‘If I keep getting you as a partner, I’m going to have to give you my phone number,’ Curt muttered.
This time, the training simulation was an ugly patch of scrub – the smell of stagnant water filled Stef’s nostrils and made her want to gag. The water was coming from what had been a gully, but was now just a blocked-off unintended catchment area for rainwater. The gully of eternal stench.
‘We live in the same building, do you really think I want or need your number?’
‘Seriously, newbie, what’s your issue?’
‘Don’t have issues,’ she said as she hefted herself up onto a fallen tree and swung her left leg over. ‘Have volumes.’ Her foot landed on something soft. ‘Tell me, did I just step onto a corpse?’
Curt peered over the log. ‘Ye-up.’
‘Wonderful.’ She carefully lifted her leg and slid back over onto the corpse-free side. ‘So…this morning’s holodeck session was a gruesome scavenger hunt?’
‘Never that simple,’ he said as he walked around to inspect the corpse.
Half-watched crime shows swam in her mind. ‘So we do have to cordon off the scene and take photos, look for maggots and all that stuff?’
‘Wow, someone thinks she’s Miss Marple.’
She shrugged. ‘It’s all just data.’
He looked away from the body. ‘You are a newbie, right? Not a transfer?’
‘And you’re just some little shut-in hacker?’
She slapped her hands over her heart. ‘Ow, you’ve cut me to the quick.’ She sighed. ‘Did you have a point?’
‘Why aren’t you freaked out at the rotting body that you just stepped on? The decaying corpse that’s missing its eyes? The…’
‘Would you prefer I run around screaming like a girl?’
‘Sorry, I’m physically incapable of doing that. And this isn’t the first body I’ve seen, or stepped on.’ She enjoyed the look of confusion and fear on his face. ‘And no, you don’t get to ask for more details.’ She tucked a few errant strands of hair behind her ear. ‘So, what can you tell?’
Curt poked the corpse with his foot. ‘It’s a dead guy?’
‘You’re a certain kind of special, aren’t you?’
‘No obvious cause of death – could have been exposure, could have taken pills-’
‘Out here in the middle of nowhere?’
‘Stranger things do happen. On a daily basis. You’ve got to remember who you’re working for.’
‘Should I be expecting this body to suddenly jump up and run off giggling like a lunatic? Or something equally creepy?’
‘Bodies tend to stay in the one place. Unless someone wants to harvest their organs. Or eat them.’
Eat them? The dreaded V-word did a little dance in her mind. She had to know. ‘Are there any bite marks?’
‘Like from a wild dog?’
‘Like a…I do not believe that I’m asking him. Forget it.’ He slapped a hand on her shoulder and she immediately pulled away. ‘Less than a week that I known know stuff is real, how am I supposed to know if there’s a velvet-wearing collective or not. Now is there or isn’t there?’
‘Reeelax. And no. Vampires don’t exist. Doesn’t stop some recruits from carrying around stakes or dyeing their hair blonde.’
She sneezed. ‘Thank god.’
‘Gods,’ he corrected.
‘Over here!’ came the shout.
‘Finally,’ she muttered.
Brian, Lisa, Enid and Red were a hundred feet or so from the corpse. Red was pointing at a tree, not saying a word.
‘How long’s he been like this?’ Curt asked.
‘Ever since he saw the tree,’ Brian replied. ‘He said something about it being evil.’
‘I can hear you,’ Red’s rumbling voice said. ‘I’m just busy.’
‘Busy with what? Talk to us!’ Enid said, translating for Lisa.
‘The tree.’ Red said. ‘Is evil.’
No one said anything.
Doesn’t look evil.
Neither do you.
She stared at the tree, nothing popped out, there was no face to be seen in the bark, no strange auras or smells besides the ever-present stench.
Something flashed out of the corner of her eye, but when she turned, there was nothing. The other recruits tried to get Red to say something, but she kept looking into the scrub. There was nothing – thin trees, a covering of leaves, a stump.
A stump directly along the path she and Curt had taken. A stump she didn’t remember avoiding.
She closed her eyes, then opened them again – the stump was still there. It passed the “Blink” test. Still, she didn’t remember it.
Get a grip Spyder, it’s a godsdamn stump.
‘Someone mind filling in the me on nature spirits and stuff?’ she asked.
‘Go read the files,’ Brian snapped. ‘We’re not here to be your teachers.’
The stump remained still.
‘But there’s nymphs and stuff, right? Those that blend into or are a part of their surroundings?’
‘Yeah,’ Curt said. ‘Of course.’
‘Hey, Red, is that stump evil?’
She heard the large recruit turn. ‘Yes,’ he said, then shuffled back around to stare at the tree.
There was the sound of four recruits drawing their guns all at once. She kept her hands empty – she doubted bullets would do much against a tree, and if it decided to leap, two hands would be better than one to fend it off.
‘So which one of us is a negotiator?’
Unsurprisingly, Brian stepped up to the tree. ‘What are your demands?’
The stump shimmered for a moment, then a short figure shot off behind a tree. ‘Hob,’ he said. ‘So the tree is a nymph – they could be mates.’
‘Share a beer or share a bed kind of mates?’ she asked.
‘I said: read the files,’ Brian growled.
‘A bed,’ Enid said, ‘they easily interbreed.’
Brian hammered the butt of his gun against the tree. ‘Speak.’
‘If he’s the negotiator, I’m gonna go play for the other team.’ This earned her a hateful look. ‘Oh shit, did I say that out loud?’
‘Do you have a problem with the way I do things?’
‘People don’t usually negotiate with a gun.’
‘Weren’t you supposed to transfer to the nerd division?’
‘I’m sure Taylor would welcome another violent lunatic, why don’t you transfer?’
She could easily imagine the smoke coming from his ears. ‘What did you say?’
‘I do not repeat myself to those not worth my time in the first place.’
He slapped her.
She took a moment to process this, and in that moment, he grabbed her by the shoulders and shook her. ‘Do not ever question me while we’re on a mission! Do not ever question me! If this were real, you might have gotten us all killed. Do you understand? Comprende?’
She delivered a forceful punch to his scrotal region. Then another. Then a third. He let go of her and stood there with a pained expression – apparently not wanting to drop his manly façade around his fellow recruits.
She pushed him up against the apparently evil tree. ‘I do not like being touched. I do not like being grabbed. If you ever touch me again, I will kill you. Consider this the friendliest of warnings – you can probably still breed.’ Though I pity the person who puts up with you. ‘Tell me you understand.’
‘You’re a crazy bitch,’ he said in a voice a few octaves higher than normal.
‘That isn’t what I asked you to tell me.’
He punched her and she fell. He gave her a swift kick to the stomach, knocking all the wind from her. ‘Consider yourself transferred.’ He cleared his throat. ‘Red, stay here and guard the tree. Girls, go find the hob or whatever it was, Curt – come with me, we have to find out where the others went.’