Stars wheeled overhead, filling her entire vision.
Somewhere, far to the left, a purple nebula was blown by a solar wind, and a spiral galaxy spun, spinning countless stars around its central core.
There was a small, polite knock, and Stef blinked. Slowly, she sat up, looking away from the science-magic ceiling of her bedroom, towards the door to her office.
‘It’s just me,’ Ryan called.
She lifted a hand, flicked it in a manner that would impress one of the Hogwarts teachers, and required the door open.
She flopped back onto the bed, and Ryan sat on the end of the bed, near her feet. ‘I’m glad you like this one,’ he said, ‘you’d never expressed an interest in space, but-’
She sat up. ‘Ryan-dad-person? Space is always good. Dinosaurs are always good. Code is always good. Spaceships? Yes. Lasers? Yes. There are a tonne of safe guesses, and space is one of them.’
He smiled, then his expression turned a little mischievous. Like someone about to pull out another Christmas present, after the supposed “very last present”. ‘Have you worked out all of the tricks to it?’
‘There’s…tricks to it?’
He stood, removed his jacket, and placed it folded on the edge of the bed, then laid beside her. ‘Let me put this in terms you’ll understand,’ he said. ‘Point and click.’
He held his hand up, palm up, and she easily dropped her hand on his. ‘Point,’ he said, and she extended a finger. ‘And click.’ He lifted her hand and pointed it at the ceiling, and with a “click” motion, a shooting star rushed across the night sky illusion.
‘Ooooh,’ she whispered.
She flexed both of her hands, then began to click in dozens more shooting stars.
‘Four fingers for a comet,’ he said, motioning with his hand; and a large ball of fire and ice tumbled slowly overhead. ‘And drag to play connect the dots with the stars.’
For a few moments, they played with the stars. An alarm sounded on her tablet – her fifteen minute warning before Grigori and Curt arrived so they could begin their field trip on the other side of the world.
Ryan stood, then offered her a hand. ‘Are you worried?’
‘I wish I could say I wasn’t,’ she said, wanting to be honest, but feeling weak for it. ‘It’s one shift from home, I’ll be okay.’
Ryan extended his hand to her, and affected his formal posture. ‘Good luck, agent.’
She shook his hand, then he smiled and pulled her into a hug. ‘You’ll be fine, sweetheart. I’m proud of you, I’m so proud of you.’
She brushed a couple of tears away. ‘Shut up,’ she said without venom, ‘I haven’t done anything be proud of yet.’
He took a step back, smoothed her hair back, then straightened her tie. ‘I’ll see you in a week,’ he said, ‘and I will see if dinner one night is possible.’
‘That would be great,’ she said.
He gave her a nod. ‘I’ll leave you to get ready then.’ He smiled, then shifted away.
A couple of minutes later, Curt arrived, and sat quietly on her couch – he looked tired, but not overly so.
At two on the dot, just as her tablet chimed again, Grigori shifted into the office – his smile integrating a noticeable microsecond before the rest of him did – like some huge, blond, reverse-Chesire-cat.
‘You two ready?’ he asked without preamble.
Curt was off the couch in a second, in full bright-and-shiny-recruit mode. ‘Yes, sir.’
‘No need to delay.’ Grigori lifted his hand and snapped his fingers.
Shifting to another country seemed like it should take longer. Like there should be a delay.
Stef closed her eyes as Grigori shifted them, and tried to count, even as her body came apart into a billion, trillion different pieces.
The shift processed as quickly, and they were met with a dull-looking hallway.
Grigori pushed open a door. ‘Stef, you’re here, Curt, you can come through as well.’
Curt gave her a quizzical look, but followed her on through anyway – in front of her was a fairly standard recruit room – through the walls were an artsy raw brick – and there was a door going through to the next room.
‘Adjoining rooms,’ he said, ‘the door is sound-proof if either of you decide to get up to any sexcapades.’
Curt pushed on the door, and immediately Stef felt jealousy rising. ‘He gets a gorram fireplace?’ she said, sounding far more sulky than an agent should. ‘Why don’t-’
‘Because agents can regulate their body temperature,’ Grigori chided. ‘I’m sure he’ll share, so long as he doesn’t have someone sexy stretched out on a fur rug in front of it.’ He shrugged. ‘But then again, he might,’ Grigori elbowed Curt and Curt had to step sideways. ‘It’s always a good idea to share with your superiors, Solstice, if your boss wants a piece of who you’re fucking-’
‘We’ll get settled in,’ Curt said hurriedly, breaking over Grigori’s sex speech. ‘Do you have any tasks for us as yet?’
‘Nothing for tonight,’ he said. ‘In the morning, we’ll hunt down some frost giants.’ Grigori nodded to both of them, then left – the door out out the hall clicked closed, but Stef walked over, just to ensure it was locked.
There were footsteps as Curt walked through to his room, then a soft sound of cloth against brick. Stef turned away from the door – sure that plate steel reinforcements would do nothing against Grigori, but nearly unable to stop herself from requiring them.
Curt was leaning against the wall that separated their rooms. ‘How are you doing, Newbie?’
She aimed her face at him, but couldn’t meet his eyes. ‘I agree with the logic of coming here,’ she said, ‘but I don’t trust Grigori, I really, really don’t.’
Curt lifted his hands, and wooden sticks, each wielding a marshmallow appeared. ‘Can I make a wild guess that this is why you wanted the room with the fireplace?’
She nodded, then left her head down, her chin touching her chest. ‘Sorry,’ she said, ‘you’ve probably got better stuff to be doing. Sorry, I shouldn’t have- You didn’t have to come-’
He took a step forward, put the marshmallow under her nose, then slowly led her into the next room, sugar moving her feet, where anxiety had left them frozen.
Curt ditched his coat on the bed, then required away his vest before sitting on the soft rug in front of the fire. He looked at the fireplace, and when he hesitated, she moved forward, and opened the grate. ‘I’ve had a bit of practice,’ she said. ‘A lot of the family houses that I visited that fireplaces.’
He handed her her marshmallow skewer. ‘My knowledge of Grigori is limited,’ he said, sounding ashamed of the fact, ‘think we could bring each other up to speed?’
Stef closed her eyes, and passed the marshmallow back and forth between her hands. ‘Taylor- Taylor scares me. But it’s almost like a better kind of scary. He’s the Hulk as a bad guy. Grigori’s a different class of villain. In the limit tests. Taylor wanted to hurt- I don’t even know if it was me he wanted to hurt, or what, but he just wanted to hit something. It was-’ she fought for a word. ‘Honest.’ She opened her eyes, and pushed her marshmallow into the fire. ‘Grigori didn’t even treat me like a person. I was just this…thing, to be scraped off Taylor’s shoe. Then I’m an agent, and flick a switch, he’s all smiles and laughs. Few enough people like me that I’m pretty much suspicious of everyone, but he makes me Spyder-sense go beep-beep-beeeeeep,’ she said, flexing a hand near her head.
‘You’re missing out on one aspect of his personality,’ he said, ‘which in your case is probably a saving grace. He seems to flirt with everyone he comes across – there’s no one person of consenting age that I haven’t seen him hitting on.’ Curt pulled his marshmallow back from the fire and tested it’s cooked-ness with his fingers. ‘Which matches up with what I know about him. He runs Russia. He’s the only agent in this country that started life as an agent – everyone else is an augment. And all of those augments? His kids. He runs this entire network with his children, his grandchildren, his friends and his lovers.’
‘Where’s everyone else?’
‘They died in the old days,’ he said, ‘that’s about all I know. They died, and he requested that the system not generate more.’
They lapsed into silence, and Curt ate his marshmallow. Stef looked back at the fire, and pushed her stick back into it.
‘Newbie?’ Curt asked after a moment.
He yanked her arm back. ‘You’re on fire,’ he said as he dumped a glass of water over her sleeve.
She giggled, then required a new shirt. ‘What should I do?’
He gave her a hopeless look. ‘Trust the agents. Trust the Agency. Follow your Duty; and die for your uniform. It’s what you’re supposed to do, it’s the only thing we can do. Enjoy the small moments, because they’re real, and don’t bank on a happy ending, because I’ve never known them to exist.’
She matched his smile. ‘Hey, Padawan?’
‘What would have happened, if I hadn’t come back. If you’d taken me to Fairyland?’
‘Ryan would be miserable. You actually make him smile, Stef. He’s the most agent-like agent i’ve ever met, but you seem to bring out the human in him.’
She blushed. ‘I’m still more trouble than I’m worth.’
He reached up to his jacket, and pulled a phone from one of the pockets, then held up a picture of a little girl. ‘Kids always are. Sara. My daughter. I’m not a part of her life anymore, but when I was- All the shitty diapers, all the milk pukes, every extra load of laundry, totally worth it, because when she smiled, I knew I was doing something worthwhile.’
Stef faltered for a moment, looking at the photo. Kids. A child. A daughter. Lucy. Lucy was in the ground and kids were never going to be a part of her life. Not that Lucy had been real. The love had been real, but- She bit the insider of her lip. ‘And what would have happened to me?’
‘Like I said, I have a friend who runs enough businesses that he surely could have found you a job somewhere.’
She considered the logic for a moment. ‘If Faerie is such an easy escape, then why don’t you-’ she flapped her hands. ‘You’re good at being a recruit, don’t think I’m, like, insulting you or something. But- But it’s not like you ever seem like you’re having fun. If there’s an option-’
‘Because I can’t be sure that I don’t have a bomb in my brain.’
The sentence sounded ridiculous, like something she would say. But she wasn’t the one who had said it. It had come from the mouth who was usually peak-sensible. It wasn’t the crazy that made her think that sometimes there was a decapitated, screaming head in her toilet.
Curt had likely never shit in a bath whilst a cinderblock kept him safe from the hallucinations that his mind brought forth.
It was a statement, born of some true fear that there might truly be an explosive device within his cranium.
She wiggled her shoulders, then managed to look him in the face. ‘Why would you think that?’
There was the sheen of tears on his eyes. ‘More to the point, Newbie, is that I’m worried they never took it out.’
‘Adelaide,’ he said, ‘I’m just Solstice after all.’ He held up a hand. ‘Don’t ask, please, Stef. I’m not-’
‘Yeah,’ she said quickly, ‘yeah, of course.’
She dismissed her marshmallow stick, then balanced on her hands and dragged her butt around so that she was facing him. ‘So use me.’
He pinched the bridge of his nose. ‘Please add that phrase to the list of things you never say to anyone.’
She blinked. ‘Huh?’
‘There are connotations that you might not be thinking of, Newbie.’
She sucked in her lips, then nodded. ‘Let me rephrase or something. You trust me, right? Let me scan your head and take a look at your brain.’
He shuffled back a bit, but looked ashamed for doing so. ‘Stef-’
She looked at him, confused. ‘Do you trust me?’
‘You’re an agent,’ he said, his voice strained.
‘But you said I was your friend.’
A tear slipped down his face, and caught on his nose. ‘We are friends,’ he said. ‘You’re one of my only friends. But whatever- Whatever else you are, we are, you’re still an agent. You could- You have the capacity to- I trust you, Stef, it doesn’t stop me from being scared.’
She required a replica comm-badge and placed it on the carpet between them. ‘Starfleet promise?’ she said.
He wiped away tears, and picked up the small Starfleet logo and weighed it in his hand. ‘Just- Just don’t touch me while you’re checking, okay? I don’t want to- I might freak, and I don’t want to hurt you if I lash out.’
She nodded solemnly, then required a fur muff and slipped her hands inside. ‘I promise.’ She squared her gaze on his head. ‘Stay still, it’ll probably be easier that way.’
She flicked through her HUD, moving from normal vision, to the “lifesigns detector” that was a weird pseudo-x-ray that lit everything up in weird blue blobs, to the highest-level medical scan that Field agents were capable of.
‘Nothing metal,’ she said as the scan showed her slices of his head. ‘Nothing sticking out of place. No foreign bodies. No little signs showing space for rent. No evil brain slugs.’ The scan went over his head and the top of his spine on every axis and in every true-and-false colour that she could imagine.
‘Nothing,’ she said after running the scan long enough to satisfy her paranoia. She tapped against the fabric under her fingers. ‘It’s Agency though, right? If it were me, I’d tie it into a delayed timer with your recruit blue. That way, you couldn’t dig it out, even if it meant brain damage, and if you tried to sweat it out, well…boom.’
She flicked her vision back to normal, hoping that she hadn’t freaked him out even more than he had been. She blinked a couple of times to adjust to the regular vision, and saw that his level of freaked out was about the same.
‘I had…thought as much,’ he said. ‘It makes sense.’
‘I might be able to-’ she grabbed the inside of the muff. ‘I might be able to peek, it shouldn’t mean fucking with you, I just haven’t tried to do this with a recruit.’ She slid a hand out of the muff and tripped a macro – the skin disappeared, showing blue. ‘I can see my blue whenever I wish, well, most of it. Jonesy has locked away some of the executive function stuff, just because he rightfully assumes I might BSOD myself.’
‘Okay,’ she dismissed the muff and cracked her fingers. ‘Let’s try it this way.’
She closed her eyes, turned her hands up, then tried requiring a tablet with his blue code on it. One security check later, there was a weight of a standard Agency tablet. ‘Okies, cool,’ she said as she opened her eyes. ‘Give me a couple of hours to go through this, and we should have some idea.’
Curt stared down at her hands. ‘I didn’t expect it to be so, um, non-invasive.’
‘This might be a bit slower,’ she said, ‘but I’ll be as thorough as I can be.’
He looked confused, but grateful.
Stef looked down at the tablet, synched up the view in her HUD, so that any input she did would be mirrored, then dug into the Tech Department server for the latest clean copy of the recruit blue code.
She set up a basic comparison to run – which would scan every line, not just report by exception, and would compare each line for last edited comments and metadata; as well as look for innocent code that could potentially mask something more…sinister.
She pressed a thumb down on the tablet and began to slowly scroll – Agency code was beautiful, but it was also insanely complex – it was something she was going to take a lifetime to learn, and be glad of every moment.
For now, she was going to rely on analysis tools and gut instinct.
After a few minutes, she was aware of Curt waving his hand in front of her face. ‘Um, Newbie?’
‘Awww,’ she said, focussing back in one the real world, ‘my butt was just getting to a nice level of toasty, are you really going to kick me out while I code monkey?’
‘No, but, um, I’m not going to watch you while you’re spaced out for a couple of hours. Mind some Trek on as background noise?’
‘Next Gen for preference,’ she said, then flopped back onto the soft rug, and lost herself in the code.
After some time, she smelt coffee near her face, and she grabbed for it. ‘You’ve been under for an hour,’ Curt said, ‘wanted to make sure you were still breathing.’
She looked at the screen, and saw Picard doing a speech. ‘I think he might be my favourite. I don’t- I don’t jump immediately to a favourite captain team, but I think nerds have to stick together.’ There was an expectant look on his face as she sipped at her coffee. ‘Not done yet.’
He accepted this, and went back to sitting on the bed, alternating between looking at the TV and his phone.
She finished off her coffee, and dove back into the code. Cyberpunk was awful and a lie – sci-fi always had hackers physically interacting with code like they were swimming through Matrix code on the holodeck, touching individual letters or symbols in order to make the biggest changes.
It was pretty, but it was useless.
This is why Cowboy Bebop sat at His Computer and Hackers could always Zoom and Enhance while breaking into a system using a video game. To look at, real code monkey work was as boring as watching paint dry.
The work, the satisfaction and the triumph were all inside.
Code was beautiful. The language, the subtlety, and the small touches that spoke to the individuals behind the larger whole. It was something, somehow, like a piece of the infinite.
Line after line processed. She saw signs that he’d been augmented – though just partial pieces, not an entire agentification like her. A question for a later time.
She found his blue timers, but despite interrogating them from every which way she could, it all just seemed to be the default code that recruits had – blue would expire after X period of time out of system territory.
Nothing in those pieces triggered anything. Nothing seemed to reference those pieces to set anything off. Nothing that referenced that referenced that referenced anything in the area, with local and absolute keys taken into account, seemed to do anything like making his head explode.
She ran a few more paranoid checks, saved her work, then closed all of the windows she had open in her HUD, before sitting up, requiring clean clothes, and sitting up on her knees so she could get a better look at Curt.
He paused the movie. ‘What’s the verdict?’
‘You’re safe,’ she said.
‘Thank you,’ he said, the words coming out as a whisper. ‘Thank you so much.’ He patted the bed in front of him. ‘Come on, watch the end of it.’
She shifted up onto the bed, and curled up, like a warm, contented cat, at the foot of the bed, away from his feet. She let her eyes half-close, and waking dreams of space and righteousness filled her mind until the credits began to roll.
There was the light brush of a toe against her back. ‘You didn’t go to sleep, did you?’
‘No,’ she said, stifling a yawn, ‘I’m good.’
‘I’m going to bunk down,’ he said, ‘I’m just a mere mortal after all.’
‘You’re not a meerkat,’ she mumbled as she stood and brushed her hair back from her face. ‘Thanks,’ she said, ‘it helps to have a camp buddy.’
He smiled. ‘Always. Night Stef.’
She turned, then first walked into, then through, the door back to her own room.
She faceplanted onto her own bed, and was asleep before she had a chance to curl under the blanket.
Stars wheeled overhead, filling her entire vision.