Fenix smirked at me. “I don’t know everything that you’ve been doing, but you’re losing your reputation as a murderhobo.”
I raised my eyebrows. “Zwa?”
He laughed, deep and full from the belly. “Don’t worry, you haven’t lost your reputation of being dangerous. But the newspapers are really confused as to if you’re a saint in disguise, or a murderhobo who occasionally does good things just for kicks. Sometimes, you’ll get two completely opposite articles about you in the paper.”
That seemed to perk John’s curiosity. “You wouldn’t happen to have copies of those papers, would you?”
Habib shook his head. “I have my own recycling program. While I’ve kept every article that I come across about Jordan’s murdohobo activities, we recycle every unspent paper.”
“Unsold,” Fenix gently corrected.
“Bah.” Despite waving Fenix off, Habib didn’t seem to actually mind. “However, if you are wanting, I could copy them for you.”
Emi leaned on the counter, grinning from ear to ear. “Why are you keeping track of J-man being a murderhobo?”
“It’s not every day that we get a pleasant customer that just so happens to be a murderhobo!”
I squeezed my eyes shut. “Guys.”
“We might want to get into some more murderhoboing,” Kathy said thoughtfully.
“Our escapades as Relentless and his squad help immensely with that. We now have the ability to distance ourselves from Jordan for adventures such as denying a cult their fresh cache of recruits.” John shook his head. “I still don’t know how you talked me into that.”
Emi giggled. “Because deep down you know that having anyone other than this big lug out there being a murderhobo is bad for business?”
“This is true,” John confessed. “Murderhobos are bad for trade and economy in general. Still…”
“Maybe you’re starting to enjoy murderhobo levels of violence?” Kathy teased him.
“Please! I am, if nothing else, an actor. A con man. I have no qualms portraying the role of a murderhobo, but actually enjoying the visceral violence? No, I’ll leave that to our illustrious murderhobo friend here.”
“Guys!” The six of them turned to look at me. They were all smirking, but still. “Enough with the murderhobo already!”
“They’re only teasing,” Brenda said quietly.
“I kinda gathered that, don’t worry. But seriously. I think that I’ve heard the word murderhobo more in the past five minutes than I have in my entire life, and I took a class on the Slaughterhouse Nine! What if someone walked through the door?!”
“We’ve been closed for a half an hour now,” Fenix said with a smirk.
I blinked at him. “Right. I… I knew that.” No I didn’t.
“I’m surprised,” Kathy said. “I didn’t see you as the sort to take a course on them.”
John snorted. “Dragon and Defiant chasing after the Slaughterhouse Nine was all over the papers. She did kill the Siberian, after all.”
Emi snickered. “Yeah, of course he took the class, then. Hell, I’m still surprised that you’re not gushing about having met the big man.”
I sighed. “Okay, first of all, I lived with him for a winter. Finding out that was more than a bit of a mindfuck. Second, everything afterwards left me a little numb. Third, I distinctly remember thinking that if I were to just drop dead after that whole Simurgh thing, I’d be a happy man.”
John coughed. “On the subject of mildly worrisome things, I have an appointment for you with a psychologist on Thursday.”
“No good,” Brenda declared.
John lifted his eyebrows. “Oho? What do your fine precog eyes see, Brenda?”
“Nothing,” I answered for her. “She’s cashing in her Christmas present. The two of us alone in the woods, with no other paras as far as the eye can see. I’ve already ordered the meat for it.”
She nodded blindly, positively beaming at that.
“And who am I to deny a lovely young lady her Christmas present?” He frowned a bit. “Then I’ll reschedule for after next week’s job.”
Emi winced. “You might wanna hold off on that.”
John stared at her flatly. “I know that Jordan didn’t give you anything like that.”
Her posture drew in on itself slightly. “Um, no, but…”
I decided to take the pressure off of her. “Since Valkyrie says that she isn’t wanted in her hometown, I asked if she’d like some backup to go visit them. Moral support and all that. Unless she gets hurt on the job, the plan was to do it the next day.”
John shook his head. “You two have been holding back on me.”
“Says the guy who’s been borrowing my teleporter for hours on end while not wanting to say what he’s doing.”
He tilted his head a little, frowning thoughtfully. “Fair’s fair, I suppose. May I make a suggestion for yous two, though?” Huh, his New York accent kicked up for a moment there.
“A’course,” Emi said. I was guessing that she was humoring him more than anything.
“Go as Lacuna and Relentless. And not just because your home has Wardens. Relentless and his team have been seen twice. The first, they fought the Simurgh. The second, they were part of the second victory against Fyrtorn. If they were to identify him as Jordan, it might damage your relationship with your family. However, as Relentless, even if they know the truth it still leaves you with a legitimate excuse as to why you associate with him, no?”
Emi thought about that for a long moment before nodding. “That’s actually good thinking. And with how Legend officially recognized Relentless as not being Jordan, the local Wardens can’t go all rawr on us without looking like total douchebags. I’m down with that.”
I looked at Habib. “By the way, speaking of my teleporter…”
“I have noticed that the battery is not holding a charge as well as it used to,” Habib admitted. “I can tell merely by looking at it, but how to return it to pristine condition? I am truly sorry, but in order to fix it, you may have to find the original recruiter.”
I frowned. “There’s nothing that you can do at all?”
“Oh, indeed! Quite a bit, without ruining the functionality in the slightest. I could improve its efficiency by adjusting the relays, the user interface is downright crude, which I could do a great deal to improve. If you were to let me get a look at your new armor, I am most certain that I could find a way to integrate the user interface with those systems. And I have been hearing rumors about your brother producing a room-temperature superconductor capable of impressive but contained magnetic fields. I am thinking that if I could get some of that, I could significantly improve battery lifespan.”
A long silence filled the room as everyone stared at him. Thankfully, Kathy was the one who spoke up.
“And you haven’t… Why?”
Habib shrugged. “Nobody is asking me?”
I squinted a little. When did he trigger? What made him trigger? I was starting to get an idea as to what his specialty might be, but I couldn’t be sure. The devil was in the details, and what could seem like the obvious answer for a Tinker might not be. Still… It would fit with how he could perfectly repair things. That was a rare skill for a Tinker.
Kathy looked to me. “Maybe it would be worthwhile to let him—“
“You should know better than to even suggest that,” I said quickly. I turned to Habib. “No offense, but having you look at Dragon and Defiant’s tech without their permission…”
He nodded somberly. “No, I am understanding. Do not worry, I do not take offense. But if you do get their permission, I would be happy, yes?”
I nodded. “Just, uh… Can you make one of those interdimensional comms arrays?”
That made him frown. “My power, it lets me understand Tinker technology, but not mundane technology. I am learning as much as I can, but the weird combination of mundane and Tinker technology, it is… problematic.”
I nodded. It made sense. Interesting.
“So,” Fenix said, putting his elbow on the counter. “Where are the two of you planning on going for your little trip? And are you going to need any camping gear?”
…That was actually a good point. Roughing it probably wasn’t her cup of tea. Great. Now I was going to have to spend money on stuff that I wasn’t ever going to use again.
The world changed around us, and my hand gripped my gut. This damn indigestion was getting worse. Nothing that I couldn’t handle, but it was just… annoying.
I didn’t really have time to think about it, though, as Brenda was ripping off the headband that at covered her eyes with a gleeful giggle. The corners of my mouth twisted upwards as she spread her arms and spun around, though she was squinting pretty heavily.
I couldn’t even begin to imagine how hard it must be for her to keep herself blind like that. The only way to keep her ability of seeing countless possible realities when other paras were around was to keep herself blind. To be here, alone with me, must have been pure bliss for her. To be able to see, to move without worry… It must have been glorious to her.
As she took in everything, and got used to light, I grabbed her tent. It was a simple canvas wedge tent, nothing special. We weren’t going to have to worry about the temperature, so the cot that I got for her plus the bedding that she packed should leave her in a good position. A down pillow seemed like a luxury to me – who needed that to sleep?
As I unpacked the wooden tent poles, she suddenly hugged me from behind. “Thank you for this, Jordan. You have no idea…”
“Any time. And I mean that. We have a tent now, so before it gets cold, if you want to, say the word and I’ll gladly do this again.”
She let go, moving around in front of me. Her smile was dazzling enough to light up the night. “I might have to. Do we have an axe or something? While you set up the tent, I can get some firewood or something.”
I retrieved my halberd and disconnected the blade section, offering it to her. “Be careful with it. It’s insanely sharp.”
Brenda’s smile softened as she took it from me. “You part with the shaft or the head, but never both.”
I shrugged a shoulder. “It’s… hard to explain. But it means a lot to me.”
“Mm. Probably because your brother made it.”
She hefted it a bit, nodding. “When we worked for Mr. Abrams… He sometimes worked on blades like this. Well, not like this…”
“The ones for the Dragon’s Teeth.”
Brenda nodded again. “Yeah. I asked him about your halberd once. He was so proud of it, and the tech that went into it. I never had the courage to tell him that the tech that went into the shaft could be used for prefab housing. Make big squares of it, so that you could easily fit them together.”
I thought about that for a moment. “You should have. That’s a good idea, especially for the Dragon’s Teeth or the US. Heck, if we had squares like that, you’d probably be sleeping in a small cabin tonight instead of a tent.”
She shrugged a shoulder. “It wasn’t my place. Honestly, I was just happy that Karen wanted to learn something from me.”
“Math you said, wasn’t it?”
“You’ve got a good memory.” She frowned a little. “I was supposed to do that sort of thing. Uh, in the cult, I mean. Paperwork and stuff. While my schooling was mostly the same as everyone else, I had more math classes because of it. It wasn’t quite accounting, but it taught me everything that I needed to know to do accounting.”
“That can’t be their teaching alone,” I mused. “That takes some smarts on your end, too. You’re pretty young to be doing accounting.”
“Nah. Well, maybe out here. I was learning fractions by nine, and was reading by four.” Suddenly, her smile was back in place. “Anyway, you get the tent, I’ll get the wood!”
I watched her as she suddenly skipped off. Suddenly, but not unexpected – she’d told me a lot about her life right there. The cult she was from afforded few personal freedoms. She probably had her future chosen for her when she was born, if not sooner. But she’d loved her parents, and losing them had forced her to flee. But her education was impressive; she might well be better educated than even the Orphanage.
She hadn’t said anything about what her cult’s beliefs were. Either she’d already been deprogrammed, which was a lengthy and difficult process even for the willing, or she’d never bought into them. Either option was rather strange. But it was obvious that her knowledge of the outside world was limited, with how often we had to explain things to her. Normal for cults. Introduction to Cult Theory.
It was an interesting puzzle, but at the same time, I didn’t honestly care. She was my friend, and while she probably didn’t want to admit it, she was warming up to us more. We’d always been her friends, but now she wasn’t quite so willing to leave us at the drop of a hat. Every day, that loyalty got a little bit stronger.
I focused on the tent. We had three days out here. I wanted them to be good for her.
“There’s only one thing that I miss,” Brenda mused quietly. I looked up from my lunch at her. “Music. I wish we would have brought a CD player or something.”
I nodded. “I can respect that.” Something to mildly occupy the brain. If it weren’t for the books that I’d brought and my training, I probably would have gone insane by now.
She was content to continue her musing. “It’s funny, the world we live in. Swords and stuff alongside firearms. A township that might not have electricity, but has hot and cold running water and a CD player powered by a windmill. People aren’t banding into primitive tribal structures and running around in black leather. Well, Bitch and her son were in leather, but those were just pants and their jackets. How’d they keep from sweating to death?”
“Practice, most likely.” I took another bite of the stew, savoring the flavor. I wasn’t the best cook, and I felt that I was getting worse, but this was nice and meaty. “Before my armor, I used to have leather armor. You get used to it after a while.”
That made her smirk at me. “Kind of like how you wear your armor all the time now?”
“Kinda. But it has temperature control. It makes it far nicer to be in.”
That made her eyes go wide. “Do ours have that? Or am I just oblivious?”
“Uh… Well, it looks like it was made with Chris’ tech, so… Probably. I’ll take a look when we get back. Really, I wish that you would have brought it.”
“Ugh!” She set her bowl down. Huh, she must have inhaled it. “Come on! This is my vacation! I can just… run and jump and stuff!”
I shrugged and went back to eating.
Brenda was silent for a long moment. When she spoke, it was with a bit of a sad tone. “You know, I should have voted for us to leave you. It would have been better for you, I think.”
I frowned. I had no idea what she was talking about. “How so?”
“Well… When we first met you, you had this perpetual smile. Even when you were staring off into space, the corners of your lips twisted upwards. Like, it was just the most natural thing in the world. And we’d be sneaking behind your back, playing you. Say that we were destroying the drugs when we were really stealing them to resell. Now… You don’t seem to care if we grab the drugs. Sometimes, you even ask if we remembered it. And you don’t really smile much anymore. I mean, you do sometimes, but… I expected you to be grinning your head off over Defiant, and you just sort of shrug it off.
“I don’t think that Angel Grove was kind to you.”
“I liked it,” I said with a nod. “Good, hard work, in a good, hard community.”
That made her frown more. “Jordan, I worry about you. You’re like a big brother that I never knew I wanted.”
“I get that a lot.”
“But you’re also so stubborn and dumb sometimes. Like why do you keep…”
Her words trailed off, her eyebrows twitching together for the briefest of moments before she dove into the tent. I calmly set my bowl aside, rising to my feet. Trouble of some sort. Idly, I grabbed my halberd and helmet. I’d just gotten it on and secured when I heard a man’s voice call out.
I turned and was met with… Fucking Wardens, what the shit? Five cadets and a handler. I sighed heavily as I put the faceplate down. “Didn’t I just deal with a group of you a week ago?”
Had it been three weeks already? Where did the time go? I remembered when I was a little kid, time seemed to move so slowly. Now…
“You’re wanted for questioning regarding the massacare of New Fairfax. Will you come peacefully?”
I carefully set my halberd on the ground before straightening out, lifting my hands far above my head to stretch my muscles and work out the slight kink in my back. I stayed like that for a long moment, long enough that one of the cadets began to walk towards me.
“Yeah, no. I’m on vacation, so fuck you.” I hoped that Brenda had her mask in there. I hadn’t been in the tent since I’d set it up, giving her some privacy. I’d been sleeping in a tree.
I glanced at them, just to find a woman right on top of me, swinging for my helmet, an odd shimmer around her fist that felt oddly familiar. Thankfully, she telegraphed too much.
I ducked under the swing, giving a left cross to her floating ribs. Her armor absorbed most of it, but I was already delivering a right hook to her armpit, putting my body into it. That only fueled a more devastating cross to her jaw. She was the only one wearing her helmet, but even still, she stumbled and began to fall… Right into the knee that I was bringing up into the other side of her jaw.
A simple defense-to-four combination. Already, the fight was out of her as she hit the ground. A Striker down, and four to go…