The Grey Edge: Chapter Forty-Four

‘I’m still seeing code.’
‘How long were you at it?’
Stef took her hands off her face and tilted her head back to look at him. ‘This session? Only eighteen hours, which isn’t that long when I get in the zone, but…I’m not used to it being so…visual I guess? Bright and shiny and stuff. Also, coding in three-d is more than a little weird.’
Ryan gave a shrug. ‘You do have the option to do it on a regular computer.’
‘Are you kidding? I said it was weird, I didn’t say it wasn’t cool! I mean, the level of complexity I’m getting to deal with..Neo can kiss my ass.’
‘You’re going to have to sleep at some point.’
‘I’m sixty-four percent done, can probably get another seventeen percent done before dinner.’ She required a tablet computer and ran her fingers across it. ‘If I do another two hours work after that, I can get another five percent to do itself.’
‘Are you all right?’
‘I’m patching, coding and debugging, so I’m pretty much in my element. It’s not like I’m getting to do any of the complicated stuff.’
‘Even if it isn’t complicated, you are helping.’
‘I’m also being really selfish,’ she said as she sat up and retrieved her bottle of soft drink from the floor. ‘I don’t give a fsck about the new combat agent, but doing this…sort of helps me understand what exactly went into me to make me work.’
‘There’s nothing wrong with that.’
She stood and dragged a freshly-required chair around to his side of the desk. ‘Is there something you could answer for me?’ she asked as she settled cross-legged into the chair.
‘Unless it’s about Atlantis again.’
‘One day, you will tell me the truth about-’
She swung the chair side to side for a few seconds. ‘I’m not sure..I’m not sure I understand the recycling thing.’
‘What in particular?’
‘Ok, so there’s got to be the original set of modules, right? Kick Ass A, Computer Science B, that kind of stuff, right? If, and I’m assuming if, those modules haven’t been lost, then why bother ripping agents apart to reuse?’
‘If it makes you uncomfortable to think about…’
‘No, that wasp that eats a caterpillar from the inside out makes me uncomfortable to think about. This…I just want to understand. This is what I am as well, now, so unless there’s some sort of purity test, bits of me are going to be used in future agents, or future whatever-angels-are-instead-of-agents, you know what I mean.’
‘There are, for one reason or another, several humans in the collective unconscious, which is where we retrieve the parts of previous agents that we need.’
‘It’s also that big funky file repository, right?’
‘Correct, but that’s a separate section.’
‘Still, why?’ she asked. ‘And don’t say you’ll tell me when I’m older.’
‘It’s the problem of consciousness.’
‘Our kind were initially all made from scratch, a clean copy of the code each time, nothing saved from the previous generation.’
‘There’s a “but” isn’t there?’
‘A large degree of newly-generated agents were failures. Think of what it’s like for someone born an agent – there’s nothing, then you open your eyes for the first time and you’re a fully functional, reasoning, conscious being.’
‘With a job and everything.’
‘Exactly. You are nothing, then you are are everything. You are seeing everything for the first time, but you know what everything is, you’re forming full sentences with words you’ve never used before, you’re interacting people, but you’ve never been taught how to shake hands.’
‘I never…I never thought of that.’
‘Even you must have experienced some of that,’ he said. ‘We all do.’
She nodded. ‘Yeah, a bit.’
‘That’s why so many of us would fail, it was just too much to comprehend all at once, and they’d just go mad, or shut down.’
He gave a nod. ‘Eventually, they found that using pieces from agents who had attained, and sustained consciousness helped with the process – that even if latently, unconsciously, there were parts of that new being that were used to being conscious, it made the whole process easier. It’s still difficult, but it’s no longer an insurmountable task.’
There was a knock at the door.
‘Come in,’ Ryan called.
Stuart walked in, a little girl balanced on his hip, a blue nappy bag slung over his broad shoulders and a worried expression on his generally-jovial face. ‘Am I late?’
‘For once,’ Ryan said, ‘no…I wasn’t aware that we had an appointment.’
‘Clarke said I was welcome to the meeting, is he back yet?’
Ryan looked to his left, the same way he always did when he was checking the time. ‘No, but he’s due back any minute now, if things didn’t go…badly.’
‘It’s Magpie,’ Stuart said with a look of disgust on his face. ‘All she does is make things go badly.’
‘You’re welcome to the meeting, Darren, but your child-’
‘Already taken care of,’ Stuart said as he took a few steps forward. ‘The short lesbian can look after her. Girls make good babysitters. It’s genetic. Plus agent. Blue-enetic?’ He pushed the child into her arms and dropped the nappy bag on the floor beside her chair.
Ryan sighed. [It’ll only be for a while.]
She stared at the little girl. ‘I have no idea what I’m doing.’
‘You’ll be fine,’ Stuart said with a grin, ‘let your maternal instincts take over.’
She focussed on cookies. ‘Yeah, ok, I need a longer break from coding.’
[Are you sure?]
[This is why I have a camp buddy, right?]
Stuart looked to the door. ‘Let’s go wait for him, you can fill me in on whatever I’ve missed.’
Ryan stood, put a comforting hand to her head, then followed the harried agent out of his office.
She stared at the child for a moment, reached down, grabbed the nappy bag and shifted.
She knocked frantically at Curt’s door. ‘Four seconds or I’m shifting in.’
‘Sheesh, newbie,’ he said as he pulled open the door, ‘what is-’
She pushed past him before he had a chance to argue. ‘This!’ she said, holding the child awkwardly. She let the nappy bag slide off her shoulder and pointed to the child for emphasis. ‘This!’
He started towelling his hair. ‘Stef, is there something you need to tell me?’ he asked with a grin.
She put the little girl down on the bed and began to construct pillow-fort walls around it. ‘She’s Stuart’s, he’s barging in on the meeting for some reason, and Ryan’s indulging him, so I got…’
‘Yeah, yeah, you were the only girl around. I’ve seen it happen. Why aren’t you in on the meeting, it’s got to be more important than this, couldn’t he have palmed it off on the techs?’
‘I think he wanted it back in one piece. And I’m sequestered off coding anyway. Or supposed to be anyway, this is my first break in eighteen hours.’
He jerked a thumb at the couch on the wall next to the kitchenette. ‘You can crash for a bit, I won’t tell.’
She shook her head. ‘Nah, s’ok, I just didn’t expect to have a kid shoved at me.’ She fell heavily onto the couch. ‘He was just like “the short lesbian can look after the kid”, then dragged Ryan off.’
‘Things must be getting serious if the outposts are getting worried.’
‘I try and not think about the big stuff, my head’s next to exploding most of the time anyway trying to hold all this information in.’
‘And Ryan didn’t say anything?’
‘It’s not the first time that he’s said something like that, and I’m always just…confused, so I turn mute trying to come up with a good response. I mean, compared to some fae I’m not short.’
‘He’s probably measuring on the Agent scale.’
‘And lesbians freak me out.’
He tilted his head. ‘Why?’
‘Don’t get me wrong,’ she said as she sculled a freshly-required coffee, ‘I’ve got nothing against anyone in the whole spectrum, but lesbians…’ She put her coffee down. ‘I just don’t know how they don’t achieve a critical mammary mass and have to deal with explosions.’
He opened his mouth.
He closed his mouth.
He looked away.
‘I’m just going to pretend that conversation never happened.’ He lifted the nappy bag and began to pull the girl’s toys out. ‘To other things that freak you out, I didn’t think kids would be one.’
She crossed her legs and scratched her stomach. ‘They’re fine from a distance, but I don’t know the first thing about actually doing anything with them.’
‘Come on, it’s easy.’
‘Maybe for you,’ she said. ‘I’m happy with my skill set.’
‘You don’t want a mini-me?’
‘Children aren’t topiary,’ she said, ‘or perfect little bonsai that you can prune to perfection. They aren’t supposed to be their parents.’
He gave her an apologetic look. ‘Didn’t mean anything by it.’
‘I know, but…I don’t know what your parents were like but mine wanted me to be a perfect little doll.’
‘My dad’s gay and my mum’s a drunk. Their marriage was a sham, at least after she found out, but they did the whole “think of the children” thing and stayed together, until they split which was far, far from pretty.’
‘I didn’t know.’
‘I’d like it to stay that way, I can keep all of your secrets, you think you can keep one of mine?’ he rummaged around in the bag and found several containers of sliced fruit. ‘Has she been fed?’
‘He didn’t exactly give me instructions.’
He opened up one of the smaller containers and began to hand over slices of apple. ‘Kids are easy,’ he said, ‘if it helps you process it, just think of them as a verbal pet. Come here,’ he said, waving her over.
She groaned and got off the couch, then knelt beside him. ‘What?’
He handed her a slice of apple. ‘Here, it’s not hard.’
She popped the slice of apple into her mouth and returned to the couch. ‘I came for help, not for lessons. A child raised by me would need psychiatric care by the age of four, I’m not so cruel as to inflict that on someone who doesn’t deserve it. I don’t need to know how to do this stuff.’
He sighed, then fed the girl a few more slices before throwing the containers back into the bag. He handed the girl a large picture book, before turning and joining her on the couch. His leg brushed against hers as he sat, and she moved away, squishing herself against the plush arm of the couch.
‘Sorry,’ he said.
‘It’s ok,’ she said, but didn’t relax her legs.
‘When you…I mean…’
‘The reason you freak out when people touch you, I-’
‘There’s nothing to say.’
‘I didn’t mean to- I can imagine all of these really horrible reasons for it, but I know it’s-’
‘No, I mean, it’s nothing. Or because of nothing, or something.’ She pressed a hand to his arm. ‘The couple of people who have noticed, girls at school and stuff, they always assume…yanno, that I got molested or something.’
‘Yeah,’ he said flatly, ‘the thought had more than occurred to me.’
She pulled her hand away. ‘Think of it this way, if someone can be like this because they’ve been…touched. Couldn’t it be because they haven’t been?’ She waved a hand. ‘Really bad wording. Wait. My parents didn’t hug me or cuddle me or physically comfort me when I was sick, sad or bad. I didn’t get to hide in their bed because there was a monster in my closet. I didn’t get my hand held, or my head patted, or anything like that. Up until I came here, almost all of the physical contact in my life has been purely formal or purely accidental. I’ve never had to deal with these sort of sensations before, I’m learning them like a child would. Not to mention I’m used to my personal bubble being the size of a flat.’
‘Well, I think you finally make sense.’
She gave him a too-wide smile. ‘There’s still tons about me you don’t know.’
‘Like what?’
‘I once ate a whole can of coffee.’
He stared at her.
She held her thumb and forefinger about an inch apart. ‘Ok, it was a really, really tiny can.’
The little girl began to move toward the pillows, to breach the strong, proud walls of the pillow-fort. ‘I think I’m going to read her a story,’ he said, ‘any suggestions?’
‘Now that,’ she said with a grin, ‘that definitely comes under my skill set.’