It was impossible to know if the sense of dread settling on her like a cloak was an effect from the coin, or her own innate sense of worthlessness.
Stef paused by one of the news feeds screens that were such a welcoming feature of the Tech Department – webcomics were interspersed with news – of both the pop culture and harder varieties.
Usually – so much as she’d had time to build up to a “usual”, she would have immediately gone to Ryan’s office, settled into his couch, and stared into her laptop’s screen until she had something approaching a working idea.
And that was still her first instinct – the icon that would shift her sitting ready in a HUD menu, the teleport icons stolen directly from World of Warcraft as a bit of customisation that Jones would allow.
HUD mods were a weird line with Jones – she was free to install anything from the approved app repository – but any little tweak she wanted to do herself would usually result in a “do you want to BSOD your entire body?” lecture.
Messing with code, she could agree, was a dangerous thing to do when it was what you were made of.
Instead of aiming at Ryan’s office, she turned a smart about-face, her feet easily spinning for once – eight years of ballet rearing its head for once, and headed for her office.
Of all the new things she had to get used to about her job, her office was one of the strangest – because it was no adjustment at all. The request paperwork had gone in, and someone had literally cut and paste her office from its place on the Field floor, to its new position on the primary Tech floor.
Same look. Same door. Same view out the window.
Changing it was on the to do list, but it had been buried under more important things, like six different panic attacks over whether she should stick to the uniform she had always worn, or change to that of the Tech department.
The door to her office wasn’t locked – well, it was – but it automatically unlocked as she came within a ten feet radius – and once inside, it locked her in, keeping her safe from the world.
She slid to the floor, looked to the end of the office, and the window wall there, which showed a false view of the world outside, then shifted to her couch.
‘Okay, okay.’ She ran her hands through her hair. ‘Let’s fucking do this. Let’s-’
There was a knock on the door.
‘Speak friend and enter!’ she called, unlocking it with a click of the prompt in her HUD.
The door was banged open, and Alfie stepped in, an accusatory look on their face. ‘You still owe me money, Spyder!’ The expression was held for a moment, then dropped and settled into an easy grin. ‘Pie cart’s coming around, you want anything?’
The pie cart was a sometimes-service offered by a fae bakery – bringing literally-otherworldly treats to hungry Techs – a profitable venture for the bakery, and a tasty proposition for the recruits.
And their seaweed-caramel tarts – Tita tarts, named for their creator – were to die for.
But for once, there were more important things than baked goods.
‘Alfie,’ she said. ‘Mind if I draft you for a bit?’
The recruit leaned against the doorframe. ‘Are you seriously going to make me miss the pie cart?’
‘No, no, no!’ Stef said quickly. ‘Get me three Tita tarts, then come back.’
Alfie slung a salute in her direction, left, then returned less than five minutes later, holding a small paper bag, and a cardboard tray holding two fizzy drinks. ‘You get to the head of the line quickly when you’re fetching food for the boss,’ Alfie said as they handed Stef one of the drinks. ‘Now, what’s up?’
‘Need to bounce some ideas, and get some research done for an assignment.’
Other than meeting the qualification of “first warm body she’d seen” – Alfie was a good fit for the discussion side of things – as a general tech, with a specialisation in data collation, Alfie was the exact kind of person Jones would have picked anyway.
Alfie nodded, cracked their knuckles, and adjusted their posture to sit crosslegged, a massive laptop appearing in their lap. ‘What do we need?’
Stef pointed to the wall opposite them, which, with a few requirements, became a giant smart screen, with a map of the city at its centre. ‘General flow of coins in an out of the city – start with data from banks, armoured cars, then go for softer numbers. Then give me…top six answers of how long people hold onto their money, and the circumstances in which they do that. Number of cash registers in a five-k radius of the city. And-’
‘Is this a drill?’ Alfie asked as they began to assign small squares of the smart wall to where the figures would go. ‘Or is this real?’
‘Real, and deadly.’
Alfie’s typing slowed. ‘Ma’am, is this a low song?’ Alfie’s brows furrowed. ‘A…bad penny?’
‘Yeah, it is.’
‘Sorry, I’m used to one of the fae names for it. My sister’s enbyfriend has one. Family heirloom. They use it like a family oral history. It’s-’ Alfie smiled. ‘Actually been written about a few times for complex it is, as compared to the majority of those out there. It contains the old-mother’s family creed,’ Alfie said, using the fae term for the beginning of a family line, ‘and every few decades, the names of the direct descendants are added.’ Alfie pecked at a few keys, and the image of a coin appeared on the smart wall. ‘No one really knows how much memory is on it, so to speak, so they are hesitant to add new names, for fear of losing the creed, but the fact that they are able to add anything without wiping out the original message is notable.’
‘The one circulating is nothing so benign,’ Stef said, unsure of how to couch her words – the topic wasn’t easy, and it was less easy when you didn’t know the views of the other person in the conversation. ‘This one is encouraging-’ One word or many, it would mean the same thing. And it was still hard to say, because- Because once it touched you, it left its mark – even if you didn’t have scars. ‘Encouraging suicide.’
And there it was, the word bare and out for all to see. To encourage outrage and judgement. To give her an idea if Alfie was yet another person she’d never be fully able to open up around.
In a perfect world, her heart would have been drumming, filling the world whilst she awaited Alfie’s reaction. It would have been the slow, all-consuming pulse of the universe that she’d been privileged enough to hear once, whilst somewhere between life and death.
Here, in the stupid real world, where a chunk of dead planet sat in her chest, unmoving, she was denied some of the drama of the moment.
‘I don’t want to be Harley Quinn,’ Alfie said. ‘I mean, I know a lot of people think I’m a girl, and that would just make things worse. And I don’t like most of her costumes.’
‘Dot. Dot. Dot.’ Stef said. ‘Huh?’
‘You’re putting together a Suicide Squad, right? People are less affected by bad pennies if it’s something they’ve already experienced. If you’re a murderer, a coin that compels you to murder, it’s not really going to register. If you’ve attempted suicide, you’re in the group of people that are going to be able to handle the coins.’
‘It’s still fucking with people who’ve walked down that road,’ Stef said.
‘True, but- You’ve still got coping mechanisms to deal with it. You throw suicidal ideation at someone who’s never had to talk themselves out of going for the sharp things in the kitchen and…virus without a firewall.’ Alfie went quiet for a moment. ‘Ma’am, how’d you know?’
Nine out of ten, Stef knew, would have taken too long to process that question. Would have taken the question as a whole, rather than being so on edge that words were processed as they came.
There was one meaning, and one meaning only, behind Alfie’s question.
‘I didn’t, Recruit,’ she said. ‘You were the first Techie I saw. I just needed someone to- I didn’t know. I’m sorry.’
Alfie choked. ‘Ye-yeah. Sorry. I thought you might have seen my file. It’s in a sealed section, but- You know- Agent-level access.’
‘You can nope out right now if you want, Stef said. ‘I’m sorry for- Sorry.’
‘Fuck no,’ Alfie said. ‘I already said I’m in. If I can stop anyone from taking their last step. Then- Jumpers are mine. Got that?’ Fierceness flashed in Alfie’s eyes. ‘Mine.’
‘Without argument, Recruit.’ She looked back to the wall, and the slowly-filling squares of data. ‘Jonesy wants a plan in two hours. Or the beginning of a plan. And as good as hard data is-’ She balled her fists and thumped her knees. ‘Data first. We’ve got to get data first.’
‘I want to bring Amir in,’ Alfie said. ‘He’s my go-to for real-time data analysis. He’s like, scary levels of good. Grandmother was an agent, and natural numbers intuition.’
Stef nodded. ‘I’m not going to argue with suggestions. And I don’t think Jonesy would take away anyone who is going to contribute to the team.’