Heroes Fail

Second Date

Friday, 07 Oct 2202 (DD937)
Refuge Point
Early Evening

Just as she had the previous occasion, Maddy dithered a bit before joining Refuge Point at the dinner table. She checked herself head to toe: clothing straight, hair tidied, nails clean. A discreet sniff offered up nothing unpleasant. She frowned at herself in the scrap of mirror she’d hung in her cubby. The weather had held dry and the edges of her embeds were irritated and red, making the spidery silver and gold circuit paths contrast sharply against her skin.

Call it face paint and move on. It’s not like no one’s seen it before. What you see is what you get: take it or leave it.

Maddy decided against covering up with her cowl and instead quit her cubby in her thermal-knit shirt and trousers. Still, dissatisfaction dogged her footsteps. Beyond the visible marks of her otherness, there were plenty of things that couldn’t be seen, traps for the unwary and the unguarded … including herself.

Sandra had been compellingly vocal of late and the import of her recent statement—that perhaps Erik would be the perfect candidate to make Maddy her host—made Maddy uncertain of her own attraction to the man. After all, she wasn’t in the habit of throwing herself on anyone and yet, she had done so with him. It wasn’t something she could pin on Faith (and that was still an open wound, slow to heal). Her first disastrous date, such as it was, preceded Faith’s rescue and execution. However, was her attraction to Erik as false as hers had been for Faith? Was Sandra somehow influencing her toward Erik? After having Sandra as an internal companion for so long, Maddy found it hard to remember what it felt like to not have Sandra whispering in her ear, to have only her own voice for counsel.

Maddy shelved it for later. It was not a dilemma she could solve before dinner. She had more pressing matters to tend to: Erik caught her eye as she walked in and he patted the bench at his side. Saved you a seat, the gesture declared. Maddy gave him a smile, tried not to think of how she looked with the bits and circuits, and slid in place beside him.

“Thanks,” she said, glancing down, feeling suddenly shy. She looked up through her lashes at him, not wanting to leave it to a one-word greeting but unsure of what she could say that wouldn’t sound lame (and if she were honest, an echo of everything she’d said to Faith). “How was your day?”

Okie doke. Lame it is.

“Is that how you want to play this, Maddy?” Erik asked, not messing around with small talk. “Heads down shy Maddy is certainly not the same person that kissed me earlier.”

In his mind, Maddy was bigger and more capable than she wanted to be around him. So Erik kept poking her verbally, trying to force her out of the safe space she built for herself. Safe spaces were dull. And despite what she seemingly wanted him to believe, Erik didn’t think Maddy was dull.

“I’m not—,” Maddy said, stung. Duplicity wasn’t her nature. Oh really? said her conscience. Letting everyone think Sandra is dead somehow isn’t lying? “I’m not playing you. I just—I just don’t know how to be around you. One minute I’m myself and another, it’s like … I’ve been taken over by aliens or something. You shouldn’t … I don’t …” She expelled a pent breath and shook her head. A bowl passed her way and she took a little daub of whatever was in it, then dipped up a bigger spoonful and put it on the plate of the child sitting to her left. The kids come first. It was an action as automatic as breathing, but it didn’t stop a self-serving thought from surfacing: And when will you put yourself first, Maddy?

Saving Sandra wasn’t putting myself first? she thought back at it. Any way you choose to look at it, keeping her alive in secret is pretty damned selfish of me. Aware that Erik was still owed a complete answer, she passed the bowl down and looked him in the eye.

“You’ve been around the block a few times, Erik, but I haven’t. Not when it comes to this. I’m still trying to figure out the roadmap so I can get where I’m going, okay? Just know I’m going to be confused ’til then.” Even as she said it, Maddy knew she was giving Erik an unfair advantage by admitting her inexperience, but duplicity wasn’t yet in her nature. Save for one area, apparently, whispered her conscience.

“Just be. Don’t make it so hard on yourself.” Erik knew he was good looking and charming (and talented with a socket wrench too) but he didn’t think he was that intimidating. Maddy had been a Guardian—fought villainous powers and saved people lives. Erik hadn’t been out of Michigan before D-Day.

Looking at how little she was eating, Erik decided it wasn’t all that important they have this conversation at the dinner table. They needed a change of scenery. He stood up with a smirk on his face and held out a hand for her. “Come with me, if you want to live,” he rumbled in a fairly passable Terminator impression.

That Ahh-Nold accent teased a laugh out of her. Grabbing a carrot off a tray, Maddy let him pull her to her feet. She made the carrot disappear in a pocket on the way out.

“So, where to?” she asked. Despite her unfamiliarity with the dance, she was willing to learn the steps. It was one of her constants, one that even Erik’s unsettling effect on her insides couldn’t quell: learning was the axle on which her world turned, the fulcrum upon which she bent her mind. It gave her the confidence to venture, “Around the block, maybe?”

“If that means getting outside the mall wall for a little bit, then absolutely.” Dinner was, as usual, early, so they still had a couple hours of daylight left to work with.

“We can hit the roof,” she suggested. “There’s a lot of room up there. If you want to go outside outside, we need to stop by my cubby first.” She had been outside the walls more times she could count and there wasn’t much she was afraid of. The main reason she wasn’t was she rarely went out without taking proper precautions.

“A prepared man lives to see another day.” One of Larry’s many aphorisms. He had one (or more than one) for every situation. Many of them were pretty trite, but Erik found himself repeating them anyway. “In other words, to your cubicle, Maddy. I want to get my outside time in before it gets too cold to go.”

“Let’s go then.” It was a short walk to her cubby. It was last in a string set up in a side hall off the main concourse. She pulled aside the curtain that served for a door. “Mi casa es su casa,” she said as she waved him inside.

Opposite the door lay a cot with blankets tucked in tight. The walls on four sides were a two-by-four frame with a patchwork of corrugated fiberglass panels and OSB scraps nailed in place. Makeshift shelves bolted to the upright studs added stability. The shelves were laden with all manner of pack-ratty things: string, wire, folded bits of leather and rubber, cracked jars with nuts, bolts, and nails. A tool bag sat in a chair beside the door. A line of improvised coat hooks held her wardrobe off the floor. Boxes beneath held books and more scavenged materials. An old refrigerator from the 1950s, its red enamel chipping away in places, its chrome fittings incongruously pristine, sat in the corner at the foot of her cot.

“Make yourself at home.” Maddy opened the fridge and pulled her knife and wrist rocket from a wire shelf. She got a box of something rattle-y from the butter compartment in the fridge door. "I’d offer you a cold beer, but … " She smiled and shrugged.

Erik moved right over to the fridge, drawn to it like a magnet. He was fascinated by older pieces of equipment. The fact that it brought him close up to Maddy was just an added bonus. He ran a hand across the chrome. “Beautiful. Where did you find it?”

“Crazy thing,” she said, not quite sure what to do with him crowding her but the shiver it sent up her spine was an unexpected pleasure. “I was out on a scouting expedition and found it in a fountain between some stores in a shopping area near here, just sitting in the water like it was taking a shower or something. The stores were gone, of course, but I remember there used to be a vintage refurb place there.”

Maddy threw an arm over the curved top of the fridge and leaned on it, reminiscing. “Denton’s, that was the name of the place. Before D-Day, I would go there sometimes for the really old stuff. Vacuum tubes and Nixie tubes, ceramic fuses, wire recorders, Remington typewriters, zinc-lined ice chests, anything old really. I spotted a working gasogene, once, just gleaming away on a shelf up high behind the register. A gasogene. Can you believe it? He must have gotten it from the great grandchild of a Victorian. Huh,” she added, the memory triggering another and the resulting rabbit hole was pulling her in. "You know, I could really use something like that for a project I’ve got on the back burner … "

“Yeah, what the hell are you building that needs something antique like that?” The words were harsh but the excitement in Erik’s voice betrayed him.

“Well …,” she blinked, perplexed by friction between his words and tone. “It’s a low tech way to make carbonated water. It’s like the modern homemade soda makers. But if you can infuse liquid with carbonation, there might be a way to use it to infuse liquids with other sorts of gases as well. Or use it to create pressurized gas for other tasks. Dr. No might find it useful in her infirmary. Langston might need something like it in his lab. If we could get our hands on a cow, we might even be able to make whipped cream, though cleaning it afterward would be a pain in the ass.”

“Awesome,” he said simply. “This is the Maddy you should be around me. Crazy inventing Maddy.” Erik grinned at her before saying, “Ok, enough with the distractions. You ready to head out and go somewhere, anywhere? Light’s wasting.”

“Let’s,” Maddy agreed, glad he didn’t think her weird for going off on a tangent involving something most people didn’t even know existed. Gasogenes weren’t a dime a dozen, before or after D-Day. She realized Erik still hemmed her in. “Um … we heading out for the roof or …?” she prompted, hoping her request to give her room was oblique enough not to insult him. There was something about Erik that made her want to avoid making him angry. She had an impression of him that she didn’t want sullied. Not now, when their friendship was still intriguing and new.

“‘Out’ meaning outside the walls, Maddy. The roof is boring,” Erik pronounced, as he stepped towards the door. “We still have a few hours of daylight. Let’s go out the west entrance and wander for a little while.” He made an encouraging nod toward the door behind him. First step, he thought, was breaking barriers and boundaries. A trip outdoors in the early evening when everyone else was settling in was a perfect starting point.

“All right, then.” Maddy shrugged into the long garment she invariably wore when outside. Not quite trail duster, not quite Jedi robe, but possessing the qualities of both, it covered her from the neck down. It flared out as she strode for her door and slinging her staff across her back did little to confine it. She pulled her goggles and cowl from one of its inner pockets but kept them in hand instead of donning them. After patting another pocket to make sure she’d remembered to bring the ammo from the fridge, she gave Erik a grin. “Let’s go!”

Erik grinned with enthusiasm. “Damn right, let’s go.” He led them out from her cubby down through the mostly quiet main mall corridor. With dinner on, most people were eating or in their personal spaces, leaving only a straggler or two wandering around. They reached the west entrance and Erik just nodded at the person standing on watch guard (Victor?) as they walked through. “We’ll be back before dark,” he said, continuing on without stopping.

As they got some distance from Refuge Point, he started to steer them a little more north than west, trying to avoid the heaviest of the plant growth. He turned to Maddy and said with a knowing grin, “People just naturally assume you know what you’re doing and are going where you’re supposed to go, even when you don’t and you aren’t. All it takes is moving with confidence.”

“I’ll bet you snuck into a lot of parties and movie theaters as a kid,” Maddy said, her amusement clear, despite having to focus on the environment. Even though the plant growth was less heavy, she kept a sharp eye out for that weird palnt she’d stumbled into, the one that threw spores. She was still waiting for the other shoe to drop on that one. Maddy pushed aside a luxuriant branch of whatever-it-was with her staff and wished for her machete. Ideas on how she could modify her hollow metal staff into a sword scabbard tickled at the back of her head as she said, “So what was the best or hardest place you ever snuck into? And if they weren’t one and the same, tell me about both.”

Hmmm….how to frame that response without giving away too much? Thankfully, one of the unexpected benefits of being a full time thief was learning how to make what you did sound like a 9 to 5. People loved hearing work stories.

“I had to break into a pretty secure server room at one point. Trick, of course, with that is a good server room can be environmentally locked down, so combine that with a well trained private security force and a very nice electronic lock system and it was definitely a challenge. But much like leaving Refuge Point, some old fashioned hacking of human anticipation got me a lot of the way there and then I just had to work my magic with the electronics behind the lock.” He wiggled his fingers to imply a skilled set of hands, but of course, all he had needed to do was just merge with the lock system and pop! went the door. Made things so much smoother.

“Environmental lock down? How? Airlock entry? Halon?” Maddy pushed aside more vegetation and moved around the underbrush with care. “Were you working as a security systems analyst? What sort of human error did you turn up?”

“Human error is the same as it always is, Maddy,” he smirked. “People want to believe in what you’re selling. If you tell them it’ll get them something they want and give them some rope, they’ll tie the noose for their own neck.” He pointed to the building across the street. A rusted but still mostly intact sign attached to a a first floor of white bricks said, “Railton Apartments”. Beyond the first floor, the building stretched 13 floors up, made of mostly intact standard red brick. Overgrown by vegetation like most of the city, the building was still mostly there, minus a few holes and a tremendous amount of broken windows.

Erik looked at Maddy. “Would I win big money if I bet that Refuge Point had searched this building early? Not too long after Destruction Day?”

“Yup.” Maddy tapped her nose and pointed at Erik with a wink. “It’s one of the first places we stripped out.” She paused and sighed, casting an eye over the building with something like fondness. “I think it made a difference in surviving our first winter.”

“And there’s another human hack for you, Maddy. People like crossing things off their list…” Erik paused dramatically. “And then completely forgetting about them.” He moved towards the front door quickly, motioning for her to follow him.

“Who said anything about forgetting?” Wait. What?Maddy frowned and followed Erik. But did she follow slower? Yes. But perhaps she was also watching where she put her feet. “I remember this place well. You’ll want to watch your step on the third floor landing in the south corner stairs. It’s rotted out.”

“You can’t convince me you have perfect memory, Maddy.” He stepped through the empty door frame, the glass long since scattered to the winds. The lobby area, in its heyday would have been welcoming, if somewhat old fashioned. But in many ways, that fit the building. At least 5 decades old originally, the building looked like it had gone through several face-lifts before going through the ultimate remodeling on Destruction Day. “But it’s not about remembering the details that you saw the first time around. It’s about marking it as done and not having the time or interest to go back”

Erik knew the stairs were on the right through a still-intact steel door, but instead he walked to the left past the elevator into the first hallway. “And besides, we’re not going to the third floor anyway.”

All right," Maddy said, oddly stung by his answer. Though some of her memories gave her heartache, she preferred remembering to forgetting and Erik’s assertion implied a callous disregard she didn’t possess. And it wasn’t the first time he’d sent a subtle barb her way. So why are you here? What do you see in him? “So, where are we going?”

“Not far,” he said before stopping in front of apartment number 103. There wasn’t anything remarkable or different about the door, other than it looked like it had once had a nicer lock, which of course had gotten removed when Refuge Point came through. “And by the way, I wouldn’t expect you guys to come back to a building you cleared. Busy with the hard work of surviving and all.”

“And so he takes the girl to his place on their second date. Hmmm, so what’s it gonna be, Mister? Etchings? Trading card collection? Power tools?” Maddy grinned to defuse any possible innuendo even as she wondered why she felt the need to. She was still trying to get a handle on her feelings concerning Erik. He was talkative and charming, if in a bad boy sort of way, and he was definitely intelligent and had a lot of stories to tell. He was someone new, someone from outside the circumscribed world of Refuge Point and though Maddy knew that it wouldn’t be wise to get taken in so quickly by Erik, her thirst for knowledge urged her to befriend him anyway. What lay behind his expression? Was it genuine or a front? He’d already admitted having been here before. What lay behind that door? Did she dare find out? “The suspense is killing me. Shut up and open the door.”

Erik just got an amused look on his face and casually shrugged. “Shutting up,” he said, as he swung the door open to…an empty apartment. More in ruin than the last time Maddy had seen any of the rooms here, it was still reasonably intact, just with more water damage and plant growth than in the early days of the apocalypse. An open living room attached to the remnants of a galley kitchen also had two short hallways on either side that led to bedrooms. But on first glance, there was nothing particularly unusual about it.

“Just let me know when you’d like me to start talking again,” Erik teased before continuing, “I think we can both agree this is not the love shack of B-52s fame.”

“Okay, okay, you can stop shutting-up now.” Maddy ventured a few steps inside, looking at the place and comparing it with her memories. It had been a nice place before the world went sideways. With luck, it might be again. Maybe. Turning around to face Erik, she spread her arms wide to indicate the apartment. “What are we doing here? Poking around? Looking for something?”

“Back this way.” He grabbed her hand, taking the opportunity to enjoy the feel of it. He led her to the bedroom on the left. “See,” he explained, "I knew there might be stuff in an older building that people would miss because they didn’t know to look for it. Plus that whole crazy trying to survive things. But I know older buildings. This likely would’ve been the landlord’s apartment. "

The bedroom was small and filled with the broken down remains of office furniture: a wooden desk missing several drawers, a bookshelf bent over into two halves, exposing the wall behind it. Erik pointed to that wall. “Shelves were probably intact when your folks came through. It’s only after the passage of time that the clues become more evident. Or unless you know stuff about how certain apartments in older buildings might be structured.”

The wall should have been brick covered with plaster. But poking through a hole in the wall was a happily growing leafy vine. Looking through the hole was an empty space where there should have been more wall. “My favorite type of room,” Erik proclaimed happily. “Secret.”

“Hmmm ….” Maddy stepped closer, her curiosity overriding her caution, and looked through the gap. She shaded her eyes to see better through the murk. “So you’re a … puzzle seeker. A treasure hunter. Like Indiana Jones?” she added, looking over her shoulder at Erik.

“Something like that,” he said, grinning. He then put one hand on her shoulder and turned her towards him. “I do find treasures, sometimes,” he said seriously as he looked into her eyes, drawing her in for a kiss.

Perhaps it was the chilly autumn air that made his hand feel so warm on her shoulder, sending a shiver down her side. Every inch of her skin tingled and the heat she felt off him made her ache for something she couldn’t name. Unlike the kisses she’d laid on him, his was confident, passionate, and filled with possibilities. Erik’s hands were like his kisses, smooth and sure as they skimmed over her. Seized by a fierce desire for more, Maddy didn’t pull away but instead leaned into him, even as he pressed her against the wall. A stab in her lower back made her gasp and shift to ease the pinch of metal biting her skin, but that put her in contact with all sorts of interesting bits of him. Gasping for a completely different reason, Maddy’s eyes fluttered shut and she clutched Erik to keep from falling to the ruined apartment floor.

Erik leaned into the kiss for a minute more before letting go of Maddy. “Whew,” he said with a deep breath. “You kiss like it’s the end of the world, Maddy.” Erik had the feeling that if he pushed, even just a little, that Maddy might be willing to go a long way … but he didn’t want that. Like the best of heists, it was all about pacing and timing. Rushing in just got you in trouble.

“You … you’re …” Maddy locked her knees and gripped the wall to stay upright. Her blood was still singing from the kiss, her nerves shimmering with electricity, but now that Erik was no longer touching her, she could think again. She drew a long steady breath through her nose and pulled herself together. “For a minute there, yeah. So … um, where were we?” She ventured a push off the wall, found her footing solid, and turned for the hidden room. “Here, right?”

Erik was glad to see he had as much effect on Maddy as she had on him. He took a breath and nodded. “You wanna open it or shall I?” He was hoping she would. While he enjoyed showing off, Erik enjoyed watching Maddy in action more.

The hole was large enough to admit her head for a good look, but there wasn’t enough light coming in around the edges to allow her to see what was inside. Opening it up wider was really the only option. Glad that her leathers covered her palms, Maddy got a good grip on a section of rotting drywall and gave it a steady pull. It crumbled and cracked and a piece nearly a yard square came away in her hands. White dust sifted down, floating like fairy motes in the slanting late afternoon light. Maddy set her bit of drywall aside and cut a little grin at Erik.

“Wanna piece of this?” She waved at the hole. “No reason I should have all the fun.”

He had been wondering if she’d look for the latch or just rip out the wall. Now he knew. Erik smiled and started helping her rip out the drywall. “I think you’re going to enjoy what we’re going to find,” he said, smiling as he pulled out a section of wall.

“Won’t be long now …hey, wait.” Maddy belately realized there was a latch and managed to trip it before the demolition disabled it. There wasn’t much left. She kicked the debris out of the swing path and pushed the concealed door open the rest of the way. “I wonder what—_ATCHOOO!_”

Wide eyed, she froze and held her breath. Inhaling foreign dust particles without consequences was not something Maddy took for granted anymore. She counted to ten and when she didn’t fall into a coma or have her Power flare to life, she relaxed. Then she saw what the secret room held and froze for a completely different reason.

Crowded inside the narrow hidden room was what could only be described as a survivalist’s workshop. Peg boards filled with tools, electronics, and gun parts lined the walls. Two workbenches filled the center area, leaving only a small amount of room for Erik and Maddy to walk around. Up against the far end of the rectangular room was a series of shelves where used for dry goods and canned food storage. Those shelves covered one half of that wall. A large metal safe took up the other half. As Erik stepped in around Maddy, he said, “Welcome to my world is ending hidey-hole. Looks like this guy came and got a bunch of his stuff, but couldn’t come back for more.” He pointed to the empty spaces on the pegboard where tools had obviously been. “I also checked the safe—no guns to be had, alas.” That wasn’t completely true. The landlord had left behind a couple of handguns which Erik had pocketed for his own use. But that wasn’t something Maddy needed to know.

“My God, Erik …” she finally managed to whisper. “You really have found treasure.” Motionless on the threshold, her head going a thousand miles a minute, Maddy eyed the cache and ruthlessly inventoried it. Tools for Badia. All food and dry goods are going straight to the Quartermaster. Gun parts, Farringdon. Electronics … Badia could use those too but Maddy … Ohhhhh, she wanted them.

“Nothing seems very old.” Maddy stepped all the way inside to the nearest table and picked up a random bit of circuit board. No little hello chirped in her head. It was nothing but plastic and metal in her hand. Swallowing her disappointment, she turned it over to see if any printing survived on the back.

‘Nest, Inc.’ Hmmm …

Looking around, she nodded at the pegboard. “That cordless drill was new when D-Day hit. Is there a charging unit for the battery? If there is, see if it’s got a USB port. I have a crank powered radio that charges devices via USB.”

Most of the food was gone and what was remaining was stuff like dried artichokes, but Erik knew the apocalypse didn’t allow for picky. He helped Maddy with her electronics requests and her organizing for a bit before taking a moment to interject. “If we take this stuff back, I’d like to ask that you keep this room secret. I’ll repair the drywall and such, so no work on your end or on RP’s end.” He flashed her a winning smile. “If I didn’t want to get more involved with Expedition, I’d even let you take all the credit.”

“Oh, I don’t know.” Maddy looked up from organizing her bag and gave him a slow grin. “One could say you’ve already got an in with Expedition.” As soon as the words left her mouth, Maddy started second guessing them. How far could she go with Erik? How much should she hold back? It was moments like this when she felt as if she were two people sharing a single body, attracted and wary at the same time. The memory of their kiss was still strong and while one part of her clearly enjoyed it, another wasn’t entirely sure she should have. “Kinda,” she added, biting her lip and shrugging. She didn’t want to him to expect anything she couldn’t deliver. On either count. “I’m on Expedition, true, but it’s not like I have the ultimate say or anything. I’ll definitely put in a good word. You can count on that.”

“I just like the idea of having a secret room. Doesn’t every kid want their own secret hideaway?” It didn’t hurt that Erik’s potential hideaway had a safe in it. Maddy probably didn’t realize how much he was trusting her by revealing the room in the first place. Some of it, of course, was trying to impress her. But he also missed having someone to share secrets with. Larry, you bastard, why did you have to go get yourself killed?

He walked over to her and leaned over to steal a kiss. “But I appreciate you being willing to put in a good word. Second date turned out better, yeah?” And he flashed that 100 megawatt smile.

The second kiss didn’t cut her off at the knees like the first, but it still had sufficient heat to make her follow after his lips a little when they came up for air again.

“Much better,” Maddy agreed, twining her fingers into his shirt to keep him close. “Secret hideout. Stolen kisses. What happens on the third date?”

“I don’t know yet,” he replied seriously. “The not knowing is one quarter to one third of the fun. The remainder, of course, is the kissing.” And he followed up with a third kiss, long and passionate as the sun set out of their view, leaving them alone together in secret darkness.

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