When my mind races, my body (and everyone else's) seems to slow down. Which is fine, because I need time to think, to process, to contemplate between leaving Daph -- hope she doesn't resent my sudden departure, leaving her in the lurch for the homework session; I'll have to make it up to her somehow -- and hopping into the inevitable black fuel hog at the pick-up curb out front and having to deal with Parker and her sunglassed henchmen. Action. (I zig and zag through the kids and a few adults standing about in the aisles, and cut around some magazine racks. Not running, but moving with all deliberate speed.) I'm so excited to be doing something that I have to force myself to slow down wonder what that something will be. "Change on the way." So a costume, then? I didn't think we'd finished those discussions. Or maybe just something more appropriate than the Gardner dress code permits for combat. What am I doing? What am I going to do? Is this a team action, or something solo? Is it action at all? "Homework will have to wait. Car outside. You can change on the way." Perhaps it's a visit with some oligarch, and I'm simply going to be dressing up more nicely. All right, that would be disappointing. And irritating, making me break a commitment just to meet some politician or millionaire (but I largely repeat myself). Assume it's action. What's my role? (Kids sitting on the floor, talking and working. I salute their defiance of convention, even as I curse internally at the obstacle they are causing.) Probably not leader in the field, though I've the training to do it. Never liked it, though, and, honestly, never managed it. Of course, getting mercs and criminals and the sort my father could hire/suborn to obey a 14-year-old girl, even under pain of offending Doctor Chin's daughter (and, thus, perhaps Doctor Chin), was never going to be easy. I have little doubt I can successfully direct this group of neophytes. Except, again, they aren't likely to see that as their preferred course. Still, I can always offer suggestions -- if they bother to give me a comm this time -- to whomever (Leo, presumably) is leading this soiree. Unless it's purely an AEGIS matter, and I'm just being thrown in as a soldier. Hmmm . (Lines at the check-out; I feel more than see the point to move around, weaving about a woman with a stack of books in one hand, baby stroller in the other, and pirouetting about a trio of kids I recognize from Calc.) The role will depend on the kit they've pulled together for me. I've not had time (or materials, or opportunity) to actually hand-craft any of the items I've been thinking of (and have already thought of several refinements to the sketches so carefully placed in my notes). What I'm provided will determine what I'll do with it, sniper or close-up combatant. If this is some sort of metahuman threat -- I feel a weird tremble run down my spine. I'm a 17-year-old high school senior, with little to offer except a well-trained body -- an hour of exercise and kata work every morning to maintain that -- and a very smart brain to operate it. But I don't have super-speed, or cybernetic armor, or cosmic police powers, or eldritch attributes -- or even a swarm of nanobots at my beck and call. Given the possibilities, what the hell am I doing here? Trying to make a difference. Trying to turn my life into something I can be proud of. Trying to protect Jason -- or, well, now, I guess, Jason's friends (goddammit, Jason). None of this makes sense. Excitedly running off into battle, like I'm a different -- I stop, right in front of the muffin shop. Someone almost stumbles into me, and I step lightly aside. Through the shaded glass doors (southwest exposure, must be brutal in the summer) I can see the black, boxy vehicle looming, waiting for me, waiting to carry me off to -- My mind goes into overdrive. I shoot off at right angles into the women's bath room -- I need to pace, and can't do it here. It also provides a few moments cover -- nobody ever questions that a woman has to pee before driving off somewhere. Who am I? What did Leo do to me with his memory machine? Those feelings are back, to be sure. Images of times with Jason -- in jungles, warehouses, beachside esplanades, in orbit -- now have an emotion track to them. Mine? Or Jason's? They feel too coherent to be Jason's, but I'd think that, wouldn't I? I've tried to resist poking at them, analyzing them, letting them flow over me. Sitting in a prison cell didn't seem the right time, and then Jason pulled off his asinine retirement and I was so angry -- Why was I so angry? His excuses make sense. Indeed, on one level, they're laudable. Hell, I should be clamoring to be right by his side, helping him, if it wouldn't give Parker and the national security apparatus a fit to have me involved in so much classified hypertech. I step around in the cold, tiled echo chamber of the ladies room, a waltz, a gavotte, moving around the tight spaces, ignoring the stares from other library patrons, feeling the space as I try to construct the right thought structure for all of this. Why am I rushing off to "adventure" and danger and putting my life on the line? (Whether I am or not; my brain has decided it's 79.26% likely, ±12.47, based largely on the overtones of Parker's texting and the circumstances it was received under.) I'm trained to caution, to planning, to silent infiltration, to violence directed and focused only as a last resort, to overcome a particular obstacle, to withdraw from a failed situation. Going out and thumping bad guys isn't what I'm designed for. It's something I can do, but -- Did Leo do something to me when I foolishly let him into my skull? (For a good cause -- healing Jason was just and fitting, to be sure.) Did the Toy Maker decide that crafting his own wind-up girls wasn't enough of a challenge any more? (Father talked of Rossum to me a few times -- he seems a hideous psychopath, and I say that as someone with special insight into that category. Did the sprocket fall far from the gearbox there?) Of course, Leo could be innocent of this particular crime. AEGIS keeps him on a tight leash, protestations notwithstanding. If they had access to his "Heart Factory," might they have taken the opportunity to affect my mind? Or Jason's and mine, both? In a heartbeat, so to speak. I am trained to be patient. Quiet. Observing. Even smiling used to cause my father fits when I was supposed to be covert. Yet, here I've been, visibly and audibly chafing at the bit, practically begging Parker to let me out, sketching weaponry, dropping hidden messages, designing a secret identity, dying to be "part of the team." Spilling my guts to Leo. To Daph. To anyone who's graced me with a smile or been willing to lend an ear to poor, damaged, evil Alycia Chin. Has someone manipulated me? Less paranoically, did Jason's quixotic impulse to heroism infect me during our merge? Or am I just changing as a person? Which of those can I prove? Which is the most terrifying? I stop in mid-spin, arms outspread. A girl, perhaps 9, is just inside the door, staring at me with curiosity. I smile. "Don't ever let them see you sweat, little sister," I say. I sling the book bag back over one shoulder and exit past her. Regardless of the whys and wherefores, I have a mission, right now . And I can observe, even while I act, right now . If this is all by someone else's intent, they will betray themselves eventually. And then they will learn that the greatest danger of a sharp blade is when it turns in your hand and cuts you, instead. I step out of the library, pause at the top of the steps, looking at the black SUV a dozen yards away, idling, shaded windows betraying nothing of what's within. I smile. The dance begins.