you, Brian,’ Curt said from his leaning-spot.
‘If I want your opinion, fuckstick-‘ Brian started.
‘Recruits,’ Ryan said, his voice in full dad-mode. At the back of the room, Curt winked at her, and she gave him a small smile, glad – even though she’d been called a bitch for no particular reason – that the room’s attention had wavered from her for a moment. ‘Something you weren’t made aware of at the time is this,’ he indicated to her again, ‘this is my daughter.’
‘Ah,’ Brian said, ‘fuck.’
‘It was not seen as necessary information to share prior to this,’ Ryan said. ‘But given her change in status, we felt that it was germane to reveal this, so that there were no discussions of favouritism, or the like.’
Stef stepped forward, knowing this was her cue. ‘I wasn’t raised Agency,’ she said, ‘I grew up with my mother, and her husband.’ Nothing about that statement was a lie, even if the truth the other recruits were taking wasn’t what she was saying. ‘So whilst my rank is higher, it is somewhat of an affectation.’ She forced a smile, and slowly pinched her index finger with the nails of her thumb and middle finger. The pain was good. The pain gave her something to focus on. ‘But I will be deferring to those with seniority.’
This time, Curt smiled.
‘Well, if there’s no questions,’ Ryan said – despite not having asked for questions, ‘you’re all dismissed.’
Ryan gently pulled on her shoulder, and one by one, the recruits filed out past her, most staring at her for more than a few seconds. After everyone had gone, Curt removed himself from the wall, and walked over. ‘That went better than expected,’ he said, ‘so you can expect some backlash later.’
‘Wonderful,’ she muttered.
Ryan ruffled her hair. ‘I’ve got some things to deal with, take some time, then come see me and I’ll issue you your office.’
She nodded and pointed to her HUD. ‘Jonesy keeps messaging me to come down to the lab. Something about lasers.’
Ryan smiled, nodded, then left.
Curt lifted his head, watched him go, then took two steps towards the door and slowly pulled it closed. ‘How you doing, newbie, like, really?’
She leaned against the wall, but couldn’t pull off the casual-cool thing that he seemed to do without effort. ‘I keep-‘ she put a hand to the side of her face. ‘Last night- I felt-‘ she wrapped her arms around her. ‘I felt a bullet go through my face. I already cried about it. And I slept in blue. I- I’m already a lot better than I should be. But I think it’s going to take a while to adjust to.’
‘You want to get some breakfast?’ he asked. ‘Or…second breakfast? It seemed to serve you well on your original first day. We could do some of your paperwork, I assume you’ve got a whole stack? Half of the agency is fear; half of it is forms.’
She nodded. ‘Literally a stack, and I was already gonna ask if you were okay to help with it.’
He gave an encouraging smile. ‘Shift us somewhere, and we’ll work on it.’
‘I know it’s not even nine AM yet, but I’m really craving a burger. Hungry Jacks, the one in the mall, we can hide downstairs and do the paperwork, shouldn’t have people bothering us till lunch.’
‘I guess that’s cool.’
She fixed the location in her mind, and shifted. The world came back into view, the restaurant bright, clean and ready to serve her and Curt…a Curt that wasn’t there.
She spun slowly in a circle, much to the amusement of the counter staff, then quickly hopped out of the restaurant, and shifted back to the Agency.
‘Forget something, newbie?’ Curt asked, leaning against wall once again.
‘Sheesh, give me a break. I’ve been able to teleport myself for a couple of hours, I’m not perfect yet.’
‘Can you remember me this time?’
‘I’ll…try,’ she said. ‘It’s still easier for me to shift things I’m holding.’ She lifted a hand. ‘Do you mind if I touch you?’
‘Sure,’ he said, offering his arm.
She grabbed his shirtsleeve and processed the shift again, and this time, he came with.
‘You, tell me what you want, then go grab us a table, and try working on your first piece of paperwork.’
‘Burger. Fries. Coffee.’
‘Well, you’re easy pleased.’
She shrugged and headed down the stairs into the empty bottom level. She selected a booth, shifted the paperwork from her office, set the folders down, and pulled the top file off, and flipped it open. The form identified itself as a S-127 – confirmation of default weapon.
As she looked down at the form, an option came up on her HUD. [Prefill information Y/N?] She selected Y, and half of the form was neatly filled in with carefully typed letters. Her name, serial, rank, Agency location, all of the usual metadata at the top.
The second half of the form, however, stayed empty. The first fields asked her for her chosen default weapon – make, model and modifications.
‘Well,’ she said slowly to the form, ‘it’s loud and makes people die.’ She sighed.
The gun appeared in her hand, shiny, new and ready to kill bad guys. She tilted it slightly, ensuring the safety was on, then laid it on the table.
Come on, HUD, do your thing.
As she stared at the gun, tooltips appeared, giving the gun’s information, which she then copied onto the paperwork.
The next section gave her a choice of three checkboxes: competency already on file; competency achievement attached; in training.
Stef made a careful, neat tick in the third box – being able to aim with HUD assistance probably didn’t quite count as being competent.
A black jacket was dropped on the table, covering her gun, then a barely-balanced tray was thumped down onto the table. ‘Please tell me,’ Curt said as he slid into the other side of the booth. ‘That I didn’t just see what I think I saw.’
‘I’m halfway through this, is this good, Y-slash-N?’
‘Newbie, is your gun seriously lying right there on the table?’
‘Do you know we’re in public? And that despite pretty much authority to do anything, we try to keep under the radar?’
He facepalmed for a brief moment. ‘Can we put this on the list of things you never do again?’
She pressed her lips together, bowed her head and nodded. ‘Yep. Sorry.’ She folded her arms on the table and slumped down onto them, her head resting on her forearms.
Stef watched through her hair as his hands slowly sort out the food, heat slowly burning her cheeks. It was still her first week, and she’d already screwed up more times than she had fingers.
Curt lifted the large takeaway cup of coffee off the tray and shook it gently in her direction, just like he’d done in the Local Court. She slowly sat up, and nodded. He placed the cup in front of her and dropped a dozen sugar packets beside it. ‘I still don’t know how many you like,’ he said as he retreated, leaning back against his side of the booth, a single fry between his fingers like a cigarette.
Stef popped the lid from the coffee, and tore open four sugar packets, one after the other, slowly trying to centre herself.
She was a screw-up, and nothing was going to change that – and now she couldn’t even run away, because of how negatively it would reflect on Ryan.
She slammed her hand against the table, hard enough to hurt, and Curt jumped. She squeezed her hand, pushing the pain the forefront of her mind. ‘Sorry,’ she mumbled. ‘I just- I’m not-’ she let her head drop, and she stared into the coffee. ‘Sorry.’
He reached across, grabbed the coffee from under her face and popped the lid back on. ‘Everything’s okay, newbie,’ he said. ‘No harm, no foul.’
‘I’m a fricking genius,’ she said, rolling the cup between her hands as he set it back in front of her. ‘I should be smarter than this.’
‘You told me yourself, you’ve never done anything like this. No job, no uni, no…other secret suited organisations. The Agency tends to throw people into the deep end. Your end is…the Marinara Trench.’
‘Mariana,’ she said. ‘Marinara is the sauce.’
Curt picked up his soft drink cup. ‘See? That giant brain of yours is going to come in handy.’ He tapped it against her coffee. ‘Drink up, and tell me what’s on the schedule for today.’
If I do both at the same time, I’ll choke.
‘Breakfast, paperwork, a bit of combat training.’ She forced a smile. ‘So if I annoy you during the first two bits, you can hit me hard as punishment.’
‘Jesus Christ,’ he said, putting the cup down. ‘Don’t say that. What the hell- I’ll take you through some combat sims, but I’m not going to hit you, even if you do act like an annoying little twerp. Which, for the record, you haven’t yet.’
‘I just figured it might make things more tolerable.’ She stared at her hands. ‘I mean, I heal pretty much straight away now.’
‘Still doesn’t make hitting you okay, not for that reason.’
‘Would you hit Ryan because you were mad? Just because he’d heal up?’
She shook her head slightly. ‘But he’s not-’
‘Stop it,’ he said. ‘Please. Whatever you might-’
‘Fine,’ she said, ‘but the offer’s-’
‘Stop it,’ he snapped. ‘Just…stop it.’ He sucked angrily on his drink for a moment. ‘Okay. Some combat training, what else?’
‘So far as I understand it, I get some time here, then I’m booted to external training. Acclimatisation to my home Agency. More of this first-day kind of stuff. And I probably have to do a Tech-Field interface assignment.’
‘Corpse run?’ he asked as he unwrapped his burger.
She wrinkled her nose at the imagined smell. ‘Jonesy presumes so, unless something else pops up.’
‘You’ll be fine, it’s just babysitting techs. I’ve done a couple of dozen at least since I got here – remember what I told you, newbie – most people-’ He stopped, and pulled a little notebook out of his pocket, and flicked through a couple of pages. ‘Drop into LFG after their induction, so I’m usually assigned to work to solo stuff, and there’s a fair degree of-’
‘Huh- Huh- Wait a damn-’ She reached across the table and plucked the notebook from his hands. ‘Dafaq is this?’
The cover of the notebook answered her. Embossed, in neat gold letters, were the words “Stef to English Dictionary”.
Her lips pressed together, her eyebrows rose, and she found herself unsure of how to react. ‘Um, what?’ she finally asked, fingering the gold lettering.
‘Well, if you’re going to insist on speaking geek, I’m going to have to learn to translate,’ he said. ‘It’s going to be no good you shouting out blah-de-blahity when you’re trying to actually communicate pertinent information. I’ll adapt.’
Stef started to flip through the book, which looked like a beginner’s guide to gaming lingo, though some had been expanded with notes and comments, obviously by Curt himself. ‘Did you put this together yourself?’
He shook his head. ‘I had Raz do it for me. I’m his favourite agent, after all, he doesn’t mind doing me a favour now and again. I had to order him not to use your nickname on the cover though. Do you really respond if someone calls you Spyder in normal conversation?’
‘Honestly, the thing that throws me off the most is actually having conversations.’
‘Would you prefer me to stop talking?’
She gave him a small smile. ‘No, you don’t have to.’
The techs seemed to understand – she’d seen at least eight techs so far that went by a nickname instead of a birth-certificate-name. Nicknames could be so much more real – a name you chose for yourself, a name that didn’t have the baggage of memories behind it. A name that was…you; rather than something chosen the moment you entered the world.
She’d been Stephanie to her parents – it had never been her real name.
Steph was still too close. Stef was hers. A subtle mutation, but one that made the name she could own.
She’d picked up and dropped a dozen or more handles – ones that referenced fandoms, interests, or god – Alan Turing.
Peter had called her Wendy.
She’d called herself Spyder.
Names had power, for good or bad.
Stef. Spyder. Agent. Daughter. Newbie.
She sipped on her coffee. ‘Didn’t you ever have a nickname, like at school or whatever?’
‘Sure. Psycho. Faggot. Retard-lover.’ He took a bite out of his burger. ‘You know, the usual names you call the kid who spends big lunch protecting his autistic sister and getting into fights when people tease her.’
‘Don’t be, I’m not. It taught me how to scrap, it’s come in handy. Now, newbie, tell me you’ve dismissed your damn gun so we can finish one form before your food gets cold.’ He put his hand on the jacket and pressed down where the gun had been, then gave her a withering look. ‘Agent Mimosa, if you please.’
She slipped her hand under his jacket, wrapped her hand around the gun, and dismissed it.
‘Um, dumb question.’
‘Can you dismiss my stuff? Like, if I had to go pee. Which I don’t. Cause I’m an agent, and I’ll never have to pee again. And do you know how weird that concept is?’
‘You’ll retain…normal waste disposal means outside of system territory. So if we go into Faerie, then-’
‘Then what does Taylor do?’ she asked, her hands slapping over her mouth as soon as the question was out.
Curt simply raised an eyebrow, and took a long sip on his drink. There was the bottom-of-the-cup noise, so he popped the lid, rattled the ice for a moment, and required it full again. ‘I suppose congratulations are in order,’ he said. ‘Most recruits don’t pick up on that so fast.’
‘Jonesy kinda got brought up when we were mucking doing science.’ She dropped her head and stared at the table. ‘I mean. I don’t want to think about- But it’s kind of like- If you retain-’
Curt held up a hand. ‘How does Agent Taylor pee?’
‘How does Agent Volcano pee?’ she asked, her voice going up in pitch with each word. ‘He doesn’t have- So- So tell me please so I can never, ever think about this again.’
He spread his arms wide, a grin on his face. ‘Life finds a way?’
He dropped his arms, the grin staying on his face. ‘To the best of my understanding, it gets rerouted.’
She felt herself relax. ‘That’s a lot less terrifying than some of the possibilities I was imagining.’
‘Eat,’ he said, ‘and tell me what damn form you were trying to do in the first place.’
‘Confirmation of a default weapon. I needed to know the specs so I could fill in the form.’
‘You don’t even know the kind of gun you’re carrying?’
‘I didn’t think there would be a quiz.’
He took another few bites of his burger, and spun the form towards him. ‘That’s why you don’t get to check off the competent box. You will have to though, otherwise you’ll get in trouble. You’ve got to be able to, well, correctly ID the gun, shoot it, change the clip, clean it, take it apart and put it back together. I’m sure we’ll get to it at some point.’ He picked up some fries. ‘But please, dye rounds when you’re around me, I’m not a big fan of body armour, but you make me feel like I need it.’
‘Compliment or complaint?’
She pulled her burger from the tray. ‘This is pretty easy.’
‘Others can be a lot more complicated. Then we get into report writing, that can take a bit to get used to, you need to include certain details in certain ways, some things need photos, some things you have to wait on the CSI guys, or the techs, yanno. So, if you get chased for a report, make sure you chase the people you’re waiting on.’
‘I remember some of that from the like, one report you helped me write.’
Curt seemed to brighten a little, one corner of his mouth turning up in a smile. ‘That’s not a bad idea, newbie. You wrote one follow-up report, you should have done about that little ice-cream excursion.’
‘I ordered a sundae. We both got shot. Blood is warm. Ice cream is cold. They do not mix. End of report.’
‘Fair enough, sorry, but you’ll need to get used to getting shot. The uniform makes you a target.’
‘You said you’d only been shot once.’
Curt looked at his hand. ‘Yeah, but shot at more times than I can remember. Can we at least do reports about the sims we run? The quicker you get reports in, the better the numbers for the department and the Agency look. And with how poorly we tend to perform-’
‘Everyone keeps saying that, are we really that shit? Ryan’s like super!narc, he can’t be that bad of a boss, can he?’
‘Everything suffers because he’s trying to do two roles. He would be great, perfectly efficient, whatever you want to call it, at either of the jobs – but when you multitask, especially on something that’s a full-time role, performance tends to suffer.’ He scrunched up his burger wrapper. ‘My dad owned a fruit store, I don’t remember if I told you that, and he liked to try and help set up the displays, work with the customers, all that kind of stuff – but as time went on, he found he couldn’t manage that on top of the management side of stuff.’ He shrugged. ‘And that’s a freaking fruit store, not an Agency. Keeping the city safe is a little bit more important than a ripe apple.’
Stef shrugged. ‘I told Ryan he should get a temp.’
‘He needs an Aide, he’s needed one for years. He gives me bits of work every so often, but-’ Curt paused. ‘Look, if you genuinely want to help him, then you should try and position yourself as Aide. If you want me to do all the actual, work, fine, but I need access to it in order to do it.’
She looked away. ‘We’ll see, okay? I just need to- Like- I haven’t even filled in one piece of paperwork yet. I don’t have a proper licence for a stapler, let alone a gun, if I tell him I want to be Aide, he’ll think I’m trolling him.’
‘Still, keep it in mind.’
‘You should apply again,’ she said. ‘You actually know what you’re doing.’
‘Solstice,’ he said. ‘I used to be Solstice, that isn’t going away. Agent Jane said other turncoats have managed it, but…’ He tapped the form. ‘Come on, let’s finish this one.’