About Ritic

I'm just this guy.

Ragnarok 16.6

One unfortunate trait about Quincy, one that no matter how hard he tried seemed to be impossible to eliminate, was his possessiveness. He had his job, he had his spouses, his children, his house, his man cave, so on and so forth. They were things that were undeniably his, no matter how broadly.

Thankfully, jealousy wasn’t something that he suffered from. His relationship with Kevin had been greatly improved once the two of them discussed Kevin seeing another man on the side. It wasn’t a romantic relationship, but a purely sexual one, and Quincy had given his approval of Ralph after meeting with the man.

There was no jealousy there. Keven would come home glowing, but would still cuddle up with Quincy and Ryo. He liked cuddling with Ryo, but he was, ultimately, a gay man with a very active libido in a polygamous relationship with a bisexual man. Quincy could appreciate the frustration that it caused him, once it was explained adequately, which lead to the current arrangement.

To others, it might be a source of jealousy, but Quincy could work out the logic. And that was the key, understanding the emotional response of jealousy and defeating it with equal parts logic and consideration. Possessiveness, however, was a different matter. Fortunately, there were ways to apply it, especially in his current position.

Currently, he was smoothing out the ribbon tapestry hanging on the wall. Even though it didn’t belong to him in a legal sense, and even though he had zero hand in creating it, it was his tapestry, and it had to be just so. The lighting had to show the scene of a man in armor battling a scarred and shirtless man just right, and needed adjustment every time that the bulb burned out. And inevitably, whenever the cleaning crew came through, he had to put it in its place just so.

Satisfied with his work, he moved to the nearby locker to retrieve three ribbons. He took the time to put his own around his wrist with the utmost care before offering the other two to his companions.

The man had a neatly trimmed beard that was more gray than black, the kind of puffy circles under his eyes that made his long face look perpetually tired no matter how much sleep he got, not helped by the slight slouch to him. The bulge around his middle spoke of a good life of excess, but Quincy didn’t doubt for a moment that he was dangerous.

The woman who thrust her wrist froward for Quincy to put the ribbon on was more immediately dangerous, though, and not just because of the pistol on her hip and the rifle over her shoulder and her headiness to defend the heavy case in her other hand. She was a lean, muscular woman who looked far younger than her companion. A recent vanity, the man had called it. She was just as tall as him, but her angular features were pulled into a tight scowl, made worse by her short blonde hair.

“Then you will trade with him,” she barked in a nearly-impenetrable accent.

This was the crux of the problem of possession. Quincy’s ribbon was his. Not to be given out at random!

He took a slow breath, meeting the woman’s harsh glare. “You don’t trust me?”

“When there is doubt, there is no doubt.”

Which made absolutely no sense.

The man’s eyes softened, the closest that Quincy suspected he ever came to smiling. “Please humor her. This is being very stressful for her, yes? I am sure that you are understanding.”

He was saying that she might get violent if Quincy refused. Brilliant. With a sigh, he removed his own and traded with the man.

Not that he relished using Tinker technology, period. For a while after Gold Morning, there were two mindsets. The first was that parahumans were the source of all problems and would end up finishing what Scion started some day. The second, and arguably more dangerous, was that paras would save the day. People had focused on their own hierarchy of needs rather than roll up their sleeves and do what had to be done.

People were getting better about it, but there was still too much emphasis on Tinkers and not enough on mundane technology. The Dragon’s Teeth were making great strides, but they still relied too heavily on technology that was inherently unstable.

Of course, crossing a reality and who knew how many miles in an instant was pretty much impossible without parahuman assistance. Which was precisely why Quincy ran his hand over the tapestry again, activating it and making the world blur.

As reality settled around them again, the three were greeted by a quintet of armored guards. One took a step forward, nodding to Quincy. “Mr. Munteanu.”

“Landmine Actual,” Quincy said as he smoothed his suit reflexively. He took a measure of pride as the man straightened himself. They all believed that it would be impossible to tell them apart in their armor, and while it wasn’t exactly easy, it was far from impossible as well. Different squads had different configurations for their armor, and sometimes within a squad there would be differences. Then there was the obvious that those who had been of Fyrtorn had subtly modified their utility belts to have a thin golden marking on them. Then again, everyone stood and simply carried their armor slightly differently.

Of course, the easiest method was the fact that Quincy was very good at differentiating voices.

“These two are with me. We will understand if you need an honor guard to accompany us.”

“Thank you. One moment.” The man put two fingers to his helmet, a wasted effort in Quincy’s opinion. It wasn’t likely that the motion would be needed, not with his admittedly basic knowledge of how the Relentless Legion’s armor setup was. Jordan wouldn’t stand for something so needlessly complicated when lives could be on the line, and he doubted that Defiant would, either.

Good on them for having found each other in the end. Jordan had long needed Defiant’s approval, and the things that he’d achieved since the two had met were incredible. Impossible, even. It gave Quincy hope.

After a moment, a squad appeared, silently asking the trio to follow them. The woman was more on guard than ever, but didn’t say anything. Or do anything, thankfully. She seemed content to protect the man and the heavy case that she was carrying.

Quincy had to admit that Second Chance was, in many ways, a place of excess. The buildings were expertly crafted in a faux-Gothic design, with Victorian elements added for the specific purpose of looking impressive; huge arches, intricate carvings and engravings, and even golden inlays. The streets were wide and welcoming, as wide as New Brockton, but were made of something other than cement or bricks. It felt almost like solid slabs of granite, but he was willing to bet that it was related to some sort of power.

There were changes, however, beyond the simple expansion of Second Chance. The people weren’t as laid back as they used to be, a heavier air settling around everyone. And then there were the wildlings following people, wildlings the size and basic shape of a dog while still being strongly reminiscent of cats somehow. That was freaky. There had been offers to export them, but everyone was refusing for now, and Quincy couldn’t blame anyone for that. As… oddly cute as they were in an ugly way, he doubted that most people could get past the fact that they were wildlings. How Second Chance did it was beyond him.

Then again, there were a lot of things about Second Chance that were beyond him. The least of which was why some people with no criminal record, and who seemed perfectly sane otherwise, would willingly sign up for a group that openly advertised that they were expendable.

Sure, if someone served their time and lived, there were a host of perks. It was a basic form of socialism, where the absolute basics were provided: three hots and a cot, medical, any pay that they earmarked for later, and all the Second Chance mead that they wanted. Anything beyond that, though, required work. Already, a basic business structure was clumsily forming, as crude as it might be. Quincy had been studying economics in his spare time to try and help with that infrastructure, but it was slow going. Miss Wilbourn kept him busy more often than not.

The others… They walked past an acre of farmland, being worked by people who hadn’t signed on, who had come to make sure that family members who had been taken by Fyrtorn were getting treatment. They knew that it would take years, but for many of them, the people here were the only family that they knew. These people provided a critical role in the Second Chance economy, ensuring that the army was fed more than potatoes and milk.

Now if only they could at least get rickshaws running. Quincy would kill for that. He considered mentioning it to someone, but decided against it the moment that familiar figures came into view: Relentless, accompanied by the crone that seemed to always be somewhere nearby. Really, she should have kept a longer distance than that.

It took nearly an hour of walking to reach the meeting hall, only for the guards posted outside to take a defensive stance, some raising weapons, some giving a warning show of their powers.

“We can’t let them in,” a woman barked.

Quincy raised a slow eyebrow, even as his heart started to race. This could get ugly. “I’m sure that she will relinquish her weapons.” By the hiss of air through nostrils behind him, he doubted it.

“It’s not that. Only authorized personnel are allowed to attend the meeting. We–”

The door opened, and a familiar helmeted figure stepped out. “Stand down. I grant them full authorization to attend.” She looked to Quincy, her tone changing to a more familiar one. “Mr. Munteanu.”

“Miss Schrodinger.” He looked back to his two companions before following her inside. “Thank you for letting them know. I take it that Miss Wilbourn informed you.”

“Probably,” she said, leading the trio deeper inside. The building had quite a few meeting rooms, but they were heading for the grand one, the one with the most anti-intrusion defenses, where people could talk without worry of anyone listening in. “I don’t know, I just saw that you were coming.”

Ah. “Then I thank you. I take it that you know what’s going to happen?”

“Only a little,” she confessed. “I’m learning to… enjoy the moment and not try to plan too far ahead. It’s more of a challenge than you might think.”

He could imagine. He knew that her claims of being a time traveler were lies, but he still had no idea what her power was. Still, being able to know the future must have been horribly tempting.

Inside the main chamber, there were already others gathered. Defiant, the blonde woman from Nexus, and both Mr. Abrams and his wife were the only others already there who weren’t members of the Legion. As a couple of the sort-of soldiers got chairs for his two guests, Quincy approached Defiant.

“I’m glad that you could make it.”

The cyborg sighed softly. “Can I just say that I hate these things?”

Quincy nodded. “I don’t think that anyone likes them. And I know that it distracts you from your work. Speaking of, how is that project that Dragon mentioned last time going?”

“Poorly,” Defiant confessed. “You’d think that my expertise with cybernetics and Dragon’s familiarity with organic computers would make things easier for us, but we’ve had to go through and re-forge every single piece of metal that we’ve gotten. I’m not saying that we’re not having problems with the programming too, but the lack of assured quality is frustrating.”

Quincy nodded solemnly. “When my wife was pregnant for the first time… Well, I’m not going to say that it’s the same, but I treated every little thing like it might kill my child, and that was before he was born. I wanted to take my wife to the hospital when she nicked her finger.” Something that she loved to tell everyone, much to his embarrassment.

Defiant smiled a little at that. “At least the body’s own organic production takes care of most everything.”

“Most of the time.”

“Most of the time, yes. But we’re… Both of us are working in equal parts on the body, programming, and organic processor. We can’t blame genetics or random elements for anything that goes wrong, and everything is going wrong. We’re going to do the first test fitting of the organic processor later tonight.”

I’m sure it will be fine,” Dragon said through Defiant’s armor. “I don’t expect everything to go as planned, we’ll work it out. We always do.

“Unless that latest patch creates more critical errors that we didn’t expect. Again.”

Quincy could sympathize. While his first and last child were unexpected, Tomoe had been planned, and had been nerve wracking in its own right up until Ryo finally announced her pregnancy. He couldn’t even begin to imagine what the two of them were going through.

“Chaos is inherent in any system,” Quincy said offhandedly. “No matter how well you try and make it perfect, at some point, it will always come.”

The red bead experiment,” Dragon mused.

“Quite. Dr. Demming was brilliant in that demonstration.” Even if he was an ass. He was always thankful for his mathematics teacher introducing the class to systems thinking.

“I hate chaos,” Defiant grumbled.

“And that’s a universal. At least, until chaos comes into play.”

He would have continued past the joke that he didn’t expect anyone but himself to get, but the door opened and Relentless barged in, the crone following close behind him. He all but ripped off his helmet, revealing a pale face and red hair that was plastered to it. “Today is insane!”

“Hey!” Lacuna barked, pointing at the crone. “You mind not using his voice for that in here? It’s disturbing.”

“My apologies,” she said, bowing her head. “Six warned me about that, too. I do tend to get focused, don’t I?”

“Rough day?” Sagittarius asked, moving away from the group that she’d been talking to.

“Don’t you know it,” the man said as he slumped into a chair, no longer sounding like Relentless. “One of those Fyrtorn fucks offered themselves to me. Like, just stripped when I answered the door.”

“I wished that I could have been there,” the crone said as she settled into the chair next to him, unable to sit up straight. Funny how she only looked in her mid-to-late thirties now. “But I heard enough. The poor boy was struck speechless, and then had to quickly match what I said. Oh, but he is a good actor, and quickly matched Lord Relentless’ body language.”

“And that’s just the start,” the false Relentless grumbled. “I swear, this job is going to make me trigger some day.”

“Doubtful,” Voodoo Actual said. “I can smell when someone has the possibility of triggering, and you don’t have that on you yet.”

As the others filed in, Quincy moved to take his seat. Funny how now the woman let her husband sit next to Quincy. She probably deemed him the lesser threat.

He set his briefcase on the table and opened it. After briefly touching his hammer to help ground himself, Quincy pulled out the necessary paperwork for this meeting.

Within moments, Sagittarius, now completely free from her helmet, called out to everyone. “This meeting is now in session, at 10:38 AM. To begin with, concerns from the previous meeting.

“Cauncey, do we know any more details on that squad yet?”

A man nodded. “Yup. They came to the same conclusion that everyone else does — the anklets are the thing that keep the criminals from escaping and found a way to remove them, or at least link them together with his own in order to keep them from activating. Nobody’s figured out yet that they’re the suppressor, not the enforcer. Apparently, when the other anklets didn’t get the appropriate ping back from the nanomachines in the bloodstream, they activated his own. With their crimes and our agreement with their respective courts, the punishment for their escape attempt was death, and the nanomachines delivered instantly.”

“I’ll have to focus on that in future negotiations,” Archimedes mused as he rubbed his chin, smearing his makeup. “We can’t afford to lose another squad like this. Maybe work out a tier system, of increasing punishments?”

Chauncey nodded in approval. “I like it, especially if it means that I don’t have to constantly worry about dying if someone forgets to update the parameters on my anklet.” A criminal himself overseeing other criminals, and even being let into this inner circle. Quincy wasn’t sure if he should be amazed or not.

“Do we need a vote for this?” Sagittarius asked. The general murmur said no. “Right. Next, are we getting the issues worked out in the ops center?”

A woman nodded. “Yes and no. That new guy, David Jackson? The one that we brought in from Archimedes’ home town? Well, there was another argument and he had a, uh… Well, a fit, I guess. Started screaming, tearing out his hair, beating his head against the wall. It was the first time that I’ve seen Ops all pull together since Teacher. Everyone just snapped together perfectly in cohesion again.

“He’s still not fit for duty again, though. We’ve sent him back to the Orphanage to see the shrinks, and they’re going to see is his brother in the Wardens can come and visit, but without him there, things are starting to go back to the way that they were.”

Lacuna raised a finger. “I remember that guy, but, uh… Remind me again, why is he with us?”

“Obstruction of justice,” Archimedes said. “Because of the false confession for rape and murder that he was blackmailed into giving, or else his brother would get blamed for murdering his father. It’s bullshit, and more to spite our performance in court than anything, but at least his mandatory service is only six months.”

“I want to keep him,” the woman from Ops said quickly. “Thinkers tell me that if he comes back, Ops will get fully back under control, but only for as long as he’s part of it. And really? He’s worth it. We don’t have enough untriggered who can work so well with the Thinkers in Ops, and he’s got a keen eye for analysis and threat assessment.”

“That will be tricky,” Archimedes confessed. “The Wardens want him with Mr. Welsh again ASAP, and they don’t want to give Welsh any reason to quit. I’ll send some of my people to meet with them and see if we can negotiate something, but I’ve got a full schedule for the rest of the month.”

“Right.” Sagittarius drummed her fingers on the table. “Any chance that we can get in touch with Gina, see if she can help us?”

“No,” Defiant said, but he didn’t sound like he was going to offer up anything else on that matter.

“Alright. We’ll continue along.” She glanced at her the minutes from the last meeting. “As for you, Defiant, and you, Mr. Abrams, are we not moving forward with the YF-19 battlesuit tests?”

Defiant and Mr. Abrams glanced at each other for a moment, but it was Dragon who answered. “The Dragon’s Teeth have already suggested some modifications that they want before the testing phase. We’re looking like we’re going to have to up it to 21 before they’re willing to sign off on prototyping.

One deal that had been struck with the Dragon’s Teeth was that the Legion would test armor and give feedback before the Dragon’s Teeth would adopt it. Which was an excellent deal for them, and a bad one for the Legion — already, four of the Legion had died from garrison armor tests, and another two were still being treated for radiation exposure from testing stealth armor.

Sagittarius made a notation. “If there’s anything that we can do to grease the wheels, let us know. And if you want to let us have access to a few suits of 19s, we’ll still take them. We desperately need new armor to put more untriggered into flying teams.”

We’ll tell them the truth then,” Dragon mused. “That we would feel more comfortable testing the YF-19 armor and incorporating anything that we learn into the next iteration.

“Great. Now then… Is there anything else pressing from the previous meeting that someone wants to bring up?”

Everyone had something to say, but not to that.

“Alright. First off, we’ve gotten another order for twenty wildlings.”

A man who barely fit into his armor shook his head. “It’s going to have to wait until they’re in their breeding cycle again, and I don’t want to juice them to push it any more. The Tinkers and Thinkers aren’t sure what will happen, so I’d rather take it slow for at least one or two cycles.”

Sagittarius frowned. “Alright. Melody? Do you think we can get that Tinker tech up and running to produce those?”

A blonde woman shook her head. “Not for at least another month. Apparently there’s others going through a breeding cycle, and we lost enough people just shutting that place down. Getting it back up and running, and making sure that we’re only producing friendlies… I want to get some more fresh meat first.”

“That’s what I was afraid of.” Sagittarius tapped her pen against the pad a few times, irritating the person who was taking the minutes. “Fine. Which brings us to recruitment.”

Archimedes shrugged. “I’m doing the best I can, but unless we do something really big, we aren’t going to get another good wave again. Not like after we took down Teacher, and even then, a lot of those that we got are lacking. And we haven’t gotten anyone from Nexus yet.”

The blonde agent in the simple robes frowned. “His methods of helping those who were under Teacher’s sway are slow, and even then, I’m not entirely sure if I approve of using them like this.”

“There’s a lot of resentment against Teacher and his students,” Archimedes pointed out. “And just because he’s dead, it doesn’t mean that it’s going to disappear. We’re still getting resistance from people who just see us as the new Fyrtorn. This would be a good way to help both them and us.”

“It still feels like conscription.”

“Conscripts don’t have a choice, and we never take anyone who doesn’t agree to it themselves. Listen, I…” Archimedes sighed, before turning verbose again. “Let us set up a meeting with our trio of ethics committees to discuss this properly. I believe that this is a matter that requires more cohesion and correspondence than just one party.”

“On this, I’ll agree.” She bowed her head. “Contact Nexus for the arrangements, and we will do our best to be there.”

“Right.”

Sagittarius turned to a bald man who was looking impatient. “How’s morale?”

“Shit. Simply put, we’re starting to slowly fracture. Right now, we’re at yellow-white-blue, and if it weren’t for our friend here…” He nodded towards the faux-Relentless. “…we’d already be at orange-yellow-black, or even orange-white-red.”

“Yeah,” faux-Relentless said weakly. “I, uh, I…”

“He’s not majestic enough,” another woman interrupted, a hint of hostility in her voice. Everyone was interrupting. “He almost has the walk, the movement, and he has the voice. The claims that Lord Relentless was wounded and is still recovering help cover for these things, but they don’t hide the lack of magesty that he contained.”

“If I may,” Schrodinger said quietly. “I believe that our guests might have something that they’d like to add concerning this issue.” Her helmet turned to look at Quincy and his companions.

Quincy turned to look at the man next to him, nodding once. The man, in turn, gave a sharp nod, and the woman opened her case, setting it on the long table.

“I am not knowing this majesty that you speak of,” the man said slowly, trying to enunciate clearly. “However, I am knowing the weight of presence. Some have it. Some do not. Relentless, he was described to me as having this weight of presence beyond compare. This, this I can help you with.

“Tattletale sent someone to tell Iskra and myself of what is happening here, and we decided to retire. To you, we offer these gifts, ointments that will allow that weight of presence, and more. Far more. All that we are asking in return is a bar and some employees. We are thinking that we would like running a bar very much.”

“Your resignation,” Lacuna said slowly. “Is that gonna cause problems for us? I remember your old employers–”

The man, Sergei, snorted. “We were very, very thorough in our retiring. We are old, girl. Not incompetent. And Iskra, ah. I am thinking that perhaps she could talk with some of your people here that are helping. She is very competent, sometimes perhaps too much so, da?”

As Defiant’s helmet snapped shut, Archimedes’ eyes narrowed at Sergei. “Why do I get the impression that there aren’t many Bratva left?”

That word made the young Miss Abrams’ head snap to look at Sergei in shock. Did she not know what he did for a living?

Sergei snorted. “There are many Bratva left. The Bratva never die. It is impossible. But there are quite a bit fewer. Enough that the message is clear. If they are wanting to make trouble, Iskra is ready to end it for you.”

Sagittarius’ jaw worked. “How much of this stuff is there?”

“Not enough for forever, but much. Those who made it, we had make plenty more. This? A sample. We offer you quite a bit in return for giving us a bar. I am very much wanting to be part of the boy’s legacy, but I am a little too old to be–”

Ops to senior staff,” the speakers on Schrodinger’s helmet blared. “Ops to senior staff. Seattle Bet reports a major earthquake, destruction on scale with the Leviathan attack. They are requesting any humanitarian aid that we can offer. Over.

Miss Abrams was already grabbing her helmet. “Jordan would have been all over this.”

“He already would have been running,” her brother clarified.

“Humanitarian aid isn’t in our charter,” Archimedes said. As all eyes turned onto him, he shrugged. “I’m not saying that we shouldn’t. No matter what we vote, I’m going. Damn the consequences. But someone has to point that out. Since it isn’t part of our charter, maybe we should make it by volunteer only?”

Cauncey slapped his helmet on his head. “Except the criminals. We should have to do it no matter what.” Interesting to see a man who was open about his criminal past being so harsh on them.

Sagittarius glanced at everyone. “All those in favor?”

“Aye,” came the unanimous vote, even Sergei and his wife saying it, too.

“Then it’s decided. Spread the word down the chain of command. I want every squad giving their answer within fifteen minutes. Meeting is suspended until after this crisis is handled.”

Quincy frowned. He’d had a lot to discuss — the status of repayments, infrastructure concerns, the fact that he knew that there were quite a few members of the senior staff who hadn’t taken their mandatory leave yet… Why could these things never happen the way that he wanted them to?

——————————

It was almost dark by the time that Quincy made it back to New Brockton. Most likely, the meeting wouldn’t be resumed until next week. Which Miss Wilbourn wouldn’t appreciate. New Brockton was suffering from some financial woes, and Twain was talking about tariffs. They needed more money coming into the city.

Which made standing outside of her office that much harder. He wavered for a moment before putting his hand on the knob and opening the door.

Lisa Wilbourn’s private office was massive, full to the brim with monitors, white boards, peg boards, and what have you. Her own insane way of sorting through everything to try and draw as much information as possible. Tonight, however, the lights were off, and the room was only lit by the biggest monitor.

As Quincy closed the door behind him, he was surprised to see what looked like one of the old news reports that his parents would watch on TV back in the day. In fact, he was pretty sure that it was, only without sound. A reporter was interviewing a lean dark-haired woman whose eyes were twinkling behind her glasses.

As he stepped closer, he took note of the information running across the bottom of the screen; something about an urban gardening project. The scene shifted, and the woman pointed out what looked to be turnips with a prosthetic hand before smiling back at the camera. After that, the scene ended. After a moment of black, the monitor apparently began to replay the news report from the start.

Miss Wilbourn turned to look at Quincy, wiping the tears from her freckled face with a weak smile. “It’s going to be alright,” she said softly. “I don’t care what went wrong, for the first time in a long, long time… I think that everything’s going to be alright.”

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Ragnarok 16.5

Teleportation was, for the most part, a waste when it came to trade. The price for maintenance of a Tinker teleporter was insane, far more than what it would be worth for a wagon and a couple of guards. If you could get enough together to get a caravan, then it was even cheaper. And now that there were trains going in some realities, it could become even cheaper. The Dragon’s Teeth weren’t trying to pull a real profit, which helped immensely.

Not that those who were pulling a profit were necessarily bad people. Otherwise, Clint wouldn’t have the job that he did, even with a teleporter.

As he finished looking over the last crate of sealed glass jars, he found himself smiling. “That’s way more tuna than you predicted!”

The collection of villagers beamed. “The new boat, she’s worth all the effort.”

“So I see, so I see!” Clint shuffled his papers, taking final notations before offering the final totals to the village elder, or at least, the person who acted as it. “You’ve actually exceeded what we brought for trade by quite a bit. You’ll see the equivalents there…”

The elder frowned, squinting at it. Oh, right! Clint dug in his pocket, pulling out a small case to offer to the man. “I completely forgot. I mentioned to my boss how you had problems, so he wanted me to give you this.”

The man paused to open the case, and broke into a smile as he slipped on the reading glasses. It would be easy to blame age for his eyesight, but the man was only in his fifties. Clint was pretty sure that it was because of how long the village had gone surviving on fish alone. They’d apparently had horrible health problems for a decade and a half.

Now able to read more clearly, the older man frowned as he looked over everything. After a moment, he pointed at a line of numbers. “How much is this?”

They still weren’t used to traders who weren’t screwing them over. Poor people. “Well, let’s see here…” Clint made a show of thinking, idly reaching up to rub the small scarab pendent that he wore around his neck. “I’m thinking about making another quick stop back here soon to drop off two crates of turnips, a barrel of beans, forty jars of apple butter, a bushel of corn, two kegs of apple cider vinegar, eight jars of topical triple antibiotic cream, some fertilizer, and another record or two for the player you got from us last month.”

Nexus could still make a profit from that trade. Not the best profit, but enough to justify keeping the lane open to the bean counters. Clint wanted to encourage these people to keep getting more without resorting to less savory methods. He might have been too young to have known back then, but he wasn’t a fan of the way that businesses operated before Gold Morning.

The village elder frowned a little. “We still got plenty of them anti-biotics. I’m a thinkin’, maybe we could switch ‘er out for some hydrocortisone?”

That brought a grin to Clint’s face. “Poison ivy?”

“We’re clearin’ out s’more farm east a here for next spring, and it’s overgrown with the stuff. Hopin’ that means the land’s fertile, but we won’t know yet.”

“I know how that goes. I don’t know how much I can get offhand, but I’ll see what I can do. And once you get that land cleared out, give me a sample of the soil. The boss will gladly run some tests for you to let you know what’ll grow best in it.” Nexus was the sort of employer who wanted to empower hamlets like this. It was altruistic, sure, but also practical — the healthier these hamlets were, the more that they produced for trade.

The old man grinned. “Speakin’ a which, how is Takada doing?”

“Good, for the most part. Busier than ever. I don’t think the man knows how to rest.”

“Good, good. When he, his sister, and those friends a his came through town, I thought he was a little slow. Blessed with plenty a brains, but slow. Surprised ta learn that he made it big for himself.”

“Bigger than I ever thought, too.”

“Well, you give him our regards now, ya hear? He done a lot for us, even before ya came along, an’ we’re appreciative. You tell him he’s welcome in Haven any time, if’n he wants ta get away from it all. If he don’t know how, we’ll teach him how ta fish.” Not that they hadn’t made that offer a million times.

Long ago, Jordan and his gang had come through town, only to find them suffering from scurvy and terrible iron deficiency. Under the name Takada, he’d helped them as best he could, showing them how to forage for foods that would help fill the holes in their diet. After that first disastrous job that Jordan had done for them, Nexus had wanted to silently make amends, and had quietly assigned Clint to reaching a trade agreement with them in Jordan’s assumed name. It was an ongoing assignment, which occasionally clashed with his main job.

Clint didn’t mind, though. He liked the work, both here and elsewhere. This little village was a good one, and it felt great to help them. Which, in the end, was sort of Clint’s job.

So often, people got the short end of the stick and didn’t know it. Or were put in a bad position, and needed Nexus to bail them out. All fine and dandy, but even with the drug money, Nexus would have gone broke on his own. Which was where people like Clint came in. Their job was to see how those people or communities could fit into Nexus’ larger networks in such a way that everyone could profit. Nexus had a larger empire than most people thought, and it was growing every day.

Keeping the legal side of that network expanding was technically Clint’s job, but the fact that he got to do it in such a way that it helped people was what made him get out of bed every day. That and the real coffee and sugar. And the chocolate that seemed to help his mother’s dementia for a little bit.

Besides, shaking hands with so many people who were genuinely happy for his help was a pleasure. When it felt like his arm was about to fall off, and the last of the load was placed in the circle they’d made for him to teleport out of, he got himself into the carefully marked position and hit the button.

Immediately, Clint found himself outside of one of the distribution centers. Nexus was just a little paranoid, changing his headquarters every year or two. Instead of letting these places rot, they were changed to distribution centers for his more legitimate business dealings. It was pretty much a given that within a few months of everything running smoothly, either the Wardens, the Dragon’s Teeth, or some form of government would come swooping in to raid the place and leave empty handed.

Clint wasn’t sure if it was a show for the people that they were trying to fight the drug trade, a warning to Nexus, or what. All that he knew was that it was a combination of damn annoying and hilarious.

As workers began to move the crates of canned fish for redistribution to proper canneries, the dried and salted fish and barrels of salt that would go to packaging, and to prepare the next load, he pulled out his pocket watch and glanced at it. “I’m five minutes behind schedule. I’d appreciate it if you’d make it fast.”

Which also meant that he had to hurry to get out of people’s way.

Almost immediately, Edna was next to him, grinning. The two had dated briefly, but it had become clear that things weren’t going to work. They were still friends, though, with the occasional drunken stress relief.

“How’s the fishermen?” she asked as he handed the papers to her.

“Good! The new boat we helped them build was worth it, and it looks like they’re really getting the hang of those pressure canners. If it weren’t so much cheaper to put the fish in tin cans elsewhere, I’d say set them up with a proper rig.”

“You know how the bean counters are,” she muttered as she glanced over the paperwork. “Hy…”

“Sorry, hydrocortisone. They altered the deal in the last minute. Think we can get it for tomorrow?”

Edna shrugged. “Maybe. I’ll do some checking when you head out. No promises, though.”

“Thanks. So, uh… The boss’ girlfriend around?”

She snorted, but didn’t tell him not to say that. The two weren’t actually dating, despite the rumors, and Amaia was quick to take offense to it. Still, she was spending more and more time with him, from what Clint heard.

“No, and still no change. But…” Edna’s eyes twinkled. “I hear her sister’s been sleeping in the same tent as their new guy.”

Clint’s eyes widened, and it was less of an act than people might have suspected. “You’re shitting me. She… I would have pinned the two of them for abstinence, you know?”

As the workers began to load up for Clint’s trip out, Edna shrugged again. “Maybe they are. Not everyone goes for sex first and foremost, you know. I can see them doing the whole puppy love chaste cuddling thing. He seems innocent enough.”

“Don’t take faith as innocence. Mom says that back in the day, almost every politician claimed to be faithful, and they were corrupt as hell.” He smiled a bit. “But I still like the idea of them cuddling. Or even just sleeping next to each other.”

“Holding hands?” she asked with a wry grin.

“Oh my God, yes!” He could see the stuttering corpsman and the mute religious badass holding hands as they slept. Adorable.

Edna’s grin slowly faded, making his heart sink. She was getting serious, which was never a good sign.

“Listen, Clint. The boss, he’s willing to pay mucho overtime, but he was wondering if you, me, and Charlene might be able to do a little something tonight.” She paused, but he motioned her to continue. “There’s another debate about Jordan over at the Orphanage chapter. Rumor mill says that it’s going to be a big one, and he wants some members there to make people back off a bit.”

And like that, Clint’s good mood was gone. “Damn it, Edna–”

“I know,” she said, lifting her hands defensively. “You hate pushing an agenda like that. But no matter where we stand, he was kinda-sorta a colleague, even if we never actually met him. And I don’t like them pushing him like this, saying that he was the will of Taylor reborn and shit.”

And of course, Edna would balk at the idea of anybody who wasn’t triggered being held in the same regard as Taylor. Which was stupid — the core of Taylor’s strength didn’t come from her powers, but from who she was as a person. Clint believed that Jordan should be studied as a data point, someone who accomplished impossible feats, but Edna was always a little more fanatical than him.

To him, their studies gave him strength. He viewed Taylor Hebert as a real-life parable, someone whose tragic life could help him deal with the difficulties of his own life through comparison and meditation. If someone so broken as Taylor could keep going, then so could he.

Charlene herself took a similar stance, though more as a showing of Jordan was the second Taylor, and that his efforts and legacy should be supported at all costs. In her own right, she was just as bad as Edna, but in the opposite direction.

Which meant that his cooler mind might be necessary if things got heated. He let out a sigh. “Let me… Let me handle this next one, and I’ll get back to you, okay?”

“Fair.” She slugged him in the shoulder. “Just don’t take too long. We’ve only got four hours before it starts, and I wanna get there early.”

He nodded, but didn’t say anything. This wasn’t what he wanted to do tonight. But life rarely gave you what you wanted, did it?

As the workers finished loading everything up, he pushed it all back, forcing himself back into work mode. He was good at that. On the days where he’d been up all night because his mom demanded to know where his sister was, or mistook him for her first husband, he’d come to master pushing anything that bothered him to the side to do his job.

Before the teleporter even activated, he was back to his pleasant persona. By the time that he adjusted to the sudden scenery change, he was good to go.

Which was good, because Jim was immediately in his face. “You bring the stuff?”

Shit. Clint had let himself be distracted and hadn’t double-checked the manifest before teleporting. He would have spent a moment checking the papers, but fortunately one of the boxes was marked with a war crime. All it took was a point and Jim was tearing the box open, hunting for a package, and then he was running away.

“You’re late,” Michelle said, approaching with much more decorum and offering her hand. “He drove himself crazy with worry.”

“Sorry. My previous appointment ran long.” He ran a hand through his hair. “Is it serious?”

“The big egghead of town…” She paused to offer the workers who were hovering nearby an apologetic gesture. “And I mean that with the utmost respect!” She flashed Clint a bashful smile before continuing. “Bill got sick, bad enough that the doctor called Jim, and Jim called the Legion. Tried to get the boss, but the boss isn’t talking to anyone it seems.”

No, no he wouldn’t be talking to anyone, period. Some secrets were kept private, and Clint only knew because Nexus got especially drunk one night a few weeks ago and started crying. Again.

“Right now, we’re doing the best we can with Dragon’s gear, but her stuff isn’t up to date on everything from this Earth, and it isn’t like Jim has formal training. He’s gotten good, but…”

But he wasn’t perfect. Right. “So, were those antibiotics?”

Michelle shook her head. “Viral, not bacterial. It’s why we resorted to asking you for help.”

Just peachy. Clint sighed and tried to focus, almost like trying to call up a memory.

He walked past the rows of desks, each one having a person-shaped blob sitting behind it, typing furiously on a keyboard. It was funny how there was always so much detail except for the people, like they were just placeholders. The desks were oak, heavy enough to hide behind, and the floors were pine, warped and cracked with age. The people? He couldn’t even tell what gender they were supposed to be.

Except for one, of course.

Clint made his way to the apparent foreman, who was puffing away on a stogie as he scrutinized the secretaries. “Nex, we have a problem.”

Nexus, who wouldn’t be caught dead smoking anywhere but here, raised a slow eyebrow as he looked at him. “Yeah?”

He offered the boss a piece of paper that was in his hand, ignoring the fact that it was blank. “You know the tech guy in Angel Grove? He’s sick, bad enough that they were trying to beg the Legion for help. If this treatment doesn’t work, things are going to get dire. From what I’ve seen, I don’t think the town can handle losing him. He’s arguably more important than the mayor to some folks.”

The stogie worked in Nexus’ mouth. “Your timing’s horrible. I’m looking to shut down an operation soon.”

That gave Clint pause. “Charles?”

Nexus gave him a look that could curdle milk. Right. Don’t press for details here.

“Anyway,” his boss continued. “It puts me in a tough spot. On one hand, I can’t keep deciding not to shut things down at the eleventh hour. It makes me look weak. On the other hand, Angel Grove is turning me the largest profit out of any of my legitimate business deals.”

Clint had long suspected that to be the case, but you never assumed that anything said here was completely accurate. He’d learned the hard way that his own assumptions and biases could influence what he saw here. Even his mood could warp and twist a conversation. Which probably explained the setting.

“They don’t know how much what they offer is worth, see? And while I give them a fair deal, I’m holding back for now. Eventually, they’re going to want more, and I’m going to have to provide it. Enjoy it while it lasts, you know?”

“Yeah,” Clint said softly.

“Yeah. And if I let things go to shit on me, that’s not going to help. So. It’s not like I can say no.” Nexus sighed, flicking ash from the stogie. “Listen, Edna talk to you?”

“Yeah, she did.”

He pointed at Clint with the cigar. “I want you there. But I want you to keep an eye on this treatment, too. See how it goes. There’s a couple of radios there, including the one they called us on. I want you to get on the horn, talk to Sal. She’ll get in touch with Mother’s Hospital. If things don’t go well, then I’ll foot the bill, with the understanding that I want to be paid back.”

Clint frowned. “Yeah, okay.”

“What’s the matter?”

He shrugged a shoulder. “I was gonna spend some time with Mom tonight. That place you hooked her up with is good, but…”

“But it isn’t the same as having her home.” This image of Nexus didn’t smile, which didn’t fit the real man in the slightest. The real Nexus had three modes. The guy with the wicked sense of humor, the slightly sad man who made hard decisions, and the terrifying mob boss that cracked the second that the role was no longer necessary. His greatest strength and weakness was how much he cared for his employees, so for him to not offer a sad comfort was out of character.

“Listen, Clint… You’ve been doing good work for how many years now?”

“Eight.”

“Eight years. You’re one of my top people. Hell, I trust you more than I trust Numbers Man. You’re practically family. So I tell you what. When this is done? You’re getting a month. I’ll have a nurse come with you, but you’re going to take your mom somewhere nice. When we get the chance, we’ll hash out the details. I don’t need you of all people burning out on me.”

The corner of Clint’s mouth twisted upwards. “Thanks, boss.”

“Bah.” He waved his hand, looking back at the endless floor of secretaries. “Get to work.”

Good talk. He turned his attention back to the employees. “I need to use a radio. Can you get this stuff transported and go over this manifest for me?”

One fresh-faced woman took the papers, nodding. “You got it.”

“Attagirl.” Clint turned his attention to Michelle. “Lead the way to your guys’?”

She nodded and began walking, leaving him to follow.

After a few minutes, when they were out of earshot, he whispered to her. “What’s things been like?”

“Since Bill got sick? Bad. They’re still babying some of the old turbines, and someone didn’t reapply the safety settings on one of the new ones after some maintenance. A windstorm made it catch on fire, so they’re hurting. Bill never would have let that happen. Miss Kwan’s been burning the candle at both ends over it, trying to whip employees into shape and care for Bill.”

Clint grinned a little. “Those two fucking yet?”

That made Michelle snort. “Never would have thought I’d hear that from you!”

Maybe it was the company. She wasn’t a bad looking gal, after all. Not the longest legs in the world, but a nice rear, brown hair that reached her waist, and a nice face were always a bonus. Plus, it’d been a year since he’d had a girlfriend.

“Well,” he said slyly. “I have to keep you on your toes.”

“Mm-hmm.” He wasn’t sure how to take that, if it was approving or not. Was he reading too much into it? “Well… No, they aren’t. I think that they’re going to be a platonic love for the rest of their lives. Aurora thinks that maybe this’ll push them over the edge, but… I’m putting my money on them not ever getting romantic.”

Clint rolled his eyes. “At least with a romance series, they eventually sleep with each other after a good six or seven books. Those two have to be on book twenty by now!”

That made Michelle laugh. She’d taken to handling not only the affairs of the household but in making sure that Nexus’ agents in the area had someone that they could deal with on an equal level. It was nice, but he knew that it wasn’t because she cared about Nexus. She’d fallen into some sort of weird hero worship for her own boss, and since her boss worked so closely with Neo Investment Group…

Well, she was appealing company, at least.

“Anyway, beyond that?”

Michelle smiled. “It’s good. Really good. With everything coming in legit now, the city’s really picking up. I’m attending a weekly drinking session now where we hash over everything that’s going on, and we’re making some real progress. Yost-Kwan Industries was always struggling to make everything from scratch, relying on whatever they remembered from college or came up with on their own. Having real, solid information and top notch supplies?

“Hell, just ball bearings have sped up their production so much. They’re hoping to be able to make them themselves here soon. With each leap that they make, they automatically filter it through to everyone else who might be able to use it. I kind of feel bad for Amber Beach.”

That made Clint’s eyebrow raise. “That bad?”

“Depends on how much begging you consider bad. The way that I see it, people who bleed others dry will eventually get it in the end. Maybe not today or tomorrow, but some day. Amber Beach’s day came, simple as that. Meanwhile, Angel Grove may not be the next New Brockton, but at this rate, it might rival Twain, partially because they work together so much.

“Manpower, though…” She shrugged. “People who don’t get in on the party line don’t last long here. They’ve developed a strong enough culture that it can be offputting to a lot of people. I’m glad that we live outside of town. It gives us the freedom to be us, you know?”

“I hear you. And how is home?”

“Now that we don’t have to grind the halberd blades we’re pumping out, good. We’re getting damn good at making them for the boss. And we’re staying really busy, handling the day to day for you, and the occasional high-ranking members of the Legion who get to have a holiday here. Though, a lot of them seem to be going to the Sons of Bitch for quick and dirty therapy.”

Clint grinned at her. “Sounds like you’ve got the good life.”

Michelle gave him a coy look. “Well, it could be better.”

Huh. Maybe today wasn’t turning into such a bad day after all…

Ragnarok 16.4

The Legion Perseveres.

It was a motto that was going around right now, spoken with an almost religious zeal. Whenever there were doubts, the Legion perseveres. Whenever there were complaints, the Legion would persevere. It was an endless chorus that Jordan would have hated.

The Legion didn’t know what had happened to him. They’d only seen a tiny window of what had been going on. They’d seen that they’d entered a city and met with fierce, if weak, resistance. They’d slaughtered thousands almost without effort. And then the armor-piercing rounds fired from anti-material rifles had started flying, and the dangerous parahumans had entered the field, ready to bring everything that they had against the invaders.

Which had been all according to plan. You bog the enemy down with numbers until you could honestly fight them. That was the way that Teacher had shown his love to his students — throw their lives away uselessly.

But that’s when the Legion had truly come alive. Team members that had been working together with the utmost animosity towards each other suddenly formed into a cohesive unit. Drills that had been mostly forgotten snapped into focus. Something had happened in that moment, something that nobody was quite sure of. Something had turned them into something more than they’d once been as they began to die in each other’s company.

And then the others had come. That had almost started a war in its own right. More than a few outsiders had died as they’d rushed in to help, and not because of chaos on the battlefield. The Legion hadn’t wanted help. They would be victorious or die by their own deeds. That was how things were supposed to go in their minds.

To be honest, there was still plenty of talk of taking revenge for stolen glory. It had started with the ones from Fyrtorn, but they could be damn influencing at times.

In the end, the Legion had persevered without starting a war yet. And now? Now they were more powerful than ever. Not in numbers — they might be lucky if they ever reclaimed their former levels of people. But politically?

John had been wise to insist on salvage rights. It meant that everything that had been Teacher’s, the entire damn city, now belonged to the Legion. Of course, everyone wanted in to take a look at it all, which gave the Legion plenty of negotiation room. There was so much that was at the very edge of needing Tinkers without actually crossing that line, and everyone wanted a look at it.

That, of course, meant that one of the top five of the Legion had to be permanently stationed in Bitter Hope, as the Legion had taken to naming it.

Brenda’s finger traced the line, feeling the bumps. A report from Habib that had been translated to braille by some equipment that Dragon had made for her. She still wasn’t the best at braille yet, but she was learning. Her power to see possible futures should have helped, but she was flooded with so many, sometimes compressing a year’s worth of possible actions into a fraction of a second, made retention difficult at best. Some things, she just had to do the old fashioned way.

Habib, meanwhile, had been hired on as an “independent contractor” to fill out their own weakness when it came to Tinkers. The Legion had infuriatingly few of them, compared to the other paras they had, and there was so much to go through. So much that they’d probably be at it for years. Teacher wasn’t the best at documentation, keeping many details in his own mind.

John described him as a toxic emperor. One who caused so many problems within his kingdom, but whose kingdom couldn’t survive beyond his own death. Which was a laugh, in a way, coming from the man who had killed the bastard. A laugh, but one that was bitter because of the truth of it all. Without those that Teacher directly controlled, without that damn love virus in effect, the city didn’t really operate on its own.

Brenda rubbed at her eyes through her blindfold. She still wasn’t sure what to make of everything that had happened. She had seen everything play out what felt like an eternity ago, when they’d been swept up by Dragon and Defiant to help with the Simurgh. But she’d only seen, herd, touched and smelled. Her power didn’t let her know the thoughts, the feelings that she’d experience.

Jordan had been her ace in the hole from the very start. A powerful warrior, capable of standing tall on his own and also capable of stealth. Her manipulation had been subtle, gentle nudges that nobody would ever see. She’d seen him commit suicide so many times, one little moment that pushed him to it more than ever, but thankfully she hadn’t needed to interfere in almost all of them. They’d barely found him after the Simurgh fight in time to stop him from jumping off that cliff, leaving his broken corpse and his sister wailing.

She’d never told anyone that sometimes he’d held onto those strands from the outfit that she’d worn. That those strands were of the same design as the Legion’s own ribbon Tinker tech that had teleported him to that river.

She’d always known what he would turn into, that the indigestion was always part of the changes. She’d been so sure that her choices were worth it. Now…

It’s one thing to know that you will have your revenge. But that revenge didn’t bring her parents back, and it didn’t prepare her for the guilt.

Jordan had always tried to do right by her. He’d always trusted her implicitly, he tried to give her as many opportunities to be herself as possible, and he’d never tried to abuse her power. To him, her power was secondary to her as a person. While she’d… liked dancing with him, perhaps more than he was comfortable with, he’d never once either pushed her or said no when she asked.

And she’d put him into a position where, instead of seeking out help, he’d driven himself into new heights of hopeless situations. He’d taken on monsters beyond compare just to have them kill him. And failed, horribly, only to throw himself at the next, until finally Legend took pity on him.

Even meeting his one true hero, the person who he so desperately wanted to be was ultimately no comfort to him. Unless he was Relentless, he was shy and bashful around Colin. Or perhaps reserved was a better word? Deferential? She wasn’t sure what word worked best.

Because of Brenda, because of her machinations, the two never got to settle down and spend real time with each other. There was guilt there, too.

Dragon and Defiant might have a child, though. Might. They were working on it, but her power was equally torn on how it would end up. Half the time, it ended in tears. Half the time, it was a hard road. She wasn’t sure any more how it would go. And honestly? She didn’t want to know. Not until it happened.

There was the sound of someone putting a glass on the desk. A welcome distraction from both her own thoughts and the piles of paperwork that she was slowly feeling herself through. Reports from their people, the people that they contracted, the Wardens, the Dragon’s Teeth, the various nation states… Hundreds of reports came in every day, trying to detail everything learned about Teacher’s operations and what he was doing here. Even blind, it made Brenda’s head hurt.

She reached, and a woman’s hand guided hers. The glass was smaller than she’d anticipated, about the size of the ones John used to drink scotch from. It didn’t matter. Some liquid was better than none. She raised it to her mouth and downed it in one go.

She’d half-expected the burn from alcohol, but this was something completely different. Nettles flared in her throat, traveling down with the liquid. It didn’t even reach her stomach before the pain flared into a searing fire that shot straight up, going straight to her head. Even if the liquid hadn’t already been absorbed by her body, she wouldn’t have been able to throw up.

She was dimly aware of throwing herself to the floor. Her body moved by instinct, only prevented from bashing her head against the floor to try and get some of the pain out by arms restraining her.

Poison! It had to be poison! She was going to die here like this. They’d captured all the surviving students, and while Nexus was deprogramming them, it was going to take some time. Had they missed one? Had one escaped and returned for revenge?

As the seconds crawled by, though, the pain faded, leaving Brenda feeling weak and light-headed. Slowly, the arms released her, only to feel her helmet moving slightly.

“Close your eyes,” the woman said soothingly. “Relax. Focus. Focus on the here and now. Focus on the pain that you feel now and not the future. Fight the future.”

As the helmet opened, Brenda’s eyes were already closed, but not by choice. She was still gasping in pain. But she did fight. Being exposed like this, with so many paras nearby…

When she finally dared a quick peek, though, she found only the floor below her. There wasn’t a multitude of looking around in every direction at once, her body didn’t move in thousands of directions for thousands of seconds. There was only the floor.

Brenda pushed her head up slowly, only to find a familiar face smiling down at her.

Her.

There wasn’t any point in fighting. She’d be dead if the woman wanted it. Instead, Brenda cautiously pulled herself up. “I didn’t think that I’d see you here.”

The woman, her old savior, giggled a little as she offered Brenda an olive-colored hand to help her up. “Is that any way to greet me?”

“I haven’t seen you since you helped me escape.”

This woman was a legend. Someone that Teacher had let into his company without hesitation, but whom he also feared completely. She was the only one who came and went from the city without concern of her own accord.

What felt like a lifetime ago, this woman had helped guide Brenda down the path to help her escape, going so far as to explain how Brenda’s powers worked. She still looked the same, too — early twenties, dark hair, well-dressed, nice hat.

“You know,” Brenda said slowly, “I’m still not sure if you’re you. I saw Teacher had been trying to…” How to put it delicately failed her now that she didn’t have the future to help her.

“The Serafinas,” the woman said, her smile dampening. “He had to keep producing them. The shard that grants me powers kept rejecting them after a matter of time no matter what he did. Once he used Amelia to alter their minds and keep them from acting more on the shard’s desires than his own, the clock was ticking.”

Serafina… That name was familiar. “I read all of the reports on New Fairfax. One of your… clones… She took Jordan to the town before she was killed.”

The woman nodded solemnly. “She served her role in getting Jordan in so that he could be there when Teacher collected everyone for the Great Project, mass-teleporting their heads from their bodies so that they could be added to the collective, trying to find a way to control and influence the shards. She had to say just the right things to cause a divide so that they would be forced to let him in, and then her purpose was done. She was sacrificed.

“They had planned to approach Jordan soon after, claiming it was someone else who did it, but the fact that he enjoyed the company of Dragon and Defiant fouled that plan. I saw steps to compensate, but I decided not to share them with him.”

Brenda nodded slowly, gears turning inside of her head. “And I remember Dragon said that a Serafina convinced the people who had a bounty on him to drop it.”

The woman smiled now. “That was my own doing, taking the name on a whim. To confuse him a little bit, and to send him a message.”

She wasn’t sure what the woman’s message was, but she wasn’t about to ask. “Just like you helped me, telling me the path that I should take.”

“Not quite,” the woman said. “You were because it was the path that it would take for others to take Teacher down. I didn’t know that you would ever encounter Jordan, or if he would ever play a role in all of this.”

She turned away, stretching her arms above her head as she moved to a chair before settling down languidly. “I do that on occasion. I ask myself a question at random and follow the path that it takes me, just to see what happens in the long run. I knew of Jordan from Teacher’s interest in him, and I wondered what would happen if the bounties were no longer in place. How would he react? Well, I have to say, that worked out better than I ever imagined.”

Brenda shook her head. “I still… Why? If you got along with Teacher, why help me escape? Why be pleased that he’s dead?”

“Because he served his purpose.” The woman sighed. “I contributed to the creation of the wildlings at Teacher’s behest because humanity needed a focal point, something to rally against. We let Fyrtorn exist for the same reason.”

“Oh?” Brenda asked as she settled down. “A universal boogie man that people would rush to defend.”

The woman smiled. “Exactly. Teacher was the other end, I decided. That threat that you don’t face, that you have an open policy of non-interference, but also are quietly formulating plans to take out. Meanwhile, he learned so much. So much that will be useful. So much that will be necessary.”

“Necessary?”

“Not now,” the woman said quickly. “You’ll meet resistance if you start now, and it will only make things worse. I don’t think that Alcott even knows why I asked her for those numbers. Needless to say, though, that he had become… a liability. Tell me, do you know why your parents were chosen for Medusa?”

The proto-Endbringer. Though the files that she saw on it were listed as Genevieve. “I, uh… I assumed it was because they hadn’t produced any more children. With how we were encouraged to breed…”

The woman smiled sadly. “Not entirely. It was also because they were buds from the same shard, and therefore useless to the Great Project.”

Brenda groaned. “The Great Project again. We’ve found notes on it, saying that things were part of it, but nothing that says what it is!”

“Teacher was trying to make a new Scion. One who could give all of humanity everything that they wanted. Those poor people, their brains removed and added to an ever-growing mass, were all part of it. Trying to find a way to control the shards, with minor degrees of success. Buds were useless, since they were most likely already part of the mass. You’ll understand more once they find his server.”

That made Brenda’s eyes go wide. “Where is it?”

“Already in the process of being found by a member of your Relentless Legion.” The woman smiled. “It’s hidden nicely, but I’ve set her in motion to finding it. We removed it from the PRT headquarters in St. Louis, in a similar manner to how we removed the one in New Fairfax. Relax. If there’s one thing that I’ve learned since Gold Morning, it’s that everything will come in due time.”

Brenda nodded, not really sure what the woman was talking about. There was a purpose to telling her this, though — the woman had her own agenda. The temptation to use her power, a power that she somehow knew that she had better control over, was there, but… Well, the woman gave her the gift of freedom for a reason. Maybe it was better to see how this played out.

Instead, she rolled her eyes. “Yeah, yeah, patience. How long does that take?”

The woman laughed, far too amused by Brenda’s joke.

Right. Moving right along… “And creating his own Endbringers was part of this.”

The woman nodded. “He believed that if he could create his own loyal Endbringers, he would be able to control the old ones, ever since that one quit following him. A futile effort, in my opinion. A dangerous one, too.”

Benda nodded slowly. “So… What now?”

“The Legion must persevere.” The woman rose to her feet. “And I suppose that I should find other things to focus my time on now. With Teacher gone, there’s plenty of other concerns that I should probably attend to. The ghosts of the past never truly leave, and some early efforts still have dangerous possibilities ahead of them. Plus, nobody wants the Sleeper to come back.”

Now that was a name that Brenda had been taught about in school here. And she found herself agreeing with the woman completely — it was best for everyone if he stayed tucked into whatever reality he was holed up in.

“Before you go,” she said, getting to her own feet. “Can I at least ask your name? I doubt that it’s Serafina.”

The woman smiled. “Contessa.”

Brenda smiled softly. “Thank you, Contessa, for helping me. And Jordan. And…” She shrugged, unsure what else to say.

Contessa smiled warmly. “Until we meet again.”

Ragnarok 16.3

William thumbed through the various reports on his tablets as he waited. They weren’t reports that were specific to his position with supply procurement, but were basic overviews of various activities that the Dragon’s Teeth were engaging in that were made available to commanders and higher. He was pretty sure that generals got even more of them, but he couldn’t even keep up with the ones that the internal systems flagged as of his interest and directed his way. At least they made for good browsing material while he waited for teleporters to spin up.

The first that caught his attention was a report by a psychologist that derided a recent report that suggested that Twain represented a behavioral sink in action, and that unless action was taken, it would eventually self-terminate. A quick scan showed that it said that the previous report was misguided, using outdated neo-Malthusianism principles and misattributing other influencing factors, which made William quickly decide that he’d need to devote extra time to read both reports. This report was directed to PsyOps and Negotiated Securities departments, but with the Plains Requisitions Department working with his own to secure the steel necessary to put up a trans-continental train line along three realities, he had to pay special attention to Twain these days.

Maybe, if he ever got the nerve to ask her directly, he could at least get Dragon to write a program that would explain some of the terms that got thrown about. What the hell was a neo-Mathusianism anyway?

The trooper next to him was tossing… something as he scrolled through the reports. That was something that had been as true when he was a Marine as it was with the troopers — when bored, squat and find something to toss about. Small pebbles and dust in the teleportation grid seemed to be the choice of the day, so William didn’t bother to bark at the trooper. She was being rotated in so that one of the troopers on-site could be rotated to get some higher education. He couldn’t remember what the trooper coming back to HQ would be studying, but it didn’t really matter, now did it?

A light changing to yellow made the Trooper stand and get herself presentable and William stow his tablet. There were three tones before the interior of the warehouse overlapped with outside before the outdoor scenery took precedence. Rote and routine. Twenty years of teleportation got old.

William turned as Outpost Commander Dick, actually just a Captain, moved to shake his hand. “Commander Van Dorn.”

“Captain Dick,” William said, taking the man’s hand. What an unfortunate name. “It’s a pleasure to finally meet you in person.”

“The pleasure’s all mine. Are you ready for inspection, or–?”

“Let me make the rounds first,” William said warmly. There was a time to play the uptight Commander, and a time to be at ease. Dick’s reports were solid if evocative, and he was doing good at playing nice with the locals. Unless the Wardens interfered or Wilborne sunk her teeth into the area, there was hope that the village would sign a real deal with Burlington within the next few years.

“Yes, sir.” Dick offered him a smile. “The logs say that you know you’re way around. Whatever you need, let me know.”

William offered him a nod of approval before making his way down the street. Dick was the right man at the right place for now. He hadn’t done nearly as well in OPSEC, making the Teeth have to re-evaluate him and make the offer of transfer to a new vocation. Time and effort well-spent, it seemed.

As he walked, William made a mental note to talk to people and see if he could push up the timetable for getting the doctors to come through. Do the usual health checks of the troopers stationed on-site, then perform some wellness checks on the local populace. Treat everything from mild to moderate for free with modern medicine, and locals tended to begin to eat out of the palm of your hand. It wasn’t a tactic that William was proud of, but he approved of the way that it would benefit both the Dragon’s Teeth and the locals. And honestly? The place deserved it.

At long last, however, he found himself in front of his primary target. The village had contained little that genuinely interested him. Just the usual flavor of maybe a single place to eat, a general store or two that held nothing special, and a few factories. The cannery was useful, the paper mill… Well, there were arguments, but he would just go with whatever the generals ended up telling him. He could see both points of view, so he refused to get into an argument as to the value of paper. His opinion was that certain levels of low production would serve them well, but everyone else thought so very binary.

Besides, it was a moot point unless the village signed a contract. Then he’d see to it that a full assessment was made.

For now, though, it was a home that he found himself standing outside of. He’d timed it out — either the residents would be home, or he’d have to find the lodge or whatever bullshit they had in town. Hopefully not the bar.

It wasn’t long after knocking before a woman on the short side with a chest that begged for a reduction opened the door. “Commander Van Dorn!” Tabby said, wiping sweat off her brow with the back of her hand. “We weren’t expecting you until tomorrow!”

William grinned. “My wife and the kids are visiting the in-laws. I, uh… Her mother, I get along with just fine, but it’s her brother and I that have problems. Rather than cause a fight, I decided to get some work done, so I came to town early. See how you’re doing, get a local’s view on where the best place to eat is. You know.”

He didn’t want to be in the house all by himself, and… Well, he didn’t have the foggiest idea of how to cook, something that he’d been ribbed about his entire adult life. Not that Mary didn’t try to teach him, but… Well, that wasn’t important now.

“Bullshit,” Tabby said, a twinkle in her eye. “Come on in. Timmy! We have company!” As she bounced and ushered him inside, William fought the urge to wince. Some guys were into that, but all that he could think about was how much pain she must be in on a daily basis.

Thankfully, he was freed of that thought (and the horror of trying to get his wife or sister to take his daughter in for a reduction should she ever need it) as Tim entered the living room, flashing a big grin and taking William’s hand in a crushing grip. While Tabby seemed to be putting on weight, Tim was losing the bit of the past-40 pudge that he’d been putting on. That wasn’t the only difference.

“You trimmed the soup strainer!”

Tim laughed, nodding his head comically and running a hand over his face. “Yup! It’s not the best, but I’m trying. What are you doing here? Chris won’t be in until tomorrow.”

“He’s being a pest,” Tabby said, slapping William’s arm before flouncing off towards the kitchen. Wait, was she cooking? It smelled like it… The entire time that William had been dealing with the Abrams family, he’d never known anyone but Chris to cook.

Or clean. And yet, the entire place was spotless. “I think I’ve gone too long between visits,” he mused.

Tim’s smile dampened a little bit, but it stayed just as genuine. “I’ve got my three month chip. Tabby got her year last month. I, uh… Kind of fell off the wagon, so this is my second time getting it. Like I said, I’m trying.”

William smiled a little at the big man. On one hand, he was happy for him. On the other, Tim had always shared some pretty good booze with him. “I, uh, I thought that they didn’t have a chapter…”

“A couple of your guys and one of Chris’ employees formed one up. Apparently, you’ve got a problem with troopers doing nothing but drinking on their time off.”

Did they? What he remembered from the Marines told him that it was probably true. “I honestly don’t know,” he admitted. “I don’t deal with troopers that often.” He sighed. “Something to bring up to the generals.” Not that he expected that they’d listen. Substance abuse in the form of hard narcotics, especially ones derived from paras, Tinker tech, or something a Thinker had whipped up was something that the Teeth closely monitored. Alcohol… Well, he doubted that anyone would want to act on that. It was hard enough to get them to take depression seriously.

Tim clapped his shoulder before taking a seat on the couch. “Don’t worry about it too much. I know how it is. I had to deal with too much of the PRT brass and the Protectorate to think that… Well, you all have done great work, and I don’t–”

“Relax,” William said, settling into his usual spot. “It’s fine. The PRT was corrupt as balls on so many levels, and we’ve had to work hard to get past that. But you’re right. Especially with how big we’re getting, making sweeping changes becomes harder and harder. It’s one thing to make changes in a town, another to make a nation-wide change. International? Even worse. And then multidimensional on top of that?

“I’m lucky that outposts don’t starve to death from clerical errors.”

Tim laughed again, nodding. “I hear that! I have enough time keeping up with my own paperwork.”

Rather than let that awkward silence set in, Van Dorn decided to attack the elephant in the room. Three months was about perfect for it to fall in line with the attack on Teacher. “I… don’t blame you for falling off the wagon, but I’m glad that you got back on.”

Tim’s smile faded completely now as his face folded into a frown. “With everything… I almost fell when Sarah said that she was joining the Legion, that she had to fight with her brother. It made me think about…”

His lips formed a thin line for a moment before he spoke again. “It’s funny. We tried so hard to keep our kids from fighting. We didn’t want them to go through anything like we did. We put up with them being mercenaries because at least they knew exactly what they were getting into every day. They understood that much, that they’d be muscle at best, and meat to be chewed up at worst. We tried to tell ourselves that at least… At least they had that.

“We knew that Jordan would never trigger. Most people just… don’t, even with how many more people are triggering these days. We even got three here last year, and I wouldn’t call Burlington high stress. We hoped that maybe once he found out that he wouldn’t, that things would change. And then we let him walk away. And then Teacher… New Fairfax…”

Tabby made her way in, offering William a glass of water with a somber expression. “That was the worst part, really. The way that people would get quiet and change the topic when we’d walk in a room. We knew that they were talking about Jordan. And after the Wardens fought him, and…”

“Valkyrie,” Tim said firmly. “I still want to punch her in the face for making that call, but at least she had the balls to explain the situation to our faces. We spent… Well, we spent way too long looking at the bottom of a bottle at that point. It wasn’t until Chris got married that we decided to crawl out. It was a while later when the AA group started. And then, when the news came…”

He shook his head. “I didn’t even remember walking into the bar or ordering the beer. I got halfway through it when I remembered what Defiant said, about us never loving Jordan. We tried so hard to talk him out of it… He could have done anything if he hadn’t been so damn focused. But I also remembered watching him practice in the back yard. His knee gave out, and I was so drunk that I just laughed. What kind of a parent does that?”

William didn’t have an answer for that.

“But I looked at the beer and I remembered thinking that it wasn’t me, because I wasn’t there. It was the alcohol. So I left it there and came home. I always knew that I tried my best with him, to try and guide him while respecting his own dreams and wishes, but… What if Defiant was right? How lousy of a parent was I that I had to lose a son twice to realize it?”

“Stop right there,” William said firmly. “I can’t say if you were a good parent or not, but I can tell you this — when Louie broke his foot, I was furious. Not with him, but with myself. I let him play around that armor, thinking that he knew better. And he almost lost his foot because of it. I had visions of my son having to go through the same pain and frustration over his cybernetics that I have to, and I just wanted to punch… everything.

“It’s normal to think that, though. We’re parents. We see each thing that goes wrong and we ask ourselves, ‘Where did I go wrong? How did I not teach them better?’ And we feel like we’re terrible people for it. But we’re human. Flawed, horrible creatures who are doing the best that we can. Our parents made mistakes, and our children will make mistakes when they have kids. There’s no guide book that gives you step-by-step instructions. There’s nothing that says, this is how you raise a child. We have to make it up as we go along.”

He leaned back in his chair. This wasn’t the kind of conversation that he wanted to have. He just wanted to hang out and blow some time before the YA-19 armor that Christopher’s employees had been finalizing with Dragon’s help the next day. But… Well, sometimes you needed to have them. Both for yourself and for others.

“But they’re also their own people, not machines that we program. They’ll always do their own things no matter what we do. You tried to give him the best education possible, and you didn’t drive him away when he refused to stop walking his path. That’s better than a lot of kids ever get. I’ve seen his room, and it’s so much bigger than Sarah’s or Christopher’s. For a kid who was in mid-state New York more than he was at home, you still went through that effort. Because he wanted the training space, because you wanted him to have a home that he could do what he wanted in. Am I right?”

Tim nodded. They’d had the conversation about Jordan’s room before when a much-younger Christopher had excitedly shown it to William.

“At least,” the big man said slowly. “I think so. Maybe. It was so long ago, and there’s times that I’m just not sure. Maybe Defiant was right. Maybe he’s just an asshole. I don’t know anymore.”

Well, from what William was told, and what he remembered from way back when, both could be true at the same time. But he wasn’t going to say it out loud.

Instead, he took a slow breath. “But you’re sober.” Tim nodded. “And you’re still trying. And I think… I think that Jordan would be proud of you for that much alone.”

William wasn’t sure if it was true or not, but sometimes the little white lies were the only things that kept a man going, even if he was the one telling them to himself.

Ragnarok 16.2

“Am I dangerous?”

“I don’t know, are you?”

“I’ve killed so very many people. Are you going to tell me that doesn’t make me dangerous?”

“It makes you potentially dangerous. But almost everyone is potentially dangerous, don’t you think?”

“Not everyone is like me, though.”

“I won’t argue that. You had quite the position for a while there.”

“I was a god, a king! I’m fairly sure that they would have done anything at my slightest whim!”

“Did they?”

“…I don’t know. I can’t remember anymore.”

“Don’t be upset. That’s perfectly natural. It’s to be expected that there’s holes in your memories. It’s called repression, and given everything that you’ve done and been through, it’s only natural that your mind tries to lock away certain memories.”

“Because… Because I can’t deal with them.”

“That’s right.”

“So I did do terrible things.”

“I never said–“

“Was it rape? I…”

“I can honestly say that I don’t believe that you’ve ever raped anyone. Any, uh, any romantic interludes that you may or may not have had… I promise you, they were all consensual.”

“Oh, good. Good. Rapists are terrible, you know. My mother, she used to get so angry over them that she’d spit. And I mean that! She actually spat!”

“You had a close relationship with your mother, didn’t you?”

“It’s hard to see him like this,” Riley said as the robotic arms worked the needles through the flesh. “Isn’t it?”

“It is,” Riley’s voice said in a whisper, as if miles away. Really, it wasn’t miles. Maybe three hundred, four hundred feet from the surgery room that she was currently in.

“But he’s getting better,” Riley noted. “Every day, he’s getting better.”

“But he’ll never be better, will he? It will always be slowly getting better.”

Riley sighed as she turned her attention to the now-beating heart. Good. Everything was working right… She was pretty sure, at least. There were occasionally issues every now than then. Still, time to close everything up. Another life saved. So many billions to go. “If you’d like, I could ensure that he gets better. I’ve been working on a brain implant–”

“I’d kill you,” Riley’s lips said in a dangerous tone.

Despite it all, Riley smiled over that. Some might think that not having the implants that ensured loyalty that the other of Jamie’s creations had would be a liability for Alcomb. Instead, Riley welcomed it. It gave her perspective.

Alcomb wasn’t human, and no matter how much Riley modified the various iterations of the woman, she never would be. She had an alien way of seeing the world that was caused by Jamie’s own alien mind, the unique perspective that he had. Riley had altered that brain significantly, but had always let her have that uniqueness to her, keeping her as much his creation as hers.

A child needs a mother and a father, after all. A ying and a yang. The two sides should influence them in turns to help them grow and develop their own personality. And Alcomb’s was always a delight. Where would she show resistance? Where would she readily go along with it?

And, should Riley ever completely succumb to the temptation that always etched at the dark, wounded corners of her mind, would Alcomb reverse the possession protocols and make good on that threat of killing Riley?

It was a nice way of keeping Riley honest. The angel on her shoulder who openly said that cannibalism was a perfectly normal practice to engage in, so long as the family signed the appropriate waivers. It made life interesting and fun!

Riley craned her stiff neck to the left as the arms finished the surgery. It was nothing but simplistic busy work that she’d already programmed them on how to do. While her passenger was more finicky about what it would and wouldn’t let her do these days, she’d made her prosthetics well enough in advance. “How’s he look?”

“Good,” Alcomb said with Riley’s lips. “These sessions are always hard, but he takes them well enough. Now if only we could get him to think about them later.”

Sad, but true. As Riley’s augmetic legs lifted her just enough that her back crackled and popped, she tuned back into Alcomb’s ears.

“Do you know why you’re here? With these meetings?”

“Because… Because I’m dangerous.”

“Do you think that’s why you’re here?”

“…No.”

“Why do you think that you’re here?”

Jamie hesitated even longer before speaking again. “I am not completely like other people.”

“And how you are not completely like other people?”

“…I like to… make my own friends and family.”

“You had a fairly lonely background, didn’t you? Before you triggered.”

“…I prefer not to think about back then.”

“That’s fine, Jamie. I’d like to discuss back then with you some day, but only when you’re comfortable with it. I want you to understand that. I will never knowingly do something to hurt you.”

“Oh, I’m sure about that. My children would kill you. But they know that you’re trying to help. Sometimes, I have to remind them. They pick up on my frustration. My… weakness. I’m so weak now, and they want me to be strong. My mother was so strong, until she wasn’t. I was so strong, and now…”

“Jamie…”

“No, no. We both know that it is true. I used to be a king, a god… And now I’m nothing. A bumbling old man, forced to take his medication. Medication that makes some things… blurry. Like a fog in my mind.”

“I don’t think you’re nothing.”

“You humor me. Trying to boost my ego. It isn’t so fragile.”

“No, it’s true. I think of you as a mayor, or village elder.”

“Village… elder?”

“Yes. There was a time that, as people aged, their wisdom was sought out. Parents would entrust their young to them, hoping that the elders would pass along their wisdom. And you try to teach your… your children, don’t you? To pass along your wisdom, to soothe them when they’re upset, to help guide them. And it’s through your guidance that they’ve been able to help so many people.”

“And Riley.”

“And Riley, yes. What do you think of her?”

Riley was tempted to hijack Alcomb’s eyes. She was curious, but she settled for just the ears.

“I think that she’s a fine young woman. She should get out and socialize more. She helps my children deal with others, and for that I’m thankful. They may not be as beautiful when she’s finished with them, but I can tell by their get when I see them, before Riley takes them. They always present their get to me. Still, she should talk to people more. She shouldn’t end up like… Like…”

His words trailed off in pain, and Riley disconnected. Like he’d been, before he’d made his first creations. And she had friends, beyond just creations like Alcomb. They were few and far between, and while she rarely actually talked in person with some like Dragon and Defiant, Dragon sent messages and communicated regularly. Sometimes, she’d hand write them and take pictures to send to Dragon, like handwritten letters. It was… nice.

Jamie Renke, back when he’d been known as Nilbog, the great king of Ellisburg, New York, Jamie had gotten no human contact outside of work. His mentality had become childlike, further ostracizing him from even his coworkers at the bank. This had only fueled him once he triggered, wiping all life from his city to create more of his children. By the time that the Slaughterhouse 9 had met him, kidnapped him in Jack Slash’s plan to destroy the world, his mind had warped and twisted beyond the point of being saved.

As much as he was an older man now, not that you’d tell by looking at him, and as much as the medication and therapy helped, he’d never be what people considered normal. He could fool them for a time, but some damage can never be completely undone. Thankfully, Riley had certain countermeasures in place.

The man on her operating table had been dead when he arrived. As the robotic arms that were mounted to her back moved away, he was fully alive, and would recover within a week’s time. In some ways, she’d been a lot like Jamie once — a monster. Now, she felt some degree of obligation to him. To help him, however she could. She owed it to everyone that she’d touched as a member of the 9, to everyone who had died when Jack Slash had convinced Scion to attack humanity.

And to his children. To the monsters of the world. She had so much to make up for, and so little time.

Her plan had been to change into a fresh set of scrubs, but her augmetic legs instead took her to her room, letting her flesh and bone legs dangle. Once there, she took the time to change into a nice dress, one with holes cut into it to accommodate her cybernetics. Maybe it was Jamie’s assessment of her, or maybe she just needed to feel pretty for a change. She was too old now to pull off the little girl look, but still had the general physique of it. A relationship was out of the question, but she still liked to feel pretty.

She wondered if men ever went through something similar.

Her augmetic legs carried her through the halls of Mother’s Hospital quickly. Some of the human staff scrambled to get out of the way, afraid. Others barely moved. Only a couple offered her a friendly smile as she passed. Funny how it was the youngest of the doctors who didn’t seem to mind her very much. Something else that made her wonder far too often when she was dealing with annoyingly mundane injuries.

As she reached the observation room that Alcomb was in, Riley’s feet touched the ground, assisting her in walking rather than doing the work for her. As she entered, the offered the other woman a smile. Riley would never have a daughter herself, but Alcomb was a close second.

“He should be done in a moment,” Alcomb said. “He’s trying to give Dr. Kennedy love advice.” Riley made a look of disgust, which made Alcomb grin. “Yeah, that’s about how well it’s going.”

The speaker was off, so she couldn’t hear what Jamie was saying, but she could see the way that Dr. Kennedy was struggling to keep it together. Dr. Franklin had recently retired, and Dr. Kennedy was now learning how much of a handful Jamie could be.

“You don’t have to do this, you know. Watch all of his sessions.”

Alcomb flashed her a flat look. “Yes I do.”

Another difference between her and the previous Alcomb. Interesting. “Well, it’s touching that you do. You’re such a good daughter.” Slight dilation of the eyes, a mild release of dopamine and a larger release of oxytocin. Alcomb had a biological trigger to induce a need for praise for her praise as a daughter. The question was, for her or for Jamie? Or both?

Riley could crack Alcomb’s head open and find out another day. There were more pressing matters, and more important small talk. “How are your studies going?”

Alcomb shrugged. “I’m looking at oncology at the moment. It’s tough, but it’s about time that I really learned what all of these words actually mean properly, instead of guessing through osmosis. We get more than enough cancer patients a year.”

An unfortunate side effect of a globalized economy was that the apocalypse had disrupted the supply provided by the international pharmaceutical companies, that the hierarchy of basic needs had made farming a more desirable trade than chemical production, and the mass devastation had not only crippled the basic work force, but also killed a high percentage of the specialists necessary. Mother’s Hospital remained one of the few that always had a surplus of drugs, but that was only thanks to the countless monsters that were milked for it.

“I would have imagined that you’d focus on surgery more,” Riley admitted.

Alcomb grinned a bit. “Everyone wants to be a general practitioner or a surgeon. I’d rather get my fundamentals in order since I deal with such a wide range of patients for you. I’d rather not have to have you ride along and take over my mouth to answer questions. If I can at least get to the point where I can understand the basics enough to explain them, that will help both of us out. I can’t just say ‘We’ll scoop out your tumors, throw some steel rods in your back, and fiddle with your DNA’ to people.”

“Titanium rods,” Riley corrected. “The body will reject steel ones.”

Alcomb rolled her eyes.

“It’s a good thought, though, and you’re right. It would be easier for both of us. But it’s going to take a long time to learn even the basics of so much, even with your cybernetics helping.”

“I also have experience,” Alcomb reminded her. “I’ve been exposed to these words and terms for all my life, and the life of the previous Alcomb.”

That made Riley frown. “You… are the same Alcomb.”

She rolled her eyes again. “You’ve said it yourself, even with manual neurological mapping, it’s almost impossible to create a 100% exact replica of a brain. And my body’s basic biology is different from the previous Alcomb, too. Even if I remember her life as if it were my own, we have our distinct differences, and…”

Her words trailed off as she realized what she was doing to Riley. Riley liked how Alcomb was occasionally belligerent. How they could argue and debate things, and had different minds. Riley could never be a mother, but she didn’t need to give birth to someone to be one. She’d been blessed with being able to skip raising a child. She’d been blessed with the ability to be bonded closer to her daughter than anyone else could — the two could share each other’s bodies, after all.

Alcomb was her daughter, no matter what others might think. It was the only reason why she worked so hard to stabilize the natural, random degradation of the creations. They could be pumped back out, but Alcomb… was special. She hated the differences between them, and hoped that in the next, she could eliminate them entirely. It was a silly dream, but one that she genuinely hoped for.

A daughter that would outlive her mother.

Alcomb pushed up her glasses and nervously opened her mouth, but the men on the other side of the glass stood. It was time, then. Riley put on her happy face and opened the door, stepping into the hall.

As soon as he stepped out into the hall, Jamie’s face lit up into a wide grin. “Ah, my two favorite people!” He hurried to take Acomb’s arm, tucking it under his own like a doting father. He did the same for one of Riley’s cybernetic arms as if it were the most natural thing in the world. To him, extra arms probably were. “I do believe that we have a very, very important meeting, don’t we?”

“We do,” Alcomb said, gently guiding the way.

“Excellent, excellent. Tell me, do you think that we can give everyone some of my cupcake soup tonight for dinner? It’s quite good.”

It was, if you could get past the fact that it was basically a surprisingly nutritious vomit. The second Alcomb had slipped Riley some while she was distracted once, which had opened the door to her trying desperately to forget its source. The child patients liked it, though, and it was easy on their stomachs.

“I’ll see what I can do, Father.”

“Such a good girl. A good girl. And you, Miss Riley! Dressed so nicely! For my sake?”

“Maybe,” she said impishly.

“Ah, my dear. You make me so happy. Now… Now there’s some people that I’ll want to introduce you to. I’ll have to make them first, of course, but I think that you’ll find them quite nice. Quite nice. I have so much in mind for them.”

“More staff?” she asked, feigning innocence.

“No, no. I have something else in mind. You’ll see in due time, my dear. I think that you’ll like them. I’m going to spend extra time working on them, too!”

He continued to prattle, talking in circles. She wasn’t sure if it was his own mental instability, the medications that they gave him, or both. She typically had to do so much work with his creations these days. Maybe it was his passenger getting weaker, or perhaps the medications and his mental state, but his creations were lacking more and more in the mental department. If only her own passenger would give her answers.

It was an annoying trend that many parahumans found their powers growing weaker as they came to understand how to use them best. Or was there another element that she was missing? Valkyrie would have the answers, most likely. She’d have to call her later, if the woman could get a break.

Finally, however, Alcomb moved ahead to get the door, gesturing for the two to enter before her. Inside was a dark-haired woman, dressed in scrubs that almost completely hid the tattoos that ran up and down her arms. She looked up from the creature that she was hovering over, showing off bags under her eyes that would put Riley’s to shame.

“I’ve taken a look at… Well, I stopped counting at thirty. This one’s telomeres are practically non-existent, and his DNA is already fragmenting. The last one was born with cancer that’s already consuming her. The one before that–”

“Now, now.” Jamie let go of Riley’s arm, striding forward to take the woman’s. “Miss Amelia. I–”

“Amy,” the woman said, exhaustion heavy in her voice. “Please.”

“I’ll try to remember that, but I’m so terrible with names.” Other than his creations, Riley noted. Jamie could remember the name of each one that he’d ever bothered to name. “Now, I believe that you’ve had quite the day. Quite the day indeed. You’ve tended to so many of my children, precious gems all. And I’m thankful for that. But you’ve only so recently broken free from Teacher’s clutches. You need to rest, and tomorrow will have you working so very, very hard.”

Amy looked to Riley, confusion in her eyes. She’d submitted herself to Teacher’s power, relinquishing control in order to escape her past. Teacher, in turn, had made her live a shadow of her life for in order to fool her father, going so far as to make a fake sister for her. Teacher’s death had freed her, but now she had to live with everything that she’d done under his control. Creating the false Endbringers, the love virus, the clones, and more. So many more experiments, done in such an unscientific manner. No wonder she was lost, looking for guidance and redemption.

Maybe Riley wasn’t the right person to ask for those things, but she could help in some ways at least. “The Dragon’s Teeth delivered the body of Relentless today. I’ve already flensed off most of the remaining flesh, but there should still be some if you can help us figure out what’s going on there.”

Amy frowned, so Riley offered a bit of comfort. “The Dragon’s Teeth and the Wardens will be standing guard over it A small concession that I made. We have nothing to worry about.” From it or her. She still believed that she was a monster. She wasn’t — Riley knew monsters, and very few made it into this hospital without ending up as flesh for Jamie’s creations.

Amy opened her mouth, but Jamie was already pulling her along. “Now, you’ve been very, very naughty.”

“N-naughty?” That wasn’t helping her confusion at all.

“Oh, yes! Naughty! Almost as naughty as poor Riley here. Neither one of you are taking care of yourselves. Work, work, work, forgetting to have fun. I asked my dear daughter here, and she told me as much. So, I’ve decided that we need a picnic! We’ll have sandwiches, and something cool and fizzy to drink, and oh so many good things!”

“I…” She stumbled as he dragged her by the arm. “I have so much to do…”

“And there will be so much more to do if you don’t take care of yourself. We’re having a little party, and that’s final. You can’t care for everyone else unless you care for yourself, too. Come, now. Don’t keep your mayor waiting.”

Still, she resisted. “Can my father come, too? We always used to have dinner, and–”

“Your father!” Jamie looked to Riley, a bright smile on his face. “Her father is here? Why, of course he can come! The father of any doctor here is a friend of mine. Oh, perhaps we could invite more, too! Make a proper party out of it!”

Riley grinned as his childish glee showed. The more things changed, the more things stayed the same. Besides, everyone needed a party now and then. It was just a pity that it wasn’t anyone’s birthday. Jamie always threw the best birthday parties…

——————————

-start_kernel+0x42/0x4ef-
Draconik version 9.2.2-universal (build 4e7c) (Darwin 0.45.6)
Hello.
KERNEL supported cpus:
HCI
[autotest] Checking firmware
[autotest] Checking processor
[autotest] Checking memory
[autotest][warn] memory 3 major, 760 minor errors
[integrty] host
[integrty][warn] host 1 major, 486 minor errors
[ kernel] 1 critical, 4 major, 1246 minor errors detected.
[ kernel] Bootup aborting…
[ kernel] Bootup aborted. Logs written. End.

Ragnarok 16.1

A name. A name is a powerful thing, often representing a man as much as his countenance. A powerful man with a diminutive name might be seen as a source of jokes and dismissal. Likewise, no matter how much she might live up to it, naming a girl Chastity was a curse to doom her constant scrutiny of her sexual promiscuity. A name could make or break a person, which was precisely why choosing your own was important to so many in the modern era.

Even a town’s name could mean so much. Coopersville gave one the impression of a community that focused on the industry necessary for everything wooden, from barrels to furniture to, mayhaps, even wagons. A place with the name of Haven might be seen as a sleepy little community where one could simply rest in safety. And a town called Montgomery?

The fact that it didn’t even make cheese was a fucking travesty.

But as the three of them teleported into the township, it was met with a sort of bittersweet combination of fondness, fear, and grim determination. A man with the name of Jack, the same name as the one taken by the man who drove Scion to madness, returning to the home of his brief post-apocalyptic youth had a weird sort of bitter twist to it, a queer revisitation of what some would consider a lifetime of running. And yet, here he stood, accompanied by those who had once been labeled scoundrels at best, his back straight and tall.

A name was only a part of the first impression after all. The rest of it could be cultivated through careful measures.

Immediately, the harsh bespectacled blonde woman’s voice rang as clear as the chiming of church bells. “About fuckin’ time you fucks showed up.”

Jack’s eyes moved heavenward and, squinting, he traced a quick, stark arc with them. The portion of his helmet that protected his mouth opened so quickly that his head moved ever so slightly as he offered her a tight smile. “We apologize for the delay, but there were… concerns. I trust that you understand. I take it that it hasn’t begun?”

She shook her head without looking up from the device in her hand, a sad reminder of his own misspent youth. Her free hand offered him a hit of her cigarette, which he denied with a wave of his own. Truth be told, he found himself partaking less and less with each coming day. It felt good to not have that weight upon his chest, a weight that he had never consciously recognized, and he had little doubt that within a year’s time, he would not seek it out at all.

The young Ms. Franklin tossed the half-smoked cigarette away, making an accursed part of Jack’s soul weep. “Primary fuckwit’s dug in his heels, and the secondary fucktard’s bent outta shape about it.”

“I told you,” Jack said dryly. “He doesn’t target people who would fight back.”

“Yeah, I already fucking figured that out.” She took a deep breath. “You wanna meet the secondary?”

“How long do we have?” The ticking of the clock was the most important thing.

“Laws here are fucked. Any time we wanna show up at this point.”

“Fair enough.” Jack looked between the two others, gaining a measure of sense of their unease, before turning his attention back to Ms. Franklin. Were it not for her poor attitude, she would be a pretty thing. Dressed in her suit, her hair done up in a very nice bun, she reminded him of a teenaged Charlotte Rampling, with piercing blue eyes that could not seem to settle on a singular subject. Much as he was loathe to admit it, Jack was happy to see her. “Then we should get to it. The honesty of his actions should speak louder than any encouragement I could give him.”

“Yeah. Don’t blame you. Wanna get this done myself.” She moved with an alacrity of purpose, opening the door to the office they stood outside of. “Oi! They’re here, so let’s get a move on! We’re burning daylight!”

A toweringly tall, skeletal figure of a man stepped out, causing a chill of unpleasantly recent memories to rise up from the nether regions of Jack’s mind. Memories that he pushed aside for the moment. The young man, barely more than a child, hadn’t been sleeping according to the bags beneath his eyes, but he wore the uniform of his station with the utmost delicate care. Jack knew the pain that he must obviously be going through all too well, visions of which lurked behind his eyes on sleepless nights. No, he did not fault the man in the slightest.

Thankfully, Ms. Franklin didn’t give them time to share awkward conversation. Indeed, she continued her brisk motion, forcing the young man to keep up. Jack, however, began a slow progression. He knew the way far better than either one of them might. Some deep, animal part of his brain resisted, which meant that he was following the right path.

Sir?” Patagium asked.

Jack reversed the arc with his eyes, closing his helmet. “Yes?”

Is it too late to back out?

Jack laughed a little. “Far too late, I’m afraid. Trust me when I say that I don’t want to be here any more than you do. But ask yourself, could you live with yourself, knowing that you might have stopped it, and didn’t?”

Patagium sighed softly. “These people screwed us, and I already gave my testimony. Do they really deserve us being here?

Jack could easily identify with the bitterness and pain in the man’s voice, and, truth be told, a dark part of his breast felt the same way. The difference was, he could direct it. “Guilt, my dear sir, is a hell of a thing. It can break the strongest of men, as we’ve seen with Legend. It can lay all low. And the best part is, we can easily ply it to our side. There are many in this village that I would love dearly to see burn in the fires of hell, but I would rather see them suffer and squirm under the weight of the truth first.

“The road to hell might be paved with good intentions, but sometimes carefully managed wrath can lift one up to heaven. Oh, yes, I will be enjoying their expressions once they realize the consequences of their blind belief.”

He slowed, knowing too well that it would take time. Ms. Franklin would have to inform the court, the bailiff would have to retrieve the defendant, people would have to be collected. They didn’t have long, but they did have a little time. For now, he turned to Patagium.

“And if Ms. Franklin does what I think she will, there could be trouble. That’s why we must be here. You protect the defendant. Beyond your name, face, and sheer presence, you must do this above all else. If you can protect Ms. Franklin at the same time, all the better.” He turned to Gripper. “Keep the peace. Non-lethally.”

The man bowed his head. “In Lord Relentless’ name, I shall not falter. None will die this day so long as I draw breath.”

The poor, poor soul. It made Jack’s heart ache to see a brother of circumstance have his very consciousness warped so severely. In time, he reminded himself. In time, this experience would be a healing one, working to improve his condition. For now, however, all that he could do for the fellow was wait and suffer the slings and arrows of his own heart.

Life was a fucking bitch like that.

Jack waited a few minutes to see if either of them would say anything else, but apparently they had both said all that they wished to. Nuts, and he’d been forming a nice speech about their moral upper ground and the strength of their characters all this time. People loved a good rousing speech, and thanks to all of them that he’d written, he liked to believe that he was getting good at them.

No matter. Another moment lost to the wind. Instead, he lead the procession back towards the mayor’s house.

At least, that’s where court used to be held. Instead, he found another large, possibly limestone building that someone had taken the time to carve Courthouse above the door. That was surprisingly sexy for this sleepy little community. To be honest, if it weren’t for the fact that it was such a good way station for travelers, what with the bridge nearby, the town would probably be too small to support the labor for such a structure, let alone the small Wardens outpost here.

For as much as the place stayed the same, there were also changes it seemed. They said that you could never go home again. Thankfully, the stores were all the same as they were eighteen years ago, so at least you could shop there.

As the three of them drew inside, a young, fresh-faced officer of the law stopped them. “Weapons, please.”

Fair, seeing as they were an unknown quantity at best. Without hesitation or words wasted, Jack handed the man his halberd before divesting himself of his belt, the revolver still in its holster. Patagium and Gripper followed suit as soon as the young man would allow it, though the latter was less than pleased over the affair.

Now supposedly weaponless, the three of them pushed onward, through the supposedly hallowed halls and into the courtroom itself. They hadn’t been that far behind Ms. Franklin, but already there were clusters of people seated in the courtroom, including the young Warden. Across that divider, Mr. Gibson was sitting at one desk, apparently the prosecution. Jack might not know all the lawyer crap, but he was learning rather quickly. On the other side, Ms. Franklin was already there with the defendant.

As they approached, Ms. Franklin didn’t even bother to look up from her device. Before they could get to her, though, an incoming text message popped up on Jack’s UI. He glanced at the notification and quickly blinked twice to open it.

Jack, stay with Welsh. Normally, laws won’t let me have fun, but backwoods towns with backwoods laws give me a chance here. Speak when I request it, and when I give the cue, show who you are.

Jack sighed and raised his arm. It was an all too common thing for parahumans to get their jollies while others suffered. However, if it was the best way to get this done right, then who was he to argue? He would simply have to put his faith in her. Not that it made him feel any better as he edited his name out before forwarding it to the other two. It was a little thing, but old habits die hard.

Patagium growled a little as they moved to sit next to the young man, who was obsessively jittering, trying to get the defendant’s attention and failing. Honestly, except for his height and weight, there was nothing unusual about the man’s appearance, nothing to set him apart from anyone else. It was hard to believe that, if given reason and a moment’s preparation, this man could most likely kill everyone in this room simply by touching one person. Jack had seen first-hand that Mr. Welsh was capable of clearing out a forest in a matter of seconds. He’d also apparently been a tremendous boon when the Wardens had assisted against Teacher.

Jack had heard something about Welsh’s hands, but whatever it was that traced designs in the hindquarters of his mind didn’t present itself. The man’s hands looked perfectly normal.

Twas fifteen minutes before the courtroom was full to the brim of people begging for a good trial, the bloodthirsty savages. The sheriff, his deputy, and the sheriff’s father had even taken their place in the front row, which made Jack’s blood boil. It wasn’t long after before the judge entered.

“Court is now in session,” Mrs. Baker said. Because of course she would be the judge, she’d cast plenty of judgement even back then. “Defense, has your client changed their plea?”

Ms. Franklin rose to her feet, suddenly the epitome of professionalism. “Despite the strong urging of his council and the affidavits of four psychologists, no, your honor. He still wishes to plea guilty.”

“Do you have anything to add, Mr. Delacroix?”

The man didn’t even lift his head, and if anything, seemed to withdraw tighter. “N-no.”

“I would like to present a few options before sentencing,” Ms. Franklin added quickly. “If the court would allow it.”

Mrs. Baker nodded once. “Go ahead.”

“Rather than serve in prison, we would like to suggest that he serve with the Relentless Legion. Representatives have come to explain what it would entail. Archimedes, if you would.”

Ah! The first ploy presents itself!

As the judge looked to him, Jack rose to his feet and opened the mouth portion of his helmet. “Your honor, I can say without hesitation that he would be most welcome within the Legion. While Mr. Delacroix’s mental health issues would render him ineffective for front line combat, he would still serve in a penal team in an assistance role for as long as the court would wish. He would repay for his crimes though hard service in an effort to save lives in the long term.”

Judge Baker thought about that for a moment. “He’s pled guilty to the crimes of rape, torture, and murder. Will this affect his treatment there?”

“Life won’t be easy for him, your honor.”

“That’s not what I mean. What are his chances of survival from others?”

Ah. “Second Chance is just that, a second chance to prove yourself. Should people take action against him, they will be giving up their own second chance. At the same time, should he engage in any such behaviors as what brought him to our attention, as a member of a penal team, his punishment will be quite severe. Most likely, we will seek out your own council on how to proceed, adding our own punishments on top of it.”

She nodded, thinking it over. He could see the gears turning behind her eyes, thinking over the proposal. Just like he could hear someone whispering behind him.

“Thank you.” Judge Baker turned to the more typical law in town. “Sheriff Anderson, what do you–”

“Requesting permission to have Sheriff Anderson removed from the proceedings,” Ms. Franklin said quickly.

That caused a murmur among the crowd.

Judge Baker turned to Ms. Franklin, arching a graying eyebrow. “I assume that you have a reason for this?”

“Witness and evidence tampering, extortion and a host of other crimes.”

“Objection your honor,” the prosecutor, who Jack couldn’t identify, said in an annoyed tone. “The Wardens are trying to circumvent law in order to placate their man.”

Back when she’d just been Mrs. Baker, she’d always had the mind to hear everything that she could, and Jack could already see that the trait was still held firmly in her breast. “Be that as it may, I’d like to ask if Ms. Franklin has any evidence of this.”

Jack closed his helmet and called up his comms. He knew now what was coming for sure.

“Not directly your honor,” Franklin said firmly. “Other than an annoying trend for crimes such as these to happen, or for travelers to mysteriously vanish–”

“Objection.”

“–only to have those who plea guilty to be attacked and killed in prison at an abnormal rate.”

“Your honor–”

“And testimony to support that the former sheriff and the current are actually responsible for at least some of those murders.”

Now people were edge-of-their-seat interested. Not because they bought what was being said, but because everyone loved a good courtroom drama.

“Genny,” the retired sheriff said, a hint of a grin on his face. “Please–”

The judge raised her hand, cutting him off. “That would have to be some testimony.”

Now was the time. Jack whispered quickly. “Grabber, you’re up. Stand and tell them.”

Grabber did what he was told, rising to his feet and lifting the visor of his helmet. “I was contracted by Sheriff Thomas Fraiser to murder the next three who came to prison for crimes such as this in exchange for having a thirty year sentence lowered to just after the third murder. As soon as I did it, I was released. I–”

“Enough,” Jack hissed. “Patagium, be sure to say your name.”

Patagium rose to his feet, lifting his visor before speaking in a more nervous voice. “My name is Brandon Kimmel, and I believe that you’re all familiar with my case. After the bodies of the merchants were found, then-Sheriff Thomas Fraiser and his son, then-Deputy, informed me that my mother would be murdered if I didn’t take the rap. As you may recall, there was more than a little confusion at the time, since there were several people who gave me a solid alibi. Which the court duly ignored.”

The two men were sweating in their seats now. He had to admit, it was glorious. Franklin might be a bitch, but oh, what a heavenly bitch she was! May she be carried there by an army of vulgar angels upon her passing!

Jack lifted his own visor, a slight sneer on his face. “Jack Remus. Boyfriend beaten to death. Threatened to do worse to my parents if I didn’t submit. Only survived by triggering in the attack. But I hear that they told the town that I got shanked in prison. My folks even paid to have a tombstone put up.”

“Genny,” the elder man said, raising to his feet.

Ms. Franklin cut him off. “From what Mr. Welsh tells me, my client’s father, who had terrorized him his entire life, had infiltrated the township to take his son. Mr. Welsh responded by quietly killing the father in a case of active defense. He’d been prepared to turn himself in, but Sheriff Fraiser convinced him to keep quiet. We believe–”

She didn’t get a chance to finish, as Dean Fraiser drew his service revolver.

That’s as far as he got. Patagium spread his arms to block both Ms. Franklin and Mr. Delacroix, an energy field creating wings from his wrists to his upper thighs. That experimental armor was worth it. Meanwhile, grabber reached out with both his hands and lived up to his name. Across the room, both the retiree and the active sheriff were suddenly lifted up into the air, their arms pinned by an invisible force.

Jack couldn’t help but grin. All those lies for almost twenty years could finally be abandoned. His parents were dead, supposedly of an overdose of whatever it was that they’d been cooking up and smoking, though he wasn’t sure. They’d always been two-bit junkies, but they weren’t dumb about it. But if their deaths hadn’t been an accident, he was finally getting revenge.

Risking his life with Jordan, all of those failed attempts to manipulate him to the point where he’d take out these two bastards thinking that it was his own idea, becoming Archimedes… It was all worth it for just this one moment.

——————————

-start_kernel+0x42/0x4ef-
Draconik version 9.2.2-universal (build 4e7c) (Darwin 0.45.3)
Hello.
KERNEL supported cpus:
HCI
[autotest] Checking firmware
[autotest] Checking processor
[autotest] Checking memory
[autotest][warn] memory 1 major, 320 minor errors
[integrty] host
[integrty][warn] host 4 major, 8430 minor errors
[intrface] searching for connected devices
[intrface] found 2 devices
[connboot] Booting ‘extern_limb_leg_r’ @ 0x92FC
[connboot] Booting ‘extern_limb_leg_l’ @ 0x9300
[autotest] Checking ‘extern_limb_leg_l’
[autotest] Checking ‘extern_limb_leg_r’
[autotest][warn] ‘extern_limb_leg_r’ 2 major, 9 minor errors
[integr8n] Integrating ‘extern_limb_leg_r’.
[integr8n][fail] Critical: ‘extern_limb_leg_r’ temperature exceeded safe bounds during ‘motor_functions_39’ (0xAAAAAAAA).
[integr8n][warn] ‘extern_limb_leg_r’ 15 major, 13 minor errors
[ kernel] 1 critical, 22 major, 8484 minor errors detected.
[ kernel] Bootup aborting…
[ kernel] Bootup aborted. Logs written. End.

Gehenna 15.9

The pressure in my head seemed unbearable, even as my visor cut out. Without any sort of feed to the outside world, I was blind. At least, in my right eye. My left? That was a different story entirely.

I could see the people manning the Tinker weapon through the weapon itself. I could see that there were three women and two men. I could see the thin thread leading from each of them to somewhere in the distance. Four of the threads were only receiving data one way, the other was not only receiving but transmitting both data and energy. It wasn’t a literal thread, and I knew that, though I wasn’t sure how I knew so much about it.

The device itself was a powerful one, enhancing entropy while also shunting atomic decay into another dimension. It was a little more exotic than that, and while I was understanding a bit of what I was seeing, there was so much information that was tickling just beyond my ability to understand it. But I knew enough about it to know that it should have killed me beyond dead.

Should have. A Breaker power was affecting me, creating a layer against my skin that prevented all but specific levels of various forms of energy affecting me. All that energy was shunted to some reality, no doubt creating a blast where I stood that was destroying everything in its path before it petered out. If there were people there, they would die in my stead, but it was beyond my concern at the moment.

As the beam died down, capacitors spent, I knew why that protective layer of power had formed. It wasn’t for my sake. To save the world, I had to die. I understood this on a fundamental level. It was a simple fact. No, I had to keep the beam from hitting the guy behind me.

Chevalier was a big player. His words could change the world. He needed to live.

On the surface, we were similar. He was the leader of the Wardens, and I was the leader of the Relentless Legion. Two large fighting forces. In truth, though, we were far different. He had a mind for politics, for leadership. I brute forced it. The Wardens helped keep the peace, while the Legion were expendable.

Which I’d done entirely by design. I’d always planned on having Second Chance be a home to those crazy cultists and criminals, bound together to take on the worst of the worst, those impossible situations where the Wardens couldn’t afford the sacrifices. Nobody would care if Fyrtorn scum and criminals fleeing the law would die by the droves. And the volunteers? Well, you takes your pay, you takes your chances.

I was just a kid who was fortunate enough for every single thing that he touched to go wrong in the best possible ways. This was a guy who had been among the first, who had lead the Protectorate through Gold Morning, and who continued to lead until today. That I ever even met him was an impossible stroke of luck and political bullshit.

If it weren’t for my left eye, I would have been in complete darkness. The ghostly people were peering around the Tinker heavy weapon curiously, trying to see what they’d accomplished.

And the center of my halberd shaft began to crumble.

Behind me, the massive wall of metal that was Chevalier’s ridiculous blade shifted, and I was dimly aware of Chevalier moving next to me. “Relentless, let’s take out these–”

His words stopped as his hand rested on my shoulder, crumbling my armor into dust.

That caused a chain reaction throughout it all. The barrier that had protected me was only skin tight, and hadn’t done anything for the rest of my gear. Fine powder, finer than talcum powder, crumbled, freeing my shoulder, my chest, and my neck. It didn’t stop there. After but a few seconds, my right eye saw the light of day again. The powder seemed to stick to my hair, but I didn’t mind. Not really.

It wasn’t like I had any hair that wasn’t on my head anymore, anyway.

As the crumbling armor reached my hand, it only seemed to hasten the crumbling of my halberd. I watched as the shaft lost its ability to support itself at all. Somehow, the blade made it to the ground before scattering before my eye. A slight breeze would be enough to remove any trace that it had ever existed in the first place. It would continue to break down, and within a few hours, all that would be left was whatever stuff made up atoms.

My brother had made that for me. I couldn’t remember his name offhand, but he’d made me that halberd. He’d made it for me right before I’d become a mercenary. I’d been through hell with that. It had been a tried and true weapon, able to handle the worst of punishment without once needing sharpening, the shaft never even straining.

It was gone. Just like I would be at the end of the day.

It wasn’t like a door had closed for me. It was like a planet had slammed into me. Somehow, the loss of that one weapon seemed to shatter me on a basic level. My mind went completely blank. It felt… familiar.

My eyes slid off of Chevalier, to the Students. I watched as their heads imploded. That was good. That was right.

“Relentless,” Chevalier said quietly. “Are you alright?” He started to reach out for me, but my left eye could see the extradimensional communication signalling to him, making him pause.

I didn’t have an answer for his question. My body did, though. With almost a gentle motion, it backhanded him away, sending him flying. I didn’t see where he landed, though. My body was already moving. One foot in front of the other.

Time was fairly meaningless. Motion itself was meaningless. All that I knew was whatever presented itself in front of me. I could see the lines, feel the changes in the people around me. Whenever they would look at me, they would recoil in horror.

My hand moved, wiping my nose off of my face. Which was fine. It wasn’t like I was needing that dead flesh anyway. What did a nose do for a person anyway? I couldn’t remember offhand.

Occasionally, people would attack me. Sometimes, it would be one group, sometimes another. Once, it was people in familiar looking power armor, but they stopped before many of them died. They just started giving me a wide berth. Those humans who followed Teacher attacked me the most. Occasionally, my body would move to kill them. Usually, though, they just tended to explode from the inside out. Quick and effective.

As my body moved deeper into the city, the buildings became nicer. People would want to stay in these buildings, with their big windows that didn’t make any sense. They were tactically a disadvantage.

One did give me a good look at myself. My body was thin, lean. My stomach curved inwards quite a bit, but my ribcage looked wide and powerful, like it could support quite a bit more muscle than I’d ever had in my life. What little muscle there was on me, on my arms and legs, was connected oddly, like it wasn’t part of my body beyond being under my skin. Despite it all, I looked like a strange mockery of a skeleton, complete with only ridges for a nose. Only a jagged line of division between the old flesh and the new remained, though my glowing red eye moved into the living flesh, with a dark green line underneath the skin running to it. It looked far too small for my eye socket.

As my body walked, an out of place building caught my attention. While the other buildings were looking like more time and effort had been put into making them, this one was a cement slab, though shorter than the apartment buildings. Right here, in the middle of all of the… houses, I supposed.

My body turned towards it, walking with a more purposeful pace. It felt stronger the more the closer that it got. There were a lot of people here trying to stop it, and I could hear panicked words over a loudspeaker again, but nothing slowed my body down. Those who didn’t flee in terror were walked through or otherwise ended.

It didn’t phase through the wall like I’d done with Chevalier’s sword. It simply walked through it.
Content to wander, it moved through the facility slowly, destroying all who popped up. Neither of us paid them much heed. The building was a large facility, full of tanks of various liquids, semi-Tinker equipment, and laboratories with menacing looking chairs. As my body walked through another cinderblock wall, the purpose of the facility became a little more clear, but only a little.

Teleporters, but too small for a full human body, were positioned over vats of liquid. It looked like there were mechanical arms that would pluck things out of the vats and put them into a machine. On one side was a chute that would eject something into hoppers, by the looks of it flesh and bone. On the other side was a thick transparent tube.

Within the tube were brains that looked like they’d been sculpted together, with lines running through them. Lines that would port out, connected to an artificial breathing apparatus, or something that would either administer some sort of liquid or dispense of it. I didn’t bother trying to make sense of it. My body just kept walking, my head turning to show me the way that the tube of brains snaked through the facility.

Paras. All of them were paras. My left eye told me that much. Paras with their personalities removed, the brains drastically altered. As my body walked along what must have been miles of tubing snaking this way and that, the amount of brain matter that was retained from the procedure increased. What started out as the size of a fist slowly turned into half the brain, then the majority, and then all of it.

As we reached the end, my eyes turned to look at one where the face and eyes were still attached, along with the front half of the skull. No breathing apparatus. Only wires running from her head to the other brains. It was a pretty face, save for the small C tattooed on the cheek. Her eyes looked out at me imploringly. Her lips twitched. Was that an automatic reflex, or was it her trying to ask me for help?

My hand reached out, almost touching the glass, before it snapped shut. In an instant, miles of brains linked together collapsed inward, all trying to join a single point in the tubes. The pressure was too much and the glass exploded, sending gray matter and liquid everywhere. That seemed to satisfy my body, having just killed thousands with a single gesture. They were already dead in most regards anyway. It had just finished the job.

With that, my body moved again, heading through another wall towards the center of the city.
The battle had already progressed beyond me, but despite my body’s shuffling pace, it eventually caught back up. Those with lines connecting them were fighting more fiercely, but they almost seemed to ignore me as I passed by them. All those lines led inside this grand, opulent palace. As my body walked through the defenders, literally, it gave the people fighting them a chance, an advantage that they pressed to gain entry.

Things were a blur as I walked. People fighting and dying. Explosions going on all around me. My body ripping out a ceiling and easily jumping up when it would have been more difficult to take the stairs. Level after level passed me by. Floor two, five, ten, twenty, and finally forty passed in a blur as it followed those lines that connected them to a single para. It would have been easier if the source of those lines didn’t keep moving, leading my body this way and that.

Finally, though, it walked through drywall, coming face to face with a bearded man who backed away from it. The man said something, and my head tilted. He said something else, a lot of something elses. My body’s only response was to part its lips and let out a noise that sounded like a cross between a locust’s whine and a disgusted hiss. It didn’t move, though. It just stood there, watching the man try and put as much distance as possible between us. He couldn’t go to the door without getting close, close enough to reach out and grab.

Maybe he was smart to keep his distance.

I wasn’t sure how long we stood there, him saying words that I didn’t bother to process, my body simply not caring. They were English words, but it was like hearing them from a mile away. Meaningless noise without the slightest shred of comprehension.

This felt so familiar, like it was simply right, but I couldn’t put my finger on it.

We didn’t have long, though, before company arrived. It wasn’t the company that he wanted, though — armored, but heavily so, looking almost more like high-tech plate armor than pieces over cloth armor. Not right. Not the right people. Too much direct Tinker tech, and no paras. And they were pointing their weapons at me, too.

The intrusion didn’t last at least. My hand flicked, and they were gone, no trace of them in here. Gone elsewhere, somewhere with heavy fighting. Somewhere that would need them. Yes. That was good. That was good.

The bearded man only looked more frightened by that. Why would he be more frightened by me getting rid of the people pointing weapons at him?

My mouth let out that chittering hiss again.

We stood there for a period of time. The man’s voice stopped being excited and desperate, and more soothing and calming. Ah, now something stirred in the back of my mind. Why this felt so familiar, comforting. I let myself fall deeper into the imperceptible sound of his voice. It felt like home. It felt like the Orphanage.

My body moved slightly on occasion, in response to the man moving. Why bother? Why fight it?

I was given a reason with the sound of a gunshot that made the bearded man’s head blossom into a red and gray mist. My head turned… No, I turned my head to the source. The familiar armor, the familiar form made my mind engage.

John.  I could see the teleporter clipped to his belt.  How did he know where to find me, though?

The first few syllables were incomprehensible, but it clarified fast. “-you, bossman?”

“You shouldn’t be here,” I rasped, vibrating the fine china in the room.

John lifted his faceplate, revealing the gold and black painted face. I couldn’t read his expression or his body language. “Yeah, yeah I think I should. I think you’ve been quietly pushing me away for a long time now.”

There was light behind me, but I ignored it. “Maybe,” I admitted.

“Because of this?”

“Maybe.”

“How long’s this been going on, bossman?”

“Burlington.” I wished that I had to breathe. It would be easier to focus on something. “I knew what was happening. What was coming.”

John nodded slowly. “You were withdrawing for a long time before that. You didn’t care about the jobs, and you were showing less and less excitement when your crush showed up.”

I tilted my head.

“Defiant.”

“Ah.” He was teasing me.

“Ah.” John glanced at the person behind me. “It’s why I threw myself into this. You were excited about something, some fire back in your eyes, but… That’s why you kept us in the back so far away for the initial infiltration, isn’t it? When taking on Fyrtorn.”

I nodded. “If anyone could kill me, it’d be Krigarguden. Didn’t want my friends caught up in that.”

“And it was ruined when you found a guy who wanted to die more than you did.” John took a cautious step towards me, holstering his gun. “He accepted your challenge and didn’t instantly cream you… because deep down, he wanted to die. And when you told him, it… Well, it wasn’t deep down anymore. And you, you kind soul, you went ahead and let him die–”

“Not kind,” I rumbled. “Not kind.”

I felt a hand on my shoulder and looked. The clothes weren’t right, but I recognized who he was immediately. Legend. Good. Good. Yes, he would do. John, he wouldn’t do. Too sentimental. Legend, though. Legend was sentimental, but didn’t have the connection.

“Nobility takes many forms,” Legend said sympathetically.

“I’m trying,” I said. Images flashed in my head. A series of instructions. A difficult task broken down into a simple set of instructions. “I’m trying, but I’m failing.”

“We fail every day,” Legend said in a mournful tone. “But we get back up, don’t we?”

“And I’ll keep getting up. Always. That’s… That’s the problem. You see it when you look at me, don’t you? When you touch me.”

His silence spoke more than his words could.

“I’m not human anymore, Legend. For almost a year I’ve been changing into something else. I can… I could feel it. The shifting inside of me. The way it takes my thoughts and… twists them. I’m dangerous in ways that I can’t put words to, and I know it.”

“Jordan,” he whispered softly.

Say the words. Even if I didn’t understand them, say them.

“And I’m tired. I’ve been so tired for so long that I don’t know what it’s like. For as long as I can remember, I’ve just been… Tired. Fighting helped, but only so much. And when you’re running on empty for so many years, eventually not even adding more fuel helps. You leave, because the tank runs empty, but you come back because it isn’t dry. Because the need fuels you. But I don’t have that.”

Oddly, even though I didn’t understand them, they felt right. They felt true.

“And then this… I still have control. Mostly. I lost it for a bit there. I lost… It wasn’t fully in control, not yet. But it’s growing stronger. The more that it takes… The more that it gains. My mind may not be mine, but I think… I think my brain is. Mostly. But once it takes that…”

Tears welled in my normal eye.

“We can help you,” he stressed. “We can take you to Mother’s Hospital, or any number of other places and–”

“This morning I had a lip,” I interrupted. “I had two eyes. A nose. Look at me now, Legend. I’m changing too fast. Every moment, I feel the pressure growing. I feel it growing. Please.”

I reached out and took his hand, making him recoil slightly. I wondered how I felt to a normal person. I could only imagine what the New 53s would think of me. They’d probably worship me as their new god or some bullshit like that. Fuck, everyone else seemed to.

“It’s pressing against the back of my eye socket, trying to get through to my brain. Once it takes that, I’m done. There won’t be a Relentless, a Jordan, a Tobias. There will only be it then. And it wants to kill. It wants to kill so casually…”

John was turning away, putting his faceplate back down to speak on the radio. I paid him no mind. His role was done.

I forced Legend’s hand open. “It needs my brain. It can’t exist without it. You’re a hero, Legend. Old school. Tried and true. You’ve always tried to do the best for everyone, even when bleeding hurt. I’ve always been meat pretending to be muscle. Pretending to be a hero, but I still have one chance. One that it won’t let me take for myself.”

One that I was too much of a coward to take for myself. I’d always been too much of a coward to just end it all, even if it would have been easier.

I placed his palm against my human eye. “Stop the Endbringer before it forms. Please. I don’t… I’m afraid that I’ll be locked in here as it does… As it does its thing. But we can stop it before it starts. Please…

“Save me.”

I would have smiled if I could, but I didn’t have the lips to do it. There wasn’t enough of my lower face to even begin to do that. I couldn’t even see Legend’s expression like this, his form too opaque. I didn’t have the words to even begin to describe how he looked to my left eye.

I didn’t have time to even see a flash of light, but I felt my eye go, the energy against my socket, the bone giving way to that energy. It was fast, faster than I should have been able to feel it, and then…

I was finally free.