Stef found the gym easily. Aside from the fact that the doors were labelled, it was the biggest room she’d seen yet – even bigger than the warehouse testing room. Typical gym equipment occupied the middle of the room. To the left was a shooting range, set into the wall, and to the right was other equipment – sparring mats, balance beams, and the like. At the back were a set of bleachers, bookended by vending machines. A dozen or so recruit wandered around, though thankfully, no one had noticed her.
And I’m supposed to do what, exactly?
There was a noise behind her, which she ignored. There was another noise – it sounded like words – and she kept ignoring it. There was a tap on her shoulder, and she flinched.
She turned and saw a guy standing there. She fought to cycle through her memories. His image clicked after a moment – he hadn’t been sitting at the table in the mess hall, but he had been in the room. One of the lurkers who’d been leaning against the wall.
‘Don’t be scared, newbie,’ the recruit said. ‘None of this equipment has eaten anybody for ages, and Taylor’s not here, so you’re not gonna get thrown out a window.’ He paused. ‘And if you’re going to train, change out of the suit.’
You have to respond.
‘Not scared,’ she said, ‘assessing. As to changing, what’s the point?’
Her question seemed to confuse him. ‘To be comfortable?’
‘Do you go into the field in what I’m wearing or what you’re wearing?’
‘We train in training uniforms, but – pun intended – suit yourself. Curt, by the way.’
She tried to fake an apologetic look. ‘Sorry.’
‘I meant, it’s my name.’
‘Now, did you pass the bonus round of your tests?’ He noticed her confusion. ‘Did you shoot, kill, or otherwise maim someone?’
‘Yes. It was the logical thing to do at the time.’ She enjoyed surprised the look on his face. ‘If you’re asking if I know how to shoot, not really. It was point-blank.’
He swept his arm wide and walked over to the shooting range. ‘Standard paper targets,’ he said. ‘When you want something more complex, go into the holodeck – sorry, the training simulator. You can set the level of difficulty, though it doesn’t let you do a mission more than once.’
‘Just like in real life.’
Ryan could explain this stuff.
He probably has paperwork to do.
‘You’re unlikely to run out of missions, though. I think there are maybe two dozen recruits in history who have done them all. A lot are similar, and you’re graded on each of them. Just remember: All results get CC’d around, so don’t go in with the intention of losing. Looks bad for you.’
‘And…if you’re planning on sticking around, you might want to know who we are. Me Curt, remember. The girls are–’
‘I’m not really going to take in a lot of new information right now.’
He shrugged. ‘Suit yourself.’ He leaned against the edge of the shooting range. ‘Come on. Give it a try.’
She walked over, and after a couple of tries, pulled her gun from its holster, aimed the gun at the target, and pulled the trigger.
‘Safety’s on, newbie.’
‘Just that there.’
She flicked the safety off, aimed, and pulled the trigger. It missed terribly, and she pulled the trigger again.
The gun failed to produce another bullet, and she lifted it, looking at it to see if it was jammed. There was a shout from her “assistant”, and the gun disappeared from her hand.
‘That’s a fucking gun, newbie!’ Curt screamed, attracting attention from recruits around the gym. He made a strangled noise and managed to lower his voice. ‘You understand that, right? Gun? Gun. There are ways to treat it and ways to check what’s wrong with it. Looking up the fucking barrel to see if it’s jammed is not one of them!’
She looked at her hands, let them drop, and grabbed onto the side of the shooting range. The world spun, and she wondered if it would reflect negatively on her if she passed out.
‘Hey, newbie, you okay?’
A narc had pointed a gun at her head and had been perfectly willing to kill her. She’d died. She’d been dead and come back and–
She vomited on her shoes, half-digested cookies splattering the dirty sneakers, the pristine uniform pants, and the shiny gym floor. She retched again, her hands wrapping around her stomach, hot tears rolling down her cheeks.
‘Newbie?’ A hand on her shoulder, which she shook off.
She ran. Away from the shooting range and out of the gym towards the lift. She wanted to scream, to cry, to curl up on the floor, or to slam her head against the wall until everything made sense.
Instead, she calmly pressed the button for the lift and waited for it.
Where are you going?
I don’t know.
Go back to your room. Sleep it off.
I was gonna die.
I know. I was there. But you’re okay now.
I can’t handle this.
I’m surprised you’ve gotten this far. If you calm down, maybe you can get a little further.
She lifted her hand and wiped the vomit from the corners of her mouth.
‘Newbie!’ His voice echoed, so he must have been in the doorway to the gym. She didn’t turn to look at him. The doors to the lift slid open, and there were running footsteps behind her. She jumped into the lift and punched the button for the doors to close, but Curt closed the distance too quickly.
She slid to the floor of the lift, face buried in her hands, the stench of vomit on her sleeve filling her nostrils.
‘This,’ Curt said as he leaned against the wall of the lift beside her, ‘is your first day. Did you expect it to be easy? Come on. It’s like the first day of a new job. Except with more guns.’
‘I don’t have a job.’
‘First day of uni.’
‘Don’t go to school.’
‘What the hell do you do, then?’
‘I’m a hacker.’
Curt sighed and shook his head. ‘I’m not usually one to question Agent Ryan…but what the hell are you doing down here, then? It’s not the like the tech department’s full. You can ask for a transfer, you know.’
She lifted her face from her knees.
Require: new uniform.
The smell of vomit disappeared.
‘I didn’t get much sleep last night,’ she said, keeping her expression as neutral as she could, ‘and last night was kinda busy for me.’
‘Yeah, surviving a Solstice massacre isn’t exactly easy. I get that. And the people who commit them are unhinged.’
‘I think all Solstice are.’
‘No, no, no – don’t do that. Don’t make the same stupid assumptions they do. A lot of them do it to protect someone, or genuinely think they’re doing a good thing. Kill the freak; protect your family. It’s a really easy decision to make.’
She looked up at him. ‘You–’
‘Don’t go looking at me like I’m extra credit, newbie. I’m not another test. You shoot me, and I’ll stay down. I used to be Solstice. I got brought round to the right way of thinking and got given a second chance and a relocation to boot.’ He pressed the button for the ground floor. ‘Now, it’s not quite lunch on your first day. This is generally about the time when people go and get drunk.’
Her brain, still unable to reboot, managed a sentence. ‘I don’t drink.’
She slowly stood and stared back down at the floor.
‘Yeah, you look as likely to get drunk as the guy who recruited you. What do you want, then?’
I wanna go home. I wanna go back to sleep. I want this to all be some sort of dream.
No, you don’t.
‘Don’t tell me what I want!’
‘I didn’t, newbie,’ Curt said as the doors slid open. ‘I asked.’
‘Food,’ she managed.
The lift slid open, and having nothing better to do, Stef followed him into the lobby. The lobby was small; the colour scheme was blue – that was expected. The potted plants threw her for a loop, as did the secretary.
‘Signing out, recruits?’ the secretary asked as she held out two clipboards.
‘Hey, Natalie. Yes,’ Curt said as he accepted the clipboard.
Natalie gave her a smile. ‘Good morning, Stephanie. Welcome to the Agency.’
‘Stef,’ she corrected on autopilot. She dated and signed the form on the clipboard. ‘Do I ask the–’
‘Yes,’ Natalie said, ‘I’m an agent – well, the same sort of thing, anyway. I don’t go on assignment or anything.’
‘Come on, newbie!’ Curt called from the door.
Stef blinked as she stepped into the sunlight. For some reason, she half-expected the building to disappear or switch to the other side of the street when she turned back. It didn’t. She followed Curt through the throngs of morning commuters and shoppers. She looked up into the bright sun, but she couldn’t see the zeppelin – it had faded, or it was just hiding beyond sight again. People bustled past her as though she didn’t exist.
She curled her toes inside her sneakers. The mundane reality of her dirty shoes calmed her somewhat. The world’s spinning slowed, just a little, just enough for her to walk.
After seeing the zeppelin and listening to Ryan talk, she had expected to see more ghosts, to see them walking through people on their own, personal funerary marches. Wisps of memory and dream, remnants of a dead world.
Maybe even Mela. Not that she had any idea what the Beast’s Beauty looked like. The beast, he deserved a happy ending – assuming that assuming happy endings existed. She tried to keep up with Curt, but she kept stopping, looking around, trying to see the city with new eyes, expecting to see things she hadn’t seen before. It was disappointingly normal – maybe all of the differences were more evident at night.
‘Hurry up, newbie!’ he called as the light flicked from the green walk man to the flashing red hurry-the-hell-up man. He stopped and waited for her to catch up. ‘Stop dawdling.’
‘I wasn’t,’ she muttered after they ran across the street.
‘You’re looking for…well, for things you didn’t know existed twelve hours ago, right?’
‘More like thirty-six.’
‘Knowing this stuff doesn’t lift some sort of curtain off the world, where every other barista has purple skin and half of the businessmen are actually spirits. There are plenty of non-humans walking amongst us, but most of the time, they’re really hard to spot. There’s no masquerade to drop. Seeing one thing isn’t a free pass to seeing everything. It doesn’t work that way.’
‘Then how does it work?’
He smirked. ‘By keeping up, for a start.’
She followed him as he entered a small coffee shop. ‘Newbie!’ Curt called from the register. ‘What do you want?’
She looked to the girl behind the counter. ‘I’d like a…just a mocha, please. The big size. Large. Lots of chocolate.’ Curt translated that into barista-speak, and the girl nodded.
A few minutes later, they had their drinks. Curt guided her to the tall stools near the window. She stared at her drink as though it might explode. She hoped it would explode. She placed it on the counter, and stared out the window, trying to spot any non-humans in the crowd.
Curt sipped at his concoction. ‘It’s not evil, newbie.’
She stared at the mocha. ‘Well, nothing’s innocent.’
‘Does it get tiring being you?’
‘Humans tire me out.’
‘Humans?’ he echoed, giving her a closer look. ‘You’re not?’
She stared at him over the top of the cup. ‘Human interaction,’ she said, ‘tires me out. It’s not my forte.’
‘If you’re going to be a recruit, you’re going to have to get past that. Or transfer up to the techs. I’m sure Agent Jones could build you some sort of anti-people pod to work in.’
‘…Why are you even bothering with me? I didn’t–’
‘What you want doesn’t matter, newbie. I’ve got my orders. We don’t just let new recruits wander around by themselves with a head full of questions. That’s just dangerous.’ He gave a shrug. ‘And it’s just cruel. Some people can’t handle the truth about the world. Even if they seem like they’re okay, some just snap.’
‘I’m not gonna snap.’
‘Knowing this stuff…it messes up your world view for a while. You don’t know who to trust and who not to trust, who’s on your side and who is only playing the part. The truth can break couples apart. Destroy lives. Nearly get you killed…’ He trailed off and became very interested in his coffee. ‘The problem with the truth of the world is that it’s subjective.’
‘No,’ she said as she pushed the cup around with a single finger. ‘It’s really not.’
‘Sure it is. Objectively, you were hanging out with Solstice, hiding from an agent, and not being the most helpful when Agent Ryan confronted you.’
She choked on her mocha.
‘What, you thought Ryan would get me to be your camp buddy without telling me what happened?’ He made a finger gun and pointed it at her. ‘Objectively, he should have shot you. Objectively, you’re too much of a risk to recruit. We should both thank the gods that agents aren’t unfeeling robots.’
‘Still, out of everything that could make me snap, it’s not knowing about magic.’
‘Sorry, but you’re stuck with me. If someone else volunteers, fine; but otherwise, it’s my job. It’s one of the…“perks”,’ he said with air quotes, ‘of being on permanent probation.’ He smirked. ‘Besides, it could be worse. Unlike a lot of people in our department, I’m not a complete douchebag. How they treated you this morning? It’s only gonna get worse. I’m some piece of shit turncoat, but I’m still the better option than Brian or Collins or…most of them, really.’
Stef shrugged and tried to smile. She stared at the drink, slicked her fingers with the condensation, and drew shapes on the counter top. ‘Why the Solstice?’ she asked after drawing a smiley face.
‘I didn’t know there was another team at the time. Saw a monster, wanted to protect the people I loved – it was as simple as that.’
She destroyed the smiley face with the heel of her hand. ‘Tell me that you never killed a bunch of people for no reason.’
‘What did you do then?’
‘I was just a redshirt. Never did anything of importance.’
‘How’d you get your second chance?’
‘You might be a newbie, but it has to have filtered down that the Solstice will kill anybody non-human, even babies.’
‘Yeah, well, I rescued one. I just picked it up and ran, all the way to the Adelaide Agency and gave myself up. Now, you still want food?’
‘Want to see some fae?’
She snapped her head up to look at him.
He grinned and made their cups disappear with a touch. ‘That’s what I thought. I know a place. Come on.’