Nexus suddenly slid his hands from my shoulders, running them down my arms as a giddy grin crossed his face. “Oh my goodness, it even feels awesome! I’m told that you can take a twelve gauge with this stuff, is it true?”
I was hopeful that the world would start making even the slightest amount of sense any time now. Nexus seemed able to flip like a switch from serious to hyper faster than I could really process it right now. If I could ever process it at all.
“Boss,” the other bodyguard said in an exasperated tone. “You’re fanboying again.”
“Oh come on,” Nexus whined as he turned to look at her. “I think that I’ve earned the right to get to revel in the moment a little bit.”
“You’re pinging like a moth against a window,” Emi said, a hand on her hip. “And poor Jordan can’t keep up. C’mon, make a choice already. Fanboy now, or make a job offer?”
Nexus frowned at her, but John spoke up quickly. “Jordan is more geared towards combat, and not social situations. When you shift gears like this, he can’t shift gears like that. If you want to squee over him, that’s fine. I’d like some tea or something while we wait, but I’m content to wait.”
He glanced to everyone else, who nodded eagerly, before looking back to Nexus. “But you sound like you’re anxious to make him a lucrative offer, and one that he’ll appreciate. If you want to do that, then you can’t mix business with pleasure with him, or you’ll have his head spinning so fast it’ll pop off and fly away.” He smiled sadly. “Because right now, you sound like you’re tilting windmills, and is that any way to make a first impression?”
Now Nexus had another reason to frown. “I have no idea what that means.” Finally, Nexus and I were on the same page.
Kathy snorted. “I barely know what it means. Don Quixote.”
Nexus snapped his fingers, pointing at John. “Aha, now I getcha.” And there went our common ground. “Yeah, it’s been a while since I’ve read that one. I find it funny how so many people identify more with classic literature these days than stuff from 30 years ago. It’s freaky-tiki, in the coolest of ways.”
He clapped his hands suddenly, making poor Kathy jump. “Alright then, let’s do some business. I can gush next time!”
“You mean crush,” John said with a smirk.
“Oh, please. My heart belongs elsewhere.” Nexus rolled his eyes dramatically. “Come on, I didn’t survive to adulthood just to be all stuffy and dour all the time. I’d go crazy and start, I dunno, collecting 200 foreskins to get married or somesuch.”
Nexus glanced at us before waving his hand. “Why are we all still standing for? Sit, sit! Let’s talk business, get shit done, enable you all to be as awesome as an auctioneer doing hip-hop.” Kathy snorted as she moved for the couch, and that only made his grin grow wider. I was even more lost, though. What was hip-hop?
Nexus wasn’t slowing down, though. Instead, he turned to the male bodyguard, clasping his hands together pleadingly. “Dude, I know it isn’t your job, but could I please ask you to go downstairs and bring up some iced tea for all of us?”
The man looked at all of us. My eyes locked with his for a moment before I slowly closed mine and nodded once. I understood. He might be willing to, but his job was to protect Nexus. We were a dangerous group, so wandering off to do some menial task was a little stupid on his part. It was better to give him at least a phantom bit of security than to leave him nervous about his job and, apparently, his friend.
But the bodygurd smiled politely before looking around the room. “Should I bring up some sugar for it, too?”
“Wait,” John said, pausing just before sitting. “You have sugar? Like, real sugar, not like beet sugar or honey?”
Nexus waved his hand dismissively. “I know, it’s a frivolous thing to grow these days when there’s still so many people starving, but some good employees of mine, people who were with me from the start, they wanted to retire and try their hand at growing it, so I set them up with a plantation and some employees. I’m still trying to figure out the best places to help them ship to, beyond, you know, the obvious.”
“I’ve never had real sugar before,” Emi said as she settled down.
“It’s good,” Brenda said as she sat next to Emi before closing her eyes again.
Nexus looked to me before making a sweeping gesture towards a chair with his hand. “Come on, Jordan. Join us. Sit, relax. Chill while we talk business. You’ll like the sugar, I promise.”
“Why have you been watching me?” I blurted out. I wasn’t sure why I asked it, it just sort of… happened.
Nexus’ shoulders dropped, and while his smile changed, it didn’t fade at all. I got the feeling that I wasn’t doing anything to end his fanboying. “Jordan,” he said as he walked over to me, placing a hand on my back and guiding me towards the chairs. “Come on. Careful with the halberd, it may be sexy but I don’t wanna have to repair anything. Listen.
“Way back in the day, after the cash first started pouring in and I started to make my initial investments, I started throwing money at certain projects that I knew would make a difference. The Orphanage was one of them. But I like to keep track of my investments, get an idea as to what’s going on, you know? That’s when your name came across me.
“You improved so much! And the more that I learned about you, the more that I really liked what I heard. I mean… It’s not so much that you were a badass, or that you were some sort of shining star or anything. It’s more like, you were something that I really, really felt that we, and I mean all of us, were lacking.”
He grinned as he guided me go a chair before sitting down opposite me. “See, I don’t remember a lot about the old days any more, but I remember enough. I remember wanting to be an astronaut, with all of my might. I was going to go to space! To this day, I have so many space facts in my head, like one side of Mercury is blazing hot and the other side is freezing because its atmosphere has been scoured away by solar winds, so it can’t retain any of that heat.
“Fast forward to then. A bit before you were adopted. My dreams were crushed, ripped away. A lot of people’s dreams were, if they had dreams beyond getting a cool console or going on a vacation. Obviously, those got destroyed by Scion, and folks were struggling just to get through the day without putting a bullet in their heads.
“And here’s this kid who decided at the age of four that he was going to be a hero. Everyone, and I mean everyone was trying to convince him not to be. And he had every right to realize that it was a childish dream. He probably should have, after he’d gotten himself hurt pretty bad, after he’d broken himself trying to become what he envisioned as a hero.”
“It wasn’t anything that special,” I said as I sat in the chair. I was feeling more and more uncomfortable by the minute. “I just wasn’t going to give up.”
“Exactly!” Nexus clapped his hands, giggling with glee. “That! That right there! You refused to give up when by every right and logic, you should have. You should have outgrown it, you should have been discouraged by your injuries, a thousand times over, you should have given up. But you didn’t. You continued to fight, clawing tooth and nail over all the odds, working towards that one, one singular goal.”
His high spirits dampened until he was looking down at something beyond the floor in between his feet. “You don’t know what it’s like, Jordan. To live today, when you’ve also lived before. You were born into this world, grew up in it, lived it. For people like me? Like John and Kathy? It’s changed completely, and with that change… It destroys a part of you. You become two different people separated by time. The you before, and the you after.
“That’s your real power, Jordan. You’ve attracted so many people to you, not because of your looks or charisma or anything. It’s this simple, childish dream that you won’t let go of, no matter what the world says. There’s something… I don’t know. There’s something delightfully beautiful about that. Something that I desperately needed to see grow and continue.”
I frowned deeply, trying to understand, but… I just couldn’t connect with it. I couldn’t connect with it at all. “I… I don’t think that I can be that person any more.”
“Oh, bullshit.” He looked up at me, bristling. “Don’t cut me that line of bull. You haven’t gone villain yet. I mean, look at the people that you target, look at what you’ve been doing lately!”
Nexus must have seen something that I didn’t, because he looked at Kathy. “Ah, locked you out of the loop, did he? Jordan’s been targeting everyone that he can find that’s been pretending to be him. He asked Fenix for help, and so I went all in, offering every shred of information that I could get my grubby little mitts on. And trust me when I say, he was bad-fucking-ass.”
She looked at me, and I ducked my head guiltily. “He didn’t say a word.”
“I helped,” Brenda said firmly. “I noticed that he was doing a weird pattern, weirder than usual, so I kind of forced him to bring me along. After what happened to you, he didn’t want to ask any of us for help. Because he made a promise.”
I couldn’t see her face, but Emi’s posture changed enough to let me know that she was hurt by what Brenda said. I wanted to curl up into a ball and die so badly. Instead, I just mimicked Nexus from earlier as I stared at an imaginary spot between my knees.
“Jordan,” Kathy said firmly. “Did you get hurt?”
I hesitated, but shook my head. “I’m alright at intimidating people, I guess. And I’ve been learning from the four of you. I mean, I got into a bit of a scuff, but I wasn’t hurt.”
“I believe that we’re allowing ourselves to be distracted,” John interrupted. “And I do believe that this is a conversation that we should be having in private, anyway. For now…” He looked to Nexus. “I believe that we should know about this job offer that you were making, yes?”
“Ah, yes.” Nexus paused as our tea arrived, complete with a small bowl of sugar cubes and another of lemon slices. I took the time to deactivate the helmet’s invisibility and lift the faceplate. Nexus didn’t even blink. “First, remember, one, one at a time, and taste it before you add another. I don’t want you to make it too sweet on accident, yes?”
Brenda sneered and shook her head, opening her eyes just barely long enough to add five sugar cubes. I mimicked her, not because of bravado or anything, but I had the feeling that whatever he was going to send us into was going to involve combat somehow. I was going to need the energy.
John refrained from the sugar entirely, instead going solely for the lemon. Kathy apparently liked hers super sweet, because she piled it on heavier than Brenda and I combined. The only one of us who seemed to take his advice was Emi, who dutifully waited for it to dissolve completely before tasting it and hesitantly adding another cube.
“Right,” Nexus said, sipping his three sugar tea. “So, here’s the deal. There’s a couple of–”
I laid my teleporter on the table, interrupting him. “I need this charged if we’re going to do anything for you soon.”
Nexus paused before gingerly picking it up. “Ah, yes. I’m familiar with the basic design, I think. I’ve bought three of them. Good choice! Expensive, but ever so worth it.” He looked to one of his three goons that were still standing, the three that we’d interrupted when we’d arrived. “Do me a favor and take care of this, won’t you?”
“Yeah,” one of them said, carefully taking it from Nexus as if it might bite them. “I can–”
“The three of you,” Nexus interrupted. He paused to flash them a sympathetic smile. “Please. This, I think, is going to be best as a private conversation.”
They didn’t like it, but they wordlessly wandered off. The female bodyguard closed the door behind them, and Nexus smiled a bit. “Sorry. I just remembered that they were here. I hate excluding them, but the fewer people that all of you have to worry about, the better.” He looked to his bodyguards. “Chuck, Wendy, please join us.”
As soon as they were settled, one on either side of Nexus, he began again. “So. There’s a couple of douchebags who have a stranglehold on a little village. A bit over a thousand people, but they’re almost the only paras in the neighborhood, and they’ve got them so cowed that it isn’t even funny.”
“You want us to liberate another village,” I said slowly.
Nexus nodded, and John chimed in. “If you’re the philanthropist that you make yourself out to be, then most likely you have your own muscle. Why ask us?”
“Besides the convenience of you being here?” Nexus laughed. “Well, there’s two good reasons. The first is that I have two types of muscle. The first is the criminal type, and I’d rather not involve them as it might cause a quagmire of problems later. Oh, people asking questions, trying to find them for all sorts of reasons, and the next thing that you know, I’ve got people on my doorstep and I’m tying to hide the women.” He rolled his eyes dramatically. “Once a month, I swear. So annoying.
“But then there’s the legal type. I won’t call them mercenaries, but they’re the people who I make excellent use of whenever something will be visible and I want to avoid questions. Each group has a different reason for being able to deflect too deep of scrutiny, but it’s good enough for me. Unfortunately, this job… Well, it’s a quagmire of a different sort. A legal quagmire.”
“They’re Wardens,” Kathy said quickly. My eyes narrowed as a small bundle of rage started to form in my gut.
“Indeed. Observant. So I need someone who can both have legitimate reasons for interfering without drawing my name into things, at least not publicly, but also with the freedom from legality that they can walk away and let the Wardens finish it after the evidence is collected.
“But!” Nexus raised a finger. “There is one little, tiny, vital piece of information that I haven’t mentioned.”
“Of course,” Emi deadpanned.
He gave her a funny look that I couldn’t decode before looking back to me. “They only keep half of what they bleed out of folks. The other half? It goes to the Tinker that lives underneath the city that has them by the leash.”
I picked up on the word underneath. “He’s got a full underground lair?”
Nexus nodded. “Quite right. I expected no less out of you. Yes, he has a lair, an extensive one from what I’ve found out so far. And, before you ask, no, I have no clue what his specialty is. But I know that he’s the true brains behind the operation, that he’s got everyone’s balls in his grubby little vice, and that he’s versatile enough that he’s insanely dangerous.”
I frowned thoughtfully. “In other words, we’d have to make a two-pronged surprise assault. If we take him on first, and suddenly we could be trapped in his lair with two Wardens backing him up. Meanwhile, taking them on gives him time to prepare, which does us even less good.”
He laughed, pointing at me with the hand that held the iced tea. “They said you had a tactical mind! And, to top it off, I actually know of one of the secret entrances to his crypt! So one can take the back door, and not the ew one, while the other team takes on the Wardens. Of course, I’m fairly certain that both teams will have a fight on their hands — the two Wardens aren’t slouches, and walking into a Tinker’s lair is begging for trouble.”
I set my glass down, not to make a point or because I didn’t want to drink. No, the fingers on my right hand were going completely numb suddenly. “My armor should provide a better layer of protection against directed or even passive energy attacks from the Tinker. I’ll take him while the rest of you take the Wardens.”
“Now Jordan,” John said slowly. “We are a democracy, after all. I think–”
I didn’t have time for this. “Show of hands, who’s in?”
Emi, Brenda and I all raised our hands, followed a moment later by Kathy, who looked to John apologetically. “I’m not fond of it, but I’m willing to bet that Mr. Nexus here is willing to pay us quite handsomely for this.”
“Quite right,” Nexus said in a sing-song voice, tilting his head one way or the other with each syllable. “Two grand, New Brockton, each.”
John paused, taking a deep breath. “Okay, yeah, I’ve risked my life for less. If you think you can take the guy down, Jordan…”
My head jerked in a sharp nod. “Yeah. I’ll just go stealthy. It shouldn’t be a problem. And you guys did a terrific job in our last combat op.” I looked to Nexus. “Alright, we’re in for the op, but what’s the plan for after?”
“They moved the city’s communications array into their HQ, officially for safety concerns.” Nexus rolled his eyes. “Yeah, for their safety, not the village’s. They can monitor all messages that way. But you can use that to your advantage in the end. Once all three are taken care of, and preferably not killed, I should add! I don’t hire assassins, I hire people to ensure justice is done. But once they’re down, I want you to swing a message my way, then hit the emergency channel for the Wardens. I should be able to take care of it from there.”
I frowned a little. “I don’t know your contact info.”
One half of Nexus’ mouth lifted upwards as he put his elbows on the table, leaning towards me. “I offer you the gift of communications with me. Do you accept?”
Okay, he was getting a little melodramatic. “Uh, yeah, sure. What kind–”
Nexus was standing a good ten feet ahead of me, dressed in tattered clothes, staring down into the rift. I walked across the scorched soil slowly, looking down at the lava flow below us instead of him. I wasn’t sure what sort of cloth it was that I was wearing, but it reflected the glow from the lava nicely.
“I didn’t choose my name on a whim,” Nexus said morosely, not looking at me any more than I was looking at him. “With my power, I can speak to any of my agents, any time, anywhere. Some people think that only those people with offensive abilities are powerful, but the joke’s on them. I’ve got the most powerful weapon of them all — information. All thanks to my network of people.”
I nodded, watching the lava churn and flow beneath us. “This is a pretty neat trick. And all I needed to do was agree?”
“No, not exactly, but it makes the process a lot easier for me when I’m in line of sight. You can refuse to talk when there’s distance between us, and I can do the same to you. There’s one person who I’ve been avoiding calls from for about eight years now.”
He sighed softly. “This isn’t the extent of my power, just one aspect of it. I don’t feel like going into the rest of it.” He picked up a dirt clod and tossed it into the lava. It didn’t give as much of a reaction as it should have — just a brief flash of flame as it sank below. Strange, lava didn’t work like that.
Nexus looked to me. “With your permission, I’d like to empower you so that we can communicate anywhere. It’ll make things easier for the both of us from here on out.”
“Done,” I said instantly.
“Good,” he said solemnly. “Then let’s get back to it.”
“–of gift are we talking about here? Tinker…” My words trailed off as what happened settled in, playing through my head. “Huh,” I said softly. “That, uh… That works. Alright.”
Everyone from my side was looking at me oddly, and Nexus’ bodyguards were smirking a bit. Of course they’d be used to this by now. No matter. Push forward.
“Alright, if we’re going to do this, then I’m going to need some details.” I sipped my tea. “So, let’s start with this back door…”