Chapter 9 – Old Memories II
The Next day
“Finally, here we are.”
“Yeah… guess so.” Conrad looked up at the apartment building standing in front of him. “Haven’t been here in a while.”
“I’m almost surprised you were ever here at all,” Phoenix remarked, and then strode forward through the front doors of the apartment building. “Now hurry up, we’re on track to be late as is.”
“Yeah, yeah…” Conrad sighed wearily and stepped forward himself, his hands in the pockets of his shorts as he followed Phoenix through a tiny, yet well-kept lobby and up a set of stairs in the back. Just as he reached the top of the first flight, he looked up at Phoenix, who had just stopped another flight up and was staring at him impatiently.
“As lethargic as ever, huh?” she commented, her arms crossed.
“Hey, you’re the one who’s rushing,” Conrad countered as he continued to climb the stairs at a casual pace. “What’s the rush? It’s not like Kestrel’s going anywhere without us.”
“It’s not Kestrel I’m concerned about, it’s Pierce,” Phoenix replied, glancing down at a watch on her wrist before returning her attention to Conrad just as he reached her level. “You know how he is with arrival times. Tonight’s dinner is likely the last we’ll have here for quite a while, and I would rather it not be ruined by him holding our tardiness over our heads the whole time.”
“You say that…” Conrad began as Phoenix whirled around and rushed up another flight of steps, “but aren’t you just as hard on him whenever he’s late to something?”
“I’m just giving him a taste of his own medicine, that’s all,” she replied as she stopped at the third floor and waited for Conrad to catch up. “Now c’mon, let’s go.”
Conrad sighed in resignation. “The two of ‘em never stop…” he muttered under his breath.
Phoenix passed Conrad a suspicious glance as he finally reached the third floor, but then she shrugged and turned around to begin walking down the interior hallway. Conrad followed at his own pace, arriving by her side just after she had stopped in front of one of the doors and pushed the buzzer. The two waited for a few seconds; Phoenix eventually reached for the buzzer again, but just before she could press it, the door opened. Standing in the doorway was an older man, with an average height, a thin build, light skin, and short, blond hair with thin streaks of gray. His eyes quickly flitted between Phoenix and Conrad, while his expression remained blank.
“Ah, Phoenix, Conrad,” he remarked. “It’s been a while.”
“Nice to see you again, Mr. Nielson,” Conrad replied as he pulled his right hand out of his pocket to perform a casual wave.
“We’re here to pick up Kestrel,” Phoenix declared. “Is she around?”
“Mmm. She should be.” The man glanced back and shouted, “Kestrel! Your friends are here!” He then turned back to Phoenix and Conrad and nodded toward the interior of the apartment behind him. “You can wait inside.”
“Thanks.” Conrad nodded as he and Phoenix stepped inside, where they stopped on the small area of tile at the front of the apartment. From there, they could see the well-furnished living room, featuring a silvery-gray couch with a chaise lounge and a recliner off to the side. A minimalist coffee table stood just in front of the couch, and on the opposite wall was a sizeable television that currently displayed a twisting swirl of ambient colors. All along the wall between the couch and the TV were a series of bookcases; while they all carried books, one was set up with a couple dozen novels placed such that their covers were on full display.
Phoenix eyed the display from top to bottom, slowly looking over the cover of each novel. “…Still writing?” she questioned as she turned her attention toward Kestrel’s father.
“Hmm? Oh, yes.” Mr. Nielson glanced toward the display himself before moving into the kitchen, where he disappeared from view. “I’ve gotten a couple new publishing deals, recently,” he continued, as the sound of clattering and moving dishes emanated into the living room, “but the deadlines are killer. I’d hoped to get some good work done this week, but then I heard that Kestrel has super powers? And some nonsense about SERRCom? It’s all a little… distracting.”
“Is it, now.” Conrad replied flatly.
“It’s very bothersome, but at least this happened to Kestrel. She’s always been self-sufficient, capable of taking care of herself. If this nonsense had happened to either of her brothers, then… oof. I don’t think I’d ever hear the end of it.”
Phoenix and Conrad passed each other incredulous glances, but otherwise didn’t respond.
“Speaking of…” the man continued, and then peeked his head out of the kitchen to direct his attention to a side hallway. “Kestrel! Did you hear—? Ah, there you are.”
“Mmm…” Kestrel grunted in response as she stepped into the living room, passing her father a blank glance before turning toward Phoenix and Conrad.
“Yo.” Conrad offered a casual wave. “Ready to go?”
Kestrel looked off to the side, at a window in the back of the living room through which angled rays of late-afternoon sunlight shone. Wordlessly, she approached a coat rack and grabbed a wide-brimmed summer hat with a black band tied around the crown and planted it on her head; she then turned toward Phoenix and Conrad and nodded.
“Do you have your keys?” Mr. Nielson called after Kestrel as the trio approached the front door, “your mother’s busy with a surgery tonight, and won’t be home until late, so I’ll be locking up before then. Don’t get locked out.”
Kestrel simply responded with a single nod before stepping into the hallway outside her family’s apartment, with Conrad and Phoenix quickly following suit.
“Going without sunscreen today, huh?” Conrad questioned as he eyed Kestrel; between her hat, black thigh-high boots, gray oversized sweatshirt, and silver summer dress, the only part of her pale skin that was visible was her face.
Kestrel nodded once in reply. “Too annoying.”
“Yeah, I feel ya,” Conrad responded, “I never bother with it, either.”
“You really should,” Phoenix countered, eyeing Conrad’s tan skin, as well as the t-shirt and shorts he wore over it. She then glanced down at her black sweatpants and crop top, and her own dark skin. “I know the common wisdom is that people with our complexions don’t need sunscreen,” she said as she looked back to Conrad, “but that’s not really true. Forgo it now, and you’ll regret it later in life!”
“I’ll take my chances,” Conrad deadpanned, and then smirked when he noticed a slight upward tug at the corner of Kestrel’s mouth. “Hey, see, she agrees.”
Phoenix glanced at Kestrel herself, and then shook her head and sighed. “You’re too soft on him.”
“…It’s fine,” Kestrel responded, and then looked toward the stairs. “…Going?”
“Ah, you’re right!” Phoenix whirled around on her heel and began marching off toward the stairs. “Let’s go! Aw, shit… we’re going to be hella late if don’t hurry!”
“Yeah, yeah,” Conrad replied dismissively as he began following at a casual pace. Kestrel promptly fell into pace alongside him, with the trio finally setting out from the apartment.
30 Minutes Later
“Well, well, well, would you look here. A bunch of slow—!”
“I don’t want to hear it, Pierce,” Phoenix interjected crossly as she approached the front of a Chinese restaurant with Conrad and Kestrel in tow. In front of her stood Pierce — who wore a self-amused smirk on his face — as well as Colonel Saito and Mote.
“It nonetheless remains that you’re late,” Mote stated, his arms crossed. “We were supposed to meet ten minutes ago.”
“Ah, give them some slack,” Saito insisted, passing Mote a weary glance before turning toward the restaurant and stepping forward. “Let’s get our table, I can’t wait to eat.”
Conrad watched the Colonel disappear into the building, followed closely by Mote. “…Why are they here, again?” he questioned, glancing at each of Pierce, Phoenix, and Kestrel in confusion.
“Something about having to keep tabs on us,” Pierce muttered as he approached the front doors himself. “But you better not complain now, after leaving me to deal with both of them all day long!”
“…Okay, good point.” Conrad shrugged and stepped forward himself, finally entering the restaurant just after the rest of his friends. Inside, Saito had already announced their presence to the waiter, and gestured for everyone else to follow him to their reserved table. Before long, they were all seated — Saito, Conrad, and Pierce on one side of the table, and Mote, Kestrel, and Phoenix on the other — and pondering what to order for dinner.
“You guys eat here often?” Saito asked, glancing up from his menu to look at each of Pierce, Phoenix, Conrad, and Kestrel.
“Every now and then…” Conrad replied flatly as he flipped the menu over in his hands. “I prefer tacos, personally…”
“Yeah, but you’ll eat anything,” Pierce countered. “Chinese is a good compromise. A little something for everyone.”
“You could say the same about tacos.”
“I agree, tacos are strictly superior to Chinese cuisine,” Mote interjected. “If that was an option, we should have picked it.”
“Well it’s a little late to say that now, isn’t it?” Pierce replied impatiently.
“I wasn’t even made aware that we were eating out until an hour ago. No one gave me the—”
“Settle down, Mote,” Saito cut in, immediately quieting the Electrotechnic. “This dinner isn’t for you, anyways. Tonight is the last night our four new recruits are spending in their hometown before they have to leave and clear out their college dorms, so this dinner is supposed to be a treat.”
“And we appreciate that. …I think,” Phoenix replied as she passed a surreptitious glance toward Conrad. She then looked over at Mote, who wore an irritated expression on his face. “Surely there’s something here you might like. As Pierce said, there’s a little something for everyone.”
“Hmph…” Mote stared down at the menu and flipped through it for a second. “…I’d prefer something spicy. With meat, preferably some kind of beef.”
“Picky, much?” Pierce retorted.
“Listen, you, I didn’t—!” Mote turned to begin berating Pierce, but was stopped as Kestrel flipped his menu open to a particular page and pointed at one of the options. “…’Sichuan Dry Fried Beef’…” he read aloud, and then passed Kestrel a confused glance. “…Are you suggesting this?”
Kestrel responded with a single nod.
“I’d go with her rec, if I were you,” Conrad commented. “She’s never steered me wrong before.”
“Yeah, but you’ll eat anything,” Pierce countered.
“…Maybe I should’ve just pretended all along to only like tacos and burritos. Maybe then we’d get them more often…”
“I suppose it is true that the person with the broadest tastes tends to get fucked over,” Phoenix responded. “Sorry, Conrad. We can grab something tomorrow morning, before we all leave.”
“Ah, you don’t have to go that far…” Conrad held up his hand and shook his head. “I don’t actually mind that much.”
“You often say that. It’s okay to take a firmer stand every now and then, you know.”
“Surprisingly astute advice,” Mote commented.
Phoenix leaned forward to pass him a glare over Kestrel, who sat between them. “‘Surprisingly’?” she echoed incredulously.
“Can we at least get our food before we start getting on each other’s asses?” Saito interjected, and then flagged down a waiter. “I’d rather not have to deal with this until I have something to put in my stomach.”
“I can agree with that,” Conrad remarked, backed up by a firm nod from Kestrel.
“…Apologies, Colonel,” Mote slowly replied.
“Just keep it in check,” Saito responded, and then turned toward the waiter as they approached. The six quickly rattled off their orders, at which point the waiter gathered their menus and left for the kitchen.
“So,” Saito began speaking again, clasping his hands on the table as he slowly scanned the others seated with him. “I’ve never actually been to the San Francisco Bay Area, before. It’s a nice place you have here.”
“Thanks,” Phoenix replied, “now if only all of the people who are leaving agreed…”
“You can’t blame them,” Pierce countered. “You can’t make a living off of pretty sights. People go where the money is, and it sure as hell isn’t here.”
“It could be, though. But you can’t make that happen if you don’t stick around.”
“Isn’t MIT on the east coast?” Conrad questioned.
“I was going to come back,” Phoenix responded defensively. “I do like it here. The climate, the beaches, and the people, too. According to my parents, it was even better forty years ago, before the big quake of ‘88 and the collapse of all the levees. I just wonder, if we could get back to that…”
“Getting the land back won’t bring back the people or the businesses,” Pierce declared. “It’s all fucked, and trying to fix it is hella crazy.”
“That’s funny to hear, from the person who almost fought me over SERRCom’s right to the dam,” Mote interjected. “All the reports claimed you operated across multiple different nights here, even when you were supposed to be near LA.”
“What?!” Pierce passed Mote an incredulous glance. “How do you—?!”
“That was supposed to be confidential information,” Saito commented as he side-eyed Mote, who rapidly withered under his gaze.
“How long has SERRCom been watching me?!” Pierce questioned.
“I’m not really the man to ask about that,” Saito replied, “but from my understanding, let’s just say you made a bit of a splash when you showed up to destroy EA’s robots a couple weeks ago.”
“I told you you should’ve kept your powers under wraps,” Phoenix declared irately as she glared at Pierce.
“…Hey, hey, look, that’s all in the past,” Pierce responded with an uneasy smile, only for it to suddenly shift into a confident smirk. “Besides, if not for that, then we wouldn’t have learned how important we are to saving the whole damn galaxy!”
“I would’ve liked that just fine,” Conrad deadpanned, with Kestrel offering a quiet grunt of agreement.
“Don’t get carried away with that ‘Key’ business, anyways,” Mote insisted. “Trusting the words of a prophetic book is folly. Only fools believe in foreordination.”
“Look, man, normally I’d agree. But how the hell else do you explain this?” Pierce questioned as he summoned his bladed energy whip into his hands.
Mote simply regarded the weapon with disdain. “There are a number of different explanations that don’t require the belief in a prophecy. Single-item Formtechnism, for one.”
“But whatever it is, you should really put that away,” Phoenix commented warily. “I don’t want to get kicked out because you were brandishing a weapon!”
“…Hmph.” Pierce grunted in annoyance as he allowed the weapon to disappear from his hands — right as the waiter returned to the table, with a variety of dishes in tow.
“Ah, about time!” Saito eagerly eyed the incoming food, helping to pass each incoming dish to the appropriate recipient. Before long the table was filled with spicy, sizzling beef; a handful of different plates with golden noodles mixed with onions and shrimp; and a handful of chicken-based dishes, covered in all kinds of sauces.
“Oooh, that smells good,” Phoenix remarked as she served herself some of the shrimp chow mein. “I’m going to miss this while we’re gone.”
“Ah, that’s true, isn’t it,” Saito commented as he began eating some of the chicken. “You won’t have any of this on Nimalia.”
“As long as they have meat, I’ll be fine,” Pierce replied. “But if they’re fuckin’ vegans, then we’re gonna have problems.”
“You’re complaining about vegans?” Conrad questioned flatly.
“I’m complaining about the potential of me having to eat vegan food. Slight difference,” Pierce insisted. “I don’t care what other people eat, so long as I get to have what I want.”
“…What do Nimalians eat?” Kestrel asked, her attention on Saito as she grabbed some of the beef for herself.
“That’s… a good question,” the Colonel responded. “I’ve never actually eaten anything Nimalian. Hmm…”
“Mark’s looked into Nimalian cuisine a bit,” Mote said. “According to him, it varies just as much as Earth food, which is to be expected from a nation spanning so many planets. Apparently Nimalia itself has a lot of food that’s basically just a bunch of stuff piled on top of different kinds of bread.”
“What, like a pizza?” Conrad questioned. “Or an open-faced taco?”
Mote shrugged. “I’m not sure. Mark was the one who looked it up.”
“To be fair, most cultures have some kind of food item that involves putting stuff on bread,” Phoenix commented. “And as far as I could tell, a lot of the Nimalians’ basic ingredients are similar to ours. While Pierce and I were on Ainminthalus, we were still able to get our hands on things like eggs and bacon. Or at least, some kind of meat with the same consistency as bacon.”
“Tasted slightly different, though,” Pierce said. “Not as… savory, I think is the word. It was a little sweet, too. Which is hella weird for meat…”
“Spice?” Kestrel questioned as she glanced between Pierce and Phoenix.
“Spicy foods, hmm… I don’t actually remember all that many…” Phoenix replied. “There was some… but not a lot. That might just be an Ainminthalus thing, though.”
“It got me real good the first week or two we were there, though,” Pierce grumbled. “I saw these little pepper-shaped things in one of the supermarkets — it looked like a pepper, same size as one, same color, the whole works. But it tasted like an apple! A fucking apple!”
Phoenix grinned. “Ha! I don’t think I’ve ever seen you spit something out so fast. Even after you got your superspeed!”
“You dislike apples that much, eh?” Saito questioned with an amused smirk.
“I’m not the biggest fan of apples, but the real problem was expecting a pepper and getting very much not a pepper,” Pierce insisted, and then glared at Phoenix. “You would’ve done the same!”
“I guess that’s something to look out for, then,” Conrad commented flatly. “But at the end of the day, we still don’t know what we’re getting ourselves into on Nimalia, do we?”
“Yeah… sorry about that.” Saito responded wearily. “I’ve been trying to get more concrete info about which school you’ll be at, but I haven’t heard anything yet.”
“That’s… annoying,” Pierce replied. “Are these guys just super unorganized? What’s up?”
“I doubt it’s a matter of being unorganized. We are talking about the people who saved the galaxy, once, after all — and now they head their own schools. Fairly prestigious ones, too, if Nimalian news and rating boards are to be believed.”
“That’s good to know, I suppose,” Phoenix said.
“I dunno, that just sounds to me like it’ll be a lot of work…” Conrad grumbled.
“Of course it will be a lot of work,” Mote declared. “Training your abilities is not something that you should take lightly.”
“Oh please.” Pierce rolled his eyes. “What the hell is there to teach about superspeed, anyways? I don’t need a teacher for that.”
“Well, one of the Deans is a Velocitechnic,” Saito pointed out. “I’m sure you could learn a lot from him.”
“Pssshh, as if. What’s he going to do, beat me in a race? I bet I could run faster than him, anyways.”
“…Really, Pierce?” Phoenix shook her head in disbelief.
“Yes, your arrogance is nothing short of absurd,” Mote stated as he glared at Pierce. “That attitude will come back to haunt you one day.”
“Is that a threat?” Pierce countered as he returned the glare.
“It’s the truth. The fact that the first thing you did after learning about a skilled Chaotic was boast about how you could beat them, despite knowing nothing about them, is ridiculous. If you can’t even beat me, then how the hell do you expect to beat so-called galactic heroes?”
“What? That’s…” Pierce scowled. “The only reason I couldn’t beat you is because you had on that stupid armor! With no armor, no shielding, I would run circles around you.”
“And you’d be little able to hurt me while you did.”
“Now that’s just—!”
“Mote, Bradley, cut it out,” Saito demanded, his stern gaze slowly passing between the two men. “…What is it, with you two? No, don’t answer that,” he quickly added as both Mote and Pierce opened their mouths to respond. “For the rest of tonight, I’d better not hear another argument between the two of you, again. Understood?”
“…Yes, sir,” Mote begrudgingly replied.
“…Hmph.” Pierce snorted, but offered little other response.
“Good.” The Colonel nodded and then took another bite out of his meal.
A brief spell of awkward silence befell the group as everyone continued working through their food, with Mote and Pierce both stubbornly refusing to meet each other’s gaze. It wasn’t until nearly a minute later, when Phoenix had finished her chow mein, that she looked back to the rest of her group and broke the silence.
“…Well,” she started, and glanced toward Saito. “…As much as I dislike being forced to do something, being able to spend a year plus on an alien Homeworld is certainly an interesting opportunity. But isn’t this expensive? What does SERRCom get out of this?”
“To be candid, the General is hoping that the eight of you become powerful Chaotics,” Saito replied.
“Mmm…” Kestrel grunted as she looked down.
“There must be more to it than that, though, surely?” Phoenix pressed, “compared to the rest of the galaxy, Earth and SERRCom might as well be dirt poor. Paying to send eight people to an alien Homeworld for over a year can’t be cheap.”
“…Well, that’s the thing.” Saito pursed his lips. “SERRCom isn’t actually paying for this. Archoné Culana is.”
“Whoa, really?” Conrad questioned incredulously. “…Does he really believe that book of his that much?”
“I can’t see any other reason for him to go this far,” Saito replied, and then frowned. “Which is a little concerning, to be honest. Dogmatic individuals can be a real pain to deal with in the long run.”
“Hey, the dude’s paying our way. What’s to complain about?” Pierce asked.
“There’s no such thing as a free lunch, so they say,” Saito said, and then released a deep, exhausted exhale. “…Still. For now, the Archoné’s goals line up with SERRCom’s, and so we’re sending you all to Nimalia. Just… be careful while you’re there. I can’t help but think that something is… off.”
“You don’t say,” Conrad deadpanned.
“What is there that’s so important for us to learn, then?” Phoenix questioned, “simply training our powers can’t be so difficult that we need a teacher on another planet… is it? I mean…” She glanced over at Mote. “The Eximius Vir were trained here on Earth, weren’t they?”
“We were,” Mote stated.
“Yes, but you’re also pretty unique, as Chaotics go,” Saito commented, and then turned back toward Phoenix. “There are a handful of lessons that the Eximius Vir didn’t need to learn, or that they picked up much more quickly than a regular Chaotic. Things like Overdrives, how to stop yourself from going Berserk, the difference between direct and indirect manipulation and what that means against different types of Chaotics, how to protect yourselves in battle without armor or shields, how to deal with CENT fields… the list goes on and on. Most of it doesn’t even apply to them in the first place.”
“Sounds like you know plenty enough, already,” Pierce observed.
“I only know as much as I need to fight against enemy Chaotics,” Saito countered. “To truly learn how to handle everything I just mentioned, I think you really would need to learn from another trained Chaotic. And that just isn’t something that SERRCom can offer you.”
Mote pursed his lips and furrowed his brow in response to the Colonel’s assertion, but didn’t offer a verbal reply. Conrad noticed the change in his expression, however, and immediately spoke up. “What do you think of all this?” he questioned, his attention directed at Mote.
“…” The Electrotechnic stared at Conrad, only to sigh in resignation a moment later. “…Whatever the General says, goes,” he eventually said. “I’m sure Lead knows what’s best for SERRCom.”
“Well that’s encouraging to hear,” Phoenix responded sarcastically.
“It is what it is,” Saito replied with a shrug of his shoulders, and then looked over the rest of the table, and the dishes that were largely empty. “Looks like everyone’s done?”
“Might as well be,” Pierce said as he stretched his arms. “I’m ready to get the hell out of here.”
“As am I,” Mote declared.
“…Right…” Saito glanced between the two before shaking his head and indicating to one of the waiters to bring the check. “Well, while we’re waiting for that…” He looked back to everyone else seated at the table. “I don’t suppose any of you have interesting stories from your time here?”
“Not really,” Conrad replied.
“Oh c’mon, that isn’t even close to true,” Pierce countered immediately, and then smirked. “Hell, remember that one time you tried those super hot noodles they serve here? We finally found your spice limit, that day!”
“Hey, that wasn’t just me. It fucked you up, too.”
“Sure, but I didn’t vomit all over the fucking table because of it.”
“No, but I do remember you spending a conspicuously long period of time in the bathroom, afterward,” Phoenix interjected.
“How the hell do you know that?” Pierce gave her the stink-eye. “You weren’t watching me, were you?”
Phoenix rolled her eyes. “I can assure you I wasn’t watching you in the damn bathroom.”
“How long ago was this?” Saito questioned.
“Four years,” Kestrel replied curtly.
“And I have a much higher spice tolerance now,” Pierce interjected. “I could’ve had that dish right now and been fine.”
“Why didn’t you, then?” Phoenix challenged.
“I just wasn’t feeling it, that’s all.” He then eyed her mischievously. “But, hey. Next time we’re here, I’ll try it if you do.”
“Have you been paying attention? That’s going to be at least a year from now!”
“Is that a no?”
“Of course it’s not, I’ll eat you under the table in two year’s time. You’d better not complain about it, though!”
“You—!” Pierce pursed his lips and snorted, in what was an obvious attempt to supress laughter.
“What…?” Phoenix stared at him in confusion, only for realization to wash over her face, followed quickly by irritation. “Oh, you asshole!” She kicked him under the table. “Shut up!”
“Hey, you said it, not me,” Pierce replied with a smirk.
“Please. You couldn’t even handle me.”
“Is that a challenge? Sounds like a challenge to me.”
“Is anything ever not a challenge to you?” Conrad interjected.
“I can think of a few things,” Saito remarked with an amused smile as he signed the recently-arrived receipt. He then stood up, prompting the others to do the same as he stretched. “That was a decent dinner, but I’m ready to get some rest now.”
“You and me both,” Conrad replied, followed with a yawn.
“Man, what is it with you and sleep?” Pierce questioned as the group began moving toward the front of the restaurant.
“It’s good for you, that’s all.”
“Hard to argue with that logic,” Saito remarked, and then stopped to address the rest of the group. “Now, remember, tomorrow you all need to take care of clearing out your college dorm rooms. SERRCom’s taken care of most of the paperwork regarding this move, so there shouldn’t be much else you need to do, but we all need to meet back up on Sunday morning. So don’t waste time.”
“Yeah, yeah, we got it,” Pierce replied dismissively.
“Good.” Saito glanced over at Mote and nodded before offering a curt wave and parting ways with the group, with Mote in tow. “I’ll see you all on Sunday, then!”