Tina stared at the bowl of cereal sitting in front of her. She had to get to work soon, but she could not find the energy today. Ever since the store had been repaired working there felt wrong. It seemed silly, but whenever she saw the new window she felt her stomach clenching. She had done all she could with what she had that night; she could not have prevented the break in no matter what she did, but it still felt like her fault.
Her parents had gone to work already. They would never know if she decided to stay home today. Even if they found out they would just shrug it off. They always thought she should be aiming for a better job than the coffee shop anyway.
But in the end, she liked where she worked. She liked being able to talk to Janet and Rachel while they bounced around behind the counter. She liked the smell of the coffee beans while they were grinding and the baked goods being brought to the counter. She even liked some of the customers. So she knew that in the end, she would stand up and go to work, guilt or no guilt.
So she slowly ate the rest of her cereal and locked up the house.
The shop was already busy when she walked in. That was a good thing, it would keep her mind off of everything else. She gave a quick greeting to Rachel and Janet and quickly threw on her apron before taking over the cash register.
The customers came quickly. There were a few she recognized, but the rush of the crowd meant she didn’t have a chance to talk before the line surged forward again. The orders blended together, mochas into cappuccinos into decafs into teas. The ringing of the cash register became so constant that it was starting to sound like a single long tone.
And then it was done. The crowd vanished, and her distraction was gone. Sara and Janet were talking about something behind her, but she could not find the energy to join their conversation. So she wandered to the back for the broom and began to sweep up the store.
She jumped when she heard her name. She looked up and saw Rachel there, staring at her with slightly widened eyes.
“Are you okay, Tina? You look like you haven’t slept.”
She had not, she had been fiddling with gadgets all night and had completely lost track of time. But she could not say that.
“I am fine. I just had a restless night. I might not quite be awake, but it should pass soon”
Rachel reluctantly nodded and glanced back at Janet. Their boss stood there with her arms crossed and an eyebrow raised. Rachel turned back with a shaky smile.
“Her, have you been feeling all right lately? You haven’t really been yourself ever since the Asclepios attack.”
Tina flinched slightly.
“So that’s it? I didn’t know you were anywhere near the gas. Look, you don’t have to talk about it if you don’t want to, but try to remember that we’re here if you need it. I know you’re parents probably aren’t the easiest to talk to about stuff like that. Just take your time with it, okay?”
Tina nodded mutely. Rachel smiled warmly and moved to Janet.
They started talking again, but the topic quickly turned away from her and Tina was able to sweep the floor in peace.
There were only three of them at the meeting tonight. Will had apparently had to leave town a few days ago, and Hawthorne and Allspades apparently had some business of their own to take care of. They would be back before the next meeting, but until then they had a substitute.
A normal person might have scoffed at the idea of a substitute; it would feel like they were back in high school and were being forced to sit through somebody’s poor reading of the teacher’s notes. Of course, Mach had never actually gone to a traditional high school, so to her this was not anything special.
She heard Red Racer grumbling at the thought of a replacement, thought burnout seemed to be taking it well. Of course, Red seemed most disappointed when he heard that Slipstream would be conducting the meeting and not Zero. Apparently he had wanted to meet Zero ever since he became a runner himself.
Slipstream was doing an… adequate job she supposed. For the most part, when Will was trying to make a point he was rather dramatic about it. He liked taking them places and showing them new sites to accompany his lectures.
Slipstream, for as much as she respected her fellow mecher, was not doing a very good job. She couldn’t really blame him; Slipstream was one of the most successful heroes to date. He could retire from all activity tonight and still bring in enough money in a year to buy half the city. As many hardships as he had to have suffer, he couldn’t really be objective about this decision.
Of course, she had not been doing a good job of listening either. She was trying, at least at first, but his voice had quickly started droning into a slow buzzing. She was vaguely reminded of old Peanuts cartoons. A vague smirk wormed its way onto her face and she was suddenly glad for her mask.
Slipstream seemed to be finishing up.
“I hope that explains it a little better. Now, Will should be back by your next meeting. So make sure you keep in touch with your contacts.”
Red Racer and Burnout got up to leave, and Mach was about to do the same.
“Mach, stay here for a minute.”
Burnout turned to her, but she waved him on. He nodded slowly and walked out with Red.
She turned back to Slipstream and their hidden eyes met.
He took a breath.
“Mach, Will told me that you built your armor based off of Panzer and Sherman, is that true?”
“Yes. I saw their blueprints at the museum.”
Slipstream nodded and started to pace back and forth.
“You realize that shouldn’t be possible right? Even the lowest mecher’s encode their blueprints to prevent that.”
Mach was only slightly surprised. She knew it was a common practice now, but when she saw their blueprints in the museum, she had assumed the old mechers hadn’t bothered with it.
Despite her mask, Slipstream seemed to know what she was thinking.
“Okay. Honestly, I want to test if you can do it with mine, but there really isn’t anything I’m allowed to show you. That’s not why I needed you to stay. There are…hints that Frankenstein is coming back.”
Mach’s eyes widened.
“You know what that means right?”
“He targets mechers. He steals what he can, and destroys everything else. However, he does not target anyone who had not proven themselves. I should not be a target.”
Slipstream nodded. “And normally you wouldn’t be. But right now, you’re wearing the armor of the two walkers who came closest to defeating him. He may not know about that, he may not come after you. But if he thinks you’re even slightly capable of improving him, he will come for you.”
Mach nodded. She was too shaken to say anything.
“If you want my advice, stay out of costume for the next few weeks. Go to work, go home, come to meetings. Avoid anything else if you can help it. Because he will find you when you are alone, when you can’t call for help. And whether you can help him or not, he will kill you.”
Slipstream seemed like he wanted to say something else, but he waited for her response.
“If he finds me, what do I do?”
Slipstream sighed. “Most likely? You’re screwed. And what I’m going to tell you will go against you’re every instinct. First, you should try to run and get somewhere you’ll be noticed so other heroes can help you. You need to deactivate your visor and any sensors you have, because he can and will hack them. If you don’t have an auto eject on your suit get one, at the very least you could try to blend into a crowd once you’re out of it. A few mechers, including me, will be keeping an eye out for him, so the most important thing you need to do is survive. If you can last until help gets there, then there’s a good chance he’ll just leave.”
Mach slowly nodded.
“I’ll give you this too.” He held out a small device; it looked slightly like a cap gun. “This will send up a signal flare. If only has two shots, so don’t waste it. It has a beacon that’ll signal me as soon as you send it up, and I’ll get there as fast as possible.”
She took it gratefully.
“Keep out of sight and keep safe. It’s the best move.”
“I will try.”
SIipstream nodded and walked over to the door.
Mach followed him. When they walked out of the room she saw Burnout standing to the side. He was wringing his hands, but he didn’t look as concerned as if he actually overheard them.
Slipstream took off behind her.
She nodded to Burnout and they both walked to a place more open for them to take off again. She could tell him later.