42 – Probably Not The Answer

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‘You’re an idiot.’

‘I heard you the first four times.’

Stef watched as Curt walked over the scaled-down sim like some kind of overly-formal kaiju. It was mostly a collection of warehouses and industrial buildings. Nothing that would have a lot of traffic at night, which was good – it meant fewer civilians getting in the way.

‘You’re an idiot.’

Sending him a text hadn’t annoyed him. Asking for help hadn’t annoyed him. It wasn’t until she’d loaded the sim and explained what she was studying for that his vocabulary had seemed to boil down to three words, spoken with an increasingly flustered voice.

‘I just want-’ She stared down at the doll-sized warehouses and streets. ‘It wouldn’t-’

‘You’re doing it because you want to impress Agent Ryan.’

She scuffed her foot against the miniature street. ‘Yeah. Not- That’s not the only reason, but it’s a big part of it.’

‘I can’t talk you out of this?’

She shook her head.

He sighed, a long, deep sound that made her want to reconsider every decision she’d ever made in her life. ‘Stick to him like glue, Newbie. The Agency doesn’t like its Directors dying, so whatever happens, you’ll probably be protected a little by proxy.’ He made a face. ‘Poor wording. Sorry.’

‘Huh?’

‘Nevermind.’ He played with the tablet controls, and the sim blurred, then grew in scale so that the buildings reached her thighs, rather than her ankles. ‘I can’t make you a more capable fighter, but maybe we can work on defensive strategies.’ He interlaced his fingers behind his head like he had a sore neck. ‘If you fuck up, fuck up in a way that means you live. You can’t learn anything if you’re dead.’

Maybe you should listen to him.

I just want to be brave. I just want to try something.

‘Okay,’ Curt said, walking to one corner of the sim grid. ‘This is where-’

It took him twenty methodical minutes to go over the planned movements of the Combat recruits and where the stationary and mobile Field recruits would be. It took another ten to show all temporary locations that could act as emergency bunkers if the area blacked out, and the one lonely entrance to Fairyland.

‘That’s a lot,’ she said, sitting on a couch she’d required, next to the part of the sim earmarked as a civilian viewing area. ‘Like, a lot a lot.’

Curt sat on a matching couch across the sim from her. ‘You’re not a coward if you don’t go. I personally don’t think anyone under a six should go in.’ He rubbed his eyes. ‘Realistically, if I was running things, I’d have it be Combat only, with Field working in tandem with the Combat operators, so there’s nothing missed. We’re pulling in people from all over our network, and that’s already going to cause problems. At least Outpost recruits that are technically classed as Combat have a healthy respect for Mags and have done at least some mixed training with our groups. The same can’t be said for the Field recruits.’ He took a long drink from a water bottle. ‘If we had a Director and a Field Agent, things would probably be more-’ A look of panic crossed his face. ‘I’m not trying to- Two roles makes it really hard to have optimal efficiency.’

‘Especially without an aide,’ she said. ‘He, um- He said you should work on intra-agency, um, standards and practices or protocols or whatever you call it.’ She threw her hands up, expecting anger. ‘I didn’t tell him, he- Kind of interpreted it from something I said.’

‘Intra or inter?’ he asked after a moment.

‘Wait. Inter. Sorry, not intra.’ She stared at her fingers. ‘And don’t make me say that three times fast or those words will permanently lose all meaning.’

‘Did he say anything else?’

She scratched her nails across the arm of the couch. ‘You probably don’t have a decent shot until after you’re off probation.’

He gave a mirthless chuckle. ‘He didn’t happen to mention when that would be, would it?’

‘You don’t know?’

‘I think the logic is something like “if I’m a happy little recruit, I won’t ask”, and the more I pick at that scab, the less loyal I seem.’ He stood. ‘And that sounded a lot more bitter than I wanted it to. Any more questions?’

What’d you say about not having to pretend things are okay?

You could say that out loud, Spyder.

‘If no,’ he continued, ‘I’d suggest take whatever time you’ve got left and spend it with Tech. It’ll be like what we just did, but more in-depth, watching how Screen preps would probably be instructive.’

She nodded. ‘Hey, Padawan?’ He met her gaze. ‘Thanks. This- You didn’t have to help out with this. Or- Or any of the other shit. And I know I’m annoying. But-’

‘Newbie?’

‘Yeah?’

‘Shut up.’

The smile on his face told her there was no malice, that it wasn’t a “you’re so annoying, shut up, go away forever” kind of shut up; just a “what you’re saying is unnecessary” kind of shut up.

She left him to shut the sim down and headed for the elevator to ride up to Tech.

It was almost counter-intuitive that Tech was “up” compared to Field and Combat. Everyone’s association – nerd or not – was that geeks belonged in the basement, even though she’d found herself capable of being a dork at any elevation.

Curt had explained at some point that it made strategic sense. When you had a multi-storey Agency, the departments seen as less capable of defending themselves – namely Tech and Medical, were installed on the higher floors. It meant any attack or breach from the ground level would have to go through Mags and several of her highly-trained friends before murdering any nerds.

When she’d asked “what about a breach from above?”, he’d answered “then we’re probably fucked”, which was succinct, if a little depressing.

And it had left her wondering, if, post-Matrix, any Solstice had tried attacking an Agency with a helicopter and a chain gun.

With the exchange of a couple of texts, she found Screen in the major operations centre – halfway between a call centre and mission control. Two columns of six long desks led to a wall of monitors – some of which were streaming news, others were probably mirrored from the various recruits who were already set up at the stations.

Screen sat with two other people – an Asian man nearly as squishy as Screen with a rainbow pride pixel art tattoo on the back of his hand, and a dark-skinned individual in an Agency vest and blouse, with a probably-not-uniform black miniskirt and chunky chain belt.

The bright purple boots probably weren’t uniform either, which made her feel a bit better about her own choice of non-standard footwear.

Screen waved at her. ‘Fresh meat, old guard; old guard, fresh meat.’

‘Raz,’ Raz said, ‘I don’t remember if we met offline yet.’

‘Sacha,’ said the other, with an obvious touch of a German accent. ‘He-slash-him, they-slash-them, or beautiful-slash-gorgeous if you’re feeling flirty.’ He pointed at Screen and Raz. ‘And neither of these two are old guard compared to me.’

Raz offered her a popcorn bucket, and Screen rolled a freshly-required chair at her. ‘Mister Genderglorious here is an exception, most people are recruited, he walked in and asked for a job.’

Sacha shrugged. ‘My family’s been fae-adjacent for generations, I’m just one of the few who decided to put on the suit.’

‘You joining us tonight?’ Screen asked.

If Curt had his way.

If you would listen to common sense.

She shook her head. ‘I’m going in with Ryan. But Curt thought it would be a good idea if I saw behind-the-scenes to get a better idea of how things are organised.’

Raz grinned. ‘He’s pretty smart like that.’

Screen nodded. ‘Right now, we’re going over predicted operations routes and using drones to make some marks.’ Screen rolled her chair a little so that the whole group could see the central monitor. The footage showed a view of an ibis standing next to a pile of trash.

‘You know our drones are disguised as birbs, right?’ Screen asked.

She nodded. ‘I piloted one in a sim earlier. Haven’t actually seen one in person though.’

Raz held up an arm and an owl appeared there. ‘Voila, Celeste,’ he said, and fed a piece of popcorn to the drone. ‘Mostly indistinguishable from the real thing, except when direct piloting makes them act un-birb-like.’ The owl disappeared, and he lowered his arm. ‘So we try and do direct control as little as possible, to avoid suspicion.’

Next to the ibis, a blue X appeared on the wall, looking like sun-faded graffiti. ‘I’ll get you a list of symbols in a minute, but we actively try and avoid any actual logos or symbology. Just dashes and lines and stuff. We get rid of everything after an operation like this. Still, we don’t need to be identifiable, even in a temporary way. Anonymity and all.’

She nodded, and settled into her chair, content to watch as the more experienced recruits made their preparations; remotely stashed supplies – mostly small medical kits; and sent reports to Combat when they saw things that looked suspicious, or out of place.

It was careful, detailed work, and definitely something she could – with training, handle. Go grid by grid. Maximise the amount of data collected. Find sensible places to put first aid kits, without those spots being so obvious that any bad guy could also take advantage of them. Build paths using spray-painted markers without interfering in path building done by other teams or departments.

It wasn’t coding, but it used the same mix of logic and imagination. Use parameters as a base, but modify and create where necessary.

And even sitting at the back of a group, included, but unable to decode Agency memes and in-jokes, it felt so much more natural than pretending to play action hero.

Ryan had admitted he’d basically gone “dibs!” and ignored where here test scores indicated she should be placed. And right now, nothing meant more than that. It meant he’d wanted her around, wanted to spend time with her, and in doing so, they’d speedrun their way past friendship and into family.

But it probably wasn’t going to work long term. There was probably stuff she could bring to the table – when her genius-slash-madness switch was flipped the right way, she might be able to contribute. Buf if Curt was supposed to the ideal recruit – bad guy history aside – and she got out of breath trying to run across the street when the “run-quickly-or-get-smushed” red blinky light at an intersection appeared, there probably wasn’t a lot of hope for her future career as an MiB.

Some people were meant to be superheroes, some people were meant to be the guy in the chair.

And some totally-not-self-insert Spider-man fanfic and a nickname aside, she’d never wanted to be a superhero.

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It started with a bang; not an explosion but atoms accelerated toward infinity. That was the end of my so-called ‘ordinary’ life. Fate guided me into the line of fire the same day a madman sought revenge for his bruised ego.

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See you next week, Recruit.

41 - A Short Discussion of Wishes
43 - Storming Calm

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Stef. Stef. You’ll still be Ryan’s daughter even if you go tech full time. You should do that.