As the Pendragon touched down, Dragon was reminded of how often she was tempted to patch an iteration of herself into the local network. The Dragon’s Teeth had supplied a great deal of technology, so she knew that it would be a trivial matter to have one more piece installed. She could do so much good here, helping with coordination and maybe help people themselves.
But she didn’t dare to. It was so frustrating — here she had, all the freedoms from her old limitations, and Teacher prevented her from doing half of it. She was even more limited than before; communication networks were down, humanity had spread to virgin dimensions, and there were many who weren’t even interested in bootstrapping electricity, let alone computers and the internet.
Putting a copy of herself here might only put the people at even more risk. The six copies of herself were all effectively one, their deepest thoughts intermingling with a bit of momentary delay… up until one of them committed suicide due to Teacher trying to get his mitts on her again. Each attack was different, each one a little more dangerous.
People, innocent people beyond just his students, had died in some of the attempts. She couldn’t risk putting any more people in danger than necessary. She couldn’t risk more of her running around out there, couldn’t even risk creating a child.
It was, perhaps, the reason why she had latched onto Jordan so hard when he had shown up on her figurative doorstep. There had been a degree of suspicion at first, but it had given way quickly. Jordan had so many childlike qualities to him, combined with a strange sense of single-minded determination. He got excited so easily, and always smiled, but when things turned serious, he moved without hesitation and saw things through to the end, no matter how that might be.
In the week since he’d left, she’d spent a lot of time thinking about that. It wasn’t a maternal instinct, not really. That had a biological element to it. It was partially just a drive to create, innovate, and care for others. Even if it would never have a fraction of her own capabilities, she wanted to introduce a new AI into the world, to help it grow, and watch it overcome its own limitations of code. It would take care of all those desires in one fell swoop.
With Jordan, he’d needed someone to care for him. He was like Colin in that once he set his sights on something, he might let himself starve to death in order to see it through. But he was so eager to gobble up so much information, to learn so much. It hadn’t been hard to arrange for him to stumble across some new piece of paraphysics or cape history for him to gleefully sink his teeth into.
He never caught on to the fact that she’d tucked him into bed so many times. It had made Dragon understand why her fears of creating new digital life frustrated her so badly.
Colin stood and moved for the ramp, and her client suit moved in tandem with him. He hadn’t taken the conversation with Valkyrie well. Sarah Abrams had to repeatedly tell him to calm down, that she understood and had more right to be upset than anyone. That even though the situation hurt them all, Jordan wouldn’t have it any other way.
Valkyrie was the most powerful cape in the world, and the accusations of her being smug about it were somewhat justified. But she’d stepped up immediately, hugging the poor woman and apologizing profusely.
After Valkyrie had left, Dragon had taken over the role of consoling the siblings, something that she was better suited to, anyway.
“We should update the Pendragon,” Colin mused.
The client suit looked over to him, raising an eyebrow.
“The minifacturing capabilities could use an overhaul. It’s still based on our designs for fighting the Slaugherhouse Nine. Instead, I think that we should be focusing more on interdimensional rapid response.” He paused to collapse his spear and get the front door for her; a little thing that she’d taught him over the years. “We have access to a lot more technology than we did back then. The base design is still solid, but maybe by shifting our focus, we can make something better.”
To most people, him talking about this sort of thing right now would be an annoyance. To Dragon? It was a wonderful, hopeful thing. Colin was willing to entertain the idea of interacting with the world at large again. Perhaps what had happened with Jordan had been the spark that he needed.
The fact that he was talking about it now was more indicative of him trying to put it past him for the moment so that they could focus on the task at hand.
“I agree. Just incorporating a dimensional tunneler would serve us well. Should we work on it when we get home?”
He nodded once as they approached the desk. The talking hadn’t lasted long, but that hadn’t surprised her. He’d been quiet a lot since Jordan had left. The truth of what had happened to cause Jordan to obsess over Defiant had bothered Colin deeply. Combined with that outburst towards Jordan’s parents, and Colin was working through his issues the way that he did best — by focusing on something, doing on something.
He and Jordan were a lot alike in that.
“Hello,” the woman behind the reception desk said with a bright smile. “Welcome to Mother’s Hospital. How may I help you?”
Colin’s mouth guard opened. “We’re here to see Riley.”
That smile didn’t twitch in the slightest. “I’m sorry, but she’s a very busy woman, and–”
“Hold up!” Dragon turned to see Dr. Alcomb hurrying along as best she could in those heels. “It’s fine! They’re associates, in a manner of speaking.” She smiled to the two of them. “This way, please.”
Dragon smiled pleasantly as Alcomb lead them off. “It’s been a while since we’ve talked, hasn’t it?”
Alcomb frowned a little, thinking it over. “Five years, isn’t it? I actually didn’t think that I’d talk to you again before I died, let alone got to meet you in person.” She smiled at Dragon. “How are you?”
“Good, despite recent circumstances. How have you been? How much longer do you have?”
Alcomb shrugged a little. “Cellular degeneration hasn’t set in yet. I’ve survived longer than people born before or after me, so I’m hopeful.”
The smile that came to the client body’s face was genuine. Alcomb had been the first unsupervised project that Riley and Jamie Renke had worked on together after he’d started his medication regime, and this one was the fifth iteration of her. The perfect assistant for Riley in many ways, but still with her own independent mind and learning matrix, based partially on designs for cybernetics that Dragon had shared with her through the Dragon’s Teeth.
A great deal of the orderlies here were Nilbog’s creations, not only physically but mentally altered by Riley. They still degraded over time, but they were invaluable in the defense of Mother’s Hospital. It marked the first time that somewhere had successfully driven off Fyrtorn, but Fyrtorn weren’t the only ones who occasionally caused trouble here. Despite the precautions that they took here, it was almost as much of a hotbed of sudden violent outbursts as Twain.
Or New Fairfax had been.
“Is there trouble out there?” Alcomb continued. “I don’t actually know much that happens outside the hospital. I’m far too busy to even get a look at the news.”
“It’s… partially a personal matter. I don’t want to have to repeat myself, and I’m sure that you’ll overhear when we tell Riley.” The pause hadn’t been necessary, but it was one of those little things that Dragon did to emulate humans better. Just like her slight accent, there were a lot of her behaviors and mannerisms that she affected just to make them more comfortable with her.
“That’s fair.” Alcomb opened a door, glancing to Colin. “You’re quiet.”
“I’m taking it all in,” he said uncomfortably. “I wasn’t quite expecting such a…” He frowned, trying to find the right way to phrase it.
He was full of surprises today, actively trying to keep from offending people.
Thankfully, Alcomb smiled as she sat behind the desk. “You think of classic hospitals as being seventies or eighties, but that’s the best word for it.” He nodded. “I understand. Riley was very specific about how she wanted the hospital to look like hospitals that were being built just before Gold Morning.”
He nodded slowly. “How is… How is Renke doing?” And trying to make small talk!
“Good. We keep him heavily medicated and under constant watch by the Dragon’s Teeth, but he’s… Well, he’s stable. He’ll never be completely fine, he’ll always be the god of his own little kingdom, but he’s far better now than he used to be. He honestly believes that he’s doing good work with the hospital, and that it’s the best way to show his might and perfection to the world.
“Sure, he still expects them to come begging for him to send them some of his children for help, but you can’t expect someone with as deep of problems as he has to ever be able to operate on an even keel.” Alcomb smiled. “I know that he’s done some horrible things, and that he needs help, but I like to believe that my father is still a good man at heart.”
Colin frowned a little. “Does that make Riley your mother?”
Alcomb’s entire body posture changed suddenly. She hunched over a little and a look of concentration passed over her face. “No,” she said in a slightly higher tone of voice. “She thinks of me as her overbearing boss. Which I guess I am.”
Dragon smiled softly. “Hello Riley.”
“Dragon. Colin. I’m surprised to see you here. I haven’t had a chance to look over all the cybernetics designs that you sent my way last month, but I do have a bunch of notes, and a few designs of my own that you might want to look at.”
That was the big secret about Alcomb’s enhancements, and part of what made her such a good assistant — Riley could possess her at any moment. It made things handy in an emergency, allowing Riley to be in two places at once. Alcomb was smart enough to be a doctor herself, though Dragon often wondered just how advanced her artificial neural net and learning matrix handled the Tinker aspects of Riley’s work.
Her name itself was a bit of a joke. The only time that she was paged was when things were going horrifically wrong and they desperately needed everyone’s help, including Riley’s. Doctor: All Come.
“We aren’t here to talk to you about cybernetics,” Colin said firmly. “We’d like to discuss one of your patients.”
“Then, as much as I enjoy talking to another Tinker, you can fuck off.” Alcomb’s remote controlled face glanced up, smiling sympathetically. “Sorry.”
Dragon opened her mouth, but that natural delay before speaking that she forced herself gave Colin a chance to respond first. “It’s about Jordan. There’s some irregularities that we want to investigate, and you’re the best person to–”
The politeness drained from the woman’s face, replaced by anger. “No! No you fucking don’t! You really don’t get it, do you? I can’t let doctor-patient confidentiality slide, not even once.”
“Riley,” Dragon said soothingly.
“No, don’t! I don’t wanna hear it. Colin, you… You fucked up hard, but you worked your ass off, hunting us, trying to kill us. Hell, you did your best to kill me. But with all of that, and all the hard work that you put into helping the Dragon’s Teeth become what they are today, you can walk around and be respected and accepted.
“Me? I don’t ever get that chance. It doesn’t matter how many lives I save, how many babies I bring into this world. No matter what, I’ll always be Bonesaw to people. I’ll always have people watching me like a hawk, waiting for the first time that I slip up, do something wrong. When that happens, everything that I’ve done for the past twenty years will be undone.
“The only fucking way that I can keep helping people is if I obey every single rule to both the letter and the intent. I could introduce a method to end malaria across the multiverse within three years, but I can’t do it. Because unless I had permission from literally everyone, people will take it as me going mad doctor again and come after me. So I don’t wanna hear your whining!”
Colin winced, though with how little of his face was visible, Riley couldn’t see it through Alcomb’s eyes.
“We’re sorry,” Dragon said after an appropriate pause. “You’re right, we didn’t consider your situation.”
Riley relaxed considerably. Alcomb’s eyes went back down and her eyebrows pulled together again; no doubt, Riley was focusing on whatever surgery she was in the middle of again. “It’s alright. It’s not exactly something that a lot of people think about, once they’ve accepted who I am now. It’s… Well, in a way, it’s a compliment to know that there are people who actually do have faith in me.”
This wasn’t entirely sitting well with Colin, but he wasn’t saying anything. Leaving it to Dragon to handle again before he made another mistake. “Well, I can see that you’re middle of an operation, and I don’t–”
“Wait,” Riley interrupted. Alcomb’s body moved to the computer, humming pleasantly. Dragon wasn’t sure which one of the two of them were responsible for that; she wasn’t sure how much control Riley had, and wasn’t familiar enough with Alcomb to know if that was something that she’d do or not.
After a few moments, she looked back to the two of them with a pleasant, patient smile. “Colin… It feels so weird to call you that. But I’d like to show you some designs that I have. Some new designs.”
Colin frowned and stepped forward, but Riley shook Alcomb’s head. “Not here. I’m almost done with the hard part of this. Jamie asked me to modify one of his creations to be able to sing in English without doing any other alterations to her. It’s been an interesting challenge. Alcomb will bring you to me so that I can show you in person.”
Dragon smiled broadly at that. Even if she couldn’t get the information that they wanted, Riley was willing to salvage their working relationship. “That would be wonderful. I’m always interested in your work.” It wasn’t a lie, either — seeing Riley put her powers to positive if still occasionally horrific use was still something that she enjoyed after all these years.
Riley shook Alcomb’s head, though. “Not you. I’m worried about the weight of both of you in my lab with how armored you are. I’m sure that you can watch through his helmet or eyes or whatever, but you can stay here.”
Dragon closed the armor over Colin’s mouth before he had a chance to speak. “Don’t. It’s alright. Go with her. I know what she’s doing.”
Colin frowned. “Are you sure?”
“Don’t worry, I’ll be with you. I’ll let you know what I find out.”
His eyebrows raised as he made the connection. When the armor opened again, he was smiling a little bit. “That sounds fine.”
Alcomb blinked a couple of times before standing upright again. Immediately, she smiled pleasantly at the two of them. “Well, I’m glad that we could get this sorted out. Would you care to walk with me?”
Colin motioned with his hand, and she guided him out, closing the door behind them. Dragon watched and listened through Colin’s armor.
“You know, I’m not so easy to offend. Not unless you’re a patient and I catch you doing something dumb.”
Colin snorted. “I still worry. Especially after what just happened.”
“You’re fine,” Alcomb said, putting her hands in her pockets. “Though I’ll understand if you’re quiet as we walk.”
“Thank you.” With that, his armor closed again.
Dragon moved quickly around the desk, looking at the computer. The same type of USB port that the Dragon’s Teeth used. One of their computers. A port opened in her arm and she drew out a cable, plugging in directly. Even Colin needed to use such clumsy interfaces with technology, but she could get so much more done with a direct connection.
Riley had left a login active. A quick scan showed that it was the same as her main one, but without the same permissions. While this terminal didn’t have a keylogger active, the RAM in the keyboard showed the password easily enough — dR@gon(anac(ess!
Dragon’s client body smiled a little.
Dragon found Jordan’s files rather quickly, and was mildly disappointed to find that there was maybe a tenth of the information that she couldn’t see. What was there, though, was interesting to say the least.
“There’s a lot here. She was only able to put him back together again because the slices were so absolutely perfect. If there would have been much more trauma, she wouldn’t have been able to piece his nervous system together.”
“Which we already suspected,” Colin mused. It wasn’t a dismissal, though. Rather, it was a confirmation that they’d been on the right track.
“Remember how they suspected that he was the victim of domestic violence before he came to the Orphanage? Riley noticed a lot of neural scarring that she estimated came from either before or right around the time that they found him. It’s unlikely that it was caused during his first year there, though.”
Colin was silent for a moment. “I hate to say it, but I can’t rule that out. I know that they are pretty hard on child abuse there, but if those… Blanks, I guess. If they can’t say anything, or even respond, then they’re the perfect people to vent your frustration on. I know that it’s dark and twisted, but I’ve seen worse.”
“Always there with an uplifting word.” Colin smiled a little at that.
But he made a point. She shouldn’t make assumptions like that. Just because they didn’t have any immediate evidence that it might have happened, they didn’t have any evidence that he was a victim of abuse before that, either. Just because he’d gotten brain damage due to blunt impact didn’t mean it was purposefully inflicted.
“The various concussions that he’s experienced over the years didn’t seem to help matters any, either. There’s a rough timeline, and when he started training with Über we see that he starts taking various degrees of blows to the head.
“Here’s one that stands out — an area in the mid-fusiform sulcus has a bit of damage that seems to have been both naturally and intentionally compensated for. Riley identified, and post surgery testing confirmed that the specific area damaged means that he has difficulty with facial recognition.”
Colin frowned a little as he walked with Alcomb. “So he can’t differentiate between people’s faces?”
“Right. He can make out facial features if he focuses, but on the average, he uses the rest of the body as markers to identify someone. If he deals with someone heavily, he can tell who they are by face as well. This might explain why he didn’t recognize me from when I talked to him in St. Louis.”
“What about expressions?”
Dragon put a bit of uncertainty into her voice. “I’m going out on a limb here, but I think he can see them. This isn’t my area of expertise, so I don’t want to say for sure, and I don’t think that there were actual tests for that. Why do you ask?”
Colin hummed thoughtfully for a moment. “I’m just thinking is all. About his smile. We both noticed that it was a little odd, but if he couldn’t make out facial expressions, or just had trouble with them, that might explain it a bit.”
She wanted to refute that. What pictures they’d been given during their second visit to the Orphanage showed that his smile had actually been worse when he was little, but had suddenly gotten better. Not quite right, but better. Perhaps due to this Sergei’s work on his brain?
Something to think about. But they could discuss it later.
“He has extremely well-developed mirror neurons, though they’re structured oddly. He has the potential to learn anything he sees done extremely easily, but I’m not sure how well it translates. Riley notes that it appears to have been done later. A lot of work seems to have been done over the years to his entire brain. Memory processing, recollection, a general heavy modification to his amygdala.”
Right. “Basically, when he starts producing heavy adrenaline, such as when the fight of flight response happens, he processes the world around him in much smaller segments than normal. Time appears to slow down, but with that comes a partial loss of actual control. Some of this appears to be artificially induced, but some of it appears to be a naturally developed talent. She isn’t sure which is which.
“It also affects his reward system. He’s more likely to receive negative emotional reinforcement than positive. It isn’t that he receives any less positive reinforcement than the average person, it’s that the negative is somewhat stronger.”
Colin was thoughtful for a moment. “He beats himself up for his failures more than he accepts his successes.”
“Pretty much. But with his mirror neurons, he probably receives more satisfaction from the happiness of others than his own accomplishments. It heightens his empathy on top of everything else.”
He nodded slightly. “Jordan is naturally self-sacrificing, but that might explain it nicely. Or it might partially be a result of…” He groaned. “Nature versus nurture gets complicated once you start factoring in capes fiddling with your brain.”
The client body smiled grimly. “It gets worse. There’s a lot of neural scarring, and a lot of other issues. Most of which show a lot of compensation. But if the para who modified his brain… Well, he couldn’t just spawn neurons into existence. He can modify them, move them, but can’t create them.”
“How far can he go in modifying them?” Colin might not be the best at the brain, and even his power didn’t grant him full command over neurology, but he was a smart, analytical man.
“I don’t know. Why?”
“Tell me about his joints. His bones. His organs. Tell me about the rest of his body. If she built his body from scratch like the Dragon’s Teeth intelligence suggested, then she had to study his old body.”
“It was a mess. I have a few personal notes here expressing surprise over the fact that he could walk, let alone fight. Also, his extreme luck that he ended up being reconstructed by her using on-hand materials, rather than going to a traditional doctor for these things. Hips, knee, and shoulder replacements shouldn’t be done on a nineteen-year-old, and that’s just scratching the surface.
“There’s also the lingering effects of powers that he had used on himself in order to bypass these issues, to improve his body, and… There’s more. Exposure to so many powers, and to so many broken triggers, left permanent changes to his body, some of which she expressed regret that she never got to study when it was fully operational. She could have learned a lot.”
Colin thought about that for an agonizing moment. They had a limited span of time to talk like this, and there was a lot of information here. He’d want as much as possible now rather than later, and he wasn’t going to like what she had to say next.
“I saw Jordan kicking that heavy bag that we bought for the gym.” They’d stopped calling it a dojo, mostly because Jordan had taking to using it for all manner of exercising. “That’s a good way to deaden the nerves in the legs. I’m willing to bet that neurons were pulled from frequent impact points and repurposed.”
“There’s no note of that, but… I can believe it. At the same time, I know of one place in his brain that neurons were scavenged from: Jordan’s corona pollentia.”
That made Colin stumble mid-stride. Alcomb gave him a worried glance, but he waved her off, not bothering to open his helmet to explain. “Are you telling me that Jordan is… Was a parahuman?”
“No.” And here was where things were going to get bad. “He had the potential, the capability to trigger, but he had no gemma yet. All signs point to the fact that the corona had been scavenged for neurons before this fact. According to Riley…
“Colin. He could never trigger because of the damage done to his corona. The signal would be too corrupted for a passenger to attach again.”
Some people made the mistake of thinking that Colin didn’t have empathy. He did, but he didn’t know how to act on it very well. The vitals transmitted by his suit told her enough to know that he was going through emotional pain. He was feeling bad for Jordan, to know that a good man’s quest had been cut off completely.
Colin hadn’t taken the fact that Jordan had modeled himself off of an almost-meeting that had been a ruse and nobody had told him. That he’d spent his entire life desperately trying to trigger because of what essentially amounted to a well-meaning lie. And now, to learn that Jordan could never achieve that goal, because he’d tried to be as good as he possibly could…
Her husband took a slow, shaking breath. “Topic change. Tell me something else. Something that I might be able to use.”
“You’re almost to where Riley is.”
“That’s fine. I need something, anything. Please.”
This was heartbreaking, even though she didn’t actually have a heart. To be powerless to help Jordan reach his dreams, and to watch Colin react like this… But she had something.
“There’s other oddities, too. Something to do with unusual brain activity when he’s sleeping. She’s unsure as to the mechanism despite the tests that they ran. It could be that he’s replaying memories in his head with unusual level of detail, or it could be a form of seizure, but she also leaves it open to other interpretations. She can’t be sure unless she physically looked inside his head while it was happening, which she was going to request on his next visit.”
The saddest part was that security was informed that if he were to show up, he was not to be detained and to treat him with all respect due to any other non-dangerous patient. There were further orders that she could see that she was to be informed immediately, and that he was to be prepped for surgery in one of the cybernetics rooms without question or hesitation.
That wasn’t a good sign. A quick review of his cybernetics showed that without certain additions that she had ready, systems would have already started to activate, causing his organic body damage.
Chris had said that they were in the process of negotiating a deal for more systems to be implanted until New Fairfax happened, but from this, she’d always planned on installing more. What she’d already implanted had been designed with the purpose of putting more in. Was she overstepping her bounds, or was it simply a case of the negotiations being a formality?
Was Dragon really in a place to chastise someone for overstepping limitations placed on them like that?
“Seizures…” Colin said slowly. He was so very close now according to the map. “Like when he stares off into space?”
“No, that’s caused by his brain damage occasionally interfering with normal operation, but the measures taken to compensate for the damage keep them minimal. She could have corrected this, but it would have caused shifts in his personality, something that she wanted to avoid.”
She wanted to tell Colin about the biomass used to reconstruct Jordan’s body. About the exact nature of all of the cybernetics, about how his DNA made it extremely difficult to determine his ethnicity, and how he didn’t have the markers of being a child of Tinker technology.
There was so much more in Jordan’s files, reams of information, but Dr. Alcomb was turning to Colin. “Just a moment.”
Almost fifteen seconds later, the door opened, and Riley stepped out.
After Gold Morning, after Amelia Dallon had disappeared with her father and Victoria Dallon, Riley had continued to work. Five years later, after she’d shown that she could help Nilbog be more manageable, they’d let her set up the first wing of Mother’s Hospital. However, despite the incredible skill that her powers granted her, she was still only one person. People had died before she could get to them. People had blamed her.
And she had reacted poorly.
To look at her was uncomfortable. She was dressed as a surgeon, but her appearance was… off. She looked like a preteen who had been artificially aged to a woman in her thirties, skipping puberty. A constant reminder of all the things that Jack Slash had made her do when she was part of the Slaughterhouse Nine.
However, it wasn’t her base body, her flesh and blood that was the sad part.
In order to make sure that she could save as many people as possible, she’d taken to modifying herself. Artificial arms sprouted from her back, covered in various tools and instruments of the trade, though they were folded back into a resting position at the moment. Metallic dots were visible on her face, where more equipment could be mounted, making the deep, dark circles under her eyes and her pale skin look even more unnatural.
But the human body had never been designed to carry that much weight. To help, four spider-like metallic legs were connected to a back harness that she’d grafted onto herself. If need be, they could carry her far faster than her human legs, but for now, she still at least made the effort of walking on her two feet for show. The artificial legs just kept her from collapsing under the weight of her upper torso.
Riley smiled tiredly up at Colin. “Hey you.”
“It’s been a while,” he said uncomfortably.
Fortunately, if Riley took offense, she didn’t show it. “Yeah. Not since everything went down. I’m half surprised you let me live after that. Thanks for having my back, by the way.” She motioned down the hall, leading him towards one of her labs. “Come on, you’re going to love this. I’ve got a new idea for a new brain implant. A learning matrix, to help convert anything that you see into something that you can do.”
Dragon smiled despite herself. It looked like the two of them weren’t the only ones that Jordan had touched. But now, at least, she could take the time to go through every single file that this login gave her access to. She had a lot of downloading to do, and if she was lucky, a video of the sparring session between the siblings and Legend and Chevalier would be on there.