Silence, an absence of sound.
An absence of light that wasn’t darkness.
An absence of feeling that wasn’t numbness.
A burst of color that had no light.
A burst of sound without a break in the silence. A smell, a touch without sensation.
Light, sound penetrating the nothingness, scratching the surface but going no deeper.
Pain, perhaps? Agonizing in its existence, but also immaterial, beyond notice. Immense in its negligiable nature. A ghost that exists simply to laugh at, to ignore completely.
Fleeting, flickering. Beyond concern, but also interesting. A need to know.
Awareness again, but without true comprehension. Thought comes, knowledge remains. Memories try to stir, but are just beyond reach. Rationality.
Presence. Another nearby. A longing and need, one not even known, is satisfied.
A question, formed without words, stirs in the mind. Nothing to grasp, to take hold of, but there all the same. A wordless reply is given, unaware of what the answer, or query, actually is.
And then there is nothing once again.
It was, in the end, my throat that woke me. It burned like nettles, stung like bees, with a faint copper taste in the back of my throat. That wasn’t right. I wasn’t sure exactly why, but it wasn’t right. There were other things that weren’t right. My body just felt… strange.
Slowly, my eyes opened. Before I could even clear my vision, there was a gasp. Someone said something, indistinct. I couldn’t quite make out the words. But the feeling of a body suddenly against mine, arms wrapped around me, that I could make sense of. That could make me smile, even if it felt strange.
The world slowly gained focus. I could make out Sarah and Amy standing next to each other, looks of relief on their faces. Tim and Tabby I could sort of make out, but not enough for their expression. I had to blink a couple more times for it to come into focus enough to see their faces; Tim had tears in his eyes and a smile on his face, but Tabby was frowning, her hands fidgeting.
I looked at the next person in the room, or at least tried to. My eyes didn’t want to work quite right, and I had to take it slow or else they’d jump past whomever I was trying to look at. She was a shorter woman in a lab coat, with long, dark hair done up in a bun. I couldn’t place her in the slightest, so I ignored her for the time being.
I looked down at the person wrapped around me, who was making those noises I couldn’t quite parse. It took me a few moments to realize it was Chris. That made sense.
Tabby said something, meaningless noises that had a cadence that made sense, but not quite. My throat was dry, my nose was dry, and my body had a dull ache through and through, but I realized that I should reply. “Hello.”
At least, that was what I tried to say. It came out sounding more like “Hedgog.”
Everyone had an immediate reaction. Chris’ head snapped up to look at me, his eyes wide with worry. Sarah had her non-reaction face going on. That was a bad sign.
Amy said something. There were words, but I they were indistinct somehow. The volume was there, the enunciation was there, the cadence was clear as day, but I couldn’t parse what she was saying. Everyone being in a hospital room, clustered around me, that was either a really good sign, or a really bad sign. Me not being able to figure out what people were saying while in a hospital bed? That pushed it firmly into the very bad.
I must have frowned, because the woman in the lab coat said something. Her voice was soft, gentle, but with an air of authority behind it. This was a woman used to being listened to. This woman was a doctor, yes. As she spoke four or five sentences, Tim and Tammy looked at her, but otherwise all eyes were on me.
No pressure. Just let the bewildered guy who can’t understand you feel the gaze of so many people weighing down on him. No pressure at all.
After a moment, Sarah took a step forward and began talking. Again with that slow, calm tone. She spoke readily, without the little pauses that came from thinking of what to say. This was something practiced, very well practiced. She knew exactly what she was saying from a long time of repetition. What was she saying? And why?
I said nothing, though. I focused on the cadence, the noises. They were slowly starting to make sense, sounding familiar. It was the weirdest thing. It was like each word was close to something that I could make sense of, but just twisted enough that it was alien and strange.
She kept talking at me for a good five minutes before something in my mind clicked. She went from making sounds to forming whole and complete words in the blink of an eye.
“-dden from interacting with family members in an official capacity. This includes investigation and arrest.”
I finished the rule for her. “This is both to prevent conflicts of interest, and to protect you from litigation.” She’d been reciting the rules Wardens had to abide by. Now, though, I could really hear how off my attempts to form words must have been — nothing sounded anything like the words I’d attempted to say. But it was enough to make Sarah break into a grin.
“Jordan,” Tabby said slowly. “If you can understand meh, please blink twice.” Words still sounded a little off, but at least I could make sense of them. Eagerly, I forced myself to blink twice, but I ended up clenching my eyes hard enough that sparkles formed behind my eyelids.
“Good,” the doctor said, smiling a little. “Jordan, please keep using the blinks, one for yes and two for no, but try and vocalize your responses as well. It will help speed the process up.”
“How are you feeling?” Amy asked cautiously.
“Please,” the doctor cut in quickly. I couldn’t make out what she said, but I could guess rather easily.
Amy tried again. “Are you feeling alright?”
I blinked once. “Huchsh.”
Tim spoke up. “What’s one plus one plus two plus one?”
The doctor scowled at him, but I couldn’t help but smile. I blinked out the numbers slowly. “Gckugm, tchgweh, gweh, kwoh, gnaah.” Looking around was getting easier at least.
Tim smirked at the doctor. “Now we know that his mind is working, at least.”
Chris frowned. “I should punch you. Do you have any idea how bad you scared me?”
It wasn’t hard to imagine. I wasn’t sure what had happened exactly, everything got fuzzy about the time that I was running through the portal at a dead tilt in order to rescue people. He’d been fit to be tied when I’d broken my arm as a kid, and I’d had that healed within a week. Though, admittedly, I still had a strange ache whenever the air pressure dropped.
I could only imagine what he would be like if I’d been out like that. “Gness.” Okay, steps in the right direction. I almost had that one.
Tabby spoke up again. “Do you know where you are?”
“Nghhhoo,” I lied, most of the word being scrambled as the back of my tongue seemed to want to go into my throat. After my two blinks were done, I blinked several more times to act like I was clearing my head.
“You’re in Mother’s Hospital,” she said, confirming what I already knew. If I was this laid out, then I couldn’t be anywhere else. That had been the plan anyway, use the teleporter to send us and the wounded here.
I blinked once, not feeling like trying to communicate too heavily yet. Just confirm that I understood what she’d said, and then hope that we could move on from there.
“Do you remember the fight?”
“Hyes.” Forward progress. Forming those two words was coming more easily now. Yes and no. Control the tongue. Focus on the sounds that I wanted to make.
“Do you remember all of it?” Sarah asked.
I blinked twice. “Nohs.” Close. So close. I tried something a little more complex. “Thzee end.” Better. Much better.
“The Wardens gave the order to evacuate to the backup site, but you and I moved to secure the wounded. There wasn’t as many as I figured there’d be. If people could, they grabbed who they were able to before diving through the portals. I got hurt, and then your teleporter messed up. When it finally worked, it did some weird stuff. The next thing that I knew, we both were here.”
I remembered the rattling noise it had made and frowned. Stupid move, really. I should have known better. To be fair, we both should have known better than to rely on a piece of Tinker tech that had been damaged. If it worked at all, it could have unusual effects. Or explode rather quite violently. Neither one was something that we should have accepted.
“How man-n-ny… did we seh… save?” I spoke slowly, trying to get the words out right rather than effectively.
“I don’t know the numbers offhand,” she said quietly. “I think we ended up getting ten back here, and of those, only one had to be collected by Valkyrie.”
I blinked once. I would have nodded, but I figured that if I was having this much trouble talking it would be even harder to move my head right. “Why wasn’t dhe… she there with us?”
Sarah shrugged, frowning a bit. “They said that she wasn’t able to engage with it. The same with Chevalier. They didn’t go into details, unfortunately.”
Now it was Amy’s turn. “The newspapers. The two of you have been all over them. First you go to Saint Louis, then you strike the blow that drove Agamemnon back.”
Crap. They gave it a name. That was never a good sign.
“Oh yeah,” Chris said, suddenly grinning. “Apparently, however that teleporter fu… However it messed up, it tore a huge hole out of it. Like, half of the head big. It apparently turned its tail and ran back for the ocean faster than anybody thought it should be capable of.
“The papers have been raving about you two, trying to get interviews from anybody who knows you. I only saved one of them, though. Apparently there were drones keeping a video feed that they got images from. There’s one of you trying to get that teleporter to work as you stare at Agamemnon, all cool and calm and stuff. Like you’re daring it to come at you.”
Somehow, I doubted that was what had been happening, but it didn’t actually matter much. Sarah had taught me a long time ago that if someone wanted to increase your rep from seeing the wrong thing, you might as well let them. It took more effort to fix preconceptions than it did to redirect them in the way you needed.
I looked over to her. “Are you alright?” My pronunciation was still off, but I was almost perfect now. Funny how quickly I went from making unintelligible noises to actually making sense.
She smiled warmly at me. “I am now. I had to have some surgery, though, and was out of it for a couple of days. Apparently, when you activated that-”
“Excuse me,” the doctor interrupted quickly. “I’m sorry, but we did discuss this before. I know that all of you would like to talk some more, but I need to run some tests.”
“Oh, come on,” Chris whined, looking at her. “He just woke up! Can’t we stay and talk to him while-”
“Christopher,” Tabby growled. Instantly, he dropped his head. With a patient look, she looked to the doctor. “Of course. Will he sleep afterwards, or can we talk more?”
“I’d suggest a brief nap,” the woman said in a pleasant tone. “No more than an hour. He should be much more capable by then as well. You’ll be free to talk to him more then, I promise.”
“Thank you very much,” Tabby said to the doctor, before turning to me. “Hang in there, Jordan. We’ll talk soon.”
“Alright.” What else could I say?
Tim patted my leg, a very strange and unusual sensation before he and Tabby lead the way out. Chris gave me a hug, again with a vague sense of wrongness that I couldn’t quite put my finger on. Sarah did the same before the two of them started for the door.
Amy shifted a little, frowning deeply. “Hey, Jor. I, uh…” She swallowed. “We’ll talk soon, alright?”
I smiled at her. “Just the two of us. I promise.” My voice even sounded odd to me.
But Amy smiled a little at that. She reached out her hand, extending two fingers towards me before slowly making her way out. The gesture was odd, and I wasn’t quite sure of the significance of it. If there was one — it could have just been a motion to indicate closeness.
I didn’t really have time to think about it, though. As soon as the door closed, the doctor moved a chair that was more of a stool next to the bed and hopped up on it. Almost immediately, she had a small flashlight out and was shining it into my eyes. “You’re a very lucky man.”
“I am,” I said, trying to see past the blobs in my vision.
She paused a moment before affixing a patient smile to her face and shining the light in my eyes briefly again. “I’m Doctor Alcomb. I was present for the surgeries on both you and your sister.”
Ah, good. Someone who I could ask directly. “How badly was Sarah wounded?”
I couldn’t make out her exact expression beyond the even larger blotches in my vision, but there was a pause before she responded. “The teleportation device cut her several times. Bonesaw-”
“Riley,” I said quickly. When the doctor didn’t say anything, I explained myself. “She may have been Bonesaw once upon a time, but she’s Riley now. She’s worked very hard to try and move past her history with the Slaughterhouse 9, and she deserves recognition for that. People deserve a second chance, and she’s done nothing but prove herself with hers. Even with the prejudice that people have shown her, the doubt and the fear, she’s spent the past twenty years trying to show that she isn’t the same person. Besides, she probably saved both my sister and myself, probably more than us from that incident.
“So please. Show her the consideration that she’s due and use her proper name.”
I could barely make out a genuine smile on the doctor’s face. “You’re right. Forgive me. I usually think of her as Riley, but not everybody does. It’s sometimes easier, and faster, to just refer to her by the name she’s most famous for.
“Anyway, Riley was able to repair the damage to her in less than an hour, and that’s after spending all day operating on other people. Honestly, it wasn’t even that bad in the end, and she won’t even have a scar. No, the truly difficult part was you.”
“Ah,” she said sarcastically. But her smile turned patient again. “The device pretty much shredded your body, bisecting it more times than I’d wish to count. I’d have to consult the charts to tell you how many times it was, but in the end, it was easier to simply reconstruct your body from scratch than to try and repair the damage.”
That… didn’t quite make sense. “She can only bring people back if their bodies are relatively intact,” I said carefully. My mind flashed to Defiant. “Am I a cyborg, then?”
“No. Your body is human, but not quite your own.”
I tried to process that. Did I trigger? If so, then I would be an Einherjar, and I doubted that things would be as difficult as I was currently experiencing. Valkyrie could take the powers of parahumans, either from their corpses or while they were still alive. The latter would kill the person in the process. With it, though, came a record of the individual’s mind.
She’d engaged in a project with both Riley and Nilbog. Nilbog would create a creature, usually fairly humanoid. The more human-like that it was, the easier the process would be. Riley would study the summoned ghost of the person that Valkyrie wanted to resurrect, and then physically alter the near-mindless creation to match the physical appearance. She would also implant a few things to increase longevity. Finally, Valkyrie would have the ghost effectively possess the creature, giving it free will in the process.
Someone could be resurrected from the dead, but it only worked for parahumans. There were other downsides as well, unfortunately. The reborn people had their minds, their memories, and their powers, but they still were a strain on Valkyrie’s powers. If she needed additional firepower, then she would have to dismiss the ghost.
In other words, she could bring anyone she took back to life, but she could only support so many, and there was the possibility that she would have to take that person back if things got too heavy. As the Warden’s heaviest hitter, she was also called in to deal with a lot of problems, all over the world.
But I had the feeling I’d known if I’d triggered, or if I were an Einherjar.
The doctor picked up on what I was thinking, apparently. “The creature that you fought was either a human, or was created to be very nearly human in many aspects. Analysis showed that it was excellent for grafting and adapting to help with injuries. Riley was able to look at the ruined pieces of your body and determine how to rebuild it from scratch.”
“Good,” I said, letting my eyes close. “It was probably really good for her.”
“She’s the sort of Tinker who needs to play around, to study, to fiddle. Most of her work is probably routine by now, dealing with similar problems day in and day out. This gave her a challenge, something to work with. Something for her to sink her teeth into, and really push herself.”
I opened my eyes and looked over to the doctor. “I’m glad that I could help her. I really am. I wish others hadn’t needed to get hurt in the process, but I’m glad that I could do something, at least. Maybe she’ll look favorably on me if I have to come back to her in the future.”
Doctor Alcomb smiled softly, tilting her head to the side. “You’re a good one, you know that?” I smiled, but didn’t say anything. Her own smile became the patient one again. “But that’s also why you’re having problems. The damage to your brain from the device was minimal and easily repaired. However, creating a brand new body, effectively from spare parts, without one of the old motor drive control systems to guide it, it’s going to have problems communicating with the brain.
“Right now, you’ve got a chip inside of your head that’s helping the signals. Within three months, it shouldn’t be operational anymore, and within a year it should be completely absorbed by your body. As well, your family requested that Riley install some added protective measures to your body, in order to ensure that you won’t be killed in a random fight.”
I frowned a little, but the doctor raised her hand. “Riley was incredibly reluctant to do so. In the end, she rigged up a basic communication method to your brain and asked you directly.”
“I don’t remember that.”
“You wouldn’t. You were effectively a brain in a jar at that point. It wasn’t even proper communication, but I’m not sure if right now is the best time to go into details. Suffice to say, she asked you, and you agreed. She was able to try out some ideas that she’d been thinking of, as well as use others that she’d never gotten the chance to. Being able to implant them into a body that you’re building from the ground up is a godsend, believe me.”
I smiled a little. “I can only imagine.”
She smiled again, briefly, before turning serious. “That said, I wasn’t kididng about the tests. Otherwise, I would have told you this with your family present. But first I have some questions.”
“First of all, I’ve noticed that you haven’t moved at all since you’ve woken up. You haven’t even moved your head to look at people.”
“Moving my eyes is weird. Talking is weird. I think I keep biting my tongue, but I’m not sure. So until I get the go ahead, it’s better to wait. Right?”
“Right,” she said with a nod. “Very logical. I’m not used to patients being like that. Alright.” She withdrew a notepad and a pen from her lab coat and made a note of that. “Next, have you been exposed to any heavy triggers?”
I took a deep breath and let it out slow. Heavy triggers, when someone would trigger in such a way that either it was disastrous, or it had wild effects that were sometimes unreproducible. Yeah, it would make sense that she would ask that.
“Do jumping triggers count? Like, if someone’s body burned out during the heavy trigger, the passenger jumped to another person and triggered, and I was exposed to both? Do I count that as one or two?”
She thought about that a moment. “Let’s count that as one, but also tell me how often you’ve been exposed to those, please.”
“Twenty-three heavy triggers, of those, four were jumping triggers that I was exposed to more than once.”
The doctor made a note. “That’s more than one a year.”
She made another note. “Alright. That’s too much data for me to ask you about right now, so let’s move on. When she was analyzing the remains of your old body, she noted the signs of plenty of injuries that appeared to have been healed. Some of which take years or decades to heal that fully. May I ask about those?”
“Training,” I said with a smile. “For the most part at least. Sometimes I push myself too hard. And then there’s accidents and fights and stuff. But the ones that were healed so well? School has a healer. Well, no, not a healer per se, but someone who can accelerate certain things, one of them being the body’s own healing process. It does other things at the same time, I’m pretty sure, but I’ve never been able to put my finger on what. I know that it isn’t like the combat side of her power, but I haven’t had the chance to study either side too in-depth.”
“Good. I’ll check with them for your medical files. It’s unnecessary, but still. Also, just to let you know, you had a mild allergy to hops, but that’s been taken care of now.” I didn’t even have time to process that before she was continuing. “Now, please turn your head to the left.”
Left? I took a breath and held it, before trying. My head moved all too readily, rotating all the way, and then jerking almost all the way back again.
“Relax,” Alcomb said soothingly. “That’s about the reaction that I was expecting. I just wanted to see how more grand movements were beyond your eyes and tongue.” She paused before hopping off the chair, landing flat on her feet. I winced inwardly, feeling a phantom sympathy pain in my knees. Landing like that, with your legs almost locked, could do a number on them over time. I knew that from experience.
She moved to a tray and began to collect her things, like the stethoscope. “Now, let’s get these basic tests out of the way…”