04 - Ebb and Flow

21 – Work Day

Some days were better than others, and she tried not to take those days for granted. Often, it was easy to get to three in the afternoon before realising that you hadn’t once had to stab a pen into your thigh to get through a conversation, or had spent hours staring at the wall, existing in a liminal state of self-hate.

Sometimes though, it took until seven in the evening to realise that things had been pretty okay.

That didn’t matter though, there were still hours left in the day – for her activity level, the automated calculator generally suggested about six hours of sleep, but really anything over four per night would at least keep her in the “functional” realm, even if the days after those nights, she’d get little suggestions – though she eternally thanked the earless void that the Agency didn’t have its own version of Clippy, though Milla had shown her it was an option available from the HUD extensions hub – the HUDHUB – on the intranet. 

And in place of a little piece of stationery, HUD buddies could be anything from just part of custom HUD theming, the same as the more nineties-style of desktop theming when everyone wanted custom mice and voice clips from Star Trek to play when an error had occurred – to VTuber and dating-sim-style figures in a range of genders and…amounts of clothing.

Such were the dark corners of the intranet that Milla loved teasing her with, even though it wasn’t something that her docent actually partook in. Virtual pets, however, were something Milla was deeply into, and it was a strange, fun little part of the-world-with-a-HUD that she was just dipping her own toes into, but so far, the pet pond had been a delightful place for her toes. 

The beginning of it was simple, just like desktop pets that had been around since before she was born, but along the way…it had become a thing, it’s own hobby and activity with multiple intranet forums, micro-micro-celebrities and sought-after rare pets.

There were basic pets that you could get from the extensions hub, including some rather fun and fully-featured ones, like the fat little guinea-pig-sized tsuchinoko that sat on the table in front of her now, warm under her hand, and vibrating with light snores in a way that almost felt like a purr. 

Some pets did ape the old desktop variety, content to live in two dimensions and just hang off your tooltips, or pretend to scratch away your field of view if they were bored or not given enough toys, or the right toys, to play with.

Most, however, took advantage of the biological and digital reality of what agents were and popped the pets into the third dimension, allowing them to live in AR just as easily as murderboard notes, presentation assets you only wanted other agents to see, or whatever else you wanted to interact with in “real” space rather than the confines of your HUD.

And most, of course, came with programming to fool your senses, so you could touch, cuddle, play with, and even smell your pet, even though nothing physically existed. 

But this was the water’s edge of the pool, if you chose to hold your breath and dive in, there was a whole ecosystem that was halfway between Pokemon and deviantArt adoptables, where a lot of pet types or “species” were curated by one recruit – or a small team – and weren’t just available to grab on the store, and were instead something “premium” that you had to either buy or trade for. 

Some teams allowed a dull version of their pets onto the hub, but took commissions for bespoke pets – generally meaning anything that wasn’t white or beige – or released them in increasingly weird ways, like scavenger hunts, or as the prizes for quests that could involve anything from visiting random points on the planet to gifting your friends whatever item some recruit influencer was trying to get to the top of the shiny-thing-of-the-week charts for some fleeting notoriety or cred. 

That such influencers existed was…surprising, but only before you thought about it. The Agency wasn’t just some corporation, it wasn’t something that most people left behind after doing a nine-to-five, it covered so many aspects of so many people’s lives, from work to social to hobbies and whatever else. Across the world, it was at least tens of thousands of people either directly working for the Agency or in its orbit – more than enough to make an ecosystem of hundreds or thousands of Venn diagrams of all kinds. 

Throw magic into the mix – and the ability to text anyone in that ecosystem a requirement macro – and you had tonnes of people who wanted to create the perfect-looking, perfect-tasting fancy drink of the week that would be all the rage on the Vox forums.

And while black coffee with dad-disapproved amounts of sugar was just a baseline liquid that needed to enter her body in an amount best measured in litres per day, she wasn’t immune to a cute drink. Especially, like the one that Milla had sent her way the day before, some really cute thing that looked like it had escaped some combination of cute video games. 

A tall plastic cup, with a shallow pattern on the inside that allowed the blueberry syrup to settle in perfectly artistic waves and curls that looked like wind, which held a silver-shimmer-infused milky white tea in a range of flavours, topped with a small-fist-sized lump of perfectly shaped, light-as-air marshmallow that looked like a perfectly anime-esque lump of cloud. 

Perfect, and something she’d demolished in just a few minutes. 

Hiro the tsuchinoko “neeped” in his sleep and rolled onto his back, his fat belly rising and falling as he slept. 

It had been a good day, but a lot of it had been stuff that largely was technically out of her wheelhouse, so it was probably a good idea to put some time towards skilling up the job she actually had, and not just mapping out some project work to do with Tech that was still very much in its Session Zero phase. 

It was a lot of work, even just going by the basic conversations that were happening, and the team of potential recruits that were interested in doing some of the technical heavy lifting. No one part was difficult by any means, it was just…fiddly, and from what they could estimate, was basically volunteering to solve hundreds or thousands of missing persons cases. 

The first thing to do was to figure out if they were dealing with hundreds or thousands and get some handle on being able to properly enumerate the trashmaid population, something that had never been at the top of anyone’s priority list.

All work for later, for tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow, and work that she might need to purposely pull herself back from, maybe, and that was a couple of…She knew they should probably be delicate conversations, but she wasn’t sure if she was talented enough for delicate, and would probably either be so obtuse to as render clear lines of communication useless, or far too blunt. 

Her title said “Field”, her ID said “Field” and it that was a clear element of every bit of paperwork that had been involved in her transition from human to better-than-human. 

As fun as Tech was, she didn’t want to take any chances with this second chance, didn’t want to get Ryan in trouble if she got too distracted with code, didn’t want anything to happen to anyone because getting her to think or concentrate in a straight line was a Sisyphean task. 

She was already so far away from what a proper agent was supposed to be, already mostly alive because one man had cared enough to cash in favours owed to him and because people had loved his father, and with Grandagent Reynolds in his sued-for-peace-with-Galactus eternal coma, they had no one to lavish those owed debts to except his son and reluctant successor.

Things were fragile enough, she was fragile enough, that she didn’t want one bad report, one evaluation with marks lower than she was already going to get, to bring all of this down. 

She was ill-suited to her suit, but putting in a bit of effort, doing more than the bare minimum, might be the first step to mitigating…everything about her. 

Even in the last few days, Curt had run her through a whole bunch of stuff, trying to front-load and power level her as much as possible before any shit hit any fans, and the fact that the first real thing she’d had to do was just mostly stay quiet while more trained people handled a dead mermaid girl was some small blessing from a universe that was too often too cruel. 

But that kindness, that gentle introduction wasn’t something that would last, and at any point, there was a chance that someone was going to expect her to do what her title and department demanded of her, and if she couldn’t perform, then people might die. 

And she was just getting to enjoy the idea of people. Well, certain people at least.

It wasn’t just the shooty bits either, for that, she could rely largely rely on the autopilot – and dredging up her ballet lessons was helping with that – even if stringing together tactics with her aimbot was something that needed to be worked on, but there were also more subtle things that she was even more shit at than throwing a punch without assistance. 

Luckily for her, she wasn’t the first literally crazy waste-of-space that the Agency had ever hired, so there were sims for everything that you could imagine, and even more than that. 

Since Ryan was busy with a “I don’t want to call it a dinner party, but it is largely pointless conversation and finger foods” for all of the eastern seaboard directors – plus Tasmania, so they didn’t feel left out – the not-quite-a-routine habit they’d been building of having dinner together wasn’t going ahead. 

As much time as they spent together, and as much as they technically didn’t need to eat, there was something special about sharing a meal that they hadn’t left unsaid, that it was the kind of banality that neither of them had ever really – or at least, had for long, in his case. 

She’d generally been expected to eat with her parents, even if she was pretty much an ignored element at the dinner table, something that was there because it was supposed to be there, not because it would be particularly missed if it wasn’t there, like a fish fork, or a finger bowl. 

And she was pretty sure that her father at least would have traded her for a fish fork, provided the fork was of a quality he was happy with. 

Her parents had always switched off sitting at the head of the twelve-seater table that was used for everyday family dinners, with the other sitting to their spouse’s right, their back to the wall that held the portrait of her great-great-grandfather and his favourite horse. 

Usually, she’d sit in the fourth seat down on the opposite side of the table, far enough away that she was usually able to play whatever handheld console had been available at the time, since if she was gentle with her button presses, it was less noticeable than reading a book and the attendant noise of turning pages. 

Sometimes, it hadn’t even been about actually playing the games as much as it had been taking comfort in just letting part of her escape the world around her, of imagining that life could be as simple as handing over a couple of carrots to be heralded with squeaks of joy from some furry character. 

She’d eat quietly, making every effort not to make too much noise with her cutlery, not to clink her glass against her plate, not to breathe too loudly, not to think too loudly, and with every fibre of her tiny body to just stop existing. 

When they had company, she’d be shuffled closer – often still not right next to her parents, but at least not visibly separated, and it was on those nights when her father would take her aside a couple of hours beforehand and simply tell her that company was coming, then stare down at her for a full, silent ten seconds. 

No threat, no hand gripped just a little too tightly on her shoulder, usually not even a harsh word. Just an expectation laid out, and the imagination of a terrified, neglected child to fill in every nightmare possible without him having to ever do more than stare at her with eyes that had never sent kindness in her direction. 

James had basically perfected his treatment of her down to a science. Across her childhood, he’d rarely hit her – she was, after all, a prized possession of his wife, and he’d do anything for Charlotte – but the moments had been strategic enough to be self-reinforcing, a background radiation of threat that kept her in line. 

He was freer with harsh words though, as those didn’t leave marks that would make her mother tut at him, but she spent her time withdrawing so much as to not give him reason to yell at her, and mostly that worked, so long as she was out of his sight, she was out of his mind. 

So dinnertime had never been something to be enjoyed, but she’d always wanted the experience The feeling of…warm family moments that made her so jealous of sitcom families – at least the ones that got along – where maybe in another life, there would have been a time where she would have been sitting at the table, still in her school uniform, half-studying, half-daydreaming before her parents had appeared, told her to wash up for dinner, and by the time she’d come back with clean hands, picture-perfect plates of food would be on the table, and they’d ask her how her day was. 

With slightly higher stakes than studying for a test though, that was exactly what she had now. 

Every little wish that little Stephanie with her DS had made while taking furtive looks at parents who were so willing, so happy to neglect her; every meal alone in her estate rooms wheeled in by one of the kitchen staff, or every meal at school eaten in the most faraway corner she could manage…all of them, though it had taken time, had come true. 

And it just left her so afraid of losing what she had that sometimes it almost ruined the moment. 

She ran her fingers over the cufflinks that Ryan had given her, forced herself to take a few long, slow breaths, then tapped Hiro twice with the “put pet away” shortcut gesture that she’d chosen.

Even though she could load sim programs through her HUD, there was something…nice about using the tablet that lived in a little cradle next to the door, and wondered if it scratched the same itch as why Ryan often did paperwork longhand. 

The two-stage program loaded, and she slipped the tablet back into its home, set her Vox status to “Activity” which was a step below “Engaged” and didn’t carry the implication that you were uncontactable, just that you might not respond to messages if they weren’t important. 

The first stage of the program was more of a pre-program, a combination of a virtual wardrobe and gear load-outs to prep you for the program ahead, especially one where requiring wasn’t encouraged. 

The sim was relatively sim-ple but was the exact kind of thing she needed to work on – playing at being still, pretending to be outwardly normal, and not to have heightened reactions to people saying words or phrases that only those on this side of the masquerade knew, and to be able to stare back and flatly deny it when someone walked up to you and demanded to know if you were Agency, with the kind of shifty look that no matter what answer you gave, they might just shoot you out of a misplaced sense of self-preservation. 

It was a graded sim, so you could get automated feedback on what you did, and pointers on how to handle it next time – though if you wanted personalised feedback, you could either send it to your lead agent – as the sim was primarily designed for recruits – or to a submission pool for a random Field agent to critique. 

Critiques like that were one of the things that actually did fall under the purview of the “we’re not calling it retirement, but that’s what it is” less-than-active agents like Applebaum were responsible for doing, as it kept them somewhat in the loop of how the world outside of whatever job they had that didn’t really require much effort or input, like her network’s Lost and Found. 

Maybe in two hundred years, that’s what she’d be doing, and…that wasn’t a bad future to look forward to.

It’s so weird to look forward to the future.

But good?

But good.

If that was where she ended up, Lost and Found was getting a lot more LED lights. 

Focus.

She looked around at the prep room options and recognised most of them. Some sims, you were expected to go into pretty much blind, other than maybe knowing your purpose as the PC, but this was one that had a guide, and its own little collection of threads on a Vox sub-forum – and all versions of it were, as there was a “generic” version of this sim, taking place in one of the anonymous cities that could be used as the basis for any sim. This sim had used the “large generic US city” that had the same almost-familiar feel of playing a video game that wasn’t set anywhere specific, but was heavily inspired by New York, Chicago or whatever. 

Over time though, a lot of Agency networks had personalised forks of the sim to reflect the cities they actually served, and that their recruits would be familiar with, so beyond the door at the far end of the room would be a version of the pedestrian mall part of Queen Street. 

It was another sim that didn’t quite line up one-to-one with exactly like a mission that she might undertake – like Curt had told her during the first sim she’d ever done, a lot of them were about getting your mind to think in certain ways.

So technically the job she was doing as a PC – along with “not sticking out” and “not reacting if someone called you a recruit” – was to get relatively close to certain Solstice NPCs that would be marked as they came along, to be able to get close to them without tipping them off, with bonus points for successfully interacting with them. 

In the real world, unless there were especially weird blackout conditions – mostly an assignment like this could be done by a drone or two, but it was a valuable enough collection of skills training that it made sense to package it into one coherent “narrative”. 

There were a few suggested roles that the PC could take on, with the three most popular being displayed as semi-transparent costumes on bone-white mannequins in the centre of the room. 

A student was the left-most choice, the costume complete with a backpack and a heavy textbook – a role the forums suggested you take on if you did have some kind of genuine knowledge in a subject that could be in a textbook so that if questioned, it didn’t come across like you were just holding a prop. A role that would be easy enough to do, as anyone who thought to probe her about whatever coding textbook she was carrying would be so bored to tiers they’d probably rather fling themselves on the mercy of Mags and Taylor than continue the conversation. 

The right-most was “generic office worker” that was just an Agency uniform without the vest, jacket or tie – just black pants and a business shirt – which was kind of the “hide in plain sight” route that was popular for a lot of people who ran the program multiple times, who wanted to see how good they could get, which was a skill that could carry over into the real world, as it just meant stuffing the identifiable pieces of your uniform into a trash can. 

The one in the centre was a chugger – a charity mugger – one of those eternally-looked-past people with a clipboard endemic to cities asking for a petition signature or an ongoing donation to some organisation. 

There were often groups of them near the train station where she’d used to live, so she knew the usual kind of patter they would use to get the attention of people who by all signs, clearly didn’t want their attention gotten. You could be looking away, have big headphones on, have arms full of groceries or other purchases, and they’d still jump into your path, a big fake smile on their face and a loud voice to sprout the virtues of whatever they were trying to promote. That kind of approach was well out of her wheelhouse, but she had seen a lot of them who were meek, who couldn’t bring themselves to approach people, and who probably didn’t last the day.

The costume was a pair of basic pants, sneakers, and a T-shirt of a pathetic-looking kitten as the fake petition that she’d chosen was a bunch of who-could-disagree suggestions to the state government about no-kill shelters and timelines for euthanising animals. Absolutely banal and not something that would ping as suspicious on anyone’s radar. 

She’d known the role she was going to take for a while, and this was where you could start to set yourself up for points, and potential victories and losses. 

The program instructions encouraged you to personalise the costume and accessories, to choose a couple of imperfections so it didn’t look like you’d walked out of an Agency in an outfit that hadn’t existed eight seconds before. 

Solstice trained themselves to look for things that were too perfect, and were more likely to give a pass to people who were just…a little human-ly grimy, that had enough reality to their look that they could pass under the radar of those looking for spit-and-polish and starched shirts. 

There were forum threads full of discussions about what kinds of things to add, and warnings not to go too overboard, as it was a fine balance between “most people didn’t shine their shoes every day” and “orphan in a Dickensian play”. 

And she’d given thought to this, parsing it like reading a game guide before even attempting a boss battle. The shelter shirt she left alone – it had a somewhat awkward fit, but that was common for chugger shirts, as apparently, the organisation would just throw something at you of your approximate size, so one that actually looked nice would be suspicious. 

The layer under the shirt though – as she hadn’t wanted to alter the T-shirt to give it sleeves long enough to make her scar-comfortable in public, was a light cotton long-sleeve shirt, to which she added a tomato sauce stain to the inner forearm area, just a pale mark that looked like she’d dripped sauce from a breakfast muffin and made a valiant attempt to wash it out. Not a detail that would be noticed unless someone was well into her personal space and looking for it – which was a good kind of thing to add. 

She added a bit of wear to the heel of the left shoe, though held back on adding anything else, trying to avoid the Dickensian Event Horizon.

The costume came with a small, square satchel bag, to which she added a couple of crumpled receipts, a couple of boiled sweets, a couple of flyers that were the kind of thing you accepted when someone shoved them at you, and a charging cable with a bit of wear at one end. 

She added a similar amount of detritus to the wallet that came with the bag, adding an Oyster card in the slot above the more Brisbane-appropriate Go Card, a couple of business cards – one for a hostel, one for a set of long-stay units, and a couple of five-pound notes along with the Australian currency. 

It was cheating, doing this, but it was also using the limited tools she had at her disposal.

There were a lot of backpackers who took on temporary roles like this, so while if any Solstice NPC walking by heard her talking, they might notice her mother’s accent, but that would probably – hopefully – then make her slide a few points down the suspicion ladder.

In some weird cognitive dissonance, that as “inhuman” and “monstrous” that agents were, that they were also somehow patriotic? That because their uniforms had a feature colour, and therefore a clear indicator of where someone was from, that they were somehow programmatically incapable of even pretending to be something else?

Maybe it came from some belief or hope about the limitations of what an agent could be or do, that contradictingly as capable of lies as they were, as manipulative and scheming and evil and whatnot as the agents-as-bogeymen were, that something as simple as putting on a different accent was somehow too human, too simple of a trick for someone made of nanites to stoop to. 

A stray thought added a little bit of thread imperfection in the stitching where the handle of the bag met the body – a little loop that hadn’t been caught by quality control, and a thread that hadn’t been trimmed quite enough. Small things, things that no one would notice unless looking for them, but also not things that would happen during a requirement unless you were make the request with the outrageous verbosity of a harried writer trying to meet their word count. 

All of her planned changes done, she straightened, then stepped through the translucent costume and mannequin, prompting the sim to swap out her outfit for the one she’d designed. 

She took a look at the shelves, and grabbed a couple more clipboards for the fake organisation, each with a pen-on-a-string attached, an oversized water bottle, some flyers and stickers, and a cloth bag to hold it all. 

There was nothing much else of interest in the room for right now – she didn’t need any more accessories preloaded – and she’d take the risk of diegetically requiring them if she needed to do anything, which would also be a nice points bonus if she got away with it unseen. 

 

 

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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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lightdefender

anyone who thought to probe her about whatever coding textbook she was carrying would be so bored to tiers
tiers -> tears

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