A Little Monster
Grace, chagrined, took a long sip from her coffee. She considered Avonaco as she did. She hadn’t figured the kid out. He had deftly extracted her from ITB. He’d broken into their security network and somehow—she’d have to ask about this later—managed to evade the array of infrared sensors protecting the cellblock. He was keen to save Tim, and seemed to have a generally good opinion of Raj. Yet for some reason, Avonaco disliked her. The way he talked about Tim was as if he blamed her for his death. It made no sense. According to Avonaco himself, he’d never met Tim. Or Raj—in person, anyway. Yet the boy carried a grudge big enough for a team of steelbacks. Strange, strange child. She’d known plenty of children growing up cloister, but nobody like Avonaco.
“Can we get you anything more?” MariDora asked.
“No,” Grace said, putting down her cup. “Oh, actually, flapjacks!”
“That was your second steak and eggs. Are you sure you have room for flapjacks?” MariDora’s voice held no reproach, just a motherly suggestion that perhaps her eyes were bigger than her gut.
“Uh-huh,” she said.
MariDora tapped her ptenda and nodded to Avonaco. The boy headed upstairs. Hitch began scooting his sandbox toward the stove.
“Avonaco doesn’t like me,” Grace said quietly.
“He’ll still bring down the flapjack batter,” said MariDora.
Grace raised her eyebrows. She’d expected the friend of such a lad to offer some reassurance, or at least some kind of excuse.
“I don’t want to cause you folks any trouble.” Grace finished her coffee and glanced at her ptenda. “There’s still a few hours until daybreak. I can stop by Bod Town and then go south toward Cheyenne before anybody—”
“Don’t be stupid.” Avonaco’s voice erupted from the stairs. He closed the distance to the table and slammed a box of flapjack mix in front of MariDora. “Didn’t you pay attention to what I said?”
“Avo…” MariDora placed a large, strong hand on the boy’s shoulder.
“Well, hurry up and get used to it! You can’t just leave!” Avonaco folded his arms. “You’d be picked up before you even left the city. Every protector is looking for you; every loafer has your image in its engrams.”
Avonaco sat down and glared at her. MariDora picked up the flapjack box and retreated to the stove. Grace followed with her eyes, wishing she had MariDora’s excuse.
“I have to get into Bod Town and retrieve Tim’s crystal memory,” Grace said. “How exactly can I do that if I’ll be jumped by the first loafer we see?”
“I do not know how,” Avonaco muttered. “Somebody is bound to recognize you.”
“It could be a good thing,” Grace said.
“A sighting, anyway. Spreading my name around the AI community. Raj was hoping for some support.”
“You think AIs will jump out and protect you during a blind bang?”
“All I’m saying is that one loafer might not be a problem. Not in Bod Town. It might even help us. And afterward, I’ll be getting out of Port Casper altogether.”
Avonaco stared at the table, processing her words. He had a little crease between his brows. Grace sighed. She was usually good around kids.
He looked up, still frowning.
“I haven’t given you a proper thanks for breaking me out last night. May I give you a hug?”
“Don’t touch me!”
His eyes blazed in anger. Grace had battled murderous aposti, renegade protectors, and violent AIs, but she’d seldom seen such an expression of pure animus.
“Well you’re a little monster, aren’t you.”
Her words came without thinking, and the effect was as immediate as her regret. Avonaco raised a hand to his quivering mouth. His brown eyes filled with tears, tears that cascaded down his cheeks and dripped off his chin. Before Grace could reach out to comfort him, he had dashed up the stairs, and she ached at the long, low wail he cried as he disappeared.
“I’m sorry, I—” She began to stand, then sat back down, the chair cushion wheezing out stale air. She sighed. He wouldn’t want her to follow.
“That was unkind,” MariDora said as she deposited a plate of steaming flapjacks in front of Grace.
“I know.” Grace rubbed her face with her hands. “I’m sorry. He seemed so angry, I just—I’m sorry. There was no excuse.”
MariDora cocked her head and seemed to choose her next words carefully. “Avonaco had a difficult start in life. He hasn’t had the benefit of many friends. Just Djoser and Jaya, and we AIs at the Freer.”