Ryan smiled at Stef – it was still a rare pleasure for new recruits to be so openly excited at the prospect of working for the Agency – the grin still hadn’t left her face. More often, it was a case of “Yeah, sure, whatever,” or “How much do I get paid?” or “Anything, so long as it keeps that six-armed-hippo-beast away.”
He stared at the girl. There was no question that she was excited, but at the same time, she was still uneasy. She hadn’t let herself relax – her body was still tense – and he didn’t blame her, though he did hope her fear would ebb, lest she become another of his recruits that refused to trust him.
Ryan stood up. ‘Follow me,’ he said as he walked towards the door.

‘Ryan?’ the girl asked. He turned back and looked at her. She was still in her chair, her knees drawn up to her chest. ‘Or is it “sir” now? Agent? Admiral? Grand Moff?’ She sighed and chewed on her lip for a moment. ‘I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but I’m kinda in my pyjamas. Is that gonna be okay?’
He took a closer look at her. Her “pyjamas” simply looked to him like a crumpled and stained outfit. He clicked his fingers and required her into a grey version of the recruit training uniform, her clothes and dirty sneakers disappearing into nothingness. He gave her a moment to process the change, to run her fingers over the material of the utilitarian uniform, before motioning her to follow.
She slowly stood, her hands playing with the fabric of the uniform. After a moment, she buried her hands in the pants pockets and walked over to him. The grey made her seem even paler, but he’d chosen it deliberately. Recruits weren’t even able to require grey training uniforms – the unusual colour that would help everyone in the building to immediately identify her temporary status.
‘I’m not sure,’ she said as she joined him near the door, ‘if I should feel violated or awesomed by this.’
He stared at her for a moment and wondered if she was always so informal. It was a pleasant – if confusing – change from “Yes, sir; of course, sir; I’ll do that, sir” and “No, sir; sorry, sir.”
She nonetheless followed him down the hall, dawdling just a few steps behind. ‘So, is it like a battleship, where you navigate by numbers?’
He pressed the button for the lift before turning to look at her. ‘Most recruits don’t have a problem navigating the agency.’
‘It’s not like the Enterprise, right?’ she asked as the lift doors slid open.
‘I beg your pardon?’
‘On the Enterprise, there’s only one bathroom.’
On the off chance that he was misunderstanding her due to some defect in himself, he ran a quick self-diagnostic. Everything seemed fine; he didn’t seem to be affected by anything or operating at anything less than peak efficiency. The operative word of her sentence made him reconsider her reasons for bringing it up. ‘We have more than enough facilities.’ He paused. ‘Did you need–’
‘No,’ she said quickly, ‘just crossing out some possibilities. Abundant bathrooms is good; the lack of elevator music is expected; what exactly you are is still puzzling me.’
The possibility that she was a Solstice plummeted further towards zero, though other possibilities began to play out in his mind: a trick by a playful god, or an intrusion on reality by something less than real – however, all reports indicated that everything was normal. He ran another scan of her, just to be sure. Unfortunately, nothing strange flickered on his display. She wasn’t a fae; she wasn’t a folly; she was just a very strange girl.
Her nature decided, it was time to answer her question. ‘I’m an agent.’
She snorted. ‘Yes – the suit, gun, and office kind of gave that away. I meant the literal what.’ She bit her lip and waved her hands. ‘If there’s a more delicate way to phrase that question, feel free to tell me. I don’t think you’re human. If you are, then sorry; feel free to shoot me. Except don’t, cause it’s a compliment.’
He stopped the lift mid-journey with a thought. ‘What are your conclusions so far?’
‘You can conjure stuff, but there’s no arcane bullshit, so I’m not expecting that this place is Hoggles. No runes, no smoke, no wand, no reagents. You arbitrarily clicked your fingers, but I don’t think that’s key – it’s no nose of Samantha. Teleportation, you can take at least one person with you, but I don’t know if it has a recharge – hence why we’re taking a lift when you had no problem taking me across the city in a few seconds. There’s no obvious Scotty, possibly personal, possibly some variant of shunpo. You also knew my name without stealing my wallet.’
‘I have no conclusive conclusions. And there’s been too many questions lately, so I’d just like a simple answer. Please.’
‘There’s nothing complicated about us,’ he said. ‘The full extent is that we were created to keep order. To protect. To mediate.’
She cocked her head to the side. ‘Man, machine, or magic?’
He gave her a smile. ‘Depending on your perspective, all three, I suppose.’
‘How immortal?’
He gave her the look he gave to recruits he wished to scare off. ‘That’s not something we discuss.’
She raised her eyebrows, apparently unaffected by his stare. ‘So you’ve got a weakness, then?’
He shook his head. ‘No, rather, it generally bothers humans to know that we have none.’
‘So why do you need me? Humans. Whatever.’
‘Recruits?’ He restarted the lift with a thought. ‘Why would you think we wouldn’t need them? New priorities, new perspectives, new ways of thinking. Everyone has something they want to protect, and by being a recruit, you can–’
‘Oh spare me, please,’ she interrupted. ‘If I have to sign up for the whole saving the world rhetoric, then I’m out of here.’
‘You’re a hacker, Miss Mimosa. Data, information – that’s what matters to you, correct?’
‘Yes, but–’
‘Then the only rhetoric you have to believe in is your own.’ The lift doors slid open. ‘This way.’
He kept pace with her this time, wanting to see her reactions to the tech floor. Whilst the hallway walls on his floor were blank – punctuated only by doors, the occasional noticeboard, evacuation procedures, and the like – the tech floor was far from plain.
Movie posters in glass frames hung from the walls, charts were drawn up deciding the rounds of games to be played, and embedded LCD screens flashed with images and quotes. There was no harm in letting her get acquainted with the floor – she would likely work for that department, should she pass the tests.
The door opened, and Jones let them into his lab, and immediately the girl ran across the room towards her laptop. She ran her hand across the lid and cooed at it, mumbling to it, then looked up, blushing. ‘Sorry,’ she said, ‘I just like to know he’s safe.’ She stood awkwardly for a moment, her hand curled around the edge of the laptop, like a child’s hand would clutch a blanket.
He stepped forwards. ‘Could you show Jones the data you were working with?’
She nodded and turned the laptop towards Jones. He silently read the screen, clicking the mouse and occasionally poking at the keyboard.
‘What were you attempting to do?’ Jones asked her.
Stef leant against the bench. ‘Find the right castle?’
The tech nodded, as if understanding perfectly what she had said – another reason to place her in the tech department. Ryan needed recruits that he could understand, not ones that–
She looked up at him and attempted a smile. ‘Do you want me to finish what I was doing? I’ve got to hit two more keys, then it’ll finish compiling. I’m not exactly sure what it’s going to compile into. It could be nothing, the meaning of life, or a bowl of petunias.’
‘Go ahead.’ Even if something did happen, Jones’s office was the best place in the agency for it to happen. The room was completely sealed and had more sensor equipment hidden away in the walls than even Ryan could recall.
‘You’re still not going to shoot me?’
‘No, I’m not.’
She seemed to accept that, turned back to the computer, and dramatically hit the two keys. The screen froze for a moment, then the data aligned itself into easily read lists and quadrants. He felt a pang of guilt as he watched her face fall. ‘Kinda expected something– Sorry. Sorry.’ She quietly slipped into Jones’s chair and stared at the data. ‘All that– All those–’
Jones, however, didn’t seem to share her disappointed feelings. He watched as the tech pulled the laptop close and began to attach several cables to it. Jones typed a few things, then the data appeared on one of the large screens on the wall. The data cycled for a bit, then froze up. After a moment, the data refreshed – the girl fell off the chair.
Ryan moved forwards and pulled her to her feet. She didn’t look back at him, instead moving forwards to lean against the desk and stare up at the information.
He smiled as he watched her look at the screens – what had been simple text and sets of numbers had turned into rotating, fully three-dimensional data, information, and pictures. That, evidently, was what she had been expecting.
She pressed a hand to her head. ‘Telemetry,’ she said as she absorbed the data. ‘He was right: It’s telemetry. He’s going to find her.’
‘Jones?’ he said. ‘It’s the mirrorfall?’
‘Yes. The world was Dajulveed. The mirror is falling here, in three days. With this radius, it’s good – shipping yards, no civilians.’
That only served to confuse the girl. ‘Mirror? Mirror falling?’
‘Never mind.’ There was no use in explaining anything until she’d passed the tests. No point in explaining things that she would only be forced to forget.
Jones required another chair and sat, manipulating the data. The girl watched, head resting on her arms folded on the desk. After a moment, she began to snore.
‘So you’re going to bring them to me one by one, sir?’ Jones asked. ‘Wouldn’t it have been–’
‘There are no others,’ he said. ‘Solstice killed them all. I didn’t have a chance to– Innocents died because of this. Tell me it’s of some use.’
Jones tapped on a few keys and brought up his data on a separate screen. ‘It’s not telling us anything we didn’t know. It confirms some details, though I find it incongruous that a world whose parade of ghosts started with an airship had access to technology like this. It could have been a design renaissance, but all signs point to it being a relative-negative-three civilisation.’ He shook his head. ‘They died for nothing, sir. How did–’ Jones stopped himself, and his expression grew serious. ‘All of the others were dead, sir?’
‘It’s possible a few escaped or were taken, but the rest… All dead.’
‘Not to seem suspicious, sir, but–’
‘The idea that she’s a plant already crossed my mind,’ Ryan said. ‘I’m not naive. One survivor that seems to know just enough is very convenient. I have my reasons to doubt it, but I won’t be letting my guard down.’
The girl made a strange blorp sound, then began to snore louder.
Ryan continued, ‘Either way, I’m not putting her in a cell. Would you please bug thirteen?’
‘Of course.’
He placed a hand on the girl’s shoulder to rouse her. She made another strange noise and shook her head without lifting it from the desk. Her shoulder stiffened under his hand, and he felt her pulse increase. ‘Miss Mimosa.’
She shook his hand off and swivelled on the chair, hair over her face. ‘Sorry,’ she mumbled. ‘Tired. And you’re a narc; fear is a natural reaction.’
He refrained from pointing out that she couldn’t have possibly seen who was touching her shoulder. He scanned her: Her pulse was returning to normal, but it was still much faster than it should have been – she’d been terrified. A natural reaction for a member of Solstice. A natural reaction for a hacker, too. ‘This is Agent Jones’ office,’ he said. ‘You can’t sleep here.’
‘I think I was already…’ she mumbled. She brushed her hair back from her face and stood. ‘Sorry. Just for reference, I’d prefer solitary.’
‘I’ll take that under consideration,’ he said, keeping his face neutral. ‘Come. There’s work that needs to be done here, without interruption.’
‘Okies…’ She stood and swayed for a moment before gaining her footing. She dutifully followed him out of the lab and back through the tech department to the lift, then down and out onto the floor. ‘This kinda looks like the floor we started on.’
‘It is.’
‘This is where the cells are?’
He stopped outside the room thirteen. ‘You don’t deserve a cell.’ It was the truth, and he hoped it would remain the truth. ‘It’s not a cell – the door, however, will be locked. There is no phone, no internet access, and no window. You cannot break out through the door nor the walls. There is no ventilation shaft and no drain. Do you understand?’
She began to say something, apparently thought better of it, and gave him a solemn nod.
‘Should you pass the tests tomorrow, it will become your assigned room. Any questions?’
She looked around at the other doors, then back at him. ‘Where’s room twelve?’
A keen observation. ‘It was dissolved due to an accident.’
‘What kind of accident?’
He went with the cover story; it generally stopped further questions. ‘Nuclear.’ Her eyes lit up. ‘Anything else?’
‘Food? I might be pushing my luck here, but I’m sorta hungry.’
‘The room is fully stocked,’ he replied, then opened the door.
She stepped inside. ‘Night. Or early morning, whichever it is.’
He closed the door, adjusted his vision, and stared at her blurry blue outline. Most recruits, or potential recruits, would immediately explore the room, finding all the secrets that the two-and-a-half rooms had to offer. In her case, he had half-expected her to fall asleep without reaching the bed. Instead, she stood, staring at the door – for a moment, he worried that she could see him or somehow sense that he was watching her.
She lifted a hand and knocked, but he didn’t move. She knocked more frantically, and he pulled open the door. ‘Thank you,’ she said. ‘Thank you for not shooting me, and for believing me, and for…yanno, telling me what was going on. And…for whatever it was that you did when I was little, if it wasn’t kidnapping. If it was kidnapping, that thank you probably gets retracted.’
The girl in front of him was the furthest thing from a member of Solstice. She couldn’t be Solstice. He wouldn’t believe that she was Solstice.
‘You’re welcome.’ He nodded to her and locked the door again.
He smiled at the closed door, then shifted back to his office to begin her paperwork.
[table id=15 /]