Chapter 46: ‘Devoted protector, choose well…’

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46

Over the next day, Hector trained as much as Garovel would let him. And it took a while of measuring, but he eventually discovered that his materialization ability currently held a range of eighty-eight meters. Give or take one or two.

Still, it was pretty incredible, Hector felt, being able to create something from nearly a football field away. He noticed, however, that close to the edge of his range, precision became more difficult.

‘That’s to be expected,’ Garovel told him. ‘To an extent, your ability is also dependent on your sight. When you can’t clearly see what you’re making, it’ll probably end up less like you wanted.’

Hector closed his eyes and materialized a cube in his hand. When he looked at it, he found a perfect box, just as desired. He smirked at the reaper.

‘Hey, that’s too simple. Try something more difficult. Like an animal. Oh, make a tiny giraffe. I like giraffes.’

He destroyed the cube and did his best. When he opened his eyes again, he found that his work still looked very much like a giraffe. Maybe the spots were a bit off, but he wasn’t entirely sure how to picture those in his head anyway.

‘I see how it is. You’re trying to make me look stupid.’

Hector snickered, letting the knickknack disintegrate between his fingers.

‘Make a baby monkey playing a banjo while riding a dinosaur.’

“Oh, come on, I wouldn’t be able to do that even with my eyes open.”

‘Fine, then just make something big. Like a giant dildo.’

“I’m not gonna make a giant dildo…”

‘A cock and balls, then?’

“Garovel…”

‘What?’

“You’re… you’re way too old to be laughing at penis jokes.”

‘Hector, please. One can never be too old to laugh at penis jokes. And I don’t think you appreciate how valuable the materialization ability is for pulling pranks.’

Hector ignored him and closed his eyes again. He chose to make a wide chamber around himself, four walls with a door and a window for each. He added a pointed ceiling with four different support beams. Abruptly, however, he heard the metal groan.

‘Look out,’ came Garovel’s lazy warning.

The ceiling caved in on top of him.

‘A cock and balls would’ve been a lot safer, you know.’

Hector annihilated his metal and stood. He brushed the dirt off his coat as the bones in his neck and shoulders realigned themselves. “Okay,” he said. “I guess you were right.”

‘Indeed.’

“By the way, um… I was wondering about Colt’s ability…”

‘Yeah?’

“He can really destroy, like… anything?”

‘I believe so, yeah. Once he develops it more, that is.’

“But, uh… I mean, don’t servants in Abolish have that power, too?”

‘I’m sure some do, yeah. Why?’

“They wanna destroy the entire planet, don’t they? And if one of them has the destruction power and they develop it enough, wouldn’t they be able to, y’know, actually pull it off?”

‘Oh. Well, first off, the destruction ability has a range limit as well. I think the strongest destruction user I’ve ever heard of could make a path about… I wanna say, two kilometers. Length-wise, that is. Increasing the width of the path is much more difficult. I think the max width was only about two meters.’

“Really? That’s such a huge difference…”

‘The path projects outward from the user, kind of like a drill. It’s easier for it to move forward and backward than horizontally. Positioning and direction are both very important for destruction users.’

“Hmm. But they could still use that to, like… drill to the planet’s core, couldn’t they?”

‘That’s actually happened before,’ said Garovel, smirking. ‘It requires a special kind of nutjob, though, even by Abolish’s standards. Most servants–even the maniacal, murdering bastards–DO still want to live. So they understand that destroying the planet might not be the wisest course of action. But occasionally, the stars will align, and just the right idiot will acquire the destruction power and get just the right opportunity to develop it. Most of them don’t realize, however, how gigantic or how hot Eleg’s core is.’

“Oh…”

‘I do recall one incident, though–an actually organized effort to get down there and cause problems before being vaporized.’

“Yeah?”

‘You have to understand,’ said Garovel. ‘The planet’s core is thousands of degrees Celsius and larger than most continents. Even if you somehow managed to drill into it, that’s not gonna do very much. At most, you might cause an earthquake, but it’d still be so far underground that it wouldn’t affect anyone on the surface. You certainly wouldn’t cause the entire planet to explode or collapse or anything so cataclysmic. That is, unless you spent weeks or months down there, carving out a large enough chunk of the core to actually have an impact.’

Hector scratched his head. “And someone tried to do that?”

‘Yeah. Abolish conducted an expedition. I don’t know how they intended to make it through the extreme temperatures. We’re talking four or five times hotter than a fucking volcano here. It seems utterly impossible to me. If they had some kind of technology to protect against that, then I’ve never heard of it. And a servant’s body is NOT going to regenerate in temperatures like that. Your flesh will burn or melt much more quickly than it will grow back.’

“Huh.”

‘But the Vanguard intercepted them anyway, so it didn’t even matter in the end.’

“How would the Vanguard even know what Abolish was doing…?”

Garovel opened his mouth to answer but stopped himself. And after a moment, he gave a skeletal smirk. ‘Oh, that’s right. You wouldn’t know, would you?’

“Know what?”

‘Hmm.’

“Garovel…?”

‘Eh. I don’t feel like telling you.’

Hector’s brow lowered. “What? Why not?”

The reaper’s smirk only grew. ‘Because it’ll make for a nice surprise one day.’

“But… aww, c’mon. W-what if we die before I get a chance to find out?”

‘Gee. I guess we better not die, then.’

“Bullshit… I bet you don’t even know the answer.”

‘Could be. Who knows? Oh wait, I do. Eheh.’

“Dammit, what the hell?! You’ve never done this before! I don’t like surprises!”

‘That’s too bad. Because I do.’

“Agh!”

‘If it were something critically important, I’d just tell you,’ said Garovel.

“Right…”

‘Why don’t you go get some rest? I think you’ve trained enough for today.’

“Fucking… jerk…”

Garovel just laughed.

Hector’s room was little more than a closet. The walls hugged the bed, and there was scarcely enough space to open the door. It couldn’t be much of a step up from just sleeping in one of the cars, but he wasn’t about to complain. A bed was a bed.

After a while, Garovel woke him up so that he could eat.

Colt’s cooking was a decidedly unique experience. The man made some kind of indistinguishable gray slop, and yet when Hector tried it, he discovered that it didn’t taste that bad.

“What do you call this?” Hector asked.

Colt shrugged.

Hector cocked an eyebrow. “What’s in it?”

“Gravy.”

“…And?”

“And some other stuff.”

“What other stuff?”

“Just be glad I’m good at making gravy.”

Whatever it was, Stephanie and Thomas didn’t seem to mind eating it.

Hector couldn’t keep up much conversation, still feeling tired and sore all over, and Colt didn’t seem all that interested in talking, either. Halfway through the meal, however, Hector’s phone rang. He answered it.

<“Found you a doctor,”> said Gina. <“Dr. Marcus of Walton General apparently moonlights for some, shall we say, less-than-upstanding citizens. He’s got a pretty foul reputation, though. Organ trafficking and the like. That okay?”>

“Yeah,” said Colt. “Did you make me an appointment, or do I need to make my own?”

<“This guy doesn’t really do appointments. You’ll have to go to him. And he may not be particularly welcoming unless you’ve got cash on you. A few thousand troa, at least.”>

“Alright. Tell me where to find him.”

-+-+-+-+-

The old clinic stood at the foot of a hill. Its boarded up windows and broken, unlit sign suggested that it no longer served patients, but that was probably the whole idea.

Colt parked around back, seeing Hector’s motorcycle pull up next to him. He told Hector and Garovel to stay behind and rest, but they insisted on coming along. Maybe they wanted to make sure the twins were safe. Maybe they wanted to make sure he didn’t kill anyone. Probably both.

He didn’t like Walton so much. If it wasn’t for the reapers, he would’ve gotten lost at least twice on the way here. The city’s night life seemed annoyingly vibrant as well. He could hear a party going on a few streets over.

Hector was kind enough to go first while Colt had his hands full with the children. Instead of going through the building’s rear entrance, Hector lifted the door to the storm cellar and descended. Colt followed.

They came upon an underground hallway and another door. Hector knocked. After a wait, a deep voice asked, “Who is it?”

According to Gina’s directions, the correct response was, “Someone in need of an especially skilled yet underappreciated doctor.” Colt spared Hector the torture of having to say it.

The lock clicked open, and they were allowed entry. Hector stood off to the side and allowed Colt to approach the small man in a white coat.

The first thing Colt noticed was the cellar itself. It hardly seemed like a sterile environment for medical procedures. With the dank air and stone gray walls, it was practically a dungeon, though perhaps better lit. And the apparent doctor wasn’t alone. Two bulky men sat on either side of him, their holstered firearms displayed clearly at their hips.

“Oh, wow,” said Dr. Marcus. “I don’t usually get children this time of night. Why, exactly, can’t you bring them to me during normal business hours?”

“Does it matter?” said Colt.

The man’s smile was not friendly. “Anyone who does what I do has to have at least a mild affection for children.” He waved a hand, and his two bodyguards stood. “I don’t take very kindly to kidnappers.”

“I’m their father,” said Colt steadily. “I didn’t kidnap them.”

“And if I asked you to prove it?”

“I’d say take a paternity test.”

“Those aren’t exactly quick. And they’re not my forte, either.”

“Look,” said Colt. “All I want is a normal check-up for them. Just tell me if there’s anything I should be worried about.”

“Then answer my question. Why are you bringing them to me now?”

“Because I’m wanted for murder.”

The man didn’t lose a beat. “Are you guilty?”

“Yes.”

The doctor paused to exhale a laugh. “You’re very honest.”

“Are you gonna check them or not?”

“Did you kill a child?”

“No.”

The man stared at him. “Did you bring money?”

Colt showed him a backpack full of cash.

“Alright, then.” The doctor took a step forward, and then he stopped, his eyes lingering on Hector. “Who’s he?”

“My babysitter. Don’t worry about him.”

“No, no,” the man said. “Take off your helmet. Let me see your face.”

Hector glanced at Colt, and Colt shrugged. Hector removed his riding helmet.

The doctor backed away a few steps, as did his two bodyguards. “I recognize you,” the man said, not shaken, but not pleased, either. “You’ve been all over the news.”

“Don’t worry about him,” Colt repeated. “If you’re wondering whether or not he’s guilty, too, then I’ll save you the trouble of asking. He’s not.”

The doctor tilted his head, loosening up a little. “Really now? And yet he’s working as your… babysitter?”

“He and I have a complicated relationship. Are you done asking questions now? I didn’t come here to be quizzed.”

Dr. Marcus threw a last look at Hector before saying, “Very well. Follow me, please.”

They all began walking together, heading for a staircase at the far end of the cellar.

“Tell me about your children,” the doctor said. “Surely, you felt it was a risk coming here. Is there something about them that has been worrying you?”

“They’re strangely calm,” said Colt. “Nothing seems to faze them anymore.”

“So you’re concerned about their mental health, rather than their physical health.”

“Yeah.”

“How old are they?”

“Little over fourteen months. They’re twins, if you couldn’t already tell.”

They ascended the steps into a whiter hallway, then took the first door on the left into a more conventional room. Old anatomical charts and reassuring posters filled the walls where cabinets didn’t. Colt set the twins on the waist-high table in the center of the room.

Dr. Marcus hovered around them both with a stethoscope, checking their heartbeats and breathing. After a bit, he moved on to checking their mouths, eyes, and ears. “Are they walking on their own yet?”

“Not really,” said Colt. “I’ve seen them stumble around a little, but that’s it. They don’t tend to move around on their own much. It even seems like they crawl less than they used to.”

The doctor helped Stephanie stand up on the table, holding her hand. He waited, watching her steady herself, then let her back down and did the same for Thomas. “Have they said their first words?”

“Yeah. A while ago.”

“Are they using words meaningfully? Any at all?”

Colt thought back. “Not that I can recall, no.”

“You’re sure?” said the doctor. “So when they speak, you only ever hear babbling?”

“Yeah.”

The doctor pointed at the floor behind the twins. “Stand there please,” he told Colt. And when Colt was out of the twins’ view, the doctor added, “Call them by their names.”

“Stephanie,” said Colt. “Thomas.” Neither one turned to look at him. “Stephanie. Thomas.” Still nothing. The doctor handed him a large book to drop. When it hit the floor, the twins both turned to look.

The doctor stroked his bare chin. “Have you been using their names to address them?”

Colt hesitated. “Not really, I guess.”

“Start.”

The inquiries continued for a long while. While he performed repeated physical examinations, Dr. Marcus asked about their eating habits, sleeping habits, fine motor skills, games they liked to play, general sense of curiosity, as well as when they last received vaccinations.

At length, Colt had to ask, “So what do you think? Is there something wrong with them?”

“Yes,” the man said plainly. “They clearly demonstrate a lack of development. Something has stifled their mental and emotional growth. At the moment, I’m not sure what. There doesn’t appear to be any physical cause. I can perform more invasive procedures, but I’m not convinced they’re necessary just yet. Can you tell me what their home life is like?”

“Well, at the moment, we don’t really have a home.”

“Ah. Then I suggest you find a place to settle–and soon. For now, the effects are not so bad. It’s nothing you can’t resolve with a few simple parenting techniques, but your children need a stable environment to grow up in or their development could be further stigmatized, which could have more lasting consequences. What about their mother? Is she in the picture at all?”

‘You have to tell him,’ said Bohwanox.

Colt knew there was no avoiding it. “Their mother tried to kill them.”

Dr. Marcus blinked at that. “Oh.”

“Also, they were kidnapped by a mob boss for nearly a month.”

The doctor blinked several more times. “Ohhh… I see. Well, then. I guess I don’t need to run those tests, after all. Um.” He paused to rub his forehead. “Geez. I wish you’d told me that at the beginning.”

“It’s not the kind of information I’d like spread around.”

He exhaled a sigh. “Alright, well. Clearly, they’ve been through a trauma. More than one, from the sound of it. What was the nature of their kidnapping?”

“What do you mean?”

“Details. What was their captivity like? Who was looking after them? How were they being treated?”

Colt fell quiet at that. He eyed Bohwanox. ‘I don’t suppose you know the answer to that, do you?’

‘Sorry.’

“You have no idea,” the doctor surmised.

Colt gave a strained expression. “They had a crib, I think. Some thugs looking after them. They were kidnapped by Joseph Rofal, if that means anything.”

The doctor smirked. “I figured as much. You know, I heard there was a hefty reward for finding the person who killed him.”

Colt’s icy blue stare seemed to tell the man everything he needed to know.

“Heh.” He threw an unsteady glimpse at Hector. “I would never sell out such fine gentlemen, of course.”

Truth be told, Colt was a bit surprised the man hadn’t sicced his bodyguards on them earlier. But surely, by now, there was little remaining doubt that Colt really was the twins’ father. It would have been rather difficult for anyone else to answer all of the doctor’s previous questions.

Dr. Marcus cleared his throat. “So the short of it is, you don’t know what this Rofal person subjected your children to.” He scratched the back of his head. “Assuming the kids would’ve developed normally otherwise, I think I can tell you what they went through.”

Colt’s brow rose. “Go on, then.”

“I don’t think they were beaten, fortunately. But they were terrorized in some way. Most likely, they were discouraged from speaking at all, as their captors probably wanted them to be quiet. Any kind of curiosity the children displayed was likely met with anger. And I’m certain that they were kept confined to a small space and not allowed to crawl or roam freely.”

The more Colt listened, the more he wished Rofal were alive so that he could kill him again.

“It’s very good that you got them out of there when you did, but now you need to be thinking about the future. Like I said, they need a stable home environment.”

“I get it. What else?”

The doctor hunted down a pen and paper. He started scribbling as he talked. “Speak to them directly as much as you can. Use their names. Also, encourage them to walk and explore. Help them stand and keep their balance. They should pick that up quickly enough on their own. And just try to stimulate their minds as much as possible. Toys, books, music, even just opening a bag of snack food can be turned into a game. Remember that you’re making up for lost time here. They’re at a critical age, and given that they’re already behind, they definitely need your full attention now.”

Colt took the note, reviewing the bullet points, and from there, the check-up drew towards its conclusion. Dr. Marcus gave the twins their vaccinations and gave Colt his phone number in case there were any further concerns. The cash changed hands, and when Colt and Hector left, they found a waiting line had formed outside the cellar’s entrance.

The drive back to Roman’s bunker gave Colt plenty of time to think. He discussed his intentions with Bohwanox privately and found the reaper in agreement.

When they arrived, Colt waited until everyone was gathered in the garage again. With a child in each arm, he said, “I need to tell you something.”

Hector and Garovel both turned to look at him.

And though he knew what he had to say and how he wanted to say it, Colt found himself reluctant. The words didn’t want to come. He had to force them. “We have to go our separate ways.”

Garovel’s face was obscured by the reaper’s hood, but Hector didn’t seem especially surprised. Perhaps they’d been expecting this.

“I wish I could help you more,” Colt went on. “And I’m grateful. For everything you’ve done for me. For my kids. But I–” He faltered, gritting his teeth and looking at the floor. He hated this feeling. Running. Fleeing. Especially when he knew what was at stake, when he’d seen first hand the kind of monstrous people they were fighting. “My kids come first,” he said, partly to himself.

There was a pause, and then Garovel said, ‘We understand.’

“Yeah,” Hector added. “We know how important they are to you.”

Of course they understood. The bastards. Why couldn’t they get angry at him? That would’ve made this so much easier. Maybe he would’ve been able to storm out and never look back. Colt shook his head. No. Probably not even then.

‘Where are you going to go?’ asked Garovel. ‘If you can’t stay with us, then I assume you intend to leave the country, no?’

Colt looked at Stephanie out of the corner of his eye as she patted his cheek with her tiny hand. “Little country out west called Snider. It’s where my grandparents immigrated from. Back then, things were unstable there, but they’ve since improved. Lots of villages where we can get a fresh start.”

‘How do you plan to get out of the country? Don’t tell me you’re going to just drive across the wilderness. That’s a good way for your car to breakdown and leave you stranded in the middle of nowhere.’

“I know. I was trying to leave the country even before all the shit in the capital happened, and it was a pain in the ass. But this time, I can fake my death pretty easily, and hopefully ask Gina for the name of someone who can forge some new identities.”

“Are you sure you have to leave?” said Hector. “Couldn’t you, uh… just… find someplace quiet here in Atreya?”

‘Too risky,’ said Bohwanox. ‘Colt’s only gotten more infamous since becoming your known accomplice.’

“Ah… s-sorry…”

“Don’t be.”

‘Then how do you intend to fake your death?’ said Garovel.

Colt shrugged. “Rob a bank, I guess. Get the cops to shoot me. Shouldn’t take them more than three days to bury or cremate my body. I can count on you to look after the twins while I’m gone, yeah?”

“Of course.”

“Thanks.”

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