Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.
Any sufficiently disguised magic is indistinguishable from technology.
Ash and Blue - An Urban Fantasy Podcast
Stef slumped as the world became solid again, and moved to lean against the nearest wall – which was hard, almost every inch of wall space in this room was blocked by a cupboard, screen or set of cabinets.
It wasn’t like shifting hurt, and if she took the time to think about it, it wasn’t particularly disorientating, but some part of her knew it was probably a wise idea to take breaths until the idea – the reality – of instant teleportation became something normal.
Jones stood in the centre of the room, leaning on a long bench that looked like it belonged in a high school science room.
‘Sorry,’ she said and straightened.
‘I don’t like it when recruits apologise to me for nothing. Keep that up, and I won’t put your MMO subscriptions on the company account.’
She felt a tenseness in her back. ‘You looked through my computer?’
Jones winked. ‘No, Recruit, I used basic deduction. If you play WoW, we have a completionist guild if you’re after achievements you should have gotten a decade ago.’ He pointed to his desk. ‘For now, time to give you phenomenal cosmic power.’
As Jones moved to sit at his desk, she saw something that his body had been blocking – something that didn’t quite fit with the rest of the subdued corporate aesthetic that the rest of the Agency seemed to be aligned with.
A three-foot-tall blue crystal.
Jones moved to adjust some of the electrodes that were attached to the crystal, each repositioning giving a corresponding lack of signal in one section of the triple-monitor setup that dominated the centre of what had to be Jones’ main desk.
She quickly let her eyes scan across all three screens – eight parameters were being represented by simple lines that jumped as data points were received. Six other parameters were more complex – some were flashes of light, that immediately tabulated in a bar graph column; another was just a Venn diagram that kept eating itself.
Interestingly – or worryingly – none of the data labels were in English, each was just a long alphanumeric string without a key to its meaning.
Jones adjusted one more electrode, then sat, clicked his mouse a few times, and the left-most screen was replaced with an interface that showed the outline of a stylised human head, looking more like a mannequin than anything that belonged on a real person.
A photo of her – in the suit she’d been wearing for less than five minutes – appeared above and left of the mannequin outline. After a moment, the outline began to fill – likely indicating that it was loading something.
‘Do I– Do I actually have to ask the obvious?’
‘Just don’t lick it, if you’d be so kind.’ Jones pushed a rolling chair towards her ‘Sit, please.’
‘When you’ve lived a life as long as I have, you see everything.’ He turned to look at her. ‘Sorry. That’s only a joke if you know I’m the baby around here.’
The crystal pulsed, and she lost track of what Jones was saying – hating herself for losing track, but unable to ignore the crystal that seemed to be looming larger and larger. Everything else seemed to be getting fuzzy, a photo with only one point of focus.
She started to walk towards to crystal, drawn towards the blue crystal that seemed to be slightly pulsing with energy from within, lines of silver light slowly tracing the inside edges of the lines and points of the-
Stef started to lift a hand, wanting to touch it, if just a little.
‘I wouldn’t if I was you,’ Jones admonished quietly, then moved to hold his clipboard between her and the crystal. ‘Direct contact is dangerous for humans.’ He adjusted his glasses with two fingers. ‘Do not ask about the recruit that licked it.’ He chuckled. ‘Well, maybe on Halloween.’
‘Yikes,’ she said and pulled her hand back. ‘Sorry. And- You didn’t answer the question I didn’t ask.’
Jones lowered his glasses to the end of his nose and looked at her over the top of the frame. ‘You’re going to like this next part, Recruit.’ He slid his glasses back into place, then turned to his computer, the sound of light key tapping filling the room as the pulses in the crystal changed.
He jerked and paused in what he was doing, then reached out both hands to lay them on the crystal. ‘Steady. Steady.’ The pulsing died for a moment, then a single stream of light crawled its way up the interior of the crystal, then shot out like a cheap laser effect and slammed into her head.
‘Holy shit!’ Stef immediately slapped her hands to her head to make sure she had one. ‘Jesus- Fuck- Did you just fucking shoot me? You-’ Her hands tingled, and she pulled them down into her field of vision.
A last, dying crackle of the silver light buzzed over her fingers, then sank into her skin.
‘That’ll do, pig, that’ll do,’ Jones said as he patted the crystal, then began to pull away all of the wires linking it to his computer. With the last one disconnecting, the crystal floated free from the desk.
Stef watched as it approached the ceiling, pausing only in its flight to wait for a section of the white ceiling to slide away, revealing a hidden storage compartment. The crystal set itself in its home, and the tile slid shut, hiding it from anyone who would dare to want to poke it.
‘You just shot me,’ she said again. ‘Like- You just-’
‘Do you want to try requiring something?’ Jones asked, then stood, so that Ryan could take his chair.
She wiggled her fingers as Ryan settled into Jones’ chair. ‘So how exactly does it work?’
‘Simply think “require”, then the object you need.’ A glass of water appeared in his hand. ‘And “dismiss” to get rid of an object.’
Her mind went blank. She’d been given the powers of a genie, and she had no idea what to wish for. A pony. A car. A zeppelin with machine gun turrets. A cookie.
A chocolate chip cookie appeared in her hand.
She stared at it in confusion. The fact that she’d pulled it from thin air was fine; the fact that it was chocolate chip was not. ‘How did it know to be chocolate chip?’ She sniffed it experimentally, then took a bite. ‘I just thought about a cookie, I didn’t–’
‘Is it what just you imagined?’ Ryan asked.
‘Yes. Exactly. Oh…’ He gave her a nod. ‘It’s like… Okay, I can deal with that. It’s the command of non-specific request dealing with a brain macro.’
The word almost seemed to float in the air in front of her. Macro. And she’d said that because that was how it made sense to her. She dismissed the current cookie, then required a copy of Mansfield Park – a book that had always been on her mother’s dresser, even if it never seemed to get read.
It was something she knew of, but she’d never done more than crack the cover of her mother’s copy – just in the hope that the dresser copy was a secret, hollowed-out book containing something secret.
And the book complete – cursory glance at a dozen separate pages showed accurately Austen-y writing, so while a cookie recipe could be theoretically pulled from her brain – flour, sugar, chocolate, and the rest; there was no basis in her brain for the complete text of the book in her hand.
She tried to look up at Ryan, her thoughts a flaming wreck of a trainyard. ‘I-’
He quickly scooped up the book as it fell from her hands. ‘Miss Mimosa?’
She wrapped her fingers around the edge of her seat to keep herself from slipping. ‘Don’t- Don’t worry, the crystal didn’t fry my brain. Probably. I just-’ She buried her face in her hands. ‘I can accept that maybe I can conjure stuff – and for food and stuff, that’s fine, cause I know what food tastes like, and that’s the important thing. You got me water, coffee, those have simple recipes, simple sets of instructions, I-’ She tugged at her suit. ‘And the first clothes you gave me when I vommed all over your office, you could guesstimate my sizes by looking at me. All of that. Okay. All conjuration. All good.’
Ryan crouched in front of her, and she gripped her seat again, trying to hold onto the thoughts in her head, trying to keep herself centred. ‘But if it’s- If it’s solely based off stuff I know, then that book would be empty. So there’s got to be logical redundancies- Like- Like I don’t think most people actually know how a computer is constructed, or whatever.’
He handed her an open bottle of water, and she took a long, deep gulp. ‘But for there to be a logical redundancy, then there has to be some sort of system. So – so the require command is actually a command. It’s a lookup from my brain to correspond against some global system search to give me what I actually want.’
‘Well, yes, you are correct,’ Ryan said gently.
‘And I’m just a recruit. I don’t need any access to anything more advanced than “require: cookie” or “require: new clothes cause I forgot to shower”. You– You need a hell of a lot more than that. Okay, fine, so maybe you can shift cause you know where you’re going, but what about when you don’t know where you’re going? It’s different to picture and teleport to your office than it is to Dorian’s place. Had you ever been there before?’
He shook his head as he returned to his seat.
‘So, what; am I supposed to believe that you’d shift to somewhere that you did know, then shift closer bit by bit? That…that makes sense for like Nightcrawler and people like him, but if you were–’ She could feel her argument losing steam. ‘But – but – but you said you were created. Purpose-built to do-do-do this job. So that- Bamfing closer and closer to a target seems inelegant. And-’ She waved a hand lazily up and down her torso to indicate her suit. ‘This doesn’t scream inelegant.’
He steadied the water bottle in her hand as it started to tilt.
‘I’ve been thinking way too much about the magic, and not about the tech. Cause this is tech, isn’t it?’
‘What are your conclusions?’
She bit the inside of her cheek but stopped before she tasted blood. ‘You need to be able to target yourself properly. And your luggage, like when you take me somewhere. Second, it’s an assumption, but I’d guess that just staring at Google Maps isn’t enough, so you’d need some system to be able to target. And it needs to be internal, cause I haven’t seen you using a computer or a phone or anything when you’ve been shifting us around.’ She started tapping out Fibonacci on her knee with her free hand. ‘And if we assume that, then there’s other stuff that comes along with it, like – like exactly how you knew who I was. You’d need some sort of facial recognition or something–’
‘And therefore?’ Ryan prompted as she trailed off.
‘You’re – you’re a computer, aren’t you?’
Ryan stood and moved to the closest bench, where he began to look at some paperwork. ‘I am an artificial being, and all of my functions are controlled through my HUD.’
He shuffled a few pages. ‘If this bothers you–’
‘The only thing that bothers me is how long it took me to figure it out!’ Stef said as she jumped to her feet. ‘Do you have any idea how cool this is?’ She sent up a silent prayer to Turing, then rounded the bench so that she was sending opposite him. ‘Is your HUD on all the time, like a Terminator? Does it change how you see things? Do you have apps? Can you set a different desktop theme?’
‘You truly aren’t bothered?’
‘You have spent more than five minutes with me, right? Why the hell would you think I’d be bothered?’
Ryan stared at her, his face impassive for a long moment, then he let it drop into something a lot less certain. ‘Because of our nature, we do get a degree of–’ He paused for a moment. ‘Let’s say “disregard” from some fae.’ He slid a piece of paper and a pen in her direction and tapped the signature box. ‘For your ID,’ he explained. ‘They find it hard to acknowledge us as real people, due to the fact that we’re not…. “real” or real enough by their measure.’
Stef signed the page, then slid it back across the bench. ‘Recruits too?’
‘You would be surprised at the number of people I’ve encountered who aren’t comfortable taking orders from a robot. Or somehow misconstrue our function and believe that we’re here to serve humanity; and therefore should take orders and not give them.’
Stef nervously tapped on the bench, trying to phrase something witty and light. ‘Did- Did, um- The people who think that, did you use them in the Soylent Green way I asked about last night, and if not, why not?’
‘Miss Mimosa, I can assure you that there are very few circumstances where eating a human would be of any use to an agent.’
‘That’s not a “no, I’ve definitely never eaten a person”,’ she said mildly.
‘Miss Mimosa,’ he said, his voice weary.
‘Can, um, can you show me how you see stuff? Like, is it possible to take a screenshot from in your HUD?
‘Well, of course,’ he said. ‘My recruits generally aren’t this accepting, so-’ He stopped talking, and a piece of paper appeared in his hand. He held it for a moment, then handed it across to her. ‘Obviously, this changes from moment to moment, depending on what information we need, but it should serve as an example.’
Stef accepted the screenshot – the paper was the nice, thick photo paper that didn’t crease as soon as you touched it. On it was a picture of herself – he’d screencapped in the second or so after she’d asked, surrounded by a seemingly comprehensive array of menus, floating bits of information, and app icons.
The text was thin, and electric blue – a thin line extended out from her face to a label marking her as “Recruit Mimosa, S”, with a little down arrow, indicating that there were more options available – contextual menus, probably.
‘It’s worth noting,’ Jones said as he came up beside her, and plucked the screenshot from her hands. ‘Director Ryan uses a predominantly default loadout.’ Jones tapped the side of his head. ‘Mine’s a lot more fun.’ He handed the screenshot back. ‘Director, I do have a meeting in here soon, but if you require more time-’
‘No, no, my apologies,’ Ryan said. ‘Come along, Miss Mimosa.’
‘One sec,’ she said and looked up at Jones. ‘Um, Jonesy? Can recruits-’
Agent Jones held up a hand to stop her. ‘Recruit, I’m going to need you to be here more than five minutes before you ask for a HUD, okay? But the answer is…yes, in exceptional circumstances. Some extremely senior aides have a limited HUD if it’s deemed it will help them with their work, and their position and performance warrant it. Noob recruits? No, sorry, sweetie. No way in any of the seven hells.’
‘Miss Mimosa,’ Ryan said from the door.
‘Yep! Sorry!’ She tucked the screenshot into her left pocket and followed Ryan out of the office.
‘There are a few points I need to go over with you,’ Ryan said as they walked towards the elevator. ‘Requiring does have a few limitations, some are logistical – there are certain things that are just impossible – you can’t require a body back to life; nor require direct harm to someone.’
‘Okay,’ she said as they stepped into the lift. ‘It’s not necromancy, that’s reasonable.’
‘I…feel the need to state,’ Ryan said hesitatingly, ‘that you cannot require weapons of mass destruction, bioweapons, and the like.’ He arched an eyebrow. ‘No rocket launchers, please, Miss Mimosa.’
The lift stopped, and they exited. ‘Most complex medical requirements are gated to those with specific licencing access, should you need an organ replacement, you’d need to see the doctors, you wouldn’t be able to require a human kidney.’
Stef looked down at her hands. The specification of “human” was-
‘I can see you thinking, Miss Mimosa.’
Ryan stopped in front of a window seat that looked out over the mid-morning street below. She moved to sit, leaning up against the left wall, legs crossed. Ryan stood for a moment, then sat, his feet on the floor like a sensible person.
She looked at her hands again and tried to find the thought she’d been having. ‘I mean…could I require a puppy kidney that was the size of a human kidney?’ She winced. ‘I mean, that’s a bit morbid, and wouldn’t work if you needed a transplant – shit, should have said pig kidney – but if you needed to make a particularly gross point or win a bet or something…’ She waved her hands defensively. ‘Don’t worry, I’m not gonna try now, but I assume people have tried to rules-lawyer their way around some of these restrictions. I mean, my first through was pig kidneys, but I’m just a weirdo, I’m sure someone has thought “ooh, if I can’t require the Evil Bioweapon, then I can require the components or the components of the components”.’
‘We do try not to recruit people who would be inclined to do such a thing-’
‘I should really stop talking about puppy kidneys, then, right?’
‘But there are also certain checks in place, we’ve been doing this for some time, so we’re not blind to all the tricks that people are capable of.’
‘Most other limitations,’ Ryan continued as she munched on the new cookie. ‘Come under common sense, but I’ve emailed you a more comprehensive ruleset, and I have no doubt Jones will send you his recruit-compiled welcome package.’ He smiled. ‘It’s usually reserved for his recruits, but I have the feeling you may be requested by Tech on occasion.’
‘Does that happen a lot?’
‘It’s not uncommon. We like our recruits to use their strengths. One example, Hewitt, under normal circumstances, he would have gone to Tech, but Combat needed the numbers at the time, so they were able to fight for him to be placed in their division. So while he is happy in Combat, many of his elective activities – such as the conferences he’s eligible to attend, focus on his more technical skills.’
‘I’m not gonna lie, nerd shit conferences sound like a lot of fun.’
‘You’ll receive notifications of events. Elective activities have to be worked around your existing schedule, but I’m sure allowances can be made.’ He reached out, a small black object in his hand. ‘Your security clearance has been activated. This has your security card, your field ID, and your credit card in it. Your ID also acts as a keycard to open any locked doors you have access to.’
She flipped open the handsome leather ID folder and smiled at the official-if-sparse looking ID. It had a photo of her – the same photo that had been on Jones’ computer when the crystal had been hooked up. There was a silvery hologram of a circle on the white background, but no other branding. It was exactly as anonymous as you’d expect the ID of the real-life MIB to be.
The credit card was similarly plain – though here, the silvery circle logo had a blue horizontal line that stretched from the centre of the circle to the same distance outside the circle. ‘Is there a per diem limit on the card?’
‘This is another element that broadly falls under common sense – keep any cash transactions to the realm of “sensible”, and there shouldn’t be a problem.’
She nodded and tucked the ID folder into her right pocket.
‘That covers the basics, I believe. Next…would you like to meet the other recruits?’
She stared at her cookie and shrugged. ‘Not really.’