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Decoy and Retrofit: Chapter 2

A downloadable package of this chapter (.pdf, .epub, and .mobi) is available in the Sparkler Monthly Issue #041 back issue and Hazel + Bell’s Patreon.

Noel had stopped panicking a long time ago.

After a year of alien contact, interstellar brain surgery, and nuked hometowns, nothing really hit the panic button on his radar anymore. Noel took it in stride with everything else about his muffled existence, his indifference toward his own life that led him to working with road gangs to make a buck.

Of course, that was before Griffin Wells re-entered the picture.

Griffin Wells, a single glowing reminder of his life before the world went to hell. Nothing–not getting shot at with rifles, or slowly losing his sense of self to an alien hive mind–compared to the pure panic that Noel felt as Griffin climbed on top of their stolen ice cream truck.

“Griff,” Noel pleaded as Griffin smacked down bricks of what looked like plastic explosives onto the roof of the truck. “Griff, get down from there, it’s dangerous.”

“You can fuck off right back to outer space, Noel,” Griffin spat.

“Look,” Noel said. “All I suggested was that we call your mom–”

Fuck off, Noel.”

Noel rubbed his temples, and looked at the truck.

He could understand where Griffin was coming from with the explosives. The ice cream truck they had hijacked was a do-it-yourself invasion kit, complete with an extremely dangerous bioweapon: a war dog. If Noel had the brain space to wonder where it had come from, he would find this highly troubling. But right now, he was mainly concerned with how to get it somewhere safe without the war dog waking up from its deep freeze and levelling the closest civilization.

Giving it back to its original owner had been Noel’s plan, which was why he’d suggested they contact Griffin’s mother.

Susan Wells, forty-eight years old. Divorced mother of two, Intermediate Yogi, gluten-free Farmer’s Market volunteer. Susan Wells, Retrofit missionary. Currently residing in orbit with her fiancé, a Tourist whom she had named “Ben,” as Ben’s actual name wasn’t comprehensible in human language.

Noel thought Susan could help them figure out a safe way to transport the truck away. Unfortunately, Griffin’s immediate reaction to this suggestion had been to climb on top of the truck with a kilogram of C4.

Noel watched him plant the explosives and wires around the roof as if he were decorating an art piece with modelling clay, and considered his approach on this one.

“It’s your mother!” Noel yelled up to the truck as Griffin knelt out of view. “She’s a nice lady, she has some sway with the Tourists. I can’t think of anyone better to make sure this is taken care of.”

Griffin’s voice came, disembodied and cold, from over the top of the truck. “Shut the fuck up about my mother, Phan.”

Noel’s mind ticked through possibilities in the five years since he had seen Griffin last. “Did something happen between you two?” he finally asked.

It felt awkward, like he should have already had an answer to this, seen the explanation somewhere between Apollo’s mind and his. But he had nothing.

Griffin stood up on the roof. His hair had gone wild, escaping its ponytail to fan out around his face in a blond wave. He gave Noel a long, cold look down his nose, like he was deciding if Noel was worthy of his words. He kicked his boot against the roof–once, twice. It made a hollow, metallic echo.

“If you say one more word about my mother, Noel, I’m going to blow it up,” Griffin cut out. “Don’t fucking tempt me.”

Noel raised his hands. “Please don’t blow it up.”

“I’m not gonna let your boner for Tourists thanks to your fucking lobotomy cause Kelowna 2.0,” Griffin said, kicking the roof again. “’Cause while they were hooking up your brain to the alien internet, I had the pleasure of actually experiencing their fucking apocalypse. I’m not letting that happen again.”

Noel gritted his teeth. It wasn’t the Tourists who had blown up Kelowna, but it wasn’t worth arguing about that. Not now, when Griffin was angry and arming the truck full of explosives.

“I’m blowing up this truck right now, unless you promise not to deliver it right back to the Tourists like the fucking race traitor they tried to make you into.”

Noel swallowed against the dryness in his throat. “Okay, okay, Griff,” he relented. “I promise. I won’t hand the truck over to Tourists.”

Griffin stared down at him, with the icy eyes of someone who was used to being lied to.

“All right,” he muttered.

***

Once upon a time, thirteen years ago in Kelowna, British Columbia, Noel Phan met Apollo Wells in North Rock Elementary School.

It was a fast friendship, formed in early autumn when both boys managed to climb up onto the roof of the school using a pipe that had dislodged from the side of the building. They had spent the entire day up there, trading Pokemon cards and thwarting any efforts by school officials to find them.

If Noel’s life was divided into chapters, he imagined that the time he spent with Apollo Wells was the most defining one.

Noel spent after-school afternoons in the Wells’ garage, sleepovers in their living room, adventures in their grassy backyard where they hunted for crickets in the height of summer. He transitioned with Apollo to middle school and then to high school, their interests changing in synchrony with one another as they grew through puberty and aged into adulthood.

Griffin had been there, too–a shadow following his brother around, eager to join in their adventures.

That had been a long time ago.

Noel stared through the fogged-up windshield at the autumn forest, the pine needles and the rusty leaves blowing by. The world outside was cold and quiet; mist faded through the trees, suspending the world in reds and browns and grays.

A snore knocked him sharply back into reality.

Griffin was leaning against the window, his cheek smushed against the glass, his hair lifting and falling with every breath. He snored again loudly, a pale, bent leg twitching out to kick a boot at the dashboard of their hijacked ice cream truck.

He looked so much like how Noel remembered, lying here on the tattered truck bench, frowning in his sleep. Maybe a bit longer in the legs, a bit beefier in his chest. Griffin had been so thin at fourteen, a rail of a kid surviving on pizza pops and high fructose corn syrup. He wasn’t like that anymore. He had grown up, after all.

His face was relaxed, with none of those pinched muscles and heavy frowns that cut across his features when he was awake and angry. Noel had almost forgotten what his other expressions looked like; they had faded out like everything else from his childhood. But now, Noel was beginning to remember the finer details. Griffin’s raised eyebrows whenever Noel praised him, the soft frown when he mussed his hair. The relaxed expression when he slept. The self-satisfied smirk when he caught Noel off-guard, his breath heavy and eyes light with mischief as he pressed tightly against him.

Noel wondered if this Griffin would smile in the same way.

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Griffin twitched in his sleep, his jacket sliding off his shoulder. Through the thin white shirt, Noel could see a dark stain on the skin of his bicep. A thin line, a smudge under the fabric.

Noel reached forward, wanting to push the sleeve up his arm, to see what lay under it, when he was suddenly aware that the snoring had abruptly stopped.

Noel glanced up, and saw Griffin’s eyes were wide open.

“Are you watching me sleep?” he asked.

Noel rolled his lips between his teeth. “What if I am?” he asked.

Griffin smirked, tilting his head against the window, looking at Noel down his nose.

“Fucking pervert.”

It was a comment that felt dangerously close to permission in Noel’s head. He ignored it.

If Griffin was waiting for him to reply, he didn’t show it. He was shifting in his seat, itching his thighs and unfurling his limbs like a fiddlehead. Noel busied himself with pretending not to watch, picking around through a dusty box of military rations that they had found yesterday. They had two bars left, so breakfast.

“Okay,” Griffin said, as Noel tossed him his ration. “What’s the game plan?”

Noel thought back to the night before, knowing very well that this was a question with a wrong answer. He didn’t have any idea for how to get rid of the truck, but he did have an answer until he came up with an idea. Noel jammed the key into the ignition, kicking the engine to life. “We,” he said calmly, “are getting the fuck out of Atlas territory.”

Griffin let out a little snort. “Are we in Atlas territory?”

“Anywhere north of the Thompson river is Atlas territory.”

Griffin smiled, curling up on the bench. “Brand would be so flattered if he heard that.”

“Hey, it’s the truth,” said Noel. “The only thing that kept Rib scared was the idea that Atlas would steamroll him the minute he decided to expand.”

Noel wondered how much that was going to change now, after he had called an orbital cannon to blow up one of Atlas’ motorcades. He wondered if the idea of Rib taking over the black market trade from Atlas was something worth getting concerned about. Noel wasn’t used to this panicking idea, but he was fairly confident that it was only something he felt when Griffin was involved.

“All right, fine,” Griffin said, knocking Noel out of his thoughts. “Have we decided what we’re going to do with the truck when we get out of Atlas territory?”

Call the Tourists. Call your mom. “No,” Noel said. “What are you thinking?”

He could tell Griffin had thought of something, from the excitable way that his voice pitched. “Hear me out,” Griffin said quickly. “What if we drop the truck over a waterfall, hijack a nice car, and be on our merry way?”

Noel had to stifle a laugh at that.

“What?” Griffin demanded. “What’s so funny, asshole?”

Noel just had to shake his head. “Griff, if I thought that would work, I would advocate for it,” he said, changing lanes to get around a pothole the size of a tire. “But it won’t. And blowing the truck up won’t work, either. You could drop the war dog through the atmosphere and that still wouldn’t kill it.”

Griffin would probably have been insulted if Noel had called his facial expression a pout, but it was basically a pout. “Why didn’t you tell me that before I covered the truck with explosives?” Griffin whined.

Noel checked the one functional, only partially smashed mirror, and sighed.

“Because I didn’t want you to try and prove me wrong.”

Proceed to Chapter 2, page 2–>

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