Veles 6.2

“This lot you’ve thrown in with are interesting.”

I looked up at Mom and squeezed her hand gently.  The bridge we were walking down bowed strangely, despite the path being made of wood.  This city was nice like that, having a huge park despite how massive it was.  The park itself was bigger than many cities I’d been to, and had a nice lake that we were walking over.

“Yeah.”  I looked at the skyline of impossibly tall buildings.  They reminded me of St. Louis just by their sheer size.  “Do you think I’m doing the right thing?”

“Maybe,” she said.  “Maybe not.  I can’t say.  Your life has taken so many interesting turns lately.  How can anyone say what’s right for you anymore?  Only one person can, and that’s you.”

I chuckled softly.  “Typical non-answer.”

“Typical smartass reply.”  Mom smirked at me.  “Are you ready for your lesson?”

I rose from the couch, crossing the room to her.  I didn’t mind this house, but it was all drywall and carpet.  All of the structure, the things that gave a house charm and personality were hidden from sight, no matter how much the plush decoration tried to make up for it.

“Yeah.  What’re we learning today?”

Mom smiled up at me, her black eyes twinkling.  “How to escape handcuffs.  I think that will be a good skill to have, don’t you?”

I opened my eyes slowly, a yawn escaping.  The sunbeam was nice, even pleasant, but it told me that I’d slept too long.  I took a moment to wipe the tear from the yawn away and sniffled softly.

“Hello,” Brenda said, smiling in my direction.  It could be hard to remember that she wasn’t actually blind, especially with the cloth over her eyes.

“Hey.”  My throat felt rough as I glanced around.  Only the two of us?  “How long have I been out?”

“Over a half an hour, I’m not sure.  I took a peek, and your hands were rotating back and forth like they were on fire.”  She didn’t sound concerned, at least.  Funny how she only took a peek.

“Mmm.”  I never did find out if they learned anything more about that in Mother’s.  Oh well, I did have something to fall back on, at least.  “There’s two theories about why I do that.  Well, two theories and a joke.  We usually keep with the joke, even in friendly company.

“The joke is that I train, or that I go through the motions of training in my sleep.  The first theory, and the one that I prefer, is that my body doesn’t produce enough of the paralytic that we have when we sleep.  It’s almost enough, but not quite.  So if I’m really into something in my dreams, my body gets into it a little bit.”

“Like a dog,” she said, nodding.

“Yeah.”  I couldn’t help but smile.  “Did you have one?”

“No.  But when I was little, our neighbors did.  For a while, at least.  They had to give it up.”

Ah.  By the tone of her voice, it wasn’t a fond memory.  Probably something to do with the cult she was raised in.  Right, moving along.  “The second theory is…  Well, we know that I have seizures.  Usually petit mal seizures, nothing serious, but still there.  Most people don’t even recognize when I have them, they’re so minor.  I know that I usually can’t tell when I have one.  On occasion, though, once or twice a year, I’ll have a more serious one.  Nothing bad, still, but again.  Still a seizure.”

Actually, now that I thought about it, I hadn’t had a single one last year.  Maybe I was outgrowing them.  Finally.

“So the second thought is that I might have a different kind of seizure when I’m sleeping.  I like that idea a lot less.”

Brenda frowned a little bit.  “Is it serious?”

“Nah,” I said as I made my way to my feet.  “It’s just a thought, no evidence to back it up.  My doctor didn’t say anything about it after Agamemnon, and my doctors back home didn’t think it was too likely, so I’m not worried.  They just wanted to keep the option open because of my other seizures.”

“Hm.”  Her frown grew, and there was a pause before spoke again.  “Little illness?”

My grin split my face in two.  “You know French?”

“Yeah.”  Brenda chuckled a bit.  “Where I came from, there were people of quite a few nationalities.  If we didn’t want to work, us kids could stay at school late to learn another language.  You’d be surprised how many of us chose that.  I chose French because-”

I felt a pressure against my back before I felt a strike hit it.  I was already turning, stretching my arm out before I heard a soft clap in the distance.  I only had a brief glimpse of the woman before she disappeared again — this time the clap was right on top of me, pulling me towards where the woman had been even as I felt a pressure on my back again.

This time, though, I was ready and moving.  My arm deflected the punch, only to be sucked into the void that much harder when the woman disappeared.  Again, I’d expected it and immediately compensated for the pushing and pulling, already moving to deflect the next punch.

We did this sort of weird twisting dance three more times before I caught the fault in the pattern.  I spun harder, my arm lashing out to catch the woman by the waist and pull her against me before her backfist could connect.

“No fair,” Emi whined as she squirmed out of my awkward hold.  “You’re cheating!”

“I’m not cheating,” I said with a grin.  “The problem is, you’re making it predictable.  You always show up where my back is at the moment of teleport, always using that backfist that I taught you.  And we need to work on your form a little.”

She pouted at me, and I folded my arm over my chest thoughtfully.  “I think, after we get your form a little more ingrained, we’re going to have to add some more moves, like a sweep or something.  If someone’s balance isn’t as good as mine, they’re going to be thrown off by the first teleport.  If we can mix up where you teleport, you’ll also be able to keep them from being as predictable.”

Emi nodded, grinning from ear to ear.  “Cool.  Mix it up, like…  So that I’m right behind them when I finish my spin?”

The direction she faced didn’t change when she teleported, so she had to spin in a 180 in order to attack.  A small disadvantage, but we could work with it.  “Yeah, something like that.  I might also teach you a mule kick.”  I paused for a moment.  “Where’d you all go?”

“We did some scouting.  We caught a glimpse of a field, which means we’re close to civ-il-i-za-tion.”  She chuckled at her weird pronunciation.  “Once we figure out where the hell we are, we should be able to figure out where to go from there.  Getting your doohickey recharged is pretty important, yeah?”

“Yeah.”  My hand went to my teleporter.  “That said, before the year’s out, we’re going to want to find a Tinker to do some maintenance on it.  Always bet on Tinker tech breaking.”

“I hear ya.”  She grinned.  “Your brother was always complaining about something messing up.  Or how something wasn’t made right or whatever.”

That made my eyebrows raise.  “You worked for my brother?”

“We all did,” Brenda said, still lounging against the tree.

“Brenda did paperwork and helped that Karen gal.  Gonna miss her.  John did the heavy lifting, but your brother had to adjust everything that he did.”  That was actually perfectly normal.  He did that with Sarah and I all the time.  “Kathy helped out where she could, there was always something that needed done.

“And me?”  Emi chuckled and bowed a little, her arms spread wide.  “I did the sewing.”

“Oh?”  I perked up a little at that.  “You helped on the gas thing?”

“Nah.”  That made her frown.  “That was done and shipped before we got there.  Chris had a bunch of other projects lined up that were cloth-based.  He made a huge deal with the Dragon’s Teeth to get them posted to Burlington all permanent-like.  Made us nervous for a while, but they didn’t pay us much mind.  But he was making them a blade a week, sometimes swords, sometimes knives.  And he also did, like, a shit ton of those water filter things.

“I’ll be honest, I was tempted to nab one.  Hell, I probably could have asked him for one, and he would have given it for free.  But…”  She shook her head.  “It didn’t feel right.  He was treating us good, better than any of the winter jobs we’ve had, and I didn’t want to abuse his generosity.  You don’t shit where you sleep, you know?”

I nodded, one half of my face twisting upwards.  Good.  I was glad that they had scruples.

“It may be crass,” John said as he and Kathy entered the camp, “but it’s an excellent philosophy.  Did she already tell you?”

“Yeah,” I said with a nod.  “Jump.”

John’s shoulders slumped.  Emi was a wonderful student, eager and willing.  John… wasn’t.  He crouched for a moment before launching himself upwards, getting almost a foot higher than he would if he didn’t reverse his power.  And when he landed, it was extra heavy.

“Your timing’s off.  You need to drop your density the split second before your feet leave the ground, or most of your energy is going to be put into lifting your normal-density body.  And don’t land like that; flex the knees, let them bend so that they absorb the energy of landing.”

“Listen, Jordan.”  Here it comes.  “I tried climbing while light, but it wasn’t any easier than normal.”

I quickly held up a hand.  “Your comparative strength doesn’t change as your density changes.  You’re still going to be as strong or weak compared to how much you weigh.  Yeah, it affects your speed, but that’s mostly passenger magic at work.  But think about it this way instead: why do you need to climb nearly as far if you can jump the distance?”

Kathy stepped in.  “Jordan, why don’t we discuss this later?  I’ll feel much safer when I don’t have to worry about a wildling eating my face.”

“Quite right,” John said with a clap of his hands.  “So, why don’t you grab a quick bath and get changed?”

Changed?  “The only clothes that I have is a set of Cultist’s robes.”  I quickly glanced to Brenda.  “Uh, I mean—”

“No, no,” she said quickly.  “I follow.  But that’s not true.”

“Your other armor,” Emi said.  “The new set your brother made.  We made.”

John walked up to me, putting a hand on my shoulder and shaking me gently.  A friendly gesture.  “Listen, Jordan.  I know that you probably don’t want to change into it.  The color’s all wrong, it doesn’t look the same as what you’re used to, and it means…  Giving up a certain something, yes?

“But this armor?  It looks almost exactly like all the ones that you wore in the newspapers.  That makes you more recognizable.  Every step that we take away from thos pictures adds more doubt into who you are, which will keep the authorities off of our backs.”  He sucked in a breath.  “Plus, I was hoping that you’d let me shave your head.  Maybe keep the scruff.”

I ran a hand over my face, feeling the thick stubble.  I was always disappointed that I couldn’t grow a goatee or beard woth a crap.  Shave my head but keep the stubble?  It didn’t make sense to me, but whatever.  He was making good points, ones that despite how much I wanted to, I couldn’t argue with.  All of my arguments amounted to how I didn’t want to.

“Okay,” I said with a sigh, moving for the duffel bag.  “Be back in a few.”

It hadn’t taken me long to bathe — the stream was cold, and I was perfectly fine with keeping my bath as quick as humanly possible.  It was one thing to do it for endurance training, but another thing for when you’re just trying to get clean.  Now, though…

I sat on the ground, staring into the duffel.  He was right, it did feel like giving something up.  Another piece of my life quietly slipping away from me.  The armor didn’t look bad, it just…  It was different.  In less than a year, I’d lost so many links to my old life, and now…

I was cut out of my thoughts as a denim bag fell next to me, coins jingling.  I looked up to find Emi behind me, and quickly put my hand to my groin.

“Relax,” she said, scoffing.  “I’m not interested in seeing what you’ve got.”

With a lazy gait, she moved to the other side of the duffel bag, settling down so that her back was to me.  I shifted a little, uncomfortable, trying to understand what was going on.  Finally, I picked up the bag, turning it over in my hands.

“What’s this for?”

She let out a soft sigh, her shoulders slumping a little.  “I have, had, two brothers, both of them younger.  A mom, a dad, the usual.  They aren’t, you know, dead or anything, they just…  I know that I’m never going to see them again.”

Emi wrapped her arms around her knees, not bothering to look back to me.  “I spent a long while in the wilderness, running.  I didn’t know where to, I just knew that I had to run.  I couldn’t…  They would have thought it was murder or something.  So I ran.  When I found civilization again, my clothes were pretty much done.  I got some coin, got some new ones, but…”

She shook her head.  “Giving up those ratty, tattered clothes was impossible.  I kept them with me forever.  Sometimes I’d change into them to go to bed.  And then…  Well, eventually they weren’t good for even bed clothes, but I just had to hold onto them.

“There’s a lot of quiet pain with us, Jordan.  We try and cover for it by living as large and hard as we can, but it’s not easy.  It felt like, I dunno.  Getting rid of those clothes would mean giving up what little I still had of my family, and I just… couldn’t.  So, I made my coin purse out of my old jeans.”

Emi sighed again, looking up into the trees.  “I dunno.  I just… wanted to let you know that I get it, you know?  Not completely, not really, but I can at least get a bit of it.  The others…  John doesn’t care to see his family ever again, Kathy…  I don’t know if she ever had a family.  Brenda, she’s an only child, and from what she says, it isn’t for a lack of trying on her parents part.

“It’s part of why I’m trying to stick close to you.  I kinda get what you’ve got to be going through, and…  I dunno.”  She shook her head.  “Anyway.

“Your armor, it’s a link to happier times.  I get that.  But…  Chris made this to protect you.  It’s a direct link to him.  And trust me, he was a fucking slave master over it.  It took forever to get it cut, and if it wasn’t absolutely fuckin’ perfect, he’d get all upset over it.  I think he redid your cup nine times or something.  And I thought he was bad!  Once Sarah showed up, the two of them went over every inch of that thing, debating and arguing every single little detail.”

A puff of air escaped my nose.  “Yeah, I can see them doing that.  Fussing over it like that.”

“Yeah.”  She chuckled a little, but it carried no mirth.  “I know I’d give anything to see my brothers again, and I hated them.  I know that you’re probably feeling something like that, but…  They’re with you.  In that armor.  They made it, thinking that you needed something to protect you.  From the Wardens, from public scrutiny.  You’ve got a chance with it, Jordan.  Don’t waste that.”

My stomach churned.  “I don’t know if I can do it,” I said weakly.  It was only a different form of armor.  It was the same basic armor, so why was this so hard?

“Would you like some help?”

“Please,” I said quietly.

There was a pause, and when Emi spoke, there was an air of amusement to her tone.  “Are you gonna be all shy and bashful?”

What?  Oh, right.  “If you’ve got two brothers, then it’s probably nothing that you haven’t seen a thousand times before.”

As she turned around, I made my way to my feet, choosing to stare straight ahead.  It was easier somehow to not look at what she was doing.  Why was I being so dumb about all of this?  She made a point, sure, but it should be easy to just power through.  Right?

Emi’s touch was gentle as she began the long process of putting my armor on me.  It was almost like a second skin, and tighter than it should have been in some areas.  That wasn’t all that unusual, though.  The armor had to be broken in, and would adjust with time and use.  I stole a glance down at her as she fussed with the legs, making sure that the seams were sealing properly, a frown of concentration on her face.

The confirmation that she wasn’t getting anything out of this helped me relax a lot.  Just helping a mostly naked guy get dressed.  No big deal, right?

As she finished my waist, she pointed at the ground.  “Sit.”

I did, making a mental note to adjust the cup a little bit.  Someone else wouldn’t quite understand how things were supposed to fit.  It wasn’t painful, just… awkward.

After a minute, she pulled what felt like a turtleneck over my head until it came down to my neck, where it closed in snug against me.  It went all the way up to the top of my neck, following the contours of the bottom of my head.  The new neck piece that Chris had mentioned, the one that would seal in tight with my helmet.

Now it made a little more sense, why he’d urged me to change.  The Changer must have mentioned his plan around Chris at some point, who had tried to protect me.  Just like Bro.

And like that, a moment later, she was done — the chest and gloves were in place.  I made my way to my feet again, and she moved to put my belt on me.  As soon as it clicked, she took a step back, finally smiling.  “There.  You look badass.”

I nodded once, moving to retrieve the helmet from my duffel and stuff the old armor inside.  I cleared my throat, trying to find words to just fill the air.  “When we, uh, when we go after the people that we’re going after, I may wanna switch to my old armor.  If it’s how people associate me, then it might help with my rep, you know?”

“Yeah,” she said, giving me a thin smile.  “Come on, let’s get back.”

It only took a few minutes for me to collect the last of my gear and head back to the others.  John was the first to speak up, though all eyes were on me.  “There you go.  Lookin’ good.”

I forced a smile to my face, looking down.  A question popped out of my mouth, sudden enough to surprise even me.

“Do I look like a villain?”  My voice was hollow, strangely reedy.

“What?” Kathy asked, as Brenda pulled her headband up.

“I mean, uh…”

“No,” Emi said, putting her hand on my back.  Meanwhile, Brenda was already pulling her headband back over her eyes.

“Jordan,” John said, rising to his feet.  “Listen to me, kid.  It’s like the great poet said, ‘I like not fair terms and a villain’s mind.’  Nothing in this world is fair, and there are very, very few real villains in the world.  There never have been.  And you?  You look intimidating as hell right now, but…

“Okay, see.  Duo, he was a hero for a while in New York.  You’d never guess it by looking at him.  He had this dark costume and—”

“His costume had to be dark,” I said quickly.  “His power drew light into him, so having dark clothes that absorbed light rather than reflect it away made him more powerful.”

John nodded slowly, pressing his lips together.  “Right, so you know about him.  He was a scary sort, not the kind that you’d think the Protectorate would parade out.  And yet!  That’s what they did.  They brought him out, and he spoke at great length about not judging a man by his appearance, by his dress, all in this voice that sounded like he gargled with gravel every morning.

“This is a guy who once scared some punks messing with a lady into wetting themselves, but who was also well known for a picture of a little girl falling asleep in his lap.  That’s…  That’s who you remind me of right now.  This guy who could be an absolute terror, who could easily play patty cake with a kid for hours on end.”

I nodded a little, smiling despite not really feeling any better.  “Thanks.”

John’s smile was wide enough to show all his teeth.  “Any time.  Now, pop a squat, let’s make you a cue ball.”

“He’s just a hint too dark skinned for that,” Kathy said, moving to me and nudging me in the right direction.  I needed a haircut anyway…

“This isn’t a village,” Kathy whispered.  “This is an oceanside hamlet.”

I wanted to argue that, but I really couldn’t.  Burlington was way, way bigger than the town we were walking towards.  There were so few buildings that it barely justified anything.  If there were a hundred people, I would be legitimately surprised and shocked.

The buildings must have all been nice once upon a time, but now most of them were little better than shacks.  Only a few had kept up with maintenance.  This had to be a place settled during the old exodus, when people lost faith in main cities and thought that they could do better, only to find out that making a new place to live was harder than it sounded.

But it was some semblance of civilization.  That much, at least, was a step in the right direction.  Even if it didn’t have a wall or anything.

As we approached, we could see people working in the fields, wearing simple clothing.  I could make out one woman’s shirt that appeared to be more patches than original shirt.  Not a good sign in the slightest.  At the very least, though, they’d be able to point us in the right direction.

As we got into town, a rail thin woman limped right past us, not stopping to talk.  She was oddly pale, given how sunbleached her clothes were, and her face was scrunched up in a squint as she eyed us suspiciously.  Her thinning hair clung to her, plastered on by the sweat of hard work.  I noted another man, just as lean and pale, leaning against one of the buildings, fighting a yawn.  It wasn’t even noon yet, and he was already tired?

Everyone seemed like this.  Either content to squint at us, ignore us in favor of limping wherever they were going, or napping.  I was all for an afternoon nap, but that came after eating, not before.  It just felt so weird to me, like there was something wrong with this picture that I could almost, almost put my finger on.

I still smiled politely to everyone that I made eye contact with.  It didn’t cost me anything, and might help us out in the end.

The sun felt weird on my hairless head as we entered the center of town.  It was John, though, who whispered to the rest of us.

“Anyone else getting a serious Innsmouth vibe here?”

“I don’t know what that is,” I whispered back.

“He’s the only one who does,” Kathy said, eyeing the people trying hard to ignore us.  “But yeah, creepy place.”

I didn’t see how it was creepy per se.  A little worrisome, what with everyone nursing hands and limping, and with buildings in various stages of disrepair, but I didn’t say anything.  I didn’t want to inadvertently say the wrong thing.  Still, as we stood around waiting, I couldn’t help but feel a general unease settling in all of us.  Even Brenda, after a peek from behind her headband, seemed a little uncomfortable.

After what felt like forever, an older man, devoid of hair, approached us.  “Not too often we get visitors.”

“Not too often we have to rely on a random teleporter to hightail it from wildlings,” John said.  Immediately, Emi winced and lowered her head.  What?

The old man nodded, then broke into a smile, revealing snaggled, ugly-looking teeth.  My own mouth hurt in sympathy.  “Well, welcome to Horizon, for what it’s worth.  Where ya headed?”

“New Brockton,” Kathy said quickly.

The old man’s smile disappeared, and he paused to rub at his forehead.  “Well, can’t get there from here.”  What did that even mean?!  “There’s a wagon comin’ in a couple a days, might be able ta catch a ride north, ta Liberty.  They got ships that meet up there, and wagons headed ta other places.”

“Carriages?” Brenda asked hopefully.  She’d spent the entire trip holding Kathy’s shirt sleeve.

“Maybe, I don’t know.”  He took a breath, like talking was hard.  “But, we don’t got no inn if ya want ta wait.  Might know someone ya can stay with, though.  If ya can stand the food.  Or ya can walk.  Makes no never mind to me.”

“That would me most appreciated,” John said, enunciating even more carefully than usual.  Weird.  “If you could show us the way, perhaps we could see what the price of their hospitality would be before we make our decision.

The old man nodded absently and began plodding painfully slow towards some makeshift docks at the ocean’s edge.  Now I was getting that oh-so-familiar scent of salt and sea.  As we drew closer, I finally made out the rows of drying racks set up in the sand, fish fillets laid out on them.  Interesting.

“Tom!  C’mere!”

A boy, maybe thirteen at the absolute oldest, popped up from next to the docs and began running towards us.  As he drew close, his tanned face broke into a wide smile.  “Yes, sir?”

“We’ve got visitors who met with some trouble.  Don’t want to be turning them away if we don’t have to.  Why don’t you take them to your place, see if your pa will house them until the wagon comes?”

The boy glanced to the docks, then back to the older man.  He didn’t want to.  He’d either been working or playing, and wanted to get back to it.  “Yes, sir.”  Polite, at least.  He turned to our collected group.  “Come on, I’ll show you the way.”

The boy took off in a rush, and we had to hurry to keep him in sight.  In a city this size, it didn’t take long for us to see where he was leading us towards, though.  The biggest house in town, furthest from the beach and with either a large garden or small field behind it.  We couldn’t keep up, not while taking Brenda’s effective blindness into account, so he reached the house before us, bounding inside.

“One normal kid at least,” Kathy whispered.

Emi frowned a little bit.  “They glare at us, then get all hospitable.”

“Southern hospitality,” John added quietly.  “Plus, Takada here is armed to the teeth but is trying to be pleasant.  That elder is hedging his bets, trying to show that there’s nothing worth taking and discouraging violence.”

Takada?  I looked around in confusion, only for Emi to move closer to me, almost using me for protection.  “You’re my older brother,” she said in a hushed tone.  “Takada.  Different fathers.”

Oh, that made sense.  I nodded once before putting my free hand on her shoulder.

A moment later, the boy bounced back out, running past us back the way he’d come.  So much for politeness.  Was I the only one who ever took an etiquette class?

In short order, a man came limping out.  Unlike the rest of the villagers, his reason was obvious — his shorts revealed some nasty, deep scars in his leg that made him use a crutch.  His smile was wide, and far less ugly.  Something in the back of my head noted that he and the boy were the only ones without thinning hair.

“Howdy,” the man said as we approached.  “My boy tells me that you all are looking for a place to stay?”

“Yeah,” John said, wiping his palm on his pants before approaching the man.  “Wildling attack made us rely on a teleporter, but she’s pretty unreliable when it comes to moving a group of people.  We’re lucky we didn’t end up in the ground.”  He made it a point to look at Emi, who was dropping her head again.  “Not her fault, though, and I’m thankful that we had her around.”

His accent had changed, more like the people in the village, but not quite.  Weird.

The man nodded and gestured to his leg.  “Smarter than I was, at least.”  Ah, that explained the scars.  “Tell you what, I got two rooms free.  Only one’s got two beds, though.”

Kathy smiled warmly.  “If you let us stay, we’ll gladly find a way to make it worth your while.”

“Be kind of you, miss.”  He paused for a moment.  “Then come on in.”

We followed him in, only to find a nice fire going in the fireplace, with a dutch oven on it boiling away nicely.  The man limped to a cupboard, getting out some bowls.  “Pop a squat.  I got a stool, if one of you will take it.  We’ll work out the price of your stay while we eat.  Name’s Franklin, like the president.”

President?  I didn’t have the time to ask, as Kathy was already speaking up as she settled into a chair.  “I’m Lisa, this is Warren, Rita, Yoko, and her brother Takada.”

“Pleased to meet ya.”

I grabbed the stool as everyone else took chairs, leaving one open for him as he ladled out some soup for each of us.  “It’ll be thinner than what I’d like, but it’s something while we talk.  I wasn’t expecting company.”

“We’re sorry to intrude,” I said quietly.

The man looked at me, a slight grin coming to his face.  “Humble and more polite than my own blood.  I’ll be damned.”  He paused a moment to set a bowl down before filling another.  “Could use some help weeding the cabbages, if you all think you can without ruining the crop.”

“I’m sure we can manage,” Kathy said.  “And that’s only fair.  We’ve had worse deals.”

“Well, better than you trying to pay me.”  A bowl went in front of her.  “We got personal possessions here, but for the most part it’s a commune.  We all share and share alike.”  Typical for a struggling community — when they were struggling together, it was easier to share.  If it weren’t for the age of the buildings, I’d say that this place was only five years old, still struggling to find its feet.

“And yet you have the biggest house,” Kathy observed.

“Been too big since the missus and my daughters passed.”  Ah.  That explained a lot.  “You know, when we decided to head out of Bet and ended up settling here, everyone thought my wife was crazy for lugging this iron pot around.  Takes longer to cook than what most folks have, aluminum pots, but I can’t bring myself to get rid of it for something faster.”

“Is everyone here alright?” John asked.  “I noticed there’s some folks who don’t look too good.  Some sort of sickness or something?”

Franklin chuckled a little.  “You could say that.  It comes and it goes for most folks, but my family’s always had it good in that regard.  During the late summer and early fall, folks get a bit healthier, start looking like their old selves, but by the end of winter, they’re back to this.  We don’t know why, but now we don’t have the gumption to pull up roots and move.  Too much blood in the land, you know?”

“I can respect that,” John said with a nod.

“Well, to be honest, we’re plum stupid for not doing it.  I don’t know why we haven’t yet, especially with some folks thinking that the land’s cursed or something.  Most crops won’t grow, and what will grow, most people don’t like.  I have a hell of a time getting anyone to join me for ‘kraut, or even cabbage when it’s fresh.  Most folks practically live off of fish alone.

“We got it lucky when it comes to wildlings, only two attacks so far, and most everyone’s got a gun.  I got a shotgun, only reason my boy and I are still here today.”  There was a tinge of bitterness in his tone.  I could guess what happened to the rest of his family.  “The folks we trade with say we’ve gotten off lucky, but still.”

As Franklin set a bowl in front of Emi, she spoke in a quiet tone.  “Well, we’re grateful to that man for sending us to you.”

Franklin snorted softly.  “Less to be thankful of than you think.  My boy and I, people treat us with suspicion since we’re healthy when nobody else is.  He’s thinking that if you aren’t safe, you’ll do me in first.  And if I’m doing something hinky to keep me and my boy healthy…  Well, it’s less for them to worry about.”

He set down a bowl in front of me, and I couldn’t help but grin at the contents, identifying them by smell alone.  “Fish and sauerkraut soup!  Well, if it were just fish, I’d probably pass and cook myself something, but this’ll do.  Especially cooked in that.”

Franklin looked at me critically.  “Problem with fish?”

Crap, I’d already put my foot in my mouth.  “Oh, no, no!  That’s not what I mean at all!”  I paused to take a breath, thinking about the best way to explain.

“See, fish is healthy for you, but is low in a lot of things.  Sauerkraut is high in vitamin C, which is important to help prevent scurvy and stuff.  And that pot?  Boiling water in it for a while will leech some of the iron into it, and iron deficiencies can do all sorts of nasty things.”

John narrowed his eyes at me.  “Like what?”  He wasn’t the only one.  The man was looking at me curiously, too.

“Oh, joint pain, headaches, lethargy, hair loss, paleness, that sort of thing.”  I shrugged, waiting for everyone else to get a bowl.

“And vitamin C deficiency?” Brenda asked.

“Uh, scurvy.  Pain, swollen gums that are pulled away from the teeth, shortness of breath, difficulty healing wounds…”

Kathy was already turning to look at the man.  “Don’t tell me that you and your boy are literally the only ones who eat the sauerkraut.”

“Then I won’t say anything.”

“And are the two of you the healthiest in the city?” John asked quickly.

“If you forgive a missing finger and a bad limp, I was just thinking about that myself,” the man said with a nod.

I looked between everyone, frowning a little.  The mood in the room had just done a 180.  “Uh, you all got weird there.  What’s going on?”

The man looked at me for a moment before he let out a bark of a laugh.  “Boy, you’d make a hell of a doctor if you’d use the brains in your head, you know that?”


9 thoughts on “Veles 6.2

  1. Thank you for reading this chapter.

    After so long of not posting on time, I swore that I’d get this one out, no matter what. Even if the last portion felt rushed. This will teach me an important lesson. If I don’t want to complain about something being crap, then I should make sure to take the time to edit it enough to make sure that it isn’t crap.

    Interestingly, I thought this would be a short and simple chapter, but the characters had different ideas. They were content to just sit around and talk, and talk, and talk. Which is fine! I think that some cool stuff happened there. At the same time, though, I also had an idea for the second part that I really wanted to get to.

    The idea was to build a strange, awkward place so that the Innsmouth comment would make perfect sense — I liked that idea. Then the slow reveal that the man’s wife had loved cabbage when the rest of the community snubbed it, and despite it being the other way around, the community would feel that there was something eerie about the man and his son for being so much healthier than everyone else. I dropped the ball there. After some editing, it looks better. Not great, but better.

    The idea for the pot came from the lucky fish in Taiwan. The sauerkraut comes from, again, history. Sauerkraut was on of the ways that they used to fight scurvy — cabbage and sauerkraut are decent sources of vitamin C, and sauerkraut is easy to store on a long ocean voyage.

    The thing that I like to keep in mind is what the average person knows. People don’t really know offhand anymore what their foods contain, or what they need to make part of a balanced diet. It’s surprisingly easy even in the modern day to be lacking in select vitamins and minerals, and we have labels on stuff in order to keep us informed. If you were to take the average person out put them in a situation like these villagers, they wouldn’t know how to properly balance out their fish with the right things to keep their iron levels up.

    Really, that’s one of the biggest problems with Gold Morning. The bulk of the people who survived had absolutely no skills in this sort of thing. They hit up McDonald’s on their way to work, maybe another place on their way home. They drank soda and bottled water, and supplemented their diet with a multivitamin. They had no idea how to rear animals, plow a field, preserve food, or build a house to last.

    I’m not saying this to suggest that we should all learn these skills; in the modern world, living in an urban environment, they won’t do us much good. Someone recently mentioned in the comments that they like the survival aspect of the story because they don’t think that they would survive long in the apocalypse. The sad truth is, more people than not would end up like this little community.

    But let’s pretend that the apocalypse does happen for a brief moment. On the offhand chance that you do pick up some skills while being entertained, and if you retain the memory of what you read, cool. Think good thoughts for me. If you make a nice little community, name it Riticville or something.


  2. I haven’t used pine needles yet, mostly because they aren’t all that common in the area that Jordan is currently in. I have a particular area of the US in mind, though I’ve been avoiding stating it because there aren’t states in Earth Gimmel. It’s much harder to represent geographical locations without them.

    Pine needle tea is an excellent source of vitamin C, and I’m told that the flavor isn’t bad. Nothing like what you’d get in a store, but good in a pinch. Part of the reason why I went with ‘kraut is because it’s something that is rather polarizing; people either love it or hate it. I’m firmly in the latter camp. It’s also has good storage capabilities.

    There’s also plenty of historic documentation on the use of ‘kraut to help fight scurvy. it was used aboard ships. There’s a story about a crew that refused to eat it until the captain started eating big bowls of it in front of them. After they started eating it, the change was almost immediate.

    There’s a lot of cool stuff like that in history that I like to pull from.


  3. Thank you for new chapter, haven’t read lately due to job search (preparing yourself for interview every week is insane), love your world-building bits.
    About vitamin C, Horizon folks can benefit greatly from turnip, tomato and carrot (I wonder if there is something with the soild of Horizon that prevent folks from growing these vegetables?), iron can be supplemented by beans.
    Another concern is immunization, without medical care and things like diapers/milk, pediatrics is a nightmare post GM, it’s a wonder communities like Horizon even exist and other modern stuff like soaps, antibiotics… life sure is suck. I imagine traders will be very vital for communities like Horizon.
    Rereading the story, I have some question about St.Louis, is there a size limit to the effect, because sugar can be broken down when you digest but bigger stuff like paper stay the same, so I got some idea like if you grab a battery from St.Louis, does the charge reset after use, or for direct concern, your tissues now auto-clean itself, unlimited soap bar, unlimited bandages and auto-sterilize syringe. If they can clear out the wildlings, St.Louis would be a fascinating locations for the science community. Just my idea, if the building is pretty much indestructible, can the Warden/DT do something like napalm bomb the whole city, since collateral damages is impossible here?
    As always, please keep up the excellent work


    • Job hunting sucks, I understand completely. I hope that you can get a good one!

      Part of Horizon’s problem is that yes, there are a lot of food staples that can’t grow in their soil, but also that they genuinely have no idea beyond the basics of nutrition. During the exodus period, there were a lot of people who didn’t understand the basics of what it takes to set up a self-sufficient community. Fortunately, as you said, traders were willing to step in for the most part.

      Horizon exports a lot of dried, salt-packed fish, with which they get a lot of their basic supplies that allow them to not completely die out. Some medicines, their fish hooks, etc. However, Horizon was also one of the hamlets that the traders don’t want to do too well, either. During the exodus period, a lot of books were put out on how to homestead, how to build a community. Many traders have little interest in selling these, though, as their profit margins would drop.

      I’d like to pause to tell an interesting tidbit about these books: Tattletale herself used her wealth and influence to commission many of these books, print them, and sell them cheap. There were a lot of people coming through New Brockton to destinations unknown, and she wanted to empower them as best she could. She made a rather marginal profit from this, but more importantly, her long-term profits were incredible as there were more places to trade with. However, her main focus was making sure that these new communities survived.

      She may not be completely altruistic, but she has been fighting for humanity pretty hard. Some people thought that in her interlude she was too manipulative, but she’s a very complex woman. I may have to do some more with her eventually to show the other sides to her.

      As for St. Louis, it isn’t a size effect. Hard drives can still store new information, if you write on a piece of paper with a pen (not a St. Louis pencil) it will take, etc. The way that it works is confusing, something that is still being analyzed by scientists in-universe. They have ideas, clues, but their ability to test is limited by how many materials are recovered.

      As for firebombing the city, it’s been tried in a limited scale once. It… didn’t work out so well. They didn’t get all of the wildlings, and the people who went into the city became sick soon after. The wildlings came back with a vengeance, stronger than before. This lead to a brief period where Nilbog was a prime suspect, but that petered out quickly. He was constantly being watched, and his creations had a limited lifespan.

      As well, there’s the problem that countries used a lot of their arsenal trying to fight Scion. It did no good, and in many cases they knew that it wasn’t going to do any good. But sometimes, even if it’s ineffectual, you have to try. It’s telling that there aren’t more places with radioactive fallout, especially in Russia and the United States.

      Worm was very much a parahuman show, but I like to think that nations still tried to stop Scion, until he wiped out their people of power.

      Doing another firebombing run would mean weapons, weapons that the DT would prefer to be kept in reserve for other things, like Agamemnon. There’s talk of them making another push into the city, though, utilizing the data that they gleamed from Jordan and Sarah. They want those friendly wildlings, both to study and to use as a means of defense.

      For now, however, with all the other problems that the DT and Wardens have on their plate, that’s a very low priority.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Alright now I really want that Dragon Interlude, so many questions need to ask.
        Also about the government, is there a central government somewhere or has Bet revert to City-State type?
        Another point is that how is relationship with other Earths? I imagine with dimension tech, overpopulation is no longer a concern provided that they can effectively deal with heavy triggers and wildlings. With Bet ecology gone to shit, I imagine that people wouldn’t concern too much about stuff like shale gas, invasive species like this baby:
        Seriously, if Tinkertech by some chances got problem, biogas is a good alternative.
        Your worldbuilding is amazing with little details like this, currently most novels do not delve deep enough into issues like this.


        • There are a few strongholds of the old governments, but it’s hit or miss. I’ll focus on America for now, because it’s easiest and because most of the action takes place in the United States.

          The acting federal government is gone, destroyed by a single pass of Scion. The constitution is gone as well, even the Library of Congress. There were plenty of places that retained the identity of the United States, but many of them aren’t connected because they had too much time to assume an independence.

          For the most part, North America is a nation of city states. Smaller villages supported by one main community. The degree that these villages have loyalty to the bigger communities varies — for example, Burlington holds little fealty to New Brockton, despite being within relatively close proximity. (~20 miles in Gimmel.)

          However, especially in Earth Bet, the larger communities are banding together. Boston is considered the capitol of the United States of America now. Miss Militia has been bringing a surprising number of larger communities into the fold.

          This was especially important during the era of expansion — there was a problem with desperate, hungry bands of people raiding other communities. Miss Militia, the Wardens, the DT, and the Boston Army (which was more of a militia, but whatever) were instrumental in helping the nearby communities defend themselves. This helped people fall under the banner of the United States once more.

          The US isn’t perfect in this state; it’s struggling to find its post-GM identity, even as more Bet communities join it. But there’s hope, and it’s finding traction.

          Other realities, however, operate much more under a city state environment. Each community is its own state, and there have been unfortunate battles fought for a variety of reasons. Everyone agrees that these battles are stupid and counterproductive, but they still happen.

          In the new United States of America, the Wardens and Dragons Teeth are accepted well. All communities who are part of the Union gain their protection. Those who aren’t, however, treat both the Wardens and DT almost as peacekeeping mercenaries. The community pays a certain amount, and they get a presence there.

          The Dragon’s Teeth are the more militaristic and expensive of the two, but are viewed as preferable to many communities. Troopers are actually a surprisingly small portion of the DT, with many non-trooper members filling a vast variety of roles within the organization. When a community hires the DT, they get more than just security; the DT will help in the development of that community as that community wishes. it may be limited by various factors, but they seek to help in a much wider range of ways.

          The Wardens are cheaper, but are focused mainly on defending against parahuman threats and wildlings. As well, who you get assigned to your community isn’t guaranteed. You could get a couple of Blasters, or you might get a Thinker or Stranger.

          Now, that’s just the US. France, for example, is viewed mostly as a coherent nation unto themselves. They’ve also lost their cowardly stereotype, their military viewed as badasses once more. Their national pride has gone off the charts; this extends even to other dimensions that they’ve settled.

          India, meanwhile, is more of a city state culture than even US Gimmel. Often, people there hold more fealty to the Dragon’s Teeth than India itself. (This is partially due to the exhausting work of the German general in charge of the Indian DT; he does very little administrative work and spends most of his time going from city to city, village to village, working with the locals.)

          Wow, that’s a lot. I think I’ll let it rest there.

          Liked by 1 person

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