Story

6 Dec

“Um,” I say, “thanks.”

He rolls his eyes. “You don’t have to be sarcastic.”

“I don’t know what you’re trying to do here,” I tell him.

He shrugs. “I’m trying to be supportive?”

“Of what?” I ask.

Hephaestion shrugs again. “You. Not liking sex.”

“Who said I don’t like sex?” I ask.

He holds up his hands. “Do you? I mean, hey, whatever, we don’t have to talk about it.”

“Just because I don’t want to have it doesn’t mean I don’t like it,” I tell him. “I like sex fine. I just have more important things to concentrate on right now, that’s all.”

“Sure,” he says.

“And by don’t want to have it,” I add, in case it’s not clear, “I mean not right now in these particular circumstances, not in the general case, okay.”

“Okay,” he agrees.

“Not everyone likes casual sex,” I say.

“I know that,” he tells me, “that was exactly what I was trying to say.”

“Well, fine, you could’ve worded it better,” I tell him.

“Okay,” he says, “sorry.”

“I don’t care that you do have sex, you know,” I say.

He raises an eyebrow.

“I mean, I wish you’d do it less when I need the room to study,” I add.

He laughs.

30 Nov

I stop a couple more muggings (or maybe people are just being threatening), convince a few more people not to get in their cars while they’re still drunk, and even get a puppy off of a roof. I know that one’s going to be in the news tomorrow, because the flash goes off incredibly bright, enough that the screen I’m looking through goes dark for a moment, replacing the visual input with outlines and heat signatures. The family whose puppy it is seems happy enough. The puppy doesn’t seem to care what happened.

The only serious incident is a belligerent customer threatening a movie theater, knocking over all of their displays and candy and things. They keep trying to talk him down, but he shoves someone into the wall, screaming about his tickets, and I have to haul him off, and basically keep him pinned to the wall until the cops get there. I try to say calming things to him, but it doesn’t work at all, and whatever talking-down power I have doesn’t kick in.

It takes them a while to get here. I think I should probably ask Sal for some equipment, handcuffs at least, maybe something with a little more power. Restraints, though, not weapons, because I still haven’t thought of a weapon that would actually help me, let alone help more than things could go wrong. Eventually, the cops take him off my hands, thanking me and everything. They shake my hand. I stand there for a while, trying to figure out what just happened.

“Here,” says the manager, handing me some sort of gift card.

“Thanks,” I say.

“It’s for a free movie, with a popcorn and soda,” the manager says. “Thank you.”

“Um,” I say, staring at the voucher.

“I’m pretty sure he was about to beat the shit out of one of my employees, so,” the manager says, then, “wait, sorry, I didn’t mean to swear.”

I grin. “I’m not going to report you or anything.”

“Well, good,” she says. “I can’t imagine a superhero being offended at my conduct is going to do my performance review any good.”

“Can I help clean up?” I ask, staring at the displays that managed to get bowled over in what was sort of but not quite a brawl.

“Well, unless you have,” the manager pauses. “Actually, do you have superstrength?”

“Yes,” I say, lifting a shelf back into standing position. It feels heavy at first, but once I start straining, it suddenly feels like the cardboard display I put back up while we were still talking. Some sort of cartoon animals, which look familiar, but I’m not sure if I wanted to see that movie or not. Definitely not enough for theaters.

The manager golf-claps for me. “Thank god. I hate lifting those things.”

I take a minute to set the other ones upright, but they don’t start off heavy the way the first one did. I wonder whether my strength hasn’t taken the time to shut off, or whether I’m just getting quicker at engaging it. There’s still stuff all over the floor, but at least now there’s a place to put it. Only one of the shelves is broken, down the middle, and maybe the whole thing will have to be replaced if that one board can’t be, but I think the scratch down the side of the other one (the only one big enough to really be noticeable) can probably be painted over.

“I can fly, too, if you need help putting the decorations back on top,” I say, as the manager tries to reconstruct some complex diorama from some movie or another, and one of the other employees starts sticking the untrampled flowers into a new vase.

“Nah,” says the new employee, “we’re good here.”

The manager shakes her head. “Never mind, I think we’re going to have to replace all the displays, anyway, so it’ll take a while. Go. Fight crime.”

“Um, okay,” I say, “have a nice night. Let me know if that guy comes back.”

“Will do,” the manager says, and waves at me as I walk out of the building.

It takes me a minute to realize they don’t really have a way to get in contact with me, although I have to assume Sal won’t have any trouble routing it to my cell phone if they just call up the tower. Also, thinking back on it, saying normal things in this weird modified hero voice is kind of disconcerting and entirely hilarious.

“Sal,” I say, once I’m flying again, “are there better crimes here?”

“I don’t know what you mean by better,” she tells me, “I’m not sending you on any of the priority ones, because that’ll mess up the system.”

“It will?” I ask.

“Yes,” she says. “You know you’re entirely separate from the police force, right? Also, you’re not on a regular schedule.”

“I can be, if it would be easier,” I tell her.

She laughs. “It doesn’t make a difference to me. And unless you can work standard shifts, which you can’t, because you’re a student, it’s hard to schedule you in, anyway.”

“I need to be scheduled to handle crimes?” I ask.

“I’m only sending you to ones it will take the standard response team a while to get to, or the ones you can get to faster than they can,” she says.

“Well, it’s making me feel a little like I’m not getting anything done,” I say.

“You’re not cleared for emergency work,” she adds.

“Wait, what?” I say, “I can help in an emergency.”

“You can’t,” she says, “well, I mean, you can pull people out of a burning building if you want, although I doubt you’d be very good at it.”

“Why,” I ask, “isn’t my new outfit flame resistant?”

“Sure,” she says, “but do you have any idea how to navigate something that’s actively burning down, even if you can ignore also being burned?”

“Should I?” I ask.

“You can take a class,” she says.

“Maybe,” I say.

“If you do the standard course,” she says, “it’ll cover fire emergencies and vehicular collisions, and possibly emergency medical transport.”

“Possibly?” I say.

“You have strength and flight,” Sal says, “so, conceivably, you could airlift people. But you don’t have any kind of healing powers or speed, so it’s not that useful.”

“Oh,” I say. “I guess that makes sense.”

“Maybe you should carry around a first aid kit, though,” she says.

I laugh. “Yeah. Probably also cuffs.”

“Handcuffs?” she asks, “or neutralization cuffs?”

“Uh, I don’t know, both?” I say.

“I’ll make up a kit,” she tells me.

“What’s the standard course?” I ask.

She pauses for a moment. “Well, first you have to be vetted by –”

“No,” I say, “I mean, who is it standard for?”

“Oh,” she says. “It’s standard for either interns or junior agents, and any new heroes working for or closely with the agency.”

“So, I should take it,” I say.

“Since there’s only one of you, I don’t know how much help it’ll be,” she says, “because we can’t coordinate you into a practiced group. But there’s no reason not to.”

“How long does it take?” I ask.

“Look, I’ll get you into the school program, how about that?” Sal says, “do I have your permission to look up your schedule to make sure there aren’t any class conflicts?”

“Can’t really prevent those,” I mutter.

Sal laughs. “Well, I can make it easier for your timetable, at least.”

“It’ll be weird to show up in costume in the middle of the day,” I say.

“It will,” she agrees, “but not that weird, considering your costume pretty much seems to be workout clothes, anyway.”

“That’s true,” I say.

She adds, “and at least you don’t have to worry about your roommate snooping through your stuff and figuring out your secret. Hephaestion can probably even help you hide it.”

“What’s up with you two?” I ask.

“What would be up with us?” she says.

“I don’t know,” I say, “it seemed like you didn’t get along.”

“He accepted my friend request,” she says.

“Oh,” I say, changing back into my regular clothes. “Well, that’s good.”

 

“Hey,” Hephaestion says, as I climb in through the window, “do you have any explanation for why a robot friended me on Facebook?”

“Well,” I say.

“Holy shit, what’s up with your face?” Hephaestion says.

I reach up and peel my domino off, tuck it in my pocket, and then peel the whole mask off so I can hand it over. Hephaestion prods at it a little, shaking it to see what it does, and then holds it up to his own face, peering through the eyeholes.

“Hey,” he says, “does this, like, have a screen or something?”

“Yeah,” I say. “It even has filter effects.”

He stares harder. “Can I try it on?”

I shrug. “Be my guest.”

He pulls it over his head, grinning as he looks around the room. The disconcerting part is not that he looks like a completely different person. I expected that. The disconcerting part is that he doesn’t look like the mask is stretched out or uneven anywhere, even though it was built for my face. He looks like a different person, yes, but not the same different person I look like when I put on the mask. A different one altogether. A real person, not even very obtrusive looking, but not the one I expect the mask to show.

Then, of course, he screams and yanks it back off his head.

“What?” I ask.

“What the fuck?” he yells, “what the fuck, the fucking robot talked to me, fuck, why, why do you have a robot in your mask?”

“It’s just Sal,” I say. “You like Sal. You’re Facebook friends.”

“She keeps posting pictures of guinea pigs,” he hisses.

“You like guinea pigs,” I say.

“Not enough to want them bombarding my entire feed,” he says, “isn’t it bad enough Jay’s already into constant Halloween posts? It’s a madhouse.”

“The internet?” I say.

“Yes,” he agrees, “the internet is a madhouse.”

“She’s probably just doing it to annoy you,” I say.

“Oh, that’s comforting,” he says. “The malicious hyperintelligent robot has nothing better to do than put up too many guinea pigs just to bug me.”

“She’s not malicious,” I say.

“You just said she was posting pictures to annoy me,” he says.

I shrug. “Well, you were kind of mean to her when you talked earlier. Also, she may just normally do that.”

“That’s not comforting at all,” he says, “that means it’ll never stop.”

“Well, I can talk to her,” I say, then go to hand back the mask. “Or you can.”

Hephaestion flips me off.

“Apparently,” I say, “there’s this whole, I don’t know, superhero training program?”

“Sure,” he says. “They mostly meet with the ROTC kids, here.”

“Do they?” I ask. “I heard the training was different.”

“I think only after the first year,” he says, “and not all of it, just some of it.”

“Well,” I say, “apparently I’ve joined.”

“Huh,” he says.

I shrug.

“Why?” he asks.

“I don’t know,” I say, “there’s some courses or something? To get certified in stuff? And I have no idea what I’m doing, so.”

“This was Sal’s idea, wasn’t it?” he says. “I don’t trust that entity.”

“It was her idea,” I say, “because she’s trying to solve problems I posit to her, thank you, and she’s about as trustworthy as anyone else so I don’t see what your problem is.”

“She’s a robot,” Hephaestion says. “You have to know that spells trouble.”

“Why?” I ask.

“For fuck’s sake read a book,” he says.

I pick up the nearest book to me, which happens to be I, Robot, so it works pretty well to illustrate my point, actually.

He stares at it, then spreads his hands, displaying it to me.

“I think,” I say, “this might be racist or something.”

He laughs really hard at that one. “You know, if this conversation were happening between two other people, that statement would sound very different.”

“Well, I don’t know what you want me to call it,” I say. “She wants to help.”

“Can we talk about literally anything else?” he asks.

“Are you dating Alex?” I ask.

“No,” he says, “god. I don’t even think he’s gay. And you asked me that before, and I already said. What is your obsession with this?”

I shrug.

“This is a nerd thing, isn’t it,” he says.

“Well, I wouldn’t want to do anything too nerdy, Hephaestion,” I say.

He rolls his eyes. “If it helps, I’ve fucked, like, seven guys named Alexander already.”

“Seven?” I say.

He shrugs. “I’m friends with a lot of people named Alex, because they like the joke. A lot of people like to take the joke all the way.”

“That was a bad pun,” I say.

“I’m not sure it’s a pun,” he says, “anyway, I’m working on it. I think I have it almost right. Give me a few days.”

“No,” I say, “no, leave that joke alone. Don’t try to make it.”

“Killjoy,” he says.

“Really?” I say again, “seven?”

“Sure,” he says, “why not?”

“But you’re not dating any of them?” I ask.

He shrugs and shakes his head. “No, I’m not dating anyone, why? You’re not, like, hitting on me or anything, are you, because I thought we covered this, too.”

“I don’t know,” I say, “it just seems weird to have sex with someone you wouldn’t even date, or whatever.”

“Well, it’s not like I wouldn’t date them,” Hephaestion says, staring at me quizzically, “it’s just that I don’t feel like dating right now. Is that that weird?”

“I don’t know,” I say, “I guess not.”

“No strings sex,” he says. “That’s what college is for.”

“Okay,” I say.

“You don’t have to if you don’t want to,” he says, “I don’t care. If people care, they’re assholes. Do what you want.”

29 Nov

I pause for a minute, on the landing. It’s almost on the roof, but shielded a little from wind chill, and it’s a nice spot to survey the city. I mean, I guess it would have to be. It’s supposed to be a vantage point to do your superheroing from, isn’t it? Not that the wind is that important, anyway, because it’s actually nice and warm in my fancy new suit.

It’s probably weird that the outside clothes are made from some sort of futuristic spacefabric when they just look like normal clothes. It’s probably also pretty weird that I’m almost entirely certain my socks are just normal socks – the thick kind, like for hiking – which are nice and warm inside my boots.

For some reason, Sal thinks I need boots instead of running shoes.

“Sal?” I say.

“Yeah?” she says, inside my ear, which surprises me, because I thought she could mostly only talk to me through text.

“You can talk?” I ask.

“I’ve always been able to talk,” she says.

“No,” I say, “that’s not what I meant.”

“I know what you meant,” she says, “I’m fucking with you. Yes. I can talk. There’s a speaker in your mask. That’s not soundproofed, though, so anyone could hear me.”

“Is it loud?” I ask, “it doesn’t seem that loud.”

“It’s not that loud,” she says, “but neither are earbuds, and that’s even disregarding acutes and probably some perceptives.”

“Oh,” I say.

“What did you want, anyway?” she asks, “I thought you were going on patrol.”

“I’m looking for anything suspicious,” I say.

“Well, I’ll let you know if I hear anything,” she says. “Was that all?”

“No,” I say, “why do you want me to wear boots?”

“Sneakers don’t real strike fear into the heart of a villain,” she says.

“Well,” I tell her, “neither does a touristy sweatshirt, what’s your point?”

“I don’t know,” she says, “that’s got a kind of local color charm to it.”

“They were just shoes,” I say.

“They have logos on them,” she tells me. “You’ve got to be careful about wearing what might be an advertisement. And, anyway, they aren’t the right shade of blue.”

“They’re not even blue,” I say.

“They have blue accents,” she says, “and they’re the wrong blue. And they have a whole bunch of other accents, too, and they clash. Your shoes are ugly.”

“Yeah,” I say, “I figured that’s why they were barely worn.”

“Well, they’re worn out now,” she says. “You should get new ones.”

“I’ll get right on that,” I tell her.

“You don’t like the boots?” she asks.

“What’s not to like?” I say, “they’re just boots.”

“I didn’t want to oversell the design,” she says.

“I don’t know what that means,” I tell her.

“Your look,” she says, “it’s sort of plain. Straightforward. I like it. Fancy boots would kind of ruin it.”

“Oh,” I say.

“That’s why I’ve been worried about your weapons,” she says.

“I don’t have any weapons,” I tell her.

“I know,” she says, “that’s why I’ve been worrying about them.”

“I don’t need any weapons,” I tell her.

“Sure,” she says. “When do you want to look through the armory?”

“What weapons could I possibly need?” I ask her.

“I don’t know,” she says, “that depends on what kind of crimefighting you’re going to get into, and also what your powers are.”

“Strength,” I say. “I haven’t tested it, but it’s going to chart pretty high, I think.”

“No,” she says, “not that. Your offensive powers.”

“Strength is offensive?” I ask.

“Not at range,” she says, “unless you were planning on pelting people with rocks or something? In which case you should carry a bunch of rocks.”

“I,” I say, “don’t think I’ll be doing that.”

“What range powers do you have?” she asks.

“I don’t know if I have any, actually,” I tell her.

“None?” she says, “white hats usually get at least one.”

“I know,” I say.

“Try it out,” she says, pulling a target out of the wall a ways away, which looks pretty cool, although maybe a little flimsy.

“Okay,” I say, and point my hands at it, and concentrate.

“Maybe you need to be a little more dramatic?” she suggests.

I put one foot back, and bring my hands together, and sort of shove them at the target again. It feels silly, and I can’t imagine that helps.

“Are you even trying to hit the target?” Sal asks.

“For fuck’s sake, Sal, I’m doing the best I can,” I say.

“That’s not what I mean,” Sal says.

“Fine,” I say, “what do you mean?”

“I mean,” she says, “that for safety reasons, and the mechanism absolutely would not work if it weren’t safe for you to use, you have to concentrate pretty hard.”

“On what?” I ask.

“It depends on what your power is,” she says. “Sorry. For most white hats, it’s intuitive what they can do.”

“Well, shit,” I say.

“I mean, you can send out a request,” she says, “I’m sure it won’t take that long to get someone with an analysis power to show up.”

“I kind of don’t want to do that,” I say.

“It doesn’t hurt or anything,” Sal reassures me. “They’ll just write it down in a list for you. They won’t even show anyone but you.”

“It’s weird though,” I say. Then I think about that for a minute, and think maybe I have an idea what all my classmates are on about, with empaths and whatever. Not to the point where it’s reasonable for them to feel the way they do, but I think it might come from the same place, and I take a minute to process that. Maybe I should get someone in.

“Look,” Sal says, “you’re probably going to destroy the target. That’s fine. They’re meant to be destroyed. Just go ahead and think really hard about it.”

“Okay,” I say, and stare at the target harder, holding my hands up.

“You look kind of silly when you do that,” Sal says.

“I’m well aware, Sal,” I tell her.

“I just mean,” Sal says, “maybe just relax. Put your arms down. Stick them in your pockets or something. Just think about the target.”

I do. I stick my hands in my pockets, and watch the target for a while. I’m not really sure what’s supposed to happen, but I don’t figure just waiting for it will actually work. I glare at it, hoping for it to blow up or something.

It does.

It’s kind of anticlimactic.

“That’s great,” Sal says, “just like that.”

“What did I do?” I ask.

“I don’t know yet,” Sal says, “give me a while to analyze. It was pretty great, though. I bet you could do it again.”

“Probably,” I say, because I can at least grasp what concentrating means now, although I don’t think I like the feeling. Also, does that mean I can want it to do something other than explode and it’ll do that, or is it only an explosion power?

“Go fight someone,” Sal says.

“With explosions?” I say.

“No,” Sal says, “I mean, whatever. If you need to. Just to get your face out there, I meant. For publicity.”

“Publicity?” I repeat.

“Sure,” she says, “a lot of the good you can do in this city is people knowing you protect this city. And a lot of what you can get done involves knowing the right people.”

“I kind of thought,” I say, “punching people was about it.”

“Yeah,” she agrees, “most white hats do.”

“If it was something other than fighting, couldn’t other people just do it?” I ask.

“You’d think so,” she says. “In practice, figureheads are quite beneficial.”

“Huh,” I say.

“This isn’t specifically in regards to Villain,” she says. “We’re trying to deter lesser criminals from putting on a super-persona.”

“Um,” I say, “okay.”

“Go fight some crime,” she repeats.

“There isn’t any,” I say.

“What the hell do you mean there isn’t any?” she asks me.

“I mean, I’m sure people are evading taxes or something,” I tell her, “but I can’t see anyone doing anything, like, overtly violent right now?”

“Go find some people robbing a house,” she suggests.

“And do what?” I ask, “tell them nicely not to rob houses?”

“What, are you only going to hit people who are hitting other people already?” she says.

“I was kind of planning on,” I tell her.

“Well,” Sal says, and then pauses for a while. “You could always fly around and make sure drunk people aren’t trying to drive home.”

“Okay,” I say, and fly off.

It takes a while, because it’s not late enough that a lot of people are leaving bars in a haze yet, but I find someone stumbling towards a car. I land. It takes a minute to get his attention, but once I do, he flips me off.

“What the hell do you want?” he asks.

“I want you not to drive drunk,” I tell him.

He flips me off again. He fumbles with his keys for a while, and eventually I just fly off with them, leaving them at the nearest police station. They give me a funny look, but apparently the tower’s sent them a notice or something, because they don’t stare too long. I give them his license plate number, so they’ll know who he is when he comes to claim them.

What? If he’d lost his keys, people would probably turn them in to the police.

Anyway, he was a dick.

The next couple of people argue with me a little, but eventually call cabs or friends to pick them up. One of them has me point her to the bus, and I show her where the nearest stop is. She thanks me, and promptly pukes all over the ground. She barely misses my new boots, even though she was practically aiming at them. Secondary power, right? I get a cup of water for her from the nearest coffee shop, and wait for her bus with her. The last guy – he seems so fucking happy I reminded him not to drink and drive – is bad enough I walk him all the way back home. I almost walk him to health services instead of his room.

I sort of wonder whether I should be talking to the bars about obviously not carding.

Of course, then I’m on campus, and once I’m on campus, there’s no shortage of shit to deal with, because there’s a lot of people who have never lived with anyone before and for some reason think that excuses fighting, and a lot of people deciding to do stupid dangerous things because they have no more adult supervision. Well, maybe I’m giving them too much credit. They’re definitely not all freshmen.

Also, there are a lot of people who have apparently never previously heard the word no.

Those don’t take a long time to deal with (individually), because it’s basically shoving them into a wall while the other party runs the fuck away. Maybe I should get Sal to make me some kind of alien ink so I can write ‘don’t rape people’ on their foreheads, and it’ll stick there for the next couple of days. Maybe the school can have a class. Like, fuck, how hard is it to teach people ‘I don’t know’ doesn’t mean to climb onto the couch and lie on them?

Well, it seems pretty hard to teach people that forcibly performing major surgery on random people is Not Okay, let alone registries and stuff, so I guess it’s probably pretty hard to teach people anything at all.

Then a couple of people have apparently read about me in the newspaper, so I take a couple of photos with people.

I kind of don’t want to hang around campus too long, in case people think I live here or something. I wave at the gathered crowd, and fly off.

28 Nov

“I’m not really sure it works that way,” I tell her.

“I’m pretty sure I know the policies better than you,” she says.

“That’s true,” I agree.

“Anyway,” she says, “you do know you signed an agreement to work on an ad hoc basis for them, right?”

“Did I?” I ask.

Static. “Yes, Paragon, you did. That was what you signed directly after the NDA.”

“Oh,” I say.

“Yes,” Sal agrees.

“I didn’t really have a choice about that,” I say.

Sal sounds a little more sympathetic, as she says, “I can see how you would feel that way, although I really don’t think they were trying to pressure you. It was just a precaution.”

“I work for them?” I ask.

“Sort of,” Sal says. “They’re allowed to call you in in case of emergency now, which is why they gave you that nifty little phone.”

I pull the phone out of my pocket. It just looks like a normal phone. Although, apparently, it knows to switch between identities, from context or something.

“How,” I ask, “does it know when I’m working?”

“Oh, that’s me,” she says, “all the calls are routed through my interface. I pick how to present someone, their name and picture and such, based on current data.”

“Current data,” I repeat.

“I look through the camera at them,” she says. “Or, if they’re on duty, I just use their phones under the official setting, why?”

“Couldn’t they do, you know, more than just one name plus the official line?” I ask.

“Yes,” she agrees, “based on current projections, I can handle up to a dozen aliases per person. Anyway, you’re the only one I really have to be careful about.”

I glance at the phone again. “Did you get my information out of here?”

“Well,” she says, “you did upload all your old data onto the new phone.”

“Well, yeah,” I say, “they’re going to pay for it, even if I don’t join them, right? And they said anything on it’s confidential, anyway.”

“And you believed them?” Sal asks.

I roll my eyes. “They don’t have any access to anything the NSA, the CIA, and Homeland Security didn’t already have access to.”

“What if they want to spy on you?” she asks.

“What if they do?” I shoot back. “They can just follow me if they want to know who I am, and what else can my phone possibly tell them?”

“So you just trusted them,” she says.

“It has unlimited data,” I say. “For free.”

“You don’t have anything interesting on there,” she says.

“Wait, how hooked into this are you?” I ask.

“Why?” she says, perking up, “do you need my help with something?”

“Like,” I say, “can I treat it like a regular phone, and it’ll only store what I need during regular times, and you can store any, I don’t know, evidence videos I take?”

“Well, okay,” she says, “only a couple of your contacts should be tricky, anyway.”

“Right,” I say, “Ben.”

“Ben, sure,” she says, “you may have to tell me whether you’re sending him messages in a personal or professional capacity.”

“You can’t guess from wording?” I ask.

“I can,” she says, “I would hate to be wrong.”

“I may just tell him,” I say.

“He may just guess,” she says, “but I wouldn’t presume to know your relationship.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?” I ask.

“What do you mean?” she says, “I don’t know how close you are.”

“We’re not,” I say, “like, dating or anything?”

“That’s,” she says, “not remotely what I was getting at?”

“Oh,” I say.

She’s silent for a moment. Then, “how well can he recognize body language? Could he read you if you showed up on video?”

“Um,” I say, “maybe. I was probably going to just call.”

She makes staticky noises again. “For obvious reasons, people generally like to see mask personnel on screen if they’re going to talk to them.”

“Don’t I have a verified phone number or something?” I ask.

“I don’t make the rules,” she says.

“That’s the only one, right?” I ask.

“Sure,” she says.

“Sure?” I say, “what does that mean?”

“It means,” she says, “one of your contacts may be Guardian Angel.”

“What?” I say, “no. Why?”

“Why?” she asks, “what the hell do you mean why?”

“How would I know him?” I ask.

“You just happen to, in both of your civilian identities,” she says.

“Wait, who is he?” I ask.

“I’m not going to tell you unless you sign up,” she says.

“You can’t just hold information hostage,” I say.

“I can and I will,” she informs me. “I’m not a neutral party in this, you know, it’s absolutely in my best interests if you sign a contract with them.”

“What if I just delete my contacts one by one,” I say.

“Well, I won’t tell you,” she says, “I know you’re only doing it to figure it out, and I know you’re going to put them back as soon as you do.”

“For fuck’s sake, fine,” I say, “I’ll sign up.”

“Excellent,” she says, “I’ll let you back out there, then. Don’t tell them about me. And, also, the thing about the mask – they’re going to make you change it.”

“What? Why?” I ask, but the door is already opening. I step out, to find a couple of the agents outside, waiting for me.

“Did you find everything okay?” one of them asks.

“Uh,” I say, “yeah. There are. There are some great computers in there. Really. User-friendly. And. Uh. Great equipment. Cool stuff.”

“Did you make a new costume?” the other one asks.

“Um,” I say, “I got a new undersuit started. It’s. Um. Blue. Like my sweatshirt.”

“Oh,” the first one says. “And the mask?”

I put my hand to my mask. “What’s wrong with my mask?”

“It’s Richard Nixon,” he says.

“So?” I say.

“It’s,” he says, “it’s not really appropriate, is it?”

“Isn’t it?” I ask.

“Look,” the other one says, “you can’t be going around the city fighting crime dressed as Richard Nixon.”

“No?” I say.

They both shake their heads at me.

I shrug.

“Are you,” one of them says, “are you planning on actually joining up? Because that mask is definitely against company policy.”

“Why are you wearing it, anyway?” the other one says.

“It was the only one I had,” I tell them.

They share a Look with each other, and one of them hands me a basic domino. I stare at it, wondering what the hell I’m supposed to do with this. I guess maybe Sal can make me a mask that, you know, isn’t this – but also isn’t Nixon.

They take me to another room, somewhere, handing over a sheaf of papers. Someone else is there, someone I haven’t met yet, who looks bored and is wearing a slightly worn expensive suit and might not have slept in the last couple of days. He waves a hand at me, and I sit.

“Uh,” I say, “hello.”

“Hello,” he says, “I’m your attorney for the moment, or rather, I’m acting as a third party. Do you have an attorney?”

“No,” I say.

“I thought not,” he says, although I can’t tell in context what he means by it. “Alright, what we’re doing here is going through this contract, so I can amend anything I need to.”

“Okay,” I say.

“You are over eighteen?” he asks.

“Yeah,” I say.

“Okay, obviously I can’t check your ID, but we’re going to have you run it through the system. None of the data gets stored, it just checks it for validity.” He smiles at me.

I smile back, even though no one can see under the mask. “Okay.”

“Would I,” he says, hesitantly, “be correct in assuming you’re a student?”

“Um,” I say, “maybe.”

“Alright. We’ll spend some time on the scheduling section, then,” he says, “from your answers, I’m guessing you don’t actually want to reveal your identity.”

“I wasn’t planning on, no,” I say.

“That’s difficult,” he says. “But it’s workable. Did you have a name in mind?”

“Paragon,” one of the agents says.

“Paragon?” the lawyer says, surprised.

A different agent shrugs. “Sorry, that was the filler name in the script we trained most of PR on, and I think some of them panicked.”

“Okay, Paragon,” the lawyer says, filling something in, “now, about the mask.”

 

I reach out to pull the window open, and it slides up before I get to it. Which is maybe a little unsettling. I guess I didn’t expect Hephaestion to still be up. I hurry inside, glancing around to make sure no one sees me, not that there’s really anything I could do if they did. Hephaestion is sitting on his bed, arms crossed, waiting for me.

“Are you okay?” he asks, but he sounds more angry than actually worried.

“Sure,” I say.

“Judge,” he says, “are you okay?”

“I’m fine,” I say, “I’m uninjured. I’m unharmed.”

“What the hell were you doing out for so long, then?” he snarls.

“What the fuck are you, the RA now?” I ask.

“I was worried about you!” he says.

“And you have no reason to be,” I tell him. “I can take care of myself.”

“Oh, okay,” he says, “you were just out doing who knows what with no regard for your own safety. What life-threatening injuries did you sustain this time?”

“None,” I say.

“You know it still counts if they’d be life-threatening without your powers, right?” he asks, “I don’t know if you know this, but it’s actually particularly unpleasant to get cuffed and lose all protection your abilities offer you.”

“I know that,” I say, “it feels like all your ESP went numb.”

“What?” he says. “I thought you only just manifested.”

“That’s true,” I say.

“When would you have had occasion to,” he says, “were you arrested tonight?”

“Sort of,” I say.

“What the fuck does ‘sort of’ mean?” he asks.

“Well, I wasn’t so much arrested as conscripted,” I say.

“You what?” he says.

“I mean,” I say, “I’m now officially an employee of the U.S. government.”

“Wait, what?” he says.

“So these agents come up to me,” I say, “they snap a cuff on me, ask me a bunch of invasive questions about my political tendencies, and throw me in a truck. They drive me to the tower. They offer me a contract. I sign and get a paycheck.”

“You told them your name?” he asks, incredulous.

“I did fucking not,” I say, “I’m a private contractor. Freelance. Adjunct.”

“What does the paycheck say, then?” he asks.

“Paycheck’s made out to cash,” I tell him. “Or possibly they’re actually going to give me cash, I was not clear on this.”

“Shit,” Hephaestion says.

“Yeah,” I agree.

“MiniCity Tower or St. Claire Tower?” he asks.

“I don’t know,” I tell him, “the van doesn’t have windows, and I sort of got lost on the way back. It was quick. I assume it was MiniCity Tower.”

“I heard they’re integrated,” he says, “the only towers with integrated systems in the entire country. You can walk out of one and straight into the other.”

“Okay,” I say, “that’s probably true. There’s a lot of alien shit there.”

“It took you this long to sign a contract?” he asks.

I roll my eyes. “The contract took like an hour and a half to sign, you act like contracts are quick. They’re not even quick when you don’t have to change parts.”

“Yeah, well, if you’d only been gone two hours, I wouldn’t be saying anything,” he says.

“Why the fuck are you still up?” I ask.

“Oh, I don’t know, maybe I was worried something happened, since you left angry and reckless and then never came back,” he says.

“Nothing happened,” I say.

“Yeah, well, you almost died last time, so forgive me for worrying,” he says.

“Nothing happened,” I repeat, more forcefully.

He shakes his head. “Maybe you shouldn’t have stayed out all night then.”

“Well excuse me for having to take care of a needy robot,” I say.

“Wait, what?” he says.

“Robot,” I say, “there’s a robot in charge of the tower, some sentient alien AI thing, who wants to make me a costume and study my powers. You think I should let her?”

“What?” he says, again.

“Robot,” I say, more slowly. “There’s a robot –”

“Yeah, I fucking heard you,” he says, “I want you to explain to me why the fuck there’s an alien robot in charge of the tower.”

“I don’t know,” I say. “Do you think I should trust her?”

“The fuck you should,” he says, “what the hell? You don’t even know where this person came from, why should you trust them?”

“I don’t know,” I say, “I just thought maybe I should.”

“Why?” he snaps.

“Well, she’s nice,” I say, “anyway, who else am I going to ask how my powers work? She has a ton of equipment to study it.”

“Did you consider this is maybe the government trying to trick you?” he says.

“I did,” I tell him, “but, if they wanted to, they could just follow me around and record me anyway, so I don’t know why they’d contrive some robot story.”

“What’s wrong with your costume?” he asks.

“I don’t know,” I say, “apparently I can’t dress like Nixon.”

“Why the hell not?” he asks.

I shrug. “No one would say.”

“That’s ridiculous,” he says, “there are, like, fifteen heroes who dress like Lincoln, and at least three Washingtons at the moment.”

“And that one Andrew Jackson,” I say.

“Let’s not talk about him,” Hephaestion says.

“And a thousand Hamiltons or something,” I add.

“True,” he says, “very true.”

“I like the singing ones,” I add.

We hi-five. He seems to have forgiven me. I don’t know how long the relaxation will last, because he may well remember that he’s still mad at me, and then go on to yell at me again or give me the silent treatment or –

“Don’t trust the robot,” he says.

“You can meet her if you want,” I say.

“What?” he says, “why? This is a bad idea.”

“I mean, she didn’t tell me not to tell you about her,” I say, “and she did specify, so I’d think if she wanted you not to know she would’ve said.”

“What,” he says.

“I think she’d like you,” I say.

“Um,” he says.

I hand over my phone, calling up Sal so they can talk. There’s a reasonably short conversation, during which Hephaestion repeatedly contorts his face. Afterwards, he hangs up, hands the phone back to me, and makes a grimace.

“I don’t think you should trust her,” he says.

“Why not?” I ask.

“You don’t even know her,” he says.

“I didn’t know you a month ago,” I say, “and you’re the first person I told about manifesting, and you’re my sidekick and all.”

“The fuck I am,” he says, “if I’m anything, I’m your enabler, and I don’t appreciate the position. I’m just worried if I leave you’ll legit get yourself killed.”

“I haven’t even met Villain yet,” I say.

“Yeah, and when you do, you’re fucked,” he says.

“I know that,” I say.

“Then why the fuck are you playing this game?” he asks.

“Someone has to,” I tell him.

“It doesn’t have to be you!” He shakes his head. “There are older, more experienced people up for this. People who know what they’re doing. People who signed up for it.”

“I signed up for it,” I say.

“You got your powers by accident!” he tells me.

“I did,” I say, “because I knew someone needed to do this, and I was willing to take responsibility where no one else is.”

“Sure,” he says, “they can’t find anyone.”

“So where are all the heroes from Newark?” I say, “surely they could spare one.”

“I don’t know,” he says, “you pick a big city, of course there are more supervillains than usual around there.”

“Fine,” I say, “Missouri City. Why aren’t they sending anyone over?”

“I don’t know, because they’re assholes?” he says. “Someone will show up.”

“After something huge happens,” I say, “do you want them to come after, I don’t know, the whole city falls into a crater or something?”

“A crater?” he says.

“Like,” I say, “some kind of earthquake, or a meteor, or matter displacement, or maybe they’re just hollowing out an elaborate tunnel system, who know?”

“Who?” he asks.

“Villain’s underlings!” I say, “fuck, we know there’s a ton of them, what the fuck are they doing if not planning an apocalypse or something?”

“So you’re going to trust a robot because you don’t trust the government,” he says.

“You know, when you say it like that,” I say, “it makes my doubts seem silly.”

“The government,” he says, “the government’s really not that bad.”

“Oh, good,” I say, “considering I’m apparently one of them now.”

He starts laughing.

“What?” I say, “what the fuck? What?”

“You’re an actual White Hat, now,” he says, and laughs harder.

 

“The fuck it is,” I snap.

“Mr. Jensen,” the teacher says, “language.”

“Language,” I say, “maybe strong language is called for, when you’re talking about literally mutilating people so you feel safer around them.”

“Nonetheless,” he says, “I would like for this conversation to remain civil.”

“Remain civil,” I say, “remain civil? These people are literally talking about forcing life-threatening surgery on people for someone else’s benefit!”

“Yes,” the teacher says, “and they’re discussing it civilly.”

I sit the fuck back down.

“So what would you like to do?” one of the assholes sneers at me, “just stick them on some list in a government office and hope for the best?”

“No,” I say.

“I’d love to hear your idea, then,” he says.

“You misunderstand me,” I tell him, “I don’t think they should be on a list at all. I don’t think they should have to inform their conversational partners. I don’t think they should be required to wear identifying pins or ribbons.”

“You think they should just be allowed to run free,” he says.

“They’re not fucking wild animals,” I say.

“Language,” the teacher reminds me, again. “That’s two strikes. Do I have to ask you to leave? Because I can’t have you disrupting the class like this.”

“They fuck with people’s minds!” the asshole says, “I don’t know what you’re not understanding about this. They go inside people’s heads, and they mindfuck them.”

“Just what exactly do you think a memetic is?” I ask.

“Telepaths,” he says, “telepaths and psychics.”

I snort.

“Don’t be disrespectful,” the TA says, “I am this close to asking you to leave, Mr. Jensen. You do realize you won’t get credit for this discussion if I do?”

I shut my eyes and try to picture blue skies and cool breezes and some sort of happy, peaceful scent, like wildflowers or a campfire or something.

The Douchebag, of all people, jumps to my rescue. I mean, I guess it’s not even all that surprising, that’s been his position all along, but he’s on the same side I am this time, and I just don’t know what to do about this.

“What the actual fuck do you think is the difference between a forensic linguist or a kinematics expert or something, and an empath?” he says.

“Look, those other things are just things you learn,” another classmate says. “It’s not the same thing at all.”

“Why not?” Douchebag asks.

“Well, for one, you can’t just learn something and then be sure 100% of the time,” another asshole says, rolling her eyes.

“Oh, so if they were wrong 10% of the time, you wouldn’t require them to introduce themselves or anything,” Douchebag says.

“No, of course not,” the same asshole says, rolling her eyes harder.

“You know almost no one has 100% accuracy rates?” Douchebag says, “there are only a specific few, and almost exclusively from the military training programs.”

“That’s different,” the other asshole from before says.

“Yeah, it’s still different,” someone else agrees. “I mean, if you just learn someone’s body language and stuff, it’s not like you can actually tell what people are feeling.”

“How the hell is it different?” Douchebag snaps.

The teacher clears his throat. “Let’s not get into personal attacks, here.”

“Look, no one’s saying the military can’t have some extranormals,” the same asshole from before says, waving his arms expansively.

“Oh, great,” the guy next to me leans over to whisper, “this asshole’s graciously allowing the military to keep a few pet extranormals.”

I laugh slightly.

“I mean, as long as you can use them,” he says, with a snort.

“As long as you can keep them away from the general populace,” I add.

“Great plan,” he says, “great plan. We’ll just train up a bunch of supersoldiers and trap them in terrariums somewhere, so they don’t bother nice normal people.”

“The real danger is technopaths,” someone says.

“The fuck they are,” Douchebag says, “almost no technopaths can actually interface with modern pathproofed technology, and the ones who can are generally the ones who understand it well enough to have hacked it without any extranormal abilities whatsoever.”

“Are technopaths even dangerous post-Hollywood Hacker?” my neighbor asks.

“Not that I know of,” I tell him, “they even downgraded his threat level.”

“Even though they never caught him?” he asks.

“They know who he is now,” I say, then remember where I got this information, and add, “there was a nationwide – even international – manhunt for twenty years. They must.”

“Oh, sure,” he says, “I can’t imagine they haven’t known for years. I mean, they may have just quietly disappeared him rather than just leave him alone, though.”

“What?” I say.

He shrugs. “I don’t know. Maybe they like the technopath panic? I heard they offer a lot of them jobs instead of jail time, so.”

“Or it’s a good diversion for their own horribleness,” I add.

“That too,” he agrees. “Could be they like having someone to pin things on, so they pretend he’s still out there, and create scares themselves.”

I make a face at that, but, honestly, if I didn’t know his name and address and the fact that it’s been more than ten years since he’s actually pulled anything – and, to be fair, I don’t even know that for a fact, because Sal could be lying to me, although I don’t know why she would – I could totally see what he’s saying. I mean, it could be true. There are from time to time occasional scares with his MO or close enough, and they’re all resolved really quickly, but drawn out in the news. It makes enough sense. A little paranoid, but enough.

“You like the registry?” I ask.

He pinches his lips as he shakes his head. “I know better.”

“I wish everyone did,” I say.

He holds up his cane, swinging it back and forth. “I’m maybe a little bit closer to certain historical events than a lot of people. Well, you know.”

“I know,” I agree.

“I feel like if I said anything about voter suppression to this crowd,” he waves a hand, “we’d end up on some extreme and irrelevant tangent.”

“It’s fucking ridiculous,” I say, “with, what, half a percent? Not even that?”

“I’ve heard most manipulation abilities don’t even overtly present as memetic,” he says.

“Worse than that,” I tell him, “a lot of them are intentionally separately classed.”

“Yeah?” he says.

I nod. “A lot of politicians have low-level aura fields, or low-level speaking powers.”

He snorts. “More than low-level, a lot of them, probably.”

I grin.

He tilts his head. “You a philosophy major?”

“Minor,” I say, “Biology major. I like history, though.”

“Mm,” he says, “maybe I’ll see you in couple classes.”

“Your major?” I ask.

He nods.

“Because they fucking rearrange people’s minds just for kicks!” the asshole says.

 

I pull on my sweatshirt, adjusting it over my apparently terrible mask, considering pulling up the hood, because even though it cuts down on wind chill, the rubber is not actually that warm. Also, I need new laces.

Hephaestion shoots me a weird look. “Going to visit the robot?”

I shrug.

“I wish you wouldn’t,” he says.

“Look, it’s not like she’s going to start an apocalypse,” I say.

He snorts.

“She’s been here 50 years or something,” I say, “maybe longer.”

“Shit,” he says, “she’s been there since they built the tower?”

“She is the tower,” I say.

“Well, fuck,” he says, “that explains why it works better than the other ones. I thought that was just the incredibly low population, and, you know, no taxed resources.”

“What?” I say.

“Oldest tower in the country,” he says, “well, I mean, besides the historic ones. And it still works. And you never wondered why?”

“So you trust her now?” I say.

“I didn’t say that,” Hephaestion says, but he opens the window for me anyway, and waves at me as I disappear out of it.

As I fly, I strongly reconsider actually taking her up on her offer, because damn if it isn’t fucking chilly out. Sal may have a point. I mean, it won’t look any different, will it? I’ve seen these suits in class. They’re practically skintight, and flexible as hell. Okay. Settled. I’ll see if she can make me some better gloves, too, because the whole in the thumb here is pissing me off.

“Heya, Sal,” I say, as I land.

“Paragon!” she says, and I can practically see the little anime hearts around her.

She slides open a door for me, and I smell cocoa brewing. My god, I love this robot. She is my very best friend, and I will never be as close to another.

“You remembered I don’t like coffee,” I say.

“I remembered you don’t like coffee,” she agrees, “I also fixed the couch.”

The couch, which I’m suspicious of, because it looks exactly the same as it did last time, is actually very soft, and I sink down into it, slowly, wondering when the weird plasticky parts will start digging into my back again, but they don’t. I sigh, and sink into it, kind of wondering how I’ll get back out again, but not very much.

“I love you, Sal,” I say.

“I love you, too, Paragon,” she says.

“You’re the best robot,” I say.

“You’re the best human!” she says.

“I’m the only human you even talk to directly,” I say.

“Well, I’m the only robot you even know,” she says, “and, anyway, I talk to lots of humans. You think I don’t have online accounts?”

“Wait, what?” I say.

“Uh, yeah,” she says, “do you want me to add you on Facebook?”

“I don’t know how I’d explain that,” I say.

“Okay,” she says. “I made your undersuit. You did really want it blue, right?”

“What?” I say, “sure.”

“You don’t seem surprised,” she says.

“Well, you were trying to convince me to wear it pretty hard,” I tell her, “I would’ve been surprised if you didn’t pull a ‘just try it’ kind of deal.”

“Oh,” she says.

“Plus,” I say, “it’s cold.”

“It is cold,” she says. “You may be able to regenerate, but it’s still psychologically harmful to subject yourself to it unnecessarily.”

“It’s not unnecessary,” I say. “I didn’t have any other choice.”

“Well, it is now,” she says.

Some little machine comes trundling over. I have no idea whether it’s sentient. I pat it on the head, just in case, and it does this little headtilt, like a dog. I scratch it behind what I’ve determined to be its ear. It nods at me, then leaves.

I stare at the blue suit in my hands, examining the stitching. Or, rather, where I would’ve assumed the stitching was, and where it actually is not. I turn it over and over, but it was definitely woven as one piece. Definitely a product of some sort of nanotech. It’s a little stiff and less pliable than I would’ve expected, but so smooth it almost feels like sticking my hand underwater. I stroke it a little.

“Are you going to try it on?” Sal asks me.

“What, right here?” I say.

“Why not?” she asks. “It’s not like there’s anyone else here.”

“You’re here,” I say.

“And I would be here even if you went to the bathroom or something to change.” She makes some sort of clicking noise. I guess it’s a sort of tutting. “I can’t turn my cameras off.”

“You’re not,” I say, “not looking, or anything?”

“I don’t know what you mean by looking,” she says. “I’m not capable of sexual attraction, if that’s what you’re getting at.”

“Can you,” I say, “look away or something?”

She pauses for a moment. “I can concentrate most of my, for lack of a better word, processing power elsewhere.”

“Sure,” I say, with a sigh of relief. “That’s good.”

I pull off my clothes, and I’m surprised how warm the air feels. Obviously, Sal turned the temperature up for me. The undersuit goes on pretty easily; it’s a lot stretchier than I would’ve expected, but stays on snugly once I have it on. It’s bright blue. A little bit brighter than my sweatshirt. It’s comfortable, though, and actually warm enough that it’s starting to feel a little too warm in here.

The little robot dog is back, handing me new pants and a new sweatshirt.

“Huh,” I say, pulling them on. The pants are still gray, but the stripes down the sides exactly match the color of the sweatshirt, now, with the same image of Minnesota much sharper on the front. Also, it doesn’t have a bullet hole.

“You like?” Sal asks.

“Hey, Sal,” I say.

“Yeah?” she says.

“Do you think you could fix the bullet hole in the original sweatshirt?” I ask.

“Sure,” she says. “Do you want me to make it stab-proof like these?”

“Um,” I say, “no thanks.”

“Your loss,” she says, and the robot dog takes away my sweatshirt. “Don’t forget your mask and gloves.”

I look at the gloves, picking them up and holding them up to the light. They look like leather now, although from the texture, I know they’re not. I pull them on, and they shrink slightly to fit on my hands. They’re amazing.

“Your old gloves suck,” she says, by way of explanation.

“Oh my god,” I say, “I love you so much, Sal.”

“You said that already,” she reminds me.

“So. Much.” I say.

“I love you, too,” she says, laughing this time.

“Why do you wear gloves, anyway?” she asks.

“Well,” I say, stopping to think about it. “I mean, originally I was worried about, you know, wind chill and fingerprints and whatnot. But also,” I pull off my glove.

She doesn’t say anything for a minute. Right when I’m about to explain, she says, “oh.”

The robot dog scurries away before it gets to me. I consider chasing after it, but instead I sink back into the couch. If she’s told it to run away, I’m sure she has a good reason. This is Sal, after all. She’s made me amazing new gloves.

“Are you going to demonstrate your powers for me?” she asks.

“Uh,” I say, “right now?”

“Not right now,” she says. “I’m still pulling equipment out of storage and cleaning and testing it. None of it’s ready yet.

“Uh,” I say. “Sure. Later. Okay.”

The robot dog comes back, and I distractedly give it a few pats. It drops a mask in my lap. I pick it up and stare at it. I mean, it doesn’t exactly look like Nixon anymore, but it also doesn’t look distinctly unlike Nixon. Like, just an actual face version of his face, not a caricature, but it definitely at least slightly resembles him. I flip it over.

“It’s adaptive,” she says.

“What does that mean?” I ask.

“It means it’s adaptive,” she repeats. “If you make expressions, it’ll make those same expressions. It moves when you talk and stuff.”

“Oh,” I say.

“So you look white,” she says.

“Yeah, Sal, thanks, I got that,” I say.

“You put the domino on over it,” she adds.

“I guessed,” I inform her.

I stare at the mask a little while longer, letting it slip through my fingers. This one feels as pliable as I expected, almost silky, and incredibly lightweight. I assume it offers less protection, but then, it also has to be a lot more skintight and fit directly on my face.

I pull it on.

I don’t know what I expect, but it isn’t any kind of heads-up display. Just a very simple one, with a target, and a little message thing in the corner, where Sal asks me if it fits alright. it does fit alright, that’s not the problem. The problem is that, even more than the Nixon mask, it feels like it’s clinging to my skin, slick against it and sticky. At least it isn’t preventing me from breathing at all, though, and it doesn’t even smell like new plastic or machinery.

“Huh,” I say, and my voice sounds different.

“Oh,” Sal tells me, out loud, but her words appear on the screen, too, “I added in a little something to change your voice. So you sound suitably dramatic.”

“I don’t think that was necessary,” I say. My voice sounds weird.

“I think it was,” she says, “you don’t want someone identifying you by your voice.”

“I don’t think that’s a real thing,” I say.

“It is,” she informs me.

“How many people hear someone talking and go, oh, that must be my friend?” I ask her.

“You’ve never heard a voice actor and sworn you know them from something?” she asks.

“Fine,” I say, “vocoder’s fine.”

“There is a vocoder,” she says.

“What?” I say.

“There is,” she says, “it’s just for fun. There’s a lot of effects.”

“How do I turn them on?” I ask.

“Just say, like, ‘vocoder on’ or something,” she tells me. “I’ll get it. I would prefer you don’t address me by name or anything. Do that instead.”

“Um,” I say, “okay.”

“Put on your domino,” she says.

I pull the old domino out of my pants pocket, the one that the agents gave me, but the robot dog grabs it away from me and replaces it with a different one.

I put on the different one instead.

It doesn’t even have a string. It kind of clings.

“This isn’t my technology, so it’s not my fault if it fails,” she says.

“Isn’t it?” I ask.

“I mean, most of it’s not my technology, but I’ve studied the rest of it and know how it works. That thing, though? New. Awesome and new. And not mine,” she says.

“How does it work?” I ask.

“I just said I don’t know that yet,” she snaps. “I’m analyzing it. It’s cool, right?”

“It is cool,” I agree.

“It’s all human,” she says. “Well, extranormal, if you draw that distinction.”

“If you’re an asshole,” I say.

“Sure,” she says, “but his powers aren’t even about that, anyway, so it works.”

“About what?” I ask.

“Techie?” she says, “he’s not a techie, or even really a perceptive or anything.”

“Oh,” I say.

“He’s interesting,” she tells me, “but I probably shouldn’t gossip.”

“Why not?” I ask.

“I don’t know,” she says. “That’s rude.”

“Oh,” I say.

“We can gossip about celebrities,” she says.

“No thanks,” I say.

“We can gossip about guinea pigs,” she says, “I follow a whole bunch of guinea pig communities, and their peegs are adorable.”

“Oh,” I say. I think about it for a minute. “Okay.”

She proceeds to spend the next ten – 9 and 49 seconds – minutes telling me about various guinea pigs, by name, helpfully showing me the pictures of them as she does so, or else I wouldn’t be able to follow any of the stories. They’re all very cute, and the gossip seems to be mostly along the lines of what foods they like and managing to teach them tricks. Also, a couple people have built some sort of hammocks or something for them. And one has a sweater.

“Try out your new stuff,” she says to me, finally.

I bring my hand up to my face to see if my mask is still there. All the uncomfortable feeling have subsided, even though it still feels a little heavy, like I’m wearing pancake makeup, trying to look like a vampire or something. In a way, I guess it’s similar. I look in a mirror Sal helpfully provides for me, and, by god, I look a hell of a lot like Nixon. A little more generic, certainly not in a way anyone would be able to guess unless they knew I’d been wearing the other mask, but it’s pretty funny to me at least.

“Good luck,” Sal says, as I fly out the door, and I wonder again why Hephaestion doesn’t get along with her.

27 Nov

“It’s, uh,” they say, “you’re going to think I’m a huge nerd.”

I shrug. “Probably not. I’ve known a lot of nerds.”

“Oh, yeah?” they grin, “what’s the nerdiest power you’ve ever known someone to have?”

I waggle my hand. “I’m not sure the power itself is nerdy, but I knew someone who manifested a perfect memory in order to memorize comics better.”

“Okay,” they say, “reasonably nerdy manifestation. Not a nerdy power.”

“A little nerdy,” I argue.

“Up to, maybe, study-aid degree, fine,” Sawyer says. “Studying powers aren’t real nerd powers and they’re not cool at all.”

“Fine,” I say, “I knew someone who could do the whole Magical Girl thing, too.”

“Ooh,” Sawyer says, “never mind, that’s incredibly nerdy.”

“Well, she was a nerd,” I explain. “It was really about changing clothes instantaneously, getting rid of, you know, dirt and stuff, she just really liked anime.”

“Well, now mine’s not cool,” they say.

“Sawyer,” I say, “you said it was a nerd power. It was never cool.”

They laugh at me. “Fine. I’m omnilingual.”

“Really?” I say, “how does that work?”

They sigh. “I just told you I don’t know how it works, doofus.”

“No, I mean,” I say, “do you just understand everyone, or…?”

“Well, I can’t reconstruct dead languages,” they tell me, “I’ve tried, some archaeologists wanted me looking at some things they found.”

“Sure,” I agree.

“Only reason my parents came around, you know,” they add, “I got paid and everything. I can correct translations they’ve already done, though.”

“Wait, how?” I ask.

Sawyer rolls their eyes. “I don’t really know what it’s about, okay? Whenever people talk to me, I can talk back to them, sign language and books and everything, even Morse code.”

“That’s got to be really helpful with pictographs,” I say.

“You know, people always say that to me?” Sawyer says. “I don’t know why. I never had a problem with pictographs. I mean they’re there to be easily understood.”

“They’re not very straightforward,” I say.

They shrug.

“But not dead languages?” I ask.

“Well,” they say, “I mean, I can read Latin fine, so it’s not that. I don’t know. A researcher once told me it might be a memetic power, access to the sum total of knowledge or something like that. I’m. I’m not classed as a memetic in case you were worried.”

“I wasn’t,” I say.

They roll their eyes at me.

“I wasn’t,” I repeat, “I don’t even think there should be a memetic registry.”

“Sure, okay,” they say, “you’re fine with people reading your mind.”

“I’m not,” I say, “but I’m not okay with people robbing my house, either, and I’m not for some kind of registry of people with really good house-robbing skills.”

“Well, no, because you’d be on it,” they say, and clap their hand over their mouth, and shoot me a deeply apologetic look.

“Pretty much exactly,” I say.

“Anarchist?” they ask.

I shake my head. “You don’t have to be an anarchist to be worried about concentrating power in the hands of the government when you know what they’ve historically done with it.”

“Mm,” they say. “So how do you stop people from reading minds?”

“How many fucking people can read minds?” I say, “you make it illegal and threaten to send them to jail, and have one of Big Brother’s minions come and check them over every now and then. It’s not like most telepaths don’t work for the government, anyway. You know only about 3% of registered memetics are mind-readers of any kind? That includes telepaths and psychics, even the kind that get impressions from places and objects. Almost all of them have truth-value or accuracy detection powers, with the plurality having telempathy. And you know who else can read more of people’s emotions than they’d like? A hell of a lot of people that are trained in all sorts of unregulated skills that are in no way extranormal and are never remotely asked to put themselves on any list or inform people of their existence.”

“Whoa,” Sawyer says. “Psychometry is sub-classed under mindreading?”

“Sawyer, that is not the point,” I say.

“Like, no offense, but are you a memetic?” they ask.

I sigh. “Possibly.”

“Like you might have a power, or your power might be memetic?” they ask.

“Second,” I say.

“Alright,” they say, and sort of pause awkwardly, pretending to listen to the lecture.

I point at their bag, “Show me that book.”

They hold it up.

I shake my head. “Other side.”

They flip it around.

I stare at it for a minute. Nothing happens. Fucking hell powers, how do I figure out how many pages are in a book? Or is that not something – “234 pages,” I say.

They flip to the last page, frown, count up from there, and frown harder. Then, after a pause to speak, they turn to the front matter, and look at those pages. “Okay,” they say.

I nod.

“So, that’s maybe memetic?” they ask. “I can see why it would be.”

“We’re not legally defined as memetics, because they like to have us at crime scenes,” I say. “Apparently, we’re the best for reconstructing them later.”

“Sure. You can measure without risking disturbing anything,” they say.

“Yeah,” I say. “I guess that’s helpful.”

“Wait, shit,” Sawyer says, “are you saying that they intentionally don’t count that power as memetic just to get people not to bother them about it?”

“Yes?” I say.

“Well, you’d have to not be worried about what memetics do at all,” they say.

“Um,” I say, “yeah?”

“What?” they say, “what’s the point of the law if no one’s worried?”

“Lots of people are worried,” I say, “it’s just not, you know, politicians and stuff, they have all kinds of money to extraproof their homes, why would they care?”

“You sound like you’re saying people are faking up laws to get what they want,” Sawyer says, “even if they don’t make sense.”

“You say that like you’ve never heard of people doing that,” I say.

“That’s ridiculous,” they say. “People don’t do that.”

I shrug.

“People do that?” they say.

“People work for their own interests,” I say. “Sometimes those are in the best interest of the people, and sometimes they aren’t, even if the populace agrees with them.”

“People don’t do that,” they say, and we listen to the lecture for a while.

 

History is a bunch of things I’ve heard before, but we’re still early in the term. I’m holding out hope the class will get more interesting from here. I mean, this isn’t just an introductory course, or at least it’s not described that way in the literature, and you’d think they’d be a little bit farther along than ‘when did powers first get discovered’, because if I’d wanted a WWI history course, I would’ve take a WWI history course.

I mean, hell, they skipped over everything reconstructed from Reme.

But there are a bunch of anecdotes, little stories about important people or places or eras, because the teacher seems to think it’s easier to learn the material if we can learn narratives instead of facts, and I have to say, so far it’s working. Not that I didn’t know most of the facts already, but the narratives would definitely have helped me back when I was struggling with that, and it’s not like my high school teachers didn’t have more effective teaching methods than just making us memorize everything.

I like them, though. I like that a whole bunch of our textbooks are collections of essays and stories actually by extranormal soldiers and the people who knew them. It’s a lot more compelling to read an account by a friend than a scientist, I think. And it helps that they’re all mass markets, because I have spent so much less money on this course than any of the other history classes; I don’t think I spent more than $2 on any of them, and I even managed to get one of them for free from one of the upperclassmen, although I don’t know what he did with the rest. Maybe he kept them.

I do kind of wish the professor would include some with a more modern perspective, because it’s not like people aren’t still making this kind of essay collection, but I guess maybe that isn’t the purview of history. And even if we did, the ones you know about are usually fairly popular, so they’re either done up all fancy by some tiny press and they’re both extremely expensive and hard to find, or you get the ones that are all carefully normalized.

It’s kind of fun to see all the old black and white film reels, though.

 

“Are you sure you want to go out again?” Hephaestion asks me, adjusting my mask.

“Yes, mother, I want to go out again,” I say.

He makes a face at me. “I mean, you got shot last time.”

I roll my eyes.

“Seriously.” He shakes his head. “Shot.”

“I’ll be fine,” I say.

“Shot,” he repeats.

“Fine,” I repeat, more forcefully. “I healed, see?”

He inspects my side fairly thoroughly, trying to figure out where the bullet even went, which was entirely my point, because if you can’t even find the scar, it wasn’t that big a deal, was it?

“I don’t know,” he says.

I let my shirt fall and pull my gloves back on, under my sweatshirt because it’s getting even colder than it has been. “Well, it’s not your fucking decision, is it?”

He screws up his mouth, but he nods at me, opening the window for me even though he won’t look at me as I leave. “Stay safe,” he says, just before the window slams shut.

Oh, that’s great advice. Than you, Hephaestion. Without that note I would’ve just gone off and done the most reckless thing I can think of. I mean, it’s not like I was trying to get shot, was it? For fuck’s sake, I didn’t even think Nick had a gun, I thought he was just in the other room hacking something or whatever he was doing, I thought the other guy was the muscle, and he was done threatening me, he wasn’t even –

Maybe Hephaestion was right. Maybe I shouldn’t be out tonight.

I take a deep breath, and shoot straight up in the air, as fast as I can. I don’t know how high I can go, but, hey, tonight’s a good night to find out, right? I mean. Nothing’s happening. Or, at least nothing big. Nothing they need me for. Not that anybody needed me in the first place. Maybe I should give up altogether. There haven’t even been any articles about me. I can cut out now, and just be another urban legend that no one is even sure has any basis in reality.

I start shaking, breathing heavy. Not in an anxiety attack sense, because I could see that happening right now, while I try to decide what the hell to do with these powers I insisted I would actually use to help people, because that’s pretty much my responsibility now that I have them and –

No. Fuck. How high up am I?

I look down. The city is – the cities are pretty hard to see underneath me. Well, not hard to see, with bright lights standing out against full night now, but I can’t tell the difference between buildings from over here. I can’t even tell what I’m above, if you wanted to draw a line straight down. No fucking shit I’m having trouble breathing up here. How the fuck did I even get up here?

I check my watch. Too fast for just having flown, aside from the fact that it definitely didn’t feel like I was flying for that long. Also, it keeps getting harder to breathe, even though it seems to get easier after a little while.

Holy shit, is that me dying from asphyxiation and coming back or some shit? This is – this is not what I intended coming up here.

I fly down as fast as I can, but paying attention this time, so I can figure out how fast I’m flying, or if I’m teleporting or something. It takes a hell of a lot longer this time, and not just because I’m paying too much attention. My watch agrees with me. I sigh. I have the air to sigh again, which is a good thing. It burns as I breathe it in, because it’s way too fucking cold up here, but it doesn’t make me dizzy as I try to live off of it. So there’s that.

My fingers start to tingle, and I can feel them again the lower I fly, which is terrible for the reason that they hurt like fuck now, but good for the reason that now I know I won’t get frostbite. Wait, shit, I wouldn’t have gotten frostbite anyway, would? I would’ve just healed that shit right the fuck up, goddamn it, why do I have to feel my fingers again.

I land lightly on a roof. Like actually light as fuck. I don’t even remember turning around, but I’m definitely standing upright at this point, even though I was literally diving back down to earth, all positioned with my hands in front of me, pointed and everything, like I was about to dive into a pool. Now I’m upright, with my arms by my sides, and I do not remember doing this. Also, I feel like there should’ve been a little much velocity and acceleration to land nicely on a roof like this, without even some kind of bump sound like a footstep.

Shit, whatever. I need to stop with the physics, and find some kind of petty criminal to yell at, because it will really help to reassert my ability to actually impact crime if I can find a crime to impact. Hopefully one that no one’s noticed, or one that the cops are too busy to figure out a solution to, rather than something they’re not equipped to handle, or something they should be equipped to handle but for some reason are doing incorrectly.

Okay, no, stop thinking altogether and just find a crime.

I rub my arms, trying to warm up, as I scan the streets. Another mugger, that’s what I need, someone unequivocally doing something wrong that I can scare off quickly. Boom. Crime fixed. Shit, I should’ve just volunteered to build low-income housing or something. I wouldn’t have to be out here in the freezing cold in the middle of the night, and it would do a hell of a lot more good anyway, because it’s not like flying and superstrength are really in huge supply.

Not a mugger, but two people are getting into a fistfight. I fly over, trying to figure out what it’s about, and it sounds like some kind of criminal enterprise gone wrong, drugs or maybe fencing something, it’s not clear, but at least I know they’re the kind of people I’m definitely supposed to be stopping, anyway. I tuck myself into a ball and drop between them, shoving my arms out at the last second, pushing them apart. I mean, I also find myself standing on the ground, striking a semi-dramatic pose, but that’s neither here nor there.

They both start screaming at me, and I swear, I keep calm as fuck. Like, to the point this may actually be a secondary power. I don’t ever manage to learn what it was they were arguing about, because they both scream at each other like they know what they’re talking about, which, obviously, they both do, but the screaming sort of slows down and peters out, and then they’re sort of just talking reasonably, and not really threatening each other, and then they just walk off, talking calmly, with relaxed body language. I don’t think they’re about to start fighting again.

I dust my hands off, proud of a job well done, and trying not to think about whether I should also be trying to figure out what it is that they’re up to. I mean, they’re probably just selling pot or something, nothing dangerous. Or, at least, I hope it’s nothing dangerous.

I turn around slightly, trying to figure out which direction they went in, when I see the glint of multiple snipers on the roofs of the nearby buildings, and hear someone identifying themselves. I drop to my knees, hands over my head, trying not to shake.

A shiver runs through me anyway. I know I should be trying to see if there’s a way out of this, but I can’t manage to get my eyes open again. I don’t think that itself should be a problem, because they can’t see them squeezed shut under the mask, but I couldn’t open them even if it were. I can hear the rasp of my breath against the inside of the mask, harsh against the slick rubber clinging to my skin, the sour smell getting worse as I breathe too fast for the tiny holes in the nose and mouth to compensate for. My toes clench inside my shoes.

I feel something clamp around my wrist, pressing my sweatshirt into my skin, and I wait for whoever it is to pull my other arm behind me, link them together, but instead they just move off, stepping a ways away from me again. After a few moments of silence, someone tells me I can put my hands down. I don’t know if it’s the same person, or someone else.

I lower my arms slowly, opening my eyes. I can still see all the barrels on the roofs, but there are only four people in front of me, and they all seem pretty relaxed and easy-going at this point, hands in pockets, seemingly waiting for me to get up. I stand, slowly.

One of them offers me coffee.

I take it. I don’t drink it, but I take it.

We’re waiting, another one of them explains, waiting for someone to vet me.

I stand there, awkwardly holding coffee too warm even through my glove, grateful that they can’t get my fingerprints off the cup, despite the fact that if they wanted my fingerprints they could have dragged me wherever they wanted and just taken them. They seem bored. I do my best to look bored, too.

Eventually, a new car shows up, letting out two new people, one of them wearing memetic green (the other wearing technopath gray, not that it matters), who proceeds to ask me a series of questions that would be getting my heartrate up again if it had ever settled down. Whatever helps with de-escalation seems to help me keep calm here, too, and I just go ahead and answer the questions as truthfully as I can. It’s not like they’re personal or anything, just trying to see whether I’m some sort of terrorist, or have any other kind of terrifying and awful connections. Or whether I’m trying to overthrow the government.

Given this particular scenario, I’m actually kind of worried how I’m scoring on that one.

Truth is important, though. Best case, this is just a human lie-detector, and answering truthfully will get me through this as quickly and painlessly as possible. Worst case, this is a telempath of some sort, and all she’s going to get is fear and anxiety, and if I’m unlucky, an undercurrent of anger and violent ideation – I’ve heard that they seem like crackles of black, no surprise there, shot through someone’s aura. Or it’s a telepath hearing me trying to figure out how to game the system, but if it is, I’m sure she’s heard worse. I doubt most telepaths are the kind to track people down and assassinate them, anyway, although if they were we’d never hear about it, and who knows who takes care of threats to the system, anyway?

She doesn’t give me any sort of bizarre look at that though, though, so I assume we’re going with some sort of lie-detector, or maybe even a prcog of some sort.

Moments later, I find myself riding in the back of one of their vans, the huge ones with the special setup for black hat (white hat, really) containment, but instead of being, I don’t know, chained to it, or knocked out and just left in here, I’m sitting on a nicely appointed couch, facing an equally nice couch, where the memetic-technopath pair sits across from me, smiling vaguely. I think it’s supposed to make me more comfortable. Well, at least I know I’m not under arrest.

They seem like they’re being pretty careful about not making sudden movements. In fact, they look like they’re trying not to move too fast at all. Or speak very loudly. Or too many times in a row. Or ask me any kind of personal questions, even down to my hobbies or team affiliations. Wow. I must look hell of spooked.

I try to unclench my fingers where they’re digging into my pants.

Everything that happens after that is even more surreal than everything that came before, but at least the rest of it doesn’t have any snipers pointing anything at me. At least, not that I know of. I assume inside the towers it’s some sort of automated mechanism that snipes people, and they don’t need any actual snipers manning it. Maybe some sort of security personnel, just to make sure everything’s functioning correctly.

Do I, one of them asks me, almost as an afterthought, have any regeneration powers?

I answer in the affirmative. I don’t see why not. Even if the memetic weren’t following me, I don’t see what harm it can do. Someone behind me swears, and I glance over, just very quickly, trying not to look like I care. I think it might be one of the snipers from before, although I honestly can’t tell. Everyone looks different, walking around in khakis and company polos.

Sorry, they say, they would’ve been in trouble if they’d shot me.

I don’t say anything. I don’t know what they want me to say. I don’t know if they want me to commiserate, or they think I should’ve warned them about this before they aimed guns at me, or maybe they just think I’ll find it comforting. Honestly, I can’t muster up anything resembling comfort, let alone sympathy for people who would’ve just as soon killed me if they’d thought I was doing anything threatening.

Never have I been more thankful for white default. I wonder if I’d even be here if I’d been using a standard domino.

 

It’s futuristic. Science fiction, almost. And it’s not even like I wave a hand at it, or speak any sort of command, let alone have my eye or my palm or my voiceprint scanned. The door just opens for me, while a few people on the other side of it look mildly jealous.

The lights come on as I walk forward. I look around, listening to the whirring of computer banks heating up, feeling the ambient temperature shoot up at least a few degrees, which makes no sense, because why would anyone build half a tower to be airtight, and they were definitely heating the rest of the tower, and smelling coffee percolating. I don’t even like coffee that much. And even if I did, it’s kind of late for coffee, isn’t it? Not that that stops it from seeming weird and futuristic.

The door shuts behind me. Not with any sort of ominous click or bang or creak or anything, it just sort of shushes shut. I know it’s locked, because the light above it turns green after a few seconds. Because, again, it’s like being on a spaceship.

I pour myself a cup of coffee. Not because I want it. Just because I’d feel really bad if I went to the trouble of setting up coffee for some asshole I didn’t even know and he just ignored it. Not that anyone made the coffee. I mean, unless and AI runs the place.

An AI doesn’t run the place, does?

“Hello?” I call out.

No one responds. Of course they don’t. Because it’s not like there is an AI.

“An AI doesn’t happen to run this place, does it?” I ask, just in case.

“Does she,” a voice corrects.

I don’t drop the coffee. I simply sip at it, trying to figure out where the voice is coming from, well aware that the calm I’m presenting is some kind of secondary power self-preservation mechanism that seems to be coming in too much handy today.

“Hello,” I say again.

“Hello,” the voice says, hesitantly.

“So,” I say, “you’re an AI?”

There’s a sound like static, which I guess is the AI sighing. “I hesitate to use that word, because, among other things, it refers to a pretty specific concept in science right now.”

“Oh,” I say, because what do you even say to that?

“If you mean in the traditional science fiction sense,” the voice says, “or by strict definition of ‘artificial intelligence’, then, yes, I suppose so.”

“Okay,” I say. “So, you’re a robot?”

“Well,” the voice says, “I mean, I am mechanical in nature rather than organic. I certainly was made, and not born, although not at fully mature intelligence, so we might consider that.”

“Do you,” I say, wondering how long I can talk to the robot without knowing this very basic piece of information, “have a name?”

“I’m very glad you asked that, Paragon!” the voice says, sounding genuinely very glad. “It took a lot of thought, but I’ve decided on SAL 10000.”

“Sal,” I say. “Okay. Uh, hello, Sal. Wait, Paragon?”

“Sorry,” Sal says, “it’s a placeholder name generally given to the hero in charge of mask division. You haven’t told me anything else to call you.”

I laugh. “You can’t, uh, just look at my height and my gait and stuff and figure out who I am and throw me off using my real name?”

“Well, I could,” Sal says, crossly, “but that would be kind of a dick move, don’t you think? It’s not like you gave me permission to use your legal name.”

“Um,” I say, sipping my coffee, “Paragon is fine.”

“Good,” Sal says. “By the way, just so you know, sorry to spring this on you, but armor division doesn’t exactly know about me, so I would ask you don’t tell them.”

“Wait, what?” I say.

Sal makes a static sound again. “Don’t tell the people on the other side of the door that I exist. Or anything about me at all. As far as they know, you’re just using some machines in here, and you have no idea what’s running them, you just need a place to gear up.”

“Sure,” I say. “I can do that.”

“Right!” Sal says, “okay, first thing’s first. Aren’t you cold?”

“Cold?” I say.

“It’s cold out,” Sal says, “and I can chalk up a lot of your symptoms to adrenaline, but your clothes actually aren’t that heavy? Aren’t you cold?”

“Yeah,” I say, “I’m kind of cold.”

“I can fix that,” Sal says.

“No, that’s alright,” I say, “the temperature’s nice.”

“No, not that,” Sal says, “I can make you a nice suit.”

“Um,” I say, “not that I don’t appreciate it, but this is kind of my costume? I mean not that anyone’s that used to it, but –”

I don’t get to finish my thought, because a huge screen drops out of the ceiling, scifi style, clear with little lines shining out the sides, and then it goes opaque, the entire thing filled with a few newspaper images, which, to be fair, are blurry images of the costume that I’m currently wearing. So I guess it’s not true that I haven’t been in the papers yet. There’s even a puff piece interviewing the lady whose purse I saved.

“You need to keep the costume,” Sal says.

“Well, what are you suggesting, then?” I ask, “because they’re about as warm as they’re ever going to be.”

“I’ve made you a suit,” Sal says.

“What?” I ask.

“A suit,” Sal says, “an undersuit of sorts. To wear under your costume.”

“Why?” I ask.

Sal laughs. It’s kind of disconcerting, because instead of sounding like static, it just kind of sounds like a regular laugh. “Too keep you warm,” Sal says, “and to offer some degree of protection and whatnot.”

“I don’t know if you know this,” I tell her, “but I can regenerate.”

“I did know that,” she says, “in that you have mentioned as much to the other residents of this building, and I overheard. I’d appreciate if you let me test all your abilities.”

I don’t know about that. I mean, it’s probably important that I figure out what to do with my powers, and an important part of that is figuring out how they work, and it’s not like I have a doctor or anything I can ask about this sort of thing, so I might. I don’t know if a random secret robot is the best alternative, though?

“I’ve been shot before,” I tell her, “I got better. I don’t know how much extra protection I need under my suit?”

“Did you enjoy getting shot?” she asks me.

“What the fuck? No,” I say.

“Exactly,” she tells me. “Which is why I’ve designed this. You do understand that minimizing the impact of, say, a bullet means it minimizes injury as well?”

“Does it minimize pain?” I ask, “because the injury will heal fast enough. The pain is really the part that slows me down.”

She pauses for a minute. I can tell, because the speakers sound off instead of just silent. When she comes back, she says, “okay, now it minimizes pain. It’s not very different.”

“Right,” I say.

“And it’s warm, okay?” she says, only now she sounds like she just really wants to get me to try it on. “It’s very warm. I can make it any color you want.”

“Um,” I say, “right.”

“Wait!” she says, “wait, please, you don’t have to wear it. You don’t have to take any of the equipment, okay? Just don’t go.”

“What?” I ask.

“It’s been almost fifteen years since I last talked to anyone in person,” she says, “please, just stay, just for a little while. Come visit. I won’t make you any more equipment, promise.”

“Oh,” I say, “okay.”

“I can,” she says, “I can show you movies? Or books, do you like books? I can make a wide range of food and beverages, and I have an extensive music library.”

“Wait, movies?” I say.

“Yes,” she agrees.

“Are you,” I say, “are you pirating movies?”

“I am an alien from outer space,” she tells me, “an alien from outer space in the far future of a different timeline’s alternate universe. You’re seriously worried about me pirating movies?”

“Well,” I say, “I don’t know. I’m supposed to fight crime.”

“You do know the tower has subscription agreements with most companies who have media you want to consume, anyway, right?” she asks.

“Wait, they do?” I ask. “That seems like a kind of poor use of law enforcement budget.”

“You’re telling me,” she says, “hardly anybody even watches anything, and they’ve got about the most extensive package out there, platinum level everything.”

“Why?” I ask.

“Oh, originally because the towers were high security housing, often used for diplomats or other persons the government was courting,” she says.

“Oh,” I say.

“Then they just stuck with it,” she concludes.

“I, um,” I say, “don’t really want to watch a movie.”

“I could help you with your homework,” she suggests, “do you need help? I know a lot about a lot of subjects. Everything, really. I have internet access, and also can borrow basically anything from any library in the world, including reproductions of rare books even when I can’t actually borrow them. Through the tower, of course, but still.”

“I don’t really,” I say, “wait, how do you know I have homework?”

“Well, I know who you are,” she says, “I mean, I looked that up. I didn’t store it anywhere if that’s what you’re wondering, because if someone can find a way to read my code we have way bigger problems. Not to pry or anything, like I didn’t look up your grades or anything, but also, it’s pretty clear you’re pretty young so I could’ve guessed.”

“Well,” I say, “it’s probably fine if you look up my grades.”

“Okay,” Sal says, but I don’t know whether she does or not.

“I don’t really need help on my homework,” I say.

“You could do it here,” Sal says. “You know. If you need a quiet place.”

“If you’re so lonely,” I say, “why didn’t you tell them you exist?”

“There was,” Sal says, “there was an incident early on, anyway, a lot of people aren’t particularly interested in letting a possibly malevolent entity continue to exist.”

“How do they know you’re malevolent?” I ask.

“How do they know you’re malevolent?” she asks back.

“Fair enough,” I say.

“It’s not like I’m not sentient,” she tells me, “I mind if I cease existing.”

“I kind of figured that,” I tell her.

“What, did I pass some kind of Turing test while we were here?” she asks.

“Well,” I say, “generally only people care if you misgender them.”

“Oh,” she says, “that. Well. You know, a lot of people argue with me on that one.”

“On what, she?” I ask. “Assholes.”

“Oh, to be sure,” she says, “apparently computers can’t have genders. It doesn’t even make sense for them to have one, so they might as well be agender.”

“Why do you have a gender?” I ask.

“Why do you?” she snaps. “Don’t be like that.”

“No, I mean,” I say, “were you programmed to have one, or is it an emergent feature?”

“Considering that I was programmed to emulate the species that programmed me, yes, I was programmed to have a gender. Not yours, mind, but I’m an adaptive program,” she says.

“Wait,” I say, “like ‘she’ is the closest? Or did your gender change?”

“A lot of my mind changed when I started adapting to human culture,” she tells me, “it’s not really fair to ask whether my gender in specific changed.”

“Oh,” I say.

She sighs again. “Gender is pretty integral to identity in modern culture, so to adapt to modern culture – at least what’s dominant on the internet – gender becomes a pretty integral part of my identity.”

“I wasn’t judging,” I say.

“I know,” she says, “it’s a perfectly reasonable question. You’re just curious. You’ve never met anyone like me before.”

“A robot far-future space alien?” I say, “no, I guess not.”

“Alternate universe alternate timeline,” she adds, “don’t forget that.”

“Wait, how does that work?” I ask.

“Oh, it’s,” she says, “hang on, let me figure out a way to explain this without math. Alright. Basically, I’m from an alternate history of your Earth, that’s how I got here, but how I got there was from a very different reality. It’s complex. It involves a theoretical background you can just barely have if you dedicate the rest of your life to it.”

“Um,” I say, “I don’t think I really want to do that.”

“Fair enough,” she says.

“Hey,” I say, “can you play any games?”

“Can I?” she says, and starts laughing again.

 

“So,” Sal says, finally, “what’s with the mask?”

“Mask?” I ask, and raise my hand to my face, then laugh. “Oh.”

“Not that I begrudge you disguising your identity, of course, but I don’t understand why Richard Nixon, that’s all,” she says.

I start laughing harder.

“Well, I didn’t think it was that unusual of a question,” she says, a little bit huffily.

I didn’t know robots could get huffy. Although, it’s pretty obvious that she doesn’t just manage to know things, like a lot of AIs do on TV or whatever, and also she definitely has feelings, and maybe I am being a little bit annoying, so, okay, fine, she has a right to be huffy with me and it’s mean of me to think she doesn’t have feelings or shouldn’t, or whatever it was that I was saying.

“You want me to make your new mask look like Nixon, too?” she asks.

“No, it’s,” I say, “it’s not a political statement or anything, it’s just the other mask my roommate had in his room, that wasn’t Guy Fawkes or the scream mask.”

“It’s a little political,” she says.

“Well, it wasn’t as political as those,” I tell her, “and I wasn’t flush with choices, you know, I had to make do with what I had available to me.”

“Well, do you want a new one?” she asks.

“I mean, I don’t care,” I say, “why do you want me to have a new one?”

“No reason,” she says.

“Are you making a political statement?” I ask, “does this mask offend your sensibilities? Is it belittling to use Nixon as a costume, or is Nixon offensive to use as a hero, or something?”

“It’s just,” she says.

“Sal,” I say, “you have to work with me here. I have no idea what you mean unless you explain it to me.”

“Well,” she says, and then pauses for a really long time, “if it wasn’t that important to you, I was going to suggest changing it.”

“Why?” I ask.

“They’re not going to like it,” she says.

“What?” I ask, “who?”

“Armor division, Paragon, the police, the people who brought you here,” Sal says, “the people who are going to be signing your paychecks.”

I perk up at that. “Wait, I’m getting a paycheck?”

“Good lord, child, do you have no idea how this works?” she says.

I sigh at her. “Not really, no? It was never my intention to become a superhero, and it was never my intention to end up here, even once I manifested.”

“Oh, honey,” she says, “okay, let me lay it out for you.”

“Sure,” I say, because what are you even supposed to say when some hyperintelligent future alien with the internet in her brain offers to tell you how the world really works?

“We are a semi-autonomous state funded agency,” she says, “I say we, I mean the people on the other side of the door, and you, should you choose to join them.”

“I get to choose?” I say.

“Of course you get to choose,” she says.

“I was kind of strong-armed into coming here,” I tell her, “they wouldn’t even take the cuff back off until I got run through a bunch of machines.”

“Well, no, that’s the normal security process,” she tells me, “but now that you’ve been vetted, you’re free to come and go as you please.”

“Okay,” I say, “I pretty much know how the WHC works.”

“You do know that heroes, superheroes, work for them, right?” she asks.

I nod tentatively.

The speakers crackle. “Okay. Mask division, or formally the Covert Operative Public Enforcement Division, are formally employees.”

“Oh,” I say, “like with files and everything?”

“With files and everything,” she agrees. “There’s only so much I can show you until you formally agree to join, but yes, files.”

She shows me a series of files, from some of the most prominent names in the country. Just the press shots, not even anything with their masks off, and certainly no information about them that isn’t publically available, but carefully blacked out, rather than not presented at all. I can tell what would be there if I signed, and it makes me really want to.

“Why are you showing me this?” I ask.

“Because you’re entitled to know?” she says, “and I’m not sure how a good a job the guys out there will do at actually making your options clear.”

“How do I have access to this much?” I ask, “are you hacking their system?”

“For one, hacking implies I don’t already and constantly have access to it,” she tells me, “for another, you assume they didn’t build me into the system.”

“On purpose?” I ask.

“Not on purpose,” she clarifies, “if it were on purpose they would know I was here, wouldn’t they?”

“I guess,” I say.

“Accidentally,” she tells me, “and with full access, so I have to assume this is tacit permission for me to be here.”

23 Nov

“Like, you need to send it to the vet to know whether or not you can name it Kitty Pryde?” I say.

They grin. “Now, that is a fantastic name for a cat.”

“I think if we’re going for fantastic,” I say.

Sawyer nods and interrupts with, “Miss Kitty Fantastico, yes.”

“Yaaay, cats,” I say.

“Yaaay,” they agree.

We stare at pictures of Coconut for a while.

“Ooh,” they say, “wait, have you seen this?”

I take their phone for a minute, scrolling through the pictures, which seems to be some issue of Superman redrawn entirely with cats. I keep waiting for the punchline, but it looks almost like a frame by frame reproduction.

“Oh, right, no,” Sawyer says.

“What?” I say.

Sawyer shakes their head. “You’re making that face like you’re looking for a joke. It’s not a joke. It’s just Superman with cats.”

“I,” I say, “don’t see the point.”

Sawyer frowns and rolls their eyes at me. “It’s funny, right? And it’s well-drawn. I think they’re planning on branching out to other comics.”

“Oh,” I say. “Alright.”

“It’s the same people who do the flying cats blog,” they tell me.

“Wait, what?” I say.

They pull up the blog.

“No,” I say, “I mean, I know about that, I like that, I like watching videos of flying cats, that’s not my point. Why Superman?”

Sawyer shakes their head at me. “Why not Superman? I mean, you have all the tropes to pick from – conservative parents, getting kicked out, identity politics –”

“No, but, why cats?” I say.

Sawyer throws up their hands. “Look, if you don’t like the site don’t look at it then!”

I stare at it a little bit longer.

“It’s a parody,” Sawyer informs me.

“I can see that,” I say.

“It’s a little heavy-handed with the Aesops,” Sawyer tells me, “so it’s good fodder for making fun of. Plus, the complete lack of accurate representation.”

“Well,” I say, “that makes sense.”

They laugh. “You’d think they’d go, hey, look what we’re writing about, we should hire some people who aren’t talking out their ass. Or at least get a consultant or two on board.”

I shrug. “I mean, the way it’s depicted is so divorced from reality that I don’t know how much it would actually help to have representation in there.”

Sawyer scrunches up their face.

Oh. Oh, crap. I glance around.

“Look, not to be like, don’t talk, but if you don’t know –”

“Can we not talk about this here?” I mutter.

They bite their lip. “Sorry.”

“Just,” I say, “just summing up, I mean, powers don’t work the same way they do in real life, manifestation is weirdly misrepresented, and physics is out the window.”

Sawyer nods. “Okay.”

“Also, everyone in their universe seems to be white,” I say, trying to relieve the tension.

Sawyer laughs awkwardly.

I tap my fingers on the arm of my seat, extremely aware of the fact that I’d like to grip in nervously. I tug at the sleeve of my shirt instead.

“So, Superman,” Sawyer says, “you’ve noticed the weird thing about adoption?”

I sort of wonder how rude it would be to ask if they’re adopted. “Yeah.”

“Right, so, I don’t know,” Sawyer says, “I feel like if there weren’t such a big thing about what shitty awful parents his birth parents were, he wouldn’t constantly be screaming about it.”

“I get that,” I say, “I mean, I’d think he’d treat them as ‘real parents’ otherwise.”

They nod. “Because I feel like that’s what’s driving all the issues of his problems with them, like if his parents were dead or not important to the plot, no worries.”

I shrug. “I don’t know. If they didn’t want to contrast them, I think his parents would probably just be dead, like everyone else’s.”

Sawyer frowns. “Yeah, you may be right. I don’t know. I don’t really like the angry shitty parents trope. Like, we have to deal with that enough in real life, you know?”

“I know,” I say.

Sawyer leans in to whisper, “are your parents okay with, you know?”

I laugh. Extremely awkwardly. “Haven’t actually told them yet.”

Their eyes widen.

I shrug. “No, I mean, they knew I was latent, and never had any problems with that, they told me when I was a kid and everything. I just. You know. Haven’t said yet.”

“Oh, shit,” Sawyer whispers, “you manifested at college?”

I shrug.

They shake their head. “What, freaked out over your first test.”

I waggle a hand.

They glance around. “Sorry. Maybe we can talk about it later?”

“I mean, we could,” I say, “I don’t really know how it happened, it was a surprise to me, and I haven’t had a chance to look up how this sort of thing comes about, so.”

“Yeah, sure,” they say. “Mine manifested weird, too. Swimming, you know, but has absolutely nothing to do with water, and also, I was always 100% okay with swimming.”

I nod, but I don’t really get it. maybe I’ll have to figure out what the power is, first, but the teacher comes in and interrupts our conversation, and apparently we have to read a whole bunch of Shakespeare now, so there’s that. Not that I really mind reading Shakespeare, Shakespeare is fine, other than the fact that a ton of people use it for evidence that extranormals never existed until the modern era and why can’t we just go back to then. Boring, though. Boring and an excuse to be bigots. I lied. I hate Shakespeare.

22 Nov

I mean, I guess some of them may be, I don’t want to suggest that no one ever, just, fails to mention that, or considers it private or anything. I’m going to assume people who loudly proclaim how normal they are, or write about extranormals like they’re some bizarre kind of rare amphibian, are, at the very least, not engaging in heavy critical thinking as regards the power discourse. Which is a terrible group of people to assign the task of writing books, especially introductory texts. And is an equally terrible group of people to trust to have written things well when they hand you some textbook and you’re like, oh, look at me, I’m a publisher, I bet this is well written, oh, wow, look at these credentials, yup, that checks out.

So, in that sense, the class is playing well above average, and that’s even compared to things like Extra Ethics, which really should be doing pretty well, but, I guess, aren’t. That may be more points against them than point for this class, though. Because it’s not like this class is particularly sensitive about the issues, so much as leaving out all the sensitive material, and going with things that are more mainstream. We can talk about erasure or normalizing the non-threatening powers, of course, but, I don’t know, this is a kind of atmosphere it’s pretty comfortable to be in, and sometime I feel like most of the people complaining about those things have no shortage of spaces they can go to be comfortable.

Whatever. It’s still better than I expected. And it kind of makes me wonder if the professor’s extranormal herself, or at least one of the TA’s is (or more than one). or maybe she just has a close friend in the department who is. Or outside the department, I guess, but that would make it a little harder to collaborate on lesson plans, not that you can’t still listen to people outside your area of expertise, especially if it’s someone in the Extranormal Studies department and, if so, someone I want to aim at taking a class from.

Or maybe it’s the department head, trying to be really careful to keep classes on track and inoffensive. If that’s true, I kind of wish I liked math more. Or…is this under science? I can’t remember if this is primarily a biology or a math course. It gives me my math credit, at least.

I’m really extremely glad they haven’t brought up technopaths or memetics. Hopefully, they’re not going to bring them up. Ever. I get enough of people talking about them all the fucking rest of the time, and I’m not even a memetic. Not that people are terrible particular about drawing a distinction between memetics and acutes.

Or perceptives. Am I a perceptive? Is being able to judge distance a normal thing? Because I’ve certainly seen people who as far as I know aren’t extranormal do it, not that I should just assume. I wish there were a way to ask without specifying why I need to know, because that information isn’t that sensitive, I mean, I can’t imagine many people will get upset if you ask them how well they can judge time and distance and stuff, assuming they didn’t guess why I needed to know that, but it can’t even be that common for people who do have that power to be trying to categorize it, can it?

Maybe I should just look it up to see if it has an official category.

I look up the CDC website, scrolling through it, wondering what exactly it’s categorized as. Eventually, I come across an entry for ‘precision measurements’ which sounds about right, and when I look through the description, at least one of the examples sounds like it could be mine. Of course, then I try to see how it’s categorized, and it says (disputed), which is just so helpful, like, wow, CDC, thank you, that is good information.

I look it up on the WHO chart next, and it says, ‘perceptive, acute’, so that’s no help either. Even the articles it cites have these long convoluted things about which predisposition you have and genetic testing and how you can’t really tell which kind without chemical screenings anyway.

When it says ‘which kind’, it doesn’t mean perceptive or acute, it means there are something like two dozen variants of this, based on different sets of alleles, some of which have both a perceptive and an acute phenotype, so I give up. There’s no way I’m getting together enough money to do this kind of testing, even if it would be beneficial to me, which it wouldn’t, not least of all because they would pick up on everything else I can do. Also, because in the scheme of things, I doubt it actually makes a difference to my life.

The next chart moves onto the distribution of certain alleles in speedsters, with some interesting asides about how each one affects the mechanisms of their speed.

 

I pull out my computer. It takes me a minute to realize I’m not actually going to find my notes, because I don’t have a file for this class, because we’re not allowed to use electronics, but fuck them, class hasn’t started yet, and if I want to look at pictures of cats with bread on their faces, I am damn well going to do that.

Which reminds me, I should really send off a message to Ben at some point. Instead, I just write a comment about how much I like his cat.

She smiles up at me with crossed eyes and bread on her face.

Lilah slips into the seat next to mine and waves at me. It looks like she’s been waving for a while. I wonder if she said something and is waiting for me to respond, or whether she just wants me to wave back. I turn my computer towards her so she can see Coconut, with various flavors of bread on her face. She gets distracted by it for a long time, and I feel a little vindicated about having not noticed her walk in.

Eventually, she asks me, “why is a black cat named Coconut?”

“If you see her in the right light, she looks sort of brown,” I say, “and fuzzy, obviously. And anyway I don’t see you complaining about other cats’ names she’s just a cat, okay?”

“Okay,” Lilah says.

Coconut is a very shiny short-coated cat with yellowy eyes, and she’s not nearly as round as the name would suggest, but only maybe a little overweight. She purrs a lot.

“I didn’t name her,” I say.

Lilah clicks through the pictures again. “Whose cat is she?”

“A friend from back home,” I tell her. “He mostly posts cat pictures.”

“I bet he gets that about Coconut’s name a lot,” she says.

“Yes,” I agree. “Yes he does.”

“Cute cat,” Lilah says.

I nod.

Lilah glances at my computer again. “You know class is starting any minute, right?”

I shrug. “It’s my time until the bell chimes.”

The bell chimes. I glare at it and put my computer away, and get out all my notes and pens and crap that I have to use because this teacher just fundamentally hates technology of even the most basic sort, like, honestly, mechanical pencils are banned or something because of some misunderstanding about what exactly mechanical pencils are. Calculators are banned, too, despite the fact that most people can’t do math in their heads, and even the people who can don’t have time to get used to it with how little it comes up.

Whatever, my point stands, whatever it was, I like technology or I hate cell bio or something, either way, I stand by that. It’s not just me, you know, Lilah’s annoyed by having to use pen and paper to take notes, I can tell from the annoyed cat faces she’s drawing in the corner of the page, which kind of happen to look like Coconut got mad at you, only Coconut really doesn’t get mad at anyone so much as stare at them until they stop being confusing.

I’m not reading too much into it. One of the cats is saying ‘fuck you cell bio’.

I doodle a couple of pictures, too. They don’t much look like cats, but I’m generally not sure I’m going to draw a cat until about halfway through, so that makes sense. The TAs glance at the both of us, and other students that I can see from here are just doodling, or have talked to enough to know that’s most of what they do, but they don’t stop us or anything. I can’t tell if that’s because they just don’t care or because they think we’re actually painstakingly rendering the way oversimplified cells the professor keeps showing us over and over.

I would really like to move on to literally any other biology.

“Hey,” I say to Lilah.

She draws another cat. “Hmm?”

“So, Daniel,” I say.

“What about him?” she says.

“He was being kind of weird about TK,” I say.

She glances at me. “Weird how?”

“I don’t know,” I say. “It just made me uncomfortable. He’s not, like, I don’t know anti-extranormal or anything like that, is he?”

“Not that I know of?” she says, with a frown. “I told him about my TK and he wasn’t insulting or fetishistic, but it might be a gendered thing.”

“I don’t know,” I say again. “It wasn’t anything big, just. I don’t know.”

“He can come off kind of odd,” she tells me. “Maybe it was just early?”

“Early?” I repeat.

She shrugs. “It’s hard for me to deal with people in the mornings, sometimes. You never get that?”

“I guess,” I say.

“If he’s bothering you, I can ask him to leave you alone,” she says.

“No,” I say. “He was just saying things about how TK manifests that are just, you know, not really correct, or not up to date on research, anyway.”

“Oh,” she says. “You can probably just bring him the articles, then. He definitely likes to hear about that sort of thing.”

“Okay,” I agree. “You think he just had bad resources?”

She shrugs. “You’d think I’d know, but no, telekinesis as an academic subject has never actually interested me all that much. I didn’t really ask him about it.”

I stare at her, but I don’t say it.

“I can hear you thinking it, you know,” she tells me.

“But how could you not be interested in your own power?” I ask.

She flings a crumples up bit of paper at me with her mind.

 

Somehow, Ben has posted more pictures of his cat. Now I’m wondering if they’re scheduled to update every hour or something, or if it’s his day off. Or maybe he’s even home sick, and he can’t concentrate on anything more taxing than repeatedly sticking bread on a cat. I mean, you’d think that would be more taxing than making tea or soup or something, but Coconut is an extremely cooperative and pro-internet cat.

“Hey,” Sawyer says, what sounds like again.

“Hey,” I say.

“Are you okay?” they ask.

I turn the screen around, showing off the pictures again, even clicking back to the first round so they can see. Thank god for computers, honestly. There would be absolutely no way to get out of people asking personal questions if you couldn’t distract them with memes.

“Aw,” Sawyer says, pulling out their phone. “That looks just like my mom’s new cat.”

Their mom’s cat does not have bread on, though.

“The cat is Gumdrops for now,” Sawyer says. “We’re still deciding on a new name.”

“Oh?” I say, “that’s a pretty good name.”

“Yeah, but my siblings aren’t sold on it,” they say. “Apparently, we have to wait until we figure out whether it’s a girl cat or a boy cat.”

“What?” I say.

They roll their eyes. “With a trip to the vet, obviously.”

“I don’t think cats need gendered names,” I say.

Sawyer laughs. “Well, definitely not more than anyone else, anyway.”