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Decoy and Retrofit: Chapter 6

***

Maybe this wasn’t so bad.

He had been drugged, for one thing. Being trapped against the hot, dirty floor of a truck felt a bit better when you were mostly out of it. He kept floating in and out of consciousness, waking up only to slip off again. He felt sick, uncomfortable, and his mouth tasted like something had died in it, but that was hard to focus on. It was hard to focus on anything when time felt like a broken link chain, restarting and stopping and skipping in a strange, unpredictable rhythm.

He couldn’t see anything. He was blindfolded, too, which meant that the only indicators of this present state were the rumble of the engine, the dull voices of Rib and Med, and the sound of his own breath in his ears. The proof that he was alive.

Then they stopped the car, dragged him outside into the cool fall air, and ripped off his shirt.

Somewhere in the back of his mind, Noel had suspected that this was what it was about. This was about his arm. He swayed on his feet and leaned up against a sturdy body as his arm was grabbed and prodded and secured by force.

Then something smooth was forced into his hand, and his hair was yanked hard.

“Come on,” someone said nearby. “Let’s test him out.”

He was holding one of the weapons from the truck. It was different from the one he had used earlier on the convoy. That one had been a targeting system for an orbital strike, so it didn’t have actual ammunition inside of it.

This one…this one had power inside of it. It was a live weapon.

Noel felt the handle enclose his forearm, strap to his hand. It held his arm out straight, to prevent him from turning the rifle on those around him. His mind was scrambled, his thoughts trying to escape the encroaching whiteness curdling the edges of his brain, but it was already here. He couldn’t see to begin with, and having a Tourist weapon forced on him was just making it worse.

He already felt his mind clouding over, sinking into the Outlie, desperately trying to reach out for someone there to find him and help him. But there was no one there.

“Fire it,” said a voice in his ear.

He considered his options. A gun barrel rested at his back, which was bad. But he didn’t know what he was pointing the weapon at, either. Maybe it was nothing–just forests.

Maybe it was Nelson.

Fire, or we’ll shoot you and get another one of you out of a hospital.”

Noel fired the weapon. Exploded, would probably have been more accurate. If there hadn’t been someone holding his arm in place, Noel might have let the kickback drag the beam toward the sky. When the shot stopped, the gun went heavy around his arm, dragging him to the earth, and his legs collapsed on themselves.

The person holding him up let him fall into the dirt.

He could hear men around him murmuring in shock and awe. The gun around his arm was pulled off, and someone was trying to handcuff him again.

“No,” Noel groaned. The words felt like they cut themselves into his throat as he spoke. He kicked at the person behind him. “Stop it.”

Pain blinded him as he felt a boot connect with the soft spot in his stomach. He clenched his eyes shut, swearing, and kicked again.

None of his motions felt controlled–they all had a delay to them, a softness on connection. It was like fighting underwater, weighed down by the unresponsiveness of his limbs.

He felt the warm cut of blood down his face, a stinging numbness on his head and ribs and gut by the time a familiar unwashed stench wafted through the air, to his nose.

“So,” said Rib into his ear. “This was what you were hiding from us, huh?”

Noel licked the dust out of his mouth. “You never asked.”

He was dropped back down to the dirt, the ground smacking him in the face.

“Don’t kill him,” said Rib distantly. “We drive in thirty.”

Maybe this isn’t so bad, Noel thought as a boot met his ribcage, as his shoulder was pulled at an unnatural angle and pinned to the ground. He lay in the dirt, tasting blood on his tongue as his face was scraped raw against the gravel. This wasn’t so bad, because even if his arm felt dislocated, even though his limbs were sloppy and drugged, there was one thing that he knew.

The Tourists wouldn’t be able to find Griffin now.

They could beat him to a pulp out here. They could kill him, and he would be okay. He could look Apollo in the eye. He could feel like he did something right. After everything he had put Griffin through, after everything they had put Griffin through, this felt like a fitting end for him.

It wasn’t the end for him.

Minutes went by that felt like hours. He could feel every bruised bone in his body as he was pulled to his feet. Someone was tugging his torn shirt over his head, and he was lifted and dragged, then hauled up onto the front seat of the ice cream truck.

They shut the door; Noel felt legs hit the dented metal door from where Tiny had punched it with its face.

“Drive,” Rib said, from somewhere close.

The engine rumbled up again, and the truck lurched forward into motion.

He didn’t know what they were doing. Maybe that had been a demonstration. Maybe they were testing to see if he was worth dragging around the countryside. Maybe he was being shown off to a seller. No, Rib wanted him around. He knew what they had done to Atlas. Rib had time while they were licking their wounds to strong-arm an advantage through sheer power.

Noel should have just let Griffin blow up the truck when he’d had the chance.

The truck suddenly lurched, and the sound of the wheels vibrated hollowly. Noel wondered if they were driving over a bridge. He shifted, moving the sore parts of his face so they didn’t smack against the metal doorframe. Something in his head was whispering insistently, like his injuries that throbbed dully through the drugs. Like his mind was trying to remind him of the pain he would probably face in the future.

If he ever got there.

He could hear shouting off in the distance. Med murmured something low, under his breath, and Rib let out a grumble.

“Oi, Retfit.”

Rib’s voice was now accompanying the unwashed smell. He had been in the middle seat the entire time, like they were bickering siblings on a family road trip. Keeping with tradition, Noel pretended to not hear him.

“Retfit,” Rib growled. “Retfit.”

“Is he conscious?” asked Med.

Rib ignored him. “Retfit, did you call your friends to come help you?”

Noel frowned. The truck bounced and rattled across the road. What was he talking about?

But the shouting was getting louder, and coming from different angles, different directions. He could hear voices from outside the smashed window, shouts from the other window about dust on the horizon. He could hear yells from another voice about something closing in, something fast.

Hey, New Master.

And with that, the truck rocketed forward, and Noel smashed into the dashboard.

He breathed, shocked as a sliver of light cut through the blackness of his vision. The blindfold. He glanced over, then rubbed his face against the dashboard hard, yanking the rest of the blindfold down his neck.

Sun blasted into his eyes, causing him to hiss, gritting his teeth as he squinted through the cracked windshield.

They were going fast–the truck rattling like a tin can, the road on either side of them whipping away. Ahead of them was the Jeep-tank, and to their right was a quad. Noel leaned against the dashboard, panting, as he watched a dark blur race up into his field of vision.

At first, he thought it was a sunspot as his vision blotted into clarity, but then the blur leapt onto the quad, punching straight into the driver’s side door.

The quad spun out, down the embankment, and into the river.

Noel stared, frozen in shock. Beside him, Med let out a hiss. “What was that?”

Noel didn’t know. The whole scene in front of him seemed like it was suspended in time. The roaring vehicles, the dusty gravel road, the bridge directly ahead of them, right in Noel’s field of vision. The Jeep-tank was already crossing it, shooting ahead of them, when the bridge exploded.

A torrent of river water and twisted metal shot up, sending the Jeep-tank flying into the river. It landed in the water with a splash that smashed against the windshield as Med slammed the brakes. The convoy screeched to a stop in front of the cloud of debris and dust that obscured the bridge.

And then, over the sound of his heart slamming against his ribs, Noel heard a motorbike engine rev.

“Med,” Rib breathed.

We’re coming for you, New Master.

“Reverse, Med, reverse!” said Rib. He scrambled for a loudspeaker and shoved Noel against the window. The speaker crackled in Noel’s ear as Rib screamed, “It’s an ambush!”

The ice cream truck lurched backward, Med spinning the wheel as fast as he could, just in time for Noel to see a shape emerge out of the dust and debris of the bridge, roaring down the road toward them.

“Go, go, GO!”

Noel craned his neck, his heart hammering, as the figure on the bike–wearing a helmet and a bulletproof vest–raised an arm and unloaded a rifle clip into the nearest car. One of Rib’s men was returning fire from a mounted gun on top of another car roof, and the biker swerved behind another truck.

A black blur emerged from nowhere, rushing up to the truck with the mounted turret, opened its massive jaw, and with a roar, ripped the entire gun off the roof.

“What the fuck,” breathed Rib.

They had turned already, driving back the way they came, Med changing gears as fast as he could to lurch the ice cream truck out of its slow crawl. The truck rumbled and rattled as bullets fired around them, skittering across the hood and ricocheting off hubcaps. Rib was reaching over Noel’s shoulder, scrambling for a gun that he kept behind the seat. Noel, still pinned to the dashboard, watched Rib reload with shaking hands.

That was when the black motorcycle rode up next to the window.

He was only there for a second for Noel and Rib to see, but it felt like the world had been put on pause. Noel could see the black motorcycle helmet reflecting the sun on its visor. The Kevlar vest, the chest holster straps pressed against a blouse collar. The pleated skirt blown back with the sheer speed, its hem scattered against his thigh holsters. The knee-high socks, the combat boots, leather gloves gripping the handlebars.

Then the figure paused, slowly turned the black visor to the window where Rib was staring out in mute shock, and flipped him the bird.

He hit the brakes, and was gone.

Rib looked directly at Noel. “Is that yours?”

He could hear the revving coming behind them. Like a swarm of angry bees, just out of sight, and gaining on them fast.

Where the fuck is the convoy?” Rib screamed, snapping the safety off of the assault rifle in one hand, grabbing the megaphone with the other. “Fucking SHOOT them!”

The bike’s roaring was back. The masked motorcyclist appeared in the window again, this time holding a pistol in one hand.

“Griff,” Noel yelled, “WAIT–”

Noel’s vision filled as Rib stuck his gun out in front of his face, shooting through the window.

Griffin skidded out in a cloud of dust, trailing back away from the spray of bullets. He aimed, but Noel knew he wouldn’t fire–not with Noel there.

Noel moved, surging forward to slam his body up against Rib’s arm, pinning it against the broken window.

Rib screamed as shattered glass sank into his skin. Noel pressed harder, gritting his lip under his teeth, until he saw Griffin reappear in the window. Griffin pulled right next to the truck, seized Rib by his arm, and pulled the rifle loose.

The rifle skidded against the ground, slipping back into the gravel.

Noel panted, watching Griffin hang back, adjusting something on one of his holsters. But then his vision was wrenched away from the road as a meaty palm pressed between his shoulders, pinning him against the dashboard.

“WHAT THE FUCK DO YOU THINK YOU’RE DOING?!”

The punch to his head was a surprise when it came. He was stunned, seeing spots, wondering if he had lost consciousness for a second. He was leaning forward, pressed against broken glass, limp against the bonds on his arms.

“Distantly, he heard the walkie-talkies crackle with feedback. “Trent taken out. It’s the fucking frozen dog, sir, he’s picking us off.”

“Then deal with it!”

“We are, we’ve shot it with the minigun–it’s bulletproof.”

“Nothing is bulletproof, it must have a weakness.”

“Well, it’s not bullets.”

“Shoot the girl, then.”

Tiny, Noel thought. They’re focusing on Griff. My arms are tied. I need some help here.

There was nothing, for a beat. Like always. But the fuchsia fog flared in his head, with a return of those wiry, warm words.

Get to the back of the truck.

“Look,” said Med, from the real world, in this sweaty, bullet-ridden ice cream truck cab. “It’s a Tourist dog, right? A wardog?”

Med looked right at Noel as he spoke, and Noel could see the fear in his eyes. He almost felt bad, until Med spoke.

“It’s probably after him, isn’t it?”

Noel’s eyes slid over to Rib’s and saw the light go on just as Rib came to his conclusion. Rib turned to him, and Noel felt his stomach drop.

“They’re after you.”

“Uh,” said Noel.

“They’re after you, and you’re not bulletproof.”

Noel gritted out a smile, and launched himself backward over the truck bench.

It was a bit of a move from his brief attempt at high jump in middle school. He slammed down on his shoulder, probably breaking something, scraping his arms against the guns stapled to the back side of the seat. He kicked his legs out, bracing himself against the seat as he pushed himself to his feet.

“Wait–” He could feel Rib’s rough fingers fumbling for him, trying to get a grip on his arm, when the whole truck lurched.

Noel tilted forward, without any form of balance, and rammed his head into the door that linked the cab with the truck’s freezer. The door burst open, and Noel blinked.

The truck’s back door was open. Through it, Noel could see light.

It covered the walls of the hold, over the weapons, the place where the freezer had scraped lines into the floor. The back door flapped open, early morning sun beaming through like the light at the end of the tunnel.

And there, just beyond the doors, was Griffin and Tiny.

He didn’t look back. He ran, stumbling on the floor, slamming his shoulder against a gun rack, not taking his eyes off the light. Then he was there, at the edge of the truck, and there was no way that he could jump. The road was whipping away under the tires, they were going fast, too fast–

Jump, Noel.

He lifted his head. Tiny was there, at Griffin’s side, keeping pace with the truck–against the truck’s twists and turns, against the speed and the danger.

Jump, and we’ll catch you.

Noel closed his eyes, held his breath, and jumped.

He was suspended in air long enough for it to be a pause. For the world to pause. For whatever thoughts that had been running through his head to blank. For every centimeter of himself to hang, in a suspended, weightless moment, before he fell toward the earth.

He slammed into something warm, wet, and soft.

New Master.

Is New Master okay?

Noel realized he was alive, and opened his eyes.

He was safe, tucked into the soft muscles in Tiny’s massive jaw. Like a kitten carried by his mother, or something like that. It was hard to think of analogies when his brain felt slow, disconnected from his thoughts, from the agony that he was sure his body was in.

It was probably just shock.

Noel didn’t realize until they were already off the road that they were running up the side of a hill, out of the direct path of truck tires and homemade tank treads. Noel felt rather than saw Tiny skid to a stop, smelled dust that rose out from under their claws.

He felt himself get placed gently to the ground, his back propped up against a scrubby bush. Noel looked Tiny in the snout, and nodded. Tiny seemed to recognize this, and bounded away, running back to the fray.

To Griffin.

Noel took a second to let his body slow down, to remind himself that he was still alive, before pushing himself upright to watch. It was difficult keeping his eyes open, but as much as he wanted to close them, he kept watching.

From where he was, Noel could see the motorbike doing wide circles around the truck, and saw Tiny join Griffin in formation. He watched as they went for the tires, Tiny launching forward to sink their teeth in, Griffin’s gunfire racketing into Noel’s ears.

He watched as the ice cream truck, the last moving vehicle in the convoy, spun to a lurching, coughing stop, before he let his eyes close.

***

They rounded up the survivors in a disarmed, disheveled, frightened, tattooed pack.

Tiny had woken Noel up and brought him down the hill for that. Noel wasn’t sure why, but it was worth it to see his former co-workers glancing between each other fearfully as Tiny patrolled around their ranks, as Griffin reloaded his rifle with a bored expression. After what had happened, he wasn’t feeling too sorry for any of them.

“You can run in whatever direction you want,” Griffin said loudly, snapping his magazine in place, reloading the chamber with a roll in his shoulder. “But our dog will be able to see you coming back from a mile away, so don’t even bother.”

Noel watched their eyes, following the dog as they paced. Tiny growled, spittle flying from their maw.

In Noel’s head, Tiny was smug.

“Get out of here,” Griffin said. “And don’t come back.”

Rib let out a little shriek and immediately started running down the road. Med gave Noel a once-over before turning to follow him.

The rest of the crew left in scattered bursts, and most began heading back toward Nelson.

Griffin watched until they were out of sight before hauling himself on top of the ice cream truck.

Noel let Tiny be the lookout in case anyone in ManLeg decided to come back around, and settled down to watch as Griffin worked. He leaned against Tiny’s belly, drifting in and out as Griffin climbed on top of the truck and began to work placing charges, stomping over the top of the truck with his big boots.

Noel’s eyelids were heavy.

A part of him knew that he could just drive the truck back to Nelson. He knew the Tourists were coming. It would make the most sense to bring it back to them, so they would be able to keep their weapons out of the hands of these gangs.

But he couldn’t bring himself to care anymore.

Griffin, after some time, jumped off the top of the ice cream truck. He walked down the gravel road, hand slung in his coat pocket, the other thumbing a plastic tab.

Noel watched him as he came closer. He was just walking down the road, the sun overhead, his boots kicking up dust. Between the boots and the jacket and the detonator, the messy hair, the effortless rescue from a whole road crew, Noel realized how relaxed Griffin was.

He looked cool.

“Hey, Noel,” he yelled. “Remember what I said about blowing up the ice cream truck?”

“Yeah,” said Noel.

“Cover your ears.”

Noel did.

It wasn’t as if it made a difference when Griffin detonated the charges.

The ice cream truck exploded in a blast of heat and noise, of crumpled metal and broken glass, a bang that took the air from his lungs and replaced it with smoke, his ears ringing with plastic explosives. Noel stared numbly as a chalky dark cloud of smoke billowed up from under the crumbling skeleton they had driven for the past week, and felt a wave of relief seep into his bones.

Griffin’s boots crunched against the road as he strolled past Noel, to where the bike was parked in the middle of the road.

“I win,” said Griffin over his shoulder.

Noel nodded. Licking dry lips as Griffin cut a shape against the horizon behind him.

“Yeah,” said Noel. “You do.”

***

Noel slumped against Griffin’s back on the ride home.

He was still small; Noel’s arms could easily encircle his shoulders if he tried. But his back was sturdy, supporting his weight. Griffin’s back had gotten broad at some point, after everything. It was strange, being supported by him for once.

“Where are we going?” Noel yelled over the noise of the road.

There was a beat of silence–just cold air roaring in Noel’s ears.

“Nelson,” said Griffin.

Nelson. Back to Apollo.

“Griff,” Noel said sluggishly. “Griff, I have to tell you something.”

Griffin stopped the bike.

Noel was startled as the engine revved down, as Griffin kicked his leg down to support it. He shifted back in his seat as Griffin took off the helmet, shaking his blond hair out, and turned to look Noel in the eye.

“What is it, Noel?”

Noel suddenly felt very tongue-tied. Griffin rolled his eyes.

“You called my mom, right?” Griffin said, squinting his eye. “I’m guessing that means I’m going to be in trouble with the aliens, aren’t I?”

Tiny growled something that wasn’t accompanied by a thought, and Griffin just shot them a look.

“Shut up,” Griffin sighed.

Tiny’s growl watered down to a grumble before going silent.

“Griff,” Noel began, “if we go back, it’s all over.”

Griffin wasn’t looking him in the eye. He was running his fingers through his hair, looking down at the riverbank. “Yeah,” he said. “I know.”

Noel wanted to push him further. Did he know? Did he know what happened to people who were found guilty of killing Tourists by their council? He felt like Griffin didn’t get it, didn’t really get it, and it made his chest well up with a panic that he couldn’t even begin to voice.

But Griffin kept talking.

“I went four years thinking I wouldn’t last another week,” he mumbled quietly. “I’ve been waiting for this for months. For the consequences.”

“Griff,” Noel cracked out. “Consequences–what if they kill you?”

“I killed them,” said Griffin.

He said it with a dead voice, with none of the vitriol, none of the dehumanization that Noel was used to. None of the simmering hatred for the Tourists that he had been holding on to for years. Here he was, stating a truth that Noel had never thought he would accept. Here he was, accepting that he had done something wrong. Here he was, ready for the consequences for his actions.

Noel just shook his head. He was without words. Nothing seemed normal anymore.

“Sorry, Noel,” mumbled Griffin. “I’m just waking up.”

“From what?” asked Noel.

Griffin turned to look at Noel between the strands of bleached hair, the sloped, dead eyes hidden away in the shadows, and Noel was grateful that he didn’t answer.
Proceed to Chapter 6, page 3–>

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