The Fourth Faction

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The Artificial

After training, Mark had thought he could go home. Wally Mikkelsen and Pete Meister had left to pick up dinner, and H had wandered off silently into the darkness. Mark had also been on his way home when he heard his name being called out from behind him.

"It's Friday night. Do you think your parents will mind if you stay out a little later?" With his hands in his pockets and a knowing smile, Kenny stood in the light cast down from the streetlight up above.

Mark followed Kenny across town. It was a part of town that he was not too familiar with. He never passed it on his way to school, and even if Mark had a lot of friends, he would not even think of going to hang out here. Economic problems had led a number of places across the city to be closed up, and despite the city council's insistence on continuing growth and expansion, this stretch of buildings had been empty for years. One by one, businesses had closed up shop, "For Lease" signs placed in the windows and doors locked for what seemed like ages. It looked like a ghost town.

Kenny led Mark down an alleyway between a brick building and a gas station. The front of the building was locked up with bars across the large display windows, but Kenny led him up a flight of stairs along the side of the building. Then he pulled back a faded green tarp and ushered Mark onto the second floor. There was a foam pad and a blanket folded on top of it. Other than that, the room was devoid of anything but dust and a few empty cans. The windows were all boarded up, so when Kenny leaned up against the wall, he could barely see Mark across the dark room.

"Welcome to my humble abode," Kenny said as pleasantly as he could. "The former owner used to run an antique business downstairs. When that failed, he tried desperately to sell the building, but with this whole block shutting down, he couldn't find a buyer before passing away. It's been abandoned ever since."

Mark looked around, finding nowhere to sit and opted to remain standing. "Why do you live here of all places?" Mark asked, trying not to sound too snooty.

"I had a nicer apartment a few months ago, but they actually ended up renovating the building, so I was out on my butt," Kenny explained. "It's not that bad, though. It's not too far out of the way, but still keeps me a safe distance from Tally."

Mark sneezed three times from the dust he kicked up just by walking around. "It's nice," he wheezed.

Kenny smiled. "No it isn't."

"So," Mark finally got around to saying after looking at a whole bunch of nothing, "what was it you wanted to show me?"

"I just wanted to ask how you were doing," Kenny said.

"Seriously? You could have just done that earlier. We didn't have to walk all the way over here," Mark said, while smiling at the ridiculousness of it.

"You're right," Kenny said. He knelt down and began picking up the cans. "I actually wanted to thank you. You do know all the good you're doing, right?"

"No," Mark said, scratching his head, "I haven't done anything yet."

"But your time will come, I'm sure," Kenny said, stacking the cans in the corner of the room. "The mundane tasks must be accomplished before great feats can be done."

"Is that how it was for you?" Mark asked.

"Of course," Kenny answered. "But I never really accomplished anything."

"Kenny, I hope this isn't too personal, but," Mark asked hesitantly, "what's it like being an Artificial? Is it really as bad as H makes it sound?"

Kenny smirked despite his sad eyes. He backed up into the wall and then slid down it until he was sitting on the hardwood floor. Mark also took a seat on the ground, crossing his legs and watching Kenny as he collected his thoughts.


"Boo!"

I had been checking the messages on my cell phone in front of the movie theater when I heard that sudden exclamation. By that point, I had grown pretty used to surprises, so I just turned around casually and greeted my dear friend.

"Aw, that's no fun. You're never scared," Tally said. She pouted cutely.

It was passed ten o'clock by the time our movie had ended. It was a cutesy animated feature targeting preteen girls. Earlier that day, I had told Tally that I was planning on taking my little sister to see it, and Tally excitedly asked to tag along. My eight-year-old sister had been more than happy to have Tally there, and so was I. It was after sunset so I figured it was safe to let the two of them hang out together. But my sister had grown tired during the movie, and now while holding Tally's hand, she seemed about ready to fall asleep at any moment.

"Hey, Stephie," I kneeled down to look her in the eye. "How're you feeling? Getting kind of tired?" She nodded once. "Do you want me to carry you home?" She gave another listless nod. I turned around to let her climb on my back, and before I knew it, she was fast asleep.

"She's so precious," Tally said as we walked through the empty streets. Being February and late at night, it wasn't surprising to see the sidewalks so vacant. We could see our breaths as we hurried in our winter coats.

"Maybe she's precious to you, but she's a hurricane to me," I said, "All week she was begging for me and only me to take her to see this movie, and then you show up and she doesn't even remember I'm there." I feigned annoyance just to look cool. "I guess I should thank you for distracting her for me."

"I don't mind at all," Tally said cheerfully. "Stephie's the sweetest little girl I've ever met. I love hanging out with her. And I think it's adorable she wants to spend so much time with her big brother. She really loves you, you know?"

"Yeah, well I guess I am pretty awesome," I boasted. Tally laughed and agreed. "I just wish she wasn't so insistent on going tonight. It's freezing out here." I shivered to exemplify my point. "I can't wait to get my driver's license. Then we'll never have to walk in the cold again."

"You're so lucky," Tally said, "I wish I could get my license, but my parents are always out of town. They're never around long enough to teach me. Wouldn't it be cool if we could both drive? We could go anywhere; like on a road trip or something."

"I don't think that would be cool at all," I said. Tally cocked her head to the side, something I had come to know as her reflexive gesture when confused. "If we both drove, then we wouldn't walk to school together every morning; we would just drive there separately. I don't know what I'd do if I didn't get my morning dose of Tally."

She giggled and said, "Yeah, you're right. I guess every cloud does have its silver lining. Whoops." She had just noticed Stephie's bare hand. "Oh, Stephie dropped her little mitten in the street. Hold on, I'll get it." Tally looked both ways before stepping off the sidewalk.

The light was green, but the street was empty. Neither of us thought she would be in any danger, but I was prone to that kind of careless thinking back then. As if by fate, a city bus came barreling down the street, catching us both off guard. Tally's eyes widened as she froze in the headlights. With my little sister sleeping on my back, I was powerless to keep the bus from plowing into Tally.

I turned on my heel and ran down the nearest alleyway. It was dark and sketchy, but nonetheless I gently set my snoozing sister on the ground against the wall. She stirred slightly, but I shushed her back to sleep. Then I ran back to Tally, praying that no one would rouse Stephie and praying that no one was on that bus.

The old, white relic of public transportation looked like it just went head-first into a brick wall. The shattered windows extended all the way to the back of the bus, the frame was scrunched up and the front was torn open. And in front of the bus, standing exactly where she had been prior to impact, was Tally, expression cold and eyes green. With one sweeping motion and a flash of blue light, she had stopped the bus in its tracks.

Free from danger, the next thing I expected was for Tally to collapse as she fell out of the defense mode, but then a man jumped out of the bus. He shakily held up an oversized white gun as Tally turned her lifeless gaze on him. The man wore the black and white collared shirt of a city bus driver, but he was clearly an associate of C-Unit, the only group that produces such weaponry. He foolishly fired a continuous blue beam at Tally, who deflected the shot with one hand. Then she lunged at the man, her hand cutting through the beam before smashing the gun with her bare fingers. His weapon shattered, the man was helpless as Tally grabbed his arm and threw him down the street with as much ease as one would have when throwing a tennis ball.

As she leaped after him, I took the opportunity to check if anyone was in the bus. "Hey, is anyone hurt?" I called as I jumped onto the broken vehicle. There was only one passenger on the bus, and when I asked him if he was hurt, all he did was shake his head. He was so calm that I felt a little embarrassed as I said, "Cool, just sit tight." Then I jumped through where the windshield had once been and ran after Tally.

When I found her standing in another alleyway, the guy had vanished. I figured he had either escaped or his buddies had already come to pick up what was left of him. Tally turned her green-eyed stare on me. I immediately pulled out my weapon, a pen-sized object that extended into a larger staff of about five feet. Rather than activate it, I quickly tossed it to the ground. I put my hands above my head and began talking calmly to her. Tally bowed her head slightly, as if considering whether or not I was still a danger. I gave a sigh of relief after she closed her eyes and fell limply to the ground.

I had to give Tally a piggyback ride to where I had left Stephie. Thankfully, she was still sleeping soundly. Unfortunately, I had to wait for Tally to wake up before I could leave. Once she did, I walked her home and then headed back to my place. My parents and little brother had already gone to bed, and after I tucked in my sister, I was ready to follow their lead. It was then that I heard several soft knocks on the door.

"You!" I said when I saw who had been knocking. "From the bus. You followed me home." I had a huge fake grin at the time, and though I tried to sound happy, I was panicking on the inside. "Did you need something, perhaps?"

"An explanation would be nice, if you don't mind," the boy said in a monotone voice. I remember that his eyelids were low, as if he were judging me or just uninterested. I couldn't really tell. He was difficult to read.

"Actually, I do mind. So it would be great if you could just forget everything that just happened," I said. To my surprise, the boy nodded and turned to walk away. "Sweet," I said happily as I closed the door. Then I swung the door open again and asked, "Wait, what are you going to do now?"

"I'm going to go ask that girl you were with," he said calmly.

"Hold your horses, buddy," I said. I rubbed my forehead as I stepped onto the porch. "There's no need to go and do something like that. I can tell you from experience that this is something you're better off not knowing, but if you won't let it go, then I'll tell you the story." I took a seat on the front step and began talking.

H just stumbled into this whole mess just like so many of us before and after him had. And explaining this to H was like talking to an animal. There is absolutely no acknowledgement that he even hears a word you're saying until you just flat-out ask. And he swallowed everything I had served him without any hint of doubt. I was surprised by that even though I knew what he had witnessed. Then I saw his abilities and my suspicion of him grew. He had amazing agility, speed and balance, but adamantly denied that he had any connection with C-Unit, the Society or the Artificials. The more research I did on him after that night, the more it seemed true that he had been entirely uninvolved with the Community before this. H, now labeled as an Organic, became an anomaly amongst his peers.

If H really was such a specimen and had no prior affiliations, then I knew that I wanted him on my side. I introduced him to Tally, who of course was ecstatic to meet him, and he seemed to be unopposed to taking my offer to start searching for a way to cure her. And thus, our team-up began. I had previously only wanted him to collect information and do fieldwork, but when we learned through another one of my careless mistakes that he was immune to Tally's power, we changed things so that he would help guard her along with me.

"And once again team, we have shown our dear classmates what it takes to win a quiz game," I laughed proudly as H and I walked Tally home after a victory in a math game during our sixth period class. "And even with my fifteen correct answers, I can't take all the credit. So good job guys."

"Seventeen."

"Huh?"

"It was seventeen for me," H said.

"Oh, I see," I smiled wryly. "Trying to steal my spotlight, are you? We're not getting an attitude now, are we H?"

"Don't like it?"

"Fine, fine," I said, throwing my arm over his shoulder. "Take your share of the limelight. After all, we are the unstoppable duo." I laughed heartily. "Laugh with me, H."

"No." I laughed by myself some more before H said, "Don't forget our third teammate."

We both looked over at Tally, who walked along side us with her head slightly bowed. "I couldn't answer a single question," Tally said sadly.

When it came to keeping guard on Tally, school always made things difficult. Every year, we sign up for the exact same classes as Tally. So if Tally went into a state in the classroom, we would be right there to make sure no one was affected by it. There was always the possibility for error, though. We all registered for the same classes, but we had to be constantly aware of how Tally's grades were. If it looked like she was going to fail a class, we had to make sure we did, too. That happened more than once when it came to algebra.

"That's not a big deal," I said cautiously, "we all still get the extra credit points for winning. So don't worry about it, Tally." H nodded in agreement.

"I wasn't any help, though. I feel like a burden when you guys do all the work," Tally said. Soon after, she quickly overcame her own brief bout of melancholy before we had a chance to say anymore. "I'm going to study really hard so I can pass the final next month."

"And we'll help you," I said confidently, "That way we can all move onto algebra II together." I looked to H, who gave me an affirmative nod. Tally threw a fist in the air and cheered. In those early days of May, things seemed to be looking up.

"See you later, H," Tally said happily with a wave when we approached her house. I gave a small wave, too, as our stoic friend continued down the sidewalk. Tally lightly tugged on the sleeve of my t-shirt and looked up at me with serious eyes. "You don't think H feels like a third wheel, do you?"

"I don't know. I'll ask him." I took a deep breath with the intention of calling out to H, who was still visible as he walked away from us, but before I could, Tally slapped her hands over my mouth. I started chuckling behind her palms.

"You can't just ask something like that. He might not have even considered it," Tally said with a laugh as she pulled her hands away.

"You're kind of silly, you know that?" I said, "I'm sure if H felt uncomfortable around us -well, I don't think he would say anything- but if he did he'd probably just stop hanging out with us." I said that, but honestly I had no idea whether H enjoyed our company or not. I liked to think he did, though.

"Yeah, you're probably right," she granted. A smile etched its way onto Tally's face as she took my hand, weaving her fingers with mine. "Think you'll be free tomorrow night? It's Friday, and it's been a while since we have done something, just the two of us. Want to go to dinner or something?"

"Well, Tally Xavier," I said playfully, "if I didn't know better, I'd think you were asking me out on a date or something ridiculous like that."

"And what if I am?" she said, smiling softly as the distance between us lessened.

I lightly pressed my forehead against hers. "Then I'd like that," I said softly.

Giving credit to my old self, I must say that back then I accomplished what I still hold to be my greatest achievement. For however short of time it may have been, I got to serve as Tally's first and only boyfriend. I can't say we ever got to the point of intimacy that most people someday hope to reach, but I could proudly say that I was in love with her. Tally was never the flashy kind of girl that demanded all that much extravagance in her romantic life. My fondest memories of those days were of the two of us watching movies together on her couch. Sometimes we would just walk around the neighborhood together and talk. I would come to appreciate those moments even more; those few times where we could just be together, ignoring the real world and the chaos unfolding around us. The fleeting simplicity and normalcy of those days were what I came to cherish the most.

The story, however, is not about that. I would love to be able to reminisce about our many dates and the nights we spent talking to one another, but my memory, sadly, isn't what it used to be. Becoming an Artificial puts some amount of pressure on your mind and the effects are not fully understood yet. But for those fragments I do remember, I think of them fondly; a bright spot on my history from before I changed. And yes, this story is in fact about how I became an Artificial. As I have said a couple times already, back in those days, I was careless.

Tally had her arms around my neck as we kissed goodbye. Long before I was ready to pull away, she seemed to freeze up. I thought it was odd.

My next memory is of me drowsily opening my eyes. I was not sure what I was seeing at first, but when I turned my head, I saw that I was in Tally's living room, resting on her couch with a terrible pounding in my head. I was under a blanket, and Tally sat opposite of me at the coffee table, struggling to read a textbook.

"Oh, thank goodness you're up," she said with a smile. "I wasn't sure whether you'd want something hot or something cold when you woke up, so I just made both. I think the tea may have gone cold, though. Sorry." I looked past the cup of tea and glass of lemonade on the coffee table and asked her what happened. "You fainted. Well, actually we both fainted at the same time. Isn't that cute or poetically tragic or something?" She giggled.

I struggled to comprehend what she was saying. Something had happened to me. Tally had been there. I mouthed the words she had just said. With the way my mind felt, I briefly thought I had been struck over the head. This throbbing in my skull, the boiling of my blood; I couldn't tell if I was having a migraine or an intense fever. But then, as the image of two green orbs on the otherwise flawless face of my girlfriend asserted itself within my memory, it all became clear.

I broke into a cold sweat. Something caught my breath. I couldn't breathe. I had to move. I swung my legs out from under the blanket and jumped off the couch. I bumped the coffee table in my haste, splashing the tea and knocking over the glass, sending lemonade all over the tabletop. My hands were shaking uncontrollably. There was a bizarre tingling in them that I had never experienced before. I latched my fingers together to get them to stop.

"What's wrong?" Tally asked urgently. She looked ready to jump up from her seat.

I was startled by her voice. I had forgotten she was there. I forced my breathing to relax as I responded, "Nothing, I just have to go." I was still having trouble focusing and that was the best I could get out. My mouth had suddenly become very dry. I struggled to swallow as I clumsily made my way to the front door.

"Kenny, wait," Tally said, getting to her feet. She had worry draped all over her face.

"It's nothing real- Ow!" I yelped. The doorknob had shocked me when I grabbed it. I fumbled around with it for a while, shaking too much to turn the brass instrument, until I finally used both hands. "Don't worry. I just remembered something that I have to do. I'll see you tomorrow." I waved briefly before sprinting out of the house, across the yard and down the street. My mind was cloudy, and I had no idea where I was going. I just had to move.

So often in our lives we hear of earthquakes or genocides ravaging foreign countries or of illnesses killing a member of someone else's family that when catastrophe finally knocks on our own door, it almost does not seem possible. But it is. And it was. And I knew it. Still, as my panic overrode my commonsense, I thought if I could just keep saying "no" over and over again, eventually I would wake up from this nightmare. I found the repetition difficult as my mouth dried out again while I ran.

This was something I had seen before, however, and my encounter with denial was a brief rendezvous at best. My repetitive crying was interrupted by the ringing of the cell phone in my pocket. I kept running as I awkwardly reached into my pants pocket and pulled it out. The call was from H. That's right. As per usual, he had circled around the block after saying goodbye to us. He would then take up watch in the tree in Tally's front yard until I would come to join him or the sun would go down. He had to have seen me run out of the house.

"Don't worry, H. Everything's fine," I said between breaths. He still felt inclined to ask what was going on. "There's just something I suddenly remembered that I had to do. Just something at home; no big deal." He seemed to accept that. "I hope you don't mind watching Tally on your own today." Of course, he did not object. I said goodbye to him as casually as I could. As I ran from Tally's neighborhood to the next, I had a feeling I had failed to relieve H of any suspicion. There was no way he of all people would buy that.

When I did finally reach my house, I slammed the front door behind me. I pressed my back against it. I clenched my chest with my right hand in hopes of slowing my racing heartbeat.

"Yay! Kenny, you're home!" I jumped at the sound of my own sister's voice. Stephie looked up at me excitedly at first, but then she cocked her head to the side like Tally often does. "What's the matter? You're all white."

"Nothing, Stephie," I lied. I tried to control my breathing and dabbed at my sweaty forehead with my arm. I realized I must have looked pretty disheveled. I knelt down and gave my tiny sister a hug, discovering in that one gesture that my heart rate was not slowing and was making me nauseas. "I'm fine. Don't worry." In my mind, I questioned whether I was reassuring Stephie or myself.

"Then can you take me to the zoo on Saturday? I really want to go with you. Will you, please?" Stephie begged with a smile as she slipped out from under my grasp. My nausea must have been showing on my face because Stephie began asking if I was alright again when I didn't respond to her request.

I had seen this before. Having been so close to Tally for so long, I was frequently acquainted with those who became Artificials. Along with strangers that were just at the wrong place at the wrong time, a number of Tally's friends and family members became victims of her power. I had worked with them to adjust to their new lives. It was not an easy transition and most people had a hard time accepting what had happened at all. This sort of thing is not common knowledge, and trying to explain it to someone can be tricky. They would be totally lost if I was not there to help.

But I knew exactly what had to be done. First of all, I had to warn H. He had to know about every Artificial just so he would be prepared to fight us off when the time came. Then I had to find a place to live. It had to be somewhere relatively isolated, where we wouldn't hurt anyone or reach Tally in the ten minutes or so that she would be in a state, but still close enough so that H could keep tabs on us. We usually end up staying in abandoned properties like homeless people, which is more or less what we are, scattered so that there are never too many of us concentrated in one part of the city at any given time. Once I had established a new place of residence, I had to break the news to my family. Well, yes and no. Without revealing anything about the Community that could potentially put them in harm's way, I had to let them know that I was going away for a while. They could not know where I was staying, and we would not be able to meet for some time. I was potentially dangerous if we met during the daylight, when Tally is susceptible to going into a state, but explaining why we could only meet at night would be difficult. My life with my mother, my father, Luke and Stephie would come to an end, along with my school life and my romantic life.

It pains me to think that Tally was losing another friend. Artificials are all drawn to Tally when she's in a state due to a psychic link, but we don't know why or what they do once they reach Tally. It's quite possible that we would hurt Tally while she is defenseless or that we could hurt ourselves or become more dangerous if we looked into her eyes again. It was for those reasons that I knew that I would have to say goodbye to my girlfriend. Not even a real goodbye; it would be a fake goodbye. I would have to call her on the phone and tell her some lie about leaving town or going to boarding school or going on the lam. She would never know the truth about why I was suddenly turning my back on her. I did not like it, but this was how it had to be. Doing otherwise would put my safety in jeopardy, would put Tally's safety in jeopardy and could possibly threaten our entire mission. These were the unhappy tasks I had to face before things could get messy.

"Sure, Stephie," I said with a forced smile. "Let's go to the zoo." The way she cheered and ran off to tell our mom brought me to the verge of tears. I struggled to stand back up. I struggled to eat dinner. I struggled to get to sleep that night. It was an experience I was afraid of getting used to.

I was plagued by my own thoughts as I tried to fall asleep, as I walked to meet Tally and as I walked to school with her and H. I put on my best face as I met Tally that evening to go have dinner. Despite her concern, I had insisted that the two of us have dinner at one of the nicest, most expensive restaurants in town. I showed up at her house in my fanciest suit and tie, she met me at the door in a black and white strapless high-low dress, and we walked to the restaurant together. I thought things were going along fine until we sat down at our table.

"Kenny, is something wrong?" Tally asked as I looked over the menu.

"Nothing's wrong. Don't worry, Tally," I said. I thought I had been acting pretty normal. I kissed her when we met this morning, I made small-talk with H and I was even more attentive than usual in all my classes. Nothing out of the ordinary happened today. It's not like I had burst into tears in the middle of lunch break or anything, no matter how much I may have felt like it. "There sure are a lot of choices. Is this French or Ital-"

"Don't say that," Tally said unusually harshly. It surprised me. "You never told me why you ran out of my house yesterday. It looked like something really upset you. I didn't know if it was me or something I'd done, and I had no idea what I could do to help you. I was worried sick all night, but when I saw you this morning and you didn't bring it up, I thought it was something you wanted to keep private." She spoke with a heavy voice and hung her head so that her bangs covered her eyes. "You don't have to tell me everything. I mean, I'm kind of dumb and not really good at anything, so I can see why you wouldn't want to confide in me. But I hope that someday you'll feel like you can talk to me when you have a problem. I may be useless, but I'll do whatever I can to help." Tally rubbed her eyes with the back of her hand and sniffled. She apologized for getting so worked up.

I had often wondered how frequently Tally felt we were keeping stuff from her. We honestly thought it was for her own good, but now it was making her cry. And I knew that I would end up making her cry again and again in the coming days. I didn't know what to say to her now. I was hopeless. What was I even doing? I put off telling H what happened and breaking it off with Tally because I wanted to enjoy a little more time with them. It broke my heart to see her so upset. I wanted to take her in my arms and tell her everything right then and there. But I couldn't. The lie had to go on. If Tally knew of her role in the Community, she would never again be able to live a normal life. Without me, she would still be able to smile again one day, but if she knew of all the lives she has destroyed, I have no idea what would happen to her. I got up and excused myself to go use the restroom.

I was even more depressed than ever when I went to take my little sister to the zoo the next morning. She took me by the hand and led me to each exhibit. I tried my best to laugh and smile along with her, but it was forced. There was a pain in my heart. Tally would not be the only one that I would make cry. This little girl, who I cared for more than life itself, would probably shed a few tears over her departing big brother. As much as I didn't like it, I had to leave soon. I had lived those two days on borrowed time. The truth had to come out.

When I opened my eyes again, I found myself staring at a dark ceiling and lying on a hard bed. It was not a mattress as much as it was a foam pad. Instead of an aching head, I was having trouble breathing. It was not like the panic I had experienced two days before, where I just lost my breath from shock. Every time I inhaled, my rising chest would send a pain like I was striking a bruise. I rubbed it gently. The pain reminded me of when I had broken a rib. What happened to me now?

"Why didn't you tell me?"

I turned my head towards where the monotone voice had come from, careful not to stir up more pain. The room was empty aside from the bed I rested on and the white carpet that had become so engrained with dust that it now looked grey. Through the lone window, all I could see was the orange-purple sky. It could have been dusk or dawn and I wouldn't know. H had his back to me, blocking my view of the outside as he looked out the window. I wondered what he was looking at.

"I couldn't be sure yet," I mumbled painfully.

"That seems unlikely, seeing as you have dealt with this case many times in the past," he spoke calmly into the window. "And even if there was some reason to doubt your condition, you normally would not hesitate to give me a warning."

I winced as I struggled to sit up. I was not an invalid. I swung my legs over the side of the bed, keeping one hand pressed beneath my breast, where the pain was most intense. This is what I would imagine being struck in the gut by a cannon ball would feel like, but that might be an exaggeration. "Okay, you're right. I just thought I had some time."

"You know better than that," H said, refusing to face me.

"Well, excuse me," I said bitterly, "Don't you get it? Everything in my life has just been-"

"Stolen from you," H finished harshly, "I do get it."

"I used to think so, too, but it doesn't quite hit home until it's your life that's ruined," I barked. "But I guess you don't have to worry about that, so la-di-da for H."

He paused for a moment, never taking his eyes off the window. "I don't know how much condolence this will be, but I promise you that this won't affect our mission. I will keep guard over Tally and make sure no harm comes to her. And I'll try my best to make sure you will be normal again one day, too."

I took as deep a breath as I could, ignoring the pain and exhaling loudly. A part of me did not care what happened to our mission right now, but there was some rationality still standing in my scrambled brain. "Thank you, H. Please take care of her for me." I smiled and chuckled at myself. "You're right, I do know better. So where are we right now? Is this the place you want me to stay?"

"This is the abandoned apartment building on Fourth Avenue that we scouted out a few months ago. There's a convenience store on the next street over, but it will be better for you to stay low for a while. I'll bring you what you need for the time being." H might as well have been talking to the window. "I took some of your stuff from your house while your parents were out. And here's your cell phone. It's been ringing nonstop." Without looking he tossed my phone over his shoulder, and it landed next to me on the bed.

"I take it people are looking for me then?" H nodded. "My parents are probably crazy-worried. I hope they haven't called the police." I looked down at my phone next to me. I left it off out of fear of seeing how many missed calls I had accumulated. "I should tell them in person…or say goodbye in person, I guess." I leaned forward and placed one hand on my forehead, the other pressing against my side.

"It's still dangerous," H said, "Isn't telling them over the phone enough?" I wonder how H felt about telling me all this stuff that I already knew. Or as it were, I knew it but suddenly chose to ignore it.

I let out a rough sigh that sounded more like I was clearing my throat as I searched for the right words. "It's just so impersonal, you know?" I sounded pathetic. "I'm telling these people that their own son is just randomly getting up and leaving without any real reason. It's not like they're deadbeats or anything. Mom and Dad gave me nothing but love and support my whole life. Every time I needed something, they were there to give it to me or help me earn it. How can I just turn my back on them without even having the decency to look them in the eye?" H said nothing.

"And what about Tally?" I realized I was getting worked up. "When I saw her last night, I made her cry. Apologizing over the phone is inconsiderate, and breaking up over the phone is just horrible. Yeah, my relationship with you only meant as much as a single phone call. I just spent fifty cents on you, Tally. Consider yourself lucky. And the last time we ever talk is when we break up. That's disgusting. She'll hate me for the rest of her life." H said nothing.

"H, you got to let me talk to my family in person. Let me see Tally one more time," my voice cracked as I begged. I'd heard this argument a dozen times, never bought it and now suddenly felt compelled to say, "Come on. We both know that Tally's states are irregular. She can go months without going into a state. If I go find her, what are the chances that she will have one right now?"

"The same chances she had of going into a state while you were taking your little sister to the zoo this afternoon," H said coldly. He had not skipped a beat.

I turned my head upwards so that I could see H's darkening silhouette against the window. My fingers moved down from my forehead to my cheek. My eyes grew wide and unfocussed. "What?"

"Tally went into a state twice in the span of three days. The first one was when you became an Artificial. As for the second time, it's quite possible that you have forgotten this entirely, but you were with your sister. Tally was in her bedroom, and I was in the oak tree. I was surprised when you ran up to the house and began banging on the door. Luckily, I stopped you before you could get inside."

"Stephie," I said breathily, "What happened to my sister?"

I had begun yelling, but H kept his voice low. He was silent before speaking again. I did not know if he was pausing for dramatic effect, he could not find the words or just did not want to tell me. At that moment, I could not care less about whatever was hanging him up. I demanded an answer.

"She…she was admitted to the hospital with a broken leg, a sprained wrist and severe electrical burns," H said quietly. "I'm not entirely sure what had happened at the zoo, but your brother and parents are at the hospital with her now."

I shook uncontrollably. It was like an unending shiver. "Stephie," I mouthed.

H finally moved away from the window, keeping his eyes off me as he approached the door. "I highly discourage face-to-face contact with anyone right now. If you can find the words, part with your family quickly. And deal with Tally as you see fit." Then he left me.

I repeated one apology after another, reaching no one save for the dust bunnies and floorboards. I was all alone, my hands over my eyes as I sat in an unfamiliar, dark room, sobbing openly for the first time since I was a child.

Over the next few days, I never left my little apartment once. H had brought me a number of books and a newspaper to keep me occupied, but I was not interested. I could not get invested in any of the stories. No matter how much I wanted to escape my current situation, neither the tragedies at a mental institution nor the migration of farmers in the Great Depression could help me. The only tragedy I could focus on was my own.

Occasionally, I would stand by my window, hoping to catch sight of something happening. This part of town was pretty quiet, so aside from the infrequent passerby, there was not much to look at. Outside my dusty, grey prison, I knew life was going on without me. I kept track of the days, noting certain things like when H and Tally would be taking a math test or having a band rehearsal, but then the days seemed to slip away without me as well. My whole world became my sickness and that dark room.

I paced back and forth. There was nothing to do; nothing to keep my attention. I thought of nothing but what I could never do again. I would never graduate high school. I could never get married, get a real job or settle down with a family. The walls closed in on me, and I began to cry. I would keep pacing, and the tears would stop for a while. I shakily tapped my thumbs together as I walked from one end of the room to the other. This would go on for hours. There was nothing to do during the day and I could barely sleep at night. So I paced.

Tally collapsed on the floor, her hand covering her face as she cried for me. H was there, too. He would place his hand on her shoulder. She would look up with bloodshot eyes, wrap her arms around him and cry into his shoulder. He would place his arms around her and just hold her for a moment. It made me sick.

"How are you feeling, Kenny?" I jumped at the sound of H's voice as he came through the open doorway. It was after nightfall, and he came wearing his usual green shirt and brown jacket, carrying a plastic grocery bag in one hand. "Here's your food for tomorrow."

"H," I said quietly, "how is she?"

"Stephaney's been released from the hospital," H explained as he set the grocery bag on my bed. "I already told you that she is recovering well."

"Tally! How is Tally?" I asked angrily. I was not in the mood for any of his games. My cell phone laid on the floor by my bed, still turned off. "What has she said? What does she think happened to me?"

H leaned back against the wall and crossed his arms. "As to be expected, she has been worried and upset. She thought maybe you just needed some space, but she has become so concerned that she insisted we go over to your parents' house today. They are still working closely with the police to find you. I can't say it did much to brighten Tally's mood."

"Tally…" I sniveled. I backed into a wall opposite H and began rubbing my thumbs together.

"Kenny, you need to calm down. Keep in mind this isn't the end of the world," H said with about as much conviction as a snail. We had hoped to one day cure the Artificials, but the more I thought about it, that seemed like an impossible dream.

"What have you two been doing?" I turned up towards H.

"Excuse me?" he said, not looking amused.

I was not sleeping much in those early days, but when I did, I was plagued by nightmares. They were not as much frightening as they were unsettling. They ignited a fire in my chest and the urge to pound the walls until my knuckles bled.

"You and Tally," I said shakily, "has anything changed between you two?"

"No," H said simply.

"But she's been so upset," I said, waving my arms, "Haven't you been there to comfort her?"

"I walk her to and from school, and we're together in the classes we share," H explained.

"Why are you so adamant about protecting Tally?" I asked. "I did it because I love her. But what about you? You can't tell me you aren't the least bit interested in her, too?"

"How could you say that?" H said quietly.

"I can't blame you. After all, with me gone, Tally is ripe for the picking. You can just go in and get her on the rebound, right?" I asked cruelly.

"Kenny," H said calmly, "I promise you that there is nothing between Tally and me. In the name of our friendship, I hope you can believe me."

I had been so ready for a fight that I was thrown off by H's calm response. I sat down on the floor, tapping my fingers together as I nodded. I said very little until H left again. I looked across the room at my cell phone. I crawled over to it and turned it on. There were a ton of messages from both Tally and my parents. I deleted them all en masse without reading the messages or listening to the voicemails. They would only increase my depression.

I kept my cell phone in my hand for the next few days. I paced back and forth with it, debating whether or not I should call someone. I wanted to, but I had nothing to say to my parents, Tally or anyone. It was dark, so I could call H. What would I say to him? I had been content to believe his promise that day he was with me in my apartment, but I still had those dreams. And as the days passed, I felt less and less inclined to trust him. Tally was vulnerable right now. H was a teenage boy, too. How could he resist her? I started pulling out my hair. What was he doing with my girlfriend behind my back?

H was sitting and reading a book when Tally came up behind him. She draped her arms around him and rested her chin on his shoulder. She smiled softly and closed her eyes. H put his book down and asked if something was wrong. She just hummed "mm-mm."

I laid curled up in my bed, holding my deactivated phone in my fingers. I zoned in and out, unaware of the time. There was nothing that had to be done, so it did not matter to me what the time was. The only thing I could do was wait. Wait for H come with food and supplies; wait for him to find a cure for my condition; wait to go back home and forget this ever happened.

H walked Tally home. He was prepared to leave her at the end of her walkway, but she stopped him. Tally looked away and blushed. She spoke a few words, and H nodded. She looked ecstatic. Tally stood up on her tip-toes and gave H a kiss on the cheek before running down the walkway. She had a huge smile on her pretty face as she waved goodbye before closing the door behind her.

What was I thinking? Would Tally ever betray me? My first impulse was to say that she absolutely would not, but I did not really know anymore. She was a normal teenage girl just like H was a semi-normal teenage boy. They are together all the time. To my knowledge neither one of them was immune to the great driving forces that are the teenage hormones. What was left to keep them from getting together? Certainly not me.

Tally and H opened Tally's front door and stepped into her living room. Tally was wearing a fancy blue evening dress, and H was wearing a suit and tie. She had been laughing as they entered, but once the door was shut, Tally wrapped her arms around H's neck and kissed him passionately on the lips. When she finally pulled back, H had the faintest of smiles on his face. Tally was so happy that she felt she had to reward him. So she took H's hand and led him upstairs.

I turned my phone on and quickly went to the contacts list. I was curled up on my bed as the number was dialed, my knees pressed against my chest. I was lying on my side with my phone to my ear. My heart beat picked up.

"Don't go to Tally's house tomorrow morning," I ordered. H began to ask why, but I continued over him. "Don't go the next day either! Stay away from her! Don't even look at her again!" I shouted into my phone.

"Get ahold of yourself," H said calmly, "You're falling apart."

"Stop talking to me like I'm a stupid kid!" I sat up quickly in my dirty bed, yelling through tightly grit teeth. "You can't have her! I know what you two are doing behind my back! Keep your hands off of her!"

"Think about what you're saying," H said calmly.

"I know exactly what I'm saying!" I jumped off the bed. "Stay away from her! Tally belongs to me! She's always been mine! You think you can just come out of nowhere and take her for yourself, but you can't! She loves me. She loves me and she'll never love you. Stay away! Just go die!" My voice cracked. The screaming was beginning to hurt my throat.

H took a breath and said, "I can't do that. When you come to your senses, you'll remember why."

"No! Stop talking to me like that!" I screamed. "Tally hates you! She doesn't even like you! You can't steal her from me, so just go away!" I panted heavily. "I never want to see you again. I'll kill you if I see you with Tally. You know I can so don't even try to fight. I'll never forgive you! I'll never forgive either of you!"

"I'm sorry," H said quietly, "but this is how it has to be." And without another word, he hung up.

"H! H! Keep away from Tally! I'll kill you! I'll murder you in your sleep! Stay away! Leave us alone!" I screamed to nobody. My fist tightened as my blood boiled. I chucked the cell phone across the room. It fell to pieces as it loudly struck the wall. I began slamming my fists against the walls of my room. "Give her back! You can't do this to me! I'll never forgive you, Tally. Stay away." I pressed the palms of my hands against the wall as I sank down to my knees, barely capable of making words. Tears dripped onto the carpet.

I had just made my way into Tally's neighborhood when I saw H. He stood on the sidewalk with his hands in his pockets, staring me down. Nothing but darkness and silence enveloped us. I panted from the run over here. My cheeks were still stained with tears.

"I thought you might come here," H said. "What do you plan on doing?"

"I'm going to tell Tally everything," I said shakily. "Then everything will go back to normal; how things are supposed to be."

"You know that's not true," H said calmly.

"If you talk to me like that one more time," I said coldly. My hands vibrated on a cellular level and sparks began to dance at my fingertips. I lit up with blue light against the grey surroundings. "Get out of my way."

"Think about this," H said, "Whether she knows what really happened to you or not, you still have to stay away from her. You're too dangerous, especially now."

"No, I'm not," I said angrily, "I can control it. I'll fight it. I know I can if I try hard."

"Do you have any idea how ridiculous that is?" H asked. "No Artificial has ever been able to fight off their impulses. You know that. You couldn't control yourself when you were violently attacking your little sister. What makes you think you could now?"

"I was unprepared," I countered, "I know better now."

"Please, think this through," H said, "I don't want to do this."

"Then don't," I yelled. "Get out of my sight! I know what I'm doing! I can take care of Tally without you!"

He held out one arm to block my way. "I won't let you see her," H said sternly.

"You can't stop me," I said. "I know I'm right. You just want her for yourself. I'll never let that happen."

H remained silent, his look of determination only sharpening. With a roar, I charged at him. In those seconds before we fought, H had this almost invisible look of sorrow on his face. Or it could have been regret. Pity. Disappointment. Or any combination of the four. I don't really know.


"After that, I left town for some time," Kenny said. The sad smile that Kenny wore confused Mark. He was not sure if it was because Kenny saw some humor in his unpleasant story or if it was all he could do to relive those painful memories again. "I spent a while living in a tent in the woods, eating fish from a small river; crowding around flaming trashcans with my fellow vagabonds in neighboring cities; and even cavorting with rats on the dirty floors of subway stations."

"That sounds pretty miserable," Mark said, "When did you decide to come back?"

"I guess it was when I realized that there was no escaping my condition," Kenny explained, "Even though I kept moving further and further away, distance was not enough to sever the psychic link I had with Tally. I went through some tough times, had a few more nervous breakdowns, but when I finally got my head on straight, I made my way back home. I was determined to help H cure Tally in any way I could, even if it meant only running errands."

"What about your family? Did you ever see them again?" Mark asked. He was beginning to feel like someone had strapped a weight onto his chest.

"I go by the house every once in a while. I only go at night and I never try to talk to anyone," Kenny answered. "I think about what I would say to them, but nothing seems appropriate. I would probably drop to my knees and beg for forgiveness. But I know I can't do that yet. I don't want to go, make amends with them and then have to leave again for no reason. When I do go back, it will be after all this is over, and I'll be there to stay. That is, if they will let me."

"That's rough," Mark said. He rested his hands on his knees. "My parents are annoying sometimes, but I wouldn't want to just leave them like that. They'd be devastated." He looked around the dreary room. "And Tally?"

"Thankfully, she moved on with her life. After all, people come into your life quickly and then leave again, too. I'm sure she was upset for a while, but those feelings have now passed. And so have mine." Kenny smiled apologetically. "I'm sorry my story was so long. I know you just asked what it was like to be an Artificial, and that was probably more than you wanted to hear. Sorry again."

"No, don't apologize," Mark said, waving his hands in front of himself. "This is actually really good to know. I'm glad you told me. Thank you."

"Well, this is what it's like," Kenny said, getting that thoughtful look back on his face. "Everyone's circumstances are different, but Tally was my girlfriend at the time and H was my best friend. I did and said horrible things to them, and even though I'm trying to help out now, I can't expect either one of them to ever fully forgive me. H may seem like he's made of stone, but I can't help thinking that I really hurt him."

Mark thought about it. H didn't seem like he was capable of having friends. It was hard to picture anyone wanting to go out with an expressionless stoic like him. And yet, here he was with the second person to refer to H as a best friend. Mark wondered if H thought of him as a friend.

"One more thing," Mark said, growing tired and cold as their conversation dragged into the early morning. "Why do they call you Artificials?"

Kenny stood up, stretching his back as Mark did the same. "I told you that H is considered an Organic. His powers resemble those of an Artificial but he received them without any contact with Tally. So it's believed that he obtained his powers through natural means, and I obtained mine through unnatural means. Get it?"

"Why is getting your powers from Tally considered unnatural?" Mark asked as they made their way to the doorway. "What makes one method natural and the other not?"

"It's because Tally is considered unnatural," Kenny said. "She's had numerous medical examinations that reveal absolutely nothing abnormal about her. And yet she has these powers and here we are. Behind the scenes, people have discovered how her powers can be harnessed and used as well as how they affect people, but we have almost no clue as to where her power comes from or why she has it. It's like a new branch of physics that we can't understand.

"My theory is that her powers come from somewhere else, where things work differently, or were given to Tally from someone who can transcend the patterns in physics that we have come to believe are laws. Those are just theories, of course, and I have nothing to back them up. But either way, it means that Tally's powers don't belong in this world. And it also means that those of us affected by her powers, me and my fellow Artificials, shouldn't exist either.

"Someday, the world will be set straight. And I have no doubt that you'll play an important role when that happens. So thank you, Mark."

Mark nodded, feeling embarrassed and not really sure of what to say.

"Actually, I have a favor to ask of you, Mark Spryt. Can you do something for me?" Kenny asked.

"Sure. I'll definitely do it."

"You agreed to it without hearing what it was." He looked amused.

"Oh sorry," Mark smiled sheepishly.

"Don't worry about it." Kenny waved it off with a flick of the wrist. "I'm just asking that, the next time you see me, I want you to give me everything you've got. Don't hesitate or hold back for a second. Fire those Blazers at me like I'm a punk that's trying to mug your little sister. Do you get what I'm saying?"

"Yeah, but why?"

"Because I'm not going to go easy on you. You can count on that," Kenneth said, looking a bit forlorn. "For what it's worth, you have my apologies in advance."


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