The silvery liquid in the aquarium shimmered, rainbow sparkles dancing across its surface in the rising heat. In many ways, it was really quite beautiful.
Occasionally, it went “blorp”, as one or another of the junked computers or old machine parts two of Lisa’s team – from whom I had stayed hidden in the bedroom, for now – had brought us settled further beneath the surface.
That wasn’t its real sound, though. That music was reserved for those of us with the right interfaces, a whispery little chorus.
consume. enhance. replicate.
consume. enhance. replicate.
consume. enhance. replicate.
Lisa herself, meanwhile, finished reading the hand-written sign I’d taped to the outside of the tank and straightened up.
Danger! Unprogrammed Nanopaste!
Do not touch. To them, you’re just spare carbon that could be usefully repurposed.
In the event of tank breach… basically, run.
“You’ve been a cape for two days now.”
I looked back at her inquiringly.
“You’re already out of the running for ‘fastest signing of kill order’. Ash Beast and Sleeper got theirs on their first day.”
Huffing, I grabbed a Sharpie and scribbled another couple of lines at the bottom of the sign.
independently self-replicating. Require microwave pulsation of specific frequency and encoding.
If your city is currently being devoured by gray goo, we’re not it.
“It’s what I’ve got, Lisa. A necessary first step for everything I can do. And I followed all of the safety protocols very carefully.”
She raised an eyebrow at me.
“Most of the safety protocols.”
She raised the other eyebrow.
“Every safety protocol that I could. Which included all of the most important ones!”
“Okay. I do trust you to know what you’re doing. Just… in future, if you’re going to build any more S-class threats that will make our paranoid, cape-hostile PRT director call for our immediate Birdcaging if and when she finds out about them, please talk to me first.”
Dammit, she was being reasonable at me. I slumped.
“Also, you owe me a new microwave.”
Across Town, in the PRT Headquarters and a State of Blissful Ignorance
Emily Piggot, director of the PRT ENE and a woman with, as mentioned, more than a little paranoia and hostility towards capes, even heroes, glared across her desk at the senior figures of the local Protectorate.
“How,” she ground out, “could we possibly screw up this much in one day?”
“I take full responsibility,” Armsmaster said. He stood in his usual posture, hands clasped behind his back, but was if anything even stiffer than usual. “I erred in believing Shadow Stalker’s description of events.”
“How did she get around your lie detector?” Miss Militia asked.
“Nothing she said was untrue. It can’t detect lies of omission. Yet.”
“So,” Militia continued, “Shadow Stalker attacked Miss Hebert at school, possibly –”
A knock on the door interrupted her. “Come!”
The door was opened by Aegis, still in full costume. “Ma’am, I –“
“What are you doing here?,” Piggot said, sharply. “You are supposed to be at the hospital, keeping watch on Shadow Stalker.”
“I’m sorry, ma’am.” The Ward dropped his gaze, obviously chagrined. “Shadow Stalker disappeared from the hospital.”
“Disappeared? Or was taken?”
“I don’t know, ma’am. There was no sign of anyone else having been in the room, but there was no sign of how she left. If she left.”
“She left,” added Armsmaster. “I found this” - an obviously steel-tipped crossbow bolt was placed on the Director’s desk – “outside the Hebert house. Since there weren’t any others, I presume this is the one she fired at Miss Hebert when she was escaping. If she’s willing to use this in front of me, she wasn’t planning to stick around.”
“Damn the child”, Piggot breathed. “What do we know about the Hebert girl?”
“We haven’t seen enough of her in action to tell. She has at least low-level flight, or telekinesis strong enough to simulate it, and we’ve seen the lightning she used to disable Shadow Stalker," Armsmaster said. "I’d estimate Mover 2 or 3, Blaster 3, but that’s preliminary. And doesn’t take into account the machine accompanying her that showed up on video of the engagement.”
“But right now, she’s not your biggest problem.” That was Charles Lewis, the local head of PRT Legal. “Her father, the one we have under house arrest? Is Daniel Hebert. Head of hiring for the Dockworker’s Association, except that with the state of the city today, he’s pretty much running the Dockworkers’ Association, which is now doing a lot of jobs outside the Docks. He was quite the firebrand before his wife died, and he’s still active in city politics. Yesterday, I would have said that he could make things very difficult for us if provoked, so handle him with care. Today, I…” He shrugged. “Whatever we can do, it probably won’t be enough. But if he thinks we’re trying to cover anything up, or protect Shadow Stalker, he can bring a world of shit down on the PRT. And you and Armsmaster specifically.”
“The lawyers have spoken.” Emily Piggot’s smile was thin and humorless. “Here’s what we’re going to do. Retask the search for Hebert; she’s now the secondary objective, and they’re to bring her in gently as they can. Limit use of force as much as possible. Primary objective is bringing back Shadow Stalker.
“Then once we’ve got her, we throw the book at her for this, her parole violations, and whatever else she’s been up to. I know you can’t send a 15-year-old to the Birdcage, Charles, but I want her in maximum security until one of us dies of old age.
“Miss Militia. You are now in charge of the Wards. Investigate – not a word, Aegis! – anything that she might have done during her time as a Ward or that any of the other Wards might have helped her with. Armsmaster, you have a new job. This is partly because you missed what Shadow Stalker was up to, do not mistake me, but also because assigning you shows the world we’re serious. Investigate her PRT handler, the principal of Winslow, and tear the damn school apart until you find out what accomplices she had. We can’t prosecute them directly, but nonetheless, I want them prosecuted to the full extent the law will allow.
“Charles, we also need to put together appropriate compensation for the Heberts. Apart from public apologies from Armsmaster and I,” she winced, a grimace of pain crossing her face, “find an offer that will dissuade them from suing us. Give Miss Hebert a free transfer to Arcadia, if she wants it, or a private tutor we’ll pay for.”
“Ask her to join the Wards?,” Armsmaster interjected.
“You – no, Miss Militia, can offer, but don’t push her. The only way we come out of this less dirty is” – her phone rang “– excuse me. Piggot.”
She listened for a few moments.
“Keep me informed. No, no action for now.”
She hung up, and stared briefly up at the ceiling in search of inspiration.
“That,” she said, “was Deputy Director Renick. According to one of the men we left to watch the Hebert house, Daniel Hebert may also have triggered.”
A silence fell. One broken, at last, by an uncharacteristic comment from Armsmaster.
“We may need to have one of those S-class discussions now,” I said. “My plan for hiding my tinkering may not look as innocuous as I’d like.”
Lisa turned away from her computer, rubbing her temples in a way I was coming to identify as ‘this is a Taylor headache, not a Thinker headache’. “Don’t tell me. An army of foraging robots? Dissolving the Boat Graveyard?” A quirked smirk. “Road trip?”
“The big giveaways for Tinkers are usually buying materials, and high power usage, right?” At her nod, I continued. “I can grow roots that solve both those problems. If I go through this wall,” I pointed, “I can drop a pipe down through the utility core, and from there into the sewers. Once they’ve spread out enough, I can get all the material I’ll need – the conventional material – by pulling it out of the wastewater and industrial runoff down there. And I can tap the power grid at thousands of points, so there’s no one place to point to. If anyone notices something, it’ll just be slightly cleaner sewage.”
“Until someone digs up a burst pipe and sees Tinkertech inside it.”
“It’s a covert design. All they should see is a weird-looking slime mold with a taste for metals. Would that work?”
Lisa thought for a moment, that irresistibly vulpine grin spreading across her face. “That would make people think there’s a new biotinker, which is attention you don’t need. Unless – could you write a scientific paper or two on this ‘slime mold’?”
“Probably not, but I can translate one well enough to fake it?”
“Then I can slip it into a few places on-line, and if anyone goes looking, they’ll find some old research on the Brockton Goo: the North-East’s Largest Slime Mold Colony and hopefully, stop looking.”