The first pair of shoes, the shiny black ones, sat down at Peregrine’s end of the table and cleared his throat. “Why don’t you sit down, Jones?”
Jones, he of the less-shiny shoes, sat at the other end of the round table, crossing his feet and tucking them under the chair. He seemed nervous.
“How is your experiment going, Jones? We haven’t heard from you lately.”
“Fine, sir, fine. It’s just-”
“Well, we have been able to give them the equivalent of super-strength, and a few of the lighter ones have been showing off their new flying abilities-no wings, as you specified-but the most recent one you sent in-well, it just isn’t working,” Jones sighed.
“What just isn’t working?” asked he of the shining shoes.
“Specifically? The release. The power will build up just fine, and make that pretty aurora you see, but it’ll just keep building until they explode-and not the way she does, but messily, in a fatal way. The girl, Jessi-”
“Who?” asked the first man.
“Subject JD52,” Jones corrected, “says that she doesn’t have to think about it, and that it’s pretty much instantaneous for her, the build-up and release, that is, especially if she’s scared...and that it’s impossible for her to explode on command, which is what we were aiming for.”
“Well, I trust that you and your scientists will figure it out. Anything else to report?”
“Well, Jes- JD52 escaped last week.”
“How far did she make it?” asked the much-shined-shoes man.
“All the way to Key West. She stole a boat. We think she was seen by one of the locals, but the man most likely thought he was drunk at the time. We caught her shortly thereafter and returned her to her holding cell, with half-rations for a week.”
“Where did she think she was going? It’s Key West, after all. An island.”
“How goes your experiment, sir?”
“You’ll just have to read the papers to know how well. I gave them orders to stop chasing the other post-humans, the ones that escaped our raid, and start doing more superhero-type things-put out fires, stop robberies, save old ladies’ cats, that kind of thing. All they’ve been doing so far is destroying private property in a difficult, if not impossible, hunt for three of the five in the mark.”
“Three?” asked Jones, surprised. “I thought you said that there were only two of them on the run together.”
“Well,” said the bright-shoed man, pausing for emphasis, “One of your escaped subjects, VH07, has joined them.”
“Shark!” said Jones. “I thought she was dead!”
“Unfortunately for you, she isn’t.”
“Well, I may be able to lend a prototype to hunt her down-”
“No need. We don’t need to worry about them for a while. They’re not going anywhere-where is there to go? RfR is the only thing left to go to for miles around, and they don’t have a car.”
“But we must be careful with these personal ties. Crystal, from my experiment, has stowed away in one of your ships to see your ‘Jessi,’ particularly to make sure that she is really the Jessi Crystal thinks she is, although there are thousands of less important drives behind her intentions as well.”
“How does she know?”
“She picked it up off one of your unshielded men. Crystal is a very powerful, if not necessarily well-trained, telepath.”
“I’ll have her stopped right-”
“Not necessary,” cut in Mr. Shiny-Shoes, “or did you think that I would have withheld such information from you without reason? I want her to discover that you really have who she thinks you have. It will further devote her to our cause.”
“And your subjects believe that the people in this mark are against the ISA? You are certain that they do not know the truth?”
“If you are referring to the three who we have trapped in Risen from Rubble, then yes, all of my subjects do believe that they are trying to bring down the new empire. They do not know that the runaways’ true motive is to save your JD52, as we do.”
What? I thought. That wasn’t what Peregrine had said! He’d said…
Of course he’d said that the people we were chasing were trying to bring down the empire, numbskull, I told myself, That’s what they told him, after all. Whoever ‘they’ were.
They chatted on for hours about prices and other experiments, using codenames or just plain codes that I couldn’t recognize. Either their operation (which, as I had to keep reminding myself, I was a part of) was more expansive than I had ever realized, or they were using different names to refer to the same things. I wasn’t quite listening, in any case, but wondering about what I should do.
So the…the people we were chasing…they weren’t evil? Or even given to rebellion? And due to the fact that we had been chasing them, they probably assumed that we were evil. But who was?
Man, I thought, wishing that I could hold my head in my hands (they were currently wings, after all), I wish this were as easy to tell as an action movie, where the heroes wear white and blue and ride white horses and the villains were red and black and come in on dragons. But the plain truth was that it simply wasn’t. I wasn’t evil; I knew that in the bottom of my heart. Were the kids we were chasing evil? Probably not. What about the government?
Well, that’s simple. Anyone and everyone can hate the government.
Calmer now that I had an enemy, I began to think. I was working for the government right now, so that gave me an advantage and a disadvantage. An advantage in that I was my own inside man and a disadvantage in that I was trapped, surrounded on all sides by the government. But they couldn’t track my every move, like they could with the others, as I could effectively disappear. So, if it was necessary, I could find the others, the ‘bad guys,’ and tell them that I was on their side, too. I doubted that I could make them believe me, but I had to try. Of course, finding them would not be as easy as I made it sound…
The men stood up, shook hands, and left. I hopped down from my spot on the underside of the table and shook out my wings, growing back into a human as I did. Well. Now I knew what it felt like to have your whole world turned upside down. It isn’t as if I had ever had any particular love for the Empire, or even the team (I had almost distanced myself from it), but there were still things I believed, whether they even seemed true or not. At least this gave me an open reason to be a traitor, which was what seemed to be the right choice.
All I had to do now was find the other team and convince them I was a traitor, for them, not against them. Easy, right?
No, I didn’t think so either.
My clothes had gotten the half-translucent, stretched, over-worn look of clothes I had changed shape too often in, and I doubted that they would survive another change. I glanced out the window at the apartment the government had given me. As the bird flies, it wasn’t far, but the main gate was on the other side of the block. I had forgotten my access key for the gate on this side, and I doubted that I had left my room’s windows open. I’d just have to walk.
I glanced around the corner before exiting the room completely, glad for my faded-but-still-dark-enough clothes. The men had left, although I thought I could hear them talking around the corner. I took the other way out, leaving by the service door. It wasn’t unusual for me to do this, and the janitor smiled at me as I left. I crossed the street without difficulty, as few cars ever came up this way, and walked back to my apartment the long way. It was a little chilly out, but still unusually warm for this time of year.
A red convertible rushed by with the top down.
Some kind of instinct caused me to turn, and I saw one of the girls, the one with long white hair, turn and look at me over the back of the convertible. She smiled at me, and I saw teeth…and more teeth. All in all, her smile literally stretched all the way from one ear to the other.
She was one of them!
I stood on the sidewalk, paralyzed by indecision. I could go after them, but it was unlikely that any of my clothes would change with me as they usually did. If I went back and changed, it was as unlikely that I would ever be able to find them again.
The car and the girl disappeared around the corner.
Seconds later, I made my decision.
The homeless man thought that it must be his lucky day. He had just seen the boy turn into a bird—but then, he’d seen far stranger. No, what was lucky about today was that the boy had left him a gift. Clothes -still warm- in a small pile on the ground. All much cleaner than what he was wearing, too, although thinner-looking.
The man gathered them into a plastic bag and wandered off, chasing the orange apples across the empty park, wondering vaguely if they’d taste purple or red.