04 – Softer, Kinder
It wasn’t weird to look at your own body.
It was really weird to look at your own body from a distance.
Stef reached forward and grabbed the hand of the simulacrum, feeling its weird room temperature texture.
‘I know I disassociate pretty well,’ she said mildly, ‘but this is another level altogether.’
Andrea snorted, then went back to what she was doing.
The simulacrum, the first step of agentification, stood in the centre of the room like a short, bored shop mannequin. It was her, to down every detail, every pale freckle, every hair on her arm and, under the light hospital gown, every inch of horrible scarring.
‘I know it’s weird,’ Andrea said. ‘Whether you do this by choice or necessity, it’s always weird.’ Andrea scooted her chair closer to Stef, two oversized slushy cups in her hand. ‘Here, drink.’
Stef looked between Andrea and the sim. ‘Have you done this?’
Andrea nodded. ‘A lot of agents who want to play with gender in a visual way do. Some just with clothing, others want to take advantage of functionally being able to shapeshift.’ Andrea flicked a couple of things on her tablet, and two additional Jonesys appeared.
One was the boy-mode Jonesy that she was familiar with – long blond hair that would make an anime character jealous, round glasses and a nerdy shirt under a lab coat.
The other was… wasn’t quite Jonesy. The hair was too short – floppy hair, and more of a dirty blond than it was now, and a starched uniform shirt under the lab coat.
After a moment, the nerdy boyband reject Jonesy disappeared, leaving just Andrea and her boy-mode self. ‘I didn’t want to look too different. I still wanted to look like me, no matter how I was feeling, but it took a while to find the elements that made it feel just right.’ She tucked back the hair on the Jonesy sim. ‘It’s like getting a bespoke suit, but you have to go stitch by stitch to make it feel right.’
Stef stared at her own sim. Her body was always something she’d done her best to distance herself from – even if not in such a literal way.
As a kid, her body has been a disappointment. She hadn’t been effortlessly graceful like her mother, and that had been something close to an unforgivable sin.
The accident and the resulting scars had been an ongoing source of shame, but more than that, it had been a constant reminder of exactly how little she featured in the thoughts of her family.
It would have been less than no effort. Half a mention to an assistant or valet to arrange the necessary restorative plastic surgeries, to give her a life where stretching the wrong way wouldn’t mean her school blouse would show off disfigured flesh to classmates who already thought she was easy pickings.
It had meant a life never wearing a swimsuit without some kind of cover. Forever making sure sleeves were long enough and being reminded how little she meant every time she stepped into a shower.
And now, with a couple of words, she could ask Andrea to change anything and everything she’d ever hated about herself.
A few taps and clicks could mean a glow-up from gremlin to gorgeous.
Stef, age twelve, crying herself to sleep every night in her hospital bed, would have jumped at the opportunity.
Stef, age sixteen, understanding that attending a pool party, even as a pity invite, would have curled the finger on the monkey’s paw.
Stef, age…whatever she was now, simply stared at her doppelganger.
‘I think I’m learning some things about myself,’ she said quietly.
‘If you’ll forgive the pun,’ Andrea said after a long pull on her slushy, ‘I think this experience has forced a lot more self-reflection than would have happened otherwise.’
‘Yeah,’ she said, then spent a few long moments slurping at her slushy.
There was a question coming. A lot could be left unsaid, and a lot had been said in a few words. Still, sooner or later, Andrea would need an honest answer, if for the checkboxes on the paperwork, if nothing else.
‘There is one change coming,’ Andrea said, putting her slushy down. ‘And it’s one I assume you haven’t seen, else I think you would have commented on it.’
‘There is a looot of paperwork, Jonesy,’ she said, making a meal of the word. And it wasn’t a lie either – if it had been printed instead of in files and slideshows, the stack of paper would have likely been taller than her.
And she was doing her best to keep on top of it, to understand what she could, and to question what she didn’t.
In many ways, it was like a softer, kinder reboot of her time in hospital – when there were so many things happening, few of which she’d fully understood.
And not all of her doctors were ready to have in-depth medical conversations with a gangly child, one largely held together with stitches and hope.
She’d had no backup. No family. Mother had died, and James had apparently only been at the hospital long enough to identify her body.
Every other bit of contact from her family had been directly aimed at the hospital staff, circumventing her like she was a pesky pothole.
Someone associated with her family had dropped off a box of her things. A plastic tub that seemed to have been filled with the first couple of dozen books and toys within arm’s reach of her bedroom door.
When she’d been released from the hospital, she’d gone directly to boarding school; and in that time, her father had sold their house.
What had happened to the rest of her childhood, to her other books and toys, to the dolls hidden away behind drawers because they weren’t pretty and perfect like Stephanie should have been playing with… she’d never had the courage to ask.
Part of her suspected that everything was in labelled boxes in some storage locker, along with the rest of the unused furnishings and decor from the house.
The other part of her knew that the cruel twist in James’ soul would have made sure to tell the movers and packers to throw out everything in her room. To take the time to be a bastard rather than allow any small measure of grace.
And in the few times she’d seen him, when they’d been at the same family event, or she’d heard him visiting the family estate during those rare times she’d been allowed “home” from school, she’d done her best to disappear.
Words of anger, confrontational questions, and the desire to scream at him until her throat bled…all of it always fled with one look.
Even now, she did her best not to picture his face.
She stared at her sim for another long, silent moment.
Wishes. Wishes were so dangerous.
If Andrea was correct, the amount of mirror in her chest could create another moon in the sky, raise a continent, or make some other fundamental change to the world.
It was way more than what would be required to change everything about her.
One scalpel, one cut, and a bit of painful digging could change her from the ground up.
But not one iota of her felt tempted.
Maybe a few?
It was the same sort of conclusion she’d come to, crying on Jane’s bathroom floor, trying for the millionth time to come to terms with the fact that having a child wasn’t something that was ever going to be in the cards.
One wish could wipe out the shitstain waste of space that she was and leave a functioning, sane, allistic, pretty person in her place.
But if she did that, she’d be dead, and twice was probably already enough for one lifetime.
Well. Three. You’re not going to live forever.
‘Shh,’ she whispered into her slushy, then started, realising that she’d spoken out loud, and clumsily segued into blowing air through her slushy straw.
It was almost the smallest of differences, but the world lay in the difference.
She wanted to change. She didn’t want to be changed.
She wanted proud-dad smiles from Ryan when he didn’t have to remind her to complete something. She wanted the satisfaction of finishing a small task after only procrastinating for half a day, not a whole day. There was a day coming when she saw herself in the mirror and only hated herself with the power of nine-hundred-and-ninety-nine burning suns instead of a full thousand.
And for maybe one minute every day, it seemed like change was actually possible.
Maybe a few.
‘If it’s the kill switches,’ she said, almost meeting Andrea’s eyes, ‘I know whatever I’m allowed to know within my security clearance. I was kind of surprised it wasn’t more hidden. Then again, I mean, Suicide Squad members always know about their brain bombs.’ She broke up some icier chunks with her straw. ‘I almost felt it was weird to bring up. I mean, it’s not like you couldn’t kill a recruit with a couple of clicks, right? I’ve got like, millions of nanites in me right now. You’ve just got to like, Wonder-Twins-Activate,’ she said, awkwardly high-fiving herself, ‘form of “an aneurysm” or “blood clots” or whatever. I mean, fuck, you could shift a drop of snake venom directly into someone and watch their blood turn to jelly.’
Andrea stared for a long moment. ‘I mean,’ she said finally, ‘you’re not wrong, Spyder. But it sounds wrong saying it so casually.’
Then talk to someone who cares about their life.
That’s you. That’s supposed to be you. Deduct one Ryan-smile from the running tally.
‘It’s not that,’ Andrea said. ‘All agents are ambidextrous but right-hand dominant. And you’re sinister.’
‘Oh fuck off,’ she said before she realised the words were coming out of her mouth. ‘Alejndro said something about it, but you’re really gonna flop me like an old manga?’
‘Got to be standardised, I’m afraid. Given how you’re breezing through the HUD training, using your right hand might be more of a change than going post-human.’
‘Are you gonna tape up my left hand until I do it right?’
‘Of course not,’ Andrea said, her eyes glittering, ‘I’ve got a stack of freshly-cut switches to use.’
Stef stuck her tongue out.
‘There’s little bits of programming that help unconsciously prioritise the use of the right hand over the left. It’ll be a change, but that’s going to be a running theme. Now…’
Andrea let the word hang in the air.
Stef took one more look at the sim. ‘No changes. Maybe I’ll make adjustments later, but I want to start as I am.’ She reached out and booped the room-temperate nose of her doppelganger. ‘Final answer. Is that okay?’
The sim pixelated for a brief moment then disappeared. ‘Absolutely okay, Recruit.’ Andrea reached a hand towards her shoulder but hesitated. Without a word, Stef leaned just a little towards the hand and smiled when Andrea gave her a gentle squeeze. ‘I’m proud of you. Change or no change, knowing where you want to start is a big thing.’
I’m kind of glad Stef chose to stay as she is here. Oh, I could see her making a different choice, but this one feels right for her.
I did a lot of deliberation about putting this in (but like, figured that it would be a natural part of the process) and then about making the decision not to change anything (at least for now), considering how many issues she has with how she looks/how it’s impacted her/etc.
Ultimately, like with a lot of things, I think she needs to figure out who she is now, so she can choose to make choices later on. (If that makes sense).
And there’s definitely not going to be a sorta-parallel with Taylor about “choices made by a person” vs “choices made for a person”.
Makes perfect sense. Yes, she has body image issues . . . but she still sees that body as being her if that makes sense.
It does – it’s also the same reason that changing her name has never really occurred to her.
She hates her surname, hates her family, but it’s…”her”.
Whether or not that’ll change in the future, even I have no idea.