A Soft Place to Land
Soren hasn’t seen his mother in two months, but her embrace was as warm as ever.
“Oh, sweetheart, I missed you very much.” she smiled as she cupped his face in her hands.
He smiled a gentle smile back. That was him, Bethany thought. Soren was a kind and gentle young man, and it showed in his face. They all say he got that from her, along with his brown skin and jet black hair (his eyes were not her brown, however, they were his father’s blue).
“You’re alone?” she asked, eyeing the lone travelling pack he carried in his back.
Bethany had many questions, but it all can wait. “Well, it’s great to see you again. We can talk inside, once you’re settled.” She led her son to where a converted double decker bus, her home for the past few months, was parked.
As they made their way inside, they were greeted by Bethany’s companions – all women, mostly middle-aged – who were all part of her traveling charity group. They travelled from town to town, like a caravan consisting of the double decker bus where the their members rode and slept, and a truck filled with supplies that they also open as their mobile headquarters. The duration of their stays in a town often ranged from several days to a month at most, as they offer residents what feeding programs or medical assistance they could provide.
It was also an effective cover for a much more elaborate mission.
They were on their way to one of those towns now, temporarily parked in a gas station to refuel, and to meet up with the twenty year old young man that requested to join them in their next stop. Bethany was the leader of this crusade and her son took after her. It was not Soren’s first time helping them out.
It was an effective cover for his own mission.
Soren settled in one of the spare bunks in the bus, the one nearest to his mother’s. Within the safety and privacy of the vehicle, they began to talk.
“How is your sister?” Bethany asked, at the same time relaying her question in sign language. Soren was deaf, and didn’t wear hearing aids, but he was adept both at reading lips and in sign language.
‘She is doing fine and told me to send you her love.’ Soren answered in sign. ‘The team is on a mission, so she’s a bit busy.’
“Are you allowed to tell me what mission this is?” she signed back, taking a seat.
‘Rescue.’ came his answer.
It sounded simple, Bethany thought, but… “Kali is needed in this ‘rescue’?”
‘The mission requires good fighters.’
Bethany frowned but nodded. So it wasn’t a simple rescue mission. She was worried, but her daughter was very strong and Soren didn’t look too concerned. Still, that left her wondering: “Aren’t you a good fighter, too?”
Soren sent her a sheepish smile – he had never been one to brag. He only replied, ‘My skills are needed here.’
“What’s your mission, then?” she asked.
At this, he sat up straighter, and Bethany was relieved to know that at least for this one, he was willing to share more information. ‘We got a tip. Several lab trucks are heading to Crestdale, but we don’t know if they’re there to search or just resupply.’
She considered this. “That’s a vague tip. Do you know when they’re arriving, at least?”
‘They’ll be there a week from now. We knew that it was your next stop, so I volunteered to go, to meet up with you so I can get there under a safe cover, ahead of them. We know there are Gifteds in Crestdale but we have no contacts so someone has to warn them. If we confirm it’s a search, they have to hide or leave, and I’ll call for back-up to help them. Ross agreed that I’m the right choice, since I’m not Gifted and I won’t be hunted. Kali also wants me to be there with you.’
Bethany nodded as she took all this information in. She agreed that he was the right man for the mission. It was a simple one, just reconnaissance, almost harmless for someone like Soren… but it could also turn very complicated all at once.
She reached out and laid a firm but gentle hand on his shoulder. “You don’t have to worry about us here, you know the labs won’t touch us. But we can help you look after the Gifteds in Crestdale.”
Soren smiled. ‘Thanks, mom.’
“Okay, now rest up.” she said, standing up from her seat and ruffling his hair. “We’ll be going in a few minutes and we should be in Crestdale in a few hours. Two, maybe three. You know where everything is, grab some snacks if you want some. I have to talk to the others.”
She left a kiss on his forehead before walking off, gathering people on her way.
Soren sighed as he rested in his temporary bunk, lying on his back and staring at the low ceiling – or was it roof? – that the bus provided. As tired as he was from his travel from the safehouse to the gas station to meet up with his mother’s group, he felt restless. It’s not that he was scared – he’d gone on solo missions before, though those were simple ones. Mostly guard duties, escorting a Gifted to or from a safehouse.
Maybe it was because it was the first time in a while that the others were going on a ‘rescue’ mission and he wasn’t with them.
He took his phone out – no new messages. He decided to send a message to his sister.
[ ‘I’m with mom, eta 3hrs. How’s everything?’ ]
It took almost five minutes before the reply came.
[ ‘we’ll be ok. be safe. love you. X’ ]
He smiled, tucked his phone back in his bag, and decided he’d take a nap.
Clari’s friends at work teased her, telling her that the cute, quiet guy must have a crush on her. He came over for the third time that week, on her shift, ordered their combo meal (burger, fries and soda), and sat on the corner table, alternating between looking out the window and busying himself with his phone. He’d stay for an hour and then leave.
She had learned on day one that he was deaf, but he was patient and he read lips. To top it off, he was the classic ‘tall, dark and handsome’ guy, all in a very gentle way. It made him easy to remember and recognize on day two.
She didn’t know why the others think he likes her – maybe it was part of hazing the newbie. It was silly.
Regardless, Clari decided that the guy wasn’t a bad sight to see during a hectic shift in the harsh world of this busy fast food chain. Sometimes all it takes is a couple of nice and calm customers to cancel out the nasty ones.
One of the girls told her (she didn’t ask, they just did, because they had somehow gotten it in their brains that Clari had a crush too) that they saw the guy in the downtown feeding program that arrived a few days ago. He was helping out those ladies, the charity volunteers, pouring warm soup for the homeless and the little street urchins.
So he’s in town for a cause, Clari thought. It was a good cause. The people were grateful, she’d been hearing good things about that charity from everyone in the city.
With that, she wondered: why does he look so lonely?
Being with the charity always gave Soren a sense of purpose, even on top of his mission – he and his mother were alike that way. More importantly, this time, it gave him an excuse to wander around town, under the guise that he was roaming to spot citizens in need and inform them of the feeding program. He can investigate, he can search for people. Her mother and the other charity women had already managed to get information, in their own way, about the “special” people in town.
So far, he had found three – that homeless man who can walk through walls, the little girl with the stretching arms, and a woman who can create small force fields. He had given them the warning – that the people from the labs were coming to town in a few days and it was still unsure if it would be a hunt or not, that they should lay low, probably hide or leave for a few days. Thankfully they trusted him at once. They said they knew some of the others, and will extend the warning.
After his “walks”, he always found himself wandering into a busy but homey burger place, one of those old but popular franchises across the country – he and the team liked to stop by and grab a bite whenever they came across one in their stops. He stayed there for a while to try to relax, sometimes to keep in touch with the others.
A young man hanging around a fast food chain, having burger and fries while texting his friends did not look suspicious at all.
By the fifth day, his sister sent a simple text: [ ‘feli says hello. X’ ]
It made him breathe a sigh of relief, then smile. Felicity has caught up with them. With the speedster back on the team, they have an even higher fighting chance than usual. Soren was not much of a loss if they were talking firepower, but Felicity was a welcome boost.
[ ‘Tell her I said hi.’ ] was the reply he sent.
The lab troops were still two or so days away from town. He hoped this will all be over, that it was just a supply run or a quick stop, that there would be no search. No people hunted, no people hurt.
Clari always sucked at remembering to bring her umbrella. She always forgot to listen to the morning weather report. She always failed to notice whenever the weather changed, until it was too late.
She was already on her way home, walking by the sidewalk with no nearby shade whatsoever, when it rained.
But, rain or not, she had to go home soon. She had chores to do, lines to memorize…
It took her by surprise when, walking hurriedly under the pouring rain that afternoon, someone caught up to her with an umbrella.
She recognized him at once. The guy from the burger place.“Oh, it’s you! I- um, sorry, you don’t have to-”
Mr. Quiet Tall Dark Handsome 3:30 PM Combo Meal A Table 17 (that’s what she called him in her head, okay?!) leaned down a bit, to get a better view of her face- no, her lips. It must be her lips, right? Since he was reading them?
“No need to do this.” she tried. Patron or not, she didn’t want to bother this stranger. “I’m fine. Thank you.”
He looked at her for a bit before he shuffled awkwardly, shaking his head, sending her a reassuring smile. ‘It’s okay, it’s no trouble, I’ll help.’ was what he must be trying to tell her.
Then he gestured something – maybe in sign language – but she didn’t understand it right away. Then he pointed at her, and then across the street.
“O-oh, no, I’m not going across- I’m going… uh… there.” she said, pointing towards the other direction, further down the street’s sidewalk.
He nodded and then started to walk towards that very direction with an expression that must have been telling her that they should go.
“But-… You? What about you?” she asked, vaguely pointing at him, the only way she thought she could emphasize what she was trying to say.
He thought about it before shaking his head, then he took his phone from his pocket and started tapping rapidly.
[ ‘I’ll help’ ] was the text in his phone screen.
“You… you really don’t have to.” she tried, but she knew she was floundering.
[ ‘Nothing else to do today’ ] he followed up.
Clari considered. The rain was pouring hard, no signs of stopping. Finally, she said, “Okay then, can you… walk with me, just… just a few blocks away?”
He walked her to the entrance of her apartment building, and only smiled and nodded when she thanked him. He turned to leave, but before he could walk away, Clari reached out to grab his sleeve.
He looked back at her and blinked.
“You’re always at Andy’s.” she said. “I, uh, I work there?”
“Can you… tell me your name? Since you’ve been coming in there a lot, and… um…”
He seemed to think about it for a second, then raised his free hand and started gesturing, then he remembered that she probably couldn’t understand sign, even letters. So he took his phone again, typed his name in, and then showed the screen to her.
“Soren.” she read, then smiled up at him. “I’ll remember that. Thanks. Again. Uh, Soren. I’m Clarisse. Err, Clari, in my nametag.” She fumbled for the plastic nametag she had tucked in her chest pocket (she was still wearing her uniform shirt, now wet) and showed him the printed letters in the item.
Soren smiled back, pocketing his phone again before he extended a hand to her.
It’s been awhile since she shook someone’s hand, but she did it anyway. His grip was firm. It felt weird to leave things like that, so Clari added, “I heard that you’re with the charity downtown. And… err… I just wanna say I think it’s really nice, what you do for those people.”
Soren only nodded, the smile staying on his face.
“So, uh, yeah, that’s it! Um, bye? See you around?”
He nodded one last time, and gave a little wave before he walked off.
The mission didn’t stay simple, however. It was early morning when four large trucks arrived and parked in the town square, just a few meters from where Bethany’s charity group were situated.
The trucks were pure dark blue. They belonged to the government research facilities. The labs.
They were a day early.
Bethany and Soren passed by the trucks to observe, under the guise that they were coming back from grocery shopping. They sat together on a nearby park bench, not very noticeable, a mother and a son taking a break from walking, carrying paper bags of groceries.
The uniformed officers loaded boxes upon boxes in two of the trucks. Supplies.
It was quick, and those trucks left right away. Soren prayed that the others would follow.
That was when those trucks were replaced by several vans and a car. People started streaming out one of the remaining trucks.
They were armed.
“Soren.” Bethany said softly, laying a hand on her son’s arm so he would look at her. Her face was grim as she answered his unspoken question with a nod.
They both stood up, carrying their grocery bags again and walking quickly. As soon as they made a turn in another street, out of the officers’ sights, they looked at each other.
Bethany took his paperbags. “We’ll be fine.”
Soren gave his mother a quick kiss on the cheek and ran.
He couldn’t do anything to stop this, not alone – so he sent a quick message to Ross and the others as quick as he can. He hoped the backup will make it in time.
He didn’t have time to warn all the Gifted in town. Only a few of them left him their numbers, it was too risky, but he texted them all. There’s a search. They should hide, they should leave.
He first reached the homeless man, who didn’t need telling twice. The man had packed his few belongings and as soon as he saw Soren, he took off, disappearing through an alley. Soren hoped the man had a good hiding place.
He got to the mother of the little girl with the stretching arms. She nodded and said they’ll be on the next bus they could take, wherever it was going, as long as it was out of Crestdale. They had a few others with them.
He was lucky to run into the teenage boy who could fly – the kid escaped as quickly as he can, saying he’ll try to warn others if he saw them on his way.
By this time, he realized he couldn’t reach any of the others. When he got back to the town square, a very large crowd had already gathered there.
The lab officers had several Gifteds – most of them children – in the town square, already working on tagging them, ready for transport to wherever the hell their facilities were.
A woman cried while she watched an officer try to beat her son. The young boy couldn’t be older than ten, but he was fiercely fighting back, emitting sparks from his body, making the officer step back. The officers were equipped for this, though – the boy was struggling against his restraints to no avail. There was someone shouting how “dangerous” the “defective” beings were. There were a few people screaming to stop the violence, to not hurt children, but they were threatened all the same.
The mother was crying louder now, about to run towards her child but an officer pushed her back harshly. She stumbled and would have fallen to the ground had a young woman not caught and assisted her, pulling her back to rejoin the crowd before the officer can strike against her too.
“No! My son, my child!” the mother still struggled, escaping the grasp of the people holding her back. Soren recognized the familiar stance taken by one of the officers pushing them back, and he dashed just in time to catch and intercept the kick that the officer meant for the mother.
The officer and the crowd were shaken.
To hell with it, he decided, dodging the incoming punch from the enraged officer while also stepping back, an arm thrown back, shielding the others behind him, pushing them back for their protection. The officer didn’t stop attacking him, though – and training and instincts in play, Soren exchanged blows with the officer while more of them stepped in to neutralize him.
Soren vaguely felt someone tug at his arm, grabbing his sleeve, and risked a glance to see blue eyes in a scared face framed by golden hair, and she was yelling – begging – for him to stop.
“Soren! They’ll kill you! You can’t fight them! Please!”
She knew his name. She looked familiar. Behind her, the woman, the mother he tried to protect, was crying and shaking her head as she reached out to him. She was worried for her son, but she was scared for him too, this stranger who caught an attack for her.
He looked back at the young woman who had grabbed his arm- ah. The girl from the burger place. The one he walked home. Clari, her nametag had told him. She was the one who helped the crying mother. She was the one who was now pleading with the officer to not hurt him – “Please, we’re all very sorry and we’ll stop now, we won’t fight, but please if you could just let us talk to the children, just for a bit, they’re very scared-”
He didn’t know what happened next, because then there was a sharp tug on his arm, and an explosion.