I didn’t want to get up. These sheets were incredibly comfortable, and they called me to snuggle deeper under the covers and try to recapture the dreams I’d been having. Dreams of mountains carved into cities, inside-out gardens, proud ships crossing the skies on plumes of blue fire, worlds of blue-green, icy white, yellow desert and dusky rose. And worlds unstained. Worlds where there was no hunger, no want, no gangs, no bullying. Worlds that even death did not touch.
Dreams that left tears in my eyes as I left them.
These sheets also weren’t mine, maroon silk with a ridiculous thread count not being in the Hebert price range – or even the Barnes price range, I thought bitterly – and with that, I was very awake. Good going, Taylor. Following a supervillain home and apparently passing out in her bed is the absolute best move you could have made while being chased by the PRT. You idiot.
There was a key in the door, and a second resting on a tray next to the bed. The first was obvious enough; the other one puzzled me a moment, but looking around I could match it to a security lock on the window – a window with a fire escape outside it.
Rose hummed contently in the back of my head. – Our host has a respect for the subtleties of hospitality. I approve. –
I could at least appreciate having an easy way out. Unless I was intended to relax because I thought there was a way out. The Trio had taught me that. And perhaps she could be sure I wouldn’t leave, having nowhere to go. Or lured in by the prospect of breakfast, the apparently inefficient use I’d made of my nanosomes yesterday having left me with quite an appetite that was making itself felt. Or –
A voice drifted in from the other room.
“If you’re not escaping, breakfast is getting cold!”
Well. Okay. Villainous breakfast it was. I pulled on my clothes, left neatly folded, eschewing the option of a fluffy bathrobe hanging nearby, unlocked the door, and stepped out.
I fell upon pancakes and bacon like the fourth legion at First Lodendar, or possibly a historical reference that was supposed to be in my brain. Regardless, much like its historical counterpart, there was a great deal of messy blade-work, much syrup was spilled, and it provided a convenient diversion – in this case, from conversation while I studied the apartment, and the girl sitting opposite me.
Her apartment was expensively decorated, but spartan. Modern minimalist, all glass and chrome and marble countertops, but most of it looked more like a show apartment or someone’s unvisited second home than a place someone actually lived – except for a few packed bookshelves and a desk, or rather a mountain of paper spilling avalanches of post-its, with a sextet of monitors and a laptop poking through the mound. I presumed that there was a desktop machine somewhere under there, but you could have hidden more bodies among the scribble than the gangs had put on the bottom of the Bay. It was an impressive setup, though, despite Rose’s whisper of “Quaint!” in the back of my head .
Lisa, on the other hand, had aimed for aggressively casual, and struck it amidships with her first shot. Dressed in an even fluffier white robe than the one she’d left for me, dark blonde hair gathered in a loose French braid just precisely messy enough, and with the sun highlighting the scatter of freckles across the bridge of her nose, it was virtually impossible to think of her as intimidating. Hell, no-one wearing that bathrobe  could be intimidating, but neither of us could help admiring the sheer artistry of it.
After the first rush of hunger had worn off, I stretched out breakfast and a second cup of coffee for long enough to draw a few conclusions and make a few suppositions. At some level, I was aware that these seemed to be coming too easily, but I was in enough trouble already that the gift horse’s teeth could wait a while. Lisa’s smile, meanwhile, told me that she knew exactly what I was doing, but then, I wanted her to.
Eventually, I pushed my empty plate away, took a last sip of my coffee, and looked up at her, head tilted in inquiry.
She grinned at me expectantly.
I grinned right back. You may know something I don’t know, but I know I know something you don’t know…
Lisa only smiled wider. Those green eyes twinkled at me.
I matched her.
And then neither of us could help it, and we both burst out into giggles.
“So,” I said once we’d sobered up, “is this the moment at which you seduce me into villainy?”
Her grin sharpened, growing more fox-like by the moment. “Now why would you possibly think I’d do that?”
“Well,” I said, “you’re hiding me from the PRT, and up until now I wouldn’t have called you to hide a body. Also,” I nodded at the desk-pile, “that desk screams either computer programmer or Thinker, and under the circumstances, I’m betting the latter. So, given the limited number of female Thinkers in this town, that would make you the infamously enigmatic Tattletale, and you’re about to give me the Undersiders’ recruitment pitch. How did I do?”
I wouldn’t have caught the flicker in her eyes if Rose hadn’t highlighted it for me.
“So,” Lisa chirped, “would you be interested in a life of villainy?”
“I always thought I’d go hero, if I somehow ended up with powers. On the other hand, I think I’ve burned down all my bridges with the PRT, and I know just how vulnerable my position is at the moment… so let’s say that I’m not uninterested. That depends on what you’re offering, and what your ulterior motives are.”
“A team to have your back, steady money, fun and profit. No big agenda. We’re thieves, not gangers – we don’t go looking for fights, and we only take from insured targets or the deserving. And do I need another motive aside from how much your powers could bring to the team?”
“Fair enough.” She paused for a moment. “I have three, and I’ll tell you one: I can’t resist a puzzle, and you are one. Your trigger physically changed you, which happens to case 53s, but they lose their memory, and you know who you are, and where your house was. You also don’t have the tattoo they all have, unless you’re hiding it under your underwear, and no, I didn’t look. Even my power said ‘not human’.” Her lips curled into a smirk as I reddened – well, blued – and went on. “Honey, you are a mystery in a world that doesn’t have many mysteries for me, and that’s more than enough reason to want you around, beyond having a Mover/Blaster heavy hitter to back us up.”
“You just want me for my minor powers, then?”
“Mover, Blaster… and some Tinker, obviously?”
“A little Mover, Blaster, and Brute mostly as side effects. All the Tinker.”
“All the Tinker? How does…” I watched as blood drained from her face. “Oh. Oh, fuck.”
“Yep.” My smile, this time, was mirthless. “They gave me a full colony design library with an unredacted military annex. I’ve got designs for everything from better light-bulbs to interstellar warships. If I ask my little oracle how to blow up the sun, I get step-by-step instructions.” I suppressed a shiver, rubbing my arms. “I terrify myself every time I stop to think about it.”
I could see the exact moment that Lisa’s sudden terror was dragged into an alley and coshed by her curiosity. “They? You remember your trigger?”
“I didn’t have a trigger. I think I was supposed to, but then I got sufficiently advanced aliens instead.” I pulled the note out of my pocket and pushed it across the table.
“You’re serious? You are serious. Or at least you believe it – this isn’t exactly proof -”
“They were very clear that they aren’t the ones handing out powers, but they say there are things clinging to the outside of our universe that are, and they want me to find out for them. In exchange, I got this body, Rose, and a book of instructions on how to make everything, and the suggestion that I might use them to fix the world. And this is where I get to give you my recruitment pitch.”
“Is this the moment when you’re going to seduce me to the side of heroism?”
“Mm, not Protectorate-style heroism, anyway. But if the world’s left me with nothing but villainy to apply, I can do good badly. As it were. And Rose has been telling me all sorts of stories about how to do well by doing good. I think I can promise fun and profit along the way, along with a few perks, like satisfying that irresistible curiosity of yours, immortality, and a clever device that can make anything you can describe.”
“But mostly,” I continued, leaning forward, “Lisa, I’ve got a pair of missions and a head full of ideas, but I’m on the run with no home, no money, and no resources. And I’m no good with people – if you’ve done the research on me I think you have, you know why – or negotiation, or dealing with the world as it is. I need a… a vizier to make this work, and if running into you yesterday was a coincidence, it was the luckiest coincidence possible. I need you. Help me?”
I sat back, and watched as Lisa grimaced in apparent pain, rubbing her temples. “Okay. That’s – that’s for tomorrow. That’s not a no, not yet. But the immediate problem we have is my boss.”
She exhaled. “This has to go no further. I can’t – I’m not willing to tell you who he is yet, because if word of any of this got back to him, it would be very bad for me. But I’m not working for him by choice. And the only reason I’m still free is that he has me handle the Undersiders for him. The second I stop being useful in the field, I’ll be a pet Thinker drugged to the eyeballs in his basement, answering questions, and if he finds out that you’re that powerful a Tinker – and Tinkers are hard to hide - you’ll be there right next to me. That was my second ulterior motive. I wanted you to help me take him down, or at least get out from under. But now…”
I thought for a moment, drumming my fingers on the table.
“I think we can work this. I should be able to get by, once established, with much less obvious materiel requirement than most Tinkers. So, say you recruit me as a Mover/Blaster with only very minor Tinker skills, and anything that that won’t hide I bury deep, or disguise as another Tinker’s work. I take some time to build up, then keep doing it while supporting your team, until we’re ready to take him out.”
Lisa’s eyes blurred in thought for a moment, covering her eyes and wincing. I remembered having heard somewhere about Thinkers and their headaches, so stood and began checking the kitchen cupboards for painkillers.
“That could work,” she said finally. “But it’s risky. There’s a good chance that it doesn’t, and we end up dead, or worse. Are you sure you want to get tangled up in this?”
“I’m running from worse already.” I restrained a wild urge to laugh. “But if I help you with this, you help me with my start-up projects, right? A favor for a favor.”
I thought a moment, then turned back to her.
“Also,” I said, tapping my temple, “I get the impression the ones who gave me all this would be very happy to see me using it this way.”
- Having access to a constructive proof that P=NP and a quantum processor, the bytegeist considered Earth’s information security not merely quaint, but also endearingly naïve.
- Some months later, Taylor would have the opportunity to observe Lung in a pink fluffy bathrobe, with matching slippers. She stands by her statement at this time.