Some people found Jones’ lab to be antiseptic and cold – and from a certain point of view, Stef could understand that. There was a lot of stainless steel and cupboards that looked like they came from Science Mail Order, but once you spent more than a few minutes in there, it was something else entirely.
You began to see the little touches of life – and love – in all corners. The small pictures – that ranged from crayon drawings from Jones’ son, to masterful watercolour creations. All under magnets and stuck to the cold, unfeeling metal surfaces.
Jones was somehow the opposite – all people tended to see was the affable nerd in his Portal shirts; or a cute nerd with her Portal earrings – depending on which gender Jones was presenting that day.
It wasn’t until you got to know Jones better that you saw beneath the surface – saw the small flashes of anger that came when someone threatened his kids – whether it was his son, or the recruits he treated like family.
And other than Ryan, there wasn’t an agent in the world she would rather be working with.
Behind his glasses, Jones’ green eyes sparkled. ‘Now,’ he said, as he settled into the chair on the other side of the bench. ‘I don’t want you to ask the first question that comes into your head when I say this.’
Stef blinked, ran his sentence through her head twice, then looked at him. ‘Okay. Go.’
‘There’s a bad penny circulating, and it’s something we need to deal with immediately.’
The first question was obvious: what harm could a bad penny do?
If it was what it seemed on the surface, then his warning wouldn’t have been necessary, and it wouldn’t have been a conversation they would be having – for more than one reason, considering that one cent coins had been out of circulation for decades, and true pennies even longer.
She sought for a more-reasoned question. ‘What does it do?’
‘Good,’ Jones said with a wink, ‘you can learn.’ He sobered. ‘If I was go for the TV Tropes laconic version of what it does, it can be summarised as…a meme that kills. We call them bad pennies because we had a lot of trouble with them during the last couple of centuries, but they’ve become all but extinct – or at least, those sending them out into the world haven’t been using them for nefarious purposes. Or at least more subtle nefarious purposes.’
Jones could be free with his words, and could spin paragraphs about the most involved science she could comprehend, but this seemed more like…rambling, somehow. Something was bothering him. ‘Jonesy.’
His mood dropped from sober to sombre in a moment. ‘Ha. Yeah.’ He let out a huff of air.
He ran his hand through his long blond hair. ‘Sorry. This one’s cutting a bit close to home, Spyder, so you’ll forgive me if I’m- Just forgive me for a lot today.’ He lifted a small case and placed it on the table between them, then popped the locks to reveal an innocent-looking, slightly worn twenty-cent piece. ‘Please forgive me for this,’ he said, and his face showed sorrow. ‘Touch the coin.’
Stef looked between the agent and the coin. ‘It’s a good thing I trust you, Jonesy.’
She reached forward, and lightly pressed two fingers to the coin.
It wasn’t the explosion she expected, nor was there pain. Nothing burned. Nothing flashed. Nothing just seemed to- Nothing was everything and everything was nothing. Her uniform felt like she was putting on an act, but that wasn’t anything out of the ordinary. Plenty of people had imposter syndrome, but she’d managed to make a career from it. She was in a job she couldn’t handle, surrounded by people who she’d fooled into caring for her.
She was nothing but a waste of space. And everything would be better if she was gone.
The chair was uncomfortable beneath her. She used to like this chair. She used to like…stuff. But-
There was a hand on her shoulder, and she nearly screamed.
The hand applied pressure, and her chair spun, bringing her face-to-face with Jones. Someone else who had faith in her that-
A bucket of ice water was dumped over her head.
This time, she did scream, then jumped, dancing as several ice cubes worked their way down the back of her shirt. She slipped in the water and crashed to the lab floor, her pants soaking in cold water as she lay there dazed and way too confused to move.
Jones sat beside her, as the water was required away, and clean, dry clothes replaced her wet uniform. ‘That, Spyder, is what bad pennies do. They implant whatever message their original owner wishes to convey. They can encourage action, inaction, desire, and destruction. And right now, there’s one circulating that is driving people towards suicide.’
‘Yes, Agent, something like that.’ He stood, leaving her to find her own way to her feet.
There were clicking sounds as the case was sealed again. ‘One coin is bad enough,’ he said, ‘but with enough contact, it spreads. Sitting in a wallet. In a cashier’s till, whatever you can imagine. Less contact, less impact.’ He gestured as the case as she sat back on her chair. ‘This is…contact of probably a couple of hours.’
Almost without thinking about it, she required a coffee and sucked down the life-giving caffeine as she tried to chase away the spectres of suicidal ideation. ‘How long do the effects last?’ She tapped her fingers against the cup. ‘On people, I mean.’
‘Same with the coin transmission. More contact, more impact. What I did to you…with an environmental shock. You’ll be- An hour. It always depends on your individual state of mind, but since you have a support network, I thought a visceral demonstration would prevent a lot of questions. I’m sorry, by the way. But- I received this in my change this morning. I didn’t expect to get triggered when all I wanted was my iced mocha.’
She reached for his hand, which he gratefully grasped. ‘Jonesy-’
‘I am lucky that my thoughts do not often stray in that direction, and that my one attempt was…brought about by influences that I have come to terms with. It was still not a pleasant experience. When you are at such a low moment, and your rescue party has red hair and the apparent emotional intelligence of a brick.’ He smirked, squeezed her hand, then retrieved a tablet. ‘If it had happened to anyone else, I think it could be something I could laugh at. When I try to put it in objective terms, it’s so farcical that it even brings a smile to my face.’
‘You told me- You didn’t tell me everything.’
‘And I never will, hacker.’ He smiled. ‘It is like I told you. I had a gun in my hand, and Taylor decided that his best course of action was to beat the holy hell out of me. I kept one of the scars. It was effective, but it wasn’t kind.’
‘Vinegar-induced vomiting for me,’ she said. ‘I think I got off easy. The clean-up was gross though.’
‘We have to be careful who works on this,’ he said. ‘It’s not the easiest of assignments to deal with. I don’t intend on ruining my entire team, even for the sake of the city. I love my kids too much to do that.’
‘Got a list, Mama Bear?’
He nodded. ‘I want you to do a work up first. Methods of tracking. Ways of minimising the spread and impact. How many people you want working with you. It’s important, but it’s not the only thing going on, so I can’t simply assign six random recruits to you, and have them doing nothing.’
He gave her an encouraging smile. ‘Come now, you’ve already got ideas circulating in your brain. I converted your cortex, I know how smart you are.’
‘And if I fuck up-’
‘Same went when you were a field agent. Same goes for half of the jobs in this building. If we fuck up, people die. People will die anyway. What we have to do is our best, in order to minimise the bad endings. A life saved is a life saved, so hold onto that.’
Her eyes strayed to the case. ‘What if- What if I’m not strong enough to-’
‘How do you know?’
‘You’re still here.’ He smiled. ‘Two hours. Come back in two hours, and we’ll start implementing your suggestions.’