Curt’s “I know a place” was an ugly, squat six-storey building.
‘If I say this doesn’t look like much,’ Stef said as she touched the sun-faded paint next to the door. ‘Are you going to get on my case for judging a book by its cover?’
It was the kind of place you just looked past, the kind of place that didn’t catch the eye at all. Everything about it was…ordinary. The type of cheap office space rented for startups, temporary offices, or project work that didn’t care about looks.
Or, less charitably, a derelict building for murderers who needed a convenient commute to their kill space.
‘The building is shit,’ Curt agreed as he typed in a code on the keypad next to the door. ‘But it helps them keep their prices down,’ the door unlocked with a thick chunk noise, and he pulled it open. ‘Which is important, since I’m shouting you breakfast.’
‘Oh. Um. Thanks,’ she said as she followed him inside. ‘I’ll pay you back-’
‘It’ll take you at least a few weeks until you get any fae currency. I can’t see Agent Ryan sending you off on any missions that need- Hm.’ He paused. ‘Maybe Local Court work. Sometimes those guys tip.’
‘So is this normal?’ she asked they waited for the lift.
‘What part?’ Curt asked as he tapped at his phone.
Magic being stuck in buildings, hidden away from where everyone can see it.
She bit the inside of her cheek. ‘Meh, never mind.’
They rode up three floors in the rickety lift, then stepped out into an equally derelict corridor.
Maybe definitely a place for murderers…
At the end of the hall, there were a broad set of red double doors, which automatically opened as they approached. Inside was a restaurant, with furniture that hadn’t been updated since before she was born, and wallpaper to match.
At the counter was an old, old fashioned cash register made of brass and wood. Next to the antique were two card readers, one with a standard wifi logo, one that looked like a flower with incremental petals.
A cute cashier walked behind the counter and smiled at them. ‘Buffet or menus?’
‘Two for the buffet, Agency pricing, thanks,’ Curt said. ‘Can we get a booth with a privacy screen?’
The cashier nodded, and lead them to a table that had a thin purple curtain hanging around it, encircling it like a mosquito net, or a cheap canopy bed.
Curt touched the curtain as they settled into their seats. ‘This is thin, but actually blocks most of the sound, so you can geek out or freak out, and it won’t annoy the other patrons. I’ve had a few new recruits get…really excitable, and honestly, it’s just not polite to scream that you want to try and shake someone for some pixie dust.’
‘I hope I’m not giving you the impression that I am that uncouth.’
Curt wrapped his jacket over the back of his chair, then laid his phone on the table. ‘Honestly, Newbie, I have no idea what kind of impression I’m getting from you.’ His phone buzzed, and he lifted it, smiled, and tapped it a few times before returning his attention to her. ‘Do you want to do the first day of school thing where you stand up and introduce yourself?’
The curtain was pulled aside, and the cashier deposited a wooden cutlery holder, along with a carafe of water and two plastic cups.
‘You said you read my file,’ she said as she poured a glass of water. ‘I don’t know what’s in that, so I don’t know what you know about me.’
‘I know your name, age, and nothing exciting. You were- Doing some kind of debug work or something? So you work with computers? What’s your day job?’ He waved a hand. ‘Or, you know, what was your day job before this?’
The truth of “I’m crazy and unemployable” probably wasn’t the best answer to give. There, however, was refuge that could be taken in strict honesty, even if it wasn’t the truth. ‘I sometimes take on freelance coding jobs. Mostly short term projects.’
It was true. “Short term” covered getting fired for not responding to emails, or writing long screeds about how code should be treated. Dorian’s code work hadn’t been her first job, just the first job that had been interesting enough to keep her from running, or ruining the opportunity.
‘Okay. Cool. Thank you for that,’ Curt said. ‘Now, I promised you fae, take a look around.’
She peered through the curtain. ‘But everyone looks…’ She considered the word for a moment. ‘Normal?’
Curt rested his chin on folded hands. ‘Oh, really?’
She looked around again and took in details that she hadn’t seen on her first, second, or third sweep of the restaurant. More than a few of the patrons had wings – some were small, most were folded flat against their backs. Beautiful, colourful wings – fairy wings that needed to be captured by an artist.
‘I mean – are – are they called fairies, or pixies, or–’ She wrapped her hands around the edge of the table.
Oh my god. This is all real, really real.
‘Fairies,’ he said as he poured a glass of water for himself. ‘Wings like that, they’re a fairy.’
The wings were astounding enough. What was more impressive were the customers with leaves. ‘And those are nymphs?’
She watched a little girl in a bright yellow shirt skip her way to the buffet. There was no hair on her head, just a mass of bouncing vines, little red flowers opening and closing as the girl filled her plate.
Curt drank from his glass of water. ‘Correct. Any kind of nymph you can imagine, they exist. For all kinds of plants, for all kinds of environments: water, wood, desert — everything. Same for hobs, really. They’re sort of divergent species – so you can have city hobs just like you can have city nymphs.’
‘The-’ She struggled for a minute to remember if there’d been a proper name for the testing she’d done. ‘Placement tests? Department deciding thing? There was a hob there, he said he ate garbage and had like-’ she gestured at herself as she recalled the hob’s outfit. ‘Like glass and stuff sewn into his clothes.’
Curt nodded. ‘That wasn’t the test I got, they cycle through about half a dozen options, kind of to prevent a single set of right answers from circulating. I do know the sim you’re talking about though, and that was a city hob.’ A notebook and pen appeared under his hand, and he flipped it open. ‘That was a pretty low-level sim, so if you want some recommendations for other scenarios to run, I can give you a list. When you’re not on shift, you are expected to do a certain amount of self-guided training. Some recruits take up a certain weapon specialization or a particular material art. If you’ll take my two cents, I’d try and broaden your knowledge base before you get focussed on anything.’
‘Yeah,’ she mumbled into her water glass. ‘I’ll try and not hyperfocus on something, that’ll happen.’
She put down the glass. ‘I asked about getting access to like, a wiki or something so I can learn stuff.’
Curt nodded. ‘Yeah, there should be links to some databases, as well as pointers were to go on the intranet in your welcome pack.’
Curt held his thumb and forefinger about six inches apart. ‘My first day, I got this much paperwork. Everything is happening a little out of order for you, I assume Director Ryan will get it to you this afternoon.’
Stef watched as the little nymph girl left the buffet, several of the tiny red flowers in her vine hair falling to the ground. ‘Is magic always hidden away like this?’ she asked before she could stop herself.
Curt’s hand came into her field of vision as he lifted the carafe and topped up her glass. ‘Most fae don’t want to draw attention to themselves if they’re living on Earth. Working for the Agency, you’ll get to see some amazing things. But ninety per cent of the time, fae are just trying to, you know, do the job-work-bills thing that everyone else is doing.’ He picked up his phone and tapped at it for a moment. ‘But take one step into Fairyland and everything’s different. Maybe not what you’re imagining, it’s not like…mushroom houses and delicate princesses. Still, magic is just…everywhere, it’s integrated into how every aspect of how-’ he stopped talking. ‘You trying to catch flies, Newbie?’
She pushed her mouth closed, then every question fought for space in her mouth, resulting in a string of sounds that didn’t even approach English.
‘Try that again, Newbie?’
‘Te – H – F – Fa–’
She closed her eyes and tried to calm her brain. ‘Fairyland?’ she asked, carefully shaping the word before opening her eyes again.
For the first time, she managed to focus on Curt’s face. ‘It’s- It’s called Fairyland?’
The curtain was pulled back once more, and two large plates were placed on the table by the cashier. ‘Sorry, there was a bit of a hold up on clean dishes, I’ll discount your bill.’
‘It’s not a problem,’ Curt said, even as the cashier disappeared. He handed one of the plates to her. He picked up his phone again. ‘Fairyland. Right. It’s a politeness thing. Citizens get to call it one thing, non-citizens call it another thing.’ He shook his phone. ‘I have to go speak to a contact for a few minutes about a case I’m working on. You go get your first round of food, and I’ll be back.’
He stood, picked up the empty carafe and ducked out from under the sound-dampening net and walked away. She watched as he dropped the carafe at the counter, then left through the set of double doors.
I mean, even if he fucks off and doesn’t come back, I know how to get back to the Agency.
She grabbed the corner of the net, and swayed it back and forth, to listen to the difference in the sound levels on both sides of it – and despite how sheer it was, it really did block most of the sound. There had to be magic in it or some kind of well-disguised tech.
After another minute, she grabbed the plate and walked towards the buffet. The little nymph girl ran across the restaurant again, this time, her hair was sprouting orange flowers. She followed the little girl, careful not to step on any petals that she shed – just in case there was some kind of connection between the girl and her flowers, even when they were physically separated – she didn’t want to step on a flower, only for the adorable little girl to feel the pain.
One giant yellow flower started to bloom on the centre of the nymph girl’s head as she spooned a soupy red concoction into a bowl. The petals rippled as the girl emptied an entire container of black croutons into the bowl, then settled against her head.
Stef sniffed at the red soupy…soup, decided against it, and moved along to the next containers – which held small fat discs, about half the size of her palm and as thick as her thumb, in a rainbow of colours.
‘Pancakes?’ she muttered.
The nymph girl grabbed the tongs and took three of the purple ones and one of the pink-and-white striped ones.
She swallowed and put her plate on the bench in front of the tiny pancakes. ‘Wh – what are those?’
‘Fluffins?’ the girl said. ‘Or do you mean what kinds?’
‘No, um, I can see the kinds,’ Stef said as she read the labels – blackberry, bacon, oat, power, fish, diet, kolk, lava berry, and a dozen more. ‘Fluffins?’
‘Are you new?’
‘Very new, sorry.’ She took the little girl’s lead and took three of the blackberry and one of the bacon.
The next trays were easier to grok onto – eggs, with a variety of sauces. She took a small scoop of scrambled eggs, some white sauce and some orange sauce.
At the end of the buffet was the drinks station – and she waited her turn while the little girl filled a large jug with cold water. The little girl smiled at her, then bounced away, jug and plate in hand.
Stef stared at the drink selections, and after a moment, pressed a plastic cup to the dispenser and filled it with sparkling apple juice.
Balancing plate and cup, she slowly walked back to the table, not wanting to spill anything or make too much of a scene staring at the other patrons. The net presented an immediate problem – it would be gauche to set the food and drink down onto the floor to open the curtain, but trying to open it with her hands full would be-
‘Need a hand?’
Stef turned, and saw a fairy with orange and green wings – and she couldn’t help but stare at her first close-up view of a fairy wing. They immediately put her in mind of a dragonfly, rather than a butterfly – shimmery and see-through, with membranes or veins or something drawing patterns all over the wing.
She forced herself to blink. ‘Um. Yeah. Please.’
The fairy nodded and lifted the curtain for her. She scooted under, and sat heavily into her chair, only slopping a quarter of her sparkling juice onto the table as she set her food down.
The net dropped, and she was left in the comparative silence of the booth, alone with delicious smells, a face burning with embarrassment and a growing sense of her own incompetence. She hadn’t even managed to get breakfast without fucking up, and she was supposed to-
She picked up the bacon fluffin and munched on it – discovering that it was basically a tiny fat pancake with filling – and watched the fae eat their breakfasts. The girl’s mother dunked one arm into the jug of water, her fingers splitting into fine white roots, with the other, she took one of the purple fluffins.
At the table next to the nymphs were two guys holding hands and sharing from a plate laden with green fluffins. A sleepy-looking girl sat at the following table, huge fluffy ears and grey hair possibly marking her as some kind of koala person, lazily picked at a plate of eggs while playing with a phone.
This is more attention than you’d paid to people in years.
She quickly wiped at her eyes, at the tiny forming tears, and tried to smile.
Fae are real. Fairies are real. I just–
She let out a long, shuddering breath and smiled.
God, I think I’m happy.
Next: 14 – Acquiring Data