“Please don’t get blood on my car seat.”
Riley looked up from her work, the surgeon’s end of a twenty-four inch set of complex dilators pinched between her lips because her hands were full. The working end of the dilators were set in the open surgical site of her own thigh, where she had cut past skin, muscle, adipose tissues. She’d also had to cut and-or use the dilators on prior alterations she’d buried in her leg, including the subdermal ‘skin’ she’d grown around the the maille sheath she’d set around her femoral artery some time ago, and three spherical eggs she’d implanted in her thigh, in case she was ever in an emergency severe enough to literally cut them loose.
Or, she supposed, if someone caught her off guard and did enough damage to her that they got loose on their own. Either way, her inner thigh would be cut open from hip to knee, or it would be obliterated in some other fashion, these critters would be free and awake in seconds, and the threat would be regretting his or her existence, unless that threat was one of the fourteen individuals she knew of that should survive the attack. Three of those fourteen individuals would at least be distracted, potentially buying her time, and there were two more she had other countermeasures for.
“Um, sorry, but did you hear me? Cars are hard to come by, and so are cleaning services. If you warned me, I would have put down a tarp or plastic.”
“I heard you. I won’t get blood on your seats,” she promised her driver. She gave one egg a stroke with the back of her thumb, her hands still holding a narrow drill and an articulated tool that was combination scalpel and forceps. The egg’s membrane was relatively fragile and thin enough that she could see the Select Omniphage as it shifted position and pressed against the surface, nuzzling her thumbnail.
“Besides,” she added. “Even if I did, I’m pretty experienced at cleaning up bloody messes.”
His laugh was nervous and unsure. She smiled.
She had to use her thumb to switch gears on the articulated forceps and get them to turn slightly on the y-axis, which meant leaving Om-nom to go back to sleep. The complex dilators had sub-prongs propped deeper in the wound, to pull the maille sheath and the artery it contained to one side.
It was like ten tools in one spot. Blood welled at the end of the surgical incision by her knee, and she had to move her arm, elbow almost touching the driver’s seat, so she could get the orientation needed to sweep that blood back into the wound with her pinkie. It obscured what she was working on, but she could work from memory.
The car drove over a bump. She pulled the scalpel and drill back a fraction.
“Sorry, I know you said to be careful, but there really wasn’t anywhere to go.”
“It’s fine, but give me advance warning next time. If you can,” she told him. She felt her way, reminding herself, with the tip of the scalpel whisking against metal, metal-
Chitin? When had she-
She’d forgotten that one. She would have been notified when the skin started bubbling and turning orange. L-ascorbic acid would build up in the next couple of months.
“Do me a favor,” she told him. I’d normally have my assistants handle this, but they scare people too much for me to bring them. And I don’t have a hand free to take notes.
“A favor?” The villain she’d hired as a driver gave her a look in the rear-view mirror, anxious.
“Remind me when we’re at our destination, I need to take out the patch job from four months ago.”
“Okay. I’ll try to remember.”
She’d broken her leg when she had been dumped into the alien Earth with the Wardens night staff, Jessica, and the class-S prisoners. The alterations she had made to muscle and the structures she’d implanted around the bone let her stand and walk with a broken leg, but she had still tended to it in an idle moment.
Some of those structures were the same ones that kept her apparent age at twelve. She had never gotten around to undoing that, in part because it required her to overhaul so many systems that were hooked into it. She wasn’t sure she wouldn’t end up over a hundred years old and still postponing the change to her appearance.
Right now, she maintained. The drill continued to bore through the bone, and she had to remind herself that the tickling sensation that ran through her leg, one side of her stomach, and her neck was supposed to be pain from the operation.
A quick once-over ensured there wasn’t anything slipping or tearing.
The drill penetrated the bone, reaching a small hollow compartment. She pulled the drill out, caught a cloth in her pocket between her pinky and ring fingers, and wiped down the bit and the end of the drill, before pulling it out and turning it around.
The end of the drill had deep scratches in it, easily mistaken for the teeth of the drill itself, holding the bit firm. Instead, it was a key.
She slid the key into the hollow compartment, scraped it against bone until she found the socket, and turned it.
A single droplet of coded chemicals was released into the ‘marrow’ of her bone. The marrow immediately liquefied, and the entire bone with the various things she’d screwed into it, the segments she’d capped off and connected to one another, and the patch jobs, all came to the point of almost collapsing on itself. Her entire leg squelched loudly.
“Jesus,” the driver said.
“You’re Bonesaw. Yes, I’m jumpy. I shouldn’t lose man points if I’m fucking jumping at fucking ominous squelching noises.”
“Man points, huh?”
“What? Shit. I should probably keep my mouth shut.”
“Why keep your mouth shut? I don’t mind conversation. Jeez, I would have thought a stoner would be more mellow.”
“I don’t want to give you inspiration or say the wrong thing and set you off.”
“I don’t go off anymore, don’t worry.” She worked on extracting the marrow fluid. It was laborious, not helped by the fact that the hose was a bit too short. She had to twist in her seat and reorient her leg to get the fluid to flow back, while keeping the blood from spilling out of the open wound. “You know, I’ve hung around a lot of guys over the years. Names you’ve probably heard of.”
“Uh huh,” he said. He seemed to cringe a bit at the sucking sound from the syringe.
“As a rule, I found the guys most concerned with ‘man points’ were just overgrown boys, slow to grow up, if they ever did.”
“I’ll, uh, keep that in mind. I was being tongue-in-cheek, just so you know. I don’t really believe anything like that.”
“Good to know,” she said. She pulled out the tube and drew a canister out of her pocket. She began loading in a fresh solution of the same dual-state biomatter.
Tongue-in-cheek was such a fun turn of phrase. She knew what it meant, but it sparked ideas. A hole in the cheek so the tongue could stick out, the tongue would obviously have to be extended for best effect, but that was basic, easy. A five minute job.
As she thought on it, it was like there was a three-dimensional blueprint unfolding before her eyes, pulling her driver’s head apart into its constituent pieces and layers. She could imagine the interactions, the mechanisms, the machine made of meat, and how each part would relate to other parts if they changed in dimension or orientation.
There were other possibilities. If tongues grew out of each cheek, that’d count. The subject would bite it, which would necessitate other changes. If the change happened by way of a DNA rewrite, delivered by a custom viral payload, then she could also make the molars fall out. To keep the subject healthy, they’d need modifications to their front teeth, to be more all-purpose…
Which didn’t even get into the practical considerations, like the fact that people tended to take drastic measures when their heads and the contents of their heads started changing shape. It’d have to happen overnight, which would mean a set load, a catalyst, maybe a certain threshold of melatonin hormones, and the infection vector would have to be secret. The good thing about viral payloads was that if the virus was strong enough, it didn’t need much. A needle thinner than a hair…
“Everything okay?” her driver asked.
She’d been staring. She returned her focus to her work. “Everything’s great.”
He laughed again, nervous.
“Don’t worry,” she reassured him. “Really.”
“It’s hard to shake the feeling that I’m going to regret this job.”
“I’m paying you good money, High Concept. Why would I go through that charade if I was going to kill you or give you a cosmetic mutation?”
“Uh huh,” High Concept’s voice had a higher pitch to it.
The fresh fluid was loaded. She capped it, inserted a droplet of catalyst, and screwed in the key. It was her kit for a worst-case-scenario. In a scenario where she was imprisoned and needed out, or if she found herself in another situation like she had when the portals had ripped wide and tall, she could access her thigh bone, empty the contents, and they would congeal or grow into a setup sufficient to get started up again.
A liquid workshop.
There was other maintenance to be done. She scraped and drilled at bone that was growing, a side effect of other old work, that had been intended to hasten the recovery of breaks.
“We’re getting close to the destination. That reminder-”
“Gimme a few minutes and remind me again,” she told him. “Thank you for the warning.”
He hadn’t engaged with her for the entire drive, and he was still tense. It was a bit disappointing. She wondered if she’d gotten her hopes up from watching movies with the wise old stoners and talkative stoners. She wasn’t sure she’d ever spent time around anyone who did a lot of drugs. Burnscar had, but she’d always gone on walks or went off on her own to do it.
She closed up the site of her leg, wiped the skin with the cloth, and then began closing up the wound with a protein knit. The knit caught on the edges of the sliced skin, and then drew it together. The skin was a little red from being pushed back by the dilators, but that was covered up easily by a straightening of her skirt.
Riley cleaned her hands, and felt a need to gather things. She was so used to having her automated workshop assistants with her, creatures to tend to, clones, and catastrophic dead man’s switches that needed pass-phrases, tummy rubs, and pats on the head.
The complex dilators telescoped, other tools folded up, and all fit into a small leather carrying case, that fit into her coat pocket.
She had no idea what to do with her hands, in the minutes that followed. High Concept wasn’t a good conversation partner. She leaned over, looking out the window.
The city was being patched together. In a way, without the civilians there, it was easier to do the necessary work. The cracks were being paved over, and where they weren’t in a position to do the paving, they had quick-deploy bridges criss-crossing over the gaps like sutures. Buildings were actively being knocked down if they were hazardous, and the ones that were stable were being supported and added to.
Here and there, there were the scavenger camps. Organized, with the option for people to buy in, quickly sell, and then walk away with cash or whatever treasure they managed to dig up. There were similar projects with tree planting, farming, and setting up houses in the corner worlds… which weren’t corners anymore.
She had money in her coat pocket. She began counting the amount. One hundred, two hundred, three hundred…
“I have to ask… is this blood money?”
“I’m a biotinker. All my money is blood money by definition.”
“That’s a joke,” she said, without a smile, still counting. Three thousand five hundred, six hundred… “Nobody got hurt while I earned this.”
“Okay. Good, thank you.”
“Would it matter? You’re a villain, High Concept.” Four thousand one hundred, two hundred, three hundred…
The car rolled to a stop. “I wouldn’t turn it down. But if the story was different, I maybe wouldn’t buy stupid stuff with it.”
“Buy all the stupid stuff you want,” she told him.
“I think this is it?”
She handed over the cash.
He took it and diplomatically decided to trust her. “You said you wanted your reminder as we arrived. Your uh… maintenance.”
She let herself out, and paused to scratch out a word on her arm. The scratches became raised skin. The constant juggling act of keeping herself in working order. Every tinkering needed attention, and her body was loaded to bear with tinkertech.
She looked around at the building. It looked like a large bank, refurbished, the signs taken down and nothing put back to replace it.
It might have been a good thing that she had been distracted, because eye contact as she emerged might have sent people running. The way it had happened, people were already making themselves scarce. There were staff outside smoking. One of them was staring at her, stiff.
Fight, flight, or freeze.
She kept her hands out of her pockets, so people would have less reason to panic, and made her way up the stairs to the door.
Inside, staff were milling around. Her entry had a ripple effect. Heads turned. People noticed other people noticing. Off to her right, someone stepped out of a doorway with a washroom sign above it, saw her, and turned around, disappearing back inside.
Still keeping her hands in clear view, she approached the reception desk.
The receptionist was a young guy, and he typed something in a rush as she made her approach, before looking at her, almost stunned, definitely guilty.
“I’ve been away for a time,” she told him. “You just told your superiors I’m here?”
He swallowed. “No, but…”
His voice stopped making words a half-second before his lips stopped moving.
“It’s fine. I’m here to see them,” she told him.
The man continued to be silent, typing, looking more anxious by the second.
More anxious by the second, and it took him over a minute, working in silence. She watched as he started making more use of the backspace key. Typo, type, type, type, typo.
Her patience gone, she stood on her tiptoes, reached over the desk, and grabbed one side of the monitor, turning it around.
The Wardens and other major heroes were either deployed or at functions. The man at the desk -Tod with one ‘d’ on his nametag- had reached out to less important Wardens.
“I’m going to go to the back. You can send someone with me if you want, but I’m just going to do what I did when I was under the Wardens’ custody, before. I’ll take a room, I’ll get settled, I won’t do any tinkering until I get permission.”
She waited for a verdict, then when he didn’t give her any indication either way, she turned away from the desk, striding toward the back.
“Hey! Hey!” Tod shouted. “Wait. If you’d step over there-”
Over there, apparently, was the security desk. A man in a Patrol uniform stood by a scanner.
She walked over to the scanner, and handed over her kit before standing with her arms at her sides.
The man in uniform hesitated, holding the wand that would detect metal on her person. “That’s it?”
“That’s everything I could hand over,” she told him.
“You’re a tinker.”
“I’m not going to bring a full kit when turning myself in. That’s how you get shot.”
And getting shot and not dying because my organs are in maille sheaths and my body can keep going with thirty percent of its usual blood volume… it makes people freak out. Freak outs are inconvenient.
She waited as he scanned her. The wand passed over the sheaths, over her leg, but she’d embedded some scrambler cysts in her flesh at regular intervals. The wand didn’t beep.
It was theater, and as used as she was to theater, she couldn’t help but roll her eyes as they had her walk through the scanner. She was a biotinker. Her body had fifty different weapons and one weapon of mass destruction crammed into it. Short of cutting her open, they wouldn’t find one.
They began to pat her down and search her pockets with excessive care, a gun trained on her at all times.
The lesser Wardens at the portal had pointed her here, told her the back area had been reinforced and was being used as a kind of jail. A temporary holding area until they could be put somewhere else.
She had nowhere to go, she didn’t know anything or anyone that could give her better directions.
They kept searching her, going back to the wand. Like they weren’t sure what to do with her, they weren’t willing to let her go, but nobody was on their way.
Maybe if they’d declared it an emergency or a prison break, people would flock here, but it was a weird situation. Every situation she was in was a weird situation.
“Can I go?” she asked. “I’ll be good, I promise. You have my tools.”
The two men hesitated, exchanging glances.
Fucking… the frustration boiled inside of her. As her heart rate rose, so did the flurry of blueprint-like inspiration, crawling through the open space of the lobby.
“Stay put,” the uniformed man with the gun said.
Tod, meanwhile, hurried back to his desk, making calls.
The first capes arrived. Wardens, by the look of them.
“Riley Davis?” a man in red with luminescent sunglasses asked.
“You’re turning yourself in?”
“I’m supposed to be in the Wardens’ custody.”
“You have a cell?”
“I’d hope so, if I’m in their custody.”
The cape gave her a strange look.
He motioned toward the reinforced door. Obediently, she went to the doorway, stepped into the back hallways, where things were still so new and crudely hewn that areas hadn’t been painted.
Each door had a clipboard hanging from a peg next to it, level with the top of the door, each clipboard with a ream of documents stuck to them.
She walked down the hall, past cells, and periodically stood on her tiptoes to reach up to the clipboards and investigate who was within. If someone made the decision for her to stay in a cell here, these would be her conversation partners, talking through the metal flaps.
Which was, as much as the idea of confinement made her prematurely antsy, a nice thought.
She stopped at the end of the hallway.
The last cell was occupied.
She turned around, and saw the cape was there, tense, watching.
If she reacted, gave them an excuse, he would probably start blasting. Or use whatever power he had.
She wasn’t sure where to go or what to do. She had been on the fence about coming, because she’d been comfortable and free to tinker where she’d been, and nothing was guaranteed here. Not freedom, not companionship, not safety.
Now, finally here, only to find there wasn’t any place for her, she couldn’t imagine going back.
She put her back to the wall, a cell to her left, and a cell to her right, and slumped down to the ground. She smoothed out her skirt, then leaned forward to pull her coat off, and then draped it over her lap.
The cape watched her for about five minutes, not volunteering any conversation, not saying anything. Then he turned, standing in the doorway, talking to staff or the other capes. Periodically, he looked back at her, making sure she was still.
“Does anyone want to talk?” she asked, quiet.
Her voice echoed down the hall.
A metal plate lifted. Bulging eyes peered through. The file had said that was Mockument. He seemed fun.
“How are you?” she asked.
The fingers that were holding the metal plate up withdrew, and the metal plate clanked back into place.
“Cryptid?” she asked, her head turning to her right. She reached for the metal plate and lifted it up.
There was no response. She leaned in, looking, and saw him lying on a cot, his back to her.
She let the plate fall back down.
She closed her eyes, fingers knit together, her head filled with art that swirled and unfolded with a rhythm matching the flow of anxious emotions that ran through her body.
Urgent, raised voices stirred Riley awake. She was lying down, her coat worn as a blanket.
She found her feet, systems she’d surgically implanted pumping her with the energy that would let her spring into sudden and violent motion if she needed it.
The capes that had come to check on her and watch her were there, standing by the reinforced door. A group of children were on the other side. They wore black, with traces of gold, of silver, or rich red silk. Two wore white masks, Venetian in style, one with lipstick and a crown of radiating spikes, the other with a smile and silver decoration.
The one in the middle had black skin, her hair heavily styled with two silver ornaments at one side to help pin it in place, her eyes glowing. She was carrying tinkertech, most of it concealed. As she saw Riley, her eyes widened and her lips parted, both ever so slightly.
“Riley Davis,” one of the capes said. “If you’d step back inside and return to your seat at the end of the hallway, please?”
“Do you need food? Water? A bathroom break?” a woman in costume asked.
Riley shook her head.
“Then please step back. Tenders, no visiting today. While B- Riley Davis is here, we can’t have you back here.”
There were protests. Riley didn’t hear the particulars as she walked away, back to her spot.
Sensory organs she’d implanted into her body activated. She was aware of movement, even though her eyes couldn’t track it.
The tinker, she decided.
“Are you coming after me?” Riley asked, quiet. “It would be a very, very dumb thing to do.”
Two of the metal plates down the hallway lifted up, curious people looking in.
The cloaking effect stripped away, pixels and lights peeling away to reveal the black-skinned girl.
“Heyy,” the girl said. “Definitely not a threat, don’t worry. But could you do me a favor and be quiet? I’m not supposed to be back here.”
“Thank you. I’m Lookout, by the way.”
“Yep, yes. Haha. How are you?”
“Bored. Who are you here for?”
Riley nodded, and remained sitting as Lookout approached, getting within arm’s reach as she bent down, lifting up the plate.
There was no response.
“This is your daily check-in. Saying hi. You’ve got Riley here too, in case you didn’t notice.”
Riley leaned over to peer through the gap beside Lookout’s head.
“Well, I’ll be here for a while, in case you decide you want to say something,” Lookout said.
She lowered the metal plate that served for mail and food.
“He’s sulking. He’s maybe the only person in existence who isn’t happy that we stopped the world from ending. Everyone came together, and things are pulling together. Winter’s almost over.”
“How was it?” Riley asked. “Winter.”
“Not great,” Lookout said. “But I don’t think anyone’s surprised. We stepped back to handle our shit, the unpowered went to handle their stuff. A lot of people died, or got sick from lack of food, or got desperate. We gave help where they needed it, but…”
“But they got to do it on their own, with just the help they wanted.”
“Yes,” Lookout said, turning her overly-bright eyes toward Riley. “We’re working on stopping the Machine Army, getting things secured in the city. Stopping some of the big bad guys.”
“Good,” Riley said. Her fingers knit together. She wished she had her tools. She could while away days if she had her tools and herself to work on. “Remember to keep your voice down.”
“Yes, yep, thank you,” Lookout said, her voice a mite quieter. She glanced back toward the door. “My team is good at distractions and being a pain in the ass.”
“Beautiful costumes,” Riley said, closing her eyes, leaning her head back against the wall. “I used to think of myself as an artist. I couldn’t let that pass without comment.”
“Thank you. You, um, you’re definitely a legend. Wow. And you were a huge help with the world ending. If you’re stuck here, you know, I could go talk to people, we could call in favors…”
“I’m not stuck.”
Stuck would imply that she had anywhere to go. What was a mouse in a glue trap if that glue trap was the entirety of its world?
Lookout fidgeted, smoothing down the skirt of her costume. “Am I bothering you?”
Riley shook her head, with some emphasis.
Lookout nodded, still anxious. Anxious, but not…
“You’re not scared of me?”
“I spend a lot of time around villains and stuff. My team is pretty scary.”
“The Tenders. Breakthrough is done. Too many retirements or people moving teams. Um, but I’m still in touch with them!”
“Ashley Stillons was on your team.”
The name seemed to rock Lookout. The girl seemed shocked at first, then smiled. “Yes. But she died.”
“I know. Are you in contact with Damsel?”
“I am! I gave her my card and left her alone, and she hired me, and we exchanged only three words for the entire job, but still, it was three words! Voluntary! And she suggested she’d hire me again!”
“Volume,” Riley reminded the girl.
The girl nodded, energetic, lips pressed together.
“I liked Swansong,” Riley said, her eyes closing again.
“If you ever want company for tea, if you can have company for tea, you could say hi.”
Riley smiled. “I’ll do that. If I can have company for tea.”
Lookout took a seat on the floor, her legs crossed, her knees almost touching Riley’s. She turned her head, pressed a finger to her lips, and then began to turn invisible, the sparkles and distorted squares dancing over her body and erasing everything they touched.
A cape poked his head into the hallway. Riley lifted a hand, her wrist remaining on her knee, and gave him a small wave.
The cape remained for a minute, then as children’s voices got louder in the lobby, stepped away.
Lookout appeared once more.
“I’m actually really glad I could say hi. I thought you were off in a classified location.”
“I was. I left.”
“Rode a pet of mine, then walked, then I hitchhiked. We stopped at a villain enclave and I got a ride from there.”
“I don’t think I could ever be bored, so long as I could tinker.”
“I know! Gosh, yes. But then-”
“But tinkering isn’t enough. You need people to anchor you.”
“Ah,” Lookout said. “So I’m doomed.”
“People are what I’m bad at. My power? I’m pretty good, if I can say so myself. I’m a pretty good cape. But people… I was bad at it before and I’m bad at it now.”
“Breadth and depth,” Riley said.
“The earlier you get powers, the more it spreads across your personality. Growing up with it, there’s less room for you. It’s where young triggers get more versatility, more natural instinct.”
Lookout nodded. “I was eight.”
“Six. Clones, like your friend in the cell over here… they start from zero. It does have an impact.”
“Depth, it’s the connection to the power. You dig that well with violence, conflict, desperation, fatigue… it becomes like a friend. But you don’t make a lot of real friends that way.”
Lookout nodded. “I know people like that.”
“Your power, is she a friend to you?” Riley asked. “Does she give you the right ideas? Does she help you put things together?”
“Yes. She’s a big old dork, though.”
“Mine’s an artist. She’s restless these days,” Riley said. “Do you have a verdict, Christopher?”
There was no movement or answer from the cell.
“So sulky,” Lookout whispered, with a mischievous look on her face.
“I wish we’d hung out before,” Lookout said. “We’re the same age, we could do the tea thing – Ashley and I did that all the time… we’re both tinkers. We could do so many cool things! Oh! Speaking of-”
Lookout pressed a hand to her mouth.
“You make a terrible secret agent.”
Lookout nodded, pulling out her phone. “I dunno if you can use this. It’s a sphincter-screen. We could compare notes.”
“We could,” Riley said. “I should remind you. We’re not the same age.”
Lookout looked up at her, searching her with those glowing eyes.
“Don’t be. I’m dumb,” Lookout said. She handed over the phone. “Deep scans. Was someone else’s work.”
Riley looked over the design. The scans had a lot of extra information, but there was data she could read, growth record, cellular detail, energy consumption. She could fill in the blanks. She memorized it, and she knew she could trust her power to provide those details to her in the future.
“I see. Well, that’s neat. Thank you for showing me,” Riley said, meaning it.
“Is it useful? It’s the first thing I thought of that you might be able to use.”
“I’ve kludged together computers when I set up workshops in the past. Mostly because of the time constraints while running around with the Nine. Would be nice to set up a workshop with screens like that.”
“Makes sense,” Lookout said. “Cool.”
“If you want to scan something, you could scan my eyes. Should apply to your field, if I remember right.”
Lookout nodded, eager, adjusted something on her phone, and held it to Riley’s face.
“I don’t want to be greedy or annoying,” Lookout said.
“You’re not annoying. I spent years with people who were decaying alive, who had hair-trigger tempers, who thought hurting people was fun. Masochists, pyromaniacs, perverts, murderers…”
“Low bar,” Lookout said, smiling.
“You’re less annoying than the people out there who couldn’t decide what to do with me. Don’t worry about it,” Riley said. “I appreciate the company.”
“Then… do you mind if I ask you stuff? I can’t offer you much else.”
“No. There’s no need. What do you want to ask?”
“Is there a way to bring back the dead? Can you?”
Riley didn’t immediately answer. The question was a heavy one, and she was just now realizing that Lookout’s small smile was deceptive. It had to be a hologram, painted over whatever expression she was actually wearing.
“When I did it, I had Valkyrie’s help to bring them to the surface. Before that, it took years, multiple tries, and the equipment from a major tinker enclave.”
“So it’s possible.”
“I wouldn’t want to promise,” Riley said. “There’s no guarantee the Wardens would let me try.”
The girl still smiled. Smiled more, if anything.
“You had other questions,” Riley said, eager to move on.
“Yeah,” Lookout whispered. “The most embarrassing thing.”
The girl scooted closer. Their knees touched.
“What?” Riley asked.
“I did something, and I’m going to get in trouble for it. Like, wow, a lot of trouble. Have you ever felt that dread, knowing you’re about to get caught?”
Riley thought of preparing to wake up Jack and the rest of the Nine, in the days before Gold Morning.
“What do you do? How do you handle it? What happens?”
“You keep moving forward,” Riley told the girl, with solemnity and sincerity. “You plan and contemplate, you prepare, you take action and fix things. Then you maintain.”
“I usually get tripped up on the fixing part.”
“Maintain. Hold onto the moment where things are okay. Keep yourself in working order like you do with your tinkertech-” Riley ran a finger over the raised reminder on the skin of her arm. “Keep your hands busy if your hands are a problem. Go to places where you know you can be stable. Even if it means leaving a workshop that’s the size of a deserted earth to seat yourself at the end of a prison hallway.”
“Then you either keep maintaining, or you relapse. When the relapse happens, you watch your world implode, and then you pick up the pieces and start from the beginning. Contemplate, prepare, take necessary actions…”
“If I can do it, you can do it.”
Lookout nodded. She pressed her lips together, before making a smacking sound with her lips. “Then I guess the implosion is coming.”
“What did you do?”
Lookout turned her head, and pressed her finger to her lips.
The girl began to disappear.
“Kept a secret,” Lookout said, and in that moment where the hologram hadn’t completely hidden her and she seemed to think she wasn’t visible, the smile fell away, and there was a weight and a weariness.
Riley reached out, because she felt that same weight and weariness. She connected to it enough that she felt compelled to make some kind of physical contact.
The woman cape from earlier stepped into the doorway and gave Riley a curious look.
“We’ve got an escort prepared. We can take you to your new apartment.”
“Apartment?” Riley asked. She gathered up her coat, standing.
“Monitored, but yes. We can take you now.”
Riley didn’t step forward. She reached over to the door, and lifted the plate. “Cryptid?”
“Please don’t disturb the other prisoners,” the woman said.
“It’s a lonely way forward, especially for people like us. I know you liked me,” Riley said. “I won’t hold your actions that night against you. I think I understand more than anyone. It was nice talking, as the end of the world approached, working on a project. If you wanted company… a fellow tinker… but I can’t if you want to chase monstrousness.”
“Riley Davis,” the cape told her, stern. She motioned for people to come.
“It’s your choice,” Riley said.
Chris’s voice came from the cell, young, “I’m tired of little girls chattering at me. One’s gloating, the other’s lonely.”
Riley let the plate fall to cover the slot.
Lookout didn’t seem like she was gloating. But the fact you see it that way…
And if I can have a conversation with Lookout, I think I can find others. Human connections. There were others, like Amy, like Jessica, all still out there.
She’d stay the course.
“Sorry,” she told the capes who had gathered at the entrance. “I’m ready to go home.”