02 - Mirrorheart

20 – An Attempt to Rise

Stef was bleeding. One arm was cuffed to the bars of her cell. Blood gushed down her head like her head had been smacked against the metal a dozen times.

There was a hammer in his hand.

He swung the hammer at the bars, and she screamed. He swung it again, and blood gushed to the floor, her throat slit.

She grabbed at her throat, coughing and gasping for breath, her eyes wide.

The floor turned to blood, but her uniform shirt remained white.

She continued to bleed, her fists pounding the bloody floor and-

Curt opened his eyes.

His heart pounded in his chest, his temples tight with a headache.

He climbed out of bed and stumbled forward, disorientated for a second when he encountered a bedroom door, rather than the tile of his kitchenette.

Memory limped into place, and he remembered where he was – and the “where” also explained why he was awake while the sky outside was still dark.

The nightmares were always there – but the drugs that the Parkers had formulated allowed him a full night’s sleep – he would wake up with the feel of blood on his hands. Still, at least he’d had enough rest to playact at being the perfect recruit for the day.

He filled a glass from the apartment’s chiller tap, choked down half the glass, then splashed the other half over his face. The cold water was a shock, just the kind of thing he needed to stop himself from sliding back into sleep and more nightmares.

After another half glass of water, he threw up in the kitchen sink.

Arms shaking, he leaned on the counter, head in his hands.

A quick death, all he could hope was that it had been a quick death.

Hands fumbling, he started the expensive drink maker – in principle, it was pretty much like a standard pod-coffee machine, but the drinks it produced, in concert with the additional components, like a milk foamer, produced something far closer to coffee-shop quality.

A spiral of expensive drink pods sat next to the machine. Most had names written out in fae languages, rather than glyph, leaving him to rely on brand awareness, along with the universal symbols that indicated with something was caffeinated or not.

He selected a strong, sweet caffeinated drink – realising after he’d slammed the pod home, that it would have been the exact thing he would have recommended to Newbie. However, if what he’d observed was her regular routine, he’d also be looking for a spare bag of sugar to pour into the cup.

Drink made, he padded across the apartment and out onto the cool tiles of the wide balcony.

Like the apartment, the styling of the balcony was something out of a magazine. A table and a couple of chairs – large enough to share a drink, but not a meal; a hanging cocoon chair at one end; a standard local council sign indicating the local flight restrictions, with a scannable code to get a report on local traffic; and a place to hang and dry a kite rig.

It wasn’t home, but it could be.

Sweet, fruity coffee finished, he retreated inside, found the remote and turned on the large TV. A single button bringing up the food options, from which he selected Hither – which, despite its similarity to the English word, meant something like “eat and be happy” in Hobbish.

Food channels were a weird quirk of Fairyland – in essence, they were 24/7 advertisements, with each being run by a different delivery service. Restaurants on the service paid for ad time and placements – just as they did in the app. But whereas the app ads tended towards putting together a whole bespoke meal; channel ads allowed for laziness and impulse buying.

You used the app if you wanted to pick six different toppings for a pizza. You watched the channel when you were bored and wanted to hit one button on your TV remote when an ad for Famous Fry’s new promo burger meal came up.

Hungry, but unwilling to expend effort, he waited for the first familiar restaurant to appear, hit the green button, which popped up a confirmation before resuming the ads.

Switching to a news channel, made sure the captions were on, then stood and went into the kitchen. In the bottom drawer, he found the red-and-orange Hither delivery mat and went back to the balcony.

He slapped the mat down on the small table and turned on the delivery lights – that way, the flying delivery person would be able to identify his property, then went back inside for a shower.

Showered and shaved, he selected some clothes from the wardrobe. As far away from his recruit uniform as he could get – casual pants with enough pockets to belong to an anime character, and a textured t-shirt, thick enough to keep him from seeing his tattoos.

Both phones retrieved, he returned to the balcony. His food had been left on the delivery mat, a coupon for his next order stapled to the paper bag.

Legs folded, he sat in the cocoon chair, the bag containing his meal and drink nestled in his lap.

Ever the good recruit, much to his chagrin, he checked his Agency phone first. Nothing on the lock screen indicated high-priority, so he switched to his Fairyland phone.

There were three messages from Carmichel. The first, his “word of the day”, something Carmichel sent on an “if I remember” basis, this was a short phrase, and a link to the Fairyland equivalent of Dictionary.com so he could research it.

The second was an apology – stating that after an emergency meeting the previous night, he’d been called out of town and wouldn’t be available to socialise. This was followed by a reminder that he’d pay whatever the Agency asked, and that a price just needed to be reached.

The third message was a notification that two hours of “standard time” had been added to his club account. Below it, there was just a simple message: {Don’t be alone today.}

The club account was his membership with Carmichel’s sexporiums. Every worker had the option to charge a different rate. Still, the vast majority went by the usual rates – so a standard hour meant one hour of standard bedroom-and-related activities.

More specialised acts could attract a higher price. In those cases, a standard hour might buy you twenty minutes of real-time; less involved services might buy you more real-time, two hours of standard time might buy four hours of conversation.

Idly, he opened the notes app on his Genie phone, found a note he’d saved for what he’d mentally termed “long term shit”. Primarily, it was a list of things from Faerie – particularly Fairyland – culture. Movies, music and memes he should get his head around in order to interact with the world better.

There were so many things that were easy about interacting with Faerie on a surface level. Glyph and the gift of languages made communicating the basics easy, the “human emoji” helped with picking meals at smaller restaurants. The larger chains – like the Fry’s meal he was slowly making his way through – made an effort to be as human-friendly as possible, appealing to a broader audience, while losing some of the authenticity that of fae cuisine that it had had in the past.

Being a tourist was easy. Trying to make strides to engage more deeply took time and effort. It was the same as on Earth. Watching a foreign film or TV series, you might be able to understand the plot and character, but have to resort to a wiki to understand why half an episode was spent discussing some holiday you’d never heard of.

Marked with two stars, and sitting at the top of his list was a film series called “The Relevance Cycle”. Cross-plane nerds tended to liken it to Star Wars in a lot of ways, particularly the lasting power it had, and the expanded universe of content that surrounded it.

Four original films – as with how a lot of fairy stories were structured, things tended to come in fours more than they did trilogies.

“The Tallest Tree” was the first movie – though that statement could lead to as many arguments as “A New Hope” is the first Star Wars. First in release order, and the one Carmichel had recommended, so he could leave fan-preferred rewatch orders until he was more accustomed to the story.

Plan made, he switched over to the StingLight app, the booking system app that most sexporiums and clubs used – making managing memberships with multiple franchises easier.

Loyal to Carmichel though, he only had membership with the one chain. An alert confirmed what the text had said – that the two hours had been added, and a link encouraged him to book in some activities.

The Hollins Broadway location was closest, so he selected that from the options, then began to scroll through the available employees.

A few filters changed the available faces – deselecting the options he had set for compatible sexual partners; and choosing those that were available for conversation.

A dozen faces intermixed with the options that had been there already. Faces that a year ago he would have just called “guys” by default, something he was still working on; but now actively told himself to replace with “masc” instead.

Just as he’d spent the last year and a half of his life learning and relearning what the Solstice had taught him, had made him reconsider the value of life, whether it was human or not; he’d spent just as much time trying to…make himself a better human.

As good as he’d been in some areas growing up. Having a non-verbal little sister teased by any dickhead old enough to throw around the r-slur could do that; he knew he’d failed in so many other areas.

And his dad coming out as gay just after Tara’s death hadn’t made for a lot of conducive language choices.

And for years, he’d barely thought twice about some of his opinions.

Now, it just seemed natural. If he could spend hours trying to get his head around fae languages, he could put just as much effort into not using language that would hurt Raz. And not asking dumb questions around people like Sacha – who he’d initially categorised as a “good-looking guy who wears skirts” before doing an iota of research himself.

It was a learning process, but one well worth it.

Now, Raz was comfortable enough to complain about love life; and Sacha had been properly organised into the file of “good-looking genderfluid person who wears skirts”.

He also couldn’t prove it. But he was sure that a big plus at the start of his friendship with Magnolia was that he wasn’t one of the shitheads who either decried or fetishised her for being a bi girl.

Halfway down the list, he found a femme-looking fairy with golden tattoos who listed one of their preferred conversation topics as Relevance.

The booking process was several steps but easy. As today was supposed to be a day off, a day away from everything that had happened, he selected a lot of the extras he wouldn’t usually splurge for. A larger room with a dedicated screening space; snacks and non-alcoholic drinks; and a half-hour massage to finish off the day.

One PIN code confirmation later, he had his booking.

Hollins Broadway was close enough to walk, but if this was to be a first step towards a new life then…

He retrieved his kite rig. As a result of the violent-beating-slash-attempted-murder that had led to their first meeting, Carmichel had needed to wear a rig for months afterwards while his wings, reduced to nothing but tatters were slowly brought back by surgery, magic and the age-old healer, time.

Unwilling to compromise on his performance, he’d gone out the next day and brought one of the top-of-the-line rigs. His rig was, appropriately, the metaphorical little brother of the one Carmichel had.

Whereas if Carmichel’s rig was a sports car that clocked in at a quarter of a million dollars; his rig was “merely” approaching a hundred thousand.

And for the most part, it sat unused, functioning more like an industrial art piece than a way of commuting.

Wallet and Agency phone secured in a slim messenger bag, he strapped himself into the rig. The process was barely any more difficult than one of those enormous packs that backpacking tourists wore. It was heavy to hold, but by virtue of design and the way it hung on his shoulders, he could barely feel the weight when he wore it.

He laid the control gloves on the table, turned on the rig and started the app. For obvious reasons, it was still firmly in “baby mode” – repeated tutorials and the system taking control if he fucked something up was far better than becoming a red smear on the ground.

Route programmed, he pulled on the control gloves and clicked the phone into its holder. After a second, the phone automatically started a “best guess” flying playlist, based on his previous music choices.

Once again, he returned to the balcony, and with a couple of squeezes of the left glove, the rig started. False wings – which were more for the aesthetic than anything – extended, and his feet lifted from the ground.

One more squeeze and he had enough height to stand on the railing, automatic adjustments keeping him standing in place, looking over the mid-morning city, and the endless possibilities in front of him.

On what he thought of as his first real day as a recruit. The day he’d been flung halfway across the country from the torture and captivity of Adelaide to the unknown and reluctant hope of Brisbane, Adelaide’s medical agent had sat with him for a few minutes.

Farnshaw had given him the first bit of grace that he’d ever seen from the Agency. Aging the memories of Petersen’s endless torture so they’d impact him less; so that he’d have a real chance at being a recruit.

And Farnshaw had instructed him to find a reason to breathe. To find some centre to his world to make all the work worthwhile. A bedrock to build from so that he could begin to repay all the red in his ledger.

And by every god that existed, he had tried.

He had tried, and little of his effort had been rewarded.

He extended his arms, and his personal jetpack hummed.

Running away probably wasn’t what Farnshaw had meant, but it also likely wasn’t entirely unexpected. People like him were few and far between, with those hailed as success stories even rarer.

Carmichel wanted to treat him like a person, wanted to give him home and a family. Wanted him to really have a second chance, a new life where he had control, where he had choices.

There were things – people – that he’d miss when he ditched the suit; but it had never been the life for him.

One more squeeze of the control glove and he was aloft, feet dangling over the city, and something approaching a smile tried to find a place on his face.

This could be a good life. This would be a good life.

He just had to finish with his old one first.

Next: 21 – I Want

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Damn. Oh, from Curt’s perspective it makes sense, but still.

I know you're thinking something, Recruit...x