“You know, we still don’t know what exactly it is that you’re doing.”
Aurora smiled as politely as she could manage. Old farts who needed to just go ahead and die already, she could live without them. “Well, when we started, we were making industrial chemicals. We figured out how to make aluminum oxide sulfate, which was extremely helpful to Twain.”
Michelle chimed in herself. “It’s mainly used in the purification process for high-end electronics.”
One of the old councilwomen nodded a little. “So, for Tinkers?”
“No,” Aurora said quickly. “Well, not directly. It’s mainly used for more mundane technology, but most of that can be used for Tinker stuff down the line. When we first realized what we were making, and how insanely little waste it produced, we knew that they’d be swarming all over it. Unfortunately, we should have known that they’d find a way to reproduce it. Within a week we went from high demand to absolutely no orders.”
“Fortunately for us, Donald Jerome had just bought us out two weeks before the orders stopped.” Michelle might have been smiling, but her hands were clenched into tight fists under the table. She was wound tight right now, but she was still doing it. “When it dried up, he began looking for any way to keep us going. We’re supporting his labs, and along with other things.”
“The forging,” Mayor Tobar said, nodding. “I can understand your position, but we are getting complaints about the noise.”
“We’ve wrapped chain around the anvil to help dampen the noise,” Aurora said firmly. “We also don’t start until ten in the morning at the earliest. We routinely check with our neighbors to see if there are any complaints, and make it clear to everyone that if there is a problem, they can freely come and talk to us.” She pulled a pile of papers out of her briefcase, setting them on the table. “In fact, he’s everything that everyone in a three block radius has had to say.”
The city council was bluffing, and she knew it. There weren’t any complaints, there was only the fact that now there was a blacksmith in town. As it currently stood, everyone had to call up Carlsberg and have their needs delivered. Now that everything was set up, they were drooling with possibilities… If they could get the crew to cooperate.
“Be that as it may,” the mayor said slowly. “We still are getting complaints. We’re going to have to work something out.”
“I’m sure that we can reach an agreement. Perhaps if services were to be rendered, we could convince the dissenters that you were too valuable to–”
“Stop,” Aurora said firmly, shutting the wrinkled old fuck up. “Let’s put this into perspective, shall we? We’re making four hundred in New Brockton coin per month. That’s each one of the five of us, making that much. It’s not as much as what we were pulling in, but it’s reliable. And, big surprise, we’re spending most of it here in town.
“Now, what you’re asking us is to blow off the man who pays us in order to spend all of our blacksmith’s time doing every little thing that folks in town want. Presumably, free of charge, as a way of ensuring that we stay in your good graces. If that’s the case, we have no problems walking away from here. We’ll go ahead and pull the wiring, fixtures, and the nails from our homes as we leave. Dave’s the only one from here, and even he’s willing to go ahead and move to Florida.”
They looked uncomfortable. Good.
“Now, if you are willing to pay the lot of us at least two grand a month, then we can talk. We’ll need more than what our boss is offering us, though, because he also pays for all of our gear and materials and provides us with free medical leave and actual vacation days.
“But rather than trying to make a deal with us, you’re claiming noise complaints when I can hear the Den from the other side of the town at two in the morning. So, no, I’m not inclined to reaching an agreement, unless if you’re going to offer us an actual agreement.”
The mayor was glowering now. “You really don’t want to do this.”
“That sounds like a threat. Shall I call in the Twain lawyers to comb through the local laws and harass you with litigation? Or can we walk away, continue spending more money than the four of you, and consider that our blacksmith might be willing to do stuff for the town after she finishes the job that she gets paid for, free of charge. The choice is yours.”
It took two more angry rants from the mayor before they were allowed to leave. The mayor wasn’t telling them to pack their bags, at least, but he made it clear that the five of them weren’t their favorite people. Aurora didn’t give even half a flying fuck what they thought of them. That guy, Jack, had helped coach them on how to play hardball with the council, and said that they actually would get a ton of lawyers to fuck up the entire town if need be.
It was ironic, really. They worked for a guy who was known for being a badass, wanted for killing an entire town, and his crew was helping them to come up with things worse than violence.
Michelle whimpered softly, wrapping her arms around herself as they walked.
Crap. “Hey,” Aurora said gently, wrapping her arm around Michelle’s shoulders. “You did great back there.”
Michelle shook her head, looking like he was about ready to burst into tears. “I shouldn’t have come along.”
“I needed you there,” Aurora said, comfortingly. It was true. Michelle might not have said much, but having her there next to her had given Aurora a lot of strength.
“I feel like they know,” Michelle whispered. “I feel like they’re judging me. I… I thought that it was supposed to get easier after the surgery.”
Aurora’s heart broke. They’d lied to that crew about the New 53s. Sure, they went to Redford to get modified, but the one thing that Michael had asked in letting everyone in on the secret to making ess was that he got to have some surgery done to modify his body. Aurora and Dave knew what he was talking about, but Jim had gotten a little weirded out by the details. Thankfully, he got over it quickly.
They’d lucked out with Redford having someone waiting in the wings for a similar, but opposite, operation. If there hadn’t have been… Well, she could play up the good doctor role as much as she wanted, but there were less pleasant ways to get the parts necessary.
Aurora gave Michelle’s shoulders a gentle squeeze. “They don’t suspect a thing. I promise. Nobody does. Hell, if I hadn’t known you before, I wouldn’t. None of us are talking, so you have nothing to worry about, alright?”
“I don’t know,” she whispered. “If they find out… They aren’t the most accepting sorts here. Not when it comes to that sort of thing.”
That… was unfortunately true. The party line on homosexuals wasn’t very good; they claimed they were against it because of the fact that humanity needed to grow and have children, but Aurora suspected that it was just plain old bigotry. That, and the three people leading the city, were the only things that she didn’t like about the city.
“Well, there’s one thing that you don’t have to worry about at least.” Michelle looked at her. “Can you imagine what the bossman would do if they got all up in arms?”
Michelle looked at her strangely for a moment before snorting. “Actually… Yeah. I can see this bewildered look while he asked them what the fuck, a bloody polearm in one hand and a rocket launcher casually over one shoulder.”
“Exactly. I mean, come on. He may not lean on us for much, but he could have left us high and dry, and he didn’t. And he’s always asking if we need anything around the house, how we’re doing, and all that jazz. I don’t think that I’ve ever worked for anyone so concerned about me before.” The fact that he gave them all fourteen hundred as thanks for saving his life… That wasn’t chump change.
Michelle frowned a little. “You think I should tell him?”
“If it were anyone else, I’d say no. Hell, I wouldn’t tell any of his crew. Period. But…” She shrugged. “I dunno. Just the read that I get from him… I think that he won’t get it, but I think that he’d want to know, just so that he can protect you better, you know? We’re his employees, and he’d want to know about anything important.”
Michelle nodded. “Alright. When he’s done with Cheryl, I’ll pull him aside and tell him.”
It took almost fifteen minutes to make it to the house again; the little township took the New Brockton approach, giving every house plenty of room. Most of them had tall fences of some sort. But they liked that privacy.
As they drew near the back gate, they could hear the anvil. Honestly, it wasn’t that loud, and Cheryl stopped when it got dark. They’d bought the house because it made a good place to cook and chill. It was pretty damn big, and the basement was not only huge, but half of it had been properly cemented. The fact that the city had power only made things even sweeter.
Since then, as per Jordan’s instructions, they’d finished the basement properly. They probably couldn’t fit drug cooking stuff down there if they wanted to.
The two of them slipped through the gate, and Aurora moved to the shack’s door, lazily opening it. “Hey.”
Jordan looked up from the hammering that the two of them were doing. He was shirtless, but even though Cheryl was sweating, there wasn’t the slightest sign that he was warm. And in this light, there was something odd about his skin that she couldn’t quite put her finger on. He gave her a huge smile — another thing about him that bothered her which she couldn’t put her finger on.
“Hey,” he said warmly. “How did it go?”
“Eh.” Aurora shrugged. “They’re trying to put pressure on us to work for you and not them.”
That dampened the smile a little bit. “Alright. I’m kinda useless in this area. Could you talk to the others about that?”
“Figured. Alright, I’ll let you two finish up what you’re doing.”
Michelle spoke up from behind her. “The next time you put it on the coals or whatever, could I steal you for a minute, Don? I’d like to talk with you in private about something.”
He looked to Cheryl, who shrugged. “Give us maybe five or ten minutes, and we can take a break for a bit.”
Aurora pulled away and went inside, leaving Michelle behind to wait for them. She moved through the kitchen and into the dining room, where the others were all sitting.
“Hey,” said the eldest woman, though Aurora guessed she was only in her mid-to-late twenties. Maybe thirties, but that was pushing it. “How did it go?”
“Just told Jordan, and he told me to talk to you. They tried to put pressure on us to do blacksmithing for them and not you.”
The man frowned a little. It was surprising to see him without little Justine in his lap. He seemed to love babies, though he claimed that he wasn’t so fond of them when they got older. “You said they were old-world politicians?”
“Yeah. One sec.” She turned and hollered into the living room. “Dave! C’mere!”
It only took him a moment to appear, smiling politely. “Yo, what’s up.”
“The mayor and his cronies. They wanna know.”
“Right.” Dave turned to the four of them. “Old-world politicians, out of Charleston, back in the day. They weren’t huge back then, but they had enough clout to lead the exodus here. They pretty much run the town, but not, like, in a bad way, you know? They’re corrupt, and it’s pretty obvious, but it’s more like… They skim off the top, so they wanna make sure that the top is as big and good as it can get. Does that make sense?”
The man nodded. “If they only take a small percentage, then they’ll get more if everyone else is making more.”
“Exactly, yeah. Nobody really likes ’em, but they work out good trade agreements, and set up a good police force. They even have a provisional response agreement with the Dragon’s Teeth and Wardens.”
“English, please?” the Asian girl asked.
“If shit goes down, the police hold things down until either the Teeth or the Wardens show up, but it costs us every time they do.”
The oldest woman nodded. “Alright. How’s it looking with them and the US?”
Dave shrugged. “Shaky. Every few months, some folks from the new US government show up, trying to add us to their collective. The mayor’s playing hardball. To be honest, if he kicks it, the town’ll probably fold in pretty easily. We think that the corruption’s the reason why they’re holding out; it’s harder to skim when there’s bureaucrats going over everything, y’know?”
The man nodded. “Right. Gotcha. Okay, for now, let’s just continue like we are. We’ll check in every couple of weeks or so, and if they start leaning on you again, we’ll go from there. Sound good?”
Aurora nodded. “Works for me.” She looked to Dave. “Where’s Jim?”
“Shopping. Took the sprite with him.”
“Perfect.” She turned back to the others. “I was hoping that I could get some real talk with the people who are actaully behind this little operation.”
Dave sighed, and the man straightened in his chair. The woman, though, merely smiled warmly. “Have a seat.”
As she made her way into a chair and set the briefcase on the table, Aurora glanced to Dave. “Could you get the papers?”
He frowned, but left. The two of them had talked about doing this, and he was against it, but sometimes, you just gotta talk.
Better to start off simple, though. “Jordan seems really happy to help out Cheryl.”
The blind girl smiled a little. “He does, doesn’t he? I think he’s happiest when he’s doing something like that. Plotting, resting, I think all that doesn’t interest him. He’s happiest when he’s talking to you, studying, or doing something. Anything that he has to pay attention to.”
Aurora nodded. “I get the feeling that he doesn’t get a lot of chances to do that.”
“Most of our job is waiting,” the woman confessed. “Waiting for information, the right moment, the right people to show up… We can go weeks without doing anything. It drives him crazy, I know, but he never complains.”
“He doesn’t, does he?” Aurora glanced towards the back door. “And he doesn’t get just how terrifying he can be.”
“Not in the slightest,” the Asian girl said. “He’s the sweetest guy on the face of the earth, but…”
The man nodded. “The brighter the image, the darker the negative. He has some… anger management issues, but fortunately, you have to push his buttons to awaken those. I’ve noticed him glaring at people when they aren’t polite to us, but that’s about the only thing that I’ve seen annoying him. Once you get him mad, though…”
“We’ve seen it a few times,” the woman said sadly. Aurora guessed that she was the guy’s girlfriend or wife. “One moment, he’s going normal, and then the next… When he hits it in a fight, you realize that he’s been holding back all this time. He just… moves, far faster than I’ve ever seen anyone but a para move. He hits harder, more precise, and people just fall. And you just sort of realize… If he wanted you dead, you would be. If Lung pissed him off, I’d put my money on Jordan killing him. And if he wanted you to hurt, you’d be begging him to stop before he even really started going.”
The blind girl joined in. “Even when you don’t push those buttons, he’s so smooth in a fight. It’s like he’s one step ahead the entire time. He switches from one thing to the next so easily, dodging things that he shouldn’t, responding to new powers instantly, taking hits and recovering so fast that you think that he meant to take them to set himself up for a counter or something. It’s strangely beautiful and terrifying at the same time.”
Dave walked back into the dining room, setting the newspapers next to Aurora. After a moment’s hesitation, he settled down next to her.
“Alright. So, the first real order of business.” She looked between the four of them. “I want your names. Your real names. Jordan always has this little, tiny hesitation whenever he calls you something. And we haven’t jerked you around, so we want the same respect in return.”
“Brenda,” the blind girl said instantly.
The other two looked far from happy over it. She imagined that they protected their real names jealously, though she couldn’t blame them — why give people another hint to their rap sheets? But finally, the woman relented.
“Fine. I suppose if everyone else is throwing in, I might as well, too. John.”
Aurora smiled warmly, even if she suspected that the last two were lying. The other two didn’t react, though, so she had to take them at face value. “Thank you. Now that we have the air clean between us, do you know about Jordan taking on Wardens?”
“Uh, yeah?” Emi chuckled. “We’re kinda there fighting them with him. It’s almost a game at this point.”
“That’s not what I mean.” She pushed the newspapers towards them. “We get as many papers as we can. Sometimes they’re days late, sometimes weeks. But our local rag doesn’t have enough on Jordan himself, so we gotta cover our bases. And here lately? He’s been taking on a whole lot of them. Solo.”
Kathy and Emi took papers quickly — they’d circled the articles about Jordan, thankfully. John chewed his lip as he thought.
“So, he’s doing this solo… Taking on whole squads?”
Aurora shook her head quickly. “No. He seems to be going after corruption in the ranks. Places where the Wardens can’t keep as close an eye for whatever reason. He goes in, bangs them up, handcuffs them, then calls it in. By the time that the Wardens arrive, he’s got evidence laid out nicely and he teleports out.”
John sighed, closing his eyes. “Damn it, Jordan.”
“We’ll talk to him later,” Kathy said. “No offense, but this isn’t the sort of conversation that I want prying eyes on. And talking to him can be a little, uh, tricky.”
“Like how he forgets things?” Dave asked. “Not just little stuff, either, but big things.”
“Noticed that, huh?” John frowned. “Yeah, he… We think that it’s not so much of forgetting. We think that he’s purposefully suppressing it until he can’t remember. That doctor, she said that the brain damage he has shouldn’t affect his memory.”
He had brain damage? That was news to Aurora. It might explain why his expressions always felt a little… off.
“He underwent some extreme training,” Emi said. “Like, he learned how to… Okay, this is tough. He learned how to slow down time by hitting his parts of his brain with adrenaline, like the… something. Anyway, he says that a Thinker helped teach him to do it, but when I pressed him about it, he just gave me a blank look. Like, I think that he forgot that one.”
“Though I’m more willing to bet that Sergei had something to do with it,” Kathy said, thoughtfully. “Just like I’m willing to bet that he helped with Jordan’s memory suppression.”
“Wait,” Aurora said, holding up a hand. “He let fucking Sergei mess with his head?”
“We said the same thing,” John said dryly. “But apparently, it’s a thing going back to his time at the Orphanage. Anyway, I first noticed it when he kept claiming that he learned things in school, but he always listed off beginner or intermediate classes, even when he’s talking about some pretty advanced stuff. I think that when he can’t remember where he learned something, he just…” John spread his hands. “Learned it in school.”
“It’s more than that, though.” Kathy frowned deeply. “He’s said that about stuff that I’ve taught him that was right around a stressful time for one reason or another. And when he talks about a few of the scrapes we’ve been in, it’s obvious that he’s blocking out details.
“We’re planning on talking to him about it this winter, while we’re laying low.”
“Laying low,” Aurora said, prodding.
“Yeah. We’re heading to a place on the east coast in… some reality, I can’t remember which. We’re getting day jobs, and holding up. It’s… easier that way, for a lot of reasons.”
Aurora nodded. “But you’re still going to drop by?”
“Oh, yeah,” Emi said, grinning impishly. “You guys are great cooks, and I wanna learn how to make those pot pies you do.”
She was still a teenager. Wait a few more years, and she wouldn’t be so eager to eat.
“Okay. So, what? Is all this all about money?” Aurora noted Jordan and Michelle visible through the window, quietly talking.
“For us it is,” John said. “We can’t exactly settle down. We’ve all got a price on our heads of some sort. Jordan has his own goals, which… We can’t really ask about, because he just blinks at us dumbly. But once he gets a target, we’re along for the ride.”
He pointed at the newspapers. “That… might have something to do with it. Since there isn’t any money in it for us, he’s doing it on his own. Or it could be him raging against the unfairness of the universe.”
“Pardon?” Aurora asked, but Dave piped in.
“Aw, come on. He wanted to be a Warden. How do ya think he’s gonna react to finding out that there’s ones out there being all corrupt and shiz? He’s gonna get angry at them for leading the life that he wanted.” He turned to look at the others. “My bet? The Wardens had something to do with New Fairfax. They’re covering their tracks by making him into a demon, but they aren’t sending the real heavy capture squads after him because if they do get him alive, then the truth will come out. Or so they think — he’s gone and suppressed it, like you said.”
“It’s a possibility,” Kathy admitted. “We’ve been afraid to talk to him about it. I think that the five of us need to sit down and have a chat. There’s a lot that–”
The door opened, and Aurora was instantly talking. “So you don’t want to pack everything up and go to Twain?”
John, thankfully, caught on instantly. “Nah,” he said, as Cheryl moved through the kitchen, heading for the stairs. “There’s no point. It’s more expensive working there. While the teleporter repairs are tricky, the money that we save on rent is more than enough to justify having our operations in smaller townships. It was like in NYC: living in the city was too expensive for most people, so they’d commute into it. Hell on gas, though.”
As soon as Aurora heard the bathroom door shut upstairs, she leaned forward and whispered. “We can’t keep this up forever. She’s going to learn, sooner or later.”
“I agree,” John said. “But I also think that it’s up to her husband to tell her that. If there’s anyone that you should be talking to about it, it’s him. Lies do not a loving relationship make, no?”
Bastard. She hated to admit it, but he made a good point. Aurora leaned in her chair to look out the window; Michelle was hugging Jordan now, who just had this… simple, peaceful expression on his face. It was hard to believe that this was the guy who almost made her piss her pants.
What a weird world she lived in these days.