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Summer 2020 

 

Angelic had been full of questions ever since she'd found out what was in the sealed sample container that had been personally delivered to Miss Americana - the one that the latter was now in the process of flying to HAX personally. "Active computronium!" She sounded excited; considerably more excited, Miss Americana knew, than the teenager usually was these days. A few years earlier she might have been buzzing around Miss A as they flew, as it was, her wings were spread and there was a smile on her quicksilver face as her magnetic flight propelled her along after Miss A. "Do you think it has a live connection to the Communion hive mind?" She rubbed her wrists, where the inactive computronium that she used to interface with cybernetic systems lay buried. "I wonder if a full-on interface is possible using terrestrial equipment. We may need to take it into deep space.

 

 

The announcement of Miss Americana's imminent arrival with her dangerous cargo hadn't quite interrupted babysitting-the-playdate time but it was close. Via closed-circuit camera, Mara could check in on the littlest kids visiting. "The robots are making soup!" declared Charlie, Mia's friend from Nicholson, whose precognition and enhanced intelligence were intermittent enough that he wasn't actually a threat to anybody's job at HAX yet. 

 

Mia turned to her friend and declared, a wide smile on her face, "More like...poop!"

 

Charlie grabbed his sides and fell over laughing, with the sweet innocent laughter of an early kindergartener, the sound ringing all through the small office. "You're so funny!" Charlie's mom worked long hours and was a single parent, so he went on a lot of playdates. Luckily the Nicholson program was very good at arranging time out with trusted friends in safe company. Wander was close by, after all. 

 

And come to think of it, it was about time for Chitin's visit! 

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Mara settled back into her chair, gesturing with one hand to move the live feed of the kid's room off to one of her side monitors. Or, rather, the "kid's room" - they'd claimed a conference room, somewhere close to the security office and further from any of the active labs. Room for activities, office-safe toys to mess with, and a screen designed for conferences but, if she was honest, probably better-suited to children's entertainment.

 

And that, apparently, wasn't all the rearranging she'd have to do. Ryder wouldn't need much Miss Americana coming here for anything had to be dire trouble. Lights flickered behind her eyes as she brought up the inter-office telecom and buzzed Lab 2. "Katie?"

 

It took a moment; they must have been busy. Or they were playing around with the rare metal magnets again. She'd have given decent odds either way. "Yes, boss?"

 

"Going to need to steal 2 from you today. Can you pack up, get the battery project into storage 'til next week?"

 

More pause. "....sure? We're mostly just running some sims, we can get the hardware out of here. Anything wrong?"

 

"Special consultation." She didn't need more explanation than that; everyone in her company knew what it meant as a matter of policy. Special consultation: someone in a cape wanted work done, probably dangerous and definitely prioritized over just about anything else.

 

"Ah. Got it, boss - we'll get a move on."

 

Mara cut the call and looked down at the little robot bumping into her leg. "Need to hire a personal assistant, Puppy," she said, pulling a stray strand of hair back behind her ear. "Too many things scheduled for one day."

 

Puppy, a big electronic eye and miscellaneous circuitry packed into a hamster ball, looked back up at her with open curiosity. "Want to help? Go out onto the balcony and broadcast a landing zone, okay? Don't know what they have, probably don't want it in my lobby."

 

Puppy spun in a happy circle, whistling a cheerful note and set off rolling across her office. "And let me know when you see them!"

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"If it had a live connection to the Communion hive mind, I wouldn't be carrying it around in a jumped-up Mason jar," Miss A assured her protege, her lovely face tight with concentration as she made absolutely sure not to jostle the container one whit more than necessary. "We are going to work very hard to ensure that it does not develop a connection to the hive mind too, because that would be Very Bad, even in deep space." She let out a little sigh of relief as she touched down on the landing pad that had been marked out in lights by Dragonfly's robotic assistant. "Thank you, Puppy. Could you tell Dragonfly we're here, please?" 

 

She turned to Angelic. "I'm going to be busy with this for awhile, possibly the rest of the day. There's another student from Claremont in the building today, and some Nicholson students too, so you can hang out with them. I'm sure you'll find some fun things to do. I'll come and get you when I'm finished." 

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"But-" A wide variety of emotional responses played across Eira's face - she'd never been terribly good at hiding them, and seemed less interested in doing so now that she was deeply into her late teens. The overall look was similar to the one Miss A remembered from when a much younger Eira (in a very different body) had found out that her parents' allergies meant she was never going to get a cat. When she was finished, she said, "All right. I will be ready."

 

She folded her arms across her chest and, once they were safely out of view of anyone at street level, flexed her wings down behind her shoulder blades and reactivated the electrical currents that colored and shaped her flesh,  while taking advantage of the morphic molecule outfit that was similarly outfitted.. By the time anyone else was on the roof, a teenage girl was standing behind Miss Americana who looked  like she belonged there as much as anyone could in the company of the patriotic paragon - her blonde hair in a short ponytail behind her head, silver piercing in her nose, white lab jacket on over a black metal T-shirt, eyes hidden behind dark, rimless sunglasses that looked vaguely like something out of the 19th century. 

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If Eira had executed perfectly upon her monochromatic aesthetic, the riot of colour that came tearing down the side street toward the HAX parking lot on two wheels spoke to a very different fashion sensibility or lack thereof. Checkered pants and paint-splashed high-tops jutted out at an unusual angle to accommodate the bicycle's unusual gearing and pedals while a hoodie in neon greens and pinks flapped wildly above the storage compartment suspended over the back wheel with a series of auto-stabilized gimbals. The bicycle was achieving surprising speed considering its unorthodox modifications, a fact that seemed to be causing its rider quite a bit of stress.

 

"C'mon c'mon c'mon!" Ryder coxed the brake lever as the building loomed closer and closer, swerving around a parked car. Just as the front wheel reached the end of pavement the bike abruptly stopped, sending him tumbling over the handlebars and onto the grass several feet away. The teenager sprung back up to his feet as though made of rubber and pumped his fists in the air triumphantly. "Yeah! On time!" Sprinting back over to his ride he flipped open the storage compartment and deposited his helmet and gloves inside while retrieving a bike lock and an angrily buzzing wasp shaped robot. "What? No, it's fine! It was totally fine the whole time, Yellow! You worry too much, you'll get wrinkles!" The Robug flew tight circles around Ryder's head in rebuttal before landing on his shoulder.

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There was a clicking noise behind Ryder, where a woman in her late twenties was snapping the fingers of her right hand, eyes closed as if she was trying to remember something. She was short, with brown hair pulled back in a stunted ponytail, a long white lab coat, and glasses so perfectly round they took up an unreasonable amount of her face. "It's...Ryder, right?" Katie said, finally, dropping the last snap into a pointing gesture. "Yes! You brought those smoothies. Those were some great smoothies, we've got to convince the boss to do that again."

 

She'd been on her way out of the building when she'd spotted the...crash? The entrance, certainly; the lab coat had already been partway off, and with the puzzle solved she pulled it the rest of the way and folded it over one arm. "Speaking of the boss, she had some sudden business, but I think she has you in a workshop on the ground floor. She had us clean it out this morning; she'll probably have your name on it by the time you get in there, but if she doesn't it's right across from the kids." Most of the rooms had screens outside for labeling projects and flagging danger or claimed meeting slots - the employees had long-since given up on figuring out how Mara managed the updates sometimes. They still took bets, though. The current winner was some kind of phone app.

 

"Good luck!" she added, waving as she strolled toward the parking lot.

 


 

Puppy made a happy trilling sound; it busied itself for a moment cleaning up its lights (it had no hands; pushing the little lights around with the surface of its ball was almost unbearably adorable) before spinning around to look pointedly at the television screen in the lounge that sat between the balcony and the rest of the building.

 

!!SCIENCE!! - LAB 2 - CURRENT FLOOR

TEENAGERS - WORKSHOP 1 - GROUND FLOOR

LABS AND OTHER WORKSHOPS OFF-LIMITS

NO DATA SNOOPING

BEWARE OF CHILDREN

 

The message was pretty stark, black text on white, but in Mara's defense she was trying to track a lot at once. She got out of her office chair, cracked her neck in a way Ellie would probably not have approved, and started toward Lab 2 herself. Whatever Gina had brought, it had to be something, and she'd just have to let Ryder cool his heels and see what he'd done with the time later.

 

Puppy did much of the same, happily rolling off toward HAX's hallways in case anybody didn't know the way.

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"Luckily smoothies are a lot like science consulting," Ryder told the woman in the round glasses with a smile bright enough to activate UV tinting. "It's all about anticipating a need." He reached back into the storage compartment and retrieved a trio of drink trays balanced in a precarious tower, each holding four take-out cups emblazoned with the Smoothie Shack logo. He removed the top tray from the stack to access one of the cups from the middle tray, wedging the former into the crook of one arm while he wiggled the latter free. Yellow took flight and zipped around under the increasingly horizontal tray and pushed up against the bottom to keep it from tipping over, buzzing urgently. "You went for the strawberry kiwi last time - total classic, obviously - but I noticed you were kind of checking out the one Mrs. Hunter-White had - that is a lady who is serious about fruit, mad respect - so this is sort of a combo of the two? Super open to feedback, just let me know what you think!" Improbably he managed to hand off the beverage without spilling any of the others. "Have an awesome rest of your day!"

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While Dragonfly and Miss Americana headed off to Lab 2 to work with some of the most volatile, fascinating machine intelligence works of the last century on both a Galactic and terrestrial scale, Eira Katastroff headed off downstairs to Workshop 1. This was a familiar enough spot, a location where she had spent many hours working during visits to HAX. She even had her own worktable here, where a dissected, splayed-open version of one of her own left arms was waiting for her inspection and continued upgrades. Familiar or not, she stood scowling by her workspace, black shades obscuring her eyes. This has not previously been the workshop of teenagers, plural. She stood there in silence for a second or two before she raised a hand in the air and pointed at the wall. 

 

The speakers there began to play at a volume that would have been uncomfortably loud to a human as Eira bent over her work, using microtools to part the narrowly-compacted magnetofibers in the 'hand'.

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Any time Ryder had gained with his reckless bicycle ride was more than eaten up as he distributed another pair of smoothies and stopped to enthusiastically chat with employees inside the building, followed by immediately getting turned about in the hallways. When racing percussion and growling female vocals began blaring from around a corner he spun on his heel and jogged off in that direction without question.

 

"Hey, I'm a 'teenagers'!" he shouted to Yellow upon reading the sign outside the lab, the little robot on his shoulder making a futile attempt to cover its audio receptors with its front set of legs. Stepping inside he turned in a small circle while heading for the centre of the room, marvelling at the equipment while the tower of smoothies in his hands vibrated along with the music. "Oh man, where do you even get one of those?! Wait, that's just the casing from the JW-9; the lens has gotta be a custom! That's wild!" Continuing to shout even as his voice was lost amidst the music.

 

Spotting the blonde girl in the lab coat with her back to him Ryder called, "Hi! I think this was where I was supposed to go?" When there was no reaction he took a few steps closer. "Hello? Hi?! THIS IS MORE SHOUTING THAN I WAS EXPECTING!"

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Eira looked up at Ryder, peering at him through her dark glasses. The music blared for a long second - then she made a gesture at the wall and it silenced. When she spoke it was in a low, throaty whisper that was a sharp contrast to the previously blaring music - after a tik tik pause for Ryder's hearing to adjust. "There is live current in this room. You should put those by the sink." She lowered her hand and went back to work on what was clearly an advanced cybernetic arm, either for a synthezoid or bionic replacement it was hard to tell at first glance. When she spoke, she looked up from her work, the light from her small micro-welder reflected in the lenses of her glasses. "You are not the delivery boy. You are one of Mara's students, yes?

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"THAT'S -- whoops. That's probably a good idea, yeah!" Ryder agreed easily with a grin. He tilted his head to one side in a way that sent his strawberry blond hair bouncing as if to emphasize his good cheer. "And I'm both! I'm Ryder, awesome to meet you!" The teenager deposited the trays of drinks on the counter by the sink, doing a quick scan of his own for any potential hazards nearby. "The three melon blast already got snapped up but you've got your pick when you want to take a break. I've got one here that I swear tastes exactly like key lime pie with a ginger and cinnamon kick. Delicious and great for sore throats so that's a win all around, right?" Yellow hopped off his shoulder and buzzed around the perimeter of the room before landing on a disused workspace, close enough to see what Eira was working on but out of arm's reach.

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Eira lifted up the dark frames of her specs and peered at the small robot (her eyes were a pale ocean blue and deep), her pale face set in fascination. She cocked her head as she transmitted a radio signal to Yellow, the two of them matching postures for a second or two. "Eira Katastroff Natt och Dag," she said, her voice faintly accented. "I am a pupil of Miss Americana. I do not eat anything made from animals or animal byproducts. Does this unit have pronouns?" she said with considerably more animation than she'd greeted Ryder - though still not exactly what one would call animated. "May I interface?" she asked with a gesture at Yellow. 

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Ryder snapped his fingers and nodded. "Got it. The key lime one has honey so scrap that. Ooh, here we go: think spicy drinking chocolate but a milkshake. A hundred percent cocoa, you could eat with a spoon but no dairy. Bit of an advanced one but you seem like you could handle it." He gave an enthusiastic pair of thumbs up then looked over to where Yellow was shifting from side to side, not breaking multifaceted eye contact with Eira. "Oh, yeah! Yellow's a she. 'Cause, y'know, wasps," he replied as though the explanation was self-evident. "She's kinda the skittish one, though. You okay saying hello, Low?" The robotic insect buzzed a few times uncertainly but leaned forward toward Eira in what appeared to be cautious agreement.

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Eira extended a hand towards Yellow and something wriggled its way out from under her shirtsleeve. It looked like a bit of silvery cable or electrical cord as it cautiously felt its way out towards Yellow, then made an experimental pass over the robot. After a moment, the tip seemed to divide into a fine set of thin fibers that could directly access Yellow's microcircuitry. Eira made a small noise, like an exhalation of breath, as she made contact - then after a moment or two, released the nervous robot. She seemed to consider as the dataspike slithered its way back up her sleeve, making a low chuckle, then said with the air of one making a surprised concession, "I will try your vegan chocolate." She was just taking the lid off the cup when there was an urgent banging at their door from somewhere low down. She seemed in no hurry to answer as she took a few spoonfuls of the chocolate inside into her mouth. "Acceptable," she said with an approving nod. 

 

When Ryder did open the door, he was confronted by an anxious-looking, albeit cherubic boy, who said in a tone of one with great need - "Where's the potty!?" 

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Ryder's expression as the data spike extended from Eira's sleeve could only be described as delight. "Holy smokes! I figured you meant an RFID scan or something! How is that even actuated at that size?!" Yellow seemed similarly intrigued and took off again to land on the corner of Eira's worktable and cock her head while examining the partially disassembled arm.

 

Further inquiries were put on hold by the pounding on the door, leaving Ryder blinking down at the child. "That is an excellent question. Not in here, I don't think. Eira?"

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Eira pointed straight out the door, and the little boy stared, the look of urgency on his face increasing. With a deep sigh, Eira set aside her drink and hissed, her accent distinct "The door across the hall!" 

 

"Okay!" said the little boy, who turned and bolted for it with alacrity. "Thank you!" he said as the doors swung shut behind him.

 

As the doors swung shut, Eira muttered "Children" under her breath. She took another bite or two of the milkshake, then set it aside. "I wonder if we will have to babysit them. There is more than one here, yes?" she added, sounding disgusted at the prospect. "Since we are just teenagers, and not fit for real science." An irritable look on her pale face, she rubbed the wrist from which the dataspike had come. "I use an inactive form of a high-density processing material for interfaces - it is a product of interstellar science, you would not know it.

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"Probably not!" Ryder agreed, seemingly oblivious to any sort of implied insult. "I was like, 'Is that shunting kinetic energy generated from self-replication along a macro-micro axis while ionizing for directional control?' but the transmission noise doing that would be, like, embarrassing, right?" The teen laughed brightly and craned his neck to check down the hallway for any other small children or an accompanying adult. "But a super dense data-reactive lattice structure that can act as a processor or storage on demand would obviously make more sense! Super cool stuff."

 

Turning back around he took a few bouncing steps back into the lab. "I like kids! They're not afraid to really go for their dreams!" He pumped a fist enthusiastically but stopped with it raised in the air as he considered Eira's scowl. "Oh. Uh. Is... there somewhere else you wanted to be?"

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Eira stared at Ryder for a long, piercing moment. "Hmph. Yes, it is computronium - inactive from deposits held by the Lor, not from the terrestrial deposit in Saudi Arabia."  As if  taking him into confidence with a secret, she rolled up her sleeve to show him what looked like a deep vertical scar over her wrist - until the dataspike poked out for a moment like a questing snake. "There is too much potential for hijacking or interference with wireless signals. I prefer the direct systemic interface. Which I _could_  be doing right now, if I was not in exile." She hmped again, this time sounding less friendly about it, and added begrudgingly, "I will tell my friends to eat at your restaurant.


There came from outside the sound of rolling - and running. The rolling turned out to be a glowing metal ball about the size of a good-sized soccer ball, glowing in bright colors where the spots should have been. Accompanying the ball was a little girl about the same age as the boy in the bathroom, notable for her bright hazel eyes and shock of white hair. She looked fearlessly up at Ryder and declared boldly, "What's your name?" 

 

At that moment, there was a flush from inside the bathroom - and the little boy came running out, wide-eyed. "Aah!" He looked at Ryder and declared, "It's very loud!" 

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“Neat!” Ryder enthused, apparently viewing materials sourced from extraterrestrial cultures and a positive smoothie review with equivalent delight. “Not the ‘exile’ part, though, that sounds like—“ He was interrupted by the reappearance of the little boy and another child. “I’m loud? The toilet’s loud! Is it loud? Public ones can have a little more oomph than the ones you’ve maybe got at home but I could probably fix it if it’s louder than it should be.” He was already rolling up the sleeves of his hoodie, drawing attention to his cheerful robin’s egg blue, soft pink and lime green nail polish. “I’m Ryder!” he told the girl with the ball. “Do you guys have, like, a grown up with you or...?”

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"No," said the girl, reaching down to pat the ball. She was distracted by the nail polish, though, standing on tip-toes to look and pronouncing "Pretty!" 

 

"That is a high-density semi-autonomous security drone," said Eira with a nod towards the ball. "The security chief can be here in a few seconds. She is probably watching us now." She eyed the ball at that, scowling. 

 

"It's very loud," agreed Charlie, who was buttoning his pants. "Scary! Hi Mizz Erin," he declared to the ball. 

 

"Charlie just gets scared," said the girl sympathetically, stepping over to hug her friend. "Can you paint my nails?" she asked hopefully, holding up her hands with nails sadly bereft of any such decorations. 

 

"Ooh, mine too!" said Charlie hopefully. 

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Ryder looked over his shoulder at the lab equipment with a conflicted expression that only Eira could see. When he turned back around to face the children, hands on his knees, his smile was as sunny as ever. "I think that'd be okay, sure! Could you get some paper towels from the washroom for us, Charlie?" Retrieving his threadbare backpack from next to the utility sink he rummaged about the bottom to scrounge up whatever bottles of nail colour he happened to have stowed away. "How about you, Eira? I could spruce up that prosthetic arm you're working on while I'm at it!"

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Eira made a dismissive noise from over by the worktable, where her worklight was reflecting in her dark glasses like a beacon. "I can handle my own fashion," she said distinctly and  frostily. She raised her free hand and spread the fingers wide - and suddenly her short grey nails turned a brilliant shade of blue and gold. "Hmm?" She raised an tart eyebrow and went back to work, leaving her hands uncovered as she went about her labors. She eyed her microtorch a few times, but with the children there, she seemed to think better of it as she inserted her fingers into the robot arm's joints and began experimentally flexing the 'muscles', making the fist clench and unclench. 


Recognizing as they do a soft touch from a hard case, the kids were very interested in Ryder's backpack, his nail polish, and anything else he had to offer. If anything,  it seemed like they were largely inured to the sights and sounds of a superscience laboratory, albeit one largely inactive with Ryder giving them care and Eira doing light work on the arm. Mia was full of stories about how her mom and her mother and her sister all had very pretty nails and she wanted to have pretty nails too, even if she did bite them sometimes.

 

"I want to be pretty too!" declared Charlie. "You have pink with sparkles," he told Ryder excitedly without looking in the bag, "I would like some of that." And sure enough, tucked away in the bottom of the bag, that very thing was there. 

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"Sure sure!" Ryder conceded with a short laugh, hands raised in surrender, the tall caps of nail polish bottles held between his fingers. He thought about asking more about how she'd spontaneously changed the colour of her nails but between the data spike embedded in her forearm and the piece she was currently working on it wasn't much of a leap to guess that it might be a touchy subject for the prickly engineer.

 

He got the children seated across from him at work table, putting down paper towels to protect against what seemed like inevitable spills or splatters. Yellow buzzed about, setting down on a shelf and then the corner of a whiteboard but always cautiously staying out of reach of little hands. "Anyway, what I was going to ask," he called over to Eira while concentrating on applying a smooth coat of glittery 'pink lemonade fizz' colour to Charlie's thumbnail while shooting Mia a look before she could fidget with the midnight blue that was still drying on her own hands, "if hanging out in a cool lab with cool equipment doing cool science is 'exile' what does 'not exile' look like?"

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"Hm." Eira glanced at the kids before responding, and seemed to be modulating her tone from her earlier snappishness. "It is not just me that is in exile, unless this is what Dragonfly gives you. They are analyzing interstellar technology, and we are here with a backup copy of my own arm," she added with a gesture at the cybernetic prototype, "your robot, and babysitting. Because we are teenagers." She brought a spoonful of her smoothie up to her lips, then blinked and set it down. 

 

"Babysitting is fun though!" declared Mia, "we watch movies and sometimes talk to Merlin! Do you have any movies?" She and Charlie talked for a while about how Trolls: World Tour was the best movie, and how funny the trolls were, and also how Merlin was a magic monkey who was good with computers and wasn't it funny that a monkey was good with computers, and Eira had the grace to snort when Charlie called over "_are you a monkey!?_" 

 

Mia was a little more wiggly than Charlie, so she wound up going second while Charlie wandered around the lab, looking very pleased with his newly-decorated fingernails. "Thank you!" he had declared, waving his fingers around to dry them faster. He was much too short to actually get up and touch any of the equipment, most of which was deactivated anyway, so everything seemed safe as he wandered up to one of the building's interior walls, rolling security ball in tow. 

 

"Hey," he said suddenly, "I have a trick." And then, without looking around and with only a faint rippling in his outline, he ran through the wall and disappeared, leaving no trace of where he'd gone. 

 

 

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Ryder froze, raised brush slowly dripping nail polish onto the paper towel he'd put down. "Uh. That... is a pretty good trick." Charlie apparently having super powers might have helped to explain what he was doing around the HAX building in the first place but that didn't really help tell him what the appropriate response should be. "Does he know to come back...?" he asked to no one in-particular, looking over the Mia and then Eira. "Are there more or those security balls? Should I be trying to run after him? Oh jeez."

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