Tommy sighed a little as he walked through town.
Town being a relative word. Had there been this many people here when he first arrived, he would have called it a small town at absolute best, comparing it to the hicksville places that he used to go on the weekends. Tiny and pathetic. On the other hand, people who came here more recently from other places in the world, other realities, told him that their town of around 8,000 people was fairly large.
To him, though? This was just home.
As a kid, his father had dragged him out of the city for a variety of reasons. Each one of them could be boiled down to “Get the hell out of the city.” Most of his favorite memories from his childhood were when his father would have custody of him, sitting around a campfire, fishing, or even hunting.
It wasn’t lost on him how important those trips had become after they’d gotten trapped here. An alternate Earth with alternate animals, a village that needed fed… Having hunters like him and Kat had been vital, even back when they were living on eggs, milk, and MREs. People who could learn the lay of the land, the different animals, the various streams that fed into the river, the best paths to the mountains, to try and root out the trails to other communities…
They’d come up with the idea that whomever Cauldron was, they’d given every village a specialty in order to encourage trading and a mingling of populations. Angel Grove didn’t appear to have a specialty at first. It wasn’t a trading hub like Amber Beach, it didn’t have a surplus of animals like the community that it had absorbed, or some of the more specialized gear that they’d found in the ghost towns.
No, Angel Grove’s specialty had been the people. They’d arrived with people who could make soap, people who knew how to weave, or even how to turn what some people might consider pollution into something that they could desperately use. Everyone seemed to have a special skill that could contribute. Some more than others, sure — Bill and Thuy had quickly established themselves as lynch pins of the community. But sometimes it was the small, minor things that were the most vital.
Jason’s skill had been leadership, a silver tongue that could calm anyone done and keep people on task. In those early first days, Jason had been vital in keeping people from going wild or giving into despair. He knew that Jason had chosen Bill to be his successor, and while Tommy knew deep down that Bill could have done it if push came to shove, but it would have distracted the man from his countless projects. There had also been whisperings of nepotism — Jason and Bill had actually known each other.
It had been best for everyone when Bill had handed leadership over to Tommy after Jason’s death. Tommy hadn’t wanted to be a leader, having been more of a loner, but he accepted it. He’d grown into the role nicely, or so he liked to believe. Even after all the countless crises, he liked to think that they were still a good community. He preferred to listen to as many knowledgeable people as possible, getting differing opinions, before making a decision. When everyone agreed on something? That’s when he knew that he was in for trouble.
“Tommy,” Kat called out, leaning on her cane as she made her way towards him as quickly as she could. “Mind walking with me?”
“Of course not,” he said with a smile. Kat was an old friend, the second original hunter. Up until about eight years back when a critter had attacked and they’d had to take her leg after it’d gotten infected, she’d been the best hunter they’d had. Now she served as their leader; she “owned” a company that provided meat for the restaurants, but even those who owned their own weapons checked in with her before going hunting.
She settled into a pace that was easier for her wooden leg and he fell into step next to her. “I heard that there was trouble earlier at the soap shop? Something about an evacuation?”
Tommy began laughing to himself. “Oh, hell… What a mess.”
“Come on,” she said, prodding at his side. “Now I gotta know.”
“Okay, so. You know how crushberries smell, right?”
“Very fragrant, very fruity, and kinda nice, yeah. It tastes a bit tart, though, and if you eat too much it hurts your gut.”
He grinned. “How d’ya think soap made of ’em would be?”
She thought about it for a long moment as they walked and talked. “Pretty good, honestly. It’d be pretty good while I’m waking up in the shower.”
“Well, Ashley found a whole lot of crushberry juice in the back of their freezer. They weren’t sure if it’d still be good to drink, because they’re pretty sure that it’s a few years old, so they didn’t know what to do. One of the newer employees at the soap factory, Carlos, heard about it, and had the good idea to make soap out of it.”
They walked in silence before she groaned. “You just can’t leave me hanging like that! What happened?”
“Oh, c’mon Kat. Neither one of us is Bill, but I’m pretty sure that you can figure this one out. What’s vitamin C?”
“Damn it, it’s been decades since I’ve thought of that shit.” She frowned for a moment. “Something something acid, I think?”
“Exactly. And lye is a base.”
She said nothing for a moment, but the moment that she made the connection, her eyes went wide. “Oh fuck, it made a volcano! Oh! It made the entire place smell like lye, didn’t it?”
“They evacuated the place, and by the time that I got there, Tanya was chewing his ass out about it… Only, as it turns out, he explicitly got her permission before doing it.”
“Ooooh.” Kat winced. “How long did it take before you got her to understand that?”
“She’d already fired him, but I got her to hire him back.” Tanya wasn’t a bad woman, but she tended to get carried away when something went wrong. Normally, the other employees could take care of it, but after something like that nobody was thinking straight.
Really, most of what people considered to be a crisis just needed to have someone not directly involved to help them look at things rationally. Tommy preferred those, even though they tended to lead to the most bitter arguments. At least then, people weren’t usually dying and he wasn’t having to make the hard decisions.
The two of them made their way into the building that served as town hall. During the day, the largest room handled what court cases they had. The town was a little vague in laws, and he had the ability to overrule Jayden’s decisions, but he rarely had to worry about that.
Every other Friday, after the courts finished for the day, it served for him to meet with the public on their terms, listening to their bitch ass problems and whining. He hated those meetings; while to the people involved, their problems were serious business, to him they were usually just being idiots.
Every week, though, there was a different kind of meeting. In some ways, it was more stressful, even if the atmosphere was much more relaxed. Meeting with the owners of the biggest businesses might seem like he was catering to the companies, but they were the closest that Angel Grove got to a city council. Besides, those businesses who didn’t take good care of their employees tended to die rather quickly.
As they entered, Zack was already there, setting up kegs. Once upon a time, he’d almost killed them all, but that was in the past. Jason had given him a second chance, and he more than proved his worth. He was slowing down a bit, but Tommy was pretty sure he was in the top ten hardest working people in the community. It had been his idea to make these meetings formally informal, and had bought the first few kegs of beer himself. Tommy started setting aside the funds for it, so Zack bought the snacks. It became something of a friendly war for them now, Zack finding something new to add and Tommy finding where he was getting for it and paying them.
“How’s it going?”
Zack practically beamed. “It’s been a good day, m’man. Our population’s increased by one little girl, and nobody died.”
“Good enough for me!” The 8,000 people was only an estimate. It was hard to tell exactly how many people lived in Angel Grove, but someone giving birth was always a cause for celebration. He’d send well wishes, but Zack had probably already seen to that. “Anything that I should know about before the meeting?”
The African American shrugged one shoulder as he adjusted the keg a little. “Leo wants to talk about our heroes. Joanna wants to discuss taxes. Joel is wanting to expand the sorghum field, but Lucas wants the flax fields expanded. Way I hear it, though, is that doing either one is going to cause problems. Fertilizer and all that. There’s probably more, but… That’s all I heard.”
It wasn’t much, and Tommy already knew all of it, but it helped put everything in perspective. Zack ran around trying to help everyone, and he was damn smarter than that first year would make him seem. Joanna had been the one to explain to him that Zack had been just as scared as everyone, so he’d tried his best to fill a hole that he saw, to let “better” people handle what he thought were more important things. Tommy could respect that.
As Tommy helped Kat to her seat, the door opened to reveal Joanna helping Lucas. Lucas had been mauled pretty bad by some wild animals back in the day; while they’d already been working on walling off the village out of fear of the wolves of this reality, that incident had pulled the entire community around finishing them. They’d had to expand the walls several times since then, but at least people were safe.
Lucas was responsible for one of their first exports — pads for women. Tommy had been uncomfortable about it back then, but now he understood just how important it was. A good linen pad with a cotton interior apparently meant a lot to folks, and back then, working a loom was easier for Lucas. These days, he didn’t have to work one, but his attention to detail and willingness to try new things meant that he was producing way more than just pads these days, and there was always a demand for his little factory’s work.
Joanna was one of the top member’s of Tommy’s staff, handling financial matters. Tommy felt weird about having a staff, weirder than being the mayor, but he couldn’t do it all by himself. Having people like her around made his life so much easier, and meant that he could sleep at night. She might only be 42, but she was expecting her first grandchild.
Tanya and Joel were the next two that entered. Tanya was the kind of gal who would make you a huge pot of soup if she even thought you were hungry, and then would spend the entire time chewing you out for some personal habit. Tommy still got comments about smoking, and he’d quit a year before they’d all come here. Still, her heart was always in the right place, even if she needed to step back and let her brain catch up to her actions on occasion. The good thing about these meetings is that she came in fully prepared to think.
Joel was more of a problem, though. Once she dug her heels in, getting her to move an inch was like pulling teeth. Again, not a bad one — they chose who would own businesses carefully when they switched to capitalism.
Leo came in with… one of the cops whose name escaped Tommy. The leader of the local police was a good guy for the most part, but he tended to make too much in his still. There wasn’t a law against making your own alcohol here, so long as one of Bill’s people checked it to make sure that you weren’t going to make yourself blind, but once his duties were done for the day… Still, it could be worse.
Jayden came in. He was, unsurprisingly, a former lawyer, and seemed more than happy to be a judge now. He claimed that he was far happier here than he ever had been at the practice; the laws were newer, fresher, and he didn’t have to defend scumbags. He helped out a lot with creating the laws. To be honest, though, Tommy was worried about his age. He was in his sixties, and his health was getting worse.
Bill and Chase came in next. Bill, the genius… How much would they have without him? Tommy seriously doubted that any of them would be here today. And Chase. Chase had been twenty-two when he’d quit the shop, and it had taken him another five or six years before he came back. That made sense to Tommy, though. All kids have a rebellious phase, and he looked to Bill as a surrogate father. Of course they had a nasty split, but at least the two of them were able to repair things.
Lastly, Cassie and Riley entered, whispering to each other. If Joanna wanted to increase taxes, those two would be the hard sell. Cassie was another one of the original settlers, and while others had tried to get into the bread game, they all fell compared to Cassie’s skills and the brand loyalty that she’d earned. The fact that she had the original bread ovens that had come with the city helped with that. However, she made no qualms about the fact that she wasn’t here for herself, but she represented all the restaurants.
Riley wasn’t native to this city, but was still one of the original people who stepped through the doorway to this reality. When Bill had parted with everything to make beer, he stepped up — his mother had brewed her own, and while he didn’t have the expertise that Bill had, he learned quick. For a long time, he’d both brewed the beer and owned the bar, but as the city grew, Tommy had convinced him to part with the bar. It had been a good business decision for him in the end — these days, they had three bars, and he was selling not only traditional beer, but second and even third fermentations that had lower alcohol content, earning him a ton of money.
“Alright,” Tommy said as soon as everyone had gotten a mug and was seated. “Let’s get down to business.
“Repairs to the walls are complete, and I’m having another survey done. I want to think about starting an expansion not this upcoming year, but the next. While the immigrants from Amber Beach have died down to a trickle, we have kids who are going to move out of the house and start living on their own. I want to be prepared for the inevitable expansion.”
“Which way are we going to expand?” Leo asked curiously.
“I’m not sure yet. That’s why I want a survey before we start making any plans. I want multiple sets of opinions, and if need be, we’ll put it to a vote. Bill, is there any chance that Thuy can give us any predictions if there’s another tsunami?”
Bill was silent a moment as he thought the question over. “Maybe. I’d be hesitant to move to the West, though. The people who brought us here probably had good reason for choosing this insane distance. I’d also suggest not too far to the South. That river floods every year, and I don’t want to risk it. I’d suggest Southeast, towards the old Carver farm. Unless, of course, someone thinks they can turn the soil fertile.”
“Any opinions on that?” Joel asked.
“Maybe. I’ve given it some thought, but I’m not ready to say for sure. Can you collect up the heads of the farms and have them visit me later this week? Maybe Saturday?”
Tommy nodded. “Speaking of Thuy, the miners have left again. Bill?”
“They hit a good copper vein in the fourth mine and want to work that completely out if they can. Which means that we aren’t going to have as much limestone this trip. But I know how to make quicklime out of sea shells and Cassie has been kind enough to get the restaurants to not just pitch them. We can keep production going with that. However, I promised that I’d take a look at the wiring in the common houses if I asked for it, so I’m not going to be able to work on any projects during that time.”
“I’ll take over our active projects,” Chase said, rubbing at the stubble of his chin with the back of his hand. “I’ve got some experiments that I want to run anyway. I’ve got…” He trailed off and shook his head.
“No,” Bill said, genuinely curious. “Go on.”
“Well, I’ve been thinking of a way that we can make sulfuric acid better. We’ve been using hydrogen peroxide all this time, but if it works…”
“Right,” Tommy said. He looked at Bill. “I’d say it’s a good thing if he tries.”
“So do I. I’ll be too busy to use my workspace anyway. Go ahead, Chase. Knowing you, even if you fail, you’ll come up with something good.”
Chase couldn’t have looked happier with that praise. Bill always was open with his praise for anyone.
“I’ll be blunt,” she said, looking to Kat. “We need more meat now that it’s getting colder.”
“It’s getting harder,” Kat admitted. “The animals are learning to be afraid of us. That said, with your permission, I’ll go ahead and set up an expedition to take us further out and see if they can drum up some fresh game. Bill, is that wagon still working? I’d like to make it a multi-day expedition.”
He frowned a little. “It is, but… I’ll be honest, I’d like to work on that alternator a little more before I clear it to be taken. I’d also like to strip out the insulation of the fridge and replace it. Give me… A week?”
“I just hired another five for the winter,” Chase reminded him.
“Three days, then.”
Kat nodded once. “Then I’ll get to work on it.”
Tommy liked it when things went smooth like this. “Riley?”
“I’d like another still, but before we talk about that, let’s see how that copper vein plays out. And if that wiring needs replaced, I’d imagine that some of it needs to go there first. Other than that, I do need some more barrels. Can your people handle that while you’re so distracted?”
Bill thought for a moment before nodding. “It shouldn’t be a problem.”
“Yeah,” Chase agreed. “We’ve got enough returning employees that we can handle that, no prob.”
“Then that’s all that I’ve personally got,” Riley said, folding his hands over his chest.
This wasn’t specifically for business deals like that, but Tommy didn’t mind. This was mostly to address the things that they felt needed to be addressed, and if that happened to be business, then so be it. He took a sip of his beer before speaking. “Tanya?”
“You all probably heard this already, but I made an embarrassing mistake today. An employee wanted to make a crushberry soap, and I gave the go ahead. Let this be a lesson — unless you work for Bill and he tells you to, don’t mix an acid with lye. Ugh, I thought that I was going to die!”
There were a few chuckles all around over that.
“Other than that, I just wanted to warn you all — we’re going to be ramping up our toothpaste production. We couldn’t before, because we didn’t have the mint necessary. We’ve found a suitable substitute, and we’re harvesting it like mad. We already have enough to step things up for the winter, and we should get even more than that.” She looked to Bill. “If you can get us flouride, though…”
Bill smiled sympathetically, pushing his glasses up. They’d paid a mint for those glasses from Amber Beach. “Sorry. I’d love to get some myself. It’d make aluminum so much easier.”
“How are things at the shop?” Tommy asked.
Bill shrugged. “Decent. We’ve got enough acid and lead to replace all the batteries in the substations. I wish that there was a better power storage medium, like what Seattle used back when it was rebuilt, but it’s the best that we have. We have enough money to pay everyone for the winter, unless Chase decides to hire half the village.”
“Not likely,” Chase said with a half grin.
“My main concern, though, are our wind turbines. I’m pretty much babying them along now. I’m thinking that soon, we need to start looking into replacing them.”
“What’s wrong with them?” Lucas asked, a deep frown on his face.
“Well, to be honest, it’s general wear and tear. The issue is that there’s some things that I just don’t have the capability to machine myself, like precision ball bearings. If you recall, I ran into that problem when I was doing the first truck. I had to find ways around it, which is why we have to do maintenance every time they’re used.”
“Another problem is brushes. Those have graphite brushes, and while my graphite alternative is good enough for carbon rods, the resin doesn’t work for brushes very well. I’m going to either have to figure out a way to use something else or we’re going to have to replace it. It’s only a matter of time before things get bad enough that we have a failure that I can’t fix.”
“Is it an immediate problem?” Joanna asked.
“Not yet, no. But if I don’t get it taken care of by the end of summer, I can promise you that we’re going to start having more and more problems with them. Electricity is one of the key resources to our community. If I don’t have power, the shop practically shuts down.” And everyone knew how much of a problem that alone would cause.
“We’ll start to check around. If we can get you new graphite brushes or something, that’ll do us a world of good. But…” She frowned. “Money’s tight.”
“How tight?” Cassie asked.
“Real tight. We’re going to be able to make our budget for the winter at this rate, but it’s going to leave us depleted by April the way that things currently are. We need to come up with more exports to make some more, but I don’t want to put any sort of push on any of the businesses that we have now. I know that you all are working as hard as you can with what we’ve got. I also don’t want to raise our taxes on exports, either. I think that we’ve hit the ceiling on that for a while or else we’ll start to lose money as they refuse goods.”
“I’ll ask around the shop,” Bill said with a nod. “I can’t think of anything, but maybe someone will have an idea that will lead us to doing another startup, then hand the startup to someone who can handle it.”
“Can’t we just make more coins?” Joel asked.
“That’s a short-term solution that creates long-term problems,” Joanna said sadly. “If only life were that easy. Besides, Amber Beach had that problem, remember? Anyway, I remember Bill saying that he needed to cut back on making coins for now, anyway. He needed the silver for other things.”
Bill nodded, smiling.
Tommy remembered helping Thuy with turning some rock into mercury years ago. If they needed it, then maybe other places did, too. “I have an idea, but I’ll talk with you about that privately, Bill. I want to make sure that we can do it, and that we can do it safely. We have a good place here, and I don’t wanna screw up the environment.”
“Ditto,” Zack said. “I doubt it’s the same idea, but I’d like to talk with you in private.”
Hard to say what he had in mind. Best to move on. “Joel, do you have anything?”
His eyes glanced to Lucas. “Yes… and no. We have something that we’d like to talk to you about, but I think that it’s something that would be best if all the farmers are there for it.”
Lucas nodded. “I’m with him on that, actually. I’d like to be involved in that little conversation.”
“Alright.” Tommy smiled. “Sunday, we’ll meet up here. Speaking of the two of you, how are the new sheep coming along?”
“Their winter coats are nice and good, so that shouldn’t be a problem. I wish that we had a dedicated vet to check them over, but… What can you do?”
“Right.” Tommy looked over to Leo. “And you?”
“All quiet on the Western front. But I’d like to discuss our winter guests. I’ve been doing some thinking, and some investigating, and things aren’t quite adding up. Honestly? They aren’t who they say they are, and I know for damn sure that Hideki isn’t that Asian girl’s brother.”
That got everyone’s attention.
The woman that the chief brought with him nodded. “Her first year here, she said that she didn’t have any family. Only child, parents dead. She joked that it was a tragic cheese wheel accident. Likewise, the stories of the others haven’t quite added up over the years. It’s never anything big, but…” She shrugged. “Plus, their story on Hideki’s changed since that incident.”
Leo nodded. “I’ve asked around, and gotten just enough conflicting answers enough times that I’m sure that it’s all a lie. I’d like to bring them in for questioning.”
“Why?” Jayden asked.
Leo looked at him like he was crazy. “Because they might be criminals?”
“People are allowed to lie. There’s no legal grounds for us to arrest them because they don’t want to talk about their real selves. For all that we know, they could be mercenaries who don’t want to be known as ust fighters during the winter.”
“Or,” Bill said slowly. “There’s that cape that’s been trying to get me to make a deal with them.”
“They use the term para these days,” the female cop said.
“I’ll keep that in mind. But they could be that cape’s eyes and ears, trying to find a way to convince me to sell directly to the cape back out east.”
Tommy nodded sagely. A good point. They could be anyone. “Plus, let’s be honest here. They aren’t breaking any laws. They may get rowdy at the bar on occasion, almost every night, but they don’t break any laws. If we arrest them, it’s not going to sit well with folks. Especially after the wildlings.
“I do agree, I don’t like the idea of a bunch of criminals using our town as a hideout during the winter. At the same time, we can’t harass everyone who comes to our city on the chance that they might be criminals. Besides, they’re heroes now. I don’t want to cause problems with the townsfolk for arresting them.”
Tommy remembered that fight well. The image of Hideki staring at the Wildling as it pounced on him was strong. He’d been smiling for most of that fight, but in that moment, it had been just a blank stare. Almost as if he’d been daring it to strike.
“I’ll back you up on that,” Cassie said with a nod.
“I’m still not comfortable with this,” Leo said, almost sullenly.
“I’m not saying that you shouldn’t keep an eye on them. In fact, I’m all for that. Just… keep in mind not to give them any grief. Folks remember very well what they’ve done.” Mild topic change. Tommy turned to Zack. “Speaking of them, how’s Hideki doing?”
Zack winced. “Better? Maybe? He’s exercising in the morning again, and helps set up shop, but… Once people start showing up, he slows down and they send him back to his room.”
“He’s making better progress than I did,” Bill mused. “It’s the same basic thing, isn’t it?”
Zack nodded. “It was exactly the same. This time, though, we didn’t just stop and stare in horror. I think those first few moments were kinda important. But yeah, he bit the cookie and bam! River City. Well, plus some throwing stuff, but considering he was just in a fight, I’m giving him a pass on that one.”
“Any idea what caused it?” Lucas asked sympathetically.
“The cookies. But beyond that? All he said was that he couldn’t push it down.”
“If I had to take a stab at it,” Joanna said hesitantly. “Um, I think that I’d go ahead and guess that he’s been avoiding dealing with some stuff, and that reminded him of it.”
“Probably,” Bill said with a nod. “That’s kind of what happened with me. I was working so hard that I never really dealt with anything that had happened. Except for my journals, I didn’t really give myself any downtime to… I don’t know, process everything. I wish that I could get him into my shop — by his multitool alone, I can tell that he’d be worthwhile.”
“How so?” Tommy asked, his curiosity getting the better of him.
“It’s worn, but not haphazardly. He uses it, hard, but not in a bad way. He’s taken good care of it, like he probably has with his weapons. I like it. If I had one like that, I’d probably use it the same way, only harder.”
“Alright. Is there anything that we can do to help him? He put his ass on the line for us, and I don’t like the idea of anyone hurting like that.”
Bill thoguht about it for another moment. “Let him go off on his own when he needs to. He’s sorting out his emotions, I think, and I’m willing to bet that there’s a bunch of stuff that gives him reminders of whatever it is that’s hurting him. Feel free and talk to him, give him that emotional support, but when his demons rear their ugly head, back off. If he’s focused on something, though, leave him be then, too.”
“Sounds like a plan to me.” Tommy took a large gulp of beer. “Good batch.”
“Alright, unless anyone has anything else?” Everyone shook their heads. Now for the best part of the night. “Break out the cards. Jacks an suicide kings wild for the first hand.”