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Stef looked back at the brick wall, sure of three things: First, that the sound of flesh against flesh was her buzz cut opponent slapping himself in the head as he sat atop the wall. Second, she wasn’t the ruler of the internets.
Third, the volcano-slash-agent was probably strong enough to push the wall down on her head and leave her as some sort of meaty hacker pancake.
A delayed fourth thought slowly crawled into her brain, telling her that she couldn’t stay behind the wall forever – one way or another, she had to receive judgement for her maybe-brilliant method of fulfilling the task.
Beside her, the buzz cut slid down his wall, then jogged back towards Ryan and Taylor.
She placed one hand on the cool brick and tried to suck out some of its strength, then settled her face into a neutral-as-masonry expression and crossed back to the starting side to face both agents, and the buzz cut.
Ryan’s face was unreadable – though amused if she had to guess. Her opponent had his head hung, her method of approaching the test seemingly having caused his brain to reset.
She turned to Taylor. Vesuvius was about to blow.
‘Was that satisfactory?’ He gave her no reply. ‘You never said to go over, just to get to the other side. Was it–’
He growled, and she shut her mouth.
Ryan turned to look at Taylor, and the larger agent turned and left without another word.
Confused and desperately hoping that Taylor wasn’t going to get a bazooka, she focussed on Ryan. ‘Was that a pass or not?’
‘A pass,’ Ryan confirmed as he walked over to her. ‘Though,’ he said, dropping his voice, ‘my suggestion would be to give Agent Taylor a wide berth from now on.’
‘I just asked for clarification.’
‘You acted outside of expected parameters.’
She sighed. ‘Um–’
‘Trust me, Miss Mimosa – I’ve already noticed. “Outside parameters” seems to be normal for you.’
She smirked. ‘I think there was a compliment somewhere in there.’
He looked up so that he could address the buzz cut as well. ‘The next test is through those doors,’ he said, pointing to the far end of the room.
She took a step closer to him. ‘Please tell me you’re not locking me and the Defence Academy dropout in a room with knives and we have to fight for the honour of being accepted?’
He gave her another strange look, as if he couldn’t quite believe…well, her. She wondered if it was too late to toss a “sir” onto the end of her last sentence when he spoke again.
‘Agent Jones is administering the next test, and he’s already impressed with the work that he’s seen so far.’
She hurriedly collated information. ‘IT right? Nerd test?’
‘Something far more suited to your talents than this was in any case,’ Ryan said, then pointed, indicating to the buzz cut who was already moving into the next room.
She hurried to catch up, catching her arm on the door frame as she jogged through the door, realising that by not-quite-running ten feet, she was already feeling weirdly winded.
The next room was much smaller, only containing three desks. Two desks held desktop computers, and the third had assumably-Agent-Jones leaning against it. Like Ryan, he was tall; but the same type of oh-shit-I-was-gaming-and-forgot-to-eat skinny that she was.
The long, long blond ponytail was unexpected – Ryan’s hair was almost a picture-perfect generic business cut; Taylor’s hair gave off distinct soldier vibes; the anime-pretty-boy-ponytail was throwing her for a slight loop.
‘Kayden,’ probably-Agent-Jones said, addressing the buzzcut, ‘take the computer on the left please.’ Jones pointed at her. ‘And if you could come here, please.’
‘Agent Jones I presume?’ she asked, trying not to sound awkward as two chairs appeared next to the empty proctor’s desk. Jones took the one behind, and she slid into the one at the front.
Jones gave an easy smile, unnaturally bright green eyes glittering at her from behind glasses. ‘You can probably just skip to calling me Jonesy, most of the nerds in this building do.’ He laid a tablet on the desk in front of them, and the first page of notes on Dorian’s code lay open.
‘I’m impressed,’ he said. ‘For largely working without context, you made significant headway.’
She stared down at her hands. ‘It honestly felt like invisible Tetris most of the time. And the notes, I apologise for being, um, kinda…I mean, some of the copy-pasted stuff was done when I was sleep-deprived, but the stuff from last night, um, probably not my best work.’
‘Given the circumstances, it’s completely understandable.’ Jones pulled the tablet back, then flicked through to a photo of a page of nigh-unintelligible scrawl she’d included – reluctantly – for the sake of completeness. ‘As far as I can tell, you’ve had no formal training. No university or-’
Stef focussed on the table in front of her, letting the white laminate fill her entire world. ‘Yeah, my A-levels were a disgrace that could be seen from Mars, so I bowed out of formal education.’ She tilted her head to the side, hoping some of the residual shame would leak out. ‘It amazing what can be learned online though. And it’s just code. I like to tinker. I like to make it make sense.’
Jones slid the tablet into view, the page of her notes replaced with a full-screen smiley face emoji. ‘I’m not even making you take this test, Recruit, I’m taking the work you submitted last night as your portfolio.’
She lifted her head a little, unable to look the agent in the face, but enough to see that he was wearing a Portal shirt under his lab coat. ‘So I’m in?’
‘You were personally offered a position in this Agency by Director Ryan, I can think of few examples where a headhunted candidate didn’t end up placing somewhere within an Agency after being brought in by an agent, let alone its director.’
‘I wasn’t exactly headhunted,’ she said, then laced her fingers together to stop herself from tapping out the Fibonacci sequence. ‘I was kind of- Collateral damage isn’t the right phrase. A bonus gift with purchase?’
‘I think you’ll be fine, just one more test, then you’re through.’
Stef twisted to look at Kayden. ‘What about him? Don’t we have to go through at the same time?’
‘Ah,’ Jones said, then tapped the tablet, the emoji being replaced with a browser history. ‘Well, he’s just browsing YouTube, so I’m happy to send both of you through, I’ve seen what I need to see.’ Jones stood, and Stef rose to join him. ‘Kayden,’ Jones said, ‘come on, this way.’
Stef followed Jones to the door at the back of the room, which he opened. ‘Good luck,’ he whispered as she passed through.
The door let them into a short, dark hall, which opened up into the largest room yet – a room that- A room that-
What the partial and entire fuck.
The floor beneath her feet was thick, grey-speckled linoleum, anonymous and nothing to think about. A few feet ahead, however, it started to blend with a darker grey, then seamlessly became ugly, pitted parking lot concrete.
A parking lot of an entire warehouse. A warehouse, contained within the room she was in. A warehouse, beneath a night sky that was far too real to be just a laser projection.
‘Ok- Maybe-’ She finally saw Ryan. ‘Sky. Explain. Please. Projection? Super-duper-HD screen?’
‘Well, it is a simulation,’ Ryan said. ‘I can explain its mechanics later on, should you wish.’
‘What do we have to do here?’ Kayden asked, his voice sharp enough to break her from her wonderment.
‘This building is split into two halves,’ Ryan said. ‘So that you can’t interfere or influence the test results of the other candidate. In each half, there is a creature, I expect you to consider the situation and take appropriate action.’ Ryan turned and walked to a small table, where two small handguns lay. ‘These aren’t live, they fire simulation rounds. You can still hurt yourself, but it’s more akin to a pellet gun.’
‘Disappointing,’ Kayden commented, grabbed his gun, then headed towards the right-hand entrance of the warehouse.
The agent turned to her and handed her the gun, pushing it into her loose grip. He smiled at her and pointed to the warehouse.
She exhaled a long breath, then made her way across to the left-hand entrance. The door wasn’t locked, and it easily swung open when she pushed on it. She wished she had a holster, but one didn’t appear, so she awkwardly tucked the gun into her waistband – yet another thing they made look easier on television. Television was evil.
The building was lit well, though all of the pipes and large metal containers reduced the effective visibility – though would make for a cool jumping-puzzle level design.
There could be anything waiting in the dark. Ghosts, mermaids, vampires, werebunnies. Hopefully not vampires, just so she didn’t have to make it a personal vendetta to exterminate every single velvet-wearing emo one of them.
Laughter rang through the room – it wasn’t a particularly evil laugh, but at the same time, it was vaguely unnerving. Not human. The voice behind it was too melodic, too modulated. That erased the possibility that they were using existing recruits in sheets to jump out and say “boo”.
Gunshots broke through the relative silence of the building – despite the cosplay-pellet-gun that Ryan had claimed it to be, the noise was that of something far more real – and the fact that she could hear it was also strange.
Ryan had specifically said that the building was halved so that they couldn’t interfere – and while there was probably a barrier wall preventing them from running into each other, noise was still an influence – whatever was on Kayden’s side was apparently enough to get the impatient buzz cut shooting.
What kind of “enough” was the question dancing in her mind – scary enough, angry enough, violent enough – any could have provoked Kayden into firing into the darkness.
And it meant – if the tests were identical, which they should be – that she should be prepared to shoot.
A dark, fuzzy shape ran across some pipes and jumped down behind a metal shipping crate.
Stef heard a shout from across the divide and more firing, but she fought the urge to reach for her own weapon. Assessing the situation meant having all the knowledge before making a move.
It didn’t mean shoot first and ask questions later. There might be girlish screaming and a mad fumble for a gun, but that didn’t–
Dark, glittering eyes stared at her from a pool of shadow. Her mind went blank. The shape laughed again. Up close, the laughter was unsettling – it was the exact kind of laughter you didn’t want to hear coming from a dark alley at night.
No information. No backup. No frame of reference. ‘My name is Spyder. I–’
It lunged at her.
The fuzzy shape with the glittering eyes knocked her to the ground.
She focussed on the creature. Its hair made him look like a Muppet reject. The black leather he wore was sprinkled with small pieces of glass – sewn in as decoration, rather than the evidence of a defenestration. His face was wrinkled, like an apple left in the sun.
‘I’m–’ she began, after she wheezed a breath in.
It took a swipe at her, his long fingernails cutting into her shirt, though not deep enough to draw blood. ‘Intruding. Intruding! Did you have a key? Do you know me?’ His voice was wild, bad-tempered, raising and falling like the roar of a crowd.
‘Didn’t need a key. Had permission.’
‘You’re not nice; have to pay the price. Have to pay the penalty, you shall see.’
‘Please stop with the stupid rhymes.’
A small fist punched her in the face, which slammed her head back into the concrete. ‘Intruding, brooding girl. Bad!’
You forgot mad.
It jumped onto her middle, and that time, sharp shoes scraped her stomach and only dug in further when she tried to move away. She screamed in pain. It was smaller than a human man – a rough guess placed it at about two-thirds of a textbook son of Adam – and much lighter than his size betrayed, but it was still an uncomfortable experience.
‘Should make you a statue – like that, will you? Put you in a cave, be your grave? Always watching, never moving – what you get for intruding.’
‘Unless,’ she said through gritted teeth, ‘you have some biological imperative that will kill you unless you continue, quit with the rhymes!’
Assess the fucking situation.
I wanna shoot the annoying thing.
I don’t think so.
I have no desire to be a hacker kebab.
‘What are you?’ she asked haltingly, unable to get a real breath.
‘Bob, Bob, Bob – not a Bob, hob.’ He looked down at her and licked his lips.
She slowly slid her hand to her side, wondering if she could get the gun before it struck.
If it strikes.
‘Hob. Like a brownie? Household spirit?’
‘Kitties and tigers.’ He jumped off her and laughed again. ‘Kitties and tigers. Guess which I am?’
‘This is your home?’
His dark eyes showed no emotion – at least none that she could recognise – as he stared down at her. ‘And my meal.’
Aren’t I supposed to have some sort of chocolate to offer? Isn’t that how it’s supposed to go when you meet a monster?
You haven’t been paying attention to your own diet. You are made of chocolate, and you bleed coffee. You’re a walking, talking mocha.
I hate it when you’re right.
I’m always right.
‘This is so messed up.’ She looked up at the hob and steadied her expression. ‘What do you eat when you can’t get hacker?’
The hob snarled, then rocked back on his heels and pouted. ‘Garbage.’
She snorted. ‘That explains the smell.’
He growled and jumped straight up, grabbed the closest hanging pipe, and proceeded to hang upside down, bat-like. ‘I like garbage.’ He fingered his jacket, the glass shining in the weak fluorescent light. ‘I like recycling.’
‘Was just doing what I was told to do. Have you attacked any civilians?’ The hob swung slowly from side to side, then shook his head. ‘Actively working for anyone…evil?’ Another shuffle and head shake. ‘Affiliated with the Solstice?’ The anger on his face gave her the answer for that one.
She slowly stood. ‘I deem you not a threat.’
The hob gave another high-pitched laugh. ‘And you think that makes all the difference?’
She looked around. ‘Yes?’ The hob swung silently, a quest NPC with nothing more to say. She shrugged, backed away, then headed for the door.
Part of expected the hob to attack her from behind – a last-minute twist, but with each step, it seemed less and less likely – it took a bit of extrapolation, and a good bucket of assumptions, but it wasn’t hard to imagine that this was an everyday occurrence for Ryan and his Men in Black.
If you didn’t know anything – or knew just little enough to be dangerously uninformed, it was surely easy to call for help with every shadow and howl, without realising that some of those shadows were just stinky, overgrown brownies with no fashion sense.
She hoped she’d made the right call, and headed for the exit.
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