“The spokes automatically extend and retract based on the placement of the other wheels. I don’t know exactly how it works, but you have to admit, it’s hard to find a smoother ride.” My traveling companion smiled a little as she focused on the broken road.
But she was right. Wagons and carriages were rather bumpy, a fact that I chalked Sarah’s motion sickness up to. I heard that trains were better, but those were slow to produce in Bet, and Gimmel hadn’t caught onto them yet for some reason. My guess was that the focus was getting them operational in Bet first.
This enclosed wagon, though, was a nice ride. It was rare that there was the slightest jostling, the barest of indication that there was movement at all. The fact that we were driving over broken roads only made it even more impressive.
She’d already explained that the motion of the wheels provided power to a heating element, and that all of this had been built by Thinkers, not Tinkers. In theory, with enough study, it could be reproduced without the need of a Parahuman. Of course, that lead to another question.
“So are you trading this tech?” I asked quietly.
“No,” she said quickly. “My patrons aren’t interested in giving people access to this yet. Maybe in time, but they’re worried that if it got out, other people would start mass producing it. It’s hard to enforce patents these days.”
Which made sense to me. “So what are you trading?”
The woman shrugged. “Silver. Palladium. Tinker tech stuff.”
Palladium. Yes, they’d love that. I remembered hearing something one time about cars having their catalytic converters ripped out for salvage of the palladium. Tinkers were always in need of palladium, platinum, rhodium, ruthenium, iridium and osmium for their projects. Even worse, the metals were rather rare, meaning that the prices were astounding.
Serafina glanced at me for a moment before looking back at the road. “You still look like hell. You alright?”
I felt like hell. Despite wolfing down all the food she’d offered me, my body was complaining. I’d even grabbed a nap for a few hours, but it hadn’t done me much good. My stomach was still demanding more attention, and my body had a general ache that I couldn’t put my finger on. Not like a sick ache, but still one there.
“It’s been a rough couple of weeks,” I said absently. “Wildlings are hungry, so I haven’t been able to rest properly.”
“I can imagine. Though, I have to admit, I would have thought that if you were traveling, you’d be riding something nice.”
I grinned a bit. “Who says that I’m not?” She chuckled a little, not arguing the point. “I have the coin for it, I’ll admit.” Chris had seen to that. “But… Have you ever heard of a walkabout?”
She made a thoughtful noise. “Aboriginal Australian concept of wandering to find yourself, to know who you are.”
“Yeah,” I said. “Something like that.”
Really, I was grasping at straws. I wasn’t all that familiar with the concept, I’d just read it in passing once upon a time. The real reason I was going was to give space between myself and Sarah, to force her into the Wardens. Beyond that, I hadn’t made a real plan at all. I didn’t feel comfortable explaining that to Serafina, though.
“Well… if you’d like to at least wash your face, now is the time to do it. We’re almost there.”
I nodded a little, reaching around to where I’d ended up stowing my pack and halberd on the cot to fish out a washcloth. Some might argue that it was useless weight, but Sarah had stressed how important looking good when you walked into a city was. It wasn’t uncommon for the two of us to…
I looked down at the cloth, feeling a pang of loss. It hadn’t been uncommon.
I pushed the pain aside and got back into my seat. Serafina was holding out a metal water bottle for me. Where had she come up with that? It didn’t matter. I wet the cloth before handing it back, pulled off my helmet and began to scrub at my face.
I felt a hand rub through my hair. “Get a shower before you do any socializing.”
I lowered my washcloth to glance at her as she pulled her hand back, a childlike smirk on her lips. She was right, though. My hair was probably an absolute mess, even if you couldn’t smell me through the armor. A glance back to the road revealed that the snow and ice were clearing — we were getting close. I redoubled my efforts to wash myself up real quick.
As I got the washcloth back in the pack, she was slowing the horses down. As I turned around, it would be hard to believe that we hadn’t slipped into summer somehow. The grass was green, the trees were alive, and everything was very much alive. Had I come here last year, I would have been begging to stop the wagon so I could study it all.
New Fairfax was home to nothing but parahumans; normal folks like myself weren’t allowed in. That wasn’t to say that it was home to pro-parahuman bigots, however. Quite the opposite. It had been formed by survivors of Gold Morning, those whose guilt ate at them. As the truth about passengers and Scion became more well-known, and how passengers were either breeding or riding multiple people, they’d withdrawn from the world, determined not to let their passengers infect anyone else.
A community of people wanting to keep from harming anyone else. Fights were extremely common, common enough that the Wardens posted a lot of people here. In fact, after a new Warden completed their training and education, and their time with a capture team, they would have to serve at least a couple of months here.
Suicides were just as common. People who were tired of the outside world, though, would come to fill their ranks as soon as someone died. There was always some parahuman tired of it all, hoping to find some peace, hoping not to hurt those who hadn’t triggered, or potentially cause a heavy trigger.
Unfortunately, it also meant that nobody was quite sure if the perpetual summer effect the city had was the result of a power or some Tinker device. Conspiracy theorists claimed that the Wardens knew but were keeping their mouths shut for nefarious reasons. I’d never paid rumors like that any mind, but I had always listened to them. Though they might be spouting incorrect information, one should always listen to see if they can find the kernels of truth, should any exist.
The city didn’t exactly have walls. Instead, they had some sort of hard light construct around the city. Even the gates were hard light, easily seen through, but still strong enough to keep almost anything out. I’d heard stories that wildlings would throw themselves into the walls and be vaporized, while someone would be leaning against the wall on the other side.
As Serafina locked the wheels, I pulled my pack up from the back. Getting it in place and locking it against my back was hard work in these cramped quarters, but I managed. I chastised myself for silently complaining about the difficulty; these days, with everything that I’d been given, I didn’t really have grounds for complaining. As she opened her door to get out, I gingerly retrieved my halberd, careful not to damage her wagon, and followed suit.
One of the guards on the other side of the translucent gate called out to us. “You again? Back for more trading?”
“I’ve got more palladium,” Serafina said calmly. “And a guest.”
I stepped out from the carriage, trying to find a way to look casual as I held my halberd. I offered the guards a friendly wave.
A couple of them waved back awkwardly, but one shifted on his feet a little. “C’mon. You know we can’t let someone like him in.”
He had the sight. There were an increasing number of parahumans who could tell if someone was triggered or not. There was some debate as to whether it counted as a Trump power or not.
“The hell you can’t,” she shot back at the man. “Do you know who this is?”
“Lady-” the guard began, but she cut him off.
“This is Jordan. You know, the guy who went where even Legend fears to tread and came back alive? The guy who single-handedly ended the Agamemnon battle? That’s gotta count as Thinker or something!”
“Serefina,” I said quietly. “It’s okay. I didn’t think they’d-”
“No, it’s not okay!” She turned back to the gate, where a few people were starting to take notice. “I’m not going to let some bigot say that a hero doesn’t deserve to walk into a place just because he’s different.”
This wasn’t what I wanted.
I looked back to the gate and realized that there were people coming up to the wall to see what the commotion was. That wasn’t unsurprising in small communities, or places where they didn’t get a lot of travelers. And, really, there were few reasons why someone would come to New Fairfax.
“You hear that? We’ve got a modern age hero here, and these fucks won’t let him in!”
A small pang of panic shot through my chest. If conflicts were so common here, then raising a fuss over me was only going to draw trouble. A guard caught my eye and I mouthed the words “I’m sorry” to her. Her gaze shifted off of me quickly.
“Hold on,” the talking guard said, putting a finger to his ear. Most likely a Tinker-made communication device. Most everything here was either Tinker made or made through the use of powers somehow. I didn’t see anything around his ear, so it either fit snugly in the canal, or was cybernetic of some sort. I could see his lips moving, but if he was saying something aloud, I couldn’t see it.
Perhaps a subvocal microphone superficially similar to a throat mic? It was hard to say.
Focus on the situation, not the tech or powers. We’d only been standing here a minute or two, and I could already barely hear my name. I couldn’t make out much else, but that was enough. And here I was, standing like a nervous, slack-jawed kid.
Sarah had always tried to impress on me the importance of making a good impression, of being presentable. Your clothes could be hanging together by a thread, you could be bleeding profusely, but no matter what, you could make a good impression.
I’d been holding my halberd defensively close to me. Instead, I planted the butt on the ground, drew my heels together, and stood as straight up as I was holding my weapon. It might not be the best of ways to make a good first impression on these folks, but it was the best that I could come up with on such short notice.
The minutes began to tick by, making me more nervous. My eyes locked straight ahead, but I could still hear. I couldn’t make out who all was saying what, but I was able to pick out bits and pieces here and there.
“He’s not one of us.”
“He doesn’t look that impressive.”
“Yeah, but we have rules for a reason!”
“I could take ‘im.”
“Listen, fucktard! I swear-”
The voices were getting progressively angrier. It might have been easier if people had taken literal sides; this side against letting me in, that side for it. Unfortunately, they were jumbled together as they argued, drawing more and more of the population in. I didn’t understand what the big deal was, not really, and I’d rather they just stop. Maybe it would be easier if I just slinked off while nobody was looking?
My teleporter had almost a full charge still, at 98%. I could wait until nobody was looking, use the wagon as cover, and then high tail it to the treeline. If I could do that, I could just move until I’d be sure that nobody would see me, then teleport out. I might end up pissing off the people who did want to let me in, but it would hopefully keep a fight from breaking out.
My planning was interrupted by a sudden pulse visibly going through the crowd as a wave of energy. It didn’t seem to hurt anyone, nobody even stumbled, but it was enough to give them all pause. In fact, all of them relaxed a bit, including the guards. Interesting. I wasn’t sure what exactly the power was that was being used, but I could guess.
Slowly, the crowd parted, allowing me a clean view of the person responsible for calming the crowd. At least, one of the two of them was responsible. An older woman, dressed well, began approaching the gate. To her right was a man in much a similar uniform as the guards. Probably their captain or something. The woman leaned in to whisper something to the captain, who whispered back. She offered him a slight nod without taking her eyes off of myself and Serafina.
Once she got to the gate, her eyes were completely on me. “Jordan, could you come here, please?”
Despite there being a large crowd of people on the other side of the gate, maybe fifty, I could hear my boots with each step I took. The only other thing that I could hear was the beating of my heart. I hated this. I wished that Sarah was here to handle this for me, but then I wouldn’t be in this mess in the first place.
“Ma’am,” I said with a nod of my head and a sheepish smile. The smile was something that I forced on my face now — I’d naturally be looking terrified.
She gave me a polite smile in return as she spoke with a noticeable drawl. “Hello. I’m Gladys Benson.”
Ah, yes. Shaker. She could release a disk of energy from her body that could do electrical damage or meddle with people’s emotions, either enhancing whatever emotions they were already feeling or dampening them. Mayor of New Fairfax. Former villain out of Knoxville, Tennessee, though she tended to work with the Protectorate to take down other villains as often as she butted heads with them. Kept to mainly minor crimes. Was one of the founders of New Fairfax, though her reasons for doing so are debated in some circles. Elected as mayor every four years by popular vote and necessity, as her powers help maintain the peace.
“It’s an honor to meet you, ma’am.” At least I didn’t have to worry about calling her ma’am. People with her accent didn’t tend to mind it as much. It also told me that Tennessee was in the south. Good to know.
“Now, you do know that folks who aren’t triggered aren’t allowed in here, don’t you?”
I swallowed, but kept my smile up. “Yes, ma’am. I’m really-”
Gladys raised her hand, cutting me off. “It’s alright, honey. I’m just making sure.” She shifted her attention to Serafina. “I understand that you’re taking offense to us not letting him in.”
I couldn’t see Serafina, but I could hear the defiance in her voice. “The rules be damned, anyone who survives Saint Louis alone deserves a hero’s welcome, let alone drives something like Agamemnon off.”
Gladys tilted her head a little, her smile growing. “Well, bless your hea-rt, sweety. I’ve got to give you credit for sticking to your guns.”
The old woman squared her shoulders back, content to be silent and think. After a few moments, she nodded once and turned back to me. “That’s some nice armor you’ve got there.”
My smile grew a little more earnest, and despite my nervousness, my chest puffed out a little. “Yes, ma’am, it is. My brother crafted both my armor and my halberd, and a good portion of my gear.”
“Well, isn’t that something. Your brother’s a Tinker?”
I nodded quickly. “Yes, ma’am. He’s always making something. My sister and I help him out as much as we can.”
Her eyebrows lifted. “Do you now?”
“I built over three quarters of the machinery that made the outer layers of my armor.” He’d had me rebuild over half the parts from scratch, sometimes multiple times before they met his specifications. He’d handled the more sensitive equipment that was beyond my comprehension, assembled it all, and then had actually operated it. The system had changed a bit since then, but I still felt a bit of pride over my work helping him.
“I see. Hmm. One moment, then.”
With a casualness that seemed eerily at odds with how close a war had been from breaking out, Gladys turned to address the assembled crowd. “Well. We have rules for reasons. It’s either to keep ourselves safe from each other, or to keep people safe for us. This is supposed to be a retreat, a place where we can be at peace with who we are, what we are.
“But. It also doesn’t change the fact that within the chests of all of us beats a human heart. Just as we have written rules, we also must always endeavor to live by the unspoken rules. Rules which have dictated and guided the peaceful coexistence of man since time began. Rules which were codified, not by lawyers or those in charge of other people, but by experience and a sense of honor.”
She paused, looking around the assembled people. “I speak, of course, of sacred hospitality. Now, our visitors are few and far between. So many communities have wagons that come and go every day, and we only see a couple every week. Rarely do they stay. Other than the Wardens, we so rarely get anyone visiting us of any renown. We even turn away most performance troops.
“And yet, here on our doorstep comes a young man, one who has done noble, courageous things. A celebrity. A man who has done great, noble things.”
She was laying it on thick. Really, I hadn’t done all that much except for having the good fortune not to die, and I’d even messed that up once. I was already getting sick and tired of people bringing up everything that I’d done, and I knew that it was only going to get worse from here on out.
Some people were nodding in agreement, while others looked less than pleased. I couldn’t blame them. I was intruding on their lives.
“We all know how hard it is to help a Tinker if you aren’t one yourself. Even then, sometimes it can’t be done. And yet, this young man has endeavored to help his brother with his work, and successfully, I might add. I believe, for the sake of argument, we could say that he would have an effective rating of Tinker 0, don’t you?”
People were growing more divided again, but I had to trust in her. Though she gave a rating number — that was something that I hadn’t heard in a long time. People had quit assigning numbers when it became clear that they weren’t as cut and dry as the average person thought. The danger of a parahuman could be subjective at times, especially when battling another parahuman. The ratings themselves weren’t very well understood by the common person, which only helped to lead to their disuse.
“Now, we could turn him away, and attempt to convince this generous trader to come in without him. If she were to decide not to, we’d be out of some very valuable supplies that would otherwise be quite limited. Things that this city has been needing for a long, long time. If she were to decide to come in, though, it would leave poor Jordan to travel all alone again, and one would imagine with how remote we are these days that his supplies must be running low. The weather will only get colder from here on out, and game more scarce. We would be sentencing the poor boy to death!”
Gladys turned back to me, smiling sweetly. “Now, honey, you weren’t planning on staying long, were you?”
She’d worded it as a question, but it was anything but. I chose my words very carefully. “Only overnight. Enough time to resupply, get a bath, and a night’s sleep.”
“Oh, sweety!” She put her hand on her hip, frowning a little at me. “No, no. There’s people who want to talk to you, to meet you. I wouldn’t throw you out like that. No, if they’re agreeable, you’d have to stay two nights. One for the things you said, and then one to meet your adoring fans.”
Considering how she’d implied to me that my stay should be as short as possible, that seemed rather generous. I smiled a little wider and lowered my head in appreciation. “If you insist.”
Gladys laughed sweetly. “Oh, I do. I do. Why, tomorrow night, I believe that we’ll have to have a social in order to celebrate. But!” She returned to the assembled crowd. “That is, of course, unless anyone has any objections.”
The assembled crowd remained quiet. Some of them were obviously less than pleased with it all, but were remaining quiet. Was it because of her power, or just that speech? Maybe I should have taken closer care to try and remember what she’d said, in case if I ever had to defuse a situation once I…
I cut that thought off before it could finish forming. Now was not the time to go down that road. I had more important things to focus on at the moment.
The mayor turned to address Serafina. “I trust this meets with your approval, miss?”
The trader was silent for a moment before nodding. “Yeah, okay. I guess it’ll do.”
“Excellent. Then I will leave you to your affairs.” She glanced to the captain of the guard, and the gate vanished. With that, she motioned to me. “Come, walk with me for a little bit. We can at least have a chat before everyone else sinks their teeth into you.”
As we walked through the crowd of probably over a hundred now, I tried to smile at everyone. It was pretty much impossible, sure, but the effort was important to me. I was here at these people’s suffrage, and only by the whims of the mayor. Many were respectful. Some seemed eager to see me. More than I would have liked were watching me pass them with highly displeased expressions.
It was out of my hands now, though. As much as I still wanted to run away, even with the gate still open, I couldn’t. That would be an insult to the people who wanted me there, and to Gladys, who had worked so hard on the spur of the moment to let me in.
When we passed the bulk of the people, I leaned in to speak to the mayor. “I’m sorry to be such trouble.”
Gladys smiled up at me, her eyes sparkling. “Such manners. You kids these days seem to forget them so often. I’m glad one of y’all still holds them.” Her steel came back a little, though the smile never dropped. “But no, honey, from what I’m told, you aren’t any trouble.”
Ah. “I hope that she won’t suffer any repercussions for that.”
The woman shrugged, focusing on the path ahead of us again. “She’s only come here once before, but she brought stuff that the Tinkers go crazy for. And a few things that others enjoy. Like chocolate and coffee, but never enough for everyone who wants it.
“She might be plumb ignorant, but we’d be fools to turn her out over this. ‘Course, I don’t think she’ll get so warm a welcome anymore.”
I frowned a little. So it wasn’t so much about keeping the peace now and more about keeping the trade flowing. A crafty woman, the mayor. “Well, I insist on paying for my room and board, at least. Will you take me to the local hotel?”
“Wouldn’t hear of it,” Gladys said firmly. “You’re a celebrity, honey. Folks round here will be talking ’bout your visit for months, maybe even years. It’ll be good for them to have something new to gossip ’bout. No, I’ll handle that.”
I sighed. I’d hoped she’d let me; Chris made sure that I’d left with plenty of money. More than I’d been comfortable with. “Then can I chip in for the social?” She was going to make sure it was a grand feast, too. I was sure of it.
“Nope! Think of tomorrow night as a holiday, honey.” She quickly looked up at me. “When did you meet up with the gal?”
“Not that long ago,” I confessed. “But her horses make good time.” Not as good as our horses from Twain, but I doubted she had that special feed.
“And how long were you all by your lonesome on the road?”
“A couple of weeks.”
Gladys smiled warmly at me, reaching out to pat my arm. “That’s fine, then. You need a rest, too. The weather away from the city is frightful, and it’s only gonna get worse from here on out. You deserve a rest. Don’t you worry ’bout nothin’.”
I sighed softly. In case I ever had to serve in Dushanbe Gimmel, I’d studied sacred hospitality as a kid. I was her guest, and she was pulling out all the stops. “Alright, then. I do insist on buying my rations and resupply, if nothing else. And the clothes I’ll need to buy for the social.”
Gladys eyed me carefully. “You didn’t bring a change of clothes?”
I flashed her a sheepish smile. “I needed the pack space. Besides, we can’t be smart all of the time.”
She chuckled softly, shaking her head a bit. I was glad she was a good mayor, so easy to smile and laugh over life. I only hoped that I didn’t end up making the old woman’s life too difficult.