“I would have been happier with more honey and less nutrient paste.”
I glanced up from my inspection of the manual. The portable teleporter was a work of art. Small enough to fit on my belt, but big enough that I could easily work the controls. I could tell that it was one of Daniella Chavez’s works. She was a foremost tinker when it came to interdimensional teleportation, being the person to even build New Brockton’s teleporters and the receivers.
This particular one was nice. A simple display to show your coordinates and what dimension you were in, with controls underneath to change that. A nice cover for the display and controls that wouldn’t open on its own, but could be accessed easily in emergency. The manual warned that it teleported a sphere five with five feet radius, and to be careful not to have any buildings or people bisecting that sphere. The matter within the sphere would be replaced with matter from the target location.
It could handle eight in-dimensional transfers before the batteries were drained, according to the manual. Extra-dimensional transfers would be three or less, depending on if you’d used the standard teleport or not. The manual also had a list of target locations that I had been desperately trying to memorize.
Really, it was a terrific emergency device. The casing was solid enough that I didn’t even worry about having it on my belt. Depending on how sturdy the internal components were, we might be able to skip from St. Louis and back again if we wanted to. Doing so, however, would be extra dangerous — there were plenty of wildlings that seemed to be attracted to EM emanations. Besides, the manual warned that using it too fast in succession might make it explode. Not a nuclear explosion, but enough to make anyone who liked their skin want to avoid abusing it.
“We’ll get our calories,” I said simply. I’d picked up something myself to make sure of it, but she wouldn’t like it. “I’d rather make sure we don’t suffer because we don’t have the necessary nutrients, anyway. We’ll compromise — honey on the go, then stop and eat some paste in between.”
“I can agree to that.”
We fell back into silence as we worked. I was working on memorizing the coordinates in the manual, while she made sure that everything was arranged in the wagons right. Really, we would have preferred at least one more mercenary and another wagon. Three wagons, two people to a wagon. The prospects of possible salvage had Sarah’s mouth watering. St. Louis was the last location where people didn’t have to worry about entropy destroying any of the salvage. Of course, that also came with other issues.
Tattletale had been right about the possibility of profit. Even simple items could come with an absolute guarantee that we’d be rolling in money. Collectors, the Wardens, Dragon’s Teeth, scientists, everybody was chomping at the bit to get something out of St. Louis. If we played our cards right, we could come back with everything that Chris needed, and enough to ensure that his grandchildren could afford an education anywhere they wanted.
“Mr. and Mrs. Abrams?”
The voice broke me from my memorization. Three men were approaching, all of them a little older than us. Two of them were in matching studded leather armor. Good; they weren’t blood related, going by their looks, but if they were established teammates or lovers, they’d fight harder to keep each other alive. The third man wore more simple leathers, but they bore more battle scars. Experience. Another good sign. I couldn’t help but notice how his leathers were cut low around the neck, giving him more room to move his head, at the expense of exposing his thick collared flannel shirt. A sweater would have been better; a collar was another thing that someone could get a grip on. His hair was also longer than I would have liked.
All of them were armed with both rifles, though one of the ones in studded leather didn’t have a melee weapon. Instead, he had a sawed-off shotgun. He’d probably be happy he was riding. The other one in studded leather had a short sword at his hip, and the one in the battle worn armor just had a short shaft of wood.
“We’re siblings,” Sarah said in her authoritative tone, hopping out of the back of the wagon. “Not married.”
Oh. I shifted from foot to foot uncomfortably. I hadn’t realized they might have thought that. That was… more than a little awkward.
“Sarah Abrams,” she continued. “This is Jordan.”
“No surname,” I added helpfully.
“We were hoping you’d be here earlier.”
One of the guys in the studded leather spoke up. “We had expected you to meet us at the recruitment office. They only told us that you wanted to meet here a little bit ago.”
That explained it, but it was almost 8 AM, local time. We’d hoped to leave an hour ago. I squared my shoulders back and took a less informal tone with them. “We’re burning daylight, but before we go, there’s some things we need to go over.”
Sarah took over. “We’ve mapped out where you’re going to set up. We’ll help arrange the walls that will help defend you. You’ll stay put until either the time we finish our business, or when you haven’t had contact with us for three days straight.”
“A day to go in, a day to scavenge, and a day to return?” the redhead in studded armor asked. He didn’t sound convinced.
“No,” I said. “We’ll be a half a day’s hike out from the edges of the St. Louis zone, so that won’t give us enough time to do what we need. We have five walkie talkies, and we’ll all keep one on us at all times. However, we don’t have spare batteries, and we aren’t sure how long this will take.”
I paused, glancing at each of them. “Do you have a watch?”
The guy in plain armor raised his arm to show it off, but the other two shook their heads. I reached into the wagon Sarah and I were taking to get out two of the watches we’d bought. We were wearing ours, and we’d kind of hoped that we would be able to return all three. Still, one was better than none. I handed the watches to the two in studded leather.
“We’ll synchronize now, and then again before the two of us head out. Every four hours one of you will turn on your radio for an hour. We’ll contact you once a day during these windows. If three full days pass without hearing from us, you are to pull up stakes and leave immediately. Do not attempt to contact us during these windows. Our radios will only be on when we attempt to contact you.”
“What do we do if these walls fail and we have to skedaddle?” the guy in the plain armor asked.
“Then you move out,” Sarah said. “But only do so if you have no hope of continuing to hold your ground.”
She hesitated. I knew what was coming, and I didn’t like lying to them like this, but I could understand why she was doing it. “I’ll share something that you weren’t told. Our two primary objectives are to secure certain substances and to perform recon for Twain, New Brockton, the Wardens, and the Dragon’s Teeth. This recon is more valuable than any items we bring back, and I don’t just mean in an information way, either.
“Each time we return to the wagons, we’ll have coded notes. These can only be deciphered by either the intended recipient or Jordan. His power sees to that. But the four groups are pooling funds for this. Care of these notes is vital. When we return and collect our pay, we’ll cut you a share of the profits from their sale.”
Really, they were going to be gibberish scribbles and designs, though I had to admit, that would be a pretty awesome power. It would have to be a misuse of a different power, though, but most people didn’t have a good understanding of how powers worked.
But the deception was important. It helped ensure that they wouldn’t leave during our last trip into the city. That kind of money could do things to a person that it normally wouldn’t. The three of them were accepting of that, though.
“Are any of you triggered?” I asked.
The guy in the battle-worn armor raised his hand. “Striker. I make people and creatures out of phase for a period of time, but only if I touch skin. I can bring them back in early if I want, and usually make sure that they have something solid that they reform around.”
I nodded. A handy power. I’d have to get him to demonstrate it at some point so I could study it. “What’s your name?”
“And you two?”
“Phil,” said the dark-haired one.
“Francis,” said the other.
Sarah cut the introductions short. “Just to let you know, we have provisions for two months time. More if you end up getting some wildlings to cook. We hope that it won’t take that long, but we’d rather err on the side of caution.” She paused, looking among them. “Questions?”
They shook their heads, and she nodded. “That’s your wagon, this is ours. Load up and we’ll move out.”
It only took us ten minutes to get loaded up, the horses a drink of spiked water, and the dockmaster the signal that we were ready. Another ten minutes of waiting before the doors to the massive bay opened. Sarah urged the horses on our wagon forward.
I was glad that we’d spent the night at Twain instead of leaving the day we arrived. Just because my armor regulated my temperature didn’t mean that my head wasn’t exposed to the elements. The temperature in the expanded cave system was about the same as outside. And it wasn’t nearly as bright as it would be this time of day back home.
Scion hadn’t just done direct damage to Earth Bet. There had been the indirect damage to the environment that he’d done with the large paths his beams had cut into the soil. Those particles had been insanely small and had been flung up into the atmosphere, causing the entire planet to cool.
Back in Gimmel it would be blisteringly hot. Here in Bet, it was in the sixties. I was thankful that I wouldn’t be here in the winter.
For a while, it had actually been a lot worse, but about six or seven years ago, it had suddenly started to get better. Nobody that I’d talked to knew the real reason, but I figured there was some parahuman somewhere that was working to filter those particles out of the upper atmosphere.
I poked my head out of the cover as we left the bay, taking a look at that great wall. Batteries of ballistic and beam weapons loomed overhead, pointing south. I’d read about these batteries. At least one of those types of turrets could put over two and a half million rounds per minute downrange if fired continuously. They didn’t, because usually a volley lasting hundredth of a second could tear almost anything to shreds, even if you were doing a quick sweep with it. It took forever to reload, and someone had to collect all the bullets to recast.
Not that the energy weapons were much better. When a superpack of wildlings approached, I didn’t even want to imagine the power draw. The targeting system alone must have required more juice than Burlington used in a year. Even if the hail of bullets hadn’t scoured the local landscape, the thermal bleedoff of the energy weapons hitting their targets would have done it eventually.
What I was most surprised by was the lack of wildling corpses. I pitied the poor people who must have collected them, and wondered a bit what they did with them.
There wasn’t any point in dwelling on it, though. Instead, I ducked back into the wagon and set about spreading the map out onto some crates, weighing it down. We had the addresses, we had the maps, and now all that I needed to do was get an approximation of where they were on the maps so I could plan our route.
The more that I could plan in advance, the more good it would do us in the long run. If I could find the perfect route to take us to each of the locations that we had to hit, then we’d be able to do this with as few encounters as possible. If I could do that, then our chances of coming through this without being hurt went up that much more.
The stick collided against my halberd’s shaft, and rather than have the shaft absorbed the blow, I moved to deflect it away easily. By controlling how the stick moved, I could control where it went. Already, Sarah was open to counterattack, but that wasn’t what we were focusing on. I was purely on the defense as she spun around (leaving her back open to me in a foolish move) to do another powerful swing. I ducked it easily and gave up a little ground.
The others were doing their own morning rituals. As Sarah and I worked our sleep out, Armando was eating. He’d be sleeping on the trip trip today, since he’d kept watch over the night. Phil and Francis had already finished their meals, and Phil was silently reading a bible while Francis was packing up.
Sarah swung the stick ineffectually a couple more times before stopping. “Twenty minutes enough?”
I stood straighter and shook my head. “At this point, three more hours wouldn’t be enough to make sure we’re in top form. But time doesn’t always give us the luxury.” I grabbed the tube in my armor and sucked down a little water, trying not to think about the fact that it was sweat and piss water. I also had removed the collar; Chris had the right idea with the collar protecting the neck, but I found that it restricted my head too much while tumbling. Maneuverability would be more important than a straight up fight.
Sarah tossed her stick away before pausing to scan the woods. We’d ridden for a good twelve hours before the horses needed to rest yesterday, making great time. We’d be at where we were setting up by sundown. I’d been nervous going over the bridges. At some point before the wildlings had driven everyone off, people had built bridges over the channels Scion had cut into the earth. However, since the wildlings had flooded the city, almost all of them hadn’t seen any use.
“Then let’s grab some grub and go.”
I shook my head as I reattached the head of my halberd. “You go ahead and eat. I’d like to pull a little more of my katas, then eat while you drive.” I also didn’t want to give her too much of an advanced warning about the little extra I’d brought.
“Nope,” she said firmly. “You’re learning today.”
I snapped my head to look at her, eyes wide. “N-no, c’mon Sis. Now really isn’t the time for me-”
“Yes,” she stressed. “It is. Bro, we both know anything can happen out there. And as much as you like to focus if there’s a fight coming, it’s just as important to take your mind off of it now and then. And I don’t care if you are scared of animals, you need to learn, and we may not have a better chance than this for quite a while.”
“Wait,” Armando said, looking at us. “I didn’t mean to eavesdrop, but… You’re afraid of animals and are running into wildling central?”
“It’s not that,” I said quickly. “Fear isn’t the right word.” But for the life of me, I couldn’t think of the right word. I wasn’t sure if there was one. I’d accidentally hurt a dog when I was a little kid, and it had haunted me for a long, long time. Humans, I understood how you could handle them physically. But animals?
I didn’t relish the thought of hurting anyone, or anything. Not even wildlings. When I had to fight, I preferred to keep it quick. If that meant more short-term pain to keep from inflicting long-term injuries, so be it. If I had to kill, I wanted it to be quick and as painless as possible.
“Sis,” I began, but she quickly cut me off.
“Non-negotiable,” she said firmly. “You need this, and we’re doing it no matter what. Understand?” When I didn’t say anything, she stressed more firmly. “Are we copacetic?”
“Yeah,” I said quietly. “We’re good.”
“Good.” She beamed at me, her mood instantly lightening. “Let’s get some grub.”
After I reattached the head of my halberd to the shaft, we moved to the campfire and settled down to fill our bowls with the meaty porridge. We both squeezed out some of the nutrient paste into it. While we weren’t going into the thick of it until tomorrow, we needed to give our bodies as many nutrients as possible in advance. Build up whatever reserves we could. To that end, I grabbed my pack and began fishing through it.
“You won’t need your firestarter or any of that stuff on your belt,” I mused. “Why don’t you go ahead and switch it out for your lockpicks and tap keys.”
“Good thinking,” Sarah said quietly, nodding. She didn’t move yet, instead focusing on her meal. It always bothered me that she was so good at that sort of thing, but now it was paying off. Her tendency to break into things and snoop was what made Chris make his tinker tech locks. Finally, we were going to make her bad habit useful.
I finally got the first stick of butter out of my pack. With the temperature in the sixties, I wasn’t worried about it melting in there. I spent a moment unwrapping it; with my gloves on, it was only a little bit trickier. I looked up at Sarah, who was looking at me curiously, before taking a large bite out of it.
“Gross,” Phil said, and by Sarah’s reaction, she felt the same way.
It was creamy, slightly sweet, and had it been put on pancakes, it would have been delicious. As it was, it was anything but.
“How the hell can you eat that?” Phil asked, shuddering in revulsion.
“Because I’m gonna need the calories. The sooner I load up on them, the better.” I looked back to Sarah. “It’s your fault I know about this.”
She forced her eyes off of me, looking to Phil. “When they’d do expeditions to… I can’t remember if it was the arctic or Antarctic offhand, but when they were going there, eating butter was a good way to make sure that they had the calories to survive the bitter cold. I’m suddenly regretting learning about it.”
I didn’t say anything, instead focusing on finishing the butter. Without meaning to, I’d found a way to get my revenge for making me learn to drive the horses. A part of me felt guilty for that.
By the time that we’d gotten to where we were going to set up, I’d been a nervous wreck. Honestly, unloading the walls and setting them up had been a relief, giving me something else to focus on beyond if I was pushing the horses too hard, if I was going to stay on the path, if I was going to do something that would damage the wagons, or any of the other number of things that put my nerves on edge.
The walls themselves were light, up until we got them set up. Once all of them had gotten connected, forming a circle around the wagons with two gates, they’d immediately sunk a good six inches into the ground. I wasn’t sure as to the mechanics of how they worked, and I regretted not asking more questions before we’d left.
As far as I could tell, the entire thing could draw power from what sunlight filtered through the atmosphere. The large bumps on the exterior of the walls, almost like barnacles, drew in moisture and turned it into hydrogen and oxygen. When the controls were switched to automatic defense, anything that got too close would be hit in a small explosion. How powerful it was would depend on the mechanics; was it a fusion explosion, or just burning the hydrogen? It was hard to say.
I’d spent the rest of the daylight hours training to calm my nerves while Sarah read a book that she’d picked up in Twain, one of the more recent Muldoon Mysteries series. Phil had helped me with my training, while the others either kept watch on the ramparts or prepared a meal. Not long after sunset, we’d settled in to sleep.
We’d gotten up before the sun, silently greeting Francis before grabbing some paste and doing a final check of our gear. I took the time to clean my guns again, making sure that there was absolutely no carbon buildup and that everything was greased and ready for action. When the sky began to lighten, we’d woken everybody else up.
“Time check,” Sarah said, looking at her watch. We all did the same.
There was a pause as Armando adjusted his watch. “Six.” He quickly set to winding it.
“Alright. Turn on the radios each time it turns two, six and ten every day. Leave them on for an hour, and the next time someone else turns on their radio. If we don’t call in for three days straight, assume we’re dead and move on.”
Francis raised a hand. “If you got supplies for months, then can I suggest that we only leave them on for a half an hour? If you’re in a position where contacting us at the start of the hour is impossible, then the latter half would be better spent getting to a position where you can call us. I’d rather have batteries for the full duration than run the risk of running out.”
Sarah glanced at me. “That’s a solid plan, honestly. I’d rather have full security than partial. Alright, for half an hour. Just remember to keep your watches wound so that we don’t have to worry about you turning it on late.” I just hoped that our own watches weren’t destroyed.
“Our calls will be short,” Sarah said. “We’ll let you know our status, if we’re still exploring or if we’re returning, and anything important that you need to know. After the call, shut down immediately. When we call, we’ll identify ourselves as Eagle, and you’ll be Nest.”
I looked up at the turrets mounted on the top of the wall. “Once you’ve identified if the walls will work like we’re told they should, use those sparingly if at all possible. Clean them after each use, but only clean one at a time.”
“And don’t forget to turn the walls off when we return,” Sarah stressed. “I don’t want to lose the intel we’re gathering because we got caught in the blast.” She paused for a moment. “Questions?”
They all shook their head, and we nodded. “Right. Good luck, and we’ll see you soon.”
We shouldered the gates in unison, stepping outside. We didn’t have to worry about closing them — a few minutes later, they closed on their own. As soon as we were out of range, we heard the walls automatically prime.
As we began to move past buildings that were collapsing due to looting, wildlings, and twenty years of decay, it really hit me for the first time. We were actually going into Saint Louis. We were marching into the wildling’s den, and would soon be where few had been before and survived.
It was strange, but even that revelation didn’t seem to do more than scratch the surface.