There was an ocean above her head, and she couldn’t breathe.
-pond, grandfather’s pond, she must have slipped-
She reached for the surface. It was there. So close she could see the ripples in the-
So deep, she was going to die-
-floating, she was-
She reached up, if only to see her hands, to see anything but the darkness-
The bottom of the ocean was soft- But there was still so much further to fall- So much more darkness that could-
She couldn’t stay-
Stef jolted awake.
There was darkness, and her heart slammed for a few beats, worrying that for once, she hadn’t escaped from drowning, from-
This darkness was different.
There was a banging noise. From further in this darkness, or from the world outside or-
Wake up, Spyder.
‘Nuuuuuuugh,’ she said, and tasted cotton.
Limbs. She had limbs. Two of them had-
I just want to go back to sleep.
There were more banging noises, then a rising hum started, like the energy build-up to something sciency exploding.
She flexed her hands, then pushed at the blanket covering her head – which barely worked, as she’d managed to burrito herself.
The hum increased in frequency, but the banging stopped.
‘What the fuck-’ she started, while trying to figure out if she had somehow merged with the blanket during the night.
She dismissed the blanket and lay gasping for air, staring up at the ceiling, becoming aware that she was just barely on the bed.
‘God’ – pound – ‘damn’ – pound – ‘it,’ – pound – ‘Newbie!’ Pound. ‘Open up!’
She rolled over, barely managing to stop herself from falling onto the floor, and flicked a hand at the door to open it. Requiring didn’t need hand movements – not that anyone had told her, but somehow, it made doing magic more real.
‘Magic,’ she whispered, ‘magic’s real.’
It was still sinking in. Still so…new, but so right. Right, like it validated every time she’d jumped into a puddle to try and escape into another world, or wished on a star, or-
‘Oh, at least you’re dressed,’ Curt said as he walked in and like last time, only half-closed the door. ‘But you’re wearing the wrong uniform. Most people don’t train in their-’ He looked down at her. ‘I have two equally important questions for you right now.’
‘Picard,’ she said. With an effort, she managed to push and pull herself into a seated position. ‘And…none.’
‘No, and- What’s “none”?’
‘I don’t have a favourite series.’
‘My questions were, “did you sleep in your uniform?” and “did you sleep at all?”.’
‘That’s an awful accusation to make.’
He pointed. ‘That sauce stain is from last night.’ He pointed to the bed beside her. ‘Do you mind if I sit?’
‘Close the fucking door first, it’s too bright out there.’
He closed the door, then sat down beside her, leaving a comfortable amount of space between them. He brought his left knee up onto the bed and rested his arm on it. ‘I thought this might happen,’ he said, and placed a platter down in the space between them, containing a couple of bacon butties and two takeout cups of coffee. ‘You’ve got half an hour, okay a little less now, to be properly up and ready. If caffeine doesn’t work- Please tell me caffeine will work, I don’t want to have either of the Parkers stab you with adrenaline, though for twenty bucks, Two probably would.’
She popped the lid on one of the coffees, required a sugar bowl, and poured so much sugar in that the liquid changed colour. ‘I don’t like- Walking. Moving. Outside. I can’t fight. What am I supposed to do?’
‘What’d I say in the car yesterday?’ he asked as he picked up the other cup of coffee.
‘That’s I’m basically half a step above being killed like a redshirt?’
He made a face. ‘I think I was nicer than that.’ He put his coffee down, then began to tick off points on his fingers. ‘We generally start with a sim.’ He paused. ‘We run a holodeck training program. It’s either a group activity where we work together to do different tasks, sometimes Mags breaks it up and sends smaller groups in to run the same sim.’
‘And Mags is?’ She downed half the coffee. ‘I’m trying to keep track of- I’m pretty sure I’ve heard the name.’
‘Agent Taylor’s aide. Combat aide. I’d say “who I’d like to be when I grow up”, but I’m not going to aim that high. I’m learning all the forms that aides have to deal with, she’d redesigned some of them.’ He pushed the sandwiches towards her. ‘Eat. She’s going to know who you are, and what score you have. When we’re done with the group activity, everyone tends to go into more personalised training tracks. Some people treat it like going to the gym, some people do weapons training, others run solo sims. Mags guides, and tries to bring up the group’s efficiency as best as she can.’
‘Ever been in a fight?’
‘If she’s feeling nice, she’ll probably just put you with the flinch-bot.’ He held up a hand to forestall her obvious question. ‘A lot of people- Taking a punch isn’t an everyday activity for most people, so a fist comes at your face, and your brain short-circuits, you don’t react properly. We’ve got a trainer sim that is just an Agent Bob sim that throws punches. If the punches connect, they’re feather-light, the idea is just to get used to being in that situation, and learning to control how you react. You can-’ he paused, then pulled a blue, cloth-covered book out of one of his pants pockets, and flicked through a couple of pages. ‘You can grind on the program-’ he winced. ‘Christ, that sounds wrong. Do not- Baah. You can grind the activity, so it gradually goes up in difficulty.’
‘Is that your dictionary of gamer terms?’
‘If I’m going to be stuck with you, Newbie, I need to know what the hell you’re saying. I had Raz start this for me, I will add to it as we go. Hmm.’ He held up the book, and the words “Stef-to-English” embossed themselves on the over in gold, serifed font. He tucked the book back into his pocket. ‘Mags is good at her job, she might push you, but it would be stupid and a waste of time for her to make you do something you couldn’t handle. So just try, okay?’
Agreeing to anything felt like- Promises to function like a person were promises that were going to be broken. He’d given one suggestion, to get an early night, so that she’d be functional. Instead of following a relatively simple instruction, her usual combination of insomnia and weird sleeping hours meant that she was functioning on barely three hours of sleep.
She couldn’t guarantee she’d be able to do more than attempt a walk to the door.
‘So if I’m not supposed to wear my suit?’ she prompted.
‘Require “training uniform”,’ he said.
She processed the requirement, and copy of the training outfit replaced her sleep-crumbled uniform. It was a reasonably basic blue military outfit – a long-sleeved jacket and matching pants with enough pockets to make a Liefeld character happy. The problem was the shiny black boots that would probably weigh her down and make it impossible to lift her feet, let alone walk or run.
Curt stood. ‘Come on.’
Once more unto the breach.
Well, first time unto the breach.
She followed Curt to a large, high-ceiled room. It was obviously a gym – the exercise equipment gave that away, but it almost seemed like a grown-up version of an indoor play place. There were distinct zones set up: gym equipment, dummies that were probably for some kind of non-gun target practice, a shooting gallery with paper targets, a boxing ring, and a set of bleachers.
The other recruits were slowly filtering in – some were brush-eyed and bright-tailed, others were-
She hung her head, required another coffee, and prayed with every gulp that she’d be able to have a teeny six-hour nap when they were done.
Physical effort. Doing stuff. Doing more than just making an effort to walk to Chinatown to pick up dinner, rather than having it delivered.
You know what to do. It might not be entirely applicable, but it’s better than nothing.
‘Fuck,’ she muttered, then lowered herself to the ground.
Ballet warm-ups had always begun with prancing around, just to get the blood flowing. The light warm-up gave the class participants excuses to bounce from one friend to another or to run from one side of the room to the other, or back to their mother or nanny for an extra hair ribbon.
Her mother had always been there, always watching her perfect Stephanie – because of course Stephanie loved ballet. Ballet was perfect, because Mother could watch her little doll dancing with a bunch of other perfect little dolls.
And she’d hated every minute.
It hadn’t been like horse riding and dressage, where she could find something to enjoy. Like ballet, any activity revolving around Buttercup had been something Mother had organised for Stephanie – and like ballet, there’d been no consultation beforehand.
Mother had always had an idea of what a little girl should enjoy, and proceeded with that course of action, never stopping to care or notice whether or not the activity was being appreciated.
All that mattered was that Stephanie looked good in her outfits, photographed well, and said thank you for the privilege.
Stephanie had always been a hard mask to wear. The perfect daughter. The beautiful little doll in all of her dresses and pinchy shoes. But Mother had loved Stephanie, even if she’d refused to see her real daughter.
And…adjacent love, love for someone just a little left of who she really was, was better than nothing.
Was sometimes better than nothing, was sometimes so much worse.
James hated her, but at least he hated Stef – he’d never been fooled by the Stephanie mask. He saw the real her, even if he’d detested her with every waking moment.
Mother…sometimes she tried to show Mother little pieces of Stef, to maybe modulate the Stephanie mask with some truth, but every attempt had just lead to confusion, to…disappointment.
So she’d always put her real self back into a box, and cried when no one could see her. Survival mechanisms were survival mechanisms, so the mask had stayed until no one had cared who she was, so long as she hadn’t been underfoot.
And for the first time in a long time, something that belonged firmly in the world of Stephanie was going to be of use to her real self.
You were never very good at being Stephanie.
I wish I’d had you back then, things would have been easier.
She stretched out her legs in front of her, glared at the boots, then replaced them with sneakers. Slowly, she did ankle circles, trying to pull memories of Madame Costeau’s instructions – instructions that had always been peppered with angry asides in French.
‘Point, relax, point, relax,’ she muttered to herself as she extended her feet.
‘The girl walking in now,’ Curt said as he dropped into a basic lunge beside her. ‘That’s Magnolia.’
She pulled her legs back and tried to settle into a butterfly stretch, that was probably more like a half-dead-caterpillar stretch, then looked towards the gym’s open doors.
A gorgeous woman stood at the threshold to the gym, wearing something that definitely wasn’t a uniform: a black ruffled skirt and tight-fitting corset over a white shirt with more ruffles.
The black and white of her attire matched her hair – which was as white as her shirt, except for scattered black feathers. She was too far away to tell if the feathers were growing from Magnolia’s head, or had just been clipped in – either way, they looked cool.
Magnolia walked forward – each footstep a distinct thud of combat boots – a nice practical element compared to the Lolita outfit.
Curt waved a hand in front of her face. ‘Earth to Newbie?’
‘She’s really pretty,’ she whispered. ‘And I’m pretty sure she could snap my spine by looking at me.’
‘Agent Taylor tends to snap necks, Mags likes to stab people.’ Curt grinned and offered her a hand. ‘Off the floor, c’mon.’
She ignored his hand, leaned forward, got to her knees, then stood. She rolled each ankle once more as she righted herself. With a bit of mental effort, she stowed the memories of ballet and Madame Costeau away for later. If this was going to become a regular thing, then for good and ill, they were memories that would have to stay near the surface.
She put a hand to her stomach and tried not to scratch at her scars through her jacket.
If the recital had run for five more minutes, if her mother had insisted on one more photo, if any one tiny thing had changed, then-
You need to focus.
Magnolia shouted at some dawdling newcomers, until all of the Field recruits were in one clump.
‘Identical sims this morning,’ Magnolia said. ‘Two teams, twelve-PM split. Early birds to the left, late-risers to the right.’
‘Fuck,’ Curt muttered, barely loud enough for her to hear.
‘Get going,’ Magnolia said. ‘Mimosa, come see me before you start.’
‘I’ll wait near the door, Newbie,’ Curt said as he followed the rest of the recruits, the group slowly splitting into two as they headed for the far left wall, and the large, automatic sliding doors there.
Up close, Magnolia seemed even taller – everyone was tall when you were short, but Magnolia seemed at least as tall as Curt. ‘Most of the recruits in your department are shitheads,’ she said without preamble. Magnolia folded her arms, ruffles and lace not able to hide muscles that would make Wonder Woman jealous. ‘And it’s come to my attention that there’s already trash being said about you.’
‘Fuck,’ she said and dropped her head. So many other things had happened that she’d managed to forget about- ‘Shit. I’m…sorry?’ she asked, staring at Magnolia’s boots. ‘I-’
‘Don’t you apologise for those fucksticks. I’ve got paperwork lodged, so a couple of them will be attending the next harassment seminar that runs, they’re usually bi-weekly, run out of Central. From one slut to another, ignore them, if it gets worse, don’t bother going to Ryan, come to me, and I’ll make sure it’s something more than the seminar.’
‘Stop fucking apologising.’ Magnolia turned away, her boots moving to face where the recruits had walked to. ‘Ryan assigned you O’Connor?’
She lifted her head a little. ‘Does your shithead opinion extend to him?’
‘He’s why I added the qualifier of “most”. Go do the sim, and maybe you won’t end up in the shithead pile either.’
‘O-okay, she said, then hesitated, ‘I feel like I should salute,’ she added quietly.
‘You’re welcome to do so, but it’s not necessary. Go.’
She nodded quickly, turned and headed towards the half-open door that Curt stood next to.
It looked like any normal glass door – a thick silver metal frame around the edge, and frosted glass. A standard door that would separate part of an office, or the backroom of a larger store. Nothing out of the ordinary – except that beyond the door was a forest.
Not a proper forest, not the kind of forest she thought of when the word presented itself. This wasn’t the pine trees in the ever-winter of Narnia, this was something far more Australian. She followed Curt through the door, and when it slid closed behind them, there was no hint, no shimmer in the air to indicate that it had ever been there.
The sim forest was scrubby, thin trees with leaves falling in preparation for winter. The chill which was strange, considering that outside, in the real world, it was the usual humid, too-hot-for-spring heat that was Brisbane in September. Time and experience had shown that the only way of dealing with springtime here was to stay inside and make sacrifices to the god of air conditioning, while going outside as little as possible.
A cold wind blew through the forest, shaking leaves loose, and she automatically hugged her arms around herself – but the chill didn’t reach through her jacket.
A stronger breeze blew, so she popped her collar up to help protect her face, and jammed her hands into her pockets.
On the path ahead of her, Curt seemed to be taking the breeze in stride.
In theory, all of the white Christmases spent at the family estate should have made her more immune to a tiny chill in the air; all the time spent crunching on fresh snow in the winter-dead gardens should have been a protection against a mild breeze, but she’d never been good at withstanding either the heat or the cold.
I’m no good at anything.
The path opened up into a clearing at the top of a small hill, where Brian and a couple of his droogs stood discussing and pointing to various spots further into the forest.
A tall recruit with violently red hair ran up the hill from the far side, reported something to Brian, then joined the rest of the group.
‘There’s no obvious goal,’ Brian said, ‘so we need to scout out further.’ He proceeded to point at pairs of recruits and assign them a direction, then dismissed everyone with an instruction to check in every five minutes.
Her assigned route with Curt took them down the shallow slope on the right side of the hill. ‘How far does our jurisdiction go?’ she asked when she deemed them safely out of earshot of the rest of the recruits. ‘Unless the botanical gardens have gone to shit, there’s nothing that looks like this in the city.’
‘I can give you a map later. We mostly look after the city itself and some of the inner suburbs. There’s actually- Careful-’ his arm shot out and stopped her from stepping on a pile of glass shards, half-hidden by leaves. ‘Take some photos of that,’ he said. ‘Could be something, could be nothing, but for the moment, it’s not enough reason to stop.’
She looked at the ground, required her phone, and carefully took a few photos of the glass shards. On closer examination, they seemed to be nothing more than a broken liquor bottle, but possible evidence was possible evidence.
‘Is there a label?’
‘Got both sides,’ she said, then stood.
‘We’ll grab a meeting room later,’ he said. ‘I can show you our jurisdiction map, give you an idea of our smaller support locations, and I’ve also got these books that work as a better version of the org chart. Photos to go along with the names, at least. They helped me a lot when I started here.’
‘Okay,’ she said. ‘Thanks.’
A larger tree blocked their way – to the left of the tree was a pile of scratchy-looking bushes, to the right was a fallen log.
‘Go first, be careful.’
She walked along the fallen tree, looking for a bit that wasn’t too rotten-looking, lest it break under her weight, or Curt’s weight as he followed, then grabbed a broken branch for balance, and swung one leg over.
She sat on the log, swung her other leg up and over, then lowered her right leg, aiming for a stable patch on the leaf-covered ground.
Her foot came down on something smelly. Something smelly and soft. Something smelly and soft, which felt entirely too much like a person.
‘…did I just step on a corpse?’
Curt leaned over the log, looked for a moment, then hopped himself to the other side. ‘Looks like it.’
She carefully lifted her foot away, wiggled down the log a few feet, then jumped down. ‘I didn’t see him. Don’t bitch at me for disturbing a crime scene.’
‘You’ve got tiny feet,’ he said, ‘I doubt you disturbed that much.’ He put a hand to his headset. ‘O’Connor here.’ Pause. ‘We found one body.’ Pause. ‘Of course.’
She knelt and looked at the dead man. Casual clothes, covered in dirt and leaves and other bits of the environment.
‘He’s been dead a bit,’ she said as she stared at his skin.
‘I’d agree, but what’s your reasoning?’
‘Corpses only stay pretty for a bit, then there’s rigor and gas and bloating and–’
‘I’m kinda glad you’re not freaking out.’
‘Meh.’ She shrugged. ‘It’s only a corpse. The dead have never done anything to hurt me.’
Besides, it’s solidarity to something. I’ve been a corpse.
‘Most new recruits do freak out at their first few bodies, though.’
Her legs started to hurt, so she stood. ‘I’d wager most of them didn’t read Gray’s Anatomy at eight.’
‘Did you want to be a doctor or something?’
‘I was out of astronomy books,’ she said. She looked around, grabbed a thin and relatively straight stick from the ground, then knelt beside the body and wedged the stick under the corpse’s left arm.
‘Don’t do that.’
She withdrew the stick, then stared at the ground. ‘Do you think I’m doing this to be random?’
‘Then talk to me.’ He moved to crouch beside her. ‘Don’t just do random shit and expect not to be questioned. If there’s a logic to what you’re doing, I’m not going to stop you. You listen when I know shit, I listen when you know shit, and we’ll be good, okay?’
She straightened her back a little, and tried to look half-competent, but kept her gaze forward, unable to look at him. ‘Okay, so we accept that Mr Body has been out here for…a day, maybe a couple of days – exposure to the elements is going to speed some of this up a bit.’
‘And obviously, he was having a disagreement with the ground before he died. Or whoever killed him thought hiding a body with leaves was a good idea. Most of this crap is just stuck to him, and we could brush it off.’
‘With you so far.’
She pointed at the corpse’s arm with a stick. ‘A bit of mould I could buy, or some fungi grow really fast. But – but he’s got grass growing out of his elbow,’ she said, letting panic slip into her last few words. ‘And that’s kinda freaky. And that’s why I was poking him, cause I wanted to make sure it was coming out, not going in.’
‘Put your stick down,’ he said, his tone letting her know it wasn’t a suggestion. ‘And back away.’
She dropped the stick, pushed herself to her feet, and walked with him until they were several metres clear of the body.
‘O’Connor here,’ he said to his headset. Pause. ‘Looks like it might be nymphs.’ Pause. ‘We’ll keep in contact.’ Pause. ‘Red?’ Pause. ‘I think we’re looking for a grove. See if you can find anything? I’m going to see if I can confirm it.’
He looked back at her. ‘Your first question is going to be “What’s a grove?” And your first question can wait.’
‘Why can it wait?’
He grimaced. ‘I’ve got to defile a corpse first.’