Decoy and Retrofit: Chapter 1
Ever since Noel had become transcendent, he had missed watching things blow up.
It wasn’t as if things had stopped blowing up. In fact, things were blowing up now more than ever. Noel couldn’t go a day without seeing something catch fire, shredding into a blast of shrapnel and noise. Explosions were everywhere, loud and violent and sometimes, multicolored.
And Noel couldn’t enjoy it.
There was no primal excitement, no adrenaline pumping at the sight of fireballs raging into smoke. He missed it. He missed the vibration on his eardrums as cans marked with combustible octagons did exactly what was on the label. He missed the rush he got from charging away from a blast zone with fire and glass on his heels.
If his puberty had been normal, he could have chalked this up to the boring maturity of adulthood. But no, it wasn’t that. Noel was very aware he had given up being normal when he transcended.
It was a retrofit job. The Tourists had surgically connected Noel to their hive mind when he was seventeen. He’d had his skull opened, his brain taken apart and put back together again. His left arm had been stripped to nothing but nerves and bone, then restructured with DNA that didn’t belong to his species. And just like that, Noel was connected to a thousand different minds, a thousand alien brains that hovered in chrome spaceships in the orbit of their planet.
Noel could read Tourist languages. He could use their technology, repair their ships. Sometimes he could even communicate with other members of the hive. He could participate in memories that were ten thousand years older and ten thousand watts brighter than his own.
Explosions were boring now.
When they got back to camp, there was already word buzzing around about the girl, which seemed to distract from the fact that they’d just made a successful drug deal with Atlas, of all gangs. Noel wasn’t about to question it; he grabbed his dinner and left for the barracks while the basics who had gone to the trade talked about how hot she was, how it was the easiest mission ever, how they were going to have a good night’s sleep after this.
When Noel woke up eight hours later from rapid gunfire, he had a slight feeling that this was somehow related.
“We’re under attack!” Medic yelled into the barracks as Noel grabbed his boots. “Everyone up! Rib’s orders, we get out now. We’re meeting the convoy by the camp gate!”
They were supposed to leave the barracks in pairs, but Noel found himself stumbling outside, falling into the forest against the surge of men trying to push past him. He landed hard off-trail.
Gunfire cracked out from nearby, and he flattened against the ground, hearing the Basic division of Manifest Legacy make their way noisily to the trucks. Noel pulled himself into a crouch, breathing quietly, and took off again.
There wasn’t any energy to this. There was no fear taking hold of him, constricting his throat. Noel’s movements were methodical and practiced. Keep running, keep moving. If he got hit by a stray bullet, that was bad, he guessed. But it wasn’t like he could do anything about it, either.
He didn’t have any premonitions here. All Noel had to rely on was the memory of an old graffiti-decorated campground map they saw when they came in, half burned and rotted with time. He tried to remember where he saw a shortcut to the road, a direction he could start running in, when something seized him by the back of his jacket.
Several forces moved him at once. The smack of his head against the forest floor, the press of a boot as it slammed into his ribs. Noel saw white, milky brightness for a second, before he blinked.
He looked up the long expanse of leg to the skirt flapping in the dark. There was a boot planted in the middle of his chest, the barrel of a gun pointing right at his forehead, a curtain of hair that hung down from above. Noel’s heart pounded, his mouth bone-dry.
The mayor’s daughter stood over him. Except that this clearly was not the mayor’s daughter.
This person looked feral. Wild, dark eyes under dark eyebrows. Short and slight enough that they looked prim and clean from a distance, but here, close up, it was too obvious. The myth of the innocent schoolgirl was a decoy. This was a person introduced to lower the enemy’s guard, to make Manifest Legacy think that Atlas had another purpose here.
The voice that came from above him hitched. “Oh, fuck,” the decoy breathed. “It’s you.”
And with that, Noel was transported back in time.
He was seventeen and drunk in a Denny’s parking lot. He had twisted his fingers through dyed black hair coarse with bleach, slid his hand up against the worn fabric of an Iron Maiden t-shirt, and opened his mouth against a pair of lips that, thirty seconds earlier, had been spewing profanities about his mother.
Noel didn’t know what the mayor’s daughter looked like, but that didn’t matter, because this wasn’t her.
“Griff?” Noel choked out.
Griffin Wells lowered his gun.
Griffin had been fourteen when Noel had last seen him, a skinny twerp of a kid with a face that was a mess of acne flare-ups and razor burns. He still looked young, but not the kind of young that came with headgear and Sonic the Hedgehog recolors. Noel had clearly missed something by not witnessing the end of Griffin’s puberty.
Griffin’s gangly appearance had smoothed over into something elegant and poised, which clashed with everything else that had always been Griffin. He still had the same eyes, pale and narrow, darting and suspicious, the same thin eyebrows and a mouth that twisted like a bad joke. Here he was, standing over Noel, wearing a girl’s school uniform and pointing an M-16 at Noel’s head.
Noel hadn’t been surprised by anything in a very, very long time; gaining access to an advanced alien hive mind kind of took the fun out of that. But this was certainly a surprise.
Griffin lowered his gun muzzle, just enough that it was pointing at Noel’s chest instead of directly between his eyes. “Noel, what the fuck,” he breathed. “What are you doing here?”
“Griff. You’re alive.”
“You’re their retfit?” Griffin choked out. Then his hands were on Noel’s wrist, ripping off the glove on his left hand. His eyes darted over Noel and his biologically alien arm, the scar on the side of his head where his hair never grew back. Griffin shook his head, stunned. “Of course, you’re their retfit.”
Noel was completely, utterly, at a loss for words.
What was Griffin doing here? How was he even alive? Nobody from Kamloops had survived. There was nothing left of it when Noel had finally gone back home, nothing but cars parked on the sides of the road and buildings stricken to dust.
The two living members of Griffin’s family thought he was dead. But here he was, very much still kicking.
Noel leaned in closer, pushing up into the boot still firmly pressed on his chest, reaching his human arm up, when the air was punched out of his stomach and he was knocked back against the forest floor.
Everything spun for a second before coming back into focus.
Griffin was pressing him into the dirt, breathing in his ear. Noel made a move to get up, but Griffin slammed his hand against Noel’s shoulder.
“Get down, you idiot,” he whispered. “They’re going to see us.”
“What?” Noel wheezed. “Who are?”
“Atlas?” Griffin hissed into his ear. “ManLeg? God, take your pick. You know I’m supposed to be kidnapping you right now, right?”
Noel stared up at the canopy. Griffin still smelled the same, dizzying Noel with nostalgia. “Wait,” he muttered. “What?”
Griffin sighed. “This setup? It’s over you. Atlas followed your convoy back to Manifest Legacy’s base to secure their retrofit pilot.”
Noel suddenly felt very, very lightheaded.
“Look,” he rasped into Noel’s ear, “Brand got his hands on some fancy Tourist weapon, a railgun or something. He needs a retrofit pilot to be able to use it. Meanwhile your captain Rib has been bragging about his new retfit to literally anyone who will listen, what the fuck did you think was going to happen? How many retrofits do you think are alive in these parts?”
Noel blinked at the dark canopy. The thought had honestly never occurred to him.
“So you’re here to kidnap me?” Noel asked hoarsely. He twisted his head, pouting at Griffin’s shadowy face. “Me, your old friend?”
“I’m here to kidnap a retfit!” Griffin hissed. “I didn’t think it was you!”
“Griff.” Noel gasped out. “I’m offended.”
“Shut up, Noel.”
Griffin ignored him. “Christ, I just wanted to get paid.” He groaned. “I can’t believe this, fuck. FUUUCK.”
“Well, I can’t believe you’re alive,” said Noel, pulling himself to his knees.
Griffin stared down at him. Noel tried to see his face in the moonlight, over the flashlight beams darting through the trees. Griffin’s expression was unreadable, but Noel could imagine Griffin giving him a look full of twisted lip and heavy eyebrows. Dangerously close to pouting, but if he mentioned that, he would get his ass kicked.
That was always how Griffin looked when he knew Noel was about to get him in trouble.
“Well,” Griffin finally said, “let’s see how long I can stay that way.”
Griffin stood up, grabbed Noel by the arm, and pulled him upward. But before Noel could even regain his stance, his arm was twisted behind his body, the barrel of an assault rifle pressed against his back.
Noel blinked, staring out at the dark forest, the sound of gunshots loud and clear in the air. He could feel the warmth of Griffin’s breath against his ear.
“Let’s get out of here.”
If he were to go back in time to earlier that day, when he had been talking to Apollo in the Outlie and wondering what he meant by seeing his brother soon, there was no way Noel could have imagined this outcome. Noel had honestly expected his day to end with him stepping on a literal land mine. He had expected to see himself get scattered into a gazillion pieces of dust in Apollo’s mom’s weird prophecy.
But here he was, still un-exploded. Griffin, gripping Noel’s arm, steered him through the shadows of the forest. Noel stumbled in front of him, the rifle barrel stabbing against his back, his boots catching on roots in the dark. Gunfire shook the air, and Griffin pulled him down again, hiding against a tree trunk next to the road.
“Wipe that grin off your face,” Griffin hissed out.
Noel panted hard, in a way that came out like a laugh. “I’m grinning?”
Griffin just rolled his eyes and hauled Noel back to his feet, shoving him up the gravel embankment. “You are. Act more like you’re getting kidnapped.”
Noel had very little time to get his expression under control before they crested the embankment. Moonlight flooded the road, revealing the stationary shapes of the convoy that Noel had seen earlier. There were motorcycles here, along with sensible Hondas and Toyotas, modified from their pre-war states into murder-mobiles.
There were a few Atlas guys wearing their matching camouflage with embroidered patches. They were the cover fire, holding position to make sure their men had a clear path back. It took Noel a long time, but he could see the glint of a rifle scope now, hidden under one of the Toyotas.
“Keep moving,” Griffin said roughly, loud enough that the other Atlas guys would hear, but then whispered in Noel’s ear. “To the left. We’re taking the Corolla.”
Noel twisted around in disbelief before Griffin shoved him hard in the back. “What? Why?” he whispered back.
“What, do you want to take the ice cream truck?” Griffin growled, shoving Noel past the motorcycles. “Corolla.”
“Yeah,” said Noel. “Let’s take the ice cream truck.”
Griffin looked like Noel had suggested they steal a clown car. Which probably wasn’t too far off. “Don’t be stupid,” he replied with a glare.
But Noel was already pulling him toward where the ice cream truck loomed out of the darkness, Griffin’s grip on his arm doing little to stop him. “No, seriously,” Noel hissed. “The guys in Manifest Legacy think that thing secretly has a monster engine under its hood. Why else would you take an ice cream truck out here?”
“I don’t know,” Griffin hissed. “To fuck with you?”
“Well, let’s fuck with them back, then.”
Griffin stared at him incredulously. He looked to the truck, then to the Corolla, then back to Noel. He glared at Noel for a bit, and Noel hoped he was wearing an expression that Griffin didn’t associate with reckless teenagers daring each other to set their inch-long beards on fire.
“Fuck it,” Griffin said, and kicked Noel toward the ice-cream truck.
The doors were unlocked, which made their carjacking operation very simple. Noel ended up in the driver’s seat, hopping up onto the electrical-taped pleather upholstery. Griffin slid in next to him, hiking his hips into the passenger side. Noel sat still and watched him look up into the side mirror, his breath coming heavily through his nose, before shoving an arm under the seat.
He emerged and pressed something into Noel’s palm. A key. “You’re driving,” said Griffin.
Noel didn’t move. “You sure you want to do this?” he asked.
Griffin didn’t miss a beat. “Don’t make me second-guess the decisions I make for sentimentality,” he growled back, planting his boot on the dashboard. “Drive.”
“Fucking drive, Noel.”
Noel let out a breath and turned the key in the ignition.
The engine roared into life around them, cancelling out any blasts from the firefight raging in the forest. Noel grabbed the gearshift, pushed the stiff stick into first with all his body weight, released the E-brake, and stepped on the gas.
Beside him, he could hear Griffin let out a tense breath.
The tires squealed. Then they were rolling, lurching down the gravel road toward the dark highway.
Proceed to Chapter 1, page 3–>