An Invitation

(Cross-post Winters, Blitzen, GardensTale)

“GOOD MORNING, YOUNG LADY!”

Sy sat up in the hospital bed, carefully rubbing her eye with her free hand. The nanites had done a lot of work overnight, but she didn’t quite trust her left hand yet. The bloody, ragged mess she had made of it stood out clearly in her mind’s eye, and it was still wrapped up thick in the bandages Pyria had so gently applied the prior day. Doctor Easton had insisted she spend an additional night in the med bay for observation, so it was there she now lay, propping herself up on one elbow to look at the doctor as he cheerfully strode into the ward, carrying a small blue object. “Mornin’ doc,” she said, without much enthusiasm. Her emotions were still jumping all over the place. Mourning the loss of her greatest invention, thankfulness over the support and love she was receiving from Pyria and Piper and Romeo, and fear that at any time OSEC might still take all that away with a single order.

“Chin up, Sy!” Cody beamed his infallible grin at her. “I have brought you a gift!” He casually tossed the blue object onto her bed, and Sy realized it was a new pair of jeans. It had only looked small in the doctor’s massive hands. “I took the liberty of having your bloody pair removed and went to fetch you a new pair from the quartermasters,” he explained. “I hope they are to your liking!”

A wan smile came to Sy’s face. “Thanks, doc,” she said. “Feel like I owe ya, ‘specially after yesterday’s…”

But Cody waved her off. “Noise and headaches, nothing new to me,” he chortled. “And you have sacrificed a great deal in our defense, young lady, for which I thank you! Now, let me take a look at your wounds. The nanites are still working on it, but I think their work is nearing completion!” He took her right hand and turned it over in his fingers a few times. “The burns were but second degree,” he said. “And the nanites have done enough to prevent blistering. The skin may be a tad sensitive for a day or so!” He ran his finger across the inside of her palm a few times and Sy couldn’t help but giggle a little.

“Now for the other!” He unwrapped the thick bandages with a deftness one would not expect from a man his size. Within seconds, a heap of white cotton lay in Sy’s lap and her left hand was exposed. The flesh had mostly grown back together, but some dark red lines still ran across it, like cuts that had dried out. “Excellent, excellent,” he observed. “By nightfall this will barely leave a scar! Can you gently try to touch touch your pinky finger and thumb together? Stop when it hurts!”

Sy slowly moved her thumb towards the tip of her little finger. They were still an inch apart when she winced. “I think that’s as far as it’ll go, doc,” she said, relaxing her hand again.

“You are doing marvelous, young lady!” he said. “The nanites work in stages, you see. Stop the bleeding, knit the ligaments, knit the muscular tissue from the inside out to prevent infection encapsulation, connect nerves, restore blood-flow, mend the skin. Stiffness is to be expected, and the nerve reconnection is nearly done. You might even beat nightfall and be done before dinner!”

Sy gave another wan smile and nodded. “Thanks, doc. How’re the others doin’?”

Cody made a face like he only just remembered something important. “Yes! The others! Piper asked me to get you up and running so you may join her and Romeo for breakfast! There is outside news she wants to share! So up you go, young lady. I shall assist you with your panticular issues!” He laughed at his own pun and helped Sy out of bed, then held out her new pair of jeans so she could step into them.

***

Ten minutes after, Sy walked into the cafeteria. She was very aware of the fact that this was the first time she had trotted about the Spire unsupervised, and with a clearer head, she now noticed just how many people glanced at her as she passed by, some even craning their necks to look at her. She was having less trouble identifying the Neos, now; it was everyone who was looking in her direction before she’d even rounded a corner. What made it slightly surreal was that even though she was so clearly an object of curiosity, as Pyria had put it so succinctly, the Neo did not talk to anyone except the occasional Alpha, even though Sy could tell she was likely being discussed with the vigor of a high school scenario.

She spotted Piper and Romeo sitting at a table and waved at them. Sitting down next to Piper, she said: “Mornin’. D’you two eat yet?”

“Just getting to it.” Piper replied, pointing to the bowls in front of them. “We were back to PT this morning. Just one of the ways Alpha’s look out for their Neo,” she snickered, rotating her shoulder and looked over at her Alpha. “Or so they say. I think he was just getting back at me for showing off with his AR yesterday. Not all of us have a genetic advantage. The rest of us contend with lactic acid.”

"Maybe I should do some trainin'... Once this thing's all done healin' up," Sy said, displaying her left palm. "Doc Easton had to help me put ma pants on," she added to Romeo. "Can't close that hand jus' yet." She looked around and saw a few heads turning away. "Pyria weren't kiddin'," she said, the ghost of a smirk twitching the corner of her mouth. "Guess I am a curiosity in 'ere. 'S a weird feelin'. At leas' they don' seem to have a grudge over yesterday." Her face fell a little. Her hand no longer hurt, but the loss still stung. "So… Doc said y'got news from the ou'side?"

“Uuuuuuuuuughhhhh.” Was the only thing Romeo said in response to the ‘New News’. “It’s insane!” The Alpha griped, unusually critical.

“Definitely not good news. There’s some petition going around about opening up the Spire to public investigation,” Piper explained, staring down into her bowl. “So that has everyone a little on edge. And they said to expect community protests at our gates, so we’re kind of bracing for that, too.”

“It’s total crap. The Spire is still a military compound and exempt from public scrutiny for a number of reasons.” The blond alpha said between his aggressive nomming of oatmeal. “Plus with the threat of those fundamental psychos … why give them a clear look inside? It’s just tactically shooting ourselves in the head.” He added taking it out on his oatmeal.

“When you’re up and running if you’re serious about PT I don’t have a problem with you joining me and Piper.” The Alpha grinned. “Just means more work for Piper.”

Piper groaned at his taunting, rolling her spoon around in her oatmeal. “My muscles are protesting already.”

"Why they wanna open up the Spire?" Sy asked, skipping the subject of PT entirely. "'Cause of them New Way fuckholes? Sorry, Pyria. Even if Logos targetin' us, that makes us victims, not perps. People should already know wha's in here: buncha tech wizards that'll fuck shit up if you gonna dump 'em all over the city." She sighed. "Hopefully, if they do an inquiry at all, it'll jus' be a handful of people takin' a half hour tour and that'll be it. Fuckin' hate people blamin' the wrong party."

“That's because you're now in the know.” Romeo pointed out. “We honestly don’t get a lot of public time and for good reason. When we are out doing our job it ain’t exactly pleasant. Sure what we are doing is good and needed … but totally underappreciated and out of the public view mostly.” Romeo huffed. “I hate tv cameras too …” He added with an obstinate tone.

“People fear what they don’t understand.” Piper added. “They criticize if we take a Neo to the Spire, they cry outrage if a Neo isn’t brought in before they damage anything. It’s a no win. They think the Spire is a prison. Worst of all, Alphas get the shit end of the stick in the public eye. People say awful things like the Alphas keep Neos on leashes; There’s so many misconceptions. And as much as I want everyone to see and know what I know about the Spire, like Romeo said, we start letting people in, we might as well hand over blueprints. TV cameras are another security nightmare.”

“But you look good on camera. In fact, you could be a reality TV star, Frosty.” Lima teased, punching the back of Romeo’s shoulder before dropping his oatmeal bowl on the table. He sandwiched Wren and Piper between them.

Wren extended his hand. “Wren.” He introduced. “You’re Sy. This is Lima slash Karma, my Alpha.” Lima who was already three spoonfuls into his oatmeal nodded in response.

“He’s a traitor.” Piper kidded, eyeing her bonded friends.

Sy took Wren's hand and shook it. "Y’already know me in 'n out," she snickered. "I'm gettin' the hang of this hive mind thing o'y'all's! Bu' yeah, I'm Sy. Nice t'meet you both. Since I ain't in on the loop, though," she went on, turning to Piper, "Why he a traitor?"

“Hive mind isn’t so hard to get used to,” Wren replied, ignoring the traitor comment. “What one of us knows, all of us knows.”

“They cheat at charades and Pictionary.” Lima complained with his mouth full. Wren playfully swatted his Alpha’s arm.

Sy laughed. "They gotta play as one person or it ain't fair," she said smartly, waving a finger at Wren. "Y'all alrigh' after yesterday? I'd apologize again but I'm sure y'all gotta be gettin' sick o'me sayin' sorry so I'll be shuttin' up now."

“Better than all right, got my vision back, so I should be thanking you, unless you want to apologize for that,” he smiled. “Now me and Lima’ll be back in the field, providing we’re not back on perpetual lockdown from protesters. As for the rest of us,” he waved his oatmeal spoon towards his ‘siblings’ for emphasis, “It’s okay, no one’s worse for wear.”

“And everyone agrees with Pyria that it was brave of you.” Piper added, reaching across the table to squeeze Sy’s arm. Shifting her eyes quickly, she looked back up and added: “Most everyone.”

Sy smiled. “Thanks, Pipe.” She looked at her wounded hand for a moment. “Tha’s more than I coulda asked fo’.” Turning back to Wren, she asked: “How’d yesterday get you yo’ vision back, though? Don’ think there were medicinal properties in that feedback loop. An’ I don’ think I heard how you lost it in the firs’ place, either.”

“I don’t know, happened while fighting Shard. I saw some sort of flash right before she big banged, and then nothing. Maybe the pain recalibrated something, snapped me out of it.” Wren shrugged, just happy the ordeal was over.

“Speaking of feedback loop -- “ Piper added. “Does the name Vaxis mean anything? Saw it a bunch of times when I was stuck in Heimdall's crash. I don’t recognize that as any kind of software program or tech company. I’ll check the grid as soon as I’m on the outside, but figured I’d ask first.”

"Vaxis? An' that was inside Heimdall?" Sy asked. She rubbed her chin and pulled a pensive face. "Nah, don' ring a bell. Mighta been some joker put his hacker name in a driver or somethin'. Can't say, an' can't test any of it while it's still fully embedded." She held up her damaged hand. "Guess I shoulda finished the job an' cut the whole thing out while I was at it anyway." She grinned, but with no joy. "Speakin' of which, Pyria got any word on that meetin' she mentioned?"

Piper shifted her eyes and shook her head, “No word from Pyria, but,” she closed her eyes and let out a long slow breath, opening them again to look at her Alpha. “Blue’s going to have the ceremony for Zulu before noon.” Wren shot a glance to his Alpha as well. “Sy, if you want to pay respects, honor Zu, it’s a time of peace. You’re more than welcome, I think it’d mean a lot to a lot of us.”

“Course I’ll be there!” Sy said. It was not required for her to be a Neo for both her despondency and her determination to come across; it was written all over her face. “I want t’be there. But... “ Sy ran a hand through her hair, conflicted. “You sure that gon’ be okay for Blue? Don’ wanna be a disruption fo’ her. If she can tolerate me bein’ there, I will be.”

“Be surprised if Blue realizes any of us are there.” Piper said honestly before pushing her bowl aside. “And she wouldn’t disrespect Zu’s memory by starting anything at his Ceremony.”

"Then coun' me in," Sy nodded. "I neva got t'know 'im, but I were there… An' I still wanna be a part o'y'all's community here." She glanced at her hand again. "Even if I can't be tuned into y'all anymore, or kick ass th'way you two can…" She glanced from Romeo to Lima. "...y'all saved my life, an' y'all gave me somethin' to belong to. I wanna be there fo' y'all if y'need me in return." She looked around at the four of them with a melancholy smile. The moment was interrupted by an audible growl from her stomach and she stood up fast. "Firs' I gotta eat though. Lemme get some grub." As she walked off, she called out over her shoulder: "An' let's hit the quartermaster's after. Can't go to the ceremony dressed like a rockstar!"

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