The world changed too quickly for me to catch it again, making me curse inwardly. I wanted to actually see the effect of the change. I wanted to study, to analyze it, to see if I could come up with something that I could pick apart to help out Chris. Maybe give him an idea for a material that might allow for easier dimensional breaches, if such a thing were even possible. I wasn’t sure, but if there was the possibility, then it might be something worth exploring.
I was still getting my bearings over the sudden shift in locale when I heard squeals of delight. One feminine, one more masculine. I knew instantly who the latter was, and I had the former figured out before the bundle of excitement slammed into me with a fierce hug. Instinctively, I hugged back with the hand that wasn’t holding my halberd.
“Welcome back Jor,” Amy said, nuzzling her head into my chest. A quick glance to my left revealed that Chris was doing about the same to Sarah.
“It’s good to be back,” I said with all sincerness. I’d enjoyed the past few days in Twain, but it had also been exhausting. Sarah and I had been hit up for interviews five times. One of those had been on camera, which made it even more awkward. We’d kept our answers vague for the most part, avoiding the topic of our wildlings and addressing the more emotional side of it. What it was like to explore a dead city (depressing, with a constant sword of dread hanging above us), the sheer number of wildlings (mind-boggling), and a little about what all we’d discovered. The last was mainly me talking about the plethora of tests that I’d run throughout our time in Saint Louis.
At one point, as I was trying to fight off exhaustion, I started talking about that first house we’d entered. The way that I’d pieced everything together about the family that had lived there, and how it had felt to be in it. How I’d felt like I was observing the last moments of a loving family before they’d fled in terror. Afterwards, Sarah had told me that I’d done a great job, and that they’d eaten it up. I wasn’t so sure.
Even worse was the way that Sarah seemed to actively encourage them parading us around, meeting anybody who could be considered a VIP there. We’d even met with Warren Oswald, the Junker King. He was a nice guy, though he admitted to us that his position was mainly ceremonial — he had veto rights for the city council, and could push his agendas through speeches to the public, but for the most part he was simply there as a figurehead and tinker, same as any other. The meeting was cut short when someone interrupted to inform him of a problem with another tinker’s tokamak fusion reactor, so I doubted that he was simply a figurehead leader.
For the most part, though, I got to meet some wonderful people who were thrilled that we’d simply survived. Enough that I was happy to insist that Sarah and I got separate rooms. I was glad that protection was commonly available in Twain, and that she was smart enough that I didn’t have to remind her to use it.
Perhaps my favorite person was Mr. Rieger, the barber I’d gone to on the first day. He’d insisted on not being paid, but had provided a good amount of conversation with me. He’d also insisted on giving me a shave every single day that we’d stayed. I’d never had someone else shave me before; it was strangely relaxing. I’d made sure to tip him at least what he’d lost by giving me a free shave.
Amy pulled away from me reluctantly, beaming up at me. With a faint smile, I stroked a lock of hair away from her face. We didn’t have much time, though, before Chris was latching onto me in a fierce hug.
“Bro,” he said with a giddy laugh. I couldn’t help but join him. “You wouldn’t believe how ape people have been going over you two! Ever since Dragon released that statement, and people found out that I was your brother, I’ve been getting all sorts of questions.”
“I’m familiar,” Sarah said in an amused tone.
Apparently, Dragon had made sure the press knew what we’d done for her. Considering that Dragon herself released so few statements, it had caused quite a stir, which was part of the reason why we had gotten the reception in Twain that we had. Which reminded me. “By any chance, did you get some newspapers?”
“Of course,” he said with a laugh. “What kind of brother would I be if I didn’t? Anything with your names in it got saved.”
“Sarah.” Tabby’s voice drew my attention. I looked over to find her hugging Sis tight. “You two are stupid, irresponsible, and damn near suicidal. What would have happened if-”
“We’re fine, Mom.” Sarah smiled a little. “The numbers were good, and we cut through a lot of BS this way. We’re fine. Besides, we’re only taking after Dad.”
I’d apparently been so focused on Amy and Chris that I’d missed Tabby and Tim. He approached slowly, extending his hand. “Jordan.” As I took it, he frowned. “You’re hurt.”
I let go, raising the hand to my neck. “It’s nothing, really. Patched up all good, so no worries. I barely feel it.” On a scale of one to ten, I’d only rank it a three. Annoying, but it was almost healed to the point where the gel was only a thin slit. It wasn’t slowing me down in the slightest. “Besides, who was it who jumped into the field with a broken arm to hunt down two villains?”
He looked uncomfortable. “I never should have let anybody know about that incident.”
“And Jordan takes after you for that,” Tabby said. Unlike Tim, she had a small, uncomfortable smile on her face. “You cleaned it up good? I don’t-”
“Mom,” Chris said, rolling his eyes. He grabbed my shoulders to show her my neck better. “Yes. The gel actively draws out and expels bacteria and viruses. It doesn’t have a deep indentation, so I know that they put enough in to completely seal the wound. And considering that he didn’t bleed out, they got it in before they had to worry about anything. Trust me, they know more about how to do this than even I do.”
It was… technically true, but only because we had more experience using it.
Time for a distraction. “We weren’t expecting you.”
Tabby frowned a little at me. “When we heard what you two were doing, we came here as quickly as possible. We’d been tempted to take Chris to Twain, but he was pretty insistent that we wait here. We would have preferred to see you before you left. You really should have…” Her words trailed off as she looked over my shoulder. “Miss Wilbourn.”
I turned to see Tattletale, dressed in a very nice suit and wearing those small square glasses of hers. She had the same coy smile as the last time I’d seen her, like she knew more than anyone around her. Which, to be fair, she probably did. “Mrs. Abrams.” She looked to Chris. “Mr. Abrams.” She looked to Sarah. “Miss Abrams.” And finally to me. “Jordan.”
I smiled a little, but it was Tim who spoke up. “Can we help you?”
Her head tilted a little, her grin growing a touch. “I had hoped that you would have had your family reunion in peace before you noticed me. I-”
“Oi, Shit-tits! Back the goddamn hell off from Fuck-ass and Bitch-chan!”
“Hi Gina,” I called out before I even saw the source of the voice. I quickly began to make pacifying motions to everybody. I only knew of one person who used the term fuck-ass either as a nickname or a term of affection. Well, two, but the second person was dead.
Slowly, Gina came into view. Her suit was just as nice as Tattletale’s in its own way. It wasn’t cut to her body as nicely, but it was old-world, pre-Gold Morning. How she’d kept it in such good condition was beyond me. Her jewelry was very nice, too. The only things ruining the professional image were the fact that she had her head down to stare intently at the tinker device she held in her hands, the scowl that virtually shot vitriol at everyone in the same hemisphere as her, and the heavy boots she wore.
Next to her was an older bearded man in a uniform; it was so strange to see Dragon’s Teeth in their dress uniforms and not their armor. He was giving everyone an apologetic smile.
Right, not everyone was as used to Gina as I was.
“Miss McTee,” Tattletale said, trying very hard to keep her smile up. She wasn’t being exactly successful. “How-”
“By pissing the fuck off,” Gina growled, marching right up to the taller blonde woman. It wasn’t until she was right in Tattletale’s face that she finally looked up from the tablet-like device, her eyes burning with fury. “We get to debrief the damned duo before you get to even get a fucking crack at them.”
Tattletale met Gina’s angry gaze with an even stare, not intimidated in the slightest. “Dragon-”
“She’s outside of the fucking chain of command and therefore immune and you goddamn well know it,” the dark haired girl snapped. “Nope, don’t go with their time in Twain, no debriefing happened there, either. Never had the chance, what with every reporter in the goddamn world seeming to hover over them like fucking buzzards. I wonder who might have had so many there? It would be interesting to look at the money trail. So buzz right the fuck off until we’re done.”
“Miss McTee,” Lisa growled. Yeah, Gina had that effect on people. “I see that you’re here for a fight. Rather than argue here, why don’t we let them have their family reunion and discuss this in private?”
The man’s eyebrows raised a little. I got the feeling that he was all for that option, but he was wisely staying out of it. Gina might only be half his age or less, but few people could stop her once she got going.
“Why would I want to talk in private with someone whose head is so far up her ass she stands upright again?” Gina’s hands were fidgeting so bad they were almost a blur. If she was actually a Mover, they probably would have been. “No, you ask them anything, question fucking number one, and I come down on you like a ton of bricks for breach of contract. Then, once I’ve revealed everything about your hypocritical ass, I’m sure that I’ll be able to represent someone else in court, too.”
“You don’t want to do that.”
“Don’t I?” Gina laughed, the sort of laugh that you heard in nightmares. “I’m sorry, are you not using your goddamn power?” Tattletale started to say something, but was cut off by Gina’s motor mouth. “Nope, my power’s confusing yours, isn’t it? Too many mixed signals throwing yours off and giving conflicting conclusions, yay! But I don’t need my power to read you like a damn penny novel. Now, how about I start shrieking the really interesting details, hmm? Like how-”
“Ladies!” Tim interrupted, his face stern. They both looked over to him, but Gina’s eyes were dancing. “We can talk more with the two of them later, and we’d rather not get in the middle of a lawsuit.” The possibility of a brawl went unsaid. “So, how about instead, Sarah and Jordan go with Miss McTee now, with the understanding that they have a limited time until they need to spend time with us, and perhaps first thing in the morning they meet with Miss Wilbourn for as long as she wants?”
Tabby jumped in, her back straight and her voice cool and calm. “I believe that it’s a much better agreement than possibly getting into an argument and revealing possibly sensitive information on the open street. Wouldn’t you agree?”
Lisa looked back to Gina, who flashed her a maniacal grin. “Mine’s bigger than yours.”
Tattletale sneered at Gina for a moment, before that bright, knowing grin crossed her face. “That’s fine. I wouldn’t dream of violating the good working relationship that we have with the Wardens, or the Dragon’s Teeth. Please.”
The man in the uniform coughed softly. “Then perhaps we should do this quickly, so that the two of them can get back to what they were doing?” Gina stepped away from Tattletale, instantly stalking off. The man smiled at all of us in turn before motioning for us to join her. I noted that he inclined his head in a polite nod towards Chris. “Please.”
Sarah and I began to follow, but I quickly turned and moved towards Tattletale. “Sorry about that, Miss Wilbourn.”
“It’s quite alright.” She flashed me a smile. “It’s not your fault in the slightest.”
I fished in my belt, pulling out one of the rolls of negatives inside and offering it to her. “Please. Keep them, we’ve still got multiple copies of the photos.” And of the negatives, but still.
That made her smile more genuine as she took it from me. “Thank you, Jordan.” Funny, she sounded surprised by my offer.
I flashed her a smile before moving to Amy. I barely got my arms around her for another hug before Gina’s voice called out. “Oi! Fuck-ass! Get a move on already!”
Amy let out a nervous laugh, the kind that said she wasn’t sure how else to respond. “Go. We can catch up later.”
I turned and ran, mindful of my halberd. No matter how used to it I was, how much of an extension of my own body it might feel like, I always kept in mind that it was a weapon that could seriously hurt, maim or kill someone if I got careless with it.
As I got close, the officer turned to look at me, briefly giving me a glance at the name on his uniform. That made my face light up. “Commander Van Dorn! I didn’t recognize you.” Somehow, something Sarah had said almost a lifetime ago half-filtered through my mind. Something about familiar faces to butter us up.
The Commander smiled warmly at me. “I thought I’d give the beard a chance. I’m thinking maybe I should have waited until winter.” I laughed a little, relaxing more and more now that the pressure of the earlier conversation was behind us. “As soon as I found out who it was that was being debriefed, I volunteered for it. I’m lucky that HighCom agreed. Besides, it gave me time to talk with your brother while I was waiting.”
Commander Van Dorn was part of the logistics branch of the Dragon’s Teeth. On occasion, he’d buy blades from Chris to assign to those who were undergoing missions that would leave them without support for lengthy periods of time. He seemed to like my brother, and that was good enough for me.
Gina, on the other hand, didn’t really like anybody. She more of tolerated them. “Fancy meeting you here. I haven’t seen you in years.”
“Whatever, Fuck-ass.” She didn’t bother to look up from her tablet, despite leading the march.
I saw Sarah bristle, and quickly turned to her. “Gina and I had several classes together. The fact that she uses the same insult for me every time is almost a term of endearment. Really, she’s quite nice once you get to know her.”
“Deep throat your halberd.”
I smiled. They’d had to explain to me that I had to stand up to her, needle her back on occasion. After I had, we’d gotten along a lot better. Sarah still wasn’t looking happy, so I tried a different track and addressed Gina again. “How’s your parents?”
The words tumbled out of her mouth like a machine gun. “Dad’s still pissed off that I ran off to join the Wardens instead of his practice. I’d rather gouge my eyes out with warm water one drip at a time. I’d end up killing my clients by the end of the week. Mom’s still a vapid bitch that puts out more babies than common sense. She’s disappointed that I’m not a fucking social climber. And I’ve made it clear that they can both suck my metaphorical nuts. So all in all, pretty good.”
She paused just long enough to take a deep breath. “Before you ask, I’m officially a lawyer, but the Wardens toss me at whatever they think will distract me for a little bit. Let me tell you, being the smartest fucking person in the room fucking sucks sometimes. Every day it’s something new. Crime scene investigation, debriefings for strange things, I’m going to help with the study of a goddamn Endbringer here soon, and, unfortunately, dealing with stuck up Thinkers like Tattletale.
“Ugh.” She lowered her tablet for a moment, her jaw setting in fury. “That bitch especially. She’s such a fucking hypocrite and she doesn’t even realize it.” Again, she fixed on the tablet. “You know, the first time I met with her, I’d hoped that she could keep up with me, be an equal. But no, the woman herself is dumb as a box of rocks! All of her smarts comes from her power. And she’s so intent on showing other Thinkers that they aren’t as smart as they think they are and putting them in their place, she doesn’t even realize that she’s just as guilty as they are! How fucking worthless is that?!”
She wheeled around suddenly, pointing at me. “Yes, I realize the hypocrisy of that statement, but my power doesn’t actually augment my intelligence in the slightest. Mein gott, this conversation is so boring! You two are so damn predictable!”
Classic Gina. I felt bad for her; there was so very little that gave her genuine happiness anymore. Or even temporary happiness. “You aren’t going to get in trouble for that display back there, are you?”
“Maybe,” she admitted. Her eyes fell to the tablet again and she got back to leading the way. “Maybe not. Hard to say. If she takes us to court, it might be tricky to prove that your conversation with Dragon couldn’t be construed as a mid-mission debriefing. I’m mostly sure that we can get around it, but Chevalier and Legend might give me huge frowning faces. The biggest you’ll ever see.” She paused to take a breath. “Also, did you two take an audio recorder with you? Video camera?”
“We took pictures,” Sarah said hesitantly. “We were more concerned with weight, but we thought it wisest to get at least some sort of visual record in.”
“We brought them with,” I added quickly. “We were planning on giving you them and the negatives during the debriefing.”
“Good, good.” Dealing with Gina was hard on the best of days. From my understanding, she’d been brilliant before she’d gained her power, and it had only gotten more intense since then. Unfortunately, her power was continually taxing on her nerves. Even worse, she couldn’t turn it off, only enhance it. And that came with certain risks.
Commander Van Dorn spoke up. “When it comes time for the debriefing, I have a log of the audio and visual that Dragon shared with us. Some’s been scrubbed, I’m afraid. Something about personal conversation.” She scoffed softly. “But I figured it could wait so that you could watch it while we were talking.”
“I love you,” she deadpanned quickly. “I want you to bear my children.”
“Uh…” The bearded man looked uncomfortable.
“Oh, come on! It’ll be great, having a bouncing baby inside your belly! I even brought all the gear! And just for you, the fun bit is dragon sha-”
“Pass,” he said quickly. From my angle, I could see that Gina was grinning a little. As she lead us into he Wardens HQ for the city, I couldn’t help the feeling that this wasn’t going to be as bad as I’d feared.
I sat, my feet curled up beneath my seat, my head leaned against Mom’s shoulder so that I could see out the window. I watched as the landscape tore by, an expression of wonder on my face. I’d never get used to these displays.
“I’ll never get tired of this,” I said lazily.
“Mmm. You’ve loved this line ever since you were five. You used to just watch out the window, as excited as you could be. Now, you look like you’re going to pass out.”
I flicked my eyes up at her, then back out. “Big day.”
“A very big day,” she agreed.
“I gotta admit, I’m scared.”
She smiled a little and ran a lock of her red hair behind her ear. “I’d be worried if you weren’t. Two years of work, all leading to one singular moment. And now, it’s finally coming to an end. Sometimes, the end of a journey can be even scarier than the journey itself.”
We rode in silence, me just staring out the window. Out there, I couldn’t just sit by, but here? Like this? I could at least relax in motion. It was strangely comfortable like this. Especially when she spoke truths like that.
“Chicago sure was beautiful.”
Mom chuckled softly. “More than you’ll ever know.”
Amy smoothed out my lapels for a moment before laying her palms on my chest. They were warm. Funny how quickly I was coming to appreciate the little things about her. The closeness. “Are you sure you don’t want us to go inside with you?”
“He’s got this,” Sarah said, gently clapping me on the shoulder. I’d wanted her to come in with me, but she’d insisted that this was something I had to do on my own. She’d claimed older sister’s intuition, which amused both of us to no small end; she wasn’t that much older than me.
Things had been a little odd here lately. After the debriefing with Gina and Commander Van Dorn, we’d all spent some quality time together. The Dragon’s Teeth had apparently seen to helping ensure that everything we’d brought through with us was taken to our warehouse in the Kaf district, and now the Wardens were helping guard it all. It wasn’t until the next day, and a wonderful night of getting to sleep with both Sarah and Chris, that we set about taking proper stock of everything.
Chris said that his power told him that the liquids and powders we’d brought back would work. He didn’t know how he knew, he didn’t know why they worked, he simply knew. Not as if that made things any less frustrating. Answers simply weren’t coming to me as to how Twain worked, and it was driving me mad.
A madness that was taken down a step when I’d caught sight of Sarah angrily arguing with a man in a suit. One of Tattletale’s people. I didn’t venture out to join her, and when she came back in she’d smiled said it was nothing. That was a lie and I knew it, but I also knew that pressing her on it wouldn’t do any good. Not when she smiled and brushed it off so casually. Since then, she’d been… vigilant. Not like she was expecting to get attacked, but constantly scanning the crowds.
She’d also been giving Chris and myself time with the objects of our affections. Literally pushing us away from her or our parents to spend time with them. I honestly wouldn’t have minded seeing more of Chris and Karen together, though. I’d caught him feeding her fruit at one point, pausing to gently boop her on the nose with finger. It took everything I had to keep from squealing.
I worried about their prospects, though. I didn’t know enough about Karen to make a solid judgement. But Sarah wasn’t raising any concerns, and seemed to find the two of them as cute together as I did.
I pushed those thoughts out of my head and buried them deep. Now wasn’t the time. Not while I was dressed in my suit, standing outside of Alcott’s offices. I smiled weakly at everyone. “Wish me luck.”
“None needed,” Chris said with a grin. “We’ll be here when you’re done.”
I reached out to brush my thumb against Amy’s cheek, and she tilted her face into it. Only then did I take a deep breath to steel myself before going through the door.
I wasn’t sure what I was expecting, but this hadn’t been it. The waiting room that I stepped into was more dimly lit than one would guess, but not so dark that you couldn’t see. It was relaxing. There were two desks and chairs against a wall, but the majority of the furniture was overstuffed couches. Dark red, bordering on maroon. The entire room was made of dark wood, and curtains had been hung to enhance the strange ambiance of the scenery. Further in was a reception desk, behind which an aging man sat.
I approached him slowly, taking another breath to steel myself. I had a lot of questions that I could ask, but I had to spend them carefully. That was enough to strain anyone’s nerves. “Hello, m-my name is Jordan. I have an appointment with Miss Alcott.”
The man smiled patiently as he withdrew some papers. “We’ve been expecting you. As a formality, I’m afraid that I have to ask you to sign some paperwork.”
I nodded as he continued. “There will be guards posted the entire length of your meeting. There are those who respond poorly to her answers. Please watch what you say; any question that triggers her power, no matter how innocent, will be deducted from your questions. The money put towards your questions are non-refundable, no matter what your results are. Unspent questions will be held, but will require another appointment.”
“Sounds fair,” I muttered to myself as I picked the pen up, scanning the paperwork.
“There is also a clause absolving her of fault due to following her council. Her power can tell you what is probable, but there is always variation.”
I nodded absently as I ticked own the paperwork. “To save energy during the simulation, it doesn’t account for every possible micro-permutation, which can have subtle differences. The simulated realities she reviews are hyper-accurate, taking into account information that not even she has access to, but do have possible holes in them due to intervention due to other powers. She can point me in the likely direction, but she cannot say that something will happen with absolute certainty. There’s always variation, and something that has a 98% chance of success will still fail 2% of the time.”
The older man looked at me with a critical eye as I signed at the bottom. I looked up at him with a bright smile. “I’m very familiar with her, sir. I wrote a thirty page report on her in school.”
The man made a soft noise in the back of his throat before taking the papers. “If you’d have a seat, please. She will see you shortly.”
With a smile I moved to one of the couches and settled down. For the time, I was content to simply look around the waiting room. The odd pillars, the drapes, if I had to set an ambush for an unsuspecting party, with pleny of areas to tuck people into. A great defensive location against people, even triggered people. Which raised the question as to if she was expecting trouble or not.
With her powers, sorting through a plethora of possible simulated timelines, it would be hard to decide that there was a high probability of encountering danger. And with what the man had said, she’d most likely either encountered it or asked herself if it was likely. Thinkers like her and Tattletale got the short end of the stick when it came to powers.
I’d worked through where Blasters could hide and was working on where Brutes could bunker down so that opponents could be flushed into the range of Strikers when the door opened. A woman in a flowing skirt and pink top smiled at me. “Dinah will see you now.”
I rose and hurried over to her, desperately smoothing down my suit jacket. I’d forgotten to unbutton it when I’d sat down. Suits were still alien to me. The fact that my heart was suddenly racing didn’t help matters any. The woman didn’t seem to notice, at least, not on a conscious level. Gracefully, she lead me down a hallway, then began up a flight of stairs.
“Are you nervous?”
I blinked, looking at her. “Nervous?” A small chuckle escaped me. “Yeah, nervous is a good word. Especially if you tack on the phrase, as a cat in a room of rocking chairs.”
The woman flashed me a patient smile. “You shouldn’t be. Just remember, no matter what numbers you get, they’re only possibilities. You’ve also had a full day’s worth of questions paid for, so you can take as much time as you need.”
“I know,” I said with a warm smile. “Thank you, though, for the reminder.” I started focusing on my breathing, slowing my heartbeat. Each step hurt my knee, but it would hold. The trip to St. Louis had taken its toll on my body, but I was recovering now. The pain was back down from a six to a three or four.
“Manners,” she said with an appreciative smirk.
“Are what separate us from beasts, or so I’m told.” I paused, trying to find some other way of filling the silence. “That and opposable thumbs. Thumbs are pretty dang important.”
She laughed a little as she lead me to the door. “Well, keep that attitude, and you’ll do fine, Jordan.”
She stood off to the side of the door and folded her arms. She expected me to open it. For some reason, though, my arms felt like lead. Even with controlling my breathing, trying to force my heart rate down, it was still hammering in my chest.
Fear. I didn’t fear much. In practice, there wasn’t anything to be afraid of; even if you lost a sparring session, you were likely to gain something out of it. In a real fight, if you lost you wouldn’t be around long to know it. In most situations, there was very little to actually be afraid of, as life would continue on regardless.
So why was I so afraid now? I was just going to get my questions answered. Just another step along the path. I reminded myself of that as I forced my hand up to open the door.
Stepping inside, I found the massive room to be equally as lavish as the waiting room. Curtains, tapestries and paintings adorned the walls. There were opulent couches, loveseats, and chairs. End tables that might as well have been trimmed in gold; they might very well be for all I knew. A large wooden radio played relaxing music. The lighting was half light bulbs and half candles and lanterns, but it only served to make the atmosphere of the room warm, inviting, relaxing. Intoxicating, almost.
If there were defenders here, and there were, they were very well hidden. The decorations of the huge room, the support pillars, the doors located here and there, all these things offered plenty of hiding spots. She probably had the best already figured out.
A woman rose from her seat, not at the desk like I would have expected, but from a table surrounded by chairs. Her smile was well-practiced, but fake. A woman used to entertaining guests, being pleasant, but who rarely smiled on her own. Her straight dark-brown hair fell across her shoulders. “Jordan. It’s an honor to meet you. Please, won’t you join me for tea?”
It took me a moment to kick my legs into gear. “Oh, um…” The door behind me closed, and I silently kicked myself for not getting it. Still, that woman had earned her pay. Probably one of the guards, actually. Put on the pretty elegant look to distract from the offensive capabilities.
No, I was getting off track. I pushed myself forward again, smiling a little. “There’s… There’s no reason to be honored. I’m just another guy.”
“Hmm.” She looked me over before settling back down. “I would beg to differ. You survived Saint Louis, after all. That’s a first in a very, very long time.”
I moved to the chair across from her, settling down. “But, uh, but you ran the numbers.”
She looked at me, and for a brief moment, she looked vaguely sad. Had I said something wrong? “I may have run the numbers, yes, but that doesn’t promise anything. I can give someone a ninety-six point eight chance of failure, and they may still find the three point two percent chance of success.”
I took a breath as those numbers clicked in my mind. When Defiant and Dragon had come to Taylor while she was in a school to capture her. Those had been the numbers Miss Alcott had given them for success, and yet Skitter, Taylor had escaped by using an unorthodox plan. I could have assured her that she’d done the right thing, that she’d pushed Taylor down the right path, but I didn’t. It might do more harm than good.
“The numbers themselves don’t promise anything,” she said as she began to pour two cups. “The numbers offer probability, but it’s still the skills and talents of the individuals who determine if they’re successful or not. It is a likelihood, not a guarantee. So in the end, while I may have given you the numbers that helped guide you towards success, the burden was entirely on you to perform the deed.”
I smiled a little taking the cup as she offered it. “If you say so,” I muttered. “We did have luck on our side for much of the adventure, but… I’ll concede the point.” Besides, I’d read theories about precogs that supported her claim. Each precog was different, though, and required individual testing. Even with a full day’s worth of questions, I didn’t have nearly enough to tell more about her nature. Better people already had, anyway.
I sipped the tea, blinking at it’s minty flavor. Dinah affixed me with a patient smile that didn’t quite reach the eyes. “I’m not a fan of traditional teas. I much prefer herbal.”
It made sense. Many people had to boil their water to protect against microbes, which lead to a major resurgence of tea drinking. At the same time, though, Dinah had been kidnapped and hooked on opiates in her youth. It made sense that she’d avoid any psychology-altering chemicals that she knew of. Though, in a way, I thought it was kind of silly; basic vitamins and minerals that were necessary could drastically alter your psychology. Folic acid, for example, could make one moody and irritable.
But it wasn’t my place to educate her, as much as I wanted to discuss it. I was here for answers. But I was also still too nervous to do what needed to be done. I reached out and paused to get her silent permission before nabbing a jam-topped madeleine, taking a bite to help calm my nerves.
Somehow, eating the treat caused memories to stir inside of me. My mind traveled back to earlier days, of me doing push-ups, my nose almost touching the pages of the book I was studying each time I’d go down. Sarah and Chris lounging around me as they read their own books. Occasionally, Chris would smear raspberry jam on the treat and hold it, making me pause to take a bite.
I smiled briefly at the memory. My time with the two of them like that were my favorite childhood memories. But it was enough to calm my nerves enough to trust the direction I needed to push myself. I could do this.
I closed my eyes and let go. It wasn’t like a power or anything, simply a matter of training. Sarah knew my reasons, and that was good enough to lock them away inside my own brain. No, instead it was like relaxing a muscle you didn’t realize you’d been clenching, leaving yourself a little confused over the strange response you were getting.
In this case, the information didn’t come to me immediately. I was confused for a moment, before I realized the reason for that. I’d sought out a Thinker to help me learn how to keep from thinking about things. I’d tried a lot on my own, but I’d needed that extra edge to help. I needed to smother them, not think about them at all, and even hear subjects related to them without thinking about them. She’d helped me, but she’d also warned that it might take me by surprise the way things would become reflexive.
When it did come, a tremor of fear made my cup shake. I quickly set it down, despite Dinah’s narrowing eyes. This was bad. I shouldn’t have let go, it was only going to shift the odds against my favor. But… it would take me hours to suppress it again, to make sure that I wouldn’t think about it. Because the more that I thought about it, the worse it would get.
No going back. No turning back. My hand came up to wipe at my face. “So… I’m not sure the protocols for… this.”
Dinah nodded slowly. “Feel free and ask. Just not while I’m drinking, please.”
“Right, okay.” I closed my eyes and took a deep breath, trying to calm myself. When I opened them again, I was a bit steadier. “What are my odds of triggering and joining the Wardens by the end of the year?”
That made the woman blink at me, but her response came quickly. “Zero point zero one zero three percent.” She got a grip on herself just as quickly as the answer had come. “Jordan-”
I raised my hand quickly, smiling despite the pain her answer caused. “No, no. It’s alright. I didn’t think that it would be the end of the year anyway.” Not if I’d made it through St. Louis without triggering. But there was the very strong possibility that a passenger had attached themselves to me while I was in Earth Bet, which increased the odds dramatically. Probably, it needed time to figure out how to properly get in tune with me before I triggered.
She didn’t look happy, but I pushed forward. My chest felt like there was a lead ball forming inside of it. “Alright, with this information in mind, what are the odds of me triggering and joining the Wardens by the end of next year?”
“Zero point zero one two seven percent,” came the immediate answer. Two thousandths of a percent? She was looking at me with a horrified expression. “I don’t think this is going to lead the way that you want it.”
I swallowed hard, setting my cup on the table. Only one way of finding out. “What are the odds of me ever triggering and joining the Wardens?”
“Zero point zero three five two percent.”
I recoiled like I’d been struck, almost falling out of my chair. In all the possible simulated realities, there was only a three hundredths of a percent of triggering. I looked around, and saw someone half emerging from a curtain, only to withdraw again. It didn’t matter. It didn’t matter. It didn’t matter.
My throat burned like I’d been swallowing nettles, and my vision was blurring. No real chance of triggering. It was like my worst nightmare come true. I had to trigger. I had to join the Wardens. I had to. I opened my mouth, but only a soft, shuddering croak came out.
“Jordan,” Dinah said flatly, staring evenly at me. “Jordan, believe me when I say that being triggered isn’t everything it’s cracked up to be.”
“I know,” I made out. It wasn’t until the words were out of my mouth that I realized just how irritated they’d sounded. I forced myself to calm down, but I could feel the tears rolling down my cheeks. “Believe me, I know. I know. But literally for as long as I can remember, for effectively all of my life, it’s all that I’ve ever wanted.
“I’ve been… I’ve been training, a minimum of four hours a day, every day, my whole life. From the age of four, it’s all that I’ve had. All that I’ve been. I’m… I’m supposed to be a hero. So I made myself strong, learned how to fight with the best of them. Fought past the pain and trained harder, until I could still fight with a broken arm. If I triggered as a Breaker, I studied science, so that I could apply my powers better. If I was a Tinker, I learned engineering, electronics, so that I could… So that I wouldn’t have the problems Chris has. I…
“I-I learned not to think about what I wanted so that it wouldn’t be denied me. I mean, people could talk about me joining the Wardens, and it wouldn’t even blip in my mind. We spent time in Earth Bet so that I could pick up a passenger. I spent as much time as I could there, just for that reason. I ran into the most dangerous of situations, pushing myself to my limits and beyond. I…”
Words failed me. I put my head in my hands, my fingers pressing into my skull hard. This wasn’t right. None of this was right. Three questions, and my world was already spiraling out of control. I felt suddenly so small in my seat, so very weak.
“There’s always the Dragon’s Teeth,” Dinah said, still in that flat tone. No sympathy. That was fine, I didn’t want sympathy anyway. I just wanted things to work the way they were supposed to.
“No,” I moaned. “That… Sarah’s triggered. We’re a team. We’re supposed to be a team. Family, watching each other’s backs, helping… Helping people. Teeth don’t accept paras.”
Even as my world was collapsing, though, my brain refused to quit working. “Another question.”
“Jordan.” She sounded downright exasperated with me.
“What are the odds of me finding out that I’ve already triggered?”
Dinah looked a little surprised as she spoke. “Zero percent.” That meant I hadn’t triggered while I was too young to remember. Crap. “I must admit, nobody has ever used a future prediction to discover something about the past before. Interesting.”
“That’s dumb,” I murmured. “It’s no different than posing multiple scenarios to find the one with the highest probability of success, instead by choosing the path with the highest probability of gaining information. But the problem…”
I sniffled. It was easier to talk like this than to think about the future that had suddenly been denied me. The words meant that I didn’t have to focus on how it felt like I was being shredded with a butter knife inside. “But the problem is that the information isn’t necessarially accurate. The numbers may be, as far as numbers go, but the way that I’d phrased it means that I wouldn’t be able to be sure that the information would be true.”
“In theory, at least.” She took a sip of her tea. “It’s entirely possible that the numbers themselves might factor themselves into the answer. Hm. I usually don’t think that deeply into my power, but while it’s a more roundabout way of learning something…”
“It may allow you a strange form of postcognition stemming from precognition.” My tears were drying now. Yes, this was much easier indeed. “Using readings from possible futures to determine a likely past. I mean, it’s going to be at least somewhat inaccurate and possibly lead to situations where you hear the information that you want to hear or lies instead of the truth. Still, it might help in matters of investigation.”
“Yes.” Her eyes were sparkling now with new possibilities. “It very well might. For example-”
“Miss Alcott,” a voice said. We both turned to look to see a man moving to the radio, shutting it off. One of her guards? “Listen.”
We both paused, tilting our heads and focusing. It took a moment for me to hear it over my own heartbeat, but sirens were going off in the city. Not like the sirens for a fire, bad weather, or attacks to the city proper. No, this rang for a couple of seconds, then broke into three beeps before ringing again.
As soon as the meaning hit me, I was rising to my feet. She was only a moment behind me, but my brain was working faster as I wiped at my face. “What are my odds for being useful if I go?”
I didn’t wait to hear the rest of the answer. I was already bolting out the door as fast as I could. Even fifty percent was enough to tell me that I should go. I passed a woman in a skirt and a pink top on the stairs as I charged down, pausing only to burst through the door and into the lobby.
Sarah, Chris, Amy and Karen were already in the reception area. Chris looked confused, but the others looked concerned. Sarah in particular looked grim. “Bro?”
“The two of us have a sixty-seven percent of being useful,” I said quickly. Funny how my face had already set in stone. It wasn’t much of an explanation, either, but it was enough for Sarah to fall into step next to me as we hurried out of the building.
“What’s going on?” Chris said, hurrying to catch up.
“S-class threat somewhere,” Sarah said gravely. “That’s the call to arms. They’re requesting any volunteers they can get.”