"What...the hell...was that?" I don't know for sure who I'm asking. I certainly don't expect the kid's quiet answer.
"I told them to stop." It's the tiny voice again. I can tell he's scared, but this time so am I. I totally disregarded his claims that he'd keep them from separating us, but perhaps I shouldn't have. He sure as hell made them stop. He made them stop living just by telling them to. He's still the kid, but there's something else in there too. Something I don't understand. Something I can't ignore completely anymore. Hell yes I'm scared. Scared for me, scared for him. Scared, shocked, confused, relieved, glad to still be goddamn breathing.
When I don't respond the kid sits beside me and puts his hands around my elbow, but he doesn't snuggle close. Can he see the conflict running through my head? Can he see that I don't really know him anymore? Or can he just see that if he snuggles up against me he'll press against my sore shoulder? What can he see? What can he command me to do? I roll my head over to look at him, and see only the kid.
"You got a better explanation?" He looks away when I speak and suddenly any thought that it might have been an accident is gone. He knows exactly what he did. Not that it bothers me that the 4ths are dead, but it does shake even further what I thought I knew about the kid.
"I could see inside them, they aren't all complicated inside like you. I wanted them to stop hurting you and just leave us alone. I thought maybe they didn't really want to hurt us, maybe they're just doing what they're told." He looks up at me again and his eyes are wide and scared. He's still the kid, no matter what else he is, he's still the kid I know. "But when I looked, that was all they wanted to do. I couldn't think of anything else to make them stop."
"I don't think anything else would have." I reply softly. The 4ths have no desires other than the drive to carry out orders instilled in them from the cradle. Is that why they're 'less complicated inside?' I really don't want to dwell on that thought too much. And then there's what that 4th did to me. What was that all about? I knew 4ths were totally capable of causing me agony, but not invisibly and from a distance, so what the hell had it been? "What in bloody hell did he do to me?"
I don't realize I asked it aloud until the kid answers in that tiny voice of his. "There's a thing inside you, I saw it. It's a thing that they can make do that whenever you attack them."
It takes me a few moments to figure out what he's saying, then I understand all too well. "A fucking failsafe." Goddamn I should have known the lab techs would do something like that to us.
"I turned it off...I couldn't when I saw before, but somehow this time I could." His voice is even smaller, like he's scared that I'm mad at him. I'm angry for sure, but not at him. I owe him my life.
I heave a sigh. My shoulder already hurts less. Crazy pain inducing failsafe or not, I'm a 3rd Gen Mod. Accelerated healing was the lab techs' proudest accomplishment in us 3rds and something they had never achieved with the first two generations. In 20 minutes it'll be like this never happened. It's part of what makes me so hard to kill, well that and just my enhanced resistance to injury. Only a 4th or another 3rd is strong enough to really hurt me. I imagine that a bullet to the head might kill me, but the government hasn't tried that yet, so I'm not so sure. The lab techs sure tried just about everything else to test what our healing abilities were capable of.
On an impulse I wrap my arm around the kid's shoulders and pull him close. "Thanks for saving me, kid." He looks so happy at that he doesn't even protest at me calling him 'kid.' I heave myself up off the floor, then give him a hand, shoving all my confusion and conflicted feelings aside. So what if he's not a normal kid? I knew that from the start, and it's not like I can talk about normal anyway. He's still the kid, and I still owe him and the doc more than I can pay. "We'd better get out of here fast. When these guys don't report in, they'll be sending the others after us double time." And someone had to have heard the kid scream. I curse my own stupidity at not running first and asking questions later. We've been luckier than we deserve.
I drag the two bodies down to the landing with the third, then toss them all down the stairs into the service tunnels. I wonder for a moment if they'll even be identified as 4ths when they're found. To all appearances they're just normal teens. After that I take the kid's hand in mine and we walk back to the crowded part of the station like nothing has happened. I book us a cabin on another giant passenger liner and take us immediately to the attendant taking tickets. I'm sure I must look like hell, sweat-soaked and just plain worn out, but the woman doesn't so much as look at me strangely. As soon as we're checked in the kid and I take a detour to the restrooms so I can clean up a little, and from there leave the station altogether. The 4ths that will be coming once their buddies are missed will expect us to have jumped to another planet. Hopefully they'll take the bait and wait for us elsewhere, while we lie low here.
I find us a seat on a train headed for the nearest big city and both the kid and I catch some sleep while we travel. Accelerated healing takes a lot of energy, even for just a small injury, so beyond being exhausted I'm also starving. The kid doesn't look much better and as soon as the train stops 2 hours and 36 minutes later we go in search of dinner. I want as few people as possible to see that we're still here and even fewer of those to remember seeing us, but the best way I can think of to go unnoticed is to hide in the biggest crowd I can find. The 4ths won't think to look for us in a giant shopping center, or so I hope anyway, so after picking up a map at the train station, that's where the kid and I head. There's a food court inside and the kid and I find enough greasy fast food to satisfy our stomachs for a while. I keep my eyes open for any 4ths, and I know the kid does too, but it seems they aren't here. I try to keep us as inconspicuous as possible as we wander around and I think about our next move. It's still early in the day and we both had a nap on the train, but I know we're going to need a place to hole up for the night soon.
I wonder if the 4ths have any capacity for creative thinking. They act like automatons, seem to want nothing more than to obey orders, and I've certainly never seen an actual expression on any of their faces. Can they make intuitive and logical leaps to infer where to find us, or is that left up to the big shots they report to? Do they ever get angry in a fight? Do they even get a rush of adrenaline when a situation starts heating up? Somehow I doubt it. Even if they are capable of it, nothing can really challenge them, nothing can really inspire fear in them. They're the top physically, and brainwashed zombie slaves mentally. Even though I know any one of them can kill me easily, I find suddenly that I can't really be intimidated any longer by a being that's so mechanical and dead inside. I may not be a normal human, but they don't seem human at all. What did the kid say? They aren't complicated inside, unlike me I guess. I wonder what he meant by that, but I don't really want to ask. Was he commenting on my complexity, or their lack of it?
I don't mind being a Modified. Even if I hadn't been dying in that alley way back when, I wouldn't mind. It's kind of incredible to be so capable of so much. It hurt like all hell to have it done, and it's isolating, certainly, but until a year ago I had the other 3rds around me. The part I don't like is how ever since I was picked up by the lab my life hasn't been my own, it's always been at the behest of others. At least until the doc saved me, and now it's ruled by fear of being at the behest of others. And then there's the kid. He's not any better off than I am really. He's always been a lab rat too, since before he was even born. Now he's just as much on the run as I am. And now I think I understand a little why.
"So what was that back there?" We've been traveling in silence since we got on the train, but I find I need to ask. "What did you do to them?"
The kid looks at the window displays in the mall, the skylight above, anywhere but at me. His little hand is trembling in mine. "I don't know."
"You don't know?"
He shakes his head and drops his eyes to his feet. "I just told them to stop. Somehow I knew I could. I didn't know I could until I tried."
"Could you do it again?"
"I don't know." His voice is tinier than ever and suddenly I just want to hug him tight.
He's still just a kid after all. How bad would I feel if I didn't know what crazy things I was capable of. Heh, guess I do know what that feels like. I get the feeling it's sorta like an adrenaline spike thing. This innate ability to make people's bodies obey his will seems to have only worked when he was in danger. I still don't get it, not sure I ever will. I certainly don't know how it's possible, but I do know that it's damn powerful. I'd be dead right now if he hadn't shut down those 4ths. I give his hand a squeeze.
"Hey, it's ok kid. I know you can do it again if you need to. But I'm gonna do my best to make sure you don't have to."
"Don't call me that." He pouts a little, and I can't help but grin. After a moment he gives in and smiles again too. And just like that he's got his energy back. He's bouncing along, tugging at my arm, dragging me to see this and that. He's just a kid.
I try to let my own apprehensions fade. We've had a close call, but we survived. Thanks to the kid, I'm still here. Thanks to him I no longer have the goddamn failsafe the lab techs saddled me with. That thought alone makes me angrier than all the twisted testing they did of our new abilities. As if the scars and the blue diagram marks aren't bad enough, they had to implant something that just screams their ownership of such a valuable weapon. And that's what we are to them, weapons. Not warriors, weapons. And weapons have to be designed so they can't attack their owner. Well guess what guys? The kid shut it off. I'm not yours anymore. I haven't been since you abandoned me and ordered me killed, but now it's official. I. Am not. Yours. Anymore.
The kid pulls his hand out of mine and starts scampering just ahead of me as we leave the shopping center. Should I feel as nervous as I do when I no longer have his tiny hand in mine? I feel like if I'm not holding onto him something can just come and whisk him away before I even have a chance to give chase. Damned if I'm not turning into a father after all. I'm not sure that Modified even have the ability to reproduce, though not for lack of trying, I must say. The lab techs certainly could do nothing to stop nine hormonal, superhuman teens from experimenting, not when we lived in the same lab building. A few of us 3rds thought we wanted children someday, though I can't say I was one of them. it occurs to me to wonder for the first time if any of my modifications are genetic. I'm pretty sure the lab techs thought of that, though. If Modified could be bred from us 3rds, I don't think the techs would have objected so much to all our fooling around. I wonder what difference that would have made for the 4ths or the order to scrap the 3rds.
We keep walking, almost aimlessly, once we're outside the shopping center. It was built on the edge of the city, so on the one side of us is nothing but a large expanse of field filled with grass-like vegetation native to this planet. The kid and I have been on a lot of worlds in the past six months, but most of them look a lot like this. Except for the very frontier or colony worlds, humans have only really dug in on the most Earth-like of planets, or the ones that technology could make Earth-like. This place is no exception. As the dusk starts to deepen and the binary suns of this world dip below the horizon, this place looks like any other parking lot of any other shopping center on any other world. This side of the lot is empty. Nobody parked their vehicle, rolling, hovering, or otherwise, so far from the main entrance. So there's nobody here but us. Nobody to see us, nobody who might be a 4th. It's quiet too, even with my enhanced senses all I can hear are our footsteps and the humming and clicking of native insects in the field. So I let the kid walk a little ahead, though I keep my eyes on him just in case. I still don't know what to do for the night. We need to be away from this planet, but I don't want to be seen by any other ticket takers until the 4ths have taken the fake trail I left or disregarded it.
A faint noise behind me gives me just enough warning to turn so that the body that would have slammed into my back hits me in the side instead. I hit the ground half pinned by my attacker, but I manage to flail my legs and kick him off long enough to roll and scramble to my feet. That's when I notice the 4th who tackled me isn't a him. From what the doc said she's the only female and the oldest of the original five, and the kid and I have run from her on occasion. For a moment we just stare at each other, she blankly and me trying to decide if I'm more scared or more furious. Then I remember what happened back at the station and launch myself into an attack. As I hoped, she whips up her arm just as the other had. I bite back a grin when nothing happens. A rare expression of startlement and confusion flashes across her impassive face. Before she can recover from her failed attempt at activating my failsafe I slam the heel of my hand up into her face with all my modified strength. She whips her head back, but not fast enough and I feel the bones in her nose crunch beneath my hand. I drive forward and slam her down to the asphalt, ignoring where her hands are clawing at my arms, tearing through the sleeves of my jacket and digging deep gashes into my flesh with her fingernails. She suddenly falls still, and I breathlessly pry her bloodied hands from my arms.
I take a step back, take a deep breath. She's just laying on the asphalt where I dropped her, and she doesn't seem to be breathing. I just stare at her, waiting for her to get up, tensed for her next attack. But she doesn't move. I think I'm in shock. Can I have seriously taken down a 4th? I acted mostly on instinct and a very hastily put together plan, can that really have worked? She just lays there. I keep thinking she'll get up and tear me to shreds, but some part of me knows that even accelerated healing can't do shit for bone chips in the brain. By dumb luck, a fortunate distraction, a tiny window of opportunity, whatever; I took down a 4th. I'm not unscathed. My hand is bloody, both hers and mine from where her bones cut open my palm. My jacket sleeves are tattered and I can feel the gouges she made in my biceps stinging and dripping blood all down my arms. It hurts like hell really, but I don't care. I took down a 4th, and I'm still alive. I turn to grin at the kid, but freeze when I see three more 4ths standing beside his tiny, terrified form.
One of them I recognize as the guy I tangled with that first month. Another I've seen from a distance since then. The third is unknown to me. They're all staring at me, not sparing a glance for their downed comrade. My earlier elation goes cold. Surprise and luck only work once. Still, I'm not scared. They aren't the all-powerful beings I once thought they were. They're humans who've had their capacity to be human stripped away. If I can do nothing else, I'll make them work for the victory they're about to get. If I can do nothing else, I can try to inspire in them a little fear, trigger a little rush of adrenaline. Sienna gave three of them some trouble when she was killed, and she was probably fighting under the effects of that goddamn failsafe. Let's see how I can do without it.
I dodge the first strike by a hairsbreadth. The one I fought before tears off one ragged jacket sleeve, but misses the ragged flesh beneath. Even as he turns to try again I feel another of them stirring behind me and lash out, even as I drop to get out of the way. I fail on both accounts. My fist swings through empty air and blunt pain blossoms from what feels like a foot striking my back. I tumble forward and come to my feet again as quickly as I can. I'm trying to keep them from surrounding me, but three on one doesn't make it easy. One of them nearly gets his hand on my throat. I crunch a few of his fingers and hurl myself out of his reach. While I'm busy with that another of them rips the rest of my jacket and most of my shirt away, leaving three bloody gashes across the left half of my chest from his fingernails. I manage to throw myself out of the path of every attack aimed at my neck, but it hardly helps. While I'm dodging, one of them wrenches my shoulder out of place, and when another gets hold of my other arm and cracks it like a twig I go down. I'm at the limit of what I can grit my teeth and ignore. My limbs feel like lead and my head's fuzzy with pain and blood loss. But even so, even when two of the 4ths haul me up by the arms and the third reaches to either tear out my throat or snap my neck, I manage a weak smile. I can see the kid behind them, and he's got that vague blue glow around him again. Go ahead and kill me if you can. I think to the 4ths. The kid's gonna tear you apart.
There's no shout, no noise at all, nothing. Then suddenly the 4th in front of me is silhouetted sharply against a bright and blinding blue light. The light grows until it swallows us all and I have to close my eyes. I feel myself fall to the ground, all my wounds jarring painfully on impact. When at last I feel like the light has faded I dare to peel open my eyelids. Dark and shadowy heaps are all that remain of the two 4ths that had been holding me. I see the third fall, much as the three at the station had, still lit from behind by the piercing blue. I drop my head weakly back to the asphalt. There's some satisfaction in seeing my enemies destroyed so easily, but part of me wishes they had finished the job rather than leave me here dying by inches. I can feel every second that the blood flows out the cuts on my arms and my chest, and with every one that ticks by I know not even my enhanced healing abilities can keep up. I'll fade away long before the flow is stopped.
The blue light comes towards me then, hovering in the air and starkly bright against the deepening night. It's faded, no brighter now than when it was just a halo around the kid. I realize then that it is the kid. He looks like a mass of blue mercury, shiny, liquid and flowing, all smooth curves and changing shape even as I watch from where I lay helpless. He floats down to hover barely a foot above me and solidifies into something resembling a legless butterfly, but not nearly so delicate looking. The shape is different, and it has no nose or mouth, but I know that face and those eyes. Slowly a small arm forms from the liquid mass he's become and reaches down. I know that hand as well as I know those eyes. I've held it in mine nearly every day for six months.
Everything goes blue again. So bright and so blinding I shut my eyes against it, but it's still there inside my head. The moment stretches and warps, even my internal clock cannot tell me how long I am lost in that light. And then it is gone, and with it the pain. My head is clear, and when I open my eyes all the wounds from my battle with the 4ths are gone. The small blue hand reaching down to me remains. Slowly, gently, I reach up with a newly healed arm and take hold. With a feeling like I'm floating in the air with him, he sets me softly on my feet and hovers just in front of me, looking up at me with those same eyes. He's no bigger than a kid, even though he looks like one of the things he used to draw. Unsure what to do, I just stare back. Slowly, but steadily he reaches and lays two fingers on the blue line that runs the length of my chest. This time I let him. His touch isn't cold, in fact it burns, though it doesn't hurt.
Thank you. It's his voice in my head. The same voice as ever, and not the tiny one.
I fumble for words. I owe him my life twice over now. "Anytime, kid...er, Jin. Besides, you saved me."
He shakes his head gently and I see what I think is a trace of regret in those shiny blue eyes. The person I was is no more.
"Say what you want, and take any form you like. You'll always be the kid to me." I put out a show of bluff cheer, but the hint of sadness in his eyes doesn't fade.
I cannot stay. There is...too much...air. His voice fades on the last word like he's run out of breath. He drops his hand and I let out the sigh I didn't know I was holding. Of course. His egg was found on an asteroid in empty space. His kind exists in a vacuum. He's probably only been able stay here in this new form so long because he was a kid with lungs for seven years. Without another word or another look between us, he springs for the sky. I watch him fly towards the void of space, and know that I will not see him again. Still, I cannot help but grin as one thought cuts through the bittersweet others. I shout up towards his quickly ascending form with all the volume I can muster.
"If you ever lay an egg, send him to me!" It's hard to be sure at that distance, but my modified vision tells me he turns at my words, and his eyes are smiling.
Once I can no longer see the little blue sparkle in the sky, I turn and survey what he's left behind. The four 4ths are still dead on the asphalt and after pulling a long sleeve jacket off the largest of them, I leave them where they lay. I slip into the jacket and check to be sure it covers all the visible proof of my abnormality. That done I find the remains of my own jacket and salvage what I can of the cash that was in the pocket. I'm about to leave the place altogether, but I catch sight of a little heap of cloth and the little pad of paper and the pencil he always carried in his pocket. With a faint smile I pick up the pad and pencil and stow them in my jacket pocket. For the first time I really wonder about the kid's parents. What a strange species to refuse to raise their own children. Damned if I'll ever be a natural, let alone normal father, but at least, for a time that might have felt like forever, I had the kid. With a last look at the sky, and one hand wrapped around the pad of paper in my pocket, I start walking for the nearest spaceport. I'm still a renegade after all, it's time I was away from this place.