Shu 4.8

“Um, do you have this in red?”

The store clerk, or maybe she was the store owner, looked at me flatly for a moment before turning away.  Ah.  Another one who obviously didn’t want me here.  I looked down at the shirt in my hands before carefully refolding it the same way that it had been before I’d held it up.

I couldn’t blame anyone who wanted me out.  I was intruding on their lives, on their very way of life.  I still didn’t know why Gladys had invited me for more than a single day.  One day would have been enough to make people happy, then boot me out before anyone gets any more upset.  Parading me around would only aggravate those who didn’t want me that much more.

I wouldn’t have to buy clothes that I was just going to abandon when I left.

A soft sigh escaped me before I put my smile back on my face.  It was out of my hands, I told myself.  She had done what she, as mayor of the city, felt was best.  She’d done it in such a way, maybe even with her power, to convince people that it was for the best, or at least that they should tolerate it for the time being.  I might not like it, but I had to accept it.  Frowning and sighing would only make people want me here less.

If I smiled and was pleasant, then it would help smooth ruffled feathers.  If I made it clear that after tomorrow, I would be gone and never come back, they might not lynch me.

I glanced out the window of the clothing store and quickly looked away.  People were being…  I wasn’t sure what they were being.  They were keeping their distance, but they were following me.  Some seemed like they wanted to say something, but they gave me room.  Some looked like they were waiting for me to commit some infraction so that they’d have an excuse to kick me out.

I tried to pretend that there weren’t windows, that there wasn’t anyone out there.  I tried to make the clothing the entire focus of my world.

It worked for a while, until the small bell signaled that the door opened.  A quick glance revealed that a man had entered.  He was unarmed, dressed in casual clothes, which was a good thing.  I’d be more worried if he was dressed for a fight, even if he was taking a much more friendly stance as he approached.

“Jordan,” he said warmly as he drew near.

I blinked at him for a moment before smiling a little more.  “Hi.”

He paused for a second before laughing.  “You have no idea who I am, do you?”  Before I could respond, he laughed and shook his head.  “I really can’t blame you; I wouldn’t recognize half the people from there myself.  My name’s Rick.  I helped you and your sister on the line.  Well, more your sister than you.”

That was what I needed to make the mental leap.  “The hydrokineticist with summoning abilities!”  My smile grew until it threatened to split my face in two.  “I’m sorry I didn’t recognize you!  It was just kind of hectic then, and then I kind of… died.”

It was a lame excuse, and I kicked myself for it.  I’d never been good at faces, but I always felt that I should be.  I didn’t want to insult anyone by not recognizing them.

“It’s fine, man!”  At least, he didn’t seem insulted.  He seemed rather quite happy.  “I’m just glad that you didn’t die-die.  When I heard that you’d been hurt teleporting out, I knew you were dead.  Then I found out that you’d set your teleporter to go to Mother’s.

“Then I thought to myself, this guy’s got a mind for fighting, for leadership, yeah?  So, why run up into Agamemnon’s face if that wasn’t his plan all along?  Sure, your teleporter’s a little messed up, got you telefragged, but you were probably planning on timing it for that, uh…  That barrier thing that appeared.  That you’d been trying to time it so that Agamemnon slammed face first into it, as one last fuck you while you rescued everybody.  Tricky thinking!”

He held out his fist to me, grinning from ear to ear.  Was everybody doing stuff like that?  Reading more into my actions than what there actually had been?  I thought that it would have been obvious, especially after all those newspaper articles.

I wanted to correct him, but as I looked at him, grinning that lopsided grin with his fist held out like that, I knew it wouldn’t do any good.  He’d probably think that I was just being humble about it all, lying to downplay everything.  And really, did I even want to try and ruin his good mood?  There were so many people here that were angry that I’d been let in, and here was someone that was legitimately thrilled to see me.

As much as I hated to do it, I reached out and tapped my fist against his.  It felt like I was lying, or betraying all those people who had died.  But I just didn’t have it in me to correct him.

Time for a topic change.  “No offense, but you aren’t exactly what I was expecting here.”

Rick chuckled a little, some of the good humor drained.  “It’s cool, man, but keep it a little on the quiet side, alright?  Not everyone is as chill as I am.”

He dropped his voice to a whisper.  “If it’s ‘cos I’m here and smiling, don’t stress it too much.  Yeah, I’m here ‘cos I’m a para, and ‘cos I don’t want anyone else to be.  And ‘cos I’m not exactly…  Well, I’m older than I look, and I did some stuff when I was younger that I’m not proud of.  If someone confronts me about what I did, I’d be the first to admit it.  I’ve got a lot to atone for, but if I can make someone’s life a little better in the meantime, then it helps me sleep at night.  And if you’re referring to me volunteering on the line…  Well, like I said.  A lot to atone for.

“Now, if you’re talking about me smiling?”  He grinned as if to highlight it.  “Everybody who comes here for the first time thinks that we’re all mopers.  It’s cool, I get that.  People get ideas about us.  But for the most part, we aren’t death seekers or anything like that.  We just know that if we do die out there, then our passenger’s gonna skip to another person nearby, maybe cause a heavy trigger.

“That doesn’t mean that we can’t laugh and be happy and stuff, you know?  People are going to try to be happy, some better than others.  And even people who suffer from depression can be happy, if only for a little bit.  I may want to make right with my life, but that doesn’t mean that I can’t be happy when good things happen.  Like a crazy guy comes waltzing into our city.”

I ducked my head, putting a grin on my face.  Really, I wished that he’d quit making such a big deal out of it.  “I get you.  Nobody likes being miserable.”

“Exactly.”  He grinned again, a wide smile crossing his face.  “So, what are you looking for?”

“Uh…  A red shirt.  I liked the design of this one, but I couldn’t find it in red.”

Rick nodded a little.  “Right.  Well, if you’re going to look good for that party tomorrow…”  He flashed me that grin again.  “Best be finding you a red shirt.”


 

It wasn’t until I had dinner with the mayor that I became self-conscious about my appearance.  Her home was rather humble compared to most of the ones here, one of the first houses built here.  Gladys had been dressed simply, almost casually, while I was still in my armor.  Sans all my gear, of course, but still.

I had been thankful that she’d gotten my rifle from Serafina for me — I’d completely forgotten about it.  It was strange of me to forget a weapon, but apparently it had happened.  There was nothing that I could do about it now but push onward.  I did note, though, that while I’d gotten the magazine with the weapon, it didn’t have any ammunition in it.

The dinner itself was surprisingly good.  The older woman seemed thrilled to have someone to cook for and had prepared a feast.  I felt briefly bad about making her cook, but she’d assured me that everything was alright, that she’d enjoyed it, and that she expected me to eat until I was absolutely full.

While I made my way through everything, she’d been content to talk.  Mostly, it was telling stories about before Gold Morning and trying to impart wisdom on me.  Wisdom that I quickly realized didn’t actually apply to myself or my situation.  She was so intent on telling me about how a person who grew up back then should know, not someone who grew up in the world as it was today.

Had she told me about parahuman dealings, her clashes with the PRT and other heroes, the wisdom of a villain back then, it would have been one thing.  Those were things that I payed close attention to, things that I could actually learn something from.  For my part, though, the old world was pretty much useless, outside of Saint Louis.

But she was happy to talk, and I was happy to pretend to listen while I focused on stuffing my face.  The fried okra was a new one on me; I didn’t think that it grew this far north.  Probably just something having to do with whatever method was used to keep the temperature comfortable here.

And despite my asking, she wasn’t willing to tell me the secret on that one.

She’d ended up pleasantly amused that I made my way through six courses, not counting the apple pie or the seconds she kept piling on my plate, without slowing down.  She’d briefly been worried that I’d been starving out there, but really, I could eat like that most days.

And then with that pleasantly perky voice and that thick southern drawl, she sent me back to my hotel room.

The next day had been spent doing a bit of meet and greet as I also handled some shopping.  It reminded me a lot of when we’d returned to Twain, only in lesser numbers.  Only this time, I hadn’t had Sarah to handle everyone for me, which made everything a little more stressful.

Still, my pack was full once again, for however long it would last me.

Finally, I’d set about some maintenance and chores.  Cleaning my guns, reloading the magazine for my rifle, sharpening my boot knife, and cleaning my halberd and armor.  Just because my armor absorbed moisture didn’t mean that it didn’t need washed out.

Now, though, I was considering sprinting to the wall, climbing it, and getting the hell out of here post haste.

“Ladies and gentlemen, it isn’t very often that I get to say any of this, so please forgive me if I stumble.”  Everyone chuckled politely.  “Tonight, my friends, we are blessed with a visitor.  The survivor of Saint Louis, and the savior of the Battle of Agamemnon.  A callback to a bygone age, a hero.  Forgiving everything else about him, can we all give him a warm round of applause!”

The man turned to me and smiled as the crowd clapped.  I shifted uncomfortably under their attention.  I wished that I could remember his name; if memory served me correctly, proper protocol dictated that I do that.

“And, even better, I have another important announcement, one that I say even more rarely.  One that I think you’ll enjoy that much more.”  He paused dramatically before calling out to everyone.  “Drinks will be on the house tonight!”

The first bit had gotten a mostly polite reaction, with only a few cheers and whistles.  That announcement, on the other hand, was exactly the opposite — almost everyone was cheering wildly.  The man in the tan jacket held up his hands to calm the crowd.

Before they had fully calmed, he called out again.  “After Jordan has a round!”

My eyes bulged as I turned to him, my voice a frightened whisper.  “Uh, I’m only nineteen.”

He man laughed as he patted my back, the physical contact more than welcome after going so long without any.  “Doesn’t matter.  We don’t have a minimum age to drink here.  C’mon, enjoy yourself.”

I smiled sheepishly as I allowed myself be lead to the bar.  Only there, I hesitated.  The only real alcohol that I knew of was beer, and Sarah said it tasted like piss.  That didn’t sound like the sort of thing that I’d like.  Not in the slightest.  But it was the only thing I really knew.

Fortunately, the man picked up on my issue.  “Give the boy a shot of whiskey, then an amaretto sour.”  He turned back to me with a wicked grin.  “You can’t get amaretto most places, and then it’s expensive as all hell.  This’ll be a treat.

“Since this is your first time, here’s how you do it.  Take a breath, then get all the air out of your mouth without exhaling.  Take the shot, and exhale both through your mouth and nose.  Then sip the amaretto.  That’s called a chaser.  It’ll help get rid of the burn that the other stuff doesn’t, but this way I don’t have to worry about you puking.”

Oh, now that was a comforting thought.  Just telling me that had to double my chances of puking.

Still, I was under scrutiny.  There were multiple groups of people watching me as I inhaled and did my best to get all the air out of my mouth.  I only opened it again when the cool liquid hit my lips, swallowing as soon as it hit the back of my mouth.  Almost instantly, I was exhaling, a slow tingle in the back of my back of my throat.

I offered a smile to the people as I held up the other glass.  “I was expecting worse.”

People broke out into a chorus of cheers, happy cries of “Another!” coming from more than a few of the assembled, maybe two hundred people.  My glass froze at my lips as the bartender began to pour another shot of whiskey.

As the band started to play, I had the serious feeling that I was not going to make it through the night with the slightest degree of sobriety.


 

“So, he walks up to these two, and starts telling them to use their powers together, like it’s the most normal thing in the world!”

I laughed softly as…  As…  the hydrokinetic guy grinned at me.  The assembled people, whom I was kinda thinking hadn’t actually told me who they were, were giving me a questioning look.

“What?  It wasn’t anything special.  I mean, simple physics and paraphysics.”

“Alright,” one woman said, crossing her arms with a smirk.  “Let’s say I buy that.  How were you thinking their powers would work together?”

“Synergize,” I said sagely.  My lips pressed together as I thought about how to explain.  It was a pity they’d gone numb on me a few drinks ago.  “Okay.  One of them, they were summoning these huge metal spikes.  Size of my halberd big, thick as my thigh, right?”

“Right.”

“The other one had more of a Breaker power than a Blaster, but the thing was, it was mostly heat-based.”

“And you can tell that just by looking?” one man asked.

I shrugged.  “I’ve spent a lot of time studying powers.  It gets to be a, uh, a sixth sense kind of thing.  Kinda like when you use a gun enough, you can know that there’s something wrong with it before you know that there’s something wrong with it, you know?”

“Yeah,” he said with a nod.  “I’m following.”

“Right, so.  Most of the time, the Blaster’s power won’t allow them to summon and launch metal spikes without giving them the ability to hold the metal in that shape no matter if its solid or liquid.  I mean, there’s exceptions to every rule, especially when heavy or jumping triggers come into play, but for the most part, it’s a fairly solid thing.

“So, I’ve got these two parahumans, and they’ve doing good damage.  But the thing is…”  I blinked as my brain briefly fell off track.  “The thing is, the spike one is doing piercing damage, while the other is doing heat on the surface.  But if you combine the two, you get at the minimum heat damage and piercing damage.  The heat damage deeper in might sear, but it will also do more damage overall than if it’s focused on the surface.

“And that…”  A woman handed me yet another drink and I smiled at her.  “Thank you.  Anyway, if the spike was liquefied, then I had a good 50/50 chance of it maintaining the piercing form until impact — if it impacted with enough force to pierce the skin, it would cause even more damage than if it remained a solid.  If it didn’t, you would still have the bolt cause its kinetic damage, and even though it would only be surface damage, the molten metal would splash against the skin and spread, possibly causing equal thermal damage over a wider area.”

I took a sip of my drink and blinked at how strong it was.  The amaretto sour had been sweet, but this was like a punch to my face.  Weird.

“Anyway,” my friend said, “Jordan here comes walking back, just straight-backed, head high and this tiny hint of a smile on his face.  Like he’s got this wicked idea on how to completely decapitate Agamemnon forming in his head.  Like he’s got this all under control, and could handle a wildling attack interrupting everything and still bark out orders without breaking a sweat.  So…”


 

“No, no, it’s not like that…”  I tried to think back to remember this guy’s name, but everything beyond a minute or two was increasingly fuzzy.  “It’s not like we had some ugly, horrible beasts slobbering all over us.  They were…”  I shook my head and laughed.  “They were cute, you know?”

“Cute,” he said doubtfully.  “Cute how?”

I frowned.  I could remember them clearly.  Their shape, the patterns on them.  But it was their faces that were cute.  I knew that it was their faces that were cute.  I knew it in the way that I knew that one plus one was two.  I didn’t do the math, I just knew it.

For the life of me, though, I couldn’t visualize their faces in the slightest.

I picked up another drink and pointed at him with it.  “How’s a puppy cute?”

“What?”

“Y’heard me.”

The man thought for a moment.  “Uh, well, it’s got big eyes-”

“So do toads!  They got big eyes, too, but they aren’t usually seen as cute.  What makes a puppy’s eyes cute?”

He let out a sigh.  “I don’t know, man.”

I grinned, nodding as I grabbed my next drink from the table.  “‘xactly.  I could describe them until I’m blue in the face, and I couldn’t make you understand why they were cute until you seen…  Until you saw them.”

“I get it,” a woman said, nodding.  “Like, I could tell you why a girl is cute, but until you see her, they’re just words.  You can’t picture her right, because they aren’t the same as seeing.”

Not even close to the truth.  Good.  “Exactly,” I said with a nod of my head.  I paused to take a big gulp from the glass.  Fruity!  “Like, I could say they had this waddle to them due to their kinda proto-wing-things, but that doesn’t explain why that waddle is cute.  I can tell you that their bodies waggled when they were excited or happy, but that doesn’t tell you how that’s cute.”

“So these cute things made it not so scary?”

“Ha!”  I grinned from ear to ear.  “Not in the slightest.  I was terrified the entire time.  I don’t think I actually relaxed until we got back to Twain.”

“Yeah, but what was it like, sleeping with wildlings?”


 

I blinked as a strange feeling overcame my body, and my mind cleared quickly.  I looked at the woman in front of me.  My lips quickly regained feeling, my balance quickly returned, and I felt generally…  good.  Even with the social going on as hard as ever around me, though, I felt… separate from it again.  An interloper.

“What the…”

“Here,” she said, pushing a glass of water in my hands.  “You’ll thank me later.  You’ve been drinking enough that you kept getting to the blackout stage of drunk, where your brain stops recording.  Then you’d sober up a bit, enough that you could see it in your eyes, just to get another drink in your hand again.

“I used my power on you, pulled out the alcohol and toxins.  But unless you get some water in you, no matter if you don’t touch another drop of alcohol all night, you’ll end up with a bitchin’ hangover.  I’ll put the toxins in some water later, then have someone else dispose of it safely.”

I quickly began to guzzle the water.  Halfway through the glass, a thought hit me.  “Hey, I thought you all weren’t allowed to use your powers on folks without permission.”

She smirked.  “You were so drunk that I just said that I wanted to use my power on you, and you said okay without even waiting for me to tell you what it was.”

“Ah.”  I went back to my water.

“Anyway…”  The red-headed woman glanced around to make sure we weren’t being overheard.  People were glancing our way with smirks, but were otherwise giving us space.  “I kinda wanted to hit you with a business proposition.  One I think we’ll both be happy with.”

I raised an eyebrow and lowered my glass from my lips.  She took that as a sign to continue.

“Listen…  I sometimes go to this Earth.  It doesn’t have a name, but I’m doing scouting there, trying to just get the lay of the land for folks.  Don’t ask.  But the thing is, I kinda found something.  Depending on how you look at it, it’s either a good thing or a bad thing that the wildlings moved in and forced me out.”

I nodded slowly.  “So, you’d like to hire me as muscle to help you clear out the area, so you can get whatever you’ve found.”

“A little,” she admitted.  “I can deliver any of the toxins I’ve claimed one at a time, but I use up all of that kind of toxin per delivery.  And I can only claim toxins from living creatures.  That kind of limits how much I can get at once.

“But that’s not the important thing.  I can just head out to New Brockton and hire any old mercenaries for that.  The thing is, you’ve got two traits that I need.  The first is that you’ve got a brain, and seem to have some tech knowledge at the very least, and that’s helpful.  The second is that you’ve got a teleporter.  If I were to go through the other folks, they’d probably claim a good portion of what we brought back.”

I narrowed my eyes a little.  “Right.  But you’re willing to share with me, apparently?”

Her lips twisted into a grin.  “Of course.  And I betcha that I can give you something that you’d like.”  She leaned in close to whisper to me.  “A Cauldron vial.”

Cauldron.  They’d killed, or at least mostly killed, a partner entitiy to Scion, and used it to artificially give people powers.  But they’d also worked to make plans to either fight Scion when the time came, or to give as many people as possible a chance to survive his rampage.

I felt my pulse quicken.  A Cauldron vial.  Powers in a bottle.  Assuming you survived, or didn’t mutate to become a Case 53, you’d end up potentially hyper-powerful.  “Say what?”

“This place, I think it’s where folks from England were supposed to evacuate to, if Scion hadn’t sank the whole damn island.  There’s a fully stocked community creation kit, with everything needed to build a whole community.  Only, I don’t know what all’s still going to be good after all this time, and what all isn’t.  But on the manifest of what was there was an entire crate of vials.

“So, I’ll make you a deal.  We go there, you help me figure out what all we can actually pawn off, and I let you walk away with any two vials of your choice.  How does that sound to you?”

There was, of course, no real way of knowing if the vials were still any good.  Cauldron had been making vials for about 30 years, but I had no idea what their shelf lives were.  Could vials go bad?

But at the same time, my heart was racing.  For the first time in what felt like forever, I was genuinely excited and happy about something.  I couldn’t help but think back to what I’d asked Dinah Alcott.  What were my odds of triggering and joining the Wardens?

Had I asked the wrong question?  I’d operated under the unspoken assumption that there were no more Cauldron vials available any more.  But did a Cauldron vial count as triggering?  Reports stated that a person had a vision like a standard trigger event, but it wasn’t the vision that was the source of the name; there were those who believed that the name stemmed from the stress that a person went under in order to trigger.

I should have asked a blanket if I’d ever get powers and join the Wardens.  The wording of a question might be the difference between night and day.

“Yes,” I whispered.

She grinned from ear to ear.  “Great!  That’s excellent!  I tell you what, I’ll meet you at the hotel in the morning and we’ll work out the details then, alright?  I don’t want to keep you from your adoring fans.”  She smirked a bit at that.

“Okay, thank you!”  I paused, though, as a thought hit me, making my heart sink a bit.  “Wait…  Um, I don’t mean to look a gift horse in the mouth or anything, but, uh…  If you’re living here, why are you  willing to help me?”

She looked at me for a long moment before shrugging.  “You seem like a good guy, and I’ve heard a few of the stories you’ve told.  Maybe we could use more people like you in the world, someone with standards and old-fashioned smarts to kick the Wardens around a bit, you know?

“Besides, there’s only so many reasons why someone like you would be wandering around Bet this time of year, right after you became a big name celebrity.  Most folks would be eating it up, not pulling a Kwai Chang Caine.  I’m all for not being a part of someone accidentally triggering, but you’re trying to force it.  That’s going to get you killed, you know?  And, yeah, sure, a vial might do it, too, but at least then you’ll have a chance of getting what you want very briefly before you die.  And I can at least say I tried to keep you alive.”

I smiled faintly, trying my best to keep my eyes from watering.  “Thank you,” I whispered.

“We’re all in this together,” she said warmly.  “But hey, at least now you’ve got a reason to celebrate, right?”


 

The man chuckled again.  “Are you sure?  I could show you a good time.”


 

“-thing that you should do is find a place to stay for the winter, get some temporary work, and then start traveling in March again.  That way-”


 

“And that is why, outside of those who underwent heavy triggers, you rarely see a flying Mover who can break the sound barrier create a vapor cone, nor will it violate the Prandtl-Glauert transformation on the surface.”

I nodded slowly, a frown on my face.  It was hard to focus.  “Okay, so.  Assuming that it’s true, then wouldn’t the dimensional shift cause radiation in another reality?”

Mom smiled, her dark hair covering one hazel eye.  “Ah, you’re remembering our lesson on Cherenkov radiation and how the natural shifting of dimensions that the entities used was most likely dielectric in nature unless they deemed it worthy of an alternate method of breaching the dimensional barrier.

“But you’re thinking of Cherenkov radiation wrong again.  We’ll get into that in another lesson.  However, it’s easiest to just go ahead and say that nobody knows, or if they do, they’ve yet to actually write a report about it yet.”

I groaned softly, running a hand over my face.  “I love you, Mom, but I’ll be honest, the amount of stuff that we don’t know is starting to get frustrating.  Why teach me all this stuff if you’re just going to finish half of it with ‘but we don’t know’ all the time?  Why not focus on something else?”

Mom laughed.  “Eager to get on with your business today, eh?  Well.  There’s a few reasons, really.  First is that you need to keep in mind that we don’t know everything, and that we’re discovering more every day.  If you want to know all the answers, you’re going to have to keep up to date on the research.

“Second, you might very well figure out some of these answers some day.  The sudden walls in our knowledge may vex you, and you might come up with a brilliant answer, or maybe even a completely wrong answer that gives someone else an answer.  Or maybe this limited information, or even the holes will give you an answer in a fight that you can use to best your opponent.

“Or…”  Her smile turned devilish.  “You might find the passengers themselves.”

I scoffed, but she laughed again.  “It’s not so unbelievable.  You’ve got a teleporter.  Maybe some day, you’ll go to enter something like, I dunno, 55°42′56″N, 11°43′21″E, 11H, 28D and somehow accidentally enter in a combination that puts you in a place that lets you enter whatever dimension, or dimensions they live in.”

I snorted softly.  “Yeah, right.  They probably have tech like Thinker that keeps us from getting access to them.”

She stepped away from the chalkboard, walking along the desert sand to stand in front of my desk.  “Well, if you’re going to be like that, all dismissive, then you should just wake up.”

“What?  No!  No, I didn’t mean-“


 

I opened my eyes slowly, unsuccessfully fighting a yawn.  I hadn’t gotten a full night’s sleep in far too long, too many times just napping, if I got any at all.  Even my first night in the city, I hadn’t been able to do more than get a couple of naps in.

I felt a brief pang of guilt that I couldn’t quite place that seemed to linger as I got out of bed.  A few quick exercises, a couple of katas, and then I hurried into the shower.  The clock said that I only had half an hour to meet up with my new employer whose name I couldn’t remember.

To be fair, I couldn’t remember most of the previous night.  Some stories, a few moments of laughter, a moment of dancing…  but I remembered the important part.  I remembered the offer for a Cauldron vial.  In the end, that was all that I really needed to know.

I moved quickly, not even bothering to shave before I got dressed in my armor.  Attaching my gear was a fairly quick process — I’d set it all out carefully before I’d gone to the social.  I was, however, interested to know that I didn’t have a hangover.  A good sign, from my first time drinking.  Or maybe my new patron had something to do with it.

The sun was rising as I made my way out the door and hurried down the stairs.  A nice, quiet Thursday morning, with my entire future ahead of me.  Nothing could stop me now.

As soon as I approached the front desk, I knew that I’d just tempted fate with my optimism.  It isn’t every day that you get to find a headless corpse sitting behind the front desk.

My blood ran cold as I gripped the halberd tighter, slowly approaching.  Nothing ever prepared a person to have to deal with a human corpse.  There was a bitter finality to it, the end of a life.  I’d seen people die before, never by my own hand, but in combat still.  To see someone like this…

I glanced around to take a closer look at the body.  The blood was congealed; they’d been dead for hours now.  From what I could tell, though, the beheading was quick and efficient — the cut was clean, no tell-tale signs of having to use multiple strokes to remove it.

The book in the night auditor’s hands was soaked in blood, rendering it unreadable.  Otherwise, the body was at ease, feet on the desk, keeping the corpse in an upright position.  It had been quick, and he’d been completely unaware.

Yes, focus on the details.  Don’t let the fact that a corpse was laying right in front of me actually register.  I was collecting observations for when I reported it.  Yes.  Do that.

As a shudder took me, I looked away from the former man, all around.  The blood on the floor was localized around the chair.  There didn’t seem to be any gouges in the walls or doors.  And the neck wound was clean, no signs of scorching.

The head had been removed in one swoop, not with a ranged power.  The poor clerk had never even known what was happening, or if he had, he hadn’t had time to react before his beheading.  The head had been collected almost instantly, though.  With no sign of it, and all the blood centralized around the body, whomever had done this hadn’t even let it fall to the ground.

Parahuman.  Obviously a parahuman.  Or maybe someone using a Tinker weapon of some sort, but it wasn’t any kind of directed energy weapon that I was familiar with.  Not that it meant much — there were as many kinds of Tinker weapons as there were any other kind of parahuman power.

After confirming that the till wasn’t open, which would have been a sign of robbery, I slowly backed away, keeping my halberd at the ready.  There wasn’t anything more that I could do here.

“I’m sorry,” I whispered softly.

After a moment’s hesitation, I hurried out the door and began down the street, my senses primed.  Whomever did this was long gone, but I was used to danger — it was better to be prepared and not have anything happen than to be caught unaware.

I’d paid attention when I’d been going through town.  I didn’t remember most locations, but the Warden’s station was one thing that I had made absolute certain to memorize.  If my presence had caused a problem, I’d end up there most likely.  If I survived.  Now, though, I needed to report what I’d seen.

It took me ten minutes to get there, but I didn’t bother entering.  I could see a headless body through the large window.  If my blood had cooled before, it was ice cold now.  I couldn’t even form anger, or any real emotion.  Just a cold surreality to it all.

Slowly, I made my way through the streets, only now realizing that the city was quiet.  There was a mild hum here and there from Tinker devices, but otherwise…  nothing.  Not even birds.

I found myself at the mayor’s house.  The locked door offed little resistance.  It was old and poorly constructed in the first place.  It probably would have been drafty if the temperature wasn’t controlled.

Less than 48 hours ago, I’d been eating here.  Now I was standing in a bedroom, looking at a blood-coated bed.  This… wasn’t right.  Nothing about this was right in the slightest.  I couldn’t make heads or tails of it at all.

Two more houses, the same results.  I didn’t even remember breaking into them.  I didn’t even remember how I was suddenly at the gates to the city, looking down at the decapitated guards.

I whispered another apology as I ran my hand over the glowing symbol, causing the hard light gates to open silently.  I didn’t look back.  Instead, I closed my helmet before bringing my hand to my belt.

Without looking, hands worked the controls on the teleporter.  There was nothing that I could do for the dead.  I couldn’t even bury them.  I couldn’t do anything.  All those lives, gone now.  Nothing.  Just physical reminders of the principled people who had called this place home.

For some reason, I didn’t care where I was going.  I just had to be not here.  Anywhere would do, so long as it fit that description.

My thumb hit the activation button, and I was gone.

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4 thoughts on “Shu 4.8

  1. Thank you for reading this chapter.

    Sorry for the quality on this one. I couldn’t sleep more than a half an hour last night, and my work suffered for it, I think. I can barely keep my eyes open.

    I think I like writing shock. It’s a good change of pace. To be honest, though, I’m glad that there’s only one more chapter to this arc. Save for the stuff at the hospital and the interludes, this was an exhausting one for me to write. I had to put myself way too deep into his mindset in order to write some of it. I don’t like doing that too much.

    Honestly, though, this chapter could easily have been spread out into four of them. However, I’m really stuck with a bit of a problem. A lot of stuff happens, but not much of it is interesting to read. It might be important to Jordan, but is it necessarily important to the reader? I’m trying to work on my pacing, and four chapters for dinner and a social is a bit too much. This is too fast, that’s too slow. I need to find a balance.

    I’m also sorry to see Rick go. He was an alright guy. Back in the day, he was an assassin. Yes, summoning spheres of water and then launching them at subsonic speeds doesn’t sound like an assassin’s tool, but he was well known for his lack of evidence. He’d form the sphere around their head and then just wait out of sight. Then he would unsummon the water, leaving only a victim who had suffocated, or dry drowned.

    He got a lot of work after Gold Morning clearing house and cleaning up old debts for folks. He was just crafty enough to not get caught. But after the initial three years, when the speedy portion of the reconstruction ran dry, he realized that he was doing more harm than good. He was listless for a while, even threw himself in with the cultists for a bit, until the city was founded. He didn’t want redemption, and didn’t think he deserved it. But he hoped that he could do a little more good than he had by lowering humanity’s already dwindling population.

    I’ll go into the psychology of that sort of killer another time. I won’t ramble on at length this chapter.

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  2. I actually liked the pacing on this chapter. Spending four chapters on the dinner and celebration would have definitely been too long, but this one felt pretty good. I liked the little bits of foreshadowing and teasing before ending with a complete change of events.

    For instance, I thought that this was going to turn into murder frame-up when Jordan was examining the hotel clerk. His tinkertech halberd could very easily decapitate an unsuspecting person like that, and him not thinking about that made me really feel like that was the idea. Then he finds the whole town dead and I was pleasantly surprised while also feeling a fair bit of dread. Any parahuman who could take out an entire town of other parahumans like that could have easily offed Jordan as well. The fact that he was spared has to be meaningful and I am looking forward to finding out how and why.

    I also like that Jordan now has two to three additional plot threads to follow up on. The most obvious is going to be the aforementioned town murder, but once the shock wears off I am hoping that he will start trying to figure out where this unnamed Earth with Cauldron vials is situated at. There are also the coordinates that he was given in his dream. I can’t tell if they are just an incredibly obvious case foreshadowing, or a read herring disguised as one. Or if they may have influenced the random coordinates that he just input in the last scene.

    And while I’m thinking about loose plot threads, what ever did happen to the trader that argued so hard to get Jordan into that city…

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  3. Welp, I’m just going to put my tinfoil hat on for this one. Jack Slash, or at least someone with his shard is out and about. Don’t know why, but I’m just going to put it out there.

    As for the chapter itself, the pacing was good, I enjoyed the way you wrote drunk Jordan, I won’t lie. The way it seemed so disjointed, but also able to flow together as a narrative, as odd as that might sound.

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    • I don’t think it would be Jack Slash. Jordan noted that the heads never hit the ground, which would imply the killer was near their victim or a Mover of some sort. Being near the victim wastes the range advantage Jack’s power gives him and he isn’t a Mover (unless he got some tinker tech).

      My money is on some kind of mental hallucinogenic power. Likely one of Teacher’s agents got to Jordan at the social and hit him with some kind of mental whammy and he’s actually still asleep. Most likely suspect is his new “employer”. Someone shows up with the ability to sober him up instantly and happens to offer him his dreams on a silver platter? Seems a bit too good to be true…

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