[Author’s note: This was originally written and posted on dA back in 2011, so it’s a rougher draft than most. It’s also very squarely written with the expectation that the reader understands how plurality and systems work [hi, multiple people in one head over here], so if you don’t have that context it might be more than usually confusing.]
“You know,” I say, digging through the rubble on the fourth day after the earthquake, “I didn’t sign up to this to be a construction worker.”
Fourteen rolls his eyes at me (at least, I assume they’re his – he and Tag share the same colour irises, but the rest of him looks like Fourteen). “You think we did?” he asks, hefting a piece of rebar and tossing it onto the mountain of junk we’ve collected. “I thought this was going to be one of those chance-of-a-lifetime deals. You know – the whole ‘use your powers for good’ superhero schtick?”
“Yeah, yeah.” I can hear Finch sniggering to himself, but I keep a straight face. For all Fourteen’s a geek and a nerd and everything else you could sling at him, he’s hit the nail on the head with that one. “I got the whole ‘join up and serve your nation’ thing pinned on me. Like the shifter thing was something I ought to be using for the greater good instead of ‘wasting’.”
I hadn’t been wasting it, of course. If anything, I’d been using it better than half the shifter kids I knew. Sure, there’d been the occasional break-in, and that liquor store, and the hold-up where the witnesses all swore they’d seen a different guy, but that was better than pretending you couldn’t shift at all and hiding like you were ashamed of it. I wasn’t ashamed. I was strong. I was a fucking shifter, and that was better than any goddamn mundanes could think.
So I was a criminal. So I didn’t use my ‘gift’ to my advantage. So fucking what?
I had a natural advantage, didn’t I? Legion and a shifter. Might as well use it, even if half the gang didn’t approve of what we were doing. The ones who did were pretty well strong enough to stop the ones who didn’t interfering.
And then they got hold of me when I got too cocky. Tried to shift to get away, but shifting brought a couple of the ‘good guys’ out, and they turned me in. Bastards. Two months locked down, then a knock on my door and in come a pair of suits with clipboards and ask me if I want to join the Army.
I tell them to go fuck themselves, of course. Army’s what got my dad killed. Army’s what lost me two older brothers, and a sister. Army’s what fucked my family over so badly my mum ended up chucking her weirdo kid on the mercy of the state when he was three years old and couldn’t shift yet (and let me tell you, that was hell on fucking earth). So yeah.
But then they tell me they’re making a new division. Shifters only, and, what’s more, shifters like me. A legion of Legions. (And they make it pretty fucking clear it’s that or the long hard drag or worse).
So I join up. Lose my name, lose my apparently-firstform, get a number and a military-approved look for wearing in public, and out I go into the world, number Seventeen on the new battle line in the new war.
Hawk and Crow and Finch and the others, they stay locked down for a while, just until I get used to the place. Then they start taking an interest and, for the first time in my life, I’m with a pack of Legions who get it. And Hawk’s a military man, so he fits right on in. Crow just hangs about and sulks for a while, then she gets her gameface on, and she drags Finch in and he drags Starling, and before you know it the whole lot of us are paid-up suited-up members of their Top Secret Spec Ops whateveryouwanttocallit.
And now here we are, shifting rubble under an alien sun and playing at being civilised. Guess things change.
“Yeah?” I look up, shading my eyes, and see Yuri hove into view, running across the scrappiles with more speed than he’s any right to have, given how damn bulky the guy is. He and his are technically supposed to be working another site, but Six gets bored easily and Yuri’s better friends with us than he is with the guys working there, so he comes and hangs out round our way. I like him – Hawk doesn’t, but then, Hawk isn’t the one having to do the work, so he doesn’t get a say in it. “What’s the hurry, tovarisch?”
“Kes’s gone missing!”
“Ah shit,” Fourteen mutters, dropping the chunk of masonry he’s holding and just missing smashing himself in the foot with it. He steps back, frowning, and I can see his face and body starting to change, his features morphing as his suit shifts to accomodate the extra inches in height
Of course. Kes is Tag’s boyfriend.
“Just Kes?” I ask, feeling Crow trying to force her way to the front, and mentally pushing her back. I need to deal with this one. For now, anyway.
Yuri shakes his head. “Twelve too. All of them.”
That’s a metric fuckton more worrying. If it’d just been Kes, it’d have been bad enough, but people occasionally wander off. When a whole Legion goes missing, then we’ve got problems.
Tag’s looking properly murderous by this time, and I take a quick step back, not wanting to be in range when that particular bomb goes off. “When? Where?” he asks, questions coming out like gunshots. He’s a hell of a lot scarier than Fourteen, who’s all soft-spoken geeky awkwardness, but the worriedness is there all the same.
The Russian shakes his head again, raising his hands apologetically. “I don’t know. Six went on a break and, when she came back, there was not a sign of Kes, and no-one else had seen him leave.”
“How long ago?”
“Just now,” Yuri says. Then, seeing Tag’s expression, he changes it to ‘About ten minutes’, which seems to avoid the whole getting-punched-in-the-face deal Tag looked to be winding up to.
“Right,” I say, dropping my tools and heading across to the jeep. “Let’s go look for him.” It’s technically a treasonable act, that – disobeying orders and leaving my post – but since when did I ever give a fuck for authority when my friends were in danger? Matter of fact, since when did I ever give a fuck for authority?
Since you joined the Army, Hawk reminds me, unamused.
I think a whole load of unprintable shit at him and hop in the drivers seat, waiting for the others to get on board before I start the engine and kick the whole deal into gear. Crow’s a better driver than me, so I let her take it from there, stepping back as I feel ‘my’ body shifting to her specifications. I tend to avoid female shifts myself for personal reasons, so I head to the back of the skull, my shoulder accidentally brushing past Finch’s on the way.
He’s anxious, I can tell that much just from a touch, and I put an arm round him, giving him the kind of hug I can’t give when I’m up in the front. “We’ll find him, kid,” I say. “Don’t fret.”
Finch rolls his eyes at me, pulling free and heading across to sit down next to Starling. “I’m not a kid. And it’s not Kes I’m worried about.”
Oh. Right. Okay, this is going to get complicated, so I’ll make it quick. Finch reckons that Jasper, who’s part of Kes’ Legion, is his brother. I don’t have a fucking clue how that works, but who am I to argue with him. So obviously it’s Jasper he’s freaking out about, and since Jasper’s with Kes and Twelve and co, that means whatever happened to them happened to Jasper as well.
“Then we’ll find Jas, alright?” I say.
Finch nods. Starling taps her fingers on her shoulders, arms crossed over her chest, and mutters something I can’t hear. She does the tapping thing when she’s nervous, so I reckon to it being something about Kes and co. Nothing I can do about that, though. Crow’s in charge for now, and seems to be doing pretty well, if the way we’re racing over that rubble’s anything to go by.
I turn to Hawk, who’s being all stoic and macho in the corner. “You going to start freaking out on me as well?” I ask, trying to keep my mind off what might’ve happened to Twelve and Kes and Jas and the rest of them.
He sighs, looking at me like I’m some kind of idiot. “Do I look like the type of man who would do that, Geo?”
Geo? That’s a worrying sign. No-one’s called me that since I-don’t-know-when. “Hey. Seventeen now, remember? And yeah, you do.”
“Then appearances are deceiving. I’m fine.”
“Yeah, I believe that.”
“I am fine, Seventeen.”
“So…the fact Twelve and Jas and Kes and Toby and Rigel and Li have gone missing on some alien planet we know fuck-all about and have probably been eaten by something or got by the Critters or fallen down a crevasse or something isn’t worrying you at all, right?”
“That’s nice. Also a massive fucking lie.”
“Don’t swear at a superior officer.”
Oh fuck. I keep forgetting he outranks me. Last thing I need right now is an argument, so I leave him to being perfectly fine in a corner with his arms folded and his face looking like he just swallowed half a gallon of lemon juice, and head up front to see what’s going on.
Six is in the car now, leaning out the side to get a look at the landscape. She’s a hell of a lot shorter than Yuri, so Tag’s towering over her, but she’s looking so damn scary that even I take a step back.
“Do you see anything?” she asks, looking over at us, and I feel Crow’s hand tighten on the steering wheel as she takes a quick scan over the bombed-out wasteland.
“Nothing,” we say, as I step up to the fore, clenching my fist on the gearstick and trying not to think how fucking wrong Crow’s body feels in the few moments before it shifts back to my form. “Hey there, Six.”
“Hey yourself, Seventeen,” the girl says. She shifts around, getting up on her knees on the seat and bracing herself on the top of the windshield, and then gives a shout like she’s been shot or something. “There!”
“What?” I ask, and then I look. And then I see why she’s looking so damn sheet-white.
There’s a Critter about a block away from us (right in the middle of the damn secure zone!) and it’s got something in its claws and, oh fucking christ, it’s eating it.
For a moment I hope to high hell it’s some stray animal or something, but there’s no animals in this place – nothing but us and them, and that sure as hell doesn’t look like a Critter it’s chowing down on.
Critters don’t bleed red.
I gun the engine, vision going red-black like it does in the moments when Hawk’s up front and something sets him off, and we barrel towards the fucker, me screaming I-don’t-know-what, and Tag grabbing for his gun, and Six stepping back to let Ida, who’s the best in her Legion at fighting, come running up to the fore.
The Critter turns around, and I just get time to see Twelve’s head and torso hanging out of its mouth like some goddamn fucking dog toy before a blast smashes into its skull, blowing its brains out over the last surviving wall in this sector.
I slam the brakes on, hard, screeching to a stop just before the front wheels would’ve hit the rest of Twelve’s body, and stare.
Because that shot didn’t come from Tag, who’s standing there with his mouth open like he’s catching flies and his gun dangling from his hands in a way that’d make Hawk scream at him for five minutes straight for improper handling of weaponry. And it didn’t come from Ida, who’s barely out of her seat and hasn’t even got her hands on her gun yet. And it didn’t come from me.
It came from Kes.
Kes, who’s standing about eight foot away from us, holding a gun and dressed in civvies and looking like his world just came crashing down round his ears.
“…What the fuck?” I say.
Tag just keeps staring for a moment, mouth hanging open. Then he jumps off the back of the jeep, runs over to Kes and throws his arms around him, hugging him so damn tight he looks like he’s about to break him in half, talking nineteen-to-the-dozen at him in Arabic and getting pretty much the same speed of it coming back at him.
I’ve not a goddamn clue what they’re saying, and neither has Ida, but Starling jumps up next to me, whispering in my ear that it’s something about a machine, and tech that’s way way way beyond ours, and something about being able to make a Legion all have their own bodies.
Which would sound completely and utterly fucking crazy if I wasn’t staring at Twelve’s corpse and Kes being alive and well at the same time – and, I notice, turning back round and trying not to see the links and ropes of Twelve’s intestines tangled up in the teeth of what remains of the Critter’s skull, Jas and Rigel hiding in the shadows of one of the mounds of rubble a little way away.
I feel Starling head back, and, a little while later, as I scramble out of the car and make my way over to the remains of Twelve, I can hear her telling Finch what’s gone on. She’s going flat, and I know she’s just a little way off losing speech altogether, but Finch deals with that better than I can anyway, and I’ve respects to pay.
At least, that’s what I try and do. Kneel down in the dust and rubble next to the upper half of Twelve’s corpse and close their eyes, swallowing back vomit at the stench of shit and death. Poor bastard. They shouldn’t’ve gone like that. Shouldn’t’ve gone at all. “Mary watch over you,” I mutter, a prayer to a Goddess I only half-believe in – but Twelve was one of hers, and they’ll go to her now, and a prayer to guide them on their way is better than nothing, even if it’s from someone like me. “Mary guide you, and keep you, at the hour of your death and after.”
I can feel a pressure mounting behind my eyes, my free hand tightening on the ground, and I choke back a sob that I didn’t feel coming.
I’ve seen death before. I’ve killed before. Why the fuck is this the one that breaks me?
Hawk’s hand presses down heavily on my shoulder, almost solid enough to make me turn around to see if he’s there. Go back, he says. And, as I close my eyes and bow my head and try to stop the tears I know are coming, And that’s an order, soldier.
I go back. And back. Further than normal, past Starling (sitting on the floor, hands on the back of her neck, rocking back and forth) and Finch (stroking Starling’s hair and talking to her so quietly I can’t hear it) and Crow (pacing up and down, nearer the front with every pace) and past shadows I’ve only ever glimpsed out of the corner of my eye, and past what feels like the walls of forever and into blackness that seems to swallow me up completely.
When I come to, I’m alone.
It doesn’t bother me, at first. It’s happened before. Maybe someone’s just pulled me back somewhere where they won’t trip over me. Maybe I’m just muzzy-headed and can’t think straight. Maybe…
Maybe they’ve gone.
If Twelve and their Legion managed it – the whole separate bodies thing -have we? Did Hawk do it, while I was out? Is that why he told me to go back?
I clench my fists, fighting back panic. I don’t want to be alone, I realise. I’ve never been alone. Never.
Nothing- and then, from beside me, something that sounds very much like a sob.
His voice sounds wrong – louder, but in an odd way that I can’t quite place – and I open my eyes, turning around to see a face that looks almost unfamiliar in a light that isn’t headspace-greenness or the fluorescence of the barrackroom mirrors.
He nods, wordlessly, and I throw my arms around him, hugging him hard and tight against my chest, and almost thinking that being able to do this properly makes up for the fact that he’s not- we’re not-
“Geo?” he says, looking up at me, face criss-crossed with red lines from my body-armour. “What’s wrong?”
“Nothing,” I say, lying through my teeth. If he decided it was better out there, who am I to stop him?
He frowns, brown eyes widening in understanding. “Oh. Oh Geo, I’m sorry. I didn’t-“
“Hey, kid. Don’t apologise. You wanted out.” I ruffle his hair, static from my glove making it stand straight up on his head. “You talked to Jas yet?”
“Yep.” He frowns again. “You know we didn’t all go, right?”
“Crow stayed. And Hawk. They said they liked it better.”
I blink, feeling a sudden surge of relief that I almost don’t want to admit to. “They did?”
“But I can’t-“
“The machine knocked you all out when me and Starling came through. They were closer to the front than you, so they’re probably asleep.”
I nod, and feel myself starting to smile. If I’m not alone, then maybe, just maybe, this’ll all work out. “So Starling came out with you, right?” I ask.
Finch nods. “She went to talk to Ida.”
Ida. Six. Yuri. I’d almost forgotten about them.
For the first time since we started talking I look around, staring at the silver and white metal that makes up the chamber we’re sitting in. “Are they- I mean, is she-?”
“She’s not in Legion with Six any more. Neither’s Yuri.”
“Fourteen’s Legion’s still together. They said they preferred it that way.”
It makes a sort of sense, I suppose, but I can’t help feeling a sudden surge of jealousy. Why didn’t Finch and Starling stay with me?
Because they wanted out. You’ve still got us.
“That’s true,” I say out loud, jealousy ebbing away as the familiar presences of Hawk and Crow slip into their old accustomed places.
Finch grins, watching me. “It looks different from the outside, you know.”
“True enough.” He does have a point. And, I start thinking, he might have something else. “Can you still do it?”
He concentrates for a moment. Then I blink, and find a perfect replica of myself looking back at me, grinning Finch’s grin with my mouth. “Yep,” he says, and I decide that his shifting clearly doesn’t go as far as vocal cords, because that is not how my voice sounds.
But it’s pretty good, for a first attempt.
And hey, if my little brother can shift, and shift into my form that well – and if, more importantly, the suits don’t know he exists outside our Legion – then maybe, just maybe, there’s an opportunity for Geo Morricone to start raising hell again after all.
“Hey, kid,” I say, hearing Hawk sigh as he realises what I’m about to do, and discovering that I really don’t give a shit about his opinions on this. “Fancy learning a few tricks of the family trade?”
Copyright © 2022 by Finn McLellan. All rights reserved.