TNP 19: The Duel, Pt 1

[Author’s Note: I missed the weekly update. Ah well. I’m likely to post less over the next month, as work is getting busier.]

“Damnit, that smuggler was our best bet, and turns out he don’t even have a working sub.” Sue picks a dumbbell off the rack and tosses it lightly in his hand. “Shit, that still bugs me.”

            “It’s been two weeks,” I say. “Let it go.”

“There don’t be no better way, far as I can tell. Not that we’ve found. How’m I supposed to let that shit go?”

I glance up at the camera watching us from the corner off the weights room. “Shouldn’t we wait to talk about this in the cave?”

            “Looks too suspicious if we always go to the same spots.” Dolphin is sitting on the floor, his back against the railing. He wiggles his fingers. “Relax, though. I got us covered. Pretty simple, really. I’m just mirroring the vibrations from the supply closet down the hall onto the camera’s microphone.”

            “Are you sure there’s no other bugs?”

            “We meet here all the time, Square,” Sue says. “Just you ain’t been with us ‘cause of that girl. You still on the outs with her?”

            “No. Maybe. I don’t know.” In History class, she said we were good, but that’s what she said when all the trouble started. And I still don’t even know what went wrong then.

            Sue rolls his eyes. “Look, we gotta come up with a new plan. Anybody got anything?” he asks the group, at large.

            “Been trying to think of how we could use your new superpowers,” Bally says, looking over at him. “But we still don’t know how cold iron works on them.”

            “Could test them out,” Dolphin suggests.

            “Too risky.” Mouse shakes his head.  “Wolfe’s starting to catch on. After she found out about Fatso and Strawberry’s powers, she’s been watching people more closely than ever. Fish got hauled away just yesterday.”

            “What?” I blink at him. I hadn’t heard about that.

“Didn’t you see the helicopter coming back this morning?” Mouse looks at me. “And kids keep disappearing to Detention.  Really risky to use ‘Aptitudes’ right now.”

            “Be cool if Square could develop some extremely convenient powers like water-shifting or something,” Dolphin says. “Or hey, like summoning a whale.”

            “Great. Fucking Aquaman?” Sue says.

“I could see it,” Ball Buster says, chuckling.

            “Hilarious, you guys,” I say. “Look, that—”

            The door swings open, and Destro comes in. The short, pudgy guy doesn’t seem like the weightlifting type. He looks startled to see us too but quickly recovers and smiles. “Hello, noble friends! This is most unforeseen. Do you also welcome the opportunity to exercise?”

            “Sure,” Sue answers. He’s got that look on his face—a look he reserves specifically for Destro, ranging somewhere between dismay and disbelief.

            Destro looks at Dolphin. “Aren’t you working, my friend?”

            “Don’t see the point. These things are like lifting soup cans,” Dolphin replies. The weights in the room are made of depleted uranium, but even so, it’s not a great effort.

            “Truly, but it requires strength to lift even a soup can 500 times,” Destro says, still smiling.

“They have weightlifting machines in Ethiopia?” Ball Buster asks him, as Destro sets up by the leg-press machine.

Destro laughs. “Of course they do! Why shouldn’t they have such a thing? We lift weights, just as Americans do.”

Ball Buster looks a little shamefaced, which is new. “Shit, man. I just thought … I mean, you’re always acting so surprised by everything here.”

“Ah. Well, yes. This is so. My family, they were somewhat reserved. I did not get out much as a child. That isn’t what I did.”

It occurs to me that I haven’t actually heard much about Destro’s past. “How’d you get caught, anyway?”

            “Ah!” Destro sits down on a bench. “It was at the airport. I was selected randomly by the computer for a security check.”

            “Random, my ass,” Sue says.

            “They required me to take my shirt off,” Destro says. “This they did. And then they saw the hole in my chest. It was most concerning to them, and I suppose some sort of security alert must have been sent to DEVAS. A most unfortunate piece of stupidity on my part. I should have known.”

            “How could you have possibly known?” I ask.

            He looks surprised, but before he can respond, a girl’s voice breaks in.

            “You’re an idiot.

            All our heads swivel as one, but there’s no-one at the door. We look back around, and Dolphin’s leaning against the lockers, fingers pressed to the metal. He wiggles his eyebrows at us.

            “I mean, it’s none of my business,”the voice continues. It sounds cold through the metal, and the words are dry and monotonal. “But what even is your problem?

            Don’t start,” another voice responds, its tone angry. “I just can’t deal with you right now.

            Destro seems keenly interested in what’s going on. “Oh, that’s most fascinating,” he says, getting up to see more closely. “How long have you been able to do that?”

            “Where are they?” Ball Buster says, moving up next to the locker, his fingers splaying out against the metal. Dolphin doesn’t answer him.

            “Why can’t you deal?” the first voice asks. “Can you tell me that, at least?” Silence. “This isn’t about your old room again, is it? Talk to one of the guards. I’ll bet one of them has a Justin Bieber poster you could buy. Or knows where to get one.

            “They get to buy shit?” Sue says. He’s up alongside the others.

            “Ever wonder what’s up with that?” Ball Buster asks. “A poster of a girl in a bikini, that’s creepy, but Justin Bieber with his boxers falling off him, that’s just a girl having a crush.”

            “Yeah, we’re all really interested in having that argument right now,” Dolphin says.

            “Any woman in a bikini is enough for a man,” Destro says. He’s standing back a bit from the others, studying them. “But a woman usually wants a specific man on her poster. The person is what she’s obsessed with, not the—”

            “Holy shit, man. No-one cares!” Sue says.

            I’ve missed a few exchanges between the girls, so I don’t quite get the context of “… he’s not supposed to! They said if given the opportunity, he’d …” The voice is cut short, but I recognize it now.

            That’s Val.

            “And that’s a problem?”the first voice says. With Val as context, I recognize the voice as Faith’s. “I really don’t get you. Why in the hell would you want that? Do you have any idea what … it’s not some fun sexy thing, you idiot. When my …” This voice is also cut short.

            It’s not like yours, okay? You threw that guy through a wall.

            “I didn’t know I could do that,” Faith says. “And there was a gun he … look, that’s not even the point. I liked this guy, I trusted him, and it turned out I was just … trash to him.” There’s a slight hitch to her voice.

            We shouldn’t be listening. “Guys,” I say, stepping forward. “Cut it out. Dolphin, you’ve had your fun, but this isn’t any of our business.”

            Dolphin barely looks around. “C’mon, Square. Don’t be like that. This is getting juicy.”

            “It sucks, okay?” Faith continues. “And then you’ve got these poisoned memories all in your head, about whether you actually ever were friends or if you were just being used the whole time…. You don’t want that.

            “This is private stuff. The girl’s putting herself out there for her friend,” I say. “Not to entertain us.” Now, even Mouse has his hand pressed to the wall.

            “Who cares?” Dolphin says.

            “It’s not the same,” Val says. “It isn’t like that with me and him, anyway.

            What about you and your boyfriend isn’t like that?” Faith sounds incredulous.

            “Oooh, they talking shit about you, now.” Sue looks at me and grins. “We gotta hear this.”

            “Just step away from the wall,” I say. I’ve halted in my tracks, and my ears are burning for more, but we really need to stop.

            “You talk about him all the time. You have all sorts of good times together. You trust him, right?”Faith says.

            “It’s not that simple.

            But you like him. I know that. What was it, a week or so back you were gushing on about his thing with the knights.”

            “Thing with the knights?” Ball-Buster looks at me.

Well, yeah, but that … I mean, he only … Look, the thing with him is…”

            “Oooh, we’re getting to the good stuff now!” Dolphin grins at me.

            I grab him by the shirtfront and throw him into the opposite wall. Sue’s hand is pressed against the wall still (and my face gets hotter as I suddenly realize why they’ve all been doing that), and he can’t move in time to block my one-two palm strikes to the chest, sending him crashing backwards into Mouse.

            Ball Buster is standing back, hands up. “Okay, okay, Square. Jeez,” he says. “We get the idea.”

            “I doubt it.” There’s pounding in my eardrums; my face feels like it’s glowing. “Get away from the wall already. All of you.”

            “We’re going, we’re going,” Sue mutters, getting up, stumbling back. “No need to go all Hidden Dragon.”

            This feels out of tune with our usual banter. I don’t like it, but I can’t very well go back now. “It’s just creepy,” I say. “Like you guys complain about Wolfe spying on us.”

            “Sheesh, Square,” Dolphin says, picking himself up off the floor. “If I’d known you were that uptight about it…. What’s the big deal? What they don’t know won’t hurt them.”

            I can’t quite explain it. I don’t have the words. But it’s wrong.

            Dolphin narrows his eyes at me. He touches the weight machine behind him. For a minute, I think he’s doing the sensing thing—and then the machine starts to emit a high, piercing hum. I put my hands over my ears, but it’s still loud, it still …

            Ball Buster cuffs Dolphin on the head. “Cut it out, man,” he says. “The rest of us have ears too, you know.”

            Dolphin glares at him, but he lets go.

            I want to leave. But I’m pretty sure the second I do, they’ll be back at the lockers. They’re probably just going to sometime when you’re not here, Chad. What difference does it make?

            A door slams in the hallway. We just have just time to get up and look casual when Faith pokes her head in. “Everything all right in here? We heard a crash …”

            “All good,” Ball Buster says. He’s looking at me, but I don’t intend to say anything. “Just knocked over some weight equipment.”

            “Hm.” Faith nods and disappears.

            It’s my cue. “I’m leaving,” I announce and push my way out.


Sue comes with me, surprisingly enough. I start jogging to get away from him, but he just jogs alongside me. For about a minute, we just run.

“Dolphin ain’t so bad, you know,” he says.

            “I never said he was.” It’s true.

            “Mm.” Sue doesn’t push the point. For another minute, again, it’s just running.

            “You still wearing that card-necklace thing?” he asks, after a while. “Cause I tell you, man, you be acting different ever since you got that. Like not majorly, but enough. And you don’t even notice, do you?”

            “I guess not. What about you?” Two nights ago, Sue collapsed after only four minutes of running. The next morning he saw Doc about a card of his own.

            “I wear it most of the time,” he says. “Just sometimes … I don’t like feeling chained in. Y’feel me? Especially by some old guy I don’t even know and who gotta be shady as shit about everything.”

            I have to agree with that. Mouse has also gotten a card, now, but neither he nor Sue have managed to coax any further answers out of Doc about where he comes from, what he knows, or even how old he actually is. Doesn’t inspire a lot of confidence.

            “What do you figure about that guy?” Sue asks. “He some secret society Illuminati James Bond or something?”

            “If so, he can’t be doing a very good job. All he does is teach and give us cards.” The running is starting to get to me. I feel my chest starting to burn. “Maybe there’s … something sinister about … that, but it’s not like he’s… spread them around a lot, so … so how much is … is he even—”

            “Hey … can we stop?” Sue asks.

            “Sure. Was … going to suggest that … actually,” I say, bringing myself to a halt. We stand for a moment by the fence, breathing hard.

            “Shit, man,” Sue says, after a minute. “The cards help, but this is getting bad. I mean, we were just lifting earlier, but … damn.”

            “Yeah,” I agree, still panting. “But what can we do?”


“Y’know,” says Sue, an hour later, as we’re playing pool at the rec center, “there’s still that huge-ass copter on top of the Tower.”

“Sure,” I say, trying to ignore the shouts and dings of the arcade floor below, “but none of us know how to fly that.”

            Mouse, who caught up with Sue and me outside, looks uncomfortable. “We … could threaten to kill the pilot.”

             “You’ve been spending too much time with Dolphin,” I say.

            “It’s going to be him or us, Square.”

            There’s not much I have to say to that. Killing a person seems incredible (it worries me that it doesn’t also seem terrible), but dying seems like a pretty big deal too. I wonder about my Code. “Respect life,” Doc wrote into it. Guess that could have been more specific.

“We’re still figuring stuff out,” I say. “Maybe we can fly. Angels fly, right?”

            “Maybe. But do aliens? Or mutants?” Mouse says. “Besides, they know about our abilities and what we can do. Do you really think they haven’t thought of us flying?”

Sue looks up at the rec center cameras. “They ain’t bright enough to figure out how useless listening bugs are in a video arcade. Some smart people can be real stupid.” He hits the ball. It sails across the table and completely misses the striped ball.

“Or they’re just holding off and letting us think they don’t know,” Mouse says.

“If they did know, they’d have picked us up by now,” I say, taking the cue from Sue. “Like Fish.”

“Or Dog,” Sue says.

“Dog was sent to Detention, not off the island,” Mouse corrects.

“Man, that was a total set-up,” says Sue.

“Don’t even,” I say, leaning over the table. “Destro backed up what the girl said. He’s not the kind of guy to turn on someone.”

Sue looks about to answer, but a sudden outburst of noise makes him look over the railing, and his eyes widen. “Holy shit. That eskimo chick’s here.”

            “Heather?”

            “She’s got a guard with her.” Sue hisses.

Steps on the stairs. We all try to look as casual as possible as the Sergeant’s hard face comes up, followed by Eddie’s runner.

             “The girl says she knows you,” Red Spruce says, jerking her head at Heather. “Well?”

            We exchange glances. “Yeah, sorta,” I say. Seems a bit weird that that’s all it takes for someone to get a meeting, but Heather mentioned she knew Red Spruce—maybe that counts for something.

            Heather looks bashful. “Doc wanted me to give you guys a message,” she says. “He was hoping you could help him out with some things at the museum later.”

            I almost look at Sue, but I stop myself. Doc has never once sent Heather to us with a message. But with the sergeant right there, it’s really not a good idea to let on. “Sure,” I say.

            Heather hesitates. “Well,” she says. “That’s all.” She starts to move back towards the stairs.

            There’s something wistful in how she looks at the table. I guess that’s why I open my mouth.

“Hey.”

She turns around.

            “You know how to play pool?” I hold out the cue.


The ball sinks in the goal, and Heather lets out a little cheer. “That was amazing!” She claps her hands. “Oh, man, I’ve never had this much fun.”

“Girl, you gotta have been here before.” Sue looks at Sergeant Red Spruce, who’s leaning against a pillar on the side. There’s a small grin playing around her mouth.

“Well yeah, but not with anyone.” Heather smiles at him. “There’s not a lot of kids on base.”

Shouts and yells erupt on the floor below. Immediately, we’re all at the edge of the balcony. Down below, the crowd has turned into a ring around two boys circling each other in the middle. I guess Icepick and Hammerhead have some unfinished issues from the fight last week.

Red Spruce’s hand goes to a mike clipped to her vest. “We have a situation in the recreational facility. Repeat: situation …”

“Shit,” Sue says. Icepick’s last punch went a little wide and knocked some other guy on the jaw. He looks pretty mad. I can see other people in the crowd, jostling each other, starting to wrestle. Things are starting to look bad. The index card against my chest is pushing me to do something, but jumping in there will just make it worse.

“Mouse?”

He looks surprised at me calling on him. He looks at Heather, then at Sergeant Red Spruce, who’s got her eyes fixed on the scuffle downstairs. Neither one of them is paying attention to him.

He flexes his fingers and his eyes start to glow.

It doesn’t seem to do much. People are still yelling, still shouting. But the crowd backs off a little—becoming less of a mob and more of an audience. Icepick and Hammerhead have pushed off each other and are now just having a screaming match in the middle of a small ring of observers.

I’m impressed. Mouse is sweating, looking strained. He can’t keep this up for long.

Icepick steps in quick and punches Hammerhead on the jaw. He flies back, crashing into the observers on the ring. Anyone but Nephilim would have been crushed by that. He pushes himself back up.

And then the doors to the rec room blow open, and the place is full of soldiers.


“At least we didn’t get in trouble thistime,” Sue says, as we walk along the path. We’re carrying Mouse between us. He collapsed the minute the guards came in.

“Only ‘cause Red Spruce vouched for us,” I say.

Mouse nods. “Lot of suspensions to work through. And Icepick and Hammerhead in Detention. Think they’ll end up like Tunnel Rat?”

“You mean Space Case?” says Sue. “I dunno, man. I mean, yeah, Tiger on Monday was pretty messed up, but Big Bear got out on Thursday, and he still okay. I think it’s more if you got a record, y’know?”

“Maybe,” I say. Camp’s getting a bit scary. “That’s not great news for us, then.”

“Might also be how bad you done, like with Dog.” Sue looks over at Mouse. “But check out Mr. Calm over here. My man! Quiets down a whole crowd! Man, my old bio teacher would love you.”

Mouse grins wearily. “I’m definitely getting better. I haven’t practiced it much, but … pretty good, right?”

“Damn straight!” Sue says. “Everybody beefing up on their superpowers. Mm! Everybody ‘cept Square, anyway.”

“Thanks for that,” I say.

“What was that about the museum, do you think?” Mouse says.

“I’m guessing an excuse to meet with us,” I say. “Maybe Eddie’s got …”

I stop. The path we’re on is pretty bare, but about fifty paces ahead, I can see a small red shape, lying flat on the ground.

“Hey!” I call out. I shrug Mouse off onto Sue and jog forward. “You okay?”

The shape isn’t moving. Face down, in the snow. It’s a red parka, but the fur lining is burnt, and the plastic is cracked and peeling back in places. The hand is small, the skin smooth. Feminine.

“Hey!” I come up to the body and crouch down. Hesitantly, I reach out and touch the shoulder. The fabric is warm. A bit of the coat tears off as I turn the person over to face us.

It’s Val.


“Let me through!” The few stragglers in front of the clinic barely have time to look around in surprise before I’m crashing through the doors. “I need a … she needs a … she …” There’s a nurse standing in front of me, and I present the body in my arms. “Please help her.”

            “We need a stretcher out here!” The nurse half-turns, yelling over her shoulder, even as she reaches for Val’s coat. “Code—”

            I don’t really hear the rest. A stretcher comes wheeling out, and hands take Val away from me. There’s an oxygen mask being fitted over her face. They’re attaching heartbeat monitors and little wires everywhere. Straps go over her and draw tight.

            My body is cold and hot. I feel a world of rage pressing tighter about my skull, thumping at my ears. I’m in Active mode; I can tell, as my powers are flaring out, almost at random. I’m aware of the room, everyone in the room, the infirmary rooms beyond (strangely empty), a long shaft further past, going down, down …

            A single bare arm shakes itself loose and reaches out, trembling, for my coat. I lean in instinctively. I feel the nurses trying to stop me, but they’re like leaves brushing against me.

            Val’s breath comes in shivers and gasps. It’s hot on my ear. But I still hear her.

            “S … Side … winder. It was … Sidewinder.”


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