To call it a stagecoach would give people the wrong idea. With the limited gas reserves and occasional inability to get any at all, people came to once again turn on domesticated animals. With that had come a rediscovery of nearly forgotten physics and creature comforts.
The first of the new breed of stagecoaches were made out of salvaged vehicles. Initially, this wasn’t a bad idea. Once you stripped out the engine and unneeded mechanics, and added a way to get the reins inside without removing the windshield, you had a comfortable ride that was still somewhat familiar. For a while it was more economical to do this, less of a waste of time. But once it became apparent that tires weren’t going to be a resource for much longer, repurposing cars went out of style.
That’s when the physics of the old stagecoaches and wagons came into the limelight. People discovered that steering with wheels wasn’t necessarily the best option for beasts of burden. They learned about yokes and what horses or mules to put in which position. How the size of the wheels impacted everything. Slowly, to progress into the future, they descended into the past.
There were plenty of people, middle-aged or older, who seemed to particularly resent stagecoaches as a sign of how far humanity had fallen. I preferred to think of it as a sign as how strong humanity was. There were still plenty of modern innovations, design ideas and aesthetics that hadn’t been pulled from history. Decent suspension was one that I was particularly fond of.
This carriage was pretty good. One of the best I’d been in, if not the best. A very nice suspension, it was vented somehow so that the airflow was nice, keeping the interior cool without making it windy. The seats were extra comfortable, and the overall design kept it roomy without being all that horribly large. It also didn’t look too ostentatious from the outside, which was a bonus.
I’d spent the first few hours of the trip thinking about the design, how it worked, what could be better about it. I’d napped a few times, more than I should have. I guessed emotional exhaustion from everything that had been going on. Apparently one time, my twitching had gone beyond convulsions and I’d almost kicked Sarah in the face. Now? Now I was studying my hand. The single freckle on the back. I was tracing the bones, what veins I could make out, the thin scars, analyzing the shape of my fingernails, the ways that the skin wrinkled when it appeared smooth from a distance.
Riding like this was always hard for Sarah because she got motion sickness if she couldn’t see directly in front of us and the path we were taking. I had problems because I liked to keep my mind as active as I possibly could. If I wasn’t working or helping someone, I was thinking. If I wasn’t thinking, I was reading. If I wasn’t reading, I was training. On a long ride like this one, I’d quickly find myself trapped with sleeping or thinking after I finished my book, and there was only so much that I could come up with on my own. But I tried anyway. Struggling to come up with something to think about was infinitely better than not.
Besides, for something connected to our bodies that we saw every day, hands were pretty dang fascinating when you really looked at them.
“Do the marks on your palm form the shape of an M?” I asked curiously.
“Don’t care,” Sarah said softly. She’d looked a little green for the last half an hour and was probably ready for another stop. “Ten minutes ’till we hit town.”
I felt a grin cross my face as I switched seats so I could look out the window ahead of us. The sun was starting to set, but I could still see Burlington in the distance. Or, more accurately, the log walls of Burlington. I couldn’t help but let out a soft sigh as I set my head against the glass.
“I’m not sure if you’re happy to be there or not.”
I glanced at my sister. “Za?”
Her shoulder raised and then fell, but she never took her eyes away from the view out the window. “I dunno. I mean, you could just be wistful, but you always look like it isn’t where you want to be.”
“Nah,” I lied. “Just figuring out everything that I want to do.”
She was too danged perceptive at times. No, when I said that I was going home, this wasn’t the place that I thought of. This was where I lived for now, with our parents. Eventually, we’d move on to bigger and better, and far more important things. No, this wasn’t home. This was just where I put my boots up until our plans came to fruition.
Her lips twisted upwards. “What’s on your agenda, oh brother of mine?”
“I was thinking I’d butcher Shakespeare,” I said nonchalantly. “You know. ‘Alas, poor Ralph. I knew him, Bob. He did stuff.'”
She gave a dismissive snort, and for a time I thought that would be it. However, she spoke back up a few minutes later. “I miss Mike.”
I gave her a look. “Mike?”
Sarah gave a thin smile. “The guy who taught you to use a rifle?”
I couldn’t help but smile a little bit. “Yeah. Whenever I go back, I like to say hi to him.”
“Does he still have that stutter?”
“Yeah, but I’m patient. Besides, he’s pretty eloquent once you get past that.”
She smiled a little, letting her head rest against the window. “Yeah. He has some great stories.”
I turned to look at her quickly. “Wait, what?”
Her grin was absolutely Cheshire. “Oh, yes. He grew up in Boston, poor as dirt. But his mom worked two jobs to make sure that they always had nice clothes and food on their plate. His older brother ended up hooking up with the villain Accord as a grunt, and started to rise through the ranks. He ended up pulling Mike in. The other grunts liked Mike because he always pulled his weight and never complained when they gave him the shit jobs. Then they found out he was handy with a gun, and he really took off. He never shot anybody under Accord, mind you, but he got really good at shooting engine blocks in moving vehicles.
“Anyway, one day, Accord calls Mike in. Everybody knew that it pretty much had to be a death sentence with how bad his stutter was. Accord hated anything that was out of place, any bit of chaos, and was known for killing people for not holding themselves to his standard. But Mike went anyway, dressed in his nice suit, his head held high. Knowing that the moment he opened his mouth, either one of Accord’s lieutenants or the villain himself would kill him.”
I leaned a little towards her, my eyes wide. I knew Mike lived, of course, but maybe that was how he lost his finger?
“But Accord whips around a computer before he opens his mouth and tells him to type. There were some questions, which Accord probably already knew. Well, except for the lack of speech therapy. That blew Accord’s top, that the city didn’t help with that. But Accord, see, he believed that every piece had a place. Obviously, with that stutter, that place wasn’t with him. But he had a friend who could use another good shooter.”
She smirked a little. “A friend. Another villain named Coil, operating in Brockton Bay.”
How did Sarah know? How did she know that I’d know that name? My (admittedly brief) time hanging out with the cultists had taught me a lot. One of those was the history of the Undersiders — both the good and the bad. That was one thing that I liked about the cultists; they believed in warts and all. But how did Sarah know?
“Yes,” she said. “That Coil. The two had a trade of henchpeople, Mike for someone else. So, Mike ends up becoming effectively a mercenary. Coil’s men didn’t give two shits about the fact that he could barely string two words together. Most of them were from some war-torn country, many shooting a gun since they could hold it, so they didn’t care about a lot of shit. All that they cared about was if he could get the job done. If he preferred to work silently so he didn’t embarrass himself, that was his deal. They’d work around it.
“He met Skitter once. God, it took him a half an hour to tell that story. He got the call to help escort her and a bunch of supplies. He said that she wasn’t anything like what he’d expected; she’d been so small in his eyes. But she knew exactly what she wanted. It was right after the Leviathan attack, and she was delivering her first payload of supplies to the people in her territory.”
I was familiar. To this day, stories about Skitter, Weaver, Khepri, Taylor, whatever you wanted to call her, people still talked.
“He said it was surreal. This little girl, maybe fourteen or fifteen, sixteen if you pushed it, talking as if she owned the place. Somehow, though, as she spoke it hit him that this was a woman to respect. She was somehow more intimidating because she was just a young girl. At this age, she’d worked herself up to a position where he had to take orders from her. Even worse, she didn’t have a voice that demanded that respect, that demanded that you do what she said. But when someone tried to attack her, she proved what she was made of.”
“I can imagine,” I said softly.
“Mmm.” She dared a glance at me before looking back out the window. “Mike ended up doing things for all of the Undersiders. He came to respect them all as people. Which made Coil’s betrayal of them, and then his subsequent death, that much harder for him to deal with.
“Mike hadn’t known a lot. He’d seen Dinah Alcott, but he’d never dealt with her himself. He knew she was being held against her will, hopped up on drugs, but he couldn’t do anything about it. He’d hated Coil for that. But Coil was also where he belonged. He belonged with someone who could make good use of him, give him a purpose, and make sure that he was paid well. Not as well as the actual mercenaries, he found out later, but still better than the average person in Brockton. He hadn’t known about the rest that Coil had done.
“So on one hand, when Coil betrayed the Undersiders, tried to kill Skitter, Mike had bristled. He was angry over it. But with Coil’s death, he was directionless, rudderless. Reportedly, the mercenaries were now working for Tattletale, but as Echnida got loose, she wasn’t giving very many orders. What was he supposed to do?”
Sarah smirked a little. “Like Tattletale didn’t know. Hah. The moment that things began to calm down, she pulled him into her office and started quizzing him on the other mercenaries. Because he didn’t talk much, people ignored him. Because the mercenaries ignored him, he could be her eyes and ears. She couldn’t keep an eye on every mercenary to use her power on them, so she needed someone she could trust to do it for her.
“That worked. He needed a purpose, and she gave it to him. And then, when Skitter joined the Wards, became Weaver, he got a new purpose. Protecting the kids in Skitter’s territory. He hadn’t even known that there were orphans there, but he learned quick. A lot of the kids, they’d lost everything, and some of them… Well, sometimes a person who can be sympathetic but doesn’t say anything can be an anchor, you know? Or when they heard his stutter, but still saw how he was respected, it meant something to them. Of course, when he lost his finger protecting them, refusing to let any of them get hurt even with broken ribs and a mangled hand, that showed them that they had a protector.
“And then Scion turned against humanity, destroying Brockton Bay, and forcing the evacuation. From there… Well.”
“The rest is history,” I finished for her, smiling a little. “How… do you know all of this?”
She smiled a little. “The moment I triggered, Bro. The moment I triggered, I was looking out for you as much as me. You were so naïve that you’d take the word of anybody at face value, so someone had to keep an eye out on who was teaching you, making sure they knew their stuff.” She paused a moment. “That and I had a teeny bit of a crush on him.”
I laughed. I had to. “Far too old for you, hon.”
“I was six and didn’t know better, shut the fuck up.”
I slapped her shoulder with a grin. It didn’t matter. None of it really did. Just the two of us wasting time however we could. But I treasured these moments.
I knew why she had told me that. It took her mind off her own misery and mine off of the trip itself. Sometimes, she’d spend the entire trip telling stories, some biographical like that one, some completely made up.
Already, though, the coach was slowing down, coming to a stop just outside the gates. A local formality, one that we’d already warned the drivers of; they weren’t familiar with this route. It only took a few moments before a face popped up in the window. “Sarah! Jordan!”
A bright smile crossed my face. “Heya Steve! How’s it hanging?”
“Little to the left,” the guard said with a grin. “I’d ask how you two are, but you’re ridin’ fancy! You must’ve gotten a real steal on that job of yours.”
“Something like that,” Sarah said, already looking better. Pity it wouldn’t last. “Anything we should know?”
Steve glanced at the head of the carriage, and then back at us. “Nothing major, but I’ve heard some scuttlebutt that might interest you. Talk before you head home?”
Steve hopped off the side of the carriage and onto the ground. “Everything checks.”
With that, we lurched into motion again, and Sarah instantly frowned. As soon as the sun started to set, this became the norm. It wasn’t necessarily to keep the riff-raff out, but instead just to know how many people were coming in, and to have at least one witness to a carriage’s occupants. During the day, you could see more easily into them and get a better theoretical headcount. Since most of the shops closed when it started to get dark, it helped newcomers know when they could attend to business and when they should just go for the hotel.
Not that I could remember either of our hotels ever becoming full. If people were staying for more than a day or two, there were other places that they looked to.
“Trouble?” Sarah whispered.
I shook my head a little. “Maybe, but if so then it isn’t the entire reason. He’d talk about trouble openly if there was any. Best to let everyone know.” My smile fell. “Personal, most likely. Us. Maybe the folks. Maybe Chris. Dunno. We’ll have to wait and see.”
She made a displeased noise and focused herself out the window. Neither of us liked that kind of surprise kicked on us, and her being jostled again didn’t help matters. Instead, I focused out the window as the town passed us by.
It wasn’t a bad little city. Six thousand bodies in total, give or take. At least, last I knew. We provided food to New Brockton, with some of that being transferred out to other locations across the continent, a good portion going to Earth Bet. We also had a good canning system going, with the aluminum coming from other locations. Sometimes, scavengers would rend the aluminum from cars. Thanks to Chris, the cannery had a forge attached to it that used an induction furnace, and that brought the city a bit more revenue. That said, we did have our own paper mill, and a small glue plant that employed maybe ten people total. The school system was… passable. If I didn’t think too much about it. Unlike some predictions for a worldwide apocalypse, at least everybody was learning how to read and do math. Some trig and calculus, but mostly just the basics. I was glad I didn’t go to school here. I often wondered how Sarah and Chris kept from going insane their last few years of school.
But most importantly, it had a serious sense of community. When it came to be known that more people would trigger with powers on Earth Bet, there were a lot of folks who made the exodus to Earth Gimmel. Some triggerings were downright deadly, and some just wanted to avoid that now. Here, they looked at parahumans as souls to be cared for. But the whole community looked out for each other as a whole. It wasn’t like New Brockton where someone could get hurt and people would ignore them — here, there would be at least a brief moment of eye contact to see if they wanted help.
Unless, of course, they knew it was well-known that they’d refuse the help.
Folks from New Brockton thought cities like this were essentially full of hovels, looking like something out of a wild west story. But while we didn’t have aluminum siding on our buildings, we were still more civilized than some of those frontier cities. All that being a Gimmel city meant was that you didn’t have an immediate source of a place to scavenge for raw goods when the township first started. Besides, most Earth Bet cities had already been picked clean years ago.
As the coach pulled up to the station, Sarah moved a little closer to the door. Within moments, it was opened by one of the drivers and she was bailing out for something that didn’t rattle and shake, leaning over and putting her head between her legs. I was slower to make my way out, taking the driver’s hand for the assist. My knee screamed with each ounce of weight I put on it. I hobbled until I was clear to let them unload our stuff, then got to work on flexing my leg. I spent way too long without seriously moving it.
Sarah was upright once again before I got my halberd handed to me. I used it as a staff to help me with my leg as they got our packs out — both of them heavier than when we’d arrived at New Brockton. I was glad that I’d had them pack my halberd with all the extensions in place instead of breaking it down.
The entire thing had been a gift from Chris, something that he’d come up with. Technically, it came in three sections and easily came apart if you knew what you were doing. Fortunately, that didn’t mean that they came apart when I was fighting. I liked it, because it made a weapon that was immensely versatile to begin with have even more possible applications to it. All together, it made for a good walking stick while retaining all the advantages of a proper polearm. The bottom section came off, letting me have a halberd better suited for close quarters combat, with the added advantage of the weight on the end making it a good backup mace. The top section came off, which let me turn the blade into a hatchet. And with both the blade and the sharpened tip being made of one of Chris’ sharp as hell materials, it meant that cutting wood was a breeze. The lack of a backspike meant that I had one more less-than-lethal option when using it, too.
Soon, though, we had our packs and said our goodbyes to the two drivers, offering quick directions to the hotel. Nice enough folks, not overly friendly while being polite. I didn’t catch their names, and I got the impression that they wanted it like that. That was a shame, but they were just doing an odd job by delivering us, after all. Sarah and I nodded at each other before setting off for the gate again.
We walked in silence, wondering about what might be going on. It was easier than trying to vocalize the possible horrors that were fanning through our heads. Soon enough, though, Sarah called out. “Steve!”
He paused a moment to say something to the other guard before jogging our way. “Hey you two. Thanks for dropping by.”
“What’s up?” she asked.
“Well…” He sucked in a breath. “Get this out of the way. Nobody’s leaving the gate after dark without signing a waiver. Mayor’s orders. Last week, Eddy Foucault made a late night run to the mill to get something he forgot. Wildlings got him.” We both winced, and he raised a hand. “We think we’ve cleared out the pack with the help of the local Wardens and volunteers, your folks included, but we’re being careful for a little while still. Sending groups out to check. I just wanted to give you two the heads up.”
“Thanks,” I said quietly. “I’ll make something for his wife.” Widow. Somehow, I didn’t like the term.
Steve nodded a little. “Yeah, that’d be nice of you, man.” He paused again, but I couldn’t make out his exact expression in the dying light. “We weren’t expecting you back so soon. You usually walk back.”
Sarah smiled, positively beaming. “Jordan got some work for Chris. We needed to get back ASAP so we could help out with the equipment.”
“Ah.” He nodded slowly. “Well, it’s good you got back.”
Steve shifted his weight a little, and now I could see his frown. “Listen, there’s no easy way to tell you this, but your folks are probably at the West Side right now.”
I blinked. That was… not expected. Sarah responded more quickly than I did, her voice dangerously flat. “They hate that place.”
“Yeah, but after they got kicked out of Toecutter’s, they had to go somewhere to drink.” He sighed softly, shaking his head. “It wasn’t enough that they called us, but it was enough that almost everyone in town knows about it now. It’s not affecting their job at all, but…”
But he was saying that they were spending a lot of time drunk, and that it might start affecting their job here soon. Grand.
Sarah sucked in a breath. “Chris and I will talk with them about it. He’s probably been waiting for us to get home before saying anything.”
I knew why she said that, and really, the two of them talking to them made the most sense. I knew that I wasn’t the sort of guy to stage a talk like that with our folks, or even be involved with it. I knew that. But that didn’t make it sting any less.
Steve nodded a little. “I just thought that you all should know, in case you decided to hit the sack as soon as you got home and got wrapped up in something, you know?”
“I hear ya,” I said with a nod. “Thanks. It’s better to know now than find out later, you know?”
“Yeah.” He perked up his voice. “Topic change. This thing you’ve got going with Chris…”
I knew where he was going. The smile came quick to my face. “I’m not going into details, but if everything works out it could mean a few more jobs around here, yeah. If we can get him an educated assistant, we might even be able to ramp a few things up to a full factory.”
He gave a pleased bark of laughter. “Well, if you all need anything, just say the word. I’ll be more than happy to do some leg work for you guys when I’m off the clock or something. Now take off, get some rest. You’ve probably earned it.”
We gave him a wave before making our way off. Chris was a nice guy, and the city owed him a lot. He’d promised them a decade before he started to charge them for electricity in exchange for the buildings that he used for his labs, and there were still plenty of time left on that deal. He ensured that the water was clean and pure, and once he’d finalized our armor designs, he had an agreement that he’d sell the police force suits at cost. Sis and I knew that we could ask for pretty much anything, and even if we hadn’t curried favor with folks over the years, they’d still help us out of respect for Chris.
We were halfway home before Sarah said anything. “I’m going to fucking kill them.”
“Sis…” I frowned, looking at her. “We shouldn’t judge. They see the world differently than we do.”
“Bullshit.” She was really angry this time, it seemed. Her brows were so tight that it looked like she had a unibrow.
“Okay.” I took a deep breath. “They see the world, and they see how far they’ve fallen. They remember it the way it was before Scion almost destroyed humanity, and what they see now? It’s a shadow. You and me? Every year, we see amazing progress, see how much closer we’re getting to the golden age. And then, they were there during Gold Morning, and before, all the fighting against him. They-”
“Shut it,” she growled in a dangerously quiet tone, turning to glare at me. “You weren’t here. While you were at school, they crawled so far into the bottle they didn’t even count as fucking sediment. Chris and I worked hard to convince them to crawl back out. We thought, okay, so they aren’t completely stopping, but they aren’t spending most of their time so drunk they can’t even get to their bedroom. Just a bit of social drinking, whatever. You weren’t there when they’d wake up and have to start drinking just to be able to make it to work. Then they started to backslide, and we had to stamp that down fucking quick. And now they’re getting drunk enough to… Shit, I don’t know. Barely not get arrested? What the fuck?”
I hadn’t known. I knew they liked to go out every other night, and that a lot of the time that meant a bar. But I’d never seen them consistently be drunk. And somehow my siblings hadn’t seen fit to tell me about that. I tried not to think about why they wouldn’t have. I tried desperately not to think about that and what it meant.
Instead, I wrapped an arm around her shoulders. My knee was doing better, well enough that I didn’t have to rely on my halberd anymore. “It’s okay,” I said softly. “I get it. But right now, you’re tired. You need to recover from that ride. If you talk to them tonight, it’ll just go bad, okay?”
“I know that,” she growled. “But it’s gonna be hard to sleep tonight.”
“Nah.” I forced some cheer into my voice. “I’m putting five on you being asleep ten minutes after your head hits the pillow.”
I gave her a squeeze before letting her go. “I know.”
She gave me a playful shove. “Idjit.” A moment’s quiet before she spoke again. “Okay, the plan. We get home, grab a bite, hit the sack. Tomorrow, we take a day off.”
“What?” My head snapped to look at her. “What do you mean, day off? We’ve got tons of work-”
“I know,” Sarah said, lifting a hand to silence me. “But we’ve also spent a long time with our senses primed, ready for an attack, wildlings, bears, whatever. We’ve been working hard. And you took one hell of a hit. Even if you are feeling better, you need to rest. I know you’re excited and want to go balls to the wall on this, but we need this. To cleanse the palate, so to speak, so that we can go in with fresh minds, renewed bodies, and even more gusto than we have now.”
I frowned a little, still not liking her line of logic.
“I was thinking maybe I can run tomorrow night. Or, if there is one, we can hit up a social. During the day…” Her lips twisted upwards. “Maybe we can hit the old hole?”
That got my frown to drop, a hopeful look replacing it, a small tremor of excitement runninng through me. “So we can…?”
She laughed, nodding towards the street we’d have to take next. “You’ve got a one-track mind, bro. So predictable.”
“Nah, you’re a bleeder.”
This, at least, was nice. The banter. And it was far better than seeing her about ready to rip heads off. “Am not!”
Sarah hit the door before me, swinging it open and bellowing. “Bro! We’re home!”
“Gah!” As it turned out, Chris was in the living room, hunched over a stack of paper. “Sar, seriously, I think the Wilkersons could hear you!”
She laughed as he stood up for a hug. As soon as they released, he moved over to give me one. He and I were about the same height, but he was a fair bit lighter-skinned than me. He also had more of a gut, but not a bad one. I rather thought he wore the added weight well, myself.
Most people didn’t touch a lot, and tended to look at us oddly for how much Chris and I hugged. Heck, I hugged him as much as I did Sarah. To the three of us, it was a non-issue. You hug, therefore you are. I pulled back and grinned at him. “Sup?”
“Nammuch. Just working on some designs. I might need your help, though. Speaking of which.” He looked between the two of us. “You drop the coin for a coach or something?”
“Nah,” Sarah said, dumping her pack on the floor. “Fuckin’ Tattletale did.”
He let out a low whistle, shaking his head. “Nice.”
“I know, right?” I set down my own pack, fishing out some DVDs to hand to him. “I didn’t bring back anything interesting, but they had these at the market. It’s all that Sis would let me spend. Um, mostly just studies of powers, or so I’m told, but I figured that they might help.”
“And I’d like it if you were to pay him back,” Sis cut in. Her voice was easy, but had an edge to it.
Chris took them with a shrug. “Yeah, sure, no prob. I sold fifty filters while you guys were out, so I’ve got the dosh. How much?”
Just like that. So easy for them, but for me? “We’ll, uh, talk about it tomorrow, yeah?”
“Cool. You two hungry?”
“Ugh.” Sarah shook her head with a look of disgust. “I don’t think I ever want to eat again.”
“I’ve still got rations I wanna finish up.” I slung my pack back on one shoulder.
“Bro,” Sarah said, looking at Chris. “Wanna help me get my stuff to my room?” She turned to look at me. “And you… get some real sleep, willya? You’ve been running on naps way too much lately. You’ll stunt your growth, and I know you still have to be feeling a little bit from that blast.”
I responded with a friendly one-finger salute as I headed towards my room. “Yeah, yeah. I’ll catch you in the morning.” I didn’t need any more indication that I wasn’t wanted around for whatever she wanted to talk to Chris about. I told myself that it didn’t matter much. It was probably just about how much the folks were drinking.
The two of them went down the short hall to their rooms, while I cut through the kitchen towards the hallway to mine. Really, our house was a little odd. Chris and Sarah had rooms next to our parents’, but they’d built an entire addition for myself just off the laundry room.
I hit the light switch as I closed the door behind me. It was a rather impressive room, I had to admit. My own little kitchenette with a small refrigerator and running water; a large bed that even had box springs; my own table and chairs; a small restroom; a training dummy I’d bought; and enough bookshelves to count as a small library. Most of them were on science, parahuman studies, and mechanics. One bookshelf was devoted to everything else: combat styles, tactics, biographies on some of the pre-collapse big name parahumans, an encyclopedia set, atlases, that sort of thing. A few paintings and charcoal drawings that I’d picked up at school hung on the walls, along with all the portraits that I’d commissioned of family and friends over the years, and my old halberd hung like a trophy over the window.
Instead of going to bed, I stayed up for a few hours, fixing myself a small meal, putting everything from my pack away, hanging up my armor, cleaning my guns, and doing some light general cleaning. I wasn’t sure how long it was before I heard the folks come home. It was funny how when drunks tried to be quiet they still made an awful racket. I let out a small sigh as I shut off my light and laid down on the bed.
I knew that I’d slept plenty on the trip home, but with the windows open, somehow sleep was still able to come.
I entered the door to the house, a smile on my face. “Mom, I’m home!”
Mom rose from the couch, crossing the room to hug me. “Welcome back,” she hummed melodically.
“So, what’s on the agenda for today? Los Angeles back before the Endbringers destroyed it? Cooking? First aid? Muay Thai?”
Her grin was absolutely impish. “You’ve had enough fighting for now. I was thinking, Swedish.”
“Swedish?” I blinked, a small chuckle of confusion escaping me. “Japanese, sure, I understood that one. Spanish? Yeah, no brainer. French? I’ll probably never go to Canada, but yeah, better safe than sorry. Next, you’ll have me learning Czech.”
She wordlessly grabbed my hand and dragged me through the house to the back door. We stepped outside, into a village. It looked to be mostly modern, but with some newer brick buildings here and there. The strange anachronism between pre-collapse buildings and the more crude newer ones meant that we were on Earth Bet.
I looked to Mom, raising an eyebrow. “Okay?”
“Welcome to the American Midwest. This town was founded by Czech immigrants, and until Scion turned against humanity, the population was almost completely either first generation immigrants from the country or their decedents. In fact, there was only one person in the town that wasn’t of Czech blood, and she was an Irish immigrant.
“Since Gold Morning, more Czech immigrants have moved here. These days, English is a secondary language here. Everybody speaks Czech for everything.” She put a hand on her hip, a coy smile crossing her face. “Shall I take you to Sweedsburg next to drive the point home?”
I let out a slow sigh, shaking my head. “No, you’ve proven your point, Mom. If I get posted at one of these places, I’d better be able to communicate with the locals on their own terms.” I rubbed at my face. “So, uh… How long do you think it’ll take?”
“You learn languages well.”
“Sometimes better than others,” I cut in quickly. I’d taken French in school and flunked it twice before it finally started to sink in.
“Besides the point. I think that you’ll get a basic understanding in a week, probably less. We’ll give you a week or two off, then work into the more advanced stuff.” Mom wrapped her arm around my waist, heading back for the doorway that hung in the middle of the street. “Now, then, we’ll start with the basic sounds…”