Modified Souls

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First Soul - Part Two

When the liner stops to refuel 36 hours and 7 minutes into the trip, the kid and I, like all the other passengers, get off to enjoy a little real air and real gravity. Unlike all the other passengers, I'm terrified at the possibility of seeing a 4th here. The little planet we're stopped at is little better than an isolated mining colony who's only purpose is to provide fuel for all the passenger liners and cargo ships that stop here. There's a little complex full of shops and restaurants for the passengers to enjoy during the few hours the ship spends refueling. If we see a 4th, there will be nowhere to run, nowhere to find a quick exit. I still don't think they could have caught up with us so fast. They might be super human, but even they can't chase someone they didn't know was there. And I'm sure that 4th didn't know we were there back in that shopping center or we would've been snagged by him or his buddies back on that world. I know all this, but I can't help being afraid of what might await us in the little mining colony.

I'm sure the kid catches on to my fear. He's all excited to be out of our little cabin on the ship, to have somewhere bigger than the small recreation deck to explore. But even so, I catch him watching all the people who get off the ship and all those staffing the shops. He knows I can't spot the 4ths as easy as he can. I don't think the government would send their prodigal sons undercover as fast food vendors, store clerks, or restaurant staff, but I guess it doesn't hurt to have the kid scan them too. There aren't many other passengers besides those from our ship. I think I saw only one small passenger shuttle in the hangar. There certainly wouldn't be many locals visiting here. They all work in or around the mines and refineries. Unless they're workers here, I'm pretty sure the touristy charm of the complex is unappealing to those who live on this little colony. I try hard to relax a little. Logic tells me the 4ths can't be here. Unfortunately the 4ths aren't exactly logical beings, and my tension remains.

"Hey Anson, it's lunchtime isn't it?" The kid starts swinging my arm in excitement. "Look, there's so many places!"

He starts tugging me towards the food court then and I let him pull me along. I can't quite convince myself it's safe, but I'm hungry too. I keep scanning the crowd as we wait in line at the sandwich chain the kid likes. Every so often I see him looking around too and wonder if he's also looking for 4ths or just taking in the new scenery.

I find us a seat with as little of the shopping mall as possible behind us and try to relax. The kid keeps watching the crowd as he eats, and I know I can trust him to spot a 4th if there is one here. He almost scares me into doing something really stupid when he starts waving shyly at something. I calm down a bit when I realize he's just waving at a little girl walking past with her parents and not pointing out a 4th to me. If I want to keep blending into crowds I'm going to have to become a lot less jumpy.

"Hello." The little girl's father says amiably as the trio sits at the table beside ours.

"Hi." I manage, and hope it didn't come out as nervous as I feel.

Just then the little girl makes a strange face at the kid. He looks almost offended for a moment, then makes a scary face right back at her. She dissolves into giggles and I can't help chuckling a little myself. I've never seen the kid just be a kid. I guess he's never had much of a chance to.

"Oh honey, that isn't nice." The girl's mother chides, but I can tell she's having trouble not laughing too. The girl blithely ignores her mother and the two kids keep exchanging odd faces while the girl's father tries to engage me in small talk.

"So where are you headed?"

"Visiting relatives." It's not a great story, but it's the first thing I can think of.

"Ah, on Toran IV?"

I think that's where the liner is headed. I haven't really got a plan for where we're going. "Yeah."

"I got a new job on Linsey II. It's a big move but I couldn't turn it down."

I make some noncommital noise and the conversation sort of dies. I can't say I'm really interested in him or his family or his job, and I certainly don't want him to ask my name. I don't want any of them to remember us once we're gone. I don't even hardly look at them as we all eat in relative silence. They could be any young couple, filled with hopes and plans and dreams. I don't want to see that, mostly because I know I can't have it. I guess the kid isn't the only one who doesn't ever get a chance to just be normal around people. Heh, why do I keep doing that...thinking I'm normal?

"Mommy!" The little girl lets out a squeal and starts tugging on her mom's sleeve. Apparently she's finished with both her meal and her scary face contest. "Let's go see what's over there! Over there mommy!"

Her mom sighs and tries to calm her down, her dad just laughs and starts gathering up their lunch trash. "We're trying to wear her out with walking around so she'll sleep for a few cycles on the ship." He says even as his daughter drags his wife away. "I think she's going to wear us out first."

"Yeah uh," It takes me a moment to remember what I'm supposed to say to something like that. "Good luck."

He gives me a wry grin as he follows his wife and daughter towards the rest of the mall. "Thanks, you too."

The kid makes one last freak show expression at her before she and her parents disappear amongst the other passengers. With the lighthearted moment gone, the press of strange people and the knowledge that we're in a very bad spot to be caught by 4ths starts making me edgy again. I take the kid's hand in mine again as I throw away the trash from our lunch. Some of my nervousness must seep through to him because he squeezes my hand and gives me a bit of a smile.

"It's ok Anson. I haven't seen anyone who looks strange on the inside yet."

"That's good." I try not to think too hard about what that statement says about how he sees people, and just try to be reassured. Mostly I just want to be gone and away, farther from where we last saw our pursuers. But the ship doesn't leave for another hour, so I let the kid drag me around to explore the mall. It is a pretty swanky set up, and if I wasn't so fearful for our lives, I'd be enjoying this trip.

All passengers of The Dancer's Web, please return to your cabins. Take off will begin in ten minutes. I repeat...

I halt the kid's exploration when the stewardess's voice rings out over the speakers in the mall. Our break is over. Exactly 7 minutes later we're back in our little room and ready for launch. Even after I get the kid calmed down after take off, neither of us really want to sleep so we just talk as the hours tick by. There isn't much else to do. He asks about the other Mods, and I tell him lots of stories about the other 3rds that are only partly made up. I can tell mostly he just likes hearing my voice. The doc said that about him too way back when. Said the kid could listen to the same stories time after time just because he found the teller's voice soothing. So I sit on the berth, leaning back against the wall with his head resting on my chest, and talk to him about me and my comrades until he drifts off too sleep.

It takes me longer to find rest, but I don't move from my spot as his pillow. Not for the first, nor probably the last time I wonder what about this skinny, adorable little kid has the most powerful humans the world has ever seen chasing us so hard. I know part of it is me. No one but another Mod could take me out and the 4ths are the only ones left. But there's something else, too. Maybe it's just his rarity. I mean, he's a little odd, that's for sure, and he can spot the Mods right away, but he's just a kid.

The more I wonder, the more I see it doesn't matter. I'm on the run whether I keep the kid with me or not. And even if that weren't true, anyone who thinks it reasonable to destroy their human experiments simply because we're out of date is not someone I'd want raising a kid. Part of me also asks why the government didn't try brainwashing us 3rds first. It seems a bit of a waste of lots of research time and money to just kill us off. Sure we aren't the big dogs in town now that the 4ths are in production, but we're still superhuman. Well, I am at any rate. It's a little late for the others. I guess I'd rather have it this way though, now that I think about it. Just as hurting and abnormal was better than dead, running and abnormal is also better than dead. Enslaved zombie and abnormal is not better than dead.

With those rather morbid thoughts I actually find sleep, and I wake up after a time which might have felt like forever if I didn't automatically know it was 9 hours and 22 minutes. It gets kind of irritating actually to always feel each minute exactly. The kid's still sleeping but I shift out from under him as gently as I can. My back has got a serious crick in it. Of course he wakes up as soon as I move. This time he grabs his little pad of paper and pencil and starts drawing. I'm surprised when he comes back to the berth to sit beside me, giving me a clear view of what he's working on. He seems content to let me watch, though, so I wrap an arm around his shoulders and watch as what looks like an angry horned fish starts taking shape on the page.

"Hey Anson?"

"Yeah?" This is how most of our conversations start.

"Are you lonely?" He's using the tiny voice again.

"I've got you don't I?" Before I can even think about the question I just squeeze his shoulder fondly.

"But don't you miss your friends?"

"Yeah." And I do. We 3rds were thrown together by circumstance, but by the time we were done changing we had made ourselves into a pretty tight knit group. It's hard to go through that sort of thing and not feel a certain closeness to the only other eight people in the universe who understand. The government didn't like that much, and the techs tried to keep us apart, but really, how do you challenge a superhuman who feels a grudge against you for putting them through the hell that was modification? Maybe that was really what spawned the project to start creating the 4ths. We didn't do as we were told always. Oh we followed orders because it was our meal ticket, but after the techs pronounced us successful, they had no say whatsoever in what we chose to do on our own time.

"Hey Anson?"

"Yeah?"

He puts down his drawing and takes a deep breath like he's about to jump into cold water. "If those people catch us, will they keep us apart?"

They'll do more than that, kid. Is what I think of that, what I say is "Yeah, that's their plan."

"Then I won't let them." He sounds so determined I can't help but give his shoulder another squeeze. "Because I wanna stay with you forever. I wanna keep traveling with you, and keep meeting fun people like that girl at lunch. She was funny wasn't she? Can I stay with you always?"

"As long as you like, kid--Jin." He makes a happy kid noise and clings to my arm. I pull him close until he wriggles free to go back to his drawing. We'll stay together as long as we can, as long as I can make it. If I can make it feel like forever to him, I will. I remember too well what that 4th did to me before to think we can make it out of this indefinitely. Someday they'll catch up to us and that'll be that.

I know it's over as soon as we step down off the ship. The kid's hand instantly grips mine tighter, and I know it's because he sees the two 4ths standing at the concession line same as I do. My stomach feels like it's dropping down into my ankles, but somehow I stay calm. They haven't turned this way yet, we can still sneak past them. I reach down and heft the kid up onto my shoulders like the most normal dad I can imagine. For once he doesn't protest. I'm pretty sure I can't outrun them, I am an obsolete model after all, but to even have a chance at trying I can't let the kid set the pace. I don't hurry, I don't call any attention to us, I just start walking in the direction away from the 4ths. I recognize the two from previous encounters and don't even want to consider the possibility that there might be more. The best I can hope is that they won't attack in a public place. If the kid and I can disappear into the crowd we might yet be able to make it out alive for a little longer. I don't know how they got on our trail so fast or how they got ahead of us. Maybe it's just coincidence, maybe they weren't waiting for us to get off that ship. Maybe I just can't face facts. Maybe I'm just too stubborn to give in. We need to be away, far away. The galaxy isn't big enough to hide from the government in. We haven't touched a world the government controls since that first month, and still the 4ths always manage to find us.

The kid's looking all around, I can feel him twisting about. "They're following us." He whispers so soft I know I wouldn't hear it without my enhanced senses.

"How close?" Things are seeming more hopeless by the minute, and believe me I can feel every one tick by.

"They just left the food line."

"Shit." We aren't far enough away, they'll see us if we turn aside.

"Are they going to catch us?" He isn't using the tiny voice. His whisper is surprisingly steady.

"Not if I can help it." And I sure as hell mean it.

"If they do I won't let them split us up."

Sure kid, you do that. A sudden idea hits me and I reach up to take a hold of the kid's arms. "Hey, slide down, I'll give you a piggy back ride." He's quick to do as I say and soon he's settled against my back with his little arms wrapped around my neck. At least this way he isn't sitting above my head like a flag showing the 4ths where we are in a crowd. As soon as he's settled I start walking a bit faster into the nearest press of people. It shouldn't be hard to get lost in the crowd. This station is large, the planet is prosperous and gets a lot of visitors. I keep ducking down hallways and through corridors, always looking to hide in the most congested areas. The people slow me down, but with any luck at all the 4ths are getting bogged down too and are having a hard time seeing me without the kid on my shoulders. I'm really not any taller than average, so I'm sure I blend in. Somehow I think I'm starting to feel like we might make it again. That's right up until I turn down a narrow hallway only to find it empty. Well no, not empty, there's just no crowd here. It ends in a staircase that goes down a few steps to a broad landing and another set of steps leading down into the service tunnels beneath the station. And standing in the middle of that landing is the 4th we saw in the shopping center only days ago.

I stop dead in my tracks, but the 4th doesn't move. He just stands there on the landing looking blankly at me. He looks like a kid himself, fifteen maybe. There's no hostility in his eyes, no expression on his face, he's just blank. Despite looks he's quite capable of killing me. I know it and he knows it. And now there's nowhere for me to run. In a few seconds the other two are going to come and trap me in this hallway that goes no place. I'm boxed in and that's it, game over. The 3rd Generation Modified are hereby eliminated. Strangely I'm rather calm about this. Even though I can feel each second tick past and tick me closer to death, I'm not panicking. The only things I can think about are how I'm going to be able to hang on to the kid while fighting, and how much pain I can inflict on the 4ths before I go. They'll take me down, I have no doubt, but I'm sure as hell going to make them pay for every inch I fall.

Even though I'm expecting it, the twin thuds of two sets of feet planting themselves in the mouth of the hallway rattles my calm. Suddenly I'm not so sure I can even touch any of them, let alone do any lasting harm. One 4th damn near killed me before, what in hell am I gonna do against three? I chomp down on that thought as fast as I think it. If I give up now, after all the kid and I have been through, it makes it all worth nothing. So as soon as I hear the two shift behind be I launch myself towards the third on the landing. He's younger, newer, maybe stronger because of it, but maybe his changes haven't fully grown in yet. Either way, he's standing alone, and he's going down first.

I haven't taken more than one step when something invisible slams through me with all the force of a jet engine. Instantly every nerve is on fire and I stagger under a haze of pain. I grip the stair railing so hard I'm sure the metal bends, but I don't fall. And I keep my eyes on the 4th on the landing, who still looks blank, but who is now holding his arm out towards me as if he's holding my brain's pain receptors and squeezing. I struggle to stay upright, let alone move.

I hear the kid cry out, but my reaction time is shot. A heavy shove rips his little weight off my back and sends me tumbling down the half flight of stairs. The pain still arcing through me makes dull the sensations of impact with the steps and the screech of the metal railing as I tear it away from the wall. I land with a thud and somehow find my balance. Even though every nerve is screaming still and my guts feel like they've been scrambled like a couple of soggy eggs, I lurch to my feet and try to find the 4th through the spots in my vision.

I'm still holding a length of the railing somehow, and without thinking I bring it up like a club. He drops me before I can even take a good swing at him. I don't know where he hit me, everything hurts too much to feel. This time I don't get up. I think I'm still holding the railing piece, but I can't feel anything of my hand except pain. I can't move, can barely breathe, all I can do is lay there and watch through the haze in my eyes as I'm delivered my death.

And then it's gone. The pain ripping through every fiber of my body is gone. I can feel again. I can feel the smooth metal rail in my hand. I can feel the hard tiles beneath me. I can feel the kid's hand gripping a handful of my jacket sleeve. Somehow he made it back beside me. I can also feel sharp pain radiating out from my right shoulder, it must be where the 4th hit me. A 4th Gen Mod is about the only thing capable of hurting me. Even my tumble down the stairs won't so much as bruise. But it doesn't matter, the pain in my shoulder is something I can ignore; something I can grit my teeth and bear. I can feel it. I can breathe. I can move. I scramble to my knees even as the 4th charges at me. I ignore the screaming of my my right arm and bring up the piece of railing, intending to either block his lunge, or clock him upside the head with it. Maybe both.

"STOP!!"

It's the kid screaming. His voice is so shrill and so loud that I'm startled into the very stupid and likely fatal mistake of looking at him for a fraction of a second. I recover my senses in an instant and turn back to my attacker, but amazingly, he's stopped. The 4th is frozen in mid lunge, his face showing nothing but calm efficiency, and his fist still aimed at my face. Before shock and confusion can freeze me too, I scuttle backwards and haul myself to my feet.

The other two 4ths at the top of the steps aren't moving either. They're all just frozen. The kid's standing next to me, I can feel him grab hold of my pant leg. I keep staring at the 4ths for a few seconds, but they show no signs of moving. I can't even see that they're breathing. The kid's panting pretty heavy and I risk looking away from our enemies to check if he's hurt. For an instant so brief even my internal clock can't tell me how long it was he's got this weird aura like somebody's backlit him with a blue spotlight. Then it's gone and he's just the kid again, looking shit scared and on the verge of tears.

A couple of thuds echo in the hallway and I look to find the three 4ths have collapsed into limp heaps on the floor. They are definitely not breathing. As if someone has cut the adrenaline flow to my limbs, I too fall to the floor and end up sitting against the wall. The railing piece falls from my sweat-slick hand with a clang.


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