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by

Vincent Berg




and


Copyright

Not-Quite Human Box Set

Copyright © 2018 Vincent Berg. All rights reserved

Smashwords Edition

ISBN: 978-1-941498-87-3

The Cuckoo’s Progeny © 2016 Vincent Berg

Lost With Nothing to Lose © 2018 Vincent Berg

This is a work of fiction. All the characters and events portrayed in this book are fictional, and any resemblance to real people or incidents is purely coincidental. All rights reserved, including the right to reproduce this book or portions thereof in any form.

Product names, brands, and other trademarks referred to within this book are the property of their respective trademark holders. Unless otherwise specified, no association between the author and any trademark holder is expressed or implied. Nor does it express any endorsement by them, or of them. Use of a term in this book should not be regarded as affecting the validity of any trademark, registered trademark, or service mark.

Acknowledgements

As always, I’d like to thank all of those who’ve put up with me during the highs and lows of this story’s creation. It’s hard supporting temperamental authors, and the rewards aren’t always as clear cut as more time and attention.

I’ve got a long line of people who’ve helped with the story, but I’d like to thank:

  • Editors:

  1. Bill Hooper, C.B. Martell, Gary Bywater, Gary Davis, Gordon Johnson, Harry Stephen Wood, Mike Omelanuk and Steve Mintz.

  2. Gary Bywater, Harry Stephen Wood, Jim Whiteshield, Steve Mintz and Larry Reimer.

  • Cover design:

  1. "Spaceship fighter planet and sun" by Luca Oleastri at us.fotolio.com.

  2. “spaceship and futuristic city” by innovari at us.fotolio.com.

  3. “Colonization spaceship” by innovari at us.fotolio.com.

I: "Silhouette of boy and girl holding hands" by Yuliya Nazaryan.

II: "isolated silhouette people standing" from zolotons.

III: "Vector silhouette of a people." from majivecka.

IV: "Mann (Silhouette)" by Mademoiselle Bézier.

V: "runners, marathon in the city on sunset, Vector poster background" by puckillustrations.

VI: "Vector illustration of anti terror armed forces" by rudall30.

VII: "uniform" by Stephi.

  • Book 2 section break graphics:

I: "Mad ugly monster. Halloween." from yuriyzhuravov from us.fotoli.com.

II: "View of Futuristic City. This image element furnished by NASA" by Vadimsadovski from us.fotolio.com.

III: "Battle Cruiser in Low Orbit - 1" by Algol from us.fotoli.com.

IV: The illustration "Space Ships Meeting in Outer Space - science fiction illustration" by Algol from us.fotoli.com.

V: "Space Battle Fleet Deployment" by Algol from us.fotoli.com.

VI: "Science fiction illustration of an interplanetary spaceship flying away from a purple nebula in deep space, 3d digitally rendered illustration" by Algol.

Table of Contents

Title Page

Copyright

Acknowledgments

1: The Cuckoo’s Progeny

I: Conflicted Siblings

01: Unfamiliar Terrain

02: Comparing Skills

03: Others Like Us

04: Who is Us, Again?

05: Childhood Tormentors Revisited

II: Other Couples

06: Making Plans

07: Information Anyone?

08: Hashin’ Out All ‘de Details

09: Intimate Negotiations

III: Exposure

10: Distressing News

11: Crew, Meet Your Science Team

12: A Risky Experiment

IV: An Unhealthy Interest

13: An Inquisitive Mind

14: Battlefield Evaluation

15: In Need of Repairs

16: The Trail Heats Up

17: Climbing Freaks

V: The Final Miles

18: The Navigator

19: Traffic Stop

VI: Life or Death Stakes

20: Fatal Confrontation

21: Hanging in the Balance

22: A Long Hike In the Woods

23: Delta Force Rangers?

VII: The Final Destination

24: The One

25: Escaping Humanity

2: Lost With Nothing to Lose

01: Homeport Issues

I: Home, Unwelcoming Home

02: Initial Processing

03: Under Guard and Under Suspicion

04: Al’s Bluff Pans Out

II: Arrival At Tandor

05: Exploring an Alien World

06: Testing Their Limits

07: Preparing For War

08: Shipping Out

III: Heading to the Front

09: Scheming and Plotting

10: Unexpected Allies

11: More Machinations

12: Setting a Conspiracy in Motion

IV: Engaging the Enemy

13: Contact With the Enemy

14: Sneaking Out to Meet a Paramour

15: Crushing the Enemy

V: Delicate Negotiations

16: Returning Victors

17: Retribution

18: Repairing a Broken Truce

VI: Visiting Tandora

19: Hiding an Army

20: Showdown With an Emperor

21: And the Cycle Begins Anew

3: Building a Nest of Our Own

Other Books by the Author

Note From the Author

Character List

About the Author

Preface

The visionary starts with a clean sheet of paper,

and re-imagines the world.

Malcolm Gladwell

A brief word, before the story begins, about some of the conventions used.

Telepathic messages, the dialogue shared between two character’s minds, are denoted with a combination of single quotes and italics, as the following sample demonstrates.

Zita, I need a little assistance, here!

You’ll also notice that many of the telepathic communications begin with a comment about their communicating via Zita’s links, since Zita is the telepathic communications expert, and the only one with the required quantum links the others don’t have. This extra attribution explanation was a holdover from the first book, “The Cuckoo’s Progeny”, which originally handled these communications in plain text dialogues.

There are also frequent mentions of both “homeworld” and “home worlds”. A culture’s original home world is their “homeworld”, while each individual species has their own “home world”, where their people originated on.


by


Vincent Berg

To be yourself in a world that is

constantly trying to make you something else

is the greatest accomplishment.

Ralph Waldo Emerson

I: Conflicted Siblings

There is something beautiful about the past,

and about the way it haunts us.

The way we pass through moments

like walking through doors.

The way we shut some out

and the way we welcome some to stay.


Our memories are ghosts,

and they will always remind us

of all the things we no longer have.

R. M. Drake

1: Unfamiliar Terrain

Al Collins stared out the window at the clouds floating by, tapping his fingers against the table. He didn’t know why, but he’d been unable to concentrate all day. His mind felt clear, but preoccupied. Every time he tried to focus, he’d start fidgeting. Sighing, he turned back to his studies.

Sitting at the kitchen table, he studied the latest issue of American Journal of Physics. A college sophomore on summer break, his interest in science developed while taking the required classes for various majors: Calculus, Statistics and Introduction to Physics. There was something about the sciences which fascinated him and he’d declared his major in Physics soon after. He wasn’t terrific at the math, but loved learning how things in the universe functioned. Fascinated by the concepts, he decided on a career in the sciences but not on a specific concentration within his major. His sister, just graduated from high school, planned to attend the same university in the fall.

Trying to unravel the math, a wave of concern washed over him. It swept away his fleeting concentration like a tsunami, leaving the debris of confusion and bewilderment behind. Somehow, he sensed Be, his sister, was facing extreme danger. Understanding it wasn’t logical, he knocked on the table for good luck. He tried ignoring it, yet no matter what he did, he couldn’t rid himself of the sense of impending doom washing over him.

He glanced upstairs. “Mom, do you know where Be is?”

It took her a second to respond, walking through the back sliding-glass door, surprising him. “No. I wanted her to help me plant the new bulbs, but haven’t seen her all day. By the way, why can’t you call her by her name? ‘Be’ seems … disrespectful.”

“Damn, where is that girl?” Al pushed his books aside, taking out his phone and dialing her number. “It’s a private name I only use at home.” He heard her distinctive ring-tone coming from the couch in muffled confirmation of her absence. Growling, he leaned back and closed his eyes. His fears might only be paranoia, but he wouldn’t know unless they didn’t pan out.

“Using such names is not appropriate. It’s childish and belittling.”

“We’ve had this conversation before, she doesn’t object. When she complains, I’ll stop.”

Completely out of the blue, Al was there. He was in the Great Platts Industrial district—an area he drove past but tried to avoid on his way to school—and he saw his sister Be scurrying between the abandoned buildings with two shadowy figures following her. Al could see the worry in her actions, the way she kept glancing behind, as well as the intent of the two men, by the way they kept joking about the fear they were causing. Great Platts had fallen into disrepair and was now the neutral turf between two gangs: neutral meaning they attacked all who entered as they sought undisputed control of the area.

The scene was so vivid it appeared more real than reality. Whereas things appeared mundane and typical in real life, here everything jumped out at him. The tattoos, gang colors on their jackets and their hand gestures suggesting what they’d do once they caught her, the many places she could potentially hide and the dangers she faced if she chose the wrong spot—all stood out in sharp focus. Despite understanding he was still home, still conscious of what was happening around him, he felt close enough to Be in this new reality that he raised his hand to call out to her. But, as he did, he was back with his mother, suddenly feeling self-conscious reaching out to someone who wasn’t there.

He glanced back at mom at see if she’d noticed, but she was still berating him for how he treated his sister. Realizing his sister’s life was in danger, Al leapt to his feet, heading for the door. “If you hear from her, call me. Hopefully I’m wrong, but I can’t risk it!”

His mother’s mouth hung open at this strange declaration, before deciding to search Betty’s room for clues to where she might be. Without knowing Al’s concerns, she didn’t have much to go on.

Dusk’s long shadows disguised surfaces, providing cover for those with malicious intent. Betty glanced behind her. The intermittent streetlights poorly illuminating concrete walls mottled with age, flaking plaster marring the graffiti painted across every exposed surface made it difficult to spot anyone. She knew the area was a bad neighborhood, with few residents and scores of abandoned buildings, but didn’t think she had a choice. She’d hoped to cross it before encountering trouble, but wasn’t so lucky. Now she had two intimidating men tailing her, each wearing their gang colors, with no safe refuge in sight. The setting sun cast the entire street in eerie shadows.

Betty swallowed, clenching and unclenching her fists and trying to hurry without showing fear. She was relieved to be nearing an intersection where she could hopefully find help, but she doubted it. There were few residents or open businesses in this blighted area, and no refuge from those following her.

Reaching the corner, a figure stepped around the corner, surprising her. She gasped, clutching her chest and falling back.

“Relax!” he said. “Come on. We can’t afford to waste time. We need to move before it’s too late.”

“Al? Where the hell did you come from? How did you know where to find me?”

He took her elbow, leading her across the intersection. “Do you want to talk, or get out of here?”

“I’ll vote with my feet, but I still want to know.”

They walked at his faster pace. He seemed to be casually strolling, but she was forced to trot to keep up. Approaching a dark alley, he steered her down it. Betty wrinkled her nose, reacting to the stale scent of urine, chemicals and rotting refuse. Given the lack of light, it was difficult to make out what lay ahead, but she didn’t see an exit.

“We’ll be trapped.”

“Don’t worry,” Al said, breaking into a run. He hurried her past two doors, stopping at the third and reaching for a door handle.

“It’ll never—” The door opened without any complaints. He pushed her though, pulling it shut behind them and throwing the lock before looking for something to block the door.

“How did you know the door would be open? Have you been here before?”

“Never even been in this area,” he said. “I don’t know one street from another.”

“Then how did you…?”

Bracing a heavy metal slab against the door, he grabbed her elbow and rushed her across the room and into the connecting hallway. “Don’t speak,” he whispered. “They won’t know where we went, but might hear our voices.”

Unable to forestall her curiosity, Betty started to protest when they heard the metal door rattling, echoing down the empty passageway.

“Where the hell did they go?” a faint voice shouted. Al raised his finger to his lips as they hurried on.

“I don’t know any more than you do,” yelled a closer voice. “Try busting down the doors. They’ve got to …” The rest of the conversation was lost as distance intervened.

Her brother directed her into a stairwell. She glanced skeptically at him. Without answering, he motioned her up. With the sounds of the two gang members hunting them, she didn’t argue. However, she had no clue why they weren’t searching for a way out.

They kept ascending. Betty would hesitate on each floor, and Al would nudge her to continue. She soon became winded. She’d been walking all day. Still, he kept pushing. On the eleventh floor, panting, she turned on him, whispering in an angry voice.

“Where are we going? If we remain … in the building, we won’t escape.”

Recognizing she was worn out, he paused, allowing her to catch her breath. “We’d never get away taking that approach. Once they figure out we entered the factory, it wouldn’t take long to cover the exits. This is our only option.”

“But what’s your plan? Wait them out? Hope they get bored? And why would they care about us so much? What makes you think they won’t just leave now that an easy target has slipped away?” Her eyes roamed the dilapidated structure through the scratched door. “If we can’t get out, what’s to stop them from searching floor by floor?”

He held his hand up, silencing her as he listened. Hearing nothing, he continued.

“They won’t stop. They’re out for blood. I’m guessing they’re looking to use us as a warning to others. They’ll follow us, and after they rob us, they’ll slit our throats. We either continue upstairs, or die.”

“How do you—” She waved her hands, abandoning her line of thought. “All the more reason to find a way out!”

He pushed her onwards again. “Just keep going,” he insisted.

They continued up until reaching a door wedged in place. He moved her aside, and slammed it with his shoulder while holding his hands against the metal to diminish the sound. The door popped open, revealing the roof.

“Shouldn’t we go back down and find somewhere to hide?”

He shook his head, taking her hand and leading her to the edge of the tar and gravel roof. “It wouldn’t do any good. There are too few places to hide and our breathing would likely give us away. This is the best option.”

“What is?” she demanded, surveying the roof for alternative escapes.

Reaching the cement parapets, they stopped.

“Okay, this is the rough part. You need to run fast, push off the ledge, and jump as hard as you can.”

She opened her mouth to protest, but he was already gone, backing up and running full speed towards oblivion. He leapt high, soaring over the intervening fourteen story drop. He maintained his height momentarily, and then dropped. He landed hard on the far side and rolled, leaving patches of skin and blood behind.

When he stood, he held his arms out. She backed away, shaking her head.

“I can’t make that leap!”

“You can. I’m sure of it, but you don’t have a choice. Don’t give yourself time to doubt. You’ll make it.” As she considered his words, he mumbled, “I’ve seen you make it across.”

She glanced back the way they’d come and took five steps back. Biting her lip, she ran at her top speed and jumped off the ledge. Waving her arms, she watched the abyss below beckon while the welcoming safety of her brother’s arms maintained their distance. At first she hung in midair, but then began falling. It soon became a race between life and death, with gravity winning.

She slammed into the wall, her legs dangling over the railing, desperately trying to hold on as Al grabbed her by her armpits and dragged her up. She bit her lip to keep from screaming, terror coursing through her body, grit sticking to her sweat-soaked clothes. When he pulled her safely up, she curled into a ball, sobbing wordlessly. Her brother walked to the edge and glanced down at the dark alley below.

Returning, he took her arms and lifted her. “They didn’t see us. As I expected, they’re only guarding the entrances, never expecting us to find another way out.”

She stumbled, her knees as solid as Gumby’s. “How do you know all this? How’d you know about the open door, how many exits there were or that we could jump to safety?”

He directed her into the stairwell. Once inside, he felt more secure speaking. “There’s an exit on a side street a fair distance from the other building. They shouldn’t check it, but we need to move fast. If they grow bored, they might search for where we disappeared to. Hopefully, they’ll examine the first building floor by floor, which will keep them busy for hours. That’ll give us time to get away.”

“I’m glad you have a plan, but it doesn’t answer my questions.”

Al sighed, leaning against the wall, glancing at the ceiling. “Frankly, I’m not sure. All I know is suddenly I’m seeing things. I … anticipate what’s going to happen.” He stood, grasping her arm again as they resumed their descent. “When I found you, I instinctively realized we had to take the alley. I could feel which door to try. As we entered the building, I could visualize what would occur if we exited via the front door. I don’t understand where I got this new ability, but it sure came in handy. It’s like I suddenly received a superpower.”

“As unreal as it sounds, I can relate. I’ve had a similar experience which just started today.”

“Pray, do tell,” he said, intrigued. Her stiff responses bothered him. It was as if she was afraid she’d blurt out the wrong thing if she was more open. This was a long-time conflict between them. Although they were incredibly close, she’d be a loving sibling one moment, and distant the next. He realized they had a complex interplay, largely governed by their parent’s disapproval of how close they were, but he didn’t have time to worry what she may be hiding.

“This whole thing started because I felt driven to find something. I knew where to go, but not what I was seeking or how far it might be. Clearly, it was further than I could walk in a day.”

“I’ll tell you what, if we get out of here, we’ll start out fresh in the morning. I’ll drive you. We should make more progress starting from scratch.”

“I don’t know. It seems today was a huge investment to throw away, especially if it’s not there tomorrow.” She turned, regarding him. “Talking about recent superpowers, you’re describing precognition, or on a non-superhero level, heightened intuition. You might be considered an ‘intuit’ or a ‘precog’, someone who anticipates things.”

“Terrific! Talk about the least exciting superpower. ‘Stop, evildoer. I’m Precognition-man! I can guess you’re about to shoot me!’ It’s worse than bringing a bow and arrow to a battle with indestructible androids.”

“Hey, I liked Hawkeye. He’s cute.”

“He’s lame, as is an ability to anticipate trouble. All it does is help avoid fights, rather than helping you win.”

“Not everything is solved by fighting. You saved me without a fight. Besides, you were outnumbered and didn’t have a weapon or any fighting experience.”

“This was a one-time thing. I’m not sure I’d do it for anyone else. Personally, ‘Intuit’ sounds better than ‘Precog’. It's less confusing and sounds more like a title than 'Precog'. So what about you? If I’m an Intuit, gifted with precognition, then you must be a Seeker. You aren’t the only one who gets to invent new terms for unknown things.”

“Why am I not a Psychic? Someone with extra-sensory perception abilities?”

“Because psychics are typically able to see things or communicate telepathically. Besides, ‘psychic’ is defined as mental abilities, whereas you’re tied to locating physical objects, rather than tied into other people’s minds. I think Seeker is better, as you’re specifically seeking things.”

“Whatever, we just need to discover what I’m seeking. It might be just as dangerous as what we’re fleeing.”

“I doubt it. If it was, you’d sense it. Does it feel risky?”

She stopped to consider it, closing her eyes for a moment. “No, it feels good. Secure, like it’ll make a significant difference to our lives.”

“Our?”

She waved her hand, dismissing her word choice. “You know what I mean. It doesn’t seem threatening.”

“Which doesn’t imply we won’t encounter dangers between you and it.”

Reaching the first floor, he held his finger to his lips, silencing her. Carefully opening the door, he glanced out, and then motioned her to follow. This building wasn’t much better than the last, but contained more junk: stacked boxes, crumbled refuse, drifting papers and abandoned furniture covered in dust. As Betty waited, he peered out the front door. Seeing no sign of their pursuers, they ran quietly for another three blocks until they reached his car, parked in another dark alley. Once he unlocked it, they climbed in.

“You’re lucky your car wasn’t stripped,” she said as they strapped themselves in.

He patted the dashboard. “Nah, I’d never betray my Rosie. Like the other things which occurred today, I knew when I parked she’d be safe here.” He hesitated. “At least that’s what I thought. But each time we did something different, the outcomes changed as the situations evolved. I’m not sure how reliable this ability is. While I undertake these things assuming I can fix the outcome, it's likely to change as events unfold.”

“Then I suggest Rosie get us out of this rat hole, before something changes and we’re discovered sitting here.” Instead of listening to her own advice, she paused, staring at him with a look he couldn’t extricate himself from. “Thanks for saving my life.” Leaning in, she pressed her lips against his, maintaining contact for several moments. Al, unused to such signs of affection between them, shifted his hands uneasily, unsure what to do. She released him and leaned back, cocking her head as she regarded him.

“What?”

She shook her head, smoothing her outfit, filthy from their plight. “Nothing. I was thinking of something else. Let’s get out of here.”

“We’ll be fine from here,” he said, pulling into the street, turning towards home.

“Now we need to decide what to tell Mom and Dad.”

Al turned, grinning. “I think it’s best we not mention this. I’ve already scared Mom, so just tell her you lost track of the time. Say I’m taking you shopping tomorrow.”

“Visiting the mall with your little sister? That’s a bigger sacrifice than risking your life saving me.”

“Tell me about it.” He glanced at the condition of her attire. “Though it may not be a bad idea to pick up something before we return home.”

2: Comparing Skills

Betty answered the quiet knock, letting her brother in. She’d been expecting him.

“Telling Mom and Dad you took me out for dinner was a clever move.”

“Yeah, they noticed your being … distracted, fidgety and staring off into space. They’re worried about you—just as they were with my running off to rescue you.”

“Well, they appreciate your supporting me. It’ll help the two of us sneak off tomorrow.”

“We need to discuss what we’re dealing with. People don’t pick up strange new abilities; especially when they aren’t even possible. How can you sense things from miles away, while I anticipate what hasn’t even happened yet?”

She shrugged, glancing out the window. “I don’t understand it either. I was … searching. Like you, it started yesterday. I’m not completely sure I’m the one with the talent. It may be some object drawing me, an external event. All I know is it’s essential I find it.”

“Still, whether it’s pulling you or you’re seeking it, there’s got to be something receiving a signal. So we’re back to my original question: is it biological, genetic, or is there some device inside us we’re unaware of?”

“Hopefully we’ll learn when we locate it. For now, we’re operating by feelings and guesses. We can’t begin to analyze the impulses until we get more information. If it’s an inanimate object, it’s different than if it’s a living entity. With luck, we’ll have a better idea after tomorrow.”

He stood, running his hand through his hair and closing his eyes. “Thanks for the encouragement. I was hoping to convince myself this isn’t a wild-goose chase. Despite my new ability, I’m tempted to assume it’s all your imagination.”

“We won’t know until we determine what it is. If it’s nothing, I’ll drop it. However, this might be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.”

“Yeah,” he mumbled, opening her door and walking out, “the perfect chance to get mugged!”

“It’s wonderful you are spending the day with your sister. Shopping together will be good for you. You can both have fun while meeting new people.”

“Mom, Be and I get along phenomenally. We’ve never had any significant issues.”

“I wish you wouldn’t call her that. Why can’t you use her name?”

“Relax, Mom. I don’t mind. After what he did, he can call me anything he wants!”

Amanda Collins cocked her head, leaning against the kitchen counter. “And what did he do for you?”

“Why, offer to take me shopping, of course.” Betty laughed, enjoying teasing their mother. “But beyond that, he was especially thoughtful last night. After he rescued me from the park, he took me to dinner and talked me down. I was a little … freaked out.”

Amanda was a young-looking and vibrant woman, despite having two grown kids. Her hair caressed her face, and her brilliant eyes were set off by her pale skin and the bright cheeks of her Irish ancestry.

Betty looked the most similar to their mother, with light-brunette hair which only looked partially reddish in the correct light. Both wore their hair in matching styles, hanging free around their faces, since it wouldn’t listen to what they wanted. Al’s hair color and texture were closer to his father’s, though that was all they had in common. Both had mostly straight black hair with a hint of brown, and their skin was so white it almost hurt your eyes. Macy Collins was a short, muscular man, while Al was tall, gangly and strikingly thin. Macy also had a poor complexion, unmanageable hair and pinched eyebrows, none of which his son inherited. Most people looked doubtful when their parents introduced them as their kids.

“While you’re out, you might introduce him to one of your friends, or better yet, push him to approach a girl on his own. He needs to start dating. It’s not good for a young man to spend so much time on his own.”

“It’s not that kind of outing,” Betty said. “He’s not taking me to hang with my friends. We’re honestly spending the day together.”

“That doesn’t mean you can’t help him with his self-esteem.”

“Hey,” Al argued. “Be’s not in a relationship either.”

“You don’t need to remind me,” their mother said, rolling her eyes. “Okay, now that breakfast is finished, you—”

Before she could finish, Al leapt up. “Excuse me, but … I’ll be out by the car warming it up.” He disappeared before Amanda could register a protest. She turned to her daughter, but Betty grabbed her purse—actually a small backpack—and took out after him. “I better go,” she said, glancing back. “He … might get bored and leave without me.”

Finding herself in an empty kitchen with the kid’s plates abandoned for her to clean up, she shook her head. “I’ll never get used to kids this age. They’re so … unpredictable.” She picked up their dishes, carrying them back to the sink to rinse. “One moment they’re calm, the next they’re running around like their hair is on fire.”

Betty hurried outside in time to witness her brother racing full tilt towards the street. Remembering his newfound talent, she tried to imagine what might provoke such a response and took off after him. “Stay back!” he shouted, though she didn’t listen. Realizing she was following, he yelled over his shoulder. “Look both ways!”

Not understanding, she didn’t give it much thought as he raced across the road without looking. When she reached the street, she saw him bend over. Remembering his words, she glanced down the road and saw a car barreling towards them. She halted just in time. As Al grabbed a small boy running between the parked cars lining the street, a black SUV flew by, narrowly missing them. It never slowed, flying gravel striking Betty’s legs.

Betty took a deep breath, standing beside the road grasping her chest. She saw their neighbor, Mrs. Monica Lopez, rushing forwards.

“Oh, my baby!” she shrieked. Al handed her bundle of joy to her and she tightly hugged the five-year-old. Betty risked crossing their normally quiet street as Monica threw one arm over Al’s shoulder, planting a big kiss on his lips. “Thank you so much! You saved Malcolm’s life. If you hadn’t been here, he’d be gone!”

Al blushed. “It was nothing. I was in the right place at the …”

She shushed him with another kiss before pulling back. “It was more than that. You were sent from above to rescue my baby.” As Malcolm began to struggle, she released her hold on Al, who backed up.

“Anyone would do the same,” he said.

Monica was a pretty woman in her mid to late 20’s. She had dark and lustrous curly hair, always wore the brightest smile, and her teeth sparkled in the early morning sunlight. “The hell they would! You were almost hit as well. You were standing there as the SUV raced by. If you didn’t risk your life, my baby wouldn’t be here now.”

Realizing her brother didn’t know how to extricate himself, Betty stepped in. “He’s much too humble to take credit for anything.” She wrapped her arm around his. “Now, weren’t you about to take me shopping?”

“Oh, yeah! In all the excitement, I almost forgot. Sorry to rescue your baby and run, but my sister’s shopping list awaits.”

“Go on,” she said, waving them off as she set her son back on the ground. Without waiting to say anything, he ran across the street after the ball he’d been chasing. “Malcolm! Watch the street when you cross. You almost got killed!”

“Some kids never learn,” Al teased.

“If the idiot hadn’t been racing down suburban streets, it wouldn’t be an issue. You’d think they’d know there are children here! Anyway, have a wonderful day. I don’t want to keep you.”

Waving, the two siblings ran across the street and climbed in Al’s car, backed up and drove—very slowly—away from the scene of Malcolm’s rescue.

“So, Monica was quite chummy,” Betty said, studying her brother.

“She was just showing her gratitude, like you did. People prefer not losing their kids.”

“I’m your sister. I’m allowed to kiss my brother. She was being forward. Which is especially inappropriate since her son was right there. She’s supposedly happily married too.”

Al glanced at her before turning back to the road. “It was just a kiss, the same kind you gave me. It was a thank you. That’s all. She didn’t mean anything by it.”

Betty turned her head away, glancing out at the passing street. “That’s what you think. You wouldn’t know if someone was interested in you if she gave you a lap dance.”

“Look who’s talking. As I told Mom, you’re no more experienced in the romance department than I am.”

“No, but I am a woman. We notice these things. If something is staring a guy in the face, he won’t notice it.”

Focusing on traffic, he didn’t even try to meet her eyes. “You’re imagining things. She’s a sweetie. She’d never do anything inappropriate.”

“Sure. She’s sweet to you, but only because she likes you. You’d be surprised what some women can do.”

“Do you hear yourself? This is Mrs. Lopez. We’ve known her for years. What’s this about? You aren’t jealous, are you?”

Her head spun around, her hand rising to her chest. “Me, jealous? Of what? I just think you need to find someone closer to your age.”

“You’re not being terribly objective. She couldn’t be nicer. She’s never tried anything with me.”

“That you recognize,” she sniffed, glancing out the window again.

“Getting back on topic; how does this work? How do I know when to turn?”

“Keep driving. We’ll start from where you rescued me yesterday, but it’s a turn-by-turn thing. There’s no doubt, I arrive at an intersection and simply understand which way to go.”

“Even if you don’t know what you’re looking for?”

“No, I’m unaware of what’s drawing me, but the pull is clear. It might be an animal, vegetable or mineral, but we need to find it.”

“Okay, assuming it’s like my new talent, let’s assume you’re correct. What if it’s hundreds of miles away? What then?”

“I doubt it will be. I wouldn’t detect it if it was.”

“You thought it was close yesterday, yet you walked all day and got no closer. What’s to say we get no nearer today either?”

“Then we keep trying,” she said.

“I’m not saying I won’t help, but we need to define our parameters. Did you bring lunch?”

“I planned to pack one, but you ran out of the house like a jackrabbit. I didn’t want to go back in and admit what you’d done. We’d be answering questions all day and Mom would never let us out the door again.”

“Okay, so we’re buying lunch. Luckily there are tons of fast food joints, which won’t take long. How long do we search before we give it up for the day? Does this internal compass give you the shortest route, or the quickest?”

“What do you mean? Aren’t they the same?”

“Hardly. Taking the interstate is faster than driving all day along local roads. If you’re doing this on a street-by-street basis, it’s not an efficient process. We should triangulate the location instead of driving randomly. Besides, I’d rather avoid certain areas.”

“What if what I’m searching for is in one of those dangerous areas?” she asked, turning to study him.

“Then maybe it’s safer leaving it alone. I don’t want to risk losing you for some rock.”

“You never know,” she giggled. “It may be a diamond.”

“Then it’ll be in a jewelry store, not out on the street. We don’t get many natural diamonds in this region of the country.”

She wiped her brow, fanning herself. “Could you turn on the air conditioning?”

“It’s pleasant outside. If you’re warm, roll up your sleeves. The windows accentuate the sun and your cotton top retains heat.”

Instead of following his advice, she tugged the sleeves of her garment further down, massaging her wrists. “How about you? As you said, it’s warm, but you’re wearing a long-sleeve work shirt.”

“I might need to move something,” he said, focusing on the road.

“That’s silly and you know it. Just roll your own sleeves up or turn on the air conditioner.”

Sighing, Al rolled his window down. “Does that help?”

“Not really, it’s just blowing the warm air around and messing up my hair. What’s the issue with using the air conditioner?”

Betty noticed they’d turned, following a different road.

“Where are you going?”

“I’m going to where we met yesterday. I travel by there every day; this is the fastest route.”

“But it’s not the way I went. If what I’m searching for moved, we may miss it.”

“We can always double back, but there’s no sense wasting time putzing around if we can avoid it.”

“That sounds reasonable,” she agreed. “By the way, whoever taught you Yiddish? The local deli?”

He didn’t bother responding, recognizing it for the viper’s pit it was.

“Wait, where are you going? We’re heading in the wrong direction again,” Betty argued, pointing the way they’d been traveling.

“It’s an emergency,” he said. “With luck, this won’t take long, but we can’t wait.”

“Is this something you anticipate?” When he nodded, she focused her attention on the new task, rather than their old one. Whatever they were seeking would wait. After all, it hadn’t shifted much the entire time they were tracking it.

Al made two rapid turns and ended up in a residential neighborhood. He pulled to a stop in front of a small, rundown house. Turning off the car, he got out and headed for the front door at a trot.

“Should I bring something?” Betty called.

Instead of answering, he waved the question off, too focused on his objective to respond. She hurried after him, anticipating the worst.

When they reached the door, there was noise of a struggle inside, with someone gurgling and knocking over items while the other growled. Both were panting.

Without hesitating, Al opened the door. After their encounter the previous day, Betty wasn’t surprised it was unlocked, but wasn’t eager to confront what awaited them.

There, lying on the floor, were a couple: a bearded man choking a light-skinned black woman. There were items strewn around, the obvious aftereffects of a drawn-out fight. The woman was clutching her throat, unable to breathe, while the man was panting with the effort of choking the life from her. Al rushed in without hesitation.

“Let her go!” he shouted, smashing the man in the side of the face. The couple was so intent on their struggle, they hadn’t noticed them entering. The man was startled, but didn’t release her. Al smashed him in the nose, which got his attention and forced him to release the woman. Free from his grasp, the woman gasped as she filled her lungs with air. Betty dragged her from the man’s reach.

“Tha… thanks,” she said, her eyes glazed and sweat collecting along her brow. “I was sure … it was over!”

The man scrambled to his feet, holding his nose, which was bleeding. “Who the hell are you? What are you doing in our house?”

“I’m stopping you from committing murder.” Al stood between him and the women. “I saved you from a bloody murder charge.” He glanced over his shoulder to ensure she was okay. “I suggest you get out of here, at least until he regains his senses.”

“I don’t need to do anything,” she argued, slurring her words. “Taylor just gets a little excited. Who the hell are you to barge into our house and start issuing orders?”

“She ain’t going nowhere!” the man bellowed, launching himself at the newcomer. He threw a punch. Being forty pounds heavier it would have been devastating, but Al just stepped aside and the man stumbled past, overcompensating. To keep his distance, Al pushed him away, causing the man to stumble into a coffee table. He landed with a whoosh of air as the table cracked.

“What the hell?” the woman yelled from behind them. Betty tried to grab her, but not possessing her brother’s talents, hadn’t anticipated her response. She slipped past, leaping on Al’s back, beating him with her hands.

“Leave Taylor alone! He didn’t mean nuthin.”

Al spun, trying to disengage her, not wanting to hurt the victim, but she was having none of it.

“Leave us alone!” she bellowed in his ear, punching and kicking him.

Betty grabbed her from behind, but instead of pulling her off, got dragged along as they swung in awkward circles, stumbling over the furniture.

“He was killing you!” Al reminded her.

“He didn’t mean it. He gets … carried away when he’s been drinking.”

Changing directions, spinning the other way, the woman and Betty slid off his back, crashing to the floor. She elbowed Betty, scrambling to her feet. In an effort to draw them away, Al backed towards the door.

“Calm down. I was just trying to help.”

“I wouldn’t hurt her!” the man insisted.

“He’d let me go once I passed out,” the woman said, blood dripping from several small lacerations to her face, one eye already swelling shut. “It’s what’s happened before.”

They weren’t a bad looking couple. The woman was young, early twenties with dimples, which stood in sharp contrast to her murderous scowl. The man was bearded, with patches of hair ripped out. He seemed like a young, urban professional, though the drab apartment spoke volumes of his career success. Empty bottles, a few shattered, littered their living room floor.

“I’ll kill you!” Taylor screamed.

“I’ll get the bitch with ‘im,” his partner replied.

“Look, we’re leaving. Okay? I only wanted to ensure you weren’t killed. If you want to stay for him to try a second time, that’s on your dime, but don’t expect us to rescue you the next time.”

“I would have been fine,” she insisted.

“NO! You wouldn’t. You were moments from dying. He wasn’t going to stop.”

“Get the hell out of our house!” Taylor bellowed.

Betty took the opportunity to run to the door. Both occupants of the house were focused on Al.

“I’m getting a knife,” the battered woman proclaimed.

“We’re leaving!” Al fled, slamming the door behind him and stumbling down the steps. The front door burst open as they were climbing into the car. The man rushed them with a kitchen knife, so Al started the car and peeled out without waiting to buckle up. The man ran after them, waving his knife and cursing as they fled. He threw something at their car, which banged against the fender. Something cracked.

“That could have gone better,” Betty said.

“Geez! You think? Who knew someone would defend their murderer?”

“Women often side with their attacker, especially if they hope to change them,” she said. “Would he really have killed her?”

“Do you think I’d get involved if she’d be okay otherwise?” he asked, pulling to a stop a couple blocks away. Turning the car off, he got out to inspect the damage, limping as he circled the car. The rear brake light was cracked.

“You’re bleeding. Being the hero isn’t all hugs and kisses. You got cocky. Didn’t you anticipate that happening?”

“Not really. I saw myself intervening, and him not choking her, but not what happened afterwards. I suspect I only see the serious stuff, when someone’s life is in danger. Only I don’t see the fallout following my intervention. Still, given what was likely to happen, I’d do it again. Beyond that, there wasn’t anything else I could do. You can’t unring the house-invasion bell.”

“By the way, that was a fast move, dodging his blow like that. I never realized you were such a fighter.”

He chuckled. “I anticipated it. I was moving before he ever threw his punch. Even so, I surprised myself. My problem was pushing him. If he hadn’t fallen into the table, things would have ended happier, or at least less frantically.”

“I wouldn’t count on it,” Betty responded. “They weren’t just angry over the broken table. Breaking in, intruding on a private family affair and lecturing drunks on their behavior are all losing propositions.” She hesitated. “We’d better move. They’re likely to come after us if we dawdle.”

“Don’t worry,” he said. “I’m eager to get as far away from here as possible. But you’re right, I’m not likely to see an altercation if our lives aren’t actually in jeopardy.”

“If you see a neighborhood insurance company, let me buy you some. This ability is going to get you killed.”

“You and me both! Superpowers aren’t for your health, that’s for sure! You never see superman getting beat up by the people he saves—or even the survivors of the buildings he destroys saving humanity.”

“Okay, I need a direction here,” Al said, still clutching his side. “Do we go left, right or straight?”

“I … I don’t know.”

“Wait, I thought you could always tell? Which is it?”

She paused, holding her hand up with her face scrunched, so Al pulled over while waiting for her to decide. It made no sense driving just to double back again. They’d done that enough. She kept leading him in one direction, only to discover it led to a dead-end or was blocked by a river or bluff. Each time, they turned around and started again. He was frustrated and ready for a break. They’d been on this quest for hours with no evidence they were any closer.

“That’s strange,” she said.

“What is?”

“Whatever I’m following, I’m being led in two different directions. That must mean I’m close enough to distinguish them. There’s clearly more than one, and they’re in separate locations, so I don’t know which way to go.”

“That’s easy enough,” Al said, putting the car in gear. “We’ll pick one. If we find something, we’ll at least have a better understanding of what we’re searching for.”

She shook her head, her hair flipping with her conviction. “No. If we give up on one, it may not be there when we return. I don’t want to take a chance.”

“On the other hand, if we do nothing, they might both disappear.”

“I thought they were stable, since I’ve been steadily tracking them to the same location. I now realize we were too far away.”

He put his car back in park, laying his head on the steering wheel. “So what do you suggest we do?”

“Wait and see if either one moves. We’re obviously close. In fact, we’re near enough I can sense how far away they are. I didn’t before. It feels like two distinct sources. If neither one shifts, we’ll know they’re stationary. However, if one travels, we’ll know which is more likely to get away.”

Al leaned back, nestling in his seat and closing his eyes. “How did searching for imaginary objects get so complicated? And how do inanimate objects move around? Don’t bother answering. It’s obvious someone is carrying them. Though, given what we’ve encountered so far, I doubt anything is so simple. Is there anything left to eat? I’m starving. Lunch didn’t last long.”

She reached into her purse/backpack. “I think I’ve got some Skittles in here.”

“It’s not much, but it’s better than nothing.” Instead of waiting, he put the car back in gear and eased back into traffic.

“Where are we going? I thought we decided to wait?”

“You decided, but I’m not objecting. I’d rather wait somewhere I can get something to drink. A chance to pee wouldn’t hurt either.”

She could see his logic. After all, if the objects hadn’t moved the entire time they’d been searching, they were unlikely to disappear now.

He located a gas station and they both got out. Betty stood by the car, trying to sense where the objects were while he went inside, searching for food. He’d just purchased two drinks, sandwiches and chips when she poked her head in the door.

“One’s moving. They’re converging. It’s a good thing we waited. Now we can find them at the same place.”

He grabbed his purchases and hurried out, past the attendant who wasn’t paying them the least bit of attention.

“So which way do we go?” he asked as they ran to his car.

“Let’s wait to see where it stops. I’m hoping they’ll end up in the same place, but as long as one’s moving, we won’t know for sure.”

“You couldn’t wait to tell me then? How about we trail the closest one?”

“That works. Get in and I’ll direct you.”

3: Others Like Us

“A martial arts dojo?” Al scratched his head, studying the structure. “This is what we were searching for?”

“It’s not the dojo, it’s what’s inside,” Betty said, watching the building intently.

“Okay, let’s head in and see.”

“Not now. The other one isn’t here yet. I’m waiting for both.”

“How far away is this other one? Is there time for a quick nap?”

“No, it’s close by. We got here just in time.”

Al sat up, staring out the window for any suspicious activity, but didn’t notice anything.

Several minutes passed before Betty jerked to attention. “They’re both inside! We missed something. Maybe they were taken in through the back?”

“I didn’t see anything. There’s no room for a service van back there, though we don’t know what we’re seeking.” Al opened the door. “Come on, there’s only one way to find out.”

They entered the mixed-martial arts dojo. There were a variety of older kids practicing their forms. Betty walked past her brother and crossed the studio. She paused, pointing out the two instructors helping students in the back. “It’s them. They’re what I was searching for.”

“Not what I was anticipating,” Al said, studying them for any clues what they might represent.

One student bowed before them. “Thank you, Sensei Gary, Sensei Delilah. I’d never have advanced this far without your assistance.”

Al turned to his sister. “Well, here goes,” as he headed towards the pair.

“Excuse me, could we … talk privately for a moment?”

The couple was in excellent shape, demonstrating moves for a yellow belt. The woman looked Hispanic, with her hair pulled back and her forehead covered with a headband, despite the dojo having a distinctly Japanese presence. Her partner was paler with longer hair, bangs hanging over his forehead and a goatee. There were both a few years older than Al and Betty.

The man looked the two up and down, evaluating their potential. “You interested in signing up for a class?”

“Not exactly. My sister, Be, is looking for you. Something drew us to you and we’d like to learn why.”

Considering the teenagers, the woman wiped her forehead, nudging her headband.

Al noted they both wore elastic straps over their wrists. Swallowing, he took a chance, unbuttoning and rolling up his sleeve, something he never did in public. The couple noticed the marks on his wrist. Instead of displaying curiosity, they dropped to one knee, crossing their right arm over their chest.

“We await your command, Sir.”

“Uh … what?”

Betty shifted around so she could examine her brother’s wrist. “How long have you had that?”

“I’ve always had it, though it’s gotten more pronounced recently. I have no idea what it signifies, but apparently our new friends do.”

Betty lifted her sleeve, revealing a similar but slightly different design on her wrist. “That’s why I always cover my arms.” She pulled her bangs back, exposing a series of dark circles across her brow line.

“Damn,” Al said, pulling his own hair back, displaying a comparable pattern.

The two figures on their knees yanked their armbands off. They possessed nearly identical designs on their flesh.

“What do they mean?” Al demanded, motioning them up, blushing as he glanced at the students surrounding them.

The couple glanced at each other as they stood. The man spoke for the two. “We don’t know. We’ve always thought it was some birthmark.”

“Then why did you kneel? The mark must signify something to you?”

“Frankly, I’ve never seen any besides ours, but we instinctively knew you were someone significant when we saw it.”

“But you didn’t respond the same when you saw my sister’s, or each other’s.”

“There’s something unique about yours,” the woman responded.

Al strode over to the nearest student, who was trying to pretend he wasn’t watching. He showed him his wrist and the kid shrugged. “It’s interesting, but nothin’ to write home about.”

Al returned to the couple. “So what accounts for the difference in your reactions and those of everyone else?”

Betty examined his wrist again. There was a thicker solid ring, with two thinner circles with a small dot at the eleven o’clock position. Hers consisted of three thin circles with a line marking the twelve noon location. The new couple had a thinner circle surrounding a thick one, circling another thin one. None of them made much sense, but she had to admit, seeing the one on her brother’s wrist she had a tendency to defer to him.

“I thought mine were a birthmark too, but it never looked like any birthmark,” she said. “They’re more detailed, and unlike birthmarks, which either fade or grow over time, these have maintained their shape but have grown darker. I guess they’re more like tattoos.”

“If it’s a tattoo, we must have gotten them as children,” the woman said. “Who would tattoo a child with something like that?”

Al stepped back, trying to distance himself from the observing, curious students. “We’re attracting attention.” He covered his wrists again. “I’m Al Collins, and this is my sister Be.”

“Betty,” she said, correcting him.

“I’m Gary Marks,” the man said before indicating his partner. “This is my girlfriend, Delilah Rivers.”

“Forgive me for asking,” Al said as they shook hands, “but how did you meet? It seems, if we all share these traits, we must be related somehow.”

“It’s possible,” Delilah said. “We’re orphans. We met in a group home and kept in touch. Once we grew up, we discovered we were both into self-defense. We began spending more time together, and the next thing we were in love.”

“I was hoping you were related. That makes more sense than if there’s no biological connection between us.”

Betty lifted Delilah’s wrist after they shook hands. “I notice you have identical symbols. Maybe it stands for security.”

“It might be. That’s why we got into this. We believe in helping people defend themselves.”

“Well, my brother has a talent more likely to get him into trouble than assist him. We were almost killed when he tried to rescue me, he was almost run over saving our neighbor, and another woman he rescued attacked him. My own talent drew us to you.”

Gary and Delilah shared a glance. “That’s probably why you were drawn to us. Clearly we were meant to meet. I’m guessing we’re intended to protect you.” One of the students cleared his throat. “Pardon us, we have a lesson,” Gary said. “Please, take a seat, enjoy the demonstrations and we can talk afterwards.”

They did just that. There weren’t any chairs, so they sat on the hardwood floor along the side. Gary clapped and everyone jumped to attention. He took them through their rounds, and then moved to the next stage. “Peter, Markus, why don’t you practice sparring while we critique.”

“Pardon me, Sensei, who are the new people? Are they someone we should know?”

Gary turned, motioning Al forward. “Frankly, we’ve just met, but I’m eager to learn just how skilled he is. How about it? Care for a demonstration?”

Al stood and approached the practice area. “I’ve got to admit, I know next to nothing about martial arts, but I’ll try whatever you want.”

“I’ll take it slow,” Gary said, folding his hands and bowing slightly. “I suspect you’re better than you claim.”

Al copied his bow and Gary took a basic fighter stance. Al stood as he normally did. Gary threw a jab and Al leaned to one side and the blow, which Gary held back on, missed. Gary smiled and tried a three-punch combination, thrown in quick succession holding nothing back, each of which Al avoided without raising his hands. The students leaned forward, suddenly excited about the demonstration. Gary did a spin-kick, aiming for Al’s head. Al crouched as Gary’s leg sailed over his head, then reached out and yanked Gary’s foot from under him, sending him to the mat with a thump. The students gasped. Getting back to his feet, Gary bowed again. “Excellent. You’ll have to show me your technique. Try attacking me now. Don’t worry, I can defend myself.”

“It’s called anticipation and I’m not sure I can teach it.” Al turned slightly, tossed a punch with his right hand—which Gary moved to counter—then threw a straight jab with his left, which halted centimeters from Gary’s throat.

Gary bowed a third time, lower than before. “Remind me never to get into a bar fight with you. I think you should be the one teaching me.”

Delilah stepped up, motioning Betty forward. “Would you care to give it a try?”

“Yes, please do,” two girls shouted.

She waved the request off, remaining seated. “No thanks. I’m a searcher, not a fighter.”

“You don’t want to rescue your brother if you’re attacked again?”

“From what I’ve seen, I’d only get in his way. His biggest threat is himself. He’s too quick to rush in, even knowing the odds aren’t good. I suspect, even if he understands it’ll turn out badly, he’ll dive in anyway.”

Gary turned to their students. “That’s an important lesson. Always evaluate the situation and make sure you have an exit strategy. It’s better to call 911 if you can’t intervene without getting hurt. There’s no bravery in being killed unnecessarily. The smartest thing is to take a stand and help in the most productive way. Don’t be afraid to run away, but also don’t fear standing back and assisting afterwards if it provides the greater benefit.”

Gary turned, indicating their new friends. “Can we hear it for our guests, Al and Betty Collins?”

The kids applauded enthusiastically while Al blushed and sat. After the session ended, the two instructors helped a few students clean and stack the mats, while several sought Al out.

“That was amazing! How did you do it? I swear, you started moving before Gary threw a punch.”

“I know. You made it seem natural, like you weren’t doing anything. Sensei Marks wasn’t pulling his punches after the first time. He was really testing you, trying to connect.”

“It’s not something you can teach. It’s more anticipating what your opponent will do. It’s similar to how magicians perform magic by drawing your attention away from what they’re doing with sleight of hand.”

“I’m going to read up on it and learn more about the technique,” the one boy said.

“There’s not much written about it, it’s more of an innate skill rather than something you can learn,” Al said, shooting Gary a glare, which was missed.

After the last of the students departed, Delilah motioned them to the back of the studio. “We need to change. You really made Gary sweat out there. We’ll talk more in the back.”

When they went back, the older couple stripped off their clothes as if it was nothing unusual. “So what’s the next step?” Delilah asked.

“We never fully explained because of your students, but Al is an Intuit, or Precog, someone who can see what will happen in the future, otherwise known as precognition—though I prefer ‘Intuit’ as it sounds less awkward. As a result, he anticipates trouble and jumps in at the worst possible moment. In my case, I was compelled to seek you out, not knowing where you were but led, turn by turn, to your location.”


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