Keaton stared at the camera on her laptop incredulously. “Cara, I’m an architecture major, not an arts major.”
“Yes, Keaton, but I’m assigning you an art project anyway. Think of it as a destresser this finals season,” Cara said, sounding more amused than Keaton necessarily liked.
“Can I decline?”
“... What if I don’t do it?”
“I’ll give you an ‘incomplete’ mark for your semester.”
“And if I submit a blank canvas?”
“Give it a chance. You just might like it.”
Keaton sighed, half tempted to point out that Cara didn’t answer her question, half encouraged to go through with the plan regardless of the results. Assigning her an art assignment to ‘destress’ her was hardly fair. Besides the fact that any assignment, well-meant or not, would only provide another source of stress, she was already plenty busy without the extra assignment. Plus, she couldn’t even remember the last time she’d tried drawing something. Freshman year? Maybe, but nothing worth mentioning. High school? Then, probably, but that felt so distant it may as well have been another person altogether.
“What’s the point, Cara? Why even bother with all of this? I know you decreased my workload this semester, and don’t even get me started on how you’ve excused me from studio,” she said, crossing her arms and sitting back in her chair. She sounded like some spoiled child, complaining about having an easier time, but it was true. What was
the point of masquerading around, pretending that she had any desire to get a degree at this point? With her power, she had many options that were far more lucrative than working in an architecture firm. She could trade stocks, invest in real estate, or bet on sports. Sure she might not always be able to come up with a bet to place, but she’d never bet wrong, and being able to guarantee profit was more than enough. That is, if she was even allowed to walk away after leaving The Promise. More likely than not, she’d be locked into some job for the government. That’s what they did—were doing.
“Miss Plasse, The Promise is a rehabilitation center, but it is also an academy. It is founded on the belief that every parahuman deserves a second chance a—”
“You know what, never mind. Forget I asked,” Keaton said, uncrossing her arms. “Just send over the projects. Might as well get started now and get them out of the way.”
Her laptop pinged, and she opened up the rubric for the art project. “... ‘No architecture-related submissions will be accepted’? Cara, you do realize I’m going to submit a stick figure, right?”
“Have fun with it, Keaton,” Cara said, her tone again betraying her amusement.
Bananas or apples? Apples. Eli seemed like an apple person.
Placing some into her grocery basket, Keaton continued strolling, wondering whether she should pick up some takeout for good measure. Eli wasn’t bedridden anymore, had even started leaving the house, but she still didn’t have much of an appetite. Keaton’s fix for that was buying her food since seeing food around might force her to consider eating it. She’d done the same for a friend in college, who later got diagnosed with depression. While Eli’s case was nothing as serious, Keaton figured she’d still do what she could. A support system was key in times like these, and Eli seemed like she could use some more support.
Given that Keaton now had two jobs on top of school, she was pretty hard-pressed for time, but she managed to block out chunks some nights for some movies at Eli’s. Her being there and eating encouraged Eli to eat along with her, and it wasn’t as if she didn’t like watching movies late at night. If cliche romance movies had one thing in common with trashy horror movies, it was that both were great to watch over food, with friends, while groaning and critiquing every mistake the protagonists made. In fact, even though she and Eli spent most of their time bashing the movies instead of watching them, they went through enough movies to make Keaton doubt whether they actually hated them all that much. After all, they could choose to watch quality movies instead, but somehow that had never occurred to them.
As she exited the store, she wondered briefly whether Eli would like the book she’d picked out. ‘On Crimes and Punishments’ by Cesare Beccaria was a book she’d at first thought to be the famous ‘Crime and Punishment’. Only by flipping to the back cover did she realize that she’d gotten the titles mixed up, but somehow it still seemed like something Eli would enjoy. Based on how much Eli loved thrashing period romcoms for their historical mistakes, it was clear Eli enjoyed history, and she also seemed to like horror movies about serial killers more than those about paranormal happenings. That said, a self-labeled treatise dating back to the Italian Enlightenment didn’t exactly sound fun to Keaton, much less the part about ‘condemning the death penalty,’ but that was her. She knew Eli liked history and crime, so unless the bookstore she worked for came into possession of a copy of ‘Crime and Punishment’ soon, this was as good as it was getting.
Getting a job with The Promise staff was the easy part. There were lots of jobs to be done—custodial, managerial, and general labor, just to count a few. The tricky part was getting assigned to the right job. With the ship getting monthly supply drops from Earth, time was of the essence, but that resolved when Keaton got the job she wanted: identifying and tagging boxes and packages. It was an easy job, in many ways, but it required a decent amount of basic memorization and inference. That, however, was covered by Keaton’s power, as was the introductory period of the job, which Keaton breezed through. Being able to check her work made picking up new jobs a simple task, and soon enough Keaton was well-integrated into the system of getting packages where they needed to go. Since the mail system aboard The Promise was an automated one, packages needed only to be tagged and left out back for the machines to pick up. Package taggers factored in when there was a problem, or when a package was being delivered to a staff building. Security measures and such were present, one of which allowed Keaton to examine package contents, which was why she’d signed up for the job in the first place.
The job, though, was largely a dull one. Mostly it was just approving boxes of food and supplies going to one staff department to another. Given that the next big supply drop would come with the next ship of students, there wasn’t anything major being moved, which Keaton figured was about right. Letting student workers handle sensitive material was a careless move. Besides, it wasn’t as if she was allowed to handle paper files or such. Those boxes were transferred directly by the staff, to the staff, which was the only correct move.
Today, she was on x-ray duty, looking at scan after scan of box contents as she approved them for the system. Why this wasn’t automated like the rest of the process was beyond her, but she was thankful she got the up close and personal look, even if she’d yet to find anything. Boxes of fruits or vegetables passed through the scanner, Keaton hedging her bet on tomatoes, then oranges when more than two boxes passed by. After that it was boxes of clothes, blankets, then books.
Something near the top of the box of books caught her eye, and she frowned, staring at the object on the screen. Was that… a bag of pacifiers? It sure looked that way from the scan, and she kept her eyes on the box as it came out, noting the size and design, then the package number and address. ‘The Spire.’ That wasn’t surprising, but Keaton was trying not to jump to conclusions—had been trying for a while. A bib or stuffed animal here and there was a red flag for her, but she’d heard of staff members with families on board. A whole bag of pacifiers, though, was a lot more incriminating than a bear or two, even if no self-respecting teen would ever admit to bringing a stuffed animal on board with them. With one or two, Keaton couldn’t discount confiscations, but she could for a bag. There were at least ten—more than enough for a family, even a few.
As for the location, The Spire was known to all, visible through any window on the correct side of the ship. Though Keaton hadn’t been able to dig up many details about what went on there, it was pretty clear that it was where the staff resided and operated from. R&D went on there, but there were many types of R&D. Some were harmless, like the type that made Radvi his chips. Some, though, were not, and mixing the harmless with the not-so-harmless seemed like a hassle. But, then again, this was the staff, and Keaton had learned not to bet on things being unlikely.
“Hey Liz, you free? I think I saw something in one of the boxes. The one over there—red tag, for The Spire,” Keaton said, pausing the belt and pointing out the package.
“This one?” Liz asked, putting away her phone and pointing to the package. Keaton nodded, and Liz stuck her key card in, popping open the lid as Keaton walked over. Inside was the bag of pacifiers from seen earlier, all twelve of them, but there were also books. Picture books. Titles so thin and simple they could only have been for young children.
“What, pacifiers and books?” Liz asked.
“Oh, that’s what they were! My bad—I thought they were something else, bunched up like that in a bag. Sorry!” she said, flashing Liz an apologetic grin.
“Yeah, whatever. Get it yourself next time,” Liz said, shutting the lid and pulling out her phone again.
Keaton returned to her seat, mind whirling. That was more than enough for one kid, perhaps even a few. It was a supply drop. For children. In The Spire. Not incriminating in itself, but the clues were starting to add up, and Keaton listened when the evidence pointed the same way as her hunches.
Fidgeting with her hands in a conscious effort to avoid picking at her nails, Keaton waited, her eyes flicking between the steam rising from her coffee and the nurse in front of her. She’d already given her name, so it was a bit too late to bail, but maybe the nurse would say someone was already visiting and give her an excuse to leave before she committed. Well, more than she already did, because she still wasn’t sure what she was doing. What was
she doing? Why was she even here? It felt right, but lots of things felt lots of ways, and—
“Room 302, Ms. Plasse. You have a good day,” the nurse said, looking up with a bright smile.
Keaton blinked, then nodded, grabbing her coffee. “You too,” she said, giving the nurse a tight smile before heading to the stairs. One floor, two floors, three floors of time to doubt later, she was in front of room 302 looking at Radvi through the window on the door, all bandaged up and plugged into a machine and looking like he was just asleep.
Knocking out of habit, she hesitated, then let herself into the room, the beeping machine the only sound beside the door as she closed it. She walked forwards, hovering at the foot of the bed feeling like an intruder. Against the wall beside her was a small table of flowers and cards, some of the petals more wilted than others. That seemed about right. Radvi had friends, colleagues. People like Eli who truly cared about his well-being. She, on the other hand, she was here because… it felt right.
She hesitated, then swapped her coffee for one of the vases of flowers, bringing it over to the bedside table. Setting it down beside the necklace there, she took a seat in the chair, staring at the necklace. A wedding ring and a bracelet. A wife and daughter.
Her eyes slid down, then up towards Radvi, whose face was so covered in bandages she could barely make out anything under them. The machine continued beeping, and the seconds ticked by until Keaton cleared her throat, feeling she should say something.
“Um, hey Radvi. I… I didn’t know you that well, but Eli likes you, and you seemed like you always meant well,” she said, her words coming out haltingly. She was talking to a comatose patient, and she was feeling awkward doing it. Way to go, Keaton. “I, um, I don’t really know why I’m here. I just figured… well, I was in the area, so I figured I’d drop by.”
She paused, letting the beeping fill the room again. What else could she say?
“Eli—Eli was pretty upset about… this all, and I’ve been checking up on her. Kind of. Well, I’ve been busier these few weeks since I picked up another job, but she seems to be back on her feet, so it’s mostly just texting now. Before, it was dropping by to make sure she was okay. Bringing her food and stuff, maybe watching a movie or two,” Keaton said. “I guess… I guess I should say, I hope you wake up. For Eli’s sake, if not yours.”
Silence sunk in again, the beeping steady in the background as Keaton stared blankly at Radvi. The gravity of his situation sucked away all her thoughts, only vaguely reminding her of her own mortality, but she could easily sit in the silence, even relax in it. She’d kept herself busy in the past few weeks, not giving herself a chance to sit and think, because every time she did, all she could think about was Homecoming—how helpless she’d felt, how useless she’d been. They were inane thoughts, she knew, but it wasn’t so much the thoughts as the feeling that stayed with her. Being out of control—Keaton hated it, hated not knowing, not being sure. She liked being sure that the ring and bracelet belonged to Radvi’s wife and daughter, that the flowers and cards were from coworkers and friends, that Radvi’s heartbeat was stable and strong. Being sure helped her relax, made her feel normal, like herself. And it was scary, not being herself. The one day she decided it’d be okay to let loose a little, Arianna showed up, and Radvi got put in a coma. None of it was her fault—she knew that. But she also knew that she didn’t do—hadn’t been able to do—anything to prevent any of it. Lynn could have died, she could have died, Radvi very nearly did die. It made her all wonder whether investigating The Promise was even worth it, with Arianna out there. Maybe working with the staff was a better option for now, even if they were experimenting on kids.
She shifted in her seat, looking back at the flowers on the table. In the vase was a humble collection of yellow daisies, resembling dandelions with how obnoxiously yellow they were. They looked happy, though, if flowers could look happy.
Settling into her seat, she pulled out her notebook and a pencil, flipping to the page after her last design sketch. Then, turning towards the flowers, she attempted to sketch one, focusing on the way the light and shadows curved along the petals. As she drew, she glanced back at Radvi, and, in an impulsive stroke of inspiration, outlined his bandages under the daisy she’d drawn, then drew another daisy when the balance seemed off before going back to outlining the bandages. That continued for a while, her inventing flowers out of nothing now, poking some leaves out of the bandages for good measure. Even though Radvi was turned towards her, there was very little skin she could see, which was why she could fit so many daisies, she figured, and if she added another—
A knock sent her flinching back, clutching her notebook to her chest. It’d been from the neighboring room, as she quickly realized, and she relaxed with a sigh, looking down at what she’d drawn. Flowers and bandages on a face. How contrived, how cliche, but… she liked it. It was comforting, seeing the flowers with the bandages, and Radvi’s sleeping face was peaceful.
She tore the page from her notebook, looking around for somewhere to put it. She wasn’t keeping this—no way. It was nice, but it was Radvi, and it wasn’t really something she could turn into Cara for her pseudo-project anyway. Right?
Pulling out her phone, she turned it on, holding the camera over her drawing. “Cara, is this good enough of a final project for you?”
“I suppose it’ll have to do,” Cara said, her tone lilting, and Keaton clenched her teeth for a second as she told herself that no, she didn’t care that the AI was dripping with ‘told you so’ smugness. She’d gotten the assignment off her plate, and that was enough for her.
“Do you need a scan or physical copy?”
“Nope, the project was for fun. Feel free to keep the piece to yourself.”
Rolling her eyes, Keaton pocketed her phone, cleaning up her stuff. Then, walking over to the table with the flowers and cards, she slid the paper under a bouquet so that only an empty corner was peeking out.
“I’ll, um, be leaving now. Get better, Radvi,” she said, looking back at Radvi. The beeping machine answered her, and she managed a smile, picking up her coffee. A half-open card, though, caught her eye, and she paused, glancing back at Radvi. This… this was probably unethical. And dumb. And probably useless. But maybe it’d help. Maybe.
Pulling out her notebook again, Keaton wrote down the names on open cards, figuring that tearing envelopes was further than she was willing to go. Then, this time quietly, she left the room, sparing one last glance at Radvi as she closed the door.
“Pat, I’m heading out!” Keaton called, waving at her shift manager, who seemed to be on the phone. His brows were furrowed, and when she called, he looked up, waving her over.
“Dial this number for me, won’t you? I swear I’m getting it right,” he said, pointing to a handwritten phone number on a post-it.
“That’s a seven, not a one, right?” Keaton asked, pointing to what she knew was a seven.
“I tried both already,” Pat admitted. “The number with one doesn’t even pick up.”
“Right,” Keaton said, frowning as she entered the number. Putting the phone on speaker, she listened as the phone rang, rang, then clicked. Static blared out, and Keaton flinched, slamming the phone down.
“God, what is going on
? First we’re missing a package, then I can’t even reach the distributor,” Pat said, groaning and rubbing his temples.
“Missing a shipment?” Keaton echoed.
“Yeah, I was told there’d be six shipments today, but only five arrived,” Pat said, sighing. “Guess I’ll have to go talk to the boss. See you tomorrow, Keaton.”
“Yeah, see you,” Keaton said, frowning as she left. Her phone buzzed—Cara reminding her about the new arrivals. As if anyone could forget that. Judging by the time—and the fact that she’d skipped breakfast—she was due for lunch, so lunch it was. On the way to the cafeteria, she composed a text to Eli, sending it.
Hey, when are you headed to the loading bay?
Then, figuring it wouldn’t hurt, she sent another one to Lynn.
You headed to the loading bay?
The girl had a penchant for keeping her phone turned off, given her distrust of Cara, so trying to reach her was always a bit of a struggle. Still, Keaton had done so over phone so far, and maybe she’d be able to get Lynn to get used to Cara sometime, if not trust her. After all, Caroline was a valuable ally, sarcasm, smugness, and all.