‘Usually,’ Jonathan said, tilting his head to look up at Vincent, ‘there’s just-’
‘Dodge!’ Vincent called out as his sunglasses slipped from his jacket pocket, along with his phone and the little Agent Mulder leather ID folder with his recently reinstated ID.
Jonathan neatly stepped aside, the casualness of the reflex making Vincent wonder exactly how much of Jonathan’s walking-into-furniture pratfalling had been willingly participating in the prank and how much he’d-
The suction cup on his knee popped loudly as he adjusted his position, crawled further along the ceiling, and considered his options.
Right now, he was extremely safe, as this section of the multipurpose room was only about ten feet high. If he moved further out, it would suddenly open up, like a reverse drop-off past a beach, with a ceiling well above the thirty-foot-tall brick wall that was the target of the test he was supposed to be taking.
He trusted the suction cups at ten feet. He wasn’t sure about fifty.
But it might be fun to try.
‘I really do need you to come down,’ Jonathan said. ‘I have all day, but Williams is-’
‘I have a book,’ Williams said from the far corner of the mostly-empty room. ‘But don’t take all day, Recruit.’
Vincent looked down at Jonathan again, made sure he was no longer directly over the agent, then popped all of the suction cups until he was hanging by the two he held in his hands, then grinned to no one and dropped to the floor.
Jonathan helped him remove the velcro straps around his wrists that stopped the climber from losing their gear and shook his head slightly. ‘This,’ Jonathan said, looking for a train of thought that had seemingly tried to leave the station without him, ‘is why testing existing recruits needs special care. And not just three of the standard tests.’
‘You still nerfed me,’ Vincent said, feeling weirdly naked with requirements temporarily switched off. Even for a power he’d only had for a couple of weeks, he’d grown accustomed to using it in every facet of his life.
Breakfast. Required. Hotcakes that had become cold cakes due to getting distracted with some test or job were reheated faster than a microwave with one thought from his head. Bizarre products in weird ads were in his hands in seconds, filling his time with weird, precious joy.
Food competition masterpieces became dinner without the wave of a magic wand. Clothes always fit. Razors were always sharp and perfect, giving his face baby-bum smooth skin when he remembered to shave.
Less than a month, and it was already integrated into every hour of every day.
But, in fairness to himself, with his brain the way it was, this was also his entire life, so maybe there was some slack to be cut.
The thirty-foot tall brick wall that stood without support was a common first test for recruits. Like all the tests, how you approached the challenge was just as crucial in determining a final score as your actual performance.
Skill could be taught, attitude was harder to adjust. Though it was something Victor could probably manage, some dark part of his brain added.
Unless you were really into fitness or came from some kind of military background, scaling a sheer wall didn’t come naturally, so it was a good first obstacle to put in front of a potential recruit.
Tables of equipment were supplied, giving the test taker dozens of options, from a simple grappling hook to something, upon questioning Jonathan, was some kind of Agency construction tool that could cut a perfect hole in the brick.
The spider-climb-suction-cups had been too tempting not to try, even more so than the- Well, he assumed the construction tool was some kind of laser.
And that choice vindicated the point Jonathan was trying to make.
Pulling a random person off the street, introducing them to magic, and then throwing them at a brick wall was one thing. You would get a pretty accurate read on their base personality and abilities.
Throw a recruit at that same brick wall, even if it wasn’t a test they’d done before – and, because of how they were filtering information about his recruit career, he wasn’t sure if this had been one of his tests – and you were going to get a recruit’s response.
It necessitated multiple tests for each department so that their scores could be averaged to see if there was any real change from a previous assessment.
Yet another reason that this was the least popular way for recruit scores to be updated, with most agents preferring just to naturally increase a recruit’s score through actual performance.
But, sometimes, you had an amnesiac working on the world record of individually-required rubber chickens, and everyone had to find a spare hour to facilitate the tests.
Vincent walked out to the wall, feeling the difference in the air around him as he stepped out from the normal-height ceiling to the warehouse-height ceiling above the bricks, and marveled how this was just…normal.
The Agency bent space like it was nothing, like it was so normal that it wasn’t worth remarking on, and there was something…fucking cool about that.
And he was enjoying learning this all again, for the first time.
‘I’ll call this a pass,’ Jonathan said, ‘please move on to Willaims.’
The wall disappeared, opening up the space and revealing the four large crash mats Williams had set up for his test.
The Combat agent, in his Combat uniform for once – as he truly did seem to prefer the formal suity uniform, put his book down on the out-of-place cafe-style table next to some sort of complicated coffee press, stood, and nodded.
‘I thought a rematch of sorts,’ Williams said as he stood and worked out the muscles in his arms as he walked to the center of the red mats. ‘Just come at me, Recruit, and let’s see what you can do.’
Vincent turned to Jonathan. ‘Can you dress me for the occasion?’
His suit rippled and became a set of dull red BDUs, the Field logo stitched into his jacket, just above his heart. Normally, the jacket would be a good idea, as it provided protection. Still, a little more freedom of movement would serve him better than a little more defense.
Especially when Williams wouldn’t – probably wouldn’t – be looking to come at him with small-bladed weapons or the other sharp tools that the fabric of the BDUs was good at deflecting.
Fighting was an inevitable part of Agency life. He’d begun his New Game Plus by tackling an agent and being threatened by the man squaring up across from him now. It was a daily – or at least weekly (but certainly not weakly) – reality for Combat recruits, but Field followed at a close second.
It was most often Field getting in over their heads that necessitated pulling out the big guns, after all.
So between sessions of “Will this image of a frog trigger any latent programming”, and finding the boundaries of things he needed to relearn and things that he knew but didn’t know that he knew, time in the gym had run as a close second priority.
And between scenario sims and instructor sims, it had become readily apparent that he wasn’t half-bad at his job.
Which made sense, given what little he knew about his former life. As corrupt and vile as Victor was, the man hadn’t been an idiot and had chosen someone who could look after themselves.
Probably not the best recruit Field had ever had, that would have made his absence too obvious, but definitely somewhere in the upper end of the herd.
Disappointed that Tech wasn’t actually able to download kung-fu into his brain – despite standing in front of Paulson and gesticulating wildly at both a VHS copy of The Matrix and the bevy of advanced technology in the main
Paulson had just stated, “You aren’t enough of an augment to do that” and then glazed over, going into HUD mode to ignore him.
He’d left only after drawing a mustache on the tech with a blueberry-scented marker.
So, unable to cheat his way to picking a specialty, he’d started doing little five-minute taste-testing sessions with an Instructor Bob, who would take him through a basic move set of a martial art while he took the time to see if he vibed with it.
Some agents fighting-autopilot that would put their conscious brain and decision-making ability, strap it into a mental baby seat and keep them alive until all their enemies were dead or incapacitated.
And as Bob had made his way through the martial arts alphabet, he felt a little of what agents with autopilot must experience as every so often, he’d start to follow a move set, and something would just click, and his arms and legs would know what to do while his brain watched from a corner.
Muscle memory, his sad mantra had repeated, that he had no memory of making.
Not too far into the asskick-alphabet, he’d been tempted to change into a yellow… speed suit, jumpsuit, whatever it was called, and put on some Bruce Lee movies on the gym projector screens.
He could throw a punch and got preprogrammed nods of approval from Bob about his form, but like Lee, his power and skill points seemed to be largely concentrated in his legs.
Jujitsu had come naturally, as had…
He sprang forward, hands finding purchase on the red mat as he tilted up into a handstand and kicked Williams in the face.
He swung his legs and brought himself right-side up for a moment, then cartwheeled around the agent, who looked more amused than annoyed at the unexpected form of attack.
Williams deflected the next couple of attacks, then kept at a distance, distance Vincent used to show off a couple of nice moves, as this wasn’t so much a test of ‘beating the shit out of a department head’ as it was ‘impress for a good grade’.
It always felt good to be in his body, focused on the flow of movements, and feel himself trusting himself, even when it might not have been a good idea.
Five minutes of running around on his hands while seeing how much weight he could bear on legs curled above his head was easier than five minutes of staring at a wall, knowing he’d lost everything.
A grounding of actual martial arts, real fighting techniques, and proper discipline…with a sprinkle of circus arts, made it easy to actively choose joy each day.
And all the practice was worth it as flip after flip and lunges and dodges, he kept just out of reach of most of Williams’ attacks, at least for a few minutes.
His luck ran out, or Williams dialed up his effort-o-meter, and a solid – but not painful – kick had him gasping for air on the mat.
‘Good enough for me,’ Williams said, offering a hand down.
‘I’ll, uh, stay here for a moment,’ Vincent said, knowing Williams had restrained himself but still feeling the effect of a size eleven combat boot to the gut.
The tension on the mat changed a little as a weight was lifted, and without the sound of footsteps, he assumed Williams had shifted away, his job done for now.
At least one more test fell under Combat’s control, but that was a scenario sim Williams had already stated would be graded by Aide Campbell later in the day.
Jonathan sat on the mat beside him, looking vaguely uncomfortable as he always did when he was asked to be even the slightest bit casual. ‘Not bad, Vincent.’
‘Some bits do work better with the clown costume,’ he admitted, then took the sports drink that Jonathan offered. ‘But I thought that might not be professional.’
‘Perhaps not. Are you ready to progress?’
‘I fully believe you did that intentionally.’
‘Did what intentionally?’
An Agent’s poker face was the absolute pinnacle of perfect poker faces. It was one of the perks of having a face that could be fully controlled by command lines and pre-written code. Of course, that poker face meant that Vincent had no idea if Jonathan was genuinely oblivious or exacting sarcastic revenge on the past week of pranks.
‘You should be very familiar with my sense of humor by now, so I’m sure you saw the opportunity to pull the rug out from under me.’
‘I really must ask you to clarify. I really don’t know what you’re talking about.’
Vincent was sure that his glare was starting to burn a hole in the folder Jonathan was holding. The folder containing the full results of his placement scoring. The folder that had the single most frustrating number he’d ever seen. The folder documenting his field score.
A score of six point eight.
‘Six point eight!’
‘It’s a perfectly serviceable score, You only need a four to be able to enter the Field, and you’ve exceeded that by more than fifty-’
‘You know damn well exactly what I’m talking about.’
‘Five agents will score the same recruit five different ways, right? That’s the party line, right? Means that the scores are relative and not absolute?’
‘So you’re allowed a little flexibility in how you-’
‘Given our positions, I tried to score on the more conservative side of things,’ Jonathan said. ‘If you were to retake the tests in six months, I’m sure-’
‘That’s not the point!’
‘Then the point is…?’
‘One fraction of a point higher. One-tenth. That’s all I ask.’
‘I’m afraid I’m going to have to deny that request, recruit.’
‘Why the the fucking hell would-’
‘Because I know how badly you want it, how you’d talk about it constantly, how you’d come up with all sorts of ways to bring it into the conversation.’
‘I knew you had me figured out.’
‘And because I think it’s so much more funny if I refuse to give you the satisfaction.’
Vincent took a deep breath and tried to muster as perfect a poker face as Jonathan always had. He leaned closer to Jonathan, staring him down to the best of his abilities. ‘You. Bastard.’
He required a pen as violently as one can summon a cheap-looking pen out of thin air, stabbed his signature into the box, and watched the paper vanish into whatever the hell space the System used for filing.
Jonathan had released his poker face, and looked like a normal human who had just told the best joke of his life.
‘And I equally value our friendship, Vincent.’