How To Piss Off A Failed Super Soldier by John Chu
Published 07/12/2016 | 7,216 Words
From the Hugo Award-winning author of “The Water That Falls On You From Nowhere” comes a new short story about family, loyalty, and symbiont-enhanced super-soldiers
From the moment of his birth, Aitch has been prodded, tested, and measured by his scientist mother, by the shadowy government who monitor his every move, and even by his superior younger brother, Jay. When Aitch escapes from his life as a bonafide lab animal, he becomes the DRP’s most wanted subject. They will stop at nothing to terminate Aitch and cover up their failed super-soldier project–and when coercion and high-tech weapons won’t work, they aren’t above assassins and espionage.
Aitch will fight his mother and the DRP to his dying breath, until he learns from Jay that there might be a cure for his super-powers. He starts to believe he could have a future: one that doesn’t end in blood and violence, and involves a broad-shouldered man with warm eyes… Aitch just has to trust Jay first.
RAINDROPS SHATTERED AGAINST AITCH THE way bullets were supposed to but never did. Water splashed with his every step. The bags of rice slumped against his shoulders like freshly dead bodies. Protein bars jostled inside the disintegrating paper bag clutched to his chest. He was not quiet as he jogged home with his groceries. Today’s assassin, undoubtedly hiding in the blind alley just ahead, would hear him before he’d hear their heart beat. Because no one had tried to kill him yet today, each time he neared an alley, he simply assumed someone would be there to try. This time, he was right.
A woman, braced against a dumpster, leveled a weapon at Aitch. He made her as a Drip, an agent working for DRP, right away. The government agency was always testing their latest technologies on him. Long, thin, and silver, the weapon emitted an ultrasonic hum when she triggered it.
Aitch dropped the protein bars and pitched his bags of rice into the line of fire. A bright flash and the smell of toasted rice filled the air. He leapt through the cloud of rice ash toward the Drip. His clothes ignited from the sheer speed. Smoke trailed behind him. Smoldering jeans and T-shirt branded his skin. Rice ash swirled away in all directions.
He landed, scattering gravel which flew in a spray that pinged dents into the dumpster. Pain shuddered up his legs. The sudden stop broke his ankles and ripped the ligaments and tendons from his calves and thighs. As he buckled to the ground, he ripped the weapon out of the Drip’s hands.
Jay emerged from the dumpster’s shadow. He tapped the woman’s neck. She collapsed.
Aitch shot her to test the weapon. She disappeared in a quiet puff. Then he shrugged and shot Jay. His younger brother merely glowed for an instant then looked cross at him. It’d been worth a try.
Jay pulled the weapon out of Aitch’s grip, crushed it, then tossed it into the dumpster along with any hope Aitch had for escape. The idea that DRP’s latest ultimate weapon might distract Jay long enough for Aitch to crawl away and hide until morning seemed silly in retrospect. The symbionts that made Aitch too strong for his own good would have fixed him up by then, though.
“She had no idea you were behind her, did she… No, how could she have.” Aitch was calm. He’d always figured that Jay would eventually do to him what DRP couldn’t. “A normal younger brother would have just called me.”
“And a normal older brother would pick up when I do. It shouldn’t have to be a production to keep you in one spot long enough to talk to you.”
Rain-soaked, Jay’s clothes were plastered to his skin. He had the look and air of an especially broad, muscular chorus boy cast in a Bob Fosse musical. Unlike any dancer though, Jay had once juggled motorcycles on a dare. Mom had fixed all of Aitch’s flaws when she’d engineered Jay. Aitch couldn’t look at him without seeing the lean, tall and elegant being he, himself, should have been. The sight of Jay hurt more than his own broken legs.
“I’m ready, brother.” Aitch flattened himself against the gravel. The rain struck him like rusty nails. “Just kill me quickly.”
“That’s not why I’m here.” Jay crouched next to Aitch. “Mom’s dying—”
“Too bad her favorite child isn’t a promising internist who can also do whatever he wants to any living being he touches. Oh wait…”
Jay looked cross again. “I have my limits, brother.”
“Kill me now and you can fulfill a dying woman’s wish.” Aitch mimed a knife stabbing his chest again and again.
“She’s never actually wanted you dead.” Jay caught Aitch’s fist. “And, now, she just wants to say goodbye.”
Aitch’s legs wrenched back into place. New skin covered his body. Rain now slid harmlessly off him. Aitch stood then nearly doubled over in pain. His hunger pangs were worse than ever. For whatever reason, his symbionts had kicked into overdrive.
“And what I want, of course—” Aitch forced himself back up “—is for her final edicts to rule the rest of my life.”
The symbionts in Aitch’s head turned even vague suggestions from anyone he loved into unyielding commands. It didn’t matter whether they were family or the Drips who’d raised him. His mother had designed those symbionts and infected Aitch herself when he was still an infant. Jay had long ordered Aitch to be himself, but she never had. Aitch had autonomy around Jay. Around her, he was helpless.
“No, what you want is no more broken bones, no more torn muscles when you exert yourself. Mom and I have worked out how to make your symbionts give you a body that even you won’t be strong enough to break. No more Drips hunting you down. Why would they bother?”
Although Aitch thought he was already no more a danger to society than anyone else, DRP obviously thought differently. If he were ordinary, though, too weak to break his own body like Jay said, even DRP would see that he was no danger to anyone. They wouldn’t bother testing their latest technologies on him because he’d be too easy to kill. Grudgingly, he had to admit Jay was right again. Jay was never wrong about anything.
“So I have to visit Mom to get—”
“Oh, no. I made that fix to your symbionts while I fixed your legs.” Jay’s face settled into its customary smile. “They’ll have reworked your body by the time we reach Maryland.”
“Why am I going to Maryland?”
“We’re visiting a DRP archive on the way to Mom’s hospital. I need you to cover me while I liberate Mom’s research.”
“But I destroyed it all.” As a child, Aitch had made sure DRP could never create anyone like him again. By then, though, Mom had already engineered Jay. Not only had Mom gotten Jay right, she’d kept infecting him a secret. Not even Aitch realized at first.
“No, you destroyed millions of dollars of equipment that officially never existed. The government then buried all record of their failed super-soldier research project, including Mom’s notes. For now, what you need is food.” He patted Aitch’s back. “Come on, I have clothes in the car and a diner is just a short jog away. My treat. We need to talk about what the symbionts are doing to your head. Mom and I think we have a fix for that, too.”
Aitch sighed. He’d drive spikes through his eyes if that would fix the symbionts that messed with his brain.
Water puddled under Aitch’s and Jay’s trench coats hanging from the coat rack screwed to the side of their booth. The waitress set Aitch’s fifth and sixth hot turkey sandwiches in front of him. The empty plates for sandwiches one through four sat piled at the edge of the table. Rather than clearing them away, she stood in the thrall of Jay’s charm.
Jay made everyone feel the world existed just for them. He was either an asshole or the sweetest person this side of sainthood. Aitch had long since given up figuring out which. Jay ate his French fries and chatted with the waitress about her kids, the awful weather, working the night shift, and the Red Sox.
Aitch attacked his sandwiches with knife and fork. His stomach still hurt as if he hadn’t eaten at all. Jay’s shirt had him hunch-shouldered and the pants constricted his thighs. Maybe they’d fit better once the now re-engineered symbionts in his body slimmed him down.
“So how’s your boyfriend?”
It took Aitch a moment to realize Jay was speaking to him. The waitress had gone.
“Simon is not my boyfriend.” Aitch kept his head down, staring at his mashed potatoes.
“Oh, I’m sorry.” Jay sounded so damn sincere. “When did you break up?”
“We were never together. He was my climbing partner.”
“I always thought that was a euphemism—”
“It’s not a euphemism. At least once a week, we climbed together then ate afterwards.”
“No, that doesn’t sound like dating at all.”
“He goes through boyfriends like I go through assassins. We climbed together for years.”
“I’m noting a lot of past tense here.”
“That would be because he doesn’t want to climb with me any more.” The knife bent in his hand. Gravy and mashed potato skidded across the table. “Damn.”
“You want to talk about it?”
“No.” Aitch straightened out the knife as best as he could. His grip was still too strong. The symbionts were apparently taking their time normalizing him. “What does this have to do fixing what the symbionts do to my head?”
“They get in the way of your relationships, not to mention any attempt to heal your mind.” Jay grabbed napkins from the dispenser on the table and started sopping the mess onto an empty plate. “You make decisions that would be perfectly rational if you were trying to escape a POW camp.”
Aitch met Jay’s gaze. “I’m not a super-genius like you, but I’m not stupid. Drips really are trying to kill me.”
“Stand down, brother.” Jay held his hands before him. “One, yes, Drips really are trying to kill you. Two, more often than not, you interpret whatever happens as personal attacks. Three, you score off the charts on all the standardized tests. When was the last time you forgot anything?”
“I don’t remember.” Aitch noted Jay hadn’t said anything about their relative intelligence.
Jay went stone-faced for a moment before he burst into a laugh, “Hey, you made a funny that isn’t grim. Simon’s good for you.”
“I wasn’t trying to be funny.” Aitch retreated back into his sandwiches.
“How did you two even meet?” Jay always made his gaze felt even when Aitch was actively avoiding it. “I can’t even get you to pick up the phone.”
Aitch ordered the words in his head. It wouldn’t kill him to tell Jay how he’d met Simon, especially if it’d help fix the symbionts messing with his mind. Slowly, the words spilled out of him.
The day I met Simon, I was studying routes on my favorite rock face. It’s in the middle of New Hampshire. No one else climbs it. That’s why it’s my favorite. Climbers always tromped by, their gear clanging in their backpacks. This once, the clanging stopped right behind me.
“That wall’s blank, you know. I’ve been climbing here for years. No one’s found a climbable route yet.” I didn’t recognize the high, resonant voice. “My partner flaked out on me. I have his shoes and harness. He’s a hefty guy too. There’s a great route just down the trail.”
I free solo. My hiking boots had a little rubber on the sole. A bag of chalk sat strapped around my waist. I’ve never needed any other gear.
“Wall’s not blank.” I didn’t turn around right away. People going all wide-eyed the first time they see me got old even before I’d escaped from DRP. “You just need a little balance and finesse.”
He walked up behind me. Fortunately, he was still clanging with each step. I managed to face him without also pounding him into the dirt.
“You don’t climb, do you?” He gestured at my torso. “All that upper body muscle is impressive as hell but works against you on the rock.”
Simon’s built to climb. Shorts hugged his strong thighs. Hard, diamond shaped calves grew out of his boots. His T-shirt hung from his lanky body. I come up to about his neck. Callouses covered his long, thin fingers. His sweet, grizzled face held such a warm smile, I almost didn’t find his words insulting. Almost.
“So you think he’s hot.” Jay nibbled on a French fry.
Aitch dropped his knife and fork. “Look, do you want to learn how we met or not?”
“It’s strength to weight ratio that counts.” I stripped him of his backpack. “I’ll set up a top rope for you. Give you some beta if you want the help.”
I climbed the rock face—
“A blank wall while wearing hiking boots? You showed off.” Jay’s smile was so radiant that it was probably cancer-causing. His palm slapped the table. The cups, dishes and the napkin dispenser all rattled. “Good for you.”
“No, I didn’t. I’d have picked a hard route if I wanted to show off.”
“Brother…” Jay’s voice rose as if what he was really saying was “Don’t make me hurt you.”
“Fine.” Aitch rolled his eyes. “I wanted to impress him. Happy?”
Simon looked a little strange when I returned his backpack. His jaw worked soundlessly as his gaze darted between me and the top rope I’d set up.
He held his hand out. “Simon.” The name fumbled from his mouth as if it were the only word he knew and he was trying it out for the first time.
“Aitch.” I shook his hand as gently as I could. “Come on, let’s get you up the wall.”
“And did you get him up the wall?” Jay waved for the waitress.
She materialized before him with a jug of coffee. No one else in the diner got such prompt service. Aitch rolled his eyes at the smiles they traded.
“No.” Aitch pushed a plate scraped clean of mashed potato and gravy away from him. He started on the next.
“And, no, I don’t think he’s hot in a T-shirt and shorts. For one thing, he’s far better looking in a tux—”
Aitch stopped, suddenly aware that he wasn’t actually helping his case. Fear gripped his chest. He braced for what he knew was coming.
“When did you see him wear a tux? And how does he look?” Jay, supported by his elbows on the table, leaned towards Aitch. He seemed so damn affable that Aitch wanted to slug him to next Tuesday. “Come clean. Inquiring minds want to know.”
Finishing the sandwich in front of him bought him some time. Jay’s gaze was insistent, though. Aitch, glum, pushed the now empty plate away.
Simon’s a dramatic tenor. He has a voice like a trumpet. It rings for days. Vocally, he’s just right for Samson. A tuxedo does wonders for his body. It makes his shoulders span the stage and presents the illusion of thick arms and a chest as broad as his back. No one attending the concert looked at anyone else on stage.
“So you do think he’s hot.” Jay stacked the dishes then pushed them to the edge of the table.
“Brother, are you trying to make me hate you?”
Aitch didn’t wake up until his shoulder pounded into the blacktop. The car door rebounded then slammed shut. Tires squealed as Jay’s car skidded past him. For a moment, he’d been a kid trapped in a cage again and some Drip was about to discipline him. In reality, he’d been sleeping in Jay’s car on the drive down to Maryland. When Jay had tried to wake him up, he bolted out of the car. That, in his panic, he’d actually opened the door first was a minor miracle. He picked himself up then waited for his pounding heart to slow back down. Jay’s car swung around. It was probably Aitch’s imagination but the car seemed to creep up to him like a hunter approaching a skittish fawn.
Trees hid the building and parking lot from the street. The first light of dawn filled in the gray between the parking lot’s light poles. The building looked like any low, unassuming office. Aitch suspected that most of the building really was office space and the actual archive was below ground.
The car stopped. The engine cut out. The parking lot was silent until Jay emerged.
“I’m glad I didn’t wake you up earlier.” Jay’s face betrayed a concern so sincere that Aitch boiled with fury. Given Aitch’s history with enclosed spaces, Jay should have known better. “Are you ok?”
“Next time you want to wake me up, do whatever it is normal people do instead.” Aitch brushed off his shirt. “Just because you can do anything you want to anyone you touch doesn’t mean you know what to do.”
“Drips should arrive any moment.” Jay started onto the sidewalk. “Just buy me enough time to find Mom’s work.”
“I don’t know that I can.”
Jay turned around. He rolled his eyes. “You’re the strongest person on the planet. You’ve trained in all things combat since you were, what, three?”
Aitch’s brow furrowed. Jay was never wrong, so Aitch had to be missing something. “I’m not even the strongest person in this parking lot.”
The ground rumbled. Metal glinted among the trees. Nothing living then, or else Jay would have noticed them first. The most important rule when fighting Jay: Don’t be organic.
“Robots. Clever.” Jay grabbed Aitch by the shoulders. “Look, we don’t have time to work through your self-esteem issues. Despite what you think, when you outlift me—like you always do—it’s not because I’m holding back. Whatever you do will be more than good enough. See you in ten!”
With that, Jay dashed into the building. A dozen metal hulks emerged from the trees. Their bladed upper limbs spun, shredding branches out of their way. Their articulated legs stretched and shrank, keeping their bodies in perfect balance as they climbed onto the blacktop.
The hulks launched hundred of needles at Aitch. Tiny sonic booms cracked the air.
Aitch jumped out of sheer reflex. The needles whooshed below him. His legs held when he landed. The old him would have shattered his legs when he collapsed onto the pavement. The new him should never have been able to jump that high in the first place. Instead, he was as strong as ever, only now his body could withstand that strength. Aitch groaned.
The odds then weren’t even remotely close. Those hulks never stood a chance.
Metallic limbs and twisted frames littered the pavement. Jay’s car stuck out as the only carcass that wasn’t dented, crushed or smashed in. Aitch’s clothes had burned off in the scuffle. The flames had hurt like hell but hadn’t damaged him. He stood naked and dismayed surveying the wreckage when Jay emerged from the building.
“Wow.” Jay’s eyebrows rode high on his head. “You even kept them away from my car.”
“Did you find Mom’s research?”
“I’ve committed it all to memory.”
“Good.” Aitch decked Jay. “That’s for lying to me.”
Jay disappeared in a plume of dust. Unexpected chunks of sidewalk showered Aitch. He sped away, maneuvering past twisted limbs and dodging falling chunks of concrete and dirt. Pain lingered in his fist and arm. That was appropriate, Aitch decided. Both brothers deserved some pain, Jay for lying and Aitch for trusting him.
The dust settled to reveal the parking lot’s new canyon. Aitch gaped at it. No one was entering or leaving the building without a climb or a running jump. Jay climbed out, slightly shaken but none too worse for wear.
“When in my entire life, pray tell, have I ever lied to you?” Jay rolled his shoulders then brushed dust off his sleeves.
“You said you’d make me normal.” Aitch picked up then tossed a metallic limb. It crashed on the other side of the parking lot. “This is not even in the same universe as normal.”
“Brother, when did I say that? And why would I say that? Even if I knew how, doing that would literally kill you. I said—”
“You said, and I quote, ‘Mom and I have worked out how to make your symbionts give you a body that even you—’” Aitch’s stomach dropped. “Oh. How was I supposed to know you wanted the convoluted interpretation? The English language isn’t meant to be a pretzel. You can hit me back if—”
Aitch never saw the punch. One instant, he was speaking, and the next, he lay in a divot created when he crashed through the blacktop. Before, if anyone could have hit him this hard, he’d have died. Now, he only wished he had. Still, Jay should have been able to at least knock him out.
“You can punch more efficiently than that. I know it.” Aitch tried to get up then decided his symbionts needed more time. “Brother, give me a second, then hit me again. This time, I’ll pay attention to your technique.”
“No. No more hand-to-hand combat lessons.” Jay held his palms out to ward Aitch off. “You teaching me to fight hurt bad enough before I fixed your symbionts.”
Jay went to his car. He grabbed the rear bumper then gestured Aitch over to the front.
“Brother, how does making me tougher stop Drips from hunting me down?” Aitch obliged and they repositioned the car for an easier escape. “If anything, I’m a bigger threat now.”
“Too big a threat. I mean, they’re pretty much content to leave me alone. Besides, you’re only a danger when you feel threatened.” Jay unlocked the car doors. “Did you want to kill me after I punched you?”
“That doesn’t mean anything.” Aitch sat in the passenger seat. “There are only two men in the world who could punch me, not that the other one has, and I’d still think they didn’t mean—”
“Two?” Jay started up the car. “And the other one doesn’t want to climb with you any more?”
“Shut up and drive.” Aitch closed, not slammed, the car door. “If I have to visit Mom, at least you could make it quick.”
So I was in Simon’s bedroom a few nights ago—
“Woohoo!” Jay slapped Aitch’s back. Pride was smeared across Jay’s face.
“Get your mind out of the gutter.” Aitch calibrated the force his fist slammed with against Jay’s shoulder. Jay crashed against the driver side door, but didn’t break through. “He’s not interested in me.”
—looking for my trench coat among the pile of jackets on his bed.
Simon seemed pleased with the bootleg of the Detroit out-of-town of Pleasures and Palaces I gave him. I’d eaten a piece of birthday cake. My duty acquitted, everyone would be happier if I left now before something stupid happened.
“Simon got you to go to both a concert and a party? There doesn’t seem to be anything he can’t make you do.” The smile faded from Jay’s face. That Aitch’s symbionts turned Simon’s words into unyielding commands was no joke. “Oh, I see. Does he know?”
“I didn’t know until I tried to beat up his boyfriend and couldn’t. Simon told me to stop and I let the boyfriend hit my head with his bottle of beer. Until then, everything Simon suggested was something I wanted to do anyway or so I thought.”
“Brother, why were you—”
The boyfriend started it. Simon keeps dating these pretty boys who don’t have the intelligence of a blueberry muffin. If he ever dated anyone who could go toe-to-toe with him intellectually, he might actually sustain a relationship for longer than the half-life of some transuranic element.
Anyway, I bolted. Being in the same room as someone I obey unconditionally has never gone well for me. I was in the middle of New Hampshire before I calmed down.
A team of Drips shot supersonic micro-darts at me from the trees. They all wore sleek power armor no thicker than a sweatshirt. No clunky power source. It stood up to its own augmented strength, and protected the wearer. Much more practical than being me.
After some trial and error, mostly error, I wedged their armor then ran away. Paralyzing them cost me cracked ribs, mashed hands, a broken arm and more wounds than I cared to count. If there’s any justice, those Drips are still trapped inside their futuristic suits, baked to death in the sun.
When I stopped running, my favorite rock face loomed before me in the moonlight. I collapsed and curled into a ball. Hunger cramps hurt worse than my broken fingers and ribs. I writhed on the ground trying to get a protein bar out of a pocket and into my mouth. Dirt rubbed against—
“Obviously, you found enough food to heal yourself because otherwise you’d be dead. What does this have to do with Simon?”
Simon showed up with three roast chickens, corn bread, and an ultimatum. He’d expected me to cover hundreds of miles over a few hours on foot. That made him either an idiot or a Drip. Simon’s no idiot. I heard him before I saw him. Damn him and his loud, operatically trained voice.
“Aitch, sit down and be still.” Since it was Simon saying those words, my body sat down then refused to move. “I’ll be there in a minute.”
“Sorry.” He started clearing dirt off my face. “By now, you’ve worked out the score. Can’t take the chance you’ll run away or refuse to eat.”
He looked at my broken hands then began feeding me meat torn from the carcass. By the second roast chicken, my fingers had straightened and my wounds were healing. I fed myself the third roast chicken. When I ate the bones too, Simon offered me the first two skeletons. After that and the cornbread, I was the fit obedient soldier again.
Simon rubbed his eyes. He stifled a yawn. “Aitch, at ease. The following order is irrevocable: Be yourself.”
His gaze bore the slightest glint of fear. In commanding me to be myself, he’d willingly given up all control over me. If I wanted to crush his chest, the symbionts in my head wouldn’t stop me. Of course, saving my life didn’t exactly make me hate him. Honestly, even now, if he wanted me to kill myself, I don’t know that I wouldn’t try just to make him happy.
“How did you bind me to you?” Ignorance, especially my own, makes me edgy. “Pheromones? PsyOps? And, after all that, why free me? You’ve gone through a lot trouble for nothing.”
“Whoa. One at a time.” Simon held his hands up as though he could hold me off. “No one bound anybody to anyone. You’re so uptight, I had no idea how you felt about me until last night, or else I would have freed you earlier.”
“So it’s a coincidence, then, that you’re a Drip?”
“A what? Oh. Cute.” Apparently, no one had ever called Simon a Drip before. “The day we met, I was supposed to drop you off the side of the mountain, dump boulders on you then infect you with flesh eating bacteria while you were unconscious. Obviously, I bailed. A good climbing partner is too hard to find and if you were going to survive anyway, you were much more likely to keep climbing with me if I didn’t try to kill you.”
I stared at him. How did it happen that it felt paranoid to accuse a Drip of wanting to kill me?
“So it’s your job to climb with me?”
In retrospect, I was misinterpreting exactly like you say I do, brother. Figures. You’re never wrong about anything.
“No. Believe it or not, I deal with you on my own personal time.” Simon crossed his arms over his chest. He drew himself to his full height then glared down at me. “Look, if I were you, I wouldn’t get serious with anyone either. I get that, but Aitch, if you can’t stop scaring away everyone who shows the slightest interest in me, I can’t keep climbing with you.”
For a moment, I couldn’t breathe. For the next few, I didn’t want to. Nothing any other Drip had ever done to me hurt more.
Anyway, he must have seen it on my face. His hand landed awkwardly on my shoulder then shot back as if I were electrified.
“I’m sorry, Aitch.” He checked his watch. “Look, the Washington Chorus is doing the Bach St. John Passion this Saturday and their Evangelist is out sick. They asked me to sub in. I’ll miss my flight if I don’t go soon.”
“I don’t suppose you want me to drive you to Logan.”
“I’m qualified to operate practically any vehicle ever designed.”
“Yes, I know. That’s not what I meant and you know it.”
“Simon always asks me to drop him off then car sit while he’s out of town. Airport parking is expensive.”
“You still want to?” He peered over the styrofoam containers that he now braced against his chest. “I can drive myself. There’s time to drop you off before I go to Logan.”
“It’s ok.” I started down the trail to his car. “I don’t mind driving.”
“Excuse me? You hate driving.” Jay practically choked on his words. “And he let you?”
“Why not? Unlike you, he can’t sense my cortisol level. Besides, I don’t crush steering wheels from the stress any more.” Aitch took a deep breath then forced himself to relax. “As it was, I had to wake him up when we reached Logan.”
“You learned a valuable life lesson suitable for framing that night.”
Aitch slouched in his seat. It groaned in protest. “I learned he doesn’t want me in his life any more.”
“Brother, he drove several hundred miles out of his way, saved your life then offered to drive you home. These are not the acts of a man who doesn’t want you in his life. Love, loyalty and obedience are all messed up in your head so I’ll be blunt: Not everyone who has earned your trust does so to screw you over. Life is better if when you’re literally starving to death and a friend feeds you roast chicken, you thank him.”
Aitch sat back up. His hands let go of the seat cushions.
“Brother, I’ve missed talking to you.”
“Pick up the next time I call or, hell, call me for once.” Jay gave Aitch a dope slap. “Better yet, visit. I have a job waiting for me at Mass General.”
Mom’s hospital room didn’t look a thing like what Aitch expected. A curtained bed sat in the middle. A TV craned from the ceiling, as did a turret aimed at the doorway. Surely, it was supposed to have fired as he opened the door. Two large windows dominated the far wall. A pane of glass from one window rested against the other window. A rope dangled outside the window missing its pane. Crouched down, Simon dropped wrecked bits of electronics in a bag that hung off his climbing harness. In addition, he wore a tux complete with black cummerbund and bow tie. The stripe running down his pants glinted under the florescent light.
Simon froze for a fraction of second after Aitch opened the door. He gave Aitch a low wolf whistle. “Wow. You clean up nice.”
Jay had insisted Aitch into a suit after they’d left the archive. It fit his oddly shaped body too well for comfort. Aitch was used to clothes that cramped his shoulders and fell off his waist.
“You too, Simon. You do all your jobs in a tux?”
“I had to sing the John Passion.” Simon showed Aitch his palms. “As it is, if you’d shown up any earlier, I wouldn’t have disabled the turret in time. Before you ask, the original Evangelist is fine now. Just some carefully timed vocal cord swelling.”
“I don’t get it. Wouldn’t it have been easier to tell me not to come here?” Aitch swept the curtain aside. The bed was empty and cold. “You’ll excuse me if leave. I’ll see you—No, I guess I won’t any more.”
Aitch turned to leave. Jay would catch up at any moment. Aitch had dove out of the hatchback as it’d passed the hospital entrance, leaving Jay to go park the car. No sense in both of them walking into a death trap.
“Aitch, you thought climbing with you was part of my job. Do you seriously think if I’d warned you, you’d have believed me?”
Aitch stopped. Time to stop misinterpreting Simon. At first, Aitch’s words lodged in his throat. He tore them out. “Maybe if I can stop me from scaring myself away, I won’t scare anyone else away from you either.”
The door stood mere steps away. He stared at it, too angry to turn around and face Simon.
“Your timing stinks. Look, we can’t stay in this room. How about we talk this out when we go climbing in a few days?” The zipper on Simon’s bag screeched shut. “I’ll help you find your Mom. She’s probably in this hospital somewhere.”
After one footfall, an ultrasonic hum pierced the room. Time dilated. The walls vibrated, blurring slightly to Aitch but probably not to Simon. Drips had apparently also weaponized the walls.
He had time to either escape or cover Simon with his body. Aitch didn’t need to think. Rather than running out of the room, he ran towards Simon.
Perversely, the fluorescent light overhead dimmed as the walls glowed. By the time he reached Simon, the Drip had thrown himself out the window. Maybe he should have escaped, instead.
The ultrasonic hum rose in pitch until it past the range of even Aitch’s hearing. Light from the walls slammed into him. Everything in the room evaporated, except him. His skin turned red and blistered. Fire scorched through his lungs. The remaining window blew out. Glass cascaded away with a crash. Electricity crackled from stray live wires above him.
Without a Simon to run into, momentum pushed Aitch through the window. After that attack, he didn’t want to crash straight down. His symbionts needed time to fix him. He leapt. His body stretched out. The air whistled in his ears as he rose. A sparse field of cars rushed beneath him.
Simon swung back towards the building on his rope. He’d grabbed it as he’d flown out the window. DRP training in action, by definition, was impressive.
Aitch’s awe lasted for barely a second. Any Drip should have let Aitch pass. Simon, instead, tried to catch Aitch. Unfortunately, his speed and hand-eye coordination were just good enough. He scuttled up the rope and his arm wrapped around Aitch as they intersected. At least he had enough sense to let go of the rope before Aitch’s momentum could rip his arm off. No one who wanted to kill Aitch would do anything this well-meaning but stupid. They hurtled through the air past one parking lot to the next.
Simon secured his grip around Aitch. His hands smeared blood across Aitch’s back. His face pressed up against Aitch’s.
“You ran towards the window rather than out the door. Is that the move of a tactical genius?”
“I wasn’t running towards the window. I was trying to cover you.”
“Oh.” Simon’s brow furrowed. “That’s the sweetest but dumbest thing anyone has ever tried to do for me.”
“I don’t think you get to talk, rope boy.” Aitch resisted the temptation to push Simon off his body. “Now, shut up and let me figure out how I get you down alive.”
“You mean ‘us’, right? Because I’ve memorized your dossier, and I hate to break this to you, but you cannot fly.”
They fell into a hospital parking lot. Aitch skipped against the blacktop, bouncing back into the air again and again. All he could do for Simon was be his shock absorber. He pushed back every time they slammed into the ground. Even though every hit tried to shake Aitch into pieces, Simon flew up and down in smooth, lazy curves.
Eventually, they skidded between two rows of cars. If Aitch were his old self or ordinary, the skidding would have broken skin. Slick blood and shock might have eventually numbed the pain or, more likely, killed him. Instead, the parking lot kept digging into him until he finally stopped moving.
Jay ran towards them. Aitch would have strangled the relief off his brother’s face, but that would have required moving. He felt for Simon’s pulse and found it. Aitch let go of a breath he hadn’t realized he was holding. As long as he’d kept Simon alive, Jay could take care of Simon’s injuries.
“Hm, that’s more damage you should be expected to sink and live. There’s probably a dossier I’m now supposed to update.” Simon looked at Jay but his hand reached for Aitch’s. “Say, you wouldn’t happen to have a brother who’s a lot like you but a little more muscular, a lot more neurotic, and interested in men?”
“You know, there are so many things I could say right now.” Jay looked down at Simon lying on top of Aitch. “However, if I said any of them, my brother would send me into orbit.”
If there was anything worse than being trapped in a car with Jay, it was being trapped in the backseat with Simon while Jay was driving. A tall, broad-shouldered man, even a lean one, was not meant for the backseat of a hatchback. Still, Simon looked surprisingly comfortable, or maybe just resigned, imitating an origami balloon. Jay had offered him a ride home, and, to Aitch’s surprise, he accepted. Who wouldn’t forsake a flight for a seven hour trip in a car too cramped for him? Intellectually, Aitch knew why Simon was here, even if he didn’t quite understand it.
Simon would have been more comfortable in the front passenger seat but he had put Jay’s now half-empty roller bag there instead. Aitch had changed clothes three times in the past twenty-four hours. The T-shirt and shorts he wore now made him feel like a bag of sludge. Or maybe sheer proximity to Simon and Jay was enough to make him feel that way. Some invisible force pinned him against the window even as gravity tried to slide him into Simon.
“Sorry about your mom.” Simon leaned forward, trying to meet Aitch’s gaze. “I had no idea.”
The Drips had cremated Mom’s body a few days ago. Jay had thought she’d last for another few weeks and his surprise that she hadn’t seemed genuine. He was never wrong about matters of life and death.
“It’s ok, Simon.” Aitch stared out the window. Headlights beamed behind them. “I’ll burn a paper replica of her lab as an offering. She’ll never notice she’s dead. Maybe she’ll infect my ancestors, too.”
When Grandfather died, Mom burned a paper airplane so that Grandfather could cross the Pacific and visit. Aitch was twelve and that had made as little sense as everything else had in his life to date, or since.
“Without Mom, working out how to repair the symbionts in your head will take longer, brother, but I’ll do it.” Somewhere on I-95, an orchestra followed them underscoring Jay’s words with lush strings and clarion trumpets. Or maybe Jay’s voice had that effect all by itself. “You have my word. Then we can start healing your mind.”
“Sure, whatever.” Aitch shrugged. “Maybe now that I’m harder to kill, the Drips will lay off.”
“Simon, your chemistry’s just gone wacky.” Concern filled Jay’s voice. “What’s worrying you?”
Simon’s jaw went slack. Nothing could prepare anyone for prolonged exposure to Jay.
“Welcome to my world.” Aitch patted Simon’s thigh. “Once he calibrates himself to you, he might as well be a walking polygraph.”
“Hey, I’m way more accurate and versatile.”
Simon sighed. He paced his words deliberately. “Your day job, freelance software development, can’t possibly hold your interest. None of us want to know what might happen if you ever get… bored.”
“Are you still a Drip, Simon?” Aitch folded his arms across his chest.
“Sure. Singing doesn’t pay that well and DRP doesn’t actually mind that I’m spending time with you.”
Aitch leveled his best glare of disapproval. “How am I supposed to trust either one of you?”
“Brother, yes, we’ve both done suspicious things, but has either of us ever betrayed you?”
Aitch’s memories pierced him like perfect but mismatched crystals. Each one had a beginning, middle, and end. Taken together, though, they made no sense. When he was a kid, Drips he couldn’t help but obey would order him to break his own arm then they’d hug him as they timed how long he took to heal. When their lies had finally worn away his love, the Drips who restrained him and experimented on him also rewarded him with scallion pancakes and beef noodle soup flavored with anise.
“The question isn’t ‘has.’” Dread grew in the pit of Aitch’s stomach. The whine of the engine and the crunch of the tires on the road didn’t reassure him one bit. “The question is ‘will.’”
Neither of them had screwed him over, yet. Trust meant giving them the chance to, then hoping they wouldn’t. What kind of idiot would do that? Life was too short.
His gaze flicked up. If he pushed off hard enough with his legs, they’d break through the floor and puncture the gas tank or something. Maybe if, instead, he threw his weight against—
Jay shouted “Brother,” just before Simon touched Aitch’s arm and said, “Aitch, are you ok?”
Aitch’s hands had balled into fists again. His heart was pounding so hard that he was short of breath. Simon eased Aitch’s hands open.
He was doing it again, he realized. Damn. Intellectually, he got that to take everything they’d done to help him as evidence of their eventual betrayal was perverse. Given that he’d almost bolted again, it was kind of amazing that they
Time to try something else. Aitch took a deep breath. Far from mastering his fear, he settled for recognizing that it’d never go away.
“Brother, I don’t live too far from Mass General. You could stay with me—I mean, if you want—until, you know…”
“That would be great.” Jay’s radiant smile bounced off the rear view into Aitch’s eyes. “Thanks.”
Little by little, Aitch gave into gravity. He leaned into Simon as Simon leaned into him. As the sky grew dark and car’s whine seemed to dull into a purr, Aitch let his eyes close and his head fall against Simon’s chest.
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