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Decoy and Retrofit: Chapter 1

Decoy and Retrofit (by Bell & Hazel)

A downloadable package of this chapter (.pdf, .epub, and .mobi) is available in the Sparkler Monthly Issue #040 back issue and Hazel + Bell’s Patreon.

Apollo had been seventeen for five years.

He always looked the same. Skinny jeans and a black t-shirt, scabbed elbows, bruised knuckles. Noel had looked like that once, too. Hair shaved down against his skull, band shirts, a bruise darkening across his face, teeth stained with blood. They had been punk kids, back when the world had been divided into punks and non-punks, authority figures and angry suburban teenagers.

That was a long time ago.

Noel sat down next to Apollo, crossing his legs, and stared out at the shifting scape of color around them.

“How’s your mom?” asked Noel.

Apollo’s fingers were twitching in a pattern, mimicking guitar chords with every note he hummed out. Noel could remember the tune from somewhere that seemed further away than it was.

“She’s fine,” said Apollo without looking up.

“Alive?”

“You know as much as I do.”

He could feel the emotions of other creatures fading through, could feel Apollo’s memories fading into his own. Polaroids to the past. Not like Polaroids existed anymore, but it wasn’t like anything else did, either.

Polaroids at least had the good grace to die before the rest of society did.

“Have you been in my mom’s mind lately?” asked Apollo.

Noel bit down an opportunity to go for the well-placed joke. “No, why?”

“She thinks you’re going to see my brother soon.”

Noel stared at him.

Apollo was still looking at his fingers, still moving in a pattern. Noel remembered those chords. He’d known that song too, once. They’d probably played it together, learning from each other, tight in a competition to better themselves against each other.

“Did she see a clairvoyant?” asked Noel.

“I don’t know.”

Noel let a beat of silence go by, toying with his lip between his teeth. “Does that mean I’m going to die?” he asked.

“Well, why don’t you go ask her for yourself?” Apollo sighed.

Noel felt his mouth twitch. “That’s not how this works, and you know it.”

He knew that Apollo wasn’t going to argue with him on that. There was a way and a reason about this strange place that tied them together, a place that understood his mind better than he did.

It wasn’t worth thinking about. He was about to wake up, anyway.

***

“Is that an ice cream truck?”

Noel glanced down the mountain road, to where the roadblock was bustling with the arrival of the convoy. It was a cool autumn day, fallen leaves covering the gravel road in an array of ruddy colors that blended into the rust-spotted vehicles. There were a fleet of vehicles already here, parked on the side of the road, idling in front of the roadblock. An F150, a Corolla from the 90s. A Volkswagen bus. And an ice cream truck. It bounced around the road on frighteningly poor suspension before skidding to a stop at the gate, steam gushing out of the hood.

Noel let out a snort, pulling out his binoculars for a better look.

There were still labels on the side, a sun-faded periodic table of ice cream treats from a decade ago. Nostalgia flickered through him at the sight of sun-bleached Spongebob, smiling with his toothy sorbet grin and unseeing gumball eyes.

“Why the fuck do they have an ice cream truck with them?” asked Rib from behind. “Am I missing something?”

“Maybe they’ve got a good engine under the hood?” suggested Medic. “Turbo-boosted? Or maybe they need the refrigeration to keep their lunches cool.”

“You’re funny, Med.”

Rib sounded tense, but then again, Noel figured there was a decent reason to be. Rival mercenary gangs in the same territory tended to get along like a cold war. Atlas and Manifest Legacy were no exception to this.

Noel pulled his focus from gumball-eyed Dora the Explorer and settled on the drivers. Glassless windows framed the interior of the cab, where two profiles came into view. The driver was wearing a windbreaker covered in patches that designated him as a member of Atlas, the largest mercenary unit in southern interior. The passenger was in shadow.

This was a trade hookup. Manifest Legacy, the second largest mercenary gang in the southern interior and Noel’s reluctant choice of employer, had agreed to this meeting with their blood rival, Atlas. It was drugs mostly, and illegal goods that couldn’t find a home through trade posts. Noel didn’t know why Rib had agreed to this, but after his short time knowing the man, Noel figured it was for a dumb reason.

“I’m thinking of reworking the name of our army,” Rib grunted as the ice cream truck cut the gas.  “‘Manifest Legacy’ isn’t good enough. I want something powerful, punchier. Something that demands the respect that we deserve. Something aggressive.”

“Uh-huh,” said Medic. “Maybe you should be focusing on the fact that you took a high-risk trade deal here. Pay more attention to their men, we don’t want them busting our asses over this.”

Noel ignored them both, leaning in closer to get a better look at the passenger of the ice cream truck.

A ray of bright afternoon sun had cut through the windows, highlighting the shadows that had enshrouded the passenger’s face before. Noel leaned forward, peering through the lenses like a birdwatcher, focused so intently that he didn’t realize he was staring at hair.

Mercenaries tended to not have dress codes; that was just how these sorts of things worked. A group of people with similar violent tendencies and bad home lives resulted in a mob of rebellious assholes who lived together and didn’t care if they all got head lice. At least, that was what Noel had observed.

But this wasn’t mercenary hair. This was glossy and long, shiny and soft, held in place by a red ribbon.

Noel lowered his binoculars.

Rib was, unfortunately, still talking about rebranding.

“We have to be tough, not like these pansy-asses naming themselves after a book with a lot of maps in it. And I’ve heard other groups calling us ManLeg. I don’t like it. We don’t sound powerful or in control. We need a name that strikes fear into our enemies.”

Noel glanced up at his two commanding officers, Medic and Rib, still bickering about names. Medic looked down and met his eyes, and Noel briefly wondered what his own expression was telling him.

“See anything, Retfit?”

Noel turned his thoughts around in his head. They have a girl. Atlas brought a civilian girl with them to the drug exchange. “SpongeBob SquarePants gumball ice cream,” he answered dully.

Rib didn’t seem to care. But Medic was giving Noel a scrutinizing look, glancing to what Noel had to assume were the dark stains under his eyes.

“Get much sleep last night?” asked Medic quietly.

Noel shrugged. It sounded silly to hear a mercenary doctor be concerned about something as meaningless as sleep. But Medic was a weirdo, just like the rest of them. Someone who had found himself in a violent place, not out of choice, but because there just weren’t many other places to go.

“Maybe a bit of insomnia,” Noel said lightly, adjusting the focus on his binoculars.

“Bad dreams?” asked Medic.

Noel gave Medic a weak smile, shaking his head.

He hadn’t had a dream in about five years, which was about how long this apocalypse had been going on for.

***

As it turned out, the girl wasn’t a secret Noel was going to keep.

They were at the negotiation table (a picnic bench in the park gazebo) and she was just standing behind the Atlas men in the party, twirling her hair around her finger. She was wearing what looked like a school uniform–just a white shirt and pleated skirt and knee socks–but she looked every inch the kind of person who didn’t belong here. Like someone who smelled nice. Someone who existed in the pages of a magazine that had been saved from five years ago. Someone who showered on a regular basis.

“Who’s the chick?” asked Rib, jarring Noel back to the present.

They were negotiating already. Brand, Atlas’ leader, had come to the park gazebo with four foot soldiers to work out trade agreements for his gang. Brand was built like a fire truck, had the hair coverage of a lizard, and bore the eye of a man who really wished he could grow a goatee.

“Mayor of Pentiction’s daughter,” Brand grunted out. “We’re transporting her.”

Noel stood behind most of his own party, and noticed the tension in Medic’s shoulders dissipate almost immediately. “Oh,” said Medic, shifting in his seat. “You have another purpose out here, then?”

Brand had clearly been in the business long enough to know what Medic’s clumsy choice of words implied. He glared, sitting back in his seat at the picnic table.

“We got better things to do with our time than screw with Manifest Legacy over some meth,” Brand said sharply. “I don’t want any funny business.”

“Yeah, well, same here!” snapped Rib, like he was being left out of the conversation. “We’ll let you be the Princess Carriage Service, no problem. We’ll leave with all the bullets we came with.”

“You lads better,” Brand growled. “Or the whole of Pentiction’s gonna have a warrant for your necks.”

Rib smiled stiffly at that, like his masculinity had been laundered and hung out to dry. Noel braced himself for stupidity, silently praying for Rib to exhibit restraint. Thankfully, he didn’t immediately go to insulting Brand’s face.

Instead, Rib turned to Noel.

“Oi, Retfit,” Rib ordered. “Get over here.”

Noel stepped forward.

He could tell that Brand didn’t expect him to be their retrofit. In fact, Brand gave Noel a long stare, part disbelief, and part something that made Noel feel like a dessert cart being brought out early.

Noel might have been amused if he wasn’t mostly dead inside.

“What, then?” chuckled Brand, jabbing a stubby finger at Noel. “This kid’s your retrofit? Him?”

“What were you expecting?” asked Rib, as proud as if he had birthed Noel himself. “Someone a little more braindead?

Noel felt the eyes of the whole Atlas trade crew on the scar that cut through the side of his faded blue dye job, his conspicuously gloved hands, the mark from a once-infected piercing dotted along his eyebrow. Noel didn’t look much different from all the other basics around them, in that scraggly, barely homeless kind of way. But he knew he looked different from a lot of retrofits, living corpses who had to remind themselves to breathe.

“You don’t mind if we check around in your head a bit, Brand?” asked Rib, a bit cheekily. “Nothing private; just to make sure you haven’t been sleeping around with Tourists lately.”

Back when retrofits had been more common, this kind of check had served as an introduction with strange groups of people. But Brand didn’t have a retrofit, so he had no reason to comply. Rib was just showing off.

“I’ll go for it,” Brand said. “I got nothing to hide.”

Medic raised his eyebrows in an expression that Noel felt, too. Weird.

Noel stepped forward, taking off the glove that usually covered his left hand.

He kept it covered for a reason. His left arm was a splice job like his brain was, and not a pretty one, at that. The skin had the texture of fish scales, cut through with luminescent blue veins and patches of smoothness that felt like the skin under a scab. They shimmered against the scales, pale and damp and bizarrely unearthly. He could feel every pair of eyes on his hand as he stretched his fingers, drumming them out in a line, as he tried to figure out the best place to touch Brand.

“Ain’t that something,” Brand breathed, and Noel placed his alien fingers on the man’s upper arm. “Ain’t that something.”

Noel ignored him. He didn’t need to touch Brand for very long to know that he wasn’t a member of the Outlie. The Tourists hadn’t gotten to him; he had no connection to the hive mind that Noel was aware of.

But there was something small, something on the wind. Like the barest scent of pot lingering on a high school campus.

Noel considered, for a moment, if he should ask what that was about.

“How did you manage to get yourself a retfit, Rib?” Brand asked, turning to Noel’s boss with an appreciative look. “I’ve been poking around myself, can’t find one anywhere!”

“Oh, you like him?” Rib waggled his eyebrows suggestively. “Comes cheap if you promise food and drugs.”

“Do you have to pay for extra?”

“If you’re into Tourist skin, sure.”

Noel rolled his eyes. On second thought, who gave a fuck. “He’s clean,” Noel grunted, pulling his glove back on. “Anything else, sir?”

Rib just waved him off, laughing heartily to himself. Noel didn’t want to hear it. He shouldered his rifle and slunk back into formation, feeling eyes on the back of his head as he went.

Proceed to Chapter 1, page 2–>

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