The door to the Quill R&D lab opens to Summer’s knock at the crack of dawn. Inside is Alycia with a mug of coffee and a string of profanities. “Not you,” the other girl mumbles, and beckons her inside.
“Jason was called away for Foundation business. He flew to Mozambique a few hours ago. You know what that shǎ zi asshole did to me? He put me in charge of operations here. Now I have to do paperwork. Paperwork!” Alycia sounds displeased. “So I’m stuck here! I have to receive visitors today. I was going to come along, get out, work on the hoverbike. Пиздец.”
“Why didn’t you just tell him no?” Summer asks.
“He was… surprisingly persuasive.” Alycia looks away, cheeks slightly red.
She gestures to a seat in a corner of the lab, and Summer sits. “Right. I read the spec Leo sent me. You don’t have a way for me to plug into your onboard computer. If I get this, we’re going to show you encoded binary data, and you’ll manually decode it into my computer program inside your VR world. Is that right? Ugh. Why Leo didn’t make this easier on you is beyond me.”
Summer smiles gently. “A hacker could take advantage of interface jacks or radio links. This way, there’s no chance of compromising me without my knowledge or consent. Leo’s first and biggest priority for the Newmans’ systems was preserving our agency and safety.”
Alycia speaks from behind her coffee mug. “Well. Guess it’s not a bad idea then. Alright, face the screen.”
QR codes flash by on a nearby screen. Scanning, assembling, and running the program takes twenty minutes. She doesn’t feel very different, but touching her skin for several seconds gives her a sensation of added warmth. The laser scanning is working.
“Right. I came up with a way to support you in the field. I don’t like it. But it’ll do.” Alycia walks Summer over to a featureless corner of the lab, roped off and surrounded by holo-emitters, with loose power couplings and ramshackle data connections. “I’m going to run the business, and your field operation, from here. I’ll project a hologram into the main house so I can meet visitors and interact with personnel. And I’ll project myself into your augmented reality, so you can see and hear me in the field.”
The two girls warm up the system and run through a test case. Summer’s field of vision, with object persistence once she stops looking at something, is projected into the lab around Alycia. And as the real Alycia moves around the zone, Summer can see a ghostly duplicate of her appear nearby. With the system judged stable, Summer waves goodbye and heads to her next destination: Blintzkrieg.
Summer has been looking forward to her namesake season at work. Other employees get to take more time off, and she gets to pick up the slack (and make more money). She’s still not full-time, and her schedule changes week to week (and sometimes day to day), but she loves the job and the people.
Aside from her job, there’s another opportunity she has been looking forward to: summer volunteer programs for students. Alycia forwarded her one such program, with a personal endorsement. Summer realizes that her roommate might have other motives when she sees who else shows up at Blintzkrieg: Daph, her boyfriend Marion, and his best friend Colin. There’s two other boys she doesn’t know, but they’re quickly introduced as Amir and Greg.
Daph is the de facto leader of the volunteer team Summer has found herself roped into. “Sign up for the program online,” she explains. “I’ll send the address out on group chat. Leave your phones on as you go out on your assignments, so the app can track your progress.”
The signup process is easy enough. It’s the last step that bothers Summer. The screen stares back at her, with its innocuous invitation to proceed. “Are you a robot?” All she has to do is check the checkbox and she’ll be permitted in. But really?
Colin is at her shoulder. “Any problems with the signup?” he asks, clearly ready to hear “yes” and offer her helpful advice. Summer isn’t sure he’s trying to be patronizing, but right at this moment, his eagerness to be useful is a little annoying.
“The page was loading slow,” she lies, and checks the checkbox.
“We’ll split into teams of three,” Daph explains. “Amir, Marion, Colin, you want to take the top of the map, and Greg, Summer, and I will take the bottom?”
Marion and Colin look disappointed. Daph looks a little smug. The others don’t seem bothered one way or another. Greg asks about “Alice Chan”, and Daph explains that she’s house-sitting for someone. Well, that’s technically true.
The students are going door-to-door with pamphlets and getting signups. The information is unique to Halcyon City: how and when (or when not) to report strange sightings, such as flashes of light or experiences like deja vu; non-emergency numbers to use when reporting supervillain activity or large-scale property damage; and rumor control about the safety of certain neighborhoods. Summer has mixed feelings about the latter. The lingering fear about Nukemaster’s radiation keeps many people out of her neighborhood, even a decade later, but it also keeps the rent low.
The donations are for people whose homes or property have been lost due to superhuman activity. This part of the program is always popular. Halcyon has an independent, can-do culture when it comes to supers, and those who can’t donate time or skills can usually spare some money.
A holographic Alycia flickers to life in Summer’s field of view a third of the way through the first day’s route. “Everything okay?” she says. Summer only nods - she doesn’t want the others to think she’s talking to the air, or herself. And it’s weird to see Alycia drifting like a specter over the ground. “Sorry I couldn’t make it. I told Daph - anyway. Back to work. Ugh. Please, please, please signal me if anything comes up.” And she winks back out of sight.
Summer does learn that Greg is interested in becoming a firefighter or EMT - he’s not sure which just yet. And while Greg is off talking to a resident who didn’t seem receptive to listening to a couple of girls, Daph takes the opportunity to talk to Summer. “The stars are aligning for you. Or against you, depending.”
“What do you mean?” Summer asks innocently.
“Colin asked me about who’d be teaming with who,” Daph grins. “I think he had someone specific in mind.”
Daph rolls her eyes. “Girl, don’t front.” Summer gets an elbow in the ribs. “Come on! Colin’s my friend. What’s going on there?”
“Well, um, he’s got a passion for a social issue, and I have some background in engineering and robotics…”
Daph looks as visibly unconvinced as anyone in Summer’s experience.
Summer verbally squirms. “… so, y’know, we’ve been talking, and I think he’s happy that I’m taking his cause seriously.”
“Uh-huh.” Daph’s tone could give Kansas a run for its money in flatness.
“Nnnngh, you and Alice–”
“Alycia. I know.” Daph smiles, and roughly pats Summer’s shoulder. “Tell you a secret. Colin wants to care about something, wants to matter, but he can give up if it’s not working. He was crushing on me for a little while. Now it’s your turn. Decide for yourself if you’re into him, but you don’t have forever. And if you do, don’t hold back! Go pounce, like a tiger! Raar!” She glances up and grins. “Hey Greg.”
Summer sighs in gratitude at the interruption, and trots up the street to keep up with her partners.
The first pings on the DNA scanner come not during their canvassing of the neighborhood, but at the end of the route. Gardner kids come and go around the city according to some nomadic pattern predictable only by chaos theory, and coordinated from cyberspace. Enough Instagram likes at your favorite bookstore or cafe, and you might see a dozen of your friends there the next day. This month, it’s at a place called Refract, a combination bookstore and cafe usually patronized by the theater kids and local community college students, and adjacent to a large open park. People come to walk their dogs, jog, or just take a moment to relax from busy city living.
Summer sneaks away from the group for a moment to deploy some of her butterfly drones, who can scan just as easily. The park is a big place, and the drones can perform the DNA scan as well as she can. Back at the table inside Refract, she sees Colin for the first time since the planning meeting in the morning, and waves. He waves back, trying to smile but clearly lacking the energy. Or is there something else bothering him? Summer finds herself lacking quite enough courage to really confront that thought.
Refract’s decorative theme is parallel universes, and references an event in the 1970s when this area of the city became a “dimensional prism”, overlaid with different realities. The arrangement of books on the shelves syncs with the painted stripes on the walls and ceiling, giving the impression of several bookstores stitched seamlessly together. Corners and blinds are everywhere, letting people sit without being interrupted or spied on.
Summer takes advantage of this arrangement to sit by herself, or so she thinks. The first thing she hears is “…make out?” and the face she attaches this to is Colin’s. She says “what?”, and the act rewinds her memory enough to reveal that he said “how did you three make out?”
“Oh. The signups. Um, Daph was in charge of the collection, so I really don’t know…”
He sits down at her table and smiles. “Hey, thanks for coming with us on this thing.”
“Of course. I’m happy to help out with something like this.” Summer isn’t certain where this is going. When Colin was the eager student of robot issues, she knew who she was: role model, partner in planning, teacher, subject. She had a place. Now that intersection is gone, and it’s just them talking.
He looked unhappy earlier. Did he want to come with my group? With me?
Of course he did, her rational mind argues.
I’m so glad he didn’t, her fear says. We couldn’t talk about robot rights without outing me to the others, and what else is there to talk about?
You know what else, her loneliness says.
Now it’s not just them talking, because she’s silent. Colin starts to get up from the table. “I think I’m disturbing you, sorry.”
He doesn’t get all the way before Summer has a hold of his wrist. “I…”
She can’t say it. But she can say something else.
“I’m here tracking down - someone who broke into a museum the other night. Someone that might have powers, but we’re not sure. They’re nearby. I have to go check it out. Can you… Can you cover for me?”
He looks wounded for a moment, but rallies a brave, empty smile. “Of course. Leave it to me.”
Summer walks out of the shop, scowling at herself. Stupid, stupid, stupid machine.
Augmented Reality Alycia rezzes to life. “I saw the ping,” she says.
“What took you so long?” Summer demands.
“Who says I wasn’t paying attention, from the moment you got to Refract?” Alycia asks, casually buffing her fingernails against her shirt sleeve.
God damn that minx.
“Don’t spy on me. Or I’ll lock you out,” warns Summer.
Alycia holds up holographic hands. “Easy. All I had was GPS until I saw you step outside, and telemetry indicated that you were alone. So. Now what?”
“I don’t know, I just feel like… Something’s going to happen, you know?” Summer really doesn’t have anything other than her own jangled feelings, but why stop the lie once it’s started rolling.
To her great surprise, she hears shouts and cries nearby. She ducks into the cover between buildings, and Radiance emerges. Up into the sky she flies, and looks quickly around. There - there’s a boy, dressed casually, arms held out, clearly invoking or commanding something. Around him is a pack of psychedelic wolf-like creatures. “Back! Get back!” the boy is yelling, and the crowd is all too eager to comply.
There’s two exceptions. One is a girl, who walks to his side and raises her own arms. In response, a brutish ogre-like being flashes into existence. “Dig!” she orders it, and dig it does, pounding monstrously strong fists into the pavement and sod of the park. The other is another boy, wearing a hoodie, off to the side but clearly not terrified in the least by what’s going on.
“That’s him,” Alycia says, hovering next to her and pointing at the hoodie-wearing figure. “Get us down there so I can do a face match on those three.”
“People first!” Radiance dives toward the wolf-things, dispatching a butterfly drone to satisfy Alycia’s question. She slams into them, yet their bodies evaporate like foam on contact. As she passes, the creatures coalesce out of the air. But it’s enough to keep them from hurting anyone.
On second thought, they don’t seem to be hurting anyone. Herding, yes. Radiance can see the whole park, but there’s no sign of anyone being actually mauled. Well, that’s something.
She decides to change tactics, and dives at the trio of kids. “Save us!” the girl shouts at her humanoid servitor, and it throws a punch - one with enough force to knock Radiance back several yards.
“Run!” the boy in the hoodie yells. He points at Refract. The three take off, wolves and ogre guarding their escape route. Summer plows through the wolves again, but the ogre doesn’t seem to go down, no matter how she hits it. She settles for flying high, out of reach, and barrels down at the kids at the last second, as they enter the shop.
She can’t throw out a holographic barrier - there’s too many people here, a crowd that the trio are pushing their way through. The boy in the hoodie pushes open the door to the men’s room, the other two enter, and Radiance follows.
“What are you trying to do?” she asks, as the door swings shut behind her.
The boy in the hoodie doesn’t answer. But his face has a look of fear, and Radiance can’t bring herself to believe she’s the cause. In a moment, she too feels fear. The tiled floor of the bathroom, every part of it, falls immediately away into some kind of abyss. She looks down and quails. Under what was the floor is a star field. Quasars, galaxies, the enormity of intergalactic space, and the three kids are holding onto each other as they plummet into it. She feels nothingness under her feet, and a downward pull, and a rushing of air.
She can’t bring herself to follow. “Wait!” she cries, but as they disappear, the floor returns itself to its everyday existence, as though none of this ever happened.
Great. Three kids are causing damage around the city, we know nothing about them or their powers, and now I have to get out of the men’s room without dying of embarrassment.