Chapter 10: Carriers
Arthur waited nervously, unable to relax with his charges still not returned. He found he didn’t like being the one to worry, but neither Ryu nor Ai seemed to be concerned with the carriers’ trip to town. Finally, he heard the loud rumble of an old pickup truck as it pulled up the farmhouse. At first he was sure it was a lost delivery driver; the dirt roads that led to the various farms in the area could be confusing and they often had trucks wind up here that were bound for one of their neighbors. But then he recognized the hulking form of Marco behind the wheel.
“I knew someone should have gone with them,” Arthur muttered to himself.
Peter jumped out of the truck’s bed and waved over to Arthur. “You like it?”
“Why, though?”Arthur asked as he looked over the clunker they had brought. “Where did you even get this?”
“Funny story,” Peter said, filled with an unusual amount of energy. “We asked around about where we could find weight-training equipment for Marco, and we found this old guy who was having a garage sale who had some old stuff he was getting rid of cheap. But then we were like, how would we even get this stuff back, we couldn’t possibly carry it all the way. Then this old guy is like, ‘I can sell you an old truck just gathering dust in my yard.’ Only wanted one-hundred bucks for it.” He patted the side of the truck, and the vehicle loudly backfired in response. Arthur didn’t really have much experience with cars but even he could tell it was a piece of junk.
The ruckus drew Ryu and Ai out of the house. Ryu found the whole situation hilarious, laughing as heartily as Arthur could remember.
Ai had a different take. “Why are you talking so fast?” she asked.
“I might have had an energy drink while we were in town,” Peter said. “Me and Fariman bought a case at the -”
On cue, Sam burst out of the truck’s passenger side in a blur of motion. “Oh man we’re back I didn’t even notice I was writing in my journal oh yeah I decided to start keeping a journal so that later I remember my adventures because remembering is important even if no one is ever going to believe all the element stuff except you guys of course.” His words came out without so much as a pause for breath.
“Woah, hold up Fariman,” Peter said, grabbing Sam to halt his rapid pacing, “How many of those drinks did you take?”
“I don’t know-three?” Sam’s right eye twitched. “It’s so good! Alpha Mark – Dare to Hit The Mark!”
“That’s not even their slogan,” Peter began, but Sam had already broken away from him.
Sam ran right up to an amused seeming Ryu and laid into him with his most recent thoughts. “Hey Ryu we were talking on the drive about Marco’s power and how long he’s been accidentally tapping into and he thinks it has been a while so he must have been a carrier already but you didn’t detect him until yesterday how come?”
Ryu’s good humor dissolved and he let out a heavy sigh. “Well, you see -”
“And if you’re hiding that from us, what else are you hiding?!” Sam, literally shaking with energy, interrupted. “What secrets are you keeping old man? How long did you know about me? Where are all the other Elementalists?! Wait, are there famous historical figures who were secretly Elementalists? Oh my god, did an Elementalist kill JFK?!”
“I think maybe you should sit down, Sam,” Ai said, her voice stern.
Seeing everyone looking at him, Sam had at least enough self-control left to back away. “Sorry.”
“That is a lot of questions,” a wide-eyed Ryu replied. “I can’t speak to most of them, but as to the original one, yes, Marco’s Fragment has likely resided within him for a long time. However, detecting carriers is pretty difficult. Even standing this close to you it would a great deal of studying your the flow of your element to determine you are one. The only reason I’ve been able to see them find them at all is because the Dark One’s power has been reaching for them. In his attempt to draw his power back to himself, he causes them become revealed. You were the first I was able to locate because of that.”
“So what you are saying is that there might be other guys like Marco out there,” Sam asked, “who are carriers already using their power that you just haven’t found yet?”
“There probably are,” Ryu admitted. “I can only hope when they are revealed I am able to locate them before The Dark God’s minions.”
Behind them, Marco was unloading the truck, pulling out an older but sizable CRT television. “Hey, who wants to help me get this TV set up? It’s almost 7!”
Sam, still bristling with energy, rushed over to him. “I’ll help! I know just where to put it cause yesterday after lunch I was looking around and thinking about how a little furniture would really make the place a little more comfortable and I pictured the perfect spot for a TV that would look good and would also give us good reception cause we are definitely going to have to use an antenna cause I doubt there’s cable here.”
“You bought a television?” Ai asked incredulously.
Marco just smiled at her. “Just cause people are trying to kill me doesn’t mean I’m going to miss my stories.”
“Hey, that’s pretty cool,” Arthur said, looking over the old screen like it was a magical device. “I’ve barely gotten to see any television since I was a kid. I’ll help you guys set up.”
As Marco and the younger men piled into the house, Ai was shaking her head. “You think it’s alright to let them have that?” she asked her teacher. “It might get in the way of their training.”
When she didn’t get a response, she looked to Ryu who seemed to be lost in thought. “Ryu?”
He snapped briefly back into reality. “Oh, yes, it will probably be fine.” In truth, he couldn’t think too much about it. His mind was occupied by what he had said to Sam. There were other carriers out there, oblivious to the danger hanging over their heads. If their enemies learned a way of finding them first …
Right now, he could only hope they were safe.
“Here I go again on my own!” the chorus song by Whitesnake blared at near ear-damaging volumes. The song was appropriate to the tone of the shrine to the 1980’s. Ghostbusters, Risky Business, and Fast Times at Ridgemont High posters decorated the walls along those of the hair metals bands of the era. The shelves and display cabinets were littered with Transformers figures, slap bracelets, Rainbow Brite and Teddy Ruxpin dolls, and paraphernalia of every Saturday-morning cartoon of the time.
Madeline Devue was born in the wrong era, or at least that was what she told anyone who questioned her curious obsession. One look at the young woman might trick a person into thinking they had found someone on their way to a retro-themed party. Her style was quintessentially 80’s: big hair, a colorful blazer with pronounced shoulders, and bright makeup.
She was in front of her mirror, working her hair with a brush, singing lightly along with the blasting tones. It was a daily routine to her, so ingrained into her muscle memory she was barely paying attention to her reflection. Which is part of the reason she was so shocked when she did look at her reflection and saw a man’s face staring back at her.
“Jeez!” she shouted, grasping her brush to her chest, before taking a deep and turning behind her. “Jeez, I told you not to do that, Myst. Haven’t you heard of a phone?”
The short man behind her was as disheveled looking as ever, his ECT uniform wrinkled like he slept in it and his hair resembling a man who had been homeless for about a week. “I called.” He walked over to her phone, an antique land-line that had once been used on Family Ties, and picked it up to check for a dial tone. “It’s working, but I guess you wouldn’t hear the ring over this racket.” As if the music was responding to the criticism, it suddenly reduced in volume until it was barely more than a murmur.
“Hey, I don’t mess with your stuff,” Madeline complained. She turned back to the mirror, which again had her own reflection, and returned to brushing her hair. “What do you want, anyway?”
“There have been a lot of activity these past few weeks,” he explained, his voice taking on the same dull, almost bored, tone she was familiar with. “Several incidents involving still unidentified Element-users.”
“Well I know how much you hate to be busy,” she replied lightly. “What does that have to do with me?”
“One of the people involved was a man we were watching on suspicion he was a carrier,” Myst continued. “We have reason to believe the other incidents may also involve carriers. If it’s true, and carriers are being targeted, it may be safer for you if you came in.”
She gave him a suspicious glance via the mirror. “To be your prisoner?”
“To be protected.”
“Same difference.” Having reached the requisite number of strokes on the right side of her head, she moved on to the left. “Look, I obey all you boys’ rules. Nobody I work with has any reason to suspect what I can do, and I don’t socialize much outside that. As long as I’m not bothering anyone, you’re supposed to leave me alone. Besides …”
She turned briefly to her unwelcome guest and held up one hand. Sparks of electricity jumped between her outstretched fingers and up her wrist. “If anyone comes for me, I’m ready for them.”
Myst sighed and scratched at his stubbly beard. “Fine, have it your way. But I think its only fair to warn you, if we learn that lightning has started flying here, the next time we ask you come in, it won’t be a request.”
Madeline turned back to her mirror, and just like that her guest was gone and her music was returned to its original volume. She finally allowed herself a smile that she had been holding back. Things had been boring lately, but now it looks like some fun might be finally coming her way.
But first, she needed to pay an old friend a visit.
Ray grabbed his shotgun, a classic Remington 870, from its glass storage case and rushed outside. His wife had come rushing in and declared that she had seen a strange man go into the chicken coop, and after all his neighbors had warned him about a rash of thefts lately he wasn’t taking any chances. He hadn’t heard of anyone missing any animals, in fact, the things stolen were usually trivial and inexpensive pieces of equipment, but everyone knew it was only a matter of time before a thief moved on to bigger things.
He slowed down outside the small shed that had been converted into a chicken coop. Slowly creeping up to the door so as to not startle the intruder, he stopped just long enough to peek in through one of the windows. Sure enough, there was the stranger, going through the nests. The intruder’s back was to the doors so he couldn’t get a good look at him, but what he could see was filthy and unkempt. A vagrant, then. Not surprising.
Gently, Ray opened the door to the shed, and, with the end of his Remington leading the way, he quietly took a step inside. “Right, stay just where you are. Hands over yer head or I’m gonna shoot.”
The intruder turned around to face him. To Ray’s surprise, he wasn’t grizzled looking, bearded vagrant. He was barely more than a boy, without an wisp of facial hair, and a face filled with innocence. The boy was dirty, though, his face grimy, his brown hair greasy, his strange camo-colored outfit that resembled a common hunter’s fatigues except shorter and baggier looked as if he had been rolling around in the dirt. Perhaps a young runaway, then.
“Oh, hi there, neighbor!” the boy said in a voice way too cheery for a kid with a gun pointed on him. “How are you today?”
Ray kept his gun steady on the intruder. He might just be a boy, but if what he heard on the news was anything to go on, even children could be dangerous these days. That was just the times he lived in. “What you doing in here, boy?”
“Just borrowing some eggs,” the boy replied as if it was obvious. “My name is Kanos. What’s yours?”
“Stay where you are!” Ray commanded as the boy inched forward. “Don’t make another move!”
“That’s a really long name,” the boy who called himself Kanos said. “Can I just call you Stay? Hey, Stay, is there something wrong with your chickens? I couldn’t find a single egg.”
The nests were rigged so that any eggs fell out and rolled down a chute into a basket for later collection. A little examination should have revealed that the young intruder. Between that and the boy’s complete lack of reaction to the gun aimed at his face, Ray was certain there was something very not right with him.
“You on some kind of drugs, boy?” Ray asked. “Don’t matter. I’m givin’ ya three seconds to get out of here before I shoot.”
The boy reached into a pocket, and on reflex Ray pulled the trigger. He immediately regretted it, doped up or not the kid didn’t deserve it. The hens all began to panic as the loud shot registered throughout the small coop. Ray could hardly bring himself to look at what he had done.
When he did look, he saw the boy had ducked his head slightly to side. The shot had missed him completely and left holes in the back of the shed. Ray was left with a mix of relief and confusion. He was glad the boy was alive, but had he dodged a shotgun at point-blank range? It had to have been just dumb luck.
“Wow!” the boy declared, though Ray could only just make him out with the ringing in his ears. “That was fast! I could have died!” He didn’t sound upset about it, it was more … astonished.
It wasn’t until a few tense seconds had passed that Ray saw what Kanos had pulled out of his pocket. It was some kind of small, silver bowl.
“You seemed upset, so I was going to give you this,” the boy said, holding out the bowl. “Now I should probably go.”
A stunned Ray took the bowl and backed out of the shed so the boy could pass. He was considering apologizing to the kid for shooting at him, maybe even offering him a few eggs to take with him, when suddenly an intense wind picked up.
“Goodbye, Stay,” Kanos said, before being lifted off the ground by the wind and flying away.
Ray stared up into the sky, his mouth agape, not even noticing the shotgun and bowl dropping from his grip, or the panicked hens fleeing from the coop behind him.
He decided it would be best if he just never talked about this again.
“Very good, Marco,” Ai said. “Your ability to reach out for your element is incredible for an amateur.”
Marco set down the the truck, which he had lifted to test his strength while under the influence of what he had previously called his inner-fire. “Yeah, well, once you described how its done, and I remembered how it felt during all those boxing matches years ago, it wasn’t too hard to put two-and-two together.” He frowned as he felt the power slip from him grasp. “Still need to work on holding on to it, though.”
It was late, well past dark, but Marco had insisted on being giving a quick run-down on how Elements are channeled. He proved to be a natural, as one might suspect from someone who had accidentally been accessing his element for years. Once he learned to focus on the properties of the stone, its strength and weight, and to picture those properties as a part of himself, he had learned how to tap into his inner-fire seemingly at will.
“You’ll get better with practice, now that you can more reliably take hold of it. What we need to work on is teaching you how to project your power outwardly. Making yourself physically stronger is only the start of what you can do.” She looked up at the night sky, getting an estimate of how late it was. “We’ll continue in the morning. You need to rest.”
He looked at her like a wounded child. “Oh, come on. You can’t give a guy such a fun new toy and ask him to wait to play with it.”
Ai gave him a curious look. “Well, you are enthusiastic, at least. Alright, we’ll work on it for a little longer.”
“Mind if I join?” Peter came out of the house holding a cup of steaming tea. “Fariman crashed hard after the energy drink wore off. Besides, I still have a lot of catching up to do. Still need to master grasping my element.”
As the two of them worked under Ai’s careful tutelage, inside the house Sam was faring much more poorly. The Alpha Mark energy drinks had worn off and left him feeling even more exhausted than before, and yet he couldn’t sleep. Part of it was the aches in his body from the workout he had been subjected to earlier. But there was something else, too … an emptiness that was weighing him down.
He realized this was the first time since he had arrived here, the first time since that crazy Aer lady had attacked him, that he did not have Peter at his side to trade jokes with. Suddenly, everything felt so much more … real to him. The fact that he was in real danger, against real enemies that wanted to hurt him, with real stakes if he should fail. And as exhausted as he felt, as alone as he felt, it all felt so hopeless.
Sam needed to talk to someone. Peter had gone outside, and Arthur and Ryu had already turned in. Not that he really wanted to talk to any of them. He knew who he wanted to talk to, someone who he hadn’t been able to say much to since he had gotten here. With great effort Sam managed to pull himself up and make his way to the house’s single landline phone. After quickly checking to make sure no one was within hearing he dialed his mother.
Since coming here, he and Peter’s calls had been done under the watchful eyes of Ryu or Arthur. It made it kind of uncomfortable to talk freely and his conversations with his mother had been very brief. He needed just a minute, or two at most, to have a real talk with her.
“Oh, Sam, I wasn’t expecting a call this late,” the voice on the end said.
“Sorry, mom,” he said, his voice sounding as exhausted as he felt, “guess I lost track of the time.”
“Oh, no, honey, I’m always glad to hear from you. How are you?”
“I’m …” He was going to instinctively say “I’m okay,” but that isn’t what he needed to say. “I’m really tired. I don’t think I’ve ever been this tired. Mom, this is the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do. I don’t know if … I’m not sure I’m strong enough.”
There was a pause. “Sam, you know you can do anything you put your mind to. You are talented, and you are intelligent. But most of all, you are stubborn. I’ve never seen you quit anything. Usually it’s reserved for your, well, sillier pursuits, but I know you can put towards something important. You will get through this, you will never allow yourself to give up.”
It was amazing how those few words could have such an impact. Sam was still just as exhausted, but that feeling of hopelessness was gone. She was right: he was no quitter. “Yeah, I’m not going to give up. Thank you. I … needed to hear that.”
“Of course, honey. By the way, can I get the address you’re staying at? I want to send you a care package. I think it might pick up your spirits.”
Again Sam took a look around him for a sign of anyone listening. Ryu had been very clear about not giving away their location to anyone, but if he couldn’t trust his mother, who could he trust? Feeling safe from prying ears he gave his mother the address of the farm.
Unknown to Sam, or to his mother, another figure had been watching the conversation. Floating outside his mother’s window was the woman who called herself Aer.
Aer had been stalking the mother ever since she had located her. With no other leads to the location of the red-haired boy she had gambled that he would eventually slip up and give some clue to her. Getting the whole address was better than she could have hoped for.
Flying off into the night, Aer knew that soon she would be back in the good graces of the Dark God. The carrier was as good as hers.