“Think about it. It gets you outside an’ in great shape.”
“Rob…” began Chris, weary resignation in his voice.
No interrupting. Rob talked over him. “You get to know people. The kinda people who’d be good to know.”
“Wait. Not sure ‘bout that one,” said Ben.
“Shush. Lemme finish,” said Rob.
“You two do realize what you’re talking about, yes?” asked Miya.
“Shush, all of you,” insisted Rob. “An’ not just individual people, but people in general. You get to know how they act, an’ react. What do they do under stress? You’d find out real quick.”
Ben nodded. “OK, I get that one. But what about the other one? Good to know people?”
“Well, the super wealthy are always good to know.”
“Who else would have the resources to do that for any length of time?”
“No,” cut in Chris. “No matter how you spin it, hunting other people for sport is not a good thing. No.”
“Did you listen to anythin’ I said?”
“Yes. And before you say anything, no. Just no.”
The four of them sat around the table in the lair. Olivia had taken advantage of the night and was out flying, and Amanda had withdrawn to her work area. She’s been throwing herself at her work since she got back. More so than usual, anyway.
Ben and Miya just cracked up. Rob snorted. “I think I made some good arguments there.”
“Yeah, I’m with ya,” chipped in Ben. “It’s decided. Human hunting is the best sport.”
“What?” said Chris, eyes wide. “The only other sport you said was arson. That’s not a sport. Neither of those are sports.”
“Hang on, I let me look up the real definition,” said Miya, holding her phone in front of her. “Here it is: ‘an activity involving physical exertion and skill in which an individual or team competes against another or others for entertainment’.”
“Yeah, arson could totally be a sport,” said Ben.
“Yeah, so could human huntin’. Thanks, Miya,” added Rob.
She glanced at Chris with a smile. “You know they’re going to argue on, no matter how much logic you try to put in.”
“Better’n baseball,” said Ben with a grin. “That shit sucks. Barely a real sport.”
“I kind of have to agree with them” said Miya. “I can’t sit through a full game of baseball without my antifucks reaching critical levels.” Hold on a second.
Ben had the same thought. “Antifucks?” he asked Miya.
“Yeah, where you don’t give a fuck. With baseball, I so don’t give a fuck that my amount of antifucks reaches critical mass.”
Chris sighed and shook his head. “Philistines,” he muttered under his breath. What? You like baseball? There are still real humans who like baseball?
“That don’t make sense,” said Rob.
“Hush, it makes sense if you don’t think about it.”
Ben and Rob snickered.
“Hey, Amanda. What’cha workin’ on?” asked Rob.
“What do you mean by thingy?” That could, quite literally, be anything.
“Her family. I’m working on tracking down who they could be.”
“Any luck?” asked Chris.
“Kinda. Not really. Not much I can do from here, though.”
“No family. That’s got to suck,” he said in the silence that followed.
“Meh. Family is overrated,” said Miya. Chris frowned. Whoa, that’s a little harsh.
Ben and Rob exchanged looks, then both shrugged. “Depends on the family,” said Rob. No one’s perfect.
“We should throw Olivia a birthday party or somethin’,” said Ben.
The conversation slowed to a halt as they all considered his suggestion. Could be fun. Why not?
“Why?” asked Chris. “I’m not saying it’s a bad idea, but what made you think of that?”
“Well, who else would? Besides, all she’s got to do is fly around. May as well do somethin’ for her.”
“Amanda, what do you think?” called out Rob over his shoulder.
“What?” she called back.
“Come here for a minute.” Shouting conversations are a pain.
He heard a thunk as she set something down on her desk. “What is it?” she asked when she reached the rest of them. She stood at the end of the table, rather than sitting down beside them. You aren’t covering up that wincing nearly as well as you think you are. Does Miya need to give you a checkup or something?
“Thinkin’ of throwin’ a birthday party kinda thing for Olivia. You in?” asked Ben.
Amanda blinked in surprise. After a moment she said, “Of course. When?”
“Uh…” Good question.
“Next week?” suggested Chris. “Gives us a chance to find our gifts, and its not as though we have any jobs coming in right now.”
“Yeah. We can’t just rely on you stumbling ass backwards into another job like that animal smuggling one,” said Miya.
“One week works,” said Amanda. Ben and Rob nodded.
“Cool. Let’s get our shit together a week from now,” said Ben.
Three days later, Rob found himself walking through the mall with Ben and Miya. They passed by a shop selling cinnamon buns absolutely overloaded with lard and sugar.
“God bless America. Anyone want one?” said Ben Miya fake shivered.
“No. I haven’t hit rock bottom yet,” said Rob.
“Point. Oh, maybe that shop?” Ben pointed to the shop in question, one of those novelty stores selling massage chairs and odd toys.
“Sure,” said Miya.
They browsed the store. Some of this stuff is cool. He picked up a grill fork that seconded as a thermometer. I’d totally buy this.
Miya walked up to him and Ben. “I found something,” said Miya, holding aloft a large jaguar plushy.
“Awesome,” said Rob.
“She loves jaguars, don’t she?”
“Yes. Very much so,” said Miya. Rob caught sight of something behind her.
“Wait, wait, guys. You seein’ what I’m seein’?” asked Rob.
“I dunno. What?” said Ben.
“That enormous fuck off beanbag.” Rob pointed to the corner of the store and a massive dark blue beanbag nearly the size of a queen size bed.
“Yes! That’s perfect,” said Miya, her grin matching his own.
“Think we should get that?” asked Rob.
“You totally should.”
They walked over to examine the beanbag. “It’s a bit pricy,” said Rob.
“Split between the two of us it ain’t bad,” pointed out Ben, motioning between himself and Rob. “An’ why you two think Olivia would like this so much?”
Rob grinned. “Because she said so,” he said.
“Remember John Doe? There was one of these in Rob’s illusion thing. Olivia loved it,” added Miya.
“Wait, she didn’t have wings in that. She hates backrests, remember?” said Ben. I didn’t, but whatever.
“She can lay forward, don’t have to be on her back,” said Rob. “It’ll work.”
“It’s huge, though.”
Your point being? “So is she.”
“No. How are we gonna move it anywhere? How are we gonna hide it?”
“My truck, and my truck,” answered Rob. “We got tarps at the lair, an’ I’d be willin’ to put money she’s asleep right now.”
Ben nodded grinned. “I think we got somethin’, then.”
Birthday time. Olivia slept through the day, they had more than enough time to get everything set up without tipping her off. Ben was out getting a cake with Miya. Chris helped Rob with getting the bean bag from his truck and into the lair.
“Why did you get such a big bean bag?” asked Chris as he flattened the bean bag to fit it through the door.
“It’s comfy as hell,” said Rob on the other side of it. He pulled as Chris flattened, careful to not get the bean bag caught on something and tear it. “What’d you get?”
“Sound cancelling headphones,” said Chris. “They muffle sound, not really cancel it out. You get what I’m saying.”
They worked the last few feet of bean bag in and set it down between the curtains and the table. With that done, Rob wandered off to where Amanda crouched over some new contraption of hers. He leaned on her desk.
“You ready? Got somethin’?”
“Yes,” said Amanda, not looking up. She tapped on a small tablet to her side, beneath a large computer monitor. “An e-book reader thing.”
“Aren’t those kind of expensive?”
“Not if you make one yourself out of ten dollar’s worth of parts and some pirated software. It’ll work better than anything you can get off the shelf, too. Man, I missed having actual tools and resources.”
“How long did that take you?”
“Maybe an hour or two.”
“Feel like takin’ a break?” Before you explode?
“Not really. Why?”
“You’ve been workin’ with me on your car. You’re designin’ completely new armor. You’re workin’ with Olivia on findin’ her old life. You’re still injured, I see you wincin’ an’ poppin’ pills. You think you need to be takin’ on even more shit?” He gestured to the setup she had on her desk. That isn’t an e reader thing.
“There’s a lot to do.”
“An’ you’ve been doin’ that stuff to the detriment of everythin’ else. Why?”
“Because what else can I do? I can’t fight. Not unless I manage to get a set of power armor working. But until then, I’m useless otherwise. May as well be in a coma if I can’t do something.”
“Not gonna talk with the rest of us, even?”
“And say what? Bitch about my injuries some more? No, I’ll be useful.” Pissing her off isn’t the right way to go about this.
“What are you even workin’ on now?” Let’s see if I can’t help out.
“A railgun.” Wait, what now?
“Railgun? Don’t the Navy have those things?”
“They’re working on them. And they’re focused on big guns. I’m talking about a personal weapon kind of thing.”
Rob grabbed a chair and pulled it up next to Amanda. This sounds interesting! “You know guns are artillery, right? How you gonna make that a personal weapon?”
“I was thinking a rifle. The longer a railgun is the more powerful it is. I don’t think a pistol sized one would be feasible.”
“These rails are connected to a current. If you put a metallic object between them and complete the circuit, the resultant magnetic forces around the rails-” I don’t know what most of that means.
“Yeah. Gonna have to stop you there. I dunno how to make computers do computer things.”
“What? There’s no computers in this. Not yet, anyways. This is just an electrical system for now.”
“Sorry. Lemme clarify. I dunno how to make electricity do electricity things.”
Amanda sighed and rolled her eyes. “You’re not helping.”
“OK. Lemme think,” he said. He grabbed one of the light brown rails and scratched at it with a fingernail. Not too hard. He tapped it against the desk. Doesn’t sound right. “So the electricity makes a thing go much fasterfied cuz black magic, right?”
“Yeah. Let me show you. Hand me that rail?” Rob returned it to her. She placed it in parallel to its twin, then grabbed a small chunk of some other metal and placed it between the two. “Basically, hitting the trigger makes this go fast that way,” she said, sliding the metal chunk along the rails away from herself.
Problem. “How fast?”
“I was working under the assumption of a low caliber bullet for now. If it works, I was thinking about making something more substantial.”
–That would cause metal to grind on metal. The current materials used now would be whittled down to half their size in two shots.–
“Friction would fuck the rails up right quick,” he said.
Amanda tilted her head and considered the rails. “No? They’re already putting out a bunch of heat from the current running through them. I was going to just air cool them. The added heat from friction shouldn’t be too hard to handle.”
“No, I’m thinkin’ mechanically. Like grindin’ down a knife. The rails would be tiny little sticks after two shots. Trust me, that’s the fuckin’ bane of my existence. Always gotta keep the gears an’ shit in my armor maintained.” So much WD-40. So much…
“Oh. Damn it.” She consulted her plans on her computer. “Well, I was just going to use that alloy for experiments anyways.”
“Wouldn’t be that hard to make a sturdier alloy to use.” What you’re using now is pretty shitty in that respect.
“Oh, really?” she asked, brightening up. “But wait, its conductivity is pretty important.”
“True. I can think of a couple things. Copper’s conductive, right?”
“Yes, that’s a good one. So is gold and silver. Wait, that’s dumb.” She hung her head back, eyes closed. “Never mind.”
Rob grinned. “Yeah, we don’t really got the budget for those last two. But I can think of a couple copper alloys I could make that wouldn’t wear out too quick.”
At this point they sat right next to each other, their heads almost touching as they examined Amanda’s prototype.
“I’ll need to test how conductive they are though.”
Rob shrugged. “Sure. An’ wait a sec, you can’t just make ‘em yourself?”
“No, I have no idea how to smelt metal or whatever it is you do. I can use the materials I have around me to make electrical systems, my power doesn’t tell me how to make those materials.”
“How do you do anythin’, then?”
Now it was Amanda’s turn to shrug. “I just do. I can rarely actually optimize anything, but I can usually make something do what I want it to do. Things just need maintenance. Oh! Speaking of which. What about maintaining the gun? Won’t the rails still be worn down in time?”
“Hrm. Make ‘em replaceable?”
She nodded. “That could work. We’ll want to make this easy to take apart, it is experimental.”
“Yeah, we gotta work out the kinks an’ shit.”
“Another thing is the power. I’ve been looking at an adequate portable power source, and the only ones I can think of are non-rechargeable batteries.” A small beep came from her computer. “Speak of the devil. It’s ready to go.”
She attached the rails to the desk and wired them to a large black battery.
“Sure this is gonna work? You just slapped that together in maybe thirty seconds,” said Rob as she readied the metal chunk of a projectile.
“Oh please, this is simple stuff.” She hit the switch, and the lights promptly died with a spark. A small whiff of smoke rose from a wire junction.
“You were sayin’ somethin’?” asked Rob. Must not laugh. Must not laugh.
“Yeah, I was saying shut up.” The corner of her mouth twitched up.
“Guys, guys, it’s time!” said Ben as he and Miya came in with a sheet cake.
“Time? How do you know? She’s still asleep,” said Chris at the table. Miya set down the cake in front of him.
“Well, we’re gonna wake her up,” answered Ben. Thank god she sleeps like a rock. Otherwise she’d have known days ago.
“You wanna eat that cake, don’t you,” said Rob.
“You’re goddamn right I do. That shit’s amazin’, an shit dries up stupid fast up here at altitude. Now come on.”
Rob glanced at Amanda, who just shrugged. Rob helped her to her feet, then they joined the others around the table. Amanda set her tablet beside Chris’ headphones as she took a seat.
Miya grabbed the jaguar from her own curtained off portion of the lair and slipped into Olivia’s. A moment later, she scampered back out, minus the plushy, and joined the rest of them.
“What’d you do?” asked Chris.
“I tapped her head a bunch, then put it on her back. She was moving when I got out,” she whispered.
They heard a sharp intake of breath from Olivia’s direction. She walked out from behind the curtain with the jaguar and a smile. “Happy birthday!”
Olivia froze with a tiny squeaking sound. She ducked her head and hugged the plushy tighter to her chest, until only her eyes poked out over the jaguar’s head.
“Come on, sit down,” said Ben. He teleported to Olivia’s side and led her to her seat with the backrest sawn off. She moved without resistance.
“You can breathe, ya know,” said Ben. Olivia buried her now red face into the plushy.
“Shhh. You spooked her.” Rob glanced around. Everyone’s attention was on Olivia, all with amused looks on their faces. Yeah, she gets funny when she’s embarrassed.
“Don’t be mean,” said Amanda, punching Rob’s arm. “Are you OK, Olivia?”
Olivia responded with a tiny nod of the head. Ben began cutting the cake. “You want some cake?” he asked.
After a moment, she gave another tiny nod, her face still buried in the plushie.
“You’re gonna have to look up to eat it, ya know,” said Ben as he passed a paper plate towards her.
She nodded again. Amanda nudged Rob beside her. What? She motioned her head towards Ben and the cake. What?
She asked, “What kind of cake is that?”
“Chocolate vanilla marble cake. Best of both worlds, if ya ask me.”
“Where’d you get it?” she asked.
“Bakery off of Wadsworth. Gone there a couple times for breakfast, it’s pretty damn good.
Chris and Miya both turned to follow the conversation. Oh, I get it, so we’re not all staring at Olivia. They continued the cake conversation for a couple more minutes as Ben distributed pieces to the rest of them. Olivia eventually mustered up the courage to raise her head again. She looks like she’s about to cry. Rather than crying, she took a tentative bite of cake, jaguar on her lap.
“Are you alright?” asked Amanda once everyone had finished.
“I just… um…” Olivia took in a deep breath. “I wasn’t… I wasn’t expecting this. At all.”
“Well what are friends for, if not surprisin’ an’ embarrassing’ the hell out of each other? Wanna see what you got?”
Olivia shrank again. “I… um…”
Chris passed the big puffy headphones to her. “New headphones. They should sound better than those earbuds you have right now. They’ll muffle outside sounds.”
Rather than letting everyone stare at Olivia again, Amanda passed her the tablet. “This is an e-book reader. I can show you how to download basically any book you want on it.”
“Oh, an’ that big-ass bean bag behind you is yours,” added Rob.
“What?” Olivia twisted around to get a better look at it. She turned back around and wrapped her arms and wings around everyone except Ben, on the opposite side of the table. “Thank you! Thank you so much!”
Rob finished throwing out the last of the paper plates in the dumpster out back. They used the dumpster of a nearby office building to avoid having to pay for garbage. Ben, Chris, and Miya gone to sleep in the last several hours. Olivia lay on her beanbag, tablet in front of her.
“Where’s Amanda?” he asked. Need to ask her about the railgun. She never told me how long it was supposed to be.
Olivia lifted her wing. Amanda lay sound asleep on the bean bag beside her. Rob whispered, “You want me to grab her a blanket or somethin’?”
“We’re fine. She was showing me how to get the book thing to work.” Olivia whispered back.
Rob grinned. “Bueno. I’m passin’ out. Good night.”
Olivia smiled back. “Good night,” she whispered back. “And thanks again.”