The tank was a three-foot cube, full of blue.
‘You’ll actually get to use one of the proper tanks later,’ Jones said as he positioned certain pieces of equipment, some closer to the tank, some further away. ‘Those we generally use for injuries, but you’ll go for a splash when we do all the updates.’
Stef nodded and fidgeted with the towel that hung around her neck. Even with only one extra person – Parker-1 – in the room, the lab seemed crowded. Parker-1, Jonesy, Ryan, all in their normal uniforms…and her in what amounted to a custom wetsuit.
It felt weird. Everything was weird.
But it was probably normal to feel not normal when you were about to dump your flesh prison and upload yourself to the internet.
Even with her heart unmoving, blood was pounding in her ears.
It’s okay to be excited.
I don’t know if I’m excited or if I want to shit my pants.
Jones pushed a small table, like the ones they had in hospitals that jutted out over a bed, to the side of the pool and laid the hard drive on it. The hard drive with her code, the code she was about to become, the code she was going to be, the poison for Kuzco, Kuzco’s poison, Stef’s code.
Ryan’s hand hung beside her, so she slipped her hand into his.
This was exciting. This was, second to having a family who loved her, the only thing she’d ever wanted.
It was still a bit scary. There were things that could go wrong. She was involved in the process, so things could go horribly, disastrously wrong. She could- If she made the wish wrong. If she-
‘You’re gonna be like ten more minutes, right?’
‘Closer to five, but if there’s something you need to do, just don’t change your outfit. I’ve already got all your sensors calibrated.’
She tugged Ryan’s hand and dragged him from the lab to her office. Once through, she dropped his hand, closed the connecting door, locked it and wished she knew if magical warding was a real magic thing or just a fictional magic thing.
‘I’m going to fuck this up. I’m going to fuck this up. I’m going to fuck this-’ Her last “up” was silenced as Ryan pulled her into a hug and held her head against his chest.
‘All right, I hear you. Talk me through your worries.’
‘That I’m gonna fuck it up.’
Ryan held her at arm’s length, his hands on her shoulders. ‘So what’s your solution, Agent?’
It was hard not to compare Ryan with James. Hard to not expect condemnation and harsh words aimed in her direction. Agent Ryan, dad; James Francis Mimosa, father. Two men that couldn’t be more different, and it was still so hard to expect anything other than-
Hard to expect to be treated with kindness. Hard to expect to be taken seriously.
Ryan never expected her to make herself small. Never told her to shut up, never…looked at her with such hate and disappointment that she’d wanted to cease existing.
But if she fucked up, he might. If she-
She flinched on hearing inside words coming from her mouth and sat in her chair around the office’s round table. On the scale of “talking to myself out loud” badness, it barely registered, but it was still a mistake. Still, a sign that she was-
‘Today isn’t a surprise,’ Ryan said as he sat opposite her. ‘And I doubt this is a worry that has appeared from nowhere, so talk me through your thought process.’
‘With or without the dozen catastrophising tangents that come with every single paranoid thought I have?’ she asked, staring at the laminate tabletop. ‘With or-’ She played with the cuff of the monitoring wetsuit. ‘If something goes wrong, I’m the only factor that can be blamed.’
‘So how are you going to compensate?’
She laced her hands together and stared at the zig-zag mesh of her fingers. ‘I wish you hadn’t been nice to me,’ she said, the heat in her eyes telling her tears were a very real possibility.
‘No,’ Ryan said, ‘some part of you feels you don’t deserve it, but you don’t wish it.’ He paused for a moment. ‘I know I haven’t known you for long, but I know you well. I know what your favourite colour is, I know the alarming way you take your coffee, I know that sometimes when you talk, you’re not talking to me, I know you contain doubt and self-hatred, and I know you’re capable of amazing things if you allow people to believe in you. You are so much more than you believe yourself to be. So again, I ask you, Agent Mimosa, what is your plan?’
She wiped tears away, stood, and walked to the sideboard. She opened the top drawer, pushed away the carefully-messy pile of comics, and pulled out a folded piece of vellum.
‘As much as I wanted today to be happy,’ she said as she unfolded the page. ‘Cause I’ve said a hundred times, I always wanted something like this, I knew I- I knew I was gonna be this,’ she said, waving her hand up and down to indicate herself. ‘You said, everyone said, wishes have got to be end of the world type stuff, gotta be saved for something important.’ She stared at the wall. ‘So it’s already hard to think about making a wish when I can’t put myself in the important category.’
She’d never been important. Not to herself. Not to her parents. Not to her family.
‘So I’m already seeing it as wasting a resource on something worthless. Add in, like, we don’t know how my heart’s working, like, if I’m gonna lose anything with a wish, or if the density of the me stuff in it is just gonna change. So if I lose stuff with a wish, and I fuck it up and have to make multiple wishes and- It’s good money after bad. Sunk cost fallacy. Whatever. I want this, I want this, and I’m not worth it. It’s scary and- And if I could be sure if just one wish would work, I could justify it, cause then I’m not using up a valuable resource- It’s so much easier to exist when you don’t have to justify yourself to an outside party.’
She turned and looked at Ryan, the unfolded vellum clutched to her chest. ‘I’m trying, I’m trying so hard, but with my baggage, every step is through foot-deep mud. It’s hard to want things when you just feel like a burden.’ She let her head drop and stared at the floor. ‘I feel like I’m wasting your time telling you all this, but I also feel like if I don’t say it, I’m just gonna collapse in on myself like a dying star.’
She laid the vellum on the table in front of the first person who had ever wanted to call her family. ‘You told me mirrors are alive, or alive-ish. That there’s something there, some ability to interpret intent and meaning. So I thought if I wrote my wish down. Had exacting parameters. That I could put a boundary on my expectations and that maybe it could ignore some of the mess in my brain as I’m making the wish.’
On the page, written in beautiful, required penmanship, were several verbatim sections from the agentification section of the project documentation. Jonesy’s description of how the mirror would interact with the blue and – looking incongruent as fuck – the long, exact address of her agent code file.
‘I just thought about all the old stories of fairy bargains and genie wishes and how, in the bad stories, imprecision leads to malicious interpretation. You said that doesn’t really happen. But I also thought that it would make me feel safer if I- Had a magic contract? Had what I wanted in clear language?’
It was a good idea. A smart idea. Even without the approving dad look she knew was going to come from Ryan, it had felt like the best idea. But she needed his permission to use it. To be weak. To allow herself the crutch.
She could muddle through on her own. That was the base state she’s always had to operate from. A lonely status quo with no net to catch her. And it had been…sufficient. Enough. She’d survived the exile from her family and the years alone in her apartment.
And she had survived. The fact that she was still breathing was proof of that. It hadn’t been a life of a good standard, hadn’t been admirable or enviable in any way, and had been – in all likelihood – the first few steps along a death hastened by self-neglect.
But at the end of the day, she was fed. Even if it was delivery left on her doorstep so she didn’t have to interact with another human. Even if it was whatever was in her snack cube hidden away at the bottom of her wardrobe. Calories in, body satisfied enough to push through another twenty-four hours.
And she’d done it. Managed. Paid bills and kept her utilities organised and active, even if the rare call to customer service had sent her into a mind-destroying spiral of panic.
Push and push and push, because there’d never been any other option.
And she could do the same thing here, bull-in-a-china-shop her way through the wish, stomp down her emotions with a hydraulic press and find some way of making do, even if the results were far from ideal.
But for the first time, she had a choice.
She had people she could rely on, she could seek validation for ideas, could look to aim for an outcome that was closer to ideal.
I hate how messy it is in here.
Your mind has never been a tidy place.
I hate- Me. Everything. I want-
She needed his validation. Needed him to tell her it was a good idea.
‘Is it okay?’ she asked.
‘It contains all the context and highlights that I would have chosen, if I were in your position. You know this is good, Stef.’
‘I need to hear it,’ she said, her voice thick. ‘I need to know you don’t hate me for- If I was better. if I was-’
Someone worthy to be your kid wouldn’t need to use this.
Ryan shook the page, a small smile on his face. ‘I wouldn’t have gone for the pomp and circumstance of parchment and calligraphy, but I understand why you did. It’s a little more magic than Times New Roman on an A4 page.’
‘You don’t think it’s weak?’ she asked, not quite able to look at him.
‘You are correct that mirrors are alive, that they read intent, but you are also correct in that the interpretation, the final result can sometimes vary. Ditto’s group. There are few amongst that number where the final outcome was exactly what was expected. You, daughter, are living proof as well. I never expected so much mirror would be retained.’
“Daughter” flushed away some of the anxiety, replacing it with warm fuzzies.
There was a knock on the connecting door, and Jones popped his head in. ‘About two more minutes, then I’ll be ready. You can go for a swim when you want.’
‘We’ll be there in a moment,’ Ryan said. He rose from his seat as Jones closed the door, and pressed a handkerchief to her nose. ‘Blow.’ She blew her nose and scrubbed the tear trails from her face. He folded the vellum in half and handed it back to her. ‘You’ve covered your bases as well as you can, Agent. Are you ready to continue?’
‘How do you have so much faith in me? How do you just- How do you just keep-’
-loving me? Why haven’t you thrown me away yet? Aren’t you bored, aren’t you tired of- I’m not worth it. I’m not worth your time or energy or-
He rested a hand on her cheek and tapped her temple with his index finger. ‘I can’t silence your doubts. I can’t stop you from being unkind to yourself. I can tell you that you’re easy to love. I can tell you that there’s kindness ahead.’
More tears. More snot into his handkerchief.
‘I want to do this,’ she said. ‘And I know as soon as I do, I will be too busy spending hours figuring out every little thing I can do that I’ll forget to be sad and stupid and me for a bit. My head’s just really dumb. I’m scared, but I’m excited. And I wish I could just be excited. I wish I could be anyone else but me right now.’
He took her hand in his and squeezed. ‘If you were anyone else, you wouldn’t be here. You get to do this, even if it’s frightening, even if you don’t believe in yourself.’
She took one very deliberate step forward. Then another. Then, arm stretched behind, began to pull him back towards the lab. Towards a future where maybe, sometimes, things were okay. To where she didn’t always hate herself. Towards somewhere in the vicinity of “happy”, even if not a happy ending.
Previous: 14 – A Few More Steps