Stef nommed on the cookie as she stared at the treasures that surrounded her.
Her bed had quickly become a tiny nerdy dragon’s hoard. A stack of first-issue comics sat to her right, topped with six copies of Amazing Fantasy #15, each shiny and new and all hers. Spider-Man for Spyder, it was just appropriate. Beneath the wall-crawling menace sat the first outings of Batman, the X-Men, and a dozen more heroes.
And it was fun to require copies of Giant-Size X-Men #1, and slowly require it to be bigger and bigger, until the size had felt right – maybe not giant, but definitely, pleasingly oversized.
A hardcover copy of Watchman sat open and ignored across her lap as she thought of requirement after requirement.
There seemed to be no limit on the kinds of food she could require. Even if they were dishes that she only half-remembered, each tasted exactly as she wanted – which only made sense. Clothing also seemed to have a blank cheque. Each item fit perfectly – bespoke outfits in a thought.
There was a knock at her door.
‘I-DEN-TI-FY!’ she called out, modulating her voice to the cadence of a Dalek.
‘Just me, Newbie,’ came Curt’s voice.
She stared at the door, thought hard, then required it unlocked. After a moment, Curt twisted the handle and stepped in, but didn’t close the door all the way.
‘I take it you haven’t been checking your phone?’
‘Well, I already had a pizza coupon. But then I didn’t know the Agency address for delivery. Then I figured I could just require something to eat. And then I got distracted with…’ she caught the look on his face. ‘You meant something else, didn’t you?’
‘I sent you a message, I booked a meeting room, thought you might want to do some of that paperwork stuff before tomorrow?’
‘Oh, yeah!’ she said, and made a path off her bed by pushing all the comics to the side. ‘Ow, fuck, ow, how do pins and needles hurt so much?’ She stood, and tried to stamp the pain away, before bending into an almost-C-shape as her legs remembered what proper blood flow was.
‘How do you-’ he cut himself off. ‘Want to bring anything with you?’
‘Probably,’ she said. She turned, grabbed her phone, jammed it into her pocket, then retrieved Frankie from his spot on her desk. ‘Okay. This is probably all I need.’
She followed him out of the room, down a few halls, and finally into a small meeting room. The room had a round table with four chairs, a wall of windows looking down onto the street, and a magnetic whiteboard on one of the walls.
Nothing special, but perfectly serviceable. Corporate, but not unwelcoming, like the rest of the Agency.
‘I’ve got my own work to do,’ Curt said as he started to lay folders down on his side of the table. ‘But I’ve got a rough order for you to do things in, and I’m here if you get stuck.’ He slid a presentation folder onto her side of the table. The cover bore the grey circle that was the Agency logo, and the words “Module Eighteen” in white font. ‘Comms training,’ he said. ‘If we get nothing else done tonight, this is going to be of the most use to you.’ He settled into his chair, set both of his phones onto the table, then looked up at her. ‘You can sit, you don’t need an invitation.’
‘What if I’m a vampire?’ She slammed her hands onto the table. ‘Are vampires real?’ she asked, her voice an angry squeak. ‘I don’t want them to be real, they’re annoying!’
‘Er- Then you’re in luck,’ he said. ‘Some wild fae like to drink blood, but that’s more a side-effect of indulging in cannibalism than it is to mimic the lifestyles of the rich and pasty.’ He smirked. ‘I mean, are you a vampire? I think if you were in the sun any longer today you would have burst into flames.’
‘I’m just the regular nerd amount of burny,’ she said as she settled into the surprisingly comfy chair.
‘Speaking of rich,’ he said, and dug into his jacket pocket. He slid a business card across with an elaborate file address on it. ‘Your bag. Ryan didn’t shift it back, so I had the Techs grab it, it’s ready to be shifted in whenever you want. Your phone will be able to read the address. Just don’t grab it now; otherwise you’re going to have ask me really nicely to carry it back to your room.’
She looked at the card, then stared at the ceiling, half-expecting the vandalised Louis to drop from the ether. ‘…where is it now?’
‘Either storage or more likely shift suspension. Just think of it as being stuck in the transporter buffer, except the pattern’s not going to…’ he slowly trailed off, as if he’d said nothing wrong.
‘You’re a fucking Trekkie,’ she said, forcing herself to look him in the face. ‘I didn’t put it together when you did lasers versus phasers, but this- You’re a fucking Trekkie!’ She grinned, and he winced. ‘And you-’ She half-stood and lunged across the table to press her fingers against the logo of his fae phone, as he’d done to show off the lighting effect.
Just as when he’d shown her originally, it cycled through a pattern of red, blue and yellow. ‘Command, science and engineering. You even programmed your phone to do it.’ She slid off the table and back into her chair. ‘This might make talking to you easier, now that I know you can understand-’
‘I am barely fluent in nerd,’ he warned. ‘And I do prefer the original series, the colours are TOS colours, if you care to notice.’
‘So why didn’t you put command gold first?’
He reached over and tapped the Module Eighteen folder. ‘Do this, and I may even tell you who my favourite captain is.’ He smiled. ‘And keep my secret? I’ve got a reputation.’
She flipped open the module, then booted up Frankie, connected to the intranet and found the associated online component.
Across the table, Curt quietly worked on a document, occasionally stopping to check something on one of his two phones or to take a bite from a gourmet-looking burger.
She closed Frankie’s lid and required herself a bowl of pasta. ‘I’m not an expert,’ she said, ‘but doesn’t work, like, traditionally end at five or something? You’re literally working through dinner, and today didn’t seem that busy. You had time to fuck around with taking me to breakfast.’ Two plus two suddenly equalled a guilty four. ‘Or, um,’ she stared at her fork. ‘Is that why you’re working late now?’
He waved a hand, then wiped his face with a serviette. ‘No, it’s not your fault, Newbie. ‘I-’ He hesitated.
‘If the truth’s too hard,’ she said quietly, ‘tell me a version of it.’
‘It’s just one of those things that are weird to say out loud. It’s not a secret, it just feels like one, if you know what I mean.’ He tapped each of the folders in front of him. ‘I take on extra work for brownie points, it’s as simple as that.’
He lazily piled the folders on the left side of the table and pulled his burger closer. Conversation, apparently, meant he felt free to take a proper five-minute break. ‘Agent Ryan has a lot of excess work, because he performs two roles, but more importantly, because he doesn’t have an aide. He’s the reason this Agency doesn’t fall apart, but it’s obviously not easy on him.’ Curt drummed his fingers. ‘We’re not a hugely important Agency, but most directors have a small admin team. He’s entitled to that, but he just shoulders everything himself. Things would be a little easier if he had an aide, but he refuses to take one on.’
‘I keep hearing- People mentioned- Aide as in aide-de-camp?’
Curt nodded and cut a chunk of his burger away with a steak knife. ‘Most Agents have one, but not here, because Brisbane is fucking weird. Depending on the agent, they can be anything from a personal secretary to something more like a second-in-command. Mags is the latter for Agent Taylor, and Agent Jones just seems to network all of his recruits so that work gets done without a specific person being in the role.’
‘I mean what’s the-’ She let her shoulders slump. ‘That burger smells reeeeally good.’
‘Oh dear god, Newbie,’ he said, exasperated, ‘all you had to do was ask.’ He put his hand on the table, a duplicate of his burger – on an identical blue plate – appeared, and he pushed it towards her. ‘What was your question?’
‘First question,’ she said through a mouthful of burger, ‘have you tried goat’s cheese on this? Because that would just fuckin’-’ she put her free hand to her mouth and did a messy chef’s kiss. She put the burger down, and required a plate of perfect, soft goat’s cheese, then popped the top off the bun and slathered a large portion in. ‘Try,’ she said as she reassembled the burger, ‘trust.’
He raised his eyebrow, then did as he was told. ‘Your question,’ he prompted as he spread a far more reasonable portion of cheese onto the bun of his current piece of burger.
‘What’s the application process for becoming an aide? If you’re already doing the work, ipso facto, shouldn’t you apply?’
He very carefully put the cheese knife down, and as he did, his face went blank – or at least, had so little trace of emotion that she couldn’t figure out what he was thinking.
‘I did apply,’ he said, his voice strained and quiet. ‘About six months ago.’ He held up a hand, and a slim binder appeared for a moment before disappearing back into nothingness. ‘I’m working on a second application now.’
‘Why’d he reject-’
‘It was my own fault, really,’ he said quickly but looked away – for once being the person who didn’t want to make eye contact. ‘I’d only been here eight months. I was probably being arrogant to think that was long enough to prove myself.’
‘Hence the extra work?’
Curt turned back, a smile on his face, but there was something…plastic-y and false about it. ‘He did me a favour, really, by rejecting the first application. It was just a form rejection to my email, we never discussed it, so it didn’t make things awkward. I took it as a challenge, boned up on all the paperwork and policy I could. There’s Academy stuff I can do, but I don’t-’ he faltered, and the plastic smile disappeared. ‘Hey, Newbie?’
She paused at the seriousness of his tone. ‘Yeah?’
‘Agent Ryan generally partners me up with every new recruit, since I’m good at doing the show-and-tell thing. But most – okay, all of them so far – have dropped me by the end of the week. It feels weird to be bearing my soul to someone who might not be talking to me in three days. I have to look after myself, I can’t-’ He bit into the burger. ‘Saying stupid shit like this could give you blackmail material to use.’ He reached for the goat’s cheese, then spread it on the bun that covered the remainder of his burger. ‘You were right by the way. I’ve never had this before, and now I’m never going to live without it.’
She reached forward, grabbed the cheese plate back, and scooped two fingerfulls of cheese from the remains. ‘Then you’re going to need to keep me around, so you know what kind to require,’ she said, not able to look him in the face. ‘You, um-’
She sucked on her cheesy fingers, then wiped them on her pants leg. ‘You-’
She flapped her hands, unable to make the words come out, which was precisely the point.
A thought had a copy of the soundboard tablet he’d used earlier in the day. ‘This,’ she said, holding it up like she was doing a presentation to a class. ‘You did this.’
‘Oh,’ he said quietly. ‘Well, of course.’
‘I was all-’ she slapped the side of her head. ‘Yanno trapped up here.’ She stared down at the table. ‘You didn’t make fun of me.’
‘I’ve been at this Agency gig for over a year now, you’re not the first non-verbal person I’ve had to deal with. I’m sorry I used a basic interface, but I didn’t want to overwhelm you with options.’ He reached across the table, slid the cheese plate to the side, and laid a tablet down. ‘Dismiss that one,’ he said, pointing to the one in her hands. ‘Edit this interface, add whatever words or phrases you think you’ll commonly need, and then I can save it as a profile, and set up a macro for the next time you need it.’
She dismissed the duplicate tablet, then spent a few minutes adding some additional icons. After an internal struggle, she added a “Trekkie!” button, for when she felt the need to call him out, even when her thoughts and words weren’t working like they were supposed to.
‘I’d just like Agent Ryan to look at me like I’m slightly more than some shit he stepped in,’ Curt said when she handed the tablet back. ‘I know what I am, what I’ve done, I also know I’m trying,’ he said, his voice nearly cracking on the last word. ‘Please don’t tell him I’m getting a second application ready, but if you can, I don’t know, put in a good word or something after your first week, I think that would help.’
‘Sure,’ she said, smiling in his direction, but not quite able to look at him. ‘I can do that.’
‘Okay.’ He clapped his hands together. ‘Food. Then finish that module. That’s my goal for tonight, and I’m piking out at nine-forty-five. Training starts at seven tomorrow morning, I’ll come get you, but please be up.’
‘I have to do something at seven in the morning?’ she asked, her voice flat.
‘So that’s why you get an early night,’ he said. ‘Logical, right? Sooner you finish here, sooner you can go to sleep.’