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23 - Ghosts and the Past
Stef nommed on the cookie as she stared at the treasures that surrounded her. The bed had quickly become a tiny nerdy dragon’s hoard. A stack of first issue comics sat to her right, topped with six copies of Amazing Fantasy #15, each shiny and new and all hers. Spider-Man for Spyder, it was just appropriate. Beneath the wall-crawling menace sat the first outings of Batman, the X-Men, and a dozen more heroes.
A hardcopy of Watchman sat open and ignored across her lap as she thought of requirement after requirement.
There seemed to be no limit on the kinds of food she could require – even if they were dishes that were only half-remembered, each tasted exactly as she remembered – which only made sense. Clothing also seemed to have a blank cheque, each item fit perfectly – bespoke outfits in a thought.
A hundred thousand dollars in a dozen different currencies sat in a tiny pile beside her bed, the notes creating a financial rainbow, and the desire to require a money bin and swim around, in the style of Scrooge McDuck.
There was a knock at her door.
‘I-DEN-TI-FY!’ she called out.
‘Just me, newbie.’
She sighed, munched on the rest of the cookie, and required the door open. ‘Yeah?’ she said as Curt walked in.
‘We were schedule to do paperwork?’
She looked down at Ozymandias and flipped the page. ‘Yeah, at seven.’
‘Require a watch.’
‘Require a watch.’
The watch told her that it was seven-thirty. ‘Oh.’
‘When I finish this?’
He took a step closer. ‘You can get back to nerding when we’re done.’
She required a bookmark and closed it with a sigh. ‘Fine.’ She swung her legs off the bed and stomped in the money pile for a moment. ‘I don’t claim to be an expert,’ she said, grinding a ten pound note beneath her heel, ‘but doesn’t work traditionally finish at, like, five?’
‘The Agency’s more of a lifestyle than a job,’ he said. ‘You get time off during the day, so you work in the evening, it evens out. And I’ve already done all the leg work, so all you have to do is fill out the form. Which shouldn’t be too hard, even for a newbie.’
She required fresh sneakers and dismissed most of the afternoon’s requirements with a thought. ‘Fine.’
‘Why are you still wearing your uniform?’
‘You don’t have to wear it all the time, you know.’
‘You’re still wearing yours.’
‘Whatever, come on.’
She stared at the floor as she followed him out of her room. He fell into step beside her. ‘Now, usually, recruits either do their paperwork in their rooms, or in one of the common areas, but since I’m a pariah and they don’t even want to bother getting to know you, I booked out one of the smaller meeting rooms.’
They turned a corner and walked down a long hallway. He jerked a thumb to the left. ‘That’s the actual conference room,’ he said. ‘Where Agents meet up, sometimes the Aides as well, but this Agency is a bit shy on those.’
‘An agent’s personal assistant, they take over doing a lot of the paperwork, act as a buffer between agents and other recruits, so for example, Agent Ryan isn’t bothered with petty crap that someone else can easily answer. As a general rule, they’re seen as the second in charge of a given department, that’s especially true with Mags and Taylor.’
She gave him a quizzical look as he opened the door to the smaller meeting room.
He shook his head. ‘There is no possible way I can explain Magnolia, just wait until tomorrow morning and you’ll see.’
‘Tomorrow morning?’ she asked as she slid into one of the chairs on the window-side of the room. ‘What’s tomorrow morning.’
He required a glass of water and set it on a coaster, then began to spread the files around the round table. ‘Training?’
He did a slow facepalm. ‘Every morning,’ he said, ‘unless you’re out for injury, or have other dispensation, it’s training at seven AM. Be awake, be dressed – in your training uniform, not in the suit, and we train. We run a sim, do a run, maybe spar, depends on what Mags and Taylor want to do.’
‘Isn’t- But Taylor-‘
‘Runs Combat, yeah,’ he said. ‘But he also does our training. Just do your best not to suck and he might not throw you out a window.’
‘I got hurt today, so-‘
‘Nope, that’s a minor injury and you’re all healed up, so you don’t get out of it.’
She pressed a hand to one of the bandages, but didn’t feel any pain. ‘But-’
‘Seven AM, don’t be late.’ He pushed a blue folder at her. ‘There’s your copy of the paperwork. Top one is the follow-up report, fill in your name and your details, then in the description section, just write the serial number of the next form and sign it – that’ll cross-reference the follow-up with the incident, and that’s the more complicated one.’
Name was easy, as was- She lifted her pen away from the paper. ‘Um?’
‘What now, newbie?’
‘Why the fsck are we doing this on paper? Like, having to do paperwork, I get, but why is it on actual paper?’
‘Because that’s the way the Agency does it.’
‘I’m used to forms pre-filling themselves.’
‘It’s just how it’s done,’ he said.
‘Agency?’ she asked after filling in her department. ‘Just “Brisbane”? Or do we have a number or something?’
‘Brisbane is fine,’ he said, ‘you can write Queen Street if you want to be pedantic, but since the outposts in our next have to specify, it’s easier just to say “Brisbane”.’
‘What’s my recruit number?’
‘It’s on your ID, newbie.’
She required her ID and copied down the number.
She flicked to the next form, and copied the serial number into the description paragraph. ‘So, it-‘
She stared at the incident report form. ‘So it generates a new serial number each time it’s required?’
‘What about the ones that aren’t used?’
‘They’re left on the system as null entries, so it doesn’t really matter.’
She signed the follow-up report, then began to look at the incident report form. It was a lot more complicated.
‘Ok, instructions please?’
‘Want to see what you can work out on your own?’ he said as a plate of steak and chips appeared beside him. ‘I haven’t had a chance to eat yet.’
‘Didn’t you get the whole afternoon off?’
‘No, I just didn’t have to babysit you,’ He sliced the steak up into nice, even squares. ‘I was finishing up stuff from earlier in the week, and-’ He popped the steak cube into his mouth. ‘I had stuff to do. Does it bug you?’
‘What if you drip onto the paper?’
‘Then I’ll require it clean,’ he said, spearing his fork into the chips. ‘Write, come on, I don’t want to be here all night.’
‘I was busy too.’
‘I’m going to regret telling you this, but the techs have a complete library of pretty much every comic ever.’
‘Well, hopefully not the crap,’ she said, before the sentence really sank in. ‘Where?!’
‘You get this done in less than an hour and I’ll show you.’
She filled in her details again, then looked up.
‘Ok,’ he said, ‘here are the attachments. Usually, you’ll have to go get these yourself. Clean-up, tech and medical. You can look through tem if you want, but you don’t have to.’
The folder with the clean-up crew report had a simple summary report, then a few pages of links with descriptions. ‘What are these?’ she asked, looking at the strange format of the address.
‘Every bit of evidence for every crime scene we go to is scanned in, so that we can recreate a crime scene in detail if we need to go back and look for things we missed. Say…say it’s a library and someone decides to break in steal Superman number one or whatever, that’s the crime we investigate because we’ve got no evidence that anything else is going on. But then we find out that that break in was a cover up so someone else could sneak in at the same time and hack into the computer. And I hope you appreciate that I’m trying to tailor this to your interests,’ he said with a smirk. ‘If we weren’t looking for that crime, then it would be easy to miss. But because everything has been scanned in, we can go back and look for fingerprints, DNA, whatever, just like we would have if CSI had done their job in the first place.’
That’s…that’s really useful.
She closed the folder, then opened the medical one. Her face stared back at her, a little passport sized picture sat in the header of the report, summarizing her injuries.
The photos attached surprised her. Each photo too up two-thirds of the page, the last third giving a summary of the injury, recommended follow-up treatment, and a small human figure, with the injury location highlighted with a blue circle.
‘You look confused,’ he said.
‘Wh-when did they take these photos?’
‘They had their eyes open, didn’t they?’
‘Every single thing an agent sees is recorded for posterity. They never have to take a photo because they can yank a still frame straight from their memory.’
‘You asked about Agent Smith before,’ he said, ‘I can tell you one thing. When it comes to agents and names, it’s all a dick measuring contest. The older or plainer a name is, the more status it gives them. Ok, so they’re the attachments, I’ve added my report underneath it so you can use it as a guide for the wording.’ He reached across the table and grabbed the medical file, and flicked through the photos. ‘You did good, newbie. It was quick thinking.’
‘A flash bang, why’d you think of that?’
‘The other hackers, when they were bored, they’d play, yanno, whatever shooting game, and flash bangs would make this really big annoying flashes, and-‘ she shrugged. ‘Figured it was worth a shot.’
‘For a four-point-two it’s not bad.’
‘What would you have done?’
‘Body armour, new gun, shoot, probably. Steel cage if I was feeling inventive. But…talking about it now doesn’t matter, because it’s what you do at the time that matters. Requiring gives every situation nearly infinite solutions, but none of them matter if you can’t think of something before the monster takes your head off.’
She shrugged, and began to write out the report while he ate, nearly copying his report word for word.
‘Okies, and done.’
‘Do you want Ryan to have to reject your first report?’
You should have seen my high school homework.
She shoved the report at him.
A red pen appeared in his hand and he scratched a few notes on it. ‘Not bad, not great, but not bad,’ he said as he pushed it back.
She grabbed the report and pulled it into her lap as Ryan walked into the room.
‘We were just going over the paperwork, sir.’
‘So I can see,’ Ryan said. ‘Would you mind excusing us?’
‘Of course not, sir,’ Curt said, his food and files disappearing.
Ryan closed the door after Curt left, rounded the table, and sat beside her. ‘is your report complete?’
She quickly shoved it behind her back and leaned on it. ‘Not yet.’
‘Please,’ she said. ‘Ju-just wait until tomorrow. He red-penned it and I want to make sure it’s all shiny before I give it to you.’ Colour flushed into her cheeks. ‘Sorry. But- But I just want it to be good before I give it you.’
‘Recruit, it’s just paperwork.’
No it’s not. Not it’s not. It’s me trying something, dammit, and if I’m going to bother to try then I want it to be good.
She shook her head.
‘As you wish,’ he said. ‘But I’ll ask again tomorrow.’
She gave a small nod.
‘How was your first day?’
The question rolled around in her mind. It was a simple enough question, at least on the surface, but- It was the kind of question that parents were supposed to ask about a first day of school. The kind of question that someone who gave a damn asked. The kind of question that-
She started to tap out the Fibonacci sequence onto her knees.
The kind of question procedure probably said to ask. The kind of question that came with a comment card.
Why are you asking?
She pressed the heels of her hands into her knees. ‘Why are you asking?’
She stared down at the blue carpet. ‘If you’re asking because you have to, then don’t.’ She bit her lip, but the words were out. ‘I- I don’t want to be troub-’
‘How was your first day?’
She looked up at him and tried to crack a smile. ‘You mean, besides nearly being eaten by a monster?’
‘Yes,’ he said, ‘besides that.’
‘I just spent an hour requiring stuff,’ she said, ‘and I still can’t believe magic’s real. I mean, part of me wants to me all smug and go “lol, I knew it!”, but there’s a difference in- It’s just wonderful and I just hope I’m not hallucinating.’
But if I am, don’t wake me up.
It’s reality, so far as I know it.
Ryan leaned back in this chair a little. ‘I rarely have recruits like you,’ he said, ‘Jones does, people who were adamant about the existence of magic without proof-’
‘As you say.’
‘But-’ She pulled her feet up onto the chair. ‘But it also leaves me feeling kinda stupid. Kinda a lot stupid. I mean, how did I not see any of this before?’
‘Fae do go to great lengths to hide themselves, and the fact that you haven’t noticed the Agency just means we’re doing our job,’ he said with a smile. ‘It’s nothing to be ashamed about, and it doesn’t make you stupid.’
‘Thank you,’ she said.
‘Look,’ he said as he swivelled his chair towards the window. ‘Quickly, look.’
She saw a vague shape go past the window. ‘Huh?’
He stood from his chair and she followed suit. Something that looked rather like a bi-plane flew past, being courted by a extremely tall, ghostly woman in a long, flowing dress.
‘Goddess of the skies,’ Ryan said. ‘A folly, but a beautiful one.’
‘Follies are-’ he paused as the plane did a loop. It became indistinct as fog at the top of the loop, then became clear again as it came closer to the windows again. ‘The way you will hear most people put it is that they aren’t real.’
She pressed her face to the glass, watching the woman effortlessly fly around the plane.
‘Seems real enough to me.’
‘Follies just have very little substance. Many of the folly races have very close relationships with fae and humans. Calling it parasitic ascribes malice when there is none, so we’ll so symbiotic. These goddesses for example, are sustained by the wonderment of flying. Ashreaders thrive on the written words, others steal memories.’ He smiled. ‘There’s so much for you to learn about, if you want to.’
‘Is there a big encyclopaedia I can require? Or better, a wiki?’
The bi-plane flew in another lazy circle, and the woman came to rest on the wing of the plane, her long dress flowing and flapping, caught by the breeze, giving the impression that she was of the wind itself.
They watched in silence for a few moments, before the ghosts abruptly faded.
She wiped her oily nose print from the window. ‘It was a good day,’ she said to her reflection before turning to look at the agent. ‘It was a good day.’