Fragility_fbcover

Fragility – 03

Wednesday

With Merlin securely tucked in, Jones drifted in his HUD.

Most agents had some true – if shallow – sleep during some part of the night. Even agents only had so much processing power, so sleep served as a convenient time to fulfil functions that would otherwise slow their reaction times.

Deep scans, integrity checks of every single nanite, cache clearing. Sleep gave an agent time to look after themselves, to make them fresh and new for the next day.

Jones refused to waste the time – it was inefficient to have so many dead hours during the night, when he could get so much work done without recruits underfoot.

Combat and Field functions were largely diurnal – so no one would miss Taylor if he bunked down – naked, apparently – for six hours.

It was possible to have the maintenance functions running at a reduced level for much longer periods of time, which was Jones’ preferred method – anything to give the day more hours in which to plan, to research, to make things easier for the road ahead.

Even with his child curled up at his side, he could work. Working with a real computer and a real keyboard were largely an affectation, something to make humans feel more comfortable, something to make agents more active in the world.

The majority of his tasks, Jones could do with his eyes closed.

Emails were answered. Schedules were checked. Code was proofed.

Time passed, and soon enough, it was morning.

Jones opened her eyes. She stared at the ceiling of the box for a moment, flicking into her favourited HUD actions, and clicked on the “Andrea” link right at the top. The changes started instantly – the complete change of appearance parameters took about five seconds total.

Merlin shifted at her side, and she slowly extricated herself from the box, careful not to wake the boy.

The night had passed, and the night was always the worst. The sun was up, and there were other duties she had to attend to. If Merlin needed her, he would make it known.

Andrea leaned down, and kissed the boy’s head once more, then shifted out of the box.

She tied her hair back, not wanting to deal with the loose curls, and a requirement had her in a fresh uniform, though as always, the shirt swapped out for whatever was on the randomiser.

She looked down – today’s shirt was a random green fractal. The original shirt had been a gift from one of her recruits, so it remained in the rotation. People liked when you wore their presents – it made them feel appreciated, and every little bit of boosted morale was a defence against the darker days of their job.

Andrea took a moment to collect her thoughts, then walked out of her lab and into the morning bustle.

Though the department’s day technically never ended, with the overnight shifts, it seemed more alive from around four in the morning – so at five, there were plenty of people around.

Jones walked through the department and back to the phone bank. The swap to the next shift was happening, the overnight crew giving brief reports to their replacements.

She walked in, picked up a fairy fruit from the dish on the bench, and slipped it into her lab coat pocket, then walked over to Tamarai. ‘I believe I owe you coffee, Recruit.’

The woman nodded. ‘I’m about done here.’ She leaned down and tapped the mouse twice.

‘All right. I’m logged out.’

Andrea smiled. ‘I’ve got a sim in mind, if you don’t mind staying in the building.’

‘That’s fine,’ Tamarai said, her voice completely devoid of its usual energy.

The usual treatment for getting past the fact that you’d lost someone whilst on duty was getting back on the horse. It didn’t matter if the horse had thrown you and kicked you in the face – it was Agency policy to get recruits back into the saddle, to take life by the reins, and ride hard for Rohan. Pony metaphors were versatile, and magic.

And nine times out of ten, the methodology worked – the stabilising effect of the blue made it nearly impossible to be held down by negative emotions for long periods of time. It worked to keep everyone happy, normal, and balanced – not to a brainwashing degree, just to a point where it made it possible to deal with the worst aspects of Agency life.

Neurotypical recruits barely noticed – except for passing remarks on how they handled death and tragedy so much better now. For the neurologically atypical recruits, the impact was far more pronounced, and they generally treated as a blessing.

It didn’t make conditions and disorders go away. Completely changing a recruit’s entire psychology was not something they usually resorted to. Recruits, instead, simply had a lot more “good” days than they were used to. Panic and depression still took their victims, but the edges had been smoothed.

Andrea shifted herself and the recruit to the training room – the smaller equivalent of the gyms that Field and Combat had. Despite the preconceptions that other departments’ recruits tended to have about the technical peers, there were plenty of fit recruits in Tech, and even more who liked partaking in casual exercise. A small gym served their purposes, though, as it was less intimidating than the large expanses the other two departments held.

More importantly, it held four sim rooms, and an excellent selection of non-combat programs.

Andrea stepped up to the control panel, pulled the tablet from the cradle and keyed in the program’s serial number, then slipped the computer back into place as the progress bar loaded.

It was an unfortunately common complaint among recruits about how slowly sims loaded, when everything else in the Agency was near-instantaneous.

She always felt compelled to point out that waiting between thirty seconds and two minutes was, in fact, not a long time to wait for a complete portion of a world to be generated – full environmental simulation and NPC civilians, along with combative enemies or “quest givers”. Full immersion, and fully real items in every corner of the sim – so that you drink the water, eat the food, or destroy the buildings as necessary.

The program finished loading and the door slid open. ‘Come on in,’ Andrea said as she stepped into Paris.

There was the option, of course, to shift straight to Paris, though the time difference would make it late evening and not the perfectly programmed morning of the sim. There was also the factor of control – in the sim, the NPC civilians pathed around anyone real, instead of bumping into them; and there was no chance there would be an ornery customer arguing with the barista.

It was safe, which was probably what her recruit needed at that moment.

The door slid closed behind Tamarai, who momentarily brightened as she looked up at the Eiffel Tower – for no Parisian sim was complete without the one landmark tourists expected to see – then slipped back into her more sad-neutral expression.

‘This sim was created by an agent from Auckland,’ Andrea said as she walked across the street, cars stopping and scooters easily swerving around her. ‘He is quite insular – he doesn’t like shifting around the world – but he still wanted to have some experiences, so started making these small sims, crafted around enriching a single experience, rather than simply running a sim of an entire city. They are very…touristy,’ she said, ‘so your mileage will definitely vary, so whilst they may run into stereotype, they generally shy back from offensive. The ones that have had…issues, have been marked private, and he’s been instructed to edit them before resubmitting them for public consumption.’

Tamarai raised an eyebrow. ‘I’m not sure if it’s comforting or disheartening that agents can be ignorant.’

‘It all depends how they’re socialised,’ Andrea said as she chose a table on the footpath. ‘It doesn’t matter if you have access to all the knowledge in the world – or the processing power to take it all in – if you never bother to actually reach for it.’

Tamarai nodded. ‘So I guess only one question remains.’

Andrea smiled, anticipating the question. ‘The coffee is fantastic.’ She lifted a hand, and a waiter walked over.

Tamarai looked up, smiled at the waiter, and ordered – she started in Tamil, then stopped and apologised. The waiter held up a hand and assured her quietly, then prompted her to finish her order.

She looked away for a moment, then looked back and finished the order.

Andrea gave her order, then pointed to a display of cakes in the window. ‘All those, as well.’

Once the waiter had left, Tamarai commented, ‘Good service. I’ve gotten used to people not understanding me. He’s cute, too.’

Andrea arched an eyebrow. ‘Any model that’s in the sim computer can be modded with new programming.’

Tamarai laughed, then blushed. ‘I know,’ she said. ‘I’ve helped newbies access the sexbot function. Are you suggesting that I don’t get any?’

‘Just reminding you,’ Andrea said. ‘We all need a bit of relief, now and then.’

‘Speaking from experience, Agent?’ the recruit asked as their coffee arrived.

Andrea steepled her fingers over her coffee. ‘Of course not, Recruit. I’m an agent. I’m well above those petty, base–’

Tamarai snorted, hurriedly putting her coffee down before she spilled it. ‘Stop it, Jonesy. You couldn’t pull off the emotionless agent thing if you had a week of practice!’

‘Don’t say that,’ Andrea said, after she sipped her coffee. ‘Else how will I convince my recruits to take extra shifts?’

‘You ask nicely, like you always do.’

The waiter returned, wheeling a small cart with the cakes. Tamarai picked a small, square cake off the plate. ‘Now, stop avoiding the question. If the charlatan with the potions isn’t a booty call, why do you put up with him?’

‘Crossfade?’ Andrea asked, her mind immediately conjuring the image of the man who liked to call himself a wizard. ‘He an informant.’

The recruit looked disappointed. ‘Hmm. Too bad. He’s cute.’

Raj Singh – Crossfade – was attractive. Jones was sure it could be measured empirically.

And he was attracted to her – as well as to his male presentation – and had made no real effort to hide the fact, though it never interfered with the information he was able to provide to the Agency, or with the other help that she needed. He was beautiful, he was loyal, and he was one of her very few true confidants.

And if she had any free time whatsoever, pursuing a relationship might have been more than an idle thought she had every time he walked out of her office.

There were, unfortunately, sacrifices that had to be made when trying to save the world.

‘Andrea?’ Tamarai asked after a moment.

She smiled at the recruit. ‘How did your first night go?’

Tamari shook her head. ‘I can’t do it. Please, Jonesy, don’t make me go back in there. I spent like an hour in the bathroom because I couldn’t breathe. It was a quiet night, so it didn’t matter, but the point is…what happens when it’s not a quiet night?’

‘You could have–’

Tamarai held up her hands. ‘No. Whatever you’re going to say. No. I needed to do one shift, to see if I could handle it at all, to see if it was just…butterflies after being away for so long. It wasn’t. I can’t do this.’

Andrea nodded. ‘Then consider yourself officially away from that team. Have you had any thoughts as to what you’d like to do next?’

The recruit swirled her spoon in her coffee. ‘Nothing to do with death,’ she said. ‘I just want to be away from death for a while. So no phone banks, no Dumpster runs. Some field work would be okay – but not homocides. I’m a five,’ she said, stating her field rating, ‘so I don’t even have to be supervised.’

‘Have you considered transferring to Agent Ryan’s team?’ she asked. ‘Does investigation work interest you?’

‘It does, but Agent Ryan doesn’t, and neither do his people.’ She affected a mopey expression. ‘That whole department seems like a bunch of sad sacks. And he’s the biggest–’

She stopped herself. ‘That sentence was probably going to end badly.’

‘So much of our work tends to focus on death,’ Andrea said, ‘but the Agency isn’t truly like that. On average, we do save more people than we lose. It’s just unfortunate that the Solstice tend to go for the all-or-nothing approach – if they can’t capture, they’ll kill.’

‘So what are my options, then?’

Andrea started to tick off her fingers. ‘Phone bank, combat and field monitors, drone and surveillance management, field interface, combat interface, CSI, lab testing, sim management, Court interface – but we don’t tend to run a lot of that out of this Agency.’ She looked up. ‘I do have an exceedingly boring project that would take up a few months or more, if you’re interested.’

Tamarai perked up a little. ‘Oh?’

‘When we scan in evidence or an evidence location, it’s zipped up using whatever the current compression is. Obviously, we’ve improved upon compression in the last hundred years, but we still have old cases that are using compression from when this agency was just Director Reynolds running around by himself.’

‘It’s just unzipping and zipping?’

‘You’ll have to load each piece of evidence, ensure that there’s been no integrity degradation and that the item can still integrate without issues, and mark the files you think can be sent to Central storage to clear up our servers a bit.’

The recruit smiled. ‘I think that’s just the kind of thing I can handle.’

‘Good, but if you’re bored shitless after the first thousand, come to me, and we’ll find something to break the monotony.’

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