“So,” I said between bites of cereal. “The plan for today.”
Chris nodded a little. As awake as he might be this morning, he still had a few cobwebs to work out. “3D printer’s hard at work on what new parts it can make. The fabricators are going to need a tune-up before we start getting the bigger metal parts we need done. I’ve gotten enough of the water purifier material made not only for the demonstration, but hopefully enough done for the final project. Right now, we’re going to have to focus on dismantling that machinery to swap out everything to make the stuff to make the oil.
“Sarah, you can handle that. I’ll show you what to do.” She nodded once. “Right now, I’m focusing myself on making the blueprints for what it’ll look like when we’re done. Jordan, you focus on tuning up the CNC machines and making sure they’re calibrated.”
“That shouldn’t take me all day, though.” I’d gotten pretty good at it, to be honest.
“I know, and that’s what I’m counting on. I’m going to be skipping from working on paper to working on the second computer. As soon as you finish, I’ll be devoting myself completely to CAD. It’s going to take me a bit to get everything done. I’d give my left nut for one of the old systems.”
With the RAM, processors and programs that the old systems used? Yeah, that would probably cut his work load in half.
“After you finish with that, I’m going to need you to look over the chemical list. I want you to double check my numbers and make sure that I’ve gotten everything right. If not, we’re going to have to find some way to make up for what we’re short. Once you get that done, help Sis with the dismantling.”
“Before that…” Chris’s face split into a grin. “I want you both to give me your honest impression of the new armor systems I made up for you.”
Sarah chuckled softly. “You know, we probably aren’t going to be mercs for much longer.”
“Knowing the two of you? The moment you quit being mercs, then you’re really gonna need good armor.” We all got a little chuckle out of that one. “So, any questions, comments or concerns about today’s plan?”
He looked directly at me. Sis wasn’t into most of this, but she didn’t mind being muscle. Family helps family, after all. I might not understand the actual tinker side of things, but I’d studied enough mechanics to get how to be useful to him.
I swallowed and thought a moment. “Only one thing.” I hopped up to my feet and raised my hands over my head, shouting angrily. “Soggy cereal!” Sarah and Chris started snickering. I paused for a moment, frowned, then sat back down. “Nuts!”
Tabby and Tim stared at me as if I’d grown a second head, but my siblings were howling now. Totally worth it.
By the time that Sarah and I had gotten home last night, things had calmed down. Tabby and Tim had stayed home, but there had still been tension in the air. Rather than play a game, we’d decided that it was wisest to get out of the house and go to the social. When we’d gotten home, our parents were still sober. This morning, things were… better, and my joke had helped to take the edge off of what was left of the mood.
I wished our town had an AA group, or a Gold Morning survivor’s group. Heck, at this point, I’d even take a chapter of the 3B. But we weren’t even lucky enough to have a shrink. Anybody who had been there when the world, multiple worlds ended had walked away with some scars. Many bore them on the inside. Those who had participated in Gold Morning, the final battle against Scion, had their bodies hijacked and forced to fight… Well, nobody could blame them, really.
That didn’t mean that it was any better for them to try and cope through nothing but drugs and alcohol, though. I worried about Tim and Tabby. I really did. But Sarah and Chris were better equipped to deal with it.
I pushed the thought out of my head for the moment. “After we check the suits, I’m going to want to see what I can make of your blueprints. I don’t think I’ll see anything, not really, but maybe. We’ll find out.”
Chris nodded as I slurped my milk. “As soon as a certain human garbage disposal gets done, then we’ll go.”
Chris’ workshop was the second largest building in town. Only the cannery was larger, and that was because it had the forges attached to it. The folks hadn’t actually paid very much for it in the end; negotiations for some of the materials that Chris had already made not only dropped the price, but had also gotten the town to pitch in to help build and expand it.
There was something about not dying from dysentery that appealed to just about everyone.
He easily could have lorded his position over the town. He gave them clean water, electricity, his wound sealant and skin strips, and a bunch of other things. There weren’t any other Tinkers in town, and most Tinkers didn’t share the wealth like he did. But Chris preferred to be fair, making deals that were mutually beneficial. That’s how Sis had learned how to negotiate so well, handling stuff for him so he could focus on the aspects he enjoyed. The irony of a kid negotiating on behalf of another kid against adults wasn’t lost on anybody.
Chris worked the lock to the door. Both the key and lock were of his own design, and I had no idea how they operated, but he said it was one of the more simple things that he’d ever created. Which answered just about nothing, typical for a Tinker.
Stepping inside, he flipped the lights on. As they warmed up, he lead the two of us through the building. Supposedly, eventually the door would open to a reception area. It was earmarked for it, but for now it was collecting dust. Until he got more staff, more people to help him produce higher quantities of goods, it didn’t serve much of a purpose.
After the reception came the hallways. Glass panes on either side showed off machinery. Some were projects of his, some were for parts fabrication, and some were… To be honest, I had no idea what some were.
Next came the offices, where he made and stored designs, where he worked on computers, and where his finances were kept under lock and key. Finally, though, he approached one door and stepped through.
The lights were good and warm by now, giving Sarah and me a chance to look at the two suits set up on dummies. The colors were about the same as the armor that we currently had, Sarah’s solid red and mine red with blue highlights, and the outward appearance was mostly similar; mine was still cut to make me look more imposing, while Sarah’s was designed more plainly; both looked like they were made of tiny scales from the outside; and both looked like they were made from a single piece of fabric.
The differences between the new and old were easy to spot, however.
I moved up to Sarah’s suit of armor, looking it over with a critical eye. There was almost what looked like a crest in the center of the torso. The backpack only had the barest of straps going over the shoulders that ended about at the collar bone. “Built-in pack?”
“Almost,” Chris said with a grin. “The weight distribution system works better if the pack is flush with the back. There’s mountings along the pack and the straps that affix to the armor. It can either be released by working both the straps, or if you’re in a rush, by putting a hand to the crest and turning. Either direction is fine, but you need a gloved hand to make it work.”
It had a thick collar one that stuck up a bit, a good half-inch taller than a formal shirt’s collar. It wasn’t directly at the neck, though. Instead, it started a good inch or two out from where a collar would be, and the front was open. I traced a finger along the high collar and looked to him, raising an eyebrow.
That grin didn’t budge. “Removable. The inner one doesn’t provide much protection, since I figured that you’d want maximum mobility in most situations. The outer one is more heavily armored to compensate. I figured it’d come in extra handy in case you had to fight someone who liked to decapitate folks. Like a Mover or something.”
I nodded absently. It wasn’t bad logic. And having modular armor wasn’t a bad idea in its own right. I looked more closely at the armor behind the collar. “There’s a tube that runs around the back…”
Chris chuckled softly. “Your current suit draws moisture from the skin and just leaks it out. I decided it was time to do something about that. Any moisture on the inside is collected and filtered. Potable water will be moved to your pack, and you can drink from the hose at any time. If the pack is disconnected, it’ll continue to collect until the system is full. At which point, both it and the byproduct of the water process will be disposed of with each step. It isn’t a perfect system, though; I included a few things so that it helps to neutralize odors as much as possible. I don’t want you attracting wildlings.”
“Right, right.” There was a knife sheath on the belt, right where she preferred her own knife to be. He’d already had the one he’d made slid into there. More interestingly, there was an empty one in the boot as well, complete with straps to hold it in place. I bent down to touch it and gave him a curious look.
“You’ve both got a good blades, and I didn’t think that you’d want to give the old ones up. Besides, a backup weapon is always handy. Plus, you, shaving with my knife? You’d be lucky if you didn’t cut your damn head off!”
I snickered, glad he’d thought of things before I had to bring them up to him. Now I brought my eyes back to the waist, and the belt that hung off of it. “Splain.”
He began to point at the various stiff pouches. “I perfected my firestarter pellets a while back. Same with my extinguisher pellets. By running your index finger along the bottom of the pouch, you can get one or the other. Firestarter pellets, when thrown, will ignite an area about six inches in diameter for a few minutes, with enough heat to start even wet wood.
“The extinguisher pellets will spread a thin layer of liquid, coating anything within its radius, and then quickly solidifying. It’ll work even on a firestarter pellet, but it won’t work on something like thermite, where an oxygen source isn’t needed. You both have six of each.
“You know what that is,” gesturing to the sheath. “Yours has a holster instead.” I glanced, and he was right. Instead, my sheath for his blade was on my chest, where I preferred it for a fight. “It isn’t built in, so if you switch out for a new weapon, you’re still good.” I wouldn’t have minded if it was built in as it would offer more stability, but still. “Behind your hip is a pouch where you can put your handcuffs.
“The buckle acts the same as your pack, and releases the same. Next to it, you have pepper spray, then a small flashlight, and then these are empty.” He glanced to the two of us. “I’m not out there doing what you do. I figured that it might be best if I let the two of you do the packing whenever possible.
“The only exception is this pouch.” He tapped one, and it looked like a smaller version of the fire and extinguisher pellets were dispensed out of. “I’d like to make a version of the old containment foam that can be loaded into marble-sized pellets. It won’t offer that much, maybe enough to bind a hand or cover someone’s face, but still. I’m waiting on my passenger to get off its lazy ass though.”
Being a Tinker was hard like that. When their passenger handed them all of the information required to build something that normal science wasn’t even close to yet, it was a dream. But they didn’t always get what they wanted when they wanted. I wasn’t even sure if that fell under the purview of his specialty, but I bit my tongue on that. I didn’t want to disappoint him.
“Lastly, your canteens will clip in here. The water reclamation system can only do so much good, after all.”
Chris motioned Sis over, pointing out the gloves. “Knuckles are reinforced with shock absorbers running up the arms, so it’ll let you actually punch something. Hopefully. When you test it, test it carefully.”
She chuckled a little. “Trust me, bro, I’m in no rush to break my arm again.”
He nodded before moving away. After a moment, he returned with two black helmets. “Sorry. I, uh, I haven’t had the time to do up their colors or anything.” He handed them to us, letting me take a look.
It seemed to be one solid piece of material, with no obvious openings save for the neck. It even covered the face completely, going so far as to curve under the chin. I was of a mixed opinion of helmets myself. While I understood how good they could be for keeping you alive, I still wasn’t a fan of them. Not for style or ego or anything, but because even kettlepot-style helmets messed with my hearing somehow.
After a moment of fiddling, I finally got the helmet to open, revealing where my face would be. I worked the sides a bit, and they opened up more, allowing me the room to put my head in. Knowing how my brother thought had its advantages; I was very familiar with his design principles. Quickly, I slipped it on, closing the sides and carefully dropping the visor.
Surprisingly, it gave me a full field of view without changing the light level of the room, and I could still hear Sarah trying to get hers open as clearly as I did with it off. Direction was a little off, but only a little bit. I could adjust to that with some practice. Eventually, I’d get to the point where I could switch between having it off and on easily. The mind can adjust to a lot given time.
“Good,” I said. Or, rather, tried to say. This was the first helmet of this type that Chris had made, so it was predictable that there would be some flaws. In this case, it came underneath my chin just a little too snugly, preventing me from doing more than separating my teeth. “Uh, can’t open my mouth here.”
“What?” Chris said, walking over quickly. He worked for a moment before opening the visor.
“Gah!” A hand quickly moved to my chin, rubbing at it. I offered him a sheepish grin. “Should have shaved this morning.” Not that I couldn’t live with a few less whiskers.
“Sorry! I’m sorry!” He frowned, quickly working to get the helmet off me. “Sarah, try yours.”
There was a moment’s hesitation before she answered. “I’m not sure I wanna now!”
“Don’t be a baby,” he chided, pulling my helmet off and turning to her. “I need to find out if yours needs adjustments, too.”
She frowned a little before carefully putting it on her head. She closed the sides and slid the visor down. Now that I saw her doing it, I could understand better what Chris was going for. The possibility of a good dramatic close. Psychological warfare is still warfare, after all.
“Ahhh.” She made a few more testing noises. I could hear her just fine. “Huh, mine works pretty good.”
“Then it’s just your big head,” he said to me with a smirk. He hefted the helmet. “It’ll take me a while to redo the design. We might wanna get another mold of your head, though, so I can better plan around it.”
“Later,” I said with a dismissive wave of my hand. “We’ve got a long ways to go, Bro, and a short time to get there. I’ll try on the full suit later tonight, when we’ve finished up. See if there’s anything that we need to address. But for now…” I looked at the door with a sigh. “We’ve got a lot of work to do.”
We made good progress, but not great progress. I’d gotten everything tuned up and ready to go. We’d gotten the steel going, and the aluminum on the lathe, but it was only the first batch. There was tons of work to do still, and that was even before we got to the long job of actually making the cloth.
Chris’ specialty was different than what most people thought of when they thought tinker. He didn’t make handheld devices, he made machines the size of rooms, with parts that had to be made within microns. One nanometer off could result in whatever he was trying to make coming out completely useless.
Needless to say, it made machining parts for him a nerve wracking experience. Sometimes, he’d walk up and just glance at a part that was being made, and order it shut down and restarted from scratch. His power gave him that sort of understanding, an intuitive knack for knowing if it was going to work or not.
It also let him understand variables that went well beyond temperature and humidity. I often wondered if he somehow knew things like background radiation or minor fluctuations in the Earth’s magnetic field or gravity. Not that he understood what these things would be, but it translated into knowledge as to if something needed fine tune adjustments or if it could even be made at that given moment. Once production started, he barely slept at all.
Once production started, there was little that Sis and I could do to help.
Sarah hefted a metal cone onto her shoulder as if it were a pillow. I wasn’t sure how much it weighed, but I knew that I’d have more trouble with it. I looked back down to the blueprints. They were done in layers on onion paper. Chris had a simple method of ensuring that nobody could make sense of his work, filing the different layers with other plans so that if someone broke in and took a look, they’d inevitably end up with gibberish.
To be fair, to me they were still gibberish for the most part. Sure, I could take a look at an individual part and say, yes, that makes sense. But once you put it all together, things started to break down in my mind more than a little bit.
“I think this one’s going to be the last of the day for me,” Sarah said with a sigh as she set the cone with the others. “I don’t want to push myself too hard.”
“That’s fine,” Chris said, not looking up from the CAD program. After a few more clicks, I could see that it was saving — it would probably take five minutes, but with the computers we had, it was to be expected. He turned around to face us, stretching his arms out. “I figure it’s about quitting time anyway. We’ve made good progress for today, I think.”
I cast an eye about the heavy machinery, silently disagreeing. The machine that had once cranked out the water purifier sheets wasn’t even a quarter disassembled. No parts had actually been finished; they’d finish up later tonight. We’d get more done tomorrow, as Chris had more designs done in the program, but that didn’t change the fact that our headway was slow at best.
“I’m seeing a lot of lasers here,” I said as Chris came to collect the designs. “Double what you currently have.”
“I know,” he said with a nod. “I ordered more, plus a gravametric harmonizer the day after you pitched this to me.”
I blinked at him for a moment, then frowned. “But… We didn’t have a contract yet…”
“Yeah, and?” He smirked a little. “C’mon, bro. Even if you two didn’t get a contract with New Brockton, there’s plenty of other places that would have gladly jumped on this. And I’m sure that Dragon or whomever would have gobbled it up in a heartbeat. No matter how we cut it, this was a damn good idea.”
“One that could have cost you a fortune,” I stressed. “Listen, this first trial run? We’re going to have to make absolutely sure it’s perfect. We’ve got two minor trials, then produce the material for the demonstration unit. That’s it. After that, we don’t have enough chemicals to cover it all. Some of them, we can refine more of if the trials run right, since they’re petroleum-based. But after that? We’re going to have to start making the heavy calls, because it’s going to be harder than all get out to secure any more.”
“Expensive, too,” Sarah added. She didn’t actually know for sure that it would be, but she could guess, and she probably didn’t want to feel left out. She was right, though.
“I know,” Chris said as he filed the pages away. “Believe me, I know. But it would just mean that Sarah would have to play hard ball with someone. This is the golden goose, Bro. You said it yourself, they tried making this sort of tech the mundane way back before Gold Morning, but had to shut it down due to complications.
“My method? No radiation, all the pollution left over after using it can be recycled by yours truly, the energy requirements are minimal, and it can be worked by minimally-trained staff. Hell, the maintenance can be done by minimally-trained staff. Who wouldn’t want it?”
“Yeah, but city size is still the key. You’d need a city big enough to-”
“Not really,” he cut in quickly. “Actually, I came up with a weird solution while I was working, but I’m fighting to hold onto it for now. I’ll go into it another time. Finish one project, then move onto the next, alright?”
“Yeah, yeah.” Sarah frowned at the two of us. “Enough of the depressing talk. Both of you. We’ve had a long day of you two acting like gearheads. You both need to get out of your own heads for a little bit. It’s our first day for fuck’s sake, and you two are already starting to stress out. We’ve got a long ways to go before we’re even to the nail biting. So how about we all open a nice, calming, relaxing case of chill the fuck out and do exactly that?”
Chris let out a melodramatic sigh. “Oh, woe betide us all should we ever let our woes pile upon us.”
“I think that sounded cooler in your head,” I mused quietly.
“Both of you,” Sarah barked, dusting off her hands. “We go home, we fix dinner, spend a little time with the folks, and then we take our minds off this. Besides, when we last left off, the nefarious Wu Han had kidnapped your informant, and I wanna get the next campaign I have planned finished.”
I ran my hand through my hair and let out a sigh. “And a shower sounds real nice, before we can get crude from my own head.”
Their smirks brought one to my lips as well. That’s the thing about family, we’re good at distracting each other.
“‘But that doesn’t make you immune to bullets,’ she said, before lifting her rifle and unloading into his chest.”
Chris let out a bark of laughter without looking up from his work. A strange smell filled the lab (which he repeatedly assured us wasn’t harmful in the slightest) as the extractor worked. Two pieces of cloth were sealed against each other as a current ran through them, lumpy bits between them as fluid leaked out. We’d have to run it through a water filter so that only the pure chemical remained. With that, we’d almost have all of everything we needed to make the fabric for the demonstration piece. And it only took us eleven days of work to get there.
Sis was content to tell her stories as Bro watched the process work. Meanwhile, I was busy working on the old TV. The colors had started to go off on it, so I was burning off everything that had accumulated on the vacuum tube. It was a long process, and one that I had to watch so I didn’t fry anything, but it was worth it.
When we’d been little, we’d occasionally watch movies or something on a flat screen TV. As time went on, however, the colors on that had started to go. When it finally died, they’d just gotten rid of it. It wasn’t for some time before someone had scrounged up a good old cathode ray tube television. That they could fix, so long as the tube and the electron gun were alright. In time, someone somewhere (I’d never asked, nobody ever told me) began to manufacture them again, but they were larger and bulkier than the one we had here.
I’d learned from the mechanic how he’d fixed them, and eventually even how to make some of the more specialized tools. That had taken me a long time to learn — some people were born with a natural talent for machinery, but others had to study and practice in order to gain that intuitive sense. I’d been firmly in the second camp as a child. The work and study had been long and hard, but it had been worth it in the end. Besides, in the two weeks we’d been home for, they’d decided it was about time that I got around to fixing it.
I was just shutting everything down when a buzzer sounded throughout the workshop. Chris didn’t even bother to look up. “One of you want to get that?”
Sis and I rose to our feet and looked at each other. She held out a fist and put her hand under it, and I did the same. Twice we pounded our fists into our palms. The third time, I laid my hand flat and winced. Sarah had thrown scissors.
“Yeah, I got it.” We both were grinning a little as I took off, hurrying down the hall. The workshop was, to be honest, huge. Chris’ machinery to make his stuff took up a lot of room, and we generally hated to tear anything down just to make space. Additions had been built on over the years, but it just served to make the place extend even further. It took a bit of running to make it to the front door in a decent time. Hence why the doorbells ran through the entire building.
Besides, I’d only done a few laps sprinting today. I could use the exercise.
I was only a little winded when I reached the door. On the other side was one of the kids from the hotel. The boy’s parents owned it, and the children often helped out. “Hey,” I said between breaths.
The boy nodded, sucking in air through his mouth. Gauging by the sweat dripping off of him, he’d sprinted the entire way here. “Mister… Mister Abrams.” He paused a moment to get his breathing under control. I didn’t bother to correct him. “Someone just checked in, here to make a pickup for Mr. Abrams and to escort you and Miss Abrams back to New Brockton.”
I fished in my pocket for a coin before holding it out to him. “Thanks. I’ll go there to talk with them.” The gap-toothed kid snatched the coin with a noise that could have been thanks before taking off again.
I stepped outside and closed the door before heading off. Unlike him, I didn’t sprint. If it was someone with the city, I didn’t want to be out of breath or all sweaty while talking to them. I’d already had a second shower today.
Just because the temperature was cool inside of the workshop didn’t mean that it was the same way outside. It was about as hot as I’d ever seen it here. Which wasn’t to say it was too bad, but it was still unpleasant enough to keep me from wanting to raise my body temperature.
I was a bit under halfway there when a voice called out. “Jor!” I barely got turned around before a body slammed into me, arms wrapping around me. Instinctively, I hugged back and a smile jumped to my face. It wasn’t until the bundle of energy pulled back to look up at me that I realized who it was.
“Amy!” I looked up and saw Roger, face still bandaged, Manuel and Karen walking our way. “What are you all doing here?”
“They offered us the contract to do this delivery,” Roger said, smiling. “I figured I’d bring some friendly faces. I got lucky that we could find Karen.”
Amy pounded a fist into my chest, but not enough to hurt. “Didn’t even say goodbye before leaving.”
“Sorry,” I said sheepishly, ducking my head. “Things were moving so fast and I didn’t even have time to think.” I looked over at Roger and tried to suppress a frown. There were tiny splotches of red on his bandages.
I apparently didn’t do that good of a job, because he lifted a hand to his face. “Yeah, that’s the other reason why I took the contract. That stuff from your kit worked wonders on stopping the bleeding, but it’s starting to break down a bit. Karen said that your brother made it, so I was wondering if I could buy some more off of you until everything heals up, or we can find a healer.”
Parahumans with healing powers weren’t exactly common, and they were expensive. “No,” I said, scoffing a little as I disengaged from Amy. “But I’ll gladly give you some.”
He grinned and took my hand, pulling me into a bit of a hug, the kind that involved slapping of the back. I pulled back and did the same to Manuel before giving Karen a small one of her own. Unlike me, they were all sweaty. Which was fine, after all. They’d just pulled into town.
For a moment, I wondered how they’d known to head this way, but I quickly beat that back down — Roger’s power let him find how to get places. He probably asked where the workshop was and lead them all on the way. “C’mon, I’ll take you there.”
As we started walking, Manuel spoke up. “You know, I think this is the first time I’ve seen you out of armor, Jordan. I almost didn’t recognize you.”
I chuckled a little self-consciously. “I get funny looks when I wear it around town too long. And if I don’t wash it out on occasion, it starts to smell. But, to be honest with you? I’ve been wearing it for so long that I feel kind of naked without it.”
“Or your pigsticker,” Karen added with a grin.
I stiffened, feigning insult. “A pigsticker is a sword or a knife. Get it right.”
“Sorry. Overglorified axe.”
“That’s right!” I grinned as everybody chuckled a little. This was nice. Like an extended family gathering together again. Karen might be a new addition, but a welcome one.
“Burlington’s so much more cramped than Brockton is,” Amy said. I hadn’t realized just how close to my side she was.
“Yeah,” I said slowly. “If they want to expand here, they don’t just build new walls like New Brockton does, they gotta tear one down and then build it again. That isn’t exactly the safest thing in the world, so they prefer to keep buildings closer. Though there was a wildling attack here a while back, and since the cannery is outside the walls, they’re talking about expanding.”
“Were many people hurt?” Roger asked cautiously.
“Nah,” I said quickly. “Just one death. We respond quick to wildlings. The fact that we’ve cleared out the forest for a good ways around us helps, too. But they did a good hunt. I found out that my parents even pitched in.”
“I would have figured that they were Wardens.”
“They were Protectorate, back in the day when that still existed. But with all the problems and corruption in it, they were never comfortable. Plus, after Gold Morning, they decided they wanted to retire from the whole fighting life. Can’t say as I blame them.”
“No,” Roger said quietly. “I can respect that.” He paused for a moment. “I considered joining the Protectorate, once upon a time. But my power… it needs better definitions than stuff like ‘Wittersnark’s hideout.’ GPS worked as well as my power back then, so there wasn’t much need. And now… Well, I’m doing better for myself, and for others, than I ever would with the Wardens.”
He didn’t offer any information about his role in Gold Morning, and I didn’t ask. It was one of those unspoken rules of society. Just like how Amy had asked her question without actually asking anything. It was a way to keep from approaching more sensitive topics. I knew this, but I wasn’t too good at doing it. I preferred to keep my trap shut or ask directly.
“So we’re contracted through Tattletale,” Karen said slowly, “but we don’t actually know what it is that we’re going to be transporting. But that guy, Munteanu, he was the one that handled my negotiations. Any chance you can tell us what’s up with that? Or are you not allowed to talk about it?”
I frowned a little. “I can’t go into details in public, but it involves both Tattletale individually and the city itself. Chris, my brother, he might be getting a contract with Tattletale for something that will affect the city as a whole. If she doesn’t sign on, then we might have to go through the city council directly.”
Which would be a problem. If she wasn’t willing, then they probably wouldn’t sign on. The city council practically lived in her back pocket, and folks weren’t willing to risk her ire.
My answer, though, seemed to placate them. Instead, Amy cut in. “I think you look better without it on. Your armor, I mean. You can’t tell where the armor ends and the man begins in it, other than your head. Like this, people can see what you’re made of.” She poked at my arm playfully.
I smiled a little, looking down at my arm. “Yeah, and it ruins my unblemished warrior routine.”
“Bitch, please,” Karen said with a laugh. “I haven’t been doing this for as long as you, but I know better than to think someone without scars is better. I mean, seriously. You wear your scars on your face for fuck’s sake.” She shook her head. “The guy who taught me was smooth as silk, but I’ve learned more about how to be a merc watching you and your sister than I did learning from him.”
It was a sobering thought. I didn’t feel like a role model of any sort. It felt wrong somehow. I’d just been trying to do the best job that I could. “What did we teach?”
“Well, let’s see here. How to interact with your supervisors, how to be friendly and professional at the same time, that the only way to keep your skills sharp is to practice…”
“When to interact with others and when to give them space,” Manuel added. “To look for the place that you fit in within the group. After we’d take out some wildlings, you always made it a point to check us all over, figure out who was wounded and how best to help them. Hell, even that weird singing you do helped me keep pace plenty of times.”
I half-sighed and half-laughed. “Alright, alright.” Times called for a topic change, stat. I glanced to Karen. “Hey, mind if I get personal for a minute?”
“Why did you become a merc, anyway?”
She shrugged a little. “Fallout with my fam. I needed a job that didn’t involve me being on my back. One of my then-boyfriend’s friends said he could teach me how to fight. By the time I realized that he was partially just in it to beat on a girl, I thought I was getting pretty good. Which was about the time I realized my boyfriend was cheating on me.”
I winced, but she waved me off. “Don’t. I’m at peace with it. I made my own mistakes, and I learned from them. Anyway, I waited until I found someone needing an extra body to go to New Brockton, took one of the bastard’s guns before dumping him, and never looked back.” She looked at me. “Now you answer me this. I see so many people with guns, but they also carry swords and stuff. Why is that?”
“Bullets,” I said with a nod. “There’s a lot of communities that have to import their munitions, and it can get kinda expensive to resupply. Sometimes, they won’t even sell to mercs. But even still, you can only carry so much weight on you, fit so much in your pack. Load yourself down too much with bullets, and you’re going to wear out more easily. Weight is always a concern.”
“You and Sarah carry an awful lot in your packs,” Roger observed.
“Yeah, but that’s also because we trained for it. We also pack in tandem; why carry two things when we can split them between us? Because of that, we can carry a lot of stuff that others wouldn’t or couldn’t. And trust me, there’s days where I feel it. Real bad.” I turned back to Karen. “But there’s another reason, too. See, the melee weapons? They weigh a lot too. But you know how I carry a pistol as well?” She nodded.
“Yeah, there’s a reason for that. Rifles are good at a range, but if your opponent is close enough to you, you’re going to have a hard time hitting them. But a pistol is meant for shorter range. And even then, after a point it gets harder to hit them. So having a weapon for when they get close saves your bacon.”
“But you carry your overglorified axe.”
“Yeah, I do.” I smiled a little. “The halberd was one of the best classic weapons, and was considered the king of battle lines. Effective in a master’s hands, but a newbie conscript could still kill effectively with one. More effective than a pike, even. They could take out a horse or a foot soldier, no prob.
“Mine’s effective at three ranges. At long range, I use the full weapon. As things get more pressed, I can choke up my grip and remove the lower end, giving me both a more close-quarters weapon and a cudgel. Finally, I can remove the head for a close-quarters cutting weapon or hand axe. That gives me versatility that you would be hard-pressed to find elsewhere.
“I also trained in multiple polearm styles. Spear, naginata, yari, a whole lotta stuff. It gives me further versatility. I can use it in ways that people won’t expect me to. For me, it’s the perfect weapon. Maybe not for everyone, but in the end, what’s important is that your weapon is best for you for the situation that you’re in.”
It was all the truth. Maybe not the complete truth, but close enough.
I glanced to Karen. “You’ve obviously been trained with a knife.” She nodded, grinning a little. Good, I’d guessed right. “With your body type, it works. Quick, lithe, good to dart to slash a couple of times-”
“And then back off and let them bleed out,” she said quickly. I smiled, and she puffed her chest out with pride.
“Wait,” Manuel said, frowning. “That doesn’t seem very… I dunno, fair.”
“No such thing as a fair fight once firearms or bladed weapons are involved.” I paused, trying to think of a good way to explain it. “Okay. Let’s say that you’re protecting some folks, and some asshole with a sword starts running towards you, screaming. You’ve got your usual armament. What do you do?”
“Um.” Manuel thought for a moment, then shrugged. “Draw my knife?”
“Okay. Now let’s say that you take him down all honorably, but he got you good. You’re the only combatant in the caravan, and you’re slowly bleeding out. If you’re lucky, you’ll make it somewhere that they can patch you up or heal you. But until then, you’re just dead weight. If you aren’t lucky, you’re dead. Maybe from bleeding out, maybe from infection. What good is a sporting fight then? It’s better to just shoot him.”
Manuel frowned a little. “I follow, but…”
“Why didn’t you just shoot John?”
I grinned a little. “Excellent question. You’re right, if I’d had my rifle on me, I would have. But I didn’t. I needed to get close to use my pistol. But in the end, there were two things going for me in that fight. I didn’t realize it at the time, but I think I knew them on an instinctual level.
“First, he wasn’t making sure everyone was down. That meant that he wasn’t relying on lethal intent, or at least he wasn’t used to it. Had he gotten a gun out, I would have done the same. Second, I had to keep pressure on him. He and the parahuman in the air were definitely partners, but a lot of folks aren’t as familiar or as trusting as Sarah and I. Sarah’s first shot was a warning, to keep the flying target focused on her. We both banked on them being distracted.
“Besides, we’re both of the opinion that fighting to kill should be a last resort. First of all, every life is precious. Even people in prison contribute to keeping humanity going somehow. Secondly, there are consequences to killing. The emotional consequence, sure, but there’s a good chance that someone out there loves the person you killed, no matter how much they deserved it. By killing, you run the risk of having them want you dead, or possibly other long-term consequences.”
“That said, had we known that…” My mind blanked on her name. “The, uh, the fire woman, had we known that she was a fetish cape who had already used up most of her fire source, we probably would have played it a bit differently.”
Now Roger spoke up. “I always thought fetish capes needed one specific, constant fetish.”
My smile turned grim. “That was once true for the most part, yeah. But with how the rules have been breaking down, it isn’t surprising.”
It was a sad fact. Scion was the source of all natural triggers, and with his death the rules had started to change. Slowly at first; the heavy triggers that appeared a few years after his death had been the first sign. Now, the severity of the trauma that lead to a trigger seemed almost random, and how things worked was… wonky.
By the old rules, my sister should have had durability to match her strength. By the old rules, I shouldn’t have been able to talk my brother into the inspiration for anything, let alone something that I specifically needed. It should have been almost random what gave him that spark. Some tinkers couldn’t be walked into inspiration, and others could. What was the difference between the two? Nobody knew.
The best guess, or at least my favorite hypothesis, was that the passengers themselves were semi-sapient or semi-sentient. While Scion had kept everything in check, his death had left them mostly directionless. Without that core, they were simply going through the motions. Over time, those motions got corrupted, and nobody was there to put them back on the straight and narrow. Kind of like a cancer, in a way.
Intermittent Parahuman Theory.
I put those thoughts out of my head as we approached the workshop. A slow smile crossed my face as I turned to look at everybody. “You all trust me, right?”
Amy nodded. “Yeah…”
“Wait,” Roger said quickly. “What are we-”
I didn’t give him time to finish that question. As I opened the door, I snagged Amy’s hand in my own and headed inside. There was a yank on my arm before she hurried after me, almost having to run or else risk being dragged behind.
My grin was huge by the time that I made it into the lab they were in. “Hey Mom I found this on the way and it followed me home can I keep it?!”
“Amy?!” Sarah asked with a gasp, rising quickly to her feet.
Chris was only a moment behind her. Unlike my sister, his face was one of pure elation. It didn’t take him more than three bounds to make it across the room, enveloping the poor girl in a bear hug. As he cackled in glee, Amy spared a frightened glance to me. All that I could do was smile apologetically and shrug.
“You mind not manhandling my daughter, boy?”
Chris pulled back quickly, but his smile didn’t diminish in the slightest. “You must be Roger!” Roger slowly entered the room, nodding. His face was entirely too serious to be honestly serious as Chris bounded up to him, taking his hand and giving it a firm, if overly energetic, shake. “I’ve heard so much about you two! You have no idea how much I’ve been hoping to meet you!”
He looked over to the others. “You must be Manuel.” They shared a quick shake. “And… I’m sorry, I’m not entirely sure, and-”
“Karen,” she said politely, taking his hand.
“Oh, cool! I wasn’t thinking that I’d ever meet you, not after the whole disbanding of the Fellowship of the Gasoline thing.” He looked around, giddy. “What… Wait, lemmie guess. You’re here to take everything back? Or did you just come to see Jordan and Sarah?”
“We’re your cargo haulers, yes.” Roger couldn’t help but grin a little. Chris’ excitement was contagious.
I coughed a little. “And, uh… The medical sealant you make? He was hoping that he could buy some more. I told him-”
“Hell no, he ain’t buying shit.” Chris walked up to the older man, clapping his shoulder. That made me wince a little — not everybody was as accepting of physical contact as we were. “Lemmie make sure the lines are clear and I’ll fire it up. You two are practically family now, so I wouldn’t dream of taking your money. I’ve still got enough of everything to do up an extra large batch. Oh!” He turned to Sarah. “They can come to dinner tonight! I’ll make up my famous-”
“Chris,” she stressed, tilting her head down slightly. “One thing at a time. We can wrangle one of the Krabil kids to ask Mom and Dad if they can eat with us here in a little bit. After we’ve gotten a little bit more made and reapplied it for Roger.”
“Right, right.” He looked around, grinning. “Sorry, I’m just so used to people being all ‘Hello, Mister Abrams, blah blah blah,’ that I’m a little excited to meet all of you without all that damn formality business.” He slipped past Manuel through the door, almost running down the hall. “This is so cool!”
Amy waited a moment before chuckling softly. “I guess we shouldn’t tell him that technically you three are our bosses.”
Sarah let out a soft sigh. “He does ruin any pretenses of professionalism, doesn’t he?” She thought a moment. “Actually, if we want to split technical hairs, we could count it as us not being your bosses until we’re ready to pack up and move out.”
Roger grinned a little. It was lopsided, and there was the barest hint of a grimace in it. Apparently, he was still in a good deal of pain. “So until then, we’re just old acquaintances?”
“Friends,” Sarah said with a nod before approaching him. She held out her arms to offer him a hug, which he gladly took. “Did you have any trouble getting here?”
“Nah,” he said, giving her a squeeze before letting go. “We’re still close enough to New Brockton that the Wardens patrol the area heavily. Actually, we had a harder time leaving than getting here.”
“I don’t follow.”
“Well, despite me wanting more of that stuff, it still took a little bit of work to convince me to take the job. I was more than half tempted to send Amy by herself.” He looked at her. “She’s old enough, and she’s more than proven herself.”
Amy’s cheeks turned a bright red.
“As soon as they said yes,” Manuel said, “I ran to Munteanu’s office, and he already had the paperwork waiting for me.”
“I was the hard one,” Karen said with a half grin. “As soon as I saw how ginormous that bonus was, I decided that I wanted to travel a little. I got as far as Boston Bet before someone tracked me down. I actually took a bit of convincing, too. Not because I didn’t want to see you all again, but because… Well, after what happened, I wanted some time to sort my shit out. Maybe do some training or something to get better, so it wouldn’t happen again.
“When I finally did say yes, some dude with a teleportation device popped in and brought me back.” That was surprising. I knew Tattletale had access to those devices, but she rarely broke them out of storage. They were notoriously temperamental and their power cells required a lot of juice.
Sarah was frowning a little. Roger noticed and nodded a little. “They specifically wanted your coworkers. People that you knew and liked.”
I flashed my sister a questioning look and she shook her head a little. “Tattletale is trying to butter us up. Go the extra mile so we’re more willing to meet whatever offer she puts on the table. It’s not a bad tactic, but…”
“But once someone sees it for what it is, it becomes a double-edged sword as some people start to expect the moon.” Roger stroked his neatly-trimmed beard a little. “Plus, some people can take offense to it. But a hard offer on the table is only one possibility. I’ll be honest with you, I don’t know what’s on the table yet, but if she’s going through all this trouble, it must be worth it to her. It could just be a sign that she really values what you’re bringing.”
I lifted my hands. “Listen. Speculation is all fine and dandy, believe me. But right now it doesn’t do us much good. With Ms. Wilborne’s powers, she’s probably already got us all pegged tight. She knows how we think, how we operate. Our best bet right now is to focus on making sure that our presentation is as good as possible. We can’t predict what she knows, or what all she has planned. What we can do is prepare to dazzle her and make her want to, as you say, give us the moon.”
Sarah grinned. “Does that mean I’m off the hook?”
“Heck no. When the time comes, you’re going to have to pull out all the tricks. I’m just saying, this play doesn’t change anything. We do what we set out to. That’s all.”
I knew that Chris was mainly excited about the project itself. Sarah was excited about getting enough money so that we could leave the mercenary life behind us. Me? I was excited over the possibility of making the world suck just a little bit less. And having friends here with us? That just made it all the more sweeter.