+1 to confidence.
+1 to giving a crap.
Debuff: Run home and hide has been dispelled.
Stef stared at the intersecting halls, then made a left turn.
Are you ready to admit you’re lost yet?
Curt’s text had given her the room number of the meeting room, but navigating by door numbers alone wasn’t working.
She’d seen the gym twice, the hall with the dorm rooms once, two separate common rooms, and the mess hall. She’d found a large board room, but so far, the small meeting room had eluded detection.
She held her hands out in front of her, fingers on the home row of an imaginary keyboard, and spammed the “M” button, hoping that a map would appear. A map would show her exactly where the fuck she was, and what route she needed to take to get to the meeting room.
To his credit, Curt hadn’t sent out a rescue party or cancelled the meeting. Those were good signs, probably.
And it was almost weird that she was taking it as a good sign. That she was seeing the positive, instead of assuming the worst. Definitely weird, definitely out of character, probably a bit of positivity that was going to fade within minutes.
She pressed the imaginary “M” key again, then stopped and leaned against the wall. ‘Fuck.’
‘Yeah, I guess.’
So what aren’t you thinking of?
I am not making a fucking phone call.
I know you better than you know yourself. You would hesitate to make a phone call to save your life.
Inside voice, Spyder.
So what are you asking me to do?
Think, McFly, think.
She stared at the imaginary keyboard, at where her hands were, and thought of what she needed. She needed a map. And a basic floor layout shouldn’t be off-limits to a recruit – there would have to be maps available, if just to locate fire exits.
A map appeared in her hand – a single A4 sheet on thick card – thick enough to be referenced without flopping over.
‘All right,’ she said. She pulled out her phone, looked at the text and double-checked the meeting room number – seventeen.
She stared at the map, and required the meeting room to be coloured in – a solid block of blue in amongst the lines indicating the halls and rooms and cupboards.
‘And now the coup de grâce,’ she mumbled.
Two more requirements changed the map to show her location – as a spider emoji, just for fun; and the path she had to take to get to the meeting room.
She took the first two turns, then looked down.
Require: map update.
The position of her emoji changed, and the line of dashes showed that she only had a short way to go.
One more hall and one more turn brought her to the door of seventeen. She hesitated for a moment, then pushed open the door.
Curt sat at the round table, scribbling onto a piece of paper, a half-empty glass of juice beside him. The table was covered with files and photos, and one wall had been turned into a bank of screens – four rows of three, each with a slowly spinning Agency logo as a screen saver.
‘Close the door,’ he said, the juice disappearing. ‘Take a seat.’
She closed the door and slid into the chair opposite him.
Curt clapped his hands and indicated to the spread of paper. ‘Okay. Today’s sim was a really poor introduction to everything, but it’s what we got assigned, so it’s what we’re going to work through.’
She required a coffee and leaned back in the chair.
‘Also,’ he said, ‘I looked it up, and this had a rating of seven, so it’s not something you’d get assigned to if we had any advance warning of the situation. But it’s still something you might encounter, so it’s worthwhile to go through it.’
She put her hand up.
‘Don’t do that,’ he said. ‘And what?’
‘Two things: is it likely to encounter something like that in the city – and you said you’d show me what parts of the city we actually look after?’
Curt pointed at the bank of monitors, and a map appeared, with some areas shaded blue and some in cross-hatched blue. The blue area lay in a rough, blobby line along the river, with the central business district at, appropriately, the centre.
He stood and pointed at the map. ‘See? We’ve got the CBD, Spring Hill, the Valley, South Bank.’ He rattled off a few more suburbs, pointing at each in turn. ‘But in general, it’s the city and this side of the river through to the airport. The lighter areas’ – he poked at one of the cross-hatched areas – ‘are the crossover between us and one of the outposts. Outposts tend to cover a lot more area than we do but have less to do.’
‘Can – can I see those, too?’
Curt was quiet for a moment, then the map changed to show a dozen different coloured blobs overlapping each other. ‘There you go. Sometimes their agents will come here for meetings, but otherwise, we’ve got fairly little to do with them. We’ve got enough problems in our own territory.’
The map disappeared, and he sat back at the table.
‘And the chance of encountering a grove in the city?’
‘Low, but weirder stuff happens on a frequent basis. Think about it: You could have a fungus colony take over a disused factory or groups of vines that can steal people from a much wider radius. It’s also just a way to think about situations, as well – not just nymphs. It’s to make you stop and think about fae that have a much wider area of perception than we do. Sometimes the element of surprise just doesn’t exist.’
‘So lots of things with a massive aggro radius and a tiny hitbox, kay.’ She tried to look at him. ‘Do I need to add those words to your dictionary?’
‘I have played some video games in my life,’ he said, mock-defensively. ‘Aggro is when shit comes at you,’ he lifted his hands. ‘But hitbox?’
‘When you’re attacking an enemy, like, there’s a programmed point where hits actually count. So, like, imagine swinging a sword at an enemy knight,’ she said as he laid the Stef-to-English dictionary on the table. ‘Its hitbox might be where its heart is, so if you’re off-centre, and only slice their arm, it might not register as doing any damage.’
He nodded and wrote down some notes.
‘So, with the grove, if I understand it…You could burn down the corpse we saw, but it’s not actually going to damage the- The main body or whatever.’
He tucked the dictionary away. ‘Surprisingly accurate metaphor, Newbie.’
‘Does that mean I earned your captain?’
‘TOS, not Kelvin.’
She cupped her hands around her mouth. ‘Neeeeeeeerd.’
‘I’ll trust you not to hold that against me.’ He indicated to the paper and the screens. ‘This is the sim we just went through.’ The scrubby forest appeared on the monitors. ‘We’re going to walk through it, figuratively speaking, without the stress of being graded or being around dickheads.’
He slid her a folder. ‘And this is the supplementary material since I’m making a safe inference that you’re a data geek.’
She opened the folder. ‘What is it?’
‘Options, outcomes, and statistics from just about every other person who has run this sim. They’ll be good for comparison. You right to start?’
She required a dead leaf and spun it between her fingers. ‘Okay, go.’
‘Let’s run with the scenario that we were just called in on the report of a corpse. That’s a reasonable situation. If there’s a body, it’s usually Field recruits go in first – or someone from CSI if their field rating is high enough, but it’s usually up to us to do recon first. Plus witnesses are our responsibility, so we go in, then we bring the techs when we know it’s safe.’
‘So we find the body. We know about it this time, so you don’t step on it. What next?’
‘Make sure it’s dead, I suppose, but it was kind of obvious. Um…’
‘Take a second, think about it.’
She spun her chair side to side. ‘Have a look around in the immediate area, I guess. That’s probably more relevant if it’s a fresh corpse. It was the bush, so there are no obvious witnesses.’
‘We’ll need to take you through a couple of courses on looking for signs of nature fae, but you were right, no obvious witnesses. Next?’
‘Do we set up a perimeter, or is that up to CSI?’
‘Depends on the situation. Something like this, no need to rope off the area before calling them in. If it’s in a crowded area, then yes, we want civilians out of the way as soon as possible.’
‘And we just flash our ID and go “LOL, we’re the Agency, GTFO”?’
‘Well, not in those words.’
‘If I had some narc flash an ID at me that said “the Agency” I’d think they were bullshitting, or some really, really lost CIA agent.’
‘We do avoid specifics where possible. Plus, it’s basic psychology; people are fairly likely to listen to someone in a suit.’
‘Fair enough.’ She pulled out her ID and looked at it – it looked official, enough so to make most people turn away without arguing. ‘But if they do think we’re fake?’
‘Worst comes to worst, we arrest the troublemakers or get the local cops to do it if they’re around. They’ll be held for a few hours, then released.’
She tucked her legs beneath her and required a coffee. ‘Do the cops know who we are?’
‘I can’t guarantee that every officer does, but as a whole, yeah. So if you have a problem, get them to call their boss. All you have to do is stay calm, and there won’t be a problem.’
‘And who do they think we are?’
‘Federal agents, federal police, special task force, the people you call to deal with terrorists – you know, the usual bullshit of conspiracy theories. Okay, next?’
‘So we’ve got a body. We don’t have to do anything special with the area. Call for techs?’
‘Correct. You’ll have a tech in your ear anyway, so just tell them that you need a crime scene team. I spoke with Agent Jones just before, just to make sure you were getting assigned someone newbie-friendly. Agent Jones is generally pretty good at assigning operators that can match or complement you. Generally, you get one primary, one backup, and if neither are available, you’ll get someone from the relief pool.’
‘And Raz the Psychonaut is your primary?’
‘Yes, and yes, I know his name is a video game thing. So you don’t have to explain or send me links, we’re good.’
‘Do I wait until I go on a mission to meet my guy in the chair?’
‘Your primary will be a girl in a chair,’ he slid a file over. ‘Screen. Since she doesn’t have a primary for this time of day, she’s in the relief pool. I’ve asked her to keep the next couple of hours free in case you wanted to meet in person. I thought you might want to look over her file first and make that decision yourself.’
She tried to smile in thanks. ‘Can- Is it okay if we see- I’ll see how I do here first, okay?’
He nodded. ‘Moving on. Do we stick around with the techs or investigate further?’
She stared at her hands. ‘I feel like this one of those things that could go either way?’
‘CSI teams are usually led by someone whose field rating at least matches yours. So unless we’ve got reason to believe they’re in immediate danger, it’s safe enough to scout ahead. In situations like this where we have a lot of ground to cover, the techs will probably also try to send a drone or two into the area.’
‘Semi-autonomous programs that look like birds. They generally fly on preprogrammed paths, and their software is programmed to pick out certain images or words, so when it picks something up, it sends in an alert. Techs can fly them directly if needed, though.’
Big Brother is watching and he’s a bird? Big Bird is watching?
That was horrible.
She nodded. ‘Did the techs figure out it’s a grove yet, or have we wandered off to let them get splattered by corpse goo?’
‘Let’s say we know, and move on from there.’
‘Okay, so we follow the root-trail, yeah? Isn’t that dangerous, though? Shouldn’t we be doing the nymphy equivalent of walking without rhythm?’
‘Once anyone touched the body, they had warning that we were there – so we’re damned if we do and damned if we don’t – but we’re Agency, so we do wherever possible.’
‘That’s kinda my question, actually. Where’s the line drawn between “be sensible and agenty and ask questions” and “blow their heads off”?’
‘We’re not going into judgement calls on your second day. It’s a massive grey area that a lot of official policies go out of their way to avoid defining. If you’re in danger, go ahead and do what you need to do to survive. If it’s someone we need to question, then try and bring them in alive, of course. We don’t have a lot of time for murderers.’
‘Are there, um–’
‘Do we have to worry about jurisdiction issues or anything? Should we be cuffing people and handing them over to fae cops?’
‘Good question; gold star. Wait.’ Curt pointed to the table. A dish of yellow candy-coated chocolate stars appeared. ‘Now you don’t have to ask every time. Basically, if a fae commits a crime…well, outside of Faerie, it falls under our jurisdiction. If it’s a minor crime, we’ll warn them or hand them over to fairy police–’
‘“Fairy” like with the wings or “fairy” as in fae? Are there fairy-winged fairy cops and hob cops and nymph cops? Do they each have different rules, or–’
‘Whoa,’ he said. ‘Take a breath.’
She took a breath, and the boiling questions settled a little.
‘Okay, even I don’t know the full rundown of how all the different systems work together. Agency law trumps human law – we’re just that good. Agency law works in tandem with fae law when we can. When we go into Fairyland, we’re subject to the local laws. There’s also the Courts, which are an authority unto themselves, which we’re not even trying to get into for the next couple of weeks.’
‘…Is there a flow chart or Venn diagram I could look at?’
‘Somewhere, of course.’ He ran his fingers through his hair. ‘All you need to know for now is when someone says “fairy”, they mean the with-the-wings pixie type of fae that we saw at breakfast yesterday, okay? And of the fae races, they’re the most numerous, like over a billion.’
‘Billion with a B?’
‘Billion with a B.’
‘So basically, sometimes we give them to fae cops, sometimes we don’t.’
He looked relieved. ‘Exactly. Don’t worry. We’ll go into detail, you know, in a few months. Let’s just get you comprehending the basics first.’
‘Okay. So, with the grove, it’s murder, ergo a crime that we’re going to deal with, ergo we can use the “shoot first” rule.’
‘Even we don’t usually go for shoot first without contact. Give them a chance to surrender or turn in the equivalent of state’s evidence.’
‘Could we stab the root with a sedative or something, so we have a bit of an advantage?’
‘Grab another gold star.’
She popped the chocolate into her mouth and crunched on the candy shell.
‘We could do that,’ he said, ‘but there are caveats and conditions. We have to know specifically what kind of nymph we’re dealing with; there’s not just one fae knockout drug that we keep bottles of. The wrong type or the wrong dose could kill them outright or fuck with their head so they start raging or hallucinating or whatever.’
‘Same problem with anaesthesia. So generally we skip that step unless we’ve got a lot of accurate prior information. Plus we’d need it on hand, or shifted in, or an agent with us, cause we can’t require that kind of stuff.’
‘Requiring isn’t an open license to conjure anything in the world, Newbie.’
‘There is a lot of stuff we can’t require. Drugs, specialised weapons, and weapons of mass destruction. For example, you can’t require a nuke.’
‘But there’s one with the hats!’
‘We don’t talk about Billy the Nuke.’
She stared at him. ‘Could you please repeat your last sentence?’
‘Sorry. That would be talking about him.’
‘Did you just call– Are you trolling me? Why are you trolling me?’
Curt put a hand over his heart. ‘I’m not messing with you. The techs call it Billy the Nuke.’
‘I haven’t had a reasonable explanation yet as to why there’s a nuke next to the hats!’
‘That’s probably because there isn’t one. It’s probably the focal point of some contingency plan. Don’t fear the nuke.’
She pressed her fingers to her eyes. ‘I have totally forgotten what we were talking about.’
‘Poisoning nymphs. Moving on.’
‘Okay, so we do what we did, follow the path till we get to the hill.’ Anxiety started to bubble again. ‘And–’ She thought of Brian looking down at her, of the look of disdain, of feeling like nothing but a piece of shit, and- ‘And–’ she said. ‘So we get to the bottom of the hill–’
A weight sat in her chest, and she couldn’t breathe.
He leaned forward and shoved the bowl of stars at her. ‘Do you want some advice for next time?’
She flinched. ‘There’s going to be a next time?’
‘He doesn’t exactly keep his anger in check. So next time-’
She dug her nails into her knees. ‘I know! I know, already! I shouldn’t have-’
‘Just go straight for the dick. Go for his nuts. Punch them, knee them, or kick them. At the very least, it’s going to make him stop and think, which gives you time to do it again. And again. And again until they stop bothering you.’
‘Don’t you get kicked out of the guy club for saying that?’
He shrugged. ‘So, bottom of the hill with the grove above. What do you do?’
‘Can we run away or call for backup?’
‘Backup is a good option. That’s another advantage of having a tech in your ear: You can get them to organise it. You just tell them you need backup, though if they’re any good it won’t come as a surprise, and they put the request through.’
‘Okay, so we’ve got backup. Require an escalator to get up the hill, then bam, grove, right?’
He pointed to the monitors, and the screens flicked back to life – first an aerial view taking over all of the monitors, then individual monitors breaking off to show different parts of the grove.
She got up from her chair to have a closer look at the detail – and was suddenly glad that they hadn’t made it up the hill. One corpse had been…okay, not her first-choice activity, but visible in the drone footage were at least twenty dead bodies, each feeding a new sapling, or a tall grey tree.
The camera angle changed – the monitors now showed a more close-up view of the nymphs – each of the tall grey trees that ringed the top of the hill – up close, it was easier to see that the trees had human-like features, but each element was distorted in some way.
Faces in the bark were sized wrong as if they’d initially been to the right scale, but the growth of the tree had distended them in strange ways. Some branches ended in hands – sometimes made of wood, though she spotted a few that had the illusion of flesh, making the whole situation more bizarre.
She turned from the monitors. ‘I’d suggest a tactical retreat.’
‘Not quite,’ he said. ‘We identify ourselves to the grove, tell them to come quietly, blah. Don’t expect it. If they’ve gone this far, then fighting the Agency is pretty much par for the course. Just remember: fire and plants don’t mix.’ He stopped and stared. ‘Please, don’t-’
‘Ryan already told me I’m not allowed to require a flamethrower.’
‘Newbie, do I even want to know why you’ve already had that conversation with our director?’
‘In all honesty, probably not.’
‘If it eventuates, try for controllable burns if you can. Small-scale stuff. We do enough damage, and generally we get some wanting to surrender. Again, there’s that policy grey area.’ He snapped his fingers. ‘That’s something else you should probably know. The grey list and the blacklist – grey-listed people are those that have committed a major infraction but were let go for some reason. It’s basically a one-strike policy. They go against us again, and we’re free to kill on sight. You’ll find a lot of our informants and such on the grey list, as well as people we can coerce into doing us favours. Blacklisted people are just kill on sight. Basically, you need a damn, damn good reason to justify not killing one of them.’
She stared down at her warped reflection in the tabletop. ‘Am I allowed to ask if you should be on the grey list?’
‘Should be, yes,’ he said, his voice a little strained. ‘But I’m in an exemption category because I’m a recruit. It’s, obviously, the reason I’m on probation. That will wear off eventually. I’m lucky, I get to earn a clean slate.’
She nodded and swivelled her chair from side to side. ‘Okay, so we burn them, then yay, come home and internet?’
‘You’re already calling this home,’ he said. ‘You’ve been here a day.’
She shrugged. ‘Home is where you hearth to. I’m here; Frankie’s here. I don’t really need much else.’
Her response earned her a look of confusion. ‘Who’s Frankie?’
‘A whingey little monster who demands way too much attention and has performance issues. He always comes through when I need him to, though.’
He still looked confused. ‘I’m going to need some clarification, Newbie.’
He stole another handful of chocolate and munched on a half-dozen stars while staring at her. ‘You – you’re very strange, Newbie.’
She looked at the screens full of nymphs. ‘So how’d I do?’
‘Like I suspected, better in theory than in practice.’ All but a few files disappeared from the table. ‘That’s your homework from this: read through at least the high-level stats on choices recruits make and pass rates in comparison to field rating.’ He drummed his fingers against the table for a moment. ‘You want to impress Agent Ryan, don’t you?’
She gave a small nod.
‘Okay, so you should plan on doing this every day after training. We’ll run them in practice, like good recruits, but then we can do this, run through the theory behind them, and give you a chance to think about your choices and see if there’s anything you could have done better.’
‘Just don’t whine when you get sick of all the homework.’
She tried to smile. ‘I won’t.’ She tapped her fingers on the table. ‘So what’s next?’
He slid a folder towards her, with the photo of a purple-haired woman clipped to the top. ‘Meeting the techs, if you’re up to it.’