Everyone made decisions about people based on how folks looked. Just human nature, something that everybody did without thinking. If you saw someone in a swanky suit, your first judgement was that they was some uppity, prim and proper, self-important asswipe. Someone in threadbare clothes was a poor soul who didn’t have much. Even age was a thing — if you was below 30, you wasn’t properly educated or anything. Maybe not an idiot, but not smart.
But there was several kinds of smart. There was book smart, head smart, people smart, world smart, work smart, fighting smart… All sorts of smart. Everyone was plenty dumb in their own way, and you could learn a lot from almost anyone, so long as you knew what kind of smart they was. That was the hard part, though, because foks had already made their minds about you, based on how you looked.
Stand there in well-worn leather breeches, a linen tee, and a homemade padded leather jacket with a thick collar, with spiked hair and a couple of piercings in your ears? Didn’t matter if you had those big thick radio headphones around your neck, you was a thug, plain and simple. Dumb as a box of rocks, they think. Didn’t matter if you killed the buffalo, skinned it, salted the meat and rendered the tallow, make the leathers, and even wove the shirt, all by yourself, you was an idiot.
Which suited Romeo just fine. He wasn’t head smart or book smart, and he knew it. But he wasn’t dumb. Sure, he’d never been to school a day in his life, but he could read (so long as people didn’t get bitchy about him using his finger to help), do math, he’d spent plenty of time learning with the shrinks, knew people, could do a little bit of everything back home, and could even build a rock solid house all by hisself. He’d had plenty of debates about if the Sons of Bitch was a tribe or not, and he always thought that he’d made his argument about “neo-tribes” and their place in the modern multiverse a good one.
This was beyond him, though. He’d kept up with all the bullshit when they was fighting the Simurgh and Medusa, but that was because everyone was focused on one thing. Watching this Relentless Legion fighting was impossible. It was pure chaos, plain and simple. Hundreds of Tinker monitors flickered with maps that was being created on the fly by the computers and sensors and shit on the suits those people wore. Groups would fight other groups almost at random to his eye, then suddenly run off to fight someone else or do something that the dozens and dozens of folks in this here complex told them to.
Both the Wardens and Dragon’s Teeth was helping, but he couldn’t make hide nor hair of what they was doing. Maybe if he’d been to a school or something, but he felt like even he felt like it would be too much chaos out there.
Archimedes caught him just standing there bewildered and moved over. “If you want to step outside and have a quick smoke, I wouldn’t blame you. I’d just ask you to take another drag for me.”
Romeo grinned, thankful for the reprieve. Archimedes was a manipulative asshole, right up there with the best of them, but he was good at what he was doing, almost as good as that Schrodinger chick. And maybe Romeo was standing in someone’s way. “Thanka, yo. Will do.”
He hurried out of the building, not wanting to be in there for any longer than necessary. As soon as he was outside, one of the pre-rolled smokes was in his mouth, lit by an all-too-expensive match. It wasn’t long before Mercu, his favorite pitbull, was sitting at his feet and waiting for a head rub. He obliged the boy, waiting until the third drag that he slipped the headphones onto his ears and turned on his radio.
There was a bit of a wait before her voice answered, gruff and blunt as always. “What’s going on?”
“’bout what I figgard. Can’t make sense a too much a it, but if it gonna go down, it gonna go down here an’ now.”
His mom made a thoughtful noise before speaking again. “Tattletale? What’s she doing?”
“Keeps looking ‘tween those screens that the Wardens dude shows her. Tryin’ ta guide ’em all to where she thinks’ll do most damage. She, a Wardens bitch, and the Legion gal I warned you ’bout is always talkin’ ’bout where ta hit, yeah? Can’t keep up.” He pulled another drag.
“Are you smoking?”
Romeo blinked. Abrupt change, there. More abrupt than usual. “Was the only way ta talk wif ya, yeah?”
She didn’t approve of him smoking, but she’d never said to stop. He wasn’t sure why, but he wasn’t going to argue.
“Watch her. She’s smart, but she isn’t smart. Talks too much.”
What? Oh, right, Aunt Lisa. “Too many talkers not sayin’ enough, Mom. Lots a ’em. You’d hate it. Anyway, if things is gonna go how we think they is, I gotta get back in. Jus’ wanted ta letcha know that things is getting thick, and I’mma gonna keep close eye on this shit. I’ll letcha know when ya need ta know.”
“Love ya, Mom.”
She didn’t give a response. You don’t go to Mom for human affection. Aunt Cassie, as damn codependent and needy for affection and connection as she was, she was the one he went to for words of love and hugs. Mom’s hugs… She was awkward about them. She showed her affection better in other ways. He knew that Mom was getting laid when she didn’t share a bed with him. He was used to puppy piles, sometimes with actual puppies in the mix.
Mom could nod and walk away, and it would say more than any words ever could. And if he ever needed proof that she loved him, well…
Romeo didn’t so much of get off Bastard as he did fall into Mom’s arms. It was enough to make him want to throw up again, but he’d even run out of bile a half hour ago. Mom wasn’t a fast woman, but her powerful legs carried her like a whirlwind, kicking the doors to the big building open.
The world was blurry, and his arm was pinned painfully against his chest as she carried him like he was a babe. Even with how out of it he was, unable to move his head more than spastically, he was aware of insectoid figures surrounding them, hissing warningly.
He tried to give a cry of fear, but it only came out as a gurgle.
“Where is she?” Mom boomed, making the only eye that could open wince.
“Miss Lindt,” a man said soothingly. “They called ahead and–“
“Where?” Mom demanded, somehow even louder. That was enough to make him wimper, and that made her freeze. After a moment, she adjusted her grip on him so that she could gently lay her cheek against his forehead. When she spoke again, her voice was more quiet, but brimming with even more danger and threat of violence than he’d ever heard before.
“Take me to her, or I’ll kill you all.”
He couldn’t see anything with her holding him like this, but after a moment, Mom was moving again. His had had a tiny bit of motion, and he was able to snag her shirt with a baby’s grip. He wasn’t quite sure what was going on, and really, it didn’t matter. Mom was here, and she’d been dead serious when she’d said that she’d kill them if they didn’t help. That was enough for him.
The man said something that he couldn’t make out. That ear wasn’t working so well. Mom moved even more quickly, stopping only to gingerly, delicately set him on a table of some sort. The lights were odd here. Too bright. They were indoors, how was it so bright? It was dark out, but the light was from overhead. How?
“Help him,” Mom growled. He was having trouble making her out with the blur and bright light.
“I will,” a new voice said. She sounded… pained?
“Don’t screw him up. Not like you did Brian.”
“I won’t. I’m a different person now, don’t worry. But I’m going to have to ask you to go into the–“
“No.” It was Mom’s no argument voice. Romeo squinted, and he could make out her face. Hard and firm as ever, but she was… crying? Mom could cry?
“Then stand over there. I’ll need the light to figure out what happened.” The new woman’s face came into view, her smile soft. “Hello, Romeo. Tattletale tells me that you took a tumble last week, and now your head doesn’t work so well.” Two thin metal things moved behind her, but he couldn’t make them out. “Don’t worry. We’ll get you all fixed up…”
Romeo frowned as he made his way back in. Aunt Lisa had tears in her eyes as she stared at a monitor in shock, but nobody else seemed so strongly affected. Or really affected at all. Strange.
The monitor showed the view of someone running. He looked to the map in the corner, trying to make sense of it. He wasn’t sure if he was reading it right, but he was guessing… Someone was way away from the bulk of the fighting. It showed a trio of dots follwing it, trying to catch up, maybe?
Too confusing. If he was there, he might be able to make sense of it all, but looking at images like this? Cameras only told a thin slot of the action. The big holographic displays of the Dragon’s Teeth at least gave him a three-dimensional view of the action, but even that wasn’t the same as being there.
He might not be a good fighter, but he’d taken on his fair share of wildlings and assholes who thought that the Sons of Bitch was all bark and no bite. He’d gotten told what to do in the middle of a fight more than once, and even been yelling the orders once. Not that they listened, but that’s what you got for being surrounded by people much better than yourself.
Here, he had no clue, so he settled into watching again.
Archimedes was pacing around, keeping an eye on everyone. Not just the “delegates” here, but the Legionnaires who was manning various computers and desperately trying to keep everyone in the proper places. Didn’t hide his nerves none. Schrodinger had her own set of computers, moving like greased lightning.
When the Wardens had shown up, some blonde dame had commanded a whole slew of computers to give her the most action. To be fair, she was probably doing the work of fifteen people, no doubt helped out by her assistant, who seemed to be giving everyone else things to look at. Romeo had no idea what was up with that, but folks was too busy to ask.
Behind them stood the big three of the Wardens: Chevalier, Legend, and Valkyrie. Legend wasn’t wearing his tights, but civvie clothes. Probably retired again, but decided to attend for whatever reason. On occasion, he or Chevalier would move to discuss something with either their gal or one of the Legionaries, offering the voice of wisdom and experience.
Both of the current Americas had their reps. Mr. Grayson was just watching silently, probably the first time he’d seen action like this while it was happening. From the better America, Miss Militia occasionally whispered with Chevalier, which made Romeo smile a bit. The two of them stuck close and seemed to have their own shorthand. It was all professional, but… Well, there was a familiarity there that Romeo liked.
And then General Gill. The Indian man with the headwrap and the oiled beard. Seemed weird for the usually prim and proper, not to mention shaved, Dragon’s Teeth to have someone like him as a general, but hey, there was probably a reason. The man was pensive but still. His jaw worked on occasion, but he kept his hands firmly clasped behind his behind his back.
Miss Alcott, bless her soul, looked like she needed another forty winks or so. She wasn’t taxed or nothing, he knew that Thinker exhaustion look, but she was dead tired as she watched everything. Old memories haunting her last night, he reconed. Didn’t sleep, and probably kept slipping into the past now. Poor lady.
Over yonder, Nexus was sitting with a platinum blonde gal who was in full plate armor. He’d been in New Brockton when Teacher had attacked, which had lead to his trigger event. That much, Aunt Lisa had told Romeo when he asked about the two of them. Nexus would do anything to give Teacher the bird, and he wasn’t about to miss the grand attack.
The Legionaries themselves was a motley bunch. They didn’t have military discipline, but they also didn’t have the ability to do what they wanted. Even the untriggered seemed to have an unhealthy devotion to what they was doing, though. When shit had started, he’d heard some of them quietly mutter “For Relentless.” Which, if Romeo was reading everything right, was a real bad thing for them. Unless…
Unless Aunt Lisa’s head snapped up, her eyes going wide. Yup, she just got it and was kicking herself for not getting it before now. Had to be. Smart, but thanks to her power. Not as smart as she thought when she wasn’t using it, or when she didn’t use it right.
As Romeo slid his hand into his pocket, she turned to Miss Alcott. “Can I get a couple of numbers?”
Alcott frowned for a moment before nodding.
“What are the odds that Jordan achieves his primary goal?”
“Fifty-six point three one one eight.”
Aunt Lisa nodded. “And what are the odds that he dies here?”
“Fifty-six point three one one three.” Surprisingly, Alcott didn’t look surprised in the slightest.
Aunt Lisa, though, went from shocked to furious. “Jesus Christ! How the fuck did I miss this?!”
Romeo was willing to bet that she missed it more than she knew.
Chevalier, though, was too fast on the follow-up. “Missed what?”
“Jor… Relentless did this mission to get himself killed.” Her eyes began that tiny jump left and right that people did when they started to put the puzzle pieces together. “And… And I think that he’s always been trying to get himself killed.”
The Wardens dame snorted. “Just figuring that out, bitchtits?”
Romeo grasped the tube in his pocket.
Aunt Lisa turned to her. “You… Yes. Yes. His entire life…”
“Hold on,” Miss Militia said carefully. “Do you mean to say that all of this was just a… suicide attempt?”
“A convoluted one. Everything’s always been… He doesn’t even know, does he?”
Romeo pressed the button on the end of the tube. It was only a matter of time now before his own plan came into effect.
“You aren’t making any sense,” Archimedes said, crossing over. “He’s been… having some problems the last few years, but he’s been seeing a therapist and–”
“No he hasn’t,” Schrodinger said. On the screens, Relentless was being suspended by some sort of Tinker tech bullshit. “He went to the one, but after that he’s just been telling you that he has. In the branches where I convince him to take me with him, he just goes and trains for a few hours.”
“Goes a lot longer than that,” the Wardens gal deadpanned. “He’s been suicidal for as long as I’ve known him.”
“I don’t understand,” Miss Militia said. “How does a person get this far–”
“Depression,” Aunt Lisa said quickly, even after some Legionaires freed Relentless from his prison. “Everyone thinks that it’s just being, well, depressed, but it takes a lot of forms. Some of those forms are just not feeling anything. You just feel a void, and any emotion that you feel seeps into it. Sometimes, that just makes things worse — you feel the emotion briefly, and then the overwhelming lack of it afterwards.
“But he’s tried to avoid it. He pushes himself so hard because… Because the endorphins make him feel alive, if only for a little bit. He forces himself to smile, to laugh, to be pleasant, but even if it’s genuine, it’s gone as soon as it’s there. Pushed down into the void.”
“Bullshit,” Archimedes barked. “Listen, there’s no way that he’s suicidal. There’s plenty of moment where he could have died, but hasn’t.”
The Wardens gal looked away from her screens, a sad expression on her face. “And how many of them are because he’s had someone else there?”
The small tube in Romeo’s pocket buzzed. Perfect. Now he just needed the right moment.
Aunt Lisa nodded, putting more and more together. “It isn’t an active desire. At least, not until recently. Maybe the last year. But he’s always had that push to put himself in dangerous situations. That walkabout he took after Agamemnon… There was nobody there with him, and I’m told that he used up all his food and kept walking instead of trying to find more.
“But in a weird way, his self preservation and his own suicidal tendency worked together to give him one driving goal — be a hero. Save people. So the same urge that his subconscious desire to die gave him, to throw himself into conflict so someone could kill him… His self-preservation made him fight to protect people. So long as someone needed him to keep them alive or safe, he’d keep fighting.”
Nexus ran a hand over his face. “That corridor. He fell down and didn’t look like he was going to get back up until he got radioed that his friends were in trouble. Then he got a second wind. He didn’t even think about his own injuries after that, about how he was cooked from the inside. All that mattered was the others.”
Honestly, Romeo was a little surprised that so few had seen it before now. When Jordan had first come onto the scene after St. Louis, Romeo had taken a shine to him. Another normal person, doing badass things. Sure, he had to use some Tinker tech, or stuff made from Tinker tech, but in the end it was just him and what he brought versus the world. No powers, just brass balls.
All that had changed when he’d seen the pictures of Jordan. The ones from Twain and that big image from Agamemnon that people had seemed to love for a month or two. What everyone else saw as him standing in defiance of Agamemnon was actually acceptance. The way that his smile never reached his eyes, the way that every picture seemed strangely larger than life…
He’d known that Jordan was depressed then, and he was willing to bet that he wasn’t alone. With how many people had PTSD or depression, they was things that was accepted but not really commented on. He was willing to bet that a lot of the people who showed Jordan favor over the years was being kind due to knowing, or suspecting, what he was going through and trying not to make his lot in life even worse.
Aunt Lisa nodded at Nexus’ assessment. “When I first saw him and his sister, I knew that he was acting and that he needed her, but I thought that was the nerves over the act of dealing with Missy in the restaurant. I caught onto the fact that he always needed to be doing something, reading or exercising, but I shifted my attention, and never continued down that path again.
“All of this, from Agamemnon, the way that he fights, how he volunteered to take on the Simurgh, facing–”
Romeo cleared his throat dramatically. They all knew that Krigarguden had willingly sacrificed himself out of guilt in his final moments, but it might not be wise to let the Legionnaires know that. Maybe they’d already said too much. Fortunately, he had a good distraction.
Aunt Lisa’s eyes narrowed. “What did you do?”
“Nothing,” he said, measuring every word carefully. Enunciation was tricky, but he was determined to speak like everyone else did right now. “However, it seems like Mom, Bitch for those of you who might have forgotten, has become impatient. I regret to inform you that she and a few of our best warriors seem to have gone through your portal to get a piece of the action themselves.”
Aunt Lisa’s head whipped to look at Miss Alcott. “Odds that the Legion tears itself apart when Relentless dies?”
“Seventy-one point four seven three one.” She blinked a couple of times. “And that’s before the battle is done.”
Romeo looked around at everyone, his face grim. “I would suggest that, in order to keep our truce with the Relentless Legion, anyone who has troops ready would deploy them. To stop Mom, of course.”
“Of course,” the Wardens gal said dryly, returning her gaze to the monitors.
General Gill put a finger to his ear. “All units, be advised. Operation Broken Steel is a go. Operations Moon Blade, Red Albatross, and Bloody Dreamcatcher are not to be acted upon until my say so.”
Miss Militia was getting out her own radio. “General, it’s time. The Legion needs our help.”
Chevalier and Valkyrie began their communications. How sad — everyone had been prepared to betray the truce. Tut tut.
Romeo, however, was focused on Archimedes and Schrodinger.
“You knew,” the man said angrily.
She held up a finger for a moment. Finally, she addressed him directly. “Yes, and I ordered those who are still on this side of the portal to let everyone through before the battle began.”
Archimedes balled his hand into a fist. “You’re letting your friend die?!”
Romeo couldn’t see her expression under her helmet, but he imagined it was either a glare of exhaustion. Her voice could have worked with either. “If you knew how many times I’ve seen him blow his brains out or something, you’d understand just how much I’ve been working to keep him going. This? This is the best balance between what he needs and what is best for everyone.
“He is my friend. I don’t know anyone that I trust more than him. But unless an impossible set of odds comes into play, single-digit odds that depend on things that none of us can account for, then Jordan dies, or worse.”
“What’s worse than him dying?” Romeo asked.
“We all die, because unlike them, he doesn’t hold back. Not ever. And he will understand just how powerful he really is now, and it will be more terrifying than anything you can imagine.”
Schrodinger looked back up to Archimedes. “Defiant could stop him, but he can’t go there, because Teacher will take over his cybernetics.”
“Alright.” Archimedes took a slow breath. “According to the bossman, you hijack the passengers of others to boost your own, right? Then your power tells you the questions to ask her to maximize our odds.” He pointed at Miss Alcott.
“No. I already know the answers.” She looked Chevalier and Legend. “One of you will save his life, and set into motion the way to save all of us from him. The other will kill him. And as much as everyone hates a cryptic bitch, if I tell you, then it only gets worse.”
The entire building shook as several somethings seemed to pass by. The monitors showed several Dragon’s Teeth personnel carriers going through the portal and deploying troops. Doorways in reality opened into Teacher’s city, and both Wardens and U.S. troops poured through them. Huh, it seemed that Miss Militia was been working with Chevalier and Valkyrie on their plan.
He’d be genuinely disappointed in them if he hadn’t come up with his own plan. Nobody wanted to see Teacher get through this as a free man.
Chevalier squared his shoulders back. “Well then. Gear.”
Romeo couldn’t see the portal, but he could tell that Chevalier reached into one and pulled out his helmet and sword. Black and red, just like his Endbringer-enhanced armor. As soon as the man had his helmet in place, he looked to Valkyrie. “Either I save him and the Legion, or I kill him. And from what she said might happen, I’ll carry the weight of this one. Door me.”
Valkyrie spend a moment studying her armband, which gave Romeo a chance. “Ay, ‘old up!” He hurried to a Legionnaire. “Y’all got any a them there cameras like on yer armor?”
The woman paused before one seemed to form in the palm of her hand. He snatched it up and gave it to Chevalier, who silently fixed it to his armor. Instantly, thanks to the Wardens guy, a monitor lit up so that they could see it. Perfect.
Only then, did another portal open. With that, Chevalier stepped through. Romeo only hoped that it was the right person.