50 – The Ways Forward
There were little tricks all over the Agency, some far more subtle than others.
One of those little pieces of subtlety was the elevators, where the main, obviously accessible set of buttons listed a selection of floors – the “occupied” floors of the Agency. In contrast, if you needed to go to a storage floor, the roof or the basement, you needed to use the smaller panel to type in the floor number.
Curt slid his ID against the reader and typed in the number of the unoccupied floor. One, judging by the logo that appeared on the little information panel, belonged to Tech.
Tech. He’d expected Medical, but depending on a few variables and specificities, Tech would make an equal amount of sense.
Not that he knew what to expect.
All Ryan had given him was a location and the fact that Newbie would be waiting for him there. Alive.
Everything else, apparently, was up to her to explain.
When the lift doors slid open, he was greeted with possibly the most boring floor he’d ever seen in an Agency – a feat in and of itself, given how generic they tended to look.
As instructed, he pressed his card against an unassuming card reader near the elevator call button and turned back to see a dark blue line appear on the floor, a map of where to go.
A few twists and turns in – likely just to discourage any wayward visitors – the blue line dead-ended at a door that looked like all of the others.
And now, so close to what he wanted to see, he couldn’t lift his hand to knock.
She knew he was coming and that she’d consented to see him – that much Ryan had told him, but nothing more than that.
How did you even say “hello” to someone you’d lost and grieved?
He knocked, and a moment later, the door popped open. No yell of “hi”, no greeting, nothing but a door opened by a requirement.
He reached for the handle, a prayer coming out as a sigh, and pushed the door open.
A combination of both Solstice and Agency training had ensured that he always swept a new room – looking for dangers, threats, getting a general layout at a glance.
But nothing would come into focus, except a messy bob of brown hair, and the slight look of panic on Stef’s face as she looked up at him from where she sat on the ground in the middle of the room.
Slowly, she raised an arm, revealing that her hand and forearm were stuck in a chip can.
‘Help,’ she said, shaking her arm pathetically, ‘plz.’
‘Jesus Christ, Newbie,’ he said as he pinched the bridge of his nose. ‘Ho- How- How?’
She shook her arm again.
He slipped off his jacket, threw it onto the table next to the door, and joined her on the floor, careful not to sit on any of the random pieces of a dismantled computer that surrounded her like a dragon’s hoard.
She lightly batted him on the cheek with the tube, then pointed it at his chest and held still. ‘Please be careful. I need this hand.’
He grabbed the tube. ‘Unclench your fist.’
She tried to tug her arm out. ‘There’s a chip in here.’
She groaned like a cranky toddler, relaxed her arm a bit and allowed him to pull the tube away. He turned it up, and the broken pieces of what had been a chip slid into his hand. A requirement made it whole again, and he handed back the chip, but not the tube.
‘But- I want-’
‘You’ve lost your tube privileges, Newbie.’
‘That’s okay, I don’t know where my Oyster card is anyway.’ She bit into the chip and avoided his gaze. ‘Should I say hello? How “pretending to be normal” do you want this to be?’
He stared at her, almost ashamed that he could feel tears pricking behind his eyes. Joy turned inside out was grief, but grief turned back into joy felt so heavy in his chest.
Though he doubted there was anything more real than being greeted by a genius who refused to let any chip remain uneaten.
‘I haven’t known normal for a long time, Newbie, and I don’t think pretending will do either of any favours.’
‘Good, cause a lot of this is still fucking weird, and other bits are going to be weirder and if I needed to put up a mask, then this conversation was gonna be real short.’ She picked up a piece of RAM and inspected it. ‘But, I- Um. Wanted to take the chance.’
‘Where do you want to start?’
‘You can give me my tube back.’
‘But I was going to wrap LED lights around-’
‘I kinda. Um. Died.’
He handed the tube back.
‘The mirrorfall night. You know how some idiot broke the mirror? I’m idiot. And- I forgot how physics work.’ She grabbed the collar of her shirt and yanked it down enough for him to see the top of a ragged scar.
She started to peel the back off strip lighting and wrap it around the chip can. ‘That ah, actually made the second time I died. Guess I have to do it again. Things are better in threes.’
‘Ryan told me that he gave you some basic cover story about me being close to death. Pretty much, he just left out the mirror bit. I was all Princess-Bridey not-quite-dead but more-dead-than-alive for weeks.’
One question begged to be asked, but it might be more than she wanted to share. ‘You don’t have to answer but- Did someone make a wish, or was there a piece of mirror in you that slowly resurrected you?’
‘Ryan made a wish.’
‘The Agency policy on wishes would seem to indicate that was pretty risky.’
‘In some cases, they allowed exceptions.’ She looked in his general direction but didn’t make eye contact. ‘Some wishes get approved, some Solstice make pretty good recruits.’
‘Point taken. So what happens now? Coming back as a recruit?’
‘Coming back, yes.’ She twisted more lights around the can then set it aside. She stared at her hands for a moment, then picked up a sizeable graphic card box and began unboxing it. ‘Not as a recruit.’
The fact that he was still a temporary aide loomed large. ‘Are you going to be Agent Ryan’s aide?’
She looked up from the box, made a weird noise, her shoulders twitching, snorted, then began to laugh so hard she started to choke.
For a moment, it seemed like an affected reaction, if a slightly over-the-top one; then hand shot out and grabbed his arm as she made strained noises.
Immediately, he was up on his knees. He braced one arm across her front, hand locked onto her right shoulder, and with the other, he gave her back a quick thump. The noise improved. Another thump and she slumped against his arm, no longer choking.
‘Look, you can kick the bucket one day, Newbie,’ he said, quickly taking his hands away, remembering how touch-averse she was, and handing her a bottle of water. ‘But maybe don’t rush it?’
She guzzled some water, a rivulet running down her chin before she set it aside and lifted the neck of her shirt to wipe her face.
‘I take it, that’s a “no” then?’
‘You’ve got to be competent to be an aide,’ she said, her voice a little hoarse, ‘I’m smart, I don’t know if I’m competent.’
She set the graphics card box aside and stood, going over to the table to retrieve a few more small component boxes. Most of the larger boxes, she placed in a pile near the RAM, but a small one, she handed to him. ‘Hold that a minute.’
Dutifully, he held onto the box as she sat.
‘I don’t know how you’re-’ She stopped herself. ‘We went back and forth for a while about what exactly to tell you. The other recruits are gonna get some not-quite-real version of the truth.’ She rolled the tube in her hands. ‘This was my decision, ultimately. Ryan trusts me with my own autonomy, except when it comes to flamethrowers and rocket launchers.’
‘I don’t think weapons are usually part of-’
‘I’ve still got some mirror in me. And I’m coming back as an agent.’
‘Yeah, I said that a few dozen times. I mean, it’s so cool, I think I- It happens with a lot of people who have bits of mirror still stuck in them or have superpowers cause of a wish. Easier to keep track of everything.’
And easier to control potentially dangerous assets.
He started to ask, “are you okay with that?”, but her expression told him everything he needed to know. A kid given a new puppy, a new bike and a month off school wouldn’t have been happier.
There were concerns. There were dangers. Agents were higher priority targets. Agents could die in painful ways that recruits couldn’t.
And if the decision had been made, all of this had probably been discussed at length, and it wasn’t up to him to be a killjoy speaking with the dying remnants of Solstice suspicion.
‘I assume Agent Jones is-’
‘You can call him Jonesy, you know.’
‘-is taking care of all this? I’m going to have to make some requests. I know there’s some remote override sequences and stuff that are built into the agent code, and I’m going to need an app where I can push your buttons.’
‘So I can’t play video games when you’re trying to talk to me?’
‘So you can’t play video games when I’m trying to talk to you.’
‘Fine,’ she said with a long, long sigh. ‘I’m sure we can work something out.’
‘Why?’ he asked after silence had fallen for a moment.
She froze for a long moment, then shuffled her boxes of components a few times before looking up and just past him.
‘You-’ She looked away again, then down at the tube. ‘You were kind to me.’
‘That shouldn’t earn-’ he started. She tossed a stick of RAM at him, and he shut up.
‘You were kind to me, and you didn’t have to be. Not just polite. Not just doing your job. Kind. I had a-’ She clenched her hands near her throat, flexing her fingers in and out. ‘When I couldn’t- When I just couldn’t anything. And you gave me the talky board app. You were patient. You didn’t treat me like a problem. And I thought that- I thought that was an indicator of a good person. And I think I trust you. Just with my life. It’s not very val- I’m doing and gonna do, so many new things, and I thought I could take a leap of faith.’
‘Shouldn’t a genius know it’s better translated as “leap into faith”?’
She rolled her eyes. ‘Yes, Padawan, I’ve seen The Good Place too. Either way, I’m leaping. I just hope you’re not a spike trap.’
‘I’ll do my best,’ he said. ‘Promise.’
She looked at him briefly, then away again. ‘And then maybe- Maybe we could be friends too? I don’t really have any and-’
‘Newbie, it’s not the fucking Khitomer Accords. You don’t have to ask. There’s no-’ He set the little box aside, pulled his notebook from his pocket, scrawled “friends”, then signed his name. ‘Official enough for you?’
‘It’ll do,’ she said and tucked it into her pocket.
He grabbed the small box and tried to hand it over. ‘Don’t forget this.’
‘Oh. Fuck. Right. That’s yours.’ He quirked an eyebrow at her. ‘Oh, just open it. It’s not a glitter bomb.’
He popped open the box, and inside was a simple silver pen, a small Field logo engraved on the slide.
‘You’re either really early or really late for my birthday.’
She tapped something into her phone, and the Agency logo turned into a smiling emoji before switching back. ‘See, Ryan got me cufflinks as a “you’re gonna be an agent” present. And they have my name in binary on them, but you can actually change the design to whatever you want. I thought you should get a present too.’
‘For, I assume, agreeing to continue being your babysitter?’
‘For all the paperwork you’re gonna be doing as Ryan’s aide.’
‘I’ve been doing-’ he started, the answer coming out before his brain had thoroughly analysed all the context clues. ‘I’m gonna need you to say it, Newbie. Properly, so I know you mean it.’
‘It’s another leap into faith. Ryan needs help, real help, and from right now, it’s official.’ A silver wand appeared in her hand, and she lightly tapped him on the head. ‘I dub thee Aide O’Connor.’
He stood, walked over to where his jacket lay, and grabbed his ID wallet. Closing his eyes for a single second, he sent all his hopes and fears into the void. Opening his eyes, he flipped it open and saw his new rank reflected on his ID.
‘I don’t know if I-’
‘Please don’t do the faux-humble bullshit,’ she said, popping open another tube of chips. ‘You were always the best candidate, Ryan told me as much, he just needed- Sometimes things have to change, and nothing changes if nothing changes.’
‘I’ll do my best, I promise.’
A smile settled onto his face, and he realised that the weight in his chest had disappeared.
Sometimes, against all the odds, things could be okay.
Not a happy ending, but at least a happy-for-now.
And that was enough.
She nodded. ‘You’re competent. I’m a genius-’ She paused, a strange look coming over her face. ‘Between us, I think it’ll be okay.’
‘You okay?’ he asked.
She held up her arm, already stuck in the new tube.
‘Newbie, how the-?!’
Again, he yanked her hand out. ‘There you go.’
‘Thank you,’ she said, playfully stiff, ‘Aide O’Connor.’
And there was only one thing to say in return. He had his new title and his new way forward, and so did she. ‘You’re welcome, Agent Mimosa.’
Next: 00 – Mirrorshades Cover
Perfect. Absolutely perfect.
Damn, it’s 1400 (okay, 1355) already? I really should sleep.
I hope you did manage to get some sleep. 😛