It’s funny how easily I fell into a routine. After the initial few days of panic and disorder, where we were in a blur of trying to learn what things we could make and making batches of the things that we could do in advance, there was the uncertainty and blundering of our first few days of being open. They weren’t used to working quite in this way, and it took a while to get used to the peaks and valleys that came with a restaurant. The insanely busy periods and the dull, slow periods.
I fell into a routine faster than they did. Wake up, check the mushroom ketchup that would be desiccating overnight in my room, do an hour of exercising, take a quick run around town, then take a quick shower at the ancient, decaying public showers. There were better, newer public showers in town, and the hotel that we were staying at had showers, too. They didn’t have the history attached those old ones, though. These were CCK-pattern showers, and even though they were heavily patched up, these were the showers that helped this community survive. They deserved respect and reverence.
After my shower, I’d swing by my room to drop off my clothes and pick up anything that I was taking with me before heading into work. I’d show up a little after the bakers did, so I’d greet them as I went through the community house and our little corner of it. I always found it funny that there were places that didn’t have community buildings of some sort. Apparently, the closest things were malls and lodges in the old world, and each carried different connotations. Malls were place of corporate greed, while lodges were owned and operated by social fraternities, which some places were hesitant about. Something about secret societies. Weird.
I’d check the exterior of the shop before heading inside. First came an examination of everything that we’d done at tear-down the previous night to see if there was anything that needed redone. If not, then the first order of business would be to start tea. We ran a different variety for breakfast, lunch and dinner, and there were always folks who would come by with a cup begging some right after we were open.
After that, there was the prep work. Meat and vegetables that needed sliced, broth that needed made, that sort of thing. What surprised me by far was that one of our most popular dishes for breakfast was a soup! A sardine broth (with just a dash of MSG to bring out that flavor, just like Chris always did) with yams, cabbage, carrots and plenty of ginger. I had to admit, the ginger really helped perk me awake, but otherwise it seemed bizarre. Emi assured me that it was a common breakfast soup from her hometown.
People would first start filtering in about the time that the bakery finished with their first loaves of bread and rolls. I was familiar with the design of their main bread — a circular wheel baked with a string around it for both hanging and carrying. All of their bread styles had a certain strange bitter tang to it that I couldn’t put my finger on. Whenever I asked, they just laughed and said it was a town secret.
I’d handle the first few customers of the day, but Emi would usually show up before everyone else. We’d talk for a little bit as she got the last of the sleep out of her (around a cup of tea) before she’d start fiddling with what I’d already made. I just didn’t have the touch that she did. I was more of a simple get it done kind of guy.
As soon as she got here, I’d go and check my portable soup and dehydrator. I wished that I could dry out the portable soup in the dehydrator, but heat would only make things harder, if not impossible. I was making jars of instant soup mix using whatever I could, and while we hadn’t gotten much of a market for it to start with, we did have a dedicated clientele.
I’d then get to work on the rice noodles. Emi was very, very specific that we not use traditional Western noodles — we had to have at least something authentic for her to feel comfortable. Brenda had said something about acids versus alkaline in their composition, but I’d been too distracted at the time to be able to remember clearly. Either way, making the different kinds of noodles was a challenge — some could be made in hours, others were a complicated multi-day affair that was physically demanding. Fortunately, John would be around to help later.
Soon after, Brenda would show up, offering what help she could. For an hour, she could barely manage to suppress her power, until Kathy would show up. She usually made her appearance right around the time of the second breakfast wave, and no matter how bad her head was feeling from the night before, she’d dive in without hesitation.
John would usually show up about the time that it ended. I wasn’t complaining, though — he was the oldest, and while he kept up with us on the average, sleep was something that he refused to compromise on. Well, during the winter at least. To be fair, though, I probably wouldn’t have been able to make the daily supply of noodles without his help.
I’d work until Kathy would yell at me to take a break, which was usually after lunch. Until she did, though, I stayed active. We sliced our meat extra thin for quick cooking, which took some work in and of itself, but also made cooking rather quick. We had extra space to cook out back, so even on the cooler days, I was usually sweating from the hard work.
During my breaks, I would grab a bite to eat from one of the other shops in the community space, and then find a quiet-ish spot to take a nap. It hadn’t been more than nine or ten hours since I’d woken up, but I’d been going hard for much of that time, so it was best to get a nap in where I could. Inevitably someone would come and gently wake me after a half an hour of sleep, and then it would be back to work.
By contrast, Emi’s breaks consisted of finding a gaggle of other girls on break and talking as loudly and excitedly as possible. Brenda would slowly eat while listening to the conversations going on in the community house, a soft smile on her face the entire time. I was pretty sure that she was just happy to take a break from being our cashier.
Kathy would usually meet up with some other employees from other shops to complain about the day. John would either slurp down the last dregs of breakfast soup, hurry out back to smoke, or read a book, I believed it was Moby Dick, aloud. I was always surprised by how much he could project his voice. He always seemed so pleased with himself when he glanced at me as he was reading.
I was surprised by how easily Emi and Kathy found social groups to be part of. I didn’t have any difficulty talking to an individual, but somehow just diving into a big group of people? I could tell you how to take them down, but figuring out how to insert myself into a big conversation was impossible, so I didn’t bother trying. It was surprising, but heartwarming, too. They were social people at heart, and they were getting something that they needed.
Sometimes, I felt something else about it, but I couldn’t put my finger on it.
Dinner was insane; not quite standing room only, but close enough. Especially if it was the Monday through Friday that the miners were home. Then they’d be living it up, spending their pay, and looking to buy stuff to keep them going while they were gone. They’d leave bright and early on a Saturday morning, get to the mines on Sunday night, and then leave the mines the following Saturday to get home Sunday. With only five days home, they made it count.
After the dinner rush began to die down, we closed up shop. It only took the better part of a half an hour for us to get the bulk of the teardown done, and while the others would skip off to go to the bar and live it up, spending almost everything that they made that day, I would finish cleaning everything and make sure that we’d be ready for the next day. After that came another nap, then more exercising, followed by training with whomever showed up that day. After they left, I’d slip out to do some real, proper training. After that, I’d head back to bed for three hours, then do it all over again.
Before the end of October, we’d fallen nicely into this pattern. I wasn’t complaining in the slightest; good, hard, honest work, people who appreciated it, and they seemed happy at the end of the shift. Of course, that might be because of the partying, but that was alright. They were happy, and that’s what mattered.
I turned the temperature controller over in my hand before striking it once with my multitool, knocking the casing open. It wasn’t welded or glued on, just good, old-fashioned entropy making it resist movement. The thing about objects at rest staying at rest until acted upon by an outside force was true, but what they didn’t tell you was that the longer that they were at rest, the more force would be required. I looked carefully at the coil of wire — really, this wouldn’t be hard at all.
“Hey,” a voice behind me said in a friendly tone.
I glanced up for the briefest of moments before looking back down at my work. “Hej, Henry.” John’s assumed name here. I began carefully adjusting the wires as I spoke. “Don’t worry, just a few mods to this, then the main stove, and it should be ready for tomorrow.”
Another man approached. “He’s not Henry.”
I looked up at him, studying him more carefully. They had pretty much the same build and hair color, and they apparently went to the same barber recently, but… No, it wasn’t John. I smiled at the two men. “Uh, sorry about that. We’re, uh…” I gestured to the restaurant. “We close early, and everything’s put away. Sorry.”
The first man chuckled a little nodding. “So I noticed. But we saw you working… Well, more of heard you singing to yourself, saw that you were working, and were curious.”
“Oh,” I said, perking up. “Oh, it’s nothing major. The temperature controls were just getting a little loose is all. It’d start to change temp all on its own, so I figured that I’d get this taken care of right now rather than have to keep fighting with it.”
“Most people would go to Yost-Kwan Industries for that.”
I chuckled a little, shaking my head. “I don’t wanna be a bother. I mean, unless we wanted the stove down for hours during the day, someone would have to come in after we closed, and that’s a huge pain. And since they aren’t open 24/7, that means that someone would have to fight sleep to fix it, or spend time away from their families. That’s not very, uh, well, it’s not cool. Nobody wants that. Besides, I can do it just fine, I’m pretty sure. Just things got loose.”
The bespectacled second man tugged idly at his blue shirt, smiling awkwardly. “Most folks wouldn’t know how to do that.”
I smiled back at him. “Maybe around here. There’s plenty of people that I know who would be able to do this, with their eyes closed. Besides, this is a really good design.”
The man folded his arms over his chest, but not in a defensive way. More of a curiously thoughtful manner. “Is it?”
“Oh, yeah.” I flashed them both a grin. “Okay, so… Current designs from Twain, compared to here? Twain is more of a scalpel, and this is a mace. Maybe this isn’t as good to most people, not when compared to something that comes out of Twain, but… Scalpels wear down, and you’ve got to work to keep them sharp. When something goes wrong with a Twain model, sometimes you can’t just kitbash a solution, y’know?”
The man nodded. “I think I see where you’re going with this metaphor. For the most part, a mace doesn’t break down. Probably just the shaft cracking, and you can replace that easily.”
I grinned at him. “Exactly. This may not be as elegant, but it works reliably, it’s easy to fix, and it serves its job well. I don’t care if it doesn’t have a bunch of extra, nifty things. I’ve been looking at a lot of the tech here, and it’s all like that. Reliable. Simple. Maybe not the prettiest, maybe not the most elegant, but sometimes, simplicity has its own elegance. Especially when you don’t really need more.”
The man with the glasses was nodding thoughtfully, but the first man was grinning from ear to ear. “We’ve been saying stuff like that forever, but Amber Beach doesn’t really get it. They keep asking for stuff that’s ‘nicer.’ I think the stuff that we have is plenty nice.”
“It is! Believe me! I mean…” Crap, I couldn’t say sister. “My former roommate raved about how much better your pads were over everyone else’s. And, you have free electricity. A lot of places don’t even have electricity, or they charge a lot of money for it, or they have strict limits on how much you can use. Free. Unlimited. Electricity! Wow.”
The man with the glasses grinned a bit. “It took a lot of work to get the graphite for the generators.”
“I’ll bet! I have some experience with Tinker tech windmill generators and–”
The man perked up, raising a finger. “Wait. Back up.” Aw crap. I’d stuck my foot in my mouth. “I originally went to school to try and get into Tinker studies. Trying to reverse engineer Tinker tech and their products. Sorry, I just have to ask, what’s the wildest thing you’ve seen?”
Oh, maybe I wasn’t so fucked after all!
I smiled a little as I worked the cloth a little tighter, remembering the two from last night. They’d told me that I should get a job at YK Industries, but had understood when I said that I wanted to work with my sister. The younger of the two eventually had to leave to meet up with someone, but the other guy helped me work a bit. I kept telling him that it wasn’t necessary, but he kept saying that he did stuff like this all the time, and that I was paying him with stories about Tinker tech stuff.
Unfortunately, it meant that I hadn’t gotten the latest batch of mushroom ketchup finished before turning in. Which meant that I was playing catch up now.
Emi had made that joke three times now. It wasn’t getting any funnier. It couldn’t get any less. I still chuckled, though.
“That’ll be two and a quarter,” I heard Brenda say behind me.
“Here you are.”
I heard coins get dropped into the muffin tin that Brenda used, and her getting the slices of coins, the bits, out of another one of the depressions.
“Oh, no, Miss Ward. That’s a tip for all of you.”
“Why thank you, miss!” Brenda probably didn’t know the woman’s name.
“And here’s your food,” John said warmly.
“Why thank you, Mr. Crawford. The five of you have a nice day now.”
“You too!” There was a long pause before John moved up next to me. “Now there’s the man that I’ve been looking for.”
I snorted in amusement as I squeezed a little harder. It wasn’t just that I was getting as much juice out as possible for the customers — the leftover mushrooms would be easier to dry as a spice to sell if I could get as much juice out as possible. “If you need something, you’ll have to give me a few.”
“Nah, that’s not it. That eternal smile of yours. That state of being where you simply just smile all the time. It’s been a little less for a while now, but I’m glad to see that it’s back. You aren’t you without it.”
What the hell was he talking about? Still, I chuckled sheepishly. “Whatever you say.”
“I do say.”
I felt a very subtle change of pressure on my belt and slapped his hand away from my knife. “Stop it. If you pull that out the wrong way, you’ll cut me down to the bone.”
“Oh, come on,” he said with a roll of his eyes. “One of these days, you have to let me play with it a little.”
“And watch you cut yourself to the bone? I think I’ll–”
I was interrupted by a loud cross between a buzzer and a klaxon that blared through the entire commons building. There were sounds that you knew meant that trouble was going on, and while this a little different than most, by the time that I turned around I could already see a number of able-bodied people scrambling to their feet or heading for the door while others began to try and hide. One boy, maybe ten years old, was clutching his ears and screaming incoherently.
There wasn’t anything that I could do for him, but at least I could make whatever was raising the alarm stop.
Thankfully, my body had already made every decision for me as I vaulted the counter. There was danger from something, and I wasn’t about to let a city that had taken me in handle it alone. I only paused as I slammed into a woman who hadn’t been as fast as me getting outside, and that was just to make sure she didn’t fall over — if it was a fire, we’d need all the hands we could get.
Outside, people were moving without purpose, without guidance. Nobody was sure what or where, only that there was need. As I felt Emi teleport in next to me, a man ran by, screaming. “South gate!”
“I’ll get the stuff,” Emi said, turning. “Go!” With that, she was teleporting off again, and I was running. South gate? With how far away that was, I couldn’t afford to sprint with all my might — I couldn’t afford to wear myself out before reaching whatever threat there was.
I was halfway there before I heard gunfire. Raiders, wildlings, Fyrtorn, it didn’t matter. A shape flew overhead towards the gate, and a moment later I saw John land and tumble. We’d have to work on that more later. He didn’t pause, though, getting right back up, running a few paces, and launching himself again.
A few moments later, Emi appeared in front of me, her arms full. She held out the belt, and I slowed down to snag it from her — there was no way that I could latch it in place at a sprint, especially not with my other belt. As soon as my hands left the belt, though, she was in front of me again, holding out the assault rifle. Good girl. As soon as I had that shouldered, she appeared yet again, this time holding out my halberd. This time, I sped up as I passed her, snagging it out of her hand.
By the time that we reached the wall, John was already at the gate, holding it closed as others got a block in place. On the catwalks around the walls and above the gate, people were shooting straight down. Wildlings. I didn’t even have to hear them to know — I’d seen this enough times.
I took the stairs three at a time, banging my shin once without even feeling it. Someone turned at the sound of my approach, moving slightly out of my way. She expected me to join them at shooting. I could only imagine her surprise when I made one short hop to get on the top of the wall, and then another off of it.
I landed on my feet and rolled, my halberd shaft against my stomach so that I wouldn’t accidentally impale myself. Unfortunately, that made the roll more awkward, slamming my rifle into my back painfully. Didn’t matter. I was up on my feet again, trying to fight momentum so that I could turn around.
The wildlings were big and ugly, massively powerful like an overgrown bulldog, and about the size of a Gimmel American cave lion — about four feet tall. Unlike that predator, though, they had no tail and what looked like ram’s horns that wrapped around their heads, and were slamming those horns into the gate.
I stuck my halberd into the ground and raised my rifle as Emi appeared next to me. “Single shots towards the city,” I barked, shooting once for emphasis. “More when facing away!”
We both started firing, and I realized just how many of them there were — twenty or more, plus those who were already incapacitated or dead. As I struck one in the flank, it turned towards us, only for another round to hit it. The beast turned fully and roared, only to be struck down completely by someone on the wall. Which was kind of the point. Shooting straight down was awkward and didn’t do much for accuracy, and their guns were slow bolt action rifles. Pulling the wildlings back would make it easier for the others.
Unfortunately, it put Emi and I right in the line of fire. And given how little I’d been practicing with my guns, it was no surprise that my accuracy for killshots was complete and utter crap. As several began charging for us, I also realized that she hadn’t brought me any reloads. Once my ammo ran out, I was down to my pistol and melee weapons.
I backed up quickly, still trying to make each shot count — a lucky shot to the jaw of one as it began to lumber towards us to pick up speed sent it crashing, but for the most part they weren’t feeling enough pain for my shots to mean much. Common enough with wildlings.
I was over half empty on my extended magazine before I tossed the assault rifle away and grabbed my halberd. Care for firearms was important, but when you’re in do or die, it might not keep you alive. Especially with more turning away from the wall now.
As the first one got ready to pounce on me, I jerked my halberd down, briefly sticking it in the face before pulling back and free, making the beast tumble from its momentum. I didn’t have time to do more than take another step back, Emi teleporting away as I made a hard sweep for another. My blade was deflected downwards by a bad angle against those horn, but it still tore open the throat open deep enough to see bone.
A third lunged onto its hind paws, only for my weapon to strike hard and deep into its side. As it tumbled, though, it yanked the halberd from my hands — I let go only to be kept from going down with it. I only had the briefest of moments to pull my knife from its sheath before another pounced for me.
I didn’t have reach or leverage, but as its mouth opened wide in front of me, I raised my knife. As it slammed into me, my weapon went into its maw, and when that shut, it only helped to drive the point into the skull.
Not that had time to appreciate it. When something that weighs a few hundred pounds more than you slams into your body, you just are along for the ride no matter if it’s alive or dead. Our two bodies tumbled for a moment before I was free, blade still in hand. The air had been knocked out of my lungs, but I didn’t feel like I was slowed down in the slightest other than difficulty getting air back in.
As I came up to a crouch, I quick-drew my pistol with my right hand, and using my now bleeding left arm as a brace, I raised and fired a quick five rounds into the first one that was charging for me, dropping it. As I turned to take out another that was trying to flank from my left, it jumped for me. I barely scrambled out of the way, driving my Tinker-augmented knife deep into its side, slicing it all the way as it soared past me.
I spun and emptied the magazine into another, barely felling it, as Emi appeared next to me again, my halberd in hand. Perfect timing. I barely got my knife put away, tossing my pistol to the side, before she gently tossed it to me and teleported out, appearing nearby to raise her gun and fire in full auto. I turned just in time to see another get ready to leap without giving me time to set myself…
Only for its rump to be enveloped by a beam that made it tumble clear. I glanced at the wall, and while I couldn’t make out who was up there, I could see that a large circular chunk was missing. Kathy.
I barely got myself righted in time to take out another, and…
And there wasn’t anything coming for me. Everything was dead or dying.
I hated this moment. This awkward moment when you were primed to take on more, but the fight was done. My body was full of adrenaline, ready to move and act, but there wasn’t anything to do. Well, almost nothing to do. I still took a long, long moment to scan the outside of the gate, the surrounding environment.
Emi teleported to me, hesitantly watching me. After a long moment, I decided that nothing else was coming and turned to her.
“I taught you how to use a gun better than that!”
She stared at me for a moment before her face twisted into a lopsided grin. “I forgot that you could speak Japanese.”
“Nani?” Wait, she’d said that in Japanese and I responded. Had I been using Japanese with her?
“Exactly,” she said smugly. Then, in English. “We’re done. Let’s… Let’s get back.”
Not that we were far away. She was thankfully willing to wait for me to retrieve my pistol and rifle as we approached the gates. “All clear,” I called out with a smile and a wave.
One of the guards called down to me. “We’ll get the gates open. Are you okay?”
“Arm’s bleeding,” Emi said under her breath.
I looked and, sure enough, it was. Not as bad as it should have been, but there was some blood coming out of my left arm where the wildling had bit me. “Well, I don’t think I’m in any danger, but I’d like to get this looked at.”
A nearby wildling moved, no doubt in its death throes. “Just one thing, though. I got a favor to ask ya.” I hefted my halberd, raised it…
I brought down my cup, letting out a long breath. Cold milk was just what the doctor ordered, especially after my arm had gotten antibiotics applied and been wrapped up. A few people nearby laughed good-naturedly and I flashed them a smile. A good day. A wildling surprise attack and only two people died, and another two mauled. You couldn’t always get attacks with no deaths, and I’d seen a lot worse when I first started being a mercenary.
A woman took my cup away and set down another. “Hero of the hour gets them until he says enough,” she said with a wink. “And I thought that I’d let you know that your wildling will be done here in a few.”
“Thank you,” I said, my face threatening to split into two. “And make sure that, uh, make sure that Jenna gets the heart.”
“What?” I heard from a few tables over.
“It’s good for you! Tradition! I’ll explain it later!”
I chuckled a little. This felt good. People were mourning the loss of two members of the community, but were doing it positively. They were looking at it like they died so that everyone else could live. They were telling positive stories, embarrassing ones, but still positive. There was laughter in the air as someone spoke, using wide arm gestures. I could do without the special treatment, but I was willing to put up with it if everyone was having a good time.
“Mr. Smith,” someone said next to me. I turned to find a guy in his mid-teens, holding a plate. “We run one a place in the community center to the west, and we wanted to give you and your sister this as a way of saying thanks.” With that, he set down a plate of jam-topped cookies next to me.
“Madeleine cookies?” I laughed. “No, no, thank you! I haven’t had these in ages. This is a special treat for me. I’m touched, really.”
The boy smiled as I picked up a cookie and bit in. It was still warm and
“Zero point zero one zero three percent.”
My breath caught in my throat and my eyes went wide. No. No.
“Jordan? We need to talk.”
I’d been gutted. Someone had gone and scooped everything inside out of me. The cookie fell from my hand.
“I’m going to be just like Defiant when I grow up.”
A noise escaped my chest. Push it down, push it down, push it down push it down push it down
“I’m so fucking proud of you.”
I felt the back of my hand hit something, something cold splash against it. I didn’t know. My eyes weren’t open. I spun, only to collide with someone. Someone who wrapped their arms around me.
“Hey, hey. Whatever it is, it’s okay man.”
I sobbed into the man’s chest. No, it wasn’t okay. Nothing was okay.
Nothing would ever be okay again.