The Tech department seemed so much more full of life than the Field floor.
Large, flat-panel monitors streamed memes and videos. There were the standard emergency diagrams and such, but they were drowned out by schedules of a dozen different MMOs and P&P RPGs.
Stef grimaced as she bumped into Curt.
Warn me before stopping, next time.
He pushed open a door but made a shushing motion.
‘This is the phone bank,’ he said, stepping aside to let her see a room with seven recruits at large desks, each containing at least three screens. ‘Some people can call us directly, but we also get a lot of triple-zero calls routed through to us. Things that the regular emergency services can’t deal with.’
She watched as one recruit constructed miniature siege weaponry. ‘It doesn’t seem that busy.’
‘Don’t jinx it,’ he said. ‘It means we’re having a good day.’
He closed the door, and they continued on. He pointed out four different common rooms, the comics library of awesomeness, and a few unoccupied laboratories.
‘Where’s the CSI stuff?’
‘They have their own floor.’ He pointed at the door to Jones’s lab. ‘Okay, here we are.’ He knocked, and Jones called for them to come in.
The lab was the same as the day before – long metal workbenches on all four walls, computers and equipment lined up neatly, and the occasional folder of information lying open, waiting to be worked on.
Jones wore a heavy-duty headset, and she could hear panicked and dying screams filtering through. On the screen in front of the agent, people flailed and ran, their bodies on fire. Some made it further than others, but one by one, they fell.
‘I swear,’ he said, ‘if we wipe again, I’m putting you all on corpse duty for a month.’ He dumped the headset onto the desk, quickly typed in a /dance command for his character, then spun to face them. ‘Recruits, what can I do for you?’
‘Agent,’ Curt said with a nod. ‘I thought you would make an introduction to Screen.’
‘Sure thing,’ Jones said, straightening his Portal T-shirt. His face took on the thousand-yard stare that meant an agent was using their HUD. ‘She’s in the library at the moment, I’ve sent her a PM.’
‘We walked past the library, though,’ she said, ‘there was no one in it.’
‘Not our library,’ Jones said. He fixed his gaze on Curt. ‘Haven’t you showed her anything fun yet?’
‘I haven’t had that much time to work with, Agent,’ Curt said. ‘I was trying to get her through the basics first.’
‘I’ll leave you to explain Lost and Found, that’s always fun,’ Jones said, then turned to her. ‘We have our own library here. Feel free to come up during your free time. But that’s just our little sanctuary. The Agency has a library of its own – one library for all agencies as a whole. You can’t go through to other agencies without permission or an access card, though, so don’t think of trying to walk to Europe. The library itself covers several square miles. Every recruit-accessible file is there, as well as a lot of fae literature.’
Her jaw dropped. ‘…So basically what you’re saying is there’s a physical manifestation of L-Space through a door just down the hall?’
Jones leaned closer. ‘Oook.’
She spun and took three steps towards the door.
She turned back towards Curt. ‘But – but!’
He tapped his foot. ‘Work first. Fun later.’
‘It’s not impressive behaviour to run off while an agent is talking to you.’
Impressive. She had to impress Ryan. She had to prove she was worth taking a chance on. She swallowed and felt the excitement in her brain calm to manageable levels. She pouted and dragged her feet as she walked back to the bench. ‘Sorry.’
‘For my two cents, I prefer mixing work with play.’ Jones jerked a thumb over his shoulder.
‘Screen’s on her way if you want to meet her halfway, Curt knows where the library is.’
‘What time does the library close?’
‘What would be the point of a closing time?’
‘Come on, Newbie.’
She followed Curt from the room. ‘Why didn’t you expound on the library?’
He stopped and sighed. ‘Cause I rightfully assumed you would do this?’
She pouted. ‘What other cool stuff are you hiding?’
‘Hold out your hand.’
‘Do you want to see something cool or not?’
She gingerly lifted her hand and held it out, palm up.
He touched a finger lightly against her palm. ‘This is lost property.’
The world warped sideways like a shift, but instead of appearing somewhere else in the Agency, there was just darkness.
Fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck!
When he’d handed her the business card that represented her overnight bag being held in suspension, she’d imagined-
She’d thought of her bag, floating in a dark space, waiting to be fully integrated back into the world.
‘Is that where I am?’
Words. She could speak and be heard. That meant wherever she was, she had a mouth, and ears at the least.
She slowly took an inventory. Feet. Legs. Arms. Hands. Head.
‘Come on, feet.’
She took a step forward into the darkness, and there was a loud, dull click from somewhere above her. After a moment, rows of lights sprang to life, illuminating the shelves and racks of seemingly endless storage space.
She took a step forward from the shelves, and more lights came on. Dust swirled as she took tentative steps through the…archive area, or warehouse, or wherever she was.
‘Does that count as cool?’ Curt asked as he stepped up beside her.
She spun towards him. ‘What the hell did you do? Where the hell are we?’
‘Don’t worry. We’re still in the Agency. This is the Lost and Found for Brisbane and its outposts.’ He clapped his hands to his chest. ‘This is lost property.’ He disappeared, then reappeared a few feet behind, in a Curt-sized alcove of the storage shelf. ‘It’s just a building macro, nothing to be scared of. There’s a ton of automated stuff that the building does. This is just one you can purposely invoke.’
She required a coffee cup and held it aloft. ‘This is lost property.’
There was a tingling sensation as the cup disappeared from her hand. He pointed, and she saw it on the shelf.
‘Come on,’ he said. ‘Now we’ll need to sign out.’
‘All self-propelled lost property must sign out,’ a man’s voice said, ringing against the half-empty shelves.
A clipboard was shoved at her before she had time to take in the man’s appearance. She signed her name and looked at him.
He was old. Old-man old. Barely taller than her, and grey, shortly-cut hair that made her think she was looking at an eighty-year-old accountant.
‘Um, hi,’ she said as she handed the clipboard back.
He grunted in reply.
‘Come on, Newbie.’
She followed Curt out of the room, past a tiny office containing a desk, a chair, and a television.
‘Is he an agent, or is that the job you get as an old recruit?’
‘Agent, general staff like Natalie, he doesn’t go on missions.’
‘Why is he old?’
‘Because he is?’ he said as he pressed the button for the lift.
‘Ryan doesn’t look his age.’
‘Applebaum is probably twice as old as Ryan,’ he said as they stepped into the lift, ‘if what I’ve heard is true. He’s apparently one of the first-generation agents. This is pretty much retirement for him, a job that needs to be done but has very little responsibility.’
She pulled one of the leftover chocolate stars from her pocket and nommed on it as they stepped back out onto the tech floor.
‘I hope you appreciate this waste of time,’ he said.
‘I do, trust me, I do.’
She saw stick figures and ground to a halt. She turned towards the screen and stared at the new xkcd update. It faded, segueing into Kate Beaton.
‘Bring it back; bring it back!’
‘It’s a touchscreen,’ a voice said. ‘Just swipe it.’
She looked to the side and saw a cuddly-looking tech recruit in a purple dress, with purple hair. The recruit reached up and swiped on the screen, bringing the comic back.
‘And what about the alt text?’
She tapped the screen twice, and the text appeared. She snorted, then tapped it again and let it disappear.
‘So if you’re here,’ the tech said, ‘you must have approved of my file.’ She stuck her hand out. ‘I’m Screen.’
She shook the offered hand. ‘Stef.’
Screen gave her an appraising look. ‘I’ve got some questions of my own, if that’s okay, I like to know the people I’m working with. ‘
She hesitated. So much of the last few days had been…tests had been judging various aspects of her self, her personality, her worth. This should be-
‘Cookies or pie?’
The question came out of nowhere, and she mentally replayed the last few seconds to make sure she’d heard Screen right.
‘Cookies or pie?’ Screen lifted what had to be freshly-required flashcards, each showing an illustration. ‘Cookies or pie. We deal a lot with bad days, so we have to know what baked goods to comfort you with, or bribe you with if it comes to that.’
‘Cookies,’ she said, happy that the first test had been so easy to pass.
‘Pie myself,’ Screen said. ‘And if you need to bribe me, do something fancy with the crust.’
‘Done. Next question.’
‘Are you affiliated with any Courts, Sins or Virtues?’
Curt cut in and shook his head. ‘She’s brand new, we haven’t even covered the Court basics.’
‘Fair. I thought as much from your file,’ Screen said and held up a tablet. Open was the file of “Recruit Mimosa”, a person she was still trying to reconcile as being her, and not just someone who existed on paper.
Screen’s copy of her file had digital notes scrawled with a stylus, laid over in an almost iridescent purple.
I’m sensing a theme with this recruit.
‘It’s always good to check,’ Screen continued. ‘Some people have, say, one fae parent that they get estranged from, then grow up mostly human, but may still have Local Court or Major Court affiliations.’
She turned slightly towards Curt. ‘Is this what we’re going to go over in our teach newbie session tonight? ‘
‘Yeah, we can do that.’
‘Personal god?’ Screen asked.
This one, at least, was easy. ‘Turing.’
Screen grinned. ‘Excellent.’ She pulled out her phone, typed a few things, then nodded. ‘Okay, you should be getting-‘
She felt her phone buzz, and she pulled it from her pocket.
‘-notifications,’ Screen continued. ‘I’ve added you to my friends list, the group chat for the people I operate for, and a couple of other things. Get to it in your own time. You’re going to mostly be Shift A, right?’
She blinked, then pointed at Curt. ‘That seems like a him question.’
‘Yeah, we do find Agent C to be pretty useful. He’s cool by association. It would be nice if he showed any sort of nerd aptitude though.’
‘I am,’ Curt said, mock-offended, ‘standing right here.’
‘Agent C?’ she echoed.
‘When Raz first met him, he thought he was an agent because he’ s so… ‘ Screen wiped a hand over her face, then pouted the most intensely-trying-to-be-serious face she’d seen outside of an anime. ‘So, so, serious.’ She dropped the expression. ‘But Raz thinks he’s cool, so we allow cool by association.’
‘Still right here.’
Screen ignored Curt, and looked her up and down. ‘I think you’ll fit in here just fine, new meat.’
‘I hope so,’ she said, then winced as she realised she’d said it out loud.
‘I wouldn’t want to be anywhere else,’ Screen said. ‘If you find your space here, it’ll be like that for you too. We’re the shit Agency, you’ll hear Clarke say that often enough. If you can ignore how we fare in the metrics compared to other Agencies in our categories, you’ll have a great time.’
‘What’s that line about lies and damned lies?’
‘Exactly,’ Screen said, ‘and Clarke’s a dickhead anyway.’ Her phone buzzed, and she grinned. ‘If you two will excuse me, I have to liaise with the Combat Division.’
She watched the tech walk towards the elevator. ‘Ryan, I think Ryan, maybe it was Jonesy, said I might get loaned to Tech once in a while cause I have a giant brain. Do other people-’
Curt snorted, then immediately covered it with a fake cough. ‘Sorry, sorry, Newbie, yes, that’s an entirely valid question. But Screen is Magnolia’s-’ he paused for a brief second. ‘Bestie almost seems like too soft of a word to use with Mags, but they’re best friends.’
‘Oh.’ Apparently spiky and cuddly was sometimes a combination that worked. Opposites attracted, after all.
Curt stared at his phone for a bit. ‘You’ve got a few hours to do whatever, then we can pick up with stupid newbie questions again tonight.’
She slapped her head. ‘Wait, no, I can’t do tonight. Thing with Ryan. Tomorrow?’ She shuffled her feet. ‘But yeah, if I’ve got some time off, I need to head home for a bit, I got a rent reminder text, and there are at least three packages that my landlord has signed for that I need to grab.’ She looked down at her suit. ‘Should I go incognito, so I don’t run into a Solstice on the bus?’
‘Bus?’ he repeated. ‘From the way you were dissing my car- And aren’t there fancy rideshares that plebs don’t know about that you can use?’ he said, the teasing tone so obvious in his voice that she didn’t have a chance to panic over his words.
‘I grew up rich,’ she said, ‘I’m not rich now. The bus is cheap. I only take rideshares when I’ve bought too much shit that I can’t carry on my own, and that’s rare because I order most of my crap online. So, like, a convention day when I fail to keep to budget.’
He ran a hand through his hair. ‘You don’t have to catch a freaking bus, Newbie, I’ll drive you.’ He turned towards the elevator and waved at her to follow. ‘Where do you live?’ He handed over his Agency phone. ‘Program it into the GPS. Save it as a fave if you think you’ll need frequent trips.’
She carefully typed in the address for her building into the navigation app – the colour and styling telling her that it was another native Agency app, and not just a skin over a standard maps app. She stared at the option to star it, but decided against it – he was being nice because she was new, there was only so many favours she could expect.
They stepped out of the lift into a parking garage – there were a dozen anonymous black sedans – perfectly men-in-black-ish cars. Several sports cars with various degrees of customisation, a few older classics obviously in the middle of loving, personal restoration, and in the far back, a large, concreted-off section.
She pointed. ‘Do I ask?’ Logic kicked in. ‘Or is it something boring, like the-’ She paused. ‘Wait, is this building actually on the grid, or are we self-sufficient? Or-’
‘Those are questions for Agent Jones,’ he said as his car appeared, and he started to walk around to the driver’s side. ‘As for that…that’s Taylor’s not-so-secret-secret-garage.’
‘The Volcano is a car guy?’
He leaned across and opened her door. ‘It’s barely more than rumours. Honestly, it could be a secret torture room,’ he said and forced a laugh. ‘But there are persistent rumours he’s building something in there that could survive an apocalypse. Combat’s all about being prepared, and that has to involve transportation.’ He started the car. ‘End of the world comes, Newbie, stick with Mags and Agent Taylor, you might end up getting used for food, but until then, you’ll be among the best-supplied and best-prepared people on the planet.’ He slipped his phone into the cradle and started the navigation. ‘Since you’ll be busy tonight, we can start question time now, if you like.’
‘So if you require a flamethrower for me,’ she said as the car exited the garage, ‘that’s technically not me doing it, and if you do, do you think Ryan would get mad at me?’