Something was blinking.
Stef tried to focus on the red, blinking message, but it became unimportant.
The map spun in her mind, pathing for the next ten birds calculating as she assigned them numbers, linked them to the main system, and then the emergency sub-system, fingers twitching on keys she couldn’t see any more. Keys she wasn’t sure she was touching any more.
She’d started coding on the screen, like the recruits around her, but it was inefficient. She’d practised the first few dozen using the keyboard, getting used to the procedure, adjusting to using the new scripts and automations that took care of most of the work. More and more techs were coming online to assist, mostly recruits, and they could only code so fast.
Agents could work so much faster, she could work so much faster.
She’d turned off visual input from anything other than the drone-creation system, muted all sounds from the outside world, set her communications status to away, and dropped completely into her own system. It was strange at first, like a tech-orientated version of her autopilot, but it was for coding, and felt so much more natural.
In this state, single-tasking rather than multi-tasking, everything was much quicker. Two to five birds a minute had turned into ten birds a minute. Thoughts were processing at faster than the speed of thought. Coding was taking her input, but almost as an aside, an afterthought, using her more as a processor than a truly active role.
The thing blinked again, and she pushed it away, still unable to focus on it.
Someone touched her. A distant sensation, pressure on her shoulder. Another ten birds later, the pressure was still there.
A communications window popped open, text only. [You’re late for dinner.]
She processed another ten birds, then slowly closed the program, and readjusted her senses to take in the real world again.
‘Huh?’ she said, her mouth dry.
Ryan was staring down at her. ‘You’re late for dinner.’
‘I only made-‘ she looked at the counter in her HUD. ‘Like two thousand birds,’ she said. ‘That’s as many as twenty tens and that’s terrible.’
‘I think you’re a little delirious,’ Ryan said.
‘I am not!’ she tried to stand, but immediately pitched forward, caught by her angel’s ever-reliable arms. ‘Maybe dizzy, but not delirious. KITTENS!’
The world blurred a bit, further backing her theory that she was dizzy – before she had a chance to realise it was a shift. He gently lifted her and placed her down on his couch. A cold glass of water was placed in her hand. ‘Sit for a minute.’
‘Why do you have flash drives sticking out of your neck?’ Curt asked.
‘Why don’t you?’ she retorted as she drank the water, trying to force her senses back to normal.
Curt gently tugged at one of the flash drives. ‘Do I even want to know?’
She yanked it out. ‘It’s for overclocking,’ she said. ‘It’s a physical hack. Too dangerous to actually tweak the OS, according to Jonesy, unless you’re designed that way, but doing it this way is safe for a few hours. Mostly. There are some after-effects. Maybe. Just do not give me anything sparkly or shiny or I might go a bit loopy!’
Curt stood, picked up his bag from the side of the couch, and stashed it behind Ryan’s desk. ‘Ok, you should be safe.’
She stared at his shoes, polished shoes. The fluorescent light coming off them was vibrating. ‘Also, I think I’m a little high, is it being high when it feels like you’ve got exactly eighteen fingers and not enough ears to put them in?’ She pulled the other two flash drives from her neck, and things seemed to stabilise a bit. Less fingers, at least.
Four cups later, she felt much closer to normal.
‘Um,’ she said as she looked up and around the office. ‘Wasn’t Ryan here?’
‘He’s gone to get food, he’ll be back in a minute,’ Curt said. ‘How’s your head?’
She gave a shrug. ‘At least it’s not addictive,’ she said. ‘And, um, why aren’t we just requiring food?’
Curt shrugged. ‘It was his idea. I’m grateful enough that I’m invited, so I’m not going to argue with the food.’
‘You guys get the agenda done?’
‘We’re trying to collate all the reports and deal with all the staff that have been assigned over. At least half the people downstairs are related to Grigori, but Mags is dealing with that just fine. Jones is keeping most of the techs working remotely so we don’t have to deal with more people. The outposts are dealing with most of the overflow and taking point on the physical patrols, since they know their areas. And I’ve been signing off on expense requests as fast as they come in. Everything is getting rubber stamped, everything. Carmichael is probably going to want to renegotiate if he see some of the deals that others agents are making.’
‘Gods, doesn’t anyone know how to negotiate?’
Ryan shifted into the office, a large box open in his hands. His desk disappeared, replaced with a small, round table and three chairs. He placed the box down, and began to pull bags out and smaller boxes out.
‘You went to Magic Mike’s?’ she asked as she saw the logo on the bags.
‘Delivery,’ he said. ‘I thought it would be a nice treat, and it gave me the opportunity to warn them at the same time.’
She got up of the couch. ‘Did you get-?’
‘I’m not sure what’s here,’ he said, ‘I just told Patty it was for three.’
He pulled out a large cake box and opened it up to find a large pie topped with red pastry. ‘Ah,’ he said, ‘there’s the main course. Colk and red wine pie. Help me with the rest.’ They made short work of pulling the rest of the treats from their respective boxes and bags, filling the table with savouries and sweets.
They sat and Ryan carved the pie into three large chunks. ‘Is this more science meat?’ she asked as she stabbed a large chunk onto her fork. ‘Or is there an animal called a colk?’
Curt didn’t even bother to hide a smirk, but didn’t say anything.
‘It is artificially-derived meat,’ Ryan said, ‘and there was never an animal known as a colk, that refers to the mix of meats here.’ He cut a small chunk in half and held it up. ‘It’s a mix of the standard red meat mixture, and the standard white-meat mixture.’
She stared at the chequerboard-coloured piece of meat. ‘Oh.’ She chewed on a chunk. ‘Is it nom, though.’
‘It’s one of the most popular mixtures,’ Ryan said.
Curt carved into the brikni and look a small slice, mixing it in with the rich sauce of the pie. ‘This much better than the brikni at Fry’s.’
Ryan smiled. ‘It’s an old family recipe, or so I’m told.’
They ate in comfortable, familial silence for a while, finishing off their slices of pie, sharing the brikni, nomming on the smaller savouries, before clearing away the dirty dishes, leaving only the sweets and the cake behind.
‘I can’t…I can’t eat anymore,’ she said, eyes as wide as the chocolate tarts in front of her. ‘I will literally explode, and I did that once already today.’ The rest of the food disappeared from the table, and she whimpered. ‘What’d you do that for? Sometimes exploding is worth it!’
Ryan pointed behind her, and she saw it stacked neatly on a smaller table. ‘It can wait,’ he said, ‘there’s a few things we need to discuss, as complicated as the situation was this morning, it’s become tenfold since then. I will, however, start with the good news, if that’s all right with the both of you.’
‘Yes sir,’ Curt said, and she gave a nod.
A bottle of wine appeared on the table – not the unicorn wine she’d bought him, something else, but definitely fae. He required three glasses and poured equal measures into each. ‘It’s Got wine,’ he said, ‘it has a similar effect to aole, and it’s probably the best of my remaining collection.’
‘Did you have a wild party while we were out? With wine? So a wild, low-key posh party? Or-’
He shook his head. ‘No, I sold anything of value. I thought it was best to do before other agents start to do the same.’
‘Snap decisions can lead to better profits,’ she said.
‘Precisely. I did sell the bottles you gave me, I hope you don’t mind.’
‘They were yours to do with as you please,’ she said. ‘But what did you need the money for?’
‘I thought it would be a good time to invest in property,’ he said. ‘Given the nature of this emergency. Should the blue phoenix die, all hell will break loose here, Contingency 32 or not, millions will die in a matter of hours, it will be impossible to keep the public in the dark. There have been projections on this, and they always say that should enough Solstice survive, their numbers will grow exponentially. It’s more than possible that we’ll be ordered to go to ground for a few years, if we get a chance to do so before a war breaks out. Much as it would loathe me to give up my post, survival is necessary to fight another day, and fairyland will be so much safer, especially if they close the borders.’
‘Are you allowed to say something like that here?’ she asked in a whisper, afraid of the ever-constant eyes of the Agency. It wasn’t paranoid if they were actually listening.
He gave a slight smile. ‘Emergency directives, it’s not treason if we’re ordered to lie low. I’m already in negotiation for two pieces of property – one is a rental property, so there’s an income stream there, the other isn’t in a city, but at least there’s room enough for anyone I would want to take.’ He pulled an envelope out of his jacket and passed it across to her. ‘Which is where this becomes relevant.’
She opened the envelope, and pulled out some official-looking forms – the logos telling her they were from fairyland. She read through it, but it was like new paperwork, nothing made sense.
‘Um?’ she prompted.
‘I’ve had an equivalency citizenship for over a decade now,’ he said, ‘wasn’t my idea, it was something all directors were encouraged to do – for projects and initiatives that have since been mothballed or gone back to the drawing board. What you have there is a sponsored sub-citizenship form.’
‘Try it again in Hob, cause you’re not making any sense in English.’
Curt shook his head. ‘I thought you were a genius, newbie.’
Ryan leaned across the table and took her hands. ‘It’s as close as I can come to adopting you under fairy law for the moment. You’ll need-‘
She shifted to the other side of the table and hugged him. She wrapped her arms around his neck and buried her face his shoulder. ‘I love you.’
He kissed the top of her head. ‘Problematic pet or not, I’ve got no intention of leaving you behind.’ She felt a chair beside her legs and she sat, hugging his arm instead of his neck. ‘I hope we don’t have to deal with this eventuality, but if we do, there’s room for Buttercup.’
‘…did you buy that old green place down the road from Magic Mike’s?’
‘That place has been for sale for years!’ she said, ‘Patty said that-’
‘They were willing to deal,’ he said, ‘it’s structurally sound.’
‘I’m no good at painting!’
‘You’ll have time to learn.’
‘Sir,’ Curt said, ‘haven’t you been here all day, how have you organised all this?’
‘A little help from Prometheus,’ he said. He looked down at her. ‘Sorry, you weren’t around to ask.’
‘Huh?’ Curt said.
‘So long as you weren’t browsing porn, my laptop is your laptop. And I don’t care if you do, just so long as you clear the history.’
‘I thought you laptop was Frankie,’ Curt said, ‘or did you get a new one? Or-‘
She shook her head at him. ‘You earned geek points today,’ she said, ‘but now you just lost classic literature points.’
‘Be fair,’ Ryan said, ‘it is a little obtuse.’
She looked across at Curt. ‘My laptop’s name is Prometheus. The Modern Prometheus is another name for the book Frankenstein. Frankenstein. Frankie. Got it?’
‘He is right,’ Curt said, ‘it’s a little obtuse.’
She rolled her eyes. ‘The more you know.’
She looked from Ryan to Curt, and back again. ‘What about him, can we keep him too?’
‘He’s a property owner,’ Ryan said, ‘he doesn’t need our help.’
Curt stared down into his glass of wine. ‘I didn’t think the Agency knew about that.’
‘The Agency doesn’t,’ Ryan said, ‘I do, and it’ll stay that way until you want it otherwise. I did a search on your name, to see if you had a foothold, otherwise I’d be making the offer to sponsor you as well.’
Curt looked away. ‘Thank you sir.’
‘I do have something else for you though.’ Another envelope appeared in Ryan’s hand and he passed it to Curt. Curt took it, and opened it. He stared, wide-eyed at the contents. ‘H-How?’
‘What’d you give him?’
Curt flipped the envelope’s contents – easily recognisable as an Agency form – over. ‘My probation’s over. I’m- I’m-’
‘You’ve earned it, Curt.’
‘But, how, sir? I didn’t even have a final review, let alone-’
‘Emergency conditions can make certain things easier,’ Ryan said with a smile. ‘There are several Aide privileges you don’t have – mostly to do with your security clearance levels – that you didn’t have because of your probation, given what we’ll be dealing with until this situation is over, I made the argument that I needed you at full capacity, and it was passed through without argument. You’re going to have a post-probation interview, but that will be one month after the emergency situation is declared to be over.’
‘You have no idea what this means to me, sir.’
‘Yes, I do,’ Ryan said, ‘and that’s why you’ve earned it.’
‘Ok,’ she said, ‘this was the good stuff, what’s the bad stuff?’
‘It’s not bad,’ Ryan said, ‘it’s just…complicated. It’s what Contingency 32 on this scale can really mean for the Agency.’