Outcasts & Runaways – Part 1.11

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Chapter 10 – Earth, One Year Two Months Ago

The Bladesmith

A blade of purple light slashed the practice dummy, cutting deeply into the plastic. Subject 1A let it dissipate and created another, stabbing his blades rapid-fire into his target’s chest.

“Enough,” a soft voice commanded, and Subject 1A stood back, breathing lightly. He eyed his work with a mix of pride and nerves, not daring to turn as the speaker approached and stood next to him.

“Effective.” The single word sent a small ripple of relief through 1A’s body, but he knew better than to relax. The Director continued in that quiet, commanding voice of his, walking around the dummy and running his tan fingers over the empty scars where the energy blades had briefly existed. “You are showing great proficiency in hand-to-hand combat with your power.”

“Thank you, Director,” 1A said shortly, eyes front. His pulse pounded as he waited for the rest of the assessment.

“However,” the Director continued, and 1A’s faint hope was smothered, “I see that you still have not managed to throw your blades. I believe we discussed the importance of this in our last several sessions.” The shuffle of paper on a clipboard made 1A swallow.

“Yes, Director,” he said, hating himself for his failure, hating the Director for demanding it of him, hating the other Subjects for not being in his place. But he couldn’t show that to the Director. Weakness would not be tolerated, by the Director or by him.

“Please demonstrate for me how that is coming along.”

It was what he had expected and dreaded, but 1A steeled himself with gritted teeth, taking position ten feet from the dummy. Please, he thought, angry and desperate, knowing his powers wouldn’t hear or respond to his plea. He summoned the purple energy, felt it form a solid, lethal edge between his fingers. He’d practiced this with real knives time and time again; he knew he could fulfill the motions required. With a deep breath and a short yell, 1A hurled the energy blade at the center of the dummy’s chest.

It dissipated into glittering fragments a foot short of the target. 1A closed his eyes and resisted the urge to cringe.

“Unfortunate,” the Director murmured. “It seems you have not improved noticeably since our last session.” The terrifying sound of pencil on paper filled the small practice room. Then footsteps. A hand on 1A’s shoulder made him want to flinch, but he knew the consequences if he did such a thing.

“You know, Subject 1A,” the Director said softly, his hand holding 1A’s shoulder in a tight grip. “This organization has a very lofty goal that it must reach. A goal for the betterment of all mankind, which requires certain levels of performance from all participants. You, our first Subject, had especially high expectations placed upon you when you came to us, and at 15 years of age, we had hoped to see significant results. But…” The man’s voice trailed off, and every fiber of 1A’s being agonized in the silence. “If you cannot reach those goals, I fear there may no longer be room for you in this level of the organization. We only have so many resources available, after all.” The Director tapped a pencil against his clipboard, his transition glasses dark in the harsh overhead lights. “There is, of course, room in the lower classes. The experimental facilities are always looking for new material. It would not be my first choice, but hard decisions must be made for the good of the organization. Wouldn’t you agree?”

Subject 1A swallowed, but his voice was perfectly calm as he replied. “Yes, Director. I apologize. I’ll do better.”

“See that you do. I have noticed the other Subjects showing a remarkable uptick in progress lately, and I would hate to see my prize pupil fall behind.” Something in the man’s voice sharpened as he added, “I trust you haven’t heard anything… untoward going on among the other Subjects?”

The Director always asked, and sometimes 1A gave him what he wanted. It was dangerous to keep secrets from the Director, and 1A had no reason to keep many; there was no love lost between him and his fellow Subjects. Those secrets he did keep were more for his own small satisfaction. He’d been the one to give the Director the Names, and he felt no qualms about that; the Director would have learned anyway. For whatever reason, the man hadn’t seen fit to punish them for it. But today, 1A had nothing new to share and simply shook his head.

“Good. We wouldn’t want anything to interrupt your training.” The Director patted him on the shoulder in a façade of friendliness. “I look forward to seeing your progress in our coming sessions.” Subject 1A continued to stare forward at the mutilated practice dummy until the door closed. Finally, he could relax a fraction. 1A took a deep breath, combing his thick black hair back and feeling with dismay the sweat that plastered it to his temples. If the Director had seen such weakness, he’d have been punished for sure. 1A took a moment to shake it off, donning once again his armor of cold indifference as he walked to the doors and met the guards who would escort him back to his room.

1A seethed as he walked, his dark eyes storming. It wasn’t fair! He’d worked and he’d worked, he did amazing things with his powers, but they always wanted more. Just thinking the rebellious thought made 1A glance over his shoulder. Of course I want the organization to prosper, he thought nervously, as if his thoughts might be overheard. It was his life’s purpose to succeed – and the fact that his life might very well cease if he failed to do so was a powerful motivator.

Subject 2A looked up from his bunk when 1A entered the male Subjects’ sleeping quarters. 2A just gave his bunkmat a short nod; he knew better than to engage 1A in casual conversation, especially right after testing. The dividers between their spartan “rooms” were down during this part of the day, allowing them to interact freely. 1A wished he could keep them up all the time. Especially when obnoxious Five crowded up to him, bubbling with excitement.

“Hey, One! Did you hear what Mercury is going to tell us about tonight?” The short, dark-skinned kid bounced on his heels, eyes sparkling as he spoke in what he probably thought was a conspiratorial whisper. “After lights out?”

“I don’t care, Sparkles,” 1A grunted, although his ears perked against his will. Some of what Merc—Subject 6A told them concerning the outside world were actually kind of interesting. Her description of the food called “pizza” had made his mouth water. But 1A pushed his interest and the younger Subject away, sitting stiffly on his bunk. “Can’t a guy get five minutes’ rest after testing?”

Five stuck out his tongue. “You can’t call me Sparkles anymore! My name’s Brock now!” He puffed out his scrawny chest like he had something to be proud of. “Come on, I know you wanna hear. You’re just mad because the Director got on your case again.”

“How do you know that?!” 1A resisted the urge to summon a knife as he rounded on the other boy. Such a threatening in-cell use of his powers would send room security into lockdown, and he wasn’t in the mood.

“The Director is always on someone’s case,” 2A commented from his bunk. He always spoke in that flat, calm voice, especially to 1A. It wasn’t quite a tone of respect, yet neither was it one that 1A could easily accuse of challenging his authority. The fact drove 1A slightly nuts. Better if 2A just challenged him straight-out instead of this constant façade of indifference. Then he put the self-righteous little jerk back in his place.

A fresh current of frustration ran along his nerves. The new girl, Subject 6A, Mercury, whoever she was – it was her fault everything was out of balance. He couldn’t say exactly how, but it had to be true. The scientists had been pushing him even harder in the 14 months since her arrival. He’d always been the head of the group, the one the others deferred to, or at least didn’t challenge openly – except for 2A, who was so subtle that he could almost convince a less wary person that he wasn’t trying to undermine 1A’s authority at all. But this new girl, with her higher age and her strange ability to make the others gravitate to her, was pushing him out. She wasn’t even the strongest fighter, and yet he could feel her influence overshadowing him, slowly and nonsensically.

5A rolled his eyes and headed for 2A, taking his chatter with him, although there wasn’t enough room in the three-cell unit to let 1A ignore him completely. “I can’t wait to hear more about cartoons! She said they’re like comic books that move on their own. Did Lyra say what time we’re meeting, Mikey?”

“Mikey” shook his head, but the corner of his mouth quirked in a grin. “She’ll let us know. We want to be sure no one is watching too closely tonight.” His eyes might have darted towards 1A, but it was too quick to tell.

The sound of those pointless Names made 1A’s teeth grind, and he rolled over, putting his pillow over his head. Why did the Director let this idiocy continue? 1A remembered something the Director had said, and he thought back over the recent progress of his fellow Subjects.

A chill shot through him. They had been improving. And rather suddenly, too, over the last few months. Everyone’s powers were advancing, faster than they had in years.

Did it have something to do with the new girl? With these… Names?

The thought buzzed in his head, so strong that it drowned out even Five’s grating chatter. Maybe he would pay attention to the listening party tonight, after all. 1A had the sudden, terrifying conviction that it might be his only hope.

—-

“And when it’s done, a song plays while they list off the names of everyone who helped make the program.” Mercury’s voice sounded watery and a touch monotone, spread out as it was between six points in space through Lyra’s powers, but it was easy enough to understand. Everyone lay on their bunks, pretending to be asleep. “Sometimes the sillier ones will do a little extra, goofy short while that plays because no one really reads the credits.”

“Then why bother?” Shannon asked, voicing the question on all their minds.

“Because people deserve to get credit for their work,” Mercury said, shifting on her bunk in a way that suggested a shrug. “It means something to have your name on the thing you put a lot of effort into, so you can always point to it and say you helped.”

There was a thoughtful silence among the Subjects. They had all seen the scientists solicit praise from each other when the Subjects’ training or testing went especially well. Even 1A couldn’t help the grudging thought that he wouldn’t mind a little more credit for his efforts.

But they weren’t “people.” They were Subjects. They were tools who did as they were told. And tools that didn’t perform as desired could be… discarded.

1A fought down a fresh flush of fear. He couldn’t ask her now, not with everyone listening! But… the Director’s words rang in his ears like a death knell. He couldn’t afford to wait.

Mercury was just signaling the end of the talk with a round of goodnights when 1A cleared his throat. It was significant enough for him, with his habit of feigning sleep during these clandestine meetings, that everyone twisted on their beds to stare. 1A glared back a moment before reminding himself of his purpose. “I need a name.” He clenched his teeth, wishing he could bite back the stupid, blunt, obtuse sentence.

Shocked silence over the shared soundwaves. 2A was staring at him, his usual calm broken with wide-eyed disbelief. Five’s jaw hung open. Shannon had sat halfway up and was beaming at him like a red-haired spotlight. But it was Mercury who finally answered.

“A… a name?” she asked slowly, like she thought she might have heard wrong. Which would be stupid, considering Lyra’s skill with this particular trick. “You mean like what I gave the others, 1A?”

1A turned his back, but kept talking, afraid they would misunderstand his attempts to avoid the cameras as a change of mind. He wasn’t going to look like even more of an idiot by backing down now. “Yes,” he bit off. “Let’s get it over with so we can all get some sleep.” He hesitated, then whispered, “How does this work?”

When Mercury’s voice came again, Lyra had no trouble translating so much delight. The new girl had been trying to pawn names off on him since she named Brock; it had taken 1A completely losing his temper and threatening her with a blade to make her stop. It boggled 1A’s mind that someone who had had a glowing knife held to their face could still be so excited about helping him. “Oh, uh, right!” she said. “So there’s two ways that we’ve tried. Lyra, Brock, and Shannon liked names that were based off their powers, but Mikey didn’t. I’ve got a few in mind either way.”

1A sneered at his pillow. “Mikey” was the most stupid name of the lot. 1A summoned a small purple blade in his hand, staring into its dark, translucent depths. “Alright, tell me the ones based on my powers,” he said grudgingly.

Mercury sat up on her bed, either forgetting or ignoring the danger of the security monitors flagging her lights-out activity. “Okay, I’ve had a few ideas. You make those cool energy blades, right? So tell me what you think of these.” She began ticking them off on her fingers. “Blake sounds like blade, and it’s a common enough name. There’s Ken, which is Japanese for sword – I don’t know if you’re Japanese or not, but you look Asian, and it’s an American name, too. Then I thought of Derek from the word ‘dirk,’ that’s a type of short blade—”

“Say that last one again.”

Mercury paused. “Derek? You like that one?”

1A rolled over, staring intently at her through the dim light. “No, the one you got ‘Derek’ from. Dirk or whatever. What is that? Is it a name?”

“Oh, well…” Mercury scratched her ear. “It’s kind of a long dagger, usually without a cross guard. I’ve always thought they looked cool. But… come to think of it, I guess it IS a name, too. I just thought Derek would be more appropriate, since—”

1A, staring up into the darkness of the ceiling, didn’t hear the rest of Mercury’s blather. Dirk. It sounded… sharp. Powerful. Could this be the Name that would help him reach his potential, like the others had? Would it help him stop feeling so powerless and afraid?

“Dirk,” he said, unknowingly cutting Mercury off again. “I’ll take Dirk.”

Mercury studied him, her eyes glinting silver even in the dim glow of the hallway emergency lighting. Her voice, while still ripply in Lyra’s powers, seemed more solemn somehow. “If… that’s the one you like best. Derek is more common, but… I could see Dirk working for you.”

For the first time that day, Dirk smiled. He didn’t want to be common. He wanted to be the best.

“Alright, Dirk!” Brock’s natural voice filtered to him through the dividing wall between their rooms. The dark kid was gripping his mattress as if physically stopping himself from bouncing up and down. “Dude, welcome to the TEAM!”

“I’m not on a—” Dirk started irritably.

“That’s such a cool name, Dirk!” Shannon’s voice said over the airwaves. Her eyes shone with delight even across the hallway. “It fits you perfect!”

Dirk stared around in puzzlement, which was only increased when Mikey nodded at him – and for once, there was something like actual respect in the blonde kid’s eyes. Lyra sent a short musical riff over the sound waves for all to hear, an inexact mimic of a victory tune Mercury had shared with them while explaining “video games.” The unexpected outpouring of support made Dirk uncomfortable for reasons he couldn’t explain. He rolled over on his bunk, pulling his blanket over his head. “Now can we all get some sleep already?” he grumbled.

But somehow, he didn’t feel quite so angry anymore.

—-

SHUNK! Fshhh…

“Well, well.” The Director approached to study the practice dummy. The energy blade had already dissipated, but for the first time, it had lasted long enough to make a thin cut. The Director turned to the teenage boy waiting ten feet away, and nodded once. “It would seem that you have finally found your motivation. And in only two weeks, at that.” The man ran a finger over the hole thoughtfully. “Not a killing blow, by any means, but significant progress nonetheless.” He fixed his Subject with a searching stare. “I would be very interested to know where this newfound motivation sprang from. For our research. Would you care to share, Subject 1A?”

“Your training is all the motivation I need, sir.” Dirk stared straight ahead, just as always, showing nothing. But something inside him stirred, a confidence that had grown since he’d gotten his Name. The Name was a powerful thing, indeed – it even made the other Subjects seem more bearable. Maybe the Director knew all along. Maybe this was why he’d let them keep the Names. But if he didn’t… Dirk wouldn’t let him take it away like he did everything else.

This time, he was going to keep his secrets.


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A/N: I hope ya’ll had a good Thanksgiving! Also, I’m curious if anyone else noticed what my sister noticed, that being that I accidentally used the kids’ names before their reveals in the last three Earth chapters. XD;;; It’s been fixed now!

Dirk is an interesting dude; he’s always been the grouchy guy of the group. I have recently debated if I was going to give him more Asian or South American heritage, but I forgot this part where Mercury says she thinks he’s Asian, so I guess we’re sticking with that. XD (I mean I suppose he could be a bit of both, this is America.) Fun fact, Mercury also has some Asian in her; . Their ethnicities really have nothing to do with why they are Subjects, though. As for why they are here… well, that’s a subject for later. 😉

Thanks for reading!

~Jenn/River

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