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The car ride wasn’t long enough to dig through all the phone’s features and native apps – it was, however, long enough to discover “Vox”. The app seemed to the Agency’s own version of Slack or Discord – and invites to a dozen servers waited for her. Along with the invites, there were several long PMs from Jones, pointing her to several “n00b guides” and places on the Agency intranet she should check out.
Curt pulled the car over next to the mansion’s impressive wrought iron gates and turned off the engine. ‘Gray knows we’re coming, so we don’t need to be discreet, but I wanted to go over a few things first. Learning opportunities, you know. Four-two isn’t going to get you very far, so you’ve got to listen to me until you get a better grip on the world, okay?’ He tapped his fingers on the steering wheel. ‘This is real life, Newbie, so if at any point I tell you to do something. If I tell you to stay in the car, or I tell you to run, I want you to do it. I won’t give you any bullshit orders, and in return, you’ll have a better chance at staying alive, okay?’
She stared at the mansion through the bars of the gate, one question forming in her mind. ‘All–’ She shut her mouth.
The words were too hard to say out loud. Too- She swallowed. She had to know. It was-
Just tell me all the bodies are gone. Just tell me all the bodies are gone. Just tell me all the–
‘–bodies are gone.’ The words slipped out, small and quiet.
‘Yeah, Newbie,’ he said, his voice gentle. ‘A clean-up team went in after Magnolia’s team cleared out. There’ll be no sign of what happened last night.’
She wanted to thank him for allaying that worry, but- He’d been one of them. At some point he’d been willing to-
‘Do you promise that you never did anything like that?’
‘I already told you what I did, didn’t I?’
She dug her nails into her palms. ‘Yeah, but lying is really easy.’
He stared straight ahead, his hands gripping the wheel.
‘I freely admit that there’s a disconnect between reality and what the Solstice do,’ he said. ‘But there’s another whole level of dissociation between–’ He paused for a moment, and rubbed the back of his neck with one hand. ‘Hunting down things that look like they crawled out of a nightmare is one thing, but it’s another to gun down a room full of human civilians. That’s extreme, even for the Solstice.’
‘Lucky me,’ she said, trying not to choke on the words. ‘I got to see something unusual.’
‘You’re damn lucky,’ he said. ‘I know we had a quick response last night, but what I read in the report- Either, either you’re naturally lucky, or you just used up all the good luck you’re ever going to have.’
‘It’s definitely not the first,’ she muttered.
‘I know what I am,’ Curt said after a minute. ‘I don’t forget it. And Agent Ryan knows what I am. He doesn’t trust me, per se, but he trusts my behaviour, I guess you could say. He trusts me enough to let me shepherd around new recruits, so that should tell you I’m some degree of safe. I never- I hope that’s enough. You seem to hold him in some regard already, so just treat me like he does, and things should be fine. I’m just a resource to be used, Newbie. And even with all that, I am still less of an asshole than Brian.’
‘Should- Should I expect the slut-shaming to continue?’
‘Like I told you at breakfast, I’m a much bigger target. There are perks to having me as a partner. And I’ll try and be gentle where I can. A lot of the other prefer trial by fire, and I’d bet ten bucks you’d be on a dumpster run right now, breathing in-’ He stopped himself. ‘Really disgusting smells,’ he said after a moment.
‘What the fuck is a dumpster run?’
‘How about we talk about that next week?’ He offered his hand for a handshake. ‘Are we good, good enough anyway?’
She stared at his hand. Touch, on top of conversation, was asking too much. She gave him a wobbly thumbs-up. ‘I guess? Th-thanks for the honesty. And if Ryan trusts you, or “trusts you enough”,’ she said, putting air quotes around the words. ‘Then I can too.’
‘Okay. Okay. Good. Let’s see what’s next. Okay. Uniform. Good. Phone.’ He pulled a phone from his pocket. A different one to the one he’d been using in the restaurant – this one matched the phone she’d required. He tapped at it, and a push notification appeared – his name next to a profile icon, and the text of the message: a single smiley emoji.
The profile icon, like the one she’d seen on her own phone, was the boring ID photo – which either meant that he hadn’t bothered to change his, or because these were work phones, you weren’t allowed to change the icon. Something to ask later, or to look for in Jonesy’s n00b guides.
‘You-’ she swallowed. ‘Your other phone, is that for personal stuff? But- You said you were meeting a contact, shouldn’t that have-’ Maybe it was something she wasn’t supposed to notice. Maybe it wasn’t polite to ask. But- But if he was ex-Solstice than doing things that looked suspicious were- Maybe-
‘That’s kind of observant,’ he said, ‘I figured you were focused on the food and the fae.’ He leaned towards his window to give himself the angle to pull the other phone from his front pocket. ‘Technically my personal phone,’ he said, ‘sometimes I use it for Agency-related communication because the default required phone isn’t on the Fairyland cellular network.’ He flipped over the phone and ran his finger over the logo on the centre of the phone’s back, which ran through a pattern of red, blue and yellow before settling back to silver. ‘And I don’t do enough work in Faerie to justify getting one of the Agency phones that do have a Fairyland sim.’
Her gaze followed his hand as he put his fae phone back in his pocket. ‘I- I don’t- I haven’t had a lot of time to- I’m not sure what I’ve been imagining Fairyland to be like, but I’m guessing- You said-’ She shut her mouth, and tried to form even half of a proper sentence.
Curt filled the silence after a long moment. ‘Most recruits get caught a little off-guard when they realise that Faerie has more advanced tech than Earth does. You think of Tinkerbell or whatever, little flying, sparkly, magical things. It’s not going to be your first instinct to know that our broadband speeds may as well be dial-up or telegraph. It’s lasers versus phasers, no comparison.’
‘So,’ she said slowly, ‘there’s an entire dimension of memes I don’t know about?’
He gave a short. ‘That’s your first concern? Agent Jones will be able to assist you there, I’m sure. Back on topic. You’re in you’re uniform, you’ve got your phone, but you don’t have a headset.’ He turned his head, and a small matte black headset appeared, rectangular and a couple of inches long – small enough not to be obnoxious, but large enough to probably have more functions than a simple earbud.
‘When we’re done here, I’ll set up a meeting room and let you go through the communications training module. The module’s not long and has the added advantage of setting a few default requirements, so don’t worry about it for now, but be aware of it for the future. You’ll also probably get your operator assigned this afternoon.’ He smiled. ‘Your first couple of days are going to be a lot of this, a lof of just…set up.’
‘You’ll get a Tech recruit assigned to you, so that whenever you’re on assignment, you have-’
‘A guy in a chair,’ she said, ‘like superheroes get.’
‘That, ha,’ he lifted his hand and pointed to his earpiece. ‘That is exactly the explanation my operator told me to give you. Raz says hi by the way.’ He tilted his head. ‘This model has a camera, so you can wave if you want.’
She awkwardly waved towards the headset.
More people. Definitely at least one more person she was going to have to talk to for more than a couple of sentences. Interaction was…exhausting. Pretending to be normal around was already presenting its bill, demanding that she sleep for eighteen to twenty hours to get her energy back.
Everything was tiring, and there was still so much to do.
Is it too late to quit?
Another push notification appeared on her phone – a friend request Raz. Unlike both her and Curt – had customised his profile picture – and the distinctive face of Razputin Aquato stared out from the picture.
‘Pyschonauts,’ she said approvingly, loud enough for Curt’s headset to pick it up. ‘Excellent.’
Curt opened his door and stepped out. ‘Come on, Newbie. I’ll be nice, I won’t make you lead. We get to skip a lot of steps here because we know this is a safe location. If we weren’t sure, we’d get Tech to do drone reconnaissance first. All we have to do is knock.’
‘No,’ she said as she followed him towards the gates. ‘All we have to do is buzz at the gate, wait for Dorian to finish whatever he’s doing, decide if he’s going to use his security app or walk to a monitor. And hope he doesn’t get distracted by something along the way.’ She stopped walking as Curt turned to face her, an incredulous look on his face. ‘He…doesn’t rush,’ she said. ‘We’d probably have better luck if some of the staff were here, but given last night, I would think- I mean- He probably gave everyone the day off.’
Curt buzzed at the gate, then adjusted his jacket as he waited for a response.
‘You’ll learn procedure later,’ he said, ‘but I’ll ask anyway, just to gauge where your head’s at. If he doesn’t answer in a reasonable amount of time, what do you think we do?’
‘I’m assuming you want me not to say “we give up and go home”.’
Curt looked down at her. ‘If you think the right answer is “give up”, then tell me, and we work from there.’
She stared down at her dirty sneakers. ‘It’s got to be highly contextual, right? Here, we’d, make an appointment or something, because Dorian’s on friendly terms with the Agency. If it’s someone less friendly, or- I dunno. There’s got to be times when we throw our weight around, right?’
‘Not bad for a start, Newbie.’
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