‘I’m running out of jokes to make about dissociation.’
Sometimes, people would question how undead mythologies worked – if it was possible to get both a ghost and a zombie from the same person.
Apparently, the answer was “yes”.
Stef looked down at her ever-so-slightly transparent hands and flexed her fingers, enjoying the little bits of code that peeked through as she did.
Jones had explained that it was a kindness they did for most augments – and anyone else who had to undergo extensive post-upload testing. Something to make the entire process a lot less traumatising.
The “desire path training” which would ensure that all of her code was responding to inputs in the right ways really amounted to – when you actually read the project plan – Mags and Taylor murdering her body over and over in increasingly specific ways.
It was essential to ensure that there wasn’t a line of code that meant that “getting stabbed in the hand” triggered a cascade failure that would lead to her BSODing in the middle of a fight.
But it was also understood that actually going through that was probably not the best move, psychologically speaking.
So the answer had been the use of a dumb terminal system – whereby the consciousness of the baby agent was temporarily ported into this weird code-ghost thing she occupied while the testing could be done to her real body.
So Mags got to beat up her zombie while she got to cheer on from the bleachers.
My life is so fucking weird.
‘You sure you got the controls?’ Jones asked.
She nodded. For the most part, she felt normal – she could feel the wood of the bleachers under her butt, the slight shift in the air from the air conditioning, and her breath. Her HUD had been largely stripped away to account for the low-interaction state she was supposed to maintain.
So if she was going to sneak any time fucking around on the internet, it would have to be through one of the tablets Jonesy was going to leave behind.
‘Everything will be fine,’ Mags said as she walked up.
Another day, another cute dress. This one with a white corset of heavily textured material and a short skirt topped with a layer of lace that hid feathers in the pattern.
Magnolia saw her looking and gave a spin. ‘You like?’
‘It’s cute,’ she said.
‘I can send you the requirement details, though you’d probably want to strip out the tactical upgrades.’
She looked down at her ghosty hands. ‘I- No thanks. It’s not something I could pull off.’
Mags leaned in close and grinned. ‘I wasn’t inviting you to pull it off me, Mimosa.’ She winked. ‘You’d at least have to buy me a drink first.’
‘Uhhhh- Um.’ She stared at her hands and wished there was some kind of anti-blushing requirement. ‘I didn’t mean-’
‘Oh, you’re so easy.’ Mags turned to Jones. ‘We’re fine. I’ve got it from here.’
‘Be gentle,’ Jones warned, then shifted away.
A door opened on the other side of the gym, and Taylor – along with a blond agent she didn’t recognise – stepped out. Both looked like they’d been fighting to the death – though the mud, blood and debris disappeared as she looked.
‘That’s our sim room,’ Mags said. ‘That’s Grigori, by the way. I don’t think he would have introduced himself yet.’
Though Taylor and Grigori didn’t really look anything alike, the thought that appeared in her brain was “mirror universe clones”, but rather than good, normal Spock and evil goatee Spock, there was ginger agent and blonde agent.
When they’d been made, someone had obviously turned all the muscle sliders up to max, throwing all possible points into whatever would best suit a tank build. But beyond that…she’d barely interacted with Taylor, but he seemed capable of maybe two facial expressions, of which he was wearing “neutral” right now, whereas his good!universe counterpart had an open and smiling face.
Magnolia stepped back and crooked a finger at the zombie. ‘Come on, Mimosa,’ she said and led the auto-piloting body towards the middle of the gym.
The autopilot would be able to handle most of the commands needed for the next couple of days. Primarily it would just be positioning, standing in the right place to die, then respawn.
If she needed to – or wanted to – she could jump back into her body at any point or pilot it around like a drone whilst remaining separated and in the dumb-terminal ghost.
The air beside her flexed and folded as someone shifted in – Grigori – whose smile was as broad as when he’d been talking to Taylor. ‘I haven’t had a chance to introduce myself.’ He laid a hand on his chest. ‘Grigori, it’s a pleasure to meet you.’ He reached out a hand – one, if he stuck around, he was probably going to use to murder her zombie several dozen times.
She reached her hand out to shake his, but he turned it up and gave it a quick, gentlemanly kiss, then released her hand.
‘Um. Hi. Stef. Mimosa. Whatever’s easier.’
‘I’ve invited myself to help out my dear friend and his recruit, so you’ll be seeing a lot of me in the next few days. If you-’
‘We’re starting,’ Mags called from the centre of the room, a tablet in her hand.
‘Excuse me,’ Grigori said. ‘We can talk later if you like.’
In the middle of the gym, the three conferred for a moment while her zombie stood dead-eyed, staring at the wall.
Taylor stepped up to her body and snapped her neck.
On the tablet to her right, the affected area flashed in red. She picked it up and looked at the data stream as her crumpled body disappeared and then respawned. First test, and everything looked good.
Magnolia returned to the bleachers and sat beside her, clearing some of the assorted Tech clutter so she had room to fully relax. A tall bubble tea cup appeared in her hand, and she took a moment to watch the action as Taylor and Grigori took turns snapping the zombie’s neck. ‘Three’s a crowd,’ Magnolia said. ‘I mean, not always. Three can be very fun. Four’s when it starts to get complicated.’
The zombie crumpled again, and she turned to Mags. ‘If you need a fourth, Curt knows about me. I mean, not everything, but enough to help with this? I don’t think day one specifically tests any of the Faraday cage limits.’
Mags paused in sipping her drink. ‘What are you-’ Her face scrunched. ‘Oh. Oh, sweet summer child, that wasn’t what I meant at all.’ She swirled the cup, making the pearls bob up and down. ‘You’re right, this is all pretty basic stuff, but lots of issues can still crop up during basic tests.’
‘I saw pictures of a guy who looked like Truck Shepard.’
‘Like- What? I don’t have any of my nerds here to translate, so go easy on me, Mimosa.’
She flicked through a couple of screens on the tablet to a gallery Jonesy had labelled as “FBH” – Fun, But Horrifying. She turned the tablet and held up a picture of an agent whose body had apparently decided that extending every vertex a hundred times past its usual parameter had been a good idea.
‘Oh, sea urchin guy, yeah, let’s hope that doesn’t happen to you.’
In the middle of the room, the testing had seemed to move on from “snapping necks with bare hands” to “breaking necks with assistance”. With a swing equal parts grace and terrifying power, Taylor smacked the back of the zombie’s neck with a pipe.
In the data stream, two red flags popped up. ‘Can you ask him to do that again?’ she asked, pointing to the errors. ‘Sometimes- Jonesy said sometimes a repeated stimulus can force a pathway to build. If not, it’s something he can fix later.’
‘Exactly the same?’ Stef nodded. ‘Sir?’ Taylor turned towards Magnolia, who made a quick gesture with her hand. Taylor adjusted the pipe in his hand and swung it in the same arc when the zombie respawned.
One of the two flags disappeared.
‘Again?’ Mags asked.
She shook her head. ‘No, that was enough.’
‘Next step,’ Magnolia called.
The next step was apparently Grigori with a baseball bat.
After a few minutes, Magnolia excused herself to confer with the two agents about the run sheet for the first section of test-murders. A pleasant hum of conversation filled the gym – if she focussed, she could hear what they were saying, but it was just nice to have as background noise.
It wasn’t something she’d really had before.
This wasn’t inclusion, but it was far from the very deliberate exclusion that had been such a regular feature of her life. Whenever her parents had dinner guests – not just strangers but other members of the family – she’d be bribed to stay quiet in her room, brought a separate dinner by one of the staff.
Even the time she’s spent at the family estate, the most interaction she’d really been able to manage was not being asked to leave the room when a group of her cousins had been hanging out. Or times when she’d been able to head into town with them – getting a pity ride if there was a spare seat in someone’s car or in a town car if people didn’t feel like driving.
It wasn’t like she’d been actually invited to do activities with them. As soon as they’d hit the high street, she’d been left to fend for herself and to find her own way home.
It had been so lonely.
Just knowing that people couldn’t even stand to be in the same room with you. Knowing that even if you were doing nothing but reading in another corner of one of the larger living spaces, that they’d rather be anywhere else. That somehow just by being there, she’d somehow made their day worse.
It was them. It was never you.
They hated me- No. It wasn’t even hate. It was just- I just didn’t fit.
If she’d been in her body, she would have been blinking back tears, but the dumb terminal apparently couldn’t cry.
In the middle of the room, Grigori held her decapitated head in his hands. He tossed it from palm to palm like a basketball, then threw it to Taylor, who caught it, and after some laddish cajoling from Grigori, threw it back.
Her head was passed a few more times, then it disappeared, respawning properly attached to her body once again.
‘You seem weirdly unbothered by this,’ Magnolia said, coming back to drink more of her boba. ‘If I’ve said that before, you’ve earned it again.’ She dropped the volume of her voice. ‘Do I need to have a word with the Parkers? Do you want to talk to someone about all this? There are counsellors and shit attached to this network.’
‘Can I tell you something?’
Magnolia held out a clone of her boba and shook it. ‘I think the body you’re in can drink. If not, the floor cleans itself.’
Stef took the boba and twisted the thick straw to mix the layers. ‘I- Died when I was a baby. The stuff surrounding that, coming back, is the only source of comfort I’ve ever had in my life. That’s the beginning of how fucked up I am.’ She gestured her cup towards Taylor and Grigori. ‘This is just science. And it’s being done because someone finally gives a shit about me. Two, if you include Jonesy, but I don’t know if he’s just invested in me cause I’m an interesting project. You’re part of this, and it’s not bothering you. You’ve got my blood on your pretty dress and-’
‘You could wear a pretty dress if you want.’
‘If this was Labyrinth, you’d be Sarah, and I’d be one of those goblins Jareth steps on. I’m happy with that.’
‘We can work on that.’ Magnolia took a long pull on her boba before putting her cup down again. ‘Oh, I came over to say. You might want to put a splash guard up. We’re moving onto explosions in about ten minutes.’