It was almost 11 as we stepped through the gates. Well, it might have been earlier; time zones were difficult, especially in Earths that hadn’t gotten the infrastructure for them. Settling on virgin worlds had plenty of downsides.
“Real food,” John grumbled softly. “Meat.”
“Amen,” Brenda echoed, her hand on his elbow.
I smiled a little, but I wasn’t feeling it. “That sounds nice, but I’ve got a few things that I need to do. Why don’t you all go on and get some grub without me?”
Kathy gave me a sidelong glance. “Don?”
“It’s fine,” I said, lifting a hand. “Gotta take care of my armor and do a little bit of working out.” We’d left my robes back in that village, so I had to break down my halberd, bundle it up with my armor and jam it all in a bag. I didn’t feel right without wearing at least the lower half of my armor anymore.
“Everything cool?” Emi asked.
“Yeah, it’s all good. I just… I need some time to process everything that happened, you know? And if I’m not alone, then… Yeah.”
Kathy nodded slowly. “I thought that’s what you did when you went to the graveyard, though.”
“Kinda?” I shrugged. “It’s hard to explain. Half a habit more than anything.”
“Show of hands,” John said suddenly. “Everyone who slept well last night.”
Not a single hand went up.
“Exactly. We’re all dealing with it, and we’ll all deal in our own way. Jordan had to go from combat to managing his employees. He hasn’t had time to cope in the slightest, so if he needs some time, then that’s cool. Some of us need a dose of normalcy to deal, some need to think and sort things out. Some need to exercise.”
He looked over to me. “You wanna go to the club with us tonight?”
“Yeah, I should. It’ll be good for me.”
“Right. I’ll swing by your room before then.” He reached out to gently slap my shoulder. “Off with you. Do what you gotta.”
I could tell from her body language that Emi wanted to go with me, but she hung back as I headed for the hotel. Involving them would be the smart thing to do and I knew it, but I’d made a promise to the three of them. I might be a lot of things, but I actively tried not to be an oath breaker.
I stopped by the hotel room just long enough to stash everything, don my lower armor, throw the pair of pants that went over it, secure more funds, and pull on the robes from the Orphanage before heading out again. I made a mental note to buy another on my way back from the room.
It didn’t take me too long to reach my destination. As I stepped into Phoenix Outfitters, Fenix smiled at me. “Don! One of the customers that I’m always happy to see! I just got some new multitools, if you’re interested.”
“No,” I said quickly. “Can we speak in the back?”
Fenix looked at me oddly for a moment before leading the way. “Habib isn’t here,” he said conversationally. “He’s at his primary shop, handling another customer’s request.”
“That’s fine.” As soon as the door closed, my face set. “This is confidential, understand?”
“Of course.” He gestured to the table and we both settled down, me in the same seat that the good doctor had patched me up in. “What’s up, Don?”
“Jordan.” Fenix frowned, but I had to do this. “Breaking protocol, I know, but this is important. I’ve pieced together that John gets a good deal of his information from you.”
“Among my other jobs, I am an information broker, yes.” He got out his cigarette case and held it up questioningly. I didn’t like smoking, but I still nodded. He took the time to light up one of his hand-rolled cigarettes before regarding me. “What do you need, Jordan?”
“I’ve recently been made aware that there’s people masquerading as me.”
“Ah, yes. And rumor in the information world has it that the worst of the bunch has been taken down. Can I assume that you had a hand in that.”
I nodded. “That’s a safe assumption. But I made a few mistakes in the heat of the moment, mistakes that I need to correct. And for that, I’m going to need to find another impostor. Preferably more than one.” All of them would be best, but I’d take what I could get.
Fenix took a slow drag off his cigarette. “Alright, I can respect that. Part of the issue, of course, is that they don’t want to be found. And if the Wardens haven’t found them yet, then–”
“They aren’t trying hard.” I sighed softly. “They’re letting these wastes of space operate so that they can tarnish my name, I think.” That was my best guess, at least. I knew that they had let me handle that one group of impostors myself on purpose, probably because they were crossing a line. Why, though, was a mystery to me.
He flicked his ashes thoughtfully. “Alright. If you say so, at least. I’ve heard… rumors about three other possible impostors, and I’m pretty sure that I can find out where they are in short order. Since I know where your little group goes, I can weed out the real thing from the fakes.”
“How long will it take?”
He shrugged. “At least an hour. Maybe more, but I can promise that I’ll at least have some leads on who to ask by then.”
“Perfect. I’ll be back then.” I paused. “Actually, wait. Do you have any handcuffs here?”
“Shut it,” I heard him snap, and for a moment the whimpering got louder. “Scream, make one bit of noise too much, and I’ll have to wipe out this entire settlement.” I rounded the corner silently, heading towards the fucker. “Listen, dearie, do you want your entire village to burn? Do you want–”
I swung with my halberd, easily cutting through the shaft of the one that he was carrying, barely missing his head. As the blade clattered to the ground, he turned to look at me, only to get a powerful right hook to his face. I normally advised against punching the head, but my gauntlets would offer me the protection that I needed on that front.
As he staggered, I dropped my halberd and rushed him. My foot snapped up into groin, making him bend over. I grabbed his hair and dragged him, slamming his face into the opposite wall of the alley. His legs gave out, so I had to grab him with my other hand and lift him up in order to fling him onto his back.
He didn’t even have time to curl into a ball before I slammed my foot into his groin. As his legs curled up instinctively, I fumbled for his feet. Spreading his legs wide, I began to stop. “My! Armor! Has! A! Cup!”
I looked over to the woman, who was seated on the ground, her back against the dead end of the alley. “One moment,” I said pleasantly. I was getting good at switching my tone like that. “Stay there, please.”
I was pretty sure that she was completely incapable of bolting at this point, but I had to make sure.
I let go of the fucker’s legs and fell on him, my knees driving into his gut before sliding off. I grabbed him by his armor and began to slam him into the ground. “You thought I wouldn’t know?! You thought I wouldn’t find out?! Or did you just fucking think that I wouldn’t care? You moronic nematode!”
I threw him back down, my hand gripping his throat. “Do you know who I am?” His only response was a groan. Fine. I waited a moment before leaning in close, my helmet inches away from his face. “Answer me or I start removing digits without a knife!”
“N-no,” he moaned.
“Holy shit, you’re an idiot! Will the real Jordan please punch a fucker in the nose?” I actually waited a good five seconds before punching. I wasn’t sure why I did it, but it felt right.
The woman squeaked, and I looked over to her again. “It’ll all be over soon. Sorry, and thank you for your patience.”
“I’m sorry,” the man whimpered.
“Sorry?” I boomed again, looking down at him. “You’re fucking sorry?! What are you sorry for? Say it, I wanna hear the words!”
“I… I’m s-sorry that I… That I pretended to be you.”
“Wrong,” I screamed, punching him in his face again. “Don’t fucking lie to me! You’re not sorry that you were riding my rep at all! You’re sorry that I found out about it! You’re sorry that I got upset over it! Don’t fucking apologize unless you’re telling the truth, nimwitz!
“Now! Do you enjoy raping in my name?”
His hand moved, and I caught it with ease before it could get the knife strapped to my chest. I had to give him an A for effort. I let go of his throat and reached up to the trapped hand, grabbing a finger and twisting it until I felt it snap and heard him scream.
“Freeze,” I heard someone yell behind me.
My lips twisted into a smile as I punched him one more time. As I got off of him, I took the time to liberate him of his pistol before looking over to the guard pointing his weapon at me. Glock 9mm, it looked like, but in this light I couldn’t be sure. Stupid fucker making me work at night.
“Sorry, sir,” I said in that pleasant tone again. “I didn’t mean to cause a ruckus.”
“Miss,” the guard said, not taking his weapon off of me. “Are you alright?”
There was a pause before the woman made out a tiny “Yes.” I looked to her, and it finally dawned on me that she was holding the tattered remains of her shirt open. “Yes, I’m… I’m fine, thanks to him.”
The fucker on the ground started to roll over. Hell no. I brought the butt of the pistol I’d taken from him against his temple, making him curl into a ball and grab at his head. “Did I give you permission to move?!”
“Stop or I’ll shoot!”
“Don’t!” the woman called out, terror in her voice. “Oh, god, please don’t! He’s… He’s fine! He’s…”
“Jordan,” I finished for her as I fished out the handcuffs from my belt. Wrist to ankle, an easy job now that he was in so much pain. My task complete, I straightened up. “My name is Jordan, sir. And I’d be very pleased if you could point your weapon at this fucker instead of me.”
The guard paused for a moment, as if he was actually seeing me for the first time since this exchange began. Thankfully, the woman made her way to her feet.
“This guy said he was Jordan and he was g-gonna…” She swallowed. No need to actually say the words. “But then he came, and saved me.”
I looked to the guard, finally making out more details of his uniform. This was a decently-sized town, maybe a few thousand, so it was nice to see a guard in something that looked professional. Without looking away, I fetched my halberd.
“A lot of people have been pretending to be me, doing all sorts of nasty things. I’ve been so focused that I didn’t realize. I’m…” I tilted my head as I tried to find the right way to put it. “I’m setting the record straight is all.”
As the guard slowly readjusted his aim, I looked back to the woman. She couldn’t see it through my helmet, but I was smiling comfortingly. “Relax. I only swung through town to hurt one person.”
I looked back to the guard, who was more than a little nervous. I couldn’t blame him. “But my kindness comes at a price. In one week, and not a day before, I want the word to be spread to every town, to every newspaper. If someone pretends to be me, I will find them. If they’re doing anything that I don’t like, I will hurt them.”
I probably should have said something more, but I just didn’t have it in me anymore. I was tired of this. I was tired of so very much, but there was still so much left to do. I headed for the exit of this dead end alley, trying to look as foreboding as I could.
“That’s it?” The woman asked. “You’re just coming here, beating the shit out of someone who was pretending to be you and… I don’t even know any more.”
I stopped in my tracks, sighing softly. I didn’t even bother to turn around. “Lady. Yesterday I killed three people, and caused the deaths of seven more. I got thrown around like a rag doll, slammed into the ceiling and floor repeatedly. I stared Valkyrie in the eye and she blinked. Last night, I didn’t get a wink of sleep. Today, I spent the entire day tracking down that guy, and I’m hoping that I can find more tomorrow.”
I lowered my head, squeezing my eyes shut. “My legs are half numb right now, my right arm keeps going numb, I’m throwing up at least once a day, my vision goes blurry on me constantly, everything tastes like copper, I keep getting little bouts of vertigo, my heart keeps randomly racing, and right now, I don’t care about any of that. I tried caring, but I can’t get the gumption together for it.
“What I can care about are people like him. And if I can take them down and keep any others from using my name for their own ends, then maybe… Maybe I can get some sleep. One a day, hopefully, then go back to the rock that I crawled out of, do some more training, and then sleep. If I’m lucky.”
I opened my eyes and looked back to her. “For what it’s worth, though, I’m glad that I got here in time. But if I don’t make this statement, then people are going to keep using my name. I’ll get blamed for things that I haven’t done while they grow fat on my reputation. And the way that I see it, if a whole lotta people report the same thing at once, then it’ll be a bigger deterrent than one every day.
“Now, if you don’t pardon me, I need to practice my knife skills.”
I stepped out of the hotel, taking a deep breath. I’d gird my loins here as soon as I got to the wall, but for now, I was taking it nice and easy. No need to draw attention to myself by doing so. I barely made it to the corner of the building when a voice spoke softly.
“You look like shit.”
I turned to look at Brenda. Her eyes were closed as she leaned against the wall, but they weren’t covered. No telling how long she’d been standing there like that, either.
“What are you doing?” I asked, putting a light tone to my voice.
“The walls aren’t as thick as you might think, and I’ve got two minutes here right now.” She turned her head towards me blindly. “Did you sleep at all?”
“I got a few hours.” Three, give or take.
She nodded a little. “You and I are the new ones. The ones that don’t quite fit in with the rest. The difference is, my power told me how to attach myself to them. You got recruited. Even still… I feel like we should be watching each other’s backs, don’t you think?”
I frowned a little. “I’ll always have your back.”
The corners of Brenda’s mouth twisted upwards. In the dying light of the day, night rapidly approaching, she looked oddly peaceful. “I know. But you could ask for help.”
I frowned a bit. “I promised not to do that.”
“Ah. Going after the people pretending to… You know. Well, then. Let’s bypass the asking. I’m coming with you.”
Just what I didn’t need. “I can’t ask you to do that. You could get hurt, or–”
“You aren’t asking. I’m the one telling. I’m coming with, and that’s final.”
“Why?” I couldn’t make sense of it.
Brenda sucked both her lips between her teeth, biting them. After a long moment, she shrugged. “If I were to tell you that I was going to go after the people who were responsible for what happened to my parents, what would you do?”
What happened to her parents? I wasn’t aware of anything happening to her parents at all. But… Well, that would explain a few things about her. Why she left that cult. Most people, once they joined a cult, didn’t get away.
“I’d insist on coming with you.”
“Exactly.” She smiled again. “What’s good for the gander is good for the goose, right? Besides, the sooner that you get a good night’s sleep, the better that I’ll feel.”
I sighed softly. “There’s no way to get out of this without me being a massive hypocrite, is there?”
“Nope,” Brenda said far too cheerfully. “Besides…” She reached out, and I automatically lifted my arm for her to find. She used that as a guide so she could pull herself close and whisper into my ear. “If I can, I’d like to rob them blind. Make them pay for what they’re doing in my own way.”
I couldn’t help but grin at that. “Fine. You can come along. But the way out and back in will require some climbing.” She tilted her head curiously. “I don’t want to pay the guards, so I found a good place to scale the wall.”
She sighed ruefully. “If that’s how it’s gotta be… Well, let’s see how those push ups you’ve been having me do worked out.”
“Are you sure that you don’t need any help?”
“Just slow,” I whispered quietly as I felt another tumbler go on the lock.
“Where’d you learn to pick locks anyway?”
“Back in school.” Now I understood Kathy’s frustration when I had been talking to her. “What are you seeing?”
“About ten seconds,” Brenda said softly, an air of bemusement in her voice. What did it say about us that we were able to crack jokes at a time like this? “Lots of heavy clothes up here so far, but I haven’t checked every room yet. I could hit the jackpot at any moment.”
My heart went out to anyone who lived in Bet any more. The weather and the memories attached to it made anyone still living here a hardy sort. I couldn’t even imagine how hard it must be, even though so much of the food that Burlington canned went to either New Brockton or Bet. It still needed paid for, which meant that people needed to make money.
This town made its living off of making wind turbines and power control systems. They weren’t like the ruins of the old wind turbines that I’d seen, much smaller and easier to transport without a car — truck, I reminded myself. They were trucks, not cars.
From what I’d been told, it had started off as a washing machine factory that had been adapted after Gold Morning. They’d also made a pretty penny off of low-powered electronics for a while, but then many of the parts they needed for that had run low, so they’d ended up focusing entirely on the power control system, ensuring that batteries didn’t overcharge and explode.
Another tumbler slid into place as Brenda spoke again. “Jackpot. A whole lotta jackpot. I’m seeing a pretty good replica of your armor here. Weapons. Hm… I’m going to need some time to collect all of this. Think that you can stall them without more employees?”
I applied pressure on the tension bar, and the lock turned. “Yeah,” I whispered. “Heading in now.”
I made my way in slowly, careful of the noise that I was making. I could hear people in the living room listening to the radio. I had no idea where it was operating out of, but it sounded like some sort of show. I never really developed a taste for those, but to each their own. Thankfully, there were no lights on apart from the living room, allowing me to pass through the kitchen quietly.
I inched down the hallway until I could finally see them — four individuals, two women and two men. Right. I switched my halberd from my right hand to my left, glad that I’d disconnected the lower portion of the shaft. Otherwise, it would be awkward to have it indoors. With my right hand, I drew my pistol and stepped forward.
“Electric heating,” I said, making them all jump. “Nice!”
“What the fuck!”
In a flash, one of the men had a pistol drawn, pointing it at me. Where had he hidden that in the couch? Didn’t matter. Two of them, though, seemed to recognize me, drawing into their chairs in fear. Good. I kept my pistol pointed at the ground, almost leaning on my halberd.
“Who the fuck are you?” one of the men demanded.
“Oh,” I said slowly. “Just the guy who you’ve been impersonating.”
He wasn’t the one impersonating me. That would be the guy who was trying to push himself into his recliner as far away from me as possible.
“Bullshit,” Mr. Aggressive said.
“Then feel free and shoot,” I said idly. “You’ll find that my armor can more than take anything you have to offer. Then I’ll be obligated to remove your hand, of course. Professionalism and all, I’m sure you understand.”
It took a few moments for him to get the hint. Ms. Aggressive was likewise standing down. My reputation served me well, when it wasn’t getting me deeper into trouble. “What do you want?” she asked.
“You know, it actually caught me by surprise when I found out that people were impersonating me. I mean, I honestly expected the fact that response teams were duking it out with me would discourage that sort of stupidity.”
“They have a teleporter,” Brenda whispered. “And some other stuff. There’s more bags in here, I’m gonna use them. I’ll move as quick as I can.”
“We d-didn’t have to worry about that,” Mr. Impersonator made out.
“Oh, yes,” I said with a laugh. “The teleporter. Yes, that would help. Assuming, of course, that they don’t call in a postcog to tell them where you went to. Out of curiosity, which one of you is the Tinker?”
I paused, looking around them as the question hung in the air. Nobody was stepping forward, so I let it hang for a full minute. “None of you? Because I know there’s one or two paras here. Nobody? Huh. That’s incredibly stupid, using a teleporter without a Tinker on hand to fix it. No wonder I was able to find you.”
“How did you find us?” Mr. Aggressive asked.
“Oh, you know. It’s the whole supply and demand thing. You stole some stuff that could be traced, and I started breaking fingers of fences until I got a lead. Then I went more stealthful in my hunting until I found you here.” It was a good lie, I thought. I had no idea how Fenix found them, but they didn’t need to know that.
I let the silence fill the air again, content to wait them out. They could run for the door, but I was making sure the four of them could see my pistol. They could rush me, but my reputation as a close quarters combatant would make that a fool’s errand.
Finally, Ms. Aggressive spoke up. “Well, if you aren’t attacking us, why are you here?”
“Because Bet has such lovely weather. A balmy 50 degrees outside. If the sun were out, I’d get a tan.” I chuckled to myself. “But honestly? I’m still deciding. Do I break everyone’s legs and walk away? Or do I trust you to turn yourselves in?”
“What?” Ms. Coward asked, somehow looking even more horrified at the idea of turning herself in than me possibly sentencing the four of them to death.
There was a heavy thud from upstairs, and I glanced up. “My partner. Retrieving the armor that you made. Good quality, I was impressed to see it. Nothing like the real deal, but still quite good.
“Anyway. I really don’t–”
“Why do you even care?” Ms. Aggressive asked suddenly.
I tilted my head and stared at her. “Hasn’t anyone ever told you that it’s impolite to interrupt people? Manners, young lady. Manners.”
“She’s older than you,” Mr. Aggressive snarled.
“And you,” I said chidingly. “Manners. Never comment on a woman’s age.
“Anyway, why do I care? Because if I’m going to have three grand in New Brockton coin put on my head, dead or alive, I want to make sure that I’m the only one earning that coin.” Oh, now Mr. Impersonator was looking really worried.
“So, what? You’d march us to the cops?” Mr. Aggressive snorted. “Somehow, I doubt that would work too well for you.”
“No,” I said slowly. “Then there’d be more dead cops, and I’m more than done with that.”
I took a deep breath. “So, I tell you what. Honor demands that I hurt you, so I’m willing to punch each one of you once, and then graciously walk away. Let you turn yourselves in. I think that’s fair.”
Mr. Aggressive snorted. He licked his lips, looking around at everyone, then looked back at me. “Yeah, okay.”
“Len,” a woman said. “You can’t–”
“No, no.” He smirked as he set down his pistol. “Sure. Punch us, let us get our affairs in order, and we’ll turn ourselves in.” With that, he found his way to his feet.
I’d have to be an idiot to believe that they would. He’d convince them that I was an idiot, maybe have them change locations, hoping that I wouldn’t find them. My heart sank a little as I realized what I’d have to do.
“Alright,” I said, careful to keep that same lazy tone to my voice as I holstered my gun. “Everyone on your feet. Let’s get this over with.”
As they began to rise, I heard Brenda’s voice in my ear. “Tossing bags out the window I came in from. I’ll go out that way, too. I could grab more, but it’s starting to get really hard.”
Her power was probably killing her head. That was fine. I marched up my impersonator, sighing softly. “God, I wish I had your hair.”
He opened his mouth to say something, only for my fist to connect with it, making him stumble back. I turned, letting the moment play out as I studied Ms. Coward. I waited until she blinked before socking her in the sternum.
Ms. Aggressive was next, and she fitted me with an even glare. “Do it.”
I raised my fist, then hesitated. “Are you a Brute?”
“What?” She blinked, thrown off by the question. “No, I’m a Br–”
My fist slammed into her chest, sending her back onto the couch hard. Only one left.
Mr. Aggressive, the leader of this little group, spread his arms wide. “Let’s get this over with, yeah?”
“Yeah,” I said softly. With this strike, it wasn’t only about force, though it did require plenty of it. It was also about precision. My muscles had to snap just right, and I had to connect with him at both the right angle and the right place. It was a punch that I never thought that I’d have to do.
And was enough to send him to the floor, moaning and curling into a ball. “Quit your whining,” I snarled. “I didn’t even break any bones. Guh.”
“Yeh hit us,” Mr. Impostor said from behind a hand that covered his mouth. “Yeh gonna go now?”
“Sure. Just remember, turn yourselves in within a week, or else when I swing back by, I’ll be most upset. And next time, I’ll bring my full crew with me.” I straightened, putting a bit of cheer into my voice. “Toodles!”
With that, I turned on my heel and marched for the back door. As I made my way outside, I could see Brenda a few feet away, just far enough for my teleporter. Good. I quickly set the destination for the safehouse as I crossed over to her.
I felt like a villain as I pressed the button.