11pm, Thursday, Brisbane
1 pm, Thursday, Hyde
The bar was a dive, and that was putting it politely.
Curt pulled a crumpled Fairy ten note from his pocket, and shoved it at the bouncer as he walked past.
It wasn’t supposed to be anything classy, and it wasn’t one of those places that doubled or tripled as other establishments, as Orrick’s Field did. This was a place to get drunk, and get beaten up, which were the two things he needed more than anything.
He had stripped away Everything that said “Agency”. His suit was gone. His gun was gone. His ID was gone. He had the clothes on his back, and enough money to get drunk on bitter beer and diluted spirits.
It was all he needed, just a bit of courage before jumping into the ring. Just a bit of respite before doing something that pessimistic people might call suicide.
Curt took a breath, flexed his hands, then walked up to the token counter – it was a fairy common conceit in fae establishments, a pre-purchase system to help lessen the regular confusion of a bar; with the added wrinkle that some clients were six-inches tall and some could be over six-feet.
Buying tokens for drinks, then taking them to the bar allowed a slightly smoother set of transactions to take place.
It also had the added advantage of nearly standardising the price of drinks in any given bar. Beers at one price, spirits at another.
He slapped down a silver fifty note as he reached the front of the queue, receiving six beer tokens, and four shot tokens. He pocketed all but one of the beer tokens, and headed to the bar.
It was pandemonium, as usual. Goblins stacked on top of each other, trying to get anyone to pay attention to them. Animal-fae stood, running the full gamut of those in human form, to those that were just hanging out at the bar as a crow or rat.
He didn’t push, he didn’t make eye contact, he moved with the flow of customers until he made his way to the front.
He slid the blue token across the bartender, and pointed to the tap holding the house special. It didn’t really matter what it was, it would all taste the same as he puked it back up.
Customers – fae and human alike – began to move towards the stands surrounding the ring on the lower half of the bar. It was, after all, the main reason anyone came to a dump like this – to see people get the living shit beat out of them, because they felt they deserved it.
He sipped at the beer – the colour was amazing, but it tasted cheap.
Part of him wanted to scull it down, go back for another and another, until he was shit-faced and able to convince himself that this was a good idea.
Over a year of being in an Agency made him sip the beer slowly – there was no harm in enjoying a drink; but there were so many times of harm that could come if you became impaired, if you let your guard down, if you-
If you cared.
If you gave a shit.
If you forgot what you were, and started to have hope.
The crowd began to stamp their feet, a noise without rhythm or rhyme; the patrons all blending into a many-headed beast roaring for blood and justice.
‘Trip!’ someone shouted. It was echoed a moment later, and then more fae began to shout it, until the pounding feet dropped intensity. ‘Trip!’ the crowd shouted, almost in time, taking three more attempts before the majority of the shouts were in time.
Curt kept his mouth shut, it wasn’t his time to shout it. If you intended on seeking justice, you waited until you were in the ring until you cried out the dead King’s name.
Triptamannus had been a Fairy king who was universally acknowledged as a fuck-up; he wasn’t completely sure of the story, and he was sure some of the elements were myth, rather than history, but one fact remained: the King had thrown himself on the mercy of the crowd and taken mob justice as a form of recompense.
For a century after, it had been something to do among friends – take a punch when you messed up, or a defense given to police or guards when you got caught. It grew to be an excuse to be a vigilante, or to try and back up a flimsy excuse to beat someone.
The lawmakers had been smart – they had adapted, rather than fighting it. They recognised the need that some people had to have justice dealt to them, especially for tresspasses that might not have broken a law: cheating your family, cheating on your lover, being two-faced for the sake of business.
So the fight rings had been born. A controlled place for the justice of the crowd to take place.
He tried to look around the crowd, to see anyone else keeping their mouth shut, but couldn’t see past the throng of stamping feet and swinging glasses.
A fairy wearing a green sash flew in above the ring. ‘Can you hear me?’ he shouted, the PA thankfully not doing the ear-splitting screech. The crowd shouted in return, and the fairy smiled.
‘As required by the by-laws, I’m stating for the record that we have medical staff on hand for everyone who steps into the ring. Fae-folk, I think we know the rules, who’s up?’
‘Me!’ someone shouted, and Curt was surprised that it wasn’t himself. A fairy with red wings fluttered into the ring, beside the ref in the green sash.
‘Why are you here?’ the ref asked, as was custom.
‘It’s not for these ears,’ the fairy said. ‘Triptamannus!’ he shouted. ‘Triptamannus!’
It was unusual to see a fairy not divulge their reason for seeking crowd justice – as Triptamannus had been their king, fairies tended to buy into the cultural guilt trip to explain why you wanted strangers to beat you.
A nymph, dressed only in his own leaves, stepped into the ring, and bowed to the fairy.
The ref tugged on his green sash for a moment, then rose up out of the ring.
The fights were legal, but generally came with a bunch of rules. The rounds were essentially treated as boxing rounds – a lot of pounding, but a minimum of brutality. Fae tended to be hardier than humans, so it was easier for them to walk away from a beating, but still – the Triptamannus fights were intended to be no worse than an overnight stay in hospital.
The fairy was eventually dragged away by the medical team. After the fairy came an unusually tall and buff koala, then a hob.
Curt upended his half-empty beer, letting it spill down through the wooden slats to the floor below.
The hob on the floor stayed down. It was getting late. They’d wrap up if no new contender didn’t step up.
He closed his eyes for a moment, then pushed his way through the crowd before the ref had even descended back to the ring. He looked for the man in the green sash, who landed beside him as the hob was carried out.
‘You’re human,’ the ref said. ‘You know what you’re in for?’
‘I understand,’ Curt said, his voice tight.
He stepped through into the ring, and went to one of the corners, and took off his jacket – it was required, it had cost nothing, and would cost nothing to replace, but he couldn’t help but take care of his stuff.
He carefully folded it, feeling the beer tokens in the pocket. Doing this on half a beer hadn’t been the plan.
They would kill him. They would simply kill him.
He hadn’t cheated and he hadn’t stolen. He hadn’t fucked someone’s hot sibling.
He’d killed. He’d tortured.
The Agency considered the Solstice to be shoot-on-sight. The Fairyland police never prosecuted. The Kings never ruled in favour of the Solstice.
Most fae didn’t consider Agents to be people, but at least they had rights.
He stood in the middle of the ring, and waited for the ref to fly down to him.
‘Why are you here?’ the fairy asked.
Pictures were worth a thousand words.
He grabbed the bottom of his T-shirt, felt himself stop breathing, and ripped it up over his head.
The crowd went silent – a reaction he hadn’t expected.
He dropped his shirt, and took a step closer to the audience, giving them a better view of his torso.
The tattoos had been a point of pride – reminders of the good work he’d done, the monsters he’d taken from the world, the potential lives that he’d saved.
And now there were five dozen fae staring at marks that told them that he had killed their kind. That he’d taken his time. That he’d been good at it.
Feedback ran through the PA.
‘Triptamannus!’ he called, daring the fae to come and get him.
The fae came at him in a wave.
The first punch was distinct, everything after that melded into a blur.
He didn’t fight back – that wasn’t the point of being there. Hands of all shapes and colours grabbed at him, pulling him, pushing him, shoving him to the ground and lifting him high – there were too many people trying to hurt him to let any one person get a decent shot at him.
He was bleeding, he was bruised, and it still wasn’t enough.
It wasn’t anything nearly as bad as what he’d put Stef through. Wasn’t what he deserved for murdering fae.
He felt something sharp against his neck. Too small to be a knife – unless the owner was a misick.
He hoped it was something painful – something that would burn him from the inside out, something that would set him lungs on fire, or something that would-
His body went limp, and he dropped to the ground, his loose limbs sliding through the hands of the people that wanted to break him.
Curt hit the bloody floor of the ring, his face smearing in his own blood.
He couldn’t stand. He couldn’t lift an arm. He couldn’t blink. He couldn’t breathe.
The fae around him kept kicking at his body for a few minutes before someone started to yell that he was dead.
After a minute, the fae backed off, allowing someone to kneel beside him.
‘Yes,’ a voice said, ‘he’s dead.’
Everything went black.
Consciousness seemed…thin. As though he wasn’t really there. He couldn’t be there…he couldn’t be anywhere. A voice had said he was dead.
He wanted to be dead.
He should be dead.
There was a hand on his throat, feeling for a pulse.
There was a hand, smacking him across the face.
He forced in a breath, and everything became a little more real. He opened his eyes, and saw stars above his head.
It couldn’t be heaven, there was no chance he was going to end up there.
‘What the fuck were you thinking?’ a voice asked. ‘Don’t make me rethink you, Recruit, you’re supposed to be one of the smart ones.’
He coughed, and felt blood on his mouth.
Strong arms scooped him up and there was the weird distortion of a shift. The arms moved, and he was dropped onto a very soft bed.
‘Doc?’ he asked, unable to keep his eyes open.
‘Just- Just keep still,’ Parker-2 said, sounding more pissed than worried. ‘You’ll be fine, I stopped them from killing you, but you’re a little fucked up. More than a little fucked up.’
Curt squeezed his eyes closed, then opened them and forced himself to sit up – which was a bad idea, as he fell straight back down onto the bed, his head spinning.
‘Which part of fucking stay still do you not understand?’
‘I didn’t ask you to save me,’ he mumbled.
In a second, there was a hand on his chin, keeping his head still, and a scalpel blade touched his throat. ‘If you want to die, just nod.’
‘What were you even doing there?’ he asked, ignoring the question. ‘I didn’t think blood sports were your speed.’
Parker took the scalpel away, and Curt fell back to the bed, his head spinning again. The sheets were silk – rough, but thick, not the standard fare for the infirmary.
His arm was wet – sensation was still coming back to his body, but it felt strangely familiar. He forced himself to look, and saw a thick strip of flesh missing – far shallower than what Petersen had usually rent from his body.
‘Where are we?’ Curt asked.
‘We maintain a domicile,’ Parker-2 said. ‘Sometimes we need time away from the Agency. That’s our bed.’ The doctor paused. ‘Don’t worry, the sheets are clean.’
‘Just lie there, shut up, and let me work.’
Parker-2 grabbed him, and rolled him onto his back. His pants disappeared, and he felt a lot more bloody, oozing spots exposed to the air. He closed his eyes, and let the doctor work: binding some wounds, stitching others, slathering some in cream, and sticking him with needles what felt like every other minute.
‘What did you get me with?’ Curt asked as the Parker urged him to roll onto his stomach. ‘That wasn’t like any paralytic I’ve ever felt.’
Parker-2 snorted. ‘What paralytic? That was good, old fashioned poison. You really would have died if I hadn’t given you the antidote.’
‘And you just happened to be carrying-’
‘You lot carry yours guns around,’ Parker-2 said. ‘Medical staff, unfortunately, don’t generally get loaded with small arms training, just some basic close-quarters melee and hand-to-hand. We’re not expected to fight – frankly, if anyone gets into the Agency and makes it to the infirmary, we’re pretty much dead anyway.’
Curt drew in a sharp breath as the doctor touched his back.
‘We’re almost done, Recruit,’ the doctor said. ‘I’ll be putting you on medical leave for a few days, though I would assume that after a psychological-’
Curt sat up, and stumbled off the bed. ‘No!’ he said. His legs trembled, barely able to hold his weight. ‘I’m not letting any of you motherfuckers into my head,’ he spat. Not again. Never again. ‘I’ll be fine, just leave me alone!’
‘If you had just gone to a Triptamannus ring without stripping, I might be able to let it pass. What you just did-’
‘Didn’t work,’ he muttered darkly as he stumbled back into a chair in the corner of the room.
Parker-2 stared at him for a moment, then walked around the bed, and knelt before him. ‘You’ve been treating yourself poorly since the moment you came home from Mimsy’s failed external training.’
Mimsy was too…fluffy. Too cute. She was Newbie. She was stupid and new and trusting and-
‘You’re my patient,’ Parker-2 said kindly, ‘and something like that is going to have an adverse effect on your health. Your neural patterns have been all over the place, and I know you’ve been hurting yourself.’ The doctor looked at him. ‘The System helps us look after our people.’
‘And invade their privacy,’ Curt spat. ‘If you know what, then you know why, so just-’
‘I know you did your Duty, Recruit. I know you showed more strength and resolve than a lot of people in your position might have done.’
‘I tortured Stef!’ he shouted.
‘I know,’ the doctor said, ‘do you think you’re the only person who has ever done something distasteful for the greater good? To rescue someone? To uphold the principles of the Agency?’
‘This isn’t an Academy entrance exam question! It’s not a training sim! I- I- I hurt her!!’
Parker-2 stood, and regarded him quietly for a moment. ‘What would they have done?’
‘That doesn’t matter…’
Parker-2 moved quickly, grabbed him by the shoulders, and slammed him against the wall, the thin plaster cracking behind his spine. ‘What would they have done, Recruit?’
‘But I did it! I have to live with-’
‘Swirl?’ Parker-2 demanded. ‘Would they have Swirled her?’
The Swirl. A machine built to grind up animal carcasses like a giant blender. A small divet. A pneumatic arm that pushed prisoners inch by inch closer to the spinning blades. A machine that everyone dove into head first, as it was a kinder death than being taken apart chunk by chunk.
Curt slumped against the doctor. ‘Probably. If they had one. Probably.’
‘And before that? Would they have raped her? Held her down, fucked her and sent the video around for others to laugh at?’
He wanted to say he didn’t know. He wanted to ignore what he knew.
He’d never taken advantage of any of the fae presented to him as a Solstice – neither had the men who had instructed him. They’d towed the line about being too disgusted by non-humans to ever partake. Too pure in their dedication to the cause to take on what the Solstice jokingly called “bedwarmers”.
But you heard things. No matter your own principles, or methods, you heard things.
Hating himself for every inch his head moved, he nodded.
‘So there’s one advantage of you controlling the situation,’ Parker-2 said, stepping away.
Curt leaned heavily against the wall, barely able to feel his legs. ‘They thought she was human. I had to keep her human. I had to do the blood, but if I kept her human, then…then they wouldn’t be looking at it. I had to keep them distracted. I had to keep her crying and bleeding. I was…theatrical. You get enough cuts, enough blood, and they stop taking notice of where the blood is coming from. They thought it was an audition, not an obfuscation.’
‘If they knew she was an agent?’
The Solstice didn’t have a lot of room for failure of that magnitude.
‘They would have shot me in the head.’
‘They would have crucified her,’ he said, his voice raw, ‘strung her up and bled her until she begged to die.’
‘What about that situation is better than what you did?’
‘Nothing.’ Tears were coming freely again. ‘But that doesn’t mean I’m any more okay with what I did. It’s still me that hurt her. It’s still me that she won’t trust. I knew I could protect her, I knew that. But- But I feel like I should have been able to figure something else out. That there should have been another option.’
‘You’ve had a day, and you’ve got the benefit of hindsight, what’s your brilliant idea for escape?’
He looked away. ‘She could have wished us out of there.’
Parker-2 folded his arms. ‘Fine. That’s a plan. Why didn’t you do that?’
‘Because I didn’t know,’ he said, ‘I mean- I mean, I knew, it was the only thing that made the situation make any sense, but it wasn’t a bet I could make with her life. If there was any other explanation then… Then we were all dead.’
He gently pushed past Parker-2 and sat on the bed, exhaustion bashing inside his skull.
‘Oh, is the sedative finally kicking in?’ the Parker asked. ‘About damn time, Curt, I was about to stick you again and I’d already given you more than was strictly necessary.’
Curt let himself flop back onto the bed. ‘Well played, Doc, well played.’
The world blurred a little as he was shifted to a proper position on the bed, the pillows beneath his head. ‘You’re staying here tonight. And when you wake up, there will be breakfast on that table. You will eat it There will be pills there, you will take them. You will relax. You will not do work.’
‘I should thank Stef,’ Curt said as he finally put his head on the pillow. ‘For getting you to keep an eye on me.’
Parker-2 hesitated by the door. ‘It wasn’t Mimosa,’ the doctor said, ‘it was Ryan.’