I looked around with a small smile on my face. The hustle and bustle of people rushing to and fro was oddly comforting; the fact that they were completely ignoring each other was less so. I looked over my shoulder, to where She was watching me with that damn catlike smile on her face.
“So where are we?” I asked, walking towards Her. I had to step quickly to keep from bumping into someone. I was so out of place, in my armor. Nobody was even wearing leathers nearby. Not that anybody was looking at me any more than to walk by.
“New York,” She said with an amused tone. “From before the wildlings.”
With new appreciation, I glanced about the people again. Suits, clothes, people talking on phones. The glass and mortar towers reaching up into the sky, the cars owning the streets, the buzz of people and electronics. I saw a food stand in the distance, a simple cart with an umbrella that had bouts of steam rising from it. I wish I could have gone over and gotten some. I wanted to know what it tasted like, or even smelled like.
“Incredible,” I whispered softly.
Her hand found its way to my shoulder, followed by a gentle touch of Her head as she leaned it against me. “Is it? Is it really?”
“There’s probably more people living here than I’ve ever seen,” I said quickly. I knew not to draw too much attention to myself, to just let them go about their business. “There were… Millions here, right? Before Gold Morning, I mean.”
She looked up from my shoulder, her long blonde hair half-covering one eye. “There were fifteen, actually. And that’s just in this one — in some of the other New Yorks, there were far more. This one, though, this was the one to be rebuilt. During the rebuilding, it hit its peak at ten million.”
I looked around again, and sure enough, if I looked at some of the skyscrapers, I could see signs of damage. Signs of Scion. “Can you show me it from before?”
Her laughter was bubbling as She stepped in front of me, cool hands reaching out to fuss with my hair. “We’ll see. But not right now. You’re going to have to go back soon.”
A soft frown framed my face. “Oh, come on, Mom. Can’t I stay just a little-“
A hand on my shoulder dragged me from my dream. It was funny in a way; all the shaking that our wagon was doing did nothing to discourage my nap in the slightest. But a gentle shake? It’s funny what the human body can learn to respond to. Or was it the brain? A question for philosophers, people who didn’t work for a living: Where did the brain end and the body begin?
Unfortunately, as much as I liked to study their works, I was firmly stuck in the realm of working for my bread and butter. My eyes opened easily, looking up at the person who disturbed me. Sarah. “Almost there,” she said in a businesslike tone.
I bit back a yawn as I worked from untangling myself. A leg wedged between barrels, the other pressed against another. Legs worked between planks. Unfortunately, I didn’t bite back my yawn well enough, and felt a tear escape, running down the side of my face. I wasn’t the kind that had the little yawns or the loud ones. I was quiet, at least at first, but my nose always ran and my eyes watered horribly each time. I’d be sniffling for the next five minutes.
If I ever got in a relationship, my partner would have to be damn forgiving of my appearance each morning.
As I worked myself to a more sane sitting position, I noticed Amy glancing back at me from where she was driving the horses. “You weren’t twitching this time, Jordan.”
Our first contract with this convoy, Amy had been the one to notice that I’d sometimes twitch a lot in my sleep, usually violently. I’d turned beet red, everybody had laughed, and had mercifully changed the subject. Since then, it’d become a gentle joke among the drivers and us regulars about my sleeping habits. They only ever brought it up when I had a bad episode, hence me wedging myself in as tightly as I could. She must have felt we’d passed a comfort level or something when she could tease me about it all the time. It was about time, really. It was a two week drive out, another two weeks back; we all needed something to take our minds off the monotony of the trip.
“Yeah,” I said, pausing to snort snot. I grabbed my halberd, handing it to Sarah. I left the rifle where I’d stashed it; chances were we wouldn’t need it. “I wasn’t dreaming about fighting.”
“Oh.” She looked away quickly, but I could see her ears turning red underneath her hat.
That earned a lazy chuckle out of me as I made my way to my feet. “It’s not like that.”
Sarah’s professionalism broke, thankfully. “Bro here fucking trains in his sleep.”
The six others stared at us in surprise as my boots hit the ground easily. Amy hadn’t even slowed down for me. She never did. Roger seemed to worry more about me getting back off than Amy. Had Sarah told him about my knee?
“No shit?” Karen asked. She looked like she was seeing me in a whole new light. Given that she was one of the two newbies who hadn’t been here for our last fight, it wasn’t surprising.
That brought an embarrassed flush to my cheeks. I hated being the center of attention. Too much pressure, too many chances to mess up. I pulled my pack out of the wagon and took my halberd back from my sister. “It’s not like that. Probably, half the stuff I do in my sleep won’t even come in handy in a fight. My mind, it goes through the motions, you know? But it doesn’t teach muscle memory or anything. I’m not that good in a fight.” I glanced to Sarah. “You already throw?”
She nodded, her professionalism already back in place. “John lost.”
I glanced to John, who was scowling. Paper-scissors-rock to see who had to help Amy and Roger unload and who got to guard the rear. Which meant that the two of us were in the clear. I couldn’t help but grin at him, despite feeling guilty. This was his second trip, after all. “I’ll let you in on a little secret. She always leads with scissors.”
Sarah punched my shoulder without looking, just hard enough for me to feel it through my armor. She didn’t look like what a lot of people imagined a typical para to look like. She wasn’t what you’d call lean, but she didn’t look like she’d have such a boost to her strength as she did. Not that it did a lot of good — we hadn’t figured out the upper limits to her strength yet, but we had discovered that her bones hadn’t gotten that nifty resistance to damage. The last time that she’d tried punching something with too much force behind it, she’d shattered her arm.
Our armor helped mitigate that somewhat, but it also lessened the strength of her blows considerably. The shirts, gloves, and pants were a first trial test by our other brother, Chris, a Tinker. She’d chosen a dark blue and gold for her armor that offset her short dark brown hair nicely. The cloth was a nice fit, but nothing like spandex; a thin inner layer of some tinker cloth, a high-shear non-Newtonian fluid layer, and then another layer of some other tinker material with a tight hexagon pattern that made it look like some sort of Tinker scale mail up close.
We’d discovered that her strength was only a side-effect of her actual powers — some sort of weird air pressure/sonic ranged power. We weren’t sure as to the max range, but if she snapped her fist shut while punching the air, it gave it enough oomph to seriously hurt someone.
By comparison, my armor was red and black, cut to highlight my chest more, and honest-to-goodness shoulder pads. Everybody said that it made me look heroic. A small blessing. I’d trained over the years mostly in leather armor, but this was a lot better. Better protection, more maneuverability, lighter, and more visually impressive. My belt and bandolier helped make up for however much my pack detracted from my visage.
The two of us might be young, but we looked like we were as ready to throw down as anybody. And we’d proven it more than a few times, too.
“Hey, Jordan?” Amy glanced back at me from her seat, looking nervous. “You can tell me to fuck off if you want, but… What did you dream about?”
I blinked at her, needing a moment to figure out why I might tell her to mind her own business. I didn’t need long, though. Parahumans, and folks with parahuman family members, they didn’t walk away the same that they were before they experienced a trigger event. Especially not with how triggers were going these days. Most folks knew at least one person with bad PTSD anymore, and a whole lot more had dreams they didn’t like to talk about. Especially folks who’d lived through the Gold Morning.
“It’s cool,” I said, flashing her a comforting smile. I focused for a moment, trying to think. “Shapes… I was somewhere… A city, maybe?” I shrugged. “I don’t remember, to be honest.” I looked to Sarah as I sniffed again, who was raising an eyebrow. “Yeah, I’m pretty sure Mom was in it.”
She nodded, then quickly nudged me with her elbow. “Let’s start trailing.”
I glanced ahead, realizing that we were at the last bend. Through the trees, I could see the other caravan in the distance. I would have preferred to push on to the village a half-hour further, spend the night in a real town, then head back, but the Sons of Bitch weren’t exactly the most accommodating folks on the planet. Reportedly, Roger hadn’t exactly done a brilliant job of making himself welcome there, either. Not enough for him to be taken off the trade route, but enough that meeting outside of the city was preferable. Nothing simple was ever easy.
I slowed down, flexing my leg a little, working out the stiffness. I’d been pushing my brain and body hard almost my entire life. If I wasn’t studying, I was training. If I wasn’t training, I was helping someone out, putting any nugget of knowledge or skill I’d picked up to as good of a use as I could. When the brain gave out, it usually just meant blushing and apologizing or grabbing a nap. When the body gave out, you tended to feel the effects a lot longer. I had a long list of things that bothered me to various degrees, but my knee was the worst.
Fortunately, it didn’t hold me up much. In a fight, I usually still had full mobility. I’d just be paying for it the next day if I kicked too much. I gave my leg one more experimental flex, frowning. Now my mind was spun up, and we had an opening to talk a little bit. “Are you getting a weird feeling from Amy and Roger?”
Sarah’s expression didn’t budge, but her voice was low and dark. “Yeah. They’re treating the two of us extra nice. Amy gave me some of her dessert last night.”
That was a surprise. Amy loved her sweets. I glanced to sis for a moment before taking up a leisurely pace, using my halberd as a walking stick. “We’ve been doing this run for two years now. They know us. Trust us. We’re friends for crying out loud. They’d only be only be going out of their way to butter us up like this-”
“If something was up.” Sarah’s nose twitched, the nostrils drawing together. “I’m going to go with either someone is going to headhunt us after this trip, they’re going to cut our pay for the next contract, or this is going to be the last run for a while.”
One good option, two bad ones. Headhunting meant better pay, which meant that we could meet our goals that much faster. That was a good thing. Cutting our pay just meant that we’d have to work for them for a while longer — no biggie. But cutting off supplies? That was a little frightening. Losing our job was the lesser of my worries — we’d built a rep of being reliable work, so picking up a new contract wouldn’t be hard. Hell, we’d turned down offers simply because this one gave us the downtime to help out Chris with his work.
What bothered me was that these trips brought supplies that the Sons couldn’t really get anywhere else any more. Especially not with how few exports their little community had. If they didn’t get these deliveries, those people would have to start going without. Which meant that their links to civilization would dwindle just a little bit more.
Despite their rather near-Luddite society, I’d heard that it wasn’t all that bad. It appealed to various groups, and their numbers continued to grow rapidly. It was a place for those who felt that they no longer fit in with the world. People who had a pain that went well beyond physical, who couldn’t find comfort anywhere else. A group of hurt, damaged people who found their own way to survive, even thrive, while helping each other while under the the leadership of one of the Undersiders.
Nobody messed with the Sons. Their justice was brutal, and they never stopped until they’d exacted it. I’d talked to one of their convoy guards once, and he’d described it as frontier plus. All the advantages of staking out a claim somewhere remote, but with more security and creature comforts. From his description, it sounded similar to a communist society, lead by a woman who was fanatical about the welfare of her dogs and her people, in that order.
He had also been quick to point out that she’d mellowed out a lot since her youth. I asked how much, and he’d said not to push it. I didn’t press the issue.
“I hope it’s headhunters,” I said quietly. The wagon was already turning, moving to pull alongside the Sons’ wagon. Close enough that we could get to them if there was trouble, far enough away that we had a good chance of intercepting any bandits or raiders and give our people time to get their rifles out.
“Fuck yeah,” Sarah said with a nod. She turned her attention towards the treeline, scanning for trouble. “It gives us a choice.”
“How much do you have left?”
I pushed the worries away and thought back to the numbers. It wasn’t hard — my worry was there, but it only skimmed the surface. Not a lot was strong enough to get deeper than the surface anymore. The numbers were easier to think about anyway. “Just shy of four grand for one. With how much I’ve been putting in each paycheck, by this time next year I should be able to ask.”
She looked back to me, frowning. “Jesus. We’d already have it if you’d just manage your fucking money.”
The worry about the future of our contract must have spooked her — she didn’t talk like this very much when we were on a job. Still, I felt a slight warmth to my cheeks as I looked away. I already knew how this conversation would go. “I know, but there’s people I’m taking care of, and I keep finding stuff that Chris might be able to use, and-”
“And Chris makes more each month than the both of us combined! And that’s his net versus our gross. You don’t need to be spending your money on him.”
It was an old argument, one that we’d had before we even became mercenaries. More than once, he’d even offered to pay for me to ask my questions himself, one that I still fought. Each time, within a month, I’d proven my prudence in denying him as some tinker project had eaten up more money than he’d anticipated. I’d been told that some twenty years ago or so, before Gold Morning, Tinkers had it arguably better than most people. The wealth of resources that were easily obtained, the nearly limitless electricity, the people willing to pay despite the issues with tinker tech…
Scion had destroyed all of that. Had he only decimated humanity, it would be one thing. Billions, perhaps even trillions dead across countless worlds. Entire Earths scoured of all life in his rampage. And even that hadn’t been his cruelest stroke against humanity. Even in defeat, he’d succeeded in striking even further blows against mankind.
The first major problem had come from the evacuation of Earth Bet, assisted by Doormaker. The logistics of moving food to refugees wasn’t the true travesty — it was viruses and bacteria. The sicknesses that plagued refugees, and for those who traveled to inhabited worlds, the survivors from there. But humanity pushed on, surviving, continuing.
That had been the true blow that Scion had struck.
After his defeat, it was assumed that humanity would rebuild easily. At first, it seemed like it would. Cities were slowly rebuilt. I was told that it was initially like Day of the Triffids; an easy survival of the apocalypse. At least, until reality stepped in. New York had been a shining example of how rebuilding could lead to new hazards so fast.
What people hadn’t initially realized was that all of the refineries in New Jersey had been destroyed. When the gasoline ran out there, the fledgling Wardens had stepped up to find more. Oil tankers were found, and groups of people were quickly trained on how to refine it. About the time that the newly built refineries came online, putting out a fraction of the gasoline that they could, the next difficulty struck — food. With the majority of the population dead or scattered between worlds, and so many banding together in population centers to rebuild it became difficult to keep people fed, let alone transport the food. As transport became less of a problem, the Niagara Falls power station broke down. Coal power had long since died out — the train lines to supply the coal had been too heavily damaged in Scion’s attacks. Nuclear power plants had automatically shut down, or sometimes manually shut down before workers evacuated. Hydroelectric dams had continued for some time, but people simply hadn’t thought about people to man them. A sad testament to the old saying ‘Out of sight, out of mind.’
As Tinkers worked to keep power going, the next great threat that had been quietly lurking, rarely surfacing, finally emerged with a vengeance. Triggers had changed, grown dark, and often lethally dangerous. If a person couldn’t handle their power, they’d often be consumed by it… and it would jump to someone else. It was devastating to major population centers. It seemed like the more people, and more parahumans, that got in one location, the higher the chances of someone triggering. And if that wasn’t enough, sometimes those caught in the fury of someone triggering would themselves have their own individual trigger.
The final straw in New York’s grand reconstruction had been the emergence of the wildlings. Nobody knew where the creatures had come from, though the popular theory was that some Tinker had released them into the wild during Scion’s attack, and the creatures were just now populous enough to attack. The open streets offered little deterrence to keep them out of the city. There was a photo that I’d seen in my youth of Legend blasting away at a virtual wall of creatures as people desperately climbed onto tinker tech flying machines. What wildlings lacked in strength and durability, they made up for in ferocity and breeding capability. Boston, Chicago, Paris, every old-world population center came to feel the brunt of these unusual creatures.
New York City Bet was all but a ghost town now. Almost completely abandoned and left to rot. Somewhere I’d heard the number that there were only twelve thousand non-parahumans left in the entire city and the boroughs. Legend hadn’t asked that the Wardens help create an oasis of civilization there, but many helped.
He didn’t leave NYC Bet often anymore. I couldn’t blame him. Everybody needs something to hold onto, no matter how hopeless it is.
These days, a village was considered a respectable city if it had ten thousand people in it. The largest city I’d seen had a population of about 67,000, and there was heavy talk about getting a good ten to twenty thousand to go out and start new cities. At the end of the day, it simply made sense for survival. Smaller population centers meant that self-sufficiency was easier, there were fewer logistical concerns, fewer occurrences of trigger events, cities could be walled off, and fewer Wardens had to be posted there to respond to threats.
Of course, it also meant plenty of communities thrown back into pioneer days. Power wasn’t available to many of them due to a lack of infrastructure, and many couldn’t afford the steep rates that tinker tech required; not only did it require costly purchases, but also maintenance. So many communities didn’t even have indoor plumbing.
Chris’ tinker specialty, though, meant that he had plenty of income. He focused not on nifty gadgets, but in making metamaterials. His lab, and half our town, was powered by a single wind turbine made from an old washer motor that had its magnets replaced. The rest of the town was powered by another, including the small factory. Our armor was that same tinker work, but in other applications. In theory, I could be struck by lightning and not even notice. Not that I wanted to test that theory any time soon.
“You know how he works,” I said quietly, dropping my head. “Leave him to his own devices, and he’ll just try and come up with a variation of something he’s already made. Find a way to streamline what he’s already made even more. Give him something new to analyze, something to force him to think, and he’ll come up with something like our armor.” I looked up to her, directly in the eye. “And since he’s such a homebody, he needs us to do that for him.”
“Then have him pay you back for Christ’s sakes!” She somehow managed to keep her voice low while still giving the impression of screaming at me.
I lowered my head and hunched my shoulders. I just didn’t have the words to explain it. It didn’t feel right asking him for money for showing him something new, something that made his mind work in such marvelous, mind-boggling ways. I didn’t feel like I deserved it somehow. I could sit there and help him build the machinery that churned out the strange stuff he made, get what he needed to be done, but in the end it was so far beyond my understanding that I felt like a five-year-old trying to understand trigonometry. It was beautiful in a strange, fascinating, and slightly scary way.
And she wanted him to pay me for getting to be a part of that. It… hurt for some strange reason. It hurt more than I could ever tell her.
“Okay,” I lied. “Next time, I’ll ask him to comp me for it, okay?”
She reached out, wrapping an arm around my shoulders and giving me a squeeze. She must have caught at least a bit of how bad even pretending that I was going to ask him affected me. “Sorry, bro.” Her voice was soft again, comforting. “It’s just… We’ve got the plan, right? Every dollar you don’t put towards it means that much longer before we get it done. Neither one of us wants to be a merc for the rest of our lives, right?”
“Right,” I whispered.
“Right. But you won’t let me put my share of the pay to it, even though I’m waiting on you. So it’s better if I ride your ass on occasion and make you do things you don’t like so we can leave this fighting for money all behind. No more having to negotiate contracts, no more having to worry if the job we’re taking is legit or just some scumbag playing us to help guard bad goods.”
My eyes were still stuck on a rock that had somehow become particularly interesting, but I forced the corner of my mouth upwards. “No more having to walk all the time.”
She chuckled softly. “That’s goddamn right. Now-”
A loud explosion made us whip around, our trained reflexes kicking in — I gripped my halberd, she got ready to punch even as we tried to figure out what was happening. The Sons were supposed to secure the area before we got there, and whomever pulled rear guard was just supposed to make sure that nobody had followed us in.
Unfortunately, it looked like we’d both failed.
In the large clearing, people had been thrown to the ground. It could have been that there’d been an accident, except for how John was still standing. There was a wall of some sort of crystal that exploded as he moved his hand, sending another two of the Sons onto their backs. Which meant that we’d brought someone after those supplies who was patient enough to wait until his second delivery to attack. Heck, I hadn’t even known he was triggered until I saw that little display.
Had that been the only problem, we could have handled it. Sure, like an idiot I’d left my rifle in the wagon, but I still had my revolver on my hip, and I had Sarah. Two ways to engage from range, even if I did prefer using Sarah’s ranged ability. Pulling a gun was an open invitation for a parahuman to take the kiddie gloves off. Most people believed the sociopaths and psychopaths to always have the gloves off, but that wasn’t entirely true. Time and time again, the experts had told me that no matter how dangerous an enemy was, they seemed to fight that much harder once someone pulled a gun, harder than they did even when there was a sword. I never argued the logic, no matter how little sense it made to me; they’d lived through more combat than I had, so I was willing to trust them.
Unfortunately, Sis and I weren’t the only ones who seemed to be working in pairs. Another para was flying in the air, a trail of flames behind her. Given the low noise that John’s crystal wall had made when it exploded, and the fact that it had sounded like breaking glass, I was willing to bet that she was the one that had floored most of our people.
“Air,” Sarah said a moment before she took off running.
“Ground.” My legs were longer, and I’d get to John pretty quick. We’d spent a good portion of our lives training, so words were pretty unnecessary. Declare our opponent, then get to work. As I ran, my hands gripped my halberd tighter.
Nothing simple was ever easy.