Kimberly tugged at the armor as everyone filed onto the response craft. Rumor had it that the Wardens were getting their first taste of a new kind of cloth-based armor, and she felt more than a little envious of them. This leather armor might be soft as far as leather went, but to her it was heavy, it chafed, it didn’t fit quite right, and it was ugly.
The principle was sound — if a Warden Cadet couldn’t take care of their armor, then they probably didn’t have the discipline needed to follow the rules. So everyone got some padded leather armor and couldn’t even modify it like full Wardens could. They had to keep it in good shape and wear it almost all the time.
In practice, though? It was annoying as all hell.
Everyone made their way to their seats, except for Trent, the Warden overseeing their squad. While the rest of them were a bundle of nerves, he seemed oddly relaxed. Then again, he didn’t get riled up. At least, not so far as Kimberly had seen.
“Cadets, your tablets will have our target,” he said in his weird quiet-but-authoritative tone.
While the other four grabbed their tablet computers, Kimberly spent a moment double-checking her straps. She didn’t feel scared once they were in the air, but until they took off, the idea of getting in a big metal thing and flying off, hoping that whatever Tinker tech that made it was solid, was more than a little terrifying to her.
Besides, she grew up in New Brockton, and her father helped maintain the internet there. She’d grown up around computers, and only she and Terry had experience with them. The other three still needed time to enter their passwords.
“What the fuck?!” Terry yelled, his voice almost… panicked? Maybe she should have gotten the tablet first.
Trent folded his arms, frowning. “Mr. Kear, watch your language, please.”
As Kimberly grabbed her tablet, Terry glared at their trainer. “Are you trying to get us killed?”
“Holy fffffffudge,” Nathan said, looking up from his tablet in shock.
As Kimberly logged in, Melody was still silently mouthing out the words. The poor girl only had the most basic of education, and that all had been focused on farming, not anything proper. She had been sent to the Orphanage for a crash course before she’d been allowed to start her classes or her training.
Kimberly finally got up the orders, her eyes bulging.
“You’re sending us against Jordan?” Shelley asked, bewildered.
“You came up on the rotation,” Trent said calmly. “And we have a solid lead on him.”
“He’s listed as an A-class,” Nathan said. “But he’s not triggered. Shouldn’t he top out at B?”
“Good question,” Trent said, squaring his shoulders back. If he wouldn’t have been their handler, Kimberly might have had a crush on him — he was always calm, he was handsome enough, with a broad chest and chiseled, bearded face that seemed almost out of place with his lean muscle. “Can anyone hazard a guess as to why he’s listed as an A-class?”
“To wipe the floor with Cadets,” Terry whispered to himself.
“Har har. Does anyone have any serious guesses?”
“He’s defeated two different response teams,” Melody said, looking up. “He used a teleporter to defeat Agamemnon despite it not being designed for that, and he survived going deep into St. Louis. He’s rooted out a pair of corrupt Wardens and forced them to retreat, took out teams of imposters pretending to be him, and rumor has it that most of them were triggered. There’s also a rumor that he beat Legend and Chevalier in a sparring session.”
While she might not be educated, Melody wasn’t stupid. Kimberly had to give her that.
Trent held up a finger. “To be fair, that was purely sparring, and it’s likely that they were being easy on him, given the fact that he’d just come back from the dead. And his sister was also helping him in that session.”
“I thought they said that he intimidated those two into surrendering?” Shelley asked. “I mean, I heard that he was pretty much half-dead when he encountered those Wardens.”
“Yeah,” Kimberly added. “From being irradiated with microwaves, wasn’t it?”
“Close,” Trent said, nodding. “He was half dead. But it wasn’t microwaves. I’ve read the reports, but whatever was used on him was some sort of Tinker load of crock that I don’t understand. But the Thinkers say it’s a miracle that he was even moving at that point, let alone able to convince those two that he was able to destroy them.”
“Thinkers,” Kemberly said pointedly. “As in, multiple?”
“Yep. I don’t know numbers or anything like that, so don’t ask, but I know it’s multiple.” Trent looked around them. “This is your best chance to get yourselves up to speed. Please read your mission briefing, and feel free to discuss everything among yourselves.”
Kemberly immediately looked down, focusing intently on scanning the briefing. The first part, the orders, was simple enough once you cut through the official jargon to the heart of the matter: Capture Jordan alive for questioning. Don’t kill his allies. Try not to seriously wound his allies.
Up next was the history. “Can I ask for some clarification?” she asked.
“Okay. It says that he came to the Orphanage at the estimated age of three, assigned as a intensive needs special needs resident until four, and as a special needs until eight. What’s that mean?”
“Yeah,” Nathan chimed in. “You’re from the Orphanage, right?”
Trent smirked ever so slightly. “Yes, I am, but I never really dealt with Jordan. There’s a lot of us there, so we can go without actually knowing someone there.
“But to answer your question. The difference between intensive needs and special needs is the amount of care needed. Special needs basically means that… Like, PTSD, medium-function autism, suicide watch, that sort of thing. You need to keep an eye on them, but you don’t need to watch them too close. Intensive needs means that they need to be watched pretty closely, or that they need help with the most basic of tasks. People who have significant brain damage, for example, are listed as intensive needs.”
“Why’s it say ‘intensive needs special needs?'” Shelley asked.
Trent snorted, his lips turning a bit more upwards. “Because the people who wrote the briefings are idiots.”
The craft lurched as it lifted off the ground, and Kimberly squeezed her eyes shut. It wasn’t until it settled into a more calm route that she opened her eyes and let go of the arm rest. Damn, she hated takeoffs. Landings weren’t much fun, either.
“How was he brought to the Orphanage?” Melody asked. “Do you know?”
“Why do you want to know?”
“Well…” She pressed her lips together. “I mean, stop me if I’m wrong, but… It seems to me that there might be something there that we can use to appeal to him to give up?”
“Good thinking!” Trent nodded eagerly. “That’s exactly what everyone should be looking for in the briefings. But you won’t find anything there — he was a wanderer. They found him walking towards the Orphanage, probably a good ten miles out, in a fugue state. That fugue state didn’t lift for a good year or so, which is why he was downgraded to special needs.”
“Fugue state?” Melody asked.
“Out of it,” Terry said quickly.
“Close enough,” Trent agreed. “He was walking, but he wasn’t exactly aware. And from what I hear, he was in some bad shape — and that’s before you even take into account how the traveling got him.
“People think that he suffered from domestic abuse, somehow ended up with a concussion and wandered out. From what I’m told, his feet were bleeding pretty badly when they found him. He was in the same state for the next year or so before he snapped out of it.”
“But you didn’t know him,” Nathan repeated.
“No, I didn’t. But when someone you went to school with does two amazing things back to back, you get in contact with others and discuss them.”
“What was he like back then?” Melody asked.
“From what I hear, he’s always been a little weird. Focused. Smart, but if it didn’t interest him, getting him to learn it was like pulling teeth. If it did interest him, he threw himself into it utterly completely. Friendly, always willing to help, but he had the problem that he didn’t have much time to do much with folks. Not between his studying and his siblings.”
“Right, he has a brother and sister.” Nathan seemed honestly proud of remembering that. “The sister’s one of us now, and the brother’s a Tinker out near Brockton.”
“Sort of.” Kimberly smirked as Nathan deflated from Trent’s response. “They aren’t related, but they were siblings before they were adopted. And before anybody gets the wrong idea, talking about his siblings is a bad idea. One thing that I seem to recall is that he shattered someone’s eye socket for bullying his brother.”
Shelley nodded. “I heard about that. Apparently, the first capture team was holding their own against him until someone threatened his sister. Then he completely destroyed them in under half a minute.”
“Exactly,” Trent said with a nod. “He got in a bit of trouble because of that, but they always went easy on him because of how he arrived at the Orphanage.
“Anyway, other than the fact that he was a little intense and a little too focused, I think that the main thing was that he was a good guy. Everyone agreed, he was naive, maybe a little too sensitive when it came to how other people were feeling, but not in a bad way. He just wanted everyone to be nice and happy.”
“I’m looking at the list of crimes,” Terry said. “And it’s kind of odd. Person of interest regarding New Fairfax, no surprise to anyone. Assault, theft, blackmail. Given how the papers have been saying he’s leaning towards shaking people down. Second degree murder. Wait, what? And then when I click on it, everything’s covered in redacted brackets.”
“That’s not the only thing,” Shelley said. “There’s a lot that’s redacted here.”
“And that’s unusual,” Trent agreed. “Normally, we can only guess as to what happened, but I’ve been cleared to share a little more with you. Apparently, when he was putting the fear of death into folks who were pretending to be him, someone resisted and gave him some lip. So he lined all of them up and punched them. One of them, though, he apparently punched differently from the others. Three days later, they died of a bruised heart. Thinkers determined that he hit them specifically to do that.”
“What?!” Nathan stared at Trent in horror. “Someone told me about dim mak when I was a kid, but I thought that was all bullshit.”
Kelly bit back the response that Trent was the only one over eighteen here. To older folks, they all were still kids.
“It makes sense, given his training. The Thinkers believe that the strike is almost guaranteed to bruise the heart, and that without getting it taken care of, death will happen at some point. The exact time would be impossible to pinpoint, though. Could be hours, could be days, could be moths.”
“Okay,” Nathan said slowly. “I’d just like to say that I’m starting to rethink being a Warden.”
“I wouldn’t worry,” Melody said quickly. “It says that he used to worship the Wardens because he wanted to be one. But I can see people using his name to shake down others, and do all that other nasty stuff, it’d be something that would put him in a murderous rage. I mean, the last time that we tried to get him, when that town was being shot up, he crippled people, sure. But he only broke arms and legs and stuff. And the two Wardens he attacked got off pretty light.
“I’m starting to think that deep down, he doesn’t really want to hurt people.”
“What makes you think that?” Trent asked. Kimberly noted that he was staring at Melody oddly. Was that a hopeful look?
“Well,” she said, squirming now that she was on the spot. “Look, he’s… He’s shaking people down, but he’s not, y’know, going all bandit. He’s obviously got some sort of pattern going on with whomever he targets. But he isn’t hitting caravans, and it’s pretty rare for him to actually attack someone. So… Maybe he’s going after targets that he thinks he can scare into giving him money and stuff, and if they attack him, he wails on them?”
“Yeah,” Terry said. “Or maybe there’s a deeper plan there? Like, he isn’t kicking their asses for a specific reason, or kicking the asses of others for a specific reason. After all, I read in the papers that some of the places he’s hitting are pretty legit and–”
“Don’t believe everything you read in the papers,” Trent interrupted. “Every place that he’s hit that we’ve investigated has been a scumbag of some sort.”
“That fits,” Melody said quickly. “If he wanted to be a Warden, then he might be trying to be like them as best he can right now. If he can’t arrest them, maybe he can disrupt their business?”
“Or maybe it’s because he thinks people like that won’t report that he’s been there,” Terry said. “Listen, going into his motives right now? It’s probably not gonna help us here.”
“Maybe,” Kimberly said. “I mean, maybe we can talk him into coming with us? I really don’t wanna be on the pointy end of that halberd.”
“Yeah,” Shelley said quickly. “Maybe if everyone else has gone after him, trying to arrest him, we can try just talking with him. Then, even if he kicks our asses, maybe we can give the higher ups something.”
“Give them something?” Nathan asked.
“Intel.” Terry nodded. “Yeah, you got a point there.”
“What about his companions?” Melody asked. “You all can read it faster than I can.”
“Uh… Four people.” Kimberly scanned her tablet. “Brute, Blaster-slash-Breaker-slash-Shaker with an emphasis on Blaster, a Mover, and… They aren’t sure what the fourth is, but they know she’s a para. Unknown names, but it shows that they’re suspects in a number of cases involving robberies, fraud and the like. Well, most of them. One of the women has less on hers than the others, and the man has forgery, drug dealing, a count of murder, and… something redacted.”
Shelley frowned. “Normally, a crew like theirs is in bigger stuff than that.”
“Never underestimate what white collar crimes will get you,” Trent said sagely. “Holding up a caravan might get you some funds, but someone has to pay for that caravan. They’re probably going to have more money than the caravan itself. And they can be more dangerous when cornered than people who fight for a living. They get cornered and panic rather than knowing when to give up.”
Nathan frowned, reading his tablet again. “Okay, then they might panic into a fight. Or they might be convinced to give him up. I think they’re wild cards in this, though. We won’t know how they react until they actually react.”
“This isn’t helping us,” Terry groused. “The question is, how are we going to handle this?”
“Scans confirm the target.” The pilot’s voice echoed throughout the hold.
Kimberly quickly looked over the tablet again. They’d discussed, argued, and debated tactics. In the end, they hadn’t come up with a solid plan. Part of that was due to nerves — all of them were almost as nervous as the prospect of going up against someone like Lung. It didn’t exactly make things easy.
“Find a place as close as possible and settle down,” Trent commanded. How could he stand the entire time? Right, his power.
“Who’s squad leader for this one?” Melody asked nervously.
“Hm. Good question.” As they began their decent, Trent did what appeared to be a flip at first, but instead of landing back on the floor, his feet hit the ceiling and he stayed there, turning to face them again. “Kimberly, you’re up this time.”
Fuck. She looked back down at her tablet, trying to do one more scan for information. Something, anything. It was frustrating how much was redacted. Even worse were the things that she was coming to realize were just plain hidden. They had a surprisingly lengthy list of crimes for Jordan’s companions, but they didn’t have names listed. They didn’t even have aliases listed.
“There’s no way that they didn’t hear us fly by,” Terry said.
“You’re right,” she mused, not looking up from the tablet. Nothing was giving her a solid idea on how to proceed. But he was right — this craft wasn’t designed for a stealthy approach. “So stealth isn’t an option. And if they’re expecting us, trying to take them quick and dirty isn’t a smart move I think.”
The craft jolted as it touched down. Instantly, she was unstrapping herself. “Form up. We’ll move in together, announce our presence. We’ll see if they’re willing to talk before we resort to violence. Keep yourselves ready to fight, but…” She swallowed, even though her throat felt dry. “But, uh, try not to give them a reason to jump the gun. We don’t want them to make the first move.”
“And if it comes to violence?” Nathan asked as he got to his feet.
“Jordan’s our primary target, but keep an eye out for the rest of his crew. They aren’t fighters, but they’re still paras. Jordan doesn’t seem like he’ll resort to lethal force if we don’t, but we can’t be sure about them. Play it by ear and follow my lead, I guess.”
As soon as everyone was on their feet, she hit the button for the back bay doors and lead the way down the ramp. With the five of them off the craft, Kent jumped after them, landing firmly on the ground. And to think that it was only one aspect of his power.
No matter, they had more important things to worry about. “Comms check.” She reached to her radio and pressed the button, causing a single burst of static before looking to Terry. “Two.” He hit his button twice. “Three.” Melody obliged with three quick bursts. “Four.” Nathan hit his for her. “Five.” Shelley gave five slow pulses. She always did it slow.
“Right, let’s go.”
They fell into step behind her, with Trent following a few steps behind them. He was, for the most part, just an observer.
Despite her cool tone and unflinching walk, Kimberly was a bundle of nerves. Not only was she going to have to fight Jordan and his lackeys, but she was being graded on it. Why couldn’t it have been Nathan? He hadn’t been in charge yet, either, and he’d probably get someone who wouldn’t kick all their asses solo.
No running away. She focused on her breathing as they walked, trying to keep herself calm. She could do this. Her future within the Wardens might be on the line, as how she did in this one test might dictate where or how she was used within the organization. That just meant that she had to buckle down and give it her all when facing a guy who had easily taken apart two teams already.
Why the hell were they sending cadets against this guy?!
Now, as a wagon came into sight, it was too late. It took a few more moments before she caught her first glimpse of someone — a man sitting on the back of the wagon, a book in his hand. But he was far, far too white to be Jordan. Soon after, she saw three women — two sitting next to each other under the shade of a tree, with an Asian girl leaning against it.
No Jordan, though. Had they gotten the wrong place?
As they approached, the man looked up from his book and called out to them in a thick New York accent. “Ahoy ahoy! Wardens, huh? What brings the mighty protectors of the Earth to our neck of the woods?”
Bullshit. He already knew. She hadn’t seen a picture of any of Jordan’s crew, but Kimberly’s gut told her that they had the right place. Fine, then. It was go time.
She squared her back straight and called out in as confident and authoritative of a voice as she could manage. “We know you’re here, Jordan. Please come out.”
“Fuck!” The explosive shout from behind a tree made Kimberly jump a little. Immediately, Jordan stepped from behind it, but she didn’t get a good look at him. Even if they couldn’t get a clear view of his face, his armor looked right, give or take. He turned away from them, violently kicking a tree repeatedly. “Fuck! Fuck! Fuck! Fuck! Fuck!”
“Jordan,” one of the two sitting women called out sadly, frowning at him.
“Fuck! Fuck! Fuck!” All that Kimberly could make out was that he seemed like a powerful guy. Maybe not the strongest, maybe he didn’t have huge rippling muscles, but he kicked the tree quickly in concert with each outburst, his body tensing with effort each time.
Finally he turned to them, his face screwed up in fury. “Is it too much to ask for?!”
Kimberly took a breath, feeling woefully out of place suddenly. All of the control that she had, all the ways that she had felt like this situation could go, none of it had prepared her for that. It felt like the world had moved about three feet to the left without anyone warning her. “Um, excuse me?”
He shook his nearly-bald head quickly. “In the past few weeks, I’ve had organs melted, cybernetics start to explode, been disassembled, put back together, spliced up with who-knows-what, beat up, pistol whipped, kidnapped, poisoned, attacked by wildlings, underfed, and…”
The fury fled from his face, instead replaced by a profoundly sad expression. “Is it too much to ask that I get to at least have lunch or once before I get into a fight? I mean, that’s only fair, isn’t it?”
The stubble on his face and neck was shorter than the stubble on his head. He’d probably never be able to grow a full beard that looked worth anything, but at least he might be able to rock a goatee if he worked at it a bit. Even as he looked at them with hopeful desperation, there were lines around his mouth from years of smiling.
That wasn’t the only part of him that carried years, though. Deep bags were under his eyes, the kind that came from a long, long time of not sleeping right. His face was strong, with well-defined cheekbones and a square chin, but neither helped pinpoint his ethnicity — his skin was dark enough that there were a few different ones that could count. His nose and facial features did nothing to help narrow it down, either.
And holy crap, she hoped that was a codpiece he was packing, or else, ouch.
Seeing him in person was different from the photos on file. The ones from Twain showed off a somewhat shy, bashful man covered in scars and missing a chunk of his ear. The picture from the Agamemnon fight… Some people thought he had struck a pose of heroic defiance, but to Kimberly, all that she had seen was the face of a man who had accepted that he was about to die and was eerily at peace with it.
Neither of those photos prepared her for this guy who looked at them so pleadingly.
Kimberly licked her lips, her eyes darting to his companions. They hadn’t moved at all, but the horses were becoming nervous. Now it was time to make a decision. She only hoped that it was the right one.
That made him stop and blink several times in rapid succession. “Uh, what?” Good. He deserved to be confused, too.
“Sure.” She took a breath before smiling at him. “I mean, we are intruding, I guess. And, uh… I mean, I haven’t gotten to get anything to eat before coming here, so, uh…” She turned to look to Shelley. “Hey, don’t we have some e-rats in the craft?”
Shelley looked at her like a frightened animal for a moment before replying. “Um, well… We… We do, I think. But not a lot. I mean, not, like, enough to feed all of us. But maybe if we make a stew or something, maybe get some more stuff for it, we could make a meal for ten people.”
“Eleven,” the Asian girl corrected.
Kimberly looked at the rest of her team, confused. There were only five of them…
“I’ll admit that I wouldn’t mind some grub,” Kent admitted, startling Kimberly. She hadn’t forgotten that he was there, but she hadn’t thought that he’d play even the slightest role in things.
“Right,” she said with a nod, turning back to Jordan and offering him a bit of a smile. “Maybe we could do some, er, some foraging, you know? I mean, I hear a river nearby. Maybe we can get some fish or crawdads or something to add to it, too. I can use my power to make that a lot easier.”
“So you don’t want to fight me?” Jordan asked cautiously.
“I’d rather not,” Kimberly admitted. “If at all possible, that is. But no matter what, I think that it’d do everybody a lot of good if nobody had an edge of hunger while we talk, right?”
Jordan hesitated for a long moment before standing up straight again. He might not have the scars, and while he might not be the most attractive guy in the world, Kimberly could see why some people might be attracted to him. As he approached her, he oozed a strange confidence. The small smile that formed on his lipss didn’t help matters any, either.
“Okay,” he said, wiping a hand on his armor. Right above a pistol holster, she noted. An empty pistol holster. But she didn’t have time to think about it before he offered his hand to her. “Hi, I’m Jordan. No surname.”
“Kimberly,” she said, taking his hand and giving it a firm shake. The glove of his armor was oddly cool to the touch. “I, uh, don’t go by Kim — there were two other Kim’s where I lived, so it was easier to go by Kimberly. I’d, uh, rather not give my last name.”
“No,” he said, smiling a little wider. He took care of his teeth, at least. “I get that, no worries. It’s a pleasure.” He paused to look to the others. “You don’t have to shake hands, but if you could at least be polite and introduce yourselves…”
The Asian woman was the first to wave, flashing Kimberly a lopsided grin. “I’m Jade.”
“Pavel Smerdyakov,” the man in the wagon called out cheerfully with a lopsided grin. An assumed name, obviously.
“Kate,” one of the sitting women called out.
“Rachel,” said the other, who was wearing a blindfold? Probably the member of the group that there was the least information about, and what little was there was overly redacted more so than the rest.
Jordan, for his part, made his rounds, shaking the hand of everyone. A brave move, to be honest — there were a lot of powers that they could have had to use against him without even knowing it, transmitted by touch. That caused a small tinge of fear to settle in the pit of her stomach; either he was trusting them to hold to their word completely, or he was completely confident that he could take them even if they did subtly use a power on him.
She wasn’t sure which was scarier.
As soon as introductions were done, he turned to his group. “Pavel, Kate? Could you please get some firewood?” Pavel grumbled, but closed his book and slid off the wagon as Kate rose to her feet. Jordan turned back to the Cadets. “Are any of you good at foraging?”
Melody stepped forward. “I’d be more than happy to help.”
“Good.” Jordan’s smile grew, but it didn’t quite reach his entire face. Maybe he was just seriously short shifting himself on sleep and couldn’t get it that far, or he was faking it. She was willing to bet the former — his voice didn’t seem to be faking at all. “Then you can help Jade.”
He looked to Nathan. “And–”
“Are any of them cute?” Rachel interrupted, eliciting a groan out of Kate.
Pavel, though, laughed. “You might find young Terry to be to your liking, but the only one that I find attractive is the good Mr. Trent.”
Jordan whipped around, his smile so wide that it threatened to split his face in two. “Oh my gosh!”
“What?” Pavel asked, looking a little worried.
Now Jordan was downright bubbly. “That’s the first time that you’ve actually given me a hint as to what’s your type!”
As much as Jordan had caused Kimberly’s train of thought to derail, now Pavel blinked at him in confusion. “What?”
“You once told me that I’m not your type, so I’ve been trying to figure out what exactly is your type. Now I have somewhere to start!”
Pavel took a breath, and while his mouth tried to work, he wasn’t able to form words for a moment. When he finally did, it was with a halting, almost stuttering cadence. “I would… I’d accuse you of n-needing a hobby, Jordan, but that… You… I suppose trying to figure out my preferences based on idle observations would count as a hobby to you.” He looked to Kate. “Let us spirit away before he vexes me more, hmm?”
“I’ll help you,” Shelley said, moving to join them.
“Good thinking,” Kimberly said with a nod. If there was someone with each group, there were that many more chances to pick up something that they might need to know. “Terry, why don’t you get the e-rats, and leave Nathan to keep Rachel company?”
“Sounds good to me,” Terry said with a nod.
Nathan frowned nervously, but quickly nodded and forced a smile to his face. “Yeah, okay.”
Kimberly turned to Jordan with a smile, motioning for Jordan to lead the way. “Well, then, why don’t we get some fish?”
He bowed his head a little, turning towards the sound of the small river. Kimberly was content to walk next to him for a little bit, waiting for them to get out of earshot before speaking again.
“They seem nice.”
“They are!” Jordan exclaimed sincerely. “I would have died a few times over if it hadn’t been for them. Besides, we all need friends, don’t we?”
Kimberly shrugged. “I suppose.”
“Mm.” Jordan looked at her. “Sorry.”
“Social isolation is a common component for many triggerings. At least, it used to be — with how the rules have been breaking down, it’s more common to not need it, but it’s still a common theme.”
Kimberly grinned a little. Yeah, she hadn’t had many friends as a kid, but that sort of mental leaping was surprising. “Where’d you learn that?”
“At school. Basic Parahuman Theory.”
She shook her head. “Then they must teach a different course in New York than the Orphange. I didn’t get that in my BPT class.”
“Oh.” He frowned a little. “Intermediate, maybe? I dunno. All of my classes just sort of meld together, to be honest.”
“I’ll believe it. I saw your course load. I’ve got to admit, it’s impressive.”
That earned a chuckle out of him. “Thanks. But you know, it really isn’t…”
His words trailed off as he slowed to a halt, staring off into space. One moment, he was talking normally, and the next he was just… vacant. It was like someone had just flicked a switch and he’d shut down.
Just as quickly, though, that smile returned and he was walking again. “…as impressive as you might think. I’ve spent a lot of time studying parahumans, and you just sort of pick it up after a while.”
That was… weird. What just happened there? She wasn’t sure, but now wasn’t the time to dwell. She had to keep up, both physically and mentally. “It’s still impressive to me. You’ve got a really good grasp of it.”
His smile turned bittersweet. “Yeah, well. I, uh… I kinda wanted to be in your shoes ever since I was a little kid. So I tried to teach myself how to do stuff like break down a crime scene, analyze folks. You know, the works.”
Kimberly’s smile faded a bit. “If I ask, you aren’t going to tell me what happened, are you?”
Jordan sighed, his own smile disappearing. “No. I’m sorry, but… No. My version of what happened? No, I don’t want to talk about it. Not now, not ever. And I’d really like to avoid ending this thing we have going prematurely.”
“Gotcha.” If she pressed her luck, he felt like he’d have to fight her. She could read between the lines. The problem was, there were far too many lines, and not enough space between them to satisfy her. “I just gotta say, though, I’m a little surprised to see you throwing in with people like them, even if they are good people at heart.”
That smile came back instantly. “Why’s that?”
“I dunno. Just… Hanging out with criminals, shaking down innocent businesses. It doesn’t seem like your style.”
He snorted. “You think that we’re shaking down innocent businesses?”
“That’s what the papers say.”
Again, his smile fading a little again. “You know, it’s kinda funny. Once upon a time, I relied on newspapers for so much information. I always assumed that they were, you know, obligated to tell the truth and stuff. Since New Fairfax, though, I’ve realized that they… I don’t know. Have their own agendas, I guess? They put their own spin on things, and don’t necessarily tell the truth.”
Kimberly frowned. “So you’re saying that you don’t shake them down?”
“Oh, we shake them down, alright. Sometimes, we have to rough them up, too. But innocent? We’ve gone after a lot of people, but none of them are what I’d call innocent.” He paused for a moment. “Okay, since New Fairfax, what big things have I done?”
“Big things?” She thought about that for a few moments as they approached the water. “Well, you went after the people who pretended to be you. There’s also that incident with the Tinker and the two Wardens.”
“How’d that turn out, anyway?”
She blinked. He didn’t know? “Uh… The Tinker kept recordings of everything that happened in town, so it wasn’t hard to figure out that they were both on the take and being blackmailed. They’ve already been found guilty and are serving time. All three of them. They’re having to be careful with the Tinker, though.”
“Yeah,” he said with a nod. “You gotta be careful with them. They’ll surprise you, and the next thing that you know, they’re walking out of jail, easy as can be. Anyway, like I was saying, I’m still me, I just gotta, you know, make sure that what I do gets us money. And I have my preferred ways of doing it.”
“So you’re saying that you’re targeting criminals, and the papers are covering some of them up?”
“Yeah.” As they broke through the brush, Jordan smiled again. “And here we are!”
Kimberly walked up to the water’s edge. A lot of little fish that she could immediately see, but no big ones that she could see offhand. At least the small river, so she wouldn’t have to work too hard to get this section. “Okay, why don’t you go downstream and catch whatever I can drum up?”
He hurried off and quickly stepped into the water. Hopefully, that would force more fish upstream. Kimberly took a deep breath and put her hand underneath the water, sending out of pulse of energy and vibration, trying to keep it powerful while making sure it traveled to the other side of the river.. They’d found that it worked best in water, but it also worked in soil, and could work through the air, but with a lot less efficiency.
Almost instantly, stunned minnows popped to the surface. A moment later, a few sunfish came up, too. Not enough to feed everyone on their own, but with anything else that might be added to the soup, it might help.
As Jordan hurried to try to get the fish and throw them ashore, something else bobbed up to the surface. Kimberly’s eyes went wide and she quickly ran into the water, wading over to it before it could regain its senses. With a grin, she grabbed it and hauled it out of the water and over her head.
“I have a turtle!”
“Oh!” Jordan’s face split into a wide grin. “I like turtle! That’ll make for a good meal! Come on, bring it to shore. Let’s get it ready quick and head back to the wagon.”
Kimberly shifted her grip on Terry as he stumbled, keeping him from keeling over. She was worried that he might have a concussion, but they’d need someone better trained to deal with that. The broken nose probably wasn’t doing him any favors. Fortunately, they were close to the rapid response craft now.
“Man,” Melody said. “We got stomped.”
“What did you expect?” Nathan asked. “Did you think that we were going to win?”
“Not really, but… I dunno.”
“Hey,” Shelley barked. “C’mon now. We were doing pretty well for a moment there.”
“For a moment,” Kimberly agreed. “We had him for a moment, until Rachel got him loose.”
“Yeah.” Nathan grinned a bit. “Did you see her throw that knife? She didn’t even look, and bam, Jordan was free again.”
Kimberly didn’t have the heart to tell him that Jordan had been on his way to getting loose before the knife had been thrown. She didn’t want to dampen what few good spirits there were still left from this mission. She was, however, thankful that Jordan and the others had been willing to call it quits after Jordan had gotten free and tackled her. If Trent hadn’t asked for it to end, she didn’t want to think about how she’d be hurting. Nathan was still walking a little funny from how Jordan had gotten him.
“I think someone has a crush,” Shelley said in a sing-song voice.
“No!” He puffed out his chest, which only made him start coughing. “Ugh. And it isn’t a crush. Though… If a certain someone hadn’t been standing there watching me, I might have tried making out with her.”
Kimberly shot a glance at Trent. She was pretty sure that his smirk couldn’t get any more smug.
“Enough of that,” Trent said, shaking his head. “Did anyone pick up anything?”
“Rachel’s from a cult,” Nathan said quickly. “She wouldn’t give me much details, but it gives her problems sometimes. There’s apparently a lot of stuff that she doesn’t know — she knows all about Gold Morning, but she doesn’t know anything about Fyrtorn, for example.”
“I’m pretty sure that Jordan thinks he’s innocent when it comes to knocking over businesses,” Kimberly added. “He won’t talk about a lot of stuff, or even why he won’t talk about it. It was the only threat that he made.”
“Pavel and Kate aren’t their real names,” Shelley added. “These two are smooth operators. It took me a moment to realize that they were talking in code to each other. They know what they’re doing.”
“In more ways than one,” Nathan agreed. “The way that the five of them worked together… I mean, I thought that we trained together well, but those five… I don’t think that flying paras spend as much time in the air as I did.”
Kimberly couldn’t help but smirk at that.
“Alright,” Trent said slowly. “Now, what did we learn?”
It was Terry who spoke up first. “That no matter how much we train, someone can, and will, kick our asses.”
“Yeah,” Melody agreed. “We got lucky. They really could have hurt us, but they held back.”
“I don’t think any of them really wanted to hurt us,” Nathan said. “I don’t really think any of them are killers.”
“What about Pavel?” Kimberly asked. “His record says that there’s murder in his background.”
“The briefing didn’t go into detail on that,” Trent reminded us. “I’d like to remind you that you don’t know the circumstances around it, or even the severity of the charge. Maybe is was self-defense, or an accident.” He paused for a moment. “Anything else?”
Melody bit her lip. “I, uh, did learn one other thing. I think.”
Trent raised an eyebrow. “Alright? Go ahead.”
She frowned and shook her head. “I think… I think that this is the sort of thing that I should talk to you in private. I might be wrong, and… Well… Even if I’m right, I shouldn’t say it in front of anyone else. It… Yeah.”
Trent nodded. “That’s fine. If it is what I think it is, I was hoping someone would figure it out.”
Kimberly frowned, looking between the two of them. She didn’t like to be left out of the loop, but even with her wrenched shoulder, she felt like punching them. You didn’t say something like that and then keep it a secret. You just didn’t! It wasn’t cool, it wasn’t right.
And he expected them to figure out something that might be wise not to say in front of everything else…
A knot formed in Kimberly’s stomach. She might not know what it is, but she had the feeling that she wouldn’t like it at all if she ever found out.