Altered – Betrayal (Chapter 1)

The first chapter of Betrayal – coming October, 2016.

 

Chapter 1

 

Wyatt Millar sat on a folding chair in a dark corner of a large, windowless room in the basement of an old elementary school. He was waiting for a woman. Sandra had told him – as always – that the ‘subject’ was properly screened, that she was safe. He’d been told that he had to do it, that he needed to transfer the virus, or that he’d get sick again. He’d been told it was the right thing to do. He knew that he didn’t have a choice. It didn’t mean he wanted to do it.

“Is she coming?” he asked.

Hannah was alone with him, on a break from hanging out with her newest boyfriend. She was always with Wyatt when he used his power. Everybody worried about him, but her more than the rest. “Rocky went to get her five minutes ago. Relax, it’ll be over soon.”

He scowled in her direction. She wore a bright and flowing button down shirt over black tights that made her behind look too big. A feather necklace completing the outfit, all things he disliked. She was getting more and more weird as she lived with the Dogs. With a grunted reply, he and sat in silence and waited. No matter how many people were around him, he was always lonely. Nobody understood the burden he carried.

Two minutes later, there was a knock on the door and he pulled the hoodie over his head. The subjects weren’t allowed to see his face, for their protection and his. His enemies looked for people who’d been ‘miraculously’ cured. They followed them, surveilled them and used the police to pull them in for questioning.

Wyatt nodded to Hannah. He was ready.

An old woman entered the room. Her hair was wispy and white, she walked slowly, with Rocky helping her along, holding her by an arm. Halfway through the room, he handed her off to Hannah and left the three of them alone.

Wyatt pulled his gray hoodie lower as she approached. “Hello Marilyn, welcome to my home,” Wyatt said sarcastically, indicating the mostly empty room around him. “You’re here for the cure.”

She sat down, across from him, the second chair the only other adornment. “That’s what they told me. I don’t believe it.”

“But you came anyway.”

“I don’t mind passing if it’s my time, but I’d rather not yet,” she said with good humor.

“You have work left to do.”

Marylyn nodded.

“Don’t we all,” he said, feeling tired. He’d done this seventy-eight times in the last three years. “Have they told you about the risks?” he asked, even though he knew they had, they always did. With so little interaction, he dragged these conversations out for a chance at a little human contact.

“The young man with the lived-in face told me there might be side-effects. I’m ready for whatever change comes.”

Was that what Rocky called them? Side-effects, thought Wyatt, that’s one way to describe indiscriminate re-writing of someone’s DNA. How about unplanned and uncontrolled evolution? Who could ever be ready, he wondered.

“Change?” asked Wyatt bitterly. “Do you know that you might grow scales, or skin as hard as rock? Did he say that? How about your eyes shrinking in their sockets? Do you want to see in the dark? Are you ready for that?”

Marilyn looked at him with pity. “You’re angry. All you young men are so furious. Always been like that. Boys like you are the Devils hands, you need busy work, something to do other than sit and wait.”

“Do you want to see the Devils hands?” Wyatt pulled off the glove on his left and showed her the bitter red wound that festered there. Three years had passed since the first infection and it’d never healed. “How’s this?”

She didn’t reply directly. “He told me about what happened to some of the others you’ve healed.”

“And you’re not frightened?”

“I have cancer growing in me. Doctor told me I’ve got six tumors. There is one in my chest is the size of a baseball, and they won’t operate ‘cause I can’t pay the freight. You think I’m afraid? Damn right I am, but not of you.”

Wyatt raised his head slightly and pulled his hood back so he could see her better. He wished he could see into her soul. Was she deserving of life, how was he to tell and who was he to decide? The Red Dogs who’d screened her had said that she was a good woman, and that she had devoted her life to helping others, first as a scientist then as a community worker.

He shrugged and slowly unwrapped his left palm, revealing the wound that he’d carried for the last three years, the one that would never heal. Marylyn gasped. “Give me your hands,” he said.

Instead, she reached out and grasped his, staring intently at his palm. “Does it hurt?”

“I’m used to it.”

“Oh, don’t be manly around me. Does it hurt?”

“Yes.”

“I’m sorry,” she said. She turned his hands so they faced up and confidently placed her hands in his.

With his eyes closed, he focused on their connection. How the virus was transmitted was still a mystery, but he it seemed that it would only flow if he wanted it to, and only to a willing recipient. He’d failed a few times, and he recognized that it had happened when he was unsure or unwilling. If he didn’t want to share, the virus wouldn’t transmit.

There was no such issue with the old woman. A surge of adrenaline was followed by electricity that surged through his body. The old woman tensed and he gripped her tighter, and gave a mental push, allowing V32 to move through his hands into her. The air around their hands crackled with blue electricity as a final surge passed between them.

Marilyn gasped and fell back into her chair, pulling him towards her. “My God,” she said.

“God has nothing to do with it, this is all science,” he said. With little else to do, and such a strange affliction, he’d thought a lot about religion over the past three years. “It’s a blank virus created by a machine and my particular genetic make-up allows me to be a host.”

“You do this, and yet, somehow, you don’t believe?”

“Do you imagine that I want this, that this curse would make me a religious nut?”

“We don’t always get what we want. God isn’t Santa Claus. Can’t be bitter at him for letting us live our lives, for good and for bad.”

Wyatt shook his head, “If He doesn’t get involved, why believe?”

“Because life is empty without something greater than yourself. Do you have something to believe in?”

“No.”

“And yet you do this. You live a miracle and yet you’re still bitter. I told you, son, go do something. Be something more than the boy in the basement.”

Wyatt winced at that and released her hands. Hannah came up and helped Marilyn to her feet. As they left, he reflected on his life.

It’d been three years since he’d escaped. Joe or Jessica or whatever she was now, hadn’t held up her end of the bargain. The compound was raided by police three weeks after the confrontation at the military base. It was only fair, he’d not really kept his end of the deal either, what with burning Joe alive and trying to kill Jessica.

The raid was a bust, Sandra had everyone out by the time the police arrived, she’d received early warning and had closed down the compound and the bar. The Red Dogs had been on the run ever since, occupying whatever dump they could, moving every month or two.

He was one of them now, but not really. Most avoided being around him, his special talent and his aloofness. There was something different to him that they sensed, something exciting and frightening at the same time. He was the guy who transformed people, the freak of nature. The rest of the Dogs were united in enjoying being on the run, in their desire to transform themselves – to alter their bodies and minds using technology, metal, and ink, genetics or whatever they could get their hands on.

Once he was sure they were gone, Wyatt pulled the hood off his head, left the room and walked down the hallway to the former lunchroom. The large space was converted into a combination gym and meeting area.

Rocky was waiting for him, fully equipped in protective gear. Wyatt was expected to put his all into the training and after three years of it, he was now an expert in several forms of hand to hand fighting. Rocky needed the protection.

“Are you ready for me, boy?” asked the man, who was twice his age. His grin was dangerous in its own right, his nose askew, his front teeth broken and only half fixed. The bruiser had been with the Dogs for years, starting as an enforcer and muscle. After years of faithful service, he was now the right-hand man of their leader, Sandra.

Wyatt grinned right back at Rocky and, without a word, ran at him. As he got close, he spun away from a kick and grabbed at his arm, pulling it with him as he moved past. He twisted hard. As expected, Rocky spun with him, not giving him any leverage, and Wyatt lashed out with a punch to the neck, connecting solidly with the guard that Rocky was wearing.

“Good,” said Rocky and stepped back. “You were aggressive, you took control, and you went for a key disabling point. Again,” he said and stepped forward, feinted at the head and delivered a solid blow to the side that connected, hard. Rocky had Altered himself, there were metal implants in his hands, wrists and forearms. His punches felt as if he was wearing brass knuckles.

Wyatt fell to the floor and rolled away from a kick. Standing back up in a defensive posture, he nursed his side.

“How about you put on your padding?” said Rocky.

Wyatt shook his head. “There isn’t padding in a real fight. Not that I’ll ever have one, the way you have me locked away.”

“We do it for your own safety,” Rocky said as he moved forward with a flurry of punches and kicks.

“Meh, you’ve trained me for three years. I’m ready for anything,” said Wyatt, countering each of the blows, but not landing any of his own.

“Not a gun. And not for multiple fighters.”

Wyatt pretended to throw a roundhouse and when Rocky moved to counter him, dropped to the ground and swept his legs out, knocking his opponent to the ground. He quickly rolled over and got on top, his legs around Rocky’s neck. “Give,” he said.

Rocky tapped twice, knowing when he was in a no-win position. “Good.”

Rocky got up first and offered his hand. Wyatt took it and was pulled effortlessly to his feet, but was bored with the fighting, and let his hands fall to his sides. “Rock, I gotta get out, do something other than the exact same thing every night.”

“We’ll go out on Monday, like always.”

“I’m sick of that too. A drive in the country once a week isn’t a life.” He raised his hands, stepped forward and swung for Rocky’s head. The boredom was making him angry. The other man ducked easily.

“We can’t fight The Cabal,” Rocky said. This was his term for the shadowy world-wide conspiracy that he – and a significant part of the internet – believed ruled the world. He stepped forward and shin connected with thigh. Wyatt fell down again.

“Enough with your crazy stuff,” Wyatt said and jumped to his feet. He moved aggressively forward, swinging left and right, getting pissed off. “I won’t rot to death in a musty old basement.” His punches missed, and he left himself open for a shot to the face that knocked him back three steps.

“Crazy?” said Rocky and landed another blow. “Crazy is believing the lies they feed you.”

Wyatt swore, swung again and missed. This only made him angrier, and he ran in, failing about and missing blow after blow.

Rocky looked disappointed in him, whether in his attitude or his weak punches, wasn’t clear. “The Cabal aside, this was your choice. Don’t act as if it wasn’t,” he said and punched through Wyatt’s guard again. “Angry doesn’t work, it makes you act stupid.”

“Shut up,” Wyatt shouted, ignored a swing and lunged in for a choke hold. Rocky turned gracefully, grabbed one arm and pivoted to force Wyatt onto the ground. With a hard twist to one arm, he made Wyatt scream in pain.

“Are you going to stay angry?” Rocky said as Wyatt struggled. He pushed the arm higher, there was a light cracking sound as a joint popped. “When you settle down, let me know and I’ll let go.”

Wyatt tried to roll out of the pin and aimed a couple blows at Rocky’s thigh. Both connected, neither hard enough to move the other man. Wyatt let his breath out and put his head down on the mat. Rocky didn’t release him and the pain continued, but that was ok, it was more than ok. Pain was better than feeling nothing.

Rocky gave up and didn’t wait for him to tap out, and with a sigh of disgust let him go. “That’s it for training tonight. If you want a real fight; you’re not getting it from me.”

“Come on, man, I’m just getting into it,” Wyatt said and bounced up to his feet, fists at the ready.

“No. Go to your room.”

Like I’m a child, thought Wyatt and stepped forward, ready to lash out. This was a mistake; he wasn’t ready for the punch that Rocky threw at his chin. With blood flowing from his split lip, he fell to the ground.

Rocky stalked out of the room. “When I say that’s it, that that’s it. We’re done for the night.”

Later he’d remember the blow, how he’d not seen it coming and wondered how much the man held back during most fights. It hadn’t even looked like the other man had tried, it was that fast.

 

 

 

Altered – Catalyst (Chapter 1)

Chapter 1

 

Chicago, A few years from now

 

As the car skidded sideways across the grass towards the exit ramp, Wyatt’s mind returned to the day the girl in the passenger seat had first lied to him. He looked over at her as she let out a high-pitched scream, her eyes wild with terror. The sound filled him with a sense of calm joy.

He twisted the wheel and attempted to pull out of the spin, but it only made matters worse. He pulled the wheel in the other direction, pressed hard on the gas, and drove into the turn. The car straightened out and sped off of the interstate. If only Sylvie, his driving instructor, could see him now.

It’d all started with a simple text message he’d received while sitting at the kitchen table with his mother. He’d been picking at his mac and cheese while she’d rambled about college bursaries and how he needed to switch from track and field to football. He was at the far end of the table and avoided looking at her as she talked. They’d had this conversation many times before. It’s not as if he wasn’t aware that he could get a better scholarship if he played football, he just didn’t like team sports.

Wyatt had been about to tell his mother to shut up, which would have been a bad idea, a very bad idea, when his phone had lit up with, ‘text received’ and a small picture of Jessica Golde. She’d never texted him before and while they were friends on Facebook, she was friends with everyone.

He dropped his spoon back into his pasta, picked up the phone, and fumbled to put in his password. After all, he didn’t get a lot of messages and he got none from her.

This text was simple and yet was the most confusing message he’d ever read. “Hey, Wyatt. U going to Kens?” He felt a panic attack approach. How was it possible that Jess had asked him to a party? His mind whirled with questions. What party, who was Ken? What should he wear? He found himself unable to concentrate on any single one of the questions racing through his blood deprived brain.

“Are you even listening to me?” his mother said. Something in the tone made Wyatt suspect it wasn’t the first time she’d asked.

“Mom, I’ll think about it, ok?” he said, “Can I go out tonight?”

“Didn’t you say you were staying in?” she asked. “We’ve got our show recorded.” She paused and raised her eyebrow even further, a sly grin on her lips. “Who was the message from, was it Ford?” she asked, clearly figuring out that it hadn’t been his best friend.

Wyatt’s face flushed at her question. He wanted nothing more than to get to his room so he could read the message again and call Ford to discuss exactly what it meant.

“It wasn’t, was it?” his mother asked, and leaned back in her chair, with a far too satisfied grin for his liking. “Was it a girl?”

His face flushed further, and he got up from the table. “Mom, I’m done. I’m going upstairs,” he said, suddenly feeling closer to twelve than twenty.

His mother was a good person, he understood that somewhere deep in his anti-social soul. She proved it yet again by being kind enough to mostly hide her pleasure and said, “Of course you can go out.” Despite his reprieve, he knew it’d feature in a conversation later. His parents’ three favorite topics were joining football, University choices and his lack of a girlfriend. Unfortunately, but likely not coincidentally, these were also his three least favorite things to talk about.

She waved a hand at him, “We can watch it tomorrow. Do you need a ride? When are you leaving?”

“Mom, stop it. I don’t know. Whatever. I gotta call Ford,” he said and ran for the stairs. As always, he took the first one, skipped the next and then did two in a row. He had no clue why he did it, but he liked doing things in a pre-arranged order. This time around, it helped him ignore the laugh that followed him up the stairs. He dialed as he climbed and counted. Ford answered on the third ring.

“Hey, what’s going on?” Ford said, the sound of bullets and explosions in the background.

Wyatt said, “Jessica texted me, she wants to go to a party.”

There was a pause and he could picture his friend fixated on his TV, phone tucked to his ear, his one and only hand on his controller. “Someone texted you?” Ford asked.

“I get texts.”

“Sure you do. Jessica who?”

“You know, Jessica, from school. Jessica,” he repeated as if that should be clear. For him, the name alone was enough.

Ford paused and then said, “The tall blonde thing that you drool over? In no possible world has she asked you out. Who stole her phone?”

“Go jump,” Wyatt said with an excess of sensitivity. He stood up and looked in the mirror, seeing someone in the midst of a panic attack. He told himself, it’s you, not him, don’t take your insecurities out on Ford.

His friend didn’t notice and laughed. “Oh, boom, down you go.”

“What?”

“Sorry, got an awesome frag. Back to you. So, really, she asked you out? Come on, you’re smart enough to understand that’s just weird, you two don’t even talk. Whatever, assume it’s her. What’s your plan?”

“We’re going to the party.”

“You and her or you and me? I don’t go to parties. Where is it?”

“You and me and her. She said it was at Ken’s house,” replied Wyatt, his voice rising with stress.

“Which Ken? And why me, she didn’t invite me, did she? Let me check,” Ford said, and paused theatrically. “No, she didn’t.”

“I have no clue who Ken is,” Wyatt answered. His heart sank at the mere idea of asking Jessica for directions and showing how completely unconnected he was to normal high-school life. During the two year teacher strike, everyone else had formed study groups, partied and hung out. He’d studied, worked out alone or with Ford and practiced for the decathlon. As a result, he’d returned even more isolated than before.

“You’re a sad little man, aren’t you? I think your brain has gone to mush.” Ford said and was quiet for a moment. Wyatt could hear typing in the background. “You should try the inter webs, there’s information there if you look for it,” Ford said sarcastically. After a brief pause, he said, “Got it, there’s a post. It’s at Ken Murkshaw’s place, that arrogant dick with too much gel in his hair and the huge red truck. I bet he’s compensating for something with that. I hate that guy.”

“So what? Get the address, we’re going,” Wyatt replied, and sat down, despondent, on the edge of his bed, head in one hand, phone in the other.

“It’s clear why you are, I’ve seen how you look at her. Why am I, again? You forgot to tell me why you expect me to give up a night of pwning it online.”

“I can’t go to a party alone!” Wyatt cried out. It was true, he’d never make it without help.

“You’ll be with her, and you know how I feel about socializing. I don’t like it. You say you don’t, but, you’re just confused by people, so you avoid them. I actually actively dislike them. So, I repeat, what’s in it for me?”

“A free month of weight training.”

“You don’t charge me. How’s that a deal?”

“Want to keep it that way? Let’s see how well you do with one arm and no friends.” Ford had lost one arm in an accident two years earlier. He wasn’t sensitive about it and didn’t ask for help often, but a spotter in the weight room was essential. They’d became friends soon after the accident and now trained together almost every day.

Ford laughed again. He was always amused. The things that angered or frustrated others simply entertained him. He never thought twice about the past or worried about the future. He replied, “Fine, I’ll go, but only because you’ve been mooning over her for years and because I wanna see what her game is.”

“You think it’s a game? What, I’m not good enough for her?” he asked.

“You’re too good for her. She’s vacant, empty. Her only hobby is looking sexy and she isn’t as good at it as people think. But that’s not it. Why suddenly text you after years of not even acknowledging you in the hallway at school?”

Wyatt had wondered the same but wasn’t going to look this gift horse in the mouth. “Get on Skype, I need to pick out some clothes.”

There was a momentary silence on the other end of the line. “Bud, listen, I’m glad your little princess has finally expressed interest, and I’ve already said I’ll go out with you, but in no possible world will I Skype while you get dressed. We’re not that sort of friends.”

He opened his mouth to argue but then closed it. He was acting crazy, but he couldn’t help himself. He put Ford on speaker so he could stare at the text message again. Still there. Still her. He opened his laptop, went to Facebook and stared at her picture, not for the first time. “Fine. What should I wear? I don’t party any more than you do.”

“Clothes? I don’t frigging know. Wear the uniform. Jeans, striped button down shirt, untucked.”

“I’ll look like everyone else,” said Wyatt as he went through the clothing on the floor next to his bed.

“That’s the idea, isn’t it?” replied his friend.

Wyatt stared at the pile and rejected everything in it. This is a mistake, he thought, I should stay home. Little did he know how true that was or how little choice he actually had. “Perhaps I should just stay home,” he said out loud, but didn’t stop looking through his clothes.

“I can’t hear you. What are you doing?” Ford asked.

Wyatt had moved into his closet and was busy tossing shirt after shirt on the floor. Nothing looked right. “I’m in my closet,” he replied desperately.

“Is tonight the night to come out?” joked Ford.

“Funny, you’re the one everyone thinks is gay.”

“You wish. OK, clothes, buddy. Gay or not, I have more style sense than you do. Get a black t-shirt and a pair of jeans. That’s it. Make sure it’s tight. You don’t work out every day for nothing.”

Wyatt was going to argue, but he hadn’t found a single item in his closet that he’d be willing wear. Still, he hated the feel of tight clothing against his skin and couldn’t stand being restricted physically, it was one of his many minor phobias. “I don’t wear tight stuff, you know that.”

“Do you like Jessica?” asked Ford. Not waiting for a reply, he said, “You want her to want you, right? If the answer is yes, then suck it up, buttercup. Pull on your big boy shirt and flash a little muscle.”

The bottom drawer of his dresser held all the clothing he never ever wanted to wear and he found a shirt he’d not worn in at least two years. Luckily, it was buried deep enough in the drawer that it wasn’t covered in hair from his Mom’s three cats. He grimaced as he pulled it on. “Fine,” he said.

Ford asked, “So, what time are we going?”

That was a good question, he didn’t know and said so. He’d had a fear of being late ever since a teacher in grade school had singled him out when he’d arrived five minutes after class started. She’d asked him why he was late and he’d refused to answer. As punishment she’d moved his desk to the front. “Let’s get there early,” he said.

Ford asked, “Not too early, it’s not cool. Only losers show up early. What time did you say you’d be there?”

“I’ve not even texted her back,” he said, panicked again. A track meet with a thousand spectators wasn’t a problem for him, but one text message had him in a nervous breakdown. He’d forgotten to reply to her original text. “What should I say?” he asked.

Ford sarcastically replied, “How about something like, ‘yes, see you there?’”

He wanted to be snappier, cooler, but couldn’t think of anything. He wrote the text, then erased it. “What if I said ‘maybe’?”

“You’re going to play hard to get with Jessica Golde? She’s not the brightest bulb in the box, but even she’s aware that you’re not hard to get. Not for her at least.”

“Yes, but…” replied Wyatt.

“No buts, just send it,” ordered his friend.

He typed out the words, hesitated, clicked ‘send,’ and found himself sweating and breathing way too quickly as a result. “What if her first text was a mistake?” he asked.

“I thought of that,” his friend replied, “What’s the odds? I bet you weren’t even in her list of contacts. She had to go out of her way to find your number.”

“You think she looked me up?”

Wyatt could hear the grin through the phone as his friend answered, “I don’t understand why, but yes, I do. If you weren’t so focused on that pretty little body, you’d have thought of it too. Calm down, bud. I’m going to play for a while longer and pick you up later. I assume you need a ride?”

“Better you than Mom.”

“Yup, I suppose that’d make a great impression.”

Wyatt had thought the same thing, he wanted Ford there for support, but it didn’t hurt that he’d get a lift. “Thanks. Pick me up at nine?”

“Let’s make it eight. I’ll hang with your mom, she’s always good for a meal.”

Ford wasn’t wrong, when his mom heard he was coming over, she heated up some lasagna from dinner.

“You two make me sick,” joked Wyatt when the two of them were finally on the road, and pulled at his shirt, trying to stretch it out.

“Stop that,” Ford told him. “And who makes you sick?”

“You and my mom.”

“Why do you always get pissed that I get along with people. You find it strange, my brooding and solitary friend, just cause you don’t understand it.”

“So, where’s the party?” Wyatt asked, rolled up his window and put on the air conditioning. Even at nine o’clock, it was still over forty degrees and the humidity was smothering.

“Wheaton, we’ll hop on the I-355 and be there in twenty minutes, no more. You got toll on you?” asked Ford, and briefly took his one hand off of the wheel to pluck his phone out of his shirt pocket. “I’ll pull the address up.”

Wyatt grabbed the phone out of his friend’s hand.

“Hey, what are you doing?” said Ford. “Give it.”

“How about you focus on the drive and let me handle that.”

Ford slowed briefly but then sped up. With one hand, he wasn’t getting it back. “Get the directions and give it back.”

“What, you’re expecting a text from a girl? That’s even less likely than Jessica sending me a note.” Wyatt put the address into the phone and handed it back to his suddenly secretive friend as they headed to the interstate.

Wyatt watched little houses with big yards pass by on the right, big-box stores and their enormous well-lit parking lots on the left. The city was bathed in the deep purple of late dusk, roads quiet and sidewalks mostly clear. He turned on the radio and flicked channels until he came to a song he recognized.

As he sang along, he tried to not think of meeting Jessica at the party. What would he say, what did she expect of him? He’d daydreamed about it’d be like to be with her so many times and yet now that she’d asked him out, he felt completely unprepared. “Should we pick up drinks?”

“I brought Coke, it’s the back.”

“I meant…” Wyatt replied, trailing off.

“Right, first time with Jessica and first time drunk, that’s a great plan. I can picture you puking on her; that’d make a good impression.”

“I’ve drank before.”

“With your mom at Christmas dinner doesn’t count and today isn’t the day to try liquid courage. Anyhow, I don’t have fake ID.”

Wyatt discarded the idea, “I don’t either.”

Ford paused and continued. “Should we talk about other things you’ve not done before?”

Wyatt didn’t reply but his face flushed. He hoped his friend couldn’t see it in the dark of late dusk.

Ford laughed, not helping his anxiety level, “You’re kidding?” They’d never talked much about their experience with girls, or lack thereof. “You’re definitely not drinking then.” He sounded like he’d continue but was kind enough to stop that line of discussion and pointed ahead. “Need to find new directions, looks like.”

Wyatt could see flashing lights at the on-ramp, where two police cars blocked the way just before the toll-booths. As Ford turned right at the intersection, the phone directed them to return to the interstate, “Recalculating, recalculating,” the soft voice said. “Make your first legal U-turn.”

He opened the map function and found alternate directions to the party as they waited in silence for the light to turn green. He was anxious that they’d be arriving late, although he wasn’t sure exactly what would be on-time. “Come on,” he said. “What’s with the light? I swear, nothing works anymore.”

“Relax. If she has to wait, it’ll make her want you more. Show her who the boss is,” Ford said with obvious sarcasm.

Wyatt ignored his buddy, got out of the car, and ran over to push the walk button, quickly got back into the car, and took a deep breath, in an attempt to regain focus.

Ford snickered, “You know that those don’t work, right? They were disconnected when the city automated the traffic system. The buttons were left in to make people feel like they have control even when they don’t.”

Wyatt said, “I counted, it was over a minute. That’s not how technology should work, and yes, it made me feel better, so their plan worked,” he said, at which point the light changed. As they continued on their way, he gazed out the window at the few stars not obscured by the city lights. He looked at one, then another in turn, blinking twice after each switch. He was at twelve when Ford called him on it.

“Are you counting again?” asked Ford, well aware of his friend’s compulsive habits.

Wyatt ignored the question. “Whatever,” he said, but he stopped anyhow. It bothered him when people commented on it. “And, buddy, in answer to your question, I’m sure she knows who the boss is. There ain’t any possible world in which it’s me.”

Ford nodded and replied, “Meh, women like a man who pretends he’s in charge, as long as he knows he’s not. You’re perfect for the role.”

They drove the next half hour in silence. When they’d arrived, there were cars lined up along the road for a block. At the house, a guy with spiked hair and a beer in hand waved at them to park behind the house in a field. It was pitch black in the trees around them as Ford gingerly parked beside an iron-gray Hummer that dwarfed his Datsun-Z. It was the last time either of them would see the little car.