I glanced up as Emi landed her jump again. The room had come with a chest at the foot of the bed that was a little high, even for me, but that also made it the right height for her to have a touch difficulty to jump onto. With a nod, I looked back down to my own work; rolling a glass bottle up and down my leg.
“What do you do that for anyway?” Emi asked curiously.
“Same reason that you’re doing that.”
She snorted softly. “So, what? That helps you jump good?”
I glanced at her warningly. “Keep at it.”
Emi frowned a little, and I waited until not only had she jumped down but back up as well before answering. “No. Helping you build up your muscles to jump is good, but I’m more worried about your bones. You’re the one who seems the most interested in learning how to fight from me, so I want to make sure that your body can keep up with it. Doing that causes microfractures in your bones, which lets them become stronger.”
She jumped again, slowly straightening herself up. “So why don’t you have me doing that?” She nodded towards the glass bottle in my hand.
I grinned a little. “You know the old saying, do as I say, not as I do?”
“So, what, it’s bad for you?”
“As much bad as good. Maybe a little more bad. I’m only doing it like this because I can’t find a heavy bag.” I rotated my foot, feeling a bit of pain along my shin. “My old body had a bunch of dead nerves on purpose, on my shins and forearms. It made me more effective in a fight. Unfortunately, this one doesn’t have that advantage going for it.” One of the few things. “This way, I can strengthen the bones and deaden the nerves at the same time.
“But I wouldn’t suggest it for you. My body can handle it, and I’d rather start off with stuff for you where I don’t have to worry so much about hurting yourself. If I had access to a good bag, I’d spend a couple of hours a day kicking it to try and deaden the nerves. I’d still probably do this, though.”
She shook her head as she jumped back down. “So you’re doing something that can mess you up in order to become better.”
“Be happy that you weren’t here when I was beating my leg with my halberd shaft. The good doc would have flipped her lid if she’d seen that.” To be fair, there were a lot of things that she’d probably flip out over if I ever saw her again.
“Hey, uh…” Emi turned to look at me, frowning a little. “You mind if we talk about that for a sec?”
I shrugged one shoulder, guessing she meant the doctor. “There isn’t much to talk about, honestly.”
“Uh, yeah there is.” She crossed her arms over her chest. “I mean, you let Bonesaw–”
“Riley,” I corrected gently.
“Right, whatever. You went under her knife.”
I looked back up at her, raising an eyebrow. “What about it?”
She shifted from foot to foot uncomfortably. “Well… I mean, how do you know that she didn’t do something to you?”
“Uh…” I looked around a bit in confusion. “She did kind of do something to me. A lot of somethings.”
“No, I mean… She was a member of the Slaughterhouse Nine. She did all sorts of nasty things to people. Chopped them up and mixed them together, and worse.” Yes, I was very familiar with how she created Murder Rat and the others. “How do you know that she didn’t do something to your head or something?”
What did Emi want from me? It was the weirdest thing, her focusing on that. I knew that people were like that, but I never really understood why. “I dunno,” I confessed. “I really don’t. But I look at it this way; I’d be dead if it wasn’t for her, and I at least have the illusion of free will. I’m pretty sure that I’m in control of my own actions. So really, what does it matter?
“Besides, that was a long time ago, when she was Bonesaw I mean, and she hasn’t done anything like that since then. At least, nothing confirmed, and I’m pretty sure that they wouldn’t let her run Mother’s Hospital without watching over her, you know? So, I don’t worry about it. Besides, there wouldn’t be a lot that I could do if she did.”
Emi sighed softly, then nodded slowly. “I guess you’re right. Dragon would probably be watching her pretty close.”
I shrugged. “I didn’t see any signs of Dragon while I was out there. It would have been nice to see her again, actually.”
Emi perked up at that, but before she could say anything, there was a knock on my door. “It’s open,” I called out.
Kathy, John and Brenda came in, all of them smiling pleasantly. Kathy was the first to speak. “How’s it going?”
“He met Dragon!” Emi exclaimed excitedly.
Crap. Me and my big mouth. “Once,” I said quickly, holding up a finger. “In Saint Louis, when we were transferring the data from the PRT building.” I paused a moment. “And I kinda-sorta worked for her for a bit.”
Brenda didn’t look overly impressed, but everyone else did. John couldn’t help but laugh as he sat on a corner of the bed, Brenda settling down next to him by his guidance. “You’ve been holding out on us, man. I want deets on this kinda-sorta working thing. Different from Saint Louis, or a side job there?”
“Uh…” I really, really hated moments like these. “No. It was this winter. She, uh, she’s building… She’s making weather satellites for all the Earths. Non-Tinker ones, I mean. Well, not her, she wasn’t the one building them, but–”
“You were making satellites?” Kathy said, grinning from ear to ear.
“Oh, no, no. I was only maintenance, keeping the facilities and the machines of those that were making them up and running.”
John shook his head. “Okay, another lesson. If someone wants to think that you did something more awesome than you really did, don’t dissuade them. You can use that.”
“Like making your enemy underestimate you,” Brenda added.
“Right,” he said with a nod. “Exactly.”
I frowned a little. “So, you want me to lie to you?” That seemed… backwards.
“No. I’m just telling you for future reference. File it away for when we’re conning the baddies.” John’s lips twisted upwards. “So, what’s she like?”
“Dragon? Smart, friendly… She makes you feel comfortable while you’re talking to her. Not… Not like you’re talking to the world’s greatest Tinker, or a computer program. Like she just…” I shook my head. “I dunno. She’s more than you’ve ever think she could be, but she’s so approachable that you just forget who she is.”
I chose to believe that she was far more than a computer program. I knew that she wasn’t dangerous, even if she hadn’t been doing so much for Europe. People might disagree on if it was safe to have her around or not, but I wasn’t worried. Not in the slightest.
But I needed a change of topic, fast. This conversation was making me feel far too awkward. “What brings you three here?”
“Our next job,” Kathy said. “We’re leaving in the morning.”
“But we’ve only been here…” We’d arrived during an evening, then spent three days here, but four nights. What was the right way to phrase it?
“Yeah,” Kathy said with a nod. “I know. But we’ve got an opening. Besides, we still have plenty of money, but we need to put a good portion of it away for the winter. If we can’t find work, we’ve still got to eat, right?”
Awkwardness forgotten, I frowned a little. That made good sense. I was glad to see that they were being responsible. “Alright. What are we doing?”
John grinned at me. “Oh, I think you’ll appreciate this one. Someone’s moving Tinker tech, but they’re claiming that it’s from New Fairfax. From after the whole… incident. I was thinking we could go in and show grave robbers what’s due them.”
Something tried to tickle in the back of my head, but I pushed it down. Yeah, getting back at people plundering New Fairfax sounded good. “What’s the plan of attack?”
“I’m glad you asked.” John put his elbows on his knees, his grin absolutely Cheshire. “It gives us time to practice.”
The thug came at me from my left, quickly crossing the room with his pistol drawn. Was he an idiot or something? He should have hung back and shot me. Even worse, his mouth was wide open.
I turned and my foot snapped up, catching him squarely underneath the chin. I wasn’t sure if I heard my armor connecting with him or his mouth snapping shut as his head jerked back. Surprisingly, at least, he staggered back two steps before falling to the floor.
I turned to Kathy, pointing at the fool. “See, right there? That’s why I tell you, always keep your teeth together.”
Emi and Brenda had their guns out, and Kathy nodded as she joined them in being armed. Just as planned: if I have to engage in combat, treat it like a casual lesson. Which, truth be told, it was.
“Here’s the thing,” I said, ignoring the five other people in the room. “There’s no such thing as a fair fight. There’s nothing fair about hurting another human being, no matter the reason. Defending yourself, taking back what’s yours… It’s cruelty, no matter how you slice it.”
I moved to retrieve the gun off the floor, smiling sadly at the man who wasn’t quite yet struggling to return to consciousness.
“All that you can do is make it quick. Which means making it brutal. The lucky ones lose the fire to fight quickly. Maybe a couple of attacks before they go down and decide that it isn’t worth it. The unfortunate ones have to suffer through the trading of blows, each hoping that the flame dies in the other first.”
Motion out of the corner of my eye made me whip around, pointing the gun at the man trying to edge towards the door. “Please. I’m talking. Robert’s Rules of Order. You can have the floor soon enough.”
“Change your mind,” came John’s voice in my ear. He was perched on the roof, patiently waiting, either for us to finish or for us to need him. “Let’s get to what we came for.”
“Actually, I shouldn’t even be discussing this around you. Instead, why don’t we discuss the matter at hand, shall we?”
I smiled at Habib as I picked up the device. This one was about the size of a hockey puck, much more easily transported. Good, I could live with this.
“That should do nicely. Thank you.”
Habib laughed softly. “I’m just glad that this one meets to your satisfaction. I’m sorry about the last one; I should have realized there was something wrong when they’d quoted me the price. Blocking postcogs does you little good if it’s too big for one man to carry!”
“Yeah,” I said, hefting the device again. “Gimmie the rundown, please.”
“That one will work for an hour, but it requires a complete exchange of lithium in order to make it work. Expensive, but I can get it for you. May I suggest activating it before each teleportation?”
“You read my mind,” John said quietly. He’d yet to go off with Fenix with that heavy bag of his.
“Right. Yeah, that makes sense.” We’d run out of time before we usually finished our prep and activities, but hiding where we came from was a smart move. “Is the field it generates reactive with anything? Radioactive?”
Habib sighed softly before shrugging. “I cannot say, Don. I did not look at it closely enough, I only made sure that it worked as advertised. Would you like me to?”
“Ech.” He took a breath. “It shouldn’t be hard. Thirty Bockton coins and a day?”
“Well and done.” I handed the device back and got my purse back out. Knowing that I wasn’t going to give myself cancer was important.
As I started to count the coins back, though, a thought suddenly hit me. “Hey, John? What did we do with the guns from those guys?”
Fenix coughed softly, and John winced. “You mean, the guns that we found on the side of the road,” my companion said insistently.
I blinked. But we hadn’t found them, we’d collected them from the people…
Oh. Right. I tried to think quickly. How could I reconcile the two statements? Right. “Yeah, like I said. The guns that we took from those thieves who tried to rob us on the side of the road.”
That was weak, even to my ears, but John seemed to accept it. “Uh, we ditched them.”
Great. So here I was, leading people into potentially volatile situations, and they didn’t even keep guns. I sighed softly. Next time, we’d have to do something about that.
Nine guns were pointed at the three of us. All submachine guns, but at least they were all 9mm. That was nice, though I’d like to give at least Brenda an extra with a little more punch. Emi, too. I wasn’t so worried about Kathy; she was a Blaster, at least.
I raised my right hand above my head, but didn’t take my left off the halberd. Kathy and Emi must have done the same, because the weaselly little guy who seemed to be in charge grinned.
“You’re really fuckin’ dumb, coming in here like this. Do you know who we are?”
“A little to the east,” I heard Brenda whisper over my helmet’s earpiece. I was really liking this radio the more and more that we used it.
“Stall,” John quickly said. “Irritate him.”
“Looks like nine chumps who are going to be flinging hot brass into each other if you open fire, at least, going by how you’re bunched up. And take it from me, those leave stupid scars.” I smiled cheerfully at them. “The question is, do you know who I am?”
“There,” Brenda hissed.
“A fucker who’s about to be dead if he doesn’t start talking!” The leader bounced a little, realizing the stupidity of what he’d just said. He’d only asked one question. “Who do you think you are?”
“A fucker named Jordan. Who’s about to rain hell down on you if you don’t lower your weapons.” It felt weird to be cursing like this — it just wasn’t in my nature to do that. But they’d patiently explained to me that the occasional f-bomb could help if used right.
Even with my stomach churning, I hoped that I was doing it right.
The leader laughed nervously. “Jordan, right. Fuck you, pal. We ain’t buyin’ your horseshit.”
I sighed softly, trying to make it look casual. This could go bad for Emi and Kathy real fast, which made me nervous. But, I was told to irritate him. “Wrong answer,” I said pleasantly.
I heard and felt it before we actually saw it. The roof creak and give way, followed by a large hole being torn in the ceiling, and then John dropping through, down through the floor. He… might have gone a little too dense on that one.
But it had a good effect; more than half of our opponents went sprawling down the sudden hole in the floor as the joists gave way. I didn’t hesitate, though. I brought my halberd horizontal, blunt edge of the blade pointing towards the largest cluster as I charged.
The impact was hard, and within heartbeats I was blessed with that wonderful feeling of weightlessness, screaming bodies falling with me. The whole acting thing was awkward, but this? This I could do.
“Oh fuck,” Brenda whispered against my chest, sweat trickling down her forehead. My heart was pounding hard enough to move her head a little with each beat.
I couldn’t help but smile. “Don’t worry. I’m done. Think you can manage to walk back on your own?”
She pouted a little, but nodded. We separated, turned, and bowed to the applause around us. Once our bows were over, Brenda walked off the dance floor on trembling legs. It was good exercise; her stamina was getting better, and I had no doubt that at this rate, she’d be a good battle partner.
Instead of following her, I hurried to catch our waitress, who was showing far too much skin to go out in public in that outfit. How she kept from revealing herself completely was beyond me. “Um, excuse me…”
“Hi,” she said, her face lighting up. “Let me guess, more milk?”
“No.” I paused, then winced. “Well, yeah, more milk. But could you also tell Miss Tease that I’d like part of that package delivered to our table?”
“You got it, sweety.” The woman flashed me a playful grin. I was honestly impressed by the fact that it looked like she was only missing one molar. “If I wasn’t working, I might ask you for a dance.”
I smiled bashfully. Funny how I wasn’t winded, even though my heart was still racing. “Aw, thank you.”
Awkwardly, I backed away, only to bump into someone else. Fortunately, she just held up a hand in dismissive gesture before looking away. Even though she never did, I felt like the waitress was laughing at me as I made my way back to the table.
“Welcome back,” John said with a sly grin. “Juan.”
“Don,” I said insistently. He’d come up with the name, how could he forget already?
He groaned and rolled his eyes heavenward, but I didn’t have time to think about it; Kathy was talking. “Hey, question. It’s cool that everyone has guns and everything, but I seem to recall someone saying once that they had to be cleaned.”
Technically not a question, but I still understood. “I’ll cover that. There’s no good reason for you all to have to try and learn it along with everything else.”
“Thanks,” Kathy said with a bit of a grin. “I’ll be honest. At first I was — urned out just fine, don’t you think?”
“Yeah,” I said with a smile and a nod, polishing off my glass of milk.
As if on cue, the massively overweight owner of the establishment appeared at our table, holding up a serving tray as if she were one of the wait staff. “One glass of milk,” she said as she set it in front of me. “And for you, young lady, a special treat.”
She set down a small dish in front of Emi, then a short carafe. Poor Emi looked up at her confused. “I didn’t order anything.”
“Oh, honey.” Brunhilde laughed musically, a hand over her mouth. “You poor Asian folks are all the same. The first night you come in, you try and drink like your companions. The second and third night, you look like you’re going to die. Now, I don’t think that’s very fair, do you?”
Emi couldn’t help but grin a little bit. “No, Miss Tease.”
“Oh! And polite!” She was ever the entertainer, acting so absolutely thrilled. I couldn’t help but smile broadly. “Anyway! I don’t know if it’ll work or not, but I got to thinking a while back, and I said to myself, if so many Asians are hurt by the alcohol that I’m serving, why don’t I try to get some alcohol that they might be able to drink?
“So!” She patted her expansive hip with the serving tray. “I picked up a bottle of sake, and I want you to try it out. Maybe, just maybe, if you can drink with your friends and not hurt for it the next day, we can make things a little more fair, hmm?”
“Oh, Miss Tease.” Emi tilted her head, smiling warmly at the woman. “You’re an absolute sweetheart, you know that?”
Brunhilde bounced a little, giggling.
John raised his glass towards the woman, grinning. “And here’s to hoping someone hits the right fold tonight.”
“Is that an offer?” she asked in a sultry tone. She was joking. I was sure of it. Pretty sure. I thought.
But John put a hand to his chest and spoke in the most flattering voice possible. “Sadly, it’s not meant to be. The stars have written against us in this forever, my dear. But! Should I find an agreeable buck to share my bed with, I would not be opposed to leaving the window open enough for a wonderful proprietress to watch our nocturnal activities.”
“Oh!” Brunhilde mock-wailed, putting the back of her hand to her forehead. “The soul of a poet as well!” She switched to clawing at the air. “Why must the heavens be so cruel to me?!”
Like a switch had been flipped, though, she pointed to John and spoke in a serious tone. “If you find one, let me know.” With that, and a wink, she turned around and flounced off.
I’d actually paid for the sake myself, and it hadn’t had anything to do with Emi’s hangovers. I wasn’t sure that it would even do anything for them. Other than food, I didn’t have much use for the money that we were getting. Doing nice things for my new friends seemed like a good way to spend it. And I still didn’t know enough about them to know what to get.
At least I could call on Emi’s heritage. Since I hadn’t known where to find any sake, I’d approached one of the bartenders about it. They’d taken it to Miss Tease, and she’d absolutely loved the idea. On the condition that she got to make a show out of it. I hadn’t minded in the slightest. This had been more fun, anyway.
Emi cupped the small bowl, grinning impishly. “Can someone pour me?”
“Just remember,” John said to the three of us. “These ones are prone to violence, okay?”
We all nodded, and he jumped high enough to get onto the roof. I knew that he hated the practicing, but even he had to admit that using his power like this was rather quite handy. Even if we had to keep an eye on the wind.
Kathy, Emi and I quietly made our way around the building to the front door as Brenda made her way to the back, all of us carefully sneaking to avoid windows. Most of the other places we’d hit looked passable from the outside, but this building looked like it was one bad storm away from falling apart.
I hated to admit it, but I was starting to get the hang of it. I still needed John’s coaxing when someone threw us a curve ball, but it was getting easier. The first three times, I’d always ended up throwing up afterwards. Then I started keeping salt on me to help calm my stomach.
This was the sixth one, all within the span of a month. I was nervous, sure, but my stomach hadn’t actually started to tie itself into knots yet. Maybe it was all the practicing that we were doing, maybe it was just experience teaching me not to fear, that we could handle whatever came our way. But as I approached the door, I was feeling… Well, good would be giving me far too much credit, but confident.
I could do this.
I glanced to Kathy and whispered. “Knock, or just enter?”
“Just kick the door in,” she whispered back with a nod.
Fair enough. Once again, I reared back and kicked the door just to the side of the doorknob…
…and yelped in surprise as my leg went through the door, all the way up to the hip. I knew that I always struck as if I wanted to go through my target, but I hadn’t expected the door to be this awful!
“On the ground!” Brenda exclaimed through our headsets, and both Kathy and Emi complied instantly. Leaving me hobbling as I awkwardly tried to regain my balance to get my foot out. Even as gunshots began to ring out, making various points of my armor stiffen as I used my halberd to get the leverage to pull myself free.
Gunshots were bad, though. A person tried to kill what they were aiming at, and rarely wanted people who weren’t involved to get hurt. Bullets, though, didn’t care about anything but the path that they were taking, and we were in the middle of a village. A lot of folks could get hurt here.
“You two,” I said in a calm tone. “Windows. Pick your targets. Brenda, be prepared for people to come out the back.” I shouldered the door, and it splintered around me. Who let a door get that rotten without replacing it? “John, wait for my mark.”
All the fear was gone now. I could already see my charge into the enemy’s ranks in my head. This small arms fire wasn’t enough to get through my armor, and the building looked too small for them to be pulling out anti-material rifles. Get in their ranks, then start systematically taking them down. Easy enough with how disorganized they were.
Yeah, this I could do.