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Fixture in Fate (Superhero/Worm-like)

Discussion in 'Creative Writing' started by Sarius, Dec 21, 2020.

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  1. Sarius

    Sarius Not too sore, are you?

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    Synopsis:
    Heroes aren’t to be trusted. They aren’t to be revered, or to be praised. They are to be feared, no matter the good they do, or the justice they seem to embody. Because it’s all a lie, a fabrication to make you believe that Heroes exist. Heroes don’t exist, only humans. And there is no scarier monster than a human with a ‘link’.

    Yet, what happens when someone tries to be a hero? A real, true hero—fighting to protect the world from those of their own who wantonly dominate and rule? Can a world, betrayed so thoroughly, ever truly want to be saved?


    A few words:
    This story is one I have been working on now for months now, building up a sizeable backlog of chapters so that I might one day post out to the world. This story is one I intend to be ongoing for quite some times, and hopefully will one day reach the quality standards of the better fictions out there. This story is reminiscent of Worm by Wildblow, however I had not read Worm, or any of it's derivative works throughout the majority of the current written content. However, because of the inevitably comparisons, I may as well lean into the idea of them being similar in a few ways.


    What should you expect?
    Within the first month or so of posting, this story will be posted around 3 or 4 times per week and then after that period, there will be a drop to 2 chapters per week.
     
    Last edited: Dec 21, 2020
    Rognaro, meridian and Franklin Bush like this.
  2. Threadmarks: Chapter 1: Concrete and Trees
    Sarius

    Sarius Not too sore, are you?

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    Chapter 1: Concrete and Trees

    The city slums were dark and gloomy at night, neatly hiding those that dwelled within. If you didn’t live there, you would swear that it was quiet. Inactive even. But to those who survive in the slums of Melbourne, night is when all the scariest come out to play.

    Maybe it was to do with alcohol, drugs or other recreational activities that caused those with power to wander the streets, looking for a wench to rape or man to kill. Mirah couldn’t tell you for sure. Not really anyways. What she could tell you, was that each night was filled with ears that would never stop picking up the slight scuff of a shoe on the ill-maintained footpaths that sprawl through the city like a cobweb.

    It was just another night of a heightened sense of danger. Nothing any different than that of any of the hundreds of other nights Mirah had spent hiding within a pile of rags, or sleeping in trash, cleverly disguising herself to stow away from the dangers of the night.

    She sat there in deep contemplation of nothing important, simply food for her mind to chew on to pass time, when she heard a soft footstep and a clack of a heel to follow. Mirah stiffened, her ears suddenly becoming aware of every single sound in her little corner of a damp and dingy street.

    There was a surprising amount of information you could derive from something as simple as a footstep. The usual ones around these parts were the scuffing of runners, maybe drunk from drinking whatever swill they could get their hands on. Sometimes it was a footstep with more purpose, heavily placed footsteps that lead towards a place.

    Mirah had become excellent at learning which footsteps were dangerous, and which were of a bumbling drunk or just a person that wanted to get out of the filthy slums as fast as possible.

    These footsteps though, they made Mirah’s body become as tense as a drawn bow.

    Someone is hunting tonight.

    The night was in its latest hour, and those sorts of footsteps came from someone with malicious ideas in mind for those that they found. There was another footstep, a soft placement of the toe against the ground, and then the following clack of the heel.

    Mirah hadn’t heard a shoe like it in years, not in these parts of town. Immediately her mind went to a business shoe, but the sound of the heel was all wrong. Another footstep moved the hunter closer to the streets where Mirah lay, hidden in her pile of trash.

    Mirah knew that all the others in these streets could hear this pursuer, feel their presence like prey could feel a predator’s eyes on them. Like a hivemind created from years of repetition, the thought that went through everyone’s head in that street was ‘as soon as they find someone, we scatter’.

    There was no honour in staying to try and protect those that were caught by the predators that walk the streets, it only serves to add an extra victim to the predator’s hunt. So, quietly, the prey waited in their bins, rags and trash, hidden away from even the barest glint of moonlight.

    The steps were slow and methodical, something that only increased the understanding of how much danger those that hid were in. A patient hunter was rare in these parts, most inebriated and playing like a cub would with a small, injured bird. This time, it seemed like mother was out to hunt.

    Mirah’s anxiety was palpable, she could swear that her heat, the exhalation of her breath was drawing the predator ever closer, each step a little louder, a little more prominent.

    Mirah began to realise that the footsteps truly were moving closer to her. She always chose the hiding spots the furthest away from the main pathways, the most obfuscated by other objects, diminishing line of sight. She had never truly feared that she would be the one to be found.

    The footsteps seemed to gain purpose as the drew closer. The sound of the toe touching the ground and then the clack of the heel began to be all that Mirah could focus on, the individual nuances of each footstep becoming more poignant, more important than the last.

    Each footstep whispered to her, telling her of the next step that would come. The footsteps were still twenty paces away, but everything in her told her that each step would simply lead one closer to her. She could tell, for they told her so.

    In realisation of the inevitability of the predator reaching her she froze, just for a moment. The sort of indecision that you knew was nothing but detrimental but locked you up anyway. Then the moment passed, and she knew that there was only one chance to escape, and it was now.

    Mirah leaped from her place in the trash and began to run like she had only a few times, even in her life predicated on her ability to run from danger. She could hear behind her the explosion of at least ten others burst from their hiding spots to bolt away from the predator, but she ignored their desperate dashes and honed in on the sound of the footsteps in pursuit of her.

    The footsteps had vanished.

    Mirah’s pounding heart almost stopped in that moment. She raced towards a fence, one blocking the entrance to the slightly nicer districts of Melbourne. Mirah always found running away to those parts was slightly safer, the worst that would happen was that she’d be beaten bloody by the ‘police’ instead of killed for sick amusement.

    She reached the fence, jumping onto it at a full sprint, her body slamming into the chain links. She desperately scrabbled up, and when her hand reached the sharp edges of chain link at the top, she was elated, even with the damage being done to her hands.

    She managed to pull herself over the fence falling roughly to the ground, scrabbling to her feet and trying to run further out into the street where more bars would be when she slammed face first into what felt like a wall of muscle.

    Mirah fell to the ground, her premature elation becoming a terrible foreboding. As her body hit the ground, she curled up in a ball, tightly encasing her torso with her limbs. She could live with a bum leg or broken and destroyed fingers, but if they got to her organs she was as good as dead.

    She stayed like that a moment, the sound of her panting, laboured breath permeating her hearing, the pounding in her ears pervading her thoughts.

    “You had good sense to run. Most would have frozen in fear until I was looking at them in the eyes. Gives you a pretty good chance at surviving an untrained idiot.” The was a pause. The voice was feminine, something that made sense now with relation to the shoe. It must have been a high heel.

    “But against a Linked, running does nothing except excite them.” A shallow laugh from the surprisingly bright voice. It definitely doesn’t sound like the sort of tone you’d use when you are looking to kill someone.

    Mirah slowly looked up towards to female that stood over her. The woman was dressed in a full suit, expertly fitted to her body to cut a striking and almost imposing figure. The woman stood bold straight and sported a gentle smile on her face, counter to the atmosphere of the situation. Her features were obscured in the moonlight, but it was obvious enough that she took care of herself, unlike Mirah.

    The increasing oddity of the situation made Mirah’s instincts scream at her to run, run like no tomorrow. But as she began to soak more and more of the details in, she began to realise just how fruitless it’d be.

    Footsteps that suddenly lacked sound, somehow vaulting over a fence before Mirah herself could climb over with extraordinarily little to no sound. All this in a suit and high heels.

    “You’re a Linked.” There was no question in Mirah’s voice, even as she slurred her words a little from the adrenalin that was still rushing through her veins. The dark-haired woman bobbed her head happily.

    “Of course. I go by Tracker. I’ve been ordered to bring you in.” She said, the small smile lengthening into a wider, blinding white smile the likes she hadn’t seen since her youth and on billboards.

    “Bring me in?” Mirah asked, anxiety spiking. Did they know? How did they find out? Her body tensed once again, but Tracker only laughed.

    “Of course, dear.” Tracker squatted next to Mirah, her face coming close to the girl laying on the ground.

    “But I’m-”

    “Oh hush, there is no point in lying to me. I earn my money finding those who don’t want to be found.” A kind smile forced its way onto Tracker’s face, but Mirah knew it was fake.

    “Who are you taking me in to?” Tracker’s face underwent a moment of mock confusion before her left eyebrow raised jovially, her face splitting into a genuine smile.

    “To your new team, of course!”




    The world was slow out here, just the way Ajax liked it.

    It simply moved at whatever pace he wished, a slow crawl or a productive jog. He had never truly managed to work his way of up to a run. He had wondered, late at night, if it was because he had lost motivation after all that had happened. That maybe he had simply resigned himself to living out in these woods, content to live each day to the next.

    There was a soft feeling of discontent pressing on Ajax’s mind and he sighed.

    “I know, I know. One day soon. I promise.” He patted the bright red painted head of axe that he held in his left hand. There was a resigned feeling in his mind before it slipped away, and his mind refocused again.

    He moved further into the forest today, looking for good trees to cut. He had spent a long time out here, and he knew these woods quite well, each collection of trees a point in his mental map of the place he’d pieced together through memories along.

    He walked deeper and deeper, where the trees grew thicker and thicker. Before long it became actively difficult to navigate, and easy to lose your sense of direction. In fact, he had a few times, more worried about finding food or a tree, before remembering what direction to walk back in once he’d found it.

    Now, he wondered if it was possible for him to lose his way in here anymore. Maybe if he was inebriated or had been hit hard enough on the head. He would have to be hit pretty damn hard, he figured.

    The purposeful walk would seem like slow meandering to anyone that was watching. His strange path through the trees, beelining towards a recollection of a tree he’d once seen on his way to do something else.

    Indeed, there was someone watching.

    Ajax knew, of course. The difference between total isolation and having another person around was painfully obvious. The quiet footsteps that followed his odd winding path through the dense forest were like someone was banging pots and pans together as they walked down the main street of town.

    The pursuer knew Ajax knew, of course. It was all really just a game of cat and mouse they were playing with each other. Tracker stopped to think for a moment, maybe tag was more accurate. Cat and mouse made it sound almost malicious.

    She shrugged and continued to follow the receding form of Ajax as he made his way towards a particularly thick tree, standing tall amongst it’s shorter brethren.

    As Ajax approached the tree, he rolled his shoulder, big and powerful on a frame that was already as massive as his. Tracker was impressed just how well built the man was, even with a life built upon back breaking labour.

    Ajax slowly considered the tree in front of him as he gently warmed his joints. Tracker wasn’t sure what it was that he was considering, she’d never cut down a tree, so she wouldn’t know.

    Ajax sighed and mumbled something and patted the head of the axe in his other hand.

    “Good evening, mysterious visitor.” A large, booming voice sang out. His voice matched his frame almost perfectly, Tracker thought.

    “Good evening, woodsman.” Ajax chuckled at that.

    “I guess that’s true enough,” he paused for a moment before speaking again, maybe a moment of contemplation, “mind telling me why you’re all the way out here?”

    It was Tracker’s turn to chuckle.

    “Society wants you back, woodsman.” There was a long pause from Ajax. He wasn’t a big deal, and he couldn’t think of any special reason someone would want him back in the concrete jungle.

    “What has she got in store for me?”

    Tracker let the silence drag for a moment before answering.

    “A team.”

    A short and simple answer. An answer that would only really create more questions, but it seemed to be enough for the goliath of a man. He nodded curtly and then turned back to the tree in front of him.

    Ajax took a deep breath and in one quick movement, the axe moved from his left hand to his right, the axe head passing through the wooden trunk of the tree, chopping it neatly from the now created stump.

    Ajax extended a hand to steady the wobbling tree, stabilising on it’s perfectly level stump surface. He seemed to think a moment, before finally turning to face Tracker, his face sporting a calm and inviting smile.

    “Want to lend a hand in finishing up my house before I go back?”

    Tracker grinned.


    A/N: Thank you for reading the first chapter of Fixture in Fate! This story will be updating more very soon, as well as my other fictions; Unwieldy and Ribbon!
     
    GrumpyCat42, Karanth, Maitue and 4 others like this.
  3. Threadmarks: Chapter 2: The Clean and the Dirty
    Sarius

    Sarius Not too sore, are you?

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    Chapter 2: The Clean and the Dirty

    The steps to the inner-city home were nice, well maintained and probably taken care of by some lucky sod that managed to land a job cleaning the nice areas of town, a cushy job in the modern age.

    The amount of times that Tracker had been to these areas, so close to the homes of the most powerful, would be almost uncountable. Not something that many could brag of, and not that many would want to brag about, for fear of being stabbed by the person they were bragging to.

    The home looked new, all white walls and wood floors, similar to the homes all down the street, but just dissimilar enough that the buyers of the home felt like they had something unique.

    Tracker climbed the few steps up to a heavy wooden door and gave it her best ‘important news’ door knock. She waited a moment, nothing seeming to happen behind the door, and just before she prepared herself to give it another shot, she heard the soft thuds of footsteps.

    The door cracked open, and the slightest part of wat looked like a boy’s face revealed itself. Asian in appearance, and carrying some extra baby fat, you could almost misconstrue him to be as young as early teens.

    “Can I help you?” Walter asked, his eyes nervously wandering over the woman who had suddenly appeared on his doorstep. It wasn’t that she was out of place, being dressed in a very well fitted suit, but more that he hadn’t had anyone knock on his door for any other reason that re deliver food or a package he or his parents had ordered.

    “Walter Suen? I’ve come to talk to you today on behalf of the AASAU, could I borrow some of your time?” Tracker spoke evenly and quickly. Wandering around these parts without an identifiable reason was a good way to get yourself put in jail, guilty until proven innocent.

    “Oh… Uh, okay. Sure.” The boy, who was really a young man of 20. Everyone in these parts had such nice and clear records, it made Tracker’s job all that much easier.

    Walter hesitantly opened the door further, moving aside so that Tracker was able to stride into the home. The inside of the home did nothing to diminish the obvious wealth of those that lived there, the land itself was enough to make anyone balk, the cost of the house and all inside it was another whole kettle of fish. There was enough linktech in here to sink a battleship, more than Tracker had ever seen anywhere but inside of a Linked’s or a bona fide military base.

    There were screens everywhere, computers littered around the place for easy access, she presumed, top of the line mindlinks, all sorts of gizmos and gadgets that are really more for fun than functionality. She looked to the young man, guiding her through the living room towards what she assumed was a dining room, totally unperturbed by the sheer amount and class of technology that surrounded him.

    If she didn’t know what his family was like, and who they worked for, she would be suspicious he was a tech Linked himself. She knew though, that the cost of all of this was much more than it seemed.

    They arrived in a large dining room, the table extending to hold probably between ten and twelve people, but only three spots on the table were set, all clumped at the end closest to the entranceway. She thought that it was endearing in a way, that even though there was all this money and tech around the home, they kept it simple and intimate when it came to dinner.

    Walter motioned for Tracker to sit, and she did. He disappeared into the conjoining kitchen, and a moment later he returned with boiling water, coffee, teabags, milk and cups. The man knew how to treat a guess. She was almost surprised that a servant of some kind wasn’t doing it for him. Walter sat at the other side of the table and quietly made himself a cup of tea while Tracker opted for coffee.

    “So, the AASUA? Why have they come calling?” Walter said, keeping a confident visage, though he was fiddling with the teabag nervously. Tracker finished making her coffee and took a sip before answering.

    “We know that you registered with the Australian Association of Superhuman Ability Users a few months ago and was classed as an undefined.” Walter nodded, but hung his head a little. Tracker almost chuckled. If only he knew.

    “Yeah. They said they would get in touch with me if needed.” Walter continued, his fiddling with the teabag only increasing, slowly ripping the tag itself from the string.

    “Well, this is us getting in touch.” Tracker smiled, though it wasn’t quite one of kindness. Maybe an official or PR friendly smile. Walter wore a surprised look, and he quickly discarded the tag that he’d ripped off ready to ask a million questions but tamed himself.

    “Then are looking for an undefined?” He said, his face asking the question ‘what team would want an undefined?’. Thankfully, Tracker had a clean answer for that.

    “A group of undefined.” Walter’s eyes glazed over as he looked into himself and a little, dopey grin grew on his face before he quickly tamed his expression.

    “Who is funding this team?” Tracker gave no answer to that. Not that she really knew anyways. Though enough digging had given her a good idea. Walter averted his eyes from her fake smile. He wanted to know, to be sure, but the idea of a team of undefineds was something that he couldn’t help but find the allure in.

    When he had first become a linked, he had dreamed of exercising his newfound power, and truly living free once more. But he was undefined, dangerous and unreliable. He was a liability once again, and even his life insurance had gone through the roof.

    “Do you want to come meet your team?” Tracker said, goading him with an answer that he was only just forming.

    Walter just nodded.







    She was back, walking through the stench of the slums. She was more comfortable here than in the inner-city, at least down here the common thug was weak enough to crush with her pinky finger. There were no common thugs in the inner-city, only scary bastards who had more power and money than they knew what to do with.

    This time, in her pursuit of more of their kind, she had somehow found her way to the less reputable part of town. Not that anywhere else in the slums were any more reputable, but the ‘red light’ district was definitely a hotspot of general degeneracy. She was sort of surprised that she hadn’t been attacked yet, maybe it was the suit.

    Tracker walked through the doors of this fine establishment and was immediately hit with so many smells that stank of sex and partying that it almost made her loose balance.

    She surveyed the room, just taking in the numerous patrons laying down whacked out of their mind on some drug the street managed to cook up, prostitutes downright having sex on top of a table. Alcohol being drunk and spilt just about everywhere and in every which way.

    Tracker could honestly say that she had never been inside one of these brothel strip clubs, but she was already regretting it.

    She held her breath as she walked in, further, eyes scanning for who she was looking for. In hindsight, it wouldn’t have taken much looking.

    Who she was looking for was currently dancing on an elevated platform in front of a good two dozen patrons, who were all too content to throw money at her, and her graciously receiving in whatever lewd way she could think up on the spot. Why she would have such a forgiving crowd also wasn’t a hard question to answer.

    Her skin danced with colour, a lovely shade of pink flitted across her skin, slowly increasing the amount of pink as more patrons foisted money upon her increasingly scantily clad form. It was so obvious that she was a Linked that she had turned it into a marketable trait. A fantasy of the powerful submitting themselves to your hard-earned dollars.

    A fantasy it was indeed.

    Tracker approached, weaving through the crowd expertly. It wasn’t long before the dancer saw her coming, and she continued to dance, seemingly seeing nothing at all wrong with the approaching woman in a very expensive suit.

    She sat in an open seat, front and centre. The woman glanced at her again, slowly making her way around the onlooking crowd, giving each and every one a little bit of a private moment, the length of that moment was contingent on how much of your money lined her, surprising still on, bra.

    Then the woman finally locked eyes with Tracker.

    “What brings a woman of your stature down here, sugar?” The surrounding crowd chuckled a bit, as if listening to an in joke. Tracker watched as the young woman moved alluringly towards her, showing her body conservatively enough that it was still alluring, and liberally enough that it was erotic.

    Tracker reeled the young woman in with a curt ‘come hither’ motion with her finger. The woman drew near, and Tracker whispered into her ear.

    “Aaliyah Flinn. The AASAU wants you.” Aaliyah’s face went stony and impassive for a moment, hidden from the view of the other patrons, before putting on a seductive smile and returning to dancing without a word. It was another two minutes of Aaliyah dancing around the elevated platform until she reached Tracker again.

    The expression on Aaliyah Flinn’s face amounted to ‘why are you still here?’. And thus, Tracker was given no alternative. She sighed as she watched the dancer have more and more money stuffed into her limited undergarments, and she resigned herself to make a scene.

    “Aaliyah Flinn. The AASAU wants you.” All sound suddenly died in the room.

    Aaliyah herself went about as stiff as a board, before turning around with a smile on her face.

    “I’m sorry guys, it seems like I’ve run out of time today! Hope to see you all on Thursday?” She said as she quickly retreated to the back room. The rest of the group that surrounded Tracker all turned to her with questioning, if not hostile, gazes.

    “Flinn?” One of the patrons who had been tipping generously said, more surprised than angry. Tracker didn’t even bother with nodding in the affirmative and began to walk towards the door of the brothel.

    The stench filled air outside the brothel was hardly better than the inside, but Tracker found it preferably. At least it didn’t contain the stench of sex. Or much of it anyways. She rounded the building, walking down the dingy alleyway until she found an unassuming door. A moment later Aaliyah, hastily dressed in more modest clothing, was quite literally kicked out the door by a large male leg, the door slamming behind her.

    Tracker slowly walked forwards, unconcerned by the woman’s condition.

    “Or should I have called you Trix?” Tracker couldn’t help but be smug from time to time. The moment she spoke, however, Aaliyah jumped to her feet, her skin suddenly morphing into a hue of bright red.

    “What the hell was that?” She said, her voice low with anger.

    “That was the AASAU’s wake up call, Aaliyah.” This answer obviously didn’t improve the situation as a fist was promptly thrown towards Tracker’s face. She managed to get her hand up in front of her face in time to block, but she could feel her bones creaking and her feet being pushed back over the concrete ground.

    “I’ll remind you, Aaliyah, that attacking an AASAU Official is a punishable offence by upwards of five years in prison.”

    “Don’t feed me that bullshit, you’re a damn contractor and you know it.” Aaliyah growled, the bright red receding to a not so violent sickly green. Tracker was honestly surprised that Aaliyah had noticed, or knew the distinction, but that was to be expected.

    “The AASAU is collecting a group of undefineds.” Is all she said before Aaliyah began to speak.

    “I’m not even going to bother asking who is funding it, because there is almost no way you were told, though there’s a good chance you have an idea. Not like you tell me though.” Her skin started shifting to a shade of blue that gently pulsated.

    “Indeed.” Tracker added.

    “Name and code number will just result in being given a codename.” Aaliyah snarked.

    “Tracker.” Tracker added.

    “Likelihood that the team that this creates will be dragged into a whole lot of politics?” Aaliyah asked, almost without snark.

    Tracker just snorted.

    “Fuck, fine. Take me to your leader like a good doggy.” Aaliyah started walking down the street, turning to see Tracker with her eyebrow raised.

    “Come on Tracker,” Aaliyah said, patting her legs and whistling as if calling a dog and when Tracker began moving, rolling her eyes all the while, she added, “good girl!”

    After only a few minutes of walking Aaliyah sighed.

    “Didn’t even get to keep the tips.”


    A/N: Hello and welcome to a new chapter! This is the first day of my proper uploading process, so you get this chapter and another one of my stories also updates! I hope you enjoy the story!

    Also, join my
    Discord!
     
  4. Threadmarks: Chapter 3: Warm Soup
    Sarius

    Sarius Not too sore, are you?

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    Chapter 3: Warm Soup

    It had been a few days since Tracker had found Mirah in the streets, having taken her to a large building in one of the better areas of Melbourne. It was a slim building, squeezed between two on its sides, but it was much taller, floor stacked upon floor, a generic reproduction of the floor below.

    At first, Mirah had thought it to be a hotel, but as she had been let in by Tracker, and taken up to floor eight, she found herself in a corridor with five doors. She was led into room two, which turned out to be more of a small apartment than a hotel. It was nice too, better than anything that Mirah had lived in herself.

    Mirah was told that she would be able to order food up to her room at specific times during the day until her team was all collected, then she’d be expected to eat in the cafeteria with her team. Mirah simply nodded to any rule that was given to her. She almost didn’t care about this team, and more about the free food and room. She guessed that the training would quickly become the cost of what was freely given.

    Mirah was just about the last person to be enchanted by anything, but the food here was like nothing that she’d ever eaten. She didn’t even know what the names of these foods were, so she chose a sandwich, something that she had managed to get her hands on a few times, usually out of the hands of pitying workers.

    This sandwich was different, though. It was packed tightly with a mess of greens and meat, and some cheese for prosperity. It was one of the best meals she had ever eaten, and that was only breakfast. The hours passed, and she felt obscenely full. When lunch finally rolled around, Mirah was hard pressed to force herself to order anything.

    An hour after the slated time for lunch had passed, there was a knock on the door. Mirah cautiously looked through the installed peephole, wondering if Tracker had returned for whatever reason. She hadn’t. In fact, she saw nothing at the door, except for a large cup sitting on the floor at the foot of it with a small piece of paper leaning on it.

    Mirah opened the door, peering out both ways—making sure the coast was clear—before snatching the cup and its piece of paper from the floor, returning quickly to the comforts of the room.

    It was a moment after she sat back down with the large cup and piece of paper that Mirah realised that her heart was beating furiously in her chest. She gently touched herself on the flat of her chest with a look of consternation on her face. She hadn’t realised just how out of place she felt here, how worried that someone would see her here and drag her out. She sighed, trying to put the anxiety aside, and looked into the cup.

    Peering inside got her a face full of hot, delicious smelling steam. A moment of simply closing her eyes and breathing in the smell later, she realised that it was pumpkin soup.

    Memories washed through her, memories from many, many years ago resurfacing from the depths like trapped air in the sea. Happy memories, one of only a few she could hold dear anymore. She lifted the cup to her lips and gently drank from the sweet soup, the smooth, buttery liquid coating her tongue before the delicate amount of spice hit, giving another realm to the heat of the soup. As she swallowed the substance, it warmed her in a way she could swear she hadn’t ever been before. It was an experience she wasn’t ever sure she could reproduce, even as she was experiencing it. It almost made her sad, knowing that finding this exact combination of emotions and food might never happen again.

    It took only a few minutes for her delicate sips to down the cup of pumpkin soup, leaving her with an empty cup.

    After a moment of just experiencing the aftertaste, she picked up the small piece of paper lying on her desk. It was a flimsy and slightly see-through, nothing Mirah had ever seen before. She saw the text that was back to front and flipped the paper to read it.

    A young girl needs her food. I hope you enjoy your time here, Mirah –Chef.

    The text was written in incredibly fine, flowery print, betraying how taciturn the message was in essence. But to Mirah it was something special. A total stranger had been so kind as to create something so…

    She didn’t even have words for it, even to begin classifying how astounding that simple soup had been to her. She folded the piece of paper gently and squirreled it away into her bags. It was something that wouldn’t ever be stolen, a memento that means nothing to anybody but her.

    For the first time in a long time, Mirah crawled into a corner on the ground, surrounding herself with her bags, and slept soundly.







    There were three solid knocks against the door of Mirah’s room. Mirah’s eyes snapped open at the sound, wary of anyone who came knocking on her newly inherited door. She didn’t get up to open the door, no. She was far too wary for even that.

    But after the fifth set of three knocks, there was a point where the frustration overtook Mirah and she stormed up to the door and threw it wide open—just about ready to kick anyone she saw on the other side, only to be met with a giant of a man.

    In comparison to Mirah’s relatively average female height, this man was nearly a whole foot taller than her, towering above her height and almost as tall as the door frame. The man wore his thick, dark brown hair down to his muscled shoulders, falling onto tanned olive skin. His face was etched with a kind smile, on obviously Greek features, sporting a thick nose in the centre of his face.

    “Good afternoon. I didn’t want to wake you up, but I was told I had to meet you, no matter how much knocking I had to do.” The large man grinned sheepishly at the much smaller woman. He gently extended his hand, slow enough that Mirah could see it coming and prepare for it.

    Mirah looked quizzically at the open hand. Did he not worry that she’d try and break one of his fingers? Was he plotting something?

    “Ajax.” He said simply, granting her a slightly amused expression. Mirah had a moment of pause before she realised. She had seen the gesture a few times when she was young. A handshake. She had never shaken anyone’s hand before, not when her main objective was to stay as far away from others as possible. She steeled her expression, which wasn’t hard as it was already stoic, and gently placed her hand in his and gently shook it before pulling away quickly.

    “Mirah.”

    There was a moment of silence between the Greek giant and the smaller woman. Ajax had never really experienced such a cold reception of a greeting before. He could see why this experience had come from her, though.

    To be perfectly blunt about it, she looked like a street rat. It practically oozed from her every demeanour. Ajax had never met someone from the slums before, not the more recent versions of the slums anyways, and he could already tell. The way her body language was already on the defensive, her overly pale skin and clearly malnourished body. Well… not to mention the scar.

    Mirah had a large scar right across her face cutting through her vaguely Mediterranean features, splitting her right cheek open and travelling unevenly across the expanse of skin. Finally, the scar ran through the girl’s top lip, breaking the delicate flesh and cutting a notch out of her bottom lip as it passed through. Ajax had never seen a scar like it, or a facial scar so severe, really.

    “You are a Linked as well, yeah?” Ajax asked the girl gently. He gave her a moment to respond. She ran a hand through her cropped, boyish hair before answering, a slight look of hesitation on her face.

    “Yes. I don’t know how they found me.” She said, honestly airing a fear that they were able to track her far more easily than she liked. Ajax thought for a moment beginning to nod to the sentiment.

    “Me neither, honestly. I was out in the woods chopping down trees.” Mirah’s eyebrow raised at that.

    “In the woods?” She couldn’t even conceive of the idea that someone would live out in the woods, being so removed from her own little reality. Ajax just shrugged.

    “Why not? I’d been living in the countryside for years and once everything…” he paused, hesitant for a moment, “went to shit for me, I just decided that maybe living out there would be better than trying to go live in the city, y’know?”

    Mirah did know. And now that she heard of it, she wondered if there were more people like Ajax, hiding away in the woods, away from the burning trash pile that the city was. She was almost jealous that she hadn’t had the same mind to do so, even if it’d be a death wish for her. The silence began after that dragged on, and every moment it progressed, Mirah felt herself become more and more tense as she stared at the man before her. He seemed totally unperturbed by the silence, which only worried Mirah more.

    “This stuff about teams.” The man thought aloud to her, dissolving the one-sided tension. “How do you feel about it?”

    How did Mirah feel about it? She didn’t know herself.

    “I don’t know.” So, she said as much. Ajax thought on that for a moment.

    “Don’t you think it’s weird that they would want to bring together a bunch of undefineds and have them team up?” The man scratched his chin thoughtfully, before glancing back to Mirah to see a face of stoic confusion. He raised an eyebrow at her confusion. After a moment she realised he was waiting on her to tell him what she was confused about.

    “Undefineds?” She asked quietly, slinking back half a step from the giant. Ajax didn’t seem to notice or pretended not to. The man hummed thoughtfully, trying to piece together an answer that was remotely helpful.

    “Well, it’s hard. Undefineds are just people with links that don’t have a totally measurable effect or have inconsistent or unmeasurable conditions for activation.” He thought again humming as he did so, and Mirah soaked in that information herself. Under that definition, undefined certainly did fit her link.

    “I guess, to put it easily. It’s just when a link is too complicated to be able to rely on,” he shifted his weight to his other foot, placing a hand on his hip in contemplation, “like if someone can punch hard, and whether they can punch that hard all the time, or if there is another condition to it and how understandable that condition is, y’know?”

    Mirah was trying to understand, but she’d never thought of Linked as anything more than scary, monstrous beings that lurked the night, preying on those without a link of their own.

    “I think so.” She said dryly. The man nodded, seemingly chuffed with the response and then the dreaded silence returned, with Ajax staring off into space and thinking while Mirah had the growing need to run away from the presence of the man.

    “How do you feel about eating together, for dinner tonight?” He said offhandedly. Mirah’s eyes narrowed, the suspicion leaking back into her mind, unable to stop the thoughts that told her that the brutish looking man couldn’t be trusted.

    “No.” Mirah didn’t leave the man any time to respond, closing the door in his face. Ajax, while a bit miffed, wasn’t all that shocked. He wasn’t an idiot and had been trying his best to make her feel comfortable in the conversation. With mixed results, obviously.

    He sighed, running his hands through his long hair and turning to walk back to his room. Number one in the line of five doors. It was worrying to think that he might have three more people on the team similar to Mirah was, and he wasn’t sure how he was going to handle it.

    Being selected for a team was already kind of wild to Ajax. Teams barely existed in Australia, maybe in Brisbane, but in Melbourne it was all controlled by gangs, and had been that way for a good portion of Ajax’s life. For there to be ‘crime fighting’ teams of Linked was dichotomous to say the least. Were they even supposed to be crime fighting teams?

    Ajax opened the door to his apartment. It wasn’t as spacious as his log cabin, but at least he didn’t have to worry about building and maintaining it at all. Hundreds of hours he had spent, making that cabin. He had got it pretty good, too. Only needing to go into a nearby town for a few things here and there and for some basic modern conveniences. He had worked very briefly as a handyman for a few people before he met someone who could put proper insulation into his home.

    He plopped down onto his bed, which was surprisingly spacious enough so that his legs didn’t stick a few inches over the end of it and let his thoughts reign for a moment.

    He didn’t know how he would talk with Mirah going forward. She was like talking to a rock wall, just incredibly uncomfortable and unwilling to crack. He was even slightly worried that she would be totally uncooperative when it came to doing ‘team’ things.

    His life had been turned upside down once again, and now he was left to scramble to put it all together again.


    A/N: And another! Hope you enjoy the chapter and have a great day.
     
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  5. Threadmarks: Chapter 4: New Arrivals
    Sarius

    Sarius Not too sore, are you?

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    Chapter 4: New Arrivals

    The black car pulled up at the front of the tall and skinny building, Walter in the back seat, almost shaking with nervousness. He had been unable to sleep the night before, too many things rushing through his mind to possibly process them all. A fairly common occurrence for Walter.

    “Are you okay, honey?” His mother, Mary Suen, asked. He wasn’t okay, not even close. He had been a nervous wreck ever since the AASAU agent had left his house. He couldn’t help but feel that this was his only chance to thrive in his life, and it terrified him to even consider failure here.

    “Yeah, mum. I’m okay. Just a bit… Y’know.” Mary turned to him, looking him in the eye from in the front seat of the car. Her usually bright and excitable face was pulled into one of concern.

    “You know you can leave at any time, honey. You don’t even need to go in there if you don’t want to. Legally they–“

    “Legally they can’t force me to join any team, but they can force me though basic training.” Walter said, knowing full well what his mother’s next words were going to be.

    “We could fight that, call for an exemption under the–“

    “The undefined exclusion laws. I know, mum.” There was a soft silence between the two, her dark eyes looking at the man in front of her that she could have sworn was a boy not a year ago. Tears started to well up in her eyes.

    “Aww, mum. Please don’t cry.” Walter said, his face scrunching into one of concern and confusion. Mary sniffled and wiped at her eyes on the sleeve of her suit jacket.

    “I’m sorry honey. It’s… it’s just a scary world out there, Walter. And knowing that you’ll be in it scares me. I can’t help you out there.” This was the sentiment that Mary and Richard Suen had held regarding their son for years. They were incredibly supportive and excited about anything their son achieved, from the smallest achievements in a video game, or his extremely good grades in school. He had worked hard for them because they worked hard for him, and now he was venturing into the very world where they could do nothing but watch.

    “I know, mum. But they’ll find a way to drag me in. I may as well go willingly.” Mary looked about ready to put up a fight but quieted down. She wringed her hands in much the same way that Walter and his father did. A family full of nervous wrecks. It was better than it sounded.

    “I can walk you in if you’d like?” Mary asked, almost hopeful, but Walter shook his head. He needed to start now if he wanted to be able to start moving forwards towards his goals. Walter grabbed his bags, got out of the car, and gave his mother a long farewell hug.

    “I love you, Walter.” She said, simply. They both knew the hundred other words she wanted to say.

    “Love you too, mum.” And he turned, hauling his bags towards the entrance, far overpacked, but he tried to take as much as he could from home. He walked through the sliding doors, turning to wave at his mother one final time, and letting those doors close behind him. He let out a big sigh of both relief and mourning.

    “Mum come and drop you off?” a voice said from beside Walter, making him jump and almost squeal. There was laughter as he set eyes on her. All blonde hair and smiling face, she was slim and at least four inches taller than him, which was intimidating for some reason. Not to mention beautiful.

    “Ah, yeah. I’m Walter.” He said clumsily. The girl didn’t seem to mind, shifting her stance to allow for her to stick a hand out in greeting while she still held onto her bags.

    “Aaliyah. How are you?” She asked with a smoothness that Walter wished he could reproduce himself. His father could, but him and his mother still struggled with it. He shook her hand the way he had been taught; firm and welcoming, but not making it into a dick measuring contest.

    “I’m doing alright. Bit nervous, really.” She looked thoughtfully at him, tapping her leg in a rhythm only known to her.

    “I could see that. It’s a big change, no matter what life you come from.” She said, pointedly looking at the difference in their clothing. Walter was wearing clean and almost brand-new jeans and a large, oversized hoodie. Both had cost a good amount, even in Walter’s book, but for him the comfort was worth it. On the other hand, Aaliyah was wearing clothes that were probably nice at some point years ago. A worn and frayed bomber jacket and a pair of jeans with holes that probably weren’t manufactured.

    “I wonder if we’ll get a uniform?” Walter thought aloud.

    “Nah, but we do get free pick from some generic clothing items, as far as I can tell.” Aaliyah said nonchalantly.

    “Have you been here long?” Walter asked, curious.

    “Nope! Been here a few minutes longer than you, talked to the receptionist and he told me to wait here while he grabbed someone to deal with me.” A laugh bubbled forth from her, and Walter couldn’t help but laugh with her.

    “Hopefully they won’t be long. I’m starving.” Walter said, rueing his decision to not bring any snacks after not eating dinner or breakfast. His stomach growled in agreement.

    “Yeah, honestly. I wouldn’t mind grabbing something to eat with you?” She asked, though she said it in such a way that Walter didn’t really have a choice in saying no, so he just nodded, not sure where they were even going to get food yet.

    That was when the receptionist returned, followed by the AASAU agent Walter had met with the day before.

    “Good afternoon you two. How are you both faring?” Walter mumbled a response and Aaliyah just nodded.

    “Alright, I assume you both want to get up to your rooms and settle in, so let’s get right too it them, shall we?” The agent walked forwards towards Walter and stuck out her hand.

    “Codename is Tracker, thought Aaliyah already knows that.” The brown skinned woman chuckled pleasantly, her features lightening as her face pulled into a smile.

    “Ah, thank you for telling me. I forgot to ask in the moment.” Walter said sheepishly, gaining an amused snort from Aaliyah, who was picking up some of his bags and moving to follow the direction that Tracker had started moving.

    “Oh, don’t worry about that. The other two didn’t bother to ask and I’m not sure they cared either. Had to tell them my name after I brought them here.” Aaliyah, Tracker and Walter entered into an elevator that, only moments after pressing the floor button, had zoomed up eight floors in astonishing speed. Aaliyah seemed shocked, especially at how there was seemingly no g-force created from the acceleration. Walter had been in a few elevators just like it, and one particularly impressive one that lifted him and his family almost one hundred stories in only a few seconds. Seeing Aaliyah’s shocked face, Tracker grinned.

    “Linktech, don’t question it.” Walter shared Tracker’s grin, well aware of the inside joke. Linktech was so wild that sometimes, just to save a few braincells, you just needed to accept that someone had figured out how to create it. If reports were true, a Linked had managed to create a machine capable of slowing time by a few fractions of a microsecond. How that worked, no-one could even guess.

    Aaliyah grumbled something under her breath as we exited the elevator, exiting into a corridor with five doors. Each door looked identical and the spacing between each door was approximately the same.

    “Alright, Walter is in room three and Aaliyah is in room four. Aaliyah, there will be a change of clothes in your approximate size within the wardrobe in your room. Lunch has passed, but if you two are hungry, you can order from your rooms and Chef will probably be nice enough to send up what you want.” Tracker smiled, her Indian-Caucasian features scrunching in a genuine expression. Walter had a momentary pang of primal glee that someone was smiling at him so genuinely, before he pushed it down and nodded.

    “Thank you, Miss Tracker.” He said trying to be as polite as possible. Tracker laughed, waving him off and walking up to the door of room five, pulling out a key card, swiping and entering.

    “Ooh la la, shortie’s got a crush on the boss lady!” Aaliyah teased.

    “Hey, what?” Walter said, embarrassment written on his face.

    “Oh, come on, you basically lit up like a Christmas tree every time she so much as looked at you!” And when Aaliyah looked at him too, but she wasn’t going to tell him that. Walter had an internal war for a moment, before blurting out a string of words.

    “I just think she’s nice!” Aaliyah scoffed.

    “Nice looking, more like.” Walter spluttered, his face going truly a deep shade of red that she hadn’t ever seen on an Asian complexion. She just laughed, patting him on the shoulder.

    “Don’t worry, I’m just messing with you.” She walked over to her door, opening it with a keycard that had been given to her moments ago, and walked through.

    “Eat together when food arrives!” She said, not waiting for a response, the door closing behind her.

    Walter sighed, energy drained by simply being around the girl. He opened his own door, finding the inside to be surprisingly spacious and luxurious, expecting more of an army barracks than an apartment. He entered, dragging the bags that Aaliyah had helpfully carried upstairs and dumped them in the lounge room, going back to shut his door.

    He took a moment to just sit and relax, trying desperately to acclimatize to the sudden social environment that he’d been thrust into. He whipped out his phone and began to idly scroll through the various social medias he frequented. All of them held different interests for Walter. Some of them were raw, a realer reflection of Australia. Some were idealised, basically only focusing on those that live in the upper areas like himself. Some were discussion about Linked worldwide, and what was happening in other countries. Walter was careful though; he knew the danger of media. He knew that they would lie to him to keep him happy, rather than show him what was really happening in the world. He had a sneaking, terrible suspicion that it was a whole lot worse out there than the headlines and articles said it was.

    For who could hope to speak up against those with ultimate power?

    Walter just sighed, realising that scrolling through his media feeds was actually just stressing him out more. So he resigned himself to ordering food. He hadn’t expected it, but just like the rooms not being army barracks, the menu wasn’t slop either. It was filled with foods, ranging from delicate French dishes to unholy American abominations. Walter, of course, picked a burger. Though it was a chicken one and sounded a touch healthier than a fatty beef American burger. It was still a burger, nonetheless.

    He waited excitedly for his food, the receptionist saying that it should be up in twenty minutes. One arduous wait later, stomach grumbling the entire way. A knock finally rapped out on the door and Walter jumped up opening the door and seeing the chicken burger on a warm plat sitting on the floor. He picked up the burger and walked over to Aaliyah’s door, quickly tapping on it and waiting for a reply.

    A few moments later, a freshly washed head of long blonde hair appeared from behind the door, dressed in a crop top and baggy light pants. Walter was hit with how obviously stunning Aaliyah was, but quickly pushed it down in fear that she would notice and tease him about it.

    “Come on in Walt.” She said cheerily, letting him walk past into an identical living room as his own. There was already a plate sitting in the middle of the coffee table, with the TV opposite the couch blaring some random station.

    It seems like Aaliyah had ordered an American burger, beer battered chips and all. As soon as the two of them sat down, Aaliyah started to lay into the burger, surprising Walter just how much the girl could put down.

    “What, never seen a girl eat a burger, Walt?” She said, a hint of mock accusation in her voice. Even knowing that she was joking, Walter still stumbled over his words trying to explain himself before she let out a peel of raucous laughter, pushing him gently on the shoulder.

    “Come on Walter, you’re making it too easy. Going deadpan would work better than whatever you were trying to do there.” Aaliyah grinned mischievously, about to continue on her ribbing when there was a knock on the door. Aaliyah huffed with displeasure.

    “Mind grabbing that for me?” Before Aaliyah had even finished the sentence, Walter was up and walking towards the door. He quickly swung the door open wide, revealing the form of a truly massive man, smiling as he looked down on Walter.

    “Hey, you guys new?”


    A/N: And so, the rest of the team arrives!
     
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  6. Threadmarks: Chapter 5: Awkward
    Sarius

    Sarius Not too sore, are you?

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    Chapter 5: Awkward

    Aaliyah was immediately suspicious of new person at her door. Actually, she was suspicious about basically everything here.

    She didn’t understand Tracker’s involvement, neither the clearly upper-class kid who was at the door, standing in front of the goliath on the other side of the doorway. Meeting that kid was pure luck playing it’s part. Who would have known he was in the same group as her?

    She tried analysing Walter’s motives over and over while they chatted about random things and couldn’t come up with anything super solid. But something had to have pushed him into joining this team, otherwise it’d make no sense for him to leave behind his life of probably abject luxury.

    The one thing that she did learn, was that he didn’t have an ulterior motive. In fact, she wasn’t sure that he had a sly or cunning bone in his body. She was so sure of it, that she actually felt kind of safe around him.

    Wait, did attraction count as an ulterior motive? Well, not when it showed on your face as clearly as it did on his.

    “Uh, yeah. We got here, like, an hour ago.” Walter stammered out. Maybe surprised by the towering man. The large man ginned pleasantly.

    “That’s great! Me and the other team member got here yesterday,” he stuck out his hand to Walter, mindful of his size, “I’m Ajax.” Walter hesitantly took his hand and it was shaken.

    “I’m Walter.”

    The Asian boy’s hand was comically small in Ajax’s gigantic hand, totally dwarfed in both size and in clear calluses. The larger hand covered in calluses from some sort of physical work.

    “You guys getting a first taste of the food here?” He looked over to the food that Aaliyah and Walter were eating. Aaliyah had to admit, the food was excellent, mind-blowingly so really.

    “Yeah! I don’t think I’ve had a chicken burger that actually tasted good.” Walter was more excited that Aaliyah was about it, which was surprising seeing as he was from the upper class.

    “I think the chef might be Linked honestly. It’s just a little too good for normal cooks, or I’ve been cooking steaks wrong my entire life.” The man laughed heartily before making a gesture asking if he could walk into the room. Walter gave him the conciliatory head nod.

    The large man walked into the room with a sure stride that made Aaliyah even more suspicious of him. A person capable of walking into a social situation like this with so much confidence almost always had something they wanted. She would know.

    The man walked in and sat down in a chair facing away from the TV and instead towards the couch where Aaliyah and Walter were sitting.

    “So, both of you are undefineds as well, yeah?” He asked, already knowing the answer he would receive. Walter looked awkward for a moment, but Aaliyah just shrugged.

    “The other girl is probably one as well, so we can confirm they didn’t lie to us about a team of undefined. You guys all good with talking about your abilities?” He looked to the two of his captive audience, they both nodded, Aaliyah putting on a cool guise.

    “We’ll be forced to talk about them at some point, may as well get it done with.” Aaliyah smiled confidently. Ajax smiled back, even as Walter looked worried.

    “Then I’ll start. I can talk to axes.” The baffled faces of both Walter and Aaliyah made Ajax burst out in laughter.

    “That’s, uhm, pretty abstract.” Walter said, trying to be kind to the man, but Ajax waved it off.

    “Nah, I gain power from aligning myself to the ‘will’ of my axe.” Ajax shrugged and Walter perked up.

    “How much power?” But Ajax just shrugged again, either unsure or not telling. Walter looked thoughtful for a moment, before speaking up as well.

    “I’m able to control elements, I think.”

    “You think?” Aaliyah said, eyebrow raised.

    “I– I mean I can. But it’s weird. I don’t know how to train it.” Walter deflated a little, haemorrhaging confidence. Aaliyah laughed pleasantly and spoke herself.

    “My power changes as my emotions change. I get real strong when angry, and other people get lethargic around me when I’m sad. I heal faster when I’m happy, etcetera.” Walter looked even more interested.

    “So that’s why your skin changes colour?” He asked, curiously. She nodded.

    “The more of one emotion I feel, the more of the corresponding colour covers my skin, the more powerful the effect is. I can make myself feel emotions and get a response too.” She shrugged nonchalantly.

    The room was silent for a moment after that. There were more things to talk about their links, but no-one was willing to take that step forward.

    The next thing that you’d usually talk about was your capital ‘A’ Awakening. The moment you were ‘blessed’ with a link you underwent an Awakening. A sudden burst of power manifested by the initial link.

    Some stories were relatively tame, simply a dream that introduced their power to them in very dream-like ways. Sometimes, though, an Awakening can be catastrophic. For some it is at the most terrifying moment in their life that they gain their link, or they create the most terrifying moment of their life by their link suddenly becoming available to them.

    The rest of the night was spent talking about nothings instead, skirting around that particular hole into someone’s soul. They simply talked about what they believed was the reason for someone to bring together a team like this, but it was all softball. There were no tough opinions put out there. It was more of a bonding exercise than anything, and precisely because of that it flubbed as a bonding exercise as well.

    Before long Ajax left the room, retreating to his own for some downtime, leaving Aaliyah and Walter in the room alone. Having finished eating a long time ago, they simply quietly watched TV together. Aaliyah enjoyed that time, simply relaxing with Walter. Which was intensely strange for Aaliyah.

    She hadn’t had company like this in a long time, existing alone in the world just trying to survive. Walter was simply happy to have company at all. He had long since been living a solitary lifestyle, and suddenly falling into the company of someone that doesn’t seem to be uncomfortable being in his presence was a boon to him.

    It was nice in comparison to his life beforehand. But before long, it started to get later in the day, spent mostly in idle conversation and silence. Walter eventually left to his own room, giving a gentle goodbye.

    His door closed behind him lightly as he quickly walked into his room, flopping onto his bed. It had been a short day, categorically, but for some reason he just felt so tired.

    Maybe that was what happened when everything in your life changes in the span of forty-eight to seventy-two hours. He was drained in so many different ways, emotionally, physically, mentally. It was all taking a toll on him as he laid down on his bed, his eyes struggling to stay open, even as his mind raced with all the possibilities that this new life could bring him.

    All that he could muster as an answer to all those thoughts was that he would try his best to seize ever opportunity.

    He just didn’t know how to do that yet.

    And without being able to resist, he fell into a deep sleep.



    ---​



    Walter’s eyes snapped open to a pleasant knock on his door. He quickly picked up and looked at his linktech phone, seeing the time at 8:30 in the morning, far earlier than his regular wake up time. He groaned, lifting himself out of the comfortable and warm bed.

    He plodded over to his door, the clothes he had worn the day before still on during his sleep.

    He opened the door in a stupor to reveal Tracker, looking fresh and professional, her dark, wavy hair pulled into a loose but conservative ponytail.

    “Good morning, Walter. Sorry for the early wakeup call, but this will be when the whole team wakes up from now on. Please get ready for the day, including changing into something you are able to do exercise in, and we will walk down to the cafeteria together.”

    “Ah, thank you.” Walter said, quickly turning and racing into his room, frantically digging through his various bags to find where his mother had packed his exercise clothes. After a minute he managed to put together a few articles of exercise clothing that had been bought years ago, but never used, and threw them on before slipping on his runners and stumbling out the door.

    To his mortification, the other three members of the team and Tracker were standing at the stairwell at the end of the hall. He jogged over, something he hadn’t tried to do in years.

    “Alright, thank you all for joining us,” Tracker looked at each member individually, nodding in their direction, “we are going to be walking down to the cafeteria. Please follow me.” Tracker began to walk down the steps, prompting the other team members to follow.

    Walter looked around, seeing Aaliyah again, her skin a gentle tint of blue dressed in what looked like yoga clothing, looking quite fetching. His eyes also met the back of Ajax’s head, even though he was three or four steps down from him, was wearing a tee that wasn’t quite big enough, especially with his powerful shoulders bulging through the fabric. His exercise shorts looked more like boardshorts, thought they managed to surround the circumference of his muscled thigh comfortably.

    Then there was one other person here as well, who Walter assumed was the other group member that Ajax had referenced earlier. She was striking, the picture of poverty. Her face was gaunt, as if she hadn’t eaten in days, and her face had a large scar running through it, her bottom lip mangled by whatever blade had cut her. She wore generic exercise clothing that he could only assume was from the wardrobe in their rooms.

    She seemed… uncomfortable to him. Probably even more uncomfortable than himself.

    There was no talking on the way down to the cafeteria, the flights of steps quickly becoming dizzying for Walter, but before long they managed to make their way to a large open space filled with small tables for around five people at max. Many of those tables were filled with groups already, some silent, some chatting.

    Walter couldn’t count the number of groups that were in the cafeteria, but it gave an immediate larger scale to those that were actually being trained in the AASAU training facility. It was frankly sort of impressive. He hadn’t ever wondered how many Linked went through training here.

    “This is the cafeteria, you will be eating here every morning, starting at latest by nine. After which we will meet with your instructor for your duration of being here. Please enjoy the food.” Tracker nodded, led them to a table that was free, with the name ‘Group 11’ on the table, and then she walked off to a table that held what Walter could only assume were other employees.

    The group all sat down at the table and with a touchscreen that was supplied on the table, everyone ordered something. Walter ordered simple eggs on toast, as did Ajax. Aaliyah ordered porridge of some description, and the other girl ordered a piece of toast.

    “Hey, I’m Aaliyah. Looks like we will be working in the same team now.” Aaliyah made the first step, putting out her hand to shaken. The hand was tentatively clasped and shaken so weakly that it made even Walter cringe.

    “Mirah, and yes.” She said, her words stale the moment they came out of her mouth. The conversation died at that, and the table waited for the orders to be send, as per the request of the touchscreen.

    It was an awkward few moments before the food was supplied by a non-Linked employee, placing it on their table without a word and bustling off to somewhere else. The group immediately began to eat, each of them famished to a certain degree. The food was amazing and all of them got exactly what they ordered, except Mirah.

    Mirah had received two slices of toast with jam perfectly spread upon its surface along with what Walter assumed was tea, or maybe coffee. She looked uncomfortable as she looked at the meal in front of her, picking up a note that was laying on her tray. She looked at it for a moment, closely guarded it to her chest and folded it neatly and put it in a pocket in her shorts. Aaliyah raised an eyebrow at the odd happening but didn’t say anything.

    The group quickly finished eating and then, as if by magic, Tracker appeared at their table.

    “Finished eating I see?”

    The group nodded their heads.

    “Alright then, are we all ready to go meet your instructor?” She smiled, and the group subduedly bobbed their heads.

    The group began walking again, following Tracker’s fast and particularly efficient strides. This time the group went to the elevator and waited for the elevator to entirely free up, then entering.

    “Remember group, the code is ‘2128’!” Tracker quickly punched in the numbers and then held her thumb over the close door button, while a green light scanned her thumb. After a few moments the doors closed and began to travel down, and down and down. It became apparent that the elevator was, even at its previously displayed speed, going down very deep under the building.

    When the elevator finally stopped and the doors opened, the group were treated to the sight of sterile and incredibly reinforced hallways. Tracker turned to the group, smiling.

    “Welcome to the Underground.”


    A/N: To be pulled to the depths, to the bowels of it. Beware the beast that lurks beneath…

    But nah, Joe’s pretty cool once you get to know him. You’ll have to bring an offering of weed though, otherwise he might take a chunk out of your leg. Gets a bit cranky when he’s sober, y’know?
     
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  7. Threadmarks: Chapter 6: Willem
    Sarius

    Sarius Not too sore, are you?

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    Chapter 6: Willem

    The halls of the Underground were overwhelming to Mirah. She had never been in a place even remotely like it. Not even when she lived in the orphanage.

    It was sterile, yet it had a homey feeling. It wasn’t cold, nor did it smell like a hospital either. It smelt pleasant and was relatively warm, maybe by virtue of being further underground. Mirah, however, was still anxious beyond belief.

    Earlier the other girl in the group, she believed her name was Aaliyah, tried to speak with her. She hadn’t spoken with anyone all that much in her time on the streets, but one type of person she knew very well were snakes.

    Snakes were just people who were in it for something. Constantly analysing the situation, asking themselves what they can gain, who can they gain it from, and when they can safely rid themselves of that person.

    She had seen a little bit of it in everybody on the streets, aside from the rare person that mostly just kept to themselves, content to live their lives separate from the rest, as Mirah did.

    But this girl, Aaliyah, was a snake. No doubt about it. One of the most dangerous ones she had ever encountered. If asked, Mirah wouldn’t be able to say why she knew. Just that it was a feeling that originated in her gut. The way she had smiled at her, the manufactured tilt of her head, the fake cheerfulness in her voice, the warmly extended hand. It was all too slick, too easy.

    She had tried to be somewhat personable in her response, but she couldn’t drag it out of herself to do so. It was draining just being in the vicinity of her, worried what angle she was going to take, if she would try and stab her in the back.

    All concerns that were perfectly reasonable in the streets, but in these halls, Mirah knew cognitively that there was little to no chance anything of that nature would happen. In the streets, if you got stabbed, you would be walked over by the other street dwellers, maybe even sneaking a hand into your pockets and bags as you bled out.

    Mirah followed the distinct clacking of the heels Tracker wore through the relatively self-explanatory halls, taking in all the sights. The halls were extremely clean, but not overly sterile like she had first thought and the stark white had almost implied. She didn’t think that any chemical could make anything this clean, and the amount of time it’d take to clean this amount of surface area as immaculately as this, there was probably someone here with a link that did this. It was mighty impressive to Mirah. She’d suffered through infections multiple times in her life, one in her facial scar that as even mortally perilous. If she had that link, she maybe could have saved herself from those weeks of torture. If it even worked like that, of course

    Mirah and the rest of the group made a final turn before they were led to the face of two large doors.

    “This is the Gym.” She pushed open the doors wide, revealing a massive room, filled with fighting rings, a bunch of sport courts, grassed areas for other sports, exercise equipment. It was baffling to Mirah.

    In this one, single room, there was enough in development costs to build hundreds of houses, restore entire neighbourhoods. She pushed down the dark thought and simply accepted the sight.

    “You will, over the next few weeks and months, be spending much of your time in here. Mostly partaking in instructed exercise. Otherwise, you will be in here training together or in battle within the Arena, though that’ll be quite a ways into the future from now.” She breezed passed some people using exercise equipment, one particular man went from almost stick thin to extremely muscular in a moment, deadlifting near a tonne without flinching before his muscles deflated back to their wiry frame. Tracker walked for a few moments more before they all arrived at yet another door.

    “In here is a private training area. You are sponsored to have access to AASUA’s best trainer.” Without preamble Tracker opens the door and strides in, not waiting for us to file in behind her. The room was much smaller than the large stadium-like outer area. In here, though, it was clearly more specialised. The equipment was far more heavy duty, some that were likely made specifically to test links, and the walls were even clearly made to withstand explosions from Linked that can do that sort of thing.

    “Willem, I brought this team for you.” Tracker called out. It was a moment before Mirah saw any movement, but out from behind some equipment a small, middle-aged, portly man walked out, brushing himself of some unseen dust. Mirah’s first opinion was that the man looked bored, eyes barely half open with a dull look on his face. He was far shorter than Mirah herself, standing only at maybe 5’2, if he’s lucky. His gut was large, overhanging the band of his trackpants, but not large enough that you could call him obese. His clothing was relatively standard exercise equipment, simply a t-shirt tucked into trackpants, holding his form together with at least a little propriety.

    He had a cleanly shaven, bald head which was clearly taken well care of, as well as a bushy brown beard that just added intensity to an already intensely featured face, his eyes like concentrated lasers despite the boredom his lids would have you assume.

    “Ah, Tracker. Lovely to see you again.” He said, his eyes crinkling at the side a little as he greeted her. Tracker seemed to share the pleasant feeling, and they quickly shook hands before Tracker nodded towards the group in farewell and strode out of the room at her ever efficient pace.

    Then followed a long wait. The short man gestured at an invisible line, which the team promptly aligned themselves too. He then stood a few metres away and examined each of the trainees one by one. First, his eyes were drawn to Ajax. The tall man standing straight, but wearing a soft smile on his lips, his unflappably happy mood not waning in the slightest even when under the portly man’s scrutiny.

    Willem looked at the definition in Ajax’s muscles, his eyes scanning over the impressively built man. It was all practical muscle as well, much of the strength that he would be able to wield would be found in the smaller, more obscure muscled formed by lifting and moving objects at inconvenient angles. He looked at the man’s hands next. They had clearly seen thousands to tens of thousands of hours of physical labour. It was something that Willem seemed to find appeasing, nodding slightly then looking directly into the other man’s eyes.

    “Name?” He said plainly, his voice deep and gravelly, but said gently. The group was almost startled by the man speaking.

    “Ajax Nephus, sir.” Willem nodded, pulling out a pad of paper and a fountain pen that looked like it had been bought fifteen years ago and scribbled down some words. He then turned his attention to Aaliyah. His face an impassive mask, something that was weirdly disturbing to Aaliyah. She had the same feeling when it came to Mirah, never really knowing what it was that she was thinking.

    Willem looked over the girl’s body, taking note that she had pretty good musculature, something clearly born from an exercise regime. It wasn’t anything all that special in his eyes, but it was a good starting point for true Linked fitness. Impressive for an non-Linked person, maybe. He nodded again, acknowledging however, that the way her eyes moved and nature of her expression, that her expertise was well and truly elsewhere.

    “Name?” He called again.

    “Aaliyah.” He nodded, unperturbed by the lack of a last name. Ajax and Walter looked quizzically at her, but she didn’t seem to notice. Willem moved over and began to examine Walter.

    Atrocious. He was clearly upper class and had absolutely no muscle to speak of. The kid was overweight, albeit relatively slim given the sort of sedentary lifestyle his appearance and mannerisms implied. He nodded again, his opinions not showing on his face at all.

    “Name?”

    “Walter Suen, sir.” Notes were written and then Willem moved on to Mirah. He immediately nodded without even looking.

    “Name?”

    “Mirah.” Again, he didn’t ask about the lack of a last name.

    “Alright,” his voice soft, but carrying surprisingly well in the large room, “My name is Willem Ross, you can just call me Willem, or Coach or Sir, I don’t care. Your physical, team, and link training has been put in my hands for the duration of your stay here. You will do what I say, when I say it, when it comes to physical training. There will be no argument.” His voice was hard, doing his best to impress upon the team that there will likely be consequences.

    “Your physical wellbeing has been placed in my hands. If you feel that there is something wrong with the physical training that I have given you, or you feel like that the training may be hurting you unduly, then speak to me and we can figure out a solution. I will not, however, change your exercise regime because you do not think it is important, or dislike it. I do not care for that mentality. Understood?” He said, his voice still like stone, but there was absolutely no escalation or yelling. It was entirely coolly delivered. The entire team nodded. He seemed satisfied that his point had been transferred correctly.

    “Excellent. However, there is a case in which this does not apply. Training your links is an incredibly personal journey. You will be expected to make progress in controlling, understanding, and using your links during your time here. But I will not be giving you standardised exercises to train your links. They will all be custom built to your link itself with any amount of tweaking you so desire.” Walter and Ajax looked somewhat perturbed, as if they were thrown off balance, but Aaliyah and Mirah simply nodded. Willem noted this in his mind.

    “We will converse about your links, and what you feel is a potential way forwards with them, and we will work collaboratively to ensure that you make progress with your links. This process is especially important as you all have powers that are considered undefined.” There it was. Undefined. Mirah knew and cared very little for what seemed like disregard for those with undefined powers, but Walter, Aaliyah and Ajax cringed ever so slightly at the definition. Willem, however, didn’t seem to care.

    “In these next coming weeks you will be trained extraordinarily quickly, at a pace that you yourself will not believe you could be trained at. Our links give us more than just the manifestation of our powers, but also to change our body rapidly into physical powerhouses. There are many non-combat Linked that are able to handle situations with fully powered combat Linked, just using their physical prowess. That is our goal, so that if you lose the ability to use your link, you will have a level of physical ability to take advantage of.” He stared into the eyes of the group for a long second, giving them each a taste of his seriousness before looking away.

    “Alright. Now that all of you have been briefed on what it is you will be doing, I want you to start running. Give me twenty laps around the Gym track.” The man then turned back to the exercise machine that he had been behind and disappeared. The team stood there for a moment, baffled.

    There was no yell to start, no supervision. Just ‘do it and come back’. Mirah shrugged and started to walk out the door into the main gymnasium and started to jog.

    She hadn’t jogged ever, really. It had only ever been walking and sprinting for her life. The process started out strong, but it only took a few hundred metres before she started to deteriorate. Her breathing became laboured, unable to breathe in enough air to properly sustain herself. She started to slow, and then Ajax calmly jogged past her. The sudden appearance of the massive man at her side was shocking, but he breezed past effortlessly, only stopping to give her a quick smile before forging ahead.

    As she slowly worked her way back up to a jog, Aaliyah whizzed past as well, almost running in comparison to Ajax, who seemed to almost be leisurely walking. though they were going the same speed. Walter, the sort-of pudgy Asian kid, always managed to keep up with Mirah.

    Mirah tried her best to keep going, but realised quickly that she couldn’t go too hard on herself or she would start to feel sick and faint, nearly actually fainting one time. Walter behind her was struggling just as hard, puffing heavily, and groaning from the pain. She could feel the pain as well, her legs had virtually no muscle, and they cramped terribly at multiple times during the run.

    It didn’t help that whenever they seemed to slow down to catch their breath, Ajax passed by them, going at the same speed the entire time, consistently plodding along, shorty followed by Aaliyah, who was going slower and, despite her obvious efforts, couldn’t ever quite keep up with the man.

    It took almost three hours for Mirah and Walter to complete twenty laps. Mirah collapsed to the floor by the door to the private gym, the past three hours spent only thinking about the number of laps left in the run and how much every part of her hurt.

    Although Mirah was too exhausted to hear it, Walter collapsed to the ground on his hands and knees shortly after, sweat dripping from every inch of his body. In these twenty laps, he had truly come to despise that little bit of pudge that he had gained on his stomach over the year. The force it created while jogging, just enough to annoy him over and over again, While Walter lamented never using the linktech gym that his parents had funded for their own physical means, both Aaliyah and Ajax stood above them.

    Ajax had his arms crossed, a small, proud smile on his lips as he looked down at the two people with wildly different issues with their bodies, both succeeding in the first step forwards. He, of course, had done his best to get a good, diligent exercise in, but he was effectively recovered after the forty-five-minute wait for the others to finish.

    Aaliyah, on the other hand hid a smug smile, all the while she helped Walter with some water. She hadn’t been able to catch Ajax in the end, her physical state simply not comparable to the muscled monster. She had well and truly downplayed the amount of exhaustion she was feeling from running the entire time. She was naturally competitive and seeing the man so blasé about the physically demanding run was almost infuriating.

    It was then that the short coach burst out of the large private gym and looked at the physical states everyone was in and nodded.

    “Time for lunch.” And begun walking, gesturing for the group to follow.
     
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  8. Threadmarks: Chapter 7: Jelly
    Sarius

    Sarius Not too sore, are you?

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    Chapter 7: Jelly

    Ajax had been sceptical of this new coach. His introductory speech was good enough, not anything astounding, and being sent on a relatively long run after that, without supervision no less, was worrying. Was he intending to just sit back and watch them, ordering them around to his whim without lifting a finger himself?

    Ajax wasn’t one to judge by appearances, but everyone else was clearly having some sort of doubt about the coach. He was extremely short and, if you weren’t looking closely at the muscle definition on his arms, you’d be forgiven to think that the man was overweight.

    Ajax followed the man’s leisurely walk back towards the elevator to go up to the cafeteria. His stride was the exact opposite of Tracker’s elegantly efficient walk. It seemed like he had all the time in the world.

    It took a few minutes to walk all the way to the cafeteria, rest of the team that was following behind Ajax looked about ready to collapse, Walter and Mirah especially. Aaliyah had done better than he thought she would, managing to keep up with his jog. It was pretty impressive to see the girl really push it to try keep up with him, and he hoped that the coach had seen the effort.

    Willem sat down at the table they had used that morning in one of two seats that wasn’t being filled by the other members of the team.

    “Alright, time for a performance review.” As he spoke the small man nonchalantly messed with the menu, ordering a large amount of food, probably for the entire team.

    “Ajax, you did okay, though you didn’t push it all. Your physical state might be impressive, but if you cruise along like you did today Aaliyah will come beat your ass in ten seconds flat. After training today you are going to give me another twenty at full tilt.” Willem brooked no argument, not that Ajax would have complained. He felt that it was entirely reasonable that he should be forced to push himself.

    “Aaliyah,” Willem continued, having finished placing the order and batting away Walter’s hand from the touchscreen menu, “you did well. If you keep that sort of effort up, you’ll get good very quickly.” She nodded at his words, taking them in and processing. She hadn’t truly realised how little Ajax had pushed himself, and it was almost embarrassing in retrospect. Though, if what Willem said was true, she would maybe be able to match him if she kept up with her effort.

    “Walter and Mirah. You did about as well as expected. Walter, your effort was quite impressive. In the next few days training under me, you will see large gains in your physical state.” Walter’s face grew lightly red at the compliment and Mirah, as always, looked at Willem like a dead fish.

    Ajax felt conflicted by Willem’s repeated disregard for Mirah. He had barely given her a look when he was sizing everyone up before the run, and now she wasn’t being given anything constructive?

    He pushed down his discontent though. Ajax was a big believer in that someone always had a reason, even if they said they didn’t. In this case, he had a big suspicion that Willem was the sort of man that always had a reason for what he did, no matter how small. He got the impression that Willem was a man of control, even when he wasn’t displaying it.

    “Overall, for your first training session, you are doing pretty well. Obviously your first run isn’t going to be fun, or particularly beneficial, but you will see yourself run that same twenty laps in what amounts to minutes.” Even Ajax was a little surprised at that claim, but Willem passed it off as if it were a foregone conclusion.

    “Now, I know that you have just eaten breakfast but Linked, especially under rigorous training, will need to eat far more than the average person. Over the years we have developed ways to easily satisfy that energy requirement so that we don’t end up accidentally killing ourselves from overtraining.” Right on cue, the waiter from early in the morning bustled over and placed an entire tray of sachets and a piece of steak.

    The steak was quickly snatched by Willem, who then started to hand out the different sachets.

    Ajax got a large one, Aaliyah received a medium sized one, Walter got a small and Mirah also got a large. At that, Ajax turned a concerned eye towards Willem, who was too busy pulling out a well-made knife and fork that looked dated as all hell. A recurring theme with the man, it seemed. Now that he looked at it, even his gym clothes were obviously at least a decade old, just from the type of material and colours used.

    “Each of those packets contain a jelly that holds a huge amount of calories and other good bits and pieces. It tastes like crap, but it will be a necessary part of your daily life for many years, maybe forever. Over the course of those years, you will come to understand how much of it you need, but for now I will be doing the understanding for you. Bottoms up, kids.” The middle-aged man turned back to his large steak, his knife cutting through the meat and bone with seemingly no effort on Willem’s part.

    Ajax tried to keep the surprise to himself at he heard the bone that Willem had cut through being crunched within the man’s mouth. Ajax grabbed the nondescript, silvery surfaced sachet and tore where a dashed line indicated.

    There was no smell, past maybe a slight chemical tinge to it. The jelly looked… unpleasant. It was a yellow-green colour, the jiggling mass of semisolid had flecks and chunks other unknowable things in there. In Ajax’s life in the woods, he had encountered all sorts of rancid looking things, but for some reason this jelly was particularly revolting looking to him. In one smooth tip of the head, the jelly slid down his gullet. After which the taste of the jelly being briefly in his mouth made his face scrunch in polite disgust. It took a whole five seconds before Ajax could even think about anything other than the taste of the jelly, so indescribably terrible as it was. Thankfully, the taste didn’t linger, returning neutrality to his tastebuds in quick order.

    Ajax, however, looked across the table at Walter. He had managed to get the jelly into his mouth, but just seemed to be stuck in limbo, unable to swallow because of the intensely disgusting taste, but unable to spit it out right in front of Willem.

    “Kid,” the coach looked up from his mostly eaten steak, chewing on a piece in his mouth, “you really want to swallow that right now. That taste doesn’t get any better when it dissolves into a liquid.” The coach grinned, almost sadistically as Walter’s eyes went wide and he started to swallow furiously, but only managing to get down half before his eyes widened and face started quivering from the sheer disgust.

    “Told ya.” Walter took a final swallow, coughing right after. Willem pushed a glass of water that he had ordered across the table towards Walter, who rapidly took the glass and skulled it in seconds, coughing further afterwards. Ajax heard snickers coming from tables surrounding theirs, He looked over to those tables, seeing obviously more experienced trainees, some even drinking the same foul concoction themselves. Ajax grinned at them, gaining himself a few knowing smiles as well.

    It seems that this was a bit of a necessary tradition around here.

    Aaliyah took a deep breath and swallowed hers, but rapidly stood up after and briskly walked in the direction of the toilets. Ajax then looked over towards Mirah to see her simply sitting there with no sachet in front of her. He furrowed his eyebrows in confusion, and was about to ask, when Willem chimed in, chewing the last bit of his steak.

    “She drank it before I even told her what it was.” He gave a soft laugh, “Didn’t even flinch. Went and thew out the sachet while you were stuck with that look on your face.” Ajax’s eyebrows soared. Really? Didn’t even flinch? That was surprising.

    “I thought this was made by Chef, its disappointed.” Mirah said, her voice neutral. Willem laughed.

    “Ah, you’ll be happy to know, then, that Chef didn’t create this swill. You have various linktech producers to thank for that.” Mirah nodded thankfully, a small smile of relief on her face, before returning to stoic neutrality.

    That was the most emotion he had seen her display since he’d met her at the door of her room. Ajax worried about the girl, unsure how much he should try to talk to her, or if trying to do so will just push her further away. This group seemed… dysfunctional, you could say. The only really solid parts so far were himself and Walter. Aaliyah was nice, but she didn’t seem that into the whole team thing as a general note. Though she did get along with Walter, at least a little.

    “Don’t they make that stuff with flavouring, or something?” Walter said, still cringing every now and then from the aftertaste of the liquidised form of the jelly, remembering the horrific taste of the bits as they touched his tongue. The were almost so bad that it had felt like lighting had struck his tongue. Aaliyah wandered back over to the table, looking sick, but fine. She was still walking with that gait similar to Tracker, efficient and graceful. She seemed like she was picking it up while we were walking with Tracker this morning.

    “They do, and it costs a whole lot more.” Walter’s eyes lit up, probably the only one in the team that could possibly afford to buy it, “Though I warn you, I’ve tasted them all, and I swear that the flavouring only makes it worse.” Willem laughed as Walter’s hopes and dreams were dashed, ultimately resigning himself to eating the acrid goop in future, before it turned into liquid, preferably.

    “Did you throw up?” Willem said, turning to Aaliyah. She shook her head after a moment but didn’t deign to say anything else.

    “Good. None of you were unable to eat it or threw up afterwards. You don’t get multiple of those a day, so you would have been in for a bad day tomorrow if you hadn’t gotten them down.” Everyone on the team nodded, an action that they were quickly getting used to. Willem didn’t seem like a man that was a stickler for respect and proper acknowledgement, pretty clearly displayed by his lack of care what they called him by, even giving them his first name. Though, Ajax wasn’t sure he was ballsy enough. One thing that Ajax had a feeling the man wouldn’t let pass was not being listened to. He hadn’t been overly cruel or dealing out punishments yet, but Ajax wasn’t about to find the limits of Willem’s patience.

    “Alrighty, break over. Back down we go.” The walk was quicker this time, Willem’s pace significantly increased from just after the run. It was probably intentional. This time, the group made their way past the racks and racks of equipment and exercising trainees, making a beeline for their private training area. Once the group entered, the small man turned to them, the group stopping in their tracks.

    “So! You all have links. I have reports from Tracker on some of their characteristics based on what she observed,” he looked pointedly at Ajax and Aaliyah, “and some based on previous reporting,” a glance at Walter, “and some of which we have precisely neither.” His eyes looked directly into the eyes of Mirah, who Ajax almost thought squirmed under his gaze.

    “Today, however, we are throwing all that information out the window. What your preconceived notions about your link may be, we are leaving them at the door back there,” pointing theatrically to the door of the private gym, “and re-understanding from the ground up. This is especially important for those with powers classified as ‘undefined’, there are a million variables that can influence the usability of your power, and we need to narrow it down so you can function correctly without getting yourselves or someone else killed.” His gaze laser focused, a beam of pure will. His eye gazed across each of the trainees, making sure that his words sunk in. When he was satisfied, he nodded and waved his hand at the group, motioning for them to follow as he walked further into the back of the room.

    As they walked they were greeted with the sight of a corner of the room that was entirely padded including with what seemed like a massive moveable metal wall, able to lock those within the corner of the room.

    “This is where we test links, and new aspects of your links,” gesturing flippantly towards the area, everyone in the group giving worried looks to what seemed like a prison containment cell, Willem rolled his eyes, “look, it’s real simple. Some powers go boom, some people do not realise that their power goes boom. We put them in here, let them go boom a lot, and no-one dies at the end of the day.” That dragged a laugh out of Walter and a chuckle out of Ajax, Willem just gave them a grin.

    “Well then, kiddos. Who’s going first.”


    A/N: Happy new year!
     
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  9. Threadmarks: Chapter 8: Protect and Destroy
    Sarius

    Sarius Not too sore, are you?

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    Chapter 8: Protect and Destroy

    The team looked at those besides them, wondering if anyone was going to put their hand up to be tested first. In all fairness, there was a hesitancy to use your link in the first place. To the untrained Linked, their power was sometimes more of a curse. Something to be worried about, scared that at any moment their link might make itself known, causing catastrophic damage.

    Willem, however, was a seasoned user of his own link. He had long since gotten over the fear of his power, now a master of its control and usage. Really, his job description was to simply teach the trainees control period. The kind of accidents that happen when someone has absolutely no control over their own link are always the most gruesome. Another reason on the list of why people fear and look down on ‘undefineds’ so much.

    “Ajax, you’re up.” Willem picked one, as the team didn’t seem like they were going to pick an order to be tested on their own. Ajax shrugged.

    “I don’t have my axe with me.” Willem looked at the man deadpan and raised an eyebrow, pointing towards the corner of the room, just beyond the retractable metal door.

    “I had Tracker fetch it for you. From now on, you carry the thing everywhere.” Ajax looked a little surprised, his privacy obviously had been violated to get the axe and, by the look on his face, he was unsure how to feel about it.

    “What, did you expect any privacy in a place where there are people being trained in links used precisely for espionage?” Willem rolled his eyes at the reactions of the team. For some reason, even those with links, never really comprehend how many types of links there are.

    Willem walked within the bounds of the training area, motioning in Ajax after him.

    “Training room: commence training.” There was a beep as some speaker in the room acknowledged the command, and a thunderous whirring sound began, the metal walls being lowered around the corner of the room, slowly creating a box around the trainer and trainee.

    On the outside of the box, a screen had appeared from the roof, displaying a clear view of the inside of the metal and concrete box. Allowing Mirah, Aaliyah, and Walter to see the happenings inside, albeit without sound.

    “Alrighty. This is your time to shine, axe boy. Take a swing at the wall first, give it a good amount of juice, if you could.” Willem said casually, pointing at of the concrete walls. Ajax nodded hesitantly.

    He had never tried to cut concrete with his axe before. He could do wood easily enough, his axe happy with granting him some power for it. But concrete?

    The tall man walked towards the wall and stood in place for a moment, before winding up a blow and letting loose a swing at the concrete. There was a small explosion of rubble, and an obvious cut in the concrete, but only ten centimetres in.

    There were small concrete shards littering the floor around Ajax, but that seemed to be it for the power the axe had deigned to give him. Ajax just sighed, knowing full well that it wasn’t even close to how much power he had drawn in the past.

    “Interesting. I assume that was because your axe wasn’t as in line with you trying to chop into some concrete?” Ajax nodded easily. He was good. Tracker must have given him some information about his power, but Willem seemed to understand with ease.

    “Good. Then we now understand problem numero uno. You aren’t able to muster power on will, it has to be in line with the axe itself.”

    “This axe doesn’t like wonton destruction, though it does give some power to me for it, more if I’m doing it for productive reasons like building my house.” Ajax said, trying to give Willem a larger scope to work with. Ajax’s fire axe hummed in agreement within his hands, a sensation that only he could feel.

    “I see. So then, what does a fire axe want?” Willem’s amusement was visible on his face. He was having fun with learning a new link second hand. Maybe this was why he was a teacher.

    “Protection. Its only goal is to protect.” The axe thrummed deeply in resonation with Ajax’s answer. Willem nodded thoughtfully.

    “Protection of you, or of others?”

    “Both, but more power if I’m protecting others.” Willem’s grin grew wider.

    “And if you are trying to protect more people?” Ajax grinned easily.

    “More power.”

    “Good! An interesting link for once.” Willem dusted his hands off on his bulging stomach and called out a command.

    “Training room: dummy.” In only a few moments, a hatch opened out of the floor of the room, where none seemed to be, and a stone rod with vaguely human shaped torso and head attached to it rose out of the floor, standing proudly in the middle of the room.

    Ajax looked on in interest, the mechanics of this room seemed far more complicated than at first glance, for sure.

    “Okay. This training exercise is simple. You have to protect this dummy,” the short man walked over to the dummy and patted it on its armoured stomach, “from me. No punches pulled.” Ajax looked at the short man with worry. No pulled punches? That was absurd, he would kill the guy!

    The short man walked away to the corner of the room, letting Ajax a moment to prepare himself, positioning himself in front of the dummy, and raising his axe, the head acting as a shield in front of himself.

    He took a deep breath in and focused, his mind going back to darker times, where the lives were real and defeat more crushing. He felt the axe thrum in his hands, excited by the chance to apply itself within his care.

    He opened his eyes and prepared himself.

    Once Willem saw the big man’s eyes, he began. With the barest grunt, he pushed off from the ground, rocketing forwards toward the man’s axe. Ajax was surprised by the sheer speed that the short man reached, barely being able to blink before the flat of his axe met with Willem’s fist.

    The fist sent shockwaves through Ajax’s body, almost shaking the axe out of his hands entirely, but Ajax clamped down and pushed back against the overwhelming force. He sent the short man, who was surprisingly heavy, flying away from the dummy he was trying to attack.

    “Much better!” Willem shouted, his voice not showing any exertion at all, while Ajax grunted lightly from the effort. Willem flipped mid-air, his feet landing safely on the ground and quickly rocketed forwards again, seemingly going for the same attack.

    Ajax prepared, his grip stronger and more stable, but just as the form of Willem got close enough to punch, he twisted on a whim, ducking under the much taller man’s elbow, reaching towards the dummy behind him.

    Ajax’s eyes widened in shock, a strange fear reaching up and clasping him up and grasping at his heart. The tall man spun blindingly fast, the handle of the axe suddenly being used as a bludgeoning weapon, racing towards Willem’s exposed chest as he reached forwards to the dummy.

    Ajax realised too late just how much force was behind that blow and tried desperately to pull it back, but it was too late—the blow hurtled forwards toward the short man with impunity. But the shorter man’s head turned towards him and grinned, a hand raising lighting fast and grabbing the stub end of the handle, catching it without even a flinch.

    “Good job!” Willem grinned as he ripped the axe out of Ajax’s hands. “This is why we train. You would have killed anyone with even remotely base human physical abilities. And also…” Willem’s hand flashed out as an insane speed, far faster than Ajax could conceivably see.

    There was a loud bang as the stone dummy exploded into shrapnel, flying towards one of the concrete walls.

    “You failed to protect the target.” Willem smiled sadistically as he handed back the axe.

    “Training room: finish training.” The metal walls opened back up just tall enough so that both Ajax and Willem could walk back out. When they did so, coming in front of the rest of the group who alternated between staring at Willem and Ajax, the metal walls closed behind them.

    “You might want to cover your ears for just a moment.” Willem said, without doing so himself. The rest of the team did so just in time for a massive grinding sound along with what sounded like a huge vacuum cleaner turning on. Only a few seconds later, the walls begun to raise once again.

    “Aright then, who is next?”








    Aaliyah stood in the middle of the room, looking at the shorter man who was eyeing her up and down.

    “So, your emotions inform the effect of your link. Anger gives you strength, sadness gives others lethargy, correct?” Aaliyah just nodded.

    “How many of your emotions do you know the effect of, precisely?” She shrugged lazily, but Willem looked at her with his eyebrow raised forcing her to sigh dramatically.

    “There isn’t any way for me to know without someone to test it on or with. I only know a few because I’ve used them by accident, or I’ve learned through other people’s comments. The whole skin thing just makes it more confusing.” Willem nodded, satisfied with the answer.

    “Okay then, how much control do you have over your emotions?”

    “Enough.” Willem snorted at the confident words.

    “Sorry to break it to you, kid. There is never a time when you have enough of a control over your emotions.” Aaliyah just gave the man a raised eyebrow and the man chuckled.

    “Well, if you think you’re hot shit, then how angry can you make yourself on a whim?” Immediately as the words had left his mouth, the girl’s body began to slowly cover itself in red, but it simply remained at small blotches.

    “Really, that’s it?” He egged. She snarled and the blotches of red grew bigger. Willem just shook his head in dismay.

    “Not good enough. Not being able to control this much without outside stimulus is already a failing grade.” The girl’s face twisted into a vicious snarl.

    Aaliyah hated losing. She hated others telling her she wasn’t good enough. The red of rage quickly covered her body, glowing a bright red as she launched towards Willem, who clicked his tongue.

    “See, this is what I mean.” As the girl grew closer and close, Willem’s leg lashed out like a whip, slamming Aaliyah’s body into the concrete. Eliciting a yowl of pain from the girl, though she wasn’t all that injured past some scrapes that were rapidly healing.

    “Definitely more resilient and able to regenerate at higher speeds, though it looks like anger just turns you into a big, dumb juggernaut.” Shaking his head, Willem held her down on the concrete floor with one foot without any trouble whatsoever. Aaliyah’s glowing red form, mostly covered in red calmed down very quickly, the red leaking from her skin, returning to below the surface.

    Before long, Aaliyah was sound of mind again, and not struggling under Willem’s restraint.

    “Still think you have enough control, kid?” Willem chucked when he heard a distinct lack of an answer.

    “Fuck you.” Aaliyah said, the anger still simmering, tiny red blotches appearing on her skin again, before Aaliyah pushed the colour down into the depths of herself.

    “Your ability may turn out to be one of the most useful on your team. The sheer versatility, and the potentially unlimited number of aspects, if you are able to call on the right emotions at the right time, but at the moment you are useless.” Aaliyah didn’t say anything back to him, silently repressing her emotions.

    “You will not train your link independently; you are too dangerous to yourself and others. Until the time that I say so, you will only train your power with me, or with someone else that I designate as capable of handling you while you are busy zerking out.” Willem removed his runner from her back, looked down at the young girl lying on the ground, hands clenched.

    “We will also be learning how to meditate together during your training.” This got a rise out of the girl, causing her to leap up from her position on the floor, growling like a rabid dog.

    “Are you kidding me? Meditation? That’s the best you can come up with?” Willem looked at her, any joviality or wryness gone from his expression, just pure steel.

    “Yes, it is. And you will wholeheartedly peruse it for your own benefit.” Aaliyah scoffed, turning to walk towards the metal walls.

    “Or else what?” She turned her head to look at the man, a sardonic smile grading her face. But when she looked at his expression, blood drained from her face. It was a mix of pity and an ironclad warning.

    “I’m afraid there is no ‘or else’, Aaliyah.” The short man looked away, his face returning to its regular neutrality.

    “Training room: finish training.” The walls did the same as last time and raised about two-and-a-bit metres up, letting both Willem and Aaliyah to easily pass underneath.

    “Alrighty. We’ve done two of you. You can all go for a pee break, chat for a bit and then come on back here.”
     
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  10. Threadmarks: Chapter 9: Control and Stumble
    Sarius

    Sarius Not too sore, are you?

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    Chapter 9: Control and Stumble

    Walter sat outside of the toilets in the hallways, resting himself on a metal bench. His feet were constantly wiggling and knee was bumping up and down as his mind whirred with nervousness.

    He had seen the past two people display their links on the monitor, and it was terrifying. Both Ajax and Aaliyah were clearly powerful. Although there was no sound on the outside of the training room, a privacy measure maybe, he could tell that there was some conflict between Willem and the trainees.

    Walter was worried about this all going wrong and him messing up and being kicked off the team. Willem was so overpowering even in comparison to the towering Ajax, the sight of the short man destroying the sturdy dummy replayed in Walter’s mind on repeat.

    “You okay there, man?” A deep voice rung out as Ajax casually walked out of the toilets, rubbing his hands on the sides of his shorts, dripping with water.

    “Oh, uh, yeah! Just nervous, y’know?” Walter stammered out, trying to put on a brave face in front of the charismatic man. Ajax nodded sagely.

    “I’m kind of glad that I got called up first, to be honest. Then I don’t get to see everyone else and overthink things.” Walter scratched at his chin, being caught out in his thoughts.

    “Yeah, I mean, I don’t really know how I could follow up on what you did, Ajax.” Ajax just shrugged in response; disregard written on his face.

    “Nah, I didn’t do anything special. I think I just gave Coach Willem what he wanted to know. I don’t think that this really is a pass or fail thing, just do your best and you’ll be fine.” Ajax smiled at the nervous Walter, walking over and patting him warmly on the shoulder.

    “Come on, we need to get back anyways.” Walter hurried after the big man, cutting a swath through the few groups of people that were in the hallway, always in groups of four or five. The big man was easily the tallest of those that Walter had seen in the Underground. It seemed that averages applied to Linked as well as non-Linked.

    The two boys managed to make it back to the training area without much hassle. Upon arriving they were greeted with Mirah and Aaliyah both standing apart from each other, not looking at, let alone talk each other. Walter had been worried about those two. Mirah had been exceptionally cold to Aaliyah when they first met at the cafeteria table and he felt that he needed the rectify the dynamic there somehow, but he had no idea how to even begin with that.

    Walter and Ajax walked forwards, and Willem appeared from one of the corners of the training room.

    “Alright, Mirah or Walter.” There was a pause, but Walter decided that he needed to bite the bullet and stepped forwards toward Willem.

    “Good man.” Willem turned and walked into the area and quickly called for training to commence. Walter’s nerves skyrocketed as he entered the area and the metal walls closed down around him, leaving him with only Willem, staring at him.

    “So, elemental control, huh?” Willem asked, a genuine intrigue on his face.

    “Uh, yeah. I just kind of make and control them, I guess.”

    “In a magic sort of way?” Walter hesitated, but nodded, knowing the subtext that a link being called ‘magic’ inferred. Willem thought about it for a while and then shrugged, seemingly reaching a conclusion in his mind.

    “Well then, just show off what you’ve got.”

    Walter nodded and began to focus in on himself, deep inside where his link lived. He had only used it a few times, sparingly trying it in a previous examination and when he had been drunk once. But doing it under the watchful eye of Willem made Walter incredibly nervous.

    He stretched out his hand, palm up and leaned his body away from the outstretched hand. Willem rose an eyebrow at him, but Walter didn’t notice the gesture.

    Walter took a deep breath in, and then slowly let it out, the air leaving his lungs pushed away some of the nervousness just long enough for Walter to connect.

    It was like plunging yourself into a power socket, electricity coursing through your flesh, and suddenly power radiated from Walter. The skin near his hands glowed, like light warmly shining through flesh. In but a single moment, there was a sputter of sparks spewing from his hand, and then the flame was born.

    It grew, becoming a spire of flame burning directly from his hand, the heat was intense, the fire burning hot, making Willem take a few steps back in self-preservation from the flame.

    This fire had been the most he’d ever summoned, the spire of flame burning on his hand would be able to melt through steel, heating it till molten. It went on for seconds, and then minutes. Walter was frozen in fear, too terrified to move, lest he hurt someone or himself. Though, oddly he didn’t feel that much heat from the flame, it was like holding something a little warm, and maybe a little uncomfortable to the touch, like a freshly made cup of tea.

    Out of nowhere there was a massive booming sound that vibrated Walter’s eardrums so severely that he swore they would burst. Immediately forcing him to dissipate the flame, and making him raise his palms to his ears, scrunching his face in pain.

    “A good amount of power you can sustain there. But not so great control.” Willem’s voice boomed throughout the sudden silence of the training room. The voice of the small man was surprisingly deep and resonant when he was loud, rather than his relatively quiet voice.

    “Ah, that hurt! Did you… clap?” Walter asked, fighting through the residual pain in his eardrums, looking to the small man now standing much farther away from Walter than he was previously.

    “Indeed I did,” he said quickly, “but what is really interesting here, is just what the limits of your link might be. It seems you have more raw power than Ajax or Aaliyah, for sure. Question is, where is it coming from?” Willem lifted an inquisitive eyebrow. Walter just shrugged.

    “I don’t know, really. I can just use them. The elements, I mean.”

    “‘The elements’ is a wide plethora of things, kid. Are you talking about the periodic table of elements? ‘Cause then I dunno how you just summoned fire out of nowhere.” Walter spluttered as he tried to answer, but he saw the teasing look on Willem’s face and just sighed.

    “I think its based off of the legendary or mythically important elements. Fire, water, wind, earth. I can do fire and water at the moment, but I haven’t figured out the other two yet.” Willem tapped his foot against the concrete in thought.

    “How do you know that the other ones are earth and air then?”

    “Well, uh, Awakening dream.” Willem took it in stride, obviously believing Walter with just those words.

    “That’d be an interesting Awakening dream. Though, I guess I can relate to meeting the avatar of something.” Willem smiled as Walter’s interest was piqued.

    “Uh, who, if you don’t mind me asking?” Willem shook his head. His grin widened as he gave Walter a wink for his troubles, leaving him wondering just what Willem’s link even was.

    “Either way, give water a go, if you would.” Walter shrugged, and just upturned his hand and his hand began to turn ever so slightly blue, water simply leaking out of the hand itself, creating a rapidly increasing puddle on the ground. Willem looked at it and nodded.

    “Able to do anything else with it?” Walter just shook his head.

    “Alrighty then, that was an excellent showing. You clearly have access to a large amount of power, and if what you said is true in the sense that I think it is, it’ll mean your powerset may be extremely versatile in how to attack an enemy. However, it will simply all come down to you practicing, a lot.” Walter nodded, feeling pretty chuffed about that analysis. Actually no, he wasn’t just chuffed. He was excited. His link was finally being recognised for something more than just handwavy magic that so many Linked seemed to despise, that he had been ridiculed for and trodden on. Here, Willem was simply telling him that all he needed to do was practice.

    Practice was something that he could do.

    Willem called the end of the training session, and the two of them walked out, the walls closing behind them. Walter was faced with two surprised gazes and one interested look. Ajax and Aaliyah looked at Walter with an entirely new frame of mind.

    “Holy shit, Walter. That was fucking amazing.” Ajax said in genuine shock, “Why were you even anxious about that!” Ajax laughed to himself, the absurdity of the timid man producing a massive pillar of flame from his hand at least as tall as Ajax, was almost comical in how dichotomous it was.

    Aaliyah was surprised in a similar way, baffled by how the boy she had thought so harmless had contained in him such an obvious amount of power that it made her jealous. Green spots appeared on the girl’s skin in a very light spattering before she actively pushed the jealously down, but she felt the eyes of Mirah look at her. She resorted to putting on a pleasant smile and congratulating Walter. He blushed ever so slightly, letting himself bathe in the surprised gazes for a while, before nervously pulling back to his shell.

    “And then there was one.” Willem called out, jerking his head in the direction of the opening walls. Mirah nodded and simply walked right into the training room, looking around at the undamaged interior. It must be a mechanical marvel to be able to repair itself so completely. She was sure there were limits to it, but that was how it was.

    The walls hit the floor, and a locking mechanism held them in place. Willem stood in from of her, looking up towards her face with a thoughtful expression.

    “So then, what can you do?”

    “Move things.” She answered plainly. He nodded.

    “Telekinesis?”

    “Maybe.” She shrugged, responding dourly

    “Hit me with it.” Mirah simply closed her eyes and waited. Mirah had never truly used her link, but it was intrusive. Mirah knew next to nothing about Linked but she had known from the moment she received her link that it was not of the usual sort, that it was extremely different and possibly entirely unique.

    She let her mind delve deep into that space, where she somehow subconsciously saw everything, where little whispers rushed past her ears, a maelstrom of voices that all argued with one another. Every time Mirah had delved this space in her mind, she was left with having to sort through what they were telling her. Minutes passed and Mirah could find nothing, voice after voice slowly going silent. She could do nothing but wait.

    “What are you doing?” Willem asked softly, interested. A spatter of new voices appeared, but quickly died away as stillness consumed the room once again.

    Then a voice spoke to her, louder and clearer than the garbled mess of the other voices. There was a short scuffing of the shoe and Mirah grabbed and pulled against this thing within her mind, pulling on every iota of mental power she had, straining against this strange force, and then she heard a thump, the sound of Willem falling to the floor.

    Her eyes snapped open to see the short man lying on his back on the concrete, slightly confused. He sat back up and looked at Mirah, amusement growing on her face.

    “You did that, yes?” She just nodded in response. His face went through a series of emotions and thoughts. It started with befuddlement and ended with a resigned amusement and slight awe, chuckling to himself all the while.

    “I have no idea how to even classify that. It felt like nothing more than me placing my foot wrong, but I haven’t placed my foot wrong in years.” To prove his point he, more nimbly than a man of his proportions should be capable, stood back up and looked deeply at Mirah, who was suddenly becoming more uncomfortable with the idea that he may hold a grudge over this.

    “Before we can collaborate on how to train your link, we need to figure out what it is first. All I can think of is a strange form of telekinesis.” He ran a hand over his balding head, scrunching his face in determined thought, trying to dredge up something from his whirring mind. After seconds of thought, he had nothing and just sighed.

    “Either way, whatever it was that you did was done excellently. I haven’t been knocked down by students who possess links that borderline hard counter mine, ever. It’s a new one for both of us.” Willem let out a great peal of laughter, almost mocking himself, and promptly ending the training session and walking out of the training room. Mirah following closely behind and when they reached the outside, the entire group was looking at her with a confused gaze. They had just as little an idea of what happened in there, as Willem knew what happened to himself. Willem ignored the strange looks and soldiered on.

    “Alrighty then. You all know how you did in that little test of mine. We will begin with more physical training tomorrow and then we will work more individually with your links after that, like today. I expect you all to put a fair amount of thought into the usage of your links.” He looked around the group, each face coloured with a various shade of resolve, and nodded in satisfaction.

    “Back to your rooms for the day, group, and rest well.”
     
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  11. Threadmarks: Chapter 10: Team Leader
    Sarius

    Sarius Not too sore, are you?

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    Chapter 10: Team Leader

    Over the next few days Ajax’s life was a whirlwind, moving at a pace that he hadn’t experienced for years.

    The training was simple enough, the physical exercise wasn’t doing a massive amount for him especially with his fitness already being quite good, though his stamina was slowly increasing as he pushed himself to run those laps faster. He had moved onto using some of the more heavyweight machines pretty early on, leaving the others to do more laps and build basic fitness.

    The heavyweight machines were crazy, to put it lightly.

    Ajax could only take advantage of the lower settings on the weight machines. Some of those machines went up to multiple tonnes of weight, which simply dwarfed Ajax’s standard level of ability. While he used the machines, generally Coach Willem spotted him, giving pointers on form and making sure he was being pushed to his absolute limit.

    It became obvious that the Coach had a lot of strength that was hiding away in his unsuspecting form, especially when it only took a single hand to manage Ajax’s maximum natural weight. Just casually lifting the bar without even a grunt of exertion.

    Training his link had been… less successful. He was still bound by all the same rules that he had figured out himself years ago at this point. His link was difficult to train with, just by virtue of the alignment the axe needed to his actions.

    He wasn’t able to call as much power as he wanted to, always lacking the strength that he knew was available to him. It was all there right at his fingertips, begging to be used, but restraining itself waiting for a moment where it agreed to be used.

    In the meantime, Willem had just been training him on the basics of using axes in actual battle, which was pretty useful, all things considered. Ajax had only been chopping at trees for years, so it’s not like he had any form or structure, so getting a run down in really basic fighting stances had been eye opening all by itself.

    Ajax walked into the cafeteria after the end of training for the day, pulling out his chair at their table and entrusting his sizable weight to the surprisingly sturdy chairs. Despite the general progress he was seeing, he was still frustrated.

    He was frustrated with all sorts of things. His team being distant, his link being fickle, the sleep that he’d been struggling to get. But something that he had realised over the past few days, was that he was mourning the loss of his simple life, living out in the woods.

    At the time, the random woman who had shown up and followed him into the woods had seemed like she was offering a new life and opportunity. But as he sat alone in the cafeteria of this strange place, filled with people of indeterminate power, he had never felt more alone. That was, before a relaxed voice broke Ajax’s reverie.

    “Hey there.” A voice called, Ajax’s eyes flicked up from his hands resting on the table, to see a slim man with a pasty white complexion and long brown hair tied up in a bud, stray hairs on the side of his head giving him an almost roguish look. Ajax put on an amiable smile.

    “How’s it going?” Ajax asked the man, who was making himself at home in the seat opposite him, slouching and grinning, and he offered his hand, “Ajax.”

    The man took his large hand and shook it lightly. Definitely not a strength-based link, or very good at controlling it.

    “Dean. Good to see another group in here. Sorry it took me so long to get around you.” He pulled back from Ajax’s handshake and lifted a foot onto his own chair, hugging it close to his body before he continued.

    “I’m from the most advanced group here at the moment, it’s a tradition that the most senior team leader will greet the newest team leader.” Dean grinned warmly at Ajax’s slight confusion.

    “Team leaders? We haven’t heard anything about that yet.” Ajax said, concerned. Dean just shrugged.

    “And you won’t, not for a little while anyways. Team leaders are ‘chosen’,” he wiggled two fingers up and down in the air with a look on his face, “a bit later on. But it’s almost always clear who is going to end up as a team leader.”

    “How so?” Ajax’s booming voice lowered to a private hush.

    “Most commanding presence, or the quiet one,” he shrugged again, “never seems to deviate from that particular trope. It’s funny how much our realities are linked to those silly tropes. Always used to read comics about this sort of stuff, and lots of what I learned there has turned out to be way more useful here that I’d ever expected.” The slim man gave a dry chuckle, and Ajax couldn’t help but be more confused. He hadn’t exactly been a comic buff as a kid, so he was behind the curve, apparently.

    “Really?” Dean exclaimed in amusement, “Reyah the Silver Goddess? Filmore Sparks, Inventor Extraordinaire?” His hands came up into a distinctive pose, but the reference went entirely over Ajax’s head, he almost wished that Walter was here to explain. He’d probably get it.

    Man, you’re really missing out dude, that was so much fun as a kid.” Dean looked up at the ceiling with a fond look in his face but managed to refocus when Ajax asked a question.

    “Anyway… how’re you so sure I’m going to be my team’s team leader?” Ajax asked, a healthy scepticism adorning his face. Dean just laughed with a helpless expression.

    “I don’t, not really. It could be any one of your team, you all seem to have the whole team leader spark in you somewhere, but you’re slightly different than the rest of your team.” Ajax rose an eyebrow, but Dean waved him off.

    “I mean, sure. You are all in your fledgling states and you guys barely know your own links, but team leaders can only be enhanced in capability by their links, not made by them. Except if your personality changed with your link, but that type is kinda scary.” Dean involuntarily shivered, remembering a past experience with a particularly… dispassionate man.

    “But why am I team leader? Walter or Aaliyah could easily be team–” A short bark of laughter stopped Ajax mid-sentence, forcing a frown onto his face.

    “Don’t give me that, Ajax. Walter, the Asian guy I assume, can barely hold himself together, let alone a team as well. He seems like the sort that’ll figure himself out but won’t ever truly be fit to lead.” Dean paused to soak in Ajax’s expression, which was stuck somewhere between a disapproving frown and begrudging agreement.

    “Aaliyah definitely could.” Ajax grumbled. Dean thought for a moment.

    “The spunky blonde?” Ajax nodded and Dean sighed, “Yeah, she probably could. But she’d also be the one to see it burn to the ground after all is said and done. She knows how to lead, probably better than I do, but she’s got skeletons in her closet, man. Like, T-Rex sized skeletons.” He waved his hands around emphatically, and Ajax’s eyes narrowed.

    “And how to do know this, exactly?” Dean grinned.

    “Info link. Handy dandy for prying into other people’s business without their consent and always having job security.” Ajax seized up, worried that Dean was trawling through his deepest and darkest secrets. Dean just rolled his eyes.

    “Nah man, not quite that intense. I can intuit a fair amount of information, like a subconscious filing system, and as the datapoints roll in, I can make some pretty out there predictions super accurately-ish.” Ajax raised a thick eyebrow.

    “Seems pretty intense to me.” Dean just shrugged

    “If I examine someone for a really long time I get to know a lot about them. Basically how I found out my mum and dad were both cheating on each other, and that my sister had three different boyfriends and a girlfriend, in only a week of my Awakening.” Dean laughed, though Ajax wasn’t sure how funny he was supposed to find that. Ajax sat and thought for a few seconds, trying to think about how to tentatively bring up the question he wanted to ask, but sighed and decided to just go for it.

    “Wouldn’t your link be considered undefined? There isn’t really much reason behind it…” Dean just shrugged, not even flinching at what could be considered a grave insult.

    “Oh yeah, for sure. It makes no fucking sense at all, aside from it being as simple as ‘monkey see, monkey think’. Most links don’t, when you get down to the nitty gritty of it. But being classified as an undefined has almost nothing to do with how explainable by science your power is, but how understandable it is to the suits.” Ajax’s eyebrows furrowed, a mix of confusion and frustration with the idea.

    “Why would they even have the classification if it doesn’t make any sense?” Ajax hadn’t exactly been victim to any discrimination based on his link, but there was a reason he didn’t bother coming back to society to ‘use his link for good’.

    “Honestly, mate? Someone has to get the short end of the stick. The suits that run all this bullshit love the idea that they can put all our capabilities down on a piece of paper and run bogus calculations on what we can and cannot theoretically do, as well as what we can and cannot theoretically provide them.” He stopped to pull his hair out of his messy bun, letting the hair fall to his shoulder casually and slipping the hairband onto his wrist in one motion.

    “So we can’t provide services well enough for them?” Ajax asked bitterly, but Dean just shook his head.

    “No. They just don’t know what you can provide, when you can you provide it and how well you’ll provide it. Take yourself. You swing your axe three times in fifteen minutes, one seems to do little more than an axe would against concrete, the next you blow a small crater into the wall, and the one after that your axe sinks into the wall enough that you have trouble getting it back out again for a second or two.” Ajax recognised this from his training only a few hours ago. He reluctantly nodded.

    “So, they want consistency? Then Walter would be fine, he can produce a consistent output of—”

    “Sure, but he’s a fabled magic type. The sort that can grow and grow until they can tear the land apart with a mere thought. Or something, they don’t do enough research on them from what I hear.” Ajax gave the interrupting man a glare, but it seemed to slide right off of Dean. Ajax sighed, but gave the topic some more thought, humouring the man eagerly awaiting his answer.

    “Control?” Dean clapped his hands together loudly, drawing the attention of a few other trainees, quietly eating food, before they rolled their eyes at the sight and went back to eating.

    “Exactly! We have a winner folks. They want control. As much of it as they can muster, even if it means breaking their own rules.” He winked as he pointed to himself. Ajax sighed, grudgingly accepting that answer as the best he’ll get for a while.

    “Anyway, so why do you think I am going to be the team leader in then end?”

    “Well because it was between you and the quiet girl with the crazy rad facial scar that may or may not be a huge soft spot, so please don’t tell her I called it that.” He stopped talking to giggle to himself softly before continuing, “Also, you’re a hell of a lot more approachable, seeing as you actually leave your room when not training.”

    “Mirah? Why was it between me and her?” Ajax asked, somewhat dumbfounded. Mirah was the last person he’d pick as a team leader. She basically never talked, and the most he actually knew about the girl was her name and that she knew nothing about the world as it was, not that she ever asked about anything other than time she’d asked what an undefined was.

    “Well,” Dean leaned back in his chair wearing a thoughtful mask, “I can’t say that I really know much more about her, but I can tell that her life was… simple, in a survivalist sort of way. Aaliyah has a similar feel to her, but less refined. She’s used to a place of power, whereas Mirah is from the flipside. Honestly, if you guys end up staying as a team after training, or even working with her on a job, listen to her instincts, they are razor sharp. Maybe even better than mine.” Dean leaned back forwards and looked Ajax in the eye with a knowing grin.

    “But you’ve got the team spirit in you. You can talk to people, listen to people, and are willing to put your best foot forward for your team. Sure, they might have defaulted to Aaliyah’s cunning or Mirah’s intuition without you there, but you are the machine oiler. You’re the one that makes sure the teeth of the cogs are turning the other cogs and not chewing each other up, adding undue stress.” Ajax scratched at his face with a look of consternation.

    “I get what you mean, man. But the team isn’t really coming together at all, and I don’t think it will for a while. Walter has been talking to Aaliyah a bit, but other than that It’s been pretty radio silent.” Ajax sighed.

    “Gotta say, mate. Welcome to the club. You think a bunch of historically abused, battered and downright neglected kids are going to get along? We all know that kids that have difficulties in early childhood are more likely to become Linked. What’s the surprise?” Ajax hadn’t known that. Though honestly, it made sense. He was almost sure that Mirah and Aaliyah had dealt with some pretty heavy stuff, and he had himself. Whether Walter had or not was almost irrelevant. Three out of four was significant enough for Ajax.

    “Well, when you put it like that.” Dean laughed at Ajax’s slight embarrassment, and got up from the table, reaching over and patting the big man on the shoulder jovially.

    “You’ll be just fine, man. Just… give it a bit, yeah? Like a long while. It’ll take something pretty big to really get you all on the same page. That’s what happened with my group, anyway.” Ajax nodded and watched the other man saunter off, receding further into the crush of the early evening crowd, leaving Ajax to sit by himself for a while.

    “Team leader, huh?”


    A/N: Chapter 10! Whew, that was a lot of work to get here. 22 some thousand words, with much more to go in future.

    I hope you're enjoying the story so far, and I can only thank you for reading by giving you more to read.

    To more chapters!
     
  12. Threadmarks: Chapter 11: Organ
    Sarius

    Sarius Not too sore, are you?

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    Chapter 11: Organ

    Mirah sat alone in the dark of her room. The blinds perpetually shut, the lights off and furniture mostly untouched.

    The only piece of furniture that Mirah dared to use was her bed, only because she had slept in it the first night and wasn’t able to force herself to use the floor with it being so close to her. When she wasn’t sleeping or training, she spent her time curled up in the corner of her room doing what she had always done. Existing.

    Though, something had been frustrating Mirah recently. It was an insidious feeling that she believed that she had long since discarded, an organ left to rot in a dingy alleyway. But now it had begun to return. What was frustrating her?

    She was finding it difficult to ‘exist’ as she once did.

    In the past, she had spent tens of thousands of hours simply existing. Sitting in her corner of the alleyway, her form obscured by the trash that she covered herself with. She sat, undetectable by anyone that didn’t know what to look for.

    The number of predators that had walked by her without even noticing was entirely uncountable. Always either men and women from the upper districts, out to look for a plaything, or men from the working district looking to take out their anger on something, or someone.

    Mirah had stayed entirely unperceived, but she knew what happened to those that were found. She had seen what happened. It hadn’t been long that she’d been out on the streets that she’d been witness to the horrors that predators commit.

    It had kept Mirah awake for days, trembling at every shadow, at every noise. But after a while, the anxiety and panic passes, and becomes neutrality, apathy. But neutrality isn’t the end. The end goes far deeper, and far darker than neutrality.

    Inside of you, your emotions all die one after another, choked of all life at the hands of survival. Rationality was replaced with anything that could get your through the end of that day. You slowly turn into a brutally efficient machine, only concerned with outcomes, and never concerned with what comes later. The future means nothing, and the present is everything.

    As such, when Mirah’s emotions had finally died after weeks of panicked restlessness, the memory of the vile act seared into her mind, she knew what she had to do.

    As she rummaged through the trash near her, her hand had been cut by a jagged piece of metal within. Instead of gasping in pain and pulling away, she gripped the metal firmly. She had brought the piece of metal up to her face, examining the warped thing for a moment before stabbing high into her cheek, and roughly pulling the metal through her skin, tearing and ripping.

    But all she could think of, as the edge sliced through her flesh and scratched against her bone, was the dead eyes of the little girl. The girl wasn’t dead, of course. Death would have been too pleasant.

    Mirah had seen the girl be dragged past her hiding spot, her mother roughly pulling on a severely atrophied arm. Mirah had been curious. Curious of a girl near her own age—maybe nine or ten—one of the first she had seen since she had run from the dangers of the orphanage.

    Her curiosity had died that day, it was the first part of her to die.

    The girl had been sold to the greatest of predators. A Linked.

    As the mother writhed on the ground in her high, the Linked’s power, the little girl was taken. The horror of it had destroyed Mirah inside, any innocence that she was desperately clutching against her chest had combusted in her fingers, leaving them raw and weeping blood.

    She remembers the blade of metal slicing through her upper lip, the screaming pain lancing through her flesh, making her jolt. The sudden jolt had forced the blade to carve into the bottom lip. A chunk of it hung limply from a thread of flesh.

    Mirah had fainted from the pain, the blood oozing forth from the cut across her face and the mutilation of her lip. The lip had managed to heal with only a small infection. Unbeknownst to Mirah, she was incredibly lucky that she had survived at all. Though, whether she would have cared if she hadn’t…

    Mirah’s fingers gently rose to her face, feeling the scarred tissue running down the side of her cheek, sloppily curving its way towards her lip, and then the large chunk out of it, and ugly thing that never healed.

    Once, Mirah had even been beautiful, someone assured to grow into a young woman of great beauty. Once, she had taken pride in her prettiness. If only she had known. If only beauty didn’t come with such a terrible, terrible cost.

    Mirah was no longer beautiful. She was a scarred, broken thing. An expression marred with tragedy and torture. A decade spent on those hellish streets, infusing their ugliness into her being.

    ‘Mirah’ was no longer. She had died to survive.

    So, the ugly flesh machine that assumed Mirah’s name was frustrated. An emotion she hadn’t felt in a long, long time. These days that she had spent here, in this room and training, she had been looking for a reason why she was frustrated.

    Why that terrible, burningly uncomfortable emotion was back, after having discarded it so long ago.

    Why? She had asked herself, unable to simply exist in the corner of her room any long, not content with just her survival. And then, all the while Mirah was fighting inside herself, there was a knock at the door. A quiet sound that Mirah had become synonymous with food arriving.

    Mirah never orders food for herself, plates of food always simply show up at her door, regardless of her wishes.

    She waited a minute, then two, before forcing herself out of her corner. She opened her door and was greeted with a small bowl covered with tinfoil, on top of a plate with a spoon placed next to it. She picked up the plate and brought it inside, sitting back on the floor. She pressed her back up against the corner and gently peeled the tinfoil back from around the edges of the bowl.

    It was then that she was swathed in a smell that she never thought she would ever experience again.

    It was a smell from a different age, an era that had long since been sectioned off within Mirah’s mind. A place too painful to step foot in.

    She looked down into the bowl and saw the small, golden pudding. It was covered with only a few drops of honey, and a little ball of vanilla ice cream sat next to it, already melting from the warmth of the pudding.

    A small portion of honey pudding.

    Tentatively, Mirah grabbed the spoon that she had been supplied, and scooped into the fluffy pudding and put it into her mouth. In a single moment of it being on her tongue she knew it wasn’t just any pudding.

    It was the pudding.

    For some reason, the room was suddenly so much brighter than it was just moments earlier. The damp cold was now a pleasant cool breeze against her skin, leaking in through the slightly opened windows. The fresh room, the smell of the soap she had unknowingly been using, the warm glow of the sunlight through the cracks in the blinds.

    As mouthful after mouthful of the sticky, soft pudding travelled down her throat, a mixture of the warm honey and the cold vanilla ice cream reminded her of a time when she had sat at a table with many other children, all excitedly waiting for the treat they had been anticipating all week.

    And then, at the edge of the large eating hall, came the sounds of the doors bursting open wide allowing a heavenly smell to wash through the room, every child’s mouth in the hall collectively filling with saliva.

    A grey-haired woman wearing a habit walked out of the kitchen with a large metal tray, a great, but tired smile gracing her face as if it were the most natural expression there was. Another woman followed behind her, holding a large tub that everyone knew contained ice cream.

    Mirah could remember as the excitement mounted, taking minutes to go around to each and every child in the hall, being given a small portion of honey pudding and a choice between one of three different flavours. Except Amir, of course. The person who did the best in classes that week got a second scoop of ice cream and that was always Amir.

    When Sister Stephanie got to her, she didn’t bother to ask what flavour Mirah wanted. It was always vanilla ice cream. Mirah would always take her time eating through her desert, always taking so long that the ice cream had melted into a little puddle that surrounded the remnants of the pudding.

    That small memory, as she ate her honey pudding alongside all the other children in that orphanage, broke something down deep inside of her.

    A strange feeling assaulted her, but she couldn’t find the will to fight against the intruding emotion. And as she ate further and further into the pudding, the emotion only grew stronger, forcing her to relax, her muscles untensing for the first time in years.

    She was safe.

    A realisation that hurt as much as it gave relief. In that moment, through a mouthful of pudding and ice cream, Mirah began to cry. An unrestrained, wailing cry that came with an expression that was as ugly as it sounded.

    As she greedily choked down the pudding, she cried for all the pain she’d suffered through, and all the days she’d spent cold, wet, and alone with no one that would save her. She cried because she had spent a lifetime in pain and had no choice but to carve herself apart to survive, to section off memories of a better time to be able to live with her new reality.

    She cried because she regretted it. Because who she was is dead and would never return.

    As she finished the pudding, scraping the bottom of the bowl for the last of the ice cream, she was still wracked with sobs that seemed to shake her entire being, right down to that small little girl that had cut into her face that day. The small, little girl who should have cried but didn’t.

    She quietly cried for the poor girl that she was–

    Mirah stopped.

    Was?

    She looked towards the plate she had taken the bowl from and saw a small piece of baking paper, folded neatly in half. Mirah reached for the paper and reading the flowery script emblazoned upon it in black marker.

    Welcome back, Mirah. –Chef.

    Mirah clutched the piece of paper to her chest, sobbing quietly. Letting all the emotions that had been kept deep down rise to the surface, just for a moment, before Mirah drifted into a fitful sleep.




    The kitchen was as clean as it always was. Immaculate.

    Of course, Chef would have nothing else. If there was even a spot of dust, the one responsible for cleaning it would receive the greatest silent dressing down you’ve ever seen. At the sinks, two men quickly and efficiently cleaned a small collection of cooking implements and bowls.

    “It was my break, man!” One of the men groaned. He was man of regular height and was dressed in the standard white outfit supplied for Chef’s kitchen. He was almost entirely unremarkable, short cut black hair and a relatively average Asian appearance, except for the fact that his arms constantly shifted their shape, bending, twisting, and lengthening to his own will.

    Next to him, however, was a tall man, made to look even taller by his lanky appearance. His long hair—that would probably run down to the back of his knees—was pulled back into an elaborate bun, overlayed by a hair net while inside the kitchen. His face was long, but with an elegance that was almost androgynous. He turned to the elastic limbed man and gave him an apologetic smile. The regular looking guy just huffed.

    “Who was so important that you had to make something that isn’t on the menu for them, anyways? Did one of the damn suits come visit today?” The taller man shook his head and lifted his hands, quickly forming different signs at lightning speed. The other man gained a look of surprise.

    “Really? An emotional state connected with you that clearly? That’s massive! This is a huge breakthrough!” The taller man sighed with a conflicted expression before signing for a few more moments.

    “What do you mean, Chef? You’ve never connected with someone’s emotional states this deeply before. You’ve only even been able to connect enough to see a few memories before, but childhood memories? This is a great thing!” The shorter man insisted. Chef shook his head, face contorting into a perturbed expression while rapid fire creating signs. As Chef’s string of signs continued, the shorter man’s expression went from confusedly excited, to pained.

    “Ah.” He reached over and patted the much taller man on the back, “I guess that’s the downside of being empathic.” Chef nodded sadly and they went back to cleaning for a few more minutes in silence, the shorter man thinking over this massive bombshell that had been dropped on him.

    “Does…” The shorter man faltered, “Does she feel better at all?” Chef turned to him and gave a worried expression that you’d swear was more at place on a mother’s face and shook his hand.

    “So-so, huh?” Chef nodded, worry inscribed upon his expression, “Well, I guess that’s better than nothing.”


    A/N: Well, this was a challenge to write, for multiple reasons. I hope it all got across well though. But 'Ouch' is the word I'd use to describe this chapter.
     
  13. Threadmarks: Chapter 12: Dark World
    Sarius

    Sarius Not too sore, are you?

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    Chapter 12: Dark World

    Waking up the next morning was a struggle for Mirah.

    Her sleep had been far deeper than normal and somehow sleeping the whole afternoon, evening and night away, giving her a distinct pang of anxiety when she woke up. Realising that she had been completely defenceless to the world was almost panic inducing.

    Maybe she was making some strides in the emotions department, but that was something that Mirah held at the core of her being after all the years of protecting herself.

    She got up from her spot on the floor and gave a cursory glance to the clock on her bedside table. It was still pretty early in the morning, giving her easily enough time to get herself washed up and make her way down to the cafeteria to grab an early breakfast.

    She washed herself quickly, scrubbing her short cropped hair with the shampoo and conditioner that was sitting in the small alcove in the shower. After which she dried off, got dressed and was out the door with little to no fuss.

    The trip down to the cafeteria, and even to the Underground had become second nature at this point. She was relatively sure that she’d be able to make her way there blindfolded.

    The elevator was empty, and stayed that way all the way down to the cafeteria where she traded places inside the elevator with a man who had quills running up the side of his arm, flattened against his skin. She had no doubt that he could make those stand on end, or even shoot out. She had seen only a few who were significantly changed by their link. Most you couldn’t tell from anyone on the street.

    This time of morning was pretty quiet. The truly early risers were already down in the Underground, training their little hearts out. The early risers are generally the groups that have been around a while, probably training up for actual field work or whatever they do.

    Mirah walked towards the team’s table, immediately spotting one of the taller people in the current population of this place, Ajax. He was sitting at the table and quietly waiting for something he’d ordered already, she presumed.

    She made her way to the table and sat down, making Ajax look up from his phone for a moment and smile in her direction. She nodded in response. She ordered a piece of toast from the touchscreen but already expected that something totally different would come out of the kitchen. It’d become a bit of a recurring theme when mealtimes came around.

    After a long moment of silence and Ajax looking down perplexedly at the screen in his hand, he put the screen face down on the table and looked right at Mirah.

    “The world is a crazy place.” He said simply. Mirah was a little taken aback. In the most recent conversations the group has had together, Mirah was very rarely referred to. They had stopped trying to get her to speak after a few days of shrugs and nods.

    Mirah just shrugged, silently agreeing. Ajax let out another frustrated sigh.

    “I know things were looking bad when I last was keeping up with all the world event stuff, mostly from my grandparents telling me bits and pieces, but this…” He ran a hand over his face, “this is some pretty heavy stuff.”

    Mirah’s eye quirked, curiosity getting the better of her, she spoke, “What stuff?” Ajax looked slightly shocked that he’d even got a response in the first place, but then confusion made an appearance.

    “You don’t know? China and America are basically staging a war using their Linked. Thankfully the stronger Linked are staying out of it, but it’s still terrifying. Both of those countries have some of the largest military might due to their Linked population and training. Most other countries pale in comparison.” Mirah tried to think back on the lessons she’d received as a young child. She knew the countries, and their rough demographic, but apart from that she was drawing blanks.

    “Are others going to get involved?” She said quietly, trying to remember world war history to supplement what she didn’t know, which was a lot. Ajax thought for a moment and then shrugged.

    “No idea, honestly. It’s a bit of a mixed bag. America and China are the countries with the strongest governmental presence, with one of the world’s most powerful Linked acting as America’s effective dictator and China being so nationalistic since forever. Other countries don’t really have the same structure. Even Australia is like three different countries in one. Melbourne is mostly where all the warring happens, Brisbane is doing their own thing after they managed to get together a few powerful Linked and wipe out the gangs, and everything west from there is a giant shithole.”

    “So we’re safe from the war for the moment then?” Mirah said tentatively, trying to process all the new information.

    “Who knows, Mirah. It just seems like everything is going down a dark path, and I’m not all that sure that there is going to be an elegant solution.” Ajax would have continued his griping, but a large plate of seasoned eggs on toast was placed in front of him, and in front of Mirah a small stack of pancakes, drizzled in maple syrup.

    “I wouldn’t think on it too hard. As we are now there isn’t much we can do about it.” The waiter that manned the cafeteria in the mornings said. A regular heighted man with curly black hair and pale features. The waiter scratched at the side of his face as he addressed Ajax.

    “Gotta say man, the guys that are ruling the roost in countries like that? They are far, far too powerful for their own good. If they actually clashed, I wouldn’t be surprised if entire countries went missing.”

    “I guess so. It’s just not a fun thing to think about.” Ajax grumbled. The waiter laughed.

    “You’ll get used to it. But keep your eyes on what’s happening here first. We have our own issues we need to worry about before we go off and worry about America and China.” The waiter waved goodbye and went back to the kitchen. What followed was the sound of eating and a lot of contemplative looks into Ajax’s eggs. After a while, Mirah spoke up.

    “What’s here?” Again, Ajax gave her an odd look, but didn’t voice his thoughts.

    “Mostly the gangs. There are a tonne of them, but a few really powerful ones that no-one seems to want to fuck with.” He shrugged, “People speculate that they have a whole lot more sway over the country than we can see at a surface level.”

    “Of course, they do.” Aaliyah’s snarky voice called out as she walked over and plonked herself down in the chair on the opposite side of the table from Ajax and Mirah.

    “What makes you say that?” Ajax asked, questioning eyebrow raised.

    “Oh, nothing much. Just the fact that money and power run everything, and the gangs have a hell of a lot of it.” Mirah nodded in affirmation. The gangs were the one thing that she was even remotely privy on, and it was only because Linked went around wearing their colours on the streets. If they could get that many Linked to be in their gangs, then there was clearly a lot of power being thrown around.

    With both Mirah and Aaliyah actually agreeing on something, Ajax had to dampen his curiosity. Even though he had a sneaking feeling that Aaliyah knew more than she was letting on.

    “Well, I guess we’ll be rubbing up against those gangs soon enough, in whatever capacity. Care to give a man a rundown?” Aaliyah gave the massive man a disbelieving look.

    “How don’t you know the gangs? Have you been under a rock your whole life?” Ajax chuckled.

    “In a forest actually. Before that I lived mostly in the country. Though when I was in the suburbs, or the city, I wanted nothing more than to get out of dodge as quick as possible.” Aaliyah gave a stiff nod.

    “I feel you.” She grumbled, “Alright, the basics are that the smaller guys are just subsidiaries of the bigger guys, or are just people that the big fish use to profit from. Fucking with them is safe enough but will get the signal up to the bigger guys that something is up. Bad idea to wipe them all out ‘cause you’ll just piss off the big fish and they don’t like to have their supply chain fucked with.”

    “Supply chain?” Ajax asked. Both Aaliyah and Mirah rolled their eyes.

    “Drugs, idiot. And Linked ‘services’, whatever they might be.” Ajax grimaced at the explanation that Aaliyah gave, but let her continue on.

    “There are two really big fish in the game at the moment, Utopia and Rightful Order. There are a couple of other big guys, but they shrunk into the background quick smart after Utopia and Rightful Order allied. Haven’t heard anything about Red Street for a while but wouldn’t be surprised if they got eaten by Rightful Order.” Aaliyah shrugged emphatically. Ajax furrowed his brow, along with Mirah as well, who voiced her own question.

    “Utopia?”

    “Scary collection of Linked with less than moral dispositions. There’s only a handful of them, but they’re enough to frighten all the other gangs into subservience. Well, that was except for Rightful Order, until their leader allied with them and left his younger brother in charge. Utopia is really just a collection of the meanest Linked around, and Rightful Order is more of the typical gang stuff.”

    “You know a lot about all this.” Ajax stated, not so much suspicion, but wariness in his voice.

    “I’m good like that.” Aaliyah said in response, flipping her blonde hair extravagantly, but didn’t go into more detail.

    Soon enough Aaliyah’s meal came and went, and then Walter finally made an appearance, rushing to sit down at the table and ordering his food before Willem would drag the team out of their chairs and down to the Underground for their daily dose of torture.

    “You should really just set an alarm man.” Aaliyah snarked as she watched the young man scrabble to order his breakfast. He turned and looked at her sheepishly.

    “I did. Three. Somehow I wake up, turn them all off, and go back to sleep and don’t remember it at all.” He sighed tiredly, rubbing at his eyes. Aaliyah giggles at his antics, making Mirah almost grimace.

    Mirah can barely stand to be around the girl, she reeked of predator to her trained nose. The way she acted was just so inherently fake to her. Mirah was pretty sure it was a ‘I know you know’ deal as well. As long as Mirah never got in Aaliyah’s way, they’d stay in neutral territory. Not like Mirah really cared all that much for Aaliyah acting fake. People had their reasons and, as long as it didn’t include Mirah, she was fine with that being the case.

    The food made it to table along with a set of the sachets that held the energy jelly they’d been forced to eat after every breakfast. Mirah grabbed the sachet, tore at the dotted line and downed the foul-tasting jelly easily without a moment spent thinking on it. Thankfully the taste didn’t last all that long in the mouth if you suck it down quick enough.

    Funnily enough, Aaliyah was always the one that had the most trouble with eating the jelly. It was amusing to see the sarcastic and sometimes caustic girl struggle to choke down the mixture.

    “Alright kiddos. We’ve got work to do.” A harsh voice called out from beside the table, making the team collectively jump. Of course it was Willem, who seemed to want to defy every possible expectation you could have of him at his appearance. The team got up from the table, grumbling after the fright that Willem administered.

    For some reason Willem decided that he needed to go greet them at their table every morning, despite knowing that they could get down to the Underground just fine. Maybe it was just for kicks to see the group jump.

    The short and stocky man lead the way, punching the code into the elevator and it quickly moving downwards at a speed that was probably ridiculous. After the doors opened, he lead the group through the corridors and through the stadium like training room to their private training room. Only addressing them once they

    “Alrighty then.” The man sat on one of the many benches attached to exercise machinery that only Ajax has even started to use so far. The rest of the group has still been doing running, though Mirah can clearly note the difference in her physical capabilities than when she first got here. It wasn’t much, but she didn’t feel as if she were going to hyperventilate and die every time she ran.

    “So, you’ve all been doing pretty well when it comes to physical training, and that’s really what we start with anyways. It’s the building block that all of your skills will be built upon.” He said, something that he has well and truly drilled into the team over the past week or so, “However, the development of your links isn’t coming along as well. This is no fault of your own.” He said, dissuading the worried looks on the team’s face.

    “Instead, we are going to try something a little different first. Accelerating a part of the curriculum forwards.” He grinned devilishly, making the whole team tense with worry again.

    “You’re going to learn to fight.”
     
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  14. Threadmarks: Chapter 13: Two Blows
    Sarius

    Sarius Not too sore, are you?

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    Chapter 13: Two Blows

    Mirah had been as unsurprised as everyone else. Well, except maybe Walter, who was more nervous than surprised at the fact that they were going to learn how to fight hand to hand.

    Willem had set them up in a row facing him and had instructed them quickly on where to place their feet, and general stance related advice. ‘Keep your hands up’, ‘Feet shoulder width apart’; all advice which had been quickly taken by the group. Aaliyah was the first to settle into the correct stance, Mirah and Ajax shortly after and then, after a minute of confusion, Walter managed to get himself into a halfway decent stance, in Willem’s reckoning.

    He took them through a few basic punches, but really focusing on teaching them how to make the most of their punches. Properly rotating their bodies to generate as much force as possible.

    “Alright, that’s enough. I won’t be teaching you kicks today, punches are enough for now. Go grab training gear in your size from over there.” The short man pointed with his thumb at a series of hooks that had bulky bags hanging off of them. “Also, Ajax. Hand me your axe please.”

    The large man nodded and unhooked his large fire axe off of a utility belt he had found somewhere and handed it off to Willem. Willem just tucked the axe under his arm and waited for the group to go get ready.

    Mirah walked over to the rack slowly and looked at the sizes, ranging all the way from triple x-small to triple x-large. Never having seen any of these in her entire life, she was suitably dumbfounded. Walter and Aaliyah instantly gravitated towards their own size, and Ajax just gambled on picking the largest size.

    Mirah picked a small up off of a hook and pulled out a padded vest and looked at it, trying to gauge if it’d fit her. As she was trying to squeeze her head into the small opening, she heard an awkward cough from Walter.

    “Um. I think a medium would fit you, Mirah.” His voice called out shakily.

    Why does this stuff have to be so complicated? How am I supposed to know what a small size is? She thought as she painfully pulled the padded vest back off from over her head, hair now well and truly dishevelled. She looked towards Walter, who shied from her gaze, and saw that he had already gotten his protective gear on, helmet and all. She grabbed a medium from off it’s hook and pulled out the vest, but as she began to put it over her head again, Walter interjected.

    “Er, Mirah? You are supposed to undo the straps and put it on that way.” He said nervously. Mirah looked at the vest perplexedly, almost scowling. Walter chuckled a little, before quickly going quiet when Mirah turned her almost-scowl to him.

    “I– I’m sorry…” He said, but Mirah had moved on, trying to unstrap the gear and failing terribly.

    “Would you like me to help you?” Walter said finally after watching Mirah undo and redo the few straps incorrectly a few times, obviously uncomprehending of what she was supposed to do with the mess of Velcro. Walter grimaced when that gave turned onto him.

    Mirah was always wearing a passive gaze, one so difficult to parse that it just came off as boredom at best, and subdued anger at worse. Walter, a man of many anxieties, could barely stand being around her at all. His total inability to understand what she was thinking and how little she talked, made him nervous that he was annoying her by even being in her presence.

    Mirah gave Walter a long, considering look. She had never had anyone offer to help her before, at least not for a very long time. To be helped getting dressed? It made her feel almost like a child. But when she looked down at the complicated mess of straps and fasteners in her hands, she realised she had no choice.

    “Yes… please.” She said, words she hadn’t spoken in a long, long time. Immediately after receiving the affirmative from Mirah, Walter seemed to light up, happy to be given something useful he can do. He took the vest out of her hands, and undid the back of the vest, doing it slow enough to make sure that Mirah could see and learn how to do it herself.

    He gave it back to her, the back of the vest wide open, allowing her to easily slip her arms through the sleeves of the vest and Walter moved behind her and began to nimbly fasten the undone straps.

    Mirah had almost jumped at the sudden contact, stiffening like a board, but Walter didn’t seem to notice and went about his business. After only a few more seconds, Mirah’s vest was done tight and firm around her chest and midsection, but not so tight that she couldn’t breathe.

    She looked into the pack she had pulled her vest from and pulled out the pants of the set, and managed to get them and the helmet on without issue, as well as a set of fingerless gloves with a little extra padding.

    “There we go!” Walter exclaimed cheerily, a wide smile on his face “All done. We should get back over there; they’re waiting on us.” Walter jogged on over, and for the first time as Mirah was following the man, she realised that he had lost a substantial amount of weight in the past week. He had gone from being relatively chubby, especially for his height, to being more or less ‘normal’ in only a week of general fitness.

    She wondered, had she changed physically as well?

    “So, grab a partner and we’ll do some basic drills and then you can have a go at actually fighting one another.” Willem said as Mirah finally lined up with the rest of the team. It seemed that Ajax and Aaliyah immediately paired up, leaving Mirah and Walter to stand across from each other on the mats that covered the floors of most of the paining area.

    Willem proceeded to direct them in blocking drills, where one partner would attack and the other would do a slow blocking motion, just allowing them to get used to the motion of it, and then swapping positions and the attacker would become defender.

    Willem constantly wandered around the two pairs, adjusting the form of his subjects however he saw fit, usually just in the form of a call out. Sometimes he’d physically change the form of the person himself, though he didn’t do that for Mirah, only going so far as to place his index finger on her forearm to move it down slightly, pointing it closer to Walter’s chest and chin than his nose and forehead, something Mirah greatly appreciated.

    Walter was clumsy overall, and Mirah found it easy to keep up with the man’s flailing. She felt as though the movements were so natural to her, taking to them pretty easily. She wasn’t prodigious, but she could feel herself learn from every mock punch she threw, able quickly to reconfigure her stance or positioning.

    Mirah stole glances at Ajax and Aaliyah between drills and saw that they were going much harder, Aaliyah may as well be throwing everything into her punches, and Ajax being as close to a brick wall as a human could be in return. They were clearly in a different weight class, but it was still humbling for Mirah.

    “Good! You’ve been doing pretty well so far. Time for the fun bit!” Mirah turned to look at the man, grin wide on his aged face, hands on his wide hips. “We’re going to do a light spar. We will not be looking to bruise, only to make contact. Kicking stays disallowed, try not to go for the head, but the helmets should protect you well for this training. We all understand?” He asked finally, and everyone nodded, though Walter just looked even more nervous.

    Mirah really couldn’t tell why the man was so anxious, everything was clear enough to her. It wasn’t like anyone was going to get seriously hurt, not with Willem on the mats only a few metres away at most.

    “We’ll have Ajax and Aaliyah go first, then have you two go later.” He said as he nodded towards Mirah and Walter. The two of them quickly got out of the way while Ajax and Aaliyah squared up in the new room that they’ve been given. Aaliyah jumped up and down on her toes while glaring at Ajax full force, and Ajax just wore a calm smile as he stood in the stance that Willem had been teaching them.

    The two, once properly prepared for the small bout, stood only a metre or so apart and stared direct at each other, already beginning to strategize in their heads. Willem smiled at the sight and the readied himself to call.

    “Fight!”

    As soon as the word left Willem’s lips, Aaliyah was pushing her fist through the air and, with a heavy thump, slamming it into Ajax’s shoulder. Though the punch sounded impressive, it didn’t even seem to knock the man at all. Ajax wasn’t just tall, he was built strongly and practically. Ajax ducked closer into Aaliyah’s personal space, forcing her to move backwards to reclaim a defensible position.

    Ajax’s punches were slower and not as lightning quick as Aaliyah’s but when they contacted Aaliyah’s body she was significantly impacted. In one case she was forced to alter the direction she was retreating in to keep her footing.

    Mirah watched on with precise attention. She had never, apart from the link testing earlier in the week, seen a fight where the goal wasn’t to actually do significant harm to the other person. Mirah had seen fights as close as a few metres away take place where knives were drawn, and once where a Linked was involved in a fight at the end of her street. They were terrifying ordeals, one where the loser had his throat cut and the winner bled to death anyway and the other where the Linked simply punched the other man so hard that his neck bent the wrong way.

    This, however, was different. She could see the strategy in Aaliyah’s movements, clearly being a more trained or experienced fighter somehow, and see Ajax trying to use his physical attributes to their maximum efficiency to get what he wanted done.

    The outcome of the match was obvious, Ajax was going to win. He was far too physically overpowering, and Aaliyah’s blows seemed to do nothing to him at all. She wailed on him with all her might, fists flying through the air and her sleeves snapping with the force of the blows, but Ajax always simply took it head on, or blocked it with his arms which one of was thicker than both of Mirah’s legs combined.

    Aaliyah sent a powerful blow straight towards Ajax’s lower stomach which he lowered a hand to bat the punch off of its course in response. However Aaliyah, who’s skin had slowly been gaining the bright red dots signifying her anger at her ineffectiveness, launched an uppercut towards his face while using her link.

    The punch roared through the air like Mirah had only heard before one other time, and she hastily closed her eyes to what she could only assume was going to be a horrifically disfigured neck as Ajax’s head was pummelled with the powerful blow. However, there was a massive rush of air, as if a car had passed right by you at high speeds, and there was silence.

    “I believe I said no links.” Willem’s quiet voice proclaimed, unamused. Mirah opened her eyes to see Ajax having stepped back a metre or so and Willem holding onto Aaliyah’s wrist strongly, stopping her from pulling it away from his grasp.

    “Fuck you!” She yelled into his face, the red that Mirah had seen splotched onto her skin growing larger, as if she had been splashed with a bright red paint. Ajax’s eyes widened and moved back further allowing Willem to handle the enraged woman.

    “Okay, this is time for a teaching moment here. I will show you an example of how possessing technique and thoughtful application of power can easily make you superior to someone that simply throws their power around willy-nilly.” He lectured as he easily threw off a blow from the enraged Aaliyah without so much as a twitch. He pushed the girl away from him and retreated a few metres and set his stance.

    Immediately the difference between the rest of the team’s stance and his was obvious, glaringly so. He had given a demonstration on where to place your feet and arms before, but now that he was in this fight it was so much different.

    His stance was… tight. It was hard to describe. But it almost looked as if he was suffering under a massive weight and was compressing himself into a small ball to resist against it. His already small form constricted itself even smaller, and his arms, which were already large in proportion to his body grew larger, his corded muscle defining itself under his skin. His stomach, which Mirah had mistaken for fat, flexed to where the shirt grew taught over the bulging collection of muscles, hard as stone.

    It didn’t take long for Aaliyah to regain her stance and fly towards Willem with a wordless yell. Her punch was met with a standard block, but this block held so much force that her own punch flew wide, leaving her padded chest open.

    Willem moved into that space with a silent swiftness using the standard steps he had taught the team, and with no fuss, he let out two standard punches into her chest. The sound of the impact alone made the hair on Mirah’s arms stand on end.

    And with those two punches, the enraged Aaliyah fell to the floor with a cough, the red leaking from her skin to whatever depths it had come from within her. Willem nodded, satisfied, and turned to the rest of the group.

    “You get a good look at all that?”

    The team simply nodded dumbly.
     
  15. Threadmarks: Chapter 14: Whisper
    Sarius

    Sarius Not too sore, are you?

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    Chapter 14: Whisper

    Aaliyah had been knocked out clean after those two blows. Her memory went hazy after she started to get angry at Ajax, frustration at losing so clearly. After that, only two things remained in her memory.

    Two punches.

    She remembered watching them travel towards her in slow motion, her brain being pushed into overdrive, stretching seconds into ten times their length. But even in that state, she felt the inevitability of those blows, the absolute power they held.

    In her restless unconscious state, she had been having nightmares of those two simple punches. Repeating over and over in her head. She could have sworn that every blow of Willem’s fists carved a massive hole through her flesh and bone, unstoppable.

    That was when she woke with a gasp, laying in an unfamiliar bed, in an unfamiliar room, coated in a thin layer of sweat. Panting, she looked around the room covertly, trying to get the layout and a potential escape plan, something she could use.

    “This is a med bay, Aaliyah.” A rough but quiet voice spoke, sending a spike of fear through her and making her jump. She scrambled to a sitting position to only see herself in a small curtained off area in a bed with disposable sheets and pillows.

    Willem was sitting in a chair next to the bed at a respectable distance. The chair was tall enough that the man’s feet didn’t even reach the sterile linoleum floors. Leaving the man looking even shorter than he normally did. But Aaliyah didn’t let the almost comical sight humour her, seeing the man’s meaty arms being crossed, an unimpressed expression on his face.

    “What?” Aaliyah scowled, trying to glare holes in her trainer. Willem sighed lightly, shaking his head.

    “I had thought that you had more self-control than that, Aaliyah.” His voice deep and unshakable, Aaliyah suddenly had a small pang of worry. What is he going to do? She thought anxiously. Thousands of different possibilities ran through her mind.

    She had tried to research the man that sat in front of her, as she had with everyone on the team, obviously. Willem and Mirah were the two glaring holes. Mirah’s story was explainable, there was no record keeping on the streets, census data for those on the streets was abandoned along with the regard for the humanity of the homeless in Melbourne.

    But Willem was different. There should be something on him. He works for the AASAU for god sakes! But there was nothing, not a single record, or social media account, a mention on a school website. Nothing.

    He was a black hole to Aaliyah’s eye, and that terrified her.

    “I have self-control enough. To beat someone up requires the opposite of self-control.” She snarked and Willem looked suitably unimpressed.

    “Wrong.” He grumbled, “It takes more, far more. Otherwise, you will end up losing all control and rip apart your teammates.” Aaliyah’s jaw clenched in anger, red blotches already appearing on her skin.

    “Then maybe I should just be let go, so I can go back to my old life!” She yelled, anger growing rapidly. Willem hopped down from his chair and took a few steps towards her, leaning into her snarling face.

    “If I let you walk out of here, one day I would be forced to come and kill you.” Like a bucket of freezing cold water, Aaliyah’s eyes widened, her breath leaving her chest in a rush, as if she had been punched in the stomach. At first she wanted to ask why, but her mind ticked over slowly in her shock, slowly putting together the pieces.

    “You… do you think I’d become uncontrollable?” She asked, a whole new fear blooming in her chest. No, that was wrong. It was an old fear, as old as she could remember. Willem didn’t even bother to nod.

    “How long will it be until something truly enrages you? How long until you fall into the greatest depression you’ve ever experienced? When that happens, how much damage will you do? Will you simply make people sad and lethargic in your vicinity when you fall into a depression, or will you send them into comas that they will never wake from?” His voice was filled with a terrifying coldness, an analytical edge that Aaliyah couldn’t help but shy away from.

    “You think you are smart, manipulating your way through life as you have been. You might even be smart, Aaliyah. But you are a slave to your own emotions, and that makes you the dumbest person on the team, and it will get you and them killed if you don’t pull your act together and learn how to use them.” His eyes bored into hers, and at that moment, she could swear that she felt those horrible punches lancing themselves through her chest, ripping through her flesh like wet tissue paper.

    Aaliyah nodded jerkily and Willem seemed to take it at face value, turning around and silently leaving the curtained area without so much as a word.

    The breaths came hard and fast, the delayed anxiousness and fear slowly dissipating along with the bright highlighter yellow blotches that had appeared on her skin. She had only seen that colour a few times, and still had no idea what it did, but if it did anything, then it certainly didn’t effect Willem.

    He… really thinks I could go berserk? She thought anxiously. A berserk Linked was rare, and generally extremely dangerous on most counts.

    The vast majority of Linked that went berserk had a link that altered their personality, and the rest were those with severe mental illnesses. Aaliyah… well, she almost fit into both of those categories.

    While you could say that her personality wasn’t necessarily altered by her link, it most definitely amplified, sometimes dangerously ramping up her emotions to a disproportionate degree.

    Of course, Aaliyah was aware of this, and had been for years, but over the past week or so she had experienced more escalations than she had outside of this facility, ever.

    But what would happen when I did fly off the rails at someone? What terrified her most was that even when she posed the question to herself, she already knew the answer.

    She would go from anger to anger, snowballing into an absurd amount of strength and go on a rampage. Aaliyah laid back down on the bed with disposable sheets and curled in on herself, trying desperately to get comfort out of her own embrace.

    “Halina…” She whimpered, remembering a warm smile and a gentle hug from a long, long time ago.







    Willem returned about half an hour after he had knocked out Aaliyah with those two punches. The rest of the team was left to simply sit on any of the surfaces in the private training area and wait while he handled her personally. The team, however, was simply in awe of the man, and Aaliyah both.

    Those two simple punches revolutionised how they thought about strength. Mirah could remember the fists blurring with the speed, ripping through the air and slamming into the other girl’s chest with a sound like a resonant drum, or maybe even a gong.

    Ajax, was mystified by just how durable Aaliyah had been, and how well Willem had judged it. He was under no illusion that he would fare much better than Aaliyah against the stocky trainer, but with his axe, ramping his protective and defensive capabilities to the max, he wondered how many of those blows he could take until he went out for the count like Aaliyah had.

    Walter, on the other hand, was worried. He had never seen someone get punched like that in his life, even the initial tests that Willem had put them through, and seeing the soft bouts on screen had been nothing in comparison to the raw, primal feeling of destruction that Willem’s punches had brought to Walter. Even though Aaliyah had been almost perfectly fine, according to his untrained eye, he couldn’t help but feel that it was excessive to knock her out using so much force.

    Walter grimaced as Willem swung the door open to the training area and waltzed in.

    “I had our heal Linked take a quick look at Aaliyah, it seems that even I underestimated her durability. She is already perfectly fine.” His dry voice made the rest of the team sight in relief, even Mirah. They had all been secretly worried that they had witnessed Aaliyah’s death at Willem’s hand.

    “Now, I assume that no one else will be using their link during sparring?” He asked, a sly smile gradually warming his face. Though it only inspired a round of fervent nodding from the team.

    “Good,” He said, turning to Walter and Mirah specifically, “Now, let’s get you two into a fight, shall we?”

    Mirah was the first to step up to the dedicated padded area. She supposed that there was no point in delaying the inevitable, and neither her nor Walter—from what she could tell—had any real issue in stopping their links from activating, so there wasn’t much point in worrying about it.

    Walter stumbled up to the matted area, worry still written on his face. He was glancing at Willem over and over, trying to gauge whether there was going to be a repeat display on what happened earlier to either Mirah or himself, though a pointed look from Ajax made him forcefully calm himself down. Though Willem seemed to ignore the nervous glances entirely.

    “Alright. Same rules, no links, and no hits above the neck. I’ll stop the match whenever I feel like it.” Willem repeated simply, glancing at both of the trainees and took a few steps back, giving them some space and then called to begin sharply.

    Then nothing happened.

    Between Walter’s nervousness and Mirah’s quiet and patient disposition, the two fighters simply ended up looking at each other. Mirah’s eyes wandered over Walter’s body, looking for small tells that might give away what he planned to do, but came up with nothing.

    It wasn’t until Walter took a nervous step forward that Mirah heard them.

    Ethereal whispers from someplace beyond understanding hissed into her ear, telling her a thousand different ways that Walter could move or be moved. Mirah’s mind focused in on Walter so heavily that the whispers started to define themselves and slowly conglomerate into one voice.

    He strikes. The voice spoke into her ear.

    Just as it did so, Walter lunged forwards and struck out with his left fist, trying to go for punch to the stomach, but Mirah, with forewarning, simply stepped back and nervously rased her hand.

    “Willem. I used my link.” Walter stopped dead in his tracks, before he tried to go for another follow up blow and Willem’s eyebrow rose questioningly.

    “How so? To what effect?”

    “I– I’m not sure.” Mirah’s response clearly wasn’t satisfactory so she continued, “I could hear what he was going to do.” Willem’s face scrunched in thought.

    “You could hear what he was going to do? As in you could hear from his clothes and other tells that he was going to move a certain way?” Mirah shook her head and mumbled something.

    “Speak up, girl.” Willem said, prompting patiently. Mirah bobbed her head and took a breath.

    “I could hear a voice. It told me what he was going to do.” Willem’s eyes opened slightly, but his face retained its composure.

    “I see. Are you able to control it?” Mirah thought for a moment, then shook her head in the negative, nervously wiping her gloved hands uselessly against the pants of the protective set she wore.

    “No, I don’t think so. It just happened when I focused on him.” She shrugged and Willem nodded.

    “Then it is of no fault of your own. You are free to use it in your fight. It will be good practice on honing that skill anyhow. If you feel anything dangerous will happen, or anything otherwise unexpected, raise your hand and I will intervene.” He turned to Walter as well, “That goes for the both of you, understood?”

    Walter nodded, along with Mirah doing the same shortly after. Willem resumed the match and the two trainees stood and looked at each other once again.

    Mirah didn’t know what to think of Walter, he held such an awe inspiring power, being able to quite literally conjure a seemingly infinite stream of fire from nowhere, enough to easily burn someone to ashes, but he was so timid and nervous.

    Walter made the first move again, faster this time, but the voice in Mirah’s ear warned her all the same. Mirah sidestepped and quickly lashed out a blow with more speed than force, hitting Walter on the shoulder and making him stumble back before returning to a stance. Mirah took a step forward towards the shorter man but was stopped by the voice.

    Stop. It whispered, and Mirah stopped dead in her tracks before she realised that Walter’s fist had swung through the exact spot she would be if she hadn’t stopped moving. She felt a small chill down her spine. The voice was noticing things she couldn’t possibly have noticed, Mirah was barely looking at Walter when he had thrown that punch.

    She stepped forwards again, and she could see Walter backpedal a bit and wind up another punch.

    Duck. The voice said, and so she did.

    The blow went clean over her head and the voice whispered again, but she didn’t need the voice to tell her what to do here.

    Mirah took a powerful step forward and planted a fist into Walter’s gut, making the man fall to the ground, clutching at his stomach, groaning.

    Mirah looked up towards Willem, seeing if he would call the match.

    “Mirah wins.” He said softly, but with a wide grin on his face and a twinkle in his eye that a young child got when they found a new toy to play with.

    Mirah couldn’t help but suddenly feel a chill down her spine.
     
    GrumpyCat42 and randomlurker44 like this.
  16. Threadmarks: Chapter 15: Big Fish
    Sarius

    Sarius Not too sore, are you?

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    Chapter 15: Big Fish

    There were more bouts after Mirah’s initial bout. They went as you’d expect. Mirah couldn’t win against Ajax no matter how hard she tried. Ajax was just faster and stronger than her, and no matter how much the voice whispered in her ears, she inevitably got hit hard enough that she went down. Even if she managed to get a few good hits in herself, Ajax just shrugged off like being hit with a pillow.

    Walter… well, he didn’t fare that well, even. Mirah couldn’t be sure, but she suspected that Ajax had let the much smaller man get a few pity hits in. Not that it’d fool Willem.

    The sparring went on for a few hours, and by the end Mirah was more wiped than she had been in the first few days of running around the stadium straining area. Especially when Willem was forcing them to fight their hardest every round, though Ajax was sent off to do some weight training in conjunction with it because he couldn’t really go all out and crush Walter and Mirah, someone would end up with something broken.

    Mirah and Walter wandered off in their own directions, Walter towards the cafeteria for a snack and Mirah went strain to the bathroom. Upon leaving the Underground’s toilets, which were just as nice as personal bathrooms due to the floor to ceiling cubicle walls and warmed seats—though the warmed seats freaked Mirah out—she saw the small form of Willem leaning against the wall a fair distance away down the hallway.

    The small man made eye contact with Mirah and gestured for her to follow. She sighed but obliged as she followed the man down the maze of hallways, finally reaching a door that was rather out of the way. On the door was a small slide in plaque on the door that read ‘Willem Ross: Linked Coach’.

    The man himself opened the door and walked in, leaving it open for Mirah to do so herself. As she walked into the small office, and closed the door behind her, she looked around the room.

    There was a lot of stuff crammed into not much space. For one, the desk was pretty large for the room it was in, probably only got into the room in the first place by disassembling the wooden monster and reassembling it inside the room. One wall of the room was lined with shelves that were crammed full of trinkets and curiosities, artifacts of a world that was alien to Mirah, and possibly to many of those in her own team.

    She sat in the chair opposite the stocky man, who had sat down in a large and comfortable chair which looked old and worn, but loved and appreciated. In fact, Mirah felt that for every inch of this room, from the wall of trinkets to the heavy wooden desk, even to the computer that had an old crème coloured mechanical keyboard that must have been from the mid nineteen-eighties, not that Mirah would recognise it as such.

    Everything in the room, perhaps besides the framed awards and pictures that seemed like a staple of any office, was well used and well loved. Mirah couldn’t detect dust anywhere, even in the harder to reach parts of the trinket shelf.

    “Hope you enjoyed training today, Mirah.” Willem said taciturnly, Mirah nodded as a response. “I’m sure you can have a guess about why I called you in here, but I’d like to talk to you about your link and what it is.” The short man rhythmically tapped the pristine wooden surface of his desk, his eyes trained on Mirah’s.

    “Now,” he continued, “what do you truly think your link is, Mirah?” Willem asked, content to let the silence consume the contents of the room and let the question settle in the scarred girl’s mind.

    In all honesty, Mirah had no idea. She had barely used the link before she was brought to be trained in the Underground by Tracker. Before that, there had only been one or two cases that she had used the link, both for tiny, ineffectual actions, like tripping someone and listening to the whispers that made it to her ear. Anything that she had learned over then last week or so had been entirely new news to her.

    “I don’t know.” Willem raised an eyebrow.

    “Put some more thought into it.” He said gently, but Mirah sat still, clearly not making any headway on the topic for a few minutes. Though, she wasn’t exactly trying. After a long while he nodded.

    “Tracker told me a bit about you. How she found you.” Mirah’s eyes focused on the stocky man once again.

    “How?” She said simply, prompting a grin from Willem.

    “She was trying to find someone else and was keeping her radar on, just in case. For safety reasons.” Mirah nodded in agreement, where she had been living was a very dangerous area, even for Linked.

    “Why did she choose me?” Willem’s smile grew, but more into something resembling a fatherly smile, or maybe an uncle’s smile. Mirah wouldn’t know.

    “Because, and I quote, ‘She had the most complex marking I have ever seen’.” Mirah’s face scrunched up.

    “What is that supposed to mean?” She said, almost frustrated at the bizarre answer, but Willem just waved it away.

    “It would be poor form of me to let Tracker’s secrets out of the bag but suffice it to say that it means that your link is far more complex than just simply telekinesis, though the untrained eye will certainly believe it so.” Mirah just shrugged.

    “What does it matter if someone believes it to be telekinesis? What I have discovered about my link doesn’t scream powerful.” Mirah said, in possibly one of her longest sentences she had spoken in years, not that Willem cared to show his surprise at how much he was getting the girl to talk.

    “You’re right. But thinking of your link as telekinesis will only hamper your development. If your power is as complex as I’ve been told, then it has some of the greatest potential we’ve ever seen.” Mirah was almost surprised at the seriousness Willem brought to the discussion. Willem sighed, rubbing at his bald head before he made his way down to his cropped brown beard, which he smoothed passively.

    “Mirah, I think it is prudent to make you understand how important this training is for you and your peers. It probably seems like the simplest thing you’ve ever done at the moment, and that’s fine. Training has been mostly getting you into shape and some light sparring today, but the consequences of what happens in training are far and wide and have a real, tangible impact on what happens in your future.” Willem looked to Mirah and saw her piercing gaze meet his.

    “I overheard Aaliyah telling you of the world outside, the gangs and elaborating some. The girl is smart, cunning even, and you clearly understand that.” Willem paused and Mirah quickly nodded, “However she doesn’t have a true understanding of the higher up politics of Melbourne, or even Australia at the moment. She has a unique and limited understanding of the world from her own experiences that I have been made privy to as her trainer.”

    “There is far more to all of this,” he waved his hand wildly around the room, insinuating the entire building or more, “than you all know right now. There is a reason that a team of undefineds were collected, despite the AASAU being against their usage for years. A sponsor.”

    “Who?” Mirah asked immediately, but Willem shook his head.

    “I don’t know. I wish I did.” He picked up a glass of water and sipped at it, thinking for a moment before continuing. “Sponsoring the formation of teams is common and is usually anonymous. I know that Walter and Aaliyah know of the practice. But they are anonymous for a reason. All I know, in your case, is that they are big fish. Really big fish.” Mirah scrunched her nose up at the man.

    “How could you know? You specifically said that you didn’t know who sponsored us.” Willem just raised an unamused eyebrow at the now very frustrated girl.

    “I know, Mirah, because not only was I hired to train you, Tracker was hired to find and then manage you.” He said darkly. “Most people couldn’t afford to hire me to train their little team of prospective employees, let alone have Tracker run around on errands. Most corporations couldn’t convince their board to pay my fees.” Mirah desperately wanted to ask more about what he meant, but the man waved the conversation away.

    “Regardless, you need to find out more about your link. Think on it properly, test things, hypothesize. The way I see things going, you very well might need it. Understood?” Mirah wanted to ask more, to have all her questions answered, but the man didn’t seem open to those questions for some reason. She got the feeling that he had overstepped a boundary by saying what he already had. She could only nod, stand up from her chair, and exit the small, but cosy office.







    The trip back to the team’s floor from the underground was always a rough one. Especially after being knocked out, Aaliyah was finding. Though she had to admit she brought that down on herself. As she was making her way towards her own room, however, she heard the elevator ding behind her.

    Aaliyah turned, curious as to who had made it back to their floor after even her, when Mirah walked out of the elevator. Aaliyah scowled subconsciously.

    Aaliyah was good at putting on masks, great at it even. She had been a social chameleon for years, accomplishing quite a few things through her manipulations and cunning, but Mirah was a different beast altogether.

    Aaliyah had tried multiple different angles with the girl over the past week, playing a different ‘character’ the best she could. Sympathetic friend, excited colleague, and far more, but nothing seemed to work. One look from the horrifically scarred girl blew away the attempt before it even started.

    She hadn’t found someone so blatantly unmanipulable ever. Aaliyah had manipulated and cheated people of almost exactly Mirah’s profile, but still she was seen through at every corner. It was so bad that the rest of the group noticed it. For the moment they, or at least Walter, had pinned it on Mirah being borderline antisocial, but Ajax was more of a wildcard. He was easily swayed by group as a whole, content to go with the flow of how the group felt as a rule, but alone he was more formidable, more prying.

    Aaliyah huffed indignantly while she fumbled out the key card to her room, formulating plans inside her head on how to change her position in the group, when she felt a tap on the shoulder. The blonde girl whipped around to see Mirah, her ghoulishly scarred face staring at the other girl silently. Aaliyah quickly schooled her features into one of pleasant surprise.

    “Uh, hi! How did training go?” She asked and innocuous question, hoping to get herself out of the presence of the keen-eyed girl as quick as possible. Mirah’s scarred visage didn’t even twitch at the sudden change in demeanour.

    “We need to talk.” Mirah’s voice was low and quiet, conspiratorial even. Aaliyah’s ears perked up at the sound.

    “Sure!” She said, willing to endure the frankly creepy girl’s presence for at least a while for some interesting gossip. The pair stood outside the door in silence before Mirah looked towards Aaliyah’s hand that held the key card to her room.

    “Uh, come right in!” Aaliyah exclaimed, rather embarrassed she hadn’t picked up on that earlier. Though she supposed that it fit the character she was trying to play at the moment. Aaliyah lead Mirah into her room, and plopped herself down on the couch after turning the lights on and throwing her key card onto her kitchen bench. She didn’t know why there were kitchens in every room when you could order from the cafeteria and get some of the best food that Aaliyah had ever tasted, but to each their own.

    “So! What did you want to talk about?” She said with a pleasant smile, betraying her eagerness to get any gossip out of the stony girl as she could. It was shaping up to practically being a once in a lifetime opportunity.

    Mirah gently sat herself down in a chair opposite Aaliyah, surveying the room quickly before returning her gaze to the beautiful blonde headed manipulator in front of her.

    “You knew we were sponsored.” She said. Aaliyah raised an eyebrow at Mirah.

    “Yeah? Practically everyone in this building is, Mirah. Nothing special.” Mirah took this in. So, it really was common knowledge, she thought.

    “I spoke to Willem. He warned me.” Concern flickered over Aaliyah’s face as it formed a confused mask.

    “Warned you of what, Mirah?”

    “He warned me to be worried about who sponsored us.” She responded. Aaliyah’s confusion only grew.

    “Did he say who?” Mirah shook her head

    “No, he said he has no idea who our sponsor is.”

    “Then how does he know to be worried?”

    “He said because they hired him and Tracker.” Mirah spoke, waiting for a moment before it seemed to slowly sink into Aaliyah’s expression, finally adding, “He told me whoever sponsored us is big fish.”
     
    Last edited: Jan 17, 2021
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  17. Threadmarks: Chapter 16: Liaison
    Sarius

    Sarius Not too sore, are you?

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    Chapter 16: Liaison

    Mirah could see the final remnants of Aaliyah’s act melt from her face.

    Aaliyah was scouring her brain in that moment, trying to desperately pull on any and all information that might be able to decipher the admittedly cryptic message from Willem.

    “Who does he consider ‘big fish’?” Aaliyah asked, plopping herself down into the luxuriant cushioning of a seat. Mirah continued to be unhelpful to the girl, shrugging.

    “I don’t know much about the gangs. Willem told me that you don’t either.” That caught a glare from Aaliyah, the comment inviting her ire.

    “Oh? I know the gangs well enough, thank you.” Mirah nodded, unaffected by the other girl’s posturing.

    “He said as much. Just not the gangs who are in charge.” Aaliyah almost growled, but shrugged petulantly, letting it go not only because it was pretty true, but also because fighting Mirah on the point was about as useless as you could get.

    “What do you get out of this conversation anyway, Mirah. You seem like the kind of person who couldn’t care less if the team dissolved and went their own ways at the end of all this. Who cares who is sponsoring us.” Aaliyah remarked, knowing that it was true enough for herself. Mirah sat stock still for a few seconds, searching her own self for the answer.

    “I don’t know. I came into this by pure chance, Willem said as much. I have known this team for a week.” Aaliyah nodded along, thoughtfully.

    “Well, you’re here so you may as well make the most of it. That’s why I’m here, really. I’ll probably just leave when it’s all said and done. Move on to bigger and better.” It was Mirah’s turn to nod along.

    A thoughtful silence shrouded the two girls, a strange artifact of what they believed about each-other. Mirah’s trust in Aaliyah being untrustworthy and Aaliyah’s certainty that Mirah could see through her tricks.

    Therefore, they were stuck somewhere in the middle of hostility and peace. Mirah coughed dryly.

    “Even so. Is it not important for us to know who is funding us? They might not be able to hang the money over our heads, but it doesn’t explain why they want us trained.” said Mirah. Aaliyah ran a hand through her hair, smoothing back the stray strands that had managed to make their way into her face.

    She could see where the girl was coming from and agreed with her. Some part of her, however deep down as it was, told her to just let it be. Though Aaliyah had kept an eye on the idea for a while.

    Aaliyah closed her eyes and sighed. I’ve lost my touch, she grumbled to herself mentally. It was becoming clearer and clearer the longer she stayed here. Maybe she could put it down to the lack of danger she was in. She had always used the mortal fear that surrounded her at every moment to propel her towards her goals.

    It had made her excellent, but now it was gone. The war that she had fought was over, she had done the equivalent of commit social suicide. Now… she was lost.

    “What do we even do about it, Mirah.” She asked, melancholic. There was silence as the other girl pondered in her stoic fashion.

    “Tell the others.” She said quietly. Aaliyah almost scowled.

    “Is that smart? We don’t know how they are gonna act.” Mirah just shook her head, dismissing Aaliyah’s question.

    “They need to know.” The stoic girl paused, fingers slowly fiddling with the hem of her exercise shirt, “They are in the same situation we can ally together, for survival.” Aaliyah nodded.

    However tenuous their relations, Aaliyah was starting to realize that her and the scarred street girl that sat in front of her thought similarly. Efficiency and effectiveness. A cold and calculating mind. But they were different, almost like predator and prey.

    “Alright then…” Aaliyah mused, “but you’re going to have to tell the rest of the team!” Aaliyah said, ready for Mirah’s customary silent hesitation, but there was none. Before Aaliyah could bask in getting the upper hand against the other girl, Mirah was already waking out of her room.

    As the door slowly drew to a close behind the leaving girl, Aaliyah huffed frustratedly.

    “Still can’t read her.” She grumbled.







    Walter was a nervous man.

    Always had been, and likely always will. The only time he wasn’t anxious? Video games. In specific, linktech games. Though no full immersion tech existed or, more likely, was widely available outside of military application or a lab, linktech games were still bleeding edge.

    Over even the course of Walter’s life, he’d seen games evolve from low polygon count 3D models and platforming, all the way towards graphics indistinguishable from reality. It had become so real that actors and actresses were now starring in games, their performances immortalized in perfect graphics.

    Games had become the biggest entertainment market in the world a long time ago, but they only became more popular when you could experience what amounts to a movie yourself. Plus, the term ‘videogame’ became a nebulous mess very quickly. Some games were tantamount to hanging out with celebrities or other characters, some of which Walter had played, others that were a little too… out there, even for him.

    Especially with technology at the level of linktech. It was apparently easy to actually create an extremely high-fidelity AI that was capable of at least believably imitating a human. Though they were still breakable. Walter could remember the time he was playing a game and managed to get the supporting cast of the story stuck in an argument loop. Somehow, he had accidentally skipped the event trigger for his character to interject in the argument and calm it down.

    He could remember watching the three cast members arguing, all portrayed by famous actors, slowly devolving into more and more nonsensical territory as the AI’s desperately found something to argue about, waiting for the interjection that would never come.

    Finding a bug like that wasn’t common, so he still treasured that memory. The game was mediocre overall, unfortunately.

    Suddenly, there was a knock at Walter’s door, forcing the man to take of the lightweight linktech headset that his go-to time killer was streaming itself to.

    I didn’t order any food right? He counted back the meals that he’d ordered on his hands and remembered that he’d already had desert delivered an hour ago. He got up from the bed he was lying in, snapping his fingers to turn the light in the room on. The management AI for the room could be customized pretty heavily, which was surprising. Walter had installed as many addons as the AASAU AI would let him, of course.

    Walter reached his door and opened it tentatively.

    “Hello?” He asked as he did, peaking through the sizeable gap between the doorframe and the door itself, spying someone he never thought would talk to him. Mirah. The stoic and mysterious type, to the extreme. Walter could swear under oath that she had said all of ten words directly to him.

    “Hello.” She replied simply. There was silence, leaving Walter to fall into a pit of anxiety. He wracked his brain for what she wanted, his mind whirring with all the minor possibilities that could have made her appear in front of him like this, staring intensely at him. Her scarred face only accentuating her glare.

    “I, uh…” He started, but found no more words to pull from his mind. Did I hit her too hard when we were sparring? Is she mad at me? Does she hate me? His mind was suddenly silenced when he saw her eyes glance into his room.

    “Oh! Uhm, come in. If you want?” He asked, his stilted sentence making even him cringe. He opened the door wide for the scarred girl to walk in herself.

    Mirah opted to sit on the couch that was identical to the one that was in Aaliyah’s room, and Ajax’s room for that matter.

    She had already spoken with Ajax, and the man seemed concerned, but not overly so. In fact, he seemed more happy that he was being approached about anything team related, and had suggested that the team talk about it all together at tomorrow’s breakfast, which Mirah had agreed with.

    She could tell that the man had been trying to bring the group together this past week. So she couldn’t fault him for wanting to jump on the opportunity to bring them closer, through a mutual conspiracy no less.

    “So… what did you want to talk about?” Walter said, sitting in the chair opposite to Mirah’s spot on the couch. His heart was beating with the nerves that seemed to come out of nowhere, but he just swallowed against the dryness in his mouth and waited.

    “Were you aware we were sponsored?” The reason she had asked, despite Aaliyah’s assertion that it was common knowledge, was that Ajax hadn’t known either.

    “Yes? I asked Tracker about it when she came to talk about the team, but she didn’t say anything on it. Why?” He asked curiously and Mirah nodded solemnly.

    “I was talking to Willem. He made it clear that we were being sponsored by someone that was ‘big fish’ and implied to some degree that I should be careful.” His eyes widened for a moment while he processed the new information, then narrowed as he started questioning.

    “‘Big fish’ is a bit nebulous. Do you know what he meant about it?” Mirah nodded hesitantly.

    “He talked about gangs and money. It took a lot of money to have Tracker and him hired to deal with a team.” Walter nodded thoughtfully, seemingly picking it all up far easier than Aaliyah had. Ajax had just accepted everything she had said as truth and thanked her for telling him but had no real knowledge to help her.

    “That’s true. I did some digging into Tracker after we first met, trying to see if she was legit or not.” He shrugged, “She’s super high level. Corporate and militaries all over the place hire her all the time, though she lives in Australia most of the time and I think the AASAU have a deal with her to get her to work for them on occasion, probably for reduced pay. No idea what she gets out of it though.”

    Mirah couldn’t help but raise her eyebrow at the unassuming man. She had expected to hear this sort of information from Aaliyah, but she at least didn’t mention it or didn’t know it at all, though probably with no lack of trying.

    “Who she has worked for?” She asked, but Walter shook his head.

    “No way would she tell us that! It’s probably half the appeal of hiring her in the first place. She’s an ultra-professional. One of the best info Linked in the entire world. Info Linked have a reputation to uphold, and leaking is a good way to get killed.” He said seriously. Mirah could understand the cutthroat nature of that sort of world. She had observed a version of it many times.

    “Do you know who Willem is?” She asked, almost hopeful, but received a shake of the head as a response.

    “No idea. Looked him up and everything, even asked my mum and dad but that didn’t get me a very good answer. I can’t tell if that means they know and can’t tell me, or if they have no idea at all.” Mirah’s eyebrow quirked at the mention of Walter’s parents. They hadn’t spent so much time together, and somehow she had just assumed that the others in the team also had no parents or parental figures. Though, in retrospect it was hardly surprising.

    “What do your parents do? Info Linked?” She asked bluntly, but Walter didn’t seem to mind the lack of flowery words and subversive questions.

    “Oh no, nothing that amazing. They are lawyers. Have been working together since before I was born. I’m pretty sure that my mum was my dad’s assistant.” He chuckled, and then froze, going red. A joke that was entirely acceptable and even funny amongst one set of friends and being horrifically inappropriate to another was something that Walter usually was pretty good at avoiding, but he had just been playing games with some of the raunchier of his friends and it had somehow leaked into this conversation.

    Mirah, for her part, was entire oblivious to the red-faced young man in front of her.

    Lawyers? She thought pensively. She had heard about them, sure. She had heard about a lot of things, which was possibly the only thing keeping her afloat in general conversation, but she had no idea why they may or may not know who Willem was. Something for Aaliyah to know.

    “I see. Thank you for telling me this.” She said, standing up from her place on the couch, causing the man opposite from her to splutter.

    “Uh, I’m sorry! I shouldn’t have said that!” Mirah stopped and looked directly towards the man woodenly, a look of slight confusion on her face.

    “Have you told me something you weren’t meant to?” Walter was momentarily shocked. He had thought she was making a hasty exit after an inappropriate joke, but she was actually just leaving. He groaned inwardly and smeared on a hasty smile towards the stoic girl.

    “O-oh! No, not at all. Have a good night!” He said quickly, making the girl pause for a second, before nodding and leaving shortly after.

    Walter let out a massive sigh, before walking back into his bedroom. He let himself fall onto the bed and smothered his face into his pillows, groaning at his own embarrassment. After a few moments of regret-filled groans, he returned his attention back to his linktech headset.

    He’d just have to play some games to get it off his mind.
     
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  18. Threadmarks: Chapter 17: Kids
    Sarius

    Sarius Not too sore, are you?

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    Chapter 17: Kids

    It was a realm of pure darkness that she had met It.

    It was everything, everywhere and all consuming. Almost entirely unknowable and incomprehensible to Mirah’s human mind, a truly inadequate tool to comprehend It’s nature.

    It whispered in a voice that seemed to come from everywhere, everything, everyone. Mirah had felt small her whole life, a runaway, a thrown-away rag. But when It spoke to her, she felt like nothing more than a speck of dust, an atom, or something even smaller that escaped Mirah’s comprehension of the world. It’s voice was overwhelming, even in the void of endless nothing.

    Mirah screamed against the deafening voices, the sensation of being infinitesimally small overwhelming her mind, before it changed and warped. To Mirah these few moments were longer than any other in her life. It was a second drawn into hours, days even. The torture against her uncomprehending mind only lessened when It made it so.

    Mirah could remember now, how she had felt when she looked up, opening her eyes fearful of It.

    Before her a being had stood. Mirah couldn’t bring herself to look too closely at the being, her mind getting sucked further into a component that made up what the being was, and endless spiral, a fractal of all that was.

    Mirah.” It had spoke in a billion, billion voices. Some were clear and sharp, some feminine or masculine, some inhuman and animalistic, some in languages she couldn’t understand and had never heard. Some were simply incomprehensible noises, but it all formed one word. Her name.

    She didn’t respond to the being, she couldn’t possibly muster her voice against the overwhelming tidal wave.

    You can find it, can make it. Take control of it.” The voices, sounds and everything in between crashed against her mind, the voices of It desperate to communicate to her something, but unable to make her comprehend it’s meaning.

    “W-what? Take control of what?” Mirah had squeaked, her voice nothing against It’s presence. The being simply nodded, as if the question had been answered.

    mce-anchor“At the cost of it all.”

    Mirah screamed, the words, drilling themselves into her head, as if she were in the bowels of the earth, hearing every placed foot, misplaced stone or shifted sand.

    The screaming became a separate part of her, her thoughts transcending the actions of her body. Her mind widening, expanding until she could feel it all, the whole wor—



    Mirah’s eyes opened.

    Her mind exploded with anxiety as her eyes wandered hysterically, her breathing becoming laboured underneath an invisible burden. Mirah began to shake like a leaf in the wind, her teeth chattering, clacking together noisily.

    Mirah was in a state of total terror, her mind absorbed with it, forcing her body to lock up into a ball of pure anxious horror. She was still connected to it all, she could hear the whispers of it, echoes of that sensation in her dream. In her memories.

    There was knocking at her door, and a voice desperately trying to be heard past it, but there was no point, Mirah was incapable of comprehending anything but her own terror. She began to cry uncontrollably, deranged sobs heaving from her chest, breaking out from her throat.

    And that was when a warm hand was placed against hers.








    20 minutes earlier.



    Tracker was relieved to finally make it ‘home’. She had been called out on a job that she hated, but was paid a king’s ransom for, and she naïvely took said job, convincing herself that it couldn’t possibly be as bad as she remembered it to be.

    Of course, it was worse just to spite her. Her contractor for this job was a total ass wipe, but he was rich and owned one of the more powerful linktech producers in Australia. Of course, when they are purchasing another massive producer of linktech she had to be there to make sure that no one was bringing along any Linked to manipulate anyone. She had managed to weed out a mind controller they were trying to sneak in, most likely an area of effect influencing type, real corporate flunky too. Either way, that was used at the negotiating table as some healthy corporate blackmail and bingo bango, you have yourself a multibillion-dollar transaction, done and dusted.

    Sighing, Tracker flopped down onto her bed, or the bed she’d been granted for this contract. The fifth room of the eighth floor, the same floor as the undefined team she’d assembled.

    Truth be told, she was feeling somewhat guilty. She’d supposed to be teaching the kids and be their pseudo caseworker, but she’d been busy with other contracts. Tracker was still somewhat confused why she would be picked to take care of these kids, sure finding them made sense, but sticking around and teaching them?

    Seemed a bit overboard even to her. Hiring her definitely didn’t come cheap, and Willem too, though he hardly charged anywhere near enough. She’d been trying to make him up his prices for years, but the man was stubborn to a ridiculous degree sometimes.

    Tracker took the job in the end, obviously, but she couldn’t help but question her own motives. She was… getting on in age. Not ancient like Willem’s middle age, but certainly getting along the road. She’d been dying her hair back to black for a good while now, mostly just to appease the corporate crowd that she was constantly hired by. But every now and then she wondered if she should bring it back a notch, maybe settle down somewhere in the richer suburbs, lord knows she could afford it, and find someone there.

    Having a kid…

    A muffled scream rung out, loud and piercing but distant. Shock filled Tracker for a moment before it was replaced with cold, calculative emotions.

    It was either Mirah or Aaliyah who screamed, and Aaliyah was in the room over from her, in room four, whereas Mirah was in room one. The screaming continued and it became obvious that it was too far away to be Aaliyah. There was the sound of a door slamming a hurried footsteps from down the hall, but Tracker simply calmly and efficiently got dressed into something slightly more respectable than the complete undress she was in, pulling on a hoodie and a pair of shorts.

    Walking out of her room in quick and purposeful strides, she walked towards Mirah’s door, which already had some of the rest of the team standing there, namely Walter and Ajax. They looked towards the door worriedly, Ajax beating his meaty hand against the door.

    “Mirah! Are you alright?” He called urgently, though not panicked. Tracker almost nodded approvingly but stopped herself to get on with her job. She walked to the door, shooing the two boys who were shocked at her sudden appearance, and knocked with her knuckled courteously before pulling the key card she’d swiped from her kitchen bench and unlocked the door. She could hear the hyperventilating teen inside, the beginnings of sobs echoing through the room and out the door.

    Ajax, in his desire to see that Mirah was fine tried to push past Tracker, but Tracker’s hand flung out to catch his wrist, pulling him back through the door and looking at him sternly.

    “I will take care of this. Either stand here or go back to your room.” The much taller man looked down at her with a stubborn look for a moment, but let it fade from his features with a sigh, pulling his wrist out of her grip. He could have easily ignored her with the strength granted to him by the axe, but with just his natural strength, her grip told him clearly that she was going to be no pushover.

    Tracker nodded approvingly this time and walked into Mirah’s room, closing the door behind her and hearing the lock click. She quickly strode into the bedroom and saw the girl sobbing on her bed, eyes wide like a terrified animal.

    She moved closer to Mirah and placed a hand on hers.

    “Mirah, this is Tracker. Are you alright?” She asked simply but comfortingly. She wrapped her hand around the terrified girl’s hand, and the girl’s hand clenched hers with a strength that you could only access when you truly felt you were in danger.

    But Tracker had an idea of what caused this. As she focused on the small part of her mind that seemed to always be scanning the world around her, she was able to visualize the surrounding landscape relatively exact proportions and hundreds of different shapes and colours, representing each and every Linked in the building and Underground. However, when Tracker focused on the room she was currently in, there was only her and another shape, an exact sphere, slowly turning on an axis, the most complex shape her radar had ever assigned someone. The colour, however, was a mundane maroon.

    Complex power, but not necessarily strong. However, at the moment it was blinking, as if it were a notification on a computer. Her link was being used.

    “Mirah,” Tracker said soothingly as she gently rubbed the back of Mirah’s hand with her thumb, “I need you to take a deep breath and try to stop using your link, okay?” There was no response other than Mirah’s grip tightening.

    “Mirah!” She called louder, making the girl jolt slightly, “Deep breath for me.” Tracker lead by example, sucking in a deep breath, followed by a moment of pause, then a breath out. Tracker did this over and over again. Ten times, a hundred times. In the dark of the room, all you could hear was a set of synchronised breaths; breathe in, hold and finally breathe out.

    Mirah’s breathing was occasionally interrupted with a hitch in her breath, a half sob.

    “Mirah?” Tracker started for the third time, nice and calmly, “Do you feel better now?” The room was silent for a moment before Mirah nodded shakily. Tracker sighed in relief.

    “Can I ask you some questions please?” She asked, finding a voice of kindness in herself that, not an hour ago, she would have sworn to never be capable of. Another nod.

    “Did you have a very scary dream?” She realised that she was treating this nineteen year like a child, but the girl was still terrified, if her grip strength was anything to go by. The girl’s breathing began to pick up again, but Tracker shushed her gently.

    “Hey now, it’s okay.” She said before reaching out and softly brushing the girl’s forehead, making her initially stiffen but relax after a moment, “What you just experienced is called a Remembrance, Mirah.” The room was quiet but the girl was obviously listening to Tracker’s words.

    “Many people go through an Awakening dream, but some don’t remember it very well, if at all.” Tracker explained slowly, still gently distracting the girl from her terror, “The Remembrances aren’t the real thing and come back to you warped and changed and are sometimes very scary experiences.”

    Mirah nodded again, still shaky, but much more with it than before.

    “Do you want to talk about—” Tracker stopped suddenly as Mirah’s head began to furiously shake, “Okay, okay. You don’t have to talk about it.”

    The silence dragged on in the room, Tracker sitting on the floor next to Mirah’s bed. The girl’s breathing was still jittery, but far calmer as Tracker stroked the back of her hand and her forehead, leaning onto the edge of the bed for support.

    “Do you want me to leave now, Mirah?” Tracker asked quietly, trying not to send the girl into another panic, but she didn’t give any response. Tracker sat there, continuing her patterns on the girl’s hand and forehead. Tracker was sure that the girl had heard her, so she waited.

    Then she softly shook her head, silently asking her to stay in the darkness with her.

    Tracker didn’t say anything after that, simply comforting Mirah as best she could, like her father had done with her so, so many years ago now. She breathed calmly and consistently, making sure that Mirah could hear the breaths and follow her rhythm.

    Hours passed in that room, simply two sets of breathing existing in the dark. Mirah’s hand finally unclenched from around Tracker’s own, allowing Tracker to gently place the hand back next to Mirah and almost silently walk out of the room, and back out into the hallway.

    Ajax and Walter had returned to their rooms, though Ajax had stood outside of the door for an hour and a half, so Tracker returned to her own room in absolute silence.

    It was four in the morning, so Tracker decided that she’d just push through the day, something she had made a routine of over the decade and a half that she’d been in her line of work.

    Seems like things aren’t going to be any different here either. Holiday my ass.

    She sighed as she began to put together a coffee, a linktech created strain that apparently had all the caffeine, 100% more wakefulness and none of the addiction. Not that it stopped Tracker from being summarily addicted to it.

    As she waited for the fancy coffee machine to do its work, she absentmindedly rubbed her sore hand, the one that had been clenched by Mirah for a good part of three hours.

    Kids… hmm.

    A/N: Hey all! I hope you're enjoying what you've been reading so far. Would love to hear what you think of the story!
     
    Last edited: Jan 19, 2021
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  19. Threadmarks: Chapter 18: People Watching
    Sarius

    Sarius Not too sore, are you?

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    Chapter 18: People Watching

    The cafeteria was noisy in the morning, a far cry from the relative peace of the forest that Ajax had accustomed himself to over the years. Though he couldn’t exactly say that he minded. It was the sound of other people, a connection to the crowd around him that he had forgotten that he once craved.

    He was currently alone at the table, always the early waker, for whatever reason. The next person down was either Mirah or Aaliyah, and then finally Walter, always staying up late and playing games.

    Ajax liked to look around the cafeteria at the other groups and individuals. He knew very little about the reason why specific groups were here, and what their links were, but the liked to keep a watchful eye of the other people regardless.

    There were a few groups that he was sure were already a part of a gang of some sort. It was in the way they moved and sneered at others, in a place full of others with links you had to be pretty ballsy, or actually powerful to pull it off. They looked a lot like the men his father had hung out with, before he OD’d on whatever he’d gotten his hands on.

    Though Ajax was far less interested in them. They might be powerful, but they all looked normal and, frankly, boring. Although Ajax’s group were the new kids on the block, they didn’t seem to get a lot of other groups looking to flex their power over them. He could only guess that there was a grace period of some sort.

    The people that interested Ajax were those that had a… changed physical form. He had heard about people becoming Linked and having their bodies changed irreparably, even to monstrous extents. Though, seeing someone so physically different than yourself was both somewhat morbid and intriguing at the same time.

    Every morning, just as he walked into the cafeteria before most people had even woken up, he’d always see a large, amorphous blob of purple liquid waiting at a table for food. The first time he had seen them, he’d been well and truly shocked for obvious reasons. But over the past week or two, they’d slowly become passing acquaintances.

    Ajax had never spoken to them, and they’d only casually waved to each other from across the cafeteria. He had wanted to, of course, Ajax was just that sort of person. If he could, he’d make everyone his friend. But between his own group being fatally dysfunctional, the screaming in the middle of the night from Mirah’s room, and the purple person’s closed off aura—he felt like waiting before going out of his way to make friends outside of his own group.

    The person he was closest to in his own group was probably Walter, they’d spent a fair amount of time relaxing together, but they were very different people. Walter lived a life of comfort, and his interests were more technological, whereas Ajax was all about physical stuff. Though he had been playing a game with Walter when he got the chance, but even then, Walter got frustrated with him when he couldn’t pick up some of the concepts he was trying to teach Ajax.

    Ajax hadn’t seen Dean around either, after unceremoniously being named team leader. Though Ajax wasn’t entirely sure if he wanted to meet the man again. He’d found him unnerving. Dean’s link had worried Ajax, but the way that Dean had talked about it, there was probably a lot more just like it around the joint, so it looked like he’d just have to get used to it.

    “Ruminating on the world and it’s injustices, friend?” An overly dramatic voice said as Aaliyah plonked herself in the seat opposite from Ajax. He rose an eyebrow at the blonde.

    “Not quite. Just idle thought about all the others in the building.” Aaliyah rolled her eyes at his stoic answer as she ordered her standard breakfast.

    “People watching then?” Ajax screwed up his face at that, it sounded creepy. “What? I people watch all the time. It’s good to know who to keep an eye on. Like those gang idiots that are a couple tables to the left of us.” She said nonchalantly, referring to the very same people Ajax had seen on days prior with the permanent sneers.

    “What gang, do you think?” He asked quietly, trying not to pull attention to their table. Aaliyah just shrugged.

    “Probably a low level, no name gang. Maybe idiots for RO.” RO? It took Ajax a second to realise that she meant Righteous Order and scrunched his nose in distaste.

    “What? Not into the whole Linked supremacy thing?” She said, voice dripping in sarcasm. Ajax huffed at the thought.

    “I hear it’s more than just Linked supremacy.” Ajax said, the words like poison on his tongue. If there were any ideas that had hated, supremacy of any kind was one of them. Aaliyah, though, just shrugged.

    “Yeah, I hear the same. Though I also hear that it’s mostly the low-level members, the upper-level members are just horribly bigoted against non-Linked. Bigots attract bigots of any sort, I guess.” Ajax would ask where she got that information from exactly, but they’d had similar conversations in the past and she always responded with a sly shrug. She didn’t seem to care enough to make a bullshit answer, at least.

    “Anyway,” Ajax said, changing the subject, “Did you hear Mirah screaming last night?” Aaliyah looked taken aback, then shocked as she turned to Ajax.

    “What happened?” She asked, feigning ignorance, though Ajax himself took her at face value. Of course Aaliyah had heard her screaming, in fact, she had packed a few things into a bag and was ready to sprint out of the building as soon as anything else happened.

    “I don’t know, Tracker showed up and went inside her room with a master key, left me waiting at the door and didn’t come out in the few hours I was standing outside.” Few hours? Aaliyah gave the man a genuinely confused look. Why would you stand outside the room for that long? Wasn’t like he could help. And why was Tracker here? They hadn’t seen her since they’d been dropped off here.

    Ajax, misinterpreting the look on Aaliyah’s face as a look of concern, nodded with his own brow furrowing.

    “I wanted to make sure Mirah was alright, but I guess Tracker had it under control.” He said, worry still written on his face, even as he rationalized.

    Then another form plopped down on a chair somewhere in between Ajax and Aaliyah, a large yawn coming from the Asian man.

    “Did you figure out what Mirah was screaming?” Walter said tiredly. He was up earlier than normal, almost an hour earlier than he usually moseyed his way down to the cafeteria. Ajax shook his head at the other man, a look of consternation on his face. Walter saw the man’s look and reached over to pat the much larger man on the shoulder.

    “Hey man, I’m sure she’s fine. We saw Tracker go help her last night.” Walter gave a shy wave to Aaliyah as his morning greeting and she shot him a bedazzling smile. “Ah, uhm, so why do you think Tracker is back? She came out of room five last night when we heard the screaming.”

    Aaliyah raised an eyebrow at that. Tracker was on the same floor as them?

    “I dunno, maybe she’s going to teach us?” Ajax said, voicing a possibility in Aaliyah’s mind.

    Or keep an eye on us, she thought conspiratorially. Aaliyah was hardly one for authority figures. There was a silence over the group that usually came when they ran out of things to say. None of them were good enough friends to be able talk ad nauseum yet, though Ajax sometimes wished that Walter would blather on about whatever game he was playing or show he was watching. It’d make group talks way more interesting, but around Aaliyah Walter clammed up hard.

    Ajax’s meal came and went, as well as Aaliyah’s with almost nothing spoken between the three of them. What was weird was Mirah’s no show, she was usually down here much earlier than Walter, and Walter had come down pretty early. Aaliyah could guess why, of course. Walter clearly hadn’t slept well, the constant yawning and the bags under his eyes said enough about that. Mirah probably got the day off after whatever had happened last night.

    “Ah,” Walter sighed defeatedly, “I wish I could train with my link more.” He had whined about this before, and Aaliyah was just about sick of it. It was a smile on her face she turned to the shorter man.

    “You know that you can, right? Willem never said that you couldn’t go and use the training room to test your link and all that.” Walter opened his mouth in argument but deflated a bit after thinking about it.

    “I know, but I can’t do the same with everyone else. Like, you can’t use your link without Willem there, ‘cause you’ll go on a rampage,” Aaliyah’s eye twitched at that, but she said nothing, “Ajax just kind of has an axe and can use it, I don’t know how you even train that,” Ajax looked thoughtfully down at the large fireman’s axe that was always stuck to his hip, “and then Mirah just trips people and hears stuff! I don’t think she even knows what her own link really is.”

    “‘Hears stuff’?” Aaliyah recounted, confused.

    “Oh yeah! You weren’t there when we fought.” Walter said, hitting his forehead with his palm in an exaggerated reaction that made Ajax roll his eyes, “We were just about to start fighting after Willem told us to not use out links and yadda-yadda, then she raised her hand and was like ‘I’m using my link’ or something like that.

    “So apparently Mirah gets voices in her head that tell her what her opponent is going to do next. And ‘cause she can’t turn it off, she gets to use it in a fight. Which means I can’t win.” He shrugged, seemingly fine with that fact, though Mirah was far more confused.

    “Two links?” She questioned out loud and the other two stopped dead. Though it wasn’t long before Walter waved away the concerned silence.

    “Nah, couldn’t be. Every year or so there is one or two that show up and ‘apparently’ have two links, but it always gets disproven. There’s, like, no way.” Walter shrugged, the idea pushed from his mind. Ajax took that explanation and decided that it was good enough, but Aaliyah didn’t put it down just yet. Whispers of what someone would do next and telekinesis, those were two really different things. A minor precognitive link and a mental link?

    Walter finally got his meal and chowed down, and just in time. Their timetable was relatively set by this point, and they could almost instinctively feel when the time to begin was, and so as they readied themselves to have their bodies slowly improved by Willem’s callous regimen, A tall, lady with slight Indian features with black hair turned the corner from the elevator. It was Tracker, of course, though this was the best look at her that many of the team had gotten. She was dressed in a tight-fitting suit, like she had when they had all first met her.

    Behind her stood Mirah, looking extremely tired, but was making herself walk behind the taller woman anyways.

    “Hello team. I hear you have all been doing well in the physical training department?” Tracker spoke jovially as she neared the table. Around them, other groups turned to see Tracker. Some didn’t seem to know her though others, namely the clearly more affluent, had their faces fill with recognition and a shadow of awe.

    “Well, I can bench almost four hundred or so kilos now. Not nearly that impressive without my axe. Though my axe doesn’t seem to like to have its power used for bench pressing stuff all that much.” The tall man lamented amusedly. Tracker raised an eyebrow, she had seen him slice a tree down with barely any effort and helped him drag a tree back to his log cabin. That tree was easily more than that, but a large margin.

    Tracker nodded in understanding, and it only took a look at the others to tell they were doing better. Mirah had gone from a waif of a thing, anorexically thin, surviving off of air and whatever trash she could get her hands on without putting herself in danger. Now, she was on her way to even being able to be called fit, though she still looked light. Aaliyah looked much the same, though her muscle was more well defined. Walter had lost quite a significant amount of weight, something that would be extremely concerning if he weren’t Linked.

    “Alright then. Well, I was supposed to be around earlier this week, but I was hired on to run security on a big corporate deal for a few days, so I’ve been busy. Today is your first lesson in Linked 101.” She smiled toothily at the three that stood in front of her.

    “Do we have training with Willem?” Walter piped up and Tracker shook her head.

    “No, not today. Tomorrow he told me you are all going to work on your links.” Walter looked relieved, even a little excited. Tracker nodded to the three of them.

    “Alright then class! Up we get. Time to get a move on!” Tracker called enthusiastically, and maybe a little louder than strictly necessary, causing the other groups to look upon her little class amusedly and maybe even sympathetically.
     
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  20. Threadmarks: Chapter 19: Dead or Alive
    Sarius

    Sarius Not too sore, are you?

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    Chapter 19: Dead or Alive

    An emotionally overwhelmed Mirah turned her brain on autopilot and let her feet carry her towards the elevator, following the rest of the team that was, in turn, following Tracker. It took the short, silent and inertia-less elevator trip downwards to the Underground, and then a short trip through the sterile and nice smelling hallways to a room labelled ‘L006’.

    “This will be where we have classes every second day, or when instructed.” Tracker commented before pulling aside the sliding door, revealing a small lecture hall built to fit somewhere between twenty and thirty people. Thought it looked like it was mostly going to go unused today.

    “The groups that have small sponsors are put in a larger conglomeration group. You guys have a bigtime budget, which means private lessons with a skilled tutor, personalized training with a skilled trainer and, of course, the nice rooms.” Tracker grinned at the group as she motioned for them to sit in the front row.

    Well, that certainly explained the extremely nice rooms the team was assigned to. Mirah wondered what the lesser rooms were like.

    Tracker waited for everyone to make their way into their own seats, Mirah being the first to sit down, the exhaustion from last night still taking a toll on her. The others in the team had been giving her looks, somewhere mixed between curiosity and concern. At least from Ajax and Walter, Aaliyah seemed to lack concern entirely.

    Mirah was embarrassed, to say the least. She had never been in such a state, not since she was a very small child, and she couldn’t help but cringe inside every time she looked at Tracker, a part of her just wishing that she could walk out of this lecture room and go back to bed and just forget it all.

    But this was important, she needed to be here.

    “Good. Now, you’ve all been here for a week or two and you are probably wondering what you’re supposed to be learning here exactly.” Tracker began hopping up onto the table and sitting one leg over the other, seeming to not even notice Mirah’s anguished embarrassment. The team collectively nodded their heads.

    They had effectively been plonked into a team together and started training with no idea what they were training for, or what it was they were supposed to do after all of this ended. Tracker quietly surveyed the team and nodded.

    “Well, that’s simple. You are here to learn how to not kill people with your link and find at least some use for it.” Mirah saw Ajax raise an eyebrow and she agreed. That didn’t seem at all consistent with how they were being trained. They were being trained properly, increasing physical fitness, being taught how to fight rudimentarily, basic link exploration.

    “That’s the basis of what you are being taught. If you were to have a sponsor that was only putting forwards a small sum of money to do so, you would be put together with a class and taught basic principles. Most of these people are either sponsored because of interest from corporations, or are paying their own way through training.” Tracker tapped on her knee idly as she thought, “Can anyone tell me why a person would go through training with AASAU?” Mirah looked towards the other teammates. Aaliyah already knew the answer, Ajax was about as out of the loop as Mirah was and Walter’s face was grimacing, trying to think of a reason.

    “Walter.” She commanded, pointing at him and expecting an answer.

    “Uh…” he mumbled, “So you can get life insurance?” Tracker opened her mouth, clearly going to disagree before she tilted her head in thought and slowly nodded in agreement.

    “Never thought about it that way before, but yes, you do need AASAU certification to be eligible for certain insurances, an assurance to insurance companies that you aren’t at significantly higher risk of dying and all that. Though they still charge a premium. Close, but not what I was looking for.” She pointed towards Aaliyah wordlessly, clearly seeing that she already had the answer.

    “Jobs.” She answered plainly and Tracker looked at her unamused. With a heavy sigh she continued, “You need AASAU certification to get a job in corporations, especially if you are a hypercognitive.”

    Tracker accepted that answer with a smile, “Good. Now, what sort of jobs do you think Linked go into as they get out of training here at the AASAU?”

    “Linktech?” Walter called out immediately. Tracker nodded.

    “Linktech or the sciences is certainly one of the fields that hypercognitives make their way into. Though, understand that there are many different types of hypercognitives, many of which are entirely useless to a corporate or lab setting. For example, a hypercognitive that I have had the pleasure of working with on multiple occasions is Account. He is the Linked equivalent to computerized spreadsheets. In moments he can easily calculate and model extremely complex financial and statistical data, or any data really. Now,” She paused, looking around the room thoughtfully, “what would happen if you put him with a team to create linktech?”

    Mirah and Ajax were simply along for the ride at this point, totally out of their depth. Both had been separated from society long enough and significantly divorced from the Linked scene that they simply had nothing to offer, even if Ajax had completed high school, it was just a means to an end.

    “You get a lot of data from testing? He’d be able to analyse that really easily, point out areas they are failing in.” Walter offered and Tracker nodded, conceding the point.

    “Of course, but why might that still be a bad idea?”

    “It’s overkill.” Aaliyah said, bored. Tracker clapped loudly, as if she was the one to come to the revelation, her pale brown features lifting into a wide grin.

    “Exactly! It’s way overkill. The other hypercognitives are just as capable of putting together a spreadsheet and manipulating the data to make salient information. Account would only become significantly helpful if there was an immensely small failure that happened over a largescale manufacturing process. You’d be paying the man hundreds of thousands to make spreadsheets that a non-Linked could easily make.” She hopped down from her place on the table and begun to pace in front of her students.

    “Where he is useful is compiling and making sense of insanely large datasets. He has been hired on multiple occasions to make sense of massive scientific datasets, millions of dollars to spend a few hours of analysing the data and spitting out answers that would take linktech supercomputers even longer to spit out. This is where he specifically shines.” She stopped before Ajax and looked him square in the face, “What other jobs do you think Linked go into after AASAU training?”

    Ajax’s face creased, though he showed no anxiety about being put on the spot like Walter or Mirah might have. He leaned back in his chair, crossing his arms in thought for a moment, before an idea popped into his head.

    “Manual labour?” He asked, and she grinned happily.

    “Good!” She began to pace again hands clasped behind her back and posture prohibitively exact. “Many Linked with physical enhancements do indeed end up in a physical job, however strange they those types of links do get. Though simple enhanced strength is an easy enough to place within a workforce, but what about Linked who can create earthquakes nigh on demand, or a telekinetic that can lift weights of thousands of tonnes?” Tracker enunciated. Ajax just shrugged.

    “Well, I’m sure that mining companies would love those last two. To have a guy make a localized earthquake, cracking the stone and rock that would take tens of thousands of manhours to do manually and then having the telekinetic pull up massive parts of earth and move it around as easy as anything. A two-man crew that’d take hundreds of men and millions of dollars in equipment.” Mirah could see Ajax actually tally it all up in his head. She had heard Ajax talk about working on a farm with his grandparents, so she could only guess that he had a frame of reference.

    “Perfect! Those two people exist, and they buy up land to mine all over Australia. Instead of months of work it takes them a few weeks at most, tearing up the land and using linktech equipment to process the earth. They are competitive with massive corporate organisations that have been mining since before Linked even existed. Their names are Shatter and Lift, uncreatively.

    “Now, that’s an extremely simplistic look at things and there is almost always an application of a link somewhere. However, as you may know, Undefined are considered the exception to that rule.” The mood of the group lowered considerably, Walter and Aaliyah’s expressions soured, becoming almost scowls. It was the most negative emotion Mirah had seen on Walter’s face.

    “Can anyone tell me why that is?” Tracker asked speculatively, ignoring the mood. Surprisingly to Mirah, Ajax was the one to answer.

    “Control.” Tracker’s fingers snapped excitedly as she looked towards Ajax with a ‘go on’ look upon her face, “Well, they don’t know what we can do, or what they’d do with us, so they forbid us from training in the first place to deny us legitimacy, so they can control our unpredictability.” Tracker nodded.

    “Good enough. There are many political reasons for why Undefineds are generally barred from training and strictly disallowed from using their power without licence, but most simply come down to the fact that those up top don’t like something they can’t control. In some countries they disallow non-government Linked from using their powers at all, which isn’t the case here, but you aren’t going to get hired anywhere nice if you don’t have certification. Point is,” she took a breath and looked at us, “the suits are scared of you.”

    No-one was surprised, it was obvious, really. Even Mirah had put two and two together in this case.

    “You say that like you aren’t a suit.” Aaliyah said testily, looking the suited woman up and down. Tracker just grinned.

    “Guilty,” she acquiesced, “but to a point. I work independently from any given corporation, like many do; Account, Shatter and Lift included. We are just labelled as independents, and we have our own set of rights, and informal union of sorts. If you have a highly specific skillset, you’re likely to end up with one of us. There is one candidate currently in the most senior group here that is slated to enter with us soon enough.” Ajax immediately thought of Dean, the logic jumping info Linked.

    “W-what about heroes?” Mirah heard a voice squeak. She turned to see Walter, who almost folded in on himself as everyone in the small lecture hall turned to look at him. Aaliyah with undisguised mirth, Ajax and Mirah with inscrutable expressions. Tracker, though, just looked a little sad.

    “There are many that wish to use their links to better the world around them, and some do so in more or less direct ways. However, ‘heroes’ as you know them from comic books and media are long gone, dead the moment that Blast became Suicide.” The mood soured even further, though Mirah was just confused. She hadn’t ever heard about Blast or Suicide, and it didn’t seem like it would be explained.

    “So, if you wish to try to contribute directly to fighting crime as a Linked, I suggest that you join the police. Though you will have to keep in mind that you would then be a Linked policeman, and would be following those orders specifically, to all their legalities.”

    To Mirah, that sounded as close to a ‘you can do it, but that’s not what you want’ as you could get without outright saying as much. Walter’s face dropped, disappointed. There was something there, and Aaliyah had guessed it to. There was a reason that Walter had even asked at all.

    “So,” Tracker started, her voice now suddenly far more serious, almost deadly so, “I will warn you now. As many Linked end up in corporate work, or some job or another, just as many end up running with the gangs.”

    “W-why? How could the AASAU allow that?” Walter put forward timidly.

    “They don’t, but the AASAU are just a non-government regulatory body. Like a university or trade school. What you use their teachings for is outside of their preview. Though the government and the AASAU can technically rescind your certification, it rarely happens outside of serious incarceration for extremely serious crimes, most of which the Linked walk from.”

    Mirah saw Walter’s fists clench underneath his table and even the normally unflappable Ajax showed a modicum of anger, his powerful jaw clenching.

    “You need to be aware that independents that do not run in corporate spheres are either extremely dangerous or in extreme danger.” Mirah’s brow furrowed.

    “Why would someone run outside of corporate spheres?” She asked quietly.

    “No AASAU assurance, no legitimacy, lots of untraceable money and perfect for… combat focused links.” Tracker responded carefully. Mirah opened her mouth, understanding dawning.

    “How long do you think those independents stick around?” Tracker asked the group, receiving a round of shrugs.

    “Non-corporate independent Linked last around three to six months.” Tracker looked each one of the team members straight in the eye, impressing the importance of her words on them with each second of silence.

    “Dead or alive.”
     
  21. mperalta

    mperalta I trust you know where the happy button is?

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    Post this on fiction press and make reddit posts on superhero literature and different subreddits that this story might come into.

    Posting in this area of QQ is a bad idea too. Even if your story has no sexual themes whatsoever you need to post on the NSFW section of the forum otherwise no-one is going to read at all.

    Also, put some tags.

    Hopefully your story gets more attention. Writing is hard.
     
  22. Sarius

    Sarius Not too sore, are you?

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    Oh, that's kinda weird, I'll keep it in mind.

    I already post on Fiction Press, but it's extremely inactive on there for whatever reason. I might go around and post on different subreddits at some point, but it likely will be for other sites instead, like Royal Road or some such.

    I dunno if I wanna go through the process of reposting everything I've already written onto the NSFW side of the forum, especially with my other stories adding up to almost 100 chapters, so maybe I'll see if I can ask a moderator to help me out with that instead.

    Thanks for the advice though man!
     
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  23. Threadmarks: Chapter 20: Remembrance
    Sarius

    Sarius Not too sore, are you?

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    Chapter 20: Remembrance

    It wasn’t long before the group was dismissed for the first half of the lesson, told to go pick up lunch in the cafeteria and pass the time for about an hour.

    Mirah was still struggling, her mind weighed down by exhaustion, but she’d found the lesson intriguing. She, out of everyone in the group, had the worst picture of the state of the world outside of her small little street in the bad parts of the city. Finding out about corporations and independents was interesting and started to spark ideas for questions she wanted answer, where before there were none.

    She probably wasn’t going to become an expert, or as knowledgeable as Walter or Aaliyah were on the topics, as limited as even they were. But it was better than the total ignorance she had no choice but suffer through.

    The team walked themselves up to the elevator waiting a few seconds for the elevator to make it’s way down, letting off a gaggle of younger looking trainees and stepping in themselves.

    The elevator ride was taken in silence, as was the walk to the cafeteria table. Everyone looked suitably overwhelmed for Mirah’s tastes. Tracker had dropped a lot of information on them, force feeding it to them as quickly as possible to bring the group up to speed. Even Aaliyah couldn’t hide her brain churning over the new information she was getting.

    The team all ordered simple lunches that were brought out alongside the energy jelly that they had all quickly become accustomed to. Though Aaliyah still grimaced as the fowl tasting concoction touched her tongue.

    Though the food easily covered up for the slight aftertaste.

    It didn’t take long for the four teammates to down their lunches, all of them being starving, which seemed customary of being a Linked. It was almost impossible to be fat as a Linked, even if you indulged in the highest fat and sugar content foods to satiate your hunger. Something Walter seemed to think was an even greater perk than being able to generate fire out of seemingly nothing.

    “So. Screaming?” Aaliyah said suddenly, interrupting the silence that had formed over the group, shocking everyone out of their reveries. Mirah frowned as the rest of the group looked towards her pointedly, all waiting for her to speak.

    Mirah couldn’t remember screaming, except for in her dream. She still couldn’t help but shudder when she remembered it. Logically Mirah could dissect the scene in her mind and with the help of Tracker’s explanation of what was happening, make sense of it that way, but emotionally it was still raw, like it had carved out a wound in her mental state.

    “I had a Remembrance.” Mirah mumbled quietly, looking away from the searching eyes of her teammates. Each individual around the table grimaced painfully.

    Remembrances are poorly understood, just like Awakening Dreams. Many believed that they would never truly be understood, being artifacts of a changing brain, but historically Remembrances have always been a point of interest. Walter, specifically, knew Remembrances for their usage in media like comic books.

    It was always more interesting to have a character that had parts of themselves occluded to the character and the reader, at least in theory. But in recent years comic books have been trying to rectify their idealized portrayal of Remembrances, making them closer to the horrifying and sometimes debilitating affliction that they can be.

    One specific comic book that Walter had taken to was one about Magnus, an anti-hero character that was immensely powerful, but didn’t understand his own link. Forced to experience horrifying nightmares every single night, slowly driving him insane until he realizes his link. Though by that point in the story his mentality is so broken that he could hardly even be called an anti-hero.

    “Are you…” Ajax looked at the closed of girl in front of him, trying to place his words right, “Do you want us to help?”

    Mirah looked up towards the big man, trying to make sense of what he’d just asked her. He was asking if she wanted his help? How obscure. She shook her head gently, letting the heavy atmosphere fall away. Aaliyah sighed heavily as it did, deciding to change the topic instead of poke her nose into the poor girl’s nightmares. Even she had to have some tact, sometimes.

    “So, instead of all that depressing stuff, we should talk about this mystery sponsor we have breathing down our necks.” The girl took a bite of a cookie that had come with her lunch, crunching away as the rest of the group turned to her, suffering from mood whiplash.

    “Uh… what is there to talk about?” Walter questioned nervously. Aaliyah rolled her eyes at him.

    “What do you mean what is there to talk about? What are we going to do about it?” She waved her arms about emphatically, still holding the half-eaten cookie. Ajax raised an eyebrow at the overreacting girl.

    “What can we even do. I was told that we weren’t going to get any new information from Tracker or Willem.” He said, glancing at Mirah who was quietly chewing on the crust of a sandwich absentmindedly.

    “Who says we need to learn this through those two?” Aaliyah began conspiratorially. “We are literally living right next to the AASAU headquarters!” She said, gesturing off to the left of the building. Where a large, stout building existed. Though it was more than likely to have an Underground of it’s own, possibly even connected to the AASAU’s training facility. Ajax and Mirah had hardly paid attention to the other building, but Walter had been in that building for testing years ago, when he had first gained his link.

    “We can ask them?” Ajax said, confused, his eyebrows scrunching together. Aaliyah looked like she was having a stroke.

    “No, idiot, we can sneak in and take a look around!” She said, as if talking to a toddler.

    Ajax looked at her disbelievingly, then gestured up and down his figure.

    “One; how am I going to sneak in anywhere.” He said, exasperated, “Two; that sounds like an amazing way to get ourselves in a massive amount of trouble. Possibly put in prison.”

    “Uh, I have to agree there, Aaliyah.” Walter said nervously in support for Ajax’s counter argument.

    “So,” Aaliyah started, her face going cold, “You’re totally fine with us having a sponsor that is paying massive money to have us trained by the hands of two very expensive employees, for a reason that might only become obvious after we are out of training and are too deep to be able to dig ourselves back out of the hole?”

    She let the statement hang in the air for a few moments, allowing time for her teammates to process. Mirah looked totally unperturbed, not that she could ever really tell what Mirah was thinking. Walter looked concerned, but was rubbing his thigh in thought all the while, and Ajax just looked stern.

    “Aaliyah,” the giant of a man sighed, “what would we even do with that information? We’ll go all that way to find initials or something as equally unhelpful, risking out necks over bad information that’ll just get us put in prison.” Aaliyah almost growled. They didn’t understand how it worked in the real world, all of them living in their own constructed realities, separated from the dark and horrible reality of what Melbourne really was.

    “Fine,” she huffed, “But I’m warning you. How much do you think they are paying to have us be here? What possible reason would they have to bring a street rat, a farmer, a rich kid and a nobody like me together in a team? All of us Undefineds.” She shook her head disappointedly, standing up from her seat and walking off towards the toilets, leaving the rest of the group to sit in a tense silence.

    Ajax rubbed his hand across his face in consternation. He’d been trying to get the team together recently, and this seemed like one of his only ways to bring them together, but the risks were so high. If they made a stupid decision, they collectively destroyed their futures. Ajax wasn’t sure if he had much of a future, and he could easily enough go back to his little wooden house, but Mirah and Aaliyah had so much more to gain from this than he did.

    “She’s right.” A small voice spoke up. The once voice that Ajax would never have expected to speak up for Aaliyah’s argument. Ajax turned to Mirah, who said nothing more and stood to walk off in the direction of the elevators, probably making her way back to the classroom.

    With a frustrated sigh, Ajax just hoped that he’d be able to somehow mitigate the disaster that was Mirah and Aaliyah agreeing on something.







    Aaliyah returned to the classroom after spending some time in the entirely-too-good public toilets that the training facility had. She opened the door to the lecture room and found it in darkness, the only light coming from a screen that all the members of her group were paying attention to, Tracker having sat down in a row behind the team observing as well.

    Aaliyah bustled into the room, closing the door behind her and sitting down in her seat next to Walter, who was watching the screen with rapt attention.

    “Ivan Vasiliev, founder of Th.Inc. Glad to have you here.” A smiling woman greeted a man who was walking onto stage and sitting down in a provided chair. He was dressed modestly, a blue pullover over top of a dress shirt, though lacking a tie. Though the man himself was almost intimidatingly built. His arms were thick and chest broad, similar to Ajax, though clearly not as tall. His face was hard, a stoic default expression, most likely due to his Russian heritage. He had cropped grey hair and striking blue eyes, nodding towards the interviewer, and then towards the camera, or perhaps who was behind the camera.

    “Glad to be here.” He stated, his voice softer than you’d expect from the hard-faced man. A distinct Russian accent, heavy enough to be noticeable, but restrained with clear vocalization.

    “So, Mr. Vasiliev–” The man shook his head at the presenter.

    “Please, call me Ivan. Formality is stifling.” A pleasant smile opened up his face, changing the stoic, hard-faced man into the uncle you’d go to with your problems. The presenter laughed shyly.

    “Ah, Ivan then.” She regained her composure and continued, “So, Ivan, you and your company have been on the forefront of linktech and scientific advancement as a whole for the good part of two decades, so we thought you’d be the perfect man to ask about the nature of links in general.” Ivan nodded thoughtfully, seemingly considering the statement with an intense seriousness.

    “Quite the task.” He said, grinning softly, though not diminishing his own words. The interviewer returned with a polite smile but continued.

    “Links and their nature have been difficult to get reliable information on even since I was a child, so I had hoped we might shed light on it to help the world understand them better.” Ivan hummed for a moment, looking upwards in thought.

    “Well, Maria,” he said slowly, “there is a good reason there is no reliable information getting out to the public. There is no reliable information.” The interviewer’s face quirked, certainly not expecting that answer.

    “No reliable information? I don’t want to insinuate that you may be holding secrets, Ivan,” the man chuckled, “but you are possibly one of the most powerful men alive, along with being one of the greatest hypercognitives to ever be born. It’s a difficult idea to conceive that you, who reshaped Russia into a technological and scientific powerhouse of a nation, has no reliable information on Linked and their links.” She looked questioningly at the almost unassuming looking man, who seemed to be the leader of Russia, if not in title, then in spirit.

    “Indeed. I have no reliable information for you, Maria. I would be lying to you if I were to say as such, like some other countries do.” He turned to the camera and wiggled an eyebrow, insinuating a country was lying. Maybe China, or maybe America. Probably both.

    “But what I do have for you, is unreliable information. Information that remains consistent among many Linked, but none of it can be confirmed past reasonable doubt, and thus cannot be called reliable.” The man took in a deep breath, a look of pure thought crossing his face before he nodded to himself.

    “The reason Linked are named as such was originally because of an emotion that those who are linked typically feel when they exert themselves to their maximum. They feel as if they are ‘linked’ to something extraneous to themselves. We, and I, believe that Linked have somehow attained the ability to connect to a massive, possibly universal, source of energy that nothing but the most bleeding edge of linktech can detect.”

    Aaliyah felt her eyes widen involuntarily. She’d never heard this before. Everyone had their own opinions on the matter, even those who were non-Linked, but they all seemed stand it, or wishy-washy at best. This was different, more definitive but also far more nebulous. Like all good answers were.

    “Aliens?” The shocked interviewer said, and Ivan let out a short bark of laughter, though still managing to keep it quiet.

    “Maybe, maybe not. We have no way of knowing whether alien lifeforms exist that are advanced enough to create an energy capable of doing this to us. However, I believe that it’s far more likely that we have reached a new stage of human evolution instead.” The interviewer was silent as she tried to process the information she was getting.

    “So, we’ve simply evolved to the point where we are capable of accessing this energy? And it simply develops as reality breaking powers?” She said, almost incredulous if not for the fact that she clearly respected the man she was interviewing.

    “In layman’s terms; yes. Just like beings slowly developed from tiny organisms that were incapable of sentient thought, so did those sentient creatures slowly become sapient, and then thus we have slowly evolved to the point where we are now capable of harnessing a power we have been bathing in for possibly all of our Earth’s history.” He smiled at the interviewer.

    “I do not believe it will be long before the only three-hundred-thousand odd Linked slowly grow in their population size until it will be more uncommon to be non-Linked than Linked.”


    A/N: Hey there guys, Sarius here.

    So, this is a relatively big milestone! Twenty whole chapters up, over three different stories no less. It's a pretty wild feat, in my opinion. It's something I’ve been working towards for months now, and I'm glad that I've finally delivered.

    But that brings me to a little announcement. I'll be opening a Patreon where you could potentially gain advanced access to 30 chapters of each of my stories. At the highest tier, that's a total of 90 chapters covering all of my serialising stories. If the service were available right now, you'd be able to read Chapter 50 of Fixture of Fate and Ribbon!

    It's a pretty big deal, and it's not ready yet, but it will be soon. If you want to get in on this, I urge you towards my little discord server!

    Hope you all have a great day, either way! :)
     
  24. Threadmarks: Chapter 21: Capital H
    Sarius

    Sarius Not too sore, are you?

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    Chapter 21: Capital H

    “Th– that’s a bold claim, Ivan. That everyone will become Linked? I’m not sure how the viewers will react to that statement, given their dubiousness in regard to Linked as a whole. For understandable reasons, I might add.” The interviewer said, now completely thrown for a loop. Mirah could see the silent panic on her face, though it was Aaliyah who understood why the interviewer would react that way. The man’s words could very easily be seen as an argument for a version of Linked eugenics.

    “No, no, nothing like that Maria,” the Russian man continues, chuckling softly, “I believe it will simply happen over time. At current, Linked are appearing in situations in which a disproportionate amount of stress is placed upon the person in question. This means that during puberty, of low-income status, living in bad parts of the city, all of these things are all general shared traits among most Linked. But we are finding outliers more and more.” The Russian man looked into the camera to his left with a thoughtful gaze.

    “Not a few years ago, during times of… particular unrest in Russia, an eighty-five-year-old woman became a Linked. For what reason we cannot determine, but these outliers are only going to continue to appear, more and more often until every age group, every living situation, every ethnicity and nationality have just as much of a chance as anyone else to manifest a link.”

    “Well… thank you for clearing that up for us.” She breathed a sigh of relief, barely visible to the camera, “How about we move on to a less divisive topic?” Ivan smiled warmly, giving her a gracious nod.

    “How about a bit about your own personal history? You are a notoriously private man, Ivan, but you are also one of the most powerful men in the world, so there is an ever-present interest in who you are.” The interviewer probed gently, this was the biggest interview she’d do in her entire lifetime as a reporter or presenter. Ivan was a reclusive man, only having ever done one other interview many years ago, answering questions for less than thirty minutes.

    “Myself, hm. From the fate of the human race and their connection to a universal power to little old me.” his smile widened when he saw the worry cross the interviewer’s face, waving it off kindly, “I may as well. It has come to my attention that very little is known about me, and there is a good explanation for that. I grew up poor, with a father who worked, getting paid under the table, and a mother who could only just earn enough money to make ends meet. After my father died, I inherited his job position. I was uneducated, uninformed, and—worst of all—hopeless.” His warm smile slowly became pained.

    “When my mother died, I lost it all. My life was destroyed, and nothing could be done. No one cared about me. There was no help. By that point I had been an uneducated physical labourer for almost ten years; since I was thirteen.” The man idly rubbed his arms, the scarring and wear and tear on his skin only slightly visible after years of healing.

    “But one morning I woke up and the world was open to me, ideas and concepts that were so far beyond me before came easily and simply. Now, I wasn’t suddenly the greatest mathematician alive, no. I was simply smarter. It took many years of slaving away to the Russian government to learn what I needed to learn—then I decided to make my life, and the lives of so many others, better.” He patted his leg, like a judge hammering their gavel. The interviewer was conflicted. They had just gained more personal information out of the man than they ever had before, without digging into his past with… extra-legal means. However, at the same time, it was all simple vagaries without the real meaty substance that many hoped to find from the man.

    “So, you decided to be a hero?” She asked jumping for a branch and seeing if it bore fruit.

    “No,” he said, his voice stern, “please do not use that terminology. It is misleading. The heroes that once existed when links were first being uncovered are not realistic, and never were realistic. Those behind their masks were as human as any other, and humans given ultimate power, corrupt ultimately.”

    “Even yourself?” She questioned, intending to catch him out on his own fallacy, but he simply nodded.

    “Even myself. As such, I had delegated, handed things to those more suited. I am not a dictator of the course of my company and country. I merely steer towards a direction I see fit.” The definitiveness of his answers was somewhat perturbing to the interviewer. The man spoke his answers and then didn’t seem interested in expanding.

    “Well, thank you Ivan for–”

    The screen suddenly turned off, the light in the lecture room surrounding the team turning on, forcing Mirah to squint against the harsh light suddenly shining in her eyes.

    “That was Ivan Vasiliev only a few years ago.” Tracker explained, taking in the sight of the struggling trainees. “Our links are, as far as we understand, simply a connection to a source of energy we never had access to before. Which may come as a surprise to you.” Mirah, managing to recover from the bright shock of the lights, nodded along with the rest of the group. Tracker laughed at the sight but continued.

    “That’s because that interview was never aired to the public. Potentially dangerous, it was labelled. The man hasn’t done an interview since, and he very rarely releases information on the progress of his science or anything done within Think. So, there is a significant chance that he has a better understanding of links than he did back then, even only a few years ago.” All of this was immensely confusing to Mirah, she didn’t even know about Russia, let alone the Ivan guy. It may as well have been anyone on that screen but, when she had looked to the others, she could see recognition in their eyes. Walter, specifically, seemed excited by the man but now he was almost sullen.

    “We show that video because it is almost required viewing. If you are Linked, there is a good chance you have seen that video. But I’ll put his words into simple terms. You aren’t special, you’re lucky.” Mirah furrowed her brow as she stared with the rest of her group, befuddled by Tracker’s sudden stark language.

    “You aren’t special, you’re lucky.” She repeated heavily, “You are a subset of a subset of people. You are the very few that develop a link, even out of those that were typically under the exact same or similar stressors. Suddenly now, you have been thrust into power. There is no vetting process, no safety. Anyone can get a link and it could be the nicest person in the world, or most detestable person, and there is nothing to stop them from using their link however they please.”

    “B-but, that’s why we created the Enforcers. We had heroes to fight against others with links.” Tracker looked towards Walter, who looked uncomfortable voicing his opinion. Tracker sighed, there is always one.

    “That was simply an action made out of fear. Governments were afraid that if they didn’t get those with links on their side fast enough, they would eventually start breaking up cities into their own little fiefdoms, with the governments of the world forced to acquiesce to the Linked who could demolish armies in a matter of hours. Heroes never existed, and if they did, they were brutally murdered by reality.” Tracker finished darkly.

    A capital ‘H’, Hero. Mirah had heard the term thrown around a few times during her stay here. She looked between Walter and Tracker. Walter was clearly frustrated by Tracker shutting him down, but Tracker herself seemed… sad. Like the adult that had to tell their child that Santa wasn’t real.

    Mirah decided that she’d talk to Walter about heroes after this. He deserved at least that much. She had talked very little to the nervous man, only doing so individually a few times, one being yesterday night.

    “So, what is the moral or the story then, dear teacher?” Aaliyah snarked, seemingly paying little attention to the frustrated man at her side. Tracker grinned, happy to get away from the uncomfortable conversation of heroes.

    “The moral of the story, Aaliyah, is that you can cause just as much damage as you can help with your link. Whether you decide on corporate work, or maybe even leave the country for better horizons, you need to learn to understand the implications of your own powers, not just control them. No matter what you decide on,” she looked pointedly at Walter, “you need to learn this, or you will end up on more trouble than you can dig yourself out of.”

    After this, Tracker shooed Mirah and the rest of the team out of the room, as apparently some other group was going to be using it and Tracker had only booked so many hours in it.

    Ajax decided to go to the training areas to do some exercise, while Mirah, Walter and Aaliyah made their way back up to their rooms. But, as Aaliyah disappeared into her room, Mirah tapped Walter, making him jolt with the unexpected touch.

    “Oh, uh, hey. What’s up?” He asked, being suddenly pulled out of his funk, a holdover from his frustration with Tracker.

    “What are Enforcers?” Mirah asked. She was going to ask about heroes specifically, but Tracker had called them Enforcers and that made Mirah think they were different from each other.

    “Well, they, uh…” He stopped, a grimace on his face as he thought, “Do you just want to come inside?” Gesturing towards the third door in the hallway. Mirah just nodded and waited for him to open his door and usher her in. She sat immediately on the sofa, which was exactly the same in all of their rooms.

    Walter went to his fridge and pulled out a can of something Mirah didn’t recognize and gestured towards her with the can. “Want one?” He asked politely, though he didn’t really seem to think that she’d take him up on the offer.

    The can had lettering on it she couldn’t recognize, only able to assume that was an Asian language. She shook her head, and he closed the door to the fridge and sat on a seat opposite the couch that Mirah sat on.

    “So, Enforcers.” He said, getting himself into the frame of mind, “Basically they were a worldwide thing that almost every country jumped in on in the nineties. America was the first to do it, and everywhere else followed suit shortly after.”

    “They were heroes?” Mirah asked, and he shrugged.

    “Sorta. Tracker was right, governments were scared. Linked started popping up all over the place in, relatively speaking, large numbers. Governments were worried that some would just start taking over areas and stuff.” Walter cracked open the can in his hand as he was speaking.

    “So the governments employed some Linked?”

    “In a way,” the man said, then took a sip out of the can, the carbonation fizzing gently, “but countries mostly took people from their own military and police force for their Enforcers.”

    “What went wrong?” Mirah questioned and Walter frowned painfully.

    “Well, when the population of Linked was still growing back then, there really wasn’t much for them to do. They could solve regular crimes, but soon enough that was outlawed for ‘public safety concerns’,” he scoffed but continued, “so for a long time the Enforcers kinda just sat around and did not much of anything, you know?” She did not know, but she was starting to see where it was going.

    “But, well, that didn’t last all that long. Things started to heat up more and more Linked getting into large scale battles…” Walter scratched the back of his head as he took a sip, “It was only a few years into it that Blast went insane and things just unravelled. After that there was scandal after scandal, then Centerpoint became a thing–”

    “Centerpoint?” Mirah interrupted. Walter’s face quirked oddly in disbelief.

    “You don’t know about Centerpoint? Where have you been living, under a rock?” He laughed to himself, but when he turned to face Mirah, he choked it back down quietly. Mirah was usually hard to read, but her features had significantly hardened in only a moment.

    “I mean, uh,” he stammered clumsily, “Centerpoint is an American ‘Hero’. He can control gravity, so he’s basically untouchable.” Mirah’s expression returned to its usual, slightly gentler, version of stone.

    “Controlling gravity? Does that mean he’s also an Undefined?” Mirah asked, continuing her questioning.

    “Sorta. I don’t think anyone knows the extent of his abilities. All the Linked forums have been theorising on it for years. But probably, just he’s too powerful for it to matter.”

    A man that powerful, to control gravity itself? That sounded… horrifying to Mirah. How could you possibly reconcile with someone that powerful? Someone who could crush anyone and anything under their own weight with his link with barely a thought.

    Mirah stood from her spot on the couch, “Thank you. I’m going to go bed.” She told the man quickly, before walking out of the room without another word, perplexed by the thought of heroes and this Centerpoint.

    “Uh, hey, no pro–” Walter began, calling after the rapidly retreating girl, but was cut off when his door closed behind her, “–lem.” He sighed, a little disheartened at just how… hollow the conversation was. To Walter, Mirah almost seemed like she had no personality at all, just a robot. If he hadn’t heard those screams last night, he’d have never guessed she was even capable of emotion that strong.

    “Hah, well. She’s certainly interesting.”
     
  25. Threadmarks: Chapter 22: Exploding Man
    Sarius

    Sarius Not too sore, are you?

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    Chapter 22: Exploding Man

    Mirah had lied to Walter, inadvertently. She had definitely tried to sleep, tossing and turning for two hours without any luck in drifting away into the rest she knew that she desperately needed. Regardless of how brutally tired she had been during the day, the tiredness seemed to evaporate in the night.

    Usually Mirah was content to wait for sleep to come, but her mind had been buzzing with thought ever since her Remembrance. It also hadn’t helped that she’d taken part in no less than three conversations that contorted her worldview further into a pretzel than it already had been.

    Well, four if you counted the being in the Remembrance.

    The general information that she had learned from Tracker was certainly helpful and managed to bring a lot of things to light about the world. Corporations were so far removed from Mirah’s reality that she hadn’t considered any demand for Linked they might have, or what that’d look like.

    The conversation with the rest of the team about their backer was nothing knew, though breaking into the AASAU HQ to steal information was a massive step that would be a hard pill to swallow, Mirah personally had to take Aaliyah’s side on it. Mirah held her own sovereignty above all else, and she wouldn’t allow herself to fall under the thumb of someone she knew nothing about.

    But what had really stayed in her head, was the conversation with Walter about the Enforcers and Centerpoint. It was short and bland, but it started to sprout questions inside of Mirah’s mind.

    She had begun to realise that her understanding of the world was limited to that little street in the broken districts of Melbourne, and it was starting to severely limit her. There were too many implications that Mirah couldn’t parse.

    One of them, specifically, was Blast and Suicide.

    Mirah got up from her bed and clicked the lights on. After struggling with the bright lights for a minute or two, her eyes finally adjusted sufficiently and she made her way to a corner of her bedroom that held a small desk, with paper, pens and other bits and pieces that you might need.

    This had, of course, been all untouched by Mirah in the time she had stayed in the room. Though there was a reason she was at this desk after all. On its wooden surface, there laid a small piece of laminated paper which Mirah had read on the day of her arrival, but never found much need for it.

    Welcome, Trainee. Inside this desk is an up-to-date model of a linktech laptop that you are free to use. It had been configured for you ahead of time, simply open the lid of the laptop and let the machine guide you through the process. For technical help please contact administration.

    Mirah shoved the laminated card to the side of the desk and gently opened the drawer under the wooden surface, revealing a sleek, black thing. Mirah handled it hesitantly, never having interacted with technology any more complicated than the touch screen menu in the cafeteria.

    It was entirely label-less, with only faint markings on the ports running down each side of the machine. Mirah felt a slight lip on one of the long sides of the device and gently pried it open in her hands like you would a book.

    Immediately the screen that had been revealed lit up, almost making Mirah drop it in surprise. There was no logo to announce the name of the laptop or its manufacturers, but text started to appear on the screen, prompting Mirah towards certain actions. In what it called a ‘setup phase’.

    It took five or ten minutes to get to the point where Mirah was confronted with the daunting task of trying to navigate a computer. She looked at the pleasant picture of snowy mountain ranges that she had picked as her background, paralysed with indecision.

    After she had finally decided to simply try to click on each of the seven icons on the screen, she managed to find what she was looking for.

    Whiz, a popular internet browser, appeared on her screen, proudly displaying it’s default page—lording its benefits and features that only served to confuse Mirah. That was, until it detected that Mirah had stopped interacting with the application and simply made a textbox appear.

    Looking for something? Ask Whiz!

    An arrow appeared that gently curved upwards towards a long, glowing bar at the top of the screen. Mirah hesitantly tapped the long bar with her finger and suddenly the collection of lettered buttons that Mirah had been hoping she could ignore lit up brightly.

    The little blinking cursor in the search bar almost taunted her with the intimidation that the keyboard brought. It took Mirah almost a minute to find the first letter that she wanted on the keyboard, an ‘S’, and she looked up hopefully towards Whiz and found nothing much had changed.

    It was torture to Mirah and took almost five whole minutes to figure out how to simply write ‘Suicide and Blast’, but she had done it. With a click of the ‘go’ button next to the search bar, the screen rapidly changed.

    The introductory page had been reformatted into a long list of confusing lines of text, but something stood out to Mirah. At the very top of the page there was a large, coloured box that jumped out at her, a warning red.

    Be advised, Whiz has flagged the actions of Suicide as potentially mentally harmful. Whiz has decided to place a content warning on Suicide, his history and his crimes. If you feel you are equipped to know more, Whiz has compiled a comprehensive, factual article here.

    Mirah’s hand reached out to tap the link but stopped just short of actually doing it. The content warning was without the flair or the design that Whiz had displayed on their landing page. No pretty colours or arrows to lead you in the right direction, just a simple textbox with a link to an article.

    Mirah swallowed a hint of nervousness as she tapped the link, committing herself to the act.







    Jeffery Devlin Hughes, known as Blast in his time with the Enforcers from 1989 to 1994, was one of the first Linked (formerly known as powered) to be inducted to America’s Enforcers at age 27. Later in life known as Suicide.

    Hughes’ link manifested as the ability to absorb any significant source of energy, storing it to then be released at a later date as an explosion that could be manipulated on a rudimentary level and would also not hurt himself. It was theorised that Hughes had the capability to absorb significant kinetic energy, allowing him to combat Sludge in September 1989, though not able to detain the shapeshifter.

    Hughes was, as a result of his link and lack of perfect control, constantly a point of media interest. The most common complaints were of the brutality that Hughes was capable of, many of his fights with criminal Linked causing high amounts of environmental damage, including the crippling of Linked serial killer, Red Mask in March 1990. In an interview after that incident, Hughes defended his crippling of Red Mask, stating that “[Red Mask] would have escaped and killed another thirty people that night if I had let him go in the fear that I could seriously hurt him.”

    The morality of the situation was widely debated, though it came to an end when the Enforcers decided to put Hughes through ‘retraining’ in an effort to abate the outrage. Hughes was removed from the field for a year. Whenever other Enforcers were asked about his absence, no clear answer was given.

    It is reported that, while in this period of ‘retraining’, Hughes was mentally and physically abused by other Enforcers and their staff. Hughes’ ex-wife, Gina Larret, later corroborated this saying that, “he would come home at night in a state of depression and anxiety.” Larret went on to say that his mental state worsened throughout the year and that Hughes would ‘shut down’ at any mention of the Enforcers. She reportedly pleaded with Hughes to retire from the Enforcers multiple times but was only ever answered with; “I can’t.”

    Hughes was reintroduced to the public in early 1991, focusing on his ability to control his explosive discharges to a much greater degree. Though much of the debate around Hughes resurfaced, he quickly became one of the most effective members of the Enforcers, even overshadowing Centerpoint’s criminal Linked arrests.

    However, despite the success of Hughes’ reintroduction, he quickly became jaded and emotionally closed off from those around him, including his first daughter. Larret, after finding Hughes inebriated one night, questioned him. Hughes confessed that the American Government and Enforcers leadership were covering up the fact that Hughes had to let criminal Linked escape from his capture under fear of injuring them and facing punishment, regardless of the risk to the public.

    Between 1991 to 1993, Hughes had become loved as a public figure and Enforcer, but Larret revealed that he had become obsessed with counting those that had died due to his forced inaction. After the birth of his second child, Hughes’ mental state continued to decline, falling into the abuse of alcohol. According to Larret, there was never any abuse towards her or their children.

    However, the marriage fell apart due to Hughes’ emotional disconnection from Larret and his children. The year following was marked by a further decline in Hughes’ mental state, likely due to increased alcoholism.

    It was during the start of 1994 that Hughes had a chance encounter with Grand, the leader of Splinter, what was the most powerful collection of criminal Linked serial killers in the early 90’s. At this point Grand had killed an estimated 3,400 people. It was likely that he had a hand in upwards of ten times more than that estimation.

    Hughes, seeing that the fight would not end with the capture of Grand, decided to ignore orders to retreat and instead released an explosion inside of the Texas nightclub they were fighting in. This resulted in the death of Grand and a 19-year-old onlooker, Mateo Baker.

    Although Mateo was not the first accidental death in the course of a fight between Linked, the media crucified the Enforcer for the accident. It has come to light in 2010, that many accidental deaths were swept under the rug by payouts and legal action by Enforcer leadership and American government officials.

    Hughes was ‘excommunicated’ from the Enforcers on May 12th, 1994, only a week after the incident, and was sent to the now non-existent Nebraska Powered Special Containment Facility. He was held in solitary confinement for eight months.

    In an exposé written by respected Linked journalist, Adam Atkinson, it was revealed that those detained at the NPSCF were tortured constantly by the guards, and containment supervisor Mark Seno. Hughes was beaten and physically tortured to such an extent that he had become seriously disfigured, scarring across his body indicated that he was whipped and cut with blades.

    After eight months of torture, Hughes had collected energy through access to a wire, running to the high security door of his cell. With this energy, he was able to destroy the material around the hinges of his cell door and slip through the hole.

    In his escape, Hughes was almost captured by an armoured taskforce sent to restrain him but was able to absorb the energy of any bullets and other physical sources of energy to escape.

    Hughes disappeared from the detection of authorities for three weeks but was found by a hypercognitive detective, Eyespy, working with the Washington Police Department. Hughes had been syphoning off of the Grand Coulee hydropower facility, absorbing astronomical amounts of power.

    All thirty-seven people initially sent to investigate Hughes were killed.

    Linked, such as the Enforcer’s own Centerpoint, were sent to detain Hughes, with orders to kill if necessary. However, without knowledge of what Hughes planned, they were incapable of stopping him in time.

    It was the next day, February 19th, 1995, that Hughes walked into the Pennsylvania Beaver Stadium in the middle of a Linked sporting event.

    After briefly addressing the crowd, Jeffery Devlin Hughes instantly killed 103,498 people. This was the birth of Suicide, and the death of the Enforcers as we knew them.







    The article didn’t stop there. There were pages upon pages of information on how he did what he did. Every failure that lead up to the creation of the monster know as Suicide. Every crime that Suicide committed. In the end, the total death count from that incident was just over one-hundred and twenty thousand people.

    Mirah’s body was consumed by cold sweats, a panic so surreal that you couldn’t truly believe it. She went through every article she could get her hands on. Whiz had written their article with a goal of presenting the truth of the situation, why it happened and what happened afterwards, but other articles weren’t so kind.

    The hate and terror seeped from those articles, from the articles that were written mere moments after the incident, to ones written after Suicide was killed, it was all a mire of terror for Mirah.

    Hours passed, searching and reading, scraping the information out of each morsel that she came across. When she found the video. She clicked on it, not expecting to see what she was going to see. A video that had been viewed millions of times.

    The video.

    The man walked to the centre of the football field without a care for the mass of Linked that surrounded him on the field. The players were confused, unsure what to do about the sudden intruder. A sudden booming voice, somehow audible from where the camera was placed.

    Then the brightness, and nothing.

    That night, Mirah had nightmares of an exploding man.


    A/N: This was... hard to write, for a few reasons.

    Creating horrors is a task that is part sickening and part interesting.

    I hope you enjoyed
     
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  26. Threadmarks: Chapter 23: Nightmares
    Sarius

    Sarius Not too sore, are you?

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    Chapter 23: Nightmares

    “I dunno Walt,” the tall man said, running a hand through his hair, “I gave The Silver Goddess: Reyah a go, but it’s just so slow. Doesn’t feel like anything is happening.” Walter scoffed indignantly as he left his dirty plates behind on the cafeteria table, scrabbling to catch up to Ajax’s long strides.

    “Nah man! I know that it seems really slow now, but I swear to God that it’s worth it. Just stick around till issue twenty! Things pick up so quick, and then they form a team and everything!” Ajax turned a questioning eye towards the exuberance of the much smaller man.

    “Still, the art is super rough. I keep seeing the art for newer comics in the ads. Is there a newer comic you could recommend instead?”

    “Wait, you’re reading the original?” Walter winced, “I guess I forgot to link you the Deified edition…”

    Mirah and Aaliyah watched to two boys making their way towards the elevator, Ajax lending half an ear to the excitable Walter.

    “God, he never shuts up about that comic book stuff.” Aaliyah muttered, downing the last quarter cup of orange juice and pulling herself up from her spot at the table, making to follow the path the boys had cut through the mess of the breakfast rush.

    Aaliyah didn’t wait for Mirah to follow, leaving the girl to make her own way over to the elevator. Mirah, while usually tolerant of Walter’s infatuation with all things comic book and hero-centric, was in absolutely no mood to hear about how ‘cool’ Filmore Sparks’ new console game was.

    No. Mirah had just learned of the single most horrifying fraction of a second in Linked history. The killer of heroism itself.

    Mirah deliberately dawdled, letting herself fall behind Aaliyah’s graceful saunter. She waited a moment, watching the elevator doors close on the group then waited only a few seconds before she made her own way towards the elevator.

    Without the natural imposing stature of Ajax to cut through the crowd, Mirah was left to be jostled around by the rowdy groups, jumping from their tables excitedly and pulling out the theatrics for their friends.

    One boy with bright red hair pushed his chair out just as Mirah moved behind him, making her stumble and fall towards the ground.

    That was before she was swept up all in one smooth motion, strong arms closing around her body. Then, just as suddenly as they had enclosed her, they set her standing and pulled away.

    Mirah turned toward the bearer of those arms and found the same redheaded boy who had knocked her over, wearing an apologetic grin. Confused, Mirah turned towards where the boy had been sitting only moments before—and found the boy sitting there, apologetic worry on his face, flushing pink across his pale features.

    “Hey, I’m really sor–” He began, but Mirah didn’t let him finish. She slipped away between two other trainees, standing between the tables and chatting.

    “Good going, Casanova.” Another voice jibed as Mirah slipped away towards the elevator.








    “Mirah.” Willem greeted as Mirah closed the door to the team’s training area, his voice quiet but clear. Mirah walked towards the trainer’s voice, and found him in the back of the room, where he sat on one of the fighting mats opposite an unamused Aaliyah. Mirah couldn’t help but quirk an eyebrow.

    “I’ve set the others up with their tasks for the day. Come with me.” The short man stood from his spot on the mat and started to walk down an aisle of training equipment against the leftmost wall. “You stay right there, Aaliyah. I’ll be back in a moment.”

    There was a scowl of displeasure and frustration from the blonde girl, flopping back onto the mat exaggeratedly as Mirah passed by, following the stout trainer into the maze of unique equipment.

    As she was guided down the aisle, she looked towards the right side of the room and saw that the Training Room was in use. She couldn’t quite make out what was on the surveillance screens before her shoulder bumped into something. Looking down, she saw a stoic Willem with hand outstretched, pushing against her shoulder.

    “Distracted?” He asked as he stared at the scarred girl opposite him. Mirah paused hesitantly for a moment before nodding.

    Willem levelled a thoughtful gaze at the Mirah. It was a neutral gaze, holding no significant amount of any specific emotion. Willem was prone to the action, and Mirah had never found the thoughtful gaze uncomfortable, so she was content in sharing a quiet moment with the man.

    “I see. Maybe you should go visit Tracker after training.” With that, Willem seemed satisfied. He turned towards a big board that stood maybe a meter away from the stone wall behind it. The board was a square, about two by two meters. Spaced in a grid pattern along its matte black surface were protruding buttons, slightly clear and rounded. One button that rested in the centre of the board glowed a faint red.

    “This is a precog training test. Have you seen one before?”

    “No.” Mirah said, prompting the man to continue as she stared quizzically at the board.

    “This button in the centre starts the test.” Willem pressed the button and the board lit up, two numbers appearing just above the previously red button, which now glowed green. It currently stated ‘1/10’.

    “Now, you can select the difficulty,” Willem tapped the two buttons just to the side of the middle button, raising the number, and then lowering it back to one, “But we will use the lowest for now.” He pressed the middle button and the whole board began to gently breathe with a blue colour, a mechanical voice counting down from ten.

    “Your task will be to hit these buttons as quickly as you can, or before they turn on at all.” He explained as the timer hit zero. One of the buttons in the far-left corner of the board lit up in red, and Willem reached out at tapped it, making it go clear once again.

    “In the centre of the board, it’ll tell you how quickly you hit it.” He gestured to a number that said ‘1429ms’. Mirah opened her mouth to ask what ‘ms’ meant, but the display re-ordered itself into ‘1.429sec’, answering her question.

    “You’ll need to use your precognitive ability to predict which button will light up. You aren’t as powerful a precog as some, so I doubt that you’ll be able to hit one before it turns on, so I’ll set a goal for you to reach for.” Willem ignored the lights that were turning on while he talked and pressed the middle button twice in quick succession, making the board go dark. He tapped the button, set it to the maximum difficulty of ten, and started the countdown.

    Willem motioned gently for Mirah to move back from the board, standing a meter behind the stout man in front of the much larger board. It slowly counted down, each number it announced made the board briefly flash red. With a simple ‘Start!’, buttons began to turn on faster than Mirah could even think.

    Yet, as soon as the buttons flashed brightly, they turned back to their dull, clear colour. Mirah recoiled, scrunching her eyes together and opening them again, focussing them on the man in front of her.

    Willem stood almost entirely still, his knees slightly bent, and his upper body shifting only slightly every few moments, yet his arms were a blur. Every moment the short man’s hands flashed out with blinding speed, hitting the button with a tactile click, before moving on to the next a mere moment later.

    As Mirah observed the test for a whole minute, dumbstruck by the speed of the trainer, she noticed something. He was consistent. Perfectly consistent, in fact. The number in the middle of the board, despite it updating a few times a second, always stayed at the same number.

    ‘50ms’

    That was… obscenely fast. Far faster than anything Mirah could naturally accomplish.

    With one last press of a button, the board’s red died down to a mute green, displaying a plethora of statistics. Accuracy, buttons hit, missed buttons, mistakes, average reaction time, and more. The average reaction time graph was a solid line, unbroken and unwavering from that exact ‘50ms’ mark.

    “That is your goal. Fifty milliseconds. If you can develop your precognitive ability to where you can beat this, I’ll consider you acceptably proficient with short term precognition.” He turned to Mirah and flashed a small grin before turning to leave Mirah to her training.

    “What if I can hit a button before it lights up?” She asked, to the trainer’s surprisingly wide back. It made the man pause and turn an eye towards his trainee.

    “Well.” He punctuated the word with a lifted eyebrow, “That would be very impressive.”

    Mirah turned back to the board and stared at the graph pensively. Mirah knew nothing about what was achievable as a normal human, but that clearly wasn’t. Though she realised that it was less a display of pure speed, and far more one of precision.

    He could go faster than that.

    Mirah rubbed at the bridge of her nose and sighed heavily, slumping a little at the task ahead of her. She let her mind rest for minute before taking a deep breath and pressing the middle button, opening her mind to the whispers.

    And set the difficulty to one.








    If Mirah had thought herself exhausted before, she was wrong. So very, very wrong.

    Her muscles ached in places she didn’t even think muscles existed. It wasn’t even just her arms, it was her legs too. She had seen Willem barely move his body, keeping himself centred to the board, but Mirah was far from achieving the same. She had been jumping at the buttons in the corners, putting herself further and further off centre until she had to put herself back in position, ignoring the flashing buttons.

    It was frustrating, tiring and embarrassing. She had trained for hours, pushing herself far beyond how she had before. Before, she had just followed Willem’s instructions, mindlessly running around the track in the main training area.

    This time, however, she found herself doing test after test pushing for just a little more speed, a little more accuracy. After hundreds of tests, she realised that Willem had long since left the private training area, gone to attend other duties, she supposed. Though, it didn’t seem that any others in her groups had left either, other than Aaliyah. She had found Ajax sitting on a chair in a corner, squeezing a metal ball. Which meant the Training Room was occupied by Walter. All she could see on the surveillance displays was a blur of fire, blinding the cameras to any real detail.

    It seems like everyone was working hard, except maybe Aaliyah.

    Mirah stripped out of her clothes quickly, throwing them in a pile on her living room floor, then walking into her shower and turning it on. Mirah didn’t mind the shock of cold water against her warm brown skin, sprouting goosebumps across her arms and legs.

    Though, the cold quickly became a steaming heat, and the fan above her automatically turned on to accommodate. For a while, Mirah stood under the showerhead, allowing the hot water run over her face and through her hair. She could feel a small amount of that water finding its way into her mouth through the split in her lip she could never quite pull closed.

    After a minute or two of scrubbing her body and hair with an all-in-one shower gel, she turned the shower off and dried herself with a nearby towel. She was in the middle of furiously drying her hair when something caught her eye. She looked up from underneath the towel to see herself staring back.

    Mirah was stunned as she stared at herself in the mirror, letting the towel drop from her hands.

    It hadn’t occurred to Mirah before this moment, but she realised that she’d never intentionally looked in a mirror, or inspected herself for many, many years. In fact, the person that stared back at her from the mirror almost seemed… false to her.

    So much had changed about herself, even if it had only been a few weeks since arriving here. Her skin, which had been a pale and deathly was now a pleasant light brown. Her dark brown hair, which she had kept cropped close to her head with a pair of blunt children’s scissors, was only slightly longer now, but she could see her hair naturally curl at its ends ever so slightly.

    Her eyes burnt with a brilliant green, an intensity to them she hadn’t even expected of herself. Her eyelashes were full and thick, along with her eyebrows which were just as heavy. Her face was small and rounded now from the weight she’d put on, though her somewhat high cheekbones helped. Her nose was prominent on her face, but any attention it might’ve garnered was pulled below it.

    Her lips.

    Mirah’s hand raised to touch them, running her fingers over the long-healed scar she’d left with that piece of metal so many years ago. The permanent opening in her mouth showed a glimpse of yellowed teeth.

    Mirah grimaced, not letting herself dwell on the scar, and looking downwards instead.

    Her body had… improved. Before it had been an emaciated mess, all skin and bone with barely any fat. But now she could see in the contours of her own body that she was starting to fill out. It wasn’t just fat either, but muscle as well. Her breasts, which were flabs of practically nothing, had begun to fill into small handfuls on her chest. The same could be said for her hips, butt and legs, which were all filling into a pleasant contour.

    It mesmerised Mirah, as she stared at this thing that had emerged from her body, so radically different from how she knew herself to be.

    It was minutes later when she tore herself from the mirror, staring with distrust at the girl in her mirror. She quickly threw on a set of sleep wear, made her way into her bedroom, turned off the lights and wrapped herself with the thick doona and waited for sleep to come.

    But she could hear something. It was a small clicking noise that could have been from anything.

    But it kept her awake.

    Her moments passed in those little clicks, frequent but irregular in both loudness and timing. Soon, the clicking fell to the back of Mirah’s mind and it was something far darker that replaced it. It was something that had been waiting all day to let itself be known, she realised. It started in her chest, a slight unease that wasn’t severe, but was unshakable.

    However, the more Mirah tried to ignore the unease, it dipped lower and lower, deeper down inside of her. She realised that she wasn’t in control anymore, that no matter what she did that feeling fell deeper into the dark pit of her stomach. Her eyes were open wide now, but she wasn’t looking at anything, just feeling the darkness inside of her stomach as it twisted and writhed.

    She curled herself into ball, trying to protect herself like she had for so many years, but it wasn’t enough. She was paralysed by it, whatever lurked deep inside. The pain inside her stomach was terrible, worse than the cramps from her heaviest blood weeks, where she had to desperately keep herself clean with the paper napkins and wax paper wrapping she had found in a bin.

    It was so much worse. Because the bleeding would eventually stop, but this dark pit seemed infinite.

    She was clenching every muscle in her body, she realised. Her jaw was grinding her teeth together, making a rushing sound in her ears, her arms and legs were shaking from the force.

    Then, all at once, she saw them.

    An emaciated woman slumped against the wall, surrounded with trash and filth, eyes rolled into the back of her head, limbs pulled at odd angles and quivering as she drooled on herself while a monster preyed on her daughter next to her. The sharp edge as it sliced through her skin and scratched against the bone. The fear as a predator stalked past her spot in the trash, and terrifying scramble of movement the moment they found their prey.

    The deranged smile of a broken man as he faced a crowd, horror spewing from his lips.Then the pure white of death.

    At the cost of it all.”

    Fear.

    She was so afraid. Afraid of the world and everything in it, of everyone, even the redheaded boy who had helped her. Even Ajax and Aaliyah and Walter and Willem. Of the boys in the cafeteria that stare at her and her group, or the boys in the gangs. Everyone.

    Except two.

    There was a sound. A slight shuffling of feet. It was rooms away, coming from her front door, but she could hear it. Her mind soaked it in, the shuffle of slippers on carpet. Then a knock.

    Once. Twice. It was two simple raps, followed by a long pause. Then a third. A fourth.

    Silence.

    The turn of a key, the shuffling through the door and it closing behind them. Mirah was paralysed, she couldn’t move but the horror was palpable, the adrenalin coursing through her veins like no exercise could compare to. The flick of a light switch. She could hear the shuffles drawing nearer to her bedroom. Then silence.

    Her sweat drenched her clothes, but she didn’t dare move, not a muscle, not a hair.

    Then the door opened, shining a soft light into the room that was harsh in the darkness. Mirah’s everything clenched hard, her eyes screwing shut, not willing to comprehend—

    “Mirah?” A tired voice spoke from the doorway. Recognition called to Mirah in the back of her mind, but it was shut out, killed by the fear. The shuffling moved right by Mirah’s bedside, and two items were placed onto the bedside table right near her head.

    “Mirah, it’s me. Tracker.” The gentle voice spoke again. This time, Mirah dared to open an eye to see her. It was indeed Tracker, dressed in a thin nightshirt, boxer briefs and a fluffy robe which barely protected her from the cool in her crouching position.

    “Tracker?” Mirah whispered, though she didn’t realise she had. Her voice was desperate, almost pleading. Tracker winced but pulled a smile onto her face.

    “Hey, sweetie.” Though her voice wavered, she managed to hold it strong. Tracker turned to the bedside table and grabbed something. “Here, it seems you have a friend.”

    Tracker held out a small slip of semi-translucent paper out to Mirah who, with no shortage of caution, reached out and took it with a shaking hand.

    I’ve sent help, Mirah. And hot chocolates –Chef


    A/N: Well, here we are! Time for my first proper Patreon plug!

    Have you ever wanted more chapters? Have you ever wanted way more chapters? Well, if you go on over to my Patreon, then you’ll be able to find up to 30 chapters of the story you’re currently reading!

    Sounds too good to be true? But wait, there’s more!

    For every tier you buy, you gain access to the same number of chapters on all of my other stories! That’s right! You can get access to a grand total of 90 whole chapters, right now!

    Every Patron will have their name etched into the footnote of every chapter from now till 50 days from now! So, get in fast folks, while stocks last!



    Was that infomercial enough for you? Anyways, if you enjoy, and feel like throwing a few bucks my way, have at it. I’ll appreciate you for it
     
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  27. Threadmarks: Chapter 24: Big Number
    Sarius

    Sarius Not too sore, are you?

    Joined:
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    Chapter 24: Big Number

    Tracker’s alarm made that hateful, infuriating noise—forcing her from the land of dreamless sleep.

    She dragged herself from her bed, knowing full well that if she allowed herself to hit snooze—or god forbid, turn it off—she’d simply fall right back to sleep. Surprisingly, the journey from laying in her bed to laying on her bedroom floor was easier than usual.

    She certainly hadn’t gotten a good night’s rest. Maybe a few hours, if she was feeling optimistic. She chewed on the thought as she forced herself from her floor and made her way through her routine on autopilot. Showering, skincare and mouthcare, coffee.

    Before long she was wide awake, thanks in no small part to the linktech coffee machine she bowed at the feet of. Throughout her routine, Tracker had come up with a pet theory on why she didn’t feel quite so much like a wraith, chained to the mortal plane as torture.

    She wasn’t using her link all that often, lately. Sure, she’d used it when Mirah was having a Remembrance, more for confirmation than anything, but other than that she’d done without. Tracker had always had the suspicion that her link wasn’t necessarily the radar she was able to see—if she focused on that spot in the back of her mind. Instead, she thinks that her link is the collection of positional information of Linked around her, including some general differentiating information like ‘complexity’ and ‘power’ as she’d named them.

    It seems like a semantical difference, and maybe it was. But Tracker had a sneaking suspicion that her link had altered her brain to be able to parse this information, like some hypercognitives. There had been a few examples where someone had recovered a hypercognitive’s brain and found that it was massively restructured to quite literally be far more evolved than the regular human brain.

    It wasn’t like that for every hypercognitive, or even info Linked. Each link has its own quirks and differences, some more bizarre than others. Either way, Tracker suspects that her brain was similarly restructured to handle the sort of information that her link throws at her, and due to the complexity of that data her brain was made more ‘power efficient’ so to speak. So, without using her link often, less energy is consumed and less sleep is needed.

    ‘Cause, to put it bluntly, there is no way that Tracker could have survived on as little sleep as she did—over as long a period as she had—if something close to this wasn’t true. Though, it didn’t stop her body from hating her in the mornings.

    Tracker left her room, her stride as graceful and purposeful as it always was. Manufactured to be that way, of course, but it was the walk that got her into places she wasn’t meant to be in. No-one stopped someone who looked so perfectly comfortable being where they were.

    In fact, Tracker was going to go into someplace she wasn’t meant to today.

    Tracker slowed her walk as she passed by room two, Mirah’s room. She had been up with the extremely anxious girl for hours the night before. Tracker shook her head, pushing back the instinct to go in and check on her. She had things to do.

    She strode towards the elevator and punched in the cafeteria floor.

    Mirah was difficult for Tracker to handle. Not that Tracker was exactly a people person by nature, or a trained therapist or psychologist—but it didn’t take much to see that the girl was traumatized to hell and back.

    Last night, Mirah had talked to her more than Tracker had heard her talk before, and almost surely more than Mirah had in years. Tracker had encouraged this as best she could, of course. For whatever reason, Mirah seemed to feel comfortable around her. While it was uncomfortable to be subject to the scattered, inconsistent and sometimes downright incoherent thoughts of someone as wounded as Mirah, Tracker found herself unable to separate emotionally from the situation.

    It wasn’t as if she hadn’t done so before. She’d been a spy on multiple occasions, fucking over people who had trusted her. She’d done work for people she knew weren’t good people, knowing that her actions were contributing to a ghastly tapestry of their creation, just to see a bigger number in her bank account. She’d been a lot younger back then, and she’d never forgive herself for those years of ‘enlightened’ neutrality.

    As if there is such thing as neutrality in a world like this.

    Tracker strode out of the elevator, her sights set on the other end of the cafeteria, a set of white, handle-less double doors next to a long service window with a clean metal counter. It was the very early morning, and there was likely no-one even awake, beside those who had stayed up from the night before, training their little hearts out like good trainees.

    Within moments she reached the double doors and pushed her way in and walking around a corner. She found the kitchen mostly empty, not entirely empty, otherwise she wouldn’t be here before any reasonable person was awake.

    “Well, hello there, lover boy.” Tracker said in the smarmiest voice she could muster without sounding cartoonish. In the far corner of the room, there was a single man whose head rose from his workstation to look towards her.

    Tracker hadn’t expected a chef—no, the Chef—to be so… strikingly beautiful. She wasn’t sure what she had expected, but a man so pretty that she’d believe he was a woman, if he weren’t so tall? Not on the list, no.

    The man put down his knife, quickly washed his hands, and walked over towards Tracker with a confused look on his face. As he drew nearer, the man was only confirmed to be even more gorgeous than she had thought.

    His face was long, but angled, making his features androgenous by nature—his pale, almost porcelain skin only complementing his facial structure further. His inky dark hair was glistening with a tasteful amount of natural oil, the hair pulled back perfectly without a loose strand. Then, as the man turned back towards his kitchen, she got a look at the intricate bun that it was pulled into.

    Tracker had always liked long hair, on herself and on men, but the man before her put anything she could naturally grow to shame. If he let it out of that ludicrously complex bun—complete with braids strategically placed to look like a blooming flower—she had no doubt that it would be longer than, or as long as she was tall.

    As the celestially beautiful man came to stand directly in front of her, she had to look up to meet his eye. He wasn’t as tall as Ajax, thankfully, but was only down a few inches from the gigantic Greek mountain. Though, Chef gave the distinct illusion of towering height with being so thinly built, despite the clear definition on his pale arms as he stood in front of her.

    Chef, who had been standing in front of the mixed Indian-Caucasian lady for almost a full twenty seconds, raised a dark eyebrow questioningly. Tracker pulled herself from her mind and reconstructed her passive guise before continuing.

    “You are Chef, correct?” She asked uselessly, desperately trying to rebuild the script of what she was going to say in her mind. The man nodded hesitantly; eyebrow still raised—regarding the intruding woman with a mild wariness.

    “Then you must know out mutual friend, Mirah?” The tall, willowy man jolted with surprise, his eyebrows shooting upwards towards his hairline. He quickly turned to a nearby bench and grabbed a notepad and pen, his hands a blur across the paper, before he turned back to Tracker, the notepad held directly in front of her face.

    How is she? Is she okay?

    She looked at the notepad oddly, confused why he’d write before talking.

    “I was with her for a few hours after that, talking with her. I don’t think she’s okay, but she’s surviving.” The man let out a heavy breath, one so pronounced that it was almost comical. She held back the giggle, asking a question instead.

    “Why’d you write on the notepad?” She asked, dumbly, before she quickly amended, “If you don’t mind me asking.” The man looked at her, and with a look of realisation on his face, crossed his index fingers over his elegantly thin lips.

    Chef was mute. With a dawning realisation and a hot shame, Tracker stammered out an apology, but the captivating man just smiled and waved a hand dismissively at her. Then it hit her. She almost smacked herself for how dumb she was being.

    “Do you know Auslan?” She asked tentatively. The mute chef turned to her, surprised.

    With a simple hand sign, he asked; ‘Do you?’

    “Really poorly.” Tracker pulled her mind back to years ago, when she had a friend in high school who tried to teach her, though she never got close to fluency.

    She tried to sign; ‘I sign badly.’ His face lit up into a full smile, his perfect white teeth showing just behind his light pink lips. Tracker readied herself to ask Chef more about how he knew about Mirah’s mental state, and his link, and even why he’d singled her out to help Mirah, but the double doors to the kitchen opened just behind them.

    “Hey Chef!” The boisterous voice called, before stopping, “Who’s this?” She turned to see a much shorter Asian man, his arms far too long for his height, hanging just below his knees.

    Chef turned to the man and let out a peal of rapid-fire signs, so fast that Tracker could barely catch them. By the time he was done with the elaborate finger work, she’d lost what the first few had said at all. The Asian man looked Tracker up and down suspiciously, before shrugging nonchalantly and sauntering into the kitchen.

    “Eh, fair enough.”

    Tracker turned to Chef with concern but was met with a wry grin on the comely man’s face. He sent a look down towards his hands, signalling her to pay attention to them and she hastily obliged. He signed the sentence slowly and methodically, making sure each and every action was visible and understandable for Tracker’s untrained eye.

    Talk about this, not now. Breakfast rush I start prep for. Us talk, different time?”

    Tracker scrunched her face in concentration as she translated the man’s signing into mentally understandable sentences. As she chewed her lip, she finally decoded it within her mind and looked up to reply, seeing the enthrallingly beautiful man staring at her with a small, sly grin. She flushed with embarrassment. He turned to pick up the notepad.

    “Uh, yes! I would like to talk to you. Whenever you’re free?” She said, stumbling over herself to display that she did understand him.

    The tall man turned back to her with a big smile but stopped for a moment, searching his mind.

    Tomorrow after eleven?” Tracker understood this instantly and nodded.

    “See you then!” She said, before turning on her heel and marching woodenly out of the double doors, continuing her march towards the elevators, ignoring the smattering of students now appearing in their allotted seating. She took the elevator up to the eight floor, entered her room, turned to the nearest wall, and thumped her forehead into it repeatedly.

    Never in her unspecified number of years on this earth had she floundered that hard in front of someone. She didn’t even get any of the information she was looking for out of it! Tracker was so flushed with embarrassment that she could feel the heat radiating from her skin, making even her darker brown skin pink with blush.

    “Oh. My. God, Tracker.” Tracker cursed herself. She’d been practically drooling over the man the entire time she’d been there! And it wasn’t even the cute ‘I’m sort-of slyly checking you out’, it was a full on, dead-brain, zombie-looking-at-a-juicy-brain sort of checking you out. Tracker groaned wordlessly for a moment before it hit her.

    Was that meeting supposed to be a date?

    And suddenly, there was a whole new assortment of anxieties assailing Tracker’s mind that morning.






    Ajax sat at his table at the usual time he’d make his way down to the cafeteria. He was waiting on his standard poached eggs and bacon on toast. Today, though, he was preoccupied.

    The day before, Willem had given Ajax a little toy for training. A shiny silver metal ball that fit comfortably within his huge palm, with a small display in its side. It was an almost insultingly simple device, all things considered. It was a grip strength reader, rated up to multiple tonnes worth of force.

    Ajax felt at the axe that hung on his hip, silently asking for its power. It responded sluggishly, almost as if it were sleeping, and when Ajax tried to crush metal ball, the granted strength was pitiful. It beeped harshly, displaying ’82.7kg’. Ajax sighed deeply, his best had been just over one-hundred, and his worst had been only a few hundredths away from sixty. That was exactly why Willem had given Ajax this little, infuriating ball. To try and make the power granted more consistent.

    Ajax let the ball and its numbers slip his mind for a moment, deciding to survey the room. ‘People watching’ as Aaliyah had so… bluntly put it. Imagine his surprise when he saw a collection of faces he’d never have expected to see down in the cafeteria at this hour.

    A boy, just a few inches below Ajax’s own height, blonde with blue eyes, perpetual conniving, hateful smirk on his lips.

    A much shorter, stony looking Asian man whose training uniform hugged tightly to his muscled form, a cold sneer gracing his inelegant features.

    Another kid, only a little taller than his well-muscled comrade, who always wore a showy gold and silver hoodie with a branded beanie over his oily, medium length hair.

    They were one of the two sets of gang kids here, according to Aaliyah. The other set were nobodies, but these three? They were the big boys. All expenses paid luxury at their family—and the gang’s—behest. There was a fourth in their group, a quiet, pudgy kid that looked about as uncomfortable as you’d hope any normal person would be in that group.

    But, as Ajax passively watched the three that radiated their unpleasantness, he realised that they were sitting at the wrong table. The very same table that his amorphous, purple coloured acquaintance sat at. Ajax craned his neck to get a better look at the situation.

    Scratch that; that his amorphous, purple coloured acquaintance was sitting at.

    It was without thought that Ajax stood up, staring at the group as they loudly conversed between themselves, and as they touched, prodded, slapped and punched the target of their vileness. The target themselves was pulled tightly into a compact form, the normal light and pleasant purple was dark and cloudy, with each time they were touched their surface would shock an unpleasant blue.

    Ajax’s hand wrapped around the little silver ball and squeezed. After but a moment, it loudly beeped, drawing the attention of one of the boys, whose eyes met with an expression of smouldering rage. Ajax gently placed the silver ball down on his table and began his walk over to that table.

    He didn’t need to check the number that it displayed on its side.

    He knew it was high.


    A/N: Hah! Finally made it back after that massive mass uploading to Patreon. Jesus, that was a lot of work.

    A massive thanks to my three 10-dollar Patrons; Thomas H., TheBreaker, and Dyson C.!

    If you want to support me, and receive up to 90 total chapters in advance, check out my Patreon!
     
  28. Threadmarks: Chapter 25: Baxter
    Sarius

    Sarius Not too sore, are you?

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    Chapter 25: Baxter

    What was it about social turmoil that made a room silence itself like nothing short of a bomb going off? Ajax didn’t know, nor did he care as he walked over to the table of his acquaintance, staring into the mundane brown eyes of the boy wearing a showy hoody, flashing silver and gold as it caught the artificial light of the cafeteria.

    “Uh, J?” The kid hissed out in a whisper that Ajax had no doubt everyone in the cafeteria could hear. ‘J’, the blonde haired, blue eyed boy who was dressed in exceptionally nice clothing, turned to look at the hoodie wearing teen before casting his gaze at Ajax.

    Ajax had to give him credit where credit was due, most would at least look a little worried if they saw a heavily muscled six-and-a-half-foot Greek man with an axe strapped to his hip walking towards you. J didn’t even flinch, his malicious little smile only deepening on his face.

    “What do you want, Undefined?” He said as he stood from his seat, stretching to his full height. J was tall but lacked the few extra inches and at least thirty kilograms of muscle to match with Ajax. Ajax himself didn’t let the snide insult affect him, though he wondered how he’d found out that he was classified as undefined. Maybe someone had overheard his conversation with Dean all those days ago.

    “What I would like,” Ajax let his voice rumble out, not so filled with anger to be immediately inflammatory, but like the rumble of a cautious lion, “is that you leave my friend to their meal, and you return to your own table.”

    Those simple words of warning made the entire cafeteria cool five degrees. Ajax didn’t care to notice, but every single set of eyes in the room were focused on them in that moment, and all those who were entering the cafeteria from their own rooms were instantly shocked awake by the electrified atmosphere.

    “That…” the blonde boy began, his teeth baring themselves behind his smirk, “isn’t going to happen. I’m afraid we’ve commandeered this table for ourselves. We were simply encouraging the young… thing to leave.”

    Ajax hadn’t cared one whit when the blonde fuck had insulted him. He couldn’t honestly care less, there was nothing they could use to insult him that would truly offend him. He was confident in that small way. But in that moment, an unbidden fury leap from the depths of his gut, from some place within him he didn’t even know existed.

    “I see,” Ajax said quietly, trying with difficulty to keep the immense anger off his features, “then I will have to politely ask you to leave. My friend seems like they would like to be rid of your encouraging.” His voice wasn’t low and rumbling any longer, there was no need for warning when the lion knew that the fight was coming regardless. Instead it was an entirely neutral tone, his eyes boring into those of his blue eyes antagonist. From the corner of his eye he could see his purple acquaintance pull themselves in so tightly that she almost appeared black.

    “Well then, it seems we’ve come to an impasse. Maybe a friend of mine could help you with that?” The blonde boy smirked flippantly, leaning back onto the table, as if lounging in predetermined victory. Ajax almost raised an eyebrow in mock questioning when suddenly his entire torso was suddenly being crushed under an immense weight.

    No, not being crushed, being squeezed. Ajax felt the air rush out from his lungs as his ribs were forced to compress around his organs, the pressure inside of him only increasing. He could feel the blood struggle to move around his veins as each beat of his heart was more and more pronounced, more laboured.

    Ajax’s eyes flitted through the blonde haired boy and the gaudily dressed one beside him, but neither were making real action towards him that could create this. His eyes finally flicked towards the shorter, but far more muscled Asian man standing right next to his purple friend. The man’s entire posture gave it away, tensing his body like he was ready to pounce forwards and tear Ajax limb from limb.

    Ajax felt a vague offense towards the boy, using his link on someone so unprotected. In his mind, it was the epitome of bad faith behaviour, especially when whatever he was doing to him was invisible. But that offense truly was vague, because Ajax wasn’t truly unprotected.

    Ajax didn’t even bother to tap his axe awake to ask for its power because—of course—it was already awake, silently waiting with bated breath. The moment the sheer magnitude of power rushed forward from his mundane looking fire axe, he knew that this is what it was meant for, what his axe craved so deeply.

    To act in protection of others.

    Scrunching his face into a moment of exertion Ajax’s muscles pushed against the invisible squeezing, and in just a moment the squeezing became nothing more than that of a deep pool. As Ajax took his first step forwards, clearly unhindered by the squeezing force, the Asian man’s eyes went wide, the pressure against Ajax rising sharply in concert. However, it was barely any different than it was before.

    Seeing this, the blonde man—‘J’—snarled something at his other friend, making the gaudily dressed boy stumble forwards with a panicked haste. Ajax disregarded the gaudy boy, deciding instead to look directly at J, his eyes alight with a righteous fury.

    But, Ajax’s next step was impeded, and with a flurry of motion he realised that he had been tied up, his arms and legs bound thoroughly with a strange, multicoloured rope.

    “H–hey there big guy.” A voice whispered into Ajax’s ear. Ajax whipped his head to the side only to see the beanie cladded head of the gaudy dressed boy. “I’m, like, legit warning you man. You might think you want to pick a fight with Jeremy Baxter, but you really don’t.” Ajax paused for a minute to stare into the boy’s eyes, searching for a lie or mistruth, but found nothing but legitimate honesty.

    Ajax levelled an even stare at the boy, somehow finding a little respect for him, even in being an ally with this Jeremy Baxter, who was undoubtedly a shit-stain. The elongated neck of the boy waggled as his face scrunched in consternation, letting out a heavy sigh.

    “Man, I know that look. I hope you know what you’re in for.” The boy whispered almost regretfully, before tightening what Ajax had realised was the boy’s stretched body. The tightening was slow, like a boa constrictor’s, but Ajax just turned his head back to the blonde headed man in front of him.

    And began to walk forwards.

    The steps started small, fighting against the tying restrictions between his limbs, but each step could be pushed further, the ropey body of the boy was pulling loose from Ajax’s limbs. Before long, the elongated boy retracted himself back into his regular form, placing himself on the ground just behind ajax and helplessly watching as he approached his ringleader.

    The few more steps Ajax took were large and imposing, moving a deceptive distance with each stride, placing him standing over the shorter man, looking down on him from a short distance as the boy had stood when Ajax moved closer.

    From this distance Ajax could smell the overpowering and surely inordinately expensive cologne the other boy had sprayed himself liberally with. It smelt rancid to Ajax’s nose, but that could easily just be the personality that it overlaid.

    “Leave.” Ajax said, his single word loud and powerful, right in Jeremy’s face, “Leave before I crush you.” They stood like that, tension building for a moment, before the boy’s face warped from its serious death-glare into a smile filled with a glee. He looked into Ajax’s eyes with a cold glimmer of sadism, contrasting the overly warm exterior he wore.

    “Oh, jolly good show.” He whispered, before turning and strolling away back in the direction of his table, as if the situation had barely registered at all. Soon enough, with the two other teammates, Ajax was left standing next to the table he had fought to conquer over those evil bastards. He looked quickly over towards the purple person he had proclaimed himself a friend of, and let his mind change gears away from the intense anger and feelings of injustice towards that kinder, gentler side of himself that he liked far more.

    “I’m sorry about that, I couldn’t watch that happen to you.” He said with a weak smile on his thick and dark lips, only just lighter than his tanned already-dark skin. They let some of their mass loosen, going from an almost black to a dark purple, but they didn’t speak themselves. Ajax let his eyebrows scrunch in worry.

    “Are you alright?” There was a long pause between the two trainees, both analysing each other, even though it wasn’t readily obvious that voluminous purple body even had eyes to see with. At least eyes in the conventional sense.

    “No, I’m not alright.” A voice said, making Ajax start even if he had asked and expected to receive a reply. The voice was distinctly feminine, though it was distorted oddly, as if the voice were echoing out from within a crystal. The voice was filled with tiny crystalline noises, all orchestrated together to create one recognisable whole. The simple sentence was so complexly built that it took Ajax a moment to process what he had heard.

    Wow,” he said with absentminded wonderment, “your voice is amazing.” Immediately after he had finished speaking, the purple body constricted quickly back into a much darker shade, though not quite the almost black it had been before.

    “Oh! I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to–” Ajax began quickly but was interrupted with the darkened purple easing into a much lighter purple than it had been before. Almost a normal colour for them… her?

    “…No, it’s okay. I just haven’t… I mean–” cutting themselves off at every turn, Ajax decided to just nod easily, letting them settle without the stress of explaining themselves to him. There was a momentary quiet before they spoke up quickly before Ajax was able to begin his own conversation.

    “I’m Julia. I’m also a girl if, y’know, you weren’t sure or something.” Ajax’s relief must’ve been evident on his face, as the girl, Julia, laughed gently. The laugh caught him off guard, another exceptional sound.

    “Sorry,” Ajax grinned wryly with no small amount of genuine apology, “I couldn’t tell before I talked to you, and even then, I didn’t really want to be wrong and hurt you. That would’ve been a bad first impression.” Julia’s crystalline voice thrummed with a deep sigh.

    “Yeah, I know, it’s really hard to tell. Who would have known turning into a big purple blob would present so many social barriers?” She said with sarcasm, but Ajax detected a note of honest exasperation within her voice. He grimaced in empathy.

    “No-one in my group really have any big physically differences, so I’m afraid I can’t relate.” There was a beautiful snort of laughter as he felt her look his overgrown body up and down, and he graced her with a grin, “But if you ever need anyone to talk about it? I can give it my best crack.” Julia was quiet for a while before the upper section of her body nodded slowly. Ajax beamed with a smile, before he sighted Aaliyah sitting down at their group’s table out of the corner of his eye. Even his meal had arrived while the kerfuffle was in session.

    “Oh, sorry I have to go back to my table, team stuff and all. I’m Ajax, by the way,” he gave the voluminous girl his best mock salute, “Floor eight, room one if you ever want to talk!” He turned quickly and started to walk over towards Aaliyah’s already questioning gaze. However, before he could get too far away, Julia’s melodic voice rang out from behind him.

    “Uhm, thank you! For before.” He turned to her and smiled widely, not ever requiring the thanks, but appreciating it none the less. Before he turned away from the girl one last time, he put on a pensive expression as he looked at the girl, looking at her now fully light purple form.

    “You know, maybe you should try singing?” And then he walked away towards the questioning he’d inevitably receive from Aaliyah.

    Julia, however, stared at the massive Greek giant’s back, fixing him with the closest thing to her own pensive expression as she could display with her form.

    “Singing?”



    As the group sifted into L006, readying themselves for Tracker’s second lecture, Ajax could feel the heat on the back of his neck from Aaliyah’s burning fury. He didn’t know exactly why she was so downright furious, but when he had mentioned the name ‘Jeremy Baxter’ she had shut her mouth and refused to talk with him for the rest of breakfast. Something about Aaliyah being so angry that she didn’t take the chance to rib him for fighting in the cafeteria deeply concerned the man.

    The worry was temporarily put aside when Tracker walked through the doors, stride as graceful and true as it always was. A moment later she was standing in front of the class, wearing a wide, happy grin.

    “Good morning class!” She announced cheesily, as if she were teaching young children, “Today, we learn about links and how they work.”


    A/N: A massive thanks to my three 10-dollar Patrons; Thomas H., TheBreaker, and Dyson C.!

    If you want to support me, and receive up to 90 total chapters in advance, check out my Patreon!
     
  29. Threadmarks: Chapter 26: Examples
    Sarius

    Sarius Not too sore, are you?

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    Chapter 26: Examples

    “First thing’s first!” Tracker called excitedly—more excited than normal, Aaliyah realised. Instead of the usual joking and theatrical excitement that Tracker usually displayed, Aaliyah noticed that the excitement was more tangible than before, maybe even harbouring an anxious edge. Aaliyah wasn’t good enough to psychoanalyse someone so deeply that she could pin the tail on the donkey, but she was good at picking up vibes from people—errant emotions, unusual behaviours, basic reasonings and motives.

    “I know that we spent much of our last little session focussing in on Ivan Vasiliev, the powerful hyper cognitive behind Think.” Tracker let the team kick their mind into gear, the others in the group slowly nodding as they remembered the strange Russian man. Aaliyah recalled the man easily, having done some research on him and his company ‘Th.inc’—as obnoxiously as it was named—after the last lesson, searching for more information. He really was as secretive as she had been told and apparently, he ran a tight ship when it came to information leaks. Or everyone was too scared to go against him.

    “However! While the context of Linked being literally linked to a greater, cosmic energy source—its mostly superfluous information that doesn’t really add all that much to our actual small-scale understanding.” Tracker paused again, letting the team chew and absorb the information, leading them into her topics for today’s lesson.

    “So, instead of the hypotheticals that Ivan and some of his peers can offer, we are going to dive into the practical world of links.” Tracker paced in front of the four students in the front row of the lecture room like a drill instructor, making eye contact with each of the trainees. “This includes general rules of thumb, common limitations, common link types, common adverse effects, and common Awakening mechanics.” She flicked up a finger for each point listed, staring at the group intensely so as to impress the importance of the information they held. Even Aaliyah, who thought herself relatively resistant to the influence of other people’s flow, found herself being brought into Tracker’s story.

    “This class is not going to be as interactive as the last one was. This is important information that—if you intend on interacting with other Linked—will save your life more times than you could possibly count.” Aaliyah opened her mouth to pose a counter-point, but Aaliyah turned to look at her with a cheeky grin, “Even if you intend on being in a non-combat focused role. Take it from me.”

    Aaliyah almost scowled at the woman, if she hadn’t been caught out so hard on trying to make a small power play. Aaliyah hated how her instructors—and even one of her teammates—were so immune to her social intrigue. It wasn’t that she was bad at it, by any means—she had begun to doubt her abilities herself, resulting in her setting difficult social engineering tasks to prove to herself that she still had it. No, Aaliyah was still really good at playing the social game, it was those that surrounded her that threw her so significantly off kilter—so hard that it destroyed any real likelihood of her working on the other two members of the team as they can tell something is wrong from just the interactions she had. All this just made Aaliyah angrier than she had already been today.

    “So, first on the list; general rules of thumb. We will be adding to this as we go along in our lesson.” Then Tracker stopped dead still, her face deadly serious, “But, rule number one—the one rule that will save your bacon more than anything else you learn in your time here…” Tracker paused, searching each of the faces of the trainees for just the right amount of rapture in their eyes.

    “There is nothing that is truly as clear as its labelled on the tin.” This drew strange glances, even from Aaliyah, subverting expectations thoroughly. Tracker began to pace she continued.

    “Let’s say we have a new Linked Awaken in town. They start galivanting across gang territory, messing up some low-level thugs and maybe a Linked gangbanger or two. When someone finally gets a few words out of the pompous idiot, they say that they are completely invulnerable. Their link is invincibility.” Tracker observed the room quietly, as Aaliyah immediately understood what Tracker was reaching for.

    “But it isn’t true invulnerability.” Aaliyah said quietly, but Tracker shrugged flippantly.

    “I don’t know. You shoot them in the eye with a .50 calibre sniper rifle and they don’t even need to blink. Even their hair is so strong that it has the highest tensile strength of any material that isn’t linktech produced. They are functionally invulnerable, and even effectively immortal.”

    “But then poisons–” Tracker waved a hand.

    “Extremely complex immune system, brain and nerve overhaul to resist any natural, Linked, or linktech created poisons or diseases, mental powers—including mind control of any kind, and every other method you could think of. Their link is perfect and covers every basis.” Aaliyah sat back in her uncomfortable flip-out chair and glowered at the suited woman.

    “So,” Tracker continued, a question sprouting from her smirk, “how do they die?” The silence was deafening, until—surprisingly—Walter spoke up.

    “Heat death of the universe?” He said, almost joking. Tracker shrugged again, her face pulling itself into a lackadaisical expression.

    “Maybe not. They surpass any modern conception of biology and could theoretically survive anything.” She smiled at Walter, but continued on without taking another answer, “No, I’ll tell you exactly how this extremely powerful Linked will die.” She sat herself on her desk, entering a faux philosophical pose.

    “What will happen, is that one day a fifteen-year-old guy will wake up from his Awakening dream. He’ll try to figure out what it does on his own, but only figures that it enhances how hard he hits. Dime a dozen, as far as Linked go. So, instead of sauntering up to the AASAU HQ, he decided to continue on with his life.” The whole team was sceptical now, dumbfounded by the strange and twisting narrative.

    “One night, this guy realises he’s out of milk and he made most of a coffee, with his last spoonful of mix no less. He needs this hit to get through his studying for an exam the next day. So, he moseys on down to the corner-store, grabs some milk for a dollar fifty more than he would at a supermarket, and makes his way home. On his way though, he encounters a group of gangbangers who are all racing away from something. Guy gets spooked and ends up running along with them.” She paused for a moment to let the absurd situation sink into their mind. It was absurd, but also somewhat realistic so far. In fact, Aaliyah had seen similar situations happen in front of her eyes.

    “The invulnerable Linked was the pursuer, taking out groups of gangbangers one at a time, weakening the gangs in the area. A noble cause.” Tracker said, though Aaliyah suspected her true opinion was hidden neatly under the mask she wore, “Unfortunately for our normal Linked guy, Captain Invulnerable over here is getting a little loose on what is defined as ‘with the gangbagers’, and unfortunately the invulnerable Linked pegs a guy running frantically with a carton of milk as just that.

    “So, the almighty powerful Linked decimate the gangbangers around the other Linked, but when the invulnerable Linked lashed out to knock out the kid, he is met with a plastic milk carton—cutting its way across his torso, all the way through the body and killing him instantly.” She raised her hands in the air, as if to elicit a reaction from the stunned crowd of four. The team, however, had nothing for her after a few seconds. She nodded with satisfaction.

    “Exactly. This is why the first rule is the only rule, the rest are simply guidelines. Absolutely everything you know and understand about your link, or even other people’s links, can change in a fraction of a second if you meet someone with the right link.”

    “Wait, wait,” Walter held his hands up in surrender, blinking rapidly with confusion, “how did the kid kill the invulnerable Linked? With a milk jug?” Tracker looked at the flustered Asian man slyly.

    “You tell me.” She stated, and after resisting the man’s pleading expression for a moment, she relented, “Perhaps he could command reality to tear in front of him, with a wave of any object he held.” Walter’s eyes scrunched in thought. It was a reasonable answer, Aaliyah thought.

    “Or it could just be that the specific type of damage the kid was capable of dealing was the invulnerable person’s incredibly specific Achilles’ heel.” Which was an answer far less reasonable.

    “The point being you must always be wary of having the rug ripped right from under your feet. At all times, in any situation.” Tracker let the silence reign before continuing peppily.

    “Continuing on from that downer, let’s talk about common link limitations, shall we?” She barely received a nod, “the main limitation links have are their connection to this cosmic power we all are linked to, and how the link consumes or stores the power. For example;” She clicked a button on a little remote in her hand and a graphic came up on screen in a cartoon art style, depicting a man punching and kicking, his skin glowing red—lessening the power bar sitting just below, until it was empty, leaving the man to pant and fall over from exhaustion. However, over the next second, the bar refilled and made the man capable of standing again, repeating the aforementioned process.

    “This is a relatively common type of power management. There are some basic tweaks on the individual level, but it’s a good enough representation. My own link technically falls within this category, which we just call it the ‘reserve type’. Once that reserve is gone, you’re in trouble. The amount of time those with this type get out of their link in consistent usage varies wildly, usually depending on the power ‘hungriness’ of the link. For example, I can continuously use my link at maximum strength for just shy of nine hours continuously. More if I tone it down.”

    Tracker clicked the remote again, bringing up the same man but with a different link—this time the man would send out a zap of electricity that arced cartoonishly across the screen, depleting one of five golden circles below him. He continued until totally depleted, and the circles returned one at a time, slower than it had taken him to use each one.

    “This is the ‘charges type’, which is how it sounds on the tin. Usually those with flashier, more powerful links are charges types. For example, Fireball out of South Africa.” Walter’s eyes lit up with the reference, making Aaliyah roll her eyes sufferingly, “He is capable of expanding a charge to launch a fireball that can explode a modern military tank. The quirk on his part is that he can expend multiple charges for a bigger boom.” The trainees shuddered, even Walter who seemed to be a bit of a fanboy. No-one could find a link even remotely related to explosions funny anymore. Suicide’s terror still lingered to this day, even twenty-some years later.

    The screen changed again, depicting the same man yet again—this time holding a hammer. Below him a blue bar filled slowly, the bar shifting colour towards red. The hammer blow was unleashed with a crack in the floor underneath the character, then repeating with a longer charge time and bigger payout, until the last blow—fully charged—that blew a hole in the floor, before resetting to the beginning.

    “Another type, usually called the ‘load type’. Characteristic of a wait before a stronger attack can be unleashed. This is a very variable type, as most do not follow this exact demonstration, and are more loosely defined as our next type.” She clicked again.

    The graphic simply had the man with lasers shooting out his eyes, the power bar below replaced with an infinity symbol that had a light perpetually circling its course.

    “A person with a link that cannot be exhausted of its power stores. These types are very common, either as truly ‘infinity types’ or someone whose link has no practical limit they’ve reached. This is common, but also pretty dangerous, as it means that a true infinity type has no power on hand or in reserve. So, if a Linked appears who can shut down another’s access to that power, the infinity type is severely hampered, if not outright defeated.”

    She clicked the remote again, letting the image behind her flick back off. She waved her arms emphatically as she began to pace again.

    “There are more types, the ‘ignition type’ for example—where power is only used to incite the release of power, like a lighter to a hair spray can—but if we listed each permutation, we’d be here all day. These are the main ones, and its more than likely that all of you fall into the infinity type, just by coincidence really. Keeping the limitations of your own type—and those of your possible enemies—is important beyond words. If you can drag out a fight because you know your enemy has a limited amount of charges and you are an infinity type? That’s a good method to adopt. Play to your strengths, rather than try a shoulder your own weaknesses in an encounter that might just spell your death.” Tracker let the room be quiet before she readjusted her grin and motioned towards the door.

    “Time for a break!”


    A/N: A massive thanks to my three 10-dollar Patrons; Thomas H., TheBreaker, and Dyson C.!

    If you want to support me, and receive up to 90 total chapters in advance, check out my Patreon!
     
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  30. Threadmarks: Chapter 27: Dangerously Close
    Sarius

    Sarius Not too sore, are you?

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    Chapter 27: Dangerously Close

    The cafeteria table was a quiet oasis in the middle of a bustling cacophony of teenagers and young adults. It was not calm, however.

    In fact, the silence hung over the table like a heavy black shadow—even Walter, who was notorious for being able to stammer his way through even the densest of atmospheres, was dead silent. He was looking anywhere but the blonde-haired woman sitting opposite from the Greek giant.

    Walter had become relatively good friends with Ajax, mostly bonding over his willingness to at least try some of the thing that Walter loved—unlike a plethora of friends who had turned up their noses at the man. Walter’s relationship with Aaliyah was more… strained. She was nice to him and humoured him most of the time. They had eaten together in her room a number of times, just hanging out and watching whatever was on the television at the time. Walter wasn’t even going to pretend that he wasn’t attracted to her, but he also wasn’t a fool.

    Aaliyah was playing a game.

    It had taken Walter a little longer to figure it out than Ajax, and only then with the man’s help, dropping some hints here and there—but Walter had finally managed to get his mind around the prospect that someone wasn’t being entirely truthful with him. In reality, him realising that Aaliyah was playing a social game of intrigue didn’t change much of anything. They still hung out, and it seemed like Walter was the only one that Aaliyah was even remotely comfortable around.

    But it was when the entire group was together that her ‘true’ colours showed themselves. Walter looked nervously between the two teammates, one pointedly staying passive and the other boring holes into the other’s forehead with their eyes. It looked like, at any moment, Aaliyah was going to snatch at the man’s throat and tear open his neck. The smouldering anger between them was palpable, though none of the busy tables around them seemed to notice or care one whit. Walter, though, was afraid that he’d see a murder occur today.

    “Uh,” he stammered out, knowing full well that if he didn’t speak, the silence would remain, “what’s, uh, going on?” The heated eyes of the blonde woman turned on him for a moment, before returning to their intended target. Walter swore that he could feel the trail of fire across the skin of his face where the blazing orbs had travelled. Ajax sighed with a helping of exasperation, about to speak when the waiter came over and placed down two plates and four sachets. There was a momentary silence as the entire team downed their energy jelly simultaneously, then Walter and Mirah turned to their plates.

    Walter always wondered why Mirah received food when she never ordered—but when he’d ask, he would only get the customary shrug along with Mirah’s stoic visage. As Mirah picked up her warm and gooey cookie, Ajax continued his thought—voice just as exasperated.

    “I may have picked a fight with someone, and Aaliyah is unhappy about it.” He intoned, his voice containing only a little accusation. Walter had never heard the man be so peeved, even when Walter knew he was annoying the man while they were playing games—letting his competitiveness get the best of him. Walter shuddered as Aaliyah’s eyes went from burning to deathly cold as she stared at Ajax, something past a simple fury.

    “Ajax. We will talk about this in an entirely normal tone, with no raising of voices or straining. Is that understood?” The whole table turned to stare at Aaliyah who, despite the cold fury in her eyes, held a calm and gentle voice—starkly contrasting the commanding words.

    The whole table, even Mirah, nodded their heads. The group’s collective attention focused on the usually flippant and snark-filled woman. Walter could see the spots of dark, almost black, crimson dance on her skin, but being quashed as soon as the discolouration appeared.

    “The reason I am angry,” she began, holding back more crimson splotches, “is not that you picked a fight, or even that you went to help that girl—but who you picked a fight with. You have no idea what you just did to all of us.” Walter was thoroughly confused, looking to Mirah who was also out of the loop. The normally stoic girl was now showing a hit of concern in her brow, sharing an uneasy glance with Walter.

    “Who?” Mirah spoke first, cutting straight to the bone. Ajax furrowed his thick brow, finding a hint of nervousness within himself, influenced by his team’s sudden deathly seriousness.

    “Jeremy Baxter.” Ajax said quietly. Immediately, Walter felt a boulder drop inside of him, falling deep down into the pit of his stomach, finding just the right spot to create one of the greatest rushes of fear he’d ever experienced.

    No… you didn’t right?” Walter said shakily, his voice rising slightly, earning him a warning glance from Aaliyah. Walter closed his eyes, trying to push away the fear before failing and letting loose a sorrowful expletive. Aaliyah didn’t bother with a warning.

    Ajax looked around the table to take account of his group’s state; Aaliyah sat in her chair, as naturally as could be, but with a pair of angry eyes. Her long blond hair had been pulled into an unkempt bun, lending to the casual mask she wore. Mirah and Walter were not so subtle. Mirah, for her part, looked more worried than he had ever seen her in a face-to-face interaction—unless you counted the screaming a few nights ago. Her posture, however, never swayed from the slumped and small ‘don’t look at me’ special. Walter on the other hand—just looked beaten, anxious and sad. Ajax was almost worried that the younger man would start crying then and there.

    “So,” Ajax said, doing his best to assume the same nonchalant attitude as Aaliyah, “obviously I’ve screwed up and I have no idea what I’ve done. I’ve brought this down on us and I’m truly sorry, but now we need to think as a team.” In that moment Ajax felt something he’d been waiting to experience ever since they began training proper. At his words, Aaliyah’s furious eyes dimmed slightly, though only to be replaced with a slight sneer. Walter lifted himself from his sunken state and assumed a little bit of steel in his eyes.

    “Jeremy Baxter is the son of Ernest Baxter. A member of the High Order.” Aaliyah answered, her voice never faltering from its casual tone.

    “The High Order?” Ajax asked quietly, voicing Mirah’s own question. This time Walter stammered forwards to answer the question.

    “The high-ranking members of Rightful Order…” Walter trailed off as he shuddered, clearly remembering something, “they are brutal and powerful. They are terrifying, Ajax.” The Greek man looked between Walter and Aaliyah, finding their opinions to be the same. Mirah, however, seemed just as in the dark as he was. With a sigh, he realised that this was likely to be the case for almost anything.

    “What kind of brutal. Let me know what flavour of evil I’m working with.” He let his eyes scan across the two of the group who were in the know, “Are we talking the drug kingpin sort of evil?” There was silence for a moment before, again, Walter spoke up.

    “My parents…” he sighed heavily before continuing, clearly uncomfortable, “my parents were forced to defend a husband and wife who were part of the High Order in court. The wife’s sister testified that her sister and her husband had a total of three secret children who they tortured through childhood and…” the boy’s voice hitched, and Ajax felt the shock of cold run down his spine, “and when they didn’t develop links by fifteen…”

    “They ‘culled’ them.” Aaliyah finished for the Walter, her voice neutral—the lack of significant emotion making it far more disturbing. Ajax closed his eyes, taking in a deep breath as he desperately tried to push back the cold sweat that covered his body.

    “I knew that your parents were lawyers Walter, but Jesus Christ.” Ajax said bitterly. Walter matched it with his own sour expression, his voice leaking a bitter offense.

    “Why do you think I’m here? It’s not like my parents want to work for these horrendous monsters. But when every witness against turns up dead, missing or amongst a grand pile of minced human remains, you start to get the idea that you don’t have a choice.” Walter had never talked about exactly what his parents did, apart from being a really good lawyer team. Even still, this was a wild turn of events that well and truly shook Ajax’s understanding of why the man was here at all. Ajax had thought him to be a hero wannabe, maybe not in such an unflattering image, but the sentiment was the same. Now, though, he saw a young man who family—despite their clear wealth—lived under the thumb of the most dangerous people in Melbourne. No wonder why he was here, jumping at the chance to gain any agency over his life as he could.

    “I’m sorry man, I really screwed the pooch on this one but…” Ajax hung his head low with a host of negative emotions, but lacking one significant emotion he should be feeling, “but I don’t know that I wouldn’t have done it. Even knowing this information. They were beating on that poor girl and I just couldn’t–” There was the harsh sound of a chair scraping backwards, against the hard flooring of the cafeteria, as someone suddenly stood. As Ajax looked up, his eyes met with a gaze more intense than any other he had experienced—one that even Aaliyah’s death-glare barely held a candle to. The green eyes were filled with a wild maelstrom of emotions that Ajax couldn’t even hope to pick apart, but captured him with an exactness, a complete rapture that he could swear was its own link.

    “Be careful, Ajax. You are beginning to sound like a hero.” Mirah said, each word a solemn warning. The whole table, and even those at the tables nearby, felt a sudden chill of fear. It was something that could hardly be called a threat—at some point in history it might’ve even been considered a compliment. Yet now, as Mirah’s short form towered over the table in presence, Ajax felt the weight in his stomach triple with the gravity of the statement.

    Ajax had barely realised it. He had known of his own idealism, even if he wasn’t as vocal as Walter was—but now he stared the scarred girl in the face, the very picture of what the naïve belief in heroism had created, over and over again. How many young girls just like Mirah had been created by that irresponsible heroism? How many had watched as the last of the heroes let the veneer crack and fall away to reveal the writhing mass of insects underneath, the ravenous corruption within making itself know.

    And even as the girl walked away with more than just three eyes tracking to her eventual disappearance into the elevator, Ajax still couldn’t make himself regret what he’d done. He knew that—even if he had known all about the High Order—he still would have stared Jeremy Baxter in the eye and treated him like the evil worm he was.

    He watched the floor indication lights of the elevator blink down a floor and disappear as the linktech machine reached the unlisted floors below—taking Mirah far from the conversation she had ended with such brutality.

    The table stayed silent after Mirah’s departure, losing themselves to their own contemplation. But Ajax could still feel it, that tiny connection that he had made the moment he addressed the problem head on. That spark in the dark excited Ajax, along with the realisation of himself that Mirah had shoved so indelicately down his throat.

    He couldn’t deny it anymore, or even so much as ignore it. From the first moment he had Awakened, holding that old, red fire axe in his hands—desperately trying to protect those that he loved against the three monsters that tore apart the sky and the earth.

    He knew now that he could only ever be one thing, and that if he didn’t accept it now, he would forever hate himself for it.



    ---​



    Mirah’s steps were even and measured, not unlike Tracker’s own strides, or the mimicry that Aaliyah had created for herself. Though, Mirah’s weren’t driven by a need to exude importance or surety. Mirah was simply angry, only in the flameless manner that she could be anyway.

    Her steps took her down the excessively clean hallways, passing door after door, each likely leading into their own specialised rooms or classrooms. Mirah had no doubt that Aaliyah would be able to walk down the hallway and rattle off each and every classroom and their individual purpose. The woman was hellbent on her research and—though she tried to hide it—she had clearly researched Walter’s parents.

    Mirah could only assume that if you understood how to use a computer—unlike herself—finding more information about a lawyer couldn’t be much more difficult than how she’d found that horrifying video on Whiz. Aaliyah knew these things—she knew more about the training facility they were in than all the rest of the team combined. She probably knew everything there was to officially know about Walter, Ajax, and Mirah too—maybe even more than what was strictly ‘public’.

    She knew about those gang teams, and she had mentioned it in passing. She knew that they were bad news, linked directly with the High Order—something Mirah herself didn’t know about till minutes prior—and she practically let the man antagonise them.

    Mirah was hardly a master of anything social, the only thing protecting her from being worse than Walter was her stoic silence. Yet even she could see that there was something up. The team was split right down the middle—on one side you had Walter and Ajax, on the other herself and Aaliyah.

    The divide in the middle had become clear. It was ideology, though Mirah didn’t think using those exact words. It was a divide of birth, of living situation, of childhood—or a lack of one—and maybe just a whole different look at the world. And although the crevasse ran deep into the earth—the distance of separation was deceptively small, even to Mirah’s untrained eye.

    Mirah’s body guided her towards room L006, despite the fact she had only walked the maze of corridors to this room a few times. She opened the door to find the room occupied by Tracker, sitting behind the supplied lecturer’s desk, writing something down in a notebook—not bothering to raise her head to the sudden intrusion.

    “Hello Mirah,” Tracker said calmly as she closed the notepad and hooked the pen to its binding, “you have ten more minutes of break. Are you sure you don’t want to do something other than sit in here with me?” Mirah ignored the question and just settled down in a flip out chair closest to the desk. She looked up at Tracker, who took one look at the younger woman’s face and smiled sadly.

    “This is about Ajax’s fight with the Baxter child isn’t it?” Mirah let a little bit of surprise leak onto her already unsettled expression, eliciting an eyebrow raise.

    “We keep an eye on our trainees Mirah.” She explained gently, then let the conversation come to a pause. Tracker had quickly learned that Mirah was difficult to corral into a conversation. The girl was a timid animal and would only interact on her own terms.

    “Ajax and Walter,” she began, the words having to be pulled from her mind in a grand display of internal might, “they both aspire to be heroes.” Tracker nodded easily. It was obvious, especially with those two. Inside them burned a little flame of hope and righteousness, of classic heroism. What of the flame that had survived growing up in a world like this, anyway.

    “How can they still believe in that—in being a hero? After Suicide, after the Enforcers?” Tracker sighed, though deep down she felt guilty. She hadn’t realised that Mirah didn’t know about Suicide—because everyone knew about Suicide. If she had just realised it just a bit sooner, had acted on it, she wouldn’t have inadvertently let the poor girl scar herself with a knife she didn’t even know was sharp. She could have gently introduced the topic, let the girl acclimatize to the idea of mentally insane people with enough power to evaporate a football stadium.

    “Would you rather they be like Jeremy Baxter instead?” Tracker asked wryly, giving Mirah some pause. “I understand, Mirah—I do. I have seen too many dead and destroyed lives to count on a hundred hands. I’ve participated in things I couldn’t ever be proud of. I’ve sold my soul to the devil so many times that it lost its value.” She looked at the young woman—the same emaciated collection of bones who had suddenly become physically beautiful, even belying her painful scarring. In her, Tracker saw a young woman not too dissimilar from herself—though Tracker had no claim to the torture Mirah had been through. Tracker knows that the world had lost its colour for Mira years ago, becoming a mixture of pallid greys—and now that a little light and colour was leaking into the holding cell she’d imprisoned herself in, everything was beginning to change.

    “Your friends are foolish, yes.” Tracker agreed, making Mirah relax a little before she continued, “But, are they so wrong? I’ve lived past the point where I could claim myself moral, and I am more pragmatic than is good for me. I was one of the first corporate Linked, after all. But let me ask you this, Mirah?” The Indian-Caucasian woman probed as she stood from her desk, sitting on the lip of its top—bringing herself closer to Mirah. As close as she could be without making her skitter out of the room like a wounded animal—running from its own shadow.

    A few moments of stagnation passed before Mirah nodded with a grim expression—knowing full well that whatever Tracker said would twist her gut into knots, especially now that Tracker knew some of her past. Tracker smiled sadly down at the girl, letting the perfectly concocted words leak from her lips like sour medicine.

    “If you were to walk the shadowed streets of Melbourne, amongst those trash piles you once hid yourself in—where you knew others hid themselves—and you saw a little girl being raped by a Linked…” Mirah’s face contorted, the memory was a brand in her mind—the searing sensation returning ever time it was remembered.

    “Would you be able to stop yourself from saving her?”

    Mirah was filled with such shock that, even when the lecture room’s door slid open wide with a loud bang against the stop at the end of its rail—she didn’t even flinch. Tracker looked down at her with a sad smile for a few seconds longer before turning to the rest of the team.

    “Alright you lot! Into your seats please, and then we’ll begin our adventure into the world of limitations, Awakenings, and morphs.”


    A/N: A massive thanks to my three 10-dollar Patrons; Thomas H., TheBreaker, and Dyson C.! And a gargantuan thanks to my 20-dollar Patron Marisa E.!

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