Us and Them
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Previous: The Great Gig in the Sky


A thick coat of morning mist drifts across the pond's surface, lazily stretching its way from one shore to the other. The rising sunlight blazes through it, casting everything in a gentle, tangerine glow. It looks like the world is on fire — slowly, quietly burning to ash.

It's beautiful. There's even ducks and shit.

Alex can see the pond from a window in the kitchen, where she's helping Al with the dishes. She hasn't washed dishes in… well, she's not sure she's ever washed dishes, before. It feels good. Like she's doing something useful. Something that isn't violent, illegal, or both.

She's starting to warm up to Al. The old man is clearly not being completely honest with them, but then again — who would be? Besides, he's taken this whole "kids on the run from a sinister organization" thing in stride. He hasn't asked any questions. Not even about Seph. People always freak out over Seph, but he hardly seems to care.

Speaking of which — something moves under the pond's surface. One duck flails and thrashes, violently flapping its wings. A tentacle snaps up, hooks around its throat, and yanks it under. Bubbles swell up. Several dozen blood-stained feathers soon follow. The other ducks give the spot a wide berth.

"Uh — " Alex sets the plate she's been scrubbing for the past two minutes down. "Sorry about that. I'll talk to — "

"Don't worry about it." The old man is grinning. "Those asshole ducks ate my strawberry bush. Serves them fucking right."

That tugs a smile out of her. She reaches for another plate. "Thank you. For letting us stay here. You didn't have to."

"You sure about that?" he replies, finishing with his own dish after only one swipe of the sponge and a brief rinse. It clinks as he sets it in the drying rack, thick suds clinging to its side. "I saw that look in your eyes, last night. Would you have left if I'd told you to piss off?"

Alex feels a reflexive surge of anger. She bites back on a sharp retort. Then, she reaches for the plate he set in the drying rack to give it a proper scrubbing. As she cleans it, she thinks over his question. Her brows mash together in thought, grinding like cogs in an adding machine solving for X.

"I… don't know," she finally admits. Her voice drops to a shameful mutter: "Probably not. Sorry."

"Eh. Your friend was hurt. You were cold, hungry, and desperate. You'd do whatever it took to look after your own. I get it. Respect it, even." He sets down another plate, barely scrubbed and still covered in suds. "Lord knows I'm not one to talk. Bill comes due to us all in the end."

Another spike of irritation stabs through her. She finishes up the dish she's working on, then plucks up the next one he's 'cleaned'. "Well, I've done some messed up stuff, too," she says, scrubbing faster. "And it wasn't always for someone else. Sometimes I did it because I was angry, or — " Why is she telling him this? " — just because I wanted to hurt someone."

"Yeah, I know how that goes," he tells her. "But you just gotta take it one day at a time, y'know? Think of it like a daily resolution. 'Lord, I swear today I won't do half as much fucked up shit as I did yesterday, amen'. And hey — so far, so good, yeah? You haven't fucked anything up since you got here." Again, he swipes the sponge over a plate, passes it beneath the running faucet, then puts it in the rack. Alex scowls and hurries to finish her plate so she can re-wash that one, too.

"I'm pretty sure it doesn't work like that." She huffs with frustration, struggling to catch up. "I can't just 'reset' everything whenever I feel like it. All the bad stuff I did — it still happened. I still did it. I'm still that person."

"That's true." He stops to rinse off his hands. "You're still the person who did all those shitty things. You'll always be that person. But that's never all you are. You get to be a lot of other things, too. For example," he adds, stepping away from the sink and drying his hands with a towel. "Today, you're the person who washed all my dishes for me."

Alex finishes with the last dish, glances at the empty sink, then glowers at him. The old man winks and tosses the towel back on the counter. "I'm gonna go grab some firewood. Help yourself to the liquor cabinet if you and your friends want some. Just stay away from the Rémy Martin."

"You know I'm fifteen, right?"

"Got it," he says, not missing a beat. "Forget the liquor. Wine coolers are in the fridge."

Alex rolls her eyes. She doesn't know what the fuck a Rémy Martin is, but she's drinking all of it.

"Your move," Sunny announces, leaning back into the makeshift cot they made up for him on the living room floor. Machine-Head inspects the sheet of paper besides the cot, pondering options. After some thought, it carefully erases the crudely drawn 'B' from the right side, then sketches it into a new position: C5.

Sunny has his cheek face perched against his fist. He plucks the eraser up, wipes away one of his pawns ('P'), then resketches it at B4 — directly in the path of Machine-Head's bishop. "So, who am I playing against right now?"

Machine-Head considers, then redraws another pawn at C3. It threatens Sunny's bishop. "Same person you've played every other time. The one who always beats you." It's teasing him. Just a little.

"Oh," Sunny replies, teasing right back: "The cute one, then?"

Machine-Head's sienna cheeks grow warm and dark.

Sunny erases his bishop. He places it at A5, retreating. "How many of you are there in your head?" He nibbles at the scar on his bottom lip. "Uh — is it okay if I ask stuff like that?"

"It's okay, yeah," it quickly replies. "And there's a lot of us. Dozens, usually. Some come and go, others stick around." Machine-Head erases the king and rook, performing a castle. "I'm one of the ones who stuck."

Sunny advances another pawn one space to D6. "How do you all, uh — share control?"

"We vote on a lot of things. Some of us can just seize control, though. Sometimes, we'll just let one of us do stuff for a while." Machine-Head draws its pawn on D4, threatening the bishop again. "We all can do different things — it's kind of complicated."

"And none of you have names?"

"No. Well — I don't think so, no."

He chomps on his bottom lip again, then retreats his bishop to B6. "Can't you just… give yourselves names?"

Machine-Head snaps up; its eyes are wide and shocked. "No! I mean, no, I don't — it doesn't work like that. We — " It looks from the left to the right, then drops its voice lower — as if sharing a salacious rumor. "We can't name ourselves."

Sunny thinks about this for a while. Then, he asks: "Well, can I name you?"

The liquor cabinet is crammed tight with a surprising amount of expensive-looking booze. More than half of it is stuff Alex doesn't even recognize (the fuck is 'vermouth'?). Still, it doesn't take her long to find the Rémy Martin. It's an amber-gold fluid in a flat, disk-shaped bottle with corrugated edges. She plucks the bottle up, then works on twisting the stopper off. It finally comes free with a satisfying pwip.

Whew — smells strong. Well, there's some soda in the fridge. It's been a while since she's had rum-and-coke. She gets up and makes her way to the kitchen, open bottle in hand.

The refrigerator door makes a soft rattle when she opens it. She snatches the half-finished bottle of soda out from the top shelf, tucks it under her arm, and turns. Alex gets two steps away before she realizes she didn't hear the door shut behind her. She looks back.

The door is shut.

Huh. She frowns, shakes her head, and heads over to the kitchen counter. As she sets the plastic soda bottle down, Alex notices that it lands without making a thump.

Her eyes widen. She opens her mouth. Nothing emerges.

Alex rushes out of the kitchen, running to find her friends. As she does, the bottle of Rémy Martin falls from her hands and strikes the kitchen floor — shattering in absolute silence.

"How about…" Sunny chews on his bottom lip, thinking. "Rook?"

"Rook?" Machine-Head tilts its head. Its fierce blush continues unabated. "You're going to name me after a chess-piece?"

"It's a bird, too," Sunny replies, crossing his arms defensively. "Kind of like a raven." His arms uncross; the defensiveness immediately evaporates. "But I mean, if you don't like it, I can pick another one — "

Rook is fine. Rook. My name is Rook, Machine-Head — no, Rook — says. Except the words don't come out right. Nothing comes out, in fact. They — he? — is trying to speak, but there's no sound. Rook crumples his brows, and tries again: Nope. Nothing.

Sunny looks puzzled. His lips move. Again, nothing. He lifts his hands and signs to Rook, lifting his eyebrows to make it a question: HEAR ME?

Rook shakes his head. He raises his hands to sign back, but before he does, realization hits him. His eyes go wide.

Sound suppressors. Myrmidon. Quietus.

Sunny just realized it, too. He signs: FIND OTHERS.

Rook is already on his feet, reaching to pull Sunny up with him. By the time they're standing, the cabin's front door has vanished in a silent roar of smoke and flame.

The Stryker MEV (Medical Evacuation Vehicle) is an armored eight-wheeled monstrosity built to approach, stabilize, and extract the injured from a battlefield. It is over sixteen tons of high-end military hardware with a chassis that can weather sustained heavy machine gun fire, light RPGs, and even the occasional IED. It has an internal fire suppression system, functional medical bay (for up to six patients), and — in this model's case — a beryllium bronze mesh that insulates it from electromagnetic and psychometric penetration.

Sergeant Randall Harker is seated at its comm station, watching one of several monitors. The sweltering heat has prompted him to remove his combat armor — exposing a harsh, masculine geometry. On one muscular arm, he bares a tattoo that reads: 'DEATH BEFORE DISHONOR'. On the other: 'AUT INVENIAM VIAM AUT FACIAM'. This last phrase is Latin, and translates as: 'I shall find a way or make one'.

He presses a button. "Command to Echo-One. Report, over."

There is a brief pause, then a voice: "Echo-One to Command. Suppressors are in position near the duck pond. Quietus has breached the hot-zone. Over."

"Command to Echo-One, roger. Priority is capture of target-delta; capture or terminate others at your discretion. Command out."

Each member in Quietus wears full-body ballistic armor soaked in a shear thickening fluid that responds to sudden pressure with a dramatic increase in viscosity. They communicate via a constructed non-verbal language that combines visual cues, hand gestures, and vibrating pads embedded beneath the kevlar plating. Every member is trained in a highly specialized type of kinetoglyphs — a form of weaponized sign language. Every member is also deaf.

A brilliant topaz light engulfs Sunny. He stands in front of Machine-Head!Rook with his arms spread wide. Two members of Quietus are at the door, rifles pointed at the teenager. Tongues of flame lash out from the muzzles of their guns. The scene is eerily silent.

The bullets deflect off Sunny's projected 'spirit'. Meanwhile, Rook tries to think. He doesn't have much in the way of abilities. And there's no time to find another occupant, or submit a resolution — he needs to act right now.

One of the soldiers drops his gun and makes a complicated series of hand signs. Kinetoglyph. Rook wraps his arms around Sunny's back, closes his eyes, and wishes that they were anywhere else.

And just like that — they are.

It takes both of them a moment to adjust. They're at the door, standing right next to one of the soldiers. They're facing the interior of the cabin. The soldier that was making the complicated hand gestures is standing where they were. He's also getting hit by multiple shots from his companion, who only now just noticed they switched places.

Okay. This is new.

Sunny's concentration wavers. The projection flickers out. As the soldier they swapped places with goes down, the one they're standing next to swings. The butt of his rifle connects with Sunny's forehead; Rook can't hear it, but he can feel the impact through Sunny's hip. They both go crashing back to the floor.

The soldier lifts his rifle and takes aim at Sunny's head.

Sergeant Harker leans back in the chair, continuing to observe. He understands that by leaving the fate of three of the four teenagers at Quietus' discretion is effectively signing three death warrants. He has a child of his own. Thirteen, as of this May. Not an easy call to make.

But the alternative? Expose those under his command to heightened danger. That's the choice: risk putting three young but violent anomalies in the ground, or risk justifying himself to yet another grieving family. And when he thinks about his old job with the Foundation — when he remembers the faces of those who suffered because he had to prioritize containment over his people's safety? No, it's not an easy call. But it's not a hard one, either.

He presses the button. "Echo-One, this is Command. Update?"

"Command, this is Echo-One, Quietus is commencing secondary breach on the north end, near the pond. Over."

"Understood, Echo-One. Out."

He ought to check in on Echo-Two and Echo-Three. He reaches for the button, and —

— wait. Near the what?

An instant before the Quietus soldier fires, a noiseless column of hot white lightning tears out from the dining room and strikes him in the chest. He stumbles back, dazed — wisps of smoke rise up from his body-armor. It must have been somehow modified to redirect high voltages into the ground with minimal damage to the wearer. At least his gun has been reduced to smoldering slag.

Machine-Head!Rook twists his head to the left. Alex stands just inside the dining room, her arms extended forward. Her face is twisted with rage. Behind her, another Quietus soldier has just entered the kitchen. His rifle is pointed at her head. Rook signs to warn her, but she's not looking.

Two tentacles rush out from behind him, hooking around the muzzle of his rifle and his throat. Both are violently pulled back. The gun fires, arching up and narrowly missing Alex's head. Bullets silently tear through the ceiling.

Seph's usual blue skin is now a bright, florid red. His body has swelled with moisture and muscle. His eyes are jet-black, and his mouth full of jagged, razor-sharp teeth. He buries them into the soldier's partially covered throat, gouging out chunks of armor and flesh. A streak of scarlet splatters across the kitchen. The soldier mutely screams, flailing as more tentacles coil around his arms and legs.

The soldier struck by lightning is recovering, his hands moving into another series of kinetoglyphs. Alex rushes forward. Bolt after bolt lashes out to meet him in the chest. He stumbles back, but he's about to finish the kinetoglyph —

— and the soldier who was shot earlier is getting back up, his rifle trained on Alex —

— and two more soldiers are stepping in from the back of the kitchen, rifles opening fire on Seph —

— and Rook closes his eyes, holds the unconscious Sunny tight, and prays that maybe —

Sergeant Harker frantically flips through the pages of the mission briefing. Two words are seared in his mind.

You hear a lot of talk when you first join the Foundation. Old-timers like to tell tall-tales to anyone who's green and willing to listen. Helps fend off boredom and complacency. Most of them are a load of horse-shit, but there's one or two that have a smattering of truth about them.

Right now, one in particular has him worried. It's a story about a place the Foundation designated as an anomaly just to keep everyone away. Its containment procedures were intended to make it into a sort of 'unofficial' vacation spot for Foundation veterans. Seasoned personnel could request a temporary transfer there to get away from it all. Later stories described it becoming a home for retired agents.

He tears out the page describing the region. He searches for the two words that he doesn't want to see. When he finds them, their presence ignites a burning sense of dread that swells deep down in the pit of his bowels.

'Duck Pond'.


— just maybe — everything will be —

— be —

— all… right?

Rook opens his eyes. The room is silent, and now it has also become quite still.

Sunny is awake. He's sitting up and rubbing his bruised forehead. Alex is trembling, staring at the rifle pointed at her face. The bullet that would have killed her hovers three inches from her left eye. Seph emerges from the kitchen, slowly shrinking as his color fades to blue. Blood drips from his chin.

Quietus is not moving. Some were stopped as they fired their guns. Others, as they charged forward. All of them are frozen in place.

Rook realizes that he can hear Seph's footsteps. He can hear everyone, in fact. He can even hear the thumping of his own heart. The suppression field is no longer in effect.

The others seem to realize it, too. But none of them dare to speak — as if they're afraid that doing so might break this spell.

Together, they creep past the soldiers and make their way outside. Time has stopped everywhere. Dozens of soldiers are locked into position, rushing forward or maintaining the perimeter. A flock of birds is frozen mid-flight overhead. The pond's surface is motionless, resembling a bumpy, distorted field of glass.

In the middle of it all — sitting right there besides the dirt road that leads up to the cabin — there is an old, beat-up 1979 Chevrolet Monte Carlo. A post-it note has been attached to the driver's side window. It reads:



- AL

Alex plucks the note off the glass, crumples it into her fist, and pops the door open. "I'll drive."


Next: Money

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