His name was Michael McCann, but these days most people called him Raven. There had been a sister once, though he was sure that Alice was dead now. She had probably been dead when he ran from the ruins of the hospital where she had been running her free clinic, there in the midst of what used to be Glasgow. Gangs ruled that place, much as they ever had, though this time the gangs were properly tooled up with whatever they could grab from the dead soldiers they had crucified opposite the hospital in Queen’s Park.
Raven wasn’t proud of what he’d done that day, even if she’d made him promise to get out, to take the last of the tetracycline and get it to safety. The plague had made a reappearance in Glasgow, just over 100 years after its last appearance in 1900. Modern antibiotics were effective enough, but at that point, three years after the Fall, there was very little left. Alice had saved as much of her supply as possible, hoping to help as many people as possible. He had long wondered if saving Alice would have made more sense, given how many people she could have helped in the years since.
Now Raven sat in a bar, seven years, 4,000 miles and three worlds away from that particular Glasgow. He had escaped, alright, but he’d be going back soon. His long tattered coat and skinny frame wasn’t out of place in this bar, not tonight. He was surrounded by hundreds of punk-wannabes and goth-emo types, no one giving him a second glance. Most avoided him, in fact, despite his authentic look. There was something about Raven that unsettled people, especially negs. No one could spend much time near him without feeling a subtle kind of undirected anger. Fights would break out around Raven, especially when he was on this world.
That’s how much he hated it here. Not just the bar, filled with stupid, ignorant people, but the variation itself. The Ordinary World, such a name, a world that didn’t appreciate how lucky it was. A decadent, lazy world with no point. A tourist trap for his kind, a place to get away from it all.
A girl walked through the crowd, seemingly oblivious to the effect her clothing was having on others. Her expensive white Italian suit, complete with bow-tie, made her look like a stage magician rather than a bar patron. It worked on her, though. Even Raven was mildly impressed. Her black hair was pulled back into a severe ponytail, which only made her angular face seem sharper. Her companion was an untidy older teenager, maybe only a few years younger than the girl. He looked as uncomfortable as Raven did, though the girl was aloof to the point of indifference. She slid into the booth opposite Raven. The teenager just stood there, and turned his back. He was muscle, it seemed, despite the fact that he looked like he weighed maybe 120, soaking wet. Raven was curious. Since when did bodyguards need guarding?
Suzanne worked for the Regency Group, though Raven knew that it wasn’t quite as simple as that. She really worked for Doctor Neil Ellington, the prim, scruffy English genius who ran the Group. He and Suzanne seemed to go back a long way, and he was rarely seen without her. Raven had always thought that she was Ellington’s bodyguard. Anything else wouldn’t have occurred to him.
He and Suzanne had met several times in the past. He’d been her escort on his dying home variation on more than one occasion, so she knew all too well where he’d come from and what he’d seen. And done. He basically liked her, which was saying a lot for Raven.
“Suzanne,” said Raven quietly, in way of greeting.
“Michael,” said the girl, smiling. There was some warmth there, but mostly the long-practiced insincerity that only the truly Distant learn to fake. Even if Raven didn’t already know her, he would be able to sense how far she’d traveled, how far she’d drifted from the rest of humanity. It came off her in waves, silently crashing inside his head, the edges of an ocean of despair.
“Stop that,” she said, not harshly. Raven realized he had been Reading her, just a little.
“Sorry. Force of habit,” he said, smiling apologetically.
She seemed to relax a little, but only a little. A tight smile flashed briefly.
“This is a nice look for you,” he told her. “I’m used to seeing you in combat gear.”
The smile flashed again. “Ellington does like us to dress up nice when we’re on business. He’s not specific, so I like to find some fashion loopholes, just to see his face.”
“What would he do without you?” asked Raven.
Suzanne didn’t respond. Instead, she reached into a pocket inside her jacket, and pulled out a credit card. It was matte black, unmarked. It was the kind of credit card that could buy a small country. She held it out to Raven, then pulled back a little.
“This is a big favor, Michael,” she said, smiling a little more genuinely. She never called him Raven. He found that he liked that about her. “Mind telling us what it’s for?”
“The usual. I need some very expensive medicine and your wee card here is very helpful.”
She’d had to ask. It was routine. She knew better, but the Regency Group would have been pissed if she’d not asked. Raven didn’t mind.
She seemed satisfied with his answer. Then, almost off-hand, “What’s in it for me?”
Raven looked at her for a long moment, his eyes searching. Then he put out his hands. Suzanne looked at them, at his dirt-tattooed skin, then looked curiously at Raven.
Hesitantly, Suzanne placed her hands on his, the credit card between their right hands. Raven closed his eyes, and reached deep within himself, remembering long conversations with his sister, the doctor. He had been a fast learner, and could have been a doctor himself, if he’d tried harder in school and if his world hadn’t ended.
He found the hot spot deep within her right breast, the little cluster of cells that had only recently started to go crazy. He whispered silently to them, a song of stop, a song of no. The heat seemed to falter and fade, and the cells remembered what they were meant to do. Slowly, steadily, tissue healed and blood vessels re-knitted, returning to normal.
When Raven let go of her hands, both his and hers were trembling. He wiped sweat from his brow, and slipped the credit card into one of a dozen hidden pockets. Suzanne sat back, her face white with shock.
“You didn’t know?” he asked. She shook her head, still speechless. Raven shrugged, suddenly tired and uncomfortable. This particular Mending had taken a lot of out of him and he could feel the dull leaden weight of Inertia pulling him down. He would have to go do something dangerous and stupid to get his mojo back.
The younger man who had accompanied Suzanne turned to look at her.
“We’re out of time, Miss,” he said politely, but firmly. Perhaps, thought Raven, he wasn’t just protection. Perhaps he was something else. Raven could feel the flicker-touch of the teenager’s Meridian, keeping track of a nearby broken room.
Suzanne stood, her eyes wet, unable to trust herself to say anything through the thick clot of emotion that had stuck in her throat.
“I’m sorry if I upset you,” said Raven, meaning it. She shook her head, seeming to regain some composure.
“No, Michael,” she said quietly, “I just forget sometimes that you’re one of the good ones.”
Suzanne and her companion made their way out of the bar. Michael remained there for a while, wondering if she was right.