Modified Souls

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Second Soul - Part Three

"You tell me your story, and I'll tell you mine."

Damien's back stiffens again at that. "I told you what you asked. Now what did you mean 'they don't want all of us dead?' And who killed the 4ths if it wasn't you?"

This time it's my turn to get angry. "You haven't told me squat. You followed a three year old trail to find me, and then the police followed you to me. My wife died alone out there because I couldn't break away from you. In exchange for the utter hell you've made of my life in the past two hours, I'd like to know just who and what in the hell you are!"

I realize I've leaned forward with my fists raised, and back off a little. Raous has his hand on my arm, but I think he's encouraging rather than holding me back. Damien just stares for a long moment after my outburst. He's younger than I first thought, maybe not even thirty. His close cropped beard makes him look older, but his eyes say different. Dammit, I've already got a kid. Why do I have to deal with another?

Finally he looks away and says softly. "I actually followed the police to this planet. But you're right. They probably followed me to your house."

I lean back again with a frustrated huff. Damien keeps speaking softly before I can even decide whether to rage or just ask him again.

"The 5ths killed my twin brother Darys. We were born on Laminda, sons of fifth generation colonists. That is the reason why the government wants us dead."

"I never heard of the place." I've got not energy left for anger. I just want to know what's attached itself to me. "What does it have to do with anything?"

"Laminda is the local name for the fourth planet in the Shulek system. It's on the edge of colonized space, the frontier." Damien pauses for a moment like he's collecting his thoughts. I don't prod. After all, we still have four hours and thirty-seven minutes left. Plenty of time for him to spill whatever sob story he's got hidden away.

"There's something strange about the planet." He says finally. "There's a...force that connects everything on that world. It flows through all life forms there. We locals call it the haze. The first colonists lived outside of it, but now humans have adapted to it. Anyone born there who has at least four generations of ancestors born there, have the flow of the haze running though them."

At that I just eloquently raise an eyebrow. I've seen some strange things in this galaxy, hell I am a strange thing, but this? Some things just stretch believability too far.

Surely picking up on my skepticism, Damien's face sets into stubborn lines. Without another word he holds out his empty right hand before him. He takes a deep breath, and the stubbornness falls from his face to make way for deep concentration.

Just when I think nothing is going to happen, a very faint shimmer emerges around his outstretched hand. It reminds me suddenly of when Jin glowed blue as he used his power. The shimmer then coalesces into a pale purple orb of light no bigger then my fist, and hovering just over Damien's palm. Then the light quivers once and winks out. Damien drops his hand and releases the breath he was holding. I stare for a moment at where the light was only seconds before. I don't know what it was, but it was certainly something.

"Wow, it's pretty..." Raous says softly.

"So that's the haze?" It's as close to an apology as I'm going to give.

Damien accepts it with a nod. "Yeah. I can't externalize it very well. I can only keep it internalized. But with it inside I can use it to make me faster, stronger, tougher." He shrugs and looks thoughtful for a moment. "Darys was the opposite. He couldn't use it when it was inside him, but he could release it in all sorts of ways."

"Like what?" Raous asks as soon as Damien falls quiet. I think to protest his interruption, but despite myself I'm getting curious.

"A ball like what I just barely made, he could make almost without effort. And he could make it burst with enough force to tear a normal human in half. Or he could use one as a shield of sorts, letting nothing pass through the haze." Damien shakes his head sadly. "There's so much we don't know about the haze. Who knows what all it could have done in his hands."

Well, at least I know how this guy can out do a Modified like me in terms of strength and speed. Somehow I'm kind of relieved. Some deep inner part of me was truly afraid the government had been holding one back. I couldn't completely discount the possibility that there was another independent Mod out there.

But, there was still a question left unanswered. "So what about this makes you a target for termination?"

"Government scientists have been studying Laminda since the first haze accepting humans showed up. They still can't figure out what it is, or why it only appears on that planet." Damien's soft voice turns quietly angry. "So until they do, they've instituted a total lock down on travel to or from the planet. They study any haze capable people they can get their hands on, but they do it on Laminda. They don't want any kind of outside contamination of their subjects. Anyone who tries to leave is killed. Any native of Laminda found on another planet is killed."

"So I take it you and your brother left."

"We spent four years in their labs before we managed to escape. Then we smuggled ourselves off the planet because at least that way they wouldn't bring us back."

Well that at least I can understand, sort of. Damien doesn't seem the suicidal type, but I know firsthand what goes on in government laboratories.

"Of the nine successful 3rd Gen Modified, no less than four of them tried to commit suicide by the time the modifications were done." I'm not sure why I'm saying this, but I make sure to add another fact. "I was not one of them."

Damien looks at me for a moment, assessing. Then he nods.

"So." I'm still far from done with my questions. "How did you manage to tangle with a 5th and come out alive?"

"I shouldn't have."

I wait a moment, but it seems there isn't any more coming on it's own. "No doubt. But how?"

Damien heaves a sigh and looks down at his feet. "Darys and I faced them together. And we--"

"Wait, them?" This guy fought more than one and managed to live through it?

If anything, my interruption seems to have made him more willing to talk. "Yes. It wasn't just one that came after us, it was all three."

I'm pretty sure my mouth is hanging open now.

"Darys and I fought with everything we had." He continues in the same dead voice. "And we lost. The 5ths left us dying but not yet dead." Here his voice breaks. After a few seconds he whispers. "My twin used his last breaths to send the remaining haze in his body into mine. Unable to externalize it, I could do nothing to help him. I couldn't stop him from expending his life for mine. The influx of haze healed me just enough that I survived.

"I will destroy the 5ths for what they have done, even if it takes my last breath to do it."

We're all silent after that. Considering my own grief at losing Kikio, perhaps I should be more sympathetic than I am. I can't help thinking though, that Damien's target for vengeance is a little misplaced.

"Is it really the 5ths you want to kill?"

He just gives me a shocked and angry look.

"I mean, the 5ths are mindless. They're weapons, Damien. They aren't like me. If your brother was shot instead, would you swear vengeance against the gun or the man that held it?" He still says nothing, and I continue. Since facing up to the 4ths eight years ago, I can't hate the Mods. They're just tools. "The ones who killed your brother are the government people who gave the 5ths their marching orders, or the ones who locked down your planet."

"Have you ever faced the 5ths?" His voice is low, but furious.

"No." I reply evenly. "Because I want to live out the rest of my abnormal life."

"They smiled as they cut my brother down. They were smiling as they turned and walked away, while Darys and I yet breathed. Those are not the actions of a mindless weapon that only kills on command!"

I simply raise my hand in a helpless gesture. There's no point in arguing with a man bent on revenge. "Just one more question."

"What?" He sounds sullen, and I can't really blame him.

"How did you find me in that alley? Oh, and what is that noise when you walk?" I guess that's two, but even so Damien looks almost glad that I've changed the subject.

"When you passed me in the bar I put a little haze into you."

"I thought you couldn't do that."

"It's not easy, but it isn't impossible." He shrugs. "After that I could tell which direction you went. Like a compass, I got a feel for direction only, but it was enough. It's how I found you when the police were cornering you too."

"So you can just sense where I am?" It's actually a little disturbing considering I've spent a lot of my life on the run.

"Not anymore, the haze has dissipated."

"And the noise?" Now that I know the rest, this last mystery has me really curious.

"I thought you said only one question."

"Humor me."

He sighs, then stands and opens his long coat wide. I hear a faint rattle at the movement, then finally get a chance to see what's making the noise. Sewn onto the lining of his coat, just at his waist, is a cluster of the little plastic fobs like people attach to keycards and ignition keys. They're the cheap kind you can find at any shop, with the little plastic rectangle holding a card printed with some inane saying.

"Are you serious?" This guy actually has a collection of keycard fobs, and what's more he let's their racket impair his ability to move undetected?

He shrugs, and actually looks a little embarrassed. "They were all given to me by people back on Laminda, most of whom are dead now."

I just shake my head. I can't fathom letting such sentimentality potentially interfere with survival. But then I suppose I do always carry Jin's little notepad full of drawings in my pocket.

"So if you're done interrogating me," He sweeps his coat back around him and sits with a muffled rattle. "We've still got plenty of our five hours left. It's about time you spilled your story."

There isn't much to say to that, so I start talking. I tell him about the doc saving me, then sending me running with Jin. I tell him what really happened with the 4ths. Then I tell him what I found on Kikio's disk.

Damien takes it all in better stride than I took his story. He doesn't interrupt once. I almost wish he had, my mouth is dry by the end. Raous, who knew everything but what Kikio left on that disk, is also silent through it all.

"So it really wasn't you." Damien says finally after I fall silent.

"Nope." I almost hate dashing his hopes like that, almost.

"Then what did you mean when you said I needed your help, just not in the way I thought? If Jin really is gone, then how do we even stand a chance?"

"It's not about Jin anymore, it's about what he left behind." I'm actually a little surprised he hasn't figured it out yet. I nod towards Raous in the seat beside me.

"Your son?" Damien still isn't getting it. "What does he have to do with this?"

"I'm not!" Raous pipes up before I can say anything. He's got a silly grin on his little face, like he's enjoying Damien's confusion even more than I am.


"Anson's not my dad!"

"But you..." Damien starts, then looked between the two of us. I'm sure he's noting how Raous is like a miniature version of me. Finally comprehension dawns. "...they take the form of the first person they see...You mean he's...?"

"Yep!" Raous beams at him. Then his little voice turns sad again. "Anson and Kikio have looked after me all this time, but they aren't my parents. Sometimes I think I can almost remember my real dad."

I gotta say, it makes me a little happy to hear that. After Jin who had no idea even what he really was, to me who has no memories of a family, it's good to hear that someone in this line does.

"A little over seven years ago, just after I had met Kikio, we were living together on a space station near the Calvus system." I start without preamble. Raous already knows this, it's for Damien that I'm spilling the story. "I was working maintenance there, and one day while I was outside, Jin showed up. I can't even describe what he was like then. He was totally different from the kid I knew. But he could still speak to me, and his voice was the same. He handed me an egg, and said it was his. He said he'd tried to take care of it himself, but his species just wasn't made to do that.

"The egg hatched right there in my arms. I had to take it inside quick. He was already turning into a human baby. Kikio and I have raised him since." I pull Raous into a fond hug, and add quietly. "The government has known about Raous for nearly three years. Somehow we've stayed hidden until now."

"And you?" Damien locks his dark eyes on Raous. "Do you know?"

Raous shifts in my grip a little, and answers softly. "I know what I am, and what I can do. The 5ths are stronger, so I don't know if it will work as good. But if I do it, then I'll change, and I'll have to go." Suddenly he grips my arm tight. "I don't want to go, Anson. I want to stay with you."

I hug him back, but don't say anything. Kikio and I decided very early on to tell Raous everything. He would at least know what he was before the time came for him to leave us. The only argument I had against his knowing was exactly this. I worried that he might try to fight against what he is, just to stay a little longer by our sides.

Kikio knew this too. What did she say? That a fish may love a bird, but where would they build their nest? An outdated expression, but true. Oh Kik, I can't do this without you!

Before any of us can say anything further, I feel the shuttle begin to descend towards the moon station. The false gravity lessens even as we drop, slowly changing to keep us at a stable level as we approach the moon.

The little moon itself is not habitable, but it does have a large station that serves as a jumping off point to many other worlds. This system is little, and has little to attract much business, but it is centrally located in the inhabited portions of the galaxy. It's got a small population, but many open routes to other worlds. Those were the things Kikio and I looked for when we searched for a place to settle in with a ruse.

I know even before the lurch of the docking mechanisms. Our time is up. The jerking of the shuttle settling into the airlock is just a reminder of what my internal clock has already told me. Five hours is five hours, no matter how long or short it feels for anyone else.

Damien jumps up, startled by our arrival. He really is a kid. He has been grimly silent since we finished what plans we could manage. He doesn't have the benefit of a internal mind-clock. I wonder for a moment how long the trip felt to him.
His eyes are old when he looks at me though. Old and angry. I've never seen anyone who hated the Mods on so personal a level. Except maybe me, but that was long ago, back before I realized there wasn't anything in them to hate.
Raous too startles at the motion and grabs my elbow in one of his little hands. He doesn't have an infallible sense of time either, I guess. Raous's fear is different than Damien's or mine. He isn't afraid for his own life. He's afraid to use his power, afraid to transform and leave my side. He's afraid he'll hold back too long, and won't be able to save anyone. He hasn't said that, but he's been my kid for almost eight years now. He's got my face, and I know what that look means when I wear it.
I squeeze his hand and pull him gently up out of his seat. I take a deep breath and try to stay as calm inside as I'm displaying to the kids. It isn't easy. I've got a deep seated shiver in my chest that I can't fully suppress. I can't hate the 5ths, no matter what Damien may say, and I can't really be scared of them anymore, but I'm still probably going to die in the next few minutes. Whatever else I may be, I'm not ready for that just yet.
I take the right side of the door with Raous just behind me. Damien takes the left, just as we planned. His bizarre collection gives a final faint clack as he settles into position. Raous is the closest to the button that opens the door. I wait almost without breathing for the last of the locks to disengage. Once I hear the final clicks and the green light appears over the door I start counting. None of us move an inch, we just wait. We decided to give the 5ths time enough to make their move. I listen to my personal clock until I know exactly five minutes have passed. Nothing has happened. My unnaturally sharp ears haven't picked up any sounds from outside. I try not to get my hopes too high. The 5ths are better at moving silently than me by a long ways.
I throw Damien a look. We're going on six minutes now. He looks ready, eager almost, except for the tiny quiver in his jaw. The shiver in my gut has only gotten worse. I'm far from ready, but I guess we can't stay in this shuttle forever. With a hand I hope is steady, I signal Raous to open the door.
I almost flinch myself when the shuttle door slides back with a hiss. When nothing happens for two seconds, I dare to peek my head out. I'm faced with a long empty boarding hallway, almost the exact copy of the one I watched Kikio die in. That thought threatens to blur my vision and I roughly shove it aside. It won't help me any to think of that right now. Unlike Damien, I don't blame the 5th for her death. Truth be told I blame Damien or Kikio herself more than the Mod. Or even myself, if I'm to be honest.
I watch the empty hallway for a solid minute before daring to step out of the shuttle. When still nothing happens Raous and Damien follow me out. We've been granted another reprieve it seems. I wish the 5ths would just show up already. All this tension is tying my gut into knots. I'd almost rather die and get it over with than go through all this waiting. Of course, I'd far rather just live.
It isn't easy to take the first step into that hallway, but I manage it. I feel like I've been here before, long ago; walking down an empty hallway, daring to hope I can get to the end of it alive, while knowing I can't. I'm out of practice with running, I realize suddenly. That's why this trip is freaking me out so bad. I got too used to living quietly out of scrutiny. I got so used to the ruse that I forgot what to do with all this fear. I forgot how to shove it aside and just run, just fight, just get through it.
The 5ths let us get almost to the end of the hallway. The one that killed Kikio steps into the hall just in time for us to skid to a stop in front of him. At first I am glad there is just one, but then I remember what Damien had said before. If we're going to have a chance in this battle, we have to fight smarter. There's no room to maneuver in this hall, no where to run. There has to be a larger lobby beyond that door. There has to be a way around him.
I throw Damien a look, and then we're both charging. We aim for either side of the 5th. He only has a human's reach; he can't hope to catch us both. I make it to the door and don't look back. I slam the open button for the doors and brace for what may be on the other side.
There's nothing there. All I see is an empty shuttle lobby. I spin, hoping to see the 5th following me into the empty space. What I see instead chills me to the bone. Damien is against the wall, tossed there no doubt, and slowly recovering. Raous is squirming in the grip of the same hands that killed my wife.
For a moment my fury is enough to overcome my fear. Narrow hallway or no, I spring forward to dash to my kid's aid. I land flat on the floor with the breath knocked out of me, and a blaze of pain in my chest. A second 5th has joined the fight. Even as I realize this, a foot aims for my head, and I fling myself out of it's path. I roll to my knees and clutch at my chest. I feel a presence behind me and try to stagger forward. I'm just too slow, and a thin arm locks around my throat.
I try to yell, call to Damien, Raous, anything, but I can't get air. I can't get anything past the vise that has closed around my neck. I can't do anything to stop the encroaching darkness.
I hear a roaring in my ears, and I feel myself falling. I know I'm not dead only when my knees hit the floor. I'm gasping, gulping in air, but I can see again. The 5th in front of me is a crumpled heap on the floor. The one who nearly strangled me is equally lifeless.
I swivel around on my knees, ready to shout our victory to Raous and Damien. The words die on my tongue. The hands holding Raous are still firm. The 5th who began the destruction of my family is still very much alive.
He tosses Raous aside, much as he did to Damien. I lurch to my feet even as I watch my kid slump against the hallway wall. I know he can't be dead. I say that to myself over and over. The 5th wants him alive. He can't be dead. But how could he take out the other two and leave this one? Did his power not work? Or was he holding back?
I don't know, and I don't much care. All I know is this seeming child has killed my wife, and tossed my kid aside like so much refuse. I'm starting to understand Damien. All I want now is to tear this 5th apart too.
I don't even look for my erstwhile companion. I simply launch myself into an attack. I know better now than to think I can win head on. I duck to the side, striking out even as I dodge hard away. I don't actually hit him, but I am also unscathed. I consider that a minor victory and fling myself into another assault. This time my fist connects, and I relish the crunching sound his ribs make. I may be an obsolete model, but I can still damage him.

I think I've got him reeling, but his recovery is faster than I thought possible. Before I can get myself out of his reach, he's got one of those vise-like hands wrapped around my wrist. I try to lean as far away as I can, but my balance is off. Even with cracked ribs, he's pulling me in with one arm, and readying my death with the other.

Then Damien is there. Augmented by haze, he is easily the equal of me in strength and speed. He leaps onto the 5th's back and pins back the arm raised to strike. For a moment we're all deadlocked. I can't pull away, the 5th can't drop his arm to smash my skull, and Damien is the thread holding us all in place for that one tense moment. Then the 5th and I move at the same instant. I rip my wrist from his grasp. I think it's broken, but by now I am far beyond caring. I ignore the haze of pain it brings and just get ready to strike at any part of the 5th I can find.

The 5th seems almost startled that I was able to tear away, but he's quick to react. With a great heave, he breaks Damien's hold, and again tosses him aside. I spare once glance for my companion. his right elbow is bent at an unnatural angle, but he's climbing to his feet grimly.

I roll out from under the 5th's first punch, and come up swinging. I clip him on the jaw. He nails me in the side. As I fall I catch sight of a black boot aiming for the 5th's head. The loss of an arm isn't stopping Damien. The 5th drops to a knee and the kick sails harmlessly over his head. I scramble up and get him in a chokehold of my own. I heave back on his neck, then I'm falling again. I can't feel anything until my back hits the floor, then the pain hits and my vision starts to scramble. I try dumbly to feel where he hit me, but my broken wrist is making my hand less than useless. Finally I just lift my head and look, my neck still works it seems.

I'm bleeding all over the floor. There's a gaping hole where his bare hand tore through the flesh of my side. The 5th looks down at me for a bare second, then turns away. Clearly he thinks I'm down. I think he's wrong.

I lever myself to my knees and good hand in time to see Damien take a hit that probably broke ribs. The 5th moves in for the kill, and that's when I discover I can still move. A tackle is about all I'm good for now, but this is no longer about winning.

I slam into the 5th and drag him down with my dead weight alone. Of course he throws me off, but keeping him down wasn't the point. I'm sprawled on the floor again, and this time I really can't move.

I lean my head back weakly and look into the 5th's eyes as he stares down at me. There's real annoyance there. Irritation at having to put down a beast he already thought was done for. I can't help but smile through blood and blurred vision. I hope I was one hell of a pain in the ass. I don't even care that the 5th is going to crush my skull before I have a chance to bleed out. He's looking at me. He's seeing me. He's focusing on me and not on either of my charges. I'm a protector dammit, it's what I do.

Just as I expected, the 5th raises his foot for the killing blow. I'm to be stomped out like vermin. Then, without warning, a hazy purple light engulfs his head and he staggers backwards. I let my head fall to the side and see Damien slumped against the wall, with his one good hand emanating the purple Haze.

You goddamned idiot. I think to my companion. Just who is protecting who here? But it's hopeless either way. The purple fades even as I think that, and the 5th quickly shakes off it's effects. Then, just as the last of the Haze disappears, the hallway fills with blue light.

I close my eyes and think of Jin. Then, ever so slightly I feel his presence in that blue space that has no time. There's a light chuckle that I can only hear with my heart. I'm wrong. It isn't Jin at all. It's my kid. He's alive and well, and turning into what he was always meant to be.

When I open my eyes again, after who knows how long, the blue has faded somewhat, and Raous is standing before me. It takes me a moment to realize that all my injuries are healed. I heft myself to my knees to look my kid in the eyes. He's all liquid mercury blue just like Jin, but he kept his kid shape. On an impulse, I pull him into a tight hug.

I can't heal him. It's his voice, inside my head. But he'll live. I can see the Haze inside him. There's enough to repair the worst.

He wriggles out of my embrace, just as he always has done. I'm startled, but not surprised when I feel tears streak down my face. Raous is already turned and walking in a strange liquid way towards the shuttle airlock. I know he can't stay, but right now I wish more than anything to keep him by my side even just a little longer. Still, through the catch in my throat I whisper out the same promise I made to Jin;

"If you ever have a kid...just send him to me, alright?"

Raous looks back with a twinkle in his mercury blue eyes just as the airlock doors swish shut behind him.

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