Or maybe not so briefly. I feel wood grain beneath my left palm. Possibly oak, maybe white cedar. A warm drop of something splashes on my forehead.
“Oopsie daisy.” The stranger thumbs her blood off my face.
A hole in the stranger’s right ear, approximately 22 millimeters, bleeds mildly while she tinkers with something just past my carbon fiber collar bone. She repatches the casing around a broken transmitter and backs away.
Regrowing skin feels a lot like mud, wet and cool at first, then itchy and tight as it dries. The nano tech stretches over my face and arm and torso. My eyelid grows back and I test out a couple of blinks.
“Whoa! You’re hot!” The stranger blurts out.
I put a hand to my forehead. I suppose I am a little warm. After all, my regeneration apparatus never had to work this hard before.
Sitting up, my spine straightens out with a series of satisfying pops. I crack my neck for good measure, then turn to face my savior…or kidnapper…
“Thank you for helping me escape the landfill…and for fixing me up” I start, choosing my words carefully. “Might I ask who you are and where we are?”
The space looks to be a small 10’ x 14’ backroom with a variety of tools hanging up on the walls. The wall to my right is dedicated to a lifetime supply of any kind of string and twine you could ever need. There are even a few selections of colorful ribbon and duct tape.
The opposite wall, however, hosts shelves and shelves of replacement arms and eyes and fingers and toes. All mechanical, but spooky nonetheless. The jar of noses beside the vials of sweat and tear refills is particularly creepy to view. I see the outline of a murphy bed on the southernmost wall, and think how perturbing it would be to sleep beside these…spare parts.
“Welcome to what’s left of Torrential Repairs.” The stranger sweeps her arms out in a grand gesture, then transitions to a dramatic bow. “Though, you’ve been here near two days now.”
Two days? Dad’s meeting must be over now. He must be looking for me. This… this is a good thing…
“I’m Torrence. No last name.” She looks up at me and winks, “but you can call me Tori.”
Tori saunters back and flops down on her workbench. She leans back and drops her elbows onto the heavy metal table, knocking a few screws and washers aside.
Tori grins at me, teeth white, thick eyebrows slanted. Her face is expressive, but I don’t understand what it means. She looks devious.
“So I was rifling through your stuff…” Tori begins.
Tori snags some disinfectant and a roll of purple tape. She works on her ear while she continues, “and I found this little trinket.” Tori sets down the disinfectant and tosses me my diplomatic seal ring.
“I can’t help wondrin’ how some high-floatin’ Stayer diplomat finds themself in my neck of the trash pile?” Tori tears a square of tape with her teeth.
Hesitantly, I respond. “Um… I apologize, Tori, but I do not understand what you said.” Half the words in this stranger's vocabulary are not in the Deilic dictionary. I know this for a fact since it’s all downloaded into my head.
Tori folds the purple patch over her bullet wound. The color shimmers, then matches Tori’s skin tone. “It’s like, uhhhh, why’s a fancy person like you on the Mantle?”
Tori drops a couple Staykar words for me. It is noted and appreciated.
“Do you speak Staykar?” I ask in Staykar.
Tori wavers her hand, but speaks in Deilic. “Little bit. I used to do business with a lot of Stayer models before the Overflow smashed my business. Now I mos’ly scavenge parts and sell to the highest bidder.”
Tori stands up, as do I. She stands nearly a foot above me; I estimate 6’1” to 6’1” and a quarter. She reaches her hand inside the open top of her jumpsuit, displaying small burn marks on her forearm.
“I was gonna migrate to the UC and expand my shop last year. I got the money, I got the know-how, but I don’t got one o’ these shinies.” Tori pulls my passport from some hidden pocket in her jumpsuit.
Instinctively I lunge for it. “That is mine!” Tori raises it far above my head.
“Oh posh,” Tori wiggles the passport over me, then pauses and plops in atop my head. “Whatever, it’s useless now.”
I appraise my possession. A burn mark makes the document completely illegible, and minor tearing to the outsides finishes it off. I can barely make out my tiny photo in the left-hand corner.
Tori continues as if I never interrupted. “But then, y’know, my shop as well as my dreams were crushed beneath the rubble. I never got that passport, and now the borders’re shut down real tight.”
I catch on. “I have my seal. That will surely get us safe passage to the Upper Crust.”
Tori shakes her head. “Please! Any welder worth their sparks could make a replica in under 20 minutes. You’ll get arrested before you get sent up.”
“Well.” I sputter, “I am not a welder. It would be obvious. I will just- I will simply- simply head toward the airport and request my return.”
Tori raises an eyebrow and chuckles. “Oh yeah? Where is that? How ya gonna get there? And no offense to m’self or anything, but after your tumble in the trashhole, ya look like you belong down here.”
A flash of frustration and mild annoyance inspires me to pull up all the maps and articles on domestic travel I have saved on the Mantle. Which. Is. zero. I feel like both sides of my brain are short circuiting.
“I-I don’t know.” My eyes go wide and I freeze up. “I don’t know. Me.I know everything! But...”
Tori scoffs, “Think pretty highly of ourselves, do we?”
My hands shake and my breath catches. “There’s nothing here. Just an article on a Cross UC/Mantle Internship Program and a schematic for some kind of security drone-”
“We call them Gnats.” Tori informs, cutting my rant short. “Y’know, like the bugs. Bzzt bzzt.” She adds a little hand wave for effect.
I bleat out a surprised laugh. Then I recover. “That is silly.”
“Aubrey, as ya get to know and love me, you’ll find that I'm very silly.” She squats down in front of me and takes my shaking hand. “And you don’t have to worry because I know this place like the front of my face.”
“You mean the back of your hand?” I correct.
“What? No?” Tori scoffs, “why’d I be admiring my knuckles when I have such a pretty face?”
I laugh again before the nerves set back in and I ask, “So, you are going to help me?”
Tori smiles earnestly. “Of course.” Her smile tightens. “For a price.”
Tori waits patiently as I extract my hands from hers.
“I can get you a passport. I have sway. If you want to move to Stayer, I can even set you up with your own business.” My mind races, trying to think of new bribes. “I just need you to get me to the UC.”
I prepare to hear Tori’s counter. She responds immediately.
“Okay.” Tori grins wide and rolls to her feet.
“Yep.” Tori raises her hand for a high five.
It’s not that I’m displeased with the outcome of our agreement, I simply… expected more of a back and forth. After all… “You understand that dangerous people are after me, correct? I’m…I’m a diplomat’s daughter.”
“I… I will need protection.”
Tori flexes and pats her right bicep proudly. “I gotchu, babe.”
Tori drops her arm and leans cooly against the wall, “but you're packing quite a punch yerself. I’ve never seen such a perfect design.”
I scrunch my nose at her smirk. “I do not like fighting.”
Tori moves out of the backroom and into the front.
“Are you really prepared to leave the Mantle? To leave Delmoun?” I call out, then quickly follow after her.
“There’s not really much left for me here.” Tori responds, grabbing a grubby backpack from behind a fallen stack of copper piping.
The roof is partially caved in, and the front of the building is completely gone. Heavy machinery lay smashed into pieces. Some kind of hydraulic lift rests half crashed through the northernmost wall. Scratch lines on the cracked cement floor indicate someone, likely Tori, attempted to move the broken machines off to the side.
I sidestep a saw blade and make my way over to Tori.
“What about family? Friends?” I inquire, reaching my new ally’s side.
Tori shrugs. “I don’t really have those kinds of things.”
I review my Deilic download, confirming that I used the correct words.
“What I do have…” Tori spins around and hops nimbly over the wreckage of her shop. I follow her back into the backroom.
Tori lifts the metal top of the worktable, revealing more storage. She grabs something out and hands it to me proudly.
“...is this!” Tori finishes.
“Roomba!” I exclaim, snatching back the little robot.
Roomba looks sleek and clean. There’s an indentation on the side opposite of Roomba’s googly eyes. It aligns perfectly with my right hand. I glance up at Tori in question.
“You’re hand clamped on Roomby when you powered down. He was basically fused to you. I coulda flattened it out, but I thought it was kinda cute.” Tori points out a few new additions to my little buddy.
“I added a strap and I took out all the useless bits on the inside.” Tori pulls a thin chain strap from inside Roomba, and places it on my shoulder so the vacuum rests against my hip like a purse.
“And when you’re all done for th’day…” Tori takes Roomba off my shoulder and flicks a flat switch on the side. The strap winds back into the robot like a tape measurer snapping back into place. “Also…”
Tori pulls the top off of Roomba like a tupperware lid and shows me a small joystick. I accept the controller and play with the toggle. Roomba’s little wheels react to my direction.
I look up at Tori in awe. “I love it.”
“Of course you do! I’m amazing!” Tori responds, the same confident smile and devious look on her face.
I can’t help but laugh. I return the joystick to its place inside Roomba. I see a miniature control panel on the inside of the Roomba lid as Tori closes the vacuum.
“It will be interesting doing business with you, Torrence.” I say, taking the Roomba from her willing hands.
Tori offers her hand out to me. I clasp it in my own.
“I hope you like running.” She responds.
This will be an interesting partnership indeed.