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Stef brushed cookie crumbs off the required Agency-wiki pages on goblins and looked up. ‘Um?’
‘Thanks for this, but–’ She swallowed the rest of the cookie. ‘What’s the deal with the Court and what’s going on now? I’ll tackle this stuff on my own,’ she said, poking at the folder, ‘but learning stuff in context is more likely to stick.’
‘It’s complicated,’ Curt said. But it was in a way that she was starting to learn was “I’ll give you a short explanation” rather than “I don’t want to explain anything to you, leave me alone you stupid bitch”.
‘I’m kinda smart,’ she said. ‘You can try to explain it.’
He drummed his fingers on the steering wheel. ‘Okay. You as a civilian. You’re subject to local government, state government, and federal government, right?’
‘It’s more complicated for the fae.’
‘I’m never going to be able to explain anything if you interrupt me all the time.’
She tilted her head back and forth. ‘Collating data at appropriate times is important.’
‘Faerie, Fairyland, I’ve heard people say both and-’ she made a helpless gesture with her hands. ‘I need to know if they’re the same thing or what. “Faerie” is the more traditional term, but…’
‘Decent question actually. Faerie is the name for the whole plane, as separate from Earth. So because it’s a plane, it’s a copy of Earth, but…different. Fairyland is Faerie-Australia, if that makes sense. And if I can forestall your question, it’s not actually called that, but it’s what non-citizens have to call it, there’s a lot of social protocols about names, and place names are included in that.’
She nodded. ‘Okay, that’s filed away.’
‘To start with,’ he said. ‘In Fairyland, there are only two levels of government – local and federal, so you’ve got all your applicable laws and such from them. We won’t go into parts of Faerie, because frankly, I don’t know anything about them. Over the top of these is Kings’ Law. The Court of Kings writes the laws that all fae have to adhere to, and it’s so convoluted and outdated that it seems like it’s getting pulled from someone’s arse most of the time.’
She failed to suppress a giggle.
‘Most of these laws don’t play into everyday life for the fae, but they exist, so it’s worth remembering. So, local, federal, and Kings’ – keeping up?’
‘Law stuff, unfortunately, is really easy for me to comprehend.’
He gave her a quizzical look.
Anxiety pounded in her chest, and she tried to clear the thoughts of her family. She shrugged and straightened her tie. ‘Genius, remember? Everything’s easy for me to comprehend.’
‘Layered into all of this are the other Courts. We can get into them later, but you’ve got major, minor, and local. Major courts almost act as their own cities; minor ones tend to be specific, like for each type of fae. Magnolia? Remember, she’s a magpie. There’s a magpie court and so on. Local ones are what’s important right now.’
‘Local courts take the place of local governments outside of Fairyland. They’re basically the local support groups for all the fae living in human society. They help with transitioning from living with fae to living with humans. Do “act like a human” classes. Provide all kinds of backup for things you wouldn’t think of, like job references and legal advice. They help with getting IDs and bank accounts, all that kind of thing.’
He pulled into a parking lot of a large white building. There were faded marks in the paint where signs had been. A dozen other cars stood in the lot.
‘Okay, this is just like the restaurant,’ she said as they got out of the car. ‘Do fae always have to hide in crappy places?’
‘It’s just social engineering, Newbie,’ he said as he opened the boot. ‘Better-looking buildings attract more attention. Besides, this is only skin-deep; it’s really impressive inside.’
‘You could still recruit me,’ the goblin said as he bounced out and onto the ground.
‘No,’ Curt said.
They walked to the door, and she heard cameras tracking their movements. ‘Paranoid,’ she said. ‘I approve.’
A tall, broad man with a face made of stone stood as a bouncer at the door. ‘Agents,’ he said. ‘What’s your business?’
Curt pointed down at the goblin. ‘One for sanctuary, two for lunch.’
The literally-stone-faced man looked down at the goblin, then waved them into the lobby.
There was a small reception area to the left, a bank of public phones to the right, and two security gates leading further into the building, each manned by two guards. The goblin was escorted to the receptionist on the left, a short, squat man with green hair.
Curt waved her over to one of the other receptionists – a woman with white-as-snow, white-as-printer-paper skin. ‘Get out your ID,’ he said. He smiled at the woman. ‘Two lounge passes, please.’
They handed across their IDs, which were scrutinised, scanned, then handed back. Two passes on lanyards were spat out from a small chute on their side of the counter. Curt lifted them both, then gave one to her.
‘Thank you,’ he said to the receptionist.
‘Last chance,’ the goblin said as he sat on the counter, tapping at a goblin-sized tablet computer.
Curt shook his head one more time, then walked through the security gate to the left. The guard barely looked at their passes before waving them through.
‘That was kinda easy, don’t you think?’
He shrugged, and they walked down some stairs. ‘We’re recruits, in uniform, with ID that passes inspection – that’s a lot of hurdles to pass, so it’s unlikely that we’re a threat. If we did try something, those guards would suddenly show you how passive they aren’t. Any damage we managed would have to be taken care of by the Agency since we were imitating Agency personnel.’
‘The Agency is responsible, even if they’re not?’
‘Agency IDs aren’t the easiest thing to fake, so there’s always the possibility of collaboration in people’s minds, plus it’s part of the “cooperation with the community” thing.’ He rolled his eyes. ‘We let people use us for a bit of good PR.’
‘So what are we…?’ Her mouth lost the ability to form words, and her feet forgot how to walk.
The breakfast restaurant had been a peek into the world beyond. Still, at the end of the day, it had been a relatively normal restaurant with an unusual client base.
This…this was Dorothy stepping out Kansas and into Oz.
She rocked on her feet, unsteady even while standing still as she looked around. Whereas at the restaurant – up until now her only real basis for comparison – there had been a mix of fae who had seemed human, and others, like the little nymph girl, had been showing their fae side; far more people here were obviously fae.
Fairy wings in a rainbow of colours stretched as far as she could see. Nymphs aligned with different domains walked by, their skin like tree bark or flowing like water. Animal people walked by, a whirl of ears and tails and claws, and a dozen other kinds of people she couldn’t even begin to guess at.
Creatures eight feet tall, with square heads and limbs so spindly they looked as though they would blow away at the slightest breeze. Four-legged fae with skin like silver that seemed to vanish if there was enough light on them.
Fae that exuded thin wisps of smoke from rows of blackened holes in their arms.
Lines of wiggly metallic ribbon flowed across the floor. She stared, unsure if it was sentient, pet, or art.
Beyond that, some shops were familiar if you didn’t look at them. The shapes of fast food, newsagents and gift stores were familiar enough until you looked at the details and realised that the signs were in languages she couldn’t recognise, selling products she’d never seen.
‘We’re kind of in the way, you can keep staring, but we need to move.’ He offered his arm. ‘Hold on if you’re feeling unsteady.’
She looked at his sleeve – touching people was still hard. Getting used to getting a hug from Ryan was one thing, but just randomly touching another person was…weird.
But she did feel like her feet weren’t properly connected to the rest of her body, so she reached up and gently pinched his shirtsleeve. It would keep her hand close enough so that she started to fall, she could actually grab his arm. Hopefully, though, this placebo version of touch would help align her brain and keep her upright.
It was like an airport – and that was a strange thought. It would have been more natural to think “shopping centre”. But…something about the broad concourse with alternating sections of seating and shops made her think far more of wandering around an airport than a mall.
She walked, waiting to wake up from this beautiful dream.
They passed by small stores selling clothes, stationery and wine; past meeting rooms and halls leading to offices then came to a food court.
Curt pointed to a wall that held a row of booths. ‘Go have a seat, trust me to pick the food?’
She opened her mouth and tried to make a comment about not knowing where she would even start, then just nodded.
‘I’m sure it wouldn’t look great for me if I dragged a recruit corpse back to the Agency, Newbie.’
‘Fair. Um. No, no allergies.’
He nodded and headed towards one of the larger establishments in the food court.
She sat in the closest empty booth, then pulled out her phone and opened up the wifi settings, curious as to what was available.
There were a few wisps of signal, but there was one strong signal – a public access spot. She clicked on it and was unsurprised as a redirect page opened. She circled her finger, ready to ignore and accept the standard terms and conditions page.
There were no terms. No conditions. Just an ad, directing her to the information desk, to access the “collect” and “collect-enabled services”. There was a map below, showing the local court, and images of concentric circles at various points. Some were single spots, others had one to four lines around the spot. Signal strengths – that much was easy enough to parse.
Beneath the map was a screenshot from a social media site she didn’t recognise, but with a photo showing a new service available in the food court – at both the tables and booths. She looked to her left, and on the wall next to the standard charging ports was a multi-headed retractable cable. She pulled the cord from the wall and sorted through until she found a USB-C plug to plug into her Agency phone.
The screen lit up, and the redirect page redirected itself, prompting her to download an app – “Local Court – Free Collect”, the most generic name possible. However, the lack of imagination on the part of the app designers didn’t stop her from hitting the download button.
The app logo was something that had been on the redirect page as well. A stylised flower design with increasing petal sizes, and it suddenly crystalised that this was probably Faerie’s version of the wifi logo. That made sense, there would be no reason at all that it would be the same dot-and-curves that was the Earth standard.
The app installed, then launched itself, asking for most of the permissions that the phone was likely to grant – which she did – at worst, she could throw out the phone if it loaded it with spam.
Permissions granted, a new icon loaded in her status bar – the wifi/flower design, showing a moderate-high signal, if she was interpreting it correctly.
The app then launched – and the fear of spam being loaded onto her phone wasn’t helped by the fact that the free wifi was sponsored – a large header ad in the app advertised a different special every three seconds, and there were several promoted apps for businesses within the Local Court.
Scrolling further, there was a “beginners tips” section, which she clicked into – with the first suggestion to install a collect-friendly browser called Spiral.
I am not going to get used to calling the internet the collect.
That might be the glyph name for it, it may sound better in its native language?
She started the install process for the browser, then pushed her phone aside as Curt returned with an overloaded tray and a takeout bag under his arm.
‘That’s for Raz,’ he said as he put the bag at the far end of the table. He pointed to the cord. ‘Should have guessed you found the free wifi. Sorry, you’re not going to get much of a chance to play today, but I’m guessing it’s going to be a draw for you to do more field work if it means getting to come here and look at new memes?’
She gave a solemn nod. ‘I want fae memes,’ she said, her voice as serious as she could make it. She turned her attention to the tray of food. ‘Nom time?’
He clapped his hands together, then spread them like he was about to give a presentation. ‘Okay, so this is Famous Fry’s,’ he said, pointing to the logo that adorned every item on the tray. ‘Probably the biggest chain, equivalent of Maccas in Fairyland. And like Maccas, their staple menu revolves around burgers.’
He handed her a burger and took one for himself. Next came two packets of long fries, each about half an inch across, but relatively thin, sprinkled with flake salt and herbs.
That left two cardboard bowls in the centre of the table – one contained squares covered in brown sauce, and the other held thin green chips. ‘Brikini,’ he said, pointing the brown squares.
‘Brick-nee,’ she repeated slowly, and he nodded at her passable attempt.
‘Imagine…savoury baklava,’ he said. ‘The majority of meat in Fairyland is vat-grown, brikini is processed into sheets as thin as filo pastry, then covered in various sauces. It’s traditional to share a plate with the table.’ He pointed at the green chips. ‘Aole, I remember it like “ye olde village”, they’re a palette cleanser, you have them after the meal.’ He pushed the brikini at her. ‘Try some.’
She lifted one of the squares and tentatively nommed on it. The sauce was…somehow nondescript, almost tasting like a half-dozen things. She swallowed and sucked the sauce from her fingers before reaching for a serviette.
She bit into her burger, and she watched helplessly as a slice of tomato slid from the back of her burger and onto her uniform pants. She shook her leg, and the tomato fell onto the ground. Curt, nomming on his own burger, didn’t seem to notice.
After a moment, he pulled out his phone and began to play with it. ‘I got the pretty basic burger,’ he said, half-distracted by whatever he was tapping out on his phone. ‘This meat mix is the closest to what you’d think of as beef, and the veggies are a mix of Earth and Faerie.’
There had been tomato, but-
She put the burger down on the wrapper and pulled off the top bun. There was another half-slice of tomato. Some green stuff that looked like silverbeet but had an almost honey-like taste. A thick wedge of something with the consistency of mushroom, its foamy flesh orange and red.
‘Don’t make too much of a mess, Newbie,’ he chided gently.
That’s a fair point.
‘If this is- Are we technically in Faerie right now? Ergo, blackout zone and not somewhere we should be?’
He sighed, then smiled. ‘Fair, but way above my technical know-how, okay? In Local Courts, and this place in Fairyland called The Marches, there’s a weak System signal. Dial-up versus broadband.’
She started to grin. ‘I can’t even imagine how- The logistics on that- I am definitely going to bug Jonesy about that later.’
He nodded. ‘He’ll be happy to explain it. It kind of makes them the “preferred” areas for Agency personnel to go. It’s not really more or less dangerous for recruits, except from a tracking and tracing point of view. Still, it’s safer for agents, so if you see an agent in a Local Court, it’s perfectly normal.’ He waved his phone. ‘Front desk wants a bit of follow-up paperwork about our goblin friend.’ He pulled out his wallet and laid a blue note on the table in front of her. ‘Think you can entertain yourself for twenty minutes when we’re done here?’
She picked up the note – most of the writing was in fae languages, but one corner in glyph told her the value of the note was twenty-five.
‘Breakfast, lunch and spending money? I’m going to owe you all my per diem for ages,’ she said, as she quickly took a photo of the note so she could examine it, even after spending it. ‘Is there like a quest board with the high-paying jobs so I can start to pull in fae cash?’
He ran a hand through his hair. ‘Don’t forget, I’ve been here like a year and a half, I’ve had a lot more time to build a bit of bank.’ He sipped at his purple soda. ‘Meet back here when we’re done?’
She nodded, and they finished their lunch.
‘Twenty minutes,’ he said as he stood from the booth. ‘If you continue down the concourse, there’s a lolly shop, I think it might appeal to you.’
He left the food court, and headed back down the concourse towards the front desk and the main entrance, off to do paperwork that she should probably know about. Paperwork he’d probably mentally classified as a “week two” project – there was no point in getting her used to fae forms when she didn’t even know all of the regular Agency paperwork yet.
She ate the last brikini square, sucking the sauce from her fingers before she reached into the bowl of aole chips. She lifted one, wondering if the green was nature-green or radiation-green, and bit into it. It was…refreshing. Like some unholy child of mint and eucalyptus.
She haphazardly threw all of the trash onto the tray, then emptied it into the bin. The bin’s LCD screen did a wave of dancing emojis, then “thank you” in several languages.
She brushed her hand over her pockets, ensuring that both her phone and the twenty-five note were in their proper places, then stepped out of the food court area and onto the broad white tiles of the concourse.
A few fae looked at her, either because her eyes wouldn’t stop trying to escape her skull at the sight of each new race, or because she was wearing an Agency uniform.
She moved through the sea of people and pressed flat against the glass wall of one of the stores.
Get a hold of yourself.
A remote-control-sized car zoomed past her feet, carrying half a dozen misick. She smiled and watched them weave in and out between the larger fae.
I’m really trying.
She peeled herself away from the wall and turned to look at the store. It sold alcohol and wines if the window display was to be believed. Tiny bottles – some in plain and familiar shapes, others more artistic – lined shelves. The next store sold flowers in a million different colours, with some seemingly made of glass or metal or stone.
The next one was a toy store, and she nearly stepped on a tiny child trying to get into the store. She apologised as the child’s parents glared at her. She backed away and continued down the concourse. Toys could wait.
Doughnuts. Cake. Four different clothing stores. Something that was either some kind of church or a lecture hall.
The lolly shop, with a false front designed to look like a gingerbread house, called her like a siren. She watched the flow of foot traffic for a moment, then stepped into the store, carefully avoiding bumping into – or stepping on – any fae.
The store was tiny, cramped and full of people.
She picked up one of the small self-service bags and tucked her arms as close to her body as she could, trying to make room. On the surface, the store was surprisingly average – dozens of different kinds of candy in clear containers, even more varieties on shelves.
A train circled around near the roof of the store, carrying tiny, tiny, doll-sized fae.
She passed jelly beans, flavoured jubes, and boiled sweets – there was no point in going into a fae candy store to buy things that could be required.
Is that what heaven is like?
For you? No, there’s no coffee.
She found silver-shelled chocolates that were shaped like butterflies and shovelled some into her paper bag.
Wings. Not butterflies.
She took another look at them.
The bag slowly filled, and then she moved to the counter.
The counter was a glass case, the kind that usually contained the more expensive chocolates. It held a swimming pool of dark, melted chocolate, with several Barbie-sized fairies swimming in it.
Occasionally, one would jump out and run across blocks of other chocolate – white, red, purple, and blue, leaving chocolatey footprints, before jumping back into the pool.
As she stood in line, she looked at a display stand – what at first seemed to be just a piece of static art changed. It moved from photo to photo, displaying lollies in various artsy displays, interspersed with phrases in a fae language she couldn’t read.
She reached for the display, and gently tapped the screen, then lifted it off the counter. It was wireless – either powered by batteries or some wireless energy transfer that would make Tesla proud. What was more impressive was the screen – barely thicker than paper, pliable, like foldable, rollable screen demos she’d seen – but obviously more advanced. This wasn’t a tech demo, to be touched by executives and demonstration experts, nor only in the hands of early adopters with cash to splash.
This was a rollable screen, sitting casually on the counter of a candy store as if it was nothing remarkable.
‘Twisting Ivy was them away at the latest industry convention,’ the clerk said as he saw her gently touching the screen. ‘Great if you like their products, or,’ he lowered his voice, ‘you know, have the basic understanding of how to sideload images, and you need a new photo display.’ He winked. ‘I set one up with alphabet pictures for my kid. I’ve got a couple back here if you want one. They’re cheap though, so don’t expect it to last long.’
‘How- How much?’
‘I mean, you’re buying the sugar treats, right?’ he asked as he held out his hand for the bag of assorted lollies. ‘Then I’ll just throw one in for free.’ He pointed to a donation bucket. ‘If you really want, you can donate to Ivy’s non-profit.’
The clerk weighed the bag, then announced her total as sixteen-forty-five. She handed over the note, and he sighed as he opened the register. ‘Is a whole bunch of small change all right? Otherwise, I can-’
‘Small change is fine!’ she said, trying not to sound too excited – but the more coins she got back, the more different pieces of Fairyland currency she could examine.
The clerk nodded, and scooped a solid handful of change into a branded envelope, before handing it back, then turning to her purchase. He tied a ribbon around the neck of the self-service bag, curled it with a scissor blade, then knelt and retrieved a small white cardboard box from beneath the counter and popped both items into a paper bag, and handed it over.
‘Have a great day, Agent, and I hope to see you again.’
‘Thanks,’ she said and smiled in a way that she hoped looked real.
Halfway back to the food court, she found a wide wooden bench and sat to examine her treasures. With a little bit of effort, she freed the ribbon from the bag of lollies, then dug for one of the silver-shelled wing pieces – the silver was coated chocolate, and the inside was a sweet, blue, citrussy filling with the texture of Turkish Delight.
Jadis can tempt me any time.
She quickly nommed on it, then stuffed two more into her mouth.
The little cardboard box contained the rollable screen – it rolled up without a problem, and a collapsible rod held it steady at the back, hooked into a small loop on the back.
A single button on the underside turned it on – a small, generic loading bar appeared, then images of Twisting Ivy’s catalogue of chocolates began to play.
Someone had once told her that she’d never been satisfied with an answer that satisfied just her heart or her mind, that she needed both. She was sure there had been more to the platitude than that, but whoever and whyever they’d said it was lost to time. And that was if anyone real had ever said it, and that it wasn’t just something half-remembered from a book, falsely implanted as a memory.
It was true enough, though, even if it was a platitude. Even when she’d played with an imaginary friend, she’d looked for the borders, for how far her mind could fool itself, so she knew how much she could play. She had played games with her dolls, with the queen and the princess. Even though she’d been too young to know the words, she’d known that she’d been doing some kind of replacement therapy. A functional mother and daughter relationship, when she knew it wasn’t going to happen in the real world.
There was the spiral, her mantra for helping to keep quiet, to keep conversations contained in her head. A spiral that was both a nautilus shell with the mysteries of the ocean sucking her words away and the Fibonacci sequence, drowning her brain in beautiful math.
And now, she had everything she ever wanted. She had magic that was real, and it hadn’t come at the cost of sacrificing good wifi.
She was weird, stupid, and always out of place.
Except now maybe she had somewhere she belonged.
‘Did you steal an advertising banner?’ Curt asked as he sat down beside her.
I only steal shit from people who won’t notice.
‘No,’ she said, ‘it was a giveaway.’ She offered the bag to him. ‘Want something?’
He pulled out one of the wing chocolates. ‘If I had a dollar for every one of these I’ve had,’ he mumbled, then ate it. ‘My friend Carmichel, they’re his favourites – angel wing, blue inside, they’re the agent candy, and he’s got this…thing about agents.’
Curt rubbed the back of his neck. ‘It’s his half-serious goal to f- To…interpersonally mingle with every agent on the planet. Handsomely compensated, of course, there’s a lot of paperwork that gets in the way of agents doing some stuff in Fairyland, and he can help that along.’
She shook the bag in his direction. ‘More chocolate for less detail, okay?’
He smiled, then dug into the bag and this time, took a clear jube that held edible petals. ‘Come on, we need to head back.’
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