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Decoy and Retrofit: Chapter 4

A downloadable package of this chapter (.pdf, .epub, and .mobi) is available in the Sparkler Monthly Issue #047 back issue and Hazel + Bell’s Patreon.

Before Griffin dragged Noel’s unconscious body into a gas station, before they had their first sexual experience together in five years, before the truck tire exploded and before the dog woke up, Noel put a drunken Griffin to bed in the truck, draped his coat over his legs, and left to sit back down on the grass next to the ice cream truck.

It had been a wild day for Noel. Waking up on the run, seeing Atlas’ Jeep-tank. Losing the freezer to Spences Bridge. Griffin getting mad, storming off with his gun, and returning with dinner and a glare.

Noel let his alien fingers brush over his lips as he stared into the fire, heat radiating against his face.

It was a lot to think about.

***

He fell into the Outlie again that night.

It wasn’t like this was anything new, but Noel was really looking forward to talking to someone after all the shit that had gone down in the past twenty-four hours. He knew Apollo wouldn’t be able to help him out, but talking to someone (anyone) still sounded better than sitting alone with his thoughts in an alien brain fog while anxieties turned his stomach.

Noel closed his eyes. Atlas was tearing the road up looking for them. Griffin was acting strange. And to top it all off, they had a defrosting wardog in the back seat of the ice cream truck.

From what Noel knew of wardogs, they had another day to get to a power source. Maybe they could jerry-rig a generator up to the freezer, if they found one. Nelson was close, they could find a generator there. If that failed…

Noel wouldn’t know what to do.

Wardogs had masters, who could communicate with them and issue commands. Noel didn’t know who this dog belonged to. It could have belonged to anyone. A Tourist on the main base in orbit, a Tourist who was earthbound. Another retrofit.

If the dog belonged to someone else, Noel wouldn’t be able to order it to stand down if it got loose.

Those were the thoughts swirling in Noel’s mind as he hung in limbo, waiting for the Outlie to release him from its fog, when a scream from somewhere far-off slipped into his thoughts.

Almost, Noel thought, as his fears materialized.

***

The dog was awake.

Of course it’s awake, Noel thought to himself, sluggishly shrugging off the fog, stumbling to his feet. Why wouldn’t it be awake two days early? That was exactly how things had been going lately.

Noel still couldn’t see much, but he could hear a lot. That weird clicking noise that wardogs made while they circled before attacking. The snort of air through nostrils. The scrape of claws against the ground as it paced back and forth.

Noel blinked the last of the fog away, just in time to witness the wardog duck its head down, charge across their camp, and slam face-first into the ice cream truck’s door.

There was a horrible sound of crunching metal, shattering glass, and a terrified scream from inside the cab as the truck rocked backward on two wheels, then slammed back down into the dirt.

Griffin was in the truck.

Noel was running before he was conscious of it, rolling up his sleeve, his eyes locked on the dog. It was on two legs, thrusting its maw through the broken window, snapping and snarling and scrabbling to get inside.

Griff Griff Griff, Noel thought desperately. Please, Griff–

If this dog belongs to someone else, we’re both dead.

He charged to the dog’s side. Without thinking, Noel slammed his palm down on the wardog’s leathery, wiry snout, fingertips clutching at its skull, and the veins on his retrofitted arm shone like blue lava glinting through the blackened cracks of earth.

The second of pure physical connection was enough for Noel to see that this rampaging wardog did not have a master.

“Down, boy,” Noel commanded.

It took a second to register. Like the second after turning on the radio, where he was still met with silence. That beat before electrons reached their destination, before the commands had registered. That beat of nothing.

But then, it clicked.

If the Outlie was a white fog where a million indifferent aliens merged with his mind, this was obnoxiously different. This was nothing like the watered-down, complacent rationality that Noel had been swaddled in for five years.

A screaming, foreign presence barrelled straight into Noel’s brain, overwhelming him with volatile emotion and violent colours. Roaring cries, blinding florescent pink, and an anger so strong it made him mentally stumble back in awe.

He hadn’t felt anything like that in years.

The presence in his head was screaming; it took a second for Noel to understand it. “New master?” a weedy voice echoed. “New master? New master? New master?”

It took Noel a second to respond. “Yes, I’m your new master,” said Noel. “Please stop ramming the ice cream truck.”

The dog let out a growl that vibrated against Noel’s skull. “I need to kill him. I’m hungry. Please let me kill him.”

Him was accompanied by an image projected directly into Noel’s mind. The face of a young man, scowling, hair pulled back away from his face, and yep, that was Griffin.

“He killed my master. Let me kill him. I’m hungry.”

Noel’s mind ran through the list of the people they had killed since they’d started this adventure. None of them had been retrofits, as far as Noel could tell. They definitely hadn’t been Tourists. Noel assumed that Griffin had probably killed a lot of people in the past, but a Tourist or a retrofit…?

There was a point of throbbing pain at the front of Noel’s head. He winced. “Griff did?”

“He did. I’m hungry. Let me go. I want to eat him.”

Noel sighed. “You’re not allowed to eat Griff. We have deer. Griff, did you leave the deer in the bushes?

No response, but the dog kept talking, kept hissing away in Noel’s head. “I can smell it, it’s near. I’m hungry.”

“I can smell it, too.” Noel sniffed, like he would be able to smell the dead deer on the air.  “Where’d you put it?” he asked again, not looking up.

Griffin’s voice came from somewhere hazy and far-off, to the point where Noel barely registered it. “Huh?” he asked.

“I’m hungry,” the dog grumbled. “I’m tired. I hate him, he killed my only friend.”

Noel nodded, his hand still pressing hard on the dog’s skull. “Deer, Griff,” Noel said. “I asked you where you put the deer carcass.”

Griffin’s voice was distant, hesitant and quiet in the roar in Noel’s brain. “In the woods. Behind the fir.”

“Dead. It’s dead meat. Let me eat him.”

“Yeah,” Noel said, “I know. It’s dead, but–”

“I’m hungry.”

Noel closed his eyes. “Yes.”

“I’m hungry. I’m tired. I hate him.”

Noel could feel it. Every blinding detail, ricocheting though his head. Every gram of anguish kept on ice for weeks, waiting for this moment of revenge that he was denying.

“You can eat the deer carcass,” Noel thought to it. “But you can’t eat Griff.”

The dog let out a disdainful snort. “Screw you, New Master,” the dog snarled, before sliding off the door and landing on the ground with a thud.

Noel’s mouth turned up at the corner. Sassy. He took his hand off the dog’s head and let himself fall back into the real world. Less screeching into his brain, less fluorescent pink. More shattered glass and creaking metal and dry, wracked sobs cutting through it all.

Noel’s eyes landed on the punched-in door. The broken window. And Griffin, staring down at him, clutching his rifle and surrounded by glass.

Noel leaped into the truck, brushing away glass with his alien arm. “You’re not hurt, are you?” he breathed, pushing himself over to Griffin’s side. “Did you fall at all? Cut yourself?”

Griffin shook his head mutely, his hair brushing over Noel’s hands. “I’m fine, Noel,” Griffin choked out. “I’m fine.”

Noel let out a breath. Over everything that was pounding in the back of his brain, over the grumbling death threats and curses from the dog pacing behind him and the warped memories creeping against his mind, he latched onto that one thing. Griffin was safe. Griffin was unharmed.

And at least ninety-nine percent of Noel was relieved by that.

***

As it turned out, the wardog wasn’t going to wait around long for food.

“I’M HUNGRY,” it whined, pacing through the campsite as Noel cleaned up their camp. It doggedly followed him as he threw their supplies into the back of the truck, snapped at his ankles with slimy teeth as Noel kicked out the pile of ashes that remained from their fire.

“HUNGRY!”

“Shut up,” Noel grumbled in his head.

The dog snarled at that, stepping directly into Noel’s path. He caught himself before he tripped over it, recovering into a high step as he moved over the dog. The spines on its back brushed dangerously close to his crotch.

FEED ME, NEW MASTER.”

“Don’t order me around,” Noel grumbled. “Wait.”

When there was absolutely nothing else to do at the campsite, Noel checked on Griffin. He was sleeping in the cab, blue ringing deep around his eyes. Noel had to wonder how much sleep he had missed before he was put into a school uniform and let loose on Manifest Legacy.

Then again, with his own random episodes of sleep, he was one to talk.

“Where is food.”

Noel groaned and dragged his feet toward the woods.

He couldn’t smell the deer, but he knew where to go. The wardog’s nose was sharp enough to clue him in to where it was. They moved to the treeline, scrubby trees with spiny needles that cast shadows against the early morning sun. The dog moved with him, loping along the needle-strewn ground, following its nose until they stumbled across a mess of flies and gnarled bones stripped of flesh.

Noel crinkled his nose. The dog brightened up.

“FOOD.”

“Yeah, yeah,” Noel groaned, waving his hand in front of his face. “Eat it.”

The dog barely waited for his order. It was down on the carcass in a second, plunging its jaws into the deer’s soft throat, wrenching out a mouthful of bloody carnage and choking it down its gullet. It didn’t really stop to chew, which was about what Noel had expected from it.

Noel swallowed bile down his throat, and took a seat against a tree.

“Here, look.” Noel sighed as the dog scarfed down a hunk of soft tissue and cartilage. “Why do you want to kill Griff?”

Noel could see into its head, if he wanted to. Poke around and read its memory and thoughts. He could already feel things from the dog passively, like the satisfying way its stomach filled up and eased away the ache of hunger.

But he wanted to ask for himself.

“What’s your name?”

The dog raised its mouth, teeth and jaw stained with blood, and clicked at him. “Click-cliiiii clic.” It was uncomfortably loud and sharp, but Noel could understand it. He thought for a second, translating it into something he could actually pronounce.

“Small?” he asked. “Your name is…Small?”

“Don’t belittle me with your guttural language,” the wardog grunted in his mind as it smashed a deer limb to bits with its teeth.

Noel watched the dog devour the deer carcass. “Tiny.”

“I don’t care,” hissed Tiny.

It had a remarkably strong personality. Noel didn’t know a whole lot about wardogs, despite having access to other’s memories of them. They were connected to one person, and needed that bridge to reach the Outlie. They needed a Tourist. Noel figured that was why it hadn’t called for help before now.

Well, that and being stuck in a freezer for weeks would do the trick.

“Who was your old master, Tiny?”

“Cli-ghr cli-cl-rei clic.” Scout, the literal translation.

Noel fitted that into his mind, trying to find a mental picture from all the Tourists he had run across in his time. He had never seen this one before, he didn’t know their face from the hazy depository in his brain. But Tiny’s memories were there, too.

A second later, his mind filled with a vision of something alien. Long, fluid arms. Translucent skin, pearly white eyes shaped like almonds. Graceful and long and soft to touch. Endlessly tall, from Tiny’s perspective. A creature who blocked out the sun.

“Brave Scout. Sent down to surface a month ago. With me.”

“From orbital base?”

“Dropship. Camp. Soil sample. Deer is tasty.

“Good,” Noel thought. He watched as Tiny dug in, staining its mouth with blood.

“Nature recon. Isolated from human populace.”

“But someone found you.”

Tiny stopped chewing to stare at him. It didn’t have obvious eyes, just a massive jaw and massive teeth, but somehow Noel could sense that it knew exactly what it was looking at.

Then, he could see it.

***

A green clearing, ripe and warm in the height of summer. Sunbeams and grass and sweet smells. A private place, quiet and soft and safe. Noel had these feelings ahead of time. He was an observer, waking up into a scene where the grass was already smashed underfoot by the boots of mercenaries.

There was a building in the clearing. The door had been flung open, and past that Noel could see weapons. Tools. The same things that he had seen strapped to the walls of the ice cream truck. The Tourist weapons.

Noel watched as a mercenary exited through the door, arms piled full of alien technology, and heard an order barked from behind him.

“Oi, Griffin. Get over here.”

Noel whipped around.

The Tourist was on the ground. They had been bound, hooded, tied down against the dirt as their base was invaded. Standing over them was Brand, smoking something that burned acrid in the air, looking over his shoulder as a solider made his way through the grass.

It was Griffin. A different Griffin. He was wearing baggy fatigues, an ammo belt clipped around his waist, a survival pack strapped to his back. There was an angry bruise purpling around his left eye. He looked taller, masculine. Angry.

“Kill it,” Brand groaned, exhaling a cloud of poisonous smoke. “I don’t want to deal with it on the ride back.”

Griffin took that familiar assault rifle off his shoulder, checking his clip. He looked bored, his dark eyebrows funnelling together as he squinted at his gun. “I want another three hundred on top of my fee, Brand,” he said.

Brand took a breath of cigarette, blowing it out at the canopy. The alien struggled in the dirt. In Tiny’s brain, Noel could hear them screaming for help.

“Fifty and I don’t give you another black eye, kid,” Brand grunted.

Griffin let out a groan, pointed his rifle at the ground, and point-blank shot the Tourist in the head.

The deafening gunshot crack was more shocking than anything. It ripped through the clearing, making Noel start in his head. For a second, it was panic, and then it was nothing but a fading echo. The limp figure on the ground, the smoke curling out of the muzzle of Griffin’s gun.

Griffin put his palm out, and Brand slapped a fifty note into it.

“Hate those bastards,” Brand muttered, spitting into the dirt.

“Then why don’t you kill them yourself?” Griffin asked, slipping the money into his coat pocket.

The world was fading, draining of color, sliding away as Noel approached the end of the vision. But he caught Brand’s answer, the haunted expression on his face before the memory washed out to white.

“Bad luck,” echoed Brand. “You never know who’s gonna come back for revenge.”

***

Back in the forest, Noel blinked.

The trees around him were bathed in blue light, radiating from the veins in his arm. It was fluorescent light, like a neon sign in a club, eerie and artificial in the morning gloom.

The dog was sitting across from him, its snout dripping with gore. Noel stared at it, feeling his heart racing in his chest, the storm of borrowed rage boiling in his head.

“Retrofit.”

Noel looked at the wardog.

“You won’t let me kill the man who killed my master.”

Noel turned the memory around in his head. Griffin in his fatigues. Griffin with a black eye. Griffin, casually killing an alien for money.

Years ago, neck-deep in the apocalypse, that was the military’s job. Keep Tourists out, keep their cities safe while they exploded into rubble. He knew, realistically, that there weren’t many humans out there who would consider killing a Tourist a crime.

But Tourists didn’t think the same way. Noel didn’t think the same way, either.

“There will be consequences for this,” hissed Tiny. “For killing one of us.”

Noel stared at the receding glow of his arm, as it faded back to something that could be considered normal, and said nothing.

“When you go back to the Outlie, the next time you drift off, I’m going to tell everyone he killed Old Master. You may order me to not eat him, but you can’t stop me from reaching the Outlie now that you’re here.”

That was true. Noel really didn’t have much control over this. The damage had already been done.

Noel ran his hand through his hair, sweat slicking it back, and let out a breath that he didn’t know he was holding in.

“Whatever, Tiny,” said Noel.

***

They were getting closer to Kelowna now.

The roads were changing, tickling that nostalgic memory that existed behind the cloudy wall of Noel’s mind. It was the pre-retrofit, original Noel memory. The scrubby evergreens sparsely spread over dusty hills, the steep rock faces and the endless, flat highway. The roads that led home.

There wasn’t a home anymore, just the lake draining into a crater that had once been the location of every one of his fuzzy childhood memories. Soon there wouldn’t be much left to show himself that he wasn’t just some badly programmed alien mess residing in a semi-human body. There was no physical evidence remaining from his human life. The memories would just continue to fade away, devoid of proof that those moments had once been real.

Except for Griffin. He was real.

He had fallen asleep. The tattoo on his upper arm was pretty clear now, even when his sleeve was covering it. The weird army troop code. That little bit of Griffin that didn’t match up with anything else that Noel was familiar with, but now was beginning to make more sense. It matched the other Griffin, the Griffin who carried an assault rifle and ran with gangs and shot Tourists for money.

Maybe he wasn’t the same person anymore, no matter how much Noel wished he was.

“What did you do to make the wardog want to kill you?”

Noel let out a breath that came heavy through his nose. He had said that when he couldn’t hold back, when Griffin was screaming about the dog and the dog was screaming in his head about Griffin. And there was Noel, in the middle of it, feeling confused and betrayed and angry with himself.

The words were still ricocheting in Noel’s brain. Griffin had avoided the question, glancing shiftily to the side and giving some half-excuse that the dog had been frozen and he had never met it before.

Griffin knew why the dog was angry. He had murdered its Tourist in cold blood.

But he didn’t want Noel to find out.

Noel sat there, driving in silence as Griffin woke up again, as the ruins of Penticton passed by their windows. They talked, Noel apologized for yelling at Griffin, Griffin’s anger retreated into something soft and quiet and young.

Noel put his fingers through Griffin’s hair, brushing it away from his forehead, feeling that warm twist in his gut that made him want to protect Griffin with his life.

That was when the tire popped, Griffin swore loudly, and the illusion was ruined.

***

He woke up to Griffin kissing him.

At first, Noel thought it was a dream. He had been in the Outlie for a second, barely dipping his feet into the mess of fog, before he saw Griffin’s face in the gloom, eyelashes low and face calm as he pressed their mouths together.

Griffin had been drunk earlier–drunk and dumb. After a rough day full of adrenaline boosts and bad decisions, it had been easy to push Griffin’s grip off the front of Noel’s shirt and lay him back in the truck.

But now, their positons had been reversed.

“What are you doing?” Noel breathed when Griffin pulled away to hover over him.

“Waking you up, idiot,” said Griffin.

Noel squinted. Griffin’s hair was curtaining his face, dyed and scraggly, hanging loose out of the hair ribbon. He licked his lips, and Noel watched as his tongue flicked out.

“You done with the tire?”

“Yeah, took me like four seconds.”

Noel lay there in a daze as Griffin threaded his fingers through his hair, brushing against his scalp with the soft pads of his thumbs. It didn’t seem like something that they needed to talk about. Like this was a regular happening, waking up with a kiss.

“Why are you sleeping?”

Noel didn’t know. He didn’t remember falling asleep, he didn’t remember if he had gone to the Outlie. Everything felt odd and fuzzy and soft. Griffin was there, his body long over his, and it felt like the only thing that really mattered.

And then, Noel felt the hum of something angry and dangerous from outside the ice cream truck.

The dog. Right. “Tiny?” Noel breathed.

Griffin kissed him again. It was soft and warm and dark. Noel’s mind was drifting, disconnecting. Tiny. Wasn’t there something bad about entering the Outlie? Wasn’t there something that he had to stop?

Griffin kept kissing him, and everything felt less immediate.

Griffin, looking down at him with a heated expression, working his tongue and teeth and lips against Noel’s in a way that felt dirty and erotic in every way that Noel hadn’t expected. It still felt familiar, but with none of the fumble, none of the shyness or uncertainty or gut-flipping fear. It was exciting, it was different.

Griffin nestled his head against Noel’s thigh with absolutely no hesitation. Noel felt like there couldn’t be anything else he wanted more. His chest was full and warm with it, his heart pounding at a flush pace. Here was the guy from his childhood, his first date, his first kiss, and he had found his way back into Noel’s life. He had folded himself against Noel to kiss him soft and slow, and to bask in the nostalgia that wrapped them together.

Noel’s hand was on Griffin’s hair. Griffin wanted him to pull it, but Noel didn’t want to. He just wanted to twist the soft locks through his fingers and hold onto him like he was an anchor. Like Noel would wake up if he let go.

And when it was over, Griffin looked up at Noel with wet eyes and red cheeks, coughing roughly, looking messy and undone and warm. Noel reached up and put his hands on Griffin’s face like he was a treasure, wiping tears with the back of his fingers.

“Griffin,” Noel had mumbled over Griffin’s panting. “Was I always in love with you like this?”

Griffin wiped loose hair from his face, staring down at Noel with a frown. He opened his mouth, maybe to say something in reply, but Noel couldn’t hear it.

The Outlie had its fingers around him and was pulling him under, back into oblivion.

***

Proceed to Chapter 4, page 2–>

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Comments (1)
  1. Loner with a boner

    Hazel and Bell, u guys have really outdone yourselves!this is so good! I love the more angsty tone, in comparison to the fluffiness ARH. I can’t wait to see what happens next!!! I wish I could become a patreon so I could read prison tower too, T-T