04 - Ebb and Flow

22 – Simulacrum

The door at the far end of the room was plain white, with a silver knob, something you could at Bunnings for a hundred bucks, and a really fun part of the process. 

She spun the handle and stepped through, and kept her hand on the door as ahead of her, late-morning sunlight and the smells of the city came into view, her Agenty eyes having no problem adjusting the differing light levels – and they rarely did, unless the change in light was massive, and even then, it often wasn’t something that her previously-human maybe-still-too-falliably-human brain could notice – because even that temporarily disruption of senses at the wrong moment might make the difference between life and death. 

And behind her, the prep room disappeared – she always set it to “slow” so she could watch certain items become wireframe versions of themselves, or look weirdly CGI as they were selectively removed from the idea, before furniture and finally the walls of the room itself went away, the door fading to a little bit of digital mist before the visible portal back to the real world disappeared. 

It was a validation of every time she’d jumped in a puddle, or stood in a ring of mushrooms, hoping to be whisked away to another world, if a version that played more to her code monkey side than her reading-Narnia-under-the-covers side. 

She allowed her hand to drop to her side and looked towards the sim proper. She was in a familiar spot, her back towards Adelaide Street and the buses towards her old home, her feet aimed up towards the mall and the Hungry Jacks that a lot of people thought of as the most iconic spot in the city. 

On the edge of the raised garden bed to her left stood a couple of magpies, one with its head in an abandoned packet of crisps, one that instead of branding and flavour on its face, had credits for the sim as a little Easter Egg, including crediting the original designer of this fork – Agent Samuels, Jonesy’s predecessor – and then credit to Jonesy herself for subsequent updates. 

As she took her first couple of steps forward, the magpies flew away, and the chip packet fluttered to the ground and despawned. 

Floating in the air in front of her was a countdown timer, which you could start by interacting with your HUD, or by walking forward and pressing off – and she did the latter, she she needed to move further up towards the mall proper anyway, rather than staying in this shorter offshoot. 

The NPCs would adjust to wherever she set up or moved to, but she had a vague gameplan of what she wanted to do across the forty-five-minute session that she’d chosen – you could do a session of up to ninety minutes, but from what most people said, the forty-five was the optimal experience, as it let you try out a few different ways of standing, walking, and observing, without the potential to get bored as existed in the longer session. 

There were even shorter sessions, and for those you could choose to have a pro-rated amount of encounters or to speed up the time between encounters, and both had quite good reviews.

She was sure that this section had a name – it was another street converted into a fully pedestrian area, but it was never something she’d bothered to figure out – to her, it was simply “that bit between the mall and the busses” – though it did become a proper street again, and ran all the way down to the botanical gardens, so it had to have a name. 

Probably a boy name, given the section of the city it was in – in the centre of the CBD all the streets parallel to Adelaide behind her back were girly royal names, Ann, Elizabeth and whatnot; whereas the perpendicular streets were royal boyish names like George and Edward.

Names that, because of her family’s position and status throughout the centuries, she could probably claim at least the vaguest of relation to, but that was a life belonging to Stephanie. Stef on the other hand, was happy that the closest thing she’d ever have to contend with nobility and all that nonsense ever again was that Magnolia was, colloquially speaking, a princess – albeit a title she shared with dozens or hundreds of the other direct offspring from the Magpie warden. 

Just where this side street met the mall, and there was the big somewhat covered space of the intersection, there were some benches and – because the countdown timer was still going – there were no civilian NPCs in her way, and she set up her stuff on one corner of the bench – the clipboards in a small semi-circle, the top one holding several of the flyers under its clip, the water bottle beside it, and her bag tucked just under the bench, enough for it to be safe enough if she kept her eye on it – something she would be sure to do – though not overdo – as would be the actions of someone who was actually in her position. 

As prepared as she could be, she reached out and tapped the “Start Now” option on the floating holographic timer. 

Civilian NPCs – and potentially unmarked Solstice NPCs – popped into existence and she simply stood awkwardly, clipboard held tight in her hands as she watched the people in a way that more a lot more attentive than she’d ever really been when standing on this spot in real life. 

Usually she tried to let crowds unfocus into a blur, into vaguely human shapes and splotches of colour and sound, as that had been the less terrifying way to interact with the world, to…be less intimidated by everyday actions that most people were able to take for granted. 

There probably wouldn’t be a “you have to observe” variety of NPC for a while – although the exact order in which things happened was randomly generated, certain frequency ranges did bound how often something could appear, which meant that it was almost always – according to the anecdotal evidence she’d read through – at least five full minutes before there’d be a blinking, holographic arrow trying to get her attention onto a particular NPC.

“You are being observed” NPCs though, most often at least one spawned with the initial crowd – though that didn’t mean that they were necessarily within visual range to start with. One could have started up near the casino, or be getting off a bus as she looked around, looking for likely targets to engage about the welfare of kittens. 

And although there was no official XP granted by actually getting signatures, at least from what she knew, she’d made it a personal goal to speak to at least five people – five, non-service worker, non-marked-Solstice people. 

That was only about one every ten minutes, so not necessarily something she had to rush into, but…also not something she could drag her feet on.

She turned and grabbed a few of the stickers – which were just round cat stickers that didn’t actually have the name or identifying information of the campaign – a small thing that said to her that maybe this was a real-world cover that they could use, as it seemed strange that the sim designer would go to the trouble of anonymising the only tangible proof that a civilian might be able to walk away with.

Concentrate.

‘I am,’ she mumbled, then let out a breath and found the internal switches and pulleys to put on her mother’s accent – and it was her mother’s accent, mainly RP, softened a bit by all the travel she’d done, whereas James had always had an Estuary accent, which she had done her best never to imitate, never to pick up, both to distance herself from him, and afraid that he might think that she was making a mockery of him. 

A mother and child – a cute little girl wearing a shirt with a couple of cartoon dogs on it – paused a few feet away as the daughter indicated gleefully at Stef’s shirt. 

Even in terms of the sim, in treating this like reality, she felt safe enough to leave her stash of clipboards and her bag for a few seconds, at the distance of just a couple of metres – and walked forward, one of the stickers in her hand. 

She tried to imagine the kind of customer-service-perfect face Curt would have in this situation, and attempted to mimic that, mouthing “May I?” to the mother as she waved the sticker.

With a nod of approval, she bent a little, hoped her smile was acceptably normal and handed over the sticker, which the girl immediately peeled from its backing to slap onto the shirt, above the two cartoon dogs, while her mother made the little “ah-ah-ah” noises of a child making a mistake that you were too late to catch.

Stef handed another sticker to the mother, so that – if this had been real – there would have been no crying later when the daughter figured out that stickers only stuck once, and that sticking it to clothing might not have been the best plan.

‘So what’s this about?’ the mother asked, in a way that even she could pick up was just perfunctory, and more of a thank you for the stickers than any genuine interest or care about the petition. 

‘Better long-term conditions for shelter animals,’ she said, ‘we’re just after signatures, no phone number, no email, just a show of interest from the public ahead of more formal surveys and petitions.’

This seemed acceptably mild, and the mother motioned for the clipboard, then passed it to another woman who had stopped while she was giving the one-sentence pitch. The second woman signed, then immediately walked off, while the mother and daughter dawdled for a moment longer while the little girl patted each of the dogs and the cat sticker in turn, apparently beyond delighted that she had another furry creature in her army.

‘Have a good day,’ Stef said, sparing them from any more perfunctory communication, and walked back the few feet to get back into much closer proximity to her stuff. 

Not much happened for the next ten minutes, someone did shout something in her direction from a distance, but she had been concentrating on maintaining customer-service face while getting another signature, so she’d been unsure if it had been some poor attempt to spook a recruit, or if it had been just…someone shouting angrily because they’d been having a shit day.

There’d been none of the observation targets as yet – or maybe she’d missed them, though they were supposed to be within ten metres at a certain point of their preprogrammed walk cycle, and the holographic arrows above their heads were supposed to be a clue…but she knew sometimes she did tune that far out of reality that it was possible she had missed the giant look-at-me brighter-than-neon signs. 

It was a lot of work though, just playing the part of being normal. 

She turned from the passing civilians to take a water break, clipboard tucked under her arm. The first water break she’d taken, as she didn’t want to look like she was on some sort of behaviour loop, or was seemingly trying to act Too Normal which, if under observation for long enough, would look completely unnatural. 

That was the purpose of this sim, and others like it, being so long – anyone, even her, could look normal for a couple of minutes, could make several actions that meant nothing in isolation, but that were suspicious if someone were, say, sitting on a bench across from you, watching you for an hour straight. 

It was the same as when people pretended to be asleep, most would try to convey they were asleep by snoring or shifting around – as people genuinely did while asleep – but do it too much, too often, in a way that too clearly communicating “acting” rather than “reality”. 

Cap back on the large water bottle, she tucked some more stickers under the clip and turned away from the small bit of calm she’d manufactured for herself, and out at the morning crowds again. 

Still no giant arrows, but- 

As tempting as it was in theory, she deliberately tried to walk around with a HUD that wasn’t as full and overwhelming as a Skynet employee, so didn’t receive tooltips on most people, unless she concentrated on bringing them up, or she was actively scanning.

In a group of hundred people, getting information on ninety-eight of them, nine times out of ten, was a waste. It was visual clutter that made it harder to do your job, so like most agents, she let humans slip by. 

The two icons she did have active were for fae and “other blackout conditions”. For the desktop scheme she’d chosen, the fae icon was a flat purple circle with some white and yellow sparks to give the impression of “magic”, and would attach itself as a tooltip to anyone the System had enough reason to deem a fae.

This category covered most fae that had any level of regular communication with or travel to Earth, as the fae who interacted with this plane were often those who had less magic, or whose magic was easier to hide. And the less magic that blue had to cut through, the more accurate even a passive scan could be. 

When the System couldn’t make a determination more than “blackout”, it assigned them the solid black dot that a lot of agents – and those few recruits with HUDs – grew to get a Pavlovian fight-flight-or-freeze response to seeing, with the tiny circle being enough to put anyone on alert. 

To somewhat mitigate this, there were certain pieces of programming logic that would look at other factors about someone who initially just read as “blackout” and automatic processes would turn a little more active and would make some basic judgements, which would often render a “we think this is a fae, but we can’t guarantee it with a passive scan” icon that was half of each icon. 

And ninety per cent of the time or more, those little combined icons would usually end up being a fae, and with each confirmed guess, the System was just getting better and better at these assumptive passive scans. 

Contrary to what a lot of Solstice thought about the capabilities of the Agency, they weren’t scanning every inch of every building everywhere on Earth all the time. Technically – and technically – it was probably possible to have that kind of absolute-Orwellian-hell surveillance going on, but there was no point to it. 

Just how ninety-nine people in a crowd weren’t of any interest, ninety-nine per cent of the planet at any one given time was equally disinteresting. You could have an accurate scan of the Challenger Deep, but…why?

Some recruits liked to use the analogy of maps – you could pop onto any online map service and pull up the entire Earth, but certain places were only scanned from a satellite, some places had street-level scans that were updated yearly, and others hadn’t been updated for years. Different priorities, and different densities of information. 

So while there was a minimum concentration of nanites in the environment to deem anything a System area, those little bits of dispersed blue tended to stay pretty much passive, just doing their individual part to keep the area safe enough for angels to walk in. 

What the System area did provide was a near-instantaneous relay and receiver setup that meant it could become a lot more dense very quickly – as soon as any Agency personnel – even a drone – entered any area, it become information-rich, and you could pull up the composition of a brick in a wall beside you, or scan for lifeforms. 

One of those passive scans was showing a fae now, and usually, that wasn’t a problem. The fact that their ears had elongated, morphed to a halfway point between human and…probably kangaroo or wallaby, something in that family, however, might be an issue for them if the wrong people noticed. 

This kind of partial transformation wasn’t unusual, especially for animal fae who tended to keep some animal features visible when they were in a safe area, any slip in concentration could lead to the fully human disguise sliding a little bit. 

Because furries existed though, it often went by unremarked, as most civilians were far more likely to believe that someone was just expressing a bit of their fursona, or were coming from or going to, some kind of theatre performance. 

Even as readily as she’d jumped on board the “holy fuck, magic is real” train, as little as Dorian had needed to say in order to make her realise there was an entire dimension to the world that she hadn’t been a part of…she also knew that if she’d been in her civilian shoes right now, her first thought on seeing the increasingly-wallaby-ish ears wouldn’t have been “ooh magic” so much as “did I miss a convention?”. 

She did need to alert the fae though, and knew this was one of the bonus activities that sometimes cropped up in this sim – there were a few dozen possible bonuses, most being as low-stakes as this, that relied on you paying attention in order to be able to successfully complete the side quest. 

Without much enthusiasm, she offered the petition to a group of passing people, who ignored her. The main goal of staying undercover had to be maintained, and the bonus quests were a way of reinforcing that, that sometimes you would have to choose what was more important – not truly a full Kobayashi Maru, but a gentle reinforcement that staying on mission could save more people in the end. 

Luckily, this was one of the sidequests where being an agent, rather than a recruit, gave her some options. 

Command: Macro-GGDM

Go-Go-Disassociative-Mode activated and a light trill that she’d programmed as part of this sequence played in her head as her HUD flicked over to a profile designed to make interacting with this mode easier. 

On the left was a series of macro commands that she’d selected that would control her body, which was, right now, moving to pick up her phone and sit on the bench to apparently take a break from soliciting signatures. Her head was tilted just enough so that she was apparently looking at her screen while being high enough to give her a view of the mall. 

She set a target on the fae, and her HUD extrapolated the path she was likely to take, based on the movements of the rest of the foot traffic, and her current walking speed – a track that was updated every step, but was never more than a best guess. 

First thing to do, and the most subtle – scent cloud.

If you wanted to get a fae’s attention, and only the attention of a fae, you had to be subtle, and work on that knife’s edge of things they would recognise but that a Solstice probably wouldn’t, hence why casting Stinking Cloud was a good first option.

Salt was a good smell to use – anything except right next to the ocean – as it was something that most humans would immediately rationalise away if they noticed it at all. They’d assume it was…some restaurant smell, or something equally mundane. Fae who had at least paid half-attention in one of the Local Court “welcome to Earth” classes would know it was one of the signals the Agency used, so to be mindful when the smell was in the air. 

A couple of HUD clicks while her hands idly scrolled through procedurally generated social media, so that nothing would look off to anyone observing over her shoulder brought up an overhead map of the mall, which she pulled to the front layer of what she was seeing, underlaid the assumed walking path, then with another couple of clicks, sketched out the area-of-effect size for the requirement – an initial spread of four feet wide and eight feet long. Wide enough so that a side step – so long as the kanga-walla-fae continued up the mall towards the casino away from the Agency – and long enough so that there would be at least a couple of steps for her to take in the scent and realise it. 

With each step, the effect – locked to the fae’s current position – moved along, ready to be deployed as soon as she hit the button in her HUD. 

After a moment, she set up a second AOE, this one just four-by-four, and smelling of mint. 

Mint was relatively rare in Faerie, not as ubiquitous as it was on Earth, as aole tended to fill the same role in refreshing your breath, cleansing your palette or providing a bright taste to toothpaste, but it also wasn’t completely unknown, so it being unusual, it was likely to get a fae’s attention – but it was less easy to rationalise away than just the smell of salt, so it had to be used sparingly. 

She dialled down the intensity of the four-by-four AOE, then reduced it further to two-by-two – the smell would disperse after it initially popped into existence, so it would be enough for the walla-roo to get a single breath of it, and either notice it or not. 

Her body, on its autopilot routine, scratched at the back of her head, then rested her phone on her lap and took a drink.

With a couple of commands, she had an ibis drone – one without the cute little patch of discoloured feathers that made it look like it was wearing a tie – sitting on an awning ahead of the fae, which gave her a front-on view to see any facial reactions to the scents, if any. 

One more tap in her HUD executed the requirements and she brought up the ibis-cam to fill a good third of her HUD, the stream augmented with overlays of where the scent clouds were. 

The woman walked through the salt, all eight feet of it without breaking stride, doing more than twitching her nose, and into the mint with an equal lack of reaction.

‘Taking a break, are we, Recruit?’

She hit the emergency “Exit GGDM” mode button and looked up at a man who was way too close for comfort. 

‘We’re not recruiting,’ she said, having prepared for such an opener, ‘just getting signatures.’ She put down her phone and offered the clipboard up to him, not standing, not acting aggressively, not doing anything to heighten the situation. ‘Do you know about our campaign or-’

‘Recruit! Agency!’

You can do this.

The awkward smile on her face was completely real, and she lifted her eyebrows trying to put touches of both condescension and customer service into her face. ‘Yes, the campaign’s run through an Agency, I know it’s a little controversial to some people but-’

‘You fucking admit it!’

‘Sir, it just makes sense. Most organisations, especially smaller charities don’t have the resources to have marketing teams on staff, so it makes sense to hire an outside firm whose people are used to standing around with clipboards all day and-’

He leaned down and ripped the clipboard out of her hands, which made her yelp, then tossed it behind him. ‘Listen, you-’

He stopped as he looked back from his clipboard toss and saw her with her thumb in her mouth, a little bit of fake blood required onto her lip. She let her face tremble and fall, then she looked down and away – something a recruit would never do – and started to rummage in her bag for some tissues to press her “bleeding” thumb into.

Thumb secured, she wiped at her eyes with the back of her “uninjured” hand. ‘Mate, I’m just doing this for a bit of fun money while I’m backpacking. What the fuck is your problem?’

‘I, uh-’

An older man with a cane sat heavily on the seat beside her and waved at the Solstice. ‘Clear off. Stop bothering people.’ 

‘You’re-’

“Blood staunched”, she patted her pockets for a plaster, required one – which would be bonus points for doing it right under the nose of an interacting NPC – and awkwardly fixed up her thumb. 

With one more shake of the older man’s cane, the Solstice grumbled and then left, all of the wind gone from his sails, though he kept looking back as he crossed the intersection of the mall and disappeared down the sloped section towards Elizabeth Street. 

‘You good, you all good?’ the older man asked. 

‘Yeah,’ she said, a little too brightly, and sniffed – just once, as to not overplay it – ‘I’m good. Some people just- Some mother’s children, you know?’

He patted her knee, grabbed the head of his cane and levered himself to his feet, in time to have his arm caught by a woman of similar age, travelling even slower, assisted by a walker. 

She took a moment to seem to compose herself, gathered all the supplies into the bag, then headed for Hungry Jacks – if anyone was observing her, appearing to take a lunch break after being rattled by a shouting man would be logical, and not something that would really draw attention. 

As she walked over, she checked on the ibis cam, which had flown ahead of the fae to keep an eye on her – the woman was at the top of the mall now, just across from the Casino and the giant ball sculptures that in a weirder timeline would probably hatch robots during the apocalypse. 

And the furry ears were still present, still a danger. 

Okay, Plan B.

She waited until the woman had crossed the street – taking those few seconds while the fae waited for the little green walk man to put her order in with the cashier – and then stood back, number in hand, trying to see where the best place to enact B would be.

After crossing, the woman turned left, heading in the direction of the botanical gardens and the university. 

It was a little harder to do not in GGDM, but she pulled elements onto her HUD – the ibis cam, the predicted walk pattern, everything that she needed, but none of the little extras that made this easier, and quickly build a scenario, and executed it as her number was called. 

As she carried her brown bag and drink out into the mall, and headed up, in the same direction as the fae woman had gone, towards a different set of benches, she watched from the view of one ibis drone as another pecked at a green cardboard box – a “medium share size” open box that was the legally-okayed copy of a classic Famous Fry’s design. For most fae, it was instantly recognisable, as much as golden curves or southern military gentlemen were to most humans. 

And with the ibis paying so much attention to it, its wings flapping, it actually made the fae woman break her stride for the first time since she’d been under observation. 

Stef opened the bag, pulled out her burger, peeled back the top bun and loaded it with fries before squishing the bun back into place. 

In a way that wouldn’t get her any points, if she’d been the one in the sim, the kanga-woman looked around, head swinging wildly from left to right as the drone, having met the condition of “get target’s attention” pecked at the container once more, then flew off to do a nearby corner to live up to its name of bin chicken as it started to pick through more trash. 

The woman started to pat her body down, starting with her butt, which gave the worrying indication that sometimes the trait that leaked through when she wasn’t concentrating was as full kangaroo tail? Eventually that pats found her ears, which she curled her fingers around as they became fully disguised again. 

Also having met the conditional of “being noticed”, the logos on the cardboard share plate switched to be that of a generic sandwich image and a couple of speech bubbles that said “yum”, nothing that would draw attention before it was scooped into some trash and eventually ended up in landfill. 

As the fae looked around, trying to see if she was being observed by anything other than the ibis a handful of metres away, attempting to choke down the contents of a popcorn container, she simply tapped her thumb and forefinger together in a way that was a common, non-verbal way of saying “thank you”, then resumed her walk in the direction of the gardens.

That minor sidequest done, and hopefully some points accrued, she focussed on her burger, while trying to nonchalantly look around for the next interesting part of the sim.

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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

because even that temporarily disruption of senses at the wrong moment might make the difference between life and death.
temporarily -> temporary

she watched the people in a way that more a lot more attentive than she’d ever really been when standing on this spot in real life.
that more -> that was?

I think I’d seen something else later in the chapter, too, but don’t recall what right now.

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