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[Interlude] Revelations & Rivalries


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Revelations & Rivalries

“I heard that the best way to get over someone is to get under someone else.”

- Either of the Jauntsen Twins moments after a break up

 

Branch-9 Underground Facility: Annette Giles’ Office
Saturday, 7th September 2019

“Wyoming, Annette.  Fucking Wyoming!”  Taggert huffed behind the closed doors of Annette’s office.  It was only the two of them in there as they often to speak freely and vent their numerous frustrations at the bureaucracy within their respective chains of command and myriad of small things that went wrong for them on an almost daily basis.  “Who does that?  I’ve calmed down, but I swear Annette, I could have rung that kid’s neck.”

Annette laughed as the rim of her glass raised to her colored lips.  She sipped her brandy and shook her head.  “These kids are nothing if not impulsive, John.”

Major John Taggart, the acting commanding officer of the Branch-9 Division sat comfortably in the large chair across from Annette who was behind her desk in her incredibly comfortable office chair.  The two cubes clinked in his glass and sighed, shaking his head.  “These kids are dangerous, Annette.  They are impulsive, and out of control and… troubled.  I won’t say they aren’t all incredible in a laundry list of amazing ways but are out efforts going to be worth the inevitable problems they are going to cause down the road.  The Joint Chiefs are getting involved in this now.  Children with, and I know you hate the term but, super-powers exist and… according to Devin Jauntsen’s testimony: ‘went upside the head, the side that looked like a cheese grater made love to it, of a dimensional horror from a realm where anuses were born.’  That’s a direct quote, by the way.”

She laughed, craning her head back and setting her glass on her desk as she covered her expression of pure entertainment.  These were the moments when her and John were allowed to drop the veil of professionalism and just be real with one another about all they had going on in their respective professional lives.  “Oh god, I swear, if that kid was ten years older.” She mused as Taggart gave her judgmental, if teasing, look.  “Fine, fifteen.”

“I know that they’re difficult, John.”  She started, composing herself and leaning forward onto her desk.  “And you’re an Operator, single, military, and it’s all you’ve ever known, so dealing with this group of kids is and will remain, a daunting task.  I sympathize, I do,” she chuckled.  “But you and your men, when you signed that piece of paper you knew exactly what you were getting into.  You trained, you worked hard, you studied and through it all you knew exactly what you were: the tip of the spear, and you were just waiting to be thrown at a threat to your nation and its people.”

She steepled her hands and then separated them, blooming them out as her point expanded.  “But these kids, John, didn’t sign up for this.  Hell, we didn’t sign up for this.  Other dimensions, worlds, supernatural powers and alien gods?  They’re sixteen and from the methodical and cold Jason Bannon to the hyper-curious and inquisitive Cassandra, they are stumbling in the dark for answers and trying to make sense of nonsense.  The Jauntsen twins’ home is a shambles, they feel unloved and lost.  Cassandra’s family was splintered by loss of her father and now suddenly he’s alive?  Autumn, despite her every attempt to find normalcy knowns in her heart of hearts that that side of the street is forever lost to her.  They are lost, seeking answers, and they’re going to need men and women like you and me to mentor them and deal with all the set-backs along the way, and with Devin, I foresee many set-backs.”

He sighed, heavily, shaking his head as his thoughts collected themselves.  “I’m not good with kids.  Hell, I went to my nephew’s birthday party in July, and I had nothing to talk about, with him or my sister and her husband.  It’s all counter-terrorism stories and training and that’s when it dawned on me… Christ, Annette, I’m married to my job.  I can hardly relate to my junior enlisted, let alone this gaggle of super-geniuses and professional troublemakers.  I don’t even know where to begin with them half the time.”

She grunted and raised her glass in solidarity.  “I know the feeling.  My niece is going through all manner of personal issues.  She’s not much older than the kids we work with here, but I’ve been so wrapped up in projects here that I had no idea.”  Reminded of something as she sipped her drink.  “Oh, speaking of, I’ll be on leave here soon, I have to go to Brighton, I’m just waiting on the dates.”

“Fair enough,” Taggart, nodded.  He looked at his watch and sighed.  “Shit.  The twins are going to be here soon.  Guess it’s back to being responsible adults.”

---===[***]===---

Branch-9 Underground Facility: Gym

Throughout the gym soldiers and airmen performed their daily regimen of bench presses and squats.  Devin had been here a couple times, but never really made use of the facilities since he had a gym at home.  Also, like most military gyms, it was grossly over packed at almost all times of day, making it an absolute pain to keep a consistent workout going because he had to wait for several minutes for a machine to free up.  Still, it was a great gym, with mirrored walls, two to three of the most standard machines in use for a full body work out and several treadmills and exercise bikes, including a large, matted vacancy in one corner of the room reserved for sparing and floor exercises.  About twice the size of a standard boxing ring’s available space, it would, they hoped, provide more than enough room for today’s intended purpose.

“Are you sure about this?”  Devin asked as he and Aelwen walked through the gym, passing others involved in their workouts.  They seemed a bit out of place amongst the larger, older men and women who’d made the military their career and the two of them were barely in the middle of their high-school years.

Aelwen, or ‘Ellie’, as she had become known to those down in the facility, allowed an eyebrow to raise quizzically at the Earth-born male’s inquiry.  “I offered, did I not?  Why would I offer only to mean the complete of my intention?”  As they passed by the others, she got a few looks from both the men and women; with her long, blonde hair pulled up, spandex shorts and sports bra on, they could see the numerous scars she sported on almost every curve of her body.  Most looked like they had healed exceptionally well, but she had more just from her Teulu training than every soldier and airman in the gym combined from their entire lives.

“I’m just saying, I’m fast.  I’m not sure you’re ready for just how fast, though.  This could be embarrassing.”  He shrugged, not looking back at her as they approached.

“Fast.  Like… an arrow?”  She asked.

“Like a bullet.”  He corrected her while tossing her a pair of padded sparing gloves.

“I’m all aquiver.”  She said in her typical, expressionless Teulu demeanor.

Most of the military staff within Branch-9 were well aware of who Devin and the other ‘special kids’ were, but far less than most had ever seen what they could actually do, their skills and ‘powers’ were nothing more than scuttlebutt and watercooler rumors.  When it came to the military, the Fellowship were lucky if they’d even get a ‘hello’ in the hallway as they passed them by.

“Careful, kid.”  Warned a deep voice belonging to Sergeant Thomas, a large black man at the peak physical readiness.  He approached the boundary of the sparing area and slung a towel over the back of his neck.  “She’s a lioness.”

“Making friends, I see.” Devin quipped, allowing himself a grin.

She hadn’t quite considered it that way until after Devin had said it out loud and offered Sergeant Thomas a look, who in turn offered her a polite and respectful nod.  “I suppose I am.  And you?  Are you still hurting inside?  Anger still gnawing away at your heart?”

“Eh, not so much angry anymore as I am just depressed and over it.”  He shrugged, strapping up his fingerless padded gloves.  “She wasn’t my girlfriend before I poured my heart out to her, she’s not my girlfriend afterwards, either.  I’ve lost nothing and gained nothing.  Way I see it I broke even.”

“Have you not lost a friend?”  Ellie asked while pulling her ponytail up through her head guard.

“For all the good those do,” scoffed while chuckling.  “She’s with Jacob, so it’s not like she’ll have time to waste wondering about me or how I’m doing.  The Fellowship doesn’t think all that highly of my sister and I, if they think of us at all.  So that’s dead in the water.  Honestly?  I think I’m good just saving the world on my own.”

“Well then,” Ellie craned her neck from side to side, limbering herself up as she walked to the center ring.  “I threaten your world, ‘Jaunt’ of Earth.  Come… save it from me.”  She urged him forward, taunting him Morpheus-style, beckoning him with her outstretched hand.  She clicked her mouthpiece into place.  “Like a bullet.”

He shook his head as if trying to ignore her taunting, chuckling at her trash talk.  “I’m young.  I’m handsome.  I’m fast.  I can’t possibly be beat.  You know who said that?  Muhammad Ali.”  And he crossed the distance from his corner of the matts to the center in a single jaunt of violet streaks.  The subquantum particles excited, giving a visible spectrum of violet energy that traced his short hop’s trajectory as he appeared in front of Ellie taking a wild swing at her.  Still firmly planted she leaned to one side, raised her hand, took his wrist and twisted it downward while slamming the inside of his elbow with her other hand.  In one swift motion she controlled all of Devin’s momentum and he flipped ass-over-head onto the matts.

“Bullets miss.” She said as she knelt beside him.  “If you ever dream of beating me, you’d better wake up and apologize.  Also, Muhammad Ali.”  She patted him on the chest and stood up.

Devin disappeared and reappeared exactly where he was lying down, except now he was on his feet, rolling the shoulders, he took a few steps back and forth to walk out the slam to the matt.  “Alright, alright… you have game.”  He nodded.  His first teleportation towards Ellie had earned him a few head turns from those in the gym, as the sudden color caught their eye.  Now, after his second, a few had stopped their work outs to see what was going on and if some of the rumors of the special kids were true.  “I didn’t know the Teulu trash talked,” he smiled.  “And Muhammad Ali, really?  What are they letting you read in this place?  I’m having a talk with Annette, that is way to advanced reading for your age, young lady.”

She managed a smile, as Devin’s sense of humor was starting grow on her.  As she had anticipated, the adrenaline was already cancelling out the negative feelings in his mind and heart.  “I’m picking up numerous bad habits among your people,” she admitted.  “My home does not have ‘pizza’, and I now find that fact to be unfortunate.”

Before he knew she on him, two straight jabs sped past his field of vision as his spatial awareness kicked his perceptions into overdrive.  A right-cross, another jab and finally a spinning kick that he ducked under before finally jaunting a few feet away from her to recompose himself rounded out her initial volley of attacks and there in front of the now growing crowd of gym goers Devin and Ellie were fully engaged in a brawl of parries, dodges and evasions.

Edited by GDP_ST
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Branch-9 Underground Facility: Lab Two

“I don’t think this is a good idea,” Taggart said calmly.  He and Annette were in Lab Two, surrounded by a few doctors in lab coats and a plethora of exercise and medical equipment.  The two of them had been patiently waiting on Marissa to arrive, and already she was ten minutes late.  “Second Lieutenant Osman is a good kid.  He’s green, fresh out of Knife and Fork, but we have no idea what she is going to do to him, Annette.  We should at least tell him.”

“John, relax,” Annette reassured him.  “Marissa has said that her abilities can not force anyone to do anything, and if he knows, it could taint the results.  This is simply an observation to see how her natural charm operates, nothing more.”

“Does she know that?”  He seemed anxious, obviously not trusting Marissa one bit, or one of his promising officers being left alone with her.

“John, please, trust me.”  Annette almost chuckled.  “For balance, I’ve also asked our newest intern to sit in on the tests.”

“The Bannon kid?  Jesus, Ann, she hates that guy.”  He sighed, shaking his head.  The last thing John Taggart wanted to do was be alone in a room with the underage socialite, let alone turn her loose on a whole room of male doctors, officers and one guy she hated.  There were considerations, like what if they all began fighting over her, to consider.  Annette swore she was there to act as the buffer between her and them, but he had his doubts of how effective she would be if the emotionally volatile teenager decided to throw a tantum.  “I sure hope you know what you’re doing.”  He looked towards the door and sighed, “And speak of the devil.”

Marissa stepped into the lab looking like Kardashian money banded in the red workout gear she’d worn to Jason’s farm a week prior.  She turned every head, like always and it that response that worried Major Taggart.  While the major seemed largely unbothered by her constant flirting and attractive appearance, he realized that not everyone was as willful as he was.  He found her attitude and immaturity more annoying than that a niche cuteness the young teen thought she was conveying sometimes.

She offered them all a dramatic hair whip in greeting as she looked around like she didn’t know where to go, giving her that sexy damsel needing guidance look, as she scanned the lab, assessing what she was in for that morning.  “Marissa,” Annette approached her smiling wide and offered the young woman her hands as a greeting.  “Thank you for coming.  Hopefully we can use today to discover some answers and insight into your capabilities.”

“Unless you need another ten minutes for an all-about-me entrance,” Major Taggart approached and stopped, folding his arms defensively.  Marissa may have been a minor, and she may not technically work for his command, but it was still his command.  He met her eyes with an already obvious irritation.  “You’re late.”

“I am I though?” she sneered.  “If you’d give me clearance maybe I wouldn’t have to deal with all your meathead security in order to get down here.”

“Go check in with the doctors,” he dismissed her comment, along with her as he gave Annette a disapproving look.

“John,” Anette touched his arm and looked up at him with calm eyes.  “Relax.  She’s not the enemy.  She’s difficult, yes, but we, you, and I, are all these kids have.  They need guidance, not more people turning them away.”

He sighed, still not convinced but he couldn’t deny the plea for a bit more empathy in her words.  “I’ll try.  No promises.”

Marissa checked in with the doctors and within a half hour she was briefed on the various studies and exercises they’d be going through as well as the minor medical treatments she’d be undergoing.  The Project was up front about the fact that technically none of what they were doing was legal, considering she was a minor and her parents weren’t present.  Given her mother’s outburst at the meeting no one thought it would be wise to invite her.  Her father, Carl, seemed far more open-minded to being present but when Marissa had asked him, he said he was still trying to process secret military bases, demons from other worlds and his children having magical mind powers, or whatever they were calling it.  Still, he gave his blessing for her be present for the tests and in the eyes of the Project that was good enough considering the odd circumstances they worked under half the time.

First was some blood work, to see what physiological changes had occurred in her body and for that she was escorted by Annette over to Second Lieutenant Osman, a handsome young man in his early twenties who was working on his master’s degree in biology with a minor in genetics.  “Marissa, this is Brandon Osman, he’ll be working with you today as the doctors perform their tests.  He’s been briefed, but still hasn’t had the opportunity to meet with any of you.”

“That’s not entirely true, ma’am,” Brandon said as he accepted Marissa’s extended hand and almost melted from her smile.  “I’ve been working with-“

“-me,” said Jason Bannon who approached from behind Marissa and turned to face the two women.  “For the last hour or so anyways.  He is up to speed.”

“From the point of view of a psychopath,” Marissa hissed while glaring daggers at Jason.  She looked to Annette.  “The hell is he doing here?”

“I work here.” Jason replied matter-of-factly to her question.

“Are you kidding me right now?”  Huffing, she rolled her eyes.

Brandon stepped in, finally letting go of her hand as it was starting to feel a little awkward.  “Marissa, you’ll be working with me.  Jason is simply here to observe and take notes as part of his internship.  Please, all of us here have a lot ot gain from understanding your capabilities, yourself most of all.  As an unknown quantity working with the military, as a military body myself, I can confirm that sometimes the easiest way to sow a little trust is to show how well we can work with others, despite not wanting to.”

She paused for a moment, losing herself in his blue eyes while she considered what he said.  He wasn’t wrong.  “Aren’t you cute.” she inhaled and sighed.  “Fine, since it’s you and not him.”  She leaned in and flirtatiously cooed, “but you have to promise to take good care of me.”

He cleared his throat, obviously uncomfortable as Jason expressionlessly groaned on the inside as Marissa inner thot never seemed to turn off.  “Well, yes…,” he cleared his throat again as he tried to courteously pull away from her.  “Marissa, you’re still in high school and,” I raised his left hand and wiggled his ring finger displaying a dazzling titanium band.  “And I’m married.  So, why don’t we keep this friendly, hm?  A little less flirting.”

“Well,” she sighed, exhaling lazily seemingly already bored with him.  “That’s no fun, but at least one of those things I can fix for you,” she leaned in and smirked, leaving him uncomfortable again.  “And the other isn’t an issue in Montana.  Sixteen is legal here.”  She winked.

“Enough, Marissa.” Major Taggart tone was authoritative and carried with it that dare of her to test him, if only for a moment.  “Play your games at school.  We’re here to work, so either let him do his job, or find the door.”

“I was just having a little fun,” She pouted.  “You’re no fun, Major.”  She stepped over to a chair where they were planning on drawing blood.  “Fine let’s get on with this.”

“See?”  Annette said softly.  “Osman was fine.  I think he’ll be fine for the purposes of this observation.  Not many could have brushed her off like that.”

Taggart didn’t look at her, his eyes were still locked on Marissa who was now allowing Brandon to prepare her for a blood draw, obviously still flirting with him, just with more subtlety.  “We’ll see.”

---===[***]===---

Brandon avoided as much eye contact as possible as he fumbled to prepare the enchanting brunette in the chair for a blood withdrawal.  Her arm was tied off and despite it being a ‘simple’ blood draw the young officer seemed to be having trouble piercing her skin.  His brow furrowed as he attempted for the third time to set the needle in her stubborn vein.

“Ow!”  She jerked her arm away from him.

“Sorry,” he replied softly.  “Your vein is being rather stubborn.”

“Or you just don’t know what the hell you’re doing,” Marissa scowled, narrowing her eyes at him.

“That’s a possibility too,” he said, allowing himself a subtle, sarcastic smile.

Doctor Carter, the Project’s resident lead geneticist and neurologist, stepped forward and politely asked the Second Lieutenant to give her a moment with Marissa.  She massaged the teen’s muscle and took a moment to inspect the site where the needle failed to find purchase in her inner elbow.  Without warning she stabbed Marissa on the arm with the same needle in her forearm.  Marissa jumped, withdrawing her arm and hopping up and out of the chair, backing a few steps away from the doctor.  “Ow, what the hell, lady!”  She looked to Annette then Taggart before looking back to Doctor Carter.  “Are you out of you mind?”

“I treat super powered teenagers who melt steel with their minds.” She replied quietly.  “So it’s debatable.  Look at your arm, Marissa.  Why are you not bleeding?”  When the emotional teen looked at her arm it was red, like she’d been pinched, but the doctor was right, Marissa wasn’t bleeding.  “Jason says he witnessed you almost swallowed whole by one of those creatures.  Teeth all very sharp, several inches, in fact, but it couldn’t bite you in half?  You escaped with a few puncture wounds, but albeit, minor ones.  I find that hard believe.”

“This isn’t church,” Marissa rubbed her arm.  She glanced at Jason, offering him that look that told him that now with him working for them it was his turn to blab all their secrets.  “It’s a lab.  Your belief isn’t required, doctor.  I was fighting back, it couldn’t get a good grip on me to bite down.”

“Or,” she ushered Marissa over to another machine, one with a large ring on it where Marissa could rest her arm, like a blood pressure machine, but seemingly more advanced.  She encouraged Marissa to insert her arm, assuring her she wouldn’t be stabbed again.  A few screens lit up, displaying information and readings that the young woman didn’t understand.  It wasn’t long before a hexagonal pattern emerged, and the doctors and professors stood around it, nodding and appearing to be astounded.

“They do this a lot?”  She asked Jason while she stood there, her arm in some strange machine.

The stoic teen offered her a shrug in acknowledgment.  “You get used to it.”

The scientists and doctors continued to speak for a few more moments while Marissa looked bored and ignored with her arm in the machine.  “Okay, people!  Seriously, I’m standing here with my arm in a… something.  Is anyone going to talk to me?”

“Sorry,” Professor Palahiuk said, adjusting his glasses as he approached her.  He was the rather rotund, creepy uncle guy that Marissa and Courtney didn’t really care much for.  “Uh, yes… uh, well, you see, skin cells are round-ish, sometimes hexagonal but always oblong, meaning they are never same shape or dimension.”

“Those are your cells, there on the screen, Marissa.” Doctor Carter pointed to the monitor.  “Each is perfectly symmetrical and instead of overlapping they are joined and bound on all side by this microscopic… seam that holds everything together.  I’ve only seen this particular genetic make up in one other life form on the planet-“

“-The abalone.” Jason inserted.

“The shell?”  Marissa offered them both a puzzled look.  “How come I’m not, blue or whatever, and what exactly does that mean, for me?”

A thin smile snuck its way across the doctor’s lips.  “Military armor manufacturers use the same composite design found in abalone to create armors designed to deflect and diffuse kinetic energy.  With that energy diffused at the point of contact, the harm inflicted to the soldier is greatly reduced.  Your skin seems to duplicate this diffusion process, but more testing is needed.  It also means that the harder that creature tried to chew you, the more difficult it became for it.”

“So, am I like… bullet proof?”  Jason had never heard Marissa sound more like an excited child with a new toy than he did at this moment.

“It’s possible,” the professor spoke up as he jotted a few notes on his pad.  “Sir, we’re going to need a small caliber fire arm-“

“No one is shooting anyone, Professor,” Taggart shook his head sighed.  “Can you do blood work, or not?”

“Certainly,” Doctor Carter nodded.  “Now that we know what the barrier to doing so is.  This way Marissa.”

 

---===[***]===---

“You and Jason don’t seem to like each other.” Brandon politely stated as the doctors and professors huddled around Marissa’s blood samples speaking as to who would handle the first string of tests.  Jason was dutifully scrawling a few notes away from the others and didn’t seem overmuch interested in what the others were doing or saying.  “Is he an ex or something?”

“Could’ve been.” She shrugged.  Brandon carefully applied a band aid to the puncture point and wrapped it up.  “I had a crush on him, then he told me he loved me and then slept with my best friend.”

“That’s, uh, wow…” he shook his head, resisting the urge to look at Jason.  “Seems like there’s more to it than that.”

“There is,” she rubbed her arm with her thumb.  “But everything about them dating just seems like a plot to get back at me.  It’s whatever.”

Inwardly the Second Lieutenant was relieved that high school drama was no longer on his plate.  “Get back at you?  For what?”

“Apparently, I’m a horrible person or something, I don’t know.  I guess I almost got them killed so now they think I can’t be trusted.  They’re like, hyper-sensitive about everything.”  She evasively shrugged off his question.  “But like I said, it’s whatever.  So,” she pursed her lips, looking for a change in subject.  “How long have you been married?  You seem, I don’t know, young.  Like really, you could totally get away with being at my school.”

He chuckled and nodded.  “I get that a lot.  And four months,” he wiggled his ring finger again.  “High school sweethearts.”

“Cool, cool,” she nodded as if looking for another topic to talk about.  “So, how did you end up here, helping the freaks and geeks save world?”

“I’m smart,” he confidently smiled.  “I’m abut two years ahead on my degrees, working on my masters in genetics and the Air Force pays for school.  So, it works out.”

“More geniuses, great,” Marissa rolled her eyes and smiled coyly as she caught his eyes drinking in her skintight red sports bra and leggings.  She surprised, as nearly every man in this place broke their neck at times trying to get a look at her.  “Jason’s super smart and has all the personality of a pet rock, the other genius Sean, he’s like a total tech wizard and loves machines more than people.  How’d you get the extrovert gene?”

“There must be something special about him,” Brandon said, looking in Jason’s direction as lanky teen kept scrawling his notes.

“Pfft, puh-lease,” she chuckled dismissively.  “There is nothing special about him.”

“Then how’d you fall for him?”  His question came so smooth and swift that Marissa almost let her composure slip.

“We should see what test they want us to do next,” as she slid from the chair, he offered her his hand as she stood up.  “And a gentleman too.”

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  • 8 months later...

Branch-9 Underground Facility.
Saturday Morning, 7th September 2019

He could feel himself becoming more.

Mere months ago, before the world expanded, before powers and monsters and life and death and girlfriends, he had been content with his path in life.  To coast through high school, avoiding notice, then to drop off the radar even further and seek a fortune in the illicit substances trade.  Life had seemed transitory, the search for meaning futile against the meaninglessness of it all.  His plans, such as they were, had simply been focused on survival and a modicum of entertainment: his endless thirst for knowledge the attempt to stave off boredom whilst earning enough to live in relative comfort in a world where he’d never felt he belonged. 

And now?  He reflected as lounged quietly on a chair outside the lab area of the Project, idly watching the uniformed woman who had unobtrusively taken up a post a few yards away after showing him here.  The soldier shifted uncomfortably under the weight of that inscrutable feline gaze, several times looking as though she was going to say something, but changing her mind each time she glanced at the expressionless scarred face.

Possibilities, exciting ones.  Potentially endless.  A world where there was something new to discover, something profound.  An existence where there was more than merely survival and staving off boredom to consider.  The strange scientific frontiers that Shine opened up, the prospect of other realities and dimensions to explore, the truth of his own existence... all of these things to understand and study. 

And more besides, he mused as he pictured the others one by one, his mind’s eye resting at last on laughing blue eyes and a freckled nose crinkling in a smile.  Connection – a simple thing he’d always dismissed as secondary, suddenly a matter of importance.

His consciousness was expanding – whether as a result of his Shine, of his new outlook on life, or perhaps some strange synergy of the two.  The increased awareness of other life, from the softly phosphorescent plankton of plants and lower order creatures, to the flickering firefly lights of other mammals, to the candles of human beings and then the brilliant torches of other Radiants – all of this served to further connect him to life, making it harder to exist purely in abstraction.  As a substitute for a ‘normal’ human neurology it was at best incomplete, but it did help him in feeling the kinship between himself and other living creatures rather than depending on an abstract knowledge of that fact.

The female soldier glanced at him again, only to find that his eyes, lacking anything more interesting to occupy their outward gaze, were still resting on her.  She looked ahead again, lips tightening as she repressed the urge to physically shiver.  Jase watched her, head tilting curiously, studying that essential living kinship, but also aware of the gulf between him and her, between him and Cade, between him and the Jauntsens... even between him and Sean, or Autumn.

The lion is no less a lion simply because it chooses not to eat the goat.  The paraphrase of his conversation with Courtney came back to him.  Clever words, glibly spoken – or were they?  How did his allies see him?  Autumn, at least, liked and accepted him.  Cassie seemed to take his otherness in stride.  He felt himself becoming more distant from Sean, though, and the Jauntsens saw him as a reckless, sadistic creature – but was that projection of their own flaws onto him?  Devin was certainly reckless, and Marissa delighted in tormenting others.  That was a very human thing, he’d realised.  They tended to threaten with what scared them, equate others motives with their own.  They even anthropomorphised animals, assigning them human personality traits.  They insisted on the existence of such concepts as fairness, as justice, mercy or honour – when no such elements existed in nature.  And yet such irrationality gave them common ground with each other.  It seemed to work for them, by and large, as a species. 

And what of his species?  He remembered the conversation with his mother last night...

“You are of the Draig.”  She’d told him as they sat together in the room above his garden.  She’d come to the house for dinner, at Gar’s invitation, and while Jase’s father was preparing the food he’d insisted mother and son spend some time together.  Lacking any other plan, Jase had shown her the garden, which she had complimented him on, and then asked her about his-or rather their people.  Reluctantly she had acquiesced, and now as he sat and listened, she wandered about the attic room, studying the various tools and bric-a-brac as she spoke.

“I have heard that before.”  Jase replied, narrowing his eyes slightly.  “What does that mean?”

“There are twelve main clans of Teulu.” His mother picked up the blunt practice knife, testing the edge and arching her brow at him reprovingly.  “You should practice with a real edge.  The feel is different.”

“I got tired of patching the bag.”  He indicated the criss-crossings of duct tape on the heavy body bag hanging from a rafter.  “Dull blades will suffice until I have the control necessary not to do damage I don’t intend to.  Twelve clans?”  he prompted, getting them back on track.  She nodded.

“The Draig are the oldest, and first.  So it’s said.” The blonde woman set the blunt knife down and wandered over to the window, seating herself on the sill and regarding him.  “Teulu don’t lie, so if even the other clans acknowledge that fact, then it probably is a fact.  So the Draig are the clan from which all other clan sprang, probably due to young, aggressive Prides splitting off and forming their own clans, as is customary.”

“Why is that customary?” he asked, focusing on her words.  “Why don’t young, aggressive Prides just take over the parent clan?”

“A few reasons.”  Kaitlin smiled slightly.   “Firstly, and mostly, it’s just not practical.  The leadership of a clan can’t just be challenged – the upstart would need majority support of his bid from the rest of the clan, comprising of many Prides.  To do that, he’d need to be at least the head of a Pride, with a proven track record of cunning and success as well as prosperity for his family.  No young Pride of hotheads is going to have the clout to reassure the rest of the clan that they are a better pick for leader.  There have been instances where assassination has been tried, but even when successful, the assassins are promptly destroyed.  We may kill each other, but there are rules and traditions to govern it.  Murder is not sanctioned within the clan.”

“I see.”  Jason nodded, filing that away.

“Also, we live awhile, barring accidents.  A teulu male can be fighting fit well into his eighth decade, and is unlikely to go soft or become slow.  Transitions of power within a clan are usually peaceful – by our standards - unless a leader proves incompetent.  The leader ages until they feel their strength or faculties slipping, then a contest is held to appoint a successor from the best prospects.  A ritual combat is fought, but not to the death, only to display the fitness of the would-be leader.  Then the previous leader passes the mantle, and becomes an advisor.”  She shrugged, glancing out of the window at the farmhouse.  “That way the clan wins a new, strong leader and keeps the experience and cunning of the old one.”

“So pragmatically, the best course for young teulu who want rulership is to split off and form their own clans.”  Jase considered, nodding.

“Often a handful of Prides will leave together to do that, if it happens.”  She agreed.  “It’s very rare for just one Pride to try and declare itself a clan.  Especially a young Pride which may only have four or five members.  They’re allowed to do it, it’s just considered foolish.”  Her lips quirked.  “Which is probably the most damning criticism amongst teulu.”

“So what of our clan?”

“They’re the oldest, as I said, and probably the largest.  My father – your grandfather – is the leader.  Or was, at least when I left.  Barring war or accident, he likely still is.”  Kaitlin’s lips tightened.  “They’re terrible, even by teulu standards, Jase.”

“How so?”

She sighed.  “There’s a rite of passage, a signal that you’re ready to become an adult.  It’s common to all clans: hunt down a dangerous creature with minimal weaponry or armor, kill it and eat its heart.  Usually the elders of your Pride will assign the prey, based on availability.  But it has to be something capable of killing you.  All teulu need to go through it – it’s a test of resourcefulness and cunning.”  She looked out the window again, her eyes distant and sad.  “Amongst the Draig, the chosen prey has to be sentient.”

Jase was quiet, mulling this over as she turned back to him.  “So... another teulu?”

“Preferably a member of another species, captured during a raid.  But in a pinch, yes.”  She shook her head.  “Given weapons, healed of any injury so they’re in good health.  Non-teulu are told that if they beat the inexperienced youth they will be allowed to go free – which is true,” she went on, frowning slightly.  “It just doesn’t usually work out that way.  Teulu are told that if they win, they get to go back to their clan or join the Draig.”

“But sometimes, youth of different Prides will be matched against one another.  There’s not always a handy prisoner, you see.” She went on, her voice turning bitter.  “That was what awaited me on my trial.  And worse, my opponent was a friend from another Pride.  I couldn’t do it.  The mere thought of battling my friend to the death was sickening to me.  But the worst part was, I saw it didn’t sicken her at all – she was totally prepared to face me, to kill me and to eat my heart.”

“That’s why you ran.”  Jason stated rather than asked, his eyes on his mother’s face.  She nodded.

“I had always been different.”  She came over to the table and sat across from him.  “Too gentle, disliking the casual callousness of daily life, capable of feeling fear.  My... disability was common knowledge, though I wasn’t treated differently because of it.  There was a general attitude that I would learn to cope and find my place in the clan, or I wouldn’t.  Either way it was nobody’s problem but mine.”  She smiled wryly.  “Strangely from a human perspective, teulu are tolerant of oddity.  There was some fascination from those who would bombard me with questions about what it felt like to be afraid.  But I wasn’t persecuted for my strangeness.”

Jason nodded, remembering his conversation with Lona about what it felt like for her to be afraid.  He had never disdained that human quality even when he’d believed himself to be some form of... damaged human.  Rather he found himself quietly interested in fear as a human might be interested in the concept of unaided flight, and how those around him dealt with it formed a lot of his regard of them.  Bravado, quiet stoicism, seeking to confront and understand their own fears, deflection and denial...  All categories with their own subcategories of nuance unique to the individual. 

He dwelt on that as he studied the nervous soldier for a moment longer, then to her undoubted relief switched his gaze to the door opposite as it hissed open.  The elegant, white-coated blonde framed in the doorway met his stare with an appraising look of her own, then beckoned to him.

“Mr Bannon.  Please.”  She stepped aside, motioning for him to enter the lab areas, and handed him a card as he stepped past.  Jase glanced down, turning it over in his hands – it was glossy white plastic, blank except for a single small photograph of his face on one surface.  “Please don’t lose that.”  Dr Julia Carter murmured as she led him through the entryway.  “Or if you do, let Major Taggart know immediately.  It will get you access to the Project common areas and the labs, but that is all.  It will not give you military clearance or access to Branch 9 specific areas.”  She studied him for a moment as he tucked the plastic slip away and nodded affirmatively, then nodded herself.  “Follow me, then.  We’ll get you started.”

Pale green eyes taking everything in, and giving little away in turn, the slender youth followed the doctor into the Project laboratories.

 

Branch-9 Underground Facility: Lab Two, now.

 

He was vaguely aware of Marissa and Lieutenant Osman talking in low tones as he scribbled on the electronic stylus pad Carter had furnished him with, just as he was aware of the sidelong glances from some of the other scientists and the open scrutiny of Carter, Taggart and Annette.  It all went into his near-constant assessment of his surroundings as he stood slightly apart, a tall spare figure, his gaze intent on his work.

Osman was decently smart.  He ought to be - biology and genetics together was a demanding field.  But he seemed very... young, which Jase acknowledged in his wry way as a strange thing for a sixteen year old to say about a grown man.  Nevertheless, the lieutenant had listened well as Jase had, at Taggart's request, brought him up to speed.  His questions had been to the point, and he seemed happy to accept what he was told without trying to force it to fit his own preconceptions of the universe.  Maybe that was a function of his youth, Jase mused absently as he filled in another line of calculations.  Greater flexibility, willingness to accept there were things he didn't understand. 

Or maybe it was just Osman.  He mentally shrugged - time would tell.

"Well?"  Taggart had drifted closer, Annette in tow, as the group that had been studying Marissa moved, with the slender beauty, to another part of the cavernous lab room to set up the next test.  The scarred young man turned his cold eyes on him, and the Major gestured at the pad.  "Anything useful?"

"Potentially.  Her resistance to external damage can likely be worked out mathematically without resorting to an assortment of calibers of firearms."  The teulu male's lips parted in the faintest of sighs as he turned more fully towards the two Project leaders.  "But now, I think I need to see the full genetic workup your people have done on us."

Annette could feel Taggart start to bristle, knew he was about to argue with an almost prescient sense, and quickly stepped forward smiling slightly.  "Of course.  As discussed." she interjected smoothly - but firmly - before the Major could open his mouth.  "The gene lab is sealed from most staff, even most of the science staff.  I will work on getting you permanent access - but for now would you be satisfied with the report they have given me?"  She watched that pale, predatory stare as he considered, then nodded.

"That would be a good place to start, yes." Jase affirmed.  Smiling, Annette keyed a sequence into her own pad, unlocking and transferring the files to him.  Jase opened it immediately, his eyes scanning down the text and graphs as he began to turn away.  Then he paused, looking back at the two of them as though recalling something.  "Thank you."  he said simply, before once more turning away and sitting at a lab bench, intent on his reading.

"See?"  Annette patted Taggart's arm as the two of them headed over to where Marissa was surrounded by white coats like some scientific curiousity crossed with the belle of the ball.  "Progress.  A step at a time."  Taggart grunted.

"Said 'thank you'."  The Major shot Annette a sideways look.  "Great.  He's polite."

"Isn't it refreshing?  He doesn't leer at me, or sass you."  Annette's dark eyes sparkled with humor.  "A pleasant change."

"Until he decides, one day, that he doesn't need us." Taggart muttered dourly.

"He already doesn't.  None of them do, really.  We need them, John, and that's the reality of it.  Our support is helpful, sure, but these young people have already taken down a-"

"-a dimensional horror from a realm where anuses were born."  Taggart finished, his tone dry.  "Yeah, I know."  He sighed.  "I'm stalling Washington as much as possible, but my guy on the Oversight committee is saying that, sooner or later, they're coming to inspect us."

"I'm confident we'll show them that our work here is valuable for the greater good of humanity.  And they will see the sense in letting us - and these kids - be."  Annette stated firmly.  Taggart, who had a soldiers impression of politicians, merely grunted as they rejoined the larger test group.

Edited by GDP_ST
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