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For a time, the tree moves with a white restlessness of egrets stowing and unstowing their overlong wings.



Tikt, the screen toggle says as Simpert idly switches their main feed to Kittania. New Pittsburgh is queued up next, then CyberCity 404 and Squat Hole. "So," he's saying, puzzled, "I mean, I understand that it's fluid and all, and I understand that maybe someday I'll feel differently, but do you think you ever will? I'm pretty happy with Elise." They're both watching the screens, playing at playing hide and seek. Simpert's leaning back in his chair, feet propped on the edge of the desk.

Cooper is knitting. His order of in-blend yarn from reclaimed Euro-linens has arrived. "Mmn? Sir?" He glances up to scan the screens, a habit that's been honed subconsciously into a constant rhythym. "Think I will what exactly, Mr. Simpert?" New Pittsburgh? Spandex hasn't been to New Pitts in months.

"Feel differently about kissing men."

"No sir, I'm only yours forever." He dips his chin and pierces the next loop with his thin metallic needle.

Simpert snorts, good-humored. "We're anomalies then, you and me, mate. Suppose that means I need to find you a promise ring."

"In your frenum, sir- -"

A sharp knock-knock-a-knock-knock interrupts their conversation. Simpert straightens guiltily, putting his feet on the floor. Cooper lowers the knitting into his lap, and turns his chair towards the doorway. His appraisal begins with the visitor's shoes. Sneakers. His gaze retreats to the clean lines of her trousers and then is once again assaulted by a morote-tsuki of hot pink and ruffles.

"Door's open," Simpert calls, relaxing when he recognizes Theresa. The Shriek, everyone calls her. He smiles warmly, belying his own polite wariness. She is, he thinks, the sort of woman who delights in her job because it was a hobby before she ever got paid for it. Binoculars and parted curtains to spy on the neighbors. Perfectly willing to house-sit for you for free, if she can prowl your medicine cabinet.

It is, of course, an unfair assessment. Not as though he's lately left the camroom to speak to anyone around here.

"Terry," he says.

"Hello, boys! You'll never guess what I found," she sings, forcing her way into the already too-crowded room.

Cooper's yarn's threatening to unravel. Orange plastic glasses. He thinks to swivel his chair to shoot a look to Simpert and remembers that this is Simpert, a man who thinks hairy armpits are civilized scenery for an office.

The smile drops. "Where."

Terry's smile drops too. No sense of fun, these two. "You act as if you're not happy to hear the news," she says, putting on a fake pout.

"Terry, you're a marvel, you're a maven, you'll be godmother of my firstborn, where are they."

Cooper flicks a wave at her, and toggles the switch to Clan Hall. Nothing.

"No idea. They've moved on, and I didn't even see Spandex, but your girl," Terry points a sharp, orange fingernail at Simpert, "was in New Pittsburgh not too long ago, with my lad."

Simpert's fingers stretch wide before he scrubs them down his trousers. He keeps his smile broad and toothy. "Ebenezer, hm? I don't suppose you thought to e-mail us?" He swivels in his chair to kill their queues for CC404 and Squat Hole, bringing the backfeed for New Pittsburgh onto their main screen. CHAK. CHAK. CHAK.

She gives a soprano laugh, ending in a snort. "The memo said to email at the end of shift, didn't it?" And why would she send an email sooner than that, when she could come to tell it all in person instead? "My shift's not over yet."

"How gracious of you. To come before the end of your shift. To tell us." CHAK.

Slowly, Cooper lifts his knitting and needles and sets them on his desk. "We do appreciate it, Mrs. Babcock. Of course you waited, I'm sure you were glued to your screen." He swivels back to face her. "What Mr. Simpert means to say is did you notice anything unusual about Zolotisty or her interaction with Ebenezer?"

"Ebenezer's started a crossword," she explains at once. "He'll be at it for hours. I'm sure I'm not missing anything. And, of course, I noticed plenty that was unusual- -" She glances to the screens and decides she'd better have out with it, before Simpert finds it himself. "Most importantly, I've found out where Zolotisty and Spandex will be. They've got a meeting scheduled with my lad."

Simpert's finger freezes mid-chickenpeck. He turns to hook his arm over the back of his chair.

Cooper's chair bumps into the filing cabinet as he stands abruptly to reach around behind Terry and pull the door closed. It rebounds and taps him in the backs of his knees. "Care to sit?" he says, turning the traitorous chair to face her.

She takes it, awkwardly, for lack of space. "Such a gentleman." But when she sits, her bleach-white grin is wolfish. "Zolotisty's promised to come by the Warehouse. And what's more, she's bringing Spandex too."

Cooper's gaze slides from Simpert to the screens above him. New Pittsburgh is up on outpost rotation on one, while the others flicker empty sets from DICE Halls, banyans, the loft, a copse in the north east quadrant, and two more on excellent surfing spots on the island.

"Do you.. are there time markers for this..?" The archival footage is still buffering. Without markers, it's queuing everything in the Outpost recorded within the last twenty four hours - - the default archive capture. He turns to another screen, calls footage for Z's favorite footpaths around the New Pittsburgh area, wonders when he should call his wife to tell her he's going to work a shift and a half.

"I'll have it in your share-box at the end of my shift." With a wave of her hand, she bustles on, "Oh, Zolotisty's done a barter-deal with my Ebenezer. She's given him a heap of junk and he's agreed to give her an item of her choosing from our inventory. And a toffee."

Her laugh, already high, escapes this time through her nose.

"Respectfully, Terry, it would be good to have it now. Are - - when's your shift up?" Ogilvy has access at the end of the shift. Ogilvy has access at the end of the shift.

Lacking popcorn, Cooper retrieves his knitting. In this corner 'our inventory', and in the other, Simpert's fumbling. He wrests his face smooth but for the slightest quirk of his brow.

Pushing up her sleeve to check a glittering watch, Terry answers, "Yes, I'm sure you must be very eager." She stands and gives both men another too-bright grin. "I've got to get back to my nest anyhow."

"Theresa," Simpert says, struggling for earnestness instead of mounting frustration. "I am - - we are, indebted. That you've come down to tell us this, and I can't express enough how grateful I would be if you were able to help us by telling us what you can."

There's that laugh again, the reverberations buzzing high and spastic around the fluorescent lights. "Oh, Matthew. When have I ever not told everything I can? You know how I love to be helpful."

Hopeless. The needles click.

"Last time you rescued Kilkenney's back-ups - - my god, people in the tea room were talking about that for two weeks." He shakes his head a little, marveling at the memory. "And Cooper! Hell, Cooper here hardly knows you yet." He turns to the other man, then back to Terry, who has laughed herself (blessedly) breathless. "I haven't even introduced you two beyond names. He wouldn't know to go to you for re-ups on the big data reels, would you, Cooper."

He clucks his tongue and turns to smile down at that bob. "I hang on your every word, sir, and you have sung Mrs. Babcock's praises indeed. It's been distinctly eventful to see you today, ma'am."

When her breath comes back to her, Terry replies, "Oh, how you boys flatter me. As soon as I get back to my boiler, Mr. Simpert, I'll be sure to mail you those timestamps. Since you asked so very sweetly." A kiss blows Simpert's way, then a second to Cooper, and wades her way to the door. With a wiggle of bright-orange fingernails, she waves toodeloo and pushes her way out.

Cooper waits two beats before peeking around the doorway to see her make the left to her corridor. He wheels, throws himself into his chair and hisses at the load bar creeping slowly forward under the daycap of New Pittsburgh. "Mr. Simpert, where is Spandex if Zolotisty is out with Ebenezer."

CHAK. "Good" CHAK. "fucking" CHAK. "question."

"There's no chance Zolotisty would leave Spandex for long if she's injured. Not even to try and throw us off their trail. ..sir?"

One of the needles slips off the desk.



Three grenades, a rusted-open rat-trap, a dozen empty ampoules, a gold ring, a steel die, four keys, a crystal ball, a human lower jaw bone, a pair of sunglasses (one lens missing), a glass eye, a ceramic maneki neko with most of its paint worn off, white tupperware (lid on, something rattles inside), an array of dish shards, the bell from a stethoscope, a blue glass medicine bottle, a plastic bag, a gun, a gear, and a computer keyboard dry on the edge of the tunnel river.

Dex surfaces again with a handful of clam shells, which she releases back into the water just as Z returns.

"I've been diving, where ya'been, any trouble?" She clambers out and whips her hair like a dog, splatting water everywhere.

"Ahmn, swamps, then- -"

"Z. Swamps?" She hugs her casted arm, but isn't in the mood to dry anything yet.

"I hopped, promise. Just wanted to- -"

"Alone?" Oh god, she's becoming a wife.

"I hopped, Spandex." Z flares her fingers to the right of her shoulder, then again down by her hip. She looks half-chastened. "Justwantedtorun."

"Yehbut still not safe Z, and.." 'So do I' is too much for her to bear hear herself saying. "Then what?"

"New Pittsburgh for ages then up to Pleasantville - - not by foot - - and then back to New Pittsburgh and I saw Eben."

"What'd you do with Eben?"

"What'd you find - - wait, you've been diving?"

"Z!" She stands dripping. Why can't her anger be hot, not cold.

Z half-steps toward the nearest corner, domestication-driven and gone guilty-eared at Dex's gooseflesh. "He was mad about his shoes so I thought I would grift him to keep him from yelling at me but then it worked and his shoes were fixed. Shoe. Just one. Why did you swim."

"Quit that!" Dex says, her forefinger accusing Z's tucked-in tail. "So why was'e mad about his shoes?"

"I put a hole in one the other day on accident. Why did you swim." Z tentatively crowds closer to Dex, shrugging from her jacket to scrub the belligerence from her gooseflesh.

To keep from worrying, she thinks. "To keep from feelin' cooped in'ere. How'd you fix the shoe?"

"Ionno." At the Look, Z straitjackets Dex's shoulders so she can put up her hands. "I donno, Spandex! It fixed. I don't know how. What'd you find, what'd you do. Com'ere, you're cold."

"Wha'mean I donno. What you do? Hang on and shush a sec so I can think."

Z mumbles something about robo-arms and markerpens and toast, but obediently falls quiet and still, watching water bead at the end of Dex's forelock before Improbability cyclones from the ground up, leaving Dex dry and Z shock-haired.

Dex restrains a snort of laughter as Z shakes her head, ears flapping. "There."

"So, fixed it, donno how. Then left. We are supposed to go to the Warehouse to see him cos I got him to say that he would be giving me things. Din'say anything to him about the Network or anything," Z says, pushing flyaway hair from Dex's eyelashes. "Gimme kisses."

Z's cheek's granted a brief kiss before Dex turns to better block the view of her finds laid out on the ground. "I got fourteen echoes, s'at what you sent?"

"Aye. I think. I am a bad counter." She nips Dex's exposed throat, hipbumps her backward to try to get a better look at the collection of things.

"You can so count- - I've seen you play poker."

Z leans to snatch Dex around the hips. She hefts quick - - this potatosacking won't last more than thirty seconds, even with the cast - - and makes the most of her time by padding closer to look.

"S'for you, impatient," Dex says, finally freeing a caged laugh. She worms free of Z's grip but leans back on her. "M'glad you're back."

Z stifles her urge to crouch and touch and turn and paw by moving behind her girl. She belts her arms around her waist, hooks her chin over her shoulder, and keeps her now as a voluntary barrier between the array of gifts and herself. She savors the anticipation as she looks over everything, gaze catching on the tupperware, the bottle, the keyboard. The demand to squirm starts somewhere near the base of her tail and writhes up her spine, insisting that she shake it loose through romping limbs. She holds still, lets it speak as a single thomp against Dex's leg.

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