The fae boy on the screen was cute – animal fae of some variety, maybe a cat, given the shape of the pupils, but Curt shook his head. ‘You can do better.’
Carmichael pulled the phone back, looked critically at the probably-a-cat-fae and nodded before swiping the profile away. ‘How about him?’
‘Plin, that’s just abs.’
‘Good abs,’ Carmichael said, then flagged down their waitress to order another brunch cocktail.
‘Which mode are you on? Peony or Rose?’
The Rose Room app had several profiles you could select from, depending if you were looking for immediate hookups with no questions asked. Rose, for some casual chat and maybe an activity, but with an end goal of sex; and Peony, more for people seeking longer-term relationships. A profile pic set to a perfect, post-workout set of abs was normal on Rose mode, less so on Peony.
‘Peony,’ Carmichael said, ‘I have no plans this afternoon. There’s a festival in Sua, and I’d like some arm candy, then a night in a mid-range hotel.’ He very deliberately showed that he was swiping in the affirmative to the set of abs. The match sound played immediately, and a smile crossed Carmichael’s face. ‘He’s got nice eyes as well.’
The match photo showed Mr Abs’ face – who looked strangely bookish when wearing clothes.
‘Invite him,’ Curt said, ‘I hope you have fun.’
‘Already on it.’
The waitress returned with the green cocktail and cleared some of their finished plates.
‘Curt.’ Some seriousness had come back into Carmichael’s voice – no longer just in the light “help me pick a cute hookup” mode.
He stared down at his plate, needing and dreading the conversation that was to come; and even more the conversation that would come as a result of it. ‘What?’
‘If I wait for you to talk in your own time, we’ll be waiting until-’
He stabbed at a slice of a vegetable that kind of looked like slices of purple avocado. ‘I have to tell her what I am, and I don’t- I’m being a fucking coward about it.’
There was no need to explain anything. Carmichael would know who he meant by “she”; Curt had kept him up on some of the details of the project. Just a few texts here and there amongst their other conversations and irregular-word-of-the-day exchanges.
Carmichael had given him space to vent a little about things that he still didn’t feel safe to say out loud in the Agency or even to think too loudly.
Petersen had put a bomb in his head, and he wasn’t sure he could trust it had been removed when he’d been transferred to Brisbane.
It was a question Two could have answered easily, but- But even asking about it felt vulnerable.
A problem for himself in the future, something to keep kicking into next week again and again until he had some courage to confront it.
So much had happened over the course of a few weeks that he still felt like he had whiplash over it.
Everything had been normal. His simple, ordered, mundane life where he woke up, plastered a fake personality onto his body, embodied the perfect recruit, and spent most of his days wondering if anyone in a uniform would actually get into trouble if they decided to shove him to his knees and put a round in his head.
Baseline normal. Mask up. Act perfect. Hate that he had some hope left.
And then Newbie had – reportedly – died. And he’d gone apeshit on Ryan, breaking every rule he had about being quiet, demure and the perfect submissive bitch around anyone with the title “Agent”.
Ryan had handed his ass to him. He’d apologised later, offered to make amends, and even explained himself. The emotion behind the moment had been understandable, but it had taken him weeks to stop being skittish around Ryan.
He could almost look at the agent now without the feeling of his head cracking through a wall.
It had been mild, even compared to the lightest, laziest hours of Petersen’s cruelty. Still, it had been unexpected from someone who mostly seemed to be a robot built for paperwork.
He could get past it. It was something he could deal with. Live with. Just another shitty moment to add to all the barely-repressed trauma the Agency had inflicted on him.
After that…he’d gotten what he’d wanted.
The rank, title and relative safety of “Aide”. It hadn’t been entirely due to his own merit. He was sure of that. Part of it surely was. Additionally, he was the only one who had ever seemed interested in the job – or at least, in actually doing the work required to apply and looking like a good candidate.
Brian always talked a big game of “deserving” the position, that his seniority meant that Ryan should be bowing and scraping and offering the job to him on a silver platter.
Yet, with a little bit of poking – mostly thanks to Raz, who was far better with the Agency intranet than Curt would ever be – they couldn’t find any trace that Brian had ever even attempted to take any of the self-guided learning that was the first step in applying to be an aide.
Part of getting the job was because he had earned it. He’d done more than just the required and suggested courses. He’d tried to expand his knowledge base as wide as he could while, at the same time, worried every time he clicked on some advanced course or lecture that something would get flagged in the System and some Central suit would come knocking on his door and that he’d be questioned for possibly trying to…smuggle out the secrets of the Agency e-learning hub to the Solstice, or something.
Even thinking it loud enough to properly conceptualise the thought, rather than it being some unknown dread in the back of his mind, was enough to know it was ridiculous. It was like some stupid, over-extrapolated line of logic that would lead Newbie to stop talking out loud and stare off into space until he gently brought her back to reality.
The fear remained, but he had persisted.
And from that training and education, the extra work he’d done for Ryan over the closing in on two years he’d been in Queen Street, mixed with a healthy sense of guilt on Ryan’s part and a need to bribe things back to normal; and maybe a kind word from Newbie…he’d become Aide.
He’d achieved the only goal he’d had at the Agency – to prove himself useful enough that killing him represented a poor value proposition.
And strangely, it left him feeling more adrift.
At least before he’d become aide, there’d been some…honesty in being the wolf in sheep’s clothing, that he was still a Solstice, uncomfortably wearing the uniform. With the promotion, there was at least some veil of separation, some tacit promise that they were going to treat him more like a regular recruit.
And it made him feel more like an imposter.
Maybe the feeling would fade. Hopefully, the feeling would fade. A big chunk of it was from the confrontation he’d had with Ryan and the days he’d spent feeling like every Solstice propaganda fear had come true. The fear that the man responsible for his life, the person most in control of whether or not he had any kind of future, was callously allowing a depressed chinchilla of a recruit to be captured, tortured and murdered.
He understood why Ryan had said what he’d said, why he’d lied, but it had made every “agents only look human” come screaming to the surface.
Now he had to be excited for Stef – to witness her endless enthusiasm every time she found some new weird trick she could do with her agent body. And more than that, start to gain the tiniest bits of confidence in doing…anything.
He wanted to be her friend, but to do that…was probably going to end their friendship.
It wasn’t a bribe.
It was a bribe.
It was probably a goodbye present.
What came after this was the one big question mark hanging over his head like he was an NPC. The likely outcome – if she had a reaction like any reasonable person, and this was a time where it was reasonable to expect Stef to be reasonable – he’d probably just have to make himself scarce.
Ryan wouldn’t – probably wouldn’t – want to transfer him, not after going to all the effort of getting him trained. Contentious or not, even if Stef didn’t ever want to see him again, he was too useful to simply discard.
He could move his quarters. Mags would probably let him have some corner of Combat’s main floor, and a lot of the aide paperwork could be done without ever having to see another person.
With some adjustments, he could turn what was already a literal work-from-home job into somehow an even more literal work-from-home job.
The door to the project lab was closed, but the keypad beside it indicated it was unlocked. He knocked anyway. After counting to fifteen, he opened the door and walked through to the door that led to Newbie’s office – aware that they were surely in the countdown phase before Jones bent space and moved the office and its connected rooms up to the Field floor.
A knock on the office door led to a slight buzz of the pen in his pocket – it was a subtle thing, even less intense than a smartwatch, just enough to let him know that the message on the slide had been changed.
He juggled the bags in his arms and pulled out the pen to see that the default Field logo engraving had been changed to a tick.
Presumably, that meant he was okay to enter the office.
He waited a few seconds, just for some random cry of “do not enter” or for the door to turn into a steel lockdown version of itself, but nothing happened.
Once in the office, he put his bags down on the round desk, placed his folded jacket onto the sideboard, as had become custom, and took his usual seat.
For her part, Newbie was lying on the floor, not unusual for this time of day when a nice slice of sunlight warmed the carpet.
In some alternate reality, where he didn’t have the cargo ship worth of baggage trailing behind him, he knew he would have followed through on his impulse to make one of those “cat lying in sunbeam” time-lapses starring Brisbane’s newest agent.
Her hands moved about in the air – the first couple of times he’d seen this, he’d assumed it was a sunbeam-lazy kind of stimming, but when they’d been doing some random piece of paperwork, and she’d pointed to a patch of thin air as proof she’d done it, she’d had to explain it. There was a kind of Agent-only augmented reality – but rather than using the tech to hide Pokemon in the wild, agents could make virtual murder boards that were only visible to someone with both a HUD and permissions to see that particular murder board, to-do list, or – because people needed their fun – weird off-brand virtual pets.
He was sure that she didn’t know about the virtual pets yet, and if things went his way, she wouldn’t for a while.
‘Can you save whatever you’re doing?’ he asked. ‘We kind of need to-’
He wished he could be a coward.
Wished he could be anyone else.
Her hands stopped moving. ‘Is this an important thing?’
He nodded down at her. She lifted her left hand and tapped something only visible to her, rolled over onto her stomach, failed to stand, groaned at the movement, and then shifted into her chair.
She wiggled in her seat a little and positioned herself into her “I’m putting all my energy into listening” pose, her head pointed directly at him, her eyes looking just to his right. This was Newbie at one hundred per cent “meeting” focus, which was a superpower she could only maintain for so long.
And drawing things out only made things easier for him, not for her, and this wasn’t a time to be selfish.
He started to unpack the bags – meals and some shared sides from Famous Fry’s – and slid a paper packet of coins to just above where her right hand was – close enough so she knew to give it some attention, but not placed where it was expected she could grab it straight away.
‘You know how sometimes you’ll get Kiwi coins in your change, and it’s a pretty normal thing? Local Courts get a lot of that. Some currencies are even unofficially-officiailly accepted at an exchange rate of one-to-one. I asked for all their foreign currency in the cashier’s draw in my change, figured there might be some coins you hadn’t seen before.’
She nodded, eyes shining, knowing it was a reward for having the conversation.
He could start gently, or he could tear off the Band-Aid.
‘I was never a red shirt.’
He watched her face as she took this in – really, it was no information at all, but with context, it should have already told her a lot. That it wasn’t a time to make some light comment, and that – as hard as it might be, her focus was needed and appreciated.
She opened her mouth a little, then closed it, and nodded, giving him the go-ahead to end their friendship.
‘It’s a lie, but one I’m allowed to tell, like your cover story, it’s mine. People like me, it’s hard enough to integrate us for very obvious reasons. I know that. I accept that. I’m still glad that most people don’t- Well, a lot of recruits do think a lot of shitty things about me, some I deserve, some I don’t, and most of the time, I deserve a lot worse.’
Carmichael knew what he was, almost from the moment they’d met, and had accepted him. Had repeatedly called him a “deceived child” and understood the careful information control that the Solstice did.
Mags seemed to use Merlin like some people used their pet cats – if Merlin got a good vibe, it was as good as an aloof cat settling into a stranger’s lap and saying, “this one’s okay”.
Two started with the baseline assumption that everyone was a bastard and still treated him more like a person than any other agent he’d ever interacted with.
He’d never had to tell anyone, not like this. Mags and Two had known. And…he’d mostly been hoping Carmichael would put him out of his misery when he’d confessed to being ex-Solstice.
He’d never sat down and had to tell someone while condensation beaded the inside of a takeaway bag.
He’d never wished more dearly that he could be a coward.
‘It’s an old story,’ he said, tensing his face to ensure that every muscle was working hard to keep Recruit Curt in place. That he wasn’t forcing his emotions onto her. Wasn’t making this harder than it was already going to be. ‘Boy and girl on a date. Monster attacks a cafe. Boy helps the-’ He tensed to stop his voice from cracking. ‘-good guys who are saving everyone from the monster. Boy gets invited to join the secret society of monster hunters. Boy feels like a fucking hero. Boy…does a lot of violent and fucked up shit, but it’s okay because they’re monsters. It’s okay to hit something that’s nothing but vines and tentacles. Okay to take a lead pipe to something with a hundred eyes. Boy…doesn’t find out the truth for way too long.’
He started to break open the Famous Fry’s bags just to give his hands something to do. ‘When you’re new, they never show you the ones with faces. Who talk. It’s not fae as people. It’s…cosmic fucking horrors and shit from grungy nineties comics. I didn’t know there was more to know till-’ He tore the lid off the aole chips and started to arrange the dips. ‘I killed people. Tortured people. I- You’ve got the rank. You’re allowed to know now. I’m sorry I took this long to tell you.’
He pushed her burger – faux unicorn meat, the silhouette of a unicorn branded onto the top of the bun – toward her but kept his in the bag in case he had to flee. For when he had to flee.
It took every bit of courage he had left to look at her.
The formal posture of “I’m concentrating very well, but there had better be a cookie after this” was gone. In its place was a blankness he wasn’t sure was natural or emoted onto her face so that she didn’t have to show what she was thinking.
He wanted to say something but couldn’t find the right name to call her. “Newbie” was right out the window. If nothing else, it was emotional manipulation. “Stef” felt best reserved for times when he needed her attention, and “Newbie” might pass straight through her brain fog. And…“Agent” just felt wrong, might almost be as bad as calling her “Newbie”, just in a different way.
With no good options, he stayed silent.
After another moment, she stood and immediately, he felt like he’d been punched in the heart. She wanted him to leave, to fuck off and- He started to rise from his chair, some half-formed apology or protest starting, but she held up her hands, and he collapsed back into his chair. She made a little “don’t, just don’t” noise and walked through the door at the back of the office into the increasingly-RGBified cyberpunk hole she called a bedroom.
He expected a slammed door, a way of ending the conversation without a word.
The door didn’t slam, and he could hear rummaging.
If he’d been having this conversation with Mags, he would have suspected she was looking for the poetically perfect weapon to kill him with. But since it was Newbie…
Maybe she’d looked at him and used her new agent brain to entirely erase the contents of their friendship, so after hitting delete and blinking, she’d come face to face with a stranger, and not wanting to deal with some unknown person in her space, she’d retreated to go work on whatever Frankenstein PC build was momentarily grabbing her attention.
He should leave.
He couldn’t. Not without…being formally dismissed – not agent to recruit, but in the same way that she’d needed something tangible to know that they were friends. Something that meant that she could properly move him from “acquaintance” to “friend” without worrying that she was misinterpreting his friendliness as just coworker geniality.
A hand holding a piece of paper was thrust in front of his face, too close for his eyes to focus on. He leaned back, and saw the notebook page he’d scrawled the word “friends” onto.
‘Yeah, that,’ he muttered to himself.
He reached up to take it, to accept the metaphor of nullifying their friendship and- She yanked it away from him, slammed it onto the table, causing the sauce containers to jump a little, required a pen, underlined the word “friends” and signed her name beneath his.
Still not looking at him, she slid it across the table, between his hands – the same place he’d put something that would require her immediate attention.
The lump in his throat had spikes on it. It was more than he’d hoped for and so much more than he deserved, but he had to give her a chance to- ‘You don’t need to-’
She grunted and stabbed her finger onto the paper.
Angrier grunt. More enthusiastic stabbing.
‘A vocabulary like that…did they mix some Taylor into your- Not-DNA. But you know what I mean.’
She grabbed the back of her chair and dragged it around so she could sit next to him. ‘Too tall. And mostly living agents don’t get used for spare parts. You can if there’s a reason, but mostly it’s dead people in Agency-GitHub. And you couldn’t map anything useful from him onto me cause he’s too tall. I mostly get my combat stuff from someone a lot closer to my height.’ She reached over and slid the notebook page an inch closer to him. ‘You- You probably want to have more talk, right? You’re not gonna just accept the conversation is over, yeah?’
He looked down at the page and hated the hope it gave him. Hated hope so much. Hated that it kept him going. That it- That there was a chance that maybe his life wouldn’t just be misery for another couple of decades before someone got a lucky headshot.
‘You don’t have to accept this,’ he said. ‘I think- I know what I’ve done isn’t the kind of- You don’t have to pretend things are okay. I know this is fucked up. I- You don’t just have to accept shit, you know?’
‘I- Was a baby when some Solstice broke into my house and put a gun to my head in the hope that Ryan would go “oh, fair play, you win this one, old boy”, and just let him go? And the next ones I met? Looked a bunch of nerds in the face and smiled as they handed out poisoned pizzas. I’m alive because I wasn’t hungry. And because I was stupid enough, scared enough, lucky enough, whatever enough, to hide in a fucking wardrobe from men who wanted to kill me for no fucking reason at all.’
She chewed on a knuckle, then let out a long breath. ‘I don’t know you. Not yet. I don’t know your favourite colour. I know your favourite captain, that’s something. I’m not going to say I’m a good judge of people. I haven’t been around people enough to say that. I told you my-’ She stabbed her fingers against her chest, where he knew the mirror scar was. ‘I told you my secret cause I wanted to take a leap of faith. You’d done enough nice things to make me feel safe enough to do that.’
She met his eyes for a moment. ‘And you’re doing the same thing right now, aren’t you?’
‘You deserve the truth,’ he said and hated the shake in his voice.
‘But what do you want?’ She tapped the paper. ‘I can take my name off this. I can eat it. I could send it into the sun. What do you want the terms of our Khitomer Accords to be?’ She grabbed the Fry’s bag and pulled out his meal. ‘It’s getting soggy in there.’ She grabbed an aole chip and dunked it into the pumpkin-coloured sauce. ‘I’m not incapable of nuance or understanding. You- Acted on the information you had. If all you saw were monsters- There’s a lot more stories about scary things that go bump in the night that need to be bumped off than there are about fairies with really good internet and some gloriously shit memes.’
He wanted a hug.
He wanted to be told that everything would be okay, that the tiny thread that his entire life hung from was strong enough, and that it was okay to have hope. That maybe one day, he’d be happy that he’d held on.
And he hoped that she could see none of that on his face.
‘I wanted you to know.’
‘I got that,’ she said and stole one of his chips, despite her own packet untouched. He lifted his head a little to look at her, and the small, cheeky smile hurt and healed him in equal measures. ‘Stolen chips taste better,’ she said and took another. ‘But what do you want now?’
He stood, retrieved the Stef-to-English dictionary from his jacket and, after requiring some sticky tape, set the Friendship Accord on the inside cover like a bookplate.
Her hand was halfway to his chips again, and with a pout, she slid her still-untouched packet towards him.
‘Thank you,’ he said, meaning it for so much more than the chips.
‘Just- Do what you did for me, okay? Don’t pretend things are okay when they’re shit. I don’t want to be the only one who gets anything out of this friendship. I can’t do a lot, but I can- Something? I’ll try, at least.’
He pushed a small smile onto his face and took one of her chips. ‘You’re doing just fine, Newbie.’