The Guardians

For those who have a way with words.
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kipling
Posts: 5
Joined: Mon Nov 07, 2016 6:05 pm

The Guardians

Post by kipling » Sat Nov 12, 2016 8:37 pm

A story or two from the hard drive. They might not be good, but I should get them off the drive and out into the world.

kipling
Posts: 5
Joined: Mon Nov 07, 2016 6:05 pm

VULNERABLE

Post by kipling » Sat Nov 12, 2016 8:41 pm

Katrina waited in the cluttered office of Gunderson Trucking, breathing stale cigar smoke and trying not to drum her fingers with impatience. They had tagged her Armageddon Grrl because things got broken when she got impatient.

But Cataclysm thought Baxter could be dangerous. Why else send the invulnerable woman?

"Are you sure Baxter heard the page?"

"I'll bring him," said the manager to her chest. She wished she had thought to cover up. The force field existed a quarter inch from her skin, so her clothes were form-fitting. She didn’t usually wear loose clothes, because in a fight they got torn. The side effect was men staring at her chest.

Her feet ached and she wished for the days before the permanent force field, when she could get a massage. She straightened up as the door opened to let in the manager and a man who had clearly been produced by a machine that stamped out losers. That man, Baxter, is the one she had come to see. The Ionite.

Baxter was a balding man whose shoulders hunched inside his faded plaid shirt and whose dark green work pants flapped on his legs, above purple sneakers. The Ionite’s costume had been purple.

Baxter saw her looking. "Most of the guys wear boots," he said softly, "but they make my feet sweat. These breathe." He glanced over at the manager. "And they were on sale."

"Penny saved is a penny earned, huh, Fred?" The trucking company's manager smiled and clapped him on the shoulder. "She probably wants to talk privately with you, so I should be--"

Baxter cringed. "Do you have to go?"

The man said sharply, "Don't whine, Fred. She had a court paper to come and see you."

Baxter said frantically, "I haven't done anything! And they always beat me up."

"It'll be okay, Fred." The manager took another glance at her chest and left. The door clicked behind him.

"I haven't done anything!" Baxter said to her. "I haven't been the Ionite for years."

"I know," she said. She held up a hand to stop further protests. "We've come to ask for your help."

He smiled ruefully. "Me? What can I do?" said Baxter. "You guys always beat me, you can do it." He sighed and looked up at Katrina. "At least driving a truck feels useful."

Katrina's prepared speech didn't seem appropriate. "Well, the thing is, the Infiniman is a threat to everything--"

He laughed bitterly. "They always are."

"But—"

"You guys can handle it. You beat impossible odds every day." He offered a little smile. "It's peaceful here. I'm not tempted to do that...stuff...any more."

"You'd be a hero. People would look up to you."

"Me? No." He looked around. "Do you mind if I sit?" She nodded. "What I learned is that it doesn't matter if you have a costume or whatever, what matters is the man inside, right? And I'm a schlemiel."

The door opened. "Mr. Pike--" The young woman stopped. "Oh. Sorry. This is Mr. Pike's office, so I thought--" She started blushing. "Didn't mean to interrupt. Sorry."

"Hi, Genavieve." Baxter stood a little taller when talking to her. "Nice to see you."

"Hi, Fred." She smiled at him. She twisted a finger in the bottom buttonhole of her cardigan. "I hafta--"

"I'll put those on the desk for you, Genavieve," said Baxter.

"Thanks." As she handed Baxter the file folder of papers, Katrina saw that the young woman didn't have a wedding ring. Baxter smiled at her again and stayed motionless until she was out of the room.

"Girlfriend?" asked Katrina. She took the file folder from him and dropped it on the desk, careful not to actually touch the desk. It looked like wood. Fragile. She could have been me. Before.

"I wish. She goes out with Jason. He's head mechanic. She doesn't look twice at me." He sighed again.

"I bet she'd look again if you were a hero," said Katrina.

* * *

Katrina as she relaxed in an honest titanium chair and watched Baxter. (She wasn't likely to damage furniture at the Obelisk.)

Baxter was watching everything as if it were new to him. It probably was: he had only been in the Obelisk on the lower levels, as a prisoner. He had barely touched his water, except to stir it once with his finger. It looked oily, probably because his fingers were dirty. Why he didn't ask for a stir stick or something--

"But," explained Baxter, "I have to touch something to affect it, and you said Infiniman is protected by a force field. I can't touch him. I mean, that's probably why you sent the lady here to get me--her force field meant I wouldn't be able to touch her."

Cataclysm was in human form and had on the outfit, so at least he wasn't showing much skin. "True," said Cataclysm. "Except your power isn't limited to things you touch."

"Yes, it is." Baxter looked back and forth: at Cataclysm, at Vale of Tears, and at Katrina.

Vale of Tears shook her head. "It can't be just what you touch, right? You transform the whole object. If you do the Midas thing on a table, the whole table changes to gold, not a thin gold handprint."

"But--" Baxter tried again. "It doesn't cross boundaries. It's, uh, discrete objects."

"Yes," said Vale of Tears. "You're limited in how much you can change, but I’ve seen up to ninety-five liters. The discrete object part is just a convenient way for your mind to enforce that."

"But I've tried--"

Cataclysm said, "I know. You tried when you fought the Department of Offense. Do you remember when you tried to take the Philosopher's Stone from the Kent Museum?"

"Sure. I fought Flicker there. Couldn't Mote get close enough to the Infiniman?"

"Thought of that," said Cataclysm. "Force field. And which Infiniman? There are now over a thousand of him."

"The landing site, an island, is nearly gone," said Katrina.

"We thought limiting sunlight would be a help—without sunlight, eventually the batteries would be exhausted, and he'd stop moving. Forklift and Truss held a big sheet of shale over him early on. Turns out that the kind of darkness we can provide slows him down but doesn't stop him."

"Magical darkness would have worked when there was only one of him," said Vale, as if repeating an I-told-you=so.

"Then, we didn’t know," said Cataclysm. "Now, your magical darkness isn't big enough."

Katrina cleared her throat.

"Sorry," said Cataclysm. "Got distracted." Vale snorted softly. "The point is that I went back to the museum a few weeks after you fought Flicker. You fought in the Egyptology exhibit, correct?"

Baxter nodded. "He was trying to keep me from the Philosopher's Stone and we ended up there. Prob'ly because he planned it that way."

"Why did you want the Philosopher's Stone anyway?" asked Katrina. "You can already change things into gold."

"You need it for eternal life. It was for my ma, she had the cancer--"

"May we please stay on topic?" asked Cataclysm. "I had the museum officials pull out everything in the cases and examine it, figuring that Cuckoo might have followed you and pulled a switch on items in any broken case."

"I never worked with Cuckoo. He's...you know..." Baxter twirled a finger near his temple.

"You don't have to work with Cuckoo. He's an opportunist," said Vale.

"Are you ladies trying to impress him? Because I don't normally have this much trouble getting to the point." He glared at them, his glare weakened by the mask. "Thank you. None of the cases were broken, so the Cuckoo had no chance to switch anything."

"I tried not to break stuff," said Baxter.

"Thank you for that. And I'm sorry about your mother."

Baxter shrugged. "It was long ago, now."

"But my questions made the museum staff worry, so they pulled out the artifacts and examined them. They were made of gold."

"Okay," said Baxter.

"The artifacts in that cabinet were made of wood. During the fight, you attempted to turn Flicker’s oaken staff into gold, to carry the electricity from the exposed cable."

"Flicker is fast. And she's the one who broke the cable."

"No one is blaming you. But you transformed the wooden scarabs. The ones you couldn't touch because they were in a sealed case. "

Baxter sat back in his chair. "Huh."

"You just didn’t know it. We think you can disable the Infiniman at a distance. Your ability can render him useless, but we don't have the time to have you touch every one of him. We couldn’t keep you safe anyway. But you can change him. You just have a block against it. "

"And that's what I'm here to help with," said Vale of Tears. "I think the block is psychological."

Katrina suddenly realized what it would be like facing an opponent who could change the iron in your blood to carbon from a distance. Against whom there was no known defense. She saw that Cataclysm was trading one danger for another.

"I need to think about it," said Baxter.

"We have to hurry," said Cataclysm. "To be honest, I wouldn't offer you this choice if it wasn’t the fate of the world. Infiniman is a Von Neumann machine. With raw materials, he doubles in number every seventeen point something minutes. That’s as slow as we can make him."

Vale added, "Raw strength isn't enough against Infiniman, or we’d send Armageddon Grrl here. Finesse might have worked when there were only eight of him."

Baxter said, "It means letting someone into my head. I didn't even let the prison telepath in." Baxter had never been classified as a threat to the population, so psychiatric adjustment hadn't been mandatory.

"Just as well," said Katrina. "We caught him last year using paroled felons to commit crimes for him."

"Eww," said Baxter. "What happened to him?"

"Limbo Zone," said Vale.

Baxter grabbed his drink and swallowed it all. He looked at them with a sour expression on his face. "I don't see an upside for me here."

"Your planet survives."

"And then you send me to the Limbo Zone because I'm a threat. When I was going to the twelve step program--"

"Supervillains Anonymous?"

"We call it that too. Anyway, I met Yellow Tocsin there, and he talked about his time in the Zone. Not a nice place."

"It's not deadly."

"It's not happy. Look, it’s better if I say no. Then I spur you on to other solutions. Trickier ones. You always win."

"Until we don't," said Cataclysm. He spoke aloud to the base computer. "Athena. Unlock List Reichenbach. Authorization by voice print and code." He spoke a series of numbers. "Athena, slideshow, interval four seconds. Display four."

One of the walls lit up with a picture of a man. It was blurry one of a man taken at an intersection, probably taken by a traffic camera. "We call this one Slipstream. We know he has at least five million euros in stolen funds. We've never found him." The next slide showed a fat smiling housewife in her kitchen. "Powers manifested after an accident. She affects time somehow. She has at least two million dollars, and we've never found her. We think she looks different now." The next slide showed a young boy beside a black-suited figure with lightning bolts on his sleeves. "We call him Brainfreeze, but that’s just the power he showed first. Some kind of psychic parasite. Currently inhabiting the Peekaboolean, who was already damned difficult to catch. Been at large for six years; Peekaboolean might be dead or might be alive and in hiding, but Brainfreeze is probably still out there."

Baxter said, "I met him."

"Brainfreeze?"

"Peekaboolean. He wanted a stake to get out of the country. This was before I got put away. I had this pottery thing of three dolphins, I turned it to gold for him." He looked at Cataclysm. "I don't do that kind of stuff now, even if they ask. Seeing them is a violation of parole."

Vale said softly, "Baxter, we don't always win."

Cataclysm said, "If you help us, we'll have your sentence commuted. No more parole. You'll be free."

"I'm already free." He shrugged. "I mean, you could put me back in for the remaining three years, five months, and sixteen days of my sentence, but really, all that means is that when I get out, I can go outta state without a police escort."

Vale added, "And I touch nothing else inside your head."

"Nothing?"

"Only what's necessary for you to unlock your powers. That might take longer, but I promise."

Baxter whined. "But you’ll be in my head. And I might never know if you changed stuff."

Katrina said, "The way things are, you'll never get her. Jason will win, even if he doesn't end up with her."

Baxter sat there. "I don't have her now."

Katrina said, "As a hero...you might. No guarantees, but you might."

"You won’t touch anything else?” Vale of Tears nodded. “Pinkie swear?" Vale held up her hand, baby finger extended. Baxter touched it with his baby finger. "You might be lying, but it makes me feel better."

Her mouth twitched. "I would never violate the sanctity of the pinkie swear."

Cataclysm muttered, "That’s all I needed to do?" He didn't glance at the clock; he just knew. "In the time we've talked, the Infiniman has doubled in number. We have to get started. You have thirty-six minutes."

"We take as long as it takes," said Vale.

"It better take less than thirty-six minutes."

* * *

Baxter stirred his water with his pinkie again. Katrina said, "I can get you a spoon or a stir stick."

"No, thank you," he said. "This mental stuff, have you ever done it?"

"Once. I had a problem because I can't get food through the force field. Got help for that. B-- Vale was very nice, then." Whoops; she had almost said her name.

"But you can eat now?"

"She helped me learn I don't need to eat any more." She rocked from side to side, hoping that would relieve some pressure on her aching feet. "What this country needs is a super-strong masseur."

He barked a laugh. "Your feet hurt?"

"Always have. Since I was ten or so."

"We get powers but we don't change." He looked off at Vale, who was fussing with the recliner for Baxter. "It's booze."

"What?"

"The drink. When I stir it with my finger, I turn some of the water into ethanol. I couldn't do that with a spoon."

Katrina laughed. "Sure you could. Turn the stir stick into booze. If anyone asks where it is, say you put it in the garbage already."

He looked started and slowly grinned. "I didn't think of that."

"But no more drinking on the job, okay? We need you straight for this."

I miss drinking, she thought. I miss meals out and being touched. Pietr used to massage her feet-- She clamped down on thoughts of Pietr, concentrated on bending the chair arm. Athena would fix it tomorrow, if there was a tomorrow.

"Athena, how long until Infiniman destroys the earth?"

"He is unlikely to destroy the planet, merely render it uninhabitable by humans."

The natural language interpreter was good but not great. "Athena, how long until copies of Infiniman cover the land, at his current rate?"

"Taking into account travel times between continents and the ones that were destroyed five iterations ago, and noting that the current models draw from approximately a square meter..."

"In hours," she added hastily.

"Less than fourteen hours. It is only an estimate. Migration off the island has begun. Transport is by flight and it is subsonic. Slapdash has destroyed all emigrés at this point."

"He's good."

"Correction. All but one. All but seven. Sixteen. Forty-seven--"

"Athena, stop." She said to Baxter, "I guess you'd better get in the chair. It looks like Vale's ready." She stopped at the doorway. "I have to go to an island."

* * *

Doctor Hoodoo could get her to one of the newly-infected islands in a dozen seconds, after she ran for a minute to see him.

"You know the island?" she asked him. She tried to be all business but instead she felt sad. And mad.

"Got a list," he said, like he still cared. "Good luck." Greenery flickered into sight. Doctor Hoodoo disappeared.

Athena said that Infiniman was only going Mach 3 but he hadn't bothered to stop before hitting the island. The impact crater was small and the devastation was immense: there was no standing forest left here, and the blast wave had melted rock and vaporized what was here. The burning treetrunks lay leafless and scattered on the ground, arranged in a pattern radiating out from the crater. It looked like what Madame Kirlian had described of Tunguska.

She trekked up the crater rim, barely noticing that the rock was hot. It didn't hurt her, but she was glad the blast wave had already passed: she hadn't told Baxter that sound was one of the few things that got through her force field. She was tough, not impervious.

The impact hadn't harmed Infiniman at all. He rested waist deep in a small spire of rock at the center of the crater.

She wished she were graceful like Cataclysm in beast form, or flew like Ikon, or even ran as fast as Slapdash. She waited a minute for the rock under her feet to cool a bit--she had jumped from soft rock once before and ended buried up to her ankles in pumice.

There was a flickering around Infiniman, almost like an octopus with sparkling tentacles. She could already see the framework of copies of Infiniman. He could make three at a time? They had talked about doubling--

Well: she was strong, she was tough...that had to be enough.

She leapt and missed, sailing into the floor of the crater wall beyond Infiniman. She was glad none of the others had seen her flub that. She had...she glanced at her watch...ten minutes until the copies were done, and she'd have to deal with four Infinimen.

All she had to do was hurt something that could easily take a Mach 4 crash. That couldn't be hard, could it? After all, she had once cleaned and jerked a mountain. Surely it couldn't take that kind of punishment.

A simulated mountain. In tests.

She made sure that she was facing the longest portion of the island; she remembered Cataclysm's warning about accidentally dropping him in the ocean. (TL;DR: Don't.)

Even though it meant her feet weren't on the ground and she didn't have as much force, she gave a tiny tiny leap and hit him as hard as she could, her fist connecting with his--its--belly. It felt like a good solid hit; she could feel it up her arm.

The skirt of rock shattered and Infiniman flew backwards, smashing against the crater wall and gouging out a tunnel in the softened rock and earth.

From here, he didn't look much like a man, just humanoid. Four digits on each hand, she noticed.

The sound was deafening, and she was glad she had slipped filtering earplugs in. And that was only possible because she had been practicing for a few years and now that she could lose the force field for as much as ten seconds at a time. Not enough for a good foot massage, though; there was a cramp starting in her left foot. She resolved to kick the Infiniman next, to try and get some pressure there.

She overshot on her next jump, but at least he was away from his duplicates. She landed in pleasant jungle. Something hissed at her but she didn't notice.

How much of a duplicate had to be built before it started assembling itself? Was she going to deal with this one and then discover that there were three more to fight? Why had she not thought of this before?

One problem at a time, Katrina, she reminded herself. The gouge in the earth was easy to find, but when she hopped into the steaming hole, she couldn't find the Infiniman.

I know I hit him, she thought. He should be--

She felt it, on her shoulder, and saw the earth swallow her up as she was forced downwards by the blow. She bent her legs and crouched and spread her arms, the way she'd been taught, and used the increased surface area like a skydiver. When she stopped, she noticed a slight smell of burning hair.

Her hair. I just grew this out! she thought. She snuffed the flames, then she looked up at the steep cliff of rock.

Pretty deep. Not so deep that she couldn't jump out, but Infiniman was strong, too. They were tied in the strong and tough department. Infiniman hovered over the hole. Well, crap: he could fly and she could just leap. Neither of them needed to breathe, but if she made it dark to slow him down, she wouldn't be able to see.

She got her feet under her and leaped straight up, misjudging just a bit and grazing the side of the hole, but that was okay--it meant she slowed at the top and looked like she was just hopping out of a small hole. It gave the illusion of grace, which pleased her (even if Infiniman didn't care).

"Do we have to do this the hard way?" she asked, just to be saying something.

It might have been nice if Infiniman had cocked his head at her as if interpreting the words and learning the language--the last two alien probes had, gave it a kind of consistency--but he didn't. He lifted one arm, which had become some sort of blaster, and fired. She braced herself, because she had no idea if there was going to be blowback from this, but it was just flame and explosion. Around her, the jungle started to burn.

*Make a note--they have weapons," she said aloud, in case the communicator had survived that immersion in earth. "Or they can reconfigure into weapons. The arm didn't look that way before. Oh, and things are on fire, now. If there are natives, evacuate them."

She wondered how long it would take Vale to perform the mental gymnastics on Baxter. Calvin--Doctor Hoodoo--might have to take Baxter to each set of them in turn, if anyone failed.

Like it looked she was going to.

She kept walking, which was probably a mistake, because that gave him time to bring up the other arm. This one no longer looked like a four-fingered hand; now it was some kind of blaster thingy with a cone or antenna facing directly at her.

As long as it's not sound...as long as it's not sound. She gritted her teeth.

Infiniman fired. The recoil from the blast knocked him backward so his feet dug into the ground and ploughed the earth for a dozen meters that way.

The blast tingled, like Quarkmaster's blasts, but with a hint of the nausea she got from magnetic attacks. It didn't hurt her. She glanced around. The blast had actually snuffed some of the burgeoning forest fire. She started describing it to the communicator before she noticed the pieces.

Great, she thought. That is the second communicator this month. I am so going to be dinged for it in my pay. It was just like working in the insurance company.

From long practice, she cut that off. That sort of thing led to thinking about Pietr.

Well, she thought, that's not too bad. She closed the remaining distance and noticed that the octopus of sparkles was concentrating locally now. Guess he's abandoned the others. Feeling like a one-trick pony, she grabbed one of his shoulders and punched with the other hand. Her own blow ripped him out of her grasp, but he only went a dozen meters.

He didn't get up; he flew to her feet and grabbed the thing that his sparkling octopus had been making. Why do you even have legs if you're not going to use them? Can your flight be disabled? While she was thinking, he took the thing from the ground and fired it at her.

First it felt like a tremendous weight had been settled on her, like a building had been dropped on her. Then she was going into, through the crater wall, surrounding earth and eventually she popped out of the side of a hill.

It wasn't smart, she decided. There was a limited menu of tricks to try, and each time she came back, it tried a new one, as if it were looking for a one-shot solution.

Sooner or later it would hit upon sonics, and she would be done.

Katrina lost minutes leaping back. At the edge of the crater, she was amused to notice that all of them, original and new, had gadgets like the one he used on her. It finds what works and sticks with it.

If there were two people, they could switch foes and exploit the weaknesses. Could she fake a weakness, lead to it using them, and then take them out?

Assuming she could think of an appropriate weakness.

She managed to aim her jump perfectly to land on one of the "children" and smash it back into rubble.

Her skin felt like she had ants crawling all over her.

Her force field was fading—and winked out.

It ate my force field!

She stared at it, and then thought, [ i]And it will eat me. [/i]

It started to lift one arm to blast her again, and she put her hand on it. She was, thankfully, still strong. The glow of assembly machines was around his arm now. She could feel him getting stronger.

But would it do so before her force field came back? If it came back?

Duh, she thought. Don't fight it. Let it hit you while it's still weak. Let it think it won, that that's what works.

She let go of the arm. It pulled back and hit her.

She didn't even hit the far wall of the crater, just the smooth rock of the floor.

That's not so bad, she thought as she rolled onto her knees. There was something hard in her mouth, tasted like blood. She spat out a tooth. Aw.

It hit her again, clacking her jaw shut and she stopped thinking for a couple of minutes.

# # #

She was weightless, and at about that time she noticed she was high in the air, and the air pressure was thinning. She adopted a skydiver pose, hoping that might slow her down. She saw the curve of horizon, and then, felt weightlessness: floating. She had that stuffiness in her sinuses that she got on really long jumps.

Fortunately, her force field had grown back. That meant this might be survivable.

She had never tried re-entry before. Long seconds passed. She hoped that she was going to re-enter. Could that thing have given her orbital velocity? She hoped not; without a communicator, she would be in orbit for a long time. She fixed her attention on a point on the horizon and waited.

She hoped she was falling.

She thought she was falling.

The world grew bright and hot. Yes, she was falling.

It would be nice if some other member of the Guild would rescue her. That's what teammates were supposed to do, even when you were sent away to work solo. No one showed up, though. She kept falling.

She tried to remember if Calvin--Dr. Hoodoo--had ever talked about meteors, human-sized ones. She wasn't a big woman; tall enough that the other women in the insurance company had laughed at her but not tall by superhero standards. Probably a big boom, though: she'd probably be knocked out by the sound.

Of course, the missile defense systems or the meteor shield should get her first. Without her communicator, she was just an unidentified falling object, like an ICBM or a dinosaur-killer. (No, wait, that one had been kilometers across and apparently had been an out-of-control ark; she kept meaning to read more of the files.)

Well, crap, she was probably going to be deafened. Was there an opportunity for deaf superheroes? Could she learn AmSLan in a reasonable length of time?

The corona of ionized air was quite bright by now. She almost missed seeing the guided missile coming for her.

Mostly she felt shame.

She had totally messed this up. Maybe she should disable the force field for the moment of missile detonation; if the heat of re-entry didn't kill her, the missile would. She had about a second at its apparent rate of growth.

No; she wasn't that embarrassed. What did she have that meteors and ICBMs didn't? A brain, and a flexible body.

She twisted into a V shape and waited for it, ready--

It did not hit her with its nose, but farther down the cone, and she lashed out and sank an arm into it. It yanked her along.

With a series of punches, like a mountain climber, she moved up to where she figured the explosives were. She carefully disarmed it and threw the fissionable masses out. She didn't want to explode Infiniman or wherever she put this down.

Good. Now she had a vehicle. All she had to do was figure out how to steer it.

# # #

She peeked out of the small nest she had carved into the missile. There were four of him standing in the forest; she hoped that the impact wouldn't deafen her. With luck, there was a vulnerable moment before the new ones were complete.

And this missile was probably going much more than Mach 4. It weighed more.

She counted down to impact: 3…2…1…

The explosion knocked her out, and when she lifted her head, there were still five of them standing there.

Vulnerable, she thought in the silence. She dragged herself over and hit one. Hard.

It shattered.

Good, she thought. Again. The crawl seemed to take longer. And again.

She was lying there, semiconscious, when Calvin blipped into existence with Fred. He hadn't bothered to put on the Ionite costume.

"Hey," she said to them. Their mouths moved but they didn't say anything. "Deaf," she said. She had no idea if her voice actually worked.

Then it seemed like too much trouble to keep her eyes open.

The next thing she knew, she heard pings. She was in a hospital bed, surrounded by high tech. At the Obelisk. Calvin was there. So was Fred. Baxter. Er, the Ionite.

"Gonna take over the world?" she said to Baxter.

"I never wanted--" He shook his head. "It was never about the money anyway. I mean, I could turn stuff into gold."

"If you didn't mind destroying the gold market," said Calvin.

"I was careful," Baxter said. "Anyway, I wanted to make sure you were okay."

"Yeah."

"Can I…can I see you again?" he asked. Calvin harrumphed.

"Like a date?"

Baxter shook his head. "No. No. Genavieve said yes and I wanted your advice on shoes. I figure you know about them, having sore feet and all."

She managed a chuckle. "Sure."

"I'm glad you saved the world." There was an awkward silence.

"I'm glad you put yourself out there." She took a deep breath. "I should."

The room still spun a bit when she turned her head, but she did anyway to look at Calvin. "You want to try again?

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