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Afternoon slid into early evening, and as it did, more techs started to fill in the empty desks, taking up their position as guys-gals-and-nonbinary-pals in the chair, support to their field or combat recruit.
And in another world, she’d be doing the same thing.
Stef held back a sigh, and tried to fight down any feelings of missing out. She was lucky – more than lucky – to have found a place where she might belong. An entire flight of luck dragons had been drained in order for the stars to align just right. The fact that maybe in a few weeks or months she’d have to transfer departments in order to be fully useful was meaningless in comparison to that.
For the time being, she’d just do her best not to fuck up too badly.
Raz peeled off first, explaining that it was important to him to be prepared for Curt, so planned on virtually running Curt’s planned route with Celeste a few times, now that all the tricks, traps and extra resources were in place.
Sacha said his goodbyes and headed to the call centre, but stopped before getting to the door in order to chat with another tech.
‘Technically, this isn’t his manager shift,’ Screen explained as she sipped on an oversized pink slushie. ‘But he likes to be there as backup when something big goes down.’
‘Do you, um, want me to GTFO so you can get ready?’
Screen shook her head. ‘Merlin is looking after Mags tonight, so I’m a free agent. Basically that means drone duty unless – well, probably until – someone needs a replacement.’
She nodded. ‘I’ll still be quiet.’
‘How the fuck are you going to learn anything if you’re quiet?’ Screen asked with a grin. A couple of clicks maximised the view from a drone on autopilot. ‘Deeply personal shit aside, what would you wish for?’
‘Everyone in this world has had this conversation at least once. Usually while drunk, around one of those glass verandah tables while getting bitten by mozzies. Most people want magic, different magic, or superpowers. Some people want unicorns back, but refuse to say if it’s altruistic or because they’re hungry and-’
Screen grinned. ‘Oh, sweet summer child. TL;DR: unicorns are extinct because they were so fucking delicious.’
‘The story’s a bit sadder, but basically.’
On the monitor, the drone landed beside a recruit, whose hand came into frame to pet it.
‘Combat,’ Screen explained. ‘Our snipers go in early, settle down in their first positions. Build their nests like little birdies and become as invisible as possible before the rest of the teams head in.’
She looked at her own tablet, which showed the positions of the teams and drones across various layers. A few taps expanded the layer options for Combat, then selected the sniper subgroup. She stared at the dots. ‘Do we really have that many good snipers? Isn’t sniping usually something you have to spec pretty heavily into to be any good?’
‘Most can only really deal with the immediate area around their building, not any decent shots. It’s also an intimidation tactic, so even if they don’t get a shot, it might discourage some. Taking down previously-identified Solstice is a plus. A lot of the treasure-hunters and the civilians we don’t currently class as threats are easily discouraged. It’s one kind of bravery to show up early, when there’s hardly anyone around, chest all puffed out and hoping for a payday. It’s a few levels up from that where people will stay when they hear a gunshot. Some wishes are worth dying for, some aren’t.’
Time passed, and more of the screens on the front wall began to stream drone footage as the operators followed their recruits.
Jonesy arrived, holding the hand of…what seemed to be a child cosplaying a tech recruit.
She reached out and tapped the desk near Screen’s keyboard. ‘Um?’ she asked, with a hopefully-subtle point.
‘You haven’t met Merlin yet?’
She shook her head.
‘You really need to come down here for like a full day and I can drag you around, have you meet all the important people, and show you all the cool stuff.’
‘I mean, he’s holding Jonesy’s hand, so I’m guessing he’s pretty important.’
‘He’s Jonesy’s kid,’ Screen said with a smile. ‘Adopted, before you ask. Not technically a recruit, because he’s…well, we don’t know how old he is, but we go with “about twelve” and you without special circumstances, you can’t be a recruit until you’re of legal age.’
‘So he’s here to observe.’
‘He’s not technically a recruit,’ Screen said, her nose scrunching, ‘but he does work. He’s usually Mags’ operator, since he basically worships the ground she walks on. Jonesy adopted Merlin, and Merlin followed suit by claiming Mags as his big sister.’
‘That’s…really kind of cute.’
Screen slid her chair closer. ‘Don’t let Mags hear you say that. There’s only certain people she lets call her cute, and you’re probably not on that list yet, n00b. Mags does have-’
A scream ripped through the room.
Stef stood up and looked to the front corner of the room, where a tall, thin recruit was fighting to get up off his chair but finding himself entangled in his headphones. He screamed again and wrenched away from his desk. He dragged the tower onto the floor before he was finally able to break free.
One of the techs standing by the snack table ran over to him and braced the screaming boy before he fell.
‘Singh, get him out of here,’ Jones ordered. ‘Alfie, take over!’ he said, whirling on a short girl who’d been pouring drinks.
The girl ran forwards, required the computer back into working order, and was already looking around the screen when the map came back up.
‘The fuck?’ Stef asked Screen quietly. Screen pointed to the list of recruits on her monitor, and it was suddenly apparent that one was now greyed out, with a red “Deceased” tag where the line for the ECG had been. ‘Oh. Fuck.’
‘People die,’ Screen said. ‘Sometimes we can’t stop it. Rewind his footage; see if you can track who or what did it. Everyone else who isn’t doing an active will be doing the same thing.’
‘Got him!’ Alfie yelled. ‘He’s moving down–’ She went quiet.
One of the windows on Stef’s monitor started to blink, so she clicked it, and she was surprised to see what had been a single view – probably from a drone, was now eight very similar views of the one stretch of road – possibly drones flying in formation, with a man in a black shirt moving quickly in the shadowy parts of the street.
Jones turned away from the monitors to face the room. ‘Incoming.’
Screen hadn’t looked away from her monitors. ‘Are you easily squicked?’
‘Depends on the content.’
The purple-haired tech pointed. ‘Here comes your litmus test.’
Eight screens showed the man being knocked out of a pool of shadow and onto the road.
The drones, thankfully, didn’t appear to provide sound – or, if they did, it was muted. Stef stared at the footage, enthralled and disgusted as Agent Volcano beat the man’s head into the ground, then–
Stef stared. ‘Oh, holy fuck.’
She heard at least one of the techs vomiting.
Taylor disappeared from the footage as quickly as he’d appeared, leaving the drones staring down at a body that was now in two pieces – the head several metres from the rest.
‘Did– Did he just do that?’
Stef stared at the screen and the form of the dead man, which receded as the drones retreated. ‘He just pulled a guy’s head off.’
‘I-’ Stef pinched her nose. ‘How-’
‘Taylor, Mags and their team are the only reason I’m still alive and adorable,’ Screen said quietly. ‘Their methods are extreme, but necessary. That pile of garbage just murdered a recruit for the crime of wearing a suit, such little hesitation means he’s done it before, would do it again. Now, there’s one less monster in the world.’
‘It’s still not-’ She stared at the wall of monitors that had thankfully moved on from the gruesome image. ‘That’s still going to take a bit to process.’
‘We do this,’ Screen said, ‘so people can sleep safely. So the civilians coming in to pay their respects are safe. It’s not how we deal with every solution, but sometimes-’ She drummed her fingers on the desk. ‘It’s awful, but it’s necessary.’
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Available now from author Miranda Sparks
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.