“Take all the time you need.”
One of the women had said that to me right after we’d teleported. The words had been accompanied by a gentle pat on the arm before they moved away. I wasn’t sure how long ago that had been. It could have been five minutes, or it could have been two hours. For however long, I’d been content to just stare into the forest feeling miserable, twin trails of tears running down my face.
The fight had severed a lot. Even if they were just under orders to bring me in for questioning, by fighting them I had officially broken the law. I couldn’t go home again. I couldn’t see my family again. No matter what, I was a criminal now. I’d broken, possibly killed at least one Warden.
But my mind wasn’t focusing on that. It wasn’t focusing on anything, really, content to just leave me staring off at nothing. At least, until I heard someone speak.
“You bring any food?” came a man’s voice in a soft whisper.
Food. That was something that I could easily do right now. Even if it wasn’t directed towards me, it was enough to break me out of my reprieve.
I whipped around, halberd in hand. Three of the four strangers had taken off their bandannas, letting me see their surprise over my sudden movement. As an afterthought, I put up the faceplate of my helmet.
“Yeah,” I said quickly. “Actually, I did.”
The tallest woman, a strawberry blonde, rose to her feet, frowning slightly. “Are you alright, Jordan?” She was the Blaster.
“I’m starving,” I admitted as I moved for the duffel bag. “You all probably skipped breakfast, and I haven’t eaten since…” I glanced at my watch. It said 4, so that would put it about 10 AM still. “Yesterday.” Yeah, that was an easy way of saying it. No wonder I was so out of sorts — I hadn’t had a nap and I’d been up for dang near ten hours without more than a mouthful of trail mix that I’d eaten before heading out this morning.
I squatted next to the duffel, pulling it open. Of course I had a huge dutch oven. Opening it, though, revealed a tin-lined copper pot inside. That would work even better. A quick glance revealed a linen bag, and I could tell by the shape that it had some of Chris’ special hard tack in it. And a larger container of water. Perfect.
“I’m thinking soup,” I said confidently. It was the easiest way to feed all of us.
A shorter woman, the Mover, rose to her feet eagerly. “There’s probably some stinging nettles around here. Want me to nab ’em?” Now that I got a good look at her eyes, I could tell that she was Asian. Japanese, most likely, but you never wanted to make too many assumptions.
“That would be great, thank you.”
The man stood, slapping the Blaster gently on the shoulder. “Come on, let’s go get some firewood.”
The Blaster turned to look at him, uncomfortable. “John…”
“It’s all right,” he said pointedly. “Jordan’s making us breakfast. A weird breakfast, but breakfast all the same. Emi’s doing some foraging, so it’s only right and proper that the two of us find firewood. Everyone doing their part.”
The Blaster didn’t seem pleased, but she nodded slowly. “Arright. Our stuff’s safe here anyway.” She looked to me, flashing a small smile. “We’ll be back, big man.”
“Righty-oh!” I said, returning it.
As the two made their way into the surrounding forest, I could hear the man whisper. “At least now I know why that thing is so damn heavy…”
I smiled despite myself as I looked back into the bag. I needed to take stock, see what all I had here. A cookbook, a book on homesteading, some seeds, some sort of corkscrew thing that I had no idea what it was. A smaller pan, which I took out and put to the side. I’d fry up the pemmican with that.
More foodstuff, one of those Chinese trowels. Cloth, and it looked like enough to make a cot or simple bed and a pillow. The padding between everything in the bag would work nicely for that, too. A cup, silverware. A folding saw. I flipped it open, and could tell by the way the metal looked that Chris had done his thing to it, or maybe even made it himself.
There was a small box with a large coin purse tied around it. Both of them had a lock built in, with a key tied to the purse. Given that I didn’t hear any jingling, either both were padded to prevent it, or they were packed too tight to jingle. Or maybe Chris had developed something else — I wasn’t sure. I broke the key loose and tucked it into a belt pouch, more out of habit than anything.
A survey of everything else revealed it to be mostly homesteading gear and foodstuff, along with more of the firestarter and extinguisher. The thought behind it was probably that I’d settle down somewhere and hide out. If only life were that easy.
As I began to get food out of the duffel, a voice gently spoke up behind me. “Is it actually heavy?”
I turned to find the fourth member of my newfound allies sitting against a tree. She’d removed the bandanna from the lower half of her face, but the upper one was pulled down so that I couldn’t see her eyes. I wished I could see her hair, at least.
“Yeah,” I said. “I’m outfitted for pretty much anything.” I paused for a moment before leaning to offer my hand. “Hi, I’m Jordan.”
She smiled a little, tilting her head. “I’m Brenda.”
I hesitated for a moment, my hand still hovering. She must have picked up on my uncertainty, as she suddenly thrust her hand into the air. “I’m sorry! Are you trying to…?”
Blind? It didn’t matter. I took her hand, giving it a gentle shake. “It’s alright.”
As she drew her hand back, she lifted her bandanna enough to show one eye. It was still a moment before she opened it, her body tensing. After a moment, she relaxed, settling in. “Sorry. I can suppress my power, but only if there aren’t other parahumans nearby. Once you get a couple nearby, it’s hard to keep it down. They’re far enough away, though. Barely, I think.”
I tilted my head a little. “If… If you don’t mind me asking, what’s your power? I couldn’t get a bead on you during the fight.”
“Oh, I can see a little bit into the future. When there aren’t other parahumans about, I can see a couple of seconds. But the more paras you get near me, the further my range. With the four of us, I can see about fifteen or twenty seconds.”
“Oh!” My face brightened. “So you saw what was going to happen during the fight?”
“Kind of.” Brenda’s smile turned patient. “I don’t see exactly what’s going to happen. I see… I see possibles. Like, millions of possible futures. Every moment, some get removed and others get added. I don’t always see what’s going to happen, like sometimes things happen that I didn’t see. And it only works when I can see.”
As if to demonstrate, she pulled the bandanna back down over her eye.
I frowned a bit. “Your passenger taps into other passengers for extra processing power, which is why it overrides your ability to suppress it. I’m, uh… Do you get bad headaches?”
“The worst!” She laughed softly. “At least, unless I get around enough paras. Then I don’t have to worry.” She paused a moment. “That’s how I kept more people from getting hurt, actually.”
I tilted my head, then remembered that she couldn’t see me. “Oh?”
“It’s not like I pluck out an optimal future or anything. But I saw the string that had variations that lead to fewer people getting hurt, and took that one. There was still a very real possibility that it wouldn’t work — there’s paths that I have no control over, and sometimes when I do everything right things still go wrong, but it worked out pretty well. I don’t think anyone died.”
She didn’t think, so there was the possibility that one of them had died. Which also meant that there were possible outcomes where I killed everyone. That realization felt like a stab to my chest.
I didn’t have time to dwell on it, though, as the Mover was already walking back into camp. “Brenda would probably be better off on her own, to be honest.”
Brenda shook her head quickly as she pulled the bandanna down over her eye again. “Maybe, but I don’t know the first thing about surviving on my own.”
I frowned, and the Mover explained as she set down a large pile of nettles next to me, gloves protecting her hands. “She was raised in a cult, one of the worst kinds of cults.”
“She means that I’m sheltered and don’t know a lot of stuff,” Brenda clarified.
The Mover smiled broadly, removing a glove and sticking out her hand. “Hi, I’m Emi!”
I took her hand, giving it a firm shake. “It’s a pleasure to meet you.” She plopped on the ground next to me as I got opened the tin pot… only to find a smaller saucepan inside. With mounting dread, I opened that, only to find another cup inside.
“Holy Russian stacking doll!” Emi giggled. “Got enough in there?”
“Probably too much,” I admitted as I began to reorganize everything.
“Well…” She sucked in a breath. “Might not be a bad thing, honestly.” I glanced to her and she shrugged. “Not the food part, since I got some wild garlic and dandelion greens in there, too. I mean, we’re city folk for the most part, taking carriages between towns. We’ve got silverware, but I think that’s it.”
Translation, she didn’t think they had something to hold the soup in. I quickly set out anything that might hold it.
Wait… I looked back to Emi. “Said like someone who knows the other side of that.”
That got a laugh out of the Asian woman. “Yup! I grew up helping Mom forage, or fish, or whatever. I also spent some time foraging and stuff. I may not know the best, and I might be a little rusty, but I’m not completely ignorant.” She lifted her head as the other two began to return. “Unlike some people.”
“You wound me,” the man said, carrying a heavy load of firewood. Specifically, logs, which I probably didn’t need. His voice was deeper and slower than before. Hmm. I glanced to the ground as he walked, noting that he left heavy footprints. “While I may not be educated in the wilderness, nor prepared for traveling in it, but I’m not completely ignorant.”
The Blaster set down a better variety of wood next to me, a soft smile on her lips. “It’s good to see you again, Jordan.”
Oh crap. The panic as I fought to try and figure out how I knew her must have shown on my face, because she laughed. “I’m a fellow orphan. We never really interacted, different circles and classes, plus I’m a good five or six years older than you, but I saw you about often enough.”
“Oh.” I smiled a little brighter, offering her my hand. She took it with a pleasant smile and a brief shake.
The Brute was chuckling at his more normal tone as he moved to exchange a handshake. “Forgive her rudeness. No manners these days. I’m John, she’s Kathy.”
“Well! It’s a pleasure to meet all of you!” I looked between the four of them before moving to the woodpile, sorting it. “Let’s get some food going.”
I quickly sorted out the wood, arranging it on a dry spot on the ground before setting it ablaze. That left me with one firestarter sphere in my belt dispenser. Of course, the other armor also had a belt on it — I hadn’t checked what gear it had contained. That could come later. I pushed the thought clear out of my head.
I added all the water from my canteen to the tin-lined pot before adding more from the water jug and putting the pot on the fire. After that, I worked the top portion of the canteen off — Chris had made it specifically so I could remove the top. It made cleaning far easier, and it could hold soup. Supposedly there was a bit of iron in the bottom to help leech out minerals, but I wasn’t sure about that.
“Stinging nettles,” Kathy observed, frowning at them. “We’re supposed to eat those?”
“Boiling them takes the sting out,” Emi said quickly. “Trust me, it’s good.”
I put the frying pan and pot on the fire, fishing out some pemmican. “It’s a bit more than just that, actually. While stinging nettles will help keep you alive, they only provide so much to a person’s diet. We all were just fighting, so we’re going to need protein to help our muscles rebuild themselves. We need folic acid to help any leftover aggression drain out, calcium to help restore any that’s been leeched out of our muscles… You get the idea.”
With the pemmican on the fire, I looked up at all of them. “This contains meats and fats. Both of which are important to restoring our bodies. It doesn’t need to be cooked, I’m just doing it to change the flavor and loosen some of the suet before we put it in the water. Is anyone allergic to mushrooms?”
Everyone shook their heads. Good. I got out a tin, popping it open and putting a hefty portion of dried mushrooms into the pot. After that came a couple handfuls of rice. I turned, only to find Emi chopping up the greens already. Good gal.
I got another tin out, throwing in a bunch of dried choke berries. “Some people will tell you that all you need after a fight is protein, but that isn’t right. You’ve got adrenaline going. Your body begins to sweat, releasing salts.” I tossed a healthy handful of salt in to underline my point. “There’s a host of chemical reactions going that don’t happen during exercise alone. You’ve got to give your body the raw materials to replace those.”
John chuckled. “You sound like a dietician.”
I grinned at him as I rummaged for more to put in the stew. “Nope. I did some reading, though.”
“Aha,” he said, pointing at me. “Another reader. What’s your favorite book?”
I thought about it for a moment before shrugging. “Connections, by James Burke. It’s about how scientific discovery can be interconnected in ways that have no immediate relevance to each other. Like, how the Library of Alexandria leads to the cloud chamber and stuff.”
John nodded for a moment thoughtfully. “Not… exactly my thing. Alright, what’s your favorite novel?”
I blinked at him. “I just told you what my favorite book was.”
“Ah, no, no. I mean, what’s your favorite piece of fiction? Mine’s Robinson Crusoe by Daniel Defoe.” He paused for a moment, only to be met by my blank stare. “It’s tale about a man shipwrecked in South America.”
“Oh,” I said. Right, okay, I got what he was asking now. “I don’t really read fiction stuff. My sister tells stories a lot, but other than that, I never had much taste for fictional stuff. It was never my thing.”
I flashed him an apologetic smile before getting a small bag out of the duffel. Into it went a full pound of hard tack, which I spent a few minutes beating on with the butt of my boot knife. Once it was nice and broken up well, I added it to the water.
“Huh,” he said thoughtfully. Whatever was going on in his head, John didn’t seem to want to share. That was fine, I wasn’t going to press. Besides, I had more important things to discuss now that all of them were back.
“So, uh, I’m a little surprised that you all wanted to help me. I mean, you know who I am, and the papers—”
“The papers are full of shit,” Kathy said firmly. That got me to raise my eyebrows. “I don’t care if you’re capable of doing it or not, I know your history Jordan. I saw you training, and I know how much you desperately wanted to be a Warden. Even if you aren’t triggered—”
“I’m not,” I said quickly.
“Even if you’re not, even if you got bitter about it, you aren’t the type to go and slaughter an entire village. Even if they threatened your family. The papers are just blowing it out of the water.”
“Exactly,” John said with a nod. “Probably, the reporters pushing that used to be bloggers back in the day. Can’t get someone to read their drabble unless they sensationalize it out of proportion, getting people more riled up than actually reporting anything. And given the huge boost in cred that you got after Agamemnon, them pushing you as a mass murderer is the biggest thing for their careers since Valkyrie almost got killed at Fyrtorn.
“Ignore the papers. They’re just a bunch of rabble rousers.”
I nodded a little as I transferred the pemmican to the pot. The suet had left enough grease in the pan to cook the greens. “So you think I’m innocent.”
Even though Emi was handing me the greens, it was Brenda who spoke up in a quiet voice. “You were focused on what the papers were saying. You weren’t going to say that we should be scared after what you’d done in New Fairfax, but what the papers said about you. That says a lot, you know?”
“Fair enough.” I dumped the greens into the pan and put it back on the fire, stirring them with my boot knife. The knife strapped to my chest was too sharp; I didn’t want to damage the pan. “Still, I’m surprised that a group of criminals like yourselves would throw in with me like that, given that everybody’s going to think I’m a murderer.”
That got a reaction out of everyone. Emi and Brenda seemed to relax. John leaned back, tiling his head a bit. Slightly surprised, but oddly accepting of my assessment.
Kathy leaned forwards a little, putting her elbows on her knees. “You figured that out, huh?”
I smiled at her before stirring the greens a bit more. “You didn’t respond to the reveal that I was fighting Wardens with any concern. You all were prepared to have to fight them for whatever reasons. However, you all aren’t direct combatants — you have no training on how to really utilize your powers for a fight.
“People who are casual, even joking about fighting Wardens, risking their reputations and futures, they’re probably already criminals of some sort. Easy as pie.” I paused for a moment. “Do you all have salt tabs?”
“It isn’t even hot out,” Emi said with a snort.
John spared her a glance before addressing me. “We aren’t exactly used to traveling the wilderness on our own. When we travel, it’s usually by carriage. So, no, we didn’t outfit ourselves for traveling like this. May I ask why you’re so concerned about that?”
I got into the duffel again to fish out more salt tabs, tossing the container to him. “My water’s chemically pure, save for anything that it picks up between filtering and ingesting. Chemically pure water will help strip you of your electrolytes and minerals because it isn’t supplying any on its own.” We learned that the hard way.
“I’ve been lucky to avoid water toxicity, but that’s because I take the necessary precautions. It doesn’t mean that I haven’t come close once or twice, though.” I glanced at them. “I won’t be responsible for your deaths. Distribute them between the four of you a few times a day.”
“Thank you,” Brenda said with a thankful smile. John moved to put the container in his personal pack. Well, we were eating so it wasn’t a concern right now, anyway.
“So,” he said, turning back to me. “Shall we address the elephant in the room?”
I sprinkled a hefty handful of flour on the greens, then dumped them all into the pot. “Why you helped me in the first place.”
Kathy nodded. “Yeah, well… Like I said, I remember you from the Orphanage, and you weren’t a bad guy. And honestly? We might be criminals, but we aren’t bad guys either. Emi here got attacked by an off-duty Warden and had to kill her in self-defense. No going back from that. Brenda here got screwed by her cult and power, so she doesn’t have many real-world skills.”
“I was born into it,” John said. “Bred through and through, thanks to my parents. I would have thought that Gold Morning would have given me a chance to escape it, but trouble simply followed me. The law may have granted amnesty, but that doesn’t mean that people don’t carry grudges. I was dragged back in, if I wanted to be or not.”
Huh. I would have put him in his mid-twenties, but he was talking like someone at least a decade older. Interesting.
“The point is,” Kathy continued, “we’re all fucked in some way. We can find legitimate work in the winter, like with in Burlington, but we can’t just stay there. Eventually trouble finds us, believe me. So we move about, trying to find another score to fund the next move.”
“And you want me to join you,” I said as I got out my portable soup.
“That’s right,” Emi said with a grin.
“That… is correct.” John sounded a little irritated by Emi butting in, but if she noticed, she didn’t show it. “The thing is, I’ve grown tired of robbery and conning honest people. Robbing a bank might give us money to support ourselves for months at a time, but where does that money come from? Do we live based off of what others were going to use to keep themselves fed during the winter? Do we deny a community clean water by taking the money they were saving for a filtration system?”
Kathy sighed softly. “Like my melodramatic friend is saying, you can only use the justification of ‘I need to live’ for so long before it starts to wear on you. A tiny voice in the back of your head nags, and while you can silence it for a while, you can’t quite escape it.”
Guilt. That I could understand. “Alright. But where do I come in?”
“We’re going to play Robin Hood!” Emi said with a wide grin.
Everybody turned to look at her in silence for a long moment, even Brenda, whose eyes were still covered.
After a moment of silence, I spoke up. “I’m not familiar with that game. Is it a game based off a para?” I was familiar with most parahumans, but fictional ones were never my focus.
John shut his eyes and put his hand to his temples. Right, I’d said something wrong. Dangit, I hated when I did something like that. “I’m sorry.”
“It’s okay,” Brenda said soothingly. “I didn’t know, either.”
“It’s an old story,” Emi explained. “Like, way before paras, back in medieval times. Robin Hood was a guy who stole from the rich and gave to the poor.”
Huh. “Never heard of it,” I confessed.
“That’s fine,” Kathy said, a patient smile on her face. “Our idea is that there’s a lot of bad people out there. Folks who got their start when humanity was spreading out. Former bandit gangs, that sort of thing. Or people who got into the drug trade, or worse.
“The point is, there’s still a lot of people who prey on the innocent, but don’t have the morals that we do. We’re thinking about, you know, going after them. It would be good for us, you know? We can get the money we need to live without feeling guilt. Take money from folks who are right pieces of work, who actively prey on other people.”
John cut in. “The thing is, like you said, we aren’t really fighters. We’ve always relied on our wits to do our thing, so doing that is… Well, one could hardly blame us for having some trepidation for going after hardened criminals, after all. We would need someone with the skills to hold down a fight if it broke out.
“But, that’s not the only reason.” He grinned a little, pointing at me. “You have a weapon at your disposal that could help us prevent the need for a fight.”
I blinked at him. “My halberd?”
The man laughed, deep and from the gut. “No, your reputation. You’re skilled in ways that I can’t even begin to describe, and everyone knows it. You’re fearless; people know that much from Agamemnon. And with how the papers are demonizing you, it adds fear and uncertainty. There’s people who believe that you couldn’t have killed everyone in New Fairfax, but there’s still a bit of doubt there. Could you have? And if so, do they dare face you in combat?”
My rep. It wasn’t much different from what Sarah and I had been doing in a way. Increasing our rep to give us the best prospects. Now, they wanted to use the bad reputation that had been heaped on me to their advantage.
“I can understand that,” I said as I unwrapped the paper from around the portable soup. I tossed six or so chunks in.
“Is that bouillon?” Kathy asked, suddenly curious.
“Not quite. It makes for a good soup base, but it isn’t all that tasty when you’re eating it on its own. Combine it with something else, though, and it isn’t bad. Plus, the gelatin is good for you.”
“Fair enough,” she said with an appreciative nod. “Anyway, this isn’t like we’re taking advantage of you or anything. I really don’t think that you’re cut out to be traveling the land and keeping a low profile. I mean, you don’t strike me as the sort to know how to be anyone but Jordan, you know?”
I didn’t, but I nodded anyway.
“So, here’s what we were thinking. We’d help you travel, stay safe, and learn how to keep a low profile in exchange for you helping us. Along with a fair cut of anything we get out of the jerkwads, of course.”
John nodded eagerly. “Besides, you’ll find that we aren’t bad people. I might be older than everyone else, but I’m an idea man more than anything. Kathy here’s good at directing us, but sometimes we have a difference of opinion. And that’s fine; it’s only natural for a group of people to have diverging opinions. Rather than squash those opinions, though, we’d rather debate things until we have only a couple of choices, and put it up to a fair vote.
“You’ll be included in that vote. We’ll guide you for a little bit, until you have your feet under you, and then you’ll have as much of a say in anything that we do as the rest of us. Equal voting, with no one taking you any less seriously than anyone else.”
Emi spoke up quickly. “Also, if you feel like you’re uncomfortable with us teaching you all the time, I’m sure that you can teach us how to fight or something. We aren’t a company or something, we’re a team. There’s give and take from all of us. We don’t use each other.”
John held up a hand. “Now, you don’t have to make—”
“I’m in,” I interrupted as I got a ladle out of the duffel. That shut all of them up.
“I mean, it’s not like I have much else going for me right now. I was just going to find a place to build a cabin and try to survive, but I’m not much of a farmer. And you’re right, I don’t really know how to hide who I am. I got lucky with where I ended up for the winter, but I can’t rely on that sort of luck forever. I’m going to need some help convincing folks that I’m not Jordan.
“And I’m down with taking from criminals. It sounds like you’ve got a good idea, so why not? If you can teach me what I need to know at the same time, all the better. So, yeah, I’m in.”
Everyone smiled as if I’d just made their week. I returned the smile eagerly. “So, who wants some soup?”