Stef sighed – apparently this wasn’t the good day she had thought it would be.
Pain. Pain. Pain. Why is there always so much pain? She was sure the doctor had some painkiller that would make it all better, but that didn’t help her right now.
All of the other recruits except for Red moved off – none made a move to help her up, or argue with Brian.
‘Was the body human?’ Red asked.
‘Yeah,’ she said distractedly. ‘Is he always like that?’
‘No, you’re special.’
Standing would be something to attempt in a minute – for now she was happy to watch the parade of ants across the leaves.
‘How so?’ she asked as she pulled her shirt out of her pants and groped at the wound to make sure it wasn’t bleeding again. Thankfully it wasn’t.
‘You spoke your mind.’
She looked up at him, but he was too busy engaged in a staring contest with a tree. ‘What do you see?’
‘I’m looking at what I don’t see.’
She pushed herself up and leaned back against the stump.
‘Red, am I leaning on the evil stump?’
He looked away from the tree, ‘yes,’ then went back to looking at the tree.
She looked up at the sky. ‘Ceiling cat, I implore you, let me start this day over.’ She still didn’t feel up to standing. ‘Ok, evil stump go ahead and eat me or whatever so I can fail this test and go get some nice morphine.’
The stump, apparently tired of being leaned on, pulled away from her and she flopped to the ground. She exhaled slowly and stared at the gray sky overhead. It was a nice, calm sky. The thin trees and gray sky promising rain reminded her of…
Something kicked her in the leg. She lifted her head to see a hob. It was the same size and shape as the one from the recruitment test, but this one was dressed pale and shabby greens and grays. ‘Why do you keep calling us evil?’
She pointed at Red.
He kicked her leg again. ‘And you believe everything you hear? Silly girl.’
‘Well, at least you aren’t rhyming like the other one.’
‘We only do that to annoy. Now, what are you doing here?’
‘Erm. Investigating.’
‘He killed himself!’
‘Wasn’t even asking.’
‘He killed himself!’
‘If you say that a third time, I will rule against it being a suicide. There is such a thing as protesting too much.’
‘He should have known better than to come here.’
She pushed herself back into a sitting position. ‘What’s so special about here?’
The hob gave her a curious look. ‘What’s so special about anywhere? This place is ours.’
‘Can’t you share? Or put up a sign?’
‘A decent person knows not to interrupt when children are being made.’
She felt herself blush. ‘So he walked in on you…and you killed him?’
‘If it was just mating, we wouldn’t have minded. But my mate was creating life. It was special, it is not a moment to be shared – you get to see the results, the process, however, is not something we-’
‘You still didn’t have the right to kill him.’
‘But he-’
‘You didn’t have the right to kill him.’
‘He didn’t kill him,’ Red said. ‘She did.’
‘So that’s why the tree is evil?’
He gave a slow nod.
‘How do you kill a nymph?’ she asked. The hob snarled at her and she snarled right back at him.
‘It’s very difficult,’ Red said. ‘It’s easier to kill that which they love.’
She pushed herself up. ‘Molotov cocktails it is then.’ She required a lit match and dropped it into the dry leaves. ‘Let’s burn this place.’
Try not to indulge in evil laughter. Try not to indulge in evil laughter.
Too late.
Red shot at the hob. ‘He would have interfered, he’ll be fine.’ He picked up a dry branch and put it into the growing fire, then dragged it through the leaves as he walked away.
A face appeared in the bark of the tree. ‘Why?’
‘You didn’t have a right to kill him. We have to take action.’
‘Two wrongs don’t make a right.’
‘And clichés aren’t going to stop your ugly patch of scrub from burning.’ The hob groaned and slid beneath the earth. She shrugged and walked away from the tree, dropping lit matches every few feet.
She found the others at the top of a hill. There were new saplings growing – likely the children in question – being provided nutrients by the remains of several other corpses. A few of the saplings were growing around and through the bodies.
‘Puzzle solved. Do I get a prize?’
Brian refused to turn and look at her, the others just shook their head as the simulation faded away.
Taylor loomed in the doorway. Shift. Shift. Shift. Teleport. Portal. Scotty, beam the hell away from here! Shift, shift, shi- The world blurred around her and Ryan’s office came into focus.
‘You didn’t tell me I could do that.’
Ryan’s open mouth promptly closed, he gave her a quizzical look then asked. ‘Do what?’
‘Shift. Unless you did that.’
‘Of course I did.’ He beckoned her with a finger and pointed to his desk.
Half a dozen identical transfer requests stared at her, as well as three forms she didn’t recognise. ‘What’s that one?’
‘A request to have your memory wiped and to dismiss you from the Agency.’
‘And that one?’
‘A permission slip to transfer you to Charleville.’
‘Where?’ She shook her head. ‘And the last one, which I’m kinda getting a bad vibe from?’
‘A request to have you executed.’
She spun to look at the door. ‘Can he do that?’
‘Kill you? Assuredly. A hundred or more ways with a single hand. However, I wouldn’t grant the permission.’
‘Look, I just…’
‘I was watching.’
‘But I-’
‘I saw everything.’
‘So I don’t get to explain?’
‘As a recruit, your actions speak louder than your words.’
‘He began a negotiation – hell, not even a negotiation, a first contact, with the butt of his gun! How am I supposed to respect that?’
‘Did you really not intend to say it out loud?’
‘Of course I didn’t. By default, I intend to say everything only in my head. There aren’t a lot of people worth talking to.’
‘You do know this is going to cause problems.’
She looked at the forms. ‘Which one are you going to sign?’
The door burst open and she could tell by the aura of hate it was Taylor. Ryan stared at her for a moment, then the world blurred again.
Oh, please don’t be Charleville, I don’t even know where that is.