“We've got orders, FNG orders, c'mon.”
Lucy looked up from her manifest listing on her tablet. Jonathon was crooking his fingers in her direction, and with a mental sigh, she rushed through checking off the rest of the shipment and scrambled over. “Sir?” she asked, falling into step beside her boss. He had long legs and little patience, so she had to hustle to keep up.
“Orders, Smith. Straight from the top, and you're getting to deal with them. Give me your badge, we need to change your clearances.” He sounded like he had a headache, and that was normal for him. Lucy unclipped her badge and dropped it into his waiting hand.
It wasn't that she didn't like her job, she did. It was physical, and it had a lot of variety, and she liked her cowokers. Jonathon could be pretty brusque, but he was a fair boss. But StarkIndustries had its own language, and despite her best efforts, she hadn't quite managed to pick up all of the lingo. “What are FNG orders?” she asked.
“They're orders that no one else wants to deal with, so they go to the low man on the totem pole. The fucking new guy, pardon my French.” He glanced at her. “You, Miss Smith, are in fact that FNG, so you're our go to girl on this one.”
“Yes,sir,” she said, because what else was there to say. “What am I doing?”
“You know about the salvage they're bringing in?” he asked.
Lucy nodded. “Not much. Just that there've been shipments of classified tech down in the low level secured storage lockers.” Their SI warehouse had a series of underground super secure bunkers that were used to store and shelve proprietary tech or dangerous materials, and they were the only ones on the West coast that did. There was a lot of gossip about them in the lunchroom, but almost no one had clearance to go down there, and the ones that did didn't admit it.
The Crypts, everyone said. Don't go down to the Crypts alone.
“It's stuff they're pulling out of the remains of Tony Stark's Malibu house. Out of the ocean, mostly,” Jonathon said, his voice quiet. There was strain in the words, too. Everyone was stressed about that. About the attacks. About the period when no one was sure if Stark was alive or dead.
Lucy had cried when the news had broken that he was fine. She wasn't really sure why. But she didn't try to stop herself from doing it.
“We're storing the salvage here until we have instructions about where it's going, and when it's being moved.” Jonathon lead the way to a nondescript door. He swiped his keycard and opened it for her. Inside, there was a large freight elevator and another series of doors, big enough to move just about anything. He headed for the elevator. “Most of it's Stark's personal affects. But we got a-” He sighed. “Look. It'll be easier to just show you.”
“Yes, sir.” Lucy stepped into the freight elevator with him, feeling very small in the huge space. He swiped his keycard again, and punched button for the lowest floor.
“This way,” he said, when the elevator came to shuddering stop. “Last door on the left, got it?” At her nod, he keyed the lock and swung the massive armored door open. The lights flickered on automatically, and he glanced in her direction.
“Miss Smith, meet salvage items 223-B and C.”
Lucy slid through the door, transfixed. They were robots, of some sort, a single arm on a series of servos, a tall upthrust block of a platform and beneath that, wheels. They were identical in structure, and they were both black with an oily grime that coated every inch of their metal frames.
“Are they supposed to look like that?” she asked, curious.
“The crew that brought them in had to clean the salt water off, get them sealed,” Jonathon said. His fingers tapped across his tablet. “That's why they're covered in that stuff.”
Lucy nodded. “You want me to clean them off?” She could do that. It would take a lot of work, but she didn't mind the dirty jobs.
“No, don't bother. Your orders, Miss Smith? Are to talk to them.”
Lucy stopped. “Excuse me?”
He handed over the tablet. “We got the orders this morning. Until further notice, for at minimum of one hour a day, you are to come down here and talk to the salvage objects.”
Lucy stared down at the tablet. “Sir, is this like when you told me to go find a pallet stretcher?”
“No, that was just us screwing with you. Sorry, hazing ritual. You caught on pretty fast, so good for you. But this is just what your orders say.” He shrugged, and he looked tired, deep circles etched beneath his eyes. “You are to remain here for another fifty-nine minutes and talk to the salvage.” He waved a hand at the two still robots. “Talk to them.”
She glanced at the orders, frowning. “Why?”
“Because Ms. Potts office says we need to.” He was harried now. “Ours is not to question why, Miss Smith.”
“Yes, sir,” she said. She hugged the tablet to her chest. “So, I should do that now?”
“Yep. I'll be back at the end of your shift with your updated badge.” With a nod, he was out the door and gone. It shut behind him with a very final sounding click.
Lucy stared at the door. Then at the robots. She cleared her throat. “I don't know what I'm supposed to talk to you about,” she said at last. She glanced down at the tablet, rereading the rather terse orders. There was nothing there, nothing she could use. Talk to them. “I'm not very good at talking, but if they want me to talk to you, that must mean you can hear me, right?” She set the tablet down on the ground and fumbled in the pockets of her coveralls.
“You were at Mr. Stark and Ms. Potts' house, weren't you? You must be his, I've heard he has robots. He's okay, you know that? Everyone thought he was dead for a couple of days, it was really bad around here, but he's okay! He had a press conference the other day, and the news is saying that he's going to get some sort of medal for saving the president.”
She pulled out a bandana. “Don't worry, this is clean,” she explained. “I don't blow my nose on it, I just use it to tie my hair back if it gets in my face. Promise.” She crouched down in front of one of the bots, trying to figure out what was what. “I think, is this a camera? I think...” She used the handkerchief to scrape away the worst of the oily gunk. It took a couple of minutes, but finally, she uncovered the camera lens.
Grinning, she sat back. “There we go. That's your eye, gotta keep it clean, right?” She half scooted, half crawled over to the other bot, sitting side by side with the first. “One sec, let me do this. You guys are pretty identical, aren't you? You know what? Despite what Jonathon said, I bet I could clean you two up. If I've gotta sit down here anyway, I might as well. Worth a try.”
When both lenses were clean, Lucy nodded. “I'm Lucy Smith,” she said. “And I guess I've been nominated to tell you two what's been going on around here.” Sitting back, she drew her knees up and wrapped her arms around them. “I don't know much, but I'll tell you what I know. But the important thing? Tony Stark and Pepper Potts are both alive, they are both alive and fine.”
She took a deep breath. “So, it all started a couple of weeks ago, I guess, but some of the news channels are saying it started much earlier than that...”
“Okay, this stuff is disgusting.” Sighing, Lucy tossed the now oily black rag into the bucket. “I hope they got all the salt out of your joints, because this stuff, ugh, it's disgusting. You do not want a double dose of this.” Her fingers felt raw, and she tried to get the thick black sludge off of her hands. “But we're getting there, okay? I'll get you clean if it kills me.”
It had taken a dozen rags and a whole week, but one of them, the one with the letter designation U on its frame, was clean. Well, cleanish. She'd started feeling bad about putting all of her efforts towards that one, and now that it was presentable, she'd switched over to its twin.
For some reason, that one seemed harder to clean.
Lucy swiped the cloth down the support strut. “There's a lot of stuff happening,” she said, shifting to find a more comfortable position. “The news channels are going nuts, I mean, of course they are. And people are talking about the stock prices, but I don't know. I don't know what investors would be doing investing in SI if they weren't aware that Stark goes off the rails from time to time.”
She was finding silver under the layers of dirt and soot and oil. “The company's a little like you, right now, huh? A bit battered, a bit dirty, and not really moving, but we'll all be okay. I mean, it'll be-”
The words dissolved in her mouth, the inane babble dying unsaid. Her eyes narrowed, and she leaned in, scrubbing the cloth hard against the metal. She dropped the rag, resting her hand against her knee. “DUM-E,” she read. “You... Have a name.” She felt the smile bloom on her face. “He named you.” It was silly, to feel so pleased by that. Her head swung around to the other one. “The U wasn't a designation, it didn't mean that you were the 21st robot,” she said to the still bot. “It means that's your NAME.”
She stood. “You,” she said to one, and to the other, “Dummy.” She chuckled, and without thinking about it, she stroked her hand over the support strut. Her smile died, a faint ache settling low in her stomach. “He wanted me to talk to you,” she said. “So that means he's coming back for you. Okay? It'll be okay. He didn't forget about you. He'll come back for you.”
Scrubbing her hands on the cloth, she tried to sound reassuring. “I gotta go, but next time, I'll bring something better and we'll get you cleaned up. When he comes back for you, you've gotta look nice”
Patting the other bot lightly on it's claw, she headed for the door. “It's going to be okay!” she called back over her shoulder, and for the first time, she didn't feel silly at all for talking to salvage.
“I'm going, I'm GOING,” Lucy said, half-running towards the elevator.
“Not today,” Jonathon said, bringing her up short. “We need you unpacking and rerouting the morning shipment from Jakarta, we need it out by eleven, and Carlson's out with the flu, so we're short handed in the receiving department. You've had all of the training, haven't you?”
She nodded. “Yeah. But I'll be busy this afternoon, so when should I-”
Jonathon rolled his eyes, a quick flick, almost impossible to see. “Look, don't worry about it. We don't have time for this, I know it was a nice break for you, but it's fucking salvage, pardon my French, it's- We don't need to babysit hunks of metal. We don't have time for it.”
“It's been three weeks, Smith. With no end in sight. We don't have time to deal with this. You've got actual work to do, let's get to it.” With a brisk nod, he strode off.
“Sir?” Lucy called after him. He glanced back, annoyance plain on his face, and Lucy had to take a deep breath before she took the chance. “I'm allowed to take my lunch break where ever, right? I mean, if I choose to take my lunch time down there, than that's not a problem, right, because it's unpaid and I don't have to-”
He cut her off. “Smith, when you're off the clock, if you want to sit and talk to the shipments, that's your business. Just don't get into trouble, and don't make trouble, and I'll leave the clearance on your badge.”
“Don't thank me, just get to work!”
Lucy waited, relief a heady thing, until he was out of sight. She waited only a second, her heart thudding a little too fast, before she shot for the elevator. It would take a few minutes, but she had to take the risk. She could run back to the other end of the warehouse and still not take too long.
She swiped her badge on the locker door. “Hi!” she said, sticking her head inside. “Sorry, guys, I'm gonna be late today, okay? But I'll be back in just an hour or so and I have newspaper clippings and I'll read them to you at lunch. Also, some oil, let's see if we can get your wheels unlocked. But I haven't forgotten you, I will be back, I promise!”
Feeling better about the change in schedule, she let the door shut, and ran back towards the elevators, as fast as her already tired legs could carry her. It was going to be a long day.
“So, Ms. Potts took a leave of absence, and no one knows why, but I guess things are working out, because she sent out the memo herself.” Lucy waved the wrench in midair. “So that's something, right? I'm glad, Ms. Potts is pretty much awesome. I don't know how she can move in those shoes, I really don't.” She glanced up with a grin. “It's like she's walking on some sort of space age architecture, and sometimes that must-”
Lucy stopped. Blinked. “Did you move?”
There was no response, of course there was no response. There wasn't any reason for a response. The bot wasn't moving, it had been dead, well not dead, inactive? Maybe the word she was looking for was inactive, it had been inactive since it had been put here.
But it wasn't dead. She refused to think of it as dead.
She reached up, her fingertips dirty and shaking a little, to brush across the intact lens of the camera. It was a miracle, actually. She'd found the files. She had the clearance for them now, it came with the door access. They'd fallen from the house, they'd fallen with the house, off the cliff into the sea. They'd fallen, then been trapped in the ocean for days before the salvage had begun.
It was a miracle that they were as intact as they were.
“You were built to last, weren't you?” Lucy asked. She smiled up at the camera. “He built you solid. You're still here, you're still in there, I bet you are.” She stroked a finger along the line of its claw, tracing each piece. “Don't worry. You're going to be fine.”
She stood and walked around the bot, heading for her bag. “I got Time magazine!” she said. “It's a long article, so I might not be able to finish reading it today. Because that would put me past my lunch break, but I'll be back on Monday, and then we can-” She pulled it free from her bag and turned.
The camera was pointed straight at her.
“You moved!” Her knees went weak under her and she stumbled against the wall. “You moved! I knew it! I knew you were still okay!” She crouched down, almost eye to eye with the camera. “Hi! It's okay, it's okay! We'll be fine, okay?” She held up the Time magazine, which had a picture of Tony Stark and Pepper Potts on the cover. “Look! Things are going well, I promise!”
She turned around and ripped the cover off, holding it up against the wall. “I'll put this here, where you can see it, okay? I'll get some tape after my shift is over and I'll put these up where you guys can see them.” She reached for her bag, where she had dozens of articles by now. “All of them, all of the pictures and articles.”
Grinning at the bots, she held up the cover. “It won't be much longer now. I bet you, it won't be long now.”
“Hey, guys, look, I brought you an article from-”
Lucy froze, like a deer caught in the headlights. For the first time, the storage locker was occupied by something other the two bots.
Tony Stark was sitting on the floor of the locker, a laptop on his knee. Dozens of wires were running from the sleek computer to the bot in front of him. His jacket was tossed over the bot's frame, his sleeves rolled up to his elbows, and there were tools scattered all around him.
As she stood there, awkward and confused, there was a bump at her arm. Her head swung around. “Oh,” she whispered, as the bot's head came up. “Oh, you're awake.”
“Yeah, they just needed a charge. This your handiwork?” Mr. Stark said, a little quirk of a smile hovering around his mouth. He waved a hand at the articles taped to the walls, and Lucy wondered if it was possible to actually die from embarrassment.
“Yes,” she said, her fingers working on the articles that she'd brought today. There had been a lot of them; she'd bought three papers this morning. The thin newsprint crumbled in her grip, and she jammed them into her pocket. Clearing her throat, she said, “But only the good ones. The positive ones, I mean. About you. I thought they'd-” Humiliation a physical force in her throat, she stopped talking. “They would be reassured by that.”
But Mr. Stark was looking at her with something she couldn't quite identify. “Okay,” he said, at last, turning back to his computer.
“That was stupid, wasn't it?” Lucy asked. “Not like they knew-”
“Oh, they knew. Minimal battery charge, minimal contact with the network, things were all fucked up, but they were still-” He tapped a finger on the laptop screen. “I set them up to be able to form a closed network between the two of them, if they couldn't reach anything else. So even when they were trapped in the ocean, they were in constant contact with each other, pinging their internal network, so to speak. And when they were pulled out and brought here, they had visual and auditory input online. Once you cleaned them up, they could, in fact, see. And hear.”
Lucy grinned. “Really?”
He arched his eyebrows. “Really.”
You bumped her elbow again, and she patted him, listening to him whir and chirp. She resisted the urge to hug him. “Is Dummy okay?”
“He will be. Just-” Stark frowned down at the computer screen. “He's older. Stubborn. But, uh, yeah, yeah, he'll be fine. In just a second, give me a-” He grinned. “There.'
With a faint whir, Dummy's arm came up, his claw rotating, his fingers clicking together. Stark grinned. “Oh, now you want attention? Not happening, I have better things to do.” Despite the words, he reached up, his fingers almost black with oil and dirt, and the bot dipped down to fit it's claw under his palm. Mr. Stark stroked a hand over the claw. “Hey there, you lazy bot, what the hell are you doing down here? You have exceeded your maximum allotted vacation days, you know that? Because you know how many vacation days you get? None. You get no vacation days, because even when you actually are supposed to be working, you are lousy at it, and that is just, you are an embarrassment, you know that, don't you?”
His head fell forward, his shoulders rising and falling in a shuddering breath. “You are an embarrassment, Dummy.” His voice wavered, and broke. “You damn bot.”
With a faint whirr, the bot bumped against his palm, the sound almost like a purr, and Lucy bit her lip to keep from sobbing out loud.
She must've made some sound, though, because Mr. Stark glanced up at her, his eyes red and damp. “You, it's, uh, Lucy, right?”
“Yes, sir, Mr. Stark.”
“It's on your ID badge, of course it's your name, fine, look, I'm going to charge these two idiots up, and then we'll get them out of your hair.”
She nodded. “Do you need me to get you some packing crates, Mr. Stark?”
He considered that, those long, long fingers stroking along the length of Dummy's support strut. “No,” he said at last. “No, I'm heading back to the remains of the Malibu house, and I think they've been trapped in the dark long enough.” He glanced at her, a smile blooming on his face. “Think you can rustle me up a cart big enough to hold these wrecks?”
“A cart? Not a trailer?”
“California, Lucy. Everyone deserves to drive a top down convertible at least once around here.” He pushed himself to his feet, and his suit was wrinkled and dirty and he dusted his hands on his pants like he didn't give a damn. “They're about to become New York boys, so it seems like on their last day in California, I owe them a little sunshine.”
She was grinning at him, and she knew that she must look like an idiot, grinning and trying not to cry all at once, but she didn't care. “Yes, sir, I think I can find you just what you need.” Nodding, her head bobbing like she was a doll with a broken neck, she backed towards the door. Her back hit the doorframe, and she grabbed for it. “Want me to get it now?”
“Just get it ready to go. I'm going to charge them for a little bit.” She nodded and was halfway out the door when his voice stopped her. “Lucy?”
She glanced back, and Stark was looking at the articles, his fingers still rubbing over Dummy's head. “Thanks.”
“Yes, sir, Mr. Stark.” She slipped out the door. Before it could shut behind her, she heard the rattly, uneven sound of wheels turning and Stark grumbling something about leaving one or both of them in North Dakota, about putting a parachute on the bot and pushing it out of the plane somewhere above Mount Rushmore.
She was grinning as she ran for the elevator. The news article in her pocket crinkled with the movement, and she fished it out. For once, she thought, giddy with it, the headline got it right.
Tony Stark was still moving forward.