‘I need to know something before we start.’
Stef stared across the table at Ryan and gave up trying to find a sensible way to ask the question. ‘Okay. So. The System is sensible and fills in logic and knowledge gaps.’ She required a trade copy of Days of Future Past and waved it at him. ‘I know this exists. I’ve not read it, but I know if I read this copy, it’ll be the content of the comics and not just a collection of random panels I’ve seen online.’
‘I’m following you.’
‘Same thing for food. You don’t need to know a recipe for-’
‘Stef, I get the feeling you’re avoiding asking a question.’
‘Can I get stuck in a wall?’
His expression didn’t change.
Something he’d said to her on her first day was “outside parameters” seemed to be the norm for her. But still…
‘Am I that predictable?’ she asked, twiddling and entwining her fingers under the table. ‘I just feel like it’s a reasonable question. I have a baseline understanding that there’s some idiot-proofing in how the System operates. I just want to make sure that extends to not-’ She forced her voice into a whine and put an expression of extreme patheticness on her face. ‘I don’t want to be part of a wall, daaad.’
‘On its face, it’s not a silly question, but I feel your logic and reasoning have given you the answer.’
‘If you do an imprecise shift, for example, if you’re standing on the street and shift into the third floor of the building beside you, you’ll be placed in an open, flat area of normal elevation. If possible,’ he added after a moment. ‘Obviously, if you’re shifting into somewhere that has seen some kind of damage, then the System will try its best to find the most optimal spot given the conditions. You’ll never, for example, be shifted onto a countertop instead of a floor. If you are entering somewhere that’s structurally unsound, you’ll be given a warning, and also an option to shore up the area to make it safer to navigate.’
She started crossing off mental scenarios that her paranoia had thrown at her. ‘Can I deliberately Philidephia Experiment myself? Or amputate an arm by targeting a shift so that technically I’ll be clipping through the wall?’
He arched an eyebrow. ‘You give me the answer, young lady.’
‘It makes no sense to allow such a thing,’ she said. ‘If an agent really needs to get through the wall, they can punch their way through it, and if they need an emergency arm-ectomy then…That’s probably a scenario so rare that it’s not really accounted for.’
A new, horrifying question brewed in her mind. ‘Wait, can you-’
‘Yes, but think carefully, Miss Mimosa, if you really want me to expound on the details.’
She pointed at her head. ‘Is it a menu option or- No. Even I don’t want to know this right now.’
‘Are you ready to begin the lesson we’re actually here for?’ He stood, and around the room, six small blue circle mats appeared. ‘Like a lot of things, this will get easier with time. First, we’ll do a visually targeted shift. Think, “Shift”, and the menu should come up.’
In her HUD, site options appeared – “Manual Target” and “Select Location”.
She selected the option, and a small yellow circle appeared in her HUD, moving wherever she looked, following the surfaces of the furniture in the room. Easy. Instantly understandable.
‘Where?’ she asked, bouncing on her feet a little, ready to give it a go.
He pointed to the first mat, which she instantly targeted, and hit the “Process” option.
The world fuzzed a little as she teleported a few feet to her left.
‘Yes, yes, yes!’ She bounced up and down, fists pumping in joy.
A year ago, a month ago – a “from her perspective month” ago anyway, she would have caught herself, apologised and hoped she wouldn’t get punished for being loud and annoying.
The fear came and went in a flash, and the shining pride on Ryan’s face let her know everything was okay.
‘Go mat to mat, one full circle.’
Five shifts later, she was back where she started.
‘Manual targeting works for any location you can see. For locations you can’t see, using a descriptor in your command often works best.’ He pointed to the door that led to the lab. ‘“Shift: Other side of door” or something similar would work. Try it, if you please.’
Shift: other side of that door.
The shift processed, placing her just on the other side of the closed door. She opened the door and walked back into the office. ‘How about the “location” option?’
‘Not yet.’ He fuzzed, shifting from standing to sitting back in his chair at the office table. ‘Thoughts?’
She scratched her chin. ‘Okay, chairs are easy,’ she said, parsing the thoughts as she spoke. ‘It would make no sense to keep you standing, so there’s got to be some built-in context-specific logic. I’m sure you could shift in, standing up straight, if you wanted to, like, change a light bulb or something. But that would be an override or something?’
‘Correct. Now.’ He shifted, and this time, when he stood in front of her, he had his hands clasped over his midsection. ‘Thoughts?’
This gave her pause. He hadn’t mentioned a menu. Below the location targeting types, there were additional menus, but-
He had her thinking about requiring, how it was logical, how it filled in the gaps. How it put together what you imagined, even without you specifying it. “Require: cookie” to her was always the same medium-sized, relatively thin, chocolate-chip cookie with crispy edges and a softer middle.
And she specified none of that when requiring a cookie.
She looked up at Ryan, smiled, and shifted.
The target was easy – the third little blue mat, and as she processed the command, she held the image of fifth position in her mind.
And as she reappeared, her legs were crossed, and her arms were above her head, fingertips a few inches apart.
She clapped a hand over her mouth, trying to hide the broad grin, then dropped it as her face went back towards normal. ‘Was that it?! Did I do it?’
Every smile from Ryan continued to fill in the void of parental love that both of her parents had spent her entire childhood digging.
‘Perfect,’ Ryan said. ‘I’m so proud of you.’
After he ran her through a few more fundamentals – fortifying structurally-unsound areas, targeting and shifting objects, creating location shift cards, and other basics, he handed her a pair of sunglasses.
The first obvious question was “huh?” but she bit down on it and took a moment to process the meaning. ‘I get to go outside? Janes’?’
He shook his head and took her hand. A notification appeared in her HUD, alerting her that a shift request was incoming and a set of coordinates with an option to open a map. She decided she could live with the mystery for a few seconds and hit “accept”.
The warm sun of an afternoon beach explained why he’d handed her sunglasses.
‘This is something that young agents are encouraged to do,’ he said as he walked up a long, broad path dotted with vendors. ‘Chasing the sun, it’s usually called. If you time your shifts right, you can keep hopping across the world, staying in golden hour.’
‘So…if I time it right next year, I could technically tick over into my birthday multiple times. And by the transitive property of pouting a little bit, you’d have to get me lots of presents?’ Immediately, she felt bad for asking for things and waited for him to-
‘Twenty-four small presents is something I’m sure I could arrange,’ he said. ‘For now, would ice cream suffice?’ he pointed to a cart selling a small selection of flavours in waffle cones dipped in various sugary substances.
‘The last time- Isn’t ice cream bad luck for us?’
He squeezed her shoulder. ‘Pick a flavour, Agent.’
‘Chocolate. And-’ She pointed at the cone dipped in chocolate and hundreds-and-thousands. ‘Pls. Thank you.’
He ordered her cone and, at her urging, got himself a small cup of vanilla.
They found a bench in the grassed space between the boardwalk and the beach. ‘As much as- As much as I want to make fun of you for just getting vanilla, it’s a nice flavour. Like, I think a lot of people just think that vanilla is like, no-flavour white ice cream, and it is if you get the cheap shit, but vanilla that actually takes like vanilla is nice. And now vanilla is giving me semantic satiation.’ She bit into the top scoop of chocolate. ‘You need to tell me to shut up more often.’
‘I’ve had too much silence in my life.’
‘Your presence isn’t a burden, Stef.’
It’s still taking time to get used to that.
She leaned close and bonked her head against his shoulder. ‘Did you do this when you were a baby?’
‘Oh, yes. Reynolds skipped the ice cream in favour of visiting a pub when we were done.’
‘That doesn’t seem like your thing.’
‘In that respect, and many others, I am not my father’s son.’
A child called out in mild distress. She looked towards the water, where a toddler in a frilly swimsuit and a straw hat too big for her pointed at the waves, where her inflatable ball was bobbing away.
Her mother took a couple of steps into the water, then shook her head, came back, and scooped up the little girl, comforting her.
Stef drummed her free hand on her knee. ‘Can I-?’ she started.
‘This beach has a reputation of being very safe and lucky in terms of lost objects.’
HUD. Use your HUD.
She looked around, lightly scanning all the people on the sand and in the shallows. Human. Human. Human. Fairy. Human. Human. Nymph. An old woman knitting in an ancient deck chair.
Slowly, in a way you wouldn’t see unless you were looking for it, the waves carrying the ball away started to calm in a way that the surrounding waters weren’t. A small series of swells brought the ball closer to shore, a suspiciously precise leading edge of foam knocking the ball against the mother’s leg.
Without missing a stitch, the old woman lowered her head, and the waters returned to normal.
‘Every time you show me something like this, I just wonder how I could have missed it all my life.’
‘There’s a hundred people on this beach. Did any of them notice anything? When you’re on this side of the curtain, so to speak, there’s an effort to keep your actions small and secret. But a lot of it is truly about being in the right place at the right time. Shooting stars happen all the time, but people are rarely looking at the right patch of sky.’
She bit into her waffle cone. ‘Okay. But now I just need to see everything. I want to know everything. Never stop showing me stuff.’
‘Then we have a lot more stops to make.’
He sent her a location link, and after a moment, she built the command and shifted them towards their next destination.