Down South – Houston

“This motel look good?” asked Ben.

He took in the sight of the old, 50’s style motel. The sign sticking out of the roof simply said OT L. The barest shadow of the missing M and E letters broke up the light green paint of the sign. Pockmarks of rust splotched all across the whitewashed walls.

“Pft, no,” snorted Rob. The car hit pothole, cutting off whatever else it was he was about to say.

“Excellent! Tha’ means it’ll be cost-effective,” answered Ben.

“You mean cheap?”

“Yep.”

Ben twisted the steering wheel to pull into the motel parking lot, more gravel than asphalt. Rob’s armor and various other contraptions rattled in the back as they shifted for the first time in many hours. Chris and Amanda followed suit in their respective cars.

God, I forgot how boring these long distance trips are. Just go straight, and occasionally get on a ramp to go straight on a different road. No chases, no explosions, nothing.

Rob and Ben exited the car after parking, the others pulling into spaces nearby.

“Jesus, jackass. Could you have taken that turn any harder?” said Amanda as she hopped out of her car.

“No. An’ you know how fun it is drivin’ a low profile car now? Woulda flipped my jeep tryin’ that.” I do miss that jeep. Even if it was an old piece of shit.

“So,” said Chris, cutting in. “Is this motel our only option here?”

“Hey, in the middle of fuckin’ nowhere, Texas. Take what you can get,” said Rob, hopping up and down to get the kinks out of his legs. Eight hours of driving. Nothing but sitting and driving. I don’t even know the name of this little town, I must have missed the town sign thing.

Ben took in the glorious sight of about five dingy houses, a gas station, a stereotypical diner with two cars and a semi parked outside, and the vast expanse of dirt and nothing else beyond the nameless little sunbaked town. Not even a tree to break up the sight of the sun setting beyond the flat, featureless horizon.

“Where’s the next town?” asked Miya.

“Just looking that up. Another hour away, almost,” answered Amanda, tapping at the screen of her phone.

“I take it no one wants to sit in their cars for another hour,” said Chris. Everyone grimaced. Legs burning, back feeling all funky. That’s a negative, Ghost Rider. Chris sighed. “Fine. Three rooms sound good? That way no one has to sleep in a bathtub or anything.”

“Well, that depends if there are couches or anything. I’m not sleeping on the floor of a place like this,” said Amanda, eyeing the two different boarded up windows of the motel, as well as the flickering neon “Vacancy” sign.

“Yeah, hon, cuz the semen-encrusted mattresses are so much better,” said Ben with a grin.

“Stop,” said Chris, wincing. “Let’s just get the rooms, figure it out from there.”

Him and Amanda went into the front office while Ben, Rob, and Miya lounged about, unloaded their bags, and generally enjoyed their time not being cooped up in a car as night fell. I swear my legs popped in three different places.

“Oh, thank god. I couldn’t get ten words out of Chris. We just sat there in silence,” said Miya as she slammed the car door shut.

“Me an’ Ben got along fine,” said Rob.

“He means he tried givin’ me wet willies every half hour to break up the boredom,” clarified Ben, scratching at his ear. Hooray for siblings.

“No, seriously. I tried starting conversations. He would say yes or no, and then back to brick wall mode.”

“Whadja try to talk to him ‘bout?” asked Ben.

“Anything! The silence was driving me mad. I ask him how long he’d lived in Westward. He said ‘whole life.’ I asked him how he liked it. He shrugged and said, ‘good enough.’ It was that, just that, the whole way here.”

Ben started laughing. Rob asked, “Has anyone heard him talk outside of work? Like, at all?”

“There… was that poker game,” said Miya, biting her lip.

“An’… tha’ was it,” said Ben. Quiet guy. He’s always gone unless we’ve got a job. “It’s weird to think of him as our boss.”

“Boss?” repeated Miya, considering. “Meh. He’s OK at that, I guess. He can’t talk when he’s using his power though, that’s a bit of an inconvenience. As long as he doesn’t screw this up, I have no problem.” Yeah, no kidding.

“Wonder what Amanda was doin’?” said Rob. “Didn’t want anythin’ else that could mess with her precious computers in the car with her.”

“You packed some of yer shit in her car too, right?” asked Ben. You had to have, considering my rear bumper wasn’t dragging along the fucking road the whole time.

“Yeah. She actually wants a couple of those strongbox things of mine, with some modifications. We actually came up with some stuff yesterday, if you combine the physical locks with the electronic signals she mentioned-”

“Rob,” cut in Ben as Miya’s eyes began to glaze over and he felt his doing the same. “Don’ care.”

Rob sighed. “Philistines.”

Eventually, Chris and Amanda returned and led them to their rooms on the second floor. Ben poked his head into the first one, using the key Chris had tossed him. Smells funky, yellowing walls, old tube TV, frayed bedding, I don’t even want to know what the bathroom looks like. Excellent. Exactly what I expected. He rejoined the others in the middle room.

“I want food. Anyone else want food?” Rob asked the group at large.

“Gas station food or diner food,” said Amanda, as far away from the bed as possible while still staying in the room. Hee hee! “Those are our options.”

Miya grunted. “No more burgers. Please, no more burgers.”

“You’re right. Gas station junk food’ll be much better than greasy spoon shit, in both taste an’ nutrition,” snarked Ben.

“Fuck it, I’m goin’ to the gas station. Tell me what you want in the next two minutes or get it yourself,” proclaimed Rob, backing away towards the door.

Everyone rattled off their orders, such as they were, and Rob left to get the food. Everyone else decided who was sleeping where and began hauling their bags to their respective rooms. Ben tossed Rob’s bag onto the bed next to his own as Amanda dragged a large box to her and Miya’s room behind him.

“Ben, tell me if you’re going to try to get into your car. I’ll need to deactivate the… things I put on it. Tell Rob, too,” said Amanda, stopped at the doorway.

“What things?” asked Ben. That was ominously vague.

“You’ll get, like, a horrible shock if you try to open it right now. A little added security never hurt.”

“Tha’ sounds like it’ll hurt a lot.”

She rolled her eyes. “Figure of speech, jackass,” she said. “Just remember to tell Rob.” She trundled off with her box thing.

Ben rolled his eyes and crashed on the chair in the room, and kicked his legs up on the small table in front of him. Other than those, the only pieces of furniture in the room were the wide bed and TV stand in the corner. He checked his phone. No reception. Great. How did Amanda get hers to work then? I’m guessing techie techno-nonsense, or maybe my carrier just hates me.

Rob returned to kick at the door a few minutes later. Ben left the room and followed after him. They all gathered in the central room as Rob distributed food.

“Oh yeah, the car’ll fry yer ass if ya try to get in now,” said Ben as Rob tossed him a greasy plastic package. Mmmmm. Super artificial cake like substance. Just like momma used to make. And soda to wash it down. We are living the life right here.

“What?” asked Rob.

“Just some added security, nothing to worry about, unless you left anything in your car,” said Amanda, sitting in the room’s chair. She twiddled with a phone in one hand, laptop on the table with the other. Rob joined Ben in sitting on the floor, backs against the wall. Chris leaned against the wall near the bathroom door, and Miya lay spread-eagle on her back over the bed.

“Amanda,” spoke up Chris after a silent minute as everyone devoured their meagre rations. “Do you have anything on what’s going on back in Westward? Anything on us?”

“Not much. They found John’s body, and someone in the media found out, so they’re having a field day with that.”

“Tha’ wasn’t an illusion? Tha’ was really how he looked? No mouth?” asked Ben. That makes no sense.

“Yep. He’s pretty mangled up, but from the pictures I have, that are, like, legitimate of course, there’s no mouth on his face.”

Rob sighed. “The fuck? Where did that fucker come from?”

“Yeah,” said Miya, not getting up from her position on the bed. “He just came out of nowhere.”

“I think Olivia mentioned seein’ him before,” said Ben. “Shadow guy, remember? You said you saw him too.”

Chris perked up at that. “What is this?” he asked.

“It was for a split second, and he was just a shadow silhouette thing. I didn’t know it was him at the time, and Olivia was just confused,” replied Miya.

“How long ago was this?” asked Chris.

“Lemme think. Olivia said he showed up jus’ about after I’d met her, so close to two months,” said Ben.

“Two months? That’s some dedication on his part,” said Amanda. “And wait, if he had no mouth, how did he eat? Ben, what was the urban legend about him again?”

How am I the only one who knows this? Urban legends are always cool, when they’re not popping out of left field and wrecking your shit for no reason. “So, right after the Gülmer invasion-”

“Wait, gonna have to cut you off there,” cut in Rob. “Gülmer? Those the salamander thingies?”

“Yeah, aliens that raided the western US in the early seventies, right on the tail of Vietnam. They’re why the Arsenal north of Westward is still a thing,” explained Amanda.

“Yeah, I didn’t know much about them ‘til I moved out here either,” said Ben. “Now, John popped up as a corpse one day, cops couldn’t ID him, then the body vanished outta the morgue. Then there was the occasional sightin’, the odd person would go missin’ every year or so. Tha’s been goin’ on ever since.”

“Any physical descriptions of him?” asked Chris.

“Nope. Jus’ shadows, with a guy underneath.”

“So he hasn’t had a mouth for that long. Maybe,” said Amanda. “How did he survive?”

“Maybe tha’s why he was fuckin’ with us,” said Ben. “That’s how he kept goin’.”

“What are you basing this on?” asked Miya.

“Well, we gotta eat to live. Unless yer power says ya don’ have to, an’ tha’s a possibility for him. So yeah, tha’ coulda been for kicks on his part. But ya don’ die for kicks the way he did. He didn’t just pat us on the back for figurin’ it out an’ release us. But really, this is jus’ idle speculation.”

“I’ve never heard of a power doing something like that to someone, though,” said Chris. He’s right. Unless they’re a feral or a shifter, there’s rarely physical side effects that extreme.

“He was eating our brains or something?” asked Miya, who pulled herself upright.

Everyone shrugged. That was kind of cool, four different people having the exact same response to bullshit.

“Maybe that in layman’s terms?” said Amanda with a complete lack of conviction. “There might have been other stuff going on in the background. It might have been more psychic stuff than physically eating our brains, why else go through the trouble of all the illusions.” I don’t think I’ve told Rob what my little John made world was yet. What was his?

“Yeah, why us?” asked Rob. “There’s a whole city full of people, an’ he stalks an’ tracks us? There’s gotta be somethin’ behind that.”

“Well, there was always a lotta time between disappearances, so he probably wasn’t in a rush,” said Ben. “An’ maybe he likes supers? Tasty brains? Didn’t say anthin’ about that on the tin foil hat sites that I read, but maybe he thought supers would be too dangerous to take on ‘til now.”

“Rob and Amanda are techies. Those are mental powers,” pointed out Miya. “I use magic, I know that’s part of the brain, too. Not sure about the rest of you, though.” I get headaches when I use my powers a lot, but Olivia and Chris don’t match up.

“My powers give me headaches. Maybe tha’ has somethin’ to do with it. You, Chris?” said Ben.

“No. And he started with Olivia first, remember?” said Chris. “Her power isn’t very mentally… beneficial.”

“OK, idea. As a group, an’ let’s think about this, how many people would notice if we vanished?” asked Rob.

Ben and Rob exchanged glances. They were thinking the same thing, no doubt. Sam. That’s about it for me. Rob’s got his old gang, at least Michael and Bri. Maybe Sean. Everyone else seemed suddenly very preoccupied with the floor when Rob asked that question.

“I… I’ve been busy, over the last couple years,” said Amanda. “Just… like, didn’t have a lot of time for much else.” She seemed to be talking more to herself than anyone else. Damn, I can’t even come up with a mean comment.

“No one, really,” whispered Miya in the meantime, slouched on the bed. Chris stayed quiet.

“Yeah,” said Rob. “An’ maybe he thought we’d be susceptible. I know Amanda woulda never gotten out if I hadn’t come around.”

“Why is that?” asked Miya.

“It was kind of funny,” said Rob.

“Oh come on. Screw you,” said Amanda, trying her best to suppress a smile. Fun story time?

“It was this featureless grey void, I shit you not. Took me a moment to figure it out, I thought I’d died. An’ then,” he said with a laugh. “An’ then I turned around an’ saw her at this desk, all hunched over a computer, just whalin’ on the keyboard. I spent five minutes nudgin’ her shoulder before she realized I was there.”

Ben laughed, Miya smiled, and even Chris brightened a slight bit. Of course, he always looks like he’s brooding, so any improvement is a nice change. Man, we were desperate for something to smile at.

“So,” began Chris. “What he have now is: he attacked because he needs nourishment, because we’re metahumans, because we’d be… overlooked, and because we’d be easy to fool, is what I’m getting from this. Damn, that’s depressing.”

Ben and Rob laughed again. The man speaks truly.

“Yeah, but why did he start stalking Olivia?” asked Miya.

“Maybe intelligent feral tastes good,” said Rob. “Piqued his interest. If he can look into our minds, maybe he thought she’d be easy to fool too.”

“Are we seriously goin’ with the ‘eatin’ our brains’ explanation?” asked Ben. Because that’s stupid.

“You have a better explanation for how he survived for decades without a fucking mouth? Cuz I don’t, jackass,” said Amanda. “For all we know, he could have ascended us to a higher plane of existence or something, and we knee-jerked and killed him.”

Ben shrugged. “OK, hon, ya got a point. Still stupid, though.” He stretched his legs out another couple inches until they hit the bed. Tiny room.

“Oh, I’m not saying this isn’t a ridiculous situation, and I get the feeling there’s something key we’re missing here, but I can’t think of what it is.”

“Whatever it was, it set Olivia off,” murmured Chris.

“Yeah, her illusion was that she was human, right?” asked Amanda. Miya nodded in response. “Oh, yeah, that’ll do it. Has she… has she talked to you guys at all? About…” Amanda trailed off at their confused looks. She usually keeps to herself, but she talks, and I have no idea what you’re referring to.

Amanda sighed. “Really? Alright, so, remember that day she flew off?” Oh yeah, that day. I was going to ask Olivia about it the next day or so. Totally slipped my mind. “She showed up at my house that night going through a small mental breakdown. Apparently she… how did she put it? She forgets stuff when she’s angry. Like that time she messed up Rob? That wasn’t malice, she didn’t know who he was at that time.”

“I thought that was a bit outta character for her,” said Rob. “But inexperienced people with powers do that sometime, let it get away from them. Didn’t know it went that deep.” Chris nodded in agreement.

“Figured there was something like that going on,” said Miya. “She’s too nice to go around murdering people normally.”

“Yeah. She was freaking out pretty bad about that. I told her to start opening up more, and from what I saw I thought she did.” I didn’t notice anything different, but then again I’m kind of oblivious, so there’s that.

“She seemed more comfortable after that, so I guess your advice kind of worked,” said Chris. Chris joined Rob and Ben on the ground a couple feet away, his back still against the bathroom door frame.

“She’s probably freaking out right now, too,” said Miya.

“I know, I fucked up,” said Amanda, bitterness tinging her words.

“How did ya not see that airlift comin’?” asked Ben. Well, that should have been ‘we’ in there. Whatever.

“Oh, I’m sorry,” exclaimed Amanda. “Don’t you see my enormous, precognizant space brain? You don’t? Wait, that’s right, I don’t have one. Why would they move her by air, anyways? It doesn’t make sense to do that.”

“Us,” broke in Chris. “They move her by air and that’s five metahumans out of the picture. That’d be worth the risk. And the air is Cyrus’s domain, anyways. Before, Marcus probably thought we were just keeping her as a smart pet or something, but we’ve stuck together over the last month, so he probably worked out we were looking out for each other. Or some analysts hammered that into his thick skull after a couple weeks of his willful ignorance.”

“God. Fuck that guy,” said Miya.

“Ugh,” said Amanda, rubbing her forehead. “He wasn’t your boss for a while. You have no idea.” She mock shivered.

“We should kill him,” said Ben. Everyone looked at him. “At some point, not right now,” Ben clarified.

“I don’t think that’s a good idea-” began Chris.

“No, I think Ben has a good idea,” said Miya, cutting Chris off. Why thank you! “This is the guy that’s been hounding Olivia from the beginning. We should deal with him.”

“We do that and the whole weight of the US law enforcement branch comes down on us. That is absolutely not something they will take lightly,” said Amanda, with an incredulous look on her face.

Ben looked at Rob. You haven’t chimed in yet. Rob shrugged. “I’m fine either way. It’s a lot like startin’ a morphine addiction. Not the best of ideas, but there’s a reason behind it.”

“And what do you think Olivia will say about you killing someone on her behalf?” asked Chris with a raised eyebrow.

“Hey, if she’s not willing to do what needs to be done, I will,” said Miya leaning forward.

“Miya, why are ya so pissed off on her behalf?” asked Ben. I just want to kill Marcus because he’s a prick. You seem righteously indignant. “Righteous indignation?”

Miya grimaced and shrugged. “I don’t know. Because she cared, if I had to guess.”

“That’s it?” asked Amanda.

“What?” burst Miya. “I’ve always been a little Aztec girl from a piss poor neighborhood and the second youngest of five. I’d still be kicking around in Arizona in a dead end job if I didn’t have my magic.”

“How does tha’ work? Magic an’ shit?” asked Ben. She’s the first magic user I’ve been able to talk to. Always was curious as to how that worked.

Miya shrugged. “I was bored one day. Hungry. I’d skipped school and was just running around. I was… I don’t know. Imagining I was somewhere else, doing something else. I really don’t remember the specifics. Then I shot red spark things out of my hands. This wasn’t a trigger, I was kicking around in an abandoned car lot. But if felt like something was tugging on a bit of my brain.”

“Is that why you started your career of as-of-yet unspecified crimes?” asked Chris.

“Yeah. Fuck. I barely understood it at first. I could make red sparks come out of my hands that made people spaz out, that’s all I knew. I tried it on one of my brothers when he had his back turned. When I figured that out I shoplifted food or little things, and used magic to get away if I was ever caught. I was about eleven at the time, and looked like I was even younger, so everyone just ignored or underestimated me anyways.”

“How old are you now?” asked Amanda. “You look about sixteen.” Miya comes up to about my chin, and I’m not a tall guy.

“I’m eighteen. And really, sixteen? I know I’m… ahh, what’d he call it? Vertically impaired, that’s it. But I like to think I look a little older than that.”

Rob snorted. “Heh. Little.”

“Shut up. I’m getting off track. Anyways, then this guy, Don, found me, maybe seven months after I’d first started channeling. He explained what I was doing was magic, and offered to teach me. It was… great. I had power, I could do, well, at the time I thought I could do almost anything. You know how magicians and wizards are always portrayed as these super powerful guys who can do almost anything with magic? Yeah, that’s what I thought too, until Don told me about specialties. He offered to help me figure mine out, for a price.”

“Uhhhh…” began Rob. Amanda and Chris looked uncomfortable, or at least apprehensive, as well.

“Where is this goin’?” asked Ben. “Are we talkin’ souls or what?” Or is this a darker story than I thought?

Miya looked around at all of them. “What? No, it was money. He had a bad opium addiction, and was alcoholic now that I think about it, though he hid it well. Souls, really?” she asked with a laugh. Opium? That’s old school.

“Question,” said Rob. “How is sellin’ a soul a laughin’ matter? Isn’t that how magic shit works?”

Miya laughed harder. “What? Seriously you guys? No, mortals can’t do shit with souls. Demons can, but any magician who tries to sell them souls is just killed. But why is a whole other lecture.”

“Huh,” said Chris. Yep. That about sums up my thoughts on that. The more you know, I guess.

“Yeah. So, I managed to scrounge up the money so he’d teach me. We figured out I could do bone stuff. Then he said the next lesson was going to be more expensive. I told Don I didn’t quite have that kind of money, and he told me that I was shit out of luck if that was the case. This should have gotten my alarm bells ringing, but…”

Miya trailed off for a moment, biting her lip. “But, I don’t know. I wanted to do more. I tried teaching myself, but it’s super abstract. Very few people pick up on it quickly. Even the basic stuff took me a while to get down, and biology is the most complex out of all the magic fields.”

“Wait, biology is a scientific field,” said Amanda.

“There are old pretentious Latin and Greek terms for magic fields, but I learned it as biology, psychology, chemistry, and physics, only you’re manipulating those different things with magic,” explained Miya. “Within each four of those are different subsets. But if you want a magic lecture, I’d like to point you to the internet. It’s less about talking and more about doing.”

“Anyways, I started mugging. As in, grab someone and immobilize them to take their wallet.”

“You, a mugger?” asked Rob incredulously.

“Yeah,” said Ben. “Wouldn’t see her comin’. An’ if she was smart an’ came in from behind, they’re not likely to see her an’ tip the police off.” It’s the people you don’t see coming that are dangerous.

Miya nodded. “What he said. This went on, lessons got more expensive, though I was starting to work stuff out on my own. Don introduced me to the magic underground, people who would have never spoken to me otherwise. I joined a gang to be able to hit bigger, wealthier targets. It was… OK, I guess. A means to an end.” We’d damn well better not be a means to an end too.

Miya stopped talking. “How did you get to Westward, then?” Chris prompted.

“Don sold me out to Overlord. Slim Jim attacked, killed the rest of my gang, and I woke up in some bizarre… facility thing.” Miya stared at the bed beneath her, fiddling with the edge of a blanket.

“How do you know it was Don?” asked Rob.

“He’s my best guess. He knew how powerful I was. Overlord’s people knew exactly what I could do. Slim Jim knew exactly where to hit. I may have talked to other magicians, but Don was the only one of them to know all that.” Kidnapped, huh?.

“You gonna go after him?” asked Ben. “I wan’ in on that.”

“Yeah, that’s what I was going to do the second I could. Why do you care?”

“One,” said Ben, holding up his index finger. “Fuck kidnappers. Two,” he held up two fingers. “Fuck Overlord. An’ three, fuck this Don guy. An’ four, why the fuck not?” Kill, kill, kill!

Miya bit her lip, considering. “Y… OK. Sure.”

“Don could have told others that info,” said Amanda.

“I don’t know. He’s my best guess. That’s my sad sob story,” finished Miya. “Gonna arrest me now? I see it in those cop eyes of yours,” she said to Amanda and Chris with almost forced joviality.

“What?” asked Amanda. “I was a cop for a couple months. That’s not nearly long enough for the indoctrination process.”

“Same here,” added Chris. “We joined about the same time. And no, there’s no indoctrination process.” Amanda mock glared and stuck her tongue out at him.

“Yeah, you and Amanda are pretty relaxed. Most cops don’ like me, especially MHU ones,” said Ben.

Rob shrugged. “Cops usually shoot at me, never really had a chance to talk to ‘em.” Miya nodded in agreement. I don’t have much better experiences with them, but they usually talk to vigilantes like me before they start shooting.

“I kind of regret that decision,” said Amanda. “I was just out of college.” She shrugged. “I didn’t really want to go for a PhD at the time. I thought I could make a difference with the police, I guess. But I found that everything else was just boring. I’d spend all my time thinking of new things to try. Don’t get me wrong, I loved all the resources they threw at me, but the few patrols I had were with Jeremiah. Not a fun experience.”

“Ouch, I’m sorry,” said Chris. Jeremiah? Don’t know who that is.

“Wait, what resources are we talkin’ here?” asked Rob over Chris.

“Anything, so long as I filled out the right paperwork. But if could prove I needed it, it showed up within a day or so.”

Rob’s jaw dropped. “What? Anythin’? I would totally have been a cop if I’d known that! I had to beg, borrow, cheat, and steal for all of my stuff. Do you have any idea how hard it was to hand make all of the tiny gears in this watch?” he said, holding up his wrist with the black and silver analog watch strapped to it. He was damn proud of that thing when he first finished it, too.

“This is the government we’re talking about,” said Amanda. “I had to fill out paperwork for everything, even the most basic of tools. You’d think some off the shelf resistors would be easy, but nope!”

“Well, how basic are we talkin’?” asked Rob. “Cuz a hammer an’ a good source of heat will keep me happy.” If I start banging my head against this wall behind me, will they notice this is boring the hell out of anyone who isn’t a techie?

“They’ll keep track of every ounce of metal-” said Amanda.

“Guys!” cut in Miya. “Now is not techie time. Get a room for that.”

“Agreed,” said Ben. Eyes… glazing… over. Can’t… fight it.

“Right, sorry,” said Amanda. “So yeah, I don’t really regret leaving. What about you, Chris?”

He shrugged. “My foster mother was in the MHU, she got me interested. Took law enforcement classes and training at the Academy to keep me occupied.”

“Wait, you said foster parents?” said Miya.

Chris nodded. “Yeah, I was an angry little shit in middle and high school.” He shrugged. “I got better.” Hey, both him and Olivia don’t like making eye contact when you ask them questions.

Ben exchanged a glance with Rob. Someone’s dodging questions today. “So, the police. No qualms about leavin’?” asked Ben.

“Oh, ‘qualms.’ Someone’s pulling out the big boy words,” said Amanda.

Ben nodded. “I try.”

Chris ignored them. “Sometimes,” he said in answer to Ben’s question. “Not a lot. It wasn’t all it cracked up to be.”

“Tha’s why I was a vigilante. Jus’ go out, beat up dudes, or dudettes, I’m equal opportunity, an’ call it a day,” said Ben.

“Yeah, but how do you pay rent that way?” asked Miya.

“I worked. In the food industry, mainly.”

“Ew. Why would you do that to yourself?”

“Food is good. I like food. Meet all kinds of people, too.”

“Yeah, the weird kinds,” said Amanda.

“Ya do get those. But I’m talkin’ cool people. Lifers are some of the most interestin’ people you’ll talk to.”

“Lifers?” asked Chris.

“People who’ve been workin’ there their whole lives. Ex-cons, old dudes, the like. They’ve been around. Hell, I worked with this one guy… I told you about Green Man, right?” Ben asked Rob.

“Old gang warlord guy?”

“Yep.”

“Yeah, you told me.”

“Yeah, so he was a big deal in Baltimore in about the mid-eighties. Then the MHU busted him an’ tha’ was the end of it. Got out about seven years ago on parole. Worked with him for a while in some hole in the wall restaurant. Not what you’d expect. Didn’t bring up his old life much, an’ I didn’t ask, but he was still interestin’ to talk to. Different perspective.”

“Please don’t tell me you were a waiter,” said Amanda.

“Nah, back on the line.” At the blank looks he received, he clarified, “The kitchen. Also worked in fast food, an’ I ain’t doin’ that again.”

“I miss those free donuts,” said Chris.

“Tha’ was a fun job.”

“You had to go in at five in the morning. I remember because you woke me up a couple times when you left,” said Miya.

“Oh, sorry ‘bout that. But I don’ sleep too well anyways, so I got to live out a sugary wonderland fantasy every mornin’. At least, tha’s what I told myself to get movin’ outta bed.”

“Sleep. Sleep is sacred,” said Rob. Yeah, that is something we should do at some point.

The conversation died off there. They threw away the trash from their “meal” and settled into comfortable silence, with only the sound of Amanda tapping away at her laptop to keep Ben awake.

“Hey, Amanda, are you looking up how we’re going to get into that feral research place?” asked Chris suddenly.

“Yeah, I’ve been on that the last couple days. It’s not pretty.” Wonderful!

“How bad?”

“Big walls, pretty good firewalls and electronic systems, lots of Freeman guards-”

“Wait, wait,” said Chris. “Did you say the Freeman Company’s doing security?”

“Yeah, why?” asked Amanda.

Chris smiled. “My father, my foster father, works for them. Think we could wrangle a way in that way?” Oh, I’m liking this.

“Worth a shot. How high up is he on the totem pole?” asked Amanda.

“I’ll… have to check. He’s in the paymaster section, not sure how much influence they have over the combat side of things in terms of who gets hired and where they go. Anything else sticking out to you?”

“Nope, not from here.”

“I’d say we actually look at the place before we plan anythin’,” said Rob. “Internet can only tell you so much.”

“Yeah,” agreed Amanda. “If you want, I’ll show you what I’ve got, but it probably won’t get us anywhere in terms of concrete planning.”

Chris nodded as Ben stifled a yawn. “Alright. I’m thinking about getting some shuteye.”

“Sounds good,” said Rob, hopping to his feet.

Him and Ben said their goodbyes and returned to their room as Chris did the same.

“Wanna share the bed?” asked Ben.

“Sure.”

They passed out the moment their heads hit the pillows.

***

Ben rolled out of bed at around five AM. Blurg. Gotta boot up. After a shower, he whiled away the hours until Rob got up and showered. Then they packed up and watched TV until the others finally bothered to wake up. Lazy bastards.

The two of them walked up to their car once everyone got moving. “Amanda’s still got this thing ‘secure’ don’t she?” said Rob.

Ben stopped reaching for the door handle. “Yep.” Damn it.

The two brothers waited around until Amanda came over and reached below the car. She removed a small disk and said, “There, should be good now. I just don’t trust most people when all of our stuff in vulnerable in cars while we sleep.”

“Yeah, but I’d like to get in my car without gettin’ zapped,” said Ben.

“You’ll live,” she said with a smile.

“You good to drive?” Rob asked Ben as Amanda walked off.

“Yep.” I’m always the designated driver, it seems. I can’t tune out with a game or music.

Ben sighed. Whatever. After another twenty minutes, they were on the road once again. The trip proceeded much as before. That is to say, extremely boring, with Rob poking at Ben to amuse himself.

After several hours, Rob asked, “That it?” He pointed to the brownish smudge on the horizon.

“Yessah. Tha’s Houston,” replied Ben, eyeing a sign that said Houston was right in front of them. I can read! Now to figure out what the hell we’re doing.

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20 thoughts on “Down South – Houston

    • Is she busty? I always default to slim when picturing women and I missed any descriptions about Olivia saying otherwise.

      Idk, I always pictured draconian women being tall, flat chested, and having wiry strength. If they are too big they can’t fly.

      • I remember that Amanda described her as ripped and that description surprised Ben – maybe something like Sarah Connor in Terminator 2?

      • Yeah I kinda pictured her as flat cause ya know never seen an iguana with breasts outside of very weird fetish sites and sometimes when google safe search is off.

      • Ripped is not necessarily an abundance of overdeveloped muscle. It’s usually just someone with incredibly low body fat which causes their muscles to be well defined. Which is why Ben doesn’t call her ripped even though Rob and Amanda do. Back in chapter 1 when she first woke up, she’s described as having very little body fat.

      • No problem! Anything i can do to help (Other than lifelong servitude. My current master has forbidden me from serving another. And my plans to make him disappear won’t come to fruition for another 125 days, 13 hours, and roughly 38 minutes) Just keep up the great work!

  1. So, I was expecting Ben to purposefully trick Rob into touching the handle, not to try it out for himself. Maybe he just has an electrical fetish.

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