“So you ran.”
It was an accusing statement, I knew. “Yeah,” I said, not bothering to look up from the wooden floor.
Instead, Mom got down on one knee, forcing her face into my field of vision. “Yeah. So what now?”
I couldn’t frown any more than I already was. “Warden SOP is that if they can’t solve an investigation on their own, anybody who fled the scene of a crime is to immediately be sought out for questioning. Dragon’s Teeth are to consider anyone who flees a crime scene to be a potential suspect until proven otherwise, and treated appropriately. In the cases of heinous crimes against humanity, apprehension is to be performed as if all suspects are A-class threats.”
Mom ran a hand through her spiky black hair, frowning. “And if there’s a postcog suppression going on, there’s plenty of evidence linking you to New Fairfax.”
“Yeah.” I never should have gone there.
“So what are you going to do?”
I let out a long sigh. “Well, this Earth is warmer than Bet, but still cold. Snow’s probably going to start soon. If this had happened last month, I might be able to find a hamlet to buy supplies at, then build myself a shelter to survive the winter with.”
I wasn’t sure what Earth I was in, but it didn’t really matter. Even if the dimension wasn’t actually mentioned in my guide, I had found a road. That meant it was inhabited.
“As it stands, the best that I can do is find a place to hunker down at for the winter, then weigh my options from there. If it’s small or remote enough, maybe I can be safe there for a time. It’d have to lack both Warden and Dragon’s Teeth protection, though, which makes things… tricky. Maybe I can get a job as a guard or something.”
Mom made a pleased noise, nodding slowly. “That is, of course, making several assumptions. Still, your first bet would be to go by a different name, which is easily enough done. Whenever someone identifies you as Jordan, you’ll have to tell them that you get that a lot.”
I flashed her a confused look, which she met with a sad smile. “Yes, everyone’s seen your photo in the papers, unless it’s a small town that doesn’t get a newspaper. However, the only photos of you out there are of your old skin. Your appearance is quite a bit different, even though your face is the same.”
“Right,” I said with a nod. “Yeah. Without the scars, I might be able to pull off someone else. Plus, I look pretty dang grim in those pictures. Since I don’t usually look like that, I should be okay.”
“That’s the spirit,” she said, leaning back on her heels. The smile faded, though. “Things are going to get tricky from here on out, though. You’re going to have to make some choices that you’re not going to like, have to get into some fights you’d rather avoid. Are you ready for this?”
“Yeah. Well, no, not really, but… What other choice do I have?”
Mom smiled sadly again, reaching out a hand to stroke my face.
My eyes fluttered open slowly, only to feel like they were going to pop out of my skull as a yawn hit. I’d teleported underground and had to dig my way out. I’d been lucky that I hadn’t been too deep under, and that there had been enough air in my bubble to sustain me until I gotten out. But the exertion, plus the morning’s events, had taken all the energy out of me, forcing me to nap.
I didn’t appear to be in any immediate danger as I took stock of my surroundings. I had a full pack, I was well hydrated with plenty of water reserves, no immediate hostile life, plenty of ammo for my weapons, and while the temperature was below freezing, it wasn’t as cold as Bet. If I wanted to, I could probably lay low for a few days.
That wasn’t actually that good of an idea, though. The Wardens and the Dragon’s Teeth might be hunting me as soon as they found out what had happened. I estimated that I’d have at most three hours before a full investigation was launched, at most an hour before someone pinned my presence there, maybe two hours before they had confirmation that I wasn’t present.
A quick glance at my now-dirty watch told me that I’d napped for almost a full hour. If time was on my side, I had less than five hours before they were looking for me. More than likely, it would be significantly less. With things like this, it was always better to err on the side of caution.
I had a road that I could follow. I couldn’t see where it ended, and I couldn’t immediately hear anything, but it was a road. A road with no immediate sign of use, but it was in good repair, made within the last decade. No matter which direction I went, it would lead to some semblance of civilization. Either way, it was better to get a move on, find out where I was, and make better plans from there.
I chose a direction at random and started double-timing it. No time to think, I had to move, keep my senses primed, and be ready for anything.
It was an hour before that promised civilization became apparent. I could see city walls in the distance, with tall buildings behind them. It had taken me another half an hour before I could count myself as close to town.
It also gave me a better view of the walls. Ten feet tall, made of some sort of metal that I couldn’t identify offhand. Probably some sort of Tinker tech alloy — keeping up with Tinker innovations from individual communities was impossible. The walls themselves were a good ten feet tall, and appeared to have some sort of window built into them.
I knew that there was a word for it, but I imagined that the upper half of the wall was hollow, so guards could stand watch and fire out if need be. The windows had some sort of glass, but it looked like they could open. At least the guards could have protection from both enemies and the elements.
What got my interest, though, were the large double doors that served as an entrance. They were closed, but they looked both massive and heavy. So I was dealing with a community that had both plenty of resources and a good technological base, so I might be able to recharge my teleporter if nothing else.
A ten foot tall wall with the ability to hold troops inside of it suggested that the community had engineering capabilities. The metal for the walls had to come from somewhere, so either they were mining it, scavenging it, or trading for it. Either way, they had access to material resources. With how heavy the gates were, they need winches worked either by manpower or motor, and I was willing to bet motor. Unless they were counter-weighted, in which case they had very good engineers here.
As I drew closer to the doors, one of those windows opened and a guard poked his head out. “Hey, du der! Hvad laver du derude? Det er farligt!” I blinked at the man, trying to wrap my head around what he’d just said. What language was that?
He didn’t give me long to contemplate it before he called out again. “Er du okay? Sig noget!”
Maybe… Maybe it was some sort of dialect of Swedish? Pushing my faceplate up and locking it into place, I cleared my throat and called out to him. “Öh, hej! Jag undrar om du kan släppa in mig?” Hello! I was hoping that you could let me in?
The guard paused a moment before calling back. “Hvad? Jeg kan ikke… Vent lidt, jeg lukker dig ind.” With that, he ducked his head back in and disappeared, the window closing automatically. Strange. There were moments where I could almost make out words, but then it went all sorts of topsy turvy on me. Where had he disappeared off to?
I got my answer a few moments later, then I heard a heavy clack from the doors, and a quiet hum as they opened. I’d been right about the tech base! Two points, Jordan! As the guard became visible, he beckoned me in. This wasn’t simple leather armor he wore, instead opting for a cloth uniform under an official-looking heavy coat that came down to his thighs. That was another good sign; they were organized here.
As I stepped through the doors, the man frowned at me. “Nå, kan du så forklare mig, hvad du lavede derude?” he asked in a worried tone.
Yeah, this was getting me nowhere. I was having just as much trouble understanding what he was saying as the first time he’d spoken. I tried again in Swedish. “Ursäkta, nu förstår jag inte riktigt. Pratar vi samma språk?” I’m sorry, I don’t understand you very well. Are we speaking the same language?
The guard frowned a little, shaking his head. “Kan du overhovedet dansk? Eller noget andet sprog for den sags skyld?”
No clue. There were words that sounded similar. Maybe he was having trouble understanding me? I wasn’t a native speaker of the language, so maybe I was mispronouncing things terribly. I spoke more slowly, hoping he could pick up enough words to at least make out my general meaning. “Kan du hjälpa mig hitta någon jag kan prata med? Jag behöver jobb och någonstans att bo i vinter.” Can you help me find someone who I can talk to? I’m looking for a job and a place to stay for the winter.
The guard sighed and shook his head. That hadn’t been any more effective either. Crap. Both the guard and myself fell into silence as we thought. Apparently, he wasn’t any more used to these sorts of situations than I was.
At least I was getting a better view of the town, even as the doors were closing behind me. Solid construction, from the buildings that I could see. They looked like they used mostly pre-Gold Morning construction methods, while also favoring the spaced-out city planning like New Brockton. Expansion would be awfully expensive.
I noted a woman approaching quickly. Dark haired, dressed sensibly, though her coat was open. As she drew closer, she raised her arm in a wave and called out. “Hey! Vent!”
The guard turned to her, standing up straighter. She was someone of a level of importance. Good to know. As she got close, though, she initiated the conversation in a friendly tone. “Det er helt fint, jeg skal nok tage mig af det.”
The guard’s frown deepened as he glanced to me, then back to the woman. His words came out cautiously. “Sikker? Jeg burde nok indberette det her, måske tage ham med ind til undersøgelse.”
The woman smiled a little, tilting her head to the side. “Bare rolig, jeg kender ham godt,” she said in a more comforting tone. “Jeg tager ansvaret, hvis der sker noget.”
The guard was silent for a moment before letting out a long sigh. “Okay så, hvis du siger det.”
With a happy nod, the woman turned and took a step towards me. Her face was far brighter now. “Hello!” Her voice had a hint of an accent that sounded familiar, but I couldn’t quite place right now. But it was English, and more understandable than the heavily accented “okay” I’d picked out.
“Hi,” I said warmly, though a bit faster than what I’d anticipated. “I’m Tobias! Thank you for helping, this gentleman and myself were having difficulty understanding each other.”
The guard’s posture changed, his shoulders dropping and his head tilting ever so slightly to the side. The woman’s own body language changed, her head tilting to the side and a slight frown coming to her face.
Quickly, though, it was replaced with a bright and cheery smile. “It’s a pleasure to meet you, Tobias. What brings you here? You’re a long, long ways from home.”
Sarah had always told me that there were two ways to lie. Either keep things very close to the truth, or to go as far from it as possible. The latter was easier, because the details were easier to keep track of. It was also easier to recover from a fumble. I decided to go that route.
“Teleporter incident. I’m not even sure what coordinates were entered.” Good enough. “I was hoping to find a city where I could find some work and a place to stay for the winter.”
“Is that so?”
I nodded. “I’m a mercenary by trade, but I’m trained in other things. Metalworking, drafting, computer-aided drafting, engineering, electronics… I’m an orphan, and spent most of my time at the Orphanage taking as many classes as possible. I don’t really know where to start on what all I took.” Wait, crap. A sliver of panic ran through me. She might not even know what the Orphanage was.
Her nod, however, made me relax. “That’s an impressive skill set. We might be able to find work for you, but for now, I think that maybe you should come with me.”
And like that, the panic was back. “Can I ask why?”
She flashed me a patient smile. “Because it’s cold out here, and maybe it might be best to discuss this indoors. I’ll take you to where I’m currently living, and we can figure out what to do with you from there.”
Sacred hospitality said that refusing an offer like that could be an insult. Still, it left me uneasy. “Alright,” I said, motioning with my free hand for her to lead the way.
As the woman began to lead me down the street, I could barely hear the guard complaining to himself, barely loud enough for me to overhear. “Ja ja, helt fint, begynd I bare at snakke engelsk. Hvorfor gjorde han ikke det fra starten af? Jeg kan da også engelsk! Det er fandme unfair, det her! Ja, smut du bare med damen. Så slipper jeg da også for dig.”
Whatever he was saying, it caused the woman to chuckle softly. I waited until we were a healthy distance away before addressing her again. “What was that all about?”
She chuckled again, glancing at me. “Don’t worry about it. He’s just upset that I could talk with you when he couldn’t.” Oh. Now I felt left out for some reason. But she didn’t give me time to dwell. “Your Swedish is very good. I’m surprised. Where did you pick it up?”
“I took a class on it while in school. I flunked it twice before I finally got it.”
“Huh.” She gave me a sidelong glance. “You seemed to cover well, at least. Why did you take so many different classes, though?”
I shrugged a little. “When I was a kid, I wanted to be a hero. I don’t give up on stuff easy.” It was the truth, at least. Even if these days it seemed like the world, and even myself, were conspiring against me ever achieving that goal.
“So that includes learning all those technical skills?” she asked.
I smiled, nodding eagerly. “Oh, yeah. I didn’t know if I’d trigger as a Tinker or not. You know, everyone thinks that they automatically know all sorts of technical stuff, when their passenger only gives them knowledge of how to build their Tinker stuff. I wanted to avoid that trap, so I tried to come up with as wide a skill base as possible.”
“Oh,” she said brightly, looking at me. “So you’re a para, then?”
“No,” I said, trying to keep the sting out of my voice. I quickly changed the subject. “I just realized, you didn’t tell me your name.”
“Oh, me?” The woman smiled brightly. “I’m Taylor.” She paused for a moment before chuckling. “And no, not that Taylor. No relation.” Not that I’d mistake her for Skitter. Far too young; she couldn’t be older than her late twenties, but might be only just a couple of years older than me. Besides, she wasn’t wearing glasses, her appearance was far too average, more of an oval head than Skitter’s rounder one, and she still had both her arms.
Plus, if someone had found Khepri, the entire world would want to know about it immediately. And I would have already been mind controlled.
“It’s a pleasure to meet you, Taylor.” I smiled and bowed my head a little. I was starting to relax again, despite my unease. “Um, though, one thing. Was… Was that guard speaking some strange dialect of Swedish, or…?”
“Danish,” she said with a nod. “They’re somewhat similar, but a lot of folks here never really learned Swedish for one reason or another. If we were in Earth Bet, it would be a lot more common.”
I nodded, cursing inwardly. Getting a job would be a lot harder now. Still, she seemed content to just walk for a bit, and I was content to try and refigure my plan.
It took a while, but eventually we came to a house on the other side of the city. The city itself had been enough to distract me from my thoughts for a bit. They weren’t exactly common, but I saw the long, long cars that could transport over twenty people in them. No exhaust that I could see, so it must have been an electric car.
There were other cars, too. Cars that you had to climb up into, like the cars that were converted into wagons back in the day. Cars for hauling cargo. Even cars that Taylor told me were for hauling garbage. Only, she called them trucks. I tried to file that away for future reference, but it would be hard. At least the term made sense — like two-wheel trucks that were used to move boxes, they hauled heavy loads.
Our destination turned out to be a medium-sized two story house right near the walls, right next to a surprisingly small gate. The house itself was simple, though it did have a nice picket fence around it. I actually had to fight the urge to vault the low fence rather than go through the gate that Taylor held open for me. With a bounce in her step, she hurried to the door, almost bursting inside.
“I’m home,” she called out. “And I have company!”
She’d brought me to meet someone? I felt a small twinge of panic. I’d showered this morning, and despite it being late afternoon here, it hadn’t been all that long for me. But I still worried about my presentability — I needed a haircut, I probably had a horrible case of helmet hair, I had my halberd, rifle and revolver in plain sight… Not exactly the best way to make an impression on someone that I was a peaceful, hard-working man who wasn’t involved in the slaughter of an entire community.
“I’d like you to meet Nathan,” she said as a man entered the room. “Nathan, I’d like you to meet Toby.”
The man who walked in had a soldier’s stance. Solid, sturdy steps; his shoulders squared back; head held high and eyes piercing, almost suspicious. The image was helped by how his dark hair, showing streaks of silver, was cut close to the scalp. His salt and pepper facial hair wrapped around his upper lip to his chin, leaving his cheeks bare. Just long enough to be present, but neatly and efficiently maintained.
I forced myself to step forward, offering him my hand. “Please, call me Tobias. I, uh, I don’t go by Toby.”
The air in the room became heavy, oppressive as the man glanced from my halberd in my left hand down to my offered hand. But slowly, he reached out to take it in a firm, if brief, handshake. “You’re American,” he said in a deep voice.
So was he. From the sound of it, the upper East coast. He didn’t share Taylor’s accent. “I am, sir.” He struck me as old world military, PRT trooper, or maybe even Dragon’s Teeth. He was old enough to fit in any of the above. Best to approach like he was military. “I had a teleporter incident. I thought that I might try to find local work for the winter, but with a language barrier, I’m not sure if it’s possible.”
“It will be,” Taylor said confidently. “Dragon made a program to help learn the language, though the person she made it for refuses to use it.” She shot Nathan a dark glance.
To his credit, he gave her a thin smile in return, taking the prodding in good humor. “I’m not exactly the social type. I have too much work to do.”
“Oh?” I asked, suddenly interested. “What sort of work do you do?”
Nathan fixed his stare on me, looking uncomfortable. Taylor was the one to speak, though. “He helps Dragon and Defiant with the design for the Dragon’s Teeth. Not in a Tinker tech way, but more of the end product. Meanwhile, I’m helping with one of their other projects in the city.”
I turned to her, and she grinned impishly. “Most Earths don’t have satellites, and even Earth Bet has lost a good number of theirs. Some by natural decay of their orbit, but others… Well, we aren’t entirely sure. This is one of several cities that’s combining effort to help them produce new satellites that they’ll launch into orbit.”
That made my face split into a grin. Now we were talking something that I could understand. “Communication satellites?”
“Partially, yes. But they’re also weather and GPS satellites as well. Not every community will be able to link up to them, of course, but we’re hopeful that at least a weather broadcast station can be set up on each Earth.”
I frowned a little, my mind whirling. “They must have been working on this for a long time. Getting people to commit resources like this isn’t exactly an easy undertaking.”
“Not as much as you’d think,” Nathan said with a hint of pride to his voice. “Part of the reason why Dragon and Defiant haven’t been seen much in North America is because they’ve been helping the European and Scandanavian communities and the Earths they settled after Gold Morning. Many of them have been grateful for that help. They also see the value of this project, not only for all of humanity, but for themselves as well.”
“The hardest part was the design,” Taylor confessed. “Since things produced by Tinkers tend to break down far easier than conventionally-produced items, they wanted to build this entirely through conventional methods. Unfortunately, there aren’t many people trained in the design of satellites, let alone ones this advanced. Those who are trained are all rusty and scattered to the winds.
“Dragon is capable, but only to a point. She didn’t have very much information on that sort of thing, so she had to outsource for a great deal of it. Twain, for example, was invaluable to initial designs once they got on board. Most of the people involved were more fascinated by the challenge of producing something that had no Tinker tech components involved in the slightest.”
Twain had some insanely talented engineers, both due to their powers and due to their innate skill. I could completely see some of them eager to work on a project like this, intensely studying any information that could be drummed up on the subject, and then working together for a prototype or two. I only wished that I could be on their level.
“So, the designs are finalized, then?”
Taylor nodded. “We’re about to begin the production phase. Now, I can’t promise you a job. I’m not in charge of hiring, so you’d have to go through the hiring process the same as anyone else, but… If you weren’t lying about your training, I don’t doubt for a moment that you couldn’t get on.”
I was grinning from ear to ear at that bit of news. Yeah, now that was a job that I could tolerate. Building something that would help other people would be much better than just chopping firewood or something.
“Thank you,” I said, bowing my head in appreciation. “Thank you very, very much.”
“You’re welcome,” she said with a pleased smile.
Nathan cleared his throat. “Why don’t you stay for dinner? I’d like to talk to you a little bit. There’s some questions that I’d like to ask.”