There was a pounding on her door.
‘Nurg,’ Stef muttered as she knuckled the sleep from her eyes.
The sound got louder.
‘Gods’ – pound – ‘damn’ – pound – ‘it,’ – pound – ‘newbie!’ Pound. ‘Open up!’
She pulled the blanket back over her face.
‘Are you even awake?’ Pound. ‘I know you’re in there!’
Go away; go away; go away.
‘Go away!’

The voice laughed. ‘So you are awake. Open up!’
She curled up more in the blanket but required the door open.
‘Up!’ Curt said, as she heard the door close behind him. ‘Come on, newbie. Up.’
‘No,’ she said.
‘I was nice. You didn’t wake up at six; I gave you a break, half an hour more to sleep in, but you’re out of time. You don’t want to be late,’ he said, stressing every word. ‘Taylor’s gonna hate you enough. Do you really want to add tardiness to that?’
The volcano-in-a-suit rumbled in her head, and she pulled herself from the blanket.
‘Huh,’ Curt said as he looked at her.
‘You…slept in your uniform?’
‘I’ve only been asleep for three hours,’ she said.
He leaned against the wall. ‘I told you about training.’
She swung her legs off the bed and hung her head, trying to drain the sleep from her body. ‘And I can’t change my sleeping pattern overnight.’
‘Still, I’m not gonna be late. Orders are orders, but nothing in what Agent Ryan said covers getting on Taylor’s radar. People who are on his radar tend to be thrown from windows.’
She required a coffee and let her head hang over it. ‘So artificially high mortality rate, then?’
‘No, the building has a really good security system. Anything that falls – be it a recruit or a house plant – is caught and shifted back inside.’
‘Huh. Good idea.’ She emptied the cup. ‘So can I go chuck stuff off the roof to try it?’
‘Sure. Later. Can we go, please?’
She set the cup on the bedside table. ‘Is there any way I can get out of this?’
‘How attached are you to your kneecaps?’
‘So that’s a no, then?’
She stood, tilted for a moment, then stood straight.
‘Require a training uniform. No arguments.’
She sighed and required the training uniform – blue BDUs over a blue T-shirt. She looked to her feet, glad to see that her sneakers had popped into existence rather than heavy boots.
‘I still like the suit better,’ she said.
‘Yeah, well, I’ve never even seen Taylor in a suit,’ he said as he opened the door.
She followed him down the hall, past mingling recruits – some fully awake and dressed, some in pyjamas sucking on coffee and energy drinks. They walked into the large gym, where some recruits were already stretching. He fell in a step closer. ‘Let’s try to find somewhere in the back.’
They found a patch of wall behind some of the other recruit. He began to stretch his legs, so she took on his role of official-person-leaning-against-the-wall.
It’s not even seven, what am I doing awake?
I told you TV Tropes was a bad idea.
I was only going to read a few pages.
That’s what you always say.
‘Could you please make a token effort?’
Stretches had been easy a decade ago. Ballet under the tutelage of a mad perfectionist had meant twisting her body in lots of weird ways or facing the wrath of a riding crop.
She bent over and tried to touch her toes.
Her back ached, and her fingers dangled well above her toes, so she straightened and copied the easy-looking lunge Curt was doing.
As they swapped legs, he bowed his head. ‘Okay, don’t make any sudden movements, but look up. The girl walking in now is Magnolia.’
Stef pressed both hands down onto her forward knee, counted to ten, then looked up. She closed her eyes, then looked again.
A pretty girl in a dress stood barking orders at dawdling recruits. A pretty girl with white hair yelling at recruits, wearing something that definitely wasn’t a uniform: a black ruffled skirt and tight-fitting corset over a white shirt with more ruffles.
‘See? You wouldn’t have believed me if I’d told you.’
‘Is that cosplay, or does she always dress, like, in goth loli?’
‘That’s what she looks like every day. This is actually tame. There’s no lace.’
‘…And she works for Taylor?’
Agent Volcano with the growling and the death glares and the–
Curt grinned. ‘Welcome to the Agency, newbie.’
‘Training sim first,’ Magnolia said, addressing the assembled recruits. ‘Groups of six. Split!’
‘What do we–?’
‘We’re the leftovers, newbie. We wait. Hey, there.’ Curt walked towards a tall recruit, who stood on his own. ‘Red?’
The recruit nodded.
‘Okay, now we only need three more.’
‘Red?’ she asked as she looked up at the really, really tall recruit and his dull red hair. ‘Your parents were strangely prescient.’
‘Rollingford Isben,’ Red said. ‘They call me Red. I don’t argue.’
‘He can set things on fire,’ Curt said, ‘so they call him “Red”.’
‘Wouldn’t “Sparky” be better?’ she asked, then went back to looking at the floor.
‘You, you, you – join this group,’ she heard Magnolia shouting.
‘Oh, fuck you, Mags,’ Curt swore quietly. He bowed his head and leaned closer. ‘Newbie, do your best to keep your mouth shut.’
She raised her head a little and saw Brian and two of his cronies approaching.
Magnolia walked up a moment later. ‘One, two, three, four, five, and negative seven. Okay, you’re good to go. It’s on randomise, so I don’t know what the fuck you’re doing. Get in there.’
‘Come on,’ Curt said.
Stef followed the group through a simple door and stepped into a forest.
Not a full, proper pine-trees-and-foxes forest, but a scrubby, open forest full of thin trees, leaves falling in preparation for winter. Which was strange, considering it was spring outside. A cool breeze blew through the trees, and she automatically hugged her arms around herself before realising that her body wasn’t cold, only her exposed hands and face.
Temperature-regulating clothes?
Entirely plausible.
‘Gather around,’ Brian barked as they moved into a clearing. ‘There’s no obvious goal, so we need to scout. Red, do your thing. Curt, go that way,’ he said, jerking a thumb over his shoulder. ‘And take the cannon fodder with you. Collins, Dawyer, with me – we’re heading south. Check in every five minutes.’
‘C’mon, newbie,’ Curt said as they walked deeper into the scrub and found a lightly-worn path.
‘How far does our jurisdiction go?’ she asked. ‘Do we have to look after the whole state or something? I’m not cut out to be a scout. I don’t like the outdoors.’
Curt crouched for a second and stared at the ground. ‘So, the reason you aren’t joining the tech department is…?’
Cause I want be around Ryan?
She shrugged, and slapped at a few small branches. ‘Techs don’t get to shoot people. I’ve always kinda wanted a license to kill.’
‘…That’s a little disturbing, newbie.’
‘What? It’s not like I ever tried making my own Death Note. Or attempted to invoke Shinigami. I mean, not more than six times.’
He stopped and looked back at her. The default sarcastic look stayed on his face for a moment before he shrugged. ‘Who hasn’t done that?’
She ran a few steps to catch up with him. ‘Wait, you actually know what I’m talking about?’
‘Picked it up via osmosis. There were a couple of anime dorks who worked at the fruit shop with me.’ He pushed aside a large branch and nodded for her to pass. ‘Seemed harmless. You want to put a real-world spin on it, though, write the names on scraps of paper and burn them; you might be lucky and get the attention of a bored ashreader.’
Her foot came down on something smelly. Something smelly and soft. Something smelly and soft which felt entirely too much like a person.
‘…Did I just step on a corpse?’
She carefully lifted her foot away and stepped to the side. ‘I didn’t see him. Don’t bitch at me for disturbing a crime scene.’
‘You’ve got tiny feet,’ he said, ‘I doubt you disturbed that much.’ He put a hand to his headset. ‘O’Connor to Brian.’ Pause. ‘We found one body.’ Pause. ‘Of course.’
She knelt and looked at the dead man. Casual clothes, covered in dirt and leaves and other bits of the environment.
‘He’s been dead a bit,’ she said as she stared at his skin.
‘Yeah,’ Curt said. ‘How’d you know?’
‘Corpses only stay pretty for a bit, then there’s rigor and gas and bloating and–’
‘I’m kinda glad you’re not freaking out.’
‘Meh.’ She shrugged. ‘It’s only a corpse. The dead have never done anything to hurt me.’
Besides, apparently I’ve been a corpse.
‘Most newbies do freak out at their first few bodies, though.’
He legs started to hurt, so she stood. ‘I’d wager most of them didn’t read Grey’s Anatomy at eight.’
She required a stick and poked the body. She knelt and wedged the stick under the corpse’s arm.
‘Don’t do that.’
She gave him a deadpan stare. ‘Do you think I’m doing this to be random?’
‘Then talk to me.’ He rounded the body. ‘Don’t just do random shit and expect not to be questioned. If there’s a logic to what you’re doing, I’m not gonna stop you.’
But I’m not good at talking to people!
Just imagine you’re talking to Ryan.
She pulled her stick back and tapped it on the ground.
She straightened her back a little, and tried to look half-competent. ‘Okay, so we accept that Mr Body has been out here for…a day, maybe a couple of days – exposure to the elements is going to speed some of this up a bit.’
‘And obviously he was having a disagreement with the ground before he died. Or whoever killed him thought hiding a body with leaves was a good idea. Most of this crap is just stuck to him, and we could brush it off.’
‘But that’s disturbing a crime scene.’
‘Yeah, yeah.’ She picked her stick back up and pointed at the corpse’s arm. ‘A bit of mould I could buy, or some fungi grow really fast. But – but he’s got grass growing out of his elbow,’ she said, letting panic slip into her last few words. ‘And that’s kinda freaky. And that’s why I was poking him, cause I wanted to make sure it was coming out, not going in.’
‘Put your stick down.’
She dropped it immediately.
‘O’Connor to Brian.’ Pause. ‘Looks like it might be nymphs.’ Pause. ‘We’ll keep in contact.’ Pause. ‘O’Connor to Red.’ Pause. ‘It’s someone who can mess with the environment. I think we’re looking for a grove. See if you can find anything? I’m going to see if I can confirm.’
He looked back to her. ‘Your first question is going to be “What’s a grove?” You first question can wait.’
Are you reading my mind?
That might not be a stupid question, Spyder.
You are not supposed to give me more reasons to be paranoid! Are you reading my mind?
‘Why can it wait?’
He grinned. ‘We’re gonna defile a corpse.’
[table id=15 /]