One foot in front of the other. One foot in front of the other.
A seven word mantra that ran through my mind. It was something to keep my mind absolutely focused, intent on what I needed to do. A simple goal — walk. Ignore the viscera that was frozen to my body from the pack of starving wildlings I’d killed, ignore everything else. Just keep walking.
The going wasn’t easy. Even though it was a warm October for Bet, being in the single digits here in the northeast seaboard, the wildlings seemed to be extra daring. The roads were broken and shattered, cement broken up by the cold and wet. The snow on the ground didn’t make things any easier; it was less snow and more white ice.
My halberd could be used as a walking stick, helping me along. The weight of my overstuffed pack was distributed along my body in terms of carrying the weight, but it still threw off my center of balance a bit. That was fine, though. Focusing on making forward progress was a good thing.
“If you aren’t triggered by the next time I see you, I’ll break your goddamn legs!”
One foot in front of the other.
It was so easy for my mind to wander. To dwell on things. Sarah had said some pretty nasty things, but her heart had been in the right place. She was trying to help me trigger, and I knew it. She might have tried talking Chris into helping her with that, but he didn’t have the heart for it. He was too sensitive at the end of the day to be cruel like that.
Be cruel to be kind. The term had never made sense to me before now. Finally, I could make at least a little sense of it.
My new armor was nice. Chris had done a partial redesign of the helmet, and the changes were good. The faceplate still flipped up, but now the lower portion could be removed. It didn’t sound like much, but now I could safely grab a bite to eat without having to expose my face, only my lower jaw. That mouthpiece attached to the rest of the faceplate the same way that the sections of my halberd fit together.
It also had a filter screen, much like the water filter, only this one was designed to allow breathable air to pass through. I was safe from parahumans who used gaseous attacks. Apparently, he’d gotten the idea from one of the heavy triggers while we had been fighting Agamemnon.
Agamemnon. I’d spent a good long time thinking about it, but I’d mostly been running mental circles. It was easy enough to just say that it violated the square cube law and be done with it, but why did it? How? What were the mechanisms behind it? From what I’d seen of the wounds, it had thick layers of muscle, but how did the bone structure support that muscle? How did it get enough oxygen?
More importantly, the powers it had displayed. The healing was obvious, but there was more. The more kinetic damage we did, the faster it seemed to move. And then there were the shields. A variation of the same basic powerset as Gavel had possessed?
I’d entertained those thoughts for an hour, but as always, the devil was in the details and I lacked information. Two people could have powers which, on the surface, appeared exactly the same. With observation, however, one could see a mechanical difference. That mechanical difference could reveal a lot, and demand new and different avenues of attack in order to defeat them.
Two parahumans each create circular force fields in front of them. Are the fields mobile? How do the fields work? Can something slow pass through the field? How do they respond to energy attacks, hard light, or heat? Do they actively repel whatever hits them, or just stop it? Do they inflict damage on whatever hits them?
All of these could change how you fought someone with that power set. But I didn’t have that information necessary to figure much out. The Dragon’s Teeth seemed to. But how much of that came from Thinkers? There was some debate as to if Thinkers were reliable any more. A lot of errors had come up since Scion’s death. Apparently, passengers drew information from a network that Scion had been the central hub of, and with his death, it had collapsed. Were Thinkers reliable?
A question for someone smarter than myself.
One foot in front of the other.
There had been a lot more Dragon’s Teeth in New Brockton than normal. The city was important to them, being a major trade hub, not just for their own sake but for protecting it as well. There were the usual offices, but in the Tet district there was an actual base there. They usually fielded around 200 troopers there, plus support staff, plus logistics for the collection and distribution of materials to other bases.
When we’d teleported in from Mother’s Hospital, we’d immediately left for Burlington for two days. During that brief skip in New Brockton, I’d seen maybe twenty troopers, including those out of armor. But when we’d come back to see me off, I’d noticed at least eighty armored troopers, half as many troopers out of armor but in uniform, and nearly as many again of the support staff in uniform.
Most of them seemed to be simply chatting, but I could note the comms gear, and how they’d occasionally put a hand to their ear to help block out noise. They’d seemed focused on the path between the entrance to the city we’d taken and the gate to Earth Bet. There had been fewer of them when we’d made a detour to the book store, and then more when we’d come back out.
Why? Were they worried that I’d hurt someone? Were they worried that someone would hurt me? If either of those were right, why hadn’t they stepped in when Sis grabbed me? It just didn’t make any sense to me.
One foot in front of the other.
I hated being alone. It didn’t matter if the other person wasn’t saying anything, just the fact that I wasn’t alone meant the world to me. I had to pay them at least a little bit of attention, where they were, if there was any danger, if they looked like they needed help with anything. Situational awareness meant not just keeping track of your enemies, potential tools, and potential food. It also meant keeping track of your allies.
Having someone around kept my mind busy. Now, I was pretty sure that I had multiple hours that were missing. Not as in stolen, but where my conscious mind had seemed to shut down for a little bit. Too little stimuli, too much of my mind wandering. Too much trying not to think about everything.
“Too fucking weak, that’s what you are!”
Had she just been trying to drive a wedge between us, or had there been a kernel of truth behind her words? Did she want to be my partner because we made an excellent team, or was it purely because I was her brother? Had I really been holding her back all this time?
It was funny. The more you actively tried to think about something, the harder it became to not think about it. What you had to do was void it from your mind, to make it disappear simply by occupying your mind with other things. But right now, there weren’t other things to keep my mind occupied with, so I kept coming back to the things that I’d rather not be thinking about.
How utterly pathetic I was at the end of the day, for example. I didn’t have a plan, not any more. I had no direction, no path that I was taking. It was literally just walk in whatever way the broken roads were going. I’d hit a chasm sooner or later, I knew, but it didn’t matter. I’d just follow it until I got to a bridge.
I’d had a plan once, but now it felt like a lifetime ago. I’d never made any contingency plans, always automatically assuming that I’d trigger. I’d believed so completely and absolutely that I would trigger some day, that I’d be like the heroes of yore.
I’d taken speech so that I could know how to make important announcements. The little bit of acting, trying to learn how to hold myself. But that hadn’t taught me anything that I’d needed to know. Every class that I could think of help me in my eventual job in the Wardens, I’d taken by hook or by crook.
The Thinkers, Shakers, and Strikers that I’d asked to help me become better, more capable when I reached that point. All that training, fighting, studying…
“Get out of my face, and if you keep being this pathetic, don’t bother coming back.”
She was right. I was pathetic.
I blinked, looking around as I realized that I didn’t recognize the area that I was in. Not in the slightest. The wide remains of the road had given way to a smaller one at some point. I couldn’t even see the road I had been following when I looked behind myself.
It was like I’d been walking without even seeing where I was going. Or was I having seizures again? It was hard to tell.
It didn’t matter. In the end, none of it did.
I wasn’t sure how many days I’d been walking when the wind picked up. Somewhere in the upper atmosphere it was warmer than it was down here, warm enough to warrant freezing rain. Most of it was freezing on contact, but there were slow puddles forming. I decided that it was best to seek shelter. Though I was warm enough inside of my armor, I didn’t want to think about what it would be like if too much ice built up on my legs and torso.
There wasn’t much in the way of buildings around, but after some hunting I found an outcropping. It wasn’t much, maybe five feet deep and four feet high, but the stone would help keep me safe from the weather once I got a fire going. By my guess, someone had cut into this hill to make the road, through solid rock. The upper parts had since collapsed, probably from either earthquakes caused by Scion’s rampage or the weather, but at least the boulders had formed a nice little shelter.
Collecting firewood had been easy enough, but the ice had already started to form on it. A year ago, I would have been frustrated because it would have been nearly impossible to start a fire and keep it going. Chris, though, had given me the answer to that with his firestarter pellets. Even using a couple of frozen logs and icy kindling, the first pellet burst into flame, burning bright and hot. Hot enough to melt the ice, to thaw the wood.
While it would be enough to keep these first logs going, I knew I’d need to use more. Stacking the rest of the firewood nearby would help it thaw, but it would still be wet. The fire would never be able to get as hot as I’d like, but it would be enough to boil some water.
With a cup filled with salted beef and a little bit of frozen veggies on the smoky fire, I spent some time building a windbreak out of rocks. I had plenty to work with, and it would help keep the fire going all night. I didn’t really need fire beyond cooking a meal, but it would help keep me a little safer if wildlings came, limiting their avenue of attack. Inside, due to the cramped conditions, I wouldn’t have the best options when it came to fighting. Every advantage I could give myself was a good thing.
Not that I was actively thinking about things like that. Trained habits made the body move almost of its own accord.
By the time that I was done, the water was simmering. By the time that my gloves had de-iced and dried enough to add some rice to the mixture, it had gone to a low boil. By the time it had finished, the wind had really picked up into a ferocious storm.
As I sat in my little shelter, my faceplate up so I could eat my soup, I forced my brain into thought. Something to distract me, something to keep me a little active at least. Instead of my situation, I forced myself to think about Roger.
He was using his power wrong. Powers had some sort of combat element to them. Even the famous Canary, who could influence people through the power of her song, could use her power for combat. Roger, though, was using his powers to find the path to locations. That felt wrong somehow.
The obvious answer was that he was hamstringing himself, that his passenger was working against him because he wasn’t doing what it needed. If finding the route wasn’t the best application, then most likely the issue came from himself. He was incapable of applying the power correctly because of his own mindset.
The first thought that came to my mind was that it might be used to find weaknesses and direct him on how to attack them. He was good with a gun, but not as good as his daughter. That said, his shots always counted, always put his opponent down. It could be that he was being influenced by his power to make the most effective kill shot, targeting the opponent’s greatest weakness. Amy’s superior skill could be chalked up to her taking the immediate kill shot.
I closed my eyes and sighed. Amy. I’d been doing good not to think about her. As good as the sex had been, just getting to lay in bed with her, stroking her hair, that had been nice. It hadn’t been enough to take the edge off of the pain, knowing that she’d be leaving, but it had made up for it. I’d wished that the moment of us just being together would have lasted forever.
I knew I’d never see her again. I didn’t have anything that I could point to directly and say “this is why we’ll never cross paths,” but the knowledge was there. The way you know that the sun will rise tomorrow, that something lurks in the darkness, that you’ll hurt yourself if you jump down a ravine, I just knew that we wouldn’t ever be together again.
It had been her goodbye.
I blinked, and the fire had died down. Seizure, or just lost in thought? Or were they they same thing, in the end? The effect was the same either way. I tossed one of the warmer logs onto the fire, causing it to pop and hiss at me.
I pushed everything aside in my head, settling back against the rocks and finishing my humble meal. It could have used more salt. That was the extent of how much I wanted to think right now. It was going to be a long, miserable night like this. I slid my faceplate back down, feeling the helmet seal. Almost instantly, my face was warmer.
Funny how, now that I wasn’t trying not to think about anything, just closing my eyes and listening to the fire, my head cleared. There wasn’t anything. No thought. No beads of anger. Everything had just fallen into a void, leaving me quietly at peace as I watched the light from the fire dance across my eyelids.
At least, until I heard the squawking.
I opened my eyes. I could barely hear anything over the roar of the wind except for the crackling of the smoky fire. After a moment, though, I could make out pained chirping. It was curiosity that pulled me out of my den into that ferocious wind. It took me a few moments for my eyes to adjust to the darkness, but I finally found the source.
A bird, small enough to fit in my hand, was laying on its back in a freezing puddle. It must have been pulled from its perch by the wind and thrown into the rocks, stunning it. I stared at it for a moment before it finally thrashed, putting its head into the water.
Almost instantly, I had it in my hands, cradling it gently as I crawled back into my shelter. The poor thing was drenched, ice forming on its feathers. I didn’t even know that was possible. Quickly, I set it a safe distance from the fire and tossed another log on. I’d scavenge some more wood if I had to.
By the time I looked back, it had already flopped onto its back, its wings splayed out. I righted it again before moving back out into the weather to collect some more rocks. I hadn’t built my shelter to retain heat. Several times I slipped and fell, but it didn’t matter. All that mattered was that I needed to build a wall of rocks around the fire to reflect some of that heat back inside, to shore up with windbreak a little more.
As I settled back in, the bird was on its back again, thrashing a little. The tiny squawk that escaped it seemed to stab me in the heart. I righted it once again, trying to keep it on its belly. I wasn’t sure if that was the right thing to do, but I wasn’t sure what the right thing was. I could pluck, gut, and cook a bird, but keeping them alive was pure guesswork on my part.
I practically tore off my gloves and helmet, scooping it up in my hands instead of letting it flop onto its back again. Now I could feel that it was chilled to the bone, its heart hammering insanely fast. Poor thing. I moved it as close to the fire as I could, trying to warm the bird back up.
“Come on,” I whispered softly. “You’re tough. Tougher than you look. You defy gravity. Your species has defied Scion’s rampage, twenty years of global cooling, wildlings, and every other predator from the dawn of time up until today. Every living thing has the odds stacked against its survival, but you’ve pulled through. You’ve survived more in your life than I can even imagine.
“Use that strength. Fight it. Live.”
It stilled a little, not trying to fling its wings quite so randomly. Its head raised, only for the struggling to begin anew.
I spent the entire night like that, cupping the bird in my hands, whispering words of encouragement to it. I only stopped to put more fuel on the fire. As the night wore on, the winds eventually died down. The bird also began to struggle less, its heartbeat calming. I kept at it, trying to pass on the strength for it to keep going.
The morning was warmer than it had been, getting all the way up to the teens, maybe twenties. I eventually packed up, donning my helmet and gloves before carefully leaving my shelter. Everything was covered by a thicker layer of ice, forcing me to rely heavily on my halberd for support. I fell twice before looking back towards the shelter that had protected us over the night.
It probably wouldn’t last more than a year or two before erosion or tremors caused the boulders to collapse. Truth be told, it probably hadn’t been the safest of places for me to set up, but sometimes you take what little comfort you could get. You make the best of what you have available and hope for the best.
As I began to follow the road again, I misjudged the shattered pavement and ended up sprawled out on my back once again. As I picked myself up, there was still a chill, a numbness in my hands and head. One foot after the other, I made my way down the road. I was out of one fire starter, some food, and sleep.
What I did have, though, was a pouch full of feathers in my pack and a bit of protein in my belly.
An alien sound broke me out of my own silence. I struggled, trying to determine what it was, and where it was coming from. It probably would have been easier if I’d slept the previous night.
I really had no idea when the last time that I’d slept was. I knew it had been two or three days since my last meal, and I was running low on water in my suit. Occasionally, my footprints had an ugly yellow tinge to them.
I didn’t really have any focus any more. Occasionally I’d find a tree or some sort of shelter to sleep in. It didn’t have to be night, just whenever I knew that I couldn’t make it any further without some sort of sleep. I was dreaming, or I was pretty sure that I’d been dreaming, but I had no idea of what. Not that it mattered.
I finally identified the source of the noise as coming from behind me. It was regular, it had a… The concept escaped me. I couldn’t think of what it was, but I knew there was a word for it. Like a beat, a pattern. And it was getting louder. I knew this. I knew that I knew this.
I turned, staring down the road, trying to comprehend what it was.
At long last, I could see horses pulling a wagon at a pretty good clip in the distance. It had been weeks since I’d last seen anyone, the sounds took some getting used to. Idly, I waddled to the side of the road, not wanting to be in the way. To my surprise, however, the wagon slowed as it drew near, finally coming to a halt next to me.
The wagon itself was an odd one. Fully enclosed, with the reigns sliding into it. The wheels weren’t so much of wheels at all; they were composed of what looked like hundreds of individual spokes. It also was a strange cream color that didn’t appear painted. Tinker tech, or maybe a Thinker who delved into Tinker territory. Interesting.
A window rolled down, and a woman poked her head out. Tanned skin, dark hair that came down to about her shoulders. She offered me a friendly smile, if a bit reserved. “Hello there! You okay?” A hint of an odd accent was on her voice. Canadian? From the South? Maybe South American? I wasn’t necessarially good with accents.
“Um…” I coughed a little to clear my throat before raising my faceplate, clicking it into place. One click could make it drop with a sharp nod of my head, while two clicks would keep it in place until I manually lowered it. “Mostly, yes.” I paused for a moment. “You wouldn’t happen to have any spare food for sale, would you? I have plenty of coin.”
The woman frowned a little, tilting her head to the side. After a moment, though, the smile came back tenfold. “Wait… Aren’t you the guy who’s been in the papers? Jordan?”
Huh. I guess I had been in the papers. I hadn’t thought anyone would recognize me. “Um, yeah. I kind of misjudged how much I’d need in the way of rations to get where I’m going, and I’m almost out.”
The woman jerked her head. “Come around to the other side, I’ll let you in.”
Crap. Not what I’d been expecting. Still, I hurried around behind the large wagon to the other side. I felt like avoiding the horses. I found the passenger door to be unlocked and climbed inside.
The cabin was nice enough, I supposed. Two chairs up front, a cot in back, a couple of cupboards built in. The reins came out of the dash, into her hands. Strange, given how far off to the side she was. Were they tubes, or was there some other mechanism at play? I would have loved to have asked her, but that felt a little rude.
The most important thing was that it was warm.
The woman smiled at me, opening a compartment in the dash between us and getting out a small loaf of bread. “It’s a pleasure to meet you, Jordan. Call me Serafina.” We exchanged handshakes before she pressed the loaf into my hand. “Here. You look like you haven’t eaten in a couple of days. Have at, no charge.”
“Thank you,” I said, with a gracious bow of my head. I’d wait until she was paying attention to the road before slipping a few coins into the seat. I paid my debts.
“Not a problem. Where are you heading?” Now that I could focus on her face, she looked to be in her late twenties, early thirties. Chris probably would have been drooling over her. She wore attire that… Well, it looked professional. Not like a dress shirt or anything, but somehow it just gave me the impression of being professional. Nicely cut to her figure, too.
“West,” I said. It was basically the direction that I was going.
“Well, then. I’ll take you as far as New Fairfax. How does that sound?”
A city populated by nothing but triggered people? If I didn’t know my numbers, I would have said that going into one of the only cities in the world that only allowed triggered people to enter would have given me a better chance of triggering. Truth be told, i might have been kind of heading in that direction anyway. I knew they wouldn’t let me in, but… I wasn’t even sure what I was thinking. If I was thinking anything at all.
“That will do me fine.”