I stepped out of the bathroom at the Gimel-side G-N station, doing my best to manage two bags. One bag had my armor, and the other had some of Kenzie’s stuff. It took some hunting to find her.
There were plenty of trees around the station, a side effect of the city being put down as fast as trees and rock could be cleared away. To have a very green look, all that needed to be done was to leave a slice of land and root structures intact. Kenzie had situated herself at the base of the tree nearest the entrance. She had her phone out, held in front of her.
She waved as I approached, her phone still held out.
“She’s back,” she said, to the phone. “We’re going to catch our train soon, so I might have to lose the phone or we might drop the connection because the cell networks are bad lately.”
“You said the bad networks might be because of enemy action,” I heard a male voice through the tinny speaker.
“Yeah,” she said. She patted the grass beside her. I set the bags down and sat.
Ashley and Rain were on the other end of the video call. Ashley was offscreen, but her hands were onscreen.
“How are you?” Rain asked me.
“I’ve had better days, but we got info. This call is secure?”
“Oh yeah,” Kenzie said.
“Our resident, full-time tinker said you’d be better to explain the paper you found, Victoria,” Rain said.
“If it’s no trouble,” Kenzie said.
“I had a look at the paper. The prison is a focus. From what Kingdom Come said, they’re paying close attention to places where capes gather in large numbers. The prison where you guys are is one focus. Goddess is another, maybe because she has a lot of capes in her immediate orbit. The other big teams are another one.”
“Not us, because we’re not big or important,” Kenzie said.
“…Yeah,” I said. “I would be interested in seeing how that changed or their angle for approaching us, if things reached a different point.”
“Feeling ambitious? Is Capricorn rubbing off on you?” Rain asked. “Or-”
“Did I?” Ashley’s voice came across the phone, closer to the microphone on their end.
“Don’t say did,” Kenzie said. “Not like it’s over with. You’re not gone, you’re just there. You could even help us.”
“We’ll help however we can,” Rain said. There was a pause, and the camera shifted as someone moved. It might have been Ashley holding the phone on the far end, or it could have been a movement that jostled the table the phone sat on. Rain added a quieter, “Yeah. I think we’d be glad to help. It’s the boredom that’s worst, and this sounds good.”
“We’ll get back to you with more information and direction, then,” I said. Kenzie nodded. “You guys are okay?”
“As okay as I could be,” Rain said. “The talk at the tribunal helped a bit. They’re letting me have some basic tools, Ashley can come, and I get a chance to work on her hands.”
“I appreciate it,” Ashley said.
“Four of us live in my building,” Rain said. “We each have exits on a different face of the building, so we don’t cross paths as much, but walls are thin and people are bored. There’s a lot of talk.”
“I have a roommate,” Ashley said. “You could call her family. Having her around helps some, but it also hurts some.”
“That’s family,” I said.
“Yup,” Kenzie said.
“I suppose so,” Rain added.
“If these updates to my hands work at all, I shouldn’t be so reliant on her,” Ashley said. “Patience has a way of wearing thin.”
“Yours or hers?” I asked.
“Same thing,” she said.
“Uh, right,” Rain said. “Hey, if we’re helping out, what is it we’re doing?”
“Watch out for anything suspicious,” I said. “Anyone who seems to show too much interest in the way things work.”
“That could be anyone,” Rain said. “Us, even. It’s an odd setup, everyone wants to know more as soon as they’re here.”
“Odd how?” I asked.
“That would be us, right now,” Rain said. “It’s a town, almost. Every building is its own set of cells. Wide roads separating things, longer walks between facilities that matter.”
Ashley added, “They spread us out so that if one person blows something up or uses a power, they can’t affect more than a building or two at a time. Eight parahumans at most.”
“And they have the countermeasures. The ankle attachment,” I said.
“Yeah,” Rain said. “A lot of security is offsite. Everything is scheduled, so we don’t have too many of us in one place at one time. Officers have guns, remotes for the bombs we’re wearing and access to security cameras stationed at irregular intervals with irregular schedules.”
“I hear security cameras and my imagination goes wild,” Kenzie said.
“Be careful about fooling around,” Ashley’s voice was almost that of a parent. Warning, guiding. “If you make a mistake, it reflects on us.”
“Yeah,” Kenzie said. Her expression was serious. “I don’t want that. I want you out of there already. Both of you.”
“It will take time. You can call in the meantime,” Ashley said.
“Any thoughts, Victoria?” Rain asked.
“What I’m hearing,” I spoke slowly as I thought things through mid-sentence, “Is that for any dangerous person or group to influence the prison population, it would be hard to reach enough people.”
“They would have to be staff,” Rain said.
I nodded slowly. “It’s possible, and it fits better with the picture we have. It’s also pretty worrying, if true.”
“We’ll look,” Ashley said. “It’s easier, because we see staff more often than we see other prisoners.”
“Let me know if you need anything,” Kenzie said. “I’m at your disposal.”
“I need you to not do too much,” Ashley said.
“I’m not. School is handled, I’m ahead in most of my classes, which is easy since it’s only half days, and I’m more or less getting enough sleep.”
“Take it easy. Step away from the tinkering, be a kid. Run in circles in a field or whatever it is kids do,” Ashley said.
“Running in circles in a field? How long was it since you were a kid, Ashley?” I asked.
“A long time,” she said. “I didn’t get to enjoy my childhood as much as I wanted, and I can’t remember those days very easily. I don’t want one of my favorite people to make the same mistake I did.”
“You’re one of my favorite people too,” Kenzie said.
“Powers have a way of taking over, and tinker powers like yours, Kenzie, they’re especially bad for it.”
Rain’s voice was a touch testy as he said, “I like how you’re saying that while I’m on hour… holy, it’s been two and a half hours that I’ve been working on your hands here.”
“Shh,” Ashley said.
“Rubbing that salt into the wound. I’m kidding. It’s nice to do something practical.”
He sounded so easygoing, considering his incarceration. Ashley, meanwhile, seemed a bit subdued.
“And familiar faces,” Ashley said. She looked at the phone’s camera, locking eyes with us. “I’m glad you called, Kenzie.”
“Just so you know, I am going to take a break from the tinkering tonight. Victoria’s coming over for dinner. We’re having pasta, we’ll talk with my parents, who seem to really like her, my mom especially, and I can show her my workshop with everything I’ve been doing.”
I didn’t miss the pause after, or the looks exchanged between Rain and Ashley on the tiny phone screen.
Bells chimed in the distance as the gates closed in anticipation of the train coming in.
“Keep your expectations low,” Ashley said.
Kenzie heaved out a sigh. “Okay.”
“It’s good if Victoria is visiting,” Ashley said. “More of us should have been doing that. I would have come over before, if it was doable.”
“You intimidate my parents and they don’t want you over, so yeah, not doable. Really really, it doesn’t need to be a ‘should’ thing,” Kenzie said. “And you all have your own expectations and ideas going in that makes it awkward.”
“Is there anything I need to worry about?” I asked Ashley and Rain. I picked up the bags, slinging them over the one shoulder.
“Seee?” Kenzie cut in, bringing the phone closer to her face. “You two are making it awkward. She’s worried.”
“Wondering if I need to be worried, actually.”
“You’re fine if it’s you, Victoria,” Rain said.
“Yeah, she’s fine,” Kenzie said. She shook her head and smiled. “I’m having a friend over. It’s not a big deal.”
“It’s a big deal to you, for one thing,” Ashley said.
“Because I never used to get to have friends over, not because there’s any need to be worried, geez! My mom’s a good cook, I have stuff I want to show off, and-”
“She’s not your mom, and that’s not your dad.”
We’d been making our way to the front door of the train station when Ashley said it. Kenzie stopped in her tracks.
“Ah man,” Rain said, in the background.
People walked past us to enter the station. While Kenzie and I stood still, the crowd moved on. The train pulled into the station, noisy as it approached, muffled somewhat as it passed indoors. It drowned out everything and brought all conversation to a halt.
Kenzie hit a button on her phone, and held it to her ear, her back to me.
There were a dozen things I wanted to say or do, and I held my tongue. There was still the train ride, and it would only frustrate if I interrupted a conversation now.
“Ashley-” she said. “Ashley, ugh, let me talk, okay? Because I have a train to catch. You’re wrong, you’re lying, and I’m really bothered you’re lying. I’m really tired of this. That was rude.”
“Yeah, well, I love you a lot but I don’t like you a lot right now. I’m going to hang up. Hm? Yeah. Okay. Fine.”
She hung up, spun in a half circle to face me, and smiled. “Sorry. She wants you to call her at the end of the night, if possible. She says she spent some time in Earth N at one point, getting the lay of the land, she can give tips on who’s there.”
“I will. Kenzie, I have a lot of questions,” I said.
“Can we not make a big deal of this?” she asked. “There’s the train to catch, and I meant what I said about not wanting you to be prejudiced or anything.”
“Catching the train? Sure,” I said. “We can do that, and I can come over. I won’t break my word like that. I just… want to make sure I’m not missing anything vital.”
“I’m safe, you’re safe. My parents are safe, and they are my parents, just to make that clear. I have pictures of them holding me while I’m a baby. I don’t have any runaway tinkerings, there won’t be any captives in the basement, nobody’s going to die or get maimed. There’s nothing ‘vital’. Can we just go?”
We walked to the train, joining the tail end of the short line of people that still hadn’t boarded.
“We all have weird or broken families,” Kenzie said. “Rain doesn’t have any family he gets along with. Ashley doesn’t have anyone except her twin.”
“Kind of. Her roommate, now. Sveta only has Weld, Chris doesn’t have anyone, Tristan and his parents don’t talk and he only gets to see them because he goes to Church with them. Byron has it easier but it’s still awkward. You’ve got family business I’m not going to poke my nose in.”
“So it leaves Byron and me with mostly normal families. I can say the word ‘family’ and half the people in the group get a teeny-tiny surly or sad look on their face and the other half get an ‘oh no’ look.”
“Which one am I?” I asked.
“Depends on the day, but you’re a tie-breaker a lot of the time, so that’s fine. What I’m saying is everyone has these ideas going in, some of which are outright wrong, like Ashley’s, and something as simple and basic as dinner with family and it becomes this big thing.”
We boarded the train.
“What am I even supposed to do in this situation, Kenz?”
“Do what you were going to do. I know you checked up on Chris and he didn’t like that, and this is you checking up on me. Difference is, I’m okay with that, I’m even happy you care. Just don’t- don’t go in with the wrong ideas. Because that’s not fair.”
I considered that for a moment. I saw her looking up at me with large eyes, kinky, glossy hair in two balls close to the base of her neck.
No judgment. I gave her a nod, and she practically skipped at the confirmation, like the moment gave her a boost that accelerated her, saw her moving ahead in the aisle to a possible seating location.
We took up one set of four chairs, each of us taking two seats, depositing our bags and things in the empty seats. Kenzie looked around a few times before putting down her helmet and cloaking device, the visuals distorting as the cloaking adjusted to the change in orientation. The seat-bottom briefly disappeared as the camouflage took hold, Kenzie tapped the cloaked cloaking device, and it returned to normal.
“It’s not a long trip,” she said. “We’re going to the next station.”
“I know,” I said. “Then, in the interest of finding something to talk about that won’t take too long, how’s school?”
Maybe not the right subject for a short conversation. The reality was that Kenzie was a teacher’s pet, and I actually really liked school and studying, with some hope of studying in the future, if I could get into classes. Despite the ten year age difference between us, it was a pretty decent back and forth.
“What kind of projects?” she asked, as the train came to a stop. The station beyond the window was a temporary one.
“With parahuman studies? A lot of it is theory and extrapolating from what little we know. I’m really eager to see how the classes change in the future, since we know different things than we did four years ago.”
“I don’t think I’d want to study that stuff,” Kenzie said. “I think it’s super cool, don’t think I’m a jerk for pooh-poohing what you like.”
“Not at all.”
“But I don’t know what I’d want to do. It seems very far off.”
“You’re in fifth grade. You’ve got seven years before you have to make any decisions.”
“Seven years. There’s part of me that wants to be an adult already and there’s another part of me that really, really doesn’t.”
We were stepping off the train. Not many got off at the temporary station in Norwalk, and we had some privacy.
“Why don’t you?” I asked. “Is it the idea of having romantic feelings being uncomfortable? You mentioned that once.”
“See, it’s funny you ask that, because I mentioned it in group once. Ashley asked the opposite question. She asked why I would want to. Chris asked something similar to you. He wanted to know why I wouldn’t want to grow up.”
“And I don’t know,” she said. She smiled. “Both have issues, being here, being grown up. I think I’d like to fix things and figure myself out, and get most of the way to being better over the next few years.”
“It’s a good goal.”
The conversation carried on for a bit, Kenzie walking on the concrete barrier between lawns and road, heel touching toe, arms out to the side. Periodically, she’d poke me in my uninjured arm as she used me to catch her balance again.
The wind was the prime culprit in her losing her balance. The portal loomed above us, the sky on the far side now overcast, with clouds seeping in through like they might through a crack in glass.
Many houses had been vacated, or had signs on the lawns. There weren’t many cars on the road or in driveways for what should have been a settled residential area.
A nice residential area. When so many houses across the city and especially in Earth N were prefabricated or rushed out, the houses here were three stories, with built-in garages. Driveways were often brick laid out in patterns. Things marked it as different from the Earth I’d grown up in. Lawns were transplanted from the landscape that had been here prior to the houses going up, or the existing material hadn’t been removed. The ground was uneven, rough, with dense weeds often overtaking or replacing grass. Where trees stood on many lawns, the trees were older, less cultivated, with stubborn and jumbled root systems and gnarled branches. Many had burls.
The veins of gold and yellow ran through much of it, too. The middle and sides of the road were marked with serrated lines of yellow triangles. The area didn’t have a dense assortment of streetlights, and I imagined the triangles were meant to catch headlights in the dark, so drivers would see three dotted yellow lines marking the bounds of the road.
Fences, trees near the road, rocks at the corners of property and other potential obstacles had their own dashes of yellow paint, stickers, or ribbons.
Kenzie’s house was steel gray, consisting of three sections, with only the rightmost having a third story- and it had a garage below that taller section. The roof was peaked over the front door but sloped toward the front, everywhere else. The windows were large, modern, with stained glass in frames hanging in between many of the windows and the curtains. Clear glass, gray-black tinted glass, and rose pink. Two cars in the driveway, with one being the van that Kenzie had used in the past to transport her tinker stuff.
She had a key hanging from a chain at her neck, and used it to let us in.
The walls were eggplant, and it somehow didn’t look terrible. Monochrome art and art that was mostly monochrome with really bold yellows and oranges to catch the eye ran through the entire foyer, with more pictures going up the wall in parallel with the stairs. I could smell Italian spices and I could hear a volatile hiss of steam from the kitchen as meat cooked.
Her mother appeared in the doorway of the kitchen, apron on, color matched to the slate walls and blue decor of the kitchen I could see behind her. She used a tea towel to dry her hands.
“Victoria. It’s so nice to have a guest. We don’t get the opportunity that often, because we have a tinker in the house, who doesn’t always clean up after herself.”
Irene pursed her lips together, before giving me a bit of a smile. “Everything went well today?”
“Reasonably well,” I said. I pulled my bag around. “I wanted to bring wine, but it wasn’t doable since we thought we might get into a fight. I brought chocolate.”
“Chocolate is always welcome,” Irene said. She took the box. “Ooh, very nice, thank you. It’s good to hear it went well. I’m curious about who our neighbors just past that portal are.”
“I’ve met them and I’m still not sure who they are,” I said. “I could tell you later.”
“At dinner, maybe,” She said, smiling. “How are you, Kenzie?”
“I’m good, thank you for asking,” Kenzie said. “Dinner smells amazing.”
“Which reminds me! Victoria, are you hungry? I’m trying to decide how much pasta and garlic bread to make.”
“I’m ravenous, actually. Errands took a while today and I didn’t get the chance to eat lunch.”
Kenzie spoke up. “I don’t eat a lot, and I’m pretty regular about not eating a lot. My mom got fed up with asking me because the answer was always the same-”
Kenzie’s hands squeezed her middle, pressing her shirt against it, showing how narrow she was. She looked at me, then saw the bags I was holding. “Oh! Put that down somewhere.”
“You can put things down in the corner of the living room,” Irene Martin said.
The living room was more a lavender than an eggplant,with dense white carpet and nice looking furniture. The lighter shade of the room worked with the way the light flowed into it. At one corner of the room, a tarp had been laid out. An easel was on the tarp, a wooden rack of paints set beside it.
A collection of gears and bits of glass were arranged on one half of the coffee table, on a newspaper. The paper, gears and glass were dusty.
“Mom’s art,” Kenzie said, indicating the easel. “She’s terrible at a lot of the artsy stuff until she gets practice in, and then she’s really talented.”
“That’s not nice to say, that I’m terrible,” Irene said, from behind us.
“It’s true, though! You’re really, really good at stuff when you learn it. You’re an amazing cook, you had some awesome stained glass art, before, I remember it. It was better than what you have in the windows now.”
“That was a long, long time ago,” Irene said. “I’m surprised you remember it.”
Kenzie nodded, energetic.
“I’m not a proper artist,” her mom said, as she looked past us to the painting. “I don’t have my own ideas, I spin off on other people’s. Besides, I have no patience to stick it out.”
The painting was in shades of indigo through to midnight blue, three old women clawing at each other in efforts to reach for the sky, expressions contorted. It wasn’t complete, with one old woman with a shawl over her head left undone, face left as only a midnight blue oval, hands left similarly undefined.
“You painted that?”
“I was. It’s not done.”
“It’s really good.”
“Thank you,” she said. She put a hand on my shoulder. “I’ll get back to it someday. Do you need anything?”
I shook my head at the offer.
“Julien is out to pick up some ingredients I forgot. He’ll be back in a few minutes. Why don’t you give Victoria a tour, Kenzie? We’ll talk over dinner. I’m interested to pick your brain and learn more about what you’re doing.”
“Sounds good,” I said.
Kenzie led me up the stairs to the top floor. Black and white photos showed Julien and Irene together. Here and there, there would be one of Kenzie.
“I’ll show you my room!”
Irene was an interior decorator, if I remembered right. I was left with the feeling that the house was being presented as a kind of showcase, more than it was a lived-in place. The wall colors were striking, the artwork eye-catching to a distracting degree, with bright reds and yellows in otherwise muted rooms, and the style was unerringly consistent across the rooms I’d seen. I felt like being in this house for too long might give me a headache.
“Bathroom, if you need it,” Kenzie said. “My dad’s study. He sometimes goes in there to smoke with the fan blowing it out the window, but it stinks so we keep the door closed. My parent’s room is at the end of the hall, and this is my room.”
Every room thus far had been cool blues and purples with monochrome flooring, artwork, and tiles, a few points of colorful definition aside. Kenzie’s room was unpainted, the walls plastered with art. Her bed was made in a way that made me think she’d done it herself, rather than have either parent do it, and there were two desks and one bookshelf, all strewn with papers and pieces of things. Plastic bins held a few dozen random pieces of electronics each.
I could smell the food cooking downstairs. I was ravenous.
“You said you moved around a lot. Is it nice to have a place to stay and make your own?” I asked.
“It so is,” she said, bouncing on the spot. “Team poster. There I am.”
It was a poster of the Baltimore PRT. Mayday was on it, though he wasn’t in the leader position; he took the second position of the line that formed where each adult member of the team stood behind the right shoulder of the person in front. The Wards were a numerous bunch, not as organized as the Protectorate, with some sitting or crouching in front of the lined-up heroes, others gathered on perches behind the members of the group at the rear and far right of the line.
I could see Kenzie. She looked tiny, a singular lens dominating her mask. Her arms were very skinny, and her hands were buried in gauntlets that made each hand look the size of her head, each with a lens on the back. “There you are, as Optics. With camera hands?”
“I called them mugshots. They weren’t very good and they never let me use them outside of training. If you squint, you can see my flash gun.”
“I can. That’s really cool,” I said. “The old team.”
“I miss them. There’s Avian, Stungun, Keychain, Blush, and there’s Houndstooth. And that’s Mayday, you see, and Turtleshell, Aerobat… and some I never even got to have conversations with. They were always busy.”
“I recognize a lot of those names,” I said. “It’s a good poster. You managed to find it after everything happened?”
“My mom and dad paid to have people get stuff from the house, but the poster didn’t make it. There was a picture in a magazine they kept, though. I took it and blew it up. It’s not as sharp and details are misplaced where I enhanced the quality a bunch of times and the computer guessed wrong, but it’s pretty good.”
“There are a few things I wish I’d been able to salvage,” I said. “Others I managed to get. A poster.”
“I got this, too. It’s not the original, but it was in the background of a picture on a memory card, and the program kept the lettering from on the frame.”
I had to walk around her shelf of plastic tubs to see. Alone on one empty space of wall was a picture frame with a very thick frame, the actual picture so small I could have put my hand flat against the glass and covered it. It was Irene, not as expertly put together, but very tired, with a swaddled Kenzie in her arms. The picture wasn’t black and white, like so many family and individual pictures in the house, and thick letters spelled out the name ‘KANZI’ below the image.
“My name. I never liked having to explain it. I’d always have to spell it out.”
“I like it,” I said. “But I like Kenzie too.”
She nodded in a very aggressive, overly done way, before leading me around the room. “More old team stuff, see? I had an Optics trading card.”
“A swipe card,” I said.
“Yes! You know about swipe cards! That’s cool.”
“Yes, for sure.”
She seemed happy, enthusiastic. The card was framed, but the frame was attached to the wall with a string, and it could be flipped around to show the back. The stats were on it, along with the ability. People who played on console would have the cards at hand, being able to swipe the card like one might a credit or debit card, summoning an ally or generating an effect.
“I was a support card. Not a lot of people used me because I couldn’t be summoned into a fight,” Kenzie said. “Kind of a bummer.”
Amy had been a support card for that game, I was pretty sure. The effect had been downplayed a lot, but her card had still been popular, because there weren’t that many heals. Most of what I knew had come from Dean, Chris, and Dennis talking. Gallant, Kid Win, and Clockblocker.
“I have one too,” I said. “Mine wasn’t anything special, despite my being popular-ish at the time.”
“That’s so cool. Let me see, I think I have other stuff. Old merch that I found. It’s so hard, with the world ending and everything.”
She rummaged. I looked at the other wall decoration.
Group therapy seating chart. Kenzie connected to Sveta and Chris. Chris to Damsel, Damsel to Rain, Rain to Tristan, Tristan to Sveta, forming a circle.
There were notes. Between Ashley and Rain was ‘hands’ and ‘not rich’. Between Rain and Tristan were ‘regret’ and ‘teenage boys’. Between Tristan and Sveta was ‘Weld’ and ‘hero’, and so it went. Other notes cluttered margins, seemingly more about groups of three or group therapy in general, with topics of past discussions in tiny scribbled font and hatch marks or symbols here and there.
The note that caught my eye was Chris and Ashley. There was ‘dark’, ‘switch places?’ and then a question mark by note I couldn’t make out without bringing my face closer to the paper.
Yamada said they have a lot they can talk about but what? Doesn’t say.
“My seating chart!” Kenzie said, with an energy and suddenness that made me jump. “Don’t get me started. Really truly don’t, because I could talk forever about the group, and I want to talk about other stuff.”
“I won’t, don’t worry.”
“I have other merch that was from a bag of plastic things that was the size of my head. They were selling each bag for twenty bucks, when before it would have been, like, four. I wanted Baltimore PRT stuff. I found mine!”
It was a plastic disc with an image embossed onto it, the kind of thing that might have dropped out of one of the glass cases with a quarter and a crank from outside grocery stores and mall entrances. Optics. There was one for Houndstooth, and one for a cape I didn’t recognize in the slightest.
“It’s great that you were able to find mementos like that,” I said. I held up Optics to tilt the disc and let the light and shadow hit it in a way that made the lines clearer. “I wish I had more of these sorts of things.”
“They were good days?” Kenzie asked.
I nodded. “I have regrets about things I didn’t pay enough attention to, but they were good days.”
“I think it’s pretty important to hold onto the memories. Oh! That’s a great reason for me to show you this!”
And then she was off, through the door with only a half-second glance to check I was following. When I wasn’t fast enough behind her, she reappeared in the door, all excitement.
“Lead the way,” I said.
So far, not too bad. She was a kid.
I glanced back at the room, which didn’t match the rest of the house at all, and closed the door behind me before following.
Kenzie waited at a door that led from the front hall to the garage.
“My workshop,” she said. “Don’t trip on any wires or things could get messy. Too many things you could knock over if you were stumbling around in the dark.”
It was, as garages went, pretty standard. Concrete floor, wood, exposed wiring. Tinkertech was spaced out through the garage, with a table housing most of the completed works, another with tools and what looked like the project of the now, and two large cubes, one of which I recognized as the projector box.
“Teleportation project, discontinued,” she said. She had her phone out and in hand, screen illuminated, and waved it in the general direction of one box which looked like a cube shaped egg had cracked, revealing the internals, which featured a vague, foot-long approximation of a human skeleton in it, if the skeleton was made of metal boxes and electronics. “There’s the time camera, you know that one.”
“I do,” I said. I noted that it was open and in pieces. “You’re updating it?”
“Fixing. Maintaining. Stuff breaks down constantly so it takes more time.”
I had to ask. “You’re not working too hard?”
“Bed by eleven,” she said, confidently. “I don’t always sleep when I’m in bed, but I’m still in bed by eleven.”
“The sleeping is the important part,” I said.
“Catching the bad guys and kicking enough ass that we get famous and everyone loves us is important,” she said. “Nobody says, gee Kenzie, you went to bed so nicely two months ago. They say wow, you built a camera that can see someone’s innermost desires. How much do I have to pay you to keep mine quiet?”
There was a gleam of mischief in her eyes when I looked her way. She looked down, checking her phone.
“What’s your usual asking price for staying quiet?”
“Oh, it depends on how horrendous it is, but it’s not usually about money. Big burly guy has a secret dream of being a ballerina? I’ll go easy. I’ll tell him he needs to give me a hug and go take a dancing lesson, pursue that beautiful dream. If he’s stubborn or scared then I’ll make him take me out for a frozen treat once a week instead, use those opportunities to turn the screws on him.”
“Is that how it works?” I asked.
She played at being serious as she looked down at her phone, tapping some keys. “Yep. If it’s a less beautiful innermost desire, like, I don’t know, skinning people, then I’d set the price at ten million dollars or something. Then I’d turn them in anyway.”
“Eminently reasonable,” I said. I bent down by the table, noting the various lenses and segments of metal with holes in them. There were computer chips that had been cannibalized, and others that had been rebuilt into Frankenstein abominations. “Where do you get the money for these parts?”
“Parents,” she said. “Some scavenging. There was a while where people were getting really bad computers that had been scavenged from Earth Bet and cleaned up, except a lot of those computers were total garbage. Every garbage day I could go out with a wagon and get at least two.”
I nodded. I couldn’t really parse the logic of some of the layout, organization, or what had actually been built. At a certain point, stuff ceased to become computer chips and became three dimensional arrangements of pins. There was one that used magnets to suspend a part in between three other chips.
“I’m joking, by the way, about the desire camera. I tried that and it didn’t really work. I’d need a ton of scans to even know where to start.”
“I figured,” I said.
“This is the camera I’m working on for Tristan and Byron,” she said. She gave a box a pat. Whatever was inside, it was a pale energy that licked the clear lens. “It’s missing stuff. ”
“Out of curiosity, what sort of thing would that see, besides them?”
“No idea. But if I can figure it out, I think I can leap from it to other things. It might open doors, if i can just figure out how to see into the keyhole. What those doors look like really depends on what Byron and Tristan are.”
“At my apartment, I have papers on stuff like where the physical bodies of breakers go when they’re in breaker mode, or offloaded consciousnesses in nonstandard brains. I’m not sure if any of it would help in terms of inspiring tech, but maybe it could help you make some educated guesses.”
“That’d be amazing. I don’t know if I’d understand it all. Could you explain what I don’t get?”
“I’d love to,” I said. “Really, I enjoy the heck out of that stuff, and I’d love to try teaching it.”
“Awesome,” she said. She nodded, all energy and hasty nods as she was ready to jump straight to the next thing. She had her phone out, setting it on the table next to her, and she gave it a spin, so it twirled in a circle for a moment. “I want to help them.”
“Me too. I want to help a lot of people.”
The phone stopped. Kenzie angled her head, staring at the screen.
“Something up?” I asked. How awkward would it be to come all the way here, only for us to get pulled away for cape duties or to help one of the others? Kenzie’s family seemed strict, and they might look poorly on a change in plans.
Still staring down at the screen, she said, “Upstairs, I said something about memories and mementos. This…”
She gave a box beside her a pat. It was as tall as she was, but narrow. A pillar, more than anything.
“Is my diary.”
She looked away from the phone, giving me another hurried nod, her eyes wide. “Basically.”
“That’s bigger than your time camera.”
“It’s kind of like the projector box, but it’s more purposeful,” she said. She pulled a shoebox from the shelf and put it on the table. The thing was half-filled with what looked like the kind of memory stick that was plugged into a computer to give it more random access memory. She fished around and pulled one out.
“See? I take this, and stick it in, make sure it’s on, and…”
The box lit up. Images filled the room.
The group therapy meeting. Rain’s hair was a bit shorter than it had been when I’d met him.
My gaze lingered on Jessica, who stood at the edge of the scene. I felt a pang, seeing her face.
“Each card has notches, see?” she asked. She held up a card, showing me where there were dabs of paint at regular intervals. Pink, purple, pink, red, black, pink. Baby blue, yellow, red, yellow, blank, baby blue, yellow, red, purple. “Each is a scene.”
She cycled through the group therapy session. Much of the focus seemed to be on Kenzie and Sveta.
“That’s a lot of diary entries,” I observed. A shoebox half filled with cards, each card only a little longer and thinner than a lighter.
“Well, I’m cheating, kind of,” she said. “Some of it’s the past, but some is the future. Stuff I dream of or fantasize. It’s nicer to have it visual like this than to just have it be random, thoughts-racing wonderings, you know?”
“Dreams?” I asked.
“Um. So like this one, if I click forward a few times…”
Sveta and Kenzie talking, hanging out, more talks, Sveta looking upset, Kenzie giving Sveta a hug. Then Kenzie, Weld, and Sveta together in a domestic scene, Kenzie sitting on a couch with a blanket around her.
“Those last few didn’t actually happen,” she said.
“How do you keep track?” I asked.
“Color codes. It’s pretty intuitive for me, but I came up with it, so I don’t know. Hmm…”
She plugged another in, and hit the button on the top a few times before the first images had even snapped into existence.
Her and Mayday, Mayday’s hand on her shoulder.
Kenzie stood beside her projected image and looked up at Mayday. I walked around to look.
“Did you tell Mrs. Yamada about this?”
“Oh,” Kenzie said, looking surprised. “Um.”
“I mentioned that I was keeping a diary, and I was trying to put my dreams and hopes down in a more tangible way. I just… didn’t mention that it was visual.”
“Why not?” I asked.
“I worried she might make me stop, and I don’t want to. This is a nice thing to do when I’m feeling down.”
I walked past her, looking at more of the scene. She clicked through it, stopping at an image of herself as Optics, the lenses on the gauntlets glowing bright. Her costume was torn, the lens on her mask broken, and she was bleeding.
“It’s kind of stupid, isn’t it?” she asked. “I save everyone, and then things are finally okay. The weirdness between me and others stops.”
“I don’t think that’s stupid,” I said. “You don’t have to show me, you know. If you want to keep it private-”
“I don’t really believe in privacy,” she said. “There’s a lot in that box, if you want to look at any.”
I walked over to the shoebox, peering inside.
“Um, maybe skip the ones with hot pink, unless you really, really want to. I’m still figuring that stuff out.”
“No hot pink, got it,” I said. I looked, trying to think of how to put my thoughts into words. She was showing me this for a reason.
I pulled out a card. “Red?”
“Action scene. Put it in.”
“I’d feel awkward. If this is your diary, it’s too personal.”
“I’m an open book,” she said. “Put it in. I can’t remember what that one is.”
I popped out the one that was slotted into the top of the machine, and put the other in.
Kenzie crashing onto pavement, heels of her hands scraping, face distorted. An older boy stood behind her, black with a a shaved head and a school uniform on.
“The lighter side of this is, I had to make a lot of funny faces before I got some expressions right.”
“Bully?” I asked.
“Yep. I had a hard time with other students in Baltimore. Mostly because I’m weird and kind of really broken.”
I clicked through. Kenzie fighting back.
“Didn’t happen. I wondered what would happen if I did that.”
Another scene. Kenzie at the office, in front of school administrators.
“That did happen. I got in so much trouble even when I didn’t do anything except try not to get shoved around. I didn’t hit back that often.”
Kenzie and the boy hugging, while a school administrator stood by with arms folded, looking grim.
“I saw that happen on TV, and I wondered. Best case scenario, if that happened? We hug, we make up, find common ground, and they protect me. I like that one. It’s simple, almost maybe kind of believable, isn’t it?”
“Maybe,” I said. “But someone who’d push around a girl a year or two younger than them can’t be very nice. I feel like you deserve better than that.”
She shrugged. “Thank you for saying so. It feels… like a relief, almost, to see these and go back to them now and then. Like I can make sense of everything if I can recreate it and look back on it.”
“Does it feel like things don’t make sense?” I asked.
“Oh yeah,” she said. “Put another one in?”
“It feels invasive,” I said.
“I’m okay with that,” she said. “All’s fair, when I do it to others. Quid pro pro.”
I picked out one card, turning it over. “I asked earlier about resources, and it looks like you ran out at some point.”
“I might be reading this label wrong, but it looks like you have a lot of cards where there are gaps or breaks between the color dabs, so you have two sets of scenes on one card.”
“That’s not right,” she said. She approached, reaching for the card. She took it. “Yeah, no, you got it wrong. White’s a color, it’s just easy to miss against the white label background.”
“Ahh,” I said.
“You can figure it out if you know what the labels mean. Yellow, purple, red, red, white, baby blue, green. Purple is action, red is pain, right? I went over that. White is an ending, baby blue is me being younger. Green is happy. So in this scene, I probably get in a fight, I get hurt, and then I die. Then I’m reborn or reincarnated. There’s a lot of colors, so it gets confusing.”
I blinked a few times, taking that in, rereading the colors to verify the meaning.
She smiled, pushing the card into my hand. “Put it in. We’ll see if I’m right.”
I closed my hand around both the card and her hand. “Did Jessica know about that, too?”
“We talked about it. Not that I made realistic images or anything, but that I was exploring that stuff.”
I nodded. “Are you okay now?”
“I’m happy about the Lookout thing, and the team is mostly together. I miss Ashley and Rain.”
“Are you putting white dabs of paint on chips these days?”
“No, and even if I felt like it, there’s no time,” she said. “There’s other, exciting things to do. It’s really okay.”
“What if…” I said. “-what if I told you to tell me the kinds of things you’re working on, when you’re doing projects like this? You could tell me if you made anything with white dabs on the label.”
“Maybe,” she said. “What about pink paint?”
I saw that light of mischief in her eyes.
I scrunched up my nose. “Hand holding?”
“Kissing,” she whispered.
“Yeah. I’ll give you advice when you get there,” I said.
“Sometime between a few years from now and never,” she said. She ran a hand along the top of her projector box. “Okay. I can tell you stuff.”
“Perfect,” I said. I put the chip back in the box, then poked through it. “It’s a lot. How long do these take to put together?”
“Fifteen minutes, maybe,” she said. “Half an hour if I’m doing something like watching television while I work on it.”
“Fifteen minutes per chip, or fifteen minutes per-”
“Per scene,” she said. “It’s meditative. I have other stuff, like some chat bots that put out friendly messages in response to the right trigger phrases, and I’ve been trying to befriend some birds and things in the neighborhood, but that’s been less satisfying lately.”
“Seems like it’s all variations on the same theme,” I said.
She stopped talking at the sound of a knock on the door.
It was Julien.
“Can you set the table?” he asked.
“Yeah, for sure,” she said. She turned back to me, “I want to show you preliminary stuff after dinner.”
“I’ll look forward to it,” I said. I followed her out of the garage and into the hallway. “Hi, Mr. Martin.”
“It’s good you could come,” he said. “How’s the arm?”
“Sore, but I’d put up with the pain just to have it out of a sling and be able to use my arm. The only reason I don’t is that I’m pretty sure it would cause long term damage and slow the healing.”
“Follow those doctor’s orders,” Irene said.
“That’s the plan,” I said.
In Julien’s face, I could very much see what I sometimes described as a solemn expression on Kenzie, but it was his default expression, and it read more like the dignified and not-cheerful part of being solemn, while I tended to interpret Kenzie’s expression as a deep sincerity.
Was that unfair? Maybe it was a bad read, one way or the other, and father and daughter were more similar than that.
She’s not your mom, and that’s not your dad. I remembered Ashley’s words. I’d promised to set aside judgment, and give Kenzie’s family a fair shake. There were things that were weird, but sometimes people were weird.
Weird, that the only pictures I’d seen of her were of her being held as a baby and her in the last year or so. Weird but not unheard of, when so many people had lost homes or possessions on Gold Morning and in the months following.
“How’s the work, Mr. Martin?” I asked. “Things must be hectic.”
“Things are a nightmare,” he said. “Vacancies, a shift in population, trying to sell properties only for the power to be off when people are visiting. Has there been any news about who did it or how?”
“We know how. When it comes to the who, we’ve been closing in a bit.”
“How ‘we’ is this?” Irene asked, stirring red sauce with a spatula.
“Actually, it’s very ‘we’. Our team has been making headway. Kenzie has been a massive part of that.”
“Thank you,” Kenzie said, perfunctory. She offered me a tight smile as she set out napkins, forks and knives.
“I’m not surprised,” Julien said. “She’s something.”
“Penne with spicy Italian sausage and tomato-basil pasta sauce,” Irene announced. “Julien?”
Julien took the plate. “You’ll have to tell us what happened with this- what do they call them? Corner worlds?”
“Corner worlds. We went out this afternoon. We had a chat with Lord of Loss, Marquis, and a few others. It was, as those things go, pretty friendly.”
“Some unfriendliness, but that was mostly from locals,” Kenzie said.
“Definitely,” I said. “Anti-cape sentiment. It’s bubbling beneath the surface.”
“I’ve heard it,” Julien said. He took another plate, setting it on the table. “I don’t join in. It would backfire if I did and it came out I have one for a daughter.”
“And, you know, it’s kind of wrong, huh?” Kenzie asked.
“Sit,” Julien said.
“Don’t be a pest. Sit. Table’s almost set.”
I sat. Kenzie went to get a jug of water and a jug of something else, bringing them to the table.
“It smells amazing,” I said. “Can’t wait.”
“My mom’s a great cook,” Kenzie said.
“Now, if I remember right…” Irene said. “You’re from a family of parahumans?”
“Tough topic, no-go,” Kenzie said, as she put salt and pepper shakers on the table.
“No-go,” Irene said. “School? Work?”
“Between both, but I studied Parahumans before Gold Morning.”
“And she worked on Patrol block,” Kenzie said. “Capes and portal stuff.”
Irene laughed a bit. “It starts and ends with the powers with you.”
“It does. I’ll admit that.”
“It’s all so dangerous, isn’t it?” Julien asked.
“Sorry. I said I wouldn’t, and then I brought it up,” he said.
I took one chair. Irene sat across from me, with Julien beside her.
Kenzie didn’t sit, instead picking up her plate.
“Kenzie?” I asked.
“Do me a favor? Don’t make a big deal of it?”
She took her dad’s plate, and set it where hers had been. Her own plate went in front of her dad.
His expression changed. Solemn and grim both.
“Eat your own dinner,” her mother said.
Kenzie marched around her dad, situating herself between both parents, and picked up her dad’s plate. She deposited most of the contents on her mom’s plate, with pasta, sausage, and red sauce spilling over onto her mother’s lap.
Her mom pulled her hands away, her face screwing up for a moment before she forced it back to something almost normal. She didn’t touch or wipe at the food.
“Kenzie,” I said, standing.
“Sit. Please. It’s just family weirdness, okay?”
“This doesn’t seem okay at all. What’s going on?”
The fork scraped against the plate as she distributed food and stirred it up. Her meal was mixed into her mom’s, some of her mom’s meal shoveled onto her father’s plate. There was a fair bit of mess.
Irene started to stand, getting in my way of getting to Kenzie in the process. Kenzie almost yipped out out a, “No.” There wasn’t a better word for the tone.
“You shouldn’t tell us what to do,” Irene said. She grew more incensed, impassioned. Her fingers gripped the table’s edge. “You need to eat your own dinner.”
“It’s done. It’s not worth fighting, ‘rene,” Julien said. He looked almost defeated. He touched his wife’s arm, and she stopped. He stroked it, and she sat down, still clearly seething.
Not that Julien was calm. His jaw was tense.
Kenzie scraped more, metal on ceramic, before setting the plates in position.
I rounded the table. I took hold of Kenzie’s wrist before she could do more. “Stop.”
Kenzie looked at me and shot me a grin, “Just- they weren’t supposed to embarrass me tonight. They were supposed to be normal and this was supposed to be nice.”
“What’s going on?” I asked.
She reached into her pocket for her phone, hitting a button before tossing it to me. “Caught ’em. Always do.”
It was a camera feed. It showed kitchen. I walked into the camera’s zone, where pasta and sauce had been prepared, then looked for the camera’s source.
The face of one cabinet, painted blue, no bumps, no dots, no markings. It was smooth to the touch.
“Then eat what you were going to serve me,” Kenzie said. “You can get up from the table when you’ve eaten it or when Victoria’s left.”
Neither of her parents moved or touched their utensils.
“Yeah, I didn’t think so,” Kenzie said.
“What did they do?” I asked.
“Doesn’t matter. Our food’s fine,” she said. She picked up a fork and stabbed a piece of pasta on my plate. “We should eat.”
“No, Kenz,” I said. “We need to talk about this.”
“You said you were hungry, and she really is a good cook,” she said.
“I lost my appetite,” I said, my voice soft. I wasn’t lying, either. The gnawing of hunger had become a pit in my gut instead.
She set her fork down with force. “Okay.”
“Can I get more of an explanation? This isn’t okay at all.”
“In the garage?” she asked.
I nodded. “Okay.”
She pushed her chair away from the table in a way that pushed the table toward her parents. She started to walk toward the garage, my hand on her shoulder to guide her and support her, and then she stopped. She turned toward the two, who were stone still, eyes downcast.
“This was supposed to be a nice dinner, and it was just, what, you invited her here because you thought I’d be distracted?” she laughed, one note, smiled wide. “I’m never going to be distracted. I’m always watching, okay? So stop. Be better.”
Neither adult moved or spoke. Irene visibly seethed, nostrils flaring.
Kenzie stepped into the garage, me right behind her. She kicked a plastic bin of nails, and sent the contents flying across the garage.
“I’m sorry my parents are such fucking embarrassments,” she said, before slamming the garage door.