The Auction

06 – The Devil, The Details

‘You’re going to have to say that again,’ Magnolia said, an accusatory finger aimed in Andrea’s direction.

Curt hid a smile behind his hand and feigned a small cough so that Mags didn’t turn and kill him with a look.

‘If you’re asking her to repeat it,’ Carmichel said, ‘then I believe you heard her correctly. But once more, please, Agent.’

The sim room was sparse. An endless white expanse with two couches and a whiteboard. The first part of the training had been dense and detailed. Andrea had started by going over the default models of the sex doll sims if it had been purchased off the shelf and not given the appearance of an existing agent.

Next had been strange, tiny details that couldn’t be relied upon if only one was present. But if enough details were there, then lot sixty-four could safely be dismissed as a sex sim, and the Agency wouldn’t have to spend a nice chunk of change.

He imagined it was the same kind of scrutiny people would do when trying to figure out if a secondhand item was a genuine designer bag for sale for eight bucks or just a good forgery.

Not all fakes were obvious, misspelled parodies. Sometimes it took counting the number of stitches per inch or how knots were finished to tell the real from the fake. That was, if some half-remembered video he’d watched at an insomniac three AM could be counted upon.

It was the kind of information that the Solstice would have creamed themselves over.

Tiny things down to the number of hairs on the back of an agent’s middle finger to how freckles appeared.

Now, Andrea was talking about the verbal hacks.

They were something the Solstice knew about, but the exact words weren’t given out to plebs like him. As soon as the Agency discovered that their enemies knew any of the passphrases, they were patched out.

He knew one, though.

As fast as he and Carmichel had become friends, some details had waited.

He’d been upfront about his Solstice career. Hadn’t wanted to trick someone into a friendship.

Details of how his recruit career had begun had taken longer. Even with the blessing that Farnshaw had given him – aging those memories so they’d impact him less – it wasn’t hard to recall detail. To talk about an agent who’d repeatedly killed him. Hurt him so badly they’d bad to augment him to keep up with the damage.

He’d been one of the few humans who’d ever glitched.

And, deep past midnight, finally, talk about the night they’d met. About the deal with the devil he’d made. Petersen making him prove he was ready to be a recruit. Prove he was past his hate of fae by fucking one.

Or, more accurately, being fucked by one. Being tied to a bed, force-fed alcohol and drugs and- And to listen to Petersen laugh the whole time, watching from the corner of the cheap hotel room.

With his tears evaporating in the heat from the penthouse fire pit, he’d finally been able to see it, to say it. To understand consent under those conditions wasn’t consent.

He’d asked to change to the subject, unable to live in those memories any longer, and they’d switched to talking about something light, something meaningless, until they’d both been tired enough to sleep.

The morning after, he’d awoken alone in the penthouse guest room. A note from Carmichel had cited an early meeting as the reason for his absence, and a second had invited him to a late lunch.

At the late lunch, in some club with walls shaped into art by nymphs and hobs, Carmichel had given him one of the passphrases. Something to protect him in the future, something that would stop an agent dead, paralyse them for long enough for him to run. So that he couldn’t get hurt again.

And he’d wept huge, ugly, snotty tears.

Carmichel had called him family, and that had been the start of things getting better.

‘Say it,’ Mags said, ‘again.’

‘In a world of oranges,’ Andrea intoned with the solemnity of a funeral, ‘why is the sky tinted?’

‘It’s like a safe word,’ Carmichel said, as Magnolia’s face twisted like she was going to pop a vein. ‘It’s got to be something very unlikely to be said without a specific context. It has to be nonsense, but sentences are easier to remember than unrelated strings of words.’

‘Precisely,’ Andrea agreed. ‘I’ve got five different phrases I’d like you to try. Between the three of you, you should be able to remember them, even if you aren’t able to access notes on your phones.’

‘I understand how they work on active agents, of course,’ Curt said, trying to bring his head back into the present. ‘But anyone we talk to will have a zero blue count. Is it still going to work?’

Andrea smiled politely. ‘Good catch, Recruit, but yes. If I say “Manchurian Candidate”, does that explain it enough?’

‘Yeah, that makes sense.’

And it did. As much as it wasn’t a part of everyday conversation, agents did run from the Agency – “Fallen” being the somewhat fanciful term. Or they were captured or otherwise stuck out of System territory. Not all of them lived. Blue withdrawal put a strain on the body that apparently killed up to eight out of ten who had to go through it.

Unless there were extenuating circumstances, those who survived didn’t lose their memories, so it had to be simple to leave in a call-and-response trigger. A Pavlovian response to a weird phrase you were unlikely to ever hear unless you were surrounded by a convention of people experiencing aphasia.

After another twenty minutes, Andrea dismissed them with a reminder that they would need to do a follow-up the next day.

Carmichel bid farewell and followed Andrea out, both exiting from a door that had appeared in the white expanse.

‘You’re not busy,’ Magnolia said as she approached.

‘Shouldn’t that have been a question?’ he asked, raising his eyebrows slightly.

‘Shut up and follow me.’

He did as he was told, and followed her from Tech’s long bay of sim rooms to the elevator, then – surprisingly – up a floor.

Combat occupied the lower floors.  This was one of Tech’s personnel floors, with recruit quarters and amenities like their movie theatre.

One turn left, then one turn right had them in a hall of recruit dorms, where Sacha stood waiting with the door to his room open.

Steps behind them made him turn, and he saw one of Mags’ Combat recruits, along with a smiling, clearly fae man, that he didn’t recognise.

‘In, in, in,’ Mags said, shepherding them all into Sacha’s room.

Once over the threshold, he felt himself stop short. Recruit dorms were almost infinitely malleable, but of the few he’d seen, most followed the standard single or double floor plan, basically making them studio or two-bedroom apartments.

They had that comfortable, long-stay hotel feel about them.

Sacha’s room was different, right from the first step.

Ahead of him was a wide entryway, with smooth marble tiles beneath his feet. A three-way junction led to a wide staircase on the left, what looked like a living room to the centre, and a dimmed hallway to the right.

‘Yeah,’ the Combat recruit – Hewitt, if he was correct – said, ‘Sach kind of wins at playing Animal Crossing decoration with his rooms.’

‘All you have to do is ask,’ Sacha said as if this was a rote bit of ribbing, his German accent soft but noticeable. ‘Welcome to my home,’ he said, nodding his head to Curt before turning to Mags. ‘Is this a social call?’

‘No,’ Mags said, placing a small kiss on Sacha’s cheek. ‘But I brought you a dress-up doll.’

‘Oh, fuck yes,’ the fae man with Hewitt said. ‘I’ll set up the runway.’ He shuffled past everyone standing in the entry, carefully avoided the plinth with the elaborate vase, and then headed through to the living room.

‘Why do I feel like I’m in danger?’ Curt asked, equally comforted and unsettled by Mags’ smile.

‘If you take the stick out of your ass, Recruit, you might enjoy it.’

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