The meeting room was filling slowly.
Stef tilted her head back and emptied her can of Mountain Dew, then looked around for a trash can.
She dismissed the can and looked up again. Brian and his fanclub took the front row, Red was sitting in the other corner of the room, and the other recruits she hadn’t bothered to look at were filling the rest of the seats.
Ryan walked in, and a map appeared on the screen to his left. The conversations stopped. ‘I’ve spoken with most of the teams,’ he said. ‘For those I haven’t spoken with, I’ll ask that you stay behind after this.’
Curt leaned closer to her. ‘Pay attention to what you can.’
Ryan launched into a detailed talk about teams and entry times and drop points. Every so often, a recruit would ask for clarification, or for a slight adjustment to the plan. After he was finished, the room was a lot quicker to empty than it had been to fill up.
He looked around the room and called all the other recruits – including Curt – by name. Stef sat quietly while he spoke with them, then they left the room, leaving the room empty except for her and the angel.
‘Recruit,’ he said with a smile. ‘I’ll see you now.’
She walked up to the front of the room to join him.
‘Got ahold of the plan?’ he asked.
She nodded. ‘Techs watch, Combat sends in a few small teams, then Field comes in after. Try and scare people off if we can – try non-lethal stuff; Solstice are the only shoot-on-sight targets, but if people get in our way,’ – she smirked – ‘then things get less pleasant for them.’
He nodded. ‘You and I will go in after the second Field team has been shifted in. For this operation, my role is still primarily a coordination one, though the experts on such matters say that its good for recruit morale to see agents in the field during dangerous operations.’
‘Makes them feel less like unappreciated cannon fodder?’
‘Something like that.’ He pointed to the map. ‘We’ll be shifting in here,’ he said with a point. ‘Now, remember, this is still dangerous, and if it seems as though–’
‘I know,’ she said hurriedly. ‘I’ll be good, I’ll listen, and if I’m a liability, you’ll send me home to help the techs.’
He nodded. ‘And I only say this because I say it to everyone. The mirror is not to be used; it’s to be destroyed. If you are able to touch it, or even a piece, wish for it to be destroyed; or if you find that you can’t do it, call me, and I’ll do it for you.’
‘I remember.’ She stared at the map for a moment, not taking in the detail. ‘Would– Would you wish for anything? If it wasn’t against the rules?’
‘I have very few needs that can’t be taken care of by requirements,’ he said. ‘There are some fairy foods and drinks I enjoy, but I have money enough to fill those wants. Other than that…’ He paused for a moment. ‘Words I wish I hadn’t said, decisions I wish I hadn’t made, but I don’t think I would actually wish them away. They’re part of my life.’
She stared at the floor. ‘Are you lying, like me when I said no?’
He squeezed her shoulder. ‘I am.’ He paused again. ‘There are things I wish for, but even if given the choice, I’m not sure I’d be able to make the wish. A wish is one thing; the fallout of the wish is something completely different.’
She nodded. ‘So, so, um, eight thirty? Do I have to do anything else before then?’
‘Whatever preparation you think is necessary,’ he said. ‘And get some rest, if you wish.’
She stared at him, and he gave her a curious look.
‘Sorry,’ she said, shaking her head slightly. ‘I just got hit with another one of those “Holy crap; this is all real” moments. I mean, if you’d asked me last week… This is not what I would have guessed I’d be doing.’
‘Life, at its best and at its worst, is surprising.’
She nodded. ‘Okay. Um. See you tonight.’
He shifted away, and she walked from the little meeting room.
What was left of the afternoon disappeared in a muted whirl of internet, snacks, and a nap.
She woke up from the nap when her alarm buzzed at five. She threw the quilt off and stared up at the ceiling of her room. Unlike her apartment ceilings, there were no odd stains, no cobwebs, and no corners of dust that had as much of a claim to the dwelling as she did. Requirements painted sections of code onto the ceiling, appearing and disappearing after she took a moment to appreciate them.
After the last one was dismissed, she sat up and required a new uniform. Impressive, she had to be impressive. Weird pseudo-adoption or not, she still had to impress him. She still had to prove that she was worth keeping around, that she wasn’t a waste of space, she wasn’t a waste of–
She did the requirement that tidied her hair, stood, then walked from her room.
The recruits bustled in the hall – each dressed in varying amounts of uniform, some still in civilian clothes, some in bits of what were probably combat division clothes. None of them paid Stef any attention as she walked down the hall towards the elevator.
She rode up to the Tech department. That floor was as equally busy as the Field floor – but here, the recruits actually paid attention and looked up as she passed, and not in the old-West-tavern-What-are-you-doing-here? sort of way.
The mission control room was easy enough to find again, and it was already filling with recruits who seemed to be a lot more excited – or, at least, a lot more motivated – than the ones who had filled Ryan’s meeting.
Jones stood off to the side, supervising a snack table. He poured her a blue plastic cup of soft drink as she approached and offered it to her. ‘I thought you weren’t joining us tonight.’
She stook the cup. ‘I’m not going in for a bit. Do you mind if I watch?’
He shook his head. ‘Not at all. You know where your seat is.’
Stef slid into the chair she’d picked earlier, and Screen bounced over with a bowl of random sweets. ‘Didn’t know we were getting a guest tech,’ Screen said, taking the empty desk beside her.
‘Just for a bit,’ she said, grabbing a handful from the bowl. ‘When does Combat go in?’
Screen looked at her monitor, then swivelled it. ‘Snipers are already in position.’ She pointed at the map. ‘Well, they’re “in position” in their first positions. We do have to assume we’re right with all of this; if not, there’s backup spots for them to move to.’
Stef pushed on the floor and rolled her chair over, closer to the tech’s computer, and traced the map with her finger. She pointed to one of the buildings. ‘Isn’t that where Sleepy-the-dwarf is?’
‘Ira? Yeah. All of the lookouts have a sniper on top of their building, but we’ve got a bunch more stationed around. We don’t really need them to be Hulking out and beating the crap out of people yet, but if they can take down identified Solstice at a distance, then all’s good.’ Screen shrugged and grabbed a handful of M&Ms. ‘When the shit starts to hit the fan, most will move away from the snipe positions.’
She stared at the dots. ‘Do we really have that many good snipers? Isn’t sniping usually something you have to spec pretty heavily into to be any good?’
‘Most can only really deal with the immediate area around their building, not any decent shots. It’s also an intimidation tactic, so even if they don’t get a shot, it might discourage some.’
Screen booted up Vox. ‘Hey, you’re not in the tech channel.’
Stef rolled back to her computer and looked at the program. ‘I haven’t really had time to mess with any of the settings.’
‘And no one has invited you,’ Screen said with a huff. ‘Here, click that.’
She looked back to Vox and saw a chat room invite, which she accepted.
‘It’s just our OOC channel,’ Screen said. ‘Participation not necessary, but keep it open. You’ll see when people are calling to fill out raids or want to trade shifts or whatever.’
The chatter got quiet as the screens on the front wall started to stream images. The same images came through to her own monitors. She clicked through the active recruits and could hear when the techs were giving instructions or advice.
She clicked through them for over an hour, listening to the small pieces of conversation, watching the dots of the snipers staying in place, and then the other teams slowly moving in, creating moving dots on the ant-farm maze.
Magnolia’s name appeared in the list of recruits, and she clicked to listen in on the magpie-girl. The channel, though active like the other recruits, resisted her attempts to activate it. She checked her mouse, tried clicking again, then pulled off her headphones. ‘Why can’t I listen in on Magnolia?’
Screen typed something into the group chat, then looked up. ‘Merlin’s the only one Mags is nice to. He likes her cause she’s part of his origin story – she was in the raid that rescued him, and she likes him cause…’ The tech looked lost for a moment. ‘We haven’t figured that out yet. He’s strange and adorable, but most of us are strange and adorable, so that’s not it.’ The tech shrugged. ‘He’s always her eyes and ears, and she’s an aide, so she can opt out of random scanning. She doesn’t like people listening in on her.’
‘What other bonuses do–’
A scream ripped through the room.
Stef stood up and looked to the front corner of the room, where a tall, thin recruit was fighting to get up off his chair but finding himself entangled in his headphones. He screamed again and wrenched away from desk. He dragged the tower onto the floor before he was finally able to break free.
One of the techs standing by the snack table ran over to him and braced the screaming boy before he fell.
‘Singh, get him out of here,’ Jones ordered. ‘Alfie, take over!’ he said, whirling on a short girl who’d been pouring drinks.
The girl ran forwards, required the computer back into working order, and was already looking around the screen when the map came back up.
‘The fuck?’ Stef asked Screen quietly. Screen pointed to her list of recruits, and Stef saw suddenly saw that one was now greyed out, with a red Deceased tag where the line for the ECG had been. ‘Oh. Fuck.’
‘People die,’ Screen said. ‘Sometimes we can’t stop it. Rewind his footage; see if you can track who or what did it. Everyone else who isn’t doing an active will be doing the same thing.’
‘Got him!’ Alfie yelled. ‘He’s moving down–’ She went quiet.
One of the windows on Stef’s monitor started to blink, so she clicked it, and she was surprised to see what had been a single view – probably from a drone, was now eight very similar views of the one stretch of road – possibly drones flying in formation, with a man in a black coat moving quickly in the shadowy parts of the street.
Jones turned away from the monitors to face the room. ‘Incoming.’
Screen hadn’t looked away from the monitors at the front. ‘Are you easily squicked?’
‘Depends on the content.’
The purple-haired tech pointed. ‘Here comes your litmus test.’
Eight screens showed the man being knocked out of a pool of shadow and onto the road.
The drones, thankfully, didn’t appear to provide sound – or, if they did, it was muted. Stef stared at the footage, enthralled and disgusted as Agent Volcano beat the man’s head into the ground, then–
Stef stared. ‘Oh, holy fuck.’
She heard at least one of the techs vomiting.
Taylor disappeared from the footage as quickly as he’d appeared, leaving the drones staring down at a body that was now in two pieces – the head several metres from the rest.
‘Did– Did he just do that?’
‘Yeah,’ Screen said, an almost adoring look on her face. ‘Awesome, right?’
‘I don’t think we upvote the same definition of awesome.’
Screen grinned. ‘We don’t pay him to talk pretty.’
Stef stared at the screen and the form of the dead man, which receded as the drones retreated. ‘He just pulled a guy’s head off.’
Combat recruits moved into more active roles, and then the Field recruits began to shift in. No one else died, and no one else was torn asunder – at least, not that Stef saw.
She looked to the clock, then excused herself.
She required a new uniform in the lift down to the Field floor.
I can do this. I can do this. I can do this.
Ryan’s door was open, and he stood staring out the window, the blank expression on his face telling her he was more interested in his HUD than in anything going on outside the window.
She rapped on his desk, and he blinked.
‘Are you ready?’ he asked as he turned to face her.
She tried to stand straight. ‘If you’re still willing to take me.’
He nodded, and the world blurred.
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