“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.
“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.”
“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.”
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.
“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 wish you wouldn’t,” he says.
“Look, it’s not like she’s going to start an apocalypse,” I say.
“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.