I became conscious of her brown eyes watching my reaction. Running still sounded like the wisest choice. I stayed still and didn’t say anything.
After a pause, she said, “Was it the King? The Queen? The Warlord? The Wise Ones? The Schemer? The Beauty? The Traitor?”
I tried not to show anything more than curiosity on my face. “Are there more?”
“Enough,” she said, leaning back in her chair and frowning. “I shouldn’t name any more. You need to understand this even if you don’t know. Someone close to you is not what they seem. They might appear to be human, but they’re closer to what you imagine gods to be like. All people exist in more dimensions than they’re aware of. People who associate with gods, or whatever they are, stick out. Your friend sticks out a little. You glow.”
“Oh.” I let the implications sink in and all of them were bad. If I glowed at close range, then I’d get attention whenever one of them or maybe even their followers came near me. Almost as bad, when I thought about it, were the names she’d used. The Traitor had to be Lee, but if that were so, then the Warlord was someone else. If the Warlord were the Live faction’s best at leading troops and Lee were the Destroy faction’s, that would make sense. At the same time, if the Warlord were better than Lee, that would be a bad thing.
Then I thought of something. “How do you know that I glow?”
Still watching me, she said, “It happens if mortals associate with them long enough. I’m surprised that you can’t see a glow. If I read you right, you’ve been exposed to more power than most.”
I thought back to the sword and how I’d drawn it out of nowhere.
“You pulsed,” she said. “What were you thinking about? Whatever it is, don’t think about it if you fear immortals might be watching.”
“I probably shouldn’t talk any more about this, then.”
She let out a breath. “You’re doing the right thing for now, but not forever. I don’t know which of them you’re connected to, but whoever it is has made a substantial investment of time in you. Even though I can’t know it, I believe we’re on the same side. In the end, we’ll be better together than apart.”
I nodded. “I’m sure you’re right about that in the long run, but right now I’m just here because I need new parts. I don’t think I can commit to something out of nowhere.”
Leaning back and nodding, she said, “I understand. If you change your mind, you’ll be able to find me.”
After that, the doors hummed again, the windows let more light through, and I felt a breeze in the room. It left us with an uncomfortable silence that she broke by asking me about the material my clothes were made of. Bearing in mind that I wore a self-repairing material that could be programmed to look like different colors, textures, and shapes, it opened up a conversation.
She knew more about nanotech than I did too, and while my costume wasn’t made of nanobots, it did use nanotechnology. Even if it wasn’t as comfortable as before she’d brought up Lee’s people, I still found her easy to talk to and learned as we talked.
Marcus came back mid-conversation with lunch. “They’re kind of like gyros,” he said. I unwrapped the sandwich. It was in a material that looked like white and red striped paper, but felt like leaves. The sandwich itself was wrapped in flat bread that really did look like pita bread. The meat was purple. I looked up at him.
“Don’t ask,” he said. “You’ll be happier.”
Deciding that the same went for the vegetables and the green sauce, I bit in. The sauce turned out to be tangy with spices I didn’t recognize at all. The meat was tender and juicy—perfect. The vegetables were weird but didn’t stand out among everything else.
By the time we finished eating, the parts were done, placed in boxes along with the protective wrapping and bagged. On the way out, I paid using the Xiniti implant and said, “Thanks,” to Kee.
I meant it too. In the conversations we’d had, she’d given me an entirely new way to understand FTL drive design and given me ideas about how to fix persistent issues I’d had with the Rocket suit.
As we walked out, I wished I’d talked to her about the Xiniti implant. It connected to the ship by default. It needed to connect to my armor. I had ideas. The implant had documentation explaining the protocols and hardware required.
We were out on the street when I decided to step back into the shop for one more question. I told Marcus, “It’ll be quick, I promise.”
It felt wrong before I even reached the door. I couldn’t have described how, but I knew that something had changed. It might have been as simple as the hum of conversation coming from inside. With the entire asteroid being climate controlled, the door didn’t have to be closed to keep out wind, rain, or snow, so I stepped inside to find the room completely different.
It still had machines for fabricating parts, but they didn’t fill the room. The room was larger and the machines stood next to the walls. People (or at any rate sapient beings) filled it. The signs and multi-colored banners on the walls made it feel festive. Humans and aliens I’d never imagined stood next to the machines, talking about FTL theory, robot design, and hundreds of other topics. The sound of a lecture drifted in from the room next door.
A six-armed shaggy lump next to the door rose as I leaned in, rumbling “Welcome to Tinkers. Is this your first time?”
“No,” I said, “my second. Is… Kee here?”
The Xiniti implant translated what sounded like a hacking cough as “No, I’m afraid she’s been out all morning. Would you like me to take a message?”
“Never mind,” I peered into the room. “I’m sure I’ll find her when I need to.”
Stepping back out, I said, “Thanks,” only to find Marcus next to me.
“Wow,” he said, and then switched over to a Xiniti private communication channel. We were the only ones on it. “She wasn’t human, was she?”
I thought about it as we walked down the street. “I’m trying to remember if she ever said she was. She said a lot of things that implied that she was, but…” I shook my head. “She wanted to find out who we were connected to and she mentioned some options, but I don’t think she mentioned herself in the list. I think she’s from the Live faction and I think that her thing is encouraging technological development in the younger races.”
“Right,” Marcus said, “so when it all comes to a head, they’ve got power. It sounds familiar, you know.”
Marcus glanced back at the shop. “If she’s from the Live faction, it would explain why she did what she did with the shop. She trusts us because we’re hiding. On the other hand, if she’s from the Destroy faction, she might have swapped it because it doesn’t matter what we know. She’s going to kill us all anyway.”
I glanced over at him. He shrugged.
“I’m betting on Live,” I told him. “Otherwise, why set up a shop that teaches people?”
We turned into one of the walkways that led toward the street level trains. Marcus nodded. “I like that idea.”
That didn’t stop me from getting the parts inspected at a part store I found on the network, though. The proprietor, a six foot tall bipedal slug, looked them over and said, “High quality FTL drive parts based on a Hrrnna design. Nice. They’d be good for a gate or maybe a deep space exploration ship.”
I paid him and we left.