The Pendragon V rocked again, making Colin glance up from his work. It wasn’t that he didn’t trust Tess, he just wanted to know why. Fortunately, it was only another burst of wind and not something dangerous like another volcanic explosion. Satisfied, he looked back down.
Neurology wasn’t his forte. A lot of his work with it was offloaded to his passenger, but in this case, it wasn’t exactly helping. Fortunately, Tess had made a huge list of translations for him. Jordan’s absence seizures were caused by a whole bunch of medical bullshit, and the guide only explained normal once. According to what he was reading, they were common in children, but they tended to outgrow them. Which made Jordan’s even more annoying.
It was like dealing with a black box in many ways. The frighteningly large number of purposeful or otherwise modifications to his mind, combined with the neural damage from a lifetime of blows to the head made some things strange. Input goes in, Jordan responds, but how that worked between the two steps was radically different than anything that he’d seen. It was troubling.
With a sigh, he switched to another set of notes rather than admit that all of this was over his head. Tess’ morality occasionally caused problems for him — she’d used a password that Riley had set up for her, but refused to hack any further into the system. A matter of trust, she said. And while it gave access to a lot of different personal notes on Jordan’s biology, there was a lot of digital black ink in them.
For example, Riley had been absolutely overjoyed puzzling over the slices of Jordan’s body. There was so much that puzzled her, everything from how his brain had been restructured to the way that his body had suffered several mutations, most likely caused by a combination of powers used on purpose, side effects of powers, and the unusual secondary effects of broken triggers. She expressed genuine excitement over the possibility of using the teleported segments of Agamemnon (as well as “bits and bobs” from Nilbog’s creations) to rebuild him from scratch, setting the personal goal for herself of getting it as close as possible to his original body.
But many of those mutations were blacked out, as was a lot of information on Agamemnon and the donors. Patient confidentiality.
Fortunately, some of it was provided by Valkyrie as part of a deal that Tess had made to keep from blowing her little operation out of the water. Agamemnon was a gestalt entity, most likely composed of multiple individuals, modified heavily and reinforced by powers. The parts of the brain that handled powers were interspersed throughout the body, and the body was a marvel in its own right. Colin had to wonder how Riley had adapted it to rebuild Jordan, and what the possible biological repercussions were.
He’d thrown in with a group of criminals. Con men. Well, con people. What was interesting was that they were using Jordan to shake down other criminals. It was a sad arrangement, in a way. They were appealing to his sense of morality in order to use his reputation, getting quick paychecks without any danger. A reputation that wasn’t entirely earned on Jordan’s part; others had pretended to be him, causing more than a little confusion and making him look even more like a demon.
A fact that Valkyrie had capitalized on.
How much of that was Jordan’s willingness to fight crime? How much of it might be caused by differences in his biochemistry? How much of it was just his willingness to go with the flow?
Jordan didn’t like to think about things. He didn’t like having time to just sit down and contemplate everything. He would throw himself from one activity to the next without any rest. Being alone, with nothing to do, was agony to him. A fact that Colin could appreciate, but at least Colin was willing to watch T.V.
“You’re getting frustrated,” Tess observed.
“A little bit,” he admitted. As an afterthought, he added to that. “How’s it going out there?”
“There isn’t any record as to where in the CCK it’s kept. It’s so sad. Either Cauldron messed up when choosing this planet, or Scion did something shortly after to cause this tectonic activity. Everyone must have died within twelve hours of teleporting in. The air has been unbreathable almost from the get-go.”
“At least the teleporter works.”
“Yes, there is that. But I’m still worried about this design of Pendragon. I don’t think it’s stable enough for what we need.”
“Do you think we’ll have to do another redesign from the ground up?”
“Most likely.” She hesitated. “I found it. I don’t need to bother opening it. All the Cauldron vials have been destroyed. I’ve already let the Dragon’s Teeth know.”
Scion had destroyed all the vials in a wide range of realities, but there were realities that must have been far enough away that he didn’t affect them. At least, that was the hope. There were very few viable capes created by those recovered vials. Usually, it ended with the poor bastard’s death in horrific fashion.
“You know, you didn’t have to come.”
Colin’s lips hinted at a smile. “I thought that a change of scenery would do me some good. Shouldn’t a man take an interest in what his wife does?”
“Yes, because a planet where the entire continent is sinking into the mantle is so romantic.”
There wasn’t any hinting at all with that smile.
“I like this you. It’s the you that I honestly fell for.”
Colin hesitated. This was a conversation that he’d been dreading. “Is that why you’ve been nudging me?”
“Ever perceptive. I’m halfway back, by the way. Once the client suit is in the docking bay, we’ll leave. And keep it there — I hit a heavy radioactive pocket.
“Back to your question, though. Yes. You’re more… I’m not sure how to put it without running the risk of–”
“Depression,” he interrupted, leaning back in his chair. “While we were watching the show the other night, I was thinking about it. I think that my isolation from anyone but you, that just working on the suits for the Dragon’s Teeth, it helped to contribute to a form of depression without me ever realizing it. Jordan forced me to shake up my world a little bit. I felt better than I have in a long, long time.
“And now, going after him like this… Trying to figure out all of these damn inconsistencies, how we were so off on our predictions, how Jordan operates… The urge is there to betray our agreement and investigate Fyrtorn. The drive is back, and I feel more alive than I have in a long, long time.”
“I can tell,” Tess said softly. “It’s been strange, the way that we just fell into routines, but seeing you like this has been wonderful. And your suit designs have been so much better than they have been. The Mark I Relentless suit is amazing, and I haven’t even put my two cents in on that yet.”
He snorted. Her looking at his design notes on it wasn’t unusual — he’d saved it to drives that she was free to look at whenever she wanted. But at the same time… “Don’t get too attached to it. Heat is still an issue, and I’m not entirely pleased with how some things are integrated. I think that we’ll still have to build it to see practical testing, but I’m already thinking that we’ll have to make a Mark II.”
There was another pause, and he knew he wasn’t going to like what she had to say next.
“I actually have a proposal about that. An idea that I think I should run past you before we visit our next target…”
Colin folded his spear just before they walked into the surprisingly well-lit bar. Immediately, all eyes were on them. His HUD immediately highlighted their target in an amber outline. Several other individuals were highlighted in red with threat ratings assigned to them. It wasn’t as reliable as the predictive algorithm, but they didn’t have enough data for that to be much use.
Threat ratings changed as they carefully walked on the creaking floor joists; people were reaching for weapons or gearing up for a fight.
As they drew near, the man at the bar looked up. He looked up at them with naturally heavy-lidded eyes, and a trimmed beard that had gone salt and pepper over the years. He didn’t bother to set down his drink. “Are you here for a fight?” he asked in a heavily accented voice.
“Tempting,” Colin admitted. “This time, though, we aren’t interested in your more illicit activities. It’s your ones above the board that interest us, Sergei.”
His eyes narrowed slightly. “The same thing that the Wardens came to talk to me about?”
Tess nodded. “If that’s Jordan, then yes.”
Sergei looked back across the bar, barking in Russian. Subtitles automatically appeared in Colin’s vision. “Leave us.”
The woman next to him marked at 80% looked across the bar, scowling as nobody moved. “Move, or you will lose your fingernails… And then get them back.” It must have lost something in the translation.
The fact that people started to stand and walk for the door told Colin far too much about her. But Sergei looked at her sadly. “Iska, you as well.”
It snapped in Colin’s mind: She was Elitnaya. He couldn’t have been her handler, though. He was one of their criminal underclass. What had happened there?
The man let out a long-suffering sigh, though. “Very well. But only if they act.” With that, her numbers dropped down to 65%.
Sergei turned back to the two of them. “The Wardens were only a… I do not know the word offhand. Fast. Meant little.”
“Perfunctory,” Colin said, and the man shrugged a shoulder.
“Eh. I would not know. What are you wish to speak to me about?”
“We’ve had a chance to look at some of the brain scans,” Tess said, still not bothering to remove her helmet. “Your work is fascinating.”
“I need no flattery. I need no dancing, either. Yes, I have been doing a lot for him over the years. Every time that I come, he is approaching me. Always that hopeful look. It started with begging, but over time, we are working well together. I am not the only one, but I am not knowing who. The, uh… The man without a nose, who did his heart, for example.”
He didn’t know who that was, but they’d contact the Orphanage to ask. “There was a lot of neural scarring that you fixed.”
“Fixed is a bad word. It is like a piece of paper. You tear it, you put tape on it. The tear still remains, and you cannot write on it as well. Scars remain, but I get the brain to work close to how it being should. Let the brain do the rest on its own. Not perfect, but it is working.”
Tess nodded. “But that’s not all, is it?”
Sergei nodded. “This is true. Are you willing to be listening to a story?”
“Please,” she said with a bow of her head. Right, she was the carrot, Colin was the stick. He was perfectly fine with this arrangement.
“One time, after much begging, he had me come to meet his martial art person. He had me try and touch him while they fought. While the man fought him. Very brutal. But, aha!” Sergei lifted his finger. “I am seeing it. A change that they had been working on doing. His mind, it was behaving very oddly. Not thinking faster, but… I am unsure the words. It only lasted a moment, though, and it was gone.
“But I had seen what had happened. He wanted to make it easier. More able to control, to sustain it. It felt so good to do. It is always, fix this problem. Hurt this person. Fixing is good, but it lacks a certain… creativity. Hurting is creative, but it is more of a living. Very unsatisfying. This was different. It was….” Sergei frown for a moment. “It was fun, I suppose.
“But he was always coming to me for these things. ‘Help me forget the things that I am wanting,’ he says. ‘Make me faster,’ he says. How, he does not know, but he is hopeful that I can do it. Sometimes, it takes work. I have to move things around, without hurting him. Without changing him. Very hard. Some, I cannot say how the work I do changes them. So I am careful.”
“But not his seizures?” Colin asked.
Sergei shook his head. “No. I am not a doctor. I see a lot, but I am not always knowing what, or how. I worry. Did I do that? I tended him when he was very young.”
What the woman said was ostensibly English, Colin was sure, but he couldn’t piece it together. She made an attempt to speak it, he made an attempt to understand it, but that was as far as either of them got. Thankfully, the subtitles read “When he was drooling.”
“Yes,” Sergei said with a sad nod. “Maybe when I helped with that? I am not sure. But sometimes he just… stares. I have used my power when this happens, and both sides of the brain, chaos. I do not think that I am causing that, and I do not know how to fix it. I worry.”
“Were there other oddities than what you did?” Thankfully, Colin could afford to be curt here.
Sergei nodded. “Plenty, though I do not remember most of them. The bad triggers, they did things, you see. To his head. I tried to fix them when they seemed to not help. And then there was when that mass appeared.”
“Mass?” Tess asked curiously. “Do you mean, like a cancer?”
“No.” He frowned tilting his head back and forth thoughtfully. “Maybe. I am not sure what it is, da? It is extra brain tissue. I only ever see it with people who do not trigger. Very common in Bet, or from Bet. So maybe cancer. I am thinking that maybe when people trigger, it gets fixed… But I do not know. I try not to worry about it.
“But it does not do anything, so I do not mind using it for other things. Take some for this, for that, whatever. Maybe I am saving lives, keeping cancer from growing? That is a good thought. I like to think of that before bed.” With that, Sergei took another drink of his vodka.
Sergei was destroying people’s chances to trigger, and he didn’t even know it. It was such an amazingly minor Trump power, but a potentially devastating one to Jordan. If he were to ever find this out… That was a moral quandary for Colin. He’d definitely tell Jordan the truth about never having seen him as a child. That was a given. But this? This was different.
Jordan deserved to know. He deserved to know that he’d never trigger now. It would lead to the question of why, and Colin would have to explain. Or, more likely, have Tess explain. He’d just screw it up. And how would Jordan react? He was sure that clinging to the hope of triggering was a good portion of what kept him going. And if that line was severed, what then?
The only other reason that Jordan kept running was to protect his siblings. There was a massive difference in why he ran and what helped him get through the day. What would happen if Jordan learned that the thing that gave him the strength to get through the day, that hope, would never come?
It was something that Colin was still debating.
It was also a bitter irony. They’d learned that Sergei could prevent people from triggering, which New Fairfax would have loved. Only, they learned it a little too late. They always learned the important things too late.
“There was also that thing about his mother…”
Now Sergei had his attention again.
“He did not dream for the longest time. No nightmares. But when he did, he remembered a woman that he called his mother. She appeared to him in his dreams, teaching him things. It was right after I worked to improve his ability to remember things, which always made me wonder. But, again, I am unsure.”
Colin frowned. “His memory seems… spotty.”
Sergei shrugged. “I improved his ability to remember things, and then improved his ability to not remember things. And then he didn’t remember the details of what we did. It kept us from getting into trouble, because he could answer truthfully. At least, in his mind. I would still get in trouble for it, on occasion. Many of us who did these things were complained to about it. Some stopped. I did not.”
Said as if it were the most obvious and natural thing in the world.
Colin opened his mouth to speak, but was cut off as his helmet closed. Fuck, something happened. It didn’t help that the woman’s threat rating jumped to 90%.
“We need to make this fast. Jordan was involved in an altercation with both the Wardens and a gang. Both groups were entirely focused on him.”
“Make the deal and fill me in.” With that, he turned on his heel and moved for the door.
“Something just came up, but Jordan is likely to visit you soon. We were hoping that we could make an arrangement.”
As soon as he was outside, Tess started speaking into his ear. “Things are vague, and reports are still coming in.”
“But you know some facts.”
“A group of Warden cadets were sent on a capture mission, with Jordan as a goal. I don’t know how they knew that he was in the town. However, they were still scouting when a local gang assaulted Jordan. There’s a lot of people hurt in the crossfire.”
Crossfire. Probably literally. “How bad are we talking?”
“I don’t know yet, but they’re calling in medics. Valkyrie is personally doorwaying them in. None of the Wardens were seriously hurt. A broken nose and some bruising. From what I’m hearing, Jordan worked to minimize casualties, with limited success. There’s a lot of gunshot wounds.”
If Chevalier could know that Tess could listen in on their priority comms, he would have a conniption. Colin didn’t care at the moment. Valkyrie was actually going through with it. Jordan was good, far better than Colin had been when he’d turned thirty, but that only counted for so much. Eventually, someone would die.
“Confirmation of a severe concussion. Confirmation of a lot of people with broken limbs. One is in danger of exsanguination, the result of a fall from a window and subsequent power use. Wait, both he and Jordan went through the window and were slammed on the ground multiple times.”
And with broken glass, that could easily be lethal. “How bad is Jordan?”
“He walked out of the town under his own accord. Bleeding, but under his own accord. I don’t know, though. He and the people with him left to handle some sort of business, but it didn’t look like a shakedown. He made some threats to the cadets if they interfered, though.”
Some sort of business? “We need to get any information we can on his team. Even if we can find out what he was there for, we need better intel.”
“What’s your plan?”
“We go to do some investigation. We find out what he was there for, and–”
“Colin.” Her voice was more worried than usual. “I just scanned the Dragon’s Teeth databases. The Machine, the gang that fought him? They’re suspected of being associates of Teacher. Not students, but…”
Damn. This just got a whole lot more difficult. There was no way they were getting close now.