A chirping tone caused Raz to look up from his microscope. It wasn’t a call, and it wasn’t the usual email/text alerts.
He lifted his phone and saw a Vox alert on his home screen. Different to the usual displays, this one was in a larger box, with a message to attend a meeting, and a button asking him to confirm that he was on his way.
He pressed the button, made sure all of his samples were locked down, and left the lab, running into a few of his fellow lab assistants.
A half-dozen of them piled into the elevator and rode to the main tech floor, then ran into a slowly moving school of chattering recruits from both R&D and the phone bank.
No one had any idea of why Jones had called the meeting.
They filed into mission control room. There were only two recruits in active operator roles, though another four wandered at the edges, wireless headphones slung around their necks.
The group of non-operators moved up to the front of the room, where Jones stood, bathed in the bright light of the monitor wall. ‘All of you here,’ he said, indicating to the group. ‘Have a field rating over three-point-five, so you are, by the manual, more than adequately suited to take on an operator role.’
He turned and pointed a hand at the wall, which changed to display an enlarged ID photo spanning across a two-by-two square of screens. ‘Curt O’Connor, Field,’ he said. ‘It would be fair to say that a lot of you would know who he is, for one reason or another. If you don’t,’ Jones said, looking back at the assembled recruits, ‘among other things, he’s former Solstice.’
Solstice. The word made the assembled recruits even more agitated. Solstice – as he’d been told on his first day, were anti-magic terrorists. Not the kind of guys you bring home to your parents.
The photo was of a sombre-looking young white guy. It almost looked more like a mugshot than an Agency ID.
A grumbling that came across the group.
‘I understand that reaction,’ Jones said, his voice level, ‘but at the same time, O’Connor needs an operator, and we’ve just run out of volunteers to deal with him.’
A few of the recruits raised hands and asked to be excused from a lack of care or desire, and Jones readily excused them.
Jones folded his arms behind his back. ‘He needs a primary, so I’m willing to excuse all the team leads. Eight more recruits left. If anyone is a secondary for two or more, or backup for six or more, you’re also free to leave.’
Another group of recruits left.
‘If we don’t get someone to deal with him, I’m going to have to request someone from the Academy, and I don’t want to have to do that. I’d rather keep it in the family.’
Still no one volunteered.
Jones sighed. ‘Look – two weeks. Someone take him for two weeks, then I’ll get someone from the Academy.’
‘He’s Solstice,’ one of the recruits to Raz’s left said. ‘Does he really need protection from his own kind?’
The tension started to bite at Raz’s brain. Someone had to do it, else it was going to cause problems.
‘I’ll do it,’ Raz said, stepping forward, and all of the stress around him seemed to slip away.
‘I’ve been doing the operator and mission control sims in my spare time, and my scores aren’t bad, even if I don’t always get all the stars.’ It wasn’t his forte – he was always going to be more comfortable in the lab, but he was good enough to volunteer, if it would diffuse the situation.
Jones raised a hand and waved away the rest of the recruits, then turned his hand and beckoned Raz forward. Raz followed the agent from mission control to her office – Jones morphed to Andrea en route.
‘Look,’ Andrea said as she settled into her chair and toyed with one of her loose curls. ‘O’Connor just got shot because his former operator stopped helping. It’s minor, but it could have been a lot worse, and I will not have operators not giving a shit about their charges. If you’re someone’s eyes and ears, you are responsible for their life.’ Andrea gave him an intense look. ‘Are you willing to take on that responsibility?’
It was a line he couldn’t refuse. ‘Is there at least great power that comes with it?’
Andrea weighed her hands. ‘I’ll owe you a pretty significant favour if you do this. Some people think that’s worth it.’
Raz nodded. ‘I’m happy to do it. Should I go meet him, or–?’
Andrea lifted her head. ‘He’s in the infirmary. Take the shortcut. It’s close enough.’
Raz left the agent’s office, then walked down the couple of corridors until he came to the one stable bit of space-time bending that he knew about: the ability to walk from the tech floor straight into the infirmary, despite the infirmary being at least five levels above – not that he knew precisely where the infirmary was, just that it was the closest department to the roof.
He stepped through. Both of the Parkers bustled around the only occupied bed, obscuring his view of his new charge.
‘Come on, Agent,’ one of the Parkers said. ‘Would it hurt to show a little emotion? You just got shot, for fuck’s sake.’
‘Not my style, Doc.’
The Parkers finally stopped moving and shifting and racing about long enough for Raz to get a good look at his new contact – a far better view than the enlarged ID photo.
There seemed to be some kind of rule that all agents were good-looking. Ryan was handsome in the white DILF kind of way, even if he seemed to be ninety percent fuddy-duddy, with rumours of cruelty. Jones was pretty – in both personas. Taylor wasn’t his type, but there was something to be admired about the pro-wrestler physique.
None of them, however, compared to the man on the infirmary bed. White – as a majority of this agency seemed to be – brown hair, brown eyes.
Objectively, fairly plain looking – a man who would hide among the younger set of default video game protagonists. O’Connor wore a tight T-shirt that let Raz see fine lines of muscle definition across his chest and arms. Far, far sexier than his own pudgy physique.
Subjectively, however, Raz was ready to drop to his knees and either pleasure him or propose marriage.
The Parkers were dealing with a gunshot wound to his hand – leaving his hand wrapped in at least two inches of bandages – an obscene, marshmallow-like thing that couldn’t have been necessary.
The…agent, if that was what he was, looked at him. ‘Can I help you, Recruit?’
There was something calm, measured, and familiar about O’Connor’s voice – he sounded just like Director Ryan.
‘I- I-’ Raz swallowed. ‘Jones asked me to–’
O’Connor held up his marshmallow hand. ‘It was dead blue,’ he said, seeming to assume Raz was there for a follow-up report. ‘Tell Agent Jones that, then meet me up in Field’s room eight, okay?’ He slipped off the bed, accepted a small bottle from Parker-2, and walked out the door to Field.
Raz watched him go, deliberately trying to keep his eyes off O’Connor’s arse.
He failed, and he wasn’t disappointed by the view.
After a moment, and after Curt was well out of view, he turned back to the doctors. ‘Is–’
The feeling of stupidity rose. ‘Is he really an agent?’
‘I’m pretty sure he is,’ Parker-2 said with a shrug. ‘Still my patient.’
Augment. The word flashed across his mind like a bolt of lightning. Augmentation had been one of the things covered by Jones’ lecture on Life, the Universe and Everything. A person who had been made into an agent. It made…sense.
As the doctors began to clean up the work area, Raz wandered onto the Field floor. The layout was easy enough to recall from the maps he’d seen, and he found the meeting room without much issue.
There was a round table, large enough to comfortably fit four chairs, and a spread of monitors on the wall. He refreshed his uniform, played with his hair as he looked at his reflection, then sat with his hands folded as he waited for the agent.
An agent that was former Solstice.
Everyone deserved a second chance. Bad guy backstory didn’t preclude doing good now.
Half of the best characters in fiction were turncoats or turncloaks.
And yet again, Raz was infatuated with a white guy.
After a few minutes, he felt anxiety starting to eat away at his brain, so he pulled out his phone and lost himself in an Agency-approved match-three game that Jones had recommended.
It only took two levels to start feeling better.
The door to the meeting room opened, and Agent Curt stood there, hair and uniform perfect. He almost looked surprised. ‘I didn’t think you’d be here so quickly, Recruit.’ He turned and closed the door, apparently not looking for a response.
Raz mumbled halves of words as the agent settled himself in the chair across from him.
‘Agent Curt,’ he said, trying to sound formal, like he would whilst talking to Ryan. He hesitated for a minute. ‘Or do you prefer Agent O’Connor? Most of the other agents have names that can be both. You’re the first–’
The agent held up a hand, an apprehensive look on his face. ‘Why are you calling me “agent”?’
‘Parker-2 told me,’ he said.
O’Connor looked incredulous for a moment. ‘He said that?’
Raz nodded enthusiastically. ‘I know you’re still treated like a recruit, but–’
Curt laughed, and it almost sounded a little manic. ‘Do I really look like an agent to you?’
‘Isn’t that the point, sir?’
‘I guess it is,’ he conceded. His face relaxed a little. ‘Call me what you like, so long as it’s not “arsehole”. Now, what can I do for you, Recruit?’
‘Your current interface recruit,’ he said, trying to find a tactful way to put it, ‘no longer wants the job.’
The agent lifted his hand – and Raz made a quick mental note that augments could sustain damage closer to a true human than a true agent. ‘I kind of noticed he gave up about halfway through that operation.’ Curt’s face settled into disappointment, though his mouth retained a bit of a smirk. ‘So I’m on my own from now on?’
Raz shook his head, a little too quick, a little too eager. ‘No, I’m going to be your operator.’ He rose from his chair and held out his hand. ‘I’m Raz, and it’s a pleasure to meet you, Agent C.’
Curt rose and gave him what seemed to be a genuine smile. ‘I like that.’ He shook his head. ‘Raz?’
Raz nodded, held onto the agent’s hand for a moment too long, then released it and sat back down. ‘All right,’ he said, trying to sound sensible in front of the agent. ‘I’d like to confirm your schedule details, then I’ll tweak your Vox to ensure that you’ve got an emergency channel so you can contact me at any time.’
Curt looked confused. ‘You can do that?’
Raz nodded. ‘Regular voice and text is still available, but the emergency channel cuts into any current call or conversation, ensuring you get first priority.’
‘I’ve had five operators since I’ve been here,’ Curt said. ‘None of them offered me that option.’
‘It’s kind of an optional extra,’ Raz admitted, looking away, ‘but it’s important to know you can contact your primary at any time, especially if you get stuck with a secondary who doesn’t know your operational preferences.’
Curt swallowed. ‘That’s…appreciated, Recruit.’
Raz felt himself brighten and knew some of the disturbing anxiety had left his face. ‘No problem, Agent C.’