04 - Ebb and Flow

12 – Support and Communication

The eight days she had been an agent were surely some kind of microcosm of what the rest of her life would look like.

Breakfast in the morning, at a time too early for pale hackers to be awake. Mostly it was Curt, greeting her with a coffee and his stupid, bright, morning-person fresh face. 

He’d knock. She’d groan like a zombie. She’d reach out from under the covers and accept the coffee – and at least the coffee was to her specification – and he’d sit on the end of her bed, and “accidentally” drop piles of paperwork on her quilt-covered legs until she sat up and paid attention.

One morning, she’d gone to breakfast with Ryan, and done the mail run, but mostly he liked to sleep during this part of the day, especially now that he had an aide. 

After breakfast, Curt would usually disappear to do aide stuff, and she’d be left on her own to figure out what to do for a couple of hours.

One morning, she’d rolled under the bed, buried her head into a plush and played music through headphones at volumes that would make human ears bleed, and begged for the anxiety to go away.

A couple of times, she’d sat and worked on more distance-learning catch-up stuff, things that baby agents really ought to know.

And a few mornings, she’d gone and sat in different spots of the Tech Department, because suit or not, her father’s daughter or not, in most alternate realities, she was surely a Tech recruit. 

It just felt more natural watching Alfie reprogram drone paths or to see the multi-step process Raz went through to fully archive a crime scene than it did to…run three steps behind Curt cosplaying as a Man in Black.

She’d gotten used to – well, was getting used to – parental love and the concept of having a friend, so it was likely she’d find her feet as a Field agent as well.

Hopefully. Probably.

Even with Jonesy’s full consent and an open invitation to sit in with any of his recruits at any time, she still felt like she was sneaking as she walked down the corridor towards the call centre. 

Stef slowed her pace as she approached the wide set of sliding doors, she didn’t want to peek and retreat, just in case someone saw her, because that would be an embarrassment that would surely be the third time she died.

Third? It would be third, right?

Yes. Don’t walk into the wall.

She angled her shoulder so that it just brushed the white wall, then took a step towards the middle of the hall, and tried to make sure she didn’t drift again. 

Most agents could probably walk in a straight line without even thinking about it, but her stupid brain was too powerful, even for the impossibly advanced tech that she was made of.

She flexed her hands a couple of times as she reached the final few feet before someone in the call centre would be able to see her, and tried to-

She never knew what to do with her face. 

It was easy around Ryan, who was still the person it was easiest to be herself around. Maybe it was all the points he’d specced into his Dad build, maybe it was that agents had different expectations of what faces were supposed to do, maybe it was both, but…He would inquire when she looked obviously sad, or some conversation was going on in her head too long, but he didn’t berate her for blank looks, for not having big reactions to news, or to the “low energy mopey” expression that was pretty much her default face look.

Masking up around people, being like a person, still took so much energy. Was still something she was so out of practice with. 

And it wasn’t even just “out of practice” it was…entirely new in its own way. 

She had years of practice of being Stephanie around people, of knowing how Stephanie should be in group situations, exactly how much of an emotion she was allowed to show given a situation, but-

Stef was another matter entirely. 

Milla, the blessed saint who had shown her the joy of emotes, of being able to execute a command or hit a HUD button and being able to snap her face into whatever mask she chose, had warned against using it in every situation. 

Her – and there was still hesitation when she thought the word – friend had as much brain weirdness as she did, though different flavours, and understood the gift that /serious and the other commands were, which was the exact reason Milla had shared them in the first place.

Overuse though, Milla had warned, would give people a false baseline. She’d used the analogy of wearing makeup, that if you wore it every day, people adjusted to that being your normal face, and when you skipped it, rather than it being one step down from “pretty to normal” it was instead “normal to sickly”.

So /serious was a weapon to be wielded carefully, which probably, unfortunately, didn’t mean at eight AM just sitting around in the call centre. 

Sometimes, she felt like she was falling down a hill, and that somehow, she’d managed to avoid the worst of the jagged rocks and drops into crevices. It was momentum, gearing up to kick her so hard she’d never want to get up again.

It should have been impossible to have this many good days, to actually be doing something with her life. 

Or maybe it was what she’d actually been capable of all along, and twenty years without support or love had just…lied to her.

Three more steps and she’d either have to shift to Canada or interact with people who didn’t hate having her around.

‘Good morning,’ Sacha said from behind her. ‘Here to see me?’ He stopped in front of her, a smoothie in a cup bearing the logo of that day’s fae coffee cart in his hand. ‘On a mission or just observation?’

‘Observing,’ she said, ‘if that’s okay.’

Sacha was probably the prettiest person in Queen Street, and there was some fairly decent competition, even as far as her non-existent, not-attracted-to-people brain could tell.

People could be pretty, even if she didn’t want to do…messy, squishy things with that information.

Mags never failed to turn Stef’s head whenever she entered a room. The magpie girl was stunning, whether she was in a basic combat outfit, or some fluffy – and often blood-speckled – black and white dress.

The gender glorious German in front of her though, was positively elven sometimes. Perfectly done makeup, usually with touches of gold or metallic that complimented his dark skin so well, and outfits that were elaborate without being impractical.

And like Curt, he was another morning person.

Sacha nodded his head, and she followed him to the shift supervisor’s desk in the open-plan call centre. 

‘I’m a little late,’ he admitted as he sat down. ‘I had overnight company, and spent a while saying goodbye.’ He tapped his ID against a small reader that sat under the main monitor and the desk layout rippled and changed.

She loved this trick, it was hot desking without the compromise. Where the Agency could, people had static workstations, whether it was a regular office space, lab, or whatnot, but some spaces required people to share.

So when shared resources were used, one click could save the layout, ready to be retrieved wherever in the world you went.

No more readjusting mouse and keyboard positions to get them right, no more looking for a wrist rest or your drinking-bird toy. One tap and everything was as you liked it.

‘Get yourself a chair, Agent. I just need to check a few things.’

She nodded, and retrieved a chair from one of the unused stations, taking a moment to remember to people properly and nod good morning to the other recruits.

It was all about systems and routines. Peopling was very possible if she had enough practice, time and brain energy. Saying good morning was easy enough to incorporate into a routine. 

She’d done a good job. Definitely worth a cookie for later.

She brought up her HUD notes and flicked through until she found the green one that noted how many “good girl cookies” she owed herself and added one to the total. 

By the time she rolled the chair into place, Sacha seemed to be done with looking at the schedule, and turned to her, a brighter-than-usual smile on his face. ‘I found something,’ he said, a little more of his accent lilting through his excitement. ‘I met your parents. Your human parents,’ he clarified after a moment. 

During the first conversation she’d had with the Techs as a group, it had taken her and Sacha barely a minute to figure out that their families ran in some of the same circles, and that they could probably both say some very, very weird rich kid stuff that would leave the rest of the group making weird faces or Bruce Wayne comparisons. 

Like the asshole she’d previously had to call “father”, Sacha’s family was also “new money”, though compared to her mother’s family – who could probably trace their money back to the Norman invasion – most people were “new money”.

Sacha’s family ran Prachtvoll Sailing, a company that made very expensive toys for the very rich, and her parents, throwing around some of her mother’s old, old money, had bought a yacht from Prachtvoll. 

“Yacht” was the understatement of the millennium to describe the floating hotel she’d only had the pleasure of boarding a few times. It was the kind of yacht that came with a support yacht so that they could off-board as many of the below-stairs people at a time as possible, out of sight, out of mind. 

When the revolution came, she’d gladly shove James up against the wall. 

A stack of photos appeared next to Sacha’s green smoothie, a scan revealing it to be green chocolate, rather than something kale-inspired, and he began to flip through them.

‘It’s always an event when my parents hand over a new boat. Fully catered, finest champagne, and a discreet photographer to make memories for the day.’ He smiled. ‘It’s all hidden in the fee structure, usually as part of the carpeting, no one skips on the carpeting.’ 

The photos showed a tasteful event, the kind of understated opulence where there was only one ice sculpture and one harpist. 

Christ, we live in a different world to everyone else.

The photographer was good, snapping a mix of good candids and more posed pieces. She recognised a good number of her cousins, people with whom her actual relationship would probably require a flowchart and a d20 to work out, and a lot of both her parents and Sacha’s parents.

It was clear where he got his looks from, both of his parents were stunning, his father in a suitably expensive suit, and his mother in a dress that was artful, without being ridiculous. 

‘And…here,’ he said, flipping to the next photo. A posed group shot, both sets of parents, and one adorable little Sacha, somewhere around ten or twelve, shaking hands with her mother. 

‘It’s so strange,’ she said. ‘And I am taking a copy of this.’ 

He snapped his fingers, and an email notification appeared in her HUD. ‘I was just waiting for your consent to send them.’

‘I don’t- They’re not my favourite people,’ she said. ‘But this is too weird not to at least share with a couple of people.’ 

‘You’re quite a bit younger than me,’ he said and drank some of his smoothie. ‘I tried looking for a pram at the edges of the party, or someone taking care of a child, but I couldn’t spot you.’

She shuffled back through the photos to one that had part of the contract in view and looked at the date. ‘This was a couple of years before I was born,’ she said. ‘E-’

-ven if I’d been around, they wouldn’t have brought me. 

She looked at the tiny Sacha in the photo, surrounded by the absurd wealth they’d both come from, then to the sensible, longest-serving recruit in the Brisbane network. ‘Do you miss it?’

His smile slipped from genial, sunshine-brightness to something a lot more real. ‘Not for a minute, you?’

‘Never.’

He lifted his smoothie in salute. ‘Then, ma’am, I’ve got some saved sample calls you might want to listen to.’

 

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  • Stormy

    She/her Bi nerd, originally from Brisbane, currently in Melbourne.

  • Shade

    Shade has a strange sense of humour. He met Stormy mostly by accident and, shortly after, wedged himself into her world like he'd been there forever. Again, completely by accident. Living in Utah most of his life, he's come to loathe snow, casserole, and traffic, and enjoys gaming, puns, and gaming puns. He intends to take over the world some day, but is, quite frankly, too lazy to do it.

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