Issue #40 – Interfacers

This entry is part 5 of 15 in the series The Descendants Vol 4: Confluence

Part 2

The evening had been almost perfect. They had gone to a movie; a lighthearted comedy that they both enjoyed and were sure they would be referencing for days to come. Afterward, he had taken her to a bakery down the street from the theater and they split a freshly baked, deliciously buttery croissant.

She walked beside him with his arm entwined with her own, leaning into him. He crossed his free arm over to rest his hand over hers.

It was a fantasy scenario come to life once one managed to get past the fact that she was bald with grey skin and alien eyes. Or the fact that unbeknownst to her, he was the astral projecting mentalist known as Ephemeral.

That last bit never really strayed far from his mind in moments like the one he found himself in. Not the secrecy and borderline deception; despite his advice to Warrick on that very predicament, he really had no issue with keeping a secret identity. It helped that, all things considered, he didn’t know Desiree as well as Warrick knew Christina.

What weighed on his mind was the issue of his powers. Like anyone who found themselves smitten with another, he often found himself glancing at her in the quiet moments and wondering what she was thinking.

The difference between himself and those other young men in love was that he actually could learn exactly what was on her mind. It would take no effort at all to open his mind for just a moment and snare some surface thoughts. With a bit more effort, which would have been difficult to disguise, he could have learned much more. Given time and depending on the strength of her will, he could glean her entire memory including the ones she could no longer recall on her own.

But he wouldn’t. To do that would be a terrible violation of privacy for one, and he tried to use that ability sparingly even on the villains he encountered as Ephemeral. For another, he had been reared by a father blessed with the power of empathy, who had instilled in him at a young age an appreciation for equity in his dealings with people.

There was no way for Desiree to learn what he could even if he intended to sit her down and tell her his life’s history. Even when they didn’t know it, people tended to distort and fabricate when they remembered things, himself included. Therefore, if he intended for their relationship to remain on equal footing, he vowed not to even view his girlfriend’s astral body if he had a say in the matter. It was a matter of trust.

Desiree caught him staring and gave him a smile. Wisely, she always kept her mouth closed when she smiled or her rows of teeth would make it look predatory. “Tonight’s been great.” She said. “Thank you.”

“I should be thanking you.” Kareem returned her smile. He never knew if it made her more or less comfortable to have someone smile at her in a way she couldn’t, so he deigned not to show his teeth either. “I’ve enjoyed having your company.”

If it was at all possible, she leaned further into him, snugly securing his arm in the space between her own arm and her side. “It’s just nice to go anywhere, you know? To be with someone who isn’t bothered being seen with me even though I look like this.”

Kareem squeezed her hand. This topic came up often, if only when they were alone together. In front of others, Desiree was outgoing, upbeat and all around full of energy. He wondered if he was the only person who got to see her in her quiet times, when her confident glamor failed.

“I see nothing wrong with how you look.” He confessed. Gently, his hand came up to trace her jaw-line with his thumb. Another advantage of being raised by an empath; Kareem had learned to see beauty even in the unusual.

Desiree didn’t look normal, he wouldn’t deny that. For her gray skin, shark teeth and golden eyes, she wouldn’t win any standard beauty pageants, but there was an all important symmetry in her features and something distinctly feminine and appealing in the shape of her mouth (When it was closed at least) and in her eyes.

Kareem supposed that he could attribute some of that to the intoxication of high school infatuation, but not all of it.

She still blushed like any other girl and did so under his attentions. “You’re sweet.” She whispered. “And this night’s been almost perfect…” A look of mild confusion came across her beau’s face, though he didn’t vocalize it. This made another, more playful smile play on her lips. “Don’t worry; I know how to make it completely perfect.”

Even without using his powers, Kareem was capable of reading expressions and body language. So when Desiree leaned in to kiss him, he met her halfway.

Given her teeth, one would think that Desiree’s love was a razorblade kiss, but instead, every time they touched, Kareem got closer to heaven.

Unsurprisingly, the moment was ruined by Kareem’s phone playing a guitar riff by Our Ladies of Armageddon, which was the tone he reserved for Warrick. Briefly, he considered not answering. The group had an agreement that unless there was an emergency, there would be no hard feelings for someone who chose not to join in on a given situation.

That was a good idea in concept, but the only person that ever took advantage of that agreement was Melissa. The others, while not always happy to interrupt their plans, never neglected to answer a call if they were able. Kareem was no different, but at the moment, he was willing to seriously debate with himself the definition of ‘when he was able’.

Luckily, the decision was unwittingly made for him by Desiree herself. Reluctantly separating from him, she gave him a satisfied smile. “Now it’s perfect. Go ahead, answer.”

Hesitating for a moment, Kareem nodded and took his phone out of his pocket.

Unlike his friends, who opted to carry a light, barebones phone for actually talking and a bulkier palmtop for functions that required looking at images or typing, Kareem had chosen a single appliance for all his needs; a brass colored device. He flipped it open and answered it.

“Bad time?” Warrick asked. He had known about the date and was certain that it was, indeed a bad time to call, but considering the strangeness of the note Juniper had received, he was calling around to everyone available.

“Hello, Warrick.” Kareem said as if hadn’t heard the question. “You sound upset, is something the matter?” Words to that effect served as a kind of unspoken code. What he was really saying was ‘I’m not alone, but I’m willing to help’.

“Jun got a weird text from someone we met on the job. We’re going to talk to them, but don’t really know what to expect. If you can meet us, we could probably use the back-up.”

Kareem made his guilt look like concern for Warrick for Desiree’s sake. “I understand. Where are you?”

“We’re supposed to meet at the Madsten-Terno Building, but we’re grouping in the alley behind the Indian restaurant across from it on DeCarte Avenue. You don’t have to come if things are—“

“I will be right there.” Kareem said. “Just don’t do or say anything rash.” He hung up the phone before Warrick could say anything else. Turning to Desiree, he tried to formulate some excuse. “Warrick…”

As it happened, no excuse was necessary. “Needs your help.” Desiree said for him. “I understand. Go.”

“I’m very sorry about this.”

“Don’t be. He’s your friend.” She insisted. “But call me when you get in for the night?”

“Of course. Good night, Desiree.” Kareem inclined his head to her and touched her hand one last time before heading off to a cab stand.

She watched him go with a small smile and as a stray shadow fell over her face, her eyes flashed.

***

“Kareem’s coming.” Warrick reported to Juniper. They were just walking into the parking lot where Juniper’s Genokaze motorcycle was parked.

Caught staring absently at her own phone’s display, it took a moment for Juniper to register what she’d been told. “Huh? Oh, that’s good. Mr. Smythe said that he and Ms. Brant will be there too. Ms. Keyes has papers to grade.”

“Something wrong?” Warrick asked.

“I’m just thinking about CC.” Juniper used a remote to deactivate the alarm on the Genokaze. It was a beautiful machine: all sleek curves of white ceramic and fiberglass over a powerful frame of steel. There were two wheels, a windscreen and handlebars, but that’s where the similarity to a normal motor cycle ended.

For one, the seats were enclosed in a tinted glass bubble that made it look like a fat bullet. The bubble lifted forward on hydraulics to allow access. A pair of nacelles attached to the sides of the vehicle, the source of its vertical flight capability.

Even though she tried not to act like it, the bike was Juniper’s pride and joy. She had spent nearly all the money she’d earned at her summer job on tickets to win it in a raffle. She picked up her helmet from the seat and started strapping it on.

“She’s always seemed so nice when we talked online.” She elaborated on her concerns about CornerCut. “But, I don’t know, Warrick, this doesn’t sound good. I don’t know what I’ll do if she turns out to be bad. It would be like you turning out to be bad.”

There wasn’t much of an argument from Warrick. The whole thing sounded like a trap and a poorly constructed one at that. Then again, the last time things felt like a trap, Lester Mendel had enlisted them to help save Elizabeth von Stoker from her Freaque persona. It was one of the few times he was glad that things didn’t turn out like they did in the comics.

Still, Juniper needed some assurance. “I’m not saying this doesn’t look bad. Really bad.” He got off to a bad start. “But you’ve been talking to her for a while now and I think you probably would have figured it out if she was a mole.”

“But it may not be her.” Juniper pointed out, stepping onto the Genokaze. “All of her friends… except me… are really good with computers. Someone may be pretending to be her.”

“She’s good at computers too.” Warrick countered. “And I figure you have to be really, really confident in your security once you start putting computers and stuff inside you.”

“We’ll see.” Said Juniper. She sounded far away and sad, a rarity from what Warrick knew about her.

He took a shot at cheering her up. “Look at it this way; whatever happens, it got you out of rehearsing for the day.”

This at least got a nod. “I’m sorry about that. Tink was right; I just have to remember that it’s just a play.” She suddenly remembered herself. “Oh! Did you need a ride?” She indicated the back of the Genokaze.

Warrick considered it. The place they were meeting was quite a way across town, and swinging that far, even with the aid of Isp and Osp, was a chore. On the other hand, the Genokaze was not really designed to seat two and the attempt, as he had seen when Juniper drove Adel around, ended up with the passenger bent awkwardly against the curved cockpit.

“No thanks,” He said. “You need to get home and change, but I can make my own costume and have a look around.”

She nodded at this and hit the switch that lowered the Genokaze’s bubble down over her. The electric engine whined to life and she rolled out of the parking lot toward home.

***

Harsh light from portable lamps threw everything in the loading dock into stark relief as a dozen hands worked to drag the heavy crates from the back of a panel truck. It glinted off of metal and silicon and was diffused by plastic and ceramic. And it glared in the eyes of Dale McClelland.

Squinting into it as he removed his ski mask, he briefly revisited the idea of installing anti-glare shades behind his eyelids. It was the kind of work you couldn’t do yourself and he was really uncomfortable messing around near his eyes, so he quickly dismissed the idea and strolled over to have a look at the spoils of his raid and the people unpacking it.

There weren’t nearly as many Interfacers now. After the doomed attempt at robbery in February, most of the younger members of the movement had accepted community service and sworn off the group. Belle herself, their great leader, had for some reason argued and won an insanity plea, taking a sentence at the Solomon Center at the cost of striking the movement a crippling blow.

Dale had gotten six months of parole and had been stripped of all of his enhancements that could be taken from him without surgery. He’d rearmed himself, so to speak, within a week of his parole ending. Now it was just him trying to keep the movement alive with only six other faithful.

He nodded to the short woman, Cathy Stein, as she stepped off the back of the truck, carrying the last crate on her own. Dozens of chips and synthetic fibers painstakingly threaded into her musculature gave her strength that belied her size and the durability and endurance to use it. She let the crate down with the others in the middle of the loading dock.

“I don’t think we’re going to get anything useful out of these things.” That was Trey Phan. He was a chubby Chinese youth who added a great deal of extraneous flair to his personal augmentations. Most overt were the flame-painted storage compartments that surfaced from the backs of his arms and an internet sender/receiver with an eight-ball affixed by six insectile ‘legs’ to his right temple.

Unlike most other Interfacers Dale knew, Phan had no qualms adding pharmaceutical cocktails to his tinkering with his physiology, installing at least four ports in himself for swift administration of drugs that reduced fatigue, accelerated healing, and increased strength and speed.

“You know what I think?” He had a crowbar and was attacking one of the crates already. Not caring if anyone knew or even cared, he went on. “I think Liedecker’s man was bullshitting the others. PSMs need a shit-ton of energy and there’s no battery small enough to fit in one of those pistols and still generate that kind of power.”

“He seemed confident to me.” Dale watched as the crate was opened to reveal another dozen pistols. “Who knows? The Underworld may have gotten their hands on something experimental.”

“That I haven’t heard about?” Phan asked. “Not likely. I’ve got my eyes on Alecto, Brant Industries, American Dynamics… If Lester Mendel gets a cold, I learn about it before he sneezes, got me? I don’t think these things even work.”

Dale chuckled. He liked Phan. Confidence was what led people to deliver invention when necessity came calling. For all his bravado though, Dale was more of a realist. No arms dealer would sell a bunch of toy guns. And Tibbedo seemed to think they were real enough when they were aimed at him. This was on top of having seen it fire in the warehouse.

He took one of the weapons out of the packing and depressed the arming switch. A brief hum filled the air. With a quick move, he aimed for the far wall and pulled the trigger. An orb of red energy streaked from the barrel to carve an inch deep, grapefruit sized gouge in the far wall.

Phan closed his mouth.

He nodded to Cathy. “Take three and break them down. I want to know how they work, what powers them and how to integrate them into our systems. We’ve hit the lottery tonight.”

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Landon Porter is the author of The Descendants and Rune Breaker. Follow him on Twitter @ParadoxOmni or sign up for his newsletter.

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