Heroes Fail

Waking Up is Hard to Do

Saturday, 23 Apr 2022/Day 768
Refuge Point, St. Louis
03:00, local

Maddy twitched in her bunk, dreaming …


Tinker’s Pit Stop
Paradise, MI

“Tinker?” Maddy shouted as she skidded her bike to a halt at the garage entrance. She caught the smug little hum from the frame as she tipped upright again and snapped the kickstand down. If she didn’t know any better, the all-terrain bike rather liked skidding and snapping to. Maddy thought it was happy to have her as its rider, given her preference for speed and jumping obstacles. It’s a BMX. Of course it likes to get down and dirty. “Thank you,” she whispered as she dismounted. She gave it a loving pat, kissed her fingers and touched them to the handlebars, then dashed inside. She worked with Tinker after school but she had a test to make up.

She was late.

“Tinkerrrrrrr?!” she yelled, making her way through and around the crowded garage floor for the back, where the man’s living quarters lay. All around her the tools, the materials, and every single machine in the place hummed their greeting, a tiny tone of welcome glowing deep inside her head. Minor G chord. Low key today. She thought a quiet C major chord back at them and kept going. “Tinker! You alive back there?”

“It’s like asking me if I’m sleeping back here,” came the grumpy response from the back. “If you get a yes answer, you’re already in trouble.”

When Maddy got closer, she could hear a soft tapping noise coming from the room in back. Irregular yet with its own rhythm, it filled the back of the garage with its own unique sound.

“What are you doing?” Maddy trailed her fingertips across the surfaces she passed. Little trills traveled through her, myriad harmonies from each mechanical and technical thing. She rounded the drill press and saw Tinker tapping an engine block with a ball peen hammer. Middle aged, with middle aged spread and thinning sandy brown hair, Tinker cut a glance under his arm as she approached and went back to tapping. “What are you doing?” she asked again.

Without turning back or stopping the tapping, Tinker said, “Listening. Which is what you ought to be doing.”

It was on the tip of her tongue to ask Listen for what? but she stopped herself in time. Partially because Tinker rarely said anything that wasn’t worth heeding but partially because as she drew closer she could sense the engine block protesting the hammer’s assault. Each blow affected the molecular bonds ever so slightly and though it was nothing the bond couldn’t overcome, she could feel it like a breath of air along her nerves, tickling her from head to toe.

Ping!

Tickle.

Ping!

Tickle.

Ping!

Wait a minute …

The harmonics were off, just the tiniest shave off the top and bottom of the wave, but it was there. Something’s wrong. Fully engaged in the problem now, Maddy leaned against the bench next to Tinker, put her hand on the engine, and waited with eyes closed for the hammer to strike again.

“Powers can be a crutch, Maddy. No different than any other god given ability.” His voice grew a little louder and a bit of a smirk crossed his face. It was clear that he knew his voice would make it harder to focus past the tapping, the continuous ping as the hammer hit the engine. “And when the crutch gets swept out from underneath…”

“Single-point fragility.” Maddy understood immediately. She opened her eyes and looked at the man who was her legally appointed guardian, her mentor, and above all, her friend. “But how can I tell if what I’m sensing is Power-based or not?”

Even as she said it, she knew she wasn’t being entirely honest. What she heard with her physical ears, however finely tuned, lacked the special pluck along her nerves, that something extra inside her head, that Powered sensory input gave her. If she made the effort, she could separate one from the other. Never having that layer of richness to her world, losing that dimension to her senses, was not something she wanted to experience. Nevertheless, she gave Tinker a nod and stood ready.

“Hit it again.”

He nodded curtly, pleased at having her full attention. He tapped the engine block again, this time a little harder, making it easier for her to listen now that he was confident she knew what she was listening for.

There you are. It took a few more strikes but she heard it.“The block is cracked. The sound isn’t traveling through it like it should.”

“You can have conversations with objects without needing powers. They want to tell us what’s going on, if only we would listen.” That was as much praise for her being right as Maddy was going to get. Tinker put the hammer down on the bench before stretching his arms wide and yawning to almost comical effect.

“This block,” he said, patting the engine block firmly, “was designed to do one thing well. Now it’s cracked and it doesn’t do anything well.” Tinker’s chin rested in the palm of his left hand while he looked at Maddy with that questioning stare he often gave her. It was Tinker’s way of asking Maddy to take the next step – tell him what the lesson was about. Lately these days, that next step was less about what to learn and more and more why she was learning it.

“So …,” Maddy said slowly, warmed by his gruff praise but aware she had to keep earning his respect. “Relying on anything to the exclusion of developing other skills, of ignoring your full potential, creates a single point of failure, with catastrophic consequences. It’s a matter of self-reliance.” She could see the sense in it, even as she wondered what it would take to silence the song that only she could hear. “Because then if I run into my brand of Kryptonite, I won’t completely helpless or useless. I can still function.”

’That’s right," he said firmly. “It’s not that you can’t trust people, but when the end comes, all you’ll have is you.” The size of his hands dwarfed her shoulders. So when he grasped her by the shoulders—something he had done a thousand times before—she could feel the chill down not just her chest but moving all the way down her arms to the tips of her fingers.

That’s strange, Maddy thought. Did he say that before?

That horrible feeling of something unidentifiable being wrong crept over her. He kept speaking, his words sounding in her ears like the disharmony of the engine block multiplied a thousand times over.

“If you wake up,” Tinker continued, “your powers could be gone just like that.” And he removed a hand from her shoulder to snap his fingers. The sound echoed in the garage and when she looked at his hand, the fingers that created the snap warped together into one fleshy mass, pieces of flesh rotting off and landing with a horrible squelch on the floor. He looked with amused surprise at his own hand before turning those icy blue eyes back towards her.
“Who knows, Maddy? Maybe I’m dead, rotting in an unmarked grave somewhere right now … What will you do then?”

Eyes wide, she reached for him, only to have him fall apart, moist and rotting, in her hands. Maddy could barely choke past her horror:

Tinker…?


Excerpt​ from Soul of the Machine, by Madeline Cartwright

His name was on my lips as I jerked awake, my heart a trip hammer in my chest. I sat up. Nothing but darkness greeted me and it closed in like a living thing, heavy and smothering. Nightmares were old and familiar but no matter how many I suffered, waking from them was not a relief but torture. Harder than the dark, sharper than my fear, was the silence.

​Everyone thinks they know silence. They listen for people or animals or machines and hearing none, they say it’s quiet, that there’s nothing there.

They are so wrong.

Silence, true silence,​is gained only at the expense of the world’s breath, by ​the death of the Universe’s song. ​Hearing the electons spinning in their orbits, learning their background hum, it was my first lullaby as a baby. It was my first utterance, or so my mother once told me, my first attempt to communicate with the world I could hear in my head … and as I grew, could feel and change .

No more. ​Gone. ​Where the world once hummed with energy, suffused with color and life, it had only the cold and the dead. I tried to describe it to someone, saying it was like being able to see and hear, and then suddenly being struck blind and deaf. They didn’t understand. How could they? How could I describe a world they had never seen? How could I say goodbye a world only I could see?

Waking from dreams of Before was nothing but pain, like acid biting through metal, and I could feel my sobs dragging up from deep inside. I drew my knees to my chest and hugged them tight to keep the darkness from winning. My tears, my loss, were trophies I refused to give it. But it was hard after dreams of Before. Empty pride, really, but it was mine and on some wakings, it was all I had.

Some months past the day I’d woken to After, I’d found a watch on the desiccated remains of its owner. I’d gently removed it and given it a wind. By some miracle it still worked. Taking deep slow breaths, I concentrated on it now as it whirred and chattered away on my wrist. ​It wasn’t the same but it was a reminder, a touchstone to what was, and perhaps—If the Universe was willing—what could be.

I curled up and tucked my wrist under my right ear, the side that didn’t have ruined bits of exosuit melded to my flesh. The cadence of its second hand soothed like the purr of a cat and I waited for its whisper to lull me back to sleep.

And tried not to hear the silence in its song.

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