The junior college student dorms. Eli hadn’t been in their halls for a year now. She didn’t miss them, but she missed living across from her old friends. Distant memories passed through her head until she reached the door of one Archie Anderson. For a moment she hesitated. Her knuckles hovered an inch away from the door, suspended in a cloud of nerves for what she was about to discuss. On one hand, she was going to fill him in on how the meeting with Packet went. On the other, she needed to talk to him about what happened on Welcoming Day.
She took a deep breath and released it through her nose before she knocked.
There were some thudding noises, and what sounded like a crash on the inside followed up by a slew of muffled words that sounded more like alternatives to curse words rather than the actual curse words
. But, he made it to the door eventually. He was a little bit disheveled, but that was generally his baseline state. He was all old jeans and a beaten shirt, there was nothing strange or different about him compared to all the other times she had seen him.
But, despite the minute height difference between the two, as soon as he opened the door Eli felt like he was bearing down at her all over again. His blue eyes peering through his hair like they were vines concealing a predator behind them and she knew that now
. That primal part of her brain screamed, if only for just a moment, because it knew that she was in the presence of a wolf in sheep’s clothing. Something insidious, a snake in the grass. ”I have a condition”
, he had said. What the hell kind of condition was that? Archie smiled his usual goofy grin, laugh lines and teeth
that she had seen bite a man in half. “Oh hey, Eli. What’s up?”
Even though the fear was real, Eli was at least aware that the danger wasn’t. This boy, this friend, was just as happy as the day she met him. His smile was the same. So why was she still scared? She swallowed back the lump in her throat and smiled as best as she could. “Hey, Archie. I thought that I’d let you know what we talked about with Packet.”
She could have left it there. She could have pretended that the fear wasn’t there while she sat alone in a room with him. Unfortunately for both of them, she knew that couldn’t happen. They had to address the elephant, this time more so of a godzilla type thing, in the room. She sighed softly, and Archie would see that she felt guilty and sad at the same time. “I also think that… that we should talk. About what happened.”
Her eyes were apologetic as she looked into his.
Archie’s demeanor changed almost instantly. His smile fell away and he nodded, stepped back and opened the door further for her to come inside. But as soon as he did so, his eyes widened. “Oh, shoot I-” he kept his hand on the door as if ready to close it. “You probably don’t want to be in a small space with-” “No, Archie, it’s-it’s fine.”
She said awkwardly, almost as if she wasn’t sure if it actually was. “I don’t want to make you uncomfortable, either.”
She gave him a small nod before she stepped through the threshold. Past the boy with the “condition” and into the room. Her hands fiddled together, but instead of finding a desk to sit at she stood in an empty space across from her bed. Her hands clasped together in front of her to keep them still.
Full hearted, the kind that she knew because she
did that too. As she had become closer friends with Lynn and Natalie and the others, she had become more intimately aware with those that had been without. They were harder, sharper in their tones. Archie wasn’t like that. One can tell those who had a lot of happiness in their lives because they glew a little bit, and Archie for all the shit he had been through, glew. “Given the circumstances, dunno, I shouldn’t be the one worrying.” he said, giving her another lopsided grin for her benefit. He opened the door again and stepped out of the doorway, retreating further into his room.
It was simple, at least, compared to hers, and the makeup was different as well. Rather than furniture and technology and other things, Archie’s room was barren. Industrial in nature, with concrete walls. The bedframe was nonexistent, rather it was just a large concrete slab that was connected to the floor supporting a full size mattress. There was no carpet, she noticed, and there was no door into the bathroom. Even the walls were barren- aside from two things:
Dozens of scars littered the walls, deep, ugly gouges that had been made by claws as large as her forearm, and on the far side of the room opposite from Archie’s bed there was an observation hole, filled with glass some six inches or more thick. It was then that Eli realized that she wasn’t in a typical student dorm room.
She was in a bunker.
“Sorry, I don’t have a chair for you.” Archie explained, sitting down on the crude bed. “They don’t let me have any furniture in here. Or much of anything. Sometimes I don’t sleep well, and I’m a bull in a china shop.” He breathed, and crossed his arms, electing to give the observation port a sideways glare. “They said that my power isn’t like most people’s. Full body transformations are rare and, well, temporary ones are even more so.” He sighed. “They use this place to study me. It’s… why I don’t like being in my room much. Why I was hanging out at the mall when I met you.”
As Archie spoke, Eli took in the room in full view. She hadn’t been paying attention when she walked in, but she could see it for what it really was. At first the fear within her grew when she noticed the chunks of wall that were missing. Her mind was screaming at her to get out
, to ask Archie if it really was okay to go outside in the open spaces so that she could handle it. But when she noticed the observation hole, and listened to his words, her fear was smothered by an intense feeling that there was injustice in the way he was treated. As if he was in a prison room, but free to leave whenever he wanted. ”Sometimes I don’t sleep well.”
The marks were because he had nightmares. Just like her fear was triggering her now, his fear triggered the beast within. “Archie this is…”
She had no words. Instead she looked at him and said. “Would you rather do this somewhere else?”
Not for her sake, anymore, but for his. She was still there for her own benefit, but she was already thinking of ways to benefit him. Benefit the both of them.
Archie opened his mouth, but hesitated. “Here’s fine but, well…” He motioned to the peep hole subtly. Anything sensitive would have to be kept hidden under code or not discussed at all. “You get used to it, though. I’ve lived on a boat stuck on land most of my life. My illegally adoptive father didn’t have enough room for two kids, so I got the boat, my brother got the house room.”
Eli glanced at the one-way-mirrored window and understood. She still wasn’t happy with his living conditions, but at least he had been used to odd situations before. So she nodded, and stood silently for a moment while she thought of what to do. She looked at the window, and then made her way to sit on the floor below it. Her hand reached to pat the space beside her and she looked at him. “We don’t have to leave. They can listen all they want.”
Her tone was bitter towards the end. If Archie noticed the acid in her voice, he didn’t outwardly react to it, or question her decision making. He chose instead to pace after her and after a moment of grunting in exertion as he lowered himself to the ground, sat beside her underneath the window and leaned against the wall.
“So,” Archie trailed off. Eli eye’d him and, with half quirked lips, parroted him. “So…”
Archie rolled his eyes, and continued his thought. “What? C’mon. Okay, uh, what did you want to come to me about, then?”
Eli felt her determination to confront him waning as she thought about the way he was treated. This dorm… probably the flight up here… his boat home. She still feared him, yes, but he wasn’t to blame for his… condition
. Eli looked down at her hands in her lap. She thought back to the loading bay- to how massive his hands had become. Two large and scaled appendages smashing into the wall above her. She looked over at his arms now and they were normal. Wiry, hairy, and with a few scars that most teenage boys gained because they weren’t as careful. She couldn’t think of a way to begin without outright making him feel ashamed of his parahuman ability. She needed to take a different approach. “How… did you know you were a parahuman?”
She asked finally. Her eyes looked into his now. “I mean, did you just… transform one day?”
“It started with night terrors,” Archie said, almost exhaling in relief as he said it. “My mother was not a good woman. Not a good person. I had nightmares about the things she said to me. One day, I dunno, I guess something in me fought back.” He looked down at his hands and clenched them so hard that his knuckles turned white, and then released them. “Was nothing too abnormal. I, surprisingly, well…” he mulled the worlds over in his head for a moment. “I don’t know the first time I turned. The island had a loss of livestock for a few weeks, and that was probably me. I avoided people, I think. I’m not sure what it is up here that sets me off, but my memories are always muddled. It’s… being him, that. Up here it feels like I’m staring into the light at the dentist’s office while he pokes and prods at your teeth. Hurts your eyes, weird sounds in your head from metal scraping against bone. It’s uncomfortable.”
Archie sighed and looked away from her. “Down there I was different. Collected. I don’t remember much but what I do- it’s the clearest a memory ever was for me. I could see crystal clear in the dark, hear people’s breathing across the block, smell for miles. Only incident was when I got caught, because it’s hard not to notice me. I’m surprised it took as long as it did.”
He looked to her this time, his eyes hard and predatory and his gaze stone. “Got caught ‘cause the whole town came down on my head. Being chased through the woods in a mind that can’t think straight, scared and confused and in pain from being shot at, lit on fire, hooked, skewered, and rammed… First thing it couldn’t protect me from, first time it felt fear. When I came to I was staring down the barrel of my own stepfather. It’s why I turn in here sometimes. That changed me, it. Made us harder.”
Archie was quiet for a moment longer, allowing his story to settle. He wasn’t anything close to Natalie, or Nic, or Lynn, but it affected him deeply. Pain did not have to be greater or equal to hurt. “What about you, how did you end up sailing a few dozen miles above the rock we call home?”
Eli was caught off guard by the question. His story was raw and messy. She was shocked to hear that he’d been in complete control before he came to The Promise. It made her think about how he could have lived a semi-normal life, until his community turned against him. Yet when he turned his eyes to her, he gave her the same stare that the beast had given her on welcoming day. It sent her heart into palpitations and she realized that if he turned right then and there, the people watching him would lock his room’s door. She’d be trapped inside with him and helpless. Her death would be listed as just another observation into Archie Anderson’s “condition.”
Eli swallowed hard. Then she felt her heart constrict as she realized that it was the distrust and fear that made him, the beast, them
so destructive. Archie would have been in full control of himself, if he didn’t have the trauma of being hunted like a real monster.
So when Archie asked her how she’d gotten aboard The Promise, she immediately thought of her father and mother. Of their fights about her own condition. She’d torn their family apart and it wasn’t even her fault. It was the cruelty of others, their fear of what they didn’t understand, that sent her here. “I… I knew I was different for a while before I was sent here. Like you.”
“My ability isn’t obvious. It took a month until my parents really understood what I was doing. All of my illusions were harmless. I was too young and sheltered to even think of using it to harm others.”
She smiled ruefully as she remembered those days. “When my parents knew, my father wanted to turn me in but my mother wanted to keep me a secret. Just until I was older. They fought so much, but they never reported me.”
She sighed softly. “Unfortunately, the kids at school could still tell I was different. They didn’t know how, but I was never allowed to leave home or invite any of my friends over. They bullied me and called me names. I never really let it bother me, but it eventually became physical.”
She pressed her lips for a moment and remembered her last day of school so clearly that it hurt. “After I turned 14, my parents were going to send me here. They told me it was going to be a private school, but I pieced it together after I came here. In the summer I would go camping with them, and then I would be sent off. It was a fair trade to me.”
“But… on my last day of school, the bullies surrounded me. I was under control until the meanest one- Patricia Wells, that bitch, pushed me so hard I fell.”
She chuckled now, in a bittersweet way, but she could still remember the look on Patricia Wells’ face and it had been oh so satisfying. “I was so mad that I made her see spiders crawling out of the ground and up her legs. She was terrified.”
Eli’s face fell. Once again the magical moment of revenge was replaced by the grim reality of what she’d done. “I ran straight home to my mom before the teacher could catch me. The agents were there within an hour. They let me have my last vacation with my family, like we’d planned. I had the best birthday of my life that summer. Even if it was sad I was going to leave.”
She looked away, almost hesitant to tell him about the last part of her story, but she wanted to tell someone about it. Why not tell it to Archie? Maybe he would feel some sort of relief to hear it. “One night before I was to leave, my mom tried to run away with me. My grandma had stayed hidden for so long that my mom thought she could hide me too. But… my dad was yelling at her not to. I was listening to both of them. On one hand, I’d be free and with my mom and grandma, but I would have to hide for the rest of my life. On the other hand… I could still be me, but up here on The Promise instead.”
She looked at Archie now. “I chose my dad’s side, and he sent me away the next day before I could take the chance with my mother.”
“Sometimes I wish I’d gone with her, and sometimes I’m glad I didn’t. It’s all a matter of “what if’s” and guilty regrets, so I try not to think about it too much. But… that’s how my life has been so far.”
It wasn’t as awful of a time as Archie’s had been, but it still affected her to this day. Even as hard as she tried not to let it.
Archie seemed to be deep in thought for a moment, but instead of some long winded thoughtful speech or addition all he said was “Parents suck.” and then allowed himself to fall back on his bed. It was clear, concise, a little goofy… but very him. “I’m glad you came up here though. Glad you became my friend. Even if I tried to, y’know. Eat you.”
Despite the gravity of the situation, Eli cracked a smile. She watched him, and leant back against the wall as she thought of how to respond. “Hearing your story… It makes me feel better to know that you were once in control. I hope that you can feel that way again someday.”
She remembered the other reason why she’d come to visit him, but the presence of the window above her head loomed over her like a shadow. She pulled her phone from her pocket and began to text him as she continued the conversation. “So… tell me about how you and Natalie have been. Are you two still together?”
She sent him a text. ”Cara is on our side. I need to tell you about the meeting with Packet, but not out loud.”
Archie eyed his phone as the notification popped up but otherwise didn’t comment on it. “We’re… okay, I guess. Not the best time to be forming relationships but we’re doing what feels right for now. And good to know. That you care. I mean.” He said, trying to recover from his poorly coded message.
Eli gave him a small smile. “Of course I care, Archie. You’re still one of my best friends.” “The mission is a go. Nic and Keaton have gathered enough information, and they seem to trust Packet. In two days we are to meet him in the sewers below the coffee shop at 6am. Bring only what you think is necessary.” “Oh, and Lynn has to wear a collar to get through the sewers. Don’t mention it when you see her. She’s pretty angry about it.”
Archie seemed to tense at the idea of any of them being restrained. Perhaps due to his own experience, but didn’t say anything about it. “I suppose we’ll hang out in a few days then?”“We will...”
Eli said, sensing that Archie wanted to take some time to prepare for himself. She stood, and Archie walked her to his door. She peered out to the inside of his room one last time. It was a jail cell. A penitentiary of a home. Archie had been living like this, this whole time. Never complaining, or making it a deal. But he had
suffered. She wondered what else hid beneath that skin of his, deeper than even the scales and armor that she had seen. Perhaps something even bigger and meaner lurked beneath. She looked up to him and his grim expression was gone, replaced with his usual dopey smile. She felt her chest tighten at her thoughts. Beneath it all, he was a kind man. A good man. One who deserved better than this. She reached out and placed a hand on his shoulder and squeezed. ”...And be ready.”
I know you tried, I know you tried your best, and now its time to
Jaxson Brilliant's eyes cracked open. The fifteen year old boy groaned, and turned over to the other side, grabbing his smartphone from the bedside table. He squinted his eyes as the smartphone lit up brightly in his face, and checked the time.
The Promise hadn’t crossed the twilight barrier yet. It wasn't even sunrise yet.
"You've got to be kidding me.." Jax said put the phone back on the table and turned over again, willing himself back to sleep.
It didn't work.
After a few minutes, Jax checked the phone again.
Jax groaned, deciding that he had slept long enough. He sat up in his bed and rubbed his eyes, yawning a few moments afterward. He had already woken up at several different times in the night and just couldn't bring himself to go back to sleep this time. The plan and the anxiety leading up to it had taken a toll on him.
Getting out of bed, he began his morning routine. Do some stretches, eat toast and have coffee, brush teeth and shower. It was just another day in the life of Jaxson Brilliant, master codesmith and technomancer extraordinaire. As he bathed himself in the shower, he thought over his day. "Eli and her group want me to meet them at the sewer entrance," Packet spoke to himself. "And I need to open the door for them, and be there to let them back in." He kicked himself for agreeing to this. "I hate this. And myself. I hate myself. Dammit all..."
Stepping out of the shower, he sighed and realized he had left his phone in the main room. “Cara, what time is it?””Good morning, Packet. It’s… let me check. 4:42 in the morning.”
He knew her well enough to know that she knew the time exactly, but she ‘thought’ about it because she was constantly trying to be as human as she could be. Why she chose to be herself around him he would never know or understand- he was… far from a social butterfly himself. Packet exited his dorm at 4:51AM in the morning, he really wasn't expecting a lot of people to be out and about at this time. Not surprisingly, the streets were empty. He had the entire station to walk around in, but he was a man of focus and commitment. He had to be to survive in this field, living in the dark with only a bright screen to keep him company. Communicating with friends and family through messages and VMs and little else because work constantly called him. Just one more line. Just one more hour debugging. Just one too many energy drinks...
Packet stopped at a particular place. The florist. Stepping closer to the windows, he examined the flowers inside the brightly painted store. "Roses, daisies, orchids, sunflowers..." Packet murmured. He shook his head. 'I seriously need to stop talking to myself.' he told himself.
Finally, his eyes settled upon a bunch of lavenders. He smiled to himself. Perfect.
Packet moved over to the door and with little more than a thought tracked the system’s grid. With unfamiliar systems it always took longer, but this was not his first rodeo. He had broken into many department stores with his friends late in the night just to prove that he could. This system was familiar, like an old friend that he hadn’t visited in a long time. The latch mechanism was the easiest to manipulate, but it was a trap. Deactivating that before diverting juice away from the actual alarm system would trigger said alarm. He learned that one the hard way. With a flick of his wrist, a physical tick he did naturally to manipulate the digital and electrical world, and an audible click of the door unlocking, he was pushing the door open with little effort. He picked up a small bundle of lavenders and was about to leave the store, but suddenly saw a bunch of coloured ribbons in a box behind the counter. Jax looked to the handful of flowers in his hands and the ribbons.
"I can't believe I'm doing this."
Two minutes later, Jaxson Brilliant was out the door, with a bundle of lavenders in his arms, tied together with a purple ribbon. He left a five dollar note on the counter out of good sense.
He drew a mental map to a specific location. The memorial service that students had formed. It was outside the launch bay, which was still sealed off. Doors and barriers to people like him were more suggestions than anything else… but he wasn’t sure he wanted to cross this one. He wasn’t sure if he was ready to see what was on the other side. The memorial had dozens of candles and pictures and art done by the student body. Many people had lost someone in the shooting. Jaxson had lost part of himself in it, too. He looked at the stars, and then his phone. 5:13AM. Almost time for the sunrise.
He scanned the pictures, but stopped as he finally reached his person’s. Jonathan Pearce's name was on his lips. Kneeling down in front of the grave, he gently placed the lavenders at the foot of the tombstone and softly smiled.
"Hey Jon." Jaxson greeted him. "Good morning." There came no response, just a small silence.
"Uh.. I got you these flowers." He added. "Lavenders. I tied them up myself, you see." He chuckled. He knew Jon would laugh and hug him if he was there in person.
"I know that you're watching over me up there.." He began. "I guess you must be disappointed in me." The man rubbed his other hand in thought. "I know, you and Nicky told me to stop working myself to death and sticking my nose where it doesn’t belong, but… I think I’m onto something here. I think we’re finally going to make that change." He sighed.
"I'd say I’m sorry but, I don’t think you have much issue with it this time." He took off his cap and stayed silent, thinking of his boyfriend. He pushed away the tragedy and focused on Jon's face, his smile, his laugh. He cherished the memories.
Then, to his left, the sun peeked over the horizon. The sky turned orange-pink and he looked in the direction of the rising sun, shading his face with his left hand. He smiled to himself. Jon was the sun in his life, no doubt.
Standing up a bit later, he dusted himself off. "See you later Jon." He said quietly. "I'll bring some more flowers next time. Maybe some daisies and some other flowers." He let out a small laugh. "I dunno. I'm not a botanist."
Packet sighed. “Hey Cara?””Yes?”
“Set an alarm in five minutes for everyone involved to wake up if they aren’t already. Make sure they know to meet me at the porthole behind Tia Cori coffee shop. And make sure the alarm is extra annoying for Lynn.””I think I can do that, Jaxson.”
“And for the last time, quit calling me Jaxson!”
As so Jaxson Brilliant, also known as Packet sat. Camped out by a dirty porthole behind a coffeeshop, ready to lead a group of strange, rebellious young adults into what would become the greatest and most dangerous adventure of their lives.