Whoever had said you couldn’t play with toys as an adult had been an arsehole.
‘Okay,’ Milla said, placing the Solstice figure on the city-map-playmat. ‘What about here?’
Stef tossed the little agent doll back and forth between her hands, then placed it halfway between where they’d designated the blackout zone and the little round cracker that represented the closest set of fairy stairs in this scenario.
There was a ping in her HUD – Ryan, requesting video. ‘Gimme a minute,’ she said. She clicked the video accept button, smiled, and tried not to look at her own little picture-in-picture webcam face. [Hey.]
His smile was wan. [If you get hungry, get dinner without me.]
His smile reached his eyes. [I do have to pay attention to the content of this meeting, Miss Mimosa.]
[Just seventeen. Though I have managed to send a lot of paperwork to Curt and countersign things he’s already finished.]
[Well, that’s him happy for the day.]
Ryan looked to the side. [I have to go, message me if you need me.]
She broke the connection and looked over at Milla, who had busied herself with her phone. ‘Sorry,’ she said. ‘Ryan’s been stuck in a conference hall for like eight hours so far. I think he’d welcome a minor apocalypse.’
‘No one’s taught you the trick yet, have they?’
Milla sent a small video file to their chat, displacing their competing requirement links for their preferred Eton Mess recipes. She watched what was clearly the last minute of conversation, her face slipping through the expressions she’d had, though thankfully, not the words.
‘I thought everyone just stared into the void,’ she said, cheeks burning a little. ‘But then again, I try to mostly text, because-’
‘Because why video when text does just fine?’ Milla said, finishing her thought in an exasperated voice. ‘Our dads are very old men. Post singularity tech, but very old men. I swear Williams nearly bursts a vein every time I make him say “emoji”.’
‘How do I fix it?’
Milla sent over a screenshot – and not for the first time, she wondered if a screenshot taken with HUD should be called a “headshot” – of how to change the emotion display settings.
Stop being smarter than me.
‘It’s a quirk of the augment software,’ Milla explained. ‘For agents, it’s auto-blank-face. For us, it’s in this weird half-half mode. Just make sure primary facial expressions are set to the active window, and secondary is turned off.’
She followed the instructions and the screenshots and then nodded. ‘Okay, future embarrassment avoided.’
Milla took a drink of her tobi soda. ‘Do you have any slash commands yet?’ She grinned at Stef’s blank reaction. ‘Your tech didn’t give you any emotes?’
Stef leaned closer, knocked aside the Solstice and Agent Bob figures and planted her hands on the carpet. ‘No. And you will explain exactly where, when and how I get these, or I’m gonna crack open your skull and eat the knowledge out of your head.’
‘When you say weird shit like that, it makes me glad to be your friend.’
Stef pulled back, arms crossing so she could ever-so-slightly hug herself. ‘Friend?’
‘I never had to go through this, but I know a lot of people who have. I get the feeling you’re very much in the “no friends, worthless dirt gremlin” stage of your life?’
Correct, I am a worthless dirt gremlin.
‘I- Look, we haven’t hung out a lot, but- Your nickname is Spyder, right?’ Stef nodded. ‘There are people in your web, Spyder. There are connections being made. It’s okay to be a dirt gremlin ’cause some people like dirt gremlins. You speed-ran getting a dad. His aide is writing a dictionary so he can understand you better. You’re your tech’s favourite project right now. Maybe most people are still on the outer edges of the web, barely noticeable, but they’re there.’
I’m just so used to being lonely.
You can say that to her.
It’s okay to be scared.
‘I’m so much more of a drag than an asset,’ she said and picked up the Agent Bob doll to fidget with. ‘Being around me is a net negative, and-’
She shut up as a jellybean hit her cheek.
Milla smiled and tossed another at her. ‘I’m just gonna start doing this every time you talk down about yourself.’
Milla clamped a hand over her mouth, seemed to go through six or seven expressions, and then calmed. ‘I don’t think your aide is the only one who needs a dictionary.’
Stef picked up the jellybean and tossed it back. ‘Naughty?’
Milla had, thankfully, picked up on her complete discomfort regarding anything about two bodies squishing together and took a moment to think. ‘Solo player mode, cis girl edition?’ she said slowly. ‘Enough said?’
She felt her cheeks warm with embarrassment again and nodded.
‘Some people are more circumspect with whom they call a friend. I’m not,’ Milla said. ‘Obviously, there’s people I’m better friends with, but there are also people I hold dear, and our main form of interaction is swapping memes over Vox.’ She threw another jellybean, and this time, Stef angled her head to catch it in her mouth. ‘So yes, we’re friends, if that’s cool with you.’
Two friends. This meant she officially had two friends.
She wasn’t quite sure what to do with her face, so she looked down and nodded. ‘Um. Emotes?’
‘We’re just code, so it makes sense, right? Design an action, then have a trigger for it. Therefore, vis-à-vis, IRL emotes.’ A file labelled “/serious” appeared in their chat window. ‘This has saved my life more times than anything else in the world.’
Stef ran the file, which installed as quickly as a browser extension. ‘Okay, now what?’
‘So, like require and shift, this is the string starter. Command. Command: slash-serious.’
Immediately, she felt her face snap into a polite, neutral expression. Milla held up a large mirror, which echoed what she felt.
‘Now,’ Milla said, ‘whatever happens, your face will stay in business mode until you cancel the command.’ She pointed at the discarded cake fork to Stef’s right. ‘Stab yourself. Check it out.’
Stef picked up the fork and stared at it and the little bits of red velvet residue.
My life is so fucking weird now.
Pain as an agent didn’t really exist. You experienced maybe a quarter of a second of actual sensation, enough to let her know damage had occurred. Then, it had become numb-at-the-dentist pressure rather than true pain. Every time she’d felt something, she’d winced, but even that had been more of a Pavlovian reaction than anything, the expectation of pain rather than what she really felt.
She stabbed the fork into her thigh.
She didn’t wince.
She looked at herself in the mirror and saw the same look of professional, dull interest that had been there before she’d pressed an inch of tines into her skinny thigh.
‘Oh,’ she said, and her voice came out neutral and professional. ‘This is going to be very useful.’
She felt the fork move in her hand as her thigh tried to repair itself and allowed her flesh to push it free. New skin tingled, and then the tiny holes in her pants fixed themselves. Everything was as good as new.
Milla dropped a link in chat. ‘There’s a whole store on the intranet. Careful you don’t download too many too quickly, and they will warn you if there’s a conflicting command name, so you might need to rename or recode if that’s the case.’
‘Yeah, I can handle that.’
There was a knock at the door, and Curt walked in, a pile of papers in his hands.
So far, he didn’t seem to have the very organised system that Magnolia had, one giant folder that seemed to expand and contract as needed, like rooms in a TARDIS. But, even as bad as she was at understanding people and guessing what various facial expressions meant, he seemed to be getting more and more comfortable with carrying around piles of paperwork.
He paused after he put his paperwork on the round table, a crease forming between his eyebrows. ‘What’s wrong?’
He made a vague hand motion at her head. ‘Your face is doing something, Newbie. What’s wrong?’
‘Oh,’ she said, her voice still coming out plain and neutral.
She looked around her HUD and saw a small window with an X option to cancel an ongoing command, and she felt her face come back under her control again. ‘I just learned a trick, so people won’t know I’m spacing out.’
Curt looked at Milla. ‘Thank you for the best blessing and worst curse you’ve brought into my life, Agent.’
‘You’ll find a way to handle it,’ Milla said. She lifted the Solstice doll and set it back on the map. ‘Go again,’ she said, pointing to Stef’s Agent Bob doll.
Curt shook his head. ‘Nah, they’d never position like that on purpose.’
Milla tossed the Solstice figure up to him. ‘Fine, but if you wanna come play dolls with us, you have to take your shoes off.’
‘I accept the conditions,’ he said and joined them on the floor.