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5: Variable Substitutions

Tinker's grandfather had often told her that moving Pittsburgh to Elfhome raised the intelligence of human bureaucrats. He commonly cited the Housing Act as proof. People fleeing Elfhome registered their property with the EIA in return for displacement vouchers. The United Nations redeemed the vouchers for a house of equal value (prior to the gate of course) anywhere on Earth, doling out the Chinese Compensation money to those most affected by the gate. The EIA resold the Pittsburgh real estate for a dollar to anyone who pledged to make the home his or her permanent primary residence. The system encouraged squatters to maintain property that would otherwise stand empty. Housing, which had always been affordable and easy to find in Pittsburgh, became basically free.

Her grandfather, Oilcan, and she had lived in an old hotel looking out over the river on Neville Island. It was a four-story palace bought for a dollar.

The locks and dams that controlled the Allegheny, Monongahela, and the Ohio rivers, however, stayed mostly on Earth. Every spring, the muddy river water would creep up the steep bank and swirl into the hotel's downstairs. The basement had slowly filled with river silt, as they only pumped out the water. The first floor they shoveled out and sprayed down with fire hoses. All the wallpaper had long peeled off, leaving stained plaster behind. They left the windows open all summer to dry out the wood. When Tinker and Oilcan rode their bikes through the large empty first-floor rooms, or played street hockey using the old fireplaces as goals, they would kick up clouds of fine dust. Come fall, they would loot empty buildings for window glass, and patch the plaster anywhere the winter winds would be able to blow through.

Her grandfather had converted the second floor to the kitchen, workshop, and classroom. The third floor contained the library, away from the lower-level floods and the fourth story's dripping roof. They slept on the fourth floor, drips and all, as it was the safest place in case of flash flood.

Oilcan moved out the winter of his sixteenth birthday to Mount Washington, claiming he wasn't going to spend another spring worrying if the river would wash into their bedrooms. When their grandfather died the next year, Oilcan offered to take Tinker in with him. Nothing could make him move back to the river's edge. Nor would he let her stay at the hotel alone when she refused his offer. Showing surprising strength of character, he insisted she find someplace above the floodplain.

Tinker had scoured the hill around the scrap yard. After the high ceilings, long halls, and sprawling first floor of the hotel, everywhere else had seemed small and cramped. Finally she'd found a large loft. The living room was thirty by sixty, and the one bedroom was a roomy fourteen by twenty.

Now she went up the steps to her loft wearily, unlocked the door, mumbled her security code to her security system, and slammed the door behind her. She was at the fridge, opening the door to get a cold beer, before she realized her security system hadn't acknowledged her. She jerked around, hand still on the refrigerator door handle, and found she wasn't alone.

A womantall, leggy, with dark spiky hair and armed with a stocky handgun leveled at herdrifted out of the shadows to block the front door. "Durrack?"

A man appeared at the bedroom door. He quirked up one eyebrow. "Well, what do we have here?"

"She let herself in, and gave a security code," the woman said. Her taste in clothing ran to black, and very tight fitting. If she had any weapons other than the handgun, they were small, or strapped to her back. Tinker couldn't tell how lethal the handgun was. It seemed too large to be loaded with something as mundane as bullets.

"Who are you?" Tinker asked, and was somewhat pleased she didn't sound as scared and angry as she was. When was her life going to go back to normal? "What are you doing here?"

"We're going to ask the questions," the man said. "We're looking for Alexander Graham Bell. He goes by the name of Tinker. This is his residence."

He? Hell, they were confused. They had her name right, but certainly not her sex. Not that she was about to point out the error in their thinking. "And I take it that he's not here."

"No," Durrack said, closing the distance between them. "What's your name? Let me see some ID."

Tinker backed away. "Look, I don't want any trouble. My name is Lain. My ID was stolen two days ago by some big goons. I've had a really shitty week, and I haven't seen Tinker for days. Skippy, activate emergency system!"

"We turned the AI off." He checked his forward motion. "Cooperate with us, and you're not going to get hurt."

"You break into my house, wave guns at me, and expect me to turn over my boyfriend?" It was weird talking like this, keeping pronouns straight. It was like a math problem, substituting in values.

"You live here with him?" Durrack asked.

"Yeah."

The woman made a disgusted noise. "How long have you two been together?"

What would the right answer be? A few weeks or months? It didn't seem long enough. "Three years."

Durrack and the woman exchanged dark looks. Perhaps three years was too much.

"I hate this assignment more and more," the woman muttered.

"Patience, Briggs. It's a whole new world."

"Doesn't mean I have to like it."

And while they murmured together, Tinker said lowly, "Tripwire."

Briggs jerked her head up, and then swore. "She's activated a backup defense system!"

Durrack caught Tinker under the arm and hustled her out of the house. Out on the street, he pushed her up against the wall. Not as hard as he could, but still she found herself dangling a foot from the ground.

"Look, you little twit. We've been down to your boyfriend's scrap yard, and there's blood everywhere. We've been to Mercy. We checked with all the Earth-based hospitals. He wasn't checked in at any of them. If your boyfriend is still alive, he's running on borrowed time. If someone finds him before we do, he'll end up roadkill just like his father did. Do you understand?" She didn't understand any of that, but she wanted him to let go of her, so she nodded. "Now, where is Tinker?"

Oilcan's? No, he probably wasn't home. Lain's? No, keep her out of this, whatever it was. Nathan's? He was most likely on duty. She thought of a dozen more places and rejected them. Tinker needed someplace with lots of people where, if these folks really turned out to be American agents, the U.S. government carried little weight. "He's at a hospice just beyond the Rim."

"What's he doing there?"

"Wargs attacked the scrap yard at Shutdown. They downed a high-ranking elf. Tinker took him out to the hospice after Startup."

"That was two days ago."

"Tinker was hurt. One of the wargs messed him up, and the wound got infected."

Durrack swore and took hold of her. "Come on. I'm not letting you out of my sight until I have your boyfriend under my thumb."

Tinker hunted for signs of squad cars responding to the tripwire distress call, but the police weren't showing. Pittsburgh police were spread too thin.

Their car was tucked out of sight, half a block down. A sleek late-model sedan, it looked out of place in Pittsburgh and especially in Tinker's neighborhood. It didn't need the D.C. plates to identify it as out of town. Briggs unlocked the car with a remote.

Durrack opened the back passenger door but held Tinker in check. "Search her."

Briggs moved Tinker so her hands were on the car roof and her legs were slightly spread. The woman combed fingers through Tinker's short, dark hair. The search went down the back of Tinker's neck, up under her shirt and into her bra. Durrack averted his gaze. Briggs' hands stayed impassive, but Tinker clenched her hands into fists on the car roof, until her knuckles showed white, as the search moved to her groin.

"You have no right to do this." Tinker blinked to keep tears out of her eyes. "I haven't done anything."

"Sorry, kid, them's the breaks." Durrack actually sounded like he was sorry.

Finally Briggs moved down to the less personal territory of Tinker's pants pockets. There the search slowed to a crawl. Tinker's pants had a half dozen pockets, and all of them held something. After the first handful, Briggs dumped the items onto the floor of the backseat.

"Please don't lose the nuts and bolts," Tinker said. "They're irreplaceable."

The pockets empty, and double-checked, Briggs stepped back away from Tinker. "If she kicks you with those boots, you're going to know it."

"Take them off," Durrack ordered Tinker.

Briggs sorted through the pile on the car floor, confiscating dangerous items: three different-sized screwdrivers, a pocket acetylene torch, and her Swiss Army knife. They went with her boots into the trunk.

"Can I have the rest of my stuff back?" Tinker asked, nearly whispering in an effort to keep from showing how much she wanted her possessions.

"Just get in. You can pick it up while we drive."

Tinker scrambled into the backseat. There was no lock switch, door handle, or com device.

Durrack slid into the passenger seat, letting Briggs drive. "Where's the hospice?"

"You cut through downtown and go up past where the Hill District used to be." Tinker stuffed away her things.

"Where?"

"Centre Avenue out of town. Corner of Old Center and Old Penn."

"New roads named after old roads that don't exist anymore." He programmed it into the nav system. It must have been tied to one of the few government satellites, because it actually seemed to be working.

Distantly a police siren rose, but they were already turning off her street. Tinker slumped back in the seat. If the police arrived at her place now, she wouldn't be there to be rescued.

"Who are you two, anyhow?" She contented herself with kicking the back of the front seat.

"I'm Corg Durrack. My associate is Hannah Briggs. We're with NSA."

"What's that?"

"National Security Agency."

It just didn't make sense. What had she done to bring these guys down on her? "What do you want with Tinker? He's never been in the United States."

Durrack made a negation sound. "He was born in the United Statessomeplace. He would have been five when the gate first moved Pittsburgh to Elfhome."

Oh, this made sense why they didn't suspect her of being Alexander Bell. They were looking for someone nearly ten years older than her. They hadn't considered that Tinker was anything but a naturally inseminated child. Add in her male name, and they were obviously completely lost. Still, that didn't explain why they were looking.

"We want to protect Tinker," Hannah Briggs said. "He's in a lot of danger."

"So you keep on saying." It was a good line to have someone betray a loved one. "Why would anyone want to hurt Tinker? He runs a scrap yard. He keeps his nose clean. He's a good guy."

Briggs gave a flat laugh and murmured, "Yeah, right."

Durrack gave Briggs a hard look. "He's an extremely intelligent young man who apparently understands the working of the phase gate and in all possibility could build one."

Understood it, yes. Build one? She'd never considered doing that, mostly because the parts were too exotic to find as scrap in Pittsburgh. "So?"

Durrack threw her a surprised look. "Do you have any idea how rare that is?"

"Apparently not."

"People like that can be counted on one finger. No one has been able to develop a hyperphase device since Leonardo Dufae's death. The Chinese figured out how to build it off the designs they stole, but they can't change it or improve it. If they could, we wouldn't have this little weirdness called Pittsburgh. Then up pops Tinker, son of the gate's inventor, trained by the same man, and one assumes privy to any family secrets."

"Yeah. Energy equals mass times constant squared."

Durrack turned in his seat now to consider her in a silent study. They crossed the heavy McKees Rocks Bridge, all stone and steel, hopping parts of the riverbank before crossing the Ohio River proper, still choked with barges. It would be a week before river traffic returned to normal. The roads, though, were clear, and minutes later they were crossing the Allegheny River on the Fort Duquesne Bridge.

"Tinker applied to Carnegie Mellon University last Shutdown. It took them a while to put all the pieces together and notify NSA. We've blacked it out, except letting them issue an acceptance letter. Hopefully, no one else put the pieces together either."

"What pieces?"

"That Alexander Bell listed Leonardo Dufae as his father, and that according to the testing AI, he understood all the questions, even though he answered them wrong. That includes the filter questions on hyperphase that no one is supposed to be able to answer."

Shit. She hadn't considered that they would have an AI filtering the placement testing. Lain had explained that the test was just to see what courses she would need to attend: You can test out of the basics and only take advanced courses. By tracking eye movement, keystrokes, length of time per questionand correct answers changed to wrong onesa good AI would easily have determined that she had comprehended all the questions and just chose to get them wrong. "What an idiot."

"If he meant to confuse people, he's succeeded. Why did Tinker bother to apply to Carnegie Mellon University?"

"He only applied to humor a friend. He doesn't want to leave Pittsburgh, so he tried to keep them from accepting him."

Durrack made a slight noise of discovery. "Why doesn't he want to leave?"

Tinker snorted. Durrack had said it with faint disbelief that anyone would want to stay. "Earth has nothing that interests Tinker."

Durrack's eyes narrowed, and he exchanged glances with Briggs. "What about you?"

"Me?" Tinker squeaked. Oh, please, don't pay any attention to little old me.

"Would you like to go to Earth?"

Tinker laughed. "No!"

"We can set you up at a nice house. All new furniture. Cleaning robots. Two new cars. Basically replace everything you might lose in a move. You could go to school if you wanted. Earth has malls, the net, cable television, first-class restaurants, and Disney World."

"Disney World? I'm supposed to give up my family and friends and everything I know for Disney World?"

"Offer her candy and ice cream," Hannah murmured. "At her age, that might still work."

They were coming up to the Rim. There were long-standing jokes about the slowness it took to move across the border. One joke was that the border was an event horizon of a black hole, something that you could spend a lifetime trying to reach. Another sarcastic prod was that elfin magic made any event last longer than a human lifetime, which was why they'd bioengineered themselves to be immortal.

Hannah, apparently feeling the need for privacy, slid up the sound barrier behind the front seat.

Tinker took out the digital marker that Maynard had given her from the smuggler's loot and traced a quick eavesdropping spell on the back of the seat.

"so chances are, Tinker isn't going to want to come with us."

"That's a possibility," Durrack said. "I say that if we don't find the boyfriend at this hospice, we tuck the girl away for safekeeping."

"Durrack, sometimes you scare me. The Pittsburghers are still American citizens"

"Whose willingness to live on a foreign planet makes their loyalty to the United States suspect."

"Don't feed me that line. You don't give a shit about that."

"Yes, but it looks good on a report when you bend the hell out of the rules."

"Making the girl disappear would do more than bend rules."

"Protective custody. If we've thought to use her to get to Tinker, then she's fair game to anyone looking for him. Do you want the kid in the middle of this? You want to deal with that again? I sure as hell don't."

"It isn't all black and white. There's a lot of gray out there, Durrack."

"It's not the black, white, or gray that I'm worrying about. It's the blood red. I say if Tinker is out here, we stick them both away until next Shutdown and then smuggle them out to the States."

"We should make sure they actually like one another first. She might be lying about their relationship."

More than you can guess. Tinker watched as the second car in front of them got waved through. Tinker or Tinker's lover, she was slated to disappear after the hospice search, which meant she had to get away from them at the hospice. She mostly needed to get out of the car. She considered the tactics she could try, from asking to go pee to stating that she wanted to stay in the car. Just because they'd made the one mistake on her identity didn't mean they were truly stupid. Her real name was misleading, and she didn't remember the application asking for gender or age.

She considered the hazards of being locked in the car, in case her ploy failed. Could she get out? Unlikely. Trying the reverse-psychology ploy of refusing to leave the car was too risky.

Might as well start working on the bathroom ploy. She tapped on the divider.


* * * | Tinker | * * *