There was something about being weightless that just made me relax. Sometimes only a hair, but not feeling the pull of gravity on my body was oddly blissful. I could let go a little and just enjoy it.
Something was wrong, though. It felt… strange in a way that I couldn’t quite put my finger on. I opened up my eyes, even though I didn’t want to.
There was a man. Clean-shaven, with a tight haircut. Staring intently at me. There were indistinct shapes behind him, but I couldn’t make any of them out.
Whatever. I was comfortable. I closed my eyes again, my lips slightly parted as I breathed.
Motion. A slight jostling as I felt my body bump against… something. I was aware of the fact that I was going horizontal.
The feeling that something was wrong was increasing by the moment. Specifically as I breathed. I knew that I should try and figure this out, but the will just wasn’t there.
At least, until the loud sucking noise enveloped my existence. That was like a sudden wakeup call, priming my senses, making my eyes snap open again. It looked like I was coming to the surface of a body of water. As my back gently hit something solid, I tried to make sense of what was going on. It was hard, though. My brain was foggy.
I held my breath as the surface of the liquid reached my face, exposing my skin to cool air.
“Jordan,” a woman’s voice said, echoing softly. “You need to exhale as hard as you can. There will be some coughing, but–”
I exhaled, sending a strangely viscous fluid over my face. That caused a switch to flip inside my body, and before I even understood why I was panicking, I began to thrash, coughing like there was no tomorrow.
Liquid! In my lungs! Now I reveled in the panic and began coughing even harder. My head banged against something solid, but I wasn’t paying attention any more.
“Remain calm!” The woman’s voice was louder now, with a tinge of urgency. “Your body will absorb most of it. Try and swallow as much as you can — it’ll help.”
Try and swallow… I was having trouble clearing my throat and lungs, and she expected me to be able to swallow this stuff?! I was having trouble remaining calm, let alone something like that.
But whomever it was probably knew better than me. I fought to try and actually catch some of the clear globules that I was coughing up in my mouth. The first attempt didn’t get very far — I almost swallowed before crooping again. The second attempt fared better, actually getting to the back of my throat. It was the third try that got some in. After that, each time got a little easier.
Within a few minutes, I flopped back, exhausted. My eyes closed as I tried to slow my heartbeat. That was… I didn’t even have words. Was that what drowning was like? I made a mental note to never find out. Then again, I seemed to recall once upon a time making a mental note to never go to Saint Louis. It might be best if I just didn’t try to make those kinds of notes.
After a few minutes, I heard my plexiglass coffin crack open and felt a blast of cool air against my skin. As the walls of the tank slowly pulled away, I glanced down at myself. I was naked, save for some sort of metallic briefs with what I was going to purposefully believe was a waste disposal tube. Good; I didn’t want to be breathing my own pee.
I was aware now of people surrounding me. I smiled as I looked up–
Only to wince and recoil as someone slapped me across the cheek, sending a surge of pain through my face. “Ow, what the–”
Another hand slapped me, from a different direction this time. By now, there were tears in my eyes — getting slapped somehow hurt more than being punched. At this point, I was starting to wish that I would just get punched.
“I’d like to request that you not slap my patient,” said the same voice that I’d heard in the tube.
I blearily looked at the source — a woman in an off-white labcoat. Standing next to her was a man with metallic arms who was looking more than a little worried.
I glanced back to the sources of the slaps — Emi, her lips pressed tight together in furious anger, and Brenda, who was just frowning deeply, one eye uncovered but closed. Well, that was an improvement over Emi, at least.
“Jordan,” Kathy said softly, gently placing her hands on Brenda’s shoulders to move her out of the way. “How are you doing?”
“Slapped,” I whined. “What was that for?”
“Asshole,” Emi snarled. “How dare you?”
“Emi,” John said warningly.
“No,” she shot back before looking at me again. “Goddamnit, Jordan! Do you know what you put us through?!”
“I can guess,” I lied. I glanced around quickly. A Tinker lab of some sort, though the walls were wood. “Sorry, that corridor messed me–”
“Shut the fuck up you fucking… fuck!” Oh, my. She was mad if she had to struggle to come up with that last fuck. “And quit fucking lying to me! How long have you been sick for, you bastard?”
I winced, looking away.
The man with the cybernetic arms coughed softly. “Please, language. Cursing is a sign of a limited vocabulary.”
John turned to look at the man, his face even and his voice flat. “I generally find that those who speak disparagingly of the intelligence of another based solely on their choice of words tends to be a condescending, pretentious, close-minded, patronizing mother fucker. I will refrain from casting such judgement on you, however, so long as you refrain from casting such judgement on us in return. Thank you.”
“Answer the question,” Brenda said quietly. “Or I’ll open my eye and give the most common answer.”
“Uh, I’m going to need clarification,” I said hesitantly. “I doubt that you wanna hear about when I was four and puking.”
The woman in the lab coat spoke up. “It looked like the damage to your esophogus was the oldest. Upset stomach? Maybe it appears that you were throwing up black sand or something?”
I frowned. “More like coffee grounds?” She nodded once. “Uh, remember when I took that tumble out the window? I first remember throwing up what looked like coffee grounds.”
She nodded. “You were bleeding into your stomach.”
“And the concussion?” Emi demanded.
“Concussion?” I thought back. “No, no. I’ve had concussions before, and I haven’t had anything as bad as them recently.”
The woman in the lab coat snorted. “Given the brain damage that I saw, I’d guess that you’re intimately familiar with bad concussions. This one was mild, though, even though it was having… trouble healing.”
“Oh,” I said softly. After a moment, I looked back to Emi. “I ‘unno. I can’t think of the exact point it happened.”
“Fortunately,” the cyborg man said quickly. “That… That, uh, shouldn’t be a problem any more. The, uh, the healing, I mean. I made some adjustments that should take care of that.”
Now my brain snapped into high gear. I quickly sat upright to look at him better. “You opened me up,” I snarled.
“They had to,” Kathy said, laying a hand on my shoulder.
The woman nodded. “When they brought you to me, you were in pretty awful shape. Unfortunately, I could only try and stabilize you — cybernetics aren’t my specialty, and I wasn’t sure what any of them did. Especially not while they were… Glowing.”
The cyborg nodded quickly. “That’s where I came in. I was able to identify it and work on it a little bit.”
“And what did you get out of it?” I asked in an even, dangerous tone.
The effect was immediate — the color drained from his face and he raised both hands to chest-level defensively. He knew that I wasn’t talking about money. “N-nothing! Nothing! Not really! I mean, your tech and mine, totally different. All that I got were some ways to integrate my own tech into my body better. Besides, I can’t, uh, I can’t exactly sell my tech or anything. I only get ideas on how to modify, well, me.”
“But enough to work on me.”
He nodded quickly. “Yeah! I mean, I was better at the software side of it, but I was able to figure out the rest for the most part. I could only do so much with it, though. I couldn’t, uh, I couldn’t get it back up to 100%. I figured out a lot, but not everything. It was actually easier to interface with the software and adjust settings there.”
I opened my mouth to ask another question when my face exploded in pain again. As I ducked my head and grabbed my cheeck, I was dimly aware of everyone barking at Emi to stop it. I could feel a tear go down my cheek — she was really, disturbingly good at slapping people.
“What the hell?” I asked.
“What the hell do you think, Jordan? I mean, fucking seriously!”
“Emi,” John said firmly. “He honestly doesn’t understand.”
“How the fuck does he not understand?!”
“Because to him, this is normal.”
I opened one eye to look at her. All that I could get off of her was anger as she stood next to me, her fists clenched and her body trembling. I opted to play it safe and just be quiet. Maybe she wouldn’t slap me again and tell me why she was so angry.
It took almost a minute for her to say anything.
“You… You sit there and tell us one thing, and then you do the exact opposite! You say that your body can handle it, when you’re still just fucking human! You break down just as bad as the rest of us, but you just… keep going. I mean…”
She shook her head. “Your cybernetics were mad outta whack, you’ve got a concussion that won’t heal because of that, you’re throwing up blood, who the fuck knows what else, and you still push yourself so god damn hard! You tell us that we gotta fucking rest, but for you it’s go, go, fucking go! I mean… What the actual fuck?”
I frowned softly. “I don’t…”
“Jordan,” Brenda said quietly. “She’s worried and feels betrayed. We trusted you to know your own body, but it seems like you ignore it a lot.”
“It was never a problem?” I said weakly. “I mean… Everything was just passing, not like it was constant or anything.”
“Not…” I said the wrong thing, and Emi’s eyes went wide with anger. I flinched, afraid that she might slap me again. “You’ve been puking blood for over a month now!”
“Thought it was something that I ate. Like, I was developing an allergy or something.”
“And the fucking concussion?”
I pointed to the female doctor. “It’s like she said, I’m used to concussions that I can’t walk away from. I don’t think I’ve ever had a minor one before. I honestly have no idea when it would have happened.”
Emi looked at the ceiling for a moment before turning to the cyborg. “Alright, lemmie ask you this. How bad off were his cybernetics?”
The man frowned. “Uh, he’s had them since, what? October?” I nodded. “Then I would say that he’s probably needed to have them looked at since before Christmas at the very earliest. From what I saw in the coding, they were supposed to get a firmware update by the new year. Without that upgrade, things slowly started to activate or get corrupted.”
I was willing to bet that some of that integration came from the coding, but I wasn’t quite ready to interrupt with that. I felt guilty enough as it was; I didn’t want to make Emi even angrier.
Emi looked back to me, fuming. “Explain that one, mother fucker!”
I lowered my head a little, unable to look her in the eye. “In November, New Fairfax happened, so I teleported to a Danish community. They… It wasn’t like I could just bebop back to Mother’s Hospital to have Riley do her maintenance. Not while being wanted. Wardens would have been waiting for me. There wasn’t anything that I could do, nobody that I could turn to.”
“Then why not tell us?” she boomed. “We would have helped you!”
“Because…” I sighed, my shoulders slumping. “Because at that point, it was so far beyond anything that I was thinking about. I honestly…” Words failed me.
It was hard to keep from crying right now. I had failed them. They’d trusted me to pay attention to this sort of thing, and…
John moved to lay a gentle hand on Emi’s shoulder. “Shhh. Relax, Grendel momma. Relax. Think for a moment. He went from life that made sense to being on the lamb, something that he couldn’t even begin to imagine a month before it happened. Then he had to deal with culture shock whilst also hiding who he is. Then, when he returned from that alien world, he found himself thrust into that gut-wrenching incident in which we met him, followed by what to him must have been the whirlwind of our lives.
“Given his extreme circumstances, I’m not the least bit surprised that he forgot. And neither should you. You had plenty of time alone to think after what happened to you. Meanwhile, the only time that we’ve given him alone has been spent worrying about more immediate concerns.”
Emi said nothing for a long moment before shrugging John’s hands off her and stomping to the door of the lab, slamming it behind her. I winced, feeling lower than a whale carcus, and that fell to the bottom of the sea.
Kathy turned to look at me, a sympathetic expression on her face. “Give her time, Jordan. She looks at you like the bigger brother she never knew that she wanted, so this is hurting her pretty bad. She spent the entire trip here looking after you even before her own concussion let up, and the doctors made the mistake of telling her that if she hadn’t spent most of the time hosing you down like she did, you would have cooked in your own juices.”
“Actually,” the cyborg said, raising a finger. “Neither one of us have a medical degree.”
The four of us all turned to look at him, and the others must have been glaring pretty bad. He winced sheepishly, slowly withdrawing the finger. “Actually, y’know what? How ’bout I keep my trap shut until spoken to? That sounds like a marvelous idea.”
“Then let’s get that out of the way.” I swung my feet off of the metal slab that had been on the back of my tank. “I’d like to know how bad the damage was.”
“Pretty bad,” the woman admitted. “I had to do grafting to a lot of areas that had cybernetics. They’d retained a lot of energy, and until I had Cord here bleed that off, I couldn’t actually do anything. Cybernetics are outside my power. Your body wasn’t able to regulate its own temperature because of that energy, so it was pretty touch and go for a while there.”
The cyborg, Cord apparently, nodded. He seemed happy to be able to contribute to the conversation. “Your equipment is marvelous, able to self-repair for the most part. That, uh, that’s actually part of the problem. See, you have a lot of mountings for more equipment, and there was a lot of it that was self-activating. It was never meant to go so long without being fiddled with. Or, uh, y’know, having something mounted on it. I was barely able to craft plugs for it, but… Well, it wasn’t easy.”
“But you pulled it off,” I said carefully, not wanting to scare him again.
“Took some doing,” he admitted. “Two days to get the idea, two more to get them crafted and installed. Tinker work isn’t fast, and titanium isn’t as common as it used to be.”
Of course it wasn’t. If you tried to turn ore into workable metal in normal conditions, it would burn — you had to remove oxygen from the environment first. Even if most of the people who understood the process hadn’t died by Scion, then many of them were in areas without electricity, or in a bid to keep themselves alive, had participated in the exodus.
So many of humanity’s problems were caused by people looking out for themselves first and not humanity as a whole during that first decade. I couldn’t blame them, though. When you’re scared and hungry, it’s hard to see any further than that.
“Anyway,” Cord continued. “I was able to shut that part down, and plug the parts that I couldn’t shut down.”
“And the enhancements that weren’t malfunctioning before?”
His lips quirked upwards. “They’re all active, yeah. I wouldn’t, couldn’t, shut them down without being a massive hypocrite.”
“I had to replace one of your eyes,” the woman said. “I was able to fix most of everything, but I could only do a touch about the neural scarring on the surface of the brain. Lack of suitable materials.”
I frowned a bit. “Suitable materials? You don’t grow them?”
She bit her lip. “In a… manner of speaking…”
“She’s a splicer Tinker,” John explained. “She doesn’t vat grow her materials or anything like that, though. She modifies and splices either partial or entire organs onto a new body. It’s a pity, but repairing a lifetime of blows to the head would have necessitated a living, breathing human to draw the material from. Somehow, we doubted that you’d appreciate that.”
That raised its own questions. “Alright, then where’d you get the replacement eye?”
“Oh!” Her face split into a wide grin. “I breed my own wildlings. You’d be surprised how many people want a second pair of arms. Or new senses.”
A quake of fear ran through my body as I hopped to my feet. I couldn’t recall what they looked like offhand, but I’d know them when I saw them. I took two steps towards her before something yanked at my pelvis, sending me crashing to the floor.
Right, waste disposal tube.
Kathy was trying not to laugh as she helped me to my feet. I noted idly that my skin was already dry without any residue. What had that liquid been exactly?
“Easy there, big man.” Kathy’s eyes were sparkling. Funny how she was so easily amused when everyone else was upset. “Let’s talk, then move.”
“I want to see those wildlings before we go.”
The woman frowned. “With your cybernetics, I can’t graft anything externally. Not without requiring massive alterations.”
“Alterations that I don’t know how to make,” Cord added hastily. “I mean, really don’t know how to make. My power’ll tell me that your cybernetics are self-repairing, but it doesn’t give me the slightest idea on how that works.”
That was… interesting. I’d guessed before that Riley had used divergent technology, but apparently this was really divergent technology. It was possible that only her passenger, or maybe a handful of others, could understand how it operated and could reproduce it. Or that his passenger wasn’t as smart as his contemporaries. It was hard to say.
“Besides,” the woman continued. “I don’t have a lot that I can spare right now. I had to euthanize more of them than I’d like in order to fix your skin.”
What? “Something was wrong with my skin?” This was news to me.
“You didn’t know?” Brenda asked, sounding surprised.
I shook my head, and John explained. “Your body had an odd hexagram pattern to it, filled with smaller hexagons. The closer that I looked, the patterned seemed to be recursive, with smaller hexagons filling each hexagon. Apparently, you would have been left with some fucked up scars had she not operated on it.”
“You still do,” the woman said with a nod. “Because of the cybernetics, I couldn’t just skin you and replace your skin wholesale. But I could reduce them to the point that they should only show up under certain kinds of lighting. It’s not perfect, but–”
I held up a finger to stop her as I was hit with a pressing knowledge. It was weird, being both terribly familiar and something that I couldn’t quite put my finger on. I focused on it for a moment.
I recognized my surroundings as New Brockton, but only for a moment before someone slammed into my chest, hugging me tight.
“Jordan!” Nexus cried out before pulling away, a bright grin on his face. “Holy crap, you have no idea how worried I was about you! I saw what happened, and when you didn’t respond I thought you were dead! I couldn’t find the others to tell me, either.”
It was funny, he was dressed like a normal person that you’d meet running around New Brockton. Not that I could tell — save for Mom in the distance, everyone else was a shadow in the shape of a person. I spared her a wave without lifting my arm before focusing on Nexus himself.
“I’m fine now,” I said quickly. “I’m with a couple of Tinkers who fixed me up.”
He nodded energetically. “Right, okay. Yeah, cool. Tinkers, eh? That’s probably going to be expensive, then?”
I frowned a little. That was an excellent point. “I, uh… I have no idea, actually. We haven’t gotten that far.”
Nexus clapped his hands and rubbed them together. “Okay. Okay, I tell you what. You find out, then you tell me, okay? I’ll handle the costs, and if you all already got them, then I’ll go ahead and repay you guys.”
I tilted my head. “Uh, pardon my asking, but why?”
“Standard procedure,” he said with a dismissive wave of his hand. “You work for me, I handle your medical costs. Them’s the rules.”
Not what I’d have expected from a drug cooker. “Alright…” This did give me an opportunity. “Say, how long’s it been since that happened?”
“A little over two weeks. It’s July 10th.”
Good to know. “And the village?”
“It’s good,” he said eagerly. “Real good. The Wardens are clearing house and are doing reparations. Above and beyond the contract, trying to save face. The papers are saying that you might be hunting corruption wherever you find it. Sour grapes and all that. I’d suggest avoiding New Brockton — they don’t have any special concerns, but if people see you there, they might think that you’ll go after Tattletale.”
I blinked. That was a weird bit of logic. Why would I go after Tattletale? She was an Undersider, and it was her city. Why would I do something dumb like that?
I decided it was best to avoid voicing that out loud, though. “Thanks for the heads up. What’s the general consensus of me right now?”
“Dangerous. Maybe psychotic. People are talking, confused over everything that’s been happening. The papers are still pushing you as a psychopath, but there’s a couple of reporters saying that you’re one of the good guys. I might have a hand in that. Just a bit.
“How bad’s the damage?”
“I’m still learning that,” I said with a nod. “You actually interrupted me while I was learning all of it.”
“Right, right.” He nodded again. “Okay, I tell you what. Find out what’s going on. If you all need help paying the Tinkers, ping me and I’ll handle it all. Otherwise, go ahead and head back to your staging grounds. Fill in Fenix and I’ll have him reimburse you for the full amount, plus an inconvenience fee.”
Nexus backed away from me, a huge grin splitting his face in two. Both hands pointed at me as he winked. “Awesome work, Jordan! I’ll be in touch!”
I blinked as the memory of the encounter finished. Apparently, by the position that everyone was still in, no time at all had passed. Strange, but Thinker and Stranger powers tended to be harder to single out the details on. At least, for me.
“Sorry about that,” I said with a polite smile. “Nothing to worry about. Uh, so you replaced an eye, had to do some grafting, and gave me a skin job?”
“That…” The woman frowned. “That’s an interesting, and mildly disturbing, way to put it, but… Yes. I fixed the tissue damage from the cybernetics as best I could, using my wildlings. It’s not perfect, but that’s my own perfectionism speaking. You probably won’t know the difference.”
Bull. I’d know, but I’d have to push myself to know just how much it was. There wasn’t much sense in trying to do that now.
I nodded, then tried to pretend that I had just realized. “Say… Uh…” I looked at the others. “Do… Do we owe them any money?”
John shook his head. “We emptied our coffers, but we were able to cover it.”
“Fortunately our good doctors are willing to overlook who we are in exchange for some extra coin,” Kathy chimed in. “But yeah, we’re going to need a good job here soon. A big one, to get back on track.”
“Right, I’ve got one in mind.” And that was before Nexus got involved. “How–”
The door opened again, and Emi stormed back inside, my armor bundled in her arms. The newer of the two sets of armor. That was… interesting. I distinctly remembered wearing my old armor. Whenever we were doing a job, I wore my old armor. While I liked the newer stuff for when we were doing recon or whatever, my old armor was more recognizable.
“Strip,” she demanded.
I pointed at her. “What happened to the armor that I was wearing?”
“It disintegrated,” she said flatly. “No weeping now, dork. Strip, and let’s get you in some real clothes.”
Here she was, referring to my armor as everyday wear. I was glad that we were on the same page on this. With a sigh, I worked on getting the metallic briefs off, and she got to work dressing me. Even angry, she was helping me get suited up.
Maybe our relationship wasn’t shattered after all.