Outcasts & Runaways – Part 1.9

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Chapter 8 – Earth, One Year Six Months Ago

The Shifter

Subject 2A didn’t give 1A the satisfaction of reacting when 1A paired him with the new Subject again. Once the oldest of the Subjects, 1A had grown even more temperamental and jealous than usual since the slightly older Subject 6A joined their group training exercises. Fortunately for her, she seemed to have a knack for ignoring his biting remarks. Unfortunately for Subject 2A, any attempts on his part to maintain order in their group was interpreted by 1A as an attempt to usurp his authority.

Subject 2A held in a sigh as the buzzer dinged, signaling the beginning of the exercise. With a wave of his hand, he gestured for Subject 6A to follow.

“So…” It hadn’t even been ten steps, and she was already trying to make conversation. Subject 2A ground his teeth as the older girl glanced sideways at him. “I had some more ideas for names. If you want to hear them.”

This again. It was always this with her. No matter how many times he told her he didn’t want one, she just nodded, went away, and came back later. With more name suggestions. Each more stupid than the last. “Let’s just focus on the objective,” he said tersely. “Do you know what we’re trying to achieve here?”

That seemed to bring her back into focus for the moment, and she looked at their surroundings. The training room had been reconfigured to represent a common city block, complete with bus stops, trash cans, and colorful awnings over shop fronts. Each Subject wore a set of virtual reality goggles that added more obstacles and buildings to the terrain, and there inlay the trick. It was difficult to tell which of the obstacles were real, and not knowing which only meant that they couldn’t rely on any of them to catch a fall or not hurt when struck. It was how the scientists trained them not to rely only on their visual senses. 

4A excelled in this course. That thought brought a brief smile to 2A’s face.

“We’re supposed to track down virtual bad guys, right?” Subject 6A said. “And whichever team gets the most before the buzzer wins.” Her gray-clad fingers clenched, as they always did when she was working up the nerve to use her power. Subject 2A felt a pang of sympathy, but he quickly shut it down. He couldn’t let her draw him in, make him weak. He needed to be strong for the others. For 4A.

“Are you going to throw the match again?”

Subject 2A stumbled, blue eyes widening. Subject 6A was staring at him, her silver eyes penetrating his defenses. How had she figured it out? He’d been so careful! Subject 2A recovered and drew himself up, prepared to do… something. He didn’t know what, but if she told the scientists…

But the girl’s strained smile was sympathetic. “You try a lot harder when you’re paired with her. I think I get it; you want her to win so she’ll get a day without testing.” A light danced briefly in her eyes. “You must really like her.”

Subject 2A shifted uncomfortably, not sure what to say in the light of exposure. Subject 6A seemed to be implying something, but he didn’t know what. Everyone knew he cared about 4A – Lyra, that’s what she wanted him to call her now, even though he didn’t approve. They’d come to the facility together six years ago. And Subject 2A strongly, very strongly, suspected that they were related He couldn’t be sure, but it didn’t matter; 4A was special. And if throwing the games and subjecting himself to more testing might keep her out of it, he’d do it in a heartbeat. Even if taking that chance away from Subject 6A chafed his conscience.

But there were too many emotions behind those thoughts, and Subject 6A was still a stranger. A buzzing on his wrist, signaling that they’d been inactive too long, gave Subject 2A a welcome distraction. “Come on. We need to keep moving. If you want to win, you’ll have to put some more effort into—”

A virtual image of a gun-wielding terrorist rounded the corner, howling and firing bullets that certainly seemed real. Subject 2A dropped into a crouch on instinct and cursed himself for not changing sooner. Now he was caught off guard in his standard size. Subject 2A spotted a bench, noted its lack of any strange polygons, and deemed it to be real. He ducked behind it and turned to look for his partner.

Subject 6A rolled behind the corner of a building, then yelped when a “bullet” zipped through the wall, revealing it to be one of the holograms. Her hands were shaking frantically, but she glared fiercely at them, doing whatever she did to make the mercury nanites pooling on her hands obey her command. Subject 2A made the mental note that she did seem to be improving; he could at least see the bo staff, her favorite and most easily-formed weapon, taking shape. But if she got “shot,” they’d be out, and he couldn’t let the game end that quickly. Closing his eyes, he focused – and felt himself change.

If what the scientists told him was true, Subject 2A had just turned fourteen. While lean and fit from years of strict exercise regimens, he was still a lanky teenager. But that would change in a moment. Slowly, more slowly than Subject 2A (or the scientists) would have liked, his body morphed and grew. Now he was in the equivalent of a 16-year-old body; now 18; now 23. When he reached what he estimated to be 25 years old, he stood up. He’d gained a foot and a half in height, and the boyish curves of his face had melted away into strong lines. He could feel the increased speed and strength of his aged limbs, and morphed just slightly more, giving himself extra muscle mass, his uniform stretching and reshaping to grow with him just as it was designed to do.

It wasn’t true shapeshifting, they said. Everything was technically still the same, from his cells to the peculiar lock of silver hair on his blonde head that had come from whatever they’d done to change his DNA – but he was bigger, faster, and stronger now. It didn’t give him much advantage over normal humans of the ages he morphed into. But they had confidence his abilities would grow with time, perhaps even have espionage uses; and right now, it would give him the edge he needed. Subject 2A launched himself at the virtual attacker, the sensors on his clothes giving the impression of solidity as he “grabbed” it in a wrestler’s hold and supplexed it to the ground. It shattered in a spray of pixilated light, and the overhead score counter dinged to signify the point they’d gained. He couldn’t quite resist a grin of satisfaction as he turned to check on Subject 6A.

A whirling disc of razor-sharp metal flew towards his face, and Subject 2A froze in shock. But it winged past him, the whiff of wind loud in his ear, and then the same pixelated shattering sound he’d just heard came again. Subject 2A whirled to find another digital terrorist dissolving into the air – with a blob of silver dripping to the ground on the wall behind where it had stood.

Subject 6A ran over, panting, her irises shrunk to points. “Wow… I did not think that would work,” she gasped, and crouched down to touch the mercury nanites. They sucked back into her skin like water into a sponge. A wave of revulsion swept over her face, but she quickly wiped it off. The scientists would approve.

Subject 2A stood over her, staring in disbelief. “When did you learn to do that?”

The girl shifted uneasily, avoiding his gaze. Her hands began to wring each other. “I… I don’t know. They make me practice, but I usually have a hard time controlling it. I just…” She glanced up at him, chewing her lip. “I just saw that thing coming at you and, y’know… reacted.”

A sense of familiarity flowed over him, but it only increased his confusion. That sounded like how he responded when 4A – when Lyra was in danger. He just reacted, driven by the need to protect her. Subject 2A glared down at Subject 6A, trying to understand why him being in trouble would do the same for her. It wasn’t for fear of losing; she’d let him throw games before. But she was a stranger. She didn’t know them. She didn’t have a bond with him like he had with Lyra. What does it mean? he puzzled.

Another ding sounded, signaling one of the other teams had scored a point. Subject 2A reached out a hand to help her out, forgetting himself for a moment. She avoided the hand and slid to her feet, giving him a nod that she was ready to go.

Subject 2A nodded and turned to head in a new direction. But her voice, tentative, stopped him short. “Why don’t you want a real name?”

He should just ignore her… but she’d keep trying. Maybe he could set the record straight once and for all. Subject 2A spun. “Because I don’t like you giving ANY of us names.” He gave her a cold stare, his jaw working. “Our designations remind of who we are. What we are. If they forget that, if you give them false hope, it’s just going to hurt even worse when that gets ripped away from us, too.”

He didn’t mean for his voice to crack at the end. It was just puberty, he told himself. The doctors had warned him about that, and it sounded awful.

Subject 6A clenched her fists, something flashing in her silver eyes. “That’s not true, though. A name is something they can’t take away from you. It’s personal, inside here.” She tapped a finger to her chest.

Subject 2A stared into her silver eyes. She backed up a step at the fire in his gaze – fire he’d been banking for months. “Is that so? Mercury?” He watched her flinch, and his lips flattened in a grim line. “Five, or Brock, or whatever I’m supposed to call him now, said you won’t tell anyone your real name. You picked a fake name, just like you’re trying to give us fake names.” He stepped close to her, his age-shifted body looming over the slim girl. “If you’re so sure they can’t take our names away from us, why won’t you give us yours?” he hissed.

She was trying to look brave, holding her ground in front of him. But her lips trembled. That made Subject 2A finch inside, but he held her gaze until she finally looked down. “That’s… different,” she mumbled. “They… they don’t know who I really am. I can’t risk them finding out, or they’ll hurt… people I care about. You guys don’t… have that… problem…” Her voice trailed off with a cringe.

Subject 2A stared down at her, sudden understanding leaving him at a loss for words. She’s really not one of us, he realized, and a pain he hadn’t experienced in years bloomed in his chest. She remembers who she was! A black void that he thought permanently buried in his mind loomed behind Subject 2A’s eyes, making bile roll in his stomach. He staggered back a step.

Subject 6A – Mercury – was looking up at him again. Her jawline hardened. “It doesn’t matter, though. I still have a name, whether they know what it is or not. And it’s not something they can take away from me.” She hesitated a moment, then put a hand out. She was careful to place it on fabric that covered his shoulder. “They can’t take away who we really are,” the strange girl whispered fervently.

The room vanished completely for a moment as the black void filled Subject 2A’s vision. A cracked laugh escaped his mouth as he stared into it, searching hopelessly, almost wishing he could fall in and leave this place once and for all. Maybe he would find what they’d taken away from him in there.

“They already did, Subject 6A,” he whispered. “They already did.”

His vision cleared to find her staring at him, her face stricken. Something pooled in the corners of her eyes: tiny puddles of silver, like held-back tears. He wondered if that’s what they were, and what they were for, what she’d lost. He briefly wondered if they were for him, but he shook that thought away. It didn’t make any sense.

Another warning ding against their inactivity startled Subject 6A out of her stupor, and she quickly wiped at her face, absorbing the mercury nanites back into her skin. Subject 2A inhaled and exhaled slowly, refocusing. Throwing a match took a particular level of balance, an appearance of effort without the final push that would bring victory. That was what he needed to focus on right now. Not his strange, hyperemotional teammate. “Let’s go,” he said gruffly.

Subject 6A nodded and followed. He didn’t turn or pause this time when her subdued voice reached his ears. “Is there a kind of name you’d like in particular?”

His first instinct was to sigh. But a quick, involuntary grin flitted across his face. She was as stubborn as 4— As Lyra. “Try ones that don’t remind me of here,” he murmured absently, eyes trained for signs of more digital attackers.

There was a pause as they wound their way through the streets. Then a quiet, “How does Mikey sound?”

He didn’t answer for a long time. It was different than the others she’d tried, ones based on his power. It didn’t remind him of anything. He didn’t hate it.

Mikey gave a noncommittal shrug. “I’ll let you know.”

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A/N: Whoops, sorry for the last posting this week! I got caught up in getting something else posted for my webcomic yesterday and plum forgot! Hope it was worth the wait. ^^

I like Mikey. He is another character, like Mercury and Barrenger, who I designed on his own and had his own poorly-formed story before I adopted him into this storyline. He’s evolved quite a bit, and become a bit more serious, but he’s still a good kid. Ironically, the reason I gave him the ability to change his age was because when I first drew him, one drawing looked older than the other and I… liked them both. XD

Hold onto your hats for Barrenger’s next chapter next week! Things are gonna HAPPEN!

Thanks again for reading, and I hope ya’ll have a great week!


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