Cover Art: Solace o'Autumn

Chapter 20


Jaune might not have been sure about a life in the military but the view up on Atlas was certainly something special. He took photos from every angle looking down over Mantle and sent them to his family and friends, sharing the astonishing sight of a whole civilisation living down below a chained, floating heap of rock turned military academy.

How the hell Atlas managed it, he didn't know, but everyone acted like it was a totally normal thing and it felt dumb to ask. It must have been expensive though, or everyone would be floating off the ground to protect them from terrestrial Grimm.

One downside was the constant crowds and noise. Atlas – at least the floating part, anyway – was sizeable, but also crowded, with both Atlas Academy for huntsmen and the traditional military, and also a lot of the command structure behind it. That was a lot of people to cram on one floating island and the surface of it was also a prime spot for fitness training and lounging under the sun, so that was especially packed.

Jaune gave way to yet another squad of soldiers jogging by chanting; it was the tenth he'd passed in the last two hours. There were also huntsman students doing displays and sparring with one another, and also uniformed men marching about talking or showing people around. It felt like he was the only person there who didn't have a purpose or somewhere to be, but that was probably just his nerves talking.

A quick buzz on his scroll heralded a message from Winter Schnee, commanding – or requesting, but firmly – that he attend to a meeting with General Ironwood. He wasn't sure why she wrote "attend a meeting" rather than "meet" but it must have been a military thing. Or a Schnee thing. It was a toss-up on which was the stricter environment to grow up in.

If there was one benefit of Atlas being a modern marvel, it was how mapped out the place was. He couldn't have gotten lost if he tried with all the signs and elevators, and soon found his way to Ironwood's office, to be accosted by two soldiers who frisked him for weapons before letting him in. He didn't have so much as a knife for self-defence, knowing it'd be useless if he had.

"Ah. Jaune Arc." General Ironwood looked tired but satisfied. He pointed to a chair across from his large, hulking desk. "Take a seat. Would you like a drink?"

"Water, please. What is this about, sir?"

"Nothing bad, I assure you. I just wanted to talk a little about the attack on the Schnee gala and pick your mind on the White Fang."

"The one that ran away?"

"Her and the rest." Ironwood brought him a glass of ice-cold water from the nearby cooler, then took his seat once more. He clicked a button and a screen behind him lit up, showing a 3D diagram of some gun-sword thing. "This is the weapon you were able to take from the terrorist."

"Is it? I didn't even recognise it."

In his defence it had been turned into a wireframe model in bright green, with notes all over it.

"Not a weapon's enthusiast, I take it."

"Not at all. My father is a huntsman and doesn't even use mechashift weapons. Well, not the weapon. His scabbard can transform into a shield and back again, but the sword doesn't do anything. He says he can trust the blade not to break but the same can't be said if he puts mechanisms and motors on it."

"Wise words. Mechashift weapons are a relatively new technological advancement, and valuable in moderation. We encourage our huntsmen to have redundancies here, however." He noted Jaune's confusion, adding, "It means to carry two weapons in case one breaks. Always have a backup. Good advice in real life as well. Where would you be if your guitar was damaged?"

Out of work, but then he couldn't carry two guitars around on his own either. He could just swing by a music store to buy a new one, but that probably wasn't a fair comparison for a huntsman. You couldn't ask a Grimm to let you go buy a new weapon before it continued the fight.

"The weapon you gave us is split into numerous parts and is, while not overly advanced, quite unique for the average terrorist to be wielding. How much do you know about terrorism and their methods?"

"Absolutely nothing."

"Fair enough. The basics is that most terrorist organisations draw from civilian populations, typically those that are unhappy with the way things are. Their greatest defence is in being hard to pin down in a pitched battle, because if we could do that then the White Fang would have been dealt with years ago. They blend into civilian populations, taking off their masks and becoming just your average salary worker, bartender or hair stylist."

"Uh. Is this leading to you asking me to identify the terrorist from a lineup or something?" asked Jaune. "Because I'm not sure why you're telling me this otherwise."

Ironwood couldn't be suspicious of him, surely. What was there to be suspicious of?

"I'll get to the point, then. This weapon is not what you'd expect to see on a civilian turned terrorist. This is closer to a huntsman's weapon, and a modern one too so we know it hasn't been passed down by an ancestor. That means the faunus you took this from was incredibly dangerous."

He didn't need to be told that. He'd seen the girl's level and felt her blows tear his life in half. Jaune knew just how unmatched he'd been against her, and just how lucky he was to still be alive.

"I hope you're not saying I'm a huntsman in disguise for beating her or something."

Ironwood laughed. "I'm afraid not. We reviewed the security footage, and it showed us your plucky, if reckless, attempts to defend the other guests. I know you're no huntsman. The reason I'm telling you this isn't to try and draft you into my army or involve you in an investigation you have no part in. It's to warn you." Ironwood tilted his head forwards. "This isn't the kind of weapon someone can afford to throw away, nor one that can replace easily. Now, we have no reason to believe the person this belonged to is specifically after you, but if they see you on the streets of Mantle then they might wonder if you don't still have it on you."

Jaune's mouth was suddenly very dry. "Oh…"

"I don't want to scare you unduly. We've made it publicly known that we have the weapon – we've quoted it in releases to the press, both to make it clear you shouldn't be targeted but mostly to suggest the terrorist in question give up and get out of Atlas."

"Is that okay? I'd have thought you'd want to catch them."

"I do. Atlas knows I do. But that isn't always possible, and I have to think of the bigger picture. There are over a million faunus living here and arresting and fingerprinting each one will drive them into the White Fang's arms in droves. We've compared the prints to faunus on our records, including military personnel, but they're all clear. That's no surprise if this is a terrorist with huntress training, as she'd almost certainly come from Menagerie."

"The island, right?"

"Yes. Officially, it's neutral, but we all know the White Fang controls much of the populace. We can't strike against them, however. It would be a bloodbath. Also, Menagerie was granted to the faunus after they won the rebellion and taking it off them now would be a good way to start another great war."

It really didn't feel like they'd won if they were exiled to an island.

"The point I'm making is that this huntress terrorist can slip out of Atlas at any moment and disappear into the wind, or she could stay and greatly endanger innocent lives. I'd much rather the former than the latter."

"Am I being confined to Atlas, then?"

"No." General Ironwood leaned back. "I lack that kind of authority over you, and there isn't reason enough to push it. Instead, I'll advise you to stick to well-populated parts of the city if you do go down, and to avoid private transport. Use the public transport system. Don't enter any vehicles not populated by at least a few other people."

"But the chances of her actually coming after me is slim, right…?"

"Incredibly slim. You're not at all important in the grand scheme of things. The White Fang are already calling the attack on the Schnee manor a success for just wounding Jacques, so there's a good chance they'll call it a successful job and go home. They won't want to stick around, get caught, and snatch defeat from the jaws of victory."

"Even if this really isn't a victory for them at all."

"Even then. One thing you'll find – and not just with terrorists – is that everyone is determined to claim everything as a victory, even if it really isn't. That's media relations for you."

"Is that all, then…?"

"That's all. Thank you for coming and I hope you enjoy your stay. Is there anything I can do for you?"

"No, I…" Jaune paused. "Actually, would it be okay if I made use of one of the gyms here? I assume you have some."

"We do, and yes. I'll have Winter come and show you to the one closest to your room if you like. And get you a card to get in and out." Ironwood smiled. "Looking to bulk up? Or has a brush with death made you more concerned for your fitness?"

"A little bit of both."

But, mostly, he wanted to see how much he could farm a stat increase in a proper gym.

/-/

.

Through rigorous cardio, you have gained +1 Constitution.

.

Rigorous…

That was one way to put it.

Crushing was another, backbreaking, heart-stopping, god-awful. They all fit. Jaune slammed his hand down on the red button and let the treadmill sweep him backwards. He was soaked through, his shirt sticking to his skin and his hair lank. The machine lowered itself from the incline it had been on to a flat level.

"That was quite the impressive display," said Winter, stopping her run next to him. She was wearing a tight-fitting leotard-like outfit that covered everything from her ankles to her neck. It seemed to be common among the soldiers using the gym.

"Doesn't feel impressive," he gasped.

One hour of intense workout.

For a single point.

"No, it was good." Winter tossed him a towel, which he pushed his face into. "I expected you to slow-walk the whole time, but you kept up a jog on an incline. That was a high intensity workout for a self-proclaimed beginner. I've seen far worse in bootcamp."

"You went through bootcamp…?"

"Of course. Did you think I swanned into my rank with the Schnee name?"

"No. I figured you went to the academy and graduated as a huntress."

"Ah." Winter's irritated expression melted. "That is a fair assumption. I did consider it, but I wanted to get away from my father sooner. I had training prior, similar to Weiss, and the military does differentiate between those with and without such. As a Specialist, I am technically counted as huntress-adjacent."

"But you could have been one?"

"I could have. It seems Weiss will be doing that instead. I wonder what will be left for Whitley but to cave to father's demands." Winter sighed. "But that's not a concern for you. Are you considering becoming a huntsman?"

"No." The answer came quickly and didn't hurt as much as it used to. "I've seen how strong people my age that are considering it are, and I've seen how outmatched I would be." It wasn't hard when his Semblance put it in numbers for him. "I'd need years to get close to that level."

Especially if this much work earned him only a single point.

It wasn't even a case of one hour per point, because that'd be a fair trade. The issue was that this hour had absolutely wrecked him, and he doubted he could pull off another workout like this today. He'd be sore tomorrow, even. He'd probably get better over time as he got fitter, but it wouldn't be ten times better. At his best he'd be bringing in two points a day, and he'd need rest days, so maybe seven to eight points a week.

Not bad, maybe even possible, but his Charisma growth had slowed down, proving it had scaling requirements, so what he achieved in one hour today might take two months in the future. His Charisma that was cheating by counting every one of the millions of views his videos were getting.

The other stats couldn't compare to that.

"I'd say you're selling yourself short, but you know your limits better than I. The lifestyle isn't for everyone, either." Winter took a drink from her flask. "I train every day at this hour. If you want to continue this, feel free to approach me. I'll show you how to alternate weight days into your regime."

"I'd appreciate that," he replied. Even if it wasn't much, a few extra points in Constitution and a few in Strength might be the difference between life and death. "And I'll definitely come down tomorrow if my legs let me."

"We'll do upper body if you can't run. Ah, that reminds me. There's someone who asked to meet you."

"Someone else? How many people want to see me?"

"This one is an unusual case and not at all required. You're welcome to say no."

"It's fine. Who is it?"

"Pietro Polendina – he's a scientist working for Atlas. A genius of a man. He lives here with his daughter, who is home-schooled and… quite behind on many aspects." Winter sounded a little evasive there; she must not have wanted to insult this girl. "She'd be about your age, and I think Pietro was hoping she'd be able to make a friend. Everyone else here is older and has duties in the military."

Huh. Not what he expected when she said someone wanted a meeting with him. He'd bounced between so many – most asking him about the faunus and the attack – that he'd assumed it was just another one of those.

"I can make excuses for you if you're busy."

"No. It's fine. I guess I can say hi. As long as he's not expecting us to start dating or anything."

Winter's smile implied some form of inside joke. "That won't be a problem. Penny is… shall we say, eccentric. Asexual and aromantic would also be applicable terms. But she's friendly. I'd say a little too friendly, but I think it's more accurate to say she's clumsy about it. A lack of social contact and experience. It isn't easy for a young girl to grow up here. Or boy, I suppose. There aren't many other children your age to talk to."

"And she can't go down to Mantle…?"

"She can… in a sense… Let us just say that her circumstances don't often allow for it. I'm sure you'll understand when you meet her. Perhaps Pietro would let you take her into Mantle. The man himself is disabled and wouldn't find it easy to spend time with her."

And yet he'd up and let his sheltered daughter go down to Mantle with a random guitarist who had an undeserved reputation for seducing and bedding Willow Schnee? That sounded unlikely, or just downright odd. Then again, this was an academy. He wouldn't be surprised if Penny was fully able to kick his ass if he tried anything. It felt like most people could nowadays."

"How about I have a shower, get changed and stop smelling like sweat and death, then I can go meet her."

"Hm." Winter smiled. "A good idea. I don't think Pietro would appreciate our smell in his lab. I'll meet you outside your room in an hour. Try not to fall asleep or sit down too much or your legs will punish you for it. Do some stretches instead."

He didn't, of course. He took a shower, got changed and collapsed on his bed to nap.

And one hour later, his legs were wooden blocks.

"Kill me…"

"I did warn you," Winter said, smiling wryly as she stood outside his room. "Come along. A walk will do you good."

/-/

Atlas' top scientist lay behind a whole lot of security, it turned out, but Winter explained it away as Pietro being heavily involved in weapons and communications tech that could be devastating to let fall into the hands of the White Fang. Or even to be compromised by criminal elements. When he asked if she wasn't worried he might leak it, she pointed out he wouldn't be seeing anything, and that Pietro would expect their arrival.

The security was there to stop people getting in and having a rummage around on their own, not to hold back people invited for a private chat with the man in charge. That didn't stop them frisking him and Winter both, but it was quick and professional and then they were through.

And finally, finally, Jaune met someone a lower level than himself.

.

Pietro Polendina

Lvl. 5

.

He didn't bother to read the bio, happy to shake the hand of a man in a futuristic wheelchair and not feel like he could be reduced to paste by an idle backhand.

"Nice to meet you!" the man said cheerfully. "And thank you ever so much for agreeing to come on by. I'm sure Winter has told you the reason. Penny – my daughter – is a sweet girl but so very socially inexperienced. I hope it's not too much of a hassle to ask for you to spend some time with her."

"Not at all, sir."

"No sir. Call me Pietro. And don't worry, I'm not expecting miracles or a friendship to last the ages to come out of this. What I really want is for her to just be able to talk with someone. Maybe to spend a little time with you. I'd be happy to compensate you for it."

"That's not necessary."

And it'd feel weird for so small a thing. It might also make him feel like he was indebted and had to spend more time here. Doing this as a favour was okay, but Jaune wasn't up for another job posting just yet. Not after the Schnee manor.

"I was also hoping you might play some guitar for her. Penny has never heard live music before."

"Never?"

"It's quite isolated up here as you can tell, and I'm not very mobile. Penny has spent most of her life in military bases with me and there isn't much fun to be had. She's been homeschooled as well."

"Is her mother not around…?"

"I'm afraid not." Pietro didn't sound upset when he said that, so it didn't look like there were any landmines there to avoid. "A quick word of warning, though. Penny's manner of speech is a little… exuberant. And please forgive any oddities around her."

Jaune was beginning to wonder if the girl wasn't neurodivergent in some way for all these warnings. He wanted to say he'd be fine, but if everyone avoided her, then how bad was she? It was beginning to look like agreeing at all was a bad idea.

"I'm sure I'll be fine." This couldn't be any more awkward than the Schnee situation, nor the run-in with the White Fang. He'd take a socially awkward but normal girl over that. "When do I meet her?"

"Penny!" called Pietro. "Come on in!"

A door opened and Jaune turned with a friendly grin, only to feel it warp on his face.

.

Penny Polendina

Construct

Lvl 40

A machine given human sentience, Penny Polendina is an animated construct created by Pietro Polendina and given his name. Though lifelike in nature, she is inorganic and designed as a potential weapon for use in Atlas' future engagements with Grimm. Penny Polendina is a classified project held under the utmost secrecy of the state.

.

Right…

So…

Normal socially awkward girl my ass!

"SALUTATIUONS!" the machine shouted, making Jaune lean back. "I am Penny Polendina and I am social interaction ready!"

She really, really wasn't going by that statement. Without his Semblance, he might have just thought she was strange, but knowing she was a robot, the odd speech felt so incredibly obvious. She might as well have started beeping and making error sounds. Even the voice – which felt about normal at first – had a slightly synthetic twang to it. A lack of the proper inflections, pitches and falls that accompanied breathing.

And it was in front of him with its hand outstretched while Winter and Pietro watched content in the belief he had no idea what was in front of him.

Classified material that could get him in a heap of trouble.

"Hello!" Jaune grabbed her hand and winced when she squeezed hard enough to hurt. "You've got a bit of a strong grip there," he gasped.

"Penny! Gently!" said Pietro.

"Ah. I am sorry. I am still getting used to social interaction!" Penny finally let go, and Jaune did his best to act like he believed this was in some way normal.

"No worries. So, uh, I'm Jaune. Short, sweet—" His nerves almost got the better of him. "Jaune Arc. And you're Penny, eh? Nice to meet you. It must be interesting growing up in a place like this."

Penny tilted her head to the side. "Must it…?"

"Uh…"

"What Jaune means is that your upbringing is unusual," said Winter. "But it's normal to her so I'm sure she doesn't understand why you'd see it that way."

Sure. He'd pretend that was the reason. "Makes sense. So, uh…" Jaune glanced to Pietro and Winter. "It's a little awkward talking with you both staring at us. Is there somewhere we can sit if I'm going to play a song?"

"Of course!" said Pietro. "My personal quarters are next door. Let's move there. Winter?"

"I should go," said the specialist. "I have duties this afternoon. I'll instruct security to let you out when you're done here, Jaune. They will point you towards your room if you've forgotten the way."

He'd be glad to get away from Winter for a moment, if only because she'd be more likely to notice how weird he was acting since she'd spent time with him. Keeping quiet about Penny was almost certainly the right call, not just for his own safety but just out of politeness. His Semblance wasn't afraid to info dump, but that didn't mean he had to pass it on.

If Penny was the future of holding back Grimm to save people's lives, then that was something to admire. He just wished he wouldn't be put on the spot of having to act like he didn't notice the many subtle clues in how she talked. It was also pretty obvious the reason he was here was to act as either a test or a training exercise for her. Either to help her improve and let her refer back to this in future training, or to see how normal she could act around him. He'd just been chosen because he was around her alleged age and convenient.

This wouldn't be so bad if it was just that.

.

NEW QUEST: "I want to be a real girl"

Help Penny Polendina become a real girl and throw off her robotic shackles once and for all and become the future of Remnant's self-defence against the Grimm.

Reward: +Exp. +Rep Penny. +Rep Atlas. -Rep Salem.

Failure: Penny's eternal sorrow.

.

Jaune's eye twitched.

He wouldn't mind if his Semblance would stop giving him literally impossible quests as well. That'd be nice!

And who the hell was Salem, anyway!?


Next Chapter: 28th April

Like my work? Please consider supporting me, even if it's only a little a month or even for a whole year, so I can keep writing so many stories as often as I do. Even a little means a lot and helps me dedicate more time and resources to my work.

P a treon . com (slash) Coeur