Summer was fast approaching the academy and the jig was finally up. We were supposed to meet in Director Popper’s office at 1600 hours. We’d found out from Sergeant Glass after she’d finished dissecting Kaplan’s embarrassing attempt at the obstacle course. Nobody said it directly but everyone knew where this was headed. At least one of us would be getting super powers.
Whispers had been thriving ever since that infection crisis in Topeka. Nasty stuff. An Other-natural terrorist calling itself Decoherence Strategy struck the whole city with a mass fugue state. A couple of suits, looked like a mix of RADFRONT and HOMEFRONT guys from their armbands, stopped by to talk to Popper the week after. Our coterie, the top five students in the academy, had been under scrutiny ever since.
In the two hours since we got news of our meeting, word spread to the entire school. Curious eyes crawled down my back as I made my way through the halls to Popper’s office. Everyone was assembled: Aaron Truman, Hans Kaplan, Elizer Kim and Heidi Tovar. Popper was nowhere to be seen.
“Do you think this is about my proposal?” Elizer asked.
“I don’t think the Director cares about your camping trip,” Heidi replied.
“I dunno, I bet Poppa bear likes to spend some time in the great outdoors.”
“Criminy, Truman, don’t ever let the man hear you call him that.” Kaplan snickered into his hands. “He’ll have you evaluated.”
“Evaluated for what?” the director asked from the doorway. Then, “at ease,” as we snapped to attention. He was tall, trim and bald with a Sigmund Freud beard over the spotty wattle of his neck.
He pulled a cigarette with the Twin Saints logo from his case and took a long draw before addressing us again. “You kids have been given a rare privilege.” His tone was carefully neutral, his eyes searching us for a response. “A new artifact has been approved to bond with an academy graduate. One of you academy graduates. Gamma class, righteous strain.”
“Sorry, Director! But, you know- I mean, it’s a big deal!” Elizer was right. The whole purpose of the academy was to prepare us for the Supreme Service. For most students this meant taking on one of the support roles at the Twin Saints or in one of the FRONTs. Sometimes though the government would find new Other-natural artifacts or procedures that it wanted to deploy. When that happened, the academy was where they found recruits. And if you got powers, that was it. You were the guy your classmates were on the support team for.
What’s more, this was righteous strain. The righteous strain of the infection came from Space Brother himself. It wouldn’t make you lose your mind and become a strawman as easily as the sinister strain would. And if it was gamma class… Well, Fat Man and Little Boy were only epsilon class and they were literal nukes.
Of course, none of that made talking back to the director a smart thing to do.
“That’s latrine duty and an 8 pm curfew til graduation, cadet. Any more color commentary?”
Elizer melted in his seat. “Sir, no sir.”
“Correct. As I was saying. This is a big deal for everyone at the academy. We trust you not to muck it up, past transgressions aside.” He gave a hard look to Elizer and then, strangely, to me. “The artifact’s picky. It requires a two-stage competitive trial to bond with a new host. Convene at the end of the month at the Ouroboros in Area 51, 600 hours.”
I did the math in my head. That was less than a week. “What kind of trial do you mean?”
“Can’t say. But be clear: you will be competing against your coterie mates. It’s every man for himself for here on out. Understood?”
“Sir, yes sir,” we replied in unison. Truman and Elizer stared straight ahead. Hans looked down at his lap and smiled. Heidi was scoping out the rest of us, which I only knew because I was doing the same.
We gathered afterwards in the academy cafe, all of us save for Heidi, who had run off from the meeting with barely a word. Elizer picked gloomily at his croissant.
“Man, the year is basically over. If I was in regular school I’d just be chilling with movie days and waiting for summer.”
“Get your head in the game, soldier.” I gave him a pat on the back. “One of us might just end up in HOMEFRONT by June. You could meet P!ss Frog.”
“Nooooo! What if he didn’t appreciate my sweet street style? I could never.”
“Maybe you could ask him for some fashion tips,” Aaron offered.
“Never, ever. The hubris!”
“Well, maybe you’d get a sweet uniform, like Midas,” I said. “Plus, you know, the whole protecting your country thing.”
“Christ Roxie, do you really believe that garbage?” Kaplan being Kaplan, again.
“Roxanne.” Hans was the conversational equivalent of drinking a glass of live leeches: draining, slimy, and destined to go bad places.
“Whatever. Kim here’s got a tattoo gun with his name on it down at the Twin Saints office.” The Twin Saints Corporation used magical tattoos for their so-called ‘chronic’ employees. They weren’t proper employees. They didn’t do any labor. It was more like a social program for poor folks. Chronics would magically absorb the toxins smoked by Twin Saints customers. While the customers got a nice nicotine hit, the chronics got lung damage. Not the kind of job you’d sign up for if you had much to offer. “Frankly, I didn’t even know they made Asians as dumb as him.”
I sat up straight. “That’s inappropriate, cadet. Maybe we should get a sergeant.”
“Rock, don’t-” Elizer began, but Hans barely seemed to notice.
“You think those Good Ol’ Boys care?”
“I don’t know about the boys, but Sergeant Glass hasn’t been your biggest fan lately. What was your time on the horizontal bars again?”
Elizer chuckled. Truman made… some kind of noise, a bit like a whining dog. Hans just waved a hand. “A nobody like her? I’m terrified.”
“And I’m sure that ‘nobody’ can make sure that your egregious-”
“Uhhh, guys?” Truman shook off a bit of his usual bovine haze. “Maybe we should cool it.”
“That was barely anything,” Kaplan hissed. “Besides, I’m RADFRONT track. The shit I’m working on? You got no idea. Basically a shoe-in. Running, climbing… The meat is obsolete.” He kept mumbling from there, but he’d long stopped looking at me. I don’t think I was the one he was trying to convince. I packed my things and walked off.
Truman was just a few steps behind me. “I thought you were better than that.”
I turned around. “Excuse me?”
“You heard me. You know how sensitive Kaplan is about his… course time.”
“Doesn’t seem Kaplan much minds what people are sensitive about.”
Truman shrugged. “You know that Kim doesn’t care and that Kaplan doesn’t mean it.”
“No, I don’t know that.” I scanned his eyes, brown and pleading. Did he really believe what he was saying? Or did he just want to? Give him the benefit of the doubt, I scolded myself. It was stupid to be picking fights, stupid to just jump into these things without thinking. I rubbed my eyes. “Look, Aaron, I get it. You don’t like seeing folks fight. But you have to know that Kaplan’s the problem here.
He shrugged. “Nobody’s perfect, right? We all got into the academy, so none of us can be worthless. Wouldn’t it make more sense to look for the good in each other?”
He was waiting. He wanted an actual answer. I looked back at Kaplan, fuming at the table, and fought down a wave of disgust. “What’s to say I haven’t looked?”
“Well, a nice girl like you ought to be able to find something.”
About four different responses came to mind then, none of them productive. ‘Nice’ isn’t a word people use for me, not even Dad. It’s strange, and by strange I mean infuriating, how some folks will try to control your behavior by treating you like you’ve already done what they wanted.
Maybe for Aaron that made sense. The boy definitely knew how to follow an order. Unless that order was, ‘leave me alone.’ Instead I just shook my head. “I guess not everyone can see good everywhere quite the same way you can.”
He smiled. “Hey, thanks!” I fought the urge to correct him.
Dad was elated when I told him the news at the gym. The place was old and lived-in but not run-down. Gino was training a new customer over by the punching bag. “Does this mean we can get back into sparring?” dad asked.
“What do you mean?”
“You’re competing to be a superhero, right? You’ve seen TV. Those guys duke it out all the time.”
I shrugged. “I mean, sometimes. HOMEFRONT definitely does. But I could end up in ARMFRONT, probably even RADFRONT considering my grades. There’s a lot more than just fighting.”
“You’re not gonna tell me that fighting’s not a part of it, though. Lemme see if I can still keep you on your toes.” He saw me hesitate. His voice softened. “Hey, the doc said I’m good to go in the ring, at least for a bit. Just make sure you don’t aim for the head. You can finish up with Gino when I’m too pooped.”
He wasn’t going to let this go without a fight. Literally. “Alright, alright,” I relented. “Grab your gloves, hotshot.”
We geared up and minutes later we were at it in the ring. Dad was more sluggish than I remembered but still quick for over three-hundred pounds and seven feet of Samoan geezer. His reach was positively wicked. Statuesque as I am, he still had over six inches on me, and it made a difference. I took two fierce blows before I was able to sneak a few punches in and dart away. He lumbered after me but I surprised him with a blow to the thigh and he lost his balance. He went down, lightly rapping his forehead against the floor.
“Dad! Are you okay?” I knelt down to help him up.
“I’m fine,” he grunted. Long iron-grey hair clung red and sticky to his forehead. “Keep hitting like that and you’ll prove yourself to them in no time.”
“I’m not worried about proving myself to them.” I thought about the cold look Popper gave me during our meeting. “What matters is proving myself to the artifact.” I helped him back up. He swayed a bit on his feet.
“Attagirl.” He tapped his gloves together, or tried to. His face was red, his breath a wheeze. He brushed back his hair, revealing a navy-colored bruise under the trickle of blood. “Aight slugger, one more round. Let the old man redeem himself.”
“…I think it’s been enough training for one night.”
“C’mon, you’re not even gonna give me a rematch?” He tapped his gloves together, sniffed his nose. Blood trickled along his eyebrow.
“Nope.” I began to pull off my gloves.
He punched me on the shoulder. “Whassamatter, you chicken?”
I snorted. “Okay, now you’re acting childish.”
“Buh-bawwwwwk buh-bawk baww-”
“Dad!” He stopped clucking. “I’m sorry you lost. I know it’s weird. But we both know it’s done.” For a moment he grinned like he was going to make a joke, but then he got that far away look in his eyes that he gets when he doesn’t want to show that he’s feeling something. I put my hand on his cheek. “Let’s save your next heart attack for when I bring my first girlfriend home, yeah?”
That got him laughing, finally. “You really know how to knock a man down,” and then, “let’s pick up a couple of those rotisserie chickens from the corner store,” as if that settled the matter.
We finished the evening with rotisserie chickens and a couple of cokes. Dad insisted on watching that old movie Steel on the classic film network. ‘Classic’ seemed like a stretch, but it was fun. Dad sank deep into his chair, coke perched on his belly, laughing into the neck as we talked. He asked questions about the test, about how I thought I’d do against my classmates.
That night, trying to sleep, I stared at my poster of Muhammad Ali. He sat in full color, muscles relaxed. His face was kind but his eyes were not at peace. The night drifted away. Each hand was protected by a bright red glove.
Next: Read chapter (1.2) Faye West
Not interested in the other narrators? Roxanne’s story continues here with chapter 2.1!