04 - Ebb and Flow

09 – Punchline

Vincent stared at the selection of soda from his seat on the convenience store floor. Colas of varying caffeinated strengths. Energy drinks with various additives. Drinks that claimed to be fruit flavors of a rainbow of artificial colors.

Just pick a soda.

It should have been an easy task, but like every meal, every beverage he’d had since waking up – the second time – in the infirmary, he waited for the universe to tell him something about himself. 

He’d definitely been on Earth – and Faerie – long enough to develop a couple of preferences, but he wished there was something more than vibes he could rely on.

But, like the dateless, vibes were all he had for now.

He hooked his foot under the door of the refrigerated case and popped it open, the chill leaking through the patent leather of his Agency-issued shoes. 

He sighed, let the door fall closed again, then shifted his weight and contemplated the caffeine content in a cherry cola and if the grape soda had any significant difference in sugar content.

Maybe if he numbed his brain enough, a memory of running into a 7-11 on a hot summer’s day would break through the white noise that existed where his childhood should have been. 

The store was an unplanned stop on Jonathan’s latest fruitless attempt to jog memories and familiarize him with the areas that the Phoenix hub covered and where it intersected with the outpost agencies in their network.

The memories hadn’t come, but at least he was getting an idea of where the demarcation points were between the various pieces of their Agency.  

And it would be useful if they got Wraith’s go-ahead to join – or rejoin – the almost-functional-again Field Operations team.

After each location, they’d traded driving duties to also re-acclimatize him with that – as some real-world driving had been recommended along with the sims. 

He enjoyed the sims, though, as their reality could be warped anywhere from “so gentle, it wouldn’t disturb grandma on the way to church” to “this should be submitted to every dashcam YouTube channel”.

Cars caught fire so easily. 

And sometimes, it was fun to roast marshmallows amongst the chaos. 

Driving was another one of those things, like his surprising talents with leg-based martial arts and jackassery that he was a natural at.

Even if his foot was a little more leaden than was advisable. 

Even if they’d been pulled over by the cops twice already, both incidents solved with a flash of red-and-gray ID. 

Jonathan had given the standard rebuke, but there had been little annoyance in his voice – truth be told, he’d caught the agent smiling whenever he’d done something that skirted the bounds of what a good and model recruit was probably supposed to do.

The convenience store’s doors opened, and he winced as he’d done the past half-dozen times. Where it should have been a nice, clean whoosh, there was something far more like the screech of an annoyed crow with a sore throat.  

Require: fix whatever the fuck is wrong with that door.

Halfway through the closing grind-and-screech, the sound changed as magic performed long-neglected maintenance.

No comment from either the sleepy cashier or whoever had entered, likely Jonathan coming to get him. 

Soda, after all, could be required, and he’d spent more than enough time proverbially sitting on his ass, avoiding work. 

A half look towards the now-fixed door revealed three- His mind automatically parsed them as “tourists” for some reason. That wasn’t entirely unreasonable – this store was close enough to the highway to be a detour for snacks. 

Something else had him shifting his weight again, flexing his muscles, and looking for exits. 

But something Jonathan had stressed to him was that it was far too easy for recruits to get paranoid, to suspect everyone not wearing a uniform of being against them. 

It was smart to be aware, to be cognizant of your surroundings. Still, you couldn’t act without information or without a reason.

And three men giving slightly off vibes that could have just as easily been explained away as being tired from hours of driving or something equally mundane didn’t warrant whipping his Agency ID out and demanding that they kiss the dirty tiles.

But he allowed his guard to stay up and watched them in the reflection of the soda display case.

Tourist Number One, in the next aisle over, picked up a package of donuts. 

Number Two, at the coffee machine, picked up a paper cup. 

Number Three, by the magazine rack, pretended to be interested in the latest news about some celebrity Vincent had never heard of. 

All would have been innocuous if their eyes didn’t keep darting up whenever they thought they wouldn’t be seen.

One, maybe two, men randomly staring at him could be excused. Maybe one wanted to fuck, maybe one was just spoiling for a brawl in a parking lot. Three wasn’t just a coincidence. 

He took out a bottle of water and started looking for a sandwich. The tourists all stopped their furtive glances.

Donut had the largest blind spot, so getting behind and knocking him out would be easy. 

Magazine tourist had gotten too into character as being interested in celebrity gossip.

He made a couple of requirements and casually browsed towards the front of the store, closer to the exit but still far enough that they couldn’t immediately reach him. 

Donut moved quicker, threw his selections down on the counter, and paid for them with crumpled bills. 

Huh.

Magazine followed him out without making a purchase, and Coffee followed quickly after. 

Maybe they had just been tired, grumpy guys with weird vibes. Maybe they hadn’t been-

Something touched his foot. 

Vincent looked down and, for a moment, thought he’d dropped a can of soda. 

Fuck.

He was running, his feet acting on instinct before he’d really taken in what he’d seen. Something small, metallic, and glowing faintly green. 

Time stretched like pulled taffy, his breath, his brain still catching up as he launched over the counter, clotheslining the attendant down as the world went white. 

Not for long enough. Never for long enough. 

And that thought almost seemed like a memory.

There was a loud noise, and the store windows rattled, a couple shattering as another grenade went off. 

The first moments after an explosion sucked far more than could ever really be conveyed. Sometimes, movies made it seem like a video game respawn, that you just woke up, covered in an aesthetically-pleasing level of grime that you could shake off before fighting the boss. 

The real first moments after an explosion – even as mild as this one – had you looking to see if your brain was still intact, figuring out if you were going to get a stamp on your Frequent Concussion card, and fighting to think clearly before the enemy got the drop on you.

Vincent licked his bleeding lip, and shook his head, feeling the cracked plaster behind him.

Require: gun.

Nothing. 

Blackout bomb, annoying, but the reason he wasn’t dead. The ones like he’d seen at his foot were really just flashbangs-with-a-bit-more-bang.

‘Fuck.’

Beside him, the cashier – now fully awake – stared saucer-eyed at him, a bag of chips held to his chest with one hand like the world’s worst bulletproof shield.

His other hand was extended and was holding down the silent alarm. 

Under normal circumstances, it was the right thing to do. Under Agency vs. Solstice circumstances, civilian authorities would only make things more difficult.

‘Stay quiet,’ he ordered the cashier. ‘They aren’t after you.’

The guy, probably earning minimum wage at best, nodded and crawled under a deeper section of counter that had previously been occupied by a bin and a yellowed printer. 

‘Heyuh,’ the cashier said, voice shaking so badly that it wasn’t really words. ‘He- Here.’ He took one hand off the bag of chips, fumbled near the footwell under the cash register, and threw Vincent a piece of pipe. ‘Night shift guys. Protection. Yaknow.’ His arm wrapped back over the chips, and he fumbled with a phone. 

Phone. Communications. Good idea.

Vincent slipped a hand into an inside jacket pocket, felt for his earpiece, and slipped it over his ear, then tapped it into active mode.

System territory or not, regular human, civilian communications means existed and functioned as a backup.

No one was actively talking, and with the gunshots outside, he wasn’t about to bother Jonathan. Still, at least he’d know when backup arrived.

Gun. Two spare magazines in his pocket. Iron bar tucked up into his jacket sleeve. Unknown number of enemies. 

Easy.

They hadn’t expected trouble, but Jonathan had insisted he go armed. And muscle memory, along with the time he’d put in with the range in the empty Field gym, assured him he had some skill with a gun.

He nimbly vaulted back over the counter and quietly stepped through the store. Coffee, Donut, and Magazine had vacated before the explosion. Still, there’d been enough time while his ears rang for someone to return.

And the open door, partially off its tracks, did look like someone had shoved their way back in.

The wall of windows that looked out onto the parking lot was a mess – some of the windows were broken, others were missing large sections, a couple of had spiderwebbed but not broken and-

Another shattered as a bullet came through, exploding a bag of cat food a few feet ahead of him.

The soda fridge, full of sugar and potential existential crises, hung open, sad, lightless, and full of leaking cans and bottles.

The staff backdoor was open, which hadn’t been the case earlier, so-

Vincent spun at the sound of crunching glass and ducked, peering through the candy rack at the two men who had entered. 

The one in front fired without hesitation, and candy made for a poor shield. 

Something wet splashed his leg, and he hoped it was just another soda killed before its time.

There were a lot of Solstice who were good with a gun. Many more relied on uneven odds and an inflated sense of perverted justice to do the job of proper training.

He had hours upon hours of training that he could remember and far more that he couldn’t.

Vincent smiled.

Draw. Finger off trigger. Check safety. Aim. Safety off. Fire.

One went down. 

Duck. Dodge. Return fire.

The other took a round in the shoulder and sank to the floor, screaming instructions at the three new Solstice making their way through the door.

Vincent ducked low as a spray of machine gun fire, pressing flat to the floor as snacks exploded into confetti above him.

At least one round ripped through a peaked fold in his jacket, and he exhaled, trying to enflatten himself even more.

Between bursts, he heard steps as at least one of the Solstice tried to get an angle to come at him directly.

‘Go team will be en route in sixty seconds,’ a voice he didn’t recognize in his earpiece. Good. A little slower than optimal, but-

Movement. In the small gap under the shelf, he saw the boot of the moving Solstice a few aisles over. 

Awkwardly, he tucked his arm to his chest, then extended it under the shelf beside him, angled his gun, and fired three shots at the boot.

The man went down screaming a salty selection of curses. 

Something exploded in the parking lot, a full, fiery whumpf of a car becoming spare parts, and Vincent took the moment to scramble through the open back door.

Open air, turn to the left, and-

A man waiting, a gun leveled. 

‘Drop the gun.’

Three words that strangely made him feel, at the same moment, better but confused, and he tried to figure that reaction out as he slowly raised his arms – in a way that didn’t slow his sleeve stiff with the lead pipe – and played for a couple of precious seconds.

If they had wanted him dead, he wouldn’t be having any thoughts at all. The gun pointed at his head would have done its job. That meant a capture mission. Not unusual when Solstice interacted with recruits, who they so often saw as far worse than agents.

Agents, after all, had no choice in how they were born. From a Solstice point of view, recruits had deliberately turned their back on humanity.

So a good ol’ recruit torture was a fun way to spend a Friday night. And the tapes could be sold to help pay for the Christmas party and the retirement fund, where-

Focus. He had to focus.

A white transit van was just to the side, with a faded electrician’s logo half-visible even with the sliding door open. A common getaway vehicle, easy to throw hostages into. Another point that it was a kidnapping. 

But the men in the store hadn’t been shooting with care. That said execution. 

Maybe there were two teams, maybe one had different quotas to hit, maybe-

‘Drop it!’

He dropped his gun, then raised his arms higher as someone came up behind him and gave the most cursory pat of his jacket and pants, only finding the spare magazines but not bothering to remove his phone or wallet or anything else that could have been hiding tools or little bits of Agency tech.

‘Thirty seconds,’ his earpiece said, which prompted the patter-downer to rip the earpiece from his ear and toss it aside.

Vincent dropped his arms, his hand curled just a little to catch the bar from falling too far.

‘Do I get a last request?’ 

‘Shut up.’

‘Come on, man, I just want to tell a joke.’ He smiled at the confusion on the gun wielder’s face as he heard the patter-downer fumbling with handcuffs. 

“I’ll take your hesitation as a yes. So, these six Solstice walk into a bar…”

He tilted his hand, let the bar slide from his sleeve, and struck. 

The first blow knocked the man’s head to an obscene Dutch-Angle tilt. The second came down on top of his skull, crunching like cereal. 

The look of confusion stayed frozen on the man’s face as he went down, 

Vincent swore as he was kicked from behind but didn’t lose his footing, instead turning sharply, his feet doing exactly what he wanted to do, his arms locked as he spun and brought the bar across the side of the man’s face.

Messy. But effective.

There was some noise from his headset. Presumably, the thirty second count was done, and the go team were beginning to appear.

Two Solstice rushed him from the van, holding a gloriously impractical baseball bat wrapped in wire, the other stalking forward, firing shots from a revolver.

A shot grazed his arm, and he ducked back into the store.

A gloved hand grabbed him and pulled him to the side as two riot-gear-covered recruits rushed out into the sunshine.

The glove grabbed his shoulder, spun him, then directed him out of the store and through the parking-lot-slash-warzone.

Only once he had been shoved into the back of a van – this one black, unmarked, and containing a Jonathan with mussed hair – did the gloved hand fully release him.

Jonathan grabbed his arm – in the exact spot where the revolver round had grazed him – and Vincent tried not to scream. 

‘Are you alright?’ Jonathan asked, then wrenched his hand back and went pale. ‘I’m- Sorry. Sorry. Recruit?’ he called to someone in the van, and an unfamiliar face, in a lab coat came, first aid kit in hand.

Vincent waved them off with his good arm. ‘I can wait for Honeycutt. You good?’

Jonathan pointed down, and Vincent saw that the Agent’s pants had been torn open over the knee and the site drenched in blue. ‘Not bad, considering.’ Jonathan pointed. ‘You’ll need to get Honeycutt to see to that too.’

Vincent looked down at his own leg, at where the splash had been – definitely not soda – and he finally felt the adrenaline-dulled pain that heralded a lot more unless he saw Medical soon.

Still, for the number of Solstice, for the…

‘Jonathan?’

‘Yes?’

It wasn’t the kind of question you were supposed to ask. It was the kind of thing that would jinx a good situation. It was Threepio telling you the odds. It was-

‘Was this too easy?’

Part of him wished he hadn’t been looking at Jonathan’s face as the question had emptied his lungs. 

It was slight, the shadow of a reaction before some casual agent face emote took over Jonathan’s face, but it had been there. 

‘Maybe a little,’ Jonathan said after a moment, the words seeming to hurt to say. ‘But I don’t know what that means. Sometimes, they get cocky. I was in the car; they only saw a recruit by themselves. The tactics were a little strange if they had intended on just grabbing you-’

‘They did have a van out the back.’

Jonathan pointed through the gathered Combat recruits. ‘And another here.’ A long pause. ‘It was flashy and in broad daylight. The Liaison office will be earning their proverbial paycheck with this incident. But. Things like this do happen, Vincent. We are good at our jobs, and though the remedies are easy, we didn’t escape unscathed.’ 

‘So we take the win but keep our guard up?’

Jonathan smiled weakly. ‘Something like that, Joker, something like that.’

 

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  • Stormy

    She/her Bi nerd, originally from Brisbane, currently in Melbourne.

  • Shade

    Shade has a strange sense of humour. He met Stormy mostly by accident and, shortly after, wedged himself into her world like he'd been there forever. Again, completely by accident. Living in Utah most of his life, he's come to loathe snow, casserole, and traffic, and enjoys gaming, puns, and gaming puns. He intends to take over the world some day, but is, quite frankly, too lazy to do it.

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