Stef looked at Jones as the Tech paced back and forth, arms folded behind her back, looking for all the world as though she were considering the deepest, most philosophical question this side of Trek vs. Wars.
After a moment, Andrea stopped pacing. ‘Are you sure he’s the one?’
Stef nodded. ‘Yeah,’ she said with a nod. ‘I mean, there’s no one else.’
‘I’m still not sure-’
Stef spun on the swivel chair. ‘Come on, please? It’s just one more teeny favour in the huge favour Katamari that I owe you already, and this will makes things a lot easier for me.’
‘There are several better possibilities…’
She shook her head. ‘No, it’s got to be him. If I’ve got to go through this, then so does he. I mean, he’s like my only friend.’
‘And I suppose you’re making this decision for him?’
She grinned. ‘Yeah, of course, like he has a say in it anyway.’
‘Well, if you’re-’
‘I actually thought about this decision, and that’s rare for me, so yeah, I’m sure.’
Jones sat, then typed in a few things. ‘It won’t be painful, there’s that at least.’
This made her hesitate for a moment. ‘I mean- It wasn’t painful for me. Not- I don’t remember it being painful.’ She looked at the floor. ‘Was it painful for me?’
Jones shrugged. ‘I don’t know, but for the most part, you didn’t even have the capacity to be conscious, so I would guess not.’ She tapped a few more keys. ‘All right and…done, thought you’ll have to fill in the paperwork yourself, but I hear you’re getting a handle on it?’
‘Pretty much. Though I do find of feel like I’m back in school.’
Andrea handed across Frankie. ‘He’s now as narcy as you. An official Agency laptop.’
She ran a hand across his lid. ‘So if I crack him open, is there blue magic in there instead of a processor?’
‘I used to have some computers that were pure blue inside, instead of components – useless in a blackout of course, but-’
There was something in the tech’s voice. ‘What happened to them, Jonesy?’
‘My recruits kept cracking them open and licking the insides.’
Stef considered the sentence for a moment. ‘That is…actually probably what I’d do.’
Andrea smiled. ‘More proof you’re one of us, Agent, you’re always welcome down here.’
There as a knock at Jones’ door, and Andrea spun towards it. ‘Come on in!’ The door opened, and Curt walked in. ‘What can I do for you, recruit?’
‘I was after her actually.’
‘Well, we’re done here.’
She opened Frankie, half-expecting him to be wearing a tiny suit, or for his colours to have changed the the default black, blue and white of the uniform, but there was nothing. His default dull grey and the remains of a few stickers.
This won’t do, you need some proof that you’re a good little narc. The uniform is really kind of comfy, but people would give me weird looks if you were-
She looked across at Curt. ‘You see these things on the side of my head? I can hear you.’
‘Taylor and Agent Grigori are fighting in the gym, come on, it’ll be fun.’ He jerked his thumb over his shoulder. ‘Exhibition fight, you haven’t seen one before, should be fun.’ He shrugged. ‘Besides, we have to be up late tonight.’
She nodded. The current plan was to shift to Moscow at two AM local time, which would take them back to seven PM, then stay up a couple more hours, then sleep – which would nearly avoid any sense of jet lag.
‘You’re all packed?’ Andrea asked Curt.
‘I’m not taking much, Agent, just the clothes on my back.’
‘Still, most recruits at least take a bag with them. You’ve adapted a lot quicker than most, especially for someone…with your work history,’ Jones said.
Curt stared at the floor. ‘Does that mean I’ll earn the privilege to have my bed make itself soon? Or do I have to-’
Andrea laughed. ‘You’re joking of course? Wait, Curt, are you serious?’
Stef looked to Andrea. ‘I thought everyone’s beds made themselves?’
‘They do,’ Jones said. ‘But not his.’
‘I’ve been here over a year,’ Curt said, ‘I just thought that-’
‘We did it for you,’ Andrea said, tapping her computer, Curt’s file appearing on the screen. ‘To help you get used to Agency life, I thought you’d gotten used to making your own bed, so I didn’t bother to change it.’
Curt looked, for once, lost. ‘I don’t understand.’
Andrea dragged her monitor forward. ‘When you came here, I changed a few of your settings. Turned off the self-cleaning macros in your room, so you could adjust to being here, without all of the practical magics making old hatreds flare.’ She smiled. ‘Would you like me to turn everything on for you?’
Curt went red. ‘Um, sure, if you don’t mind, ma’am.’
Jones grinned. ‘I do mind, it’s so hard to,’ she clicked the mouse, ‘do that. Everything is on. Also, just to put your mind at rest, the security cameras do not contain lasers. Ok, a few of them do, but they’re just prototypes.’ She smiled. ‘Now go, or you’ll miss the fight.’
There was pressure on her knee, and Stef looked down to see Merlin resting his head there. ‘Can I go, mumma?’
‘Sccccuse me Squishy,’ Merlin said as he crawled out from beneath the desk, over her, then righted himself with exaggerated effort. ‘Oh, hi Mean.’
Curt looked at her. ‘See, another reason you should be down here, you get “Squishy”, I get “Mean”.’
‘It’s your name!’ Merlin said, adjusting his goggles.
‘Whatever you say, squirt. Coming or not, Newbie?’
‘Sure,’ she said. She looked down at Frankie, and shifted him to her office, then stood and followed him out the door, a small wizard attached to her arm.
Curt hit the button for the elevator, and leaned against the wall. ‘Where’s your popcorn bot, squirt?’
‘Not hungry,’ Merlin said, leaning against her, pressing his head into her chest.
‘Oi, stoppit,’ she said, pushing him away.
‘It doesn’t make any noises anymore,’ he said. ‘Thought it might, since you’re awake for reals this time.’
She felt Curt’s gaze on her, but she gave no reaction, and forced herself not to rely on the slash-serious command – even that would admit more than she cared to.
Merlin poked her chest. ‘I mean-’
‘Okies,’ Merlin said, digging half of a muesli bar from his pocket and chewing on it.
She stared at the little wizard.
Did you just read my mind?
He nodded as they stepped into the elevator.
Um, could you stop it please, it’s already busy enough in here.
He held her hand for a moment, then dropped it. She looked at her hand, and at his answer written there in black ink: “Sorry Squishy, can’t”. As she read the words, they disappeared, and leaving her hand feeling a little itchy. She scratched it, then tucked her hands into her pants pockets.
The doors slid open, and Merlin ran off.
Curt took a step towards the door, but she held up a hand, then required the doors closed, then flicked through her HUD until she found a pause command for the elevator – it wouldn’t move until they stepped out.
She leaned back against the elevator wall, but would never be able to pull off the casual-cool thing that he did. ‘So, using small words, explain this again.’
‘Grigori promised everyone a show, he’s got to give it before we leave. I think Taylor’s kind of into the whole exhibition-fighting thing, lets him show off how good he is, remind us all what our place is.’
She stared at the floor. ‘I know how good Taylor is. He spent the last week literally pummelling it into my head before,’ she slammed her fist against the metal wall of the elevator, punctuating each word, ‘before he fucking tried to murder me.’
‘I know, Newbie,’ he said, his voice gentle and full of empathy. ‘But it’s all about appearances, right? Throw on robo-face and freak out as much as you want on the inside. He won’t even be paying attention to you. And I’ll be there.’ He gave a lopsided smile. ‘If nothing else, I’m a human shield.’
She let out a long breath, and released the elevator from its hold, the door sliding open to reveal the combat floor. ‘Lay on, McDuff.’
She followed him through to the main combat recruit gym, which had been reconfigured with bleachers on three sides, around a large, rectangular ring. Grigori was standing off to the side, half-naked flexing his muscles for the crowd.
Stef pinched the bridge of her nose, and they found a seat up high on the bleachers to the left, well behind the closest recruits.
‘Remind me, why is this fun?’
Curt shrugged. ‘I guess it’s the clash of titans appeal, an agent laying the smackdown on another is…pretty much like nothing else you can see. And it can get really complex, depending on how much thought goes into it.’
‘Thought? One of those guys is Taylor. He wanted to eat me alive for thinking my way out of the “get over the thirty-fscking-foot-high wall” test.’
Curt shrugged. ‘That’s our Taylor. It’s probably a good thing Mags exists, she balances him out more so than a lot of aides would in her position.’
‘This,’ Stef said, trying to keep control of her voice, ‘is balanced?’
‘It’s the Agency, ma’am,’ he said without joy or humour, ‘things can always get worse.’
Grigori ran the circuit of the ring, Terminator-like muscles on display, much to the cheering pleasure of the some of the recruits in the audience.
‘Entertainment’s here,’ he said, as Taylor and Magnolia walked into the room. He stepped into the centre of the ring – and unlike Grigori, kept his clothes on.
It was the first time-
She lifted her hand to the side of her face, and grabbed the top of her ear, just to ensure it was still there. Her pulse slammed in her throat, even while her heart remained as still as a stone.
Going through the rest of her life without seeing him had been an impossibility, but she had hoped it would have lasted longer.
She shuffled a little closer to Curt. ‘Human shield, right?’ she whispered.
She slumped, required a drink, and watched as the two agents began to square off against each other.
Fists flew. Kicks were kicked, some missing, some hitting their targets with brutal headlocks. A headlock or three was thrown into the mix, with neither agent missing a step, or stopping for a breath.
After twenty minutes, Taylor – as bloody as some vision from hell – was declared the winner. Grigori, however, walked out with a recruit on each arm.
Magnolia barked some orders, and the gym began to empty.
‘You can shift out now if you like,’ Curt said, ‘I’ll see you at two, okay?’
She nodded, and shifted to safety.