The cover story for the trashmaids was weirdly similar to the reality, but rather than it being a magical colony microbe, the video that played on Curt’s phone showed a story of an extremely weird fish species.
The fictional fish apparently used corpses as a nursery of sorts, laying eggs in whatever unlucky John Doe had sunk to the bottom of the river, and as the fish hatched, they’d slowly worm their way into the body, eating their way through it as they grew larger.
And all these little fish wiggling about inside a body could, of course, make it seem like a dead body was moving.
A perfectly viable cover story for three of the men, and the one who suspected something more was going on had seemed happy enough to propagate the nice, non-magical white lie.
And compared to what some actual animals did, it wasn’t even the strangest thing that existed in nature.
‘Thoughts?’ Curt asked as he took his phone back.
‘Two. You had like six notifications from an app called Rose-’ Stef pushed his drink towards him as he choked. ‘And that there’s, I think it’s cladistically speaking, no such thing as a fish, because-’
Curt thumped his chest, and she stopped talking as he got his choking under control. ‘About the mission, Newbie, about the mission.’
She looked down at the tray of food between them and picked an aole chip out of the shared packet. ‘I’m just waiting for you to tell me what I did wrong so I can do better next time.’
‘Stop,’ he cautioned.
She wrapped a hand around the back of her neck and dug her nails into the skin. ‘But-’
‘Then just tell me so I know.’
‘You didn’t do anything wrong, Newbie. There are things you’ll do better as we go along, but you didn’t do anything wrong. You noticed how squirrely that guy was, he was obvious, but you still said something, which is good. You helped to calm down a civilian using simple language, and things he can go look up later to further set himself at ease. And you didn’t react poorly when someone indicated that they had just a hint of knowledge about the real world. People like that can be difficult, if they’ve got something established as part of their worldview, and you just confirm it, tell them that it’s nothing they need to change, they can go on, no problems, just as they had been. If you suddenly try and introduce more to them, then things can go sideways.’
‘I mean, your problem isn’t really ever going to be me talking too much to strangers. I’ve got too much “children should be seen and not heard” pounded into my brain for that to happen.’
‘You’re also an asset with the Techs, so that’s always going to make interfacing with Age-’
She held up a hand. ‘Come on.’
If it was one thing she was going to do with her immortal life, it was going to be to stop Curt from calling every agent by their title in every conversation.
It was something he managed just fine with when it came to the doctor. Even Parker-2, who most people tended to refer to with a title, just out of some lopsided combination of fear and respect.
He sighed, took a moment to type something on his phone, then set it aside. ‘Interfacing with Jones’ recruits.’
‘So I did good?’
‘Yeah, you did good, Newbie.’ He scrunched his burger wrapper and placed it on the corner of the tray. ‘Want an extra credit assignment while we’re here?’
She nodded and grabbed another aole chip.
‘Go chat with administration, see if they’ve got any Agency mail sitting around that needs delivery, then meet me near the lolly shop.’ He passed over a red fairy ten-dollar note. ‘Don’t get too sugar high.’
She nodded. ‘What are you going to do?’
‘There’s a CI who works in the chemist I want to have a quick chat with, but he only likes dealing with one recruit at a time, so divide and conquer?’
She nodded and waved as he headed off towards the north end of the Local Court, tapping away at his phone.
‘I did good,’ she whispered to herself, and hugged herself, happy for the small, but significant achievement.
‘This is…quite a bit more than expected,’ Ryan said as she hefted the Fairyland post office crate onto his desk. His eyes unfocus a little as he probably checked something in his HUD. ‘I’ve got indications of recruits checking in at least a couple of times a week for the past few months. This is-’ He lifted the first stack out. ‘This is surely six full months’ worth of correspondence.’
Stef nodded and felt the odd, wonderful release of tension that came whenever she realised that being in her dad’s office was so very different to being in her father’s office.
Standing in front of James had never been a happy occasion, and if he were somehow transplanted into Ryan’s position right now, she would have been begging for the carpet to eat her, to try and figure out how to keep from flinching as he blamed her for something that was demonstrably not her fault.
Ryan was confused, and likely calculating how much of a problem the pile of envelopes and small packages might cause. With this much of a backlog, there was surely some invite that was seen as spurned, some request that hadn’t been honoured. Small politicking things that would need smoothing out, but that were probably easy fixes.
James would have used the opportunity to make her feel even more worthless. Ryan was probably going to take it as a learning opportunity to tell her little facts about each of the senders.
‘Six months or more,’ she said. ‘They were really apologetic, but they’ve been through a few admins and somehow this box got shoved under a desk and forgotten about. So what you’ve been getting should be all the up-to-date stuff, whereas this will mostly be out of date.’
He pulled an orange envelope out from the middle of the stack. ‘Well, I know for a fact that this event has been and gone. We’ll still need to open it, and make sure there’s a thank you note on record.’
‘Is that what, um, Clarke is for?’
‘I try to give that man as little work as possible,’ Ryan said, looking extremely tired. ‘The more we can handle in-house, the better.’
She nodded. Clarke was a weird element of their Agency – technically, he worked for Ryan as much as Jonesy or Taylor did, he was rarely in the building, instead operating almost autonomously to do whatever a liaison agent did.
‘Curt already went through the original pile,’ she said. ‘Took out the general unaddressed stuff, the obvious junk mail, and anything that didn’t have that little stamp on it,’ she said and immediately felt stupid for pointing at the red stamp that he’d surely been seeing for decades. ‘It, um…’
‘Indicates the recipient wishes it to be seen by the office of the director only. Curt was right in what he did, as he’s technically aide to Field Operations, not to the directorial position.’
‘So are you going to clone him and him Curt-2 the Director’s aide?’
His expression said “sigh”, even without an exhalation of air.
‘Just an idea,’ she said, and poked out the very end of her tongue.
‘I could teach you what to do,’ he said. ‘And since you’re an agent, there’d be no sense that any particular piece of correspondence wasn’t received by someone with the proper authority.’
‘I can do that. I. Um. Was going to offer to regularly collect it, so you don’t have to rely on someone just happening to go by the Local Court whenever they’ve got something in the area. They probably won’t lose another bucket of mail, but- Would that be useful?’ She tried to look up at him and hoped it would be something he approved of.
His smile was all she needed to see, and warm fuzzies bounced around her chest.
‘How about Wednesdays and Saturdays?’ he said. ‘I tend to have some time mid-afternoon, and I can action whatever is brought to me.’
She nodded, and added the To Do note to both days, along with scheduling in a tentative time of eleven AM, though it was likely to change each day the job popped up, depending on what else was happening, and what other emergencies took priority.
Over the course of the next hour, they dissected the crate.
Ryan started by taking all of the piles she’d created with Curt and stacking them across the width of his desk, leaving just enough space for Frankie on her side, and a little spot for him to open letters on his.
Then, they re-sorted the piles, and he pointed out markings and logos on each envelope, brands or Fairyland government departments.
Then, wielding a letter opener engraved with the Field logo, he started with the things he felt were lowest-priority, things that could likely be dealt with quickly, and that would be easiest for her to deal with as she learned the communication logging system.
For each piece, she had to create a new record and then scan in the letter by looking at it. The System would extract all the relevant details for the metadata, then ask if the original should be kept, or just a requirable copy kept on file.
Whichever archival option was selected, it disappeared from her hand – physical copies being transferred to Queen Street’s storage in Central, and if the original wasn’t to be kept, it was just dismissed off into the void.
So many things scared her about the future. If she was going to be of any actual use, or if Ryan keeping her around was more like adopting a pet, or giving their Agency a weird-looking mascot.
This was something she could do. It was simple, systematic, endlessly repeatable, and since very few pieces of actually important communication were sent this way, the odds of her screwing up something really badly were quite low.
One niche job found. Now, she just had to find a dozen more, and it might start to feel like she was earning her keep. That she was worth all the pride he had in her, and hope her had for her.