The fucked up thing about their last mission was that it went almost exactly as planned. That shit never happened. There was always some unforeseen factor or lousy intel that forced them, after cursing and seeking cover, to improvise in the field, resulting in thrilling success or terrifying cluster fuck.
It started, like most missions, with Xandon doing his drill sergeant/guru act. He guided them to tap into their power vertexes, whispering and walking between them as they sat lotus with their eyes closed. They could hear his leathery tale dragging on the floor and feel the vertexes glowing brighter and hotter in their chest plates, working together to build a sphere of warping spacetime around them.
“Concentrate,” Xandon commanded. “Concentrate. Concentrate.”
And then they were there. In a vertex-powered field bubble adrift in the Alpha Centauri solar system, 4.8 kilometers from a brutal hulk of metal and lights the size of Chicago. The flagship of the Incellic Imperial Fleet was right where they were told it would be, skimming the atmosphere of Proxima Centauri b.
They’d brought along an improvised fission device, built out of an old trash can and R/C car kit from Radio Shack, and pushed it through the field bubble’s membrane; slowly and carefully, so as not to create a rupture. Incellic sensors couldn’t register the aluminum housing as anything more than boring space junk and the transmitter frequency was too primitive a modulation for concern. It drifted and spun in the vacuum, giving them one last glimpse of the smiley face and “Greetings from Earth!” that they’d spray-painted on it. The massive ship’s gravity well drew the dinged and grimy cylinder like a buzzer-beating three-pointer floating towards the basket. They all held their breath as it glided to the target.
The 15-kiloton blast tore the warship’s rear propulsion generator off and sent it spinning towards the planet below. It was like a God had picked up and flung a skyscraper. Massive metal flecks and wiggling bodies trying to put on space suits sprinkled out as it fell.
They concentrated some more and piloted the sphere through the wreckage and chaos to an intact airlock and boarded. Storming through to the command deck was just like the training exercises. The surviving Incellic admiralship was huddled in a cloud in the corner, peering with compound eyes at Xandon and his teenage warriors.
Their old foe Grand Marshal Merserick stepped forward. He was babbling in a rage and their tactical suits lagged to process his words to English.
“…for generations!” An audio-reconstruction of Merserick’s voice said in their helmets when the translators finally caught up. “But only when the Incellic Empire rose up did Trollixans become interested in ‘peace’ and building their so-called ‘coalition.’”
Kristen strode out, breaking their wedge formation, to meet him. She swiftly seized the tubular bill that extended from the back of Merserick’s neck.
“We don’t care,” she said.
Her vertex throbbed the same shade of violet as her tact suit armor. There was a crack, like a pulse rifle shot, as she crushed his airway closed. Everyone watched in silence as Merserick thrashed on the floor and suffocated.
“This death from a blood feud,” she said in barely passable Incellic. She then spread her arms wide open, as was the custom. “We kill to avenge our friends, who die in combat with no declared war between our worlds.”
The rest of them mimicked Kristen’s pose and then they all dropped to their knees in unison. Xandon twirled around, taking in the choreographed display of the traditional Incellic gesture for surrender with a perplexed fury.
“Humans have no quarrel with the Empire,” they said together in the alien tongue. “And agree to live within its borders.”
“Betrayers!” Xandon shouted. He shrieked it over and over again until the Incellics dragged away.
Look at Kevin Mauer. His uniform: slim-fitted gray or black t-shirt, bottom hem overlapping exactly one inch with the waist of skinny stretch jeans, only ever in dark blue wash, with proper slack at the ankles to drape without bunching over high-top skate shoes, jacketed with a slender nylon bomber and completed with the regalia of white headphone cords slashing across his chest.
Peel back Kevin Maur’s visage. There’s a galaxy of scars to explore. Skin, spotted with signed flesh, stretched over fractured bones welded back together in elegant industry. Skull housing a torn-up psyche held together with fraying strands of sanity.
Listen to Kevin Mauer talk. He’s zonked out on something. Emotional peaks and valleys sanded down and filled in. A selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor maybe? His synapses burned out from smoking too many bowls? Run blood tests and the results will gleam like polished titanium.
Except when Kevin Mauer drinks. Not raucous and loudly, pressed up against other bodies, like most of Brooklyn. He likes it quiet and alone, at an empty bar or in the room he rents off Wilson Avenue. He doesn’t go for the trendy craft beer, he prefers the cheap stuff in tallboy cans. He’ll drink it until his brain is goo and the shadow of sleep is drawing close to totality. That’s usually when he’ll plunge into bed and pray that he doesn’t dream, which means he probably will. If he’s bombed enough to forget to ask the nothingness of the universe to keep his subconscious from digging up and replaying the bloody and terrible from the back of his mind, then it won’t.
Kevin Mauer dreams about Jamari. It’s always about Jamari and always ends with him laughing like there’s no big deal and then screaming that he’s on fire and crumpling to the floor in an empty heap.
Kevin Mauer’s nightmares never start out the same. Sometimes it’s from before, like riding their bikes in the summer heat on the way to the pool or Blockbuster Video. Sometimes it’s during the mission, just after they’ve gotten through the blast doors and into the compound. Sometimes it’s from the night they followed the falling star into the woods, hoping for a meteorite and finding something that looked like a jet with no windows, covered in metal boxes, and digging itself into the earth.
But no matter what, it becomes a perfect plagiarization of Kevin Mauer’s memory. Jamari walking in his red tact suit and vertex, looking smothered in melted steel and stabbed in the heart with glass. Kevin Mauer knows the vicious coating feels comfy and powerful. He can see his own arms and legs, covered in blue armour.
Kevin Mauer never saw the grenade hit, so he just sees Jamari reacting. He feels the panic all over again and then the relief when Jamari turns around grinning, gesturing down to his abdomen, where something like a black metal film canister sticks to the suit. Jamari picks it off and tosses it aside, the way he would a seed pod stuck to his t-shirt, and laughs. Kevin Maur hears himself laugh too, but then Jamari makes a face like he’s realizing he forgot something. He twists into a look of agony.
“Shit, it burns,” Kevin Mauer hears Jamari say, and then scream “It’s burning me!! OH, GOD I’M ON FIRE!!!”
Kevin Mauer moves to put out the invisible flames he can’t see, but violet-plated arms stop him and hold him back. He pushes hard and hears Kristen telling him to stop. They both fall to the ground and he uses everything he has to wiggle a little bit closer. All he can do is watch. Jamari’s face deflates like a football, the skin folding loose, as his eyes get soft and runny. They slip back into the sockets. Jamari’s scream distorts like a bad cell phone call and fades with a hiss in his hollow throat.
Kevin Mauer wakes up and jumps out of bed, ready to run out of his room, out of his apartment, and out into the street in nothing but his boxers. He’s able to stop himself and figure out what’s going on with his hand still on his bedroom door.
Kevin was the first one of them to get seriously fucked up. It had been early on in their training, when they were freshly indoctrinated and starting to drill in the converted cargo hold of Xandon’s underground spaceship—a gymnasium coffin entombed in Northern Virginia bedrock.
They’d just learned how to levitate matter with the vertexes and were practicing for maneuvers where one would float another. Kevin got higher than anyone else. Danny had him almost 30 feet off the floor, to where he could reach up and lightly scrape the cargo hold’s ceiling with his metal fingertips. Kevin could feel whatever it was from Danny’s vertex that was holding him up there. It was steady and firm and all around him, like a full-body harness. His cheeks cramped from grinning as he listened to the others hooting and clapping.
“I got him,” Danny said. His green vertex blazing brighter and brighter. “I got him. I got him.”
“Okay, Daniel Nguyen,” Kevin heard Xandon say. “Begin to bring him down.” The ceiling moved away and the floor rose up towards him. Kevin looked down and saw Danny, his brow furrowed and lips tightened closed. His vertex began to strobe. Kevin felt the force that had been blanketing him evaporate, leaving just a few patches; he jostled mid-air and let out a yelp.
Xandon was now standing next to Danny, his cat-eyes locked on Kevin. “Wait, no. Don’t diminish the energy,” he said. “Use the vertex to move him towards the floor like you were moving him to the ceiling.”
Kevin saw Danny’s vertex flare and heard Xandon hiss. The force was suddenly an angry rocket boost upwards, slamming him into the ceiling. There were snaps and cracks inside him and then searing pain. Relief came when he realized there wasn’t anything holding him anymore, but that only lasted until he felt the pull of gravity.
When he awoke, Kevin was on a metal slab in a section of the ship he hadn’t seen before. They were all standing around him. Xandon was on something that looked like a step ladder, raising his toaster-shaped head equal to adolescent shoulders. Kristen gave a muted whew, like she’d been watching a struggling computer finally boot up. Danny was smiling but his eyes were red and nose was sniffling, Mieka had her orange armored arm around his shoulders. Jamari stuck out his tongue and rolled his eyes.
“You were injured,” Xandon said. “I detected a fractured clavicle, several broken ribs, a punctured lung and a ruptured spleen.”
Exhaustion burned throughout his body, but Kevin didn’t feel any pain. He chalked it up to shock and waited for the searing and stabbing to flood back onto his nerves at any moment.
“Kev, we used the vertexes to heal you!” Jamari said. “Xandon put your insides up on a screen, it was like an X-ray but better! And then we moved your bones and guts back into place and advanced your cells on the continuum, so they got six months worth of healing done in like five minutes.”
Kevin looked down at his body, still in his tact suit. For some reason, he thought of the warning label he’d seen when flying with his family to California the summer before: “Contents May Have Shifted.”
Run blood tests and the results will gleam like polished titanium. Except when Kevin Mauer drinks. Not raucous and loudly, pressed up against other bodies, like most of Brooklyn. He likes it quiet and alone, at an empty bar or in the room he rents off Wilson Avenue.”
They all took turns on the metal slab, smashed and busted, with Xandon directing the others to patch and refurbish. Danny had compound leg fractures from learning the speed run trick. Kristen’s knuckles and wrists were reduced to clouds of bone fragments because it took her awhile to grasp the nuances of hand-to-hand with enhanced strength. Jamari ruptured his kidney launching himself into a wall as a goof. Meike cracked her skull with a bad backflip practicing evasive moves.
Kevin came to think of it like a ritual, something that not only individually healed them but also strengthened the group. He never voiced the idea to the others, but he thought there was something about seeing and showing their vulnerabilities that fueled the invincibility they came to feel together. They were strongest after each one had been exposed at their weakest.
It was over a year later when they laid what was left of Jamari’s body on the same cold bed. He was a skeleton shrink-wrapped in skin like old beef jerky and loosely packed into the metal outline of a human body. They stayed by the walls as Xandon looked him over and explained that Jamuri had been hit with a nanomite grenade, releasing millions of molecular bots programed to convert and evaporate biological fluids.
“Can we use the vertexes to bring him back?” Danny asked. His voice cracked with the exhaustion they all felt.
“No technology can fix death,” Xandon said.
They never did the group healing thing again. There was no conversation or consensus, they just started doing it one-on-one.
“Hey, can you help patch me up?” Whoever was holding their dangling limb would ask whichever of the others didn’t look busy. And the pair would saunter off with Xandon to the medical suite.
When they were seventeen, Kristen asked Kevin to come with her to the ship. They found Xandon alone on the main deck. He was perched in a tall chair in front of a massive screen displaying over a dozen different star charts in a grid. In each box, tiny crests of the Incellic Empire greatly outnumbered miniatures of the swirled icon that represented the Trollixan Peace Coalition. The symbols swooped and dived towards each other. Some of them (all Trollixan) blinked and then disappeared. Xandon cradled his chin and absent-mindedly tapped his cheek with one of his claws.
“Hello, Kristen Hernandez,” he said. His eyes remained focused on the multitude of action playing out on the screen in front of him. “Aren’t you scheduled to be in school?”
Xandon showed no reaction when Kristen told him how they needed his help in the medical bay. He just sat in his command chair listening with his back to the animated battle maps that continued to play out behind him.
“And Kevin Mauer is the father?” He asked, glancing in Kevin’s direction.
“No,” she’d said. “He’s just here to help.”
He can’t stop himself from imagining the chaos. Everything transformed to twisted wreckage and slinging shards with hypothetical clouds of smoke and dust and imaginary people screaming.”
After Xandon had guided him through dislodging and dispatching the wisp of cells that had started to build up inside Kristen, Kevin had wanted to say something to her. He’d wanted to say something comforting and profound as they walked back through the woods together. A blue afternoon sky gleamed between the tree branches and the oasis of suburban wilderness hummed with bird calls and scurrying squirrels. But Kevin said nothing, because he knew that’s what she had needed from him. He walked silently alongside her to the cul de sac they had both lived on for as long as they could remember.
Kevin Mauer runs to burn off his hangover.
The polypropylene of his running shirt is already turning dark with sweat when he reaches the Bushwick Houses on Flushing Avenue. The polymer threads absorb the perspiration off the skin and pull the water molecules to the outside, where they pool and evaporate in the afternoon sun.
Kevin Mauer wants to puke. He feels the sloshing of his stomach and tries not to think about the acid taste that’ll burn his throat if it comes up. He focuses on his breathing and his feet hitting the pavement. He wants to stop and double over, gulping in air and giving his body the okay to dry-heave until vomit comes out. He wants to walk to the bodega on the corner and buy a bottle of water with one of the folded up dollar bills tucked into his running shorts. He imagines the cool taste and how it’ll ease the stabbing pain in his forehead. Shit, he could use one of the dollars to buy a small envelope of Advil.
Kevin Mauer keeps running. He’s not allowed to stop until he gets across the Williamsburg Bridge. He weaves through the crowd of shoppers as he turns onto Broadway.
“Run, Forrest! Run!” someone yells.
After a couple blocks, he clears the maze of bodies to an empty sidewalk. His thighs ache and his calves tighten like a fist. He tells his legs to keep pumping and makes his way through an outcropping of Hasidic territory, like a briefly displaced time traveler.
A train thunders along the elevated tracks. Cars buzz and honk on the BQE, slithering from its perch over Meeker Avenue to beneath Broadway. The shadows of the aging concrete Goliath give the block between Marcy and Havemeyer a darker dimness. But once he crosses Havemeyer everything changes.
The rebuilt Williamsburg Bridge Plaza practically glints with its light grey cement and scattering of trees. Banners for yoga studios hang from nearby buildings, alongside storefronts for organic groceries and boutique clothing shops. Monuments of a conquering invasion. Hipster colonization.
Kevin Mauer keeps running. He drives up onto the pedestrian walkway for the bridge. His aching muscles convince him they need a break and he slows down to a light jog at the top. He’s moving slower, but his stomach is settled and his headache is…not gone, but diminished and pushed back.
The city radiates in towering glass and steel and Kevin Mauer basks in its terrifying massiveness. So many people, so close together. Anything could happen. Someone could start blasting from a rooftop or kamazui from the sky right into the center of city. He can’t stop himself from imagining the chaos. Everything transformed to twisted wreckage and slinging shards with hypothetical clouds of smoke and dust and imaginary people screaming.
No technology can fix death…”
Kevin Mauer is sprinting. He didn’t mean to, but he’s running faster than ever across the bridge. He eases up and strides down the ramp into Manhattan, stretching out his legs to let gravity do the work. He stops and buys a bottle of Deer Park from a kid selling them out of a cooler. It’s cold and soaking wet from the melted ice. The paper label falls apart when he grabs it and flaps like a cape. Kevin guzzles it at first and then makes slow gulps as he walks along Delancey Street. His muscles rejoice in the reprieve, which only lasts until he finishes the water and throws away the empty bottle.
Kevin Mauer keeps running.