In truth, taking care of Buttercup had always been an optional thing. He’d been stabled somewhere expensive, where each groom and hand had been experts in keeping each and every horse in perfect, photo-ready condition.
But it had been one of the few areas where she’d been allowed to get any kind of dirt on her clothes. Approved dirt. Sanctioned grime. Overlord okay muck.
It showed initiative in a way that was allowed.
She’d loved Buttercup, but every moment she’d spent caring for him was another moment where she was allowed to be something close to herself. Real Stef, not perfect Stephanie.
And then, with some long-forgotten crime or slight, her father had stared her dead in the eyes and told her that he’d sold Buttercup for glue.
Several miracles later, she was once again brushing the coat of her beloved horse.
Jane’s manor and stables had sufficient sim stablehands to keep the herd of horses in excellent condition. Every ailment immediately cared for, every need filled.
But a little extra TLC didn’t hurt.
The ride had been short, but it had served a few purposes. The first, just to do the “go outside” thing that was hard when you were top secret.
The second, to test using the HUD glasses on horseback, to get used to more active HUD elements on the go, and to proverbially walk and chew gum at the same time.
The third was largely pretence, to have something approaching a reason to give Buttercup a thorough brushing and pamper session.
She spun the hookpick in her hand, dislodged the last small stone, then reached for the blue curry comb.
Footsteps made her pause, put down the comb, then look out over the stable’s half-door.
Jane and Kay, both in riding gear, waved in her direction. Kay took her wife’s hardhat and headed for stalls further down the row as Jane walked over.
Stef nodded. ‘I know I keep thanking you, but-’
Jane reached forward and pulled a leaf from her hair. ‘Your thanks are appreciated, but this is freely given. It’ll be thanks enough the day you don’t feel the need to say “thank you” like it’s a fee for the agistment.’
‘You might be waiting a while, ma’am.’
‘I’m immortal. I can wait.’ She turned and accepted the reins for a tall fae horse with an opalescent coat. ‘Your docent will be here in forty minutes. Afternoon tea is set up in the garden.’
She nodded her thanks and waved as Jane and Kay set off on their ride.
Forty minutes. That was more than doable.
She slipped the HUD glasses on, set a couple of alarms, then brushed Buttercup until he shone.
Buttercup all set, she stepped out of the stall and headed to the house.
However, the moment she stepped into the sunlight, some brain space cleared. Mental RAM that had been dedicated to the Care and Love of Horses came available and was immediately taken by Doing Proper Grown Up and Agent Stuff.
Jane hadn’t told her much about her docent – and apparently, her docent knew just as little about her in return.
Jane had simply commented that files rarely told the whole truth and that meeting each other would give a better impression.
She knew that, at least for her part, that was surely true – on paper, she was a disaster.
Away from paper, I’m not much better.
A brand new recruit that had fucked up, accidentally killed herself and had just been revived because a lonely agent had gone “I want that one” to the weirdest puppy in the store window.
Comfortingly though, Jane thought they’d be a perfect match, so hopefully, her docent was going to be at least as fucked up as she was.
More mental RAM cleared and considered that compatibility.
With over twenty minutes to go until the arranged meeting time, she put on the finishing touches to ensure that she was all nicely ready and prepared.
Way too late or way too early, those seemed to be her two moods.
A couple of eye-tracked clicks around her HUD showed a minimap of the manor and its grounds – with an overlay that showed Agency personnel, shaded according to their relative levels of blue.
A sliding scale of electric blues, of which she sat around the middle, higher than a regular recruit, due to the extra blue coursing around her body to prep for agentification, but lower than that of true partial augments and agents.
Jane’s dot was far off and away, on the shady riding trail. Several sims were visible, doing their jobs of maintaining the house – these were marked with a cross-hatched blue to indicate their artificial status.
And towards the front of the manor was one dot of the perfect shade of blue – one full agent, walking in small circles around the entrance hall.
Exactly what she’d be doing, if she was twenty minutes early to meeting a new person. Especially when the outcome of meeting that person wouldn’t change the future, but would change how everyone involved felt.
Milla was going to be her docent, even if they didn’t get along.
Words of caution from both Jane and Enforcer Crawford – gentle, off-the-books words, indicated that even though everything about her agentification had been approved, and that she was far from a unique case…that it was still best not to rock the boat.
She stopped, refreshed her skin, requiring away any dirt and sweat. Another requirement had a fresh uniform in place – one now fully customised thanks to the inventory loadout.
One look at her cufflinks, Ryan’s little present to celebrate the agentification outcome, centred her, and with more courage than she really felt, she walked into the manor, trying to be ready for whatever outcome came.
It could only truly go so bad. There was an upper limit on how shit it could be, and that was a comfort – at least when she held that fact in her mind.
The rest of the time, it was really easy to spiral into paranoid scenarios.
As Jane’s son Alejandro had put it, a docent was there to basically be her “senpai”. Someone who had been through the process before, someone who was more of a peer than a superior, so that certain questions would be less awkward.
If things went to plan, she’d be meeting a new, long-immortal-life friend, who would tell her that it was normal to sneeze out of one nostril every other Tuesday, but only if there was a full moon.
If things went to shit, she’d just have to get over herself and ask Jonesy all the questions that were too weird to ask Ryan.
She stopped in front of a big glass-covered art piece, caught her reflection, and adjusted her tie and hair a little.
Ryan had offered to be there with her.
And ninety-nine per cent of her wanted him there with her.
And that was still so strange.
She’d never had anyone she could rely on. Her mother had looked out for her beautiful little Stephanie, had loved that perfect doll, and her parents had provided everything one could ever need.
But in terms of want… she’d done her best to truly fade into the background, to push her wants down so that they were nearly invisible, to cause so little trouble that she became an afterthought.
And after her parents were out of the picture, even that semblance of someone being there for her had gone away as surely as someone flipping a switch.
School had been a blur. One filled with half-remembered classes, experiments in figuring out exactly how much alcohol was needed to keep inside voices in, and to be more zombie than trouble.
No one had been there for her. No one had really raised her. No one had been in her corner.
And she’d adapted to that. That was situation normal.
And then an angel in a suit had decided that her “normal” was bullshit and that she deserved better.
As terrifying as it was, that had become the new normal.
She was doing something new. Meeting someone new. And she wanted her dad. Wanted a comforting hand to ruffle her hair and tell her everything was okay.
There was a sneeze from the entry hall.
But one nostril or two??
A small voice said “excuse me”, presumably to the house at large, and some of her anxiety melted away.
She rounded a corner and walked down the art-filled hall towards the manor’s front door and found Milla hurriedly wiping at her nose with a cloth handkerchief, one with a purple Field logo embroidered in the corner.
‘Um,’ she said, all pretence at trying for a cool or collected greeting fleeing. ‘Hi. Um. Milla?’
Milla stuffed the hanky into her pocket, swapped her briefcase to her left hand, and held out her hand. ‘Yes. Nice to meet you. Stef?’
Stef shook Milla’s hand. ‘Yep. But. I mean…’ she made a vague motion at Milla’s head. ‘You can see that, right?’
‘I can see what your file says,’ Milla said, swinging her briefcase in small circles. ‘But I make sure. Paperwork doesn’t always have someone’s preferred name. I’ve got a module where my notes about people pop up on top of the regular tooltip. Useful for names, but also, um, triggers, allergies, pets, partners. Reeeally great for people you don’t interact with a lot.’
A chat bubble blinked in Stef’s HUD glasses. Milla’s icon was a chibified version of herself – light brown skin, short curly hair, round glasses, under a rainbow that said “lesbean” in the centre.
Stef clicked the chat bubble, and there was a link to the module. ‘There it is. You’re using the glasses now, but if you talk to your Tech, all your settings and mods will follow you once you fully suitify.’
‘I was hoping for that but thought it would be cleaner for the install if they didn’t have to carry over any data.’
Milla made a dismissive noise. ‘It’s a tiny import. Also makes your first couple of days easier if you’re vaguely used to it. And agents like it cause it’s almost like a baby version of-’ Milla stopped talking. ‘We, um, shouldn’t be talking here, right?’
She stared at the floor. ‘Right. Um. Jane put food out in the garden for us.’
Milla nodded. ‘How baby are you?’ she asked as Stef pointed down the hall. ‘I didn’t read your file. I wanted to, even though Jane said not to, cause sometimes it’s good to read stuff even though you’re not supposed to, to know what you’re not supposed to and then you can sort it out later-’
‘-like reading spoilers when a movie is supposed to be shitty, instead of wasting your money. Right!’ Stef said, a little too loudly for inside, and immediately slumped, expecting her grandfather or his valet to phase through the closest wall and berate her.
‘Yes, fucking exactly,’ Milla said, in a forceful whisper, seeming to also sense they’d been a bit loud. ‘But I don’t think Jane would have given us tickets to a shitty movie, right?’
Stef gave a small smile. ‘Probably not.’
The afternoon tea waiting in the garden could have provided nibbles for a couple of dozen people. Under normal circumstances, it would have been seen as wasteful – even when service and staff tended to get leftovers as perks, there were certain things that didn’t survive sitting out in the open for a couple of hours and needed to be binned.
In this new world though, you could pull anything you wanted from thin air. Unless it was a rocket launcher or a bioweapon. This was probably just “afternoon tea number four” or some other standard macro requirement that made entertaining as easy as a single thought.
‘Very new,’ she said, finally remembering that Milla had asked her a question. ‘I was a recruit for like five minutes before all this happened, but I’ve been doing a lot of homework to try and catch up to what I should know.’ She placed a piece of delicate shortcake on her plate, then immediately covered it in a dollop of cream. ‘But, I guess it’s probably safe to assume I know nothing.’
Milla stared at a tower of tiny, crustless sandwiches, chose none, but took three scones from the next plate. ‘Okay. But I’ll try and not treat you like an idiot. I’m going to over-explain and- And.’ She turned her attention to the selection of marmalades. ‘This brand is fae, just so you know,’ she said, picking up one called “Bon Net”. ‘But really good. Not that- I didn’t mean that fae stuff isn’t good. Just the flavour profiles can be different to what you’re expecting.’ Milla slumped a little, then sat in one of the wide chairs down at the far end of the table, away from the towers of choices.
Stef grabbed a bottle of sparkling juice, then sat opposite her new docent. ‘I think,’ she said, staring at her glass as she poured. ‘Jane was probably right.’ She looked up and just past Milla. ‘We’re probably going to be a good fit.’
‘I’ve never been a docent before,’ Milla said. ‘That’s not a secret. We’re gonna look at each other’s files when we get home. You’ll see that. Becoming an agent doesn’t-’ She stopped talking, and began to spread the bright orange-and-red preserve across the scones, a few small lumps showing that there were edible flowers in the recipe.
There were lots of things that becoming an agent wouldn’t change. Probably wouldn’t change.
The session with Jonesy and the simulacrum of herself had shown her that physical appearance was mutable at the push of a button or tap of a tablet.
As Jonesy had said, many people did take the opportunity to do a little bit of plastic surgery. Change things they’d never liked about themselves. Get rid of a mole that had always bothered them, even out a skin tone, change a hairline, get rid of scars, or – in general – make them look more like themselves.
This wasn’t something that would warrant stopping mid-conversation and focussing on baked goods.
That was a maneuver that was way too familiar for it not to be…way too relatable.
But saying it out loud was…dangerous. Probably wasn’t, but felt like it. Safer to seem…normal to people. To present as bland and close to factory settings as possible.
Because you never knew who was safe.
And it was going to be a stalemate until one of them said something.
She poked at her shortcake with a delicate fork.
And maybe Milla was waiting for her to say something. And maybe Milla was just trying to build up the courage to say something, and inserting her own words would break that fragile attempt at bravery and shut down her docent even further.
She embedded her fork in the cake so that it stood straight, leaned back a little, and selected a shortcut icon in her HUD.
In her hands, down her lap, away from where Milla could see, a tablet – one with the soundboard app already loaded – appeared, her fingers tingling slightly as the requirement became solid.
This thing was safe around Curt. Being herself was safe around Ryan. Jonesy had some idea of how weird she was – even if she tended to show off a different kind of weird around Jones. Curt got shutdowns and nonverbal moments. Ryan got the full gamut of crazy, whilst Jonesy mostly suffered verbal vomit and fixations on minutia.
So far, it had been safe to be at least parts of herself around a few people.
Maybe it would be okay to add one more.
The voice was small and not the computer-generated voice of her app.
‘Brain stuff?’ her app said, just a split-second later.
She looked up from her tablet and made an effort to look Milla in the face.
‘Yeah,’ Milla said after a minute, ‘agentification changes what you are, but not who you are. If it was going to change the who, what would be the point? It would just be easier to pull a baby out of a tank.’ Milla snapped her fingers. ‘Oh, that’s what I was going to tell you. I assume you know baby agents don’t require parent agents, yeah?’
‘Except they kinda, not really, but kinda do? Some more than others. Most agents have multiple indirect lineages, some have more direct heritage. I’m gonna start at the beginning, okay?’
‘Probably best,’ Stef said, leaning just far enough for her fingers to grab a sweet, open-faced sandwich decorated with edible flowers.
‘Okay, so this practice is old, older than suits, than knights, than whatever, k? Someone in the long-ago times figured out that fresh, baby angels had quite a high failure rate. Like those seeds that sprout that don’t become plants? They’d either be something like dead on arrival, or function for a bit, then stop. It’s a lot, like, a lot, a lot to wake up and suddenly be a person and have all of the knowledge of the universe at your fingertips. You’d blink for the first time, understand the entirety of agent biology, then understand everything about agents, the Solstice, the everything else. So much. Too much for clean, baby brains to take in. So they just BSOD and never come back.’
Stef nodded. ‘Obviously they found a solution though.’
‘Wisdom of the people who’ve done it before. Recycling was already a common practice – don’t lose what you can use later. And the more they looked at the angels who worked, the more they saw commonalities – that they’d used small pieces of code from people who’d been recycled. Little bits of “why bother to code this particular bit of knowledge”, additions over and above just the fresh OS. So they ran with that. Iterated on it, until what we have now.’
Milla required two pieces of paper, each with a gingerbread person outline, and a few coloured markers. ‘Pretty much, there’s two types of agent generation. Most are like this,’ she said, and began to colour random sections onto the first gingerbread shape. ‘We’ll take fighting skills from Agent Y, because the new agent is their height; tech knowledge from Agent X, cause they’re doing the same job; general knowledge from Agent Z, and so on and on and on. All of this is scraped of personality, so it’s not like you’re making a chimera of dead agents or interfering with an augment’s personality.’
‘And the second type?’
‘Templates.’ Milla coloured the left half of the second gingerbread shape. ‘Much the same process, but instead of X, Y and Z, the majority of the new agent comes from one single source. And templates tend to beget templates, so it becomes almost like this weird family line of parent, child, child, child, child. Your dad’s one.’
Milla winked, then looked slightly guilty. ‘I didn’t look at your file, I kept that promise, but I didn’t not look at anything. So I had a look at your dad’s file. Director Ryan’s in a template line, his former was one of the Duskers that looked after Brisbane. Can’t tell you a percentage or whatever, that’s above my security clearance, and it’s generally a fox pass to ask. I’ve already done the equivalent of looking up your family tree before meeting you, so I’m on shaky, gauche-y ground already.’
‘I’ll put that on my to-do list to ask about.’
Milla smiled, then lifted her glass. ‘I think we’re going to get along fine, youngling. Now, what’s your first weird question?’