Curt pressed the tips of his fingers together over the bridge of his nose, his fingernails digging – just a little – into the growing crease between his eyebrows and wondered if it was possible to stroke out as a recruit or if blue stopped that kind of biological malfunction from occurring.
‘Newbie. I know what you’re trying to do.’
Stef, hands clasped in front of her, cheek resting on her left shoulder, contrived to look as innocent as a kitten. At a stretch, it might have fooled the idling Agent Bob, that sat next to Milla on the bleachers.
‘I’m not doing anything,’ she said, voice as sweet as a child who had definitely broken a window.
He took a step closer and pointed at her shirt. ‘Then explain that.’
She grabbed the hem of the Quantum Leap shirt and pulled at it so that she could look down at the design. ‘It’s just Sam and Ziggy. There’s nothing nefarious about it.’
From his left, a foam ball flew at her head, which she caught without looking at it.
‘What?’ she demanded, looking at Milla, all the syrup gone from her voice. After a second, she seemed to realise she was holding the ball. ‘Oh. Huh.’
‘Al,’ Milla corrected and threw another ball, which was easily caught. ‘Sam and Al. Ziggy is the gay little computer in his hand.’
‘Okay, fine.’ She tossed the balls back. ‘Sam and Al. It’s just a shirt.’
‘I don’t dislike Enterprise so much that I will attack anyone bearing Scott Bakula’s face, Newbie!’
Stef pouted, her clothes rippled, and she became…default Newbie again. Full uniform, minus jacket, with sneakers he was sure would somehow be filthy within an hour, despite being in a building that magically kept itself clean.
Her logic – one she’d voiced a few times leading up to this part of the “project”, as everyone called the entire process of taking her from human to agent – made sense. She would primarily be fighting in a suit, so she may as well get used to it, rather than get used to fighting in gym clothes or a training outfit, then have to get used to an entirely new set of sensations when dealing with in real life.
He’d also made a note to keep track of any sensation sensitivities she might have and textures to avoid.
One tiny part of his mind also posed the theory that she’d waited her entire life to become a cartoon character that wore a single outfit day in and day out, and this had been the perfect excuse.
It couldn’t be that comfortable to sleep in, it just couldn’t. But almost every morning that he’d been there to drag her ass out of the void that was the Agent’s version of the land of Nod, he was met with hair that looked like it belonged to a wild Muppet and a suit crumbled by multiple hours of restless sleep.
Another foam ball thrown. Another catch.
Technically, as it were, agents were right to go straight out of the box. You could have a newborn agent open their eyes, hand them a gun and send them into a firefight right next to Mags, and they would handle themselves. Perhaps not with grace, and definitely not with style, but with a technical accuracy that it would take Combat recruits years to muster.
If you were a dick, you could do the same thing with Stef. Right now, if she had to, she could go dead-eyed, hunt and corner a Solstice, and…do what agents did.
Maybe it would be okay if it was Newbie. She’d be quick. She’d be kind. She’d-
But she wouldn’t.
‘I’m loving my accuracy,’ she was saying to Milla, ‘but you didn’t tell me what I’m supposed to be calibrating.’
‘Hang on, doing a screen share.’
He didn’t trust a lot of people. Less than what he could count on one hand. Usually, it had taken blood or death or something substantial. Nearly getting killed trying to save Carmichael the night they’d met. Being useful enough to Mags that she’d counted him as a friend. The simple virtue of Two being two, filterless and acerbic.
And then this little genius idiot had quietly made her way onto the list.
It was fragile – and would probably break when he got the go-ahead to tell her what he was actually like. What his real history was, rather than the bland red shirt explanation most recruits got. For the moment, it was good. For the moment, at least he could be useful.
And even if she did have to put him up against the wall one day, he hoped he’d bought enough goodwill to-
‘Hey, punch me in the head, would you?’
He blinked and tilted his head at her. ‘Any particular reason, Newbie, or have you just got-’
She tapped on her temple, not even looking at him as she – presumably – continued an in-HUD Vox conversation with Milla.
He took a couple of steps and ensured the distance was such that, even fully extended, he was far enough not to actually make contact with her head.
After a second, she tapped her head again, and he threw the world’s slowest punch, one that – he was sure – that even a non-agentified Newbie could dodge if he’d miscalculated the distance.
There was always the possibility that she would step right into his fist, but that was a risk they would both have to take.
‘I’ll bring back the shirt,’ she said. ‘Maybe forget who your favourite captain is?’
He let his hand drop, his fist not even halfway to her head. ‘Do you remember that thing where explaining what you need…gets you what you need?’
Her shoulders slumped a little. ‘Yes. Sorry.’
‘Don’t be sorry, just explain.’
She lifted her hands, balled them into fists, and then mimed an explosion, blowing out a breath at the same time.
A large… floating sci-fi hologram screen appeared in front of them. He immediately recognised it as an agent’s HUD, and as she swayed a little, the picture changed, showing it was a live feed from her head.
Milla stepped back onto the bleachers and threw foam balls from the large bucket. One by one, she caught them, not even looking to the side.
Each time a ball was thrown, there was a small, soft flash of light at the right of her HUD.
‘See that?’ she asked, dropping the latest ball into the growing collection around her feet. ‘Object detection recognises there’s going to be an impact, but there are algorithms to figure out if something is dangerous or not. Like, if she were to chuck a live grenade at my head, much bigger reaction. Ryan says I’m not allowed to play with grenades,’ she said, scuffing a foot back and forth, ‘so you’re here. And Bob. But for now, I prefer you.’
‘High…praise?’ he said.
‘What I’m doing is basic,’ Milla said, ‘there’s a lot to autopilot that isn’t combat-focused, but it still takes time to get used to. Like, going on a rollercoaster for the first time or something, it’s an entirely new type of movement, even though it’s an old movement. There’s a lot of going with the flow that can make your brain itchy, especially-’ Another ball was thrown. Then another. Then another.
‘He’s safe,’ Stef said, ‘you can say itchy brain stuff around him.’
Warmth swelled in his chest, but he kept the somewhat put-upon expression on his face. ‘Yes, I promise minimum human decency standards,’ he said.
Stef threw a ball at his face, and he tried to stop himself from smiling.
‘So you have to hit me in the head, with like a certain degree of, iunno, Kirk versus Gorn?’
He could hit her, and it wouldn’t hurt. He could drop a steamroller on her head, and it wouldn’t hurt.
It still felt weird to hit a girl.
‘It’s like learning a new sense as well.’ She pointed at the floating screen. ‘At the moment, it’s only calibrated in the red and blue binary of danger and not danger. A tooltip can be added so you know what’s incoming. Depending on the autopilot tuning, red might just trigger actions, so I only have tooltips on for blue warnings. That way, I go less Terminator around civilians if someone decides to chuck something at me.’
This was fascinating – a level of detail he was sure no Solstice, and few ex, would have ever known. Not that there were probably many ex-Solstice who had been this close to an agentification project.
He took a couple of slow steps, hopefully, discreet enough so that Stef didn’t notice him moving out of her field of vision, then pulled his gun – and in sims, guns only ever fired paint rounds, so it was safe to point at her, even with no intention of pulling the trigger – and aimed it at the back of her head.
The floating screen flashed red, and she dropped, the movement very quick and un-Newbie-like, and his legs were swept out from under him. He landed on a soft mattress – today was about learning, not pain, so all the falls would be cushioned.
‘The Gorn is allowed to get in some hits, Newbie.’
She offered him a hand, which he hesitated before taking. Even simple touch like this wasn’t something she did easily, but beyond that- He took her hand, and she stayed standing, not even wiggling an inch as she helped him off the mat and to his feet. As soon as he was standing, he pulled his hand away so that the contact wasn’t longer than necessary.
To most people, it would seem like nothing. To people who knew how hard it could be to make even a small change like this, it was admirable.
Somehow, he must have made it onto her “trust” list as well.
One question loomed, especially given the apparent “here lies Newbie, killed by a stiff breeze” physicality she’d had as a recruit. ‘Newbie, where did they put you on the human-to-punch-through-concrete scale?’
She met his eyes for a brief moment, then scuffed her shoe again. ‘So, like, agents are really strong and- I mean, what they say is up to, like, ten times as strong as a normal person, but that’s kind of- There’s sensible limits and unsensible limits, cause sometimes people like Taylor need to chew concrete or do lacework with railway-’
‘Jonesy said she set it to “regular-ass human man” for now, autopilot adjusts automatically, and I do have a slider if I need to manually override.’
‘So, still a lot stronger than you used to be.’
She blushed. ‘Yeah, and I’m happy to keep it in regular ass-’ She stopped and started counting on her fingers. ‘RAHM, that’s not a bad acronym, but sounds like I’m trying to say “RAM” with cake in my mouth.’ She looked at her hand, her eyes shining.
‘Do not require cake and test that theory!’
‘Ra-cuff,’ she coughed and covered her mouth to stop from spraying cake crumbs. She paused, then coughed again, proving that – even as an agent – she was an accidental danger to herself.
He required a bottle of water and offered it to her. ‘Thumbs up if you need a thump,’ he said as she coughed again.
She battled through the piece of cake, drank half the bottle of water, then spilled some on her shoes as she dropped her arm, bottle uncapped. ‘Fine, I’ll do the listening thing more often,’ she said. ‘Was good cake, though,’ she mumbled, staring at the ground.
He took a step closer. ‘We can take a cake break in half an hour. If you do some calibration and promise not to choke on it.’
She stared at the ground for a moment longer as if processing that she wasn’t being admonished, then looked up and nodded.
‘Let’s work on blue first. Recruit, come here and-’ she sighed. ‘I really should have thought before requiring a bucket of blue balls.’ Luckily this comment seemed to pass over Stef’s head as she required a fresh uniform. ‘Spyder, open the calibration file I sent you, and let’s run through some pre-sets.’
He hated that there was still a…weird shadow in her eyes, that some part of her had expected to be yelled at for such a tiny mistake. Something else to watch out for, something else to adjust behaviour around. A little kindness that would go a long way.
He pulled a red foam ball from the now rainbow assortment of balls and gripped it like he was about to bowl a cricket ball. ‘Ready?’
She gave a tiny thumbs up, and he smiled, hopefully enough for the both of them.