Until Magnolia returned, there was nothing to do but study.
Curt read through all of the required departmental books – familiarising himself at least a little with the faces of those people he’d be working with. After going through each of the photos, he required the recruit-accessible versions of the files for the three department heads.
He quickly pursued the file for Combat – Agent Taylor – there was only so much you could assume from one photo. Still, Taylor looked like one of those rough-and-tumble guys who played rugby on the weekends. Big, tough. The kind of agent who could punch someone’s head from their shoulders. Red hair was a little…off-model for an agent, something to note for later, but it wasn’t a huge deviation from the norm.
Jones – head of Technical – was the opposite. Compared to Taylor’s photo, which could almost be mistaken for a mugshot, Jones’ identification photo was almost…pretty. Jones was blonde, delicate and…gentle-looking for an agent.
And dead centre between the footy-player-roughness of Taylor and the thin, nerdiness of Jones sat Director Ryan.
Whereas he could make some – probably very wrong – assumptions from the photos of Taylor and Jones, he could glean nothing from Ryan’s photo. Ryan looked like…the perfect platonic ideal of an agent. White, middle-aged, brown hair cut in a way that was just fashionable enough to be generic without being out of style.
Generic was the word. He looked…like nothing. Like white bread had a humansona.
Ryan’s file indicated a life somewhat more interesting than the bland photo. Still, a lot of detail was inaccessible – either because he was Solstice scum, or just generally wasn’t available to recruits.
He’d been born – or pulled off the assembly line, or however it worked with agents – in 1900. He’d been Field Agent for most of his career, then upgraded to interim Director a few decades ago. “Interim” apparently had a different meaning for the Agency. Now, he seemed to be doing both jobs, which didn’t seem to line up with normal Agency efficient-ness.
After the agent files, he tried to require the aide files, but only Magnolia’s appeared.
That brought back a derailed train of thought he’d had earlier in the day – it hadn’t surprised him that an aide had greeted him, but it had surprised him that it had been Combat’s aide. Maybe it had felt like a safety precaution, but with the general level of civility they were treating him with, it seemed unlikely that they felt the need for his tour guide to double as a security guard.
Now, unless there was some reason he could access the agent files but not the aide files, the cause as obvious as it was surprising: there was only one aide. Two entire departments didn’t have adjutants.
He looked through the required books again and dug for the plain org chart that Magnolia had supplied him with – both of which confirmed it: the scary-hot-scary woman in the ass-kicking boots was the only human with any kind of power around here.
‘Bad thought,’ he chided himself. He had to move away from human-first, human-only, humans-humans-humans. That bullshit was in his past.
He laid Ryan’s file on the top of the pile – interim Director, head of Field, and all alone. That didn’t – couldn’t – make any sense. You couldn’t run a goddamn fish-and-chip shop by yourself, let alone entire fucking Agency.
Maybe he could-
A knock pulled him from his research, he stood, tidied his files, then quickly moved to open the door.
Magnolia stood in the hall, wearing the same outfit as he’d seen her in earlier…but with some extra blood.
‘Yours?’ he asked, indicating to the red-stained gingham, ‘or did someone piss you off?’
A slight twitch of amusement crossed her face before she seemed to tamp it down, then turned and waved for him to follow.
A few corridors, and one elevator ride later, they were standing in a nondescript room – even non-descript by what appeared to be Agency standards. ‘We’re just giving you the Field test. It’s not the normal way we do things, but you’re not normal, so deal with it.’
She pointed to a door at the back of the room. ‘Sim room back there. Techs have got a bunch of ways of explaining it. VR room basically. Good for practice missions. More realistic targets for weapons training, though range time is still recommended.’
‘A holodeck,’ he muttered under his breath.
A tablet appeared in her hands, and after a few taps, a man appeared to her right.
She slapped the back of his head, and he gave no reaction. ‘This is a partnered exercise. Cole here is the sim partner for when you’re running it solo. He’ll give information and whatever to guide you through. Ideally, you’ll both be alive at the end. If you let him die, well, let’s just say it counts against your score.’
Curt nodded at the…quest giver, who grinned in a convincingly human way, then turned and walked through the door at the back of the room.
He hadn’t known what to expect when he stepped through the door, but it hadn’t been a nightclub.
For a moment, he wondered if they’d teleported – shifted – him across the world to somewhere where it was still night, but he looked back and saw Magnolia still standing in the bare room.
‘Come on,’ Cole called.
Curt shut the door, which sucked itself into the black wall of the club and disappeared. He took a moment to look around – it was busy, but not crowded. Music played – there was a stage for a live band, but-
Where a band would normally be was a dancing water sculpture.
‘Nymph,’ Cole said. ‘They’ve got good entertainment here.’
Fae club. That hadn’t been expected. He nodded, pulled his eyes away from the nymph, and looked to Cole. ‘What now?’
Cole lead him up to the bar, ordered two drinks, then guided him to an empty booth.
‘We’re waiting on a contact,’ the sim said. ‘I’ll get you to do a perimeter sweep. Look for anything suspicious. Take your time. Come back in ten. Keep an eye on me if you can.’ Cole lifted his drink and saluted with it, before busying himself with a phone.
Curt took the other drink – assuming it was to help him blend in and look innocuous, stood, and began a slow circle of the club.
Night clubs had never really been his thing – he’d gone with his ex a few times, but teen parenthood had cut into what would have otherwise been carefree nights that they could have spent drinking, rather than waking for midnight feeds and changing poop-stained clothes.
The patrons ignored him as he circled. It was interesting to watch them though – part of him expected to see their interactions loop, or for details to be missing if he got too close, but every overheard conversation seemed real, with details that were more than the random noises and nonsense words that background actors made on movie shoots.
He sidled up to a security door, leaned against the wall, then pretended to take a sip of his drink – he doubted it was actually alcoholic, given that this was an officially sanctioned training holodeck program, but there was no need to take any chances.
And he hadn’t had a drink since-
His hands shook, and he stumbled to the nearest table to put his drink down, lest he make a lot more shaken than even Bond would like.
Curt closed his eyes and tried to slow his breathing. He couldn’t think about Petersen. Couldn’t think about the agent laughing and forcing drink after drink down his throat. Couldn’t- Couldn’t-
This was his chance and if he fucked it up-
If he fucked up, they’d ship him back. And even if Farnshaw was right. Even if Petersen would probably just kill him outright this time, he couldn’t take the chance.
Straighten up. Fly right. Do well in this test.
‘Fucking concentrate, O’Connor.’
After a moment, he was able to get himself under some semblance of control. After another moment, he was back at the security door – a door that opened with a touch, because someone had placed tape over the locking mechanism.
He stepped out into the concrete corridor beyond – there was nothing further out of place, but this solution seemed too easy to be the only thing he was supposed to notice.
He looked at the door. Someone had planned on coming through – so it would be worth keeping an eye on it.
He required a phone, then – with some concentration that was probably unnecessary, set up a pinhole camera above the door, which sent the feed to the phone, where it automatically saved itself.
With the impromptu security system in place, he opened the door again, tore the tape strip off, and began to circle the club again.
Phone in hand, he set up several more pinhole cameras. This probably wasn’t what he was supposed to be doing, but without any guidance, being too anal retentive was better than missing a trick.
Cole didn’t look in his direction as he finished his first circuit of the club.
Halfway through his second, he spent some time hanging at the bar, sipping ice water from a highball glass, and looking for anyone that was out of place.
Everyone seemed to fit right in though – enjoying their nights to various degrees. Drinking, chatting, and-
And one pool of stillness.
He let out a long breath. He concentrated and tried to take everything into account – dancing fae, distracting outfits, people singing along badly with the music, the clink of glassware and the rush of pressurised drinks in the hoses at the bar.
For one beautiful moment, he felt like he could see everything.
Element by element, he began to disregard what he knew was irrelevant, what was safe to ignore. Almost feeling as though he was in a trance, he moved through the press of people, towards a guy sitting alone in a corner. A man, seemingly unmoved by the music or anything going on around him.
Someone about his age, with floppy hair, and a coat that either belonged to a wannabe bomber or someone who had no idea how to dress for the occasion.
Curt sat down opposite the young man – the bar table and chairs were high, giving the potential…whatever this guy was a good view of the bar and everyone in it.
‘I need you to take your hands out of your pockets,’ Curt said in a level voice. ‘And put them on the table where I can see them.’
‘Huh?’ The guy looked up, and even in the low light of the club, he could see the inhuman sheen in them. Something about fairy eyes always seemed to make them just a little brighter than every other race.
‘Hands,’ Curt said, his voice thick, scrambling to figure out what to do next. He didn’t know the protocol he was supposed to follow, he didn’t know…anything. ‘Jacket. Take it off.’
The fairy shrugged off his jacket – revealing a white dress shirt with a blue stain on it. ‘Yeah,’ the fairy said, as he put his hands on the table. ‘I know it looks like I’m covered in agent cum, but some kid ran into me with a bubblegum avalanche and, yeah, yikes.’ Red and green wings spread out behind the fairy, flapped once, then settled. ‘So…hands, your thing? Your fetish? Can I actually help you with something?’
‘Security pointed you out,’ Curt lied. ‘You’re sitting back here, not having a good time, looking like you’re gonna bomb a government building. It’s a club, man, and you’re not having fun.’
The fairy pointed to his shirt. ‘I’m about to propose to my partner, I look like shit, and I have zero time to do anything about it. It needs to be-’ He slumped. ‘I’m not going to bomb anything. Tell security to get off my ass.’
All of that..made sense. The stupid jacket to cover the stain. The mopey look. Hiding in the corner.
‘Show me the ring and I’ll get out of your hair.’
The fairy blinked. ‘That’s your tradition?’
‘Ho-how do you propose?’
‘With words, generally,’ he said, sarcasm replacing depression for a moment. ‘Now. Please. I need some space.’
Curt stood, then closed the gap between them. ‘Show me your shirt,’ he said. ‘I think this will work.’ He touched the stain, concentrated, and with a requirement, the blue disappeared. ‘There,’ he said. ‘Better?’
The fairy looked down, then grinned. ‘Thanks, Agent.’
Curt winced. ‘Recruit.’
‘Fae don’t make the distinction,’ a man said from behind him. ‘So you should get used to it.’
He turned, and – to what he realised should have been little surprise, saw Agent Ryan.
‘Sir,’ he said, trying to keep his voice neutral, respectful, as steady as he could facing an agent. He nodded over his shoulder at the fairy. ‘Was this the real test?’
Ryan lifted a hand and he felt the lurch of a shift. The club disappeared, replaced by a sterile office. There was a large dark wooden desk in front of a wall of windows, and a high-backed leather chair that was surely just there to add to the intimidation factor when the agent sat there. The only touch of welcome a small seating area with a couch and a coffee table.
But nothing personal. No…humanity.
‘It’s was an alteration of an existing sim,’ Ryan said as he moved to sit behind his desk. ‘There were several scenarios like the one you encountered.’
There was no guest chair, nowhere for him to make himself comfortable. A small way of telling him that he wasn’t welcome. With no better options, he moved to stand a few feet back from the Director’s desk, hands clasped behind his back. At least this way he looked respectful, didn’t look like a threat.
‘All similarly mundane?’ he asked to fill the air.
‘They were all low-stakes,’ Ryan confirmed. ‘Simple ways of interacting with fae, just to-’ The agent seemed to be searching for words.
‘To see if I could treat them like people, sir?’
Ryan nodded, and he wished he could read something – anything – from the agent’s expression. So far, his initial impression from Ryan’s file seemed to be panning out – Ryan was precisely what Solstice thought agents were.
But that was probably a bad thought. Probably something he should examine. But- But the man was giving him nothing to work with. Farnshaw was reserved, but even then, you could tell there was contempt behind his eyes. Ryan was more of an android than Data.
‘I’ve got a lot to learn, sir,’ he said.
‘Yes,’ Ryan said, his voice measured and even. ‘You do. I expect a lot of you, Recruit.’
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