I squirmed as a faint tickling dragged me slowly back to consciousness. I slowly raised my head with a wince, one that wasn’t helped as the wagon shook.
“What did you dream about?”
I yawned, tears forming at the corners of my eyes and the faucet up my nose began to pump out the snot. “D’mensional shunting of waveforms.”
“What?” Amy asked next to me, her hand still positioned to toy with my neck.
I sniffed, blinking a couple of times. “What?” I looked around. It was annoying, the fact that I couldn’t grasp what I was dreaming about for more than a few seconds. “I don’t… What?”
Roger was getting into his satchel. “Five minutes until the gate. You may want to get yourself presentable, boy.” Some might take his word choice as negative, but his voice was friendly and cheerful. I got the feeling that he was happy to be home. I didn’t mind the heat thanks to my new armor, but everybody else had been sweating bullets.
As I wiped my face clean and started working stiff joints, I wondered idly if Amy and Roger had air conditioning. If not, and if they weren’t pushing their allowed electricity, I might look into making them one. It wouldn’t be as nice as old-world air conditioners, but it would get the job done. That had been one of my first projects in metal shop.
I flexed my knee again, frowning. I’d felt some weird resistance and jumping before, but with how my knee was complaining I could tell it easier. “Hey, Bro. Something’s weird with my armor at the knee.”
Chris was sitting on his knees, not taking his eyes off the looming gate. I had to remind myself that he’d never been to New Brockton before. We’d told him all about it, but words were never the same as experiencing it for yourself. “Yeah, I tried a new knee brace design in yours. It might take some getting used to.”
I turned, looking back at him. “Wait, this has a knee brace?”
He laughed a little, finally looking at me. “Dude, I’ve been building them into yours since the Mark II and you’re just now figuring that out? Ankles, knees, elbows and shoulders.”
I focused my mind back. The Mark I had left me almost screaming at the end of the day, but I’d always just chalked that off to a design flaw. The Mark II had felt infinitely better. Now, though… I thought a little harder and realized that I had been noticing a bit more snap when I threw a punch. I’d figured initially that it was just the armor needing to be broken in and had accommodated for it to the point that it was subconscious now.
Still, it was good to know, and also bad. I’d always thought that the extra pain after a couple of days without wearing the armor was because I was decompressing from the job, but instead it was my body being unable to function as well without the built-in support the armor provided me. I felt some unease, but it didn’t last for long. I had other things to focus on.
Amy slowed the wagon to a stop at the gate entrance. As one of the guards approached, Roger propped himself up better, holding out some paperwork. That was new. “Roger and Amy Hale, on contract with Lisa Wilbourn for the delivery of up to five people and associated materials. We brought only three.”
The guard spent several long moments looking over the paperwork, making me feel more and more uneasy by the moment. When Sarah and I walked into town, they usually just asked a few questions and let us go. With the deliveries, the guards at that gate were familiar enough with Roger that they’d let him in with only a few words. Looking over official documents like this? It was completely alien to me.
Finally, the woman nodded once. “One moment.” She went back inside the gate for a few moments before returning, some papers and a keyring in hand. She looked us over with a critical eye before speaking. “Christopher or Sarah Abrams?”
Chris popped his head up from the other side of the cart. “Yo.” A part of me wanted to facepalm.
The guard circled the wagon so that she could hand everything over to Chris. “Miss Wilbourn has rented a warehouse in the Kaf district for your use. The agreement lasts until October third. The warehouse number is on the paperwork. Do you need directions?”
Earth Kaf. It had been one of the inhabited worlds when Scion had betrayed humanity. Less than three percent of the population had survived by all accounts. They’d had a fondness for metal buildings, and had great subterranean shelters encased by water to protect themselves against nuclear exchanges. They’d taken to these shelters in Scion’s first pass across that world. It was a bitter irony that what they had built to protect them had become their doom as Scion had melted those great bunkers. Those who hadn’t been burnt by the molten metal had most likely drowned. Starvation had done almost all the rest in.
A few communities had sprung up over there, either by survivors or immigrants. It was easy pickings for metals, and Burlington was known to get a few shipments a year from there.
“No.” Roger took the papers from Chris, only offering them a brief glance before nodding. “I know exactly where it is. Thank you.”
“Then you’re free to go.” She looked at Chris, offering him a polite smile. “And enjoy our fair city.”
“Thanks,” he said, offering her a cheeky grin. For a moment I worried that Karen might take offense as jealousy hit her, but if she did, it didn’t show.
As we started moving again, I let my eyes fix on Chris. He was like a little kid, eyes wide and happy, eager to see every little detail. It was good to see him like this. Even if this turned out to be a bust, which I seriously doubted would happen, everything was worth it. Seeing him with Karen, seeing him like this… Worth it.
I looked back at Amy, smiling a little. Things were interesting there, too. We’d made out a couple more times, and thankfully she knew when she absolutely had to call it quits. I was happy for more reasons than one. If something would have happened in the middle of the night and I had to fight, it would be hard to explain why we both were in stages of undress. Plus, I felt awkward even making out with everybody so near. I figured that would change once there wasn’t even a shred of employer/employee relationship to worry about.
I had the mental image of Chris high fiving me and making me a cake. It was a little disturbing.
I still didn’t fully understand why me. I honestly wasn’t that great of a catch, but I was willing to roll with it. She seemed happy enough with me. I had no idea how this was going to work out. No matter what, it was going to mean a lot of time apart. I doubted she’d be willing to give up her job to be with me.
Manuel interrupted my thoughts. “Huh.”
“What’s up?” Karen asked.
“The cops sent two runners in opposite directions.” I looked back to see that he still hadn’t taken his eyes off of the gate. “I could see them letting Tattletale know that we were here, but the other one…” He frowned, shaking his head.
“Munteanu, maybe?” Roger offered. “Normally I file a report that we’ve returned and get a call from him for the details so he can do his own reports. That way, you kids can get your pay. Since I’m not reporting to anyone in the city direct, he might have put in a request that they inform him of when we arrive.”
“That still bothers me,” Manuel said slowly. “He’s very insistent that he only does contracts for the city, no private contracts, no side jobs.” Karen glanced at him. “Yeah, you usually go through Anderson. He’s less creepy with girls. But Munteanu has, I dunno, principles and junk. If you want a non-city job, he’ll gladly point you in directions that you can take, but he won’t actually pick up his phone and call them for you. I found that out when my first city contract ended.”
“That sounds like Munteanu,” Sarah said with a nod, not taking her eyes off the road in front of us. “He’ll go the extra mile for you in a city contract, but otherwise you can sod off.” Where had she picked up that little phrase?
“Guys.” Chris chuckled a little. “Quit stressing. You say they have strict power limits here?”
“Yeah,” I said.
“Then it could be as simple as them sending someone to turn the power on for the warehouse. We got no idea what’s going on, and stressing about it is just gonna give us ulcers.”
“Truth,” Karen said with a nod.
“Right, so shut up about the depressing shit and let me fucking enjoy the city.”
Amy and I flashed each other a grin. It was adorable seeing him like this.
Each district had a set of walls around it for various reasons. An added layer of defense for wildlings was one — the invasion of 2022, where some had gotten in from the Vav gate had taught everybody that. But sometimes it was for other, less immediately apparent reasons. Earth Teit was a good example; the continents were mostly the same, but the planet was still covered by intense rainforests that somehow remained warm even during the winter. The walls helped to keep the heat from overwhelming the rest of the city, though they tended to get coated by ice pretty heavily.
The Kaf gate’s walls were technically stone, but a few enterprising parahumans had covered them in the alloy from the ruins of homes over there, a quiet tribute to a people who were almost completely dead. I sometimes wondered what they thought about it. Then again, it wasn’t like there weren’t quiet tributes to Scion’s assault almost everywhere you looked.
I understood why people did it, but I wished that people born back then would start to move on. It’d been twenty years, it would be healthier for them if they started to make their own futures. But I could still respect that it was hard for them.
Warehouse 9B was predictably a metal one, as were all the warehouses in this district. While scavenging from the dead was a practice that I was more than a little uncomfortable with, humanity, let alone New Brockton, probably wouldn’t have been able to rebuild as quickly as it had without easy access to pre-mined metals.
Amy stopped the horses and Chris reached over to hand me the keys. Good enough. I climbed down and slid my halberd into the slot Chris had built into the armor for it. As soon as I let go, the shaft refused to slide any further. I’d have to practice it more, both for weight and balance issues and so that I could quickly and dramatically draw it.
I unlocked the gate and shoved it up. Dark inside. Brilliant. A bit of blind fumbling revealed the lightswitch. As they were warming up, I motioned for Amy to pull the horses inside.
Honestly, it wasn’t that big of a place, less than half the size of Chris’ workshop. Maybe 5,000 square feet or so. I’d never been too good at gauging building sizes. I could see three doors: the gate for bringing cargo in and out, one door to the west and one to the east that looked like it entered into some sort of offices. Those probably had their own entrance. The cement flooring only had a couple of cracks, too. Maybe a newer building?
As Amy pulled the horses inside, I made my way towards the sole table that I could see. On it was a single note in flowery script. Gauging by the dust, it had been here a good week or more.
Welcome to New Brockton. I trust that your trip went well. I’d like to thank you for making the time to come and present this personally; my power tells me that your siblings would make every effort to ensure that you would do so, but I do understand how it can be an inconvenience to a tinker such as yourself.
I have taken the liberty of renting this warehouse for your use while in New Brockton, and will be taking care of all associated expenses with it, including electricity. Should its size or allotted power limits be insufficient to your needs, please see the dockmaster’s office, and we will make every effort to accommodate you.
Should you need materials to prepare your demonstration, likewise see the dockmaster’s office and they will direct you to the appropriate places. Given how the previous negotiations went, I have set aside funding to assist you with this. Within reason, we should be able to get everything you need for your display.
I have seen to it that you and your family will receive a steep discount at the Atlantic Arms Hotel and Spa. Just inform them of who you are, and they will apply it to whatever rooms you request. I believe that they will be well within the budget of however much you brought.
Finally, when you are ready to meet with me, please call 43617. One of my assistants will arrange a meeting time. I am looking forward to properly meeting yourself and your siblings, and hope that we can come to a mutually beneficial arrangement.
“Bro! Sis! Wilborn’s getting us a huge discount at the Atlantic Arms!” I carefully set the paper down, grinning from ear to ear.
“That’s great,” Sarah said dryly. “Now get your ass over here and help us unload.”
“Sorry!” I hurried over to where she’d dragged out the first crate. We’d packed each full of hay before putting the glass inside. Two crates for the glass cylinders, one for the brass cap, and one smaller one for everything else. I grabbed one end of the crate while she grabbed the other. Really, she could have done it by herself, but she might have pulled something in her back. Not for the first time, I kind of hoped that she went through a second trigger that gave her some sort of durability.
It didn’t take long for the two of us to get everything unloaded and set off to the side. We weren’t lumpers, but we knew how to unload a wagon. As we set down the last crate, I glanced over at Chris, who was wandering around and muttering to himself. Probably trying to figure out the best dynamic spot to show it off. On one hand, the offices would be good, tying into professionalism. On the other hand, finding the right spot in the warehouse could also lead to all of the focus being on what the fabric was capable of.
Roger gently slapped Sarah on the back, grinning a little. “Well and done. We’ve got to report back that the delivery’s done and turn in our ledgers, but why don’t you three drop by some time? After you get settled into the Atlantic Arms, drop by our place for dinner. 807 North Jefferson.” He looked to Manuel and Karen. “You two are invited as well. Shouldn’t take us more than a couple of hours to get ready. We’ll finish off the wildling.”
I heard Sarah and Manuel voice their agreements, but I wasn’t focused on them. I paused to flash her Amy a grin, getting a sly wink in return, before walking up to Karen. Her eyes were focused on Chris. With a smile, I gently slapped her shoulder. “He’s too focused right now. Too much riding on this. Don’t worry about it, I’ll make sure that he’s at dinner. And that he gets his own hotel room for the two of you.”
Her head snapped to me, eyes wide. I just gave her a patient smile. “Relax. We approve.” Though I hadn’t had a chance to talk to Sarah about it. “Just be easy with him. He hasn’t had many relationships, and you’re his, uh, first, you know?”
She chuckled a little, weakly, but nodded. “Thanks. And, uh… For fuck’s sake, Amy still has a crush on you. Either take her up or let her down, will you?”
She didn’t know? Her words suggested that they’d talked about it at some point, but she wasn’t aware of the full situation? Well, I could have used that advice some time ago. “Thanks.” I glanced back at everybody as they were getting ready to go. “Go on now, get. We’ll see you at dinner.”
Sarah and I watched them all file out, waving our goodbyes. Once they were far enough away, I moved to pull the door down. Sarah and I nodded at each other before heading to check on Chris.
“Sup, Bro?” she asked in a cheerful tone.
“Trying to figure out lighting,” he said, looking up. “Dramatic, like, bright right where we set up, but just dark enough everywhere else. Might have to remove some bulbs.”
“First thing’s first, though. What all are we sure that we’re going to need?”
He wrinkled his forehead as he thought. “We’re going to want to build a solid table to hold it. Even, level. Strong enough that we don’t have to worry about anything. I’d like it if we could get some laminate to put on the table, make it look more… I dunno. But more of it. We’re going to need a bucket for our organic matter, maybe some good-looking glass jars to-”
We were interrupted by the sound of a buzzing bell, looking around quickly. “What the-” It buzzed again, this time in a pattern. I quickly recognized it as Shave and a Haircut.
“Doorbell,” Chris and I said in unison. Chris started for the west door, but I was headed east. “They’ll be at the front door, and you always have the front door lead to the offices.”
We moved quickly through the office halls, hitting light switches as we went. When we finally got within sight of the front doors, we could see through the glass to the person on the other side. Mr. Munteanu in his business suit, briefcase in hand, sweat glistening on his skin. He was doing that sort of measured breathing that told me he’d been running but didn’t want to show it.
Sarah unlocked the doors and opened one. “Sir?”
“May I come in?” he asked flatly.
She stepped to the side and he stepped in. Chris apparently caught on quick by our example and assumed a more professional stance, his shoulders squared back and his face neutral. “May we help you?” Chris asked in his professional tone.
“Mr. Abrams? Quincy Munteanu.” The two shook hands briefly. “Given the previous encounter with Mrs. Kallenburger, I’ve been hired to negotiate.”
“For us?” Sarah asked hesitantly.
“For both you and Miss Wilborn,” he corrected, nearly deadpan as usual. “I have a mutually vested interest in both of you, making me an acceptable neutral third party in this transaction. I’m familiar with the two of you and Miss Wilborn, and I’ll be able to help assist in preventing another faux pas from happening.”
“Thank you very much,” I said, bowing my head.
“However,” he stressed, “I regret to inform you that there has been a bit of a complication with my involvement. Miss Wilborn invited me to a social event, wining and dining myself and my family. It wasn’t until this social event was nearly over that she revealed her true intentions.
“This presents a problem. Even if I’m professional enough to disregard such attempts at earning my favor, I am a very principled man.” He looked to Chris. “One who regretfully doesn’t know you. I would prefer to go into this transaction with a clear conscience. Therefore, as much as I’m loathe to ask it, I must request that you even the equation.”
Chris blinked. “By… having a social event with you?”
Quincy nodded. “Dinner for myself and my family, yes. Paid for by yourselves, at the restaurant of your choice. We wouldn’t discuss business then, but would perhaps the next day, after I finish at my day job.”
Chris shrugged. “Yeah, sure. Okay.”
“Tomorrow,” Sarah quickly cut in. “Does dinner tomorrow work okay for you? We’ve been traveling and would like time to rest and, more importantly, shower.”
Quincy’s nods were barely perceptible, but they were still there. “I can completely understand that.”
“You got kids?” Chris asked. I fought the urge to wince — he was taking far too casual of a tone with Mr. Munteanu, but the man still nodded. “We can pop for a babysitter if you’d like. Be just adults hanging out and talking.”
Not that we were probably adults to Quincy. He was old enough that he probably still thought of us as kids. Besides, Chris was still a little too young to drink here — you had to be 18 to drink in New Brockton.
“My usual babysitter charges a coin and a half for each of them per hour.”
Chris nodded, getting out his coin purse. It only took a moment before he frowned. “I haven’t been to the bank yet, so I don’t have any local coin.”
Quincy opened his mouth, but Sarah was already getting her purse out. A moment later she’d counted out a few coins and handed them to him. He looked them over, then back to her. “You gave me too much, unless you’re planning on having her keep them for more than a full day.”
She gave him a tight, polite smile. “I’m sure that no matter where we take you to eat, any event hosted by Miss Wilborn would have been more extravagant. If your babysitter were to keep them overnight, giving you that evening home alone without having to worry about children, it might be able to help, as you say, even the equation.”
That made him frown thoughtfully for a moment before nodding. “That is most acceptable.”
“May I ask where your favorite restaurant is?” I asked politely.
“The Drake, specifically the patio. May I assume that you’d like to meet there, about seven?”
Chris stepped forward, offering his hand. “I look forward to it.”
“As do I,” Quincy said, giving it another quick shake. “I hope that the three of you enjoy your evening, and your showers.” He bowed his head slightly and made his own way out the door.
The three of us stood there, smiling politely after him. “He has a favorite anything?” Sarah said without breaking her smile.
“I always just kind of assumed that his favorite thing was somberly staring at itemized reports of what his children had done that day.” It was a lame joke, and far from the truth, but someone had to say something.
Chris turned to us, staring. “Come on, you two. He can’t be that bad.”
“No,” I conceded. “Really, he isn’t. He might be a little stuffy at times, but he’s a stand-up guy. We wouldn’t even have this opportunity if it wasn’t for him. He may think of it as some sort of weird balance, but I’d rather think of it as us saying thank you to him.”
“See? There you go! Hell, if we do get this contract, I’d insist that we go ahead and take him out to dinner anyway. We owe him for that, right?”
“Still,” Sarah said, turning to look at us. “This is gonna be the most awkward dinner ever, of all time.”
The note had been right about the rooms at the Atlantic Arms hotel being affordable. Each of us had gotten our own rooms next to each other for only ten coins a day, and that had been for one of the more expensive suites. Not the most expensive at fifteen a day, but we didn’t want to push ourselves too much. It was the most expensive hotel in town, owned by the financial group headed by Tattletale, and we didn’t want to abuse it too much.
Dinner with Amy and Roger had been nice, too. Their house did, in fact, have an air conditioner, a decent one at that. It had been a night of laughter and stories, both from us about our childhood and from Roger, who seemed to have a million of them.
What had surprised me was seeing Amy in a floral dress. It was a far cry from her usual heavy canvas jeans and leather chaps that I usually saw her in. Her legs were awfully pale, though, so she probably didn’t wear it often. After dinner, we’d slipped away to a nearby restaurant to enjoy sodas, a rare treat for me any more. The flavor was alright, but the company made up for it.
Gauging by how Chris was floating on air in the morning, Karen had spent the night with him.
Today, though, Sarah, Chris and I had been busy. We hit up the dockmaster’s office to order the wood, tools and laminate before heading to the bank. After that, we’d taken the time to get measured and have some fitted suits ordered. They’d be a few days to get made, but we had time. After that, Sarah had rather firmly insisted that we go and make use of the spa.
None of us had ever been to one before. The other two seemed to enjoy it, but I found it mostly to be a waste of time. A good chance to get caught up on my naps, and they’d done something to my hair that actually made it behave, but otherwise it was kinda dumb. My time would have been spent on any number of things.
Now we were standing outside of the Drake, a nice brick building. I could see the patio seating, a fenced in area that had musicians playing. There were torches for when it got darker out, which would undoubtedly give it more ambiance and help drive away the bugs.
“Time is it?” Sarah asked.
“Get your own watches,” Chris mumbled, checking his own. “Ten after. He’s late. I thought you said he was the punctual type.”
“He is,” I said calmly. “Remember, he’s taking kids to the babysitter. They may be fighting him on it.”
“Yeah, okay, I’ll buy that.”
There was a long stretch of silence before Sarah spoke up. “I hope his wife’s a conversationalist. Otherwise, this might be downright-”
We turned, and I immediately heard Sarah whisper “What the fuck.” I had to scan a moment to find the three of them. Or, rather, I looked over them twice before seeing them. Had Quincy not had a hand raised in greeting, I would have missed him completely.
There was a woman, shorter than Sarah, Asian by her features. Japanese or Laotian, I couldn’t tell from this distance. She wore blue jeans and a short-sleeved white button up shirt, untucked, that was cut in such a way that the ends flared out. I couldn’t help but notice that one side was folded in such a way that she had easy access to the knife on her belt.
There was a Caucasian man who looked to be in his early thirties with a thin beard around his jawline. He was dressed in jeans and a t-shirt that had some sort of company logo on it. He had that awkward kind of smile where he wasn’t sure if he was supposed to have fun or run for the hills.
The last man was of African decent, the only hair on his head being a bit of stubble around the jawline. He was dressed in red shorts and a button up short-sleeved shirt with an outrageous pattern on it that was only half-buttoned, flip-flops and a tool belt that only seemed to have a hammer in it. His wide grin showed off all of his amazingly white teeth as he waved.
It was hard to reconcile this man with Quincy. I blinked hard, trying to manage, even as the smile jumped to my face. All three of us waved back as he jogged towards us, laughing. I recognized that were he anybody else he wouldn’t seem like he was laughing like a maniac, but coming from him?
“Sarah,” he repeated again as he drew close. She started to lift her hand, only to be wrapped in a brief bear hug. He turned to me. “Jodan!” Again, that brief bear hug. I felt as if I’d been teleported to some sort of weird alternate Earth Gimmel, one where things were just similar enough to pass casual inspection, but white was actually black, up was actually down, and the Endbringers existed only to make delicious candies for humanity.
What the actual crap?
He paused as he turned to the last of us. “Do you prefer Christopher or Chris?”
“Chris,” he said, quickly moving in to give Quincy a hug with a bit of enthusiasm. “It’s a pleasure to meet you properly.”
The other two approached, both trying desperately not to laugh. “Quincy,” the man said with sparkling eyes. “I think you’re scaring them.”
“Scaring them?” Quincy looked at him, confusion plastered to his face. “Why would I be scaring them?”
“Don’t worry about it, honey.” The woman smiled at us. “Perhaps you could do with the introductions?”
“Right! Right, sorry.” He laughed again before putting his hand on the woman’s shoulder. “Sarah, Jordan, Chris, this is my lovely wife, Ryo.”
“It’s good to finally meet you,” she said as she reached out to shake hands.
“He’s mentioned us?” I asked carefully.
“Not by name, but sometimes Quince talks about work.” Shortening of the name by one syllable, pet name. I filed that away. “It doesn’t take much to put two and two together.”
“And this is my handsome husband, Keith.” He wrapped an arm around Keith’s waist.
Keith looked more apprehensive as he offered his hand, and I could understand why immediately. Polyamory wasn’t exactly smiled upon in these parts, let alone actual marriages with it. There was a huge social stigma, one that would be enough to cause people to think twice about it. I didn’t care, myself; if people were happy and not hurting people, why worry?
“It’s a pleasure to meet you,” I said warmly.
“Likewise. Sorry we’re late, but Davie got into a little bit of a fight today and we had to sort it out.”
Quincy rolled his eyes. “I really wish you wouldn’t call him that.”
“It’s cute!” Keith said with a laugh.
Ryo placed a hand on each of the men’s backs. “Let’s get seated so we aren’t blocking the door, hmm?”
It didn’t take long to get our seats, we’d reserved them last night. As we settled down, I couldn’t help but stare at Ryo’s blade sheath, trying to figure out more. Unfortunately, she noticed. “Wanna take a closer look?” she asked with a wry grin.
“Yes, please.” I was grinning as she leaned over to draw it.
“Figures that the mercenary would take an interest in my blade.” She was amused, though, as she set it on the table, handle pointing towards me.
I picked it up carefully, noting the good heft to it. This wasn’t a knife that you used in the kitchen, not unless you liked destroying your cutting board. Solid construction, good balance. Not quite how I liked the balance on my own blades, but I could live with that.
It wasn’t until I flipped it over as I checked the cutting edge that I noticed the B.B.B. etched into the blade. Immediately my eyes went wide and I set the blade back on the table. “I’m sorry! I-I didn’t realize-”
“That I was a Bitch? Relax,” she said with a laugh as she took the knife back. “Hell, he’s a Bastard.”
That earned a laugh out of Quincy as he patted his hammer. “What, did you think I needed to repair my office so much I always kept one handy?” He paused for a moment. “And no, we didn’t know each other in Brockton Bay.”
The term for people who had lived in Brockton Bay and hadn’t left after Leviathan depended both on their gender and who you asked. If you asked the person in question, they were either a Brockton Bay Bitch or a Brockton Bay Bastard. Most other people called them a 3B out of politeness.
3Bs were officially recognized, and it was hard to claim to another 3B that you were one. It was disturbingly easy to fact-check, and people tended to violently shun anyone who pretended to be one. More paranoid conspiracy theorists tended to claim that they were a secret society, but it was honestly far from the truth.
Instead, the 3Bs existed mostly as a support group. Many of them had various deep-rooted psychological issues, and more than just PTSD. Some of them had some sort of compulsive disorder, others struggled with rampant alcoholism. No matter what they suffered from, however, they all knew that they could turn to another 3B for help and wouldn’t be turned away. Even if the two people didn’t actually like each other.
Those of them who carried weapons like this, though, tended to be of two groups. Those who looked back to Brockton Bay with nostalgia, or those who were like tightly wound coils. For those in their thirties or older, those weapons might have very easily been carried back in the days when Leviathan had attacked the city, granting them significant emotional weight. For some, that could mean a quick beating if you messed with those weapons.
“Did you get to know each other at a meeting, then?” Sarah asked, saving me. We knew that not all of them appreciated others touching their weapons. Roy had shown us a scar he’d gotten from it, trying to play up how badass he was. The flipside was that he’d looked foolish for trying it.
“Sort of,” Quincy said.
“We went to different schools,” Ryo explained. “And I missed some school after the whole ABB thing. Having a bomb put in you and being forced to fight leads to some interesting therapy. We both technically went to summer classes at the same school, but…”
“But I couldn’t handle it,” Quincy said with a nod. “I kept refusing to give up my hammer, so I spent pretty much the entire summer hiding out by myself outside.”
Chris coughed a little. “If you don’t mind my asking… Um, I get her knife, but why a hammer as your weapon of choice?”
Quincy laughed. It was still surreal to see. “After Leviathan drowned the city, we stayed because we had nowhere else to go. I wasn’t lucky enough to be in Skitter’s territory like a certain someone,” he cast a glance at Ryo who rolled her eyes. “Anyway, one day Mom sent me scrounging for supplies to help fix up the place when I got attacked by some Merchants. Those guys were scum, total losers, just trying to prove how badass they were.
“I was pretty much lost. Not as in, you know, where I was, but more along the lines of the world didn’t make sense any more. Nothing made any sort of sense. Anyway, by the time that classes started again, I’d gained a bit of a reputation for beating anybody who tried to attack me with a hammer. I’d forced the world to make sense again. But once classes started… Well, I couldn’t adjust. Then, by the time that I adjusted to going back to school and living a mostly normal life, Scion sank the whole fucking city.”
Ryo nodded. “We got to the other side of the portal that Tattletale had set up, but things were a mess. There wasn’t enough shelter for everyone, and everybody was so confused.”
“And me,” he said with a sad laugh. It wasn’t the bitter kind, though. It was a weird one that I couldn’t put my finger on. “I was lost again. So I decided to force the world to make sense again, one way or the other. I saw people tearing into supplies and throwing stuff away, so I grabbed what they were throwing away and started making shelters.”
“That’s how we first met,” she said, looking to him lovingly. “Me and my family were huddled together, in shock, when all of the sudden this black kid a little older than me marches up to us and bluntly says ‘Come with me.’ We were too out of it to argue. He’d used some plastic sheeting, ropes, some pallets and some blankets to build a shelter.
“Mom burst into tears, and he looked just so very lost and kept on apologizing. She couldn’t get any words out, so she hugged him until she could thank him. He looked so very uncomfortable and scared until she let go. And as soon as she did…”
“I practically ran,” he said with a laugh. “I didn’t know how to respond, how to handle it. So I ran off and started on the next shelter.”
“We didn’t meet again until a few years later, at the third 3B meeting here in town.” She laughed musically. “I’d traveled from Boston Bet to attend, and was shocked as hell when I saw him sitting at the edges of the group, just watching. I marched right up to him and asked if he remembered me.”
“I believe my answer was ‘What?’ Direct quote.”
“It was!” All three of them laughed, and we couldn’t help but join in. “He didn’t remember me in the slightest. It took me ten minutes to get him to remember, and he was so embarrassed that I thought he was going to run away again.
“A few months later I moved to New Brockton to work as a stevedore, and we got to know each other. I realized that he was a bit weird, more than a little awkward, but really a sweet guy. It wasn’t for a few more years before we finally hooked up.”
Gauging by how Quincy was looking at his glass of water with a tiny grin on his face, I could believe the awkward part. Especially after what he’d said about forcing the world to make sense; given the number of upheavals and challenges he’d faced, I could easily buy into him being awkward for a long, long time.
Keith cut in now. “I met them through the 3Bs as well, but I’m not a member. There was a huge meeting of them going on. People from all over were coming; they estimated a good 80% of the survivors that were still alive were showing up. Even Miss Militia, Missy Byron, and a few other notable celebrities, though their names escape me now. Wilborn was throwing a big gala for it, pulling out all the stops, so she was hiring more caterers, servers and bartenders. I was between jobs at that point, so I signed on as a server. The rest is history.”
Quincy smiled at him and patted his hand. I got the distinct feeling that there was a great deal more to the story, but Keith didn’t feel comfortable sharing it with people who were pretty much complete strangers. I decided to save him.
“So, what do you do?” I asked Ryo.
“I work in customs now, mostly making counts of what comes through the teleporters and making sure that it matches what’s on the manifest. It’s other people who check for undeclared items.” She smiled a little. “None of us have glamorous jobs, sadly.”
“I’m a housekeeper at the Jade Pool,” Keith offered.
“Hey!” I exclaimed with a grin. “We usually stay there!”
Keith winced a little. “Fair warning, stay out of the attached restaurant. Our old chef retired and the owner is currently covering for him, but he can’t cook worth a damn.”
“Too late,” Sarah said dryly.
“It’s cool. So long as he can make a gyro, that’s all I care about.”
“That he can,” he said with a nod.
“How’d you get in with negotiating with mercenaries?” Chris asked Quincy. “That doesn’t seem like an easy job to fall into.”
“Not anymore,” he confessed. “Back in the day, though, things were quite a bit more chaotic. I actually started out as a receptionist, back when there was still an internet connection with Bet, back before the power in New York died. I was young, younger than you three I think, I was polite, I owned my position, and I worked hard. Eventually, things started to become more standardized, even as the world started to fall to shit.
“Someone noticed that I was pushing some mercenaries towards certain negotiators rather than others and started asking me why. It was because I knew some of them would put people in certain places where they’d be the best fit. They asked me why and I started giving examples. What I said made sense, so my supervisor didn’t question it.”
“Because you were putting the right person in the right job?” Chris asked.
“I would have liked to, but I couldn’t. But I knew the temperament of the negotiators, and I could do my best to send each person to the right one and hope for the best. I studied everybody to try and do my job better, and most days I’d come home from work completely wiped. And then, one day, one of the negotiators fell ill and wasn’t likely to return. They offered the job to me.” He paused for a moment, then chuckled. “I was pissed.”
“W-what?” Chris asked, not sure if he should laugh or not.
Ryo cut in quickly. “We’d just started dating, and I visit him to find him fuming about the possibility of promotion. He was ranting about how he’d have to learn a whole new job with all new rules and regulations, and how he liked his job, and…” She shook her head and rolled her eyes. “God, you were such an idiot about it.”
“I was,” he agreed with a laugh. “She eventually talked me into it at, like, three in the morning. And I’ll admit, it was very hard for me to adjust to my new position. The issue was that even though I’d observed so much about the mercenaries, there was a lot that I didn’t know. As I became more familiar with the jobs, I didn’t have the information necessary to figure out who should go where.
“I’m actually known as being a bit anal retentive.” He looked to Sarah. “Like how I sometimes ask you questions about how everything went. I do that with everybody; mercenaries, supervisors, the cops at the wall. If I can put people with the right temperaments together, everything goes that much more smoothly.”
“And yet, we still had Roy,” she said in a droll tone.
That made him wince. He looked to Keith. “Roy Schlueter.” Keith flashed us a sympathetic look as Quincy smiled a little. “Can you tell me any good place where he’d fit?”
“The bottom of a lake?”
For some reason everybody laughed. I didn’t get it. Not in the slightest. Yes, he could be annoying at times, and sure, the way that he stared at people could be creepy. And while he could be greedy and selfish, self-centered even, he really wasn’t that bad of a guy. I’d put my life in his hands for two years, and it felt wrong to be cracking jokes about him behind his back. I was thankful when the waiter showed up to take our orders, distracting everyone from Roy.
“You were pretty quiet,” Ryo observed as we finally left the restaurant hours later.
“Sorry,” I said, ducking my head. “I just didn’t have much to add.” At some point, they’d started discussing the old world, and I’d promptly tuned out most of the conversation. I perked up whenever someone would mention capes, but those were only passing mentions and never lasted for long.
Honestly, I didn’t get that sort of reminiscing or why adults did it so much. The days before Gold Morning were long gone, and there was no going back to them. Focusing on them so intently was stupid. It was only going to open yourself up to pain again, and nobody actually needed that. But yet, people kept right on doing it, highlighting the difference between back then, with their tablet computers and cell phones, and today, where many cities didn’t have basic power.
Instead, I’d focused on the upcoming demonstration. The day after tomorrow we’d have everything constructed and ready to go. Or suits would be done by then, so long as Tattletale didn’t want to meet before noon.
Sarah claimed that negotiations were a type of combat, but I didn’t see it. I didn’t see the point to it. Each party should just claim what they want right off the bat and then work to come to a compromise. I liked the way that Quincy usually handled negotiations for that reason. He worked with us, not against us.
Each party trying to hold secrets or to squeeze a little more out of the other? It was bullshit. To say I’d been morally against the trick against Mrs. Kallenburger was an understatement — reversing our usual roles and demeanors in order to throw her off her game felt underhanded to me. Psychological warfare when fighting was one thing, but that felt plain wrong.
“Well,” Ryo said with grin. “Tell me this: What do you normally talk about?”
“If it weren’t for us it’d be boring stuff,” Chris said with a grin.
I knew that she wanted an answer from me, though. “He’s right. Most of my interests are in stuff that other people find boring. Parahuman theory, technology, combat theory…” I frowned, thinking. “I used to dance when I was younger?”
“He was pretty damn good at it, too.” Chris beamed at me. “I’m not into that stuff, but it was kinda cool watching your brother do it, you know?”
“What kind of dancing?” Quincy asked, genuinely curious.
I felt myself blushing. “Uh, ballroom, ballet, tap, interpretative… All sorts.”
“Was your knee the reason that you stopped?”
Ah, yes, he remembered my little incident in his office. “Nah, I got into dance after I hurt it. No, I… I got close to my partner, and we, uh…” I chuckled weakly. “We hooked up. And then we, you know, broke up.” I saw the sympathetic looks forming and spoke before anybody else could. “It wasn’t a bad breakup, and we both knew it was coming. It sucked, sure, but I was already moving onto other things.”
Ryo smiled at me. “Well, I have to say I’m envious. Nobody ever takes me out dancing.”
Keith looked to Quincy with a panicked expression that was downright comical. It took Quincy a moment to reply. “I don’t know how.”
“You could learn.”
I jumped in. “Jazzercise was a thing, back in the day. It’s good cardio, without actually feeling like you’re exercising. You’re just out having fun with a bunch of other uncoordinated folks learning how to dance. Plus, you look like the type of guy that would excel at timing. It’ll be some work to get your body to respond the way you want, when you want, but you’d have the hard part down pat already.
“Besides, you sit at a desk all day, which isn’t good for your heart. This’ll bypass it.” I smiled innocently at him. “And, if that isn’t enough, I can counter any other excuse you might come up with.”
Quincy looked to Keith. “Damn,” he said flatly. “They’re onto us. Run.” A ripple of laughter went through the group of us before he turned to his wife. “I’ll think about taking a class, alright?”
Chris decided to save the man. “Jordan’s kind of a collection of abandoned hobbies that he still occasionally dabbles in. Rock climbing, spelunking, free running, gaming-”
“Wait,” Keith said, looking at me with a grin. “What kind of gaming?”
It was a fair question. After Gold Morning, entertainment had been scarce for a while. Books only did so much, so a lot of people had turned to creating their own games. Role playing had quickly become popular, due to the resources involved. A creative game master could run a game for a group of people without even needing a book or paper.
It was starting to fall out of style, but it gave lots of folks something to talk about.
I squirmed a little, though. I didn’t like being under the spotlight. “All kinds. I didn’t have access to much in the way of video games, so that doesn’t really count. Sarah runs a mean RPG, though, and I used to do wargaming with other people’s minis.”
Now I had Quincy’s interest. “Which game?”
“Mostly I played Troubled Star. I preferred playing Karoman forces, supplemented by the Adventurer’s Guild. It’s an expensive army that looks more flash than it’s worth, but the key is to-”
“Create squads where the secondary abilities of the units synergize to create combos.” Quincy nodded. “That’s a hard army to play, even with pulling Adventurer’s Guild mercenaries to round out your forces. I’m impressed.” He paused a moment. “I prefer Fela’s Runners.”
“The half-orcs are good tanks, but I never managed to get the rest of the army to work for me.”
I hesitated. One of the things that I’d been thinking about had been some of what Quincy had said, about rules and adjusting. He had a code of honor, no matter how skewed it might be. I had a fifty-fifty chance of this going right, or exploding horribly in my face.
“Hey, Quincy.” I paused, trying to find the courage to do this. “Mr. Munteanu. I need to know how you envision this meeting going down. You know, to balance the equation.”
Everybody looked at me like I’d grown a second head, but my gamble paid off; he actually looked relieved. “What can I do for you?”
“You’re going to be playing both sides, right? Negotiating for each party to get the best deal. So we don’t have to worry so much, right?”
I smiled nervously. “Maybe I could have those two hammer out what we’re shooting for and send it to you? So that you could review it and have an idea before we walk into the meeting? Maybe even what our absolute minimums are and stuff. Make things easier for all of us?”
“So that I’m not walking into it blind.” He nodded once. “That would be appreciated, Mister…” He huffed softly. “God damnit, choose a last name already.”
I grinned a little. What else could I do?