By nightfall, the summit of Heel Hill could be seen from orbit. From that distance, partiers appeared to be multicolored dots, bouncing and bumping to the music. Dust failed to clarify that by ‘our place’ he meant all three of the estates on the hill. They were still not enough to accommodate half the island’s population. Holed up in his bedroom with the blinds drawn, Walt sat before his computer to do some research on one, “Guchkni of Jahtsao”. “Who?” he had asked when James mentioned it to him, “Of where?”
“Goosh-knee from Jot-sow,” James enunciated. “He’s your first mark, but don’t expect him to come quietly, like you did.”
Walt had frowned at him. “Why not?”
“Because,” James grinned his wicked grin, “we picked you for this one.”
As the bass from the music shook the walls, he read all he could find about the Republic of Jahtsao. It was a land rich with culture and tradition at the best of times. It was also a land rampant of crime. Though there was a justice system in place, there was no balance in its enforcement. As their numbers were low, there was only so much the police forces could do. Banded together in groups, they would make sweeps, traveling through the nation to protect and serve on a schedule. But when the cats were away, the mice could control entire cities. Many of the gangs were nomadic, traveling ahead of the pack to loot and plunder as they went. This bizarre pattern gave new meaning to the phrase, ‘crime wave’. Even worse was when the ripples intersected—erupting in urban warfare that claimed casualties for either side. In such a tumultuous state, Jahtsao was in the constant conflict of a kind of civil war.
Caught up in the midst of it was the man they were meant to find—one Guchkni Shmito. Walt couldn’t find any stories of anyone by that name from any reliable sources, but the urban lore surrounding him was deep. A popular topic on the web, this Guchkni had many tales written about him and his adventures in vigilantism. Taking down entire gang factions singlehandedly and evading the police countless times, he’d made enemies and admirers of everyone.
Though he was so well known, none seemed to know what he looked like. Some few said he was elderly, others recalled him being a teenager, skipping school to fight crime. One person claimed he was merely a child, posting a grainy still of the hero as proof. Only one detail remained consistent—Guchkni was virtually invincible, able to withstand gunfire and harsh conditions long enough to fight another day. Walt found that the more he read about him, the more excited he was to meet him. Their departure was only a few days away, and he couldn’t wait.
From somewhere behind him, there was a frantic rattling, then a loud knock at the door that made him jump in his seat. Growling, he went to answer, finding no one there when he opened up. With a sigh, he locked his bedroom door and went downstairs to join the party, carefully stepping around the couple making out on the landing. He’d texted Faith earlier, asking if she was coming. Looking at his phone, he didn’t see any reply.
Someone was waiting for him at the bottom of the stairwell, a gal with orange hair and suntanned skin that matched his own. “Diana,” he greeted, sitting on the last stair beside her. “What are you doing here?”
“Oh, hey!” she replied, meeting her yellow eyes with his for a split second before looking away. “Nothing, just sitting down.”
“Yeah?” Walt grinned. “Seems like you’re waiting for someone.”
Diana buried her face in her hands while all the color in her hair and skin faded to white. “Ugh!” she groaned in muffled exasperation. Then she got to her feet. “Sorry to bother you,” she said; and then she was gone. Left alone on the stairs, Walt scratched his head.
A dense group of the partiers had gathered in the living room, either playing video games with James or watching some sport. Walt passed them by and stepped out onto the back porch, into the heart of the festivity. Below the deck was a crowd of hundreds, all jumping in unison to the beat. Between the other two houses, a stage had been built for a DJ, applying his trade among myriads of colored lights, fog machines and laser beams. Leaning over the railing, he scanned the throngs for any familiar faces. The shallow end of the pool was too crowded for swimming, packed instead with wet dancers.
Then he spotted her, alone at the deep end. She bobbed up and down with the water, her green hair swirling around her head. “Hey!” he called out to her as he descended the stairs and weaved between throngs. “I’ve been looking for you, where…?” He stopped at the edge of the pool as she turned to face him with cold, incredulous eyes. Without a word, she swam off to the other end, pushing the dancers out of her way as she exited the water. Scratching the back of his head, he watched her go until she disappeared in the crowd. It was a feat to be sure, with her blue skin and red bikini blending in with the mish-mash of so many colors. With a sigh, he turned back—meeting face to face with Robin.
“Hi!” she greeted him with a smile, then removed her sunglasses. “I haven’t talked to you since I landed! How’ve you been?”
“I’ve been okay,” Walt shrugged, faking a smile. “I joined the scouts, so…”
“Oh, that’s great! I miss taking missions. Hey, do you wanna dance?”
It wasn’t until she asked that Walt noticed; the music had changed to something slow and romantic. “No thanks, um…I’m looking for somebody.”
Robin grinned, her illuminous purple eyes staring into his. “Are you sure?”
“So what kind of hair color do you like? Do you like brunettes? Or do you prefer blondes?”
What? I don’t…
“Oh yeah, I guess you’re into the more exotic stuff. Best I can do is go redhead, I think.”
Where…? Who is…?
“What about skin tone? Should I match yours or do you like pale girls?”
Walt blinked and shook his head.
“What’s your favorite eye color?”
He could feel the cool sea breeze in his hair, and a warm girl on his arm. He looked down at her red hair and white skin, and her eyes as they turned from blue, to green, to yellow. She pressed herself close against him, with her hand on his abdomen, her breasts on his shoulder, and one leg draped over his lap.
“What the hell?!” Walt sprang to his feet, shoving the girl away. She yelped, nearly falling off the swing. He stumbled as well, almost falling down the porch steps. Once recovered, he stared up at Diana; her features all turned chalk white, with fear in her eyes. “I’m…going back inside,” he told her, leaving her there by herself.
Around the cottage and past the pool, he made his way back up the stairs of his back porch, when someone grabbed his arm. “Hey, where you going?” Dust asked him, a smile on his face. “The party’s just started!” Behind him, Walt noticed Dust’s two siblings, his nephew, and James. The all watched him with expecting eyes.
“I—I was going to…” he began, until Dust pat him hard on the back.
“Stick around, I’m about to make a toast!” Then he turned his head and shouted toward the DJ. “Cut the music!” When the music died, a gasp rose from the crowd. “Lights!” The house lights were dimmed, and a spotlight struck from the roof, shining down on Dust. He held a microphone, tapping it with his fingers. “Good evening everyone!” he boomed as everyone turned their heads towards the interruption. “How are you enjoying the party?” Applause was slow and awkward at first, then rose into proper acclamation. “Good. Good! I’m glad! We put a lot of time and preparation into tonight, as a thank you for everyone’s cooperation in our Haven program. I just wanted to turn our uh, partying on hold and turn it into a celebration for how far we’ve come. And to do that I want to formally introduce everyone to one Walter Helrath!” Upon mention of his name, Dust turned toward him and outstretched his arm, gesturing to join him in the spotlight. He obliged, planting his hands in his pockets and giving everyone a weak smile.
“If you don’t already know this man,” Dust continued, “make sure you shake his hand! Tonight! Before you ask why, let me tell you a story about my father.” A number of people below, as well as the company behind him gave out an audible groan. Walt snorted in amusement. “Fine!” Dust scowled, “Alright, I’ll skip it! The point is, for a while, we thought our generation was only stars, with one exception. And then James came to our island and found us. That’s when we said to ourselves, ‘Wait! If James has that mark, and Kriskin has hers—” Walt’s head snapped up. “—then there’s got to be one more, right?’ So we got to work. You would think finding him would be easy,” Dust turned his head towards James, who only shrugged, “but I suppose other things were supposed to happen first. So fast forward…how long has it been, a year? Almost? And now…he’s certified to recruit, retain and rescue!”
There wasn’t much applause until Dust urged everyone to give Walt a, ‘big hand’. Then Dust asked him to step forward and hold up his arm for all to see his mark. For the first time in his life, Walt felt…almost proud.
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