+1 to confidence.
+1 to giving a crap.
Debuff: Run to Adelaide Street has been dispelled.
Stef stared at the intersecting halls, then made a left turn.
Are you ready to admit you’re lost yet?
Not quite.

The navigate-by-door-numbers method wasn’t working. She’d seen the gym twice, the hall with the recruit rooms once, two separate common rooms, and the mess hall. The big conference room and the little conference room, however, had eluded detection.
I need a Marauder’s Map.
What? You don’t think that will work, do you?
Her hands tingled with excitement.
Will that work?
A floor map shouldn’t be off-limits. There’s obviously a locational component to how requiring works, since your items appear next to you, so tracking should be easy. Combine the two, and there’s only one way to find out.
How the fsck do I require something like that?
Just try it.
She held the image of what she wanted in her mind.
Require: Marauder’s Map.
A thick piece of paper appeared in her hand, stained, crinkled, and artificially aged, just as she’d imaged. A layout of the Field floor sat against the tea-coloured paper in thick black lines. She was marked with a blue circle, and a series of dashes showed her the way to the conference room, which was of course, marked with an X.
She took the first two turns, then looked down.
Require: map update.
The position of her blue dot changed, and the line of dashes showed that she only had a short way to go.
She continued down the hall, past the large conference room – door closed, this time. The map disappeared from her hands with a thought as she walked into the small room.
Curt sat at the round table, scribbling onto a piece of paper, a half-empty glass of juice beside him. The table was covered with files and photos, and one wall had been turned into a bank of screens – four rows of three, each with a slowly spinning blue logo as a screen saver.
‘Close the door,’ he said, the juice disappearing. ‘Take a seat.’
She closed the door and slid into the chair opposite him.
‘I’d like to apologise,’ he said.
‘For failing on your promise not to be a douche?’
‘I’m working on it, newbie. I’m still not sure if you’re going to ask for a new partner by the end of the week.’
She raised a hand to the back of her head. ‘Are you going to pound me into the ground?’
‘Are you going to give me reason to?’ He shook his head. ‘No, of course I’m not, newbie.’
She stared at him for a moment. ‘Then, yeah, okay. I won’t drop into LFG at the end of the week.’
She rolled her eyes. ‘I won’t ask for a new partner.’ She stared at the table. ‘Thanks for shooting me.’
‘We were going to fail that sim anyway; that just got us out faster. Are you going to let me apologise now?’
‘Didn’t you?’
‘Not that.’ He drummed his fingers on the table, and she watched his fingers move, trying to see a pattern, but it was disappointingly random. ‘I want to apologise for treating you like a normal person.’
She shrugged. ‘I got out of the habit of needing to hide it. At the mansion, it didn’t matter because no one talked to me.’ She stared at her hands. ‘I’ll–’ Her words froze. There was no promise she could make that would be easy enough to keep. ‘I’ll, um–’
‘I’ve had a bit of experience dealing with the atypical,’ he said. ‘So I’ll try to adjust the way I usually teach newbies. That’s what this is.’
She stared at him, then let herself smile. ‘Thanks.’
He pointed a finger at her. ‘You’ve got to try and meet me halfway, though. If we’re going too fast, if you don’t get what I’m saying, or if we’re doing things in a way that’s going to trigger you, say something for gods’ sake, okay?’
She kept staring at him.
He leaned back in his chair. ‘If you plan on sticking around, then we’ve got to make you into a good recruit. So, there’s shit we need to do, but that doesn’t mean we can’t be flexible.’ He smiled. ‘Is that okay with you, newbie?’
She finally blinked.
‘Yeah,’ she said. ‘That’s okay.’
He clapped his hands and indicated to the spread of paper. ‘Okay. Today’s sim was a really poor introduction to everything, but it’s what we got assigned, so it’s what we’re going to work through.’
She required a coffee and leaned back in the chair.
‘Also,’ he said, ‘I looked it up, and this had a rating of seven, so it’s not something you’d get assigned to if we had any advance warning of the situation. But it’s still something you might encounter, so it’s worthwhile to go through it.’
She put her hand up.
‘Don’t do that,’ he said. ‘And what?’
‘Two things: is it likely to encounter something like that in the city – and you didn’t answer me before. Do we have to look after the whole state, so will we have to walk around in the outback?’
‘Newbie, we don’t even look after the whole city.’
Curt pointed at the bank of monitors, and a map appeared, with some areas shaded blue and some in cross-hatched blue. The blue area lay in a rough, blobby line along the river, with the central business district at, appropriately, the centre.
He stood and pointed at the map. ‘See? We’ve got the CBD, Spring Hill, the Valley, South Bank.’ He rattled off a few more suburbs, pointing at each in turn. ‘But in general, it’s the city and this side of the river through to the airport. The lighter areas’ – he poked at one of the cross-hatched areas – ‘are the crossover between us and one of the outposts. Outposts tend to cover a lot more area than we do but have less to do.’
‘Can – can I see those, too?’
Curt was quiet for a moment, then the map changed to show twelve differently coloured blobs overlapping each other. ‘There you go. Sometimes their agents will come here for meetings, but otherwise, we’ve got fairly little to do with them. We’ve got enough problems in our own territory.’
She nodded.
The map disappeared, and he sat back at the table.
‘And the chance of encountering a grove in the city?’
‘Low, but weirder stuff happens on a frequent basis. Think about it: You could have a fungus colony take over a disused factory, or groups of vines that are able to steal people from a much wider radius. It’s also just a way to think about situations, as well – not just nymphs. It’s to make you stop and think about fae that have a much wider area of perception than we do. Sometimes the element of surprise just doesn’t exist.’
‘So lots of things with a massive aggro radius and a tiny hit box, K.’
He stared for a moment. ‘Are you actually speaking English?’
She sighed and sank into the chair. ‘The turncloak thing I can deal with, but your lack of geek is going to be a problem.’
‘Just don’t geek speak around me, and we’ll be cool.’
You were the one who called it a holodeck.
He also said “redshirt” yesterday.
Stef stared at Curt. ‘No…’
She swallowed, leaned forwards, and let her elbows rest on the table. ‘So this sim was harder than normal, right?’
‘Harder than standard, anyway.’
‘Is there a chance that it was a Kobiyashi Maru situation?’
He shrugged. ‘It’s always possible.’ He slowly closed his mouth, looked up at her, and saw her grin. ‘Shit.’
‘You fucking Trekkie! Where the hell do you get off for me speaking geek when you’re a Trekkie?’
His face went neutral. ‘I am not.’
‘Can we move past this, newbie?’
She tapped her fingers against her palm. ‘I’m just a bit surprised, that’s all.’
He shrugged. ‘Call it a guilty pleasure.’
‘Who’s your favourite captain?’
That still wasn’t an answer.‘Kirk-Kirk or new!Kirk?’
‘Shatner, now will you concentrate?’
‘Okay, so what are we doing?’
He indicated to the paper and the screens. ‘This is the sim we just went through.’ The scrubby forest appeared on the monitors. ‘We’re going to walk through it, figuratively speaking, without the stress of being graded or being out in the sun.’
She pulled open the closest folder. ‘What are these?’
‘Options, outcomes, and statistics from every other person who has run this sim. They’ll be good for comparison. You right to start?’
She required a dead leaf and spun it. ‘Okay, go.’
‘Let’s run with the scenario that we were just called in on the report of a corpse. That’s a reasonable situation. If there’s a body, it’s usually Field recruits go in first – or someone from CSI if their field rating is high enough, but it’s usually up to us to do recon first. Plus witnesses are our responsibility, so we go in, then we bring the techs when we know it’s safe.’
‘So we find the body. We know about it this time, so you don’t step on it. What next?’
‘Make sure it’s dead, I suppose, but it was kind of obvious. Um…’
‘Take a second, think about it.’
She spun her chair side to side. ‘Have a look around in the immediate area, I guess. That’s probably more relevant if it’s fresh corpse. It was the bush, so there’s no obvious witnesses.’
‘We’ll need to take you through a couple of courses on looking for signs of nature fae, but you were right, no obvious witnesses. Next?’
‘Do we set up a perimeter, or is that up to CSI?’
‘Depends on the situation. Something like this, no need to rope off the area before calling them in. If it’s in a crowded area, then yes, we want civilians out of the way as soon as possible.’
‘And we just flash our ID and go “Lol, we’re the Agency, GTFO”?’
‘Well, not in those words.’
‘If I had some narc flash an ID at me that said “the Agency” I’d think they were bullshitting, or some really, really lost CIA agent.’
‘We do avoid specifics where possible. Plus, it’s basic psychology; people are fairly likely to listen to someone in a suit.’
She shrugged agreement. ‘And if they do think we’re fakes?’
‘Worst comes to worst, we arrest the troublemakers or get the local cops to do it if they’re around. They’ll be held for a few hours, then released, and they probably won’t argue with people in suits again.’
She tucked her legs beneath her and required a coffee. ‘Do the cops know who we are?’
‘I can’t guarantee that every officer does, but as a whole, yeah. So if you have a problem, get them to call their boss. All you have to do is stay calm, and there won’t be a problem.’
‘And who do they think we are?’
‘Federal agents, federal police, special taskforce, the people you call to deal with terrorists – you know, the usual bullshit of conspiracy theories. Okay, next?’
‘So we’ve got a body. We don’t have to do anything special with the area. Call for techs?’
‘Correct. You’ll have a tech in your ear anyway, so just tell them that you need a crime scene team. Agent Jones will make sure to assign someone newbie-friendly to you. Generally how it works is that they try and assign only a couple of techs per field or combat recruit, so you can build up a rapport. Sometimes you still do get a random, though. I usually get Raz, but not always.’
‘Do I have to?’
‘Have to what?’
‘Wear a headset?’
It’s too much like having a voice in my head, and it’s already too busy in here.
‘You kind of have to, yeah.’
A headset appeared in his hand and he slid it across the table to her. ‘That has saved my life as many times as my gun has. Take a look at it.’
‘I looked at it before.’
‘Indulge me.’
She picked it up.
‘It’s your link to the tech department, obviously,’ he said. ‘So you’ve got someone feeding you information when you need it. There’s a camera there, so they can see what you can and more – it can zoom; you can’t. Sometimes they see things you don’t, and they can warn you. And last but not least, if you call for a shift, you’re gonna get out in a couple of seconds. That can be life, newbie. Or escaping capture. Whatever problem you have with it, it’s worth the sacrifice.’
She shrugged.
‘Just consider it part of your uniform.’ He drummed his fingers again. ‘Newbie, can I ask you a question?’
She shrugged. ‘K?’
He hesitated for a moment. ‘Why are you wearing the boy’s uniform?’
She looked down at herself. ‘I am?’
She shrugged. ‘It’s what Ryan gave me. What’s the difference, anyway?’
‘No tie, different vest, blouse instead of a shirt.’
She touched a hand to her tie. The tie he’d straightened like a parent fixing a school uniform. Her stomach twisted again. It was dangerous to like people. Dangerous to rely on people. Dangerous to be delusional enough to think that someone cared. He’d hugged her. He’d fixed her tie. ‘I like this one.’
Curt nodded. ‘Just so you know.’ He fidgeted with the files in front of him for a moment. ‘Can I ask what your deal with him is? Colour me curious, though.’ He gave her a sideways look. ‘My first theory was that you were sleeping with him–’
She tasted bile. ‘Oh my god, why would you think that?’
His lips quirked into a smile. ‘Because you should be a tech, newbie. By every law of logic of every man, god, and agent that has ever lived, you should be a tech. You’re some smartass nerd who hates the outside and can’t have a conversation without dropping references. You aren’t exactly the model Field recruit.’
‘And Brian is?’
He shook his head. ‘No, he should be with Taylor’s lot, but we’re stuck with him.’
It was personal. It was a secret origin story. It wasn’t something to be shared.
It was stupid. It didn’t mean anything. It didn’t mean anything, and Ryan didn’t have any reason to be nice to her.
‘We’ve got a body, and we’ve called techs,’ Curt said, picking the other conversation back up when she didn’t answer his question.
She stared at him. ‘Who’d you know that was wrong in the head?’
‘She wasn’t wrong,’ he snapped.
Stef pressed back into the chair, hoping it would turn into a humanitarian and swallow her.
Wrong was wrong was wrong. Crazy was wrong, and you had to keep it hidden, else they came after you with pitchforks and torches and drugs to make you into a zombie. Wrong thoughts were wrong, and you had to keep away from people so they didn’t–
‘Sorry,’ he said. ‘Big brother instincts, you know? My little sister. And she wasn’t wrong. People like Brian who pound on helpless newbies are wrong. People who think slaughtering civilians is a good idea are wrong. Agents who think– You get the idea.’ He paused. ‘I’ve told you mine; you tell me yours.’
But it’s stupid and doesn’t mean anything.
He didn’t say you had to tell the whole truth.
‘When I was a kid.’ Words turned to barbed wire in her throat. ‘Some Solstice thought I looked like a great human shield. And Ryan saved me.’
‘Huh. Okay. Cool.’
I tell you my secret origin story, and that’s your reaction?
He gave a genuine smile. ‘Thanks, newbie.’
‘For what?’
‘For giving me a chance.’ He tapped the tabletop for a moment. ‘Okay, so we’ve called the techs, and they’ve shifted a team in. They’ll cordon off the area and start examining the body, scanning in the area so we can view it later–’
‘I remember that from yesterday,’ she said.
‘Good. Now that takes a while, so do we stick around or investigate further?’
‘I dunno. What do we do?’
‘CSI teams are usually led by someone whose field rating at least matches yours, so unless we’ve got reason to believe they’re in immediate danger, it’s safe enough to scout ahead. In situations like this where we have a lot of ground to cover, the techs will probably also try to send a drone or two into the area.’
‘Like…predator drones?’
‘Semi-autonomous programs that look like birds. They generally fly on preprogrammed paths, and their software is programmed to pick out certain images or words, so when it picks something up, it sends in an alert. Techs can fly them directly if needed, though.’
Big Brother is watching and he’s a bird? Big Bird is watching?
That was horrible.
‘Sorry, go back to the bit where there’s robot birds flying around?
‘Programs, not robots,’ he said. ‘Like the stuff on the holodeck.’
‘So holodeck stuff isn’t confined to the holodeck?’
‘You walked out covered in dirt, remember? Basically, everything is required and dismissed as needed.’
She nodded. ‘Okies, that makes sense. Did the techs figure out it’s a grove yet, or have we wandered off to let them get splattered?’
‘Let’s say we know, and move on from there.’
‘Okay, so we follow the root-trail, yeah? Isn’t that dangerous, though? Shouldn’t we be doing the nymphy equivalent of walking without rhythm?’
‘Once anyone touched the body, they had warning that we were there – so we’re damned if we do and damned if we don’t – but we’re Agency, so we do wherever possible.’
‘That’s kinda my question, actually. Where’s the line drawn between “be sensible and narcy and ask questions” and “blow their heads off”?’
‘We’re not going into judgement calls on your second day. It’s a massive grey area that a lot of official policies go out of their way to avoid defining. If you’re in danger, go ahead and do what you need to do to survive. If it’s someone we need to question, then try and bring them in alive, of course. We don’t have a lot of time for murderers.’
‘Are there, um–’
‘Ask, newbie.’
‘Do we have to worry about jurisdiction issues or anything? Should we be cuffing people and handing them over to fae cops?’
‘Good question; gold star. Wait.’ Curt pointed to the table. A dish of yellow candy-coated chocolate stars appeared. ‘Now you don’t have to ask every time. Basically, if a fae commits a crime…well, outside of fairyland, it falls under our jurisdiction. If it’s a minor crime, we’ll warn them or hand them over to fairy police–’
‘“Fairy” like with the wings or “fairy” as in fae? Are there fairy-winged fairy cops and hob cops and nymph cops? Do they each have different rules, or–’
‘Whoa,’ he said. ‘Take a breath.’
She took a breath, and the boiling questions settled a little.
‘Okay, even I don’t know the full rundown of how all the different systems work together. Agency law trumps human law – we’re just that good. Agency law works in tandem with fae law when we can. When we go into fairyland, we’re subject to the local laws. There’s also the Courts, which are an authority unto themselves, which we’re not even trying to get into for the next couple of weeks.’
‘…Is there a flow chart or Venn diagram I could look at?’
‘Somewhere, of course.’ He ran his fingers through his hair. ‘All you need to know for now is when someone says “fairy”, they mean the with-the-wings pixie type of fae that we saw at breakfast yesterday, okay? And of the fae races, they’re the most numerous, like over a billion.’
‘Billion with a B?’
‘Billion with a B.’
‘So basically, sometimes we give them to fae cops, sometimes we don’t.’
He looked relived. ‘Exactly. Don’t worry. We’ll go into detail, you know, in a few months. Let’s just get you comprehending the basics first.’
‘Okay. So, with the grove, it’s murder, ergo a crime that we’re going to deal with, ergo we can use the “shoot first” rule.’
‘Even we don’t usually go for shoot first without contact. Give them a chance to surrender or turn in the equivalent of state’s evidence.’
‘Could we stab the root with a sedative or something, so we have a bit of an advantage?’
‘Grab another gold star.’
She popped the chocolate into her mouth and crunched on the candy shell.
‘We could do that,’ he said, ‘but there’s caveats and conditions. We have to know specifically what kind of nymph we’re dealing with; there’s not just one fae knockout drug that we keep bottles of. The wrong type or the wrong dose could kill them outright or fuck with their head so they start raging or hallucinating or whatever.’
‘What about–’
‘Same problem with anaesthesia. So generally we skip that step unless we’ve got a lot of accurate prior information. Plus we’d need it on hand, or shifted in, or an agent with us, cause we can’t require that kind of stuff.’
‘Why not?’
‘Requiring isn’t an open license to conjure anything in the world, newbie.’
‘I’m trustworthy?’
‘There is a lot of stuff we can’t require. Drugs, specialised weapons, and weapons of mass destruction. For example, you can’t require a nuke.’
‘But there’s one with the hats!’
‘We don’t talk about Billy the Nuke.’
Stef stared at him. ‘Could you please repeat your last sentence?’
‘Sorry. That would be talking about him.’
‘Did you just call– Are you trolling me? Why are you trolling me?’
Curt put a hand over his heart. ‘I’m not messing with you. The techs call it Billy the Nuke.’
‘I haven’t had a reasonable explanation yet as to why there’s a nuke next to the hats!’
‘That’s probably because there isn’t one. It’s probably the focal point of some contingency plan. Don’t fear the nuke.’
She pressed her fingers to her eyes. ‘I have totally forgotten what we were talking about.’
‘Poisoning nymphs. Moving on.’
‘Okay, so we do what we did, follow the path till we get to the hill.’ She touched the back of her head again. ‘And–’
And then I’m an idiot, and I punch someone with seniority.
‘And–’ she said. ‘So we get to the bottom of the hill–’
He leaned forwards and shoved the bowl of stars at her. ‘Do you want some advice for next time?’
She flinched. ‘There’s going to be a next time?’
‘He doesn’t exactly keep his anger issues in check, and he tends to lash out at people under his control. He’s been reprimanded a few times, but mostly the other Field recruits follow him, so he’s allowed to do what he wants for the sake of efficiency. You keep me as partner, and you should only have to deal with him during training.’
‘If you told Ryan–’
‘Agent Ryan’s the only reason this agency doesn’t fall apart. He has to dedicate a lot of his time to doing the directorial duties, so this department isn’t as closely monitored and controlled as it should be. Things would be a little easier if he had an aide, but he refuses to take one on.’
‘Maybe no one has applied?’
‘At least one person did six months ago, but the application was rejected, and at least one person is putting the finishing touches on their second application.’ A blue folder appeared in Curt’s hand. He shook it gently, then let it disappear.
‘Why’d he reject your application last time?’
He leaned forwards to grab a handful of the star chocolates. ‘It was my own fault, really. I’d only been here eight months. I was being an arrogant dick to think that was long enough to prove myself. He didn’t say anything. I just got a form rejection. Took it as a challenge, boned up on all the paperwork and policy I could. I’m still not a patch on Mags, but she’s in a league of her own.’
‘I’m learning forms. She’s redesigned a few to make them more efficient.’
‘That’s kinda impressive.’
He nodded. ‘Do me a favour, and don’t tell him about the application?’
Stef shrugged. ‘Sure.’
‘Okay, back to your advice. Punching him was stupid.’
‘I know! I know, already!’
‘You should have gone for his nuts. Brian or any other guy – not all fae, though – just go straight for their dick. Punch them, knee them, or kick them. At the very least, it’s going to make them stop and think, which gives you time to do it again. And again. And again until they stop bothering you.’ He rolled his chair halfway around the table. ‘But you don’t get to use this on me,’ he said in a conspiratorial tone. ‘I’m telling you this, so I get a free pass.’ He rolled his chair back to his side of the table. ‘Got that?’
‘Don’t you get your man card revoked for saying stuff like that?’
He shrugged. ‘Okay, bottom of the hill with the grove above. What do you do?’
‘Can we run away or call for backup?’
‘Backup is a good option. That’s another advantage of having a tech in your ear: You can get them to organise it. You just tell them you need backup, though if they’re any good it won’t come as a surprise, and they put the request through.’
‘Okay, so we’ve got backup. Require an escalator to get up the hill, then bam, grove, right?’
He pointed to the monitors, and the screens flicked back to life – first an aerial view taking over all of the monitors, then individual monitors breaking off to show different parts of the grove. There were at least twenty bodies in the centre, with tall grey trees surrounding them. The trees had human-like features, faces that appeared to be sleeping, branches that ended in hands.
Roots grew through the bodies, and drove into the ground, with small saplings springing up around them.
She put a hand to her nose, imagining the stench.
‘I suggest a tactical retreat,’ she said.
‘Newbie, are you armed?’
‘What? No.’
‘We’re going to have to work on that,’ he said. ‘You should always be armed. I don’t care if it’s a damn slingshot, so long as you know how to use it and you’re armed before you go into the field. You never know when a blackout is going to pop up, or when too many fae in one area is going play havoc and interfere with system’s signal, effectively blacking you out anyway.’
‘Okay, I’ll work on it.’
‘Simple procedure,’ he said. ‘Identify ourselves to the grove, tell them to come quietly, blah. Don’t expect it. If they’ve gone this far, then fighting the Agency is pretty much par for the course. Just remember: fire and plants don’t mix.’ He stopped and stared. ‘Please, gods, do not require a flamethrower.’
Dammit, I didn’t even think of that!
‘Try for controllable burns if you can. Small-scale stuff. We do enough damage, and generally we get some wanting to surrender. Again, there’s that policy grey area.’ He snapped his fingers. ‘That’s something else you should probably know. The grey list and the black list – grey-listed people are those that have committed a major infraction but were let go for some reason. It’s basically a one-strike policy. They go against us again, and we’re free to kill on sight. You’ll find a lot of our informants and such on the grey list, as well as people we can coerce into doing us favours. Black-listed people are just kill on sight. Basically, you need a damn, damn good reason to justify not killing one of them.’
She stared down at her warped reflection in the tabletop. ‘Am I allowed to ask if you should be on the grey list?’
‘Should be, yes,’ he said, his voice a little strained. ‘But I’m in an exemption category because I’m a recruit. It’s, obviously, the reason I’m on probation. That will wear off eventually. At least they let you earn a clean slate.’
She nodded and swivelled her chair from side to side. ‘Okay, so we burn them, then yay, come home and internet?’
‘You’re already calling this home,’ he said. ‘You’ve been here a day.’
She shrugged. ‘Home is where you hearth to. I’m here; Frankie’s here. I don’t really need much else.’
Her response earned her a look of confusion. ‘Who’s Frankie?’
‘A whingey little monster who demands way too much attention and has performance issues. He always comes through when I need him to, though.’
He still looked confused. ‘I’m going to need some clarification, newbie.’
‘My laptop?’
He stole another handful of chocolate and munched on a half-dozen stars while staring at her. ‘You – you’re very strange, newbie.’
She looked at the screens full of nymphs. ‘So how’d I do?’
‘Like I suspected, better in theory than in practice.’ All but a few files disappeared from the table. ‘That’s your homework from this: the high-level stats on choices recruits make and pass rates in comparison to field rating.’ He drummed his fingers against the table for a moment. ‘You want to impress Ryan, don’t you?’
She gave a small nod.
‘Okay, so you should plan on doing this every day after training. Mags isn’t going to go easy on you, so I’m assuming at least the next week of sims is going to be difficult stuff. We’ll run them, like good recruits, but then we can do this, run through the theory behind them, and give you a chance to think about your choices and see if there’s anything you could have done better.’
‘Just don’t whinge when you get sick of all the homework. And I wasn’t lying to Mags, either, you are going to the gym later.’
‘Can’t we skip that part?’
‘You said “later”. What are we doing next?’
‘It’s time for you to meet the techs.’
[table id=15 /]