I would like to thank MaDmaS22, Noihseret, and Mirrored Existance for their reviews. Sorry about the wait to update, I had this chapter written in a notebook but my brother and dad were on the computer at all hours (my dad for work and my brother because he was sick. I'm not sure how being sick gives him the right to the computer, but apparently it does in my house) so I had to wait to type it up and post it. But I'm back now. I also finally posted some stuff on my deviantArt account that's basically been inactive up until this point. My username is shinymagikarp ('cause I couldn't think of anything that sounded remotely cool for a username and just went with something lame), check it out if you feel like it. Ah, the joys of shameless self-advertising.
Zach and his assailant rolled across the hard panchromatic floor, the red-haired boy's visions obscured by speed. He caught but blurred glimpses of his aggressor, just enough to know that it was a slim person clad in bright colors. The person was obviously much lighter and smaller than him, but to Zach's dismay also seemed to be stronger, agile movements pinned Zach down and blocked his punches, on a path to effectively incapacitating the teen. Trying to utilize his size to his benefit, Zach abruptly shifted and threw all his mass into a single mighty push. The move was successful and the pair tumbled again, this time Zach landing on top. Swiftly he drew back his fist in preparation to strike –
"Stop! Honestly, Kilam, what the hell?" Erika shouted, and Zach froze, turning his head to see that she was more angry than he has ever seen her – then again, he couldn't recall ever seeing her angry. She'd always come across as pretty laid-back to him.
The assailant took advantage of this opportunity to scramble to his feet. "'Lo, 'Rik," he acknowledged casually, brushing dust off his chinos. Zach was disappointed to see that at his full height, the attacker – Kilam, was it? – was at least a head shorter than him and probably half his weight. Zach estimated them to be of similar age, and Kilam had dark skin, elegant features and wide brown eyes. His hair was wavy and brown, the longest of anyone's in present company, even the females. He was wearing a long baggy vivid yellow tee shirt underneath an open blue button-up shirt that trailed behind him like a cape, and an easygoing grin that, judging by Erika's reaction, was entirely inappropriate for the occasion.
"Dude, how can you be smiling like that after jumping on my friend?" Erika exclaimed. Kilam started laughing; his voice was surprisingly deep, a sharp contrast to his physical appearance. "It's not funny!" Kilam sobered up enough to restrain his laughter, but a smile continued to tug at the edges of his mouth and his eyes shone with amusement.
"Yeah, er, sorry about jumping on you, man. It was most not civilized," he said, turning to Zach and extending his hand.
Zach took it and managed, "Um, it's fine… I guess," truly confused by the behavior of this newcomer but under the impression that if Kilam wasn't making a big deal about it, he too had some sort of unspoken obligation to remain cool. The shorter boy shook his hand extremely enthusiastically and for far longer than necessary - if Zach had the dimensions of the two correct, that was designed to further agitate Erika.
After finally releasing Zach's now-numb hand, Kilam nodded with obvious mock-gravity. "See, I didn't know you were with 'Rik. Thought maybe you were an enemy and I'd have to fight you off with my mad skills. Name's Kilam, in case y'all didn't catch it." Zach briefly speculated over if Kilam was capable of saying anything minus the hint – or sometimes truckload – of irony. Not that he was rude or anything – in fact when after shaking hands with Laurel and Joan (again making an overdramatic show of it) he pronounced, "Let's show you beautiful strangers around the secret base now," reactions were flattered, bemused, annoyed (Erika), non-existent (Joan) and everything in between, but definitely no one was offended. Kilam was making fun of himself rather than anyone else. As the hyper newcomer took the lead, Erika must have caught sight of Zach's still-stunned expression because she turned to him and said, "Before you ask, yes, he is always like this. He's one of those people who seem to be unable to differentiate between real life and television programs and video games. I mean, 'mad skills?'" Zach smiled at that.
"So, is he your friend, then?" Zach queried, because from what he had seen Erika didn't seem to be getting along famously with Kilam - and where did that expression come from anyway, seeing as famous people always seemed to be feuding with each other?
"Yep. Surprisingly, he's my closest and most annoying companion – well, surprising about the closeness, I mean. The annoyingness is terrifically obvious."
Zach nodded, although so far he'd found Kilam more… mystifying than annoying. And painful, Zach added mentally, noting a spot on his elbow where a bruise was already starting to show. At least things promised to be interesting.
"You're missing out on the psychedelic window treatment," Kilam called loudly from ahead.
After a quick sprint to catch up, Erika said to Kilam, "'Psychedelic window treatment?' Do you even know what any of those words mean?"
"Well, I know what a window is…"
"You don't appear to, considering this is a door."
From where Zach was standing, adjacent to Laurel and Erika, it looked like neither a window nor a door; merely another segment of wall, this one decorated in shades from blue to light purple.
Kilam was still talking. "It's a metaphoric window. Into… my soul." Erika rolled her eyes but otherwise did not dignify him with a reaction. She pressed a palm to a seemingly random spot on the wall and stated, "Erika Sheleg." Absolutely nothing happened for a few moments as everyone stood silent in anticipation, then –
"We're in," Erika said. Indeed they were; the section of wall slid away, permitting the travelers to gaze in on a spectacular view.
The base was simply huge, like another world all on its own. At first glance, the monumental area was one huge cubical space, but on closer inspection Zach noticed myriad smaller rooms adjoining it. The walls were plain grey, probably unpainted concrete, and there were criss-crossing beams of both wood and metal stretching along beside them, perhaps supports used when constructing the base that no one had ever taken down. The light sources looked to be whatever the people here could get a hold of, for there was no order to them – simply anything that worked was utilized. That included but was not limited to white lights, yellow lights, too-dim lights, too-bright lights, spotlights, bare-bulbs hanging on wires, and just plain bizarre lamps that Zach was positive he'd seen for sale in an antique store years back. None of this prevented the base from being one of the most impressive places Zach had been situated at in his entire life. It had many levels, stretching far both above and below their current location, and each level had activity going on – although it was mostly mechanical activity, but he did see a few people down below, paying no interest to those at the door.
But just the fact that he didn't have to hide from these people, that these strangers were on his side for once, was the most extraordinary and empowering sensation he could ever recall experiencing. Pure freedom; not just an overused political catchphrase, but actually something tangible and invigorating. Something he had, until now, not realized how much he'd missed.
Several machines were transporting bulky platforms between levels, and when Kilam and Erika boarded one the others followed suit. The platform was equipped with a safety rail - if one could call it that – a flimsy thing appearing to have been fashioned out of part of a chain link fence, that came up to just past his stomach and that Zach doubted would stay attached if he gave it a hard poke. Thus, Zach thought it would be best if he positioned himself directly in the center of the platform, the farthest distance possible from the barely-guarded edges. No matter how gently he stepped, his footsteps echoed loudly and metallically off the wood-and-steel platform, but amongst the cacophony of all the goings-on, the sound wasn't particularly notable, and Zach probably would not have paid it a bit of thought if he wasn't so accustomed to practicing stealth and secrecy. The whirring of machinery and the banter between Erika and Kilam didn't exactly drown it out, but the sounds reverberated off the walls, melding together and coming back powerful and rhythmic, oddly musical. What was that kind of music? Industrial. It was a fitting name, and this sounded like that – simultaneously raw, loud, and technological.
A few simple robots milled about. Nothing fancy, just the kinds they had in most big stores and shopping malls in the city, beeping pleasantly as they performed simple tasks such as monitoring the area and transporting packages. In Sparrow Creek, the total absence of AI – well, until they were attacked that is, and he wasn't in the mood to mentally debate if those things counted – had unnerved him. But he supposed, given enough time, one could get used to almost anything, even if that anything was as unnatural as life without the everyday sight of AI units.
Just like he'd almost gotten used to life without music. Or thought he had, at least. Now he realized how much he'd missed it, and couldn't wait to find out what music files they had here. Joan never let anyone touch her computer, and they'd had no money to spare on something as frivolous as an mp3 player, so since he'd left his own player behind in the chaotic flight away from everything he'd ever known he'd gone into music withdrawal. Yet paradoxically, his entire thought process now seemed suddenly clearer against the pell-mell wall of sound. Even if that wasn't real music he was positive the real thing was no longer so far out of reach.
This was a great feeling.
And he never wanted to lose this again.
The platform shuttered to a halt as it reached the bottom level. Following Erika and Kilam's lead, Joan, Laurel, and Zach unceremoniously stepped over the dilapidated rail. A computer technician greeted them the moment they were off the platform. He was dressed in a dark blue jumpsuit with a whole bunch of cards sticking out of his pockets, and no one would have ever known that he was a computer technician if he hadn't identified himself as one: Kevin Stone, comp techie, to be exact. He led them down a short hallway where another computer technician in an orange jumpsuit was waiting for them.
Although considerably younger than her blue-clad counterpart, there was a definite resemblance between the two, not only in how they dressed. Stone, a thirtysomething fellow, had short and messy brown hair, sharp features, and intelligent brown eyes. Although the other technician was probably twenty years younger than him, female, and had jet-black hair that she had tied back in a ponytail, the fringe grown out enough to hang in her storm grey eyes, the eyes themselves possessed the same intelligent quality. She also shared the elder's sharp features, attributing to the aura of intensity she seemed to radiate. She opened her mouth to say something but Kilam beat her to it.
"This is Janelle Helstrom. Jay, these are 'Rik's friends." Helstrom? So she wasn't Kevin's daughter, then. Kilam gave a small yelp as Erika pushed him away and commenced to give a more detailed introduction. According to her, Kevin and Janelle were some of the original pioneers of the rebellion. This struck Zach as considerably odd, since Janelle was around fourteen years of age. Even if there hadn't been need for a rebellion until recently, she was still awfully young, and it unnerved Zach to think his fate was in the hands of people even he was senior to – Laurel was constantly reminding him of his own immaturity.
According to Erika's exposition, Laurel had been extremely brave and innovative in surveying the city. Laurel hadn't mentioned any of that to Zach, so he looked at her questioningly. She paid no attention to him. Typical of her. When Erika got to the part about Zach being a bird person, he must have looked uncomfortable because she quickly changed the topic and began talking about how great Joan would be on the computer team.
Too late. Kevin's eyes lit up the moment he heard the word "bird," and he said to Zach, "Really, now? If you don't mind me asking, what's it like to be… you?"
Zach shrugged. "Okay, I suppose. I really don't have anything to compare it to."
Kevin nodded with forced airiness, but Zach got the impression it was taking all his willpower not to rub his hands together in glee. His pulse quickened and his stomach turned flips as he recalled where he'd seen that look before – plastered across the features of the first bird-person "scientist" (it was such a perversion of the term) he'd had the misfortune of meeting, one who had been intent on dissecting him. Kevin was now saying, "The only reason I'm asking, is that I've worked with many of the bird-people, or whatever your preferred term may be, and there's little to no consistency in what they report – fear, anger, joy, shame, pride even."
Zach couldn't imaging how anyone could feel joy or pride from such an inconvenient condition, but seemingly on its own his mouth remarked, "Sounds pretty much the same as everyone else."
"Of course," amended Kevin, "I had no intention of implying you were abnormal in any way." That was laughably politically correct. Since when was turning into a monster the norm? He continued, "Merely that you are interesting. I apologize if I've offended you."
"Kev's not too tactful," Janelle added, earning her an irritated glance from the elder technician.
Hastily Zach apologized, "No, I didn't mean anything by it. I'm not the type that gets offended easily, you guys seem nice. Thanks for helping us out."
Although his gaze became distant and sorrowful, Kevin smiled in the general direction of the red-haired teen, revealing slightly crooked teeth. "It's the least we can do. What's going on in the world right now is simply sickening, even to those of us doing everything in our power to stop it. I would find it unbearable to be a silent bystander."
"Well, a lot of people don't know," Zach said.
To the obvious shock of both Zach and Laurel, Kevin swore angrily but not apparently at anyone in particular. Joan simply nodded her agreement. Until this point, Stone had given an impression as a formal man, naturally polite with a trace of an upper class accent. He sighed. "I apologize, my language has offended you. But it infuriates me whenever I hear people claim to be unaware of this systematic annihilation. I hope that history and the law do not look kindly on these passive spectators."
"The law is kind of on their side, Kev," Janelle pointed out.
Kevin fixed her with his annoyed gaze. "Janelle, you know me; I'm a hopeless optimist."
Perhaps Kevin had a different definition of "optimist" than Zach, because in the short time they'd been talking Stone had given no indication of conforming to Zach's interpretation of the term.
"You mentioned there were other bird-people around here," Laurel said.
Janelle was the one to answer her. "Tha's right. You're actually jus' in time to see 'em train. They start jus' after ye'll feel the actual train." Like Kevin, she had an accent, although hers differed noticeably, being considerably heavier and obviously more working class. Zach wondered why he hadn't noticed it before, and then realized this was the first he'd heard her speak at length. Was that train thing a colloquial term?
In response to the blank stares her cryptic statement won her, Janelle added, "Wait a moment. Ye'll see."
As if on cue, the ground began to quake beneath them – first just a slight hum, then violently enough they had to crouch to keep from being knocked off their feet. "What is this?" asked Laurel, and Zach's expression made the same inquiry.
Joan, who had already figured it out, answered, "The train." The skeletal supports of the structure clattered loudly.
"Look," Janelle told them, toggling the mouse and turning her computer's monitor towards them. The display showed an intricately detailed representation of the train. Zach could actually make out the graffiti gracing the old fashioned boxcars – "I HEART JILL", "i'm a gangsta", "zody was here."For just a moment, he wondered who Jill and Zody were and why someone would need to spraypaint on trains to prove themselves as a "gangsta." How could these people's lives go on so normally at a time like this?
The quake passed quickly and they all regained their footing. Unlike the newcomers, Janelle, Kilam, Kevin, and Erika didn't look the slightest bit jolted – they had long since grown used to this.
It took a second for Zach to notice he still heard rumbling. An icy shadow fell over them, demonstrating that the large spotlight they were standing in the glow of not only provided illumination but warmth as well – warmth that was now blocked out. A platform came into view, five or so people on it, in their mid-teens to mid-twenties. Zach couldn't tear his eyes away from them. These strangers possessed some quality he'd never encountered before, a quality that elevated his senses yet demanded all his attention. A few of them casually jumped over the railing and fell elegantly to their feet before the platform touched down. They marched along, perhaps slightly cockily, paying no attention to the newcomers. They stopped abruptly at the opposite end of the room, divided into pairs, and began to spar. Zach felt himself gravitate towards them. His feet were moving on their own like he was hypnotized. Stepping briskly and rhythmically –
Straight into a glass wall. He ran a hand along it, completely unable to determine where it ended. "What is this?" he said tonelessly.
"The bird people conduct their training in a closed off segment in order to keep non-birds safe - and in order for us to monitor them closely," Kevin answered, as though he'd been just waiting to explain this kind of thing. On his computer monitor, Zach could make out the images off the sparring people, as seen from the corner of the room."
"Put me in," said Zach. His mouth was dry, and his blood felt as electric as it had in his dream – fizzing, hissing, burning through his veins. Uncomfortable but for some unknown reason, somehow good.
Kevin looked surprise but gestured towards the area where the people had entered the room. Were they all bird-people? Somehow Zach knew they were – or perhaps just hoped. There was something about them amazing: They were the source of the electricity.
And he wanted so badly to be part of that.
"Kilam, why don't you take Joan and Laurel for a tour of our place here?" suggested Kevin.
Kilam, who'd obviously been waiting to be asked to do just that, quickly led the others away. Grateful for the return of privacy, Stone allowed all his concentration to return to his computer screen. They seemed like good people, and he would later be interested to hear their stories in more detail than Erika had provided, but he wasn't a particularly social person, finding it hard to keep track of all the implications of the other participants in a conversation. He preferred a clear and simple exchange of data. In fact, he couldn't see why anyone wouldn't.
He blinked. Pixilated ever-changing information was moving around screen speedily, but these data were anything but clear and simple.
But unlike in conversation, this was the kind of riddle he delighted in solving.
Zach was overcome with a rush of adrenaline and endorphins. The training started out undemanding and simple enough, with him sparring against a tall, skinny guy with black hair that looked like it kept getting in his eyes. Punch, block, punch, block. No real challenge to it, but invigorating nonetheless. His opponent was obviously skilled, moving with speed and anticipating each of Zach's moves. Zach aimed another punch, this one harder than the others, and the boy tried to block but did a sloppy job of it which resulted in him getting hit directly in the chest. Zach began to apologize but stopped. No one had spoken a word during the entire time they'd been training, so perhaps they weren't supposed to talk now. At any rate, the boy didn't seem to take much notice to his injury, carrying on as before, though Zach noticed he winced a few times. Maybe I should hold back a bit more.
He didn't get a chance to test that out however, because another person quickly shoved the emo guy out of the way and began trying to hit Zach. At first Zach thought he was under attack for injuring his former opponent, but then he saw the look on his new challenger's face, one of intense, serious focus, and realized this was simply another sparring partner. This time his sparring partner was female, a short heavy teenager with long dayglo green hair. She was strong, and was fast too, though perhaps a bit overzealous, punching and kicking at him in an attempt to catch him off guard. Zach was a bit unnerved by the almost desperate techniques but managed to defend himself against them with relatively no trouble. The green-haired girl kicked him hard in the shin, and Zach lost his self-restrain and kicked her back, although at least his kick was a legitimate technique. It hit his opponent harder than Zach intended. She fell to the floor and Zach ineptly offered a hand to help her back up.
He never got a chance to see if his offer would have been accepted, because another of the training bird-people approached him, wasting no time in backing him into a corner. Another girl. And definitely attractive, even though she looked to be a few years older than him. A few thick locks of her red-blond hair were so close to him he could see them being blown by her breath. In fact, all of her was very close to him; he could even perceive that black eyelash makeup girls wore. It looked good on her, drawing him into her grass-green eyes.
She was strong too. Zach knew he hadn't been paying enough attention when her fist suddenly appeared directly between his eyes, a half-centimeter away from connecting with him. But it didn't, just hung there in front of him while he went cross-eyed staring at it. She let her hands drop to her side and smiled at him like he'd said something amusing. Zach attempted to return the expression, a difficult task considering he couldn't quite make sense of what he'd done that was so droll.
Then she motioned and Zach knew she was challenging him, and all the awkwardness immediately dissolved. She fought differently than anything he'd ever seen, each movement dangerous and graceful like the dance of a cobra. They were moving fast, and Zach no longer held back at all. Yet it seemed like she was always one step ahead of him, anticipating his movements and using them to her own advantage. He aimed a high kick at her but she caught it in her hand, causing him to stumble. Just when he was about to fall, she caught him by the hand and helped him keep his balance. She punched and it hit him hard in the shoulder. He couldn't figure this out at all. But for some reason he liked it.
"Fascinating," Kevin said to himself.
"No kidding," a voice answered. Janelle. He'd forgotten she was there. "Kid's strong, ain't he?"
"Yes. We should find out what kind of training he's had," agreed Kevin.
"Could be he's just naturally good. Look how into it he is."
Zach was indeed into it. He and an older teenage bird-person, Taryn, were going all out, moving swiftly around the enclosure, their movements blurred. Taryn was one of the strongest fighters Kevin had ever seen, but Zach was certainly holding his own against her. The others had ceased their practice and were giving those two their space, observing as they went into overtime.
Rather than appease it, it seemed each second Zach spent sparring with the other bird-people was making the electricity inside him stronger. It unceasingly sizzled inside him as his heart pumped his blood, spreading the sensation throughout his entire body, like something alive inside him trying to claw its way out.
For the umpteenth time, he launched a series of quick punches, all easily blocked. Each time his hands made contact with hers the voltage amplified dangerously.
Suddenly, the energy really did take control of him. He felt a prickling beneath the skin of his shoulder blades, knew he was about to transform –
And abruptly stopped himself.
Just like she'd been reading him this whole time, the girl knew they were done and relaxed. She was breathing hard from the workout, but nowhere near as hard as Zach, who felt like he'd just run an ultramarathon.
"Hey, good match," she said.
"Yeah," Zach gasped.
"We should do it again some time. What's your name anyway?"
"Thank you." Before Zach could think of anything else to say, she had hopped over the railing of the platform and vanished from view.