[Do you want to see something cool?]
Stef focussed on her HUD, and let her body continue to run through the better-get-used-to-autopilot ballet program. It was definitely getting easier to cede control, to work with the automation, and to find the limits of where she could still make choices and decisions, even when autopilot was running.
In a way, it was like IRL quick-time events.
And she wasn’t sure if that made the whole process better or worse.
Her arms lifted and flowed in time with the music, in a way that was literally unnaturally graceful, pushing her body into forms so perfect that not even Madame Cousteau would be able to find fault with them.
Andrea’s Vox message sat on the right side of her HUD, and, feeling somewhat like she was accepting a quest, sent [Yes] in return.
A shift link was dropped into the chat, a location on the Tech science floor, the wonderful labyrinth of CSI labs, chemical research, and other things done with beakers and test tubes. It wasn’t where Jonesy usually hung out, so it didn’t take a genius to figure out that it was probably related to the trashmaid, given it had been the CSI recruits that had bagged and tagged the body.
Look presentable first.
‘Right,’ she said, then chided herself for talking out loud.
She skipped along in front of the mirror, thinking again, for the hundredth time that it was unfair that nothing weird happened around regular mirrors for her. That, despite what was in her chest, mirror were just…normal.
From what she’d read of the other mirror-affected people, and the discussions she’d watched Agent Ditto’s Group Chat for Gifted Youngsters – a name that the agent with the cat fursona avatar apparently refused to change – there were pros and cons to having “active” versus “passive” powers.
And so far, her passive power was “continue living”, so it might have been the strangest, least fun power out of all the ones she’d read about.
After one more jump, something her body did flawlessly when her brain wasn’t in the way, she exited from the training program, then closed her eyes and wiggled all of her extremities, making sure that she was in full control of her body again.
Satisfied that the forced dissociation had been successfully terminated, she gave a flourish with her arms, and watched in the mirror as her Agency-blue leotard and black slippers were replaced with her uniform.
Hair that had been held back with a sweatband refreshed and fell neatly into place, and her skin refreshed, clearing away any traces of sweat and stink.
Happy that she was at a normal, acceptable level of tidy, she clicked the shift link and disappeared from the ballet studio sim.
‘Shh,’ Andrea said as soon as she reintegrated. ‘Be very, very quiet.’
Stef nodded, let her eyes adjust to the dimly-lit lab, and then wondered if time had rewound itself and she was back in Top Secret world.
For so many days of her agentification, she’d slept in a huge tank of blue, surrounded by the comforting lights of machines, and every morning, she’d woken up with the lights dim, until the motion sensors slowly brought them up to normal.
She was in a lab, and there was a weirdly-shaped girl in a tank. But…the tank was full of less-than-clean water, and the girl was at least a little deader than she was.
And unlike her lab, there were recruits around – visible through the tank was Razillia’s fluffy pink hair, and off to the side, Alfie sat on a bench, a fish swimming through the air in front of them.
Ooh, fishie drone.
Andrea touched her shoulder, and Stef walked forward, slowly, so as to not spook the-
She selected Andrea’s chat and opened the voice channel not trusting herself to keep to a reasonable volume. [How is it alive?]
[Only parts of the colony had died off,] Andrea said, [most of it had simply gone dormant. It wasn’t out of the water long enough to totally die. A little bit of love, some dirty water, and she’s ready to be released back into the river.]
[Cool,] she said and pressed her hand up against the cool glass wall of the tank.
Part of her hoped that the trashmaid would reach a hand out, to make contact like it was the monster from an eighties movie, but it continued to float around the tank, occasionally moving to interact with a bit of debris that floated past.
Not a monster, a girl. A dead girl in a tank. A dead girl that-
The thought derailed as Jones walked past her, climbed the metal stairs beside the tank, and scattered the contents of her wastepaper basket into it, including what seemed to be several crayon drawings of fishes.
‘Oh,’ Andrea said, and pulled the last fish drawing from the bottom of the bin to toss it in and smiled, ‘Merlin wanted to make sure that she was fed.’
‘Jonesy, it’s seeing in black and white again,’ Alfie called. ‘Come have a look.’
‘Check the integration of the imported modules,’ Andrea said, climbed back down the stairs, handed Stef the bin, and went over to examine Alfie’s fish.
Razillia slowly sidestepped around the tank until they had shuffled to Stef’s side, a conspiratorial look on their face. ‘Did she ask you yet?’
‘Jonesy?’ Stef asked, to which Razillia nodded. ‘Ask me what?’
‘Nothing,’ Razillia said, and pointed to the trashmaid, who was slowly chewing on one of the crayon fish drawings.
A drawing which, through some trick of the light, almost seemed to have scales for a moment.
‘Ask me what, Recruit?’ she said, trying to put some measure of Ryan’s authority into her voice.
‘Shoo, and I’ll ask,’ Andrea said, and Razillia retreated to the far side of the tank, where they were playing with the guts of some weird piece of lab equipment.
Stef looked up at the ceiling, then at Andrea. ‘Jonesy, how many shoes are waiting to fall on my head?’
‘The number and size of the shoes is entirely up to you, Spyder.’
‘Okay, so ask.’
Andrea pointed at the tank. ‘Other than the obvious, tell me what you see.’
The thought that had spiralled into the background came back, this time with some actual shape and definition. ‘A dead girl,’ she said. ‘And every time people seem to talk about the trashmaids, they talk about the magic half, the trashmaid half of the equation like it’s the whole, but there’s also a person there, or, yanno, what used to be a person.’
On the other side of the tank, Razillia nodded.
‘It’s something we’ve always known,’ Andrea said, her voice full of equal measures sadness and resignation, ‘it’s a basic fact of what they are, but there’s never been any concentrated effort to do a tag-and-release program and identify all the dead so that their families can get some kind of closure.’
‘Because we’re an under-resourced gremlin of an Agency?’
Stef pointed over her head. ‘Still waiting for the shoes, Jonesy.’
‘I can’t tell you why Reynolds never did anything about it, and Field has been understaffed for almost as long as you’ve been alive. We’ve just Curt onboard as aide, and while that does create more capability, it’s not necessarily something I want to dump in his lap.’
‘But my lap looks pretty good?’
‘Phrasing aside, yes. It’s a project you could head up, and ideally,’ she gestured around the lab, ‘there’d be a fair degree of interface with me and my kids, and we speak the same language. Your access would also mean fewer roadblocks than if Curt was heading it up.’ Jones’ electric green eyes sparkled. ‘Agent authority is very useful.’
Go for it, Spyder.
‘I accept,’ the words were out before she’d really had a chance to consider them, but they felt right, and the smile – as weird as the sensation still was – felt just as good. ‘Um. I’ll have to check with Ryan. And- I need some better idea of what I’d be doing, but-’
If it was a project with defined parameters, being overseen by someone who knew what they were doing, then maybe- Then it was something she could do.
Fetching and sorting the Local Court mail was one thing, it was one tiny thing that wouldn’t mean much to her overall contribution, even if it was a stepping stone, and enough to get her hair ruffled by a dad ready to praise her.
But this- This felt…agenty. Like something actually worth Ryan’s pride and encouragement.
She tried to pull herself from her brain, looked to what had made the strange noise, and found herself face-to-face with Alfie’s flying fish.
‘Bloop,’ it said again, circled her head, and flew back to the desk to circle its programmer.
‘Got the colour working?’ Andrea asked.
‘Yeah, it was exactly what you said,’ Alfie said. ‘I’ve made some comments so they can fix it in the next release.’ They stood, and the fish settled onto their shoulder. ‘So are we doing this now?’
Stef looked up at Andrea, who smiled, held up a hand, required a child-sized slipper and lightly bapped her on the head with it. ‘So…I figured you would say yes,’ Andrea said as the recruits headed towards the back of the lab. ‘So I made sure my kids were ready to have a team meeting.’
She looked through the tank, following Andrea’s gaze, and saw the recruits walk through a door into what, through the distortion of the tank, was probably a meeting room, one that already had other people in it.
Jones tapped her with the slipper again and smiled. ‘Coming, Spyder?’
With no urge to shift to Canada, she nodded and followed Andrea into the meeting room.