Three Months Before Dorian Knocks.
Three recruits on the phone bank. Two in the lab, working. Three in the smaller lab, investigating their understanding of human biology. Four recruits in the main computer lab, submitting alternative drone paths.
All in all, very quiet for two in the morning.
Jones placed another bet and wondered if Blue Earth ever even considered horse races when they threatened to expose magic to the world.
From the outside, horse races appeared rather simple – horses ran around the track.
People made money. People lost money. It was far more complex than that simple summation belied, but the details would multiply a hundred times over when jockeys could be six inches tall, or could weigh nothing, or control the horse from the grandstand – and that was to say nothing of horses racing without jockeys.
Two invites appeared in her inbox, both for the same presentation: one as speaker, one as an audience member. She smiled gratefully, and she sent a quick smiley to Agent Fellows – one of the few who had gathered that, while she didn’t mind participating in a conference, coming as a speaker was never her preference.
She accepted the audience invite, then cleared her inbox again.
Schedules for the phone bank were done for the month, with only one level of redundancy –
they were usually so quiet that one person could handle it per shift. Scheduling three was a necessary precaution, and it gave those waiting for emergency calls some company, or some immediate comfort if they heard someone die.
Merlin turned restlessly in the box at her feet, the old card box scratching at the underside of her desk.
Jones closed her eyes and thought of calming images – Merlin almost always in her mind, so thoughts of work were likely keeping him aware on some level.
Jones felt a tugging at her pants leg.
Jones pulled off her glasses, placed them on the desk, and slipped beneath the desk. ‘I’m here.’
‘I’ve gathered. What’s keeping you awake?’
‘I heard a boy calling for help. He wasn’t close, but I heard him. His house was burning. I stopped it, but he was already burned up. And– And I’m trying to fix it. But he keeps trying to die. So I’m taking the burns away, but now I can feel them–’
Jones cradled the small boy. ‘Is help on their way?’
‘I gave them all the green lights,’ Merlin said, tears coming freely. ‘But they’re still a few minutes away.’
A faint whiff of burning flesh filled the air, and Jones held Merlin as he cried.
What seemed like an age later, Merlin nodded against his chest. ‘Okay. He’s okies now.
Enough. I’m tired.’
Jones kissed the boy’s forehead. ‘Go to sleep. I’ll be here.’
‘You forgot the class schedules,’ Merlin said as he pulled his too-big lab coat around him like a blanket. ‘Some session three stuff is coming up. That’ll mess with things.’
‘I didn’t forget,’ Jones said gently. ‘I’m doing them next.’
Merlin fell into one of his deep sleeps a few minutes later – so deep that it almost seemed as if the boy was dead. Jones set up a small life signs monitor and set it in the bottom right-hand corner of her HUD, and pulled herself up from the under the desk.
She brought the Academy class schedules up on her bank of monitors, and let them fill with the various colours that represented his recruits.
A ping appeared in her HUD – time to pay the bills for the week.
Everything was paid for by Agency accounts, but each week, it needed a digital rubber stamp, just to ensure that nothing untoward was going on.
And every week, something was.
Every week, someone tried to cheat a system that gave them nearly free rein over their social lives and the ability to live in whatever manner they wished to be accustomed to.
The guideline was very simple: have whatever you want, but make as little impact on the economy as possible. One hundred people requiring a car that cost as much as a small apartment had no impact on anything. Those same hundred recruits requiring money and buying the car – that was more noticeable.
Most of the time, anything recruits bought was small-time purchases – clothes, food, trinkets. Things they would buy if they had their civilian jobs and civilian wages. It was invisible.
Donating a million dollars to a favourite webcomic artist – that wasn’t something one could do on a civilian budget, and even though it never worked, someone tried it every week.
She deleted the request, sent a form email that she didn’t look at and knew would go straight into the recruit’s trash. Some formalities had to be observed, after all.
Jones opened some menus and looked for the boy Merlin had saved. Admitted to hospital with minor burns. Linked reports showed both of his parents had died in the fire.
The Agency could be kind, even in the smallest of ways.
Easy thoughts organised for the child to have a private room, for gifts and toys to be delivered the next day, and a quick email to a friend ensured an Agency-associated care worker would look after the child. The transition to whomever would care for him next would be easy, and if there was no one, the Agency could always find open arms needing a lost child.
Jones smiled, turned off her monitors, and left the room so her own lost child could sleep in peace.
The rest of the night passed without incident.
Night became morning, and the shift changeover happened as her recruits piled into the common rooms – some for their breakfast, some for their dinner.
Merlin joined in – happy for the company – and the recruits loved him. He was one of them, as well as one part little brother and one part adorable mascot. Her entire department would lay down their lives to protect her son.
And one day, it might just come to that.
There were conversations, paperwork, and finally silence.
The quietest part of the day always seemed to be between eight and eleven, so it allowed her a small morning ritual.
The ritual began at exactly 9:01. She went out the agency front doors, down Queen Street towards the mall, across Creek Street – which she never made the light for – down past the stores and businesses to the next set of lights.
All around her were other people in suits, even more so than what surrounded her on a typical day in the agency.
Across the street and then a right turn. It was so familiar she could have closed her eyes and walked the route.
She’d even calculated the average number of steps – the variance was small. That was strange, in and of itself, but not something she had bothered investigating. There really was no point, and this hour – rather, these fifty-eight minutes – was the time of morning she was supposed to forget about work.
A left turn, then into the coffee shop. The exotic smells were her daily thrill, especially when there was a new or seasonal flavour. She had long since tried everything on the board, so she delighted in creating new combinations.
She loved the Agency – she couldn’t imagine being anywhere else – but the eternal sameness was a little much, sometimes. There was safety in the conformity, but sometimes…it was smothering, suffocating, suppressing–
‘Miss?’ The barista broke her from her thoughts.
Jones looked up.
‘Miss, can I take your order?’
She stepped forward and handed over her rewards card, then made her order. It was fairly simple today – a lemon and orange frappe with a peppermint stick. The barista took the order without comment, then gave her a smile.
Jones stepped aside and looked around for an empty seat – when there was one, she stayed, when there wasn’t, she indulged in the guilty pleasure of window shopping. There wasn’t a seat today.
At 9:32 AM with a half-finished frappe in hand, she found herself staring into the window of Tiffany’s. Again. Though she would occasionally go into the other stores and make a small purchase, Tiffany’s was a place she’d never been brave enough to breach.
It was the holy sanctum of everything she loved and secretly desired. The elegance, the simplicity…the beauty. Window shopping was safer.
One day, she’d step in, but she had to wait for a special day or a special occasion.
Something that warranted going over the threshold.
The thin watch around her wrist beeped – it was time to head back. She slowly chewed on the peppermint stick as she walked back up Queen Street. The return trip always took longer and more steps than the trip out – she liked to eke out every second of her fifty-eight minutes.
At 9:56 AM she stood across from the agency, angled away so that a casual observer wouldn’t notice her. Even an interested observer wouldn’t really notice her. The large majority of people that traversed the street in the morning did so every day.
Her watch gave another beep. Time to go back to work – time to think of work, and responsibility, and an agency that always seemed to be one step from falling apart.
She threw the frappe container away and walked back inside.