There was a knock at the door.
Stef looked up from the sliding wooden puzzle from hell that Jones had sent as a get well present and stared at the door. ‘Um?’
‘Me, Mimosa,’ came a woman’s voice.
She quickly ran through the catalogue of people she’d met and tried to identify the voice. It was probably-
‘Magnolia,’ Magnolia clarified. ‘Open up.’
She hopped off the bed, stumbled, then opened the door.
Magnolia – dressed in another cute dress that still somehow conveyed the impression that she could kill with a pinkie finger – smiled. ‘Perfect, you’re already dressed like a nerd, come on.’
She looked down at the Spider-Man shirt she’d required. ‘Need someone to play hostage or something?’
‘Not today.’ Magnolia reached in and pulled on the door, effectively scooping her into the hall. ‘So I know from experience that people with scores like yours tend to get loaned to Jones from time to time.’ Magnolia started down the hall, and Stef skipped to keep up. ‘You’ve got Screen as an operator, so you’re going to get some good passive knowledge on how to work. Jones will probably steal you from Ryan for a week and put you through the quick format introduction and-’
Magnolia turned and grinned. ‘Oh, I like you. What is it?’
‘You know I’m, like, off today right? Medical dispensation or whatever?’
Magnolia nodded. ‘Which is why I’m not bitching at you for missing training. This isn’t going to be anything physical, but newbies are always playing catchup, so I think this will be valuable for you. You up to it?’
‘Good,’ Magnolia said. ‘So what I have in mind is this: today’s sim is a solo venture, and the Field recruit will be in contact with an in-sim tech recruit. I’m going to put O’Connor last, throw you into the second room and have you sit with his sim operator. You’ll get to see what an operator does without having to do any work yourself. And…get more of an insight into how O’Connor works, which is always valuable when you’re working with a new partner.’
‘Okay,’ she said, ‘I think I can handle that.’
Magnolia stopped in front of the closed double doors of the gym. ‘We have you to thank for Ryan still breathing, right?’
She stared at the floor. ‘I, um-’
‘He’s not my favourite agent,’ Magnolia said. ‘But I’m glad I’m not breaking in a new director. Good job.’ She pushed opened the doors, and they walked to the sim rooms – the left one was already occupied and active.
Magnolia pulled the control tablet for the second room from its cradle and tapped in a few commands. ‘It’s pretty self-explanatory,’ she said as the door opened. ‘Any questions, ask the sim.’
She stepped into the room – and the room bore a lot of similarities to the small meeting room that she’d been using with Curt. Unlike the meeting room though, there were two side-by-side rectangular desks, rather than the large circular table.
‘Hi,’ the sim said. The operator sim had the appearance of a young woman with light brown skin in an Agency uniform – the version with the blazer, rather than the waistcoat and long jacket. ‘I’m Operator Sim Nine. The Field simulation is beginning if you’d like to observe.’
She sat at the desk next to Nine – the computer woke up as she touched the mouse and automatically logged her in – seeming to do so on facial recognition.
‘The operator program has been loaded,’ Nine said. ‘Please ask if you have questions. You can change the screen layout using the directional arrows at the top left.’
She nodded and quickly looked at the contents of the triple-monitor setup.
To the left was a map, on the right was Vox – with a header bar indicating that it was in sim mode.
The centre screen was how she’s always imagined that Otacon saw the world. There was a feed that was probably coming from Curt’s earpiece, various lines indicating heartbeat and health statuses, a System icon indicating a strong connection, and mission-specific Vox window.
She looked to Nine, who seemed to be in low-power mode, waiting to answer any requests from Curt – the layout was simple enough. However, once she started using it, there’d probably be a million things she needed clarifying.
She grabbed the headset that lay next to the mouse – wireless, so that there was no chance of getting tangled up if you had to stand up and run, with big noise-cancelling pads that would keep the world at bay.
There was no impetus to do anything. No need to do anything other an observe. But-
But Ryan thought she was good enough to want to call her “family”, and that meant that it would be okay to try, even if she ultimately failed. It would be okay to be brave because there’d be someone to catch her.
‘Once more unto the breach.’
She the voice icon in the Vox mission window, and listened to a soft beep while she waited for Curt to answer.
‘Yeah, it’s me. Magnolia said I could observe since I was off today.’
‘I saw you were on the injured list. I sent you a text, but-’
‘Sorry,’ she said, ‘I’ve kind of been inundated with people sending me stuff. Your message must have gotten buried.’
‘Are you-’ He stopped talking for a moment. ‘You can tell me whatever you feel like telling me after, if you want.’
She touched a hand to where one of the shots had-
It was still too fresh. Too unexamined. Too examined. She’d had time to mourn, to think about dying, about living, about being afraid of both and neither. And yet-
He’s asking because it’s what friends do.
Are you sure?
It’s what books say friends do.
‘God I’m a sad motherfucker,’ she mumbled, with a hand over the mic.
‘Mags didn’t give a lot of detail,’ Curt said, filling the dead air. ‘Just that a civilian had reported a monster. You sitting in an operator chair?’
He waved a hand in front of his earpiece. ‘Got visuals?’
‘Then feel free to point out anything strange you see, Spock. There should be some drones you have access to as well, take a look at their feeds.’
She looked across at Nine. ‘Mind showing me how to use the drones?’
Nine slid her chair over, minimised the right screen Vox window and brought up a window showing six video feeds – all of which were listed auto. Movement to her left showed that an overlay had appeared on the map. The overlay showed the position of all the drones and their predicted auto flight paths.
‘Right-click on a feed to request access, that’s just to stop more than one recruit trying to control the same unit,’ Nine said.
She did as instructed, and the request was immediately granted. A pop-up menu offered her several manual control choices. The options included just using the keyboard and mouse, but the one that looked like a slightly squarer version of a PlayStation controller called to her and she clicked on it. The controller appeared next to her mouse, and she picked it up – and a slight movement of the left stick immediately turned the way the drone was looking.
‘As this is a night sim,’ Nine said, ‘this particular drone has the appearance of an owl. Please keep that in mind for interaction with civilians.’
Stef nodded, and played with the controls for a few minutes, figuring out how to move in the air, land and take-off again.
‘Anything?’ Curt asked. ‘What I’m thinking is that this a sim scored primarily on your approach. So it’s looking to see if you do a grid search, use tech resources, do a door-to-door survey, or whatever.’ She turned to look at his feed as he walked through a park, playground equipment creepy and horror-movie-esque in the low light.
‘You’re just going to wander around until you find something?’
‘I started at the location of the call. The sim operator hasn’t alerted me to any additional calls, so it’s possible it was nothing. We always have to check though, we have to give a reasonable amount of time to every call we get – because if it’s the one time we slack off, and that’s the drunk fairy that gets all over Twitter, then…’
‘Just shut up for a minute.’
Something had been out of place. Something had caught the attention of her brain.
She set the drone to auto and maximised Curt’s feed. ‘Look around again,’ she said slowly, trying not to lose whatever thread her brain had latched onto. ‘Retrace your steps for me, kay?’
Curt backed up and slowly swept his head from left to right. Playground equipment. An abandoned toy truck. Some derelict chip packets. Some mud that had been stomped in.
‘That wet patch near the swing, go closer.’
Curt did as instructed, and in amongst the shallow footprints of children was one set of very distinctive tracks.
‘Hoofprints,’ she said, ‘that’s not normal for the suburbs.’
‘Nice find,’ he said. ‘There are several things it could be, and a lot of them would look like monsters to civilians.’
‘They’re smaller than normal, and they’re unshod, so-‘
‘A lot of Saddle Club books in your collection, Newbie?’
‘Most little rich girls are horse girls,’ she said – it was okay to say that much. There were a lot of things she couldn’t – wouldn’t – say, memories that were sucky and painful, but surface-level stuff would be okay.
‘I guess it comes with the territory,’ he said.
‘In a lot of ways, it does. Cars used to be a luxury, now horses are. Obvious exceptions if you’re on a working farm or something, but that’s not what people think about when they think of little horse-mad girls.’
‘No, they tend to think of dressage and all that fancy stuff.’
‘If I never have to do another dressage competition, yadda yadda,’ she said.
She’d hated the pomp and circumstance. Hated being all prim and proper. But…an hour mucking out Buttercup’s stall, or brushing his coat until her tiny arms felt like they had been about to drop off, those had been good times.
Ballet had only ever been for Stephanie. Horse-related activities…Stef had been allowed to peek out sometimes – it was only Stephanie’s world when competitions and judging were in the picture.
Horses had been a good, neutral topic. Until they’d become something never to mention again.
Carefully, Curt moved from mud patch to mud patch, following the tracks from the park, across a quiet street, and into a patch of scrub.
He spent a few moments looking for more patches of mud, but found nothing. ‘What now, Newbie?’
‘Try smelling,’ she said. ‘Horses smell. Horse poop smells more. Horse poop has an awesome smell.’
‘That’s more than I needed to know.’
She heard several deep sniffs, then a long string of curses.
‘If this is your definition of “awesome”…’ he said, jogging deeper into the scrub and trailing off as he found a pile of poop near a tree.
‘Light,’ she said, and he required a torch.
‘It smells like something died. Is it supposed to smell like that?’
She stared at the screen in disbelief. You didn’t flinch at the corpse yesterday, and poop bothers you?’ She clicked on the magnification icon and zoomed in a little on the poop.
‘I don’t care what it smells like. It’s not supposed to look at that. It…really isn’t supposed to look like that.’
She heard hooves and waited for Curt to look up.
A centaur stood, sallow in the weak light of evening, grass hanging from its mouth.
‘Oh, this is so cool!’ She thumped her hand on the table.
‘Thanks for the help,’ he said brightly. ‘I can handle it from here, Newbie.’
‘You don’t get the keep the centaur all to yourself!’
He turned away from the centaur, looked down at his phone, and the feed switched from his headset camera to his selfie camera. ‘Remember that thing I said?’
‘You say a lot of things, Ensign.’
‘That’s what you’re going with?’
‘You’ll get a field promotion when you level up your geek. You teach me Agency stuff, you be my nerd Padawan.’
‘I said I wouldn’t give you any stupid instructions, so that when I do ask something of you, you know it’s for a reason.’ He ran a hand through his hair. ‘I think you promised, Newbie.’
‘It’s a centaur,’ she pleaded, ‘I’ve never seen one before.’
‘And you still haven’t,’ he said, his voice sad.
There’s got to be a reason he’s asking.
‘What do you want me to do?’
‘Go to our meeting room. Breakfast is on you today. I’ll be there in five.’
She stared at the camera feed for a moment longer, wishing she had a better ability to understand what people’s physical emoticons meant. ‘Okay,’ she said, ‘I’m signing off.’
‘Please,’ he said. ‘And don’t do that stupid thing where you say you’re signing off, then stay and watch anyway.’
He’s going to kill it, isn’t he?
You know he is.
‘Logging off now.’
She closed the observation window, placed her headset down, then pushed herself away from the desk.
‘Um, thanks,’ she said to Nine.
‘Anytime,’ the sim said.
She walked out of the room, waved awkwardly to Magnolia, then made her away to the small meeting room.
She stared at his side of the table, required a full English breakfast, expensive cutlery and a linen napkin.
Still full from the early-morning cafe run, she settled into her chair with a cup of coffee.
As she sat, she felt the crinkle of the bandaged taped over her gunshots.
A text – from presumably the nicer Agent Parker – had informed she was in the clear to remove all bandages and plasters, but there hadn’t been time.
And part of her wondered if she ripped the dressings off if all of her blood would just fountain out and she’d be bleeding and dying on the floor again.
But that was stupid and made no sense.
She looked at the door, then quickly worked her hand up under her shirt and ripped off the first bandage without letting herself have a second thought.
There was blood on the underside of the dressing, and her skin stung from where the tape had been, but no blood sprang forth.
She laid the used dressing on the table and skated her fingers across the skin – only old and familiar scars remained.
Satisfied with her bravery, and knowing the other dressing could wait before it was yanked away, she tidied her shirt and vest. Another thought, a moment later, dismissed the medical waste.
Ten minutes later, Curt walked in, looking tidier and shinier in his dress uniform than she could ever hope to do.
‘Does requiring have a reheat function?’ She asked as he sat.
‘I’ll deal with it,’ he said and waved his hand across the plate. ‘There’s nothing weird here, is there?’
‘I’ll save black pudding for when you’ve annoyed me.’
He cut into a sausage and popped a piece into his mouth. ‘I thought I might have made it onto the “annoying you” list with what just happened.’
‘You said you had a reason. I’m giving you the benefit of the doubt.’ She stared into her coffee. ‘Why’d you have to kill it?’
‘Genius, remember? Or- I don’t know if I told you. Literal genius, not bragging, it’s also not always that helpful. Am I right?’
‘I wasn’t going to make a horse-girl watch as I shot something like that. I do try to avoid cruelty when I can.’
‘Why are centaurs-’ she shook her head. ‘You said it wasn’t- So what was it, then?’
‘Okay,’ he said, then scratched at his chin. ‘Let’s work through this logically. You’ve gathered there’s animal fae, right?’
‘Like how you said Magnolia’s a magpie?’
He nodded. ‘Okay, good starting point. She’s half, by the way. Half-human, half-fae get a weird grab-bag of powers, it’s never a consistent thing. Say, if she’d had a sibling by the same father, they could have wings, whereas she’s only got the occasional patch of feathers that grow on her back. Full animal fae, if that was Mags, she’d be able to go between bird form and human form. Or…any stop along the way, birds like to show off wings, fish will have scale patterns in their skin, whatever you can think of.’
‘Following you so far. So that…was a horse person?’
He toyed with his breakfast for a minute. ‘Not quite.’ He required a tablet and played a video – not from the sim, but obviously some older security footage, of what seemed like a centaur in a horse stall. Unlike the sim’s low light, detail here was a lot easier to see. The way it recoiled as a stablehand walked past, the spooked look on its face, the flaring of nostrils-
‘That– It was a horse person without the person, wasn’t it?’
‘Some animal families will make… half creatures like this. Mockeries and freaks. They’re sold as slaves and entertainment. Each animal family has…’ he played with a toast soldier for a moment. ‘Generally, they’re called the Warden, you can think of them like the head of the family, the patron saint, or the king – different families, different structures, same powers. The Warden can control every member of the family under them, grant or take powers, or turn an ordinary creature from their family into a person. Or…do part of the job anyway.’
He nodded. ‘So you have a Warden or a proxy for them,’ he winced, then continued, ‘force a human shape onto an ordinary horse, and you get something like that sim creature. Consciousness, intelligence – these are much harder to do. Most of the time, people building mockeries don’t bother with it, complexity increases the price, and mockeries are sold as cheap toys.’ He wiped his hands on the napkin. ‘This mockery would have been an ordinary horse, and suddenly it had hands and a face that wasn’t designed to eat hay and grass.’
‘Or a digestive system to process it.’
‘Most mockeries are poorly built together, and only designed to have short lives. This one was probably already dying, whoever owned it didn’t want to deal with disposal fees, so they released it. And for extra shits and giggles, they decided to freak out some humans at the same time.’
‘So it’s kinder to put it down than make it suffer?’
‘Probably the least bad choice available, Newbie.’
‘Thank you,’ she said, staring into her coffee cup. ‘You- You were right. I’m glad I didn’t see you do it. Even if it was a sim. I used to have a pony.’
‘Grew out of the phase?’
‘Something like that, haha,’ she said, hating herself for how fake she sounded.
She didn’t even remember what she’d done wrong. Whatever it had been, it was something that James had decided was a punishment worth stabbing her in the soul.
Glue. He’d looked her dead in the eye and told her he was going to sell Buttercup for glue.
When you were as rich as her family, you could be pointlessly cruel to make a point.
Memories of apologising a thousand times, a thousand different ways. Stiff-lipped and formal apologies, crying apologies, written apologies. Letters bargaining the point, pointing out the benefits of letting her keep Buttercup. Memories of screaming and crying and begging – and getting shouted down for all three. Begging had earned a good, hard smack – one of the very few times James had hit her. Most of the time, words had stung hard enough, but begging had triggered him. Begging was unbecoming. Begging was something desperate people did, and people of their status, their position, were never desperate.
Begging meant that you weren’t able to negotiate well enough.
She’d offered her inheritance, and he’d shouted her out of his study.
It had been one of the few times mother had tried to have a conversation with her, but even then, the focus had been on how much more time she could put into ballet. There’d been a dozen new outfits and a dozen new pairs of shoes by the end of the week.
Running away in the night to get Buttercup and just ride off had been an appealing idea until logic got in the way. Genius pointed out the problems of food, of safety, of the likelihood of being found and brought back home, which would have made the situation worse.
James hadn’t even let her say goodbye. He just informed her when it had been done.
‘What?’ she asked, her voice thick.
‘When- When something is shit, you don’t have to pretend it’s not. You don’t have to talk about it, but-’
‘I don’t want to talk about it.’
‘And you don’t have to, but you don’t have to- You don’t owe anyone ever more than you want to say, but you’re- I’m not gonna pretend I can’t see how bothered you are.’
She stared past him, unable to meet his eyes. ‘I’ll try your language,’ she said. ‘Assuming it’s not just fluent Original Series you speak? Buttercup is my Stargazer, important, but gone a long time ago.’
‘Understood, Picard,’ he said. ‘Did you have more questions about this sim?’
‘The sim operator wasn’t saying much,’ she said, ‘though my presence might have messed with that. What’s expected of that role?’
‘Right, you haven’t actually been on the receiving end yet. It varies wildly by operator, which is why sometimes it takes a few tries to match up the right pairs of recruits, if there’s options available. Otherwise, you have to sort of take what you get. Or if you’re working outside of your usual area. Or if we’re short-handed and pull in some temp help. There are a dozen reasons you might not get your preferred operator. But-’ He cut a piece of bacon into two. ‘The comfort of the field recruit is prioritised. They’re the one out in the world, in potential danger, are the one needing help. You’ve always got to feel like you’re able to tell your operator to shut up, because distraction can kill.’
I’m not so good at asserting my needs.
‘If you can’t,’ he said, like he’d read her mind, ‘rip your headset out. It’s better to go it alone than to have someone pulling your attention. These are worst-case scenarios, mind, Agent Jones has a good team, so you’re probably not going to have a problem.’ Curt smiled. ‘I mean, I’m the resident piece of shit, and he even made sure I’m looked after by someone happy to work with me.’
‘Now, I want you to listen to the question I’m actually asking when I ask it, okay?’
‘Is there anything I need to know about how you got on the injured list for today?’
She immediately stared down at her empty coffee cup.
It wasn’t anything she wanted to talk about.
Think about what he just said.
‘You mean, did I make an enemy for life or something? Or- Or lasting damage that means I’m off the rest of the week or whatever?’
‘That kind of thing, yeah.’
He concentrated on his breakfast in a pronounced way, not looking at her, not trying to make eye contact. It was nice, he was giving her the space to process the question, and more importantly, the answer.
He didn’t need to know-how-
She stood up quickly. ‘What happens to evidence and stuff?’
‘You mean from last night?’ She nodded. ‘Well, ah, evidence storage.’ He stood. ‘But-’
She nodded again and was out of the door before he’d finished his sentence.
‘One,’ Curt called as he jogged to stand in front of her. ‘You’re going the wrong way to the actual room. Two, you don’t need to go there just yet.’ He held out a tablet. ‘Let’s see if what you’re after has been logged. Otherwise, we can go look at the crime scene.’
She looked down at the tablet and started to scroll through the few items listed as being held in evidence. There was also a separate – and much longer – list of things assumed to belong to the store.
Most of the evidence were items that had been probably pulled off the asshole that had tried to kill them. Ryan’s gun was listed, as was her phone.
And nowhere on the list were the golden phoenix feathers.
A once-in-a-lifetime gift and one stupid request for ice-cream had-
‘Find what you’re looking for?’
She shook her head.
‘Is it okay if you tell me what it is?’
‘Phoenix feathers,’ she said. ‘Me and Ryan- He took me to see the phoenix last night. And- And you get a feather at the end to show you’ve been there. There’s nothing like it on this list.’
‘We can go check the scene. Or if it’s too much for you to go back, I can-’
She touched a hand to the remaining dressing under her vest.
It hadn’t been a bad thing to ask for ice-cream.
‘I’ll be back in a minute.’
She walked down the hall, shoved on the swinging door to the bathroom and stepped in. All of the stalls were empty – though that wasn’t surprising, as Curt seemed to have picked this meeting room for its relative isolation from their colleagues.
Ice-cream should have been safe.
With a quick look at the door, she quickly dismissed her shirt, vest and tie, leaving herself in just the undershirt. This way, it was easy to pull off the dressing that was over the second gunshot, as well as peel off the half dozen or so little wound plasters that covered smaller cuts.
It had been a perfect night – magic unimagined and spending time with-
With the man who surely had the world record for the Strangers-to-Family speedrun.
It had been perfect, and some asshole had decided to intrude.
And now, souvenirs beyond precious were lost.
She required her uniform back.
Where there had been sad, now there was just mad.
It didn’t feel good, but it felt like it was buffing her ability to get stuff done.
It was always possible that the feathers had been swept aside with trash; or been blown outside of the radius where recorded evidence was taken from.
All she could do was check. And if they were really missing, then the sad could slink back and replace the mad.
She touched her tie, adjusted it, then left the bathroom.