‘We can circle around the block one more time if you like,’ Stef said as they drove past the house again.
He stared out the windscreen. ‘Six times. It already looks suspicious.’
She boggled at him. ‘You required a different car each time we went around, it’s not suspicious.’
He pulled over at the end of the street and parked. ‘No, it’s only delaying the inevitable. You sure this is the place?’
‘It’s the address the day care had on file.’ She held up the copy of the file she’d required. ‘So it’s a place to start at least.’
‘Ok,’ he said. ‘Yeah. Ok.’ He put his hand on the door, then hesitated before looking over at her. ‘Legolas, what do your elf-eyes see?’
‘And you are not a geek how?‘
‘Everyone saw Lord of the Rings,’ he said in a huff. ‘And the techs are always shouting that at Jones, I’m quite observant.’
‘I’ve observed,’ she said with a smirk. ‘And seriously, call him Jonesy, how can you be scared of someone named Jonesy? And don’t make the argument that Jonesy was the cat in Alien; otherwise I’m going to have to think about the fact that someone has actually designed an acid-blood system for agents as a defence mechanism. And now I’m thinking about it. And who ever thought that was a good idea. I know it’s not implemented, but it’s stupider than the mer-agent! Acid blood is not civilian friendly! Imagine the collateral damage from paper cuts!’
He gave her a sideways glance. ‘I thought I was supposed to be the stressed out one.’
‘The more I stress, the more you go into big-brother mode and the calmer you get.’
‘…that’s evil, newbie.’
‘Yes, I am,’ she said with a grin before putting her forehead against the window and looking back to the house. She opened up the visual overlays menu in her HUD and hit the one she’d bookmarked as “Superman!” and initialised it. The world turned blue as the pseudo-x-ray vision took over. The trees flexed for a moment, then went still, expandable options to take closer scans appearing, the parked cars did the same. The house became see-through in blue relief, and she could see the blue outline of three people inside, each pulsing lightly.
‘Two guys and a kid,’ she said.
He gave a nod. ‘Ok, so we’ll call it a maybe. Let’s get this over with.’
He stepped out of the car and she followed a step behind as he opened the gate and walked up the front stairs.
She squeezed his hand for reassurance, and he knocked on the door.
The house was nice, large, high-set to catch the breezes. A blinking light caught her eye and she looked up – there was a small video camera sitting high on the wall.
Home security, Spyder, it’s society-approved paranoia.
Alarms sure, but cameras?
There were footsteps behind the door and a familiar sound. A sound that was very much a part of Agency life.
She shoved Curt to the side a second before the shot came through the door.
The shot hit her in the collarbone, and she cancelled the automatic reaction to respawn, the damage wasn’t bad. Being in the world was far more important than disappearing to heal herself. Her repair subroutines started on the wound, the slight pain disappearing immediately. Her autopilot took over, and she kicked the door in. The door flew off its hinges and onto the shooter. She jumped and pushed the door and shooter to the ground.
Another shot came through the door, and hit her in the left hand.
So glad that’s not my gun hand any more.
The shooter struggled beneath the door, and her autopilot made her require a gun and aim it down.
She hit the giant red X she’d installed as soon as she’d been given the power to cancel her autopilot, and she felt her body give control back to her. No blackout zone, no way of knowing who the shooter was or why they were shooting, it wasn’t a time to shoot first and ask questions later.
She jumped up and down on the door a few times to take the fight out of them, then jumped over the end of the door, and nodded to Curt as they crouched to pick it up.
Curt dropped the door as soon as he saw the shooter. ‘Dad?’
The shooter – his father apparently – raised the gun again, but a simple requirement disappeared it from his hand.
‘What the fuck?’ the man said, looking for his gun. He jumped to his feet, and balled his fists into hands.
She jammed her gun into the back of his head. ‘Stop,’ she said. His family or not, she wasn’t going to tolerate violence.
‘You fucking shits,’ he spat. ‘How dare-‘
She wiggled her gun. ‘Settle, and stop fscking swearing at us. Old people swearing is weird. Parents swearing is weirder.’
‘They are going to kill you,’ he growled at Curt. ‘Oh, my boy, the agents will-’
‘Which agents?’ Curt demanded.
‘You know which agents, Solstice!’
‘How the fuck do you know-’ Curt started. ‘Look at what I’m wearing! I’m Agency!’
She grabbed him by the collar and yanked him so that he fell to the ground, stepped in front of him, opened her HUD and tweaked her physical display parameters. Anything that looked human disappeared, replaced with blue, pulsing and moving, showing the flow of everything that made her an agent. ‘Do we have your attention now?’ she asked, then brought back her skin.
Curt’s father just stared.
‘Yeah, well, the Solstice don’t have this tech!’ she snapped.
‘Yes,’ another voice said, ‘that’s an agent.’
She flicked her eyes away from Curt’s father to a man at the end of the hall. A fairy. Orange and silver wings spread, partially obscuring the child clinging to his back. ‘She’s an agent,’ the fairy said.
‘Don’t hurt my grandpas!’ the child screamed.
‘We’re Agency,’ Curt said. ‘I’m Agency.’
Curt’s dad focused on her. ‘Name. Agency. ID. Now.’
She pulled her ID from her pocket and flipped it open. ‘Mimosa. Brisbane. And you’d better use a nicer tone of voice with me, or I’ll go back to my first instinct and shoot you, seems only fair,’ she said, pointing at the bloody hole in her uniform, and the blood dripping from the closing wound in her hand.
‘What is he doing with you?’
Other than constantly saving my ass?
‘He’s the Aide to my Director. We can talk, but you’d better invite us in first, so we can be a bit more civil about this.’
‘Won’t you please come in,’ he said through clenched teeth.
She looked at the door, repairing it with a couple of requirements, but leaving it unlocked, then required a small in-ear earpiece into Curt’s ear. His hand jerked towards his ear, but stopped and lowered his hand.
[Thought it could be useful if we could communicate a little. You ok? One blink for yes, two blinks for no.]
Two blinks.
‘Yead,’ Curt’s father said, ‘take her downstairs?’
‘No,’ the fairy said. He took the girl from his back. ‘Go play in your room, ok?’
‘We can go to Fry’s for dinner if you do.’
‘Sara,’ Curt’s father said. ‘Go.’
The little girl wandered away.
‘Kitchen,’ Curt’s father said. ‘No weapons.’
She looked up at Curt as they walked through the house, he looked pale, and all of his usual bravado – the real kind and the cocky-fake-kind was gone. He was blank, as close to his own form of /serious as she’d ever seen.
[It’s ok.]
Two blinks.
They walked into the kitchen. The fairy took up position near the fridge, Curt’s father sat at the bench. No chairs were offered, so she required two, and they sat.
‘You’re Agency,’ Curt’s father said. She loaded his file as they sat – Brendan O’Connor, nothing of interest, nothing of note, barely a record at all, simply giving her the option to load his civilian and governmental files.
‘How’d you know I was Solstice?’ Curt asked. ‘How long have you known?’
‘I saw you,’ Yead said, ‘you were in a raiding party. You-’
‘Why were you watching me?’ Curt snapped at the fairy.
‘I thought you were doing drugs,’ Brendan said. ‘You were missing shifts at work, you were distracted, you weren’t even trying to talk to me any more-’
‘So your idea was to have your boyfriend stalk me?’
‘You had a kid,’ Brendan said, his voice low, ‘the only grandchild I’m ever going to have, I didn’t want her in that sort of environment.’
‘What is she doing here?’
‘We adopted her,’ Brendan said, ‘her mother wanted a second chance, she didn’t want to be burdened – her words, not mine – with a child she had as a stupid teenager.’
‘No one told me.’
‘I didn’t even know if you were alive or dead. Frankly, I hoped agents had served justice.’
Curt made a move to get out of the chair.
[Don’t,] she warned. She fixed a stare on his father. ‘He’s invaluable to us.’
‘You showed up for a reason, Curt,’ Brendan said, ‘what is it?’
‘End of the world,’ Curt said, staring at the floor. ‘Phoenixes. I came to protect her against the blue one.’
‘I haven’t heard anything like that,’ Yead said. ‘And-‘
‘The Agency hasn’t even known a day, and we are doing our damn best not to incite a panic that will make this situation even worse,’ she said.
‘Give me the blue,’ Brendan said, ‘then get out. We’ll mix it in with her drinks. Yead is fine. I’ll-‘
‘I’ll require you a bag as well,’ she said. ‘Then you’ll all be covered.’ She stood, shifted the child-size bag from the car, then required an adult dosage.
‘I want to talk to her,’ Curt said.
‘And what would you say, Curt?’ Brendan asked. ‘She doesn’t know who you are. There’s no point in knowing who you are.’
Curt twitched.
She made a quick requirement, turned, grabbed Curt’s arm and shifted them back to the car. He sat in the passenger seat, motionless, his face clouded with emotion.
She looked down at the steering wheel, trepidation creeping up her spine.
Require: car start?
She jumped a little as the car started.
She pulled open her agent-wiki. [Search: commands, cmd list, cmd macros, drive, driving, autodrive, auto-drive]. She held back a grin as she found an autopilot subsection that…functioned as an autopilot.
[Input destination?] a popup promoted. She selected the option for ready-made paths, and picked the first in the list. As she clicked on it, her hands went to steering wheel and her body took over the driving. She minimised the driving overlay and turned to look at him.
‘You ok?’
He slumped against the window, and shook his head. ‘They’re going to give her the blue, she’s going to be safe.’
‘I’m sorry I pulled us out of there, but-‘
‘No,’ he said, ‘I got what I wanted. We had no reason to stay. I-’
‘We did what we came to do, you didn’t get what you wanted, that’s two very different things.’
‘I don’t know what I expected,’ he said, ‘but it wasn’t that. They adopted Sara and I didn’t know. He knows about magic and I didn’t know. Everything is so messed up.’
‘Every time I say that, you argue with me.’
‘I wanted to talk to her. I wanted to see her.’
‘We could always kidnap her.’
‘That is a bad idea for so many reasons, newbie.’
‘So do something official.’
‘I can, once I’m finished with my probation. Which is soon enough, I suppose, Ryan said he could get it down to eighteen months, so only a few to go.’
‘If you get her full-time, then you’re going to have to leave her with the techs while you’re on shift.’
There was an uncomfortable look on his face. ‘I wouldn’t want her full-time. I really thought I would, but now I don’t know.’ He leaned back in the seat as her body pulled the car to a stop at a set of traffic lights. ‘Other than photos that I’ve managed to get, this is only the second time I’ve seen her since I switched sides. Ryan brought me down, weeks ago, while Taylor was missing. She’s been on my mind ever since.’
There was hesitation in his voice. ‘Is that good?’ she asked. ‘Or bad?’
‘We didn’t plan to have a kid,’ he said.
He scars itched, and she wished she could take a hand off the wheel to scratch them.
‘We talked through the options,’ he said, ‘but we were young, and true to cliché, we thought we knew everything. I did more to raise my little sister than my parents ever did, so I thought I could handle it, and my ex didn’t have plans for after graduation. We’d talked about backpacking or something, neither of us were hanging out to hear back about a uni acceptance.’
He let out a long sigh. ‘We thought we could handle it, so we had a kid. It was a mistake, we weren’t ready, which is proved by the fact that she’s been taken away from me, abandoned by her mother and is being raised by my dad and his gay fairy boyfriend.’
‘Gay boyfriend is kinda redundant.’
‘Sorry,’ he said, ‘shit like that still slips out sometimes. I got seriously homophobic after the divorce, but at least I don’t believe any of it any more. I’m a reformed bigot. I learned, I got better.’
‘’You also got over being a Solstice.’
‘I didn’t-‘
‘You get really thingy when people remind you of it,’ she said, ‘it’s ok, you’re one of the good guys, you really are.’
‘And I’m invaluable too, I hear,’ he said with a wink, false –bravado slipping into place for a moment.
‘So what do you want to do about her?’
‘I don’t know,’ he said, ‘gods, I really don’t know. He was not a great dad to me and Tara,, but he was also pretending to be straight, so that had to be stressful, so he’s got half a chance of doing a good job with her. I…can’t be a dad to her. I did the late night feedings, I changed her diapers, I bought her toys, I-’ Tears rolled down his cheeks. ‘I did all that. But then her mother left and I saw her less, then everything happened, and I haven’t been there for her since.’ He wiped his face on his jacket sleeve. ‘She was a baby, and now she’s a little person, and I missed some of the really important stuff. I can’t be there for her, and I don’t think I have the capacity to be a father to her, and look after myself, and be a recruit.’
‘You could quit,’ she said quietly.
‘No, I can’t, Stef. Not because of probation, not because of duty, but because this is something I think I could be really good at. Mags is always going to be a better Aide than I am, but I can still be good at it. I have somewhere I belong. I’m Agency, and until I have reason not to be, this is my life. It’s selfish, but I don’t have room in my life for her. I’d rather not be in her life, than get the same substandard parenting I did. He was ready to shoot us to protect them, I think it’s safe to say he’s going to be a better dad to her than he was to me.’
‘So open some civil communication with him, and get to see her on weekends or something. Be the cool uncle that requires everything for her.’
‘Maybe.’ He looked across at her. ‘Even if he’ll let me near her, I don’t know if I’d be able to do it by myself. Think you could be cool Aunt Stef?’
‘Does the job come with a hat?’
‘Sure, newbie, whatever you want.’
‘Do you want to go home?’
He nodded.
She pulled out of the driving mode, and shifted the car back to the Agency garage. They stepped out. ‘You go help Ryan,’ she said, ‘I’m going to go help Jonesy make birds.’
She walked around the front of the car and crouched.
‘What?’ he asked.
‘Nifty little Agency things number four-thousand-and-one,’ she said as she pointed to the licence plate. ‘It had South Australia plates in Adelaide, it swapped them for Queensland ones on reintegration.’
She pulled up her friends list. [Hey, we’re home. I’m heading to Jonesy and sending the Boy Wonder up to you.]
Ryan’s face appeared in the chat window. [Welcome home, and he can use the help. Dinner later?]
[Sure,] she said, [send me an appointment for like three hours from now.]
An appointment appeared in the lower right-hand corner of her HUD and she accepted it. [See you then.]
She looked up at Curt. ‘Lift or shift?’
‘Go ahead,’ he said, ‘I just need a minute.’
‘You need more than a minute, but I can’t give that to you right now. You can has lap again later if you want, but we have to do the work thing now.’
‘I don’t need- Why-’ his shoulders slumped. ‘Yeah, that would be nice.’
‘I has a magic lap?’
‘Please, gods, do not say that around other people.’
She shrugged. ‘See you at dinner.’ She gave him a quick hug, then shifted up to the tech department.
Thoughts had her out of her agent uniform and into her code monkey uniform. [Jonesy?]
[Main room.]
She shifted again. ‘What can I-’ She stared at him. ‘Um. Do you have a flash drive sticking out of your neck?’
Jones gave her a deadpan stare. ‘Yes. Why?’
‘…can you teach me that?’
‘Sure.’ He turned, and she saw a long data cable hanging out from his neck. ‘Are you crossing the man-machine divide, Jonesy?’
‘Dancing on it as always, up for making a few thousand birds?’
She nodded, and the world blurred. One of the labs had been set up with coding stations. ‘Pick a chair,’ he said, ‘instructions are on the desktop. And I’d like to thank you for what you did this morning.’
‘I did something?’
‘You’ll be happy to know that Hadoukening yourself through six walls wasn’t just an epic self-pwnage, but actually useful in the whole saving the world effort.’
‘How so?’
‘You proved that they don’t want to be found.’
Jones smiled. ‘So by the end of this, we will have ten million birds in the sky, all we have to do is look for the blind spots, and the areas they can’t or won’t go, despite their programming.’
She stared at the tech. ‘Ok, there’s a reason you’re the smartest guy I know.’
He pointed to the computer. ‘As many birds as you can manage, if you please.’
She sat, logged in, loaded her hacking/coding playlist in her HUD, and started to type.