Stef starred. ‘Lol. Wut.’
Thick rubber gloves appeared on his hands. ‘I’d appreciate some help, if you’re not gonna puke again.’
‘What precisely are we–’ She waved her hands in front of her. ‘Wait. Wait. Wait.’
‘Computer, freeze program.’
‘It’s not literally a holodeck, newbie.’
She pouted. ‘I know, but I really thought that would work.’
‘You wanted something?’
‘Okay, this is a training scenario right? To prepare us for regular work, right?’
‘Do you routinely defile corpses? Isn’t that a tech’s job? Or a medical recruit or something?’
‘Ding, ding, ding, the newbie wins a prize.’
‘What did I win?’
‘You said I get a prize, so I want a prize.’
He stared, aghast. ‘Oh my gods, you’re actually insane.’
He threw a small red ball at her. ‘Now shut up and act like a recruit.’
She squeezed the ball, then tucked it into her pocket. ‘Um?’
‘…I told you I wasn’t good at the talking thing. What were we talking about?’
He did his impression of Picard’s facepalm. ‘Calling for help?’ he prompted.
‘Yeah. Right. So why don’t we do that?’
‘If this was a real-world scenario, we would, but these simulations are pretty much designed to take us out of our comfort zones. There’s dozens you can do that perfectly mimic an everyday patrol or whatever, but Mags tends to go for the not-so-typical stuff. I mean, a group size of six is unusual to start with, unless we were going into a situation where we knew we’d need this many field recruits.’
‘Like when a lot of calm people in suits are needed to tell the public that everything is okay. Usually, it’s partner work, solo work. There’s also the occasional threesome,’ he said with a wink. ‘The Agency is efficient. We don’t tend to send in more people unless they’re needed. Solo work is efficient, because you’ve got a tech brat in your ear who can feed you information or get you a shift if things go to hell. Taylor’s squads are one call for help away, so until things go to shit, there’s not really a need for six of us to be investigating the one case.’
‘…So we’re defiling a corpse?’
‘Get yourself some gloves.’
She required gloves, and he crouched over the body.
‘What I think we’re dealing with,’ he said as he sliced the corpse’s shirt open with a short, sharp blade, ‘is a nymph starting their own grove.’ He looked up at her. ‘Try not to breathe.’
He ran the knife across the belly.
For a moment, nothing happened.
A thin line of black welled up in the cut, rot, ooze, the remains of–
The stomach twitched.
‘Oh my fucking god.’
Zombie. Zombie. Zombie. Zombie.
The stomach twitched again, and something pressed against the surface from the inside.
Curt cut a line, perpendicular to the first. ‘Get a torch; shine it down.’
Stef required a green army torch and shone at at the belly.
He grabbed one corner of the cut and pulled on it. The stomach immediately began to inflate, a sick mockery of a balloon.
She pressed the back of her spare hand to her nose as the smell finally hit. ‘It’s going to explode. It’s going to explode.’
‘Not much,’ he said as he finished peeling the corner back. ‘Light.’
She aimed the torch for a moment, saw something move, then dropped it.
‘Take a step back,’ he said as he retreated from the corpse. ‘And mind your eyes.’
A small sapling shot up out of the man’s stomach, splattering the area with goo and gore.
First two rows might get wet.
She let out an all-too-girly noise as the corpse’s gore landed in smelly chunks on her pants.
That smells worse than my puke.
‘Require a new uniform, newbie, and come on. We have to find the rest of them.’
She made the requirement, pulled her gloves off, then looked at the newly grown tree. The initial burst of height was done, but the branches were still growing thicker, leaves sprouting and shaking.
‘Rest,’ he confirmed, ‘come on.’
‘Are you going to answer my question now?’ she asked as they continued along the path.
‘There’s a few ways that nymphs can procreate,’ he said. ‘There’s what we can call the normal way – human-style sex – to create a single life. It’s usually half-breeds that go for this method. They can use fairy fruit like everyone else – again, usually a single birth. Plant nymphs like we’re dealing with here can do it, well, plant style, releasing seeds and whatever into the air. Under usual circumstances, this just results in regular plants.’
‘And then there’s groves?’
He nodded. ‘They can be great, you know. Like…hippie communes or something, a bunch of nymphs getting together to create dozens of kids together. Those are groves done right – a group can create more kids because they can rely on each other, use each other’s strength, utilise each other’s magic. You follow?’
‘So our problem is that we’re dealing with murderous hippies?’
‘Yeah. But there’s other ways to do it. With humans, usually. Like Mr Body back there. They can use–’ Curt made a face. ‘I don’t want to say life energy, because you’ll probably start babbling about mana or something, but they can drain the life out of a person, then break down the organs and recycle them too.’
‘Well, if we’re talking about life energy and magic, then my brain goes to materia and–’
She zipped her lips and threw away the key.
‘Plants take energy out of the environment. They’re plants; that’s what they do. Nymphs extend that to people as well as soil. It’s part of the reason having sex with a nymph is such a draining experience.’
‘Good,’ he added with a grin, ‘but draining.’
Stef stared at him, then slapped herself in the head. ‘Don’t talk about that stuff.’
‘So where there’s one body, there’s going to be more. For a sapling to be able to shoot like that, it’s been gestating for a few days at least.’
‘But–’ She stared at the ground. ‘But–’
‘Yeah.’ Curt pushed a branch out of the way and let her pass. ‘He would have been alive for a couple of days like that.’
‘At least chest bursters kill you pretty quickly,’ she said. ‘This is just sick.’
‘This is tame compared to some shit that I’ve seen.’
‘Question,’ she said.
‘Go for it.’
‘Why was he by himself? Could – could he be an abandoned start of a grove? Or just a random murder?’
‘Anything’s possible, newbie, but–’
‘Okay, shift to the other side of the galaxy.’
‘You could do that with a piece of mirror.’
She required a compact and tossed it to him. ‘Off you go, then.’
The mirror disappeared from his hand. ‘“Mirror as in mirrorfall mirror, not just a reflective surface.’
‘Later,’ he said tersely. ‘Can we please focus on the task at hand?’
That would involve being able to focus.
‘I was going to say,’ he continued, ‘that a single murder is possible, but you see this path we’ve been following?’
Curt crouched, a trowel appearing in his hand, and he carefully scooped away the top layer of dirt to reveal a root as thicker than her arm. ‘It’s attached to the grove. He’s a sentinel. Even though he’s not conscious yet, the grove as a collective can still perceive stuff through it.’
‘So…should you be poking at it?’
‘No, but I’ve given up on getting a good score today, you need the show-and-tell more than you need Mags to pass you.’
‘So in the real world, we don’t poke it?’
He stood. ‘Let’s call that a rule. Don’t poke anything until you ask my permission.’
‘What if it’s fluffy?’
‘Especially if it’s fluffy,’ he said. ‘Look at the ground, see how the path is clearer here? That means it’s getting closer to the surface – so the stuff that would usually be there, like grass, can’t survive because the grove root is using up all the resources.’
‘O’Connor to Brian: We’re heading south. It’s a grove.’ Pause. ‘Okay.’ Pause. ‘Okay.’ He looked at her. ‘Gods, he’s a dick.’ He tapped his headset again. ‘O’Connor to Red.’ Pause. ‘Four? That can’t be good. Yeah– Wait.’ He turned. ‘You should be– Yeah, I see you.’ He pointed, and Stef saw the tall recruit moving up another path towards them.
‘Come on, newbie. He’ll catch up.’
‘What about that safety in numbers thing?’
‘He’s part demon. He’s fine,’ Curt said quickly. ‘Come on.’
She scrunched her nose. ‘Permission to put my foot in my mouth?’
‘But you couldn’t even touch your toes,’ he said with a smirk. ‘What?’
‘So you’re basically the forever alone recruit, right?’ she said, staring at the ground, seeing places where the dirt was beginning to split as the root got closer to the surface.
‘You know,’ she affected a sad expression. ‘Forever alone guy?’ His face remained blank. ‘The other people don’t like you and aren’t your friends.’
‘Yeah, I said that.’
‘Sparky isn’t exactly swarming with friend requests. You could initiate–’
‘Do you remember why they’re not my friends?’
‘It goes up by a factor of no-chance-in-hell when you’ve got non-human ancestry. Red will be civil with me, but half the–’ He looked away for a moment. ‘Half the scariest things I saw were demons, so–’ He looked away. ‘Jesus, can’t you shut up for five minutes?!’
The sudden harshness of the words hit her like a slap.
He turned from her and continued up the path. Stef carefully closed her mouth, bit down on her tongue until it hurt, then fell into step behind him.
I told you to focus.
You stopped reminding me.
You were talking to another person. I thought I’d let you try a new experience.
She pressed her hands to her sides and slowly typed out messages for help, escape commands, and requests for doors. Nothing happened, but all of the code spinning through her mind at least helped to distract from the smell.
Dead things and rotting compost and churned earth. Fresh cut grass and pepper.
Curt shoved a gas mask at her without looking back. ‘They can use airborne toxins,’ he said in a flatly, ‘so we take precautions.’ Stef slipped the mask over her face and spun the small container of compressed air to crack the seal.
The root finally came up an out of the ground at the base of a steep hill. Curt put his hand to his ear, then pointed at the other three recruits, and they moved to join them.
One of Brian’s cronies had a bandage around his arm, and bright orange paint had splattered onto his pants.
Did he take time out to graffiti a tree?
Ask Ryan later.
‘How many?’ Brian asked Curt.
‘One sentinel. Red saw four.’
‘You got bodies; we had resistance. Half a dozen hobs. No movement from the trees. We’ll take the hill.’
‘Negotiate or terminate?’
‘You’ll follow my lead, O’Connor.’
Curt didn’t argue.
‘Red,’ Brian said, ‘you got anything to say?’
‘They’re not making a lot of noise,’ the tall recruit said. ‘They’ll be weak.’
‘Good,’ Brian said. ‘We’ll move up as a team. Cannon fodder, take point.’
The words didn’t sink in for a moment, and as they did, she felt her mind grind to a halt.
‘Did you hear me, Mimosa?’
She opened her mouth to speak, but instead only expelled hot breaths that fogged the shield of her gas mask for a moment. ‘I– Huh?’
Brian grabbed her shoulder, and the touch made her freeze. He pulled her to the front of the group, and she stumbled on stiff legs. She tried to shake out of his grip, but he held on. Uncomfortable spikes jabbed into her neck, panic-made pain, as she squirmed to get away from him.
‘You’re taking point. Up the hill.’ He grabbed the side of her mask. ‘And take that off, you look like an idiot, and the rest of us are breathing just fine.’ He found the straps and yanked it from her head.
She punched him.
The blow was weak and badly aimed, missing his nose and sliding across his cheek to barely graze his ear.
His face was unharmed; his ego wasn’t.
She stumbled back as he aimed a much stronger punch at her.
It caught her in the shoulder, and she stumbled as she turned, her feet tripping over themselves, over the leaves and environmental detritus, and she landed heavily on her stomach.
Tears, hot and huge, dripped down her nose and onto the ground. There was a scrape in the leaves beside her as Brian knelt, his hand grabbing her hair and forcing her face against the ground.
Don’t fight him.
She pressed the tips of her fingers into the ground and tried to pretend she was dead. The dead didn’t cry. The dead didn’t get scared. The dead didn’t feel the need to wet themselves.
The dead were lucky.
The tears didn’t stop.
‘You’ve got no idea what you’ve done, do you?’ he asked. ‘If I give you an order, you follow it. I tell you to take point; you take point. I tell you to eat shit; you don’t get to ask for sprinkles. Insubordination in the field kills.’
He took his hand away from her neck and pulled her up onto her knees. Her body shook, and she refused to look at anything but the ground. The ground wasn’t judging her. The ground wasn’t laughing at her.
‘You’re expendable. Now stand up and–’
Three points of red exploded on her chest, but there was no pain. Redness dripped down her uniform, and she looked up to see a gun in Curt’s hand. He winked, pressed the gun to his throat, and pulled the trigger again.
Another paint round exploded, coating his throat in red and leaking down onto his shirt.
‘Look,’ he said sarcastically. ‘You were right: insubordination kills.’ He took a step forwards and offered her a hand. ‘Come on, newbie.’
She bit down on her tongue and took his hand, letting him pull her to her feet. Her legs wobbled, but she stayed vertical, and he gave her a nod. ‘This way.’
A few meters back down the path, a door appeared, and they walked back out into the gym.
‘Done already?’ the goth loli girl asked as the door into the simulator closed behind them.
Curt indicated to their paint-wounds. ‘Casualties. We’ll be back to do the self-paced stuff in a bit. That okay, Mags?’
‘Is there something wrong with now?’
‘Ryan needs to see her; we came here first out of respect. Scout’s honour, I’ll strap her to the shooting gallery later.’
Magnolia shoved a clipboard at him. ‘Sign this, then it’s on your head and I don’t have to give a fuck.’
He signed it. ‘Come on, newbie.’
Stef followed him from the room, conscious that she was leaving a trail of plant matter behind. The floor changed from polished wood to the shiny, polished white floors of the hall. The floors here were as nice and non-judgey as the dirt had been.
She raised her dirty hands to her cheeks and wiped away the drying tears.
She watched as his shoes stopped moving, then heard the sound of knocking. A door swung open. ‘Come on, newbie.’
‘Recruits?’ Ryan said.
Curt’s hand came into her frame of vision. ‘Sit.’
Stef turned her head slightly and saw the couch. She took tiny steps, then turned and sat on the very edge of the cushion.
‘I’m going to book out that conference room we were using last night. Do you remember how to get there?’
She gave a slight nod.
‘I’m going to go set up in there. I’ll need about half an hour, okay? Can you meet me there in half an hour?’
She heard him mumbling at Ryan, then the sound of the door closing.
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