The river was the first thing she saw as the world became clear again. Stef looked around, and immediately recognised the broad path beneath her feet and the sounds of kids playing: South Bank, a wide stretch of parklands, cafes and touristy spots.
It was a place people went, so it was somewhere she tended to avoid.
There were people around, but no one was pointing and shouting at two people appearing as though by teleport.
‘How do people not see that?’ she asked. ‘Okay, maybe you’re clever and stuff, and usually shift into areas where people wouldn’t look, but-’ She gestured around. ‘There are people here. And with everyone popping in and popping out all the time, someone would see a suity person disappear or appear.’
‘There are a dozen different explanations,’ he said as they walked in the direction she only knew as “away from the museum”. ‘What it comes down to most of the time, though, is that people don’t want to believe their eyes. They would rather believe that they were mistaken in what they saw.’ He stopped and looked down at her. ‘Most people, Stef, aren’t looking for magic.’
‘People are stupid.’
He walked up to the low barrier that stopped people from falling into the river. ‘Sometimes,’ he agreed, staring down at the water. ‘Though that does make our job easier.’
She sat on the low, wide concrete barrier, and looked up at him. ‘You-’ She swung her feet, scraping them against the ground. She saw smears of dirt on her sneakers and required a new pair. ‘You can fire me if you want.’
‘We’re not going to get very far if in every conversation you think I’m trying to get rid of you.’
‘I’m not having a very good first day, I can’t be making a good impression.’
‘This hasn’t been the easiest twenty-four hours for you.’ He sat beside her. ‘I’m sorry that your follow-up caused further distress. I thought- I thought I could show you that not everything we deal with is so dire.’ He indicated to the river. ‘I thought I’d also tell you of a relatively rare phenomenon that we have, even if I can’t directly show it to you.’
‘If you’re going to tell me that the river is like, a big sleepy slug or something, I’d believe it. I chucked a rock into it once, and I could see the impression in the surface tension for like five minutes afterwards. That’s got to be weird shit in there.’
‘Would undead mermaids fit that definition?’
‘Would undead mermaids fit that definition?’ she repeated in a flat voice. ‘Uhhh, please, please explain. Please send screenshots from your HUD. And please forgive me if-’ she looked at the river.
‘I wouldn’t suggest diving in,’ Ryan said. ‘They’re quite skittish, and I doubt you could see anything that deep without special equipment.’
He handed her a screenshot, and like the last one, it was one thick photo paper.
The photo was of…well, it had obviously started as a dead body – the decaying flesh was evident in the few places it was visible. But around that, over all the limbs, trash had accumulated and integrated, becoming almost like a garbage coral reef. Instead of a perfect princess tail of scales, the legs were bound together with pieces of fishnet and discarded plastic bags. Webbing between the fingers seemed to be equal parts old chip bags and slime.
‘They have other names,’ Ryan said as he handed her another photo. ‘But they’re affectionately known as trashmaids. They’re what happens when a fungal colony takes over a body that’s fallen into the river. They do become more than the sum of their parts, though they remain largely limited to instinctual behaviours. They tend to stay at the very bottom of the river, feeding on some detritus and using other pieces to adorn themselves.’
‘Do they ever come up?’
‘Sometimes at night, when it’s raining, and very dark, when it’s harder for them to tell where the water ends, and the surface begins. They’re not often a problem for us, but I thought it was the kind of thing you would like to know about.’
‘Fucking cordyceps zombie mermaids, yes!’ She said, bouncing up and down in place. ‘Tell me everything like that!’
She looked up from the screenshots. ‘What is?’
‘You’re smiling. A lot of recruits don’t make it past their first couple of days, and you’ve really only seen the ugly, violent side of the world. As much as you’re worried about disappointing-’ He paused. ‘-me, I’ve got far more reason to worry that this isn’t what you expected.’
‘I’m not going to run away because I haven’t learned to grow wings in twelve hours.’ She ground her hand against her knee. ‘Can I learn how to shoot fireballs though?’
‘Yes,’ he said with a smile, ‘it’s “require: flamethrower”, and I would ask you not to do it in public.’
‘Aww.’ She pouted. ‘That’s not fair.’
‘Wholesale destruction rather goes against our need to be anonymous, Miss Mimosa.’
‘Fine. So what are we doing now?’
‘Something that’s important, but boring.’ He stood and offered her a hand and helped her to her feet. ‘That is, if you’re okay to keep going?’
‘I’ll be all right,’ she said slowly, ‘but I’m not all right now, if that’s okay.’
‘Of course it is.’ They started to walk up one of the paths away from the river. ‘In short, the Agency has a number of dropboxes around the city. A few of them weren’t seen to this morning.’
‘You’ve got to see if there’s any of those annoying “go get a parcel from the post office” cards inside?’
‘Not quite. We do get some mail through the regular postal service, most deliveries to our dropboxes are done in person. They’re primarily for the fae, though sometimes we get information from Solstice or our other contacts.’
They stopped by a wall of mailboxes, indistinguishable from any other mass set belonging to a group of shops. He pressed his ID against one that was vaguely in the middle of the group. The box beeped, then popped open – revealing nothing inside.
‘You look like you have a question.’
‘How do we know this stuff isn’t full of face-melting acid or the plague or something?’
‘Do you want to take a guess?’ he asked as he pressed the button to cross the street.
‘Each mailbox has scanning equipment inside?’
‘So why can’t we just shift it out instead of playing postman?’
‘Part of the reason for the stable drop-off points is so that the fae have places outside of the agency to approach us. Some may want to talk but don’t want to leave a letter.’
She bit into a knuckle. ‘Permission to do a sight gag?’
He gave her a blank look, and she turned her back to him. A thought had a crudely painted target emblazoned across the back of her vest. ‘Doesn’t that also, yanno,’ – she pointed at her back – ‘this?’
He put his hand on her shoulder and gently pushed her to start her walking across the street. ‘It does, but the uniform always makes us a walking target. We do pickup times, and they’re assigned to each recruit on a randomly rotating basis, so that there isn’t a predictable pattern of who will be seen at what time.’
‘And then sometimes people also forget?’
Ryan sighed, and for a moment, he looked exhausted. ‘A lot of Field recruits see this job as beneath them, because it is generally uneventful. So, if it’s not done by a certain time of day- If I can get away, I do it myself. Often times, I will assign the work to Curt.’
‘Because the ex-Solstice boy is less likely to complain?’
‘Precisely, though I do try not to take advantage of that attitude. It’s also one of the jobs that can be done with Tech as the second recruit, so any of Jones’ recruits trying to log Field experience will volunteer.’
She stopped walking, then leaned against the closest patch of wall. ‘Curt- He said you’re the- You’re in charge. The Director. You really shouldn’t have to do low-level shit like this. The house I grew up in, the one you saw when I was a kid? I don’t even know where the letterbox was there, because no one in my family went and got the mail themselves. And you’re more important than that.’
‘I thank you for your assessment, but-’
‘I could do this,’ she said, forcing the words out. ‘I mean, it involves the outside world, which I hate, and having to talk to new people, which I also hate, but if they’re Techs, maybe we could just flash memes at each other, and we wouldn’t have to do the mouth talking.’
She forced herself to look up at him, waiting for him to shout her idea down, to tell her to shut up, that she was being stupid, talking out of turn, being worthless, being-
‘Go on,’ he said.
‘I- I heard what you said. Staggered timing. All that. I could write a schedule that would look random, at least on a rolling six-month basis, longer if you wanted. I could work in with all of Jonesy’s recruits who want to want to be out under the burninating gaze of the sun. I’m with you now, so maybe I get like a plus-two to my Field score from your agenty-aura.’ She paused. ‘But I’m also guessing that my regular Field score is enough to do this on my own or with a Tech. So long as you don’t always need it done at, like, stupid in the morning, I could do this for you.’
She dropped her head, unwilling to see disappointment or anger that she was acting above her station, that she was being-
A hand came down gently on her head. ‘Write up a proposal, and we’ll see what we can do.’ He ruffled her hair, just a little bit, and she felt like a puppy that had been praised. ‘It’s a good idea, Stef.’
She grinned and tried to finish her thought. ‘If you could ask Jonesy for- For at least some real info about schedules and stuff, that would help me with making the proposal schedule more realistic. That way it’ll need less rework to go from alpha to production.’
‘I’ll have the information emailed to you,’ Ryan said.
‘I’ve got a question unrelated to any of this,’ she said as they started to walk again. ‘Dorian said something about compensation. Like, for what?’
‘We’re paying him for your code, since you were working for him, and it was proprietary software. We’re also covering any expenses for things that may have been broken or stolen. The latter is something we do as much as we can, the level of repair and replacement varies depending on what a civilian has seen, but as much as can, we try and minimise the damage and destruction at each crime scene we visit.’
‘By rights, Dorian should pay some of it to me,’ she said, scuffing her shoe against the footpath. ‘It was a paid gig after all. Don’t get me wrong, that code was so gorgeous I would have done it for free, but I didn’t agree to do it for free.’
‘You can pursue that angle if you wish,’ Ryan said. ‘But I wouldn’t bother. You’re a recruit now, so-’
She pulled the twenty dollar note from her pocket and waved it lazily. ‘Yeah, I kind of figured out the Require: money thing, but what’s the limits on it? I function best when I have a framework to, um, work in.’
‘There are certain limits set in stone, but generally it’s a more…fair use policy,’ Ryan said. ‘We don’t designate a salary or a weekly limit commensurate with rank or seniority, you’re just expected to be sensible.’
‘I, um, required ten grand before. Partly just to see if I could, partly just to, you know, bolster my savings.’
‘That’s not out of the norm for new recruits,’ Ryan said, no judgement in his voice. ‘But be sensible moving forward. If there is, for any reason, a large transaction you need to do, you can always flag it with us first, and we can process it. For example, a group of Jones’ recruits live off-site in a rather expensive house. We facilitated that transaction, so that the question of the money’s providence didn’t arise, and that all taxes were done correctly.’
‘I guess that’s fair. And- Should I stay in my room? If some of Jonesy’s recruits live elsewhere then…’
‘You’re not grounded, Stef, you don’t have to stay in your room all the time. If you mean whether or not you live on-site, that’s up to you. Across all areas of our Agency, we have a mix of living arrangements. We’re flexible, so long as you’re able to complete your tasks on time, and show up when you’re rostered.’
‘I think I’ll try it,’ she said, ‘it’ll make it easier to be on time if I’m, like, metres away from where I’m supposed to be. And- If that’s the case- I’d like to keep my apartment. Is an ongoing expense like that something that I can just pay, or should that get put onto a company credit card higher up the chain?’
‘I’ll admit to losing track of what is classified as average rent over the years, but I assume that will be fine. A general rule of thumb would be…if it’s an expense you’ve been paying already in your civilian life, there’s no need to worry about getting permission for it.’
He’s lost track of rent over the years…
‘How old are you?’
‘Over a century.’
‘A little over, or a lot over?’
‘I was generated on the first of January, 1900. Around the time I was generated, there was a large increase in our numbers, so my age is unremarkable. The oldest of us are around fifty years older than me. For comparison, Taylor is a little younger than I am, Jones is barely older than you.’
‘I’ll forgive you for not keeping track of rent, then.’
‘I’m not the oldest active agent in Queen Street though, the honour, should it be such, goes to Agent Applebaum,’ Ryan said. ‘If you ever find yourself in Lost and Found, you’ll meet him. He’s from the first generation.’ He stopped and pointed to a row of mailboxes. ‘Number seventeen here, you can go ahead and open this one.’
She pulled her ID wallet from her pocket and tapped it against the box. This one was a lot bigger than the first, standard, mailbox had been – and it had a slot wide enough for small packages.
That had to be a good thing and a bad thing. More info could get to the Agency, but it also meant more chances for assholes to slide bombs or other dangerous packages through.
That was something that she could account for in the schedule – danger ratings on each individual box, based on dimensions. She could also vary the evaluation based on past inventory – because surely there had to be an existing database of what had been delivered where and when.
It would take more work, but it would be more comprehensive. And maybe it would give Ryan another reason to look at her like she wasn’t completely worthless.
And maybe she wouldn’t feel completely worthless.
She caught the square door of the mailbox before it fell and lowered it gently.
Something moved inside, and she took a step back. ‘Um?’
She heard a small cheer, and a streak of white came running from the back of the box.
Ryan stepped forward and bent down to the level of the mailbox. ‘Are you hurt?’
She stood on tiptoes to look back at the mailbox. ‘Is who hurt?’
Ryan laid his palm flat, and the small white creature stepped out of the mailbox and onto his waiting hand. ‘Thank you,’ it said in a high-pitched voice, ‘thank you so much.’
She stared at the tiny fae. It was about four inches tall, with a sharp face like storybook pictures of pixies. His hands and face were deep brown, and the rest of him was covered in thin white fur. Large ears – each with two points – stood straight up, twitched, then went flat. He wore a small uniform marking him as some sort of nature-and-yay-outdoors scout.
‘I – I don’t mean to be rude, but what kind of fae is that?’
‘He’s a misick,’ Ryan said. ‘Are you hurt?’
The misick shook his head. ‘No, Agent. I’m not, thank you.’
Ryan smiled. ‘Then can I ask why you’re in my dropbox? Are you applying to be a recruit?’
She heard voices and turned to see two people walking down the street. She turned back to Ryan and grabbed his arm to get his attention. ‘People are coming!’ she hissed.
He looked down at her. ‘Thank you. Close the box,’ he said. He reached down to his coat pocket and popped it open, giving the misick room scamper down and hide. She quickly grabbed the few letters that were inside, closed the mailbox, and stood still as the civilians passed by, none the wiser.
‘This way,’ Ryan said, and she followed him around the corner to a bench out of the way of most of the pedestrian traffic.
The misick popped out of his pocket and moved to stand between them on the bench. ‘As you were saying,’ Ryan prompted.
‘I was separated from my troop,’ he said. ‘We’re on an excursion. A couple of the younger kids were nearly seen. There were humans and traffic, and I just lost where they were. I thought it was safer to hide than to try to make my way to the stairs in broad daylight.’
‘A good idea, but you couldn’t call for help?’ Ryan asked.
‘I lost my phone, too,’ the misick said, ‘and everyone is out of chitter range. Would you mind giving me a lift to the nearest stairs?’
‘Of course not,’ Ryan said. ‘Will my pocket suffice?’
The misick shrugged his tiny shoulders. ‘I’ve got no problem with that.’ On all fours, he ran up Ryan’s leg, across his jacket and down into the open pocket.
‘We’re going to shift,’ Ryan said.
The world blurred, and when it became clear again, they were standing at the bottom of a concrete staircase looking at a plain service door.
It was unremarkable, cheap beige paint and a few spiderwebs. The kind of door someone opened every six months to…do some kind of non-essential maintenance. The kind of door no-one looked twice at.
Though that was probably the point.
Like with the mailbox, Ryan pressed his ID wallet to lock, and it popped open. Inside was a dark stairwell that quickly lit up with fluorescent lights as he stepped inside.
He nodded to her, and she joined him – seeing that the space inside was far bigger than what the doorway indicated.
Woohoo for TARDIS technology?
She quickly closed the door, blocking the view from any random passing civilians, then took a look around. It was a broad concrete landing with a central staircase. To the left was a wall of computer monitors – the styling and branding giving the impression of the public terminals that you could drop a gold coin into for ten minutes of internet.
On the other side was a high table with four stools, presumably as some kind of makeshift waiting area.
Ryan walked to the centre of the landing and reached up towards a series of tubes that hung from the roof. The tubes seemed to follow the line of fluorescent lights that followed the stairs down to their destination. ‘We’re here,’ Ryan said, and the misick popped its head over the top of his pocket.
His ears twitched for a minute as he looked around, then he ran up Ryan’s jacket, along the length of his upraised arm, then disappeared into the wide-mouthed purple tube.
‘I’d love it,’ she said, staring at the tube, hoping for one last sighting of the misick. ‘If you could explain at least four of the things that just happened.’
‘These are fairy stairs,’ Ryan said as he opened the door back out into…into what she almost wanted to call the real world, compared to the liminal space behind the service door. ‘There are several ways of getting into various parts of Faerie, but the one you’ll see the most are variations of this.’
‘You just walk down the stairs, and you’re in…Down one set of stairs?’
Ryan nodded. ‘You need the right magic or the right requirement to open the doors, but after you gain access, there’s nothing further involved.’
‘I’m just thinking,’ she said, trying to order her thoughts. ‘It can’t always be convenient. Like, if you were carrying groceries or something, it’s easy, sure, but it also seems like a bit of a pain in the ass.’
‘I wouldn’t use that phrasing, but I understand where you’re coming from. This set of stairs was simply the closest to the last dropbox. I also happened to know this set of stairs had the small fae transport system.’ He paused, then looked down at her. ‘Slides, so that smaller people don’t have to navigate the physical steps.’
‘To address your point though, the common variant of this is set up in a number of parking garages, where the right access allows one to drive straight into Fairyland.’
‘And now I’m wondering if there’s fae rideshare. And…if you have to pay an extra fee for interdimensional travel, you know, like an airport fee.’
‘Yes, and yes,’ Ryan said. ‘And it’s something I’m sure you’ll experience. It’s cost-prohibitive for the Agency to keep a lot of vehicles in Faerie, so when an assignment calls for a recruit to travel, transport options are generally one of the first things discussed. The lower the priority, the less we tend to allot for travel. Some recruits do use their per diem to upgrade their transport, others are happy simply to take the bus.’
‘There’s fairy buses?’
Ryan smiled. ‘There’s a lot for you to learn.’ He looked down and seemed to notice the letters she was holding for the first time. ‘You might want to require a bag to hold those, we’ve still got three more boxes to check.’
He stopped walking and looked down at her. ‘Yes?’
Part of her wanted to hug him. But he was a person and hugging a person was a lot different to hugging a pillow, a doll, or even a fridge.
Not that he’d understand if she told him the fridge story. As sensible as he was, he’d never understand a paranoid miasma that would lead someone to take a baseball bat to a fridge door, on the belief that-
She reached up and pinched a bit of her his sleeve between thumb and forefinger. It was contact, but easy enough for him to pull away if he wanted – and it was something he should want, no one wanted to be anywhere near her and-
‘Thank you,’ she said, and let her hand drop. ‘I know I’m asking a million questions. And I’m pretty shit at everything and-’ She stared down at her shoes. ‘Thank you for being patient.’
His hand came down on her shoulder again, and this time, she managed not to flinch. ‘You don’t need to thank me for doing the bare minimum. If this behaviour is out of the ordinary to you, then…you need to spend time with people who treat you better.’ He squeezed her shoulder gently, then let it go. ‘Do you want me to explain Fairyland public transit on the way to the next dropbox?’