02 - Mirrorheart

30 – Discontent

Curt stared at the inbox, then slid his chair a little to the right, and went back to picking at his breakfast.

He’d never had an ordinary work life – after school and after graduation, he’d worked for his dad’s stores, hauling cartons of fruit and veg for a pay cheque inflated by nepotism.

There’d never really been anything to work out there – there was always some experienced manager ready to yell instructions about what truck to pack or unpack.

Even learning the register had taken all of five minutes to understand.

Then there’d been his time with the Solstice – both the closest and furthest from normal that he’d ever been.

There had been the… things he didn’t like to think about. The dirty jobs. The blood and the regret and everything he’d always hate himself for.

But then there’d also been the call centre work, sitting in front of a computer, taking calls, organising shipments and tracking where packages were – both those sent through regular courier services, and those that moved far more invisibly.

Those days were almost normal, when judged against an Average Joe you might pull off the street.

Buy some quick breakfast, work for a bit, leave the office to go get lunch, then slowly slog through the afternoon until five PM rolled around.

But his first week or so… he’d had no idea what to do. He’d been left with a manual – one that had clearly been cobbled together by people who’d been too long in the job to recognise that each step needed to be explained; and by people who’d tried to correct this paucity of information without having done the job.

Resultantly, he’d spent most of each day mostly playing on his phone, and trying to ghost his co-workers. Every step he’d taken on his own had felt like a gamble.

And now, on the other side of the war, he was reliving that same experience.

Functionally, he was qualified to be an Aide. His experience, record and training positioned him to be the exact kind of person appointed into the role.

But being qualified was different to being told how to do the job.

Before this, Ryan had simply handed him a stack of whatever had needed doing, and he’d done ninety percent of each task, handing each back to be double-checked and finalised.

Now, he was untethered, feeling exactly as lost as he’d done back in his first days working in Shipping & Freight.

He had access to the Field general inbox – that was, anything that concerned the department, but wasn’t specifically addressed to Ryan.

Requests for time off, changes to schedules, general queries – essentially anything that wasn’t ‘personal’.

And on their own, each query was something he could handle – either because he’d done it before, in one of Ryan’s paperwork stacks; or the answer was easy enough to find.

But Ryan wasn’t used to having an aide, and was still actioning items from the inbox – and there seemed to be no rhyme or reason as to how things disappeared.

If he’d been asked to guess, he would have said that the agent was the kind of person to start at the top and work down, item by item, until he reached the bottom. With another moment’s consideration, he would have clarified that it would have been done with the requests sorted from oldest to newest; actioning them in received order; unless any were marked as priority.

This wasn’t the case, and it made him wary of touching any item in the inbox, lest it be one of the tasks that Ryan wanted to handle himself.

So now as an unofficial interim aide for an interim director, he was of less value than he’d been the previous week, when there’d been nothing official in place.

He tabbed away from the inbox, and perused the online learning section suggested for new aides, and those wishing to take on the role.

This was a page he was well-familiar with – even if he’d never really expected to get the position, being more and more qualified made him more valuable; and less likely to catch a bullet when some agent was having a bad day and needed to take it out on someone.

Value meant life, and quantifiable value even more so.

He’d been careful to be strategic though – if he’d gone A-to-Z on the modules designed to make a perfect aide, it would have seemed like he was pushing himself too forward – and after Ryan had rejected his first proposal for the job, he’d been more careful to keep his head down.

So he’d designed a rough plan – a Venn diagram of where the ideal aide modules lined up with general and Field qualifications. Often at the end of a training sequence, there’d be suggested advanced study – the educational equivalent of ‘you liked this product, buy this next’ – and more often than not, those advanced options were part of the aide list.

So it allowed him to tick things off the list without being as obvious as selecting the course directly from the aide page.

And as paranoid as his thinking was, he was sure that if online stores could predict your next purchase; Agency analytics were able to devise patterns about people through their data usage, and draw conclusions that could praise or condemn.

The hour ticked over – and according to his scheduled, Ryan would now be in a meeting with a couple of the Outpost agents – that meant that he’d likely be too busy to deal with everyday paperwork – so while there was always the possibility he’d take a task that Ryan had intended to do, there was far less of a probability that he’d try and take it directly as Ryan was also clicking on it.

‘Jesus Christ,’ he mumbled under his breath, and wondered if these what-if-what-if-move-countermove-redundacy thought patterns were what went through Newbie’s head all the time.

Newbie. Another topic Ryan was completely opaque on.

A couple of days after the confession, he’d made one more gentle query, to be met with a flat answer that when there was news, there would be news, until then… And the agent’s look had given him the firm-but-not-ungentle instruction not to broach the topic again.

And it was something he had compartmentalised – as much anger and grief as had raged in those  hours where he’d thought the Agency had killed a girl without care; he had just as much a selfish desire for things to slide into this new normal.

Realisitally, he was going to be stuck with the suit for years, unless some fuck up in the field left him as nothing but a corpse for Parker-2 to play with.

And his repeating mantra was that he had to make the best of it. The… blip with Ryan had to be just that, and he had to go back to being disconnected, falling into the mask of perfect Recruit Curt, until the day he was safe to leave.

Nothing was going to be perfect, but on good days, there were going to be little moments of joy.

He couldn’t keep the smile away as he sent a form-letter to Brian, denying his request for leave.

It was a completely reasonable denial – while there were official rules for leave entitlements, most agencies had their own modified versions, which were based on how much cover they were able to pull from Outposts if necessary; amongst other factors.

In reality, it often came down to the idea of fair play; along with the idea of soft-and-hard breaks.

Soft breaks were easier to allow, as it generally meant that a recruit was taking off time to spend either alone – for example, when Raz went out of town to go a nerd convention; or would be spending time with people well aware of the world, and that particular recruits job.

Soft breaks could be easily interrupted if cover was unavailable, or their department needed more numbers.

Hard breaks meant that it would be much more difficult to recall a recruit – for example, if they were holidaying with their civilian family in another country. Interrupting a hard break – and potentially leading to difficult conversations for a recruit and their family or loved ones – was generally reserved for more ‘end of the world’-type situations.

Most time off was scheduled as soft breaks, with the understanding that if they were breached to recall the recruit, the break could be rescheduled or extended.

Brian had asked for two weeks as a hard break. An easy denial, given that he’d had a similar break only four months prior.

He was slightly surprised when the response came in four minutes later; as he was going over the next request.

The email was one word. {Why?}

Confident in his reasoning, he simply copy-pasted the guidelines for leave, and took a moment to italicise the section that it was at the discretion of the authorising officer.

This time, the response was even quicker – but it came to his Vox account, rather than as an email. {Why the fuck am I getting emails from you?}

It took every fibre of self-control to stop himself from typing ‘why do you think, dumbass?’, and instead took the Recruit Curt route and gave a half-hearted response about being tasked by Ryan to do the leave requests.

Brian started responding right away, then stopped typing, then started again – the stop-start apoplectic rage of someone encountering a situation they had no idea how to handle.

There was a knock on the door, and he stiffened, fight-or-flight impulses already firing.

‘Come in,’ he said, his voice neutral.

As probably the first thing to go right that day, it wasn’t a spoiling-for-a-fight Brian who walked in, instead, it was the tall London agent currently auditing Brisbane. And more than likely finding them wanting in every single category.

‘Recruit, do you have some time?’

A couple of requirements and dismissal cleared away his breakfast and straightened his laptop and files.

‘Of course, please,’ he said, indicating to- He caught himself before he thought of it as ‘Newbie’s chair’, but before the mentoring sessions, this really was a meeting room he’d only ever used by himself.

Agent Jane sat in the chair and laid down a sleek leather folio, along with her phone in a matte grey case.

‘I’m sorry for not arranging this beforehand, but I had a cancellation, and noticed that Ryan had finally appointed an aide, so-’

‘It’s not official yet,’ he said quickly, ‘so how much I can help you depends on-’

‘Calm down, Recruit,’ she said gently. ‘I’m aware of your position’s status, and I think that’s all the more reason to catch up with you early in this process.’

‘All right, how can I help?’

Softball questions ensued – his general impressions of Queen Street as an Agency, the efficacy of its agents and aides, and what he thought of Ryan as a Director.

Recruit Curt was perfect for this – bland, neutral, generally positive answers with subtle-but-fair criticisms, nothing that would get anyone executed, but that tiny bit of tarnish on the shine to make his reactions believable.

To each answer, Jane made a few careful notes; and listened while drinking an espresso, the coffee smell filling the room just like Newbie had done every chance she got.

‘And now that you’ve told me everything you think I want to hear, do you have anything less… complimentary you want to say?’

‘Ma’am, it would be against my interests to say anything negative. The flaws in this Agency are obvious – raw data can tell you that, it’s qualities are less evident, and even if my answers are… a little honeyed, nothing I’ve said is a lie.’

‘I’ve spoken to others in your position, Recruit, and they’re rarely as complimentary as you.’

The slight change in the tone of her voice made him think about her words; and the slight raise of her eyebrows told him the others like him meant ‘ex-Solstice’, not ‘interim aides’.

‘I suppose that’s one of the things that could be seen as a fault,’ he said, adding a bit of vulnerability to his voice, hoping she would see it as the sincerity that his previous, perfect answers had been missing. ‘That a Director would even consider someone like me-’

‘Oh, please, I cannot handle white boys matrying themselves. You’re not an ordinary recruit, but pretending that any appointment or advancement was done without consideration serves no-one.’

‘Director Ryan could do worse,’ he admitted, ‘but I have to recognise I’m far from ideal. It’s not good optics, if nothing else. I’m not a PR case, I’ m someone just- Head down, trying to do an okay job. ‘

‘Okay is better than nothing,’ she said, ‘and this is something you wanted. You’ve done an application, even if it was rejected at the time; you have a lot more-’ She sighed, and finished her coffee. ‘As part of this audit, I’m trying to correct gaps and failings. Ryan taking on an aide was my first priority, if you’re not serious, or if you don’t really want this, tell me now, and I’ll give it to someone else. Your Director is someone dear to me, and I want this process to be as smooth as possible for him. When I leave, I want things to be better than when I arrived. Some auditors get on their high horse about perfection, some want to bring down an Agency because the idea of having that much power gives them a little thrill. I just want Ryan to start to carve out a better future for this place.’ Brown eyes drilled into him. ‘Do you have a place in that, recruit, or is this just for show?’

Part of him desperately wanted to give her a real answer. To be vulnerable and honest and real.

He wanted a place to belong. He wanted to know he had earned the position, and wasn’t being given it by default. He wanted to know he could advance and excel and that he could be measured on his own achievements.

A few seconds ticked by, and strangely, this made Jane smile.

‘The fact that you’re not jumping forward with an answer somehow assures me that you are actually thinking about your answer.’ She smiled, pulled an ID wallet from her blazer pocket, and slid it across to him. ‘Let me tell you a story, I’m an old woman, indulge me.’ She pointed to the wallet. ‘Open that.’

Inside was a fairly standard Agency ID – with the obvious differences accounted for by location differences. Each continent had a different feature colour – most obvious in the uniforms – Oceania had blue, much to the chagrin of some other regions. England, on the other hand, was one of the countries that had purple – London specifically had a rich, royal purple.

The Combat logo on Jane’s ID also shared the purple – the outer ring was the same purple as her pocket square; unlike the blue outer ring on Magnolias ID.

That was the obvious difference, but she wouldn’t have shown it to him for-

Her name was split over two lines, which was unusual, except for agents with long names.

The first line read ‘154’, the second line was the standard name line.

He looked to her ID number, to see if it was reflected as a part of that – 78458783, so no luck there.

‘All right,’ he said, speaking his thoughts, ‘I see 154. I haven’t seen a number on an ID like this before, so-’

She took back the ID. ‘It’s got two meanings. The first, less important for this conversation, but I was one of those originally generated without a name. In the early days, Central experimented with having some of us ready to take on new faces and names every other day, ready to slide into a situation.’ A small smile settled on her face. ‘Not everyone feels comfortable talking to someone who looks like you, Recruit, and while our numbers were small, this was seen as a more economical use of resources.’

He nodded. It made sense, it was a very…Agency way of diversifying their staff without actually generating more agents. Representation-by-proxy, in more than one way.

‘Eventually, they did away with this, as the few of us like that, we grew attached to one or more of our identities, finding our face, and not wanting to change away from it.’ She indicated to her. ‘One day, I just looked into the mirror, and knew this was me.’

He held back on the word “jealous”, but felt it so prominently in his mind he was sure it was” burning in the air, projected in bright neon letters, his brain screaming it so loudly that you didn’t have to be a reader to pick up on it.

She’d looked in the mirror and found who she was. He looked in the mirror every morning, and just saw the roles he had to play.

‘Inferring from all that,’ he said, pushing himself further into Recruit Curt, ‘can I make the guess that you were the one-hundred-fifty-fourth agent generated?’

‘Good,’ she said. ‘So obviously, old as I am, I get some priority when it comes to assignments. Seniority means a lot in this world. So, obviously, I was amongst a small group head-hunted to be the London director. Did you see that title anywhere?’

He shook his head.

‘Because I took five minutes to think about it. It was the obvious path, but it wasn’t what I wanted. What I do makes me happy, fulfils me, challenges me. And I’m more than happy to leave the paperwork to Redfern.’

The story was appreciated, but the situations weren’t exactly the same.

Still, he had an answer.

‘I want this,’ he said. ‘I’ve got complicated feelings, but I want this. I could be good at this, if I’m given the chance.’

‘Good,’ Jane said with a smile, ‘I’ll keep that in mind for my final report.’

Next: 31 – A Dance, A Diary

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the efiency of its agents and aides

I’m not sure if you meant “efficiency” or “efficacy” there. The latter might be appropriate.

I know you're thinking something, Recruit...x