Stef watched as Curt stumbled and fell. ‘You shot me,’ he wheezed.
She stared at the gun in her hand. By all rights, it should be smoking, should be on a perfect angle, and have light glinting off its surface, which would look just right when captured in a black and white photo. There was no perfect smoke curl, it hung in her hand awkwardly, and the ubiquitous fluorescent lighting gave it no special treatment.
Three quick steps had her at Curt’s side, and she just stood and watched the red spread across his chest.
‘You shot me,’ he said again.
‘You were a bad guy,’ she stammered, ‘well, I thought-’
‘Did you call for medical?’
‘Are you gonna live that long?’
‘Fuck, newbie,’ he said, putting a hand to his chest and staring at the red that coated his fingers. ‘I just bought this shirt.’ He grimaced, then his head fell back to the concrete floor.
She poked at him with her toe.
‘Don’t do that,’ he growled, ‘seriously.’
‘Aren’t you being a little melodramatic?’
He pushed himself to his feet, wiping the red paint from his hand onto his pants leg. ‘Not really. You just shot me.’
She stared at the stain on his shirt. ‘Least I hit you in the chest.’
‘And if this was a live-fire exercise, I’d be dead and people would be rifling through my stuff, you see why I insisted on dye rounds?’
‘Yeah, I got it, sheesh.’
‘Newbie, listen. You not being able to shoot is one thing, having crack shot aim and no impulse control is another, entirely more dangerous thing.’
‘You give me an order, I call you ma’am, you shoot me in the chest, and you’re back to being newbie. It’s fair.’
‘Can we continue now?’
He shook his head. ‘Nope. This is a mission for two. If one of us gets…taken out, it’s an automatic fail. We’ve got to move onto the next one.’ He sat up, then leaned back against the wall behind him. The sim was an apartment building – but one far nicer than she’d lived in. There were couches, but apparently, the floor was better. ‘But I’m taking a water break first.’
She sat in front of him, legs crossed, and slowly drew shapes in the leaked drops of the dye rounds. ‘Does it ever get weird for you?’ she asked, not looking at him. ‘Being- Yanno- Shooting Solstice?’
He passed her an unopened bottle of water. ‘You asking if I miss it, Newbie?’
She rolled the bottle of water back and forth between her hands, then scratched at her neck. ‘Maybe? I get you’re not an evil jerk. But- But the Agency isn’t exactly nice to you.’
‘I miss the comradery,’ he said after a pause, ‘but I don’t miss the bullshit. At least here, things are honest, or as honest as they can be in a supernatural, clandestine, intelligence agency. I know what my job is. I know what my colleagues do. No one is torturing-’
She flinched and hunched in on herself.
‘Shit, sorry, Newbie,’ he said gently. ‘I didn’t mean to- I’m sorry.’
She stared at the floor, and with a requirement, changed the colour of the dye to bright orange. ‘Ryan said the memories will fade. Agents can handle-’ She rolled the word around in her mouth. ‘Violence. Better than regular people.’ She managed to look at him. ‘I don’t think that’s going to stop me from being scared of Taylor. But- But apparently give me a few days and I won’t be as twitchy.’ She forced a laugh. ‘About this, anyway.’ And uncomfortable silence fell for a moment. ‘Would you go back if you could?’
Curt put his bottle of water down. ‘How can you even ask me that?’
‘Because I have no impulse control?’ she asked, trying to force her voice to be light.
‘The answer to the question you’re actually asking is yes, you’re safe. And if you feel you aren’t, you can always shoot me in the chest. You just proved you can do that.’
He stood and offered her a hand. After a moment, she took it and let him pull her to her feet. He grinned at her. ‘And let me put it this way: even if I was still secretly working for them, you’re still better off with me than any of the other recruits in this department, because at least I’m not an entire bag of dicks.’
She couldn’t help smiling.
‘See?’ he said, ‘I’m not such a bad guy. You miss hacking? Want to go back to that?’
She snorted. ‘What I enjoy is being a code monkey.’ She felt the heat of a blush on her face. ‘Hacker just sounds so much cooler. And I did hack for money, but… Mostly,’ she said, ‘I took advantage of stupid, vengeful teenagers. For fifty bucks a pop, I would hack their ex-significant social media accounts, whatever, and let my mad as hell customer go to town. The passwords of teenagers are the easiest thing in the world to crack. I did some other stuff, but mostly it was that. I mean, I tried all the big hacks, FBI, CIA, all of the TLAs, but mostly for shits and giggles.’
He wiped his hands with a towel. ‘Doesn’t exactly sound profitable.’
‘It wasn’t. I was kind of burning through my inheritance.’ She managed a few seconds of eye contact. ‘Yes, I’m a fucking trust fund kid. I got a lot less than I should have, and I couldn’t exactly ask for a top-up.’
‘Couldn’t you invest, or whatever?’
‘Of course I did, but you need a certain amount of liquid assets. I’m mentally ill, I’m not incapable of managing my finances. You grow up in a house like mine and, I’m not saying I dreamed of stock tickers, but you come to understand that the world spins on money.’
She’s just said “mentally ill” and he hadn’t reacted. It was still so strange for people to…accept it. Accept her. Move on with the conversation, and not want to lock her up. Ryan was one thing – agents were people, but they were a special kind of people. Curt was as boring middle of the road as you could get. He was the-
She let out a breath. She’d accept the normalcy as long as it lasted.
‘I did,’ she started, the memory bubbling to the surface. ‘I did…stretch it a little. Probably the biggest- Only. Only con I ever pulled off.’
‘Close your eyes.’
‘Because I’m going to do something I hate, but it’ll be worth it.’ She watched as he rolled his eyes, then closed them. She concentrated, and required an outfit that nearly burned her skin. ‘Fine, open, get a good look.’
He opened his eyes, and just stared at her.
She smiled a perfectly innocent smile. ‘What?’
‘…you look like a girl.’
She brushed some hair behind her ear, and adjusted her pink headband, then brushed some imaginary lint from her pink babydoll shirt, looked down at the sensibly-cut pink skirt, and clicked together the pink flats. His jaw dropped when she lifted the matching purse into her lap.
‘All I had to do,’ she said, letting her mother’s accent slip back into her voice, ‘was run up a whole bunch of charges on my card, and proxy the transactions so they didn’t show as coming from my IP, get the packages delivered elsewhere, and then go cry to the bank manager about how some bad men were stealing the money my dear grandmother gave to me.’
He continued to stare at her, then looked away, and had some of his water.
One thought had her back in her uniform. ‘Only did it once though, didn’t want to push my luck, and I just needed to stretch my inheritance a little further. And it worked. Never got caught. Didn’t feel brave enough to try again.’
‘Come on, let’s run another. You pick it this time.’
A ping sounded in her HUD. ‘Can’t,’ she said, ‘I have to go see Jonesy. Looks like she’s got something that counts as my Field-Tech interface assignment.’ She grimaced as she started to read the email.
‘There’s a body, isn’t there?’
‘Looks like it.’ She scanned through the contents. Dumpster diving. Joy.’
‘Want me to tag along?’ he offered. ‘At least this way, I can write your report if you forget some of the detail. And I still probably know most of the techs better than you.’ He paused. ‘Speaking of which…have you actually done the “hey, I’m an agent” speech with them yet?’
‘Owing to the fact that Jonesy is probably one of the smartest people on the planet, she’s picked up on the fact that I’m not that good with the…people…thing, so sent out an email. I’m free and clear. Everyone knows by the magic of a departmental mailing list.’ She stared at the floor. ‘I’m hoping that they have a more positive reaction than our department.’
Curt put his hand in her field of vision and she looked up at him. ‘Newbie, I’m pretty sure every recruit under Agent Jones’ care wants to be an agent. You won’t be an exile, you’ll be their tiny, nerdy god.’
She forced a smile. ‘I can handle that, so long as there’s offerings.’
‘If someone asks if you’re a god, you say yes.’ He handed her a cookie. ‘You going to shift us to Tech, or what?’
She bit into the cookie. ‘Yeah, yeah,’ she said, and processed the shift.