‘-is that there’s rarely a good time to make a “Keeping up with the Cardassians joke,’ Curt said, then held up his “work stuff, be quiet” hand and tapped his earpiece. ‘O’Connor.’
Stef quickly looked down at herself, made sure that there were no snack remnants on her uniform, just in case it was time to head out into the outside world, and sat like an attentive puppy, waiting to hear what they were doing next.
‘I’ll loop in Agent Ryan,’ he said, ‘we’ll need- Talk to Agent Jones and see which of his teams will be best. Send the location to Stef, and let them know we’ll be onsite in a few minutes. Good. Thanks.’ He tapped his earpiece again to end the call, then picked up his Agency phone and sent a quick text before looking at her. ‘Sacha,’ he said. ‘I think it’s time for your first actual assignment, Newbie.’
‘Do you need me to shift us to Ryan?’
‘Yeah,’ he said. ‘And don’t worry, this should be relatively easy.’
She opened her ongoing text chat with Ryan and sent the sparkle emoji that had become her shorthand to let him know she was shifting in, just in case he needed to block her entry for whatever reason.
It wasn’t something he’d asked for, but after way too many paranoid imaginings about shifting in whilst he was talking to an Enforcer, or some other Central rep, and making him look foolish, he’d easily agreed to the sparkle system.
When the read notification came up, she reached out, grabbed onto Curt’s sleeve with her thumb and forefinger and shifted them.
Touching wasn’t necessary, but it always felt safer, like he was less likely to get lost in transport if there was a physical connection first.
Another thing she’d grow out of, probably. But everything was still so new, and so wonderful.
Magic, and tech that may as well have been magic, had become every day, but it hadn’t become ordinary, and she was sure it never would.
All she had to do was pick up the old storybook that Ryan had given her and look at the worn cover, and the tiny little sparks of magic that had once, decades ago, illuminated the cover for the delight of fae children.
One click in her HUD could lay an AR filter over the world and give her all the particle effects she’d ever wanted, shimmers of blue and gold and purple following her hands and creating stars every time she tapped a finger in the air or drew a shooting star.
And it was strange how her heart, a magic so powerful that ninety-nine-point-whatever per cent of people never even came close to encountering it, was always her third, fourth or fifth thought. That incomprehensibly powerful magic sat under a tiny bit of skin and muscle and it failed to register before the fact that she had a particle effect extension that could spell out swear words.
As much as it had changed her life, and would surely define the shape of her life to come, moment to moment, she thought about it as much as she did her left kidney.
It was still weird and cold and whenever she sat still and didn’t have enough stimulus, it was easy to remember and feel strange about the fact that she had no heartbeat, but- It was just background radiation most of the time.
And unlike requirements, it didn’t provide cookies on demand.
Well. It could. But they’d be the most expensive cookies in the universe.
Ryan’s office took shape under her feet, and as they appeared, she noticed his thousand-yard “working in my HUD” face, and kept quiet until he blinked and focused on them.
‘I’ve just listened to the call,’ Ryan said. ‘A crew dredging the river brought up a trashmaid and are appropriately confused and worried.’
Other than – and maybe even a little more than – magic, her new favourite thing in the world was to sit near Ryan and listen to him explain different fae and aspects of the world.
With more than a hundred years of stories under his vest, and no other kids to lavish all of his dad energy on, it was something he might have loved even more than she did.
She’d sit in his office, often in weird places – in front of the lounge instead of on it, on the floor with her back up against the windows, or curled into one of the chairs, arms around Frankie like he was a teddy, and listen to stories as he had time between various bits of paperwork and other directorial duties.
And one of the first things she’d demanded he’d tell her about was the undead mermaids he’d mentioned in the short time she’d been a recruit.
‘You can easily imagine that, like a lot of major waterways, from time to time, a body enters the river, or sadly, becomes one whilst in it. They’re not always found, and in some of those cases, something strange happens.’
‘For you to say “strange”, Narc, that means something.’
Ryan smiled. ‘The bodies become home to a colony organism, and through growth and symbiosis, become something new. They have other names, the fairies call them “alloryc nia”, but the somewhat insulting nickname of trashmaids is what has stuck, since that’s a noticeable aspect of their appearance. Clothes rot away in the water, but since they’re bottom-dwellers, they tend to accumulate a layer of refuse and rubbish. It’s even useful to a certain extent, as partial colonies can break off and be ready to inhabit the next body they encounter.’
‘It’s kind of…ugly-beuatiful as a concept,’ she said, ‘like, it sounds better than just being shoved in a pine box and slow decomposing. It’s the kind of weird I love.’ She tapped out Fibonacci numbers on her knees. ‘So by that description of their biology, I have to ask the zombie question though. It’s colonization, but can it act as an infection? Transfer to living people? Anyone who would…willingly go in the river, I mean. Which can’t be a lot of people.’
‘More than you would think. And while it is seemingly technically possible for the colony organism to take over a living person, we’ve never seen that. They are rare, so there’s no real worry about one of your fictional apocalypses.’
She started to lift a hand, but he spotted this, and shook his head.
‘And you don’t have to worry about any real apocalypses either, Miss Mimosa.’
‘You’ll need to retrieve the body,’ Ryan continued, ‘and see how the crew are reacting before deciding how to move forward.’ He looked at Curt. ‘You’ve handled things like this before,’ he looked at her, ‘we tread carefully.’
She nodded. There were a lot of people who were more than happy to see something strange, then move on, rather than dip their toes deeper into the world of magic.
Curt stepped back, and began to have a quiet conversation with – presumably – Sacha about the requested Tech team. Or maybe Raz had come online, which meant-
She brought up her friends list and toggled the schedule view, which showed which Tech was currently on shift as her operator, which right now was Screen.
Another click toggled the schedule view off, and she pinged Screen, hitting the button in Vox that switched the chat between personal and mission.
[Good morning,] Screen sent. [You going with that team? Need me online?]
She sent a nodding gif.
[I’ll have a pigeon waiting to observe you. I’m sending some bin chickens to scope out the area.]
Ryan stood, and brushed some invisible lint from her shoulder, then fixed her tie.
[First assignment,] he said over voice chat, [are you ready?]
She nodded. [I can do this.]
Screen’s mission chat pinged, and she opened it to see the feeds from the ibis drones. ‘Operators are on site,’ she said. ‘We can head out.’
[Good luck,] Ryan said.
She selected the location from the chat, grabbed Curt’s sleeve, then shifted them.
The way too gross smell of river mud and trash smacked her enhanced sense of smell like a dead fish.
Or a dead mermaid.
‘Eww,’ she mumbled under her breath, then concentrated and brought up her sensory menu and spun the sensitivity dial all the way down. Not enough to be anosmic, but enough to be able to function without a “who farted?” look on her face.
A shed hid them from the crew of the dredging vessel, reducing the chance of civilians seeing magical secret agents just popping into existence.
Curt took a quick look around, then pointed to a patch of dirt off the driveway that led down to the dock. ‘Have Tech set up there. They’re coming in via van for the plausible deniability. We want to get the body out of sight as soon as possible.’
She nodded. ‘Do we know if they’ve contacted anyone else? Or Tweeted about it, or-’
He gave her one of the smiles he saved for when she was doing her job well. ‘No other phone calls. No social media. First thing Sacha did was get Tech into their devices. There’s four people on the crew, one has taken photos, we’ve stopped them from being backed up to the cloud, and they’ll get deleted as soon as we leave the scene, along with any others they take in the next few minutes.’
‘How do you think this is going to go?’
‘It depends on how much the trashmaid did. I know the cover story for this one, and it’s gross enough that people usually buy it. Just nod along with whatever I say.’ She nodded, and he winked. ‘Just like that, Newbie.’
She grabbed his sleeve as he took a step towards the wide concrete path. ‘Wait.’
‘We’re running out of “wait” time.’
She let go of his sleeve and pointed to his chest. ‘You hate the vest, so stop wearing it. You don’t have to, it’s an acceptable uniform variation. You do the Picard maneuver all the time, and- You’re not me. I like it cause it keeps me inside my me and helps to ground me when I’m floaty. You don’t like it, so stop wearing it.’
‘I…’ he trailed off and looked down at the ground.
‘I know you’ve got some complicated feelings about the Agency. And you try and be the best and shiniest recruit that you can, more perfect than perfect, and all that. I’m supposed to learn all this new stuff and do all this new stuff and- You gotta do this. You can change a little bit.’
‘It’s what’s expected of me,’ he said quietly.
‘Come on,’ she said, ‘you’re Aide now, you get to set a couple of expectations yourself.’
A pigeon landed beside them, and a new feed in her mission window indicated that it was Screen.
[Crew is coming into shore,] Screen sent.
She nodded, knowing Screen would see it through the pigeon, turned from Curt and his wardrobe indecision, and walked down the dirty concrete drive towards the incoming barge, and the solemn crew.
Before she was even halfway to the dock, Curt’s jogging footsteps caught up to her, and as she’d hoped, he’d ditched the vest.
‘You can do this,’ he said, then strode ahead to greet the man who had jumped from the boat to tie it to the dock.
[Techs are here,] Screen sent.
She turned and waved the van onto the patch of dirt. A high-roofed white van, like a tradesman would have, something inconspicuous, and in a way that people would actually look past, rather than it being a somewhat more noticeable “shit, someone’s about to get black-bagged” black van.
One of the CSI teams, led by Razilla, piled out, and two of them lifted a collapsed gurney and body bag onto the ground and set it up.
Razillia – and it was never not fun to Stef that in one smaller-than-average Agency, there were two Techs whose chosen names were so similar – waved at the pigeon. ‘I love that model, have you seen the couple of discoloured feathers that kind of look like a tie?’
‘I think it’s more obvious on the ibis,’ she said. ‘But some of the pigeon models have really wonderful colouration.’
The pigeon drone cooed in agreement.
‘Can we get it yet?’ Razilla asked.
‘No. Curt’s still chatting. I’m going to check in with him now.’
As she approached the boat, she could hear Curt telling the three older members of the crew part of the cover story, whilst a young man, possibly an apprentice, sat on the plastic container on the far side of the square deck, as far away from the sheet-covered body as possible.
‘I know it’s disturbing,’ Curt said, ‘but it’s unfortunately explainable.’ He angled his phone towards the men, and she heard a short video play. Two watched, looking disgusted, but didn’t look away, while the third looked away, looking as green as his flannel shirt.
‘I haven’t heard of this,’ the younger of the two remaining men said. ‘But there are a lot of- I didn’t think those coffee-shitting possums were real, but my son brought some home after his backpacking trip. Never drank it though. Your people can come through.’
Curt turned and nodded to her, and she waved to Razilla and the CSI team, who approached, steadying the gurney as they rolled it across the uneven concrete.
The three older men stepped onto the dock to get out of the Techs’ way. One of the men called towards the young man, who started at the sound of his name – Harris – and looked sick as he walked towards the gangplank.
She let her gaze follow Harris and found her Spyder-sense going wild.
She clicked over to her chat with Curt and started a voice chat, and watched as his earpiece lit up. As subtly as he could, he lifted his hand and tapped it.
[This is totally the guy who gets bit in a zombie movie and doesn’t say anything.]
Curt’s nod was small, but there.
[So what do we do?]
‘Oh, just let them on, could you back up a little,’ Curt said jovially as the Techs started across the gangplank.
With the Techs in play, Harris was stuck on the boat.
‘It’s a bit strange, isn’t it?’ Curt said to the guy who seemed like he was ready to shit himself or vomit out his lungs. ‘Did you have the exact location she was pulled up from, just in case we need that for the-’
‘It. Bit. Me!’ Harris said, latching onto Curt’s arm. ‘And it’s dead, but it bit me and-’ He pulled up his sleeve to reveal what was barely a bite, but within the framework of the zombie apocalypse he was surely imagining, would have been a death sentence.
Curt turned and motioned to one of the Techs, who immediately came over. ‘Could you clean this for this young man?’ he asked, speaking of a civilian who was probably older than he was, but something about the Ryan-like tone seemed to take just the edge off Harris’ panic.
Harris sat back down on the plastic crate. ‘I know what I saw and-’ He gestured wildly at the CSI team as they bagged the body. ‘And now I don’t know if I’ve got time to say goodbye to my girlfriend before you disappear me, or if we’re all just fucked and Canberra is about to nuke us.’
‘The most you’re going to get is an infection, because the human mouth, especially a dead one, is the filthiest thing on the planet,’ the tech said, slathering the site with antibacterial cream.
‘Have you ever seen a dead squid twitch in soy sauce?’ Stef asked, and pushed a little of her mother’s accent in her voice, so that her fine dining opinions might be taken a little more seriously. ‘Or frogs’ legs dance in salt? It doesn’t take much to stimulate some nerve endings into action, and that’s all that’s happened here. Everything is up to eleven, because it’s a human, but if a dead fish had bit you, would you have thought twice?’
‘I- No?’ Harris said as the Tech finished wrapping his arm. ‘So it’s not-?’ He laughed, and it came out as half-relief, half-self-loathing. ‘Jesus, it’s so stupid when- Don’t make me say it out loud. But it’s not…?’
She tried to mimic the smile Curt had when dealing with civilians, and aimed her gaze just a little past Harris so that she was almost looking at his eyes. ‘Trust me, I wouldn’t be so calm if it was the beginning of Night of the Living Dead.’
Harris looked down at his arm, then up at Curt. ‘Sorry- Ah- Sorry for grabbing you, mate.’ He held out his hand, which Curt shook. ‘I’ll get the GPS location for you. Can I just text you a picture?’
Curt nodded and handed over a business card, and Harris walked off, ten tonnes of weight gone from his shoulders – towards the boat’s small cab.
She slumped a little, brain taxed by talking to a stranger and doing the proper things with her face, but with the approving look from Curt, there was some comfort that she hadn’t screwed up too badly.
The Techs wheeled the body away, and he instructed her to get everything ready for their exit, and that he needed to just talk with the crew one more time.
[Shouldn’t I do that too?] she asked over the open channel.
‘Are you up for it?’
[Do I get a cookie afterwards?]
‘How about takeaway from Fry’s? We-’
[Person!] she said quickly as the oldest member of the crew – facial recognition in the mission window showed his name as Sean – walked back over onto the deck.
‘Is-’ Sean started. ‘Now, I don’t think there’s anything I need to worry about. Your team isn’t giving me any reason to think otherwise, no-one seems to be trying to get us into that van, but-’
Curt gave his best professional smile. ‘No reason at all, as I said-’
‘A very pretty story that is total bullshit,’ Sean said, the words gruff but not angry. ‘I’ve seen- When you get those rainy nights when the clouds are really low, sometimes, there’ll be eyes shining just above the water. Little heads spy-hopping, the eyes in the wrong spots to be seals or sharks.’ He looked towards the cab where Harris, who shared his surname and was – from the age difference – probably his grandson was taking photos of the evidence to text in. ‘I’ve never been hurt, and it’s always just been something easily dismissed. Something to say when you’ve had a few too many so that people don’t think you’re serious. Today’s different, and I need to know.’
‘If I tell you that you’re safe,’ Curt said after a long few seconds of silence, ‘that there’s never been or ever will be any danger from what you brought up, or…anything you might have seen, would that satisfy you?’
‘And man to man, what would you swear it-’
‘On my life,’ Curt said without hesitation and extended a hand. ‘Is that good enough?’
Sean shook the offered hand. ‘Then there’ll be no problems from us. This was just some tragedy we’ve had some small hand in helping to resolve.’
Curt’s phone pinged with the photos from Harris, and five minutes later, they were in the back of the van with the Techs and the dead-undead mermaid, her first mission successful.