The wildling paced back and forth, occasionally giving a guttural growl in my direction. The beast was an interesting one. A wide, stocky, powerful body that didn’t lean out along the middle like most animals. The head was a typical morphology, too. The skin tone was close to human, too. For the most part, it looked like it should have been a rather bland type with no interesting features.
The long, lean appendage that came out of its back that terminated in a single claw ruined that, though. It should have had two of them, but the back had a deep pit on the left-hand side where the other arm would have been. No doubt, it had been removed for some reason.
The beast lunged at me, the claw stabbing forward and barely smashing through the glass in front of my face, spraying me with dust. Not shards, I noted calmly, but dust.
“Bad,” Dr. Redford said sternly behind me. I heard a click — no doubt that weird Tinker tech weapon both she and the stable hands had.
The beast’s growls softened slowly. Over the course of half a minute, its muscles slowly relaxed. After almost a minute, it collapsed onto the ground, passed completely out.
I reached out and gently stroked the claw with my finger. It looked smooth, and stroking it front to back, it felt smooth. Back to front, though, was amazingly rough. A strange serration that couldn’t be seen by the naked eye, increasing the damage done by the natural weapon. Interesting. I pushed the claw back through the glass barrier.
Even more interesting was the fact that the glass began to repair itself slowly before my eyes.
“That’s one of the less docile breeds that we have here,” she said apologetically. “I’m not sure, but I think that the female might be in heat, so he’s a little more agitated than usual.”
“How’s the glass work?” I asked.
There was a pause before Dr. Redford responded. “It’s a combination of bacteria and fungi that I spliced together in a fit of brilliance, then let mutate on their own. I don’t get ideas like that very often, especially not on that micro level, so it’s one of my personal favorites. Just after the first pair of wildlings that we captured, too, so it was right in time.”
I nodded slowly. Not in time, a reward. Collecting breeding pairs of wildlings was not only dangerous work, but it would draw the ire of others. If the theories about passengers wanting us to fight with each other were true, then it would explain that nicely. She was increasing the likelihood of people lashing out at her, or would draw others who would fight to her.
“You excised the left arm. I assume that one of the New 53s asked you for that?” The New 53s were a relatively recent movement of extreme body modification. They claimed individuality by changing their body in excessively different ways, usually relying on parahumans for that. Patterned scarring, mutations of form, the more extreme, the better. Usually, they were further out west, towards the heartland.
I occasionally wondered what the original Case 53s, people who were mutated by certain Cauldron vials as they gained their powers, saw these newcomers. For the most part, though, I just kept my head down, did my thing, and let them do theirs. Some, though, I had shared words with. Sadly, none of them ever had what I was looking for.
“Yeah. He only wanted the one, though. He said something about evils of symmetry. Whatever. Anyway, this breed I usually use for their heart and skin. The texture isn’t quite right compared to that of a human, but for someone on a budget, it’s worthwhile.”
I silently nodded again, staring at the unconscious wildling.
“You know, you aren’t what I imagined, Jordan.”
I blinked, looking over to her. “Bwah?”
The doctor smirked a little. “Getting smacked around by your friends…”
“I probably deserved that.”
“Studying my tech…”
“Tinkers fascinate me.”
“Studying my wildlings…”
“I wanted to make sure they weren’t one of mine.” She pursed her lips and tilted her head ever so slightly. She was curious. “I befriended a pack of wildlings in Saint Louis. I was rather fond of them. If, uh, if you had one of them, I would have offered to buy them from you.”
Dr. Redford’s lips quirked upwards. “They were friendly?”
“Extremely affectionate, extremely protective of me.”
“Well,” she said slowly, drawing the word out. “If I ever see any like that, I’ll be sure to let you know. Can you give me a description of them?”
I opened my mouth, but closed it again a moment later. I could remember them. I could tell you what they did, how they behaved. But what they looked like? I had absolutely nothing. “Sorry,” I muttered with a shake of my head, tapping one temple.
“That’s fine,” she said warmly. “You’ve been through a lot since then. It’s only natural.”
Dr. Redford turned, motioning for me to follow as she lead the way towards the exit in that odd gait of hers. Most likely, she’d been born with a more extreme birth defect, possibly full paralysis from the waist down, leading to her trigger. But her passenger wouldn’t let her use her power fully on herself, leaving her constantly trying to get it to refine the process so that it would leave her fully functional.
At least, that was my guess. I could be wrong.
“You aren’t what I expected either,” I said as I followed. She spared me a curious glance. “I’d figured that most doctors wouldn’t operate on me, Dr. Redford.”
She rolled her eyes. “Call me Janet. I’m not big on formalities, and it’s not like I spent a single day in school after Gold Morning.”
“I’ll work on that, Doctor.”
That got a snort out of her, but she sobered fast. “Well, I’ll be honest, I would have preferred not to, but there were two things that changed my mind. Even if only half of the things that the papers say about you are true, it’s still a better idea to stay on your good side than your bad, and I didn’t figure that you’d be too pleased with me if they found someone else to help you.”
“Smart of you,” I said, nodding. Not everybody was meant to be fighting, even those with powers. Knowing when to pick and choose your battles was very pragmatic.
“Secondly, most of the people who come here can’t afford Mother’s Hospital. They try and make it on their own for as long as they can, and by the time that they come to me, they can barely even afford the trip. I have to set up a payment plan and hope for the best, so I get stiffed more than I like. And that’s before taking into account the discounts I hand out.
“Your friends offered me a shitload of cash up front. When I told them that I couldn’t do anything about your cybernetics, they were willing to literally turn their pockets inside out to get Cord here to look at you. Dumbest fucking thing, I ended up having to feed them.”
I looked at the ground, smiling sadly.
“They’re good friends,” she said softly. “Aren’t they?”
“Yeah. I’d be hard-pressed to find better.” Gah. We were getting into a conversation trap that I really didn’t want to walk down. Time to change the subject. “Did your passenger ping off of anything while you were working on me? It’s Riley’s work, so I was just thinking…”
Dr. Redford rolled her eyes, but she was smiling a little. Too little — there was a tinge of sadness there. “Not really. There was a lot of fascinating work there, and your body itself is an amazing study… But usually if I’m going to get a burst of inspiration, I get it immediately. I… didn’t get anything.”
Ah, now I knew what was going on. She saw herself as inferior to Riley. Interesting. I could help with that, maybe. “Huh. Uh, alright. Another odd question. What sort of neurological assistance mechanism do you use?”
That made the doctor blink. “What?”
“Well… After Riley worked on me, they explained that while she can do a lot, she has to have a microchip, neuro-lace, or something similar to assist brain function. Well, when you have damage like I took from Agamemnon, at least. But if you’re splicing in new muscles and even new limbs, then that’s gotta include some adaptation to the nervous system, right?”
“Oh!” She laughed a little. “No, nothing like that. I have a few methods to help integrate new muscles and bones in such a way that they naturally become part of the body with no chance of rejection. If I’m not adding new limbs or anything, it’s almost instantly back to normal. If I’m adding new limbs, I have this chemical that will help the brain adapt to whatever I added. Usually it takes about a week to get people up to speed.”
“Wow!” I was grinning from ear to ear. “Now I’m really envious of your patients.”
She gave me a blank look before snorting. “Why? You had Riley operate on you. There’s nobody better than that little psycho.”
“Eh, maybe in the vast versatility of her power, sure. But, see… I spent over a month getting back up to speed after my surgery, and I my body was returned pretty much to the exact state that it was before I got hurt. Sure, old wounds were taken care of, but still.” I grinned at her. “You’re adding limbs and having them recover faster than I did without any cybernetics! That’s amazing!”
Dr. Redford’s eyes narrowed a bit. “You’re buttering me up.”
“No, actually. I’m not. I honestly mean it. I mean, I was looking at your monitors and stuff, and you’re cobbling together pre GM tech to jury rig your equipment. That’s… That’s insane, you know? Almost all of the Tinkers I know have to build from scratch. But you make it look all brand new unless you’re really, really paying attention. That’s pretty cool, too — you’ve got some technical skill beyond what your passenger gives you, which is more rare than you’d think.
“Seriously, though, if you’re ever strapped for cash, you should contact Mother’s Hospital. They’d probably kill for that chemical you make. Uh, figuratively, I mean. And that stuff that you had me in? When I first woke up? They’d probably be interested in that, too. You could probably work out a trade for better equipment or something.”
“Oh, come off it.” She stopped and turned to me. “You’re just trying to make me feel better.”
I took a slow breath before reaching out and hesitantly laying a hand on her shoulder. “I’m not,” I said sincerely. “Please, take it from someone who knows a thing or two about Tinker tech and got the VIP treatment there. You have stuff that they could use. I can’t promise what sort of deal you can work out, but… It’s worth it. Even if all you can get your hands on some fresh equipment, it’ll be worth it.
“Heck, that stuff that improves neural connection growth? I’d love to get my hands on some of it. Please. Give it a shot. The worst that can happen is that they’ll say no, and then all that you’ll have lost is a little bit of time. But believe me when I say, Riley will gobble it up.”
“You think?” Dr. Redford asked shyly.
“I know. Stuff like that is worth its weight in gold over there.”
The woman sighed softly and shook her head. “Fine. And I’m tempted to just go ahead and give you the drink.”
“Wouldn’t hear of it.” I let go of her shoulder and smiled. “We’re going to get paid back for everything once we get back home. I’ll gladly arrange to get you the money.”
She raised an eyebrow and I chuckled. “Either I’ll teleport, or I’ll see if one of Nexus’ people will send it to you.”
That made her eyes go wide. “You work for Nexus?!”
I winced a little. “Kinda? Just that once, and, uh…”
“But he’s paying you back?” she practically demanded, and I nodded slowly. “God damn it. Dev! Dev, where are you?”
After a few moments, a youngish, heavily tanned man stepped out from cleaning a pen, pulling the thick, wildling-skin leather helmet off.
“Dev, go tell Philip to get ten draughts of formula 10-B ready for them to take on the wagon, then contact Nexus and let him know that I’m not sending his man off without it, and that he can reimburse me directly, alright?”
“Right.” The man began to pull off his gloves, but Dr. Redford called out again.
“Don’t change, just sprint, please. I’m afraid that they’ll go no matter what, but I don’t want this guy suffering for it. And tell Philip to hurry, too!”
With a sigh, Dev turned and began to run as fast as he could in the armor. I felt bad for him — not only did he have to clean the wildling pens in that heavy stuff even after they were subdued by the energy guns, but he had to run in something that obviously wasn’t meant for quick movement. Poor guy.
Dr. Redford smiled back at me. “There. I have no problems taking from his coffers.” She paused. “Don’t tell me that you let him into your head.”
I blinked. “Uh, yeah. It’s weird. It’s not like having a conversation, it’s like you remember talking to him. In really weird settings, with weird stuff going on.”
She rolled her eyes. “Yeah, well… Just be careful, alright? The idea of any para having access to your noggin’ like that… I know they say he doesn’t influence your thoughts, but… I dunno. I just don’t trust him with my brain. Thankfully, Dev doesn’t mind, and Nexus pays him a little whenever he uses him to pass along messages.”
I nodded. “Right.”
We fell into an awkward silence as we headed back for the wagon again. Last night, Kathy had explained that since they didn’t know the coordinates for the village, they’d done a quick teleportation back home, grabbed what they thought they could use, then back to our safehouse. Then they’d rented a wagon to make the trip.
Well, more like bought it and would get most of the money back if they returned it. Apparently, they also planned to tell Fenix that they’d bought it, and provide him with the receipt. Even the con people.
It was telling, in a way, that they’d gotten my duffel bag and not my pack. I’d already transferred the extra money that Chris had given me to the pack — otherwise, we’d have had plenty of money. Well, if I’d told them about it. I wasn’t sure why I was keeping quiet about that still. It wasn’t like I didn’t trust them, but… I just didn’t want anyone to know about it.
As we approached the wagon, the others were making sure that we were ready to go. “Do you have food?” Dr. Redford asked.
“Yeah,” Kathy said, smiling brightly. “We scrounged up a little, and we’re lucky enough to have a good hunter and a good forager in our group. We’ll be fine.”
I hoped that she wasn’t referring to me as the hunter. I sucked at hunting.
“Alright.” The doctor paused. “Now, when do I need him back here?”
“August third,” Emi said quickly. “One PM sharp. No wasting Cyberbutt’s time.”
I frowned. Dr. Sacora didn’t have a codename. Why was she…? Oh, right. She was being a smartass.
A man came hurrying our way, carefully holding a box. He handed it to Dr. Redford, who presented it to me. “Take care of yourself, Jordan.”
“I’ll do my best,” I said with a reassuring smile.
She studied me for a moment before looking to the others. “Scratch that. The four of you take care of him.”
“Please,” Brenda said, a playful smile on her lips. “With him? It’s not so much taking care of as it is screaming and trying to figure out how he isn’t dead yet.”
“Yeah, I’m starting to get that.” Dr. Redford was smiling, though. “Off with you, then.” She flashed me a strange smile before heading back towards the large barn.
She was one of the lucky Tinkers. The village here was populated by a bunch of former military and survivalists, leading to almost everyone being armed and well-versed on how to defend themselves. She had a good village backing her up, and in exchange, she could patch them up from any wounds they got.
Still, the village did have a response contract with the Wardens. A nice shiny button on their communications array that when hit would get a response team out here pronto. If a Tinker didn’t have someone around to protect them, things could get difficult for them. I was glad that Chris had Tim and Tabby to protect him, and the Dragon’s Teeth.
“What’s that?” John asked as I set the box in the wagon.
“I made a deal for a little something for all of us.” I smiled at him. I might as well say something to make him feel better, and I was pretty sure that I had an idea as to what. “And Nexus is going to pay for it.”
Instead of looking happy, he frowned a little. “Jordan. I really wish you wouldn’t contact him.”
“Oh! No, no! I didn’t! She did. I–”
“What?” Kathy snapped. “For fuck’s sake, how many people does he know?!”
I frowned, looking down at the ground. Great, I was already screwing up things this morning.
Kathy took a slow breath to calm herself. “Jordan… Listen, you… I… I’m not angry with you. I’m upset because if we’d known, we could have saved ourselves a lot of money. A lot of it. So, uh… Yeah. Since we don’t know who he knows, we kinda got screwed on this trip back.”
“It’s alright,” Brenda said, unusually chipper. “We’ll figure something out. I’ve got a good feeling.”
“That’s the spirit,” John said with a smile. “Now, we’ve got a week’s ride ahead of us. Let’s get started, shall we?”
I nodded, reaching into the wagon to grab my halberd. As I straightened, though, I felt a push against my side even as I heard Emi teleport. As I turned to face her, she jabbed a finger into my chest.
“Mother fucker, you’re riding in the wagon or else I’m biting your fucking kneecaps off.”
I frowned a little. “But I just got those fixed.”
“Don’t care! Nom nom, crunch crunch. Get in the fucking wagon.”
I sighed softly. This wasn’t a fight that I was going to win. I sat in the back on a hay bale, my legs dangling over the back so that I could jump out at a moment’s notice if need be. At least I could have that much.
Everyone else got loaded on, a mild tension in the air. Emi hadn’t forgiven me completely yet, and I was still going to suffer for it. And if I was getting her hostility, then everyone else was being made uncomfortable.
Almost everyone, it seemed. As the wagon started moving, Brenda blindly looked in my general direction. “Walking with the wagon is a big deal for you, isn’t it?”
“Kinda,” I admitted. “I mean… It gives me something to do.”
“I’d think that it would be boring.”
“Oh, don’t get me wrong. Totally boring. But it’s less boring than walking along. While walking, I have to maintain my position with the wagon, keep an eye out for hazards on the road, watch for potential ambushes or issues with the local wildlife, pay attention to the position and situational awareness of everyone else that’s walking… All sorts of stuff. And most of it is automatic, but it’s still there.”
“It takes the edge off,” Kathy guessed.
Emi licked her lips. “You don’t handle downtime well.” It was a statement, but there was something about the way that she said it that made it feel like a question.
“No. No I don’t. I can’t just… do nothing. I don’t know how people do that. I….” My hands played with the shaft of my halberd. “I just can’t. I’ve got to be studying, or training.”
“But your training…” Emi took a deep breath. “You’ve been telling me that I need as much downtime as training time, but you don’t do any of that yourself. You’re always training. Always pushing yourself.”
“Once you reach a certain level, you have to keep at it in order to maintain it. Your gains decrease, but the chance of skills atrophying increases. I’m still not good enough. People… still keep getting hurt. My strikes aren’t perfect, my timing isn’t always the best. I keep making mistakes. I have to…” I shook my head, words failing me.
Kathy looked back from the front of the wagon, though I would have preferred if she would have kept her eyes on the road. “Jordan… Nobody’s perfect. You’re always going to make mistakes.”
“Yeah, I know that. But I can be better. I’m already really good, but… I know that I haven’t hit my limit yet. I haven’t even seen my limit. I can feel it in my bones.
“I’m… not like all of you. This whole subterfuge thing still confuses me. I still feel uneasy about it. I mean, don’t get me wrong, it’s good, and we’re doing good things. I get that. But…”
“It’s not who you are,” Brenda said softly.
I shook my head. “Not at all. I’m meat, y’know? I get that.”
“You’ve got brains,” John observed. “You aren’t just muscle.”
“Well, yeah, I get that, too. But… I dunno. Training is just… It’s what I’ve always done. It’s how I pass the time, it’s how I grow. I don’t really do anything outside of that.”
Emi frowned. “You said that you used to play games with your brother and sister.”
“That’s different,” I said quickly. “She dragged me into that, and I wasn’t… I wasn’t really all that into it, to be honest. I was mainly trying to puzzle through whatever she set in front of us, then trying to find ways to game the system. To use the rules before us to the maximum effect. The story was alright, but Chris was always more into that than I was. I just did it to spend time with them, y’know?”
“We do things we don’t like for the ones we love,” John said thoughtfully. “I did it with my fam, too. And, I suspect, you do it with us as well.”
“Yeah,” I confessed. “The whole… You know, the whole burlesque thing isn’t my style. Really, I’m there for the food and dancing with Brenda at this point. I don’t even get all that much out of the humor. I… honestly can’t remember a single joke that they said at all.”
“And to you the dancing is a form of training.” For someone so quiet, who spent most of her time blind or alone, Brenda was dang observant.
“Yeah. I’m training you while I do it. But I really do enjoy the movement, the… The doing things. I just get so bored in my room unless I’m training.” I sighed softly and looked down at the ground without really focusing on it.
I could hear John sigh to himself. “You really need to learn how to relax, man.”
“Been getting told that all my life.” At least Sarah and Chris had just learned to accept it.
John was silent for a moment. When he did speak, it was in an odd, wistful tone that sounded a little strange in his New York accent. “‘Blood is thicker than water.’ It’s said that the term is a bastardization of another, but I always find it odd that they never point to any examples of this. But even if it is wrong, I do like the other version more.
“‘The blood of the covenant is thicker than the water of the womb.’ I like that. There is friendship, there is family, and then there are friends who are family. The people with whom you can turn such bitter vitrol at, and yet still feel disconnected from the world should they be separated from you. Philia, I do believe it’s called.
“We worry about you Jordan. Emi is upset because you’ve been quietly hurting yourself. But at the same time, we don’t want you to be miserable. Even as you worry now about making us happy, we worry about your own happiness. And somewhere in there is a compromise, if only we can find it.
“Until then, perhaps I can give you a little peace and respite during our ride, hmm?”
I looked back to him, curious. He was sitting next to Kathy at the head of the wagon, grinning from ear to ear. “Yeah, sure. Whatcha got in mind?”
“Well, you have been teaching us a bit about fighting, but we did get our asses kicked in that fight. Perhaps instead of teaching us simple moves, why don’t we discuss deeper concepts, such as tactics?”
I thought about that for a moment. Emi had gotten a concussion in that fight, and I’d rather avoid that sort of thing in the future. He made a good point. “Alright. I can do that.”