Stef leaned against the railing that prevented idiots from falling into the river. Beside her, Alfie munched on their traditional morning doughnut – a staple of their routine whenever Alfie did the mail run with her.
Alfie adjusted their sunglasses, then turned away from the glare on the river. ‘I hate that the glare gets through my contacts,’ they said. ‘But every bit of pain is another data point for the Central techs to refine.’
Stef nodded. Alfie’s contacts were fascinating – if useless to an agent. Alfie had easily tired eyes, and their vision went blurry at the drop of a hat. Usually, minor conditions could be cleared up by a medical agent with little more than a finger snap, but instead, Alfie was taking place in the beta program for a set of new, long-lasting contacts that incorporated some wearable tech.
It was an interesting trial – especially as they incorporated some fairy-tech, and would be presented to several fae technology companies to purchase. It was a rare chance to see some of the machinations that went on behind the Agency’s rather opaque financial curtains.
‘There’s a few new videos,’ Alfie commented as they pulled their phone from a pocket. Unlike a lot of the Techs, Alfie wore a partial formal uniform – choosing the suit over the more traditional nerd-shirt-and-lab-coat that was the most popular option amongst the techs. Today – perhaps just because they were doing the mail run – Alfie’s uniform matched her own: black pants, white business shirt, blue vest and tie.
‘One more loop then we can head back,’ Stef said, then adjusted the light messenger bag she had slung over her shoulder. ‘I hate when I miss out on the videos.’
‘One more loop,’ Alfie agreed, then finished off their doughnut. ‘One galleon says there’s no cat videos today.’
‘I’m out of Potter currency,’ Stef whined as they turned up a path towards the man-made beach. ‘I think so anyway.’ She concentrated and shifted her coin purse from her office drawer into her hands. She unzipped the cat-shaped leather purse and dug around in it. ‘Wait. No. Shit. Just a few knuts. Not enough to match a galleon bet. I have a few strips of latinum though. I’ve lost a bunch of bets lately. And I tipped Screen for bringing me back candy when she went the Marches last week.’
Alfie shook their head. ‘Sorry, Agent, I don’t bet for Trek money.’
Within the Agency, most forms of currency were useless – human cash could be required in obscenely, Scrooge-McDuckian quantities without issue, so bribes and bets became useless. It was quite common, therefore, for Tech departments to create their own cryptocurrencies. The various cryptocurrencies varied from agency to agency – from the sedate “Tech Francs” that were in use across multiple agencies – and were one of the few Tech currencies that worked inter-agency.
The Tech francs were given out to each recruit by their lead Technical agent, like a weird form of pocket money, and then went into circulation amongst the agencies that shared them.
For the Brisbane agency, Jonesy’s team used collectible fandom coins – Harry Potter currency, Firefly money, gold-pressed latinum, and he allowed the recruits to set the relative conversion rates. Each coin or note had a nifty bit of coding attached, whereby you could scan each piece – like the toy-based console games – to see if something was a genuine piece of Tech Department currency, or a fellow recruit trying to pay you with worthless coin.
They finished their circuit, Stef calling up the last three years worth of stats on the videos that their Tech Department had, calling out the percentages of videos that contained animals in general, and cats in particular – as people were wont to aim their cameras at kittehs.
Video proof of magic was becoming more and more prevalent – social media had become both a boon and a curse – the fact that every person on the street had a smartphone made it a lot more likely that people would record a fae using their magic; or a fight between the Agency and some bad guys. It was also the major way that Blue Earth expanded their numbers.
Blue Earth was a strange group – in a lot of ways, they were the complete opposite of the Solstice: whereas the Solstice’s mission statement was to destroy anything and everything that was the last bit magical or…wonderful; Blue Earth – or the “Bees” as most Agency personnel tended to call them – wanted nothing more than the total destruction of the masquerade that kept the magical and muggle worlds separate.
That pie-in-the-sky ideal in mind, it often meant that the Agency and the Bees would clash – as the Agency were the major enforcers of the masquerade, keeping humans away from magic, for the simple reason that seven billion people finding out that fairies, pixies, and every other creature depicted dancing around mushroom circles were real would likely have a negative impact on the world at large. Riots, religious wars, societal breakdown, dogs and cats living together…it was a possible pandemonium that wasn’t worth the potential gains.
It didn’t matter that most fae, like most humans, simply spent each day trying to survive – ensuring that they got through their work day so that they could pay rent, and maybe have enough money left over for a movie at the end of the week. It didn’t matter that, give or take a pair of wings, human teens and fairy teens couldn’t be told apart, unless you listened intently to the pop culture references they were using.
The prevalence of the video proof was, thankfully, also the one thing that worked against it. If you spent two minutes on YouTube, you could find “evidence” of everything from aliens, to satellites that had been in orbit for fifty-thousand years, to a conspiracy of teacup pigs running the Finnish government.
There were always videos there, ready to be seen by the people ready to believe.
There was, of course, a department in Central that ran twenty-four/seven, quashing the few videos that took off like wildfire. If it garnered more than a few hundred hits, Central usually caught it. For the less popular videos, it was up to the region’s agency to deal with.
The solution to the videos, photos, and whatever other proof made it onto the internet wasn’t the scorched-earth policy that most newbies – including Stef herself – had imagined. She’d always had the impression that the agency would try and MiB-flashy-thing any and all proof away, making it seem as though the video had never been posted.
The far more logical – and effective – method, which was obvious when you took more than five minutes to think about it, was to corrupt the proof, not remove it.
Removed proof, of course, usually left proof of removal. You could delete all traces of a video from the internet, but there was always the chance that some paranoid – and as a paranoid herself, Stef knew how inventive they could be – could copy a video to old media that wasn’t connected to the wider world, or even just take a Polaroid of posting a video to YouTube, providing proof that proof had been removed.
Instead, all you had to do was add artefacting to images, evidence of filters, or in some cases – superimpose a zipper or a seam, giving the impression that whatever fae was being shown was nothing more than a costume.
‘You going to meet my bet?’ Alfie asked as they neared the end of their loop.
Stef bounced her coin purse in her hand, then decided to pull out the last thing she had to bet with. ‘Sorting ceremony,’ she said. ‘I charged Sacha five galleons, and he threw in an IOU for an outfit consultation, not that I know when I’ll ever use the latter.’
Sacha – ever a casual fan – had been talked into doing his official sorting quiz, and had been reading each question aloud, trying to mutate his soft, but noticeable German accent into something that was likely supposed to be a Cockney accent, but had been so offensively bad that she’d jumped in, and started to read the questions over his shoulder, colouring her voice with the accent she’d used all throughout her years at boarding school. It was her voice, her accent, yet somehow…not.
As she’d finished reading the question, someone had demanded that – with an Official British Person™ in the room, they needed to do the thing properly. Two cosplay outfits later – student robes for Sacha, and something that looked like the Wizarding version of her own uniform for her, they’d taken over a sim room, followed by a dozen techs, also wearing their own cosplay outfits.
She’d required a thick, leather-bound book that contained both the questions, and the code that ran behind them, allowing her to touch an answer for each question, and have it calculate the final decision for Sacha, without someone having to sit behind them with a laptop.
Ever since that, she’d continued her position as the resident Official British Person™ and made some quick Tech currency by narrating recruits’ sorting ceremonies – or using it when she needed to be able to place a bet with someone.
‘You’re on,’ Alfie said, and a grin split their face. ‘Shift us back, and let’s see how many cats there aren’t.’
‘I can-’ Stef started, then stopped. Something was amiss. Something was- Out of place. Not right.
‘What is it?’ Alfie asked, concern crossing their face.
‘I dunno.’ Stef closed her eyes and focussed on her breathing for a moment. She felt okay. All ten fingers. All ten toes. She opened her eyes, and tried to look at the world through new eyes, looking for whatever hidden detail was making her brain itch.
Stop. Think. Pick out what doesn’t fit.
She could smell the sea.
Brisbane – particularly the areas near the river – smelled of a lot of things, and none of them had a smell anything like the ocean, and certainly not the…bright, adventurous-
She exhaled quickly through her nose, trying to clear the smell. She’d never done olfactory hallucinations – auditory was her jam.
‘Do you smell anything weird?’ she asked Alfie, trying to keep calm. There was no reason to be smelling the sea, and even less reason for the scent to be making her think of adventure and- But the sea had always been adventure. Had been fighting the lost boys, looking for treasure, and heading for the horizon with her Captain.
She looked around once more, and this time, saw Hook – looking as ever, like a slightly dusty king, a storybook villain that had been more of a grandfather than an inspiration to take up a life of crime.
Hook looked up at her, his blue eyes, usually twinkling and ready for adventure, full of sadness.
Stef quickly turned to Alfie. ‘I’m going to shift you back home, okies? I need to deal with something. Um. Agenty.’
Alfie tipped a salute. ‘Sure thing, ma’amy ma’am.’
She shifted the recruit, then walked to her Captain. Saying “hello” didn’t seem to be the right thing to do, so she hugged him, her nose squishing against one of his brass buttons as he returned the embrace.
After a moment, he pushed her to arm’s length, a hand on one shoulder, a hook on her other. ‘Dear heart,’ he said, ‘I need your help.’
He crooked an arm towards her. ‘Do let your father know you’ll be a while, so that you don’t worry him.’
She nodded quickly, and clicked on the “Msg Dad” shortcut, which popped open a new text-only Vox window. [Hook needs me for a bit, don’t panic, kk?]
The response was almost immediate. [Please only engage in minor acts of piracy. Be safe.]
[Love you, dad.] She closed the window, and nodded up at Hook. ‘I’m ready.’
He took her arm, the world went bright at the edges, and then they stepped forward into nothingness.
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