“You can always tell who a person is by what they bring to a dinner.” –Major Steven Debenham of the Bluecoats Airman
Appetite hated stormy days. Something ‘bout it never settled well with him. The pelting rain against the wooden cabin, the crackling of lightning and pounding of thunder, the howling of wind down the side of the mountain gave every storm an ominous presence on Dusk Mountain. He remembered being afraid of this kind of dreary weather when he was a kid, wandering these very halls to his parents’ room on the other side. Years later, he wandered the same cabin with the same feeling wound type in his stomach. He felt like a dang fool feeling this way every time. “It’s only rain and bad feelings,” he grumbled under his breath. “Only rain and bad feelings.”
As a family, they decided to stay at their father’s cabin while he was away to look after their mother. The party headed to the Distillery left early this morning when the sun cracked over the grey horizon. He remembered hearing the trucks roll off early this morning in several small groups, each armed and ready for a race if they needed to escape. Appetite watched them leave from his window before nodding back to sleep for a while. When he woke again, they were gone, and it was raining. It was what started this bad feeling in the first place. That was why he couldn’t go back to sleep even though it was early in the morning.
The loneliness didn’t help much. He had his mother, brother, and sister. They eased it, but he missed his partner in crime, his buddy, his friend. Kindle was out there somewhere in the Swamp with Remy and Ignace. He hadn’t decided which one was worse after the last debacle. She had urged him to leave though. His history with everyone there–present and past–only served to put his daughter in more danger than anything. Papa Bear still couldn’t savor the thought regardless. With the current threat everyone was in, her not being here, he thought his mind to explode. Not an hour awake, his mind wandered to stressing eating. He muttered curses to himself. He didn’t like that he did this when other people needed to eat, but if he didn’t he’ll lose his dang mind.
Appetite wandered too the kitchen to see Loner already awake. He was hunched under the small dining room table, naked aside from a pair of boxers and the respirator on his face. His long flesh colored tail slapped against the floor in frustration as he too muttered his thoughts out. He picked up a tool with it, using the prehensile nature of his tail. to help with his tinkering. It was odd seeing his tail. Loner was often ashamed of it, keeping it wrapped around his waist underneath his clothes. Others family members had extreme mutations. He had every right to feel the way he did. Appetite wished that he could see how talented and cool his younger brother was. Appetite approached him, putting a big hand on the slim man’s shoulder. He jumped, hitting his head on the underbelly of the dining room table, screeching like a small animal. “Woody, don’t do that!”
“Sorry, whatcha doing up this early?”’
“I always get up this early,” he muttered, crossing his legs. “Whatcha doin’ up this early?”
“Whatdya think I’m here?”
Loner snorted. “I wouldn’t mind breakfast.” He put down his tools, unfolded himself, and squirmed from underneath the table. It reminded Appetite of a small animal leaving his nest. No doubt I look around the same.
“Any reason you aren’t wearing clothes?”
“It gets hot when I’m workin’.”
“What are you working on?”
“Jesse’s mind core.” He shrugged. “They need their sleep too. Also, it helps me think.”
“Didn’t look like it.”
“Frustration helps too. Helps me think.”
Loner wandered to the fridge. He pulled out a few frozen chickens, a few tomatoes, a few carrots and a couple of eggs from Pastor’s farmlands. He turned, grinning underneath the thin plastic of his respirator. A little smile peer across his brother’s face. Appetite rolled his eyes and wandered the counter. When their parents were gone, the cooking often fell on him. He began to wonder what they did in their own homes down the mountain. They knew though, that if they ever asked, he would make them a meal without question. That was what families did for each other. Appetite washed his hands and got to work on breakfast. “Two rules,” Appetite said, heating up the oven his father had made and finding some of the metal pots in the cabinet. “No work at the table and you’re the one that’s going to have to wake Jo up.” Loner winced at the thought but said nothing. He knew what undertaking he was put on.
Grumbling, his brother padded off, his little three-pronged feet making small taps into the dragon’s den. Waking Jo had to be the worst chore either them could every conceive for the other. Being notoriously stubborn awake must’ve given her an unbreakable will asleep. It might’ve bought him enough time to get some of the cooking done. Grinning, Appetite began his much easier and much more mindless task of cleaning and cooking.
With the care he would give his own kid, Appetite moved each piece of Loner’s workstation into the living room’s table. He had broken somethin’ with his “sausage fingers” before. One of the few times he had ever seen Evan upset with him. He learned to take things at a slower pace after that. He left everything exactly as he picked them up, not even an inch outta place. Treat their stuff like you want your stuff to be treated, his pa told him after he broke that device. Funny how decades later he remembered that day. Loner’s tinkering safe and outta the way he began on breakfast.
The thawing and clean of the chicken took most of his time. He found himself staring out of the window, mindlessly watching the rain pour over the lip of the roof. Lightning cracked over the grey sky in large forks, streaking across the now blacken charcoal that was the sky. He sliced one chicken, quartering into the favorite pieces for his family. He kept his whole and even though he could eat more than one, he didn’t need to be greedy. A bit of oil heating in a pan and deep pot, a few cracking of an entire dozen eggs, and slicing of tomatoes, breakfast was on its way. This was usually a good feeling for him, but this stormy weather only made things worse. He only hoped the generators held.
“You’re not alone, Woody.”
Appetite wheeled around to see his mother sitting at the table, smiling and clutching her cane. The soft sea colors of her eyes roared with a distant understanding. She leaned forward a little, her hair in a thin curtain over eyes. “The rain always did bother you. Somethin’ bout it always got to ya. Keep in mind though, gut feelings ain’t something to be ignored. What’s on your mind?”
“It’s–” A pop of oil interrupted him, coming close to his face. He kept to his frying, stoking the meat with a set of prongs. “Cassie’s out there in the swamp. Pa defending the brews on the other mountain. They’re fine, but I can’t shake the feeling–” Bang. A crash of thunder interrupted this time accompanied by a high snap of lightning. “Can’t shake the feeling that something big’s gonna happen today. Somethin’ mighty big.”
Mary Lu nodded. “I feel it too.” She tapped her fingers against the ball of her cane. “How long have you been having this?”
“These feelings, how often do they have it,” she asked after a long while waiting for the rain to peter off. “Do they come with anything else?”
Appetite frowned. He hadn’t thought much about it but he got what she was putting down. He couldn’t put words to what he felt like asking a blind man to explain shapes. His mother watched him go through his thoughts in a calm, measured patience. It made him feel proud the way looked at him. She didn’t rush, didn’t as much as make a sound. He focused instead on making the breakfast, thinking of dropping the topic altogether. “You don’t think its–y’know, I’m, it’s nothin’ like that. It’s feelin’ that’s all. Don’t happen much.” He pushed the thought from his head in a corner of his mind. His mother nodded and let the topic go. She lowered her shoulder and the subject altogether. She knew when he was uncomfortable talking about the thing, nothing would break him outta of it. “I don’t feel comfortable talking ‘bout it.”
“That’s not unlike your pa. Can’t really talk about things you don’t wanna think about,” she smiled. “It’s alright. I do want to ask you how you feel about what he revealed the other day.”
“‘Bout the experiments? How we got the way we got?” Appetite licked some the chicken grease from his fingers. In all honesty, he hadn’t wanted to think about what his dad and his uncles gone through. He had heard stories. They always left a sour taste in his mouth. “We can’t change what we are. It’s all we’ve ever known.” He flipped over the quartered chicken in the pan and checked his deep fryer again. He tossed the eggs into the pan, followed by the tomatoes and scrambled it all together. “Were you…”
“Experimented on. Yes. But my abilities were there before though,” she laughed. “It’s amazing how cruel a person can be when they’re faced with something they can’t understand. If it wasn’t for your dad’s…stupidly reckless plan, I wouldn’t have gotten to this old age. I wouldn’t have had the pleasure of meeting my children and grandchild. But, all in all, I’m happy that the family has taken it how they have. It gave them a little more to fight for.”
Appetite found himself respecting his mother more than even before. She didn’t look like a woman that had seen hardships like she had. Who does though, he reminded himself. It was rare to see a person look like what they’ve been through. With care, he took his scrambled eggs plated them on the three plates and carted them over to the table. He set the table in silence, his mother watching him. The proud look in her eyes made him made a good feeling rise in his chest. “Eat ‘em, ma.”
He placed the other two plates on the table before finishing up his significantly larger breakfast. Another rumble of thunder boomed throughout the room followed by a sound within the house, a sharp bang. Jo shouted a curse back. This went back and forth until they came out of her old room. Loner dragged her by her arm to the table, his two drones wheeling behind him. One buzzed a little louder than the other, light smoking. “You didn’t flash a light in her face, didya, Evan?” Appetite asked frowning.
“She wouldn’t wake up.”
Jo growled. “If punching a sick man was okay, I would’ve punched you in your stupid, skinny ribs.”
She looked a mess, collapsing in the dining chair. Her hair was all over, her eyelids heavy, and her face slumped and twisted with annoyance. Appetite boiled and brought them some of the coffee in large tin mugs. Rare stuff really, it was one of the few things they didn’t have the means to grow. Until another shipment offworld came, they had to be sparse with it. Appetite never really cared for the stuff, didn’t give him the jolt of energy it gave others. Probably for the best. There were two types of people in the galaxy: people that didn’t need their morning coffee and people that did. Appetite respected that.
At last, his breakfast finished. He pulled his whole chicken (though a little underdone) from the vat of oil, scrambled the rest of the eggs and tomatoes and carted his bounty to the table. Everyone else had already begun eating. Jo was scarfing down food, his mother politely at a measured pace, and Loner sat with his respirator aside and eating happily. Appetite pulled his chair and started to sit down. Lightning snapped, thunder boomed, and… the door knocked? He stood there, confused for a second, ears straining against the rain and the wind. It wasn’t his imagination. There was a knocking at the door. He put down his silverware and wandered out of the kitchen. “Put some pants on, Evan,” he said on his way out to the main living area.
He came to the open door to see Zeke standing in the doorway. The teenage boy, all red-faced, pimply, with a slightly slanted nose, stood with his hands in his pocket. A few of his older cousins stood behind him armed with rifles at a much shorter third man…in a Bluecoat. The cold feeling rippled through his body, the one he had been feeling all day. Second Major Debenham stood on the porch, wiping his muddy boots on the wood. Appetite almost lunged at the man. “Good morning, Woodrow. That’s your name. You prefer Appetite, right?”
In all his years, he hadn’t felt a simpler rage.
“Don’t…don’t do that,” the Major said, putting up a finger. “Some of your people has already tried.” He pointed the hundreds of holes on his coat. “And I chose not to act. So please, don’t act rashly again. You saw how that goes.” The Major patted Zeke on the head. “Mind if I come in, I brought a little something for your trouble?”
“Let the Major in, Woody.” His mother’s calm leveled voice on the inside of the cabin surprised him. “Don’t attack him.”
Appetite sent the armed men away. If the holes in blue coats was a merit, it would take more than what they had to kill a man like this. The cyborg major dipped his head, walking through frame much too short for him. Reining in the urge to crush the smaller man, he moved aside. Major Steven Debenham placed his coat and his hat on the rack by the door, revealing his metal arms and metal eyes. He shook off some of the water. “I brought a little something for breakfast. Good thing too, no one tells you that scaling a mountain works up an… nah I’m not gonna say it. Mind if I sit down?” Appetite took in a deep breath. “I know what you’re thinking. You can search me if you want to. But if I made it this far without killing any of you, do you really think that I need a gun or a weapon of any kind to do it if I wanted to? So, let’s pretend that I’m not murderous killing machine bent on wiping out the Civilization’s mess across the galaxy.”
That’s a fair point. Appetite grumbled. “This way, Major.”
“Please call me, Steve. Only my airmen call me Major. Boots, on or off? It’s raining bad out there don’t want to track in the mud. Raining cats and dogs like my grandpa used to say.”
“You can keep ‘em on. I’ll clean it later.”
“You really need a doormat. Would’ve brought one if I had known. You don’t think to bring something like that. Guess we take stuff like that for granted.” He took off his boots anyway. Appetite couldn’t help but notice the knapsack over the man’s shoulder. “Alright, time to eat.”
Appetite led the Major into the kitchen where his family still sat. Jo and Loner had finished their meals, staring up at the Bluecoat standing in their presence. His ma didn’t raise her head, plucking the remaining chicken from her plate. “Augur of Owls, Rancher Queen, Loner. I’ve heard much about all of you. Been giving some of my airmen trouble, more than trouble for some may say. Again, I’m not here for that. I’m here to be cordial and eat at your table. That’s all I’m here. I like to get to know you better.” He took the knapsack off and pulled out its contents: a large tin container, a sizeable bag, a canteen, and a small flat circular device. Appetite and the rest of the table tensed up. “Don’t worry, it’s not explosive. Your kin checked it. Not that I can have explosives, lost my quals for ‘em. Long story. It’s not so much a long story more than an embarrassing one. Just. Let me open it.”
Major Debenham popped the sides of the container, each with a satisfying snap. He popped off the top, revealing a normal, perfectly brown ham and hash brown casserole underneath. “I made this at camp. It’s not as good as I would’ve made it at home with the wife and kids, but eh. It is what it is.” He took the small circular device and hovered over the meal and it began to burn bright, heating up the small container, melting the harden cheese soft against the shredded potatoes. He held it in midair for a while, with his other hand opened the pack. A waft of fresh coffee grounds rose into the air. Once the meal was done, he brewed the coffee using the same device and a strainer he produced from his pocket. “Aww, here I am rambling, and you haven’t eaten your breakfast yet and your food done got cold. Want me to warm it up for you?”
“Come on, it’s safe. I promise. All of it is. I wouldn’t poison you with food. I’m not a savage.”
“Then what are you?” Jo snapped. Appetite was surprised that didn’t happen sooner.
“A man doing his job.” The Major exhaled an exaggerated breath. “I do take pride in my work, but I like to think I’m fair. You see my job is to rid the galaxy of threats to the Civilization, specifically lab-related threats such as rogue A.Is, androids, cyborgs–like myself–mutants and other types of experiments by the last Chairperson. It took me a long time to find Dr. Eorthorn’s mutants from the Daedal. I didn’t expect an entire family, a clan more like. So, I admittedly got curious. So, I’m here.”
“Will it change a thing, Steve?”
“No. No, it won’t.”
Appetite tore into a chicken leg. He ate it all the same, practically ripping the meat from the bone and crunching into the marrow with a single bite. Steve was right about one thing: his food had grown cold. Brooding, he continued with his breakfast without a word. No one said a word for a very long time. Major Debenham must’ve seen his discomfort since leaned over and used his warming device without a word. The skin of the chickened crisped up and the eggs warmed within seconds. Afterward, he cut off some pieces of his casserole and plopped it on both of their plates. “I’m not a monster, believe it not. It’s the reason why I’m here. You’re the first mission I’ve gotten the chance to talk to that wasn’t completely savages. I mean you are. But you’re not. So, I’m giving you a heads up and gonna see what you do.”
You had every reason to attack here instead of the distillery. Why? Another boom of thunder. Why would they waste the time?
“As you probably know or at least pieced together, I know about the distillery and obviously I know about the Homestead. So, why there. Not here. Why am I–,” the Major forked another piece of hash brown casserole and plopped it in his mouth, “why would I come all the way here and not bring my people? ‘Cause I knew that the Drifter would go and I couldn’t help but take that chance. There’re just some people that you can’t ignore and he’s one of them. After you’ve done my job for long, there’re patterns. First few, I tried to work my way up. You don’t do that. You work your way down. Who’s at the top I’ve heard from all reports? Your husband and your father. Right now, as we speak, here’s Captain Xan and a few dozens of his strike team are headed your way. I, believe or not, am an observer in this. I’m not even supposed to be here.”
“You’re here to stall.” Jo stood up, pulling a gun from her side. “What’s stoppin’ us from keepin’ you here?”
“Nothing, I mean, aside from the fact I could kill you all in a blink of an eye if I really wanted to. But that’s complicated and messy. Just look at your mother’s face, she’s seen someone like me before, haven’t you? Somewhere along the line you’ve met someone like me. Not as dashing and ruggedly handsome, I hope, but someone nevertheless. Stop your children from doing something stupid for their sake. They’ll get their chance at me. Right now, I’m eating breakfast and you’re on the clock. So instead of thinking about how to kill me, thinking about how you’re going to this information to your dear ol’ pa.”
He’s right. Appetite let his mind slow down and focus on the real problem. This was a battle in itself. The Major wanted to get them nervous, throw them off their game. Appetite extended his arm. Jo stared at him, exchanging thoughts with a simple glance. Patience, Jo, patience. Out of all of them, that was one virtue he learned. That was his strength. Slow and steady, Woody, slow and steady. They had a way out of this. They needed to play it smart though. Appetite straightened his back and took a bite out of the Major’s casserole. Huh. “Not bad, Steve,” he said, his low voice turning sweeter than syrup. “You ain’t bad. The food I mean, it ain’t bad.”
“Eh, like I said, would’ve been better. Had to use what I had.” The Major’s face changed a little, noticing the shift in the atmosphere. Jo relaxed and seated herself, Loner kept quiet, and the Matriarch of the family laced her fingers together. He lost his momentum here and he didn’t quite know where and when. Appetite widened his grin and helped himself to several spoonfuls and bites of food. “What are y’all planning? I had you on the ropes until now, what changed?”
“You don’t know Drifter like we do. Call it a matter of faith.” Mary Lu pulled herself to her full height. “Do you mind, Major, taking me to that window after you’re done with your meal? I’m in need for some air. There’s nothing quite rainy air for the old lungs.”
“Of course, ma’am.” The airman’s confusion deepened. To his credit, he kept his smile and finished his food. Like a true gentleman, he got up and offered his arm to the old lady that he would have no problem killing if he wanted. “This planet is really beautiful. You should consider yourselves lucky that you landed on one so beautiful. There’re some nasty planets out there.”
“Yes, there are. Daedal was far worse.”
The Major stiffened. “That planet isn’t a thing anymore, ma’am. I handled it myself.”
“That’s good to here. When did that happen?”
“A few months back.”
“And that’s how you found us. There were records there.” She smiled again. “I can’t help to notice your accent. You’re from a back planet too. We tend to have this drawl our voice. Where are you from, sweetie?”
“A small planet named Kalis. Ain’t–” He caught himself. “It’s not a big planet on the edge of the Civilization planets. I don’t like talking about it that much, but I can hear the similarities between us. It’s truly a shame.”
“Then why do you do it?”
“For a better galaxy.”
“It’s always for the better of the galaxy, isn’t it?”
The Major and his mother took their conversation to the window, opening them up to the rain and wind of the outside air. As much as Appetite wished to hear their discussion, there were things that needed be done. He gave a subtle nod to Loner. One of his drones buzzed around and hummed. He brought it over with a simple command, using a clicking sound in the back of his throat. From there he whispered a few words. Appetite didn’t know much about the drones and how they worked. He did know that they could send a message. The next command was a soft snap of his finger, sending the small red drone phased into a deep camouflage known as a hard-light shift. Only a very light outline remained. Loner gave a small nod to his brother, clicking his tongue one final time. The drone zoomed at the open window.
Here’s the tricky part. The faint outline of the drone drifted a little at a time. Mary Lu kept with the Major distracted, making small talk with very soft words against the wind. Seconds passed. More seconds passed. Major Debenham looked over his shoulder for a brief second that he could see it. If he did, he made no effort to stop it. The drone zipped outta the window, into the rain and the wind without a hitch. Worst come to worst, it would find a close by a family member to tell them what they learned. It’s a good plan. Be careful, pa. It was the best they could do it on such short notice.
Mary Lu closed the window herself. “How about I make us a pie, Major? You came all this way and brought somethin’, the very least I could do is return the favor. Come, sit and enjoy a little time off.”