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Ryder’s jaw tightened beneath his helmet. He was trying but with Chuck shooting wildly someone was going to end up with more than a few bumps and bruises if this didn’t end soon. ”Putting guns into the city just to get popular isn’t much of a dream,” he remarked, stepping out into view atop a crossbeam. Mike let loose with a precise burst of fire, sparks bursting like fireworks where the bullets hit metal supports or cyan armour. Chitin ignored the new warnings popping up all over his HUD. ”You need to wake up.”

 

He pressed each of the chambers on his belt in sequence once again, dropping into a crouch as power rerouted to the suit’s right leg, panels lighting up around the edges not unlike the beam weapons the gun runners were using. "CYMKick!” the tinny voice announced and Chitin launched himself forward and down, angling through the hail the lead until his boot collided squarely into Chuck’s chest.

 

The other man went flying backward, crashing into a crate hard enough to splinter wood and send the box balanced on top of it toppling over, while Chitin stood resolute at the point of echoing impact. He snapped off a quick jab in Mike’s direction just to keep the remaining gunman off balance, trying to control where the weapon could be pointed. “You can still stop this!”

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GM

"I never cared about the fame! But the money was too good - you don't just pass that up. It beats a 9-to-5!" Mike was doing his level best to keep out of Chitin's reach, but his level best was clearly not good enough; the two men with crowbars had apparently been the melee combatants of this conflict. Mike couldn't quite get the distance to take another shot. "It was a risk, but we knew it. The money was my dream. You know what this could all buy? You...you might have gotten most of us," he added, uncertain, "but we still outnumber you! Guys, get him!"

 

The guys had pulled a pair of heavy pistols out of their crate, and were training them on Chitin, but one of them was looking straight up.

 

A dark grey drone the size of a football was looking down. Its eye refocused on the gun and went from neon blue to a warning red.

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Dragonfly teleported through the ceiling like some kind of armored agent of vengeance, a half-dozen drones splayed around her like a halo.

 

The goons were a priority: drone 2 had spotted them first, and they disappeared in a rain of energy from her complement of helpers. They'd be fine, of course: it was more awe than shock, but it was just enough calculated shock to put them out of a fight and hopefully convince them to re-think their choices.

 

Which left...basically nothing? Open crates, an expertly-broken cannon, three KO'd criminals, and someone she didn't recognize in technology she did recognize. But not part of the gang? "....explain," she said, to either or both of the still-standing young men.

 

Mike looked back and forth between Chitin and Dragonfly, made a noise like a dying hope, and carefully - gently - put the SMG down. "Never," he said to Chuck's unconscious body, "never ever run guns in Greenbank."

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“You definitely shouldn't run guns at all but okay," Chitin sighed, shaking his head at Mike. The armoured teen shifted awkwardly from foot to foot as he tried to come up with the best way to answer Dragonfly's terse demand, suddenly very aware of what he was or wasn't doing with his hands. “Hi! Hello. Um, this is maybe a weird time to mention it but I'm actually a really big fan?" He waved then thought better of it and placed his hand on his hip before rethinking again and putting both hands behind his back. “Oh, this is Mike. I don't think he really wanted to hurt anyone, he's just bad at... empathy? Or like personal responsibility? I'm glad you showed up when you did, I didn't really want to have to hit anybody else." He cocked his head quizzically, looking from the mangled beam cannon to the surrendered arms dealers. “Did you guys make those or...?"

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"...bought them." Dragonfly hovered down to the ground, wings vanishing; she pulled a couple zip-ties out of thin air and tossed them to Mike, who received a hard stare until he quietly tied himself to the nearest conveyor. It was, apparently, not his first rodeo. "Criminal paradox: criminals want to buy powerful weapons, especially in Freedom City, even at high prices. Arms makers want to sell guns, especially at high prices. Arms makers don't always want to go near Freedom City, or don't want guns traced to them. So they get idiots," she pointed at Mike, as if the barb could be mistaken for anyone else, "to buy guns at good prices, and they resell in Freedom City. Plausible deniability for the makers. Weapons for the criminals. Profit for clever gun runners, if they're smart enough to not run guns through Greenbank."

 

She wasn't sure what to make of Chitin. His body language was young, his suit was advanced, and while she was glad the gang wasn't the one with her missing drone she hadn't been expecting....any of this. "....we should talk."

 

"Hey," said Mike, "if you can cut my friends and I a deal, or put in a good word or something, I'll talk to--"

 

"Not you."

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Chitin actually clapped his hands, the metal caps on his fingertips clinking together. “That'd be great! I have a bunch of questions about how you get objects to revert to standard space without having to reorient along a reference axis as a separate step! Let me just get my guys." He whistled so though he were calling a trained pet, a strange sound through his helmet. In response the remaining three Robugs appeared. Magenta and Black scuttling over from the warehouse door, the former clacking its forelegs together at the defeated thugs and the latter dragging an empty backpack along behind it. Yellow buzzed in through an open window but gave Dragonfly's drone a wide berth like a cat eyeing up a much larger dog. “Sorry things didn't turn out so hot for you and your friends," he told Mike sincerely once the Robugs were back in their bag. “Make better choices, okay?"

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"Yeah. I'm sorry too," agreed Mike, seemingly relieved things were over. "Could have been worse, though, huh Chuck?"

 

Chuck, being unconscious, didn't reply.

 

Dragonfly's drones had been peering around the warehouse, canvassing it for evidence or curiosity; when Chitin's bugs flew in they took notice, the closest one always following the bugs with its great single eye, but they otherwise seemed to be on a pretty tight leash. Dragonfly cocked her head for a moment, making a radio call Chitin could detect but not immediately decipher, and then gestured for Chitin to follow her north - they'd barely made it past the fence when sirens could be heard from the east.

 


 

They ended up on a warehouse roof, much like any other, but Dragonfly seemed satisfied enough with it; her little drone fleet had whittled itself down to two, which circled her like puppies that wanted to know if they'd done a good job. She caught one and turned it over, inspecting it for damage while it wiggled its plating. It gave her time to reflect on this young...person? Man/boy/child, probably, but in a full-body suit she was never going to place bets. It spoke well enough of him, at least, but she didn't like the parts that were too familiar for comfort. "What is your name, where is my drone?"

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Having jumped up to the warehouse rooftop in one prodigious leap the youth had become distracted looking down over the edge until he was addressed directly. “Right! I'm Chitin! Y'know, because..." He rapped his knuckles against the side of his helmet. “And it's one of those fun words that I think most people read before they hear out loud so you mispronounce it, right, because it totally looks like it should be 'chit-in' and I think that's neat!" He seemed to catch himself rambling and overcorrected his posture, standing ramrod straight at attention and trying to look more serious. “I can go get the drone for you! Or you can come get him? I found him but I couldn't fix him enough to turn him back on so I tried to learn more about how the systems work and wow. Obviously I don't need to tell you but there is a lot going on there, oh man! I am super glad trying to use the suit didn't tear off any of my limbs." He stuck his arms straight outward as though taking stock, the backpack slung over one shoulder sliding down to hang from one elbow.

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"Would like it back," confirmed Dragonfly, crossing her arms and tapping a finger as she tried to get a read on Chitin. Tap-tap-tap. "Bring it here, leave it on the rooftop. Will have a drone nearby to pick it up." Tap-tap-tap. "....also glad you didn't lose limbs."

 

She was impressed, too, though she wasn't sure she wanted to admit it. Mara was fairly certain that most people who tried to use her technology would turn themselves inside out, or get lost in a pocket dimension forever, or...well. Tear off limbs. This kid had made something new - something his - and she had a sense of displaced appreciation threatening to overtake her ire.

 

Eventually she had to break the silence. "Reorientation is only necessary if you think all dimensions share objective axes," she said, answering a question long-since asked. "Forced orientation is only useful for large-scale object translation - or travel to pre-existing alternate dimensions. Fixed-point teleporters, portals. Not for small mass retrieval. Usually just define 'up', 'down', 'left', 'right' relative to me and not my surroundings. Translations automatically orient to me because they were already, always, pointed in my direction - no matter what direction that was. Simplifies the math by baking it into the translation calculation itself."

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"Instant zip-ties! That explains the different protocols for living matter, too. I tried storing some fruit to see if it would stay fresh and, uh, the good news is that I was going to make smoothies with it anyway. Splurtch!" He mimed a messy explosion with both hands while making the accompanying sound effect. Abruptly reminded of something he stuck himself in the forehead with the butt of his hand. Part of the helmet chirped in protest and as Dragonfly watched it detached from the armour, rearranging into a little robotic cricket while the cyan coloured pieces of armour on Chitin's suit returned to their subspace pocket with little flares of light.

 

"Smoothies! My sister is going to kick my butt if I don't get back to my shift." In his simplified white and black suit the young man turned back to Dragonfly. "Uh, do you like smoothies? Or ice cream or parfaits or-- actually we have a bunch of stuff but the things is your drone is in my workshop which is at my family's juice bar and we could go get it but I don't know if that's weird?" He wasn't worried about Dragonfly knowing who he was; everyone knew she was a real, big time hero even if she hadn't just stepped in to help. Plus it occurred to him that she'd probably been able to track his armour once he activated the system. "Maybe that's a personal boundary thing? Sorry. People say I try too hard sometimes which, like, why would you not try hard, right? But, yeah. I need to get back, is what I was saying."

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"Drones didn't get good handling for living tissue, no." She was glad he'd tried it on fruit first; it would have been a very short and painful lesson otherwise. "Can store living things - or ex-living-things - safely, but takes more doing. Recommend getting paper working first; bad calculations or calibration leads to shear forces, and paper provides a clear record of what tore where. Make a paper box or lantern, complicated shapes to fit troubling vectors. Good debugging."

 

Tap-tap-tap went the finger as the endless gears in Mara's head turned over. It probably wasn't a trap. Probably. She wasn't sure he'd thought it all the way through, but she wasn't going to stop him from making her job easier. "....okay. May need to take order to go, though." She was already queuing up her suit comms, firing a couple quick text messages in case someone had a request. "Where to?"

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"Paper! That's so smart, man! If you got the vertices just right you could put in a flat piece and have it come out folded into origami, I bet!" His head shot up, staring into space and his hands went wide as an idea struck him. "I could totally do something printer-themed. Need to think about this." Just as quickly his attention swung back around to the conversation at hand. "Right! Follow me!"

 


 

After what ended up being a short trip once the cricket Robug had accepted an apology Chitin led Dragonfly into Riverside. Ducking around a corner and out of immediate sight of any passersby the teenager toggled the chambers on his belt and returned his armour to its subspace pocket in a flash of light and colour. Ryder laced his fingers above his head and stretched mightily. "Talk about a successful test run, ha!" Hefting his backpack again he waved to the older heroine where she hovered nearby overhead and jogged over to a storefront with a sign, flanked in palm tree designs and adorned with tropical fruit imagery, that proclaimed it to be the Smoothie Shack. "I'm back! Sorry about-- yah!"

 

The apology was cut short as his sister caught one of Ryder's ears and gave it a forceful yank. "You're unbelievable, you know that?" Jenny huffed before letting him go and retuning to a textbook she had open on the counter. "You're just lucky it was a slow night. Did you finish whatever was so important?"

 

"Yes! All good. It was really important, you're the best!" Ryder gave a sunny smile that Jenny knew better than to bother trying to stay mad at, settling for rolling her eyes and trying to suppress a fond grin.

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"Probably my fault," said Dragonfly, stepping into the shop. It was, to her, technically true - the best kind of true, and kept her from having to try to lie. She'd never really gotten the hang of lying.

 

It also kept her mind off of the eternal awkwardness of being in normal social spaces in full armor. "He found something of mine and needed to return it," technically correct, "but I'm not always easy to find." Also technically correct. This was going well. "Appreciate your help."

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The young woman behind the faux-palm tree counter looked up from her book at the filtered voice and froze, letting Dragonfly finish before demanding in a strangled voice, "Ryderrr..."

 

"Gotta get the thing! Right back!" He gave his sister a big thumbs up while racing around the length of the bar to reach the door into the back. Seemingly to pick up on some of their guest's discomfort he paused to turn the thumbs up to Dragonfly as well before ducking out of view.

 

Jenny was wide-eyed and silent for a long beat before clearing her throat hesitantly. "Well, uh. Welcome to the Smoothie Shack? Can I get you something?" She gestured with both hands to the array of sliced fruits, brightly coloured bottles and other ingredients. Evidently broad body language ran in the family.

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"Mm." Dragonfly stood like a statue for a moment, pondering the ingredients and menu; she'd been distracted enough to find out what Ellie and Yolanda might want - not to mention pondering secret identity concerns for herself and others - that she hadn't figured out what Dragonfly would want and that seemed like a problem she could have avoided. Sloppy. Something to fix for next time.

 

".....caramel apple ice cream parfait, orange smoothie, chocolate malt?" she said, finally, cocking her head to the side. Getting them back before they melted might be a challenge, but it would be worthwhile; patrols were done for the day and the smiles were always a reward for the effort. "Strawberry banana smoothie if oranges aren't as good right now. Not in season, always hit or miss."

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"We wouldn't have the oranges out if they weren't good," Jenny was quick to point out but she gave the fruit in question a judgmental look nonetheless and added, "The strawberries are better, though." She set about preparing the order with the practiced ease of someone who knew where everything was without needing to look. In fact, she glanced over at Dragonfly while layering the parfait. "You're his favourite, you know. He thinks the world of just about everyone but he tried to explain something about how your wings work to me once and just about vibrated himself through a wall." There was a note of caution in her tone, looking for signs that her brother's expectations might not be met.

 

Ryder burst back into the room holding a cardboard box printed with peaches and shipping instructions. "Back!" He'd lined the inside of the box with towels as though he'd been making a bed for a stray wounded animal and nestled the damaged drone within.

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"Not unfair," mused Dragonfly without apparent ego; something on the back of her armor audibly moved, articulating like she was flexing a muscle, but she resisted the urge to deploy her wings in a small and enclosed space. "Wings took a long time to get right. People always expect them to flap, lift by air vortex. Doable, but awful power to weight ratio. Impressed your brother could theorize without plans - they work more like a keel or variable airfoil, but difficult to discern without being able to see--"

 

She spied her drone and cut off, reaching out to gently lift the metal device out of its box and turn it over. "Mmm. Poor thing, brave. Saved three people, reinforced only doorway out. Power strain fried its locator, couldn't find it afterward. Not actually alive," she assured them, glancing back, "but hard not to get attached. Glad to have it back. Important that technology doesn't fall into the wrong hands, could do a lot of harm."

 

That last bit was very pointedly directed at Ryder as she set the drone back in the box, and took the box from him. "Dangerous when not understood well, would be very upset if it was replicated by bad people."

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"Oh yeah, totally," Ryder agreed readily before blinking twice and standing up a little straighter. "Oh! Yeah. Totally." The teenager shifted from foot to foot awkwardly, strawberry blond hair bobbing as he looked down at his feet. "So... hypothetically, if someone already knew how some of that technology worked, it would be the most dangerous for them to not learn more about it. Yeah?" He tilted his chin up to give Dragonfly a grin that was partly embarrassed and partly hopeful, rocking back and forth on his heels with his hands in the pockets of his pants.

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Dragonfly stared at him, impassive, for what felt like a solid minute as she churned that one over in her mind. It wasn't that he was technically wrong, but he was just about easier to read than she was and she had some fairly severe reservations. "Hypothetically," she said at last, "it would be the most dangerous for someone to not forget they had ever seen it and live happy, and quietly, because not everyone gets to."

 

She pulled a face that thankfully no one else could see. Mara sure wouldn't have been satisfied with that answer, and as difficult as it was accepting that some of her modern designs were in the wild, it would be worse still if some smart-but-dumb kid got himself hurt. Right? Probably? "....but hypothetically, if that wasn't possible, it would be the most dangerous to not learn enough to keep from hurting someone or collapsing a city block into non-euclidean cube. That's not the same as learning more about it, but it's close."

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Ryder pumped his fist triumphantly. "I can work with close! I'm not very good at quiet but I'm great at learning!"

 

"Both of those things are true," Jenny admitted, placing the last of Dragonfly's to-go cups on the counter, "but can we go back to the part about the city block for a minute? What did you do?"

 

"Nothing! It's fine," her brother assured her, adjusting his conspicuous belt buckle and straightening his shirt. "The peaches were still usable afterward!"

 

"What part of that sounded reassuring in your head?" She turned to the armoured heroine and crossed her arms. "Are you offering him an internship or what here? He's still in high school and definitely not signing anything until our dad gets back."

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"Hyperbole," Dragonfly assured, holding up a hand. She wouldn't have necessarily aimed to involve Jenny, but at least there was someone around Ryder capable of working a brake pedal. That was comforting. The idea was admittedly interesting, though, and she ran through some quick mental math and design. "Would need to do something very badly to actually do that, and science he doesn't know, and also most of the power grid of the eastern United States. Would blow out every transformer between here and Bedlam before it did any lasting harm."

 

That was probably less reassuring than she'd intended. She moved on. "Not recommending actual internship; could probably pull strings, but not going to make promises to someone I don't really know. Mostly just want to make sure he doesn't get hurt by anything he learned studying other peoples' things before returning them."

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Jenny gave her brother a look with narrowed eyes. "Please tell me you didn't try to make a few of those wings."

 

"I can honestly say I did not do that!" Ryder confirmed cheerfully, his good mood apparently all but bulletproof.

 

She placed her hands on her temples and squeezed her eyes shut, visibly concentrating on her breathing. "Fine. I'll take what I can get."

 

"Me too!" Ryder gave Dragonfly a pair of thumbs up. "I guess you probably didn't write stuff down into a book or anything but even just more advice like the paper test thing would be awesome! I want to learn as much as I can so I can use it to help people. That's my dream and I never give up on a dream!"

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Ryder was demonstrating more energy and enthusiasm in the last few minutes than Mara could summon up across some days, and she was starting to feel very old in a way she chose not to think about. Maybe she could commiserate with Ellie later and get some caramel sympathy kisses. "'Paper thing' is actual, genuine safety advice," she assured Jenny, looking over with as much sympathy as a cold metal mask could summon. "....probably keep an eye on napkin and receipt stock, though. Just in case of...enthusiasm."

 

Not that enthusiasm was bad, but she had to assume Ryder needed more tempering than exciting. "I have your number," she said, not feeling the need to explain just how she'd accomplished that - but there were lights just barely visible, flickering behind the lenses of her helmet. "You have mine. It's on your phone. Yours too," she amended, Jenny's way. "Phones, plural, then. In case he does something we all regret. Do not give it out. Doesn't lead to an actual phone, may not pick it up, but I'll get a message sent there, eventually."

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