36 – Breakfast, Blue & Biscuits

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The cafe was busy, but not too busy – full of morning people, but also a few people who looked at least marginally unhappy to be awake so early. Fortunately, they’d been able to find a booth towards the back with no one in the next space – meaning any Agency conversation should be relatively safe.

Unless someone decides to try and kill us again.

That’s statistically unlikely.

Stef stared at some of the unhappy people, and wondered if she belonged in that category or not.

Being awake this early was-

She sipped from the orange juice that she’d ordered. There was the requisite coffee cup there as well, but the night had already contained more coffee than normal, so her caffeine levels were solidly in the green, and there was no chance of brain failure – at least for a couple of hours.

Being awake at this time of day wasn’t unusual – especially when she’d been awake all night – it was the context that made it a lot different. Being awake and…expected to do things was the unusual part.

Any expectation that she was going to do something was unusual. Still, usually, that expectation was nothing more than…something pedestrian like a tradesman fixing something in her apartment, or the occasional doctor’s appointment that couldn’t be dealt with by an in-home call.

Even at Dorian’s mansion, there hadn’t been a requirement to be awake early. Dorian had been smart enough to understand that his team of nerds had worked to their own schedules.

But The Agency was changing everything.

The weird thing was that she wasn’t even tired – she’d been awake for the best part of the early hours of the morning. Still, some combination of the deep, post-surgery sleep, the lingering painkillers and whatever other magic the weird twins had worked meant she was still feeling refreshed.

Now, if they could just bottle whatever this was, she might have some chance in hell of operating like a normal human being.

Across the table, Ryan dipped a piece of toast into the pool of soft-boiled egg. Toast, eggs, a slice of tomato, it was the exact kind of safe choice she would have expected, but-

‘I know this was your idea,’ she said, wiping a triangle of toast through the Hollandaise on her plate, ‘but you argued about ice-cream last night. Is that toast actually the secret Soylent you refuse to admit you eat?’

‘Would you like the truth?’

‘I mean, yeah?’

‘I am simply not a fan of sweet things in general. I don’t mind the occasional pastry – I actually have a former recruit who opened a bakery with her husband, and she sometimes drops by with several boxes of her best-selling options. Otherwise, if I am to eat, I prefer savoury foods.’

‘I guess that’s fair.’ She smiled. ‘Means I’ll never have to fight you for waffles.’

Her phone buzzed. Again. For what seemed like the millionth time in the last half hour.

‘You can answer that if you want,’ Ryan said as he returned to his eggs.

She pulled her phone from her pocket. ‘I thought I set all the group chats to silent, so I should only be getting alerts for direct messages. I guess it could be some of the info I asked Jonesy for but-’

Her home screen showed that she had sixteen direct messages over Vox. She tapped to expand the alert, and next to the user icon and direct message icon on all of the messages was a present emoji – a white box with a blue ribbon.

The first message was from a recruit she hadn’t met – someone who had set their username as Razilla. As she could see Raz’s online status, she appeared to be dealing with two different Psychonauts.

The message simply said {Take} and then had a present emoji.

The next two messages were similar – one from Monica had a ”get well soon” image with the present emoji, and one from T’Lorie had a message in circular Gallifreyan and the emoji.

She spun the phone to Ryan. ‘Is this an Agency meme I don’t know about? Gift box means well wishes or something?’

‘Ah,’ Ryan said and began to move their plates so that there was some space in front of her. ‘Well, to start from the beginning – injury lists are posted in our intranet so that recruits can be alerted that their schedules or responsibilities will change for that day. For example, Curt will have been notified that he shouldn’t expect you today for patrols or other duties.’

‘Following you so far.’

‘A lot of recruits like to send get well presents.’ He moved her juice glass. ‘Tap on one of them.’

She went back to the first message and tapped on the emoji.

A plushie purple duck appeared on the table in front of her.

‘Wat,’ she asked flatly.

She touched the duck’s head, and it let out a small “meep”.

‘Wat.’

‘So long as you have a System connection, you can take delivery of a present sent over Vox. Think of it as emailing a requirement to someone.’

‘You have to teach me how to do this. Immediately.’

She tapped on Ryan’s icon, typed {Test}, then looked at him for instructions.

‘If you see the system icon, click that.’ She nodded. ‘These are all system commands. All require different levels of access – for example, you can send a set of shift coordinates to someone, but you’d still need an agent to process it.’

‘So if I feel like going to Comiccon, I just need to send you a map pin, and you’ll send me?’

‘Essentially. Do you see the icon that looks like coins?’

She nodded, clicked it, and a pop-up menu appeared. There was a red record dot, and some greyed-out options – likely as this was the first time she had used this menu.

‘Think of it like recording a macro. Record, require, stop.’

She hit the record button, required a cookie, then hit the stop button.

The record button disappeared, replaced with a simple form giving her the option to name the requirement, choose a gifting icon, to test it, to save or discard after sending, and finally to send it.

She named it, then chose the present emoji that everyone had been using, then closed the pop-up menu. This time when she hit the coins icon, the cookie sat in a list, emoji to the left, name to the right.

One click added it to the message, another sent it.

Ryan pointed to the table, and the cookie appeared.

‘Woo!’ She leaned across, grabbed it, and bit into it – testing to see that it tasted as good as any of her other required cookies.

Ryan had a weird smile on his face. ‘What?’ she asked, hiding her mouth behind a hand to avoid spraying crumbs.

He leaned across, touched the table and a tablet appeared there – the streaming video took a moment to crystallise as she recognised her own face. She lifted a hand, reached across and waved it in his face, confirming that the stream was coming from his eyes. ‘Direct HUD output?’

A nod confirmed her suspicions. The world went slightly blurry as he opened a menu, showing where his focus was. His contact list sat there – her name at the top, as she’d just sent him a message.

‘I don’t-’ The stream on the tablet cut to a screensaver of the Field logo bouncing from corner to corner like the idle screen of old DVD players. ‘You might have noticed I am not the most gregarious agent. Or perhaps some of your new colleagues have expressed as much. Reynolds felt it was a failing. That one of the important aspects of this model of herald was…interpersonal skills. I am sufficient in that area, but I do not excel.’

She poked at the duckie again. ‘You don’t people so well either?’

‘In different ways to yourself I suspect. I do well with my acquaintances, but I’m not sure I have many people I can call friends.’ He took a moment to wipe his hands with his cloth napkin. ‘It’s a small thing, but I don’t have any prioritised contacts.’ The screensaver blinked away. ‘And I just don’t feel the default icon is suitable for you.’ A small blue dot appeared beside her name. ‘See? It’s…’

She tried to think of what phrase he’d used. ‘Too within normal parameters for a freak like me?’

The blue dot disappeared, replaced with a cookie. ‘How’s that? I think I’ve deduced your favourite requirement.’

It was a small thing. Such a small thing. They were having a serious conversation about what fave icon to use. So small. So stupid. And-

And somehow it wasn’t. It was a step. It meant something for both of them.

She slid to the end of the booth seat, stood, walked to Ryan’s side and threw her arms around his neck and hugged him tightly. ‘It’s perfect.’

‘You’re choking me, Miss Mimosa,’ he said without rancour.

‘It’s okay, you don’t need to breathe.’

He laughed and allowed the air-constricting hug.

‘I’m still amazed how easy it was for you to come to terms with what agents are, and how we fit in with magic and the world.’

‘You know I still have a hundred thousand million questions, right?’ She flicked to Monica’s message, and clicked the gift icon: a potato peeler with the name “Stewie” appeared. ‘The hell?’

‘That,’ Ryan said, ‘I believe it is an in-joke amongst the Techs, I’m not sure of the meaning. And there are getting to be too many people here to continue this conversation, but if you’d like to check the mail, I can answer some of your multitude of questions.’

She nodded, required a satchel bag, tucked the duck and the potato peeler inside, and followed him from the cafe.

‘Just one more present,’ she mumbled as they walked down a lane to find a safe spot to shift.

She went back to the message with the circular Gallifreyan and opened that gift. As soon as the shift processed, a packet of chocolate digestive biscuits appeared in her hands.

‘Young lady,’ Ryan said as she tore open the packet. ‘You just had breakfast.’

‘Cookies go in the dessert tummy,’ she said, letting her tone convey the shock that he didn’t seem to know this basic fact. ‘And it would be impolite not to eat at least one. Or three. Or five.’

‘What was your first question?’

‘All of them at once.’

‘Naturally.’

She bit into a digestive. ‘Okay, this one is morbid, but- Why’d you bleed blood? I wouldn’t have thought that- Imean, you’re a nanite program people person, so…’

‘That’s a fair question, and the answer isn’t hard to understand.’ He stopped and turned to her. ‘I would ask that you keep your reaction to a reasonable decibel level.’

He placed his hand on his chest, making it less visible to anyone who might be looking and-

The skin on his hand went transparent and left a bright, electric blue hand where a human-seeming one had been a moment before.

He flexed his hand, and lights sparked in it, probably as-

She reached up and grabbed his hand, watching as lighter blue patches appeared where her fingers touched the blue not-flesh. Impressions in an LCD monitor, fingerprints on one of those laser orbs that novelty stores sold.

‘Sorry,’ she said, but didn’t let his hand go. He flexed his fingers again as she turned it palm-up, and she watched sparks and brighter patches of blue moved and shifted within the not-flesh.

‘This is what agents are,’ he said as he moved his fingers in sequence. ‘In System territory, any human-like functions we seem to have are skin-deep in a way. I breathe, but as you pointed out, I don’t need to. I have a heart,’ he pulled his hand from hers and held it over his heart, ‘I can feel it beating, but it’s more to help us integrate with humans than it is to keep me alive.’

‘So if I threw you into an MRI you’d look normal?’

He nodded. ‘A key aspect of agent design, as we’ve been told, is that we were to be the heralds most able to fit among humans, both socially and functionally. If we were, for example, doing a joint operation with human investigators, they would likely notice beings that didn’t breathe, that didn’t blink, that had no pulse if checked.’

The blue not-flesh regained its skin, and they continued down the street.

‘Key, though, is that when we’re in System territory, at any time, we can choose to turn off any of these components. There are,’ his voice took on a sadder tone. ‘There are agents that are referred to as “the best of us”. They don’t breathe. They don’t blink. They speak only through Vox and their HUDs. They’re a platonic ideal of what an…uncorrupted agent could be.’

‘They-’

‘When we leave System territory,’ he said, cutting her off, and she knew well enough to drop the subject. ‘These functions become real. Thus, in blackout zones, we bleed like a human does. We have very a limited capacity to use our own blue to heal, both because the majority has been used to properly render our bodies into something functional, and as a deterrent from leaving System territory.’

‘But external blue can be used? As it indicates back up or something?’

‘Precisely.’

‘And you can’t just carry around a water bottle of the stuff?’

‘I’m worried what you will think of my answer.’

She stopped walking and gave him a careful, sympathetic look. ‘Even if you had some on you,’ she said, ‘you had barely enough strength to breathe, let alone tell me how to help you. So if that’s it-’

Relief crossed his face. ‘Fortunately, it’s not that extreme. Combat agents tend to carry a small supply – but someone of my position is not generally expected to get into danger, so I have fallen out of the habit.’

She smiled. ‘Stick with me, and you’ll learn a good amount of paranoia. Or- Um- Could I carry some?’

‘I can give you some to carry, but to access the requirement, you’ve got to complete training on how to use it. Ask Jones about it, she can either run you through it or set up the training sim for it. I do know she prefers to run recruits through it, to-’

‘Have I been using the wrong pronouns for Jonesy?’ she asked in a panic.

‘No,’ Ryan said, ‘she’s genderfluid. She keeps her current pronouns listed in her status.’

She nodded. ‘Okay, cool. And I’ll ask her about blue first aid later. I may as well do something useful if I’ve got a day off.’

Did those words just come out of your mouth?

I know, who-

‘-the fuck am I?’

She winced and stared at the ground. ‘I’m not used to being useful,’ she said, filling in the half of the conversation he hadn’t heard.

She was crazy, and he was okay with that.

He probably didn’t understand everything – he definitely didn’t understand everything, but- But-

She took a couple of quick steps to catch up to him, then hugged his arm.

It was okay that he didn’t understand everything. She’d told him she’d tried to kill herself and he hadn’t abandoned her. She’d told him she was crazy and he hadn’t fired her.

He…

He hadn’t smashed her head into a car hood and threatened to lock her in an asylum if she couldn’t act normal.

She touched her face, remembering how hot the hood had been, how James had brought her a change of clothes, apparently planning ahead of time to hit her so hard she bled.

And James hadn’t known a tenth of what Ryan knew, he’d only known that she was disruptive, not normal, and causing problems at school.

And the threat of being locked away forever had hung over her head until she’d stepped onto the plane at Heathrow, finally leaving her family behind forever.

‘Herald,’ she said, trying her best to sound normal, trying to push bad memories down and away. ‘You’ve used that word a couple of times now.’

‘We haven’t always been agents,’ he said as they approached the first letterbox. ‘It only takes a moment’s thought to realise this.’

‘So agent isn’t a generic term as in “operator”, it specifically refers to,’ she waved a hand at him. ‘Secret agent dude model, or whatever?’

He nodded. ‘The earliest of us were generated around 1850, with a rapid expansion after 1900, after the last of the duskers had been recycled. Herald is the word we use to refer to all types and designs of ash-and-blue constructs.’

‘So there’s the you-type, the anti-social assholes you mentioned, what else?’

‘We’re not encouraged to know a lot about our history, as I said. However, we know that there were knights, various warriors and…angels.’ He smiled down at her. ‘Making your assertion that you thought of me as somewhat of a guardian angel strangely true in a way.’

She opened her mouth.

‘Yes.’

‘I didn’t ask anything yet.’

‘I believe you were about to ask if I had wings. It’s generally the first question people ask when they find out this aspect of our history.’

She ran in a circle around him. ‘I don’t see anything.’

‘There are a few things that agents can do that are to be reserved for emergencies, for situations where there are genuinely no other options, and the need is greatest. To keep us from frivolity, there is a cost associated with these abilities. Wings, for example, are extremely painful to manifest.’ He handed her the mail from the box, which she shoved into her bag. ‘But if it’s a consolation, I can show you images.’

‘Yes, please.’

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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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35 - Simple Stories
37 - Observations and Evidence
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lightdefender

So rereading this in my quest to catch up, and just had to comment (again? might have done so in Discord before) on the “It’s okay; you don’t need to breathe” line. Because yes.

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