There was a knock.
Stef ignored it.
There was a second knock.
Stef looked up at the door – it was Ryan’s office, and he still wasn’t back, so there was no reason to acknowledge the knocker.
The knocks turned into pounds. ‘I know you’re in there, newbie!’

‘Um, come in?’ she called.
Curt opened the door and quickly closed it behind him. ‘Newbie, ready to go?’
Stef scrolled further down the page. ‘I haven’t caught up on kittehs yet. Things happened on the internet while I was unconscious that I need to catch up on.’
She took a look around Ryan’s otherwise empty office – if he’d been serious about solitaire, he surely would have been into his fiftieth game by now. She closed Frankie’s lid. ‘Fine.’
‘You can geek later,’ Curt said. ‘We’ve only got a short window to talk to the shop owner.’
They walked from Ryan’s office. ‘But we’re the Agency,’ she said. ‘Don’t they have to do what we say?’
‘So far as this guy knows, it was only a robbery, so we should avoid trying to pull rank.’
They stepped into the elevator, and Curt looked down at her. ‘So, are you going to tell me what happened?’
It’s an ice cream store, so obviously we were there to buy a tank.
She stared at her warped reflection in the brushed metal of the elevator walls.‘Noms went bad,’ she said. ‘Blackout, shooting – yanno. Oh, right.’ She required her painkillers and dry swallowed two. ‘That’s about all there is to tell.’
The elevator let them out in the garage, and Curt’s car appeared.
‘You got shot,’ he said. ‘Agent Ryan take any damage?’
Ryan’s pale face flashed in her mind. ‘A little,’ she said with a shrug.
‘You okay?’
‘Pissed I missed out on training,’ she said. ‘I actually figured out this one, so I would have gotten some points, at least.’
He spared her a look as they drove out of the garage. ‘You didn’t keep watching, did you?’
‘I didn’t see it, but I heard it, and Ryan explained.’
Thank him.
For what?
He was trying to spare your feelings, genius.
‘Thank you?’ she said. ‘But only half a thank you, cause you broke Wheaton’s law again.’
‘Wil Wheaton’s law? “Don’t be a dick”?’
‘Wesley doesn’t have laws.’
She gave him a withering look. ‘Padawan, you have so much to learn.’ She pushed herself into the seat. ‘But yeah. Thanks.’
‘I don’t like causing unnecessary distress,’ he said. ‘That goes for you and for that thing I put down.’ He glanced at her again. ‘So I’ve seen the clean-up crew’s report. Three dead Solstice, one dead clerk, moderate amount of property damage.’
‘Ryan must have got the other two,’ she said. ‘I didn’t even see the clerk.’
He gave her a strange look but made no comment.
He parked just down the street from the store, and they walked the rest of the way. There were still small piles of broken glass on the ground, though the window looked–
‘That window was gone last night,’ she said as she stared at the several broken sections.
‘Trust me,’ Curt said. ‘It’s much easier to explain that it was bashed in with a cricket bat than shot out. Same with the dead clerk; so far as the owner knows, he was bludgeoned.’
She stepped over small piles of broken glass, and they walked into the store. The owner of the store was directing employees to stack tables and sweep debris.
‘Mr Lennox?’ Curt said as he approached the man.
‘Yeah, and you are?’
‘O’Connor,’ Curt said. ‘Just got a few last questions.’
Lennox directed Curt to the remaining table and chairs and called for one of his employees to bring them coffee. ‘Don’t know what I can tell you that I haven’t told everyone else. There was a couple of hundred in the register, a shitbox computer I’ve been too lazy to replace, and that’s about it. The kid was nice; can’t imagine he put up much of a fight.’
Stef moved around the table and leant against the wall, replaying the events in her head. She flicked her eyes to the window – that had been covered, the door was completely missing, but that was easy enough to fix. She looked to the floor where she’d shot the Solstice, and saw that the tiles had been replaced – it was slightly noticeable, as they were cleaner than the ones surrounding them, and not as sun-faded. She concentrated and required them to match their neighbours, further increasing their perfect crime quotient.
She sidled down the wall to where she’d slumped, where she’d been shot. The wall looked fine – no hint that it had been on the receiving end of a bullet covered with hacker guts. All traces of blood had been removed. No evidence she’d ever been there.
She walked behind the counter, bouncing slightly on the rubber matting that had let her ninja around enough to get the sort-of drop on the Solstice.
No evidence. No clue the Agency had ever been there.
She crouched where they’d bled and waited to die.
A month ago, it wouldn’t have mattered. A month ago, dying would have been an inconvenience, but no great loss. Nothing of value would have been lost. No experiences worth holding on to. A constant but unfulfilling life. One that was barely worth fighting for.
It had been scary to feel life pumping away. Scary to realise that if help didn’t show up, she probably wasn’t strong enough to drag them both to safety.
Terrifying to be discarded like a piece of trash while Ryan had been taken to safety.
Somehow even worse to realise she cared for another person. People were expendable. Stupid. Worthless. People weren’t even individuals, just the faceless crowd and a sea of avatars. They weren’t real because they didn’t matter. They didn’t matter because she had no reason to care.
Ryan was real. Ryan mattered.
Ryan seemed to think she mattered. Was worth acknowledging. Was worth talking to.
She stood and walked back over to Curt and Lennox.
‘Thank you for your time,’ Curt said. He looked to her. ‘We’re done here.’
They walked back into the car in silence.
‘You should have stuck around,’ he said. ‘Picked up a few things about how to talk to civilians.’
She pressed her nails into the leather of the door. ‘You can do the talking parts. You’re good at that.’
‘So what do you plan on contributing?’
‘I’m a genius,’ she said. ‘What do you think I contribute?’
He rolled his eyes, then turned back to the road.
‘This– This was kinda uneventful,’ she said.
‘Follow-ups are supposed to be,’ he said. ‘One last check for evidence we left behind, one more chance to see if civilians have questions or if there’s anything we need to fix.’
They drove back to the agency in relative silence.
‘Okay, so you should go practice with the techs,’ he said. ‘Watching me for five minutes isn’t enough if you want to be of any use tonight.’
‘I’m just backup,’ she said. ‘The point is for me to be of no use.’
‘We’ve got a patrol later. You’ve only done South Bank so far, right?’
‘That’s what I thought, so we’re going to take a walk through the Valley.’
‘I live in the Valley.’ Reality slammed into her head. ‘I…probably need to go pay rent,’ she said. She required a calendar and flipped through it. ‘Tuesday. Tuesday again. Fuuuuuuck. Can we detour to do that, or should I cab over now and do it?’
‘We can do it later.’ He gave her a curious look. ‘But can’t you do it online?’
She shook her head. ‘My landlord’s a crotchety old git. A nice, crotchety old git,’ she corrected herself. ‘He takes cash, in his hand. Probably so he can underreport it. Rent as cheap as it was, he’s got to be doing some sort of tax fraud.’
Curt pressed the button for the elevator. ‘I’ll come get you in a couple of hours; just make sure you get enough practice in with the techs.’
She fixed a look on the floor and tapped on her head. ‘Genius, remember? I’ll be fine.’
He stepped off on at the Field floor, and she rode up to the Tech department.
When the elevator doors slid open again, a pair of goggles stared at her.
The boy attached to the goggles was shorter than she was and wearing a lab coat that seemed to be at least three sizes too large; he could have made a tent from it. She stared for a second, wondering if that was the point – if it was some sort of survival kit he was testing.
The doors began to slide closed, and she shot out a hand to stop it. ‘Um, can I get off plz?’
The goggles, dark green glass surrounded by brass fittings and light leather, gave no hint at the wearer’s actual expression. He seemed to be nothing more than the goggles, messy hair, and the too-big lab coat.
She turned her body sideways and tried to squeeze past.
The boy looked up and raised his hand. ‘Klaatu Barada Nikto.’
‘Good to know all those years I spent perfecting my Gort impression weren’t for nothing.’
He grinned. ‘One of us!’ He grabbed her hand. ‘Jonesy is waiting for you.’ He dragged her through the tech department, the other recruits barely taking any notice. Goggles dragging around visitors must have been a normal thing.
They ended up in a large room, with rows of workstations set up – four desks to a row, two on each side of the central aisle. Each workstation held three massive monitors, keyboard, mouse, and headphones.
Goggles ran down the aisle a little, then turned back to look at her. ‘That side is pie,’ he said with a point. ‘That side is cake.’
‘Mission control has a partisan split?’
‘You have to pick.’
She picked a desk on the back row of the cake side. As she sat, a nameplate appeared.
‘That’s all,’ Goggles said, then ran out of the room.
‘That was random,’ she muttered.
She shook the mouse to clear the screensaver, her fingers immediately moving to unlock the computer when a different log-in screen appeared on the central screen. A blue logo swirled to the left of the grey box with rounded edges, a name field sitting empty, and a box with a default lumpy avatar sat waiting to be personalised.
She clicked into the name field, but it was non-responsive.
A moment later, her details appeared, including the picture-they’d-never-taken that was on her ID badge, and the computer let her into the desktop.
‘Settling in all right?’ Jones asked, appearing beside her.
‘Your welcoming party is a bit weird.’
‘You’ll have to forgive Merlin,’ the tech said as he grabbed the chair from the next desk and sat. ‘He does things in his own way.’
‘Like I’m going to judge anyone for being weird.’
Jones smiled. ‘I’d invite you to sit in on some live chats, but I thought it would be more useful if I let you practice on some sims first.’ The surveillance program booted in the main window, Agency-Skype – which seemed to be called Vox, an entirely inaccurate name, considering the text and IM capability – on the right.
The monitor on the left held a map. ‘You can change any of the positions,’ he said, his finger hovering over the screen to show little arrows, ‘but this is the default setting.’
She quickly swapped Vox and the map.
Jones slid his finger across the screen with the map, pulling open menus to show a range of sims. ‘You can run them on random settings, or you can customise them. In addition to Recruit Jane and Recruit John,’ – he pointed to the top two pictures – ‘there’s eight others.’
She stared at the picture of Recruit John, at the buzz cut who had been through the tests with her. ‘I shot that guy!’
‘Yes,’ Jones said with a nod, ‘you did.’
She gave him a blank look.
‘We recycle a lot of NPCs,’ he said. ‘It adds familiarity, so that you really can just focus on the situation. You’re going to get to know some or all of the default sim recruits as much as some of the quote-unquote “real” people you work with. Same goes for Agent Bob.’
‘Agent Bob.’
The tech nodded. ‘Agent Roberts if you want to get nitpicky, but he’s Agent Bob to everyone. He’s the in-sim Agency contact, and the agent you’ll work with if the need arises in a sim.’
She turned it over in her mind. ‘It makes sense,’ she said. ‘Your recruits are only on-channel with a couple of Field recruits. Limiting the number of defaults means you can focus on the situation, not on getting used to a new voice in your ear.’
Jones nodded.
‘Okay, gimme him,’ she said, ‘I guess it’s an apology for shooting him.’
‘Don’t feel bad,’ he said. ‘He’s just a sim. The sims have enough programming to be able to interact, but they’re not conscious. They’re not people; they’re just tools.’
Jones selected John. ‘Unlike the Field sims, you can run these multiple times, and I encourage you to do so.’
A list of sims appeared, each with a difficulty rank beside them. ‘Just start at the top and work your way down.’ He pointed at Vox. ‘Just IM me if you’ve got any questions.’
Stef nodded, and she put the headphones on after he shifted away.
As suggested, she selected the first sim. It asked her to confirm her choice of Recruit John, then showed the scorecard – a score out of a hundred, three possible stars to be achieved, and a breakdown of where the points would come from – speed of information, accuracy of information, and a dozen more categories.
She let her mouse hover over the green start button. She adjusted the headphones, then just stared at the button.
It shouldn’t have been scary. It was objectively less scary than anything the training simulator could throw at her, because there were no corpses to be smelt, no not-centaurs to put down, and probably nothing that could crawl out of the screen to come get her.
But it was responsibility for someone’s life. Even if that someone was a fake someone, the implication of practice meant it might be a real someone one day.
Real someones needed someone better than a stupid hacker. They needed someone who didn’t have to force words out, and who left way-too-long pauses in the middle of conversations, hoping for global laryngitis.
Ryan was fine to talk to, cause he didn’t seem to mind the pauses or the bits of crazy she let through.
There was no point in a contact who would probably trip over words instead of being able to shout out a warning.
I can’t do this.
She pulled off the headphones and let them clatter onto the keyboard. She pressed her hands to her throat, and tried to wrench away the tightness, tried to fight through the inability to draw a proper breath.
There was still so much that didn’t seem real.
She pulled her feet up onto the chair and wrapped her arms around her knees, the movement swinging the chair from side to side.
I can’t do this.
She concentrated, her face tight and immobile, and managed to fill her lungs. She held the breath as long as she could, then let herself deflate like a sad balloon.
Lungs empty, she didn’t try to breathe for a moment, instead just feeling the pound of her heart and the stillness of the room around her. It was still. But not silent – the sounds of computers kept the room alive, as did the background noises of the recruits in other parts of the department.
Her lungs burned, and she took a small breath.
I can’t do this.
She lifted her head up to look above her knees at the screen. The green button taunted her, citing her in ability to start the sim as proof she didn’t belong in the Agency. That she was stupid. That she was wrong. That she wasn’t good enough.
[table id=15 /]