26 – Watching the Clock

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There were almost a dozen recruits in the gym – a couple that she recognised, but more that she didn’t. Stef looked around, unable to give much credence to her ability to identify and remember people. Still, most of the recruits around her were people she’d never seen before.

‘Shift B and C people,’ Curt said, noticing her staring. ‘We’re Shift A, different people tend to use the gym at different times.’

‘Does that get confusing?’ she asked as she followed him towards the sim rooms. ‘I mean, “shift” has quite a different meaning around here. Using it in both senses…’ she trailed off and shrugged. ‘Seems weird.’

‘It’s “require” that tends to get me more than shift, most normal people can go weeks without saying it, so when you hear a civvy say it, it’s strange.’ He pulled a tablet from a dock beside the left sim room door. ‘Both of these are in use, so I’ll book us for the next slot.’ He tapped in some details, then held up his palm, and a buzzer appeared. ‘Just like getting stuff at a food court, it’ll ring when it’s our turn.’ He turned and looked out at the gym. ‘No use in wasting time, come on.’

She followed him to the far corner of the gym, and an empty space covered by some large, soft mats. He waved a hand, and a table appeared, a small black handgun and a-

‘Is that a magazine or a clip?’ she said. ‘I legit don’t know the difference.’

He lifted the metal block that you always saw action heroes slamming into their guns. ‘This is a magazine,’ he said. ‘For right now, everything is a dummy. We don’t even need paint rounds for this. You can’t hurt yourself, but start good practice right now, okay? No looking down the barrel or pointing at people you don’t want to kill.’

She nodded.

‘Holster placement first,’ he said. He turned towards her and flipped open his jacket, showing a shoulder holster, and a couple of spare magazines. ‘This is my preferred carry method.’ He kicked out his foot. ‘If I’m going into a situation where I suspect I might get blacked out, I’ll add an ankle holster.’ He gave her a critical look. ‘Is this the version of the uniform you’re going to stick with? No jacket, no blazer?’

She nodded. ‘I like this.’

‘Then I think something concealed-carry would work. We generally don’t like to get attention, remember, and-’ He winced. ‘I mean, forgive me for saying this, but if someone’s not looking closely, they might mistake you for a high schooler with a gun.’

She nodded. ‘Yeah, I can see that.’

‘Roll up your vest.’

She folded up the bottom eight inches of her vest, and he took a step forward.

‘I’m just gonna touch your belt, okay?’

She nodded, and a holster appeared, half of the gun tucked into her pants, the handle just above the waistband. ‘Another dummy,’ he said. ‘You’re not gonna shoot your hip off. If you like this, update your uniform settings, then it’ll be part of the basic requirement.’ He stepped back. ‘Okay, how’s that feel?’

She tidied her vest and was impressed at how little it was visible. ‘It feels…heavy,’ she said. ‘But I think I can get used to it.’

He nodded. ‘Leave that one there, we’ll use this dummy,’ he said, gesturing to the table. ‘Okay, let’s go over some basics.’

And it was basics – how to stand, how to draw, how to stand. Half an hour of repeating stances, getting foot placement corrected, learning where to place her fingers, knowing what was good trigger discipline. Important minutiae that would hopefully help keep her alive, or at the least, not make her more dangerous to herself or those around her.

Every lesson and every step was followed by a reminder that they’d have to drill all of this over and over again. Constant reminders that life wasn’t a montage, and that it was the little things that were going to help her more than she could ever imagine.

In a way, it was a weirdly familiar lesson. It was different coming from a guy teaching her how to be a secret agent than it was coming from an angry ballet instructor. Early in her lessons with Madame, there would be kids who showed up, eager to dance and leap and do the equivalent of run before they’d learned to crawl.

Some had the kind of enthusiasm that turned them into marvellous students. Others left, bored to tears by learning how to stretch properly.

And she’d been happy to disappear into the middle of the pack. Good enough so that Madame didn’t feel the need to threaten her with dismissal, but not so good as to ever get leading roles. It hadn’t been the ideal situation for her mother, who likely had dreams of her perfect little doll travelling the world and enthralling legions of fans through a perfect spin and a gossamer costume.

But after lessons, there’d always been a visit to a cafe. Mother would get a coffee, she’d get a chocolate milkshake, and for a few precious moments, she could steal some of Mother’s love for Stephanie and pretend it was aimed at her.

She’d always ruin it. Open her dumb Stef mouth, or make some comment that wasn’t consistent with Mother’s expectations of Stephanie and the spell would be broken. The moment would be gone, and they’d just be two disconnected people again.

Draw. Stance. Aim. Draw. Different stance. Aim. Rinse and repeat, over and over.

On the little table that had held the dummy gun, the buzzer finally lit up.

‘Okay,’ Curt said. ‘That was actually a lot better than I thought,’ he said, and hit something on the buzzer that made the lights turn green. ‘What do you think about the stances? They’ve all got their advantages and disadvantages but…’

She shrugged.

No, give him an answer, this is important.

She shifted her feet through the stances again. ‘Weaving,’ she said. ‘Feels less like I’m going to overbalance. Fits better with how I’m used to centring myself.’

‘Weaver,’ he corrected. ‘Not Weaving. It’s not the goddamn Agent Smith stance.’ He lifted the buzzer. ‘Come on.’ He looked over his shoulder. ‘But we can do one-handed drills once you’ve got the basics down.’

Two paint-covered recruits stood near the door to the right-hand sim room, giggling and discussing their sim. As they approached, one elbowed the other, jerked their head at Curt, and they walked off without another word.

‘See,’ he said without humour as he fiddled with the control tablet. ‘I’m always going to be the bigger hate sink than you.’

The door slid open.

Inside was a completely black space.

‘What?’ she asked flatly.

He smiled at her. ‘Trust me.’

He stepped over the threshold and into the blackness. Unlike a holodeck, there weren’t any gridlines to indicate the boundaries of the space, it was just…darkness. She followed him, staring at her feet, watching as they made small impressions on the nothingness, small patches of darkness-on-darkness, a thumb pressed to an LCD screen.

And-

And it was the darkness of the drowning dream. The space that she now knew was the fall through death’s realm, the darkness at the end of life. An ocean bottom that took an impossible act of will to-

‘Newbie?’

And it was the darkness of a handful of sleeping pills. A void brought on by her own actions.

She scratched at the still-not-quite-healed cut on the back of her wrist.

‘Hey, are you okay?’

She shook herself and forced a weak laugh. ‘Maybe a bit of nyctophobia?’ she said, her voice shrill. It was safe to say she was afraid of the dark. Maybe a bit childish, but better than any version of the truth she’d be able to force out.

‘What-phobia?’

‘Fear of the dark.’

‘Sorry,’ he said. ‘But I thought you would think this was cool to watch.’ He tapped a few times on the control tablet, and a world began to build itself around her. A sky appeared overhead, a weak autumn sun behind clouds. Buildings appeared with no fanfare, and there was a crackle under her feet as concrete and bitumen settled into place.

‘Usually, everything appears at once, or at least it would seem to the human eye, but you can slow the generation speed and that way you-’ he shrugged. ‘Sorry.’

‘You didn’t do anything wrong,’ she said. ‘Images and associations and brain and-’

‘I get that,’ he said, his voice heavy. He took a couple of steps away. ‘So, no zombies,’ he said, his voice back to what she was starting to think of as his “teaching stupid newbies” voice. ‘Really. No zombies.’

She looked down the almost-familiar street – it was definitely part of the city, somewhere she’d seen before, but not somewhere she could immediately name. ‘So what do we have to do?’

‘It’s basically cat-and-mouse,’ he said. ‘Or laser tag, whichever way you’d like to think of it. You’ve got five minutes to hide, then I come after you. Your job is to evade me as long as you can. Use the surroundings to your advantage.’ He pointed. ‘It’s only this one street, so you can’t just wander away. Blackout conditions will cycle, sometimes you’ll be able to require, sometimes you won’t.’

She pulled out her phone and looked at the icons – including the one for the System connection. ‘How’s it- You said it was like wifi, but how’s it controlled, what’s the-’ She wiggled her hands. ‘It’s obviously-’ She tried to put her thoughts into words. ‘The System knows where you are, but it’s not like you need the phone to require, cause I was requiring without it…’ She looked over at Curt. ‘Did someone jam a microchip in my head without me noticing?’

Curt rubbed the back of his neck. ‘You’re not too far off, actually. Do you- You have to remember I’m not a Tech, so what I’m going to tell you is a very base level explanation, okay?’

‘Yeah, of course.’

‘Do you know what agents are? Like, you know they’re not human, right? And not fae?’

She nodded. ‘They’re artificial. I don’t know anything further though.’

He pulled out his own phone, played with it for a moment, then showed her a picture of what looked like a vial of blue cordial or jelly. ‘Basically, they’re made of a nanite solution, this stuff is the…base form? Undifferentiated, unactivated, whatever you want to call it. Blue. It’s just called blue. Agents are made of the stuff, augments have a higher percentage of it, then recruits just have enough to tie us into the System. Someone probably offered you water or something when you first arrived, that’s usually how it’s delivered to new recruits.’

‘I have so many questions.’

‘Check the intranet, otherwise your Tech can point you in the right direction. For right now, I’m focussed on teaching you how not to die.’

She tried to lock down all the multiplying questions, and focus on the scenario. A scenario that didn’t quite make sense. ‘What’s the real-world application?’ she asked. ‘If there’s a System connection, couldn’t the theoretical recruit get shifted to safety?’

‘Good question. It’s a situation without a direct real-world counterpart. It’s another of the “learn how to think” variety. Learn how to pay attention, what wake you leave in the world, what signs people can follow, how you can distract, how you can lead, rather than being chased.’

She stared. ‘I’ve been here like a day, Trekkie.’

‘If you can go five minutes without me shooting you, you’ll be doing good.’ He pulled his gun, pressed the muzzle to his hand and shot, leaving a blue mess there. ‘Paint rounds. You’ve got the same. I also turned on-’ he paused for a brief second. ‘Aimbot for your shots. For this exercise, being in a position to line up and take a shot is more important than actually being able to make the shot. Try and keep in mind all that crap I just drilled into your head though, okay?’

She nodded, then looked back to the street, completely devoid of people. ‘Is it going to stay apocalypse-y, or are there going to be NPCs?’

He tapped the control tablet one more time, and people appeared.

Curt pointed to the sky, and a digital display appeared, and with a siren sound, the five-minute countdown started.

‘There’s actually a lot of these multiple-win-condition sims,’ Curt said casually. ‘There’s one that’s done as an annual competition, where you have minutes to hide a flash drive in a house or a room. Of course, you get to hide dozens, so long as no individual placement takes more than five minutes, so like if you’re unscrewing a grate or whatever. Then there’s local and national rankings for-’

She looked from him to the sky and back again. ‘I want to know more, but that’s counting down.’

‘-rankings for hiding and finding. All departments can take part in both hiding and finding, and-’

‘You’re- You’re trying to distract me!’ she spluttered. ‘Give me less time to hide!’

He winked.

‘You have the moral fibre of a Tal Shiar operative,’ she muttered.

‘Oh come on, I dress so much better than a Romulan. Those awful-’

‘You’re doing it again! I’m not going to discuss-’

‘You’re not? So why are you still standing here?’

‘Because it’s rude to walk away when people are talking to you!’ she exclaimed, frustrated. ‘It’s rude and- And you’re not supposed to-’ She sucked in a breath. He was trying to distract her. Trying to give her less time. The cat trying to get one over on the mouse. But it was the social contract and- ‘And it’s-’ her voice was shaky, and she closed her mouth.

He bent to her eye level. ‘Sorry,’ he said. ‘Conflicting programming, right?’

She sucked in another breath and nodded miserably.

‘Sorry, Newbie.’ He pointed to the sky and the timer reset. ‘Do-over, five whole minutes. Go. Hide. Good luck.’

‘Thank you,’ she said, then turned and headed off into the crowd.

She resisted the urge to look back and see what he was doing, lest she get drawn into the conversation about Romulan shoulder pads.

Street. Buildings. People on lunch or errands. A shop selling watches. Fashion boutiques. Cars. A bus.

What are your priorities?

Survive five minutes without getting shot.

She leaned against a wall for a moment, pulled out her phone and blinked as the screen came to life.

The display had two large buttons – one to continue normal function, one to interact with the sim.

‘Ooooh, virtual machine,’ she whispered and hit the sim button. A requirement gave her a set of wired earbuds, which she slipped in.

She squeezed her phone, closed her eyes, and thought hard about the next requirement.

When she opened her eyes, there was an app button, its image the basic grey circle logo of the Agency. She hit the button, and it began to play soft music – which would continue until the System connection died.

It would give her the information she needed, without needing to constantly check her phone, or make test requirements.

Okay, useful, but that ate up a lot of time.

She tucked her phone away, and walked down the street, doing her best to weave between the NPC citizenry.

She got to the end of the street and turned left on the intersection, only to have a forcefield appear, with a display indicating she was trying to operate outside of the intended area.

She reached up and tapped the forcefield again, looking at the grid of electric blue lines that appeared – and that the NPCs wholly ignored.

‘Oh, oh, this could be good.’

She walked to the wall of the building that intersected the forcefield and set her shoulders. She lifted a hand and drew a line with her finger along the wall to a spot about a foot back from the barrier, and made a requirement.

A large, slowly-spinning Sale! arrow appeared, offset so that the longer side would only interact with the forcefield every fifteen seconds or so.

She turned and quickly walked away, looking for an actual place to hide.

Behind her, the forcefield appeared again – it was probably cheating, or metagaming or something – but surely he’d give her points for creativity.

She looked up at the sky above – she was on her final thirty seconds, and she’d done nothing to actually get a hiding spot.

‘Fuck.’

The music in her headphones cut out.

‘Double-fuck.’

Use what you know. Use what you have.

She turned in a slow circle, and her eyes fell back on the watch store. It would do.

She stepped up to the door, and the security guard inside stared at her with a look that would scare away anyone who didn’t have the necessary personal wealth to enter. She thought of her father and met his stare with a haughty one of her own.

The guard opened the door with a nod, and she walked in, not acknowledging him – if you were stepping foot in a place like this, you didn’t acknowledge the help, you didn’t thank the plebs, you walked on them, over them, and only talked to people who respected your station.

The manager was already walking across the small store to greet her.

‘My father is receiving an OBE,’ she said without greeting or preamble, her voice dripping with her mother’s accent. ‘I’d like something to commemorate the occasion.’

She walked past the manager, ignoring his outstretched hand. Play the brat. Play the princess. She cast an eye over the small glass display cabinet. ‘I want to spend about thirty. He likes brass and antiquated design touches.’ She walked towards the small consulting room. ‘And I’ll take an ice water, and some petit fours, if someone can manage it.’

She stepped into the consulting room – a comfortable, oak-panelled space where commerce and trade would take place with the same ceremony as an elven king bestowing a magic ring on an adventurer.

With a sigh of relief, she closed the door, sat on the couch, and laid her phone on the low table.

After a few minutes, a young man brought ice water and a selection of macarons on a tray and laid them on the table. He lifted the glass from the tray, placed it on a coaster and informed her that the manager would be with her in a moment.

She gave him a brief nod, enough to let him know that she had heard him and that she didn’t require anything further, and he left her in the safety of the closed consulting room.

She picked up the ice water, took a sip, then replaced it on the coaster.

Her phone buzzed – and the home screen indicated that she should switch back to the standard, non-sim configuration, which she accepted, and then it displayed a text from Curt.

{Not going to lie, thought you’d be in the coffee shop under a bad wig.}

She stared at the message and tried to figure out if he could track her using it. Or if there was some other way he could metagame the situation, just as she’d done with the forcefield.

The manager arrived with a selection of three watches, and she spent a few minutes going over the pros and cons of each, before asking him to fetch some engraving samples.

The next time the door opened, however, it was Curt.

She lifted the plate in his direction as he sat opposite her. ‘Macaron? The purple ones have real gold on them, if you’ve ever wanted to shit a precious mineral.’

He took one, then relaxed back against the couch. ‘This was an interesting solution,’ he said. ‘I wouldn’t encourage you to hide behind civilians, though. That could get really unpleasant, really fast.’

‘How’d you get in here?’

‘Flashed my ID.’

‘And is that likely to be something that Solstice could do? Besides, you said this didn’t have a one-to-one relationship with a real scenario.’ She bit into a macaron. ‘I have very few skills, so I decided to use one.’

‘Fair, and it was a decent plan.’ He picked up one of the watches. ‘So how much would one of these set me back?’

‘That one’s forty,’ she said. ‘It’s poor quality for the price though. This shop caters best to the cheap stuff, up to about fifteen, if you’re gonna splash more than that, there are better places to go.’

Even though it was a sim, Curt carefully put the watch back down. ‘People spend that on a watch?’

‘It’s a practical way of expressing money, and not every family has enough heirloom pieces to pass around. Other people want to keep up with fashion, or want to give a non-controversial gift.’

‘I got a watch for my high school graduation present,’ he said. ‘But I still hated my dad, so I sold it and, fuck, I don’t even remember what I bought. Maybe some stuff for-’ He cut himself off and looked nervous.

‘What?’ she asked.

‘Accessories for that subject you don’t like,’ he said, and grabbed the last macaron. ‘I’ll spare you the details.’

‘Ewwwwww.’

‘That’s mature, Newbie.’ He grinned. ‘I thought about running a couple more sessions of this with you, but I’ve gotten a call, there’s a contact I need to chat with. So, do whatever for the rest of your afternoon – but update your uniform requirement, and maybe dig into modules eight and nine, and I’ll come grab you for training in the morning.’

She nodded. ‘See you then.’

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Glimmer Girl


It started with a bang; not an explosion but atoms accelerated toward infinity. That was the end of my so-called ‘ordinary’ life. Fate guided me into the line of fire the same day a madman sought revenge for his bruised ego.

Once upon a time there was no such thing as Glimmer Girl, or even Kaira Cade. This is my story.

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See you next week, Recruit.

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Lightdefender
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Lightdefender

We’re seeing a lot more of the practicalities of Agency life this time through. I like it.

The Leaking Pen
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The Leaking Pen

i assume that the mentioned prices don’t end with a .00

Lightdefender
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Lightdefender

Probably ,000. Yes, they make watches that cost in that range.