01 – The Veil
Queen St Agency, Brisbane, Australia
‘I hate this.’
‘Newbie, you have to understand, on the scale of things, this isn’t so bad.’
Stef rummaged again through the decorated pillowcase to look at the goodies he’d brought back. Halloween, trick or treating through the Tech Department, Tech Treating, and she was too Top Secret to attend, even in disguise.
At first, when Curt had told her about Tech Treating, she’d imagined people handing out the kind of thing you’d expect – or what a basic amalgam of real and assumed knowledge had told her to expect.
When she’d been a little kid, Halloween wasn’t something people did in Brisbane – it was, despite more obvious roots, seen as an American Thing and to be shunned, with only the occasional weirdo doing their own Halloween party. Some kids had trick-or-treated to their own front doors as some sort of compromise, but it had been a very fringe thing.
Her years at boarding school had left her away from most holidays and celebrations – and it wasn’t the kind of thing her family had officially celebrated unless they were hooked into some sort of charity event as a tax break.
And when she’d returned, she’d come back to a place that now had at least small selections of decorations in most grocery stores and department stores – still fringe. Still, definitely, something people were becoming more and more accepting of.
Probably something to do with people around her age going, “it’s candy and costumes, stop hating”.
But this would have been her first chance to really embrace it, really have fun…and she was locked away like a high-tech Cinderella banned from attending the ball.
Curt, in a full green-shirt-Kirk uniform – though with nothing done to his hair – had gone to the Halloween party with Raz and then done the Tech Treat loop to bring her the goodies.
The Tech Treat loop accounted for the socially anxious in a way that was really…kind and meant she’d be able to do it without issue the following year. Instead of person-to-person interactions, Techs set up stations and stands that dispensed the treats at the push of a button.
This allowed people to either go ham, slamming the red “dispense” button as many times as they liked, which would require a copy of the treat onto the stand each time it was pushed – and for the stands that had a randomised-gacha-mechanic for treat options, lots of buttons were pushed a lot of times.
Recruits with allergies could press one of the other buttons – yellow that would dispense a treat that automatically catered to their allergies, and that would do its best to match the taste of the “primary” option – or blue if you wanted a non-food alternative.
And the stand setup generally encouraged the recruits that took part to do a little more than set up a button that gave out fun-sized assorted chocolates – if you were inclined, you could spend an entire year virtually designing your treat stand, finding the most aesthetic cookies and treats to copy, and finding the best, weirdest, most unique non-food options to include.
So out of the pillowcase-slash-bag, she pulled cakes with shimmery fondant, sugar cookies with intricate royal icing designs, customised chocolate bars with Agency memes on the wrappers, and dozens more items.
A few bottles clanked at the bottom, which she carefully pulled out.
‘Melissa – Recruit Holden from Combat – has been doing holiday beers for a while, apparently. And Pallas got in on it by designing the bottles.’ He pointed at the details – one bottle was curved slightly, another had pumpkins embossed, a third had a tentacle running up the length and wrapped around the cap – making it impossible to open, except by dismissing the cap.
‘I’ve never really done beer,’ she said. ‘It’s not ladylike.’
And I was usually going for expedience.
Curt pulled the bottles to his side of the table. ‘I’ll stash them in my fridge then.’
She unwrapped a pumpkin cookie. ‘Permission to ask a dumb Newbie question?’
He grinned. ‘I’m kind of surprised it’s taken you this long. I can roughly guess your line of questioning, but go ahead.’
She wiggled in her seat. ‘I didn’t ask earlier because I was waiting for shit…to hit…the fan,’ she said. ‘It’s the basis for like every Halloween movie. Okay, not like…” Halloween” Halloween, with-’ She lifted her hand and mimed stabbing. ‘Rii-rii-rii.’
‘That’s Psycho,’ he commented mildly and opened a bar of chocolate with a picture of a bloodsoaked Parker-2 on it. ‘Halloween is…dum-dum-uh,’ he paused. ‘I can’t do it off the top of my head. Something synthy?’
‘Every Halloween-not-Halloween-Halloween movie and most anything even partially aligned with fantasy has some kind of Halloween rule. So why would reality, the most fantasy-aligned thing there is, not have some kind of Halloween rule?’ she asked, bouncing her fists lightly up and down off the table.
‘Because some shit is just made up.’ He opened the pumpkin-embossed beer. ‘I think there is something, going way back, way- Like “shittily recorded bits of fae history” back where some courts and other areas would be more or less accessible at certain times of year. Places that are less stable than the spaces the modern courts occupy. Maybe that’s what metamorphosed into the myth? Or maybe it’s just humans looking for an auspicious day of the year to want magical things to happen?’
Given that she was the kind of person who always jumped in puddles wanting to fall into Faerie or had always looked for weird paths at the edges of her family estate, wanting there to be an auspicious day of the year with more than understandable
‘So there’s nothing?’ she asked.
‘Nothing I know what of. Given that it’s usually ghosts, I agree with Carmichael’s theory that a whole bunch of mirrorfalls in history have happened in the latter half of the year and through lost history and time compression, it’s all been blamed on Halloween.’
She bit the pumpkin cookie in half. ‘So tell me something weird that’s real.’
Curt rolled his beer between his hands for a moment. ‘Hm. Boring. Boring. Depressing. Probably a myth.’ He leaned forward and took a petit four with a ghost design painted onto it. ‘Oh, Brigadoon’s real. Is that weird enough?’
She squirmed in her seat, pointlessly trying to hide her excitement. ‘Pls tell now.’
‘Okay, so it’s not called Brigadoon. I’m sure that’s no shock.’ He set his beer aside. ‘I don’t know what it’s called; this is a story Carmichael told me ages ago. Basically, there’s this village that’s in one of those less permanent, less stable court bubbles, though I think they did something to the space to purposely unmoor it from the planes. Anyway- Every seventy years, it appears for a week, and in that week, every day it’s here, a year passes there. And in the week it’s here-’
‘Where’s “here”?’ she asked. ‘Does it pop in against Faerie, Earth, or what?’
‘It’s a different spot each time. That’s the annoying part. It’s not something that there can be a standing plan for. Not to mention, as it is now, the Agency has only had to deal with it..two, maybe three times? And when it does appear, they send out scouts trying to get new villagers, so that their population doesn’t stagnate and so that some people can escape.’
‘So they’re evil. Evil time-travelling village.’
‘Pretty evil, yeah. I know it’s not a lot of time they have to deal with the-’ His hands shaped around an imaginary sphere. ‘I always hate when people use the phrase “the real world” when it’s not really the right thing to say, but it does get the point across.’
‘The temporally-locked world?’ she suggested.
‘Nerd,’ he muttered.
‘You’re…currently dressed as Kirk, Padawan.’
He reached to the side, then lifted an old-school TOS communicator to his face, and flipped it open. ‘Captain’s Log, stardate…99432.34, the strange lifeform, Newbius Pedantus, has, unfortunately…made a good point.’
She dug into the bag, looking for anything she’d missed, and found a bouncy ball with the Tech Department logo on it. ‘So, they don’t have a lot of time interacting with the regular timestream, but there are obviously options other than kidnapping. It makes them an automatic enemy to anyone who sees them, which is the opposite of having any sort of sustainable future.’
‘It makes me think of the Borg,’ he said, then stiffened a little as if shocked he’d said it out loud.
Be gentle. He’s still learning it’s okay to be a nerd.
It took him a moment to relax his body – something she found strangely familiar. ‘There are a lot of good Borg episodes. But-’ He looked like his awkward meter was about to break. ‘I think their motives and their actions are at odds. Their stated goal is to- Look. Some of this is my opinion.’
‘You’re allowed those, Padawan.’
‘They want perfection, and they want to assimilate from cultures to achieve that. It would make more sense to, say, take ten per cent of a population so that they get a good cross-section, capturing all the elements of culture, science, tech, whatever adds to their idea of perfection. More than that is just redundant data. It’s why they tend to avoid single ships, at least in most episodes, because their goal isn’t to convert the entire galaxy.’ He finished his beer. ‘Or at least leave kids behind – throwing them into maturation chambers is a pointless waste of resources when there are at least,’ he threw his hands up, ‘a dozen on-screen examples on how to grow a clone in a day or so. Take smaller samples, focus more on gathering resources from empty planets, and suddenly, the galaxy leaves you alone, especially those species that have already been harvested from, because they know they’re safe.’ He looked away when he saw her smile. ‘Fine. I have a lot of Star Trek thoughts. I’m just not used to sharing them.’
A thought replaced her Agency uniform with Spock’s uniform, and she quirked an eyebrow. ‘Sharing your thoughts is…logical, Captain.’
‘Not-Brigadoon occupies a similar place in my mind. No one knows why they cut themselves off; that’s been lost to history. Could have been a cult. Could have been some small court that wanted isolation, like some attempt to recreate the myth of the Golden Court’s disappearance. They could put forth any attempt at peace, and they’d have dozens of volunteers – anthropologists, humanities students, history students, because there has to be some old, isolated fae in there. But they choose violence, every time, and it’s…stupid.’
‘Not logical,’ she remarked.
‘No,’ he said, ‘not logical.’
‘I’m sorry it’s not what you expected.’
There had been so many things that hadn’t been what she’d expected since Ryan had shown her the magic of the world. Places where facts butted up against where myths and fairy tales had led her to believe something else.
Unicorns were extinct, hunted because they had been so delicious. Dragons were more like weird crocodiles than wise, ancient old men who sat on piles of gold. Fairies were only Barbie-sized when they wanted to be, though some lived that way in order to save money.
And far from living in toadstools and tiny, picturesque, made-of-straw-stone-and-stick houses, Faerie boasted cities that rivalled anything on Earth, and had much faster internet.
Joining the Agency was an ongoing adjustment, and this was something easy enough to incorporate into her worldview. No thinning veil on Halloween at least meant that it wasn’t any more dangerous than any other day.
The unicorns were dead. Vampires weren’t real, well, there weren’t Draculas running around in capes going “blergh”, though there were various fae who did drink a little – or a lot – of blood.
‘Newbie, I love when you just say random nouns.’
‘A logical being would be able to deduce my question from context clues.’
‘You’re the closest thing I’ve ever met to a zombie. People like to call the trashmaids zombies, which is only kind of accurate. There’s no,’ he held out his arms, stiff and rocked from side to side, ‘no brain-eating menaces.’ He tipped his empty beer bottle at her. ‘Other than the ones I’m going to kill in about an hour.’
She blinked. She blinked again. ‘I would desperately love context.’
‘A logical being would be able to deduce my meaning from context clues.’
She threw the Tech Department bouncy ball at him.
‘The Techs have Tech or Treat. Combat does a haunted house in a sim room. Mags is expecting me in an hour for my slot. I fully expect and welcome her to kick my ass in the scoring department, but I’m not going to go down lightly. Though I might go d-’ He coughed. ‘I take it that idea appeals to you?’
She let out a sigh. Another thing she couldn’t do because she was Top Secret. ‘Could you ask her to email me a link to the sim so I can run it in my room? I won’t get into whatever official rankings there are, but-’ she shrugged. ‘It’s something?’
‘Agent Jones-’ he started, his face strangely neutral.
‘Jonesy,’ she corrected automatically.
‘-set you up with a dummy access account, right? Or whatever you’d call it. So you can interact with the intranet without letting people in on your secret?’
She nodded. ‘Yeah, I have an entire fake profile. She pulled one of the retired recruit sims, so there’s a name and face and enough data to pass at a glance, which is all is needed since I’m supposed to restrict interactions to an absolute bare minimum. Which-’ She grimaced. ‘If you have seen some of the bullshit code I have seen people workshopping in the forums, you would understand the superhuman-’
He held up his phone. ‘Mags said you can guy-in-the-chair for me if you owe her a favour.’
She nodded. ‘Deal! I-’ Something caught her eye.
Zoom and enhance!
She focused on his phone, and her eyes adjusted, making even the small text legible. ‘Captain?’
‘Yes, fuck,’ she said, ‘those texts are from yesterday!’ She found her face trying to slip between pleased, confused and frustrated. ‘So what- Huh?’
His smile was genuine. ‘C’mon, Newbie, I wouldn’t leave you out of fucking zombie hunting. You’d break our Accords and declare war if I did.’
Warm fuzzies spread a pleasant static in her chest. ‘Thank you.’
He tapped his phone, and a link appeared in his HUD. ‘That’s the operator lobby for when I go in. I would like to at least finish somewhere in the middle, so keep me alive?’
‘Of course, Captain.’
wanting there to be an auspicious day of the year with more than understandable
Nothing I know what of.
I think this might technically work, but is kind of archaic? Might flow better without the “what”.
“He tapped his phone, and a link appeared in his HUD”
Pretty sure this should be”her” HUD. When would Curt have gotten a HUD? He’s a synth!