Stef looked back at the brick wall, sure of three things: First, that the sound of flesh against flesh was her buzz-cut opponent slapping himself in the head. Second, she wasn’t the ruler of the internets.
Not yet.

Third, the volcano-slash-agent was probably strong enough to push the wall down on her head and leave her as some sort of meaty hacker pancake.
Knowing that she couldn’t stay behind the wall forever, she placed one hand on the cool brick and tried to suck out some of its strength, then walked out, trying to keep her expression as neutral as possible.
Ryan’s face was unreadable – though amused, if she had to guess. Her opponent had his head hung, her method of approaching the test seemingly having caused his brain to reset.
She turned to Taylor. Vesuvius was about to blow.
Say something.
‘Was that satisfactory?’ He gave her no reply. ‘You never said to go over, just to get to the other side. Was it–’
He growled, and she shut her mouth. Taylor tensed, and as he did, he seemed to get bigger. He turned and stalked from the room without a word.
Confused and desperately hoping that he wasn’t going to get a gun, she turned back to Ryan. ‘Was that a pass or not?’
‘A pass,’ Ryan confirmed as he walked over to her. ‘Though,’ he said, dropping his voice, ‘my suggestion would be to give Agent Taylor a wide berth from now on.’
‘I just asked for clarification.’
‘You acted outside of expected parameters.’
She sighed. ‘Um–’
‘Trust me, Miss Mimosa – I’ve already noticed. “Outside parameters” seems to be normal for you.’
She smirked. ‘I think there was a compliment somewhere in there.’
He looked up, so that he could address the buzz cut as well. ‘The next test is through those doors,’ he said, pointing to the far end of the room.
She took a step closer. ‘Please tell me you’re not locking me and the ADFA dropout in a room with knives and we have to fight for the honour of being accepted?’
He gave her another strange look, as if he couldn’t quite believe…well, her. She wondered if it was too late to toss a “sir” onto the end of her last sentence when he spoke again.
‘Jones is administering the next test.’
This brought a smile to her face, and she was less worried that the volcano was going to be waiting behind the door with some sort of large hacker-killing assault rifle. She grinned at the agent, then skipped past the buzz cut into the next room.
The next room was much smaller, only containing three desks. Two desks held computers, and the third was empty. Jones stood, leaning against the empty desk at the front of the room, and motioned to the computers. She chose the one on the left, and a quick swish of the mouse killed the screen saver and brought it back to life.
‘In front of you,’ the tech agent said, ‘is a simulated system for you to breach. You have thirty minutes to get as far as you can.’
The buzz cut raised a hand. ‘This isn’t what I signed up for.’
Jones stared back. ‘All potential recruits are tested on all facets. It helps us decide where to place them.’
‘Well, I guess this is what you’re for,’ the buzz cut said to her.
She glared back and clicked into the test.
She wished for her bag of tricks, then shook off the want – the system looked simple enough. She tried a few basic log-in attempts that worked when system admins forgot to reset from having “password” as a password, but the simplest of tricks yielded nothing.
Slightly more advanced tricks, however, made the system roll over and beg.
Twenty minutes later, she’d cracked the entire system open and was rewarded with a large image of a smiley face.
She looked over at Jones, who was reading from two blue folders, likely their profiles. After a moment, he looked up and met her gaze. ‘Finished?’
‘Of course.’ She shot a withering look at the buzz cut. ‘And by the number of pop-ups I’ve been hearing from over there, I’m assuming he’s using the internet for what Avenue Q says it’s for.’
‘Am not,’ the buzz cut said quickly.
‘Do you even have any idea what I said?’
Jones indicated to a door. ‘You may both proceed.’
The next room was amazing – the first few feet was simply the same white-grey floor that the previous rooms had been, but a few metres in, it blended into concrete in front of a warehouse, and above it, there was a night sky.
Ryan stood at the point where the grey floor began to segue into road. She smiled as she saw him, and the expression froze when she noticed the guns in his hands.
You. Calm down. Now.
He’s got guns again.
Is either pointed at you?
‘The building,’ Ryan said, apparently not noticing what had to have been a manic smile plastered onto her face, ‘is split into two halves. There is a door on the left and a door on the right. In each half, there is a creature. I expect you to consider the situation and take appropriate action.’
The buzz cut took his gun with a sharp nod and headed off to the door on the right-hand side of the warehouse. The agent turned to her and handed her the gun, pushing it into her loose grip. He smiled to her and pointed to the warehouse.
She exhaled a long breath, then made her way across to the warehouse. The door wasn’t locked, and it easily swung open when she pushed on it. She wished she had a holster, but one didn’t appear, so she awkwardly tucked the gun into her waistband. That was yet another thing they made look easier on television. Television was evil.
The building was lit well, though all of the pipes and large metal containers reduced the effective visibility. Having seen the beast, she worried a little about what other things existed and which one of them was hiding in the dark, waiting for her. Ghosts, mermaids, vampires, werebunnies. She hoped there weren’t vampires, simply so she didn’t have to make it a personal vendetta to exterminate every single velvet-wearing emo one of them.
A laughter rang through the room – it wasn’t a particularly evil laugh, but at the same time, it was vaguely unnerving. Not human. The voice behind it was too melodic, too modulated. That erased the possibility that they were using existing recruits in sheets to jump out and say “boo”.
Gunshots broke through the relative silence of the building. The lack of a bloody hole in her posterior told her that it was buzz cut. Something screeched overhead, and she spun to face it.
A dark, fuzzy shape ran across some pipes and jumped down behind a metal shipping crate. Stef heard a shout from across the divide, and more firing, but she fought the urge to reach for her own weapon. Assessing the situation meant having all the knowledge before making a move. It didn’t mean shoot first and ask questions later. There might be girlish screaming and a mad fumble for a gun, but that didn’t–
Dark, glittering eyes stared at her from a pool of shadow. Her mind went blank. The shape laughed again. Up close, the laughter was unsettling – it was the exact kind of laughter you didn’t want to hear coming from a dark alley at night.
No badge. No backup. No frame of reference. ‘My name is Spyder. I–’
It lunged at her.
The fuzzy shape with the glittering eyes knocked her to the ground, and she had the uncomfortable sensation of looking up on it with her gun digging into her back.
The safety’s on, right? Right?
If anyone could shoot themselves in the back, it’d be you. That…unique mix of talent and utter stupidity.
She focussed on the creature. It was male. His hair made him look like a Muppet reject. The black leather he wore was sprinkled with small pieces of glass – sewn in as decoration, rather than the evidence of a defenestration. His face was wrinkled, like an apple left in the sun.
‘I’m–’ she began, after she wheezed a breath in.
It took a swipe at her, his long fingernails cutting into her shirt, though not deep enough to draw blood. ‘Intruding. Brooding. Confusing. This is my home; you’re not a gnome. Did you have a key? Do you know me?’ His voice was wild, bad tempered, raising and falling like the roar of a crowd.
‘Didn’t need a key. Had permission.’
‘You’re not nice; have to pay the price. Have to pay the penalty, you shall see.’
‘Please stop with the stupid rhymes.’
A small fist punched her in the face, knocking her back down. ‘Intruding, brooding girl. Bad!’
You forgot mad.
It jumped onto her middle, and that time, sharp shoes scraped her stomach and only dug in further when she tried to move away. She screamed in pain. It was smaller than a human man – a rough guess placed it at about two-thirds of a textbook son of Adam – and much lighter than his size betrayed, but it was still an uncomfortable experience.
She tried to push him off, but long fingernails flicked at her wrists, and she pulled her hands away.
‘Should make you a statue – like that, will you? Put you in a cave, be your grave? Always watching, never moving – what you get for intruding.’
‘Unless,’ she said through gritted teeth, ‘you have some biological imperative that will explode your head unless you do, quit with the rhymes!’
Assess the fscking situation.
I wanna shoot the annoying thing.
That’s what the other guy did.
I have no desire to be a hacker kebab.
‘What are you?’ she wheezed.
‘Bob, Bob, Bob – not a Bob, hob.’ He looked down at her and licked his lips.
She slowly slid her hand to her side, wondering if she could get the gun before it struck.
If it strikes.
I thought you hard-erased the optimism from you brain.
…So did I.
‘Hob. Like a brownie? Household spirit?’
‘Kitties and tigers.’ It jumped off her and laughed again. ‘Kitties and tigers. Guess which I am?’
Assess the situation.
‘What are you doing here?’
‘Always here. Always in the city. Like it here. Belong here.’
At least it didn’t rhyme this time.
…Did you just…?
Shut. Up.
‘This is your home?’
His dark eyes showed no emotion – at least none that she could recognise – as he stared down at her. ‘And my meal.’
Aren’t I supposed to have some sort of chocolate to offer? Isn’t that how it’s supposed to go?
You haven’t been attention to your own diet. You are made of chocolate, and you bleed coffee. You’re a walking, talking mocha.
I hate it when you’re right.
I’m always right.
‘This is so messed up.’ She looked up at the hob and giggled. ‘You’re completely ridiculous.’
The hob snarled.
‘What do you eat when you can’t get hacker?’
She snorted. ‘That explains the smell.’
‘Was just doing what I was told to do. Have you attacked any civilians?’ The hob shuffled, then shook its head. ‘Actively working for anyone…evil?’ Another shuffle and head shake. ‘Affiliated with the Solst-ass?’ The anger on his face gave her the answer for that one.
She slowly stood. ‘I deem you not a threat.’
The hob gave another high-pitched laugh. ‘And you think that makes all the difference?’
She looked around. ‘Yes?’
The gun was on the floor – and she wasn’t so sure in her conviction to turn her back whilst unarmed. She kept eye contact, knelt, picked up the gun, and backed away from the hob. It stayed there, watching her, then retreated into the shadows.
She released the breath she’d been holding for half a minute, then ran from the building.
[table id=15 /]