Jared had never tasted such good steak in his life, though that was probably only because he hadn’t had any in so long. The succulent meat melted in his mouth and he forced himself not to wolf it down, taking care to savor every bite of it. There was no telling when he might get more.
Patrick was not so patient, demolishing a juicy looking hamburger loaded with cheese, mushrooms and onions in about three bites. He let out a small belch of satisfaction.
“Excuse me. Damn that’s fine fillin. Know it, Doc, if you fed us like this more maybe you not even needin’ the chip for me to work for you.” Jared knew that was bullshit, but he had to admit it would be an appetizing perk for a normal employer.
“Chip is cheaper,” Mirkov replied. That wasn’t really a surprise. He wasn’t sure what the exchange rate on Redarctican currency was, but this deluxe buffet must be expensive. They even had crystal cups and real silverware. Jared suspected Mirkov was paying for it out of his own finances and knew the polite thing to do would be to thank him. But the problem of being enslaved by the man made him feel conflicted about following through on that. His parents hadn’t exactly gone over the proper etiquette for how one should treat an involuntary master.
May was also eating, much to Jared’s surprise. It didn’t give her real body any nutrition and her surrogates usually had too short a shelf life to require sustenance, but apparently she could transfer her sense of taste. Right now she tasted delicious caviar. At least she must think it delicious, the way she was scarfing it down. He found it a little too salty.
“Geez’ girl, can you fit all that food? You keep it up and you’re going to bust a gut.” Patrick said laughing before tearing off half a pork steak. May paused a moment to nod.
“It doesn’t matter if I bust a gut since it’s not really my gut that’ll bust,” she said softly, transferring only the barest of slivers of her voice.
“Bit cold, killing your surrogate just to eat more,” Patrick said. May shrugged.
“Worse ways to die, I think, and it’s going to one way or another before the night is done. Besides, how else can I keep up with you two?” Jared had to admit it was true. Even at his current speed, he could probably eat all day without slowing. The healing after the mission had left him famished and he was barely making a dent in his hunger. He wondered how long Mirkov planned on letting them stay.
Mirkov was more contemplative than usual, brow furrowed. He picked at his truffles absentmindedly, eating them slowly. Jared wondered what it meant, suspecting it wasn’t a good thing. It was another hour before Mirkov even acknowledged their existence, which Jared found just fine.
If only Krieg were the same. It wasn’t really that surprising to find out they were related. Krieg had the same grey eyes as Doctor Mirkov and very similarly tangled hair, albeit a dirty blonde rather than Mirkov’s white. The grey eyes were not so different than a lot of Redarticans, May included, and Jared had previously assumed Krieg was just copying Mirkov’s hairstyle. But when Mirkov had introduced him as his grandson and said he would be babysitting tonight because his daughter had an emergency, it all made sense.
Despite all the amazing food, Krieg preferred simpler tastes, loading up his plate with chicken nuggets and ketchup. Jared knew his own palate had been narrower when he was Krieg’s age, but he’d always had a greater curiosity for trying new foods than the boy genius. He wondered how someone who showed such a lack of interest in exploring new things could have the imagination and creativity to invent the gadgets he did.
Gadgets he wouldn’t shut up about, given an audience to listen. At first he talked a lot about the sound and signal dampener he’d placed on the table at the start of the meal. Thanks to it they would be able to talk about anything they wanted to without anyone outside of a foot radius of them able to hear what was going on. Jared had gone to the bathroom and come back and he had to say it worked quite well, everyone speaking appeared to be doing so silently until he was almost all the way back in his seat.
Krieg talked for another twenty minutes about how he modified an energy projector to rapidly fire destructive but non-lethal blasts, claiming it would make future missions like their one the day before a cakewalk.
Jared actually found the rant quite interesting, but worked hard to keep his face disinterested anyways. It would be a bad idea to encourage the kid to make even more weapons. Not that the kid needed any encouragement. After the topic of the energy projector he gave a speech about a holographic device he’d just made to disguise a person, swearing it would get someone through even the C.S.’s airport security if you had the right documents.
“Can it get me out of range of your pain chip?” Jared sarcastically asked, finally interjecting.
“Range? Heh, that’s funny kid. I use quantum tunneling techniques on those. You can’t get out of range anywhere on the planet. Basically impossible to shield too, and the tamper precautions should make it impossible to remove on your own. Though in your case someone else might be able to…maybe I should upgrade yours to include a bomb. I doubt you can regrow your head entirely.” Jared hated how Krieg always referred to them as kids, despite being little more than half their age.
Krieg momentarily got the same contemplative look as his grandfather, unaware or uncaring of how horrifying his idea was. They have that in common too.
“Basically impossible… so then it could be shielded against, hypothetically?” Jared asked, sensing an opportunity. Maybe his mouth will be of use for something. Krieg swallowed a bit of the oversized bowl of ice cream he’d been working on the last few minutes and looked like he might actually answer when Mirkov finally spoke.
“Nice try, but that’s enough of that topic,” he said. Worth a shot. “Now that you all seem to have gotten through a fair bit of dessert, I suppose it’s time to discuss your futures. I didn’t want to talk about it before brunch in case you lost your appetites. So, I have good news and bad news. Which would you like first?”
“Bad news. Definitely the bad news,” May said. She turned to Jared and Patrick. “If you get the good news first then the bad news seems even worse. Trust me…I’ve made that mistake.” She grimaced at a memory.
“You shouldn’t be so modest, May,” Mirkov leaned forward conspiratorially towards Jared and Patrick. “She’s referring to a basic psychology principle about contrast. Our little May here has studied as much Psychology as most practicing psychologists. I think she does it to figure out what’s wrong with us.”
“I know what’s wrong with you. You’re a psychopath,” Jared said snidely. He doubted it was true, but Mirkov acted like one often enough to make him wonder.
“No,” May said. “A psychopath feels no guilt or love. Doctor Mirkov feels both, he just ignores them sometimes.” Jared wondered how she would know that, but he supposed she’d known him longer than he had. He did wonder about the fact he would agree to babysit his grandson on such short notice. Maybe it showed some sort of love for his daughter. “Krieg on the other hand.…”
Krieg looked slightly offended for a moment then thought about it. “Well I guess if you put it that way…but don’t they also compulsively lie? I don’t do that.”
“You don’t have to. Most of them just lie to get what they want and you do whatever you want anyways,” May analyzed calmly. Patrick was watching the exchange with open mouthed shock, bits of broccoli stuck in his teeth. Jared was pretty amazed as well. Even he was a bit afraid of the idea of calling Krieg out on his shit. But maybe May did it because if Krieg blasted her with some fancy weapon he’d made then all she would lose right now is the surrogate.
“Hmmm, guess we can always hope I’m just a really narcissistic child and will grow out of it someday. Someday a long time from now. Like when I’m thirty or something. Or at least hit puberty.” He smiled, not at all perturbed by the way the discussion had gone. The strange look Mirkov shot his way made Jared think that his grandfather hoped for that too and cared a little more about whether it happened.
“So, what’s this bad news?” Jared asked with a sense of foreboding. He’d become used to Mirkov’s tendency to prolong things with tangent topics and banter, but the fact he really didn’t seem to want to say what he was going to tell them made Jared nervous.
“You’re going to assassinate one of the best generals to ever live,” he said, voice tight with tension. “And you have about a week to do it or everyone at this table will be killed.” Patrick coughed on the coke he was sipping. May froze completely, which Jared had come to know meant she’d severed her connection to the surrogate so she could freak out on her own a moment. Jared breathed in deeply, trying to remain calm. Even Krieg seemed shocked.
“Assassinate…” he said slowly, trying to keep it together. “What happened to being glorified scan and retrieval agents?”
“Black Rain,” Mirkov said. “The most powerful organization of the Empowered known to me. They want a fall guy to get rid of the only one who might be able to prove they destroyed Sunlight City just in case they fucked up their cover-up.”
“Wait, what are you saying? You said Sunlight City was an accident.”
“I say a lot of things and at the time I thought it might be true. Now I know it’s not.” Jared tried to breathe calmly, but he was suddenly struggling for air. Anger flushed through his system and it took everything he had not to lunge across the table and strangle Doctor Mirkov.
If Krieg weren’t there, he seriously might have. He was a lot stronger than he was when Mirkov had smashed him down when they first met. Maybe he could have killed the man before he activated the pain chip, or maybe the pain would have just made him clench his hands harder. It would have been worth it. But there was no way he could deal with both of them, especially if Krieg was wearing that reflector shield May had told him about. He clenched and unclenched his fists, trying to make words form, trying to focus on Lilly.
“That means you want me…to help cover up the murder of my parents. To help put the bastards who put my sister into a coma. Maybe you’re not a psychopath, but you are still fucking sick in the head.”
“No, that’s not what I want at all. That’s just what you need to do. And if you do it well and survive somehow, they might recruit you.”
Jared would later suspect that if he were thinking more clearly he would have seen it immediately. But he wasn’t and the idea of working for Black Rain was like a punch to the gut. The air went out of him and he laughed maniacally. He leaned back and put a hand over his face. He was sure he must be going insane. This might actually be worse than the numb feeling seeing the death of his friends and having his first conversation with Mirkov had left him with.
“I’m sorry, did I understand you correctly? You want me to not only help, but to work for the people who killed my parents. I think I need whatever drug you’re on because it has got to be some good shit. You’re living in some alternate reality and it’s apparently a much more forgiving place there. Why. The. Hell. Would I work for Black Rain?”
“Money, power, freedom, great retirement benefits, and the opportunity to find and kill as many of the people involved with Sunlight City’s destruction as you’re able to. Great job, really. How many employers do you know that would give you a solid paycheck while you plan your revenge? I mean it’s a step up from this place. We don’t pay you shit.”
Jared stared at Mirkov as what he was really saying sunk in. He didn’t choose us for this. He observed Doctor Mirkov more closely than he had in a long time, noticing his posture and the way his hands, usually surgically calm, were shaking slightly. It’s the same as me. He’s angry. And more than that, I think he’s afraid. He said we’d all be killed, which means they threatened him and his grandson. Did they threaten anyone else? He didn’t think Mirkov would fear for his own life, and kind of doubted he’d be that concerned about Krieg, given the kid’s personal arsenal.
“Man, I didn’ sign up for killing people,” Patrick said.
“You didn’t sign up at all,” Mirkov reminded him. “And you were going to be sent to a fighting unit anyways, so you’ll actually be killing less people this way.” Jared wondered if Patrick’s previously stated future had ever sunk in for him. Patrick just shook his head slightly, as if trying to clear something from his ears.
“So what’s the good news?” May asked softly.
“You’re going home,” Mirkov said.
“I don’t have a home.”
“Well, home is where the heart is and since you and Jared are getting married, I hope you will consider his home yours as well.”
“Couple things…first, married?” Jared asked, flushing slightly, still wondering if he might be hallucinating this surreal conversation. “Second, pretty sure my home was sucked into an energy black hole vortex …thing.”
“Yours was, but Steven Foster’s wasn’t. Though it was thought all of you died tragically due to a more minor power related incident the same day as Sunlight City, it seems that there were a few survivors. Those survivors have been recovering in a small rural hospital with no access to communications. Though you have made several recorded attempts to get in touch with your families, they have all been unsuccessful, mostly because the only one whose family is still alive is Patrick’s.”
Jared winced upon hearing that. Steve’s mother had died of cancer when he was quite young and his father was taken in a car crash a few years ago, but hearing Katherine’s parents had died hit him pretty hard.
“Steve recovered first because of his healing ability, but could not bear to be parted from his beloved Katherine. He heroically threw himself in front of her to protect her from the explosion, but she was paralyzed from the waist down and only recently became well enough to move. Patrick was more fortunate in the long term in the sense that none of his injuries appear to be permanent, but spent the last several months in a coma.”
“I feel like this cover story needs work. An explanation of why I’m Steve instead of just me would be nice. And still haven’t explained why May and I have to get married.”
“We’re fine tuning it. I’ll have all the necessary documents for you to read by tonight. You should probably spend the night reading them and then sleep on the plane. The reason you’re Steve is that he’s independently wealthy thanks to his inheritance and your family was not. Fortunately his funds were held in an estate that hadn’t been fully passed on yet, due to his lack of living relatives. Money might help with the mission and you’ll have more access to it if you go as him. It also helps get May into the country more easily and explain why you’ll be living together, which will help with coordination.”
“Fair enough…but married?”
“Steve and Katherine both originate with old fashioned families. It would be out of character for them to shack up together before getting married.”
“I see…” Jared said, trying not to blush further. May’s surrogate sat impassively, expressionless. Whatever her reaction to these conditions, she was expressing them in her own body.
“Also, I took great pains to make sure that no one knows the identity of who I drafted from that bus, not even Black Rain. Patrick’s family lived, but yours didn’t. To them that means you would have a possible reason to seek revenge whereas Patrick wouldn’t. However, Steve’s family was already dead, so by their reasoning he’d be an ideal candidate.”
“Why do you know so much about our lives back home?” Patrick asked.
“Because it’s my job to know everything I can about my subjects. Now I have some other things to attend to, so Krieg and I will be leaving. You can stay here and eat for twenty more minutes, and then a car will pick you up and bring you back to base. I’ll see you when you get there.” Mirkov stood up slowly and left, Krieg following behind in an uncharacteristic silence.
Jared looked back at his plate and decided Mirkov was right about him losing his appetite. Home. I’ll get to go home.