Decoy and Retrofit: Chapter 1
The first kilometer was tense.
Noel’s hands gripped the wheel, letting the rattle of the stolen ice cream truck fill the silence between them.
Griffin still had a boot on the dashboard, his skirt scattering down his thighs. Noel watched him in the dim light of the electricals as he moved casually, pulling his rifle out from where he had stuffed it under the seat.
Five years earlier, Noel had seen Rage Against the Machine posters taped to the wall in Griffin’s bedroom. He remembered military recruiters at the mall, cornering them at an Orange Julius to try to convince them to serve their country. Fourteen-year-old Griffin had laughed in their faces, flipped them the bird, and told them to go back to fellating The Establishment.
Noel watched nineteen-year-old Griffin pull the loader bar out of his M-16 rifle to check his ammo, then let it go with a snap.
Noel turned back to the road.
“Go faster,” Griffin said through his teeth. “They’re going to come after us.”
Noel frowned, his eyes on the road. It was windy and dark, and the prospects of speeding up the mobile freezer seemed like a poor choice. He adjusted the side mirror. “We made a pretty smooth escape,” Noel said. “I think we’re going to be okay.”
“They’re gonna come after us,” Griffin repeated. It was spoken with a finality that didn’t open the floor to objections.
Noel bit his lip and drove.
He wasn’t going to question it, not now. He knew how rare retrofits were, but the idea that a rival mercenary crew would launch a backstabber attack to secure one seemed bizarre. Why not just try and woo Manifest Legacy with cash? Why were they going to all this trouble to secure him?
And now, after their escape, Griffin’s certainty that they were being pursued made Noel feel like he had missed something.
It took a remarkably short time after shutting up to see headlights shining in the side mirror. Noel wasn’t sure if it was a trick of the moonlight until he heard the safety on Griffin’s gun go off.
“I see them,” Griffin said.
Noel could hear them. Motorcycle engines, revving in the dark, hot on their tail.
“Already?” asked Noel.
“Uh-huh,” said Griffin. “Atlas does not fuck around.”
Noel gritted his teeth, twisting the refrigerator-on-wheels around a bend. “I kind of got that. Any suggestions?”
“The Corolla,” Griffin bit out.
Noel had never been in a chase before. It wasn’t like he was especially green in working with mercenary gangs, but he saw minimal action day-to-day. Grandstanding was more common than anything else; rolling up to a conflict and showing off their weapons and the size of their crew was a common tactic to get any group to stand down.
People weren’t especially keen to lose their lives these days. At least, not in the gangs Noel had rolled with.
Noel had a nagging feeling that things hadn’t been the same for Griffin.
Noel pressed the clutch and switched to fourth. The engine revved lazily, like it was annoyed at his insistence.
“I thought this thing was supposed to go fast,” Griffin grunted. Noel practically floored the pedal to urge it to climb to the next gear.
“It’s kind of going fast?” said Noel.
“This is not fast. Right now it’s buying me dinner and waiting until the third date.”
Noel had to agree. The motorcycles were gaining at a frightening speed, enough that Noel could clearly see them in his side mirror.
And then someone shot their gun.
“Jesus Christ,” Griffin hissed, slouching down against the seat. He waited a breath, then whipped his arm out the window and fired a warning shot back.
“Two of them, they’re going to flank us!” Griffin yelled over the engine. “Keep driving!”
Noel ground his teeth and glanced in the mirror; he could see the motorcyclist coming up on his side. There was no question about it now, there was no way in hell that this ice cream truck was going to outrun a motorcycle. The rider was almost entirely obscured by the bright headlights, but Noel couldn’t miss the shine of a pistol extended from the passenger’s arm.
He zeroed in on that–not noticing the pothole in the road until they were airborne.
The ice cream truck landed on the road with a bounce and crash, and Griffin screamed bloody profanity while the truck lurched violently forward. Noel didn’t waste a second. He seized Griffin’s blouse with his fist and yanked the steering wheel sharply to the left.
The world jolted, the truck whipping to the side, the back end flinging forward. Griffin landed hard against Noel, pulled by the centrifugal force of the turn, moving with the wheels as they rose dangerously off the ground.
Something hard smacked the side of the truck with a deafening metallic echo, and the truck landed back on all its wheels with a thud.
Steam poured out from under the hood. Griffin breathed heavily from somewhere in the vicinity of Noel’s upper thigh.
“Jesus fucking Christ,” gasped Griffin. “Did you get one of them?”
Noel grunted. He could already hear the motorcycle on Griffin’s side rapidly gaining on them now that they were sitting still. The smell of burnt rubber and gasoline flooded his head, filling his lungs with carcinogens that he figured might be a problem if they lived through this. He let Griffin go, fisted the gearstick, and slammed his foot on the gas.
The ice cream truck lurched, then crawled forward. They had poor acceleration on their side; the truck gained speed too slowly. The second motorcycle was already here.
The gunfire came next. Explosive noise burst from behind them, bullets shredding through the side of the truck. Noel twisted the wheel back and forth, swerving around the road as much as he could until the gunfire finally paused.
Griffin was instantly on his knees, his skirt flapping about his thighs as he leaned out of the window and returned fire.
There was no warning. The roar of the engine was drowned under the ear-splitting blasts of gunfire from a meter away. BLAP BLAP BLAP. Noel struggled to maintain composure and steer the truck in a straight line.
Then Griffin was done, shoving himself back into the cab in a pile of limbs. Noel glanced back at him, pulling his magazine loose, slamming a fresh case into place. “Keep your eyes on the road,” Griffin said roughly, pulling the operating rod and loading the chamber. Then he was back out the window.
Noel did as he was told.
Steady assault rifle fire, as it turned out, was not something one got used to. Noel clenched his jaw as noise ripped through his eardrums, shaking his teeth. He kept his eyes on the road. It wasn’t like he wasn’t used to gunfire, but assault rifles weren’t common around these parts. The relentless blaring threw him off. He had no idea how Griffin had managed to get his hands on one.
Then Griffin was back in the cab, reloading diligently.
“Did you get him?” Noel asked.
“Yeah,” said Griffin. “There are more behind him.”
Noel didn’t need reminding, he could see their headlights like a fire spreading through the forest. “Think they’re going to catch up?”
“We’re driving an ice cream truck,” Griffin said. “What do you think?”
It was a rhetorical question, but Noel felt like he was expected to answer it anyway. Like he was supposed to come up with a magical solution to get out of this scenario.
Instead, Griffin was the one to bring it up.
“Hey, Noel,” Griffin suddenly said. “Have you ever fired a railgun before?
“No…” Noel said, dragging his tone as he watched Griffin pull a Tourist’s railgun from under the seat.
Noel whipped back to the road, struggling to keep his voice level. A bullet tore off the side mirror. “Griff,” Noel cracked out, “where did you get that?”
“Where do you think?” Griffin asked. Then he was moving, shifting along the truck bench, up against Noel’s thighs. He gripped the wheel, his feet nudging aside Noel’s on the pedals. Noel could smell the sweat in his hair. “Let me drive, I got this.”
Noel squashed himself against the door, letting Griffin drive, and picked up the gun.
It was a pure, glossy white thing about the size of a pistol, with two long, pointed prongs that curved out from the grip. As Noel touched it, blue-green light glinted through it, and a flash of white surged against the back of his vision.
“What exactly do you want me to do with this?” Noel yelled.
Griffin frowned, fiddling with the gears and grinding the clutch enough to make Noel’s stomach drop slightly. “What do you think?” he asked. “Get ’em.”
The convoy turned the bend, and Noel could see them properly now. Their collective headlights beamed through the trees like shooting stars rapidly propelling toward them. The Corolla, the Volkswagen, the jeeps tearing up the road, their wheels screaming.
“Do you know how to use it?” Griffin yelled.
Noel stared down at the railgun, and his vision swam with white.
Noel knew how to use this gun. He knew how to use it the same way he knew how to speak fifteen different human languages. The same way he knew how to pilot a Tourist warship. He knew this like he knew that Griffin’s mother had gone five years without speaking to her son.
Maps were being painted in his head. A satellite view of the road showcased intimate knowledge of the terrain. A million memories whispered an eternity of high-speed strategies, armament techniques, driving tips.
The world had faded out to three things: Noel and his flesh vessel, the ice cream truck, and the gun.
Noel also knew that things were about to get very, very loud.
He shifted in his small half of the seat, leaned out the window, and aimed the railgun at the convoy on their tail. There was no sight, so he aimed at the Corolla out of spite.
“Hold onto your panties, Griff.”
“I’m not wearing panties, you fucker–”
The sky lit up. Noel couldn’t see it from his human eyes, but he wasn’t looking through his human eyes–he was in the Outlie, staring down at the earth, watching the convoy on their heels illuminated by the red that shone from the railgun.
In the distance, he could hear someone scream what sounded like Oh, shit.
Noel pulled the trigger.
The surge of energy coursed through his alien arm like an electrical current, shooting through his stolen muscles and his Frankenstein brain and back. The loop only took the barest fraction of a second to complete before the laser sight turned into a thin beam of white light.
And then, with a deafening crack, it exploded.
Trees were blasted back. Trucks rocketed into the air, and a gigantic ball of fire rose and rippled outward, lighting up the nighttime forest like morning had come early.
Noel didn’t have to watch. He could see this through the Outlie, a drone view on the chaos in front of him. He didn’t have to open his eyes, but he still did anyway.
Heat billowed over his face, noise rattled his eardrums. Noel soaked in the wreckage, the fire and smoke and adrenaline, and felt very much like he was seventeen again.
It was several minutes of wobbly, flat-tire driving before Noel dared to look at Griffin.
He hadn’t moved since Noel had blown up the convoy. He’d just sat there in the passenger seat, staring straight through the windshield. His chest heaved as he breathed, his hair sweat-slicked and clinging to his face in soft curls. He was slowly changing magazines, his legs splayed wide enough for Noel to wonder how he’d ever managed to look prim in the first place.
Noel noticed that Griffin was, indeed, not wearing panties. Boxer briefs were apparently the underwear of cross-dressing mercenaries.
“Jesus. Fucking Christ,” Griffin breathed out, finally. His voice sounded hoarse. “I have never seen a Tourist gun get used before. Holy shit.”
Noel smiled wryly. “I should be charging more for my services,” he said, twisting the wheel as they approached a bend.
“Hell yeah you should be charging more, with shit like that,” Griffin breathed. He sounded like a mix of appalled and impressed, which just recalled memories of blowing up cans of hairspray in the gravel alley behind Griffin and Apollo’s house. “Crazy Tourist fucks.”
Noel grunted in agreement. “It’s too bad it’s a one-time-use thing.” He nodded at the spent railgun, laying between them; it wasn’t glowing anymore, and Noel knew it was out of ammo. “It could have come in handy if we run into Atlas guys in the future.”
“Oh, you can’t use it again?” asked Griffin, staring down at the strange piece of alien technology. “Bummer. Well, if that’s it for explosions in my lifetime, that was a pretty cool one.”
Noel didn’t know if there was anything more real than that. He could still feel the energy buzzing through his chest, something electrical and light that felt nostalgic. Or maybe it was just Griffin looking at him with a careless, twisted smile that made Noel feel like he was a teenager again.
Noel had always existed in that place, a memory he had experienced before everything he knew about himself–and the world–changed. Griffin was here, evidence of the person Noel had been before his personality had been washed from his brain like a shard of glass worn down into a grain of sand by the sea.
Griffin was speaking from here, the present. Not from far away.
“See?” Griffin said. “This is why I trust my instincts.”
Noel smirked at him, shifting gears back down to a cruising speed. “What,” he said, “allying yourself with a retfit?”
“No,” Griffin muttered. “Allying myself with you.”
If Noel’s gut had a weak point, that might have been it. He reached a sweaty palm over before he could even think about it, sinking his fingers in and ruffling Griffin’s hair. It took Griffin a second to flinch away, scowling.
“Stop that, God,” he growled out. “Asshole.”
“You used to be cute,” Noel said happily. “Always looking up to me. Well, it helped that you were like four feet tall, but still.”
Griffin didn’t say anything. He sat there, Noel’s hand thick in his hair, glaring out at the windshield and the road.
“You should probably change the busted tire now,” Griffin finally grunted.
The ice cream truck didn’t have a spare tire under the hood. Noel checked, throwing up the hood–which smelled like plastic–and then slamming it down again.
“Maybe in the back?” Griffin offered as Noel stalked to the back of the truck. “I would check, but the cab door is stuck. Or maybe it’s in the chassis?”
Noel didn’t bother checking the chassis. He went straight for the back of the truck and tested the door. “It’s locked,” he yelled to Griffin.
He could hear Griffin groan something that sounded like an elaborate curse word. “Fiiine.”
It took Griffin a minute to drag himself out of the cab and walk to the back of the truck, fiddling with the keys along the way. “I swear, I need a nap right now. I’ve been on assignment for twenty-four hours straight, you’d think that they would spell us off at some point.”
The truck doors swung open, cold air flooding into the back. Before Noel could climb in, Griffin pulled himself into the back of the truck, armed with a flashlight.
“I mean, a nap would suffice,” Griffin said with a sigh. “Caffeine. Something.” He snapped on his flashlight. “I just… Oh, shit.”
“What?” Noel asked, wiping sweat from his face.
“Get up here.”
Noel crawled up after Griffin, squinting to follow Griffin’s jerking flashlight. Then he realized what he was looking at.
He and Griffin had likely expected the same things: supplies, shelves, maybe a leftover rocket ice pop from five years earlier. Of course, there was none of that in here.
There were guns everywhere. Tourist guns, lining the walls, stacked and sorted. SMGs, shotguns. Assault rifles. Hunting rifles. What Noel thought was a real-life rocket launcher–something he’d only ever seen playing Call of Duty.
“Griff,” Noel breathed. “You said Brand stole the Tourist railgun, right?”
“Yeah,” Griffin breathed back.
Noel stared at the lines and piles of weaponry, his heart pounding, when his eyes fell on the square metal box in the center of the space. A freezer.
Griffin’s eyes had gone to it, too. “What’s that?” he asked, his voice extremely quiet.
Noel didn’t answer.
He could see it again, the milky whiteness, the mystery pot smell. Four million minds that he knew intimately had made these things. He knew their names, he knew how they worked and how much firepower they had. He knew what was in the freezer before he even lifted the lid.
Noel pulled open the freezer and looked down into the liquid cryogenic pool that sloshed under the vibration of the generator.
Griffin was at his side, staring down at the body of the sleeping creature that lay there.
It didn’t look like anything that had been born on Earth. Curled up, pale and lifeless, it lay suspended, waiting. Large enough to make the cryogenic tank look like a modest bathtub, it had pale, leathery skin and curled limbs that tapered off into claws the size of dinner plates.
It did not look vegetarian, that was for sure.
Griffin let out a sharp breath. “The fuck is that.”
Noel didn’t answer. He had seen these creatures in memories that weren’t his own, being air-dropped onto a thriving metropolis, blind and crazed, to mow an entire city to rubble. An organic, living tank.
Noel could hear Griffin’s breath hitch, clinging on the edge of uncertainty. Fear. “It’s a wardog,” said Noel. “A Tourist dog.”
“A dog. Griff, you said Atlas was going to Pentiction after picking me up. What were they planning on doing?”
“What are you getting at?” Griffin breathed.
“They were planning to invade Pentiction.” Noel said calmly. “They were going to use me to use these weapons and take over the damn place. And we just stole their arsenal. We stole their invasion.”
Griffin’s eyes went wide. Even here, in the eerie shadows of the freezer’s glow and the white light cast by the flashlight, Noel could see that Griffin understood exactly what was going on here.
“Think they’ll want it back?” Griffin asked weakly.
Noel gritted his teeth and slammed the freezer shut.
“Let’s hope not.”
To be continued in Chapter 2.