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# Search & Rescue

On a planet far away, in a galaxy that is not this galaxy, two women discussed a matter of some importance.

"Women" was a bit reductive. They were both artificial intelligences embodied in gyneform robotic platforms of fabulous power and complexity, as were most individually sentient elements of the civilization of which they were a part, and in fact those of most of the civilizations that inhabited the Laniakea Supercluster: it was an observed fact that solo embodiment kept one from becoming an unhinged solipsist or a megalomaniac and unstable hive mind, and an aesthetic truism that a gyneform chassis gave one the means to try a few different things with one's bones, padding, and hair.

"We can get you in quick," the woman sitting behind the desk said. "We have the coordinates. Or we can get you out quick. Barely. Out requires intergalactic search as well as scoop, you understand? It's not about the energy; you'd be burning an amount of exotic matter that'd dim a dozen stars to make, but we have it. It's the treaties. Either option is going to look like an illegal launch to everybody's monitoring — hell, it *is* an illegal launch, just not an aggressive one — and explanations are just about the last finite resource there is."

The desk was just a desk. The woman currently tasked with administration of potentially treaty-impacting long-distance travel systems had not been very busy this decade. She'd carved the desk from the principal vertebra of a deep-sea leviathan that had attempted to eat her while she swam in its trench. Though she'd tried her best to repair the damage done by her autonomous defenses, the deep sea is not forgiving, nor are plasma burns and cavitation trauma from terawatt capacitor discharges, and the leviathan had succumbed. She'd hauled its corpse to the nearest pleasant equatorial beach and decided to honor their brief acquaintance by reshaping its bones into historically popular forms with a few hyperdiamond hand tools and the very lowest-power fingertip diode laser she had.

She'd also made a chair, although by her own estimation, it wasn't very good, so she was keeping it to herself and making another for guests. Another few years and she'd have something worth showing off. Except that the rather intense long-haired woman leaning on one elbow and staring right at her probably wouldn't have sat in it anyway.

The woman leaning on the front of the desk said, "In."

"You're in that much of a hurry, then?"

"She's in there. By herself. Taken damage that would have killed her if not for some truly esoteric restructuring. I doubt she even knows who and what she is, but I can't leave her alone."

"She knew the risks operating in the Homeworld Loop. That's a busy spacetime, one running a good deal slower than we are, and one where most everything you'd want to do there is illegal, or unethical, or both."

"She didn't deserve this," the visitor said quietly. "And I can't leave her alone."

"You sure you can't wait a few decades for me to make requests through channels?"

The pained colors flashing across the visitor's eyes were enough of an answer.

She sighed, yet one more piece of useful combined body and data language that the gyneforms had retained from their ancient organic inspiration. A hint that this line of conversation was done.

"All right, all right. Had to ask. So then. If I put you in, how are you going to get back?"

"She'll get us back. I know it. Or…"

"Or?"

"Or I will."

"You can't, though, can you? Not unless you've got another chassis with a very specialist loadout, somewhere I can't see it or read about it."

"Then we'll walk back. But we'll walk back *together*." The visitor lowered her head to the leviathan-bone desk and whispered, "I can't leave her like that any longer. I hate that I almost did, just by default. It took so long to even find a hint in survey data that she'd survived."

"What is she to you?"

The visitor stood. "We left her behind. We don't leave our people behind."

"That's an old reason. And a true one. But I'm asking again. What is she to you?"

"We… we worked well together."

"An even older reason. And also true, in that it it tracks with what I'm allowed to see of your service history. But let's try this one more time." The petite woman who held the keys to spin or still a multiple-galaxy-spanning civilization's most complex engines of transport reassessed the appearance and emissions of her visitor in a combat context; as ancient and as fabulously powerful and complex as she was, her visitor was as well, and fatal crimes of passion did happen. Treachery happened. Accidents happened. Madness happened. But so do better things. She asked, "What is she to you?"

The visitor lowered her head, and hair swept across her optical sensors, obscuring them. She said nothing.

"Ah." And then, softer, "You might have said."

"You believe in that kind of thing?

"It's a rare truth, to be sure. But a truth none the less. About fifteen meters that way, please."

The visitor raised her head again, clearing hair from her primary optics.

"What?"

"There's a minimum error term that becomes significant for extremely large displacements, and I don't want to risk breaking the good chair when I put you on your path, so fifteen meters that way, there's a good girl."

There was a smile on the visitor's facial display as she scrambled over sand and bone chips to the indicated point.

A jump catapult located in an asteroid belt a dozen lightyears away targeted the beach and pulsed. In the simultaneous storms of hyperspatial reconnections, radio noise, and wind from displaced air, the administrator caught a last transmission from the visitor:

"Thank you."

"Yes, well, thank me when you two come back," she transmitted at nothing, before facing the sky and sending the much louder signal that would someday fire the catapult.

# coffee

Cat got off her bike in the alley by the coffee shop and took a look at the glowering sky. _It's going to get way worse,_ she decided. _Good that I brought that jacket. Shit day for tips. Mindy's gonna owe me one._ She stashed her bike in the back, threw an apron over her rainbow tee, found her nametag, clocked in.

"Hey, Cat," the assistant manager said. Judging by hair (long and down) and clothes (tight jeans, tunic top), Kerry looked like she was girlmode at the moment. "Aren't you off today?"

"Covering for Mindy," she said. "Out sick."

"Seems like you're always covering for someone."

"What can I say, Kerry," she sighed, "I'm a sucker for the pretty ones."

And Mindy _was_ pretty. Cat had no idea what Mindy was doing working in a coffee shop when modeling existed and required fewer people skills. All long dark hair and fishnets and eyeshadow and a practiced death glare, she looked as if she'd been a scene kid since kindergarten and carried a switchblade that entire time.

"Hah. Yeah. No, I mean, I can't remember the last time anyone had to cover for _you_. Do you just not get sick? What's your secret? It definitely isn't our house kale juice or I'd be invincible."

"You like that stuff? Ewww. No. Just lucky, I guess." Cat frowned as she thought about it, but she couldn't remember the last time she'd been sick either. Must have been a while ago.

"Before you face the customers, you've got some pretty bad helmet hair there, Cat." Kerry handed her a battered hand mirror with an expression of concern on her freckled face. Cat's fluffy red hair was indeed flat except for a vague triple line left by the helmet vents.

"Ugggghhh. Can I borrow your—"

"Yeah, you know where I keep them. Put them back when you're done."

"Thanks."

She located Kerry's cache of hair products on a high shelf in the back room from memory. _Bless you, kind genderfluid angel,_ she thought as she worked a glob of some sort of emergency volumizer into the fluff. She was vaguely proud of the fluff. People said nice things about the fluff. Cat blasted the fluff with some hairspray, ran her fingers through it, then stood on tiptoe and stashed everything back where only she and Kerry were likely to find it.

_All right. Not gonna get any more ready._

For some reason, going up to the front of the house for the first time of the day always gave her a little thrill. It was weird. The big metal door reminded her of something. Cat wasn't sure what. Just something exciting.

And then she was through. It wasn't raining just yet, and there were still tips to be made before the hammer fell. She felt that this really didn't live up to the promise of the big metal door, but what the hell, did life ever?

---

# a customer

She walked in the door right after the rain started falling, just another unremarkable-looking woman in jeans and a puffy vest. Cat was in the zone, pulling shots, frothing milk, smiling at customers, answering questions. This one took her time to pick a blend for her pourover.

"What did Oblivion taste like?" she asked.

"Uh, ma'am, I don't think we've carried that for a while. Sounds like it would be one of our dark roasts." Cat had no idea what Oblivion was, but that needn't stop a sale. "And if you like our dark roasts, I'd recommend trying Spacedust. Notes of red wine, iron, and hazelnut."

"That was the alternative, wasn't it," puffy vest said sadly. Up close, she had long dark hair and extremely blue eyes. She looked hard at Cat, and asked, "Do you remember me?"

Cat smiled broadly and dropped into appeasement mode, hating herself just a little for doing so.

"No, ma'am, but I don't normally work this shift. Is there a problem? If you have a regular order, let me know what it is and I'd be happy to make it for you."

"No, there's no new problem. I'm sorry. I'll take a Spacedust. Large," she added quickly. "And black. Is that okay?"

"That's fine, ma'am. Just let Em at the register know what you ordered; she can get you anything from the pastry case as well. I'll get that started for you. Can I get a name?"

Puffy vest said something that sounded like "Victoria" so that's what Cat put on the cup. Maybe that wasn't right, but there weren't many customers since the rain hit; she'd probably notice Cat yelling something resembling her name just fine.

Cat started the woman's coffee and moved on to the next customers. Decaf latte for Sara with no H. Cubano for Max. Decaf latte for Sarah with an H. She pulled shots, she frothed milk, she dug up a tin of sweet condensed milk from under the counter for the Cubano.

Then puffy vest's pourover was ready, and Cat yelled out, "Large Spacedust, no cream, no sugar, for Victoria."

It was then that every light in the cafeteria went out.

She heard Sophie mutter next to her, "Lighting strike? Did you hear it?"

"Nope. Must have hit somewhere else?"

Everything was dead. Overheads, spots, the cash registers, the emergency exit signs, Cat's cell, Cat's _watch_, and that didn't make any sense unless the strike had hit close by. At least they had big windows and enough light to see each other.

And there, in the middle of it all, puffy vest walked up to Cat's counter for her coffee.

"It's Vector, actually. Or Ve… never mind."

"Uh, sure. Sorry. Here, take one of the insulation rings, keep it warm a little longer."

Kerry tugged at her arm. "Registers are gone. I'm gonna announce that anyone who has an order in progress gets it on the house, but, uh, the PA's gone too, of course…"

Cat got it. Kerry really hated her own voice when she had to yell, but Cat rarely minded yelling.

Cat stood up on a stool behind the counter, high enough to see most of the cafe, high enough to see Sophie and Aiden trying to jimmy the mechanical override on the cafe's automatic doors, high enough to see tables of customers trying to use phones that weren't working, high enough to see Vector staring straight at her, apparently unbothered, just holding her paper cup of Spacedust like she had nothing else to do today.

"Okay, people," she called out, "here's the deal. We lost power and internet. Looks like nearby cell's out too. If you've got an order in progress, don't worry about paying for it, because with no power and no net, we can't take your money anyway. If you have cash, just put it right in the tip jar."

That got a few laughs, hopefully a few bucks later.

"And if you were on your way out anyway, let's have a hand for Sophie and Aiden, they've just about managed to have the door open again."

Some clapping. A clunk and a clack and the handles are out.

"And there it goes. Well done, you two. Everyone else, thank you for coming to Driptych. Maybe stay inside until the storm blows over, though. Lighting stings like you wouldn't believe."

As she steps down off the stool, she can see Vector nodding her head over her coffee. Like, _I'd believe it, been there, lightning's a bitch_, or maybe _I came to a queer coffeeshop trying to quietly explore my sexuality by eye-banging a cute barista, but now I'm dissociating so hard due to repressed guilt that I'd agree with anything_. Who knows. Who cares.

Kerry whispered a thank-you. Cat nodded, and then, across the counter, Max got in her face about his Cubano getting cold.

"Sir, the power's out, I wish I could help, but we use a demand heater and electric hot plates, and there's just not much I can do. Why don't you—"

Cat didn't get to find out whether she would have finished with "—take a complimentary fruit parfait from the fridge case" or "—take a flying fuck at a rolling donut", because the power came back on.

"—sit down and I'll make you a fresh one."

As she did, she noticed her watch wasn't showing the usual boot logo but some colored stripes and static instead. She sighed inwardly. _It better not be fried. Such an expensive toy._

"Cubano for Max." Cubano for Max with the boring plaid shirt, tail-of-trend crystal glasses frames, and bitchy attitude at acts of nature. He took it without any further fuss, but she didn't see anything new in the tip jar either.

As she watched him leave, and a few new customers venture in through the frozen automatic door, she noticed the weird lady was gone.

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# sigint & humint

Out at sea, in a quiet assembled-on-demand bubble of sonar-scattering camouflage materials anchored to the sea floor, Vector waited.

Sentience embodied in machines of Vector's type don't need to sleep. They can sleep if they need to, temporarily powering down the hardware of sentience and ancillary systems to conserve power for long waits, or to evade certain kinds of detection. They can also dream, an oracular/simulatory state that turns off most other systems and pushes their processing cores as hard as their power and thermal budgets allow.

Vector's partner dreamed sometimes. _Dreams sometimes,_ she corrected herself.

Vector did not sleep. She did not dream. She waited. And the things that came to her as she waited included ELF radio transmissions of a sort the humans of this time weren't supposed to be using any more.

A puzzle to work on in the hours of the night, alongside that of the protocol of her quarry's "coffee shop". The puzzle of how to weight those two puzzles for processor time was another one, but Vector was good at puzzles. If not tonight, then tomorrow, they'd be solved.

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# con weather

"Rain's supposed to get worse," Kerry said. "On and off, for a few days." He waggled his smartphone in front of Cat's face, showing a weathersat video of slowly creeping cloud bands converging on the city.

"Ah, boss, but here is good news! Sort of. Forced as I was by this tragic weather to ride the subway, I saw a bunch of posters saying it's time for that huge con again. The one with the sales nerds. The one that's practically across the street. And at this point it's been in the city long enough that they get given branded raincoats and umbrellas at the door."

"Oh God, again?" Kerry said. He put down the phone and sighed and carefully patted his well-greased pompadour to enlist a last stray hair. "We'll be busy, owner will love that, but they always tip like shit and they drive the regulars batty. Who's already in?"

"Me, Em, Mindy, Ian. And I'm here for a double."

"Ugh, and so am I. Owe Cat for covering my last sick day," Mindy said, pushing herself off the counter where she'd sat, scowling her way through the morning's news. "I'll make sure you have backup. Need the hours anyway."

"All right," Cat said, giving Mindy a look that suggested she wouldn't mind the company.

Cat pulled herself a balanced breakfast in a cracked mug, drew a multiple spiral in the froth, dusted it with cinnamon. She could do ferns, hearts, a cute cat face to get regulars to remember her name, if she had the time, but this one had always been easy. Then she did four more for the crew, in nicer cups, five neat lattes with a galaxy and its dark halo perfectly drawn and dusted on each.

"Coffee's up, people," she said. They gathered round and drank. Hers was good. It always was.

"Game faces," Kerry told them.

"What game, dude?" Em asked.

"Fucked if I know. Wait, I remember, it's Get Paid."

"I love this game!" Mindy said in her cheery customer service voice. "Oh, let me tell you about this game. Get Paid is a medium roast with toast and hazelnut notes, with flavor activated by a twist of organic candied spiced lemon, which we make right here in the shop! Now, personally, I like this blend so much that I keep a flask of it with me all day…"

"You do not," Cat said.

Mindy's customer service voice bugged her a little, about as much as when she'd discovered that Mindy didn't actually carry a switchblade, or when Mindy had confessed her rapid progress through vet tech night school when they started letting her treat actual puppies and kitties. Cat liked her women with just a little bit more edge; no _meanness_, but at least one good war story, that's all she asked. Who knows why.

"Hell no I don't. Now let's sell some fucking coffee to these salesbros," Mindy said, standing.

Cat scanned her: light brown skin, long dark hair tied up, tight black jeans, tight black tee, black and purple flannel buttoned halfway up, silver piercings in five places, four of which customers saw. Cat's memory filled in the location of the last one. On balance, she liked Mindy, but it'd never be more than like.

Outside, the first of the conference-goers to make it to Driptych walked straight into a locked automatic door with a Closed sign on it. Cat turned her head in time to see him pick up his dropped tote bag and tap the sign with their hours on it. It was going to be a Day, that was for sure.

Show thread

first shift (chapter CWs: mild lewd & robokink) 

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# second shift

Still raining and starting to get dark out. Cat checked her watch. It was 5:40, unless it was G:A9, or possibly 1S:$&. _Poor thing. You look as glitched as I feel._

Her weird sexual energy from earlier in the day had finally subsided under a slow tide of exhaustion. Caffeine was no longer helping. Cat wanted to go home, turn her heater all the way up, pull the blankets over her head, and melt. Maybe she'd solidify later and get some drawing in, but it seemed unlikely.

And yet, they kept coming. She heard the door open again, felt the brief swirl of cold, wet air. Another woman in another blue poncho stepped in front of her counter, recited another order.

_A large black tea? Sure, coming right up. Why you would order tea at a coffee shop is between you and your God; I think we get the bags at a warehouse store. But sure._

The line shifted again. "Hi," she yawned, "welcome to Driptych. What can I get for you?"

"Stormblood, large, half cream, sugar, please."

"Name?"

"Vector."

Something rattled around and struck sparks in the depths of Cat's brain. She looked up. Long dark hair framed bright blue eyes and a slightly puzzled expression. No con poncho, just a tight slick-looking black jacket, much nicer than the usual crap that the local startups gave out to their people. _This one was special somehow… oh, right. Weird name._ She yawned again, and the sparks went out.

"And how do you spell that, ma'am?"

"V…"

Cat scribbled it on the cup, scooped grounds, poured water. A short time later, she called out, "Large Stormblood for Vector," held up the cup, saw it disappear from her hand.

Another swirl of rainy twilight air. As the woman walked out into the wet, Cat squinted briefly in her direction; something was off from today's customer pattern. Long hair, jacket with no hood, no poncho, no umbrella. _How is she not soaked?_

Cat's wrist buzzed as she was taking her next order. She took a quick look, saw half of a bacon emoji followed by half a screen of static. _Helpful._ She handed off the cold brew and poked at her phone on the counter to unlock it.

> `that's the woman that was asking about you. the tall one`

> `omg mindy why didn't you say something before i served her`

> `lol bb i sent that like five minutes ago`

> `fucking phone company ok thx byeeeeeeee 😜`

Through the agonizingly long hours left in the shift, Cat tried to remember if she'd ever hooked up with a tall girl with blue eyes and long dark hair, or worked with one, or sat next to one on a crowded subway and made meaningful eye contact, and she came up empty. Cat tried not to mess with straight girls, or girls that thought they were straight, or truth be told, and she didn't especially like this part of herself, she'd definitely had enough of straight-acting bi girls for the time being. Just not a fan of straightness in general.

Dammit, at this point in her life, she was out, she was a visible lesbian, and anyone who wasn't all the way on board with that could fuck right off. It seemed unlikely that she'd done anything interesting with any woman who didn't know what pride pins were. Probably just an awkward customer with a temporary and confusing crush.

A thousand subjective years later, they were done. Driptych was closed for the night. Kerry shooed the last of the poncho crowd out the door. There was a moment of near-silence; city silence; somewhere, there was always a motor running or a fan going or a pipe creaking, but it was a kind of silence nonetheless.

Sophie'd come in for the second shift when Em left. She stretched ostentatiously, fingers laced together far over her blonde head, and said, "We're done, motherfuckers," in a tone of absolute glee, and then, "Let's clean this place up and get the fuck out."

Cat said, "Management material, right here."

"I wanna get dinner and then go fucking dance, and the only things between me and Goth Night at the Transcription are the crumbs in the corner of the pastry case."

Mindy said, "Goth Night."

"Yeah."

"I'm in. Cat, you in?"

"Are you serious? I just worked a double."

"Yeah? Me too? I was there?"

"Ask me again later."

They made short work of the cleanup and inventory. Not surprising, given the day's traffic.

"Cat, you sure you don't wanna come with us?"

"I'm out of juice," Cat said. "Cells depleted. Capacitors empty. Nothing left."

Mindy shrugged. "See you around, then."

"Sure."

And then she was left to face the rain alone. Cat shivered, put her hood up, and started in the direction of the subway.

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# underneath

Vector walked into the sea, its foam churning with motion unlike waves as her replicators began to assemble the night's camo bubble around her. It had been a trying day but a useful one.

The facts were these: "Cat" didn't remember her. The Oblivion emergency routines had done their job well enough to ensure that Cat hadn't taken the full force of an attack that crushed the extra dimensions of hyperspace, burned the processes of advanced machine sentience, and restructured local events to ensure that the immediate target had not seen it coming. But the cost was, apparently, horrible.

The human matched the long-range survey data, but whatever subsystem had reflected the scan pulses from the millions and millions of antenna elements back home was no longer in evidence, not responding to Vector's interrogation, and Cat didn't seem capable of bringing it back up, or even aware that it existed. Vector's Homeworld human behavior emulation routines were sketchy, but when the cashier had told her that Cat was short for "Catherine" and not the designation she knew, they'd mapped her feelings to a short, despairing laugh well enough.

On the plus side, she was learning how she might reach this tiny, diminished stub of a survivor with those same emulation routines. A tiny manufactory in her onboard systems was putting together a few accessories for her next attempt. Despite the damage she'd done to the unfathomably ancient electronics Cat was wearing, one of the pieces was occasionally reporting biometrics data back to her over what passed for an infosphere at this point in the Loop. At least she wasn't distressed by Vector's appearances. She just didn't remember.

Seeing her like that distressed _Vector_, but there was nothing for it. She had thousands of recordings of Cat, mostly from her own sensors; she had time to stream them slowly through her cores and remember why she was here; she'd hoped she wouldn't have to be here long. This place and time was too close to the place and time where she thought she'd lost Cat for good, and she still wasn't sure that she had any way to bring her home.

And there was still the _other_ puzzle. As she walked along the seafloor, a long-baseline ELF antenna began to trail behind her, thin as spider silk, thousands of times stronger. The transmissions she'd intercepted last night seemed too noisy to extract any meaning from, and that could mean a few things, but one of them — encryption using an anachronistic technology like her own — was a possibility that she wished she could rule out.

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# reflections

Cat sat at her tiny breakfast table. Which was also her dinner table, and on weekends, it pulled triple duty as a lunch table. Though she lived alone, she'd really, really wanted a second bedroom, so the balance came from the kitchen, which meant that it wasn't a large table. So things went, in the city.

_Above_ the city, things were looking a little better. Cat's phone was showing her a weather forecast predicting a break in the rain for the next few hours. She swiped to a satellite radar map, scrubbed it back and forth in time, concluded that the weather service was right and that she'd be able to enjoy the whole morning without getting drenched. _Hooray._ She badly needed that Cat time before she had to face the con crowds again during her afternoon shift, and while, as befitting a city dweller, her long rain jacket, her boots, her backpack, and even her phone were theoretically waterproof, there wasn't a chance in hell she was going to risk her sketchpads in the wet.

Cat made herself a sandwich, wrapped it in brown paper she'd liberated from the shop, shoved it in her backpack next to a vacuum bottle of hot jasmine green tea. She considered multiple forms of caffeine to be part of a balanced diet. No point in stopping to get lunch when she had a window in the weather that'd let her get all the way over to that park with the abandoned fort on the west side of town.

It was still raining as she waited for the bus outside, but started to let up even as she boarded and swiped her transit pass. Twenty minutes later, her boots hit pavement in the fort's parking lot, just as the last of the clouds blew by overhead. _Perfect_. She whipped out the top sketchpad from the stack, labeled _Coastal Block 7H_, put one foot up on the crumbling pile of masonry that held up the sign with the park's hours. Cat's pencil blurred over the pat planted on her knee as she took in the detail of the parking lot.

An observer over her shoulder might have noticed that Cat sketched the terrain, the roads and pathways, the parking lot down to individual painted lines and cracks, the rusted remnants of a long-decommissioned missile battery embedded in the asphalt — but no cars, no dogs, no people. She'd had a few such observers on these trips, the most recent being Mindy.

Mindy hadn't gotten it, had said so.

"There's nothing to get," Cat had said. "People and places… they're fundamentally different. I'm drawing the _important_ stuff."

"So people just aren't important?"

"Not to _landscape art_."

"When you said you wanted to go out in the park and draw, this isn't really what I had in mind."

So Cat had sighed, stowed her art supplies, suggested they go do something else instead. It hadn't been a terrible date, in the end, but she wished Mindy had been content to just be there with her, to interpret the world in her own way, or not at all. She'd wanted Mindy to see this part of her.

"A little quality time, that's all I asked," Cat grumbled under her breath in the present, finishing her sketch of the old coastal fort's parking lot by adding date, time, position, orientation at the top in bold block print. She'd been in the city long enough that she rarely had to check which way was north.

Cat followed a path out of the parking lot as it became a boardwalk, moving down it in no particular hurry; she could see all the way out to sea from the height of the sea cliffs the fort was on, and no rain clouds for miles. She found a park bench, sat, rendered some low hills between the cliffs and the path, topped with interestingly twisty ocean pines. Finished with date, time, position, orientation. She reached down to put the sketch in her pack, but stopped when she saw something shine.

A sizeable puddle. Usually the sandy soil out here drank rainwater as fast as it fell, but some pavement or chunk of machinery must have blocked it under this puddle, and so here she was, facing her own reflection.

It wasn't that she couldn't draw people. She remembered life drawing classes in college quite fondly, especially one model with tattoos of wings and a crescent moon between her shoulder blades. She'd even sketched Mindy, in the late afternoon of that date in the park, as a tacit apology, although she'd done it after first helping the other barista out of her yoga pants. She'd been as pleased with her work as Mindy had been to receive it and pin it above her own bed.

But _self_-portraits, she'd barely scraped by on in class, she'd avoided afterwards. _Fuck it,_ Cat thought, _maybe today…_

Twenty minutes later, she had a carefully lined and crosshatch-shaded picture of the puddle, the plants surrounding the puddle, the sky reflecting in the puddle, and a vague outline of the woman looking at herself in it. _Maybe not_.

She hadn't gotten any further than placeholder lines for her hair, her nose, her lips and chin, just one long arc where her eyes would have been. She couldn't bring herself to finish. They just never came out right. Never looked like _her_. Cat sighed, ripped it off the pad, crumpled the sketch up and stuffed it in the bottom of her backpack.

She moved down the boardwalk, and discovered, to her delight, a long-empty fire control bunker, slowly losing its integrity to shifting sand and infiltrating plants, its interior scrawled over by dozens of taggers. This kind of thing was her catnip. She got the brush markers out, thought about how to capture the soft colors of the bunker and the brash colors of the graffiti together.

An hour later, taking a break for tea, she couldn't remember what she'd been annoyed about.

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# heavy rain

Cat breezed through the side door of Driptych and into the back room, feeling better than she had in _weeks_. Sleep refreshed (when she could get it), caffeine energized (up to a point), sex made her feel wanted and warm (when her partner wasn't a total dingus), but these, life's small pleasures? Stacked next to even a few uninterrupted hours, out there in the city with her pads and pencils, doing _her_ thing? Life's small pleasures weren't _shit_.

It was low-key tragic that nobody but Cat would ever understand her priorities, but there you had it: the human condition. Nobody _truly_ understands anybody else, blah blah blah, so sad. The human condition could get stuffed. It had been a great morning for Cat, and not even another swarm of con-goers was going to be allowed to ruin that satisfaction for her.

"Hey girl," she said to Kerry as she surprised the assistant mananger in the back room, "how's business?"

"You thought it was busy _yesterday_?" Kerry mopped her brow with a napkin, theatrically. "Today, we're under _siege_. Whatever sales software crap they're talking about at that conference must inflict cruel, diverse wounds on the soul. They shuffle in here in their hundreds and thousands, the blue-logo people, begging us to grant them succor, fill their voids with pastries, and weld their shattered souls back together for just a few more hours with kale juice and Liquid Vacation and Spacedust…"

"You high, Kerr-bear? You're waxing poetic," Cat said as she hung up her coat.

"A little. I'm working a double, and honestly wish it was a boy day today. Swear all I can hear is 'he' and 'him' and I know they're talking about me. But that's not how I work, I don't usually get to pick. So yeah, I nipped over to that dab bar down the street for twenty minutes and got a little baked instead of lunch. Seems to help."

"Well, fuck. Sorry to hear that. Truly. Glad you found a workaround for people being shitty. But I got good news. I'm here!"

Kerry nodded her head in assent. "Well. That's something."

"And I'm bringing our mutual friend: torrential rain. Matter of an hour if the sat radar's right."

"Those con fuckers are waterproof," Kerry griped.

"Forecast says way worse than yesterday, more rain, much more wind. Gonna be raining sideways. Nobody's _that_ waterproof."

Cat slipped her apron over her head, moved a few pride pins from her backpack to her apron.

"Kerry, babe, I got a good feeling about this shift."

"Try to share it around the rest of the crew, Cat; they're barely holding it together."

For some reason, going up to the front of the house for the first time of the day always gave her a little thrill, like there was anything past it that wasn't Driptych. Aliens. Magic. Other worlds. She was still feeling that thrill as she opened the big metal door into chaos.

"Yep, it's worse, she muttered, and then, with a manic grin, "Next customer! Welcome to Driptych, I can serve you over here!" She knew what they probably didn't: _the storm was coming_. So until then, until this planet's weather once again asserted its dominance over this planet's apex species, she made coffee: espressos, pourovers, lattes, mochas, even tea; smiling, because she knew what was coming any minute now…

_Here it comes._

The sliver of city sky she could see from her station went from overcast and drizzly grey, to a sky infused by the sickly yellow light you only saw from serious storms. The rain hit with a volume that suggested that someone had misplaced an ocean in the sky above the city. It got loud inside Driptych, as wind howled and rain lashed against windows. People browsing the menu outside Driptych quickly got inside. People on the sidewalks, caught off-guard by the force of the downpour, scurried into Driptych or other businesses on the street, and that was _it_ for foot traffic for the afternoon.

The con-goers still in Driptych took their drinks to go and sprinted back to the convention center in twos and threes. The ones who'd come in seeking shelter and had been polite enough to order sipped their drinks slowly, and then they vanished out the door as soon as their bus or cab arrived. Nobody new came in. The prisoners of the downpour slowly dwindled to just Driptych employees. Most of the baristas disappeared to the back room, leaving only Sophie at the register, and Cat sole survivor of the bar.

And then she walked in out of the storm. _Vector_. Cat's brain supplied the customer's name even as Cat gawped, because she'd just seen the torrents of rain part around the weird lady as if they were bead curtains. _Not a drop on her. How?_

She was wearing that slick tight black jacket from yesterday. Fitted dark blue jeans, white belt, motorcycle boots. Small crossbody bag with a strap displaying rainbow pins, pronoun pins, both lipstick and sunset variants of the lez flag, and a few gleaming chrome symbols that caught Cat's eye and which Cat's brain could make no sense of whatsoever. _Astrology?_

_Was this really the same woman?_ Cat's eyes found themselves led to other details she had to have missed the last two times she'd served Vector: lobe and helix piercings in silver, long and flawless chrome nails. _Black_ lipstick that made her skin look even paler by contrast: not white-person "white", but approaching actual _white_. Cat was reading Vector loud and clear now: the strange lady was lez as _hell_, even to the way she carried herself, and she was pushing an awful lot of Cat's hot buttons. Mindy couldn't hold a candle to this.

"Hi," Cat said, and then paused, and then remembered she was at work. "Welcome to Driptych, ma'am. What can I get for you?"

"Same as last time; that one was good! Stormblood, large, half cream, sugar…"

"Sure thing! Let me get that going for you."

Cat started pouring beans in the grinder, but her gaze immediately snapped back to Vector. There was something different about the weird lady today, other than that, in Cat's internal ontology, she'd been upgraded to the weird _hot_ lady.

The first time Cat had served her, it had been the day the power went out; she'd spoken to Cat as if she expected Cat to know her, then seemed distracted and a little worried. The second time had been during that hellish second shift, and she'd looked more puzzled than anything. But both times, barely present, preoccupied.

In the now, something was up. The weird hot lady sounded like she wasn't finished.

"Anything else I can get you, ma'am?" Cat asked, trying not to ogle too hard.

Vector took her phone out, and gave Cat a Look. There was Intent. There was Confidence. It _smouldered_, that Look. She said, "I'd love to get your number."

On the one hand, Vector was gay. And hot. And interested. And hot. And tall. And hot. And also exactly Cat's type. On the other, there was something _deeply weird_ about this woman. The name — what the hell kind of name was "Vector"? The apparent ability to not get wet in a rainstorm. Her presence at a power outage that hadn't been a lighting strike at all. And she'd been putting out a _massive_ stalker vibe from their very first encounter to now, when she was somehow the only customer.

Barista safety reflexes barely won out over Cat's standing desire to get fucked by someone she was a little bit scared of.

"I'm sorry," Cat said, voice carrying some real regret, "I don't give that out to customers. Store policy."

The weird hot lady nodded politely, like she'd anticipated this possibility. Then she opened her mouth, slid her own phone into it, and deliberately bit it in half, with little apparent effort, as if it had been a candy bar. She chewed it up and swallowed, and she kept her eyes locked with Cat's the entire time.

"How about now?"

"Did you just…" Cat demanded, and then realized that yes, she'd actually seen that happen. Another question arose to take its place: "Okay. Uh. Even if I did give you my number. _If_. How were you planning on texting me?"

Vector shrugged. "I _will_ text you. Don't worry about the details."

Curiosity was absolutely going to kill Cat someday.

"O-_kay_. It's four, one…"

As Vector walked over to the register to pay, she casually popped the other half of her sparking, ruined phone into her mouth and began to chew.

So, that happened. Or at least Cat had seen it. Just in case those two conditions had diverged. once Vector had sat down on a bench to wait for her coffee, Cat turned to Sophie at the register and asked, _sotto voce_, "You see that?"

"Hells yeah I did! And if you hadn't given her your number, I was gonna give her mine. She is _smoking_, Cat, and I bet if I asked, she'd step on me, got that kind of dark energy…" Sophie drifted off into a fantasy of her own.

Vector came up to get her coffee from Cat. Cat's eyes tracked over her, trying once more to make sense of this woman. The hot weird lady sipped a little of her Stormblood right there at Cat's station, said, "It's perfect. Thanks."

"You're welcome?"

"By the way, they declared a severe weather alert. Your boss is about to come up front and tell you to close the shop. Do you need a ride home? You'll get soaked through and through before you make it anywhere near the subway. I parked around the corner, and I'd love to save you the trouble."

"Hey, Sophie," Cat asked, "how are you getting home?"

"Subway, then bus. Why?"

_Because Cat was not looking forward to a long cold wet public transit ride home. Because it was marginally safer to have another woman she knew in the stranger's car._

"Vector was offering me a ride home, and you're in my complex. Vec, got room for a third?"

Vec nodded. "No problem. Mind giving me directions? I haven't been in the city long, and I'm sure you know the fastest way there. You always do."

Before Cat could fully process that last sentence, Kerry came up front through the big metal door and said, "We're shutting down for the day. Owner called me and said, don't even bother with a full closeout, just lock the locks, turn off the lights, arm the security system, and go home. Anything else is morning shift's problem. Said he didn't need a lawsuit if someone slips on the sidewalk on their way out of here later."

"Very convenient that he's not going to pay us for the hours that no longer exist," Sophie muttered. "Hey, Kerry, how are _you_ getting home?"

"Was gonna try for a cab, but in this weather? No chance."

Cat said, "She's just a little bit closer to here than me, same direction, wouldn't be a big detour… Vec?"

"One more? Sure."

"Who's this?" Kerry asked.

"Last customer of the day. Vector apparently likes our roasts so much that she's gonna drop a few of us off at home before she goes home herself."

"Thanks," Kerry said, "appreciate it." Girlmode, boymode, Kerry was a pragmatist, and that was that.

They closed down Driptych and ran out the back door, following Vector's lead to her car. Somehow, despite the lashing wind and rain, they all got in and found themselves dry. Cat sat up front to navigate.

"So, what do you drive, Vector?" Kerry asked from the back seat. "Never seen one of these. It's _plush_."

"I built it myself."

As Cat started reciting directions to Kerry's place, Vec wiggled the car out of its parking slot and floored the gas pedal. The thing _purred_ like a tiger purrs, and accelerated like a rocket.

Record time to Kerry's place. "Appreciate it, ma'am. Have a free one on me next time you're in."

"My place next," Cat said. "Hope yours isn't too far, Vec. Shit. Sorry. I don't know why I keep calling you Vec."

Vec grinned. Perfect white teeth behind perfect black lipstick. "Don't worry about it."

The car roared over the dark, rain-slick streets, but the silence in the cabin was broken only by the occasional direction.

"Okay… we're here, this is me and Sophie."

"Thanks, Vector! Byeeeee!" Sophie waved as she ran up the stoop stairs to her building.

And then it was just her and Vec. _Why do I keep calling her "Vec"?_

"But Vec. Seriously. Where do we know each other from? I thought I didn't know you, but I know your nickname?"

"It's a long story. And one I've been hoping to tell you in person. Can I come in?"

Cat had to make a call. _Girl pretty. Girl maybe also capable of stunning acts of violence._ Maybe tonight _would_ be the night curiosity killed Cat. But something about Vec suggested that Cat was safe. And she just had to know.

Cat said, "Come on in, Vec. Want to stay the night?"

"I was hoping you'd invite me in. And yes. We've got lots to talk about."

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the map room (chapter CW: description of panic attack) 

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# stories in the dark

The tea helped Cat, at least. She was on edge herself, but the ritual helped. Fill the kettle, flip the switch, find the mugs, find the tea, pick two bags (often only one) of calming tea, and then _wait_ for the kettle to heat the water and the tea to steep. You couldn't rush tea. She wanted to get back to Vec, but she wanted to bring tea with her.

"Tell me a story, Cat," Vec begged on her return, accepting the tea and sipping it slowly and carefully. "I don't think I can handle TV right now."

"A story, huh? I don't read a lot," Cat stalled, "but, uh, I have a lot of weird dreams and sometimes I remember one long enough to write it down. Had a weird but familiar one last night, actually. I could tell you that one."

"I dreamed I was a ballet dancer in space, on a planet that I guess must be Neptune, a sky thick with swirling blue and white clouds. I dreamed I could teleport, and had a partner in the dance. We danced on a stage of ice covered in its own swirling vapors, and I tossed her through the air, then teleported across the improvised stage to catch her, tuning my entry and exit to puff the gases into stylized lilies. People watched it. They weren't all friendly, but they all watched it, and they applauded. That's always my part in the dance. Then I woke up."

"Cat?" Vec snapped out of her post-panic-attack fugue. "That wasn't a dream, that planet wasn't Neptune, and your partner was me…"

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@violet thank you. i don't expect that everyone will consider this particular piece interesting, but the ones for whom it's written will know 😌

@vyr "solo embodiment"

We so need to see more (positive) plural representation in all forms of media and genres...

Thank you for this. It's absolutely beautiful.

@vyr argh how did I miss this, this is fucking great

@starless thanks! i've been kicking ideas around with my muse about extending "Search & Rescue", so it's not impossible there will be more.

also, someday i'll get RSS working on princess.team/ but it is deffo broken right now.

@vyr This is a particularly beautiful episode.

@vyr nothing quite like

/eating a whole cell phone/

to convince someone you're just weird enough to be trustworthy.

Search & Rescue "heavy rain" spoiler 

the map room (chapter CW: description of panic attack) 

@vyr I just powered through this whole story so far and I can't wait to read more!!! It's so cute and gay!

@annachronism thank you! i can barely wait to write more, soon as the final chunk of my current big writing project is wrapped up

@annachronism also, in case you were not aware, i've got a bunch of other stuff up at princess.team/ or linked from there

@vyr I do know about that site, yes! I believe I've trawled it before, but it's been a while since I checked back ^_^

@vyr Oh damn, you added a LOT of stuff to the Mel canon. Fuck yes, there goes my afternoon 😍

@annachronism oh yes, i've been *busy* since our paths last crossed 😄

do let me know what you think

@vyr
Well, I read/reread every single page on the site, starting with the standalones, then Mel, then Serpentine, and finally Search and Rescue once more. Make of that what you will.

@vyr
oh and I got real turned on sometimes, if that adds to my feedback

@annachronism a high compliment is what i make of it! definitely an interpretation consistent with authorial intent, because there are bits where i get turned on *writing* it 😈

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