Up in the Air

January 02, 2017:

Trying to make sense of her new circumstances and still uncertain how to proceed, Six seeks out Caitlin Fairchild for a conversation.

A beach somewhere…

It has sand. And water.

Characters

NPCs: None.

Mentions: Captain Marvel

Mood Music: [*\# None.]


Fade In…

Skybaby.

It's a new word for Caitlin, and she loves it already. After years of staring up at her heroes, then another year of walking among them— now she flies through the crowds like her icons do, and it's a feeling of blissful liberation like the young woman's never known in her short life. Just to top it all off, she's in the Invisible Jet— borrowed with Diana's express permission, of course— to practice flying in. There are downsides and upsides; on the one hand, crashing is nearly impossible; on the other, she'll certainly be spoiled for any other airframe in the future, as the Invisible Jet can maneuver like a housefly.

But the lurching in her stomach as she goes into zero-gee freefall— she never gets enough of that.

Caitlin whips the jet around in a tight, low curve, mindful of the flight deck the Coast Guard had authorized her, and with a touch of a panel, activates the radio. "This is JL-001, engaging VTOL and dropping below radar coverage," she says, so they don't panic when she drops off the radar abruptly. Caitlin lands the Jet neatly on the docks, and with another touch to a panel, tells it to rest and shut down. The ship deploys solar panels on the wings and turns almost completely invisible, sitting on the end of a lonely, empty pier.

Caitlin drops out of the ship, wearing low purple moccassins and a green bodysuit that covers her arms but leaves her legs bare. She starts hovering a few inches above the sand, looking like a fledgling duck, then starts to track a slow, lazy course over the rocky coast, just above the spray of the water and with a look of intense concentration on her face as she starts making a long, slow lap of a half-mile stretch, body arrowed out.

—-

By contrast with the ephemeral thing that is the Invisible Jet, Kinsey's — /Six's/ — aircraft is something else altogether, made for entirely another purpose, or set of purposes. It is a waystation for information, a beacon for signals of infinite kinds, an escape vehicle, a defensive measure of last resort. It wouldn't have made sense to try to pursue her target in it, and so she doesn't.

What has followed is instead a tiny thing, a small drone, spherical in shape, with thin, barely-there seams to suggest the ability to change that shape to some degree. Its primary purpose is that of a sentry, and it carries a part of Kinsey's consciousness with it. It does not have to keep up with the Invisible Jet — only with her authorized passage through local airspace, and when it finds her landing, it zips off into the deepening dusk. Its disappearance is the reason that the coastline's familiar silhouette will be interrupted by a stroke of darkness against the horizon that is not typically there.

Seawater booms and sucks through snarls of rock along the coastline, in-rolling waves spewing foam up as the tide comes in. The sunset promises to be spectacular, blood-oranges and melon pinks, unusually colorful for the time of year, and the cold sand soaks it up. It's a nice place to wait around for something, and that's what Six is doing, taking the trajectory reported by her drone and using it to get out ahead of the redhead's position, to a rough, barnacle-studded pile of rocks. She's perched atop the top one, arms wrapped around her knees, and there are several smaller shadows in slow revolution around her: other drones. Only a few.

—-

Caitlin sees Six on her fourth lap, and it takes her a moment to segregate Six from the boulders, until she catches a flicker of motion that's not gulls or the lapping tide. Inexpertly, Fairchild jerks to a halt, feet swinging forward and arms pinwheeling a bit; any scanning technology worth a nickel would detect an exquisitely advanced flight control unit on her right hand, with enough power to give even the big redhead some serious velocity in a pinch.

"Er… hi," Caitlin says, managing (what she hopes looks like) an authoritative hover, one leg straight, the other slightly curled. 'Mind the trim… mind the trim…' she thinks to herself, trying to stay oriented properly. "I—" her eyes widen a bit. "Oh my goodness! You're — you're Six, we met the other day at the ocean liner wreck. Hi! I'm Caitlin, we were introduced briefly," she says, with a politeness that would be smarmy if it wasn't so darned sincere. "You did great work, I didn't get a chance to thank you for helping!"

—-

Six stays where she is. If the movements are inexpert, or if she notices, it isn't clear; that sleek helmet of hers is black as pitch and has the gloss of obsidian, yielding nothing. It reflects the wild hues of the sunset back at itself for the time being, a smear of tropical colors.

She does lift one hand from its wrap around her knees when she's noticed, though: the organic one. Slender fingers trill in a gloved wave. It gives her a warm and apprehensive feeling, to be addressed by that newly-adopted name.

"I'm sorry to drop in on you uninvited. I know it's rude."

The filter that her voice passes through paints a feminine but distinctly inhuman picture, like syllables crafted from white noise — too synthetic to be a whisper, but overlaid with secondary tones for the purpose of inflection.

"But I was hoping I could speak with you about something. Ask you a few questions. Both you and Captain Marvel were kind to let me help you. You're easier to find than she is, though." There is a little tremor of sound — probably a soft laugh.

—-

"Well, y'know. Redhead," Caitlin says, making a little joke at her own expense, a dimple forming under one cheek as she grins at Six. "And she's really busy. Day job, evening job, and she flies waaaay more than me. I'm just out for a little jaunt, really, before I go home for the day."

Realizing she's babbling a bit, Caitlin clicks her jaw shut, and clears her throat. She looks around for a place to land; there's nothing dry nearby, so she drifts towards Six's boulder, around the backside of it so there's a little space between. She moves slowly, wobbling only once in the air, and grips the boulders with relief once she gets her boots on the rocks.

"Woof. Still getting the hang of flying, it's new for me," she admits, wryly, shaking out her right hand. "Gives me a feeling like pins and needles after too long."

"Er, so— what can I help you with? You're not in trouble, are you?"

—-

Proximity reveals additional details about the objects in slow, measured revolution around Six, like small celestial bodies orbiting her greater mass. There is the spherical one with the lens, very obviously a camera; there is one shaped almost like he head of a flamingo, purpose unclear. There is a box. All of them are metal, all of them appear unremarkable from the exterior, save in the way they hover.

Six herself does not seem to be concerned about Caitlin joining her, though she does unwrap her arms from around her knees and turn to the side, one metal foot finding purchase to the side opposite the redhead, the better to look at her.

"I've never flown without an aircraft. You're way ahead of me." There are limits to the helmet's ability to inflect: if that was humor, it's hard to tell.

There is a brief but perhaps telling pause before she continues on, small, soft lights pulsing in the vents of the helmet when she speaks, brighter with more volume or consonants.

"I don't know." The pause lengthens, the helmet tilts slowly angles very slightly downward, causing distortion in the reflection it shows Cait of her herself. Six lifts her hands, palms up, fingers slightly splayed: /look/, the gesture says. At the organic hand, and the prosthetic, assuredly not her own, articulation sophisticated. There appear to be slits in the fingertips. "This is new. I am — new. I don't know what's happened to me. I want to find out, but most of the ways I can do that are…" Pause. "…are not legal. But you're someone important. You have contacts. I was hoping you might be able to help."

—-

"Well, I used to get thrown at things a lot, so…" Caitlin's murmured response trails off when Six lays her soul bare, and she finds herself looking around for an adult. For a /real/ hero to handle this. Six is obviously scared, distressed, and the slightly inhuman aspect of her helmet gives Caitlin some pause.

Then Fairchild takes a slow, calming breath. She /is/ the hero here, whether she's ready for it or not. And she focuses on Six with the most sympathetic expression she can muster.

Which is pretty reassuring, all things considered!

"Uh… wow, those are some /nice/ prosthetics," Caitlin murmurs, brows rising as she examines the slitted fingertips. "I mean, I'm not a kinesthesiology engineer, but— wow, that's /very/ future tech."

"Um… okay. Uh, okay!" She claps her hands together once, softly, trying to organize her thoughts. "First question, do you have somewhere safe to stay?" she asks Six. "Somewhere you aren't expecting to be attacked or ambushed?"

—-

All the while Caitlin searches for the will to see a lost soul through the turbulence of this new condition, the black void of the helmet's faceplate remains tilted just enough to imply absolute attention from its wearer. It dips just a little when Cait's expression shifts toward compassion. Relief, probably.

It's something in the particular softness of volume as Six says, "Thank you," that implies emotion when her work is so openly complimented. There is no graceful way to segue into elaborations about them, their nature, the way they work, how they were crafted or why she had access to technologies of the kind, so she lets herself be carried along by those next words instead. She isn't even sure how much she should be telling someone about — this. Her. About any of it. There's so much at risk. Everything, really.

But at some point…

At some point she's going to have to trust /someone/. And that time will never come if she doesn't begin to at least /try/.

"Yes," she answers, nodding once. "As long as I'm careful. I am trying to be."

—-

"Okay, not 'the Ritz-Carlton', but that's at least good," Caitlin says, smiling encouragingly at Six. She stretches her legs out a little and leans against the rock, putting her head on a level closer to Six's so she's more sprawling than sitting— an unconscious attempt to help Six recognize Caitlin's not being a threat. If she were a red setter, she'd be rolling on her back to be helpful.

"All right. Well, so— I'm a member of the Justice League. So if you're coming to me looking for, uh, legal stuff, I can help with that. There's a lot of legal protections for nascent metahumans, folks who're just coming into their new situation," she reassures Six. "So while I'm helping you try to find some answers, think about if the League can do anything to help you— legal troubles, witness relocation, that kinda thing."

—-

Six adjusts her posture fluidly to accommodate this new angle from the woman she's come to see, rolling onto her hip, though she keeps that far-side leg where it was, a brace on the face of the opposite side of the pile. She does not exude nervousness, but she does seem prepared to remove herself quickly if she must. Planting her organic hand on the stone, she feels the cold bite of the salt-licked rock even through the skin of her glove, and curls her fingertips into it: that sensory information is so different from what she's able to glean through the rest of her limbs.

"I've read your dossier," she says in that white-noise hiss of a voice, and the muted tones overlaying it convey some vague sense of apology. "You were part of Stormwatch before it transitioned to its present form in the Department of Extranormal Operations." In the momentary silence, a hum from the camera drone prefaces its humming departure from Six's airspace, moving off down the beach to investigate errant movement in shadows. "You were successful in removing yourself. Have you never experienced any reprisals in that time?"

—-

"Guh."

Caitlin gulps. "That's…" She closes her eyes, shaking her head. "That's a conversation for /another day/," she says, trying to focus. Who this Six is, Caitlin doesn't know; but she has some scary resources. "I've been ahead of it," she tells Six. "I can't say why, or how. I have some… uh, connections, friends. It helps I can clean-press a semi trailer," she tells the cyborg.

"But Stormwatch is defunct. And I made a life for myself. I have friends, I have… you know, everything I ever wanted," she says, shoulders wiggling. It's like a small green landslide. "I get to save lives and hang out with the coolest people on Earth. That's worth any risk in terms of someone someday finding me."

—-

"I'm sorry." The apology is quick to come at the first sign of Cait's discomfort, pitched at a volume low enough not to interrupt the rest. Six's sinuous frame bends slightly as she turns her head away, off to the side, when Caitlin mentions being able to crush vehicles, and that having a role to play in her sanctity, her defense against the ominous titans of government and intelligence. In so doing, she exposes a view to the incongruous back of that helmet, where sleek, slick, glassy black gives way to a braid of cables, most of which disappear up and underneath the back.

"I cannot clean-press a semi trailer," says Six, which seems, to Kinsey, a ridiculous thing to say: she is built like a whip. But then, there are slender marvels running around all over this vast and puzzling world, aren't there? Size seems to mean little enough.

"I know little about Stormwatch, but I know what it became. Knightwatch consists entirely of human operatives. I think that says a great deal about the character of the institution." The helmet lifts, turns back to her companion, a stroke of green light reflected in shadow on its face. "I know enough things that I do not feel safe to be…open. I know about them. They don't know about me. I don't know what they would do if they did. But…"

Ever-so-slowly the helmet tilts back, the smattering of constellations beginning to appear overhead, flung across the sky like chips of light, forming a miniature galaxy in dark surface. She lifts her prosthetic hand, one index finger. "I know they see everything. So many satellites."

One day, she thinks, she may be strong enough to send her mind far enough out to touch one. Maybe. /Maybe/. Or…she might fry herself in the attempt.

The helmet rights itself. "I want that. A life, again. But I don't even know all of the things I can do yet. I need access to…things that are difficult to find."

—-

"So… I mean, I know they seem big and scary," Caitlin says, tenatively. "But we've got a satellite, too." She looks skywards, searching, like a kid looking for her favorite constellation. She beams, a wide smile that's better than a floodlight. Her entire face lights up and she aims a finger at the object moving slightly faster than the stars, across the night plane. Steady as a beacon.

"There. I can find it every time," she says, proudly. "That's the Watchtower. That's /my/ satellite," she says, pride in her voice. "I've seen Superman punch apart asteroids and I've seen Captain Marvel fight monsters from outer space. There's /nothing/ the Justice League can't do. They protected me; I'm sure that if you can convince the League to help you, then they'll protect you, too."

—-

Six's helmet tilts back again, following the angle of Caitlin's pointing finger. She finds it quickly, even in all of that heavenly confusion: she is assisted by Five. The HUD within the helmet isolates it, identifies, marks, files that information away, calculating its orbit via its changing position.

All of that happens in the background for Six, whose thoughts are in the majority about the optimistic picture she's being given: a future she could live without fear, in the open, being what she's become, putting that to some purpose that isn't so clandestine. And all the while, that perfect picture of normalcy, of acceptance, is frayed along the edges by the memory of her work and what it was intended to do. What she knows that no civilian ought to know.

"I'm afraid," she admits finally, a confession that she finds difficult to stomach. "But if you think I should ask, I will. I don't know why they would trust me. They don't know who I am and I don't want to tell them until I'm certain."

—-

"It's okay." And Caitlin looks over the rocky span separating them, the two sitting on opposite sides the promontory's point like a pair of mermaids, chatting about the banalities of mer-people life. She hesitates, then reaches over with an upturned hand, fingers slightly curled, and then offers the other. She smiles up at Six as earnestly as she can, and while she'll never win any awards for duplicity, it's impossible to doubt her sincerity as she offers Six that most elemental of reassurances— a pair of human hands to hold.

"It's okay to be afraid," she tells Six. "What matters most in life is what you do when you're afraid. And when it gets rough, that's when you lean on friends a lil'."

—-

If Six's paranoia were in any doubt, those doubts would be laid to rest as she looks down at the hands she's offered, forced to contemplate even the risks of that simple gesture. Of course, given who the hands belong to, it's perhaps not as erroneous a risk-reward calculation as it would seem with anyone else; those hands are capable of destroying far more resilient things.

This is what she asked for, though. This is why she came. Because it's getting difficult to do alone.

It is easier to give Caitlin the prosthetic hand. Cold, hard, dextrous, as perfectly manipulable as the genuine article — with a few additional benefits, some obvious, some hidden. It's the organic hand that gives her the most pause. The only terminus of limb she has left. It is an immense effort of will for her to put that gloved hand in Cait's, spine crawling with reluctance, gracile fingertips trembling. But she does it.

Whatever that means.

"So now what do I do?"

—-

"First things first," Caitlin says, giving Five's fingers a reassuring squeeze, then letting them go— no harm done! "I know you're somewhere safe for now, but if you can, I'd like to bring you to the League's outbuilding," she says. "The Hall of Justice. There's a hangar there you can park your plane in," she says. "Then we need to talk to the senior leaders. I'm—" she pinks a bit. "I'm a full member but I'm not one of the big guns," she explains. "I can't just bring you in on my own. It's a bit of a process, but I'll stick with you going through it."

"Also— Six. Would you rather be called that? Do you have a name you go by otherwise?"

There is a small exhale as her hands are let go of, and it mists through the vents in the low edge of the helmet.

It's all happening so fast.

/This was a mistake,/ she thinks. /They can't protect us. They mean well but we'll be caught. They'll kill us if we're lucky. More likely stick us in a lab./

(There is no available evidence to support your conclusions. Caitlin Fairchild is still operating with relative personal freedom.)

/You heard her say that Stormwatch is dead. Maybe it's different for her./

(Maybe it isn't.)

/So you're telling me you want to do this? Tell them all about us?/

Nothing, from Five.

Almost forgetting the existence of the helmet, Six lowers her head and brings her right — false — hand up to press over the place her crown would be, wrestling with that internal dialogue. It takes seconds at most.

"Just…just Six for now. Please. I have to think about this. Is that alright? Can I think it over? I feel ungrateful to ask. You didn't have to help me. I might just need time."

—-

"It's /absolutely/ all right," Caitlin says, with all the sincerity she can muster. "It's not like the League's going to disappear. The Hall of Justice is open 24/7," she assures the cyborg, shaking her head. "I know it's scary. It's okay," she says. "When you're ready, you can find me really easy. If you call the—" she trails off, then shakes her head. "No, nevermind. Look, I'll give you my personal number. It goes to my sPhone directly," she tells Six, rattling off a ten-digit number. StarkTech phones are the best in the business, the only absolutely hack-proof cell phones out there and so rare and expensive that they're impossible to reverse engineer or obtain illegally. The only authorized phone for most superheros. "You can call me or text me and we can talk about what you want your next move to be. Is that okay with you?"

—-

Relief allows Six's slim shoulders to settle from the taut square they'd been held in, though the helmet withholds everything else.

She repeats the ten-digit number seamlessly. One of the many benefits of having an advanced, weaponized AI living in your domepiece: it helps with the filing system that is your memory.

"That's more than okay. That's — " For a moment no other words follow, but whatever emotional vignette is playing out, the helmet mercifully contains that, as well. "It means everything. I need to be sure. And I don't want to bring my trouble with me. You don't deserve it, and neither does the Justice League. And it is…" Hesitation. "It could be…big trouble. But it gives me hope. You do. Because you got away."

She will cling to that, for the time being, and drift in her indecision.

Then she draws a long breath, gestures in the direction that Caitlin had been flying. "There is someone walking the beach, approximately a quarter mile in that direction, moving toward us. I've been watching them. I should go if I don't want to be seen." /And I don't./

She slides from her seated position with fluidity. The heel-like bottoms of her prosthetics change just enough to adapt to the uneven surfaces beneath her. "Whatever I decide…I will owe you something, Caitlin. For your kindness."

—-

"I can take care of myself," Caitlin says, grinning impishly— she picks up a basketball sized chunk of rock and without any particular effort, she crumbles the granite into dust. She dusts her hands clean, making a face at her own untidiness. "Er, something. So don't worry about me. I'm pretty sure anything happens to me, Captain Marvel would go ber-zerk," Caitlin says. "She's, uh. Protective."

She floats into the air with a mental command, wobbling as she dials in her yaw. "Whoops. Er, uh, anyway. No, you don't owe me a thing, Six," Caitlin says. "Someone was really nice to me once when I was just starting out. It's my turn to pay it forward. Someday, there'll be someone else, and so on. Hakuna matata," she says, dimpling with a grin.

"Though I definitely don't mind having another friend! If you're in the market for another friend. Not that I shop for friends. Just that you can't have too many friends, because… I'm… saying friends… tooo …. much," Caitlin says, twisting her fingers into anxious pretzels. She chews on her inner cheek. "Er. Anyway."

Awkward.

—-

"I'll pay it forward, if I can." /If I live long enough to./

She watches the woman rise off of the ground with a fascination she can't help: she's an engineer, she wants to know how everything works. She wants to reproduce it, improve on it. She has no idea that the rocket boots sitting in her garage, the ones she thought looked as though they'd been trampled by a herd of elephants, are sitting in her garage because Caitlin Fairchild took exception to the behavior of the person to whom they belong.

She would probably find that pretty funny, if she knew.

And at the very last, Caitlin finally makes her laugh. It sounds /awful/ through the filter; the program written to reproduce her voice without incorporating any of it has no idea what to do with those sounds, so it's a bit like static and the sound a train makes as it clatters across a rail, but the shake of her shoulders will probably clarify things.

Oh good. Someone as awkward as she is. Because Kinsey may have figured out how to braid together organic and machine consciousnesses using quantum biology and other extradimensional tomfoolery, but to do that, you have to be a /nerd/.

"I think you'd make a good friend. I hope I can take you up on that, one day." And she means it. She pivots, takes several preternaturally balanced steps down the uneven surfaces of the pile of rocks, prosthetics doing all of the work. At the bottom she pauses, turns her head to look back over her shoulder. The little camera drone comes whirring back from its place observing the individual some distance away, returns to its orbit. "Besides," she adds. "You owe me ice cream."

And then she's slipping off across the sand — on foot.

She's really gotta reverse-engineer those rocket boots.

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