by A. G. Laroy
It's the 22nd century: A young boy joins a rebel group against Dragon Syndacites.
|The Fairies were on when his brother entered.
John had turned on his personalised entertainment program and put on the goggles for enhanced experience. School had been a nuisance, as per usual - 'a necessary evil', Dad had once called it. At least he always had his favourite program to look forward to at the end of the day. Not so today.
Gabe came rushing in, a blur of chestnut brown and fern green at the edge of John's vision. The waft of stress had been following him since his coming of age, and it was following him now, too. The racket he created by doing god-knows-what would have been enough to jerk him from his program. Yet John was used his loud family, so he merely plugged in his head phones for enhanced experience to block out his brother's noise. A moment later, Gabe tore them from John's ears as he pulled him on his feet.
"Mom and Dad are gone."
John had to take a step back, an icy fist squeezing his stomach. No, the words were wrong, they felt wrong. His brother's words were always a soft light brown, the colour of a freshly-cut wood. Light, light brown, like Dad's and Gabe's eyes, not this ugly mixture of lime, mud, and mustard they were now. That's not my brother.
He'd heard of masks that could imitate a person's voice and outward appearance, but he didn't know if they would also mirror that person's colour. It didn't matter anyway, John knew the truth when he saw it, and he knew it was his brother talking to him. As estranged a colour these words might be, they had a colour nonetheless; there was no hint of grey, the colour of smoke and deceit. They were bright, so very bright, which meant something much worse.
"Where?" was the answer John gave as Gabe plucked the glasses from his nose. The older one didn't reply, only took him by the left hand and led him through the living room, the light bulb above dipping them into its warm red flicker. A soft glow from the layer of snow illuminated their backyard, visible through large panel windows. The low sun dipped the sky in its warm amber hue, dying the rest of the world with its red tide. A soft hiss told John the entertainment room had closed itself behind them.
No other sounds pierced the eerie silence. A spell had befallen their house, choking all sounds of life from it, turning it into a dim, grey place of shadows. They left the living room behind, passed the tall dining table, hurried out of the house. John was still cluelessly following along as they approached Dad's garage through its columned gateway. "Always be more dramatic than necessary," his father had said with his usual cinnabar-and-white bark of a laugh.
"Gabe, what happened?" John prompted. He'd come to a stop a few feet away from the wooden door. Dad would never allow the boys to enter his garage, no matter what. The old Impala was way too valuable. Gabe was fumbling with the key hole, paying no mind to his younger brother. A burning weight started pressing down on John's chest and stomach, but he tried to ignore it.
"You know Dad always locks it."
His brother still wouldn't reply to him. He had now started kicking at the door handle, which also wouldn't make Dad happy. The irritated feeling began to crawl to John's throat. Why had Gabe pulled him from his program if he ignored him now?
A loud snap echoed through the house as the door gave way. Gabe cursed under his breath before shoving his little brother inside.
"Quiet now!" was the hissed reply. "They have them, and I don't want them to find us, too. Get into the car."
John stood paralysed. Gabe had broken Dad's door. He was bound to be angry, and when he was his voice turned a deep, ugly shade of lilac. John hated the way people said things in lilac.
"I said get in!"
His brother shoved him onto the front passenger seat before climbing in on the driver's side. His voice had adopted a slight shade of lilac now too, which told John to keep his mouth shut. Under different circumstances, he would have objected many times by now: He was way too young to take a front seat. They should use their Automatic Family Car, as they advertised on the Broadcaster. No-one used manual cars any more. Gabe had never even driven Dad's car all by himself. And besides, the garage door wasn't even open.
A rattling vroom, and the engine roared to life. Light flooded onto the driveway; the garage door must have silently opened in response to their movements. They stood still for a second, waiting for the hydrogen tank to warm up. Then the purring Impala shot out of the garage, over the pavement, onto the street. After a swift glance up and down the crossroad, Gabe pulled the car around and sped up the narrow alley. John cast a last look at his home as is was swallowed by winter's darkness.
They had been sitting in silence for a thousand years. John kept playing the recent scenes in his head, too concerned to speak out. Their parents had been arrested. He hadn't caught that the first time, but now he was certain Gabe had meant that. Someone had taken them, and they would have taken the two of them in as well had they not left. At least that's what Gabe must have been thinking. No wonder then that he had seemed so tense and alert, so anxious to leave the house. He'd been angry with himself, John realised. Angry for making as much noise as he had by breaking Dad's door.
But why would they be in danger? They must be, judging by the way Gabe sped across the highway. Traffic was scarce at this time of day, at least on their lane. Workers were rushing to their homes, while a partly grown-up boy and a kid of ten years did the opposite. They encountered only few cars going in the same direction as they did, and none of them stayed in sight for long. Clutching the security belt, John closed his eyes and prayed that his brother knew what he was doing. He couldn't help but feel a little nauseous at the way the car was driving; every sway, every bump sent a cold jolt through his body.
"I'm sorry I lashed out at you," came a husky whisper to his left. John's eyes fluttered open. Gabe had his eyes locked on the road ahead, his hand clutching the steering wheel so hard that his knuckles had turned white. But at least he hadn't forgotten his brother at his side. Sure, Gabe still had a little mustard and lime in his voice, but at least the underlying bronze hue told him his brother felt what he said. Besides, the old familiar brown, his brown, was dripping into his voice as well. It wasn't fawn brown exactly, more the colour of tortilla bread. When had he started to feel hungry?
"It's okay," John reassured the older one, smiling despite himself. "But could you now please tell me what happened? What about Mom and Dad? Where are we going?"
"Canada. We're meeting with the Gang," was Gabe's curt answer, which immediately lifted John's mood. The Gang was Gabe's queer group of friends. John adored them.
"But why Canada?" And why can't you answer all my questions at once?
Silence remained with them while Gabe concentrated on driving. In the gloomy pattern passing street lamps threw upon them, his dark face looked so much older than eighteen, more tense, more concerned. It seemed they had reached the end of their short conversation, and Gabe had gone back to ignoring the little boy beside him.
"We can't stay in the Republic," was what he finally said. "They'll find us and take us. Sure, they'll say it's because of our parents being absent, us having to go to foster homes, yada, yada, yada. But in truth, they'll take us as hostages, to use us for leverage, to make sure Mom and Dad comply. We flee, and they can't do that."
"But what did Mom and Dad do to... 'them'? Who are 'they', anyway?"
"The syndicates. The ones with those creatures. Dragons, wyverns, whatever you want to call them. I'm sure you know what I mean?" Gabe turned his head in John's direction before realising what he was doing and snapping his gaze back to the street.
Dragons. A chill went through John at that word. Of course he knew of them.
Many years ago, the Chinese had started experimenting on birds and lizards to create a terrifying new species. They had hoped to use them in case the Second Cold War turned sideways, but it had never come to that. So they had sold their creation instead, and now there were research labs all over the globe, designed specifically to breed and sell these creatures.
Granted, John had never actually seen one. Even after all these years, they were still a rare sight given their immense value and price. He had secretly hoped his parents would buy him one as a present for his eighth birthday. But, to his dismay, no dragon egg had been among his presents.
Looking back, that might have been for the better. Dad had once explained that you could scarcely call them dragons. 'Wyverns' was more fitting, he said, but still too far-fetched. They were scaly birds at best, most about five feet high, none bigger than eight, but nowhere near as impressive as they were in fantasy and literature. Few of the ones sold commercially could fly, and even fewer could actually breath fire. But they were strong, with claws and teeth like daggers. Beasts bred for war, their scales were armour.
"Best to not dwell on them too long, dear," Mom had then said to appease his disappointment. "They are abominations, misfits not meant to exist. If you're lucky, you'll never see one in your entire life." And her eyes had shone with a strange light, and her voice had been all mint green and ginger.
"But what does all that have to do with our family?" John asked, mystified. Dragon Syndicates were a common thing in poorer areas of the United Republic of America. There, according to Gabe, they used those creatures to control the areas the way drug cartels had done in the past.
Once they started selling 'wyverns', strict laws had been put in place. But only those people who were side-stepping those laws already could afford to buy 'wyverns' in the first place. Gabe and Dad had explained that much. Bad people did bad things because of money all the time, they said. And rich people were the worst kind; they would do anything to maintain their status, to increase their wealth.
"But that doesn't make sense," John had protested one time. "They can't break the law. Everyone would know it was them."
"That's what they have their syndicates for," his patient brother explained. "They hire some henchman to do their dirty work while they sit around and marvel at the power they acquire. You don't have to understand that, just know that these things are going on in the world." Still, John couldn't quite wrap his head around all that. All these things always happened far away from him. He and his family lived in a nice area, where no one would dare break the law.
Gabe continued talking, snapping John back to the present. "Our parents were caught trying to sneak into a Dragon Project lab facility in the Free United States."
"They were what now!?"
That made even less sense than using a 'wyvern' to terrorize the poor.
"Why would Mom and Dad do that? How could they leave us like that!"
"Oh, come on, John. Use your brain!" Gabe exclaimed, and this time a little magenta annoyance rang with his voice as well. John felt a little dizzy at all the colours of his brother's voice. How many emotions could you feel at once?
"It's not like they were trying to get caught!" he continued. "They did it for us! Don't you get it?"
"Well how about you give me a clear answer for once?" John shot back. Why did his brother have to be like that?
Gabe took a deep breath, probably to steady his nerves, but who knew for certain with adults. "They were part of a rebel group, called Rogues," he explained calmer this time. "Fighting against the power of the syndicates. To make sure you and I could grow up in a safer world." By now, the annoyance in his voice had faded to a faint peach. All this made no sense to John, but he felt the truth in his brother's words. This did sound like something fierce Mom and passionate Dad would do. Under different circumstances, learning of his secret agent rebel parents would have excited him, but this wasn't one of his shows. This was reality.
"And that's why we're going to your friends? Are they also rebels?"
Gabe nodded curtly. "Same group, different compartment. They were the ones who told me what'd happened. They instructed me to come to their hideout in an untraceable car at once, but I couldn't leave you at home. So, I detoured from the original plan." He grimaced at that. "Mich's going to be thrilled," he added with honey-golden sarcasm.
"So that's why you took Dad's car. Because automatic ones are connected to the quantumnet and can be tracked, right?"
"See, now you're using your brain. Though I kind of wish I hadn't. I'm not used to steering manually anymore. Never sweated so much in my life."
A rough laugh, cinnabar-and-lime, told John his brother was going to be all right. He looked out of the window, smiling to himself. They must've left the United Republic a while ago, judging by the snow-speckled pine trees next to them. A ghostly lake was barely visible in the distance, shadowed by vast, jagged mountains on the horizon. The brothers sat in silence for a while as they continued down the highway, until Gabe pulled the car off. Now they passed deeper through a forest. Giant trees loomed overhead, threatening to swallow light, life, and everything. Only the car's headlight allowed them to peer through the pitch-black night.
A breath of relief escaped his lungs when they finally left forest behind, speeding towards the lake he'd spotted before. The desolation astonished John - how would anyone think of planning a meeting here? The Gang, obviously. This was exactly the place the Captain would choose. John only hoped they had marshmallows and chocolate milk. He had started feeling a chill creeping up his spine, and besides, his tummy now growled more often. Meanwhile, at the foot of the approaching mountains, a little shack had begun to come into sight. The closer they got, the more John could appreciate the cleverness of this place. The hut was almost invisible from across the lake. Few would ever wander this close to the mountains in the dead of night, and those who did would think someone had decided to go on a fishing trip. Rods were fastened to the porch overlooking the calm water and a puny raft lay at anchor at the dock. Through the windows, yellow light flooded over the stony road.
Gabe parked Dad's car on a make-shift parking lot beside a crimson Vespa and a white Camaro. John knew who these vehicles belonged to, and a grin spread over his face. Together, they trudged up a narrow, snowy path. John shivered a little. In their hurry, he hadn't brought any special winter clothes with him. His brother wore his favourite fern-coloured winter vest, but he only had a light shirt and a pair of jeans. Their home had been insulated, after all.
Ember stood on the porch with her hands on her hips, her left foot tapping the wood with an uneven rhythm.
"We saw ya comin' a long way," was her stern greeting. "And we heard you before we saw ya. Bet they heard you all the way back in the Americas."
Even for a young Chinese-American woman barely taller than John, she was an intimidating sight. Her black jeans were ripped, her leather jacket torn. The skull shirt she wore was faded and flecked with milky bleach. Her hair was like a blaze of fire, deep purple at the roots fading to a fiery red at the tips. Her eye-liner was messy, her heart-shaped face framed by choppily cut hair. Her voice had burned with an intense dark red, though it was tainted by a purple hue today.
But then she noticed John and her frown lessened.
"Well, if it ain't our golden boy," she mused with a redder voice while messing up his dark blonde curls. "How's life been treatin' ya, little one?"
"Could be better," replied John honestly. His stomach growled louder this time, and he couldn't suppress the shivers shaking his tiny body. "Good to see you, Ember," he added to not sound impolite. When they had first met, he'd figured such a flaming person deserved a fitting name. Since her voice had resembled the warm glowing hue of burning coal, he'd dubbed her Ember. She smiled every time he called her that, and she was smiling now, too. But then she turned her attention back to Gabe.
"So that's why you're late? Had to bring Goldy with ya?"
"I couldn't leave him home all by himself, Kiki," Gabe replied simply. Ember briefly narrowed her almond eyes at him, but then nodded in understanding.
"Well, can't be helped", she said with a shrug. "I guess y'all had better come in, then. This little munchkin's gonna freeze to death before long." And she led them into the warmth.
As soon as John stepped inside, he instantly felt better, as if he'd slipped into a hot bath. The smell of chocolate lay in the air. In the corner, a fire place crackled softly, casting dancing shadows into the room. Skeletal elk heads and other hunting trophies decorated the dark, wooden walls. It was the way he imagined Santa's workshop looked like, minus the severed animal heads.
The other two were standing around a table in the centre of the room. The large one stood with their back facing the door, revealing large angel wings tattooed over a tan back. The other one saw them coming and grinned a lopsided smile.
"Gabe, John, oh it's so wonderful to see you!" yelled Drew as she came rushing across the room. She pecked Gabe on the cheek before doing the same with John. Her voice was teal blue, though now it had been painted over with a joyous cinnabar red. The beautiful Polynesian's hair smelled of lemons and was a river of shining black curls that touched the small of her back. After her greeting, she let go of John and shyly smiled at him and his brother. The simple flannel shirt and the jacket loosely tied up around her waist fit her well.
"Gabriel McQueen," came a booming voice from behind Drew. By now, the Captain had turned around and strut towards them with their arms crossed. Today, their voice neither had the yellow vanilla undertone of women nor the mossy green of men. This told John that right now, they would be called Mich. Gabe, who didn't have synaesthesia, couldn't know that, so he'd have to ask or wait to be corrected. But first, it was the Captain's turn to speak.
"We were waiting for you. Where have you been?"
"I'm sorry... Mich?" Gabe began. Since Mich didn't correct him, he continued. "I had to bring John with me. Couldn't leave him at home. Not safe."
"Ah, el comandante!" Now Mich had noticed John too.
The boy saluted. "Captain."
Years ago, when Gabe had first explained Mich sometimes felt like a Michael, sometimes like a Michelle, sometimes like both and sometimes like neither, he had confused John so much the small one had had no idea of how to refer to them. He normally called people he didn't know "sir" or "ma'am" - politeness and manners, thanks to Mom. But in the end, he had been so puzzled that he'd called Mich 'captain' instead. For a moment, the big person had gone silent. Then they had roared out a deep coffee-and-cinnabar laughter and slapped John's back so hard he had stumbled forward by half a foot.
"Oh, I like this one," the big one had declared. "This one knows manners. All right, and what should I call you? Since I am the captain, obviously. How about comandante? Spanish for 'commander'. Would you like that? Being my commander?" Grinning, John had accepted.
Many months had passed since that day, but the Captain was still John's favourite person out of the Gang. He hoped his presence hadn't crossed them too much. It was clear that the big Hispanic hadn't expected small boys to be here, no matter how friendly they acted. Their voice was the usual coffee colour, cinnabar had been there as well, but the faint magenta hadn't escaped John's notice.
The Captain wore a simple black tank top which showed off the tattoos that covered their muscular arms and neck. Circular black earrings were pierced through their earlobes. Three silver rings shone on their lip - two on their lower, one on their upper lip, like an interlocking zipper. Their cavernous eyes, the dark ravens on shoulder and throat, and thin mouth gave the Captain an intimidating appearance. Even after all this time, it was still difficult for John to guess what they were thinking.
His loud stomach once again interrupted John's thoughts. Ember giggled a little and even Mich cracked a smile. Drew took him by the arm.
"Come on, John. Let's get you something for supper, shall we? It's rather late, but I'm guessing your parents won't exactly mind."
As they were leaving the room, he could hear Ember prompt, "Didn't ya get the boy some dinner?" But then they were out of earshot to hear Gabe's reply.
John turned his attention back to Drew.
"What will happen next?"
"First, you'll get something to eat and a place to sleep," she replied simply. The kitchen they had entered was a simple one, with a rusty sink and a couple of shelves. Drew pulled a Quick-Meal package out of one of the shelves and turned on the Food Preparer. A second later, a soft ding announced that the lasagne had been prepared. It wasn't marshmallows and chocolate milk but smelled just as good.
"Chocolate at this hour, so shortly before bed, isn't good for you," said Drew as if she was reading his mind. "Then again, I guess lasagne at this time doesn't really qualify as 'good', either."
"Drew, what will happen next?" John asked again. The older girl set his dinner on a small table that stood in a corner and took the seat opposite of his. She did not reply until John had seated himself.
"We were actually in the middle of discussing plans when we heard you come. Mich wants to finish what the first team started."
John had led a first portion of food to his mouth, but his fork stopped mid-air.
"What about Mom and Dad? Shouldn't we rescue them first?"
Doesn't that have top-priority right now? He hoped the look he was giving Drew exactly reflected what he felt. It must have, judging by her reaction.
"John, your parents knew the risk they were taking. All this is bigger than you or me or them."
"I don't care," John said bluntly. He lowered the fork back to the plate and stared at Drew accusingly. "How can you say that? They are my parents!"
"John, please. We must be logical here. Currently, we stand a better chance at finishing the mission than breaking into a prison to bust them out. Don't worry, we will do that as well," she added before John could protest again. Was his face that easy to read? "Or something like that. But we only have a narrow window for this first mission. Once we miss it, that's it. Your parents will have been arrested for naught."
Heated voices wafted in from the main room. Drew sighed and got up.
"Excuse me, John, but they mustn't fight. I'll try to calm them, you go ahead and finish your supper without me." And without waiting for a response, she left him sitting alone, a trace of her perfume still hanging in the air.
John's appetite had left him after what Drew told him. Even so, he dutifully finished his plate of lasagne. He had to admit that it didn't taste too bad. Pushing his guilt away, he tried not to imagine where his parents were or what their dinner would be like. Besides, they would soon rescue them. It was hard imagining the powerful Captain, strong Ember or clever Drew failing him. And of course, Gabe had never let him down. Soon enough, they would all be together again.
After he had put his plate in the sink, he made for the door to the living room. A part of him wondered why the automatic tap hadn't responded to his movement. His main concern, however, was convincing the others that his parents would need to be saved first. Who cared what happened in those labs?
The fighting had subdued by the time John entered the main room, but he could still sense the aftermath. The Captain stood at the window with their arms crossed, their broad back turned to the group. Ember and Drew were cuddling on the couch while talking with each other with hushed voices. Gabe just leaned against a wall near the fire place, studying the glowing coals with a frown on his face. Since none of them noticed John's entry, he decided to speak out into the room to no one in particular.
Drew jumped from the couch, but the others looked as startled as she did. They must have forgotten he was there.
"Now, we rest," was her answer. "Come, I'll show you where you and your brother are sleeping. We were hoping of going today, actually. But since dawn is breaking, you had better rest first. And maybe we should all catch some sleep," she added pointedly to the room. Her teal voice had a slight note of magenta as well, but it was coated with the colour of olive exhaustion.
John didn't move a muscle. "Going where? To Mom and Dad?" It was a simple hope, a small one, desperate, but this time it was Gabe who shattered it.
"No. We have to first finish what they started. I like it no more than you," he added when he saw his brother's face. "But we'll have to."
"Fine," John sighed. He couldn't hope to object to Gabe, not when everyone had come to an accord. "So where will we go instead?"
Gabe hesitated. "Well-"
"Oh, for the love of God, let the boy come!" came a sudden boom from the window. "We cannot leave him here. He is safer with us, you said so yourself. And you brought him along in the first place. He goes where you go." Gabe's face hardened, but the Captain's voice, all magenta and lilac, made it clear that they would hear no objections.
"We'll fill ya in tomorrow, kid," Ember promised as she too got up from the couch. She yawned. "Drew's right, we're all tired. Dunno what y'all are planning to do, but I'm off catchin' some Z's". She kissed her girlfriend goodnight, then stomped up the stairwell. Mich followed shortly after. Drew lingered at the foot of the stairs, keeping a respectful distance between herself and the brothers' brief conversation.
"And this is really helping Mom and Dad?"
"You know, John, I hope it does. I truly do." Sighing, Gabe made his way towards Drew and let her lead the way upstairs.
Their room was right below the attic, a lopsided room with a low ceiling and an overwhelming number of pillows. Two mattresses rested on the floor. They didn't talk much as Gabe prepared for bed. John, suddenly overwhelmed with sleepiness, curled up in the make-shift beds. He hadn't realised how exhausted he'd been. Within seconds, he drifted into a dreamless sleep.
The next day passed quickly. With no one there to wake them, they all slept in and ate a late breakfast together. Then the Gang spent the hours until departure repeatedly going through their plan. They would go by train, dropping off at an abandoned geothermal plant. Drew had organized an Invisibility Camouflage used by the actual military, which would conceal them from security cameras and prying eyes alike. When asked how she'd done it, Drew merely shrugged and muttered something about her Dad. Under the cover of darkness, they would enter the lab via power plant through a shared ventilation system. There they would wreak havoc, targeting research papers and any 'wyvern' they could find. In case of discovery, everyone but John would be armed with a tranquilizer rifle. Those wouldn't kill, but knock you out cold, as Ember put it. She had objected to their choice of weaponry.
"Their weapons won't be darts." But the Captain, Michael today, would hear none of it.
"We are no killers, and I for one will not be turned into one." And that had settled it.
Soon enough, it was time to leave. John was giddy with excited. A small voice inside his head had been yelling at him for the last hours, telling him how outlandish their plan was, how ridiculous their chances of success. Yet he was as close to a real-life adventure he could ever hope to be.
They took Drew's Camaro. Next to Dad's old-timer and Mich's Vespa, it was gentler and less likely to attract unwanted attention. The hours to the train station flew by in no time. The Captain was silent most of the way, lost in thoughts behind the driver's wheel. Gabe was still as well, though every now and again he would join the conversation the girls and John had at the back seats. The landscape they passed was breathtakingly beautiful: shimmering lakes of clear blue, snow-covered meadows, the harsh profile of mountains cutting through the sky. He even spotted a speck that he thought might be a bird of prey, diving into the lake to emerge with a wiggling, glittering trophy in its talons. John could have sworn he heard its characteristic shriek, as colourless as any animal's cry.
They arrived at the city before long. Geography had never been John's strong suit. Thankfully, a sign on the massive brick building spelled out Winnipeg Magnetic Rail Road in huge, golden letters. As they walked into the entrance hall, he couldn't help but marvel at the train station. The hall way was massive, at least a hundred feet across and forty feet tall. The floor was panelled with black and grey marble, the walls were a rich, shiny dark blue. Over their heads, a domed glass ceiling revealed a sky tainted by a reddish hue. Somewhere off to his left, a loud clock struck six times, the bronze sound echoing through the hall. Hundreds of busy passengers were rushing by in a blur, on their way to and from platforms, changing trains, buying tickets.
They boarded the magnetic train waiting for them, managing to secure their own compartment. The train sped away, as silent as a mouse, flying high above the country on a large overpass. An electrical panel the size of his hand told him they were going 300 miles per hour. The Captain did the calculations. "Based on our current speed, we should be there in little less than an hour," he said while throwing off his jacket.
The world outside had begun to turn a dark ruby red. Dancing lights were the only clues of human civilization on the horizon. They passed wide lanes with cars shooting by far underneath, and endless acres of meadows and forest and plains.
Their stop came sooner than expected. People gave them funny looks, and John guessed they wondered why a group of young adults would get off an interstate in the middle of nowhere. To John, the fact that the interstate even stopped in the middle of nowhere was more astonishing. This station must have been built for workers travelling to the plant, back when geothermal energy had been introduced to the market.
They stepped out of the warm train onto the chilly, open platform and the train sped off, leaving them behind in silence and darkness. The only light source was a single street lamp a couple of feet away. Against the star-speckled sky, a huge tower looked like a shadow cast onto dark blue background. He knew this to be their destination.
"We going to put the cloak on now?" Ember muttered. "Ain't gonna see much in this fricking night anyway."
"Ever heard of security cameras, Kiki?" responded the Captain. "We should at least get away from this lamp."
When they finally did Camouflage themselves, John was surprised by how big the thing was. Several inches of the cloak were scrapping over soil behind them, making a soft swishing sound. Michael put on the Infrared Goggles and attached the detecting band to the outer layer of their Camouflage, at the same height of John's bellybutton.
"That's how invisibility works," Gabe softly hissed into John's ear. The original brown had finally returned to his voice, though John still detected a little lime green as well. "Light has to enter our eyes to for us to see. What we're doing right now is bending light around ourselves, so that no one sees us. That leaves us blind, hence the infrared. That way, we can still see the warmth of humans and object. Well, Michael can, anyway."
John gave off a low hum, pretending that he had understood.
Meanwhile, the Captain activated their Camouflage. A soft, metallic clang, and from one second to the next, the world was washed away by darkness.
John had to admit, using infrared as means of navigation was pretty clever. Even so, he wished for a pair of those goggles for himself. His feet got stuck on a boulder or he almost fell by misjudging the uneven terrain. Alas, all he could do was blindly stumble along while the Captain lead the way. The only way he knew the others were still there was by their shallow breath. Tiny lamps were woven into the inside of the cloak, but both Michael and Drew had agreed to keep them turned off in case of malfunction. The Camouflage hugged them like a tight tent, pushing them against one another, constricting their movements.
The cool night air pressed close around them. John briefly wondered how the Captain even managed to see anything even through infrared, when the night decided to be such a frigid wasteland. Michael came to a sudden halt.
"A gate," came a whisper so low John almost missed it.
"Let me." Ember pushed past John and opened the Camouflage just wide enough to fit her hands through. With a swift turn of her arm and a muted click, the gate unlocked. It must have been metallic from the sound of it. They continued their trek through the night until Michael forced them to another halt.
"Okay, this should be it," he declared, his voice coated in cobalt, dipped in lime. "Careful, it's tight in here." He took the Camouflage off in one big whirl of his right arm.
The first thing John noticed was the giant tank next to him, pressing in on his right side. Soft moonlight flooded in through a window too far up to see. He could only guess its location based on reflections on the silvery tank. The ceiling was too high to clearly make out. They must be standing in a huge hall. Those tanks had probably been used to store unwanted by-products from the geothermal extraction process. He recalled touching upon this in school, but the knowledge wouldn't come to him. It probably wasn't important anyway.
"You all right?" came Gabe's voice from behind. Still a little lime.
"Yeah," John replied, turning around, and he was surprised how relaxed he felt. Sure, they were about to do something incredibly stupid, even he saw that. But he wasn't alone, and so long as Gabe and the Captain and the others were by his side, he had nothing to worry about. Besides, even if something went wrong, they might see their parents sooner than expected. As far as John was concerned, he had nothing to worry about.
Gabe nodded. "Good."
Behind him, Ember and Michael had managed to pry open an air vent. Drew supplied dim light with her flashlight. The shutter came off in an instant and would have clattered to the ground had the Captain not caught it first. He placed it down carefully and Drew handed him the flashlight.
"Okay, I will go first. Bit of a long way from here, so try not to get lost."
With that, the Captain plunged into the darkness, closely followed by Ember. Drew waited for John to approach and handed him a second flashlight. "Don't worry, we'll keep you safe. Just follow Kiki, and all should be fine."
Nodding, John turned on the light and followed his two friends into the square, grey opening.
That's a first, John thought while crawling through the narrow tunnel. Never thought I'd ever find myself creeping through an air shaft in the Free States in the middle of the night. Ember was about a foot in front of him, and he could sense Drew following him. Over Ember's small body frame, he could see the Captain as well, a big, burly mass of muscles. A good thing that he wasn't claustrophobic. They approached their first intersection, the walls leaning even closer in the corners. For once, he was glad for his scrawny body.
Hours might have passed, but their trek seemed endless. All tunnels and side-tunnels, all corners and crossroads looked exactly the same. Soon enough, his joints started to ache, and still no end was in sight. His wrists hurt from having to support him in such an unusual position. He had scrapped his knees from scuttling across the cold metal. Since he needed his hands to balance on the uneven floor, he had to hold the flashlight in his mouth. His jaw started to ache from that constant O-shape. Heavy breathing from behind told him that Gabe was also struggling, and even Ember seemed to slacken. Yet their Captain plunged on with unwavering determination.
Finally, after an eternity, Michael came to a halt. Awkwardly turning in the narrow space, he sat down and waited for the others to come closer.
"Okay," he whispered. "The labs should be empty, but we should be extra careful regardless." He turned off his torchlight and John followed his example. Darkness surrounded them, but soft blue light illuminated Michael's stern face from below. A low humming filled the air. "Beneath us seems to be the server room. From there, we should be able to find our way around."
He pointed at something below him, the source of light and sound, but Ember blocked John's line of vision. He guessed it was an air vent like the one they had entered through.
Ember had started unscrewing the nails holding the vent in place. A moment later, she clapped a hatch backwards and dropped into the room below. Michael gestured for John to follow. Hanging from the shaft opening, John managed to find a table to stand on in the dim room. Balancing carefully, he let go of the metal above him and climbed down onto even ground. Then he clicked his torchlight on.
The room was filled to the brim with computer screens. Most had their transparent display turned off, save for one standing close to the door, glowing in brilliant blue light. The hum surrounded him now, penetrating his skull. Massive black boxes were stored all around the room, filling occupied space. The room had no windows and only one small door at the end of a long alley of desks and screens. Cherry red wiring connected every single piece of electronic to the one active computer screen.
A soft thump told John Drew had jumped down into the room, and a moment later he also saw Gabe in the shine of his torchlight, his brown face beaded with sweat.
"Never... again..." he panted while holding his side. His voice was a dark olive.
"Still gotta go back, ya know?" Ember pointed out.
"Oh, just... leave me... here. I'll... find... a way," Gabe promised with a smile.
Finally, the Captain entered the room with an elegant jump. "Security cameras?"
John swung his light around. His heart missed a beat when the small grey circle in a topmost corner came into view. He silently cursed himself. He had stupidly turned on the light, giving away their presence. Now, because of him, their venture was at an end before it had properly begun.
Ember cursed out loud. "Hang onna minute," she said while advancing towards the camera.
"Kiki, don't!" Drew caught Ember by her arm. "If you destroy it, they'll know for certain someone's been here. Let me." She stepped gingerly towards the main computer.
"I'll delete our entrance and make the video loop around itself. In fact, I might as well do that for all security cameras. Then I'll destroy any research stored in the data bank. It's faster this way, Michael," she added when the Captain had started to object.
"Faster than running 'round the lab like an idiot, tryin' to break into computers," Ember agreed. "If anyone's gonna make it, it's our star hacker."
"Oh, don't say that," a flustered Drew objected, though John heard warm crimson pride in her voice at her girlfriend's praise. "We've got this, guys. You go and try to find some of those creatures, Kiki and I will be fine." The Captain hesitated at this change of plan, but then he seemed to make up his mind, nodded, and made for the door.
In the gloomy dark only pierced by their torchlights, every hallway looked like the next. John quickly lost his sense of direction. If this was part of a strategy to keep unwanted invaders out, it was working on him. Then again, he wasn't even supposed to be here. Michael had prepared for this, he had memorized the plans beforehand. Now he knew exactly where he was going by leading them down a corridor and up a staircase.
"The nursery is up there. Come on." John followed him in blind faith.
They found said nursery in ruins. Test tubes had been knocked over or shattered, spilling chemicals onto the shelves they stood on. Papers were scattered all over the room in a hopeless mess. A massive machine, the focal point of the room, was oddly unbroken amidst this chaos. John thought it an incubator; what other egg-shaped machines would you expect to find in a room called nursery? The three crept towards the machine, senses alert for any sound or movement. The Captain placed a hand on a grip, turned the knob around, and jerked the latch open. Inside they found...
Nothing. Neither eggs nor shells nor any other living creature. Only bleak grey walls and empty compartments reminiscent of chicken pens. Nothing.
A cold hand gripped John's heart and pulled it into his stomach. Drew's voice echoed in his head. Your parents will have been arrested for naught.
"What?" Michael's yelp was unmasked, lilac anger and pale, cream coloured disappointment. His voice broke the eerie stillness that had befallen the lab.
"They're gone," Gabe observed. He also tossed all caution to the wind. There was no longer any need for whispering.
"Oh, really?" Now Michael added a honey-golden hue to his voice. "How did you guess that? Because of the empty incubator? Or the abandoned nursery?"
But how? How could this incubator be empty? They were in the right place - they must be. The lab equipment was there, the servers, everything. John was dimly aware of Michael stomping to the nearest table and flipping it over. The soft, springy material lining the floor muffled its shattering.
"Hey, get a hold of yourself!" Gabe exclaimed. He walked over to the large man and placed a hand on his broad shoulder. "This doesn't make sense. Why is everything gone?"
Research had been conducted here, the shattered tubes and scattered papers told John as much. Yet the fact that everything was abandoned could only speak for one fact...
"They knew," John said. Still standing near the incubator, he had turned towards the older two. Another chill took hold of him. Arrested for naught.
"They must've known Mom and Dad were trying to break in. They were caught, remember? I don't think Mom would've been reckless in her planning, do you?" He asked Gabe, but the Captain reacted first.
"No, you are right, comandante," Michael agreed. "They had it all planned carefully, every last detail thought of." From the way he looked, it must have dawned on him as well, and suddenly lime green had returned to his voice. Why hadn't John thought of it before? For naught.
"What do you mean?" Gabe asked, startled, looking back and forth between John and Michael.
"A mole. They had a frickin' mole in their ranks."
"They were betrayed," John agreed. God, why hadn't he realised it sooner? Now they were here for naught as well, it seemed. "The lab was warned, and they brought the 'wyverns' away. They were the central target, so they were saved first. That's what must have happened here."
Michael nodded, horrified.
"So this was all in vain, then?" Gabe asked, again with his mud and lime coloured voice.
"Yes," Michael responded. "And now we get out of here, quick! They have no reason to know that we are here as well. Let's keep it that way." The Captain started towards the door, with Gabe following close behind. John took one step and then stopped dead in his tracks. "John, come on!"
John stood frozen. He had heard a tiny wail, barely noticeable, but it had been there. And more importantly, it had had a colour. It had been too faint to distinguish the exact shade, but he was sure he's sensed green. Which didn't make any sense. Normal sounds didn't have colour, only voices and humans did; emotions, personalities, people. But he hadn't imagined it, he couldn't have. Even in his dreams voices were colourless. He raised his left hand to signal the others to wait and closed his eyes. He waited for a while. Silence. John started to wonder if he'd imagined it after all. Maybe he was starting to lose it.
But no, there it was again. It came from inside the incubator.
Disbelieving, John took a closer look. In a far corner, scarcely illuminated by his torchlight, lay a tiny, naked thing, wailing pitifully. The shadows had concealed it, which is why they had missed it the first time. He knew he shouldn't, but ignoring higher reasoning, he thrust his hand inside and picked up the dragon. It was so tiny that it fit into his pale palm.
It was blind, poor thing, and hatched recently by the look of it. Rough, sand-coloured scales caked its whole body. Tiny obsidian claws pricked against John's flesh. The head was the size of its belly, oddly disproportional. Two bulging eyeballs sat on either side of it and were covered in a thin membrane. Leathery wings connected the arms to its sides. It also had a beak, which didn't fit at all. Dad had been right, they didn't look like dragons at all, more like scaly chicken-bat-hybrids.
While his attention had been absorbed by his discovery, the two older men had come closer to see what was keeping him.
"What. Is. That!?" was Gabe's initial reaction, a clear, disgusted dark blue.
"A mogue," John replied calmly. The term had simply come to him, but why not? 'Dragon' certainly wasn't fitting, and neither was 'wyvern'. The scientists had missed their opportunity to name their new species, so now John had. "I'll call it Rapha."
"The hell you will," the Captain said. He had approached more carefully and now looked at the thing in John's hand with pure hatred written on his face. "Give it to me, comandante."
John cupped Rapha in his hands. Michael's voice had been purple, the purple of rotting plums. No good actions ever followed such words. Besides, Rapha had started shaking violently now. The poor thing must have lain in the cold all night. It was a miracle it was even alive.
"I said, GIVE IT TO ME!"
Michael lunged forwards with his hand outstretched. John had to take a step back, twisting his torso sideways and stretching his arms to keep Rapha safe. The tiny mogue wailed again, and this time John could identify its colour. It was minty green, the exact shade of his mother's voice.
"You won't get her," John declared. He had simply decided that Rapha was female, even though there was no sign of gender in its voice. "What do you want with her, anyway?"
"I'm going to kill it before it can do any harm." Michael took another step, but this time Gabe intervened. His brother stepped between them with his arms outstretched.
"Michael, it's only a baby. What harm can it do?"
"Well, I'll bloody tell you! They can rake your skin off or bite your head off or scar you for life." At the last words, he touched the ravens over his collar bone.
"Come on, cut it out, you're being scary," Gabe confessed. Michael ignored him.
"They are evil, heartless killers, more terrible than wolves or tigers, and nearly indestructible once fully grown. That's why we kill it NOW!"
With that, he lunged at John again. Hugging Rapha close to his heart, John managed to slip under his arms and ran to the opposite wall. Michael was strong, but slow. Gabe positioned himself between them with his hands raised in an appeasing gesture. Though John suspected his brother could scarcely protect him if Michael wanted to reach Rapha. His words had been tainted a deep russet colour, and now John understood.
"I'm sorry," he whispered. "Oh Michael, I'm so sorry of what happened to you."
The big man flinched as if he'd been struck. John had never called him by his actual name before. "Whoever did this to you is a monster. I understand what you feel, and you are right in your grief. But Rapha is innocent. She killed no one, and she won't ever, I promise. Hurting her won't bring them back. And these mogues are victims too, you know? They are being used as tools, the killing's not on them. Would you call a knife evil because someone got stabbed with it?"
Michael shot a quick glance at Gabe. He briefly lowered his gaze, thinking, as John had hoped he would. Michael was a thinker, and you could convince any thinker with a good argument. Though you could never be sure when people's emotions were involved.
Yet John had spoken from his heart, and in his heart, he sensed the truth of his words. Mogues needed liberation from the syndicates as much as humans did.
"You said yourself you were no killer, and you won't be turned into one," Gabe added with a tight voice. "Please don't show me that my trust in you was misplaced." Raw emotions lay in Gabe's voice. John had never realised how deeply Gabe cared for Michael.
John was surprised that his brother had dared to interrupt, and that he now dared to step closer to Michael. When he got angry, Michael could be as scary as a grizzly bear. But something had stirred in his eyes at Gabe's words.
John knew he had won from the way Michael inwardly collapsed. The chilly, murderous look in his face, however, told John that this issue was far from settled. Wordlessly, Michael walked out of the door. It seemed that John would not only have to protect his mogues from the bad guys, but also from some of his own team members. The thought alone made him weary.
Still, the first battle had been won, and Rapha was safe. But when had it become his battle anyway?
"You know, John, we might all just learn something from you," Gabe interrupted his pondering. He came closer, shock as much in his voice as pride. He shook his head. "You and your little Rapha. Take good care of her, okay?"
John nodded. He hadn't realised he'd clutched the tiny one as much as he had, as if his life had depended on it. Rapha made another weak sound. John made a mental note that his little buddy would need food soon.
"They need us, Gabe," he pleaded. "We have to save them all, please, we have to."
"And we will, once we find Mom and Dad. They'll be proud of what you did." Gabe hesitated, then nodded towards the door.
"Come, we had better catch up with the others. They'll want to hear all about this Mogue Project of yours."
The Mogue Project. An excited jolt went down John's spine just by thinking about it. Yes, that was a good name. He would make sure every last mogue was safe. He would start with Rapha.
"Thanks for your help," he said to his brother. "I - I guess it could have really turned sideways just then. It's good having you on my side."
"Don't worry." Gabe reloaded his rifle. "I'll keep you safe, you'll see." Gabe tried to sprinkle humour into his voice, but John could sense the emotional turmoil going on inside his brother. Immense gratitude filled him.
Two brothers and their friend made their way back to their group, onto their next mission.
I wrote The Mogue Project during some of my most uninspired years. I hadn't exercised my craft in years, and at that point, I was too frightened to pick up the quill. I had tried and failed too many times in the past. Never could I finish the story I started. Despite all that, I somehow managed to write the best thing I had created up to that point.
All this started as a school assignment. "Write a utopian or dystopian short story," the teacher had said. I somehow managed to spectacularly miss both genre and length of what was required of me. Nevertheless, as soon as she had given us that assignment, my well of ideas started to overflow. A well I had thought long dried up. I set forth to write the story that was clamouring to be told, and write it I did. We only had a week to finish the story, so unfortunately, the ending at the time was very rushed. I was dissatisfied with that last scene, but the story had to be handed in. Yet I was still proud of my first completed project. Finishing my first ever real story renewed my confidence and inspiration, and I have since continued to write prose.
It was only years later that I would return to The Mogue Project and start editing it. I gave it a full ending, the one I felt it deserved. Overall, not a lot has changed between that first draft and what I call the final version.
Beta readers have told me The Mogue Project feels incomplete. I admit, outlining the plot of a story has never been my strong suit, and I'm certain it shows here. Add to that the time limit imposed on me at the time, and such a reaction is a given.
So is this story done? Yes and no. Ask any creator and they'll all tell you their projects are never truly finished. There's always something to tweak. But at the end of the day, it has to be handed in, and at that point it is done.
Truth be told, I never intended John to find his parents. In my mind, the story stopped when he found Rapha. There is nothing more for me at this point, but the threads are there. The world is there.
Maybe in some years' time, I will return to his twenty-second century and continue John's story. But right now, The Mogue Project is exactly what it has to be for me. Finished.
What does "mogue" mean? I don't know, John came up with that word. You'll have to read his story to figure it out.