The Auction

05 – First Plans

Within fifteen minutes of returning to Queen Street, he and Carmichel were in a room with Ryan, Clarke, Jones, and Mags.

Jones was in her girl mode today, and if there was one agent he could stretch the word “cute” to include, it would probably be Andrea. The person he was a year ago would have slapped him across the face. Today, he knew it was another step along the path of finally truly seeing agents as people rather than boogeymen.

Clarke was standing near a window, cigarette in one hand, phone in the other. Someone – probably not Clarke – had cracked the window wide enough, so the nicotine smell didn’t stink up the entire room.

Andrea had brought up a photo of Hoyt, the dead fairy, for their reference. It had been taken from a magazine cover and showed him standing in some board room, his red and white wings extended.

In a smaller window, his Agency record scrolled by, showing crimes, both suspected and confirmed. It seemed, for the most part, that his actions had lain on the “suspected” side of the line, and he’d been careful to live in parts of Faerie that didn’t allow the Agency to wield any authority.

The location of his estate – and therefore the auction – was no different. While Fairyland – a name that had long since ceased to be strange or whimsical to say – was essentially a planar clone of Australia, it wasn’t one country, as its Earth counterpart was.

There were spots here and there of what were sometimes called “wild lands”, areas that had wanted to keep their own laws or were colonies of other fae countries.

They looked like any other city, any other suburb, but were usually home to people who preferred to play by rules they could control.

Curt busied himself with reading the contracts that came with each of the silver-and-gold embossed tickets. Each ticket was embossed with a crest that Carmichel said was believed to have been a symbol of a royal house within the Golden Court.

Clarke had snorted at that, finally stubbed out his cigarette and joined the table.

It was understandable – and he was glad for the extra effort he’d put into learning about Faerie – as it had paid off for once. The Golden Court was…Atlantis, Camelot, something old and lost, something that probably had never existed.

There was a trend among a certain category of self-important assholes to make claims that they were descendants of the royal members who had stayed, and not disappeared when the Golden Court had vanished into thin air.

It was akin to saying “I’m King Arthur’s great-great-whatever-grandson. Are you going to argue with me and my billions? No? Then fuck off, peasant”.

Ryan gave an overview of Hoyt, from an Agency perspective, with Carmichel adding little bits of detail from the fae side of things.

It was all more or less what they’d discussed in the tree-lifted carriage over lunch. Rich asshole. Dead rich asshole. At least one thing – one person – the Agency would want to get their hands on.

With everyone up to speed, the question of the missing agent was tabled for the moment, and Andrea began a slideshow of the known items that were going to be auctioned.

He felt his phone buzz and quickly looked down to see the message.

{Sent this one a delay timer, so it doesn’t look like we’re talking. You’re in the room. Realise that you’re good enough to be in the room.}

He slipped his phone back into his pocket, shuffled the papers in front of him, and then gave a perfect Recruit Curt smile in Carmichel’s direction.

He hadn’t noticed, though. He had been too wrapped up in his own thoughts and second thoughts and third thoughts of how to approach the situation. How to initiate the conversation with Ryan. How to feel. How to act. All minor distractions that had occupied his mind so thoroughly that he hadn’t noticed that he was actually in an important meeting.

Two heads of department, their liaison officer, one aide, and he didn’t seem out of place.

Clarke’s occasional glances communicated his disdain, but Clarke seemed to hate everyone equally, so at least he wasn’t being singled out.

It was the kind of meeting the Field aide would be included in. He understood why Ryan had knocked back his application, but…no one else seemed to want the job. Aide positions weren’t supposed to stay open for long stretches like this, and it wasn’t a case of the position not being necessary. Ryan was massively overworked, even for a machine.

He’d try again in six months, in a year, keep trying until he was told to stop or the position was filled by someone else. It would at least give him stability, some sense that Ryan wasn’t just waiting for some arbitrary day to tell him to face the wall.

With the slideshow done, Ryan moved to stand at the head of the table.

‘At any given time, there are dozens of agents unaccounted for. They’re simply listed as missing until we have conclusive proof of death, falling, or capture. However, we have probabilities assigned to each case, behaviour, rumours, and last sighted locations. For-’ He paused for a brief moment. ‘Lot sixty-four, there’s a preliminary list of agents this is likely to be.’

One by one, as Ryan spoke the agent’s name, their photo appeared on the screen behind him, each accompanied by a map showing their home agency.

Astrid, from Denmark. Perry, resplendent in the royal purple of the UK. Jones, which got an “I’m aware I’m common” remark from Andrea. Flint-Hollins, another American and one of the few hyphenated names he’d run into. Elad, missing for two years. Sanders, missing for ten years, the longest on the list.

Copies of each agent’s file appeared in front of everyone at the table.

‘It could be someone else,’ Ryan reiterated. ‘These are just the most likely candidates. All of them were last seen in Faerie. Though colleagues and family like to protect the reputations of their loved ones, there’s no evidence that any of these agents willingly abandoned their Duty. Four of six were in long-term relationships, one had recently taken on a new role, there are children left behind. Bringing any of these agents home would be a win.’ Ryan’s body language changed, becoming a billboard that screamed “I’m uncomfortable”. ‘There is also another possibility. The agents and our guest probably know what I’m about to say. Magnolia, Curt.’ A moment of hesitation. ‘The Agency has- Operates entertainment venues within Faerie that-’

‘You can say brothel, Director,’ Clarke said and lit another cigarette.

‘Yes, these places facilitate intimacy.’ Pause. ‘There is a market for it, and the Agency sees no reason not to profit from it.’

As…inhuman as Ryan could be, as much as he often imagined the man standing in a Borg alcove at night, seeing the Director struggle like he was a father desperately trying to give the sex talk to their kid was weirdly humanising.

Clarke spun the lighter in his hand. ‘Duty and Duty Bound. Vanilla shit in Duty and…whatever the customer will pay for in Duty Bound. There’s a price list for the vore options to give you an idea,’ he said, then blew out a long stream of smoke.

‘I prefer the real thing,’ Carmichel said, speaking up as the room’s known agent fetishist.

‘Yes, to clarify,’ Ryan said, ‘the-’ Pause. ‘Entertainers at these locations are sims. Not sapient beings. It’s not a position we would-’

‘They do all the positions, Director.’

This time, Ryan didn’t even deign to comment. ‘-we would generate someone for. On several occasions, customers have negotiated to purchase one of these sims. Hoyt is not listed among the known first-party clients, but it’s not hard to imagine the sims trading owners.’

‘This sounds like a good thing,’ Mags said, speaking for the first time since entering the room, ‘so why do I feel like there’s a shoe hovering over my head?’

‘Because there is,’ Ryan said. ‘One of the services the clubs offer-’

‘You can fuck whoever you want,’ Clarke said, ‘If I wanted to pork Taylor, I could walk in, pull his face up on a menu, and an eight-pack sex-doll would be mine for an hour. You pay a premium, and they’ll clone the personality. Put down enough money, and they’ll parallel process with the actual agent, so it’s no different to sleeping with the real one.’

‘That carries over to the purchased sims?’ Mags asked.

‘Appearance only. But like any sim, they’re teachable and adaptable, so with enough time, they could be coached into becoming a replica of an existing agent.’

Magnolia narrowed her eyes. ‘So we could be paying for a sex toy, not rescuing someone?’

‘It entirely depends on the setup of the auction. If you’re able to talk to the agent, there are ways of confirming if they’re a person or a sim. If they’re unable to communicate or are simply represented by a picture or model, it becomes harder.’

‘Even if they were sold with a default appearance,’ Andrea said, ‘plastic surgery exists. So unless we can confirm, it’s a gamble.’

‘Correct,’ Ryan said, ‘we’re aware of the general price range that both sims and agents go for in these circles, and if we were to waste the price tag of an agent on a sim…It would make us look foolish.’

‘I can likely get confirmation one way or the other,’ Carmichel said. ‘Hoyt’s people probably wouldn’t try to sell one as the other, but if they don’t know, or Hoyt himself was duped… Let’s go into this optimistically. Just train my guests and me on how to pick the fake, and let’s move on.’

‘Your two guests would be the next topic,’ Ryan said. ‘You’ve expressed an interest in taking Recruit O’Connor, as to the other-’

‘No chance in hell,’ Clarke said, then stubbed his cigarette out on one of the missing agent’s files.

‘In a perfect world, an agent would be ideal. However, given the location, it’s unlikely we’ll get any volunteers.’

Curt lifted up the contract. ‘Passage in and a safe exit out is guaranteed for the ticket holder.’ He flipped the page and showed a symbol to Ryan. ‘Court of Kings approved. They’d basically have to pay out a hefty life insurance sum to the heirs or association of someone who died while under this protection.’

‘So if you get killed, we get paid?’ Clarke said. ‘Step on a couple of banana peels for me, would you?’

‘I can go,’ Magnolia said. ‘Next weekend. Most of my people are doing wargames or going to watch. Taylor and I aren’t officially on duty for this Agency. Grigori usually drags him off to watch, and I catch up on admin. Being outside of System territory doesn’t fuck with me. Recruits are also more likely to fly under the radar. O’Connor can blend in like furniture. I’m fae. No one will look twice at us.’

‘I forgot about the wargames,’ Ryan said quietly. ‘You’ve got my blessing. Carmichel?’

‘I’ll need your ID to get the ticket put in your name, I need you to sign a contract, and I have final outfit approval. O’Connor, give her my contact details.’

He knew Carmichel’s details by heart, but no one in the room needed to know that. He placed his Agency phone on the table, opened Carmichel’s contact, then wrote down his earthbound contact details, ones Mags could contact without needing a fae phone.

He slid the card across the table, which she caught, and tucked into the pocket of her binder.

‘I don’t suppose I can expense something from Arshan Yo’s latest collection, can I?’

‘Who?’ Ryan asked.

‘Depends on how many dicks you feel-’ Clarke started.

‘I’ve told you not to speak like that,’ Ryan snapped. ‘Apologise. Now.’

‘I wouldn’t believe his apology.’ She rotated her chair slightly so that her attention was entirely on Ryan. ‘Yo’s a designer. A “coats cost as much as a car” kind of designer. There’s requiring blocks against his designs, so we don’t flood the market with knockoffs.’

‘I’ve got a scarf from one of his rebooted vintage lines, but it doesn’t seem to match your colour scheme,’ Carmichel said.

‘I’ll be fine to sort myself out,’ Mags said. ‘Transport?’

‘I’ll provide it.’

‘What else do I need to prepare?’

‘Go over the contract, make sure that any weapons you bring are in line with what’s allowed. We’ll also pass through Fairyland in and out, so make sure you’re compliant for weapons licences there.’

Mags’ face relaxed a tiny bit. ‘Easy enough.’

‘I’ll need the both of you,’ Andrea said. ‘This evening, if we can, and a follow-up tomorrow, I’ll start going over the differences between sims and agents.’ She looked at Carmichel. ‘You’re welcome to join, of course.’

‘Absolutely. I assume I can avail myself of the suite between now and then?’

‘Of course,’ Ryan said. ‘I can take you up.’

‘Thank you, Director.’

‘We’ll call it for now,’ Ryan said to the room. ‘Please keep me up to date.’

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