Sarah blinked at me. “Nope?”
“Nope, nope, nope, nope, nope, with a side of nope.” I made sure that the lock and deadbolt were secure before moving back into the living room. I wasn’t sure if it could work the doorknob or not, but I wasn’t taking any chances. “A single wildling, down the hall, facing this direction. Definitely waiting for us.”
“What?!” It wasn’t often that I heard panic in her voice, and to be honest, it kind of surprised me. This wasn’t quite the level of situation that would panic her. I wasn’t actually gushing blood.
I opened a window and worked on unlatching the screen. A little bit of jimmying later, and I was able to lean out the window, looking. I could see a few similar wildlings lounging about. I couldn’t tell for sure if they were the same breed, but if it looks like a duck and quacks like a duck…
“Alright,” I said as I pulled my head back in, closing the window. No sense in attracting more flying beasts. “You said that there were wildlings fighting when we came in?” She nodded. “Then my best guess is that the surviving pack caught our scent and followed us up. Since there’s no telling how long we’ll take to come out, most of the pack was left outside to hit up any scavengers that popped up. There’s a lot of carrion, and the scent is likely to draw some daring beasts in.”
I took a breath, sorting my thoughts. “One grenade left, plus the firecrackers. Okay. We set up another window like what I just did. Prep a grenade, then go out the door. I shoot the wildling in the hall, you chuck the grenade down the stairs. I grab my guns, and we run back inside, locking the door. Now, I can’t see more than a couple of wildlings, but I’m willing to bet that there’s a lot more. We wait, then start dropping firecrackers down the side of the building. The popping draws them away from the door and to where we can both snipe them from the window.
“Now, hopefully we can-”
“Wait,” Sarah said, raising her hands. “Back up. Guns?”
“Yeah. You must have dropped them in the hall, but the wildling was almost laying right on top of them.”
Sarah’s face grew thoughtful for a moment before she bit her lip. “Bro? Listen…” I wasn’t going to like this. “I know I just almost got you killed-”
“Bro.” She looked sad suddenly. “Please. Just… Just hear me out. Your plan? It’s solid. Rock solid, and we both know it. But I’ve got something tingling in my gut that tells me… Well, it tells me you aren’t seeing something. I think I know what it is, but I know it’s got almost no chance of being right.
“Here’s what I’m suggesting. I’m more heavily armored, so let me take point. You take the grenade, but don’t pull the pin. When I kill it, then you pull the pin and throw. Just… don’t throw until I either tell you or I kill it.”
My frown couldn’t get much deeper. If she was trying to put herself in harm’s way out of guilt or something, trying to take a hit to even the score, then that was just plain stupid. “I don’t like it.”
“I know,” she said softly. “But please, Jordan, trust me on this one.”
Dang it. I sighed softly as I turned my back to her. “Gimmie the grenade. I’d be a lot happier if you’d tell me what exactly is on your mind.”
“Sorry,” she said quietly. I felt a small jerk before she patted my shoulder. When I turned around, she was smiling sadly. “You’d have a thousand arguments about why we shouldn’t do it, but… Things are clicking into place for me, I think. And I know that there are things that you aren’t good at, Bro. This is one of those. Either you’re right, and we’ll continue on, business as usual, or I’m right, and you’ll take my ideas to the next level.”
“Well.” I took the grenade from her before reaching out and sliding her faceplate down. “Be cool, play it safe, alright? No heroics. The world has enough dead heroes, and I’m not letting you join them.”
She pushed her faceplate back up before rising up to kiss me on the cheek. We touched foreheads for a moment. “You got it.” She pulled away, sliding it back down before moving to the door.
I took up position behind her as she slowly unlocked the door, gripping both the grenade and the pin. “One for the money.”
“Two for the show.” She put one hand on the door handle, an the other on the lock.
I tensed, getting ready for when things would go wrong. “Three to get ready.”
“And four to go.”
Unlike normal, there wasn’t a burst of energy and movement out of her. With strange gentleness, she opened the door wide, looking out. Once again, the strange green and blue creature hopped to its legs. My eyes quickly scanned to the hallway, where I could make out two more sets of eyes peeking over the stairs. Ambush. Great. Every fiber of my being screamed to go ahead and pull the pin, but I swallowed it back. I’d told Sarah that I would wait, and I wasn’t going to break a promise to her any time soon.
Sarah took a careful step forward, then another. The wildling held its position, staring up at her hungrily. Another step, and then another. Painfully slow, she pushed forward until she reached the guns. The entire time, the wildling held its position. Another decoy tactic? Keeping her eyes on it until the others were in a position to attack? It wouldn’t work from this position, though. We could do this.
Slowly, she squatted and reached out for the guns… only to divert, and carefully reach out to touch its head. It let out a high-pitched noise, and the two at the stairwell popped their heads up. A call to attack?
But they didn’t move. Sarah rubbed at its head with more earnest, earning more squeaks. She looked back to me. “You can relax, Bro. I don’t think they’re going to attack.”
I stared at her for a moment, my mind screaming at a thousand miles an hour. How did she know that it would respond like that? What sort of a leap of logic happened in her head? This flew in the face of everything that I knew about wildlings.
Finally, I put the grenade back in my belt. Ignore her leap of logic for now. Study what was going on. She was rubbing at its head and it was making… pleased noises? The face was vaguely similar to a canine’s. The nose was a little… different, and while the eyes were set forward, they were wider apart than most dogs. Easier to switch between predator and prey.
The legs were weird. They seemed to be built similar to a dog’s, but with a touch more emphasis on power than a balance between speed and power. There was what looked like a strange flap of skin connecting the front legs to the back. I wasn’t sure what was up with that.
I moved to get a better look at its face. At first it looked like the ears were small, but as Sarah rubbed at them, I realized that they were folded down for the most part. I didn’t even want to think about what sort of muscle control it must have. The teeth were similar to those of a human — long, flat incisors, sharpened canines that looked like they might have belonged on a dog, and then flat teeth in the back of the mouth. A healthy pink tongue, too.
Now that I wasn’t focused on the fact that it was a wildling, I had to admit, it was kind of cute in a weird way. Its face honestly looked like it was smiling.
“Who’s a good wildling? Hmm? Is it you? It’s you!” The wildling squirmed under Sarah’s praise. “Mmm, yes!”
Back to the present, I warned myself. I focused on my sister. “How did you know?”
“I didn’t,” she confessed, not looking away from the wildling. “I took a chance. You’re not the only one who wants answers to mysteries, Bro. And you know my favorite wildling theory.”
On the long walks between Burlington and New Brockton, we’d discussed all sorts of things, one of which being wildlings. Sarah favored the idea that they were a biotinker’s pet project gone wild. I didn’t have a favorite theory, per se, but I found the most fascinating one to be that it was a new Endbringer spawning them. A more subtle manner of putting constant pressure on humanity, though it flew in the face of the most commonly accepted theories as to the source of Endbringers.
“But I only grabbed your halberd because I knew you’d make a mad rush back out there to get it, no matter what fighting was going on or what was out there.” She knew me too well. “If your guns were in the hall, something had to bring them here. That something had to be these little cuties. And you’re a cutie, aren’t you? Yes!” It made another pleased noise. “So either they were setting up a very bad ambush…”
“Or they were bringing me my weapons.” I squatted next to her, feeling as if I was moving through a dream. I reached out a hand, and the wildling quickly nuzzled its head into it. Not what I’d anticipated, nor what I’d been going for. I moved my hand slowly, feeling the creature as best I could through my glove. The outer layer of the skin was thin and pliable, but underneath was thicker in areas, almost like it had leather armor under its skin to protect vital areas.
As I stroked its side, I found what felt like a small sphincter on the shoulder. I moved quickly, checking the other side and found the same. Protected mostly by bone, leading to what I would guess that its lungs would be. What the…
Sarah interrupted my thoughts. “Anyway, if they were a tinker project, the creator would make some to use as assistants or something. If all his experiments escaped somehow, and they made their way here, they’d be without other humans. Perhaps over enough generations, they’d still have the human imprinting, but might not know a master any more. So maybe they were just trying to help whatever humans they saw. It would explain why they were attacking the other wildlings that tried to flank us. They were protecting us.”
“Maybe,” I admitted. “It’s an awfully huge stretch, though. I mean, there have been a few tinkers who specialized in animals somehow, but almost all of them had to have an outside control agent to help keep their critters in check. Doing such a wide imprint that goes down to a hereditary level is pretty much unheard of.”
“Alright, what sort of control agent could it be?”
“Pheromones are the most common, but it’s usually more targeted than simple ‘humanity.’ After all, she wouldn’t want a random person-”
“You’re assuming that the tinker’s female,” Sarah cut in.
I rolled my eyes. “Women still trigger more commonly than men. Anyway. They wouldn’t want a random person stealing away control, so the pheromone trigger would be much more specified than that. The chances of the two of us, with our vastly different physiology, both producing that pheromone would be… astronomical, to say the least.”
Sarah still had her faceplate down, but I was guessing that she was frowning. Might as well throw her a bone. “And yet, with a thousand more arguments that I can think of offhand against it, we’re still looking at friendly wildlings who brought me my guns. Nothing makes sense at this point, so I’m not doing anything better than wild guessing at this point. I’d like to do some tests-”
“No hurting them,” she growled.
“Not… that sort of test.” I looked at her with a sympathetic smile. “There’s some by the stairs, and there’s-”
“C’mere little wildlings!” she called out cheerfully. “There’s scritches and rubbin’s for everyone! C’mere!”
Not the sort of test that I’d been going for. One of the wildlings took off for her at a dead sprint, all but leaping onto her. My hand instinctively moved to my chest knife before relaxing; it wasn’t attacking. I had to remind myself of that. The other one moved at a more leisurely pace, instead approaching me. Unlike its more enthusiastic partner, it walked slowly up to me, put its head down, and gently planted its forehead against my groin, making me freeze. After a moment, it lifted its head to look at me, before once again pushing it into me.
After a moment of me staring at in, Sarah spoke up. “Pet it, Bro.”
I nervously reached out a hand, rubbing a hand from the scruff of its neck to its rump. I paused a moment before pulling off my glove under its careful eyes. As soon as I moved to pet it again, got up on its hind legs, putting its forepaws on my knee so that it could gently tuck its head up underneath my chin.
I felt like I was going to accidentally kill it or something. Or that it would suddenly change its mind and try to rip out my throat. It wouldn’t have the chance with the collar, not with how I was holding my head, but still. Sarah was aggressively playing with her two, but this one… My heart was hammering in my chest. I wasn’t good with animals, and had no idea what to do here. Carefully, with a trembling hand, I reached out to pet it.
The fur and outer skin was surprisingly soft. Pleasantly soft, really. The creature’s breathing slowed and it seemed to relax a little as I was petting it. Applying a bit more pressure, I could feel the more firm layer underneath. If I was just idly petting it, though, I never would have guessed that it would have a more resilient layer.
It was fatter than the other ones. I moved my hand towards its belly, and it made a more low-pitched noise than Sarah’s two. I took that as a sign to stop. “Sorry,” I whispered, and it let out a slow breath. I hadn’t felt any fat, though. Interesting. I hesitantly went back to petting it, feeling like I was going to mess up at any moment.
There was a flash, and both the wildling and I turned quickly to look at the source: Sarah with a camera held up to her face, grinning from ear to ear. “Sorry, but with that terrified expression on your face, I couldn’t resist.”
“When did you pick up a camera?”
“While you were engaging in gun porn.” I gave her a blank look. “Twain. I figured that we could use it to get some recon for the Wardens and Dragon’s Teeth, but this…” She wound the camera. “This was too priceless. I’m keeping this for myself.”
I wished she would have told me she’d picked up a camera. This changed so many plans and ideas. “How much film do you have?”
“Four rolls, 24 exposures per roll. This was my first photo.”
95 photos left. “Get a shot of this one from behind.”
She hesitated. “Why?”
“You have a profile shot right now, we’ll get one from behind, then I’ll maneuver so we can get a shot of its belly. If these are actually friendly wildlings, then it’ll give them something to analyze, and maybe even allow them to keep an eye out for them if they make another foray into Saint Louis.”
She chuckled softly as she moved to re-position herself, despite the whining of her two wildlings. “Alright, yeah. You’re thinking that, if they are friendly, they’re the reason why our odds are so high. If another expedition comes in and they can find them, they might not get slaughtered.” She paused and took a photo.
“That’s not the only reason,” I corrected. I paused, though, as she shot a picture. Slowly, I worked my hands under the paws and lifted my wildling so it was on its back paws. The beast went with it, but it looked like it was frowning. “If they can capture a few, males and females, they might be able to breed them. It would be helpful in protecting communities from other wildlings.”
Sarah clicked another picture before looking at me. “Clever thinking, Bro. But that’s assuming that they’re friendly.”
I didn’t need to see her face to know she was smirking. “Yeah, well… I can’t deny what’s smacking me in the face. Or frowning me in the face.” I gently let go of the wildling, and it instantly put its paws on my shoulders and tucked its head under my chin again. “I gotta admit, this thing seems affectionate.”
“I know!” She tucked her camera back into a reinforced pouch before going back to scratching at the wildlings bouncing around her. “I always wanted a pet, but Mom kept saying no. But these little guys are so fucking cute! Yes you are! Yes you are!”
I chuckled a little, my hands rubbing at its sides. We stayed like that for some time before I gently pushed mine off and stood again. Almost immediately, it hopped against my leg, pushing its head towards my hip. I reached down to shoo it away, only to notice the teleportation device Tattletale had given us.
Apparently, at some point it had taken a hit, or maybe had been wrapped in tentacles. For the life of me, I couldn’t remember when. Unfortunately, the metal casing had taken some visible damage. Carefully, I removed it from my hip and shook it, listening to the rattling inside. Hopefully, it wasn’t anything important, but… Well, later I’d go ahead and pop it open to take a careful look inside. For now, though, I clipped it back onto my belt and retrieved my rifle and halberd.
It was as an afterthought that I grabbed the pistol. The weapon was dead, and would pretty much have to be rebuilt from scratch. It would be more expensive to fix it than to just buy a new one. Still, I carefully removed my pack and tucked it inside. So far we’d survived, but our options were dwindling after our first bout of combat.
“You ready?” Sarah asked, rising to her feet.
As soon as I had my pack back on and my halberd in hand, I nodded to her. “Yeah. Let’s see if they’re or friendly or are just smart enough to lure us into an ambush by faking it.”
Sarah took point as we went down the stairs. It wasn’t exactly easy with three wildlings underfoot, two of them bouncing excitedly and the third just keeping close. It wasn’t until they got outside that we understood just how bad it could be.
There must have been almost 30 of them, and they all seemed to turn and run towards us. Sarah let out a happy squeal and dropped to one knee, and instantly they were all over her. I took a cautious step towards her, halberd at the ready, until it became apparent that they all were vying for her affections. It should have been cute, adorable even, but all that I could feel was a sense of trepidation.
As Sarah tried to hug and pet them all, two apparently decided that it would take too long for their turn. One of them galloped over to me, stopping a few feet away, it’s entire body squirming in anticipation. With the patterns of blue on it, the creature somehow reminded me of an ocean’s waves as it wriggled its body. It only took a moment for me to dub it Wavy.
The other one was a bit larger and was almost completely blue. Unlike that one, it walked slowly, constantly checking over its shoulder. It moved right next to my leg before turning around and sitting, its head slowly turning this way and that as it scanned the area. My kind of critter, constantly checking for threats.
I looked down at it. “‘Sup, Ocean?” It looked up and I jerked my head in greeting. It jerked its head in return before going back to scanning the area.
As I settled down to pet Wavy, I hated to admit it, but the whole tinker thing was sounding more and more plausible by the moment. Wavy’s desperate need for affection only seemed to cement it. But that still left huge questions. Where had they come from? If these were so desperate for human affection, why were they in a place where humans never ventured? Had they tried coming to another town, only to be mistaken for normal wildlings and driven off?
If they were tinker made, why were they roaming the streets here instead of staying closer to their master? Was their master here? Or were these defective somehow, and Saint Louis was just the dumping grounds? There were so many questions caused by one likely solution that it hurt my mind.
If it was an Endbringer, maybe these were a confusion tactic. To disrupt humanity by creating some that were friendly, sewing the seeds of strife by forcing people to identify if the wildlings were friendly or not. Or possibly becoming hostile later. It was hard to say, not with so much left up in the air. And if it were a catatonic parahuman spawning them, were they the result of happy dreams? And broken passengers…
But all of this was a distraction. An interesting one, but a distraction that needed to be nullified. There would be plenty of time to deal with the mystery later. Right now, we had a job to do. I pulled myself to my feet. “Hey, Sis, wanna see if they’ll stick around?”
“Hmm?” She looked over to me. My stance must have clued her in, because she let out a melodramatic sigh and raised herself to her feet. “You’re a buzzkill, you know that?” She looked over to the warehouse, putting a hand on her hip. “Yeah, sure. There might be more tentacle fucks hiding in there, so we could use the backup.”
“That’s what I was thinking.”
“Slave driver.” She looked down before clapping her hands together. “Hey! What do you say to helping us? We gotta go get some stuff from that building over there, and could use your help. Wanna go with us?”
A series of happy squeals washed over the crowd, before they all turned towards the building and crouched a little. Yeah, tinker was sounding more and more realistic by the moment. It was a little disturbing. But in the end, it didn’t really matter. As one, we all set about crossing the street.
My flashlight in my mouth, I tried another box, only to find that the tape wouldn’t give in the slightest. Dang. I gently beat my fist against the box just in time to hear another angry growl and a brief bit of scurrying.
Shining my light in that direction, I found a couple of our wildlings with their snouts in a large box, almost falling into it as they thrashed a little. A moment later, they lifted their heads. I only caught a brief glimpse of the forms that they had in their mouths, but it was enough for me to turn away quickly. With how ruthless our wildlings were being, there wouldn’t be any of the tentacle wildlings ever again, even if the young could survive without their parents.
“Hydrogen peroxide?” Sarah called out from elsewhere.
I took the flashlight out of my mouth before calling back. “He can synthesize it from water.”
“How about silver nitrate?”
“What the… Why is that near the hydrogen peroxide?”
“I dunno. It looks like bags and bottles were just piled up on the ground over here.”
My mind flickered to the wildling pups in the boxes, the ones that were probably being fed to our wildlings. Despite Sarah assuring me that there had been tons of bodies outside when we’d fled, the streets were pretty much clear of everything but the blood. Our little things must have had quite the appetite.
Still, I was hurrying to the glow of the lantern I’d given Sarah to use. The tentacled wildlings must have opened any boxes they could to have their young in, leaving the rest sit where they were. That was going to make gathering things far easier.
I rounded the shelves, finding her standing in front of an impressive pile of glass and plastic bottles around large, tied off plastic bags. I couldn’t help but start salivating.
“We hit the jackpot,” Sarah said with a smirk on her lips.
“Oh, yeah.” My eyes were sparkling. “I wish we could take it all, but even if we empty our packs and get rucksacks, this is probably a good five trips, minimum.”
“What if we could do it in fewer trips?” Sarah’s eyes were sparkling. “I was thinking… We’ve got a badass crew of wildlings with us.” We had no evidence they were badass, but whatever. “If they’re watching our backs, we could easily track down wheelbarrows or carts or something so that we could make it in a trip or two.”
I frowned a little. It would be even better if we could use a forklift, since it wouldn’t have degraded any. Assuming, of course, that the propane was still in good working order and would, in fact, work at all. But with how bad the roads outside of the zone were, that was a no-go. “We’d need to find two wagons with big wheels, made to go offroad. But yeah, that would work. Yeah, that would work nicely, depending on what we can scrounge up.”
It had taken an hour, but we’d scrounged up a couple of wagons that were, by the tags still on them, meant for gardening. The huge wheels and deep walls made me wonder just what kind of gardening it entailed. We’d loaded them up carefully with everything that we could nab — me grabbing from the pile and tossing it outside to Sarah from the loading bay. The wildlings had caught onto what we were doing quickly and seemed determined to help us. It did, sadly, mean that I had to tell them multiple times not to bring me the boxes.
They got props for trying to drag things over so that I didn’t have to walk so far in, but they didn’t quite seem to be able to comprehend that boxes were a no-go. Still, they’d made a tedious job into a relatively simple one.
So far, the trip back was being a lot less harrowing than the trip there. Every time we’d see a pack of wildlings, our pack would let out keening noises and take up defensive stances. That seemed to drive the other wildlings off. Sarah had gotten pictures of the stances, and I wished that we’d brought a recording device. If wildlings had a programmed or conditioned response to that keening, it might help drive them away from communities.
That was assuming, of course, that it was a universal thing. If Sarah was right and these little guys had a penchant for kicking copious amounts of ass, then it could be a local conditioned response. The global infestations of wildlings might not respond so well. Still, it was a little hard to imagine creatures of this size inciting fear when there were larger, more dangerous wildlings out there.
I was pleased that we’d also stopped by the house we’d opened earlier to nab a TV, the game systems and a bunch of games. It was a little awkward to repack it all, and I was more than a little thankful that none of this stuff was going to break. I wasn’t as comfortable looting from the dead as I’d hoped that I would be, but I focused on the mental image of the joy we were going to be bringing. It wasn’t quite enough to make the unease disappear, but it was enough to hold it at bay.
I was disrupted from my mental images of Greg squealing with glee by a soft whine behind us. I slowed a little, only to hear it again. Quite a few times. I turned slowly, only to find our wildlings either pacing or sitting a good ten feet behind us. I’d been so wrapped up in my thoughts that I hadn’t noticed when they’d started dragging tail.
“What is it?” I asked quietly.
They simply shuffled uneasily. It was Sarah who spoke up. “I don’t think they want to leave the zone.”
I frowned a little. “But…”
Sarah scoffed, looking at me. “This is their home, Jordan. Maybe they have a nest of their own here that they can’t leave, or maybe they’re programmed not to leave or something.” She was really digging this tinker theory. “Whatever the reason, they don’t want to leave their home.”
Which put a crimp on taking some back with us for breeding purposes. But it also had worse issues. “If we leave them behind, they might wander off on their own. It’ll make things harder for us.”
That got a frown out of her. “Yeah, not cool.” She thought about it for a moment before looking at me.
“I’m not going to like this, am I?”
“Nope. Okay, Bro, here’s what I’m thinking. We split up, you stay here and I run this back, then I meet you back here and you take your load back. That way, there’s one of us here to keep them here, and we still get everything dropped off.”
“At the risk of being attacked alone on the way there and back.” I didn’t like it one bit. But… “I’m not seeing much of an option any other way.” A sigh escaped me. “And you want to go first, don’t you.”
“Admit it, Bro, it makes sense.”
“I don’t have to admit everything,” I growled. I wasn’t angry, just… I really didn’t like the idea of being alone here. My eyes scanned the area, and I noticed a depression where erosion had at least partially eaten the soil out from under the street. I lifted my halberd to point at it. “We’ll meet back up over there. It’s a bit closer, so maybe they’ll be more comfortable.”
“Can do,” she said with a nod. After a moment, Sarah turned to address the wildlings. “Okay you guys, I’m trusting you to take care of my brother. If anything happens to him, I’m gonna be pissed.”
“Sis, I don’t think they can understand you.”
“Oh, hush.” She directed her attention back to them. “Play nice with him, now, and feel free to kill any other wildlings you see, alright?”
They let out a chorus of chirps and squeaks. She straightened and hugged me. “Take care.”
“Stay safe. I should see you before nightfall, right?”
We disengaged and I watched her leave with a hint of trepidation. Sarah paused to wave back at me several times as she retreated out of sight, which didn’t help matters any. She didn’t maintain good enough situational awareness, and she had a tendency to rush in where she shouldn’t. I hoped she wouldn’t get herself into trouble, but.. I worried.
Finally, I turned to address our wildlings, forcing a chipper tone to my voice. “Okay, kiddos. We’ve got work to do, come on.” They all clustered around me as I lead the way to the depression, most of them chirping and squealing happily. Snuggles, the one who liked to put his head under my chin, and Ocean didn’t make a noise, instead preferring to keep an eye on our surroundings. I wished they would have gone with Sarah. They would have compensated for her nicely.
I pulled the wagon in close to the depression, but not so close that it would interfere with the work that I’d have to do. It went a good four feet under the road, but that wasn’t quite good enough for what I had in mind. The road was big; two cars could fit on it going in each direction, with space in the middle so that a fifth car could turn.
Not quite good enough. I began to hack at the soil with my halberd, ripping soil loose and letting it deposit on the floor. Were it any other blade, I wouldn’t dream of doing this. The molecular alignment, along with the other things that Chris had done to it, helped ensure that the blade wouldn’t dull, bend or break. What could be only a weapon of war could be used for everything from a shovel to an axe with ease, without the slightest bit of worry.
I was surprised, though, when the wildlings caught onto what I was doing. They quickly fell into lines, the ones in front helping me dig and pushing the dirt that I dislodged back, which would then be moved out of the cave by the rest of the chain. Somehow it made this entire surreal situation even more strange. Here I was, making a cave underneath a street that I didn’t have to worry about collapsing, being helped by wildlings.
What should have taken me an hour only took ten minutes or so. By the time we were done, the cave was deep enough for me to pull the wagon underneath, while still allowing many of the wildlings and myself enough room to rest and relax. I might have tried to expand it even more, but I didn’t want to spend any more calories. Even with my suit’s water recycling system, I needed to refill my canteen when I got back to the forward operating base.
As I settled down into the dirt, resting my back against the wall, I was thankful for the wildlings for another reason. I hated being alone. Taking guard duty at night was easy enough for me because there was plenty to occupy my mind with. I had the sleep patterns of my companions, while still priming my senses and keeping an eye out for danger so that I could keep them safe.
If I was alone, I preferred to train. Here, training wasn’t exactly an option. If I didn’t have the wildlings here, clamoring against me and demanding my affection, and was hiding inside of a building, I probably would have gone insane.
Inside a building. I closed my eyes and cursed silently to myself. I should have had Sarah unlock a building for me. I couldn’t believe that I didn’t think of that before she left. Stupid. Stupid. Stupid. I needed to think ahead for things like that. I couldn’t afford to make dumb mistakes here. Stupid.
The wildlings had settled down after an hour, with Snuggles determined to lay curled up against my leg and Wavy laying half in my lap so that I could stroke his head. The others were all taking turns with who got to have my affections. A pack structure, perhaps? They all wanted pettings, but the turns that they were taking… I was trying to figure it out, but I couldn’t.
Ocean let out a pained squeak, making the ones clustered around him hop to their feet and back away slightly. That made me sit up, my eyes wide. Both Wavy and Snuggles backed away slowly, giving me room to move. Quickly, I scrambled over to him, looking down at his face. It was screwed up in pain.
Was that why he’d been so aloof and calm while the others had been so excited to see us? Or why he hadn’t taken a turn in snuggling up to me yet? I gingerly began to stroke his head, frowning with each whimper of pain. Maybe he’d gotten hurt while fighting the other wildlings? I’d seen some cuts on the others, and Snuggles and a few others didn’t like their bellies being touched. Maybe it was broken ribs or something?
Ocean let out a prolonged whimper, and everything became clear to me as there was movement at his rear. Or, rather, her rear. I’d never actually seen anything give birth before, animal or human. I knew the basic principles of helping a woman go through labor, and in class we’d discussed cattle birthing, but this… This was quite different.
I froze and watched the entire process in a combination of shock, awe and fear. After a few moments, the baby was free, and the other wildlings clustered around it, blocking my view. Ocean looked up to me with exhausted eyes, and I resumed stroking his — her — head.
When the wildlings cleared, the baby was free from the umbilical cord, and completely clean. There wasn’t a single sign of slime or anything on it. Slowly, it opened its gold eyes and worked its way to its feet. Its movements were weak, but each step became more sure. I was surprised, however, to see that the flaps of skin between its front and back legs extended almost entirely to the ground. Strange. What was the point of those?
Ocean rolled onto her side and the baby moved to one of the nipples, latching on to nurse. I took that as my cue to move back, settling against the wall again. Now that I thought about it, I hadn’t noticed any genitalia on them. A part of me wished that I could move to get a better look, or that I had been at a better angle. Maybe they had a cloaca? It was rare in mammals, but occasionally happened. Or maybe it was just close to the sphincter, making it hard to see. Maybe the penis was retractable, making it hard to find?
I wished Sarah had left the camera so I could take pictures of this. I probably wouldn’t have caught the actual birthing, as I really hadn’t been expecting it, but I could have gotten photos of the actual aftermath. It might have provided some interesting insights.
Still, I was getting some interesting intelligence about this breed. There was a definite sense of community here — everybody had clustered around Ocean prior to the birthing, and then had contributed to cleaning the baby wildling. That implied a group structure in child rearing, though still with a focus on the actual mother. I filed that away for my report.
Crap, report. I pulled my pack over and fished out a piece of paper and a pen. I had to fake an encoded report for the Wardens and Dragon’s Teeth. Quickly, I settled on various highly squiggles that could imply either characters or words. I made sure to include a wide variety, but to repeat ones that I’d already used earlier on the page. I felt that it was dumb, and possibly insulting to the mercs that were guarding the wagon, but still.
Towards the bottom of the page, I made a grid and put more of the made-up characters inside, occasionally turning the page so that I could have them sideways. It would appear to be a cipher, perhaps, or maybe a diagram of some sort. It would be enough that if anybody tried to read it, it would give them something to chew on for a while.
When I was done, I tucked it away and settled back again. My eyes went back to Ocean, who was watching me. I offered her a smile.
After a moment, she leaned down to nudge the baby curled up to her. Slowly, it made its way to its feet, and after more nudging, it began to slowly tromp in my general direction. Its coordination was good for the fact that it had been less than an hour before it was born. As it struggled to climb up my leg, I ripped my gloves off to make sure I had a full sense of pressure when I picked it up and set it on my chest.
Those little golden eyes stared into mine, and after a moment, it seemed to smile. I couldn’t help but smile back. After a moment, I looked to Ocean. “You have a beautiful child.”
For the first time all day, she smiled at me.
I gently stroked the little guy’s head, and he let out a contented squeak. He felt a little cold, though, so I carefully ran a finger down the seam of my armor. Gingerly, I picked the little fellow up, opened my armor, and set him back down on my chest before tucking it around the two of us as best I could while keeping his head free. The air was cool against my skin, but I didn’t care.
After a few moments, Ocean slowly made her way to the leg opposite Snuggles to curl up. Another wildling I’d yet to name curled up between my knees. As the babe on my closed its eyes and gave a mighty yawn, I decided that was a good idea.
Slowly, my own eyes closed, and darkness came.
“So,” Mom said. “Wildlings.”
“Yeah,” I said, sitting on the crate with my elbows against my knees. “Weirdest thing ever.”
“More strange things have happened.” She tilted her head, her long grey hair tumbling over her shoulder. “There was a tinker out in Victoria who would kidnap people outside the city, back in the day. When they finally captured him, they found that he’d been working their brains into an enormous computer system.”
It sounded awfully familiar. “Oh?”
“His specialty was some weird brand of cybernetics, and I’m pretty sure that his designs were what Dragon studied to make her first generation of prosthetics for Defiant, or at least the systems that would allow for them connecting to his nervous system. Thanks to that computer, though, he was a beast to track down and capture. I think his final rating was something like Tinker 4, Thinker 8, Trump 2 and Breaker 4, most of it thanks to that array. After he kidnapped a school bus that included a couple of Wards, the Protectorate and Guild were all over him, and a ‘dead or alive’ order was placed on him. Both heroes and villains were all over him.
“They did end up capturing him alive, believe it or not. He actually gave up when the computer informed him that he was going to be captured no matter what. Giving himself up was the most likely way he’d stay alive in the process. When they found the computer, though, they discovered that not only was there no way to retrieve the brains. They all died before anybody could figure out how to make sure that they remained fed.”
I frowned a little. “What happened to him?”
“He went to the Birdcage,” she said, matter-of-factly. “Since he’d somehow skipped to the US to get some of his victims, they’d tried pretty hard to get him for sentencing. The Canadian government wouldn’t allow it, though, due to fears about the American legal system. In the end, everybody agreed that at the very least, he belonged in an inescapable prison.
“He ended up with the Teacher and became one of his students. Nobody is really sure what happened to him afterwards, though they know he was released. Everybody’s pretty sure that he ended up remaining one of Teacher’s thralls.”
I nodded, wising once again that the Undersiders had succeeded in taking the bastard down. Now they were too afraid of retaliation to try.
Mom was already pushing on. “I was going to teach you how to escape handcuffs, but I think I’ll avoid that for now. Instead, I think you could use some refreshers on geometry and its applications.”
Which would explain why we were in a construction yard nicely. “Okay, then.” I hopped off the crate. “Let’s get to work.”