The Auction

03 – Communication 101

The puppet stared at him.

Curt wasn’t sure that, in a million years, he could have imagined a little yellow puppet could have inspired such rage, desperation, and…something akin to the five stages of grief.

And yet it continued to torment him.

‘Fuck you,’ he whispered.

The puppet – the children’s learning program on his phone – rose a little, flapped wings and smiled. ‘Come on,’ it said, ‘you can do it.’ It was the usual platitude it said when it encountered a user phrase not programmed into its response tree.

He couldn’t imagine many fairy toddlers spending a lot of time swearing while learning the alphabet.

There were adult learning apps, but Carmichel had insisted on installing the Grove Garden app. Grove seemed to fill a spot roughly analogous to Sesame Street – edutainment for young children – populated by bright and simple characters.

“If it was good enough for me,” Carmichel’s logic had run, “it’s good enough for you.”

Part of it was a subtle, good-natured ribbing, befitting the fact that the man was treating him more and more like a younger brother. And “younger brother” was a position he was happy to have, as it gave him the only real connection he had now.

His Solstice friends – if the title ever should have really applied – were gone and on the other side of the war. His family was half a country away. He barely had a working relationship with any of his colleagues, let alone anything he could really call a friendship.

The other, less fun reason was that many of the mature-aged language programs were natively in another fae language or relied on knowing a lot of fae culture.

For someone like him, who was basically a newborn baby when it came to knowing Faerie, starting like a literal baby was probably the best option.

So far, it had been a mixed success at best.

The last eight months, his first eight months in this new life, had been almost as much about unlearning old misinformation as learning new information.

Most of what the Solstice had taught him had been… Adjacent to the truth at best. And even then, most of that was focused on showing the very worst of the fae and the Agency.

He’d gotten out, gotten a second chance.

A second chance that was being challenged by a yellow puppet.

The fairy alphabet – the one currently in use – translated to English as “Below-Nine”, being the ninth recorded iteration of their primary alphabet.

Currently, it contained eighty-six letters, and that alone was a window into history. The older, legacy letters looked closer to runes, whilst the more modern letters had begun to take on some curl and complexity. Though it was nothing to rival Faerie’s overall most popular language and alphabet – hobbish – of which he only knew a few of the characters that were used as texting shorthand.

The current lesson was on another major part of communicating in Below-Nine – decas.

The decas were an interesting part of fairy linguistics. For the longest time, they had replaced formatting such as bolding and italics. Even now, a bolded sentence was more likely to be seen as a stylistic choice, rather than conveying meaning unless each word was also followed by a deca.

Though there was variation between regions and opaque levels of cultural context, the tourist level of fairy linguistics broke decas down simply. A small line at the end of each word that was to be emphasised.

Like the three crossbars of the capital letter E, each bar of the example E signified a differing level of importance, most commonly used as important/high importance, normal/subtle emphasis, low/vague.

And the problem was there were a lot of informal ways of using decas, but the learning program was teaching him the rules first so that he would know he was breaking them later.

He scowled at the puppet and exited the program, mind too full for the moment.

Days off were somehow worse than working days. At least with working days, there was a degree of acting automatically, working within parameters, going from scene to scene, acting as the perfect Recruit Curt.

Days off gave him time to think and sit with his sins. Moments to consider whether this path was a second chance or just a delayed execution.

His Genie phone pinged. A text from Carmichel.

{I’ve got information that the Agency needs. Let’s meet up. Lunch is on me. 1pm.}

Another message came, dropping a pin on a Fairyland map. He looked at his phone’s clock, and saw that he had plenty of time to get down to Fairyland, change, and then get to the spot the pin indicated.

He grabbed his Agency phone and sent a quick email to Ryan. Unnecessary, but something he always did when heading into any part of Faerie. A small note to assure the Agency that he wasn’t running.

He didn’t have to do it. No one had ever asked him to do it. Ryan had never acknowledged any of his location alert emails.

And it still made him feel safer to do it.

He required simple civilian clothes, put both of his phones into his pockets, and left his room.

Every set of fairy stairs led to a different part of Faerie, though almost all of the easily-accessible ones led to Fairyland. To complicate matters, there was no logical relationship between the Earth location and the Fairyland location. Two sets of stairs could be practically next to each other but lead to locations in Fairyland that were tens or hundreds of miles apart.

He drove to a set of stairs accessed through what looked to be an ordinary equipment shed behind a deteriorating shop.

The disguised security panel detected the blue circulating with his blood and opened the door. After carefully looking for civilians, he stepped in and began to descend the stairs.

Advertisements, community flyers, and sticker tags created a comfortingly cluttered collage along the walls of the stairs, along with movie posters starring fae actors he felt he should recognise by now.

Once out of the stairs, there was the strange conflicting cognitive dissonance where it felt like he should be underground while standing in the light of the sun.

From the corner of his eye, he saw a streak of red. He turned and saw one of the red local-service buses, and the number on its digital display was familiar.

He quickly jogged across the road and waited behind a young woman with a cane at the stop. The bus stopped, its accessibility ramp automatically extending as the door opened. The driver greeted him as he tagged on, and he saw the usual subtle “oh, hey, a human” double-take that he saw at least half a dozen times every time he went into Faerie.

After a half-dozen stops, he exited the bus and walked up a short, wide street towards the apartment he owned but hadn’t yet called home.

The night they’d met, he’d saved Carmichel’s life. For that, Carmichel had showered him in gifts, paying back that perceived life debt, even though he hadn’t asked for anything more than friendship and some language lessons.

Fairies had a saying, which didn’t translate well: “life needs a home, home needs a life”. For much of their history, fairies had been prey for larger fae, so they had repaid life debts with shelter rather than material goods.

It survived through the modern era usually as “you have a lifetime pass to crash on my couch”. Less often, the debtor bought a property for their saviour.

A few security swipes and polite smiles from the doorman and staff had him in the elevator to his apartment. It wasn’t immense – smaller than the townhouse his dad had let him and his girlfriend rent after high school – but it was tidy, serviced daily, and far more than he had ever deserved.

He hadn’t been trying to be noble when he’d saved Carmichel. Four-on-one just wasn’t a fair fight and not one he could look away from, even though it had been none of his business.

And part of him had hoped that one of the attackers would have put him out of his misery.

He went into the bedroom, one button bringing up the lights, the other tilting the blinds to allow more sunlight in.

His wardrobe was filled with clothes he’d been slowly accumulating over the last eight months. Carmichel had supplied a collection of basics with the apartment and one nice “going out to dinner” suit. The rest had slowly appeared as the result of various fae holidays or simply Carmichel spotting something in a shop window he felt would suit his “little brother”.

He quickly changed into a pair of simple pants with a delicate line of green embroidery on each leg and a textured white shirt, thick enough to keep his tattoos from showing, even without a second T-shirt underneath.

Both of his phones, along with a notebook, went into a leather shoulder bag. Enough to take notes of whatever information Carmichel wanted to pass along to the Agency.

He locked the apartment and started to walk towards the pinned location. It was a little bit of a walk, but he still had plenty of time before lunch, and fresh, non-Agency air was always good for his state of mind.

And it gave him more time to wonder why the lunch was happening.

Carmichel had tonnes of his own Agency contacts – agents of every department and type on all the continents. Except possibly Antarctica, which was apparently staffed by one and only one agent.

It was possible the information was specific to Queen Street, or had something to do with the Solstice that could benefit from his former career. Something unique enough about the situation to warrant changing the usual procedure.

A bus stopped just ahead of him, and a suit immediately drew his eye amongst the deboarding passengers.

Suit. Agent. Danger. Run.

He planted his feet, swivelled towards the nearest shop window – a bakery with brightly-coloured treats in the window, and tried to override his fight or flight instincts.

Every molecule in his body vibrated. Old fears still too recent. Immediate associations that would probably never go away.

In the bakery’s window reflection, he watched the agent – one wearing the red tie of the US agencies – walk by, holding hands with a green-skinned nymph man.

The agent didn’t look once in his direction. However, he stayed still, staring at the pastries until the suit was gone from his peripheral vision.

There was a bell as the bakery door opened, and an old man, skin wrinkled with age and a thousand laugh lines, smiled at him. ‘You’ve got to come in if you want to buy something.’ The man offered a tray of biscuit pieces covered in green chocolate. ‘Today’s sample.’

Curt took one of the biscuits, gave a perfect, polite “Recruit Curt” smile, and popped it into his mouth.

He’d expected pistachio or matcha, one of the flavours usually associated with green. Instead, there was a burst of fresh grass in his mouth. He coughed, then swallowed, oddly enjoying the taste.

It was everything about the smell of fresh cut grass that left you pulling in lungful after lungful of air on a hot summer afternoon, without the weird coating of dirt or lawnmower petrol that usually ruined the moment.

‘I’ll, uh, take a bag,’ he said to the old man.

Carmichel was always sending treats his way; most often, they piled up in the entry hall of his apartment, but for once, he could return the favour.

He stepped into the bakery, the door closing quietly behind him. The old man went behind the counter and grabbed two different cookie bags, one with about a dozen pieces, the other with about double.

Curt pointed to the smaller bag, fetched a tobi berry soft drink from the fridge, and then paid for both. He put the biscuits in his bag, nestling them carefully so they wouldn’t break, and continued his walk.

A casual interaction. One where his position as an ex-Solstice didn’t matter. One where the Agency didn’t come into it. Just…a moment where he could just exist without being all of the baggage that dragged down his every step.

Tobi berries had been one of the first fae flavours he’d really taken to. They more or less tasted like lychees, and the flavouring was as ubiquitous in Fairyland as lemon or orange was on Earth, so it was always something he could point to on the menu. This, at least, helped him avoid spending five minutes trying to research every drink option and their flavour profiles each time he went out to eat.

It was a simple way to make his interactions easier. One less bit of trouble he could cause. One less reason for people to dislike him.

Once it was finished, he dropped the bottle into a recycling station, one of the ones branded with the Escarfi local council colours. A touch screen encouraged him to take a survey, which he did, answering the three questions easily.

Survey done, the screen showed a smiling face and prompted him to tap his phone, which he did, and it added some points to his resident account. So far as he knew, the points were largely pointless, mostly used to play games during street fairs or for small items at seasonal events.

It was the action a normal person would take, and for a couple of minutes, he was allowed to pretend he was normal.

‘Yeah, fucking right,’ he mumbled, adjusted his bag, and headed towards lunch.

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