I was feeling good after my shower, but I needed to get more clothes. I’d always packed for combat, never for simple travel, so the only clothes that I had were a couple of shirts, a couple pairs of slacks and some underwear that I’d brought with me from my winter stay.
Still, that could come later. The hotel that we were staying at offered a simple breakfast, mostly just carbs, but that was enough to start with. Carbs were good for short-term energy, but I needed plenty of protein. At least they had as much goat milk as you could drink.
I was halfway done when John came down. He gave a slightly jerking nod in greeting before getting his food. Usually he woke up well, but maybe he slept differently while on down time. Not that it mattered too much — he flashed me a weak smile as he settled down. “You’re always in good spirits when you wake up.”
“That’s me,” I said warmly. “I don’t like sleeping. I like dreaming, but sleep itself… I dunno. I prefer being awake, you know?” I sipped my milk. “Speaking of which, how did you sleep?”
“Better than I woke up,” he admitted. “I matched you drink for drink last night, and I’m feeling it a little.”
I frowned a little. “Thanks for that, by the way. I get what you were trying to do, and it means a lot.”
John snorted softly to himself. “You didn’t even get buzzed from all that. Yeah, so long as you don’t try to get slobber knockered, you should be okay.” He let out a sigh. “Typically, I drink to relax. When I was younger… Well, I think it’s natural for everyone to go through a phase where they think that going out means getting hammered.
“I screwed myself over one too many times doing that, though. Loose lips and all that.” I had no idea what that meant, but I kept my mouth shut. “Eventually, I realized that I thought having fun meant getting drunk. When I switched to drinking just to relax and let the fun come from elsewhere, I was having more fun.”
He paused a moment to take a bite of biscuits and gravy. “Plus, I remembered more of it, too. Always a bonus.” Another pause for a mouthful of food. “And our little Japanese friend will probably be the last one downstairs. She’s going to be a hurting unit.”
“Not surprising,” I said with a nod. “Her biology means that she has a harder time breaking down most types of alcohol. It’s probably hard for her to find good stuff that she can drink easily.”
John nodded thoughtfully before pointing at me with his fork. “Mind some real talk?”
He took a breath. “You’re a smart guy. A real smart guy. You spout stuff like that just off the cuff. But at that village—”
“Haven,” I said quickly. I knew where he was going already.
“Yeah, that one. You knew what was affecting them, but you didn’t put two and two together.”
I sighed. This was going to be tricky to explain. “Let’s say you break your leg in front of me. I can set it pretty well, treat where the bone pierced the skin, monitor it for infection, then run you through physical therapy once it’s healed. No problem.
“Once upon a time, I studied medicine pretty hard. Like, twelve hours a day hard. But the more that I learned, the more that I realized that I didn’t know hardly anything. I wasn’t going to be a doctor, and I couldn’t devote the time that I needed to learn everything that a doctor knows. They cram tons into their schooling, and I was cramming physics and chemistry, along with combat, along with—”
“Yeah,” John interrupted. “I follow.”
Right. “So, I did triage. I cut my losses, and applied the stuff that I needed to know while ignoring the rest. Emergency medicine, how the body works, that sort of thing. How to keep myself operating at maximum. So, yeah, I knew what might be bothering them.
“The thing is, I was so far out of my element at that point that I wasn’t really able to think clearly. I was so focused on myself and not screwing everything up that I couldn’t…” I frowned as words failed me.
“No,” he said, nodding. “I get you. You couldn’t see the forest for the trees because you were watching where you step. I get that. And we’ll work on it — eventually, it’ll be second nature to you. But, uh, is that why you were pukey last night?”
I nodded a little. “I took speech classes, I did a play or two, but… Yeah, that’s why I lost my lunch. So focused on myself and how I’m going to screw up…” I let my words trail off with a shrug.
“That’s fair. I can completely respect that, and it goes away with practice. We’ll help you, don’t worry. Though, I am a little worried about how you went off on that guy.”
A tremble of anger briefly ran up my spine at the memory of being called Jack Slash, enough to make me wince at my lack of self-control. “Yeah, well… That… asshole killed thousands of people, made the world quake in terror, and all for stupid reasons. Heck, he’s the reason why we’re in this spot today. I just…”
“You wanted to be a hero,” John whispered.
And like that, my shoulders slumped like a puppet whose strings had been cut. I put my fork down, unable to bear its weight. “Yeah.”
John laughed suddenly, making me blink at him in confusion. “Jesus fuck, dude. You have no idea, do you?”
I shook my head slowly.
“Okay, let’s fire up the wayback machine.” Crap, John was going to try and impart a life lesson. Why? “Right after Gold Morning, there were a lot of lies going on. With some effort, things will get back to normal. Things will warm up. We’ll see the sun soon. A truck will show up some time this week with more food.
“They were lies, and we ate them up wholesale. But they weren’t bad lies. They were good lies. They were the kind of lies that we desperately needed just to make it through the day. I wouldn’t go back in time and convince myself of the truth for anything in the world. Why? Because we needed it. It gave us this funny little thing called hope.”
He smiled broadly. “We need to believe that tomorrow will be better. And that’s why what you did against the big guy was so important. Why it was a big deal. It’s not just that there was an awesome picture of you. It was…”
Now he frowned, trying to think of the way to put it. When he spoke, he was speaking quietly and carefully. “Okay. We’ve been kicked to the curb for a long time. Things are good, but they aren’t great. For a lot of folks, there’s been this worry, deep inside, that if the Endbringers went fully active again, or some other huge threat showed up, we’d be deep sixed.
“That’s where you come in. If people realize it or not, the moment that you hit the button on that teleporter, you became a hero. Especially the more that they learned about you. Just this average guy, damn determined, who works hard to try and be the best he can so he can help people. Charges into hell without batting an eye. Is about to get whacked, and just gives the middle finger like it’s nothing.”
I was pretty sure that I hadn’t flipped Agamemnon off.
John leaned forward, grinning from ear to ear. “You gave them hope. It might be a lie, but on some level, they believe that we can handle anything that comes our way again. That same lie we told ourselves in New York while we were rebuilding, that with some effort we can take care of ourselves from anything. That tomorrow is going to be brighter. That’s what you gave them.
“And, if that ain’t enough, you had to go and up the ante.”
“I don’t follow,” I admitted.
“Okay, that village—”
“Haven,” I reminded him.
“Whatever. Doesn’t matter. That village, Haven, you’re a hero there. They were scraping by, just thinking about how they need to live another day. And then here comes this guy and his friends, and they casually… Heh! Casually, seriously. This guy casually tells them all sorts of stuff that they can easily do to make their lives better.
“Just off the cuff, too. Like it’s the most normal thing in the world. ‘Oh, here’s a few sources of vitamin C. Here’s how you get some iron in your diets. Here’s how you make lye. And with lye, here’s how you can make this.’ Just bam, bam, bam. And what’s he want in return? Three hots and a cot.”
I shrugged. “It didn’t feel right asking for more.”
“No,” John said solemnly. “I’m right there with you. It’s one thing to take from people with full coffers, but another thing to take from folks who’re hurting. Even if they’re offering. I’m not… I’m not the best of people, but I’m human. I’m not an asshole. To you and me? Hell, to all of us? Just asking for basic hospitality was right. Anything else would have been wrong.
“But to them? That’s a heroic act, right there.”
“I guess,” I said, picking my fork back up. I needed to change the subject, though. I was getting a little uncomfortable over all this talk. “Mind if I get a little personal?”
John shoveled half a gravy-sodden biscuit in his mouth, motioning for me to go ahead.
“How’d you get into this business anyway? You seem like a smart guy who could do anything. Why this?”
That made him smile sadly. “Because amnesty doesn’t remove memories.” He sipped his milk. “Okay, listen. That thing we did yesterday, last night, whatever? It means good in the short term, it may even cripple them, but I doubt it. However, I do know that in the long term, it doesn’t amount to shit. No matter what, people are going to want drugs, and someone is going to provide them.”
John shrugged one shoulder a little. “Back before GM, every level of life wanted drugs. From the lowest of street gangs to the highest of politicians. Most of them was doing something. And brother, let me tell ya, if you knew how many big-name capes needed their smack, you wouldn’t believe me.
“My parents dealt to the people on high, but got from the people down low. But do you have any idea how expensive a three bedroom condo in NYC was? Especially when you have to play yourself as a socialite to maintain your customers? It was insane, so they had to run cons. And I got dragged in. A family business, if you will.
“But the joy ran out after Gold Morning when the drugs ran out. My parents couldn’t find a good supplier, and people wanted their fix. And people would inevitably put more and more pressure on them until it was impossible. Or, because we knew about their dirty little secret, they were watching us close to make sure we didn’t blab about it to anyone.”
He shook his head. “Believe it or not, we did try. Several times, we all tried to go legit. I even helped build the bridge that crosses the Jersey Chasm. Well, the third one, anyway. But someone always seemed to fuck with us in the end, and we’d lose our jobs. And when the food ran out…”
John leaned back in his chair, looking up at the ceiling. “It’s funny. Before the war, nobody thought about where food comes from, you know? We all knew it came from a farm. We didn’t realize that those were co-ops who owned the farms or bought the food from the farmers and distributed it across the nation. We just went to the store and bought it.
“And at first, we were all good. We were focused on rebuilding, trying to restore sanity to our lives. Stores still had food. Most of it canned, but whatever. Sure, the days were getting colder and the sun didn’t come out very often, but whatever. We shoved our heads so far into the sand that we never even thought about it.
“We didn’t know about the Movers helping to ensure that there were supplies of food coming into the city. And that those supplies were quickly running out across the nation. And that new crops were having a harder and harder time growing. We didn’t know that. We just knew that food would be in the store. Until it wasn’t.
“I mean, it wasn’t all at once. It was select things selling out pretty quick at first. Then more and more became a special treat. And one day you suddenly realize that you’re standing in a line to buy a sack of flour. And somehow, somehow you completely failed to realize that it was happening, because you were so intently focused on your narrow little world.”
He looked back at me with a sad smile and a shrug. “My parents are scum, and I know it. Their first instinct will always be to get what others have, and when food got scarce, they used every method possible to get it. And, like it or not, I was along for the ride simply by being their son, you know? Even if I didn’t participate, people would believe because I was living under their roof.”
“Guilt by association,” I said, nodding. I was familiar with it from both my law classes and my Parahuman Ethics classes.
“Exactly.” John sighed softly. “By the time I cut all ties and made my way to the ruins of Brockton Bay, I’d pretty much given up. There were warrants out for my arrest, and even if I did clear my name, nobody would trust me. So I decided, fuck it. If I’m gonna be scum like my parents no matter what I do…” He paused to flash me a wry grin. “Then I might as well enjoy it.”
I could see it. As horrible and terrible as it was, I could see exactly how all that would go down. Some of my classes, especially my ethics classes, spoke quite freely about not letting situations like that exist. And if they felt the need to teach it, then it must have come up from somewhere.
I was glad, though, that the breakfast hall was empty. I doubted that we could have had this talk if people had been sulking about. Still, I might be glad for the chance to get to talk to John alone, I was happy to have the sermon completely out of the way. At least I got to learn more about him in the process, though.
“So,” I said, feeling like it might be a good time to change the subject. “What’s the plan?”
John smiled warmly. “The plan, good sir, is to wait for the girls to get up and awake, then head over to talk to Habib and some of my contacts. We can stay here for a while, but I’d prefer to have another job lined up before we run out of money.”
I nodded slowly. “Alright, that makes sense. Do you think I have some time to do some shopping?”
He raised a slow eyebrow, that smile on his face. “What is your desire?”
“Clothes. I might pick up another robe. Also, I need to keep my protein levels high, so I’m gonna need some meat.”
John rather quickly took his money purse off his belt. “If you pick me up some, too, I’ll gladly buy you a whole fucking wardrobe.”
I didn’t get a wardrobe, but I did snag myself a few more shirts and a change of pants. I was slowed down, not by the clothes themselves but by the cultist’s robes. The clerk had asked what I studied, and it lead into a bit of a discussion about Armsmaster and his involvement with the growth of Taylor. That, in turn, sparked a debate between the clerk and another cultist on how much emphasis should be given to studying those who had spent a lot of time in close proximity to her.
I stayed out of it, but they raised some interesting points. Just studying reports and interviews wouldn’t necessarially give one a good idea as to the full impact that an individual had on the formation of Khepri. For example, it was well-known now that Skitter had briefly been in a relationship with Grue, but understanding his mindset and history might give a better understanding of why Skitter became Weaver.
It was an interesting thought. I knew that Skitter had been the cause of Armsmaster’s fall from grace. That lead to him becoming Defiant, and as Defiant, he tried to work towards redemption by helping her after she became Weaver. But was there something more going on? How much influence did she have on him?
It was too deep for me, though. Just trying to get into Defiant’s head was hard without trying to get into someone else’s. I made as hasty of a retreat as I could before they dragged me into the debate.
Now, John, Kathy, Brenda and I were walking through town. John had a backpack on that looked pretty heavy. Maybe they were thinking about doing some bartering? Or was he getting rid of gear that he didn’t need any more?
“Angle,” Kathy whispered to me. “Your name is Don Ortega. Habib won’t ask too many questions — that sort of thing is bad for business. His main job is fixing Tinker stuff that you might not want to take to the average Tinker, but he also has a heavy hand in securing devices for others.”
“What’s his specialty?” I asked.
“Nobody knows, not even him. But it’s close enough to repairing the work of others that he can almost always do it to the exact original specs. Just be warned, don’t try and haggle. He’ll undercut your offer, but in the future he might claim to be too busy to help you. Don’t tip him, either. He’s a stickler about deals; once an agreement is made, he expects both parties to adhere to it, both spirit and letter.
“We’ve sold stuff to him in the past, so we have a good working relationship. I don’t want to screw that up.”
I nodded a little. “Should, uh… Should you take the teleporter, then?”
She shook her head. “No, it’s good for you to get some practice in. We’ll be right there to help you. Just be firm, explain what you want clearly and exactly. And be prepared to stick to whatever agreement is made. Nothing to worry about except for the name, alright?”
My gut tightened, but I nodded. Fortunately, she didn’t press the issue and let us make the rest of the trip in silence.
It wasn’t long before we reached our destination. The large brick building wasn’t anywhere near the other shops, and the only advertisement was a faded painting above the door that read Crashed Phoenix Outfitters. Not the sort of shop that I’d give a second glance on the average.
Not that the interior was much better. It almost looked like a pawn shop, full of random crap in glass cases. The balding man behind the counter snubbed out his cigarette as he smiled at us. A smile that quickly doubled in size.
“John,” he boomed in a deep voice. “How are you, you fucking bastard?”
“Can’t complain, you old Morlock.”
“How are you, Fenix?” Kathy asked, stepping forward.
“Ah, Kath. My favorite moll!” John looked pleased by Fenix’s word choice. “The leg’s still shit, but I can’t complain. Where’s Emi? And who are the newbies?”
Kathy guided Brenda up to the counter, giving her a small nudge. More than happily, she offered her hand. “Brenda. They’ve told me all about you, Mr. Fenix.”
Well, I was glad they told someone about this place, at least.
“Emi had a bit too much to drink last night,” John said, putting his pack on the counter top. “And our friend here was hoping to meet with Habib.”
Fenix pressed a button as I crossed the room. We shook hands briefly. “Don,” I said. “And, uh, I missed when they were talking about you.”
Fenix snorted. “Honest one, aren’t you?”
“More like quietly jabbing me for talking while he’s napping,” John said with a lopsided grin. “How’s business?”
“Eh, could be better, could be worse.” Fenix folded his arms. “I’ve got a few new places to sell to, but a few of the old ones are a bit hard up for cash. Fortunately, I haven’t seen anything cross my hands twice.” He paused to grin. “Yet.”
A man with skin about the same color as mine and a beard came out of a door in the back, a wide smile on his face. Okay, that had to be him. Do or die time. I didn’t wait for introductions, I simply moved to the counter closest to the man. “You must be Habib.”
The man looked me over for a moment before smiling widely. “And you are the famous Jordan. What can I do for you?”
The temperature in the room hit freezing in the span of a heartbeat. I was pretty sure that Habib was the only one breathing for a moment as we all stared at him. Fortunately, he broke the tension by laughing.
“I have never forgotten a face yet, and I never will! I was at the secondary line against Agamemnon, helping the Dragon’s Teeth make sure their gear was ready to unleash firepower untold against the monster, free of charge. You are someone that I have paid close attention to, yes? I don’t care if you’re guilty or innocent, I’m pleased to help you.
“Don’t worry, though. Telling people who you are and that I saw you is bad for business. I will give you a discount for an autograph, though.”
“Oh, uh…” I smiled bashfully. “It was, um, it was nothing.”
“And modest!” He laughed again, shaking his head. “I like that.”
I was supposed to play nice. Okay. I took a breath. “I’ll gladly take that discount, though.”
“Excellent!” He clapped his hands. “What is it that you need?”
“First off, call me Don.” As I worked to get the teleporter unclipped from my belt under my robes, I noted idly that John was all but ushering Fenix through another door, taking the pack with him. Probably running damage control, trying to make up for someone recognizing me.
“I need basic maintenance done,” I said quickly as I set it on the counter. “The usual. Make sure I don’t end up needing a surgeon again. I’m pretty sure that I won’t make it out of the hospital this time.”
“Mmm.” Habib picked it up, turning it this way and that in his hands. “I recognize the basic design. I’ve only ever seen one like it before, but you never forget a fine piece like that. No buildup of dust or grime, which is a good thing. It looks like you’ve taken good care of it.”
Not really? I’d tried to avoid touching it if I could help it. I was pretty sure that I hadn’t touched it once all winter.
“With the autograph, I will do it for 300 New Brockton coin, if there isn’t anything too exotic that I have to do to the inside. It shouldn’t take me more than a day.”
A month’s pay for the average New Brokton citizen? Not the best price for basic maintenance. On the other hand, it wasn’t a bad price, either, especially if his clientele preferred secrecy.
“Done,” I said with a nod.
He reached across the table to take my hand and give it a firm shake before I could even begin reaching for my coin purse. “Well and done.” He was practically beaming.
Maybe I could push it further, then. “They tell me that you can also get Tinker-made gear and supplies.”
“Oh,” Habib said with a sly grin. “I can get most things for you. What is it that you need?”
“I’m looking for a Precog Interference Device. I’m also in the market for some elixirs. Basic healing, maybe a bone restorer, or muscle restorer. Something to help out with recovery after a brutal workout, or maybe a fight if it comes to it.”
“Hm.” Habib thought it over for a moment. “The Wardens are really hunting for sources of a PID. You might as well be asking for a titanium bungee cord, they’re both about as hard to get.” He thought again. “It should take me two days, three grand.”
That was a fair price for something like that in my mind. “Alright.”
“As for the elixirs, come back tomorrow. I make no promises, but I should come up with a lead by then, if I can get it at all. Of course, I could be convinced to lower the price for both the elixirs and the PID if you were to get me something that your brother had made, perhaps?”
I shook my head. “It wouldn’t do you any good. It doesn’t spark anything in Tinkers, they’d probably have to see his workshop to get ideas, and if I knew that someone was going to break into his workshop, I’d head there myself to physically dissuade them.”
“Ah, a pity.” Habib didn’t sound too surprised by it, though. “Still, you can’t blame a Tinker for trying. Come back again to pick up your teleporter and I’ll let you know if I can get what you’ve requested and a final price quote.”
That made me smile. “Excellent. Then do you have a pen and a pice of paper?”