Immediately Stef shut her mouth as Curt held his hand up.
‘What’s the clock say, Newbie?’
She looked at the oversized stopwatch, currently in the final leg of counting down from twenty minutes, then looked back at him, forcing her expression to be as innocent as possible. ‘Do you think-?’
‘What does the clock say, Newbie?’
He returned to his paperwork with a pointed look as his only admonishment.
So far, the clock system had been somewhat effective. There was a lot of paperwork to be done, stuff both to do directly with the agentification process, as well as what amounted to the most comprehensive cram course of what every recruit should know.
And little of it could get done when she was…wiggly.
The interest in getting the work done was there, but concentration didn’t always follow interest.
So after repeated days of a pattern of one page of work roughly equating to half an hour of procrastination, Curt had instituted the clock.
It was like being back in primary school and having designated quiet work periods. Twenty minutes at a time when conversation was shut down, and she had to do the task in front of her.
To his credit, he understood that forcing a train wreck onto a track was a difficult task at best. So while she had to do “work”, that “work” didn’t necessarily have to be one task, or a specific task.
Sometimes, when one thing seemed impossible, switching to something that she’d ignored during the last quiet work period now seemed…possible, if not easy.
And there was also a growing collection of little toys in the basket that sat in the middle of the round table.
It had started with a fidget spinner, of course. A little cube had joined it. A bag of randomly coloured dice that clinked and clunked together in such satisfying ways that it made her brain feel good. Various squishy toys, and finally, what seemed to be a bunch of children’s meal toys from Famous Fry’s.
With five minutes left on the clock, she pulled two d20s from the velvet bag and rolled them together in her right hand, which rested on her bouncing knee.
She started to read the paragraph for what was surely the sixteenth time, felt her eyes slide away again, and switched to the next thing in the pile.
Oh, thank god.
This one was at least easy – it was a copy of her recruit inventory loadout, or, “default uniform requirement” as the title identified itself.
This was one of the forms best filled digitally, so she carefully ticked a box on the upper left-hand corner, and her tablet lit up, the digital copy appearing on the screen.
There was a separate section for each piece of equipment, covering the various options and preferences.
Even something as simple as her tie broke down into subsections.
Colour – this was a locked dropdown box, listed as the default for Queen St. Below this was an option for size, style, and knot style.
Next were all the options for tie clips, including what amounted to “import a custom design”, which involved requiring your preferred clip and registering it as the personalised option.
Tie and shirt were easy.
Something buzzed as she moved onto the vest.
There seemed to be an order of magnitude more options presented for the vest – including an entire set that appeared or disappeared depending on whether or not the vest was set as the “outer layer”.
Protection played a significant role in the “outer layer” options. Most Agency uniforms were already designed with some level of protection in mind. Still, those precise levels could be tweaked depending on user preference and needs.
Suits weren’t bulletproof; you could get close at max settings, but you would have to sacrifice some comfort for that safety. It also meant that – presumably – dramatically tearing your sleeve off to stuff in the wound of an injured colleague would be nigh-impossible.
Her current settings hovered somewhere around default, which was designed for comfort and a range of movement, with the view that Field recruits were less likely to be shot at their than Combat counterparts.
She okayed the security options, then was presented with what was probably going to be a wonderful rabbit hole to fall down: the option for things to be included in her vest pockets.
There was also an option to add more pockets, with a delightful drag-and-drop interface to change the exact position.
She immediately slammed her fingers down, added four more pockets at random spots, then tapped on the tick for the current design to execute.
Then let out a weird, mutated giggle as the fabric of her vest rippled and tickled as the new pockets appeared.
‘Jesus Christ, Newbie,’ Curt said, jumping in his chair.
Science meant seeking out data.
She wrapped her legs around the legs of her chair and shuffled closer to Curt, then leaned close and wrinkled her face. ‘What’sssss in its pocketsssssss, Preciousssssss?’
This barely got any reaction. ‘Weren’t there other riddles before that? My only experience with The Hobbit is the time Raz invited me to this party where a group of increasingly drunk Techs tried to act out the whole thing. I left before it was over, but there are rumours that it turned into an or- Organisational nightmare.’
He reached for her tablet to inspect what she’d been working on. ‘Oh, you know, people couldn’t remember who was supposed to be playing what part. Shit like that.’
‘Pocketssssss,’ she said again.
‘I’m gonna need real human words, Newbie.’
She dragged her tablet back from him and pointed to the options. ‘You can set default items in your pockets. What do you have?’
‘Ooh. Okay, that makes sense.’ He pushed his chair back from the table a bit, hooked his thumbs into his vest and neatly pulled it over his head. ‘Here, have at it. It’s nothing interesting.’ He looked down at his shirt and tie. ‘Can I tell you a secret?’
‘Probably?’ she mumbled as she undid the buttons on his vest and laid it open on the table.
‘I prefer this,’ he said, gesturing to his shirt and tie. You know, with a jacket, of course, never been a fan of the vest.’
‘So why wear it? You don’t have to, right?’ She dug into the first pocket and found a slim billfold containing just a civilian ID and credit card.
His lack of response gave her pause, and she looked over at him, her hand already digging into the next pocket. ‘Olstice-say stuff?’ she asked gently.
‘You don’t have to censor the word, Newbie. But Yeah. I…’ He trailed off. ‘The rules aren’t guidelines for me. Dress code, I follow it. It’s a small price to pay for a second chance.’ He reached for one of the squishy toys in the basket, rested his hand on it for a moment, and then withdrew, leaving the toy where it had been. ‘It’s not a lot to ask, so I do it.’
Each word was carefully chosen. Almost rehearsed.
‘I’m not good at peopleing,’ she said. ‘But you-’ She looked at the other tablet, one with the soundboard open and waiting, in case words got hard. ‘But you’ve got- You know I’ve got stuff. You’re allowed stuff. You can talk. I don’t know how- I can listen, even if I can’t help.’
He looked away, his eyes sweeping the room for a moment before returning to look down at the table. ‘Thank you,’ he said, and something about it had an implied “please drop the subject” appended like a full stop. ‘Now, have you found all the things in my pockets?’
She shook her head, and as she did, her eyes fell on the stopwatch, and its face, which now indicated she’d been working for fifteen minutes past when she’d been legally allowed to stop.
Curt noticed her looking, met her gaze, and gave her a smile. ‘What were you going to ask before?’
‘Okay. So. Agents don’t need to breathe, but words, voice, sounds, they’re produced by shoving air over whatever is in your throat and stuff. So, can they like, speak without physically taking in air? Can they just open their mouth and project words like there’s a speaker where their uvula is?’
Curt stared. Curt blinked.
‘Look,’ he said, after apparently taking a moment to reboot his brain. ‘I’m sure that’s a perfectly valid question, but why ask me?’
‘I’m a lot more fucked up around Ryan than I am around you, so as a courtesy, I do try and tamp down on some of my weirder questions. Sometimes. Look. I try.’
‘So ask Agent Jones?’
She leaned forward, a smile spreading across her face. ‘Call him Jonesy, and I will.’
Curt leaned back and seemed to consider it.
She was a lot more fucked up in private than she was around Curt – even though he’d grokked onto the fact that she wasn’t normal, there were levels of crazy that hadn’t been unlocked yet. More friendship XP was required for him to be privy to the voice in her head.
And, by the same token, she knew he was probably hiding his own shit behind closed doors.
Life couldn’t have been kind to an ex-Solstice amongst a bunch of suits.
But Jonesy wasn’t someone to be afraid of. Jonesy was safe. And maybe she could help facilitate feeling even one tiny bit of a per cent more comfortable.
‘One time, or all the time?’
‘Most of the time.’
‘No deal. I will stretch to dropping the “Agent” title when it’s just us.’
‘Fine.’ She quickly flicked to Vox, selected the chat with Jones, wrote a version of her voice-air-speaker question, showed it to Curt, and then hit send.
Three dots appeared, then a gif of someone steepling their fingers.
‘You can test it for yourself soon enough,’ she said, reading the answer aloud. She looked at Curt and grinned. ‘I need to add that to the list.’
Curt leaned over, dug into one of the pockets she hadn’t explored yet, and pulled out the slim Stef-to-English dictionary that he was writing as they continued to work together.
With a slightly bemused look that he seemed to have stolen from Ryan, he flipped to one of the back pages, and added a note under the heading of “To Do”, a list that was already at least a dozen items long.
‘Finish your loadout, then we’ll break for lunch.’