I'm used to the steady stream of gossip in the little bar. I'm one of the regulars by now. I come in every so often on tuesdays and thursdays, because those are the days I supposedly get off work a bit earlier. I have a beer or maybe two at the most, and always take one home to share with my wife. All the other regulars know me, or at least think they do. It's all part of the ruse, part of what lets me stay here on this planet longer than the last one.
It's the same this night as any other when I stop in. I'm sitting at the same spot at the bar as always and sipping my first bottle of the night. The gossip is the same as ever, and it's sort of comforting in it's familiarity. So-and-so's wife took all his money and ran off in his fancy space yacht, there's some new tax being laid over this region of space, and the renegade who slaughtered the entirety of the government's 4th generation Modified is still at large in the galaxy.
I almost slip up and smirk as I hear a couple drunks speculating on that last tidbit. With my enhanced hearing I can listen in on any conversation I want to in the bar. There's always at least one table talking about me. I just have to make sure they never know it truly is me they're talking about.
But, as I said, I'm used to it by now. It's been seven years, nine months, and twenty-two days since Jin and I parted. The last three years and two months of that time I've spent on this planet, frequenting this bar, and hearing that gossip. I'm a local guy now, dressed in an invisible coat of of camouflage called familiarity. I'm a factory worker, come from a few systems over looking for better work, or at least that's what they all think. This planet's got a thin atmosphere, it gets real cold after dark. Nobody thinks twice about how I'm always in long sleeves. I burned my left hand bad in a factory accident years back. Once I let that story out, no one questioned why I'm always wearing a glove on that hand. It's all part of the ruse. It's why I'm here sipping beer instead of running.
No, that isn't quite right. Kikio Townes is the reason I'm here and not running. She's the one who taught me the ruse, taught me to hide without hiding. She's the one I bring back a bottle of beer for every time I come to this bar.
I take another swig of my beer and try not to listen so hard. There's another guy at the counter chatting with the barkeep. She's a talkative gal. She owns the bar and runs it with only some part time help. Gudrun is the only name I've ever heard her offer. If there's more, she isn't sharing. She's good to high tippers and return customers. I try to be modestly both so I'll be remembered favorably if at all.
Suddenly the bell over the door jingles and all the talk in the place ceases. Just like Gudrun, and the other guy at the counter, I turn to see what manner of newcomer can halt the conversation so utterly.
The first thing I think is, here's a guy with no ruse. He's tall, taller than me maybe, and wearing a long dark coat. He looks younger than me too, though not by much. He's got short dark hair and close cropped dark beard. Even his eyes are dark. He watches everyone staring at him and puts on a neutral expression as he steps towards the counter. Something in his coat clacks and rattles as he walks.
"Hear that?" One of the patrons who had been discussing me hisses to his companion. "He's the one they say wiped out a whole squad of police on Statika last year!"
"The same devil who took out Sleepy Daniels's gang single-handed?"
"The same! They say that sound is his trademark. He can't sneak up on nobody, but it don't matter one whit. It's the guns in his pockets, or the dozens of ammo clips."
I try not to react to the whispers. The voices are low enough that I'm not even sure Mr. Tall Dark And Scary could hear them. I only could because of my modified senses. I haven't heard of this guy who is supposedly infamous, but then I never really keep up on the gossip around me. I was on Statika once, but that was close to four years ago. Sleepy Daniels ran a group that operated on lots of planets, some of which I've visited. It sounds too circumstantial to be anything but coincidence yet. Something in what the gossips say rings false though. Whatever the rattling noise is, I don't think it's guns or ammunition. The guy just doesn't move right for that. He's not carrying anything as heavy as that. I've outrun enough people with firearms to recognize that at least.
Whether he heard the whispers or not, he doesn't pause on his way up to the counter. To my dismay he takes a seat just one stool down from mine. He pulls his coat around him with a final clack, then the noise falls silent.
"What'll it be?" Gudrun is smiling like she would at any new patron. Slowly the talk resumes at every table, though much quieter than before. I take the cue as well and turn back to my own drink.
"Just a glass of whatever's on tap." The stranger says softly. His voice is deep and quiet, not what I'd expect from someone with such a reputation.
While Gudrun gets his drink I start thinking about if it's time for me to leave. This stranger looks like the type to be looking for something or someone, and I'm not ready to be found. On the other hand, if I attract too much attention he'll probably suspect more than he already might. By the time she comes back with his glass I've decided. I've finished my beer, it's about time I got on home.
I slide a few coins across the countertop. "Well, it's time I head home, Gudrun. Can I get one for the road like usual?"
"Sure thing." Next thing I know she's pushing a paper sack with two bottles in it towards me. "Take two, on the house."
"Thanks." I try not to stare at the newcomer as I leave. A few of the other patrons wave, and I nod back. I gotta keep acting like a local guy. Maybe someday, someplace, it won't be a ruse.
Once out the door I stop and listen. I know it'll look suspicious if anyone sees me loitering around, but I can't shake a feeling of unease. Something about that stranger has my nerves twitching. I haven't made it this far by not being careful. I try to filter out the muted voices of all the regular patrons and listen for just the guy at the bar. Amplified hearing has it's drawbacks sometimes.
"So what's your name?" Luckily Gudrun's voice is easy to hear, even through the dull roar of everyone else talking.
"...Damien." The stranger replies much more softly. Even I have to strain to hear it.
"Nice name." I smile a little. She says that to everyone. "So what brings you here?"
"You don't really want to know."
"Sure I do."
Damien makes no answer that I can hear. I think I catch the sound of his glass hitting the counter, but I can't be sure. Just as I'm about to give up, Gudrun speaks up again.
"Hey, I don't run this place because I like being leered at while I pour drinks. I'm here to get the gossip. Really, I'd like to hear about it."
"I'm looking for someone. What can you tell me about the man who..."
That's all I can catch. The locals at the table near the door got louder. But that's all I need to hear. As soon as the last word registers, I'm off and running. He may be after someone else entirely, but I'm not about to stick around to find out more. I want him to forget ever seeing me in that bar. He's too strange, has got too much of a reputation already. In short, he's dangerous, whether he's really after me or not. At least he can't be a Modified. The 4ths are all dead and he's too old to be a 5th.
That thought comforts me a little, but still I run through the dark streets. I don't want anyone to wander out of that bar and find me too close still. It's long since time I went home. Kikio will be waiting. Raous might even still be up. Damned if I'll ever be a natural or normal father, but come what may, I still have a kid.
After about 39 seconds, I slow to a walk. It wouldn't do for someone to see me sprinting at unnatural speeds. I'm walking casually when all of a sudden a shiver goes down my spine. There's someone behind me. Not close, but I can definitely hear them. There's no other sounds, and the footsteps are still faint. There's no way whoever it is can even be close enough to see me in the dark. It's probably just another local walking home from the bar. Then another sound freezes me in place. Behind each soft footfall is a familiar clack and rattle.
I waste no more time thinking about it and am again on the move. I duck into a narrow alley just to my right. It's completely dark, even I have trouble seeing where I'm putting my feet. Once I'm deep in the shadows, I take a deep breath. There's no way that guy could see me in here. Just to be sure I step into the deep alcove of a doorway. This street is filled with old and empty buildings. The only way this Damien will find me here is if he's a modified, which I know he isn't.
Steadily the footsteps and his rattling coat move closer. It's taking longer than I thought. He must have been even further away than I guessed. He really can't sneak up on anyone. Especially not someone like me. No ruse at all. I'm not sure if that makes him more dangerous or not.
Finally he reaches the mouth of the alley. I risk sticking my head out of the alcove. It's him all right, as if the sound hadn't given him away. I still can't figure out what that noise is. He doesn't move like there's anything heavy in that coat.
He's within one step of being out of sight when he stops. I duck back into the alcove, even though I know the darkness is too thick for him to see through. I'm as silent as the dead, and I know I'm well hidden, but still that rattling sounds starts down the alley. After a second of hesitation, I step out of the alcove. He might not be looking for me at all, but if he finds me hiding he'll get suspicious.
It's all I can do to hold onto the bag with my beers as I try to look casual. My nerves are all strung taut. I don't know if it's paranoia or just long experience with being chased. It's still pitch black in the alley. We may pass without him ever really seeing me.
He stops a few feet from me and stares straight at me. He doesn't look startled or even surprised. Somehow, I don't know how, he knew I was there.
"Anson Townes?" His voice is still deep and soft. Way too calm and mellow for the kind of fear he inspired in the bar.
I lick my suddenly dry lips and try to sound calm. "Yeah?"
"I've been looking for you for a long time."
I almost shudder. There isn't a hint of inflection in his voice. "Me? What do you want me for?"
"Almost eight years ago the government's whole team of 4th Generation Modified were slaughtered by one man."
Part of me wants to correct him, the other part just wants to run like hell. "Yeah, I heard about that. It's scary that they still haven't caught him. Don't see what that has to do with me though."
"They were killed by a renegade 3rd Generation Modified, a man named Anson."
"Surely you don't think it's me?" Somehow I manage a nervous chuckle. "I can't be the only guy named Anson in this galaxy."
"Probably not, but you're the one that fits the description, and is living at the end of the trail I've been following for the past year."
Right about then I figure I'm screwed. I've been on this planet for three years now. Somehow this guy followed a three year old trail to find me in a pitch black alley. I want to just bolt, but I remember Kikio and try the ruse again.
"Look, I don't know what trail you might have followed here, but you got the wrong guy--"
Suddenly he's moving, rushing at me. I throw myself aside, but I'm not fast enough. For the first time in almost eight years, I'm not fast enough. The paper sack falls to the concrete with a crash. This Damien guy has a tight hold on my left wrist. More just startled than scared, I wrench my hand out of his grip. Unfortunately he's got his fingers wrapped around my glove. He's left holding the glove, and I'm left realizing he can see that my skin is grey.
The ruse is up. It's time to run. I turn and sprint down the alley. The one good thing is that I'll definitely hear if he follows. I've spent three years in this city learning it's escape routes. He isn't going to catch me again. I run full out. I don't care who sees me right now. I have to get back to Kikio and warn her. I've been found. Now either Damien has to go or we have to move on.
I'm pretty sure I know which of those it's going to be. Damien can't be a modified, he just can't be! There were no other 3rds, and he's far too old to be a 4th. Even if there were any left after Jin and I were through with them he's too old. But whatever he is, he's fast and has enhanced enough senses to see in the dark as well or better than me. That's enough to tell me he isn't normal. There's no way I'm willing to take him on without knowing just what he is.
I try to keep to the dark alleys as I run. I don't want anyone else coming after me with strange questions tonight. It's been a while since I've run all out like this. The ruse has kept me in good stead these past few years. Still, I've always known this would happen sooner or later. Three years is a long time for a renegade to go unnoticed in this galaxy.
In some ways it almost feels good to be sprinting again. At least now I'm not waiting for it to happen like every day previous. I'm not truly worried yet. Damien is an unknown and that bothers me, but he doesn't scare me. Not yet at least. This is hardly the first time the ruse has broken down in the past eight years. I'm prepared for it now. I'm eight years wiser, made smarter by the arts of a good woman, and still stronger than any normal human has a right to be.
I can tell I'm older; I guess even Modified age eventually. Even so I feel fitter than even when I was running with Jin. I've been working here on this planet, not the factory job the bar patrons think, but a job. That factory does background checks on all it's employees, which makes it a good cover story, but not so good to actually work at. I help load containers for a big shipping business that hires a lot of immigrants and doesn't ask many questions. I'm actually a little proud to say that some of my muscles are legitimately gained now. Besides, the money is a help. I got a family of sorts to support now. I still got some of the doc's money left, but I won't touch that. I know that account is secure and untraceable. That's my running money. It's seeming likely that that's how things will go, but I hope not. I've gotten used to this place, this ruse. Unfortunately, Damien's dangerous, and until I know more, it's him or me.
He's not following, or at least he's following well out of earshot. I only slow down a little. I wouldn't put it past the man to be able to find my house the same way he found me in that alley. The house is modest, and one of many in a small neighborhood. It's just what the locals expect from a factory worker and his lab assistant wife. Nevermind that Kikio's got the credentials to run the lab she works at. Same as I can't work at a legitimate factory, a former tech from the Modified Laboratories can't really go public with where she got her work experience. So despite the camouflage of middle class mediocrity, I still worry.
I think I make it home in record time, even with the roundabout route. I'm even breathing a little heavy when I finally make it in the door. Running all out like that is not something I've had to do often in the past three years.
"Home late, and without even a drink for me?" Kikio's light voice wafts just ahead of her as she saunters down the hallway to the door where I still stand. Then she gets a good look at me. "What on earth happened?"
"Some guy at the bar..." I shake my head, not sure how to describe that Damien guy. "He's trailed me, from somewhere. I don't know. He knows who I am. Said he's been looking for me for a long time."
Kikio just stares at me for a long moment. She doesn't look scared, or even particularly worried. That is why I love this woman. She keeps a level head.
"Bounty killer?" She asks finally.
"Dunno, maybe." I try to keep calm like she's doing. I'm not sure I succeed. "He isn't normal. He's not a Mod, but I dunno what he is. He moves too fast, and he somehow tailed me in the pitch dark. He's got one hell of a rep, just based on the reaction in the bar. This guy is dangerous."
"You think he's coming here?" It isn't really a question, and I don't really answer except with the look in my eye. Kikio knows I might be prone to panic, but I don't ever panic over nothing. "Alright. I'll get some things together, you go wake Raous. We can take the shuttle up to Aldern and either wait him out, or go from there."
Without another word she moves off towards the rest of the house. I take a few deep breaths, then start moving again myself. She's my anchor. She keeps me from the constant fear that marked every minute I spent running with Jin. This time around I've got one hell of a woman keeping me steady. Maybe it's because she's a scientist, but she's got this real detached way of looking at things. There isn't much that can ruffle her.
Our house is small, but it's big enough to have two bedrooms. This is good because at seven the kid is old enough to want his own space. Raous's room is the one at the back of the house. I'm probably paranoid, but I made sure anything trying to get to him would have to go through me and Kikio first. Mod or not, if something threatened Raous I'm not sure which of us would react more fiercely.
Raous is asleep as I softly pad into his room. Despite my nervousness over Damien, I can't help but just watch my kid's slumber for a few seconds. He's all curled up around his pillow, hugging it tight to his chest. From experience I know that if it were me he lay next to, he'd be coiled around my arm just as firmly.
He looks just like me too. He's got the same reddish hair that won't stay flat, the same square face, the same grey eyes. As he's gotten older he's only grown into more and more my double. It isn't hard for anyone to believe he's my son.
I know I need to hurry, so I stop staring and scoop his little body into my arms, pillow and all. He wakes up almost immediately and drops the pillow in favor of wrapping himself around my shoulder. I let myself have one more brief moment and just hug him back. Jin may have been my first "kid" but Raous is truly mine in a way that goes beyond those six months I spent with Jin. Raous has been mine since the day he came into this world; I've raised him as the doc never had the chance to do with Jin.
"Hey kid, you awake?"
"Uh huh." He doesn't sound awake, but then his words are muffled into my shoulder.
"We're gonna take a trip up to the moon. You and Kikio and me." He makes a sort of whining protest. "You can sleep on the shuttle, ok? Right now I need you to get dressed though."
"Ok..." He says it reluctantly, but lets go of my shoulder and slides down to the floor. He knows the routine. This isn't the first time we've had to do this. As he shuffles off to his clothes dresser I ruffle his hair and start looking for his shoes.
It's as he's putting on those shoes I hear a noise from the front of the house that about stops my heart. The front door slams and Kikio shouts something angrily. Somehow, I don't know how, Damien's found me already.
Like a flash I turn and grip Raous by the shoulders. I make sure his eyes are on mine, then I say as firm as I can, "Stay right here, keep getting ready to go, and scream like hell if anyone but me or Kikio comes through that door. Got it?"
He nods, no complaints now. His eyes are wide, but he understands, and I know he'll do what I say. He's had to do this before too. As soon as I have his confirmation I rush out the door towards where more angry voices have joined my wife's.
I almost run into her back. She's blocking the rest of the house from whoever barged in the front door. She's already got a bag slung over her shoulder stuffed with whatever she thinks we'll need to run with. A few more minutes and we'd have been gone. I look past her even as I edge around to stand in front of her. She's as fiercely protective as I am, but I'm the 3rd Gen Mod in this house.
I'm expecting Damien not mundane police. Three cops have tromped into our house, two with clubs and one with just a flashlight. It's like they have no idea who they're really here for. Except that as soon as they catch sight of me, they all get a look of dread on their faces. I get it. They're just the advance team. They just aim to delay us until the real heavyweights arrive. It just makes it all the more important we leave quickly.
I drop the first club wielding cop with an elbow to his gut that I'm sure he never saw coming. The next at least has a chance to see me strike, but not enough time to react. He falls almost on top of his comrade. The third, the one with the flashlight, holds his ground impressively. There's no way he can keep up with me, though. Almost in one motion I grab his free arm and spin him into the nearest wall. His face leaves a dent in the drywall and he drops like a stone. Two of them will probably have a concussion, and the other might have broken ribs, but nothing more serious. It's certainly no more than a normal human could have done given the proper time and opportunity. Their backup won't immediately know it was the hand of a Modified that did the deed.
After I'm sure that Kikio is okay, I rush back to Raous. He's got his shoes on and a bag of his own slung over his shoulder. He knows the drill alright. Without a word I take his hand in mine and lead him out into the front room. Kikio has left the cops where they fell, but she's rummaging around in the cabinet beside the couch.
"Come on Kik." I don't know what she's looking for, but it's high time we were gone. "We gotta go."
"Just one more thing." She tells me over her shoulder, and doesn't even pause in her search. "It's important."
I sigh, but leave her to it. If she says it's important, then it probably is. Finally she stands and dumps everything she shuffled out of the way back into the cabinet. She's got a small data disk in her hand, and I wonder what it could be, and why it was hidden in the cabinet. Instead of dropping the disk into her bag like I expect, she steps closer and hands it to me.
"What's this?" I turn the thing over in my hand. It's totally unmarked. No way to tell what's on it except to stick it into a reader.
"It's a secret, the secret. The Big One." She shakes her head and continues in the most serious voice I've ever heard out of her. "As long as we were safe it didn't matter, and I figured you didn't need to know. Now that we're running, it may be important." She looks up at me, her eyes beseeching me to trust her. "Read it as soon as we get a safe moment."
I start to say something then stop. Whatever my opinions on her keeping big secrets from me, now is not the time. "We'll talk about this later."
Kikio simply nods and leads the way out of the house. Raous looks first at her, then at me with a question in his eyes. I don't answer either his gaze or the squeeze of his hand in mine. I just pull him gently out the door after Kikio.
Once out in the dark street, I take the lead. I pass Raous's hand to Kikio. We don't own a groundcar. Everything we need is within walking distance, and it's easier to stay hidden without another paper trail. So we walk.