Growth: ‘Normalcy’

(9/21/2080)

The day after Rogue Sentries made their big debut picking a fight with Shock and Awe; thanks to the internet and Alexis’ suit recording the event, we were quite the hot topic.  Whenever there were fights between Adapted, Zari and human alike showed interest: everyone loved a good blood sport.

In passing, I saw a few people watching the clips that Alexis had ‘leaked’.  

As my monstrous self, I was slamming Awe into the wall and knocking him down for the count; some of the onlookers gave an ‘oh damn’ and cringed when they saw me hit the gangster to the floor.  

But now, I was back to being Nicholas Weld, high school student.  It was a little painful not being able to declare myself a Reckoner and instead be normal like everyone else.    

Murphy shared my last class for the day; we sat next to each other, passing a smile no one else would understand.  He looked a lot better after a night of letting his organism tend to his injuries.

“See the fight?” I asked.

“I’m familiar,” he replied with a cheshire grin.  

The door closed and my favorite teacher by far stepped in: Mr. Hosjon, the history and ethics professor.  Most Zari instructors, as well as most human teachers, were all intent on sticking to the curriculum and being very by-the-book.  There was no coloring outside of the lines, and very little room for independent thought. It felt a little suffocating frankly.

Mr. Hosjon, however, was thankfully the opposite.  

As he walked to the front of the room, he looked over his shoulder, “I understand there has been a new Adapted fight, but I will have to ask you to put your phones away for now.  Don’t worry, I promise to keep things interesting.”

There were a few groans as people complied and he pulled up a chair to a small table he sat behind.  His class had about 25 people, about eight human and the rest Zari; the room itself was split into six tables, two columns of three tables that faced the front.  I was sitting next to the aisle between the tables in the second row, Murphy immediately to my right.

“So, what did you think of the fight,” Zanpu—a great big oaf—asked from the back of the room.  

“It looks like Shock and Awe were poor about choosing targets,” he replied without a glimmer of hesitation.  The whole room lit up in a clamor, baffled that he was hip on the trending video. “And, whoever that Eldritch guy is, I wouldn’t want to get in his way.  Now come on, simmer down,” he instructed with a smile, clearly enjoying surprising his class.

Murphy kicked me under the table and I had to suppress laughing.  If only he knew.

“But, I’d like to address that video, and so many before it.”  The class quieted as he dragged his finger along the smartboard like one would use a marker.

After writing the words—Embrace the change—he turned back to the class.  “Adaptation, as you all know, is a huge fixture in today’s culture.  There is speculation still about an agency from the Zari government dedicated to abducting these individuals and keeping them quiet.  Equally troubling reports come about a human faction looking to capture Adapted and experiment on them, see if Adaptation is something that can be replicated.  I stress,” he added as a few people started to pile on, “That these agencies are speculative. I’m not here to talk about them or postulate on their reality. We can talk about them later.”

He was referring to Suppression and Snatchers respectively.  Message boards about Adapted were littered with stories about people being abducted or killed by either one of these agencies.  Since neither existed officially on paper, they seemed to have no real limitation to what they could do. It was a large reason that people had secret identities; no one wanted to expose themselves to an organization with no rules like that.  Beleth was so far the only man to go around without a mask that I had heard of, but he was an exception with his absurd power.

Professor Hosjon kept talking, “We have seen plenty of these fights between Adapted, and it begs the question: should we endorse it?”

The class was quiet for a moment, waiting for the other shoe to drop, knowing it was never that simple.  He’d add layers to his debate, give multiple avenues to think through.

He grinned, “I have you all so well trained.  The reason I ask is because I had a thought last night that I would like to discuss.  The Trillodan have stalled any kind of advancement on Tso’got, it’s true. We can deny it if we want, but that’s a discussion for a different day.  No, my question stems from how the Trillodan select their targets.” Everyone shut up quickly; seldom did anyone talk about the Trillodan either out of fear or respect for the galactic tyrants.  “They destroy planets and civilizations they see as being technologically advanced enough to threaten them. While Adaptations may not be a form of technological advancement, it could be seen as a form of biological advancement.”

A few people muttered around the room.  

“What I would like to discuss today is whether or not we should allow Adapted to continue as is since their presence and their publication continue to spread like wildfire.  Could they be seen as a threat by the Trillodan and should we act upon that notion? Should the Trillodan even be considered since this isn’t a matter of technological creation but instead a strange fluke of biology?  My opinion is irrelevant in this discussion. As usual, I am just the arbiter. So, one at a time. Let’s start with anyone who is against the Adapted. Yes, Ranal?” The professor gestured to a Zari in the back of the room who stood up, nearly six and a half feet tall.  

“Adapted are all human anyways, I personally say we should get rid of them.”

Mr. Hosjon frowned, “Unless you have a point to make, don’t waste the classes’ time.  Someone who has an actual opinion?”

His slightly smaller friend Jax stood up beside him, “Let me help my friend articulate.  Zari aren’t the thing that would be attracting the possible attention of the Trillodan. Ranal is right, we shouldn’t just harbor them.  Even if it’s a slim chance that the Trillodan are drawn here, it’s still too much chance. Protocol 37 will wipe out everyone, not just our guests.”  

“Very well.  Anyone vying in favor of the Adapted?  Yes, Nick?”

I was already standing before he had finished saying my name.  “I think that Adapted shouldn’t be persecuted because they’re armed with weird gifts.  Maybe we shouldn’t celebrate them like gladiators, but we shouldn’t kill them for trying to do the right thing.”

“The right thing?”  Kelek, a Zari girl across the room rose, “I’m sorry, but most Adapted in Ciel are in gangs and spend their night terrorizing innocent people.  Supposedly the guy who made Dart is an Adapted chemist; how is that a good thing for society?”

I sat down as Murphy got up, “So you’d aim to judge everyone because of what some of them are doing?”

“Excuse me, but I believe we are forgetting our etiquette.  Murphy, Kelek, I appreciate your passion for the topic, but I must insist you wait until called upon.”  He paused as the room quieted back down. “Now, I would also like to play devil’s advocate for a moment,” he announced, using a markedly human expression, “Reportedly, about 60% of the Adapted in Ciel are known criminals and the rest are Reckoners.  But, I recommend that everyone looks at a larger scale picture. Jax was onto something when he pointed out that if Protocol 37 was activated, it would torch all of Tso’got, not just the human population. But,” he added slyly, “Is it always appropriate to just kowtow to authority?”

I love this about Mr. Hosjon’s class.  Most teachers refused to acknowledge the Trillodan; in his class, we were debating whether they were worth kneeling to.  

It was why no one ditched, not even Murphy, and he was notoriously truant.  

“Let’s start here, who thinks that we should follow our current course, which lets us guarantee survival, and acknowledge the Trillodan supremacy by silencing the Adapted?”  

Seventeen of the class raised their hand.  

“And who believes we should not censor these unique beings and instead incorporate them as a part of our social tapestry?”

Eight raised their hand and one abstained in the back.  

 “Kelek, I believe you were making a point before Murphy interjected.  And for everyone, interrupt and you will have to remain silent for the duration.”  

Silence overtook the room, energy and tension palpable as Kelek rose from her seat to start again, “I don’t like what the Trillodan are doing to people, but the Adapted are a threat to them. I’ve never heard of anything like them, have any of you?”  A collective ‘no’ was murmured. “The Trillodan opt to destroy technology that seems to constitute a threat, and as we pointed out earlier, there are some Adapted that clearly make that list. If we can get rid of them and give the Trillodan every reason to leave us alone, I think we should.  They are only like a tenth of a percent of the population in humans between the ages of 13-25, a pretty small group to get rid of for the good of a whole planet if you ask me.”

Nods, a few mutters of agreement.  

“Now, Murphy, would you like to retort?”

“I would!”  He popped up from his chair, grinning.  “This is gonna be a bit on the nose, but bending over for the Trillodan is some pussy shit.”  

“Murphy,” Mr. Hosjon reprimanded, “Language.”  

“Sorry sir, but cowardice felt like too mild a term.  Yes, Adapted are causing trouble and commotion, and yeah they have made things more competitive and dangerous.  But, when you are willing to throw an entire sect of people under the bus without giving them a voice, that sets a scary precedent.  What happens the next time something questionable comes to light?”

A human girl got up, not someone I recognized.  “Sorry professor, can I add onto Murphy?”

“Go ahead Amy.”  

“I think Trillodan are stifling things from advancing.  The same technology has been top of the line for nearly two decades, and it’s slowly killing the economy of Tso’got.  I think the criminal Adapted maybe should be gotten rid of and the gangs should be persecuted because they are criminals, not because of their weird biology. Reckoners are at least trying to help and many of them have gifts that could be hugely beneficial for the rest of us. But turning them over, that just cements in that the Trillodan own us, and I don’t think I’m comfortable with that.”

Another hand was acknowledged and Jax stood up.  “Sure, but should we allow for vigilantes to go around unchecked?  I mean, what happens if Titan has a bad day or Clemency goes off the handle?”

“It hasn’t happened yet.”

“But if it does, it is going to be devastating!  Adapted just upset the way things flow, make swings in power dangerous.  Besides, even if we narrowed our focus on getting rid of the biggest criminal threats, would that be good or bad?  If someone was to get rid of Beleth and the Surface Dwellers, how many people are gonna fight the fill the spot?”

“Very good point,” the teacher interjected as he waved for Jax to take his seat.  “Power vacuums are an important thing to keep in mind. Abrupt shifts from criminal empires being overthrown have drastic ramifications to everyone, not just the criminals involved.  Even before Adapted were here, there were gang wars that ended up with hundreds injured or killed. I’m not sure how to calculate the destructive nature of Adaptations into the mix, but I know for sure it would up the stakes.”  

I raised my hand to speak after the professors informative moment.  “I don’t think a power vacuum from Beleth dying would be the worst thing.  If we’re talking about Adapted as a whole, deposing a kingpin so the rest scramble and eliminate one another would make it easier for Reckoners to clean up the rest.  It might even end up with a safer place for people to live once the fighting stops.”

“That is markedly optimistic, and it doesn’t account for how many people might get caught up in a crossfire.  Jax raises a good point: there are some Adapted who are simply scary powerful. Beleth, Titan, Shockwave, just to name a few.  Whenever there is serious confrontation with any of those characters, damage is catastrophic. Shockwave and Beleth have fought twice, and I think there were four civilian casualties as collateral.  I am terrified to imagine a full scale war between Imperium and the Surface Dwellers”

“I understand,” I replied to Mr. Hosjon, “But in terms of bigger picture, there has to be an upsetting.  Most of the news about Adapted stems from the criminal side of things. Imagine what good could happen though if that element was done away with.  Yeah, it’d be ugly, but wouldn’t everyone benefit after the initial upset?”

“That may be a rather callous take on things, but you might be right as well.  Not my place to answer, though I’m sure one of your peers can try.”

A human in the back row got up, “I feel like we’re forgetting the possibility of a bigger picture.  If the Trillodan take an interest in the weird biology of Adapted, wouldn’t making the biggest fight in history highlight how crazy destructive they can be?  Wouldn’t that be like a flare going off?”

Eyes turned back to me and Hosjon gave me a nod.  “Maybe we shouldn’t just bend over for them. Maybe someone should stand up against them.  Maybe Murphy’s right, bending over because we’re afraid isn’t a good thing.”

“How’d that go for humans?” Ranal blurted.  

I turned to open my mouth but Mr. Hosjon beat me to it, “Ranal, inappropriate.  That was uncalled for and if there is ever an outburst like that in my class, it will be the last time you come through my door.  Am I clear?”

A hush fell over the room as I continued to stand there, stunned and furious.  I knew other people had been thinking that, but it still felt like a swift kick to the stomach.  Ranal sat down, dejected, but the damage had been done.

I was saved by Murphy standing up beside me, “Well, maybe that’s exactly why we shouldn’t just be cowed.  If humans can grow a spine and stand back up to them after they torched our planet, why shouldn’t the Zari?”

Another Zari I didn’t recognize stood up, “I’m not willing to risk my neck against the Trillodan.  They’ve purged how many planets and cultures out of existence now? Why in the hell would you want to fight them?”  

Before I could give a hot-headed and emotional reply, Mr. Hosjon cut in again, “As Murphy mentioned earlier, there is a slippery slope we teeter on by being content to live underneath the thumb of the Trillodan.  We do allow ourselves to be subject to their whim, and consider we are discussing purging a whole sub-species to appease them. Humanity, historically, fought for freedom, for right of choice and privilege of ideals.  However, one must consider risk vs. reward.  Now, Nick, if you’ll take your seat and let someone else speak please.  You too Murphy, Pols, you did speak out of turn.”

I did as requested and the rest of the class continued to be a heated debate about the presence of Adapted putting people at risk and whether or not they were justified to exist in modern society.  It stung a little bit that the majority of people ended up wanting Adapted gone if they were of interest to the Trillodan.  When the Trillodan were discussed as a non-factor, the opinion was more middling; some people found them fascinating like I did while others believed their arcane abilities just made life more onerous for everyone.

Still, my gripe with the class was diminished knowing that half the campus was watching me smack Awe hard enough to knock him cold.  People might call us threatening, but they were still fascinated with our antics.  

After class, Mr. Hosjon stopped me and pulled me aside.  “Mr. Weld, do you have a moment?”

“Sure, you were my last class anyways.”  

“Good!  Now, while you are an active participant in my discussions, you struck me as someone who had a bit of a…personal investment.”

A lump formed in my throat.  Did he know? Was that even possible?  

“I think Adapted are amazing and I think they shouldn’t be shit on because they’re different.  Especially Reckoners, they’re trying to help.”

“I didn’t ask for a recap of what you said earlier, Nicholas, I’m curious what your personal tie to this is.”  His eyes bored into me, as if he was peering at my soul. There was no way I could lie to him.  

“With all due respect sir, I’d rather not say.  With the activities of Suppression and the law saying that all Adapted are supposed to be reported for ‘registration,’” I said in air quotes, “I’m really not a fan of talking about it.”    

“Fair enough.  Well, you might want to tell Murphy to smile less in costume.”

“You…”

My teacher smiled, “Relax.  I’m the only Zari who pays enough attention to know his face by heart and I definitely recognized that shitty grin of his. I’ll admit, I wasn’t quite sure, but your reaction gave me confirmation.”  

“You won’t-”

“Oh God no,” he laughed.  “No, I wouldn’t turn my students over to the government.”  He paused, contemplative as sized me up, “The running theory is that Adapted tend to attract each to one another, naturally forming cliques and why most move in groups.  You are his closest friend, it seems natural that you’d be prone to Adapt.  You’re one as well, aren’t you. And I’m pretty sure you aren’t the person recording,” He smiled like he already knew.

I replied softly, fearing someone might overhear, “Yeah, I’m Eldritch.”

His grin widened, “Can I see?”

I reached into my supply and used a little bit of the thirty kilograms I had laying around.  Tendrils sprouted off my fingers and hand, effectively making a glove of growth. “Not the most powerful, but it does get the job done.”  

“Fascinating,” he muttered as I let the growths disperse into dust.  “Well, rest assured, your secret is safe with me. I’m sure I’ll be hearing about more of your work soon enough though.”  

A nervous smile crept across my face, “Probably.  We might take a day or two off. Shock and Awe were um, no pushovers.”  

Mr. Hosjon laughed, “No, no, I shouldn’t expect so.  I know exactly how Adapted make a name for themselves.”

I bit my lip, nervous to ask, “Sir, about the discussion in class,” I started.

“You’re wondering where I stand,” he surmised.  “I think I’m fairly neutral. Between us, I find your lot fascinating!  I mean, Murphy endured being kicked twenty meters! You were getting zapped by lightning!  The two of you are like people from the old comic books from Earth!” His expression of wonderment faded, replaced with something more somber.  “But, I don’t believe the Adapted are either good or bad. Instead they are….extreme. They highlight what is wrong with Tso’got, with the way the government is being handled, and with our nature as a society in general.  They encapsulate the best and worst aspects, all while being some of the most dangerous people alive. I mean, you broke down a steel door,” he added in a hushed whisper. “What if you had a bad day? You may not be Titan, but I certainly couldn’t stop you.”  

He wasn’t wrong, but it still felt like a sucker punch for my favorite teacher to simply tell me that I was hazardous.  “I get it.”

“This isn’t me condemning you,” he assured, noting my dismay, “Not at all.  I’m simply saying to be careful. The road to hell is paved with good intentions, and I know that if you choose to go the route of a Reckoner, it’s going to be…harrowing.  Stay grounded and stable. Do remember, I’m not going to give any special dispensation despite your extracurriculars, Mr. Weld. I expect the paper I assigned handed in on time.”  

“Yes sir,” I said with a salute.  

“Now get out of here, I know Murphy is waiting.  Make sure to tell him to stop ditching his other classes; he’s smart enough to eek by but could be doing so much more.”  

I frowned, “All due respect sir, but his home situation is…not the best.  I think he’d be better off hearing it from someone like you.”

Mr. Hosjon cocked his head to the side, “Yes, I suppose you’re probably right.  Well, I will make a point to pull him aside after class next time. I was just worried about confronting him directly about…well…this,” he said with a chuckle.  “It isn’t often I can point out a student I recognize because of a distinctive smile. If he got the wrong idea, who knows what he might have done.”

Still, that apprehension.  It made sense, still just stung that he viewed us as scary and possible volatile.  “I’ll let him know to change that.”

I waved goodbye and headed out into the hallway, where Murphy was in fact waiting.  “You took fucking long enough,” he groaned as he got off the floor and filed in beside me.  “What did he want anyways?”

“To let you know he recognized your smile,” I muttered quietly.  

His grin slowly faded as the information sank in.  “Wait, he knows?”

“Don’t worry.  Others won’t.”

“Dude,” he hissed, “Hosjon could turn us in!”

I rolled my eyes, “You think he’d let some of the most dangerous kids in the school know he has their secret while we’re right next to him?  The guy isn’t dumb. Plus,” I added, “He actually gives half a shit about his students. Any other teacher, I’d say you’re right. But come on, he’s a good dude!  Even you attend his class regularly.”

Murphy didn’t seem entirely convinced, “It also means if he noticed, it is possible other people will.  Day one in a costume and someone makes me.”

“Just don’t smile so damn much when you’re wearing that mask and you should be good.”  

His grin crept back onto his face, defiant, “But that would ruin my look!  The trick is to look like you’re not afraid, it keep people off their game.”  

I gave him a glare, “It didn’t seem to help us out too much last night.  We’re lucky they chose to fight dumb. If they had been really intent, we’d have been toast.”  

Murphy shrugged, “You’re probably not wrong, but let’s think about that later, yeah?  Don’t you have a date or something?”

“She’s just picking me up and we’re gonna get a late lunch.”

He pantomimed some pelvic thrusting, “That’s what I hear you suggesting.”

I turned and hit him hard enough it should have hurt; he didn’t even move, the thing under his skin taking the blow.  “Someday,” he promised, “Someday you’ll hit me hard enough to do some damage.”

A glance showed no one around us, everyone either having left the building or sequestered in another classroom.  “I have like 25 kilos on me, I could get big enough to hit you and do some damage.”

“If you can get a hold of me,” he jested as he exited the building.  Outside there were a handful of Zari smoking, most of them giving a fairly wide berth for Murphy as he nodded and walked by.  Even as a human, Murphy had managed to establish himself as a bit of a campus badass, never shying away from a fight. He told me that he’d never used his power to augment his hits, and the only time he used it to absorb impact was if he was taking a hit to his midsection that would do some real damage.  

On his own, he was quick witted and strong enough to fight people who weighed 20 kilos more than him.  I’d seen him do it, and it was impressive. After learning about his Adaptation, I’d still seen him do it and looked for the telltale uses; he never used it against non-powered people, not wanting to accidentally hit someone hard enough to kill them.    

“Someday I gotta figure how you fight so well.  When do you even train?”

He scoffed, “You know how much time I have home alone?”

The conversation was quelled by Xana’s car pulling up to the curb beside us.  “Hey, you two!”

“Our getaway driver!”  Murphy skipped over to the back door and let himself in, his usual giddy demeanor back in place.  “Thank the stars you showed up. Your boy toy was threatening to attack me!”

She glared at me as I climbed in passenger side.  

“What, he was being an ass!”

“Just my usual level,” my friend countered before Xana could even venture to ask.  “I swear, no more than usual!”

“You two need to be housebroken,” she groaned as she put the car into gear and drove away.  “Murphy, am I just taking you home or what?”

“If that’s not too much trouble.”

“Of course not!  Plus, you’re basically on the way to our place.”  

I rounded and glared as he opened his mouth, “Don’t,” I cautioned, “Don’t you fucking do it!”

Murphy visibly fought the urge to say something reprehensible and had to force his mouth closed; the smile lingered as I knew he still wanted to just spit it out.  Our standoff lasted a full minute before I finally turned back around. “Bow chika wo-“

I spun and threw my backpack at him which evoked raucous laughter from the other two occupants of the car.  

A few minutes of immature humor later, we dropped Murphy off and he had to make a parting saucy comment about the couple as I hurled empty threats.  Still, I was smiling; this was our usual banter and I didn’t really want it to change.

“So, my sexy Reckoner,” Xana purred from the driver seat, “How was having a secret identity?”

It was kind of odd to think about; I did now have a secret identity and a life that no one knew of yet.  “I guess, kinda boring. There’s already a part of me that misses that adrenaline from our fight….though I don’t really care for the cracked ribs.  I’d have to reactivate my power to heal and that makes me a little envious of Murphy.”

She grinned and started chuckling.  

“What?”

She waved, laughing harder, “Oh God, you don’t wanna know.”

“Well now I have too!”

Xana took a minute to compose herself, “What if he used that thing…down there?”

My face twisted in disgust as I couldn’t help but picture my best friend using an alien organism to make himself hung like a horse.  “OH WHAT IS WRONG WITH YOU!?!”

She kept laughing, “I’m so sorry!”

I knew she wasn’t.  I just glared at her and shook my head.  “You have problems. You know that?”

Still beside herself, she just put the car back into gear and drove away, snickering the whole time.  

Our destination was a place built to cater to humans; a nostalgia hit that was like an old-school diner from Earth.  Barstools, colored-leather booth seating, and proper wait staff instead of just an automated ordering process. The menu included dozens of permutations of burgers and sandwiches, offered a soup of the day, and of course they had milkshakes.  

Xana and I had come here any number of times and had grown used to a few of the wait staff, but today got someone new.  

And we both knew as he walked up, he didn’t approve of our coupling.  

His nose wrinkled in disgust as he put his pen to the notepad.  “Welcome to Mel’s diner, what can I get you.”

I saw my girlfriend about to open her mouth, to say something about his demeanor but I kicked her under the table and shook my head slightly.  It wasn’t worth contesting, not worth making a scene over. The majority of people, human and Zari saw crossbreeding as a sick habit that was only practiced by youthful degenerates.  Going around as a crossbreeding couple was an assault on some people’s sensibilities.

The fire slowly dwindled from her eyes.  “I’ll have the shredded beef barbeque sandwich and a vanilla shake,” she said slowly, measured, doing her best not to shout at the man for being a bigoted twat.

“I’ll have a bacon burger and an orange soda please,” I requested.  

He took our orders and left without a word: I wasn’t happy, but Xana was seething.  As impassive as I could be, needing a push often, she took it upon herself to get involved.  

The problem was that it extended into assumed duties like correcting everyone’s world view.  While her hyper-invested way of living might have been better than my detached option, it made her constantly confrontational.  

“He’s an ass,” she concluded aloud, “Fuck him.”

I sighed, “Xana, don’t shit on the waiter.  He can spit in our food,” I said plainly, “And he isn’t worth getting upset over.  So many people just think we’re gross, and that’s their shitty opinion.”

“Yeah, well, they’re wrong.  Someone should tell them.”

“God forbid you ever get any kind of public office,” I sighed, “You’d make so many enemies instantly.”  

She rolled her eyes, “Political people are figureheads anyways.  I don’t wanna be one of them. I’m not being cowed by corporate cunts.”  

“Nice alliteration,” I replied, “But you most know what I mean.”

A sigh escaped her lips.  “I do, I really do. It just blows my mind how people can be so shitty.  Humans and Zari had been in contact for 20 years prior to your planet…” she trailed off.  “And now that you’re here, of course people are gonna be flirting around! Why the fuck wouldn’t we?  I just don’t get why people have to shame something that is a bit different. I’m not making them do it, why do they care?”

“People are dumb?” I suggested with a trace grin.  

“They definitely are,” she concurred.  “I just wish that wasn’t the only rationale that existed to justify why people treat us like garbage because you like Zari pussy and I like human dick.”  

I nearly choked.  “Come on, public,” I hissed, my cheeks flushed.  

She giggled, my embarrassment helping restore her good mood.  “Well, I mean,” she glanced at the other patrons, “They have to know we’re fucking.  Surely someone put two and two together. Maybe I should just announce it so everyone knows!  I mean, maybe more Zari girls should try out human cock.”

My face must have flicked from red to a stark white of panic for fear that she might actually shout to everyone she loved to jump my bones as often as possible.  Fortunately, she just gave me a sly grin and a wink. “You are murder on my blood pressure,” I lamented as the waiter came back and dropped off our order without a word.

Thanks to our asshat of a waiter and a few obnoxious couples we saw glaring at us, we opted to eat quickly and scurry away.  

And of course the second we walked outside, I received a text from my mom, asking me to come home.  “Well, our afternoon is having a pin put in it,” I lamented.

“Parents?”

“Parents.  My mom wants me to come home presumably to help out with dinner…which may well mean family time or just forced bonding time with my dad.”  

In my father’s eyes, bonding meant learning about the world he came from, and reliving the glory days with old cinema and games.  Some of the old card games of Earth were pretty neat, but he was never willing to try anything new and come to grips with the fact that we were living on Tso’got and that times had changed.  

Still, it would mean a lot to my mom if I was willing to just humor my old man.

“You want me to come along as a buffer?”

The thought of it removed a lot of the bad taste from my mouth.  “If it isn’t too much trouble.”

Xana smiled, “Relax, my parents would be just as happy to get me out of their hair for the night.  Just a shame the walls at your place aren’t thicker.”

I rolled my eyes, “Now you’re just trying to get me into trouble!”

“Guilty as charged!”

With the music cranked up, we didn’t talk much as we drove the few kilometers to my families little flat.

“I brought a guest,” I announced as we walked inside.  

My mother popped around from the ‘den’ that curved around to the right of the kitchen.  “Oh, hi Xana!”

“Hiya Mrs. Weld,” she called back happily, “I’m not interrupting anything, am I?”

“Of course not!  You’re always welcome, you know that.  No, my husband just wanted to have dinner as a family.  You should join us!”

I felt a wave of relief at my mother inviting her.  Now it was official that she could stay.

“We did just get a late lunch,” I confessed.  

“Well dinner isn’t for an hour, and you’re a 17 year-old boy.  I’m sure you’ll be able to eat in another hour. Just a little bit so you’re at the table.”  

As expected, I was obligated to help my mom ready things for dinner, and Xana wasn’t allowed to help because she was the guest.  Instead she just sat around and chatted up my mother, asking about her work life and what she had been up to. I was sure that my girlfriend didn’t give a single fuck about my mom working as an air quality analyst, but it was really hard to tell.     

About the time we had dinner ready, my dad walked through the door and I could feel the room stiffen.  “Family, Xana,” he said in curt greeting as he took off his coat and hung it, walking over to the table and sitting down.  

My mom hurried to grab the pasta off the counter and brought it to the table and the four of us sat down.  

All of us served ourselves, the whole table tense.  From the lack of enthusiastic greeting, we all knew my dad was on edge, but the question for my mother and I was if Xana would be enough of a deterrent for him to remain civil?

“Why the hell are we all so quiet?  You two,” he gestured with a fork, “What the hell happened around school today?”

“My class almost set a chemistry lab on fire,” Xana announced, oddly proud.  “Someone made thermite and didn’t have to good sense to have a crucible ready to catch it.  Burned a hole through a table.”

He gave an amused chuckle and my mother looked concerned.  “Was anyone hurt?”

“Of course they weren’t,” my dad replied, “Otherwise it’d be a fucking tragedy.  What about you boy?”

“I had Hosjons class today, it was a pretty fun discussion.”  

Immediately after saying those words, I regretted it.  “That’s the ethics guy you like so much, right? What the hell did you talk about?”

“Adapted,” I said after a pause, unable to lie.  

His gaze narrowed, honing in on me.  “What did he have to say about those freaks?”

This wasn’t the first time that we’d talked about the Adapted since I had my change and it still hadn’t lost that sting.  I was lumped in with that group of freaks, and he had no idea. Would he even care if he knew?

“He asked if we thought they were helping out around the city or if they were making things worse.”  

My dad was an asshole, and a bit dense in some subjects.  What he did know well was how to read people. He could always tell when someone wasn’t being entirely honest if he really set his mind to it.  I had mentioned Adapted and unfortunately that meant I had his full attention. “What else?”

“We talked about whether they are going to attract the Trillodan and what should be done about them.”  

That word, mention of that species, it had the man seeing red.  “And for fucks sake, did you say those freaks should burn? That they make everything they touch a million times worse?”  I wasn’t sure what he saw on my face but he knew. “You didn’t, did you?”

“No,” I whispered.  

“Mr. Weld,” Xana tried to intervene.

“Xana, this is a discussion between my and my son.”  

She stopped, and I didn’t blame her.  Anyone with a brain wouldn’t want to be under his scrutiny right now.  

“Nicholas Weld, what the fuck is a matter with you?  You would argue in favor of those fucking freaks? Those guys are a menace to society?  Do you know how much damage some of those aberrations have caused?”

“They aren’t all freaks,” I replied, trying to find my voice and my spine.  “Some of them are trying to help people.”

“I think we should talk about this later,” my mom tried to say.  

“No, we’ll talk about it now, Irene,” my dad insisted.  “You think some people are helping? Those fucking Reckoners?  Huh?”

“Yes,” I breathed.  

He leaned forward, “Louder, boy.”

“Yes!”  

My dad nodded, “There we go, talk like a man!”  Another bite of spaghetti and he set down his silverware, removing the only little distraction there had been.  “Now, maybe you want to explain to me how you think those monsters are doing a good job?”

Each little dehumanizing title for Adapted felt like a new slap in the face, ramping up the frustration and anger building in my chest.  “What about the people last night,” I shot back, flustered. “They got rid of a warehouse of Dart and nobody died!”

“And what happens next time?  Do the gangsters get bigger guns?  Does Beleth level a couple of buildings again?  The only names of these monsters I remember are the names that make the fucking news!  You know why they make the news, Nick?”

Hosjon’s class was playing trued, he only knew about the names because the one’s mentioned were criminals of the highest order.  I averted my gaze, “Because they cause problems.”

“Big fucking problems,” he spat.  “And when people make the news, information is broadcast!  And yeah, if your professor thinks that the Trillodan might be interested in these assholes and their weird powers, you’re damn right I want them gone.”  

Them.  An entity.  A mob. We weren’t individuals and I wasn’t even a person to him anymore.  “They are people,” I replied. “You can’t just condemn people for trying to do the right thing!”  

“Do the right thing?”  My father was incensed.  “They are fucking animals!  Those psychos make drugs, kill people, and rig some fucked up games.  They are such a cancer to society the goddamn government made a task force to get rid of ‘em!”  

I knew this was a bad day for my dad, and the fact he stopped eating meant he was still hungry.  A logical part of me knew that I should just shut up and keep my head down, let this boil over without slamming my head against his.

But, I couldn’t let it go.  I wasn’t going to kowtow because he was my dad.  “And what if the government is doing the wrong thing locking them up?”

Silence fell across the table.  “You think you know the right thing to do?  You tell me you think your teacher says they might attract the Trillodan and you don’t want the Adapted all dealt with?  A small fucking price to pay for us to be safe. We’ve already evacuated one planet, do we need to run away from another?”

I saw Xana shift uncomfortable in her seat; she knew how hard this was hitting me and wanted it to stop.  

“I…I think…” I stammered, my words catching in the back of my throat.  It felt like I was having an allergic reaction to something while the biggest headache ever matured.  My whole body paradoxically wanted this to stop and rage burning inside my chest demanded I push through.    

“Spit it out, boy!”

“If we turn on them, we let the Trillodan win!”

Even my mom flinched and looked away, afraid.  There was no taking back what I had just said, no matter how bad I wanted.  

Scarier still, my dad didn’t scream like I anticipated.  He laughed. A snide chuckle and a sly smile. “I see your angle.  You think that if we don’t defy them, we’re just letting them win. We need to always be fighting, is that it?”

“That isn’t what I-”

Now the screaming started.  “Do you remember seeing protocol 37 in action?  No? Oh right, you weren’t fucking alive to witness our sky being lit on fire!  You don’t remember the fucking panic as people saw the world dying?”

I did the smartest thing I could and stayed quiet.  

“Yeah, you fucking don’t.  So you’ll forgive me if I want to avoid that hell at all costs.  I watched our world end, Nick. I got to see the atmosphere turn red and feel the temperature increase by 35 degrees in the first 24 hours.  Your mother and I didn’t know if we’d get off world in time, and we were part of the lucky 20% who escaped with nothing! You can’t begin to conceptualize the terror we felt, can you?”

I shook my head.

He slammed his hand down on the table, “Of course you can’t, you’re a fucking ignorant kid.”  

Xana started to open her mouth, to protest.  I kicked her under the table again. It wasn’t that this wasn’t worth fighting but it wasn’t her fight.  

“So, come on, smart guy!  You had the debate today! What’s your fucking conclusion?  Why the fuck should you risk everyone’s hide on a handful of freaks?”

Anger had me shaking, violently.  I was angry at my dad for getting nasty, I was angry and my own idiocy for mentioning this, I was angry that Xana had to watch, I was angry that my mom hadn’t done more to stop this, and I was pissed at his old world mentality and how nothing could be good again.  

But most of all, I was angry because I couldn’t tell him what a massive cunt he was for calling me a freak.  

In a fit of rage, I opened my mouth to let out the most galling sentence I could think of.  I didn’t want to prove a point, I just wanted to hurt my dad.

“Because I’m not a coward.”

His eyes showed that he had caught my implication.  I should have regretted my choice, but I was too angry and blind to think about consequences.

A hand struck my face without warning.  My dad worked with his hands and was strong, his hands unyielding; the slap nearly threw me from my chair.  His second strike did.

“Call me a coward again!” he bellowed, “I fucking dare you, you little pissant!”

I got up to my feet and glared at my dad, teeth bared like an animal.  I thought of all that Murphy had taught me, all the ways to get past his guard, how to strike, where to hit…

Xana had the good sense to tug on my arm and speak up, not giving me the chance to fight back, to do something I might regret.  “We’re going. I think everyone needs to cool off.” It was more directed at my mom, letting her know.

I saw a silent exchange of ‘thank you’ and ‘of course’ as Xana herded me towards the door and my mom stood between us.  

“Nick, come on,” she insisted, “Let’s get out of here.”

A ball of rage and frustration, I peered into my storage.


Twenty-seven kilograms available for consumption.  

 

My dad wanted to call me a freak?  Time for him to see how big a freak I could really be.

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