Title: With Wings To Swim
Author: marcicat

Word count: 50070

Fandom: White House Down
Characters: Emily Cale, Amber Sawyer, Alison Sawyer, Melanie Cale, John Cale, James Sawyer, Carol Finnerty

Tags: nanowrimo 2015, Sentinels and Guides are known, spaceships, animal guides, robots, family, die hard knockoff, political shenanigans, not really it’s all about the money, cats



EMILY CALE

She woke up. She was pretty sure she was awake, anyway. It didn’t feel like those snooze-button dreams where you dream you’re awake and going through the motions of the morning routine, only to find out in nine minutes that you’re still in bed in your pajamas. This — her subconscious couldn’t have made this up. She pinched herself just in case. Nope.

She remembered going to work, she remembered leaving work, and then nothing. But she was in her pajamas, so clearly there was a certain amount of something she was missing. Fantastic.

So, she’d been kidnapped, maybe. The good news: not dead. The room looked like a stripped down version of every hotel room she’d ever been in — low bed, one chair, ambient lighting strips all around the bottoms of the walls. No desk, no windows. Underground bunker? Military facility? (Man, if she’d been kidnapped by some shady government agency she would never hear the end of it from her parents.)

The floor was warm under her feet, which upgraded her comfort level considerably, even if it didn’t offer any clues about location. The bathroom, however, left a lot to be desired. Like running water. Or a mirror. There wasn’t even a toothbrush. Her shiv-making skills were more theoretical than practical, but a toothbrush would have been better than nothing, right? No way was she strong enough to break the chair apart.

She wasn’t sure whether she should be concerned or relieved that she seemed to be alone. No one had showed up to threaten her, but no one had shown up to rescue her, either. She tried the door first thing — locked. But it looked like the standard cheap electronic kind, keypad and all. Not even a palm print reader. Just like her college dorm, where there’d been dozens of complaints every semester about their inherent lack of security. She crossed her fingers and hoped one of the old dorm tricks would work.

When the door finally gave a loud beep and popped open, she said, “Shhh” automatically, then rolled her eyes. Six years since living in a building that paid attention, and she still hadn’t broken the habit of talking to the walls. (She still patted the door frame on her way out. No reason to break tradition; it wasn’t like anyone was watching.)

The hallway was as bland as the room. No windows. A door to either side, and three matching doors across the hall. Nothing that looked like an exit, or anything remotely helpful, like a stairway, or an elevator, or a map. No guards either, though — bright side, she guessed. Maybe?

Door number one was unlocked, but other than that the room was identical to the one she’d just left. Bed, chair, weird bathroom. No signs that anyone had been there. Door number two — same deal. Mirror image setup, but nothing different. Not even any vents to pry off the wall. Her success with the door lock was starting to seem less and less helpful.

Door number three was where she finally got lucky. It was the room directly across the hall from where she’d woken up, but instead of the now-familiar hotel-style bed and bath, it was set up as a common area. There was a long table with benches on either side, and a sofa against one wall. And in the back, lit up with the same ambient light stripping that was on all the walls, was a ladder. Jackpot. It was a weird way to get between floors, but it was obviously intended for exactly that, given the holes in the ceiling and floor. She crept closer with as much stealth as she could manage (not much). Even when she was right next to it, she couldn’t see or hear anything coming from the other floors. Just more bland walls and low lighting.

Check the rest of the rooms, or try the ladder? Her instinct was to get as far away as possible as fast as possible, but it wasn’t like she had any reason to think that “away” would be any better than where she was already. And she knew at least one of the rooms had contained a person — her.

She checked the rooms. Doors four and five were a return to hotel decor, and the rooms were as empty as the rest of the floor. She headed back for the ladder room and ignored the growing doubts her imagination kept tossing up — what if she was the only person there? What if she was the only person anywhere? What if she’d been locked away in a building with no water and no food, and whoever put her there had gotten in a car accident and was in a coma, and now no one in the whole world knew where she was?

“Stop it,” she muttered to herself. “That is not helping.” She stared at the ladder. Up or down? “If I was building a secret underground bunker…” She’d put supplies as low as she could get them, probably, but she wasn’t sure if that was strategy or just guessing. She went down anyway. The room below was smaller; no furniture. One entire wall looked like it was some kind of computer screen, and she spent a few futile minutes trying to activate it. Then she tried the door, crossing her fingers that she wasn’t about to run into anything worse.

It was a different model than the others; different enough that her trick from before wasn’t going to work. And it was locked. “Are you kidding me?” She bit off the expletives that bubbled up, and took a deep breath. She reminded herself that there was zero reason to go back, and she definitely didn’t want to stay in the empty room of frustration. One by one, she jammed the numbers on the keypad down and held them there. The door beeped a warning at her at the minute mark. “I know,” she told it. “Sorry.” It would break the lock, and — at least according to dorm lore — record your fingerprints and be reported as a felony, but it would open the door. Eventually. Hopefully.


AMBER SAWYER

There were not enough breathing exercises in the world for the current situation. This was not how she’d planned to spend her day. One day — not even a whole weekend! One day to hide out in her apartment, totally alone, no family, no studying, just her and the white noise generator and her fuzziest sweatpants. But no; instead she’d been abducted, and was stuck who knows where in a locked room in a mostly-empty building. Wasn’t abduction supposed to be less likely once your parent wasn’t the sitting president? Obviously not.

At least she wasn’t zoning out anymore. She’d lost time, maybe a lot, when she’d first woken up and tried to listen in on her surroundings. There was nothing. A few levels in either direction and then — nothing outside the outer walls. She managed to snap out of it when Emily started moving around. (Emily Cale. She’d maybe lost a little more time trying to figure out who would grab them both, and only them.) 

It was a short list of zero; they'd been thrown together off and on after the White House incursion, in the way that adults simply assumed that the only two young people in a group would automatically get along.  But they hadn't even spoken to each other for years.  Not since the run-up to her dad's second term. There had been a dinner, one of an endless stream of them, and a discussion of domestic policy that got a little loud, and suddenly the media was reporting that they had a feud. After that she and Emily were being seated at separate tables.  She heard Emily had moved from her dad, had been offered a trip to Maryland to see her by her mother, but by then -- well.  By then it had just seemed easier not to.  The second term was hard on all of them.

Try as she might, she couldn't figure out how Emily had gotten past the door lock.  But she could hear her progress  -- or lack thereof -- and she heard her doing something to the second lock.  There was an electronic whine that built up and up, until it cut off abruptly.  All the lights went out, and she shook her head. “Nice going, Emily.” She doubted that was what was supposed to happen. Except then her door unlocked, so maybe it actually was.

It was easier than she expected to navigate in the dark.  It probably helped that she'd heard Emily make the same trip.  She was starting one level higher, but the layout was the same.  And it wasn't like you normally looked at your feet going down a ladder anyway, right?  There was a dicey moment when Emily tripped over something and yelped -- she missed the next rung and had to stop and let her adrenaline fade a little to get her hands to stop shaking.

But she made it in one piece, for the most part.  And when she stepped through the final door she realized why Emily had stopped moving.  She'd found the windows that were missing from everywhere else.  They weren't in a building.  They were in a spaceship.

“No,” she said. No, that wasn’t possible. Spaceships were — they were for diplomats, and billionaires; she hadn’t been allowed on one even when her dad was the president, no matter how many times she’d asked. There were rules, and quarantines; you didn’t just *end up* on a spaceship.

Emily spun around, and flung an arm out for balance. Or possibly to hit anyone who might have snuck up within hitting distance. “Who’s there?” she said.

Amber took a few steps closer. “It’s me. Amber. Sawyer?” It seemed equally awkward to assume Emily would remember her as to assume she wouldn’t, and she was relieved when Emily took over.

“Amber, oh my god, what are you doing here? Are you all right? Sorry about the lights. That was me, not on purpose or anything, I really didn’t expect them to be looped into the door lock like that.” She wasn’t moving at all as she talked, just staring out the windows. The view was certainly distracting, to say the least.

“It’s fine,” Amber said. “I’m okay.” She felt better with Emily right there. (Even at 11, Emily had always seemed to approach things with a sort of outspoken confidence that tended to buoy others along in her wake. Plus, she was the one who’d figured out the doors.)

“Really?” Emily asked, and there was a waver in her voice that made Amber’s head snap around. “Because I’m — not great at space, it turns out.”

Amber closed the distance between them in seconds. As soon as she put her hand on Emily’s shoulder, Emily turned towards her, away from the window, and Amber could see she was crying. She couldn’t remember if they’d ever hugged before, but it was easy to pull her in and wrap her arms around her. “Hey, it’s going to be okay. Why don’t we go back in the other room.”

She wasn’t one hundred percent sure what “not great at space” was intended to indicate, but if seeing it had been the catalyst, then not seeing it was as good place to start as any. Amber led them back to the little room with no furniture, and they sat side by side on the floor. There wasn’t much she could do, except run a hand up and down her back and try to think about how they were going to get the lights back on. It wasn’t like they could just wait for the sun to come up.

It didn’t take long for Emily to take a deep breath and let it out in a slow, shuddering sigh. “Right,” she said. “That didn’t help.” Amber dropped her hand, and Emily said quickly, “No, not that! You helped, definitely. Just — crying in general just makes me feel congested and gross, which is not exactly a great addition to the day.”

There wasn’t much to say to that, so Amber just said, “Yeah,” and hoped it didn’t sound weird.

Emily said, “I’m glad you’re here. Not that I’m glad you were kidnapped, because I’m not. But if I had to pick someone to get kidnapped with — you’d make the list.”

“I would’ve picked your dad.” She bumped her shoulder against Emily’s so she’d know she was joking. “But you’re not so bad.”


EMILY CALE

They were in big trouble. She appreciated Amber’s efforts at comfort, and she tried to pull herself together. It made sense not to panic. She was seriously regretting the lights, though. She hadn’t thought much of it when she’d been focused on getting away — now that she knew there was no away to get to, it would have been nice to at least be able to see.

Speaking of which — “How did you find me?” she asked.

There was a long silence, and Amber shifted slightly away. Finally, she said, “I could hear you.”

“Yeah?” It was funny, almost. Would be more funny if a big part of her wasn’t still freaking out over the fact that they were probably going to die of thirst in the vastness of space. “I’m pretty sure I’m still on a government watch list just for knowing you, and you’re just going to put that out there? Amber Sawyer has Sentinel hearing, no big deal?”

“You already knew,” Amber said.

Which was true. By the time they’d met, Amber was pretty good at hiding it, but no one was perfect. “I didn’t know you knew that I knew. I never told anyone.” Partly because she was worried she’d wind up in jail, but everyone deserved their secrets. As it turned out. (That was one lesson learned the hard way, several times over.)

“Thank you.”

“Why didn’t you? Tell anyone, I mean.”

She could feel Amber shrug next to her. “It was inconsistent, for a long time. Off and on, or it would get stronger and then weaker. It never felt permanent. By the time it settled, Dad was about to take office. It was just starting to be something people talked about; Mom thought announcing it would destabilize voter confidence. And after that, how could we? I lived in the White House. No matter how much I swore I never heard anything I wasn’t supposed to, it wouldn’t have mattered — every confidential meeting would have been called into question.”

“That’s why you took so many trips.” She’d wondered about that. Alison Sawyer was the most well-traveled First Lady in presidential history, and frequently noted for taking her daughter with her. (Amber Sawyer was also the first First Daughter to spend a semester abroad, which had caused a stir at the time, but she could see Amber’s point — not nearly as much of a stir as coming out as a Sentinel would have.)

Something wasn’t adding up quite right, though. “It’s just hearing, though?” she asked. “This is maybe going to sound like a dumb question, but are you sure?”

“That’s it,” Amber said. She sounded surprised. (Not offended, and Emily breathed an internal sigh of relief.) “I was never tested, but I’ve never showed any enhanced levels of any of the other senses. Why?”

“Because you can see right now.” A lot better than she could, anyway. Emily held her hand up in front of her face. Nope. Nothing. But somehow Amber had navigated through the ship right to her location. Without tripping over anything.

“Not very well,” Amber protested.

Emily waved her hand around. “How many fingers am I holding up?”

“Four.”

“Yup. But I can’t see them. You can.” Amber didn’t say anything, so Emily leaned on her shoulder and added, “Congratulations, you’re a two sense Sentinel now. I really am sorry about the lights, you know.”

Amber leaned back. “Sure, you say that now. Are you feeling any better?”

She was, surprisingly. “Little bit, as long as I don’t think about it too much.”

Amber took her hand and got them both standing up. “Come on, then. Let’s not stay here. There’s four levels that the ladder accesses, I think. This one, the one you were on, the one I was on, and one above that. We’re the only people here, but this is a spaceship — there must be a driver’s seat somewhere, right? And since we haven’t found it yet, maybe it’s on the top level.”

She led them in what Emily assumed was the direction of the ladder. “Makes sense,” she said, since Amber seemed to be waiting for some kind of response. She wasn’t exactly looking forward to climbing four levels of ladder in complete darkness, but it was better than the alternative. Amber was right — check everything first. (Then panic again after, probably.)

“How do you want to do this?” Amber said. “First or second?”

Neither. She shook her head, and took a deep breath. Not helpful. “You should go first,” she said. “I’ll follow. Just — keep talking?” Keep me distracted, she didn’t say, but Amber was smart enough to figure it out.

Amber squeezed her hand. “I can do that.”


AMBER SAWYER

“I did not realize how hard it is to climb a ladder. It seems like it should be easy, but it’s not. I guess I don’t climb many ladders in my daily life.”

They were almost there, with Emily right behind her. She’d kept up a steady stream of words, while Emily most muttered about gravity, and if they had to be trapped in a spaceship why couldn’t it at least have been one with a lower than Earth-normal gravity, to make moving around easier.

Emily paused behind her. “I did a ropes course thing once, at school. There were ladders.”

“Harder, or easier?” Amber asked. “Also we’re almost there.”

“You said that before.”

She had. Three times. “I mean it this time. The ropes course?”

“Well, we could see, which helped. But it was slower, because you had to keep moving your safety clips. Plus side, of course, was that we had safety gear.”

Amber rolled her eyes. “We’re being safe.” They weren’t. Probably as safe as they could manage, though, without splitting up, which was — her brain shut down that train of thought. Not an option. “And we made it.” She stepped off the ladder and kept a hand on Emily until she was off as well.

“Wow,” Emily said flatly. “More darkness. Yay.”

She wasn’t sure how to interpret what she was seeing at first. It was — possible that she’d zoned out, just a little, until Emily poked her in the arm. “So? Don’t keep me in suspense here. What are we looking at? Control room? Communications equipment? Great big ‘on’ switch?”

“Think less ‘bridge of the Enterprise’ and more ‘attic full of boxes,’ Amber told her. She shook her head and blinked a few times, but her vision stayed normal. Or as normal as it had been before. “It looks like a storage room.” She wasn’t sure whether she should feel disappointed or relieved. It probably depended on what was in the containers.

At least Emily seemed to be thinking along the same lines. She said, “Huh. That’s not what I was expecting.” She took a deep breath, and blew it out slowly. “Honestly, though, I was worrying about the fact that I have no idea how to drive a spaceship, so I guess at least that’s one thing I can put off feeling guilty about. And now we know what we should do next. Maybe we can find a flashlight or something, so I can actually help.”

“You are helping,” Amber said, leading them towards the closest row of containers. “I was still locked in my room until you opened all the doors.”

“Yeah, and killed all the lights. I’m not sure that was really a winning choice. We’ve just got a bigger locked room to move around in now.”

Amber didn’t say anything. If Emily was determined to take the blame and be dramatic about the whole thing, that probably wasn’t the worst coping mechanism for the time being. Worrying about the other person kept them from worrying so much about themselves, and she didn’t think either of them wanted to talk about what they’d do if the storage containers didn’t miraculously contain food and water.

But then Emily took another breath, and said, “Sorry. Got stuck in my own head for a minute there. I’m good now.” That was new. She almost asked, but cut herself off. Focus on one problem at a time. First: open the containers and get a basic inventory.

They got lucky. They got very lucky. Or possibly spaceships were inherently dangerous enough that they tended to be stocked with a significant amount of survival gear just as a baseline. For one thing, the containers themselves lit up when they were opened. The entire inside surface glowed — it lit up the room like a beacon. And they found water, not too long into the process, and then food. Suddenly it was looking like they might make it after all, except for the fact that they were floating in an empty ship in the middle of space. The enormity of the situation hit her all at once, and everything was too loud and too bright and she just — stopped.

Emily was talking to her, when she came back enough to notice things like that. They were both on the floor, too, and she thought she had maybe been standing up before? And Emily had been on the other side of the room. Now she was close, one hand on her wrist and the other on her shoulder. Her head hurt, but she tried to pay attention to what Emily was saying in case it was important.

“…swear to god Amber, do not check out on me. Your mom would kill me. She still sends me a birthday card every year, did you know that? I think she picks the most ridiculous ones on purpose. Come on, work with me here, I have no idea what I’m doing. I didn’t even know I was space-a-phobic, or whatever it’s called, because you know there’s some weird name for that. And I wish you weren’t here, because obviously I wish we both weren’t here, but you are here — Amber, don’t leave me alone with all of this, okay? You got that? You’re freaking me out with this fainting and not waking up thing.”

She tried to sit up, but didn’t get much further than a hand twitch. Emily’s rambling cut off. “Amber?” she said.

“I’m okay.” She wasn’t sure that was true, but she was sure it was what she was supposed to say.

“Sure you are.” Emily didn’t sound at all convinced. “How conscious are you right now?”

What kind of a question was that? She opened her eyes to squint up at Emily, and only then realized they’d been closed. Maybe it was a valid question after all. “I’m awake. What happened?”

Emily gave her a disbelieving look. “You’re asking me? I have no idea. You fainted, or zoned, or something. You’ve been totally out of it. How do you feel?”

Her head still hurt, but in a different way. “Did I hit my head on the floor?”

Emily winced. “Yeah. Sorry about that. Next time maybe give me some warning, and I’ll run over and catch you?” Then she frowned. “Can you wiggle your toes? Also, why didn’t you tell me you didn’t have any socks on?”

She ignored the toes question, and worked her way into a sitting position, with Emily hovering about an inch away. “We’re in our pajamas. Who wears socks with pajamas?”

“Anyone who doesn’t want their feet to get cold at night?” Emily waved a sock-clad foot in the air. “One of your feet is all scratched up.”

“That’s what blankets are for.” Her foot did kind of hurt, now that she was thinking about it. “I slipped on the ladder, the first time. It’s fine.”

“As soon as we find a first aid kit,” Emily started, and she nodded.

“As soon as we find a first aid kit, you’ll be the first one to know.”


EMILY CALE

She was worried. She was no medical expert, but unexplained unconsciousness was pretty much never a good sign. And even though Amber was acting like everything was fine, her sentences weren’t parsing all that clearly.

She stared at Amber for a long few seconds, trying to decide if she should let it go.  What other options did they really have, though?  It wasn't like there was a doctor around.  She didn't even have net access for a basic symptoms search.  "We'll keep looking ," she said.

It wasn't a fast process, but they gradually worked out a decent sorting system.  Most things fell into one of four categories: stuff they needed right away, stuff that looked like it might be useful at some point, stuff they couldn't identify, and containers they couldn't get open.  (Not that they wouldn't keep trying.  They were just prioritizing the easy ones.)

"How is it that we've come across three separate containers of bed linens, but no first aid kit?" she asked.

Amber was actually looking better, relatively speaking.  Still, there had to be a first aid kit somewhere. Right? Amber handed her a snack bar, and said, “Maybe they're in the walls.  Like PFDs on a boat.” Emily sat back, and stared at the walls consideringly.

Something had to be in the walls, because there wasn't anything they'd seen so far that would actually fly the ship.  Or else there was some part of the ship they hadn't figured out how to access yet.  "Would you be able to tell?"  (She really had no idea how enhanced Amber's senses were.  Sentinel senses were less rare — or at least more acknowledged — than they'd been at the beginning of the century, but it wasn't like it was a one size fits all experience.)

Amber tilted her head.  "Not right now.  Everything's sort of -- I don't know. Fuzzy.”

"It's fine," Emily said automatically.  "Don't push yourself."

Amber just looked at her, and she could feel herself blushing.  She knew she was just substituting worrying about Amber to avoid worrying about herself.  But if it worked, it worked.  She was pretty sure it would get her through unpacking the rest of the containers, at least. "Sorry.  You do whatever; I don't know what I'm talking about."

"No, it's nice," Amber said.  "I always thought we should have told you; Mom thought you would figure it out on your own and then you’d have plausible deniability.  Does she really send you birthday cards?"

"Every year." They were nice. They always made her feel guilty, but it was the nice kind of mom-guilt where you suddenly remembered you didn’t have any napkins, and not the horrible sinking feeling mom-guilt where you worried your current choices were just the latest in a lifetime of disappointments. (She was familiar with both. But people tended to give her confused looks when she tried to explain the difference, so she mostly didn’t mention it.)

She pushed a pack of light strips over towards Amber's pile to change the subject.  "These will be good.  I think the containers may break apart, too.  It's a neat design."  She flipped the container over and carefully kept her eyes on the seams.  "You could have told me."

"I know."  They worked in silence for a few minutes.  She figured out how to get the containers to break apart, which involved hitting them really hard with a hammer.  (Tool kit -- they'd found two; the redundancies were weird.  Maybe it was a space thing?)

“Are redundancies a space thing?” she asked.

(NASA had ramped up to the alien life and space travel reveal for years — Mars, Kepler 425, Ceres — it had just snowballed from there. Enough so that when it had finally been made official, most people thought it was already old news. Aliens — not that life-changing when they weren’t trying to invade and/or destroy things. There was some cultural exchange, a lot of political maneuvering. It was pretty cool that you could travel to another planet, but the reality was that most people didn’t, just like most people didn’t ever go to Monaco, or Antarctica. And space travel was still about a billion times more of a pain than air travel.)

“I have no idea,” Amber said. “I’ve never been in space before.”

Emily knew that, actually, but she wasn’t sure if it was weird that she knew that. “Me neither.” She looked around. They’d made serious headway on the containers, even if you took out the ones they’d been unable to open on the first (or second, or third) try. The inventory wasn’t exactly ideal. Water, food, lights, clothes — they definitely had the basics covered. But they were coming up short on anything that would let them call for help or figure out where they were. And they still had no idea how they’d ended up wherever that was, or if whoever responsible was going to show up and make trouble.

It had reached the point where it was pretty clear they weren’t going to find a magical “push this to get home now” technological marvel. And she didn’t want to count on a rescue. She sighed. “We should probably start making a plan.” Personally, the attic level was kind of growing on her (it was where all the stuff was!), but it might make more sense to ferry things down to one of the lower levels where there was more room to spread out.

When she looked over, Amber was rubbing her temples. “Break time first?” she suggested, and she thought Amber looked relieved. They had nothing but time, might as well take advantage of it.


AMBER SAWYER

Break time turned into both of them falling asleep. One of the things they had yet to find was anything that would keep track of the time -- based just on their level of hunger, it had probably been a few hours by the time they woke up again. The good news was that she felt a lot less fuzzy than she had before. The bad news was that she was relatively sure she'd just proved every ridiculous Sentinel cliche true, coming online with additional senses in a stressful situation. Hearing and sight had at least been useful. But touch? Taste? The sterilized water was disgusting with enhanced taste.

She didn’t even consider trying to keep it hidden from Emily. "This is ridiculous; I've been in plenty of stressful situations before. They're not even helpful here. There's nothing to sense."

Emily, at least, thought it was a good thing. "But there could be, and now we'll know about it before we get eaten by a space slug, or something."

Then she hesitated, and added. "Not that I think we're going to get eaten by a space slug."

Amber stretched carefully. Everything felt sharper. So far she wasn't showing any of the standard symptoms she knew to watch out for -- no spiking, nothing. Which could mean she was lucky, or possibly that her subconscious thought she was in imminent danger of dying and was making a herculean effort to keep everything under control while she fought for survival. Probably the second, if she was being honest.

Although it had been a relatively easy fight so far. If you left out the larger context, this was a nice abduction. People probably paid a lot of money to take vacations on ships like this. “You said something about a plan?” she asked.

Emily nodded. “I think we should Swiss Family Robinson it up in here. Set up a home base, with defenses if we can manage it, and then work on figuring out the rest of the ship. There’s got to be a basic SOS or emergency beacon we can activate somewhere.”

It made sense. There was power still running through the ship; she could hear it. Still — “Swiss Family Robinson?”

“Come on, I loved that book. They had a tree house!”

A tree house. That sounded vaguely familiar. Well, a space ship was basically the ultimate tree house, right? As long as you weren't scared of space, which didn't seem like the best thing to mention at that moment. "So -- home base on the top level?"

They roughed out a basic layout of the ship -- four levels, with the top and bottom levels smaller than the middle two. "It must look like an oval?" Emily tilted her head at the outline, which was set up on the floor with protein bars and light strips to mark the sections. "I guess that's a spaceship kind of shape."

They really couldn't plan for everything. Neither of them had any experience in space. The top floor did seem the most defensible from the inside, though, and what they basically ended up with was an epic blanket fort. The lighted containers were perfect for keeping the space bright and providing a basic structure. It was enough to feel practically cozy.

"I wish we could find some radios, or even walkie-talkies," she said.

Emily frowned at her. "Why?"

"Because then we could stay in contact if we were in different parts of the ship." Wasn't that obvious?

Apparently it wasn't, because Emily shook her head. "I know you've got the super senses going on now, but I'm just a standard model. I'm not letting you out of my sight; I've seen that movie. It doesn't end well."

It didn't seem worth arguing about. So they went together to leave a pile of light strips on each floor and along the edges of the ladder. It turned out to be a trip with an unexpected bonus -- Emily bumped into the wall on the second level and a panel popped open. First aid kit: located. Even better, they were able to figure out which room was directly below the top level. She had a vague idea that they might be able to pry up the floor panels to get at the inner workings of the ship, and she wasn't sure whether it would be easier to access them from above or below.

True to her word, Emily didn’t leave her sight. They dragged the table out of the common area — it didn’t technically fit in the hallway, but wedging it between the two doors at least meant it was stabilized. She went to work on the ceiling while Emily flipped through an actual hard-copy safety manual — not as old-school as paper, but close.

“Hey, this is interesting,” Emily said, tugging on Amber’s pant leg. “According to this, each level should be able to be sealed off independently of the others — gravity, air filtration, all of that. And there should be an emergency hatch between each level. Not the ladder; this looks like it’s marked off in one of the rooms on the other side.”

“The safety manual is written in English?” Was that weird? There were periodic debates about adopting a global language standard, but nothing had ever been decided.

“Well, it’s mostly pictures, but yeah.” Emily held up the page she’d been looking at. “Also about a hundred other languages; it’s not as long as it looks. It’s just the same information over and over again. If we get bored we can learn how to say ‘warning’ in every country of the world.”

She laughed, and crouched down so they were shoulder to shoulder to study the page. The ceiling could wait. “Let’s go find this emergency hatch, then.”


EMILY CALE

She was probably going to lose her job over this. Not that it was her fault -- at least she didn't think it was, anyway. When you get kidnapped with a family member of a prominent political figure, former or not, the usual assumption was that it was probably about them. (Not that she was blaming Amber. She was just — establishing a motive.)

But her boss was pretty strict about things like unexplained absences, and by the time they got back — because she had to keep assuming they'd get back — there would still be all the follow-up. Interviews, and security checks, and everybody waiting to see what would happen next. (That part, she remembered. Most of her own fifteen minutes of semi-heroic bravado were a blur in her memory, but the follow-up was clear as a bell. She thought her mom was probably still on a government watch list, somewhere, for the choice words she’d had for President Sawyer after it was over.) The point was, she was missing work, and in all likelihood her job would belong to someone else after the standard two-day grace period.

Looking on the bright side, she was getting to spend some quality time disconnected from the internet, just like her dad always wanted. She was going to bring this up as a counter-argument forever.

It was weird what her mind focused on when she let it wander. Amber was sleeping. They’d made the arbitrary decision that it was night time, but she couldn’t get her brain to stop chasing itself in circles. She wondered if there were any weapons on the ship. It was a toss-up whether they should focus on the problem of ‘move towards and/or call for help’ or ‘defend against potential kidnappers showing up.’ Neither one had an easy solution, unfortunately.

And Amber was smart — she was going to figure out what Emily was doing sooner or later, probably sooner. She was no expert, but even she knew Sentinels were supposed to have training, and support, and all that stuff. Distracting her every time it looked like she was hyper-focusing wouldn’t work forever.

"You know, don't you?"  She kept her voice quiet.  As soon as Amber had fallen asleep, the bird has appeared.  Emily was sure it wasn't a coincidence.  Maybe it was a package deal -- get the full five enhanced senses, get a fully visible spirit guide as a bonus prize.  Or maybe it had always been around and just hadn't wanted her to see it.

The bird -- a crow?  A raven?  The only difference she knew between them was size, and it wasn't like she had anything to compare it to.  Whatever it was, it was watching her. "I'm doing what I can, but I don't know if it will be enough."  The bird tilted its head, and looked pointedly at the pile of blankets Amber had claimed as her own.

“What?” The bird looked at her, then back at the blankets. “This is ridiculous,” she told it. “You’re not Lassie. I have no idea what you’re trying to tell me.”

The pile of blankets twitched. “Emily?” Amber rolled over and squinted in her direction. “What’s going on? Is everything okay?”

“Yeah, it’s fine. Sorry, you can go back to sleep.”

“I thought you were sleeping too.” Amber frowned. “Who are you talking to?”

Emily looked at the bird, which appeared to be deliberately ignoring her. It wasn’t disappearing, though, so she said, “I was talking to your bird.”

“My what?” Amber sat up. The bird actually seemed delighted, and took a few hops in her direction. Amber just sighed, and said, “Oh, it’s you.” The bird was undeterred, and as soon as it was close enough, ducked its head under Amber’s hand.

She stroked the feathers carefully, though not without another sigh. “She’s been around, off and on, since I was little. Usually getting me into trouble, but sometimes back out again too. I haven’t seen her in ages, though.”

“She’s beautiful,” Emily said.

Amber’s expression was skeptical. “She’s a crow. They’re loud, pesky, and associated with bad luck — a flock of crows is called a murder, which I think I probably learned from you in the first place. And she can’t fly.”

The bird gave an indignant wing flutter and swiped at her hand with her beak. “What?” Amber said, wiggling her fingers. “You know it’s true.” She looked back at Emily. “Is it morning? Did you sleep at all?”

“Not yet,” she said, which she figured answered both questions. Their sleep schedules were going to be completely out of whack after all this. The worst part was that you couldn’t even tell yourself ‘everything will look better in the morning,’ because first, they had no idea when morning actually was, and second, it would look exactly the same. They were in space. With no windows. (Which was a very good thing, as far as she was concerned, but it did create a certain visual monotony.)

“Come over here, then.” Amber waved her over, and it did look more comfortable than her own setup. Warmer, too. So she went, and they rearranged the blankets so they covered both of them, and the crow looked ridiculously smug about the whole thing. Amber was mostly asleep again by the time they finished. She pulled a pillow closer, and said, “If it gets colder, maybe you can ask yours to show up too.”

And she must have been more tired than she thought, because she had no idea what Amber was talking about. There must be some sort of thermostat controls on the ship somewhere. Or at least thicker socks. “My what?”

There was no answer, and she wasn’t going to wake Amber up again just to get one, even if the crow would let her. She was probably just rambling. They could talk about it in the — later, if it was important.


AMBER SAWYER

"Hot food."

"Hot coffee."

"Hot shower."

"Any shower."

“Owner’s manual for the ship.”

They were exchanging wishes over a nutritionally sound but not very palatable breakfast of meal bars and water.  She was trying not to taste anything, and Emily was providing plenty of distraction.

“Good one.  My phone.  Never thought I'd be wishing for a tracking chip."

Amber nodded -- she never thought she'd miss having a Secret Service agent following her everywhere, but she wouldn't say no to a whole team of them at the moment.  "Can I wish for more arm strength?"  Between the ladder and the unpacking and everything else, she was feeling muscles she hadn't even known she had.

"How about a teleportation device?"  Emily smiled when she said it, but it disappeared quickly.

She leaned over and knocked her shoulder against Emily's.  "You okay?" 

The smile lasted a little longer the second time around, and Emily nodded.  "Yeah.  I just -- I want to go home, you know?”

She did know.  Sometimes it felt like a tangible pull; the urge to get out, go home, to be somewhere that would feel like at least she had a safe place to stand and start from.  "Me too," she said.

They were both quiet for a few minutes after that, until Crow caught her eye, poking around in their stuff.  It seemed like she was going to make herself present for a while.  She broke off a piece of the meal bar and tossed it over.  Just because animal guides didn't need to eat didn't mean they didn't enjoy sharing once in a while.

“So. I can see her," Emily said.  "Is that weird?"

Maybe.  Probably? There wasn't a huge amount of information available about enhanced senses and animal guides regardless; even less when you weren't willing to explain why you wanted it.  She shrugged.  "It's not going to make the top ten list for weirdest things that have happened in the last day, I guess.  It makes a certain amount of sense, though -- I can see yours, you can see mine."  

Emily nodded slowly, and then shook her head.  “Yeah, no, I have no idea what you're talking about now."  She hesitated, and then added, "Are you -- seeing more than one animal right now?"

She resisted the urge to roll her eyes.  "Of course not.  I’m not hallucinating. If your animal guide was here, believe me, you’d be able to see it."

"Amber.  I don't have a animal guide."

Emily sounded like she actually believed that. Amber stared at her.  "Yes, you do."  Crow spread her wings and bobbed her head up and down.  "I've seen it."  It was true that it was almost always behind Emily, but -- "You really didn't know."

"Really truly.  So what is it?"  She was looking around like maybe she might have missed it somehow.  And she kept looking over her shoulder, so Amber was pretty sure she at least subconsciously knew that it usually showed up there.

But it seemed wrong, somehow, to just blurt it out.  "I'm — not sure I'm supposed to tell you."  

"Well, you can't just put something like that out there and expect me to ignore it."

She wanted to say, 'I have no idea what I'm doing and I thought you knew, and I'm the last person you should be asking for help with this.' But there was no one else, not there with them. And Emily was right. She deserved every bit of support they could get. So she said, "Okay, let's try this."

She handed off the rest of her meal bar to Crow, who pecked at it with a surprising amount of enthusiasm. "No opinion you want to share about this?" she asked. Crow ignored her. Well, that was typical.

Emily had set aside her food as well, and wiped her hands on her pants. "What are you going to do?"

"I'm not going to do anything. You are. I'm just going to try to make it less frustrating than it was when I first did it." She'd thought she was going crazy for a long few weeks, always seeing the flashes of black wings out of the corner of her eye. She moved so they were face to face, sitting on the floor. "Is this okay?" She held out her hands.

Emily took them without hesitation. "I don't have to close my eyes, do I?"

"Whatever feels comfortable. I don't think there's a rule book. Just take a deep breath, and start thinking about things that make you feel safe. I usually imagine that feeling of standing with a steaming cup of coffee, watching the snow fall out the window, when you don't have anywhere to go that day.”

Emily took a deep breath, and Amber matched it. She added, “But it could be anything. Standing in a field of wildflowers, sitting on a dock with your feet in the water, curling up in a big blanket cocoon. Whatever gives you that warm cuddly feeling like the universe is watching out for you."

Crow gave a quiet chirp and sidled closer, then jumped up to perch on her knee.

"'Warm and cuddly?'" Emily repeated. "Are you trying to give me a hint there?"

"Yes. Now, are you thinking about it?"

"Warm cuddly place, the universe has got my back, yup. Now what?"

Two eyes stared back at her from over Emily's head. Amber squeezed her hand. "That's it. You should maybe look behind you now."

Emily spun around. "No way. I mean, hi. Hello. That's a bear, Amber. A giant brown bear and it's staring at me."

"It does that," she said, but Emily was already reaching out a hand, slowly, and the bear dropped its head down to meet her.

Her smile was incredible. "Look at you," she said quietly. "You're beautiful."

Crow squawked out an indignant little caw, and Emily laughed. "You're beautiful too," she said. She knelt up and put both hands arms the bear's neck, leaning in for a hug. Amber wondered if she should leave them to it, maybe get a start on tidying up their breakfast, but Emily waved her over. "Come here," she said. "Both of you, group hug time. If you want.”

They did. And for at least a few minutes, it felt like things were going to be okay.


EMILY CALE

This was nuts. She had a bear. Or the bear had her, she wasn’t really sure how that worked. They had each other? She was still pretty vague on the whole ‘why’ explanation, since her brain kept getting stuck on ‘bear!’ It was just so fuzzy; it was basically an instant distraction.

“Emily. Emily. Hey. Emily.” Amber was trying to get her attention.

She left one hand buried in the bear’s fur. Not that she was worried it was going to disappear again if she stopped touching it. (Except that she was, a little.) “Yeah, sorry. I’m focused.”

Amber looked back and forth between them. “Are you two going to be okay with this plan?”

The plan where they went back over the ship with a fine-toothed comb, trying to see if there was anything they’d missed, including the bottom level with all the windows? “Absolutely,” she said. The bear rested its head on top of hers, and Amber laughed, then shook her head.

“All right, let’s go.”

Of course, it wasn’t quite that simple. (Watching Crow go down the ladder was a surprise, but nothing like watching Bear try to fit through the opening.) “It’s fine,” she said. “Really.” She was standing on the second level down, looking up at Bear’s head poking through the space by the ladder. There was no way it was going to happen in a fully corporeal form. (Apparently the spaceship hadn’t been designed with bears in mind.) “You’ll go, you’ll come back. It’ll be good for me, or something.” Honestly, she was getting tired of all of them acting like they had to cater to her supposedly delicate emotional state. So she liked physical contact and didn’t like space; it didn’t have to be some big deal.

There was a low rumble from Bear, but it was the only plan that made sense. And maybe there was a little spike of panic when there was suddenly nothing in the space where there had just been a giant bear, but it barely had time to register before there was a nudge at her hand, and see — totally fine. “See?” she said. Bear snorted.

They didn’t find anything new on the second level, which was pretty much what they’d expected. Five empty guest rooms, and the common room with the table jammed into the hallway. Breaking into the ceiling was back on the agenda as their post-lunch activity. There were no other wall compartments that they could find, but Amber did manage to rig up a couple of bedsheets into loops to make it easier to get up through the emergency hatch, and they managed to get the one between the second and third levels open too. She wasn’t sure how important it was; the ladder had served them pretty well so far, but more options meant more knowledge, and a greater understanding of the ship couldn’t hurt.

The transition from the second level to the third went more easily, and they managed to score a second first aid kit. Other than that it was just more of the same -- half nerve-wracking, half incredibly boring -- scouring through empty rooms. "This place is incredibly clean," Amber said. "But it's not new. You can see the wear marks on the furniture."

"*You* can see the wear marks on the furniture," Emily corrected her. "I'm not seeing any." Mostly she had been wondering if they could do anything useful with the chairs. Who even needed free-standing chairs on a spaceship? It seemed like a safety hazard.

Amber looked frustrated. She waved a hand at the room. "But I can't see anything else; that's what's so strange about it. No dust, no dirt, no footprints. Someone must have put us here; we didn't appear out of thin air, but I can't find any clue that anyone's ever been here."

"That's creepy," she said, without thinking. Bear gave her a reproachful sort of nudge. Right, not helpful. "On the other hand, you've had five enhanced senses for what? Less than a day? Two days max? Not that I'm doubting your abilities, just -- there may be things that you don't even know to check for because you've never done it before. Philosophy's not exactly preparation for crime scene investigation."

"You know my major?"

Luckily, she didn't sound upset. Emily nodded. “First major, second major, graduate studies -- I was maybe keeping up with you, in a totally non-stalkerish, friendly sort of way. Congratulations, belatedly. My mom said it wouldn’t be weird to send a graduation card, but I wasn’t sure.”

Amber just laughed. “Well, they told me to stay in school until the economy got better, so —“ She spread her hands apart. “Still waiting. Besides, philosophy is interesting.”

She tried not to look as skeptical as she felt. “If you say so.”

“I do. It’s not for everyone, though. Just like crime scene investigating, I guess. Are you ready for the last level?”

She was and she wasn’t, but it wasn’t going to get any easier waiting around. Besides, the first room didn’t have any windows. And she’d definitely tripped over something in the second room, which meant there was something to find, even if it didn’t turn out to be useful. Although if it was another chair she was going to be seriously cranky. “Sure. We’ve got to check it at some point, right? Lead the way,” she said.

Amber did, but she gave her a quick hug as she walked by. “Thanks for my imaginary graduation card,” she said, smiling. “I loved it.”


AMBER SAWYER

The fourth level felt a lot smaller with all four of them down there.  "I guess it's a good thing there's no furniture in here," Emily said.  She looked pale, but it could just be the lighting.  Neither of them were really at their best at the moment.  Bear rumbled again, low and angry-sounding, and it made all the hair on the back of her neck stand up.

She was used to Bear being a silent, if looming, presence -- so she had no idea how to interpret what it was doing.  Emily asked the question for her.  "Is that a warning, or moral support?"  To which Bear responded by dropping onto the floor and rolling over on its back like a giant dog, waving both front paws.  Emily laughed.  "Moral support, then.  Thanks."  

They collected the first aid kit from the now-familiar wall storage space, and tossed it up the ladder.  Then there was no putting it off any longer.  She stepped through the door -- with the increased light they brought with them, it was very obviously set up as a combination observation deck and receiving area.  The airlock was in the floor. The vertical theme of the ship seemed unusual, but she was no expert in spaceship design, so maybe it was a common layout. 

Emily followed her in, but kept her back to the wall and Bear between her and the windows.  "I guess it's a good thing I grew out of that astronaut phase," she said.  She took a shaky breath, and held up her hand when Amber took a step towards her.  "I'm good.  Let's just look around and see if there's anything useful in here."

There was a long bench in the middle of the room that turned out to be doing double duty as a storage unit.  They scavenged another tool set, four pairs of gloves, and -- for the gold medal victory -- an entire box of fully functional wireless headsets.  

"I still don't know why we need those," Emily told her.  "There's not even anywhere we could go that would be that far apart.  We could just yell really loud."

At least she didn't say 'what could possibly go wrong?'  "You never know.  It's good to be able to stay in contact if something happened and we had to split up.  And they're good for other things too; they have a good battery."

Crow hopped over to the box and pecked at the contents.  She had plenty more to say about the benefits of radio transmitters — she might not be able to, but she’d learned a few neat tricks from Secret Service agents over the years. But that could wait until they were back in a less stress-inducing part of the ship.

What she actually said was, “Anyway, I think that’s everything,” and Emily practically lit up with relief.

They stripped everything they could carry out of the level, which wasn’t much — it had been pretty bare to begin with. Then they followed the surprisingly simple safety manual directions to seal it off. It wasn’t anything permanent, just a basic safety lockdown. It could be overridden from either side, but at least they’d get a few extra seconds of warning if someone came at them from that direction. She didn’t even realize her vision was tunneling until Emily grabbed her shoulder. “Amber?”

She shook her head to clear it. “It’s fine.”

Emily’s hand was still on her shoulder. “Are you sure? Really sure? We don’t have to do this right now.”

She shook her head again. “I’m all right.”

Emily’s expression said the conversation wasn’t over, but all she said was, “Well, I’m starving. Maybe we should take a break for lunch?”

And once she started thinking about food, lunch sounded like an amazing idea. Even meal bars sounded almost appetizing — that’s how she knew she was seriously hungry. “How long were we working, do you think?”

“No idea,” Emily said. “It’s weird not having any way to tell time. I don’t exactly trust my internal clock. Too many years of late nights and days powered mostly by caffeine.”

“Rocking the party scene?” She couldn’t quite imagine Emily with a red solo cup in her hand, but stranger things had happened.

“Hah. I wish — no, first studying, when I was in school. Had to keep my grades up to keep my scholarships. Then I was on split shifts for a while at work; kind of threw everything for a loop. How about you?”

“The party scene was strictly discouraged, actually.” She shrugged. It had never seemed like a big deal either way.

“No surprise there,” Emily agreed. “You know what I really want to know?”

“No? What?”

She was expecting some kind of personal question, maybe something about her senses. Instead, Emily made a face at her meal bar and said, “How is it that these taste so awful? Is it on purpose? Because I can’t figure out why anyone would do that, but if they were trying to make them taste good, then how could they have failed so horribly?”

She smiled. “It’s a true mystery of our time.”

“Well, it’s beyond me. I’m hoping those locked containers are full of actual food.”

The post-lunch plan was that Emily would make another attempt at opening the remaining containers, while Amber tried again to access the floor/ceiling space. Now that she’d had a chance to look at it more carefully on all the levels, she was convinced there was something useful in there. It was either the inner workings of the ship or a way to access those inner workings, which meant they needed to get at it.

She couldn’t resist teasing just a little, though. “Maybe they’re just nicer sets of sheets and towels.”

Emily crumpled up the meal bar wrapper — doubled as a napkin! left paper bits all over the food! — and threw it at her. “Better not be. Who knows, maybe one of them will have a hot plate or something, and we’ll be able to have warmed up meal bars instead of room temperature.”


EMILY CALE

Guns. Every single container they hadn’t been able to get into was full of guns. They ranged from non-lethal (thanks dad, for making sure she knew what those looked like) to seriously concerning. Some of them she definitely didn’t want to be in a spaceship with — one wrong move and there’d be a hole in the side of the ship, and then crappy food would be the least of their problems. Luckily that one wasn’t the container she’d gone at with a hammer.

“So.” She and Amber surveyed the weapons. “Any ideas?”

Amber just looked baffled. “None. I figured this was probably one of the classic three abductions: ransom, revenge, or random chance. A stockpile of guns doesn’t make any sense with any of those.”

“Political maneuvering?” Emily guessed. “Someone trying to start a war?” It was a movie-plot kind of strategy, but it had to have come from somewhere, right?

“In space, though? We’d be dead before we could get anywhere.” She nudged one of the safer containers with one foot. “Maybe someone just — forgot they were here.”

That seemed highly unlikely. But not impossible; surely stranger things than that had happened. Once or twice. “Maybe. What do you think we should do with them for now?”

The containers were too heavy to make shifting them to another floor any kind of simple, so they ended up mostly just pushing them off to the side. Bear even roused from a nap to help out, which was fun. “At least there’s a bright side,” she said, leaning against the last container. “We’ve definitely found a way we can get those panels up now.”

Amber winced. “About that,” she said, and then stopped.

“What is it? Are you okay?” She’d been paying less attention than she probably should have been, but everything had seemed fine.

Amber hesitated, and then said, “I’m fine. It’s the panels. It’s sort of a good news / bad news situation with those.”

“Okay? Is this when I’m supposed to say which one I want first?” She hated doing that; it always felt like a trap.

But Amber shook her head. “No, I was trying to decide if it would be better if I apologized at the beginning of the end. Anyway, I’m sorry. I got the panels open — that’s the good news. And now we have access to the crawlspaces, which is probably neutral news.” She took a quick breath, and then added, “Bad news is that there are robots, and I might have broken something.”

She looked tired. They’d both been pushing pretty hard; it was possible — likely, even — that her senses were acting up. Emily really, really wanted to ask about the robots. But she stepped forward instead and wrapped Amber up in a hug. “Hey,” she said. “Breathe, okay? Just keep breathing.”

They stayed that way for a long time. If they were about to die horribly in some kind of spaceship malfunction, well, it wouldn't be such a bad way to go.  Bear sandwiched up behind her, and she focused on acting calm.  She was pretty sure only one of them should freak out at a time, and it was clearly Amber's turn.

Finally, Amber pulled back.  "Thank you," she said.

She left their hands linked.  "Where do you want to start?"

Amber waved a hand back towards where she had been working. “The panels open onto a crawlspace, which leads to the part of the ship we  haven't been able to access."

"The other side of the ladder wall?"  It would have been convenient if the inner workings of things had been right under their feet, but it had never been the most likely option. Engines, navigation, temperature, gravity — it all had to be controlled from somewhere.

Amber nodded.  When it looked like she might be stopping there, Emily told herself not to push.  (That lasted about two seconds.)  "And -- there are robots?"

“They’re not active, at least not any of the ones I could see, and I couldn’t hear anything moving around. But they’re there. A lot of them. I think the whole ship is set up to be run that way, maybe even controlled remotely. That would explain why we couldn’t find any dirt or fingerprints earlier — no one was ever here; it was just us and the robots.”

Creepy. “But they’re not doing anything now? So whoever was controlling them — stopped?” The whole situation just got more confusing the more they found out. What the hell was going on?

“I think you may have disrupted the signal,” Amber said. “When you overrode the door lock? It knocked the lights out; maybe it cut power to other things too. I was trying to find out if we could turn the lights back on without re-initializing the entire block of ship’s systems, but I think I made things worse. The only thing I could see was still working on something more than emergency power was temperature controls, so I tried to adjust them. I wasn’t expecting there to be a password prompt.”

It did seem like a redundant security feature if the ship was run entirely by remote-controlled robots. Maybe it came standard? And of course neither of them would know it, so — “So what happened?”

“It turned off.”

Oh. That was bad. “Off off? Like, all the way off, no more heat?”

Amber said, “Heat should have been kicked over to emergency power just like the other systems,” like she was really hoping it was true. Which wasn’t really an answer. Then again, it wasn’t like killing the lights had been a brilliant strategic move either.

“Let’s go with that. Any guesses on what’s considered an emergency-level of heat?” If it was only enough to keep the tech from freezing, they might be in trouble.

“I don’t know. We never went into that much detail; I just learned the basic diagnostic programs at an enrichment seminar one semester. Nothing’s actually broken, though, except for that one door. We could do a hard restart. That should reset everything and we’d be back on regular power again.”

Emily frowned. “Like flipping a circuit breaker?”

“Or turning a computer off, and turning it back on. It’s simple, but it usually works.” Amber sat down and leaned back against one of the containers, closing her eyes. “I don’t know what we should do.”

It would be nice to have the actual lights back on. The potential downside was pretty significant though — there were a lot of things they weren’t sure if they wanted to turn on or not, and the robots were definitely right up there on the list.

She thought they were still probably better off than they’d been that morning, and said so. But the work of the day was definitely catching up with them. She thought Amber might have dozed off for a few seconds already. “It’s late,” she said. “Or it feels late. Why don’t we eat, and we’ll sleep on it, and then we can decide in the morning.”


AMBER SAWYER

Her memories of the previous night were vague — she remembered Emily hugging her, and then sitting down to catch her breath, and then — She must have fallen asleep. She woke up warm, and for a second she thought maybe she’d been wrong about the temperature controls. Then she realized it was because all four of them were huddled up together in the nest of blankets. Bear was putting out an enormous amount of heat on one side of her, and Emily was curled up around the other side. She could feel Crow tucked under her chin, and she reached a finger up to smooth any ruffled feathers.

“Stop moving,” Emily mumbled sleepily. “You’re letting in the cold air.”

"Sorry." Crow obligingly clambered closer to her hand anyway, and she scritched her head. It was morning, maybe, or something like morning. She didn't think she would be able to fall back asleep.

Next to her, Emily mumbled something else, quiet or incoherent enough that she couldn't even figure out with enhanced hearing, and then yawned. "Good morning," she said.

As soon as Emily rolled over, Amber could feel the chill in the air. She moved closer to Bear, a comforting mountain of warmth. "Good morning. How did I --" A yawn interrupted her question. "How did I rate the lucky spot in the middle?"

"Crow was very insistent," Emily said. "But we would have given it to you anyway. That's the perk of being the one who is already asleep when the bed gets made."

"How cold is it out there?" She could see the water, and it wasn't frozen -- good sign. The fact that none of them had made any kind of move to actually leave the blankets -- not so good a sign.

"Cold." Emily shifted, like she was shrugging. "We're not going to die, but cold." She hesitated, and then added, "How are you feeling?"

She was feeling stupid, mostly. But trying to get past it. "I'm okay."

"You don't need to apologize again," Emily said, clearing reading the intention on her face. "You didn't even need to apologize the first time. We're in this together."

"We talked about turning everything on last night, right? Rebooting the ship’s systems?” She thought she remembered that.

Emily nodded, and took a deep breath. “I think we should do it. Short-term, we're fine. And maybe rescue is going to show up in five minutes, or an hour; they must be looking for you. And I want to believe that. But realistically -- space is big. I think we've got to think bigger. If we turn on the lights, we can maybe get out a message too, or even figure out where we're going and how to get home."

"What about the robots?" There had to be a way to power up individual systems, but she didn't know what it was -- it was going to be all or nothing.

"I have some ideas about that," Emily said. "As it turns out, we happen to have a selection of robot-neutralizing weapons at our fingertips."

Amber wiggled her fingers. "Blankets, you mean?"

As she'd been hoping, Emily laughed. "Maybe. It depends what kind of robots you saw. Basic housekeeping bots? Blankets, clutter, dirt -- any of those will work. They don't prioritize, so even if we're categorized as 'not belonging,' we can probably distract them pretty easily."

"Some of them have a manual off switch," she offered. They'd had some of those at the house. They had a limited ability to be programmed, so even if some mysterious someone was controlling them from a distance, there wasn't much they could do, hopefully. "What about the security robots?"

"Well." Emily hesitated. "We do have guns."

"You want to distract them with weapons?" Would that even work?

Emily winced. "I was actually thinking we could shoot them. But distracting them is a good idea too."

Conceptually, Amber was okay with shooting things. Self-defense was a powerful motivator. The problem was that security bots had a significantly wider range of programming options. The last thing they wanted was to trigger some kind of self-destruct sequence. It was a risk they were going to have to take, probably.

"I'm not saying I don't agree with you. But a lot of things could go wrong with this," she said. "Do you even know how to shoot?" Just because her father could didn't mean she'd ever learned.

"Yeah. At least the legal stuff. That's what we want, though -- mess up their electronics, EMP them, trip them up. No one wants to blow a hole in the ship. Hopefully." Emily sat up, and Amber could see she was wearing two layers of sweatshirts. "What about you?"

She shook her head. "I've always had terrible eye-hand coordination."

Emily squinted at her. She kept forgetting that to regular senses it was only dimly lit, even with the extra lights they'd scrounged. Emily said, “Really? Do you think it’s because of your hearing was out of balance with your sight? I wonder if it would be better now."

She didn't see what her hearing had to do with her ability to throw a ball or shoot a weapon, but she nodded anyway. "I don't know. I guess we're going to find out, though."

Crow flapped her wings a few times, and Amber took that as a hint that she should wake up all the way. Emily handed her a sweatshirt. “Nothing like experiential learning,” she said. “Okay. So, how do we want to set this up?”


EMILY CALE

It took less time than she'd expected to get everything in place.  They weren't really on the clock, but the cold gave them plenty of reason not to take it slow.  

"I'm still waiting, you know," she heard Amber say in her ear.  

"For what?"  She wished the gloves they'd found had fit her -- the ladder was freezing cold.  She jumped off, and blew on her fingers.  

"For you to admit that the radios are helpful, and I was right about them."

They were pretty great, actually.  Splitting up was still her least favorite part of the plan, but it wouldn't work if they got cornered together.  "The radios are helpful, and you were right," she repeated back, and she could hear Amber laughing. “Happy now?”

”Thrilled. How’s it going?” Like she couldn’t hear everything Emily was doing.

“Almost there. How’s the headache?”

”How did you — You’re just guessing.”

“I was, until you just confirmed it. How does that PSA go again? ‘Changing sensory input creates stress — Don’t guess, get checked.’” (There were several less complimentary versions floating around the internet, but that was the official wording.) “I’d be more surprised if you didn’t have a headache, at this point.”

She hoped her talking covered up the fact that she’d just jabbed herself with the screwdriver by accident. “Plus, Crow is looking particularly cranky.”

”Sure she is. Meanwhile, Bear’s up here hovering over me like I was you. Maybe pay more attention to the screwdriver, and less to how many painkillers I’ve taken today, okay?”

(The answer was none; the first aid kits were empty of anything that would touch a Sentinel-level headache. They’d already had that discussion, though, and there was no point in doing another go-round on it.) “Right. I think I’m good here.” She looked around for a final check. She knew where everything was; she knew the plan; she was as ready as she was going to get. “You good?”

”My finger’s on the button, metaphorically speaking. I’m ready.”

“Right,” she said again. “Hey Amber?”

”Yes?”

“Good luck.”

”You too. I’ll see you soon.”

“You pushed it already, didn’t you?”

”Yup.”

She counted three seconds of incredibly anti-climactic silence, and then the radio crackled with static and the floor started vibrating. From the corner of her eye, she could see Crow fluff up all her feathers. Showtime.

She was expecting the security drones to sweep the ship first, because she figured they should be ready for worst-case scenario, but when the hallway floor panels slid open, it was a fleet of cleaning bots that emerged. Good sign? Bad sign? “I count at least a dozen housekeeping bots here on level three,” she said quietly. “They’re adorable.”

”Nothing up here yet. If it’s an automated program they probably have a set pattern.”

If it was a set pattern, it was the worst pattern she’d ever seen. The bots buzzed around the rooms and each other seemingly at random. They didn’t seem to respond to her presence at all, though, which was good. She emptied the contents of the antibacterial soap dispenser at arm’s reach and watched the first one run into it. It put on an impressive light display as it skirted the edge of the spill, but none of the others joined it. When she picked it up, it gave a polite-sounding beep, but none of the others reacted. Hopefully that meant they weren’t linked. She flipped the off switch and stuck a piece of duct tape over the sensor. When a second bot’s path across the floor intersected with the spill, she repeated the process. Until she had a table full of silent cleaning robots and a considerably smaller supply of tape.

“Amber? It’s clear down here for the moment.”

”Still nothing here. I can hear movement on level two; it sounds like more of the housekeeping ones.”

“I’m on it.” She stood up on the table and grabbed for the edge of the emergency hatch, pulling herself up and through. The bots on the second level had the same random circuits. “Is it possible these guys got reset back to factory defaults, or something?” she asked. “They’re not very efficient cleaners the way they’re working now.”

Amber made a noncommittal sound that probably meant she had no idea. She was trying to keep out of their way, but she didn’t see the one coming up behind her until it ran into her foot. Nothing happened. Just the same light show, and then the beep when she picked it up to deactivate it. (She really, really didn’t want to jinx them, but so far it was going okay.) They were trying to neutralize any robots that might be getting a remote signal from whoever kidnapped them, before they tried to get into the control section themselves. At the very least, getting rid of the robots would be an inconvenience, and she was happy to inconvenience said kidnapper as much as she possibly could.

“I think that’s all of them,” she said, once she had another pile of bots. “Can you hear anything else on this level?”

”That’s it. Something else is coming, though. It’s powering up.”


AMBER SAWYER

She wasn't bored, exactly -- it was hard to be bored when there was a good chance you were going to be shooting at killer robots in the near future. But she couldn't focus too much on any of her senses or she'd risk a zone, so she was not-focusing on a lot of different things.  Most of which were, actually, boring.

At least Bear was keeping her company.   Crow was off having fun with Emily -- well, it sounded like she was having fun, anyway.  Crow wasn't one to wait around and let things come to her.  It was less jarring than she would have  expected, to look over and see a bear instead of a bird.

Bear seemed to sense the new sound at the same time she did, and a low growl filled the quiet.  "It's starting at the bottom level," she said.  "Security robots, sounds like at least four."  All the mechanics sounded identical, and the echoed were throwing her off.

”I’m headed back to level three; I’ll meet them there.”

She listened as Emily dropped back through the emergency hatch down to the third level. The safety seal they’d set between there and the bottom level proved to be no obstacle to the security bots — they were a safety feature as much as the seal itself, so it certainly wasn’t going to keep them out. Emily was waiting for them in the common room, her back at the door.

The bots locked onto the ladder like it was a train track, and whirred up to the third level. ”You are in violation,” they said, weirdly synchronized. ”You will be returned to your room.”

”I don’t know what you’re saying, I don’t speak English,” Emily said loudly.

She had assured Amber that it would work, but she was still surprised when it actually did. The robots stopped where they were and began the message again, switching to a new language with each repetition.

"That seems like a serious security flaw," she said.  "Are they waiting for you to respond to them in one of those languages?"

”Mm-hmm.”  She heard Emily take one quick step into the hallway, and the robots started advancing again.  ”Now!”

She entered the command that would magnetize the floor in the common area. It should stop -- or at least slow down -- the security bots.  "This better work," she said.  The limited access she had to the ship's systems was the whole reason she was stuck up there instead of helping Emily.  (She really should have paid more attention to the list of emergency commands when she'd had the chance, but she'd taken the seminar mostly because it fit well into the schedule of her other classes, and it had been pass/fail.)

”It worked,” Emily confirmed. ”I’m headed in now.”

They’d argued about using the guns — her for, Emily against (despite the fact that it had originally been her idea) — but ultimately it came down to time. They could, maybe, have macgyvered up something that would have had the same effect, but not without at least a few extra days. “Be careful,” she said.

”They’re already immobilized. All I have to do is walk up and shoot them with this EMP generator. I don’t even have to aim.”

She could hear Emily moving, and she held her breath when she used the EMP gun the first time. It wasn’t supposed to disrupt anything other than what it was aimed at, but she’d still been worried they might lose the radios. It was true to advertising, though, and the radios stayed. She let out the breath in a sigh. “Well, be careful anyway. There’s definitely still something over there, but I can’t figure out what. We’ve had housekeeping and security — what else is there?”

”These guys are down for the count. And it’s a ship that somebody stocked with two kidnap-ees and a whole lot of weapons; it probably makes sense that they’d have a non-standard security system.”

There was a pause, and then Emily said, ”Are you okay up there? Crow’s freaking out, but I don’t see anything.”

Bear was agitated too, up and pacing. “It’s fine, I don’t know what they’re reacting to —“

The radios cut out with a buzz of static, but she could still hear Emily, two levels below.  ”That was weird.  I'm okay; my radio is fried, I think.”  There was a growing whirring noise, half sound and half vibration.  She couldn't see anything, though.  There was no such thing as invisible robots, right?  Suddenly Emily said, ”Ow -- what the hell?”

Something stung her ankle.  Then her arm.  She swatted at the back of her neck when she felt air moving, and her hand brushed against something metallic.

”Seriously, what the hell?  Yeah that's right, come at me again.”  Emily must be facing the same -- whatever it was.  There was a loud crunch and a growl from Bear.  When it lifted its paw there she could see the remains of a miniature bot.

”They’ve weaponized the freaking sterilizers!”  Once she was looking for it, the pieces did look a little like a sterilizer.  But invisible?  Emily was still talking. ”Who does that?  Camouflaged, weaponized -- ow -- crazy illegal aftermarket mods.”

She missed whatever Emily said after that in a flurry of stings. There could be hundreds of sterilizers on a ship the size they were on. They were benign! No one weaponized a sterilizer — it had one job, and that was to keep everyone from dying from weird space viruses or bacteria or specks of dust clogging up the wrong port. They weren’t supposed to attack people!

They also weren’t supposed to move as fast as they were. She squinted, trying to shift her vision enough to see through whatever camouflage they had, and Bear crushed a few more. If there was anything good about the situation, it was that the little bots didn't seem to be able to see Bear any more than she could see them.  Bear was swatting them left and right without any sign of being stung.  Score one for the Sentinel plane.  But if Bear could see them...

She closed her eyes for a second, let the whir settle into her awareness, and then grabbed one out of the air.  (They weren't supposed to be able to fly, either.) She opened her eyes to a weirdly blue-tinted room -- and a fully visible mini-bot.  Game on.


EMILY CALE

"Who does this?  Who takes a perfectly useful sterilizer robot and makes it a flying disaster?"  

She was still talking, because she figured there was a good chance Amber could still hear her.  If there wasn't, she didn't want to think about it, so the talking kept her from freaking out.  "The EMP works great; Crow's setting them up for me so we can take them out a group at a time."

She couldn't really see them as more than a flicker until they were knocked out, but she trusted Crow, and the pile of deactivated robots at her feet was growing satisfyingly (and kind of alarmingly) quickly.  

"Also if you still have that sweatshirt on, pull the hood up. One of those suckers got my ear and it was not fun.  The hood slows 'em down a little."  Her hands were taking a beating, but she could worry about that later.  At the moment she was too busy worrying about what she was going to do when the charge ran out on the gun.  They weren't meant for continuous use -- it had started heating up after a few minutes, and there was a smell like plastic burning starting to make itself known.  She'd been telling herself it was from the bots, but she was pretty sure it wasn't.  

"We're going to need a new plan," she said.  "Or a new EMP."  Probably there was a way to replace the cartridges, but she wasn't going to try to figure it out on the fly.  There was nowhere that the bots could be locked into or out of; the whole point of them was that they went everywhere, even outside the ship.  "I know I was the one who thought we should split up, but I’m officially changing my mind.  Also, not trying to put anything else on your agenda, but if you can figure out a way to drop some more of these zapper guns through the emergency hatch, I'm headed for the second level."

She been keeping her back to the wall as much as possible, but she was going to have to get to the center of the room to switch levels, plus have both hands free for the emergency hatch.  She wasn’t looking forward to it — she was pretty sure the sterilizer bot "stings" were meant to overwhelm them by numbers and not actually be deadly, but it wasn't like she'd had time to actually check what they were doing.  "Crow?" She took a deep breath.  "Ready?"

That got her a wing flap and a cranky-sounding caw.  She sort of figured that meant yes, but then the bird disappeared entirely.  She was more baffled than panicked, for the split second she had to think about it before Bear roared into being at her side.  "Bear!" she said.  They must have swapped places, she realized.  She hoped that meant Amber was doing all right. It definitely made a difference — Bear was absolutely the heavy hitter of the group, and a trio of robots hit the wall after a single paw swipe.  “Okay,” she said. “That’ll work.  Hey Amber, say thanks to Crow for me.  Headed for the emergency hatch now."

With Bear playing backup, it was significantly easier than she'd expected, which was still significantly harder than she’d hoped. Her gun had gone completely non-functional, but it hadn’t caught on fire, which had been a real concern for a while there. She couldn’t bring herself to leave it behind, even though it was no longer providing her with any kind of security except psychological, so she jammed it in the pocket of her sweatshirt and ran for the table. One of the bots got her in the hand just as she was gripping the edge of the hatch, and she yanked it back with a bitten-off curse.

She grabbed for the opening again, but they’d found her other hand by then, and she felt herself slipping. “Come on, come on.” She wished she could say she found some inner core of strength and powered through, but in reality it was Bear, who did the disappearing-reappearing thing again and grabbed the back of her sweatshirt before she could fall. She felt the tug upwards, and scrambled through the hatch in what was probably one of the least-dignified maneuvers of her life so far. “Thanks,” she managed, and then she heard the familiar whine of an EMP gun, alternating with a sharper sound she didn’t recognize.

She was all the way to her feet and moving by the time Amber swung around the corner, still firing. She was combining the EMP with something else; Emily didn’t recognize it. Two-handed shooting; surprisingly practical when the targets were so ridiculously plentiful. “Are you okay?” Amber asked.

“Sure.” (No other real choice, so — sure.) “You?” She narrowed her eyes as she watched Amber shoot. “Can you see them?”

“Sort of, yeah. It’s not my favorite day ever. Here.” Amber handed her the EMP gun, and pulled a second one out of some kind of sling she’d rigged up. “Let’s go; it’s better up on the top level. Can you run?”

They had to dive over the table, still wedged mostly in the hallway, but they made it to — and through — the last hatch without anything going too wrong. It looked like Amber was limping a little, and her left hand was starting to swell up. Mostly, she wasn’t sure what good it was going to do to switch floors again, other than having more access to weapons. Maybe that was it. There couldn’t be an infinite supply of the sterilizer bots, right?


AMBER SAWYER

Listening to Emily fight off swarms of the little bots was one of the hardest things she'd ever done.  The only reason she hadn't headed for her as soon as the radios cut out was because it turned out there was actually one thing on the ship the sterilizers were programmed to avoid -- the containers full of weapons.  They left almost a full foot of space around them.   (Also an illegal mod, and one that went against the entire point of having sterilizers on ships.  She was pretty sure Emily would be outraged about it later.)

She and Bear alternated bot smashing and rearranging the containers until they had something close to a shelter.  It gave them some breathing room, at least.  That had been about the time Emily's gun started to fail, and Bear's growl turned into a whine.  "Go get her," Amber said.  "I'll be right behind you.”

Bear disappeared immediately. Crow showed up on her shoulder at the same time, and she couldn’t help smiling. “Hi there. Emily says thank you.” Crow rubbed her head against Amber’s cheek. She grabbed up a few extra weapons, and then they were off, dashing for the emergency hatch. (She might have sort of gotten distracted when Emily yelled, and fallen through it instead of climbing down like she’d hoped. Her ankle felt okay, though.)

The sterilizer bots were everywhere — for the first time, she wondered if she might prefer not being able to see them. How many of them could there possibly be? She found out Emily hadn’t been exaggerating Crow’s ability to set up clusters of bots for targeting. They got into a rhythm, and she alternated EMP shots with a miniature energy blaster. She’d never considered herself to be particularly ambidextrous, but — close range, huge number of targets — it was hard to miss.

Emily looked terrible when they finally came face to face. She said she could run, but Amber was pretty sure it was mostly stubbornness and a lot of help from Bear that got them both back up to the top level. Bear shouldered her in closer to the containers, where the bots wouldn’t go, and leaned against her. It looked a little claustrophobic, but Emily wrapped a hand in Bear’s fur and seemed to rally. “Is this the weapons containers? That’s — so, so illegal.”

“Good for us, though,” Amber said, and Emily nodded.

“Very good. So, is it too late to change my mind about the turning on the power plan?”

Amber couldn’t help laughing. “Yes.”

“Too bad,” Emily said.

In hindsight, it hadn’t been the best idea. She didn’t know how to turn it back off again, and it was possible that once they were activated, the sterilizers were running on independent power anyway. “How’s this for good news — I think we’re making progress. There are definitely fewer of them than there were in the beginning.”

Emily gave her a slightly suspicious look, and said, “Well, it’s not exactly ‘we’re almost done,’ but I guess it’ll do. Just out of curiosity, how far away *are* we from ‘almost done?’”

She hesitated — more because she didn’t know than anything else — and Emily waved a hand at her. “Never mind. I’m good now. Point me at them, and let’s do this.”

They did, for what felt like hours.  They burned through a dozen EMP guns -- it wasn't until it looked like they might actually run out of guns before they ran out of robots that Emily took a breather to figure out how to replace the power packs.  The numbers were shifting, though.  They were taking down fewer robots per minute, but there were also less of them out there.  

"It's like microwave popcorn," Emily said, zapping a row of bots and kicking them out of the way.  "The time between the pops gets longer as it goes."  

"That almost made sense to me.  I could go for a bag of microwave popcorn right now."  She still wasn't sure how Emily was managing to get so many of them when she couldn't see them.  

Emily made a face.  "Anything except meal bars.  How are we doing?"

Still more than she could count easily, but she was pretty sure the swarm around them had stopped getting bigger a while back.  "Better.  I think we can rule out them being actively controlled, too."  Her vision blurred in and out, and Emily was already reaching out a hand before she could say anything.  The pressure on the back of her neck made everything snap back into focus.  

"Yeah?"  Emily sounded distracted.  

"Well.  If someone was directing them, they'd be regrouping, right?"  That wasn't even strategy, that was just common sense.  

"So you're saying the fact that we've been going non-stop is actually a good thing.  Okay.  I'm willing to go with that."  

She leaned her shoulder into Emily’s, not sure which one of them she was comforting. “We’re getting there."  They never would have made it without the buffer zone around the containers.  (She was trying not to think about it.)  "How's your hand?"

Emily had been shooting left-handed since the last power pack swap-out, about the same time Bear had started guarding her right side with increased ferocity.  She shrugged. “It feels like I used it as bait for a few hours. Which I did, so that’s probably a good sign. I took some anti-inflammatories on my last break.”

What? “You used it as what? Is that how you were shooting so many of them?” That was — smart, but stupid.

She actually stopped firing and turned around — just in time to see Emily roll her eyes. “Yeah — I can’t see them, remember? It’s fine; I can still wiggle all my fingers, don’t worry.”

“Right, because why would I worry about you deliberately putting yourself in danger? We have no idea what the effects of those things might be!” It was like the whole situation hit her at once, and she couldn’t even get any other words out.

Emily didn’t seem to have any trouble translating her silence, though. “Hey,” she said, and her voice had lost its edge. “We were going to find out the effects anyway, okay?” She took her hand out of her front pocket and waved it between them. “Still there. My fingers are just a little swollen and it makes it feels weird to hold the gun in that hand right now. Bear’s been keeping an eye on me.”

As if to demonstrate, Bear reached out a paw and swatted a bot down to the floor, crushing it. Amber looked around. “Is that — are there more? Is that all of them?” Bear sat down, looking smug, and Crow flapped her wings like applause. The whirring that had been constant background noise ever since the robots activated was gone. “I think we did it,” she said.


EMILY CALE

Please let that mean they were done. “You mean we’re done?” she asked. Amber nodded — she looked a little glassy-eyed herself, so Emily tugged them both down to sit on the floor. “Best news ever.” She dropped her head back against Bear, who had somehow wedged in behind her, and closed her eyes. She left her hand on Amber’s arm, though. The last thing they needed was for Amber to zone out trying to figure out if some random electronic component of the ship was actually another robot about to attack them.

She thought she might doze off right there, but the longer she sat, the more she noticed other things.  Her hands hurt, she was thirsty, she thought she might have a piece of robot stuck in her sock.  The smell of fried electronics suddenly seemed more irritating.  She wanted a shower, a good nights sleep or three, and real food.  Since none of those were on offer -- a change of clothes, water, and some DIY first aid would have to be enough.  She was going to work on that, just as soon as she felt like moving again.

Amber sat up a little straighter next to her, and took a long drink of water. "Do you think they took out the emergency alert programming, when they messed around with the sterilizers?" she said.

Yes.  But she got pessimistic when she was tired. "I don't know.  Maybe not."  Sterilizers were supposed to keep people from accidentally spreading space plagues around.  (No space plagues had ever been discovered, but everyone seemed to agree they might be out there.)  When a ship's complement of sterilizers dropped below a certain number, it triggered an emergency signal -- basically a heads up of ‘there could be some deadly space plague over here and we wouldn't know, please steer clear and send help.'

"I hope not.  We should be able to get at the communication system ourselves now, though."

She looked over, trying to gauge if Amber was seriously suggesting they do it now.  Her eyes were closed.  Probably the general 'now but actually later, when we’re both awake enough to make decisions’ then.  (Thank god.)

"I think we should declare this day officially over, and be done with it."  It probably hadn't been a full day's worth of hours since they got up, but it had been well over a day's worth of effort, so it balanced out, sort of.

“Yes please.” Amber’s eyes were still closed. It was going to be up to her, then. She sighed. Only a little, though, because Amber — who’d been saving the day all day — was trusting her to take over. It was a surprisingly warm and fuzzy feeling.

“Right. First we need to make sure we’re not going to wake up dead.” Amber groaned. Emily poked her in the side. “Come on. We get up, we drink some water, grab a couple first aid kits — ten minutes, meet back here.”

She wasn’t sure how long it actually took, but she felt improved enough to use a container lid to sweep a clear floorspace around them while she waited for Amber to finish up. Neither of them could face another meal bar, but they at least got some water down, along with some electrolyte tabs from the first aid kit. Then it was just wrapping and taping and almost an entire tube of antibacterial cream. They’d been lucky, really — nothing broken, no cuts that needed more than a butterfly bandage. She’d feel better if they could get checked out by actual medical practitioners, just to have some reassurance that the aches and pains they were feeling were a normal reaction to fighting robots all day and not a dangerous symptom of, say, death by poison. But that was mostly her paranoia talking.

“Now can we sleep?” Amber said. Her eyes were closed again — she insisted the headache was “manageable,” but Emily was less than convinced. There just wasn’t much they could do about it.

She took another look around — Bear was already sacked out on their pile of blankets, newly relocated to the container cave. Crow was still awake, but her head kept dipping lower and lower. There was something she was missing, though. When she figured it out, she hesitated — it was stupid.

Amber opened her eyes. “Emily? What is it?”

“I don’t have any socks. It’s fine, I don’t —“ Amber handed her a pair of socks. “How did you know?”

“You sleep with socks on,” Amber said, leaning into her. “You said so before. I grabbed a pair when I was changing. For you,” she clarified. “Because sleeping with socks on is weird.”

“It is not weird,” she said automatically. It was totally normal. What if it got cold at night?

Amber was slowing inching down under the blankets, but she reached out and patted Emily’s foot. “Sure is. I like it. Sleeping now.”

And she could feel the exhaustion creeping around the edges, but she lay awake anyway, staring at the ceiling, listening to all of them breathe and thinking about Amber’s words. ‘Weird stuff; sure is; I like it’ — maybe it was really that simple.


AMBER SAWYER

She woke up when Emily rolled over and pulled a significant number of the blankets with her.  She was lucky that she'd wound up in the middle again, and Bear was throwing off enough warmth for both of them.  They were surrounded by the same dim light they'd gone to sleep in; impossible to tell how much time had really passed.  It felt like she'd been asleep for a while.  Was it morning?  Did it matter?  

She wiggled her toes, then her fingers.  Everything was still there.  Sore, but accounted for.  At some point, she was going to have to open her eyes.  It wasn't something she was looking forward to.

She put her hand over her eyes, and squinted through her fingers carefully.  Well, she could see.  That had been a little touch and go the night before, so she was willing to put it down as a victory.  Everything she'd tried for the headache -- all the breathing exercises and visualizations and pressure points she had stashed away as coping mechanisms -- was doing just about enough to keep her from throwing up.  It had happened a lot when her hearing had first manifested.  Knowing she could attribute it to sensory over-stimulation didn't actually make it feel any better, though.  It would go away on its own, eventually.

"Are you awake?" Emily asked.  Her voice was muffled, probably because she was still cocooned in the blankets.  

"Yes.  Someone stole all my blankets."  

"Criminal.  We should track them down."

She tugged gently on one of the blankets.  "I think I found them."

Emily laughed, and rolled back over so they were side by side.  "Sorry about that.  I'm not used to sharing."  She spread the blankets back over both of them.  

"How are you feeling?"  

"Probably about as good as you are.  Are we getting up now?"

They could.  Or not.  "I could sleep more."  There was no answer -- Emily was already out again.  Definitely going back to sleep, then.  They could figure out a plan for the rest of the day later.

She woke up for the second time to a noise she didn't recognize -- not robots, or at least not any of the ones they'd seen so far.  It took her a minute to figure out that the reason it sounded so strange because it was coming from outside the ship.  Something was docking with them.  

She sat up fast enough that her head spun.  "Emily," she said.  "Wake up."

"What?"  Emily didn't bother waiting for an answer, firing off more questions as she scrambled out from under the blankets.  "Where?  Can you hear anything?"

She was trying. “It’s all echoes. I can’t separate anything out.” She didn’t have any reference for one spaceship, let alone two — it was too unfamiliar to sort out the noises that were supposed to be there from ones that weren’t. The vibration made her ears itch, and she shook her head. “Something’s docking with the ship. I can’t get any more than that. What do you think? Rescue? Random passer-by?”

Emily looked worried. “There’s only one person that we know for sure knows where we are, and that’s the person who put us here. I don’t think we can assume it’s the good guys down there.”

No, that would be too easy. “I know,” she said. “Just trying to be optimistic.” They were both stashing weapons in their pockets; the little energy blasters and EMPs that they’d used before. There was no time to try to figure out something new, and everything else was too big to carry anyway, when they’d need both hands for the ladder. She wished there was a way to know whether they’d be necessary. “We didn’t really plan for this.”

“It’s not like we’ve been sitting around twiddling our thumbs.” Emily flexed her hands carefully, and tried to cover up the flinch it caused. “I’m okay,” she said quickly. She looked at Amber. “Any idea how long it usually takes to dock a spaceship?”

She shook her head. “I don’t even know if that’s the right word for it. I’ve never been in space before.”

“Me neither.” Emily made a face. “I’ve got to say, I’m not loving it so far. Okay, thirty second plan? Meet them when they first come in, don’t let them get in and spread out and get access to all the systems. Figure out who it is before we start shooting. If they shoot first, shoot back, and be ready to fall back to this level if we need to stage a strategic retreat. What do you think?”

“I think neither of us is in any shape to make a strategic retreat at any kind of speed.” It was probably the best plan they were going to get, though, so she said that too. “Pretty good for a thirty second plan.”

“Hopefully the shooting will slow them down,” Emily said. “Even if we could make it to the third level, we’d have some options.”

Her expression must have shown her doubt that any of those options would be *good* options, because Emily shrugged. “Hey, you’re the one who wanted to try optimism.”

“I did,” Amber said. “I do. I don’t know why, I just — I have a good feeling about it. Which sounds crazy, because —“ She saved a hand around, trying to encompass the full extend of the crazy.

“Sentinels usually have good instincts, right?” Emily stood up, and Amber followed. They were as ready as they were going to get, and she could already hear the noises shifting into a different pattern. “Let’s go be the welcome party. The armed and highly suspicious welcome party.”


EMILY CALE

Adrenaline was a wonderful thing. It got them down the ladder to the third level in record time, which is where they ran into a slight snag in the plan. “I didn’t know it could do that.”

‘That’ was sealing off the entire bottom level — not just the safety lock they’d put on it, but an actual can’t-get-through-it, protected-from-the-vacuum-of-space seal. “Maybe it’s because you broke the door,” Amber suggested.

“You’re never going to let that go, are you?” She was pretty sure it was because she broke the door. If the door was supposed to provide an atmosphere seal, the docking procedure could have triggered some kind of emergency protocol to keep their air from escaping. “I guess we need a new plan.”

“I don’t know, I think yours still works. Just switch it to this level, and we can use the table for cover.”

Amber sounded distracted, and she gave her a questioning look. Amber just shook her head. “Still nothing. Wait — airlock.” Her voice dropped to a whisper. “Someone’s on board. Two. Four now. They’re not talking; I can’t hear anything.”

They were both tense while they waited. She felt like she was holding her breath. It flickered through her mind to wonder where Crow and Bear had disappeared to, but then the vacuum lock was hissing open, and all she could think was ‘it had to be a robot, didn’t it?’ It looked like a video bot, flying up the ladder and hovering just inside the room, not doing anything. Yet.

Amber shot it. Obviously any concerns about eye-hand coordination were long gone. “What was that for?” she whispered.

“I don’t know, it was just habit — see the bot, shoot the bot! Besides, the last ones looked harmless at first too.”

She could hear people climbing the ladder, apparently undeterred by the loss of the bot. It was a lot noisier when you were wearing shoes. Amber nudged her shoulder, and she realized she was muttering, “Don’t shoot, don’t shoot, don’t shoot,” under her breath.

She wasn’t expecting hazmat suits, but that’s what the first person who stepped off the ladder was wearing. Full face mask, no weapons that she could see. It was a terrible idea to let all four of them get up the ladder and into the room, but without any evidence at all that they were the bad guys, all they really had to go on was Amber’s instincts. So they waited, barricaded in the hall behind the table.

There were a few seconds of silence, and then one of the newcomers said, “They’ll be fine, you said. Nothing’s going to happen to them, you said. I’m freaking out here, Mel. Something sure as hell happened — look around you.”

Amber froze next to her, and then stood up. Emily scrambled to cover her, and then Amber said, “Mom?”

One of the hazmat suits pulled off their face mask. “Amber?” Yes, that was Amber’s mom — which meant she was pointing a weapon at a former First Lady, and also that Mel had to be — Her own mom took off her face mask a heartbeat later.

“Emily!”

They were actually getting rescued. It was so far from what she’d expected, it almost didn’t register at first. But her mom was moving towards her, and Amber was already climbing over the table. She almost dropped the gun, trying to tuck it behind her back, or put it on the floor, or — she wasn’t even sure. Her brain seemed completely stuck on processing the fact that her mom was there. All of a sudden she could see what the room must look like to mom eyes: littered with inactive bots, and at least a couple streaks of what she was pretty sure were her blood around the emergency hatch. Their two grubby kids in the middle of the destruction.

“Hi Mom,” she said, and Amber tugged her over the table too, and then her mom’s arms were around her and it was like a huge weight had been lifted off her shoulders. Amber's mom eventually shuffled them all into a big group hug, and she had to keep reminding herself not to cry.  (Amber was sounding a little sniffly on the other side of the hug; it was setting her off.)  

When her mom pulled back, she left her hands on her shoulders.  "What happened?"

Where could she even start with that?  She said, "How did you find us?" instead. 

Her mom wasn't buying it, though.  "I asked first.  Are you okay?  Are you hurt?"

One of the other two people stepped forward.  "Not to break up the reunion, but do we need to sweep the ship?"  

"Carol?" Amber asked.

"Hey Amber."  She pulled off her mask too.  "You have any more hostiles around here?  I'm here to play security guard and keep these two from getting into too much trouble, but --"  She looked around, like she was trying to decide what to say.  "Well, this isn't exactly what we were expecting.  I can still knock heads if you need me to."

They all looked at the last person still wearing a mask.  "I'm not taking mine off; one of us has to be able to say we followed procedure."

Amber's mom waved it off.  "Oh please, as if there was ever a chance we weren't going to end up going through quarantine right alongside these two." 

"Is that Rosa?"  (Emily had no idea how Amber had hidden her hearing for so long; she certainly wasn't going to any trouble to be subtle about it.)

"That's Dr. Rosa to you, kid.  Official graduate of med school these days.  After I spent all those years patching you up, it was practically a walk in the park."  

They exchanged some kind of complicated high-five-secret-handshake combo that looked familiar from the White House years.  Her brain still felt like it was running in a million directions at once, but she finally placed Rosa as part of the family's Secret Service detail.  (Apparently she'd used her post-White House years to get through medical school.  Way to make her feel like the underachiever of the group.)  

She looked back and forth between her mom and Carol. “What *were* you expecting, exactly?"  There was too much going on for her to figure it out, but something about Carol's comment was pinging her bullshit radar.  

Amber caught her eye while all the grown-ups exchanged awkward glances, and raised her eyebrows.  Emily shrugged.  Maybe she was overreacting.  It just seemed weird -- their rescue party was made up of both their moms, plus a retired Secret Service director, and a doctor who just happened to be a friend of the family?  Add to that the fact that (except for the hazmat suits) they didn't seem to be expecting any actual trouble, and something didn't add up.

"Well," Carol said again, and stopped.

"We found you," Amber's mom said.  “And you’re okay. That’s the important thing.”


AMBER SAWYER

She took a step back, putting herself shoulder to shoulder with Emily. The adrenaline and shock were fading, leaving her with the uncomfortable feeling that Emily was right -- they were missing something. They'd been abducted, abandoned, and attacked, so why did it feel like her mom was showing up to pick her up after a party and 'wasn't mad, just disappointed'?

"I think you should tell us what you think happened here," she said carefully.

It was Emily's mother who spoke up. She was using her teacher voice. "Four days ago, I got a message from an anonymous sender, saying the two of you had won a contest, and the prize was a Space Escape experience. It's one of those locked-room puzzle challenges -- it's a real company, but when I contacted them about the message, they had no record of it, or of either of you ever being a participant. And then when I couldn't get in touch with you--"

Her own mom took up the explanation next. "Mel contacted me, and we did some digging. Space Escape does run contests, but there wasn't one going on now. They did, however, have a missing ship. This is one of their older ships, slated for decommissioning. We made them pull every bit of data they could about where it might be and how you could have wound up on board."

"And they still couldn't find it," Carol said. "Until someone got flagged in the security database for a potential breaking and entering." She looked pointedly at Emily, who flushed.

"I didn't exactly know I was on a spaceship at the time," she muttered. "I thought it was probably an underground bunker. I was trying to get out."

"So you don't remember how you got here?"

Amber shook her head. "We were both unconscious. We woke up on separate levels and met up a little bit later. Neither of us ever entered any contest." She wasn't entirely sure why anyone would sign up for a contest like that -- if you were going to go into space, wasn't the entire point to actually see space?

Her mom said, "Of course not. We know that. We're just not sure why you didn't call for help, once you were awake."

"Because — how would we have done that?" Emily asked. She waved a hand around the room. It was crowded with people, but it was still obvious that there was no computer screens or even basic amenities on offer. “There’s not exactly a phone home button anywhere around here. All of the ship's systems are locked up on the other side of that wall, which we were working on getting at."

Amber frowned. “Did you say this ship was being decommissioned?" she asked, and Emily’s mother nodded.

"Yes, that's right. They're upgrading the Space Escape experience -- more windows, apparently."

Emily shivered almost imperceptibly next to her, and she leaned in closer. “Then why is the top level still packed full of stuff?"

"And guns," she added. "Stuff and guns."

Carol suddenly looked a lot more interested. She had a terrible poker face. "So you decided to start shooting things? It worked, actually; that's how we finally triangulated the signal; the warning alert when the ship dropped below a safe level of sterilization capability."

"We didn't *decide* to start shooting things," Emily said, sounding indignant. "The ship attacked us." She picked up one of the many sterilizer bots littering the floor and tossed it at Carol, who caught it reflexively. "That's right. While you thought we were just sitting around waiting for somebody to come get us, and shooting up the place, we were fighting off a horde of those things.”

“Sterilizer bots aren’t dangerous,” Emily’s mother said.

“Those ones are,” Amber told her. “They’ve been modified; they—“

Carol, who’d been prying the bot apart with a knife she’d pulled out of somewhere, suddenly gave a surprised yelp. “Ow! Son of a— They’re weaponized?“ She shook out her hand and glared at the bot. It looked like she’d figured it out the hard way, then.

“Yeah, that. They also fly,” Amber said. She wasn’t sure if she should say they’d been invisible — it would bring up a lot of questions of the ‘then how did you manage to shoot them down’ variety that she wasn’t sure how to answer. She’d spent a long time hiding one enhanced sense; she had no idea how to handle talking about five. She looked at Emily, but Emily was watching Carol.

Her mom was eyeing the room with a much more concerned expression than she’d had before. “Is this all of them?”

She almost laughed. “Not exactly. They’re all inactive, though, don’t worry.”

Her mom definitely looked worried. “Don’t worry?” She turned to Emily’s mother. “You hear that? She sounds like you. ‘Don’t worry.’” She looked back at Amber. “I’ll worry if I want to. You’re my kid; it’s in the job description. How many more were there?”

She had no idea. It wasn’t like they’d counted them. “A lot?” Emily offered. “Most of them are on the top level.”

Her mom took a deep breath, and she could actually see the shift when she went from mom-mode to authority-mode. “We’re getting you both off this ship right now,” her mom said. “Carol, do your security sweep, top to bottom. I want documentation of everything. Take it apart piece by piece if you have to. Rosa, let’s get these two checked out.”

She was still standing close enough to Emily that they were almost touching, and she inched her fingers out to clasp their hands together. They were going home.


EMILY CALE

It was a disaster. She should have realized -- but she hadn't been thinking, and it was too late to go back and do things differently.  They made it about five steps past the airlock before Amber collapsed.  Everyone panicked, which was also something she probably should have anticipated.  There was a rush to get her to the medical suite and hooked up to a scanner, and then they all stood around doing the verbal equivalent of wringing their hands.

"She's breathing," Rosa said.  She was the calmest of the group, and Emily tried to follow her example.  (It didn't work very well.) "Give us some room here.”

"What happened?" Amber's mom was staring at her like she really wanted to be yelling.  "Is she hurt?  Did she get hurt and you didn't tell us?"

It was on the tip of her tongue to deny it, but then she reconsidered.  If they wanted to try to keep everything under wraps...  "Can I talk to you in private?" she said finally.  

There was another exchange of speaking looks.  "All right."

They went out in the hallway, and then into what looked like an office.  Amber's mom raised her eyebrows.  "Well?"

There was no way the conversation was more difficult than what they'd been doing the last few days.  She just had to say it.  She closed her eyes and took a deep breath.  "Amber's online as a full Sentinel."  Silence.  She opened her eyes again.  "She's not injured.  It's probably sensory overload that made her collapse."  She must have had everything cranked way up on the ship -- moving into a brand new space and being bombarded with new lights and sounds was just too much.

She waited.  Amber's mom took her own turn closing her eyes and breathing.  "All right," she said again.  "Give me a minute here."  

They stood in awkward silence, while Emily counted backwards from a hundred.  She got to thirty-seven before Amber's mom said, "Thank you for telling me," and then surprised her by adding, "How are you doing?"

"I'm fine," she said automatically.  "Are you okay?"  She honestly hadn't been expecting such dramatic reaction.  It wasn't all that uncommon for someone with one enhanced sense to develop more as they got older, or in an unusually stressful situation.  "I'm not going to tell anyone, if that's what you're worried about."

Amber's mom actually laughed.  "That's the last thing I would worry about.  This is more of a general shift in my perception of the universe.  I'll work on processing it later.  So -- all five senses, currently experiencing sensory overload.  What would you suggest?"

Was that a trick question?  "I'd suggest telling her doctor?” Emily said.  "Unless she already knows."  

That got her a considering look.  "I'll tell her.  Will you sit with her?"

"Of course."  (She hadn't even considered doing anything else.  Where else would she go?)

That seemed to be the end of the conversation, so back they went to the medical suite -- Amber's mom gestured Rosa out into the hallway, and she was finally able to get a good look at Amber. She sat down with a sigh.  "You just had to collapse in the airlock, didn't you?  Couldn't have waited till we were behind closed doors and just taken a nap like everyone else?"

The bright overhead lights had to be giving her trouble.  Even unconscious, there was a line between her eyes like she was frowning -- or squinting.  And of course, it was medical -- not a single light switch to be found.  Emily put her hand over Amber’s eyes instead.  "Just keep breathing," she said quietly.  "It's gotten us all the way to here, right?"

Amber did seem to relax a little bit, and Emily hooked a stool with her foot to pull it in closer to the bed.  "You know, this is the first time I've sat on an actual chair in days.”  She kept expecting Amber's mom to step back through the door with Rosa and kick her out, and they kept not doing it.  Finally she settled in (as much as she could, on a rolling stool), and put her head down on her other arm.  She could listen for them just as well as she could watch, right?

She should have guessed she'd fall asleep.  Hindsight was the word of the day, apparently.  She woke up with a numb arm and a massive crick in her neck.  "That was a seriously weird dream," she said, trying to wiggle her fingers.  (Someone had turned the lights to their dimmest setting, which was great for sensitive Sentinel eyes, but she was personally getting a little tired of navigating everything in semi-darkness.) 

There was a rumble by her knee, and she looked down to see Bear, looking smug.  “Oh, hey. Welcome back," she said.  "Is Crow around too?"  Bear put one furry paw on the bed, which wasn't quite an answer, but close enough.  Crow was with Amber.  Enough said.

“Not a dream,” Amber said, a little fuzzily. “We can talk about it later, if you want.”


AMBER SAWYER

She felt surprisingly good, given that she was relatively sure she hadn't done her ankle any favors by the morning's trek through the ship, and vaguely remembered hitting her head on the floor on her way to passing out. It turned out a quick trip to the Sentinel plane could work wonders. It must have been the first time Emily had seen it; Amber remembered thinking it was a dream for at least the first year and a half.

"You're awake!" Emily said, and then lowered her voice. "Sorry. You're awake!"

She was mostly awake. Crow tugged on her hair, and she scooped her up as she wriggled into a sitting position on the bed. She was in a medical suite. Fantastic. "How long was I out?"

Emily shrugged. "No idea. I was asleep -- or whatever -- for most of it right alongside you. Not a dream, huh?"

She didn't look upset. Amber hoped that was a good sign, and she shook her head. “Not so much. Where is everyone? I didn't imagine that, right? Your mom, and my mom, and Carol and Rosa?"

"They're around, I guess." Emily frowned. "I guess we should go find them. They were pretty worried when you collapsed."

What she really wanted to do was curl up in a safe place and sleep for about a week, and then go to work figuring out how to get a handle on her new senses. It looked like her reprieve on the other ship was short-lived -- if she was going to start passing out every time she went somewhere new, that was going to be a problem. But they were on a spaceship, and their moms were there, and the curiosity to find out what was going on was definitely a contender for top of the to-do list. She let the curiosity win, and said, "Sounds good. How's your neck?"

"Not too bad. Worth it."

Emily put a hand on her arm as she eased off the bed, and she thought it was for her own benefit until they reached the door and Emily said, "Wait."

"What?"

"The lights are basically off in here," Emily said, sounding cautious. "I just -- wasn't sure you knew."

She hadn't. Her eyes had adjusted automatically, and the hallway outside was probably going to blind her, and then they'd be right back where they started. "Oh." They both stood there for a few seconds, while she tried to will her brain to think it was dark, and Emily pretended not to notice.

"Any suggestions?" she asked finally.

"Why does everyone keep asking me that?" Emily said. "Never mind. Well, sunglasses, probably, eventually. You could definitely make that look work. For now? It may help just to be expecting the change in light levels." She gave her arm a quick squeeze. "And maybe try to collapse towards me, instead of the other way. It'll give me a better chance at catching you."

She laughed -- "I'll keep that in mind."

Emily opened the door, and she squinted carefully into the brighter light. Her eyes acclimated, slower than she would have liked, but they got there. "Wait," Emily said again, before she could step out into the hall. "I told your mom. About the Sentinel thing. I know we never talked about it, but then you weren't awake to ask, and they all thought you might have some internal injury or something, and --"

She trailed off, and Amber said, “It’s fine; I would have told her anyway. You just saved me from having to do it myself." She hesitated, but couldn't stop herself from asking, "Was she mad?"

"She was great," Emily said, and it only sounded a little like she was bluffing.

As soon as they were outside the room, she could hear her mom talking with someone further down the hall. “Anything else I should know about?” Emily shook her head. “All right. Let's go."

The someone turned out to be Emily's mother, and there was another round of hugs from everyone when she and Emily walked through the door. "Carol and Rosa are on the other ship," her mom told them. "There were a few more nasty surprises that Carol's sweep turned up that she wanted an extra pair of hands to take care of -- it's a good thing you two never made it over to the control section."

She wasn't sure what to make of that, but her mom didn't seem to actually be waiting for an answer, and instead moved right along to, "How are you feeling?"

"Better," she said. "I'm sorry I made you worry."

Her mom hugged her again. "I've been worrying about you since before you were born. I'm a worrier, it's what I do. You having five Sentinel-level senses isn't even in the top ten things I've worried about today. I'll admit, it's not what I was expecting Emily to say when she asked to speak with me, but it probably should have been. Your dad and I always knew this was a possibility."

She didn't say what an inconvenient revelation it could be for her, politically speaking. The family was officially out of the political arena, but you never left it completely behind, and both her parents were still very much public figures. If the media figured out that Amber's enhanced hearing had been kept a secret during the entire tenure of her dad's presidency, it could be a problem.

Her mom seemed to guess her thoughts, though, because she said, "Hey -- let me worry about my choices, all right? You just focus on you, and your new partner in crime there. Mel and I have been talking, but we want to have your input on how to handle this from here. We have plenty of options.”

She just nodded. What could she say? Her mom put an arm around her shoulders. “Let’s start with the basics. How does food sound? Rosa said you should eat something, if you felt up to it, and get more fluids in you."

Her stomach growled loudly just thinking about food. “I guess that answers that question. Food it is.”


EMILY CALE

The kitchen area was nowhere near big enough for all four of them, but it was stocked with an enormous array of food choices. Actual real food — she didn’t think she’d ever appreciated it so much. Between the smallness of the space and the fact that they kept stopping to eat as they gathered, it took a while before they were all back in the little office, trays of food stacked up on the central table.

“This is so good,” she said, swallowing a mouthful of sandwich. “I can’t believe how much I missed cheese. I can’t believe how much I missed *bread.*”

She and Amber were sitting next to each other -- close enough so their knees were actually touching under the table. (She was pretty sure it could be excused by the tight quarters -- the office was bigger than the kitchen, but not by much.) Her mom produced a napkin from somewhere, and passed it over.

"Thank you," she said, because she recognized the 'distract them with food and then drop the bad news bombshell' technique from growing up, and she was hoping to put it off a little longer.

Her mom smiled. "You're welcome. Your father wanted to be here too, you know. But Alison and I won the coin toss, so he and Mr. Sawyer are back at home."

"James," Amber's mom corrected, and Emily could practically feel her eyebrows going up. Even at the height of their connection, when her dad was on the president's personal security staff and they'd been on the 'honored guests of the White House' list for every event, Mr. Sawyer had never been on a first-name basis with her or her mom. She hadn't even seen him for years, and she hadn’t thought her mom had either. Birthday cards were one thing; this was — she didn’t even know.

“James?” she asked.

“It’s been an eventful few days,” Amber’s mom said.

Her own mom leaned across the table and patted her hand. “You let us worry about that part, okay? We’re hoping that after you eat, you both might feel up to taking some time to write down everything you remember about what happened, so we have a record of it. It could help us track down whoever was responsible.”

“And give us somewhere to start from in terms of coordinating our stories,” Amber’s mom added. “This isn’t exactly an official search and rescue. There was some — frustrating push-back when we first went to the ‘authorities.’” (Her hands stayed still, but the air quotes were very much implied.) “So we’re now simply concerned parents and citizens who happened to be in the right place at the right time. Not the most believable scenario, but it has a certain underdog quality to it. There’s another day before we’re back in live communication range with Earth. We’re thinking you write up what you remember, get some rest, then we can all regroup and get ready for the press conference.”

She blinked.  Nobody else looked the slightest bit surprised, so she kept her mouth shut on the 'what press conference?' that was on the tip of her tongue.  Amber just groaned.  "Do we have to?  I've been happy with 'grad student, no comment' as a standard answer."

"I don't think that's going to fly this time, but it's an option."  Their moms exchanged a long look.  "Why don't the two of you take some time and talk it over.  Rosa and Carol should be back soon, and we need to check in with them anyway."

"Emily," her mom said, and it was her serious voice.  "Communication is important."

Right. Of course it was. She had no idea what her mom was talking about. “Definitely,” she said, trying to sound like she wasn’t just playing along. “Communication.”

Her mother beamed and patted her hand again. “Exactly. Well, we’ll leave you to it, then.”

Once they were alone, she turned to Amber — “That was weird, right? What was that even about?”

Amber looked at her tray. Then she looked at the wall. Finally she sighed, and looked at Emily. “I’m not a hundred percent sure, but I could make a guess. Let’s just — make sure we’re on the same page for the two of us, before we start branching out. What do you think is happening here? I mean, if you had to summarize it, like a synopsis.”

(And any time when you found yourself thinking ‘things sure were a lot simpler when all we had to do was fight off an army of tiny robots,’ you could be confident it was a weird day.) This was going to be one for the record books, she was pretty sure. Still, it made sense to present a united front if they could.

“Okay, here goes.” Emily held up her hand and ticked off the bullet points on her fingers. “You’re a former First Daughter, currently a grad student at a state university, studying for a doctorate in philosophy, of all things. I’m a former ‘honored guest of the White House,’ currently running an editorial news blog and probably no longer employed as a courier. We haven’t been linked socially or politically for years, since before President Sawyer’s second term. You’ve had enhanced hearing since you were a kid. Both of us assumed we’d been kidnapped, but had no real suspects for who might be behind it. While we were on the ship we found a bunch of weapons and fought robots and you came online as a full five sense Sentinel. I’ve basically been acting as your Guide in the absence of any other options, despite no actual training or experience, and you’ve seemed okay with it. Also we had a weird shared dream that you said wasn’t really a dream.” She looked at Amber, who was frowning. Had she missed something important? “That’s the page I’m on, in the book of ‘what the heck is going on around here.’”


AMBER SAWYER

"You think you're only guiding me because I don't have any other options?" Maybe Emily didn't want to be a guide -- lots of people didn't, she was sure. "It's not a question of convenience. It's always been you."

Emily looked like she wasn't convinced. "Always? When it was just your hearing you did fine without any support at all. You've been a full Sentinel for less than a week, and for most of that time I was literally the only person around."

"It wouldn't have happened if you weren't there," Amber said in a rush. “It was going to be you or no one.”

"What's that supposed to mean?" Emily had stopped eating to stare at her, and she took a deep breath.

So Emily really hadn’t known. She’d wondered. That put — a lot of things into a different perspective. "I almost came online years ago, when we were around each other so much. That's why we got moved to separate tables -- you really didn't know? Our parents used to talk about it all the time."

Emily shook her head slowly. "I don't have super hearing, remember?"

“I can see your animal guide -- I've been able to ever since we met. That’s important. And you can see mine. I’m not saying we couldn’t make it work with someone else —“ Except that she had, just a minute ago. “—Or you could, at least. I’m not explaining this well.” She spread her hands apart in a sort of half shrug. “I don’t know what to say. I don’t want to mess it up.”

Emily gave her an attempt at a smile. "It's okay, it's still your turn to be a mess. I'll let you know when it's my turn again."

There were so many more things she wanted to say, but she couldn't seem to find the words. "I don't know what to say," she said finally. "I feel like I've always thought you were a part of our family -- ever since I first saw you on tv. And when I met you, and I saw Bear, I thought I knew why, because someday you'd be my guide and I'd be a Sentinel and everything would somehow fall into place." (That part had always been a little vague in her imaginings.)

"But you didn't know, and you'd never even seen Bear until two days ago, and now I feel like I was hiding something from you and I didn't even realize it. I thought we just -- didn't talk about it."

Emily reached out and poked her arm. "Hey, just because I'm running a little behind schedule doesn't mean I can't catch up. So, what I'm getting out of this is that you, and a Crow, a Bear, and our moms all think we have a mystical destiny together, and no one told me until now."

"I'm not sure I'd call it mystical," Amber said. "But -- yes?"

"That is a theory and a half. I'm -- I have no idea what to think of that, but it makes a certain weird kind of sense. I'm not against it, conceptually speaking. I'm just talking to talk now, I think I might be worried about what other revelations might be coming if you keep going."

She laughed. "No more revelations." Then she winced. "Well."

"I knew it!"

"It's just one thing." She thought about it. "Okay, two.” (Three? There might be three.) “You sort of know them already, I think.”

Emily pushed a tray of food in her direction. “Keep eating while you talk. Don’t think I didn’t notice you feeding half your meal bars to Crow.”

She made a face, and picked up a cookie. "Meal bars are the worst."

"You don't need to convince me; I'm just surprised Crow would eat them."

That was probably as good a lead-in as any. "How much do you know about animal guides?"

Emily gave her a skeptical look. "Nothing." Then she waved her hand back and forth. "Basically nothing," she amended.

It wasn’t entirely clear how to interpret that, but she figured she couldn’t go too wrong with this one — Emily obviously adored Bear, and Crow too. She said, “Here’s the basics: there are animal guides. There's also the Sentinel plane, which isn't the best name but it's the easiest to remember. That's where we were when we were dreaming together."

"Which wasn't really a dream," Emily said, and she nodded. "So all that, with the -- that really happened?"

"Sort of? It didn't happen here, exactly; it happened -- adjacent to here. That's how I think of it, anyway. If you dropped a rock into a pond on the Sentinel plane, you wouldn't see the rock here, but you might feel the ripples."

Emily caught on to the implications faster than she expected. "So Crow eating stuff that you can't get down actually gives you some kind of nutrient value?"

She shrugged. “More than nothing, yeah. Mostly she just feels like eating sometimes, and she has weird tastes. But it's helped out once in a while, when food was an issue." The more she thought about it, the more she realized that her other senses had given her trouble off and on for a long time. She worked hard to keep surprises out of her life, and maybe it was less of just a personality quirk than she'd thought.

“Okay.” Emily handed her another cookie. “Does it work the other way? Am I going to mess up Bear's zen if I start skipping sleep or getting stressed out? Also, what's with the monochromatic color scheme on the Sentinel plane?"

That was a good question; they were rapidly reaching the end of what she actually knew for sure, though. "I don't know. I mean, no to the Bear question, as far as I've been able to tell. But I don't know why the Sentinel plane is so blue; it's like that all the time."

"Blue isn't even a soothing color of light," Emily said, which at least relieved her concern that Emily was going to say 'blue? what blue?' "It makes no sense for Sentinels to be exposed to it like that. Does it look the same to everyone -- are there other Sentinels hanging out there? Does everyone access the same one?"

"I don't know that either. I've been trying to keep it a secret, remember? It's not like I could go to someone and say 'hey, I've got some questions about this weird blue place I keep seeing while I'm asleep.'"

“Good point. All right. So what’s the second thing?”


EMILY CALE

It was a conversation that would have been better with coffee, but she thought it was going okay. Caffeinated beverages had been suspiciously missing from the kitchen -- it wasn't clear whether their parents hadn't stocked any, or whether they'd consumed them all before the actual rescue part of the "search and rescue" took place.

"You said there were two things?" she prompted. Amber looked determined to power through whatever secrets she might have been keeping. Emily mostly felt embarrassed that she'd missed something so interesting -- she kept thinking she should share *her* secrets, but the reality was that she didn't really have much to share. She lived alone, she had a job, she published her thoughts online for anyone to read. She probably drank too much coffee; she'd been thinking about getting a dog before she found out she had a bear following her everywhere she went.

Amber fidgeted with the edge of the tray, and Emily wondered if she could get away with giving her another cookie. Finally, Amber said, "I think our mothers may be trying to matchmake us."

She couldn't help a little sigh of relief -- that was the second thing? "That one I already knew, actually. Does it bother you?"

"I don't mind," Amber said, shaking her head. "I thought you might. My mom is convinced that we're hiding a secret passion for each other."

Emily winced. “That is possibly sort of my fault? I didn't think it would ever come up, it was just -- years ago, when I moved out, and my mom started dating again, I had a very awkward conversation with her about romantic relationships, and it's possible she left that conversation with the impression that I had a crush on you and had sworn off all other dating and didn’t want to talk about it ever again.”

Amber stared at her. “That’s a very specific impression.”

"Yeah. Sorry. I wasn't exactly expecting all of this." She really, really hadn't. "And it wasn't, you know, a hundred percent not true. I just figured that you'd never find out, and you'd wind up happily married with adorable philosophical babies, and if it ever came up again I could tell my mom it just wasn't meant to be. Mostly that you'd never find out, though."

Amber looked like she was trying to figure out how to tactfully say whatever it was she was going to say next. "You don't need to be tactful if you don't want," Emily told her.

"I'm just trying to decide where to start," Amber said. She tapped on the tray absently. Probably a focus thing. "How not true?"

Of course, she had to start there. "Well." She shrugged. "It's not like I have a lot to compare it to. I like you. I like hanging out with you. Despite the circumstances, the cuddling was nice. I don't want to have sex with you, but that's not a you thing. More of a me thing."

She didn't usually talk about it. Actually, she didn't ever talk about it. But Amber wasn’t going to tell anyone, and it wasn't like they were strangers. Besides, they'd almost died the day before, and they hadn't, so why not take a few more risks, right?

Amber nodded. "I know what you mean. I always just figured -- well, you can't prove a negative. And it was convenient, having the press think I was just extremely private. What are the odds, huh?"

"About one in twenty, probably. Maybe not that good if you add in the Sentinel thing.” She frowned. “Honestly, I don’t know; I just made that number up. I was never all that good at odds."

"We could," Amber started, and then hesitated. "If you wanted, I mean, we could just -- keep doing this. I would like that."

She stared at the ceiling for a few seconds, trying to process everything that was happening. "This, as in -- the Sentinel and Guide thing? Or this as in --" She waved a hand between them. "Liking each other."

"Both?" Amber looked uncertain. "It's your decision too. If we're voting, I vote for both. I might try to campaign for both, depending on how you feel about that idea. But it's not unilateral. We're in this together, and how and when that changes is on both of us."

"Voting would be very democratic of us," Emily said. She inched her hand along the table towards Amber's, and Amber smiled and turned her palm up. "I could support that plan."

Amber said, “Oh yeah? Well then — all in favor?”

She might have laughed a little when she said, “Aye,” but Amber was laughing too. “The ayes have it,” she managed, and Amber squeezed her hand.

They shared the requisite celebratory hug (a part of any successful vote), and then Amber said, “What should we do now?”

There was their homework assignment, but writing up what had happened didn’t exactly appeal. She was partly convinced it wasn’t necessary at all, just a plan cooked up by her mom to help them “communicate.” On the other hand, it wasn’t like they had a lot of other things to do — eat, sleep, contemplate — it would be a hard sell to bump one of those to the top of the priority list, since they’d only just finished eating, and had been asleep (sort of) only a short time ago. “I guess we should do our write ups?”

She sort of hoped Amber would have a good reason not to, but instead she nodded. “It probably won’t get any easier to put it off till later.”

At least they were already in an office, which helpfully took out the need to figure out where anything else was on the ship. It wasn’t the worst plan they’d had.


AMBER SAWYER

This was definitely the worst plan they'd had yet. Somehow working on their write-ups turned into falling asleep in the office, and then some number of hours later Emily's mother had burst in and announced that it was 'just about time to be in live communication range,' and were they ready?

They were not ready. They were stiff and sore and bleary-eyed, and they somehow looked much worse against the backdrop of a top-of-the-line cruising ship than they had in the much dimmer and older ship they'd started on. Emily's mother sent them off to shower with directions to take their time ('but not too much time') and then present themselves back at the medical suite. "Don't worry," she'd said. "We've got things covered."

It took longer than she wanted to figure out the shower controls -- real water on a spaceship? Who did that? And she would have sworn that her ankle hadn't been that bad before, but maybe it was a delayed reaction kind of thing. Once the rest of her was feeling better, she had time to notice how much that one thing was still hurting.

She hurried as much as she could, but she was still the last one to arrive. Emily was already being fussed over by her mother and Rosa -- her own mom gave her a hug when she walked in, and led her to sit on the bed, next to Emily. "This is just a quick call back to Earth," she told them. "We're going to get your dads on the line; it's going to be a private call as much as possible, but your disappearance gained a certain amount of attention. People are going to be interested. There's a good chance it won't be as private as we'd like."

Emily raised her hand a little and waved. Rosa hustled over when she sat down. "Go ahead and put your foot up; I'll wrap your ankle first."

Next to her, Emily asked, "Is there any chance you have a hairbrush? I know it's silly. But my hair is kind of a disaster right now. If we're going to be on camera."

She winced at a particularly awkward angle for her foot, and put her hand on Emily's shoulder. For balance.

Emily's mother produced a hairbrush out of the bag she had in her lap and handed it over. "Do you need any help? I have some pain-relieving cream for your hands when you're done."

"I'm okay," Emily said. Amber watched her side-eye the bag. "Actually. Can I--?" Her mother passed her the bag. In short order, she had the contents out and was sorting them into piles on and around her lap. "Here," she said, handing a tube of something to Amber. "Lip balm. Should be safe to use."

She refocused on her mom when Rosa finished her ankle. “So what are we saying?"

"Stick to the basics," her mom advised. "You don't know what happened, you're safe, you're happy to be headed home. Emily, we've invited you and your family to stay with us while you recover. It should give you a good excuse to be in the same place for a while."

Emily just nodded. She was still working her way through the bag's contents, and she handed over a set of earplugs. "Just in case."

What else could possibly come out of that bag? It wasn’t even that big. But it was a mom bag, so probably she shouldn’t be surprised. They could probably live off the contents of the bag for a week, with enough supplies to set up a camp in the wilderness and still look decent for cameras when the week was up. (Which was, she supposed, essentially what they were doing.)

She took the earplugs. She tuned out most of the rest of her mom’s advice, which seemed to be the standard pre-press-appearance rundown of providing the smallest possible amount of information while still appearing warm and approachable. It was her one of her many least favorite things about cameras.

“Why are you so sure it’s not going to be private?” Emily asked suddenly, breaking into her breathing exercises.

“Remember when I said it had been an eventful few days?” her mom said. “When the authorities said they couldn’t do anything, we went to a private security group instead. There’s been a lot of media attention.” She sighed, and it was so unlike her mom to express any kind of uncertainty during a speech that Amber stopped and stared.

“I would love to believe that the two of you ending up out here was just a misunderstanding, and that it was just a coincidence that video surveillance around your residence hall and apartment happened to be down the entire night of your disappearance.  But there's another conclusion that doesn't feel like a wild leap, and that is that someone out there with an awfully long reach who's targeting you specifically, and that means we take every precaution.  Including acting as if private communications channels can be tapped."

It was Emily's mother who broke the heavy silence after that pronouncement.  "Also," she said mildly.  "There's the fact that the security group John and James are working with is made up almost entirely of Sentinels and Guides, so there’s a good chance that someone's going to hear something no matter what we do."

'Eventful few days' was an understatement.  She wasn't sure what to say, but what's done was done, and all they could do was move forward.  So she nodded, and then she knocked her shoulder into Emily's and said, "We've got this.  Let's go phone home."

"That was a terrible joke," Emily muttered, as they trooped down the corridor.  "I just want you to know that."  


EMILY CALE

There was an almost overwhelming sense of relief seeing her dad on the screen at the same time her mom was standing next to her with a hand on her shoulder. No matter how much time they spent apart, or how much of the time they spent together was spent arguing, they were still family.

"Emily!  You are a sight for sore eyes, kid.  Are you okay?  Are you hurt?"

She smiled.  "Hi Dad.  It's good to see you too.  We're all okay."

"Well, your mom said it was her turn to do the rescue thing.  I wish I was there."

"She's pretty good at it, you know.”  

"Yeah?  I heard you weren't so bad at it yourself, all on your own."

"I was never on my own. Amber was there.”  They'd managed it together.  

"I'm looking forward to having my feet back on solid ground, though.  I miss --"  She couldn't even come up with the words.  Seeing her dad, the sky out the window in the background, she just -- wanted to be home.  "Everything," she said finally.  

"You miss coffee, you mean," Amber said, and they both laughed.

She did miss coffee.  "That too."  

"Oh, you mean a delicious caffeinated beverage like this?"  Her dad held up a travel mug.  "Mmm."

"She hasn't stopped talking about it," Amber said.

"Don't tease, Dad.  Not cool."  

"I don't think people say cool anymore.  James, what do you think -- is that still a word people use?"

Amber's dad entered the screen.  "Dad!" Amber said.  

"Man, am I glad to see you," he said.  "And -- yes, actually.  The word cool has been in use since at least the 1930s, and it continues to be part of our cultural vernacular to this day, particularly in the United States.”

"Only you would know that," Amber said, shaking her head.  "Hey, Dad -- it's good to see you too.  Everything okay down there?" 

"That's how you know I'm not an impostor.  And isn’t it supposed to be me asking you that question?" 

She could hear the smile in Amber's voice without even having to look.  "You know I'm all right.  I've got Mom here; she's probably been sending you minute-by-minute updates.  Thanks for sending the cavalry after us.”

Almost the exact moment she thought to herself ‘this is going well,’ Amber started to hyper-focus. Probably on something at the other end of their communication channel. She’d been in a pretty small space, from a sensory perspective, for days — a connection to a much bigger area was bound to be both tempting and overwhelming.

She wasn't even sure how she could tell, exactly -- something about her stillness, or maybe her breathing changed, but she was definitely headed for a zone. Emily reached over and grabbed her hand. "We're just really glad to be headed back home," she said. Amber blinked, and refocused on the screen instead of whatever was beyond it.

"We can't wait to see you," her dad said. He looked like he wanted to ask -- either about Amber or the hand-holding, she wasn't sure, but instead he pointed at Amber's dad, and added, "This one's been planning the welcome home party all night."

"We'll be there." Her mom took over then, and they were talked over and around as arrival times and station transport schedules were discussed and debated. It gave her time to squeeze Amber's hand and say quietly, "You okay?"

Amber squeezed back, and nodded. "Just a little overwhelming." They could have been talking about anything; and Emily wanted to ask if she had a headache again, because she was starting to get one herself and it was driving her nuts, but she didn't want to be the one that gave up the Sentinel secret. If Amber decided to go public, that was her call.

"We're running short on time," Amber's mom said. (Personally, Emily was impressed the call had lasted as long as it had. The face-to-face real-time calls were notoriously glitchy, and ridiculously expensive the further away you called -- to make one all the way to a spaceship? Crazy. She was glad they'd done it, so glad, but it was still crazy.) "I'm sorry to cut this off, but we'll be back as soon as possible and you can all talk in person."

They all exchanged a few rounds of 'love you's and 'miss you's and 'see you soon's, and then the call ended, and her mom gave a sigh of relief. "I think that went well," she said.

Emily's stomach growled. "Breakfast?" she asked hopefully. "Or, actually, I have no idea what time it is. Is it breakfast?" She still hadn't gotten her internal clock back on track, and it seemed weird that everyone had let them fall asleep in the office and left them there overnight. If it had happened in the middle of the day, maybe no one had even noticed.

Her mom shook her head. "It's not breakfast, exactly, but we do have plenty of breakfast foods. If that's what you're hungry for, we can do that."

Mostly she was just hungry. "Sure. Whatever is fine, really. What time is it?"

"Well, if we're going by local time on the east coast, back on Earth, it's just after four in the afternoon. We've been sticking to that for the most part, since this was a quick trip."

Four in the afternoon, huh? Well, that wasn't what she'd been expecting. On the other hand, it meant that they could legitimately go back to bed in just a few hours, which was sounding better and better. It felt a little bit like all they’d done since getting rescued was eat and sleep, but everyone kept encouraging it, so they must be getting some kind of traumatic event recovery pass.


AMBER SAWYER

They were significantly closer to Earth than she'd feared -- if they'd happened to be looking in the right direction, they would have seen it from the ship that first day. But they still had to get through the standard check before they could actually get planetside again, and -- thanks to their decimation of the sterilizers -- a 48-hour quarantine period.

"It's supposed to be longer," Carol had told them. "The typical quarantine is four weeks for a ship without sterilizers, but it typically only happens when a ship's been away from civilization for a long time. You two were out for less than a week, practically in Earth's backyard. They don't want to be accused of bending the rules for someone with a famous face, but they also don't want people to think there are actually hideously dangerous space diseases lurking within spitting distance of the planet. Forty-eight hours was a compromise."

Forty-eight hours was possibly going to be a problem. They all had to be separated, of course -- they could talk, they could see each other on a screen, but they all had their own isolation room. No physical contact. The good news was that all the station's isolation rooms were Sentinel-friendly. Very low chance of a zone-out, very comfortable, basically sound-proofed. The bad news was that she was lonely.

"I still think we could negotiate down to twenty-four hours."

"Mom, it's fine. I'm okay." She'd been talking with her mom almost since the door had closed. All of it was monitored, of course -- the whole point of quarantine was that everything was under observation. But due to its status as a medical precaution, *almost* everything was covered under medical privacy provisions. If they started drawing virus schematics or talking about a plan to wipe out humanity, they were in trouble, but making vague allusions to enhanced senses? Not going to be a problem.

"You should try to rest," her mom said. She still sounded worried.

"Sleep, eat, sleep, eat -- I feel like that's all we've done lately." It was frustrating that she still felt hungry and tired, and there was a growing sense of restlessness that felt like an itch under her skin. “My brain’s getting tired of sleeping, but my body disagrees.”

"You need time to recover. Listen to your body."

What did her mom think she'd been doing? She took a deep breath. “I know. I'm just -- I don't like being in between like this. You know me, I always want to get to the next thing. Just make a decision and do something, not sit around waiting to see what happens.”

"And that is why you and I are not in politics. I know it's frustrating, but it's already been an hour, and that means there are only 47 left to go. Try to think of it as a meditation retreat. It's a good time to practice."

With that not-very-subtle hint, her mom signed off, and she was left to survey the room. It took about ten seconds. She could take her mom's suggestion, and practice some meditation. It would no doubt be helpful with her senses. On the other hand, she was pretty sure that if she tried to meditate she would fall asleep. She could just start by napping, and skip the meditating all together.

It seemed like a decent plan -- 47 hours to go; she could probably sleep through a fair number of them. But when she sat on the bed, she was struck again by the sense of being alone. The bed seemed way too big, which was ridiculous, because she had slept alone for years -- decades! Only to be ruined for it by a few nights tucked in between a girl and a bear.

Amber sighed. Might as well try anyway. Fake it till you make it, right? (Secret motto of the Sawyer presidency, which she was expressly forbidden from sharing until at least eight presidents later.)

As soon as she closed her eyes, she felt the mattress sink. She cracked her eyes open, only to see Bear lounging next to her, looking far too pleased. She let her expression speak for her -- it wouldn't be good to be seen talking to the bedcovers; that was probably a red flag space plague symptom. Shouldn't Bear be with Emily?

She got a sort of shrug and roll in response, and she wasn't going to ask twice. It wasn't as nice as all four of them together, but Bear was a comfortable wall of heat rumbling away next to her ("It's not snoring, it's just relaxed breathing," she could practically hear Emily saying), and she fell asleep in minutes. If she woke up every hour, reaching for someone who wasn't there, and panicking at the sounds of the mechanics clicking and whirring away in the walls around them, well. That was between her and Bear.

It wasn’t exactly restful, the sleep she got that night, but it was something. The next day was mostly round after round of tests, which really meant a lot of waiting around in her sterile room for someone to check in and draw blood, or ask questions, or — on a particularly memorable occasion — test her to see if she’d spontaneously developed precognitive or telepathic abilities. (“It’s space,” the nurse had said. “No matter what they tell you, we have no idea what’s out here. Radiation, spores, aliens — stranger things have happened, is all I’m saying.”)

In the time between tests, she talked with Emily, and her mom, and Emily’s mom. Even Carol, although that conversation was mostly questions about the ship, and what they’d done to it. Apparently there was a legal fight going on over who the ship actually belonged to, and there was a chance that she and Emily might end up with it when the dust settled. She wasn’t sure what they’d do with a spaceship, but they passed another hour talking about it.

Only twenty-five more hours to go.


EMILY CALE

She was bored.  So, so bored.  The novelty of having access to a clock for the first time in days didn't last long, and then the seconds began to drag.  Bear was off keeping Amber company, which was good, but that meant she and Crow were mostly just sitting around getting each other into trouble.  (Well, sitting around and getting Emily into trouble, since she probably looked a little crazy on the cameras, talking to something they couldn’t see.)

"I think," she said, staring up at the ceiling.  "That I should do some research.  By napping."  Crow cocked her head to one side, but didn't react otherwise.  She'd been hoping for a more enthusiastic reaction, but she would take a non-negative response as an acceptable go-ahead.

If she was going to be acting as a Guide, she needed to do some serious research.  And since she was stuck in quarantine for another day, there was really only one resource available to her.  (She had no idea if she'd even be able to access the Sentinel plane on purpose, but the nurses kept telling her to get more rest, so it seemed like it was a win-win.)  

She looked at Crow again.  "Right.  Well, let's do this."

They woke up dreaming in blue.  "Blue again.  Really?  Couldn't have gone with a nice warm green?  Maybe a pale peach?  Why blue?"

"Blue *is* considered the most soothing color, you know."

She spun around.  There was a woman standing behind her, her hands on her hips.  She was smiling -- hopefully that meant she wasn't too mad about Emily insulting the color scheme.  "Oh, hey.  Sorry, thought I was talking to myself.  Who are you?"

"You are, actually," the woman said.  "Talking to yourself.  I'm you.  Sort of.  Older, wiser, future self, alternate timeline, conscience, angel on your shoulder, instinct in your gut made manifest -- however you want to look at it is fine by me.  You must have questions, or I wouldn't be here."

Emily studied the woman carefully.  Based on how nonsensical the answer to her first question had been, she wasn’t sure she wanted to ask any more. “Do you know things I don't know, or is this one of those 'the answer you seek is within you' deals?"

“What’s within is without, in a place like this,” the woman said, and then burst out laughing. “Your face! No, I’m sorry. Not helpful. I can be serious and not cryptic. ”

She’d believe it when she saw it. “Prove it.”

The woman spread her hands apart. “Okay. You said you’re not a fan of blue — let me walk you through changing it. Where we are now is the default, essentially. There’s a bunch of us that mess around with it when we have time. But you can create your own user profile; whatever you like.”

“So we don’t have to be outside.” She looked around. “In a park.”

“Nope. It’s all a matter of visualization. Most people don’t expect it to change, so it doesn’t. Also it’s locked, so you have to know the code; keeps the more paranoid visitors from making it too dangerous. What’s the magic word?”

Was that a trick question? “Please?” she guessed.

The woman shook her head. “No, not the magic *word,* the *magic* word.”

She didn’t get it, until she did, and — “Abracadabra.” Very funny. The Sentinel plane had a real sense of humor.

“Yes and yes, and now it’s up to you. Where do you want to be? I’m partial to closing my eyes, but it’s optional. Pick somewhere nice, but don’t stress about it too much; you can always change it later.”

There was a feeling in the air like an approaching lightning storm, and she raised her eyebrows. “That’s normal,” the woman confirmed. “Go ahead and start redecorating. Just remember — you’re the Guide, not the Sentinel. You don’t need to count the leaves on the tree to get the feeling of a forest. You don’t have to decide the exact shade of paint or how many steps to the mailbox. Start with the feeling you want, and go from there.”

“A mailbox?” she asked. “Are you trying to give me a hint?”

“Yes. Now, concentrate.”

She did. She started with Amber’s image from the ship — snow falling outside, cup of coffee in her hand, and nowhere to be that day. Winter didn’t feel quite right, though, and she let the season shift to summer. Windows open, curtains blowing in the breeze, the sun warming her bare feet. She heard a loud chirp, and opened her eyes to see Crow flapping her wings in surprise. She was in a house. The sun was shining, and nothing was colored blue except for a set of mugs hanging on the wall over the oven. “Nice.”

“Oh, well done.” The woman walked in the door from the back porch. “Now do you believe me?”

She was still thinking about it. It wasn’t until Crow hopped over and tugged on the woman’s pant leg, and she reached down and scooped her up to sit on her shoulder that she was actually convinced, but it got them to the same place in the end. “Sure,” she said. “Okay, let’s talk Guiding. How can I help from far away, like a separate room?”

They talked for a long time, sitting at the kitchen table, passing a pad of paper back and forth to scrawl out lists and diagrams and plans. Finally, Emily sat back in her chair. Every time she thought she was getting a sense of the shape of things, something else came along and knocked her for a loop. “Is this really a good idea?”

“What — being a Guide? You’re stuck with that, I’m afraid. It’s part of you — always has been, always will be. Choosing someone back who already chose you years ago? That one’s up to you.”

“Come on, you’re going to go all cryptic again now? It’s a yes or no question.”

The woman across from her just smiled. “But it’s not a yes or no answer.” She leaned forward. “Look, I’m not here to metaphorically hold your hand. I can literally hold your hand, if that would make you feel better, but nobody’s making this choice but you. Own it. You do you.”

Then she frowned. “Do people still say that?”

Emily shook her head. Had people ever said that? “No.”

“Too bad. I always liked that better than ‘to thine own self be true.’ It’s so much more pithy, you know? Really gets the point across, without a lot of extra fluff.” She looked at her wrist like she was checking a watch, although there was nothing there. “Time’s almost up,” she said. “Good luck.”


AMBER SAWYER

If she’d thought about it (and she had), she would have predicted it would be her who would have trouble when they were released from quarantine and finally made it back to Earth. After all, she was the one who’d passed out just from switching ships — the increase in sensory input between quarantine and everywhere else had to be more significant than that.

But it was Emily who went pale and grabbed for her arm as they were descending into the atmosphere. “Are you okay? What’s wrong?”

Emily didn’t say anything, but she could feel her hand shaking. Amber lowered her voice, trying to sound calm and not freaked out. “Statistically, it’s the safest way to travel. Do you think it would help to close your eyes?"  She couldn't tell if Emily was panicking, or having a sudden bout of motion sickness, or something completely different.

"Not the problem," Emily managed to get out.  Her grip was tight around Amber's arm.  

"All right.  Keep breathing."  It wasn't like they could stop the ship, even if that would help, and going back would just mean doing the whole thing again later.  On the other hand, it wasn't really her decision.  "Do you want to keep going?" she asked.

Emily nodded.  "I think it's my turn to be a mess now," she said.  She put her other hand up to her head and took a deep breath.  "Ow."

No one was hovering over them -- yet -- but she had no doubt they were being closely watched by the rest of their group. Carol and Rosa weren't even bothering to be subtle about it.  She inched closer, so they were shoulder to shoulder.  "Can you talk about it?"

"I don't even know what it is.  I'm just -- this, all of a sudden."      

"Take it slow; we've got plenty of time."  About an hour, actually, before they landed and probably ran right into a flurry of cameras and media.

"Liar."  Emily was smiling, though, and her breathing was getting more regular.  

"I'm just repeating back your advice, here," Amber told her.  "Try to focus on something small. Anything manageable that’s doing exactly what you expect it to be doing.”

"Oh yeah?  Are you going to recommend sunglasses next?"  

"If you want sunglasses, I'm sure someone can make that happen.  I've still got the earplugs too, and I think your mom could probably whip up just about anything out of that bag of hers."  She shifted her hand so she tangle their fingers together.  She hadn't realized how scary it was to be the one on the other side of the being a mess equation.  "We've been doing okay so far, right?  Together."

Emily nodded.  "Yeah.  We're good.  Okay."  She took a deep breath, and Amber matched it.  Her mom met her eyes from the front of the ship -- she raised her eyebrows, and Amber nodded.  They were good.

Her mom took that as an invitation to come over, and she slid into the seat in front of them.  "Good news," she said.  "It's a busy news week, so the two of you probably aren't going to be a big story.  The plan is we land, we smile and wave, and we head for the house.  No stopping, no standing, no comment."

It was a familiar refrain, drilled into her years before.  She was lucky that life as a grad student didn't exactly lend itself to media attention, but it wasn't something you ever really forgot.  She nodded, and Emily echoed it next to her.  "Got it.  Is Dad going to be there?"

"He's at the house.  Emily, your father will be there to meet us, along with your brother."  

Amber had never actually met Emily's brother -- stepbrother, technically.  He'd come along after she'd gone to school.  It wasn't a bad idea, to have a cute little kid for the cameras to focus on.  Which was probably a tactless thing to think. It wasn’t like she wanted him to be there if he didn’t want to be, but if he did — well, there were a lot of laws protecting minors from the media, and she was willing to claim that advantage if it was going to be offered.

“I thought we were going to have to do a press conference,” Emily said.

Her mom shook her head. “Not until later. Honestly, not ever, if it looks like we can get away with just releasing a statement. I never thought I would be grateful to a politician for having a meltdown on international television, but it’s done wonders for distracting the press.” She hesitated, and then added, “Unless you wanted to—?”

“No, no,” Emily rushed to say. “Definitely not. Just wondering where I should rank it on my list of things to worry about.”

“You can put it on the auxiliary list for the time being. We’re not going to spring anything on you, I promise.” She looked like she might be about to say something else — Amber watched her check over their appearance, and there was no way she missed their clasped hands, but she didn’t mention it. Instead she said, “We’ll be landing soon. It’s going to be fine; we’ll be right there with you the whole time.”

She gave Emily’s hand another squeeze, and she squeezed back. They could do this.


EMILY CALE

The trip back to the house was mostly a blur. She remembered landing, and seeing her dad and Leo waiting for them -- that was the best part. The gauntlet of media she mostly just recognized as a block of noise; she ignored it and focused on putting one foot in front of the other. It wasn't until they actually got to the house and she could stand on the dirt and look up at the sky that it felt like she was fully present again. They'd made it.

"It's nice, isn't it?" Her mom stepped up beside her. "I know some people love being in space -- the vastness, the mystery of it all. But for me there's nothing that compares to a breeze on my face and the sun shining through the trees."

"It's beautiful," she agreed. "I'd forgotten how cold it is, though." The "breeze" was more like a brisk wind, and the sun -- while certainly visible through the cloud cover -- wasn't doing much to combat the temperature. "It smells like snow."

"The forecast said there could be flurries this week. Nothing yet, though." Her mom turned to face her. "Are you okay?"

What could she say to that? She had no idea. Were any of them really okay? "I think so. It's good to be back, and to see everyone. You're staying here too, right?"

"I have been, yes. I was thinking about going back to work sometime next week, depending on how everything works out. But there's plenty of space for all of us."

It was an enormous house -- it looked like there was plenty of space for them plus at least a few dozen other people. "I've never been here before," she said, which seemed considerably less rude than 'why is this house so huge?'

Her mom seemed to catch the unspoken question anyway, and she smiled. "Wait till you see the inside."

She didn't want to let the horizon line out of her sight, but the cold was starting to seep through her jacket.

She turned towards the door, and her mom held out a hand to stop her. "Wait. Emily --" She looked like she was gathering her thoughts, or maybe her courage. "I know we never talked about it, when you were growing up. And we should have. That was on me, and I'm sorry. But testing was hit or miss, and even if you could get a certified analysis, I was never sure whether it would do more harm than good."

She hoped she was guessing right about what her mom was talking about. "Is this about the Guide thing?" Her mom nodded. "It was a different time," Emily told her. It felt like a cop out, like a bland excuse to paste over a situation that had been the center of controversies off and on for years. "I didn't want to be tested anyway."

That, at least, was true. There was no real test, still wasn’t, just a lot of guessing. Her mom was right -- the benefits that came with a certified ability went hand in hand with some tricky legal side effects.

"I wasn't sure, until I saw you on the ship on the way down. You looked just like Leo when he gets into a crowd. He has it too -- all those people, all loving and hating and feeling in such a small space -- it's overwhelming to him. It took me a while to figure out why he wanted to go places, and then cried every time we got there."

She’d had no idea. They talked every week, and somehow it had never come up that her baby brother might have Guide potential. (Of course, she’d lived with her mom for twenty years and her own Guide potential had never come up, so maybe it wasn’t such a surprise after all.) “Does he know?"

“He’s five. He understands it enough to let me know when he's having trouble. He does a class a few times a week where he learns about separating himself from all the emotional noise. For really bad days he has meds, if he wants them."

"Pretty complex stuff for a five-year old," she said, because that was easier than everything else that was crowding to come out.

Her mom was watching her carefully. “Sometimes I think it’s easier for him,” she said. “Without all the context, I mean. It just is, for him. He learns about his emotional meters the same way he’s learning to ride a bicycle, or count to a million.”

"He does love counting, huh?"

"I seem to recall you having some pretty particular interests at that age," her mom said.  "And that worked out pretty well.  For now, he's at least easy to take on trips -- counting's a very portable hobby."

"No library in the backseat?" she asked, and her mom smiled and shook her head.

They could do this.  They could talk about Leo, and books, and not about decisions that had been made years ago that no one could change now anyway.  They'd run into their fair share of roadblocks and detours along the way, but she'd always known her parents were trying.  

She pulled her mom in for a hug.  "You did good, Mom." 

"There is -- one more thing," her mom said.  "That we wanted to tell you."  She took a step back, and then glanced back at the house.  "Amber's family knows, and I'd guess Amber's probably listening; it's not a secret here."

Which meant it *was* a secret other places?  "You're making me nervous," she said.  "Am I in trouble?  Are you in trouble?"

"Not exactly.  Back in the day -- this was while your dad was overseas, so you were probably too young to remember -- I was part of a group that worked with potential, unconfirmed, Guides and Sentinels."

Based on the amount of roundabout talking her mom was doing to get to the point, she was pretty sure it wasn't an after-school study group.  "Okay?"

"And we were shuttling them across the border into Canada."

Wait, what?  "What?"

"Only if they wanted to go!  It was an exchange program -- totally legal and above board.  They just didn't all decide to come back afterwards.  I still get postcards from some of them.  And some of them did come back, and I just thought it might come up, and that you should hear it from me.  That's it."  

She felt like she must be missing something.  Maybe multiple somethings.  But it didn't sound like it was an emergency, and it had been a long day, and she was pretty sure it was getting colder. "All right.  Thank you."  

"Great!" her mom said, and she sounded relieved.  "Let's go inside."


AMBER SAWYER

They were given separate bedrooms.  Well, she was given her actual bedroom, and Emily was given a guest room.  Which made sense, from an objective perspective, except that she'd spent 48 hours in quarantine thinking about how the only thing she actually missed from the ship was sleeping in a cuddle pile.  

She told herself she'd give it another hour, and then go find Emily -- but when she heard Emily creeping down the stairs towards the kitchen, she gave up and followed after her.  The light was on when she got there.  "Hey," she said quietly.  "Can't sleep?"

Emily made a face.  "Three hours ago I was dozing off at the dinner table -- now I'm wide awake.  I thought I might as well get a snack.  Dad told me there were pudding cups. You?”

“I don’t like pudding.” It wasn’t what Emily had been asking, but it made her laugh, which was what she’d been going for anyway. “I couldn’t sleep either. I think my internal clock’s all out of synch.” She tried to think of something to say that wasn’t ‘I missed sleeping with you,’ because she couldn’t even begin to guess what the reply would be. “Want to watch a movie?” she said eventually.

Emily nodded, and they carried pudding and popcorn and and entire stack of napkins (“because someone’s going to spill something; it’s practically a rule, and it will probably be me”) into the family room. “Any preferences?” she asked.

“Something soothing?” Emily suggested. “Quiet? Nature documentary? I missed nature more than I would have expected.”

She picked the first thing that seemed to meet those criteria. Soothing, nature-oriented — they watched in silence for a while, until Emily set aside her pudding cup and said, “I think this may be one of those videos made to entertain house cats.”

Amber stared at the screen. Now that she was looking for it… “You may be right.”

“I like it. I’m good with it.” She yawned, and tucked her feet up underneath her, which tipped her sideways into Amber. “Is this okay?” she said.

"It's nice." It felt comfortable, and she could feel herself starting to relax. They watched leaves falling and birds flying back and forth for a while longer.

"I was thinking we should probably practice," Emily said. She kept her eyes on the screen, and they were open, but Amber wasn't entirely sure she was still all the way awake.

"Practice what?" she asked, because it seemed like the most logical question.

"I went to the Sentinel plane when we were in quarantine," Emily said, which was either a non-sequitur or a very roundabout way of answering. "That's a weird name for it, don't you think? And I talked with someone who said she was me, and we came up with some really good practice ideas, for working together with your senses and my whatever."

She'd noticed Emily was sleeping a lot -- she had definitely not guessed it was because she was making friends on the Sentinel plane. Someone who said they were her?

"We don't have to. I just thought it might be helpful. Build trust, all that stuff." Emily waved one hand when she said 'stuff,' and then tucked it back under her head.

"I trust you." What could build more trust than depending on each other while fighting off tiny robots? Emily was drifting off more obviously. "We could talk about it in the morning?" she said.

It was possible she got a sleepy 'okay,' or maybe she just imagined it. Either way, Emily was asleep, and the video had switched to fish in an aquarium. She dimmed the screen to its lowest setting and left it on. Maybe she could fall asleep too, and then they'd have a perfect excuse for not being in their rooms. Until then the fish were soothing.

There was a flutter of feathers by her ear, and Crow snuggled into her neck. "Look who's back," she said quietly. "Good to see you."

She must have been asleep, although she'd only meant to be resting her eyes, because she jolted awake at a sound she didn't recognize. She blinked, trying to figure out what it was that she'd heard. On the other side of Emily, she saw Bear, one paw up on the sofa and looking at her with a guilty expression. "Was that you?" she said.

Bear carefully put another paw up, and yes, that was the creaking sound that had woken her up. "Are you sure that's a good idea?" It was a big sofa, but she wasn’t sure it was that big. Bear was undeterred, though, and crept one back paw up too, still looking at her like she might say no. “I’m not saying no — if you can do it, you can do it. Just try not to break any of the furniture, okay?”

That got her a low grumble, but really, how would they explain that? ‘A sometimes-corporeal bear was here. Yes, it would have been tidier if the bear was non-corporeal, but it’s so much more cuddly the other way.’ She fell back asleep still thinking of explanations.


EMILY CALE

"Why does it feel like we're being sent outside to play while the grown-ups talk about us?"

She'd woken up when an early riser who just happened to be a former President of the United States (and also Amber's father) wandered through the family room, but he'd just waved at her and kept going. He had squinted at the sofa right where Bear was sleeping, but she was pretty sure it was a coincidence. She'd fallen back asleep after that, and when they both woke up again, the sun was well and truly up.

"Because we are?" Amber tossed a coat in her direction. "Try that on. I mean, I think they'll talk about other things too, but we're definitely being sent to the kids table."

Somehow, the house had filled up overnight. She wasn't sure if Carol and Rosa had ever left, but they were there, along with what seemed to be at least a dozen stern-faced pairs of people whose outfits screamed private security. Even Mr. Sawyer's Secret Service detail was conspicuously more present. They'd walked in on what looked an awful lot like a war council in the kitchen when they went looking for breakfast -- that's when they'd been 'strongly encouraged' to go walk around outside for a while.

"What do you think they're doing?"

Amber shrugged, but she looked worried. "I don't know. They do this, sometimes. I told them a long time ago I didn't want to be part of politics and all the secrets that go with it.” She sighed. “I don’t know, maybe it's the coward's way out. I didn’t think I could handle it. So I go for a walk when things like this happen, and that's our compromise."

There was a part of her that wanted nothing more than to change Amber's mind. She was curious -- what were they talking about? What were they doing? Stuff was going on, and she wanted to know.

But there was another part of her that could see Amber's point. She liked knowing things, but did she need to know? Would it help anything in the long run to get involved? When you had the power to make secret plans and call war councils and take unilateral action, it was always going to be tempting to just -- do that. And it was her family; she would do a lot to keep them safe and happy. But there was definitely a danger to it. When all you had was the power to convince one person at a time, that was a different sort of challenge, and a different sort of freedom.

A knitted hat hit her in the face. "Hey!"

Amber's face was complete innocence. "I called your name and you didn't answer. I thought you were zoning out."

"That's you, smarty pants. No, I was just thinking."

“Yeah?” Amber sat down next to her, pushing the jacket out of the way.  (Her mom had brought an impressive selection of clothes, but no coat or gloves, despite the weather.  Her dad had remembered the gloves, but not the coat.) "Do you want to stay here?  You can -- I know they lumped us together like we were going to make the same call, but we don't have to.  It's not a requirement."  She tilted her head.  "Believe me, if you could hear the conversations around this place, most of them argue more than they agree."

"Debate is part of a healthy relationship," she said, and Amber laughed.  

"Very true.  So?"

Emily poked at the hat just to have something to fidget with.  "I don't *want* to want to, if that makes sense."  And she didn't.  She just wasn't sure if she *should* want to.  

"All right.  If it helps, here's what Carol always tells me: trust your dad to keep your mom from going too far over the line."

She frowned.  "I'm -- not sure that really applies to me."  She was pretty sure it would be her dad driving full speed over any line that existed.  

"How about this, then.  It's not a forever choice, it's a today choice.  You can change your mind later.  Go with your instincts."  

"Ugh."  She'd heard too much of that phrase already.  She jammed the hat on her head.  "You're right.  Let's do this.  When did you become this go-with-the-flow advice guru, anyway?"  

"I have no idea.  You're probably the only person who's ever asked me for advice."

She bumper her shoulder against Amber's.  "It must be my lucky day, then, because you're pretty good at it."

Of course, they still had to run the gauntlet of family to get outside (way too many comments about how cute she looked in Amber's jacket, which was completely unnecessary -- she already wasn't planning on giving it back).  And they had to take a security team along, which somehow she hadn't actually been expecting.

"So how does this work?" she said.  "Are we all walking together?  Do we pretend you're not there?"  What she wanted to ask was whether or not anyone really thought they were in danger walking around a carefully maintained trail through a gated forest.  (But she wasn't sure she wanted to know the answer, so she kept her mouth shut on that one.)

"Either's fine."  

She exchanged a look with Amber.  "Well, I'm Emily.  This is Amber.  You probably knew that already.  Your turn."

"Agent Smith."

"Agent Johnson."

The two most common last names in the entire country.  And that was it; neither of them looked like they were planning to add anything else to their introduction.  Matching outfits, matching expressions -- even matching sunglasses.  She looked at Amber again, and Amber gave a tiny shrug.  
"Well, it's nice to meet you."  

No reply.  Okay.  They headed out in silence, and she suddenly missed her phone.  Had anyone thought to pick it up from her apartment?  "What do you think happened to my phone?" she asked.  

"Who do you want to call?" one of the agents said.

Oh, now they wanted to engage.  "Who uses their phone to make calls?" she asked.  "There's a web comic I follow that updates on Fridays; I missed the last one."

"We'll look into it."  (She was pretty sure it was the same agent, but she wouldn't swear to it.)

"Great.  Thanks."  The awkward silence returned.  It was going to be a long walk.


AMBER SAWYER

There was something strange about the two agents with them, and she couldn't quite identify it. She didn't think they were double agents or anything, there was just -- something weird. It was pinging her senses in a way she didn't recognize, and she wanted to figure it out. She reached out and took Emily's hand, swinging their arms together as they walked. The physical contact would be grounding, probably.

"I think there's a little pond up ahead," she said. "Let's stop for a minute."

Luckily, she was right about the location of the pond, although it was really more of a stream that got slightly wider in one spot. There was even a little bridge over it, which of course they had to go stand on. She leaned on the railing and looked out over the water -- it wasn't cold enough to freeze completely yet, but there were a few iced over areas on the edges.

The agents, as she'd expected, stayed on the side of the clearing -- easily within view, but not quite as directly in hearing range. Emily leaned next to her, and left their hands linked. "So what's the deal with them? They seem -- not exactly suspicious, but there's something about them. They're distracted, maybe?"

She nodded. "That's why I wanted to stop. I thought I might be able to focus on them enough to figure it out, but I didn't want to accidentally trip over a root while I'm doing it."

"Makes sense. Can they hear us right now?"

She didn't *think* either of them was a Sentinel, but she was perfectly familiar with the possibility of just a single enhanced sense. "I don't know," she said finally. "But really, unless one of us is putting someone in danger or doing something illegal, they're not supposed to interfere. And we’re just going to pay attention."

"Really close attention," Emily agreed. "Right, what do you want me to do?"

"You're doing it. Let me know if they start looking angry, or worried, or anything."

She closed her eyes, trusting that Emily would have her back. "You've got this," Emily murmured, and squeezed her hand.

She started with hearing -- both of the agents had very average-sounding heartbeats, which she hoped was a good sign. There was an electronic buzz coming from one of them that she didn't recognize, until -- "Oh," she said. "Johnson has a low-level white noise generator in her pocket. Probably to keep me from listening in on whatever's happening back at the house."

She got distracted by a crackle of static, and then realized what she was hearing. "It would work better if they weren't both getting updates over their headsets."

"Really? Is everything okay? I thought they were just meeting."

She tried not to cock her head to the side -- it was an obvious listening tell, and it rarely helped focus the sound, but it was instinctual. She still found herself doing it sometimes. "They're definitely doing something, but I can't tell what. Nobody sounds like they're panicking, though."

"That would be more reassuring if I'd ever seen a situation in which either of your parents ever panicked," Emily said.

"Very funny. You should have seen Dad when I first moved out of campus housing; he was there every day for a while, checking on things, reading safety reviews of every every appliance and facebook stalking my neighbors. I think they're fine. No one's shouting, no weapons noises, just the check-in every minute or so over the radios. I can't hear enough to get a better sense of what's happening."

"Okay." Emily looked at the water. "There is another option." Was she suggesting they go back? Her next words weren't 'let's turn around,' though. Instead they were, "Let's ask the agents."

It was a little embarrassing that she hadn't thought of that. "Right."

"Hey," Emily said, keeping her voice quiet. "I haven't changed my mind. I promise you, if I do I will tell you first and you can talk me out of it. I'm not going to jump ship on you."

"I know." She did know. That didn't mean it wasn't nice to hear it again, though. "Thanks."

"Any time. So -- the agents?"

They turned together to make their way back off the bridge and over to where the two agents were standing. "So what's going on back at the house?" Emily asked.

"Nothing," Agent Smith said, at the same time Agent Johnson said, "It's a need to know situation."

The agents looked at each other. "Technically it's both," Agent Johnson offered. "Nothing is happening right now, and the situation overall is need to know."

Emily was undeterred. "Well, you can elevate us to need-to-know status, or you can keep stalling and we'll go find a radio and call in ourselves." (Both of them actually had radios with them. But it made sense not to show all their cards at once, most likely.)

More speaking looks were exchanged. "It's your call," Agent Smith said.

"I know. I'm just trying to wrap my head around how much paperwork I'm going to have to do for this." Johnson looked at them carefully. "Are you sure you don't want to wait another few hours, and save me all that work?"

They were sure. So they all stood around in the cold while Agent Johnson explained that they'd identified the kidnapper as a former student in one of her father's university classes -- he'd been guest teaching off and on since leaving office. (She'd always suspected it was only partially because he enjoyed it, and partially because it gave him an excuse to keep his own Secret Service detail in the same town as her.)

As Agent Johnson told it, the student had been acting alone. He'd worked for one summer on a Space Escape crew, and kept a copy of all his logins, which had been wiped from the newer ships, but not the one already slated for decommissioning. He'd first planned it as a prank, and when he realized it had gotten out of control, he'd come forward to confess. All they were doing at the house was taking his statement and figuring out exactly how he'd managed the whole thing.

"He was a history major trying to make history," Agent Smith said, which she thought was overly dramatic.

"It sounds like he was a history major trying to make money," Emily said. "Was there a reward offered for information when we disappeared?"

Agent Smith nodded. "But he's not getting any. The lawyers are at it now. He'll avoid any serious jail time, probably. Probation, monitoring -- he's not going to be flying anywhere anytime soon, that's for sure."

"So why the all the secrecy?" she asked. If it was all wrapping up, why boot them out of the house in the first place?

"Everyone agreed that until we knew how he'd done it, it was best to err on the side of caution. No one wanted to take any chances." Agent Johnson put her hand up to her ear. "Good timing," she said. "We have an all-clear."

Emily was clearly trying not to shiver. "Oh, thank goodness. Does that mean it's hot beverage time?"


EMILY CALE

It was over, but nothing had gone back to normal. New normal, maybe. Hopefully a better normal. Her apartment had been cleaned out (while she was still in quarantine, and she really wished she'd had a chance to tidy up beforehand). But by some miracle (or more likely the strong-arm influence of one -- or even both -- of her parents) she'd actually been offered her job back. And her mom offered to help her find a new (more security-conscious) place. Everyone was making this huge effort all around them to make them feel like nothing had to change, and no one was being forced into anything. What they didn't seem to understand was that she *wanted* things to change.

"If it's my choice, why does everyone keep questioning it when I say I've made it?"

It was mostly a rhetorical question, but Amber volunteered an answer anyway. "They're trying to help, I think. They're just not really sure how to do it."

She gave up on figuring out where her chargers had gotten packed, and dropped onto the couch next to Amber. "I know, I know -- it's their way of showing they care about me. I get it. It just feels like they're questioning my judgement, and then I get defensive, and then they get nervous and push harder, and it's all just a vicious cycle. I don’t even want my old job back, and now I feel guilty that I’m not taking it.”

Amber offered her a bowl of nuts. "Snack?" she said. She seemed to recognize that there was nothing she could really say. It was a weird situation, and it wasn't like anyone had actually stopped her from moving in with Amber and setting up in her second bedroom. They just wanted to talk about it. A lot.

She took a handful of nuts. It would be nice to have a distraction. This was one of the things she was sure of — that sitting with Amber on the couch felt like coming home. It was everything else that was a little bit of a gray area. “Sure. Thank you. What are you watching, anyway?"

"It's a charity race,” Amber said, waving at the screen. “Everyone’s in costume, so it's fun to watch, and all the proceeds go to one of the foundations my mom started. The winner's hometown gets to host the Holiday Gala. I had forgotten it was coming up, with everything that’s happened. Where it's held determines whether my attendance is suggested, strongly advised, or not recommended."

It felt like a lot of time had passed since first woke up on the spaceship and thought she’d been kidnapped. Instead, it hadn’t even been a full two weeks. She kept thinking that feeling of missing something would go away, but no luck yet. She looked at the screen. “Is that a Buzz Lightyear?”

“Who?”

"You know, from the movies. 'To infinity, and beyond!'" Amber looked at her like she was nuts. "It's a real thing; trust me."

Amber shook her head. “I haven't seen it."

Amber had missed a lot of good movies during the White House years. She wasn’t entirely sure how that had happened — wasn’t there a theater right there in the building? "Really? Well, if you ever want to, they're pretty good. So who's in the lead -- where are they from?"

"That's the other reason I'm watching. The school had a team this year, so there are a bunch of students from here in the race. I don't know how good they are, but they kept sending me reminders about the race, so I figured I could at least watch it on a screen. Moral support, or something."

"Nice." They watched together for a few minutes, and then Emily's stomach rumbled. "I guess I should make some real food."

"Nuts count. I put them in this bowl; that's practically the cardinal rule of food preparation."

(She’d learned quickly that Amber didn't cook. She'd thought that she could say that about her own relatively slapdash method of food preparation, but Amber took it to a whole new level.) "I was thinking maybe some mac and cheese. Dump it over vegetables of some kind, that's basically a meal, right?"

"Do we have mac and cheese?" Amber frowned. "Do we have vegetables?"

"I went shopping," Emily told her. "Tomorrow you're in charge of dinner. What do you usually eat, anyway?"

“Take out? Soup? Eggs, sometimes. I don’t know, whatever I’m hungry for that seems easy.”

Huh. All of those sounded good too. “Well, we can have that tomorrow, if you want.”


AMBER SAWYER

“Mom, I am not going to release a statement about my relationship status.” It was a sentence she never thought she would be saying, and had to resist the urge to close her eyes and put her head down on the counter.

”Amber, I’m not saying you have to go into detail. I’m just saying that I read an article this morning listing the top ten guesses about why you and Emily are now ‘gal pals in residence’ — that’s the actual phrase they used — and not a single one of them was even close to true.”

Emily walked in the door, carrying a bag. The bag had a pet store logo on it. “We’ve talked about this before, and a lot of very clever people agreed it was better to keep my Sentinel status unacknowledged for the time being. That’s the only element of our relationship that anybody needs to know, and that means that right now, there is *no* element of our relationship that they need to know.”

Emily raised her eyebrows and gestured at the phone. “Your mom?” she whispered, and Amber nodded. Emily grimaced in sympathy. Both of their parents had taken up extreme hovering since they’d been abducted, despite the fact that they’d done a perfectly good job (almost) rescuing themselves.

On the other end of the line, her mom said, ”I know, it’s just — I worry about you. Your dad says you’re still living on takeout.“

“What’s this really about?” Emily was still standing by the door, fidgeting with the bag. It looked like there was another interesting conversation coming up after the phone call ended.

”Has Emily agreed to go with you to the Holiday Gala as your plus one?”

“What?” Was that all? She pulled the phone away from her ear. “Emily, will you go to the Holiday Gala with me?”

“Of course. I thought we were already going together.” She frowned suddenly, and looked at the phone suspiciously. “Why, does your mom want you to take someone else? Because I’ll fight them.”

“No, I think she wants me to take you. I can’t tell; it’s never been held so locally before, everyone’s all weird about it this year.” The school’s team had actually won, much to everyone’s surprise, and so the Gala was going to be practically in their backyard.

”I heard that,” her mom said. ”We’re not being weird, we’re being political. It’s close, but not identical. Emily said yes, right?”

“Yes, Emily said yes. We’ll figure out scheduling and shopping and all of that with Dad, okay? I’ve got to go; Emily’s waiting to talk to me.”

”All right. I love you both. Send me pictures.”

“Love you too, Mom.” Pictures of what, she wondered. "Pictures of what?" she asked, but her mom had already hung up.

"Sooo," Emily said, as soon as she'd set the phone down. "I may have done something that we talked about, but never really officially decided on." She sounded more excited than nervous. "But I was walking, and then there were all these signs, and I told myself I would just look, but I really should have known better because I was completely overcome."

She paused, and maybe she thought she'd explained more than she had, because it looked like she was waiting for a reaction. Finally, Amber prompted her with, "Okay. And?"

"And I got a cat. She looked at me with these eyes, like the most soulfully adorable eyes you've ever seen, and I couldn't just leave her there. Did you know people are less likely to adopt a black cat? What if no one else picked her?"

Amber looked at the bag more carefully. "You have a cat in that bag?" She couldn't hear anything. Was it an imaginary cat? A toy cat?

"No, no, this is just a few things for her. She's in the car."

Now she was even more confused. Neither of them had a car. "What car?"

"The one --" Emily cut herself off, and took a deep breath. "Let me back up. I was walking, and I ran into a shelter adoption event being held downtown. And there was a cat -- she's so amazing, I'm not even exaggerating. But I couldn't just carry her back here. So I texted Mom, and she came to pick us up with her car, and then we went to get some supplies. She's in the car now with the cat. But she was talking with your mom when she got my messages, so your mom actually knows too."

"That's what she wants pictures of." At least there was one thing that was making sense. "Does this cat have a name?"

"The shelter was calling her Tredici -- she was a rescue, brought in anonymously. Since she was the thirteenth cat that month, they named her Tredici."

"Is there a reason she's still in the car? Also, your Italian accent is terrible."

Emily laughed. "Well, this probably won’t be a surprise to you, but I don't actually speak Italian. Thirteen is now officially the one word I know in that language. And -- not really? I wasn't sure if it was a good idea to spring a new visitor on your space without giving you a heads up. I figured I should at least explain first. Plus Mom was having fun playing cat grandparent.”

They had talked about getting a cat, in a vague 'yes, it's allowed, that might be nice' sort of way. She was starting to see why her mom was worrying more than usual, though — could they really take care of a cat? Some days it felt like they were barely managing themselves. Both of them were working with a Sentinel and Guide pair to figure out that aspect of things, and she was back in classes full time. Emily was carrying the brunt of their adulting for the time being, but they both fell into bed exhausted most nights.

She looked at Emily. “Soulfully adorable eyes, huh?”

Emily nodded. “You’ll love her. Promise.”

And just like that, they had a cat.


EMILY CALE

There was no possible way one cat could shed so much fur. “Do you invite your friends over when we’re not home?” she said. “Is that it?” Tredici flicked an ear in her direction, but didn’t otherwise acknowledge the comment. She was curled up in her current favorite spot — on the bed, tucked up in between Bear’s front paws.

“Are you talking to the cat again?” Amber called from the kitchen.

“Yes! There’s fur everywhere! I need a de-fur-ment.” Seriously, the dress hadn’t even been out of the bag since they brought it home from the store. How could it possibly have cat fur on it?

“Very funny. Give me a minute, I’m coming.”

Amber’s parents were meeting them at the apartment before the Holiday Gala, and somehow that had turned into needing to clean everything before they arrived. Amber — already dressed and ready; it wasn’t hard to tell which one of them had practice at this sort of thing — was washing the last of the dishes. She showed up in the bedroom still wearing rubber gloves. “I think they’re a nice accessory,” Emily told her. “They do clash a little with the color scheme, though.”

Amber just laughed. “I saw this trick online. The gloves will take care of the fur — it’s static, or magic, or something. I don’t remember that part, but it does work. You know, if you didn’t let her sleep in your closet, this might not happen so much.”

“She likes it in there! I don’t want her to feel like she can’t have things she wants.” (Tredici had immediately identified her as the sucker of the group, but someone had to be, right?)

“She likes it everywhere,” Amber said dryly. “But I get your point.” She quickly de-furred the outfit, and stepped back. “There you go; just like new. Besides, that’s why your sweater is so fuzzy — nothing will show in that.”

“I still can’t believe you managed to convince your mom we should wear shoes that are actually comfortable.” Their footwear was closer to cross-trainers than heels. (Which was good, because she was terrible at walking in heels. In a pinch, she could do it, but not gracefully.) In the explanation of the Holiday Gala, she’d been told there were three main elements: mingling, eating, and having your picture taken. All of those would be significantly easier if she wasn’t worried about her shoes the whole time.

“That one was my dad, actually,” Amber said. “He’s got a thing about shoes. Mom has the rest of the family match him so it’s less obvious.” She shrugged, like it was no big deal, but the words had a weighty feel to them. Emily was pretty sure at some point it *had* been a big deal.

“Hey, we’ve all got things,” she said. “And can I just say that for me, personally, this is a fantastic thing, and I’m incredibly grateful?” She settled the sweater into place, and held out her hands. “Okay. How do I look?”

Amber surveyed her from head to toe, although she already knew exactly what the outfit looked like. “Amazing,” she declared.

She tried not to tug on the sleeves. Where were pockets when you needed them? “I’m nervous.”

Amber reached out and reeled her in for a hug. “You’re going to do fine,” she said. Then she shifted slightly so they were forehead to forehead. “We both are. We’ve got this.”

She could feel it when Amber’s focus shifted — “Are they here?”

“Yes. The car just pulled up. I didn’t water the plants yet.”

“I didn’t fold our last load of laundry. It’s still in the dryer.” She didn’t say that if those were the biggest things they’d forgotten, they were doing well, but she figured Amber was probably thinking it too.

It felt like she hardly had time to take a breath before Amber’s parents were there, sweeping into the apartment in a rush of fancy coats and Secret Service agents. (The agents, she thought, were definitely judging their decor.) “Amber! Emily!” Amber’s mom gave them both hugs, then did it again. “You look beautiful! Are you ready to go? Oh, is that a new picture?”

“We just need to get our coats,” Amber said. Emily checked the contents of her bag again. That had been her one non-negotiable item — she was taking the largest size bag she could get away with (still not very big), and she was allowed to fill it with anything that wouldn’t get her kicked out by security. She’d gotten some tips from her mom on the best way to pack for any eventuality. It wasn’t at the same level as the mom bag, but she was really hoping she wasn’t going to need any of the stuff in it anyway. Hope for the best, prep like you were going to be bored out of your mind yet still need to look genuinely interested for significant portions of the evening.

They were as ready as they were going to get. Mingling, eating, having her picture taken. With a Sentinel-in-hiding and her parents, the former President and First Lady of the United States. Sure.

“Your dad promised me he would actually dance this year,” Amber’s mother said. “I’m counting on you two to hold him to it, all right?”

Wait. What? No one had said a word to her about dancing. She looked at Amber, who was also looking a little panicked. She wasn’t sure if that made her feel better, or worse. But they were on their way, locking doors and navigating stairs and sidewalks and seating in the car. No backing out.


AMBER SAWYER

She’d forgotten about the dancing. How could she have forgotten that? She squeezed Emily’s hand in the car. “Do you know how to dance?” she whispered.

Emily’s expression answered the question for her. “Does the hug and sway count as a dance?” Emily whispered back.

Not really, but they could work with that. She leaned forward to catch her parents’ attention. “Mom, when we get there, we’re going to need ten minutes for a dance review.” In certain situations it was better to just state things for certain, instead of asking.

She saw her mom glance from her to Emily, and back again, but she just nodded. “All right. Claire and Ryan will be there; I promised we’d say hello first thing. And they’re both in that butterfly stage, so if they know you’re there, everyone will know you’re there, and probably no one will notice if you slip off.”

She nodded. For all that her mom had never loved politics, she could find allies anywhere. “Do you have any suggestions on a location?” The last time they’d been to an event like this, all anyone could talk about was how nice the restrooms were. It was, unfortunately, all she could remember about the layout of the building.

And of course, her mom said, “The ladies room is nice here; it wouldn’t be a bad choice. It’s spacious, at least.”

“See, I will never understand that,” her dad interrupted. “What do women need so much space for in the bathroom? What do you do in there?”

Emily leaned in closer. “What is in there?” she whispered.

“It’s just the usual — counters, mirrors, benches, tissues. This one just has really fancy tiling on the floor and the ceiling,” she whispered back.

“Men’s restrooms don’t have lounges in hotels?”

“I guess not.” She’d just assumed that they did, but apparently not.

Her mom was saying, “James, be reasonable. Have you ever needed to fix your hair in the restroom? Touch up your makeup? Have you ever shared safety pins with a complete stranger to fix their dress? Because if you haven’t, then you don’t need a lounge. Women aren’t ‘hanging out’ in there and gossiping about you; there’s no need to be so dramatic.”

They could do this the whole evening — go back and forth over something that was basically trivial. “Love bickering,” her mom called it. It was mainly for the press — it always got a comment if they didn’t converse steadily throughout an event, but they couldn’t talk about anything important without be called out for being either “a distraction” or “offering unnecessary commentary on the proceedings.” (She remembered that headline; it hadn’t been pretty.)

"It may be crowded at the beginning of the night, though, with everyone stopping in after taking off their coats and gloves. If there are too many people in there, maybe upstairs on the promenade level?"

Out of the corner of her eye, she could see Emily silently repeating 'promenade level?' She'd been to things like this before, but this was the first time she wouldn't have the buffer of being a kid. On the other hand, it was also the first time they were nowhere near the main attraction -- the Holiday Gala was a big draw for everyone from politicians to students, and one former First Family plus one probably wouldn't get much attention.

"You'll be fine." Her dad turned around and met Emily's eyes. "Believe me. We all want you there, it's going to be great. Okay?"

It was his serious dad voice, and she couldn’t help smiling right along with Emily. "Okay."

"Good, because we're here."

They pulled up to the entrance, and the cold hadn't done anything to deter photographers from the entrance. She heard Emily mutter, "No stopping, no standing, no comment," under her breath, and smiled.

It was warmer inside, at least. Her senses flared when they walked in the door, assaulted by a barrage of color and smells. She thought she'd prepared for it, but the reality was overwhelming. "Can you help me with my coat?" Emily asked, leaning into her space. "Keep breathing," she added, much more quietly. "Take it one thing at a time. Start with sound, ground it, and move on to the next one."

By the time they'd each taken off their coats, she was feeling better. The glitter was just glitter; the perfume just background floral again. "Thanks," she said, and Emily gave her a thumbs up.

"So, who are Claire and Ryan?" Emily asked, as they meandered their way into the hall.

"You've met them, I think. At the White House. They were there for a lot of the same events as you." She was scanning the crowd as she talked. It would help to be taller.

"Amber!" someone called from behind her. There they were.

"Claire," she said, smiling. "It's good to see you. And Ryan too." Claire's brother was right beside her -- carrying both their snack plates, she could see. "You remember Emily, right?"

"Emily Cale!" Claire stepped forward and offered her hand for a high five. "White House awkward kids club sister!"

Emily laughed. "Hi Claire, hi Ryan. Good to see you again. I should have realized it was you they were talking about."

"Accept no substitutes," Ryan said. He offered up the plate of crackers. “It’s self-serve tonight. My favorite.”

"What are you doing here?" Claire asked. "I heard you were missing, and then you were back, and then nothing."

"I'm her plus one," Emily said, waving at Amber. "I'm just hoping not to spill anything tonight."

Claire accepted the deflection like a pro. “Oh my gosh, I remember that!” She put her hand over her heart. “And I have kept our vow of secrecy ever since. Although I think the statute of limitations has probably passed, if you want to share. It’s a good story.”

If she hadn’t been listening for it, she wouldn’t have been able to tell that Emily was lying when she said, “We were going to swing by the snacks line, actually.” It was a good choice, since Claire and Ryan had obviously just been there. “Maybe we can do story time later?”

They separated with a flurry of good wishes and plans to meet up for the meal, and she only realized she was glazing over when Emily stopped walking and she ran right into her. There was a knot of people in front of them. “I’m not sure why I’m leading,” Emily said quietly. “I have no idea where we’re going. Do we actually want to be moving towards the food?”

She took a step back, trying to orient herself in the room. “We’re almost there, actually. Just around the other side of this topiary, there should be a door.”


EMILY CALE

Amber nixed the ladies room plan when they were only halfway there.  She winced, and put her hand up to her ear.  "Two crying babies and a little kid having a temper tantrum," she said.  

"Upstairs?"

"Upstairs."  

She followed Amber down a side hallway that connected to a set of stairs.  The lights were dimmed, but she couldn't tell if it was meant to be discouraging or atmospheric.  "Are we allowed to be here?" she asked.  

Amber's hesitation was noticeable.  "We're not *not* allowed to be here," she said finally.  

"Hey, that's fine by me.  I just like to know so I can have the right story ready if anyone asks."  She was feeling way more jumpy than she had been even when they'd arrived.  She rolled her shoulders, trying to pull back from the feeling a little bit.  There didn't seem to be any reason for it -- nothing she could point to and call a definite cause.

"Are you okay?" Amber said.  

It was on the tip of her tongue to say yes, but she shook her head instead.  "I don't know.  I'd say my spidey sense was tingling, except I'm not Spider Woman."

"Intuitive precognition is currently an unproven Guide ability.  Most studies attribute it to picking up on strong emotions in a physically adjacent area."  Amber turned to look at her, and bit her lip.  "I've maybe been doing some reading."

"Nice.  We should trade books, it sounds like.  How long do these stairs go on for, anyway?"  There were a lot of stairs.

They turned a corner, and suddenly they were there.  "Promenade level" didn't quite do it justice.  More like "astonishing skywalk level."  They were nearly at ceiling height, looking out over the ballroom hall.  "Does this go all the way around?"  She could see a few people walking, but it wasn't crowded.

"Yes. I didn't remember until Mom said something in the car, but she brought me up here once.  We must have walked around it a dozen times."

She walked up to the railing and looked down.  Good thing she wasn't scared of heights.  A flash of black and white caught her eye, and she frowned.  "That's weird."

"What?"

"Didn't Ryan say the food was self-serve?"

Amber stepped up beside her.  "Yeah.  Why do you -- oh."  She could see it too, then.

"Then why are their a whole bunch of waitstaff suddenly out on the floor?"

There had to be at least a dozen of them, moving smoothly through the crowd.  She heard a low growl next to her -- Bear was there by her side, shouldering her and Amber back from the railing.  She put a hand down automatically and instantly felt calmer.  "Something weird's going on."

"I'm texting Mom and Dad," Amber said.  Crow was on her shoulder, with all of her feathers fluffed out.  

She pulled her own phone out of her bag and checked the display.  "I have no connection.  How is that possible?"

"Mine's down too."  They looked at each other.  All the lights went out.  

In the way that first thoughts in a crisis are usually unhelpful, her first thought was ‘not this again.’ (Her second thought was that there should have been emergency lights coming on, which also wasn’t very helpful.) There was a clamor of voices from the hall below them, and the flickering lights of phones coming on. It didn’t seem like anyone was panicking, which was good. Someone stood up on a chair, and waved their phone before cupping their hands around their mouth to be heard. “Could anyone standing by an exit light it up, please?”

There was a hum of static, and a voice came over the sound system. ”Oh, I don’t think that will be necessary. Not now that everyone is right where I want them.”

”Honored guests, and I do use that word loosely, we are living in an age of transparency! Isn't that what we've all gathered here today to celebrate? Transparency, equality, and the benefits of having a whole lot of money. But can we really claim equality, when some are more equal than others? Can we claim transparency when some hide their abilities? I'll give you a hint. No.”

The noise from the crowd was getting louder, and over the sound system there was a noise like someone banging on a table. ”Quiet! It's my turn to talk. Don't worry, I'm almost finished. I have just one message for you: come out, come out, wherever you are.”

There was a second of silence, and she suddenly had a terrible suspicion of what was about to happen. Call it paranoia, call it intuition, whatever it was -- she slapped a hand over Amber's eyes and pulled her back towards the wall. They should be sitting down, if she was right. "Ground out all of your senses, right now," she said. "As low as you can go. He's going to try to --"

She cut off as the lights started flashing, and a buzzing noise came over the sound system. She could barely hear it, but Amber put her hands over her ears. Next would be smell, probably. She wondered if that's what the waitstaff were for. "Amber," she said. "Can you hear me?"

It was hard to see anything as the lights continue to flash on and off, but she felt Amber nod, and then shake her head. That was clear. "Okay, I'm going to try something. You trust me, right?"

Amber's nod was emphatic, and she leaned forward to put her other hand on the back of Amber's neck. "All right, here goes. This better work." She closed her own eyes, and mentally crossed her fingers.


AMBER SAWYER

She felt the shift like a breeze across her skin, and suddenly she was hearing crickets -- she opened her eyes to see Emily breathe a sigh of relief. "What did you do?" she asked.

"I pulled us both onto the Sentinel plane." She patted the floor. "More like the Guide plane if you ask me. Are you okay?"

It didn’t look like the Sentinel plane. It looked like a kitchen. But it did *feel* like the Sentinel plane, just — less blue than usual. “I think so. What was that?" She could feel an echo of the headache she must be experiencing in the real world, but it was muted.

"He's trying to reveal anyone with enhanced senses, I think. Bombard the senses with stimuli, see who zones out. Which is super illegal.”

She’d heard of it happening, years back — in addition to being illegal, it was incredibly dangerous. It tended to lead to panic, and there was at least one famous case of someone who’d gone into a coma from it. She tried to think past that and figure out what they should do next. “How safe are we here?” she asked.

Emily made a face. “Not very. Physically, we’re still there. Time is still passing. But this was the only thing I could think of.”

She shook her head. “No, this is great. We should be all right over there long enough to make a plan, at least.”

“Got it. Priorities? Something’s blocking signals inside the building, but if we could get outside, we could call for help.”

She was running the words of the announcement back through her head. Something was off about them. “The person who was talking,” she said slowly. “Did something seem off about that?”

“Like he sounded unhinged?” Emily asked.

“Like it was just bits and pieces of other speeches pasted together. All the breaths were in the wrong places. I don’t think anyone was actually saying that.” What would the goal be, though? It didn’t make any sense.

“You think it might be a fake out? Like ‘ripped from a movie plot’ fake out?”

She frowned. “What?”

“Never mind. That’s one hell of a distraction.”

“I don’t think it changes anything. We still need to figure out what to do, and the sensory bombardment is the number one problem.”

“How much do you know about the layout of the building?” Emily asked. “I think I might have an idea.”

They sketched out a basic plan, but it had a lot more ‘ifs’ and ‘maybes’ than really felt comfortable. (Well, Emily sketched out a plan.  She mostly spent the time trying to pull in her senses as much as possible, and nodding whenever Emily looked like she was waiting for a confirmation.  It wasn't a complicated plan.  Get help, with a side of getting affected people out of the building. If that didn't work, muck up the bad guy's plans as much as possible.)

Right before they were about to go back, she grabbed Emily’s hand. “Wait. What if he goes after Guides next?”

“I — have no idea. What would a Guide-specific attack even look like?” Amber sighed. That was the answer she’d come up with herself, but she’d been hoping Emily would have had a more reassuring answer.

Emily squeezed her hand. “It’s not like we can cover every eventuality; our plan is basically ‘cause a ruckus and hope for the best.’ I think we’re just going to have to go with it.”

They dropped back into the physical plane with a jolt, and she realized Emily's hand was still over her eyes.  She tapped on her wrist and the hand dropped away.  Emily raised her eyebrows in a clear 'you okay?'  

She felt awful, actually.  But she was functional.  She gave a thumbs up and shrug combo, and Emily smiled.  They were good to go.  Ten minutes and counting.

They skirted the wall until the first stairwell -- Emily headed down, back the way they'd come.  It wasn't the main access point, so hopefully she wouldn't run into too much trouble.  Amber kept going -- on the far side of the walkway there was access into the upper level of the building.  She was ignoring the lights and noise as much as she could, which was probably why she didn't see the people in front of her until she nearly tripped over them.

It was a couple of kids.  She knelt down to get a better look -- they seemed all right, both of them watching her with wide eyes.  They looked barely old enough to be there without parents, but she couldn't see anyone else around.  "Parents?" she said.  

One of them shook her head.  "Students." Damn. She felt old, all of a sudden.

"Can you walk?"  They both nodded, so she helped them get standing and pointed in the right direction, and then shuffled all of them towards the exit.  There was a tricky moment where it looked like the door was locked, and she breathed a sigh of relief when it pushed open.  (Thank goodness for low-security magnetic locks.)

It was just as dark on the other side of the door, but it blocked out the strobing and at least some of the noise. They were in a hallway, with what looked like conference rooms on either side. She headed towards the door at the far end, with her two rescue-ees tagging along. "What's happening?" one of them said. "Who's doing this?"

"You're Amber Sawyer, right?" said the other one.

"Yes." She was half-ignoring them, trying to hear past whatever frequency the noise was on. She didn't *think* anyone was in the stairwell.

"Have you been here before?" she asked. "Where do these stairs go?"

One of the students shook their head, but the other one said, "It's an outside exit. So they can have conferences and events using this space and next door without sending everyone through the hotel."

Perfect. "All right. Can you do something for me? We're going to go down these stairs, and then I want you to call the police. Okay? You should be able to connect once you're out of the building."

"What are you going to do?"

Leaving wasn't part of the plan. Her family was in there; she was going to get them out. "I'll let you know when I figure it out," she said.


EMILY CALE

"Why did it have to be darkness again? Didn't we already do this?" She tried to keep her voice quiet, but it wasn't like she wasn't already giving away her presence by the light her phone was putting out. So far the stairs had been empty. Whoever was behind this, they were either incredibly well-prepared or the whole thing had been incredibly badly planned; she couldn't tell which one it was.

When she started to get closer to the ground level, she turned off the light and slowed down. Still no one. She leaned around the wall, but it looked deserted. The ballroom doors were closed, but any guards must have been on the inside. She was supposed to be going right, towards the kitchens, but instinct had her turning left instead. There had been people in the restroom.

It was quiet as she approached, and she hummed under her breath -- "not a bad guy, not a bad guy, please let everyone be okay, just coming to help out." Her nerves were jumping being out in the open hallway, and she was pretty sure she wasn't going to win any prizes for stealth any time soon. A few feet out from the door, it suddenly opened, and she was yanked inside.

There was a gun in her face. “Who are you?” the woman asked.

“I’m Emily Cale.” She kept talking, because that’s what she did under stress, and it gave her a chance to look around. She couldn’t see anyone else. “How is that helpful information? I would have gone with ‘what are you doing here?’ or even ‘friend or foe?’ but maybe that’s a little melodramatic.”

"Fine. What are you doing here? How did you get out of the ballroom?" The gun inched away from her face, but not by much. The woman didn't seem like she was freaking out, though. (She hoped that was a good sign.)

"I wasn't in the ballroom. I was on the --" She went to point up, but stopped when the woman twitched at her. "On the skywalk level." Her mind tossed up the word 'promenade,' but she'd already gone with skywalk, so she was sticking with it. "Believe me, I'd much rather be letting my girlfriend teach me to dance and making fun of the appetizers. I was making my way out of the building, but there were babies in here earlier -- I wanted to see if they needed any help."

She was hoping the personal details would help. Humanize the hostage, and all that. The woman abruptly took a step back and tucked the gun away somewhere. "They're safe," she said, and Emily must have looked confused, because she clarified, "The kids, they're safe. We evacuated them."

"Okay." There was an awkward second of silence. "So, what are you doing here?"

"I work here," the woman said, which was a lie. It practically lit up in bright red letters when she said it. Emily raised her eyebrows. She had questions -- so many questions. Who's 'we'? How did they evacuate the kids? Where did they go? But she didn't really have time to stand around making conversation if the answers were all going to be lies. And if there was no one who needed help...

"Am I free to go?" she asked. "I need to get to the kitchens."

"I'll come with you," the woman said, and she resisted the urge to sigh. Of course she would.

"Try not to shoot anyone, okay?" That was the last thing they needed.

She tried not to feel self-conscious as she led the way to the kitchen, but it wasn't easy. The woman followed her without a word. It felt like she had military training, or something like it, but she didn’t seem too concerned about Emily giving away their position. On the other hand, she kept losing focus — Emily would look back and she’d be staring off into the middle distance, or she’d put a hand on the wall to steady herself. So there was a good chance she had at least one Sentinel-level sense, and she was probably being impacted by what was going on in the ballroom.

Still going on. How long had it been? She checked her phone — two minutes left on the unofficial countdown. “The kitchen’s also been evacuated,” the woman offered, as they approached the big staff-only doors. “What are you going to do?”

“What do all kitchens have plenty of?” she asked. (Honestly, mostly just to see what the woman would say. She was there for the service entrance into the ballroom.)

“Knives? Food?”

“Access,” Emily said. “Everything has to get from here to the guests as fast as possible, but be behind the scenes enough so it seems effortless. Which means they have to have access to all the back doors.” She hesitated, and then added, “Which you would know, if you worked here.”

The woman gave her an irritated look. “Yes. I may have exaggerated. Is this really the best time for this?”

“No, that would have been before, when I said ‘what are you doing here?’” Emily muttered. They were almost at the service entrance. The noise was strobing too, a wailing siren that kept sweeping in and out of (her) audible range. “Is there anyone directly on the other side of this door?”

“No. What are you —“

Emily checked the time again, and cut her off. “Brace yourself.” She pushed the door open.


AMBER SAWYER

She was supposed to be headed for the ballroom.  Instead, she was looping through the back end of the tech suite, hoping not to run into anyone. Or maybe she was hoping to run into someone — there had been a noise, she was sure. Somehow it had made perfect sense to investigate, but now she was starting to regret that decision. 

Crow was perched on her shoulder, giving the whole thing an odd sort of pirate vibe.  "You know, this would be easier if you could fly," she whispered. Crow nipped her ear in response.  It might not be, really -- it was comforting to have her in physical contact, and it wasn't like they really needed her to scout ahead.  It wasn't that big of a room.  

"Who's there?" someone said, and she spun around.  "Don't move.  Keep your hands where I can see them."

She wasn't sure which of those commands she was supposed to follow.  Maybe they could already see her hands?  "Hello," she said, trying to peer in the direction of the voice without being too obvious about it.

"Amber?"  A figure stepped out from behind a cabinet.  "What are you doing here?"

"Carol?"  It sounded like her. And as she stepped closer, yes — it was definitely Carol.  All dressed up, but wearing a headset and carrying what looked suspiciously like a taser.  "What are *you* doing here?"  

"I got an invitation, just like everyone else.  This is the last time I ever accept, though, no matter who calls in a favor.  Are you all right?  Where's Emily?"    

"We're fine," she said.  Then she waved her hand back and forth in a kind of 'maybe yes, maybe no' gesture.  "Sort of.  Emily's probably in the kitchen, by now.  We were on the promenade level when all of this started.  Where were you?"

"Ladies room.  I ran into a couple friends from school; we cleared this level and got everyone out who wasn't in the ballroom.  We've been trying to find a way to shut down whatever projection system is being used -- something's got to be powering it." 

She shook her head. “It’s all coming from inside the ballroom. I ran into a couple of students, hospitality majors; they said with the power cut like this, it would have to be the in-hall projectors, not the network ones. Or else it’s tech that was brought in from the outside.”

She hoped they’d gotten outside without any trouble. They had split up near the exit, and she’d headed back to the conference center side of the building. “We need to get in there,” she said.

“It’s too dangerous,” Carol said. “We need to get you out of here.”

“I’m fine,” she repeated, and Carol gave her a highly skeptical look.

“You said ‘sort of fine.’ And you like you’re about one stiff breeze from passing out.”

She was actually feeling a little better. The room had good soundproofing. “I’m not leaving. Emily’s in there. My parents are in there. I’m not leaving without them.”

“I thought Emily was in the kitchen.”

She wasn’t sure if she was doing a particularly poor job explaining things, or if Carol just wasn’t paying attention. She said, “She was. Because the kitchen connects to the ballroom, and to the outside. That’s the plan.”

“You’re not making any sense,” Carol told her. “But I think I get the gist. I’m not sure why none of the Secret Service agents has made a move yet. I haven’t heard any weapons fire of any kind. Just not clear on whether that’s a good sign or a bad one.” She sighed. “This is why I got out of the government security business, you know. All right. Let’s go find the kitchen.”

“Wait.” It had been bothering her ever since Carol said they’d cleared the level. “Why aren’t there a hundred SWAT teams here already?” A former US president and at least a hundred other rich and famous people were involved in a potentially dangerous hostage situation, there were confirmed guests who’d gotten out of the building and were able to call for help, and still nothing?

Carol’s expression darkened. “According to the security briefing, there have been more than a hundred prank calls made to local police in the last few days from this area — they almost moved the Gala, but at the last minute decided to keep it here. I’d guess no one’s been able to convince them this one’s real yet. Not a coincidence, I’d say.”

Carol’s face got even darker, and she realized it wasn’t anger that time — her vision was actually dimming. “Something’s wrong,” she said. Carol reached out to grab her elbow as she swayed. “Not with me. It’s Emily. I need to be there.”

Something was happening in the ballroom. She couldn’t tell what it was, but she was sure it wasn’t good.

“Okay, we’re going. There’s got to be a direct entrance from here. Hang in there, kid.“ She nearly tripped over one of the tables when Carol turned them around, but they managed to get through the crowded space without major difficulties. “Are you sure you want to do this?” Carol asked.

No. She nodded anyway.


EMILY CALE

Things had gone pretty well at first. The people in the hall were spread out, most of them sitting down -- it was hard to get a real sense of numbers in the flashing lights. With the still unidentified woman at her back, she ducked into the room and grabbed the first person she could find. (No one she recognized, of course, that would be way too easy.)

It turned into a pattern: approach someone, get their attention. Hands up, not a bad guy. Point towards the door and repeat "exit" until they got it. Send them through the kitchen to the outside door. Hope they were smart enough to call for help and get checked out by a doctor first thing.

Until she tapped someone on the shoulder in the dark and when the lights flashed on she was looking at someone dressed in a waitstaff uniform. He looked surprised for a split second, and then angry, and he was reaching for her when the lights went off again and she was yanked backwards.

“Be careful!” she heard hissed in her ear. “I thought you had a plan!” They were ducked down behind one of the tables, but it wasn’t going to give them cover for long.

“I didn’t know it was one of them!” she said. “Technically we don’t even know they’re the bad guys.”

It was way too many words to get across in the space between decibels — the woman shook her head, confused, and Emily shrugged. She was pretty sure they could mark them down in the bad guy column at that point anyway. She just wasn’t sure how much they’d try to track her down, or what kind of gear they had to make it easier to navigate the space.

A lot, turned out to be the answer to both of those questions. Three people in waitstaff uniforms were on the other side of the table when the lights flashed again, and then they were surrounded. “It’s you,” one of them said, while she was still trying to decide if it would be worth it to make a run for it. (Probably not.) “Hold her still.” She got a face full of some kind of chemical spray, and everything went gray, and then black.

The physical disorientation only lasted a few seconds, but she wasn't any less confused when she came back around.

"I thought you were leaving to get help!"

"It's Emily Cale! She said she had a plan. I didn't realize it was so un-plan like!"

"Now what are we going to do?"

"Well, we're in for it now. She wasn't here alone."

She shook her head, trying to clear out the last of the fuzziness. That voice sounded like -- "Hey!" She managed to get her eyes to focus, and it was definitely the woman who'd been helping her -- who she thought had been helping her, at least. She exchanged a guilty look with one of the uniforms.

While she was trying to figure out a good follow-up, another person in a waitstaff uniform hurried up to the group. "We have a problem," she said. Then she looked at Emily. "Who's that?"

"Emily Cale," said the first uniform. "So yeah, I'd say we have a problem." He glared at the woman formerly thought to be helping her.

"Another problem," the newcomer clarified. "They're singing now. It's actually sort of working. And it's 'the song that never ends,' so it's also incredibly annoying."

What in the world was going on? Somehow she felt like she'd stumbled into an alternate bizarro-world universe. "What are you talking about?" she said.

“It’s complicated,” one of them said, and she stared.

“Summarize it, then. Bullet points.” She looked at the woman whose name she really should have gotten before so many people were involved, and added, “Not actual bullets.”

The woman just shrugged. “It’s empty. I didn’t have time to get my permit before all of this.”

She had a split second sense of something coming up behind her, and then Amber barreled into her and swept her up in a hug. She heard someone call her name, and Carol stepped up between her and the group of — bad guys? She wasn’t even sure at that point. She hugged Amber back, hard. “Are you okay?” she said.

“Are *you* okay?” Amber countered. “Everything went weird, I thought you were hurt.”

She shook her head. “They sprayed me with something. I’m okay now, I think. Nothing’s making sense, though.”

“Louisa,” Carol said. “Explain.”

So her name was Louisa. The woman she’d met in the ladies room took a tiny step forward, looking even more guilty. “Carol,” she said. “It wasn’t supposed to happen like this.”

She couldn’t see Carol’s expression, but she was guessing it mirrored her own extreme skepticism. Carol said, “I hope not. Because this is a mess.”

The lights and noise were slightly muted in the niche they were standing in, so she could actually hear the majority of the explanation. “The team really had a chance this year, but our funding got cut twice, and the sponsorships dried up. We were approached by someone who said he would take care of it, and he did. He told us you’d volunteered; that you wanted to support the team, and it didn’t seem — completely impossible. When the news reported it as a kidnapping he said it was a misunderstanding. Everything was supposed to be revealed tonight. Manufacture a crisis, solve the crisis, reap the rewards. It wasn’t the worst plan in the world.” She sounded like she was trying to convince herself

“We should have just gone with my plan,” one of them muttered. She was pretty sure it was the one who’d sprayed her in the face. “A bake sale never got anyone arrested.”

“What team?” Carol said.

Louisa waved a hand around the group. “The university track and field team. What’s left of it. Bert was supposed to be in charge of finding a fake cause; he’s the one who came up with the lights and the sound clip. But I guess he didn’t test it, because he dropped like a brick as soon as it started. More than half the team is incapacitated, and he’s the one all the passwords are coded to.”

“Is that why you haven’t just turned it off?” Emily asked. She had an arm around Amber still — she wasn’t totally sure how Amber was handling the sensory over-stimulation, but ending it as soon as possible would definitely be good.

Carol didn’t wait for an answer before saying, “So this isn’t a deliberate attack on people with enhanced senses?”

The whole group shook their heads. “It was the theory that got the most air time when you were kidnapped,” one of them offered. “So we figured — why not go with that; maybe it would seem more authentic, you know?”

“Is he the one who suggested all of this?” Carol said. She’d lowered her taser, and was rubbing her temples with one hand. The whole thing was a mess. “And was the singing really necessary?” It was getting loud enough that even Emily could hear it in snatches, when the other noises dropped out.

“Who, Bert? No, he’s a theater major. The other guy’s here too, though. Or he was.” Louisa looked at the woman who’d first mentioned the singing. “Did you find him?”

“They’ve got him,” the woman said. She pointed at Carol. “It’s your lot that’s singing. That’s not us.”


AMBER SAWYER

She felt better, in the sense that despite her actual circumstances being unchanged (or worse, given her proximity to the source of everything that was making her want to zone out just to get some relief), the context of those circumstances was actually improving. Carol was there, and the bad guys seemed to have no plan at all that wasn’t falling apart around them, and at the very edges of her hearing she could identify both her parents’ voices. Plus, after all of her worry, her brain kept prompting her ‘where’s Emily?’ And then she would squeeze her hand — right here — and Emily would smile at her, and it was a feedback loop that was really, really working for her.

The singing, though. That was grating. And highly distracting, which she thought might be the point.

Carol looked like she was getting tired of demanding explanations, but luckily Louisa volunteered an answer without prompting. “When we first blocked off the doors, there was a lot less panicking than we’d expected, and we were a little distracted by other things when Bert collapsed. By the time we got him out of the room, a few of the guests had started banding together. They’ve got all the incapacitated in the middle. Seems like they’re trying to create some kind of a safe zone.”

“And they’ve been taking us out one by one ever since,” the man added. He was the one who said he’d wanted to do a bake sale. (She thought he should have fought a lot harder for that plan.)

“And the singing?” Carol said.

“Counter-attack?” Louisa said.

“It’s to create an alternate sound focus,” Amber said. “To prevent zoning on the frequency changes. Because it’s cyclical it’s easy to keep repeating it without thinking about it.” Everyone looked at her. “What?”

“Right, let’s get over there,” Carol said, and started hustling them in the direction Louisa indicated. “What do you want to bet it’s your parents right in the middle of all this.” It didn’t sound like a question. “Amber, you’re in the lead, you’re the most recognizable as a friendly. We need to get everyone working on the same page on this. Right now it sounds like we’ve got one mastermind, a bunch of students with incredibly poor judgement, and no way to turn this off. We’re going to have to get everyone outside and sort it out from there.”

She frowned. The whole situation had already basically spiraled out of anyone’s control, but that would make things even worse. You couldn’t spend eight years around security teams without learning that the watch word was ‘containment.’ “We could probably take out the projectors,” she said. “If you don’t mind them being ruined.”

She couldn’t have done it from outside the room, and she wouldn’t have wanted to try it if people were going to start shooting at her, but it wasn’t impossible. “Not doubting your sharpshooter skills, but Louisa doesn’t have any bullets,” Emily said in her ear. “And you can’t use the Secret Service agents’ weapons. What are you thinking?”

“Amber?”

It was Claire, popping up next to her, and she put off the answer until later. Her parents were there, and they sped through the hug-and-cry reunion while she tried to get a sense of how many people were there , and what kind of state they were in. “We were getting ready to make a break for the doors,” her mom said. “We’ve got a few people in rough shape, though.” She gave Louisa and the other two team members a disappointed look only a mom could achieve, and Amber winced in sympathy.

“It may not be entirely their fault,” Carol said. She gestured to the trio. “Now’s the time to point out this mastermind sponsor, and then we’re going to sit on all of you until we’ve got a lot more answers.”

Her dad pulled her and Emily aside. “Sixty-second check in,” he said. “Are you all right?”

Everyone kept asking that — the answer wasn’t going to change. Emily shrugged. “We’ll live. I’ve been to better parties, though, not gonna lie.”

Her dad laughed. “One liners in a crisis — that’s a family trait, I should have guessed. In all seriousness — how are you holding up? We’ve had people pass out who didn’t know they had *one* enhanced sense, let alone five. We’ve been working to pull them back, but both the Secret Service agents are still out, along with Ryan and a few other guests.” He waved toward the wall, where she could see a group of people clustered.

“Ryan?” she said.

Emily was nodding. Her dad said, “You didn’t know? Three senses, ever since he was a baby.”

She’d been more concerned with concealing her own differences than worrying about other people’s, for the most part. “We weren’t in the room when it started,” she said, answering the first question instead. “Emily grounded me through the beginning, and after that it’s been — keeping it locked down. The transition’s the hardest part.”

Emily’s eyes suddenly widened, and she started tugging on Amber’s arm. “Have Claire stay with Ryan,” she said. “And get yourself in view of the agents, because they’ll be looking for you. We’re going to do a thing.”


EMILY CALE

“I’m never going to be allowed in here again,” she said. “I told security it was a toy, you know.”

Amber shook her head. “Well, that’s their fault for believing you. Why would anyone bring a toy energy pistol to the Holiday Gala?”

“I was ready to be very convincing. I had a whole explanation about my recent trauma, and how my therapist recommended that I keep a security item for three to six weeks, but I think they tuned out as soon as I mentioned therapy, and they just waved me through.”

It wasn’t like it had been active. She had realized on the trip back to Earth that she still had Amber’s gun tucked into the pocket of the sweatshirt she’d been wearing on the ship, and then she couldn’t quite bear to let it go. It was a reminder — to have faith, to look for the good in a bad situation, to know that Amber was there for her just as much as the other way around.

And with the power pack from Carol’s taser (another banned item nobody was mentioning), it was also a fully functional weapon.

“Can you keep talking?” Amber said. She sounded nervous. (Emily was nervous too. The projectors were bigger than the flying bots, and they weren’t moving, but Amber had her senses extended to their furthest reach on the ship.)

“I am one hundred percent confident that you can do this.” Which she was. Maybe not on the first try. “And I will definitely keep talking, because talking is one of my top ten favorite things to do. Just don’t ask me to name the other nine, because I’m pretty sure they would include things like ‘not talking,’ and ‘talking only occasionally,’ and you might catch on that it’s not a real list.” She had one hand on Amber’s shoulder, so she could feel her laughing.

“I don’t mind,” Amber said. “I like hearing you talk.”

“I like hearing you talk too. I think we should probably talk about how to wash dishes, though, because you are definitely doing it wrong. I know, you’re going to say there’s no wrong way to do dishes, but that would be wrong. There is, and it’s the way that you do it. Water goes everywhere; it’s like the dishes are fighting back. Soap and water are not meant to leave the sink in that kind of volume in any way except down the drain.”

They were trying to find a spot where Amber could hit multiple projectors without having to move between each one. If they were lucky, taking out the first one would mess up the system enough that they all stopped, but it really hadn’t been that kind of night. Which meant the loss of each one was probably going to change the acoustics enough so that they’d need to regroup.

“I’m surprised we haven’t seen —“ There was a cranky-sounding squawk from their left, and she looked over to see Crow sitting on Bear’s head, about two inches from Amber’s other side. “Never mind.”

“This is good,” Amber said. She took a deep breath. Emily set herself more solidly, and squeezed her shoulder. Keep talking. She could do that.

“I totally give you credit for the laundry, though, because I don’t know how you’re getting everything through so quickly. When I do it I always wind up forgetting about it and then it sits, and that adds at least twenty minutes to every load; it takes forever. You have some kind of laundry power. Maybe that’s an undocumented sense; the laundry sense. I’ve seen stranger theories over the last few weeks.”

Amber knocked out the first projector with one shot. The second took two tries, but after that she was on a roll. Eight projectors in total, and it took less than a minute. The sudden lack of noise made her ears ring. She felt Amber sway under her hand, and she reached out to steady her. (Steady, hug — not a huge difference when it came right down to it.)

“You did it,” she said quietly. “They’re gone. Focus on something small, okay?”

Her own heart was racing, and she tried to relax. Breathing was important.

“We did it,” Amber mumbled into her shoulder. “Not just me.”

The darkness started filling up with chatter and little pools of light. Carol slipped next to them and carefully eased the gun out of Amber’s grip. “I’ll make sure you get it back,” she said. “Unless you two want to take the credit for this one.”

They both shook their heads. She mostly wanted to gather everyone up and go home. Barring that, she’d settle for finding a quiet corner and sitting down for a while. Barring *that,* she could at least dodge the media spotlight. Her mom’s advice for the evening (‘be classy and boring’) was already blown out of the water, but she could maybe salvage one of them.

“I heard sirens,” Amber said, and Emily gave her a sharp look. Past tense heard? But Carol just nodded, and waved them over to the group. She was wondering what she had missed when the doors burst open on all sides and police poured in with a cacophony of ‘don’t move’ and ‘nobody move’ and ‘everybody freeze’ — they really should standardize that, she thought.


AMBER SAWYER

Emily was crashing hard — she waited until the group shifted a little more in front of them, and then got them both sitting down on the floor. Things were about to start going a lot faster, or a lot slower, and probably it would be the second one. Already people were demanding explanations, and expressing — at various volumes — outrage, relief, concern, hunger, and a general desire to get their wireless connection back. After all, what use was a crisis if you couldn’t at least document it?

They got a quick check-over by the police and were triaged as ‘not a threat, not in danger.’ In other words, they were supposed to stay where they were until someone else came along. Although low priority at least meant they got to keep all their stuff. (Carol and her parents were liaising, because even a former president had a certain amount of clout, and her mom was hard to say no to.)

When her stomach rumbled — someone on the other side of the room was talking about food, and it reminded her that they’d never even made it to the appetizers — Emily perked up. “I have snacks,” she said. “If you’re hungry.”

She started sorting through the contents of her bag, which got a lot of attention from their fellow ‘low priority’ guests. “You’re going to start a new trend,” Amber said. “Bringing your own food to these things.”

It wasn’t like they had enough for everyone, though. “Excuse me," she said, waving to catch the eye of one of the officers watching them.  (She wasn't clear on what kind of guarding they were doing, exactly, and she wasn't sure they knew either.  Keeping them safe or keeping them contained looked the same from where they were sitting.) 

"Hi, thanks for rescuing us."  She heard someone snort in the background, but it didn’t hurt to remind the authorities which side of the event you'd been on.  "Could we get some food and water? It's been a long evening."

The officer gave her a suspicious look, and she thought she might have to push -- there were rules about this sort of thing for a reason.  But they called over another officer to distribute meal bars and bottles of water; and even blankets to people who asked for them.  "Thank you," she said.  (She wasn't going to eat the meal bar, but now she didn't have to feel guilty about having a snack when no one else did.  It might come in handy later, if someone wanted seconds, or if she needed a brick for any reason.)

She took a blanket too, and spread it out like they were having a picnic.  No one seemed to be able to get the power back on, but the police had brought in big portable lights that gave everything a sort of big league night game look.  It wasn't bad, actually.

Other people around them were copying the picnic blanket idea, and it didn't take long to have a patchwork quilt of blankets all lined up in their area.  Most of the women had their shoes off; there was a brisk trade in hair elastics and mints going on.  Emily produced a tiny pack of actual cards from her bag and passed them off to the family next to them.

"Hero of the hour," Amber said, smiling.  "In more ways than one."

"Right back at you," Emily told her. “You know, this isn’t exactly how I expected this night to go.”

“But it could have been worse?” A dozen or so people had been whisked away in ambulances, but there hadn’t been any actual life-threatening injuries, mostly twisted ankles and migraines. A special Sentinel unit had come in for the people who had zoned, and reassured everyone that they’d be fine without even looking them over — she’d be angry except they were right; most of them had already been recovered enough to walk out under their own power.

Emily leaned against her shoulder. “I was thinking at least I didn’t have to dance in front of everyone, but yours works too. How much longer do you think they’ll keep us here?”

She had no idea. It had sounded like they were wrapping up over an hour ago, but then they’d started up another whole round of jurisdiction arguments. “I don’t know. We must have passed the halfway point, right? What time is it?”

“Close to midnight,” Emily said, breaking off into a yawn.

She had to have been more tired than she felt, because it took longer than it should have to realize that the someone picking their way through the blankets towards them was actually looking for them. “Mom’s coming. Maybe she has news.”

“Ready to get out of here?” was the first thing her mom asked, which sounded promising. But then she dropped down to sit next to them on the blanket, which seemed not as promising.

“Yeah,” Emily said, covering another yawn. “What’s going on? We got bits and pieces, but I can’t figure out how it all fits together.”

“They’re releasing everyone in this group in a few minutes.” Amber inched closer and her mom gathered them both in for a hug. She sounded tired. “We’re still figuring out all the details; it may have to wait until morning. I’m just glad you’re okay.”

She closed her eyes, just for a second, and she was dozing off before she knew it. “Go ahead,” she heard her mom say, and she must have been talking to Emily, because she felt a hand in hers a second later. “I’ll keep an eye out. I’ll make sure you’re both awake in time for actually leaving; if you can catch a few minutes now, you might as well. Someone should, right?”


EMILY CALE

It was funny how it came back to you — screening your calls to avoid the reporters, leaving the blinds closed to avoid the photographers. (They weren’t the most important people who’d been present, but they were local, and she was already halfway to regretting the decision not to go to one of their parents’ houses the night before.)

But there was something to be said for being in their own space. She slid the mug across the counter towards Amber, who had her head down on her arms. “I can tell you’re not asleep.”

“Ugh. I want to be asleep, doesn’t that count?”

It was way too early to be up. But the cat had woken Amber up, and then Amber had woken her up, and they were about to have both sets of parents descend upon them , so they might as well be caffeinated for it.

“Not really,” she said.

Amber sat up enough to pull the mug closer. “They’re here,” she said, just before there was a knock on the door.

“Yesterday you warned me when they were still on the street.” It was a not-very-subtle way of checking on her senses, but she figured Amber might still be asleep enough that she wouldn’t notice.

“Mm.” Amber gave her a look that said she very much did notice. “Yesterday the street wasn’t full of people talking about us. I’m fine. I’m more worried about you.”

“Well, we’re even then.” (She thought both of them would be more fine if they got another twenty-four hours of sleep and could take a break from ending up in the middle of dangerous situations.) “Don’t let the cat take any of the chairs; we don’t have enough as it is.”

Amber nodded, and she headed for the door. Not just their parents, but also Carol, and someone she was pretty sure was Agent Johnson, though it was hard to tell without sunglasses, all trooped inside. At least they brought breakfast. And coffee.

“Come on in,” she said, even though none of them were really waiting for an invitation. She trailed after them back to the kitchen and got wrapped up in a hug from her parents.

Her mom left an arm around her shoulders. “I had to be the calm one this time around; your dad was ready to raise hell,” she said. “We both wanted to go in there after you, but I knew you’d keep each other safe.”

“We did okay,” she said. Then she took a deep breath. This was the part she’d been worried about, where they found out it was all their fault, somehow — the kidnapping, the Holiday Gala — she just hoped knowing would be less of a weight than not knowing. “Did you find out what all of this is about?”

“We did.” It was Amber’s mom who answered, and everyone turned to look at her. (She took a second to be impressed by that — even the cat was paying attention.)

“We were having trouble figuring it out because we were making it too complicated — we were thinking maybe politics, maybe revenge, maybe a protest group. Once we got mastermind number one and mastermind number two in the same room, though, we could barely get them to stop talking. They’re brothers,” she said, like that explained everything, and then she paused to take a sip of coffee.

She met Amber’s eyes across the room and shrugged. She didn’t get it either. “I’m still confused,” Amber said.

“Louisa was basically telling the truth,” Carol told them. “The university’s track and field team got desperate for funding at around the same time our two masterminds decided they were tired of traditional investing and wanted to go high risk. It was supposed to be the kidnapping as a practice run, then staging an attack on the Holiday Gala, complete with dramatic cause-related tension.”

She couldn’t wait any longer. “Why us, though?” she asked.

Amber’s dad spoke up. “As crazy as this sounds, and it does sound crazy, that was actually an accident. Two people did volunteer, and then one of them got food poisoning and the other one backed out at the last second. Brother number two decided they were going to go through with the plan anyway, and since they’d already messed around with the security cameras, they took the closest neighbors who happened to be home instead. Which turned out to be the two of you.”

“I told you that apartment was dangerous,” she heard her dad mutter, and she almost laughed. He would pick that as the take-away message. Classic.

“Anyway,” Amber’s dad said. “When brother number one realized who it was they'd grabbed, he had second thoughts.  He tried to take the fall for both of them, but brother number two didn't get the memo."

Her mom leaned closer.  "He has to call them that, because their names are -- no joke -- James and Sawyer.  No connection that we could come up with." (She didn't think that made much sense, but if the most logical explanation was *usually* the right one, that meant that sometimes it wasn't, and apparently this was one of those times.)

But Amber was shaking her head.  "No, go back -- that doesn't explain the guns.  Or the robots.  Nothing has explained that."

"That's where Agent Johnson comes in,” Carol said.

So it was her. She obviously hadn’t been expecting the explanation to be handed over to her — she was picking apart a bagel sandwich when the focus shifted. “Oh,” she said. “Sorry, yes.” She set the pieces of the sandwich on the counter with a little sigh. “Agent Smith and I have been involved in an ongoing investigation of Space Escape for nearly six months. Their financials are patchy, and they’ve got a string of red flags and violations, but they keep upgrading their fleet. When the abduction occurred, it made sense to pool our resources. I’ll say this, though — tax evasion cases aren’t usually nearly this exciting. We’ve seen embezzlement, fraud, all the standard stuff, but gun running’s a new one for us.”


AMBER SAWYER

At least they knew. That’s what she kept reminding herself, but closure didn’t feel as comforting as it was always made out to be. Instead she felt — adrift, somehow. Since the whole thing began, everything had been very full of purpose. It hadn’t always been a safe or enjoyable purpose, but it had definitely been there. And now they were just back to living. Wake up, go to class, eat meals, watch the news, repeat. She wasn’t sure she liked it.

“Looks like deep thoughts over there.” Emily tossed a pillow in her direction — she caught it and tucked it under her head. She was lying on the couch, taking a study break that had possibly gone on longer than the actual studying.

She could hear Emily’s footsteps getting closer, and she sat up so they could sit together. Emily tucked in close, followed by the cat. “Want to talk about it?” she said.

“I don’t even know what it is,” she said. “It’s just —“ She shrugged, not even able to complete the explanation.

“Everything?” Emily offered, and she nodded. “I wish I had a good answer.”

“You do this big thing, and then it’s all ‘bye, go back to being boring now.’” She glanced at Emily. “Not that you’re boring. You’re the best part of all of this.”

Emily laughed. “Thanks, I think. I’d say we’re both a little boring and a little not, just like most people.”

She didn’t think she was in the mood for platitudes, but it wasn’t like anything else was helping. “How did you do it before? When you were a teenager?”

“I was faking it,” Emily said promptly. “A lot. All the time, for a while. Seriously, everyone thinks it’s okay to pretend to be calm in a crisis, but somehow when it’s over you’re supposed to feel that way for real? Didn’t happen for me.”

“Well, every day is basically a crisis when you’re a teenager,” she said.

“There’s that too.” Emily leaned back against her shoulder. “I talked with people I trusted. I had a lot of help, and it was still hard. Telling myself about all the much harder things out there in the world didn’t do much. Distracting myself was pretty effective, although not always in a good way. I did ‘one good thing’ off and on for years. I could probably write a book about coping strategies at this point.”

She should probably read one of those. On the other hand, a lot of them seemed similar to the exercises for managing her senses, which made her wonder if her Sentinel coach was snowing her a little. “What’s ‘one good thing’?” she asked.

“Oh, it’s —“ Emily hesitated, and looked away.

“You don’t have to tell me.”

“No, I want to. It helped me a lot when I was having trouble. When everything was just — the same. And someone told me, when you have those moments, you think of one good thing — one thing you want to do, or see, or experience, or whatever — and you decide ‘yeah, I want that.’ I don’t know, just getting that one positive feeling really helps sometimes.”

“Do you still do it?” It seemed like a personal question, but Emily seemed okay talking about it, and she was pretty sure Emily would let her know if she didn’t want to answer.

“Sometimes, yeah. Sometimes I wish I’d kept a list of them, but lots of them were just silly things. Small stuff, like new socks, or free coffee; that sort of thing.” She hesitated again, and then added, “They’re called coping strategies for a reason — they help you get through stuff. They’re not fixing strategies.”

She thought about it for a minute. “I kind of want pizza.”

“Pizza sounds good,” Emily said. “If we have it delivered we won’t have to get out of our pajamas.”

So they ate pizza in their pjs in the middle of the morning, and it was good. Easy. “Let’s just take the rest of the day off,” she said. “We could watch some movies, we’ve got leftover pizza for dinner, and then we can start fresh tomorrow.”

She didn’t think that exactly fell under the heading of ‘healthy coping strategies,’ but Emily nodded. (She looked tired, and Amber thought about what she’d said about taking turns, and faking it. Maybe she needed a time out just as much.) “Hey,” she said. “If you want, we can probably both be a mess today. We can just be here.”

Emily smiled. “I think I can handle that. I’ll get the blankets.”

They set up a nest of blankets and pillows in front of the couch, and settled in with snacks and the least suspenseful movie she could come up with. Tredici ignored the proceedings with great deliberateness, but Crow showed up and hopped onto one of the arms of the couch, and Bear was right behind her, flopping down onto the blankets with an audible sigh. She looked at Emily. “Trouble?” she said. Usually animal guides didn’t just — hang out, with people.

“Maybe they just like movies?” Emily suggested. “I don’t know; they don’t seem worried.” Bear already looked asleep, and while she watched, Crow tucked her head under her wing very pointedly.

It did feel safer, having them around. Emily dozed off too, about three quarters of the way through the first movie, and then she was the only one awake in an apartment full of calm. She focused on breathing for a while, switched the movie when the first one ended, and told herself it was okay to fall asleep, or not. She drank four cups of water, and spent more time watching Emily and the animals than the screen. Maybe it wasn’t fixing anything, but it was coping, and she let herself relax into the fact that it was enough.


EMILY CALE

“Did you know there are more than forty species of flightless birds?”

They were in the grocery store, demonstrating to everyone around them why you should make a list *before* you went to the store, and not scribble one on an old receipt when you arrived in the parking lot.

“No,” Amber said distractedly. Probably trying to decipher the list. “Really? That many?”

“I know, right? I mean, penguin, ostrich, emu. I thought I was doing well to remember the kiwi, but that’s still only four. Although, if you look at the list, penguins are on there a bunch of times. More than a dozen.”

She could feel Amber lean over her shoulder to look at the screen, but it was showing a list of food allergens, not flightless birds. “I was looking it up earlier,” she explained.

Amber shook her head. “How do you even find time to research these things?”

“Well, I’m not a full-time student, like some people I could name. And I don’t have a job, which creates a surprising amount of free time. Plus, it seems like it matters to you, that Crow can’t fly, and that means it matters to me too.”

“It doesn’t bother me,” Amber said quickly.

“I know,” she said, even though she wasn’t actually one hundred percent convinced. “But learning new things is never a waste of time, right?”

“Says the person who won’t go back to school,” Amber said. It came up a lot — she’d been telling everyone who asked that she was taking a gap year (almost ten years too late), but Amber was trying to sell her on the benefits of grad student life. She didn’t want to say no without having an alternative ready to go, so they were in a sort of limbo for the time being.

“School is different.” That’s what she always said, and mostly it meant ‘I’m not making a decision yet and I don’t want to argue about it,’ but it was true, too. In her experience school and learning didn’t always go hand in hand.

Amber pointed at something on the list. “Did you write this, or did I? I can’t figure out what it says.”

“Candy,” she said, looking at the list.

“Really?” Amber frowned, and tilted her head. “Are you sure?”

“No. It just looks like a scribble to me, but I figured candy was a good guess. I know we’ve been busy with things, but the Holiday Gala means there’s a holiday coming, right? Holidays are the perfect excuse for candy.”

Amber shook her head, mock serious, but unable to entirely keep from smiling. “I’m going to have to disagree. Any day is the perfect excuse for candy. Holidays just offer more seasonal variety.”

“I concede the point,” she said. “But,” and she held up a finger. “I maintain that if the disputed word *was* candy, then either argument could have the same result, with the successful purchasing of said candy.”

Amber laughed, which made *her* laugh, and then they both stood there giggling in the aisle until an employee wandered by and asked if they needed help. (She asked where the candy aisle was, which set Amber off again, but it would have taken them forever to find it on their own, so it was definitely worth it.)

The only other thing on the list that gave them trouble was pasta. She thought it was pretty obvious that the wheels were the best (spirals, a close second), but Amber had strong feelings about the bow ties, and made fun of her Italian again. The wound up doing an informal poll of all the shoppers who walked by, and then just getting both kinds anyway. It was the most fun she’d had grocery shopping in a long time.

“I will cook the farfalle,” Amber said. “And you can do the dishes, and everything will work out fine.”

Emily nodded. “Right. Wait, which one is that again?”

“The bow ties. It’s like the Italian word for butterfly, farfalla.”

“So are the spirals named after the Italian word for spiral?” She would have asked about the wheels, but there was a cart in the aisle behind them with a squeaky wheel — Amber kept flinching every time it squeaked, and she didn’t want to create any more wheel-related focus points. She shook the bag gently. “That would be handy. My Italian vocabulary would shoot up.”

But Amber shook her head. “Not exactly. I think it’s more like twist, or spin. It gets a little more complicated with some of the shapes, which is probably why so many people use farfalle as the naming example. Plus it’s hard to really dislike butterflies.”

They turned out of the aisle with the squeaky cart, and bypassed the cleaning supplies aisle completely. (She thought stores should be required to put that aisle on the very end of the store, to make it easier to avoid. They were still working on getting rid of all the non-Sentinel-friendly stuff that had been in Amber’s apartment, and cleaning supplies were next. Their strategy of ‘don’t clean things’ would only work for just so long.)

“Should we get a toy for Tredici?” Amber asked. She was looking at the list again. “I think this actually says paper towels, but if we’re here anyway, we might as well. What if she’s bored? I always feel bad when I come back with bags and don’t have anything for her.”

It was true that Tredici often (sometimes) met them at the door, but she’d never seen any evidence that she wanted anything to play with other than all their things, which she already considered hers. On the other hand — cute cat videos. “Why don’t you check out the toys, and I’ll get the paper towels. Then I can see if there’s anything better for dish soap, too.”

“Are you sure?”

“Yeah; I’ll meet you back here in a couple minutes.” They tended to stick together in public (which her Guide coach said was perfectly normal, but also thought they should practice not doing it, so who could tell), but it wasn’t like it was a huge store. She wasn’t crazy enough to think ‘what could possibly go wrong,’ but at least they’d probably both know at the same time if something did.


AMBER SAWYER

They’d be fine. She had accidentally thought to herself ‘what could possibly go wrong,’ but it only counted if you said it out loud, right? She tracked Emily’s progress through the store while she looked at the cat toys. There were only a few options, really, but she could browse the treats while she was there. Everyone knew cat people were intense, so they probably wouldn’t even think it was unusual for her to spend an inordinate amount of time looking at one small section of shelving.

“Yogurt’s just past the milk, on the far wall,” someone said, and she blinked. That voice sounded familiar. Sure enough, Agent Johnson rounded the corner talking on her phone a few seconds later. She checked on Emily again, but nothing seemed out of place — except for the security specialist carrying a grocery basket and waving at her from the end of the aisle.

“Hi,” she said. When she got close enough, she lowered her voice. “Is everything all right?” It wasn’t exactly acceptable to ask about potential undercover sting operations while grocery shopping, but she thought that after all they’d been through together, should at least get a friendly heads up if there was about to be a white collar crime take-down at the local market.

“Just stocking up,” Agent Johnson said cheerily. (Her basket seemed to have nothing in it except bananas and store-brand cookies, and Amber wondered what, exactly, she was stocking up for.) “You have a cat?”

She still had the package of catnip mice in her hand — she wasn’t sure how her senses would react to catnip, but they were cute.. Luckily, Emily was almost back, and she came down the aisle humming before Amber could give in to the urge to say no. “Yes,” she said instead. “We do.”

“Hey,” Emily said. “Good to see you again.” She looked back and forth between Amber and Agent Johnson. “Is it good?” Amber wondered if she was having the same thoughts about grocery crime. Maybe they could go straight to the checkout. How much did they really need eggs and juice?”

Agent Johnson just laughed. “I hope so. I’m not on the job right now. I’m moving, actually. A local building had an apartment open up, and I was lucky enough to get it. It’ll be good to have a place around here.” She was much more enthusiastic when she wasn’t working. But there was something else in her voice — maybe nervousness?

“You’re moving into the same apartment building as us, aren’t you,” Emily said.

“Yes. Maybe. Well, yes.” She at least looked a little embarrassed. “But it really is a nice apartment. And it looks like we’re going to be doing some longer-term consulting in the area, so it was almost a coincidence.”

It didn’t sound very coincidental to her. “And by consulting, you mean body-guarding?”

“Sorry, I think you two are stuck doing that for each other.” Agent Johnson held up her hands. “I really do mean consulting. The campus has got some serious PR concerns, and Smith and I have been wanting to branch out. Not to mention the influx of identified Sentinel and Guide students suddenly applying to transfer here.”

“What?”

“It’s true,” Emily confirmed. “Mom was just asking me about it this morning; they can’t figure out why it’s happening.” She glanced at Agent Johnson. “Unofficially, there’s just as many that are unidentified, but you probably already knew that.”

Agent Johnson shrugged. “I’m on snack duty today; Smith is on analytics.”

She wasn’t convinced. “You really think it’s more than just having a good non-discrimination policy and a decent chance at financial aid?” There was nothing particularly special about the campus that she could think of. She wasn’t sure if her own decision to enroll was an argument in favor or against.

“We’re trying to keep an open mind about the possibilities,” Agent Johnson said tactfully, and Emily laughed, then clapped a hand over her mouth.

“Sorry,” she said. “I was just thinking — after everything that’s happened, how crazy would it be if it was actually just a coincidence? The odds would be — I don’t know, I still don’t really understand odds. Small, probably.”

“Very small,” Agent Johnson confirmed. There was a chiming sound, and she patted at her pockets. “That’s my cue,” she said. “Snack time calls. Maybe I can meet your cat some time.”

“Sure. You know where to find us.” When it was just the two of them in the aisle again, she looked at Emily. “Was that weird?”

“What, that she wants to meet the cat? I think she’s just a cat person.” Emily studied the catnip mice, and gave them a thumbs up. “Pretty weird about the Sentinels and Guides all heading here, though. But check this out — they actually had an unscented dish soap that meets all of the requirements. We are going to wash some serious dishes tonight.”

And that was as good an answer as any, probably. A few weeks ago, meeting an agent in the grocery store and talking about cats would have been weird. After getting kidnapped, reuniting with Emily, and accidentally uncovering both a gun-running operation and a sham rescue scheme, the spectrum of what she expected the universe to send her way had shifted. Expanded, was maybe a better word. And in that expansion, there were still dishes, and soap, and cat toys, and there was still laughing in grocery stores over illegible handwriting, and everything that went along with just — being.

“I will do my best to keep the water rebellion to a minimum,” she promised.

“Ha. I’ll believe it when I see it,” Emily said. She leaned in to look at the list. “Are we ready? I feel like we might be ready.”

She nodded. Whatever came next, whatever new way the universe expanded around them. They were ready. “Let’s go home.”
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