October 28, 2012 by Vee Villarreal
Moments before the fire broke out Kai had been talking to his brother beside the cooking pit. Kopi was raising a lot of questions from the Hardings, more than they usually had to deflect from newcomers, and the recent increase of Globalnetics presence was unnerving. His leg was killing him. A large sore had formed on the stump, where he’d had a mid-calf amputation at seventeen. It started with some swelling and then the sore had opened. The last few days he’d tried to keep the wound clean and dry, but despite his efforts it wasn’t healing. The area was bright red and tender, and had been oozing blood and some yellow fluid since the night before. Normally, he could walk on crutches all day without getting tired, but the pain and the heat of the day were wearing on him. His head was swimming and he’d only picked at his food at dinner, feeling too nauseous to attempt a full meal. His left leg throbbed noticeably as he sat on the lawn beside Kopi. Yolann, Patch’s wife’s little sister, had pulled Kopi around the house and he’d returned some time later with her and the other girl, Nadie. His brother told him she’d taken him to the backyard to find Nadie who’d caught the eye of a few of the soldiers, the girl had gone to the outhouse to relieve herself and not returned. They couldn’t see the girl when they searched the yard, but heard the sound of muffled cries and rustling in some bushes behind the house. When Kopi investigated it he found one of the grunts forcing himself on the poor girl. Kopi had pulled him off and the two girls ran back to their sister on the lawn out front. His brother admitted to hitting the man, but when he went down had Kopi left him there, hoping the darkness had obscured Kopi’s features enough to confuse the man. Apparently it had taken the soldier sometime to recover and return to his friends, because nearly a quarter hour passed before he heard shouting from the area near the barracks.
Kai sighed heavily, exhausted from the day and frustrated with the predicaments Kopi was always getting into with the local military. “You shouldn’t have hit him, now the whole army will be after you.”
“What was I supposed to do, let the pig rape her?” Kopi was quick-tempered, but he was right.
“No, of course not.”
“If they get upset, I’ll tell that man, what’s his name? Reginald-Reggie? I’ll tell him what happened.” Kopi added quietly as he poked at the coals.
“And who is he likely to believe, you or his son’s man? Think about it Kopi, the man will probably tell them it was you he came across attacking the girl.” Kai seethed at his brother; he always left the thinking for after. The look on Kopi’s face as he stared off towards the truck startled him. He turned in the direction of his gaze, just in time to hear the whoosh from the garage going up in flames; nearly inaudible over the roar of the men moving toward them, a riotous band of government miscreants. Kai gritted his teeth, preparing for the inevitable fight that he’d have to staunch in order for them to have any chance of compensation for the day’s labor.
The events that followed rushed by as adrenaline flowed through his veins; he could hear his heart pounding in his ears and hardly noticed the effort it took to stand again. Kopi rushed past him nearly knocking him back down in the process. He felt as though he were swimming in the center of a school of fish, the shine of their scales flashing alternately pulling his attention from one place to the next, and the flurry of movement obscuring his vision. With no memory of crossing the lawn, Kai found himself standing in front of the towering blaze. How had it grown so large so quickly? Several crates had somehow combusted into flame in front of the open doors of the garage. Frantically, Kai searched for a bucket or container. He found a tin pail on the truck bed; it filled with water in his hands. He stopped, passing the bucket to the nearest able bodied person, Hunter. Hunter rushed towards the flames, mid- swing a hand reached out and pushed back on his chest, forcing the bucket into Hunter’s chest, knocking the wind out of him and drenching the front of his body. Jean Harding was in front of him, her palm against his chest, and she was shouting. Kai couldn’t focus on what she was saying, he moved forward on the crutches. Like a radio switching on her words became clear.
“…No water! It could be chemical; we need sand to smother it!”
Hunter dumped what was left in the bucket and bent to scrape up dust from the roadway. The smoke was making Kai’s eyes water, stinging tears slid down his cheeks. Hunter raised the bucket, now filled with gravel and dirt, up to his shoulder. He lurched forward, but before the cloud of dust reached the licking flames they vanished. A thin wisp of smoke rose from the blackened crates. In the wake of the flash fire, shadowed bodies stood in the now darkened driveway staring at the burnt pile. It had to have been Kopi, no one else could have put out the blaze in an instant. He searched the crowd frantically for his brother and found him, standing between Jean and Summer Harding. They were staring at him stunned and unmoving. Kopi stood still, one hand outstretched to where the fire had been burning, retracting it slowly to his side. They knew it was him. It wouldn’t have taken much effort for them to find out what Kai and Kopi were, they were clearly registered in the Globalnetics Database, but he had hoped that it wouldn’t be necessary for them to explore the matter for the one day they would be employed by the family.
Kopi turned toward the Harding’s blonde daughter, her face was a mix of disbelief and confusion, and perhaps, disgust. Kopi tried to edge away from them, but he backed right into one of the soldiers who, thinking it would be comical or to be cruel, flicked open his lighter and touched the flame to the back of Kopi’s arm. In a flash, Kopi spun to face his attacker and the flame of the lighter shot five fight in the air, singeing the man’s face and spooking him enough to drop the lighter at their feet. Stone-faced, his brother stared down the man, Kai could see rage building in him; a disquieting buzz of energy grew around his body. Cornering him would be a mistake for all of them, he attempted to get to Kopi, but his knee locked up and he stumbled. Agony, like a hot blade, streaked up his left leg, paralyzing him on the ground. His teeth clenched together and he panted with the effort of holding back a scream.
“Freak!” The shout echoed in his ears like a drum of war and then came the crack of a fist making contact with flesh, and a cry of pain. When Kai’s vision cleared he saw his brother had the man on the ground begging; his nose gushed blood and his arm was twisted painfully behind his back. Another moved to attack Kopi, but was quickly subdued, Kopi grasped his outstretched arm as the man’s fist missed its mark and used his momentum to flip him onto the flat of his back. Each soldier that attacked him was similarly subdued. One got in a good hit to Kopi’s stomach and another clocked him, opening the skin over his left cheek bone. Kopi’s chest was heaving and his lips drew back in a feral snarl as he fought them off. Kai called out to him, the monster would take over if he didn’t stop this. Once Kopi was in a full rage the aftermath was messy and, sometimes, lethal. Kai steadied himself with both hands to the ground and carefully, excruciatingly, rose up to standing; his muscles shaking violently with the effort.
The click of a pistol being primed stopped the scuffle before he had to. Looking up he saw the shining barrel against the side of his brother’s head. Kopi stopped, trying to catch his breath; his knuckles scrapped open and blood pooling at the wound on his cheek. The lieutenant stood wide stance and steady, holding the gun with both hands, eyes trained sharply on Kopi.
“No!” Kai couldn’t control the shout as it escaped his lips.
“What are you doing?” The question came from Jean Harding, as she gripped her son’s upraised arm. “Sean, don’t you dare!” Her voice was shrill and forceful.
The lieutenant lowered his weapon, never taking his eyes off of Kopi, who was still kneeling in the dirt in front of him. Kai released the breath he’d been holding.
“Does anyone know what just happened, because I’m sure as hell lost.” The woman was shaking with anger, or maybe terror, he couldn’t be sure.
“This man assaulted not one, but several of my men.” Sean spit out the accusation.
“They attacked me first.” Kopi hissed.
“Did Private Lutz attack you first, or was that a figment of your imagination too? You broke the man’s jaw!” The man attempted to intimidate Kopi, but failed to, his brother didn’t intimidate easily. In fact, it usually just fed his anger.
“Your private was too busy forcing himself on a helpless girl to bother with me.” Kopi’s words infuriated the officer all over again, and his face turned blood red.
“You’ll pay for this, mutant.” The lieutenant’s threat made Kai’s chest tighten. They’d arrest Kopi for sure, he had to think quickly to avoid watching them drag his brother off drugged and in chains.
“Pay for what?” Jean began, but stopped short when Kopi pushed himself between them.
“I’ll make it easy for you,” he turned on the lieutenant, “I quit. I’ll be at my home; I could draw you a map so you don’t get lost on your way to collect payment.” The jest hung in the air as Kopi stormed across the lawn and past the gate house, ignoring the armed guards completely as they trained their rifles on his back, and headed west on the road.
“Kopi!” Kai called after his brother. The Hardings turned at the sound of his voice.
“You might as well follow him, neither of you will be receiving any compensation.” The lieutenant informed him, a wicked smirk on his face. Kai was speechless, how had everything turned to shit in the blink of an eye?
“Wait.” The voice was poignant and fluid, cutting through the rage in the crowd. “This man has a right to tell us his story before we dock his wages.” It was the lovely brunette sister, whom he’d admired earlier at harbor. He thought he’d heard the others call her Miranda. She was watching him now, waiting.
“What-I’m sorry?” Kai stammered.
“Do you know what started this?”
“I can tell you, miss.” A sweet voice interjected. It was Patch’s sister-in-law, Yolann.
“Okay.” Miranda was surprised by the girl’s sudden appearance. “Go ahead.”
“It’s my fault that Kopi hit that man.” She began.
“How could that be your fault?” Jean inquired, intrigued by the girl’s confession.
“Well, Nadie, my sister, she went to the outhouse after dinner and she didn’t come back for a long time and I got worried ‘bout her. ‘Specially after that man grabbed her in the soldier’s camp.” The girl was picking up speed as she continued to speak, her nervousness taking off in the form of words. Miranda laid a hand on her shoulder, which seemed to calm her. “I asked Kopi to come with me ‘round the house ‘cuz it was so dark and he’s big ‘nough to scare those soldiers. So he did and when we went back there we didn’t see her, but we heard this rustling and I thought I heard someone cryin’. Kopi he heard it too and he made me stand back as he checked the bushes for whatever was makin’ that noise.” Her face contorted in anger at the memory. “That’s when he found that filthy dog on top o’ her.” Now she was crying, but the anger was still present on her face. “He had her pin’d to the ground, fumblin’ and pantin’ over her. Kopi, he pulled him off and told Nadie and me to run. Then he hit him, knocked him straight to the ground. Nadie ran, but I stopped to see ‘fore I went back to my sisters. If it wasn’t for Kopi that man’d been able to finish what he started.”
They stood around the girl in stunned silence. The lieutenant spoke out first. “Obviously, the girl’s been told to stand up for her own and has an active imagination.”
“He’s not my family or nothin’.” The girl protested, she was in a very precarious situation just now, hopefully she realized that. “My momma even says he’s a monster, killed men, but at least he doesn’t rape little girls!” She was screaming at him now, but Kai lost track of her voice. He couldn’t hear anything over the rush of blood in his ears. What was she thinking, now they’d pin Kopi for murder too, stupid child. His head was spinning, the taste of bile in the back of his throat. Consciousness flooded back at the sound of someone shouting his name. “Kai!”
He pulled his head up, he couldn’t speak his throat felt swollen and choked with air. The voice filled in slowly. “Is that what happened, Kai? Did Kopi tell you the same thing?”It was Jean Harding standing in front of him demanding an answer. He swallowed hard, his mouth was dry and tasted of tin. Finally he managed to speak. “Y-yes,” he stammered. “He told me it was just as the girl said. He found the private defiling her sister and punched him then he left the man to collect his wits.”
Jean turned to the burly soldier whose jaw was purple and painfully swollen. “Do you deny attacking that young woman, Mr. Lutz?”
The lieutenant answered for him. “Of course, he does, this is ridiculous.”
“No, Son, what’s ridiculous is that two people say one of your men attempted to deflower a young girl and you don’t seem the least bit concerned.” Her voice no longer wavering, the jagged nerves replaced by irritation, Jean laid into her son. “Let me be sure I’m clear on this, you want me to punish that man and his brother, both my employees.” She was inches from his face now, scolding him as she might a child who had just ran into the street in front of a speeding vehicle. Kai found a sick pleasure in watching the officer squirm with his mother’s scorn. “The same brother who saved this young woman from being savaged by your man there and who also saved our new home and all of our equipment from complete deflagration, by denying them pay for a hard day’s labor and I suppose I should also just allow you to take them into custody as well?” Kai’s heart rate spiked again at the suggestion. “Over what, a fractured nose, some bruises and a swollen jaw? I think not, Sean Eduard Harding, and if you ask me that despicable creature deserves a good bit more than a bloody mouth, just what do you plan on doing with him, hmmm?” Jean pointed to the private, nursing his wounded jaw, and continued her assault. “You and your men better straighten up or I’ll send you all packing. I don’t like this set up one bit, this is first and foremost a place for healing and learning, not some operations base. Now, as to the issue of payment, I believe both men will be paid for their services, and we may even be able to agree upon some bonus for them for saving the night in more ways than one, isn’t that right, Reggie?” She looked to her husband who nodded obediently.
“Absolutely, come with me into the house, Kai and we’ll settle up, shall we?” Reggie Harding made his way to the steps outside of the house. “Patch and Hunter, would you join us please?” Kai still felt sick as he grudgingly walked past the women and the soldiers, their eyes boring into his back. Reggie led them to the dining room and waved for them to have a seat. Patch showed his sympathy in his eyes, he knew as well as Kai did that this could and would still end badly.
Reggie returned to the dining room with a lock box and a leather-bound book. He took out a substantial stack of bills from the box and counted them out into four piles, ten bills per pile. He then handed Patch and Hunter one stack each.
“Thank you for your hard work today, gentlemen. Should you need employment in the future, we would welcome your assistance.” Reggie smiled cordially at each man.
Patch fingered the notes in his hand. “Sir?”
“This is too much sir, there’s $200 here. I can’t-“
Before Patch could finish, the doctor stopped him with a raised hand. “Those are fair wages for your labor, plus some extra for your wives’ fine cooking. I cannot promise your wages here will be high, but should you agree to work for us again, they will always be fair. My wife and I look forward to working with you again in the future. We wish you and your families well, but if you don’t mind, it is quite late and I must speak to Mr. Gresham in private.” With that he ushered them out and as they left Jean and her two daughters entered the room. Kai suddenly felt trapped, he looked around for another way out, should he need it, but both exits were blocked by one of the Harding family. He guessed he should feel blessed at least they’d left their son outside. He waited in silence, his shoulders tensed and his hands folded in his lap, waiting for any word of what they meant to do next.
His gaze of the table top was suddenly disrupted by the appearance of three stacks of money. Reggie set them carefully in front of Kai. He couldn’t think of what to say, he sat trying to grasp what was happening. They were still paying them, not just him, but Kopi too. He scanned their faces suspiciously; they didn’t seem mad or even upset about what had happened, though Jean fidgeted with the gold ring on her finger.
“That money is for you and your brother. Two hundred dollars each for your work today and five hundred for saving our equipment.” Reggie explained.
“No.” Kai pushed the money away with both hands, a warm sensation rose up in him from his gut. He felt agitated at them for no reason other than that they weren’t reacting the way he’d expected. He stood up slowly, unsteady on his feet as the muscles in his legs twitched involuntarily with fatigue. “Kopi and I caused you trouble and we shouldn’t get what the other men received in wages. I was just the driver and I’d hardly call that blackened mess out front saved. Even if you did still want to pay us, this is too much. This is more than most around here see in a month.” He took deep breaths as he felt his whole body begin to shake, trying to control it.
“Kai, please sit down before you fall and hurt yourself.” Jean rushed around the table to where he was and placing a hand on his back she eased him back down into the chair. Sighing she continued, “There, that’s better. We want to speak to you some more before you leave and I’d prefer you not pass out first.” She took a seat in the chair next to him. Once seated she waved for the girls to sit down as well and they obliged.
“What would your normal wages for a day like today be then?” Reggie asked him calmly.
Kai eyed everyone at the table questionably, but decided there was no other option at the moment except to play along. “I don’t work much now, but Kopi usually makes between fourteen and twenty a day at the ranch or down at the docks. People pay me based on the job.” Jean looked at him with horror and mumbled a few choice words under her breath.
“And what is it you do, Kai?”
“I, uh, fix things mostly, or build them. Depends on what people need. I just charge for parts and a bit extra for me to live on.” Kai explained.
“Well, I can use someone with just that skill set here at the estate.” Reggie was speaking to his wife, Kai couldn’t understand why.
“Of course.” Jean nodded. “Kai, can you read or write at all?”
“Yes, both. Kopi and I were taught to read and write by our aunt.” He looked at her puzzled.
“Excellent!” Jean seemed to be excited by the news. “Kai, would you like to work for us on a more permanent basis?”
“What?” He was stunned, what were they getting at?
“We’d like you to work for us, here at the estate.” Jean smiled at him waiting for his response. Sensing his reluctance she continued. “Your brother is welcome to work here as well, if he’d like.”
Kai’s head was aching; he squinted with the effort of puzzling out their intentions. He brought a callused hand up to his face, rubbing his temple in slow circles, eyes closed. “I-I don’t understand.”
“Perhaps we’re getting ahead of ourselves.” Jean sighed wearily, but continued to smile. “Let me explain, Reggie and I are doctors by trade, and geneticists. We’ve made a living treating and studying mutants, but there just aren’t many in the Northern Sector, we’ve been planning a move to a more remote sector and once there we intended to build a school and medical facility. A year ago we finally finished raising the funding we needed and so here we are. What we need are workers and educators to get the school and facilities up and running, and once established, help them thrive.”
“You study mutants?” The color drained from his face, it was worse than he thought. They didn’t need to report them; they could capture them here and continue where Mezarahii left off. He felt ill and the taste of vomit filled his mouth, he tried to swallow it down.
“Are you alright?” She was looking at him peculiarly, they all were. He backed up in the chair, it’s legs screeched across the floor.
“I want to leave.” His legs failed him as he tried to stand.
“Kai, you’re not well.” Someone spoke into his ear calmly, but the edges of his vision were blurring and the room was spinning to the point where he couldn’t focus on the voice. The last thing he felt was the palm of a cool hand against his forehead, then darkness.