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.”
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.”