The baby smiled up at me and cooed, making my heart melt a little bit. I couldn’t help but grin, despite my fear of hurting her. I didn’t have much experience with babies, so I was always horribly paranoid about doing something wrong.
“She’s adorable. And her grip is so strong!”
Jim smiled, but still glanced nervously to Tiffany, his wife. “I know, it surprised me, too.”
Really, for a little pudgy thing that had absolutely no muscle mass, her strength really was surprising. I shook my finger a little, and she clamped down that much harder. Could all babies do this? Or was I looking at a future grappler?
“Don,” Emi said pleasantly behind me. “I think it’s time.”
I wasn’t wearing my helmet, having switched out to mostly normal clothes. I was still armed, but nobody was batting an eye over the pistol and knife — apparently a month ago they’d had to fight off a pack of wildlings.
Slowly, I handed the little girl back to Tiffany. “Is she healthy?”
The tired woman smiled a little. “I’m pretty sure she is, yeah. We have a doctor, but he only comes through once a month or so. She’s gotten a rash, but…”
I nodded, glancing to Jim. “Give him a little extra when he comes through to try and encourage him to stop by more often. I’ll reimburse you.” My arms free, I reached out to put a hand on his shoulder and met his gaze. “I take care of those who work with me. Don’t worry.”
The man smiled, but his nervousness wasn’t going down any. “Thanks, uh, Don.”
I nodded and gave them a wave before moving to Emi. She seemed more than happy to lead me out of the building.
We only made it half a dozen feet before she glanced up at me. “They work for you, not with you.”
I sighed softly. “Right. Sorry.”
“Hey it’s fine. I get it, I really do.” She grinned. “You’re used to partnerships, not having authority and junk. I get that. But remember, you’re a billy badass now. You gotta play the part.”
I shook my head. “Yeah. And I get the feeling that what I did wasn’t the best received.”
Emi shrugged dramatically. “John isn’t fond of it, but what the fuck does he expect? He knows better than to cut you out of the loop. Us whispering in your ear is what keeps you from puking during those things. The fact that you came up with that on your own? I’m pretty prouda you for that.”
“Thanks.” I wanted to change the topic before she started heaping the praises on me. “You know, it’s funny. When I first met you all, I guessed that Kathy was the leader, but John seems to push a lot.”
“Well, we’re democratic, but yeah, Kathy is our leader, I guess. She gives us direction, and when something doesn’t need a vote, she says it. Thing is, John has more experience than all of us on this, and he’s a really good idea guy. When they bash their heads together, they can come up with a good plan really quick.”
I could believe that. They seemed to be really quick-witted. It was a pity that they were criminals — they’d both make really good Wardens. Actually, everyone here would make good Wardens.
We were silent for a long time before Emi spoke again. “So, what do you do for fun?”
For fun? “Uh, I train, mostly.”
“No, no,” she said with a laugh. “I get that. But I mean, like, when you’re not training? What do you do to just enjoy yourself?”
“Well,” I said hesitantly. “I like swimming a lot…” I paused. “No, not really. Sarah does this thing where she’ll use her power to launch me into the air when we go swimming. It’d be like using a diving board or a swing or something, but I enjoyed going both up and down. The swimming itself wasn’t really interesting to me. That’s honestly what I enjoy about swimming. Other than a safe way to land, I could care less about the water.”
Emi was silent for a moment, and when she spoke, her words were cautious. “You like the feeling of flying?”
I couldn’t help but grin. “Oh, I always wanted… I wanted a power that would let me fly. I always liked that weightless feeling of being in the air. It always frustrated me when I’d have to come back down.” I laughed a little. “When I was a little kid, I’d spend forever jumping in place, just to feel that for a few moments.”
I’d actually done a little of that again recently, now that my knee was alright.
“I can totally see that,” she said with a giggle. “With this happy smile on your face, too.”
I ducked my head a little. Actually, if I hadn’t looked down like that, I wouldn’t have noticed the subtle shift in her body language. That little bit of hesitation…
“Say… Uh, have you been getting enough sleep?”
I blinked at her. That was an odd question. “No more or less than usual. Why?”
Emi shrugged, not looking at me. “Those bags under your eyes have been getting worse. I was just thinking that maybe you weren’t sleeping enough. I mean, it seems like you don’t get hardly any sleep to me. I was just worried that between you training us and us teaching you, you might be burning candles at both ends.”
This was getting weird. “I like feeling well-rested, but I don’t like actual sleep. There’s always something more that I could be doing instead of sleeping, so it feels like a waste of time.” Better to change the subject again. “But I think that you’re the only one who enjoys learning from me?”
“Shit yeah!” Emi laughed suddenly, moving ahead of me so that she could walk backwards while looking at me. “Its fun, and I feel absolutely badass now. Like I could become the queen bitch of the universe or something.”
I grinned a little. “Bitch might have a problem with that.”
Her smile dropped instantly. “Point. I don’t wanna tangle with her in a dark alley. Or a bright room. In fact, let’s just avoid being in her general area at all.”
“Good idea,” I said with a smirk.
As Emi moved to walk beside me again, she focused on something distant. “It’s kinda funny, to be honest. Once upon a time, I was so cautious. If something was against the rules, I couldn’t imagine doing it. Now… The idea of tangling with people excites me.” She glanced up at me. “Do you think that triggering changed me or something?”
Oh, boy. This was a minefield. “There… can be some rewiring of a person’s brain when they trigger. Thing is, most people, when they hear that, they think that they’ve been brainwashed by their passenger. But, at least according to some of the paras who are good at knowing this kind of thing, that’d kinda defeat the purpose.
“See, passengers apparently sometimes ride with people, figuring out if they’d be a good para. They spend time studying people, trying to figure out who would be a good match for them. It would defeat the point if they made the para into whatever they wanted. They nudge a person in the direction that they’d like, but for the most part, they’re looking for free agency. We think that they’re also looking for human creativity. So they ride with, analyze, and then decide or move on.”
Emi frowned. “But what about broken triggers?”
“Heavy triggers,” I said insistently.
“Whatever,” she said grumpily. “The ones that bounce from person to person.”
“Heavy triggers are different, yeah. There’s still an awful lot that we don’t understand. However, we think that those passengers might have been wounded in the fight with Scion, or that they’ve been corrupted by the lack of Scion’s influence.
“Anyway, back on topic. Do I think that it changed you? Maybe, a little bit. But from what I know about how you triggered… Listen, everyone goes through self-evolution. John will go through fewer changes over time than you or me, but that’s because of his age. Even still, he’s going to change over time. You were just hitting the age where people tend to go through a lot of mental and emotional changes. On top of that…”
I sighed softly. “Someone trying to kill you, that does a number on you. It changes you as a person. And you said that you spent time just out wandering around on your own? You have to change in order to survive. You’re going from a lifestyle where you can survive with your family, maybe going to school, maybe doing a job where you can buy food to put on your plate.
“Suddenly, you’re having to fend for yourself. Running from wildlings, scavenging, having to care for yourself… That isn’t easy. You have to change, adapt. And when you get back to civilization, some of those changes are going to stick.
“So is there some changes made by your passenger? Yeah, sure. Either from the moment that you triggered, or by select conditioning, there’s changes. But I think that the sort of changes that you’re thinking about, the ones that you notice… I think those are just the new you.” I smiled at her. “I like this you.”
“I like this me, too.” That was a relief to hear. I found that a lot of people had problems simply because they couldn’t just appreciate being who they were. “I like the way that you are, too. Usually, people who are all fighty always seem to need to prove it to everyone.”
“Why would I want to do that?” I asked with a laugh. “I get it, most people need to feel validated or whatever, but that’s not going to happen for me anymore. And I didn’t learn to fight for myself.”
“If you didn’t learn to fight for yourself, then why learn?” She interrupted quickly, suddenly grinning fiercely. “No, wait, I got it. You triggered with the core of Scion so you learned martial arts to teach yourself self-control so he’d never ever get loose and terrorize humanity again!”
That got a laugh out of me. “I don’t quite think that it works like that.”
She giggled madly, her eyes glittering. It didn’t take her too long to calm down. “Honestly, though, you remind me more of the Dragon’s Teeth than anything. All discipline and control and shit.”
That was a little odd, but it didn’t matter. “You associate me with a soldier? Yeah, I can see that. It’s kinda true, in a way. I’ve always seen myself as kinda a soldier in the fight between good and evil, as cheesy as that sounds. The line drawn in the sand, you know?”
John suddenly stepped into view, grinning. Had we gotten so close so quickly? “I’m trying to imagine you in wizard robes shouting ‘You shall not pass.’ I think it’d work better without the wizard robes.”
“I dunno,” Emi said, scratching at her cheek. “I could see him with a lot of tricks up his wizard sleeves.”
“Does a shotgun count as a trick?” I heard Kathy’s voice say. We rounded the corner and there she was, standing with Brenda.
“I don’t own a shotgun,” I muttered softly.
“You don’t have any wizard robes either.”
I nodded, a slight frown on my face. She made a good point.
“Hey,” Emi said, looking back at me. The four of them were suddenly a good ten feet away, looking back at me curiously. “You coming?”
“Yeah, yeah.” I picked up my pace, hurrying to catch up. “Sorry. I got lost in thought.”
“What’s on your mind?” Brenda asked, tilting her head towards me.
John barked a single laugh. “Knowing him? Trying to figure out how to make a hold-out shotgun that could fit inside the robes of a wizard’s sleeve.”
“Just a tube three-fourths of the forearm long and a squeeze that will allow the primer to be hit on the shell,” I said quickly. “It’s a fairly simple process. It wouldn’t be that heavy, but getting it into your hand would be tricky. And your hand would sting like hell afterwards, if it didn’t rip the tube out of your hand and smack you in the face.”
I realized that three of them were staring at me a little oddly. Brenda looked oddly smug, though.
John turned to Kathy. “You know, he has cultist’s robes.”
“I know a gunsmith in Barton,” she said thoughtfully. “He could probably set something up on the cheap.”
“Uh,” I said, feeling a little weirded out.
“But you know, if we’re going the whole wizard route, he’d need some more tricks than just that. Like, I dunno, fireballs!” Emi was grinning from ear to ear.
“Like my firestarter pellets?” I asked helpfully.
“Right! Or, uh… Some way to immobilize a–”
“Like the fire extinguisher pellets?”
Emi scowled at me, but the others were laughing.
“We’ll have to come up with some nifty stuff for you so that you can be a combat wizard,” Kathy said with a grin.
“I can handle that.” Honestly, I was probably overarmed on the average day, but I didn’t mind having options. If we knew that we were going to be walking into a fight, being able to mix things up on occasion might be helpful, especially if our opponent knew what I was capable of. “So, what’s the plan?”
Kathy took a deep breath. “Complicated. We’re going to Chandler, since that’s your your new gorilla girl said that you-know-who’s people are doing you-know-what–”
“You mean Nex-”
She quickly made a negative motion. “Listen, keep to vagues. People won’t listen if they don’t hear a word that doesn’t stand out to them. Otherwise, we’re free to talk, alright?”
I ducked my head sheepishly. There were still things that I was learning. “Right, sorry. I’m with you.”
Kathy flashed me a comforting smile before continuing. “There’s the hitch, though. We know where, but we don’t know who. Or where exactly. So we’re going to have to do some scouting, I’m afraid.”
Which meant that I’d be spending time locked in my room again. We did this every time that we came to one of these cities and they had to do scouting. At least she sounded apologetic about it. “All four of you?”
“No, we’ll put Brenda to bed.”
“Thank you,” she said softly. I didn’t need to see her face to know that she was in pain. Her entire body language spoke of a migraine.
“Otherwise…” Kathy gave me a sympathetic smile. “I’m sorry. Until it’s go time, you’ll be on your own.”
I nodded a little. “Okay. Um, how are we looking for electricity there?”
That made Kathy stop in her tracks, her lips pursing. “I didn’t even think about that. How’s the teleporter?”
John glanced at it before shrugging and handing it to me. I gave it a proper glance. “Eighteen. We should have spent some time charging it. So, either we head back to Birmingham and wait, or we charge up there.”
“I know that I’m usually the one for caution,” John said slowly. “But I’m going to go out on a limb and guess that there’s electricity for sale there. At least, that’s going by what I saw of the operation here. So, we either get to charge up at the hotel, or we ask for a charge while we’re conducting our business. Failing that, we ask for a lift to a town that does have electricity as our one request for showing them their dipshit.”
That… was actually a pretty good observation. I didn’t actually see the setup that they had, and hadn’t read the guide that was made for me yet, so I didn’t know. But it made sense.
“How long do you think scouting will take?”
“You-know-who isn’t dumb,” John said slowly. “Depending on how big the town is, everyone might know. But even then, they won’t exactly advertise, especially not to outsiders.”
I shook my head. “It’s big enough to have a gambling establishment that makes use of dedicated enforcers. That implies that it has enough of a population to support two different groups. Any time that you have gambling like that, there’s going to be other criminal elements. Petty theft, which implies a fence, that sort of thing. It’s possible that there’s more groups than even that.”
I blinked as everyone turned to look at me. “What?”
Kathy shook her head. “I just… really didn’t expect that out of you.”
I shrugged with a frown before moving to input the coordinates into the teleporter. “What can I say? I took classes on criminology. It isn’t helping me from the inside, but looking from the outside like we are now, it gives me some insights.”
“Will that thing get us there?” Emi asked, suddenly sounding a little worried.
“Yeah,” I said with a nod. “Assuming that I’m thinking of the same Chandler, at least. Otherwise, we’re going to end up somewhere in Gimmel that’s way off from what we want.”
Kathy chuckled faintly as we drew up to where we were teleporting out from. “How long did it take you to memorize all those coordinates?”
“Before I even hit Saint Louis.” I looked around to everyone. “Ready?”
“Knock on the door. I’m here to see, name of person in charge. If they ask who I am, tell them straight up, but quickly follow it with the fact that I’m not looking for any trouble. Smile politely. Wait to be lead to leader. Initiate pleasant greetings…”
I bit my lip, staring at the piece of paper. I honestly wasn’t sure if I should wait for the leader to ask me why I was here, or tell them myself. It would also depend on what they said. They might ask me what I wanted as part of their greeting. A tricky prospect.
My stomach did another slow churn. I would have preferred it if I could talk it over with Brenda, but she was resting again. For two days we’d been here, trying to figure out where our target was. For two days, I’d been trapped in this room.
I tapped my pen against the paper, frowning. I didn’t have to write it down, but I wanted to try and come up with a plan on my own. Really, I didn’t feel like I was carrying my weight very much with this group. Sure, I did some intimidation, but they did all of the foot work, figuring out where our target was. Meanwhile I got to be lazy.
Well, not lazy. I’d read a book and had spent who knew how much time working out, but I wasn’t contributing at all. So here I was, trying to figure out what I could say in advance. I figured, once we got to planning how this would go down, I’d show this to everyone, and they could help me figure out what was right and what wasn’t.
Not that it was helping my nerves. I had all this energy from not doing enough, and there was only so much that I could do within the tight confines of the room. The room only had a single bed, as compared to Emi and Brenda’s room, but I still had limited space and had to worry about making too much noise.
The hotel was nice enough, I supposed. It had electricity, but not much — I’d checked the teleporter a while ago, and it was only at 43%. From the layout that I’d seen when we’d come, it only had maybe 26 rooms, and twenty of those were on the second floor. Like mine was. There wasn’t even a faucet in the room, let alone a bathroom — each end of the hall had two communal restrooms-slash-showers.
I got the feeling that if I started doing anything even approaching jumping jacks, they’d hear me in the dining area. Yeah, best to avoid that for now.
I’d been right about the city at least. I was guessing three or four thousand, maybe five, but that was pushing it. There wasn’t much entertainment in the town despite it being on a trade route to a city that had a teleporter, or so I was told by the others, so it wasn’t surprising that a gambling establishment of some sort had popped up. The only other option was going to bars. Needless to say, the only one to come back sober last night had been Emi. At least she’d been smart about it.
What had surprised me about the city was that it didn’t have any walls or anything. I knew that making walls around a city this size was difficult at best, but I still felt that this was too open to attack. Not enough guards around the perimeter for my liking; what happened if there was a wildling attack?
At least it had a decent parahuman compliment. Or at least, that’s what Brenda said.
I sighed and stood, running my hands over my head. I was starting to develop decent stubble, probably enough to at least hide my scalp a bit. Which was fine now, while I had to be Jordan. But once I had to go back to pretending to be Don, it would be more difficult.
I ran my hand down to my face, feeling the thicker stubble there. Why didn’t the hair on my scalp grow that fast? It didn’t actually matter, but it was annoying in a weird way. Maybe it had something to do with something that Riley had done to me?
My stomach churned again and I sighed. Too much energy and not enough to vent it with. I needed something, anything, to focus on besides waiting.
Impulsively, I went to my pack and got out a change of clothes. Other than when biological need absolutely demanded it, I hadn’t actually left the room since I’d arrived. I could only imagine what I smelled like. If the others hadn’t found anything by the time that I got back, I’d ask them to look into if there was some sort of laundry service.
As I exited the room, I noticed that there were a couple of people at the other end of the hall by the bathroom. They spared me a glance before leaning back in to whisper to each other. One of the guys reached up to stroke the other’s face with the back of his hand, making the other one visibly uncomfortable.
Didn’t like a show. I felt a pang of guilt over making him uncomfortable as I ducked into the closest bathroom and closed the door behind me. I barely got my shirt off before my stomach gave an extra loud complaint, making me rush to the toilet.
It felt like I was throwing up sand as I prayed to the porcelain god Ralph hard enough to force my eyes closed. These weren’t the easy sudden vomiting; each new wave made my body work hard at getting it out.
After what felt like an eternity of nausea, my gut finally relented, as if nothing had been wrong in the first place. I knew that the chicken that I’d had for lunch was fully cooked — it was cooked almost to the point of rubber. So why, then, had I thrown up so much of what looked like red-tinged coffee grounds?
Just the sight of what was in the commode made something in the back of my head tingle, but it was gone as soon as it tried to form.
I let out a soft sigh, wiping my mouth with the back of my hand as I flushed. Flushing toilets might be a waste of perfectly good water, but I was thankful for them right now. The faster that I got that out of sight, the better. Especially with how it had smelled.
I stood, shaking my head as I put my shirt back on. While my gut felt completely better, I knew that I had some mint, salt and other things to help soothe an upset stomach in my pack. A quick glance at my watch revealed that I’d been in here for almost ten minutes now. With almost all of that time spent vomiting, I knew that I had to make some tea or something to help out, or else I’d pay for it later from dehydration alone.
I collected the clothes that I was going to wear and made my way back to my room. I’d give myself a good half an hour after drinking the tea and taking the salt before trying again. Make sure that my stomach was settled before getting into the shower. I hadn’t bothered to lock my door, so I just entered the room.
As I stepped in and let go of the door, though, the guy who had been hiding behind it swung my halberd.