I moved the glass cylinder into place as Amy held the connecting tube for me. Chris had made some calls before we got into town and had ordered the glass necessary for the demonstration. I wish that there would have been a glass blower here in town so I could have supervised, but there wasn’t enough local demand.
Finally, the tube slid into place, connecting the two large cylinders. I nodded once, then moved to get the file so I could make a minor adjustment to where the stopper would slide into place.
“Are you always this intense?” I heard Karen ask.
“Yup,” Chris muttered flatly.
I looked up and grinned. She was hovering over his shoulder as the giant machine hummed. “Yeah. Needs constant adjustments or else the fabric might end up with a spot that doesn’t work right.”
“Suuuuck.” She didn’t move, though. She seemed perfectly content to watch him hover over the instrument panel.
Amy had been right, there was a bit of a crush going on there. At first, the two had just been casual at the social. Chris wasn’t old enough to drink, but Karen was (barely). She’d gotten two drinks into her before she was all but attached to his hip. It was, all in all, pretty cute.
Chris had complained about his love life here in town on multiple occasions. The things he offered to the city granted him respect, but it made people afraid of him. At this point, even with only a few years of what all he’d done under his belt, he was in a position to drive the city to the brink of ruin if he up and decided just to quit making electricity for them. Not that he ever would, of course. Honestly, I’d be surprised if he ever actually did start charging them for it, instead of just making another deal with the city.
People still worried. People feared. They were respectful, polite, but kept their distance to keep from running the risk of offending him. It was sad, really. They didn’t understand that he gladly would have put all his equipment in mothballs just to host a social himself, even if it took all month to do so. The local Wardens didn’t share that fear, but that was because it was their job to watch him and make sure that he obeyed the laws.
I still hated his situation.
Even at the social, most people paid him a respectful nod, called him “sir” and gave him his space. Just having Karen there, to help him occupy that space, must have been heaven to him.
Okay, so it was a tiny bit of a faux pas when they started making out at the social. I would have liked to say that we ignored it, but there were a few of us quietly squealing with delight on the other side of the room, including Tim and Tammy.
Now they were practically inseparable. Maybe she needed someone to be close to her as badly as Chris did. I wondered how it would work out in the end.
Roger and Manuel were busying themselves cleaning some of the mundane equipment. Right now, they were degreasing one of the fabricators. They’d been cleaning for the past couple of days now, and I occasionally heard Manuel’s laughter from the other room. Good. I wondered idly if Roger always wanted a son. Not that it mattered.
Right now, though, Sis was out visiting local friends. She’d put it off longer than I’d anticipated, but I wasn’t complaining. Just because we were close didn’t mean that she wasn’t allowed to have a life outside of us. Besides, she knew that she wasn’t too useful at this stage, and she’d probably just end up getting in the way.
“Would you please hand me the funnel things and the resin?”
Amy moved quickly as I double-checked the positioning of everything. It wasn’t technically necessary to set it all up now, but I wanted to make sure that our measurements were correct and I didn’t have to redo all of this.
It was nice, seeing Amy like this. Normally when I saw her, she was either bundled up for the cold, or already sweating. Always in professional mode, too, unless it was late at night and everybody else was asleep. That didn’t count, though, since I only “saw” her under either dying embers of a campfire or moonlight.
Now, though, I could see her as she really was. She was a lean girl, with wiry muscle under her clothes. More bust than hip, but not too much going on in the bust. I had to admit, now that she didn’t have her shoulder-length dark auburn hair tied back, she looked better. Her face had somehow escaped the freckles that lined her arms, but she had a mole a little higher than the base of her neck. I silently hoped it wasn’t cancerous. Her eyes were a far lighter shade of brown than mine, but still pretty.
Whomever she went after, assuming that there wasn’t something holding her back like with me, would be a damn lucky person.
I took the large metal funnels from Amy before she skittered off to hunt down the resin I needed. I flipped it upside down to have a good grip before sliding the first funnel in as carefully as I could. I grinned as it stopped on the ridge, nodding to myself. Good. Good. It brushed the walls all the way down, but slid in easy as pie. I pulled it out and went to the second.
That one started to scratch about halfway down. I frowned as I gently worked it back up. I tried three more times, and each time it started to scratch at about the same point. Honestly, I didn’t blame whomever made the glass — they’d done good work. The walls on these cylinders were nice and thick, and making perfectly aligned glass was tricky, to say the least. Especially making them with the proper holes and slots.
I stared at the assembly for a moment. The second cylinder angled inwards ever so slightly, but it started to catch in a different place each time that I slid it down. That told me that the edge of the funnel itself was to blame.
I rose from my chair just as Amy was coming back with the resin. “If you could, please go to that shelf and get me a compass. It’s got two legs and a little handle on top. Also, if you could get some chalk, please?”
“You don’t have to say please every time,” she said with a grin as she moved off.
“Yeah I do,” I said under my breath as I left the room. I hurried down the hall and into another room, turning on the lights. When Sarah and I were here, we made sure that Chris only had the lights on that he needed. He might control the power, but there was no point in letting light bulbs burn out because they were left on too long.
I set the funnel down and got a wooden box out. I dumped two containers of sand in before moving it to the press. We usually used this for aluminum casting, for stuff that didn’t need super-fine precision, like the casings for the water filters. For now, though, I didn’t need that tight of a press, so I didn’t need to do all the steps properly. Just a little water, then pack the sand down enough that it wouldn’t move on its own.
Carefully, I pressed the funnel into the sand, maintaining even pressure on the neck. I heard Amy wander in behind me as I reached out of the spiked dowel, running it down the neck so that I could have a nice center point. That done, I carefully moved the funnel so that it still matched the imprint.
I took the compass and the chalk from her before settling back into the work. “The second cylinder has a slight curve in it, but the lip of the funnel is catching oddly.” I put one point of the compass in the hole from the spike, carefully measuring out to the edge of the imprint. “I think it might not be perfectly circular. I’d rather check before grinding it all the way around. If I can just find where it’s catching, I might be able to…”
There. My face split into a grin. “Look here.”
She looked to where I had the prongs. “That… sticks out a bit more?”
“Exactly.” I marked the area with the prongs before resetting and checking everything again. “Now, it may not solve the entire problem…”
“But if you can do a little bit and solve it, it saves you from having to do a lot?”
I made more notches as I found another spot that stuck out a bit more than it should have. “Yup. If it turns out that I have to grind the whole thing, this was a waste of time, yeah. But if I prefer to work my way up, even if it wastes my time. That way, I know that I’ve done it right the first time.”
Carefully, I put the funnel back in the imprint and marked the areas that didn’t sit right with the chalk. “And thusly…” I flipped the funnel back up. “I get to grinding.”
“Bro, wake up.”
I opened my eyes slowly, fighting a yawn. “Vad är klockan?” Crap, my eyes were still watering as forced myself upright again. Fell asleep against Amy again.
“What?” Chris asked, looking at me funny. He looked like hell warmed over; his bloodshot eyes seemed sunken with the dark circles under them.
“Uh…” I sniffled. “What time is it?”
Chris checked his watch as Amy stirred. “Four A.M.?” He smiled weakly at me. “C’mon, I wanna test it before I get some sleep in.” As I started to get up, he shook his head. “You were talking like in that one foreign flick.”
“Wha?” I was moving slowly; my jeans had ridden up in my crotch uncomfortably from sleeping in a sitting position.
“Uh… Benny and Alex?”
“Fanny and Alexander?” I asked, looking around. Karen was asleep in a chair by Chris’ control panel. She didn’t look like she was waking up soon. Amy rubbed at her eyes, trying to wake up. I sniffled, causing her to look at me. I hated how I woke up.
He chuckled sheepishly. “You’d think I’d remember by now. We’ve only watched it, like, fifty times.” He looked at the glass cylinders. “C’mon, let’s get it set up.”
I took a step slowly, but was glad that I didn’t put much weight on my leg. Two hobbling steps later and I felt Amy’s arm wrap around my waist, offering me support. I smiled my thanks to her as we made our way over.
Chris and I got to work, sliding the screen into place. Once it was secure and we were sure that it would hold everything, he grabbed the large mason jar of oatmeal and paper mush we’d had soaking for two days now. You’d be hard pressed to call anything in there even semi-solid. He poured it on the screen and placed a second screen on top.
I let him do the honors of connecting the battery to the two screens. Amy and I leaned down to watch through the glass as Chris watched from above. I wasn’t sure what he was looking for; tinker quality control was mostly an instinctive thing.
We didn’t have to wait long. Within a few seconds, fluid began to drip from the screen into the funnel, which dropped it into a channel, to a spigot, which let it into a mason jar. Amy giggled, but I wasn’t quite as happy. Sure, it was working, but the droplets were forming oddly, and the fabric looked dry in some areas.
Chris suddenly staggered backwards. I disconnected the battery and hurried to his side, my knee screaming at me. “Help me.”
Amy didn’t have to be told twice, rushing to grab him and help me drag him away. We laid him down on the floor, and she propped his feet up on a stool. I watched his eyelids flutter for a moment before he began to get his wits about him again. “What…”
“Dunno,” I said quickly. “The fabric, is it reactive?”
“Flame resistant, could light the crude on fire and it wouldn’t do nothin’. Pretty high temperatures to make it melt.” His voice wasn’t all there, he was just talking by reflex, his passenger feeding him the information.
“Does it give off radiation? Or any power-like rays or anything?”
“N-no. I asked myself that while I was working. I…” He blinked, trying to get his wits around him.
“Can gasses escape?”
He nodded a little. “Yeah, so you don’t get bubbles. The water doesn’t boil, though.”
A thought hit me. “Does it release something like natural gas?”
“Yeah, it…” He struggled, trying to stand. “Fuck! It makes-”
I put my hand on his chest. “I already shut it down. Make sure he doesn’t get up.”
Amy nodded as I got up and moved quickly to a switch on the wall, throwing it. Immediately, the fans started, sucking air out of one side of the building, pulling fresh in from the other. The neighborhood wasn’t going to like us tonight. That was enough to wake Karen up, jumping to her feet and looking around like we were under attack.
I gave it a good twenty count before shutting it back down and heading back to Chris. “Okay, Bro, good news and bad news. Bad news: The fabric’s messed up a little, and it makes noxious fumes. You can take a look at it tomorrow, whenever you roll yourself out of bed. The good news? Depending on how much gas it makes, you might have accidentally just given New Brockton a way to heat their homes without using coal.”
“Fuck yeah motherfucker,” he said weakly, his head resting back against the ground. “I’m awesome.”
Duck down, jab, jab. Duck, weave right, backfist to elbow strike. Dodge back hard, snap forward with a punch. Reach out, wrap forearms around the head, grip hair, knee, knee, headbutt. Hook the leg, use the grip to force the opponent down. Palm strike to the nose, up, elbow strike to the solar plexus, axe fist to groin.
I rose slowly, my knee giving me a dull roar of pain. Sweat made my shirt cling, and my breaths were coming in short rasps. I could have done that a little bit faster, but the snap back to the punch had messed me up a little bit. I’d only been at it an hour and my knee was already bitching at me.
I peeled out of my shirt and went to my canteen, grabbing a drink. It wasn’t until I turned back around that I realized there were a few eyes on me.
“Sorry,” I muttered with a blush, quickly fumbling to get my shirt back on.
“No worries,” Karen said with a grin.
Rather than look at the three pairs of eyes glued to me, I diverted my attention to our final demonstration model. Chris had identified the issue with the weave in short order, and in a little under a day had gotten a new set of filters made up. He’d agreed that he had the easy part. My task had been a great deal more difficult.
A combination of casting and machining had gone into creating a valved cap for the first cylinder. The cap had a detachable reservoir at the top that was also valved. The entire thing had to withstand decent pressure, which wasn’t easy. That had taken me three days to make in total.
The resin that we used to seal the entire thing took another three days to set up properly. It wasn’t the same resin that we used to affix the funnel and the assembly it was attached to; the downward pressure would hold those in place, but the upward pressure on the cap was a big concern.
Chris had spent the resulting week hanging out with Karen. I’d spent the three days while the resin dried working on example plans for a full facility. Now I kind of regretted not taking the time to sneak into the water treatment facility to see if New Brockton’s setup could be easily modified.
I blinked as Amy was suddenly at my side, her hand on my shoulder. “Is your knee okay?”
“Been better,” I confessed. “It’ll hold.”
Roger chuckled softly. “It’d better. Just to be on the safe side, you three are riding in the wagon with the goods.”
“That’s not necessary,” Sarah said as she looked up from her book. She was using her professional tone again. “We’re more than capable of walking like Karen and Manuel.”
“Not the point,” he said, turning to her. “You three are cargo now, and as much as I’ve enjoyed this time with you and your folks, I’m afraid that I’m going to have to put my foot down and insist that you ride.”
I frowned a little. “If anything happens, we’re still going to defend ourselves.” Sarah shot me a glare; I was effectively shutting her down. I didn’t like it either — I was a soldier at heart, not some pampered brat. On the other hand, we had the weight of professionalism on us. Sometimes, it was a dual-edged sword.
“I can respect that,” he said with a nod. “With the armor you two wear, you’re the best-equipped to be standing out in front. And I imagine you’ll want to test out your new-”
“Fuck!” Chris exploded. He spun around and started to repeatedly kick at the leg of a work bench. “God! Damn! Mother! Fucking! Son! Of! A! Bitch!”
“Bro,” Sarah said slowly, in an even tone. “Chill.”
“No! I… I don’t have enough time to…” He looked at me, his eyes pleading. “Your helmet, I didn’t get it fixed, and I-”
“It’s cool,” I said with a shrug. “Listen, it’s no big to go to New Brockton. We’ll do the demo, negotiate the deal, and order the chemicals from wherever and come home. Then we’ll have plenty of time after we get back for you to rig me up one right and proper.”
I could tell by the look on his face that it wasn’t the answer he wanted. He’d rather stay and finish the helmet, but knowing him, he’d see something else that he wanted to do, then something else, and so on.
I crossed over and put a hand on his shoulder. “It’s been years since you’ve been out of Burlington, let alone to New Brockton. After we get there, the seven of us can hang out and show you all the sights. Heck, they’ve got some killer restaurants there that I’m sure you’ll love.
“It’s going to be all right, bro. We need the time out of the city, to let your own batteries recharge. And the sooner we get this done, the better. For all of us. Besides, it’s not a good idea to keep Tattletale waiting any longer than necessary.”
I stared into his blue eyes for several long moments before he finally dropped his head. “Fine. I’m really, really sorry though.”
“If I felt that you had something worth apologizing over, I’d still forgive you.”
He wrapped his arms around me suddenly, hugging me tight. “You’re an asshole, and I love you for it dude.”
I hugged him back with a laugh. “The feeling’s mutual.”
Funny how time seemed to move. It felt like the past two weeks had gone by at a breakneck speed. We’d been, in all honesty, lucky that much of the equipment necessary could be easily modified to make what we wanted. Chris’ power allowed him to make much more than just cloth, but he could switch between projects easier by focusing on it.
But the time had seemed to just fly past, and this morning we were leaving. Due to the company we’d had, no doubt. While that had been a good thing, something that I wouldn’t trade for anything, it was also a double edged sword. I’d only gotten, on the average, three hours of training in a day. My sleep schedule was absolute crap, too, so I’d been spacing out a lot more. I didn’t like that. I didn’t like looking dumb.
There was a knock on my door, breaking me from my thoughts and work. I looked up as Tim stepped inside. “Heya Jordan,” he said in a soft voice. “What are you up to?”
“Just checking my gear and repacking.” I smiled a little. “I’m packing extra, since Chris is going with us.”
“Ah.” He hesitated before closing the door and crossing to the table, settling in the chair opposite me. “I wish we could get the time off of work to come with you. You have no idea how proud we are of all of you kids. You especially.”
“I didn’t do much,” I said, looking back down at the blanket I was bundling tight. It was one that Chris had made, and it was a regular in my pack. It wasn’t the best at keeping a person warm, but despite its thinness it made for excellent shelter material.
“Yes,” he stressed. “You did.” Tim let out a soft sigh. “This is a good opportunity for all three of you. It’s a huge contract that will make a lot of money. I was doing up the math at work yesterday. I had to do a report on the environment as a kid, and the average American produced something like 51 pounds of sewage a year. Let’s say that New Brockton has 60,000 people.” Not quite right, but given the numbers he had to work with…
“That comes out to a bit over three million pounds of sewage. Your brother thinks that he can get maybe a tenth of that out of it in oil barrels.”
“More,” I said without looking up from my work. “If you factor in other waste. But let’s go with that for now.”
“Okay. That’s three hundred thousand barrels of oil. A few years ago, gas was going for a quarter of a buck a gallon in New Brockton coin.” Funny he had those numbers. “A barrel has 44 gallons.”
“And a barrel of oil was selling for two and a half coins before the shortage hit.” When he said nothing, I looked up. “I asked around while I was there.”
“Ah.” He nodded slowly. “I did my math wrong. But still. New Brockton stands to make 750 grand per year off of this from sewage alone.” Apparently he didn’t factor in the gas, but whatever.
“So, let’s say your brother asks for only a tenth of that. That’s 75 grand, New Brockton coin. For our coin, that’s about 285 grand, give or take. Hell, I don’t think that Burlington even has that much. Chris could own the city.”
He paused, and when I didn’t say anything, he sighed. “Listen, Jordan. That could give Chris, the city, and everyone else such a huge windfall that you’d never have to worry about money again. All because you saw a need and guided him to it.”
I looked at Tim for a long moment before shrugging. “It’s nothing.”
“Yes it is!” He gave an exasperated sigh, shaking his head. “Jordan… Please. You don’t have to fight any more, not if this gets pushed through. You’ve already got… Your limp isn’t getting any better, and I’ve seen how you sometimes have to rotate your joints to keep them loose. You’re too young to be suffering like that.”
Had I been doing that? If I had, I couldn’t tell for sure.
“You don’t have to fight, play the hero. You can just… You can go from place to place, looking for ways that your brother can help. Finding the needs, finding what he can use his power to make their quality of life better. Help them to make it so that they don’t need to rely on mercenaries any more. There aren’t a lot of people who can talk a tinker into building something, or help them build it.”
His voice was pleading. “You can be the hero that helps people stand tall for themselves, instead of standing tall for them.”
He didn’t get it. He just didn’t understand. Not why I did what I did, not how I did what I did. He was about as in tune with me as he was Mars. We’d had similar conversations all too often.
Still, he was trying. No matter what, I had to give him credit for that. He was reaching out and making an effort to guide me on this. I wondered, briefly, if when he joined the Protectorate back in the day, if his parents had given him a similar speech. Was he trying to impart some bit of personal experience on me?
“Thanks,” I said, looking up at him. I made sure that the corners of my mouth were twisted upwards a little bit. “I… can’t promise that I’ll stop, but… I promise that I’ll think about it, alright? I gotta admit, finding ways to help communities does sound pretty nice.”
That made Tim smile for the first time since coming in here. “Thank you. I can’t really ask for much more than that, now can I?” The smile faded quickly though. Great. That meant that he wasn’t done. “Listen. Um… I was wondering. The, uh… When you three come back, how about taking some time off? What do you say to, y’know, you and me doing some fishing?”
“Zwa-huh?” I was expecting something else entirely.
Tim fidgeted a little in his seat. “You know. You and me, spending a little time together?”
“I… don’t understand.”
He ran a hand over his beard, his lip pressed together. “Well, I-I know that…” He trailed off for a minute before standing and moving to the bookshelf. “When Sarah and Chris had that little… chat with us, you weren’t there. And when we were… Well, we were yelling. And Sarah said that you wouldn’t feel comfortable being there for it. At the time, we didn’t think much about it, but…”
Tim fell silent, and I didn’t occupy the space at all. I wasn’t sure what he was getting at. Finally, though, he shook his head. “I don’t know what any of these books mean. I mean, I know that I promised you that you’d have the best education we could get you, but this… This isn’t anything like what we learned at school.
“And we don’t… Other than movies, we don’t really do anything together, you and me. You do that Kwai Chang Caine stuff, and I’m not really a fighting type. Not anymore. But you’re always doing something with Chris or Sarah, and I don’t really get any of that stuff you kids do with each other, either. And I…” He turned to look at me, a lost expression on his face. “Throw me a bone, Jordan. I don’t know what to do here.”
This was new, to say the least. Still, I hated to see him, to see anybody like that. I rose from my chair and took a slow step towards him. “We could fish, yeah. Not exactly my thing, but I doubt it’s your thing either. We can be awkward together.” I smiled a little, and it took him a moment to respond. “Um, I could also teach you some tai chi?”
“I really don’t-”
“No, no.” I held up my hands. “Hear me out. I mean, yeah, it can be used for self-defense, but there’s a lot of folks who practice it who don’t even know it’s a martial art. It can help remove stress, for example. And, uh, and I know that you’ve got some back problems.”
He gave me a suspicious look. “Martial arts can help with that?”
“How do you think I can still walk,” I said with a small chuckle.
I fell into a stance and slowly began to go through the motions. “See, because you do it so slow, you aren’t causing your body any real strain. But it helps your mental focus, balance, breathing, helps strengthen muscles, all sorts of stuff. And with how you smoked when you were a teenager, I worry about your breathing.”
He frowned a little. “You… know about that?”
I stopped the motions, standing straight again. “What was it, five years ago? When I was home on spring break? You had those people over for that party, and mentioned how you loved going on solo patrol in the Wards because you didn’t have to sneak in a smoke.”
He frowned a little. “I don’t even remember that.”
I shrugged a little. “I’m not surprised. You got pretty drunk that night. I only remember because you two don’t talk about your time in the Wards or Protectorate that often, so whenever you mention it, I pay attention.”
He didn’t seem to like that. “Like how you used to hang out with the Wardens.”
I nodded. “Just my thing.”
“Bro!” Chris yelled from somewhere else in the house. “You packed yet?”
I flashed Tim a sympathetic smile before moving to the door and calling back. “Not yet. Gimmie a few!”
“Hurry it up! They’re waiting on us!”
Tim smiled a little as he pushed past me. “Go ahead and finish up. I’ll sit on him if I have to.”
I smiled my thanks and moved back to the table. My, my. How life could get weird in a hurry. I shook my head and pushed those thoughts out. I had more important things to focus on.