Stef pulled on her seatbelt, then pulled her phone from her pocket and tucked it into the centre console as Curt settled himself into the driver’s seat.
‘You understand,’ Curt said as he started the car, ‘this is another one of those conversations you should probably be having with Agent Jones or a Tech, right?’
‘I didn’t, now I do, but try anyway?’
He pulled out into traffic and immediately hit a red light. ‘Hell, Newbie, I don’t even know if you know enough about agent creation and physiology or whatever you’d call it to get to this stage. What do you know? Tell me that, and I’ll build on it.’
‘Agents are nanite goop, magic in system territory, basically human in blackout zones. AI. Um- Blue?’
‘Fair,’ he said. ‘And when an agent, or whatever model, comes to the end of their life, they’re recycled. It’s not gory, don’t think about bodies getting chopped up. It’s all about the code, the useful bits of code are removed and kept to make baby agents better at their jobs out of the box.’ He looked at her. ‘Very technical,’ he drawled sarcastically, ‘told you.’
‘So they die and get uploaded to GitHub?’
‘I’ll take your word for it. So that’s the basic procedure. There are humans who have been recycled. People who it’s been deemed have information that should be included in future agent builds, but that’s almost a tangent, that isn’t what happened here.’ He took a hand off the wheel and waved it. ‘Not here-here, here like “this situation”. No one even really knows when or where this takes place. Most people, including our doctors, tend to tell it like it’s a medieval story, it’s easier to mythologise uncertain history if you wrap it in knights and kings and whatever.’
‘Maybe start at the beginning?’
‘Agents having recruits is a new-ish thing. Like, last century or so. Less human interaction before that, and the further you go back, the more taboo it gets until it’s banned outright. Agents or knights or whatever you want to imagine, a few hundred years ago, definitely not allowed to have human friends.’ He leaned forward and pressed a lump of red PlayDoh to the dashboard. ‘But things happen, and a human and an agent,’ a blue lump was placed beside the red lump, ‘fell in love.’
‘And this isn’t a slap on the wrist offence.’
He pulled the car over in the shade of a tree next to the Botanic Gardens. ‘Death penalty for the agent, but the human wanted to die with their lover.’ He picked the lumps. ‘It was allowed, and they died together.’ He pressed the pieces together and started to intermix them. ‘But it caused this glitch where sometimes when you press the “make a new agent” button, instead of one, you get two.’ He pulled the PlayDoh into two lumps again – the red and blue intermixed to the point where you could never fully separate them again. ‘So now, you’ve got several rare cases of agents who are simultaneously one person and two people. Two became one who became two again.’ He pressed the lumps of intermixed colours to the dashboard again. ‘There are volumes of documentation on this glitch, so the information is there if you want it. But the important thing is…that-’ He winced. ‘Safe if I call it… interpersonal mingling? That you don’t like? That’s almost their literal default state of being. The part of them that was lovers never forgets that. So if you’re going to medical, always knock.’
‘That can’t be sanitary.’
‘It’s not,’ he said. ‘But this is one of those times where skill buys you leeway.’ He started the car again, and they drove on.
They passed buildings, both new and unfamiliar. Parts of the city she’d seen before became new with secrets pointed out: fairy bolt-holes you could only access if you knew where they were, stairs to Fairyland, certain trees that were actually nymphs, one run-down building that was student housing for fairies.
A hundred secrets that she’d walked by. A hundred new things she needed to know. But- But it was worth it to try. To earn a proud smile from someone wanting to act as a parent. To actually have someone to take proverbial crayon drawings to, with the actual expectation that they’d end up on a fridge, and not in the trash.
‘What are you aiming for? You seem- Okay, yeah, I don’t know you that well, but- Weirdly determined this morning? So if there’s something specific you want to achieve, that’ll help me know where to focus my training.’
She stared out the window for a long moment. It was personal, but it wasn’t the kind of too personal where she couldn’t say anything. He was trying to help and facilitating that would make things easier. So, it was just a matter of putting it into words.
‘Remember, um, on my first day. I said I didn’t work or go to uni or anything? I’ve never done anything. Working for Dorian was the first time I’d even managed to stick at a freelance job for more than a couple of days.’ She turned to look at him. ‘Nothing, okay? People in my family don’t have after-school jobs or whatever. If I’d had a gap year, it would have been to travel on the family purse, not to work and understand the real world.’ She looked down at her uniform. ‘So this is- This isn’t like anything I’ve ever done before. But I want to do a good job. Ryan gave me a chance, and I don’t want to disappoint him.’
She quickly looked away again. Almost too much. Talking to people was still- Hard. Stupid. Impossible to know what your mouth was going to say without asking your brain first if you didn’t stay on top of things.
‘I get that,’ he said, and he sounded sincere. ‘Remember I said I wanted to apply to be his Aide? I’m pretty much centring my Agency career on trying to look good to Agent Ryan. You’re starting with an advantage though, cause I’m pretty sure he doesn’t hate you, Newbie.’ He barked a laugh and buried one hand in his hair, the other one gripping the wheel tightly. ‘Heh. Sorry. That- You don’t need my baggage.’
‘He hates you?’
‘I’m pretty good at figuring out people. Reading expressions and stuff. Agents are harder, and that’s not just Solstice propaganda speaking. They can literally choose what emotions to show on their face and how intensely they want to show them. You know how- No, you probably don’t…People who work in retail develop like a work face, so you can keep smiling at customers, without showing what you really think. If retail people were agents, they could scream all they wanted at customers inside, without a drop of it showing on their face. Agent Ryan doesn’t do that, not as default anyway, he just seems to be naturally one of those-’
‘He’s not stiff-upper-lip,’ she said with a perfect RP accent. ‘But he’s reserved,’ she said, letting her voice go back to normal.
Curt looked in her direction for a moment. ‘What the fuck did you just do with your voice?’
‘Keep talking, or I’ll do it again.’
‘He-’ He swallowed. ‘I just wish I knew what he thought of me. I think I’m sitting somewhere around the level of “useful tool”, and I don’t know what I can do to improve that.’
‘Want me to ask him?’
Curt blanched. ‘No…No. No thanks. I’d rather not ping on his radar as an issue. So, please don’t, okay?’
‘It’s going to take a lot of work to upskill you to… To…To where you’re somewhere confidently past four-point-two. So, just flag it with me if we’re pushing past your ability, okay? Going past breaking point serves no one, least all the agent you’re trying to impress.’
His phone beeped, and he pulled over as soon as it was safe.
Curt looked at his phone, then slipped his earpiece in. ‘Raz, I’m on.’ Pause. ‘Sure.’ Pause. ‘Newbie, you want to do some work? It would be a good learning opportunity, and we could get lunch after’ He held a finger up. ‘Probably Fry’s. You want something?’ The finger went down. ‘Newbie?’
‘Send the details to Stef,’ he said. ‘Give us a ten count before shifting.’ He looked at her. ‘Hop out.’ They exited the car, which disappeared as soon as he’d closed the door, then the world slipped as they were teleported away.
The first thing she saw was some familiar-ish scenery – the Botanical gardens again, though from a different angle this time. She turned slowly and the location crystalised – the university.
She’d been there at least once before. At some point, the stars had aligned to give her enough energy and brain think to stupidly give her the confidence to attend an open day. She’d wandered around and picked up information on courses she could attend if she wasn’t a broken shell of a human being.
Her school transcripts were a garbage fire, but if they allowed her to test specific competencies or-
She could probably manage to scrape through and get accepted…but maintaining anything like a good work ethic was-
Was exactly like what she was trying to do now, wearing a suit, where there were actual stakes involved.
Actual stakes, and a half-memory, half-dream boss to disappoint.
What in the fuck do I think I’m doing?
Curt stepped in front of her. ‘Newbie?’ he asked, bending down so that he was eye level with her, without looming into her personal space. ‘Did you hear anything I said in the last couple of minutes?’
She started to drag her foot in rough semi-circles on the pavement. ‘No. Sorry.’
‘It’s okay,’ he said, ‘if you can give me warning you’re zoning out, try, but otherwise-’
‘It doesn’t work like that,’ she mumbled.
‘That’s why I said try, not all zoning outs are created equal.’
She mentally shook herself and tried to focus. ‘What were you saying?’
He ran a hand through his hair. ‘I always find it disconcerting if I directly repeat myself, it feels like a glitch in the Matrix or something. Deja vu on a creepily personal level. In summary: this is a good first outing for you, this is actually something rated at a basic four. Take a look at your phone, Raz sent through some stuff.’
She nodded and opened the message from Raz – one blurry photo of a moving patch of…something. A second photo followed, showing a cleaned-up version. A section underneath showing that it had been put together with inference, deduction and System resources – so real tech, rather than just zoom-and-enhance.
‘Goblin,’ Curt said. ‘Basically, we got a photo sent in from a fae student who wanted to give us a heads’ up.’ He leaned in and changed to a conspiratorial whisper. ‘And sometimes we give reward money for stuff like this. It’s easy to slide someone a small envelope of required cash as a thank you for this not ending up all over social media.’
She started to look around for any signs of-
‘It helps if you don’t look like you’re gawking. People will already notice the matching suits, but that can pass under the radar if you don’t seem to be taking an active interest in the area.’ He slipped on a pair of sunglasses. ‘The less you look like a secret agent investigating something, the less people will treat you like a secret agent investigating something.’
She required a pair of mirrorshades, the thought putting them directly onto her face, giving her face a weird, momentary tingle as they appeared. ‘So they’re functional, as well as stylish?’
‘I’ll just count it as a blessing if you remember to take them off when we go into a building.
He beckoned to her, and they started walking.
‘Let’s start with your preconceptions,’ he said as they stopped at an intersection of paths. He put a hand to his ear. ‘Raz, anything?’ Pause. ‘I realise that.’ Pause. ‘Do a wider sweep, and get someone on social media.’ Pause. ‘Your efforts are appreciated, Recruit.’ He looked to her and pointed down the path. ‘If I say “goblin”, what’s your first impression?’
She hesitated, and he noticed.
‘If your answer is Bowie, that’s fine, that’s where a lot of people start.’
She shrugged her shoulders so high they brushed her ears. ‘Not…inaccurate.’
‘Expand on what you mean by that.’
‘Well, there’s Labyrinth, of course. But there’s a dozen different lores and canons I could throw at you, so just tell me what they’re really like, and I’ll deal.’
‘Wait.’ He put a hand to his ear. ‘Okay, great. Okay, not great, but better than– Where from here?’ He looked down at her. ‘How are you at running?’
‘Running and I do not get along.’
He muttered under his breath. ‘Okay, then just try to keep up.’
Dammit, I really will have to start doing all of Madame’s exercises again.
He moved quickly, and she tried to match pace with his striding steps, having to run for a few steps every couple of meters to catch up.
‘So I see a lot of treadmill work in your future,’ he commented mildly.
‘Yeah, but you should see how fast I can type.’
‘Look at the ground,’ he said. ‘Most goblins are pretty small, and if there haven’t been more calls, then it’s got to be on the small side.’
‘Ok, but how small is small? Misick small or dog small or–’
‘When did you see a misick?’ he waved a hand as if telling her not to answer the question. ‘At least the size of your head,’ he said. ‘It’s a goblin, Newbie, you’ll know it if you see it .’
‘We don’t have a better way of tracking fae? No tricorders or anything?’
Something scampered along the ground and disappeared through an open door.
‘There!’ she said, her arm flying up to indicate its path.
He waved his hand near her arm but didn’t touch it. ‘Stop that.’
‘Pointing is worse than staring.’
‘You’re learning.’ He turned his head to look at where she’d pointed. ‘Just… Be cool, okay? Relax. Act like you belong.’
I have never belonged in my entire fucking life.
You might need to reexamine that thought. Being basically adopted kind of means you belong.
A flurry of warm fuzzies fluttered through her chest, and she tried to set her face into something approaching determination. Sensible. Quiet. Still. Asking the right questions.
They walked through the door and into the building but saw no sign of the little, dark shape.
‘Are they dangerous?’ she asked, immediately looking to the ceiling in case it was hiding above them.
‘Not really,’ he said. ‘We rarely have anything to do with them.’
A door closed at the end of a hall to their left. Curt took a couple of steps and looked through the clear pane of glass on the door. ‘There’s a lecture in there,’ he said. ‘This is–’
She pulled the fire alarm.
The evacuation tones began to play almost immediately, and there was a flurry of activity from within the classroom.
They stood to the side of the hall as students, arms full of books or hurriedly stuffing laptops into bags, stomped past.
One student called out that they should wait for further information, which made a few stop in the hall.
She looked around – delays could be bad, delays could mean losing track of the goblin. The alarm was a good first step, but reinforcing the idea could sell it to those wavering on whether or not they should evacuate.
One quick look at the ceiling located a fire sprinkler and one requirement set it off – with the spray directed at the wall so that it didn’t wreck the tech of students who probably couldn’t afford to replace it.
The noise and the little bit of reflected spray kicked the “flight” instincts of the milling students into high gear, and they headed for daylight.
As the last few people left the room, she slipped in, Curt close behind.
Curt closed and locked the door.
Part of her noted that it didn’t bother her. A week ago, someone locking the door of a room that she was in probably would have sent her into a – likely justified – panic attack.
Apparently, Curt had done enough to earn her trust.
Maybe this was what having friends was like.
‘Come out, come out, wherever you are,’ she muttered as she looked around for signs of the goblin.
There was no movement.
‘We’re Agency,’ Curt said in a loud, clear, narcy voice. ‘We’re not going to hurt you.’ He looked at her. ‘Keep your movements slow. It’s probably spooked enough.’
The desks disappeared, and she began to circle the room, listening for any tiny sounds of a creature hiding.
Hiding in the dark, listening to footsteps outside and just waiting to–
‘Would heat vision goggles work?’ she asked.
He shook his head. ‘Not with goblins. One of their only abilities is to regulate their body temperature to blend in with their environment.’
‘I want sanctuary!’
A little dark shape shot out and flung itself against the locked door. ‘Sanctuary! Sanctuary!’
Does he think he’s Quasimodo?
She looked at Curt. ‘Are we a church?’
He ignored her and walked to the goblin. ‘The Agency is neutral. We can’t give you sanctuary. You–’
‘He’ll kill me!’
‘The locals have changed leaders again?’
The goblin jumped from the door to one of the desks – giving her a chance to really take in what it looked like.
If she hadn’t known what it was, she probably still would have guessed “goblin” – it was small, had pointy ears, and in general, looked like it could have been one of Jareth’s backup dancers.
It wore a small, many-pocketed vest that looked like something a fisherman would use. The upper left pocket was covered in carefully shaped moss, the top right pocket had a constellation embroidered into it.
The other thing that drifted from the general goblin expectations was the bright, jewel-toned purple skin, and its deep golden eyes.
‘You didn’t yield?’ Curt asked. ‘This is the fifth time this year the locals have changed leadership. What happened the last four times?’
The goblin looked from side to side, then shrugged.
‘We can’t help you,’ Curt said. ‘Have you gone to the Local Court?’
The goblin shook his head.
‘They’re your best shot,’ he said. ‘Or you can head down into Fairyland, but I like your odds better up here.’
The goblin cocked its head to the side. ‘Recruit me, Agent?’
Curt shook his head. ‘We can drive you to the Court. Or arrest you. We can’t let you run around in broad daylight.’
The goblin jumped off the window and onto a bench beside her. ‘I don’t want to go to Court.’
Curt glared at the goblin. ‘Incarceration. Fairyland. Court. Those are your three choices, and you’re running out of time to decide.’
The goblin drew itself up to all of its one-foot-and-change height and puffed out its chest. ‘You can’t arrest me. I haven’t done anything–’
‘You’re running around in broad daylight. Public exposure is an Agency offence.’ His voice went cold. ‘You know the Court is your best chance. I suggest you accept.’
The goblin’s chest sagged. ‘They’ll indenture me.’
‘Only for a year, then you’re on equal footing with everyone else under their protection.’ A large backpack appeared on the table. ‘It’s this or cuffs.’
She looked at the goblin, imagined the teeny-tiny cuffs necessary to hold it, and tried hard to suppress a smirk.
The goblin looked to her, and she shrugged.
The goblin climbed into the backpack, and Curt closed the snaps before lifting it and handing it to her. ‘He’s not heavy. Do me a favour and carry him.’
‘I’m not that strong–’
‘Think ahead, Newbie. You always have to be prepared for an attack. Fine, we’ve only got to walk to the car park, but if we fall over some Solstice part-timers, I’m better in a fight, and the backpack will slow me down.’
‘Fine.’ She lifted the backpack and slipped it over her shoulders. The goblin bounced up and down inside, then settled.
They found the car park without too many people around, and he required his car. He opened the small boot. ‘You can put him down.’
She slid the backpack off, and Curt undid the clips. ‘It’s only a ten-minute drive,’ he said the goblin. ‘So just keep quiet.’
He closed the boot, and they climbed into the car and headed away from the university.