It wasn’t a test. “Go play video games” meant “go play video games”. But at the same time…
Stef closed the door that connected her office to the lab. In the beginning, there’d just been the two doors – one to the lab and one to her quarters, but in the last few days, another door had been added, one to a sim room.
Curt had been immediately jealous that she had her own holodeck, and had gone through the basics of how to load a program and mess with its attributes to make it easier or harder to complete.
Even if it seemed like a bit of a luxury, the logic was sound – until she reached some milestone in the long project plan that mapped out the next few weeks of her life, she was meant to stay largely quarantined.
Visiting Jane’s estate was a special privilege, and not one to be abused. Going anywhere else was very much a case-by-case basis.
Having a sim room allowed for certain tests and protocols to be run without technically leaving her quarantined area.
It also provided an opportunity for…she kept thinking of it as “extra credit activities”. Things she could do to be prepared for the days ahead, little bits of training or whatever she could run through to be…not the ambulatory pile of shit and failure that she tended to be.
She pulled the sim room’s control tablet from its cradle and tapped on the search bar.
Even before she’d finished typing the word, options for ballet studios and practice rooms began to appear in the search results. She tapped on the first one, and watched the little preview video – a simple flythrough of a small but functional room.
She hit the “load” button, then scrolled through the options – light, temperature, and external weather.
The light and temperature options she left at their default settings, but chose “sunset” for the external weather-slash-aesethetic option, as that would surely look gorgeous coming through the windows, shining red and gold onto the polished wood floor.
The program finished loading, and she stepped through the door, closing it behind her.
Immediately, panic set in.
There was a padded bench to her left, and she moved to sit on it, smirking as a puff of air escaped the cushioning as she plopped onto it. She kicked her sneakers off, and looked at the white socks that would shortly be replaced with delicate slippers.
Part ten. Subsection R. Autopilot.
Half-expecting Madame Costeau to manifest in front of her, and required herself into a practice outfit – leotard, tights, slippers.
I hate this. I hate this.
She stood from the bench, sat on a soft blue crash mat and began to stretch out her muscles. Even separated by a decade, the routine came easily, even if the actions didn’t. Easy to remember what to do, harder to do it when your natural state was to curl like a gremlin in a computer chair.
Part ten. Subsection R. Autopilot.
It was a kindness, really. There were enough unqualified people who became agents that subsection R was a feature of a lot of agentification projects.
It was every cheat, all at once. It was aim assist and “I know kung-fu” without having to learn a thing.
The project document explained that when she got into a fight, several parameters would measure how she was doing on her own. Then, if – or rather when – she fell beneath what was deemed acceptable, autopilot would take over.
It was something that Milla had flagged as one of the weirder things to get used to. She had described it as something like tripping or falling, a loss of control, a weird brain itchiness, and that the only way out was through. The more you did it, the more you got used to it.
And the best way to get used to it was to purposely initiate it, and the more familiar the motions, the easier it was to give over control.
There were a bunch of suggested simple programs, with the top suggestion amounting to “get on a treadmill and auto-run for five miles”.
But Milla had said that even that was one step removed, that autopilot tended to change your movements closer to standard, rather than using your own movements – it would use a textbook punch, not your own. It would use an efficient run cycle, not your own.
When time allowed – which wasn’t always – a lot of agents-to-be recorded their own sequences to later be played back through the autopilot, things that were in every way their own movements, not just things pulled from an emote library.
The longer the program, the better. The more varied the movements, the better.
One, and only one, idea had formed in her mind as Milla had been going through examples, and that had led her to a ballet studio, though one blessedly free of the angriest French woman who had ever existed.
Some rich families insisted their kids do a hundred sports and activities, making them into tiny Rennassiance men; her family had allowed for specialisation.
Ballet, and Buttercup – both prompted by her mother. Buttercup, as wonderful as her horse was, was useless here.
She finished stretching, and stood, breath already tight in her chest.
This was logical. This would help her become a good little agent.
This was so far into the world of Stephanie that she wanted to rip her skull apart with her bare hands.
A couple of requirements added background music and an instructor track.
After a couple of minutes, her muscles began to ache.
She lifted her arm, and chided herself for the sloppy movement. It wasn’t perfect. It wasn’t graceful. The angle was wrong.
A thought cancelled the instructor track, and another turned up the volume of the music, hopefully loud enough to drown out at least some of her thoughts.
She lifted her arm again. The angle was wrong again. Lift. Down. Lift. Down. Lift. Down. After another ten tries, she felt the spectre of Madame Costeau give an approving purse of her lips.
If she’d been a real girl, a proper girl, it would be a lot harder than it already was. In the absence of really going through puberty, at least her centre of balance hadn’t really changed. Compared to a lot of other things in her life, at least this had been her choice. Sort of.
The big thing, the big, stupid, life-defining, life-destroying fact that she couldn’t have kids had shaped everything else. That’s what made a girl. Girl equals babies, end of line, end of statement.
And if she couldn’t have kids, couldn’t be what a girl was supposed to do, then there was no point in taking the drugs that would give her boobs, and make her seem like a girl to the rest of the world.
And it didn’t matter that there were a tonne of people who were happy without kids. Didn’t matter how many times she tried not to think of herself as lesser. Didn’t matter how many times she’d tried to make peace, because every time she closed her eyes and looked deep inside, the only answer that ever came back was “broken”.
Attaining peace, or at least some form of armistice with herself, with her body, with her broken, useless self was a process. One that was going to take forever. Or even a bit longer than that.
She couldn’t be a mother, and moreover, shouldn’t be one. That was one wound that had been dressed, even if it still only took the giggle from a passing stroller to make it bleed again. She could barely look after herself, was only taking the first step at becoming a grown-up, at being a person.
There was no room in her life for a baby. No perfect storybook closing after a stork left a bundle on her doorstep.
Maybe, in fifty years, a hundred years, she could copy Ryan and adopt some wayward waif she found on an Agency assignment.
Even with the baby basket set aside, it didn’t stop the word “broken” from appearing every time she looked in the mirror. Every time she looked at people who were supposed to be attractive and felt nothing. Every little time she felt she was just slightly less than everyone around her.
Subsection R was a kindness.
Part seventeen, subsection B wasn’t.
There was a noise behind her. Something that wasn’t music.
Subsection B made her want to run. Made her want to-
‘-the fuck are you doing?’
She spun, inexpertly, in a way that would have had Madame Costeau brandishing her riding crop, and saw Magnolia standing near the padded bench. ‘Finally. Hello Mimosa. I did chime the doorbell, but you were apparently- I have seen you trip over your own feet. Tell me you aren’t a fucking ballerina.’
Stef quickly required a loose jumper to cover her leotard, and the scars it exposed. ‘Uh, used to be, kinda? Pretty much always corps de ballet, ba-background dancer, another body to fill out the scene.’
Magnolia joined her near the bar, and made a horrible attempt at fourth position. ‘We did like, one unit of dance in drama when I was at school, mostly we fucked around and gave our teacher a headache.’
‘Your feet are totally wrong,’ Stef said.
‘Figured,’ Magnolia said, smiled, then relaxed her posture. ‘I gather Jones has freed you up for the day? O’Connor is doing aide shit for Ryan, but there’s some stuff we could get done, if you’re not too busy doing this.’
‘I’m going to build an autopilot routine,’ she said to explain. ‘I never did sports or martial arts, so this seemed like the best option.’
‘I can appreciate that. And it’s a good idea. Give me half an hour, then you can get back to this.’
She nodded, and a requirement had her back in uniform. ‘Pretty much all of my muscles are ready to quit anyway, so yeah I can do that.’