Chapter 59

Curt opened his eyes.

His mouth tasted like cotton, and all of his limbs felt sleep-dead, like he’d been asleep for-

‘Doc?’ he said, his voice dry, his mouth begging for water. ‘Doc, what the fuck?

Parker-2 sat on the bed, a hospital-issue plastic cup in his hand, a long straw slowly swaying as he held the cup. ‘Drink.’

Curt took the cup, but plucked the straw from the cup, and drank normally – embarrassment flaring as he felt the water slosh against his throat as he drank messily.

‘How long have I been asleep?’ he asked, knowing the answer was going to be far more than a night’s standard eight hours.

‘A few days,’ Parker-2 said. ‘I’ve been monitoring your fluids and feeding you via an IV line. You needed the time off, Recruit.’

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Chapter 58

Stef shuffled nervously back and forth across the Hyde lobby. Ryan had told her when he would be shifting in, and even worldwide shifting didn’t take more than a few seconds, but it had felt nice to be early. It gave her the appearance of being organised – even if he loved her for who she was, there was no harm in attempting to change for the better.

Her uniform was clean, she’d brushed her hair. She looked, all the world, at least like a sensible recruit, if not a sensible agent.

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Chapter 57

Stef stared at Milla’s back, smiling as her HUD calculated the distances and angles between all of the freckles there. There was beauty to be had in a world that could be covered in tooltips at a thought. You always knew how warm it was outside, how far it was across your office, or how to perfectly turn your hand for the best high-five possible.

Or, you could use it to stare dozily at your lover, and come up with a set of measurements that served no other purpose than to colour her low-powered, dozy state. She loved the “low power” mode that she found herself slipping into when she was tired – it wasn’t the proper sleep that agents had, which was still a shallower form of sleep than she’d had a human, the low-powered state was simply a recognition by her software that there were no pressing needs, nothing taxing her processes, so dialled down accordingly. It was as refreshing as a nap, with the added bonus of consciousness.

Lover. You thought “lover” without freaking out.

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Chapter 56

Stef followed Milla through the Hyde agency, through the familiar parts that she’d been seeing since shifting in, and into halls she’d never set foot in, but were still somehow familiar, thanks to the cookie-cutter nature of agencies.

Recruit dorm hallways apparently always looked like recruit dorm hallways.

Milla required her room’s door open, and they walked inside.

Compared to the hotel-room/studio apartment setup of most of the dorm rooms she’d seen, Milla’s room was much larger – the room the door opened into was an open living space – a lounge room blending into a dining area, and ending with a breakfast nook towards the kitchen.

It was also significantly more lived-in than most of the rooms she’d seen. There were traces of life everywhere – and to her glee, they were traces of a life lived in and around magic.

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Chapter 55

The credits started to roll.

‘Another?’ Stef asked Milla’s hair.

‘Yarp,’ she replied. Milla slowly sat up, shook herself, and stood to change the DVD – it was still so strange to be using physical media – habit she’d ditched, even long before joining the Agency. The idea that you were reliant on a laser to read a circle of compressed plastic – and that you had to sit through unskippable ads was – frankly horrible when with one thought, you could skip straight the movie.

Something about the act of removing the disc – of adding some physicality to switching between movies – seemed to calm Milla, and she was the last person who would begrudge another crazy girl her quirks.

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Chapter 54

Curt opened his eyes.

It his life had been a movie – A Series of Ever-Increasingly Terrible Mistakes, a Portrait of Curt O’Connor – he would have been in the dark, both literally and figuratively. He wouldn’t have known if he was nine or ninety, if he was in bed with a lover, or in a prison cell.

Real life, unfortunately, was clear at the worst points.

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Chapter 53

The hallways of Madchester were cool stone, giving the appearance of the lower levels of a castle. They were underground, they had to be – she doubted that the quick-travel via tree-ingestion had somehow shot them into the sky.

It was far from oppressive though, as there were bright windows every few metres, allowing what purported to be natural light in, even if that authenticity was born from artificiality – the “windows” were memory-glass inserts, showing views of a hundred different places on Earth, and views that were either Faerie, or alien worlds.

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Chapter 52

9am, Friday, Hyde

7pm, Friday, Brisbane

‘You see that tree there?’

‘What tree where?’ Stef asked as she looked up from her coffee, then adjusted her sunglasses so she had a better view of the park.

‘That big one over there,’ Milla said. ‘The one that looks like a good climbing tree.’

She made at teasing face at Milla. ‘You’re still describing half of the trees in the park.’

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Chapter 51

7am, Friday, Hyde
5pm, Friday, Brisbane

There was a knock at her door, and a thought unlocked it. ‘Come in,’ Stef said, leaning back against the cool window.

Milla, dressed casually for once, walked in, and sat cross-legged on the side of Stef’s bed. She swung up a red flask. ‘Tea?’

Stef looked down at herself for a moment, at her crumpled flannel pants and t-shirt. ‘Did you, like, sleep at all?’

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Chapter 50

5pm, Thursday, Hyde
3am, Friday, Brisbane

The common room was quiet – there’d been dinner and Disney movies, but the rest of the recruits had filtered out sometime during the second half of The Little Mermaid.

‘Another?’ Milla asked.

Stef shook her head. ‘I can only do so many happy endings in a day.’

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