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9: A Gathering Of Wyverns

There, she had done her duty to the human race, and reported her suspicions to Maynard. Only it didn't make her feel better. She'd repeated Pony's story and Tooloo's history lesson and gone away feeling like an alarmist circulating dangerous rumors. Maynard had nothing he was willing to add to her news, so she left still in the dark and feeling grumpy.

On top of that, it felt ridiculous to ride into the scrap yard in the back of the Rolls-Royce: the elegance of the car rolling into the lot of wrecked machines, and her handed out like a fairy princess. She was tempted to kick Pony just to protect her junkyard-dog image. Checking the impulse, she unlocked the offices, disarmed the security system, and got gently put aside so Pony could check out the offices.

"My system was up and running, so no one is in here," she complained, following him in. She should have kicked him. The air was stale, smelling still of blood and peroxide. The offices suddenly struck her with their worn, cluttered ugliness. All the office equipment was second-hand, jarring in its mismatched, battered appearance. Despite her best efforts to stay paperless and organized, the paperwork sprouted out of every nook and cranny.

"Forgiveness," Pony murmured, but continued looking. In the small, crowded rooms, he seemed larger and more imposing.

She ignored the impulse to get out a beer. One, it was way too early to start drinking; secondly and more importantly, the beer would just taste like piss. She was going to have to find some ouzo somewhere.

Sparks had nearly a hundred messages cued up. She told her bot to skip past all messages from Nathan, and the number of waiting messages dropped by half. There were messages from Oilcan, Lain, Maynard, and the NSA from the time she had been with Windwolf, covering all bases as they tried to locate her. Those she had Sparks delete. The last two dozen messages were from actual customers, looking for parts and wanting to sell scrap.

"Sparks, make a list of wanted parts."

"Okay."

The door burst open, and Riki rushed in. "Where the hell have you"

Pony had his sword out and to the grad student's neck, cutting off the words while almost cutting open his neck.

"Pony!" Tinker cried.

Riki had rebounded, hitting the door frame in an attempt to get back out the door, his hands up in a hopefully universal signal of unarmed surrender. "Hey! Watch it!"

"Put your sword away, Pony," Tinker commanded. "He works for me. This is Riki."

Pony eyed the tall gangly human suspiciously, even as he sheathed his sword. "Riki?"

"Yeah, dude, Riki."

"He doesn't speak English," Tinker told Riki. "Windwolf told him to guard me."

"I see." Riki continued to eye Pony, but Tinker could only stare at Riki. A cut split the skin of his cheek, his nose was clearly broken, and his sunglasses couldn't completely cover the fact that both eyes were blackened. Everything was purpling gloriously, which meant the damage had been done soon after she last saw him, three days ago.

"What the hell happened to you?"

"I got in a fight." He glanced at her for the first time and stared. "Oh, shit. What the hell did you do?"

"I didn't do anything."

"Oh, you did something! You're a fucking prissy elf!"

She was stunned at the venom that he put into the word and projected at her. "What's your problem?"

"You sold yourself to them like a whore, only you did it body and soul. I didn't think you were such a slut. How many of them did you fuck until you found one that could remake you?"

"What?" It took a moment to actually get something else out. "You're one word away from being fired. You don't know anything about me, about what's happened to me. You have no right to talk to me that way."

He snapped his mouth shut and spent a moment or two choking on whatever he wanted to say. "I'm sorry," he finally managed to growl. "It's not you I'm mad at, and you're here and they're not."

"If you're pissed at someone else, go scream at them."

"Okay." He ducked his head down again. "I'm sorry."

She glanced to Pony, slightly surprised that he had let the shouting take place, even if he didn't understand the language. Pony stood tense, one hand gripped around his hilt. Okay, he was ready to shish kebab Riki. The danger of Pony actually doing just that helped cool Tinker's anger.

"Look, there was a misunderstanding between me and Windwolf. I didn't know he was going to do this to me, and I'm not sure how I feel about it. So can we just ignore it for a while and get some work done?"

"Fine," Riki snapped, much too fast to have really thought about it, but she'd deal with that if and when he brought it back up.

"Who did you get in a fight with?"

He blinked a moment at the sudden change of subject before saying, "Some elves at the Faire. I said the wrong thing. The jerks took it as an insult."

She'd never heard of elves ganging up on anyone before. Usually honor dictated that fights were one against one. "What did you say?"

Riki sucked his teeth a second before saying, "I'm not sure. I was really drunk, and I thought I was being friendly."

Well, if Riki was drunk, then anything could have happened, including him just tripping and falling flat on his face. It at least explained why he suddenly hated elves.

She searched the top of her desk, found her headset, and pulled it on. It fit oddly on her new ears and refused to stay in place. "Sparks, upload the list to my headset."

"Yes, Boss."

Now if she could get Riki to be as cheerful and helpful.

She fought with her headset long enough to scan the parts list, and then stuck it in her pocket to be modified later. The quickest order to fill was an alternator for a turn-of-the-century Dodge truck. She dragged Riki through the yard to where she knew a Dodge sat already partially stripped of door panels, back axle, and windshield. Pony made sure no one was hiding in among the salvaged cars, and then settled into a guard position a couple dozen feet back.

Tinker leaned into the cab to pop the hood latch. "Do you know anything about engines, Riki?"

"I know the basic parts. Why?"

"It would be nice to know what I can trust you to do. Lots of different jobs go into keeping this place profitable. If you can't buy your own food, keep clothes on your back, and heat your place in the wintertime, the EIA ships you back to Earth."

She found the latch, slipped it aside, and hoisted up the hood. As usual, she couldn't reach it up high enough to fit the brace into place. God, she hated being short. Why couldn't Windwolf have fixed that while he was turning her into an elf? Maybe she would start growing again. It would be nice to be taller.

Riki pushed the hood up and slipped the brace into its slot.

"Thanks." She spread out her catchall. "So, what's the alternator?"

"Here." He tapped on it.

"Good." She stepped up onto the bumper so she could lean over the engine to reach the fist-sized part. "Okay. Carburetor."

They played name-that-part while she used WD-40 and patience to loosen up nuts and bolts untouched for years.

"Nuts and bolts are important here." She coaxed one set after another off and tucked them into the catchall's pocket, where they couldn't fall to the ground and possibly be lost. "Don't strip them if you can help it, and don't lose them. If you find one on the ground, pick it up. I've got boxes of spares back in the offices. Lose a vital bolt, and you could wait two months for a simple repair to be done."

"Two months?"

"One Shutdown to order the lost piece, a second Shutdown for it to be delivered."

Riki grunted. He was looking at her oddly. With slow carefulnessas if he expected her to hit him if he moved too fasthe took out his handkerchief and wiped grease off her nose. "I can't figure you out. If you just went to Earth, you wouldn't have to be mucking around with junk like this."

"I like this," she growled. "What's so great about pure science? So what if the universe is expanding or contracting? What difference will it make?"

"What difference will a used alternator make?"

"It makes a hell of a difference to the poor schmo with his Dodge up on jacks, waiting for this part."

He grinned briefly, and then sobered. "I don't know what Windwolf offered you, but remember that everything has costs. Sometimes the price is out in the open, and sometimes it's hidden."

"One fight makes you an expert in elves?"

"I don't need to know about elves to know how the universe works. There are always strings attached, and it's the hidden ones that are the real bitches."

Yeah, like suddenly being married. "I said I didn't want to talk about it. I'm pretty freaked out about it."

"I'd be more pissed than freaked, especially with a watchdog thrown into the deal." Riki jerked his head in the direction of Pony. "I would hate having to hide everything from a spy on top of dealing with the change. Or are you so na"ive that you don't realize everything you say and do is going to be reported back to Windwolf?"

"Can we just drop this?" Tinker cried. "And I'm not na"ive! I've been careful all morning about what I said and did around him." But all the juggling had been for Pony's sake alone. Having a total stranger invade her life had been intrusive enough without making him privy to all her personal conversations. It hadn't occurred to her that Pony might report her activities back to Windwolf, or that Windwolf might have arranged a guard just for that purpose. Had he? Her gut instincts said no, but what did she really know about Windwolf?

"I'm just trying to warn you. You do know it works two ways."

"What do you mean?"

"He can also keep you from doing anything Windwolf doesn't like."

"Like what?"

"I don't know." Riki raised his hands to show he was innocent of the knowledge. "I can only guess. I'm fairly sure that I can't take you out for a drink, just the two of us, on my bike. Which is a shame, because you seem like you could use a drink."

She shifted uneasily. "I've got a ton of work to do."

"You really amaze me. If I were you, the last thing I would want is to go through the motions with some watchdog keeping an eye on me. I'd take off, take a little me time to deal with being jerked out of the human race."

"That would be immature."

"News flash: You're still a kid. And here's another important announcement: You're now stuck that way."

"I'm an adult."

"As a human," Riki said. "As an elf, you're about sixty years shy. You're not going to be an adult for a long, long time."

She could only stare at him in horror. "Oh, no, no, no."

"Like I said, if I were you, I'd ditch the watchdog and fly."

She barely kept from looking toward Pony. "Yeah, with him watching every minute?"

"Duck around the car where he can't see you, and I'll stand here and keep talking. He'll probably assume you're working there."

"And what about you? When he figures out I'm gone?"

"Don't worry about me. I'm very good at pretending to be harmless."


* * * | Tinker | * * *