For a single moment when she’d first put on the uniform, she’d been a different person. There’d been a rip in spacetime, showing her a world where she was competent, where she wasn’t a total loser.
In this reality, “total loser” was starting to look like an aspirational goal.
Stef stared into the bathroom mirror and tried to calculate how much longer Ryan would let her hide before he sent someone in after her to enquire if she was experiencing a medical emergency. So far, he’d given her fifteen minutes, twenty would be pushing it.
For the thirty-eighth time, she looked to the large frosted window, not quite able to convince herself that plummeting however many stories to the ground and the resultant grievous bodily harm was better than interacting with humans.
Somehow, stupidly, she hadn’t considered interacting with other people. New people. New people that she had to talk to. It was an entirely different proposition to the code monkeys – with them, they’d been operating at least near her wavelength.
A single goal, a single topic of conversation that arose naturally whenever conversation had to take place.
Here, there weren’t going to be any parameters. No guidelines. No-
She leaned her elbows on the sink, and drove both thumbs into her throat, unsure if she was trying to cut off her air or force herself to breathe.
She couldn’t draw in a breath. And everything hurt.
Seconds stretched, and self-loathing settled on her shoulders like a familiar jacket.
She dropped her hands away, then ran the tap and splashed her face.
‘Why the fuck did I think I-’
I’m so stupid. I’m so stupid.
So go home.
Sometimes I can’t tell if you’re trying to help me or goad me.
What do you need right now, Spyder?
‘God, I wish I knew.’
You can’t stay in here forever.
Stef carefully patted her face dry and looked at herself once more to make sure she looked – at least on a first or second glance – normal.
‘You’ll have to do,’ she muttered to her reflection, then walked towards the door, each of the six stalls an invitation to hide, to take shelter in shadow and just breathe until the world ended.
One slow footstep after another eventually took her out of the room. More slow steps took her the short way down the corridor, to where Ryan was leaning against the wall, waiting for her. She opened her mouth to claim bodily dysfunction, but nothing came out.
And if she forced the tiniest sound, she knew she’d be screaming.
She managed to keep almost-eye-contact with him for another second, nodded, then dropped her head to look down at her feet. ‘I just don’t– I’m not so good around people.’
‘As I remarked earlier, you seem to be outside of a lot of usual parameters, so maybe we can try something a little outside of the norm. Excuse me for a moment.’
She nodded, and expected him to walk away, but instead he just went quiet. She looked up, and his eyes had the thousand-yard stare of someone not looking at the objects in front of them.
Using his HUD?
A moment later, he stood straight. ‘We’ll try this instead,’ he said. ‘Generally, new recruits are given a general introduction to all available, off-shift colleagues, then handed over to their recruit partner for the remainder of their induction. We shall simply skip the general introduction – a new recruit alert has already been emailed, which will suffice.’
A moment later, a recruit walked around the corner. ‘Here, sir,’ the recruit announced as he walked up to Ryan. She took a quick look at him – full Field uniform, just like Ryan. He was a plain-looking, brown-haired white guy. Somewhere around her age. Probably a foot taller than her. Another stupidly tall person. Too many people were tall.
Am I supposed to say hello?
Many humans do use greetings when meeting someone for the first time.
Thankfully, Ryan saved her from any embarrassment resulting from a failure to act like a person. ‘Miss Mimosa, this is Recruit O’Connor. He’s been assigned as your partner, and he’ll continue your tour from here.’ He lifted his hand, as if to place it on her shoulder, but withdrew it before making contact, then smiled. ‘I’ll check in on you later.’
‘Okay, thanks,’ she said, trying not to stumble over her words as Ryan walked away.
Recruit O’Connor gave an awkward wave that seemed to be half-greeting, half-getting attention. ‘Hi. Need to do anything before we continue?’
She shrugged. ‘Um. No?’
He jerked a thumb over his shoulder. ‘Then we’re headed this way.’ He turned and started to walk. ‘I’m also not going to pretend I haven’t seen your file. Agent Ryan always asks that I read through before I show a new person around. So, forgive me if I go a little one-oh-one on stuff, but it doesn’t seem like you have much exposure to the fae side of the world?’
She tried to think and ground the heel of her hand into her right eye. ‘Um, maybe eighteen hours of knowing magic is real? And a bunch of those were asleep, so I don’t think they count?’
‘No problem, ask for any clarifications you need. Curt, by the way.’
‘My- My name,’ he said, confusion evident in his voice as he half-turned to look at her. ‘It’s my name?’ He stopped by a set of emergency stairs. ‘These exist,’ he said, patting the door, ‘but mostly they’re used by people who need a place to argue. Some of the best gossip comes from the recruits who stand up near the roof door to smoke and listen to everything that filters up.’
He looked at her, waiting for a response, but she wasn’t sure what she was supposed to say.
‘Okay, so Field is primarily spread out over two floors. We do have some facilities reserved on other floors – we’ve got a couple of rooms for questioning civilians on two, and we’ve got the use of all common facilities of course. But generally speaking, main operations on this floor, dorm rooms upstairs.’
‘Been there,’ she said slowly and begged her ability to fake conversation to engage. ‘I mean.’ She swallowed. ‘I was issued a dorm room when I arrived last night,’ she said, and immediately hated herself for traces of her mother’s accent in her voice.
‘Sorry,’ she said, ‘didn’t get a lot of sleep last night.’
‘Shit, yeah, sorry,’ he said. ‘My Tech operator told me some details, I don’t know everything, but I understand it was bad. They don’t usually go after civilians in large groups like that.’ He stopped walking, turned, then took two steps back from her. ‘For the sake of transparency, and because I’m not sure if Agent Ryan told you. I’m ex-Solstice. Relocated, rehabilitated, but for obvious reasons, some people don’t like to work with me.’ He leaned against the wall. ‘Agent Ryan tends to put me with anyone who had an interaction with the Solstice, as I’m better placed to answer any questions they might have.’
He took a few more steps down the hall and began to tidy a noticeboard. ‘No one ever removes the old notices,’ he commented. He pulled a piece of paper away, and it disappeared from his hand as it was dismissed, then he replaced the pushpin.
He needed her to say something.
He nodded and continued to clean up the noticeboard. ‘I…didn’t know there was another choice at the time. Saw a monster, wanted to protect the people I loved. People I thought I could trust told me what seemed to be the truth.’
He adjusted one last notice, then waved for her to follow as he continued down the hall. ‘They’re really good at compartmentalising information, Newbie. They get a good read on you, and feed whatever lever they’ve made you pull inside yourself.’
‘What’d you do?’
She watched as his shoulders lifted up in a big shrug. ‘I was just a redshirt,’ he said. ‘Honestly, I spent half my time in one of the call centres chasing down where packages and shipments had ended up.’
A small group of recruits exited a room ahead of them. One – wearing casual clothes, rather than a uniform, gave a sharp whistle and a wave. ‘Hey, new girl, you a pommy?’
The recruit and his cohorts walked up. ‘Did you go to one of those Harry-Potter-ass boarding schools?’
‘I- That would be an almost accurate description?’ she said slowly.
‘See, the thing is,’ the recruit said, ‘whenever there’s someone new, we Google them, so we know if they’re an untrustworthy traitor,’ he said, reaching forward to punch Curt in the shoulder, ‘some dipshit who was on a singing show,’ he jerked his thumb at the man behind him, ‘or apparently, some dumb pommy slut.’
Well, this is me noping out.
She turned, and walked back down the hall, ignoring the group calling after her, asking for clarifications, and demanding that she explain herself.
It’s so stupid.
Her fifteen minutes of fame, of course, it was the first thing that came up in any search on her name. A bunch of paparazzi stories, and half-blurred pictures of a teenage girl in her underwear.
‘Take the left,’ a voice behind her said. She started and turned, and saw Curt power-walking to catch up to her. ‘I need breakfast, and I assume you need air.’ He jogged around the corner, and when she caught up, he was already holding the lift open.
‘So, that was Brian,’ he said as he angrily punched the button for the ground floor. ‘I told you my tragic backstory, so let’s just say when I call him a piece of shit, you know it’s a professional opinion. He thinks he’s far more important than he is. And this..this is what he does to everyone. It’s half-hazing, half…seeing if he wants you in his coterie.’ The doors slid open. ‘He treats himself like he’s an aide, and expects everyone to do the same.’
‘Some human beings just say hello,’ she said, looking up from her shoes long enough to get a look at the lobby.
Black tile, silver accents and framed abstract art. A high-walled reception desk in the centre. A few potted plants. Perfectly anonymous, perfectly…average. Probably somewhere that had to turn away lost job seekers every day, telling them that their interview was in another building.
A pretty receptionist stood up. ‘Good morning, signing out?’
‘Hey Natalie, yes,’ Curt said and pressed his ID wallet to a tablet that the receptionist offered.
Natalie turned and offered her the tablet. ‘Hi Stephanie, welcome to the Agency.’
‘Stef,’ she corrected on autopilot, then she fumbled for her ID. The receptionist pointed to a little sensor where a selfie camera would usually be, and the screen briefly flashed with her photo as the ID registered.
‘Have a good time,’ Natalie said as she sat back down in her seat.
‘Come on, Newbie!’ Curt called from the front door.
Stef blinked as she stepped into the sunlight, then immediately turned to make sure that the building was still there; as magic buildings were wont to hide behind perception filters or switch sides of the street to keep themselves away from normal people.
The Agency, its potted plants still visible through the tinted glass, remained in place.
She tried to keep up with Curt, but she kept stopping, looking around, trying to see the city with new eyes, expecting to see things she hadn’t seen before. It was disappointingly normal – maybe all of the differences were more evident at night.
‘Hurry up, Newbie!’ he called as the light flicked from the green walk-now man to the flashing red hurry-the-hell-up man. He stopped and waited for her to catch up. ‘Stop dawdling.’
‘I wasn’t,’ she muttered after they ran across the street.
‘You’re looking for…well, for things you didn’t know existed yesterday, right?’
She looked past him, and she hoped he interpreted it as politely looking at him. ‘Um. Maybe.’
‘Here, come, sit.’ He moved to sit at an unoccupied bus stop.
She sat, wiggled, uncomfortable on the bare metal, then lifted her legs up and sat cross-legged.
‘Knowing this stuff doesn’t lift some sort of curtain off the world, where every other barista has purple skin and half of the businessmen are actually spirits. There are plenty of non-humans walking amongst us, but most of the time, they’re really hard to spot. Seeing one thing isn’t a free pass to seeing everything. It just doesn’t work that way.’
It just feels-
‘-like it should seem different. Like-’
-I should be able to see-
‘Sorry, Newbie, didn’t catch all that. It’s kind of loud out here to have a decent conversation. You want to continue, in a place where you’re guaranteed to see some fae?’ She snapped her head up to look at him, and he smiled. ‘Yeah, I thought that might get your attention, come on, I know a place.’