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Past & Future Tense


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Greenbank Railyards

Mid-March, 2022

 

Natalia had mixed opinions on Greenbank. She did actually like urban decay as a design, all the crumbling signs of what was, the traces left behind of the people that had been through before you, the little signs of life and business still ghosting through to show that the place wasn't completely abandoned - but the best version of that was always clean, in her mind. Not sanitized, but less raw garbage piled up.

 

In her ideal world, it would have smelled better. More rust and crumbling brick, less ammonia.

 

"He's promised me that he's not here on work," she was saying as they walked down a sidewalk that was slowly losing a fight against grass and weeds. She'd worn boots for this trip - something broken glass or rusty metal wouldn't get through, that complimented skinny jeans and a loose black top with golden stitching. "That probably means it is work, just not the kind that causes any real trouble. He wouldn't lie if he thought I would find out and catch him on it."

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"Managing to keep things from you seems pretty optimistic," Ryder observed, putting one scuffed up, rainbow laced sneaker directly in front of the other to walk solely on what was left of the raised edge of the curb as though it were a tightrope. He'd worn the jeans that only had a few small motor oil stains and remained paint splatter free, along with a long sleeved henley with a relatively tame colour block pattern that included a pink close enough to his strawberry blond dyed hair to make the latter look a bit more cohesive. Maybe. At least like an effort had been made, hopefully, which was really more the point.

 

He hadn't mentioned any particular worries about how he ought to dress out loud but Natalia had noticed he'd brought along his messenger bag, the one big enough to conceal all of the Robugs at once. She knew Ryder well enough to recognize that as just the same sort of nervous decision paralysis. "Is there stuff I should, like, not mention around him? Lie of omission style?" He dropped one hand to rest meaningfully on the oversized belt buckle hidden behind the bottom of his shirt. He tended toward forthrightness in just about all things but this was Nat's family which he figured meant playing by her rules.

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Natalia looked up for a moment, pondering the question. "...I think that's up to you," she decided, looking over at him - and the implicit buckle. "He'd keep your secret, if it matters, and I don't think he'd ever use it against you. He'd probably approve. He likes to think he's an 'older, better class of criminal'." The way she said it implied she'd had to hear the man talk about it at length. "But if he finds out you fight hand-to-hand he might want to actually punch you, and I can't recommend letting him do that. Someone's going to end up hurt."

 

They'd apparently reached their destination - Natalia took a long look at the tetanic metal gate and elected to open it with gravity, dragging the thing back along the gravel to reveal an old and clearly abandoned rail maintenance building. "Don't ask him why he's in America, he's not likely to tell you the truth and he'd be annoyed that you're in prying into his...work. Don't mention my mom. He's going to call me pet names and you're not allowed to use them, because someone at school would overhear you and I can only get away with so many murders, Cricket."

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"You're doing the thing where you establish a rule then immediately show it doesn't apply to you." It didn't sound remotely like a criticism but Ryder did give her a small frown and he peered into the darkness of the abandoned building, shielding his eyes from the sun overhead with one hand. "Is this a psyching yourself up thing? If you want to bail, we can tell him it's my fault and go find some rubble for you to smash and crush until you feel better." He snapped his fingers then brought both raised forefingers in front of his chest as a different interpretation occurred to him. "Oh! Or were you saying that I would be allowed to use pet names if it weren't for other people? Aw! That's sweet." He straightened up a bit and grinned, buoyed by the thought.

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"Different names for different contexts, Cricket," sniffed Natalia, leading him through the building toward - according to the signs - one of the larger machining rooms. "I'm not stalling, you asked a question and I answered it. I'm giving you a chance to save lives - you should be grateful."

 

There was light coming from beneath the heavy doorway, and noise, but nothing so loud as a generator - the building may have still been on the city's power grid. This barrier, at least, seemed slightly less likely to give Natalia a blood disease, and she opted to open it by hand. "Ryder, meet Viktor Koshchei. дедушка, this is Ryder."

 

 

Viktor Koshchei was a veritable mountain of a man; he had to be close to seven feet tall and at least half as wide at the shoulder, and even sitting his heavily-muscled, broadly-built frame dwarfed a chair that had probably been designed for an entirely average person. It was a body built for performance and not for show, thicker in the middle and hairier than any body builder would allow, clad in a simple striped tank top and suspender-supported slacks that probably dated to the Cold War, for all that they remained largely intact. There were small metal implants here and there along the skin of his arms, goggles hanging around his neck, and a shock of white hair on his head that fell to not quite obscure a square-jawed face that hadn't lost its sharpness with its advancing age.

 

He sat with his arms on his knees, great thick-fingered hands clasped together in front of him as he silently sized Ryder up.

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"Sir," Ryder greeted with a hand raised an unhurried suggestion of a wave, giving an easygoing and friendly smile to the serious faced man. "Glad to meet you and I appreciate you taking the time. I know it can be crazy tough finding a chunk of unclaimed workshop space in this city, right? Matches up with that industrial, utilitarian aesthetic too, so that's a plus." He laced his fingers behind his head and took a few steps further into the room, looking around curiously to see what infrastructure had already been there and what it looked like Koshchei had set up since his arrival. "I had a chance to check out one of your older designs, actually and I was hoping to pick your brain a bit about it but you probably want to do sort of an interrogation slash cold read thing on me first?" He tilted his head to one side and gave Natalia's grandfather a broader, dimpled grin. "Ask away!"

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Viktor was quiet for a moment, and then his brow furrowed. "You are the boy?" he asked, in a heavy Russian accent.

 

"The boy?" was Natalia's immediate response, her voice as arched as her eyebrow.

 

"Are there others? You speak of him."

 

"I don't - grandfather. Do not make me sound like some kind of lovesick -"

 

"You speak of almost no one. You do mention this one." Viktor unlaced his fingers, shrugging without sitting up. "So he is the boy." Whatever Natalia shot back with, it was in Russian; with Viktor responding in kind it was a moment before anything was intelligible.

 

The room was not in great shape, to match the rest of the building, but someone had clearly put some effort into getting things in order - the dirt on the floor showed signs of furniture being moved around, and most of the debris had been piled up in the corner along with what looked like the shattered remains of a table, some damage far older than the rest. No super-science to be had here, aside from a pair of large, complicated metal gauntlets on the table behind Viktor; a set of chemistry equipment against the back wall was merrily bubbling away at some chemical concoction or another, burners fed by a portable propane tank; metal working equipment next to the door had clearly seen recent use, surfaces shining and clean where they'd had to turn or scrape. Bits of dark steel plates sat here or there, but in their unassembled state it was hard to say what their purpose would eventually be.

 

Natalia had resorted to what was clearly some kind of crude Russian invective, which apparently meant her grandfather had won the debate. He was laughing, a deep gravelly thing, as he stood to flash a grin at Ryder. "So! You are the boy -" - Natalia mostly managed to stop a glare - "- and I am Viktor. You are too small, I think, but brave, and you have survived little Natasha so far, and that is good enough for me, for now."

 

He stretched, back and shoulders popping as he looked around the room. "It is a terrible workshop. I have had better. But it keeps me busy while I am here, and it is good to not draw attention sometimes, hm?"

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Ryder bit the corner of his mouth to stop himself from laughing at Natalia's grumbling but allowed himself to give her a look with raised eyebrows when her grandfather revealed that she had talked about him. "I have a big personality," he suggested to Koshchei, "and I'm more of a, y'know, 'provides the distraction' type than a 'not draw attention' type." The teen gestured to the room as a whole. "At least there's nothing in here you'd be all that upset about catching on fire or exploding or turning itself inside out, right? Learned the hard way to prioritize that in a workspace, ha!" He was curious about the gauntlets but it seemed gauche to be too obvious about it. "Any advice on being good enough on a longer timeline?"

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Viktor scratched his chin, calloused fingers scraping along stubble as he surveyed the room. "It does lack the better sciences," he admitted. "Nothing here so dangerous as my gauntlets, except maybe little Natasha, hm? But that is as it should be, ho!"

 

'Little Natasha' rolled her eyes, dragging a metal stool away from the lathe so she could sit beside the door.

 

"My advice to you," the man continued unabated, "is to fight." There was a spark in his eyes at that, and something else too - a sort of uneven shimmer when he turned his head, a gold against his natural blue that was impossible to see until it caught the light. "Fight for love, or for your justice, or for wealth, or - or best of all, most of all - fight for the thrill of fighting. But never stop, and you will always be worth something." He'd been awfully imposing there for a moment, the image of a man who'd gone blow for blow on the covers of newspapers, but it went away and he was an old man again...if a very very large one. "Ah, well. Great men truly die when they give up on their passions. Their bodies sometimes keep moving around for years after," he added, waving a hand in a suspiciously familiar dismissing motion, "but the man is dead. Nothing sadder."

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Ryder was silent for a beat, not in hesitation but in respectful consideration of Koshchei's words. "Intense!" he decided finally, nodding amicably. "Normally it's like pulling teeth to get folks to articulate their personal philosophies and mantras, y'know? You ask somebody what their dream is, like capital 'D' dream and they go, 'whatever man, I just want to sell super science laser guns to kids,' and I'm all that cannot possibly be the sum total of your life's ambitions, that's so sad. If you're going for power or respect or something mind numbingly basic like that fine, at least then we can start working out a way to get you there without being a massive tool but I'm going to need a drop of introspection and self-examination, right?" He thew his hands up with the air of someone who had voiced this exact frustration more than once before. "I was thinking more like, 'buy her flowers sometimes for no particular occasion,' or 'she hates banjo, never learn to play the banjo,' but heck yeah, 'commit to your passions,' I can get behind that."

 

He looked down to his bag as something jostled within. "Oh! Uh, do you mind if my guys look around while we talk? Getting a little antsy which is funny when you realize none of them are ants." He gestured to the front flap of the saddlebag as though that provided context for his question.

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"Your guys?" Viktor turned his head to rattle some Russian off to Natalia, who waved dismissively from her seat, responding in kind. Viktor did not seem elucidated. "You have - what? What is this. Now I must see, yes, release them."

 

"Perhaps these people do not share their philosophies because their philosophies are weak," he mused, leaning back against the central metal table (which made a terrible sound as it scraped back against the floor an inch). He crossed his arms, bushy brow furrowed low over his eyes. "They fear that you, too, will know they are weak and small. It is a weak man's problem. If you wish to play the banjo, play the banjo."

 

"Do not play the banjo," countered Natalia.

 

"Baaah," dismissed her grandfather, raising a couple fingers off his arm in lieu of the full hand wave. "Flowers were always good for me, but that was a long time ago. I cannot say now. Clearly you must have done something right -"

 

"Grandfather." It was a warning.

 

"- so perhaps you keep doing that. If someone competes for her affections, perhaps punch him."

 

Natalia was sitting back in her chair, one leg crossed over the other, narrowing her eyes at her grandfather like she expected to develop laser vision.

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"Ha! That sounds like a good way for the winner to get their butt kicked by Nat for being a possessive creep. But y'know, I like flowers. I like colours, I like pollinators." Ryder lifted the flap of his bag and multiple bright objects burst forth. The bounding robotic bush cricket, roughly palm-sized, launched the furthest, landing on the desk near Koshchei. Cyan bounced up and down on his light blue and silver back legs and chirped in cheerful greeting before hopping away to explore the space.

 

A praying mantis cast is saturated pink and glossy white landed read Ryder's feet then scuttled forward toward their host, completely unafraid. Magenta raised her curved forelimbs toward Natalia's grandfather and held them parallel, slowly sliding them further apart. It took a moment to realize that she was trying to gauge the size of his prodigious biceps, triangular head tilting to one side in disbelief.

 

With a muted hum of vibrating wings a little wasp shaped robot followed, hovering uncertainly in the air around her creator's head. Yellow rubbed her front legs together in an approximation of wringing hands while zigzagging about, stopping every few moments and choosing a new direction, trying to decide whether to stay where she was or risk finding somewhere new but out of the way.

 

Well after his siblings had exited a black and gunmetal grey beetle trundled out of the bag, across Ryder's arm and down his torso and leg, in no rush to drop down to the floor. Black nodded the long protruding horn on the front his head toward Koshchei in a polite bow then sauntered over to where Natalia was seated, waiting patiently at her feet to be picked up, quietly unimpressed by their surroundings.

 

"Sir, meet the Robugs! That's Cyan, Magenta, Yellow and Black. Don't worry, they're used to being around, well, volatile equipment but if there's somewhere you want them to stay away from just say!" Ryder closed the bag again and raised his arm like a falconer for Yellow to set down atop.

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Natalia made a beckoning gesture with one finger, a very gentle gravity lifting Black up into her lap. "I did mention that he liked insects," she said primly, running fingernails down Black's shell.

 

"You did," said Viktor; his great bushy eyebrows had gone up into his hair as he watched the little machines mill about, looking at each of them in turn. "You did not, I think, share important details of it." He flexed his bicep at the mantis, muscle swelling significantly. "These are made by him?"

 

"They are."

 

Natalia's grandfather made a mild appreciative noise, looking around at them again. "And they are..." He faltered, shooting a word in Russian at his granddaughter. She just raised an eyebrow. "....toys? Just toys."

 

"They are not."

 

He made the noise again, less subtly, kneeling to inspect the mantis. "These are good. You are proud of these." It was not a question. "Do not let them break the chemistry glass, it is caustic. You said you found one of my older designs - these are not them, but they are impressive. You had questions, I think?"

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  • 1 month later...

"They make me proud," Ryder agreed, scratching the top of Yellow's head with his index finger. "And yeah, one of your older gauntlets! The army had it and they weren't being what I'd call 'responsible' with it so..." The teenager made a vague gesture with his hand, inviting Koshchei to fill in the blanks. "They, y'now, ceased to have it." He felt a little self-conscious relating that story to the device's actual inventor but moved on. "The capsules were pretty much out of particles anyway but there was enough to check out and, like, it's one thing with current over-the-counter tech and a decent geopolymer binder, obviously, but I've been wracking my brain trying to figure out how you would have synthesized them in the first place without knowing the specific wavelength ahead of time or going through just, I mean, a ridiculous amount of tungsten running trial-and-error tests.

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Viktor made a grumbling sound, scratching his chin, great brow furrowed in thought. "One of my old...I was very careless, long ago, but I have been more careful since. It must have been very old. Natasha, did you...ah, which -"

 

"три", said Natalia, holding up three fingers - presumably for Ryder's benefit.

 

"Aaaaahh," said her grandfather. "I did wonder what became of those. I am surprised anything remained in them. The old glass, I think; that batch of glass was very good. Something in the mix." He had, apparently, stopped paying attention, gaze wandering off toward a wall as his voice trailed off. Old memories and older designs were almost visible in his eyes.

 

Natalia coughed. "Tests?"

 

"Oh! Oh, yes. I was part of a research team then, we had a lab in Siberia. Miserable, but the mines there - Urzarsaiskoye, Lednikovy-Sarmaka. If I wanted tungsten, I could practically pluck it from the ground, hm?" He shrugged, shoulders rolling. "It is always easier to replicate than create, but I am impressed you did so from such an old sample. A small sample, even! There are government labs that have tried for years to do what we can do with a chemistry set, or Natasha can do with her bones."

 

He paused on that, chuckling, before his face fell serious again. "Do not join the government labs. They are where minds great and small go to die."

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